A Memory of the Future

“Mom? Why does this freeway have so many lanes?”

“Well Tom, remember when you were six, and the schools were all closed, and you did all your schoolwork as homework? And your teacher came on Zoom every day?”

“Er . . . yes?”

“Well . . . remember, before that time, that your Dad and I went away to work at the office every weekday?”

“What? No. Why would you?”

“Good question, Tom. Why did we? Why did everyone?”

“Dunno. Makes no sense to me. I mean, you only go to the office when you have to be there, right? Otherwise, what’s the point of the whole communism?”


“Yeah, yeah, the commute. What’s the point of commuting if you can do . . . whatever it is you do, from home?”

“Thing is, people used to think that was necessary to come to the office every day before nine, and work from there, and hold meetings with everyone in the same room. People were convinced—your dad and I were convinced as well, that all of us gathered together in the same building was the only way to have a productive workday.”

“But . . . that’s weird. Didn’t you have internet? Couldn’t you Zoom? Or Teams, or whatever?”

“Oh no, we did have internet, and Teams, and everything. But we only used those for people who couldn’t come in to the office.”

“So everyone else would drive to the office every day? That’s . . . like . . . thousands of people, isn’t it?”


“Wouldn’t they fill up all these lanes, then?”

“Yep . . . more than fill.”

“What do you mean?”

“There would be so many cars every morning that they’d all get stuck. And this traffic congestion would mean they’d all be crawling along. This whole stretch of freeway, from where we got on, to the exit for my office, takes about twenty minutes by car. But mornings, your dad and I both spent at least an hour in our cars here.”

“You’re kidding, right?”

“Not kidding. And all those cars would belch out exhaust fumes.”

Tom mulled this over for a while.

“Boy, I’m glad everyone came to their senses,” he said. “Do you want some water?”

He stopped walking and shrugged out of his backpack. Pulling the water bottle from the side netting, he handed it to Mom. Just ahead, road workers were tearing out the tarmac of the fourth and fifth lanes. Further down the freeway, they could see where the two lanes had already been turned into a strip of greenery, a bike path and a walking trail.

On the three remaining lanes, a steady stream of cars made their way to the commercial district on the horizon. Tom tried and failed to imagine all five lanes jammed with cars. He shrugged and looked to the side. In the distance, the North Sea sand dunes shimmered in the growing summer heat. Mom grabbed his arm.


She was pointing at the nearest field, where a doe was calmly grazing.

“Me too,” she said. “I’m glad too.”


—April 11, 2020

Night of No Return

Someone who’ll forgive me,” the ghost captain said.

Gilly wasn’t sure what kind of answer she’d been expecting. What was usual, for ghosts? What were they likely to be looking for?

Silent, she studied him. Her head came level with the middle of his chest, and his limbs were broad with muscle; her kind of ship called for a dancer’s lightness, and his for someone who could stamp and bellow. He wore a dark blue woolen shirt, salt-stiff and sweat-felted, with one elbow roughly darned with hemp twine. Conscious of her grey skinsuit’s smoothness and the transparent membrane covering her face, Gilly wondered what he thought of her.

“Forgive you?” she asked.

He nodded. “Hear my whole tale, told truly, and forgive my deeds, and all before the sun rises.” A callused hand fended off the low eastern hills. “It’s only this single night in a hundred years we make port, my ship and all my crew and I, to seek someone who’ll hear my story and the way I damned us all. And you—” now his look turned frankly appraising, “lovely creature that you are, seem to be the only one here.”

“Things have changed some,” Gilly said.

“They have,” the captain agreed ruefully. “The last two nights before this I could find no-one to speak to at all. My crew had begun to wonder if all were gone, and our hope of rest gone with them.”

“Not quite all,” Gilly said. “Not quite yet.” Over the captain’s shoulder, spectres crowded the wooden rail, jostling for place. She counted fifteen men, all with their own faces; they were part of this, themselves, she guessed, and not just background for the captain’s suffering, though none of them seemed able to speak. “Is that what you hope for, then? Oblivion?”

He gave a short laugh. “We’ve no hope of Heaven, any of us. And as for Hell, well, what should we hope for there? Unless this is Hell, and all our hope for release merely a torment—” He broke off, looking askance at her. “Do you know those words? Heaven, Hell—”

“I’m well read,” Gilly said dryly. “Yes, I know what you mean. Punishment or joy, forever.”

“That’s well.” The captain looked relieved. “The language changes, you see. This curse grants me a gift of tongues, to tell my story the better as the generations pass, but what use are the words when the ideas behind them are missing? I spend half the night explaining whaling and adultery and England and murder, and there’s scarce time left to plead for mercy. No knowing of murder, can you credit it? There was a woman one time, many nights ago—” He trailed off, and was silent for a long moment before giving a sudden shake of his head. “Pardon me, do. I maunder.”

“It’s all right,” Gilly said. She put out a hand as though to lay it on his arm, then thought better of it and drew back. To her eyes he seemed solid, and to her other eyes as well, but she was reluctant to make the test. “It is, though, truly. There’s time. This night will be long.”

“Are they getting longer?” the captain asked.


“I thought they might be.” He sounded dubious. “Hobson, my second mate—he’s made observations with the telescope, he’s kept records. I brought him some books once that someone gave me ashore, children’s books, you know, that this little boy had—marvelous things like glass scrolls, they were, that told all about the sun and stars. There are ships up there, you know,” he added parenthetically, with grave wonder. “Marvelous— And Hobson said the sun was getting warmer, or closer, or some such thing. I thought he might be mistaken, it’s hard to take observations at sea, and time moves so oddly sometimes. But you say it’s true.”

Gilly nodded slowly, wondering how much to tell him. At last she said, “I’ve been out there, on those ships. Your crewman’s right. The sun is—well, it’s very old. When suns die—” She gestured around them, at the distant shadow of the hills, the stone pier where they stood, the shingled beach below and the frozen sea. The ancient vessel bobbed at anchor in an incongruous patch of shining water. It looked like moonlight, Gilly thought; Earth had had moons—one moon, at the time this ship had sailed. Old light, old shadows. “You can see what’s gone.”

“There were trees here once,” the captain said. “I remember it. This was a green place.” He frowned. “There was a rain of fire while we were at sea, some time ago. Some of us thought it was Judgement Day come at last. But it passed, and we were still afloat. Only after that, there was no-one here when I came ashore.” He scuffed at the stone with the toe of his boot. “This is the third time since then; three hundred years, it must be. I thought the trees might have grown back.”

Gilly shook her head. “They won’t. The air itself is burned away, now.”

“Hobson said he thought the stars were clearer.” The captain gave his short bark of a laugh again. “I suppose we didn’t notice. The air, truly? But you’re breathing still.”

“With this.” Gilly touched the interface at the base of her throat. “It’s a sort of machine. It breathes for me, and the shield keeps my skin from the cold and the vacuum—the lack of air. Actually, down there, the sea—that’s the air that’s left, that ice. I’m not even sure how I’m hearing you, to be honest.” She saw that he wasn’t following her train of thought, considered explaining, and decided a lecture on physics wasn’t the best use of their time. Physical law only seemed to apply sporadically to him and his crew anyway. “Well. I came protected.”

“How marvelous.” The captain glanced back at his ship. “Then you don’t live here.”

“No-one does,” Gilly said. “I told you I’d been on starships; in truth, I fly one.” Not truth, exactly; but that explanation would be even more difficult than frozen air. “I only came here for a little while, to do a task. And to see.”

“Then I should tell you my sordid tale now, before you have to leave again,” the captain said. “Before the sun rises.”

The sharp stars hung over the hills, their light giving edges to everything. “This night will be longer than you think,” she said.

“You told me that before,” he said. “How long?”

Their eyes met, and locked.

“The sun is dying,” Gilly said bluntly. She hadn’t been sure, before, how much to say, but she couldn’t remember now why she’d wanted to hold back. Pity, perhaps? This body had been troubling her with stray feelings since it had come to her, and she was still sorting them out. “This world is dead already. When suns die, they grow swollen and kill their planets in their dying. Then their fire recedes, and they shrink to a kind of ember. The world can’t turn as it did before; it becomes tidally locked. Do you know what that is?”

“I—no. Tides I know, but—well, go on. I’ll follow as I can.”

