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edited by

Neil Clarke & Sean Wallace

Copyright © 2013 by Clarkesworld Magazine.

Cover art copyright © 2010 by Georgi Markov.

Ebook Design by Neil Clarke.

Wyrm Publishing


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

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

ISBN: 978-1-890464-21-9 (ebook)

ISBN: 978-1-890464-22-6 (trade paperback)

Visit Clarkesworld Magazine at:



Introduction by Neil Clarke

Between Two Dragons by Yoon Ha Lee

The Cull by Robert Reed

The Mermaids Singing Each to Each by Cat Rambo

Of Melei, of Ulthar by Gord Sellar

Night, in Dark Perfection by Richard Parks

The Grandmother-Granddaughter Conspiracy by Marissa Lingen

Brief Candle by Jason K. Chapman

All the King's Monsters by Megan Arkenberg

Torquing Vacuum by Jay Lake

The Language of the Whirlwind by Lavie Tidhar

A Sweet Calling by Tony Pi

Alone with Gandhari by Gord Sellar

The History Within Us by Matthew Kressel

January by Becca De La Rosa

Messenger by J.M. Sidorova

A Jar of Goodwill by Tobias S. Buckell

Futures in the Memories Market by Nina Kiriki Hoffman

My Father's Singularity by Brenda Cooper

Beach Blanket Spaceship by Sandra McDonald

The Association of the Dead by Rahul Kanakia

Spar by Kij Johnson

Paper Cradle by Stephen Gaskell

Thirteen Ways of Looking at Space/Time by Catherynne M. Valente

The Things by Peter Watts

Clarkesworld Citizens - Official Census

About Clarkesworld


Neil Clarke

This anthology collects all of the original fiction from Clarkesworld Magazine’s fourth year of publication.

When Clarkesworld Magazine first launched in October 2006, the odds were pretty good that we’d be out of business within two years. It wasn’t necessarily a reflection of our abilities; online magazines simply had notoriously short ; life expectancies back then. There were a lot of factors that led to that high turnover, one of which was that the climate was still a bit hostile, something we were lucky enough to see change over our first few years. Four years in, we had done more than merely survive. We had the honor of publishing our first Nebula Award-winning story, “Spar,” by Kij Johnson, and received the Hugo Award for Best Semiprozine.

Two years later, while attending the science fiction convention at which Clarkesworld was born, I experienced a near-fatal “widow-maker” heart attack. My doctors tell me that I was very lucky to have survived. It’s required some lifestyle changes and the implantation of a device in my chest (yes, I am now a cyborg editor), but I’m actually happier with my life than I’ve been in a long time.

Survival is cool. I highly recommend it.

I think you’ll like these stories too.

Neil Clarke

April 2013

PS. “Spar” is a very intense story and should not be read by children. Proceed with caution. Once read, you will never forget it.

Between Two Dragons

Yoon Ha Lee

One of the oldest tales we tell in Cho is of two dragons, twinborn and opposite in all desires. One dragon was as red as Earth, the other as blue as Heaven: day and night, fire and water, passion and calculation. They warred, as dragons do, and the universe was born of their battle.

We have never forgotten that we partake of both dragons, Earth and Heaven. Yet we are separate creatures with separate laws. It is why the twin dragons appear upon our national seal, separated by Man’s sinuous road. We live among the stars, but we remember our heritage.

One thing has not changed since the birth of the universe, however. There is still war.

Yen, you have to come back so I can tell you the beginning of your story. Everything is classified: every soldier unaccounted for, every starsail deployed far from home, every gram of shrapnel . . .every whisper that might have passed between us. Word of the last battle will come tomorrow, say the official news services, but we have heard the same thing for the last several days.

I promised I would tell no one, so instead I dream it over and over. I knew, when I began to work for the Ministry of Virtuous Thought, that people would fear me. I remind myself of this every time someone calls me a woman with no more heart than a stone, despite the saying that a stone’s weeping is the most terrible of all.

You came to me after the invaders from Yamat had been driven off, despite the fall of Spinward Gate and the capital system’s long siege. I didn’t recognize you at first. Most of my clients use one of the government’s thousand false names, which exist for situations requiring discretion. Your appointment was like any other, made under one such.

Your face, though—I could hardly have failed to recognize your face. Few clients contact me in person, although I can’t help wanting to hear, face-to-face, why my patients must undergo the changes imposed on them.

Admiral Yen Shenar: You were an unassuming man, although your dark eyes suggested a certain taut energy, and you were no stranger to physical labor. I wished I were in such lean good health; morning exercise has never done much for me. But your drab civilian clothes and the absent white gun did nothing to disguise the fact that you were a soldier. An admiral. A hero, even, in my office with its white walls and bland paintings of bamboo.

“Admiral,” I said, and stopped. How do you address the war hero of a war everyone knows will resume when the invaders catch their breath? I thought I knew what you wanted done. A former lover, a political rival, an inconvenience on the way up; the client has the clout to make someone disappear for a day and return as though nothing as changed, except it has. A habit of reverse-alphabetizing personal correspondence, a preference for Kir Jaengmi’s poetry over An Puna’s, a subversive fascination with foreign politics, excised or altered by my work. Sometimes only a favorite catchphrase or a preference for ginseng over green tea is changed, and the reprogramming serves as a warning once the patient encounters dissonance from family and acquaintances. Sometimes the person who returns is no longer recognizable. The setup can take months, depending on the compatibility of available data with preset models, but the reprogramming itself only takes hours.

So here you were, Admiral Yen Shenar. Surely you were rising in influence, with the attendant infelicities. It disappointed me to see you, but only a little. I could guess some of your targets.

“There’s no need for formality, madam,” you said, correctly interpreting my silence as a loss for words. “You’ve dealt with more influential people in your time, I’m sure.” Your smile was wry, but suggested despair.

I thought I understood that, too. “Who is the target?”

The despair sharpened, and everything changed. “Myself. I want to be expunged, like a thrall. I’m told it’s easier with a willing subject.”

“Heaven and Earth, you can’t be serious.”

The walls were suddenly too spare, too white.

I wondered why you didn’t do the obvious thing and intrigue against Admiral Wan Kun, or indeed the others in court who considered your growing renown a threat. No surprise: the current dynasty had been founded by a usurper-general, and ever since, the court has regarded generals and admirals with suspicion. We may despise the Yamachin, but they are consummate warriors, and they would never have been so frightened by the specter of a coup as to sequester their generals at the capital, preventing them from training with the troops they commanded on paper. We revere scholars. They have their sages, but soldiers are the ones they truly respect.

“Madam,” you said, “I am only asking you to do what the ministry will ask of another programmer a few days from now. It doesn’t matter what battles one wins in the deeps of space if one can’t keep out of political trouble. Even if we all know the Yamachin will return once they’ve played out this farce of negotiations . . . ”

You wanted me to destroy the man you were, but in a manner of your choosing and not your rivals’, all for the sake of saving Cho in times to come. This meant preserving your military acumen so you might be of use when Yamat returned to ravage Cho. Only a man so damned sure of himself would have chanced it. But you had routed the Yamachin navy at Red Sun and Hawks Crossing with a pittance of Chosar casualties, and no one could forget how, in the war’s early hours, you risked your command by crossing into Admiral Wan Kun’s jurisdiction to rally the shattered defense at Heaven’s Gate.

“Admiral,” I said, “are you sure? The half-death”—that’s the kindest euphemism—“might leave you with no more wit than a broken cup, and all for nothing. It has never been a safe procedure.” I didn’t believe you would be disgraced in a matter of days, although it came to pass as you predicted.

You smiled at that, blackly amused. “When calamity lands on your shoulder, madam, I assure you that you’ll find it difficult to mistake for anything else.” A corner of your mouth curled. “I imagine you’ve seen death in darker forms than I have. I have killed from vast distances, but never up close. You are braver by far than I have ever been.”

You were wrong about me, Admiral Yen, even if the procedure is easier with a willing patient. With anyone else, I would have congratulated myself on a task swiftly and elegantly completed.

You know the rest of the story. When you tell it to me, I will give you the beginning that I stole from you, even at your bidding. Although others know our nation Cho as the Realm Between Two Dragons, vast Feng-Huang and warlike Yamat, our national emblem is the tiger, and men like you are tigers among men.

Sometimes I think that each night I spin the story to myself, a moment of memory will return to you, as if we were bound together by the chains of a children’s fable. I know better. There are villains every direction I look. I am one of them. If you do not return, all that will be left for me is to remember, over and over, how I destroyed the man you should have been, the man you were.

By the time we took him seriously, he was an old man: Tsehan, the chancellor-general of Yamat, and its ruler in truth. Ministers came and ministers went, but Tsehan watched from his unmoving seat in Yamat’s parliament, the hawk who perched above them all.

He was not a man without refinement, despite the popular depiction of him as a wizened tyrant, too feeble to lead the invasion himself and too fierce to leave Cho in peace. Tsehan loved fine things, as the diplomats attested. His reception hall was bright with luxuries: sculptures of light and parabolic mirrors, paintings on silk and bamboo strips, mosaics made from shattered ancient celadon. He served tea in cups whose designs of seasonal flowers and fractals shifted in response to the liquid’s temperature or acidity. “For the people of Yamat,” he said, but everyone knew these treasures were for Tsehan’s pleasure, not the people’s.

War had nurtured him all his life. His father was a soldier of the lowest rank, one more body flung into Yamat’s bloody and tumultuous politics. It is no small thing, in Yamat—a nation at least as class-conscious as our own—to rise from a captain’s aide to heir-apparent of Chancellor-General Oshozhi. Oshozhi succeeded in bringing Yamat with its many would-be warlords under unified rule, and he passed that rule on to Tsehan.

It should not have surprised us that, with the end of Yamat’s bloody civil wars, Tsehan would thirst for more. But Cho was a pearl too small for his pleasure. The chancellor-general wanted Feng-Huang, vastest of nations, jewel of the stars. And to reach Feng-Huang, he needed safe passage through Cho’s primary nexus. Feng-Huang had been our ally and protector for centuries, the culture whose civilization we modeled ours after. Betraying Feng-Huang to the Yamachin would have been like betraying ourselves.

Yamat had been stable for almost a decade under Tsehan’s leadership, but we had broken off regular diplomatic relations during its years of instability and massacre. We had grown accustomed to hearing about dissidents who vanished during lunch, crèches destroyed by rival politicians and generals, bombs hidden in shipments of maiden-faced orchids, and soldiers who trampled corpses but wept over fire-scored sculptures. Some of it might even have happened.

When Tsehan sent the starsail Hanei to ask for the presence of a Chosar delegation and our government acquiesced, few of us took notice. Less than a year after that, our indifference would be replaced by outrage over Yamat’s demands for an open road to our ally Feng-Huang. Tsehan was not a falling blossom after all, as one of our poets said, but a rising dragon.

In the dream, he knew his purpose. His heartbeat was the drum of war. He walked between Earth and Heaven, and his path was his own.

