Werewolves Are Bunk
and Other Stories
by Leo D. Orionis

Preface: Dreaming and Waking

Dry Spell
The Last Governor of Eden
The Gostak Distims the Doshes
The Lion Sleeps Tonight
Real People
Taddeusz And the Magic Fish
Ham Lett
Werewolves Are Bunk

Dreaming and Waking

Isaac Asimov wrote a huge number of books: science fiction, non fiction, guides to Shakespeare and the Bible and you name it, as well as thousands upon thousands of short stories, and a science column that ran in F&SF for many years. He also wrote a few poems. One of them, "I Just Make Them Up, See!" explained that no, he didn't drink, or use drugs to come up with stories, he just made them up.

For me, that's a skill that doesn't come easily. Give me a story idea, and I'm learning how to outline the plot, invent characters, and so forth. But most of my stories come to me in dreams. If I wake up right after I have what I call a "story dream", and the dream makes sense when examined by my awake mind, then I have the germ of a story. Usually, I get not only the events that occur in the dream, but the "backstory": the characters, and their lives up to that point. All I have to do is transcribe the dream, let the reader know about the background, and edit any inconsistencies.

The stories in this collection are probably unusual for me, because they're almost evenly divided between stories that came to me as dreams (4), and ones that did not (6). A couple of them, "Blerchies" and "Lion", I simply don't remember, after all these years, whether I dreamed them!

In the bigger picture, which includes all my stories, whether I've written them yet or not, I'm sure that the majority originated as dreams. So, for me, the trick isn't coming up with story ideas. It's doing the work of writing them out, and turning them into things worth reading. Now that I'm retired, that's how I'm spending my time.

I hope you enjoy my writing. Thank you for reading!—LDO

Dry Spell

The day was oiled brass in torchlight, the color of no rain yesterday, no rain today, and no rain tomorrow. The sun gloated over the dead yellow grass beside the heat-cracked roads, and sent a dog wind to blow the parched topsoil away with its smelly hot breath.

Inside the First National Bank it was a little cooler. A couple of big fans worked away at opposite ends of the lobby, one of them stirring the lank yellow hair of John Anders, the bank guard, whenever it swiveled in his direction. John just stood there in his grey and blue uniform in a kind of parade rest, as he did every day, nodding at the regulars when they came in. In a small town in the middle of nowhere, which Uppsala, Minnesota definitely was, all the customers were regulars.

Charley Karkkinen was the only customer in the bank just now. He stood at the table in the middle of the lobby, where the bank displayed the date and kept forms for the customers. Charley had his checkbook open and was doing calculations on the back of a deposit slip, trying to figure out how much he should draw on his account. The drought showed no signs of ending, but a farm gulps money all the time, drought or no.

The bank's front windows faced south on the east-west main drag, named, in a burst of originality typical of the town, Main Street. People driving through Uppsala saw that the Farmer's College was on College Avenue, the Museum of American Agriculture was on Museum Boulevard, and there just wasn't much else. One good smattering of houses, a restaurant and a gas station at each end of town (one serving northbound traffic, the other southbound), a single school for all the grades through high school, a hardware store, that was it. Mostly folks drove through without stopping.

A bit of glare reflecting from a car parked across the street made Charley move to the other side of the table, which made him aware of his surroundings again. "Temperatures in the 90's in the southern part of the state, and not a sign of rain," said the big radio in the tellers' area. "Boy, don't you just wish you could save up weather like this for one of our midwinter blizzards?"

"Turn off the damned radio!" Charley snapped.

"Sorry, Charley," said Tom Hensen, looking up from the paperwork on his desk. "Turn it off, Ben," the bank president said to the youngest of the three tellers behind the counter.

"But, sir!" said the recent high-school graduate. Like most of the town's largely-Scandinavian population, he was big: tall, burly, with heavy bones. Well suited for farming, or seafaring, or fighting, but a little restless for banking. The teller on his right, a Finnish brunette named Pirto Ahtonen, reached over and turned off the offending radio without a word. John Anders' daughter Kirsten, who was the third teller, didn't look up from her figures.

"You know better," said Hensen. "Don't make me sorry I hired you, Mr. Nilsson."

Ben Nilsson's face went white. Good, thought Charley; the last place we want carelessness is the bank. "No, sir," said the teller. "Won't happen again."

"Good, good," said Tom. Silence returned to the bank lobby, broken only by the creak of the fans, the buzzing of flies, and the scratch of pens.

The newspaper was dated Wednesday, August 10, 1932. Midwest folks were conservative. If the New York Times wanted to run "The fourth day before the Ides of August, 2685 A.U.C." under the Christian date, fine; but the readers of the Kansas City Star weren't interested. Nor were they willing to pay extra money for some fancy "news magazine" on slick paper. A plain old newspaper on plain old newsprint had been good enough for their fathers, and it was good enough for them.

Dick Kasten ignored the paper, with its headlines: "Russian Royal Family Feared Dead!" and "Chinese Peasants March On Peking" and "Congresswoman Seeks Liquor Ban". He had problems of his own, much closer to home. Right on the other side of his desk, in fact.

"Look, Georgia," he said, "if you're bored, why don't you interview someone whose cattle are being molested, or who hears a ghost train on old tracks? Why come up with this stuff?" He pushed the manila folder to the far edge of his heavy wooden desk, where she could pick it up and go away.

Georgia Corey did neither. "This is real, Dick. Didn't you look at the facts I gathered?"

Kasten leaned back. "It's going to take more than charts to convince me that some farmers in Minnesota can control the weather," he snorted. A sign on the wall behind him said:

Heat Doesn't Bother Me

It may kill me, but it doesn't bother me

True to his word, the red-faced newspaper chief ignored the sweat that made his forehead and bald spot shiny, and darkened his underarms.

"That's a conclusion," Georgia shot back. "I'm a reporter. That means I investigate, then I report. This," she said, tapping the folder, "needs investigation."

"And what is 'this'?" said Kasten.

"An area that suffers less from drought than anyplace else in the Midwest," Corey answered. "The farmers around Uppsala produce bigger crops, year after year, than anyone else. Drought takes longer to reduce their yields, and it ends sooner there than anywhere else. They even get rain, sometimes, when no one else has a cloud in the sky."

"Maybe they just have an aquifer under the town," the editor said. "Or maybe they're under some freak eddy in the jet stream. Either way, where's the story?"

"I don't know yet. But it's been going on for as long as there are records for the area. It's not just some trick of statistics."

"I just don't smell a story, Georgia," said Dick. "Sorry."

"Well, then, I have some vacation time piled up," Georgia reminded him. "I'd like to use it now, if you can spare me."

"Sure, I can spare you. And, Georgia, if you find something?"

"Yeah?" she said, as she picked up her folder.

"I still won't be interested," the editor said. His laughter followed her as she stalked out of his office.

"God, it's hot," whined Louise. Her straight black hair clung to her wet forehead. Her brown eyes, full of misery, were red-rimmed from dust.

"I know, baby," Frankie said patiently. He squinted through the windshield into the glare. Was that the turnoff for Uppsala?

"I wish it would rain," she said.

Frankie ran his right hand through his sweaty dark brown hair. "Too late now," he said. "If it'd rained in the last year my dad's farm wouldn't've folded, nor your pop's, and we wouldn't be on the way to California."

"I'm just so hot, honey." Louise sagged against the passenger-side door. Sweat made the blouse stick to her skinny body.

"Well, roll your window down."

"I did!"

"Back windows too?"


"Then we'll just have to be hot until we get hold of all that money," Frankie said. He shifted his heavy body, trying to find a position that would restore some feeling to his butt.

The green metal sign ahead said UPPSALA   65 MILES .

Energy from the stars fell upon the molecules in interstellar clouds, and was absorbed. Molecules combined and became more complex over time. Environments formed, where certain classes of molecules could persist; while others were broken down again by the radiation.

Sometimes, when the clouds were on the edges of solar systems, tidal forces would send them hurtling in towards the local sun. And sometimes there would be a small rocky planet near the sun; too small to retain the lighter elements, too hot to keep volatile compounds from boiling away.

Repeated impacts on the early atmosphere brought water, where little or none had existed; built oceans, even, given enough time. The water that steamed up, cooled down, poured over the angry rock and ran back to the seas leached elements from the crust, and enriched the ocean basins with them. But the water in the oceans wasn't pure even before that; the compounds formed on dust grains by starlight were already there.

Thus life began on planets around the universe; meanwhile, deep space saw evolution too. In the shadows of dust grains, in the interior spaces between lightly-packed particles, living beings unlike anything found on planets grew and changed. Some were simple forms; like star grass, they just grew. Mobile forms ate the static ones; star sheep, as it were. And some were predators; for every herd of star sheep, there was a star wolf.

"I'm sorry, Charley," Tom Hensen said. "I just can't approve a loan."

"What? But Tom, I need it! And you know I'm good for it." Charley sat in a chair by the bank president's desk and tried to keep his voice down. The First National was a small-town bank; even the boss didn't get a private office. Midwesteners didn't approve of bankers who put on airs.

"Sure, I know your word is good," Tom said. "And I know you're hurting from the drought. The trouble is, so's everyone else, and most of them are a lot worse off than you are."

"Hard to believe."

"Believe it, brother," Tom said. "You might lose part of your crop, and that's bad. But there are folks on my books who couldn't even put in a crop this year. Other folks saw all their soil blow away because they couldn't even keep grass alive to hold it. I have to think of the whole community. Bare is brotherless back," he said in Old Norse.

"Forever is the bond of brothers," Charley replied automatically, also in Old Norse. "But Tom," he continued, "what am I going to do?"

Tom held up a placating hand. "Just hang in there, Charley. Your account's not tapped out yet, and no drought lasts forever."

"Want to bet?" Charley said.

"If it was just you, I'd make you the loan in a shot," Tom said. "But we have to get everybody through this."

"Good luck with that!" Charley said.

"We'll make it," Tom said. "Meanwhile, if you're worried, do what I do."

"What's that?"

"Pray for bank robbers," the bank president said. Charley started to reply, but just then the front door of the bank opened.

In 1932, air travel was limited and expensive. Even if Georgia could have afforded a plane ticket, no airline went anywhere near Uppsala, Minnesota. She'd had a long drive over mile after mile of hot, dusty road. On top of that, she'd had to deal with way too many hick gas-station attendants who thought they could take advantage of her, just because she didn't have a man with her. Well, women'd had the right to vote for 60 years now, and this woman had a gun in her purse, if push came to shove.

It didn't help that the heat stripped her of most of the uniform of the modern woman. But it was too hot for armor, sartorial or otherwise. If she could've gotten by with shorts and t-shirts like most of the men she saw on the road, she'd gladly have done so. Even as it was, light-weight dress, uncovered hair, and legs without nylons did nothing to warn country louts to behave.

When she pulled up in front of the Uppsala newspaper's office, however, she was in full dress, complete with little cloth hat, nylons, and medium heels. If there'd been anyone around to see her climb out of the oven her car had become, she was certain they'd have been impressed.

The hour that followed was maddening. Ole Torvald, the editor of the Gazette that served Uppsala and the area around it, wouldn't cooperate. Gloria had expected surprise; if the Gazette had realized the story it had right under its collective nose, surely it would have published it. Therefore it hadn't put one and one together. But Torvald acted like she was a wild-eyed nut with a crazy idea, like Atlantis being real, or the Republicans winning a presidential election. He wouldn't even admit the clippings she had from his own newspaper were legitimate unless he compared them to the originals in his own files. The way he said that implied the likelihood of him spending time on it was somewhere between zero and zilch.

Somehow she managed to take her leave of him politely; always keep the door open for coming back, she'd learned. Then she stood next to her car (it was too hot to get in) and fumed for a few minutes.

But it was even too hot for fuming. She tried to think. Who else in this little town might know what was going on around here? Light from a glass window across the street stabbed at her. The bank! It had to loan money to the farmers, didn't it?

Georgia crossed the street to the bank, scarcely bothering to look for traffic first. The only thing moving was a beat-up blue clunker with a couple of kids in it, several blocks away.

Pointing Fox heard the falling star wailing, so he tracked it to its impact. The medicine man had seen lots of falling stars before, but he'd never heard one crying. He wanted to see what kind of ghost rode a star, so he rode along in the right direction, then ground-hitched his pony and continued the search on foot.

It was 1785 by the reckoning of the Europeans far to the south and east and west of Pointing Fox's people, but he'd never heard of them, and wouldn't have cared about their calendar if he had. The ponies that his people had were descended from horses that had escaped the intruders, but Pointing Fox didn't know that, either.

What he did know was that the black shapeless thing bubbling out around the edge of the fallen star wasn't natural. It was still crying, and he could see why. The bits that poked out boiled and shriveled up, like the flesh of an enemy being tortured with brands from a fire. Though it was night when Pointing Fox found the fallen star, it would seem that even starlight was too bright for the ghost-thing.

He poked at it with a curious finger. Then he screamed. The pain, as the ghost-thing sucked the life from his hand and arm, was beyond description, either in English or his own Athapascan language. Pointing Fox had danced the Sun Dance, where wooden skewers were inserted under the chest muscles, and the dancers, on tip-toes because of the ropes tied to the ends of the skewers and to the top of a great pole set in the ground, shuffled around and around until exhaustion made them fall and ripped the skewers out of their bodies.

This hurt worse than that.

Falling backwards broke the ghost-thing's touch and saved Pointing Fox's life, though he'd never have the use of that hand and arm again. He curled into a ball and sobbed. The ghost-thing, stronger with the life it had stolen from him, wailed also, a little louder than before.

The medicine man's first thought, when he picked himself up, was vengeance. He'd turn over the fallen star and let the ghost thing boil away!

But how? He'd have to do it one-handed, and if he stuck the fingers of his good hand under the edges of the rock, the ghost-thing would eat him alive.

Once Pointing Fox sat down to think, other possibilities than revenge began to come to him. If he could put the ghost-thing in a basket or bag, he could feed it dogs and other small animals to keep it alive, and use it against any enemies or challengers. He could be the greatest medicine man who ever lived, if he could tame the ghost-thing. He dumped the contents of his medicine pouch without a qualm. Holding it open with a long stick through one lace, he pushed it up to the meteor. "Come on, ghost-thing… Come on…" he said.

My my my, thought Charley Karkkinen, a confirmed bachelor, as the woman crossed the lobby. He'd never seen her before, so she must be from out of town; which the big-city costume of business dress with matching hat, purse, and shoes confirmed. He filled his eyes with her as she strode up to the little wooden barrier around Tom's desk area.

She looked at the two men by the desk with the brass placard that read "Tom Hensen, President" and addressed the one behind the desk. "Mr. Hensen?"

"Yes, Miss, how can I help you?" Tom answered.

"If I'm interrupting you gentlemen, I can wait, but I really would like to talk to you, Mr. Hensen."

"Well, that's my cue to leave, I guess," Charley said reluctantly. "My mother always said never make a lady wait." His reward was a dazzling smile.

The door of the bank slammed open. Two kids, hardly more than teenagers, plunged in from the searing brightness outside. They should have looked silly with their faded jeans and worn shirts, and the handkerchiefs tied over their noses. Instead they looked desperate. The guns they carried in their sweaty right hands looked like cannons.

"Hands up!" the boy shouted, sticking his black revolver right in the face of the bank guard. The girl cried "Hands up!" right behind him, standing in the door with the glare from outside shining around her, covering everyone else.

Everybody put their hands up: bank staff, customers, and the lady from out of town. The boy took John Anders' pistol, shoved it in his belt at the front, and took three quick steps back. Charley winced mentally, and hoped John hadn't taken the safety off before the kid reached him.

"Good," said the boy in a tough-guy voice. "Close the door, doll, before someone 'crost the street wonders why it's open."

"Good," he said again when the door was shut. He came over to the desk and kicked the little gate open. It slammed back against its hinges, and everyone jumped a little. "Which of you's the president?" he grinned.

"I am," said Tom.

"All right, Mr. Hensen," the boy said with a quick glance at the placard. "I'll tell you how it's gonna be. I want all you folks up against that wall over there, away from the front door and the vault, and then you're gonna open the vault for me."

"Whatever you say," Tom answered. Still with their hands up, the three tellers, the guard, and Hack Gunderson, the other customer in the bank, went where the boy had pointed. Charley touched the stranger lady on the shoulder, and led her over to the rest, while the girl with the gun watched them all anxiously.

"Sure you want to do this, son?" Tom asked calmly. Charley winced again. He understood why Hensen felt he had to ask, but he was likely to get his head blown off.

"Sure I'm sure!" the boy said. "Got no choice, do I? My dad's farm dried up and blew away, her dad's farm did the same, what else are we gonna do, starve?"

"Just want to make sure you've thought this through," the bank president said. "So far no one's been hurt and nothing's been stolen. If we were to sit down, you and I, might be the bank could help you. But once that vault's been opened," he said, and shrugged.

"I'd like to believe you, mister," the kid said. "But even this bank must have a lot of hard-up people it's carrying. I can't believe you'd add two more from out of town. No, just open the vault."

"All right, if you're sure," said Tom. "And the girl? She's right with you on this?"

"You bet I am," the girl called. "We're goin' to California and gettin' married!"

"Don't tell them anything!" the boy snapped.

"Don't worry about it, son," Tom said. "California's a big place. If you're set on it, I'd better get that vault open." He took a quick look around the bank lobby.

Charley did the same. Yes, everyone there was a member of the Brotherhood, which despite its name included women as well as men; except for the two would-be bank robbers, and the lady in the dress suit. He shifted his position slightly to place himself between her and the bank vault. The girl's gun swung to cover him. He held his hands a little higher and did his best to look harmless.

Tom Hensen pulled the vault door open, and blackness spilled out like a floodtide of ink, pouring over him and the kid. The boy screamed in fear and horror and pain.

"Frankie!" cried the girl, and ran to her boyfriend. The blackness engulfed her, and she screamed too. A shot rang out. There was no ugly whang! of ricochet, and the darkness ate the muzzle flash whole.

And then the blackness was on Charley, until it saw the Brotherhood brand on his chest, even through his shirt, and sheered off. The lady who'd come in just before the bank robbers was completely at its mercy; but Charley stood in front of her, with John Anders on his right and Ben Nilsson on his left. With a hungry sort of noise, that Charley heard only in his head, the blackness flowed back, recoiled from the sun coming through the window shades, and rushed back into the vault.

Tom Hensen slammed the vault door shut behind it, spun the dial, and looked down sadly at the shriveled grey stick figures that had been two living human beings. Then he called, "Everyone OK?"

The city lady was on the floor. For an icy moment Charley thought she'd been hit by the gunshot he'd heard, but Kirsten Anders was breaking a wakeup capsule under her nose. Pirto Ahtonen wrinkled her own nose at the smelling salts, looked up and said, "She'll be fine, Charley, stop worrying."

John went over to get his pistol back, a bit sheepishly. He knew it wasn't his job to stop bank robbers if they went after the vault, but the difference between his real function, and the one outsiders supposed, was sometimes an uneasy fit. He and Tom picked up the almost-weightless corpses and put them in the vault until after closing. Since Tom didn't say the release words as he opened the vault, nothing came rushing out or was visible this time.

The city lady sat up between Kirsten and Pirto. "What happened?" she said muzzily; then her face went white as she remembered.

"Don't faint again!" Charley said. He held out his hand. When she took it, he pulled her effortlessly to her feet, showing off a little. He was a working farmer, with the muscles to show for it.

She looked around. John was back at his post, the three tellers were returning to their desks, and Tom was opening the door for Hack Gunderson to leave. There was no sign that the bank robbers had ever existed. "What happened?" she said again. Her memories already seemed too fantastic to believe.

"Tell you over lunch?" Charley suggested.

"Why, yes," she said. She put a hand over her stomach and closed her eyes for a second. "Suddenly I'm starving! How did you know?"

Charley just held out his arm for her to take. At the door, Tom said politely, "Come again, Miss." She looked at him as if she couldn't decide whether he were crazy, or she was.

"Don't forget the car, Tom," Charley reminded him. Tom just smiled and said, "Have a nice lunch."

Outside the bank the lady stopped in surprise. "Why, it seems cooler," she said.

Charley looked up. The heat haze was gone, and the sky was blue again. White clouds were assembling, and a light breeze had started. He sniffed, then inhaled deeply. "Smells like rain's coming," he said with satisfaction.

"Rain?" said the lady. "Why, there's been no sign of rain for weeks and weeks!"

"More like months and months," Charley said, and led her down the street to Bekka Gunderson's diner. Inside, the decor was wooden tables covered with checkerboard white-and-red tablecloths, wooden chairs, and a wooden door that led to the kitchen. Bekka was placing a plate of meatloaf and potatoes and a big glass of milk in front of her brother as they entered. As Hack dug in, she patted him on one big shoulder, then came to meet them with a smile as they chose a table. Charley held a chair for his guest while Bekka put a menu in front of her, and another at the place across the table.

"Well? Give!" said the city lady, after Bekka left with their orders. "What's going on? What was that thing? And how come," she shuddered, "you and I are still alive?"

"OK, look—What's your name, anyway?"

"Oh—Georgia. Georgia Corey. I'm a reporter with the Kansas City Star."

Charley nodded. "Figured it was something like that. Pleased to meet you, Georgia. I'm Charley Karkkinen. I have a farm down the road a ways."

"Pleased to meet you, too, Charley. Now what's going on?"

"Well," said Charley.

The discouraged band of settlers roaming southern Minnesota in 1840 were mostly Swedes and Norwegians, with a few Danes and Finns thrown in. They'd been looking for lands a little less crowded than the thriving Scandinavian settlements further north. Minnesota and Scandinavia are a good match. Both have ferocious winters, both have numerous lakes carved by advancing and receding glaciers. And both had lots of game, at least in 1840. (2593 if you were Latin, but none of these farmers were, though the Latin movement was already 50 years old.)

But Teutonic Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, and ethnically-alien Finland and Estonia to their east, are surrounded by seas and the ocean, and never experience the kind of heat that southern Minnesota does, deep in the heart of a big continent. Swooning in the sun, they'd all but given up living in those parts, when a sharp-eyed Finn named Karkkinen spied a bit of greenery.

Pointing Fox's grandson was all alone. Settlers kept coming where his people were, for reasons the hunters didn't understand. This led to clashes between the bison-chasing nomads and the farmers. The ghost-thing was great for killing rivals and enemies within the tribe, but for open warfare in the bright daylight it was useless. Inevitably the Indians would have to move on. The fact that the land dried up and the farms failed after they left might have been some consolation to them, if they'd known.

Because they were nomads and hunters, the Athapascans had never realized that the ghost-thing breathed life and fertility into the land. As dung enriches the soil, or as a plant pours out oxygen, the star creature ate the sacrifices it was fed and made the climate and the soil better for farmers.

Limited by his culture, abandoned by his people, Pointing Fox's elderly grandson traded away the ghost-thing for whiskey, blankets, and a horse. Feeling like he'd been freed of a curse, he showed the settlers how to feed it, giving them the Athapascan words to set it free and bind it again, and the symbol which his grandfather had devised to mark things and people who must not be touched. As a dog can be trained by beating, the ghost-thing had been trained by Pointing Fox with fire and light. Thus he had a little revenge for his useless hand and arm.

"But that's horrible!" Georgia Corey said.

Charley Karkkinen sighed. "What is?" he said patiently.

Georgia looked at the big handsome man on the other side of the table and wondered what was wrong with him, that he could ask that. Before she could answer, Bekka came to their table.

"Hack says two died today?" she asked Charley.

"We saw it ourselves," Charley said.

Bekka bowed her head and said something Georgia didn't understand, then collected their empty plates. "Let me know when you're ready for pie," she smiled, and left.

"What did she say?" Georgia asked.

"May Father Odin receive them," Charley translated. "Likely he will; they went out fighting."

"Oh my God," Georgia said, more appalled than ever. "You're not even Christians?"

Charley looked at her a second, and decided to skip right over the blind assumptions in her "even." "Our ancestors were," he said, "but that was just to keep the King and his bishops from cutting their throats. Then, after they 'converted,' all the ones who didn't run away or sneak away in time were killed anyway. When the Reformation came and most of Scandinavia went Lutheran, we did too; we'd learned our lesson."

Georgia was clearly all at sea. Charley snorted. "You don't even know why we named this town Uppsala, do you?"

Georgia said, "It's a town in Sweden, isn't it?"

"It's a city in Sweden," Charley corrected her, "one of the oldest, home of one of the greatest universities of the North, and one of the greatest cathedrals, too."

"But before a few jarls got ambitious and decided they were kings, and used their armies to make everyone accept their rule and their Christ, Uppsala was the home of Frey."

"Frey," said Georgia. "One of the Norse gods?"

"The regent of the gods, the ruler of mankind," Charley said. "Not Odin, who was the grave god and the giver of runes; not Thor, though Thor was the defender of man; not even Baldur, whose death was winter and whose rebirth was spring; but Frey."

"I thought Frey was the fertility god," Georgia said, frowning as she tried to remember her college courses.

"He was," said Charley, nodding. "But gods, like people, can be many things. At Uppsala was Frey's Tree, a huge tree unlike any other, that was always green whatever the season. And in the branches of the Tree hung sacrifices to all the gods, but mostly to Frey."


"Great sacrifices," Charley said. "Cattle, and horses, and men."

Georgia's eyes were round with shock.

"Some were men condemned to death after being tried for murder, for rape followed by murder, for cowardice in battle. Those were the lesser sacrifices, worth little more than a cow or horse sacrificed by a rich man who could easily afford the loss. The greatest sacrifices were good men, of good reputation, in the prime of life, who offered themselves for the sake of their communities."

"They went willingly?"

"Some did; others were condemned criminals, as I said. But the foreign priests didn't ask; they just burned the Tree and the Temple to the ground, and built their own cathedral on the ashes. And the King's men handed them the torches to do it. The gods love free men, and the worshippers of the gods were potential rebels."

Georgia shook her head as if to clear it. "So you came to America," she said.

"Our ancestors did," Charley said, "bought the ghost-thing from the Indian, and founded Uppsala."

"And sacrifice people to that thing," Georgia said.

"No, we don't," said Charley.

"I was there, Charley," Georgia said.

It was the first time she'd used his name. Charley said, "Then you heard Tom Hensen trying to get the boy to give up the robbery, didn't you? He wasn't lying, you know. If they'd left the vault alone, we'd have taken them in and helped them out, though we can barely afford it."

"Instead you killed them," Georgia said.

"All we did was not get eaten," Charley said. "To that I plead guilty. And we kept you from getting eaten, too, Georgia."

"Thanks for that, anyway."

"Look," said Charley, "the problem is you're thinking the thing in the vault is evil. It's not. It's just a predator. When a dog casually kills a cat, is it evil? For that matter, do you have any idea how many small animals and birds a domestic cat kills? Take it from me, city girl, it's a lot."

"But a cat doesn't kill people."

"A big cat does, if you meet one in the wild. So will a bear, or any other predator who's large enough."

"But no one keeps a bear in a cage, and lets him loose to kill people."

"Plenty of people keep guard dogs," Charley said. "If a burglar breaks into your house, and the dog kills him, who's to blame? The dog, for being a dog? You, for keeping a dog? Or the burglar, who came to your house to steal from you, maybe with a gun?"

She had no quick answer. Charley sighed again. "Look," he said, "I'm guessing you came here because our crops grow so well, or because we get through dry spells so well."

Georgia said, "Why, yes. How did you know?"

"It's happened before," Charley said. "It's a kind of feedback, like the governors that keep steam engines from blowing themselves up."

"Feedback?" said Georgia, frowning.

"Sure," said Charley, ticking off points on his fingers as he spoke. "One, the thing in the vault makes the soil fertile and the weather good. In good years no one notices, but two, then a drought happens and the area dries up. Three, because of the thing in the vault, we weather the drought better than anyone else. So, four, someone gets desperate and comes here to rob the bank, and five, he gets eaten, which feeds the thing and renews the soil and the weather."

"And you folks don't suffer a bit!" Georgia said.

"Sure we do," Charley said, "we just don't suffer as much from a drought, because of our thing. But we still have to make a living, just like everybody else. In between bank robbers, we pool our money to buy livestock to feed the ghost-thing. And every time it feeds, it takes a little bit from us as well as the victim, which is why you and I and Hack were so hungry. Tom and John and the tellers are just as hungry, but they have to wait for their lunch breaks."

"So the drought makes this place stand out, because you aren't hurting as much as everyone else," Georgia said, wanting to make sure she had it right. "Then bank robbers come because your bank probably has more money in it than anybody else's. Then the thing in the vault eats them, which starts the whole cycle all over again."

"You got it," Charley said.

Georgia stood up, eyes blazing. "And how do you think you're going to stop me from telling this story and blowing your arrangement wide open?" she said, clutching her purse with the gun inside.

"What story?" Charley said, leaning back and looking up at her. Damn, she looked fine all lit up with righteous anger!

"What story?!!" Georgia said.

"The thing in the bank can't even be seen unless Tom Hensen says exactly the right words in an Indian language that probably isn't spoken anymore, and was probably never recorded. The bones of the bank robbers will be throughly destroyed, and the ashes safely disposed of, long before anyone can get here to look for them. Their car will be found, if it's found, somewhere between here and California, broken down or out of gas."

"Witnesses," said Georgia tautly.

Charley spread his hands. "Only you," he said. "No one in town saw anything. Nothing happened. Did those kids drive through here on their way west? Maybe so. We didn't see 'em, though."

"And I suppose it's just luck that your bank's never been robbed," Georgia said.

"Oh, it's been robbed a few times, by people who made a quick grab at the tellers' counter. Some of them even got away with it; not many, John stops most of them. But we have a very good vault. It's never been broken into, not even once."

Georgia began to make a bitter comment, then stopped. She turned around. The pattering noise was rain hitting the plate-glass window in the front of the restaurant. There was a rumble of thunder in the distance.

"And I suppose you can explain that, too," she said.

"Do I have to?" Charley said. "After all, no one can make it rain."

Georgia had stomped all the way to the door and had flung it open when Charley said, "The last reporter who came here looking for a story was Ole Torvald. You're lots prettier than he is."

"Torvald, the Gazette editor?" Georgia said, her hand still on the door knob. "I thought he was one of you."

"He is," Charley said. "But not when he first came here. And I hear he's looking for someone to take over the paper when he retires in a few years."

The cold wind, smelling of rain, blew Georgia's hair around her face. It was no colder than the disdain in her voice. "It'll be a cold day in Hell," she said.

Charley nodded. "It's always cold in the Norse Hel," he said.

The door slammed. Charley sighed, and said, "Let me have a slice of your apple pie, Bekka. Then I'd better get out to the farm and get back to work."

About this story

Copyright © 2003-2005 and 2018 by Green Sky Press. All rights reserved.


OK, maybe we were a little loud. Yeah, sure, we were a little drunk and rowdy, too.

But is that any reason to destroy the world?

A bunch of us are down at Tony's, which was a bar over by the wharfs—not the tourist piers, the real wharfs, where the workin' ships came in. Not that the distinction matters any more. And the bar itself is gone now, of course.

Anyway, we're sittin' there, knockin' back the drinks and shootin' the bull, when the Dude lets out a shriek. "A roach!" he says, pointin'.

Sure enough, there's a big ol' roach, maybe an inch long, sittin' on the pretzels and wavin' his feelers like he's sayin', "Well? What are you lookin' at, asshole?" And gettin' away with it, too, because no one wants to touch the filthy thing, and of course you can't just hit it with a shoe up on the bar in the middle of everyone's drinks and stuff.

So everybody's reactin'—Big Tom's makin' some joke, Dave's askin' Tony what kinda place he's runnin' here, Al—well, never mind. It says somethin' if I tell you it was the biggest excitement we'd had all night. It's not like roaches were rare at Tony's, or anywhere in dockside, come to that.

So I figure if I'm fast I can grab the dish, dump the whole thin' on the floor, stomp the bug, then pick up afterwards. I've just about worked up the nerve to do it, too (what if the thing runs up my sleeve?) when a voice says, " 'Scuse me," and a stranger reaches past me and grabs the roach with thumb and forefinger.

Everything stops. We all sit or stand frozen lookin' at this guy holdin' the roach in his bare hand like it's nothin', like he'd picked up a nickel or a beer nut. After lookin' at it a moment he shrugs and flips it over his shoulder, not botherin' to squash it or even lookin' to see where he's throwin' it. It lands on a table and skitters away, and you'd best believe the sailors sittin' there aren't pleased. They all swear, and one of them's gonna come over and punch out the stranger, only his buddies stop him.

The stranger doesn't look around or say "Sorry" or anything, he just picks up his beer and drinks some. Tony's busy throwin' out the pretzels and puttin' the dish in with the glasses to be washed, so I say to the stranger, "Don't you think you should wash your hands?"

The guy looks at me and for a second I think he's gonna get mad, then he turns it off and says, "Yeah, I guess," and puts his drink down, and goes into the john. The sailor who'd come closest to havin' the roach land in his beer stands up, and rounds up two of his buddies by eye, then Tony says, "Hey." They look at him, and he shakes his head, and tells them, "Not in my place."

Now Tony's not a big guy, but he's got some heft to him. He's not fat or anything (people could get fat back in those days), but he's got some weight if he wants to throw it around. Besides that he's both the bartender and the owner, and there weren't too many places a sailor could have a quiet drink without bein' overcharged or treated like shit. So the sailor just says "Fuck," in a disgusted voice, and he and his buddies leave.

So Mack and Tom and Dave and Al and I, who are thinkin' we'll have to rescue the guy, all relax; and when he comes out of the john Al says to him, as he picks up his drink again, "Hey. You got a name?"

The stranger looks at Al the way he shoulda been lookin' at the roach, and says, "Yeah, I got a name," and goes back to his drink. So I'm thinkin', yeah, this guy is real good at gettin' into fights, and this time I'm gonna let him get what he's lookin' for. Al is no giant, but he's tough and he's mean and he's damn good with his fists, and I'm thinkin' this guy deserves to find out just how good.

But Tony says, "Hey, mister," and tells him how the sailor and his buddies were gonna go kick the crap out of him in the john, and how Al and the rest of us were gonna stop them.

"So?" says the stranger, not mean, like "So what?", but friendlier, like "Really?" and holds his hand out to Al. "Call me Steve," he says, and they shake. And it turns out Steve used to be a merchie, only he's retired now.

"Comp?" says Tom, meanin' was he injured and livin' on a disability pension, and I'm thinkin' the same thing and lookin' him over, but seein' nothing.

"No," says Steve. "It's hard to explain—I sort of won a lottery. Anyway, I don't hafta work now, so," and he shrugs, and I find myself noddin'. If you don't hafta, why would you? Especially a rough job like the merchant marine?

"So you just wander into bars and throw bugs around?" the Dude says.

Steve shrugs again, a bit cool; maybe he's picked up that the Dude's no good in a fight, and wouldn't have been any help with the sailors. He's right, but still. Anyway, he just says, "Roaches don't bother me."

"Brother, they sure bother me!" the Dude says with a shudder. "How could you just pick it up like that with your bare hand?"

"They don't bother me," the stranger, Steve, says again. "I just wanted t' see what all the fuss was about." He takes a swallow of his drink. "Just a bug," he says after a minute. Then he tells us why they don't bother him.

"See, where I come from, we didn't have roaches," Steve says, and everybody wants to know where that is so they can move there. So he tells us, and Big Tom says he knows damn well they have roaches there.

"Sure, now they do," Steve says. "You wanna hear this story or not?"

"So anyway, we didn't have roaches," he goes on. "We had blerchies, which were a hundred times worse. A thousand!" And he shudders, and finishes his drink, and orders another.

"Worse how?" demands Al. Steve waves his hands, tryin' to find the words to describe the horror of a blerchy (blerchie? blerch?), and I come to see for the first time this guy was already pretty drunk when we first noticed him, only he holds it well. But now he's well down the road to pie-eyed.

"Just take my word for it," he says finally, takin' his drink from Tony. "Everybody, but everybody, hated blerchies the way this guy" he said, noddin' at the Dude, "hates roaches. But there was nothin' you could do about them. The filthy little stinkers were everywhere, they bred faster than the birds and the rats could eat them, they laughed at poison, and the big ones could turn your ankle if you stepped on them wrong."

"I was a merchie, so I knew they were everywhere. Every ship had 'em, and every port had its own breed. They'd been around since before the dinosaurs, the eggheads said, and if we had an atomic war, they'd be the only things left in the fallout."

"Never heard of 'em. Whaddaya mean, everywhere?" Dave said.

"Yeah, I know," Steve says, and by the time I figure out that he means I know you never heard of them, he's sayin':

"So I was in—Qatar? Yemen? Abu Dhabi? I forget. One of those little sandbox countries, anyway, and I was looking at the tourist crap in the market, when I saw this little vase, or bottle, maybe three inches tall. Nothing special, but at least it looked old, and didn't say Coca-Cola on the side, or Hecho en Mexico on the bottom. So I bought it, thinking I might get something for it back in the States."

"So you pulled the stopper, and a genie came out?" Mack says, smilin'.

"Wasn't any stopper," Steve says, "not even a cork. You could look inside, and you could see there wasn't anything in it but some dust in the bottom."

"Only I started having these dreams. Every time, I'd be standing in a dark room, and there'd be something behind me. And I was scared to death, but I didn't dare turn around. And this cold, cold voice, like something dead and in its grave for hundreds of years, kept saying, 'Free me, o man'." Then I'd wake up, scared spitless."

"Now, we were in that shithole a week, on account of the starboard engine quit on us right before we docked, and the captain and the owners are firing telegrams back and forth, trying to get the engine fixed, or a new one shipped, or I don't know what—no one asked me. A week of hanging around waiting to see if and when we're shipping out again, and that same miserable dream eating at me every night."

"Hell!" says Al.

Steve nods. "You got that right, buddy. Hell is exactly what it was. On top of the dreams, the local kind of blerchies was going through a population boom, and they were crawling on and under everything. You couldn't eat without shaking the damn things off your food, and if you put down a drink you'd find one of 'em swimming in it when you picked it up."

"So I figured, nothing I can do about the ship or the blerchies, but I'm gonna get rid of the dreams or else throw away that bottle. So there I was sitting in my room, saying 'Come forth! I command you to come forth! I set you free!' and things like that."

"Nothing happened."

"So then I thought, maybe I need some authority here, and I tried again, only I also said things like 'By the will of Allah!' and 'In Christ's name!' and so forth. And one of them worked—never mind which one."

"The bottle fell over, and something black and unspeakable began to pry itself out, with noises worse than a woman makes having a baby. You know how, in the movies, the smoke just billows out, smooth and even and easy? This was nothing like that. It was ugly, and it hurt to see it. Hurt t'hear it, too."

"But finally there was this black horror standing in front of me, and I don't mean African, I mean black like ink. And it bowed, and sure enough, I got three wishes."

The rest of us are sittin' around listenin' to the guy's story, and I have to admit, he almost has me believin' him. I look at Mack and I wink, and he shakes his head, admirin' Steve's story.

"I asked the thing if I had to make all my wishes at once, and it said no, I could take as long as I liked. So I decided to make one wish and see how it went. I wished for enough money every month to do whatever I wanted, and I named the figure."

"DONE," said the thing in a voice like thunder, and it disappeared. I didn't have any bad dreams that night, and the next day the captain called us all in and said that the owners were scrapping the ship. We all let out a groan, and he said, but, they've decided to pension off the crew, which had us all picking our jaws up off the floor—they never do that, as I guess you guys know."

"Damn straight," says Al. "Since when do the owners care about the crews?"

"But the captain named a figure," Steve says, noddin' his agreement, "and it's the same amount I told the thing from the bottle! Only how come, I asked it later, when I called it and it came, the whole crew got it?"

"What care you?" it said. Which is better—that I bend your wish to benefit the many, or that I twist it to cheat you?" And I hafta admit, it had a point."

"I opened my mouth to say so, and a damn blerchy flies into it, which makes me want to vomit. I spit it out, and stomped on it, and pointed to it, and said, 'Blerchies! I hate them! Get rid of them! All of them, you hear me?' "

"DONE," it said, and I never saw any blerchies again. In fact, I guess it made them so they never was, because no one's ever heard of them. Instead we have roaches now. I guess we had to have something," he says.

"Ecology," Dave says. "If you wipe out something, something else takes its place."

"I guess," Steve says, and finishes his drink. "Anyway, roaches don't bother me."

"What about your third wish?" I say. "What did you use it for?"

"Oh, I haven't used it yet," says Steve. "I'm waiting for something special. I've got money, and if you've got enough money…"

"Women?" says Dave.

"I do all right," Steve says.

"You bastard!" shouts the Dude.

Steve turns and looks down the bar at him. "What's your problem, mister?"

"Yeah, Dude, cool it," Tony says. "It's not like you to pick a fight."

"Pick a fight? Don't you get it? Don't you see?" the Dude pleads. He looks around at all of us. "This guy's saying it's his fault there are roaches!"

Well, that stops us in our tracks for a moment.

"Ah, so what?" Steve says. "Count your blessings, guy. You think roaches are bad? Blerchies were lots worse."

"Blerchies stank!" he says. "They were ugly; a squashed roach looks better than a live blerchy! They carried diseases, some of them fatal, some of them disfiguring."

"So you say," Al says.

"Come on, guys," I say. "Don't get so worked up. It's only a story, for god's sake."

Steve looks at me. "Are you calling me a liar?" he says.

"No, no," I say. "It's a great story. It needs a punch line, though. Maybe you should figure out what to do with that third wish."

"Dammit," Steve says, and now he's really mad. "You jerks don't know how easy you've got it! When the blerchies had population booms, suddenly there'd be zillions of 'em, and they'd eat their way through everything in sight!"

"Like army ants?" Tom says.

"There weren't any army ants before I made my wish," Steve says. "Blerchies did that, and they did it regularly, and they did it everywhere in the world! You got no idea how easy you've got it," he says again.

"So you say," Al repeats. Then the Dude chimes in with, "I don't care what your blerchies are like, I hate roaches more than anything."

Steve's in a towering rage. "Damn it!" he shouts. "You don't know what you're talking about! I'd rather there were a billion billion times as many roaches as there are, than even one blerchy!"

DONE, says a voice like thunder.

We're all frozen in place for a moment. That voice, that huge inhuman voice out of nowhere, wipes out all our doubts. We hear it, and we know that Steve's been telling us the absolute truth.

Al reacts first. He pulls his knife from his boot, steps up to Steve, and almost takes his head off. Steve falls down with blood spurting from the new mouth under his chin, and dies, staring up at Al.

The Dude shrieks. Al kicks him in the crotch. "Shaddap!" he says. "This is your fault, too."

"Al," I say, "What?"

"You killed him!" Mack says.

"And a damn sight easier than he deserved," Al says. "But we're gonna be too busy staying alive to mess around."

"Guys, listen," Big Tom says. "Do you hear a funny noise?"

We listen. It sounds like nothing I ever heard before; like bacon in a frying pan but not quite; like gravel in a truck bed; a dry, scrapy, skittery sound.

"A billion billion times as many roaches as there already were," Tony says. "What will they all eat?"

"Everything," Al says. "What you gotta ask is, what'll we eat?" And he gives Steve's body a savage kick.

"Come on," he says, and we follow him out the back, each of us kicking the body as he passes it.

Outside, the screaming and the dying have already started.

About this story

Copyright © 2005 by Green Sky Press. All rights reserved.

The Last Governor of Eden

Year One: 2140 A.D. (2893 A.U.C.)

It was supposed to be a punishment post. The records were quite clear; the last five Governors here had been given one day to see a planet that was fit to live on, and to begin to imagine how they could help far too many people work their way out of hopeless poverty with far too small a budget and far too little resources. The bad ones got drunk. The good ones issued a flurry of orders which they might have reconsidered—and which were ignored anyway. Drunk or sober, the Earth goons came and got them at the end of the day, packed them back aboard the waiting transport ship, and took them on to somewhere even worse, places with names like Hell and Give Up and Avernus, where the problems were just as bad, but even the air had to be manufactured.

He had been here a week when he discovered this. Either the machine slipped up for once; or he had screwed up so spectacularly that someone had decided he deserved the ultimate punishment, to be awarded a look at a potential paradise and forced to make it work. Or maybe, just maybe (think it softly, and never, ever say it out loud!) they really thought he could do something with this planet.

There were days he thought maybe he could, too. It could break your heart to see the state the people were in; it broke his a hundred times a day, the gods knew, and he could feel his hair turning white; but he kept at it.

It had been a fine place once, one of the best. The native life was advanced enough to make good air and clean water and an attractive landscape, but not so advanced that Terrestrial life couldn't root it out and drive it under. You planted a seed, as they used to say in the American west, and jumped back before the plant poked you in the eye. Only here the crops choked the weeds, and the local locusts took a few bites and dropped dead. Mulch and fertilizer, that's what the Earth crops thought of the native life.

Best of all, there were no native sentients, and nothing ever likely to evolve sentience; hardly an animal on the planet as big as a cat, even in the oceans. The Verē themselves must have thought so; deep scan by satellite never found a Monument to instruct future tool users, nor even a rock scratched with the T́uliǹgrai version of "Kilrao was here." So men could claim the world outright, was the upshot, and do what they liked with it.

Eden they called it finally; trite, but better suited for the name than anywhere else men had found. In a galaxy full of alien worlds inhabited by alien races more than ready to defend their own (even if they spent all the rest of their time mourning the departure of the Verē), this was one place men could make a human paradise.

Then the war came, and the gods damn stupid settlers who couldn't keep their promises, and double damn Navy captains who took the human side, right or wrong. Overnight a hundred mournful worlds turned to wrath, put away the flint knives and the clay bowls they'd been making do with, and activated automated last-ditch Verē bases, full of ships and weapons that made Earth stuff look like bath-tub toys and BB guns.

And when the expanding plasma of a dozen desperate battles had redeemed the broken oaths with valor, and a thousand sleepless savants had reverse-engineered enough found and captured Verē tech to equip man's armies and navies with same, the humans and the not-humans met and swore it would never, ever happen again, Now get off our worlds. And be thankful we don't occupy yours.

So the military gritted its teeth over the humiliation of not-quite-losing, and the politicians tried to make it look like the greatest victory ever, and the bureaucrats said, but where are we going to put all the people who had settled on alien worlds?

Oh look, here's a place!

And that's how Eden was ruined the second time.

Robert Marius Augustus his parents named him, and if he sometimes joked about coming from a family so poor they couldn't afford a last name, he joked from pride. North American he was by birth, Latin—not Latino, his family spoke Latin, not Spanish—by education, Childe by heritage; of an old family with liberal traditions like scholarship, and public service. His father was a Senator of the North American Union, his grandfather was a retired Colonel in the United Nations Circum-Terra Command, and he was proud of them both.

He hoped they were proud of him, too. It bewildered him, how he'd ended up here, and what he was supposed to do with the place. In theory he had absolute power over the whole world, to bind and to loose, to do and to let be, to command and be obeyed.

What he actually had was an embassy compound from the days when Eden was a semi-autonomous world with a United Nations consulate. For equipment he had a few air cars, a supernetcom and some peripheral netcoms a generation old, an indispensable receiver for the orbital power satellite, and close to a hundred years of paper files. His people were an inbred community of bureaucrats, office workers, technicians, and embassy Marines, all of them born here.

Outside the ceramcrete walls and razor wire that kept the compound from being swarmed under (along with the Marines' rifles and bayonets and their savage readiness to use them), starving dogs sniffed the embassy garbage, then fled in terror from gangs of starving children. The children thought a skinny dog a grand treat—and they didn't always bother to cook it first. Assuming, of course, that every gang of kids remembered how to make fire.

The adults certainly did; when they weren't shooting the city up, they were burning it down. Where they found ammunition was a mystery, until the Marine armorer proudly showed him (during a pointless inspection he tried to avoid) the bullet-casting and reloading equipment he kept in perfect repair. The mystery of what they found to burn, outside the compound walls, was not so easily answered.

In truth he was just another warlord in the blown-up, knocked-down rubble that once had been a city called Gardena. His equipment was a little bit better, his authority a shade less dubious, and every once in a while he got supplies from a passing ship, which the other robber barons plainly thought unfair.

Some of them paid him a call when he didn't disappear overnight, leaving the Attaché in charge. An actual Governor was a sight they had to see, a kind of relic from generations past. The politer chieftains even left their necklaces of human ears at home; but not all of them were so polite as all that.

Perhaps they hoped to storm the place by surprise, and carry off all the fabulous office equipment he had. They were disappointed; he took instruction from the Commandant of his Marines, a young woman with a long scar down the left side of her face, hairline to chin, and admitted them one at a time, with a few guards only, while the Marines stood on alert.

Then they thought to wheedle him, to bribe him with young girls, boys, gold, whatever they thought him most likely to fancy; to threaten him, finally, with their numbers and their permanence. But his great-grandfather had served in Somalia, his great-great-grandfather in Vietnam, and Robert had read Caesar, Livy, and Tacitus in the original Latin, and Macchiavelli in the Italian; their bribes were as futile as their threats.

Rome and Saigon and Mogadishu took him only so far; he was here to stay, and must make something of this place. No occasional effort would get results, no floundering would earn respect. Like Trajan, he had his Dacia, now he must civilize it, and build something that would last.

If he could feed them, they would come for the food, and stay as long as there was more. If they got more only if they learned and worked, then something might be done.

But how could he feed a planet when he couldn't even feed himself without resupply from the ships? How many of the warlords and barons out there were former Governors who'd given up, and settled down to make a living by plunder, to hell with everyone else? There had to be a way!

He found it by chance, in the papers from some past Governor's desk, an invitation to a party—immortal gods, they'd had parties once in this place? But it was in the country, not the city.

He flew out to see it, and found it deserted. Too far out to reach by foot, too far away from anyone else's ranch by foot, foot was all anyone had left, unless he were the Governor. Sure, you could reach it from the city, if you packed food and water. But first you had to know it was there.

Fallen down, was his first thought, while the scarred Commandant shook her detachment out in a perimeter, and the technicians disappeared into the infrastructure. But no, the reports told him. The buildings needed work, but they stood; the animals had gone wild, but could be rounded up; the fields were actually better off for having laid fallow for the gods alone knew how long. He could move his headquarters here, use what resources he had to put this in order instead of scraping the alleys of the city, and presently it would start yielding dribs and drabs he could feed people with; and then more than that.

