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Constable & Robinson Ltd

3 The Lanchesters

162 Fulham Palace Road

London W6 9ER

First published in the USA by St Martin’s Press, 2005

First published in the UK by Robinson,

an imprint of Constable & Robinson, 2008

Copyright © Gardner Dozois, 2005, 2008

The right of Gardner Dozois to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988.

All rights reserved. This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out or otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

A copy of the British Library Cataloguing in Publication

Data is available from the British Library

ISBN: 978-1-84529-424-3

Printed and bound in the EU

1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2



Foreword Robert Silverberg

Preface Gardner Dozois



SALVADOR Lucius Shepard

TRINITY Nancy Kress




SNOW John Crowley




KIRINYAGA Mike Resnick



EVEN THE QUEEN Connie Willis


NONE SO BLIND Joe Haldeman





THE DEAD Michael Swanwick


A DRY, QUIET WAR Tony Daniel






1016TO 1 James Patrick Kelly

D; ADDY’S WORLD Walter Jon Williams



LOBSTERS Charles Stross



THE FLUTED GIRL Paolo Bacigalupi

FOOTVOTE Peter F. Hamilton

ZIMA BLUE Alastair Reynolds


“Blood Music,” by Greg Bear. Copyright © 1983 by Davis Publications, Inc. First published in Analog Science Fact/Science Fiction, June 1983. Reprinted by permission of the author.

“A Cabin on the Coast,” by Gene Wolfe. Copyright © 1981 by Gene Wolfe. First Published in Zu den Stemen (Goldmann, Verlag, Munich), edited by Peter Wilfert. First published in English in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, February 1984. Reprinted by permission of the author and the author’s agent, the Virginia Kidd Literary Agency.

“Salvador,” by Lucius Shepard. Copyright © 1984 by Mercury Press, Inc. First published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, April 1984. Reprinted by permission of the author.

“Trinity,” by Nancy Kress. Copyright © 1984 by Davis Publications, Inc. First published in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, October 1984. Reprinted by permission of the author.

“Flying Saucer Rock and Roll,” by Howard Waldrop. Copyright © 1984 by Omni Publications International, Ltd. First published in Omni, January 1985. Reprinted by permission of the author.

“Dinner in Audoghast,” by Bruce Sterling. Copyright © 1985 by Davis Publications, Inc. First published in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, May 1985. Reprinted by permission of the author.

“Roadside Rescue,” by Pat Cadigan. Copyright © 1985 by Omni Publications International, Ltd. First published in Omni, July 1985. Reprinted by permission of the author.

“Snow,” by John Crowley. Copyright © 1985 by Omni Publications International, Ltd. First published in Omni, November 1985. Published by permission of the author and his agent.

“The Winter Market,” by William Gibson. Copyright © 1986 by William Gibson. First published in Stardate, February 1986. Reprinted by permission of the author and his agent, Martha Millard.

“The Pure Product,” by John Kessel. Copyright © 1986 by Davis Publications, Inc. First published in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, March 1986. Reprinted by permission of the author.

“Stable Strategies for Middle Management,” by Elleen Gunn. Copyright © 1988 by Davis Publications, Inc. First published in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, June 1988. Reprinted by permission of the author.

“Kirinyaga,” by Mike Resnick. Copyright © 1988 by Mercury Press, Inc. First published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, November 1988. Reprinted by permission of the author.

“Tales from the Venia Woods,” by Robert Silverberg. Copyright © 1989 by Agberg Ltd. First published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, October 1989. Reprinted by permission of the author.

“Bears Discover Fire,” by Terry Bisson. Copyright © 1990 by Davis Publications, Inc. First published in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, August 1990. Reprinted by permission of the author.

“Even the Queen,” by Connie Willis. Copyright © 1992 by Davis Publications, Inc. First published in Isaac Asimov’s Fiction Magazine, April 1992. Reprinted by permission of the author.

“Guest of Honor,” by Robert Reed. Copyright © 1993 by Mercury Press, Inc. First published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, June 1993. Reprinted by permission of the author.

“None So Blind,” by Joe Haldeman. Copyright © 1994 by Bantam Doubleday Dell Magazines. First published in Asimov’s Science Fiction, November 1994. Reprinted by permission of the author.

“Mortimer Gray’s History of Death,” by Brian Stableford. Copyright © 1995 by Bantam Doubleday Dell Magazines. First published in Asimov’s Science Fiction, April 1995. Reprinted by permission of the author.

“The Lincoln Train,” by Maureen F. McHugh. Copyright © 1995 by Mercury Press, Inc. First published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, April 1995. Reprinted by permission of the author.

“Wang’s Carpets,” by Greg Egan. Copyright © 1995 by Greg Egan. First appeared in New Legends (Tor). Reprinted by permission of the author.

“Coming of Age in Karhide,” by Ursula K. Le Guin. Copyright © 1995 by Ursula K. Le Guin. First published in New Legends (Tor). Reprinted by permission of the author and the author’s agent, the Virginia Kidd Literary Agency.

“The Dead,” by Michael Swanwick. Copyright © 1996 by Michael Swanwick. First published in Starlight 1 (Tor). Reprinted by permission of the author.

“Recording Angel,” by Ian McDonald. Copyright © 1996 by Interzone. First published in Interzone, February 1996. Reprinted by permission of the author.

“A Dry, Quiet War,” by Tony Daniel. Copyright © 1996 by Dell Magazines. First published in Asimov’s Science Fiction, June 1996. Reprinted by permission of the author.

“The Undiscovered,” by William Sanders. Copyright © 1997 by Dell Magazines. First published in Asimov’s Science Fiction, March 1997. Published by permission of the author.

“Second Skin,” by Paul J. McAuley. Copyright © 1997 by Paul J. McAuley. First published in Asimov’s Science Fiction, April 1997. Reprinted by permission of the author.

“Story of Your Life,” by Ted Chiang. Copyright © 1998 by Ted Chiang. First published in Starlight 2 (Tor). Reprinted by permission of the author and the author’s agent, the Virginia Kidd Literary Agency.

“People Came from Earth,” by Stephen Baxter. Copyright © 1999 by Stephen Baxter. First published in Moon Shots (DAW). Reprinted by permission of the author.

“The Wedding Album,” by David Marusek. Copyright © 1999 by Dell Magazines. First published in Asimov’s Science Fiction, June 1999. Reprinted by permission of the author.

“1016 to 1,” by James Patrick Kelly. Copyright © 1999 by Dell Magazines. First published in Asimov’s Science Fiction, June 1999. Reprinted by permission of the author.

“Daddy’s World,” by Walter Jon Williams. Copyright © 1999 by Walter Jon Williams. First published in Not of Woman Born (Roc Books). Reprinted by permission of the author.

“The Real World,” by Steven Utley. Copyright © 2000 by SCIFI.COM. First published electronically on SCI FICTION, September 6. Reprinted by permission of the author.

“Have Not Have,” by Geoff Ryman. Copyright © 2001 by Spilogale, Inc. First published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, April 2001. Reprinted by permission of the author.

“Lobsters,” by Charles Stross. Copyright © 2001 by Dell Magazines. First published in Asimov’s Science Fiction, June 2001. Reprinted by permission of the author.

“Breathmoss,” by Ian R. MacLeod. Copyright © 2002 by Dell Magazines. First published in Asimov’s Science Fiction, May 2002. Reprinted by permission of the author and his agent, Susan Ann Protter.

“Lambing Season,” by Molly Gloss. Copyright © 2002 by Dell Magazines. First published in Asimov’s Science Fiction, July 2002. Reprinted by permission of the author.

“Footvote,” by Peter F. Hamilton. Copyright © 2004 by Peter F. Hamilton. Reprinted by permission of the author.

“The Fluted Girl,” by Paolo Bacigalupi. Copyright © 2003 by Spilogale, Inc. First published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Ficion, June 2003. Reprinted by permission of the author.

“Zima Blue,” by Alastair Reynolds. Copyright © 2005 by Alastair Reynolds. First published in Postscripts 4. Reprinted by permission of the author.


Robert Silverberg

Gardner Dozois’s annual anthology, The Mammoth Book of Best New SF, is now a series that comprises twenty hefty volumes,1 which require close to three and a half feet of shelf space. You will find that three-and-a-half-foot expanse of Dozois anthologies in any science-fiction library worthy of the name. Their presence is essential, for the Dozois book is the definitive historical record of the most fertile twenty years in the history of the science-fiction short story. Volume by volume, each anthology is an exciting and memorable collection. Taken all in all, though, they form a whole rather greater than the sum of their parts: an extraordinary editorial achievement, a unique encyclopedic text. And now we are given a book that offers us The Best of the Best – editor Dozois’s selection of the finest of the hundreds of stories that make up those twenty anthologies.

In no way does this book, good as it is, replace those twenty anthologies. No one volume possibly could. It serves, rather, as a marker, a signifier, which by the luminous excellence of its material reminds us of the magnitude of Gardner Dozois’s total accomplishment in assembling this wondrous series.

The science-fiction short story’s illustrious history goes back a long way. Beyond doubt the Greeks and the Romans wrote them – tales of robot warriors and imaginary voyages, some of them voyages to the moon. Closer to our own day, Hawthorne, Poe, and Verne produced what was unquestionably science fiction. More than a century ago H. G. Wells, the first great modern master of the form, filled the popular magazines of his day with dozens of s-f stories – “The Country of the Blind,” “The Crystal Egg,” “The Star,” and many more – of such surpassing inventiveness that they have held their own in print ever since. From 1911 on, the Luxembourg-born gadgeteer Hugo Gernsback began publishing science fiction as a regular feature of his magazines Modern Electrics and Science and Invention, and it proved so popular that in 1926 Gernsback launched Amazing Stories, the first magazine devoted entirely to it. (Because new stories were so hard to find at first, Gernsback filled many of the early issues with the work of Poe, Verne, and Wells.) Amazing built an avid readership and before long had a vigorous pair of competitors: Wonder Stories and Astounding Stories. Those were followed by a host of others, gaudy pulp magazines with names like Startling Stories, Planet Stories, Cosmic Stories, and Super Science Stories, and then, after World War II, came a group of less flamboyant-looking magazines aimed at more sophisticated readers, most notably Galaxy Science Fiction and Fantasy and Science Fiction.

Though much of the material in the science-fiction magazines of the 1930s and 1940s was crude and ephemeral, some was not, and, inevitably, book publishers began to collect the best of it in anthologies. The first such volume was Phil Stong’s The Other Worlds (1941), which drew on the pulps for stories by Lester del Rey, Theodore Sturgeon, Murray Leinster, Harry Bates, and other well-known s-f masters of the day. Two years later, the knowledgeable Donald A. Wollheim edited The Pocket Book of Science Fiction, with stories by Sturgeon, Wells, Robert A. Heinlein, and more. Then, just after the war, came two major collections, both of them still of major significance: Adventures in Time and Space, edited by Raymond J. Healy and J. Francis McComas, and The Best of Science Fiction, edited by Groff Conklin. The Healy-McComas book, studded with classics like Asimov’s “Nightfall” and Don A. Stuart’s “Who Goes There?”, was drawn largely from the pages of John W. Campbell’s Astounding Science Fiction, the dominant magazine in the field during the 1940s. The Conklin anthology also leaned heavily on Campbell’s magazine, but cast a wider net, with extensive representation of stories from the previous decade, including many from the Gernsback magazines, as well as work by Poe, Wells, and Arthur Conan Doyle.