“The world slows,” Gilly said, “and then it stops. One side faces the sun, for always, and the other looks outward to the stars.”

“Forever,” the captain said slowly.

“For as long as the sun burns at all. This night won’t end, Captain. The sun isn’t going to rise.”

“I must tell Hobson,” the captain muttered. He started to turn back toward his ship, then stopped. “No, what am I doing? Forgive me, fair one. I need to tell you my story. But if you—if the sun doesn’t rise, if the night—” He shook his head, bewildered. “What happens to us now? Do we sit at anchor forever? Do I keep telling my tale to everyone who comes here, without sailing in between?”

“No-one else will come here,” Gilly said quietly. “I’m sorry, Captain. That’s the rest of what I have to tell you. I’m the last. I’ve come to dismantle the gate here, now that Earth and Mars are dead, and take it elsewhere. T-space gates are valuable; we can’t build them ourselves, only scavenge the ones that exist already, and no-one wants to leave a gate here when it’s so badly needed elsewhere. Not even the species’ first home is worth that much, not as a monument alone.” She was surprised at the bitterness her voice betrayed. Feelings, on and on. “Forgive me, Captain. My people’s politics aren’t your problem.”

“They very much are, I think,” he corrected her mildly, “if they determine my crew’s future, and my own. And you’ve yet to answer my question, lovely one. What happens to us now?”

“Now—” Gilly shook her head. “Captain, I confess, I have absolutely no idea.”

“Can you stay for me to tell my tale, at least?” the captain pleaded. “You may be my last chance.”

“I may,” Gilly admitted, “but I don’t think I can give you what you need.”

“Try, at least,” the captain said. “If you’ve any mercy at all in you—”

“I truly don’t.” Gilly saw his stricken look, and added, “That’s not a slight against you; I mean it literally. I’ve no mercy, no, nor much else in the way of feelings. You perhaps noted that I showed no surprise at seeing you, when your ship appeared.”

“I wondered at that,” the captain admitted.

“In a way, I’m a ghost as well, though not like you,” Gilly continued. More difficult than frozen air, indeed. “This body, this young woman whom you call fair, suffered an accident that killed her mind but left her flesh intact. When that happens to someone, we have a use for the bodies, we ships. It was given to me to be my other half, to give me—flexibility, you could say. My mind, my self, my continuity, is a machine. This body, with its feelings and its wants, is peripheral; I can pity you, I can care about you, through this part of me, but it’s transient, not part of my core. It would only be the feelings of the dead. I’m not sure I can help you, captain. I can listen to your story, I can decide whether I think you were justified in what you did, but I don’t know that that would be forgiveness. And even if I feel as though it is—well. Coming from me, I don’t know that it would count.”

Silence, while the waves lapped the pier in that circle of otherworldly sea. “But you must try, fair one,” the captain said. “Fair machine person. Whatever you call yourself. You must. Even if you are a, a ghost of sorts. You’re all we have.”

“That isn’t so,” Gilly said, and all at once caught up with herself, and knew why she’d decided to explain after all. “Not to my thinking. If the forgiveness of a ghost is enough, and I don’t deny it might be—then can’t you forgive each other?”

Long silence.

The captain spread his hands helplessly. “How could that be? We were there. We know what happened, what I did, what they did. I’ve carried it so long—”

“And have you once,” Gilly inquired, “in all your wandering, asked your crew to forgive you? For leading them to this?”

“They wouldn’t,” the captain said, but uncertainly.

“They might,” Gilly said. “Ask them.”

“But if I go back aboard,” the captain said, “I may not be able to return to you. I may not get a second chance. I should—”

“Hedge your bets?” Gilly finished gently. “I never believed in ghosts, Captain; all I know of them is stories. But the logic of stories tells me—that’s not how this kind of thing works. You need to make a choice. Trust, captain. That’s where this goes. Laying your story on strangers—maybe that was never going to work. Let your crew judge you, and forgive you, and move on.”

She saw the agony of indecision chase itself across his face. He looked back, over his shoulder, at the blurry figures clustered along the rail. How much could they hear, or see? The captain looked solid, unwavering, fully in the world to everything her flesh eyes and her sensors could determine. Except the world was an airless stone, cold as space, and he stood before her in his mended sweater as though it kept him warm enough.

“I don’t think I can,” he said.

Gilly shrugged. “Then tell me your story,” she said. “If that’s your choice.”

“I don’t—” He stopped, shaking his head. He couldn’t choose, Gilly thought. All these billions of years, these billions of nights doing what he’d been told (by whom? she wondered) was his only hope—he’d gotten well out of the habit of volition.

She was guessing, as she always had to guess when things moved beyond verifiable data. But she was more sure than was usual for her, when logic failed. This body, this latest one in the long line of corpses she wired herself into because human brains dealt so much better with fragmentary systems than her core self did—with this latest body she’d found a new confidence in stories, a closer and clearer sense of the narratively appropriate; and how else, after all, did one deal with ghosts, except through story? It made no sense, and complete sense, and on that thought Gilly found herself turning back toward her landing site.

“Wait, fair machine, wait,” the captain called after her, reflexively, she thought. Not true choice. She would choose for him.

“If I’m wrong,” she said without turning, “forgive me.”

Her feet crunched on the frozen ground as she walked, sending little shocks of vibration up her legs. The ship, the rest of her, glowed coral-coloured on the ridge. He didn’t follow, or couldn’t. If she was wrong, she thought, perhaps she’d be condemned herself, in narrative symmetry, doomed for her hard-heartedness to wander the endless stars.

But that was her fate regardless, she thought, as light spilled from the airlock and she welcomed herself home: to wander endlessly, and to be alone. The missions changed, the planners changed, she was rebuilt and rebuilt and rebuilt. Perhaps it was only that the latest body was mad, or broken; but she had begun to wonder, lately, if she was lonely.

Perhaps that’s the fate of all ghosts, she thought.

The ship rose up and left the world behind.



First, we made sure the world was devoid of sentient inhabitants.

Its turquoise skies grew greener (we thought) as summer waned.

On the wine-dark sand we drew diagrams and planted pennants:

a cultural center here, a spa or hotel there, on an imaginary beach.

At least one of the suns was always rising, and the light perfect

for filming, as if the planet were a vast, floodlit stage. Shadows

radiated and swung like compass needles in a geometer’s dream.

Our shielded clothing and the protective coatings on excavators,

fabricators, and constructors faded quickly under the incessant

illumination. No one could agree on what the colors had become,

but we tried to name the new shades anyway: peripatetic, swelter,

welkin, shudder, grudge. All our off-world concepts lost relevance—

something about the fluctuating solar spectra. Estimated project

completion was indefinitely postponed.


The Alice Grey

The spire grew from a tight mesh pushing out of the deep cracks of the street, converging into a pillar that loomed above the squat buildings, clipping one at the side. Alice circled high over the rising structure and the abandoned remnants of Krakow while her ship spit out the usual scans with a faint hum and stutter. This nanotech Grey was polite for such a big one, it didn’t extend defensive barbs into the air and showed no obvious toxicity.

The other collectors preferred passive flare-ups like this, but Alice found it hard to destroy something that didn’t fight back. Jake never seemed to care, but she thought a passive collection skirted the edge of cowardice.

“No use waiting then, Old Pig,” Alice whispered to her ship.

Alice had Old Pig throw out one of its sample collection probes, a pointless ritual to confirm the nanite aggregate. But protocol was protocol, and part of the reason the Grey kept coming back.

The probe returned as the spire sealed the small dimple created by its offending distant cousin. Old Pig opened the probe’s collection pouch and spilled the twitching machinery into his quarantine chamber. Extending the remotely controlled robotic arms and manifold tools, Alice dove into the sagging handful. Such a small sample rarely revealed anything important, but this was one of the best parts of the job, to see the Grey’s newest evolutions in such detail. This first look was the only reason Alice didn’t skip the initial probing entirely.

The sample’s outer tessellating microstructure folded into layers of protecting tightness. Each surrounding sheet grew into shapes evolved from the simple patterns at their central sheet, convolving into a blossom of wild elegance. Tough skin growing into sensitive flesh.

The Grey often came up with unusual strategies among its twisting symmetries and convoluted molecular designs. She had seen so much over the years, but every time it was new and terrifying. Certainly useful to the few who bothered studying the Grey anymore. Occasionally even profitable, when she managed to squirrel away something novel for her Duster friends.

