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The Year's Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Ninth Annual Collection
Twenty-Ninth Annual Collection
By Gardner Dozois
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2012 Gardner Dozois
All rights reserved.
Born in Oxford, England, in 1955, Paul J. McAuley now makes his home in London. A professional biologist for many years, he sold his first story in 1984, and has gone on to be a frequent contributor to Interzone, as well as to publications including Asimov's Science Fiction, SCI FICTION, Amazing, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Skylife, The Third Alternative, and When the Music's Over.
McAuley is at the forefront of several of the most important sub-genres in SF today, producing both "radical hard science fiction" and the revamped and retooled widescreen Space Opera that has sometimes been called The New Space Opera, as well as Dystopian sociological speculations about the very near future. He also writes fantasy and horror. His first novel, Four Hundred Billion Stars, won the Philip K. Dick Award, and his novel Fairyland won both the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the John W. Campbell Award in 1996. His other books include the novels Of the Fall, Eternal Light, and Pasquale's Angel, Confluence (a major trilogy of ambitious scope and scale set ten million years in the future, which comprised the novels Child of the River, Ancient of Days, and Shrine of Stars ), Life on Mars, The Secret of Life, Whole Wide World, White Devils, Mind's Eye, Players, Cowboy Angels, The Quiet War and Gardens of the Sun . His short fiction has been collected in The King of the Hill and Other Stories, The Invisible Country, and Little Machines, and he is the coeditor, with Kim Newman, of an original anthology, In Dreams . His most recent book is a new novel, In the Mouth of the Whale.
Here he gives us a powerful and deceptively quiet story set in an ingeniously described future England that has been transformed by climate change and a rise in sea level. It is a setting that in McAuley's expert hands has the feel of a real place, both pastoral and shabby, where people get on with their ordinary lives in a world both dramatically altered and in some ways nearly the same as our own. That is, until the Unknown suddenly intrudes into this world in the form of a giant, mournfully bellowing, enigmatic alien ship that grounds itself on the bank of a river, and changes everything forever.
In the night, tides and a brisk wind drove a raft of bubbleweed across the Flood and piled it up along the north side of the island. Soon after first light, Lucas started raking it up, ferrying load after load to one of the compost pits, where it would rot down into a nutrient-rich liquid fertiliser. He was trundling his wheelbarrow down the steep path to the shore for about the thirtieth or fortieth time when he spotted someone walking across the water: Damian, moving like a cross-country skier as he crossed the channel between the island and the stilt huts and floating tanks of his father's shrimp farm. It was still early in the morning, already hot. A perfect September day, the sky's blue dome untroubled by cloud. Shifting points of sunlight starred the water, flashed from the blades of the farm's wind turbine. Lucas waved to his friend and Damian waved back and nearly overbalanced, windmilling his arms and recovering, slogging on.
They met at the water's edge. Damien, picking his way between floating slicks of red weed, called out breathlessly, "Did you hear?"
"A dragon got itself stranded close to Martham."
"I'm not kidding. An honest-to-God sea dragon."
Damian stepped onto an apron of broken brick at the edge of the water and sat down and eased off the fat flippers of his Jesus shoes, explaining that he'd heard about it from Ritchy, the foreman of the shrimp farm, who'd got it off the skipper of a supply barge who'd been listening to chatter on the common band.
"It beached not half an hour ago. People reckon it came in through the cut at Horsey and couldn't get back over the bar when the tide turned. So it went on up the channel of the old riverbed until it ran ashore."
Lucas thought for a moment. "There's a sand bar that hooks into the channel south of Martham. I went past it any number of times when I worked on Grant Higgins's boat last summer, ferrying oysters to Norwich."
"It's almost on our doorstep," Damian said. He pulled his phone from the pocket of his shorts and angled it towards Lucas. "Right about here. See it?"
"I know where Martham is. Let me guess — you want me to take you."
"What's the point of building a boat if you don't use it? Come on, L. It isn't every day an alien machine washes up."
Lucas took off his broad-brimmed straw hat and blotted his forehead with his wrist and set his hat on his head again. He was a wiry boy not quite sixteen, bare-chested in baggy shorts, and wearing sandals he'd cut from an old car tyre. "I was planning to go crabbing. After I finish clearing this weed, water the vegetable patch, fix lunch for my mother ..."