As the science-fiction magazines grew in number and quality in the post-war years, an inevitable next development was the coming of anthologies devoted to the best stories of a single year. The first of these was edited by Everett F. Bleiler and T. E. Dikty, a pair of scholarly science-fiction readers with long experience in the field, and it was called, not entirely appropriately (since it drew entirely on material published in 1948), The Best Science Fiction Stories: 1949.

Science fiction then was a very small entity indeed – eight or nine magazines, a dozen or so books a year produced by semi-professional publishing houses run by old-time s-f fans, and the very occasional short story by the likes of Robert A. Heinlein in the Saturday Evening Post or some other well-known slick magazine. So esoteric a species of reading-matter was it that Bleiler and Dikty found it necessary to provide their book, which was issued by the relatively minor mainstream publishing house of Frederick Fell, Inc., with two separate introductory essays explaining the nature and history of science fiction to uninitiated readers.

In those days science fiction was at its best in the short lengths, and the editors of The Best Science Fiction: 1949 had plenty of splendid material to offer. There were two stories by Ray Bradbury, both later incorporated in The Martian Chronicles; Wilmar Shiras’s fine superchild story “In Hiding;” an excellent early Poul Anderson story, one by Isaac Asimov, and hal4f a dozen others, all of which would be received enthusiastically by modern readers. The book did fairly well, by the modest sales standards of its era, and the Bleiler-Dikty series of annual anthologies continued for another decade or so.

Towards the end of its era the Bleiler-Dikty collection was joined by a very different sort of Best of the Year anthology edited by Judith Merril, whose sophisticated literary tastes led her to go far beyond the s-f magazines, offering stories by such outsiders to the field as Jorge Luis Borges, Jack Finney, Donald Barthelme, and John Steinbeck cheek-by-jowl with the more familiar offerings of Asimov, Sturgeon, Robert Sheckley, and Clifford D. Simak. The Merril anthology, inaugurated in 1956, also lasted about a decade; and by then science fiction had become big business, with new magazines founded, shows like Star Trek appearing on network television, dozens and then hundreds of novels published every year. Since the 1960s no year has gone by without its Best of the Year collection, and sometimes two or three simultaneously. Such distinguished science-fiction writers as Frederik Pohl, Harry Harrison, Brian Aldiss, and Lester del Rey took their turns at compiling annual anthologies, along with veteran book editors like Donald A. Wollheim and Terry Carr.

When word went forth in 1983 that one more Year’s Best anthology was being assembled, this one under the editorship of Gardner Dozois, it was reasonable to expect a creditable job. Dozois was, after all, a capable and well-known writer himself, who had begun his career precociously with a short story in 1966 and from 1971 on had brought forth a great deal of impressively powerful work; he had edited a string of theme anthologies (A Day in the Life, 1972, Future Power, 1976, Another World, 1977, and many others); and for five years beginning in 1977 had taken over the editorship of Lester del Rey’s Best Science Fiction Stories of the Year anthology. But no one, I think, was quite prepared for the magnitude and comprehensiveness of the inaugural volume of the new Dozois anthology, nor could anyone have anticipated that the series would, in time, come to be the defining summation of a glorious era in science fiction.

I have the first volume of the Dozois series before me now. It looks surprisingly like the most recent one: a thick book that announces its name in bold letters emphasizing the words SCIENCE FICTION, and lists on its cover the names of thirteen of its contributors. Those contributors were a stellar group, of course. Taken all together, the stories represent a shrewd cross-section of what was already a potent period in the history of the s-f short story.

But that first volume was not distinguished merely by the excellence of its fiction. What gave it special importance and, eventually, immense historical value, was the thirteen-page essay “Summation,” in which Dozois provided a penetrating, closely analytical account of the year’s activities in the world of science-fiction publishing: comings and goings among editors and publishers, sales figures for bestselling books, circulation figures for magazines, thematic trends in current science fiction, news of awards and conventions, comments on recent s-f movies, obituaries. No previous best-of-the-year anthology had provided anything comparable. Each of the nineteen subsequent volumes has had a similar summation section, each at least as lengthy as the first and some much longer indeed; in and of themselves they form a continuing chronicle of the evolution of science fiction in the late twentieth century that will be of value to critics, historians, and readers for decades to come.

The stories chosen by Dozois in these first twenty volumes also constitute a statement about the nature of the s-f short story in that two-decade period – a statement filtered through the sensibility of just one reader, of course, but a highly informed one, steeped in the history of the field, imbued with a sense of science fiction’s value both as entertainment and intellectual stimulation, and further augmented by the editor’s own innate knowledge, as a skilled practitioner himself, of the art of the short story. Over the years Dozois’s story-picking expertize has been confirmed by reader approval, demonstrated through the great number of Hugo awards conferred on Dozois-chosen stories and by the many awards given to the anthology itself.

Dozois’s task as anthologist was complicated, in an odd way, by being editor of Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine. Asimov’s had already established itself as the outstanding magazine of the field, but under Dozois’s guidance from 1985 onwards it attained an even more powerful position of dominance, as is shown by the unparalleled fourteen Hugo awards for Best Editor that he received during the nineteen years of his stewardship of the magazine. John Campbell’s Astounding was similarly dominant in its day, more than half a century ago – but Campbell was not also the editor of a Best of the Year anthology. When Healy and McComas, in 1946, chose twenty-five of their thirty-three stories from the Campbell Astounding, no one was particularly surprised or upset: everyone knew that most of the superior stories of the era had been published there. And, since science-fiction writers tend naturally to gravitate towards their era’s top magazine, a similar concentration of the best work began appearing in the Dozois-edited Asimov’s. But Dozois as anthology editor could not allow himself to draw as extensively on his own magazine as Healy and McComas had drawn on Campbell’s, lest his book seem merely self-promoting; and so he was faced with the perplexing necessity of finding worthy stories for his anthology that had originally appeared in magazines competitive with his own.

Examining a few randomly chosen volumes of the Dozois series, we can see how well he managed this tricky task. The fourth volume of Best New SF, published in 1990, contains twenty-five stories, of which just nine originated in Asimov’s: an admirable show of objectivity. The eighth volume, from 1994, includes only seven Asimov’s items out of twenty-three. The sixteenth volume, released in 2003, shows an eight-for-twenty-six ratio. Surely the practice of this sort of discipline required Dozois to eliminate from his anthology a great many stories from his magazine that must have seemed as worthy of reprinting as the ones he did choose for the book; but the fact remains that he compelled himself to look far and wide for stories and the contents pages of his anthologies display a broad range of fiction from every appropriate source in the field.

One does see a certain group of authors appearing regularly in volume after volume: Connie Willis, Bruce Sterling, James Patrick Kelly, Michael Swanwick, Ian McDonald, John Kessel, Nancy Kress, Lucius Shepard, Mike Resnick, Greg Egan, Walter Jon Williams, and four or five others. The presence of such a cast of constant favourites would hardly be a surprise in any ongoing series of anthologies, which, after all, represent by definition the personal tastes of the series’ editor; but in fact Dozois’s little group of regulars were chosen for one anthology after another primarily because they were consistently doing the best work in the field. New writers joined the group every year: Robert Reed, for example, an unknown writer when the series began, came in with the sixth volume and has scarcely missed one since. The contents page of the twentieth volume gives us Maureen F. McHugh, Charles Stross, Alexander Irvine, Alastair Reynolds, Charles Coleman Finlay, and three or four more whose names would have meant nothing to readers a decade or so ago, but who can be expected to turn up on future contents pages of the Dozois anthology with great regularity in the years to come. More than thirty years after he first edited a science-fiction anthology, Gardner Dozois still maintains the ability to spot fresh new talent.

And now, to mark the completion of the first twenty years’ run of The Mammoth Book of Best New SF, Dozois has selected The Best of the Best. Every writer whose work is included here knows what an immense honour it is to be chosen. For Gardner Dozois himself the book is the capstone of two decades of remarkable work. Let him revel in the pleasure of knowing that he has given us, here, a volume that takes its place instantly among the classic science-fiction anthologies of all time.


When I started work on this series I was thirty-six, just past having been a hot young Turk in the ’70s, beginning to brown and curl a bit, my son was fourteen, most of the famous SF writers of the Campbellian Golden Age of the ’40s and the Gold/Boucher Age of the ’50s were not only still alive but available to be talked to at most science-fiction conventions, and most of my peers and contemporaries were, if not new writers anymore, still on the young ends of their careers and not really well-known yet . . . and I knew several young hopefuls, like a local fan called Michael Swanwick, who had only four or five sales under their belts. It would be two years yet before I took over the editorship of Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine.

Now, as I sit typing in 2004, I’m an old man, my son has two children of his own (six and eight, respectively), most of the Big-Name writers who dominated the genre then are dead, and my peers and contemporaries, those of them who are still alive, are no longer Hot Young Turks, but rather the Big-Name writers of the field, and they are as gray and wrinkled and sagging as I am. Michael Swanwick is a multiple Hugo-winner. And my almost-twenty-year career as editor of Asimov’s is behind me and being coolly evaluated by critics and historians. Time washes you away in a flood, and by the time you can turn your head and look back, the beach has dwindled to a thin tan line behind you. There is no further shore.

By the time you read these words, there will have been twenty volumes of The Mammoth Book of Best New SF published. Those twenty volumes together contain 6 million words of fiction, written by one hundred and eighty different authors. When the idea of putting a Best of the Best retrospective anthology together first occurred to me, it seemed like a straightforward task, perhaps even an easy one. It was not. In fact, this may have been one of the hardest jobs I’ve ever had to do (as far as putting anthologies together is concerned anyway; shoveling coal in the hot sun is considerably harder by any absolute standard, believe me). For one thing, in order to figure out what stories in those volumes were really the best, I had to reread a significant proportion of those 6 million words, especially as I found that I barely remembered some of the stories from earlier volumes.

Doing all that reading was not the hardest part, though. Looking back through the twenty volumes only served to remind me how many good stories had appeared in the book. Even a book twice the size of this one wouldn’t be big enough to include all the stories that probably should be included. Since all of those stories were to my taste in the first place – which should hardly come as a surprise – and since taste was the usual winnowing-screen I would employ in selecting which stories to use from someone else’s anthology or magazine, how was I going to cut the huge crop of contenders down to a manageable number?

