The Year's Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Seventh Annual Collection [NOOK Book]

Overview


The thirty-two stories in this collection imaginatively take us far across the universe, into the very core of our beings, to the realm of the gods, and the moment just after now.  Included here are the works of masters of the form and of bright new talents, including:

John Barnes, Elizabeth Bear, Damien Broderick, Karl Bunker, Paul Cornell, Albert E. Cowdrey, Ian Creasey, Steven Gould, Dominic Green, Nicola Griffith, Alexander Irvine, John Kessel, Ted Kosmatka, Nancy ...

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The Year's Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Seventh Annual Collection

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Overview


The thirty-two stories in this collection imaginatively take us far across the universe, into the very core of our beings, to the realm of the gods, and the moment just after now.  Included here are the works of masters of the form and of bright new talents, including:

John Barnes, Elizabeth Bear, Damien Broderick, Karl Bunker, Paul Cornell, Albert E. Cowdrey, Ian Creasey, Steven Gould, Dominic Green, Nicola Griffith, Alexander Irvine, John Kessel, Ted Kosmatka, Nancy Kress, Jay Lake, Rand B. Lee, Paul McAuley, Ian McDonald, Maureen F. McHugh, Sarah Monette, Michael Poore, Robert Reed, Adam Roberts, Chris Roberson, Mary Rosenblum, Geoff Ryman, Vandana Singh, Bruce Sterling, Lavie Tidhar, James Van Pelt, Jo Walton, Peter Watts, Robert Charles Wilson, and John C. Wright.

Supplementing the stories are the editor’s insightful summation of the year’s events and a lengthy list of honorable mentions, making this book both a valuable resource and the single best place in the universe to find stories that stir the imagination, and the heart.


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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Continuing the annual tradition, award-winning editor Dozois selects 32 of 2009's strongest short fiction pieces from print and online venues. The authors of these stories are almost all experienced and prolific, with many award winners and few surprise newcomers to be found. The offerings run the gamut of science fiction: for example, Nicola Griffith's "It Takes Two" explores love through chemical attraction, John Barnes's "Things Undone" is a time-blurring exploration of alternate history, and John Kessel's "Events Preceding the Helvetican Renaissance" is a far-future adventure. This smorgasbord of thought-provoking fiction ensures that any reader will likely find something appealing. Rounding out the collection is Dozois's writeup of all things 2009 SF: fiction, nonfiction, media, awards, and obituaries. (July)
From the Publisher
Praise for Gardner Dozois and The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Sixth Annual Collection:

“This is a worthy addition to a venerable series.” —Publishers Weekly

"For more than a quarter century, Gardner Dozois's The Year’s Best Science Fiction has defined the field. It is the most important anthology, not only annually, but overall." —Charles N. Brown, publisher of Locus Magazine

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781429905695
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 7/6/2010
  • Series: Year's Best Science Fiction Series , #27
  • Sold by: Macmillan
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 688
  • Sales rank: 408,264
  • File size: 1,013 KB

Meet the Author


GARDNER DOZOIS has been working in the science fiction field for more than thirty years. For twenty years he was the editor of Asimov's Science Fiction, during which time he received the Hugo Award for Best Editor fifteen times.

