4,892 words


Back when I did the party circuit—I mean, when dinosaurs were walking the Earth, before you two were even around—the Caterwaul was always the big thing each year. Goddamn awful name it had. That was before they'd even put in any rules at all for the sensies, so there we'd go, all us party-parasites, all coked up on ten different things we'd done off-camera. Oh, I've done stuff that would turn you white. You didn't think this was age, did you?—so, there I am, I've got these stupid lenses in to turn my eyes all rainbow and I'm covered in some tribal chap's painting hobby, but I'm all normal underneath, since the viewers want thrills, not dysphoria. Most of them.

The first day, it's roasting—absolutely roasting, five minutes off the freak bus and I'm like a leaky pump. That was hottest year on record out of fifty. They'd come up with some plan for this giant bank of fans for the whole thing but I heard later that it got shut down when some snotty trustee's dog got sucked into one. So there I was sweating like a pig, and the Indian'd told me the stuff wouldn't come off but I found out pretty quick that he was a filthy liar. I sued him later but right then I had to find the world's biggest scratching post before the itch made me go insane. More insane—I hadn't taken much yet, but elucidamine and full-body itching don't go together well.

Somebody had a fire truck, something to do with those bonfires people kept setting, and as it turned out fire marshals don't like being bribed... or when someone tries to turn on one of their pumps. I was too itchy to feel stupid once I lost the ones who tried to chase me into the Festival proper, past all the tents and settler-scaffolds the wannabes would put up around the outsides to try and feel like part of it. In the west quarter I tried to find this lovely girl who'd been teaching dolphins to play the underwater saxophone the year before, but she was gone and someone'd pulled out the tank and filled up the space with a bunch of yet-unburnt effigies of the League Parliament.

Oh, yes. Don't you go making those faces. This was back in the old days, before they really got the hooks in, and the Caterwaul all started from the shitheads the Burners kicked out because they wouldn't clean after themselves. So there I am wanting dolphins and enough dump-water to soak in, and instead I run into these giant angry puppets stomping around. So I started a nice round of screaming, with all my viewers egging me on, and I was about a half-inch from climbing up one of them and beating the driver to death with a spoon before this slip of a boy jumped out of the crowd and dumped a bucket of sand on my head. At the time I thought he was a girl, but the important thing was that the itching stopped, and at that moment I fell in love.

"Wigner's Friend"

Maryann was contemplating the nature of death when she realized there was another person in the room.

There was her uncle, of course, festooned in all the machinery of life. Pumps whirred, and machinery hummed, and electronic things beeped, and her uncle's chest rose and fell ever so slowly. He had been hearty once, and had wasted away in mockery of it, so that the broad lines of his face stood against the withered arms that protruded from his hospital gown.

Excluding him, though, there was a man sitting to the side, in one of the chairs she'd thought was empty but clearly wasn't. He was a cool dark pit of presence, unmoving but for the touch of his fingers against a hard-bound book in some logographic language foreign to her. He had to be, Maryann thought, her age or barely older, though at twenty he would barely be 'man' instead of 'boy'.

He wore a mourner's suit, double-breasted with ghostly chalk stripes, over a shirt so deeply blue or black it drank in the light like a glossy void over his heart. His tie was precisely the red of fresh blood, so distractingly so that for a moment she saw it as a great gaping wound, and that gave her a start that made her heart catch somewhere in her breast.

He looked very much, she thought as her breath recovered, like someone who had meant to be a poet or a mathematician but had accidentally become an undertaker. He was slender and not at all tall, and the suit gave him, a melancholic air, as did the way the room's lights cast his shadow up behind him into the corner of the room.

He had round-rimmed shaded glasses, fitted very close to the face, that reminded faintly her of some movie or another and gave a note of unclarity to him. It took Maryann a moment or two to realize he had looked up at her through them, and before she could summon her composure he said: "You seemed to be busy thinking, and I didn't want to interrupt."

"Oh," she said. "How long have you been—?"

"Before you came in," he said. His voice was deep and placid.

Maryann looked him over, black-on-black with splash of red, and realized that he had been sitting there all along. Somehow in her thoughts of her uncle she and her eyes had drifted past him, a half an hour before. "Sorry," she said, without feeling, and without moving.

