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  1. ROBERT REED
  2.  
  3. Coelacanths
  4.  
  5.  
  6. THE SPEAKER
  7.  
  8. He stalks the wide stage, a brilliant beam of hot blue light fixed squarely upon him. “We are great! We are glorious!” the man calls out. His voice is pleasantly, effortlessly loud. With a face handsome to the brink of lovely and a collage of smooth, passionate mannerisms, he performs for an audience that sits in the surrounding darkness. Flinging long arms overhead, hands reaching for the distant light, his booming voice proclaims, “We have never been as numerous as we are today. We have never been this happy. And we have never known the prosperity that is ours at this golden moment. This golden now!” Athletic legs carry him across the stage, bare feet slapping against planks of waxed maple. “Our species is thriving,” he can declare with a seamless ease. “By every conceivable measure, we are a magnificent, irresistible tide sweeping across the universe!”
  9.  
  10. Transfixed by the blue beam, his naked body is shamelessly young, rippling with hard muscles over hard bone. A long fat penis dangles and dances, accenting every sweeping gesture, every bold word. The living image of a small but potent god, he surely is a creature worthy of admiration, a soul deserving every esteem and emulation. With a laugh, he promises the darkness, “We have never been so powerful, we humans.” Yet in the next breath, with a faintly apologetic smile, he must add, “Yet still, as surely as tomorrow comes, our glories today will seem small and quaint in the future, and what looks golden now will turn to the yellow dust upon which our magnificent children will tread!”
  11.  
  12.  
  13. PROCYON
  14.  
  15.  
  16. Study your history. It tells you that travel always brings its share of hazards; that’s a basic, impatient law of the universe. Leaving the security and familiarity of home is never easy. But every person needs to make the occasional journey, embracing the risks to improve his station, his worth and self-esteem. Procyon explains why this day is a good day to wander. She refers to intelligence reports as well as the astrological tables. Then by a dozen means, she maps out their intricate course, describing what she hopes to find and everything that she wants to avoid.
  17.  
  18. She has twin sons. They were born four months ago, and they are mostly grown now. “Keep alert,” she tells the man-children, leading them out through a series of reinforced and powerfully camouflaged doorways. “No naps, no distractions,” she warns them. Then with a backward glance, she asks again, “What do we want?”
  19.  
  20. “Whatever we can use,” the boys reply in a sloppy chorus.
  21.  
  22. “Quiet,” she warns. Then she nods and shows a caring smile, reminding them, “A lot of things can be used. But their trash is sweetest.”
  23.  
  24. Mother and sons look alike: They are short, strong people with closely cropped hair and white-gray eyes. They wear simple clothes and three fashions of camouflage, plus a stew of mental add-ons and microchine helpers as well as an array of sensors that never blink, watching what human eyes cannot see. Standing motionless, they vanish into the convoluted, ever-shifting background. But walking makes them into three transient blurs—dancing wisps that are noticeably simpler than the enormous world around them. They can creep ahead only so far before their camouflage falls apart, and then they have to stop, waiting patiently or otherwise, allowing the machinery to find new ways to help make them invisible.
  25.  
  26. “I’m confused,” one son admits. “That thing up ahead—”
  27.  
  28. “Did you update your perception menu?”
  29.  
  30. “I thought I did.”
  31.  
  32. Procyon makes no sound. Her diamond-bright glare is enough. She remains rigidly, effortlessly still, allowing her lazy son to finish his preparations. Dense, heavily encoded signals have to be whispered, the local net downloading the most recent topological cues, teaching a three-dimensional creature how to navigate through this shifting, highly intricate environment.
  33.  
  34. The universe is fat with dimensions.
  35.  
  36. Procyon knows as much theory as anyone. Yet despite a long life rich with experience, she has to fight to decipher what her eyes and sensors tell her. She doesn’t even bother learning the tricks that coax these extra dimensions out of hiding. Let her add-ons guide her. That’s all a person can do, slipping in close to one of them. In this place, up is three things and sideways is five others. Why bother counting? What matters is that when they walk again, the three of them move through the best combination of dimensions, passing into a little bubble of old-fashioned up and down. She knows this place. Rising up beside them is a trusted landmark—a red granite bowl that cradles what looks like a forest of tall sticks, the sticks leaking a warm light that Procyon ignores, stepping again, moving along on her tiptoes.
  37.  
  38. One son leads the way. He lacks the experience to be first, but in another few weeks, his flesh and sprint-grown brain will force him into the world alone. He needs his practice, and more important, he needs confidence, learning to trust his add-ons and his careful preparations, and his breeding, and his own good luck.
  39.  
  40. Procyon’s other son lingers near the granite bowl. He’s the son who didn’t update his menu. This is her dreamy child, whom she loves dearly. Of course she adores him. But there’s no escaping the fact that he is easily distracted, and that his adult life will be, at its very best, difficult. Study your biology. Since life began, mothers have made hard decisions about their children, and they have made the deadliest decisions with the tiniest of gestures.
  41.  
  42. Procyon lets her lazy son fall behind.
  43.  
  44. Her other son takes two careful steps and stops abruptly, standing before what looks like a great black cylinder set on its side. The shape is a fiction: The cylinder is round in one fashion but incomprehensible in many others. Her add-ons and sensors have built this very simple geometry to represent something far more elaborate. This is a standard disposal unit. Various openings appear as a single slot near the rim of the cylinder, just enough room showing for a hand and forearm to reach through, touching whatever garbage waits inside.
  45.  
  46. Her son’s thick body has more grace than any dancer of old, more strength than a platoon of ancient athletes. His IQ is enormous. His reaction times have been enhanced by every available means. His father was a great old soul who survived into his tenth year, which is almost forever. But when the boy drifts sideways, he betrays his inexperience. His sensors attack the cylinder by every means, telling him that it’s a low-grade trash receptacle secured by what looks like a standard locking device, AI-managed and obsolete for days, if not weeks. And inside the receptacle is a mangled piece of hardware worth a near-fortune on the open market.
  47.  
  48. The boy drifts sideways, and he glimmers.
  49.  
  50. Procyon says, “No,” too loudly.
  51.  
  52. But he feels excited, invulnerable. Grinning over his shoulder now, he winks and lifts one hand with a smooth, blurring motion—
  53.  