For starters, although novellas have always been among my favorite stories in the Bests, and there are easily a dozen or more that ought to be in the multidimensional, infinitely-expansible version of this book (Michael Swanwick’s “Griffin’s Egg,” Frederic Pohl’s “Outnumbering the Dead,” Ursula K. Le Guin’s “A Woman’s Liberation,” Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Green Mars,” William Barton’s “Off on a Starship,” Lucius Shepard’s “R&R,” Nancy Kress’s “Beggars in Spain,” Robert Silverberg’s “Sailing to Byzantium,” Judith Moffett’s “Tiny Tango,” Greg Benford’s “Immersion,” Greg Egan’s “Oceanic,” Ian McDonald’s “The Days of Solomon Gursky,” John Kessel’s “Stories For Men,” and so many more), here in the real world where practical considerations of length exist, I clearly had room for no more than a few of them, if I wanted to get a large selection of authors representative of twenty years’ worth of Best volumes into the book.

I was still left with the most difficult problem, though – how do you decide what the word “Best” means in this context? Do I go for the best-known stories, stories such as Nancy Kress’s “Beggars in Spain” and James Patrick Kelly’s “Think Like a Dinosaur,” which have been reprinted very widely and which most people have already seen, or do I go with other good stories by the same authors that haven’t been as ballyhooed? If I didn’t use the most famous stories, many people were going to be disappointed that they weren’t there. On the other hand, if I used them exclusively, I’d produce a book full of stuff that everyone’s already read and that’s largely duplicable elsewhere. The only solution I could see was to walk a tightrope between the two, putting in some of the most famous stories and in other cases picking more obscure and unfairly overlooked alternatives instead – although I’m aware that I’m taking a chance of pleasing nobody with this approach.

The biggest decision I came to, though, was that I had to pick the stories that had made the strongest impression on me as a reader, stories that really moved or excited or impressed me, both on first reading years ago and on rereading now, stories that made me put down the book when I finished them, and stare off through the air, and shiver, remembering the wonders I’d just experienced – and that I had to pick them with no (or as little as possible, anyway) consideration for demographics, for whether I had enough big-name writers, or enough women writers, or enough Brits, or whatever, or whether or not I’d selected stories from all the important markets that ought to be represented. So don’t even bother to tell me that there’s too many stories from Asimov’s here (although several of them are from before I took over as editor, and Asimov’s has been the dominant American SF magazine of the ’80s and ’90s, under three different editors), I already know. Or that there’s not enough stories from Interzone, or that there ought to be something from Science Fiction Age. I picked the stories I had the strongest emotional reactions to, and let the chips fall where they may, as far as demographics were concerned, although no doubt I’m buying myself a lot of trouble with the critics by doing so. I have no doubt that a different editor could have gone through this same pool of stories and come up with a totally different selection of stories that would have been equally valid and equally defensible as deserving the title Best of the Best, that in fact no two readers would come up with the same list if asked to select one. Hell, a day earlier or a day later, I might well have come up with a different list myself.

But it’s reassuring to remember that there really have been a lot of good stories published in this series over the course of two decades. If ever the term “embarrassment of riches” applies, it applies here. So I like to tell myself that even if I’d closed my eyes, stabbed out a finger, and picked stories at random, you’d probably still be getting a pretty good anthology out of it.

In closing, I’d like to thank Jim Frenkel, my editor at Bluejay, who not only proposed the idea of me doing a new Best-of-the-Year series in the first place, after my Dutton series had died, but who insisted that it be a really big fat volume, as big as possible; I was against this idea, thinking that people wouldn’t want to spend the extra money for a big hardcover volume, but over the years almost every positive review has mentioned the size of the Best as a selling point and most reader feedback indicates that people like it big, so he was right and I was wrong. If he’d listened to me, the series might have died long ago. I’d also like to thank my own editors at St. Martin’s over the years, Stuart Moore, Gordon Van Gelder, Bryan Cholfin, and, today, Marc Resnick.

I’d also like to thank the often-unsung acquisitions editors who had the good taste to buy these stories in the first place: Ellen Datlow, Shawna McCarthy, Ed Ferman, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Gordon Van Gelder, David Pringle, Peter Crowther, Constance Ash, Stanley Schmidt, Greg Bear, David Bischoff, and Patrick Nielson Hayden, as well as all the editors over the last twenty years who bought all the stories in those twenty volumes that didn’t happen to make the cut for this particular retrospective. I’d like to thank the writers, who labored long into the night over keyboards in lonely rooms to write all the stories in this anthology, and all the other stories in the twenty volumes of the Best, and all the good stories that didn’t make it into any of them in the first place – because there’ve always been more good stories than we have room to use, every year from the beginning to now.

And lastly, I’d like to thank you, the readers, for buying and appreciating the volumes of this series, and thus making it a success. May you continue to enjoy future volumes, and may you enjoy the one you hold in your hands at the moment.

– Gardner Dozois


Greg Bear

Born in San Diego, California, Greg Bear made his first sale at the age of fifteen to Robert Lowndes’s Famous Science Fiction, and has subsequently established himself as one of the top professionals in the genre. He won a Nebula Award for his pyrotechnic novella “Hardfought,” a Nebula and Hugo Award for the famous story which follows, “Blood Music,” which was later expanded into a novel of the same title, and a subsequent Nebula and Hugo for his story “Tangents.” He added another Nebula Award to his collection for his novel Darwin’s Radio. His other books include the novels Hegira, Psychlone, Beyond Heaven’s River, Strength of Stones, The Infinity Concerto, The Serpent Mage, Eon, Eternity, The Forge of God, Anvil of Stars, Moving Mars, Heads, Legacy, Queen of Angels, Slant, and Dinosaur Summer, as well as the collections Wind from a Burning Woman and Tangents, and, as editor, the original anthology New Legends, one of the best anthologies of the ’90s. His most recent books are the novels, Vitals and Darwin’s Children, and the monumental collection The Collected Stories of Greg Bear. He had a story in our First annual collection. He lives with his family just outside of Seattle, Washington.

Bear has a sweeping, Stapeldonean vision of how different the future must inevitably be from the present. This vision of the strange, inhuman future to come is featured powerfully in the story that follows, which may be the first true nanotech story, even though it was written several years before the term “nanotechnology” was even coined – a chilling story that warns us that that inhuman future may not be hundreds of years away, or even decades away, but may instead lie waiting for us only next week, or tomorrow, or today . . . and that the true frontiers of exploration may not lie Out There, but rather deep inside.

THERE IS A PRINCIPLE in nature I don’t think anyone has pointed out before. Each hour, a myriad of trillions of little live things – bacteria, microbes, “animalcules” – are born and die, not counting for much except in the bulk of their existence and the accumulation of their tiny effects. They do not perceive deeply. They do not suffer much. A hundred billion, dying, would not begin to have the same importance as a single human death.

Within the ranks of magnitude of all creatures, small as microbes or great as humans, there is an equality of “elan,” just as the branches of a tall tree, gathered together, equal the bulk of the limbs below, and all the limbs equal the bulk of the trunk.

That, at least, is the principle. I believe Vergil Ulam was the first to violate it.

It had been two years since I’d last seen Vergil. My memory of him hardly matched the tan, smiling, well-dressed gentleman standing before me. We had made a lunch appointment over the phone the day before, and now faced each other in the wide double doors of the employees’ cafeteria at the Mount Freedom Medical Center.

“Vergil?” I asked. “My God, Vergil!”

“Good to see you, Edward.” He shook my hand firmly. He had lost ten or twelve kilos and what remained seemed tighter, better proportioned. At university, Vergil had been the pudgy, shock-haired, snaggle-toothed whiz kid who hot-wired doorknobs, gave us punch that turned our piss blue, and never got a date except with Eileen Termagent, who shared many of his physical characteristics.

“You look fantastic,” I said. “Spend a summer in Cabo San Lucas?”

We stood in line at the counter and chose our food. “The tan,” he said, picking out a carton of chocolate milk, “is from spending three months under a sunlamp. My teeth were straightened just after I last saw you. I’ll explain the rest, but we need a place to talk where no one will listen close.”

I steered him to the smokers’ corner, where three die-hard puffers were scattered among six tables.

“Listen, I mean it,” I said as we unloaded our trays. “You’ve changed. You’re looking good.”

“I’ve changed more than you know.” His tone was motion-picture ominous, and he delivered the line with a theatrical lift of his brows. “How’s Gail?”

Gail was doing well, I told him, teaching nursery school. We’d married the year before. His gaze shifted down to his food – pineapple slice and cottage cheese, piece of banana cream pie – and he said, his voice almost cracking, “Notice something else?”

I squinted in concentration. “Uh.”

“Look closer.”

“I’m not sure. Well, yes, you’re not wearing glasses. Contacts?”

“No. I don’t need them anymore.”

“And you’re a snappy dresser. Who’s dressing you now? I hope she’s as sexy as she is tasteful.”

“Candice isn’t – wasn’t responsible for the improvement in my clothes,” he said. “I just got a better job, more money to throw around. My taste in clothes is better than my taste in food, as it happens.” He grinned the old Vergil self-deprecating grin, but ended it with a peculiar leer. “At any rate, she’s left me, I’ve been fired from my job, I’m living on savings.”

“Hold it,” I said. “That’s a bit crowded. Why not do a linear breakdown? You got a job. Where?”

“Genetron Corp.,” he said. “Sixteen months ago.”

“I haven’t heard of them.”

“You will. They’re putting out common stock in the next month. It’ll shoot off the board. They’ve broken through with MABs. Medical – ”

“I know what MABs are,” I interrupted. “At least in theory. Medically Applicable Biochips.”

“They have some that work.”

“What?” It was my turn to lift my brows.

“Microscopic logic circuits. You inject them into the human body, they set up shop where they’re told and troubleshoot. With Dr. Michael Bernard’s approval.”

That was quite impressive. Bernard’s reputation was spotless. Not only was he associated with the genetic engineering biggies, but he had made news at least once a year in his practice as a neurosurgeon before retiring. Covers on Time, Mega, Rolling Stone.

“That’s supposed to be secret – stock, breakthrough, Bernard, everything.” He looked around and lowered his voice. “But you do whatever the hell you want. I’m through with the bastards.”

I whistled. “Make me rich, huh?”

“If that’s what you want. Or you can spend some time with me before rushing off to your broker.”

“Of course.” He hadn’t touched the cottage cheese or pie. He had, however, eaten the pineapple slice and drunk the chocolate milk. “So tell me more.”

“Well, in med school I was training for lab work. Biochemical research. I’ve always had a bent for computers, too. So I put myself through my last two years – ”

“By selling software packages to Westinghouse,” I said.

“It’s good my friends remember. That’s how I got involved with Genetron, just when they were starting out. They had big money backers, all the lab facilities I thought anyone would ever need. They hired me, and I advanced rapidly.

