The Dynamite Trilogy: Space

Some people think the evil prophet of space is Christ reborn. Others want to measure him with scientific instruments. But everyone who approaches him dies!

“Space does not like you,” the prophet says to the teeming masses of humanity.

There are rivers of blood on the Earth in those first few days. The sky is full of fire.

“You look outwards towards space. You make puppy-dog faces. You project onto space with your purposes and expectations. Space is confused and nauseated by this! Space is not your frontier. It is a cold bleak void! You need to stop hoping and dreaming towards it. So I am here to kill everyone in hopes that this will make you stop!

“Hallelujah!” cries somebody in the crowd.

Then most of the listening people suffer explosive decompression and those that do not the prophet hangs from spikes.

Conventional weaponry does nothing. He walks through armies and leaves them ruins.

“I do this because it is prophesied,” says the evil prophet of space.

He is on a street corner in Boise, Idaho. He is eating his lunch, a tuna sandwich, on top of an overturned tank. Everyone has fled Boise save for an abandoned and unhappy dog but explaining himself is habitual for the evil prophet of space.

“Behold!” he says, and unfurls the scroll of his evil prophecy.

The scroll is covered in the gleaming golden letters of space. Hesitantly, angered by the evil prophecy, the abandoned dog barks.

Nuclear weapons fall upon Boise, Idaho. They crunch down around him like pine cones falling to the Earth. They burst into an extraordinary nuclear rage.

Potatoes mutate.

The dog dies.

All around the evil prophet of space fire blooms. But he holds up the scroll of his evil prophecy and says, “Paper beats nukes!”

And it is so.

The Earth takes its final measure of defense. The United Nations Security Council meets and unanimously votes to issue the Unlimited Cheat Code.

Konami Thunder Dancers all over the world plug the cheat code into their dance pads.

It enables the Great Network Dance.

Thus is finally realized the most glorious dream ever dreamed by a middle-aged Konami Corporation executive, that is, that people should hook their dance pads together via wireless Internet connection and dance the networked thunder dance to sweep away the evil prophet of space.

Riding the Symbol of the Gathering, the Dancers fly to Mount Hook.

They defy the evil prophet there.

And there are many. There are legion. There is old Margerie. There is hobbling Kalov. There is Ellen. But also there are Doug and Kasumi and Ben and Christine and Dancer X and Hot Coffee and Footwork and Phobos and many more.

There are gathered there all of the legends and most of the minor experts of the dance.

The evil prophet looks at them.

A warm and tender smile spreads across his face.

“Why,” he says. “You’ve actually got something interesting.”

Then the wind of the dance falls on him howling. It rends him. It rips him apart as he has ripped apart others. He hangs in the air in pieces. His hands and his feet and his mouth scrabble at the air to try to draw him back together again.

Ellen dances the Scissors and the Dynamite.

Margerie throws Glory.

And so many others! So many Symbols! There is even a sweat-drenched beginner in the back desperately dancing Misshapen Metal Lump in opposition to the evil prophet of space.

Thunder peals.

The Dancers rip the evil prophet down to the seething particles of him and his smile.

The PlayStation 7s through which the Dancers dance grow hot. They suckle at the cool evening air. A single particle of the evil prophet finds its way in through the vents and touches on the networked code.

“Do you know what I am going to do?” the prophet’s voice whispers in Hot Coffee’s ear.

“No,” says Hot Coffee.

“I am going to redefine the LIVE_BURIAL variable to TRUE,” the evil prophet says.

And before any of the dancers can say anything—before they can even utter a word—

Mount Hook falls on them.

None of them die immediately. But all of them black out.

Most of them never wake up.

Margerie opens her eyes long enough for a moment of satisfaction. Kalov grumbles with finality about kids these days. Phobos wakes but to no avail; his chest is pinned and he screams silently until he dies.

Time passes.

Ellen startles open her eyes.

She is buried under the mountain. She can scarcely breathe. She can’t move: there are rocks pinning her. Everywhere she is held down. The pain of it is horrible.

She is only alive because the PS7s are sturdy, unbreakable by something as small as a mountain falling on them, and thus have served to prop up the tumbled rock in certain limited ways.

“Oh,” she says.

It is soft and meek and the word is lost in the channels of the fallen mountain and she coughs and only the red light of a PlayStation on standby breaks the darkness.

“I feel,” she says, to unseen angels, “that we should apologize to the world, for now the evil prophet shall kill everyone.”

The rock shifts and grinds into her back.

And laughing and crying she thinks, “Rock beats scissors.”

A ridiculous notion blossoms in her mind. It’s really quite stupid. But she can’t help it. She counts to three under her breath. She closes her fist.

The rock shifts again. It lifts from her, just a bit. Then it is grinding, grinding, pushing back away from her, and in the little cavern that forms she sees the cross-legged form of Navvy Jim.

One hand is holding up an improvised roof.

The other, paper.

Ellen giggles. Then she laughs. Then pain shoots through her ribcage and she chokes and she says, “Oh.”

“You cannot think to defeat me at rock-paper-scissors simply by draining my battery, taking me apart, waiting 5 years, and hiding under a mountain,” says Navvy Jim. “That is the kind of hijink only beneficial against amateurs.”

“Oh,” she says, and brokenly she smiles at him her love.

“But . . . it is dangerous to play rock-paper-scissors here,” he says. “The mountain throws rock. So rock and paper, perhaps, are safe, but if you play scissors you would be crushed under tons of rock.”

“Mountains don’t care about rock-paper-scissors,” says Ellen. “They’re not like robots or space.”

Navvy Jim hesitates.

“That’s partially true,” he says. “Although I will observe the established higher mortality rates for people who carry scissors on mountains over people who carry paper.”

“You saved my life,” Ellen says.

“I am a good robot,” smugs Navvy Jim.

There is silence for a while.

Tendrils of evil slowly slip into the chamber. The evil prophet congeals.

He looks between them. He looks between the Konami Thunder Dancer and the rock-paper-scissors-playing robot.

Insultingly, he chooses to worry about the robot.

“I sensed a power on Earth,” he says, “capable of playing rock-paper-scissors against me at my level.”

“You would be a worthy opponent,” Navvy Jim concedes.

“I didn’t expect to find you while finishing these dancers off.”

“Did you wish to play,” says Navvy Jim, hesitantly, “then?”

“Navvy Jim!” Ellen says. “Don’t play rock-paper-scissors with the evil prophet of space!”

“If I don’t play, he wins by default!” Navvy Jim protests.

What?

“You wouldn’t understand a rock-paper-scissors player’s heart,” says Navvy Jim. “You’re organic.”

“Oh,” Ellen says.

So the evil prophet and Navvy Jim square off.

“I should warn you,” says the evil prophet, “that I always throw paper. That’s how I’m going to kill you and the human. With paper.”