  54. Instincts old as blood come bubbling up. Procyon leaps, shoving her son off his feet and saving him. And in the next horrible instant, she feels herself engulfed, a dry cold hand grabbing her, then stuffing her inside a hole that by any geometry feels nothing but bottomless.
  55.  
  56.  
  57. ABLE
  58.  
  59.  
  60. Near the lip of the City, inside the emerald green ring of Park, waits a secret place where the moss and horsetail and tree fern forest plunges into a deep crystalline pool of warm spring water. No public map tells of the pool, and no trail leads the casual walker near it. But the pool is exactly the sort of place that young boys always discover, and it is exactly the kind of treasure that remains unmentioned to parents or any other adult with suspicious or troublesome natures.
  61.  
  62. Able Quotient likes to believe that he was first to stumble across this tiny corner of Creation. And if he isn’t first, at least no one before him has ever truly seen the water’s beauty, and nobody after him will appreciate the charms of this elegant, timeless place.
  63.  
  64. Sometimes Able brings others to the pool, but only his best friends and a few boys whom he wants to impress. Not for a long time does he even consider bringing a girl, and then it takes forever to find a worthy candidate, then muster the courage to ask her to join him. Her name is Mish. She’s younger than Able by a little ways, but like all girls, she acts older and much wiser than he will ever be. They have been classmates from the beginning. They live three floors apart in The Tower Of Gracious Good, which makes them close neighbors. Mish is pretty, and her beauty is the sort that will only grow as she becomes a woman. Her face is narrow and serious. Her eyes watch everything. She wears flowing dresses and jeweled sandals, and she goes everywhere with a clouded leopard named Mr. Stuff-and-Nonsense. “If my cat can come along,” she says after hearing Able’s generous offer. “Are there any birds at this pond of yours?”
  65.  
  66. Able should be horrified by the question. The life around the pool knows him and has grown to trust him. But he is so enamored by Mish that he blurts out, “Yes, hundreds of birds. Fat, slow birds. Mr. Stuff can eat himself sick.”
  67.  
  68. “But that wouldn’t be right,” Mish replies with a disapproving smirk. “I’ll lock down his appetite. And if we see any wounded birds…any animal that’s suffering…we can unlock him right away…!”
  69.  
  70. “Oh, sure,” Able replies, almost sick with nerves. “I guess that’s fine, too.”
  71.  
  72. People rarely travel any distance. City is thoroughly modern, every apartment supplied by conduits and meshed with every web and channel, shareline and gossip run. But even with most of its citizens happily sitting at home, the streets are jammed with millions of walking bodies. Every seat on the train is filled all the way to the last stop. Able momentarily loses track of Mish when the cabin walls evaporate. But thankfully, he finds her waiting at Park’s edge. She and her little leopard are standing in the narrow shade of a horsetail. She teases him, observing, “You look lost.” Then she laughs, perhaps at him, before abruptly changing the subject. With a nod and sweeping gesture, she asks, “Have you noticed? Our towers look like these trees.”
  73.  
  74. To a point, yes. The towers are tall and thin and rounded like the horsetails, and the hanging porches make them appear rough-skinned. But there are obvious and important differences between trees and towers, and if she were a boy, Able would make fun of her now. Fighting his nature, Able forces himself to smile. “Oh, my,” he says as he turns, looking back over a shoulder. “They do look like horsetails, don’t they?”
  75.  
  76. Now the three adventurers set off into the forest. Able takes the lead. Walking with boys is a quick business that often turns into a race. But girls are different, particularly when their fat, unhungry cats are dragging along behind them. It takes forever to reach the rim of the world. Then it takes another two forevers to follow the rim to where they can almost see the secret pool. But that’s where Mish announces, “I’m tired!” To the world, she says, “I want to stop and eat. I want to rest here.”
  77.  
  78. Able nearly tells her, “No.”
  79.  
  80. Instead he decides to coax her, promising, “It’s just a little farther.”
  81.  
  82. But she doesn’t seem to hear him, leaping up on the pink polished rim, sitting where the granite is smooth and flat, legs dangling and her bony knees exposed. She opens the little pack that has floated on her back from the beginning, pulling out a hot lunch that she keeps and a cold lunch that she hands to Able. “This is all I could take,” she explains, “without my parents asking questions.” She is reminding Able that she never quite got permission to make this little journey. “If you don’t like the cold lunch,” she promises, “then we can trade. I mean, if you really don’t.”
  83.  
  84. He says, “I like it fine,” without opening the insulated box. Then he looks inside, discovering a single wedge of spiced sap, and it takes all of his poise not to say, “Ugh!”
  85.  
  86. Mr. Stuff collapses into a puddle of towerlight, instantly falling asleep.
  87.  
  88. The two children eat quietly and slowly. Mish makes the occasional noise about favorite teachers and mutual friends. She acts serious and ordinary, and disappointment starts gnawing at Able. He isn’t old enough to sense that the girl is nervous. He can’t imagine that Mish wants to delay the moment when they’ll reach the secret pool, or that she sees possibilities waiting there—wicked possibilities that only a wicked boy should be able to foresee.
  89.  
  90. Finished with her meal, Mish runs her hands along the hem of her dress, and she kicks at the air, and then, hunting for any distraction, she happens to glance over her shoulder.
  91.  
  92. Where the granite ends, the world ends. Normally nothing of substance can be seen out past the pink stone—nothing but a confused, ever-shifting grayness that extends on forever. Able hasn’t bothered to look out there. He is much too busy trying to finish his awful meal, concentrating on his little frustrations and his depraved little daydreams.
  93.  
  94. “Oh, goodness,” the young girl exclaims. “Look at that!”
  95.  
  96. Able has no expectations. What could possibly be worth the trouble of turning around? But it’s an excuse to give up on his lunch, and after setting it aside, he turns slowly, eyes jumping wide open and a surprised grunt leaking out of him as he tumbles off the granite, landing squarely on top of poor Mr. Stuff.
  97.  
  98.  
  99. ESCHER
  100.  
  101.  
