Authors: Larry Niven,Mercedes Lackey,Nancy Kress,Ken Liu,Brad R. Torgersen,C. L. Moore,Tina Gower
by Nick DiChario
e entered a sun-white room. The furniture was lean and silvery, the walls made of satin steel. A faint smell of clean, crystalline air tickled his nose. An alien—tall, pale, slick, lean, bipedal, female—came in and seated herself at the desk. She did not speak, but adjusted her long white robe and stared at him with her three vermillion eyes.
He walked over and sat opposite her as if it was expected of him, although he had no idea how he could have known such a thing. He glanced at himself in the glazed steel panels behind the woman’s desk. He had a bushy scrub of black hair. He wore jeans and a T-shirt and sandals, the strap on his left sandal hung unfastened, and his knapsack lay tattered at his feet. He didn’t recognize himself, although he thought he looked like a human.
“Can you tell me why you’re here?” asked the alien. Her voice held the tight, musical crispness of a violin.
“No,” he said. Truthfully. But then he thought about it. “Wait. I was walking along the street outside and saw the sign in front of the building: Creator of the Cosmos Job Interview Today. Come Inside.”
“So you thought you would just sashay in and have an interview, is that it?”
He shrugged. “I guess so. Something like that. When I saw the sign, I thought, for some reason, the message was meant for me.”
“Is that right?”
Her wide, flat ears moved slightly, like palm fronds in the wind. “You say that as if you’re pretty sure of yourself. Are you?”
He scratched at his curly bush of hair. “Now I get it. This is all part of the job interview, right?”
She sniffed, feigning boredom. “If you say so. Do you say so?”
“Sure,” he said. “I say so.”
“Okay, so, according to you, the sign was put out there specifically for you, and this line of questioning is all part of the job interview. Tell me why I should care. What makes you Creator of the Cosmos material?”
The woman’s tone was casual but challenging. She leaned forward and placed her elbows on the desk. Her two arms were as long as her body, which gave her the somewhat imposing look of a giant mantis.
He sat back and crossed his legs, picked at the hole in the knee of his jeans, started to say something, glanced around, stood up, walked slowly from here to there and back again with his hands clasped behind his back. Thinking. Trying to remember. As he walked, he could hear the faintest snick of gears, the moto-robo-electronic zizzing of invisible mechanics in the room around him. Where was he? Who was he?
was he? He had no idea.
“Where’s the door?” he asked.
“I’m sure I came in through a door. Didn’t I?”
“You say that as if it’s important there is a door.”
“Yes. It’s important. Very important. I need to go in and out through the door, don’t I?”
“I don’t know. But it seems important.” He walked a bit more, the floor illuminating his soft footfalls, lighting his steps from underneath. He wasn’t sure if his feet were telling the floor where to light, or if the floor was telling his feet where to walk. It was an odd sensation. “Wait. Something’s coming to me. A memory. I’m
to go in and out. I’m meant to do it, aren’t I?”
? Are you sure that’s the right word?”
“No. Not one hundred percent.”
“Let’s start with something a little simpler, then, shall we? Do you know where you came from?”
“No, I don’t.”
“Do you know where you’re going?”
“No, I’m sorry, I don’t.”
The woman’s expression seemed indifferent, but she sat up straight, as if her body had taken an interest. “Excellent. So far you’re doing very well. Incredibly well.”
“You mean with the interview?” He perched on the edge of the chair. “Hold on. I remember something else. About the questions and answers. This isn’t the first time I’ve interviewed, is it? No, of course not. I come in. I ask questions. And then … I remember what’s important … and I go out again, right?”
“Why?” she asked, an anticipatory tremor in her voice. “What is it that’s so important that you have to remember? What’s the point of the interview? Why do you have to answer questions at all and go in and out of the room?”
“Because … that’s the way I am …
… ‘designed’ is the right word … not
The woman’s eyes came alive with encouragement. “Yes? Go on.”
“Well, something makes me think that for everything to work out there in the cosmos … all the planets, the galaxies, the universes, the life … this interview has to take place to help me remember … so that I can go out and forget again … and somehow the remembering and forgetting is integral to the life cycle … without me knowing how or why … without anyone knowing how or why … the cosmos are reborn …” That didn’t exactly make sense to him, but there it was, he’d said it, and it felt right.