He resolved not to make a gift of the city compound to the warlords, not so much as one stone upon another if he could help it. The thought of having to storm the place to take it back gave him waking nightmares. Besides, he would need every scrap of it at the new place, sooner or later; even the razor wire, and wasn't that going to be fun to wrestle with!

"We'll have to do it in stages," the Commandant said at the planning meeting. TIMISOARA, it said on her name tag; Alana, he'd heard another Marine call her. Her eyes were midnight blue, her close-cropped hair even darker than that. He shook his head. "Sorry," he said. "Please continue."

"The most vital stuff has to go in the first loads, before they know anything's happening. The power receiver, the technicians, the supernetcom, enough netcoms to provide reference material on stuff like farming. Some guns for the reservists to use, just in case." By reservists she meant everyone but the Marines; some past Governor had accomplished that much, anyway.

The planning went on. How many loads would it take? What would go in each load? How do we keep the gangs out, once the razor wire is down? How do we disassemble the walls, with the warlords shooting at us? Do we have a bomb big enough to take out the whole compound at once? Eyes turned to him.

"We do not," he said positively. "There is no atomic weapon below the compound. Whether some past Governor started the rumors to keep the warlords in line, or whether they started as wistful thinking, I don't know. I'm glad it's not there. It would be too tempting to pull the plug on the city, and let the countryside sort itself out." There was a brief silence, broken by a startled laugh. Well, then, what about—? He found himself watching Major Timisoara again.

She was the commander of his Marines, which made her his right arm and his bodyguard. That was fine with him; but he needed more than that, and if there was one thing he had learned in this job, it was not to listen to all the reasons why something wouldn't work. Nothing would work, if he stopped and listened to reason; nothing ever would, nothing ever had, and that was how things had gotten into the state they were in. But he was determined that they would work.

"Don't forget to program the satellites with our new location," he said. "We don't want ships to land in the wrong place." He'd debated saying that, fearing to look an overanxious fool. But averted eyes and scribbled notes told him at least some of his planet-born staff had forgotten.

The logistics were very difficult; it was hard to keep the number of trips down with so few cars, yet if they didn't, the warlords would shadow at least the last few trips with their own cars, maybe try some raids in the city and the country at the same time.

"What if they don't have any?" he suggested. "Better yet, what if we had their cars to move our stuff? Surely you know who has every car in the city, Major?"

She nodded. "With a high degree of confidence," she said. "We watch their battles to track their readiness states and assess their abilities, and we keep data on all motorized transport as a matter of course."

"Are they few enough that you can seize them all at once? Are they numerous enough to help with our move? What kind of numbers are we looking at?"

She tapped a query on her omnicom, echoed it and the results to the table display—and his own omnicom, he noted, though he hadn't given her the address. There were more cars than he'd guessed; taking them would bring his transport up to almost two dozen vehicles. If they all had the same carrying capacity as the embassy vans, that would reduce the number of trips to a sixth of what they'd need otherwise.

"We don't need to seize them all at once," she said. "In fact, better if we don't, since we're the only ones who could. We can take a couple of places' cars each night over a week or so, drive them out of the city, eliminate any tracking devices, drive them on to the new place, fix them up, and put in the power receivers for all the cars we used to have… Major Fuentes, anything to add?"

"No, Ma'am," said Elvira Fuentes, her chief of staff. "You do realize we won't be able to get all the cars at every place? And some won't be useable after we take them."

"Speaking plainly," the Governor said harshly, "you mean that sooner or later we'll take losses on these raids—cars shot up coming out, and Marines killed."

"Yes, Sir," said the Latina woman.

"Also," said the Commandant, "some of the cars on this list haven't been seen in a while, and might not run any more."

"Plan to take in fully-charged batteries for any cars that haven't been seen lately, and destroy any transport we can't take out," he said. "I don't want the city warlords to be left with any cars at all."

The silence in the room was profound. It was the Attaché, Ernesto Sotomayor, who said, "You realize that you're talking about acts of war against people who are supposed to be U.N. citizens?"

He nodded. "Yes, Mr. Sotomayor, I do. If I thought they would oblige us, I would ask them for their vehicles. But all it would do is give them warning, if they took me seriously at all."

He looked around the room. "Right or wrong, this is the end of the status quo on this planet. We will seize every vehicle we can, and we will move out of this rubble heap." He turned to the Commandant. "Can do, Major?"

She smiled then, not a grin, but the satisfied expression of a professional given an important job to do. "Can do, Sir," she said.

Only a long time later did he learn that while he had been watching her, she had been watching him. He didn't hear Major Fuentes teasing her, woman to woman, about the Governor's hungry eyes; nor hear her reply to shut the hell up, for God's sake.

The theft or destruction of all the cars and vans in the city had started fights all over, but each chieftain assumed he'd lost his vehicles to his usual enemies, and never gave a thought to the irrelevant embassy folk. Some of them perhaps began to wonder, when they met their foes in battle and no cars were used by the other side, either.

The raids had gone better than the Governor had any right to expect. A few cars couldn't be made to run, and so were destroyed. A few more were shot up too badly to use, especially in the last couple of attacks. And yes, some of the Marines died, mostly on those same runs. But the raiders brought their dead out with them, and their identities stayed secret.

The first loads to the new place had been made with embassy vehicles only, at night, before the raids began. They continued during the raids, covered by the need of the gangs to stay home and guard their cars. For as long as possible, the Marines concealed the fact that anything was happening at all.

As long as there were any cars in the city besides theirs, they did without the new ones, which had to be fixed and converted from battery power to broadcast power anyway.

On Bug-Out Day, fifteen cars and vans slid quietly into the city at 0200, and vanished into the U.N. compound. An hour later, fully loaded, they slid back out and took a route out of the city that was not in the direction of the new place. Three round trips were made this way before the city began to wake up. Two more got away clean before the mobs could get organized. The Governor took a look at what was left, consulted with the Major, and ordered only the most heavily armored vans, eight all told, to return for the last trip.

The razor wire turned out to be easy; he'd assumed it to be the metal it looked like. Instead it was memory plastic infused with metal particles and programmed with an encrypted trigger. Major Fuentes touched it with a device from the armory, and it wilted into rope. A squad stripped it from the wall with careless haste while the rest of the Marines laid suppressive fire on the mob. Even so bullets came back like a hailstorm, and two more Marines died right there.

"Go!" shouted Sergeant-Major Lomibao over the helmet omnicoms. "Now now now now!" He slapped each shoulder as they passed him, counting. At the door of the last van out, Major Timisoara did the same. Lomibao hoisted the last troop through, and she threw herself in right behind him. "Get us out of here!" the Governor heard her shout to the driver, from the netcom in the new place where he stood and watched it all.

(He'd wanted to be there. "Not if I have to sit on you!" she'd finally shouted. "Maybe some other time," he'd said, and started to laugh. She'd stomped off. Was it a good sign, that he could make her lose her temper?)

What must have been the last shoulder-mounted missile in the city reached after the fleeing soldiers. He hardly had time to suck in a breath, yet its flight seemed to take forever. The driver of the van jinked hard left and up, then spun down and right and braked hard. The can fell like a rock, and the missile blazed past; and thank the gods that it wasn't Verē or Childe tech, or it wouldn't have missed.

Instead it acquired the last of the other cars and roared in. As the van with the Major in it (and the other Marines, he reminded himself) pulled up short of crashing, another one took the hit and went down in flaming ruin. He was sorry for the driver, but he'd need the Marines more, even objectively, let alone his growing, if one-sided, personal involvement.

Who asked him, breathlessly, "Time?"; UNMC armor was the best, but they'd been thrown around hard. He looked at the time display on the netcom.

"Any moment now," he said. "Ah, there we go."

("Forget blowing the walls," he'd told them. "We can't spare the munitions, and I see no need to spray the mob with shrapnel. What Caesar did at Alesia, we can do here. Besides," he'd grinned, "confidential documents are supposed to be burned.")

Paper burns at a known rate; so does wood. There are variations according to dampness, kinds of wood, rag content of paper, and so forth; but the engineers had tested these particular materials under these specific conditions, while everyone else had worked like dogs and dug like badgers. The supporting timbers burned through on schedule.

With a groan like a giant years frustrated, the walls came down, falling into the tunnels they had dug. A ring of dust and dirt whoomped up, then began to disperse, raining clods and stones, and screening off any more missiles. The Governor met the Commandant's eyes in the screen. "Come on home, Major," he said.

"I don't care what you call yourself," the warlord said. "You can call yourself Governor if you like; there's a guy acrost town who calls himself the Mayor; another who calls himself King Rat. What I wanna know is, what are you doin' messin' with my people?"

"I believe you actually mean that, Mr. Moyer," the Governor said to the mustached face on his omnicom. "The 'my people' part, I mean. That's the only reason we're having this conversation. But don't push your luck too far."

"Lissen," said Moyer, "you been on this planet what, a coupla months now? Well I was born here! Maybe I don't speak Latin, but I speak English and Spanish. Those are U.N. languages, and I'm a U.N. citizen."

"I'm glad to hear it," said the Governor. "A lot of the warlords in the city don't speak English or Spanish, and are no more U.N. citizens than cockroaches are. When should we expect you?"

"Hah?" the ferret-face on the screen looked confused. "Expect me for what?"

"Didn't you read one of the posters you're objecting to, Mr. Moyer?"

"I ain't got time to read every piece of crap floatin' around!" the chieftain said—no, this one styled himself Boss—but why was he suddenly so angry—ah.

"Let me save you some time, then," the Governor said. "It invites any person who considers himself a U.N. citizen to join us here, requiring only that he declares himself a citizen, swears to obey the laws of the colony, and renounces obedience to any unlawful authority; especially people who set themselves up with titles not deriving from this office, such as Mayor, King, or Boss."

"In other words," he said quietly, "if they leave that picked-over, shot-up, bombed-out rock pile some call a city, and come here, and will live as people instead of insects, we'll treat them as people. Feed them, to start with. Clothe them. Teach them. Protect them."

"But that's crazy!" Moyer said. "None of the city guys will let that happen. Anyone who tries will be dog meat. Hell, most people here can't read your posters inna first place, and the clan bully boys are tearin' 'em down fast as they find 'em."

"Which is why I'm talking to you," said the Governor, "and any other warlord who has a communications device. This is your notice—we'll soon start making our offer by loudspeaker, and escorting anyone out who wants out. And if anyone gets in our way, tears down our posters, or tries to stop anyone from leaving, we will shoot to kill."

"You're gonna get people killed!" Moyer said.

"Yes, some will die. Some of us, some of the people we're trying to rescue. But a lot of those who fight us will die, too. If I have my way, all of them."

"So when can we expect you and your people, Mr. Moyer?"

"We can't leave here," Moyer protested. "We get out in the open, the West-Enders start shootin' my boys and grabbin' the women; then we try to get home, and the Cannibals have taken over our place while we was gone. Get real, 'Mr. Governor'," he sneered.

"Do the West-Enders have rifles, Mr. Moyer? Marine battle armor? Armored troop carriers? Omnicom links between their fighters? Satellite surveillance in real time?"

"Do they shit," said Moyer. "They's a lot of 'em, though. And we don't got that crap, neither."

"But we do, Mr. Moyer. Let me know when you're coming, and how many of you there are, and we'll set down at your place with enough cars to get your people out. And if your neighbors give us any trouble, well, they won't be sorry for very long."

"But I won't be Boss no more," Moyer said, scowling.

"No, you'll be the hero who got his people out of that hell hole. Or was 'my people' just a figure of speech?"

"I gotta think about this," Moyer said.

"Go right ahead," the Governor said. "But don't think too long. With or without you, we're getting your people out of there." His finger moved to the disconnect button, then paused.

"And by the way, Mr. Moyer, educating people includes teaching them to read. You might mention that to any of your people handicapped that way—whether child, adolescent, or grown man."

And then he did cut the connection.

Year Two: 2141 A.D. (2894 A.U.C.)

"Why, Mr. Sotomayor?" asked the Governor.

The trial was held outdoors, so that everyone could come, if their duties permitted. There was a table and chair for the Governor; a table and chair for the prisoner; that was all. Cords stretched from the end of the farm-house porch to a small tree, from the tree to a chair, from the chair to a saw horse, from the saw horse to another chair, and back to the other end of the porch. A squad of Marines, unarmed but in full armor, faced the angry, restless crowd outside the cordon. The smell of food cooking in the cook tent opposite the farm house clashed with the smell of fear from the packed people.

"I dispute your right to hold this mockery of a trial, along with every other crime you've committed!" said the Attaché. "I am a U.N. citizen, and the senior official of the U.N. embassy to this world. I demand a trial by jury—if you can find anything to charge me with, under real laws!"

The Governor shook his head. "I'm the legally appointed Governor of this planet, Mr. Sotomayor, and I declared martial law within a week of my arrival. The U.N. may choose to review my actions; they may even reprimand or replace me, unlikely as that seems. But that will be too late for you, even if they do."

"Damn you," shouted Sotomayor, "I'm the Attaché! Do you know how many overnight 'Governors' passed through here in my tenure? Two! And three in my father's day! You 'Governors' come and go, but it's the Sotomayors who hold this place together!"

"I won't comment on that," said the Governor, "because it's irrelevant. This trial isn't about my administration of this planet, or about your wish to be in charge. It's about treason."

"Mr. Prosecutor. While the accused gathers his thoughts, would you care to summarize?"

"Sir," said Captain Romubio, the only Marine present in dress uniform instead of armor. "I believe that I have shown that Mr. Sotomayor contacted Mr. Genkina, a Gardena warlord who styles himself 'Mr. Monster', and has a reputation to match the title. Omnicom intercepts demonstrate that Mr. Sotomayor offered Mr. Genkina 'fresh meat' in exchange for his assistance in discrediting your rescue program. Mr. Genkina agreed, and was given the exact time and place that two squads of Marines and an air car would be picking up people in the city. As a result of this, the rescue mission was ambushed by Mr. Genkina's people, who appeared at the agreed-upon time and place, and gave the correct recognition signals."

"Summarize for the court the casualties, please," said the Governor, watching Sotomayor's white face.

"There were no Marine survivors," said Romubio, "and the air car was captured intact enough for Mr. Genkina's future use. Of the civilians trusting us for rescue, all of the women and most of the girls were raped on the spot, in view of the car's pickups, by way of celebration. Some of the men and boys were raped, as well. The leaders of the group seeking our aid, two brothers named Herrera, had their hearts and livers ripped out of their bodies, while still alive. Mr. Genkina ate these raw in front of the car's video, then smashed it."

"So, Mr. Sotomayor," said the Governor, "two squads of Marines are dead, and the people we went to rescue are playthings in the stronghold of a monster. Are you pleased?"

Sotomayor was scared but defiant. "It's your fault. If you'd left things the way they were…"

"If I'd left things the way they were," Augustus said, waving at the crowd, "all these people would be starving and dying in the city. You should have believed me when I said the status quo was done."

"The prisoner will stand," he said, returning to formality. The Attaché rose to his feet slowly.

"Ernesto Sotomayor, you are accused of treason; of consorting with the enemy; of being an accessory before the fact of murder, rape, torture, and cannibalism; all while the colony was under martial law."

"You have refused counsel, and have offered nothing in the way of mitigating circumstances, or in fact any defense except to challenge the authority of this court and this administration."

"The evidence is clear, and I find you guilty." Sotomayor swayed a little, while the crowd shouted approval.

"As to sentence," the Governor continued, "the least of the charges against you merits death. So ordered. Would you prefer to be shot or hung, Mr. Sotomayor?"

The attaché licked his lips. "Shot, if you please."

"Ipse dixit—he said it himself. Sentence to be carried out at dawn tomorrow. Sergeant-Major, secure the prisoner." BAM! went the gavel. "This court is adjourned."

TIMISOARA, Alana Maria, b. 2106, Gardena, Eden. Parents Josef (2077-2116) and Irina (2080-2116) Timisoara, immigrated from New Bucharest, Titan, 2098. Graduated Marine OCS as Second Lieutenant May 1, 2125; promotion to First Lieutenant 2128; Captain, 2132; Major, 2136.

Alana by day is an intimidating creature, the Governor wrote in his omnicom journal, in Latin; super-encrypted on top of that; and password-protected with a different password from the one needed to use his system. Strong, fearless, and swift, she leads by example. She asks nothing of her Marines she cannot do herself, from the rifle range to the track field to the obstacle course; and if she isn't the best at everything, she is nearly the best at most. There are Marines who can run faster, run longer, climb better; and of course there are hundreds of technical fields, about most of which she knows only whom to call upon. I do not think, from what I've seen, that any surpass her in firing a rifle, or in unarmed combat.

He paused for a moment, then resumed writing. I went down to the pistol range the other day, and found her there looking over her targets. My own shots are tightly grouped, but hers go through the same hole, one behind the other, like cars in a maglev train!

I wonder how she got that scar? Who failed her, to put her in a situation where someone else could do that to her? And what did she do when she got her hands on the man who wielded the knife?

Alana by day is as intimidating as she is breath-taking, he wrote, but oh, how I hope I'll get to know Alana by night!

"That's far enough," the rancher said. "What do you want?" The shotgun hung from his right hand; not pointed at anyone, but quick enough to swing up and pull the trigger, or both triggers. At this range, the expanding ball of shot would blow a hole through a man the size of his head.

"I'd like to talk with you, Mr. Higgins," the Governor said. Higgins was a hard-used fifty years old, gray hair clipped off whenever it got in his face, otherwise hanging ragged over his ears and the back of his neck. His skin was the color achieved only by working in the sun day in and day out, and rarely washing; the deep wrinkles around his eyes, on his forehead, and framing his mouth were carved by years of squinting and frowning. One knee of his jeans was torn, and his boots were almost soleless at the backs.

"Got no time to talk, Mister," he said. "Chores don't wait."

The Governor looked around. This had been a going concern, once; not a big spread but well planned and built. Now the porch on the front of the house leaned like a tired drunk; the barn roof had holes in it; no livestock were in sight; and the windmills stood motionless, despite a hot wind.

"Maybe I could help with the chores while we talk," he suggested. "My folks have a ranch in New Mexico, and I used to work there come summer."

Higgins grunted."Those hands will blister," he said.

"Then they'll blister," the Governor said, removing his jacket. "Major, you and the squad wait with the car, please."

"No, sir," said Major Timisoara. The two men turned identical looks of outrage on her, but she stood her ground. "Not until Mr. Higgins puts down his shotgun, Sir."

Higgins stared a moment longer, then handed her the shotgun. "Be careful with that," he said gruffly. "It's older than you are—and almost as tetchy."

"Thank you, sir," she said imperturbably; tucked the weapon under her left arm, saluted the Governor with her right, about-faced, and marched back to the car. Higgins chuckled.

After they'd worked fixing fence half an hour, with no complaints and no slacking by the Governor, the rancher said, "Had a wife like that, once. Spunky."

The Governor debated telling him that anyone who called Major Timisoara spunky had better count his body parts afterwards, but decided it would sound like he was taking offense. Instead he asked, "What happened to her?"

"Skin cancer," Higgins said. "That looks like the sun, but it puts out a lot more ultra-violet. We get lots of skin cancers, lots of cataracts, don't have much in the way of doctors."

The Governor nodded, and changed the subject. "Where's the livestock to go with this fence?" he asked.

"Here and there. No use rounding them up until the fence is fixed."

"Really?" the Governor said. "Looks like those mountains to the north and east would fence them in that way; and didn't I see a big river coming in from the west, that flows south and east? I'd think between the two, you've got most of a natural fence. Just build up a few spots, use a fence to keep the cattle out of the crops."

"Hell, man, I can't work the whole valley! It's all I can do to run the spread I've got. Now if my sons were here, and had families of their own…" Higgins shook his head.

"Mind me asking…?"

"Three boys," said Higgins. "Skin cancer got the middle one, Joe. Frank, my oldest, took some cattle into the city to try and get some money for 'em. Nothing came back: son, cattle, or money. Damn city ate the lot."

"Youngest boy, Sam, took a shine to Timlinson's girl, that's my nearest neighbor, east of those mountains. Married her and lives there. Too far to come back here very often."

"Could you work the valley if you had the hands?" the Governor asked.

"Hell, yes! Give me five, six men who work like you've been doing, I could farm part of the valley, raise beef on the rest. But where would I get them? Anyway, no use raising meat and crops I can't sell. Damn city."

"Your omnicom's down, isn't it, Mr. Higgins?"

"Sure is. Died on me about a year back, just quit working. Got it in the house somewhere."

"Thought that might be the case," the Governor said. He stood up straight and stretched his back, grimacing.

"Hard work when you're not used to it," the rancher grinned. He looked down the run of posts with the new wire taut between them. "Good job, though. Would've taken me all day to do this much. How are you with a post-hole digger?"

The Governor laughed. "Tell you what, Mr. Higgins—"

"Hell, call me Paul."

"Paul, then. And my name is Bob. What say I get a couple of Marines out here to finish this while you and I sit and talk?"

"Sounds good to me, Bob."

"Major Timisoara," the Governor said into his omnicom. It lit with her face. "Sir?" she said.

"Have we some Marines here who know how to set fence posts and string wire on them?"

"Yes, Sir, we can do that," she said, without missing a beat. Either she had the capabilities of every Marine at her finger tips, or she'd anticipated his request and found out before he asked. Either way, he approved. Four Marines double-timed out and got to work.

The Governor, the Commandant, and the rancher entered the ranch house. The Governor spotted the broken omnicom, picked it up, and gave it to the major. "Have your comtech look at this, if you would. Mr. Higgins says it failed suddenly."

"Aye aye, Sir," she said, and left the house at a trot.

"Makes me tired just to watch," said the rancher, settling on a couch with a sigh. "Well, Bob, what did you want to talk about?"

The Governor took a wooden chair, and turned it around so he could rest his arms on its back. "Well, Paul, because of your broken omnicom, you haven't heard what we've been up to." He described the bug-out from the city, the invitation for others to join them, and the suppression of warlords who objected.

"It'll be years before everyone who wants out of the city manages it," he said, "but we already have a large population around the farm. We need the crops and the beef you aren't raising."

"None of that city lot would be any good as hands," said Higgins, going straight to the heart of the matter.

"Not at first, no," the Governor said. "But even inexpert help will be better than none. I'm feeding them anyway, so you might as well get some use out of them. Once they learn the work, you can start developing this valley. Then we all benefit."

"What if they want to sit around and do nothing?" Higgins said.

"Then you call us and we'll come take them off your hands. But we don't have many like that. These people are glad to be out of the city, and eager to make lives for themselves."

"Who's going to pay for everything? We'll need work clothes for 'em, provisions until our first crop comes in, tools, vehicles, all sorts of things I don't have and can't pay for."

"Well, Paul, Mr. Timlinson speaks well of your son. He's made him foreman over the new hands we've supplied him with, and says that they and your boy are working hard. Someone who raised a son like that, I'm happy to furnish what he needs. You can pay me back in beef and corn."

"Bob, you got yourself a deal." They shook hands.

"Excuse me," Major Timisoara said, coming in the door. "The comtech's done with Mr. Higgins' omnicom."

"What's the verdict?" said the Governor, passing the machine from her to the rancher.

"It's working fine," she said. "The ROM was fried; I guess Mr. Higgins uses it in the field a lot, and the U-V got to it. We have the same problem with ours, so we carry spare ROMs."

"Damn," said the rancher, scrolling through the displays, "I don't think I even lost any files!" He looked up. "Tell your comtech he does good work, and give him my thanks."

"I'll do that, sir," said Major Timisoara. "I'm sure she'll be pleased to hear it."

Year Three: 2142 A.D. (2895 A.U.C.)

"Poison, I said. See for yourself," said Doctor Maldonado.

There was no sign of the cooks, who had fled in fear of being blamed. Those who had been in line had fled, too, and hid in the growing crowd; people were still coming in from the city, but how long before that stopped?

In the mess tents the bodies were everywhere. The smell of vomit and feces hung in the air. Curled beneath the heavy benches, flung into the aisles between the tables, even sprawled face down on the table tops amid the food and the overturned plates, they showed the agony they had endured before the poison stopped their hearts.

He closed the staring eyes of a little girl and tried to take the long view. No doubt she'd be just as dead, just as soon, in the city, and thousands upon thousands of others just like her. But she'd come to him, and put her trust in him, and she had died for it.

"We'll need a burial detail and a cleanup crew," he said around the lump in his throat. "Make sure they handle the bodies respectfully."

"No one will touch them," the doctor said.


Maldonado shrugged. Sweat gleamed on the bald head, the long thin face. "They've been living here instead of the city, they've become unfamiliar with death. They're afraid of it now. And these people died eating your food; others will fear that what you killed them with will kill them, too."

"I didn't kill them, damn you!"

"I know," the doctor said. "I'm just telling you how they will think."

The Governor sighed. "Major Timisoara…"

"I'll get some Marines on it right away, sir," she answered.

"Thank you. No body bags, Major. Keep them in open sight all the way to their graves, and bury them openly. Otherwise they'll be saying we took parts, or buried sacks of rocks and used the bodies for tomorrow's menu."

"Aye aye, Sir," she said.

"Damn them!" he said that evening, in private. "I knew the city vultures were desperate, but I thought we'd taught them to stay away from here. If they think they can come into my camp and poison people eating my food—!"

"That's just it," Alana said. "They wouldn't dare. I don't think it was them."

"Who then?"

"Someone connected with the ranchers. Someone who wants you discredited, at least partially, so that people will stop depending on you for food. Someone who wants the power himself; or someone who wants to sell the food himself, and charge his own price for it, not the price you set."

"Damn them!" he said, and kicked a chair across the room. He looked at her with tired eyes. "Do you know who it is?"

"I'll find out," she said grimly. "There were only so many who had the opportunity; only so many who had the means. This isn't a rich planet, and there aren't so many who could have done it."

"It is a rich planet. It just has too many people jammed into too small a place; and no one's ever done right by it."

"That's theory. I grew up here." She fingered her scar with an absent forefinger. "Will you let me find out? My way?"

He shrugged. "Is there anything I can do?"

"I'll call you if I need you. Otherwise I'll just bring you the answers, and you can sign the papers to make it official."

"Then I'm for bed," he said, standing up. "Tomorrow always comes, and it comes too soon." He looked back at her, his hand on the door. "Be careful," he said.

She patted the gun on her hip. "I'm not the one who needs to be careful; and it's too late for them who do."

He woke up when she slid into bed next to him. "Cold," he mumbled; her skin was like ice. She snuggled up to his back, all bare skin and muscle, and warmed herself on him.

Presently, "Did you get him?" he asked, when the thought bubbled up to the surface.

"Got him," she said sleepily. "Papers in the morning."

"Good," he said, and went back to sleep.

Year Four: 2143 A.D. (2896 A.U.C.)

"What are you doing in here?"

Two of them, small boys, dives immortales, they couldn't have been over eight years old, already wild as starved dogs, knives out in the meat locker, looking to steal some ham and scarf it down raw and run away before they were caught, gods, gods, had he accomplished nothing here?

"Well?" he demanded. He could hear Alana behind him, trying to get past him to put herself between him and the knives, but he just couldn't fear two children with one-inch blades, never mind he could pick up either one of them and break him like a stick, well-fed pig of an Earther that he was; he felt like they should be slicing bits off him.

Plainly they didn't like the odds; the knives disappeared, they licked their lips nervously. Dogs, he thought again; cornered dogs wag their tails if they think there's a chance. "We was only…" one of them started.

"Didn't you see the signs? Can't you smell the food cooking? You're going to miss breakfast fooling around in here."

The way they looked at him said they hadn't believed the signs. Oh, believed enough to come out here; but believed he was really giving food away, not for a minute. Maybe didn't recognize the smell of food cooking, or thought it was just another torment. So they went looking for the real food, found it in its treasury, thought to steal some and run.

"That way," he pointed. They went, resigned to their fates. One gave him a sickly grin, well, you can't blame us for trying, can you? Can you? The corporal of the guard, only seventeen years old himself, took them into custody outside the door, and at a word from the major, marched them off towards the cook shacks. And if they went like cattle to the slaughter, dammit, he knew they were going to be fed a decent breakfast, maybe for the first time in their lives.

The gods send they could keep it down.

Waiting in line, surrounded by clients (he wouldn't call them transportees even in his own mind, most of them were children, damn it), guards, farm workers, office workers, technicians, he drew her close and said softly, in the constant loud babble around them, "Have I told you lately how much I love you?"

She smiled a little, against her will even, she was so proud and this was so public a place; she guarded his dignity like she guarded his body. Tall as he was, maybe an inch or two taller, embassy children got fed on this world before he came, if no one else. "No," she said, equally softly, "not for, oh, it must be a couple of hours now."

"Well, I do," he said, and kissed her softly, right on the dimple. The closest they had to wedding vows, "I do" and a kiss at odd moments.

"Do you know why you're here?"

The man shrugged. "Don't know," he said.

"You're well off, for this planet," the Governor said. "Even got a bit of an education. I can use you."

The man shrugged again. "Druther not be used."

The Governor smiled. "I must have missed the part where I was giving you a choice. Jupiter best and greatest knows I never got one. There's a boy," he said.

"Lots of boys," the man said.

"Too true," said the Governor. "And most of them never get a chance to become men. But we're going to give this one a try, you and I."

The man just looked at him. The Governor said, "Here's the deal. You take the boy. You raise him. We'll keep an eye on both of you. If he turns out all right, I'll make you rich. If he turns out scum, I'll break you."

The man shifted. "Why?"

"I just told you why."

"No. I mean, why me?" Not 'Why are you doing this?' the Governor noted. They must be figuring out, then, that he meant what he said, that he really was determined to try to make things better. He supposed that was good news. Now if only they would help…

"Why not you? You can afford another mouth, and if you had help, you could even expand a bit. Think of it as gaining a pair of hands. Or a son, even."

"A son."

The car began pulling away. "Go, boy!" The boy looked at him, not understanding. "Now! Hurry!"

"With him?"

"Hurry! He's getting away!"

The boy took off from a sitting start, ye gods, how the city rats could run! Yelling, waving, you'd think they'd know better than to waste energy.

The man stuck his head out the driver's window. "Come on, boy, this car don't go no slower except in reverse!"

And then the boy really began to run, through the dust, through the lines of people trudging in from the old city, through the tents of the new city beginning to grow around the farm, and the last they saw of him, the passenger-side door opened, and he dove in.

The Governor swallowed a bite of breakfast, and said to his lady, "Think I did the right thing?"

"Ask me in twenty years," she replied.

Year Twenty-Four: 2163 A.D. (2916 A.U.C.)

He actually looked forward to visitors from off-planet, now. They were fresh faces, for one thing; for another, they exhibited none of the shock and revulsion they used to, back when he'd received them inside razor wire, after a trip from the space port with a fire fight on the way in as often as not. The last batch had been quite complimentary; one lady had been so kind as to say that Gardena was every bit as nice a city as she'd expected. Gardena was the name of the rubble heap where the ships used to land, inhabited now by snakes and scorpions, if that; the new place was called Farmington. He'd just smiled and thanked her.

He gathered things had progressed quite a bit while he'd been wrestling with his particular swampful of alligators. The alien worlds had stayed awake, rather than lapsing back into mourning for their old masters, and the human worlds had gone from What do we do now? to What can we do next? Some humans and some aliens had even settled some worlds together, while the Childe worlds were putting together an expedition for one of the nearer globular clusters, out in the galactic halo.

His first intimation of trouble came from the Marine who escorted his visitors into his office. Instead of Alana, it was Captain Fuentes, son of her old friend, now retired. "Sir," he said, and handed Robert a note.

The handwriting was Alana's; he'd seen it on his omnicom too many times to mistake it. Let them do the talking, it said. Grant nothing. Be there ASAP. He shoved it into a desk drawer, and looked up. There were three of them: a tall Navy Captain name-tagged LABROT, whom he'd met before; a muscular blond Marine Lieutenant-Colonel whose name tag said IOHANNES; and a fortyish-looking civilian with a little black goatee and mustache to match his wavy black hair, dressed in what had to be the very latest fashion, just by the way he wore it.

"Gentlemen," he said, "won't you be seated?" He glanced at Captain Fuentes, who showed no intention of sitting or leaving, but took up a position of parade rest beside the door. Orders? Let them do the talking, she'd written; so he didn't comment on it.

"Captain LaBrot, good to see you again," he said instead. "Colonel Iohannes, dicisne Latine?"

"Ita, Excellentia. Cave," the Marine replied. The Governor kept his face affable. Yes, Excellency. Watch out, Iohannes had said, his eyes darting at the civilian on his left.

"Good to hear the mother tongue." He looked at the last of the three. "I'm afraid you have the advantage of me," he said.

"Yes, I fancy I do," the civilian drawled, one leg crossed over the other. Jupiter Optimus et Maximus, Robert thought, has that speech affectation come back again?

"Permit me," said Captain LaBrot, "to introduce Your Excellencies to each other. Governor Franklin, this is Robert Marius Augustus, Governor of Eden. Governor Augustus, this is George Samuel Franklin, Governor-designate of Eden." He cleared his throat. "Governor Franklin has been selected as your replacement, sir." The goateed U.N. official nodded his confirmation.

His replacement? It had never occurred to him. A montage flashed before his eyes: Eden from space; the first time he'd seen a Marine squad fire on a city crowd; the embassy walls crumbling; a boy and a girl gobbling food on a bench in the cook tent; a suspicious rancher with a shotgun in his hand; Alana's face asleep in starlight—and where the hell was she, anyway? Grant nothing, he remembered.

"I beg your pardon," he said. "There must be some mistake."

"It's early yet to talk of pardons," Franklin said, swinging a lazy foot back and forth. "There'll have to be a complete investigation first."

He started to get angry then. "Investigation? Investigation of what?" he said quietly.

"There are charges," said Franklin, "of terrorism; of murder; of grand larceny; of genocide; possibly even treason against the U.N. Constitution; and violations of the Universal Charter of Human Rights."

He saw in a flash their plan for him: try him, convict him, ship him off. Would they quietly pardon him, and let him retire to some frontier planet, never to be heard of again? Imprison him, where someone could cut his throat in the night? Or just stand him against a wall and shoot him?

"You forgot jaywalking and spitting on the sidewalk," he said. That made them sit up, the Captain astonished, the Major with respect, the would-be Governor indignant. He dared not look at the Marine by the door. Be there ASAP. All right, stall.

"We're getting ahead of ourselves," he told them. "You, sir; I assume you have credentials to show me?"

Franklin shrugged. "If you like," he drawled. "I can assure you they're perfectly in order."

"In order pro forma? Probably," said the Governor—damned if he'd cede the title before he had to. "In order pro rebus?" He lifted one eyebrow.

"What does that mean?" Franklin asked Iohannes.

"Sir, he says that your papers probably are correct in form, it's their content he doubts," the Latin Marine said.

"I see," Franklin said. He shrugged again. "My briefcase is in the outer office, Colonel."

"Yes, sir," said Iohannes, and left the office. He came back after a moment with a sheaf of official-looking papers; at a nod from Franklin, he came to Robert's desk and passed them over.

Official U.N. documents they certainly were, starting with the embossed seal of the continents of Earth in an olive wreath of peace, still the U.N. emblem even now that other worlds were member states. To underscore that, the Secretary-General's name, at the end, was almost certainly Martian.

"Take your time," Franklin invited him frostily.

He intended to. Whereas it has come to the attention of the United Nations Directorate for Colony Worlds… Robert Marius Augustus, presently Governor of and for the world of Eden… Whereas the following crimes are alleged to have been committed… Now therefore… George S. Franklin is hereby appointed Governor of said planet… there to proceed with all convenient haste… for the investigation of the allegations above detailed. There was more, lots more, but that was the gist. All in proper form, down to the last ridiculous comma.

The gods witness that he'd never expected the public acclaim of an admiring nation, but this was ingratitude to rank with Justinian's putting out Belisarius' eyes (if one believed the story of that acid-penned scandal monger, Procopius). To be here all these years, to work as hard as he had done, to go through all that he had, to accomplish so much—and now this. To provide deniability, no doubt; by convicting him of the worst interpretation of anything he'd done, they got themselves a tidy little colony world all fixed, and clean hands to rule it for them.

Like hell they did!

Alana came in just in time to prevent him from saying something as satisfying as it would have been regrettable; it flew from his mind when he saw her.

Nothing further from Lieutenant-Colonel Timisoara of the U.N. Marine Corps could be imagined than the elegant, dainty creature that swished through the door in a rustle of skirts and a wave of delicate perfume. Every man in the room stood up. "Sorry to keep you waiting, darling," she cooed, and came around his desk and kissed him. She was wearing lipstick; he hadn't known she owned any. "I haven't said anything," he whispered.

"You've been perfect; leave the rest to me," she whispered back. Of course she had monitored the meeting through Captain Fuentes's omnicom, while she gussied up. He didn't know how she'd produced enough hair to pile on her head that way, or put such curls in it. It must be a wig, but damned if he could tell.

"Well, now that I'm here, introduce our guests, dear."

Our guests, he thought. "Certainly, my love. This is Captain LaBrot of UNNS Pusan." He didn't know how he was supposed to introduce her, so he didn't. Didn't know whether he should say, "whom you may remember," knowing full well she did. Not having a script, he'd better say as little as he could.

She held his left arm with both hands and flashed a smile at the dazzled Navy man. "Captain LaBrot," she acknowledged.

"Madam," the Captain replied courteously. Couldn't he recognize her, scar and all? No, he was looking at it. Like the Governor, he was saying as little as possible.

"And this is Lieutenant-Colonel Iohannes of the UNMC," Robert said. He pronounced it the Latin way, Yo-hawn-ness, not Joe-han-nizz as an English monoglot would; and emphasized it, before he remembered she'd heard the earlier conversation. Well, so much the better, to act as if she hadn't been listening.

"Welcome, Colonel," she said warmly.

"Tuam ad servitutem, medomina," Iohannes said, with respect; At thy service, my lady, as to a noblewoman.

"Last, but hardly least," said the Governor, "this is His Excellency, Mr. Franklin from the United Nations."

"Mr. Ambassador!" she cried, and advanced around the desk to take Franklin's hands in hers. "Welcome to our little world. We hardly expected a response so quickly."

"Pardon? I mean, charmed, Madam, I'm sure," he said. "I do hope you'll forgive me, but I'm afraid I didn't catch your name."

"I know," she said, and threw a laughing glance over her shoulder at the Governor. "Robert is just hopeless at introductions," she confided to Franklin. "Then, too, we've been on our own for so long that he forgets that newcomers don't know everybody already. Sit, gentlemen, please! Robert, these gentlemen have nothing to drink! What's wrong with you?"

"But Madam," Franklin broke in desperately, "you still haven't told me who you are."

Alana laughed. "Oh dear, I'm as bad as he is!" She held out her left hand. There on the ring finger, which Robert knew damn well had been bare this morning, sat his mother's wedding ring; and he hadn't even known that she knew that he had it.

"I'm Alana Augustus," she told Franklin, smiling, "the President's wife."

Light dawned in the Governor's mind—no, he was President now, he must remember. The hardest part would be to keep a straight face; they mustn't see that this was all news to him. He cast a quick mind back over the conversation so far. She was right, he saw, he'd played it perfectly; and he was going to strangle her for not discussing it with him when she'd come up with it, however long ago that had been!

Meanwhile Franklin was turning an interesting shade of apoplectic red, or maybe heart-attack purple. LaBrot said, rather more diplomatically than the civilian probably could at the moment, "Congratulations, Madam. When was the happy event?"

Alana laughed. "Oh, we have no children, Captain."

"I meant your husband becoming President."

"Oh! About a year ago, though of course with the constitutional convention, and the campaigning, and the elections, it seems as though it's been happening forever," she said.

"I see," said LaBrot. "You realize the U.N. will have to be notified, and they'll want to send commissioners to examine the records, and then decide how to react? They may wish to offer U.N. membership; they'll certainly want to send an ambassador pro tem."

"But I thought Mr. Franklin was the ambassador," she said."We sent copies of our records with the Sarajevo last year; isn't that why you're here?"

"No," said Robert, with a certain relish, "Mr. Franklin is here to replace me as Governor, dear."

"Governor? But we're independent now. Post-colonial worlds don't have Governors, they have Presidents."

"Well," said LaBrot, "this changes matters greatly. Mr. President, if you would care to make another copy of all the records pertaining to your planetary constitution, the elections, and your laws, I will personally guarantee they're delivered to the Directorate for Colony Worlds, so they can examine them and move your recognition by the General Assembly; as I will certainly recommend. As for the other matter, obviously it's moot."

"What other matter?" Alana asked.

"Never mind," Robert said, scooping up the U.N. papers and shoving them into the same desk drawer as her note. He closed it with the click of the drawer lock.

"You won't get away with this!" Franklin said. "No matter what papers you've trumped up, there won't be any records on the Sarajevo; other ships will testify that you've been Governor, not President; U.N. investigators will discover there was no election—"

"Shut up," said Robert Marius Augustus. There was instant silence. He was a little surprised; he hadn't known he had such a voice in him, like the knell of a brazen gong.

"Even if everything you said were true," he continued, "the U.N. won't do a thing except recognize us and invite us to join. We are an independent world, and have been for some time; ask my lady, who was born here. All the U.N. gave us was a mob of displaced persons we didn't want and couldn't support, without so much as a 'kiss my ass' by way of apology."

"And if the U.N. wants to turn us back into a colony world and exploit us, not only do we have channels into the U.N. net for publicizing any moves against us, some of us have Childe connections, too."

"What?" said Franklin.

"What indeed," smiled Augustus. "My father is an NAU Senator, and one of my grandmothers is a Childe cull. Perhaps you recall that the original Childe ship was built in Earth orbit? My grandparents kept it from being hijacked."

"I won't even mention," he said with Ciceronian irony, "that I'm Latin, like Colonel Iohannes here. Not all Latins are Childe; but all Childes are Latin."

"Captain LaBrot," he finished, "why don't you and the Colonel take Mr. Franklin back to the Pusan and see that he gets a good night's rest and time to think things over? If my lady has the ship's net access," Alana nodded, "we'll send you those records soon."

As soon as they were gone, he sat down in his office chair, legs suddenly weak. Then oofed as Alana sat in his lap, arms around his neck. "You were magnificent," she breathed, and kissed him thoroughly.

"You weren't bad yourself," he said. "Still, he's right, there won't be any records on the Sarajevo. That will give them all the proof they need, if they want to do anything."

"Oh, there are records on the Sarajevo," she assured him. "Too bad they got corrupted, so the U.N. never got the word, but the time and date stamps are intact. There were also records on the Inchon, the Syrtis Major, and every other ship that's stopped here the last few years, but the others have time-expired and self-deleted."

"What about the constitution, the government, the—"

"All real," she said, "even the election. Not everyone wanted to be independent, but everyone agreed it was our best defense, if the U.N. bureaucracy tried to burn us again. Here's the file set," she said, and opened it on his omnicom. "All the posts are real, and you'll recognize the names of the people elected to them. If the votes were cast one by one by omnicom, instead of by paper ballots with everyone physically present, so what? They were cast."

"I'm really President," he marveled.

"Yes, and now we'll have to hold occasional ceremonial sessions, too," she sighed, "and provide headquarters for a U.N. consul. So much for the good old days."

"But how did you do it?"

"How? I was born here!" she said. "Everyone in those files you're looking at, was born here. Think we were going to let them shit on us again?"

"Just glad to be included in the 'us'," he said peaceably.

"You have your moments," she said, and kissed him again.

"So," he said, "going to be Marine Commandant and First Lady both?"

"Nope. I just retired, with a bump in rank to full Colonel and a generous pension, I might add. You'll find that this First Lady is a strong supporter of veterans' benefits."

"What a surprise. Speaking of surprises, how long have we been married?"

"Does it matter?"

"Guess not. Just let me know when our anniversary is coming up. How did you forge my signature?"

"Forge my eye! Honestly, Robert, the things you sign without reading them first—"

"Guess I'd better start reading everything now."

"Too late," she said, which he had to admit was only true.

One thing, though—"I'm afraid there's one thing we have to change," he said. "Maybe you can alter the files before you send them to the Pusan, or maybe we should make it our first order of real business, but it has to change."

She looked anxious and skeptical at the same time. "You see something we all missed?" After all, he'd done it before.

"Oh, yes," he said. "Eden—that's the name of the place you're given for nothing, then you lose it forever. The place you work for, the place you earn—" he cupped her face in his hands.

"That's Heaven," he said; and kissed his wife.

From the diary of R. M. Augustus, first President of Heaven:


Paint it with broad strokes,
No time for fine;
Paint it with wide strokes,
Don't niggle the line.
The Muse who dropt the burden whole
Labored long in the lonely dark:
So seize the bow, and loose the shaft,
And trust it finds its mark.

About this story

Copyright © 2003 by Green Sky Press. All rights reserved.

The Gostak Distims the Doshes

Economic Warfare in 27th-Century Apalasia

Auctor: Orionis, Leo David, O. L., U. Calafiensis

Notate Bene: In the computerized version of this article, clicking on footnotes and bibliographic citations will take you to that information; and clicking on that information will return you to your former location. Purchasers of the print edition of this magazine may buy copies of the article or the issue in various computer formats. See the colophon of the print edition, or the purchasing information on our website, for prices. Gratias vobis.—The Editors

The Gostak Riots of 2692 are usually portrayed as a clash between the rich and the not-rich, or between youth and seniority. Certainly the factors1 of the Gostacerium Praeseodymium were mature, wealthy men, while their opposition was notably young, middle-class or below, or both.

Yet this is only a surface reading of one of the most important events between the Oclahomma Dosh Rush of 2649 and the Mundane War. Had the Vice-Emperor of Hippolytana acted differently, this writer believes that the consequences could well have been as serious as a Han victory in Transoceana.

The Importance of Doshes

Dosh is so central to our way of life that we find it hard to appreciate, as a fish is hardly aware of water. A 25th-century wit called civilization "a condition preceded by forests and followed by deserts." Had he said, "preceded by dosheries and followed by nedoshes," he would have been no less correct.

The distribution of the human race on Mother Earth is determined in the first order by (a) the availability of fresh water and of salt, and (b) mean temperature, mediated by distance from the Equator and by elevation above sea level. Imperial geographers have demonstrated that there is only one second-order determinant: the world-wide distribution of dosheries [Cymara].

The Egyptians were the first nation to build gostaks for distimming doshes; the abundance of dosheries, no less than the outpourings of their gold and silver and copper mines, fueled Pharaoh's dominance of the ancient East. It's also interesting to note that the oldest known law suit, written in cuneiform on a baked clay tablet, is between two parties disputing ownership of a gostak [Daryush, p. 348]; while, fourteen centuries before the founding of the City, the King of the Hittites asked aid of Egypt against the People of the Sea, entreating Egypt to send electrum and dosh to buy mercenaries [Lugdunensis, no. 1024].

The scarcity of dosheries made the Greek cities weak and easily conquered, while their great abundance in Hibernia made the conquest of Britain an important intermediate goal for the early Empire. Had the Hibernians known how to build efficient gostaks, they might well have remained outside the Imperium; as it was, the greater efficiency of Roman gostaks, even in the Ninth Century, made Imperial victory inevitable. Just as inevitable, for the same reasons, was the southward flow into and eventual conquest of sub-African Cingutana, and the development of the whole continent into the wealth, prestige, and political influence of today [Procopius, Cap. 12, "Economic Factors"].

Dosh has become more important and more pervasive as Roman science has progressed. Coal gave way to steam, which yielded to electricity generated by a variety of means, including wind, solar, tidal, and nuclear power. Before the age of steam, dosh made up ten percent of a legionnaire's kit by weight, and twelve percent of a trireme's structure and cargo by bulk; for a modern dosheant-bearing infantryman and a modern jet airdosher, the percentages rise to fifteen and twenty, respectively [Rhaetius, p. 600, fig. 12].

Building a Better Gostak

As we saw above, having an abundance of dosheries is not as important as being able to process their output. Modern chemistry began with the hit-and-miss attempts of the Greeks to distim raw dosh into usable forms. With the abundance of safe dosh from modern gostaks, we tend to forget that raw dosh, if eaten, is poisonous; if smoked, causes pharyngeal cancer as well as liver and spleen failure; if molded, is brittle; and if woven, easily torn.

Up to the 12th Century, Imperial gostaks used lye for the first stage of the distimming process, human urine for the second stage, and river water to flush the dosh after each stage. The noxious effluent drained into the same river, leading to livestock death downstream. Modern plants use inorganic bases and acids, flush with distilled water, process the effluent to recover the active ingredients, and reduce the remainder to a very small amount of sludge, which is carefully interred in unbreakable containers.

Building the civic gostak was always one of the earliest projects at a new colony's site, more urgent than the amphitheater and even more important than the mill. Like the amphitheater or the baths, ownership of the gostak was invested in the city, and it was managed and operated by public officials. The reason for this should be obvious—the citizenry could grind their own grain without a mill, but a household could not build and operate its own gostak without great risk to itself and its neighbors [Grosser, Cap. 8, "Tanneries and Distimmeries"].

A Brief Background

Such was the accepted wisdom in the year 2692 after the founding of the City, not only in Transoceanian Hippolytana, but throughout the Empire and the world. The events of that year can be best explained, I believe, not as political ambition or a clash of generational values, but as simple greed.

M. Nitius Rufus had distinguished himself as a cavalry officer in Oclahomma, putting down native uprisings with notable brutality while treating his own men scarcely less harshly. His desertion rate was exceeded only by his rate of success against Han border incursions, and the Han Emperor's Transpacific governors sent an unceasing stream of protests to their Roman counterparts over Nitius' atrocities and violations of the laws of war2.

Yanked from active duty and denied a command in the Emperor's service, Nitius was nevertheless popular with a certain class of journalist, due to his non-regulation dress and grooming, and his equally colorful (and quotable) opinions of the natives, the Han, and his civil and military superiors. Their support emboldened him to run for Censor of Nebrasca Caesaria, which election he lost by a landslide. At this point he was approached by the publisher of Tribunus Dacotensis, a regional news sheet.

Aulus Pontius Bithynius made his living as a publisher, but his political career had brought him to the sub-governorship of Dacota. As such he could approve new colonies, though his approval could be overturned by the governor. The purely imaginary colony of Praeseodymium was to be the official location of Pontius' gostak. Actually it was just over the border from the Apalasian town of Gregorius, so that it could draw away the Gregorian gostak's income.