A Grey as complicated as the spire below would usually be much smaller, easy to corral into the ship’s small autoclave until Alice could haul it back to the Black Drop. But she doubted the autoclave’s pressurization assault would work even if she could pack it all in. This sort of Grey would just hyperevolve its way out. She had once nearly lost her ship when a much simpler Grey cluster managed to escape and veer Old Pig into an evacuated building.

Time for Protocol again, but this time a sensible one, land and extend the secondary sensors. Call for backup.

Old Pig yawned in relief as the burdens of flight slacked around him, turbines wheezing still and landing gear moaning.

“Central, I have a T-40 here. Request reinforcement.” Audio only, hoping Fabrizio wouldn’t open the visual.

“Sorry, Alice.” No such luck, there he was on the screen, grinning and vacant. “Everybody’s out, even the off-duty. Lots of big ones popping up all over.”

“Sir, I strongly suggest diverting to this location. My target exhibits advanced tertiary structure and exponential repair. Sending preliminary data over now.”

There was a pause in his crass attempts at a flirty smile as he read the report. Then he bit into his thumbnail. “Um,” he finally replied to fill the awkward pause. “I can send you Takashi and Krin in about an hour.”

“Their ships are not equipped for this category, sir. I need two other class threes, minimal.”

“Let me get back to you.” Of course, she thought, you go find somebody else to tell you what to do.

Not wanting to wait, she began the next data collection phase, reaching out to the growing spire with an uncoiling sensory proboscis. Slow and unthreatening, Old Pig’s snorting and snuffling nose touched the spire’s surface, then burrowed in when he encountered no adaptive resistance.

That was how you dealt with the advanced nanites, careful and deliberate. The old self-replicating identicals would just burn themselves out when they ran out of local resources. Sometimes they even encountered something that could wipe their whole population with surprising ease. Once, in Venezuela, she’d watched beetles by the thousands gorging on pink nanite nets that stretched over a full square mile of farmland.

“Unit 14, standby for emergency communication.” Startled, Alice adjusted the volume of the UN direct com channel. It was only the third time it had been used since she got Old Pig, and this didn’t seem to be just another transmission test.

“This is Commander Sherman of the United Nations Nanomachine Defense Commission. Multiple nanite flare-ups have been detected across the globe, many of similar composition. This appears to be a coordinated assault. Eliminate your assigned target at all cost. Reinforcement will be sent as resources become available. Repeat, eliminate target at all cost.”

So it was really starting, just like Jake had predicted. Alice sat back and tried to take in the spire, reach across the gap of chemical incompatibility, timeline, and scale. Plunge into the heart of the living machine, if only to ask what it was doing, what it wanted.

In the beginning, it was easy enough to toss Grey into the Black like so much inconvenient garbage. The Grey would clump and fray as they tumbled down before reaching the event horizon, their final throes fixed in timelessness.

The varied fireworks of the dying Grey became something of a show. People brought their children to crowd the stadium that was built below the miniature black hole. They sold hot dogs and booked popular concerts. It brought in some tidy revenue for the Commission and was great at advertising the need to keep funding nanite cleanup.

A report lit up from a holodisplay, a tumbling bauble of jagged edges over splitting bulges. It was a cross-sectional representation of the spire, its layers and inner folds. The bulky lower tiers were packed high-energy polymers, followed by skeletal struts thinning into to bewildering complexity at the top. Not just structure: the telltale whispers of function.

Alice began the analysis, extrapolating expansion rates, available intermolecular free energy and evolution probabilities. These used to be enough, but now they were often wrong, sometimes dangerously so. This time they made no sense at all. This spire shouldn’t be growing so quickly. At its current size it actually had a negative free energy score and should have collapsed by now.

Well, it was time to earn her pay.

“Old Pig, load the Thierry-Malt function.”

Alice struggled with the formatting errors that often sprang up with new functions like this, but soon enough she worked out the kinks. The program churned to detect the free energy of each compartment subsection at the molecular level, the streaming pentabytes straining Old Pig’s processors.

What would this Grey burn into when thrown into the Black? Perhaps it would flash with rainbow colors and abstract shapes to woo the crowd, or maybe leer down with blood-shot eyes extending from massive sheets of billowing flesh, arms and legs and mouths and sex, almost human.

Alice preferred the latter, the deathknell that thinned the crowds as people realized they were watching an execution. Only the hardcore Dusters watched anymore, but they knew from the beginning what they were seeing, didn’t need for it to be spelled out with the grotesque.

Fabrizio beeped at the com. Alice ignored it, hoping he would just give up, but it came up again, then again. She finally opened the damn channel.

“Alice, this operation is getting too hot! They are popping up all over, there’s even talk of Q-strikes if we can’t contain them all. Please, if you can’t get rid of yours just get out of there, I’ll cover for you, just get out!”

“Thank you for your concern, sir.”

Then he just stared, his mouth partially open as if there was something really important he wanted to say but couldn’t quite find the words. He looked like a lost puppy.

“I have to go, sir.” She shut off the channel.

Always with the overreaction. The Grey showed up as something big and scary and it suddenly became a problem. People so easily forgot that nanites filled the air and seeped into the earth. Even in the fulldome cities, where nanite surveillance was maximally paranoid, every breath of air had at least a few hundred, if not thousands, of stray nanomachines. Remnants of true Grey dead-ended into particulate oblivion, sure. But still there.

Old Pig’s sensory extensions deep within the spire started to report large-scale shifts in isomerization and structural integrity. The gap between the high-energy compounds at the base and the complexity hubs above started to increase, filling with a tight honeycomb structure.

This was developing faster than she expected. Soon enough, nothing Old Pig had would touch it. Alice leaned forward and turned on the torches, but they didn’t even singe the outer shell. A burst of liquid nitrogen also had no effect, just slid across the surface and pooled into a slowly sublimating puddle on the cracked street. The sensory module died as the spire snapped against the umbilical wire connecting it to Old Pig, sealing the module within.

Alice ran through a few calculations and hedged guesses, then struck with a combination of acids and other caustic chemicals, again to no effect. She tried shooting the spire for good measure, Pig’s Gatling snout blazing red and yellow as it fired explosive rounds. The first barrage looked like it caused some damage, but the second barely scratched the surface.

The next option would be the PQB cannon. Alice wired Command for permission, but found it was pre-approved. She put some distance between Old Pig and the spire and unfurled the cannon from Pig’s underbelly. An invisible high-energy beam burst from it, tearing at the air, the ensuring thunder toppling the nearby three blocks of the dead city.

The spire listed a bit to the side as the building it rested on fell, but righted itself, the soft, melting surface that had taken the brunt of the blast clawing back up. Old Pig had enough charge to fire a second blast, but Alice decided to save the fuel.

Just last year, a routine geological survey broke into a massive cavern housing a Grey construct of over fifty metric tons. It fed off the magma flowing near its undulating edges, the fingers it dipped into the molten rock fine and glassy. It was written off as a fluke, but Alice knew better; the Grey probably extended into the very planet’s core. Imagining worlds upon worlds below teeming with Grey made her feel like a simple woodland animal staring at a busy campfire from the distance, the bustle of artificial tools and light incomprehensible yet strangely alluring.

Well, the UN did say at any cost. Alice touched the small metal circle at the side of her neck and called Smitha. Good old Silver, as she liked to be called now.

“Well, isn’t this a pleasure! Always glad to see you, my dear.”

“Hello, Silver, are you out?”

“Of course! Isn’t all this activity just wonderful? I’m in North Africa collecting an entirely unmolested quad growth, a neat little cube, harder than our best boson-tethered lattice.”

“I have something better here for you, highest complexity. If you help me take it out you can have the remains.”

“Now, now, are you finally switching sides? No longer Uncle’s nice little girl?”

“I have full leeway on this assignment. They’re a bit desperate.”

“I can imagine, I’ll break atmosphere and be at your position in a few minutes. Hold on tight!”

“Will do. I’m sending you the data.”


