Read The Best of Galaxy’s Edge 2013-2014 Online

Authors: Larry Niven,Mercedes Lackey,Nancy Kress,Ken Liu,Brad R. Torgersen,C. L. Moore,Tina Gower

The Best of Galaxy’s Edge 2013-2014 (8 page)

BOOK: The Best of Galaxy’s Edge 2013-2014
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Gwen’s got a boyfriend!
Gwen’s got a boyfriend
!
” some of the memory monkeys were chanting.

Then it was onto the data packet and, clinging precariously to a couple of protruding bits, he whizzed along.

* * *

Marcus flowed through the VR refresh port in Al’s main server, the heavily-armored trolls ignoring this authorized traffic. He rolled off the packet, landing on his feet with poise as he entered a cordoned-off section of RAM serving as a cell for Gwen, Oscar, and Bill. He was
so
glad to see them! And he recognized the server he was in—it was the one from the shop.

“Miss me?” he said, grinning.

Gwen rushed over and threw her arms around him, resting her head on his shoulder. Oscar and Bill patted him on the back. Reluctantly he disengaged from Gwen.

“We’ve got to hurry,” he said. “What’s been happening here?”

“Not much,” Gwen said. “Al’s ignoring us. Ever since they got their new bodies, these two have been going over in the corner, looking at themselves, and chuckling a lot.” She looked at Oscar and Bill. “It’s just
virtual
size, guys.”

“Er … no,” Marcus said. “This is now my real body. We need to convert you guys so that you can help me demolish Al.”

All three nodded at him. They
liked
that idea.

Marcus took out the red buttons he’d grabbed from his tool box. He handed one to each. “All set up. Flip up the cover, press
ABORT
.” He held up his hand. “Not
ye
t
!”

Bill gently eased the cover closed again.

Marcus waved up a terminal and the screen showed the view outside the computer. Al and his two goons were there, eating pizza from a delivery box.
Hey, even disorganized criminals have to eat,
he acknowledged silently.

“Here’s the plan,” he said. “When Oscar and Bill press their buttons, they’ll be up there with Al and his gorillas. Kung Fu the hell out of them, guys, before they can get their guns out. You know how now.”

“What about me?” Gwen asked.

Marcus smiled at her. “Your button deposits you outside the server in your apartment. Your old body will be gone and
you
will be
you
.”

Oscar, feeling his oats after years of being old and feeble, gave a wolf whistle.

Gwen stuck her tongue out at him but smiled.

“Then come back here and help us mop up. But … where is here?”

Marcus typed in the air and data streamed on his virtual terminal. “No encrypting of personal or business data for Al, hey?” He stopped the scrolling. “There! 6701 Greenview Avenue. Not too far from your apartment, Gwen. Let’s do it!”

She nodded, opened the cover on her button, and hovered a finger over it reluctantly.

Marcus surprised himself again. “I love you. Press it, Gwen.”

She looked at him, smiling radiantly, and did.
Whoosh!
She was gone.

He air-typed to the terminal and sent a video request out through the open refresh port. There she stood in her apartment, looking with awe at the image of her new body in a mirror.

“Move it, honey,” he said.

Gwen jumped at his voice, but waved and ran out the door.

“So, are we waiting on her?” Bill asked.

“Nope. Press your buttons on three. One … two …
thre
e
!”

They landed with silent grace, already in Kung Fu stances. Al and his two goons barely had time to drop their slices of pizza before they were disarmed and trussed up with electric cords ripped from a lamp, a fan, and the coffee maker.

Oscar and Bill took turns going to the restroom.

Marcus waved up a screen in the air, pulled over a chair, and then—with occasional suggestions from Bill or Oscar after they returned—demolished Al’s porn and spam empires. He was especially careful to erase all mention of Gwen’s work for Al. No need for her to be embarrassed during the investigations that were sure to come.

The office door slammed against the wall under a powerful
open
spell and Gwen stormed in, looking like an avenging goddess. Seeing the trussed-up gangsters, she slid to a halt.

“I’m sorry we didn’t wait for you, Gwen,” Marcus said, “but they were a pushover.”

She shrugged.

“Now what?” Bill asked.

Gwen raised her hand. “I thought about that running over here.”

They all noted that she was not a bit out of breath.