When Nitius was introduced to P. Lydius Minor, C. Taurentius Varro, and the others who had contributed money to Pontius' enterprise, he asked why they needed him. The conspirators assured him that they wanted not his money, but his prestige to add to that of Pontius. If their intent was to secure a possible scapegoat, their judgment was as faulty as it was when they estimated public reaction to their scheme.

Opposition, confined to workers in the legitimate gostak at first, grew when that gostak was shut down and all doshes had to be distimmed at Praeseodymium, much further away. The lower prices at the new gostak made up for the inconvenience and kept protest at a grumble. But after the old gostak closed, prices at the new one were set higher than they had been at the defunct, legitimate gostak. A public uproar ensued.

Praeseodymium supporters, mainly the conspirators and their employees, argued that the arrangement was legal as long as there was an operating gostak—"The gostak distims the doshes." (Gostacerium doscedes distimet.) Opponents protested that anything that made dosh more expensive would ultimately reduce the supply; their slogan was "The gostak distims the doshes," (Doscedes gostacerium distimet, or even Doscedes gostacerio distimentur). Next to these economic concerns, I believe the generational gap between the wealthier, older Praeseodymium supporters and the working-class, younger opposition (sometimes in the same household) was irrelevant.

It was alleged, though never proven, that the ex-legionnaires who set upon and beat Ma. Septimus Narses, the factor of the legitimate gostak, were hired by Nitius. Whoever hired them, the authorities could no longer ignore such civil disorder.

M. Nitius Rufus was arrested by the commander of the 53rd Legion (Tipicanus Victoria) acting under the order of the governor of Apalasia and the Vice-Emperor of Hippolytana. He was convicted of "actions detrimental to the public good", fined 500 caesars, and held under house arrest for a year. When the Mundane War began in 2712, he was assigned command of the Second Brigade of the 41st Legion (Pauvatanni Negri). In 2714, in forward operations against the enemy, he divided his forces on the shore of the Great Salt Lake in Liu-Shen Province. Each division of his command was engaged in turn by a combined Han and Ute force with overwhelmingly superior numbers; there were no Roman survivors [Sylvestris, pp. 1430-1435].

Aulus Pontius Bithynius was convicted of the same charge, fined, and exiled from Apalasia. He took the Via Nacessia to Hadriana and Tehas, and retired from public life. In 2715 he died in his sleep in his villa outside Considia, Tehas [Lopessis].

The other conspirators were fined lesser amounts and served no prison time. The writer could find none of them in a computer search of the 2750 Hippolytan Census, so their destinies are unknown.

Not Political

The Praeseodymium Incident has been often examined, occurring as it did in a sensitive time—just before the Mundane War—and a sensitive place—the frontier between Han Transpacifica and Roman Transoceana. Ultimately, despite all the verbiage, it has been dismissed as an historical curiosity of no lasting importance. I believe this is wrong. I intend to show that it was the aborted birth of something far more dangerous than any war, and that the furor and alarm it evoked at the time was fully justified, even though those expressing them may have reacted more from an instinct for danger than from reason.

The usual interpretation of the gostak incident is that it was a variation of the age-old political conspiracy. However, in such a conspiracy, a politically important individual recruits others, through compromising information or a promise of political power, to support him in a bid for higher office. In the early days of the Empire, before the Constitution, this usually meant attempting to seize the purple. In today's Empire, the rare conspiracy usually involves political maneuvers to force the local governor or vice-emperor to appoint the conspirators to offices for which they aren't qualified, or otherwise could little hope for.

But Pontius was not a person of any conventional importance. As a newspaper publisher he might influence public opinion to such degree as his readers were unable to distinguish fact from opinion, but no more; and his position as a subgubernator carried just enough power to charter a new colony, provided his superior did not check for the actual existence of the town, or grow suspicious when the usual municipal paperwork failed to appear.

Further, Pontius was not seeking higher office or greater power, which helps to explain why he was not stopped earlier. His goal was not power, but money. By charging a lower fee initially for his illegal gostak's services, he hoped to seize the legal distimmery's income, as a pirate might seize a merchant's cargo. His political maneuvers were all to make this possible and then let him get away with it.

His confederates, moreover, were not chosen for political power, nor sworn by a pact of treason. Instead, they were chosen for their wealth, which they contributed by "buying" portions of the gostak, which did not yet exist. With this money, Pontius bought land and material, hired workers, and created the gostak.

Though the conspirators had no polical goals, it is good that the vice-emperor reacted as he did, for the economic consequences of their success could have been devastating.

What Is Money?

The Lydians invented money as a convenient way of recording the outcome of trading. Before money, if a wine merchant delivered wine to a copper mine, he would have to accept copper hides in payment, then trade the hides to, perhaps, the shipowner who would bring in the next cargo of amphoras. Often the cycle of trading would be much longer than this. Not only did it involve lots of dickering (how many cotton shirts do you exchange for a basket of fish?), it was inefficient. The time that the wine merchant spent transporting and trading copper hides was time he was not trading in wine.

Money makes trade more efficient. Each merchant sells only his own product, and is paid a standard amount of money for it, which he can use anywhere to buy whatever he needs at standard prices. Money has problems of its own—it can be stolen easily, it can be counterfeited, and it can be adulterated (as witness the coinage of some of the early emperors). But by and large, the Lydian Experiment has to be judged a success [Clericus].

Success and Disaster

If the Praeseodymium plot is judged as inconsequential, it is because it happened to fail. To properly evaluate it, I believe, one must examine the consequences had it succeeded, which none of the literature has done.

The Praeseodymium plotters sought not power, but money. Yet they were already wealthy, as their purchases of Praeseodymium "shares" demonstrate. What would be the use of even greater wealth than they had already? Can a man sleep in more than one bed at a time, eat more than a full belly's worth of food, or drink more than a certain amount of wine without spewing it up again?

Given the obvious answer, we must infer a kind of money-fever, like the dosh-fever that drove the forty-niners or the power-hunger of early emperors like Nero and Caligula. The source of this pathology is less ominous than the effects on society if it were widespread, or customary.

If money were an actual thing, desirable for its own sake, and amassed in quantities far greater than the amount of property a single person might sensibly own, what might the consequences be for a society?

Might it not create a kind of business that the world has never seen? Instead of a business created by its owner and passed to his son, dedicated to the manufacture of a product or the management of a shop, imagine a group of men like the Praeseodymium conspirators being the norm. If money were the only object of a business, might not every business seek to become the only business in its field, by destroying its competition? By selling "shares" to the wealthy, and using the money thus raised to underwrite reduced prices, might a business not achieve exactly that? And once it had achieved its goal, might it not charge whatever it wished, now that its customers had nowhere else to turn? And was that not exactly what the Praeseodymium cabal intended, and tried to bring about?

That they did not succeed was largely because of public outrage stirred by the factor whom they targeted, and the vigorous response of an alert governor. But what if the factor had been a meeker man, or they had paid him money as part of the plot? What if the public had been less independent and outspoken than our Hippolytan colonists? What if Pontius had been the governor instead of the sub-governor, with troops at his disposal? What if the governor of Apalasia, or the aedile of Gregorius, had been part of the plot?

Let such a plot succeed once, and the same plotters, or imitators, may try again. Let them succeed often enough, and a new kind of business has been added to the economic model: a business whose sole aim is to make money for its "shareholders", without regard for the consequences to the public good or the economy. If it becomes widespread enough, can even the Emperor stamp it out? If it rises and spreads in a remote part of the Empire (and only Luna and Mars are more remote than Transoceana), would the Emperor even hear about it, if the governor and vice-emperor were lax, blind to the danger, or part of the plot? And what if a venal emperor became a "shareholder" himself?

The danger is not so much the political power that men of extreme wealth might wield (Though it could be considerable. Imagine a modern Maecenas buying votes, bribing legislators to pass laws in his favor, or purchasing all the newspapers in a province so that he could shape public opinion at will). The real danger would arise when such extreme wealth became respectable instead of monstrous. If a man of vast wealth were permitted to do anything he wished, who but the Emperor could check him? There are laws regulating the power of the Emperor, the Senate, the Assembly of Tribunes, all the organs of power; but who shall keep our new Maecenas from any abuse that pleases him?

The Crash of '29

It's not hard to imagine a world controlled by individuals who lust after political power above all else, as though political power were a real thing worth pursuing and having, like the love of a beautiful woman, or mastery of the flute. We have enough horrible examples in our history of single people who suffered from such a dementia, that we can dimly extrapolate a hell in which it were common. Whether we can fully imagine what such a world would be like, in all its particulars, I sincerely doubt; but at least the bow exists to launch the arrow, whether it hits the gold or not.

We are unequipped to imagine a world in which money is regarded as a real thing, desirable in and of itself. What would be the consequences if money, rather than honor and happiness, were the supreme passion of large numbers of people? How would everyday life be lived, and how would our public and private institutions be shaped, if the supreme standard by which all things were judged were "How much money will this get for me?" or "How much money will this cost me?"

The speculative-fiction novel of last year, The Crash of '29 [Paloma], posits a world in which companies are largely unregulated, and are owned not by a single person but by hundreds of people ("shareholders") who have each bought one or more portions of the ownership of the company ("shares"). Indeed, in this imaginary world of 3029, shares were often bought and sold, and almost everyone had "invested" far more than he could afford to lose. Thus, when a company on a planet of another star couldn't meet its debt payments, it dishonored itself by refusing to make any further payments. Other companies to which it owed money were forced to do the same, despite the public disgrace; and in the end all the companies failed (the "crash" of the title). The Empire in that novel drew its income from taxes on the citizens ("income tax"), so not only the citizens but the government itself found itself without funds. Remarkably, though real property and real wealth were unchanged, the mere lack of money made it impossible for people to live, because the "economy", enormously inflated by billions of caesars of unreal money, had "crashed".

Though Crash was widely read, the critics found it weak and unconvincing. In particular, they found the hypnotic non-human beings who engineered the entire chain of events, so that they could conquer the Empire without an army, unrealistic. They also didn't believe that people would place so much importance on money, nor that, if they did, they would then readily assume so much debt, or that they would be so helpless if the money went away.

But The Crash of '29 is an eerily accurate picture of what might happen if the Praeseodymium plot had succeeded. If speculative financing and ownership of profit-only companies became the norm, wouldn't everyone want to buy shares? And wouldn't ownership be divided into enough shares that everyone could indeed buy, thus maximizing sales? And wouldn't an unwise government see this sudden new wealth as a source of income? And wouldn't the whole structure, founded less and less on anything real, become shakier and shakier, until it must fall?

The scariest thing about linking Crash and the Praeseodymium plot is that it eliminates the improbable "aliens". Given the spread of publicly-owned, for-profit "corporations", we would do it to ourselves!

Even if such companies did not fail all at once, their effect on life would be predatory and devastating. Like an old carp introduced into a pond of young ones, they would begin gobbling everything up. What ordinary company, faced with the abnormally low prices that a corporation could afford to subsidize, would be able to compete? In short order all the ordinary companies would be replaced by shops of the same size, but owned by the corporation. Millions of independent business owners would be replaced by a smaller number of dependent wage earners, whose income came solely from the "corporations", who dared not quit and were paid less than a free business owner would make. Enough of the difference would go to keep the shareholders happy, after the corporate management took their cut, to perpetuate this system of economic slavery. The fact that this picture, and these terms, comes from a speculative-fiction novel, doesn't mean it couldn't happen.

Products in a Corporate World

Much of our way of life would fall victim to a world run by and for money-making corporations, who have no goal beyond the making of money. The pride of the working man would suffer, for he would work for a corporation that didn't care about the quality of his work, as long as he did it "well enough" that the customers, who had long forgotten what good quality was like, could tolerate it. The worker would find it difficult to start his own business, for only a large corporation could compete with the existing corporations, and such are not begun with one man's savings. If somehow he did succeed in establishing a place for himself in the market, the corporations would bring political pressure against him, or simply purchase his business, with or without his consent.

One imagines that nothing would escape being a product in the corporate world. The old empire had slavery, for instance. Can we say with certainty that the corporate world would not revive it, even uglier than before? If you buy a man, and own him, you need not pay him any wages whatsoever. A corporate world would probably not develop space travel; it would "cost too much money", for no immediate financial reward. But if it did, and found exploitable non-human species on other planets, would it hesitate to turn them into products? "Alien" slaves would not have to be branded or collared, for their appearance would mark them as slaves from birth. Apologists for slavery would soon develop a sales pitch that said the aliens were inferior, because humans found them and not the other way around; slavery would be made to sound like doing them a favor by civilizing them, as certain writers said of "the barbarians" in the early empire. This poisonous racial lie could well spread throughout the Empire and down the centuries, polluting the minds of slave and slaver alike, forever.

Equally serious is the effect that corporate money would have on the arts. In a world run by money, where everything had to be bought and paid for, art would be just another product. What artist could be wise enough to turn down the universal exposure that corporate sponsorship would bring? And what corporate Crassus could resist the idea that he knows more than anyone else about everything, because his corporation makes money in a world where that is all that counts? How long before art cannot exist without corporate sponsorship, and the form and content of that "art" is dictated by the corporations? Art that couldn't be sold would surely die stillborn. So would art that corporations believed couldn't be sold, or that the artists believed couldn't be sold.

The metamorphosis of art into corporate "product" is surely the worst foreseeable consequence of a corporate world that might have arisen had the Praeseodymium plot succeeded. Surely there are others that we fortunate citizens of the real world cannot imagine!


The importance of a nation's economic models is little appreciated. The early Empire mostly fought savages inferior in martial organization, weapons technology, and population. This let the Empire conquer even though it had no Constitution and was often wracked by civil war3. Defeats by the Persians underscored the need to establish the Empire on a firm foundation of law, but Persian and Roman economies were qualitatively similar [Asimovus], so the Imperial Constitution addresses political rights and curtails abuses of political power. It remains weak on economic rights and abuses of economic power.

The rejection of dosh by the Han, on religious grounds, left them at a technological disadvantage in the Mundane War. Desperate as the times may have seemed during the War, the Han electronic binary computers were no match for our multitronic decimal ones, "firearms" for dosheants, "airplanes" for airdoshers, nor "tanks" for armored autodoshers. Only the size of the Han population allowed their production to stay within shouting distance of ours [Sylvestris, pp. 225-240].

It has been widely suggested that the Han forced the war before their technological handicap could grow worse. Another point, which a search of the literature has not turned up, is that had they waited, they would have fallen under our control in any case, because of their economic deficiencies were as great as their technological ones. Unlike Roman money, Han currency was printed paper, without intrinsic value4, and represented whatever the issuing authority said it did. The "real" value of a note, or "bill", varied over time, depending on how many such notes were printed, how many the fiscal authorities allowed to circulate, and laws passed to shore up or bring down the price of various goods. Also, currency being printed by local mandarins and merchant houses, many notes were not recognized outside their province of origin. Others were recognized, but accepted at a rate subject to corruption and political regulation. It has been argued that this uncoupling of money from value would have defeated the Han in time, regardless of any armed conflict [Eboracensis].

In the second half of the 28th century, the Empire is preoccupied with absorbing the Han and organizing them into Roman vice-imperia. Given the size of Hippolytana the continent, setting up the former Han provinces here as the vice-empire of Cispacifica, rather than including them in the vice-empire of Hippolytana, was wise. Future vice-emperors may well choose to petition the Senate to further divide this continent, or further divide Eastern Asia and the Pacific islands [Cicero].

Looking to the future, it must be obvious to all that the consolidation and rule of Terra and the Solar System must be settled between Rome and Cuzco. Whether this will be determined by a Supermundane War, or by diplomacy, is a matter for Emperors (but see Laurentius [Laurentius] for some very intriguing suggestions).

But whatever form the struggle takes, economic models will be very important. Roman and Quechuan technology are very similar, nor are our political systems too different. Our economic systems, however, differ vastly.

How much will it matter that our Emperor owns no more than any other great noble, while the God-King of the Quechua owns everything, including the people themselves? How will it affect Quechuan morale that a great noble of that Empire controls several million times the wealth of a common laborer, as opposed to one thousand times, as in ours? What advantage or disadvantage will the existence of actual slaves, owned as property with no property of their own, confer on the Quechua?

The children of the 29th Century will undoubtedly know the answers to these and other crucial questions. Upon the answers depends whether the eagle of Rome, or the vulture of Cuzco, shall ascend to the waiting stars.

—Leo David Orionis, O. L., U. Calafiensis
Calafia, Hipolytana Cispacifica
a. d. 18 Kal. Ian. 2755 A.U.C.


1. The word factor has been used with a variety of meanings in the literature about the Praeseodymium incident. Granted, the word already has a number of meanings even when we exclude mathematical and scientific terminology. Ma. Septimus Narses was the factor of the Gregorian gostak in one of the usual senses of the word; i.e., he was the official in charge of the facility.

On the other side of the conflict, Aulus Pontius Bithynius was the factor of the Praeseodymium gostak in several senses of the word, being (a) the person who brought it into being, and (b) one of its owners, but he concealed any connection to it except as the sub-governor who approved the colony of Praeseodymium. Publius Menander Taurentius was the factor insofar as he managed the gostak, but he was not a public official, being paid by Pontius. The other conspirators were factors in that they owned "shares" of the gostak, but they had no say in its management, nor any control over its operations or policy.

This extension of the word factor in several new directions, to describe people all connected in different ways to the Gostacerium Praeseodymium, was what first made me think that the gostak represented something new.

2. This account of the Praeseodymium incident is drawn mostly from official records, so that there can be no dispute as to the facts of the case. Except when otherwise noted, my source is the Acta Apalasia DVD set.

3. The strength or weakness of one's economic model scarcely matters when one's opponents can hardly be said to have an economy.

4. The Han claim to have invented money independently of the Lydians, and archaeology shows they did indeed have copper and silver coins at one time, before they united into a single state. They also had currency of tortoise shells, cowry shells, ivory tablets, small gold ingots, and peacock feathers [Huan-Ling et Minucius]. In light of this, the question is not whether they invented money on their own, but whether they ever really had money at all, as opposed to a barter system with a strictly limited set of bartering tokens.


Acta Apalasia DVD, 12:2691-2700, Apalasia Gubernatorial Printing Office, Nasvilla, 2750.

Asimovus, Isacus Sarmatius, "Persian and Roman Economic Foundations in the 8th Century," Annals of the Imperial Institute of Economics, vol. 330, issue 4, January 2748.

Census Hippolytanus 2750 DVD set, Hippolytana Vice-Imperial Printing Office, Augusta Transoceana, 2750.

Cicero, Gregorius Iohannes, "Population, Geography, and History in former Han states: Sparse versus Turgid administrative trees integrated over time," Imperial Administration, vol. 521, issue 12, December 2722.

Clericus, Arturus C., "The Origins of Money," Scientific Hippolytan, October 2735.

Cymara, Fergus Lloidius, "Global Population Determinants," Scientific Hippolytan, September 2752.

Daryush, X., "Further Decipherment of the Library of Elam," Archaeologica Orientalis, vol. 200 [2748], issue 33.

Eboracensis, L. Tullius, et al., "Alternate Histories: Projections of Han Currency Policies from the 27th through 29th Centuries", Annals of the Imperial Institute of Economics, vol. 334, issue 27, August 2750.

Grosser, Ursula, History of Industrial Technology, University of Germania Press, Rome and Berlin, 2742.

Huan-Ling, Yu, and C. Minucius Senior, "Currency of Ancient Han Precursor States," Scientific Hippolytan, March 2745.

Laurentius, Ma. Gomessis, "Casting the Dice: Roman-Quechuan Accomodation Strategies from Mutual Destruction to Mutual Cooperation", Imperial Administration, vol. 524, issue 5, May 2725.

Lopessis, Iesus Iosephus, "Former Journalist, Publisher Found Dead," Nuntius Considianus, 2715:340:25.

Lugdunensis, C. Polonius, Correspondence in 18th-Dynasty Aegyptus, Aegyptian Archaeological Society Press, Rome and Alexandria, 2738.

Paloma, Henricus, The Crash of '29, Libri Baenici, Rome and Augusta Transoceana, 2754.

Procopius, M. Tertius, March of Conquest, Augustan Press, Rome and Constantinopolis, 2744.

Rhaetius, Franciscus Guillelmus, "Military Logistics with Respect to Dosh," Legionnary, February 2750.

Sylvestris, C. S., History of the Mundane War, Imperial Press, Rome, 2740. With a foreword from His Imperial Majesty Urban XXXII.

Sylvestris, ibid., pp. 225-240.


Airdosher (aerodoscēans)—Heavier-than-air transportation. Airdoshers in the 28th century completely replaced the lighter-than-air airships used throughout the Empire from the middle of the previous century.

A.U.C. (Ab Urbe Condita)—The Roman calendar, dating from the founding of the City of Rome. Subtract 753 from Roman years to get dates in the Christian calendar; for instance, 2755 A.U.C. is 2002 A.D.

Autodosher (autodoscēans)—A mechanical vehicle for travel on land; a horseless carriage.

Cingutana—The continent bordered by the Mediterranean Sea on the north, the Atlantic Ocean on the West, and the Indian Ocean on the east. The Cingutanan provinces of Africa and Aegyptus are two of the oldest provinces in the Empire, and Aegyptus was the home of a civilization old before Rome was founded.

Distim (distimere)—To transform raw doshes into useful dosh.

Dosh (doscēdium)—The end-product of distimming, hence the output of a gostak.

Dosheant (doscēans)—The personal weapon of a modern infantry soldier.

Doshery (doscēria)—A natural region in which doshes are found and may be harvested.

Doshes (doscēdēs)—The harvest of a doshery. Doshes are distimmed into dosh in a gostak.

Europa—The continent bordered by the Mediterranean Sea on the south, the Atlantic Ocean on the West, and the Ural Mountains on the east. The City of Rome, capital of the Empire, is in the Europan province of Italia. Europa is ruled under the Emperor by a Vice-Emperor, whose capital is Constantinopolis, sometimes referred to by its old Greek name of Byzantium.

Gostak (gostacerium)—The building or collection of buildings in which doshes are distimmed into dosh; a distimmery.

Mundane War (2712-2720 A.U.C.)—The world war (Bellum Mundanum, Universum, or Universale) between the Roman, Han, and Quechuan empires. Major theaters were: (1) India, where hostilities began when Roman legions came to the aid of the Indian Emperor against invading Han armies; (2) Persia, where Persian and Roman legions fought a second Han attack; (3) Australia, where Quechuan and Han colonies fought each other; (4) Hippolytana, where Han and Roman colonies fought; and (5) Luna, where Roman and Quechuan colonies fought. Major fleet actions occurred in the South Pacific Ocean, South Atlantic Ocean, and cis-Lunar space as well. Europa, Cingutana, Brasilia, and trans-Lunar space (including Mars) saw little or no action.

Nedosh (nedoscēria)—A natural region totally devoid of doshes; a doshless wasteland.

Transoceana—The continents of Hippolytana and Brasilia, across the Atlantic Ocean from Europa and Cingutana, hence the name.

About this story

Copyright © 2002 and 2018 by Green Sky Press. All rights reserved.

The Lion Sleeps Tonight

"By the year 1990 of the Christian calendar (2743 to the Latins), I'd lived in San Francisco for more than forty years, calling myself Abel Evenson, and I was getting sleepy."

"Excuse me, Sir," said the interviewer. "This was after the World War of the 20th Century A.D.?"

"It was," said the Oldest Man Alive. "And yes, that War was the largest up to that time, in the number of troops involved, in the number of countries involved, and in its scope, which truly was global. And I did fight in that war; if you like, I'll tell you about that another time."

"Please, Sir," said Ramiro Valéncia. He made a note in his intrinsics, the multitronic systems that grew throughout his body. The Oldest must've done the same, for a pip from him pinged Ramiro at the same instant.

"Very well," the Oldest said. "But you asked me when I'd faced the greatest personal danger. The World War wasn't it. I was in that war, and I was a front-line soldier, too; and the enemy had it in for me personally, besides as a soldier of the nation I was fighting for. But I've been in much bigger wars since, where the scope was interstellar, the action faster, the weapons more deadly, and even if you weren't killed immediately, you could be lost in space and suffocate, with no hope of retrieval."

"Despite all that," he said, waving it aside with one hand, "wars are avoidable. The best way to survive a war is not to fight in it; for a really large war, don't be on that planet or in that star system, even. I've fought in as many wars as I have because they were wars I believed in; the number that I've stayed out of is far larger."

"So you don't consider wars the greatest dangers you've ever faced, because they're mostly avoidable, and even if you're caught in one, you're in no greater danger than any other soldier?" asked Ramiro.

"That's about the size of it," agreed the Oldest. "It might not be perfectly rational, on a strict likelihood of dying; but rational or not, that's how I feel."

"What then?" the interviewer said. "Is it plague? Obviously you survived the Green Cold, the greatest plague the human race ever suffered as a whole. Was that your greatest danger?"

"You could say so," the Oldest said. "But, again, that's not how it feels to me. Plagues like the Black Death broke out in specific places, and getting away from those places and staying away from other people was the best defense, even before we knew about germs."

"The Green Cold was worldwide; you couldn't run away from it. It still wasn't personal, however. Whoever engineered that plague, they weren't after me, they were after everyone addicted to nicotine. Even the elimination of people with weak lungs, and the end of heroin addiction, seem to've been unintended consequences. I won't pretend I wasn't worried plenty, but I'd never been a smoker, and every time I woke up, I was restored to perfect health in my sleep. So the odds were in my favor, and I knew it."

"Then I'm puzzled about what you'd consider a greater danger to you than war and pestilence, and why you'd pick 1990, after both the greatest war and the greatest plague of that century A.D., as the time of your greatest peril."

"Well, I'll tell you," said the Oldest, patiently. "It was a combination of things; a foreseeable danger that I faced, not wanting to run away; a duty that trapped me, so I felt I had to stay; and some unexpected attacks that ordinarily I could have shrugged off."

"Mostly it was because of a woman, as you might guess." He looked away at some image in his own mind. "Two women, actually."

Coming off the troop ship in New York City, after the War, the man whom the U.S. Army knew as Captain Steven Bradley mustered out. Wanting to get away from the attention he'd gotten from high in the government, he sold everything he had, cashed in any favors he could, and borrowed shamelessly against his rank and his war record with several major banks, knowing they were insured, and knowing they weren't inclined to look askance at a man like him in those first heady days of victory. Wasn't he a mature man of forty, with proven qualities of leadership, and a bright future ahead of him? He took their money with polite words, shook their hands with a smile, and disappeared. He'd been a banker himself the previous century, and knew how banks worked; he had no scruples about stealing from thieves.

He shed his identity like an old coat, and picked a new name out of a telephone directory in some little town somewhere as he made his way by easy stages across the country, hitching rides, bumming freight cars, even walking with that easy mile-eating stride that said "soldier" to anyone who saw it. And they were right, too, unless they thought the war just over had been his first.

By rights he should have left the country altogether, or stayed in Europe. But Europe had been too torn up by the War; they'd be rebuilding from the ground up, no safe place to hide his money or himself, in forty years or so. And no place for a stranger, either; he well foresaw that gratitude to America would wear thin, especially where now they sang her praises loudest, like Russia, home of the late unlamented enemy.

America herself had suffered from Russian bombers and Chinese gunships; the West Coast the most, which is why he went there. The wreckage was just enough, he calculated, that any willings hands would be welcome; yet still America, which all his present acculturation proclaimed him, down to the tiniest detail. With new papers in his new name, showing him just too young to have fought in the War, he didn't fear the commercial ties between San Francisco and New York.

Jobs were everywhere in San Francisco and the rest of the Bay Area, particularly for a strong, healthy, smart lad not afraid of work. He stayed away from the Army, which was letting men and women go, even with the prisoner camps to guard; and the police, who had all the bodies they needed anyway, mostly ex-military.

Instead he joined a trading company at the Embarcadero. It was just clerical work, with some lifting and toting in the warehouse, but he prospered. He rarely drank, didn't smoke, didn't chase women or bet on horses; he could save money and add it to his stake from New York. Presently an opportunity came to invest, in a very minor way, in a cargo to Japan. If his bosses were surprised that one of their clerks had money to contribute, still they were short of ready cash and the deal had to go through. And so it did. His help was hardly crucial, but it was remembered. After a while a use for the profits from that venture was suggested to him; he agreed, and made still larger profits. He was on his way to financial independence, a good thing in any life.

The year the Christians called 1948 was celebrated by Latins worldwide as 2701, the first year of the Twenty-Eighth Century since the founding of Rome. Alone in his rooms, while people shouted outside and fireworks shattered the sky, Abel quietly lifted a glass to the memory of his friend Marcus Aurelius, and the ghost of Ludwik Lejzer Zamenhof, alias Doctor Sperosus, father of New Latin.

By 1950 A.D. (2703 A.U.C.) his papers said he was 24 years old, and he opened his own firm in an office near Union Square. By then he was a known face, an up-and-coming young businessman often seen at Top of the Mark, and a regular guy, too. If he still didn't smoke himself, in a town and a time when all the men did, and half the women, it was just a personal quirk. He accepted a drink willingly enough, and bought a round even more readily. Abel was all right.

When the Chinese invaded Korea that year, Abel didn't join the lines of men volunteering for the Army; officially, he had no military training or experience. He went to the brass, instead, and offered his services to the supply side of the U.N. effort. President Stevenson afterwards said that his work had been worth ten divisions; a pity there was no medal to award for vital civilian contribution in time of war.

During the Sixties, Abel must have been the only one in town who didn't get high and stay high; at least it seemed that way. Perfect sobriety didn't make him appreciate the music of Jefferson Airplane, or the poetry of Jim Morrison, any the less. They made a strange pair sometimes, in the living room of Abel's Nob Hill townhouse, comatose bodies all over the rug. Jim was always at least half stoned, whereas Abel rarely even drank; but they had long conversations.

Abel even got married for a few years, to a hippie chick with long straight blonde hair and eyes to die for. Grace Wing of the Electric Oranges, when she heard, buttonholed him and said, "If you wanted to get married, honey, why didn't you ask me?"

"Grace," he said, "I knew you'd be too much woman for me." Then he kissed her on the forehead and walked away, leaving her to wonder how he meant that.

"How did you mean that?" Ramiro asked. "Several sources that weren't available then, but became available later, speculated that you were homosexual. Were you aware of that?"

"No, really?" said the Oldest. "Grace thought I was gay?"

" 'Gay'… Oh, I see," Ramiro said, consulting his intrinsics for the unfamiliar term. "No, not her, as far as anyone knows, but some of the men you did business with wondered whether you'd married Mitzi just as a cover—"

"The term at the time was 'a beard'," the Oldest informed him. "Mitzi would've been called my 'beard', my way of concealing that I was 'gay'."

"A metaphor?"

"And a particularly insulting one, at that," the former Abel said, "to reduce a person to a facial decoration, nothing but hair to hide your true self behind. 'Fag hag' was another term for a woman who agreed to help a man hide the fact that he was homosexual. But at least a hag was a woman, even if an ugly or undesirable woman; a beard was just some hair."

"In those days there was no such thing as permanent or long term depilation. Either you 'shaved' every day, which involved using a soapy lather to make the hairs stand up, then cut them off as close to the skin as you could stand with a very sharp blade, called a 'razor'; or you chose to let part of your facial hair remain, and shaved around your 'beard', 'mustache', and 'sideburns'. Shaving was annoying, and occasionally you'd slice or 'nick' yourself. If you had tough facial hair and sensitive skin, the shaved part of your face hurt. I was fortunate enough to have very light facial hair, so I could get away with only shaving every other day, but it made me feel like a bum—a poor person—someone who had no money? Well, trust me, in that age, these were considered grounds for social disapproval, and I was acclimated enough to apply them to myself."

"My intrinsics say there were 'electric razors'?"

"Yes, but you still had to apply the foaming lather, shave yourself, and rinse the clipped hair and the lather out of the device afterwards," said the Oldest. "They were safer, and a bit less painful than the manual razors, but they didn't give as close a shave, despite the claims of their manufacturers."

"Women usually shaved their arm pits and their legs in the period we're talking about, and there were "creams" they could use instead of razors; but the creams were actually various acids. That just substituted the pain of chemical burns for the pain of scraped skin, and the particular acids used had a sickly organic smell, as well."

"In short," said the Oldest, briskly, "as soon as safe depilation became available, I started using it; and when permanent facial-hair removal came along, I took it at once."

"As for Grace, I'd had no idea she might be willing to marry me. And even if I'd known, she had some drinking and drug problems I just didn't want to deal with. Finally, she was too sharp and too smart—too perceptive and too intelligent. I'd never've been able to keep her from noticing, day in and day out, that I never slept."

By 1970 A.D. (2723 A.U.C.), Abel's papers said he was 44, and his wealth was estimated to be between 20 and 50 million dollars. His wife, now pushing thirty, took him to divorce court and tried to get half his money. The official grounds were cruelty; she claimed that he beat her, and raped her when she didn't want sex. To bolster her case against the short (5'4"), soft-spoken, well-mannered man, who in nearly twenty years as a public figure had never been known to raise his voice or strike a blow, she sold a book, "as told to" a ghost writer, relating all the lurid details of their life together. "As a work of fiction," said the newsmag columnist dubbed "Mr. San Francisco", "it ranks with the memoirs of De Sade or the loves of Don Juan. As a factual narrative of life with my friend Abel, it's a sad joke."

The matter never went to trial, however, because that summer the Green Cold struck. Someone, somewhere, had developed genetic engineering to a point years, or even decades, ahead of the rest of the world, made a variant of the rhinovirus that causes the common cold, and released it in major airports all over the world. In those crowded, busy centers of human activity, and aboard the cramped, sealed planes shuttling between them, with all the passengers breathing the same air, the virus spread like a wildfire in a hot, dry prairie. Almost all smokers died, but also anyone whose lungs had been weakened by illness or long-term exposure to tobacco smoke, and many infants, children, and old people, too. Even people not killed by the disease itself died from the social collapse of the villages, towns, cities, regions, or countries in which they had lived, just as Abel had seen in two of the plagues called the Black Death in earlier times.

There was no use trying to hide from it, he figured; everyone in the world had the common cold virus, and probably everyone had this new, artificial version as well. The choice, then, was to hide, and maybe die alone and unnoticed, or try to help, and maybe save some other people. He pitched in. The Republicans were claiming, on the basis of no facts whatsoever, that the persons behind the new plague was the Green Party, and by constant repetition of this claim got it dubbed "The Green Cold." Abel donated money to the Green Party and the Social-Democratic Party to fight back in Congress and the courts. He also gave money to the Center for Disease Control, to the efforts of medical professionals in California, the Bay Area, and San Francisco, and spent hours of his own time as a hospital volunteer. There were definite advantages to not needing to sleep, or to go to a job!

Anything like an actual body count was impossible, with so many struck dead at once all over the world, and needing to be put in the ground or cremated before less exotic, but still deadly diseases killed even more people. The final death toll was loosely estimated at 600 million people ± 40 million, or about 100-116 times the annual number of deaths from smoking in any year before, but all in the summer of a single year. The Green Cold killed between seven and eight times as many people, in six months, as all the military and civilian deaths in the eight years of the War, from 1938-1945.

The population of the world was 3.7 billion in 1970, and 600 million people was an appalling 16 percent of that, about one person in every six. U.S. losses were in proportion, about 18.5 million people out of a population of 209 million. This U.S. figure was almost as much as the total population of California in 1970 (about 20 million before the Green Cold struck), or almost the same as New York, the second most populous U.S. state. As one of the most advanced nations on Earth, the U.S. should've done better; but its medical "industry" gave priority to profits, not patients. In contrast, the Empire of Iberia reacted to the Green Cold at once, and spared literally no expense to save its subjects, losing "only" about 10 per cent of its population. The German and Scandinavian nations, which had free universal health care, did almost as well: 12 percent dead in Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Estonia; 13 percent fatality rates in the Republic of Germany and the Kingdom of Austria.

The new widower Abel turned his sorrow for all the friends he'd lost into massive political action and huge donations to the Socialist, Green, and Social-Democratic parties. Those parties didn't even talk about the crazy claims and deadly ideas of the Republican, Libertarian, and so-called National Socialist parties, but ignored them as irrelevant and worked together for major changes to American life. Nor was Abel the only one pouring his grief into political action and social reform. Nor was the U.S. the only country shaking up its politics and its government.

Between 1970 and 1976 A.D. (2723-2729 A.U.C.), universal healthcare, at no cost to the patient, was established in most of the countries of the world, including the United States. Laws passed by the U.N. and its member states led to many new U.N. agencies, whose rulings were binding on U.N. member states who signed the enabling treaties; and few governments dared to refuse and enrage their citizens. Thus was established the UNEPA (United Nations Environmental Protection Agency), to protect the environment from pollution; the UNESA (U.N. Endangered Species Agency), to protect species in danger of extinction; the UNLRA (U.N. Labor Relations Agency), to encourage labor unions and regulate management abuses of workers; the UNCPA (U.N. Consumer Protection Agency), to protect consumers from predatory financial and business practices; and others just as important. Abel didn't appear in the debate on these matters; he was already far too well known by the public. But he made sure that the people in the U.S. Congress and the U.N. General Assembly who took his money knew what he expected them to stand for.

In the United States, the top tax rate returned to the Wartime rate of 90% for wealthy individuals and big corporations alike. The minimum wage was tied to the cost of living, so that people working full time couldn't be paid less than it cost to live. Age requirements for Social Security were abolished, and the benefits set equal to the minimum wage of a full-time working person, or actual benefits earned by deductions over a person's working life, whichever was greater. One of the most important laws passed required that any law proposed by the House or Senate must have a single purpose, clearly and honestly stated in the bill's title, which a federal judge must approve before the law could be voted upon. This law, modeled after one in Oregon, meant that Congress had to work harder passing lots of smaller bills instead of fewer big ones; but, as the senior Senator from Oregon stated, "for what we're paid, we ought to work hard!" It also kept unrelated riders, amendments, and pork from being hidden in the bills. Things had to be done in plain sight, with no horse trading under the table.

Other anti-corruption laws included sharp limits on Congressional immunity from prosecution for crimes, the direct vote of American voters for their Senators, and the abolishment of the Electoral College and the election of the President by the national popular vote. The voting age was lowered to 18, automatic voter registration at 18 and voting by mail became universal, and the right of every American to vote was enshrined in the Constitution, as well as the equal rights of men and women, which included making it illegal to pay anyone less because of sex, race, religion, or anything but job performance.

The right wing of U.S. politics—the Republicans, Libertarians, and National Socialists—screamed "Socialism!" The American public shrugged, and many politicians, not just Socialist ones, said "And about time, too!" The right preached that these changes would complete the "moral ruin" of the country, without defining what "moral ruin" was, even when pressed for a definition. The new deal would destroy the economy, leading to a lasting national depression and people starving in the streets. Instead, just as economists and political scientists predicted, the U.S. economy soared, unemployment fell to the lowest rate ever recorded, the American people had more money to spend than ever before, and businesses were making money hand over fist.

Abel's own wealth increased to the point where he couldn't give away money fast enough, much to his alarm. That kind of money brought attention that would make it very hard for him to disappear, when the time came. He wrote checks to Amnesty International, the American Civil Liberties Union, UNICEF and UNESCO and a host of other U.N. agencies, Habitat for Humanity, Latin Education International, Native American and African and Asian aid, and the Socialist, Green and Social-Democratic parties. He donated to the Childe universities, and invested in Hewlett-Packard, Xerox, Digital Research, Lexisoft, and Superbinary. Unfortunately, all of this investment and spending just earned him more money. He hired the best lawyers he could find to set up a foundation, and another team to keep an eye on the first, and gave it most of his money. It was called the Leonine Foundation, and its trademark was a golden lion's head affronté on a red background, within a gold olive wreath identical, except in color, to the one on the U.N. banner.

"Meanwhile, on the scientific front," Ramiro said.

"Indeed," said the Oldest. "I would've thought, with all the brilliant minds lost to the Green Cold, and all the political uproar as we remade the world, that science would've ground to a halt, or at least slowed. But I guess people were fired up on all fronts, not just in the political arena. The progress we made in those same years was nothing short of phenomenal. While the people of the world were remaking their governments, and new government policies were lifting the people into the modern age, scientific progress was being made all over. It really was an exciting time to be alive."

"You can't really imagine, in this day and age, how limited our horizons were back then. We thought we were cosmopolitan, because we'd gone from living in one village, or one town, all our lives, to moving from one city to another whenever we wanted, and knowing the geography of the whole world."

"Of Old Earth, you mean," Ramiro said.

"That's exactly what I mean," said the Oldest. "It wasn't Old Earth to us, it was just Earth, the only world there was, the only place people had ever lived. Talk about flying to the Moon was crazy talk, it marked you as a lunatic, literally someone driven insane by moon light. When the King of Iberia proposed a manned space program in 1962, his own people called him "El Lunático", or "El Loco". But the cortes didn't have the votes to remove him, and the people loved him, loco o no."

"They seriously tried?" asked Ramiro, too caught up in the narrative to check his intrinsics.

"They really did," the Oldest said. "It was their duty! You can't leave a crazy person on the throne. He actually thought men could fly to the Moon! That was the very definition of lunacy, of madness!"

The first manned landing on the Moon in 1969 A.D. (2722 A.U.C.) was an international effort of the UNEC (U.N. Exploration Command; it would have been UN Space Exploration Command, but UNSEC was already taken by the U.N. Securities Exchange Commission, which regulated the world's stocks and bonds markets). The Selene III spacecraft that flew the mission was British (built by Rolls-Royce), American Saturn V booster rockets and German Bund computers got them there, and the crew of three was a male American pilot, a female Iberian co-pilot, and a male Korean space medic. Other live missions followed, including two to the far side of the Moon, never visible from Earth.

Actual colonization began in 1972 A.D. (2725 A.U.C.), with the construction of the first Moonbase module in Earth orbit, its transit to Lunar orbit, and its soft landing in the center of Mare Serenitatis. The U.N. flag was planted, and the Moon was claimed for all of mankind; it hadn't been thought proper to do that until a permanent structure was built. The module held atmosphere, after a couple of patches, and served as a base for exploration of the surrounding area. The Secretary-General predicted that one day the Republic of Luna would be a member-state of the United Nations. Other modules followed, one every 18 months at first, later one a year, until 1992. After that, all construction was local, using materials mined on the Moon.

"I didn't see that last stage myself," the Oldest said. "But anyone could see it was coming. The Iberians had stopped calling the King 'El Lunático', and were calling him 'El Sabio', as they had some of his predecessors."

"Have you ever been to Luna, Señor Valéncia?" he said abruptly.

"Yes, indeed," Ramiro said. "I attended university in Lérida, and spent many holidays on Luna. I know it very well—that is, as well as anyone can know so huge and varied a place in a few short stays, without living there full time," he amended.

"So imagine this, if you can," said the Oldest. "Imagine a dead, rocky world, that's never been inhabited, and has no habitation even now except a single dwelling made of three or four inflated tubes fastened together. The people who live in that dwelling, maybe a dozen, are the only people in the whole world. The planet hanging in the sky above your head is the only other inhabited world you know of. Its population, less than four billion human beings, are the only people there are."

"Wow," Ramiro said after a stunned moment or two, "that's a scary picture."

"It was still the picture when I went to sleep the next time," the Oldest said. "Commercial suborbital flight came along, the first generation of spaceplanes; Farside base was established for the Hubble Telescope, then the second generation of spaceplanes came out and the first orbital hotels were built in geostationary orbit. But the Childe starship, the manned mission to Mars, and everything in the next forty years or so, happened while I was asleep. Likewise the replacement of fossil fuels by solar and wind power, and all but the very earliest omnicoms."

By 1990 A.D. (2743 A.U.C.), Abel's identity papers weren't even forgeries; they'd been renewed so many times, by perfectly legitimate means, that they were genuine, however specious the high-quality and expensive original fakes had been. Officially he was 64, and he took some care with hair dye and sunlamps to have the grey hair and wrinkled skin expected of him. Youthful vigor, clear eyes, and a keen mind still caused comment. "You're twenty years older than I am," the junior Senator for California told him at lunch one day, "and I still have a hard time remembering that you're old enough to vote, grey hair and all."

"Flattery will get you nowhere," Abel said. "You're still wrong on military spending. If you Socialists don't pull in harness with the Social-Democrats, the Republicans will walk all over you on this, just as they did during the tobacco hearings."

"Don't remind me," the Senator said, and took another sip of her coffee. From 1964-1968 the tobacco companies had "disputed" the medical science about smoking, stepped up their advertising around the world, and lied to Congress under oath. House members and Senators across the political spectrum, from Socialists to Greens to Social-Democrats, held hearings to deal with the problem. They couldn't agree on whether to outlaw smoking outright, or just tax it to death; whether to break up the tobacco companies, or outlaw the sale and purchase of products containing nicotine; or whether to charge tobacco executives with crimes up to negligent homicide, or simply hit them all with huge fines for lying to Congress. This failure to decide exactly what to do allowed the Republicans, the Libertarians, and the National Socialists to prevent anything from being done at all, and declare the tobacco companies "exonerated".

The rebuttal to that was the Green Cold. The persons responsible for the deaths of 600 million people were never identified, but their motives were obvious, and the timing of their artificial disease spoke for itself.

The restaurant Abel had chosen was on the 45th floor of the Bank of America building; their table was placed along a north-facing picture window. Senator Baxter, looking past Abel's left shoulder, could see the Golden Gate Bridge beyond the Fisherman's Wharf area and the Presidio. He, looking past her right shoulder, could see the Transamerica Pyramid a lot closer.

"But what do we need a big military for?" she demanded. "Peace, in case you hadn't noticed, has broken out all over. The Chinese are quiet, the Russians haven't made a peep in a generation, and the die-hard crazies are being turned in by their own people, as aid brings hope and elections bring change."

"I've heard the speech," Abel said, "and I can't argue with your logic. I'm even glad I can't. I just have this feeling we're not out of the woods yet—and it's a hell of a lot cheaper to keep up the military we've got than to throw together a new one in the face of the enemy."

"What enemy, for God's sake?" Barbara said. "Show me even one trouble spot where we might need an Army."

"I could do that, maybe," he said. "You mentioned the Russians. We never got all the leaders, you know."

"And you think they went where? Georgia, perhaps?"

"I don't know anything, really," Abel said. "But I still have friends and interests all over the world, and I don't like what I'm hearing about Moldavia." He told her this, she would remember later, ten years before the U.N. fought Russian-led Moldavian invaders house-to-house in Sarajevo.

"You predicted that?" asked Ramiro.

"Predicted? No," said the Oldest. "When you see someone aim a gun and pull the trigger, it isn't a 'prediction' to say a shot will be fired. I guessed that the shooter was Russian, and even that was more experience than anything else. Romania had been a sore spot since the Roman Empire fell and Dacia was abandoned. Scythia, Bessarabia, Moldavia, Dnistria, Moldova, or whatever it was being called that week, had always been a canker on the edge of Europe. Ask me sometime about the time I had to fight for my life against another immortal, in Wallachia."

"I'll do that, Sir," the interviewer said, and made another note.

Abel retired that year, turning over the chair of his company to younger men, and being seen less often in public. In truth Abel had become a little too well known, and would have to manage the transition to his next life very carefully. Disappearance wouldn't do; he would have to die, and soon. He was getting sleepier and sleepier, which suited the picture he was painting of an older gentleman sliding gently into the grave; but he gave himself a real scare, when concerned friends woke him from a doze at a banquet, and he realized he'd really drifted off.

His carefully-laid plans to expire, leaving everything to his foundation except the cash he'd squirreled away to start his next life, came undone when he fell in love. It had been over sixty years since the last time, before the War, and it caught him completely by surprise.

Her name was Graciela Luisa Corona, and she was drop-dead gorgeous. She was 5'6" tall (two inches taller than he), with luscious brown eyes, a full red mouth, and silky straight black hair down to the backs of her knees. She was curvaceous, she was graceful, her voice was like music, and her laugh was a full orchestra. Above all she was as sweet, as modest, as kind—in short, as all-around nice—as she was outwardly beautiful.

Abel never had a chance of resisting her, and the timing couldn't've been worse.

As Adam Evenson, the dashing young nephew of the late Abel, he picked her up at her apartment in the Avenues in his new convertible. It was good to wash the dye from his hair, and let the wrinkles fade away. He could feel her approval of his looks and his manners, as he escorted her to the curb, opened the passenger-side door for her, and closed it carefully before getting in on the other side. The drive north, over the Bridge to a French restaurant in Sausalito, was not a long one; they talked little, but smiled a lot.

"So sad about your uncle," Graciela said, when the waiter had taken their orders and left. "He was such a nice old man."

"Did you meet him then?" Adam said, knowing full well she had. A touch of a hand, a couple of words, and all his plans had been shot to hell.

"Oh yes, once," she said. "He was giving money to the clinic, and our director had to make a big thing of it, with a giant copy of the check, photographers, a reporter from the Chronicle, and another from the Examiner."

And an excellent chance it was to dodder and be "past it", until you ruined it, you darling, he thought. "What did you say?" he asked.

"Oh, nothing," she said, waving her hands. "He said hi, and I said hi, and he asked what I did at the clinic, and I said I'm a social worker—it was the oddest thing, but it seemed like he'd been half asleep, and then he saw me and woke up!" She laughed. "Oh, listen to me, how modest I am. Next I'll be claiming I raise people from the dead."

Woke up indeed, just for a moment all the way awake, and wanting desperately to say something, anything, before she got away. Realizing the hopelessness of his love even as it seized him full force; he was getting sleepier by the day, and was not long for the waking world. And when he woke, she'd be old, or dead.

"Adam? Are you all right?"

Adam—oh yes, he was Adam, got to remember to answer to that—if he could stay awake. "Sorry," he said, "not quite enough sleep last night."

"And I have to be at the clinic in the morning," she said. "Maybe this wasn't such a good idea."

He took her hand in his. "Let us seize every moment that we may," he said in purest Castilian, "for what tomorrow brings, no man can say. I only know that tonight I am with thee; tomorrow has made no promises to me."

"How beautiful!" she said. "And you say it with such an accent! I haven't heard Spanish like that since my grandfather died."

"That's who I learned Spanish from, your grandfather," he joked.