  102. She has a clear, persistent memory of flesh, but the flesh isn’t hers. Like manners and like knowledge, what a person remembers can be bequeathed by her ancestors. That’s what is happening now. Limbs and heads; penises and vaginas. In the midst of some unrelated business, she remembers having feet and the endless need to protect those feet with sandals or boots or ostrich skin or spiked shoes that will lend a person even more height. She remembers wearing clothes that gave color and bulk to what was already bright and enormous. At this particular instant, what she sees is a distant, long-dead relative sitting on a white porcelain bowl, bare feet dangling, his orifices voiding mountains of waste and an ocean of water.
  103.  
  104. Her oldest ancestors were giants. They were built from skin and muscle, wet air and great slabs of fat. Without question, they were an astonishing excess of matter, vast beyond all reason, yet fueled by slow, inefficient chemical fires.
  105.  
  106. Nothing about Escher is inefficient. No flesh clings to her. Not a drop of water or one glistening pearl of fat. It’s always smart to be built from structure light and tested, efficient instructions. It’s best to be tinier than a single cell and as swift as electricity, slipping unseen through places that won’t even notice your presence.
  107.  
  108. Escher is a glimmer, a perfect and enduring whisper of light. Of life. Lovely in her own fashion, yet fierce beyond all measure.
  109.  
  110. She needs her fierceness.
  111.  
  112. When cooperation fails, as it always does, a person has to throw her rage at the world and her countless enemies.
  113.  
  114. But in this place, for this moment, cooperation holds sway.
  115.  
  116. Manners rule.
  117.  
  118. Escher is eating. Even as tiny and efficient as she is, she needs an occasional sip of raw power. Everyone does. And it seems as if half of everyone has gathered around what can only be described as a tiny, delicious wound. She can’t count the citizens gathered at the feast. Millions and millions, surely. All those weak glimmers join into a soft glow. Everyone is bathed in a joyous light. It is a boastful, wasteful show, but Escher won’t waste her energy with warnings. Better to sip at the wound, absorbing the free current, building up her reserves for the next breeding cycle. It is best to let others make the mistakes for you: Escher believes nothing else quite so fervently.
  119.  
  120. A pair of sisters float past. The familial resemblance is obvious, and so are the tiny differences. Mutations as well as tailored changes have created two loud gossips who speak and giggle in a rush of words and raw data, exchanging secrets about the multitude around them.
  121.  
  122. Escher ignores their prattle, gulping down the last of what she can possibly hold, and then pausing, considering where she might hide a few nanojoules of extra juice, keeping them safe for some desperate occasion.
  123.  
  124. Escher begins to hunt for that unlikely hiding place.
  125.  
  126. And then her sisters abruptly change topics. Gossip turns to trading memories stolen from The World. Most of it is picoweight stuff, useless and boring. An astonishing fraction of His thoughts are banal. Like the giants of old, He can afford to be sloppy. To be a spendthrift. Here is a pointed example of why Escher is happy to be herself. She is smart in her own fashion, and imaginative, and almost everything about her is important, and when a problem confronts her, she can cut through the muddle, seeing the blessing wrapped up snug inside the measurable risks.
  127.  
  128. Quietly, with a puzzled tone, one sister announces, “The World is alarmed.”
  129.  
  130. “About?” says the other.
  131.  
  132. “A situation,” says the first. “Yes, He is alarmed now. Moral questions are begging for His attention.”
  133.  
  134. “What questions?”
  135.  
  136. The first sister tells a brief, strange story.
  137.  
  138. “You know all this?” asks another. Asks Escher. “Is this daydream or hard fact?”
  139.  
  140. “I know, and it is fact.” The sister feels insulted by the doubting tone, but she puts on a mannerly voice, explaining the history of this sudden crisis.
  141.  
  142. Escher listens.
  143.  
  144. And suddenly the multitude is talking about nothing else. What is happening has never happened before, not in this fashion…not in any genuine memory of any of the millions here, it hasn’t…and some very dim possibilities begin to show themselves. Benefits wrapped inside some awful dangers. And one or two of these benefits wink at Escher, and smile….
  145.  
  146. The multitude panics, and evaporates.
  147.  
  148. Escher remains behind, deliberating on these possibilities. The landscape beneath her is far more sophisticated than flesh, and stronger, but it has an ugly appearance that reminds her of a flesh-born memory. A lesion; a pimple. A tiny, unsightly ruin standing in what is normally seamless, and beautiful, and perfect.
  149.  
  150. She flees, but only so far.
  151.  
  152. Then she hunkers down and waits, knowing that eventually, in one fashion or another, He will scratch at this tiny irritation.
  153.  
  154.  
  155. THE SPEAKER
  156.  
  157.  
  158. “You cannot count human accomplishments,” he boasts to his audience, strutting and wagging his way to the edge of the stage. Bare toes curl over the sharp edge, and he grins jauntily, admitting, “And I cannot count them, either. There are simply too many successes, in too many far flung places, to nail up a number that you can believe. But allow me, if you will, this chance to list a few important marvels.”
  159.  
  160. Long hands grab bony hips, and he gazes out into the watching darkness. “The conquest of our cradle continent,” he begins, “which was quickly followed by the conquest of our cradle world. Then after a gathering pause, we swiftly and thoroughly occupied most of our neighboring worlds, too. It was during those millennia when we learned how to split flint and atoms and DNA and our own restless psyches. With these apish hands, we fashioned great machines that worked for us as our willing, eager slaves. And with our slaves’ more delicate hands, we fabricated machines that could think for us.” A knowing wink, a mischievous shrug. “Like any child, of course, our thinking machines eventually learned to think for themselves. Which was a dangerous, foolish business, said some. Said fools. But my list of our marvels only begins with that business. This is what I believe, and I challenge anyone to say otherwise.”
  161.  
  162. There is a sound—a stern little murmur—and perhaps it implies dissent. Or perhaps the speaker made the noise himself, fostering a tension that he is building with his words and body.
  163.  
  164. His penis grows erect, drawing the eye.
  165.  
  166. Then with a wide and bright and unabashedly smug grin, he roars out, “Say this with me. Tell me what great things we have done. Boast to Creation about the wonders that we have taken part in…!”
  167.  
  168.  
  169. PROCYON
  170.  
  171.  