"It's all right," the man said. "I was... I only know him through work," he said, and he glanced at her uncle strung in the web of respiration that crowned the bed. "Not even really properly. My predecessor knew him better, but I've only just started and I'm already behind." There was a tightness at his mouth, and for a moment the coolness of his face looked like a hard-forged but brittle mask.

"Oh," Maryann said to fill the space. She looked away and wondered if she looked like that. She'd cried after the accident, and then not all for days, as thought the tears had just run out. There was a spring that had wound up in her and burst, and in its absence she had gone about the motions with all the fires damped and the curtains drawn.

The man set a tall black umbrella across his knees that Maryann hadn't noticed. "I felt like I had to visit," he said, with his thumbs gliding across it. "It wasn't fair. The old man just up and left everything and—" His voice rose and then he stopped himself, and took a breath in and let it out. "Sorry," he said, and he set the umbrella aside again as though he had only just noticed he was holding it. "I had to visit him first. Before he—well."

Maryann knew her uncle would die. It was inevitable, even for whatever miracle had left him intact enough for detritus that surrounded him to staple him to life. There was just too much gone. He would never wake again, they had told eher, and it would be another miracle if he ever breathed on his own. If the accident had happened differently, there might have been some hope, but that half-state had already been resolved: the box was open, and the cat was dead and only not yet buried.

Her heart was empty, but the tears began again. She found herself clutching a handkerchief to her face that the man held out. It wasn't black, or red, or an elegant bone-white she thought might suit him, but a lurid plaid that contrasted so sharply with his suit that her throat caught in hiccuping laughs that poured out between sobs. She crumped gradually against him. Only when she had poured herself out again did she recover the time he'd taken to offer his arm to her.

"Death sucks, doesn't it?" he said. Through the suit she felt no heartbeat, but he was warm like a banked fire, and she wanted so desperately to cling to him that she pulled herself away and sat, so abruptly that she almost fell. Some of his mask had peeled away, showing a tenseness at his eyebrows that almost made hers ache. "I think that," he said, "and then I see him, and..."

"It's not fair," Maryann said. She stared at the floor, with the handkerchief clutched between damp fingers. She still felt empty, but her voice had almost cracked. There was some word she couldn't remember, when the left brain and the right acted out of unison, and she wondered if she had developed that condition all at once, and the thought was so absurd that it gave her a kind of uncertain vertigo.

"If it was fair," the main said. "If it was fair," he repeated, after a long pause, and finally added: "If it was fair you'd deserve what you get. I don't think I'd like that very much."

"Then what's the point?" she asked.

"I'm still working on that," he said, with a half-hidden honesty in his voice that coaxed a choked laugh from Maryann. "I've never been very good with philosophy. The existentialists might be right, but they all talk too much. Books and books of—'life is what you make of it'."

"And death?" she said, and for a moment she hoped he'd have an answer that would still the shaking in her hands, and then she clamped that hope down tight before it could spread.

The man looked at her, and his lips pursed. "God shaped clay into a little speck of primordial slime and breathed into it," he said, and his expression drifted into unsureity. "About... four billion years ago, I think? Thus was life—brilliant little automatons, molecules copying themselves, all by accident. Or close enough to an accident, with everything after that little speck in the mud." His hand was on the grip of his umbrella, and he wobbled it back and forth balanced on its metal tip. "But it was never designed. It just was, that's all. And... and evolution cares about averages and children, not... people."

"That's a shit answer," Maryann said.

"It is," he said. "It's awful. It's just... when someone breaks, when someone breaks that far, you can't fix them. Not without things nobody's invented yet." His face sunk, and then he asked, very seriously but with a quirk at the edge of his mouth: "Do you think a dinosaur ever tried to play chess against Death?"

"What?" she said, and her eyebrows went up, and a bark of confused laughter escaped her lips.

"You know, the... pale face, hood..." The man gestured around his face, and for a moment she could picture his glasses as silvered circles under a dark mantle. "There's—"

"I've seen The Seventh Seal," Maryann said.

His eyebrows edged up behind his glasses. "Most people haven't," he said. "But do you think a dinosaur ever tried that? Or a gorilla, back before we clumsy man-creatures went trampling around on everything?"

She frowned at him and crossed her hands together on her lap. At some point she had slid forward on the chair, sitting nearly on the edge, and she sat back again. "Don't be stupid," she said.

"But that's the problem, isn't it?" he said. "If we were stupid, death would just be... death. We wouldn't think so much about it. We wouldn't have to know why."

