John Barnes, Elizabeth Bear, Damien Broderick, Karl Bunker, Paul Cornell, Albert E. Cowdrey, Ian Creasey, Steven Gould, Dominic Green, Nicola Griffith, Alexander Irvine, John Kessel, Ted Kosmatka, Nancy Kress, Jay Lake, Rand B. Lee, Paul McAuley, Ian McDonald, Maureen F. McHugh, Sarah Monette, Michael Poore, Robert Reed, Adam Roberts, Chris Roberson, Mary Rosenblum, Geoff Ryman, Vandana Singh, Bruce Sterling, Lavie Tidhar, James Van Pelt, Jo Walton, Peter Watts, Robert Charles Wilson, and John C. Wright.
Supplementing the stories are the editor's insightful summation of the year's events and a lengthy list of honorable mentions, making this book both a valuable resource and the single best place in the universe to find stories that stir the imagination, and the heart.
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About the Author
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The Year's Best Science Fiction
Twenty-Seventh Annual Collection
By Gardner Dozois
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2010 Gardner Dozois
All rights reserved.
ROBERT CHARLES WILSON
Robert Charles Wilson made his first sale in 1974, to Analog, but little more was heard from him until the late 1980s, when he began to publish a string of ingenious and well-crafted novels and stories that have since established him among the top ranks of the writers who came to prominence in the last two decades of the twentieth century. His first novel, A Hidden Place, appeared in 1986. He won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for his novel The Chronoliths, the Philip K. Dick Award for his novel Mysterium, and the Aurora Award for his story "The Perseids." In 2006, he won the Hugo Award for his acclaimed novel Spin. His other books include the novels Memory Wire,Gypsies,The Divide,The Harvest,A Bridge of Years, Darwinia, Blind Lake, Bios, and Axis, and a collection of his short work, The Perseids and Other Stories. His most recent book is a new novel, Julian. He lives in Toronto, Canada.
Here he tells the compelling story of a young woman faced with the most significant choice she will ever make in her life — after which, nothing will ever be the same.
Diving back into the universe (now that the universe is a finished object, boxed and ribboned from bang to bounce), Carlotta calculates ever-finer loci on the frozen ordinates of spacetime until at last she reaches a trailer park outside the town of Commanche Drop, Arizona. Bodiless, no more than a breath of imprecision in the Feynman geography of certain virtual particles, thus powerless to affect the material world, she passes unimpeded through a sheet-aluminum wall and hovers over a mattress on which a young woman sleeps uneasily.
The young woman is her own ancient self, the primordial Carlotta Boudaine, dewed with sweat in the hot night air, her legs caught up in a spindled cotton sheet. The bedroom's small window is cranked open, and in the breezeless distance a coyote wails.
Well, look at me, Carlotta marvels: skinny girl in panties and a halter, sixteen years old — no older than a gnat's breath — taking shallow little sleep-breaths in the moonlit dark. Poor child can't even see her own ghost. Ah, but she will, Carlotta thinks — she must.
The familiar words echo in her mind as she inspects her dreaming body, buried in its tomb of years, eons, kalpas. When it's time to leave, leave. Don't be afraid. Don't wait. Don't get caught. Just go. Go fast.
Her ancient beloved poem. Her perennial mantra. The words, in fact, that saved her life.
She needs to share those words with herself, to make the circle complete. Everything she knows about nature of the physical universe suggests that the task is impossible. Maybe so ... but it won't be for lack of trying.
Patiently, slowly, soundlessly, Carlotta begins to speak.
Here's the story of the Fleet, girl, and how I got raptured up into it. It's all about the future — a bigger one than you believe in — so brace yourself.