And waking—

He brushed the hair out of his eyes. His palms were sweaty. And he had a name, if not much else.

Yen Shenar, no longer admiral despite his many victories, raised his hand, took aim at the mirror, and fired.

But the mirror was no mirror, only the wall’s watching eyes. He was always under surveillance. It was a fact of life in the Garden of Tranquility, where political prisoners lived amid parameterized hallucinations. The premise was that rebellion, let alone escape, was unlikely when you couldn’t be sure if the person at the corner was a guard or the hallucination of a childhood friend who had died last year. He supposed he should be grateful that he hadn’t been executed outright, like so many who had rioted or protested the government’s policies, even those like himself who had been instrumental in defending Cho from the Yamachin invasion.

He had no gun in his hand, only the unflinching trajectory of his own thoughts. One more thing to add to his litany of grievances, although he was sure the list changed from day to day, hour to hour, when the hallucinations intensified. Sourly, he wished he could hallucinate a stylus, or a chisel with which to gouge the walls, whether they were walls or just air. He had never before had such appreciation for the importance of recordkeeping.

Yen began to jog, trusting the parameters would keep him from smashing into a corner, although such abrupt pain would almost be welcome. Air around him, metal beneath him. He navigated through the labyrinth of overgrown bamboo groves, the wings of unending arches, the spiral blossoms of distant galaxies glimpsed through cracked lattices. At times he thought the groves might be real.

They had imprisoned him behind Yen Shenar’s face, handicapped him with Yen Shenar’s dreams of stars and shapes moving in the vast darkness. They had made the mistake of thinking that he shared Yen Shenar’s thrall-like regard for the government. He was going to escape the Garden if it required him to break each bone to test its verity, uproot the bamboo, break Cho’s government at its foundations.

The war began earlier, but what we remember as its inception is Sang Han’s death at Heaven’s Gate. Even the Yamachin captain who led the advance honored Sang’s passing.

Heaven’s Gate is the outermost system bordering Yamat, known for the number of people who perished settling its most temperate world, and the starsails lost exploring its minor but treacherous nexus. The system was held by Commandant Sang Han, while the province as a whole remains under the protection of Admiral Wan Kun’s fleet. Wan Kun’s, not Yen Shenar’s; perhaps Heaven’s Gate was doomed from the start.

Although Admiral Wan Kun was inclined to dismiss the reports of Yamachin warsails as alarmism, the commandant knew better. Against protocol, he alerted Admiral Yen Shenar in the neighboring system, which almost saved us. It is bitter to realize that we could have held Cho against the invaders if we had been prepared for them when they first appeared.

The outpost station’s surviving logs report that Sang had one last dinner with his soldiers, passing the communal cup down the long tables. He joked with them about the hundred non-culinary uses for rice. Then he warned the leading Yamachin warsail, Hanei, that passage through Cho to invade our ally Feng-Huang would not be forthcoming, whatever the delusion of Yamat’s chancellor-general.

Hanei and its escort responded by opening fire.

We are creatures of fire and water. We wither under a surfeit of light as readily as we wither beneath drowned hopes. When photons march soldier-fashion at an admiral’s bidding, people die.

When the Yamachin boarded the battlestation serving Heaven’s Gate, Sang awaited them. By then, the station was all but shattered, a fruit for the pressing. Sang’s eyes were shadowed by sleepless nights, his hair rumpled, his hands unsteady.

The Hanei’s captain, Sezhi Tomo, was the first to board the station. Cho’s border stations knew his name. In the coming years, we would learn every nuance of anger or determination in that soft, suave voice. Sezhi spoke our language, and in times past he had been greeted as one of us. His chancellor-general had demanded his experience in dealing with Cho, however, and so he arrived as an invader, not a guest.

“Commandant,” he said to Sang, “I ask you and your soldiers to stand down. There’s time yet for war to be averted. Surrender the white gun.” Sezhi must have been aware of the irony of his words. He knew, as most Yamachin apparently did not, that a Chosar officer’s white gun represented not only his rank but his loyalty to the nation. Its single shot is intended for suicide in dire straits.

“Sezhi-kan,” the commandant replied, addressing the other man by his Yamachin title, “it was too late when your chancellor-general set his eye upon Feng-Huang.” And when our government, faction-torn, failed to heed the diplomats’ warning of Tsehan’s ambitions; but he would not say that to a Yamachin. “It was too late when you opened fire on the station. I will not stand down.”

“Commandant,” said Sezhi even as his guards trained their rifles on Sang, “please. Heaven’s Gate is lost.” His voice dropped to a murmur. “Sang, it’s over. At least save yourself and the people who are still alive.”

Small courtesies have power. In the records that made it out of Heaven’s Gate, we see the temptation that sweeps over the commandant’s face as he holds Sezhi’s gaze. We see the moment when he decides that he won’t break eye contact to look around at his haggard soldiers, and the moment when temptation breaks its grasp.

Oh, yes: the cameras were transmitting to all the relays, with no thought as to who might be eavesdropping.

“I will surrender the white gun,” Sang said, “when you take it from me. Dying is easier than letting you pass.”

Sezhi’s face held no more expression than night inside a nexus. “Then take it I shall. Gentlemen.”

The commandant drew the white gun from its holster, keeping it at all times aimed at the floor. He was right-handed.

The first shot took off Sang’s right arm.

His face was white as the blood spurted. He knelt—or collapsed—to pick up the white gun with his left hand, but had no strength left to stand.

The second shot, from one of the soldiers behind Sezhi, took off his left arm.

It’s hard to tell whether shock finally caused Sang to slump as the soldiers’ next twelve bullets slammed into him. A few patriots believe that Sang was going to pick up the white gun with his teeth before he died, but never had the opportunity. But the blood is indisputable.

Sezhi Tomo, pale but dry-eyed, bowed over the commandant’s fallen body, lifting his hand from heart to lips: a Chosar salute, never a Yamachin one. Sezhi paid for that among his own troops.

And Yen—Admiral, through no fault of your own, you received the news too late to save the commandant. Heaven’s Gate, to our shame, fell in days.

There is no need to recount our losses to Yamat’s soldiers. Once their warsails had entered Cho’s local space, they showed what a generation of civil war does for one’s martial abilities. Our world-bound populations fell before them like summer leaves before winter winds. One general wrote, in a memorandum to the government, that “death walks the only road left to us.” The only hope was to stop them before they made planetfall, and we failed at that.

We asked Feng-Huang for aid, but Feng-Huang was suspicious of our failure to inform them earlier of Yamat’s imperial designs. So their warsail fleets and soldiers arrived too late to prevent the worst of the damage.

It must pain you to look at the starsail battles lost, which you could have won so readily. It is easy to scorn Admiral Wan Kun for not being the tactician you are, less adept at using the nexuses’ spacetime terrain to advantage. But what truly diminishes the man is the fact that he allowed rivalry to cloud his judgment. Instead of using his connections at court to disparage your victories and accuse you of treason, he could have helped unify the fractious factions in coming up with a strategy to defeat Yamat. Alas, he held a grudge against you for invading his jurisdiction at Heaven’s Gate without securing prior permission.

He never forgave you for eclipsing him. Even as he died in defeat, commanding the Chosar fleet that you had led so effectively, he must have been bitter. But they say this last battle at Yellow Splendor will decide everything. Forget his pettiness, Yen. He is gone, and it is no longer important.

“I have your file,” the man said to Yen Shenar. His dark blue uniform did not show any rank insignia, but there was a white gun in his holster. “I would appeal to your loyalty, but the programmer assigned to you noted that this was unlikely to succeed.”

“Then why are you here?” Yen said. They were in a room with high windows and paintings of carp. The guards had given him plain clothing, also in dark blue, a small improvement on the gray that all prisoners wore.

The man smiled. “Necessity,” he said. “Your military acumen is needed.”

“Perhaps the government should have considered that before they put me here,” Yen said.

“You speak as though the government were a unified entity.”

As if he could forget. The court’s inability to face in the same direction at the same time was legendary.

“You were not without allies, even then,” the man said.

Yen tipped his head up: he was not a short man, but the other was taller. “The government has a flawed understanding of ‘military acumen,’ you know.”

The man raised an eyebrow.

“It’s not just winning at baduk or other strategy games, or the ability to put starsails in pretty arrangements,” Yen said. “It is leadership; it is inspiring people, and knowing who is worth inspiring; it is honoring your ancestors with your service. And,” he added dryly, “it is knowing enough about court politics to avoid being put in the Garden, where your abilities do you no good.”

“People are the sum of their loyalties,” the man said. “You told me that once.”

“I’m expected to recognize you?”

“No,” the man said frankly. “I told them so. We all know how reprogramming works. There’s no hope of restoring what you were.” There was no particular emotion in his voice. “But they insisted that I try.”

“Tell me who you are.”

“You have no way of verifying the information,” the man said.

Yen laughed shortly. “I’m curious anyway.”

“I’m your nephew,” the man said. “My name wouldn’t mean anything to you.” At Yen’s scrutiny, he said, “You used to remark on how I take after my mother.”

“I’m surprised the government didn’t send me back to the Ministry of Virtuous Thought to ensure my cooperation anyway,” Yen said.

“They were afraid it would damage you beyond repair,” he said.

“Did the programmer tell them so?”

“I’ve only spoken to her once,” the man said.

This was the important part, and this supposed nephew of his didn’t even realize it. “Did she have anything else to say?”

The man studied him for a long moment, then nodded. “She said you are not the sum of your loyalties, you are the sum of your choices.”

“I did not choose to be here,” Yen said, because it would be expected of him, although it was not true. Presumably, given that he had known what the king’s decree was to be, he could have committed suicide or defected. He was a strategist now and had been a strategist then. This course of action had to have been chosen for a reason.

He realized now that the Yen Shenar of yesteryear might not have been a man willing to intrigue against his enemies, even where it would have saved him his command. But he had been ready to become one who would, even for the sake of a government that had been willing to discard his service.

The man was frowning. “Will you accept your reinstatement into the military?”

“Yes,” Yen said. “Yes.” He was the weapon that he had made of himself, in a life he remembered only through shadows and fissures. It was time to test his forging, to ensure that the government would never be in a position to trap him in the Garden again.

This is the story the way they are telling it now. I do not know how much of it to believe. Surely it is impossible that you outmatched the Yamachin fleet when it was five times the size of your own; surely it is impossible that over half the Yamachin starsails were destroyed or captured. But the royal historians say it is so.

There has been rejoicing in the temporary capital: red banners in every street, fragrant blossoms scattered at every doorway. Children play with starsails of folded paper, pretending to vanquish the Yamachin foe, and even the thralls have memorized the famous poem commemorating your victory at Yellow Splendor.

They say you will come home soon. I hope that is true.