“My brother is a patent attorney with the biggest intellectual property firm in Chicago.” She smiled. “You’ll all be rich, and Marcus can make sure all this ”—she ran her hands up and down her awesomely curvy body—“is used for the betterment of humanity.”

“And software,” Marcus added. “We’re rich, Gwen—you too!” Oscar and Bill nodded enthusiastically. “Guess we should call the cops, huh?”

Gwen took his arm and gently pulled him toward the door.

“Let Bill and Oscar do that. I need you to check my computer.” She smiled a smile that would melt steel and then temper it into something stronger than before.

Bill shrugged and winked.

“Race you back,” Gwen yelled, already out the door.

Marcus pounded after her.

Oscar looked at Bill. “Big?”

“Huge,” said Bill.

“I
love
computers,” Oscar said.

Published in Galaxy’s Edge Issue 2
Copyright
©
2013 by Ralph Roberts. All rights reserved.

The Prayer Ladder

by Marina J. Lostetter

T
he ladder stretches up and up before me. Into the sky, past the clouds—past the sun, perhaps. I cannot see the top, but I know it ends in Heaven.

Chill winds sweep the ice-covered mountain, and I hunker into my coat of caribou skin. The sleeve of my left arm is too long—Mama meant it to last me another two winters. The other is capped next to the stub of my right elbow.

The sack full of my village’s prayers hangs lightly around my neck. Hundreds of little scrolls fill the burlap, written in hands both illegible and refined.

Once every five years the prayers are carried to Heaven.

Once every five years a citizen leaves and never comes back.

And now it is my turn.

I lay my boot on the first rung. I’ve learned to do everything with one limb that most do with two. I know how to deftly climb a ladder. But this …

It’s a long way to forever.

The ladder is made of something light and flexible—like the bamboo the traveling tradesmen bring. But it is also sturdy. The ladder has stood for a thousand years and will stand for a thousand more.

When the Carrier of Prayers is selected, the entire village gathers on the square outside of the temple. The priest makes sure all of the doors and windows are splayed wide, so that we can see the choosing. He drapes garlands and sprinkles seeds around the fat, golden Idol of Prayer, then touches its stomach and whispers in its ear. After a moment, the idol opens its mouth. The priest reaches in and retrieves a name burned into a small strip of parchment. The gods choose the Carrier, but the priest pulls the name.

And this year, it was me.

“No!” Mama cried. “There’s been a mistake. Not Damien.
Please
.”

It’s not often that the gods choose a child. Though at thirteen, I’m nearly a man. Usually they pick the elderly. Those who are still on their feet, but won’t be for long.

Mama pushed through the throng and into the temple. She stomped up to the priest—invading the holy circle of space around him that no one is ever supposed to breach—and demanded he pull another name.

“You can’t send a child with one arm,” someone in the crowd insisted.

“Yes,” agreed another. “What if he falls? What if our prayers don’t make it?”

“The gods have spoken,” the priest said in his stately tone. His harsh, black eyes stared at Mama without feeling. He had done his job, and she was to be thankful. Her boy had been given a great honor.

I took my place at the altar, next to the priest. The scent of crushed evergreens and scorched offerings permeated the sanctuary. “I can do it,” I declared, ignoring Mama’s sobs.

When we left the temple, she would not meet my gaze.

I’m way up now. Frost-blue Kaneq birds fly below—the gentle kind, with wingspans five times a grown man’s height—but the clouds are still above. With the stump of my arm I can push myself up the rungs, grabbing hold once my fingers are boosted to the right level.

The knot that holds the sack is tight. I will not lose a prayer.

Only half are ever answered. Exactly half. Always good prayers, but typically little ones. People who ask for a good harvest or a safe journey are blessed. Only sometimes do the gods answer a big prayer.

Mama’s prayer when I was little was a big prayer. I was going to die, she says. Horrible fever and rash—something terrible was eating me from inside. Mama prayed for me to live. And I did. All of me, save my right arm.

This morning, after the choosing, we wrote our prayers together. She got out the blessed parchment and the holy ink and we sat at the family table.

I asked her what she was praying for, but she wouldn’t tell me. I told her my prayer and she cried again.

My shoulders feel strong and my legs aren’t tired. And yet, I’ve reached the top.

There’s a trapdoor, just recognizable by a narrow square outline and a silver handle dangling within my reach. Bracing myself between the rails, I knock on the sky.