"Silly! Oh, that reminds me, I got you something."

"You got me something?"

"I hope you don't mind," Graciela said. Out of her purse came something wrapped in tissue, about the size of an orange.

"You surprise me," he said, taking it in his hand, gently, as if it were a living bird he might carelessly crush; or a beating heart.

"Don't you want to know what it is?" she said, when he made no move to unwrap it.

He looked right at her then, in perfect seriousness. "It's a lion," he said. Her face was astonishment itself.

A terra cotta lion, short-coupled, fat-bodied, fluffy-maned—but still a lion, such as I have borne on my shield and my banner for generation after generation. So long ago—and still the women who love me, and who truly see me, give me lions. And what else do you see, my lovely lady?

"Thank you," he said. "I'll treasure it."

"You're welcome," she said shyly; and just then the waiter brought their food.

"Wait, wait," he said, later in the evening. "She said what?"

"Oh, it's probably nothing," Graciela said. "Crazy María doesn't make much sense in English or in Spanish, most of the time."

"But the phrase you quoted; was it perhaps—" and he said something.

"Why, it could be. I can't be sure, but—What did you say?"

"Roadrunner decided to play a trick on Snake," he said. "It's the Nahuatl language; I learned it once. But they're all supposed to be dead."

"María is older than you and me together, but hardly dead."

"María isn't really her name, is it?" he said.

She looked ashamed. "You're right, and I shouldn't call her that. It's the other street people who call her Crazy María, because she talks to herself all the time. She calls herself 'Sho-CHEE-tluh'—you're nodding."

"Xochitl. It fits," he said. "It fits with the language." He pinched the bridge of his nose, suddenly weary. "If I came by the clinic tomorrow, could I meet her? Maybe talk with her?"

He could, she thought; certainly the director, hoping for another big check, would put no obstacles in his way; and Cra—Xochitl, she corrected herself—was due to come in for counseling.

So they left it; and so he left her, after escorting her to her door, and drowning in one long kiss of inexpressible sweetness. Drove home, her shaken laugh ringing in his ears, to pace up and down all night long, reciting anything and everything of that extinct language of blood and scorpions and obsidian, to refresh his memory, and to stay awake.

"She's not here," Graciela said in greeting. "I'm sorry, I was so excited, I told her someone wanted to talk with her—I should know better."

"You couldn't have known she'd run," he said around his disappointment, leaning against the door frame for support.

"But I knew she was barely rational; and I know that some of our clients will bolt at anything. I should have known, not to speak without thinking."

"Well, if she comes back, you have my number. It looks like I'll be in town longer than I thought, anyway."

She lit up with gladness. "That's wonderful!" she said. "How long will you be here, then?"

"Not as long as I'd like," he smiled, while his heart bumped and lurched in his chest. He shoved his hands deeper in his pockets, to keep from reaching out to her.

"Dinner tonight?" he asked. Wouldn't do to kiss the lady right here in the clinic where she worked.

"Again?" she said. Something in his eyes must have given him away, because she blushed a little, but said softly, "All right."

"Great," he said. "There's this Russian restaurant that no one knows about… I'd better go before I do something I won't regret," he smiled, and left.

He spent an hour in trance. Trance is not sleep, and in it he could rest without worrying about falling asleep. He couldn't use it too often; for one thing, the sleepier he got, the harder it was to go into trance instead of just falling asleep. For another, in trance his consciousness was not in charge. The instincts of the rest of his mind weren't always compatible with the human sensibilities of those around him, or even their survival.

A little restored, he dug in the laundry hamper and found jeans, socks, underwear, t-shirt, and sweat shirt that needed washing, and put them aside. An old 49ers cap and a jacket with a ripped pocket went with them. The rest went into the washer; then he left his house, and caught the Geary bus to downtown.

Not even looking for Xochitl, he wandered the streets and alleys between the Financial District and the Tenderloin, the wharfs and the Mission District, Chinatown and Union Square, watching the street people and letting them watch him. If he was going to hunt and catch her, he'd need to know her surroundings. The city he knew intimately, but the street people and their culture changed by the year. It was quieter than the Sixties, and grimmer; less street circus, more trouble. The dirt was the same, and the desperation, but the drugs weren't. Pot was an occasional whiff instead of a major component of the air, and crackheads avoided his eyes on every corner. The talk was different as well; what drugs they talked about, and what slang they covered them with.

More tired than ever, he finally caught a cab home from the bus depot, showered, changed clothes, and picked up Graciela.

If food is a substitute for sleep, he put off the inevitable for several days then. The Russian restaurant where they ate was on Clement Street between 8th and 9th Avenue, a few blocks east of Green Apple Books. It was much closer to her place than his, but she'd never heard of it. It was a true Mom and Pop operation, with food high in cholesterol, dill, and divine flavor. They had tender peas, perfect rice, and chicken roasted until the meat fell off the bone at the touch of a fork, giving up moist puffs of steam. Everything was smothered in butter, with sour cream on the side. The rolls were baked on the premises, and served still hot from the oven.

She listened as he spoke with the proprietor, a bald veteran of the War, who'd stayed in America after being released from a POW camp near Napa, eventually bringing his wife over. Graciela didn't understand a word, because Papa insisted on speaking Russian with Adam. Finally he laughed, slapped Adam on the back, and left them a wine bottle and two glasses.

"What was all that?" she asked.

"I'm sorry," Adam said. "I tried to tell him it was rude for us to speak Russian when you don't know it, but he just said my uncle always said the same, and went on doing it anyway."

"But what were you talking about?"

"Well, let's see. First we talked about the wine; speaking of which," he poured them each a glass. "Then," he said, holding his by the stem, "he tried to find out what part of Russia my uncle and I are from." He shrugged. "He insists our Russian is just like the old priest's back home."

Her laughter pealed, causing turned heads and smiles in the little place. "Oh, that's funny. And the waiter in that French restaurant, where did he insist you had to come from?"

"Avignon," he said, smiling slightly. "A very pretty place."

"I envy your travels," she said. "I've never been out of California."

"It could be worse," he said. "Everything in the world is in California somewhere—people, climate, food." Which they ate, savoring its quality.

From Adam's place, with the lights still off, the whole of San Francisco was visible, picked out in street lights. Graciela went from window to window, while he watched her from the center of the room. In the east were the hills rolling down to the Embarcadero, with the streets playing roller coaster over them; then the blackness of the Bay, relieved by the lights of Angel Island and the Bay Bridge. To the northeast was Coit Tower, and Alcatraz Island beyond it, lit for the tourists. North was Fisherman's Wharf and Chinatown. The forested Presidio was northwest, home of the Sixth Army and other units, both active-duty and reserve; beyond it was the Golden Gate of the Bay, and the rust-colored Bridge that spanned it. West was darker because of Golden Gate Park, the Avenues where the ordinary people of the City lived, and the Pacific Ocean beyond. South, the Hill blocked her view, and brought her back to him.

"Oh, it's beautiful," she said.

"Not as beautiful as thee," he said, and kissed her fiercely. Then he broke off, and turned on the lights. Her disappointment turned into a gasp of wonder.

The ceiling was high, and the hardwood floor bare; they saved the room from busyness. Every scrap of wall not occupied by a door or a picture window had a bookcase, some ceiling high, some only chest high, but all stuffed full. Above every shorter bookcase something hung. There was an old wooden shield, with a gold lion's head on a black background; a manuscript page, sealed under glass, with a picture of a lion playing a vielle; a snarling Hittite lion, eight inches tall, in grey stone; a jeweled Indian lion sejant erect and crowned; and much more. On a mantle stood commercial pieces, such as a carousel lion six inches tall. Graciela touched the terra-cotta lion she'd given him, lightly.

"It's like a museum!" she said.

"Some of it will go to museums. The Museum of the Legion of Honor wants this, for example," he said, indicating a Chinese banner of a yellow dragon with red flames around its head, and bulging red eyes. "It belonged to an Emperor."

"How do you know?" she said, standing close beside him.

He smiled. "I could say that when it was made, only the Emperor could have a silk banner. Or I could point out that five-toed yellow dragons were reserved to him. But the fact is, it was taken from one of the Palaces at the end of the War, after Peking surrendered."

"A million Laotian and Cambodian ghosts rejoice," she said.

"And Siamese and Burmese and Viet and Korean and Japanese," he agreed.

"But what's it doing here?" she said. "Did your uncle want a token dragon to go with all his lions?"

"Well, he had a theory," Adam said. He peered into a bookcase, and pulled out a book titled Arms of the Royal Families of Europe. He opened it to a page with a picture of a red shield with three yellow lions stretched across its width, one above the other, their faces snarling out at them. "Compare them," he invited her.

Graciela did. "I see what you mean."

"It's true that Medieval European art and Traditional Chinese art have very different styles," Adam said. "It's also true that lions were once found everywhere in the Old World, including China. Abel believed that Chinese dragons were lions, remembered by art long after the actual animals had disappeared."

"Could be," she admitted. "Now what?"

"Now I'd better take you home," he said. "Don't want to get you fired for falling asleep at work."

"No, don't want that," she said, and was very quiet on the drive to her place. If she clung to him when he kissed her goodnight, well, he clung to her. At last, though, they had to let go.

"Hey," he called from the stair. "Do you like Korean food?"

"Never had it," she said from her door.


"… All right," she said, and closed the door. Now why did I say that? she wondered. One last chance?

Equally frustrated, and equally determined to seize every moment he could, Adam hit the shelters, hoping to find Xochitl in one of them. Armed with a copy of her file picture from Graciela's clinic, he got nothing but negatives. Some hadn't seen her; most refused to discuss who was in the shelter for the night, as their rules required.

"But if she's as wild as you say," one overweight black lady told him, "she won't be in a shelter."


"The really leery ones hide from everybody—the public, the other homeless, even the police. They're afraid of violence from the other downers, and arrest by the cops. Once in a while," she admitted, "they even have good reason. There was one cop in Berkeley picking up homeless women, raping them, and killing them. He was sent up just last year."

"Well, thanks anyway," Adam said, and left. He looked for a donation box, but all the shelters were funded by the State of California, and the City and County of San Francisco. All he found on the bulletin board was a picture of Mayor Harvey Milk, the shelter net address, job listings and job-training programs (construction workers were needed on the Moon and the orbital stations, he noticed), and brochures from the local churches, ever more desperate for believers, like all churches these days.

If I were an Indian woman with little English or Spanish, afraid of everyone and sleeping in hiding, where would I den? The alleys? The Park? His eyes settled on the dark woods at the tip of the Peninsula.

The Presidio?

Fog curled along the ground, barely visible close up, but turning everything past the middle distance into blank greyness. Adam glided through the Presidio woods in the stillness just before dawn. He wore old clothes chosen for warmth, whose worn nap wouldn't make a distinctive sound if he brushed against anything. Moccasins on his feet let his toes feel where he was stepping, so he could avoid the snap of breaking twigs. Adam searched carefully, avoiding the Sixth Army and 91st Division areas, and any military demands to explain his presence.

After a while, he became aware that some part of his mind was noting certain trees for future reference. He stopped, and looked at a couple of them. They seemed ordinary eucalyptus trees, just like any others planted all over the Presidio, and for that matter, all over California.

Then he saw the squirrel tracks his unconscious mind had noted, and the placement of the trees along the tracks. After all these years, his trapper's instincts were still there. He grinned. "That was a long time ago," he said softly to himself, in Estonian.

Half an hour later, Adam stood beside a boulder the size of a VW van, a grey mass flat on the top, round at the bottom, so wide that three of him could barely have touched fingers around it.

The boulder stood on a slope carpeted by leaves from the Presidio woods just up the hill. A little below the rock was the waist-high brick wall dividing the woods area from base housing. A strip of grass ran along the base of the wall, then a paved path and more grass; then the houses, trees, and street lights of officers' housing.

At the foot of the boulder, beneath where it swelled out to hugeness, Adam found a nest that he thought might be Xochitl's. Some human hand had certainly swept the wet leaves out, where most would have piled them up to cushion the bare ground; and scooped out a depression for her hip, which most pavement-dwellers wouldn't have thought of. He swept the ground with his fingers, and wondered how the city looked to her.

Adam scratched his head thoughtfully. If this was her nest, Xochitl had wandered far west of her usual haunts. Starting north of Moscone Center at Fort Mason, the most direct route to where he stood took her west past the Palace of Fine Arts, then further west to avoid Sixth Army Headquarters and Presidio housing. Wandering south past the cemetery and golf course, she had spent the night in shelter not five blocks from the restaurant where Adam and Graciela had eaten dinner.

Coincidence, in a city limited by ocean on the west, bay on the north and east, and the county line on the south?

Coincidence, or the prey stalking the hunter?

Dressed in his unwashed grubbies, Adam watched the crowds in the glass of El Faro, a burrito shop. He was almost sure that three men reflected in it were following him. If he was right, the twenty-something "white" man with the stupid-looking goatee and mustache was the leader, and the nineteenish "black" kid with the dreadlocks, and his "white" buddy with the faceful of pimples, were the followers.

I've wasted enough time on them, he thought; let's get away from the crowd and find out what they want. He wouldn't be able to find Xochitl with a gang trailing behind him.

They were on the edge of the Financial District, where all the banks and brokerage houses were concentrated; El Faro made its nut at lunch, from workers in the Pacific Stock Exchange and related businesses. He walked north, trying to remember a suitable dead-end alley. By the time he found one, he was certain that the three were together, and following him.

The alley ran south from Clay Street partway into the block, then stopped. It was dark, there were no windows looking into it, and no one came here except garbage trucks picking up the dumpster, and homeless people needing to piss. It was perfect; they would think they had him trapped.

Adam relaxed against the shallow recess of a locked door and went into trance. Motion attracts the eye; he was still. The mind feels when it's being watched; he saw everything, but watched nothing. The mind feels hostile intent directed at it; but Adam had no intent, in trance. He didn't wait for his stalkers to enter the alley; he simply stood there, anticipating nothing, effectively invisible.

Presently Pimple-Face came into the alley, looking all around him. Adam, expecting nothing and surprised by nothing, did not react. Pimple's eyes slid right over him without seeing him. Seeing happens in the brain, not the eyes; the eyes just gather light. Adam gave the punk nothing to see, so he saw nothing. Instead he focused on the big green dumpster, down at the end of the empty alley. He drew a knife from a back pocket and walked towards the dumpster, crouching slightly. Still Adam did nothing.

Dreadlocks came next, holding a knife in his hand, and the older man, with a gun. As soon as they were past him, Adam exploded off the wall, still on automatic. Because of the silence of his motion and the absence of intent, they had no idea he was attacking him. Nor was he, for attacking someone requires a purpose of attack, and he had no purpose. The left hand that cupped the back of the goateed man's head, and the right hand that caught the young "black" under the nose, moved as they would have moved had no one been in the alley but Adam. It was a kata, an exercise, form without emotion. The heads turned and were cracked together. As his victims fell, Adam came out of trance, shocking the psychic atmosphere of the alley like a bomb going off.

Pimple-Face jumped like a cat in a kitchen where a plate has been dropped. Adam was on him before the punk's feet were steady. So fast did he disarm the kid, twist his arm behind his back, and push him up against the wall, that it was as though Adam's acne-scarred opponent had jumped into the wall trying to get away from him.

"Why are you following me?" he said. The boy was almost a foot taller than Adam, and outweighed him; but Adam, standing between the kid's legs where he couldn't be kicked, held him pinned to the wall, a foot above the concrete, with no effort.

"Man, you're in big trouble now," gasped the punk, with more nerve than sense.

Adam pulled him a couple of inches back from the wall, then slammed him into it again one-handed, the other hand holding the kid's arm up between his shoulder blades the whole time. The kid grunted as the elbow of his free arm, and his face, smashed into the wall. "Why are you following me?" Adam asked again. The lack of bluster was calculated to be more intimidating than a spoken threat. Besides that, he was too weary from need of sleep to posture.

"Orders," said the punk. "You've been hanging around the drug scene, the boss wants to know why."

"Who's your boss?" said Adam.

"Can't tell you," Pimple-Face said. Then he yelped as Adam smashed him into the wall again. His nose started to bleed as Adam grabbed the other arm and twisted it behind his back; the first arm dangled, broken.

"Who's your boss?" Adam said.

"I can't! He'll kill me," the punk said, sniveling now.

Adam considered. "All right, then tell me this: Is he Italian, Armenian, or Filipino?"

"Italian," whispered the punk.

"All right. I'm going to give you a note for him. Make sure you give it to him when you wake up."

"When I—"

Adam slammed the kid into the wall and felt the other arm break, then stepped aside and let the unconscious body fall to the pavement. He pulled a notebook and a pen out of his shirt pocket, and began writing. The whole affair had taken less than five minutes, and made no sound louder than conversation.

He was about to fold the note, when the stillness of the other two struck him as ominous. He went over and felt one neck, then the other. Shaking his head, he added to his note, folded it once, and put it into Pimple-Face's pants pocket. Then he left the alley. Catching a bus home, he removed himself from the downtown area for a few hours.

The Don sat in the sunny living room of his Orinda home and considered the situation. Contrary to what Pimple-Face had told Adam, the appearance of a snooper on the fringes of the drug scene hadn't been important enough to bring to his attention. The orders to rough Adam up, and find out who he was, had come from lower in the chain of command of the local Italian mob. The failure of the mission, and the note, had taken the matter right to the top.

The Don read the note again, carefully. It was written in courtly Italian so fine that he had difficulty with it. The Don's grandfather had spoken Italian like that; but the old man would never have used a ballpoint pen, or drugstore notebook paper.

Most Esteemed Sir, the note said.

I am not your enemy unless you choose to make it so. We should both regret that very much.

I am not interested in your drugs, or in any of your enterprises. I seek a distant relative, whom I have learned is living on the streets of this city. My presence here is purely a matter of family.

I beg that you will not interfere in my search, as I would not, were you to be engaged similarly.

May you enjoy a long life and the best of health always, good sir.

P. S. I regret the demise of two of your soldiers. I am short on sleep, and it made me hasty and careless. My deepest apologies to you for this accident.

"No one recognizes this man?" the Don asked his lieutenants. They did not, but described the stranger as well as they could. He didn't sound like one of the Armenian bandits or the Filipino pirates, the Don decided; and would any of them write Italian like this? It seemed there was a lion in their midst, looking for a lost cub; best not to lose any more wolves in pointless fights.

"Alright," he said, cutting off his number two man with a wave. "Watch him, but leave him alone. If he meddles in our business, let me know."

And that should have been that.

After searching for Xochitl all day along the wharfs and Fort Mason and the Pacific beaches just outside the Golden Gate, Adam changed clothes to pick up Graciela. A shoe hitting the floor startled him to full wakefulness, and made him realize he'd started to nod off while dressing.

God! When was the last time he'd put off going to sleep for so long? Had he ever? He was usually wiser than this, or he'd not have lasted so long. No last-minute cave or crypt or tunnel for him; he always slept in perfect security, in a refuge planned years ahead of time. One was waiting for him now; but first Graciela, and then Xochitl, had kept him here.

He desperately wanted to do right by them both. But with Graciela, whom he loved, it simply wasn't possible. While Xochitl, whom he'd never met (but thought he owed a debt to), seemed to be hiding from him.

Give it two more days, he decided. If he didn't find the Nahuatl woman this weekend, he'd have to hire a third party to do so, and try to foolproof their confirmation of her identity.

To go to sleep not knowing whether she'd be found, not knowing whether she were whom he surmised her to be, knowing that he might not even learn after he awakened, would be another torment almost as great as leaving Graciela behind.

But he just might have to suffer them both.

"An-yang haseyo, Mr. Kim," Adam said to the proprietor of the Il San Restaurant. The tall, thin Korean's face lit with joy.

"An-yang haseyo," he replied. "You speak Korean?"

"Only a little," Adam lied politely, in that language. "I believe we have a dinner reservation for eight o'clock. I am Mr. Evenson, and this is Miss Corona."

"It's a pleasure to meet you both," said Mr. Kim, and bowed. "Please follow me." They did, after leaving their shoes near the door.

The Il San was a very posh restaurant, located not in Chinatown, but between the Embarcadero and the Airport. The view from their table was dominated by the Bay Bridge, outlined in lights. A harbor boat full of tourists floated slowly past, gaily lit. Fog masked the East Bay shore, hiding the lights of Oakland.

Eyes followed them to their table. Most of the patrons were Korean, either members of the San Francisco Korean community, or businessmen from the old country. Adam was an oddity, short and compact like most Koreans, or most Asians for that matter, his face not quite European, but definitely not Asian, despite the almond-shaped eyes. Graciela was hildaga pura, and lovely.

She saw there were no chairs. The diners folded their legs under themselves on mats, and the tables were only high enough for their knees to fit under. "No matter how clean it actually is, the floor is considered dirty," Adam said. "Can you kneel without using your hands?"

"I'm a Catholic girl," she said, and knelt elegantly, as if in a pew at Mass. Adam smiled, and did the same opposite her.

There were no menus, but the tiny waitress seemed ready to repeat the selection all night if need be. It all sounded the same to Graciela, lots of ah and ng sounds. "How brave are you?" asked Adam, "and would you prefer a fish, beef, or vegetable main course?"

"How brave am I?" Graciela repeated. "I don't know. Is the food very spicy?"

"It can be as hot as the hottest Indian food, or the hottest Spanish cuisine," he said. "I wasn't thinking of that, so much as—well, a popular main course is dog soup."

"Dog soup?" she said, not too loud.

"From a breed of dogs raised for it, not stray mutts, but yes, dog soup," Adam said. "Another delicacy, though not a main course, is deep-fried silkworm larvae."

"Are you pulling my leg?" she asked.

"Maybe later. OK, let's stay fairly Western. Would you like beef? Korean beef is very good."

Presently the waitress came back, with several others, and started putting little dishes all over the table, leaving space only in the middle. "Careful, very hot," she said, and smiled brillantly at Graciela. Graciela smiled back, not knowing why.

"What is all this?" she asked.

"This is kimchi," Adam said. He looked over the table, and called out something. A reply came back, with laughter.

"I thought kimchi was rotten cabbage," Graciela said.

"Kimchi is various vegetables, pickled or fermented different ways. About half of these appetizers are kimchi, the rest aren't, strictly speaking," Adam said, holding up a square of something so dark a green it was almost black, using his chop sticks. "Want to try it? It's pretty good."

"I don't seem to have a knife or fork," she said.

"Knives aren't part of Korean dinnerware. They'll bring you a fork in a moment; you heard me ask for it. Meanwhile, want to try this?"

She opened her mouth, and he placed it on her tongue. Not much taste, she decided, but crunchy. "A vegetable?"

"A sea weed," Adam said, "like the kind Japanese sushi is often wrapped in. Koreans eat lots of sea weed."

"Really? Wait; those are bird eggs."

"Yes, hard boiled; eat them just like hard-boiled chicken eggs," he said, cracking and peeling a brown one with black spots.

"And this orange stuff?"

"Now that is very, very hot; be careful with it. You mentioned 'rotten cabbage'; that's fermented cabbage, 'rotten' the same way sauerkraut is 'rotten'; or beer; or cheese. Koreans won't eat cheese, by the way, they think it's disgusting."

"The way I think fried bugs are disgusting?"

He nodded. "Exactly that way. They won't drink root beer either, though they took to Coke and Pepsi right away. De gustibus non disputandum. For that matter, the ancient Romans ate some things that would turn your stomach."

Perhaps fortunately, their beef came then, in a single metal dish a foot and a half across; cubes of meat an inch on a side. More sea weed of a different color came too, and dishes of soy sauce, more little bird eggs, a fork for Graciela, and fresh chop sticks for Adam.

"I don't want to keep complaining," Graciela said, "but these pieces are too big."

"Good, though, aren't they?" He said something to the waitress, who laughed and went away. She was back right away with big scissors almost like tin snips, only with curved blades. "Fingers out!" she warned Graciela, then snip-snipped all the cubes into twos and threes.

"Why didn't they just serve them that size to begin with? Or give me a knife?"

"An inch across is the usual size; the meat stays hot longer. And diners don't have knives; the waitress cuts the meat for them if they ask for it." He looked at her. "Are you angry?"

"Maybe a little," she said. "I thought I was a grown-up woman, but all this is so strange, and you take it in stride, and they're laughing at me."

"Well," he said, "they are laughing at you; but Asians, Koreans included, laugh at anything different from their customs. They can be the nicest people in the world; when I was in Korea on business, every single person I met, bar none, treated me like his or her own personal guest. But I almost got thrown out of the country before I could get out of Seoul International Airport."


He nodded. "I didn't see the party who was supposed to meet me, so I beckoned to a porter to help with my bags. First the porter tried to beat me up, then the airport cops started waving their batons at me, then the customs people started yelling in my face—all this before I had any Korean except the phrases in the Berlitz book. Fortunately my Korean friend showed up just then to explain to me what I'd done wrong, and to tell everyone else I hadn't meant anything by it."

"What had you done?"

"Just beckoned, with a thumb and forefinger, like a dumb Westener."

"Beckoned? You mean—"

He grabbed her hand. "Don't do it here!" he said. "Turns out it's an obscene gesture in Korea, like giving someone the finger here. The way you call someone to you in Korea is like this—" he held a hand out, palm down, and moved all the fingers together, like scraping something towards himself, only without moving the hand itself.

"But couldn't they see you were American?"

"They don't care," he said. "Most of the world's cultures are so conformist, they make Americans in the Fifties look like free-love, pot-smoking, do-your-own-thing hippies by comparison."

And pretty much always have been, too, he added to himself.

Graciela lurched into Adam as he put her key into the lock on her apartment's front door, and laughed. "Oh, I think I'm drunk," she said.

"Never try to match Koreans, Russians, or Finns drink for drink," he said, not much better off himself.

"Good thing tomorrow's Saturday," she said, clinging to his shoulder. She rested her head on him while he unlocked the door and opened it.

"Okay, Cinderella," he said, "this is your stop. The coach has turned back into a pumpkin, the horses are all mice again, and you need your bed."

Instead of straightening up, she put her arms around his neck, and pulled his mouth down to hers. He almost fell over from drink and sleepiness and surprise, before he shifted his weight to support them both.

He ended the kiss gently. "Come on now."

She smiled at him. "Aren't you coming in?"

He unwrapped her arms from his neck, but held onto both her hands. "Graciela—I'm leaving Monday."

"Oh," she said. Then, still not understanding, or not wanting to understand, she asked, "When will you be back?"

He couldn't think, in his sleepiness, of a gentle way to say it; his silence said it for him. "You aren't?" she said.

"I can't," he said miserably.

"Can't what?" She wrenched her hands away and stood straight, the beginnings of anger burning away the alcohol. "Look at me!"

"I am," he said softly.

"Are you married?" she asked.

"No, it's not—"


"No!" he protested.

"I see! So it was all a game to you, was it? I'm not good enough for you, right? Not rich enough, maybe!"

In frustration, then, he grabbed her, wrapped her clawing hands behind her, and kissed her. Put all his love, all his desperation, all his wish to be with her, into the kiss; all the loneliness of the centuries, and the millenia. Somewhere in there she started kissing him back. When he stopped, they were both crying.

"At least tell me why," she whispered through her tears.

"Graciela," he said, and it was like another kiss. "I can't."

"Won't, you mean."

"Can't. Really, I can't."

She hit him then, fist in the face. "Go, then! In fact, go to Hell!" Then turned, while he stood there white-faced, entered her apartment, and slammed the door on him.

Once again she had woken him all the way up. He stood at the door, and stared at it. Sniffing wetly, he tasted blood, even as a drop fell from his nose to the floor. He took a handkerchief out of his pocket, and held it to his nose. Touched the keys lightly, still hanging in the door; they jingled faintly. Then turned, and walked away.

Graciela leaned against the door, face pressed to the wood, and breathed in great, ragged gasps, as if all the oxygen had gone from the air. She heard him touch the keys. She heard him walk away. She slid down the door, and curled on the floor, and burst into weeping, as if she would never stop weeping again.

Adam didn't know, and wouldn't have cared, that the punk with the pimples and the two broken arms was named Lennie Travaglio. Lennie had a brother, Willie Travaglio; and Willie was a good hater. Willie had beaten Lennie senseless many times, and in the usual course of things would do so again. But no one was allowed to break Lennie's arms but him.

The Don said leave the stranger alone. Willie would leave him alone, all right; after he'd broken a few arms, a few legs, maybe done some fancy carving. Willie knew what the guy looked like, now all he had to do was find him, and get started leaving him alone. Rest in peace, bastard.

All Friday Willie looked for the guy, found nothing, and got madder and madder. He could have been shooting pool, drinking beer, groping his girl; instead he had to pay back the fucker who'd busted up his little brother, and the asshole had disappeared.

Saturday was just as bad. Willie stalked through the mobs of tourists and flocks of pigeons, as likely to kick one out of his way as the other. Downtown was a bust; the Mission didn't have him; Chinatown hadn't seen him. Willie cruised down Geary past "St. Mary Maytag", the church that looked like the twirly thing inside a washing machine, and started looking through the Richmond District. Decided to go by the Zoo, long as he was here; the herd of shaggy buffalo always gave him a laugh.

And there was the bastard who maimed his brother, sitting on a park bench talking to Crazy Maria! If he thought she could help him find anybody, he was crazy himself. Willie found a parking space without too much trouble; it was late afternoon, shaping into evening, and the tourists had already started heading for their hotel rooms and restaurants.

When he reached the bench, they weren't there! Then he saw them, the other side of the skate rental place, walking towards a white convertible parked in one of the curbside spaces. Willie checked the knife in his pocket to make sure it wasn't caught on anything, smiled, and started walking towards them.

Xochitl her mother had named her, after an ancient warrior queen. Her grandfather had cut the cord at birth with an obsidian blade he made himself. Then he broke the blade and buried it secretly, along with the afterbirth. That was almost the last thing that was done right in her life.

Grandfather was a priest of the People, but he was the last priest, and the three of them were the last of the People. After the Speaker of the People realized that the metal-clad, bearded strangers weren't Kukulcan's people, and their leader wasn't the Feathered Serpent returned, he ordered them slain as the bandits they were. Their leader he slew himself; but it was his last act. The barbarians slew him and his greatest nobles in escaping from the banquet, then returned during the funeral games, with all the other barbarians of the Valley of Mexico, and slew all of the People. Fewer than a hundred escaped; and now, four hundred years later, there were only three, in exile in this cold northern land.

Instead of welcoming the sun up with the hearts of sacrifices, Grandfather lit a tiny fire and made tea, while Mother dressed Xochitl in the cab of the pickup truck which was all they owned. Instead of mixing blood in her hair to make it a pleasing color, Mother had to leave hers black, and tie it up out of the way with an old rag. Then they would drive to whatever field needed weeding or harvesting, and Xochitl stayed with the truck while Grandfather and Mother worked in the field. When she was five years old, she joined them there.

Spanish they spoke with the other workers, bits of English with the bosses, on the rare occasions they saw white men in the fields; but Nahuatl, their own language, among themselves. Every word was precious, like beaten gold, or quetzal feathers; for if they forgot a word, it was forgotten for all time.

The best times were the evenings, after they'd eaten their bit of dinner and put out the fire. They'd sit in the cab of the truck, with the stars shining high above (until the windows fogged over), and Grandfather would tell stories. Feathered Snake and Coyote, Quetzalcoatl and Coyotl, were her favorites; the warrior god and the Trickster. But there were others, Nine Shell Knife the king, Eagle who caught Snake and ate him on the Cactus, Worm at the heart of the World, all the stories of her People, more stories than People now. "Remember," said Grandfather in the dark cab. "Remember," said Mother on the other side of her. Then they would sleep, the grown-ups leaning against the locked doors, Xochitl curled on the seat between them, or stretched out with her head in Mother's lap, a scrap of rag for a blanket.

Grandfather died when she was eight, high noon in a shadeless field, the temperature over a hundred; just collapsed all at once, like a sack of bones. "Heart attack," they said, "heat stroke," they said, "just worn out and used up."

Then it was just Mother and her in the cab at night, telling each other the stories. Sometimes Mother would weep, because she could remember only part of a story; or because she missed Grandfather, or the man who had been Xochitl's father; or just from weariness, or loneliness, or hopelessness. Those were the times that scared Xochitl the most, when her mother wept.

When Xochitl was twelve years old the truck died. "Sorry, lady," the Anglo at the garage told her mother. "I'd install the part for free, really I would; but they just don't make it any more."

So then they couldn't get to the work, or even go from town to town looking for work, without standing by the side of the road for long, empty hours in the heat and the dust. Sometimes they got rides; but sometimes Xochitl had to wait in the sun, while Mother and the driver of the car or truck were inside. She didn't like that much; the noises they made scared her.

Sometimes Mother got a job for a while, cleaning floors or doing laundry or anything white people didn't want to do; but even then, sometimes, they didn't get money, only food or a bed to sleep in. They had no papers, so to protest would mean being sent to Mexico. Xochitl had never been to Mexico, but thought it must be a very bad place, if being sent there was so scary.

Finally la migra caught them, men with sunglasses like cops, who talked at them in Spanish and English, and yelled as if that made understanding better. The last time Xochitl saw Mother, she was being held by two men while a grim-faced woman put handcuffs on her wrists. But she'd already given Xochitl the little bit of money and food they had; now she began fighting the Anglos, yelling and kicking and biting and screaming. But in all that were Nahuatl words, too: "Run!" and "I love you!" and "Remember!"

Xochitl ran. For twenty years she ran, from the fields of the Central Valley to, finally, San Francisco; from thieves, rapists, bullies, tormentors of every kind, not always successfully. And she remembered that once, she had been loved. And she repeated the stories to herself, over and over.

Adam went back to the Presidio. There was no sign that anyone had used the boulder nest again. Disappointed, he tried to think where she might go next.

Tracking a person is rarely a matter of following one mark after another. Even a careless American will not leave a print with every step, and a wild creature like Xochitl would leave very few. Mostly the terrain itself restricts where a person can go. Impassable woods, unknown mountain passes, the need to find water, and other factors determine the path of the pursued. None of these were specifically true in the City, but the principles were the same. Xochitl needed water, shelter, and food, preferably fresh food begged from tourists or bought with money they had given her, rather than retrieved from garbage cans.

Eight blocks south of the Presidio, Golden Gate Park ran for over three miles, from Stanyan Street west to the Ocean. Not only did it have woods for shelter and lakes and drinking fountains for water, it also had tourist attractions like the Arboretum and the buffalo enclosure. Adam decided to look there before giving up.

An hour later he sat on one of the benches along Kennedy Drive, watching Xochitl feeding leftover hamburger bun to squirrels. Some tourist had given her a whole Big Mac in the Music Concourse while Adam watched. Like a wild animal afraid her food would be taken away from her, she had retreated from the museum area to eat it. Adam's heart ached to see how her stomach, shrunken by long privation, wouldn't let her eat the whole meal. Biding his time, he watched her devour the meat and the salty fries, before giving up on the rest.

She sat on a bench across the road and down from him, tossing bits of food to animals, talking to herself. Adam's ears confirmed what he had expected; the ramblings that gave Crazy Maria her name were the legends of her people, muttered to herself in Nahuatl, in an attempt to keep them alive. He walked over and squatted down in front of her. "Hello, grand-daughter," he said in the Nahuatl language.

She looked at him, and he wasn't one of the People. Or was he? The faces of her mother and her grandfather had faded, and they were the only People she'd ever known. He wasn't white, that was for sure, or black, or Spanish.

"Who are you?" she said in Nahuatl. "Why do you call me grand-daughter?"

"Thou art Xochitl, art thou not?" he said, using forms she hadn't heard in twenty years or more. "I am the walking spirit of thy grandfather's grandfather's grandfather. I have been looking for thee for a long time, all over the wide world."

"You're a liar," she said, out of a lifetime's bitter experience.

"I am moonlight on silver, obsidian at midnight. I fade, even as I speak to thee. But before I am gone, let me take care of thee. The last princess of the People should lack for nothing."

"Oh, you lie so sweetly," she said.

"Anything I said in this language would be sweet to thee; well I know it. But I do not lie. I am wealthy; let me arrange for thee while I can." He got up, slowly, and sat on the bench beside her.

"Oh," she cried, "where wert thou when I needed thee before? When my mother needed thee? When my grandfather did?" She began to snuffle, clumsily and messily.

"Ah, my flower, my little star," said Adam in Nahuatl, and hugged her close. He gave her a handkerchief and rocked her while she cried. She couldn't be even forty years old! "If I had known, if only I had known," he said to himself, in Keftiu.

Finally she stopped weeping. He kissed the top of her head, dirty hair and all, and stood. "Come with me, sweet heart," he said, and held out his hand. She took it.

Between relief at finding Xochitl, grief over Graciela, sleepiness and weariness, it was small wonder that the first he knew of the attack was the knife piercing his side.

But surprise was the only advantage the street punk had. Adam was stronger, faster, tougher, and more experienced. It would've been a cliché to say that he'd been in more knife fights than his attacker had eaten breakfasts. But it was also, literally, true. Adam clamped his right hand on the knife, holding it exactly where it was, spun left, and hit the knife wielder in the face with his left elbow. Xochitl heard teeth break, winced, and put a hand over her own bad teeth. The punk's brain sloshed in his skull, and he fell without a sound, unconscious and probably concussed.

Adam looked around. Golden Gate Park, this late in the day, was largely deserted. The De Young Museum and the California Academy of Sciences were closed, and the little glade where the attack had taken place was the other side of the Japanese Tea Garden from them, anyway. He could hear cars on Park Presidio Boulevard, but trees blocked vision between.

"Can you lift him onto your right shoulder?" he asked Xochitl. She looked doubtful; she'd lived too long on a poor diet, and wasn't strong. Nevertheless, under his eye, she managed it, and the two of them carried the gangster, one arm over her right shoulder, one arm over Adam's left, south to his car at Fifteenth and Lincoln. Adam opened the trunk, they shoved the punk in, and Adam locked it. Xochitl didn't ask why they hadn't just left him where he'd fallen, for which Adam, snappish from the pain of his wound, was duly grateful. It didn't seem the time to explain that the punk had stopped breathing, and Adam didn't want to leave any evidence for the police, self defense notwithstanding.

Mostly he was angry at himself for letting the punk kid walk up behind him and stick him with a knife! Holding it still, so that it didn't wiggle around and do more damage, and let more blood leak out, was forcing him to drive one-handed, but that was just an inconvenience. If the blade had been longer than a pocket knife, or the punk had cut his throat, Adam could have died just then. And if that had happened, he'd've been so embarassed and humiliated, he told himself, that he'd've had to haunt himself!

OK, really need to get sleep soon, he thought.

Yet despite the unexpected encounter, Adam was satisfied with the day's work. Looking over at his passenger, he saw that Xochitl had fallen asleep. Holding his muscles tight around the burning pain in his side, he drove south and east through twisting, climbing streets to his lawyer's house. He turned the wheels against the curb and set the parking brake carefully, on the steep street; then he shook Xochitl awake gently.

"Say nothing about the man in the trunk," he said in her language, as he pressed the bell on the wrought-iron gate outside the door.

The ring of his doorbell made Bogale Makonnen look up from his book, a frown on his heavy dark face. It was not that it was so very late, and it was Saturday night anyway. But the time between dinner and bed was his time for reading, and all his friends respected that. So either a stranger was ringing his bell, or something was very wrong.

The doorbell rang again. Bogale put a leather bookmark in his place with a sigh, put the book down on the table next to his reading chair, and got up. On the way to the door the damned bell rang a third time! "Yes, yes, I am coming!" he shouted. When he got to the door, he pulled it open with a crash, then stopped in amazement.

Adam Evenson, the young nephew of his old friend Abel (Christ have mercy on him), stood in the doorway, half held up by a street creature in filthy rags. It was an appalling spectacle to appear on a respectable Ethiopian lawyer's porch!

"Bogale," Adam said, "by Christ and all the saints, I beg your help."

Xochitl understood not a word. Bogale was amazed again. "You speak Amharic?!!"

"Yes," Adam said in a thin voice. "Please…"

"Come in, come in," the lawyer said, and led the way to a couch, where he helped Xochitl ease Adam down. "Are you badly hurt?"

"You should see the other guy," Adam said in English. He pulled his coat open with his left hand, revealing that his right hand was holding the handle of a knife stuck in his right side. "I need a doctor you trust," he continued in the Ethiopian's language, "then your services as a lawyer."

"This is very bad," Makonnen said. "I should call the police."

"Bogale," Adam said breathlessly, "You were my uncle's lawyer since 2716, in the calendar of the Romans. He told me how he got you out of Ethiopia, and what you have done for him since then. Please, by the friendship between my house and yours, help me."

"How can I say no to that?" Makonnen said. Within the hour a doctor was there. "This is Alem," Bogale said. "You may trust him."

"Hello, Alem," said Adam, and described, in precise medical terms, exactly how he was wounded, exactly how the knife lay, and exactly what the damage was. "And do you wish to treat the injury, too?" Alem said waspishly; just as dark as Bogale, but slender, with glasses. "I only came to bring you supplies, is that so?"

"By no means, Doctor. I just wanted you to have as much information as possible," Adam said with a fragile smile. Then Alem (Adam never learned his last name) drew out the knife, marveled at how little blood came with it, felt for internal bleeding and found none, injected local anaesthetic, sewed Adam up, and bandaged him.

"No doubt a clever fellow like yourself knows the signs of internal bleeding, yes? And will watch for them, yes?" Alem said.

"You have my word on it," Adam said in Amharic, wrote the doctor a check for his services, and thanked him again.

Xochitl threw up in the cleanest toilet she'd ever seen, in the fanciest bathroom she'd ever dared to enter. She didn't want to dirty it with her spew, but between hunger, and weariness, and the fear and shock of the last two hours, it was the toilet or the floor, no other choice.

She didn't know the white man who'd stabbed the man or ghost she accepted now as one of the People; but she knew his kind. He was a predator, the kind of animal she'd run from ever since she'd been on her own. Of course he would try to kill anyone who would help her! That's what that kind of animal did. Still on her knees by the toilet, she hung her head and wept, desperately sick of the world and the miseries it went on inflicting upon her.

Bogale's niece and office assistant, Lakech, was a proud, independent young woman with a B.A. in Psychology, working towards her Master's. How dare her uncle call her and ask her to take care of some street creature, as if she were some village girl fit only to do menial chores! She was too angry to drive; she stomped up the hill to her uncle's house, rehearsing curses he probably wouldn't believe she knew, until she unloaded them on him, and quit!

Then Uncle Bogale took all the force from her argument, the dirty silver-tongued lawyer, by telling her how shameful it was to ask her to take care of some dirty woman off the street, telling her how smart she was, and how accomplished she was, and how it disgraced the memory of her father, the brother whom he'd loved so much, but he had no one else to call upon now but her, and wouldn't she please do this one thing for him, before she quit his employ and doubtless never came to see her poor old uncle again?

It was most unfair! Lakech knew she was being played, yet had to admire the artistry of it. By the time he was done, she was feeling sorry for him, even though she knew better. Stalking down the hall like a cat balked of its prey (if she'd had a tail, it would have been switching dangerously!), she was about to fling the bathroom door open with a crash, when she heard sobbing from within. All the misery of the world was in that sobbing, like a child who's been mistreated all of her life. It was like a child's sobbing, unpracticed, full of messy snuffling. Lakech felt her heart melt.

There was a knock on the bathroom door, then it opened, and a black girl came in. She wasn't dressed like the black girls Xochitl saw on the streets. Like the man who'd opened the street door for her and her spirit-ancestor, this girl had more modest clothes than the street girls of her age that Xochitl was used to, and didn't reek of too much perfume. Xochitl guessed they weren't Americans; they certainly weren't street.

The girl said something; Xochitl didn't understand a word. She shook her head. The girl said, in English and Spanish, "Food? Comida? Are you hungry? Hambre?"

"Sí, yes, food please, por favor," said Xochitl. The girl nodded, flushed the toilet, and helped her up. In a warm kitchen, she gave the Nahuatl woman a ceramic bowl of thick Ethiopian red lentil and onion soup, a heavy metal spoon to eat it, and fresh cold milk in a glass, not a cardboard fast-food container.

"More? Más?" Xochitl said hopefully, after gulping it down. Lakech temporized, afraid that the poor creature would vomit if given any more right away.

"Yes, but first clean," said the girl. Back they went to the bathroom, where the girl took away her clothes, filled the tub, and helped her get in. She hadn't been bathed since she was ten; she fell asleep while Lakech washed and shampooed her hair, scrubbed her, rinsed her, and dried her off. She barely woke enough to put on (new! clean!) pajamas, and crawl into a (soft! clean!) bed in a (warm! safe!) room. "Thank you so much," she said in Nahuatl, and crashed into sleep.

"She's fed, clean, and asleep," Bogale Makonnen told Adam.

Adam kneaded the back of his neck with his left hand. "Don't say 'sleep' to me," he begged.

Bogale was surprised how concerned he felt. But Adam was very much like his uncle, and the old man had been a good friend. "You look like you could use forty years of it yourself, my friend."

"That's the plan," said Adam. "Now, have I made clear what I want you to do? It's not your understanding I doubt," he added, "but my own clarity."

"Set up a trust fund with the Foundation for the young lady upstairs, and see to her physical and mental health needs, including American citizenship. Set up another Foundation trust fund for one Graciela Luisa Corona, but don't tell her about it unless she finds herself in need of the money. Have you declared legally dead as soon as possible, if something should happen to you. Amend your will so that your personal estate is divided between the two ladies."

"Thank you. I know it's asking a lot, but how soon can you have all that ready for my signature?"

"If it is an emergency, I could have the documents ready by tomorrow afternoon. But they will have to be probated, you know."

"All I can do is sign them. The rest I have to leave to you."

"You are trusting me quite extravagantly," Bogale said. "This sole executorship could be used by an unscrupulous person to take all your money, and quite a bit of Foundation money, as well."

"But would an unscrupulous person warn me? My uncle believed in you. I'll just have to rely on his judgment," Adam said with a smile.

At the door, Adam paused. "One last thing. Someday, when she's ready for it, give her this." He took a CD case from his coat pocket and gave it to the lawyer.

Bogale looked at the unmarked disk inside. "What is this? It is not labeled."

"No," Adam said. "It's all the legends of Xochitl's people. My voice is not good, but there was no one else to sing them."

"This may be worth a lot of money."

"I doubt it," said Adam. "Who would accept it as authentic? Nevertheless, it's priceless—to Xochitl."

Graciela sat up. She hadn't imagined it! Someone was knocking on her door at—she looked at the clock by her bed—two in the morning. Now who—"Adam?" she whispered.

No, no, I'm mad at him, damn it, said her mind, while her feet raced for the door. He's going to hurt me, said her heart, thumping painfully in her chest. Oh no, said all of her, seeing him through the peephole, and Yes! at the same time. She hastily undid the bolts and threw open the door.

By rights it should have been very awkward. They didn't let it be. Whether he seized her, or she flew to him, no one could have said. But as soon as the door was out of the way, they were in each other's arms, kissing each other, and uttering endearments between the kisses.

After a few moments Adam said, "You must be cold," feeling how thin her pajamas were, and seeing her bare feet. He picked her up, with a grimace for the wound he'd forgotten, and carried her into her apartment, closing the door with his foot.

"No," Graciela said, when he would have put her down, "through there," and pointed.

"Are you sure?" he said, in one last try for sanity.

"Querido," she said, and began kissing him again, light as a sparrow in his arms, her hair falling like ink all around them. Reason fled. He carried her to her bed, and laid her down upon it.

Then they made love, slowly, deliciously, with infinite attention to detail. He kissed every inch of her, from head to toe, and then worked his way up again. And she him, discovering his wound, and being promised he would tell her about it, and everything else—later.

Much later, as it happened, after hours of kisses and caresses, after tongue and hand had brought fiery climax to them both, after she had lowered herself carefully upon him and climax came again, after more kisses, and a shower they shared, and back to bed to lie in each other's arms, for the moment quite, quite spent.

So do two people discover each other, and learn each other fully, the first time they commit themselves together. Oh how often it grows familiar, even conventional, and the first fire is lost even to memory, over time! But for them there would be no other occasion. He knew it, she sensed it, and they made love as if the world were ending; because for them it was.

"You do love me," she said, with conviction.

"I believe that I've never loved anyone as much as I love you," he said. "Isn't that foolish? I've known you only three weeks, and I love you so very dearly. And still I must go."

"Tell me why," she said, believing him, accepting him, and needing to know. Later she would hurt, later she would cry, all her life she would miss him; right now she said, simply, tell me why.

After eighty years awake, he said, I need to sleep, just as an ordinary man does after sixteen hours. And as he sleeps for eight hours, so I sleep for forty years.

For thousands and thousands of years this has been so. I live at two speeds at once; for the days pass by me at the same rate they do everyone else, when I'm awake, and for eighty years or so I live as other people do, only I don't sleep. And then for forty years I sleep, and wounds heal, and missing parts grow back, and I wake to face the world again. So I live at one rate, the rate of everyone else; but I sleep and age at another, where 120 years is one day.

And that is why I must leave you, my darling, he said, stopping for a moment to kiss her deeply. Not because I want to—oh, how much I don't want to! But I last woke in 1909, by the year count of the Christians, and I am weary unto death for lack of sleep.

I don't know my exact age; I'm far older than calendars. I was born when the glaciers covered Europe, and my North African home was lush and green and filled with life. The tribe to which I belonged followed the herds of antelope and zebra and giraffes, picking off the young and the weak, as did the other predators, the lions and jackals and giant weasels.

I was fifteen years old or so when I stopped falling asleep. My tribe almost killed me then, for it marked me as one of the monsters, the giants and ogres and other things the human race frequently produced back then. But they let me live, and I repaid them by becoming a great hunter and a great scout. With all night to hunt or scout or just to think, I could do a lot for them.

That first time I was only awake twenty years or so before I fell asleep. I don't know why. I've seen others like me down the ages (very few, and more in earlier times than lately), and the first waking period can be anything up to the full eighty years, for no reason I can figure.

Most of us die when first we fall asleep. Our tribe thinks us dead and buries us, and we suffocate in our sleep; or embalms us, and so murders us unwittingly; or abandons us, and animals devour us; or we die a host of other ways, as we lie there defenseless.

But the sons and grandsons of my contemporaries came to revere me by the time I fell asleep, and kept watch over me. As I lay dead but unrotting, for year after year, reverence became something more. By the time I woke, I was their god.