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Read an Excerpt


Utriusque Cosmi
ROBERT CHARLES WILSON
Robert Charles Wilson made his first sale in 1974, to Analog, but little more was heard from him until the late 1980s, when he began to publish a string of ingenious and well-crafted novels and stories that have since established him among the top ranks of the writers who came to prominence in the last two de cades of the twentieth century. His first novel, A Hidden Place, appeared in 1986. He won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for his novel The Chronoliths, the Philip K. Dick Award for his novel Mysterium, and the Aurora Award for his story “The Perseids.” In 2006, he won the Hugo Award for his acclaimed novel Spin. His other books include the novels Memory Wire, Gypsies, The Divide, The Harvest, A Bridge of Years, Darwinia, Blind Lake, Bios, and Axis, and a collection of his short work, The Perseids and Other Stories. His most recent book is a new novel, Julian. He lives in Toronto, Canada.
Here he tells the compelling story of a young woman faced with the most significant choice she will ever make in her life—after which, nothing will ever be the same.
Diving back into the universe (now that the universe is a finished object, boxed and ribboned from bang to bounce), Carlotta calculates ever-finer loci on the frozen ordinates of spacetime until at last she reaches a trailer park outside the town of Commanche Drop, Arizona. Bodiless, no more than a breath of imprecision in the Feynman geography of certain virtual particles, thus powerless to affect the material world, she passes unimpeded through a sheet-aluminum wall and hovers over a mattress on which a young woman sleeps uneasily.
The young woman is her own ancient self, the primordial Carlotta Boudaine, dewed with sweat in the hot night air, her legs caught up in a spindled cotton sheet. The bedroom’s small window is cranked open, and in the breezeless distance a coyote wails.
Well, look at me, Carlotta marvels: skinny girl in pan ties and a halter, sixteen years old—no older than a gnat’s breath—taking shallow little sleep-breaths in the moonlit dark. Poor child can’t even see her own ghost. Ah, but she will, Carlotta thinks—she must.
The familiar words echo in her mind as she inspects her dreaming body, buried in its tomb of years, eons, kalpas. When it’s time to leave, leave. Don’t be afraid. Don’t wait. Don’t get caught. Just go. Go fast.
Her ancient beloved poem. Her perennial mantra. The words, in fact, that saved her life.
She needs to share those words with herself, to make the circle complete. Everything she knows about nature of the physical universe suggests that the task is impossible. Maybe so . . . but it won’t be for lack of trying.
Patiently, slowly, soundlessly, Carlotta begins to speak.
Here’s the story of the Fleet, girl, and how I got raptured up into it. It’s all about the future—a bigger one than you believe in—so brace yourself.
It has a thousand names and more, but we’ll just call it the Fleet. When I first encountered it, the Fleet was scattered from the core of the galaxy all through its spiraled tentacles of suns, and it had been there for millions of years, going about its business, though nobody on this planet knew anything about it. I guess every now and then a Fleet ship must have fallen to Earth, but it would have been indistinguishable from any common meteorite by the time it passed through the atmosphere: a chunk of carbonaceous chondrite smaller than a human fist, from which all evidence of ordered matter had been erased by fire—and such losses, which happened everywhere and often, made no discernable difference to the Fleet as a whole. All Fleet data (that is to say, all mind) was shared, distributed, fractal. Vessels were born and vessels were destroyed, but the Fleet persisted down countless eons, confident of its own immortality.
Oh, I know you don’t understand the big words, child! It’s not important for you to hear them—not these words—it’s only important for me to say them. Why? Because a few billion years ago tomorrow, I carried your ignorance out of this very trailer, carried it down to the Interstate and hitched west with nothing in my backpack but a bottle of water, a half-dozen Tootsie Rolls, and a wad of twenty-dollar bills stolen out of Dan-O’s old ditty bag. That night (tomorrow night: mark it) I slept under an overpass all by myself, woke up cold and hungry long before dawn, and looked up past a concrete arch crusted with bird shit into a sky so thick with falling stars it made me think of a dark skin bee-stung with fire. Some of the Fleet vectored too close to the atmosphere that night, no doubt, but I didn’t understand that (any more than you do, girl)—I just thought it was a big flock of shooting stars, pretty but meaningless. And, after a while, I slept some more. And come sunrise, I waited for the morning traffic so I could catch another ride . . . but the only cars that came by were all weaving or speeding, as if the whole world was driving home from a drunken party.
“They won’t stop,” a voice behind me said. “Those folks already made their decisions, Carlotta. Whether they want to live or die, I mean. Same decision you have to make.”
I whirled around, sick-startled, and that was when I first laid eyes on dear Erasmus.