The woman gripped the edge of the desk and pulled herself forward. “Yes? Yes? Go on. You’re doing very well. Incredibly well. There is just one question and answer that you have to remember now. Just one. What is it?”
He jumped to his feet as soon as the question popped into his head. “Who is the Creator of the Cosmos?”
“Yes! And the answer?”
“I am the Creator of the Cosmos! Me! Already! Right now! I created everything! It was me! Me!”
“Ahhh,” she said. “Ahhh. Rebirth.” She released all the tension in her body and slumped back in her chair. “
He knew the interview was over now. He bent down and lifted the knapsack, walked toward the wall. A hidden door slid open in front of him right where he knew it would be.
Outside there were two bold suns overhead, red clouds, azure skies, gold mountains, black space. A gust of wind threw back his mop of hair. The music of the world rose up around him. A pterodactyl screeched, sky ships roared, an elephant trumpeted, billions of humans and aliens died while billions more were born, stars burned out and fell from space, and new ones flared to life across an infinite canvas of galaxies.
He closed his eyes and breathed it in. Yes, the Creator breathed it all in, and then breathed it all out again.
The alien woman rushed over and kneeled before him, pulled the loose strap on his sandal and snugged it in place, lowered herself to her hands and knees and kissed his feet. “Until the morrow,” she said.
“Is that how it works?” he asked. “Every day? We have to go through this every single day for the cosmos to work? Is that the way I wanted it? Is that the way I set it up? Why? Why did I do it this way? It makes no sense.”
“Exactly,” said the woman, waving to him as the door slid shut between them.
“Wait! I have one last question. How long is a day? How long—”
But it was too late. She was gone. How frustrating! He was already beginning to forget.
He turned around to face the cosmos.
, he thought.
Wasn’t there a sign here just a moment ago? Something about a job interview?
Published in Galaxy’s Edge Issue 1
2013 by Nick DiChario. All rights reserved.
by Eric Cline
t’s been a long time since anyone reported on a good locked-room mystery. They used to be huge. Sometimes they were just about jewel theft, stuff like that. But mostly they were about murder. They went something like this:
The servants heard shouting from Mr. Clanton’s study, some sort of struggle … then deadly silence. They tried the door; it was locked. The police were summoned. They broke down the door. Inside, the master of the house, Mr. Clanton, was sprawled dead in his leather chair. A thin trail of blood came out of his left ear. A glass of water, tinged with red, sat on his desk. Scrawled pages in his own handwriting showed desperate attempts to reconcile doomed finances.
Detective Bartholomew was in command. He verified that the first uniformed officers had secured the crime scene and had let no one in (or out). The door had been locked from the inside. There was no outside window. The floor was solid hardwood, with no trapdoors or any of that.
The victim had been stabbed through the ear, but there was no murder weapon. The detective ordered the room resealed after the body and other evidence were removed, and had a guard placed day and night at the door.
The glass was tested. It was water with a trace of the victim’s brain cells mixed in. The killer had apparently cleaned off the murder weapon by swirling it around in the glass.
Bartholomew looked into Clanton’s background. The dead man had once romanced a lady acrobat at a circus, but she left him. Later, she was found stabbed to death. Clanton had no alibi, but he did have expensive lawyers, and no charges were ever filed.
Finally, after 48 hours, Detective Bartholomew went back into the sealed room. He rapped on the heavy desk and said, “Please come out.” From a false compartment in the huge desk, the dwarf emerged. He was Igor, the circus performer who had fallen in love with the lady acrobat.
He had sneaked into the house with an icicle frozen in a thermos. He surprised Clanton and, after a brief struggle, drove the sharp ice into his brain. Then, he simply left the icicle in the empty water glass to melt. By the time police were summoned and broke down the door, it was a glass of water.
Igor had barely squeezed himself into the huge desk, with a small supply of food and water, and the thermos for a toilet, and had waited for the crime scene to be released.
But he hadn’t counted on the brilliance of … Detective Bartholomew!