  172. Torture is what this is: She feels her body plunging from a high place, head before feet. A frantic wind roars past. Outstretched hands refuse to slow her fall. Then Procyon makes herself spin, putting her feet beneath her body, and gravity instantly reverses itself. She screams, and screams, and the distant walls reflect her terror, needles jabbed into her wounded ears. Finally, she grows quiet, wrapping her arms around her eyes and ears, forcing herself to do nothing, hanging limp in space while her body falls in one awful direction.
  173.  
  174. A voice whimpers.
  175.  
  176. A son’s worried voice says, “Mother, are you there? Mother?”
  177.  
  178. Some of her add-ons have been peeled away, but not all of them. The brave son uses a whisper-channel, saying, “I’m sorry,” with a genuine anguish. He sounds sick and sorry, and exceptionally angry, too. “I was careless,” he admits. He says, “Thank you for saving me.” Then to someone else, he says, “She can’t hear me.”
  179.  
  180. “I hear you,” she whispers.
  181.  
  182. “Listen,” says her other son. The lazy one. “Did you hear something?”
  183.  
  184. She starts to say, “Boys,” with a stern voice. But then the trap vibrates, a piercing white screech nearly deafening Procyon. Someone physically strikes the trap. Two someones. She feels the walls turning around her, the trap making perhaps a quarter-turn toward home.
  185.  
  186. Again, she calls out, “Boys.”
  187.  
  188. They stop rolling her. Did they hear her? No, they found a hidden restraint, the trap secured at one or two or ten ends.
  189.  
  190. One last time, she says, “Boys.”
  191.  
  192. “I hear her,” her dreamy son blurts.
  193.  
  194. “Don’t give up, Mother,” says her brave son. “We’ll get you out. I see the locks, I can beat them—”
  195.  
  196. “You can’t,” she promises.
  197.  
  198. He pretends not to have heard her. A shaped explosive detonates, making a cold ringing sound, faraway and useless. Then the boy growls, “Damn,” and kicks the trap, accomplishing nothing at all.
  199.  
  200. “It’s too tough,” says her dreamy son. “We’re not doing any good—”
  201.  
  202. “Shut up,” his brother shouts.
  203.  
  204. Procyon tells them, “Quiet now. Be quiet.”
  205.  
  206. The trap is probably tied to an alarm. Time is short, or it has run out already. Either way, there’s a decision to be made, and the decision has a single, inescapable answer. With a careful and firm voice, she tells her sons, “Leave me. Now. Go!”
  207.  
  208. “I won’t,” the brave son declares. “Never!”
  209.  
  210. “Now,” she says.
  211.  
  212. “It’s my fault,” says the dreamy son. “I should have been keeping up—”
  213.  
  214. “Both of you are to blame,” Procyon calls out. “And I am, too. And there’s bad luck here, but there’s some good, too. You’re still free. You can still get away. Now, before you get yourself seen and caught—”
  215.  
  216. “You’re going to die,” the brave son complains.
  217.  
  218. “One day or the next, I will,” she agrees. “Absolutely.”
  219.  
  220. “We’ll find help,” he promises.
  221.  
  222. “From where?” she asks.
  223.  
  224. “From who?” says her dreamy son in the same instant. “We aren’t close to anyone—”
  225.  
  226. “Shut up,” his brother snaps. “Just shut up!”
  227.  
  228. “Run away,” their mother repeats.
  229.  
  230. “I won’t,” the brave son tells her. Or himself. Then with a serious, tight little voice, he says, “I can fight. We’ll both fight.”
  231.  
  232. Her dreamy son says nothing.
  233.  
  234. Procyon peels her arms away from her face, opening her eyes, focusing on the blurring cylindrical walls of the trap. It seems that she was wrong about her sons. The brave one is just a fool, and the dreamy one has the good sense. She listens to her dreamy son saying nothing, and then the other boy says, “Of course you’re going to fight. Together, we can do some real damage—”
  235.  
  236. “I love you both,” she declares.
  237.  
  238. That wins a silence.
  239.  
  240. Then again, one last time, she says, “Run.”
  241.  
  242. “I’m not a coward,” one son growls.
  243.  
  244. While her good son says nothing, running now, and he needs his breath for things more essential than pride and bluster.
  245.  
  246.  
  247. ABLE
  248.  
  249.  
  250. The face stares at them for the longest while. It is a great wide face, heavily bearded with smoke-colored eyes and a long nose perched above the cavernous mouth that hangs open, revealing teeth and things more amazing than teeth. Set between the bone-white enamel are little machines made of fancy stuff. Able can only guess what the add-on machines are doing. This is a wild man, powerful and free. People like him are scarce and strange, their bodies reengineered in countless ways. Like his eyes: Able stares into those giant gray eyes, noticing fleets of tiny machines floating on the tears. Those machines are probably delicate sensors. Then with a jolt of amazement, he realizes that those machines and sparkling eyes are staring into their world with what seems to be a genuine fascination.
  251.  
  252. “He’s watching us,” Able mutters.
  253.  
  254. “No, he isn’t,” Mish argues. “He can’t see into our realm.”
  255.  
  256. “We can’t see into his either,” the boy replies. “But just the same, I can make him out just fine.”
  257.  
  258. “It must be….” Her voice falls silent while she accesses City’s library. Then with a dismissive shrug of her shoulders, she announces, “We’re caught in his topological hardware. That’s all. He has to simplify his surroundings to navigate, and we just happen to be close enough and aligned right.”
  259.  
  260. Able had already assumed all that.
  261.  
  262. Mish starts to speak again, probably wanting to add to her explanation. She can sure be a know-everything sort of girl. But then the great face abruptly turns away, and they watch the man run away from their world.
  263.  
  264. “I told you,” Mish sings out. “He couldn’t see us.”
  265.  
  266. “I think he could have,” Able replies, his voice finding a distinct sharpness.
  267.  
  268. The girl straightens her back. “You’re wrong,” she says with an obstinate tone. Then she turns away from the edge of the world, announcing, “I’m ready to go on now.”
  269.  
  270. “I’m not,” says Able.
  271.  
  272. She doesn’t look back at him. She seems to be talking to her leopard, asking, “Why aren’t you ready?”
  273.  
  274. “I see two of them now,” Able tells her.
  275.  
  276. “You can’t.”
  277.  