And nearly died again, for upsetting their religion and their politics. A sleeping god was a cornerstone of society; an awake one was just a trouble maker.

So I left; and ever since I've wandered the world, living forty years here, forty years there, and sleeping another forty in some secure haven I prepare ahead of time.

I know that the Chinese dragon is a lion, because I remember when the proto-Chinese drew that symbol and still recalled what it meant, a couple of thousand years before they became a single nation. I know that the feathered serpent of pre-Classical Mesoamerica is a lion, too—because they took it from me, when I came here during the Dark Ages, bearing a lion's head on my shield. Not knowing lions, which had gone extinct in the New World thousands of years before, they saw the picture as a snake's head surrounded by feathers, and called me Quetzalcoatl, Kukulcan, Feathered Serpent.

And that's the other reason I stayed awake so long this time. Xochitl, by her language, is the last descendant, not of me (I've never been able to have children), but of the people who knew me. They thought I would come back some day, as others have thought, before and since. So when Hernán Cortés landed, the Nahuatl Speaker, Mocteczuma, didn't fight him as hard as he should have, thinking him me. Then he changed his mind, and killed Cortés, and the Spanish and their native allies massacred the Nahuatl. So an entire civilization died, because of me.

To rescue the last of them is the least I can do.

"But couldn't you come back, when you woke?" Graciela said, warm and lovely in his arms.

"I never come back," he said gently. "Either everyone I loved is dead, or worse still, they aren't. If they're alive, after forty years, they look at me unaged, and they curse me, and hate me. My heart can't take it any more. If I don't go back, then in my mind they're still alive, and they still love me."

"My poor love," said Graciela. "How long have you lived like this?"

"I don't know exactly," Abel/Adam said. "The Ice Age in which I was born lasted from about 1.64 million years ago to ten thousand years ago, the scientists say. If forty years age me eight hours, then 43,800 years age me one year. I was about fifteen when I stopped sleeping, and I seem to be about 38 now—a million years ago is about right."

"I saw the migration out of Africa, a band or tribe at a time, over generations. I helped raise the walls of the first cities, and the ones after those, and the ones after those, the earliest that are known today. I saw the first Chinese kingdoms founded, and the kingdoms of India, and of Egypt. I saw the settlement of the European plain by waves of people from the Near East and western Asia. I sailed on the boats that discovered Polynesia. I saw the Americas settled the first time, and the second, and the third; and I was living here when the fourth wave began, from Europe this time."

"Did you see Atlantis?" Graciela asked.

Adam laughed gently. "Atlantis is a myth, love. One of the Minoan islands, Thera, was a volcano, and it blew up. That's where your legends of Atlantis come from. I was asleep in a nobleman's tomb in Kemet—Egypt—when it happened, but I woke up not ten years afterwards."

"And you can't die?" she said softly.

"Of course I can," he answered. "Shoot me, stab me, hit me with a car, set me on fire—but I'm very good at staying alive, or I'd be long gone. Another part of my makeup is, bit by bit I grow stronger, and tougher, and taller. In the last few generations people as a whole have shot past me in height, but only a couple of centuries ago I was a very tall man. Tall or not, though, I'm tougher than a bear, and stronger than an ox."

"And you won't be back?" she said again.

"Querida, it's going to be hard enough losing you," Adam said. "Please don't ask me to lose you twice."

"I've never told anyone else what I've told you," he went on. "Anyone else I would have promised to come back, or just slipped away in the night. But I couldn't stand to have you not knowing what happened to me, to be hurt that way, to come to hate me. To be long-lived is to lie, constantly, to everyone you meet for age after age—who you are, where you come from, what you know, everything about yourself. To you, only to you, I just couldn't lie."

"Thank you for telling me," she said, and pulled him close.

On Monday a package was brought to the Don, which had been left in one of the places his people did business. In it was a human finger, adorned by a ring; a knife; and a note in purest Sicilian of a bygone age.

My very dear sir, it said,

I observed the close attention and careful lack of interference which your people awarded me after our last communication, and I thank you for your very great courtesy. It is wonderful to see that honor and family are still respected by some in these degenerate times.

Unfortunately, the bearer of the enclosed finger and knife (which I send for no purpose except that of identification) chose not to obey your instructions. He attacked me with the knife, and has paid the price for his folly.

I regret the demise of another of your people at my hands, but please believe, sir, that he left me with no alternative. If it pleases you, know that he wounded me before he met his end.

I wish I could make this up to you, but I have found my grand daughter, and am removing her from this city at once. I very much fear that you will never see either of us, or the body of your soldier.

Please accept, sir, my fondest esteem, which you have earned by your wisdom and courtesy.

The Don flicked the box containing the finger and the knife with a hand, distastefully. "Whose are these?" he demanded.

"Signore, they belong to Guglielmo Travaglio, the older brother of Leonardo Travaglio, who survived this person's first attack," the Don's number two man said.

"His attack?" said the Don. "I think not."

"So," he said, "the stranger is gone? Willie Travaglio is gone? And who else?"

His second spread his hands. "Some derelicts, perhaps. They come, they go, they die even. Who knows?"

The Don scowled. "Most unsatisfactory. Bah, the matter is beneath us. Dispose of this trash, and forget it."

The oldest man in the world drove carefully east on Interstate 80 out of California in a clunker bought for cash, the afternoon sun beating down on the back of the car, looking for a turnoff he'd last seen almost sixty years ago, and stayed away from ever since. He'd reset his odometer at the Nevada border, and began to concentrate when it reached 50. Presently he pulled over and stopped.

He opened the trunk. The body inside had been wrapped in many layers of plastic sheeting, and then zipped into a used sleeping bag bought with cash at a Goodwill store. It had stiffened in rigor mortis and then passed beyond that. He placed the bundle over his shoulders in a fireman's carry, and began to walk away from the road, walking north into the trackless desert.

On this last chore the images from his past rose around him like a wave, threatening to overwhelm him with memories. Memories from cold and wet places especially tormented him in the Nevada sun. It would've been wiser to do this at night, when it was cooler. But he feared to miss some poorly-remembered landmark, and his desperate sleepiness didn't allow him to wait any longer.

He saw the war canoes, full of strong brown men armed with clubs and shields, crash through the surf to the beach. Were they Polynesian canoes in New Zealand? Kwakiutl canoes in Oregon? No matter.

Thunor and Tiw faced him in the holmgang, snarling hate and defiance, the faces of the whole village watching the three of them.

He parted the bushes with shield and sword, and there was a pyramid; but not one of the smooth sealed edifices of the Kemtiu. This one was flat-topped with stairs up the sides, and had a whole city around it. So they did have cities, after all!

The snow stung his face as he raced to keep the reindeer from escaping. It was a stubborn bull, who didn't want to stay with the herd. He threw himself on the shaggy neck, and the Sami shouted approval.

Stars blazed in the cold air, and breath steamed from their lips. The old Hindu walked him through the strange roofless walls and buildings, which were really instruments for measuring star positions, and explained how they were used.

"I'll kill you!" Rasputin shouted. The giant Russian, over six hundred years old, didn't yet realize that the American soldier he faced was another like himself, but far older. He charged, filthy hands reaching…

Adam stopped. The boulder before him, tall as he was, flat on one side, was his destination. It weighed tons; and under it was the key and papers for Adam's resting place. He set down his burden, took a drink of water from the canteen on his belt, and rested a moment.

The stars burned in the desert air. Men had lived on the Moon now for eighteen years, and the first Mars expedition had been approved by the U.N., to be built in orbit starting in 1991 or 1992. There was talk of an expedition to Titan, too; and right now, in orbit, buoys marked where construction teams would lay the keel of man's first starship—if the Childe people were men. Maybe his next life would be on another world?

Adam started awake in panic, realizing that he'd dozed off and slept through sunset. He shivered, and began carefully stretching and warming up.

He was stronger all the time; forty thousand years ago he wouldn't have been able to shift the rock in front of him. Sixty years ago it had taken all his strength, and he'd been rested and unwounded. But sleeping without careful preparation against discovery meant death; he had to move the rock, wound or no wound.

He didn't have to lift it, or push it along the ground; just tilt it from one flat part of its bottom to another, uncovering the hollow beneath it. The desert ground, baked into a cement-like crust that yielded a stone only reluctantly, was his enemy; but gravity would actually be on his side, once he passed the pivot point.

He put his back against the stone, and slowly began pushing, laying into the burden gradually, rather than jerking his muscles. In softer ground, his boots would have dug great holes, assuming the soil gave him purchase at all. Here in the desert, the hardpan dented only slightly beneath his feet. He put his whole body into it, making a total effort with every muscle, for long, long minutes. Then he let up, as carefully as he'd started.

The rock didn't seem to have moved; but there was, he was pleased to note through the pounding of his head, a hairline crack in the desert cement at its base, all the way around.

He took a little more water, and a thought struck him. Laughing softly, he pulled down his pants, and pissed along the base of the rock, right on the crack. Maybe it would soften the rocklike ground. It couldn't hurt, he thought, as he fastened his pants again.

He laid into the rock again, and exerted all his strength. After a few minutes, he felt it begin to move. Then a searing pain doubled him over, and the boulder shifted back.

"Merda," he muttered, dabbing at the blood on his shirt; "Shit," in Latin. He'd pulled a stitch or two, reopening the wound. It had felt like being stabbed all over again.

No matter. Unless he tore himself apart, or bled to death before getting to sleep, he would heal whatever he did to himself tonight. He'd healed a spear thrust to the gut once, the loss of an eye another time, even a broken back.

Once more he took up the slack in his body, and shoved against the rock—ignoring his weariness, ignoring the throbbing in his head, ignoring the blood tickling him as it slid down his belly. And the boulder, finally, tilted, rocked through forty degrees, and stopped in its other position.

Adam slid to the ground, curled himself around the pain in his side, and just breathed for a few minutes.

At last he got to his hands and knees, reached under stone, and pulled out a pouch of thick leather. It was dry and cracked, but still intact. The papers inside weren't even yellowed; they'd seen no light or moisture for six decades. The key with them he put carefully into his wallet.

Next he picked up Willie's remains and pushed them into the hole. He didn't worry about how they bunched up, as long as all the sleeping bag was inside the broken crust marking the rock's original position.

One more effort, then. The rock moved in one direction more easily than the other. One hard push, and it slipped away from him and crashed back into place with a crackling of crushed bones. Once again it stood exactly as it had for sixty years; only now, instead of hiding papers for him, it was the anonymous headstone of a man who'd knifed him.

Adam pounded the desert cement around the rock's base back into sand with a hand-sized rock, then threw the rock as far as he could away from the road, further yet into the desert. In a few days or weeks of sun, the seal around the boulder would be solid as ever, with no crack to show he'd ever broken it.

The walk back to the car was easy, with no burden, with his object gained, with no sun burning down on him. He tossed the pouch onto the passenger seat, got in, and started the engine.

The desert stars, undimmed by city lights, were no brighter than his hopes. Men learned, and civilization moved forward. Twice in the last hundred years, artificial retroviruses has been turned loose—first the high-tech, sharply-targeted Green Cold, then the crude HIV virus, which by comparison was much harder to catch, had a lower fatality rate, and differed much less from its natural simian antecedents. But weapons always got turned into tools, and maybe, just maybe, before he was a biological year older, the rest of mankind would be long-lived, too.

He drove onto the highway and accelerated. He would buy a new car in Reno and continue on; he hadn't lived this long by sleeping in earthquake country. All his promises for this life Adam had kept, but he still had miles to go before he slept.

About this story

Copyright © 1994, 2003, and 2018 by Green Sky Press. All rights reserved.


It's an old town, in an old part of the country, with a lot of wickedness in its past, the town and the area both. There's always something stirring under the trees down at the edge of the swamp, or under the beds in some house built over an ancient wrong. Something oozes out, like corruption from a wound where the skin closed, but the sore never healed; always something.

Grandma hears it first, like wind stirring leaves on the trees by the old ship yard; but those trees are dead, and have no leaves. Shame and a disgrace, she thinks, they ought to tear out that rot, have a priest say something to keep it gone. But there's no money, never any money for anything but drink and smoke and new cars and newer women. Got to spend the money on the living, see our tall new buildings in the downtown sun? But it's the living who are in danger, when the ghost ships are in.

Hears the rush and the thud and the hurry of it, the living breath in the living lungs, going to answer the call of the dead:

Someone is running.

She has it right here, wow, that's something, never thought I'd see it right here, that's really something. But hey be cool, gotta be cool with it.

Sure I'd like to see, if you got it right here, is that it? Wow, that's something. Small and round and usedta-be-live, it stares up at him in the girl's hands, and something in the ancient dried-up face makes the sun seem far away, and the hot day cold.

No kidding, your mom's attic? The things lying 'round in attics in this town—a baby? Really? Wants to think it's a cat's head, dried up and whiskers fallen off, but the thing's stare dares him to say it, and those aren't cat ears.

Always something, this town.

His heart is going a mile a minute. Listen, girl, he says, no don't say nothin' yet, just listen, and he tells her.

Something his mama's mama told him, laughin' at him with that one good eye of hers, whose side you on, anyway? A lock of her hair, boy, and she'll love you forever; a lock of her hair, and some other things he don't like to think about.

Grandma gets a whiff of something foul, ancient rankness poking above ground, but it will keep. Something's coming down where the ships burned to the water, sailors and slaves screaming in the flames—and it's coming down now.

Something's standing by the window where nothing should be, and Hetty wants to scream for Mama. But Mama's asleep, oh baby, what you screamin' for, you know how long I worked today? So Hetty doesn't scream, let me sleep child, I gotta be up soon…

No matter what.

It's a curtain, that's all, it's a shadow. It's not something older than Hetty and her Mama put together, it's not something with evil eyes and a grin like a rusty hacksaw. It doesn't say to her,

Little girl, little girl, whose house is this?

It's something in her head, it's a trick of the light, and Oh how Hetty wishes it would go away!

He used to run through these streets when he was a kid, ran them all the time; the white people lived here and they stayed in their houses, he'd run and run through the empty streets, his own private track.

Ran just to be running, was what he'd thought, the speed and the joy and the freedom of it, legs pounding like they'd go forever, till the traitor lungs were like to burst, O why can't my lungs let me run?

Now, of course, he knew why he'd run, but back then he just did till he couldn't breathe, then back to the house where his folks were, both of them smoking all the time. Lit one butt from the end of the last, chain-smoking they called it, the air always blue with smoke, the ashtrays full. Have a good run, son? Oh, too bad. Well, keep at it.

The streets are full of cars now, parked and moving both, and bunches and flurries of black people. He's a little scared to be running here now, but he has no choice, and mostly they're cool: Hey white boy, where you going? with a laugh. Like an obstacle course, dodging around and past and through, 'scuse me, 'scuse me, man. Damn, lookit that white boy go!

It gets thinner by the old shipyard, or where it used to be; by the time he gets there, there's nobody 'round. But something's there, swinging with the wind, black on the tide where the signs say Danger! This dock condemned! Condemned indeed, a ship that burned a hundred years ago floats by the burned dock, scares him whiter than he was already. But he had to come, has to see what he can do:

Someone's on board.

She runs down the street to her girlfriends, and they call to her, What did he say? Was it mag? It was major mag! she sings, wait'll you hear, laughing. Girls like flocks of birds, hopping and chattering, all dart and flash and swirl of skirts. The boys are cool (gotta be cool), you tell her man? Yeah, I told her.

I said, she says, remembering, I said, my name is Clutie. And what'd he say? Oh the dreamiest smile, he just said, kinda quiet, I know.

And the thing in her purse nods with her bobbing, and rolls a little when she jumps around. Grins that evil dried-up grin, and stares at nothing with mummified eyes.

It used to be my house, it says to her.

Hetty holds her covers up to her chin, and tries real hard to say nothing at all. Nothing is hard, but easy is worse: if she tries to say anything she'll scream and scream. It's standing over her bed now, looking down at her, there's nothing there, there's nothing there!

My house, it says. Do you know what I did? I liked little girls, they screamed so much. Can't eat just one, it says, and grins. The evil eyes are dark red coals just waiting for wind to set them alight. It reaches out a shriveled hand, there's nothing there!

Grandma finds him by dock number 3, a thin white boy peering at the dead thing, instead of ignoring it like a sensible man. Child, child, grandma says, come away, it's not safe. What, child? No, honey, there's no one there, and the ones on that ship you don't want to mess with. Come away!

But grandmother, don't you see the blue? Way up there on the side, where the portholes would be if there were still portholes, past the burned sides and the burned railing, underneath the burned lines and the burned sails? There's something blue!

Why do you think I ran like this?

"Did you get it?" his mama's mama asks him. Can't think of her as grandma, that's kindly old ladies with lots of cats; nothing kindly 'bout Mam'zelle, sharp and bony and hateful, patch over one eye. "Did you get it?" she asks him again.

"Tomorrow," he says, "if she agrees, tomorrow. But I saw it, it's real."

"Course it's real, fool," and snorts. "Knew that soon as I felt it. Real enough for your dreams, and mine too. Much joy may you have of it," she grins at him.

Her grin reminds him of the thing in Clutie's purse.

"There's nothing there," Grandma tells him. "It's only bait, and you're the fish."

"Bait," he says, staring blankly. "But look, it's blue."

"And how did you, all the way across town, know there was someone on that ship? How did you know the ship was there? It's a worm, boy, on a hook, boy, and if it's blue it's just because blue to you is a girl's skirt, that once you knew, or blue is eyes you looked into. Look!" she cried, and set a foot on the dock.

It moaned in pain, and then gave way. And now he saw that the whole dock bobbed in the waves. Broken pilings didn't support it; hanging boards dangled in air. His gaze, that had been fixed on the ship, now saw the dock clearly; he took a step back.

"Bait," she said. "Every year, the ships come in, still sailing the triangle trade, and every year, the tides bring in the ones they caught and drowned. And you!" she said, addressing the ship. "You were men once—act like it! What has this boy ever done to you? Shame on you!" she cried.

He was amazed. "If not for you, I'd have climbed on that dock, to get to the ship—" he stopped. The burned ship, the ghost ship was gone. "I owe you my life," he marveled.

"Then help me save some others," she said. "There's more wickedness going on, and I can't be two places at once."

"Oh, but I promised," Clutie says. She knows who Grandma is, everyone knows Grandma, but "I promised him."

"Girl, give over," Grandma says. "Do you know what it is you have in your purse?"

"I found it in the attic," Clutie says; she's a good girl, doesn't want to say.

"Attic," Grandma says. "They wasn't attics then, they was servant's quarters. Little black girls spent all the day dustin' an' sweepin' an' scrubbin' and waitin' table, and white girls too. Then at night they go up the stairs, two beds in a tiny room, and they sleep jus' a little bit. Then up before dawn, and do it again."

"What about the magic?" Clutie says, all wide eyed; Grandma tells it like she was there.

"Magic? Is that what you think that is? Listen, girl, these babies was next thing to slaves, and they didn't know nothin'. No schoolin' for them, just work from can't-see to can't-see, every day. What magic you expect they had?"

"But sometimes," Grandma says, "servant girl gets in trouble. Master's son gets under her skirts, or servant boy from another house. No abortions then, they was illegal, that way only the rich could get 'em. Gotta keep the servants moral, right?"

"Girl prays that she miscarries, 'cause if she shows up pregnant, they'll toss her out. And if she miscarries, and if it lives, she gotta smother it. Either way, no burial, burying is way too public. Hide it under the floor boards, say a rat died, that's making the smell, it'll go away soon."

"You love him?" Grandma says.

Clutie takes her fist out of her mouth. Unshed tears shine in her eyes and husk her voice. "What?"

"You love him?" Grandma says patiently. "This boy you promised?"

"I don't know, Grandma. I watch him, you know? He's mighty fine… and sometimes, I think he's watching me back."

"Maybe he is," Grandma says. "Maybe he ain't. Time will tell; only, if he is, you want that thing hangin' on your love? You want to look at him, and think of that?"

"Oh no!" Clutie says.

"Then give it to me," Grandma says, "and I'll take it away, and bury it. Thank you, child. And listen, girl," fixing her with a sharp eye, "don't go messin' 'round attics no more, this town."

Grandma walks down the street, night coming on hard now, and talks to herself a little. "And sometimes," she says, "some devil finds the lost flesh, thinks he'll make some mischief. Shut up, you," she says to the thing hissing in her purse, "I'll salt you down soon as the moon's up, so don't be gettin' no ideas."

"Excuse me, ma'am, is your name Carol? Grandma said I'm to give you this."

Hetty's mama has the chain on, staring past the edge of the door at this good-looking stranger holding out an envelope, why's he knocking on her door at night? "Grandma?" she says, still half asleep.

He looks up and down the street. "Isn't this 347 Beauregard? I'm to give this to Carol at 347 Beauregard Street."

"I'm Carol," Hetty's mama says, and takes the envelope. Opens it, reads the note inside. "I don't understand," she says.

"Grandma saved me from something at the old docks this afternoon, then asked me to come and sit with your daughter while she took care of something else. So," he shrugged, "here I am."

"How do you know Hetty?" Carol says, Hetty's mama says, all suspicion.

"That her name? Ma'am, all I know is Grandma asked me to come."

"But you're white!" Carol says, still at sea.

"I'm sorry, ma'am; I can't help it. Can I come in? It's cold out here."

She looks at him; skinny white man in shorts and t-shirt and running shoes, good enough for an afternoon run but it gets cold real fast when the sun goes down. "Grandma," she reminds herself; undoes the chain, and lets him in.

Hetty feels like ice as the thing runs its fingers down her body and touches her in places no one's s'posed to touch. She's so full of fear she can't even think of screaming. Little girls, the thing croons, and then the door opens and the light comes on.

"Hetty!" says Mama. "Why you lyin' there with the covers off, ain't you cold?" She comes in to pull up the blanket, and a strange man comes in with her. Hetty jumps.

"Hi, Hetty," the stranger says. He's got a blanket and a flashlight and a nice smile. "My name's Jonathan, I'm just going to sit here a while. Think of me as your very own guard." He looks 'round the room, sets the stuff on the floor; gets a kitchen chair to put by the window.

Hetty watches this with big eyes while Mama tucks her in again, humming a little under her breath, Hetty wants to say Mama? What's going on? But she's so sleepy now, her Mama's here and the bad thing's gone, so what does it matter?

"There," says Jonathan, has the chair just so, sits in it and wraps up in the blanket. "Reporting for duty," he says, and salutes Hetty and Mama with the flashlight.

"But you're white!" Hetty says, already half asleep in her warm bed.

"The chair won't mind," Jonathan says, and winks.

Mam'zelle opens the door herself, what's the world coming to, looks down her long nose at Grandma on the step. "The servant's entrance is around back," she says.

Grandma hits her across the mouth and knocks her on her bony ass.

Comes in while she's sprawling, closes the door behind herself. "Just so we know where we stand," she says. "I may be a servant, but I'm a servant of the Most High. What've you ever served that's fit to mention?"

Mam'zelle comes off the floor with a screech, fingers crooked to claw. "Don't even," Grandma says, pointing, and Mam'zelle can't move. "Better," says Grandma. "Sit down, girl," and does the same.

"Who are you?" says Mam'zelle, for once not quite so full of herself.

"I'm nobody," says Grandma. "At least, in Paris and London and New York I'm nobody. I hear you cut quite a swath through those parts, made quite a name with a certain crowd."

"But there's all sorts of people in the world, and all sorts of crowds," Grandma says. "Take two colored servant girls, both born a hunnerd, hunnerd fifty years ago. One's in the house of a white lady famous for wickedness, lives all over the world, takes all sorts of men to her bed. And the colored girl watches, and listens, and learns all the wrong lessons. Learns to be like her mistress. Learns to live way past her time, if she has young folks around to take advantage of. Take their blood, take their love, take somethin' and trade it for life, who cares about them, right?"

"The other girl's not so lucky, you might say. Lives a dull life, wears herself out doing for folks. If they love her, if they take care of her when she's old, what's that compared to livin' the high life in those fancy places?"

"Only the welcome wears out, sooner or later, and no one wants the smart girl comin' round. So she thinks that she'll lie low for a while in a town that's maybe too well known for all the badness in its past. Get her youth back where no one knows her, then go back all new and start again."

"That pretty much the plan?" Grandma said.

"You tell me, you know so much," Mam'zelle hissed.

"I know the other girl died," Grandma says, "and the Most High said she had the choice of eternal ease, or tending to the folk who loved her. So she curtsied, just like she'd once been taught, and said Thank you, Sir. If it's all the same, I'd just as soon be doing for folks."

"What are you telling me?!" said Mam'zelle, scared now.

"Nothing," says Grandma. "I'm nothing in Paris and Madrid and places like that. But hereabout? Hereabout, I got pull, you could say." She stood up. "If you want to stay here, you play by our rules. Otherwise it's Bon voyage, ma cher, we got troubles enough already."

"I believe I understand you," Mam'zelle says stiffly, coming with Grandma to the door.

"I hope you do," Grandma said. "Think on what I said, or you and me are gonna have trouble. And girl? Think, too, on the way you been livin'. Are you really doin' yourself any favors? In the long run?"

Grandma chuckled as she went down the road, "Loudest not-slam I ever didn't hear."

Bastard, it said to him.

Jonathan looked over at Hetty. She was sound asleep. Good, that meant it was only working on him now. Get over it, he thought to it. I did.

Bastard, it said. Can't be a priest. Church doesn't want any priests whose parents weren't married in it.

I'd've made a lousy priest anyway, Jonathan said. Too many fine women in the world, like Hetty's mom.

Can't be a pilot either, four-eyes.

Jonathan pushed his glasses back up on his nose. I hear that's a pretty boring job anyway, he said mildly.

Can't be a runner, the thing said, still looking for ways to hurt. Not with those lungs. Parents hate you, boy?

They didn't know, Jonathan thought. Nobody did, back then. They both died of it, and anyway, mad now, what's your excuse, you sick sack of shit? What accident of birth forced you to rape and murder little girls? Your folks make you do that?

Grandma told me about you, he said. You're lucky you're a ghost. If you were really here, I'd beat the hell out of you!

And speaking of Hell, isn't it looking for you? Go home! he said, and turned the flashlight on it.

There was nothing there.

Hetty's giggle wakes him up, all stiff in the chair, didn't know he'd slept. She was looking at his shoes. "You got a hole in your sneakers," she said.

Jonathan smiled, stood on up in the morning sun streaming in the window, stretched hugely. "That's OK, Hetty," he said. "I'm through running."

Sunlight falls on an old town, in an old part of the country, with a lot of wickedness in its past, the town and the area both. But good clean sunlight drives out a lot of wickedness. It lights the haunted mill downstream of the town; only dust motes dance in its warm beams. It pours down on the old graveyard, and finds grass and gravestones, nothing more.

Grandma sips her tea and knows, come nightfall something will need looking after. Always something skulking, in the shadows in this town. Always something.

About this story

Copyright © 2003 by Green Sky Press. All rights reserved.

Real People

I'll never forget the day I found out the truth about my partner. He saw to that, damn him. When I'm an old woman of ninety in a nursing home somewhere, I'll be able to tell you exactly what I had for breakfast that day—cream cheese on a bagel and two cups of coffee—exactly what time I got to work—8:45, a CHTS bus was broken down at the corner of Aurora Avenue and 14th Street, so I had to wait in my little green Buick convertible while they unsnarled the traffic—and a million other trivial details. And one not-so-trivial detail: my partner wasn't human.

I hadn't been at my desk more than twenty minutes when Captain Olsen began hollering. When he opened the door of his office and shouted "Jones! Meade! Get in here!" I didn't even resent, for once, that he called for Jones first. I was five months senior to Jones, damn it.

But anything was better than staring at the paper in my typewriter and trying to figure out how to write a report on the Alioto case that made sense. Any way you looked at it, if you told what actually happened, it was going to read like an old pulp story. Joe Alioto had kidnapped a coed from Columbine University and said he'd snuff her if Daddy didn't cough up big bucks. Daddy was perfectly willing to do it, but how do you make sure Alioto doesn't kill her anyway, and get away clean?

While I was following procedure and arranging uniforms at every exit, Jones pulled his patented vanishing act. I'd barely finished changing into civilian clothes and wiping makeup off, so I could pass as the girl's room mate and take the money in myself, when Jones walks in—without knocking!—and shoves the hysterical hostage into my arms. "Good work, Diane," he says without cracking a smile in that stone face of his. "You saved the money, rescued the girl, and caught Alioto." Then the bastard turned to go!

"Wait!" I said around the weeping girl with her arms around my neck. "What did you do? Where's Alioto?"

"Send some uniforms in," Jones said. "He's not going anywhere." And then he walked out.

It worked out just as he said. Somehow all the uniforms believed that Jones had put them in place, while I had gone in with the money. Somehow, even the Smythe girl believed that I had gotten the drop on her kidnapper, and took him down with ju jitsu or something. And Alioto certainly wasn't going anywhere—not in the condition Jones left him. They had to bring him out on a stretcher.

Really, did Jones have to break both of Alioto's arms and both of his legs? Jones is six foot six and 200 pounds of muscle; if he wanted to pulverize a kidnapper, why didn't he take the credit? I'm five-eight and never-you-mind what I weigh. And I'm supposed to have beat up the creep?

All I ever wanted, since I was a little girl in blonde pigtails and my daddy was Commissioner, was to be a police detective. I never wanted a reputation as a super-woman. Danny Corrigan, one of the other detectives, said "Way to go, Diane! Nike herself couldn't have beaten that scum any better." Comments like that just made me want to retch.

So there I was, trying to figure out how to write a report that wasn't pure fiction ("…and then Detective Jones, who's really The Shadow, used his power to cloud men's minds to give me all the credit. But it wasn't me! Honest!"), and had just about resigned myself to typing up Jones' version, when the Captain called us into his office. "Oh, thank God," I muttered, and left my desk without even putting the cover over my typewriter!

Captain Olsen looked up from his desk, and said, "Jones. Meade. We have a bad one at the Fairgrounds."

Jones pulled out a chair for me, and I jumped like a scalded cat. "Damn it, Jones, learn to make some noise when you're right behind someone!"

"Why?" he said as he sat down, and gave all his attention to the captain.

"Flirt on your own time," said Captain Olsen, which left me completely speechless. While I was trying to figure out who to hit first, he went on, "Faustus is in the Globe and says he'll send the city straight to Hell if we don't pay him a billion dollars."

Now if you've been living on another planet or something, you might not know that Cherry Hill won the bid for the 1964 World's Fair, beating out New York and Chicago. The city fathers threw together the Mile High City of Tomorrow in the suburb of Elysium (now a fancy part of town, but back then mostly empty lots), dazzling millions of visitors and no doubt making a lot of money for themselves. One of the main attractions was Star Woman, who'd been on Earth only a couple of years at that point; the other was this rotating globe of the world, with all the latest data on it, so big it seemed almost life-size.

"Faustus?" said Jones, and for once there was emotion in his voice: scorn. "What does he know of Hell?"

"I couldn't tell you," said the Captain. "I don't believe in magic, myself. But whatever he's got, he's given Leonine and Invictus fits in the past, and he's never been caught."

"We'll catch him," Jones said. "Isn't that right, Diane?"

"Sure!" I said brightly. "You can cloud his mind, and I'll ju-jitsu him into a whimpering heap."

"You sure?" said the Captain. "I know you two are good, but this guy's really dangerous. If I had some way to get hold of Star Guard, I would."

"Trust me, they're over-rated," Jones said, getting up. "Come on, Detective Meade, let's go introduce 'The World's Greatest Magician' to a slice of real life, Cherry Hill style."

What could I do but grit my teeth and tag along? "Good luck," the Captain called.

Somehow I just knew that the report on this case was going to be even harder to write than the last one.

We took the Augustine Freeway west in my little convertible (Jones didn't seem to have a car, but somehow he always got where he wanted to be). The wind messed with my hair, short as I wore it, and only bobby pins kept my policewoman's cap from flying away. Jones, of course, just sat there looking straight ahead, his trench coat and fedora as unruffled as if they were glued on.

"So what's the plan?" I asked him finally.

For once, he didn't pretend to misunderstand me. "I'm going to walk in on Faustus, subdue him, find out everything he knows, and take it away from him," he said. "Then we'll take him back to headquarters and put him in a cell. It would be best if you waited outside."

"The hell with that!" I shouted. "Listen, buster, I'm a real police officer, not some bit of fluff here to hold your coat! I have a bachelor's degree in Police Science, and I took every course the Police Academy offered, and I aced them all! I'll be damned if I'll twiddle my thumbs in the car while you pull your voodoo!"

"You may be damned if you don't," he said. "I doubt Faustus knows a tenth as much as he thinks he does—but that's still enough to make him dangerous."

"He's no more dangerous to me than he is to you," I said, and glared at him, daring him to say different. "Let me do my job, damn it."

Jones opened his mouth, shut it again, and after a moment said, "As you wish, Detective."

Let the record show that that was the only time I won an argument with Jones.

We took the Elysium exit and parked in the Fairground parking lot, in a space near the entrance marked "Reserved for the Mayor." While I took the "Police On Duty" card out of the glove compartment and put it in the clip on the windshield, Jones got out, came around to the driver's side, opened my door, and helped me out of the seat. I have to give him that, he was always the perfect gentleman. If I'd been partnered with Danny Corrigan, for instance, I'd have had to remove his hands from my person all the time.

Speaking of whom, Danny was in charge of the uniforms around the Globe. Danny was handsome, and I'd seen other women swooning over his red hair, with the white streak that grew in after a bullet grazed his left temple. Somehow, though, he just didn't do anything for me. I guess the feeling wasn't mutual, though, because his face lit up on seeing me, as it always did, and he gave me his best smile.

"Hey, Diane, good to see you," he said. "Where's your partner?"

I whirled around. Sure enough, Jones had pulled a fade again. Ten to one he was already in the Globe, doing exactly what he'd said he would.

Well, not this time! "Jones went around the side," I said, thinking fast. "I'm going in the front. We'll catch Faustus between us."

"Is that a good idea?" Danny said. "I could turn the cordon over to Grayson and come with you."

I pulled my .45 from my handbag and made sure it was loaded. "You and Bob hold the fort out here," I said. "Jones and I will take care of Faustus." I took the safety off the pistol, and left him trying to think of more objections. Men!

I was all the way to the control center in the Globe's "core" before I had a sign of Jones or Faustus. The door was open a crack, and I could hear the loony ranting at someone. Thanks to Jones, I remember every word he said.

"So, creature," Faustus raved. "You thought you could creep up on the Sorceror Supreme? Ha! Didn't reckon with the Flames of Azrael, did you? They are the bane of all your kind!"

Careful not to touch the door, I put one eye to the crack and took a peek. There was Faustus, in robes just like Mickey Mouse wore in "The Sorceror's Apprentice," but not half as cute. He was standing next to a tripod of black metal, waist high, supporting a bowl of black metal, three feet in diameter. Green flames were leaping and hissing in the bowl, without smoke; I couldn't see what was burning. And where was Jones?

"I wonder what kind of demon you are?" Faustus said. "There's nothing like you in any of my grimoires."

I eased the door open a little bit more, praying it wouldn't squeak (it didn't), and got a look at what Faustus was talking to. It was a big puddle of butterscotch-colored liquid, maybe five feet across, with little waves dancing back and forth on its surface. It was hissing, like a cat, or like water just beginning to boil in a sauce pan.

Whatever it was, it seemed to be in pain; and I hadn't come here to watch. I slammed the door open, yelled "Cherry Hill Police!" and pointed my gun at Faustus. He raised his hands to chest height and pointed them at me, and I pulled the trigger. The bullet bounced off the light between his hands, careened left, and hit the tripod. The bowl of flame trembled, and Faustus shouted, "Careful, you stupid slut!"

No more fooling around. I centered the sight between his eyes and started to squeeze the trigger. Before I could, the puddle on the floor reared up in a man-high wave, and broke over Faustus from behind like a butterscotch breaker. He was bowled off his feet, and the puddle kept him trapped, throwing loops around his arms and legs as fast as he could free them.

Now what do I do? I wondered, watching the struggle. The puddle didn't seem to be strong enough to hold Faustus; he was regaining his feet, and I leveled my pistol again.

Then a mouth formed in the puddle, and my partner's voice said, "The flames, Diane! Put them out!"

"Jones?!!" I said, too amazed to move. Faustus, cursing, was getting free.

"The cauldron!" the Jones-mouth said. "Knock over the tripod!"

"No!" shouted Faustus, and that decided me. I ran up to the tripod, stepping in the puddle as I did (eesh!), and looked around for cloth to put around my hands, or something to push with.

But the flames weren't giving off any heat, and the tripod wasn't hot; nor was the bowl. I pushed on the rim of the bowl as hard as I could, shifting the near side down and the far side up, and then the whole thing overbalanced, falling down away from me. The flames went out, and I saw what Faustus had been burning.

So I was helplessly throwing up, over and over (one bagel with cream cheese, two cups of coffee…) while Jones turned into a man again. He held my shoulders and my forehead through the last of it, and wiped my face with his handkerchief.

"Where's my gun?" I gasped.

"You dropped it after you shot Faustus," Jones told me. "No wonder you threw up—I guess you've never killed a man before."

I looked, and sure enough, there was my gun just out of reach on the floor, and there was Faustus, dead with a bullet hole between his eyes, face up and staring. I hadn't even heard the gunshot.

"You sure saved my bacon, Diane," Jones said. "Faustus had me pinned to the wall like a butterfly on a cork board. Then you came in, yelled for him to surrender, and when he tried to zap you, you shot him dead. You should get a medal for this."

Why, yes, that's what happened. Faustus pinned Jones to the wall with magic, but I took him by surprise. Too bad I had to shoot him dead, but he was far too dangerous to—no.

"No!" I shouted. "Damn it, Jones, I'm your partner! You're not going to work your voodoo on me! You owe me the truth! What happened here, and who are you? In fact, what are you?"

"All right, Diane," he said after a long moment. "The truth, then."

"There was an interstellar empire, in this part of the Galaxy," Jones told me, "about ten thousand years ago. The Sileans colonized a hundred systems, mostly south of your solar system, and inwards, towards the Galactic Core."

"Then there was a war, and don't ask me what about," he said, holding up his hand; "we don't have very long before Grayson and Corrigan and a mob of uniforms come busting in. A lot of worlds had their whole population wiped out. Others were thrown back to the Stone Age, and have been climbing back up ever since. Star Woman's world, Xylassa, is one of those; my own world is another."

"Our worlds don't always get along—never mind why. When the Skyburst struck Earth, Star Woman came to do what she could, openly; while my world sent me in secret."

"But where's your Star Staff, then?" I asked him.

"I'm not a Staff Bearer. Staff Bearer is a Xylarian role, wielding Xylarian powers. My position translates as Shield Bearer; and before that I was an Eaten One. Still am, because that's permanent."

"I can see how it would be," I said, on the verge of hysteria.

"So that's who I am, and what I am—on the surface. Just as, on the surface, you are Diane Meade, Detective, Cherry Hill Police Department."

"But I've been an Eaten One for a long time—200 years or more. And I don't think this universe is real. Earth, Xylassa, Pailia, Silea, all the worlds, all the stars in all the galaxies, I think it's an elaborate stage, a huge play. I don't know whether I'm the only real person, or whether there are many real people trapped here. So I play my part—but I search for other real people, too. And when I run into an obviously phony person, a walking, talking prop," and he waved in the direction of Faustus' body, "I don't hesitate to 'kill' them if they get in my way."

"Two hundred years?" I said. "Real people? Phony people? You've lost your mind, Jones."

"I haven't," he said. "It isn't possible for an Eaten One to lose his mind. I may be wrong; but many decades of experience point to the same conclusion."

"But I'm real!" I insisted. "I'm not a puppet or a prop. I have a mind, and a lifetime of experience."

"Yes," Jones said. "I think you are. I suspect that's why I can't pull my 'voodoo' on you. Everyone else in the Department, though…" He shook his head. And I remembered how I'd never been attracted to Corrigan, as if no one was home behind the handsome face.

"So now what?" I asked him. "Tell the Captain the story about you being pinned to the wall?"

"No," said Jones.

"What? Why not?"

"Now that you know what I am, I have to leave. You wouldn't be able to keep from showing what you know. It was perfect when you didn't know, and were mad at me all the time. But now you'll take my powers for granted, and that's a dead giveaway."

"But I don't want you to go," I heard myself saying. Whoa, get a grip, Diane! Since when?

"And I don't want to go," he said. He walked up to me, put one hand on a shoulder, tilted my face up with the other, and kissed me.

Romantic? More like an electric shock! I was frozen in place, and couldn't move a muscle. I couldn't even open my eyes!

"Glad to see something works on you," Jones said. "Listen, partner; tell them Faustus blasted me to dust, or sent me to another dimension, or something. Make them believe it. No one's ever going to see me again."

About then my eyes popped open. Jones threw me a slight grin—the only one I ever saw on his face—turned, and walked away. Halfway to the door the sound of his footsteps ceased, and he just faded away into thin air.

A few minutes later I regained mobility, and realized Jones had fixed the whole day permanently in my mind, down to the tiniest details. On purpose? A side effect? Who knows, damn him!

After I cried a little, I wiped my face and took out my radio. My stockings were ruined from kneeling on the floor and throwing up, I noticed, and my skirt was dusty. Well, tough. "Corrigan, this is Meade, over," I croaked.

"Diane! What's going on? Are you all right?"

"No," I said, "but it's all over. Bring in one adult-sized body bag, and six baby-sized ones." Then I turned off the radio and waited for them.

When I reached the control room, my report read, I found my partner, Detective Paul Jones, pinned to the wall by Faustus' "magic". Faustus said words in a language unknown to me, and a sideways whirlpool, spinning vertically instead of parallel to the floor, appeared in the air before Detective Jones.

At that point I shouted, "Cherry Hill Police Department! Freeze!" and leveled my weapon at Faustus. Instead of complying, he turned around and gestured at me. Another whirlpool appeared in mid-air and flew towards me. I dodged it and fired my weapon. Faustus took the bullet between the eyes and fell down dead. The one whirlpool was still chasing me, however, and the other was slowly moving towards Detective Jones.

Jones shouted, "Put out the flames!" I had no better idea, so I ran to the cauldron. The metal wasn't hot, and I tipped over the tripod and the bowl. As soon as the burning babies hit the floor, the flame went out, and the whirlpool chasing me disappeared. The other one, meanwhile, had already reached Detective Jones, who was still pinned helplessly to the wall. He vanished into the whirlpool before it disappeared, and hasn't been seen since.

There was no body, but we held a memorial for Jones at Wildwood Cemetery. Star Guard showed up, and Leonine spoke eloquently on how a couple of cops did what half a dozen super-heroes couldn't. I couldn't seem to stop crying, which made all the men uncomfortable, but got me hugs from Star Woman and Nike.

No one made the usual comments about women on the force; no looking down at me for crying, no hints that a male partner would've been able to save Jones. After seeing the burned babies, and Faustus dead with a bullet right between the eyes, I could do no wrong in the eyes of the CHPD. I wore a real tie and a male officer's hat at the memorial, instead of a policewoman's bow tie and little round cap. No one said boo: and that's what I've worn ever since.

"Do you want a vacation?" Captain Olsen asked me. "Or do you want to get right back to work?"

"Let me work," I said.

He nodded as if he'd expected me to say that. "Whom do you want for a partner? Corrigan, maybe?"

"God, no," I said. "Let me have that new guy, Allen. It'll do him good to get out of the lab."

And that was mostly that, except that a year later, Star Guard was on TV, announcing a new member. I took one look and recognized Jones. Proteus might have pointed ears and no hair, but the features were the same; and I'd already seen that butterscotch skin.

We don't see Star Guard much in Cherry Hill. We might take pride in our Mile High City, but the bad guys seem to prefer the West Coast, the East Coast, and Chicago. Maybe that's because of what happened to Faustus—or maybe Colorado just isn't that important to people in other states.

But sometimes we see Star Guard on television, and once I came around a corner at a national law-enforcement conference and practically tripped over Proteus. "Commissioner Meade," he said, "congratulations on your promotion."

"Thanks," I said, and then that Silkie creature, with keen female instincts, grabbed him and dragged him away. That was five years ago, and the only time I've seen him since he was Detective Jones.

I sit in my office, and I look at the pictures of my Dad, Jones, Allen, and a few others. Was Jones right? Is this all a stage, with just a few real actors among the mannikins? Was Faustus' "magic" a way of accessing the stage controls that run our world?

All I know is that I've met very few people who seemed entirely real to me, since Jones opened my eyes. They call me "the Old Lady", and they'll tell you, with a certain pride, that I'm a cold bitch who takes no crap from anyone. But how else can I be? It's harder and harder to go through the motions, pretending that people are real, and what they do matters.

But I would give anything—anything!—to see Jones' brown hair again, and his gray eyes, and that smile he showed me once. He, I'm certain, is real.

God, how I miss him!

About this story

Copyright © 2007 by Green Sky Press. All rights reserved.

Taddeusz and the Magic Fish

A fractured fairy tale

NCE UPON A TIME there was a Polish fisherman named Taddeusz, who lived with his wife Marta on the shore of a large lake.

Now, you may have heard another story about a fisherman who caught a magic fish who gave him three wishes. His bitter wife used the first one to wish for a house to replace their miserable hovel. Then she decided a house wasn't good enough, but wanted a palace instead. Then that wasn't enough, but she had to wish that the rain wouldn't fall on her. Her spineless husband conveyed each wish to the magic fish, who granted the first and the second. But on hearing the third, he became so angry that he took away the first two wishes and the poor fisherman and his nagging wife were worse off than before.

This is not that story. Taddeusz was smarter than that, and tended to "play his cards close to his chest", though playing cards hadn't been invented yet. Nor was Marta that other fisherman's wife, but the merriest, sweetest lady that ever brought a gleam to a young fisherman's eye—albeit a bit of a gossip on market day.

On the other hand, it may very well have been the same fish.

Be that as it may, Taddeusz would go out every day and cast his nets. Sometimes he barely got enough to feed the two of them; sometimes he caught enough to salt some away for the winter. Sometimes he even had some to sell at the market in the nearby town. As he himself would tell you, it was a living, no worse than any other. Besides, it was all he knew how to do.

"Just keep the Russians at home, Lord", he would say before going to bed. "The last thing we need is Russians running around the country killing people and trying to run things. No, I take it back, the Mongols are worse. Lord, spare us the Mongols, even if it means we have to suffer the Russians. If the Mongols kill everyone, who will be left to go to Mass on Sundays?"

One day, Taddeusz was having very bad luck indeed. A bad day is just a bad day, but this was a bad day at the end of a bad week in the middle of a bad month. Taddeusz' net came up empty time and time again. "No wonder," he said to himself. "I'm sure my growling stomach is scaring them all away." But he decided to throw his net one last time.

No sooner had he done so, than a sudden weight in his net almost pulled his arms from their sockets! "I've cast my net about a whole school of fish!" he cried. But when he finally pulled it up, with much grunting and straining, he saw he had caught only one fish.

But what a fish it was! It was almost as long as he was tall, and as thick around as his chest. Its scales glistened like golden armor, and its fins and tail gleamed like silver lace. And wonder of wonders, atop its head sat a tiny golden crown, that stayed on no matter how it squirmed and thrashed.

Thrash it did, and mightily. Between its struggles, and its size, Taddeusz was half minded to let it go, not knowing whether it might sink his poor little boat if he did get it on board. "But I haven't had so much to eat that I can afford to let good food get away," he said to himself, "and neither has Marta." So he reached behind him for his club, once he had the great fish pulled up into the air, and raised it over his head for a blow that would still its wiggling.

Seeing this, the fish cried out, "O fisherman, stop, I beg you! I am a magic fish, and if you spare my life, I will give you anything you want."

Now, if the fish had merely pleaded for its life, it might have got away scot free, for Taddeusz was so surprised to hear a fish speak (even one with gold scales and a crown on its head), that he almost dropped club and net and all. But when the fish offered him a magic wish, all of Taddeusz' peasant bargaining instincts took over, and he held the net tighter than ever.

"Make that five wishes, fish, and I'll let you go," he said.

"Oh, no," said the magic fish, "I couldn't possibly do that. Why, even one wish might be more than I can afford."

Taddeusz pulled the net a little tighter (though it was almost beyond his strength to do so), so that the fish turned a little more blue, and laid his club down the middle of the creature's head, so that it crossed its eyes anxiously to look at the terrible hook on the end. "Three wishes, then," he said, "and that's my final offer."

"Three wishes," said the fish, unhappily. "Now let me go so I can breathe!"

"I'm going to regret this," said Taddeusz, but he put down his gaff, opened his net, and let the fish go. Right away it turned tail up and dove for the bottom of the lake with a mighty splash.

"I knew it!" he said. Resignedly, he packed his net, and got his boat ready to go home for the evening. Just as he was finishing, the magic fish surfaced again, just out of reach of his boat, with its mouth and head out of water, but its gills still submerged. The crown on its head flashed in the rays of the setting sun.

"Ahhh, that's better," said the fish. "All right, man, what is your first wish? A better boat? A new house? Maybe a son to help you with your fishing?"

"Well," said the fisherman, "those things are all very nice, but they're all things I can earn for myself if I just keep working."

"Very wise," said the fish. "Something you can't expect to earn, then. A mountain of gold? Jewels? Perhaps a vast estate, with you as its lord?"

"Well," Taddeusz said, "those things are all very fine, but I wouldn't know what to do with riches like those. And some great noble would be sure to come along and steal them from me, anyway."

"Very wise," said the fish, who was now really impressed. "So what do you want?"

"Well, now," Taddeusz said thoughtfully, "I think I want all the Mongols in the whole world to gather together from all the lands that the Mongols live in, right at the Russian border; and I want them to ride and ride and ride all the way across Russia to the Polish border; then camp there overnight; and then I want them to all ride back to where they came from."

After a few minutes of stunned silence the fish said, "That is the strangest wish I have ever heard in all my years in the wish business, I have to tell you."

"As may be," said Taddeusz, unmoved.

"Look," said the fish. "Are you sure you wouldn't rather have a magic net that can find fish by itself, or maybe a boat that goes where you want it to, without having to be rowed or sailed?"

"Well," said Taddeusz, "those would be very fine, but I'd get fat and lazy if I had them. Besides, it's bad luck to take back a wish."