Together, they fired and cut. The unpainted metal bulk of Old Pig appeared crude beside Smitha’s sleek, jet-black Sagittarius. It was the newest model reentry collection and disposal craft, the kind the UN commission couldn’t afford to buy. Another product geared at Dusters selling illegal nanotech to companies too lazy to do their own R&D. Alice just hoped Smitha never tried to sell her wares off-world. Getting caught breaking the Earth quarantine net held a long prison term. Whatever it took to keep the colonies clean of the runaway nanites.

“Hey, Alice, this isn’t working.”

Alice agreed, so they paused to hover within sight of the spire, discussing which models to apply and calling on increasingly tenuous industry and academia contacts for advice. They were all aware of the coordinated Grey flare-ups. Everybody could smell something big, but, as usual, nobody knew what to expect.

“Silver, heads up.”

“Wow. So cool.”

The spire had started to shift, its top building in volume into a large sphere sitting on a narrow stalk. It looked like a starved fungal colony, dying cells rising into a suicidal pillar to elevate a bolus of spores meant to burst into the wind. The bolus quickly grew to almost a mile in diameter, by far the largest Grey Alice had ever seen.

A message came from the UN channel, not a general report like before, but a personal one.

“Unit 14, orbital satellites have detected accelerated growth at your location, we are sending a quantum-yield drone to your target, maintain pressure until it arrives.”

Another lifeless crater swallowing up the remnants of an old city. The responsible subcommittees claimed the fallout wasn’t so bad on the new Q bombs, but humanity would still lose more ground, crowding ever more tightly into the remaining fulldome cities with viable scrubbers. As if Earth was just a contaminant to be locked away and kept from spreading.

“Ouch. I’m sorry, Alice, but I should head out before they unscramble my serials.”

“Wait a minute.”

Alice hated going to him for help, but this had become more than just another collection. She took off her VR interface and got up from her immersion chair, calling out for Jake. Old Pig was no longer projected around her, replaced instead with her apartment’s small living room.

Jake sat at the kitchen table, a handful of books neatly stacked to the side, his computer terminal lowered as he looked up to Alice in the doorway. She squeezed past the oven and put her arms over his shoulders, letting the incredible heat of his body leak into her. He smelled of fresh coffee and pine.

“Hello, darling,” he said, “welcome home.”

She hugged his chest and neck until she could feel his skin shift underneath. Alice enjoyed how it wavered between resisting her pressure and giving in.

“You know what’s going on with the spire?” she asked.

“Yes, I saw. Do you need help?” He looked up with his pale blue eyes, trying to smile.

A pause as she considered what she was about to ask.


“The inner segment of the base is not a supporting matrix or compressed raw materials, it’s an explosive store, high density. I don’t know what the top is, it won’t speak to me. But if you detonate the explosive in an uncontrolled way, the structure will collapse. The rest is too far gone to revert and rebuild, so it will probably scatter. Want me to upload some suggestions to Old Pig?”

“Thank you, Jake, your insight is more than enough.” Alice got up and turned back to the empty doorway, letting her hand linger on his shoulder.

“I love you,” he offered as her hand slid off.

He lied, of course. Jake enjoyed the quiet study in her tiny New York apartment, the crumbling books and ever-amusing human knowledge he hoarded while building himself with all the awe and giddy joy of a child learning about sex for the first time. But it was a strangely captivating mimicry, pointless and obsessive in equal measure yet still exhilarating.

“I love you too.” Alice looked back with a smile, knowing what the word meant and not lying.

With a step through the threshold she was back at her ship, the small cockpit inviting and warm, as if Jake’s heat followed her back.

“Silver, check your com for my plan. I hope your PQB cannon beam is narrow.”

“As a virgin butthole. All right, let’s do this thing!”

Alice got near to the base of the stalk, where it expanded into a large rectangular square. She detached her incendiary blaster, but waited. Then Silver fired her cannon, focusing the blast on a meter-sized area on the Spire’s base, Alice’s craft barely shaking from the aftershock. Alice knew Silver’s newer model PQB would be much better than hers, but didn’t expect such a stark difference.

The hole it left on the Grey was rapidly closing, but Alice had enough time to shove her detached torch inside, right next to the remnant cord of the sensor module that had first entered the Grey when it was still a spire. She quickly reprogrammed the sensor so its transmission and motility wire grabbed onto the torch and drove it deeper into the Grey, right where the explosive reservoir met the stalk.

“Payload set! Back off!”

Old Pig and Sagittarius rose up several miles above the Grey, then waited as the remote program turned on the torch. Alice held her breath in a pregnant second of blind inactivity, then another of shiftless anxiety, then another of fear that something had gone wrong.

A bright flare erupted from the Grey, saturating all detectors, pushing against their ships with an angry shockwave.

“Is it down?” Alice asked Silver, knowing her sensors would recover faster.

“Yes! Yes! It’s keeled over and half-chewed up at the bottom, looks like it’s dispersing!”

Alice leaned back as Silver dove to start collecting the escaping Grey. In the distance, a small triangle turned and disappeared, perhaps the called off Q-bomb drone.

With no small sense of professional pride, Alice sent a summary of her strategy to the other collectors, directly as well as through Central. She even thought of forwarding it to the UN commission, but didn’t. That would be a bit too cheeky.

The UN channel beeped. Not a message, a live feed. She turned it on. A graying man in a tight military uniform leaned into the cam, displacing the young communications officer turning away from his station.

“Collector Alice, superb job out there, we appreciate your effort. Please collect as much of the remaining Grey for study as you can, particularly remnants of the large terminal sphere. An advanced collection team is on its way, but whatever you can get right now would be of great assistance.”

“Yes, sir.” She replied with practiced detachment, wondering what the devil was going on. The Commission would never stoop to debris study. But before she could rearrange her wits well enough to ask, the soldier shut off the transmission.

“Silver, I just got a very strange call from the Commission. They ordered me to collect some of the Grey.”

“Well, come on down, sister! There’s more here than I could ever pack in my rig anyway.”

“Sure, but—”

“Silly, just load up the net, it’s all over the place. Things are going to get real interesting now.”

First Alice lowered Old Pig to begin the collection, but then she checked the public web. She immediately found what Smitha was talking about.

Hundreds of static and full-VR vids showed propulsion contrails rising from the ground with plumes of billowing orange and yellow. Each drove up a sphere similar to the one she’d just destroyed. Vid after vid showed dozens of spheres rising from multiple horizons to charge at the sky.

The reservoir was not a lateralizing explosive or digging apparatus, it was fuel. Alice stared at a leaked orbital video of countless Grey spheres spreading away from Earth, then personal snippets from Dusters and vacationers gazing at the comets passing their ships, drunk in the experience of the first extraterrestrial Grey excursion.

Several of the Grey spheres crashed into the quarantine grid and were destroyed, but most punched through. Layer after layer broke up in their wake, the shrapnel burning up in the atmosphere, leaving Earth naked again for the first time in almost fifty years.

Alice knew she was supposed to fear this and tossed that aside; she hoped the Grey would find a home for themselves. Not just in the asteroid belts and terraformed moons but in the places humans were too frail to enter. She wished for them to taste the far reaches of dark matter clouds, the burning atmospheres of gas giants and the very surface of suns.

Her hands trembled on Old Pig’s controls, not out of fear or apprehension, but at the sudden and overwhelming realization that she no longer wanted to be a collector.

The next day she would abandon her earthbound ship and purchase a Duster craft with her illicit savings from selling Grey on the side—one large enough for both her and Jake. They would chase after what they could only access through distorted mirrors and abstract mathematics, artifice desperate for artistry, Jake seeking the human and Alice the machine, each reaching out to distant fires not of their making.


An Oasis of Amends

You should have seen this, Rowan.

From the observation platform on the converted oil rig, I watch the giant conveyor lift the chunks out of the ocean, see them climb to the coastal plain, see the freeway width of the belt disappear over the horizon, and feel like a Lego figurine in a life-sized industrial zone.

The solid wall of noise makes me sweat as much as the heat does. The shouting, the mechanical roar of the conveyor, the screaming crunch of the ice, and the shattering splashes of the chunks crashing back into the ocean make it hard to think. So I don’t think, but let the memory of you pervade me, a bittersweet sensation I love and dread.

While I was still trying to fight the greenhouse effect, lobbying for emission agreements, investing billions in sustainable energy, strengthening sea walls around the globe, you were way ahead of me. I called you a pessimist when you said global warming was a given, the inevitable result of humanity’s carelessness. You told me nothing we could do to mitigate our mistakes would have measurable effects on any useful time scale. You argued that it was too late to fight causes, that all our influence and wealth were better spent dealing with the consequences. I called you fatalistic, mocked you for a harbinger of doom.