It has a thousand names and more, but we'll just call it the Fleet. When I first encountered it, the Fleet was scattered from the core of the galaxy all through its spiraled tentacles of suns, and it had been there for millions of years, going about its business, though nobody on this planet knew anything about it. I guess every now and then a Fleet ship must have fallen to Earth, but it would have been indistinguishable from any common meteorite by the time it passed through the atmosphere: a chunk of carbonaceous chondrite smaller than a human fist, from which all evidence of ordered matter had been erased by fire — and such losses, which happened everywhere and often, made no discernable difference to the Fleet as a whole. All Fleet data (that is to say, all mind) was shared, distributed, fractal. Vessels were born and vessels were destroyed, but the Fleet persisted down countless eons, confident of its own immortality.
Oh, I know you don't understand the big words, child! It's not important for you to hear them — not these words — it's only important for me to say them. Why? Because a few billion years ago tomorrow, I carried your ignorance out of this very trailer, carried it down to the Interstate and hitched west with nothing in my backpack but a bottle of water, a half-dozen Tootsie Rolls, and a wad of twenty-dollar bills stolen out of Dan-O's old ditty bag. That night (tomorrow night: mark it) I slept under an overpass all by myself, woke up cold and hungry long before dawn, and looked up past a concrete arch crusted with bird shit into a sky so thick with falling stars it made me think of a dark skin bee-stung with fire. Some of the Fleet vectored too close to the atmosphere that night, no doubt, but I didn't understand that (any more than you do, girl) — I just thought it was a big flock of shooting stars, pretty but meaningless. And, after a while, I slept some more. And come sunrise, I waited for the morning traffic so I could catch another ride ... but the only cars that came by were all weaving or speeding, as if the whole world was driving home from a drunken party.
"They won't stop," a voice behind me said. "Those folks already made their decisions, Carlotta. Whether they want to live or die, I mean. Same decision you have to make."
I whirled around, sick-startled, and that was when I first laid eyes on dear Erasmus.
Let me tell you right off that Erasmus wasn't a human being. Erasmus just then was a knot of shiny metal angles about the size of a microwave oven, hovering in mid-air, with a pair of eyes like the polished tourmaline they sell at those roadside souvenir shops. He didn't have to look that way — it was some old avatar he used because he figured that it would impress me. But I didn't know that then. I was only surprised, if that's not too mild a word, and too shocked to be truly frightened.
"The world won't last much longer," Erasmus said in a low and mournful voice. "You can stay here, or you can come with me. But choose quick, Carlotta, because the mantle's come unstable and the continents are starting to slip."
I half believed that I was still asleep and dreaming. I didn't know what that meant, about the mantle, though I guessed he was talking about the end of the world. Some quality of his voice (which reminded me of that actor Morgan Freeman) made me trust him despite how weird and impossible the whole conversation was. Plus, I had a confirming sense that something was going bad somewhere, partly because of the scant traffic (a Toyota zoomed past, clocking speeds it had never been built for, the driver a hunched blur behind the wheel), partly because of the ugly green cloud that just then billowed up over a row of rat-toothed mountains on the horizon. Also the sudden hot breeze. And the smell of distant burning. And the sound of what might have been thunder, or something worse.
"Go with you where?"
"To the stars, Carlotta! But you'll have to leave your body behind."
I didn't like the part about leaving my body behind. But what choice did I have, except the one he'd offered me? Stay or go. Simple as that.
It was a ride — just not the kind I'd been expecting.
There was a tremor in the earth, like the devil knocking at the soles of my shoes. "Okay," I said, "whatever," as white dust bloomed up from the desert and was taken by the frantic wind.
Don't be afraid. Don't wait. Don't get caught. Just go. Go fast.
Without those words in my head, I swear, girl, I would have died that day. Billions did.
She slows down the passage of time so she can fit this odd but somehow necessary monologue into the space between one or two of the younger Carlotta's breaths. Of course, she has no real voice in which to speak. The past is static, imperturbable in its endless sleep; molecules of air on their fixed trajectories can't be manipulated from the shadowy place where she now exists. Wake up with the dawn, girl, she says, steal the money you'll never spend — it doesn't matter; the important thing is to leave. It's time.