"Oh, the logistics of it," moaned the fish. "Very well, it shall be as you wish. But I can't give you your second wish until your first wish has been fulfilled. When you hear that it has come true, come back here and call for me." And before Taddeusz could say anything, the fish slipped beneath the lake's surface and disappeared.

"Strange manners these magic fish have," murmured the fisherman, but truth to tell, he was not sorry to see so uncanny a creature go away. He went home, and he and his wife went hungry that night. Nor did he tell her about the magic fish, having no wish to have Marta, or anyone else, tell him what he should have wished for.

The next week Taddeusz' luck picked up, and he filled his boat every day. His wife took a cart of fresh fish to the market that week, and brought home some chickens to lay eggs for the table. She also brought home news.

"You won't believe it!" Marta exclaimed. "The whole country is stirring like a hive of bees that a clumsy bear has kicked over!"

"Why, whatever happened?" he asked her.

"Well! All the Mongols in the whole world must have gotten together from all the lands where Mongols are, for a huge unstoppable horde of them came riding like madmen all the way across Russia, and camped right on the Polish border!"

"Fancy that!" Taddeusz said. "And then what happened?"

"Well!" said his wife. "The King sent around to all the Barons to get their armies together, and ride to meet the Mongols at the border. But the very day after the Mongols had camped, they packed up again, and went riding away again like the Devil himself was on their heels!"

"How strange!" the fisherman said.

The very next day, Taddeusz did not cast his net right away, but called the magic fish instead, for his first wish had been answered. Since he didn't know the fish's name, he called, "O Fish! I'm back. O Fish!" He was very glad no one was around to hear him.

"You know," said the fish, "I've half a mind not to come when you call, you and your crazy wishes."

Taddeusz jumped; the magic fish had sneaked up on him. "And break a bargain? All your magic would go bad forever after," he said.

"It was only a figure of speech," the fish grumbled. "Well, what is your second wish, fisherman? Fine clothing that never wears out? A butter churn that never gets empty, no matter how much butter you take from it?"

"That's a different fairy tale," said the fisherman. "No, I think I want all the Mongols in the whole world—"

"Oh, no," said the fish.

"—to gather together from all the lands that Mongols live in, right at the Russian border—"

"No!" said the fish.

"—and I want them to ride all the way across Russia to the Polish border, camp there overnight, and then ride back to where they came from."

"NOOOOOO!" screamed the fish. And he carried on for five solid minutes about all the trouble that wish had put him through the first time; how he'd had to send visions to all the Mongol shamans that they should do this thing, how he'd had to plant thoughts in all the Mongol chiefs to make them think it was a good idea; how he'd had to send spirits to cause bad dreams to those who resisted it, after all that; and how difficult it had been, once the Mongols were at the Polish border, to make them turn around and go back.

That last made Taddeusz go more than a little pale, at the thought of Mongol hordes killing, pillaging, raping, burning, and looting its way across Poland; but when the fish stopped for a minute to draw breath, he said, stubbornly, "It's my wish."

"Please!" begged the fish. "Do you want to work me to death before ever you get your third wish? Wish for something simple! How about a magic servant to do the chores for you and your wife as long as you live?"

"Are you saying that you can't give me my wish, fish?"

"No," the fish admitted, wishing it could lie. "The only wish I'm not allowed to grant is a wish for more wishes. But why do you want such a thing?"

"Never you mind," Taddeusz said. "You just make my wish come true, according to our bargain."

"All right!" said the fish. And it threw itself up out of the water, till it was poised full-length above the lake for a moment, before splashing down again in a huge wave. "All right! Come back for your third wish when this one is done!" And he swam away just as fast as a magic fish can swim, which is considerable.

"There goes one angry fish," mused Taddeusz, as he cast his first net of the day.

Now you might expect, with the magic fish mad at Taddeusz, that his luck the next week would be bad. But, whether because the fisherman's luck had nothing to do with sparing the magic fish, or because it was, at heart, not a petty fish, Taddeusz' luck stayed good. Day after day he filled his boat. Marta took two carts of barreled fish to the market that week, and brought home a fine milk cow. No sooner had she put the cow in the pasture than she came to Taddeusz bursting with news.

"It happened again!" she said.

"What did, dear?" said Taddeusz, though he suspected he knew very well what she meant.

"The Mongols!" his wife said. "All the Mongols in the whole world came tearing across Russia and camped right at the border!"

"Really? What did the King do?"

"Same as last time! This time everyone reacted even faster, having seen the camp the Mongols left behind last time, and heard the stories of all the terrible things they did in Russia. But before the King's army could get to the border, the Mongols packed up and rode away again!"

"These Mongols must be crazy," was all that Taddeusz said. His wife crossed herself and agreed with him.

So, the second wish having come true, the fisherman took himself down to the lake the next morning, and called the fish once again. "Here, Fish! Here, fish fish fish!"

"Other fishermen use nets or lines," the magic fish said sarcastically.

"It worked, didn't it?" Taddeusz replied. "Are you ready for my third wish?"

"The question is, are you ready?" the fish said, earnestly. "Remember, this is your last wish. After this one, you don't get any more wishes, and you'll never get another one. One of the rules is that no one ever gets more than one opportunity to make magic wishes, you know."

"No, I didn't know," said Taddeusz. "So everything rides on this last wish, does it?"

"That's right, fisherman. So I hope you've thought about it very carefully. If you're ever going to want a magic well that never runs dry, or a magic sword that can pierce any armor, this is your only chance."

"Well, fish," Taddeusz said, "I've given it a lot of thought. And for my third wish, I want all the Mongols in the whole world—"

"Wait," said the fish, "let me guess. You want all the Mongols in the whole world to come together from all the lands where Mongols live, assemble at the Russian border, ride all the way across Russia to the Polish border, camp there overnight, and then all ride back again?"

"You're a good guesser, fish. You got it in one."

"AAARRRRRGGGGGGHHH!" screamed the fish. And for the next half an hour, he screamed and raged; he jumped in and out of the water; he made such noises as you would have thought all the devils in hell could not make, and such waves that they threatened to swamp Taddeusz' boat, and drown him in the bottom of the lake.

"You should charge money for a show like that," Taddeusz said admiringly, when at last the fish was tired out.

"And you must be out of your mind!" the fish shouted. "Why do you want all the Mongols in the whole world to assemble at the Russian border, ride all the way across Russia to the Polish border, camp there overnight, and then go home again? And why in the world would anyone want that to happen, not just once, but three times?"

"Now why should I tell you that, fish? Where in our bargain does it say I have to tell you why I want something?"

"Oh ho," said the fish. "Bargain, is it? You want something else, is that it?"

"I want the good fishing I've had to go on," said Taddeusz. "I'm not such a fool that I think you're really a fish, so it's nothing to you one way or the other. Promise me that the fishing will go on the rest of my life the way it's gone the last two weeks, and I'll tell you why I want all the Mongols in the whole world to assemble at the Russian border, ride all the way across Russia to the Polish border, camp there overnight, and then go home again."

"Fisherman, you have a deal," the magic fish said. "It'll be worth all the trouble to make it happen a third time, just to learn why. I must confess, my curiosity has been driving me mad."

"You promise?" Taddeusz said.

"I promise!" the fish said. "Now please! Why do you want all the Mongols in the whole world to assemble at the Russian border, ride all the way across Russia to the Polish border, camp there overnight, and then go home again? I must know!"

"Because," said the fisherman, leaning down to the water…


"That way," said Taddeusz…

"Yes, yes?"

"They ride through Russia six times!"

About this story

Copyright © 1996 and 2000 by Green Sky Press. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this work, or any portions thereof, in any form. An earlier form of this story was published in The Elf Hill Times, publication of the Alfarhaugr Society. This story also appeared on the older version of my web site.

The background and all the images used herein are from James Matterer's

The little fish pictures were clipped from larger illustrations, and the initial "O" was modified by making its background transparent. The other pictures have not been changed.


"There used to be lots of monsters, and lots of kinds of monsters," said the Oldest Man Alive.

"Monsters, Sir?" said the interviewer. "What do you mean by monsters?"

"To begin with," said the Oldest, "people varied more than they do now. The average height was between maybe five feet and five eight, but quite a lot of people were shorter, all the way down to four feet without being unusual; and taller, almost to eight feet. Even in a very small group there were very skinny individuals and very wide ones, very light ones and very heavy ones, nearly hairless ones and ones who were as shaggy as bears, and so on."

"They were considered monsters because of that?"

"No, the monsters were the ones who were even stranger, and the strangeness usually didn't show until they began to age—or rather, until they didn't."

"Ahh," said Ramiro, beginning to understand.

"Some people just never seemed to stop growing; they kept getting bigger and bigger, and needed to eat to support the growth, and were quick to anger, probably because they ached all the time from the growing."


"Giants," agreed the Oldest. "The biggest one I ever saw was about three times my height, and dead. From a heart attack, I think. Gigantism wasn't a particularly viable variation; they were too conspicuous. Even if the 'normal' folk didn't kill them, eventually something gave out from the strain."

"Why would people kill them? Hadn't they grown up with them? People didn't travel much, did they?"

"Depends when we're talking about," the Oldest said. "You're right, the giants were mostly gone by the time there was much individual travel, as opposed to travel by tribes. But you can wear out people's tolerance, even if they've known you since you were a child."

"The thing to remember is that most of the very different kinds were mean. That's why they were considered monsters. You get some kid who never stops growing, who's getting bigger and stronger all the time, he'll start swaggering around thinking he's special, which is true, and that he can do anything he wants, which isn't. Sooner or later he'll piss off the wrong person and get a rock to the head or a knife in the ribs and it's bye bye, monster."

"Wait. Stronger?"

"Yes. That's what most of these variants had in common. They lived longer, they needed less and less sleep, and they kept getting stronger. Oh, and most of them—the giants were an exception to this—ate less as they got older, too."

"That's an interesting set of traits for survival in a primitive environment," said Ramiro.

"Isn't it?" The Oldest Man flashed perfect teeth in a grin. "Take the trolls, for instance."


"Or dwarves, same thing really. Here's someone who ages very slowly, starts getting stronger and stronger. He doesn't get any taller, but his hands and feet keep getting bigger, and his shoulders wider. He needs less and less sleep and less food, and he gets tired of people looking at him like a freak instead of a tribal elder, just because he isn't feeble and shriveled up. So he leaves. If he acts like a normal person, people who meet him call him a dwarf. If he loses his mind and starts killing people and eating them, he's a troll."

"Did that happen a lot? Going mad, that is?"

"After a while it happened to most variants, which is why they came to be regarded as monsters even when they hadn't done anything wrong yet." The Oldest Man leaned forward in his chair.

"The problem is memory. The human body isn't designed to last much longer than it takes to pass on the genes, and the brain is only there to run the body. The layers of the brain that support the mind are the youngest part of us."

"So you get to be a hundred or so, in a preliterate culture, and the people you grew up with are all dead. Already you can't remember much of your life—people, faces, voices, your father teaching you to make a spear, your mother's touch, your first wife's kiss—and it just gets worse. The years begin to fly past like birds in a strong wind, and everything that happens is just like everything that ever happened, and matters less and less. After a while, say when you're a hundred and fifty, two hundred years old, killing a man matters no more than swatting a fly. Plenty more around, and it'd be dead tomorrow anyway."

"A fly's relatives don't get upset," suggested Ramiro.

The Oldest Man nodded. "If you're fast and lucky, you run away before they can kill you. Sometimes you can find others like you. But there aren't many others, fewer all the time; and many of them are loners."

"That was a lesson I learned the hard way, from Thor and Tir."

Daniel woke to utter darkness and still air. It was very cold, and a faint stench told him that something had died, long ago.

He was lying on hard stone, fully dressed and wrapped in a full cape. Buried in honor, then. He remembered the last battle, the flung spear that came out of nowhere and went through his gut. It had jerked him fully awake for a moment, to see the shock on his friends' faces, before he faded, wondering if this were death at last.

Apparently not. Questing fingers found traces of a scar, perhaps more visible than tangible, but that would have to wait for light. I wonder who won? he thought, and sat up cautiously, finding rock just above his head.

He put a foot down onto the floor and something snapped underfoot, like a stick. The sound seemed loud in the perfect stillness. A more careful foot found nothing on the other side of the slab on which he'd been lying. He stepped down. His outstretched arms reached from his resting place to the stone wall. He shuffled around the chamber in which he'd been buried.

They'd been generous. Besides the scaled shirt he wore beneath the cloak, he found a helmet, a round wooden shield with a bronze boss, a spear, an axe, and a sword. A warrior's burial, then—a chief's, in fact, in a narrow stone-lined chamber. He hoped he could move the stones that sealed him in, but was confident he could get out the sides, if the top proved too heavy.

At the side of the slab, where first he'd stepped, his sweeping fingers found a jumble of sticks and cloth; a man, who'd died and rotted there, leaving the trace Daniel's keen nose had discovered. One long leg bone was snapped from his careless foot.

There in the bones he found a torc, such as chiefs wore around their necks, and a sharp dagger. There was no torc on his own neck, nor dagger on his own belt. A thief, then, come to rob the grave, only to be strangled by the corpse. Daniel hadn't even woken up; but the man was dead anyway. If he'd cut Daniel with the stolen dagger as he died, the wounds were long healed.

Where one can enter, another can leave. Daniel looked behind the bones, where the dead man would have entered had he gone straight to where Daniel had slept. Nothing. But it must be right. If he'd come in the other side, the weapons there would have been disturbed.

He reached up, then, and found a softer place, earth not rock, whether made that way originally or by the thief. He began to dig with the spear, piling the dirt at the foot of the wall and then standing on it, until at last he felt a cool breeze flowing into the still pond of the tomb's air.

Then with fresh air and renewed energy he widened the hole with the edge of the shield, until he could shove the spear and shield through. His other goods upon him, he wiggled out the hole, and stood on a grassy mound under shining stars. A cool wind kissed the sweat on his face and neck.

He shoved what dirt he could back down the hole, then with great effort moved one of the rocks to cover it, nervous lest it fall in, or the roof of the tomb collapse. Neither did, and presently he was satisfied that he'd covered all signs of his emergence as well as he could.

Where next? He didn't recognize the place of his mound, a flat meadow between some hills and a forest; but a lot can change in forty years. Maybe the trees hadn't been there. But the land itself changes more slowly; as the sky lightened in the east, he thought he recognized a mountain's profile as one he'd been accustomed to seeing full on.

South, then, away from the sons and daughters of those he'd known in his last life. South in any case, because he was tired of the North. It was time to see how the Germans were doing, maybe, or what was happening around the Mediterranean. He began to walk, shield slung on his back, spear light in capable hands, as the birds began to sing up the sun.

Behind him the shadows still owned the mound where he'd slept away two generations, the tomb that now had only one occupant again.

There were four of them, tall big-boned heavy-fleshed men of the North, long-haired, long-bearded, fair-skinned, light-haired, fur-clad. And he, just as big, but ash-slender, darker-skinned, sloe-eyed; a Southron. A stranger. Fair game.

"Hello, boys," he said cheerfully. "Out looking for meat? I saw some prize elk back that way, where the beavers made a clearing," pointing with the heavy spear in one hand, as if it weighed no more than a wand of willow.

They looked at him; and he knew what they saw. Loot, mostly. A chief's helmet, good scale armor, an axe and sword and spear that likely all had names, so fine were they. A stout shield, a sturdy sheaf knife on a good leather belt, and a golden torc.

"What's your name, stranger?" the biggest blond said. His hair in pigtails hung to his belt. He bore no armor, not for the hunt, but his bow was ready in his hand, arrow nocked if not drawn. A good sword hung at his side, though not as good as the southerner's.

"Call me Raven," the stranger said; a name of ill omen. For ravens and wolves ate the flesh of the dead, feasting when the battle was over; and ravens were the souls of the dead, and their messengers.

"Right you are," the Northron said. "And you can call me Wolf. This big red fellow is Bear, and these two are Fox and Badger." His friends laughed.

"Nice to meet you boys," Raven said. "If you hurry, you can catch up with those nice fat elk before they wander too far."

"Well," said Wolf. "Elk is a lot of animal. I'm thinking we need better weapons if we're going after elk." And he grinned in self-appreciation.

"Better hurry, then," Raven said. "All the way back to your village, wherever it is, to pick up weapons, all the way back here again, those elk'll be moving the whole time. Don't let me keep you."

"We could save time," Wolf said, "if you gave us your weapons."

Raven laughed:

"My weapons?
Forged in sunlight, cured in blood,
These weapons?
Blessed in the hunt, bane in battle,
This shining axe? This thirsty sword?
Better keep your own, my friends,
This spear was made for giants, not men."

"You're no giant," said Wolf. "Don't you know a Raven can't beat a Wolf?"

Raven answered,

"Eagle wanted to see the world,
So he cut a piece from the cloak of Night,
Wrapped it around himself, called himself Raven.
Flew around as a Raven would fly,
Bothered no more than a Raven was.
But still had the claws of an Eagle,"

and cast the spear. Into Wolf's breastbone the heavy oak plunged, through his heart, through his spine, into the dirt of the North. Done to death by a giant's strength, the new corpse leaned back on the upright shaft, hot blood trickling down.

"He wanted my spear, and now he has it," Raven said. "Who wants my fine sharp sword? Who'll have my gleaming axe?"

"What, no one?" he said to the fleeing backs.

The man who'd been known as Daniel, but now calling himself Raven, watched the village for several days before approaching it. He wanted no trouble at his back; without a horse, or better two, angry locals could ambush him as and where they chose, using paths he didn't know. Better to meet it head on, and settle it if he could. So he followed "Bear" and "Fox" and "Badger" home, with "Wolf's" bow and arrows added to his weaponry.

There was one advantage to the North: life was hard, clothing and architecture had to be functional, and people changed reluctantly. As near as he could tell, the language was the same, and dress nearly so. There was a new kind of brooch the women wore, and swords were a little longer, with a different shape to their pommels—that was all.

He was called Elm, and he was as straight and tall and fair as his name. Chief he'd been for ten years now, of this village his father had founded; he missed the old man every day. For one thing, his father had known how to deal with rascals like these; they kept sliding away from Elm.

"One more time," he growled. "Where is Wolf? Is he out making trouble? I promise you, the next time any of you bring trouble to this village, I'm going to stand aside and let it have you. Understand?"

The three he was talking to, along with the missing Wolf, were a fifth of his fighting men, but at least half of his headaches. Elm was beginning to think that if he got rid of the four of them, the other sixteen males of fighting age would have very little to do.

Grim, who was ill-tempered and slow-thinking, flushed under his gaze. "We was hunting meat for the village," he said.

"And came back empty handed, and without Wolf!" Elm agreed. "What happened? Did you run into the brothers of someone you murdered?"

"Nothing like that," said Grim's red-headed brother. Fire was his name, but in his own mind Elm called him Trouble. He danced around the truth like flame on a log, or to put it plainly: if his mouth was open, he was lying. "Why, the last time I saw Wolf, he was leaning on his spear, as peaceful as if he'd been asleep."

Elm snorted. "Tell me another one! His spear's in his hut, and he's not. What about you, pretty boy? What've you got to say for yourself?"

Grim and Fire were the sons of Giant, who'd been one of the best friends of Elm's father Oak. Elf, or "pretty boy," was the son of Elf, who'd been another. Elm was about ready to throw them all out for good, just the same; and Elf knew it. He was a skinny yellow-haired man with a streak in his hair, where it had come out white from a head wound in a fight. He flushed. "Fire's telling the truth," he protested. "Wolf was leaning on his spear. He stayed there, we went another way, and that's the last time I saw him."

"So where is he now?" Elm demanded. Elf shrugged.

"Stranger at the gate!" the gatekeeper called. "Ho, stranger! What do you want?"

"A word with your chief," answered a loud voice. Elm had the satisfaction of seeing Grim, Fire, and Elf go pale. The freckles on Fire's face stood out like blood stains on white cloth, and Elf swayed as if he were going to faint.

"Know that voice, do you?" Elm said. No answer. "All right, come with me," he said, and strode off to the gate with them behind him.

Raven looked about with interest; he'd caught glimpses of the inside of the stockade only when the gates were open. About a thousand paces from the forest, about the same again from a big oxbow lake, the village was surrounded by a palisade of tree trunks sharpened with axes at both ends, and one end driven into the ground. Ropes linked the logs near the top, and huts and sheds leaned against them inside. In the center of the compound was the long house; meeting room and mess hall and barracks for the single men all at once, with the chief's house and the community's store rooms on the second floor.

It looked like a good place; too bad he was only passing through. These weren't downtrodden peasants raising grain for a god-king, like he'd seen in the land between the two rivers, but sturdy folk living under no power greater or more remote than their chief. At a guess each of the huts would hold a married couple with two, three, maybe four children, which would give the village about forty fighting men if a neighboring village made trouble. About half of those would be prime fighting age, the rest a little young yet, or else past best use in battle.

Here came what had to be the chief, by his firm stride and the torc around his neck, with "Bear" and "Fox" and "Badger" behind him. Other villagers, the women and children and old men who weren't out in the woods or out on the lake, were looking on but hadn't started to gather yet.

"Good morning, sir," Raven said to the chief.

"Good morning, stranger," said Elm. "Who are you, and why have you come to my village heavily-armed?"

"Call me Raven," said Daniel, who'd decided it was a good-enough name for now, though first spoken to intimidate. "I apologize for carrying so many arms into your village, but I'm passing through, and these are all I have."

"Well, Raven, a wise man on a journey might want to lighten his load a bit by laying down some of those arms. That bow, for instance, and those arrows."

"It's a fine bow, sir, and good straight arrows, but you may have them back if you want them. They belonged to one of your men, as the boys behind you have doubtless told you; but he has no more use for them."

"And why does Wolf have no more use for his best hunting bow, Raven?"

"So his name really was Wolf? Well, backed up by Fox and Bear and Badger there, Wolf thought he would steal my weapons. So I gave him my spear, and the boys ran away, while Wolf went on the journey no man comes back from. Then I took my spear back, and his bow and arrows for my trouble."

"I see," said the chief. "Well, Raven, my name is Elm; and these three are called Fire, not "Fox"; Grim, not "Bear"; and Elf, not "Badger". Though maybe we should call them Rabbit, Squirrel, and Deer, after this," he said scathingly. The three flushed angrily, but hung their heads, not sure what to do without Wolf to lead them.

"Pleased to meet you, Elm," said Raven. "Don't be too hard on the boys. Wolf was dead before he knew it, so they had to bear his shock along with their own; and that's a hard thing to do."

"You're too kind," Elm said. "Keep the bow, if you like; and if you're looking for a place to settle, you can have his hut, too."

"Thank you, sir. A good village you have here, and a noble offer you make me. But I'm just passing through, as I said."

A slender white-skinned girl with shining golden hair and dazzling blue eyes chose that moment to step out of the crowd that had gathered around. "But surely you'll stay for supper, at least!" she cried.

"My daughter, Gold," said Elm.

"Well, maybe for supper," Raven said.

"We were married before the winter came," said the Oldest Man, "and were happy for a few years." He fell silent, then, thinking of those long-ago days.

"Did you love her?" Ramiro asked.

"Love her? I loved her enough, at the time. I don't know if I knew what love was, back then. I'd seen very little of it; and of course the modern notion of romantic love hadn't been invented. What we called love, back then, as far as I understood it then—we had that. It was enough to keep me there for a lifetime, which was all I could expect."

If Raven was dazzled by the chief's daughter's shining golden looks, so different from the dark-haired, dark-eyed beauties of the South, she was equally smitten with his foreignness. And yet he wasn't merely an outsider, attractive as that was by itself. By any measure of a man—hunting, fighting, strength, courage, skill—he was the best the village had, except perhaps for her own father; and he was careful never to challenge the chief in any way. Instead, with Elm's permission, he began training the men of the village in the hunt, in tracking, in mock battles and single "combats", never mocking them or making them feel small, but showing them by example what a man could do if he wished—and then going on to teach them how to start gaining those skills themselves.

By a woman's measure of a man, too, he was more than she had dreamed. Elm's people attached no special virtue to sexual ignorance, yet Gold was a virgin. She was a beauty, and knew it, and the chief's daughter besides; no one had seemed good enough for her. The unmourned Wolf had been one of the greatest warriors in the village, but his bullying of others hadn't won her heart; Grim was strong, but stupid and bad-tempered; Elf altogether too vain; and Fire totally contemptible: sly, two-faced, good at striking behind a man's back, or running away. And every other man too young, too old, or already married.

Foolishly, Gold felt that she had known someone better was coming along, and had been waiting for him. When Raven continued to treat her with kindness, months after they were married, and when he took her to bed and brought her delight in ways she'd never dreamed of, nor ever heard of from another woman—why then, she was sure they'd been fated to meet.

If there was a flaw, it was that she didn't get pregnant. Being a virgin wasn't important, but being a childless wife was another matter. She felt that the other wives—the regular, child-dropping cows!—were laughing at her. It helped only a little that Raven himself had no word of reproach, even suggesting, gently, that he was the one at fault. Ridiculous! As if so strong, so brave, so passionate a man could fail to be the father of many sons!

So matters had stood, for two years from their wedding, when the bear came.

Raven motioned for silence and parted the branches before him carefully, knowing by the sound what he would see. The beast that had been stalking the village's cattle, and which had slain the only herdsman brave enough to fight it, was stripping berries off a bush at the far side of the clearing from where Raven and half the men crouched, armed with heavy spears.

But, though the stink and the droppings and the tracks of the marauder said bear, Raven hadn't been prepared for a bear like this!

To begin with, it was the tallest bear he'd ever seen, in all his long life. Blinking, he could swear that the creature was a full 12 feet tall, easy to see because it stood on its hind legs as comfortably as a man.

"Demon!" whispered one of the younger spearmen, and the beast's head whipped around, glaring. Rather than signal it to charge by letting the branches swish into place, and giving it someone to chase by getting up and running away, Raven froze; and held the branches still; and held one arm out behind him, willing the men with him to freeze, too.

For a wonder, they did. The nearsighted bear glared in their direction a moment longer, growling under its breath; then sniffed hugely, and returned to its berry bush.

Raven glared, too, until the young idiot dropped his eyes in apology; then returned to studying the bear. Not only was it the biggest he'd ever seen, it was the oddest. Neither black bear nor brown, it had a coat that was an almost bluish-gray, with silver tips. The powerful muscles of the long arms (impossible to think of them as fore legs) were anchored in a hump between the shoulders, like the bison used to have, before they were hunted out. And the claws on those hands were long and sharp as knives.

Raven didn't know whether this was some kind of bear he'd never been unfortunate enough to see before, or whether it was a freak bear, as he was a freak man. But he was sure they didn't have enough men, or long enough spears, to deal with it. This was no beast to fight hand to hand! This monster begged for traps, arrows, or fire, possibly all at once.

Keeping an eye on the gluttonous beast, he raised a finger for attention, then pointed back up the trail: Get out of here. Silently, carefully, the men withdrew, making sure their spears didn't catch on brush…

Then one of them caught his foot under a tree root arching out of the ground, and fell flat on his face with a crash.

"Run!" cried Raven, as the bear whirled around and roared. A man can't outrun an ordinary bear—a devil bear like this one, who knew? It was literally a case of "devil take the hindmost."

Only Raven hadn't trained, worked, lived with these men, just to see them shredded by a monster. "Give me that, idiot!" he said, snatching a spear out of a man's hands. "Drop everything, fools, and RUN FOR YOUR LIVES!"

He spun around, as the bear crashed through the brush they'd been crouching behind, and jammed the spear into its breast bone. The monster screamed, and Raven felt a moment's hope.

But the strength that had thrown a heavy spear right through a human being couldn't force one through the bear's tough grizzled hide and leathery muscles; and the strength that let Raven hold a full-grown cow overhead couldn't stop the bear for more than a moment. The beast outweighed him a few times over, and the forest litter gave his frantic feet no purchase, and nothing to brace against. It shoved him back and back, the spear keeping the murderous paws from his life; to fall down was to die.

Then the butt of the spear hit a tree right before Raven did, and the spear shaft cracked in half. Raven half-fell, half-lunged around the bole, low to escape the raking claws, and started to run in earnest, the bear right behind him with the broken spear jiggling in its chest.

"Catch!" someone cried; Raven looked up and snatched another heavy spear out of the air, ducked around another tree, and as the bear did the same, shoved the spear through its foot. He didn't stab the foot, he stabbed through the foot, trying to put the spear as deep in the ground as he could.

It was an inspired move for stopping the beast, but not so great for his own safety. As the bear fell forward, its paw slashed into his face.

"Easily the dumbest thing I ever did, in all my life," the Oldest Man said. "I really didn't deserve to survive that."

"What kind of bear was that?" Ramiro asked, too engrossed in the tale to turn to his intrinsics.

"They were called 'grizzly bears'," said the Eldest, "because of the silver tips in their fur, and they lived mostly in the far north of North America, what we used to call 'Alaska' and 'northern Canada'. I can only imagine how one got across the Bering Straits, and walked across Siberia, to get to where it almost killed me. Much smaller ones, many centuries later, were deadly dangerous even to people with firearms."

They took Raven back to the village, though no one expected him to live, with his right eye gone and all that side of his face hanging in tatters from the bone. Then all the fighting men armed themselves for war, and with the stoutest spears they had, the strongest bows, and the bravest dogs, went after the bear. They ran it to death, wailing from the spear through its foot; shot it with arrows whenever they could, until they put out both its eyes; put a spear through its other foot, now that it couldn't see; and set the dogs on it. Some dogs died, but no men; and in the end, the monster bear was dead, too. They skinned it, let the surviving dogs eat what they wanted, and brought the pelt back, either to bury Raven in, or to hang in memory of him, however Elm decided.

But Raven didn't die. With an eye missing, and his face in ribbons, he still refused. Out of his head, he lay in his bed and raved, often in languages no one knew; or, if in a tongue they could understand, speaking to unknown gods about places no one had heard of. Gold and the other women tended him all that fall and winter, while the flesh of his face healed in great white scars, and the fever burned high as a bonfire.

And while they wiped him down, on his new bed of grizzly-bear fur, and while they fed him soup and water and anything else liquid they could get down him, the legend began and grew.

That was no bear! What bear was ever that size, or that color? What bear ever fought that way, like a man, against a man? It was a god, come looking for the best, carrying a gift—for a price, they said, pointing at their eyes. Just watch, he'll live through this—but he'll be different.

And so it seemed, when the fever broke, when he could, with help, sit up—he was withdrawn, looking past the people in the house, at things they couldn't see. He often didn't reply when spoken to; if he did, it seemed he answered at random, and often in a foreign tongue, as if he couldn't bother to recall where he was.

Gone was the laughing man, the patient teacher replaced by a scar-faced, gray-haired stranger (the same color as the bear's, the villagers said, nodding). Raven had been confronted by death, and had his confidence shaken in his immortality. The plain fact was that he didn't know whether his eye would grow back, and the prospect of eternity with one eye was grim indeed. He went over and over his past lives, and found no answer; he simply hadn't ever suffered the loss of a limb or an organ before.

Fire approached Gold away from Raven's hut one day, and suggested that since Raven was now ugly, Gold should look for another husband. Himself, for instance.

Gold was so astonished that she almost forgot to dump the full water jug in her hands over his head. "You sniveling!" she said. "You nithling! Ugly? Ugly? Those are the marks of a hero, you worm! You think I'd push a hero out of my bed to make room for a sneak? Get out of my sight!" Everyone in hearing laughed as Fire slunk away; not least Elf, who'd been thinking of making the same proposal.

That night sharp words were spoken in Raven's and Gold's hut. "I am sick and tired," Gold said, "of living with Death!" (A couple walking by outside winced and shivered, and hurried on.)

Raven just looked at her, then looked away. "No, look!" Gold said. "Look at this!" She pulled some of her hair forward and showed it to him. "Gray! Gray in my gold hair, from worrying over you! If you're going to make me an old woman," she pleaded, "can't you at least look at me? Talk to me? Something?"

The impossibility of talking to someone so short-lived filled his throat and stopped his mouth. The chief's daughter took it for disdain, and walked up to stand right in front of him.

"Talk to me!" she said, and slapped him.

"Look at me!" she said, and slapped him again.

He grabbed her hand before she could swing again, a red mark on each cheek. "How about I just beat the crap out of you, golden-hair?" he growled.

"If you must," she whispered. "Oh, if that's what it takes to bring you back! Only come back to me," she said, and leaned forward, and kissed him.

He growled, and kissed her back, running his hands over her body. Then he picked her up, carried her over to the bed, dropped her on the bear skin, and beat her.

Or made love to her.

Or maybe both.

Gold has brought the dead to life, the village said. He has fought the god-bear, paid an eye to know things that left him half insane, and hung suspended between Death and Life; but she has brought him back to life!

Gradually Raven learned to accept that he'd just have to wait and see whether his eye regenerated while he slept, and to do without it for now. He resumed training the men of the village, and now he was training himself as well, to fight and hunt with only one eye. The men, for their part, because accustomed to the eye patch, the scars, and the gray hair.

And then, one day in early winter, he returned to his hut in the morning and found Gold in bed. She woke, and stretched langurously. "I dreamed you came back, and made love to me, and then I woke up, and there you are," she smiled. "Silly man! Why didn't you wake me all the way up?"

Raven frowned. Before he could say he'd just walked in the door, she put a hand over her belly in a gesture he'd seen many, many times before. "Don't ask me how I know," Gold said, "because there's no way I could know. But I think—I hope—No, I think that this time, we've started a child." She lifted her eyes from her belly to his face. "Oh Raven!" she cried, glowing. "Wouldn't that be wonderful!"

"More than wonderful," he said, thinking of all the hundreds and thousands of years, when he'd never, ever (as far as he knew) fathered a child. "We'll just have to see," he said, and kissed her. Her lips had an odd taste. Some kind of drug, he thought; when I find out who did this, he'll die slowly, I swear it! He'll wish the bear had gotten him.

But who could have raped Gold, after slipping the drug between her sleeping lips to make her half-awake and willing, thinking she was dreaming of him? Who knew of such things? As far as he could uncover, asking careful questions the next few days, no one in the village.

The obvious suspect was Fire. He was sneaky enough, and desired her enough. Also, it would be revenge for her spurning him, and revenge on Raven for winning her. But did he know about such drugs, and could he get them or make them? As far as Raven could learn, no.

Raven relieved his feelings a bit and tried to shake loose a confession by roughing up Fire, ostensibly for his proposal to Gold. It didn't work; Fire had plenty to say, but none of it was confessional. The beating earned Raven some disapproval, for once, from the majority of the villagers, who weren't used to seeing him act like a bully, and felt Gold had given the matter all the necessary attention with the water jug. Gold was the only one he pleased; she thought he was being extra attentive to her reputation, because she was carrying his baby.

By the turning of the year it was plain that Gold was with child; in high summer she had it. "Red hair," Raven said.

"Yes!" said Gold. "Father will be so pleased. His father had red hair, and his father's grandfather. And a boy, too!" she cooed at the newborn. Raven accepted everyone's congratulations as if he were overjoyed, then went looking for Fire, with murder in his eye.

But Fire had left as soon as Gold went into labor, with no word to anyone. It would be years before they saw him again.

Days passed by like fish in the lake; season followed season like geese in a flock; year followed year, each with its own deaths and births. Raven's hair stayed gray, but his strength and vigor returned, and didn't lessen with the years.

Others weren't so lucky. Fire's brother Grim died in a battle with some of the new people who were wandering in from the East in dribs and drabs. They were essentially the same as the locals, just a little different in their ornaments, their gods, and using some words borrowed from the languages of folks who lived a bit further east yet. A dozen of these tried to steal some cattle and horses one evening, as Grim was bringing them in from the field. He slew three or four of them before the rest slew him, which took long enough for Raven and the other fighting men to come running. They dealt with the rest of the thieves, but it was too late for Grim. They buried his body with the dead raiders at his feet, and Elm and Raven praised his courage and skill.

Elf suffered a different fate, when he fell in love with a younger girl, newly a woman, who scorned him and wouldn't sleep with him. He began wooing her to change her mind, and before he knew it was wooing in earnest. When at last he proposed marriage, she accepted; and shortly after they married, she got pregnant. By the time Elm's grandson Aspen was six years old, Elf was nothing but a besotted husband with two boys and a girl, and his old reputation as a lecher was a faint memory.

So the old women put down their spinning and helped with the children, until they died; while the men quit active duty as village fighters, and later hunting, and died in turn; while new children were born, older children grew up, and young men came to be trained by Raven. By the time Aspen was eight, few ever thought of the day, now a dozen years past, when Raven came to the village.

Elm and Raven were sitting on a bench in front of the long house, soaking up the warm sun of what a later, calendared age would call May or June. Shrieking children ran everywhere, playing some running game whose rules were incomprehensible to anyone over ten years old. Barking dogs chased the runners, adding to the noise and confusion.

Somewhere in the last dozen years Elm had turned old, going from slender to old-man skinny, golden hair now white, liver spots on his hands and arms. He wasn't feeble or sickly, but neither did he have the strength of his youth; and the bald spot on top of his head gleamed in the light.

"Grandaddy!" shrieked a blur of arms and legs, tipped with red hair. Aspen came charging out of the mob of children and threw himself at Elm. Elm caught him with an oof! and a laugh, hugged him close, and kissed his grubby little-boy face. Then he passed him to Raven.

"Daddy!" said Aspen. "Aspen!" said Raven, and turned the boy upside down, so his tunic fell down around his arms. Then he put his lips to the boy's belly button and blew, making his son shriek; turned him right side up and set him down, and sent him back to the game with a swat on the butt. Aspen ran off laughing.

Gold came out of the longhouse door and stepped up behind her husband and her father, putting a hand on each shoulder. Each man covered her hand with one of his own, and they watched the children play, smiling.

"Strangers at the gate!" cried the sentry the next day.

"Who are you calling a stranger?" replied a querulous voice. "Can't a man take a trip without being insulted in his own village? I am Fire, son of Giant, brother of Grim; and I bring important guests. Let us in!"

"Wait!" called Elm. "Raven, Elf, Pike, come with me." He strode to the gate, for the moment very like the chief he'd been, with Raven, Fire's surviving crony Elf, and Pike, a promising fighter of the younger generation, at his back. The gate was opened only a little, and they went out.

Fire stood there, his red hair streaked with grey, and sporting a short beard the same colors. His face was set in anger, and the depth of the lines showed how usual was the expression. He was dressed in the brooches and tunic of the newcomers from the east, and wore an eastern sword at his belt. An amber necklace hung around his neck.

With him were two easterners in truth: big men in the flush of youth, tall, wide, hard-muscled; like enough to be brothers, one with red hair, one yellow. They were clad in expensive armor, true mail shirts down past their hips, torcs around their necks, long eastern hand-and-a-half swords on their backs. The three horses whose reins Fire was holding had capes rolled up behind their saddles, and two of them had helmets and shields hanging from their saddles as well.

"Welcome, strangers," Elm said, ignoring Fire. "What brings you to my village?"

"Thank you for the welcome," said the yellow-haired man, grinning through his beard and mustache. "I am Thunder," he said, fingering the hammer pendant hanging from his neck, "and this is my brother War." War nodded to the chief, unsmiling; the bird pendant at his throat jingled, making its semi-detached feet swing back and forth.

"Bold names!" said Elm. "I am Elm; this is Raven, Elf, and Pike."

"A likely band," Thunder smiled. "And you have us outnumbered four to three. Yet what if I—"

"Four to two," Raven said.

"Don't interrupt the chief!" Fire said.

Raven looked at him. "He's no chief of mine," he said. "As for you, if you keep very quiet and behave very well, I might let you leave here alive." Elm nodded agreement; Pike, too young to have met Fire before, said nothing. Even Elf didn't protest Raven's words.

"He'll leave here when I do," said Thunder. "He's with me, and you'll treat him as you would me."

"And who are you?" Elm said, astonished at the stranger's effrontery.

"I'm the new chief here," said Thunder, taking a step forward and reaching out for Elm.

Before he could touch him, however, Raven's right arm shot out, and he caught Thunder's wrist. "Show respect for the chief, or I'll have to teach it to you," he said mildly.

Thunder frankly gaped at the grey-hair who'd seized his arm. "Old man, that was a mistake. I'm going to make an example of you now." He reached towards Raven with his right hand, his left wrist still in Raven's right hand…

Raven seized his other wrist. "Don't make me hurt you, boy," he said. Inwardly he was amazed. Thunder was inhumanly strong, though not as strong as Raven. He had to be another immortal, though probably not as old as Raven. And what about War, the other one?

Outwardly it seemed Thunder and Raven stood there, neither struggling; but the snarl on Thunder's face told a different story. ["Brother! Are you all right?"] cried War in an ancient language spoken by mammoth hunters north of the Black Sea.

["Stay back! He's too strong!"] said Thunder in the same tongue. ["I think he's a troll!"]

["Oh, really,"] Raven said. ["You call me names? You're the one acting like a troll."]

Thunder and War froze in shock, and Raven spilled Thunder over his hip onto the ground. Thunder got up, still staring. ["You speak our language?"] he said.

["And many others,"] Raven replied. ["I'm a lot older than you, if that's your native speech. A lot older, and a lot stronger."]

["Then why aren't you the chief here?"] asked War.

["He's a good man,"] Raven said. ["Why shouldn't he stay chief, while he lives? And then my son, his grandson, can be chief when I have to leave."]

["You have a son?!"] they cried. Thunder added, ["I never knew one of us who could father children."]

["And I never knew two brothers who were both immortal,"] said Raven. ["A truce and a feast while we talk it over?"]

"Truce," Thunder agreed. "It could be we were too hasty." He looked at Elm. "May we guest in your village tonight, sir?"

"No!" cried Fire. "You promised me—"

War seized Fire's throat in one hand, his left, and brought the scatheling's face up to his, effortlessly holding him in one unbraced arm, as if he weighed nothing. "You don't say 'no' to us," he told Fire, who had no air even to gasp. "Keep your mouth shut while you still have an uncrushed throat." He took the reins of the horses from Fire's strengthless hand, and dropped him into the dirt.

So they had a feast, with all the village crowded into the longhouse, except for the men whose turn it was to watch the stockade and the stores, and the women watching over the children too young to attend. Thunder and War sat at the high table with Elm, Gold, and Raven. Fire was seated elsewhere, much to his resentment; nor was he pleased that Elf had little to say to him, or that Elf's wife plainly disliked him. He was also shocked to learn that Grim had died fighting eastern raiders. Clearly Elf and Grim wouldn't be backing him for whatever he had in mind.

"Why shouldn't we be kings of as many villages as we can take and hold?" Thunder was saying. "Do you know anyone more fit for the job? We already have a dozen of our villages giving us obedience, and a dozen of yours. If we make them one people, they won't be fighting each other over cattle, horses, or women; and we'll be so strong no one can challenge us. Why shouldn't we have an empire, like the Hittites did, or the Babylonians?"

"Yes! Hear him!" said War.

"I could answer that empires are evil," Raven said. "I've never known one where anyone was happy except maybe the people on top. But let me ask you instead, why should you have an empire, or be kings? What's the point? What do you get out of it?"

["After all, in 40 to 80 years you'll have to sleep anyway,"] he added. ["It's not like you can pass your throne to your sons."]

["We could always adopt sons,"] Thunder said. ["Or we could share power with you. We have only about 40 years before we have to sleep, and I gather you just woke up? The three of us could rule together, then you could keep things going while we slept, then we could share again, then you could sleep… And if your son turns out to be immortal, so much the better. The more of us there are, the stronger our empire."]

["How do I know I could trust you?"] Raven said.

["We're willing to trust you,"] War said. ["Forty years from now, you'll trust us; or you won't."]

["I don't like it,"] Raven said. ["You'd end up with a race of immortals ruling a race of slaves."]

["So what?"] said Thunder, smiling. ["You'd be one of the immortals. The rest will all be dead in the blink of an eye, anyway. And meanwhile we'd take better care of them than they ever took care of themselves."]

["They aren't for 'taking care of',"] said Raven. ["They're people, just like you and me."]

"You have a tender heart, brother," Thunder said. "Drink up, and let's talk about something else for a while."

"Imagine how different history would have been, if they'd succeeded," Ramiro said.

"Oh yes," said the Eldest. "And they could have succeeded, too. Even without me having children, there were still plenty of oldsters around, and sooner or later we'd have recruited all of them, assigning each an area and a 40- to 80-year 'shift'. Eventually we'd rule the whole world, and any new immortals would join us as a matter of course, blessing the luck of their birth."

"There'd be no progress, no science, nothing that brought an ordinary man up to their level," Ramiro said. "They'd rule like gods, and people as a whole would never become immortal."

"Sure they would," the oldest man said. "There would always be thousands of mortals for every immortal; in time, millions for each one. Sooner or later their empire would fall, either to mortals, or to one of the alien races we didn't know about back then. But I thought it would be better if it never got started."

"You lied to me!" Thunder accused Raven, a couple of days later. "Aspen isn't your son, he's Fire's—just as Fire said."

"Fire lied," Raven said. "He always lies. It's true he raped my wife with a drug—something he learned from your people, I assume?—and he'll die for that. But Aspen is my son, and I love him."

The woods they were standing in were green and lush. Raven, Thunder, and War had taken horses and gone well beyond the village's usual hunting grounds, looking for big game to replenish the stores. It also gave them a chance to talk freely.

"I don't care whether you love him or not," Thunder said. "If he's not your seed, then you can't have children any more than we can."

"It doesn't matter whether I can have children, because I'm not going to let you set yourselves up as kings," Raven said. "It's wrong, and the people here deserve better."

"To Hel with you!" War said.

"Yes, to Hel with you," Thunder agreed. "I'll come back with five villages' fighting men, and then how will you stop me?" He snorted, and turned to get on his horse.

Raven grabbed him, pulled him around, and punched him in the face. "Fight me, coward!" he said. "If you win, I won't be around to stop you. If I win, your plans are done."

War cried out in anger, and jumped down from his horse; but Thunder stopped him with an upraised hand. He worked his bloody nose with a grimace, then deliberately spat blood on Raven's tunic.

"My brother and I could kill you here and now," Thunder said, "and come down on your people with sixty or a hundred warriors. But I don't want to waste your death. Let's go back to the village. I want to show them that no one stands up to me, not even bear-killing heroes."

"Lead on," said Raven.

Thunder and War, in mail and helmets, stood before the crowd. Thunder had the hand-and-a-half sword in one hand; War bore a large round shield, over three feet across.

"I'm building a kingdom," Thunder told the village. "The more villages are part of it, the better we'll all do—we stand together against enemies, we share food, we trade among ourselves. Fire told us of your village, so we came to annex it."

"What, all by yourselves?" said Elm.

Thunder looked at Elm. "Yes, all by ourselves. Just like the one before, and the one before, and the one before that—24 so far."

"We would have made this man chief here," Thunder said, "and chief of other villages we added around here—for he is a hero like us, kingly like us, strong and bold and battleworthy."

"We already have a chief, and it's no business of yours," said Raven.

"Hear him!" cried Thunder, pointing one-handed with the great-sword. "He decides who your chief is; he says I am not king; he says you may not even decide for yourselves!"

"I don't recall you asking us anything," Pike said. "You said, 'I'm the new chief' and would have laid hands on Elm."

"So now we'll return to the original plan," Thunder said, ignoring the young warrior. "We'll kill this mighty hero, to show you that no one defies us. Then we'll make Fire the chief here, as we promised him. As further reward he may have Gold for wife, and his son Aspen to raise and be chief after him."

"Over your dead bodies!" Gold cried out.

"Aspen is my son!" Raven said.

"I have spoken," Thunder said. He looked at Raven. "Where is your second?"

"My second what?" said Raven.

"Duels are fought holmgang style," Thunder said, as if it were a law of nature. "War will carry my shield, I'll use my long sword. Who will bear your shield?"

"What, you haven't the guts to fight me one at a time?" Raven said, astonished.

"Sir!" said Pike. "I'd be proud to carry your shield."

"Thanks, son," said Raven, clapping him on the shoulder. "But we haven't practiced it; we'd only get in each other's way. Why do you think they fight that way? I'll take these two 'heroes' by myself."

"Then get your helmet and shield," War said. "You're wasting our time."

"The more I waste, the more you have left," Raven said. "Treasure it."

"Elf!" he called. "Bring me a spear and a shield, if you don't mind."

"Thanks," he said when Elf had done so. "Keep an eye on Fire, so he doesn't get away again."

"Count on me," said Elf. "He'd bring the warriors of a dozen villages back, to make him chief here."

"Kill them all," Gold said, holding Aspen by the hand.

"I promise," he said, kissing her. He looked down at Aspen. "Be a good boy, son. Do what your mother says."

"I love you, Daddy," Aspen said. Raven kissed him, and waited until all the villagers had drawn off to one side, leaving him and the two brothers lots of room.

"Ready to die now?" Thunder said.

Raven looked at them, mail bright in the noon sun, light flashing from iron helms. Thunder held the great sword upright with one hand wrapped around the hilt down by the pommel. The other hand gripped the hilt just below the cross-guard, almost like a quarterstaff stance. War held the big shield in both hands, using a pair of handles.

Raven chanted:

[["My bear is before me,
My lion is in me.
Hattushas is on my right,
Mittani is on my left,
Horus stretches his wings over me.
I cannot be defeated."]]

["Try again in a known language,"] Thunder said.

"Ah, you ignorant children," said Raven:

"You want my life?
Come and take it—come and try!
My life is Ocean, it circles the world.
Come and take it—come and die!
My life has no end; but yours is over!"

"We'll see," said Thunder. The two brothers advanced in perfect, practiced unison.

But Raven had fought with a shield man for a partner, both in chariots and on foot. He knew the strengths and the weaknesses of fighting that way, and how to train them out of a partner, and how to take advantage of them in others.

So he used the speed of his lightly-armored, stronger body to take his enemies' shield for his own. When the long sword whistled through the air at him, he jabbed his spear at War's face, forcing him to heave up the shield for protection. The greatsword bit into the edge of the shield, and caught momentarily. While the sword and shield were locked, Raven swept his spear point down and jabbed it into War's inside thigh, just below the mail. Then he leapt back, as War cried out in rage and pain.