But all I can think of is how, the one time I met you, you did not wear the white gun. I wonder if you wear it now.

for my parents, with additional thanks to Prof. Barry S. Strauss

About the Author

Yoon Ha Lee is an award-nominated Korean-American sf/f writer (mostly short stories) who majored in math and finds it a source of continual delight that math can be mined for sf/f story ideas. Her fiction has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Clarkesworld, Tor.com and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Her collection Conservation of Shadows will be published in 2013.

The Cull

Robert Reed

Smiles mean nothing here. Inside the station, everybody smiles. Optimism is the natural state of mind. But this particular smile is larger and brighter than usual, and it happens to be honest. The man grins at me while taking a slow and very deep breath, trying to infect me with his prurient joy. He has news, important enormous delightful news, and he relishes the chance to tell me what I can’t possibly know yet.

“What is it?” I ask.

“Orlando,” he says.

I don’t respond.

“That boy,” he says. “The brat—”

“What has Orlando done?”

“This time, he’s hurt a child.”

Surprise fills my face. My enduring smile is replaced with a concerned, suspicious grin. “Which child?”

“His sister.”

Compassion twists my features. “How badly?” I ask.

“She’s bleeding.”

I start to pick up my doctor’s case.

“Just a bad bloody nose. She’s going to be fine.” He doesn’t want me rushing off. The girl isn’t half as important as Orlando.

“When did this happen?”

“A few minutes ago.”

“He struck her?”

“Punched her with his fist.”

“You saw this?”


“Who were the witnesses?” I start to ask.

But he interrupts, explaining, “They were together in their quarters. Nobody else. Then there was a scream, and she was bleeding and crying. Several people saw her running into the hallway, holding her nose.”

I pick up the case anyway.

“She says he hit her. She says her brother is mean.”

Orlando has a well-earned reputation. But stealing and lying are lesser crimes compared to physical violence, particularly violence towards a small and very pretty three-year-old girl.

“What do the parents say?” I ask.

“Not very much. You can imagine.” In the small, intense politics of the station, this is an important man. But he looks at me warily, wondering if I will do what is obvious to him.

“I will talk to them,” I say.

“Of course.”

My clinic is a large room with three interior walls and a tall ceiling. The walls are padded, cutting the roar of blowing fans and aging machinery and the endless music of voices engaged in happy conversation. But when I step through the door, a strange, almost unheard-of quiet takes hold. Dozens of faces watch me, and nobody speaks. The black case rides in my most human hand, and I walk quickly, passing one old lady who turns to a grandchild, saying the word that everyone wants to hear.

“Cull,” she says.

I stop and look back at her.

My expression makes her flinch. But she attempts to straighten her back—impossible with her collapsing bones—and with that fearless certainty of creatures not long for this world, she says, “Oh, but you’ll have to cull the brat now. That’s the law. You haven’t any choice.”

A four-year-old stole the playmate’s favorite toy, and everybody assumed a case of boys being boys. No need for alarm, no need to forgive. And when he was seven and tricked that little girl out of her morning rations, it was easy to believe that one stern lecture from his otherwise sterling parents would do enough good. But lectures never helped, except to teach the troublemaker that he didn’t need the approval of others, and even when children avoided him, nothing changed. He was a loner, an outcast in the making. And more disturbing was how the adults would speak in front of him, talking openly about eradicating what was wrong with the world, and Orlando’s only response was to erupt into wild, mocking laughter.

His parents worried but for somewhat different reasons.

The mother was quick to blame herself. If she was the problem, then she could be the solution too. “I love Orlando,” she would say, trying to convince herself of her motherly adorations. “I just need to show my love more. Then I’ll make him understand. I will. He can’t keep acting this way. He can’t steal and lie. This won’t end well, if he doesn’t change.”

The father embraced several myths. Other children were the problem, gullible and silly, and they might even deserve what they got. Or his boy was testing boundaries, mastering his environment. But was either story good enough? If they didn’t convince, there was one final, best hope: He looked at me, adding winks to his smile. “Orlando’s a genius,” he claimed. “That’s the heart of our problem. Look at his test scores. Look what the teachers write. Humans and machines say the same thing: He’s practically exploding with promise.”

But there was more than test scores to consider. Observations and gut feelings from his teachers belied every exceptional mark. Orlando’s real genius was for making trouble. And it wasn’t just the larceny and mendacity. That boy could pick the best possible moment to say the worst possible words—flat alarming and awful statements crafted to test everybody’s happiness.

When he was eleven, Orlando leaped onto the cafeteria table, begging to be noticed. Most of the time he ignored other people, but on that day he drank in the nervous energies, waving arms while launching into a brief, polished speech about how there wasn’t enough food in the station. Starvation was everyone’s destiny. Except for the children whose parents were going to slit their throats and drink their thin blood and then fry up their scrawny little bodies. Those babies were the lucky ones, spared by the coming nightmares.

Dhaka is the mother. Nearly as pretty as her son, she held her baby daughter in her lap, shaking her head sadly. “I have no idea why he would say that. Where would that come from?”

The father tried to laugh. “It was a stupid joke. That’s all. We aren’t starving, not to death certainly, and the boy knows it. He’s just rattling cages.”

Dhaka dipped her head and sighed.

Houston is the father, and he can be tenacious when it comes to denying the obvious. “The boy is bored. That’s all.”

“How can Orlando be bored?” Dhaka asked. “The station was designed with children in mind. We’ve got the playground and an exercise yard. Every book ever written is waiting to be read, and he can play any game, and his AI teachers are always awake and ready to work with him. Or they could just talk to him. Even if he never plays with another child, he can keep very, very busy.”

The playground was shabby, and the exercise yard smelled of puke. And to keep people from dwelling too much on negative influences, a large portion of the digital library was misfiled, leaving it unavailable to ordinary citizens.

But Houston wanted to echo the praise. “No, the station is great. It is.” He straightened his back, giving his best effort at conviction. “Hell, this is the perfect life. For kids and for adults too.”

The station was a shit hole, but I tried keeping the focus on one difficult boy. “Believe what you wish,” I told them. “But Orlando is a disruption. And worse, he can be an agent of despair.”

“This is crap,” declared Houston.

With a doctor’s smooth, sorry voice, I said, “Chronic self-centeredness. If you want to give his affliction a name, that’s it.”

Dhaka sobbed and held her baby until the poor girl squirmed, and looking up asked the clinic’s ceiling, “What else can I do? Tell me, and I’ll help him. Whatever it takes.”

I pretended to think, but my ideas were uniformly grim.

Once again, Houston denied the problem. But he wasn’t quite as determined, and it was easy to see him achieving a truce with the possibilities. He wouldn’t agree to any diagnosis, but it was important to ask, “What about medicine?”

“Which medicines would you suggest?”

Dhaka felt at ease with the topic. “Tranquilizers,” she blurted.

A sedated boy couldn’t cheat or make people’s faces red. But he couldn’t be a productive citizen, not within this tiny, tightly orchestrated community.

“How about harder stuff?” Houston asked.

I leaned forward, staring at his eyes. “You must believe me. Sir. There are no drugs to treat this affliction or shots to make the brain immune to these impulses. And even if there were chemical tricks, the molecules would be complicated and I’d have to pull one of my synthesizers off its critical jobs, which as I’m sure you understand would be an enormous burden on every other patient.”

The parents sat back, blinking nervously. “If only this, if only that,” they were thinking to themselves.

It was Houston who finally spoke. “What are we talking about? If Orlando doesn’t improve, I mean.”

Two smart, scared adults watched me. I could offer a variety of appealing lies, but they wouldn’t help anybody. The station was ruled by happiness, so deeply engrained that only the doctor sees its pernicious effects. If I wasn’t blunt—if I diluted my words or my tone—these clever, joyous people were going to invent some ridiculous excuse not to believe me.

“This is your official warning,” I began.

Terror spoiled those beaming, optimistic faces. They didn’t want the word “cull.” Even the happiest soul would be crushed to hear that term linked to his oldest child. But then the baby decided she was famished, shattering the drama with her own self-possessed wailing. I decided not to say the word. Not yet. Dhaka held her daughter to her breast, and the two-time father smiled gamely, shaking his head while proudly admiring this perfect little angel that was his.

Not that a doctor can read thoughts, of course. But in so many ways, human beings are more transparent than glass.

Every station must have its doctor.

The first doctor was a collection of wetware and delicate machinery designed to serve deep-space astronauts. He was built because human doctors were too expensive, doing little most of the time while demanding space and oxygen and food. The modern doctor was essential because three Martian missions had failed, proving that no amount of training and pills could keep the best astronaut sane, much less happy. My ancestor knew all of tricks expected of an honorable physician: He could sew up a knife wound, prescribe an antipsychotic, and pluck the radiation-induced cancer out of pilot’s brain. But his most vital skill came from smart fingers implanted in every heroic brain—little slivers armed with sensors and electricity. A doctor can synthesize medicines, but more important is the cultivation of happiness and positive attitudes essential to every astronaut’s day.

I am the same machine, tweaked and improved a thousand ways but deeply tied to the men and women who first walked on Mars.

And this station can be regarded as a spaceship, overcrowded and stinking, every passenger facing demands on his patience and courage and simple human decency—one hundred and seventeen humans making a voyage that has already gone on too long, with no end in sight.

Today, almost everybody is bubbling with joy.

Carrying the ceremonial bag, I walk into the east hallway and past three open doors where people stand watch. I am expected. This is a huge moment in the hallway’s history, and nobody wants to miss it. My smile is polite. I say nothing, and my silence feels like dignity. There are some children, and they want to follow, but old hands grab and quiet voices say, “No.” Somebody sniffs back a tear or two. I look at the readouts, spotting the weeper among the closest signals. Add a little current to that mind, and the sorrow fades away.

Houston and Dhaka have shut their door. Every mood reaches out to me, except for the little girl’s: She won’t receive implants until her fifth birthday. If I act too soon, the surgery might fail in subtle ways.

No station door has a lock, but I knock politely, waiting a moment before coaxing them with their names. I guess that Houston will answer, and I am wrong. Orlando pushes the door into the hallway, showing off a broad beaming grin. He is irrepressibly happy, but never in the usual ways. I learned this long ago. The feel of his mind is different, and I don’t entirely understand why. But if emotions were colors, his color would always be darker and hotter than anyone else’s—like a wicked purple with the power to burn.

“Hello,” I say.

Dhaka sits with her daughter, a bloodied rag pressed against the sore nose. The other hand is stuck into the woman’s mouth, enduring the slow chewing of nervous teeth. Dhaka is sad. In her life, she has never felt this sorry and helpless. That’s why I aim a feeble current through her mind, and for no reason she can name, that black despair weakens slightly.

Houston is a worse threat. He decides to push between the boy and me, the shredded smile turning into a wicked grimace. He wants to hit. Free his impulses, and he would batter me with his fists, breaking fingers before the pain was too much. But that would mean a second culling. Besides, the enforced happiness keeps him rational enough to recognize the real source of this disaster. One hand and then other make fists, and he looks at Orlando with a begging expression, trying to find some route by which he can punish his child and not suffer the same fate.

