William Goldman, in his book Adventures In the Screen Trade, gives an insight into the potential problems with any Year’s Best award. Take the 1939 Oscars, he says. Tell me which one of these films won the Best Picture gong that year: Gunga Din; The Hunchback of Notre Dame; Intermezzo; The Private Lives of Elizabeth And Essex; Goodbye Mr Chips; Mr Smith Goes To Washington; Ninotchka; Of Mice And Men; Stagecoach; Wuthering Heights; The Wizard of Oz…?
The answer, of course, is none of them. The winner was Gone With The Wind. But it raises a valid point: best of the year is relative only to that year. Any one of the losers in 1939 would make worthy winners in any number of other years. Look at some of the Oscar winners in recent years, for example. Ordinary People? Gladiator? Titanic, for Christ’s sake? Quite obviously the best of a year does not necessarily mean any good in comparison to what has come before. Especially in the year Titanic won….
Which, in my usual roundabout, lack-of-sleep addled way, brings me to the book in question. It’s a good collection of stories, a very good collection of stories. It’s just not a very exciting collection of stories. It’s the best stories of the year. It’s just not a 1939 Oscars kind of year.
From dragon-festooned cover to cover all the obligatory tropes are here. There’s an Earthsea story, a wunderkammer story, the coming of age tales, the friendly witch stories, the modern Lovecraftian tales of unknowable goings-on just out of reach, all the merry range of fantasy subjects that have been visited before. All done excellently, true, but all done.
There are, as always, exceptions that prove the rule. Ted Chiang’s “Hell Is The Absence of God” is another sideways journey into that author’s unique worldview. It won this year’s Best Novelette Hugo, and stands as the most individual and interesting work within these pages. Chiang is rapidly developing the kind of reputation that has previously been set upon writers such as Dick, Waldrop, and Bester, and he would seem to fit within that eclectic pantheon. Likewise, “My Stolen Sabre” by Uncle River serves to highlight a distinctive and idiosyncratic voice that will bear further scrutiny in coming times. James Morrow’s “Apologue”, running at a little less than two pages, evokes both nostalgia and a sense of loss in portions far outweighing its brevity.
These stand as highlights in a book which is never less than extremely competent, and if it rarely reaches breathless heights, at least never causes the reader to discard the tenuous belief that is often the failing of Fantasy stories. If this were the first book of Fantasy you read, if you were a kid and had the kind of cool parents that buy you interesting books for Christmas, this is the kind likely to ignite a life-long passion for the field. If you’ve never before read the types of tales collected within then the stories in this volume couldn’t fail to excite and inspire you.
But if you’re a writer, just starting out and with a desire to make a name for yourself in Speculative Fiction you might do worse than turn your attentions toward the Fantasy genre. As an encapsulation of all that is best within the field, this book points to a year that was competent rather than stellar. A new, exciting, and truly individual voice could be just what the genre needs.
Octanitrocubane: ‘man’-made molecule created by placing eight carbon atoms at the corners of a cube, with nitro groups covalently bonded to each atom of carbon. So male bonding isn’t just about prowling for chicks and chips? Who knew? — the archives of CurvyNews.com
Dana Delgado — cyberjournalist, tech writer, Adult Content webstar — stretched out her hands to frame the scene. On her right, as far as her kohl-rimmed eyes could see, rows of leafy cornstalks waved in the breeze, soaking up the afternoon sun. On her left, a thousand protesters grooved to Green dance remixes and shook hysterical signs.
“Pull back!” she snapped at Rami, her not-long-for-this-job cam operator. He was a nice kid — especially with his Joe Boxers around his ankles — but Jesus. “I want the corn in. I want the crowd in. I want me in. I want the Tillman plant looming in the background. You getting me? Or should I draft you a storyboard?”
He was still backing up, Cam A fastened to his eye. If Dana didn’t say something soon he’d fall off the curb. And damage the webcam. “Stop!”
“What’d I say?” She daubed sweat from her brow with the back of a hand, coaxed an errant platinum curl into line. Her white House of Dior crop-top and skirt felt like pricey second skins. (But worth every grand: they were genuine transgenic antiperspirant silk.) The raucous ecofunk — thumping from speakers buried somewhere in the crowd — conjured thoughts of earplugs and embolisms. “Now just stand there — right there — until Krissy’s finished screwing around in the van. She needs to know where to set up for the exteriors.”
“Yeah? Hadn’t noticed.” Dana barely heard her own sarcasm over the music and the mob. She glanced out at the Greens gyrating just beyond the asphalt, wondering if these were the same carny freaks she interviewed every Earth Day — and whenever the WTO dared to bare its multinational face. Who cares? she decided. See one environmentalist mosh pit, you’ve seen them all.
An anonymous — but hardly silent — majority courted heatstroke by bumbling around in black ski masks. Others, a decimal place or two more newsworthy, sauteed themselves for the cause in boxy Frankenstein suits, green pancake makeup dribbling down their collars. Some chanted, some laughed, some shoved their neighbors. A few prayed for everyone else. Two intelligently shirtless women near the rope barricade finger-painted corncobs on each other’s breasts, while the half-dozen sheriff’s deputies sweating outside the cordon examined their batons — pretending not to appreciate Areola Art.
