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The Year's Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Second Annual Collection
By Gardner Dozois
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2005 Gardner Dozois
All rights reserved.
There was a man asleep on the sand.
He should not be here. It was my island. I had just returned to my mechano and it was time for me to go to work. He should not be here.
I studied the man through the eyes of my mechano. They were good eyes. They worked very well beneath the water, at depths down to fifteen hundred meters. I had adjusted them for maximum acuity at distances ranging from two inches to five feet. Beyond that, the world was a blur of tropical sunshine and brilliant color. I liked it that way.
There had been a big storm the night before. One of the coconut palms had blown down, and the beach was littered with driftwood, coconuts, and palm fronds.
The man didn't look good. He had a bloody scrape on his cheek, other scrapes on his arms and legs, a smear of blood in his short brown hair. His right leg was marked with bruises colored deep purple and green. He wore an orange life vest, a t-shirt, a pair of shorts, and canvas boat shoes.
He stirred in his sleep, sighing softly. Startled, I sent the mechano scuttling backward. I stopped a few feet away from him.
My mechano had a speaker. I tested it and it made a staticky sound. I wondered what I should say to this man.
The man moved, lifting a hand to rub his eyes. Slowly, he rolled over.
"Bonjour," I said through the mechano's speakers. Maybe he had come from one of the islands of French Polynesia.
A sound awakened him — a sort of mechanical squawking.
Evan Collins could feel the tropical sun beating down on his face, the warm beach sand beneath his hands. His head ached and his mouth was dry. His right leg throbbed with a dull, persistent pain.
Evan raised a hand to rub his eyes and winced when he brushed against a sand-encrusted scrape on his cheek. When he rolled over onto his back, the throbbing in his leg became a sudden, stabbing pain.
Wiping away the tears that blurred his vision, he lifted his head and blinked down at his leg. His calf was marked with bloody coral scrapes. Beneath the scrapes were vivid bruises: dark purple telling of injuries beneath the surface of the skin. When he tried to move his leg again, he gasped as the stabbing pain returned.
He heard the sound again: a mechanical rasping like a radio tuned to static. He turned in the direction of the sound, head aching, eyes dazzled by the sun. A gigantic cockroach was examining him with multifaceted eyes.
The creature was at least three feet long, with nasty looking mandibles. Its carapace glittered in the sunlight as it stood motionless, staring in his direction.
Again, the mechanical squawk, coming from the cockroach. This time, the sound was followed by a scratchy voice. "Bonjour," the cockroach said.
He had taken two years of French in high school, but he could remember none of it. This must be a dream, he thought, closing his eyes against the glare.
"Do you speak English?" the scratchy voice asked.
He opened his eyes. The roach was still there. "Yes," he rasped through a dry throat.
"You shouldn't be here," the scratchy voice said. "What are you doing here?"
He looked past the monster, struggling to make sense of his situation. The beach sand was the pure white of pulverized coral. On one side of the beach was a tangle of mangroves. On the inland side, palm trees rose from scrubby undergrowth. The water of the lagoon was pure tropical blue — paler where the coral reef was near the water's surface; darker where the water was deep. Some hundred yards offshore, he could see the mast of a boat sticking up out of the water. His boat.
He remembered: he had been heading west toward the Cook Islands when the storm came up. He ran before the wind toward an island that was an unnamed speck on the nautical chart. He had made it over the reef into the lagoon before the surge smashed the boat against a coral head, cracking the hull, swamping the boat, sending him flying overboard to smash into the reef. He didn't remember breaking his leg and struggling through the surf to the beach.
"Thirsty," he rasped through dry lips. "Very thirsty. Please help me."
He closed his eyes against the dazzling sunlight and heard the sound of metal sliding against metal as the roach walked away. He wondered if the monster was leaving him to die.
A few minutes later, he heard the sound of the roach returning. He opened his eyes. The cockroach stood beside him, holding a coconut in its mandibles. As he watched, the roach squeezed, and the point of each mandible pierced the outer husk, neatly puncturing the nut in two places.
Still gripping the coconut, the cockroach took a step toward him, opened its mandibles, and dropped the nut beside him. A thin trickle of coconut milk wet the sand.
"You can drink," said the cockroach.
He picked up the coconut, pressed his lips to the hole in the shaggy husk, and tipped it back. The coconut milk was warm and sweet and wet. He drank greedily.
By the time he had finished the milk, the roach was back with another coconut. It pierced the shell before dropping the nut.
The roach brought him two more coconuts, piercing each one neatly and dropping it beside Evan. It stood and watched him drink.
"I think my leg is broken," Evan murmured.
The roach said nothing.
He closed his eyes against the glare of the sun. Many years before, as an undergraduate, he had taken a psychology course on the psychosocial aspects of emergencies and disasters. A guest speaker, a member of a search-and-rescue team, had talked about how people had managed to stay alive in terrible situations — and had described the mental attitude that helped those people survive. The search-and-rescue expert had said that survivors just kept on trying, doing whatever they could. "Step by step," he had said. "That's the approach to take. Don't try to find the answer to everything at once. Remember, life by the yard is hard, but by the inch, it's a cinch."