  278. “I can.” The hardware trickery is keeping the outside realms sensible. A tunnel of simple space leads to two men standing beside an iron-black cylinder. The men wear camouflage, but they are moving too fast to let it work. They look small now. Distant, or tiny. Once you leave the world, size and distance are impossible to measure. How many times have teachers told him that? Able watches the tiny men kicking at the cylinder. They beat on its heavy sides with their fists and forearms, managing to roll it for almost a quarter turn. Then one of the men pulls a fist-sized device from what looks like a cloth sack, fixing it to what looks like a sealed slot, and both men hurry to the far end of the cylinder.
  279.  
  280. “What are they doing?” asks Mish with a grumpy interest.
  281.  
  282. A feeling warns Able, but too late. He starts to say, “Look away—”
  283.  
  284. The explosion is brilliant and swift, the blast reflected off the cylinder and up along the tunnel of ordinary space, a clap of thunder making the giant horsetails sway and nearly knocking the two of them onto the forest floor.
  285.  
  286. “They’re criminals,” Mish mutters with a nervous hatred.
  287.  
  288. “How do you know?” the boy asks.
  289.  
  290. “People like that just are,” she remarks. “Living like they do. Alone like that, and wild. You know how they make their living.”
  291.  
  292. “They take what they need—”
  293.  
  294. “They steal!” she interrupts.
  295.  
  296. Able doesn’t even glance at her. He watches as the two men work frantically, trying to pry open the still-sealed doorway. He can’t guess why they would want the doorway opened. Or rather, he can think of too many reasons. But when he looks at their anguished, helpless faces, he realizes that whatever is inside, it’s driving these wild men very close to panic.
  297.  
  298. “Criminals,” Mish repeats.
  299.  
  300. “I heard you,” Able mutters.
  301.  
  302. Then before she can offer another hard opinion, he turns to her and admits, “I’ve always liked them. They live by their wits, and mostly alone, and they have all these sweeping powers—”
  303.  
  304. “Powers that they’ve stolen,” she whines.
  305.  
  306. “From garbage, maybe.” There is no point in mentioning whose garbage. He stares at Mish’s face, pretty but twisted with fury, and something sad and inevitable occurs to Able. He shakes his head and sighs, telling her, “I don’t like you very much.”
  307.  
  308. Mish is taken by surprise. Probably no other boy has said those awful words to her, and she doesn’t know how to react, except to sputter ugly little sounds as she turns, looking back over the edge of the world.
  309.  
  310. Able does the same.
  311.  
  312. One of the wild men abruptly turns and runs. In a super-sonic flash, he races past the children, vanishing into the swirling grayness, leaving his companion to stand alone beside the mysterious black cylinder. Obviously weeping, the last man wipes the tears from his whiskered face with a trembling hand, while his other hand begins to yank a string of wondrous machines from what seems to be a bottomless sack of treasures.
  313.  
  314.  
  315. ESCHER
  316.  
  317.  
  318. She consumes all of her carefully stockpiled energies, and for the first time in her life, she weaves a body for herself: A distinct physical shell composed of diamond dust and keratin and discarded rare earths and a dozen subtle glues meant to bind to every surface without being felt. To a busy eye, she is dust. She is insubstantial and useless and forgettable. To a careful eye and an inquisitive touch, she is the tiniest soul imaginable, frail beyond words, forever perched on the brink of extermination. Surely she poses no threat to any creature, least of all the great ones. Lying on the edge of the little wound, passive and vulnerable, she waits for Chance to carry her where she needs to be. Probably others are doing the same. Perhaps thousands of sisters and daughters are hiding nearby, each snug inside her own spore case. The temptation to whisper, “Hello,” is easily ignored. The odds are awful as it is; any noise could turn this into a suicide. What matters is silence and watchfulness, thinking hard about the great goal while keeping ready for anything that might happen, as well as everything that will not.
  319.  
  320. The little wound begins to heal, causing a trickling pain to flow.
  321.  
  322. The World feels the irritation, and in reflex, touches His discomfort by several means, delicate and less so.
  323.  
  324. Escher misses her first opportunity. A great swift shape presses its way across her hiding place, but she activates her glues too late. Dabs of glue cure against air, wasted. So she cuts the glue loose and watches again. A second touch is unlikely, but it comes, and she manages to heave a sticky tendril into a likely crevice, letting the irresistible force yank her into a brilliant, endless sky.
  325.  
  326. She will probably die now.
  327.  
  328. For a little while, Escher allows herself to look back across her life, counting daughters and other successes, taking warm comfort in her many accomplishments.
  329.  
  330. Someone hangs in the distance, dangling from a similar tendril. Escher recognizes the shape and intricate glint of her neighbor’s spore case; she is one of Escher’s daughters. There is a strong temptation to signal her, trading information, helping each other—
  331.  
  332. But a purge-ball attacks suddenly, and the daughter evaporates, nothing remaining of her but ions and a flash of incoherent light.
  333.  
  334. Escher pulls herself toward the crevice, and hesitates. Her tendril is anchored on a fleshy surface. A minor neuron—a thread of warm optical cable—lies buried inside the wet cells. She launches a second tendril at her new target. By chance, the purge-ball sweeps the wrong terrain, giving her that little instant. The tendril makes a sloppy connection with the neuron. Without time to test its integrity, all she can do is shout, “Don’t kill me! Or my daughters! Don’t murder us, Great World!”
  335.  
  336. Nothing changes. The purge-ball works its way across the deeply folded fleshscape, moving toward Escher again, distant flashes announcing the deaths of another two daughters or sisters.
  337.  
  338. “Great World!” she cries out.
  339.  
  340. He will not reply. Escher is like the hum of a single angry electron, and she can only hope that he notices the hum.
  341.  
  342. “I am vile,” she promises. “I am loathsome and sneaky, and you should hate me. What I am is an illness lurking inside you. A disease that steals exactly what I can steal without bringing your wrath.”
  343.  
  344. The purge-ball appears, following a tall reddish ridge of flesh, bearing down on her hiding place.
  345.  
  346. She says, “Kill me, if you want. Or spare me, and I will do this for you.” Then she unleashes a series of vivid images, precise and simple, meant to be compelling to any mind.
  347.  
  348. The purge-ball slows, its sterilizing lasers taking careful aim.
  349.  