The flock of local news vultures at the perimeter feigned no such qualms: their vidcams swiveled for money shots.
Garish signs shouldered for room above the fray: NO MORE CYCLOPS CROPS! THE JOLLY GIANT IS GREEN! DOWN WITH BARBIE CORN! SINTHETICS DEFILE SACRED GROUND! STOP RAPING OUR MOTHER!
Blah, blah, blah.
All this over a harmless bacterium, Dana mused, shaking her head. An agribusiness finally turns a profit transplanting Ralstonia eutropha’s biopolymer-producing genes into corn…and all hell breaks loose. But am I watching a circus? Or America cross-sectioned?
She noted, unsurprised, that there weren’t any national news crews strutting around. In these latter days of nanosecond soundbites, microbial attention spans, and pandemic porn, who really gave a semi-hard shag for some Green protest in Arrowhead, Iowa? The network evening news would probably lead instead with yet one more leering story on Prince Willy’s tranny lover. Hermaphrodite mistress? Or soon-to-be drag Queen? Watch our exclusive panel of Royal watchers speculate wildly!
The cable, satellite, and net shows would offer similar fodder — only they’d have badly lit spycam pics for their scandal panels to squint over. That’s it! There on the left! No…that’s a thumb…or maybe a toe…That is a nail, isn’t it? There at the end?
Who, in overcooked 2021, tuned in to anything else? In the absence of photogenic plagues, pestilence, or wars, who held the fickle public mind for more than a few grudging minutes at a time?
That, Dana was happy to remind herself, would be me.
Only her trademark synthesis of serious news with in-your-face cupidity (and clever product placement) enticed Madison Avenue’s key Tween-to-Trendy demographic anymore. So what if she interviewed political pundits wearing only a mike and a grin? So what if she fellated the occasional MVP ballplayer just off-camera? Her policy wonk interviews were substantive. A single segment of her sports coverage attracted more hits than point-shaving ESPNOnline managed in a month.
Her new subscription-based webshow, CurvyNews, ruled the infotainment spectrum for two ad-free hours every weekday afternoon. Rumors were ripe that the show would sweep the People’s Choice Webbies in a few weeks. And the competition knew it. Most were already aping her act. But honestly? No way. Naturally? Not even close. They mistook seduction for shallowness — and missed her point entirely. And none had Dana’s uncanny instinct for a lead about to bleed. This overlooked Tillman freakfest was just another example.
“Dana? It’s too hot. I’m gonna pass out.”
Rami had lowered Cam A and was regarding her with those woebegone, Persian-Polish-American eyes. Sweat ran rivers down his cheeks. His purple hair, usually teased into spikes, was plastered to his forehead. “Drop that cam,” she warned, “and — trust me on this — your next job will involve Bombay, a mudbath, and a herd of horny pachyderms.”
She shouted over to the van. “What the fuck are you doing in there, Krissy? We’re melting into the pavement out here!”
“Coming!” her production assistant called back.
Dana glared at him. “Oh, shut up.”
Krissy appeared from around the van, crewcut gleaming, soaked tanktop sticking to her tits. Cam B was tucked casually under one muscular arm. “What?” she cried, catching her boss’s expression. “The datagram protocol was acting up again. B Cam’s feed wasn’t reaching the server. We are going live with the exteriors, right?”
That perky majorette voice — trilling out of Krissy’s bull-dog face — never failed to unnerve Dana. (Retrograde and gender fascist reaction, of course. But true, sadly true.) “See Rami sulking over there? That’s where you set up.”
Her assistant nodded. Then frowned. “Don’t look now. The company shill.”
Dana turned, squinted against the sunlight reflecting off the plant’s glass facade. Maria Esposito, Senior Public Affairs Officer for Tillman Corp., was strolling over — looking much sexier than her professorial phone voice. She was an hourglass Blatina in an off-the-rack — but neofashionista flattering — mauve business suit; and her expression, like her stride, was weirdly casual. She didn’t spare a single glance toward the mob.
They spotted her anyway — what else was there to gawk at? — and began howling over the ecofunk for her blood. Or her first born’s. Or something. Beer cans rained down like missiles, a few detonating on the section of asphalt Esposito had occupied only moments before. She didn’t even quicken her pace. When a second volley of cans launched from the crowd, parabolas glittering against the wide Iowan sky, Dana almost ducked in sympathy. So much for recycling, she thought. Assholes.
The townie deputies, unlike cool cucumber Esposito, seemed ready to bolt. They invested more time shooting nervous glances overhead — and at each other — than eyeballing the mob. They also seemed too-too aware of the twenty security thugs lurking near the plant’s entrance: Tillman’s guards wore Kevlar and carried the sinister new multitasers that were all the rage in “crowd pacification” circles.
The deputies clearly weren’t thrilled to find themselves the ham in this sandwich.
“Dana Delgado?” Maria Esposito ventured as she stepped to the curb. She held out a slender brown hand, taking the hair to Prada heels inventory Dana had built (at least) two lucrative careers on. “You really should’ve arrived at the rear of the plant,” she chided. “Aren’t you worried about being swarmed?”
“No,” Dana said. “People rarely recognize me when I’m wearing anything.”