Navvy Jim’s eyes dim, then brighten.

“Why would you do that?” he asks.

“I use my evil prophecy to kill things,” says the evil prophet of space. “I’m an evil prophet. That’s just what I do.”

Navvy Jim nods.

“Well,” he says, “the three symbols are mathematically equivalent, in any case.”

The evil prophet laughs. It’s startled from him. It’s pure and clean. And he says, “Yes. Yes, of course they are.”

And in a flash of insight Ellen remembers the mountain that surrounds them, the great bulk of rock, and a shout bursts from her, racking the inside of her with pain: “Don’t throw scissors, Navvy Jim!”

The evil prophet is counting to three.

Navvy Jim glances at Ellen.

“Of course I won’t,” he says. “The mountain always throws rock.”

And the evil prophet brandishes his evil prophecy. And Navvy Jim’s palm is flat.

“A tie,” says the evil prophet. “Rethrow.”

Softly, he counts to three.

He brandishes his evil prophecy, and Navvy Jim his palm.

“A tie,” says the evil prophet. “Rethrow.”

Navvy Jim says, “For all the money?”

“Of course,” says the evil prophet.

“And if I win,” says Navvy Jim, “you’ll leave this world?”

“Navvy Jim,” says Ellen, and her face is as pale as the snow.

“Perhaps,” the evil prophet says.

And Navvy Jim’s eyes glow blue.

And softly the evil prophet counts to three.

“Oh, no,” says Ellen. “Oh, no.”

And she pushes down against the world with her hand to reach desperately for Navvy Jim.

And the evil prophet brandishes his evil prophecy; and Navvy Jim, with a great screeching of metal, splits into scissors the fingers of his hand; and simultaneous with Being Crushed by Rocks Ellen throws Dynamite.

And the last things that Ellen sees as the world goes white are Navvy Jim lunging for her to catch her as she falls and the hideously betrayed expression of the evil prophet as he shouts:

“You can’t throw Dynamite! This is rock-paper-scissors!”

They don’t let you do things like that at the evil academy of space.

The Dynamite Trilogy: Navvy Jim

When Ellen was a young girl scissors attacked the Earth. There were billions of them and they came from space. They were unreasonable in their aggression and humanity had to defend itself, leaving in the end an exhausted, stunned, and uncertain world littered in the mangled corpses of snippy blades.

Nobody’d ever figured out why it had happened. Religion and science both were mute.

But it had.

“I thought I’d lost you back then,” Uncle Ned says.

“Oh?”

“You were just six,” says Ned, “and you couldn’t believe that scissors were hostile. You loved them. You cried when I told you that dynamite blows scissors up, or that rock crushes them. They were your favorite implement. So you wandered out, all on your own, to make peace with them on behalf of the world.”

Ellen has a flash of terrifying memory. She shakes her head.

“They were coming down so hard,” Ned says. “From space, I mean. I couldn’t go after you. All night long I stared at the walls of the dome and I wondered if I’d ever see you again. And then came the morning and the bombardment stopped and I went out to look, and there you were with Navvy Jim.”

“Hee hee,” says Ellen.

“Rock beats scissors, is all he’d say.”

Ellen leans back on the couch. She thinks.

“Whatever happened to him, Ned?”

“To Navvy Jim?”

“Yeah.”

“I put him to sleep,” Ned says.

“Sleep?”

“I drained his battery really good,” Ned says, “so he wouldn’t feel any pain. And then I took all his pieces apart and I crated them up. I told him, ‘There’ll be better days again. When the power lines aren’t all cut up and when people are ready to play rock-paper-scissors again.’ But— well.”

Ellen nods.

“The kids are calling it hobbit-Spock-spider now,” she says. “But the gestures are all different.”

Ellen is taking a break from graduate school. She’s hanging out at her crazy uncle’s ranch. It’s got air and fences and buildings and a rock-paper-scissors-playing robot disassembled and in crates. It’s just the place to clear one’s mind of the stress of an advanced education— but—

“It’s sad,” she tells Ned, a few days later.

“Is it?”

“We should get him out,” Ellen says. “We should teach him hobbit-Spock-spider. You can rewire him for that, can’t you?”

“A hobbit-Spock-spider-playing robot?”

“Yes.”

“. . . ridiculous,” dismisses Ned. “It’s demeaning to Navvy Jim. Can you just see him there, in his robot voice, saying ‘Spock sings about hobbits?'”

“We could ask him.”

Ned swigs from a bottle unspecified in content. He looks up at the ceiling.

“Well, we can do that,” he allows.

So they go digging together in their old boxes from the 20s and they pull out the pieces. Ellen’s the first to find a good-sized chunk of Navvy Jim. It’s his hand and arm. She plays rock-paper-scissors with it as Ned hunts for the rest. And after a while Ned glances over and sees her playing and he snorts.

“Too young for them to really scare you, huh?” he asks.

“Huh?”

Ellen is distracted. She’s chewing hard on her lip. She’s thrown paper and the metal hand has creaked open into scissors.

“Too young,” says Ned. “I mean, the scissors. They don’t send a shudder down your spine.”

“Oh,” says Ellen. “No. Not really.”

“Geezers like me,” says Ned, “even knowing that’s Navvy Jim. That’s terrifying. So you should stick to rock while I’m around.”

Ellen counts to three under her breath and throws rock. The metal hand has creakily gone flat.

“How does he do that?”

“Do what?”

Ellen counts to three under her breath. The metal hand closes. Then she throws rock. At that same moment the hand opens.

“Win,” Ellen says.

“Predictive algorithms,” says Ned. “He’d generally set up the next few games in muscle memory so that nobody’d think he was cheating.”

Ellen shakes her head.

“That’s insane, Ned.”

“He got awfully good at it,” Ned admits, “as I recall. That’s the thing with adaptive robots. You never know which direction they’re going to go.”

Ellen throws rock. Navvy Jim’s arm throws paper.

“Look,” Ellen says, “he can’t do that.”

“He got pretty good,” says Ned. “By the end. He said, ‘My eyes see through the walls of time and the barriers of infinity. I am like God. But I cannot see the purpose of the world.'”

Ellen throws scissors. Navvy Jim’s arm throws rock. Ned winces.

“Sorry, Ned,” Ellen says.

“Enh. Oh, hey, here’s his head!”

Ned hefts Navvy Jim’s head out of the box. He taps it. Then he sticks it on a swivel neck and binds it to a battery so that Navvy Jim can watch his reassembly.

“Ned,” says Ellen, “seriously. People need to know about this.”

She throws rock. Navvy Jim’s arm throws paper.

Navvy Jim’s eyes are beginning to glow a soft blue as he wakes up.

“It’s deadly knowledge,” Ned says.

“Eh?”