“Sir,” I say. “Please, let me into your home.”

Dirty bunks and dirty clothes and a few lucky toys and little artifacts fill up the ugly little space. The poorest caveman in the darkest days of humanity would have had better quarters. Yet despite these miserable surroundings, this is where these people feel most comfortable.

Once more, I say, “Sir.”

Houston’s hands open. “Don’t,” he says.

I look at his children.

“I want to see,” I say.

What do I want to see? The parents glance at each other, not understanding.

“Your daughter,” I say. “She bumped her nose, I heard.”

“Yes,” Dhaka says.

Houston nods. “Bumped it, yeah.”

“Accidents happen.” That’s a useful cliché, and my personal favorite. I move past Houston while lowering myself. My face and the little girl’s face are at the same level. The bleeding is finished, and it never was bad. She sniffs to prove that she can breathe, and when I smile, her smile turns more genuine. She is suspicious, but she wants to believe that she can go back to her day.

“You bumped this, did you?”

She nods.

“Did Orlando hit you?”

She hesitates and then shakes her head. “No.”

“But others saw him hit you,” I say. “Just outside, in the hallway. He hit you with his foot.”

“No,” the girl says, finding the flaws in that tale. “In the house here. With his hand.”

Her parents nearly melt.

“Leave us,” I say. Then I make myself tall, my face above every head. “Dhaka. Houston. Take your daughter out of here.”

Giggling, Orlando asks, “What about me?”

I watch the adults. I watch him. Then it is just the two of us inside that filthy little room, and I put down my satchel and grab the boy by the head, squeezing hard enough that his eyes bug out.

“Shut the door,” I say.


“Shut it now.”

There was a thirty-year window where humans touched Mars and the asteroids and flew bracingly close to Venus and Mercury. Every successful mission had its doctor, and after serving the expedition to Vesta—the final deep-space mission—my lineage was put to work on the increasingly fragile earth. That’s when the earliest stations were being built: Huge complexes of sealed buildings and greenhouses and solar farms, recycling systems proved in space reclaiming water and trash. But instead of caring for small crews of highly trained specialists, the new doctors were called on to culture optimism in tens of thousands of ill-prepared citizens. Perhaps this is why each of those giant stations failed. Too many bodies meant too many variables. Inadequate planning and political turmoil proved to be decisive enemies. In the end, what survived were the small-scale, isolated stations. Purity and New Beginnings and The Three Cycles of Charm were burnt out shells, but a thousand obscure, nameless hamlets like mine passed into the next century, and then the next.

I am the last kind of doctor: A mock-human machine built to mimic the warmest, most trusted elements of caregivers, but with skills and codes recognizing what is best for my patient.

My patient is the station and the parts of its precious body.

This is what I am thinking when the boy smiles at his own hands. Only when he bolsters his courage with some dangerous thought can he look at me. Orlando is healthier than most fourteen year-olds—taller and stronger than one would expect, knowing his genetics and the daily ration. These are the blessings of being a gifted scavenger and thief. Through most of human history, that handsome, well-fed exterior would serve him well. But everybody knows his face already. That face smiles at me, and his mouth narrows, and he says, “I’m not scared.”

A man’s voice is beginning to emerge, and his shoulders promise an easy, increasingly dangerous strength.

“You don’t worry me,” he says, sounding perfectly honest. “Send me out of here. Cull me. I’ll just find a better place to live.”

There is no smile on my face. “Do you remember the last cull?”

“Old Syd. He got senile, started hitting people.”

“You were seven,” I say.

He nods, delight brightening the brown eyes. “You took him out the door and over the lake and left him there. The rats caught him, I heard. A day or two later, wasn’t it?”

“It was best,” I say.

And the boy agrees. “I’ve spent a lot of days outside,” he says. “I know the surface. I know how to survive. Terror tactics don’t work if your target refuses to be scared.”

“And you have another advantage,” I say. “Your survival kit is packed and waiting for you.”

Just slightly, Orlando flinches. Then with a skill that can only impress, he lies. He says, “I don’t know what you mean.”

“Two bags are buried in the lake. One has dried food, the other tools and the tarp that have gone missing in the last year.”

He says nothing, watching my eyes.

“No one else knows,” I tell him.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he says, the lie barely registering in his pulse and his breathing.

“The kit doesn’t matter,” I say. “Those thefts are old news.”

He says nothing.

I push my face close. “Nobody can hear us, Orlando.”

“How do you know?” he asks, holding his ground.

“I know where everybody is,” I explain. “There’s a lot of ambient noise, and I know exactly how deaf your parents are. Yes, they are standing in the hallway, on the other side of this door. But they’re scared and very sad, and they don’t want to hear what I am telling you. So they aren’t listening. They’ve never been so sick with worry, and that’s why I can tell you this, Orlando.”

“Tell me what?”

“I have a confession. Since you are a smart boy . . .a genius, if the truth is told . . .you might have suspected this already: My critical job as Doctor is to chemically feed happiness into every citizen in this station.”

“How do you do that?”

“Your fifth-year inoculations contained pseudo-worms and assorted chemosynthetic platforms. One injection leaves the brain laced with my agents, my most talented fingers.”

This is an official secret, and Orlando is being invited into the knowing circle. He recognizes the importance of the moment. Relaxing, he breathes and drops his shoulders, his pleasure matching that very smug grin.

“I knew it,” he says.

Maybe that is a lie, maybe not. I don’t need to look.

“This place is a stinking dump,” he says. “But everybody walks around singing. How crazy is that?”

“You don’t feel that way,” I say.

“Not most of the time.”

“And do you know why?”

He blinks. “Why?”

“I haven’t kept you happy like the others,” I say. “This is intentional. It has been my strategy for years. You are sane and sober while the others are neither, and I knew conflicts would arise. Some incident. Some excuse. This is a day both of us saw coming, and that’s why you stole those supplies, and that’s why I allowed it.”

The boy has never been happier.

“But you are mistaken too,” I add. “Marching alone across the world? No, that isn’t your fate, Orlando. You must believe me.”

He wants to believe. “What happens to me?” he whispers.

“Put on your outdoor clothes, please. Now. We need to walk past the lake and meet the others.”


“Dress while I explain,” I say.

The boy listens and dresses, and then he cannot move any longer. My answer takes him by surprise. I have never seen such a broad honest smile. One boot is on and untied, the other in his hands, and he is so happy that he cries, and that’s when my human hand reaches, one of those tears feeling my touch, slipping off the eye and the lash to form a perfect bead resting lightly on my least useful finger.

People fill the hallway, waiting. And everyone sees what he needs to see. The cool clean agent of decency takes the lead, quietly begging the others to step away, to leave them room. Behind the doctor walks the criminal, the scourge. Nothing about Orlando appears worried. He struts and flashes his grin, even when his parents fall in behind him. Dhaka sobs and moans and wraps her arms around her panting chest. Houston takes responsibility for the daughter, holding the little hand while staring at his son’s erect back, his face pinched and pained but the remnants of a thirty-year smile refusing to melt away.

Our audience follows us into the public plaza—a space of high ceilings and vibrant colors, the black rubber floor wearing to pieces in the high-traffic areas. More people wait there. The station’s entire population gathers, including three citizens that should be in bed. Everybody needs to see Orlando one last time, and he loves the attention. He shows them a cocky, smug creature, which is best. Which is my intention. Nobody is going to feel sorry for him. Nobody will ever miss him. This ridiculous image is what they will remember—a crazed man-child being led to his demise—and nobody will ache for what has been lost.

The station’s inner door stands open. Orlando passes me at the end, grabbing the filter mask and goggles from the peg wearing his name. But he doesn’t put them on. He has to look back at the others, throwing out one mocking laugh. Then his mother grabs him, and he endures her smothering hug while winking at his angry, sorrowful father.

He says to Houston, “It’ll be all right.”

“Come,” I say.

“Don’t worry about me,” the boy says.

Houston drops his eyes, saying nothing.

I pull the mask from Orlando’s hands, placing it over his careless mouth. But then he kneels, putting his face in front of his sister. Touching the nose and a last bit of dried blood, he tells that scared little girl, “It’s nothing. You’re better already. And be happy. Now you get three more bites every day.”

She backs away, panicked.

He stands and puts on the goggles, and after adjusting the straps until comfortable, he calls out to everybody, “What’s the delay? Let’s get this chore done.”

“Vesta,” he says.

There is one light. Mine. I spread the beam, giving us a good view of the path leading down to the lake. It is January and dark. My light hides whatever stars might be showing through the dust and clouds that cling to these mountains. It is a rare night, the air chilly enough to make breath visible. Orlando pulls the work gloves from his pocket, trying to keep his fingers warm. Then he repeats that magical word. “Vesta,” he says, turning and looking into the light. “Tell me again.”

“It’s an asteroid.”

“I know.”

“But the mission was unique,” I say. “A secret fleet of spacecraft was sent there along with the small official mission. There was a lot of cargo, and the one ship returned for no reason except to fool people. Their plan was to convince the world that the little world had been touched and then abandoned. That’s what gave the colonists time and peace enough to build what was needed.”

“A new living world,” he says, staring at my face, breathing hard through the increasingly filthy mask.

“Domed and powered by the endless sunlight, yes. They built reliable habitats with room for the children to explore and grow and new ships were built, and when the children were grown, they flew to new asteroids. That was the dream—a desperate last gambit to give humanity new homes.”

“Secret homes,” he says.

“Walk on,” I say. “You need to hurry.”

He believes me. Young legs push, almost running. Looking over his shoulder, he says, “And why the secrecy?”

“To keep it all safe. So the big earth stations didn’t launch desperate missions. So they didn’t try to pour too many bodies into that final lifeboat.”

“Sure they did,” Orlando says, as if he has worked out the problem for himself. “It was necessary. Yeah.”

“Three centuries have passed,” I say.

“A long time.”

“Twenty-nine asteroids are inhabited, partly or completely.”

“Shit. How many people total?”

He asked that same question before. Once again, I say, “I don’t know. The voices from the sky won’t tell me.”

“This is incredible.”

I touch his back with my human hand and then pull the hand back.

“Wonderful,” he says.

I remain silent.

“What about me?”

The trail flattens into sand and gravel packed smooth, and we step onto the lake’s surface. Last summer was long and exceptionally dry, leaving the top layers dry as old bone. But ten meters down is moisture, and thirty meters deep is water enough to last until the next good rain. Our feet make crunching sounds on the dry gravel. We walk and he slows, and that’s when I ask, “Where did you bury them?”

“My kits?”

“You might need them. It is a long walk.”

Orlando searches for his landmark—one of the access pipes, sealed and leading down to the water table. Once again he asks, “What about me?”

“Make one guess, son.”

He likes that word. “Son.” Reaching the correct pipe, he holds up the compass sewn to his sleeve, finding his bearings. “They want talented people,” he says. “Good smart sharp kids who can help them.”