She clasped the other woman’s hand that requisite extra second (what silky palms you have, my dear) then down shifted into business mode. “Put this on,” she said, unclipping the extra wireless mike from her crop-top and handing it over. “We record sound separately on this thing” — she tapped the otherwise unobtrusive metal box on her right hip — “and loop it in later. And these two,” she finished, “are my crew. Such as they are. Kristine Arbagast. Rami Rabinowitz. Krissy will sweat it out here, doing the crowd-shot thing. Rami will record the tour.”
Esposito, after clipping on the mike, volunteered her hand again — but Krissy shrugged, scratched a butterfly scab on her knee, and disappeared around the van. Rami was suddenly busy fiddling with Cam A.
“That’s an impressive piece of equipment you’ve got there,” Esposito teased, refusing to take offense. “Haven’t seen one so large in quite a while.”
“Yeah.” Rami didn’t look up. “It is.”
“It’s a Zoltan SurroundCam,” Dana interjected, stepping between them. “Adds dimension to the webcast. At least for surfers with the software. Hefty as hell, but worth its weight.” She glanced at her watch. “Don’t know about you, Esposito, but I’m baking. How about we take this show on the road?”
“Maria,” the other woman corrected, flashing her Public Affairs grin. “Please call me Maria.”
Dana responded with a lopsided smirk. “I’ll call you anything you want when you take me somewhere air conditioned.”
Maria tipped her head. “Fair enough.” She started back toward the plant.
Dana yanked Rami’s ear. Hard. “The pouting game ends here and now,” she whispered, pinching his lobe. “I don’t care that you don’t like her, or her liking me, or me liking her, or whatever your malfunctions are. You’re not screwing up this opportunity. Or getting us fucking caught. Understand?”
“Ow. You’re hurting me.”
She pinched harder. “You have no idea what pain is, you little shit. Do you understand?”
She let go the lobe. It was a satisfying pink. “Good. Now get moving. Before she notices something.”
He got moving.
Octanitrocubane is so exotic because its C-C-C bond angle is distorted to 90 degrees, giving the molecule an enormous amount of strain energy. But tempting as it sounds, I don’t recommend you kids try that position at home. Ouch. — the archives of CurvyNews.com
The Tillman plant was one more architectural martyr in the Bau Haus Revival crusade: a sterile construct of tinted glass, plasteel girders, and occluded concrete. Its lobby was featureless aside from a U-shaped desk, an elevator, and two ridiculously faux ferns.
The male receptionist waving behind the desk offered them a smile even less plausible than the flora. Be nice to the nasty net muckraker and her crew! management must have shouted down. Keep Tillman looking tops!
Dana shrugged off Rami’s scowl. At least they kept it cool in here.
She also noted that there wasn’t a security cam or a biometrics station in sight. Let’s all praise the Patron Saint of Muckrakers, she thought with a grin, for the 2020 Employee Surveillance Protection Act.
“We really don’t understand what all the fuss is about,” Maria announced — clearly no fan of segues. She led them across the lobby and triple-tapped the elevator button. “Environmental sensitivities, after all, are the whole motivation behind cultivating plastic in corn sugar.”
She tapped the button twice more — hinting that she was a fan of gilding the occasional lily.
“We use genetically modified acetyl coenzymes in place of petrochemicals. Arable land isn’t taken from food production, since our product grows only in the — otherwise discarded — corn stover. And our plastic not only biodegrades, it’s cultivated from a renewable resource. Traditional fossil-fuel based polymers fail on both counts. We’re helping the environment.”
More cathartic button abuse. Let it out, sweetheart, Dana thought. Let it all out.
“And what do we get for all our time and investment? Flame e-mails, daily protests, and actual bomb threats from those Earth Liberation Front zealots. Management debated evacuating the building twice this morning. Can you believe that? It’s a good thing so much of the plant is automated. We’re down to a skeleton crew for security reasons. And we don’t understand why.”
Maria’s expression was so guileless, her dark eyes so plainly confused, that Dana almost believed her. Almost. She’s pretty good. This might be more entertaining than I thought. “We were both outside a minute ago — ” she began, but was interrupted by the elevator wheezing open.
She and Maria stepped to the back, making space for Rami and cam. “Did it feel like October out there to you?” Dana continued as the doors closed. “Or don’t you agree that the coal powering this plant contributes to global warming? And aren’t Tillman’s manufacturing requirements even more energy-intensive than for regular plastic? Or are the Greens just out of their over-privileged Western minds again?”
Maria smiled — by all accounts genuinely. “I see you’ve done your homework, Dana. As to your shotgun questions. One: no, it doesn’t feel much like fall. Two: the jury’s still out on coal’s degree of contribution to global warming now that other fossil fuel emissions like petroleum are so rare. Three: yes, our process does require more energy — but with an important qualification. And four: yes, I suspect that they most sincerely are out of their minds. Again.”
She turned, pressed the third floor a few times. “But don’t quote me on that last one,” she added, glancing nervously toward Rami — who remained well secluded behind Cam A. “Is that thing turned on already?”
“He’s always turned on,” Dana replied. “The cam too. Been on since we shook hands, in fact. But I won’t use anything you don’t want me to.” She kept a straight face while thinking, Said the proctologist spider to the prostrate fly. “That’s one of the annoying ground rules Winston Sharping’s people negotiated between us. It’s why we’re only streaming the exterior shots in real-time.”