"Bastard!" said Thunder. He swung again, and Raven leapt to his right, so that the blond man had to pull his blow to keep from chopping his brother's head. As he pulled it, Raven jabbed with the spear again at War's eyes. War threw the shield up again, and stumbled back, fouling Thunder. Raven jabbed War in the other leg, twisting the blade, and was rewarded by fast-spreading, bright-red blood.

"One down," he said, as War's leg gave out on him.

"War!" said Thunder, running forward. He started to kneel at his brother's side, but Raven's spear flashed at his eyes. He jerked back.

"Bastard! He'll die!" he snarled, blocking with his sword. Long as a spear, it was less suited for holding level and jabbing; and he had no shield now.

"He will," Raven affirmed. "So will you. I told you your lives were over. You threatened my people."

"We'll go away! We'll leave you alone! Only let me save my brother!" Thunder cried.

"I can't afford to believe you," Raven said. "Even if you mean it, you could change your mind any time, and come back with as many men as you wanted. Dead men can't change their minds or break their word."

War sighed, and fell onto the big shield. The grass was a lake of blood from the severed artery.

"Anyway," Raven said, "too late now."

The cruel remark drove Thunder out of his mind with rage, just as Raven had intended. Screaming incoherently, holding nothing back, the would-be king attacked full out, with great two-armed swings of his long sword.

But Raven had a spear, a shield, and cold calculation. Thunder was younger, hence weaker; Raven encouraged him to wear himself out, blocking with the sword, jabbing with the spear when he could. When at last the spear was hacked too short, he dropped it and drew his sword.

He almost waited too long. Thunder's head was clearing, and he was beginning to believe, really believe, that he wasn't going to win the fight. Before he could look for Gold or Aspen or other people to kill, Raven went on the offensive.

Close was the key now; distance favored Thunder's long sword, and gave him time to block at need. Raven closed to the best range for his sword, blocking with his shield with the other arm, and stayed there.

Thunder's mail was better than Raven's suit of scales, and his sword more massive, capable of cutting right through a shield or armor in a full roundhouse blow with all of his strength behind it. The trick was to deny him those blows, by crowding, by blocking his arms with the shield to hamper the swing, to cut at the face and head and neck with the shorter sword. Shorter, but wielded with even greater strength, by a man less weary and fighting in cold reason for people who mattered to him.

Time after time the great sword's swing was halted by the iron-rimmed shield, or aborted to try to block a stroke. Thunder was used to fighting people less experienced than he, much weaker than he, in battles whose terms he'd set. Now he faced someone stronger and better. Thunder and War had never fought anyone better, so they'd never had a chance to improve. Rare is the man who can invent new fighting techniques! Raven couldn't, himself; but he'd fought many who were better than he'd been, down the centuries, and had learned from them all. He'd also fought, many times, at a disadvantage of weapons.

Now the tenth blow to the same spot broke links at Thunder's neck; another made a wide swath droop like sheared cloth; and the last chopped into the neck itself, blood spurting wide. The great sword fell from the blond's open hands, and he fell over on his side, staring from sightless eyes.

For a moment the villagers were afraid of the grim survivor in the waning afternoon light. Then he laid down his shield, laid his sword on it until he could clean it, and fumbled with the straps until he could pull off his helmet. He dumped it on the grass without ceremony. Even as it went clunk and the attached mail skirting went ching!, he was taking off the helmet padding. He shook his head, and drops of sweat flew far and wide.

This familiar act broke down the strangeness; the whole village rushed forward, Gold and Aspen and Elm and all. Pike picked up Raven's sword and began cleaning it of blood, his brother Hawk picked up the shield, while other young men gathered around the bodies of Thunder and War, marveling at the great cuts in the one's mail, and the half-dry lake of blood around the other.

"What now?" asked Elm.

"You're the chief," said Raven. "But my advice would be, gather them up, every least bit of cloth and metal they brought with them, and let it drag them down into the deepest part of the lake. Butcher their horses and scatter the bones, lest they be recognized. Burn the grass where their blood was spilled, and more besides, to leave no pattern. When they don't come back, and no one knows where they went or what happened to them, their 'kingdom' will fall apart."

"There's still one more mouth that needs shutting," Gold said dangerously.

Most of the villagers gaped at her like she'd grown a second head suddenly; but Elm and Raven both nodded. "Elf!" cried Elm. "Bring your prisoner!"

"Find him!" Raven snapped, a moment later, when there was no answer. They scattered in search.

They found Elf dead, his throat slit at the side where a man's life is easily reached by a small, quick knife. His wife and children cried out at the sight, and fell upon him in anguish.

Fire's horse was gone, but Thunder's and War's were not; probably he feared to take them, in case one or both of the brothers lived. Which meant he'd killed and fled while the fight yet raged; which meant he had a greater lead. Raven made a swift decision.

"Father-in-law, dispose of the bodies. I'll take these horses, and go after him. But have well-armed men search on foot, too, in case he's hiding or doubles back. Let them be cautious, and quick to strike. Remember Elf!"

"We will. Good luck," said Elm, and he clasped his son-in-law's hands with both his own. "Come back to us if you can," he added.

"If I can," Raven agreed. He swung into one saddle, his sweaty clothes and his scale still on him, and gathered the reins of the other. Pike handed him his sword, and his brother hung the shield, helmet, and arming cap on the second horse's saddle.

"Wait!" cried Gold, running up with arms full. "Cloak. Food. Water."

Raven handed the packages to the young men to tie to his horses, leaned down, caught Gold up and kissed her fiercely and deeply. Then he clapped his heels to the horse's ribs, and took off eastwards.

"Was it a long chase?" Ramiro asked quietly.

"It couldn't be a long chase, or he'd get away. There were just too many places for a man to hide. But too short a chase, and he'd be in one of the conquered villages, spreading the news of what happened to Thunder and War, before I could catch him."

"So what did you do?"

"I had to gamble that the nearest village that Thunder had told me about, when he was still trying to recruit me, was in fact the closest place that Fire could get help. I rode straight there, saw from a distance that there wasn't any excitement stirring, and turned back, quartering across the trails from Elm's village to that one. Presently Fire came along, stopped and ran off at sight of me, and then it was my two horses against his one, my tracking skills against his attempts to sneak around me, his need to sleep against my 24-hour wakefulness. I was too tired and disgusted and sick of the whole matter to give him the lasting death I'd planned; in the end, I just walked up to him and stabbed him in the heart."

"Then I went back and waited ten or fifteen years until Elm got older and died, and Gold got older and died, and Aspen grew up into a strong young chief. After that I went on a trip and never came back—south for real this time, and after another forty years, a spell of sleep in another secret place."

"And when I woke, my hair was back to its regular color, and my eye had grown back. You can't imagine what a relief that was!"

"No, I don't suppose I can," said the interviewer. "When did all this happen?"

"I've never been able to determine that," said the Eldest. "Too much slow gradual change going on, with no big events to fix dates; too little contact with the rest of the world; nothing really distinctive in the clothes, the pottery, or anything else. I know it happened after the invaders that the Egyptians called 'The People of the Sea' destroyed the Hittites and the ancient countries of the Near East, and before the traditional founding of Rome; but a span of 2000 B.C. to 753 B.C. doesn't exactly pin it down."

"It must have been a shock the next time you went north again, and found people worshipping Thor and the rest."

"Yes; that was the clearest echo I'd yet caught of events I'd been part of, and it made me more determined than ever to stay out of the spotlight. Thunder had become Thor, War was Tir, Fire or Trouble became Logi/Loki, Elf Baldur, Gold Sif."

He smiled. "There were really two Lokis, you know. In the older myths he's nothing but trouble, in the later ones he's more like one of the other gods. I like to think that the first one's Fire, the second one Aspen. But I'll never know."

He looked away. "In the end, history rolled over them all. The people living there, when I went back, were like the westerners some ways, the easterners some others; they seemed to remember conflict or merging between two peoples, and individuals from both sides. Who won? Who lost? I couldn't even be sure it was the same village; a good site like that wouldn't stay abandoned for long."

Ramiro looked at his notes, away from the emotion on the other man's face. "So Elm was Odin?"

"Well, no. You see, in Norse mythology there are actually two sets of gods. The Vanir came first, and their realm was called Vanaheim. Then the Aesir came along, conquered the Vanir, and called the place Asgard. Some of the 'Norse gods' were Vanir, and some were Aesir. Odin was chief of the Aesir. Elm was Frey, I think, if he was remembered at all: a Vanir, and the ruler of mankind."

"So who was Odin?"

"Oh come on! Old One-Eye? With his two wolves, Geri and Freki, and his two ravens, Huginn and Muninn, Thought and Memory? Why do you think I was so shocked when I heard people worshipping him?"

"But Odin was Thor's father!"

"He was not only Thor's father, he was the All-Father. Pretty ironic, when you consider I've always been sterile. If I'd been able to have children, the earth would've been full of them, even in 1700 B.C. or whenever it was. But this was folklore, not history."

"But here's the clincher," said the Oldest Man, leaning forward. "Most pagan pantheons were headed by the god of the sky and the storm—Zeus is a good example. But the Norse pantheon wasn't."

"No?" Ramiro frowned. "Wasn't Odin the sky-god?"

"No, that's Thor. Consider Odin: His familiars are ravens and wolves, his valkyries seize heroes when they die in battle, and he rides an eight-legged horse, Sleipnir."

"So he's a battle god, with familiars that pick over the bodies of the slain, and valkyries that harvest their souls? But wait, wasn't Tir the god of war? And I don't understand the eight-legged horse."

"It's a coffin," said the Eldest, "which is an old word for a box you put the dead people in, before you bury them. A coffin is carried to the grave—the hole you put the body in—by a group of men, called pallbearers, the same number on each side. An eight-legged horse is a coffin carried by four men, two on each side. Four men, eight legs."

"That's fantastic!" said the interviewer. "But… I see by the net that you're right, that is the accepted explanation for what Sleipnir represents. I don't suppose they think that because you told them so? No, I see it goes back long before space flight."

"Finally," the Oldest Man said, "Odin was one-eyed because he sacrificed an eye deliberately to gain wisdom, to learn the runes. He hung for eight days and nights on Yggdrasil, the World Tree, to earn it."

"Which is a lot more mystical and ceremonial than fighting a god-bear," Ramiro said.

"But the sacrifice is the same," said the Oldest, touching his eye. "And I certainly learned wisdom. At least, after that I didn't fight any grizzlies with hand weapons!" he said, grinning.

"So why did they make you a grave-god?" the interviewer asked. "Was it the 'back from the dead' thing, and surviving what would have killed anyone else, or the Raven name?"

"Or else they traced me back to the tomb I came out of before I met the 'Vanir', Elm's people. Some combination of my rebirth, from a tomb or the bear fight, the conflict between Elm's folk and Thunder's folk, and my losing an eye, formed at least part of the foundation of the Norse god-stories."

"Amazing," said Ramiro.

"What is?" said the Eldest.

"If these events happened around 1700 B.C., as you suggested, you've given me a first-hand narrative of things that happened seven thousand years ago!"

"Oh, I have older stories than that," said the Oldest Man, standing up. "But enough for now. There's a mountain I haven't climbed," he flashed Ramiro the data, "that's calling my name. So if you'll excuse me…"

"Sir! May I come, too?"

The Eldest looked him over. "Show me what mountains you've climbed, whom with, and with what equipment," he said.

Ramiro did. The Oldest Man grunted. "All right, but you have to take my orders and do it my way," he said.

"Yes, sir!"

"All right, let's go."

And they went.

About this story

Copyright © 2002, 2003, 2005 and 2007 by Green Sky Press. All rights reserved. The pictures used herein are ancient works of art in the public domain.


When you open your eyes, at first you see nothing. The blackness appears absolute; then, as your eyes adjust, you begin to see faint specks of light here and there. Are these the stars, you wonder? But they seem too faint, and too diffuse.

It occurs to you that you're floating. It seems that you should feel like you're falling, but apparently your body doesn't think so, or has long ago adjusted. Long ago? You have no idea how long. Suddenly you notice a reflection on the glass before you and realize two things: you're wearing a helmet, and there's something bright behind you.

You wish you could turn to look, and as you wish, the faint dots swim past your eyes. You are turning. Somehow, though you've forgotten the mechanism, you need only wish it and your body turns around.

There swims into view before you a bright object, round and flat to your eyes, with bright spirals winding into a central round brightness. It hurts your eyes for a moment, after staring into the black.

You wish you were closer, and the object begins to grow. It stops when it is right in front of you. You reach out, and your hand passes through it. There is no sensation in your hand, and the object is undisturbed. It makes you feel like a ghost, and you withdraw your hand quickly.

Still you want to see better. You lean forward, and the thing is magnified again. You see that what seemed solid is actually made up of uncountable blobs, many of them bright, some of them dark. The disk is solid with objects, but the ones in the spirals are brighter than the others, which makes them stand out. In the center the bright dots are so closely packed that they seem a solid thing.

There is a three-dimensional structure to the object; it isn't flat, as you first thought. The disk has a definite thickness, though it's very slight compared to its diameter. The central luminosity is a definite bulge. And as you look more carefully, you see many lights, too thinly scattered to be immediately noticed, in a sphere all round the disk, and about the same diameter. There are also larger dots, perhaps 200 of them, floating in a sphere around the bulge; each of these seem to be made of many, many lights.

You have no name for what you're seeing, but it's so beautiful you feel tears in your eyes. You wish you could see one of the bright spots more closely. And again, the thought brings action; before you realize it, you are shrinking down towards a dot two-thirds of the way out from the center. The glowing lights swarm up around you and then disappear into the distance; soon you are in the plane of the disk, with bright dots and dark blobs all around you, and approaching the object of your curiosity.

It is bright, and hurts your eyes. You watch it a while, and become aware that it, too, has structure. A halo of matter surrounds it, reflecting its light occasionally. Inside the halo, a flat disk of dust lies. And in the disk are lanes cleared of dust, with little spheres within the lanes.

One is double; a blue sphere closely paired with a white one a third its size. You draw nearer and feel total astonishment. On this scale you realize that you are staring at the Earth and Moon! You see the clouds swirl over the ant-sized continents, and you reach out. Nothing happens. You cannot get smaller or closer, once the Earth grows to baseball size and hangs before you.

And now, without your wishing it, everything goes into reverse. You grow and fall backwards through the plane of the Solar System, the ringed planets receding before you. Out through the Kuiper Belt, out through the Oort Cloud, until you lose the Sun in the other stars of the Galaxy's disk. The central bulge of the Milky Way passes your eyes, hurting them with the dragon-glare of the monster black hole in its center. Back through the halo of globular star clusters, out through the disk of dark matter. The galaxy tilts and once again you see it face on, in all its beauty.

You close your eyes for a moment. When you open them, at first you see nothing. The blackness appears absolute; then, as your eyes adjust, you begin to see faint specks of light here and there. Are these the stars, you wonder? You realize they are distant galaxies, and clusters of galaxies. You realize it's starting all over again.

Your screams shake the heavens.

"Professor Chandrasekhar?"

The neatly-dressed Hindu standing in front of the hospital room turned, already smiling for the attractive female voice, yet somewhat surprised that an American was pronouncing his name correctly. A moment later he was glad he had that reason to look surprised.

Two U.N. police officers stood there. The man was an ordinary cop in ordinary white ceramcrete body armor over the city's police uniform; dark blue pants with bell bottoms, dark blue shirt with flared sleeves, holding his helmet under his left arm, and his omnicom in his right hand. The white helmet had "Mackie" printed on it in red letters, captain's bars shone on his shoulders, and a U. N. Orbital Law Enforcement patch on each arm. His boots were black.

The woman was a sight he never expected to see again in his lifetime. She was a Childe, with the slender build of her kind. The eyes that regarded him were set in a head slightly larger than a baseline human, and she had only a fringe of blonde hair, as if someone had tonsured her as a medieval monk. Her human ancestors had been oriental, judging by her eyes; Chinese, in fact, unless he missed his guess.

He covered his confusion at seeing a Childe in Circum-Terra space, and employed by the police, by concentrating on why he was here. "Yes, I'm Chandrasekhar," he said.

The Childe held out her hand. "I'm Lieutenant Mackie, Professor. This is Captain Mackie, my husband. We understand that David Clarke is a student of yours?"

"Pleased to meet you," he said automatically, shaking both their hands. "Yes, Mr. Clarke is my student. I was just in his room." He shook his head doubtfully. "A terrible, terrible thing."

"Let's go in, shall we?" the older cop said. His voice was as deep as his wife's was high; almost a basso profundo, the professor thought. A doctor in whites turned as they entered the room. He was a tall, thin man with the long hands seen in surgeons and pianists, and the weariness of the dedicated doctor. His eyes lit when he saw who the police officers were.

"Martin, Sang Hi, good to see you. How's married life treating you?"

A Childe could blush, Dr. Chandrasekhar noted, and so could a normal human who married one. Fascinating!

The man—Martin—moved over to the desperate creature strapped to the bed. The professor's student twitched all over, continuously, while mumbling just below conversational level.

"100-400 billion stars… mass between 750 billion and one trillion suns… diameter between 100,000 and 180,000 light years…"

"Have you determined what happened to this boy, Paul?" the woman asked.

"Ah," said the doctor. "He was found Monday morning in a kind of homemade casket. He was wearing a VR study helmet and a wetsuit. He was floating in water kept at body temperature by a thermostat, kept from drowning by a floatation collar around his neck. The casket shut out all light and noise, but wasn't air tight. Paramedics were summoned by campus police, who suspected attempted murder. This proved false, but the patient has not recovered normal consciousness. He was brought here and strapped in for his own safety."

"A casket," said the Captain, "with no light, no noise, nothing touching the body but water heated to body temp. That reminds me of something, but…"

"An isolation chamber," his wife said flatly.

"Yes, of course," said the doctor. "I should have made that connection, only no one has played with those since the Seventies." He smiled. "The Nineteen-Seventies, I guess I should say."

"But that is extremely dangerous!" Chandrasekhar exclaimed.

"… belongs to Local Group… 3 large and dozens of small galaxies… second largest but perhaps most massive…" said the patient conversationally.

They all jumped. "Dangerous indeed," the Lieutenant said. "The sleep chambers on the Sperosus were carefully designed to stimulate the senses of their occupants throughout the trip for that very reason, even though all indications are that they'll be unaware of it."

"We examined the VR helmet," the Captain told the doctor and the professor. "An alarm had been set to awaken Mr. Clarke after half an hour, but had failed. Maybe water got into the circuitry, or maybe it just glitched." He looked at his omnicom, and touched a virtual button on its screen. "His room mate was supposed to check in with him and make sure everything was all right, but apparently he met a girl and spent the weekend with her."

"… Solar System within disk… only about 20 light years above equatorial plane… about 26,000 light years from Galactic Center," Clarke mumbled.

"So this young man was left in an isolation chamber all weekend?" demanded the doctor. "While a VR disk on… on…"

"Galactic structure," said the professor and the student together. Everyone turned and stared, but the student mumbled on without a break.

"While a VR disk on galactic structure played over and over?" the doctor finished.

"It matches," the professor said.

That got their attention. "What do you mean, Dr. Chandrasekhar?" asked the Captain. He did not pronounce the Hindu name nearly as well as his wife. Well, his IQ was probably only a fraction of hers, too.

"This student," Chandrasekhar answered, "does well on tests, when he has prepared himself. But he has told me that he has difficulty studying. He has complained that there is too much noise, too many interruptions on campus. Apparently," he said bleakly, "this was his way of studying for my mid-term."

"Solar System moves… 250 km/sec… 240 million years per orbit… 20 to 21 orbits… about 4.6 billion years ago," said Clarke.

After a long moment, the Captain closed his omnicom with careful restraint and placed it in its holster on his belt. "I guess there's no mystery about what happened here," he said. "You could call it a classic case of a little knowledge being a dangerous thing. Mr. Clarke heard about isolation chambers, probably in a psych class, and decided one would solve his study problem. Then the alarm failed and his roommate flaked out on him, leading to…" he gestured at the twitching, mumbling wreck strapped into the hospital bed.

As the officers closed the door behind them, the last thing they heard from the patient was "Galactic Bulge… radius 6,000 light years… Galactic Disk… 60,000 light years… Galactic Halo… 65,000 light years…"

"A shame," said Sang Hi.

"I'd call it rather more than that," said Martin.

"No," she said, "I meant… he has all his facts right. Too bad he can't take that mid-term, he'd be sure to get an A."

Her husband stared at her. "Honey," he said, "I never know when you're pulling my leg, and when you're just exercising that weird Childe sense of humor."

She smiled. "It's all in your viewpoint," she said.

"I guess so," said Martin. He thought of a student trapped in darkness for what must have seemed like eternity, touring the galaxy over and over, until memory and sense had fled beyond recall. What viewpoint did that give? That of an ant, or a god? He shivered. "Mrs. Mackie," he said, "What say we have dinner somewhere, and then go home? I think we've done enough for one day."

The smile she gave him was warm. How many men would have partnered a failed Childe, a cull from the program? How many would have looked beyond the intimidating intelligence and strength, and seen beauty, and loneliness, and need? Three years they'd been partners, and six months married. "I'd love that," she said.

They got into the next elevator. Behind them, in the hospital, the mumbling went on and on.

About this story

Copyright © 2001 by Green Sky Press. All rights reserved.

"Ham Lett" by Wm. Shakespeare

Revu Revile Revill Reviw by Dave McCurdy
for the Tombstone Epitaff

People is allus sayin' whut a fine Playwrit this gent Shakespeare is. But I'm here t' tell yuh, th' man is nuthin' but a damned Thief!

I paid 2 whole Nickels t' see th'aforementioned Production, namely "Ham Let", & after half an hour I was so mad I could spit nails! & worst of all, when I commenced t' holler & demand my Money back, they threw me out! Right in th' mud o' Texas Street, & yuh all know jist how filthy thet is!

Well I mean t' say! Take thet "t' be er not t' be" speech. Now I ain't no shiny-domed Eastern Perfesser, but I cain't count how many times I seen some ol' soak Actor do thet'un on stage. & this varmint Shakespeare has th' nerve t' put it in his Play? Get out th' tar & feathers, boys!

Or how 'bout thet line, "He was a man, I shall not see his like agin." If'n yuh've bin to's many funerals as I have, yuh know thet'un gits sayed 'most ever time some high-rollin' pocket-liner er purse-mouthed pulpit-pounder goes t' meet his Maker. (Jist betwixt yuh & me, it ain't never impressed me none when th' sky pilot drags it out, & I has my doubts it cuts no ice with th' Lord, either.)

Howsomever, th' point is, anyone who takes thet ol' chestnut & sets it in a Play has brass balls, & big'uns too! & thin they charges good hard Money t' sees it!

Yuh want t' know jist how far this Polecat Shakespeare went? How 'bout th' line, "Thar er more things in Heaven & Earth, Horatio, than er dreamt of in yer Philosophie." Thet's right! This unprincipled word-walloper put a feller in th' Play named Horatio, jist so's he could steal thet!

Now I'll allow as how th' Sets & th' Costumes was elygent. Yessirree, mighty elygent. & the Actors, 'specially thet thar Edwin Booth feller & Miss Henrietta Irving, performed so fine yuh could almost pertend yuh was watchin' a real Play.

But I didn't pay 2 hard-earned Nickels jist t' see purty Costumes & Sets, not nohow I didn't. I paid t' see me a Play! & if stringin' t'gether a bunch o' common sayin's thet yuh kin hear in ev'ry Bunkhouse, Saloon, & Church makes a Play, thin I'm a Blackfoot Injun!

Risspectfully submitted,
July 1, 1881

P.S. Dear Marty: Be a pard & clean up my spellin' afore yuh prints this, will yuh? I never could spell "Epitaf" less'n I had a copy in front o' me, & the Black Republicans in these hyar Parts mostly use it in thar out houses. So I ain't seed a copy in weeks.—DM

About this story

Copyright © 2001 by Green Sky Press. All rights reserved.

Werewolves Are Bunk

Liquid cascading:
The shock ripples along my nerves,
The feeling pulses through my veins,
Emotion throbbing with my blood.

Liquid cascading:
My knees are turned to water,
The heat departs my limbs,
My stomach cramps painfully.

Liquid cascading:
The world spins dizzily,
All strength deserts me.
Fire tears my nose and eyes.

Liquid cascading:
My head buzzes, soundlessly.
A Presence warns of long-lost danger,
A tiger waiting now to spring.

The world fading:
What is this moment of premonition?
What means this detachment?
Why is it familiar?

Horror comes:
This is that moment of which I was warned.
Too late the memory comes faintly:
The tiger springs, and I die.

—"Seizure" from
The Collected Poems of David Mackie,
Green Sky Press, Berkeley, California, 1992 A.D.

Friday, June 16, 1995 A.D.
(a.d. 16 Kalendas Iulias, 2748 A.U.C.)
San Francisco, California

Kristen and I were packing, suitcases open on the bed, picking out what we'd need for a weekend away from home. With our schedules and the demands on our time, we're almost never free to travel at the same time, so we each had our own system: she packed her suitcase, and I packed mine. Married couples who don't learn to live and let live soon find themselves living separately. Kristen and I had been married for over twenty years.

Suddenly I stopped what I was doing. "Oh, shit!" I said, as two separate things connected in my head. I walked over to the Sky Publishing Corporation chart of the phases of the moon for 1995. Sure enough! With all our planning, I couldn't believe I hadn't thought of this before now!

"What is it?" Kristen said, coming up behind me as I stared at the poster.

"The Moon," I said numbly. "Saturday's the full moon!"

"Damn," she said softly. She put her arms around me, snuggled up against my back, and leaned her head on my right shoulder from behind. Her silky hair tickled my cheek as I put my own arms over hers and hugged them against me. I breathed in the dear scent of her as I closed my eyes.

"We'll just have to be careful," Kristen said. "If we have to, we'll leave early."

I loved her for that "we". "I'd better pack extra clothes, too," I said.

"Just in case," Kristen agreed.

If my mother hadn't been adopted, I might have always feared the full moon, and what it could do to me. Instead I grew up in ignorance, until I learned the hard way. I don't blame my mother. She couldn't warn me, because she didn't know herself. Her own mother, a girl from Indiana, went on a trip to California, and came back with a baby. Everyone knew what that meant; when an unmarried girl "got in trouble", she "went on a trip" until the baby was born, then the baby was raised by the closest married female relative. Abortions were illegal, back in the dark ages of the early Twentieth Century A.D., and single mothers had better be widows, with the ring and the papers to prove it.

The odd little twist in my mother's story was that the Indiana girl really hadn't been pregnant when she went to California to visit relatives. It was in California, not Indiana, that she met a man who swept her off her feet and left her "in a family way", as they said in those days. I like to think that they were both in love, and that he would have "made an honest woman of her"; but he was an Indian. Marriages between "whites" and "non-whites" weren't illegal, at least not in California or Indiana; they were just impossible. Such a couple would be shunned by "white" and "non-white" society alike, and would starve because no one would hire either one of them, for any kind of job.

So the California Indian man and the Indiana German-American girl parted. She returned home, and her married sister adopted the baby. The baby grew up, and didn't know the curse she'd inherited. As inherited traits often do, it skipped a generation, manifesting, in my mother, only as an abnormally high metabolic rate, that kept her skinny all of her life.

Mom was born in 1926, which made her 14 years old when the War began. The world had been at peace for a long time, so the Russians got to Germany and Turkey before serious resistance began. China took Japan, Korea, and southeast Asia before India and Australia could gather their forces.

By Mom's 18th birthday, the tide of war was running the other way, though there was still lots of dying to be done. By lying about her age, she'd gotten into the Army Air Corps at 16. At first she was ferrying planes to the front lines, but the brass looked at her small size (barely five feet), high intelligence, and lightning-quick reflexes, and saw her for the treasure she was. When Mom met Dad, she'd been flying fighter missions in German jets for most of a year, and was an ace twice over.

Dad was four years older than Mom, a farm boy who joined the Army and learned to fix things. He'd done and seen a lot in the course of the War. By 1944, he was a driver and mechanic for the Red Ball Express, trucking supplies from Allied harbors to the front lines in the east, dodging shells as he went, shooting back when he could.

As Mom used to tell the story, she landed one afternoon in western Poland, the last one back from her flight that day. A couple of the remaining Russian prop jobs, with more nerve than sense, had tried to take her. Even two to one, it wasn't much of a contest: two Russian peasants against Mom, two hand-built obsolete Russian crates against state-of-the-art precision German manufacturing.

So Mom climbed out of her jet, with her blood up from the fight and full of herself the way pilots are, and saw Dad standing by his truck, delivering parts to the flight line. "My oh my, gotta get me some of that," Mom said to herself, and sauntered over.

Dad was lighting a cigarette and wondering what was taking the supply officer so long with his invoice, when he heard a husky voice say, "Got a light?"

"Sure, buddy," he said, turning around and holding out his lighter. Then he did a double-take and said, "You're a girl!"

Mom grabbed his hand to hold it steady while she lit her cigarette, took a deep drag to start it, looked up at Dad, smiled, and let out a long, long stream of smoke.

Ugh. But people could still smoke, back then, and they did.

They couldn't have been more different. Dad was a Hollywood-handsome farm boy who took things easy and drank too much, while Mom was a city girl who was almost too smart to get along with anyone, and fiercely independent, even rebellious. He was tall, she was short; he was robust, she was skinny; he was conventional, she was anything but; he was almost pretty, she was plain; he was Protestant, and she was Catholic. But it was wartime, and they didn't see each other too often; and when they did, they weren't much inclined to talk. Getting pregnant would have meant Mom couldn't fly any more, so she didn't, Catholic girl or not, until the War was over. Afterwards, Mom decided she'd seen enough high-altitude near-vacuum, and peacetime regulations drove her nuts. So she retired, married Dad, and they lived at whatever Army post needed a good mechanic.

A couple of years after the War ended, the Army Air Corps became a separate service, the Air Force. Dad transferred to the new branch, and worked on planes instead of trucks. A couple of years after that, in 1950, my brother Owen was born at Castle Air Force Base, near Merced in the California central valley. Mom was 24, Dad was 28.

I was born in 1952, but Dad wasn't home for my birth. The Chinese invaded Korea again, so Dad was in Japan, keeping the U.N.'s B-56 flying wings operational so they could bomb Peking, and the roads from China to Korea, until the mandarins surrendered again.

Kristen hates to fly, but she was a little less worried than usual because I was with her this time. I love flying, but I was worried about the full moon coming up. Both of us were looking forward to, and at the same time dreading, our 25th high-school reunion, which was the reason for the trip in the first place. All in all, we had a fine case of jitters going as we sat in the jet at San Francisco International Airport. I'm not sure whether Kristen was holding my hand to draw comfort from me, or whether I was holding hers to draw comfort from her; but we were definitely holding hands.

Of course, we held hands more than almost any other couple I knew, anyway. We'd been close in high school, and we're closer now with all that we've been through.

"Ladies and gentlemen, señoras y señores, dominae et dominì," the captain said over the intercom. "Welcome aboard Flight 169 to Los Angeles, San Diego, Mexico City, and Habaña. If you haven't done so already, please turn off your omnicoms and place them in the pouch on the back of the seat in front of you. This is to avoid any possibility of interference with the communications between the aircraft and the satellites during takeoff. Thank you."

"As if there's anyone in the world who needs to be told that," I grumbled. Then, of course, we had to watch the flight attendants showing us how to fasten a seat belt, how to put on an oxygen mask, and how to recognize an exit sign. Then they went up and down the aisles and made sure there were no idiots who thought they didn't have to fasten their seat belts, or that it was OK to cruise the net during takeoff. For once, there weren't.

Finally the attendants sat down and strapped in, the plane taxied a little way and turned right, then suddenly began racing down the runway. After far too short a time (I always felt) we made that funny little leap into the air that always seems to drop your stomach through the floor, leaving you to hope it'll catch up before you get where you're going. I had a seat by a right-side window, with Kristen on my left and another couple between us and aisle #2. I watched San Francisco, and then the whole Bay Area, drop away in the afternoon sunlight.

Above the Pacific the plane turned left and headed south, all the while climbing and climbing at that incredible angle. I'm told it's less than ten degrees, but it always feels like straight up. Of course it isn't; we were in an air-breathing jet on a short hop, not a spaceplane heading halfway around the world or out to one of the Hilton Orbitals. But it felt like straight up.

Presently, when nothing could be seen but white clouds far below and blue sky above, the plane leveled off, and the captain announced that omnicoms could now be used. Kristen and I kissed, then she got her omnicom out and went back to reading an article in the latest issue of one of her medical journals. I left my omnicom where it was, because I had far too much on my mind to write.

My younger brother Matt was born in 1953, when we were at March Air Force Base, near Riverside, California. Two years later, while we were still at March, I think, I had my first seizure. We were definitely in Roswell, New Mexico, when I had my second one in 1956.

These seizures weren't petit mal either, where the victim goes rigid and falls down, or just blanks out for a few moments. These were grand mal, the big bad, with falling and thrashing and heaving and grab his tongue before he bites it off or chokes to death on it. Or so I'm told; I pass out before anything happens, then wake up later tired and sore and sometimes injured. My folks wouldn't let me watch when others had seizures, for fear it would set me off. We never had blinking lights on our Christmas trees, for the same reason.

Blame the Russians for the high incidence of seizures in my generation. There's no question that some of the war gases the Russians used were nerve agents. Allied soldiers who survived the gassing were often prone to attacks the rest of their lives, and their children had a higher infant-mortality rate, and more seizure disorders, than the generations before. My dad wasn't gassed during his active duty in Europe, and my brothers suffered no seizures; but there I was.

My affliction could have torn the family apart; instead, it united us. Dad buckled down to the job of being the best NCO he could be, skipped the bar after work, and came home to teach us chess, or baseball, or working on cars. Mom cooked, cleaned, taught us to sing, encouraged us to read and learn a musical instrument. They took turns reading us to sleep at night. Dad taught us to fish, Mom taught us to swim. Dad taught us pinochle and poker, Mom taught us to skate. Both of them taught us how to ride bikes.

All in all, my two brothers and I, and my sister when she came along, had a pretty good childhood. With family trips to the library, evenings of Monopoly or Parcheesi or cards, TV some evenings and movies some weekends, we had few dark spots other than my seizures. When my younger brother got a second-grade teacher who had it in for him, Dad told the teacher that the next time Matt came home with bruises, the teacher was going home with broken bones. When the principal wanted to spank my older brother Owen for refusing to knuckle under to his petty tyranny, Mom walked into his office and told him where he'd better shove that paddle before using it on one of her boys.

Equally important, when we began to act like we were immune to punishment after these incidents, Mom and Dad straightened us out about what they expected from us, too, most definitely. You might even say, fundamentally.

My actual memories begin with first and second grade at Pease Air Force Base near Portsmouth, New Hampshire—cold snowy winters I hated desperately, hot sweltering summers catching grasshoppers and praying mantids, the Presley twins and the Everly brothers on the radio. I had my third seizure in 1958, and limped for weeks afterwards because I wrenched my left knee badly. In 1959 I had my fourth, and I wasn't even eight years old yet.

At least I wasn't the only one in school with seizures. Others were suffering as I was; some much worse, in fact, with seizures every month. Some had seizures every week or every day, so going to public school was out of the question for them, especially if they were grand mal.

Despite the seizures my grades were good. I've always liked to read; languages and history and other cultures reinforced my science-fiction reading and vice versa. Math to me wasn't a grind, it was learning how to do things. In first grade I went down the hall to a second-grade room at reading time, and in second grade I spent reading and math time in a third-grade class.

Kristen's parents met us at Lindbergh Field, the San Diego airport. Tom shook my hand while Gail hugged Kristen, then it was my turn to be fussed over. Gail is one of the few people I know who makes me feel tall.

"Ready for dinner?" Tom asked, as we packed our three suitcases into the rental car's trunk. Tom's own car was this year's model; a car dealer advertises wherever he goes.

"Ready," I agreed. "Let's go by our hotel, first, and check in. Then we're at your disposal for the evening."

"David, love, Kristen is going to ride with me to the hotel. You and Tom go ahead, and we'll follow." Gail dragged Kristen away by the arm. Kristen has Tom's height, so it made a funny picture. Tom and I grinned, and got in the car. "Which hotel?" he asked.

"The Hotel del Coronado," I said.

"Pricey," he grunted.

"Sure it is. But we can afford it, and we haven't stayed there since the honeymoon you and Gail treated us to."

The bridge out to Coronado Island, to my mind, is the most beautiful bridge on the West Coast. The Golden Gate is bigger, but the Coronado Bridge has none of the blockiness of its northern cousin. The Golden Gate looks like a working bridge; the Coronado Bridge is sculpture on an architectural scale. It looks like it's there for aesthetic reasons, and any traffic is just an added kinetic element.

"I warn you," Tom said. "Gail's going to try at least once this evening to talk you two into staying at our place this weekend."

"And stay where?" I asked him reasonably. "In Kristen's old room? We'll have a lot more space at the Del. Besides, it's so much more romantic." And we never stay at anyone else's house, especially around the full moon.

"Romantic, huh. Yeah, that might do the trick. Play that angle for all it's worth, and I might get some peace," he grinned.

In 1961 Dad was in Guam, but family housing there was in short supply, so the rest of us were in California, at Travis Air Force Base just outside the Bay Area, waiting to join him. I had my fifth seizure in September, and managed to break my right ankle somehow. Then in December my sister Suzanne was born. Originally Mom and Dad were going to name her Sheila, but we were actually housed in a town named Suisun, so she ended up "Suisun City Sue."

We were in Guam for 1962 and 1963, at Andersen Air Force Base. Guam is a tiny island east of the Philippines, on the edge of the Mariana Trench, the deepest place in the world. The rest of the Mariana Islands belong to Japan, but the U.S. kept Guam after the war, as a forward base against future Chinese aggression. It turned out to be a very good idea in 1952 and 1980.

Though technically a U.S. possession, Guam was an exotic experience to a family that had never been stationed outside the continental U.S., with its red volcanic soil, tropical jungle overrunning the island, shrews and geckos and coconut crabs, plantain trees in the back yard, innumerable stars in a pitch black sky undiluted by city lights, and natives who spoke a different language and ate strange food. We spent weekends at Tarague Beach walking in the white sand, collecting tropical sea shells with the animals still in them, and bobbing in the warm water inside the shelter of the coral reef around the island.

When we weren't at school, we ran around in bare feet with nothing on but shorts, and got as brown as the Guamanian kids. Between the New Hampshire winter, and Mom and Dad chain-smoking, we'd been sick a lot the previous few years. All that got burned out of us by the tropical sun. I think it was five years after we got back from Guam before I even caught a cold.

We weren't in heaven, however. In 1962 I had my sixth seizure, an especially bad one, and was in bed for a week afterward. Then in 1963, Typhoon Karen hit the island.

Understand that "typhoon" is just the Pacific version of "hurricane." Just as the east coast of North America has a regular hurricane season, so the east coast of Asia has a typhoon season every year. The reasons are the same; warm tropical water makes big storms, then the west-to-east rotation of the earth shoves the east coast of the continent into the storm. Europe and California don't have hurricanes or typhoons because they're lee coasts; typhoons in the Pacific move away from California, and hurricanes in the Atlantic move away from Africa and Europe.

So Guam got several typhoons every year, and expected them. Base housing was concrete with steel louvers over the windows, and rarely was anyone hurt, much less killed. More people died every year from finding leftover Chinese and American shells from the War, and the War had been over for sixteen years.

But Typhoon Karen was a killer. It picked up boats on the east side of the island and dropped them all over before dumping the last ones miles to the west. It ripped an old B-52 free of its tie-downs on the flight line, never to be seen again. It pulled up palm trees by the roots, and tore huge chunks of coral from under the ocean. It shattered the coral reef, and turned the steel quonset huts on the island, which had stood through one typhoon season after another ever since the War, into shrapnel.

I'm not sure how many people died. I heard two people in a car had a palm tree dropped on them, and a flying coral block acting as a wrecking ball killed three more. A native girl was said to be decapitated by a sheet of flying steel that had been part of a supply hut the week before. We cooked on our Coleman stoves until the electricity was restored, spread books and clothes out to dry because the rain had come through the steel louvers and flooded the houses a foot deep, and traded rumors with the other shocked inhabitants.

A few months after that, in October, I had my seventh seizure. I was still a bit fuzzy when we took the plane back to the States for Dad's new post at Fairchild Air Force Base, outside Spokane, Washington. The propeller-driven plane took forever to get across the Pacific, and stopped twice on the way to refuel. Nevertheless I enjoyed my second airplane trip ever.

Dinner was just the four of us, as Kristen's little sister was working with the Hubble Telescope on Farside, and her brother was permanent party on the L5 habitat. Even if Denise and Joe had been on Earth, Kristen was her parents' darling. It had always been so, and her career choice had only reinforced it. Being an astrophysicist on the Moon or a near-space construction engineer was all very well, but Kristen was a doctor. And not just any kind of doctor, but a brain surgeon.

Tom and Gail have old-fashioned ideas about what's fit to discuss during a meal, so they couldn't ask Kristen about her work, or even new developments in medicine. That left religion (Kristen's parents were Catholics, Kristen and I nominally so), politics (Gail and Tom were Social-Democrats, Kristen a Green, and me a Socialist), movies, sports, and books.

"Speaking of books," Tom said, "Isn't it about time your next one came out, David?"

"I've written it," I said. "In fact, I have the proofs on my omnicom right now. I'll finish them right after the reunion, then they'll want to make more changes, and back and forth a few times. Barring any sudden illness on my part or editorial irrationality on theirs, it should be available in a month or so."

Gail looked a little worried at the mention of sudden illness, thinking of seizures, but Tom just said, "In bookstores, or online?"

"Either," I assured him. "They always hold up online publication until the hardcover's in the stores." Kristen's parents were also old-fashioned about their reading; the house was full of magazines and books printed on paper, as if this were 1965 instead of 1995.

After a truly excellent dinner, for which we thanked them, and kisses all around —well, a handshake between Tom and me, I said they were old-fashioned—Kristen and I got in the rented car, told it where we wanted to go, and talked and cuddled while it whisked us off to Coronado.

She is day, and my daylight too.
Not for her hair, though golden 'tis,
Nor for her skin, though bronzed by sun:
My heart's a bird in the sky of her gaze.

Evening fallen, candlelight
Sheened through the web of her outreached hand.
Tender her voice, a soft caress
For ears that cherished every note.

Stars in the night enhaloed her,
Moonlight glistened on her lips.
Words in the darkness, unrepeated,
Gave the meaning to our days.

My day began in her ready smile,
My life renewed with every laugh.
My dreams revolved around her love,
But dreams are night, and she is day.

—"She Is Day" from
The Collected Poems of David Mackie,
Green Sky Press, Berkeley, California, 1992 A.D.

Saturday, June 17, 1995 A.D.
(a.d. 15 Kalendas Iulias, 2748 A.U.C.)
San Diego, California

I knew I was in trouble as soon as I woke up Saturday. A kind of buzzing, not a sound but a feeling, filled my head. It extended out beyond my head, in fact, about a foot. I sat up in alarm, and the room spun around me. I felt no nausea, but everything kept spinning.

"David? Are you all right?" Kristen's voice seemed to come from half a mile away, though she was in bed beside me. I didn't answer at once. It was hard to do so, because I wasn't really there; I wasn't operating in the present tense at all. Where people in a normal state of mind are observing what goes on around them, and reacting to that, I was in a detached state where I watched myself acting and reacting. I don't know how to explain it any better than that, and God knows I've tried often enough. A friend of mine on drugs once said that he was in the world, but not of it. I could agree with that, though I don't know what it conveys of what I was feeling.

I dragged myself away from watching the dust motes in the shaft of sunlight coming in a window and considered my wife's question. Was I all right? It helped that I had been here before, and recognized the situation. After a few hundred years (actually, only a little longer than a normal person would take) I managed to say, "I've got an aura, love."

While I flexed my hand and watched the knuckles move under the skin, Kristen came around to my side of the bed and knelt down beside it. Intellectually, I knew that I was worrying her, and that I should try to act as normally as possible. But the thought had no force; it was hard to attach any importance to anything. It crossed my mind how unfair it was that most people had to take drugs to enter a state like this. My aura swelled and receded, swelled and receded. Kristen's voice drew my wandering attention.

"David? David, how bad is it? Does it feel like a seizure's coming?" Kristen the doctor was asking the necessary questions, while Kristen the wife looked at me with worried eyes. I listened to the buzzing. After a few mountain ranges had formed and eroded away, I remembered to reply, "It's pretty strong, but not getting worse."

"Can you stand up?"

I felt the buzzing bloom and subside, bloom and subside, like a slow-motion picture of a bud unfolding, turned into a sound effect. "I can try." I made the effort. "Whoops! Dizzy," I muttered. Kristen was there to help me balance. I got lost in the blue of her eyes for geological time. "You're so beautiful," I said.

"I love you, too," she said with glistening eyes. She held up pants and shirt. I blinked in slow surprise; where had they come from? "Come on, put these on, and let's get some breakfast in you."

Halfway through bacon and eggs, toast, hash browns, and a big glass of orange juice, I reconnected with human time scales. I looked around me, aware all at once that I was seeing each moment as it came, as a person immersed in the moment, instead of watching each one go by without me. For a moment, as always, I regretted the loss of that strange perspective. Then I leaned across the patio table and kissed Kristen. "I'm back," I said.

She kissed me back hard. "Good! Still dizzy?"

"No, just a little shaky. And the aura's faded to a whisper, too. I think all this protein is helping. Give me a quiet day and more sleep, and we can still make the reunion tonight."

"Are you sure? We don't have to go."

"Hey, I'm sure. I want to strut into the school tonight with you on my arm, so all the football heroes can wonder how I got so lucky."

"Let them wonder," Kristen smiled. "None of the women will be wondering, and I may have to rescue you from Christine Delacruz or Robin MacBride."

I love my wife, no matter how silly she gets trying to convince me I'm handsome.

Spokane was a little town in eastern Washington, far from the booming aeronautics and astronautics industries in Seattle and other coastal cities. Because of that, Dad's Air Force paycheck went farther than anywhere else we'd been. Instead of living on post at Fairchild Air Force Base, he bought a two-lot property in town with a two-story house on one of the lots. This gave each of us kids his or her own bedroom, for the first time ever, and a huge yard that was all ours. By the time Joe Kennedy ran for re-election on the Social-Democrat ticket, and won, we were all settled in.

Of course, since it was our house, and off-post, we couldn't expect base housing to come around and fix things, nor ask a landlord to do so. We all put in time mowing the lawn, weeding Mom's flower beds, and painting the outside from the scaffolding Dad build out of pipes and boards. We grumbled, but Dad told us it built character, and kept us at it.

Funny how every time we built character, he saved money hiring gardeners and painters.

In Spokane we attended Catholic school for the first time, one of the opportunities of living in the civilian world. I became an altar boy, and thought about becoming a priest, but Catholic priests had to be celibate in those days, and I was starting to notice girls (I was 11). Mom had always been my favorite person, but I had dreams at night about one of the girls at school.

My big brother Owen started piano lessons in Spokane, I took up the violin, and Matt started learning the clarinet. Mom played the accordion, and we all sang, so we were a pretty musical bunch. We all got pets, too. We'd always had a dog or cat or both, but in Spokane we had a family dog, I had a cat and a guinea pig, Owen had a cage of finches, and Matt had a guinea pig. I think there was a rabbit in there, too, but it was too long ago for me to be sure.

It was a happy time. It wasn't California ("California, Here I Come" was the family theme song), and it got really cold in the winter, and snowed. But nothing kept us down for long—not Owen falling off the roof while painting, and breaking his arm; not Matt getting pneumonia and spending a week in the hospital; and not my eighth seizure, in 1965.

The real importance of 1965 was that Dad had joined the Army in 1940, on his 18th birthday. When you added his Army enlistment, his Army Air Corps enlistment, and his Air Force enlistment, you had 25 years of continuous service. Five more years wouldn't add much to his retirement check, and Dad was itching to try something different; he was 43 in 1965. (Mom was 39, Owen was 15 and in the 9th grade, I was 13 and in the 7th grade, Matt was in 6th grade and 12 years old, Suzanne was 4.) "If we move now," Dad said to Mom, "Owen can go to High School in California."

So Dad retired from the Air Force with an impressive ceremony and a nice monthly check, and we sold the house and land for a huge chunk of money. Then we packed all our goods into a moving truck, and headed south with Dad driving the truck and Mom driving the family car. Boeing in Seattle was one of the biggest names in aeronautics, but Convair in San Diego was just as big in missiles and rockets.

"My god, what have they done to the place?"

When Kristen and I went to Adlai Stevenson High School, the architecture had been standard Southern California High School. It had been built like a mock hacienda, complete with red tiles on the roof. Two stories tall, the main building was square, with a central courtyard much beloved of yearbook club photographs, and a bell tower.

A few years after we graduated, an engineering survey was taken of San Diego city schools to see how earthquake-resistant they were. Stevenson flunked. Classes were held in temporary "bungalows" and the new gym, the only permanent structure that passed muster, while a new main building went up. Saturday evening, before the reunion banquet and dance, we were given a tour. It was great, but I missed the brick building I'd studied in.

Dinner was fun. I never thought I was especially handsome, certainly not compared with the pictures of my Dad in his twenties, but I "cleaned up nice" when I wore a suit and tie, and the clunky black-framed Air Force glasses were gone forever, thanks to modern gene therapy. At 43 I looked little different from 18, except I'd filled out from 110 to 160 pounds, and had a decent beard. Kristen at 43 was, if possible, even more lovely than she'd been in high school, a stunning vision in a gown that matched her blue eyes and complemented her pale gold hair.

I had only to look about me to see how fortunate I was. After only 25 years, an awful lot of my classmates had deteriorated badly, with early grey hair, wrinkles, flab or even outright fat. The jocks who'd bullied me so badly in junior high school, before I went into the Honors Program in high school and shared no more classes with them, were in the worst shape of all.

Sitting down to dinner, the food was really good! It must have been catered. The banquet was in the "new" cafeteria, but if cafeteria food was like this now, today's high-school students would roll, not walk, to class.

After the banquet the party moved to the gym for talking and dancing. Now I'm a nerd, and when I dance, it looks like I'm having another seizure. I do much better with dances with prescribed steps, like the Renaissance dances I learned from the SCA in college. But I'll dance on social occasions, "only please, darling, let me digest a bit first, OK?"