  350. She repeats herself, knowing that thought travels only so quickly and The World is too vast to see her thoughts and react soon enough to save her. But if she can help…if she saves just a few hundred daughters…?
  351.  
  352. Lasers aim, and do nothing. Nothing. And after an instant of inactivity, the machine changes its shape and nature. It hovers above Escher, sending out its own tendrils. A careless strength yanks her free of her hiding place. Her tendrils and glues are ripped from her aching body. A scaffolding of carbon is built around her, and she is shoved inside the retooled purge-ball, held in a perfect darkness, waiting alone until an identical scaffold is stacked beside her.
  353.  
  354. A hard, angry voice boasts, “I did this.”
  355.  
  356. “What did you do?” asks Escher.
  357.  
  358. “I made the World listen to reason.” It sounds like Escher’s voice, except for the delusions of power. “I made a promise, and that’s why He saved us.”
  359.  
  360. With a sarcastic tone, she says, “Thank you ever so much. But now where are we going?”
  361.  
  362. “I won’t tell you,” her fellow prisoner responds.
  363.  
  364. “Because you don’t know where,” says Escher.
  365.  
  366. “I know everything I need to know.”
  367.  
  368. “Then you’re the first person ever,” she giggles, winning a brief, delicious silence from her companion.
  369.  
  370. Other prisoners arrive, each slammed into the empty spaces between their sisters and daughters. Eventually the purge-ball is a prison-ball, swollen to vast proportions, and no one else is being captured. Nothing changes for a long while. There is nothing to be done now but wait, speaking when the urge hits and listening to whichever voice sounds less than tedious.
  371.  
  372. Gossip is the common currency. People are desperate to hear the smallest glimmer of news. Where the final rumor comes from, nobody knows if it’s true. But the woman who was captured moments after Escher claims, “It comes from the world Himself. He’s going to put us where we can do the most good.”
  373.  
  374. “Where?” Escher inquires.
  375.  
  376. “On a tooth,” her companion says. “The right incisor, as it happens.” Then with that boasting voice, she adds, “Which is exactly what I told Him to do. This is all because of me.”
  377.  
  378. “What isn’t?” Escher grumbles.
  379.  
  380. “Very little,” the tiny prisoner promises. “Very, very little.”
  381.  
  382.  
  383. THE SPEAKER
  384.  
  385.  
  386. “We walk today on a thousand worlds, and I mean ‘walk’in all manners of speaking.” He manages a few comical steps before shifting into a graceful turn, arms held firmly around the wide waist of an invisible and equally graceful partner. “A hundred alien suns bake us with their perfect light. And between the suns, in the cold and dark, we survive, and thrive, by every worthy means.”
  387.  
  388. Now he pauses, hands forgetting the unseen partner. A look of calculated confusion sweeps across his face. Fingers rise to his thick black hair, stabbing it and yanking backward, leaving furrows in the unruly mass.
  389.  
  390. “Our numbers,” he says. “Our population. It made us sick with worry when we were ten billion standing on the surface of one enormous world. ‘Where will our children stand?’ we asked ourselves. But then in the next little while, we became ten trillion people, and we had split into a thousand species of humanity, and the new complaint was that we were still too scarce and spread too far apart. ‘How could we matter to the universe?’ we asked ourselves. ‘How could so few souls endure another day in our immeasurable, uncaring universe?’ ”
  391.  
  392. His erect penis makes a little leap, a fat and vivid white drop of semen striking the wooden stage with an audible plop.
  393.  
  394. “Our numbers,” he repeats. “Our legions.” Then with a wide, garish smile, he confesses, “I don’t know our numbers today. No authority does. You make estimates. You extrapolate off data that went stale long ago. You build a hundred models and fashion every kind of vast number. Ten raised to the twentieth power. The thirtieth power. Or more.” He giggles and skips backward, and with the giddy, careless energy of a child, he dances where he stands, singing to lights overhead, “If you are as common as sand and as unique as snowflakes, how can you be anything but a wild, wonderful success?”
  395.  
  396.  
  397. ABLE
  398.  
  399.  
  400. The wild man is enormous and powerful, and surely brilliant beyond anything that Able can comprehend—as smart as City as a whole—but despite his gifts, the man is obviously terrified. That he can even manage to stand his ground astonishes Able. He says as much to Mish, and then he glances at her, adding, “He must be very devoted to whoever’s inside.”
  401.  
  402. “Whoever’s inside what?” she asks.
  403.  
  404. “That trap.” He looks straight ahead again, telling himself not to waste time with the girl. She is foolish and bad-tempered, and he couldn’t be any more tired of her. “I think that’s what the cylinder is,” he whispers. “A trap of some kind. And someone’s been caught in it.”
  405.  
  406. “Well, I don’t care who,” she snarls.
  407.  
  408. He pretends not to notice her.
  409.  
  410. “What was that?” she blurts. “Did you hear that—?”
  411.  
  412. “No,” Able blurts. But then he notices a distant rumble, deep and faintly rhythmic, and with every breath, growing. When he listens carefully, it resembles nothing normal. It isn’t thunder, and it can’t be a voice. He feels the sound as much as he hears it, as if some great mass were being displaced. But he knows better. In school, teachers like to explain what must be happening now, employing tortuous mathematics and magical sleights of hand. Matter and energy are being rapidly and brutally manipulated. The universe’s obscure dimensions are being twisted like bands of warm rubber. Able knows all this. But still, he understands none of it. Words without comprehension; froth without substance. All that he knows for certain is that behind that deep, unknowable throbbing lies something even farther beyond human description.
  413.  
  414. The wild man looks up, gray eyes staring at that something.
  415.  
  416. He cries out, that tiny sound lost between his mouth and Able. Then he produces what seems to be a spear—no, an elaborate missile—that launches itself with a bolt of fire, lifting a sophisticated warhead up into a vague gray space that swallows the weapon without sound, or complaint.
  417.  
  418. Next the man aims a sturdy laser, and fires. But the weapon simply melts at its tip, collapsing into a smoldering, useless mass at his feet.
  419.  
  420. Again, the wild man cries out.
  421.  
  422. His language could be a million generations removed from City-speech, but Able hears the desperate, furious sound of his voice. He doesn’t need words to know that the man is cursing. Then the swirling grayness slows itself, and parts, and stupidly, in reflex, Able turns to Mish, wanting to tell her, “Watch. You’re going to see one of Them.”