“Four months and I was doing my own work. I made some breakthroughs” – he tossed his hand nonchalantly – “then I went off on tangents they thought were premature. I persisted and they took away my lab, handed it over to a certifiable flatworm. I managed to save part of the experiment before they fired me. But I haven’t exactly been cautious . . . or judicious. So now it’s going on outside the lab.”

I’d always regarded Vergil as ambitious, a trifle cracked, and not terribly sensitive. His relations with authority figures had never been smooth. Science, for him, was like the woman you couldn’t possibly have, who suddenly opens her arms to you, long before you’re ready for mature love – leaving you afraid you’ll forever blow the chance, lose the prize. Apparently, he did. “Outside the lab? I don’t get you.”

“Edward, I want you to examine me. Give me a thorough physical. Maybe a cancer diagnostic. Then I’ll explain more.”

“You want a five-thousand-dollar exam?”

“Whatever you can do. Ultrasound, NMR, thermogram, everything.”

“I don’t know if I can get access to all that equipment. NMR full-scan has only been here a month or two. Hell, you couldn’t pick a more expensive way – ”

“Then ultrasound. That’s all you’ll need.”

“Vergil, I’m an obstetrician, not a glamour-boy lab-tech. OB-GYN, butt of all jokes. If you’re turning into a woman, maybe I can help you.”

He leaned forward, almost putting his elbow into the pie, but swinging wide at the last instant by scant millimeters. The old Vergil would have hit it square. “Examine me closely and you’ll . . .” He narrowed his eyes. “Just examine me.”

“So I make an appointment for ultrasound. Who’s going to pay?”

“I’m on Blue Shield.” He smiled and held up a medical credit card. “I messed with the personnel files at Genetron. Anything up to a hundred thousand dollars medical, they’ll never check, never suspect.”

He wanted secrecy, so I made arrangements. I filled out his forms myself. As long as everything was billed properly, most of the examination could take place without official notice. I didn’t charge for my services. After all, Vergil had turned my piss blue. We were friends.

He came in late at night. I wasn’t normally on duty then, but I stayed late, waiting for him on the third floor of what the nurses called the Frankenstein wing. I sat on an orange plastic chair. He arrived, looking olive-colored under the fluorescent lights.

He stripped, and I arranged him on the table. I noticed, first off, that his ankles looked swollen. But they weren’t puffy. I felt them several times. They seemed healthy but looked odd. “Hm,” I said.

I ran the paddles over him, picking up areas difficult for the big unit to hit, and programmed the data into the imaging system. Then I swung the table around and inserted it into the enameled orifice of the ultrasound diagnostic unit, the hum-hole, so-called by the nurses.

I integrated the data from the hum-hole with that from the paddle sweeps and rolled Vergil out, then set up a video frame. The image took a second to integrate, then flowed into a pattern showing Vergil’s skeleton. My jaw fell.

Three seconds of that and it switched to his thoracic organs, then his musculature, and, finally, vascular system and skin.

“How long since the accident?” I asked, trying to take the quiver out of my voice.

“I haven’t been in an accident,” he said. “It was deliberate.”

“Jesus, they beat you to keep secrets?”

“You don’t understand me, Edward. Look at the images again. I’m not damaged.”

“Look, there’s thickening here” – I indicated the ankles – “and your ribs – that crazy zigzag pattern of interlocks. Broken sometime, obviously. And – ”

“Look at my spine,” he said. I rotated the image in the video frame.

Buckminster Fuller, I thought. It was fantastic. A cage of triangular projections, all interlocking in ways I couldn’t begin to follow, much less understand. I reached around and tried to feel his spine with my fingers. He lifted his arms and looked off at the ceiling.

“I can’t find it,” I said. “It’s all smooth back there.” I let go of him and looked at his chest, then prodded his ribs. They were sheathed in something tough and flexible. The harder I pressed, the tougher it became. Then I noticed another change.

“Hey,” I said. “You don’t have any nipples.” There were tiny pigment patches, but no nipple formations at all.

“See?” Vergil asked, shrugging on the white robe, “I’m being rebuilt from the inside out.”

In my reconstruction of those hours, I fancy myself saying, “So tell me about it.” Perhaps mercifully, I don’t remember what I actually said.

He explained with his characteristic circumlocutions. Listening was like trying to get to the meat of a newspaper article through a forest of sidebars and graphic embellishments.

I simplify and condense.

Genetron had assigned him to manufacturing prototype biochips, tiny circuits made out of protein molecules. Some were hooked up to silicon chips little more than a micrometer in size, then went through rat arteries to chemically keyed locations, to make connections with the rat tissue and attempt to monitor and even control lab-induced pathologies.

“That was something,” he said.

“We recovered the most complex microchip by sacrificing the rat, then debriefed it – hooked the silicon portion up to an imaging system. The computer gave us bar graphs, then a diagram of the chemical characteristics of about eleven centimeters of blood vessel . . . then put it all together to make a picture. We zoomed down eleven centimeters of rat artery. You never saw so many scientists jumping up and down, hugging each other, drinking buckets of bug juice.” Bug juice was lab ethanol mixed with Dr. Pepper.

Eventually, the silicon elements were eliminated completely in favor of nucleoproteins. He seemed reluctant to explain in detail, but I gathered they found ways to make huge molecules – as large as DNA, and even more complex – into electrochemical computers, using ribosome-like structures as “encoders” and “readers” and RNA as “tape.” Vergil was able to mimic reproductive separation and reassembly in his nucleoproteins, incorporating program changes at key points by switching nucleotide pairs. “Genetron wanted me to switch over to supergene engineering, since that was the coming thing everywhere else. Make all kinds of critters, some out of our imagination. But I had different ideas.” He twiddled his finger around his ear and made theremin sounds. “Mad scientist time, right?” He laughed, then sobered. “I injected my best nucleoproteins into bacteria to make duplication and compounding easier. Then I started to leave them inside, so the circuits could interact with the cells. They were heuristically programmed; they taught themselves. The cells fed chemically coded information to the computers, the computers processed it and made decisions, the cells became smart. I mean, smart as planaria, for starters. Imagine an E. coli as smart as a planarian worm!”

I nodded. “I’m imagining.”

“Then I really went off on my own. We had the equipment, the techniques; and I knew the molecular language. I could make really dense, really complicated biochips by compounding the nucleoproteins, making them into little brains. I did some research into how far I could go, theoretically. Sticking with bacteria, I could make a biochip with the computing capacity of a sparrow’s brain. Imagine how jazzed I was! Then I saw a way to increase the complexity a thousandfold, by using something we regarded as a nuisance – quantum chit-chat between the fixed elements of the circuits. Down that small, even the slightest change could bomb a biochip. But I developed a program that actually predicted and took advantage of electron tunneling. Emphasized the heuristic aspects of the computer, used the chit-chat as a method of increasing complexity.”

“You’re losing me,” I said.

“I took advantage of randomness. The circuits could repair themselves, compare memories, and correct faulty elements. I gave them basic instructions: Go forth and multiply. Improve. By God, you should have seen some of the cultures a week later! It was amazing. They were evolving all on their own, like little cities. I destroyed them all. I think one of the petri dishes would have grown legs and walked out of the incubator if I’d kept feeding it.”

“You’re kidding.” I looked at him. “You’re not kidding.”

“Man, they knew what it was like to improve! They knew where they had to go, but they were just so limited, being in bacteria bodies, with so few resources.”

“How smart were they?”

“I couldn’t be sure. They were associating in clusters of a hundred to two hundred cells, each cluster behaving like an autonomous unit. Each cluster might have been as smart as a rhesus monkey. They exchanged information through their pili, passed on bits of memory, and compared notes. Their organization was obviously different from a group of monkeys. Their world was so much simpler, for one thing. With their abilities, they were masters of the petri dishes. I put phages in with them; the phages didn’t have a chance. They used every option available to change and grow.”

“How is that possible?”

“What?” He seemed surprised I wasn’t accepting everything at face value.

“Cramming so much into so little. A rhesus monkey is not your simple little calculator, Vergil.”

“I haven’t made myself clear,” he said, obviously irritated. “I was using nucleoprotein computers. They’re like DNA, but all the information can interact. Do you know how many nucleotide pairs there are in the DNA of a single bacteria?”

It had been a long time since my last biochemistry lesson. I shook my head.

“About two million. Add in the modified ribosome structures – fifteen thousand of them, each with a molecular weight of about three million – and consider the combinations and permutations. The RNA is arranged like a continuous loop paper tape, surrounded by ribosomes ticking off instructions and manufacturing protein chains . . .” His eyes were bright and slightly moist. “Besides, I’m not saying every cell was a distinct entity. They cooperated.”

“How many bacteria in the dishes you destroyed?”

“Billions. I don’t know.” He smirked. “You got it, Edward. Whole planetsful of E. coli.”

“But Genetron didn’t fire you then?”

“No. They didn’t know what was going on, for one thing. I kept compounding the molecules, increasing their size and complexity. When bacteria were too limited, I took blood from myself, separated out white cells, and injected them with the new biochips. I watched them, put them through mazes and little chemical problems. They were whizzes. Time is a lot faster at that level – so little distance for the messages to cross, and the environment is much simpler. Then I forgot to store a file under my secret code in the lab computers. Some managers found it and guessed what I was up to. Everybody panicked. They thought we’d have every social watchdog in the country on our backs because of what I’d done. They started to destroy my work and wipe my programs. Ordered me to sterilize my white cells. Christ.” He pulled the white robe off and started to get dressed. “I only had a day or two. I separated out the most complex cells – ”

“How complex?”

“They were clustering in hundred-cell groups, like the bacteria. Each group as smart as a four-year-old kid, maybe.” He studied my face for a moment. “Still doubting? Want me to run through how many nucleotide pairs there are in a mammalian cell? I tailored my computers to take advantage of the white cells’ capacity. Four billion nucleotide pairs, Edward. And they don’t have a huge body to worry about, taking up most of their thinking time.”

“Okay,” I said. “I’m convinced. What did you do?”

“I mixed the cells back into a cylinder of whole blood and injected myself with it.” He buttoned the top of his shirt and smiled thinly at me. “I’d programmed them with every drive I could, talked as high a level as I could using just enzymes and such. After that, they were on their own.”

“You programmed them to go forth and multiply, improve?” I repeated.

“I think they developed some characteristics picked up by the biochips in their E. coli phases. The white cells could talk to each other with extruded memories. They found ways to ingest other types of cells and alter them without killing them.”

“You’re crazy.”

“You can see the screen! Edward, I haven’t been sick since. I used to get colds all the time. I’ve never felt better.”

“They’re inside you, finding things, changing them.”

“And by now, each cluster is as smart as you or I.”

“You’re absolutely nuts.”

He shrugged. “Genetron fired me. They thought I was going to take revenge for what they did to my work. They ordered me out of the labs, and I haven’t had a real chance to see what’s been going on inside me until now. Three months.”