Dana gritted her teeth, recalling the octogenarian shareholder she halfheartedly shagged to win this exclusive. (The secretary who pimped her onto old Winnie vowed that he — if nothing else — was at least “hung like a horse.” And he was: like a goddamned mare.) “So what’s the qualification about the higher energy requirement for manufacturing bioplastic versus the regular stuff?” she added in rush — eager to banish the afterimage of leading Winnie around his tasteful rec room by the latex bit in his mouth.
“That’s, ah, complicated,” Maria said, a vertical furrow between her brows. It was her turn to glance at her watch. “I mean the science is complicated.”
Dana shrugged. Someone hasn’t done their homework. I’ve got Haute Couture Barbie’s bod and wardrobe. Not her empty head. Besides, the geek demographic loves this shit. “Try me.”
The elevator doors opened, interrupting the conversation again. They shuffled out into a bright linoleum corridor — Rami going first, in awkward reverse, Cam A still glued to his face. He didn’t stop in time and butt-bumped the wall.
Dana rolled her eyes. Can you be more of a dumbass? “So?” she said, turning to Maria. “The science lesson?”
Maria nodded. But when she spoke her eyes opaqued, a clear sign she was reciting from some snoozy Tillman public relations FAQ. “While it’s true that manufacturing bioplastic requires 2.65 kilograms of fossil fuel to traditional petroleum’s 2.2, the conclusion that might be drawn from those numbers is misleading.”
Her eyes refocused — as if even she knew how dry that sounded — and she tried again. “Petroleum reserves are harder to find every day, Dana. That means more and more expensive — which is why alternative fuels are finally profitable. Coal, on the other hand, is plentiful, with known deposits in the range of seven hundred years.” She nodded, encouraging agreement. “See the difference? Traditional plastics require oil for their very existence. Bioplastic requires no oil whatsoever. The contrast in energy requirements is put in perspective when you calculate the economic benefits of switching from a costly and scarce fossil fuel to a cheaper, abundant one. Do you see?”
“I see why someone’s finally making a profit doing it,” Dana replied journalistically, pretending she didn’t already know all of this. “But I also see why you’ve got the Greens in such a lather. You are pumping more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.” She held out one palm in demonstration. “Almost half the petroleum consumed in producing traditional plastic ends up in the finished product.” She held out her other palm. “All the fossil fuel required for manufacturing your bioplastic is burned.” She wiggled her fingers. “Which explains why you’ve got your hands full. Doesn’t it?”
Maria smiled, pointedly glanced at her watch again. “We have just enough time to look over the extraction facility itself,” she announced, too cheerfully. “Perhaps we should move along?” She stalked off down the corridor, Rami at her heels.
Dana followed, thinking, Gotcha.
A single octanitrocubane molecule decomposes exothermically into four N2 molecules and eight CO2 molecules, releasing 761 kcal/mole worth of energy. Now that, boys and girls, translates into a lotta BadaBOOM. — the archives of CurvyNews.com
Kooky as the Mandelbrot Set, Dana thought as she leaned against the guardrail, staring out and two stories down at a dizzying assortment of hoses, relief valves, flanges, pumps, and process drains — each sprouting its own enigmatic subsystems. The immense solvent tank at the center of the extraction facility clearly demanded a complicated filtration process. And it was suddenly much too easy to imagine the tank’s snaking life-support architecture reduced and repeated into…engineering infinity. Blech. Now I remember why heights and fractals always make me want to hurl. Weirder still, a tangy hint of lemon hung in the air.
Dana took a step closer to Maria — a pleasant antidote to vertigo. “What solvent do you use?” she asked, waving a hand in front of her nose. “And how, uh, toxic is it?”
“Citrolomine,” Maria said, glancing toward Rami — or more accurately, toward the Zoltan. (He was panning down and over the solvent tank at the moment, but Maria failed to catch that niggling detail.) “It’s a proprietary, all-natural, environmentally safe, citrus-based solvent,” she advertised.
Turning back to Dana and gesturing vaguely down at the tank, she added in warmer tones, “The Citrolomine dissolves the associated plant matter without damaging our biopolymers. Both are then filtered and routed: the useless biomass for waste treatment, the raw plastic for refining.” Another brief glance toward the webcam. “Quality control is a high priority for us. John Darrow, in fact, has been overseeing the facility personally.”
Dana and Rami exchanged looks over Maria’s shoulder.
“So Darrow’s here?” she asked. “Today?” There had been rumors that Tillman’s notorious CEO planned to visit the plant this afternoon; rumors Dana had gambled on, since his presence would add punch to the story. And here was official confirmation. “Is that wise?” she asked, feigning interest in John Darrow’s welfare. “Considering the protests?”
“That’s the boss for you,” Maria enthused. “He isn’t the type to let Earth Liberation Front threats and silly protests interfere with running his company.”
Dana nodded. “What a guy. So do we get to interview him?”
Maria’s dark eyes widened — a startled doe. “Of course not,” she said. “I mean, he’s much too busy. And that wasn’t part of our arrangement.” She straightened the already straight-to-a-fault lapels of her suit. “I’m afraid that I’ll have to do.”