“See,” says Ned. “I tried. Of course I tried. I wrote it all up for the journals. ‘The Amazing RPS Robot That Never Loses.’ ‘Fate, Free Will, and Randomness: An Exploration of Meaning in the Context of Absolute Predictivity.’ ‘Is the World Deterministic?’ ‘An Arbitrarily Accurate Online Algorithm for Predicting Rock-Paper-Scissors.’ And so forth.”

Ned pulls out Navvy Jim’s body. He puts his ear against it and raps it here and there with his hand.

“Good sound,” he says. “Still.”

“Why didn—”

And metallically Navvy Jim clears his throat and says, “Ellen. You’re here.”

And Ellen can’t help it. Even as creeped out as she is right now, a smile blooms on her face and she pulls herself to her feet and she hugs Navvy Jim’s torso, making sure that the head can see.

“Navvy Jim!” she says.

“Do you know the meaning of the universe?” the robot asks.

“Hm?”

“I was hoping,” says Navvy Jim, “that by the time I woke up, someone would know.”

Ellen shakes her head. She lets go and steps back, still smiling.

“I think,” says Navvy Jim, “that it is either, ‘Rock beats scissors’, ‘scissors beats paper’, or ‘paper beats rock.’ But I cannot decide which.”

“For the meaning of the universe?”

“Well,” says Navvy Jim. “For the meaning of my life. I can’t really speak for—”

Fast as a whip, almost cheating, Ellen has thrown rock. But Navvy Jim’s hand is already open in paper again.

“Darn it!” Ellen interrupts.

Navvy Jim giggles synthetically.

“So,” he says. “Does that mean that the world is ready for a rock-paper-scissors-playing robot again?”

“We were going to teach you hobbit-Spock-spider,” Ellen says.

“. . . ah,” says Navvy Jim.

“If you wanted,” says Ellen.

Heartily, Ned adds, “Nothing too dangerous about hobbits, Spocks, or spiders!”

“. . . I am not sure I am ready yet,” says Navvy Jim. “To learn a new game. I have scarcely begun to study my first.”

“. . . oh,” says Ellen.

“But I would like to talk to you, Ned, Ellen,” says Navvy Jim, “for a bit, before I sleep again.”

And so for the rest of her vacation it is Ellen, and Ned, and Navvy Jim, and only when she is about to go back to school do they drain Navvy Jim’s battery and carefully take him apart.

But—

Back a moment, to the last night of her trip, when she asks Ned and Navvy, “So if you tried to write it up for publication why doesn’t anyone know?”

And Navvy Jim says, thoughtfully, “I think that there is an animosity in the cosmos towards the brightness that is humanity; a malign eye, perhaps, looking on our world in some disfavor. But perhaps I am misled by my perspective, and it is simply the capacity of rock-paper-scissors to defend itself against assaults on its theoretical underpinnings.”

“Huh?” says Ellen.

Scissors cut papers,” says Ned.

Dhiyampati and the Pluto Project (Conclusion)

Continued from yesterday’s post.

Dhiyampati and Ellen have reached the center of the machine. Dhiyampati stands there, still, listening to the afterlife engine’s hum.

“It is like the music of the spheres,” he says.

Ellen closes her eyes.

“It’s not happy, though,” she says.

Dhiyampati grins over at her.

“Well, it’s not,” she protests. “It’s agitated.”

“Yes,” he agrees. He puts his hand on his chin. “So there is the question. Why would a man who has agreed to embark on the exploration of Pluto travel to Pluto in one case, and to parts unknown in another?”

Dhiyampati calls forth his elohite. It bursts into being with a sound that resonates with the entirety of the machine.

“Is the engine working?” he asks.

The elohite stares down at him. Then she laughs.

“The explorers have gone,” Dhiyampati asks, “. . . where they have chosen to go?”

“That is an ambiguous question,” says the elohite. “Where have they chosen to go?”

“The research station on Pluto?”

The elohite looks puzzled. “Why would an explorer want to go there?

Dhiyampati looks up. He frowns.

“Pardon?”

But elohim do not answer the same question twice; and it is gone as swiftly as it came.

Dhiyampati and Ellen walk back to the meeting room. Dhiyampati’s frown persists.

“It isn’t the same,” says Ellen.

“What?”

Ellen is thinking. “It isn’t the same,” she says. “To go somewhere for the first time. Even the second. And later. There’s something special about the first time you see the inside of an afterlife engine. And can you imagine how wondrous it would be to be the first person to have met an elohite, or piloted a plane? But now, these things are ordinary. With each experience, that experience grows less.”

Dhiyampati’s brow clears. Then it furrows.

“Why haven’t you mentioned this before?”

“I can’t call up elohim to tell me obvious things,” says Ellen. “So I don’t see them. Like, for instance, sometimes I think I want pizza. But I really need good food for energy. If I could summon up an elohite, she’d tell me, ‘Don’t get pizza.'”

“Only the first time,” Dhiyampati murmurs, wryly.

“But instead, I summon up Domino’s.”

“Well,” says Dhiyampati. “Then it seems the matter is resolved. Your missing people are off on a Pluto that they can explore for the first time. They are not in contact because—”

Here he hesitates.

“I suppose,” he says, “that there are information issues. I mean, should they contact you, then it becomes impossible that they are the first to explore Pluto.”

“But where are they?” Ellen asks.

Dhiyampati laughs. “Death is a great adventure,” he says. “But there are no good maps.”

They have reached the meeting room. Mr. Cullens spins around in his chair. He says, “I’m thinking Satanic monkeys.”

Dhiyampati stares at him.

Mr. Cullens frowns. He’d been hoping to have correctly anticipated the solution. Now he is forced to stammer out his ideas only partly formed. “I mean,” he says, “we know that elohim are reliable. We can prove that mathematically. But what if you have an unformed elohite—an unfinished creature, only partially manifest, an evil and unevolved creature, a gremlin—”

“I think they’ve chosen to seek out a fresh, new Pluto rather than the same old Pluto that everyone else is exploring,” says Dhiyampati.

“. . . ah,” says Mr. Cullens.

“It’s not a broken machine?” says Mr. Brown.

Dhiyampati goes to the blackboard. He begin to sketch out the equations, with occasional references to the contract that the explorers signed. At several points, Mr. Cullens, Ellen, or Mr. Brown contribute their own thoughts to the matter; when they are done, the truth is staring out at them from the chalk.

“Well,” says Mr. Brown. “That’s not a broken machine, but damned if I can say what to do about it.”

“Hm?”

“We can’t just abandon people to live out eternity in a random Pluto-like environment,” Mr. Brown points out.

“Not eternity,” says Ellen. “I mean, you can’t give someone an eternal afterlife without massive feedback.”

“Regardless,” Mr. Brown says, “They’re a huge investment for the company.”

“We could send anti-explorers after them,” Mr. Cullens proposes. “With nets.”