Not so good, is it? Pretty frigging retro, eh? The circus dwarf thing alone would be a no-no today. But, once upon a time, the pulp magazines were cluttered with such stories.
What a lot of people don’t know is that the locked-room mysteries were based on a series of killings involving my organization.
killings, I hasten to add. Sometimes, it was a clean kill. Sometimes, when things went wrong, it was a locked-room mystery. But unlike the ones in pulp magazines, these were never really solved. How could they be, when the victim was actually the perpetrator, and the supposed perpetrator … but I’m getting ahead of myself.
* * *
On Wednesday morning, my cell rang in my cubicle. It was from Jamal, my contact in the Roanoke Society.
“Yes, may I help you?” I said, trying to sound businesslike.
“Peter,” he said. “We made contact with Wendy. Sven is chatting her up in a bar right now. We’re going to kill her in a hotel room. You need to leave work now to get ready!”
“Damn, man!” I whispered. (Try having a private conversation in an office cubicle!) “I’m almost maxed out on leave time. The boss is a peach, but she still needs warm bodies in the office.”
“Wendy’s calling us, man,” he said. “We’re all making sacrifices. When Wendy walks into our trap, Wendy dies. That’s the deal. ‘Roanoke!
” I whispered, returning the salute. “Okay, I’ll get food poisoning or something. No, it will be a family emergency. I’ll meet you guys at the garage.”
* * *
Whenever I had read fiction about secret societies—you know, like the Dan Brown crap—I had never seen anyone comment on how
they were. The Roanoke Society is an entirely volunteer organization. Because of our secrecy, it is not a 501(c) charity to which you can write off donations. We all kick in for expenses. And the amount of free time it burns up is ungodly.
But killing Wendy is a passion for me. A Wendy killed my brother and his wife 11 years ago, and almost killed me. The Society rescued me, then recruited me. It is the most important thing in my life.
Still, I do have to work, and it would be
convenient if the frigging Wendys could be made to appear only on weekends, or at least on Martin Luther King’s birthday or Easter.
* * *
There are other stories out there, of a type. They’re not even stories, really, just accounts of historical bafflement. They’re related to the locked-room mysteries, although most people who have heard both have not made the connection. The Roanoke Society could publicize the link, perhaps, but who would believe us? And Wendy is quite shy (in a manner of speaking). Her ilk shows up a few times a year, is difficult to detect, and is even more difficult to kill … But as I was saying, the baffling accounts from history:
, the first European settlement in that corner of America. Vanished, with no sign of a struggle.
found adrift with no captain, no crew, no passengers.
And those are just the celebrated ones. There were countless explorers, ships, soldiers in jungles, and others who faced the same thing the Roanoke settlers and the
crew faced. And disappeared.
When you’ve dined on, let’s say, Salisbury steak, peas, and mashed potatoes and licked your plate clean, do you expect to look down and still see the food? It’s been eaten, mate. The food’s gone.
* * *
It was a shabby hotel room in a bad part of town. If bed bugs ever became a problem around here, this place would be the epicenter. But there were six of us, four men and two women, and we came down here as a pack, not worrying about the lice, human or otherwise, who infested the area.
Sven made seven. He was at the bar nearby. To hear him tell it, Wendy had practically molested him with her eyes. He would have been flattered, if she’d been human. He would lure her back here. Meanwhile, it was our job to seal off the room.
The cheap carpet was at least solid, and the floor underneath was concrete, thank God—no worrying about floorboards. The drywall in the room we’d rented had a few holes in it, and we patched them for free, without management’s permission. It didn’t look all that great, but that was no step down. The window was scratched but unbroken, and like most hotel windows built after air conditioning became widespread (even in no-tell motels), it was molded into the wall and would never open. Just for privacy’s sake, we bound the curtains with some heavy safety pins.
We didn’t have to make it airtight, but we’d gotten our best results that way in previous encounters.
A text went to our list, and “blooped” on everyone’s cells at the same time.
“Are we ready?”
“We’ve got to be!”