Dana grinned. She leaned in, until their breasts nearly touched. “You more than do.” She pointed along the guardrail, toward the corrugated metal stairs that led down to the extraction floor. “How about down there?” she asked, in her sultriest voice — the one she hauled out only when she really wanted her way. “My technogeek fans would just cream if we got some close-ups of that filtration system of yours.”
Maria quirked a brow, enjoying the intimacy, clearly aware she was being wooed. “Also not part of the arrangement, I’m afraid. That’s all proprietary down there.” But she didn’t back away.
“Pretty please?” Dana said, faking a pout. “I’ll be your best friend.”
Maria sighed. “I wish I could let you. I really do.”
Dana watched as, over Maria’s shoulder, Rami crept down the stairs. Now I better keep her undivided attention, she warned herself. Or else it all goes to shit. And fun as flirting was, Dana knew a trick even more distracting.
She brushed a casual hand through her hair. “So what the Greens keep saying about you is true?” she asked, as if it was no big bother to her either way. “You really are just a spineless Tillman hack?”
Maria’s jaw dropped — right on cue. (Even dour old B.F. Skinner would have smirked.) “Wha-what?” she sputtered. “They say what?” Her complexion was surely too brown to blush, but she seemed a little pinker just the same. Adorable. “What’s with these people? It’s not enough that their methods are always extreme? They have to get personal too?”
Dana shrugged. “I suppose. What’s wrong with their methods, anyway?”
“What’s ever been right with them?” She waved an accusatory finger in the air — probably wishing there was a button somewhere to poke. “They got DDT banned in the U.S. back in 1972, and have spent the last fifty years trying to have it outlawed everywhere else. Fifty to a hundred million people have probably died of malaria as a result, since DDT remains the cheapest, most effective pesticide against the insects that carry the disease. And all to save a few endangered birds? That’s ecolunacy. And just one example of it.”
Dana examined her nails, thinking, Hurry the fuck up, Rami. “Didn’t the Greens promise DDT was harmful to humans too?” she asked mildly. “Seems like everyone back then assumed so.”
“Based on what?” Maria shot back. “Other than hysterical rhetoric? Sure, DDT enters the food chain. So does just about everything. But there’s never been any evidence of it harming anything except a few eggshells. But have environmentalists ever waited around for convincing evidence about anything? Of course not. They just start marching up and down, demanding everything they don’t like be banned, bankrupted, or boycotted. And damn the human consequences.”
Dana tilted her head thoughtfully — as if she hadn’t listened to every boring argument for and against environmentalist excess a gazillion billion times. Stall, baby. Stall. “Maybe you’re right, Maria. But isn’t saving even a few endangered species a reasonable motivation?”
“Of course,” Maria admitted. “In the abstract. But endangered animals must be put in context. Ninety-nine percent of the species that have ever lived on this planet are extinct, for God’s sake. While aesthetically unappealing, extinction is natural. And countless of those prior extinctions were surely due to the growing dominance of another species. Man is just one more such species.”
“But aren’t so many endangered animals endangering our own species somehow?” Dana pretended to want to know. “That seems to be the Green line, anyway.”
Maria threw up her hands. “Who knows, Dana? Perhaps, perhaps not. Ninety percent of the world’s estimated species haven’t even been named, let alone numbered. Who really knows which extinctions have serious human impact? Our data on endangered species reveal more about the limits of sampling, and about the biases of taxonomists toward plants and vertebrates — a minority of earth’s species — than anything useful about broad population declines.” She took in a breath. “The point is that, as with every environmental issue, there’s room for doubt and discussion. But the Greens assume, like religious fanatics, that everything’s settled dogma. Which makes those who disagree with them, what? Fucking heretics.”
Maria’s eyes went wide. She had obviously shocked herself with her own epithet, and only now remembered that she was haranguing a working journalist. She turned, searching for Rami — and the webcam.
Dana’s cool faltered. “Don’t — !” she shouted, moving to block the other woman’s view.
But then she saw Rami. He’d returned without her noticing, damn him, and was panning the Zoltan around as if it had never been anywhere else. His Cheshire grin said Surprised? much louder than the word would have.
And if Dana had been two steps nearer at that moment, and alone with him, she would have planted a Prada in his smug ass.
“Don’t?” Maria echoed, turning back, looking even more worried. “Don’t what?”
Dana thought. Quickly. “Don’t, ah, worry about us using any film of that. We won’t. Promise.”
Maria sighed with relief. “Thanks. I got a bit, um, carried away. It’s just, when you mentioned what they called me…”
“Really,” Dana said, reaching out, taking her hand. “Don’t worry about it. I would’ve lost it too. I’m sorry I brought the whole thing up.” She smiled. “But I have to admit, I kind of liked you at full throttle. It was a moment. A real moment. And I don’t participate in too many of those.”
Maria held her gaze. “Perhaps we can do something about that,” she whispered. Then she reclaimed her hand by glancing at her watch again. “But not at the moment. I’m afraid I’ve used up all the time I’m allowed to give you.” She shrugged, as if to say, What can a girl do? “We’d best start heading out. I’ll walk you to your van.”