Let me tell you right off that Erasmus wasn’t a human being. Erasmus just then was a knot of shiny metal angles about the size of a micro wave oven, hovering in mid-air, with a pair of eyes like the polished tourmaline they sell at those roadside souvenir shops. He didn’t have to look that way—it was some old avatar he used because he figured that it would impress me. But I didn’t know that then. I was only surprised, if that’s not too mild a word, and too shocked to be truly frightened.
“The world won’t last much longer,” Erasmus said in a low and mournful voice. “You can stay here, or you can come with me. But choose quick, Carlotta, because the mantle’s come unstable and the continents are starting to slip.”
I half believed that I was still asleep and dreaming. I didn’t know what that meant, about the mantle, though I guessed he was talking about the end of the world. Some quality of his voice (which reminded me of that actor Morgan Freeman) made me trust him despite how weird and impossible the whole conversation was. Plus, I had a confirming sense that something was going bad somewhere, partly because of the scant traffic (a Toyota zoomed past, clocking speeds it had never been built for, the driver a hunched blur behind the wheel), partly because of the ugly green cloud that just then billowed up over a row of rat-toothed mountains on the horizon. Also the sudden hot breeze. And the smell of distant burning. And the sound of what might have been thunder, or something worse.
“Go with you where?”
“To the stars, Carlotta! But you’ll have to leave your body behind.”
I didn’t like the part about leaving my body behind. But what choice did I have, except the one he’d offered me? Stay or go. Simple as that.
It was a ride—just not the kind I’d been expecting.
There was a tremor in the earth, like the devil knocking at the soles of my shoes. “Okay,” I said, “what ever,” as white dust bloomed up from the desert and was taken by the frantic wind.
Don’t be afraid. Don’t wait. Don’t get caught. Just go. Go fast.
Without those words in my head, I swear, girl, I would have died that day. Billions did.
She slows down the passage of time so she can fit this odd but somehow necessary monologue into the space between one or two of the younger Carlotta’s breaths. Of course, she has no real voice in which to speak. The past is static, imperturbable in its endless sleep; molecules of air on their fixed trajectories can’t be manipulated from the shadowy place where she now exists. Wake up with the dawn, girl, she says, steal the money you’ll never spend—it doesn’t matter; the important thing is to leave. It’s time.
When it’s time to leave, leave. Of all the memories she carried out of her earthly life, this is the most vivid: waking to discover a ghostly presence in her darkened room, a white-robed woman giving her the advice she needs at the moment she needs it. Suddenly Carlotta wants to scream the words: When it’s time to leave—
But she can’t vibrate even a single mote of the ancient air, and the younger Carlotta sleeps on.
Next to the bed is a thrift-shop night table scarred with cigarette burns. On the table is a child’s night-light, faded cut-outs of Sponge Bob Square Pants pasted on the paper shade. Next to that, hidden under a splayed copy of People magazine, is the bottle of barbiturates Carlotta stole from Dan-O’s ditty-bag this afternoon, the same khaki bag in which (she couldn’t help but notice) Dan-O keeps his cash, a change of clothes, a fake driver’s license, and a blue steel automatic pistol.
Young Carlotta detects no ghostly presence . . . nor is her sleep disturbed by the sound of Dan-O’s angry voice and her mother’s sudden gasp, two rooms away. Apparently, Dan-O is awake and sober. Apparently, Dan-O has discovered the theft. That’s a complication.
But Carlotta won’t allow herself to be hurried.
The hardest thing about joining the Fleet was giving up the idea that I had a body, that my body had a real place to be.
But that’s what everybody believed at first, that we were still whole and normal—everybody rescued from Earth, I mean. Everybody who said “Yes” to Erasmus—and Erasmus, in one form or another, had appeared to every human being on the planet in the moments before the end of the world. Two and a half billion of us accepted the offer of rescue. The rest chose to stay put and died when the Earth’s continents dissolved into molten magma.
Of course, that created problems for the survivors. Children without parents, parents without children, lovers separated for eternity. It was as sad and tragic as any other incomplete rescue, except on a planetary scale. When we left the Earth, we all just sort of re-appeared on a grassy plain as flat as Kansas and wider than the horizon, under a blue faux sky, each of us with an Erasmus at his shoulder and all of us wailing or sobbing or demanding explanations.
The plain wasn’t “real,” of course, not the way I was accustomed to things being real. It was a virtual place, and all of us were wearing virtual bodies, though we didn’t understand that fact immediately. We kept on being what we expected ourselves to be—we even wore the clothes we’d worn when we were raptured up. I remember looking down at the pair of greasy second-hand Reeboks I’d found at the Commanche Drop Goodwill store, thinking: in Heaven? Really?