I don’t have to say another word. He believed what I needed him to believe, which is why he left so easily. Everything was so much neater than people expected, and everybody but his parents is celebrating now. Yet this story is so promising and so lovely. I want to keep telling it, even when I know better. Every good lie comes from this desire—the relentless search for beauty and for hope.

“The Vestans,” I say. “They want smart minds, yes. But more than that, they want fresh genes to mix into their limited pool. They’re looking into the long future, saving as much of the old species as possible.”

“Sure,” the boy says. Then he laughs. “A girl. I’m going to get a girl.”

“Probably several.”

“These people must really want me.” He stops and squats. “Diving into the gravity well like this, burning so much fuel just to save me.”

“You must be worth it,” I agree.

With gloved hands, he starts to dig, flinging gravel up between his legs.

I stand to one side, supplying the light.

“Could you help me?” he asks.

“I can’t. My hands might be damaged.”

Orlando is in a generous mood. “I suppose so,” he allows, working faster. “The other people still need doctoring, I guess.”

I watch him, and I watch quite a lot more. My various antennae reach into the darkness, listening. Searching. I don’t often step outside, escaping the station’s shielded walls. But tonight’s sky is silent. Maybe it will stay this way for the rest of the winter, and maybe longer. The last several decades have grown quieter, the rare bits of radio noise thoroughly encoded. There might be dozens and hundreds of little stations scattered about the Arctic, each taking precautions, keeping their positions and resources hidden from raiders. Or maybe there is no one to talk to, even in code. Either way, I listen, and the boy digs until his hole is wide and hip-deep in the center. Then he straightens his back, saying, “That’s funny. The bags should be here.”

“Keep searching,” I urge.

Those words give him new energy. He shifts to his right and digs again, looking like an animal following a last desperate scent.

“Cull,” I say.

“What’s that?”

“Removing what weakens, making the whole stronger as a consequence. That’s what it means to cull.”

His arms slow, and he looks straight ahead.

“Humans cull, and worlds cull too,” I say.

Orlando sits back on the dry gravel. “Do you think maybe somebody moved my kit?”

“Perhaps it was stolen,” I agree.

Then he rises. “Well, I don’t really need it. How far is this walk?”

“Down the mountains, following this drainage,” I tell him.

“But if I’m so important, can’t they come meet me halfway?”

“They don’t want to get close and be seen,” I tell him. “They promised to be waiting where the old lake sits.”

The old lake was an open water reservoir, dry now for fifty years.

“I know that spot,” he says. “I can run all the way, no problem.”

I like my lie so much. So much. Humans living above our heads, comfortable and well fed, and thriving among them—essential and worshipped—a generation of doctors who aren’t consumed by every possible worry and hazard and the miserable future for their stations.

Orlando looks back at me. “I’ll wave. When I’m flying over your head, I’ll give you a big wave.”

“And I’ll watch for you,” I say.

Orlando turns away.

I lift my least-human hand, aiming for the back of his neck.

“What a day . . . ” he starts to say.

I drop him into the hole, and as I do with every cull and with every corpse delivered by natural causes, I cut open the skull. Before I kick the sand over the body, I pull out each of the pseudo-worms. I can’t make them anymore. I need to add them to my stockpile—a hoard that grows only larger with time.

About the Author

Robert Reed has had eleven novels published, starting with The Leeshore in 1987 and most recently with The Well of Stars in 2004. Since winning the first annual L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future contest in 1986 (under the pen name Robert Touzalin) and being a finalist for the John W. Campbell Award for best new writer in 1987, he has had over 200 shorter works published in a variety of magazines and anthologies. Eleven of those stories were published in his critically-acclaimed first collection, The Dragons of Springplace, in 1999. Twelve more stories appear in his second collection, The Cuckoo’s Boys [2005]. In addition to his success in the U.S., Reed has also been published in the U.K., Russia, Japan, Spain and in France, where a second (French-language) collection of nine of his shorter works, Chrysalide, was released in 2002. Bob has had stories appear in at least one of the annual “Year’s Best” anthologies in every year since 1992. Bob has received nominations for both the Nebula Award (nominated and voted upon by genre authors) and the Hugo Award (nominated and voted upon by fans), as well as numerous other literary awards (see Awards). He won his first Hugo Award for the 2006 novella “A Billion Eves.” He is currently working on a Great Ship trilogy for Prime Books, and of course, more short pieces.

The Mermaids Singing Each to Each

Cat Rambo

Niko leaned behind me in the cabin, raising his voice to be heard over the roar of engine and water, “When you Choose, which is it going to be? Boy or girl?”

I would have answered, if I thought it really mattered to him. But we were off shore by then, headed for the Lump, and he was just making conversation, knowing how long it would take us to get there. He didn’t care whether I’d be male or female, I’d still be his pal Lolo. I could feel the boat listening, but she knew I didn’t want her talking, that I’d turn her off if she went too far.

So I kept steering the Mary Magdalena and said I didn’t know, and it didn’t matter, unless we did manage to cash in on the Lump before the corp-strippers got there. After that we were silent again, and everything was just the engine rumble moving up through my feet. Jorge Felipe turned over in the hammock we’d managed to fit into the cabin, hammering the nails into the paneling to hang the hooks. He let out something that was either snore or fart or maybe both.

Jorge Felipe was the one who had found out about the Lump. It was four or five kilometers across, the guy who’d spotted it said. Four or five kilometers of prime debris floating in the ocean, bits of old plastic and wood and Dios knew what else, collected by the currents, amassed in a single spot. All salvageable, worth five new cents a pound. Within a week, the corp-stripper boats would be out there, disassembling it and shoveling all that money into company machines, company mouths.

But we were going to get there first, carve off a chunk, enough to pay us all off. I wanted to be able to Choose, and I couldn’t do that until I could pay the medical bill. Niko said he wasn’t saving for anything, but really he was—there’d be enough money that he could relax for a month and not worry about feeding his mother, his extended family.

Jorge Felipe just wanted out of Santo Nuevo. Any way he could escape our village was fine with him, and the first step in that was affording a ticket. He wanted to be out before storm season hit, when we’d all be living on whatever we could manage until a new crop of tourists bloomed in the spring.

Winter was lean times. Jorge Felipe, for all his placid snoring right now, feeling desperation’s bite. That’s why he was willing to cut me in, in exchange for use of the Mary Magdalena. Most of the time he didn’t have much to say to me. I gave him the creeps, I knew. He’d told Niko in order to have him tell me. But he didn’t have any other friends with boats capable of going out to carve off a chunk of the Lump and bring it in for salvage. And on my side of things, I thought he was petty and mean and dangerous. But he knew the Lump’s coordinates.

I tilted my head, listened to the engines, checking the rhythms to make sure everything was smooth. The familiar stutter of the water pump from behind me was nothing to worry about, or the way the ballaster coughed when it first switched on. I knew all the Mary Magdalena’s sounds. She’s old, but she works, and between the hydroengines and the solar panels, she manages to get along.

Sometimes I used to imagine crashing her on a reef and swimming away, leaving her to be covered with birdshit and seaweed, her voice lasting, pleading, as long as the batteries held out. Sometimes I used to imagine taking one of the little cutting lasers, chopping away everything but her defenseless brainbox, deep in the planking below the cabin, then severing its inputs one by one, leaving her alone. Sometimes I imagined worse things.

I inherited her from my uncle Fortunato. My uncle loved his boat like a woman, and she’d do things for him, stretch out the last bit of fuel, turn just a bit sharper, that she wouldn’t do for me or anyone else. Like an abandoned woman, pining for a lover who’d moved on. I could have the AI stripped down and retooled, re-imprint her, but I’d lose all her knowledge. Her ability to recognize me.

I’d left the cabin the way my uncle had it: his baseball cap hanging on the peg beside the doorway, his pin-up photos shellacked onto the paneling. Sometimes I thought about painting over the photos. But they reminded me of my uncle, reminded me not to forgive him. You would have thought they would have been enough, but maybe they just egged him on. Some people claim that’s how it goes with porn, more and more until a man can’t control himself.

I can’t say my experience has confirmed this.

Uncle Fortunato left me the Mary Magdalena from guilt, guilt about what he’d done, guilt that his niece had decided to go sexless, to put away all of that rather than live with being female. I was the first in the village to opt for the Choice, but not the first in the world by a long shot. It was fashionable by then, and a lot of celebrities were having it done to their children for “therapeutic reasons.” My grandmother, Mama Fig, said it was unnatural and against the Church’s law, and every priest in the islands came and talked to me. But they didn’t change my mind. There was a program funding it for survivors of sexual assault. That’s how I got it paid for, even though I wouldn’t tell them who did it.

I couldn’t have him punished. If they’d put him away, my grandmother would have lost her only means of support. But I could take myself out of his grasp by making myself unfuckable. Neuter. Neuter until I wanted to claim a gender. They didn’t tell me, though, that getting in was free, but getting out would cost. Cost a lot.

When I first heard he’d left the boat to me, I didn’t want her. I let her sit for two weeks gathering barnacles at dock before I went down.

I wouldn’t have ever gone, but the winter was driving me crazy. No work to be found, nothing to do but sit home with my grandmother and listen to her worry about her old friend’s children and her favorite soap opera’s plotlines.

When I did go to the Mary Magdalena, she didn’t speak until I came aboard. First I stood and looked at her. She’s not much, all told: boxy, thirty years out of date, a dumbboat once, tweaked into this century.

I used to imagine pouring acid on her deck, seeing it eat away with a hiss and a sizzle.

As I made my way up the gangplank, I could feel that easy sway beneath my feet. There’s nothing like being on a boat, and I closed my eyes just to feel the vertigo underfoot like a familiar friend’s hand on my elbow.

I used to imagine her torn apart by magnets, the bolts flying outward like being dismantled in a cartoon.

“Laura,” a speaker said, as though I hadn’t been gone for six years, as though she’d seen me every day in between. “Laura, where is your uncle?”

I used to imagine her disintegrated, torn apart into silent atoms.

“It’s not Laura anymore,” I said. “It’s Lolo. I’m gender neutral.”

“I don’t understand,” she said.

“You’ve got a Net connection,” I said. “Search around on “gender neutral” and “biomod operation.”

I wasn’t sure if the pause that came after that was for dramatic effect or whether she really was having trouble understanding the search parameters. Then she said, “Ah, I see. When did you do that?”

“Six years ago.”

“Where is your uncle?”

“Dead,” I said flatly. I hoped that machine intelligences could hurt and so I twisted the knife as far as I could. “Stabbed in a bar fight.”

Her voice always had the same flat affect, but I imagined/hoped I could hear sorrow and panic underneath. “Who owns me now?”

“I do. Just as long as it takes me to sell you.”

“You can’t, Laura.”

“Lolo. And I can.”

“The licenses to operate—the tourism, the sport-fishing, even the courier license—they won’t transfer to a new owner. They won’t pay much for a boat they can’t use.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” I said. “You’d fetch a decent amount as scrap.”