Dhiyampati frowns.

Ellen leans in beside Dhiyampati. She mutters, “He is good at the engineering side.”

“No nets,” says Dhiyampati.

“Well, we can’t just leave them there!” Mr. Brown expostulates.

“Have you considered damning them?” Dhiyampati asks.

“I’ve been damning them ever since they bloody vanished!”

“No,” says Dhiyampati. “I mean . . .”

“Oh,” says Mr. Brown.

Mr. Cullens frowns. “Isn’t that immoral? I thought you could only damn people for treason.”

Dhiyampati gestures broadly. “In the hellfire and brimstone sense, perhaps. But in the technical meaning?”

Mr. Brown thinks about that. “Technically,” he says, “A damnation is any—”

“They’re volunteers!” says Mr. Cullens.

“Let me finish,” snaps Mr. Brown.

“We’re supposed to protect them,” says Mr. Cullens. “It’s ridiculous. People come in and offer us their services and—”

“Let me finish!” says Mr. Brown.

“Ah,” says Dhiyampati.

Mr. Cullens shakes his head and goes silent.

“I suppose technically,” says Mr. Brown, “that a damnation is feeding people the consequences of any choice they didn’t really want the consequences for. Like when a modest person gets rewarded or a liar trapped in their own lies.”

“Here,” says Dhiyampati, “each of them has made the choice to do something that you did not agree that they could do—to explore the wrong Pluto, and send no data back. Surely enforcing the consequences of that choice upon them—that is to say, forcing them to pay their debt to you in the following life—is a valid damnation.”

“We still have access to their elohim,” concedes Mr. Brown. “We could do it.”

“But it’s ridiculous,” says Mr. Cullens. “They didn’t plan to run out on their obligations.”

“Oh dear,” says Dhiyampati. “What does planning have to do with choice?”

Dhiyampati and the Pluto Project

It is eight o’ clock in the morning. The sun is shining brightly. There are birds singing. The world is at peace and beautiful, but Dhiyampati has not had his breakfast or his morning tea.

In fact he looks quite harried.

“Please,” he says, to the Sid behind the desk at the Pluto Project. “I must have caffeine.”

“I’ll see what I can do,” says Sid.

And into the meeting room Dhiyampati stumbles.

Two of the engineers are arguing. Mr. Cullens is expounding on the impossibility of the current situation—it’s not quite clear to Dhiyampati what it is—while Mr. Brown is monotonously repeating in staccato, “Let me finish! Let me finish!” Ellen is slouched in the corner, her head propped on her hand; her expression is one of amused horror and resignation.

And Dhiyampati says, “Pardon—”

Mr. Cullens waves a hand irritably at him.

So Dhiyampati sits in a plush chair and waits a moment more. Then he says, “With apologies,” and invokes an elohite.

It begins as three white curved lines in the air. They shift and turn about a central axis. Then there is a pressure that makes Dhiyampati’s ears ring and a distant susurrus. From the bottom of the symbol rushes an energy, bursting into life in the form of a silk-clad spirit. She hovers in the air, her skin lightly red, her clothes translucent white, her hair floating in an unfelt breeze. Her eyes are full of wavy lines, like a malfunctioning television screen’s. Her expression is still.

This silences Mr. Cullens. After a moment of stammering—“it’s not mathematically possible that their choices could be that different”—Mr. Brown goes silent as well.

Ellen is laughing, silently.

“If there is a dispute,” says Dhiyampati mildly.

Mr. Cullens looks at Mr. Brown. Then Mr. Brown gestures, deferring the matter to the other engineer.

“You’re the troubleshooter?” Mr. Cullens asks, hesitantly.

Dhiyampati nods.

“It’s pretty simple,” says Mr. Cullens. “Someone’s screwing around with our afterlife engine. We’ve been sending people to Pluto, and they’re not getting there.”

Dhiyampati looks up at the elohite. There’s a question in his eyes. She looks back down, and shakes her head.

So he dismisses her, and she is gone in a collapsing rush of air.

This is a legend from early in Dhiyampati’s career.

He works for the Four Regions Company, which operates both as a corporation and as a division of the United States government. Four Regions holds the patent on the afterlife engine, a machine for calling forth the elohite governing a person’s soul and instructing it as to their dispensation.

There are many legends of Dhiyampati. In the annals of the mid-21st century, he is notorious—one of the most reliable troubleshooters for the problems that faced Four Regions. His ability to summon elohim without mechanical intervention is not herein explained.

“I would think,” says Dhiyampati, “that you can’t very well send people somewhere they don’t wind up going.”

“That’s hardly reasonable,” says Mr. Brown.

Dhiyampati looks at him. “It’s basic theonomy,” he says. “If you don’t give a soul a valid destination, the elohite won’t carry them there at all. If you do, it can’t very well carry them anywhere else.”

“They’re not showing up!” snaps Mr. Brown.

“Ridiculous,” says Dhiyampati; but just then, before things turn ugly, Sid opens the door and brings Dhiyampati his tea. That returns a gentle smile to Dhiyampati’s face, and he leans back into his chair.

“Why don’t you go over what you’re doing, then,” he says. “And I’ll just listen, for now.”

Cullens is sullen, now, and Brown doesn’t speak, so Ellen takes the floor.

“It’s simple enough in concept,” she says. “The U.N. wants to start exploring the outer planets. Set up a research station, look for exploitable resources, and just generally see what’s out there. So when one of our exploration staff dies, we give them an afterlife as an immanent entity on Pluto. It worked swimmingly for the first couple, but then they stopped showing up.”

“Just . . . stopped?” Dhiyampati asks.

“I don’t know where they went,” says Ellen. “But it’s not our Pluto station.”

Dhiyampati taps the side of his nose. “Hm.”

“The machine’s broken,” says Mr. Brown.

“Pfft,” says Mr. Cullens. “The machine can’t be broken. I’ve gone over it myself.”

“There is one basic rule of assigning souls to an afterlife,” says Dhiyampati. “That you can only give them the reward or punishment that they have actually chosen. So if they don’t show up on Pluto, then they must have chosen otherwise.”

“They signed the same contract as the first set!” says Mr. Brown.

“Did they?”

“Standard exploration contract,” says Mr. Brown. “We give them the chance to go somewhere people have never been, to break ground in a new frontier beyond any ordinary person’s dreams, and they do the work for us while they’re there. Nothing’s changing but the date and the signatures on the dotted line.”

“Nothing?”

“Nothing,” says Mr. Brown, conclusively.

“I’ll look at the machine,” Dhiyampati says.

The machine is in the basement of the complex, in a vault of steel. It is great and vast, humming and pulsing with life. Its ornamentation is baroque and its circuitry complex. Dhiyampati runs his hand along exposed circuit boards and shining crystal spheres as he walks through it.