Bright, white light blurs my vision as the door opens. A thin, silver hand beckons for the sack.

Teetering precariously, I pull the sack over my head. It disappears into the light. Then the hand extends for me. I am to follow all of the great Carriers of the past and ascend to Heaven.

But as I move to take the hand, I slip. My fingers brush past the silver ones and I topple backwards.

I’m falling. Air rushes past as the ground rushes forth.

Down.

Down.

And when I pass through a cloud I realize what my mother prayed for. For my return.

Not like this. She couldn’t have prayed for this.

But, perhaps this means both of our prayers will be answered, and that this is not the end. I repeat mine now, to myself:
Please, make my mama happy
.

A sharp tingle in my stump draws my gaze to the right. A silvery, ethereal forearm and hand have sprouted from my sleeve cap. The fingers flex at my command.

Not even the thick hide of my coat could hinder the growth of a god-limb.

But, what use is a new arm, god or otherwise? Why give me now what I’ve gone all these years without?

Below, the frost-blue Kaneq birds soar in spirited circles, their wings shimmering in the late-day sun.

I don’t need fingers. I need feathers.

The god-arm morphs at my behest. A giant Kaneq wing extends to my right. But, it’s worthless without a mate.

I clutch my left fist. It has been a good hand, a good arm, doing the job of two. But I need something else now.

Change
, I will it.

Change.

Change!

A silver glimmer engulfs my left side. Blue plumage bursts into existence.

With wings outstretched, I catch the wind and it ferries me home. All the way to Mama.

Published in Galaxy’s Edge Issue 4
Copyright
©
2013 by Marina J. Lostetter. All rights reserved.

Holland: 1944

by Steve Cameron

Brigadier Arthur Holbrook (Ret.)

Ainsburgh Manor

Old Schoolyard Road

Upper Longstocking

West Albionshire

NW8 9AY

England

15th July 2014

General Sir Edwyn Blaine

Chief of the Defence Staff

Ministry of Defence

Whitehall

London

SW1A 2HB

My dear Sir Edwyn,

I am writing to you regarding a matter of the utmost importance. I have tried ringing the village constabulary, the army and the Home Office—even MI6, but all those fools simply won’t listen. You are my final hope; otherwise I shall be forced to resort to those dreadful television news people.

This matter affects national security and places our once great empire in a position of grave peril. It is my patriotic duty as an old soldier, a retired Brigadier, to inform someone in authority. An alien invasion force is poised ready to strike at any moment, and I have evidence locked in my garden shed.

Don’t laugh, it’s true.

I am very well aware this letter could easily be mistaken as the crazed ramblings of a demented old man. However I do not suffer fools gladly, nor am I prone to flights of fancy, and I certainly can’t stand this science fiction rubbish the young folk seem to like. As a schoolboy I tried to read some of it.
War of the Worlds
, I think it was called. Complete rubbish! I even knew one of those science fiction chaps during the war. I first met George Orwell when he was in the Home Guard and I asked him why he didn’t write real stories. He wasn’t too happy about that. Mind you, he smelled of mothballs and was a right dour sod most of the time. Big Brother this, Big Brother that. I thought he had surely been bullied as a child. The funny thing is he didn’t even have a brother, only two sisters. I must admit I’m not sure whether
Big Sister is watching
would have worked quite the same way, though. That just sounds, well … perverted.

I shall, of course, impart my information regarding the alien invasion, but please permit me to first offer my credentials and introduce myself. My name is Arthur Holbrook, and I managed to survive the war relatively unscathed, although I do still have some shrapnel in my neck. It was discovered a couple of years ago when an x-ray revealed a piece of metal high in my spine, up near my skull. My doctor decided it was safer to leave it there. It has never caused me any pain, although I get marvellous reception from the BBC. Even when the wireless is switched off.

I knew your father back in good old WW2. We were both young Privates then, strong and handsome, keen and courageous. Side by side we fought in the foxholes of France, then shoulder to shoulder across the battlefields of Belgium. We even stayed in touch for a few years after the war. A funny old chap, he was. He liked to wear frocks on a Saturday night and demand we call him Joyce. Now, I’m as happy as the next chap to tart up. I have fabulous legs and I’m not ashamed to show them off. We’d all done that in our student days at Oxford, but your father seemed to revel in it a little more than he should have. I suspect, however, those tales are best left for another time, perhaps one night when we can share a few pints of Old Speckled Hen down at the local. Please pass on my kindest regards to old Joyce and buy her a sherry from me the next time you see her. The last I heard the operation had gone rather well.