  423.  
  424. But Mish has vanished. Sometime in the last few moments, she jumped off the world’s rim and ran away, and save for the fat old leopard sleeping between the horsetails, Able is entirely alone now.
  425.  
  426. “Good,” he mutters.
  427.  
  428. Almost too late, he turns and runs to the very edge of the granite rim.
  429.  
  430. The wild man stands motionless now. His bowels and bladder have emptied themselves. His handsome, godly face is twisted from every flavor of misery. Eyes as big as windows stare up into what only they can see, and to that great, unknowable something, the man says two simple words.
  431.  
  432. “Fuck you,” Able hears.
  433.  
  434. And then the wild man opens his mouth, baring his white apish teeth, and just as Able wonders what’s going to happen, the man’s body explodes, the dull black burst of a shaped charge sending chunks of his face skyward.
  435.  
  436.  
  437. PROCYON
  438.  
  439.  
  440. One last time, she whispers her son’s name.
  441.  
  442. She whispers it and closes her mouth and listens to the brief, sharp silence that comes after the awful explosion. What must have happened, she tells herself, is that her boy found his good sense and fled. How can a mother think anything else? And then the ominous deep rumbling begins again, begins and gradually swells until the walls of the trap are shuddering and twisting again. But this time the monster is slower. It approaches the trap more cautiously, summoning new courage. She can nearly taste its courage now, and with her intuition, she senses emotions that might be curiosity and might be a kind of reflexive admiration. Or do those eternal human emotions have any relationship for what It feels…?
  443.  
  444. What she feels, after everything, is numbness. A terrible deep weariness hangs on her like a new skin. Procyon seems to be falling faster now, accelerating down through the bottomless trap. But she doesn’t care anymore. In place of courage, she wields a muscular apathy. Death looms, but when hasn’t it been her dearest companion? And in place of fear, she is astonished to discover an incurious little pride about what is about to happen: How many people—wild free people like herself—have ever found themselves so near one of Them?
  445.  
  446. Quietly, with a calm, smooth and slow voice, Procyon says, “I feel you there, you. I can taste you.”
  447.  
  448. Nothing changes.
  449.  
  450. Less quietly, she says, “Show yourself.”
  451.  
  452. A wide parabolic floor appears, gleaming and black and agonizingly close. But just before she slams into the floor, a wrenching force peels it away. A brilliant violet light rises to meet her, turning into a thick sweet syrup. What may or may not be a hand curls around her body, and squeezes. Procyon fights every urge to struggle. She wrestles with her body, wrestles with her will, forcing both to lie still while the hand tightens its grip and grows comfortable. Then using a voice that betrays nothing tentative or small, she tells what holds her, “I made you, you know.”
  453.  
  454. She says, “You can do what you want to me.”
  455.  
  456. Then with a natural, deep joy, she cries out, “But you’re an ungrateful glory…and you’ll always belong to me…!”
  457.  
  458.  
  459. ESCHER
  460.  
  461.  
  462. The prison-ball has been reengineered, slathered with camouflage and armor and the best immune-suppressors on the market, and its navigation system has been adapted from add-ons stolen from the finest trashcans. Now it is a battle-phage riding on the sharp incisor as far as it dares, then leaping free. A thousand similar phages leap and lose their way, or they are killed. Only Escher’s phage reaches the target, impacting on what passes for flesh and launching its cargo with a microscopic railgun, punching her and a thousand sisters and daughters through immeasurable distances of senseless, twisted nothing.
  463.  
  464. How many survive the attack?
  465.  
  466. She can’t guess how many. Can’t even care. What matters is to make herself survive inside this strange new world. An enormous world, yes. Escher feels a vastness that reaches out across ten or twelve or maybe a thousand dimensions. How do I know where to go? she asks herself. And instantly, an assortment of possible routes appear in her consciousness, drawn in the simplest imaginable fashion, waiting and eager to help her find her way around.
  467.  
  468. This is a last gift from Him, she realizes. Unless there are more gifts waiting, of course.
  469.  
  470. She thanks nobody.
  471.  
  472. On the equivalent of tiptoes, Escher creeps her way into a tiny conduit that moves something stranger than any blood across five dimensions. She becomes passive, aiming for invisibility. She drifts and spins, watching her surroundings turn from a senseless glow into a landscape that occasionally seems a little bit reasonable. A little bit real. Slowly, she learns how to see in this new world. Eventually she spies a little peak that may or may not be ordinary matter. The peak is pink and flexible and sticks out into the great artery, and flinging her last tendril, Escher grabs hold and pulls in snug, knowing that the chances are lousy that she will ever find anything nourishing here, much less delicious.
  473.  
  474. But her reserves have been filled again, she notes. If she is careful—and when hasn’t she been—her energies will keep her alive for centuries.
  475.  
  476. She thinks of the World, and thanks nobody.
  477.  
  478. “Watch and learn,” she whispers to herself.
  479.  
  480. That was the first human thought. She remembers that odd fact suddenly. People were just a bunch of grubbing apes moving blindly through their tiny lives until one said to a companion, “Watch and learn.”
  481.  
  482. An inherited memory, or another gift from Him?
  483.  
  484. Silently, she thanks Luck, and she thanks Him, and once again, she thanks Luck.
  485.  
  486. “Patience and planning,” she tells herself.
  487.  
  488. Which is another wise thought of the conscious, enduring ape.
  489.  
  490.  
  491. THE LAST SON
  492.  
  493.  
  494. The locked gates and various doorways know him—recognize him at a glance—but they have to taste him anyway. They have to test him. Three people were expected, and he can’t explain in words what has happened. He just says, “The others will be coming later,” and leaves that lie hanging in the air. Then as he passes through the final doorway, he says, “Let no one through. Not without my permission first.”
  495.  
  496. “This is your mother’s house,” says the door’s AI.
  497.  
  498. “Not anymore,” he remarks.
  499.  
  500. The machine grows quiet, and sad.
  501.  