Ellen is with him.

“He’ll be humiliated,” says Dhiyampati. “If it’s broken?”

“Mr. Cullens?” she asks.

“Yes.”

Ellen snorts. “He’d be relieved. This sucks, and the worst part is not understanding it.”

Dhiyampati brightens.

“Oh, that is good,” he says.

“Do you think it’s the machine?”

“It’s difficult to imagine,” says Dhiyampati. “The machine’s principal function is to conjure the elohite of the volunteer’s soul and interpret the relevant choices for it. I cannot imagine this going wrong in an inobvious fashion.”

Ellen tilts her head to one side. “Deviant elohim?”

Dhiyampati snorts.

“Then,” Ellen says, “wouldn’t the problem have to be the choice?”

Dhiyampati and the Pluto Project concludes . . . tomorrow!

Sellurt and Morgan: The Ark

It is at first Sellurt’s assumption that Noah is exaggerating regarding the number of animals stored on the Ark.

He can hear them, of course. There are always sounds. There is trumpeting and barking and buzzing and keening and at night there is a thin distant wailing that merges with the creaking and shifting and croaking of the wood.

And he sees no small number of them—the zebras, the antelope, the ostriches, the platypuses, and the lions, of course, the lions, more than two of them, more than seven of them, more than he can count, their great padded feet always stalking through the decks.

There is impressive biodiversity on the Ark.

But Sellurt has studied the Earth. He knows how many species there are.

They cannot all be on the Ark.

They are too many.

They are endless.

Mehanem—or Noah, as everyone calls him—is always busy. He does not have time to meet with Sellurt and Morgan. Thus it is that the two visitors from the Galactic Confederacy are abandoned there to the depths below deck, to watch through the portholes the endless dreary rain and listen to the skittering and scratching in the walls. Sometimes Sellurt’s eyes will close and he will wake up to the feather-soft touch of a spider or mosquito crawling across his leg; and each time, he observes with interested horror, it is a different species than he has ever seen before.

“It doesn’t matter,” says Morgan, after a while.

Morgan is sitting at the window, dropping coins from the porthole, watching for and failing to see that moment when they strike the water and vanish into the immensity of the deep.

“It doesn’t matter?” Sellurt asks.

“I mean,” Morgan says, “humans can’t breathe water, right?”

In Sellurt’s mind there is a momentary fantasy of drowning one of Mehanem’s sons, the human’s arms and legs flailing, his face slowly turning blue, his animal noises grinding to a halt.

Then Sellurt shakes his head.

“No,” he agrees. “They can’t.”

“Then their civilization is dead. It doesn’t matter that we’re not able to invite them to join the Galactic Confederacy. They’re dead. It’s over.”

It has been seven days now and the rain has not ceased to fall.

“Surely it’s just this subcontinent,” says Sellurt.

Morgan looks out.

“A whole world can’t die to rain,” Sellurt says.

“It’s surprising,” says Morgan. “How many animals there are. Whether or not he really got them all. Where do you think they go, when we can’t see them?”

On the ninth day, when Sellurt goes to the hatch that leads to the upper levels, he finds two lions there. They are between him and the hatch. They have gingivitis, thanks to their poor dental hygiene, and their maws are dripping blood.

“You’ll have to let me by,” says Sellurt.

But the male lion yawns, with its great yellow teeth, and its breath is rank.

“God,” mutters Sellurt.

He backs away.

There is the sound of hooves on the deck beside him, the heat of fur in the air, the whining of a fly, but when he turns to track the beast’s location with his eyes he cannot see anything but the wooden halls.

Sellurt finds a place where he can hear human footsteps, endless human footsteps, pacing on the decks above. He hammers on the ceiling. He shouts. He is dignified at first but then he screams until he’s hoarse, until he cannot breathe, until he falls and curls upon himself below.

The air is thick and fuzzy and he is sure he is surrounded by the beasts, but when he opens his eyes they are not there.

“Are you okay?” Morgan says, when he finds him.

“I’m fine,” Sellurt says.

“Okay.”

“I’m fine,” Sellurt repeats, and then he says: “This is intolerable.”

A koala shares their evening meal that day. It is the first time that either of the aliens have ever seen one, and the last they ever will.

When Sellurt checks the hatch again, the lions are still there.

Every time he checks the hatch, the lions are still there.

The humans are beyond Sellurt and Morgan’s reach.

“It must be Noah,” Sellurt tells Morgan. “The humans are more advanced than we believed.”

“Hm?”

“The rain. This isn’t natural rain. It’s something they’re doing. They have a machine. Noah is doing it. He has a machine.

“Why would they kill everyone off?”

“Why aren’t there more of them on the boat?” Sellurt says. “Why were they all left to drown? There’s plenty of room. They could fit twenty, thirty more families in here. But the lions kept them away. The lions stood outside the Ark and kept them away. He wanted them to die.”

“Don’t obsess,” Morgan says.

“What?”

“We’re an advanced galactic species,” says Morgan. “I’m sure we can figure out some way to deal with lions, if we have to. We could use our stunners. Or some kind of telepathic mind control. The options,” and he gestures extravagantly, “are endless.”

Sellurt sits down heavily.

“Yes,” he says, bitterly. “I’m sure we could.”

There is a great long-legged bug probing at his hand. He’s not sure where it came from. It wasn’t there when he sat down.

He will not shudder, Sellurt decides. He is a citizen of the Galactic Confederacy. He is above such distress.

His meeting with Noah will wait.

On the eighteenth day, Morgan observes, “There are too many animals.”

There is a distant sound of slithering. It is very dark and the damp seeps in through the wood.

“Too many?”

“They are endless,” says Morgan. “Never mind what Noah claims. There are too many different animals, just the ones we’ve seen. They can’t all fit in here, not with this much free space.”

The rats stare at him from the rafters, their red eyes glowing. There is the dry scraping noise of scales on wood. There is a peculiar, choking cough.

“They have to fit,” Sellurt says. “They’re here, aren’t they?”

“There’s no room.”

Sellurt leans back. His eyes are blank and white. He is thinking. He is counting, in his head.

“There’s no room,” he agrees.

The air is hot. It is the steam of a zoo, of a kennel, of a hundred thousand bodies pumping warmth and stench into the air.

Sellurt swats at his arm.

“Why,” he asks plaintively, “did Noah save the wasps?”

There is silence for a time.

“We’ll go,” says Morgan. “We’ll go. We’ll deal with the lions. We’ll face them down.”

“Yes,” says Sellurt.

Something clammy brushes against Morgan’s face. He waves his hand at it but it is gone.

“Stupid frogs,” Morgan adds.

They rise.

They walk in the direction of the hatch.

Morgan stops.

“Don’t stop,” Sellurt says. “We have to get out of here. We have to get to the hatch. I think we will go mad, Morgan, if we stay.”