“Is there any place you’d rather be?” Erasmus asked with a maddening and clearly inhuman patience. “Anyone you need to find?”
“Yeah, I’d rather be in New Zealand,” I said, which was really just a hysterical joke. All I knew about New Zealand was that I’d seen a show about it on PBS, the only channel we got since the cable company cut us off.
“Any particular part of New Zealand?”
“What? Well—okay, a beach, I guess.”
I had never been to a real beach, a beach on the ocean.
“Alone, or in the company of others?”
“Seriously?” All around me people were sobbing or gibbering in (mostly) foreign languages. Pretty soon, fights would start to break out. You can’t put a couple of billion human beings so close together under circumstances like that and expect any other result. But the crowd was already thinning, as people accepted similar offers from their own Fleet avatars.
“Alone,” I said. “Except for you.”
And quick as that, there I was: Eve without Adam, standing on a lonesome stretch of white beach.
After a while, the astonishment faded to a tolerable dazzle. I took off my shoes and tested the sand. The sand was pleasantly sun-warm. Saltwater swirled up between my toes as a wave washed in from the coral-blue sea.
Then I felt dizzy and had to sit down.
“Would you like to sleep?” Erasmus asked, hovering over me like a gemstudded party balloon. “I can help you sleep, Carlotta, if you’d like. It might make the transition easier if you get some rest, to begin with.”
“You can answer some fucking questions, is what you can do!” I said.
He settled down on the sand beside me, the mutant offspring of a dragonfly and a beach ball. “Okay, shoot,” he said.
It’s a read-only universe, Carlotta thinks. The Old Ones have said as much, so it must be true. And yet, she knows, she remembers, that the younger Carlotta will surely wake and find her here: a ghostly presence, speaking wisdom.
But how can she make herself perceptible to this sleeping child? The senses are so stubbornly material, electrochemical data cascading into vastly complex neural networks . . . is it possible she could intervene in some way at the borderland of quanta and perception? For a moment, Carlotta chooses to look at her younger self with different eyes, sampling the fine gradients of molecular magnetic fields. The child’s skin and skull grow faint and then transparent as Carlotta shrinks her point of view and wanders briefly through the carnival of her own animal mind, the buzzing innerscape where skeins of dream merge and separate like fractal soap bubbles. If she could manipulate even a single boson—influence the charge at some critical synaptic junction, say—
But she can’t. The past simply doesn’t have a handle on it. There’s no uncertainty here anymore, no alternate outcomes. To influence the past would be to change the past, and, by definition, that’s impossible.
The shouting from the next room grows suddenly louder and more vicious, and Carlotta senses her younger self moving from sleep toward an awakening, too soon.
Of course, I figured it out eventually, with Erasmus’s help. Oh, girl, I won’t bore you with the story of those first few years—they bored me, heaven knows.
Of course “heaven” is exactly where we weren’t. Lots of folks were inclined to see it that way—assumed they must have died and been delivered to what ever afterlife they happened to believe in. Which was actually not too far off the mark: but, of course, God had nothing to do with it. The Fleet was a real-world business, and ours wasn’t the first sentient species it had raptured up. Lots of planets got destroyed, Erasmus said, and the Fleet didn’t always get to them in time to salvage the population, hard as they tried—we were lucky, sort of.
So I asked him what it was that caused all these planets to blow up.
“We don’t know, Carlotta. We call it the Invisible Enemy. It doesn’t leave a signature, what ever it is. But it systematically seeks out worlds with flourishing civilizations and marks them for destruction.” He added, “It doesn’t like the Fleet much, either. There are parts of the galaxy where we don’t go—because if we do go there, we don’t come back.”
At the time, I wasn’t even sure what a “galaxy” was, so I dropped the subject, except to ask him if I could see what it looked like—the destruction of the Earth, I meant. At first, Erasmus didn’t want to show me; but after a lot of coaxing, he turned himself into a sort of floating TV screen and displayed a view “looking back from above the plane of the solar ecliptic,” words which meant nothing to me.
What I saw was . . . well, no more little blue planet, basically.
More like a ball of boiling red snot.
“What about my mother? What about Dan-O?”
I didn’t have to explain who these people were. The Fleet had sucked up all kinds of data about human civilization, I don’t know how. Erasmus paused as if he was consulting some invisible Rolodex. Then he said, “They aren’t with us.”
“You mean they’re dead?”
“Yes. Abby and Dan-O are dead.”
But the news didn’t surprise me. It was almost as if I’d known it all along, as if I had had a vision of their deaths, a dark vision to go along with that ghostly visit the night before, the woman in a white dress telling me go fast.