Dana tipped her head. “You’re the boss. Anyway, I think we covered just about everything.” She moved surreptitiously to the rear on the return trip to the elevator; and smacked Rami on the back of his purple Persian-Polish-American head. The little shit.
Octanitrocuban is the most powerful non-nuclear explosive yet synthesized. It’s also remarkably stable, a great advantage from a handling standpoint. In addition, octanitrocubane is nontoxic and biodegradable. Its use in demolition is preferred by environmentalists everywhere. God love ’em. — the archives of CurvyNews.com
They were roughly ten meters from the van when, with an earsplitting boom, the Tillman plant exploded behind them. The ground spasmed under Dana’s stilettos, as if she were a flea it was trying to shake off, tripping her into Rami and Maria. Then the blast wave arrived, slamming her to the asphalt, sucking the air from her lungs. The velocity of an explosion’s propagation wave, she thought brightly, is proportional to its density squared.
Then she passed out.
She was gone for some pleasant, indeterminate period — and when the world returned it brought distant, panicky screams along with it. “Damn protesters,” she mumbled. “Not so tough now, are you?”
There was glass in her hair, gravel in her teeth. She spit a few times, finger-inspected her face and neck for damage, and sat up. That, she decided, gingerly plucking glass shards out of her hair, was too goddamned close. And if I find a cut or a bruise anywhere I swear to God I’ll sue. Somebody.
She looked around, but saw nothing interesting: the parking lot was a fog of dust and swirling detritus.
She glanced down at herself — and winced. Her Dior outfit was ruined. Torn. Covered with filth. Where’s a shyster when you need one?
“Dana? Dana? You okay?” Maria stumbled out of the fog, a gray ghost of her former self, those dark eyes peering out through a mask of dirt.
Dana grinned. “You look like shit, Esposito.”
Maria absently straightened her tattered lapels. Then she laughed — too loudly. “Good,” she said, helping Dana to her feet. “I’m obviously not the only one feeling hysterical. And you don’t look so hot yourself at the moment, Delgado.”
Dana realized one of her heels had broken off. She bounced from one foot to the other a few times. “Who you calling hysterical?” she demanded, trying not to giggle. She was pissed about the damn shoes. “And where the hell is my cameraman? Rabinowitz? Where are you?”
“Here.” The dust cloud was dissipating, allowing a little sunlight to slant through. Rami sat a few meters away, cradling the Zoltan. His expression looked profound. Or profoundly stoned. “That wasn’t fun,” he observed.
“They did it.” Maria coughed. “Those ELF bastards actually did it.” She patted Dana absently on the shoulder. “I should, um, go. Find out how…bad it is.”
Dana grabbed her sleeve, thinking, Why bother? Nothing left in there but fried eggs and toast. “Call me?”
Maria managed something like a smile. “Promise.” She started across the parking lot, her stride woozy as a drunk’s.
Dana could finally make out, through the departing fog, what she assumed was the Tillman plant. But what she saw was mostly rubble. Ashes to ashes, and all that. A few indomitable plasteel rebars still poked out — as though flipping the world the bird. Heh. Otherwise: a concrete junkheap. The glass facade that — only minutes before? — had been the plant’s showpiece was gone. Poof. Dust to dust.
A few figures milled about at the periphery; a few others, cops probably, tried to herd them away. Dana wondered which one was Maria. In the far distance, sirens began to howl.
“What was I carrying in here?” Rami suddenly asked, rubbing the hollow Zoltan like a Buddha. “What the fuck did they give me?”
“Keep your voice down,” Dana snapped. She toed off her trashed Pradas. “And don’t worry about it. It’s a new Green explosive. Safe as snow until detonated. So they tell me, anyway.” She kicked her broken shoe, feeling petulant and generally pissed. “What I want to know is why it went off so early.” She scowled at him. “You sure you set the timer right? You were back up those stairs pretty damn fast.”
He shrugged. “Don’t know. Thought so.” He pointed toward the rubble. “And all that came from this?” He tapped the camera. “Jesus.”
Dana snorted. “Don’t be an idiot. The place was brimming with nitros and such. It was its own bomb. And now it’s its own graveyard. Your ELF handlers should be tickled pink.”
He looked directly at her for the first time. “Why didn’t you keep her from following us?” he demanded. “She’s one of them. She was supposed to go down with the plant.”
Dana shrugged this time. “So we both fucked up a little.”
“You like her,” he said with a sneer. “That’s why. You want her.” He shook his head. “Everything’s a game to you.”
“Oh, Rami.” She sighed — like an old school starlet. “Haven’t you ever looked into someone’s eyes and imagined having something real with them?” She tilted her head, fluttered those notorious lashes. “Pretended for a while that, given half a chance, they’d really see you?”
He nodded, the contempt still on his face. “Yeah. Once. And she’s turned out to be a first class bitch. But like you keep telling me, I’m young and dumb. What’s your excuse?”
“Dana?” someone — Krissy — chirped. Who else could sound that cheery at a time like this? Her assistant loped over from the van.
“Damn, Dana!” she sing-songed. “That was a sight. And I got the whole thing on Cam B.” She was as dusty as everything else — but for Krissy that was no big deal. “Come on, boss! I tipped off the local media yahoos already. They’re on their way over to do stand-ups with you and everything. Is the recorder still working? They’re gonna want transcripts at some point — especially since we’re pretending the Zoltan broke in the blast.” She laughed. “We’re gonna have to do a little editing before making hard copies, hey? So? Is it working or not?”