"Elephants mourn their dead," Maryann said. Something in the conversation had set a faint ache at the back of her neck, though her heart was still empty. If she'd been able to bring herself to care, she would have started to find him annoying.

His thumb tapped against the grip of his umbrella. "But do they fear death?" he asked. "I've never talked to one. I'd like to, if I could learn the language. Do they grieve because the dead are dead, or do they grieve because the dead have departed for that undiscovered country?" He paused, and laid his head forward enough that Maryann saw a glint of blue eyes under the glasses. "Sorry. That's not very helpful. It's just... I think it's a very human thing to think about it so much."

"It doesn't really matter," Maryann said, and she looked at the broken frame of her uncle and then looked away, and cleared a tightness from her throat. "You can't win the game. You can just... drag it out for a while. And I don't—" Her voice drew into a deep shudder. With her eyes closed she could see her uncle slowly aging into dust, his eyes open with white-blind cataracts.

"It isn't fair," the man said. While she had her eyes closed he'd moved to stand by her uncle's bedside. "Either way. If you live forever there's always the chance of that... Methuselah, just waiting in the cave to die so soft rains can come. But death comes unlovely and so early to so many." He looked across at her, and in the light his glasses became dark pools set into his face in place of eyes, but his mouth was a thin line and not at all mysterious in the fragility of it. "If—if you could choose who would live or die, but not who would suffer, what would you do?"

Maryann considered that, and the clock up on the tip of the wall ticked slow. "I don't know," she said, and somehow it left her feeling very tired to think about. "I guess it's a philosopher thing, but I don't know how you'd decide which is right. You'd just have to... look at it, one at a time, maybe."

The man looked down at her uncle, and there was briefly a tiredness in the corners of his face that made him look as tired as she felt. "That's what most people say. I... I really should have known him better, before it came to this."

"Do you talk about death often?" Maryann said, and for a moment she wondered, because the man had never said what his work was. "It's not like it's your fault, anyway." That was the worst part of it. There wasn't anyone to point the finger at, except maybe her uncle himself, and he'd already received his punishment.

"It feels like it is," the man said. "'Logos is deeper than logic,' if you want the quote. It's a good one. Very pithy." He had his umbrella against his side like a cane, and with his other hand he reached to touch her uncle's forehead very gently. "It's not fair. Not at all." Machines began beeping in confused surprise. The shadows, Maryann saw, made the man's umbrella look very much like a sheathed sword.

"Why?" Maryann asked, and she turned her face, because when he looked at her the man's glasses were like dark pits set into his face, and the skin around his teeth was drawn unbearably tight and unhappy.

The wailing of the machines and electronics rose. The man stepped away from the bed, in a slow circle around Maryann something like fear or unsureity. Her body was leaden: to stand would have been a miracle of will. She was crying again, she faintly discovered by the wetness on her cheeks, when he spoke again.

"Someone has to do it," he said, finally. "I hope you're angry. I hope you are. I hope it gets better. I don't want to do this forever, you know?"

"Go," Maryann said, and she swallowed hard against the tears. "Please."

When the nurse shortly entered, Maryann was alone, with her thoughts on the nature of death, and with the body that had been her uncle.

"Meet Jane"

Meet Jane. Jane knows nothing of steely eyes or grinning teeth. Jane knows of her office, in a comfortable suite in an administrative park on the pastoral world of Trebicond. Jane knows nothing of Manticore as anything more than a region on a map a decade out of date; in fact, she knows very little of any world other than Trebicond, and has no particular desire to, because at two hundred she's very comfortable in her life with a nine-to-five routine, two cats, an on-again-off-again boyfriend who she inevitably breaks up with and then goes back to in a few months, and evenings with red wine and multilingual soap operas.

Jane is an enforcement asset deployment manager, which is not a military position, because the Solarian League has no military, simply administrative bureaus with enforcement arms. Because Jane's core job isn't one that's had any real work in at least half a millenium, the position has gradually accreted several other duties to fill the gap, and so the bulk of Jane's efforts to appear reasonably productive go towards internal performance reviews, revising old documentation, filling in for other managers, and so on. Nonetheless, because Jane likes to take at least a little pride in her job, she's actually read through most of the half-century-old manuals and training materials that have to do with actual enforcement asset deployment.