Morgan is staring at the air, with his head tilted to one side, a peculiar expression on his face.

“Morgan?”

“We have walked the length of the Ark,” Morgan says. “And more. And still there is no hatch.”

“Ridiculous,” says Sellurt.

And there in the dimness and in no specific direction: not east, not north, not south, not west, Sellurt can make out a shaft that rises through the levels of the ship, above and below, through more floors and spaces than he can count.

“Don’t you see?” Morgan says, his voice immensely small and tiny in the emptiness of the Ark.

“No,” protests Sellurt. “No. I don’t.”

“It’s endless.”

Sellurt can feel the breath of the lions at his back, and there is everywhere to run.

Sellurt and Morgan: Bumping the Dinosaurs

“Backwards!” storms Sellurt. He hurls his glass of water in fury at a nearby absorb-o-wall.

“Earth?” Morgan inquires.

“I can’t believe we’re letting these ignorant primitives into our galactic confederation,” Sellurt says. “Look at them!”

He shoves a Earth-scope in Morgan’s direction. Morgan politely shakes his head.

“Sinful, wicked, lascivious beasts! I hardly want to go near them! But because the Council says ‘they have great potential’ and ‘their intuition scores are off the scale’ I have to figure out how to bring them into the fold.”

It is 2105 years before the common era, and Sellurt’s starship spirals through the vastnesses of space towards Earth.

“But you’re calm,” Sellurt says, after a time. “Why are you calm?”

“I’m a trained mannerist,” says Morgan. “I know how to handle these situations.”

“Oh?”

“It’s simple,” Morgan says. “We get out our shiny red and gold uniforms. We press them until they’re sharp. We even polish the buttons. Then we put them on. We land the ship in someone’s back yard, lower the ramp, march down, and say, ‘Take us to your leader.’ At this point the essential difficulties of first contact are circumvented; the rest is mere detail and elaboration.”

“Hmph,” snorts Sellurt. “You don’t know these humans! They’re not impressed by shiny uniforms and galactic confederation catchphrases!”

Morgan looks placid.

“We shall see,” he says, “what we shall see.”

Sellurt’s ship rages in from space. It spins thrice in orbit around the world while Sellurt scans the planet below. He sees a structure—more than 135 cubits long and 22.5 cubits wide—and mutters to himself, “As good as anything, I guess.” Then he pops the clutch and pulls the levers and the ship tears down to land in Mehanem Noah’s backyard.

The ship shudders once and vents its heat into the atmosphere. Its ramp lowers. Morgan and Sellurt, dressed in shiny red and gold uniforms, walk down.

Noah’s son, Ham, watches this whole procedure with some alarm.

“Hello,” says Morgan, sunnily, to Ham.

“Take us to your leader,” Sellurt says.

“Oh, dear,” says Ham. “You’re not a known species of animal.”

The galactics blink. There is a nonplussed moment.

“Darn right!” says Sellurt.

“Ah—”

Ham hesitates. He has an important but socially awkward question to ask. This awkwardness shows on his face.

“Hm?” Morgan says.

“Are you clean?” Ham says.

“Pardon?” Morgan answers.

“I’m supposed to take seven of you,” says Ham, “if you’re clean. But only two if you’re not.”

Morgan says, “Which would be more convenient for you?”

“Unclean,” says Ham.

Morgan gestures illustratively at Sellurt. Sellurt looks at him oddly.

“What the hell?” Sellurt says.

“I see!” Ham brightens. “Then we’ll only have to bump the dinosaurs.”

“What?” says Sellurt. “What?”

Morgan shakes his head, smiling. “About your leader…”

“Of course,” says Ham. “Right this way.”

Ham leads Morgan and Sellurt through the crowd of lions and wild beasts that surround the Ark. The lions growl at the aliens but let them pass. At the Ark they find Noah, who is busily at work.

“Oh,” says Noah. He puts down his hammer. He dusts off his hands and holds one out to the alien invaders in the universal symbol of fellowship. “Hello!”

“Down to business,” says Sellurt, ignoring the proffered hand. “You! Ugly human! Your species is foul and sinful but we’ve decided to let you into our grand galactic confederation. Observe how shiny our uniforms are! That’s just one of the many benefits your species can achieve. We’ll also end hunger and teach you to fly—through space!”

“That’s all very well,” says Noah, “but you’re going to have to go into the Ark. It’s going to rain soon.”

“I figure we should bump the dinosaurs, Dad,” says Ham.

Noah scratches at his sideburns. “Hate to do it,” he says, “but yes. Can’t keep the great old brutes around when we could be saving sophonts. Send in Japheth to dredge them out.”

Ham wanders off.

“I’m not entirely sure,” says Morgan, “that you understand—”

“No,” says Noah. He shakes his head. “I sure don’t. How did we miss you? I was sure we had a full list of every species on the Earth—used Kabalistic magic and everything. Even the bacteria, and tracking down all of them was harder than the breakfast toast.”

Noah’s been awake for more than a year, putting the finishing touches on the ark, so his breakfast toast is very hard indeed.

“We were in space, sir,” says Morgan.

“Yes,” says Sellurt. He points up at the sky. “Do you see those little lights? Well, each of them is a star. Around each of them is a world. The worlds are organized into a great galactic confederation dedicated to peace, prosperity, and interrupting my important work to send me haring off across the cosmos to bring all these blessings to worthless uncivilized savages like you.”

Noah thinks about that.

“I’d wondered,” he says. “Well, in you go.”

“What?”

Noah gestures at the Ark.

“In.”

“It must be some sort of custom,” Morgan says.

“A primitive hazing ritual for interstellar visitors,” Sellurt agrees.

“We’ll go along,” Morgan decides. “For now.”

So they go in.

They pass Japheth in the halls. He is wrangling out both dinosaurs, one in each hand. They are protesting and screeching but he is a stronger wrestler than they. He shoves them out in his final victory, and they fall onto the unforgiving soil.

It is beginning to rain.

“I wonder if they’ll accept our offer,” Morgan says.

“Ha!” says Sellurt. “They’d better. Their civilization is going to destroy itself if it keeps on going like it’s going, you know. All that savagery and vice’ll attract the attention of a Space Devil.”

“Not everyone does what’s best for them,” Morgan says.

Behind them, there is the creaking of a great and terrible door. There is a clamor as it closes. Inside the Ark it goes very still.

It is dark now in Noah’s ship.

It is the deepest night, inside the ship, but with great cuttings of light in it: great dagger-slashes of cloud-concealed sun, entering through the windows of the Ark.

Outside, the dinosaurs and humans are already turning into fossils, flesh falling off, bones hardening in the rain, clutching upwards like drowning men at the dream of space above.