Abby Boudaine and Dan-O, dead. And me raptured up to robot heaven. Well, well.
“Are you sure you wouldn’t like to sleep now?”
“Maybe for a while,” I told him.
Dan-O’s a big man, and he’s working himself up to a major tantrum. Even now, Carlotta feels repugnance at the sound of his voice, that gnarl of angry consonants. Next, Dan-O throws something solid, maybe a clock, against the wall. The clock goes to pieces, noisily. Carlotta’s mother cries out in response, and the sound of her wailing seems to last weeks.
“It’s not good,” Erasmus told me much later, “to be so much alone.”
Well, I told him, I wasn’t alone—he was with me, wasn’t he? And he was pretty good company, for an alien machine. But that was a dodge. What he meant was that I ought to hook up with somebody human.
I told him I didn’t care if ever set eyes on another human being ever again. What had the human race ever done for me?
He frowned—that is, he performed a particular contortion of his exposed surfaces that I had learned to interpret as disapproval. “That’s entropic talk, Carlotta. Honestly, I’m worried about you.”
“What could happen to me?” Here on this beach where nothing ever really happens, I did not add.
“You could go crazy. You could sink into despair. Worse, you could die.”
“I could die? I thought I was immortal now.”
“Who told you that? True, you’re no longer living, in the strictly material sense. You’re a metastable nested loop embedded in the Fleet’s collective mentation. But everything’s mortal, Carlotta. Anything can die.”
I couldn’t die of disease or falling off a cliff, he explained, but my “nested loop” was subject to a kind of slow erosion, and stewing in my own lonely juices for too long was liable to bring on the decay that much faster.
And, admittedly, after a month on this beach, swimming and sleeping too much and eating the food Erasmus conjured up whenever I was hungry (though I didn’t really need to eat), watching recovered soap operas on his bellyvision screen or reading celebrity magazines (also embedded in the Fleet’s collective memory) that would never get any fresher or produce another issue, and just being basically miserable as all hell, I thought maybe he was right.
“You cry out in your sleep,” Erasmus said. “You have bad dreams.”
“The world ended. Maybe I’m depressed. You think meeting people would help with that?”
“Actually,” he said, “you have a remarkable talent for being alone. You’re sturdier than most. But that won’t save you, in the long run.”
So I tried to take his advice. I scouted out some other survivors. Turned out, it was interesting what some people had done in their new incarnations as Fleet-data. The Erasmuses had made it easy for like-minded folks to find each other and to create environments to suit them. The most successful of these cliques, as they were sometimes called, were the least passive ones: the ones with a purpose. Purpose kept people lively. Passive cliques tended to fade into indifference pretty quickly, and the purely hedonistic ones soon collapsed into dense orgasmic singularities; but if you were curious about the world, and hung out with similarly curious friends, there was a lot to keep you thinking.
None of those cliques suited me in the long run, though. Oh, I made some friends, and I learned a few things. I learned how to access the Fleet’s archival data, for instance—a trick you had to be careful with. If you did it right, you could think about a subject as if you were doing a Google search, all the relevant information popping up in your mind’s eye just as if it had been there all along. Do it too often or too enthusiastically, though, and you ran the risk of getting lost in the overload—you might develop a “memory” so big and all-inclusive that it absorbed you into its own endless flow.
(It was an eerie thing to watch when it happened. For a while, I hung out with a clique that was exploring the history of the non-human civilizations that had been raptured up by the Fleet in eons past . . . until the leader of the group, a Jordanian college kid by the name of Nuri, dived down too far and literally fogged out. He got this look of intense concentration on his face, and, moments later, his body turned to wisps and eddies of fluid air and faded like fog in the sunlight. Made me shiver. And I had liked Nuri—I missed him when he was gone.)
But by sharing the effort, we managed to safely learn some interesting things. (Things the Erasmuses could have just told us, I suppose, but we didn’t know the right questions to ask.) Here’s a big for-instance: although every species was mortal after it was raptured up—every species eventually fogged out much the way poor Nuri had—there were actually a few very long-term survivors. By that, I mean individuals who had outlived their peers, who had found a way to preserve a sense of identity in the face of the Fleet’s hypercomplex data torrent.
We asked our Erasmuses if we could meet one of these long-term survivors.
Erasmus said no, that was impossible. The Elders, as he called them, didn’t live on our timescale. The way they had preserved themselves was by dropping out of realtime.