So we circulated, together at first, until Kristen ran into her friend Mary Doull. Mary promptly pulled out baby pictures. That whole topic gives me hives; I never wanted kids in the first place, and I'm not about to risk passing on my curse. So I made my excuses and fled the scene, leaving them to catch up.

Presently I met Steve Brand. Steve was a tall, good-looking, popular blond guy in high school, class president at least one year, and one of the fourteen people in our class of 625 who got a higher final GPA than I did. He did it by getting A's in gym as well as academic subjects, which made me jealous as hell.

Steve was much as he'd been, a little flabby and overweight, hair receding a little in front, but the same nice guy he'd always been. He and Norma were divorced, but Steve was making more money in a month than I did in a year, by selling equipment to asteroid miners and the companies building the Childe starship in orbit. You had better believe I wanted details of all that for future stories! We exchanged net addresses and promised to stay in touch.

Then Rex Odom and Mark Nabor joined us, and I was gratified when they said they had some of my books, too. We got to talking about science fiction and fantasy. I mostly write the former, but some of my most popular books are set in Avalon, among elves. Not realizing it was a sore point with me, Rex asked me why I hadn't written any werewolf stories.

"Werewolves are bunk," I said. "Look, Rex, it made a certain social sense to write about monsters way back when—Frankenstein, Mr. Hyde—and the wolf is a European figure of terror back to the Brothers Grimm and beyond."

"But I prefer science fiction to fantasy. If you're talking magic, a man can turn into anything: a dragon, a seal, a whale, a winged horse. But if we're talking science, surely a man won't turn into a wolf. Wolves, bears, tigers are all Carnivora, a completely different order from the Primates. Surely if a man changed, he'd be most likely to change into the animals most closely related to him."

"Chimps?" said Steve.

"Chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, men," I said, nodding. "All the surviving African apes are closely related. The genetic difference between any two species of that group is between one and two percent."

"So forget werewolves and think wereapes," Mark Nabor said. Mark had been notable for his involvement in choir, acting, and barbershop-quartet singing, and for his long, flowing, shiny blond hair. Now his hair was clipped very short. The neatly-trimmed goatee and mustache framing his mouth may have been grown the month after graduation, for all I knew, but it looked strange to me.

"But wouldn't a weregorilla or a werechimp look pretty much like a werewolf to a frightened villager?" Mark asked. "After all, when you've seen one man-sized hairy monster, you've seen them all."

"They might look the same in the moonlight," I said, "but would they act the same? Gorillas are vegetarians, and pretty shy. If someone in your village turns into a manwolf and starts killing people and livestock, you're going to catch him and kill him. Pretty soon everyone with those genes has been wiped out. But if someone turns into a gorilla and peacefully chews up his own garden, what are the odds the neighbors will even know? A curse like that could linger on for uncounted generations."

"Babe alert!" Rex said in a low voice. "Take a long look at what's coming this way."

Steve whistled. "Now I remember why going to school in the Sixties was so great!"

"Quick," Mark said. "What's her name? I can't place it, and I don't want to look like a complete idiot."

"That's Kristen Collier," Steve said. "She was in several of the same civics clubs that I was. She lived up in the rich part of town, and wanted to become a doctor."

"She did become a doctor," I confirmed as Kristen came up. "Darling, you remember Steve and Rex and Mark, don't you?"

"Hello," she smiled. "Will you guys excuse us for a little while? I'd love to catch up with you later, but David hasn't danced with me yet tonight."

The expression on my friends' faces was priceless. I'm afraid that I was feeling very smug as I walked with Kristen towards the dancing.

"What?" Kristen said; she knows me.

"Ah, love, you should have seen the sharks circling. As soon as they saw you were coming our way, the little wheels started going around. They thought they were going to have a chance at the prettiest woman here, and then you just scooped me up and walked off."

"Men! Didn't you guys even talk about your wives?"

The first house my family rented in San Diego was in the area called Linda Vista. It was cheap. Mom and Dad grew up during the Depression, and weren't going to spend a lot on rent until Dad had a job we could count on. The 1965-1966 school year was the only one when Owen, Matt, and I were all in junior high school at the same time. Montgomery Junior High had Owen in its senior class that year, I was a sophomore, and Matt was a freshman. Suzanne was 5, and not in school yet.

With his experience and performance reviews from the Air Force, Dad got a job at Convair, and was soon as comfortable with missiles and booster rockets as he'd been with planes. Things were more expensive in San Diego than Spokane, but no worse than they would have been in Seattle. We bought a house in East San Diego, on 42nd Street just south of El Cajon Boulevard. That changed what school districts we were in. In the 1966-1967 school year, Owen was a freshman (10th grade) at Adlai Stevenson High School, Matt was a sophomore (8th grade) at Woodrow Wilson Junior High, and I was a senior (9th grade) at Wilson.

That was a big year for me. I made a lot of new friends, some of whom I'd be seeing in high school. I made enemies, too. The San Diego Unified School District had an advanced students program for high school, but that was next year. My teachers recommended me for it, and I easily passed the tests for it, but in the meantime, every time I raised my hand in class, got an A on my homework, or otherwise did my job as a student, I earned more hate from the average and below-average students who hated school. A gang of them began laying for me after school, hitting me from behind during lunch hours, opening my briefcase when they passed me in the hall so that everything fell out, et endless cetera. They only did these things when no adult was around, and my avoiding them only made them "braver." I was afraid, not of them, but of my own temper. I inherited the Mackie temper at its worst, and I was afraid I'd kill someone if I ever let go.

Near the end of the school year, after taking more crap than any kid my age should ever have to take, frustrated and angry that no person in authority would do anything, I lost control. During gym the gang surrounded me and started whipping me with their wet towels. I turned on the nearest one, a kid named Higgins, and punched him just as hard as I could. I did my level best to smash his face in for real.

The coach showed up as we were going at it, and sent us both to the principal's office, ignoring all that had gone before. I hadn't been in the principal's office, in trouble, since first grade. He kept us waiting, and a funny thing happened.

I was sucking on a knuckle, where the skin had been torn on one of Higgins' teeth (I have the scar to this day), when Higgins started talking to me as if we were friends! He said he'd thought I was a sissy because I'd tried to avoid him and the others, and stay out of fights, but when I hit him the first time, the punch was so hard he almost blacked out. He actually apologized for picking on me, and said he'd never do it again, and we shook hands.

The principal, useless as always, suspended us both for a day. My grades were so good, and Higgins' so bad, that this made no difference except we got a day off school. But the rest of the school year, though the rest of the gang still gave me trouble, Higgins didn't.

But the most important thing that happened to me that year—indeed, one of the most important things that ever happened to me—came out of nowhere. My class was "voting" one day on a set of categories for the yearbook: Best Smile, Prettiest Eyes, Most Winning Personality, etc. I was ignoring the whole thing, reading the instructions that came with my slide rule on some of the more rarely used scales, I think. Then someone asked me if I would vote for Mary Doull for Prettiest Hair. I looked up and was blinded by a pair of blue eyes.

"Your name is Mary?" I think I said.

"No, I'm Kristen. Kristen Collier. But don't you think Mary Doull has the prettiest hair of any senior girl?"

No, I said to myself, looking at Kristen's. I had no idea who Mary Doull was. "All right," I said out loud, and reached for the form I'd been ignoring. I'd planned to turn it in blank, and didn't even know what the categories were. "I'm David Mackie," I told her.

"I know," she said.

15-year-old kids didn't go on dates in 1967. But Kristen was weak on math. So for the rest of that year, and all through high school, we'd meet in the library before or after classes and I'd help her with her homework. I was also answering questions from others and helping anyone else who asked, but the reason I was sitting there to be asked was the hope of seeing Kristen. Looking back, I think a couple of girls had crushes on me and were asking for help they didn't really need. But from the moment I first saw her, Kristen was the center of my world. Even when I had a bad seizure in 1967, my ninth, my only concern was whether Kristen would think I was a freak or a cripple.

Instead I found my school books next to my bed one of the times I woke up, short notes from my teachers, and a get-well card signed by the members of the Science Club. Kristen had gone around to my classes and collected it all. No one had ever done that for me before, not even my Mom.

Traditionally everyone hates high school except the jocks and the cheerleaders. Well, I was neither of those, and I despised "pep rallies" and "school spirit" events. But I loved high school.

I treated high school as if I were already in college. I was in the honors program, and I had two goals: to take the toughest courses I could, and to get straight A's. Except for gym, I succeeded. In my three years at Stevenson I took second-year, third-year, and fourth-year Latin, and conversational modern Latin. I took every science course they offered and all the math courses. Any empty spaces got filled with history classes and art classes, in that order.

I had no more trouble with bullies. All my classes were in the advanced track; I never saw them, and they never saw me. I suppose they were still there, but you couldn't prove it by me.

In classes I acted as a teacher's aide, my specialty being to see when a teacher's answer didn't fit a student's questions, and explaining what the student was asking so that the teacher could answer to the point. Before and after school I was answering questions and helping people with their homework in the library.

I attended every meeting of the Latin, Science, and Chess clubs, entered the Science Fair every year, and wrote my first poems and short stories good enough not to throw away immediately. In the summer of 1968 I attended a special class held by the San Diego Aerospace Museum every year, and met other kids in the advanced program from all over the city. We formed a club and met once a month for a couple of years after that. Two of the guys built their own computer, a home-made scaled-down mainframe. It was the first computer I ever saw that someone built themselves, the first one I ever saw that didn't need an air-conditioned room to run, and the first I ever saw that was American rather than German.

In 1967 new drugs began to come out for controlling seizures, and I started taking Dilantin (phenytoin) three times a day, instead of phenobarbitol. On Christmas Day 1969 it had been over two years since my last seizure, and I dared to hope there would be no more.

Kristen and I started dating. We weren't "going steady" by any means; I was too shy, or to call its by its right name, too damned scared of how strongly I felt about her. Also, there were lots of other guys hanging around her all the time, who were a lot more confident about asking her out. One in particular, John Madking, made me crazy jealous.

Still, Kristen and I went to the movies a few times, dropped off and picked up either by her mother or by mine; high-school students didn't have cars of their own, the gasoline burners of the day were expensive. We exchanged Valentine and Christmas gifts, and we even kissed, very tentatively, a few times. The future looked bright.

The 1968-1969 school year was memorable because it was the only year all three Mackie boys were in high school at the same time: Owen a senior, me in 11th grade, Matt in 10th (Suzanne was in third grade). When the next year began, Matt was in 11th grade, I was a senior, and Owen had decided to follow in Dad's footsteps; he'd joined the Air Force. The first moon landing was in 1969; when the U.N. began building a permanent base, Owen wanted to be part of the U.S. detachment.

My senior year was a more intense version of the previous two. I had two college classes, physics and calculus, taught by teachers from San Diego City College. I had letters and brochures from colleges all over the planet, but the real question was, did I want to go to CalTech or M.I.T.? Kristen and I danced around each other, then John Madking cut in; he and Kristen started going steady, which would have driven me nuts if I'd allowed myself to think about it. Astrophysics, computers (the integrated circuit chip was announced in 1967), and genetics were all looking interesting enough to make a career of; and I was scribbling verse and stories every free moment.

In February students from all over San Diego picked countries to represent in an annual role-playing exercise called the Model U.N., held at San Diego State on Valentines Day. The delegation from Chad that year was me, my brother Matt, Kristen and a couple of other girls from the Stevenson Science Club, and Rick, Bill, and Mark from our aerospace club.

For some reason I got really excited about the whole thing. Role-playing was a new thing, and I'd never been much interested in politics. But I was too keyed up to sleep the night before, and skipped breakfast because anticipation had my stomach in knots. Then I had a very successful morning, using oratory powers I'd never been aware of to break up resistance and get bills passed. So I was riding high. At lunch time, instead of eating, I was catching up on things with the rest of my delegation, and talking with other delegates from other countries.

No sleep, no breakfast, no lunch. I became aware that I was having trouble understanding what this other student was saying. I asked him to repeat. "Oh," I said, and started to reply. Wait, what had I been saying? Then I got really dizzy, so I leaned against a table. I asked him again what he'd said—and then I was gone.

The next thing I remember, I was sitting in a hospital emergency room, with my mom and a cop. Mom kept glaring at the cop. She asked me how I felt. "Thirsty," I said muzzily, and she gave me water in a paper cup. "My elbow hurts," I complained. Then I was gone again.

The next time I was aware, I was lying on the couch in the living room, covered with a blanket. Mom came in and said, "Are you awake?"

"I'm awake," I said. "What happened?"

"You had a seizure," Mom said. "The people at State called an ambulance, but before it got there, a cop showed up, decided you were having an LSD flashback, and tried to hold you down."

"LSD?" I said. "I don't do drugs!"

"That's what everyone told him," Mom said, "but he knew better, even when the ambulance got there. How's your shoulder?"

I shifted, and winced. "Hurts," I admitted.

"He dislocated it," Mom said. "Instead of holding your head and keeping you from swallowing your tongue, he tried to pin you down. Between the two of you, you popped it right out of the joint."

"God," I said. "How long has it been?"

"A few days," Mom said. "You have a visitor, if you feel well enough to see her."

Her? "Sure," I said.

Mom kissed me on the forehead and left the room. Kristen came in, walked around a couple of my sister's Barbie dolls on the floor, and came over to the couch. "Hi," she said.

"Hi," I said. "Sorry about the stink. My folks just won't quit smoking." The air in our house was always blue with smoke.

"What can you do?" she said, shrugging.

"Have a seat," I said. I scrooched over against the back of the couch so there was room in front. She smiled, and sat, a bit gingerly; between the couch being in the living-room smoke all the time, and my own sick body, it was pretty ripe in those parts. But she did sit, and then she picked up my hand and held it while we talked a little bit. I'd lost Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday completely, and it was after school hours on Wednesday. She passed on good wishes from classmates and teachers, talked about a movie she'd seen; just small talk, but very precious to me. When she got up to leave, I said, "Kristen."

"Yes," she said, looking down at me.

"I love you," I told her.

"I know," she said, and left.

Because of the shoulder dislocation during my tenth seizure, I was excused from gym the rest of the year. I had to wear my left arm in a sling until the end of March. The doctors warned that the shoulder might end up weak, with a tendency to dislocate easily. Just the opposite happened; it healed tighter than it had been originally, and I never regained the full range of motion I'd had with it.

My master rode to battle today
Against his foe, a brutal man
Whose bitter jeers at my master's worth
And louder scoffs at my master's honor
Will need much blood to wash away.
So mounted he his coal-black steed,
Then sheathed his sword hard by his hand;
Last took from me, his page, his shield.

My master's shield is sturdy oak,
Its rand is sheathed in forgéd iron.
With iron too its front is faced.
Few the men could lift it even,
Fewer still could bear it briskly.
Sure as the helm that wards his wits,
Sure as the mail that bars his body,
My master's shield has long him served.

There by the oak the lightning blasted
They traded dints the long day through,
Sword strokes given, mace blows taken,
No lesser men would live to rue.
My master's foe is a hardy man,
As marked for might as feared for fury.
The light gave out before their strength,
And both withdrew to wait the morning.

When from my master's hand I took
His battered shield, I shouted loud.
Plain in the dents upon its face
I saw the visage of his foe.
Each thund'rous stroke a mark had made,
Each mighty smash had hammered hollows;
And these chance marks and hollows show
The scowling mask of my lord's cruel foe!

"Make it ready," he bid me then,
"Tomorrow will see this matter done."
So do I work till late at night,
Pounding his shield smooth again.
After the clash I will look once more,
And need no words to know the end:
If I have no face to hammer out,
His foe is dead beyond a doubt.

—"The Shield" from
The Collected Poems of David Mackie,
Green Sky Press, Berkeley, California, 1992 A.D.

Sunday, June 18, 1995 A.D.
(a.d. 14 Kalendas Iulias, 2748 A.U.C.)
San Diego, California

The morning after our high-school reunion, Kristen and I awoke in our tower room in the beautiful and elegant (and pricey!) Hotel Del Coronado, and just stayed in bed for a while, free for once from her medical routine and my deadlines. Presently we had need of the toilet and the shower, then I ordered breakfast while my dear brushed out her hair.

As we ate we scrolled through the San Diego newsmags on our omnicoms. Nothing really commanded our attention. Comic-Con wasn't for a month yet, and we'd both been to the Zoo and all the museums many times.

So we put the room-service cart in the foyer, locked the room with my omnicom, and made sure that the copy of the software on Kristen's was also functional. Then we had a nice walk along the beach. Sailboats, harbor-excursion boats, and a big grey mountain of Navy steel drifted on the water, with the city for a backdrop. A gentle breeze off the ocean was letting sea gulls hover in place, while a couple of pelicans sat on some disused pilings, looking alien and ungainly, no doubt thinking deep gronky thoughts.

We talked about nothing of any great importance, except for the smiles that went with the words. I held her hand for a while, then let go of it so that I could put my arm around her shoulder. In this fashion we returned to our room, where housekeeping had done its work, and returned to bed for a little while. Afterwards, as Kristen dozed a bit and I admired the sweet curve of her bare back, for some reason I remembered that the movies, in the old days, signalled that a couple had just had sex by showing them smoking in bed.


The first Surgeon General's report on smoking and lung cancer came out in 1964. Reports confirming the first and adding evidence for other diseases caused by smoking followed in 1965, 1966, 1967, and 1968. In 1968 Congress noted that people were still smoking, though the number of smokers had fallen from an estimated 55% of the population to 42%. Furthermore, the tobacco companies were still denying the medical evidence, and advertising more than ever.

Accordingly, Congress began holding hearings on the tobacco problem. The Social-Democrats, the Socialists, the brand-new Green Party, and most of the independents wanted to fund a federal anti-smoking campaign, to be paid for by increased cigarette taxes and fines on the tobacco industry. But they couldn't agree on how much to spend, how harshly to treat the tobacco barons, and whether to outlaw smoking entirely. This enabled the Republicans, with the help of the Libertarians, to prevent anything from being done at all.

Just about everyone was disgusted at this outcome, but someone, never identified, decided to do something about it. We didn't have anywhere near a complete human genome in 1968, but apparently we had enough to create the world's first artificial disease.

Everyone carries the cold germ all the time. The genetically-altered rhinovirus later dubbed the Green Cold (because of a Republican charge that the Green Party was behind it) appeared in late April of 1970. Hundreds of millions of people died around the world; most smokers, but also most people with weak lungs or chronic respiratory conditions. The survivors were genetically altered by the disease so that nicotine (and heroin, which activates the same pattern of brain receptors) was no longer addictive and gave no pleasure.

The whole world was in shock. Advanced countries like the U.S. and most of Europe had taken up smoking in a big way during the War, and since then Russia, China, and the freed countries of Asia had followed suit, to be "modern" and "Western." Then, from 1964 to 1970 the tobacco companies had aggressively promoted smoking everywhere to make up for the domestic sales lost to the Surgeon General's annual reports.

1970 was like one of those mass extinctions you find in the fossil record. Families were wiped out, the entertainment industry and the military in particular perished wholesale, governments fell, towns were depopulated. The effect of losing so many presidents, kings, governors, congressmen, members of parliaments, TV and movie actors, and popular singers of every kind, was far out of proportion to the actual numbers—and the numbers were horrific. The population of the world was 3.7 billion in 1970. The 600 million people who died was 16 percent of that, about one person in every six. One out of every six people you'd ever heard of, one out of every six people you knew, one out of every six people you were related to…

By June, around the time of my high-school graduation, the Green Cold had run its course. But I didn't go to my graduation, or my senior prom. Although I didn't smoke myself—very few teenagers did!—I had grown up with two parents who smoked constantly. They were chain smokers, a term which meant each cigarette was lit from the butt of the one before. Every breath we drew in, at home, was full of tobacco smoke.

Most of the family took ill, but I was in an oxygen tent in a military hospital throughout May and June. Never mind missing my graduation and prom; it was touch and go whether I would live.

My Mom died on May 10, 1970, and Dad died on June 3. They were 44 and 48, respectively. Kristen came to their funeral and held my hand through it.

My parents' death was the end of our family. Owen was in the Air Force, and I went to San Diego State to save money and get well, with the vague idea of going to CalTech later on (it never happened). Matt and Suzanne were too young to live without some kind of parent, so Dad's family whisked them off to central California and began trying to make them Republicans and Protestants, despite promising otherwise.

I tried to stay in touch with my family, but we were becoming strangers to each other. Owen was busy with his duties at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona, and never wrote or called. When he did call we ended up arguing. His way of dealing with our folks' deaths was to throw away his Catholic upbringing and become a "born-again" Protestant, a "Jesus freak" in the language of the times. I'd always been as good a student of theology as of everything else; but how do you reason with someone who's decided his gut feelings trump centuries of learning and study and doctrine?

My little brother Matt was also slipping away. He'd been accepted into the family of Dad's big sister, but Aunt Helen seemed to expect him to be her younger brother instead of her nephew. Maybe it was a reaction to the death of her husband, but she scolded him whenever he displayed "Papist" or "Socialist" ideas. Matt didn't write or call often, but when he did, he seemed to be blaming me for his situation.

Telephone calls to destinations more than a certain number of miles away were called "long distance" and cost a lot per minute. I wrote letters to my brothers (on actual paper, using a "typewriter", a mechanical keyboard with no memory) and to Suzanne, but budgeted my telephone money to call my 9-year-old sister. She was desperately unhappy—heartbroken about Mom and Dad, missing her big brothers terribly, homesick for San Diego, and mad and hurt about the way her foster family was trying to change her religion and her politics, such as they were at that age. Owen got leave for Christmas and visited Suzanne and Matt, but it wasn't a success. He argued religion with his brother and sister, and religion and politics with the foster families.

There was nothing I could do. My health was still shaky; on too many mornings it felt like I was all broken up inside. Health aside, my Mom had always been my best friend. I'd hear something or see something I wanted to share with her, remember all over again that I couldn't, and there was that broken feeling again.

Kristen lost none of her immediate family, but no one was entirely unaffected. John Madking, who lost both parents, turned on her savagely when she tried to help. So, on the days I felt able to climb out of bed and attend my meager selection of classes (I was only taking Differential Equations, Introduction to Computers, Creative Writing, and Archery that semester) Kristen and I would sit in the cafeteria or one of the lounges and talk, or just walk around the campus holding hands. We weren't dating, but we were a comfort to each other.

"Everyone will be so sorry they missed you!" Mistress Anna said. "If only your reunion had been any weekend this month but this one, or June Crown had been in Calafia this year!"

Mistress Anna was a 16-year-old redhead with a full complement of freckles, and just a little baby fat. The green gown she wore suited her. The medallions around her neck were the Order of the Laurel, for mastery of the arts, and the Order of the Golden Trident, the Calafian service award. She was making me feel old, because she was the daughter of two people I'd never heard of, who'd both joined the Barony since my day.

"Don't distress yourself, my lady," I said. "My lady wife and I didn't expect any kind of tourney; we were just driving by and saw the tents. I'm one of the guests of honor at Comic-Con this year, so I'll see all my old friends then."

"And make new ones," Kristen smiled.

"My lords and ladies!" cried the herald on the field. He wore the green cape with crossed gold trumpets of a Herald over his medieval costume, rather than the baldric of a Cornet or the tabard of a Pursuivant, and carried a green staff with gold bands. "Alfgar the Wombat challenges Alois of the Murky Wood, because the sky is blue!"

"Alfgar the wombat?" said Kristen, shaking her head.

Indeed the sky was a shining perfect blue. May and June were usually overcast in San Diego, a condition called "May Gray" and "June Gloom". But today had been stolen from July. The beaming sun shone unopposed over Morley Field, reflecting off the eight or ten medieval tents that had drawn us to the fighting practice.

By the second semester of my freshman year of college I was beginning to feel and act like my old self. My health was back, my depression no longer crippling, and my course load was back to my high-school standards. My National Merit scholarship, my share of my folks' money, and the settlement from the City for my dislocated shoulder, didn't make me rich. But I didn't need to get a job; I could study full time. That was rich enough for me.

In February 1971, about a week before my birthday, and almost exactly a year since my last seizure, I left Montezuma Hall with the idea of catching Kristen as she got out of her chemistry class and asking her to lunch.

There were lots of open lawn areas at San Diego State in those days, before they filled them all with buildings. One such separated the Campus Center from the Bookstore, and the brand-new Library from the Math building. As I came down the steps of the Campus Center, I saw half a dozen student-aged people setting up a white tent, under the direction of an older man in a wheelchair.

The Medieval Recreation Society had been founded in 1957 and died away by 1965 or so. Another group of people started the Society for Creative Anachronism, independently, in 1967, and a lot of the old MRS gang joined up. By 1971 there were groups in New York, Boston, Chicago, Denver, and Phoenix besides the original Bay-Area groups, but southern California was just getting the notion. I took a flyer from one of the girls in costume who were handing them out, and sat down on the grass to see what would happen.

A student in a green plaid kilt, with a prominent mustache on a merry face, told the assembled onlookers that this was a demonstration of the art of fighting with sword and shield by the Society for Creative Anachronism, a group that recreated the Middle Ages. What followed looked very real. It was evidently not choreographed, anyway. One man in a suit of mail and black plate fought another whose mail was covered by a green tabard with an oak leaf on it. Then another mailed figure fought a fourth with bronze Greek armor over red skirt and shirt, a bronze helmet with a horsehair plume on top, a big bronze shield with a black serpent on it, and a long red cape. Then the first guy, in the black armor, fought the Greek. Then the guy in the plain mail fought the guy with the oak leaf. Then they had a four-way fight, with the combatants advancing from the four corners to the center of the field, every man for himself.

The ladies and the man in the wheelchair watched the whole thing from the tent, while the Irishman in the kilt announced each fight. Then some trouble-maker decided things were going too smoothly.

We were halfway through the noon hour, and the edges of the lawn were packed solid with people sitting and standing to watch the fighting. Suddenly, in a pause between fights, a voice challenged the master of ceremonies: "Why aren't you fighting?"

It was a reasonable question, from one perspective. There were only four men fighting, and we'd been through every combination of two at a time. On the other hand, someone had to announce things, and the Irishman was good at it. But the only other man there who wasn't fighting was in a wheelchair.

Neal, the Irishman, could have said he was needed to announce the fights; that he chose not to fight; that he had a cold; or even, that no one had to fight just because he was a man. At this point women weren't allowed to fight in the SCA, but men had never been required to.

Instead, after peering fruitlessly in the direction of the voice (he was nearsighted, and not wearing his glasses), Neal got on his high horse. "I don't have to answer that question!" he snapped, and turned his back with a flourish of his kilt.

The trouble-maker, a short, skinny student with glasses and a scruffy beard, wasn't having any of that. He began chanting "Coward! Coward! Coward!" and the crowd followed his lead. Within moments the whole perimeter of the field was calling "Coward! Coward! Coward!" in unison. Flushed red, the Irishman turned and snarled, "I'll fight any one of you!"

That stopped some of the chanting, and started some laughter. The trouble-maker sat mute. I was debating saying to him, "Well? What are you waiting for?" when something else happened.

In one corner of the crowd, on my right beyond the rabble rouser, another student was sitting, enjoying the show hugely. As he leaned forward, laughing and holding his stomach, some others behind him were whispering back and forth, pointing to him, and nodding. Three or four pairs of hands suddenly shoved him forward. He rolled over onto the field, saw where he was, and leapt to his feet, proclaiming, "I accept the challenge!"

So the fighters lent him one of their rattan tourney swords, one of their round shields, and a helmet made from a freon can, a helmet being the only armor required in those days. One of the ladies announced that Neal Guildenthistle challenged Carillo the Freak, the name that the newcomer, drama student Rene Carillo, chose for the occasion.

Then Rene swarmed all over Neal, and in short order beat him. "That was pretty good," one of the other fighters said. "Want to go again?"

"Oh yeah!" said Rene. "Wow! Who do I fight?"

"Him," said Curtis, pointing.

Presently, then, it was announced that Lysander of Sparta challenged Carillo the Freak. Lysander stood there in his beautiful suit of Greek armor, crouched behind his big round shield, his short sword with the padded tip at the ready. Carillo charged, swinging wildly.

Wham! The short sword slammed into the freon-can helmet. As Carillo fell, the lightning-quick Spartan hit him twice more. And then once more, on top of the helmet, when it looked like he might be getting up.

Mistress Anna clapped her hands. "Three times on the way down, and once when they bounce!" she quoted.

"Right," I said. "That's where that custom comes from. Does Calafia still follow it?"

"Oh yes," said Sir Thomas. He was the son of the original Baron of Calafia, the man in the wheelchair in my story. Gene therapy had repaired Mezentius' spine, enabling him to stand, then walk, then lead a full active life: Count Sir Mezentius had trained his son to fight.

"One thing I wonder, though," Sir Thomas said. "Who was the trouble-maker?"

"I can't answer that without asking his permission," I said. "You know him, though. He became a fighter himself, and I know he's been King at least once."

I was never more than a marginal member of the SCA, or the SGU (The Society of the Golden Unicorn) which later replaced it. For one thing, my seizure at the Model U.N. had given me a distaste for role-playing. For another, Kristen didn't see much point in it. Kristen and I were also very busy, her with her pre-med classes and student government, me with my usual heavy load of science and math classes. I was trying to decide what my field would be by the total immersion method: take courses in everything, and see what was most interesting.

But I did pick an SCA name, David Scholarius, though I never made up a persona to go with it, and I did go to an occasional tournament, learn some SCA dances, and add recorder playing to my musical repertoire. I made some good friends, too: Forrest Lowe and his brother Tony; David Samson; and the Suominens, who'd been in MRS. Tina and Maddy Suominen were the only women I ever met who were as beautiful as Kristen, and Tina's ten-year-old daughter, Aino, looked like she might be another when she grew up.

My friendship with the Calafian crowd led one of them, David Samson, to ask if I wanted to split the space rent on the trailer he lived in, just off campus. He was between roommates, and his budget was hurting. I jumped at the chance. Half of Dave's trailer was actually less space than my dorm room, but it wasn't lonely. Dave Samson and Forrest Lowe felt like long-lost older brothers, and I was missing my family.

Moving into Dave's trailer was a key part of me becoming a writer, rather than a physicist, an astronomer, a geneticist, or a computer programmer. Dave had books in his trailer that I'd never read. My four years of classical Latin had me well up on classical history, but Dave had books on late Roman history, Arthurian Britain, and the Byzantine Empire. He introduced me to the Regency romances of Georgette Heyer, and the works of C. S. Forester. He showed me the bound collections of Analog in the campus library. I'd read Galaxy, Fantastic, Amazing, and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction for years. Astounding, later renamed Analog, had eluded me. It was incredible how much good science fiction I'd been missing, and how much of what I'd read in books had originally appeared in Astounding.

You could say I became a writer in my sleep. All the poetry and fiction I'd written over the years, then shoved into boxes or threw away, had prepared me. Now my sleeping mind combined my years of Latin, fiction and non-fiction about the historical Arthur, Mallory's Morte D'Arthur, modern historical fiction set in the Middle Ages, Poul Anderson's The Broken Sword, the SCA, me and Kristen, my parents' deaths…

I began having serial dreams about Arthur being taken from Britain to Avalon after the last battle with Mordred, and recruited to lead the fight against the pagan elves who were out to exterminate the civilized ones. The dreams began each night where they'd left off the night before, and they were in Latin, as Dave could testify because I was talking in my sleep. Out of those dreams came Arthur's Vow, In the Mountain's Shadow, The Tulànus, Battle of the Kings, and The Road of Wolves, which made my name as a writer.

It was April when I moved into Dave's trailer, and the Arthur dreams were still filling my nights in June, when I learned that I wasn't an epileptic, after all.

On the evening of the day after Kristen and I attended our high-school reunion, my family had a reunion of its own. I hadn't seen much of them since our parents died. Owen had come up one summer when he had leave, and Matt had stopped by one evening when he and his first wife were visiting his foster-family. Suzanne's husband Paul was a tenured professor of political science, so they took us out to dinner, or vice versa, whenever a conference or symposium brought them to our neck of the woods.

But the whole family hadn't been in the same place, at the same time, since 1970. So when Suzanne learned that I'd be in San Diego for my high-school reunion on the same weekend that Paul was speaking at the San Diego Grand, she'd reserved a room at a fancy restaurant she liked in La Jolla, and got everyone to agree to come.

It was a disaster.

I'd been dreading the Stevenson reunion; after all, I hadn't seen any of my classmates since graduation, and who knew how they'd changed? But everyone had been glad to see me, and many of them said nice things about my writing. The family thing seemed nothing to worry about. They were my brothers, weren't they? And I'd seen them a few times over the years.

I can't give you a blow-by-blow. If I could, you'd skip over it, because it'd be unbearable. I wasn't taking notes anyway. By the time I realized this wasn't the simple family dinner I'd expected, the inquisition was well under way. On one side was me, and Kristen because she was my wife. On the other side was Owen and his new wife Pattie, and Matt and his fiancée Mindi, soon to be his second wife. Suzanne and Paul they were leaving alone, until Suzanne asked what was going on. Then she joined me as a defendant.

I swear I have no idea what brought it all on. I wasn't impressed by Pattie or Mindi, who seemed very small-minded and conventional, and very Protestant and right-wing. But I'm sure I was polite to them, even when they kept squelching or deriding any subject I tried to talk about. Kristen, and for that matter Suzanne, would've let me know if I hadn't been.

Maybe the problem was the money. All four of us kids had received an equal share of Mom and Dad's insurance money, social-security money, and Dad's Air-Force and Convair pensions. But Owen and Matt had wanted me to split the police-department settlement with them, that I got because the cop held me down and dislocated my shoulder, and then interfered with proper medical treatment for my seizure. Their foster-folks had argued, in court, that since the money was paid to Mom and Dad, rather than to me, it should have been split four ways. The judge had agreed with my lawyer that the harm had been done to me alone, so the money was mine alone, even if my parents had been holding it for me as a minor.

I thought Owen and Matt had gotten over that a long time ago. I guess not. Or maybe they were showing off, in a weird sort of way, to their new wife and wife-to-be: "Look, I can stand up to anybody, even my brother the science-fiction writer."

I just don't know. I remember when the three of us were a united band against the world, however much we squabbled among ourselves; and anyone who even looked mean at Suzanne had better run for cover, because her brothers would make him sorry. But somehow time and separation had turned them into this middle-aged Air Force E-9, and this balding manager for a chain of hardware stores in the Western U.S., who were shouting at me.

"Look, guys," I tried again. I pushed my half-eaten meal away from me; my stomach was in knots. "What's the problem here?"

Gabble gabble gabble gabble.

"What? I'm sorry, I can't—" I shook my head. "What did you say?"

Gibber gibber gibber gibber.

Through the rising dizziness and the shrinking edges of my vision came recognition. It had been a long time since I'd been surprised like this.

"Kristen," I said desperately.

"—hear me? David! Can you hear me?"

I straightened up. I'd been bent over with stomach cramps, I realized. Somehow we were outside in the parking lot, standing by our rented car. No one else was there. I had no idea how we'd gotten there, or how much time had passed.

"Hotel," I gasped, as I half-fell, half-crawled into the car. I could feel the change coming on, a sensation like rings of water pulsing down through my body. "Quick, before—"

"Shh," Kristen said. More time had passed me by. The windows were opaque and the car was driving itself. She pulled me off the back seat onto the floor, and held my head. "It's all right, I've got you," said my love.

And then I was gone again.

I woke up in our hotel bed, with Kristen sitting at the bed side. I ached from head to foot, I was so exhausted I didn't want to move, and so hungry I could eat two horses.

"How do you feel, honey?" Kristen asked me.

"Strange," I replied, my voice an octave higher than usual. Strange was an understatement. My kinesthetic sense, the sense that tells us where our limbs are even when our eyes are closed, was going crazy. I knew it would fade in time, but when I wake up after the change it's the first thing I notice. My new breasts felt like two water balloons sitting on my chest. My penis was gone; actually, it had changed into a clitoris and was still there, surrounded by folds of skin, but it felt completely different. My skin felt different, too, because the writer's paunch had been redistributed all over my body to provide the layer of fat under the skin that makes a woman look and feel the way she does.

My other senses were also sharpened, and this would last until I changed back. My hearing was better, my taste more sensitive, and my sense of smell was telling me I badly needed a bath. "Help me up, darling, I stink."

"Well, of course you do," said my doctor wife. "Besides all the sweat of the change, your body has flushed itself of testosterone, and replaced it with female hormones. Whoops, look out." My hips were wider, and my center of balance different; I'd almost fallen down.

Having your lover wash you is one of the best kinds of sex there is, especially when you're so weak you can't wash yourself. I watched the shower spray wash the hairs of my male beard and mustache down the drain. Right now I felt like a male stuck in a female body, but I knew that would pass. Give me a few weeks as a female, and my self-image and viewpoint would change. Even now I looked fully female, except that my hair hadn't grown longer. But who says women have to have long hair? I even had ovaries (that's what my testicles become), but they had no eggs in them. So I was fully female, but barren. No loss, as far as I was concerned.

Speaking of things going down the drain, "I hope you remembered to bring tampons, love." The fact that I was always having my period when I changed was the reason I called my transformation, with double meaning, my Curse.

As for sex, as a male I'm only interested in females. But females, I find (and many full-time females have agreed with this), are less interested in bodies than in personalities. As a female, I love whom I loved as a male, and it doesn't distress me. Kristen loves me, not just my male body, and so I am content. What could have been a great tragedy isn't even an issue.

We are signals in the spectrum,
We are waves upon the sea:
The signal flies, the waters flow,
But the pattern in them is me.
The hand that holds my hand today
Is not the flesh it was before.
The lips that kiss are different flesh,
But still the lips that I adore.

Behind those eyes that smile at me
Resides a boundless mystery:
How do you know that you love me,
And how do you share my history?
When my mind is seizured free,
And I drift in a selfless now,
My hand still loves to hold your hand,
Though joy remembers not who, nor how.

Male or female, young or old,
I do not know, nor know to care,
But hold you in unmemoried bliss;
Of you, though not of self, aware.
Unremembered my meeting you,
Unforeseen my losing you:
That is love in its purest form,
Perfected through and through.

Ákařa dances in the Nameless Land,
Where no man goes, and no voice speaks.
What stars shine down upon that land,
What suns gleam from its peaks?
Where is the gate to take me there,
How and when must I strive?
Whose are the feet that made the path—
And what will I say when I arrive?

One step forward, a hundred steps back,
Every day we lose it all.
The daily things we never write down
Tomorrow cannot recall.
So write, my soul, the lines of fire
That cry out in the nights!
Unexpressed is unremembered:
Unknown love no one requites.

—"Selfless" from
The Collected Poems of David Mackie,
Green Sky Press, Berkeley, California, 1992 A.D.

Monday, June 19, 1995 A.D.
(a.d. 13 Kalendas Iulias, 2748 A.U.C.)
San Diego, California

Dawn is my favorite time of day, perhaps because I see it so rarely. I love the cool blues as the sun arises, and the way they change, moment by moment, from east to west. I love the wind of dawn that kisses my cheek at that instant when the east is fully daylit, and the west is fully dark. Clouds above the mountains herald the sun in brillant white, with none of the gaudy pinks of the blowsy sunset. Clouds above the sea are unlit fortresses, defending the stars with their blackness.

Kristen and I sat in the terminal and waited for our flight. I hadn't changed back yet, and probably wouldn't for at least a week. The two women, one tall with long blonde hair, one short with short brown hair, who sat holding hands, attracted some curious looks; but no one said anything. San Diego isn't homophobic the way it was in 1970; we've made a lot of progress in twenty-five years.

No one was sitting nearby. "Rats," I said to Kristen. "I missed another chance to propose."

She smiled, and squeezed my hand. "Yes," she said softly.

The first time I changed was a complete surprise. Thanks to the circumstances of my mother's birth, I had no idea such a thing could happen, let alone that it could happen to me. On top of that, I hadn't even been expecting a seizure. I went to bed, in the trailer that Dave Samson and I shared, without an aura.

The room was dark when I woke up, though the heat argued it was late in the day. "Unggh," I said, and sat up. I felt very strange.

"It's alive!" Dave said from the hall door. "And how are we feeling?"

"Like I've slept for a year," I grumbled. "Phew! And I smell like it, too!"

"I hung a bathrobe on the bathroom door," Dave said. "I'll be in the living room."

That puzzled me, since a towel around the waist had been enough before. But I needed a shower in the worst way, and my bladder was full. I grabbed a towel out of the towel drawer of my captain's bed and walked to the bathroom in my underwear. The order of rooms in the trailer, from back to front, was: my bedroom, the bathroom, the kitchen, and the living room, which was also Dave's bedroom. There were sliding wooden doors between my room and the bathroom, and between the bathroom and the kitchen area; Dave had shut them both.

But I needed to piss too much to stop and wonder at my roommate's odd behavior. I peeled my underpants off my body and dropped them in a corner with a sodden plap. "Gah, what a stench," I muttered, and stepped up to the toilet.

I'm sure my shriek was heard all over the trailer court.

"How do you feel?" Kristen asked, sitting on the couch next to me, and holding my hands. "Do you feel different? I mean, you look a little different, but not too much."

We were in the front room of the trailer. Dave had called Kristen for me while I cleaned up and put on clean clothes, then he fled the scene. Truth to tell, I was glad to see him go, for a while. The way he was acting made me feel even more like a freak.

"Odd, but natural," I said. I didn't let go of her hands. "At first I felt like a man who'd been shoved into a woman's body, but I'm adjusting. I don't feel sick, or deformed, or mutilated. I guess, given enough time, it'll feel right to be female, like it felt right to be male."

"The hormones rule," Kristen said.

"Yes," I said. "Everything smells different. Is that female, or just me changing?"

"How would I know?" she said reasonably. "Different how?"

"Stronger," I said. "But things that haven't changed don't smell the same." I leaned over and sniffed her neck. "Hmmm… You smell different, for one thing."

"David!" Kristen half-shrieked, half-laughed, freeing one of her hands to push me back. "You can't just go around smelling people!"

"OK," I said. "But I wanted to see… Ever since you got here today, there's been this scent… I wanted to see if it were you; and it is."

"What kind of scent?" Kristen said.

"Oh, I don't know," I said. "How do you describe a smell? Kind of like bread baking; kind of like vanilla; kind of like a rose; none of those, but like all of those."

"I'm not wearing any perfume!" Kristen protested.

"I know," I said.

"And it's not just smell," I went on. "My glasses aren't right, either. I'm still astigmatic, but the nearsightedness in one eye, and the farsightedness in the other, have corrected themselves. I actually see a lot better without my glasses now."

"Why did the one fix itself, and not the other?" Kristen wondered.

"I don't know," I told her.

"What are you going to do?" Kristen asked.

I shrugged. "What can I do? Adjust, and see what happens. Thank God it's summer and I don't have classes. If I change back, OK. If I don't, eventually I'll have to change my name… and other things. For starters, can I ask a huge, huge favor?"

"Probably," Kristen said cautiously. "What?"

"I seem to be having my period," I mumbled. "Would you show me how to use a tampon?"

A month passed. Kristen showed me what it was like to be female, and gave me the courage to go out in public. It was a lot easier to go to Mission Valley, whether to buy underwear or just to have lunch, with my girlfriend along—and you can read that "girlfriend" in either sense of the word. Kristen isn't a lesbian, but my own preferences hadn't changed. Are you a lesbian if you're born and raised a heterosexual male, then your body changes to female and you're still only interested in women?

I was still living in the trailer with David, and he was being a perfect gentleman. Only, it felt odd that he should be a gentleman towards me. We talked about it a few times. I told him that if I were interested in guys, he'd be first on my list—but I wasn't. Kristen was still my whole world.

A second month went by, and I cried a lot at night. It would be an exaggeration to say I considered suicide, but I did wonder, on the odd days as it were, if I could live my whole life this way. (On the even days it seemed almost as if I'd been female forever.)

By the third month my hair had grown out to a short bob, my skin was fully padded with a female layer of fat, and my breasts felt natural. They weren't very big, but it no longer felt like someone had superglued two water balloons to my chest.

"You're shaking!" Kristen said, putting her arms around me in the food court. "What is it? What happened?"

"S-S-Some guy," I said, full of rage and hysteria.


"H-He asked me for a date!" I said.

"What did you say?" Kristen asked.

"I didn't say anything! I was too busy trying to decide whether I should hit him or not!"

"Well, girlfriend," Kristen said, "I guess you'd better hurry up and pick a new name."

Maybe it was coincidence that I had a seizure that evening, my twelfth, or maybe it was the stress of the last few months. Maybe it was just time for me to change back. Dave and I were in the living room of the trailer. He was making mail, bending the rings around each other with a pair of pliers in each hand, and I was scribbling in a notebook, working on what would become the first draft of Arthur's Vow. We were talking about this and that (it didn't interfere with the kind of writing I was doing), and as always there was a record on the stereo, either Kismet or the original Borodin music.

"Dave," I said suddenly, "turn up the music, it's fading."

Gibber gibber gabble?

"Oh," I said, trying to get up. My knees had turned to water.

"I think…" I said, standing up, and then I fell. The last thing I saw was Dave dropping the mail on the floor and coming over to me.

I woke up tired and sore from the usual violent exercise of a seizure, and of course sweaty. I took inventory. I didn't seem to have broken or banged anything—Oh my God! I was a man again! My penis was back, and my boobs were gone.

"You're awake," Kristen said, and turned on the light. The sight of her in the dim overhead was like the sun rising after a storm.

"Every time I need you, there you are," I said.

"Where else would I be?" she said, sitting down on a chair next to the bed.

"I couldn't have gotten through the summer without you," I said, taking her hand.

"Oh, so now you don't need me anymore?"

"I'll always need you," I said. "Excuse me for saying this on my back, but—Kristen, will you marry me?"

She looked down at our hands. "You haven't said you love me, David."

"I've loved you since the moment I first saw you, back in junior high," I said. "I loved you as a boy, I loved you as a woman, and I'll love you forever, sick or well, man or woman, rich or poor."

"Well, then," she said, and leaned over and kissed me.

"So, will you marry me?" I asked again, when my mouth was free.

Still holding me, she put her forehead against mine. "I will," she said, her hair flowing around us both.

Since that summer, I've had few actual seizures, but I've been threatened with one every full moon. When the aura does evolve into a seizure, I change, not into a wolf or an ape, but a woman. It sometimes takes the whole month to change back, so it's a good thing that I'm a writer, and don't have to go to a job every day. The one mercy is, if I do change one month, I don't change again the next.

So far, anyway.

Some research (for a story, I told everyone) led to the identity of my mother's Indian father, now dead alas, and the reputation of his people as outsiders feared by the other local Indians as witches and skin-changers. So perhaps it's no wonder that I have seizures when my brothers don't, and even though Dad wasn't gassed by the Russians. If the seizures and the sex change are a legacy from my mother's father's people, it makes sense that I'd be the one affected. I was always the person in my family most like my mother, in height and metabolism, in being free of all the allergies my father and brothers had, and in temperament and character.

I'm my mother's son, God help me. And my mother's daughter, too—part of the time.

"Here's something interesting," Kristen said, looking up from her omnicom—a doctor has to read constantly to stay current. "Some geneticists have completed the human genome."

"What? I thought that was done already. Ten years ago, wasn't it?"

"Yes and no," Kristen said. "Despite all the lessons to the contrary, male doctors keep leaving women out of their studies. Now some women have added both of the female X chromosomes to the genome."

"And?" I said, hearing more to come.

"It seems there's more variation in the X chromosomes than all the rest of the genome," Kristen said. "What genes are present, where they're located, whether one or both or neither of the pairs are expressed which a man doesn't have on his little twisted Y chromosome—women differ more from men, and more from each other, than men do among themselves."

"I guess men and women really are different," I said from my female body. "How much?"

"Between one and two percent," Kristen said.

I had to laugh. "Christ!" I said. "I was telling Steve just Saturday, at the reunion! That's how much men and chimps and bonobos and gorillas differ!"

"So when a woman says to a man, 'You big ape!'," Kristen began.

I laughed with her, and then they called our flight.

As we walked out to the waiting plane, I was struck by a sense of time, of like and unlike, of how much things had changed, and yet how much they were the same. Twenty-five years ago, Michigan State University had offered me a place in their student body, as an Astrophysics major. In February of 1970, less than two weeks before the Model U.N. session at San Diego State, and the seizure and dislocated shoulder that I suffered there, I flew to East Lansing for orientation, at their invitation and at their expense.

It was the first plane trip I ever took without my family, the first time I flew on a commercial aircraft, and the first flight I had on a jet. I took in all the new experiences: the airport, the plane, traveling as an independent adult—and the whole time, I wished that Kristen were with me to share it all.

A bus from the university picked me up at the airport, and several other prospective freshmen, and drove us to the campus, pointing out the site of the future observatory on the way. Then there was a welcoming speech, a tour of campus, a banquet, and a dance. I thought about how cold it was, and how flat and drab, and wished Kristen were there to bring the California sun to the Michigan winter.

That night, in the dorm room at MSU, I dreamed it together. The flight from San Diego, all the new experiences, sleeping in a strange bed, and missing Kristen gave birth to a dream, where the plane was a living creature, with a mind of its own. I woke up, and wrote a poem, "Morning Flight."

Now, twenty-five years later, I was leaving San Diego again, from the same airport, but a new terminal, in a new jet. This time my darling was with me, but it was the same time of morning, with the same fog, and the same dew on everything. Then, as now, the plane was speaking to me. "Myself they filled with themselves," it said, as that other plane had said. In the past, in the poem, and in the present, the fog began to lift, very slowly. "They are aboard, with their pitiful bags," the plane commented, echoing the dream. Or was this the dream?

We took our seats. The engines started. The beast rolled down the runway, picking up speed, the wind of its passage whipping rivers of dew past the windows. I squeezed Kristen's hand. She turned her head and smiled sweetly at me, and squeezed back. The roar of the engines was a shout of joy, as we leapt into the sky.

Again I race the beacon lights.
Fueled, my silver skin gleaming with morning dew,
Like a toy the Earth I cast away.

About this story

Copyright © 1992, 2005, and 2018 by Green Sky Press. All rights reserved.
This collection of stories is copyright © 2019 by Green Sky Press. Individual stories are copyrighted as indicated after each story. All rights to the stories and to the collection are reserved.