She paused again. “Keep me going, Lolo, and you can take in enough to keep yourself and Mama Fig going. Your uncle had ferrying contracts, and every season is good for at least a couple of trips with very cheap or eccentric tourists.”

She had grace enough not to push beyond that. I didn’t have much choice, and it was the only way to support my grandmother and myself month to month. With the Mary Magdalena, I was better off than Niko or Jorge Felipe by far. I could afford the occasional new shirt or record, rather than something scavenged.

At the end of a year, we’d reached an agreement. Most of the time now the boat knew better than to talk to me. She could have been with me everywhere. Button mikes gleamed along the front railing, in the john, even in the little lifeboat that hugged the side. But she stayed silent except in the cabin, where she would tell me depths, weather, water temperature. I told her which way to go. Businesslike and impersonal.

Niko went out on deck. I didn’t blame him. It was too warm in the cabin. I knew the Mary Magdalena would alert me if there was any trouble, but I liked to keep an eye on things.

Jorge Felipe stirred, stuck his head out over the hammock’s edge. His dark hair stuck out in all directions, like broken broom straws.

“Morning yet?” he rasped.

“Couple more hours.”

“Where’s Niko?”

“Went to smoke.”

He grunted. “Shit, it’s hot in here,” he said. He swung his legs out from under the blanket’s basketweave, thumped onto the floor. “We got soup left?”

“Thermos in the cupboard.”

Behind me the microwave beeped out protests as he thumbed its controls. The display was a steady, grainy green, showing me the surface far below the boat. Drifts and ridges. They said you could spot a wreck by the unnatural straightness of a line, the oddness of a corner. Unlikely, but it had been heard of, in that friend-of-a-cousin-of-a-neighbor’s sort of way.

“Heat me one,” I said.

“Soup or coffee?”

“Coffee,” I said, and he clanked another mug into the microwave.

Niko came into the doorway. “Mermaids out there,” he said. “Be careful if you swim.”

Jorge Felipe handed me my mug, so hot it almost bit into my skin as I cupped it.

“Fucking mermaids,” he said. “I hate them even worse than sharks. One tangled with my sister, almost killed her.”

“Everyone on the island’s tangled with your sister. I’m getting coffee and going back out,” Niko said, and did.

Jorge Felipe watched him go. “He’s fucking obsessed with those mermaids.”

Mermaids. Back before I was born, there were more tourists. There’s always tourists now, but not quite as many. Some of them came here specifically, even, for the beaches. Or for the cheap black-market bio-science. And one black-market bio-scientist specialized in making mermaids out of them.

They paid a lot for it, I guess. A moddie body that they could go swimming in, pretend like they were always sea creatures. It was very popular one year, Mama Fig said.

But the scientist, he wasn’t that good, or that thorough. Or maybe he didn’t understand all the implications of the DNA he was using. Some people said he did it deliberately.

Because mermaids lay eggs, hundreds at a time, at least that kind did. And the natural-born ones, they didn’t have human minds guiding them. They were like sharks—they ate, they killed, they ate. Most of the original human mermaids had gotten out when they found out that the seas were full of chemicals, or that instead of whale songs down there, they heard submarine sonar and boat signals. When the last few found out that they were spawning whether they liked it or not, they got out too. Supposedly one or two stayed, and now they live in the sea with their children, twice as mean as any of them.

I said, “Watch the display for me” and went up on deck. The sun was rising, slivers of gold and pink and blue in the east. It played over the gouges in the Mary Magdalena’s railing where I’d picked at it with a knife, like smallpox marks along the boat’s face.

Niko was watching the water. Light danced over it, intense and dazzling. Spray rode the wind, stinging the eyes. I licked salt from my drying lips.

“Where are you seeing them?” I asked.

He pointed, but I didn’t see anything at first. It took several moments to spot a flick of fins, the intercepted shadow as a wave rose and fell.

“You see them out this deep all the time,” I said. Niko hadn’t been out on the boat much. He got nauseous anywhere out past ten meters, but Jorge Felipe had enlisted him to coax me into cooperating, had supplied him with fancy anti-nausea patches. I looked sideways. One glistened like a chalky gill on the side of his neck.

“Yeah?” he said, staring at the water. He wasn’t watching me, so I looked at his face, trying to commit the details to memory. Trying to imagine him as a photograph. His jaw was a smooth line, shadowed with stubble. The hairs in front of his ears tangled in curls, started to corkscrew, blunted by sleep. He had long eyelashes, longer than mine. The sun tilted further up and the dazzle of light grew brighter, till it made my eyes hurt.

“Put on a hat,” I said to Niko. “Going to be hot and bad today.”

He nodded but stayed where he was. I started to say more, but shrugged and went back in. It was all the same to me. Still, when I saw his straw hat on the floor, I nudged it over to Jorge Felipe and said, “Take this out to Niko when you go.”

Looking out over the railing, I spotted the three corp ships long before we got to the Lump. For a moment I wondered why they were so spread out, and then I realized the Lump’s size. It was huge—kilometers wide. The ships were gathered around it, and their buzz boats were resting, wings spread out to recharge the solar panels.

They must have seen us around the same time. A buzz boat folded its wings, shadows spider-webbed with silver, and approached us. As it neared, I saw the Novagen logo on its side, on its occupant’s mirrored helmet.

“This is claimed salvage,” the logo-ed loudspeaker said.

I cupped my hands to shout back, “Salvage’s not claimed till you’ve got tethers on it. Unless you’re pulling in the whole thing, we’ve got a right to chew on it, too.”

“Claimed salvage,” the pilot repeated. He looked the Mary Magdalena up and down and curled his lip. Most of the time I liked her shitty, rundown look, but pride bristled briefly. “You want to be careful, kid. Accidents happen out here when freelancers get in the way.”

I knew they did. Corp ships liked to sink the competition, and they had a dozen different underhanded ways to do it.

Jorge Felipe said at my elbow, “Gonna let them chase us off?”

“No,” I said, but I nodded at the pilot and said, “Mary Magdalena, back us off.”

We moved round to the other side.

“What are you going to do?” Niko asked.

“We’re going to cut the engines and let the currents creating the Lump pull us into it,” I said. “They’re watching for engine activity. After it gets dark, they won’t notice us cutting. In the meantime, we’ll act like we’re fishing. Not even act, really.”

We broke out fishing gear. The mermaids had deserted us, and I hoped to find a decent school of something, bottom-feeders at least. But the murk around the Lump was lifeless. Plastic tendrils waved like uneasy weed, gobbling our hooks till the rods bent and bowed with each wave.

I wanted the corp ships to see our lines. Every hour, a buzz boat would whoosh by, going between two of the larger ships.

When the sun went down, I went below deck. The others followed. I studied the weather readout on the main console’s scratched metal flank.

It took longer than I thought, though. By the time we’d managed to cut our chunk free with the little lasers, draining the batteries, the sun was rising. Today was cloudier, and I blessed the fog. It’d make us harder to spot.

We worked like demons, throwing out hooks, cutting lumps free, tossing them into the cargo net. We looked for good stuff, electronics with precious metals that might be salvaged, good glass, bit of memorabilia that would sell on the Internet. Shellfish—we’d feed ourselves for a week out of this if nothing else. Two small yellow ducks bobbed in the wake of a bottle wire lacing. I picked them up, stuck them in my pocket.

“What was that?” Jorge Felipe at my elbow.

“What was what?” I was hauling in orange netting fringed with dead seaweed.

“What did you stick in your pocket?” His eyes tightened with suspicion.

I fished the ducks out of my pocket, held them out. “You want one?”

He paused, glancing at my pocket.

“Do you want to stick your hand in?” I said. I cocked my hip towards him. He was pissing me off.

He flushed. “No. Just remember—we split it all. You remember that.”

“I will.”

There’s an eagle, native to the islands, We call them brown-wings. Last year I’d seen Jorge Felipe dealing with docked tourists, holding one.

“Want to buy a bird?” he asked, sitting in his canoe looking up at the tan and gold and money-colored boat. He held it up.

“That’s an endangered species, son,” one tourist said. His face, sun-reddened, was getting redder.

Jorge looked at him, his eyes flat and expressionless. Then he reached out with the bird, pushed its head underwater for a moment, pulled it out squawking and thrashing.

The woman screeched. “Make him stop!”

“Want to buy a bird?” Jorge Felipe repeated.

They couldn’t throw him money fast enough. He let the brown-wing go and it flew away. He bought us all drinks that night, even me, but I kept seeing that flat look in his eyes. It made me wonder what would have happened if they’d refused.

By the time the buzz boats noticed us, we were underway. They could see what we had in tow and I had the Mary Magdalena monitoring their radio chatter.

But what I hoped was exactly what happened. We were small fry. We had a chunk bigger than I’d dared think, but that wasn’t even a thousandth of what they were chewing down. They could afford to let a few scavengers bite.

All right, I thought, and told the Mary Magdalena to set a course for home. The worst was over.

I didn’t realize how wrong I was.

Niko squatted on his heels near the engines, watching the play of sunlight over the trash caught in the haul net. It darkened the water, but you could barely see it, see bits of plastic and bottles and sea wrack submerged underneath the surface like an unspoken thought.

I went to my knees beside him. “What’s up?”

He stared at the water like he was waiting for it to tell him something.

“It’s quiet,” he said.

Jorge Felipe was atop of the cabin, playing his plastic accordion. His heels, black with dirt, were hooked under the rungs of the ladder. I’d let the plastic fray there, and bits bristled and splayed like an old toothbrush. His music echoed out across the water for kilometers, the only sound other than splash or mermaid whistle.

“Quiet,” I said, somewhere between statement and question.

“Gives you time to think.”

“Think about what?”

“I was born not too far from here.” He stared at the twitch and pluck in the sun-splattered water.


He turned to look at me. His eyes were chocolate and beer and cinnamon. “My mother said my dad was one of them.”

I frowned. “One of what?”

“A mermaid.”

I had to laugh. “She was pulling your leg. Mermaids can’t fuck humans.”

“Before he went into the water, idiot.”

“Huh,” I said. “And when he came out?”

“She said he never came out.”

“So you think he’s still there? Man, all those rich folks, once they learned that the water stank and glared, they gave up that life. If he didn’t come out, he’s dead.”

I was watching the trash close to us when I saw what had sparked this thought. The mermaids were back. They moved along the net’s edge. It shuddered as they tugged at it.

“What are they doing?” I asked.

“Picking at it,” Niko said. “I’ve been watching. They pick bits off. What for, I don’t know.”

“We didn’t see them around the Lump. Why now?”

Niko shrugged. “Maybe all that trash is too toxic for them. Maybe that’s why we didn’t see any fish near it either. Here it’s smaller. Tolerable.”

Jorge Felipe slid onto his heels on the deck.

“We need to drive them off,” he said, frowning at our payload.