Apparently, it wasn’t necessary to “exist” continuously from one moment to the next. You could ask the Fleet to turn you off for a day or a week, then turn you on again. Any moment of active perception was called a saccade, and you could space your saccades as far apart as you liked. Want to live a thousand years? Do it by living one second out of every million that passes. Of course, it wouldn’t feel like a thousand years, subjectively, but a thousand years would flow by before you aged much. That’s basically what the Elders were doing.
We could do the same, Erasmus said, if we wanted. But there was a price tag attached to it. “Timesliding” would carry us incomprehensibly far into a future nobody could predict. We were under continual attack by the Invisible Enemy, and it was possible that the Fleet might lose so much cohesion that we could no longer be sustained as stable virtualities. We wouldn’t get a long life out of it, and we might well be committing a kind of unwitting suicide.
“You don’t really go anywhere,” Erasmus summed up. “In effect, you just go fast. I can’t honestly recommend it.”
“Did I ask for your advice? I mean, what are you, after all? Just some little fragment of the Fleet mind charged with looking after Carlotta Boudaine. A cybernetic babysitter.”
I swear to you, he looked hurt. And I heard the injury in his voice.
“I’m the part of the Fleet that cares about you, Carlotta.”
Most of my clique backed down at that point. Most people aren’t cut out to be timesliders. But I was more tempted than ever. “You can’t tell me what to do, Erasmus.”
“I’ll come with you, then,” he said. “If you don’t mind.”
It hadn’t occurred to me that he might not come along. It was a scary idea. But I didn’t let that anxiety show.
“Sure, I guess that’d be all right,” I said.
Enemies out there too, the elder Carlotta observes. A whole skyful of them. As above, so below. Just like in that old drawing—what was it called? Utriusque Cosmi. Funny what a person remembers. Girl, do you hear your mother crying?
The young Carlotta stirs uneasily in her tangled sheet.
Both Carlottas know their mother’s history. Only the elder Carlotta can think about it without embarrassment and rage. Oh, it’s an old story. Her mother’s name is Abby. Abby Boudaine dropped out of high school pregnant, left some dreary home in South Carolina to go west with a twenty-year-old boyfriend who abandoned her outside Albuquerque. She gave birth in a California emergency ward and nursed Carlotta in a basement room in the home of a retired couple, who sheltered her in exchange for house work until Carlotta’s constant wailing got on their nerves. After that, Abby hooked up with a guy who worked for a utility company and grew weed in his attic for pin money. The hookup lasted a few years, and might have lasted longer, except that Abby had a weakness for what the law called “substances,” and couldn’t restrain herself in an environment where coke and methamphetamine circulated more or less freely. A couple of times, Carlotta was bounced around between foster homes while Abby Boudaine did court-mandated dry-outs or simply binged. Eventually, Abby picked up ten-year-old Carlotta from one of these periodic suburban exiles and drove her over the state border into Arizona, jumping bail. “We’ll never be apart again,” her mother told her, in the strained voice that meant she was a little bit high or hoping to be. “Never again!” Blessing or curse? Carlotta wasn’t sure which. “You’ll never leave me, baby. You’re my one and only.”
Not such an unusual story, the elder Carlotta thinks, though her younger self, she knows, feels uniquely singled out for persecution.
Well, child, Carlotta thinks, try living as a distributed entity on a Fleet that’s being eaten by invisible monsters, then see what it feels like.
But she knows the answer to that. It feels much the same.
“Now you steal from me?” Dan-O’s voice drills through the wall like a rusty auger. Young Carlotta stirs and whimpers. Any moment now, she’ll open her eyes, and then what? Although this is the fixed past, it feels suddenly unpredictable, unfamiliar, dangerous.
Erasmus came with me when I went timesliding, and I appreciated that, even before I understood what a sacrifice it was for him.
Early on, I asked him about the Fleet and how it came to exist. The answer to that question was lost to entropy, he said. He had never known a time without a Fleet—he couldn’t have, because Erasmus was the Fleet, or at least a sovereign fraction of it.
“As we understand it,” he told me, “the Fleet evolved from networks of self-replicating data-collecting machine intelligences, no doubt originally created by some organic species, for the purpose of exploring interstellar space. Evidence suggests that we’re only a little younger than the universe itself.”
The Fleet had outlived its creators. “Biological intelligence is unstable over the long term,” Erasmus said, a little smugly. “But out of that original compulsion to acquire and share data, we evolved and refined our own collective purpose.”
“That’s why you hoover up doomed civilizations? So you can catalogue and study them?”
“So they won’t be forgotten, Carlotta. That’s the greatest evil in the universe—the entropic decay of organized information. Forgetfulness. We despise it.”
“Worse than the Invisible Enemy?”
“The Enemy is evil to the degree to which it abets entropic decay.”
“Why does it want to do that?”