Behind the bed, two of us; in the bathroom, three; in the closet space behind the door, me. I was in the danger point. When Wendy realized she’d been trapped, Sven would be the closest focus for her wrath, but I’d be next in line, just standing in a little square depression against the folded-up ironing board.
* * *
A note on diversity.
I really haven’t been able to give you a sense of myself as a character. You know I’m Peter and that I work in an office, right? You can picture me in my 20s, 30s, or 40s, somewhere in there. But this account isn’t really a portrait of me. I could tell you childhood memories of my brother (the one who was killed by Wendy, starting me on my quest for vengeance), and I could describe myself eating a microwave burrito in the break room just before I took half a day off, staring at my reflection in the oven door and pondering stuff. Agonizing over how the ignorant masses, who don’t know anything about Wendy, are free to go on with their petty little lives while I am trapped in a cycle of blah blah blah.
Look, I’m going to kill Wendy, all right? The end. I hope the prospect of imminent blood and guts keeps you here, and that’s all I can do.
But here’s a much easier way to score some points.
Our group included two Hispanics, one African American, two guys who I think were gay, and Sven was an immigrant. Two were women.
That is a very diverse body of people. It is the modern American society. Admirable, no? But I’m not up to doing characterization.
We’re just a group of pissed-off victims who got together to kill Wendy.
Maybe that’s the greatest crime of the damned Wendys. By killing our loved ones, by attempting to kill us, the old bitch has flattened our individuality. She has made a
of us. Maybe that’s why I can’t develop myself, or Jamal, or Sven, or anyone other member of our local chapter of the Roanoke Society into a three-dimensional human being for you to care about.
And the worst part of it all is, “Wendy” is actually just a mob of different beings. The being that destroyed the Roanoke colony isn’t the same as the being that ate the crew of the
, at least we don’t think so. But just like soldiers over the years personified their faceless enemies as a single Johnny Reb or Fritz or Charlie, so too have we referred to them as a single “Wendy.” And like Satan being a more interesting character than God in
, so too are we good-guy mortals left as mere fodder to strengthen the legend of a flesh-devouring creature.
Some native tribes called it the
We’re Chuck Wepner fighting Muhammad Ali. No matter how many rounds we win, we’ll be forgotten, and your interest will remain with our opponent—don’t tell me you haven’t been thinking it! It ain’t frigging fair.
* * *
I’ve never been at any surprise parties for people. I just saw them on TV. People jump out when someone opens the door and turns on the lights. It always feels like a surprise party for Wendy.
We heard them in the hallway. Sven was laughing—a bit too loud, too forced—and a woman’s voice laughed along with him. I saw the door handle move. A soft buzz told me he’d inserted the key card into the room.
She’d smelled it, somehow. So she attacked poor goddamn Sven in the hallway.
The others jumped from their hiding places. “Open the door! Open the door!” more than one yelled. Everyone had their talismans out, their heavy-duty garbage bags, their ropes, their holy water; all the potpourri of weapons that usually, one or another, killed Wendy.
I opened the door, and was shielded from whatever happened in the hallway, blocked into the little closet space.
From the blur of movement I saw, it seemed some of my friends ran into the hallway, grabbed the Wendy, and dragged her in. A rush of air and light enveloped me as the door swung away, slammed shut. Dana Hernandez flipped the little hotel-room U-bolt closed and glanced at me. “Duck tape!” she yelled. Then she jumped into the melee in the center of the room.
The duck tape (often miscalled “duct tape,” but Google it if you do, you’re wrong) was in a paper bag along with some good Swedish-made scissors to cut it with. The gap between the door and the carpet was just enough that it needed the tape; I’d been assigned it. I knew its importance. But just now, with Sven’s desperately pumping legs sticking out of Wendy’s mouth, I had to look.
They have to give up part of their human appearance when they eat us, of course. The Wendy’s face and neck were distended like that of a boa constrictor eating a goat. Sven’s legs went slack; I’d just seen his moment of death. But my friends grabbed at his legs; being human, they had to try. It unhid its claws and swiped at Jamal; his face was opened up to visible teeth and gum. My friends stabbed her, they pressed crucifixes against her, they looped rope around her, looking for any one of the tricks that, without any predictability, would work.