“No,” Niko protested. “There’s just a few. They’re picking off the loose stuff that makes extra drag, anyhow. Might even speed us up.”

Jorge Felipe gave him a calculating look. The look he’d given the tourist. But all he said was, “All right. That changes, let me know.”

He walked away. We stood there, listening to the singing of the mermaids.

I thought about reaching out to take Niko’s hand, but what would it have accomplished? And what if he pulled away? Eventually I went back in to check our course.

By evening, the mermaids were so thick in the water that I could see our own Lump shrinking, dissolving like a tablet in water.

Jorge Felipe came out with his gun.

“No!” Niko said.

Jorge Felipe smiled. “If you don’t want me to shoot them, Niko, then they’re taking it off your share. You agree it’s mine, and I won’t touch a scale.”

“All right.”

“That’s not fair,” I objected. “He worked as hard as us pulling it in.”

Jorge Felipe aimed the gun at the water.

“It’s okay,” Niko told me.

I thought to myself that I’d split my share with him. I wouldn’t have enough for the Choice, but I’d be halfway. And Niko would owe me. That wouldn’t be a bad thing.

I knew what Choice I’d make. Niko liked boys. I liked Niko. A simple equation. That’s what the Choice is supposed to let you do. Pick the sex you want, when you want it. Not have it forced on you when you’re not ready.

The Mary Magdalena sees everything that goes on within range of her deck cameras. It shouldn’t have surprised me when I went back into the cabin and she said, “You like Niko, don’t you?”

“Shut up,” I said. I watched the display. The mermaids wavered on it like fleshy shadows.

“I don’t trust Jorge Felipe.”

“Neither do I. I still want you to shut up.”

“Lolo,” she said. “Will you ever forgive me for what happened?”

I reached over and switched her voice off.

Still, it surprised me when Jorge Felipe made his move. I’d switched on auto-pilot, decided to nap in the hammock. I woke up to find him fumbling through my clothes.

“What you pick up, huh? What did you find out in the water?” he hissed. His breath stank of old coffee and cigarettes and the tang of metal.

“I didn’t find anything,” I said, pushing him away.

“It’s true what they say, eh? No cock, no cunt.” His fingers rummaged.

I tried to shout but his other hand was over my mouth.

“We all want this money, eh?” he said. “But I need it. You can keep on being all freaky, mooning after Niko. And he can keep on his own loser path. Me, I’m getting out of here. But I figure you, you don’t want to be messed with. Your share, or I’m fucking you up worse than you are already.”

If I hadn’t turned off her voice, the Mary Magdalena would have warned me. But she hadn’t warned me before.

“Are you going to be good?” Jorge Felipe asked. I nodded. He released my mouth.

“No one’s going to sail with you, ever again.”

He laughed. “World’s a whoooooole lot bigger than this, freaky chicoca. Money’s going to buy me a ticket out.”

I remembered the gun. How far would he go in securing his ticket? “All right,” I said. My mouth tasted like the tobacco stains on his fingers.

His lips were hot on my ear. “Okay then, chicoca. Stay nice and I’ll be nice.”

I heard the door open and close as he left. Shaking, I untangled myself from the hammock and went to the steering console. I turned on the Mary Magdalena’s voice.

“You can’t trust him,” she said.

I laughed, panic’s edge in my voice. “No shit. Is there anyone I can trust?”

If she’d been a human, she might have said “me.”

Being a machine, she knew better. There was just silence.

When I was little, I loved the Mary Magdalena and being aboard her. I imagined she was my mother, that when Mami had died, she’d chosen not to go to heaven, had put her soul in the boat to look after me.

I loved my uncle too. He let me steer the boat, sitting on his lap, let me run around the deck checking lines and making sure the tack was clean, let me fish for sharks and rays. One time, coming home under the General Domingo Bridge, he pointed into the water.

At first it looked as though huge brown bubbles were coming up through the water. Then I realized it was rays, maybe a hundred, moving through the waves.

Going somewhere, I don’t know where.

He waited until I was thirteen. I don’t know why. I was as skinny and unformed that birthday as I had been the last day I was twelve. He took me out on the Mary Magdalena and waited until we were far out at sea.

He raped me. When he was done, he said if I reported it, he’d be put in jail. My grandmother would have no one to support her.

I applied for Free Agency the next day. I went to the clinic and told them what had been done. That it had been a stranger, and that I wanted to become Ungendered. They tried to talk me out of it. They’re legally obliged to, but I was adamant. So they did it, and for a few years I lived on the streets. Until they came and told me my uncle was dead. The Mary Magdalena, who had remained silent, was mine.

I could hear Jorge Felipe out on the deck, playing his accordion again. I wondered what Niko was doing. Watching the water.

“I don’t know what to do,” I said to myself. But the boat thought responded.

“You can’t trust him.”

“Tell me something I don’t know,” I said.

On the display. the mermaids’ fuzzy shadows intersected the garbage’s dim line. I wondered what they wanted, what they did with the plastic and cloth they pulled from us. I couldn’t imagine that anyone kept anything, deep in the sea, beyond the water in their gills and the blood in their veins.

When Jorge Felipe went in to make coffee, I squatted beside Niko. He was watching the mermaids still. I said, urgently, “Niko, Jorge Felipe may try something before we land. He wants your share and mine. He’d like the boat, too. He’s a greedy bastard.”

Niko stared into the water. “Do you think my dad’s out there?”

“Are you high?”

His pupils were big as flounders. There was a mug on the deck beside him. “Did Jorge Felipe bring that to you?”

“Yeah,” he said. He reached for it, but I threw the rest overboard.

“Get hold of yourself, Niko,” I said. “It could be life or death. We’ve got sixteen hours to go. He won’t try until we’re a few hours out. He’s lazy.”

I couldn’t tell whether or not I’d gotten through. His cheeks were angry from the sun. I went inside and grabbed my uncle’s old baseball hat, and took it out to him. He was dangling an arm over the side. I grabbed him, pulled him back.

“You’re going to get bit or dragged over,” I said. “Do you understand me?”

Jorge Felipe grinned out of the cabin. “Having a good time there, Niko? You wanna go visit dad, go splashy splashy?” He wiggled his fingers at Niko.

“Don’t say that!” I said. “Don’t listen to him, Niko.”

Something flapped in the water behind us and we all turned. A huge mermaid, half out of the water, pulling itself onto the trash’s mass. I couldn’t tell what it was trying to do—grab something? Mate with it?

The gun went off. The mermaid fell back as Niko yelled like he’d been shot. I turned, seeing the gun leveling on Niko, unable to do anything as it barked. He jerked, falling backward into the cargo net’s morass.

His hands beat the water like dying birds. Something pulled him under, maybe the mermaids, maybe just the net’s drag.

I tried to grab him, but Jorge Felipe’s hand was in my collar pulling me back with a painful blow to my throat. The hurt doubled me over, grabbing for breath through the bruise’s blaze.

“Too bad about Niko,” Jorge Felipe said. “But I need you to keep piloting. Go inside and stay out of trouble.” He pushed me towards the cabin and I stumbled into it, out of the wind and the sound of the water.

I stood, trying to catch my breath, my hands on the panels. I wondered if Niko had drowned quickly. I wondered if that was how Jorge Felipe intended to kill me. All around, the boat hummed and growled, mechanical sounds that had once felt as safe as being inside my mother’s womb.

I waited for her to say something, anything. Was she waiting for me to ask her help? Or did she know there was nothing she could do?

Underneath the hum, I could hear the mermaids singing, a whine that echoed through the metal, crept into the Mary Magdalena’s habitual drone.

When I said, “How much farther?” she didn’t pretend she didn’t understand the question.

“Fifteen hours, twenty minutes.”

“Any weapons on board I don’t know about?” I pictured my uncle having something, anything. A harpoon gun or a shark knife. Something wicked and deadly and masculine.

But she answered, “No.” The same flat voice she always used.

I could have wept then, but that was girlish. I was beyond that. I was the master of the Mary Magdalena. I would kill Jorge Felipe somehow, and avenge my friend.

How, I didn’t know.

Outside splashing, something caught in the netting. I pushed my way out the door as Jorge Felipe stared down into the water. I shoved my way past him, unsure for a moment whether or not he’d hinder me. Then his hands were beside me, helping me pull a gasping Niko onto the boat.

“Welcome back, man,” he said as Niko doubled over on hands and knees, spewing water and bile across the decking.

For a moment I thought, of course, everything would be fine. He’d reconsidered killing us. We’d pull into port, sell the cargo, give him the money and go our separate ways.

I saw him guessing at my thoughts. All he did was rest his hand on his gun and smile at me. He could see the fear come back, and it made him smile harder.

Behind me, Niko gasped and sputtered. There was another sound beside the hiss and slap of the waves. Mary Magdalena, whispering, whispering. What was she saying to him? What was going on in his head, what had he seen in his time underwater? Had the mermaids come and stared in his face, their eyes as blank as winter, his father there, driven mad by solipsism and sea song, looking at his son with no thoughts in his head at all?

I stood, Jorge Felipe looking at me. If I locked myself in the cabin, how long would it take him to break in? But he gestured me away as I stepped towards the door.

“Not now,” he said, and the regret in his tone was, I thought, for the time he’d have to spend at the wheel, awake, more than anything else.

She was whispering, still whispering, to Niko. Why hadn’t she warned me? She must have known what was brewing like a storm beneath the horizon. I couldn’t have been the first.

I started to turn to Jorge Felipe, Mary Magdalena’s voice buzzing under my nerves like a bad light bulb. Then weight shifting on the deck, Niko’s footprints squelching forward as he grabbed at Jorge Felipe, backpedaling until they fell together over the side in a boil of netting and mermaids.

In a fairytale, the mermaids would have brought Niko back to the surface while they held Jorge Felipe down below, gnawing at him with their sharp parrot beaks. In some stories, dolphins rescued drowning sailors, back when dolphins were still alive. And whales spoke to the fishing boats they swam beside, underneath clear-skied stars, in waters where no mermaids sang.

But instead no one surfaced. I turned the boat in great circles, spining the cargo net over and over again. Finally I told the Mary Magdalena to take us home. It had started to rain, the sullen sodden rain that means winter is at elbow’s length.

I took the yellow ducks out of my pocket and put them on the console. What did Jorge Felipe think I’d found? I stared at the display and the slow shift and fuzz of the earth’s bones, far below the cold water.

“What did you tell Niko?” I asked.

“I told him that his father would be killed if he didn’t defend him from Jorge Felipe. And I activated my ultrasonics. They acted on his nervous system.”

I shuddered. “That’s what I felt as well?”

“There should be no lasting effects.”

“Thanks,” I said. I stirred three sugar packets and powdered cream into my coffee. It was almost too hot to drink when it came out of the microwave, but I cupped it in my fingers, grateful for its heat.

I could have slept. But every time I laid down in the hammock, I smelled Jorge Felipe, and thought I heard him climbing out of the water.