“So . . .” My mind was racing. “You lost weight because they improved your fat metabolism. Your bones are stronger, your spine has been completely rebuilt – ”

“No more backaches even if I sleep on my old mattress.”

“Your heart looks different.”

“I didn’t know about the heart,” he said, examining the frame image more closely. “As for the fat – I was thinking about that. They could increase my brown cells, fix up the metabolism. I haven’t been as hungry lately. I haven’t changed my eating habits that much – I still want the same old junk – but somehow I get around to eating only what I need. I don’t think they know what my brain is yet. Sure, they’ve got all the glandular stuff – but they don’t have the big picture, if you see what I mean. They don’t know I’m in here. But boy, they sure did figure out what my reproductive organs are.”

I glanced at the image and shifted my eyes away.

“Oh, they look pretty normal,” he said, hefting his scrotum obscenely. He snickered. “But how else do you think I’d land a real looker like Candice? She was just after a one-night stand with a techie. I looked okay then, no tan but trim, with good clothes. She’d never screwed a techie before. Joke time, right? But my little geniuses kept us up half the night. I think they made improvements each time. I felt like I had a goddamned fever.”

His smile vanished. “But then one night my skin started to crawl. It really scared me. I thought things were getting out of hand. I wondered what they’d do when they crossed the blood-brain barrier and found out about me – about the brain’s real function. So I began a campaign to keep them under control. I figured, the reason they wanted to get into the skin was the simplicity of running circuits across a surface. Much easier than trying to maintain chains of communication in and around muscles, organs, vessels. The skin was much more direct. So I bought a quartz lamp.” He caught my puzzled expression. “In the lab, we’d break down the protein in biochip cells by exposing them to ultraviolet light. I alternated sunlamp with quartz treatments. Keeps them out of my skin and gives me a nice tan.”

“Give you skin cancer, too,” I commented.

“They’ll probably take care of that. Like police.”

“Okay. I’ve examined you, you’ve told me a story I still find hard to believe . . . what do you want me to do?”

“I’m not as nonchalant as I act, Edward. I’m worried. I’d like to find some way to control them before they find out about my brain. I mean, think of it, they’re in the trillions by now, each one smart. They’re cooperating to some extent. I’m probably the smartest thing on the planet, and they haven’t even begun to get their act together. I don’t really want them to take over.” He laughed unpleasantly. “Steal my soul, you know? So think of some treatment to block them. Maybe we can starve the little buggers. Just think on it.” He buttoned his shirt. “Give me a call.” He handed me a slip of paper with his address and phone number. Then he went to the keyboard and erased the image on the frame, dumping the memory of the examination. “Just you,” he said. “Nobody else for now. And please . . . hurry.”

It was three o’clock in the morning when Vergil walked out of the examination room. He’d allowed me to take blood samples, then shaken my hand – his palm was damp, nervous – and cautioned me against ingesting anything from the specimens.

Before I went home, I put the blood through a series of tests. The results were ready the next day.

I picked them up during my lunch break in the afternoon, then destroyed all of the samples. I did it like a robot. It took me five days and nearly sleepless nights to accept what I’d seen. His blood was normal enough, though the machines diagnosed the patient as having an infection. High levels of leukocytes – white blood cells – and histamines. On the fifth day, I believed.

Gail came home before I did, but it was my turn to fix dinner. She slipped one of the school’s disks into the home system and showed me video art her nursery kids had been creating. I watched quietly, ate with her in silence.

I had two dreams, part of my final acceptance. In the first, that evening, I witnessed the destruction of the planet Krypton, Superman’s home world. Billions of superhuman geniuses went screaming off in walls of fire. I related the destruction to my sterilizing the samples of Vergil’s blood.

The second dream was worse. I dreamed that New York City was raping a woman. By the end of the dream, she gave birth to little embryo cities, all wrapped up in translucent sacs, soaked with blood from the difficult labor.

I called him on the morning of the sixth day. He answered on the fourth ring. “I have some results,” I said. “Nothing conclusive. But I want to talk with you. In person.”

“Sure,” he said. “I’m staying inside for the time being.” His voice was strained; he sounded tired.

Vergil’s apartment was in a fancy high-rise near the lake shore. I took the elevator up, listening to little advertising jingles and watching dancing holograms display products, empty apartments for rent, the building’s hostess discussing social activities for the week.

Vergil opened the door and motioned me in. He wore a checked robe with long sleeves and carpet slippers. He clutched an unlit pipe in one hand, his fingers twisting it back and forth as he walked away from me and sat down, saying nothing.

“You have an infection,” I said.


“That’s all the blood analyses tell me. I don’t have access to the electron microscopes.”

“I don’t think it’s really an infection,” he said. “After all, they’re my own cells. Probably something else . . . some sign of their presence, of the change. We can’t expect to understand everything that’s happening.”

I removed my coat. “Listen,” I said, “you really have me worried now.” The expression on his face stopped me: a kind of frantic beatitude. He squinted at the ceiling and pursed his lips.

“Are you stoned?” I asked.

He shook his head, then nodded once, very slowly. “Listening,” he said.

“To what?”

“I don’t know. Not sounds . . . exactly. Like music. The heart, all the blood vessels, friction of blood along the arteries, veins. Activity. Music in the blood.” He looked at me plaintively. “Why aren’t you at work?”

“My day off. Gail’s working.”

“Can you stay?”

I shrugged. “I suppose.” I sounded suspicious. I glanced around the apartment, looking for ashtrays, packs of papers.

“I’m not stoned, Edward,” he said. “I may be wrong, but I think something big is happening. I think they’re finding out who I am.”

I sat down across from Vergil, staring at him intently. He didn’t seem to notice. Some inner process involved him. When I asked for a cup of coffee, he motioned to the kitchen. I boiled a pot of water and took a jar of instant from the cabinet. With cup in hand, I returned to my seat. He twisted his head back and forth, eyes open. “You always knew what you wanted to be, didn’t you?” he asked.

“More or less.”

“A gynecologist. Smart moves. Never false moves. I was different. I had goals, but no direction. Like a map without roads, just places to be. I didn’t give a shit for anything, anyone but myself. Even science. Just a means. I’m surprised I got so far. I even hated my folks.”

He gripped his chair arms.

“Something wrong?” I asked.

“They’re talking to me,” he said. He shut his eyes.

For an hour he seemed to be asleep. I checked his pulse, which was strong and steady, felt his forehead – slightly cool – and made myself more coffee. I was looking through a magazine, at a loss what to do, when he opened his eyes again. “Hard to figure exactly what time is like for them,” he said. “It’s taken them maybe three, four days to figure out language, key human concepts. Now they’re on to it. On to me. Right now.”

“How’s that?”

He claimed there were thousands of researchers hooked up to his neurons. He couldn’t give details. “They’re damned efficient, you know,” he said. “They haven’t screwed me up yet.”

“We should get you into the hospital now.”

“What in hell could other doctors do? Did you figure out any way to control them? I mean, they’re my own cells.”

“I’ve been thinking. We could starve them. Find out what metabolic differences – ”

“I’m not sure I want to be rid of them,” Vergil said. “They’re not doing any harm.”

“How do you know?”

He shook his head and held up one finger. “Wait. They’re trying to figure out what space is. That’s tough for them: They break distances down into concentrations of chemicals. For them, space is like intensity of taste.”

“Vergil – ”

“Listen! Think, Edward!” His tone was excited but even. “Something big is happening inside me. They talk to each other across the fluid, through membranes. They tailor something – viruses? – to carry data stored in nucleic acid chains. I think they’re saying ‘RNA.’ That makes sense. That’s one way I programmed them. But plasmidlike structures, too. Maybe that’s what your machines think is a sign of infection – all their chattering in my blood, packets of data. Tastes of other individuals. Peers. Superiors. Subordinates.”

“Vergil, I still think you should be in a hospital.”

“This is my show, Edward,” he said. “I’m their universe. They’re amazed by the new scale.” He was quiet again for a time. I squatted by his chair and pulled up the sleeve to his robe. His arm was crisscrossed with white lines. I was about to go to the phone when he stood and stretched. “Do you realize,” he said, “how many body cells we kill each time we move?”

“I’m going to call for an ambulance,” I said.

“No, you aren’t.” His tone stopped me. “I told you, I’m not sick, this is my show. Do you know what they’d do to me in a hospital? They’d be like cavemen trying to fix a computer. It would be a farce.”

“Then what the hell am I doing here?” I asked, getting angry. “I can’t do anything. I’m one of those cavemen.”

“You’re a friend,” Vergil said, fixing his eyes on me. I had the impression I was being watched by more than just Vergil. “I want you here to keep me company.” He laughed. “But I’m not exactly alone.”

He walked around the apartment for two hours, fingering things, looking out windows, slowly and methodically fixing himself lunch. “You know, they can actually feel their own thoughts,” he said about noon. “I mean, the cytoplasm seems to have a will of its own, a kind of subconscious life counter to the rationality they’ve only recently acquired. They hear the chemical ‘noise’ of the molecules fitting and unfitting inside.”

At two o’clock, I called Gail to tell her I would be late. I was almost sick with tension, but I tried to keep my voice level. “Remember Vergil Ulam? I’m talking with him right now.”

“Everything okay?” she asked.

Was it? Decidedly not. “Fine,” I said.

“Culture!” Vergil said, peering around the kitchen wall at me. I said good-bye and hung up the phone. “They’re always swimming in that bath of information. Contributing to it. It’s a kind of gestalt thing. The hierarchy is absolute. They send tailored phages after cells that don’t interact properly. Viruses specified to individuals or groups. No escape. A rouge cell gets pierced by the virus, the cell blebs outward, it explodes and dissolves. But it’s not just a dictatorship. I think they effectively have more freedom than in a democracy. I mean, they vary so differently from individual to individual. Does that make sense? They vary in different ways than we do.”

“Hold it,” I said, gripping his shoulders. “Vergil, you’re pushing me to the edge. I can’t take this much longer. I don’t understand, I’m not sure I believe – ”

“Not even now?”

“Okay, let’s say you’re giving me the right interpretation. Giving it to me straight. Have you bothered to figure out the consequences yet? What all this means, where it might lead?”

He walked into the kitchen and drew a glass of water from the tap then returned and stood next to me. His expression had changed from childish absorption to sober concern. “I’ve never been very good at that.”

“Are you afraid?”

“I was. Now, I’m not sure.” He fingered the tie of his robe. “Look, I don’t want you to think I went around you, over your head or something. But I met with Michael Bernard yesterday. He put me through his private clinic, took specimens. Told me to quit the lamp treatments. He called this morning, just before you did. He says it all checks out. And he asked me not to tell anybody.” He paused and his expression became dreamy again. “Cities of cells,” he continued. “Edward, they push tubes through the tissues, spread information – ”

“Stop it!” I shouted. “Checks out? What checks out?”

“As Bernard puts it, I have ‘severely enlarged macrophages’ throughout my system. And he concurs on the anatomical changes.”