Evan thought about what he could do right away to help increase his chances of survival. "I need to get out of the sun," he muttered. "I need food, water, medical supplies."
There were so many things he needed to do. He had to find something that he could use to splint his leg. He had to figure out a way to signal for help. He needed to find water. So many things he had to do.
He fell asleep.
It was restful under the ocean. The light that filtered down from above was dim and blue. The world around me was all shades of blue — dark and light. I liked it on the ocean floor.
I had left the man asleep on the sand. But first, I was helpful. I always try hard to be helpful.
He had said he had to get out of the sun. So I had gathered palm fronds from the beach and stuck them in the sand where they would shade him. He had said he needed food and water and medical supplies. So I went to his sailboat and found some cans of food and a can opener and bottles of water and a first-aid kit. I carried all that stuff up from the sunken boat and left it on the beach beside him.
Then I headed for deep water. I had work to do.
I lifted my legs high as I walked, moving slowly to avoid stirring up the loose silt that covered the ocean bottom. My temperature sensors tested the currents — warm where they welled up from volcanic cracks below. My chemical sensors tested the water; it tasted of sulfides, a familiar musty flavor.
I picked my way through the silt to reach my favorite spot. There was no silt here: a rocky portion of the ocean bottom had pushed up. There was a great tall chimney, where a hydrothermal vent brought up hot water from deep in the earth. Over the centuries, the hot water had deposited sulfides of copper, zinc, lead, gold, silver, and other metals, forming the chimney.
The mining company had mined for gold not far from here. They had followed a rich vein of ore until it gave out. Then they gave up. I had sniffed around their tailings, but then I had found a spot near the chimney that was much more promising. I had spent my last few visits to this spot gnawing on the chimney and breaking loose big chunks of rock. Now I could do what I liked best — sort through those rocks. I tasted each one with my chemical sensors to find the rocks that were richest in gold and silver. Those I stacked up in a neat pile.
It was wonderful work. I liked to sort things. I was very good at it. At home, I liked to sort all my books by color: putting the red ones on one shelf, the blue ones on another, the black ones on another.
I worked until the light began growing dimmer, a sign that the sun was sinking low in the sky. I choose the best of the rocks and picked it up in the mechano's mandibles. Then I headed back to the island.
I made my way up a long slope to reach the shallow waters where the coral reef grew. There, the bottom was sandy and I could walk quickly without stirring up silt. Schools of brightly colored fish swam above me. The fish darted here and there, fleeing from me. They moved too quickly, I thought. I liked it better in the deep blue waters. I passed the man's sailboat, wedged between two coral heads.
I came out of the water on the side of the beach near the mangroves. As I emerged from the water, the crabs hurried back into their holes in the sand.
I placed the rock beside one of the burrows. On my first day on the island, I had noticed that the crabs all seemed to want the burrow that one crab had dug beside a rock. So I started bringing rocks for the other crabs.
There were now rocks beside thirty-two crab burrows. I had been on the island for thirty-two days and I had brought the crabs one rock each day. I was very helpful. I thought it was appropriate to bring rocks for the crabs.
If the man hadn't been on the island, I would have stayed and watched until the crabs came out again. I liked to watch the crabs. But I wanted to find out what the man was doing, so I didn't wait for the crabs.
I headed up the beach to where I had left the man. He was no longer in his spot on the sand. I could see a track in the sand where he dragged his leg.
I followed the track and trudged through the sand. The man was asleep in the shade of a palm tree. He was using his life jacket as a pillow. He had wrapped the water bottles and the cans of food and the first-aid kit in his t-shirt and dragged them along with him.
He moved in his sleep, shifting restlessly. Then he opened his eyes and looked at me with wide, wild eyes.
When Evan Collins woke up, he found four plastic bottles of water, six cans of tuna fish, a can opener, and the first-aid kit from his boat on the sand beside him. He had splinted his leg with the velcro splint from the first-aid kit. He had eaten a can of tuna fish and drunk a one-quart bottle of water. Then he had dragged himself into the shade and taken two of the painkillers, which helped with the pain but left him groggy and disoriented.
He had fallen asleep in the shade. When he woke, the giant roach was back.
Evan drank from one of the bottles of water and blinked at the creature. It was a machine, he realized now. Its carapace was burnished steel. He could see the neat mechanical joints of its legs. On its burnished steel carapace, he could see the stenciled words: "Atlantis Mining and Salvage."
Of course: It made sense now. It was a robot designed for work underwater. A human being was operating the mechanical roach by remote control. He'd seen descriptions of such systems at the engineering department's annual open house.
"You work for Atlantis Mining," he said. "You've told them that I'm here."