Dana glanced down at the box still secured to her waist. The little red ON light was glowing. “It looks fine,” she said, holding out her hand. “Get over here. I need a beefy shoulder to lean on. And yours is the only one around.” Krissy obliged and they started off for the van — where Dana knew there was a change of clothes and, please God, a brush. She left self-righteous Rami squatting in the dirt. Serves him right. The little shit.
On with the show.
At ten to six, just before sunrise, Allan Coachman rose from a troubled sleep and crept to the front window of his flat. The window looked out over an unkempt garden to the street — and as he squinted past rustling hydrangea leaves to the spot right under the streetlight where he knew the car would be, he felt a shiver of dread. Yes, there it was. Parked by the side of the road, as always. It was black, or at least very dark. Its lines were square and old-fashioned. Something straight out of an old law-enforcement melodrama — Dragnet or The Untouchables.
“I wonder what you want,” Allan muttered.
At two minutes to six the sky to the east began to lighten, and not long afterwards the sun itself rose into a sky decorated with only a few small clouds. Sunlight washed over the car. As it did, Allan used his binoculars in an attempt to see into the driver’s seat. But the light refracted, slithered across the tinted glass. Once again, he couldn’t make out an outline. Originally he had assumed this was because the driver had left the vehicle to visit a nearby house. But as always no one returned to the car. At the appointed time, it started up and disappeared into the morning haze.
The car had been there every night for the past three weeks, since Allan first noticed it. It was always parked just under the streetlight, whenever he chose to get up early and look — which he did every morning now. No one got out of it, no one got into it. Just after dawn it would drive away. That was it. It happened every night and Allan couldn’t help but fret, and wonder why.
His daytime work was suffering. He found it difficult to concentrate on the actuarial intricacies of delicately balanced company finances when his mind was full of worry and grim speculation. His boss regularly ticked him off for daydreaming and he’d developed an increasing tendency to mess up important calculations. Two weeks ago he’d lost his company identification card and was beginning to wonder whether they’d even bother making him a new one.
He couldn’t understand why this was happening to him, but had no one to discuss it with. His work colleagues were far too likely to make him the butt of tasteless jokes. He lived alone. And friends? He’d lost contact with his only close buddy back in 1986 when his summer vacation job at Hamburger Heaven had ended. As for family, his parents had died in a car crash when he was twelve, having left him with no siblings. It was because of this accident, perhaps, that Allan had never learnt to drive.
The next night, in an attempt to outwit his automotive stalker, Allan didn’t go home after work. Instead he booked into a hotel, taking a room with a street view. The hotel was far from his home and he’d never stayed there before, so he figured it would be difficult for his stalker to trace him. Early in the morning, he crept over to the hotel window to check, sure that the car wouldn’t be there this time. But it was parked against the gutter, under a streetlight, as always. Waiting. A cold shudder scratched over his skin.
Once his hands stopped trembling, he rang the police and told them that someone was following him. He was getting scared, he said.
“Do you have the vehicle’s registration number?” the desk sergeant asked.
Only the night before he’d used binoculars to check the plates on the car as it drove off in the early morning light. It had had none. When he told the policeman this, the man didn’t reply.
“Could you send someone around to interview the driver?” Allan asked. The policeman was reluctant to act on what he obviously interpreted as paranoia, but when Allan pressed the point said they’d check it out. At about four o’clock that morning Allan watched a patrol car glide along the empty street and turn right at the next intersection. When he looked back at the spot under the streetlight, he knew what he’d see.
“It was there,” he told the constable who rang him toward lunchtime. “It turned up after your patrol went past.”
“Are you sure you weren’t imagining it?” the man replied. “Perhaps I could refer you to a counselor.”
Allan decided not to pursue the matter.
Later that day he was fired from his job, a position he’d held, without advancement, for nearly ten years. “One of our clients complained,” he was told. “You cost them nearly ten thousand dollars, thanks to a stupid computational error. We were inclined to give you the benefit of the doubt, but they’re good customers, and you hardly seem interested these days.” Actually Allan had tired of the work years ago. But he hated being dismissed and, though he had a decade of savings squirreled away, disliked being deprived of regular income.
He blamed the car and its mysterious occupant. Bleary and unhappy, he slouched by his window staring at the quiet street and the unmoving car, and wondered for the millionth time what it could want with him. Was he under some sort of official surveillance?
I can’t take it any more, he thought. I’ll find out what’s going on, whatever the consequences.
He slipped on his loafers, fetched a coat and hat and walked straight out the front door, carefully locking it behind him. The car was in its usual spot, directly outside his front gate under the streetlight. Drawing in a lungful of chilly pre-dawn air, Allan strode down the path toward the car.
His approach provoked no response. That surprised him. If the purpose of the car was to watch him incognito, he’d figured going near it would make it drive away at once.
But nothing happened. Up close the duco seemed inordinately smooth and clean: no stone chips, no scratches, no insect smears. No dust, for that matter. Whoever’s car it was, they certainly cared for it.
“Hello?” he called.