"I'll give you a hand with all that when we get back."
"If you really don't want to go I could maybe borrow your boat."
"Or you could take one of your dad's."
"After what he did to me last time? I'd rather row there in that leaky old clunker of your mother's. Or walk."
"That would be a sight."
Damian smiled. He was just two months older than Lucas, tall and sturdy, his cropped blond hair bleached by salt and summer sun, his nose and the rims of his ears pink and peeling. The two had been friends for as long as they could remember.
He said, "I reckon I can sail as well as you."
"You're sure this dragon is still there? You have pictures?"
"Not exactly. It knocked out the town's broadband, and everything else. According to the guy who talked to Ritchy, nothing electronic works within a klick of it. Phones, slates, radios, nothing. The tide turns in a couple of hours, but I reckon we can get there if we start right away."
"Maybe. I should tell my mother," Lucas said. "In the unlikely event that she wonders where I am."
"How is she?"
"No better, no worse. Does your dad know you're skipping out?"
"Don't worry about it. I'll tell him I went crabbing with you."
"Fill a couple of jugs at the still," Lucas said. "And pull up some carrots, too. But first, hand me your phone."
"The GPS coordinates are flagged up right there. You ask it, it'll plot a course."
Lucas took the phone, holding it with his fingertips — he didn't like the way it squirmed as it shaped itself to fit in his hand. "How do you switch it off?"
"What do you mean?"
"If we go, we won't be taking the phone. Your dad could track us."
"How will we find our way there?"
"I don't need your phone to find Martham."
"You and your off-the-grid horse shit," Damian said.
"You wanted an adventure," Lucas said. "This is it."
* * *
When Lucas started to tell his mother that he'd be out for the rest of the day with Damian, she said, "Chasing after that so-called dragon I suppose. No need to look surprised — it's all over the news. Not the official news, of course. No mention of it there. But it's leaking out everywhere that counts."
His mother was propped against the headboard of the double bed under the caravan's big end window. Julia Wittsruck, fifty-two, skinny as a refugee, dressed in a striped Berber robe and half-covered in a patchwork of quilts and thin orange blankets stamped with the Oxfam logo. The ropes of her dreadlocks tied back with a red bandana; her tablet resting in her lap.
She gave Lucas her best inscrutable look and said, "I suppose this is Damian's idea. You be careful. His ideas usually work out badly."
"That's why I'm going along. To make sure he doesn't get into trouble. He's set on seeing it, one way or another."
"And you aren't?"
Lucas smiled. "I suppose I'm curious. Just a little."
"I wish I could go. Take a rattle can or two, spray the old slogans on the damned thing's hide."
"I could put some cushions in the boat. Make you as comfortable as you like."
Lucas knew that his mother wouldn't take up his offer. She rarely left the caravan, hadn't been off the island for more than three years. A multilocus immunotoxic syndrome, basically an allergic reaction to the myriad products and pollutants of the anthropocene age, had left her more or less completely bedridden. She'd refused all offers of treatment or help by the local social agencies, relying instead on the services of a local witchwoman who visited once a week, and spent her days in bed, working at her tablet. She trawled government sites and stealthnets, made podcasts, advised zero-impact communities, composed critiques and manifestos. She kept a public journal, wrote essays and opinion pieces (at the moment, she was especially exercised by attempts by multinational companies to move in on the Antarctic Peninsula, and a utopian group that was using alien technology to build a floating community on a drowned coral reef in the Midway Islands), and maintained friendships, alliances, and several rancorous feuds with former colleagues whose origins had long been forgotten by both sides. In short, hers was a way of life that would have been familiar to scholars from any time in the past couple of millennia.
She'd been a lecturer in philosophy at Birkbeck College before the nuclear strikes, riots, revolutions, and netwar skirmishes of the so-called Spasm, which had ended when the floppy ships of the Jackaroo had appeared in the skies over Earth. In exchange for rights to the outer solar system, the aliens had given the human race technology to clean up the Earth, and access to a wormhole network that linked a dozen M-class red dwarf stars. Soon enough, other alien species showed up, making various deals with various nations and power blocs, bartering advanced technologies for works of art, fauna and flora, the secret formula of Coca-Cola, and other unique items.