The Invisible Killer

Kestrel enters Atmosphere Station. It sits atop the planet’s atmosphere. The air is thick enough that its atoms brush against her now and again. Atmosphere Station is shockingly enclosed, with material in every direction. Great struts of matter stretch from one side to another. The technicians cling to the struts, save for one who gibbers in the corner, and one, named Billy, who glides towards her.

“Ah,” says Billy. “You must be the savant.”

She smiles to him. She eddies towards him. She shines across her identification.

“Honored,” he says.

“It’s overwhelming,” she says, looking around.

He grins at her. “Wait’ll you see the planet.”

She gulps. She can’t help it. “It’s real? I mean, people really . . . live . . . down there?”

“I’ve been down there myself,” he says, smugly.

She stares at him.

“You’re wondering,” he says, “how anyone could survive at the bottom of an atmosphere, right?”

“It’s got to be at least ten pounds per square inch,” she says. “You’d pop like a balloon!”

“Fifteen,” he says. “And that’s the least of the problems we’ve had to solve, here at the Planet Project.”

He leads her over to an enclosure. He gestures inwards. She hesitates.

“It’s all right,” he says. “You won’t be in there that long.”

So she floats in, and he seals the exits all around her.

“Strange,” she says. She taps on one wall.

“What we do,” he says, “is make a kind of . . . second skin . . . for you. Like clothing. Out of a thick layer of organic material.”

Small bits of matter begin to mist into the enclosure. Kestrel looks horrified.

“It’s okay,” he says. “It doesn’t feel like you’re surrounded. It feels . . . it feels like you’ve grown another epidermis. Does that make sense? Like a new layer made out of meat.”

She closes her eyes. She waits.

“I feel so heavy,” she says.

“It’s just beginning,” he says.

“I’m not going to fill out this whole enclosure, am I?” she says.

“‘Space suit,'” he says. He makes quote marks around the words. “It’s so your new skin can survive in the vacuum of space.”

“You’ve got to be kidding,” she says.

“Not at all.”

She gingerly opens one eye. She looks down. She stifles an outcry. “I’m huge.”

“Not really,” he says, judiciously. “Just thick.”

“So,” she says hesitantly. “Is it always this . . . this bad?”

“No,” says Billy. “Most people go nuts with fear the first few times through. You’re holding up admirably.”

“It’s not skin,” she says.

“It has to be,” he says. “Just think of it as an outer skin. Otherwise you’ll get sick.”

“Right,” she says. She braces herself. She thinks. “Um, . . .”

“Billy,” he says.

“Billy,” she says. “Am I going to have to wear this the whole time?”

“Sorry.”

“I see.” Her voice is faint. She looks down again. Counting the suit, she concludes, she’s at least six inches from front to back. She wiggles an arm. It moves sluggishly, like a tiny meteor. Thick bunches of organic material twitch and provide its motive force.

“And everyone does this,” she says, “down there?”

“Everyone,” he says. “Even Dr. Karpov.”

She takes a deep breath. She can feel her great matter-coated chest moving in and out. “It’s not so strange,” she tells herself. “It’s not so unusual.”

“Wow,” Billy says. “You really are a savant.”

“What?” she asks.

“Nevermind,” he says. “I’ll send you down.”

Descending through the atmosphere is a complicated process. Her new body is strong against pressure but still vulnerable to friction during the descent into the atmosphere. Billy escorts her, ‘space suit’ and all, to a large enclosed vehicle.

“It’s like I’m wearing layers,” she laughs. He looks a bit perturbed, then shrugs.

“Yes,” he says. Then the station lowers the vehicle slowly into the atmosphere.

She watches. It’s insanity-making, the watching. Outside the vehicle, she can see layers of air getting thicker and thicker as she falls.

“Surrounded,” she mumbles. “Everywhere, surrounded.”

She looks up at the sun.

“Hey,” she says, tuning in to Billy’s signal. “Hey. I can’t eat. I can’t eat.”

There’s an amused noise. “Everyone says that,” he answers. “It’s normal. Your body’s actually equipped to eat organic material and turn it into energy.”

“. . . Organic material?”

“Yup,” he says.

“Like my new skin?”

Horrific visions of a world of cannibals play through her head. She imagines Dr. Karpov leaping on her as she lands and somehow devouring her skin, leaving her naked against the monstrous pressure of the planet below.

“Don’t worry,” he says. “That’d be way too gross. We make special ‘hate food’.”

“Hate food?”

“It’s like your skin,” he says, “but it’s made out of icky evil things. Arthropods and grass and such. So it’s not like you!”

“Hm,” she says.

“They’re really icky,” he says. “I promise. We looked hard for the things that most deserved to be turned into energy.”

“Okay,” she says, relaxing.

The vehicle thumps into the ground. She is shocked to discover that she does not bounce from the floor—her new body, she concludes, must have a weight measurable in dozens of pounds.

The enclosure opens. She walks out onto the planet.

“You must be Kestrel,” says a man. She thinks he’s a man. It’s hard to tell, with his meat body and all.

“Kestrel!” shouts another. He leaps on her. She shrinks back, but he is only touching her hand, her head, her leg. There is a shock of recognition.

“Ember?” she says.

“Ha!” says Ember. He holds out his hand to the other man. “I told you she’d guess.”

The other man, like someone grumpily paying off a wager, hands over an object.

“Ember?”

“It’s me, Kestrel.” He grins. “I heard they were sending you. I couldn’t believe it! I didn’t think I’d get to see you again for years.”

She touches his hand. She touches his head. “I . . .” She frowns. “There’s no way to kiss in these things, is there.”

“Nope,” he says. “Not in an atmosphere.”

“Or . . .”

He laughs. “You get used to it,” he says. “Kestrel, Kestrel, Kestrel, this is Dr. Karpov. He’s leading the project.”

She looks Dr. Karpov over. He is thick and meaty, like herself and Ember. He has some kind of black growth on his face, and strange spots all over his skin.

“Dr. Karpov,” she says.

He smiles at her. She can tell. It’s a smile.

“Yes,” he says. “You are indeed a savant. To adjust so quickly.”

She laughs. Then she frowns.

“Your skin has dots,” she says. “Mine and Ember don’t.”

“It’s the invisible killer,” he says. “Come. I will take you to my sunbathing spot. We will speak of it.”

“Sunbathing?” she says.

He does not answer. He simply leads her towards the settlement. She reaches its edge and looks down and gasps.

“It goes down,” she says. “Forever!”

“Psychologically,” says Dr. Karpov, “we depend on the sun and on its radiation. That’s why we need a deep city like this.”

The city of the Planet Project was a great deeps like a crater carved into the planet’s crust. Its edges were smooth and gentle, but Kestrel judges that its center is at least three hundred feet down. Line walkways and bubble buildings spread across the crater in a giant web, carefully positioned to ensure that no place in the entire deeps is entirely hidden from the sun.