His voice echoed strangely in the empty street. There were no lights on in any of the neighbouring houses. Anything could happen to him, and no one would know.
“Is there anyone in there?” he yelled, tapping lightly on the rear curbside window.
He couldn’t see anyone in the car. Even this close the tinting of the glass blocked clear vision. All he could make out was some very broken evidence of dim light coming through from the other side and shadows that may or may not have been a driver and passengers. The car seemed empty, though it might have been packed with watchers.
This time Allan rapped quite vigorously on the glass then started back quickly as though something might leap out the window at him.
Sighing, and gaining some further bravado from the lack of response, he moved around the rear of the car, heading for the driver’s side door. For a moment he stood little more than arm’s length from whoever might be sitting behind the steering wheel, and waited for something to happen. When nothing did, he reached out and knocked on the glass. Tap. Tap.
“Excuse me!” he said and tapped again.
After a moment, fed up with being ignored, he reached for the door handle. He gripped it. Turned the lever. The door wasn’t locked. Should he open it, he wondered, almost simultaneously with doing it. Before he knew what he’d done — while the consequences of doing so were still taking shape in his head — he was staring into the empty driver’s seat, feeling strangely deflated.
Nobody. An empty car.
Allan huffed. Did they think they could hide from him?
Angry, he leaned into the car’s lush interior and whispered, “Where are you hiding, damn it?” Shadows seemed to shift and draw away in the back seat, but it was just a trick of the light. Had to be. There was nowhere to hide.
Disgruntled, he slipped down onto the driver’s seat. It felt very comfortable. The seat was padded, worn in ways that suited his build. The headrest and back adjustment was right for him. The wheel felt comfortable in his hands. Keys were dangling in the slot at the base of the steering column.
I could wait here, Allan thought. Wait for the driver to return. He would have to do so sooner or later. Dawn was the crucial moment and he’d come back by then.
Yes. I’ll wait.
He reached out and closed the door. Darkness wrapped around him.
It was very close, very intimate in this car. Although at first he felt considerable anxiety sitting there in the dark, the feeling of having violated someone else’s place soon passed as he breathed in the interior’s leathery warmth and watched the time on the digital display tick over. Finally, as the sky lightened, the numbers changed to 6.00. Then 6.01. 6.02. No one came. The digits climbed higher. It was dawn and time for the car to depart. But no one had come to drive it away. The owner must have seen Allan climb in and had decided to take off on foot.
Okay, thought Allan. Okay. Be like that. But I’m not licked yet.
He reached up and toggled the switch on the overhead light. The resulting illumination was dull and yellow. It would be enough. Carefully he searched through the glove box, ran his fingers over the back seats, checked along the dashboard. He accidentally switched on the radio, which blared out a rock song that seemed to be about espionage: “Are you on routine assignment?” the singer sang. Allan punched the OFF button and silenced him. Continuing his search, he found nothing to identify the owner, sank back, disheartened, about ready to give up.
Check again. A draught seemed to whisper in his ear. Check again.
That’s when he caught sight of a flat object on the floor over on the passenger’s side — square and white, half hidden under the seat. A stray beam of daylight caught on it and it glinted. Plastic. Allan reached down and picked it up.
A photo ID. Belonging to Mr Harold R. Lumbeck. Financial consultant with a stockbroking firm. The picture showed a badly lit phantom, but it was clear enough to allow for identification.
“Why have you been watching me, Lumbeck?” Allan asked it.
Naturally the photo ID gave him no answer, but the possibilities were so raucous in his own mind that Allan almost heard voices whispering their responses from the rear of the car.
“You think I’ve lost him, do you?” he whispered back.
He checked the ID for an address then put the card in his coat pocket. Calmly, thoughtlessly, he positioned the gear stick to NEUTRAL and turned on the ignition. The engine purred.
“I know where he lives,” he said. “Let’s go there.”
Allan put the gears in DRIVE, eased off the handbrake and depressed the accelerator. The car moved away from the gutter.
Easy, Allan thought. It’s like I’ve always known how to drive.
That made him smile.
Later that night he parked outside the house of Mr Harold R. Lumbeck and waited for him to appear. When dawn came, he drove away. He didn’t go home, he just parked somewhere shadowy and inconspicuous, until night fell once more. Then, determination refreshed, he returned to the place and waited. Voices whispered to him from the back seat, encouraging him. Keeping him company.
When dawn came and nobody had emerged from the house, Allan wasn’t concerned. He could be patient. Smiling grimly, he drove off into the morning light.
But he knew he would be back, no matter how long it took. Night after night the car would be parked there by the side of the road, waiting. Sooner or later Lumbeck would see it. He would creep to his window and look out at the silent vehicle.
And then it would be his turn to worry.
His turn to wonder why.
We start the New Year with Featured Author Robert Hood and “Nobody’s Car.” Watch for more of Robert’s fiction in the coming months. Daniel Goss gives us a look at CurvyNews.com and Bill Gauthier tells us what kids get up to on “Snow Day.” Our classic this month is from Scottish author George MacDonald.
We are closed to submissions at present and will reopen on February 1st with revised guidelines.
And if you don’t already have a copy of the fabulous Ideomancer Unbound anthology, please give it serious consideration.
Hope you enjoy this month’s issue.