On Monday morning, the messaging system sends her a new alert. It takes her six hours to notice, and then another half hour to realize what it actually means. When she realizes she's actually going to deploy enforcement assets for the first time in her hundred and fifty years on the job, she's excited! By then it's time to clock out, though, so she goes home and feeds her cats and watches soap operas and vaguely dreams about manuals and training materials. She isn't military, after all. Jane doesn't think about war machines, about death and destruction, or about the hundreds of mostly automated bolthole worlds that churn out Battle Fleet ships from standardized century-old designs.

The next day, Jane reschedules three meetings and spends a half hour gossiping in the hallways about the news. She never mentions Manticore, because she's never heard of Manticore as anything more than a region on a map a decade out of date. Then she spends a few hours reviewing manuals. After a long lunch and a few drinks, she boots up software that hasn't been touched since she was a hundred and fifty-five and starts refamiliarizing herself with the old training. It takes her the rest of the work day to be reasonably sure she has a good idea what she's doing. At home, her ex-boyfriend is back from his latest trip, and they kiss and make up and he becomes her non-ex-boyfriend again and any thought of enforcement asset deployment leaves her head for the rest of the evening.

Over the rest of the week, Jane creates a deployment schedule, sends electronic paperwork to a dozen separate departments and dutifully files away the automated receipt responses, spreads unpleasant rumors about a coworker, draws in the current borders and wormhole nexi on the outdated maps and then recreates a deployment schedule, spends half a day at a seminar about process efficiency, celebrates a coworker's birthday, double-checks her second deployment schedule, re-reads and consults fourteen of the fifty-three manuals lining the bookshelves of her office, engages in a covert affair with the hunky fifty-year-old mailroom intern, and fills out all the secondary paperwork that gets sent to the eight-hundred-year-old vaults of Trebicond central filing.

On Friday morning, Jane clicks the confirmation button, and a fleet of five hundred automated superdreadnoughts is deployed to mercilessly destroy Manticoran industry and shipping. Jane spends the rest of the work day rereading the old manuals for nostalgia's sake and then going to a seminar about ergonomics in the workplace.

Jane consults her manuals. It takes a few hours, but she once she's distilled it down enough to understand as a pithy rule of thumb she feels quite enlightened. There are all sorts of sub-rules, as there usually are in these kinds of manuals, but the core of it is simple: if a deployment fails, double the deployment numbers and redeploy, then repeat as necessary.

Somewhere, a few shipping magnates are vaguely annoyed by the extra point-five percent export tax for the next year, automatically levied by automated customs processor programs. They have no idea where the money goes and already know that it will be near-impossible to find out. Still, it's just a part of doing business, and it's better than the insane instability of the Haven sector.

Somewhere, mostly automated bolthole worlds churn out tens of thousands of automated superdreadnoughts in response to Jane's deployment orders. The people who oversee the systems have no idea where the ships go, but are excited because the increased production and resulting increased staffing schedules have gotten them their first new office intern in five hundred years.

"Young Love and Vampires"

By the third week the girl had stopped coming to school, and the boy who liked her started to get worried. The teachers cared, a little, but they had too many students to focus on one. The parents said she was sick, the boy discovered when he began to pry and he was given the information to make him stop being such a bother. They were friends, he lied with bright-eyed eagerness that made him later want to go sulk in dark places, and couldn’t he at least take her homework to her? They were not exactly quick to allow him, but the permission came in time.

He had first seen her three weeks before, when her look had pinned him like a dissected frog from the other side of the fence. She was next door, at the copycat home that was green instead of blue, and she’d been leaning too far out a second-story window, and he’d waited for the inevitability of the fall. The sympathetic vertigo as she stared at him made him turn away, and when he looked back she was gone. He waited too long to see if it would return, and he was almost late to go to school, and even though it was the first day it did not bother him so much as it would have if he hadn’t seen her.

She wasn’t on the bus, but at school she was in his class, and she looked at him again like that. He had to bite his lip until his mouth went coppery to think for himself again. She watched the class, but she kept to the corner, in the back, near the radiator that everyone avoided because it kept that slice of the room desert-dry. Her name was something red and elegant, and she moved so carefully, never so much as bumping into a table or chair. And she skipped a day, and a few days, and she stopped coming, and he didn’t see her leaning out of a window again. He wanted to feel that vertigo again, tipping too far out over a twelve-foot drop in the cool morning air.