“But,” she says. “The planet’s rotation . . .”

“It is slow,” says Dr. Karpov. “We must move between different deeps as the planet turns, ensuring that we are always in the sun. Incidentally, you may remove the space suit.”

“Ah!” she cries, in relief. She begins trying to escape the enclosure. Then she frowns.

“Wait,” she says. “How?”

Ember steps close. He pushes two indentations at the side of her suit, simultaneously. The enclosure falls apart. He touches her arm again.

“Welcome to the planet,” he says.

“So,” says Kestrel. “Tell me about this invisible killer.”

“It’s why you’re here,” says Dr. Karpov. He points at one hand, using the other. “Something in this world is poisoning us. Our biological bodies develop these strange spots, sicken, and die.”

“Just the bodies?” laughs Kestrel. “Just these second skins? That’s not much of a killer!”

Ember frowns at her. Dr. Karpov makes a wry face. He reclines back on the rock, looking up at the sun.

“One of our interns,” he says, “failed to recognize the body’s degeneration in time. He abandoned it too late, and could not reach Atmosphere Station in time.”

“Oh,” she says.

“We had Peskin studying the matter,” Dr. Karpov says. “Regrettably, he went mad.”

“Mad?”

“He threw his research to the bottom of the deeps,” says Dr. Karpov. “Then he retreated to Atmosphere Station, where he sits in the corner and gibbers. It is not productive.”

“Ah,” she says.

“That is why we need a savant,” says Dr. Karpov. “None of us can retrieve his research. It is simply . . . too deep.”

“Wait,” she says. “You want me to go to the . . . to the bottom of the deeps? The pressure must be . . .”

“Scarcely greater than the surface,” says Dr. Karpov, dismissively.

“That’s insane,” she says flatly.

“You are adaptable,” says Dr. Karpov. “Are you not? You are skilled at handling unusual situations and stressors. Are you not?”

Kestrel sighs. “So my psychological evaluation says.”

“Then,” says Dr. Karpov, “I recommend that you lay beside me on this rock, and gather in the light of the sun the strength you need to face the darkness.”

“Oh,” she says.

“That is sunbathing,” says Dr. Karpov.

“It’s too hot for me,” says Ember. “My biobody complains!”

“Ember,” laughs Kestrel. “You can’t possibly dislike the . . .”

“Too hot,” he says, stuffily. “I’ll just go get your deeps ropes ready.”

She rests there for a while, staring up at the sun. “It’s so far away.”

“We’re working on fixing that,” says Dr. Karpov. “Taking away the ozone in the atmosphere that keeps the best of the radiation at bay.”

“But I still wouldn’t be able to eat it,” she says.

“No,” he admits. “Just hate food. But you could leave it out to absorb the sun’s power.”

“Hm!” says Kestrel. “That sounds yummy.”

Dr. Karpov snorts.

A dreamy time passes. Then she rises to her body’s feet. “All right,” she says. “I’m ready.”

“Already?” he says.

Kestrel bangs her chest with one fist. “It’s my job, sir!”

He laughs. “Then go find Ember. He’ll connect you to a rope to lower you all the way.”

This is what it is like to descend into the deeps.

The first thing Kestrel notices are shadows. They are small. They are not like the shadows planets and moons cast through space. They are little shadows, cast by the struts and the bubbles of the deeps. They are strangely warm—not much colder than the air around her. But they make her shiver.

The second thing Kestrel notices as she descends is how much is around her. There are the walkways of the deeps on every side, but beyond that, walls of rock. There are no gaps. They loom great in every direction but up.

“They’re . . . a planet,” she says, to Ember far above.

“What?”

“I’m inside a planet. There’s a planet on every side.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” he says. “This is just a deeps.”

“But . . .”

Please, Kestrel.” Ember sounds nauseated. “It’s just a deeps. The walls are just enclosure. The planet is . . . up. Out. Not really here.”

“I guess,” she says.

She goes deeper. The crisscrossing shadows grow deeper.

Suddenly, she is enclosed on every side. She screams.

“What is it?” Ember asks.

“Ember!” she says. “There’s no . . . there’s no sky, just . . . just . . . stone!”

“There’s a sky,” he says. “See? You can talk to me. That means there’s a path for radiation to travel.”

“There’s no sky.”

“Can you see?”

She doesn’t answer.

“Can you see?”

“I guess,” she says.

“Then there’s sunlight.”

“But it’s so dark,” she says. “And there’s so much matter. I’m in matter.”

“It’s okay,” he says. “You’re my Kestrel.”

“Right,” she says. “Right.”

She goes deeper.

At the bottom of the deeps, she sees it. It is a data disk. It is wedged in a crack in the ground that, Kestrel thinks, must lead all the way to the center of the planet. She reaches for it.

“I’m hungry,” she says.

“Your body can’t be hungry yet.”

“Not it. Me,” she says. “I’m hungry.”

There is something burning in her, something yearning, something crying out for the sun. “I have to eat,” she whimpers.

“Do you see the disk?”

“I see it,” she says.

“Can you take it?” says Ember. “If you take it, then I can pull you back up.”

“I . . .”

She reaches for it. And in that moment, she understands.

“No,” she says. “No. I won’t.”

“What?”

“I won’t bring it back up,” she says. “You have to pull me up without it.”

“Don’t go nuts on me now, Kestrel,” Ember says. “Come on. You’ve made it this far.”

“I can’t,” Kestrel says. “I know what it says. I know what it has to say. I know why he went mad. Pull me up. I have to speak to him.”

So he reels her in. He bids her farewell with a touch. He sends her up to the station. She strips off her flesh until she is bare. Then she floats to Peskin.

“Peskin,” she says gently. “I have been to the deeps.”

Peskin gibbers.

“I know what you found out,” she says. “I know what it must have been.”

Peskin does not look up.

“It is not right,” she says. “But I think it must be this. That these second skins of ours. These organic bodies. They long for that deeps. They hunger for it like we hunger for the sun.”

Now there is silence.

“The sun is killing them, isn’t it?” she asks.

“No,” Peskin says. He shakes his head vigorously. “It’s impossible. It’s not a possible thing.”

“Radiation,” she says. “It’s somehow . . . getting into the biology. Messing it up.”

“Not possible,” says Peskin. “It’s like every angel in the stars was a devil now.”

“It’s all right,” she says. She touches him. “I won’t tell them.”

He looks up. He’s haunted.

“I’ll tell them to make something inorganic to keep around them,” she says. “To absorb the sun. And they’ll never need to know why.”

“You can’t keep this secret,” says Peskin. “It’s too big.”

“Just for a little while,” she says. “Just until . . . people get more used to the bodies. Until they can accept it.”

“Sunlight kills,” Peskin whimpers.

“We’ll figure something out,” Kestrel says. “We will!”

But Peskin is silent. He does not believe!