In the end, you relented, chose our marriage over your beliefs. This keeps me awake at night, that you gave in, relinquished your conviction to support my follies instead. Is that what love does to us?

I should have listened to you.

Another iceberg drifts stately into the bay, propelled by a trio of power pushers and its own embedded engines, into the maws of the Nutcracker. You would have loved that name. The enormous steel jaws rise from the waves and squeeze together, seeming to stop dozens of meters from the tip of the iceberg. Under water, the automatic drills deliver their charges, and the berg shudders with muffled explosions, the jaws recommencing their unrelenting squeeze until the ice shatters into house- and car-sized chunks. As the nutcracker opens, the sweeper ships move in, herding the chunks deeper into the bay. For all its violence and chaos, the operation runs smoothly, and in fifteen minutes, the first chunks rise from the ocean to be conveyed inland.

The explosions, the waves, the rumbling of the conveyor travel through the rig until my chest vibrates. Sweating, I climb the stairs to the ancient waiting Chinook, its twin rotors attempting to overwhelm the symphony of shudders.

This is how the dyke shook before it collapsed.

We were there at the breach when The Netherlands were lost. The worst south-western storm in the history of Western Europe took giant bites out of the Dutch dunes even as the Zeeland Delta Works succumbed to the onslaught. The evacuation of the country, which I had fought to postpone because the sea wall would damn well hold, wasn’t even halfway complete.

Was it guilt that kept me hauling sand bags? Was it love that kept you by my side? At least I know what it was when the dyke crumbled, and you were swept away while I was dragged to safety, screaming your name.

That was punishment.

I’m making amends now, Rowan. Don’t mourn what’s already lost, you told me. Deal with what’s left. You’re gone, my love, but I’m still here.

“They’re going to melt,” you said, shrugging. “Both of them, north and south. There is no way you can reverse that process now.”

“But if you’re right, if that’s true, sea levels will rise by as much as six meters. Whole coastal regions will be lost, millions of lives. You think I’m just going to sit by and let that happen?”

You shook your head and smiled. “They’re going to melt. The question is: can we let them melt where a gazillion gallons of freshwater will do some good?”

The Chinook passes over Nouamghar and follows the conveyor belt. On either side, the scorched sands of the Western Sahara stretch to the shimmery horizon. From up here, the conveyor looks like a foot-wide black strip loaded with crushed ice. But I know its actual width, and my mind locks up trying to calculate how much water is traveling inland.

We’re already raising the water table, Rowan. It took the fortune I amassed with sustainable energy and draws every Gigawatt of solar power from the Algerian farm, but it’s happening.

Sixty miles inland, melting station A feeds the Benichab irrigation hub. From the helicopter, I look down upon the slowly expanding circle around the hub, the green land, wadis that used to be dry most of the year now supporting dates and coconuts and meadows.

You should have seen this.



“I like a boy.”

Julia silently pushed a button on a remote control lying in front of her on the table, on a pile of celebration stuff. A larger than life fir cone in the lightest corner of the room hissed out nine tentacles of unequal length. With a loud spat of suction cups, the treerootlike offshoots firmly attached themselves to the floor. The cone erected and started to telescope. Collapsible fir-tree branches covered with silicone needles were shooting from under its scales.

Julia and her daughter Nastya were observing it from the opposite sides of the table—”The Botticelli Venus who sold her hair to buy a pair of jeans and a tee, and Leonardo’s goldilocks angel”, as they were called by Klara, an artist, their friend. In about five minutes a gorgeous New Year tree was standing in front of them.

“My best idea ever”, Julia said. “Much unlike that lame decision to send you to a mixed school. Well, do you want to tell me more about your crush?”

“Wanna ask. Who can marry a boy?”

“Only women with immaculate genes.”

“Do I have maculate ones?”

“You will get tested later in life to find out.”

“This boy, Misha, has a younger brother. Cute one. I held him.”

No idea what to say? Find some work for your hands. Julia picked up a tangled set of fairy lights and started to puzzle it out. Nastya took a sheet of paper and began to fold it to make a snowflake.

“To raise kids, it is not necessary to marry a man and move into Gene Pool Square. Sveta and I wanted a baby and adopted you.”

“But why could you not, like Misha’s mom? You know . . . .”

“Give birth to our own children? As for Sveta, ask her yourself. And I have poor eyesight. My kids would have got my nearsighted eyes.”

“I would like to have eyes like yours. Blue ones with orange halos around the pupils. Your eyes look like eclipses of suns.”

“Thanks. But my eyesight is poor. And yours is fine.”

“But don’t you feel . . . deprived?”

“What a wording! That’s my girl.”

“I am serious, you know!” was the indignant answer. “It does not seem just.”

The unraveled set of colored lamps was lying on Julia’s lap like a long wreath of flowers with tight small buds and dry wiry stalks. Julia rubbed her temples.

“I never thought you would grow up so fast,” she said. “Sunshine, this system is ages old already. And it was not invented by a single person. When people think together, it is harder for them to make mistakes. For instance, look at our New Year tree. The idea is mine, but I am a writer, not an engineer, and my tree was just letters on a screen. And engineers . . . .”

“American ones, Mom. Why not ours?”

“Now, is that good talk for a holiday? Let us discuss it later. I need to think of the right answers. For now, let us decorate this tree. Sveta will be glad to see it when she comes from work.”

Julia opened a yellow cubic box and produced from it an indigo bauble with lemon yellow dots and golden hanging loop. She gave it to her daughter. The girl examined it carefully, kissed it and hung it on the most prominent branch of the tree.


We seed culture everywhere, but nobody seems to care,” Kira sang.

The second line was sung an octave lower.

“New song?” Sveta poured more wine into her friend’s glass. A beaded bracelet on Sveta’s slender wrist sparkled in the candlelight.

“Improvisation. Themed on yesterday’s events.”

“What kind of events?”

“Got myself a new student in the Pool. Rita. Five kids, can you imagine? I even agreed to go to her place, because there is no way she can get to mine.”

“What’s she like?” Sveta asked. From the tone of her voice and the look of her shiny hazel eyes it was clear she was genuinely interested.

“She is good. But the atmosphere . . . . We went there with Klara. She is drawing Rita and her baby for a picture. Madonna thing, you know. We went to a café after the lesson. We were eating and talking. Then a waitress came and told us: ‘Your conduct is obscene, stop it or I will have to make you go.’”

“But what were you doing?” Sveta asked, her warm, low voice sounding slightly amused.

“Nothing. I was telling about my first girlfriend. Under my breath. Some pregnant skirt was sitting next to us and left after a while with sour face. She must have ratted when she was walking past the kitchen.”

“Well, I can understand her,” Klara said. “She probably never heard anything like that.”

“So what?” Kira asked. “Is she afraid to give birth to something unnatural now? She should have asked me; I would have told her that sexual orientation is not transmitted to a fetus from its mother through her ears.”

“Why do you even care?” Klara stroked her wife’s shoulder. A strand of Klara’s blonde hair she’d thrown behind her back slipped forward, into her wine glass, and became pink at the tip. “I think you should drop this new student Rita. I do not want you to get so upset every time. You will find a new one in the Gyn.”

“Well, it isn’t Rita’s fault. Insensitive people can be found everywhere. We probably are a breath of fresh air for her.” Kira shut her lips tight, as she always did after saying something too far from her usual sarcasm. She met Julia’s eyes and said, “And why are you so silent?”

“Just watching. You know, if anyone made a ‘the strangest couple’ competition, Sveta and I would vie for the first place with Klara and you.”

“It reminds me of what Pushkin wrote in “Eugeny Onegin”, Kira said with a smile.

So, verse and prose, they came together,

No ice and flame, no stormy weather

and granite, were so far apart,” she declaimed and stood up, her wine glass lifted.

“Let us drink to that,” she added. “To dialectics!”

“Happy New Year, girls!” Sveta said merrily and also stood up with her wine glass in hand.

Klara, Julia and Nastya also stood up. Nastya rose on tiptoes to make her glass of orange juice meet with the adults’ glasses over the middle of the table.