I confess I am not familiar with your security clearances, although I would presume they are rather high. And I certainly have no knowledge of whether you have been given any information regarding the existence of aliens by our cousins across the pond. If you have been told they do not exist, then the Yanks are lying to you. Which I must admit to finding rather strange since the American public seems to know all about their presence on Earth. My wife’s niece, a splendid young lass, is married to a colonial and lives in a small place called Protection, Kansas. Now I ask you, is that any sort of name for a village? Sounds more like something she should have used prior to the birth of that horrid child of hers. The last time my wife’s niece, her American husband and their festering offspring came to visit, I discreetly asked if she believed in aliens. I’m afraid I don’t really comprehend all this computer mumbo-jumbo, megapretzel camera, kindle ballyhoo and so on, but she brought out a laptop computer device and connected to something called the interweb. She showed me pictures of something called Area 51 which is apparently full of alien creatures and flying saucers and government agents wearing crisp black suits. If you don’t believe me, ask a youngster to show you on a computer thing.

But I’m afraid I digress, and I should return to the matter at hand.

A week ago my wife and I decided to go for an afternoon drive in our Austin Healey. It was a glorious summer afternoon with just a hint of breeze, and so armed with a picnic basket and a flask of tea we merrily headed off into The Wolds. We had such a lovely time together. As I drove I enjoyed the serenity, the nature, the lush trees and the green rolling hills while my wife shouted directions at me. We even opened the car windows a little to welcome the scent of freshly cut hay from the passing fields. Soon we found a lovely place to stop for our lunch. We spread our blanket under a chestnut tree and cheerfully munched our cucumber sandwiches, pickled eggs and pork pies. Then we ate freshly baked scones with lashing of jam and cream washed down with good old English tea, from India. Once we were done, I had a nap while my wife roamed the paddock enjoying her hobby, cow tipping. I believe she gave three or four of the beasts a good heave. I awoke, completely refreshed after a good kip, so we packed the car and headed home.

The sun was getting low in the sky when the love of my life realised I was on the wrong road. Apparently she tried to tell me. I didn’t hear her. She believes I am starting to ignore her. I’m afraid it’s just that I’m getting old and a little hard of hearing. But as always she has a solution. From the glove box she retrieved her loud-hailer with which she proceeded to point out my many faults. Loudly. I tried my best to ignore her and concentrate on my driving. Somehow I managed to find the road home with only a thumping headache.

Twilight was rapidly approaching as we pulled into the village. Next to me, my love slept soundly. And by soundly I mean she snored as though a freight train was arriving in my skull, over and over again. I had just driven through the main roundabout when I happened to notice three pale blue lights, stationary in the darkening sky, just above the steeple of St. Hubbins. The three lights then pulsed in unison, so I wound down my window to better see them. Unfortunately I didn’t see the Morris 1100 coming towards me. At the last minute its headlights caught my eye and I swerved wildly to avoid it. There was a screech of tyres, a violent shuddering, and then a jolt as I mounted the curb. I crashed into a phone box, through a fence, across a vacant plot of land and into a duck pond. You would not believe the resulting carry on and squawking. And that was just my wife! She stormed around the car, opened the door and dragged me out. Soaked and spluttering stagnant pond water, she carried me across the muddy banks and dumped me on the grass. Across the way, on the village green, three young lads wearing grey windcheaters, which my wife called ‘hoodies’, laughed and pointed in amusement. As my wife pushed the car out of the pond, I lay on my back, gasping for air and calming my heart-rate. When I finally recalled how I’d come to crash the car, I scoured the sky. The blue lights had now vanished.

I’ve seen those lights before. But that was in Europe, some 70 years ago.

In late 1944, as part of the Second Army, I was stationed in the Netherlands. My Division was situated near the Meuse River with the ultimate goal of pushing through to Berlin. One night, while out on patrol, I became separated from my comrades-in-arms. I became completely lost. The night was bitterly cold. We were still several weeks away from the first snow, but the air held an icy chill and the moon was lost behind clouds.