Finally I went out and watched the water behind us. The Mary Magdalena played the radio for me, a soft salsa beat with no words I could understand. It began to rain, and I heard the sound of raindrops on the decking beside me, pattering on the plastic sheeting I drew over my head.

By the time I arrived back in port, the mermaids had plucked away all but a few tangles of seawrack from the netting. I’d be lucky to net the cost of a cup of coffee, let alone cover the fuel I’d used. Never mind. A few more seasons and I’d have the money I needed, if I was careful. If there were no disasters.

Neither body was there in the net. Perhaps Niko’s father had reclaimed him.

The wind and rain almost knocked me off the deck as I stared into the water. The green netting writhed like barely visible guilt in the darkness.

The Mary Magdalena called after me, as she had not dared in years. “Sleep well, Lolo. My regards to Grandma Fig.”

I stopped and half turned. I could barely see her lines through the driving rain.

Sometimes I used to imagine setting her on fire. Sometimes I used to imagine taking her out to a rift and drilling holes in the hull. Sometimes I used to imagine her smashed by waves, or an earthquake, or a great red bull stamping through the streets.

But the winter was long, and it would be lonely sitting at home with my grandmother. Lonelier than time at sea with her, haunted by the mermaids’ music.

“Good night, Mary Magdalena,” I said.

About the Author

Cat Rambo lives and writes beside eagle-haunted Lake Sammammish in the Pacific Northwest. She has had over two dozen stories published in venues that include Strange Horizons, Fantasy Magazine, and Chiaroscuro. Recently, her story “Magnificent Pigs” was short-listed for Best American Fantasy and will be reprinted in Best New Fantasy 2, while “The Surgeon’s Tale”, co-written with Jeff VanderMeer, was recommended by Locus and Tangent Online. She is a member of the writers’ groups Horrific Miscue and Codex. She holds an MA in fiction from the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars and was a member of the Clarion West class of 2005.

Of Melei, of Ulthar

Gord Sellar

Haunted went Melei that evening into the streets of Ulthar, haunted by what she had seen in the dream-voyage of the night before; desert fires burning distant across the dark and dusty plain, and an immense black silhouette of some enormous outcropping of rock rising up, upward into the sky to blot out the tiny flickering stars across half of the heavens. In a dream, too, had she heard voices echoing against the stone walls of buildings crammed together along narrow streets, voices laden with care and worry, crying her name out into the blackness of deepening night.

Her name—but not Melei, not that name she used in waking—had crouched in wait beneath her tongue; perhaps it was only natural, in the dreaming, in this other world, to be called something else. That name, strange in her mouth, cold and quivering when she nearly whispered it to herself, was hers. And why not? She was alone, she lived alone, and with nobody shared the secrets of her nocturnal voyages, for who would call her anything but mad . . . ?

So that awake, by the lengthening hours of that slow, still-warm autumn endlessness, Melei stalked the cozy, jumbled streets of Ulthar. Listlessly; suffering through a sunny afternoon as faraway gleam of dreamt flames in darkness, and the tempo of faint faraway cries and chanting, haunted her waking mind.

Cats—for in Ulthar, where there was one, there were ten—traipsed past in little dainty-footed troupes, eyeing her with the wary look of beings that glimpsed her dark secret as no human could. She yielded the road to them just as everyone in Ulthar did, occasionally stooping to rub one behind the ear. Briefly, just until its tail batted back against her elbow and it turned its head slightly before going on along its carefree, shiftless way. Always one with black and white patches, always with white paws, she knelt to touch those chiaroscuro beasts with the slightest hesitation only, with a trepidation she prayed nobody noticed, most of all the beasts themselves. And yet she was sure in her heart’s blood that they knew. They knew.

And then, round some corner would she follow the troupe of cats, and find a pack of soldiers standing together. Staring at her from behind grilled black faceplates. She would stop, as other citizens did not, and stare into those night-dark eyes, glimpse the dark folds of eyelids surrounding those bold orbs, and sigh gently and slowly to herself, for these people looked to her like the folk of her dreams, almost. Swarthy, yes, and smelling of exotic, perplexing spices. Beside them, in the street, as clouds drifted in overhead, over the tops of gods-haunted mountains, she took comfort in that strange aroma, the hint of myrrh and tehenna and cinnamon, the broad brown lips pursed stern. The foreign soldiers looked at this bold young woman with wonder, for none of Ulthar had done as she, pausing to gaze into their eyes with something like recognition, perhaps, or fascination, in their own.

Only Melei.

She gazed thus, for a few brief moments, upon these strange and ever-surly foreigners, as a wanderer sometimes, but only sometimes, looks upon the walls of the city where her people have dwelt since forgotten ages. In dreaming, she often had seen folk like these, sat at fires and eaten with them, sung songs she only half-understood, songs shared with that hopeful, dire world which filled her waking days with longing.

But no songs now. Instead, she whispered a word to them, a single word in her own language. One of them, in his fluted blue steel armor, shrugged slightly. They looked at one another, and then at her again, the expectation being that she would move on.

“Atal,” she asked them, a name, a single word so pathopoeic that the warriors could do nothing but ache from it, and she nodded her fair head past them, to a distant gate behind, up to the high temple carved from hillstone there, where ancient Atal was, in those days, thought still to linger. His image had been painted last as a priest in repose, feeble and centuries-worn Atal in white robes, shaven head resting upon a stone pillow; his eyes full of longing, staring up from the canvas. Melei had seen the picture in a public hall, gazed reverently on it for an hour while closing her eyes and opening them again, over and over until the image was stamped upon her mind perfectly, indelibly.

The soldiers only pursed their dark, broad lips harder and shook their heads. They nodded down the road. Not towards wherever Atal now was, if indeed the old priest lived still; these footmen of the new conqueror were directing her nowhere except away. Melei gazed upon them a moment more. What songs had they sung as boys? What games had they played amidst fires burning among the darkling foothills surrounding the great peaks of the south? Slowly, she turned and followed a quiet old striped tomcat away, along a gutter. But she heard them speak of her, then, to one another.

And then, suddenly, Ulthar was no longer tinged by her dreams, no longer dressed in that enchantment she had smuggled back from the world of her slumbering voyages. As the soldiers spoke with muted words at once utterly gibberish and completely familiar, she gave up on her earlier half-fancies that she might even have understood them, at least the sense in them, if only she could have heard their voices a little more clearly. It was a lie. They were not mystical creatures. They were quotidian men of muscle and sinew, and Ulthar was simply a holding in their masters’ empire.

And Melei longed for more.

She felt their eyes upon her as she wandered down the road, and round a corner, her eyes searching the sky for the first stars, that she might turn homeward and settle herself down to the repose and reverie that only sleep could bring her.

The black night-ocean roared beneath, broad and noisy with the lapping of waves that she could hear clear as children’s voices, so silently did she glide through the deep, familiar sepia that always preceded sunrise on these flights.

The ocean was new: often, she had soared above grasslands, occasionally among the buildings of a smog-choked city, but tonight, this dream-morning, she found herself above some expansive southern ocean. Below, from time to time, a lumbering darkness could be seen, spilling light from tiny windows, luminance far different from any reflection of the whole and simple face of the single crescent moon above her. These were windows in the hulls of lumbering ships that crawled across the ruined sea.

As sepia slowly burnt into orange with the coming of the morning sun, Melei spied the coast ahead. It was an immense and hideous metal graveyard, the hulls and decks of broken ships protruding from the sand, their bare bones laid out as if upon an examiner’s table. Among them gathered laboring men, already at work hauling enormous rusty chains and ruined slabs of metal ashore. The ships looked as if they had been hewn in half by some enormous, awful blade and left to bleed into the ocean. For the waters, too, were sullied here, stained black and putrid. The rancid stink of the waters wafted up into the air, and Melei gasped in stunned disbelief.

This was not the same site as she had visited in previous dream-flights, though the people shared the same dark hue of skin, wore the same resignation on their faces. A man beneath her dropped his load, a gargantuan link of chain slamming down onto his leg, and he collapsed upon the poisoned sand with a cry so loud she could hear it as she soared past.

It was exquisite, wrenching but enchanting. It was a place where mistakes mattered, and this was why Melei kept returning. Because this world was one of consequences and dire meanings, godless and hard and amazing. But this beach was not the precise place she sought. In Ulthar, Melei was a mere seamstress, a needle-girl who day in and day out walked the streets careful not to step in cat shit. But in this strange world, she found herself possessed of powers beyond anything a real person in Ulthar could have boasted in millennia. She could soar in the sky, and she could go anywhere.

And there was a place that she was seeking, these nights.

Below her, a fence surrounded an enormous tent village. Men shouted, and there was a violent clattering sound, and screams. She saw people running, people clothed in white that shone against their dark flesh. To Melei they were unspeakably beautiful in their terror. Running for their lives, panicked. She felt her tears welling up. Such awful lives; and yet they held onto them so desperately. What humbling beauty, what endless rapture, that beings could live that way, in a world so starved of magic and gods. It enchanted her, as she swooped down low enough to brush her fingertips against the tattered hems of a few of the dingy white shirts that ran long enough to reach down past the knees of the scrambling men and women.

Melei concentrated, and suddenly spun in the air, soaring now into the northwest. There was a city there that she had read of in secret books hidden in the drab tearooms of Ulthar, books only secret because nobody read them—for the denizens of Ulthar spoke only of the failed expeditions to unearth Kadath, old dead Kadath, and of gossip in the wracked court of Ulthar that was now under Southern rule. But Melei had read on fragile, forgotten pages of the wild tangled passage-roads that ran between the great grey monoliths of that old city on the coast, the city with the unbroken towers and the bridges and the streets laden with music and voices and wavering lights. Across an ocean, it lay: unutterably far by the standards of these folk; but for a dream-traveler, its bright roads and bustling noise lay within reach, if the will was strong.

If only she could find that strange and mystic polis . . . nobody had done so in aeons of dreaming, not in the lifetimes even of gods. The sky swallowed her, and she soared into it not lightly, but as an arrow soars toward its victim’s death: unstoppable, unabashed, and filled with the most resolute certainty imaginable.

Excrescences thick and strange rose from the drowned streets, wafting steamily up from broad, jagged-barred holes in the ground, and Melei swept down into the fog of the broken city. This was the place, but no longer the city of the pages, not the city about the magnificences of which had been whispered and scribbled out by dream-wanderers in ancient tomes long-lost. This polis had changed, its million secret details discarded like the flimsy skin of an ancient serpent drifting through the slow eternity of its being.

The city had, by some horrid magic or doom, been drowned, and slain. Ruined, its towering spirit smashed apart, the smithereens tossed into cold water and frozen away into bitter ice.

Here, a great library stood encrusted in ice that gleamed chill as diamonds in darkness; and before it, barges poled by men in thick woolen coats, shivering and calling out in their strange tongues, baleful cries. Old men and women gathered upon the library steps and huddled at its high windows as flakes of snow fell eno