“Sorry, can you say that again?” Julia turned the water off.

Nastya finished drying a plate, put it onto a kitchen shelf and repeated her question. “What are Pool and Gyn?”

“Gene Pool Square and Women’s Square. Sveta and Kira invented those nicknames ages ago.”

“Have they known each other for a long time?”

“Yeah, since they were kids. Kira made the bracelet your mom is wearing. It is much older than you.”

“Do you like her?”

“Who, Kira? Yes, she is clever and nice. But not as simple as she might look.”

“She is so loud. But only on the outside. And deep inside she is quiet. Like you.”

“Yes, right you are.”

“But why?”

“Well, I believe she protects herself this way. It is not easy to be a quiet person, especially when you are an actress and a singing tutor.”

“Oh, she’s an actress? I thought she might be. She is pretty, you know. And bright, like a picture. Her hair is so red. Her eyes are so green. Her skin is so white . . . But she probably does not think she is pretty enough.”

“Hence the loudness?”


“And what do you think of Klara?”

“Klara is nice. Like a kitten. But I would not cuddle a kitten like that, because it knows what to do with its teeth.”

“You are so grown up . . . And the things you say about people are very bright.” Julia took a stack of washed dishes out of the kitchen sink and put them on the table. Nastya picked up her kitchen towel again, but Julia shook her head. “But still, you are too young to stay up so late. I can see you are tired. Kiss Sveta, if she is not asleep (she had a long day at work), and go to bed. I’ll finish here and hit the pillow as well.”

“I’ll kiss her, anyway. If she is asleep, I’ll take care not to wake her.”


In conclusion, the weightless fingers traced a young moon under Julia’s belly, as if finishing a declaration of love with a one-bracket smiley. Julia caught Sveta’s hand and stroked it. Then, by a well-honed synchronous move, each of them took her usual place for heartfelt night talks and sleep. Julia moved to the edge of the bed (a good place for an insomniac who often gets up at night), Sveta snuggled up to her from the side near the wall and pulled the blanket over them.

“I like it when you do that to me.”

“I like to do that to you.”

“Why do you do it so rarely, then?”

“I was afraid you would take it wrong.”

“How exactly?”

“As an attempt to remind you . . . .”

“Of what cannot be forgotten?”

“I thought you might think I want to underline my importance.”

“I see this gesture as an expression of affection to me and the past we shared. The thing you did for me then does not need any underlining.”

“This is the best thing I have done in my life. When I look at your scar, I feel so strong. I am so proud of myself. But this is your body, and I . . . .”

“And you make it absolutely happy. And once you saved it from grave trouble, putting your carrier and even freedom at risk.”

“If it had not been for that, would you be with me?”

“Don’t you remember my first check-up?”

“Oh, I remember your first check-up. But will you tell me about it? Please.”

“You wicked girl. Telling it will make me want to have at least one more round.”

“And you will have it. We can sleep as long as we want tomorrow, and I rested after my shift while you were doing the dishes. So, if you do not mind . . .” Sveta slid her index finger down Julia’s high cheekbone to her lips.

Julia kissed it and said, “Of course I don’t!”

“Well, where is my story then?”


“I was lying on my back, in the most tattletale pose. I am sure that chair was invented by a sadist. I was looking at the dimly lit ceiling and waiting for your footsteps. To distract myself—as if it could help—I was recalling how it all started. That day my body also produced much biological liquid, although it always responded rather scantily to emotions. Tears were running down my cheeks—for the first time since my childhood.” Julia paused, closed her eyes.

“Yeah, I remember,” Sveta told her.

“You were looking at me without disapproval, as if it was quite a usual thing to burst into tears instead of answering a simple question. You asked me, ‘What’s your gestational age?’, and I just felt my face was wet.”

“And I told you, ‘Calm yourself, please,’ and gave you a tissue. Actually, I keep them on my desk for a reason.”

“When I took the tissue from my face, it was dripping wet. Then you looked straight into my eyes. That moment changed my life. Because of that moment you called me to the Shelter, and because of that moment I was wishing the earth would swallow me when I was lying on my back at your Shelter office and waiting for your footsteps.”

“How come?”

“I did not know whether you liked me. And I had no chance to hide I liked you.”

“Poor thing,” Sveta kissed Julia’s temple.

“Then I heard your footsteps. You sounded surprised and amused when you asked . . .”

“I asked, ‘Is this your usual reaction to a check-up?’ Actually, I have heard about such things.”

“But it was my reaction to you. I told you I was having it for the first time in my life.”

“Too bad you were not looking at me at that moment. It would have been hot.”

“I was so ashamed! I could look only at the ceiling!”

“You were looking up there as if you were trying to drill a hole into it with your stare.”

“Yeah, right. That would have distracted you, would it not?”

Sveta laughed and hugged her wife. They lay silently for a while.

“Then you asked me, ‘But what about your man?’ And I told you we broke up. And also—that I never wanted or loved him, just got trapped. Could not find it in myself to turn him down.”

“Then you sat down and pulled your sweat-shirt almost to your knees.”

“Yeah, at last I remembered I could cover myself.”

Sveta smiled and stroke Julia’s naked body, hot under the blanket, from neck to delta, where she left her hand. Julia took that hand in hers and replaced it on her left shoulder.

“Sorry,” she said, “the story is more upsetting than arousing so far. I should not have mentioned Nastya’s father. I never told you, but he never used condoms: they made his stuff soft. He promised me he would always pull out—but did not do it that day. Intentionally, I am sure. I still remember the look on his face. I feel so angry and abused when I think of that.”

“So sorry to hear it, honey. But I was suspecting something like this. You never seemed badass enough to have conceived an illegal child deliberately. But I do not want to talk about assholes anymore. I want to make love to you.”

Julia closed her eyes and concentrated on her private parts. She was trying to imagine blood flowing there, making her hot between her legs. But she could not help thinking of the moment of her daughter’s conception.


When menstruation did not come, on the third day of the delay she put her pass to Men’s Square into the top drawer of her office desk. On the fourth she took it out at lunchtime, when her colleagues were at the dining hall, and underlined in pencil the abortion clinic address. Too far to walk, and no bus goes there. And they say that taxi drivers report where they take their passengers. On day five she was standing in front of a curvy woman in white coat (she was cute, despite weary sternness). Tears were running down Julia’s cheeks.

“What are you thinking about?” Sveta asked.

“How lucky I was to meet you. And how brave you were to write I was not pregnant in my file and to invite me to the Shelter. And how you rock your white coat.”

Julia turned to Sveta and stroked her short, chestnut hair. “Then you asked me how I managed to meet a guy. And I answered you, ‘I have a pass to Men’s Square, I am a journalist.’ And you said . . .”

“And I said: ‘Lie down, journalist. I need to take a look at you.”’

“Then you palpated my belly ever so gently, and it was the sexiest touch my body had ever felt—I mean, before we actually made love for the first time. And you told me, ‘Your uterine tonus is fine, so you can jump into this chance.’ And I stroked your hand.”

“You were still looking at the ceiling. It was hard not to giggle.”

Under the blanket Julia took her wife’s hand and stroked herself with it just like Sveta had done minutes ago.


“I never loved or wanted anyone but you in the last twelve years,” Julia said, when they had finished their second round. “So, if you are worried about my feelings, please don’t be. But we have to worry about Nastya.”

“What happened to her?”

“She likes a boy. She wonders whether I feel deprived because I cannot give birth to children. She asked why my fir tree was made in the States. Actually, I feel confused. We can tell her the things she will hear at school next year. But she is a bright girl, and sooner or later she will understand . . . .”

“That the stuff is bullshit.”

“And she will lose faith in us. We can tell her the truth ourselves, but what if it will make her unhappy?”

“It won’t if we find the right words.”

“Today I told her my kids would have poor eyesight. How can I look into her eyes and disprove my own words?”

“Don’t look into her eyes. Write her a letter. Sorry, I am falling asleep. Good night.”


Dear Nastya:

Sveta and I discussed the questions you asked and decided to give you the answers you deserve. That is, honest and serious ones. It is very risky, since it is not easy to know all that and be happy. But you are a smart girl and sooner or later will learn the truth. And if it happens without our involvement, you will lose your faith in us, and we all will be unhappy.

I told you enough lies already, but still I hope you will forgive me.