The roach didn't say anything. Evan pictured the man operating the mechano: a gruff, no-nonsense, working-class guy, like the kind of guy who works on oil rigs. Matter of fact.
"When is the rescue party coming?" Evan asked.
"I don't know," said the roach. "Do you want a coconut?"
Evan blinked at the roach. "A coconut? Yes, but ..."
The roach turned away and walked deeper into the grove of coconut palms. It picked up a coconut, returned to Evan's side, pierced the nut, and dropped it beside Evan.
"Thank you." Evan took a long drink of coconut milk.
"You're welcome," said the roach.
Evan studied the roach, wishing he could see the face of the man behind the mechanism. This man was his only link to the outside world. He still hadn't said anything about Atlantis Mining and their reaction to Evan's predicament. "What did your supervisor say when you told him I was here?" Evan asked.
"I don't have a supervisor," said the roach.
"Okay," Evan said slowly. He felt dizzy and a little feverish, and the conversation wasn't helping. "But you did tell someone that I'm here, didn't you?"
"No," said the roach. Then, after a pause. "I'm going to talk to Dr. Rhodes. Do you want me to tell him?"
The flat, mechanical voice provided no clue about the feelings of the person behind it. "Yes." Evan struggled not to raise his voice. "When will you talk with him?"
"That's good," Evan said. "Will you tell him that my leg is broken and that I need medical help?" He looked at the bottles of water and cans of food. One and a half bottles of water and five cans of tuna remained. They wouldn't last long.
"Yes. Do you want another coconut?" asked the roach.
Evan stared at the expressionless metal face, the multifaceted eyes. Evan Collins was an anthropologist on sabbatical, studying ritual welcoming orations of Oceania and determining how they varied among the various island groups — a fine excuse to spend a year sailing across the South Pacific. As an anthropologist, he prided himself on his ability to read people. But there was no way to read this person. Another coconut? No, what he needed was a rescue party. To get this person to provide that, he needed more information. "You know," he said slowly, "I never introduced myself. My name is Evan. Evan Collins. What's your name?"
"Annie," said the roach.
That stopped Evan. He revised his mental image of the person running the mechano. Not a working-class guy. A woman.
"Annie," Evan said. "That's a nice name. How long have you worked for Atlantis Mining?"
"Thirty-two days," the roach said.
Again, Evan Collins revised his assessment of the person behind the roach. A new employee, a woman — someone in a position of powerlessness. "So tell me," Evan said. "Who is Dr. Rhodes?" The roach took a step back. "I don't want to answer questions," the roach said.
"Then I won't ask questions," Evan said quickly. Annie was his only contact with the world. He didn't want to drive her away. "You can ask me questions if you want."
"I don't want to ask questions," said the roach. "I want you to tell me a story."
Evan Collins had so many questions. He kept asking and asking and asking.
My mother used to tell me bedtime stories. Whenever my mother bothered me with too many questions or requests, I'd ask her to tell me a story. I collect stories, just like I collect rocks.
"What kind of story?" Evan Collins asked me.
I thought about stories that my mother liked to tell. "Cinderella," I said.
"You want me to tell you the story of Cinderella?"
He hesitated, and I wondered if he knew the story. Then he started. "Once upon a time," he said.
Once upon a time ... yes, that was how fairy tales began. Once upon a time, Cinderella's mother died and her father married again. Cinderella had a wicked stepmother and two stepsisters.
In my mind, I pictured a chart that showed me all the people in the story as the man mentioned them. The father and mother and Cinderella formed a triangle, all connected by solid lines. The stepmother and her two daughters formed another triangle. The stepmother was connected to the father by a solid line. Mental pictures like this helped me sort out relationships that otherwise didn't make sense.
Cinderella's stepmother and stepsisters made her do all the work around the house — and at night she slept on a cot in the kitchen. The man said that this made Cinderella very sad.
I thought about Cinderella on her cot in the kitchen, and I wasn't so sure he was right. During the day, the house would be noisy and confusing with all those people talking and laughing. At night, it would be dark and lonely in the kitchen — very nice. If being called Cinderella was the price of being left alone, it seemed like a small one.
Then the prince decided to have a party and invite all noblewomen of the kingdom. The people in fairy tales were always having parties. The people in fairy tales were neurotypical, that was for sure. NTs were so social — always getting together and talking. NTs seemed to spend most of their time worrying about and establishing their social hierarchy.
That was what elementary school had been all about. It had taken me a while to figure it out, but all those games in the playground were really about who was boss.
I didn't care who was boss, and I didn't want to play those games. So I sat by myself and looked at the rocks that made up the wall at the edge of the playground. It was an old wall filled with interesting rocks of many different colors. Some had flecks of mica in them. I had started a rock collection, and I liked thinking about how the rocks in the wall would fit in my collection.
Excerpted from The Year's Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Second Annual Collection by Gardner Dozois. Copyright © 2005 Gardner Dozois. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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