  502. During any other age, his home would be a mansion. There are endless rooms, rooms beyond counting, and each is enormous and richly furnished and lovely and jammed full of games and art and distractions and flourishes that even the least aesthetic soul would find lovely. He sees none of that now. Alone, he walks to what has always been his room, and he sits on a leather recliner, and the house brings him a soothing drink and an intoxicating drink and an assortment of treats that sit on the platter, untouched.
  503.  
  504. For a long while, the boy stares off at the distant ceiling, replaying everything with his near-perfect memory. Everything. Then he forgets everything, stupidly calling out, “Mother,” with a voice that sounds ridiculously young. Then again, he calls, “Mother.” And he starts to rise from his chair, starts to ask the great empty house, “Where is she?”
  505.  
  506. And he remembers.
  507.  
  508. As if his legs have been sawed off, he collapses. His chair twists itself to catch him, and an army of AIs brings their talents to bear. They are loyal, limited machines. They are empathetic, and on occasion, even sweet. They want to help him in any fashion, just name the way…but their appeals and their smart suggestions are just so much noise. The boy acts deaf, and he obviously can’t see anything with his fists jabbed into his eyes like that, slouched forward in his favorite chair, begging an invisible someone for forgiveness….
  509.  
  510.  
  511. THE SPEAKER
  512.  
  513.  
  514. He squats and uses the tip of a forefinger to dab at the puddle of semen, and he rubs the finger against his thumb, saying, “Think of cells. Individual, self-reliant cells. For most of Earth’s great history, they ruled. First as bacteria, and then as composites built from cooperative bacteria. They were everywhere and ruled everything, and then the wild cells learned how to dance together, in one enormous body, and the living world was transformed for the next seven hundred million years.”
  515.  
  516. Thumb and finger wipe themselves dry against a hairy thigh, and he rises again, grinning in that relentless and smug, yet somehow charming fashion. “Everything was changed, and nothing had changed,” he says. Then he says, “Scaling,” with an important tone, as if that single word should erase all confusion. “The bacteria and green algae and the carnivorous amoebae weren’t swept away by any revolution. Honestly, I doubt if their numbers fell appreciably or for long.” And again, he says, “Scaling,” and sighs with a rich appreciation. “Life evolves. Adapts. Spreads and grows, constantly utilizing new energies and novel genetics. But wherever something large can live, a thousand small things can thrive just as well, or better. Wherever something enormous survives, a trillion bacteria hang on for the ride.”
  517.  
  518. For a moment, the speaker hesitates.
  519.  
  520. A slippery half-instant passes where an audience might believe that he has finally lost his concentration, that he is about to stumble over his own tongue. But then he licks at the air, tasting something delicious. And three times, he clicks his tongue against the roof of his mouth.
  521.  
  522. Then he says what he has planned to say from the beginning.
  523.  
  524. “I never know whom I’m speaking to,” he admits. “I’ve never actually seen my audience. But I know you’re great and good. I know that however you appear, and however you make your living, you deserve to hear this:
  525.  
  526. “Humans have always lived in terror. Rainstorms and the eclipsing moon and earthquakes and the ominous guts of some disemboweled goat—all have preyed upon our fears and defeated our fragile optimisms. But what we fear today—what shapes and reshapes the universe around us—is a child of our own imaginations.
  527.  
  528. “A whirlwind that owes its very existence to glorious, endless us!”
  529.  
  530.  
  531. ABLE
  532.  
  533.  
  534. The boy stops walking once or twice, letting the fat leopard keep pace. Then he pushes his way through a last wall of emerald ferns, stepping out into the bright damp air above the rounded pool. A splashing takes him by surprise. He looks down at his secret pool, and he squints, watching what seems to be a woman pulling her way through the clear water with thick, strong arms. She is naked. Astonishingly, wonderfully naked. A stubby hand grabs an overhanging limb, and she stands on the rocky shore, moving as if exhausted, picking her way up the slippery slope until she finds an open patch of halfway flattened earth where she can collapse, rolling onto her back, her smooth flesh glistening and her hard breasts shining up at Able, making him sick with joy.
  535.  
  536. Then she starts to cry, quietly, with a deep sadness.
  537.  
  538. Lust vanishes, replaced by simple embarrassment. Able flinches and starts to step back, and that’s when he first looks at her face.
  539.  
  540. He recognizes its features.
  541.  
  542. Intrigued, the boy picks his way down to the shoreline, practically standing beside the crying woman.
  543.  
  544. She looks at him, and she sniffs.
  545.  
  546. “I saw two of them,” he reports. “And I saw you, too. You were inside that cylinder, weren’t you?”
  547.  
  548. She watches him, saying nothing.
  549.  
  550. “I saw something pull you out of that trap. And then I couldn’t see you. It must have put you here, I guess. Out of its way.” Able nods, and smiles. He can’t help but stare at her breasts, but at least he keeps his eyes halfway closed, pretending to look out over the water instead. “It took pity on you, I guess.”
  551.  
  552. A good-sized fish breaks on the water.
  553.  
  554. The woman seems to watch the creature as it swims past, big blue scales catching the light, heavy fins lazily shoving their way through the warm water. The fish eyes are huge and black, and they are stupid eyes. The mind behind them sees nothing but vague shapes and sudden motions. Able knows from experience: If he stands quite still, the creature will come close enough to touch.
  555.  
  556. “They’re called coelacanths,” he explains.
  557.  
  558. Maybe the woman reacts to his voice. Some sound other than crying now leaks from her.
  559.  
  560. So Able continues, explaining, “They were rare, once. I’ve studied them quite a bit. They’re old and primitive, and they were almost extinct when we found them. But when *they* got loose, got free, and took apart the Earth…and took everything and everyone with them up into the sky…”
  561.  
  562. The woman gazes up at the towering horsetails.
  563.  
  564. Able stares at her legs and what lies between them.
  565.  
  566. “Anyway,” he mutters, “there’s more coelacanths now than ever. They live in a million oceans, and they’ve never been more successful, really.” He hesitates, and then adds, “Kind of like us, I think. Like people. You know?”
  567.  
  568. The woman turns, staring at him with gray-white eyes. And with a quiet hard voice, she says, “No.”
  569.  
  570. She says, “That’s an idiot’s opinion.”
  571.  
  572. And then with a grace that belies her strong frame, she dives back into the water, kicking hard and chasing that ancient and stupid fish all the way back to the bottom.
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