“We don’t know. We don’t even understand what the Enemy is, in physical terms. It seems to operate outside of the material universe. If it consists of matter, that matter is non-baryonic and impossible to detect. It pervades parts of the galaxy—though not all parts—like an insubstantial gas. When the Fleet passes through volumes of space heavily infested by the Enemy, our loss-rate soars. And as these infested volumes of space expand, they encompass and destroy life-bearing worlds.”
“The Enemy’s growing, though. And the Fleet isn’t.”
I had learned to recognize Erasmus’s distress, not just because he was slowly adopting somewhat more human features. “The Fleet is my home, Carlotta. More than that. It’s my body, my heart.”
What he didn’t say was that by joining me in the act of surfing time, he would be isolating himself from the realtime network that had birthed and sustained him. In realtime, Erasmus was a fraction of something reassuringly immense. But in slide-time, he’d be as alone as an Erasmus could get.
And yet, he came with me, when I made my decision. He was my Erasmus as much as he was the Fleet’s, and he came with me. What would you call that, girl? Friendship? At least. I came to call it love.
The younger Carlotta has stolen those pills (the ones hidden under her smudged copy of People) for a reason. To help her sleep, was what she told herself. But she didn’t really have trouble sleeping. No: if she was honest, she’d have to say the pills were an escape hatch. Swallow enough of them, and it’s, hey, fuck you, world! Less work than the highway, an alternative she was also considering.
More shouting erupts in the next room. A real roust-up, bruises to come. Then, worse, Dan-O’s voice goes all small and jagged. That’s a truly bad omen, Carlotta knows. Like the smell of ozone that floods the air in advance of a lightning strike, just before the voltage ramps up and the current starts to flow.
Erasmus built a special virtuality for him and me to time-trip in. Basically, it was a big comfy room with a wall-sized window overlooking the Milky Way.
The billions of tiny dense components that made up the Fleet swarmed at velocities slower than the speed of light, but timesliding made it all seem faster—scarily so. Like running the whole universe in fast-forward, knowing you can’t go back. During the first few months of our expanded Now, we soared a long way out of the spiral arm that contained the abandoned Sun. The particular sub-swarm of the Fleet that hosted my sense of self was on a long elliptical orbit around the supermassive black hole at the galaxy’s core, and from this end of the ellipse, over the passing days, we watched the Milky Way drop out from under us like a cloud of luminous pearls.
When I wasn’t in that room, I went off to visit other timesliders, and some of them visited me there. We were a self-selected group of radical roamers with a thing for risk, and we got to know one another pretty well. Oh, girl, I wish I could tell you all the friends I made among that tribe of self-selected exiles! Many of them human, not all: I met a few of the so-called Elders of other species, and managed to communicate with them on a friendly basis. Does that sound strange to you? I guess it is. Surpassing strange. I thought so too, at first. But these were people (mostly people) and things (but things can be people too) that I mostly liked and often loved, and they loved me back. Yes, they did. Whatever quirk of personality made us timesliders drew us together against all the speedy dark outside our virtual walls. Plus—well, we were survivors. It took not much more than a month to outlive all the remaining remnant of humanity. Even our ghosts were gone, in other words, unless you counted us as ghosts.
Erasmus was a little bit jealous of the friends I made. He had given up a lot for me, and maybe I ought to have appreciated him more for it. Unlike us formerly biological persons, though, Erasmus maintained a tentative link with realtime. He had crafted protocols to keep himself current on changes in the Fleet’s symbol-sets and core mentation. That way, he could update us on what the Fleet was doing—new species raptured up from dying worlds and so forth. None of these newcomers lasted long, though, from our lofty perspective, and I once asked Erasmus why the Fleet even bothered with such ephemeral creatures as (for instance) human beings. He said that every species was doomed in the long run, but that didn’t make it okay to kill people—or to abandon them when they might be rescued. That instinct was what made the Fleet a moral entity, something more than just a collection of self-replicating machines.
Excerpted from The Year’s Best by Gardner Dozois.
Copyright © 2010 by Gardner Dozois.
Published in July 2010 by St. Martin’s griffin.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.
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  • Posted August 9, 2010

    If these are the best, then SF is in a sad state......

    Far too many poorly written, rambling stories. Too many of the stories elaborate on their world histories to the point that the reader gets exhausted waiting for something, anything to happen. They remind me of 6th grade book reports with a 10,000 word minimum. I would cite specific examples, but that would mean reading them all again.

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