Knocking on the door made him want a mask and an orange bucket, because that’s what you did when you knocked on the doors of strangers. He thought he had the wrong house when the door opened, because the woman was shorter than him and she said something in a language he’d never heard of. She scowled fiercely at the books he held, taken from the girl’s desk at school, and stomped back inside. The door was still open. He felt queasy, again, and he paused on the doorstep. The woman did not look at all like the girl he liked, and he wondered if somehow he’d managed to rearrange the universe in his memory, so that the presence of her next door was something he’d invented to justify his sudden interest.

Keeping his shoes on a wooden floor made him feel strange and filthy. He tried to ignore what he would have sworn was the feel of grit in the treads scraping against the hardwood. The tiny old woman pointed at a set of stairs and said something he couldn’t understand. He thought it was an insult at first and then that blended into a strange and unpleasant self-doubt about it. How could he think that of someone he’d just met? The stairs were just like those in his house, but they were too steep anyway. He was climbing up the edge of a cliff, he was certain, to an Incan monastery carved into the side of a mountain, where the stairs would go past the vertical and he’d have to manage the last few yards with his fingertips in crevices of stone.

The second-story landing was disappointing. It was just like his own, but mirrored. The boy wondered where the temple guards and silver monkeys were. The door at the end of the hall was the only one that was closed. He knocked. The thin wood made it louder than he wanted, and he had to cough back embarrassment. He waited, and knocked again, too quickly. "Quiet,” the girl said with the door open, and the boy felt rubber-band pulled past the moment of it having opened. Her eyes were big and tired and not as sharp as that day she leaned out of the window.

He ended up in her room, sitting on the bed, and his thoughts lingered on the missed time in-between, when at some point the door had gotten closed and the girl in her loose-fitting nightdress had returned to the chair at her desk. His breath was tight and wheezy. He kept his eyes away, because letting them stay would have them focus all on her bare shoulders or legs. It was not, precisely, a completely unfamiliar feeling, but it was not something that had struck him ever so sharply before. He did not know what to call it, or he did, but the word was not one he would be comfortable using.

"I thought I could wait longer,” she was saying, and he had missed everything before that, and she was moving to sit next to him, and he dimly realized, like a light under a shade, that he’d dropped the books at some point. They were still in the hallway, in the rich light of the afternoon. The girl’s bedroom had the shades drawn. "I’m sorry,” she said, and then she was leaning against him, and his clothes felt altogether too tight. He couldn’t move, but he was falling as though from a great height. Her hands moved to his arms and traced up to the sleeves of his shirt and waited there. He tried to say something and it came out as a stammer, so she put a finger to his lips. He went silent.

Later, walking back across the yards to his own house where his parents would not be home for some number of hours, the scarf around his neck was not his own. It smelled like her and itched in the heat. He felt hypoxic and giddy and he had to lay down for a few minutes before he could gain his feet again enough to make his way back to his room. There he laid down again and stared at the ceiling. The little stippled dots made stereoscopic pictures when he crossed his eyes, and on the insides of his eyelids after looking at the light he saw phantom horses and strange shadows that he wasn’t afraid of anymore.

The scarf was wool and scratchy, and underneath his neck itched. It didn’t bother him so much. He wasn’t the kind of boy who had worn scarves very much, and not at all when the weather was warm, but he thought now that maybe he might change that. It would be worth it for her. Her hands had been very cold on his arms. He felt colder than he should. The next day, maybe, he would sit by that radiator that was always too hot, and he would be more comfortable than he had been.

He did his homework, and his parents didn’t comment when he wore a shirt buttoned up to the collar to dinner and didn’t bother to notice the sallowness around his eyes. The food was bland but he was hungrier than he had been, so he ate seconds and had dessert too. In his room again, he watched out the window with the shades half-drawn, but he didn’t see her. When sleep came, it tasted of salt and copper. In the morning, in the mirror he could see that the little razor cuts from the teeth the girl hadn’t had in class had started to heal. He’d still need the scarf.

She wasn’t on the bus, again, and the boy lingered outside longer than he should have, at home and at school. But she was in class when he arrived, sitting over in the corner away from everyone else, and he joined her. His stomach leapt and rolled. "...and I hope you did your homework,” she was saying, and he realized he hadn’t, and she laughed a little when she saw his face change. Her hand was warm when it touched his, in the long moment before the teacher arrived, and for a little while he didn’t think about the itching of his neck at all.