Most believed that the aliens were kindly and benevolent saviours, members of a loose alliance that had traced ancient broadcasts of I Love Lucy to their origin and arrived just in time to save the human species from the consequences of its monkey cleverness. But a vocal minority wanted nothing to do with them, doubting that their motives were in any way altruistic, elaborating all kinds of theories about their true motivations. We should choose to reject the help of the aliens, they said. We should reject easy fixes and the magic of advanced technologies we don't understand, and choose the harder thing: to keep control of our own destiny.
Julia Wittstruck had become a leading light in this movement. When its brief but fierce round of global protests and politicking had fallen apart in a mess of mutual recriminations and internecine warfare, she'd moved to Scotland and joined a group of green radicals who'd been building a self-sufficient settlement on a trio of ancient oil rigs in the Firth of Forth. But they'd become compromised too, according to Julia, so she'd left them and taken up with Lucas's father (Lucas knew almost nothing about him — his mother said that the past was the past, that she was all that counted in his life because she had given birth to him and raised and taught him), and they'd lived the gypsy life for a few years until she'd split up with him and, pregnant with her son, had settled in a smallholding in Norfolk, living off the grid, supported by a small legacy left to her by one of her devoted supporters from the glory days of the anti-alien protests.
When she'd first moved there, the coast had been more than ten kilometres to the east, but a steady rise in sea level had flooded the northern and eastern coasts of Britain and Europe. East Anglia had been sliced in two by levees built to protect precious farmland from the encroaching sea, and most people caught on the wrong side had taken resettlement grants and moved on. But Julia had stayed put. She'd paid a contractor to extend a small rise, all that was left of her smallholding, with rubble from a wrecked twentieth-century housing estate, and made her home on the resulting island. It had once been much larger, and a succession of people had camped there, attracted by her kudos, driven away after a few weeks or a few months by her scorn and impatience. Then most of Greenland's remaining ice cap collapsed into the Arctic Ocean, sending a surge of water across the North Sea.
Lucas had only been six, but he still remembered everything about that day. The water had risen past the high tide mark that afternoon and had kept rising. At first it had been fun to mark the stealthy progress of the water with a series of sticks driven into the ground, but by evening it was clear that it was not going to stop anytime soon and then in a sudden smooth rush it rose more than a hundred centimetres, flooding the vegetable plots and lapping at the timber baulks on which the caravan rested. All that evening, Julia had moved their possessions out of the caravan, with Lucas trotting to and fro at her heels, helping her as best he could until, some time after midnight, she'd given up and they'd fallen asleep under a tent rigged from chairs and a blanket. And had woken to discover that their island had shrunk to half its previous size, and the caravan had floated off and lay canted and half-drowned in muddy water littered with every kind of debris.
Julia had bought a replacement caravan and set it on the highest point of what was left of the island, and despite ineffectual attempts to remove them by various local government officials, she and Lucas had stayed on. She'd taught him the basics of numeracy and literacy, and the long and intricate secret history of the world, and he'd learned field- and wood- and watercraft from their neighbours. He snared rabbits in the woods that ran alongside the levee, foraged for hedgerow fruits and edible weeds and fungi, bagged squirrels with small stones shot from his catapult. He grubbed mussels from the rusting car-reef that protected the seaward side of the levee, set wicker traps for eels and trotlines for mitten crabs. He fished for mackerel and dogfish and weaverfish on the wide brown waters of the Flood. When he could, he worked shifts on the shrimp farm owned by Damian's father, or on the market gardens, farms, and willow and bamboo plantations on the other side of the levee.
In spring, he watched long vees of geese fly north above the floodwater that stretched out to the horizon. In autumn, he watched them fly south.
He'd inherited a great deal of his mother's restlessness and fierce independence, but although he longed to strike out beyond his little world, he didn't know how to begin. And besides, he had to look after Julia. She would never admit it, but she depended on him, utterly.
Excerpted from The Year's Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Ninth Annual Collection by Gardner Dozois. Copyright © 2012 Gardner Dozois. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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