I crept through the woods, trying to locate my fellow soldiers, but I only found myself further disoriented. I shivered, and pulled my collar close around my throat. Just as I was about to light a match to read a map I heard twigs breaking underfoot. Then I heard the guttural sounds of a Jerry speaking to another. Instantly, I dropped to the ground and rolled behind a fallen log. It was damp and smelled of fungus, and it felt like hours I lay there, scarcely breathing, unable to move, but it must have only been a few minutes. One of the Krauts almost stepped on me as he stopped to relieve himself. I had to close my eyes and mouth against the warm stream of German urine.

I think I lasted about ten seconds before I could bear it no longer. I coughed and spluttered and leapt to my feet. The German’s eyes widened as I turned and fled. There was a rifle shot, and then another.

“Halt!” someone shouted. “Halt!”

I ran, zigzagging as I’d been taught and charged smack-bang into a tree. My head felt like it had been pushed straight through my skull, and I crashed heavily to the ground.

Before I could stand, the Jerries had dragged me upright, stripped me of my rifle and tied my hands behind my back. They marched me to a nearby barn, apparently abandoned. One of them shoved me, and I stumbled inside, scraping my face against the roughly hewn door. I was led to the back and pushed down into an animal stall. As a child I was always fragile, and the smell of old hay and animal droppings brought my allergies to the fore. Immediately I started sneezing which resulted in a backhander. My face burned, my head pounded and I lay there, stinking of piss and whimpering softly in the darkened stall while they removed their packs and rifles. Soon they had started a small fire. There was a short guttural discussion before one of them approached me. He made me stand, looked me up and down then untied my hands. He spoke to me in heavily accented English.

“You won’t try to escape, will you? We will simply shoot you if you try.”

“No,” I shook my head and briskly rubbed my hands to get some life back into them.

“What is your name?”

“Arthur Holbrook,” I said.

“Where are you based?”

“Arthur Holbrook. Private. 7474505B.”

“Where are you based?” he repeated.

“Arthur Holbrook. Private. 7474505B.”

The Swiss may have been reluctant to become involved in the war, but they had hosted the convention that afforded me the right to only state my name, rank and serial number. Oh, and they made damn fine chocolate as well.

He smiled. “What were you doing when we captured you, apart from being pissed on?” The others all laughed at this. I ignored him. Meanwhile, one of the other soldiers was heating up some kind of stew. It smelled wonderful.

“Would you like some?” he asked. “What were you doing when we captured you?”

I saw no point in lying. They had probably guessed I was simply lost.

“I was simply lost,” I said. “I was on patrol when I became separated from my comrades. I was trying to find my way back to them when you discovered me.”

He asked me further questions about troop movements, artillery installations and plans. I really had no idea, but I pointed at a couple of random spots on a map he produced to keep him happy. He seemed to like this and smiled again. Then he invited me to join the others at the fire. I dropped onto a log that had been dragged inside. It felt great just being out of the cold. It was heaven to also smell the warming food, at least the little I could catch through the wall of steaming ammonia from my drying uniform. For some reason the Germans all sat on the far side of the fire from me.

I was given some stew. Metal spoons scraped on metal dixies as we ate greedily in the flickering firelight. I didn’t receive nearly as much as they did, but at least they shared with me. They’re not all bad, those Jerry swine.

Later I sat alone on a pile of hay in the stall, gulping down a mug of hot tea and smoking a cigarette. My uniform was still damp, but at least it was now warm again. The Germans huddled around the fire and spoke in soft tones, laughing from time to time. Once I’d finished, they retied my hands behind my back and I fell asleep with my face pressed against the hay.

It must have been an hour or so later that I was awoken by the strangest sound: a low-pitched hum. My stomach rumbled in response to the frequency. Or perhaps it was in response to the stew. The German who remained awake on guard apparently heard it too, as he stood and quietly woke the others. The fire was no more than a bed of glowing coals, fighting a losing battle against the cold night. The hum grew louder and louder until my ears hurt and my stomach trembled. A pale blue light strobed through the cracks in the rear wall of the barn. The Germans grabbed their rifles and made their way outside, leaving me alone. A few moments later I heard shouted commands and a few rifle shots. Then there was a new sound, a static crackling, and the blue glow around me changed to red. A few seconds later the pale blue light returned. The hum died away and there was only silence.

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