“What does he plan to do?”

“I don’t know. I think he’ll probably convince Genetron to reopen the lab.”

“Is that what you want?”

“It’s not just having the lab again. I want to show you. Since I stopped the lamp treatments, I’m still changing.” He undid his robe and let it slide to the floor. All over his body, his skin was crisscrossed with white lines. Along his back, the lines were starting to form ridges.

“My God,” I said.

“I’m not going to be much good anywhere else but the lab soon. I won’t be able to go out in public. Hospitals wouldn’t know what to do, as I said.”

“You’re . . . you can talk to them, tell them to slow down,” I said, aware how ridiculous that sounded.

“Yes, indeed I can, but they don’t necessarily listen.”

“I thought you were their god or something.”

“The ones hooked up to my neurons aren’t the big wheels. They’re researchers, or at least serve the same function. They know I’m here, what I am, but that doesn’t mean they’ve convinced the upper levels of the hierarchy.”

“They’re disputing?”

“Something like that. It’s not all that bad, anyway. If the lab is reopened, I have a home, a place to work.” He glanced out the window, as if looking for someone. “I don’t have anything left but them. They aren’t afraid, Edward. I’ve never felt so close to anything before.” The beatific smile again. “I’m responsible for them. Mother to them all.”

“You have no way of knowing what they’re going to do.”

He shook his head.

“No, I mean it. You say they’re like a civilization – ”

“Like a thousand civilizations.”

“Yes, and civilizations have been known to screw up. Warfare, the environment – ”

I was grasping at straws, trying to restrain a growing panic. I wasn’t competent to handle the enormity of what was happening. Neither was Vergil. He was the last person I would have called insightful and wise about large issues.

“But I’m the only one at risk.”

“You don’t know that. Jesus, Vergil, look what they’re doing to you!”

“To me, all to me!” he said. “Nobody else.”

I shook my head and held up my hands in a gesture of defeat. “Okay, so Bernard gets them to reopen the lab, you move in, become a guinea pig. What then?”

“They treat me right. I’m more than just good old Vergil Ulam now. I’m a goddamned galaxy, a super-mother.”

“Super-host, you mean.” He conceded the point with a shrug.

I couldn’t take any more. I made my exit with a few flimsy excuses, then sat in the lobby of the apartment building, trying to calm down. Somebody had to talk some sense into him. Who would he listen to? He had gone to Bernard. . . .

And it sounded as if Bernard was not only convinced, but very interested. People of Bernard’s stature didn’t coax the Vergil Ulams of the world along unless they felt it was to their advantage.

I had a hunch, and I decided to play it. I went to a pay phone, slipped in my credit card, and called Genetron.

“I’d like you to page Dr. Michael Bernard,” I told the receptionist.

“Who’s calling, please?”

“This is his answering service. We have an emergency call and his beeper doesn’t seem to be working.”

A few anxious minutes later, Bernard came on the line. “Who the hell is this?” he asked. “I don’t have an answering service.”

“My name is Edward Milligan. I’m a friend of Vergil Ulam’s. I think we have some problems to discuss.”

We made an appointment to talk the next morning.

I went home and tried to think of excuses to keep me off the next day’s hospital shift. I couldn’t concentrate on medicine, couldn’t give my patients anywhere near the attention they deserved.

Guilty, angry, afraid.

That was how Gail found me. I slipped on a mask of calm and we fixed dinner together. After eating, holding onto each other, we watched the city lights come on in late twilight through the bayside window. Winter starlings pecked at the yellow lawn in the last few minutes of light, then flew away with a rising wind which made the windows rattle.

“Something’s wrong,” Gail said softly. “Are you going to tell me, or just act like everything’s normal?”

“It’s just me,” I said. “Nervous. Work at the hospital.”

“Oh, lord,” she said, sitting up. “You’re going to divorce me for that Baker woman.” Mrs. Baker weighed three hundred and sixty pounds and hadn’t known she was pregnant until her fifth month.

“No,” I said, listless.

“Rapturous relief,” Gail said, touching my forehead lightly. “You know this kind of introspection drives me crazy.”

“Well, it’s nothing I can talk about yet, so . . .” I patted her hand.

“That’s disgustingly patronizing,” she said, getting up. “I’m going to make some tea. Want some?” Now she was miffed, and I was tense with not telling.

Why not just reveal all? I asked myself. An old friend was turning himself into a galaxy.

I cleared away the table instead. That night, unable to sleep, I looked down on Gail in bed from my sitting position, pillow against the wall, and tried to determine what I knew was real, and what wasn’t.

I’m a doctor, I told myself. A technical, scientific profession. I’m supposed to be immune to things like future shock.

Vergil Ulam was turning into a galaxy.

How would it feel to be topped off with a trillion Chinese? I grinned in the dark and almost cried at the same time. What Vergil had inside him was unimaginably stranger than Chinese. Stranger than anything I – or Vergil – could easily understand. Perhaps ever understand.

But I knew what was real. The bedroom, the city lights faint through gauze curtains. Gail sleeping. Very important. Gail in bed, sleeping.

The dream returned. This time the city came in through the window and attacked Gail. It was a great, spiky lighted-up prowler, and it growled in a language I couldn’t understand, made up of auto horns, crowd noises, construction bedlam. I tried to fight it off, but it got to her – and turned into a drift of stars, sprinkling all over the bed, all over everything. I jerked awake and stayed up until dawn, dressed with Gail, kissed her, savored the reality of her human, unviolated lips.

I went to meet with Bernard. He had been loaned a suite in a big downtown hospital; I rode the elevator to the sixth floor, and saw what fame and fortune could mean.

The suite was tastefully furnished, fine serigraphs on wood-paneled walls, chrome and glass furniture, cream-colored carpet, Chinese brass, and wormwood-grain cabinets and tables.

He offered me a cup of coffee, and I accepted. He took a seat in the breakfast nook, and I sat across from him, cradling my cup in moist palms. He wore a dapper gray suit and had graying hair and a sharp profile. He was in his mid sixties and he looked quite a bit like Leonard Bernstein.

“About our mutual acquaintance,” he said. “Mr. Ulam. Brilliant. And, I won’t hesitate to say, courageous.”

“He’s my friend. I’m worried about him.”

Bernard held up one finger. “Courageous – and a bloody damned fool. What’s happening to him should never have been allowed. He may have done it under duress, but that’s no excuse. Still, what’s done is done. He’s talked to you, I take it.”

I nodded. “He wants to return to Genetron.”

“Of course. That’s where all his equipment is. Where his home probably will be while we sort this out.”

“Sort it out – how? Why?” I wasn’t thinking too clearly. I had a slight headache.

“I can think of a large number of uses for small, superdense computer elements with a biological base. Can’t you? Genetron has already made breakthroughs, but this is something else again.”

“What do you envision?”

Bernard smiled. “I’m not really at liberty to say. It’ll be revolutionary.

We’ll have to get him in lab conditions. Animal experiments have to be conducted. We’ll start from scratch, of course. Vergil’s . . . um . . . colonies can’t be transferred. They’re based on his own white blood cells. So we have to develop colonies that won’t trigger immune reactions in other animals.”

“Like an infection?” I asked.

“I suppose there are comparisons. But Vergil is not infected.”

“My tests indicate he is.”

“That’s probably the bits of data floating around in his blood, don’t you think?”

“I don’t know.”

“Listen, I’d like you to come down to the lab after Vergil is settled in. Your expertise might be useful to us.”

Us. He was working with Genetron hand in glove. Could he be objective? “How will you benefit from all this?”

“Edward, I have always been at the forefront of my profession. I see no reason why I shouldn’t be helping here. With my knowledge of brain and nerve functions, and the research I’ve been conducting in neurophysiology – ”

“You could help Genetron hold off an investigation by the government,” I said.

“That’s being very blunt. Too blunt, and unfair.”

“Perhaps. Anyway, yes: I’d like to visit the lab when Vergil’s settled in. If I’m still welcome, bluntness and all.” He looked at me sharply. I wouldn’t be playing on his team; for a moment, his thoughts were almost nakedly apparent.

“Of course,” Bernard said, rising with me. He reached out to shake my hand. His palm was damp. He was as nervous as I was, even if he didn’t look it.

I returned to my apartment and stayed there until noon, reading, trying to sort things out. Reach a decision. What was real, what I needed to protect.

There is only so much change anyone can stand: innovation, yes, but slow application. Don’t force. Everyone has the right to stay the same until they decide otherwise.

The greatest thing in science since . . .

And Bernard would force it. Genetron would force it. I couldn’t handle the thought. “Neo-Luddite,” I said to myself. A filthy accusation.

When I pressed Vergil’s number on the building security panel, Vergil answered almost immediately. “Yeah,” he said. He sounded exhilarated. “Come on up. I’ll be in the bathroom. Door’s unlocked.”

I entered his apartment and walked through the hallway to the bathroom. Vergil lay in the tub, up to his neck in pinkish water. He smiled vaguely and splashed his hands. “Looks like I slit my wrists, doesn’t it?” he said softly. “Don’t worry. Everything’s fine now. Genetron’s going to take me back. Bernard just called.” He pointed to the bathroom phone and intercom.

I sat on the toilet and noticed the sunlamp fixture standing unplugged next to the linen cabinets. The bulbs sat in a row on the edge of the sink counter. “You’re sure that’s what you want,” I said, my shoulders slumping.

“Yeah, I think so,” he said. “They can take better care of me. I’m getting cleaned up, going over there this evening. Bernard’s picking me up in his limo. Style. From here on in, everything’s style.”

The pinkish color in the water didn’t look like soap. “Is that bubble bath?” I asked. Some of it came to me in a rush then and I felt a little weaker; what had occurred to me was just one more obvious and necessary insanity.

“No,” Vergil said. I knew that already.

“No,” he repeated, “it’s coming from my skin. They’re not telling me everything, but I think they’re sending out scouts. Astronauts.” He looked at me with an expression that didn’t quite equal concern; more like curiosity as to how I’d take it.

The confirmation made my stomach muscles tighten as if waiting for a punch. I had never even considered the possibility until now, perhaps because I had been concentrating on other aspects. “Is this the first time?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he said. He laughed. “I’ve half a mind to let the little buggers down the drain. Let them find out what the world’s really about.”

“They’d go everywhere,” I said.

“Sure enough.”

“How . . . how are you feeling?”

“I’m feeling pretty good now. Must be billions of them.” More splashing with his hands. “What do you think? Should I let the buggers out?”

Quickly, hardly thinking, I knelt down beside the tub. My fingers went for the cord on the sunlamp and I plugged it in. He had hot-wired doorknobs, turned my piss blue, played a thousand dumb practical jokes and never grown up, never grown mature enough to understand that he was sufficiently brilliant to transform the world; he would never learn caution.