My kids really could have inherited my poor eyesight, but not necessarily. You will not read it even in the fattest books for adults, but it is true. I know it for certain, because you are my daughter by birth and your eyesight is fine.

At the swimming pool you probably noticed a scar under my belly. You never asked me about it, because you are so delicate, but now I have to explain how I got it. It happened the day you were born—and for you to be born.

Women with as poor sight as I have are not recommended to have natural childbirth, because it can damage their retina and even make them blind. Since the “Gene Pool” program was introduced, they do not have the chance: nearsighted women are not accepted to the Gene Pool. But earlier, when any woman was allowed to have kids, nearsighted women and those who were unable to give birth naturally because of other conditions could have a special surgery called caesarian birth.

It was invented in ancient times and has been practiced ever since. But in our country it was outlawed a century ago, when the “Gene Pool” program was introduced. The official explanation was that a healthy nation does not need caesarian birth. But the truth is our state just cannot teach enough doctors to do this surgery (and many others). We have no money for education, we have no money for medicine.

Sveta performed that surgery on me. We met in the very beginning of my pregnancy and were expecting you together. She learned all about caesarian birth from old books, and it was insanely risky for her to put that knowledge to practice. But she did, and the fact that you and me are alive and well shows how brilliant she is. It is very right that she is your second mother. She did for your birth even more than I. She had to take care of me and perform the surgery secretly, in an underground hospital. If it is discovered, Sveta and me will go to jail for undermining the Gene Pool.

You asked me today why my New Year Tree was made in the USA. The reason is, our country is too poor to teach enough engineers for some of them to have time to turn a piece of a sci-fi novel into a set of telescopic tubes and hi-tech materials.

I am full of grief now, to have to write all this stuff to you, because I’d rather tell you only good news till my dying day. But I hope that my letter will not make your life less interesting and happy.

I love you very much.



Julia went to Nastya’s bedroom and put the letter on the girl’s desk. A reddish beam infiltrated the room through a slit between heavy curtains in the window and highlighted Nastya’s half-face on the pillow, a tabby cat curled up next to the girl, and the yellow silk holiday gown she had cast on the bed. Julia sighed and turned on the desk lamp. She took the gown and hung it into the wardrobe. Then she bent over the desk, took a pen from it and wrote at the end of the letter,

I was upset to see how you treat the beautiful gown Klara made for you. I put it away because I did not want Murka to tear it with her claws. But your clothes are your responsibility.

Then Julia went to the bathroom to take her contacts off.

When she went to bed, she felt a sheet of paper on her pillow. It was her letter. She went to the window, slid under another pair of heavy curtains and read a write-up in the reddish light, with her nose almost touching the paper.

Mommies, I love you so-so-so much. Please tell me who is my father. It is better to burn the letter. Sorry for the gown.

Julia looked at the sky. Over the sleeping city, straight above the Central Square, a congratulatory hologram was shining the year in all colors of the Flag of Russia. Four identical digits—2222.


Reckoning 1

It used to be that I didn’t dare stop driving around—people would notice; I’d make them feel guilty and they might attack. Now, on my walks through the harbour, all I have to do is duck the cars that smash through the barrier high above my head. And flinch when they hit the heap of metal that lines the sea wall.

Ride not riot. That’s the tiny government’s latest slogan. Not that anyone’s listening since the election turnout dropped to 2.3%. But the people keep queueing up for their petrol. Fucking lemmings!

I follow the harbour wall that ends at the old customs house, tucked underneath the flyover, now the seat of the tiny government. I’m wondering what they actually do, besides doling out petrol, when out of the mucky water pops this wolphin and I jump a fucking mile.

I put my hands up. Wolphins aren’t stupid. It’s very likely to be pissed off: every time another car ‘forgets’ to take the curve and flies off into the sea, a wolphin floats belly-up afterwards.

Still, what on earth do I expect it to do? Gun me down? Wolphins don’t have hands.

I look closer. It’s way too big to be an English wolphin. Maybe the rumours were true, maybe it’s ex-Russian. Not that anybody cares. Even the Nationalists have given up—more important fish to fry and all that.

The wolphin half-rises from the waves and opens its mouth, as if it’s struggling to say something. I’m interested. Conversation is pretty scarce these days. I edge closer, keeping my hands up, but the wolphin moves back. You can’t blame it for being suspicious—I am a human, after all.

Though hardly anyone’s fishing anymore. Even the police just drive around. To be fair, there’s not a lot else left to do.

Whistle, whistle goes the wolphin and it flips over and wiggles its tail.

I wasn’t too hot at Wolphinese when everyone was into it—before the wolph-fishing started. Anyhow, I don’t even know if it speaks Wolphinese, let alone English.

I sneak a look at its undercarriage, but I can’t tell if it’s F or M. Oh well, nobody gives a shit since the babies stopped coming. It probably can’t tell about me either: I’ve shaved my hair off now Mom’s not around to tell me to act like a proper girl.

I’m trying to remember ‘hello’ when another wolphin swims up, a big grin on its face. Well, it’s hard to tell really when a wolphin is smiling.

Maybe it’s for the best I don’t speak Wolphinese: the fanatically fluent were the first to start eating their new friends.

I put on a lame grin and lower my hands.

Whistle, whistle goes the first wolphin again, and the second hesitates, then rolls over.

Fuck me! It’s got little hind legs.

I’d read about this during the wolphin craze. Super-rare. And these ones look like proper legs—like they might actually be going somewhere—not like the tiny buds in the pictures.

I’m literally at a loss for words, but I want the wolphins to know that I would never eat them—unlike some, I recognize their official person status. I’m not a fucking cannibal! I look towards the concrete bunker of the tiny government and I flip the finger and spit afterwards for good measure. The wolphins do a little jump and I know they understand. They start to swim away, but then they turn and look back at me and I wish I could go with them.

But I can’t. Sure, I’m a little mercury-toxic already, but it’ll be swiftly over if I so much as touch that water.

I can’t even say ‘tomorrow’ in Wolphinese, so I point to the sun, then roll my hands, and they do another jump.

I watch them swim out to the harbour mouth. I wonder if they’ve managed to get anywhere beyond this crappy island.

I meander in the direction of the customs house. The tiny government blew the remains of the budget on bulletproof window glass and fenced off the last working petrol pumps—conveniently located next to the customs house, underneath the flyover. Rumours are they even recruited a few ex-Russian wolphins to protect them on the ocean approach. Hush hush, of course: the soldier wolphins were officially all home-bred British. Fucking Nationalists.

There’s a ripe breeze coming off the cars that didn’t make it into the water and I pull my scarf up over my mouth as I stare out to sea. It looks almost beautiful, a grey gleam catching the sunshine through a break in the clouds. But I know what’s in that water.

Still, plenty of fish in the sea, if you don’t mind eating just a little mercury.

The wolphins frolic in the dim sunlight, a bit creaky, but basically survivors—the new roaches of the sea, as their ex-friends, the wolphinistas, took to calling them, just before they started eating them. After they conveniently forgot they had person status.

No one would dare eat them now: they are packed to the gills with mercury. But somehow thriving—like the tiny government is rumoured to be. Everybody used to want to know their secret, when they still cared about living forever.

I pull out a cigarette. Mom and Pops went on and on about it, before they started the big drive, but really, my lungs can’t tell the difference. I lift up my scarf and take a drag and pretend to blow the smoke out through the top of my head, like a wolphin.

The tiny government hasn’t been sighted outside their bunker for some time, except for their petrol people, doling out the rations.

I cough in surprise as a school of wolphins swims right past me—at least forty. They roll over and wiggle their legs. They all have the legs! Except for the leader, who I take to be the first wolphin I met. They clear their blowholes and swim in formation in the direction of the tiny government.

Once, I would have run to tell someone the news . . . now, I just stare. Who is there to tell?

But it’s a bit like old times. I haven’t seen a wolphin parade since before the wolph-fishing. As far as I was concerned, conscripting them was cruel, more soldiers for the useless cause. God knows what they were actually making them do.

The wolphins surface way past the customs house and swim back out to the harbour mouth.

I can’t help wondering what they’re up to. Do they have a plan? Or are they just stupid great fake-fish in the pay of the tiny government?

Still, what would they pay them with? Wolphins don’t need petrol, and even if they could drive, they’re already in the sea.