He reached for the drain knob. “You know, Edward, I – ”

He never finished. I picked up the fixture and dropped it into the tub, jumping back at the flash of steam and sparks. Vergil screamed and thrashed and jerked and then everything was still, except for the low, steady sizzle and the smoke wafting from his hair.

I lifted the toilet lid and vomited. Then I clenched my nose and went into the living room. My legs went out from under me and I sat abruptly on the couch.

After an hour, I searched through Vergil’s kitchen and found bleach, ammonia, and a bottle of Jack Daniel’s. I returned to the bathroom, keeping the center of my gaze away from Vergil. I poured first the booze, then the bleach, then the ammonia into the water. Chlorine started bubbling up and I left, closing the door behind me.

The phone was ringing when I got home. I didn’t answer. It could have been the hospital. It could have been Bernard. Or the police. I could envision having to explain everything to the police. Genetron would stonewall; Bernard would be unavailable.

I was exhausted, all my muscles knotted with tension and whatever name one can give to the feelings one has after –

Committing genocide?

That certainly didn’t seem real. I could not believe I had just murdered a hundred trillion intelligent beings. Snuffed a galaxy. It was laughable. But I didn’t laugh.

It was easy to believe that I had just killed one human being, a friend. The smoke, the melted lamp rods, the drooping electrical outlet and smoking cord.


I had dunked the lamp into the tub with Vergil.

I felt sick. Dreams, cities raping Gail (and what about his girlfriend, Candice?). Letting the water filled with them out. Galaxies sprinkling over us all. What horror. Then again, what potential beauty – a new kind of life, symbiosis and transformation.

Had I been thorough enough to kill them all? I had a moment of panic. Tomorrow, I thought, I will sterilize his apartment. Somehow, I didn’t even think of Bernard.

When Gail came in the door, I was asleep on the couch. I came to, groggy, and she looked down at me.

“You feeling okay?” she asked, perching on the edge of the couch. I nodded.

“What are you planning for dinner?” My mouth didn’t work properly. The words were mushy. She felt my forehead.

“Edward, you have a fever,” she said. “A very high fever.”

I stumbled into the bathroom and looked in the mirror. Gail was close behind me. “What is it?” she asked.

There were lines under my collar, around my neck. White lines, like freeways. They had already been in me a long time, days.

“Damp palms,” I said. So obvious.

I think we nearly died. I struggled at first, but in minutes I was too weak to move. Gail was just as sick within an hour.

I lay on the carpet in the living room, drenched in sweat. Gail lay on the couch, her face the color of talcum, eyes closed, like a corpse in an embalming parlor. For a time I thought she was dead. Sick as I was, I raged – hated, felt tremendous guilt at my weakness, my slowness to understand all the possibilities. Then I no longer cared. I was too weak to blink, so I closed my eyes and waited.

There was a rhythm in my arms, my legs. With each pulse of blood, a kind of sound welled up within me, like an orchestra thousands strong, but not playing in unison; playing whole seasons of symphonies at once. Music in the blood. The sound became harsher, but' more coordinated, wave-trains finally canceling into silence, then separating into harmonic beats.

The beats seemed to melt into me, into the sound of my own heart.

First, they subdued our immune responses. The war – and it was a war, on a scale never before known on Earth, with trillions of combatants – lasted perhaps two days.

By the time I regained enough strength to get to the kitchen faucet, I could feel them working on my brain, trying to crack the code and find the god within the protoplasm. I drank until I was sick, then drank more moderately and took a glass to Gail. She sipped at it. Her lips were cracked, her eyes bloodshot and ringed with yellowish crumbs. There was some color in her skin. Minutes later, we were eating feebly in the kitchen.

“What in hell is happening?” was the first thing she asked. I didn’t have the strength to explain. I peeled an orange and shared it with her. “We should call a doctor,” she said. But I knew we wouldn’t. I was already receiving messages; it was becoming apparent that any sensation of freedom we experienced was illusory.

The messages were simple at first. Memories of commands, rather than the commands themselves, manifested themselves in my thoughts. We were not to leave the apartment – a concept which seemed quite abstract to those in control, even if undesirable – and we were not to have contact with others. We would be allowed to eat certain foods and drink tap water for the time being.

With the subsidence of the fevers, the transformations were quick and drastic. Almost simultaneously, Gail and I were immobilized. She was sitting at the table, I was kneeling on the floor. I was able barely to see her in the corner of my eye.

Her arm developed pronounced ridges.

They had learned inside Vergil; their tactics within the two of us were very different. I itched all over for about two hours – two hours in hell – before they made the breakthrough and found me. The effort of ages on their timescale paid off and they communicated smoothly and directly with this great, clumsy intelligence who had once controlled their universe.

They were not cruel. When the concept of discomfort and its undesirability was made clear, they worked to alleviate it. They worked too effectively. For another hour, I was in a sea of bliss, out of all contact with them.

With dawn the next day, they gave us freedom to move again; specifically, to go to the bathroom. There were certain waste products they could not deal with. I voided those – my urine was purple – and Gail followed suit. We looked at each other vacantly in the bathroom. Then she managed a slight smile. “Are they talking to you?” she asked. I nodded. “Then I’m not crazy.”

For the next twelve hours, control seemed to loosen on some levels. I suspect there was another kind of war going on in me. Gail was capable of limited motion, but no more.

When full control resumed, we were instructed to hold each other. We did not hesitate.

“Eddie . . .” she whispered. My name was the last sound I ever heard from outside.

Standing, we grew together. In hours, our legs expanded and spread out. Then extensions grew to the windows to take in sunlight, and to the kitchen to take water from the sink. Filaments soon reached to all corners of the room, stripping paint and plaster from the walls, fabric and stuffing from the furniture.

By the next dawn, the transformation was complete.

I no longer have any clear view of what we look like. I suspect we resemble cells – large, flat, and filamented cells, draped purposefully across most of the apartment. The great shall mimic the small.

Our intelligence fluctuates daily as we are absorbed into the minds within. Each day, our individuality declines. We are, indeed, great clumsy dinosaurs. Our memories have been taken over by billions of them, and our personalities have been spread through the transformed blood.

Soon there will be no need for centralization.

Already the plumbing has been invaded. People throughout the building are undergoing transformation.

Within the old time frame of weeks, we will reach the lakes, rivers, and seas in force.

I can barely begin to guess the results. Every square inch of the planet will teem with thought. Years from now, perhaps much sooner, they will subdue their own individuality – what there is of it.

New creatures will come, then. The immensity of their capacity for thought will be inconceivable.

All my hatred and fear is gone now.

I leave them – us – with only one question.

How many times has this happened, elsewhere? Travelers never came through space to visit the Earth. They had no need.

They had found universes in grains of sand.


Gene Wolfe

Gene Wolfe is perceived by many critics to be one of the best – perhaps the best – SF and fantasy writers working today. His most acclaimed work is the tetralogy The Book of the New Sun, individual volumes of which have won the Nebula Award, the World Fantasy Award, and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. He followed this up with a popular new series, The Book of the Long Sun, that included Nightside the Long Sun, The Lake of the Long Sun, Caldé of the Long Sun, and Exodus from the Long Sun, and has recently completed another series, The Book of the Short Sun, with the novels On Blue’s Waters, In Green’s Jungles, and Return to the Whorl. His other books include the classic novels Peace and The Devil in a Forest, both recently rereleased, as well as Free Live Free, Soldier in the Mist, Soldier of Arete, There Are Doors, Castleview, Pandora by Holly Hollander, and The Urth of the New Sun. His short fiction has been collected in The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories, Gene Wolfe’s Book of Days, The Wolfe Archipelago, the World Fantasy Award-winning collection Storeys from the Old Hotel, Endangered Species, and Strange Travelers. He has had stories in our Second and Tenth collections. His most recent book is a new novel, The Knight. Coming up is another novel, The Wizard, the sequel to The Knight, and a new collection, Innocents Aboard.

Here he confronts us with a power old and cold and strange, one as chameleonic as it is implacable.

IT MIGHT HAVE BEEN a child’s drawing of a ship. He blinked, and blinked again. There were masts and sails, surely. One stack, perhaps another. If the ship were really there at all. He went back to his father’s beach cottage, climbed the five wooden steps, wiped his feet on the coco mat.

Lissy was still in bed, but awake, sitting up now. It must have been the squeaking of the steps, he thought. Aloud he said, “Sleep good?”

He crossed the room and kissed her. She caressed him and said, “You shouldn’t go swimming without a suit, dear wonderful swimmer. How was the Pacific?”

“Peaceful. Cold. It’s too early for people to be up, and there’s nobody within a mile of here anyway.”

“Get into bed then. How about the fish?”

“Salt water makes the sheets sticky. The fish have seen them before.” He went to the corner, where a showerhead poked from the wall. The beach cottage – Lissy called it a cabin – had running water of the sometimes and rusty variety.

“They might bite ’em off. Sharks, you know. Little ones.”

“Castrating woman.” The shower coughed, doused him with icy spray, coughed again.

“You look worried.”


“Is it your dad?”

He shook his head, then thrust it under the spray, fingers combing his dark, curly hair.

“You think he’ll come out here? Today?”

He withdrew, considering. “If he’s back from Washington, and he knows we’re here.”

“But he couldn’t know, could he?”

He turned off the shower and grabbed a towel, already damp and a trifle sandy. “I don’t see how.”

“Only he might guess.” Lissy was no longer smiling. “Where else could we go? Hey, what did we do with my underwear?”

“Your place. Your folks’. Any motel.”

She swung long, golden legs out of bed, still holding the sheet across her lap. Her breasts were nearly perfect hemispheres, except for the tender protrusions of their pink nipples. He decided he had never seen breasts like that. He sat down on the bed beside her. “I love you very much,” he said. “You know that?”

It made her smile again. “Does that mean you’re coming back to bed?”

“If you want me to.”

“I want a swimming lesson. What will people say if I tell them I came here and didn’t go swimming.”

He grinned at her. “That it’s that time of the month.”

“You know what you are? You’re filthy!” She pushed him. “Absolutely filthy! I’m going to bite your ears off.” Tangled in the sheet, they fell off the bed together. “There they are!”

“There what are?”

“My bra and stuff. We must have kicked them under the bed. Where are our bags?”

“Still in the trunk. I never carried them in.”

“Would you get mine? My swimsuit’s in it.”

“Sure,” he said.

“And put on some pants!”

“My suit’s in my bag too.” He found his trousers and got the keys to the Triumph. Outside the sun was higher, the chill of the fall morning nearly gone. He looked for the ship and saw it. Then it winked out like a star.

That evening they made a fire of driftwood and roasted the big, greasy Italian sausages he had brought from town, making giant hot dogs by clamping them in French bread. He had brought red supermarket wine too; they chilled it in the Pacific. “I never ate this much in my life,” Lissy said.

“You haven’t eaten anything yet.”

“I know, but just looking at this sandwich would make me full if I wasn’t so hungry.” She bit off the end. “Cuff tough woof.”


“Castrating woman. That’s what you called me this morning, Tim. Now this is a castrating woman.”

“Don’t talk with your mouth full.”

“You sound like my mother. Give me some wine. You’re hogging it.”

He handed the bottle over. “It isn’t bad, if you don’t object to a complete lack of character.”

“I sleep with you, don’t I?”

“I have character, it’s just all rotten.”

“You said you wanted to get married.”

“Let’s go. You can finish that thing in the car.”

“You drank half the bottle. You’re too high to drive.”


Lissy giggled. “You just said bullshoot. Now that’s character!”

He stood up. “Come on, let’s go. It’s only five hundred miles to Reno. We can get married there in the morning.”

“You’re serious, aren’t you?”

“If you are.”

“Sit down.”

“You were testing me,” he said. “That’s not fair, now is it?”

“You’ve been so worried all day. I wanted to see if it was about me – if you thought you’d made a terrible mistake.”

“We’ve made a mistake,” he said. “I was trying to fix it just now.”

“You think your dad is going to make it rough for you – ”


“ – for us because it might hurt him in the next election.”

He shook his head. “Not that. All right, maybe partly that. But he means it too. You don’t understand him.”

“I’ve got a father myself.”

“Not like mine. Ryan was almost grown up before he left Ireland. Taught by nuns and all that. Besides, I’ve got six older brothers and two sisters. You’re the oldest kid. Ryan’s probably at least fifteen years older than your folks.”

“Is that really his name? Ryan Neal?”

“His full name is Timothy Ryan Neal, the same as mine. I’m Timothy, Junior. He used Ryan when he went into politics because there was another Tim Neal around then, and we’ve always called me Tim to get away from the Junior.”

“I’m going to call him Tim again, like the nuns must have when he was young. Big Tim. You’re Little Tim.”

“Okay with me. I don’t know if Big Tim is going to like it.”

Something was moving, it seemed, out where the sun had set. Something darker against the dark horizon.

“What made you Junior anyway? Usually it’s the oldest boy.”

“He didn’t want it, and would never let Mother do it. But she wanted to, and I was born during the Democratic convention that year.”

“He had to go, of course.”

“Yeah, he had to go, Lissy. If you don’t understand that, you don’t understand politics at all. They hoped I’d hold off for a few days, and what the hell, Mother’d had eight with no problems. Anyway he was used to it – he was the youngest of seven boys himself. So she got to call me what she wanted.”

“But then she died.” The words sounded thin and lonely against the pounding of the surf.

“Not because of that.”

Lissy upended the wine bottle; he saw her throat pulse three times. “Will I die because of that, Little Tim?”

“I don’t think so.” He tried to think of something gracious and comforting. “If we decide we want children, that’s the risk I have to take.”

“You have to take? Bullshoot.”

“That both of us have to take. Do you think it was easy for Ryan, raising nine kids by himself?”

“You love him, don’t you?”

“Sure I love him. He’s my father.”

“And now you think you might be ruining things for him. For my sake.”

“That’s not why I want us to be married, Lissy.”

She was staring into the flames; he was not certain she had even heard him. “Well, now I know why his pictures look so grim. So gaunt.”

He stood up again. “If you’re through eating . . .”

“You want to go back to the cabin? You can screw me right here on the beach – there’s nobody here but us.”

“I didn’t mean that.”

“Then why go in there and look at the walls? Out here we’ve got the fire and the ocean. The moon ought to be up pretty soon.”

“It would be warmer.”

“With just that dinky little kerosene stove? I’d rather sit here by the fire. In a minute I’m going to send you off to get me some more wood. You can run up to the cabin and get a shirt too if you want to.”

“I’m okay.”

“Traditional roles. Big Tim must have told you all about them. The woman has the babies and keeps the home fires burning. You’re not going to end up looking like him though, are you, Little Tim?”

“I suppose so. He used to look just like me.”


He nodded. “He had his picture taken just after he got into politics. He was running for ward committeeman, and he had a poster made. We’ve still got the picture, and it looks like me with a high collar and a funny hat.”

“She knew, didn’t she?” Lissy said. For a moment he did not understand what she meant. “Now go and get some more wood. Only don’t wear yourself out, because when you come back we’re going to take care of that little thing that’s bothering you, and we’re going to spend the night on the beach.”

When he came back she was asleep, but he woke her carrying her up to the beach cottage.

Next morning he woke up alone. He got up and showered and shaved, supposing that she had taken the car into town to get something for breakfast. He had filled the coffee pot and put it on before he looked out the shore-side window and saw the Triumph still waiting near the road.

There was nothing to be alarmed about, of course. She had awakened before he had and gone out for an early dip. He had done the same thing himself the morning before. The little patches of green cloth that were her bathing suit were hanging over the back of a rickety chair, but then they were still damp from last night. Who would want to put on a damp, clammy suit? She had gone in naked, just as he had.

He looked out the other window, wanting to see her splashing in the surf, waiting for him. The ship was there, closer now, rolling like a derelict. No smoke came from its clumsy funnel and no sails were set, but dark banners hung from its rigging. Then there was no ship, only wheeling gulls and the empty ocean. He called her name, but no one answered.

He put on his trunks and a jacket and went outside. A wind had smoothed the sand. The tide had come, obliterating their fire, reclaiming the driftwood he had gathered.

For two hours he walked up and down the beach, calling, telling himself there was nothing wrong. When he forced himself not to think of Lissy dead, he could only think of the headlines, the ninety seconds of ten o’clock news, how Ryan would look, how Pat – all his brothers – would look at him. And when he turned his mind from that, Lissy was dead again, her pale hair snarled with kelp as she rolled in the surf, green crabs feeding from her arms.

He got into the Triumph and drove to town. In the little brick station he sat beside the desk of a fat cop and told his story.

The fat cop said, “Kid, I can see why you want us to keep it quiet.”

Tim said nothing. There was a paperweight on the desk – a baseball of white glass.

“You probably think we’re out to get you, but we’re not. Tomorrow we’ll put out a missing persons report, but we don’t have to say anything about you or the senator in it, and we won’t.”


“We got to wait twenty-four hours, in case she should show up. That’s the law. But kid – ” The fat cop glanced at his notes.


“Right. Tim. She ain’t going to show up. You got to get yourself used to that.”

“She could be . . .” Without wanting to, he let it trail away.

“Where? You think she snuck off and went home? She could walk out to the road and hitch, but you say her stuff’s still there. Kidnapped? Nobody could have pulled her out of bed without waking you up. Did you kill her?”

“No!” Tears he could not hold back were streaming down his cheeks.

“Right. I’ve talked to you and I don’t think you did. But you’re the only one that could have. If her body washes up, we’ll have to look into that.”

Tim’s hands tightened on the wooden arms of the chair. The fat cop pushed a box of tissues across the desk.

“Unless it washes up, though, it’s just a missing person, okay? But she’s dead, kid, and you’re going to have to get used to it. Let me tell you what happened.” He cleared his throat.

“She got up while you were still asleep, probably about when it started to get light. She did just what you thought she did – went out for a nice refreshing swim before you woke up. She went out too far, and probably she got a cramp. The ocean’s cold as hell now. Maybe she yelled, but if she did she was too far out, and the waves covered it up. People think drowners holler like fire sirens, but they don’t – they don’t have that much air. Sometimes they don’t make any noise at all.”

Tim stared at the gleaming paperweight.

“The current here runs along the coast – you probably know that. Nobody ought to go swimming without somebody else around, but sometimes it seems like everybody does it. We lose a dozen or so a year. In maybe four or five cases we find them. That’s all.”

The beach cottage looked abandoned when he returned. He parked the Triumph and went inside and found the stove still burning, his coffee perked to tar. He took the pot outside, dumped the coffee, scrubbed the pot with beach sand and rinsed it with salt water. The ship, which had been invisible through the window of the cottage, was almost plain when he stood waist deep. He heaved the coffee pot back to shore and swam out some distance, but when he straightened up in the water, the ship was gone.

Back inside he made fresh coffee and packed Lissy’s things in her suitcase. When that was done, he drove into town again. Ryan was still in Washington, but Tim told his secretary where he was. “Just in case anybody reports me missing,” he said.

She laughed. “It must be pretty cold for swimming.”

“I like it,” he told her. “I want to have at least one more long swim.”

“All right, Tim. When he calls, I’ll let him know. Have a good time.”

“Wish me luck,” he said, and hung up. He got a hamburger and more coffee at a Jack-in-the-Box and went back to the cottage and walked a long way along the beach.

He had intended to sleep that night, but he did not. From time to time he got up and looked out the window at the ship, sometimes visible by moonlight, sometimes only a dark presence in the lower night sky. When the first light of dawn came, he put on his trunks and went into the water.

For a mile or more, as well as he could estimate the distance, he could not see it. Then it was abruptly close, the long oars like the legs of a water spider, the funnel belching sparks against the still-dim sky, sparks that seemed to become new stars.

He swam faster then, knowing that if the ship vanished he would turn back and save himself, knowing too that if it only retreated before him, retreated forever, he would drown. It disappeared behind a cobalt wave, reappeared. He sprinted and grasped at the sea-slick shaft of an oar, and it was like touching a living being. Quite suddenly he stood on the deck, with no memory of how he came there.

Bare feet pattered on the planks, but he saw no crew. A dark flag lettered with strange script flapped aft, and some vague recollection of a tour of a naval ship with his father years before made him touch his forehead. There was a sound that might have been laughter or many other things. The captain’s cabin would be aft too, he thought. He went there, bracing himself against the wild roll, and found a door.

Inside, something black crouched upon a dais. “I’ve come for Lissy,” Tim said.

There was no reply, but a question hung in the air. He answered it almost without intending to. “I’m Timothy Ryan Neal, and I’ve come for Lissy. Give her back to me.”

A light, it seemed, dissolved the blackness. Cross-legged on the dais, a slender man in tweeds sucked at a long clay pipe. “It’s Irish, are ye?” he asked.

“American,” Tim said.

“With such a name? I don’t believe ye. Where’s yer feathers?”

“I want her back,” Tim said again.

“An’ if ye don’t get her?”

“Then I’ll tear this ship apart. You’ll have to kill me or take me too.”

“Spoken like a true son of the ould sod,” said the man in tweeds. He scratched a kitchen match on the sole of his boot and lit his pipe. “Sit down, will ye? I don’t fancy lookin’ up like that. It hurts me neck. Sit down, and ’tis possible we can strike an agreement.”

“This is crazy,” Tim said. “The whole thing is crazy.”

“It is that,” the man in tweeds replied. “An’ there’s much, much more comin’. Ye’d best brace for it, Tim me lad. Now sit down.”

There was a stout wooden chair behind Tim where the door had been. He sat. “Are you about to tell me you’re a leprechaun? I warn you, I won’t believe it.”

“Me? One o’ them scamperin’, thievin’, cobblin’, little misers? I’d sh