Whatever. I may as well try and find out. I don’t exactly have anything else to do.

It’d be less suspicious to get close to the customs house in a car and I’m sort of regretting my resolution to give up driving. But there are a few people who approach on foot if they’re dumb enough to run out of petrol . . . usually women, according to the government.

I never thought I’d count myself lucky to be a girl. How could I when the tiny government are all men? It’s kind of a sicko joke now that women are crashing through the barriers into the sea in equal numbers.

But I’m not stupid enough to just walk right up to the bunker empty-handed. I’ll have to go home for some props.


It’s been a while since I’ve seen the house. The dead telly reflects slices of yellow grass between the window slats. Mom and Pops used to spend a lot of time watching the news; later, they just watched the crashes.

I run upstairs to their room, grab one of Mom’s wigs and Pop’s binos and run back down to the kitchen. I’m ravenous.

I open the cupboard and stare at the tins and tins of fucking fish.

“Eat your little fish, Monkey,” I hear Mom saying, and I force myself to move on to the garage.

I fling a rusty petrol can into the back seat of the saloon.

The keys are in the ignition. I haven’t driven my car since Mom and Pops sailed into the harbour, in a manner of speaking. I start the engine and collapse against the wheel, laughing. When I remember that mood incongruence is one of the early mercury symptoms, I laugh even more, until I’m weeping. Eat your little fish—what’s a little poison on the side? Mom and Pops couldn’t help it. What else was there to feed me? Ha ha ha!

I hoot and wave at my one remaining neighbour as I cruise past. Once she would have been so proud I’d started driving again. Now, she doesn’t even look up. She just carries on checking the petrol in her tank.

It’s dusk by the time I get back to the harbour. I drive right past the bunker. Hopefully they’ll pass me off as just another petrol junky, desperate for my next ration. I scan the sea as I take the entrance to the flyover.

I’m not supposed to stop up here, but it’s almost dark and I pull over to one side, where I can get a good view of the customs house. Just in time, it turns out. A small van accelerates through the hole in the barrier and lands way out. Talk about making a big splash!

I aim Pop’s binos at the bunker to avoid looking at the red stain spreading across the water. I can tell it’s blood, not petrol. They must have hit a wolphin. And that’s when I see the dinghy heading out from the customs house.

I didn’t know there were any boats left. It’s even got an engine and there are three MPs crouched in it. They have a long pole with a hook on the end. They putter out and snag the wounded wolphin as soon as it surfaces.

What the fuck? Its best chance is to be left alone. People know about the self-healing power of wolphins—that’s what got them started on eating them. And it’s the tiny government that banned wolph-fishing in the first place, once they realized about the mercury. Maybe they are trying to save it?

The wolphins surround the dinghy and start jumping out of the water. They almost knock the pole away, but the MPs speed away, back to the bunker, and haul the wolphin out onto the fenced-off slipway. It makes a strange, strangled scream and tries to thrash free. They deliver a swift booting, and I know for sure that they are not going to save it. They drag it hurriedly through the big metal doors, to the answering screams of its fellow wolphins.


I can’t stop thinking about Mom and Pops on their final trip into the harbour. Did they even remember me before the big crash?


I sit until it’s almost dark, watching Mom and Pop’s mascot wolphin swinging from the car mirror. They used to worship the wolphins for being mercury-tolerant, but in the end they were jealous.

I’m badly tempted to just keep on driving.

I roll the car forward until it blocks the gap in the barrier, pull on Mom’s wig, get out and throw the keys over the edge.

I feel my way down the flyover, one hand on the barrier, petrol can in the other.

A weak moon lights up the dirty mist floating over the harbour. I imagine the wolphin ghosts, torn and twisted, rising healed from the water—like Jehovah’s Witnesses on resurrection day—and marching back onto the land, while the humans drop into the gloom, trailing red, clutching their precious steering wheels.

I put down the petrol can and creep towards the bunker. I make it to the wall that runs at right-angles to the sea. I inch along it, before I notice the MP sluicing the wolphin blood from the dinghy. It’s tied to the inside of the fence that juts out from the wall into the water. I press myself against the wall until he goes back in.

I slowly lift my head. There’s a small circle of light showing through a hole in the blackout cloth over the only window. I have to stand on tiptoe to peer through.

Luckily, the MPs have their backs to me. They’re sitting at a long table, watching a tall man. He stands facing them, eyes closed, hands uplifted, doing some sort of prayer, it looks like. There’s an enormous white plate in front of each of them. I strain closer, until I see that telltale black wolphin meat with the red edges like hot and angry coals.

I turn and shuffle away as fast as possible, my hand over my mouth.

Fucking cannibals!

I wish those wolphins would reappear. I need somebody to talk to. Nothing makes sense. Not because the MPs are eating wolphin—you never know what to expect from humans. It’s because I realize that there is not one sane person left.

Why am I so surprised?

I crouch by the wall until the night smudges into another grey day, half-hoping the wolphins won’t come. I’ve never touched a sliver of wolphin meat, but how will they know that?

The wolphin surfaces alone. I don’t expect sympathy after its companion has just been offed by its supposed fellows. But I remove Mom’s wig. I want it to recognize me. I want it to know that not all humans are the same.

“Sorry,” I say, and it does its little jump.

And it makes everything worse. I stand looking away from it, pressing my sleeve against my stupid mouth, trying not to laugh. Fucking mercury! I’m losing it!

“Sorry, sorry,” I say, and I look it straight in the eye and almost reach out to stroke its shiny poisonous flank, the red tip of its sore fin. I almost do. But I can’t. Even a few drops of water on my skin will . . . but what difference . . . .

The wolphin whistles at me, then turns its nose to point at its fin, then whistles again. My eyes have gone all blurry. All I can think of is Mom and Pop’s last drive and I realize I’m crying . . . . Better than laughing, I suppose.

It whistles again and I wipe my eyes. I finally understand what it’s trying to tell me when I see what it’s got wedged between its fin and body.

I look up, trying to clear my head. The school of wolphins have gathered at the harbour mouth and are swimming patterns in the water; it feels like they are showing me the way when they roll over in unison and wave their stubby legs.

I understand what it’s like to be them, I understand what it’s like to be ignored. What did the tiny government ever do for us?

I take off my scarf and wrap it round my hand. I lean down and gently lift up the grenade.

Pops was ex-military, like almost everyone since we became disconnected from the other continents and there was no longer any cause. He used to tell me tales about kamikaze Russian wolphins. “They couldn’t get the English ones to detonate the grenades,” he’d whisper.

I’m pretty sure he never dreamt I’d be dumb enough to try it one day. Even if I was a girl.

But now I’m finally a young woman. I breathe out. What next?

But I know already. I point towards the bunker, towards the remains of that feeble atrocity, the tiny government. “Now?” I ask, and the wolphin jumps up high.

My fingers are so numb that I let the scarf fall and hold the grenade with my bare hands. I can’t help flinching as the drops of water touch them, but I’ve got a feeling I won’t be needing them soon.

I’m shivering as I clasp the grenade and sneak over to the bunker wall. No sign of any MPs. I unbutton my shirt and tuck the grenade inside, then clamber along the outside of the fence and swing myself round to the inside where the dinghy is tied up.

The hardest part is getting into the boat. I still can’t stop trembling at the thought of all that water. Maybe Pops was right: those Russian wolphins must have been nuts to blow themselves up.

But then they didn’t have a good reason.

The dinghy rocks from side to side as I untie it and use the pole to push it close enough to the open metal doors.

The MPs stare at me as I bob into their line of sight.

The wolphins know that I’ll die in that water. And I know now for sure I will never join them when they march back out onto the land.

I may as well make myself useful.

“For Mom and Pops,” I yell, as I pull the pin and lob the grenade straight through the doors.

There’s a bright flash and I feel strangely illuminated from the inside out as I’m blown through the air into the poisonous sea.


The wolphins push me up to the surface to breathe, and the feeling of being carried aloft on their little hind legs almost makes up for the fact that it’s nearly all over for me.

But my rage has gone now that the tiny government is wolphin food. The grey water actually appears blue and fresh. An obvious delusion, but I have to admit, I’m enjoying it.

At least it’s better than just driving around.

Read Michael’s interview with Giselle about “Wolphinia” here.