When it's time to leave, leave. Of all the memories she carried out of her earthly life, this is the most vivid: waking to discover a ghostly presence in her darkened room, a white-robed woman giving her the advice she needs at the moment she needs it. Suddenly Carlotta wants to scream the words: When it's time to leave —
But she can't vibrate even a single mote of the ancient air, and the younger Carlotta sleeps on.
Next to the bed is a thrift-shop night table scarred with cigarette burns. On the table is a child's night-light, faded cut-outs of Sponge Bob Square Pants pasted on the paper shade. Next to that, hidden under a splayed copy of People magazine, is the bottle of barbiturates Carlotta stole from Dan-O's ditty-bag this afternoon, the same khaki bag in which (she couldn't help but notice) Dan-O keeps his cash, a change of clothes, a fake driver's license, and a blue steel automatic pistol.
Young Carlotta detects no ghostly presence ... nor is her sleep disturbed by the sound of Dan-O's angry voice and her mother's sudden gasp, two rooms away. Apparently, Dan-O is awake and sober. Apparently, Dan-O has discovered the theft. That's a complication.
But Carlotta won't allow herself to be hurried.
The hardest thing about joining the Fleet was giving up the idea that I had a body, that my body had a real place to be.
But that's what everybody believed at first, that we were still whole and normal — everybody rescued from Earth, I mean. Everybody who said "Yes" to Erasmus — and Erasmus, in one form or another, had appeared to every human being on the planet in the moments before the end of the world. Two and a half billion of us accepted the offer of rescue. The rest chose to stay put and died when the Earth's continents dissolved into molten magma.
Of course, that created problems for the survivors. Children without parents, parents without children, lovers separated for eternity. It was as sad and tragic as any other incomplete rescue, except on a planetary scale. When we left the Earth, we all just sort of re-appeared on a grassy plain as flat as Kansas and wider than the horizon, under a blue faux sky, each of us with an Erasmus at his shoulder and all of us wailing or sobbing or demanding explanations.
The plain wasn't "real," of course, not the way I was accustomed to things being real. It was a virtual place, and all of us were wearing virtual bodies, though we didn't understand that fact immediately. We kept on being what we expected ourselves to be — we even wore the clothes we'd worn when we were raptured up. I remember looking down at the pair of greasy second-hand Reeboks I'd found at the Commanche Drop Goodwill store, thinking: in Heaven? Really?
"Is there any place you'd rather be?" Erasmus asked with a maddening and clearly inhuman patience. "Anyone you need to find?"
"Yeah, I'd rather be in New Zealand," I said, which was really just a hysterical joke. All I knew about New Zealand was that I'd seen a show about it on PBS, the only channel we got since the cable company cut us off.
"Any particular part of New Zealand?"
"What? Well — okay, a beach, I guess."
I had never been to a real beach, a beach on the ocean.
"Alone, or in the company of others?"
"Seriously?" All around me people were sobbing or gibbering in (mostly) foreign languages. Pretty soon, fights would start to break out. You can't put a couple of billion human beings so close together under circumstances like that and expect any other result. But the crowd was already thinning, as people accepted similar offers from their own Fleet avatars.
"Alone," I said. "Except for you."
And quick as that, there I was: Eve without Adam, standing on a lonesome stretch of white beach.
After a while, the astonishment faded to a tolerable dazzle. I took off my shoes and tested the sand. The sand was pleasantly sun-warm. Saltwater swirled up between my toes as a wave washed in from the coral-blue sea.
Then I felt dizzy and had to sit down.
"Would you like to sleep?" Erasmus asked, hovering over me like a gem-studded party balloon. "I can help you sleep, Carlotta, if you'd like. It might make the transition easier if you get some rest, to begin with."
"You can answer some fucking questions, is what you can do!" I said.
He settled down on the sand beside me, the mutant offspring of a dragonfly and a beach ball. "Okay, shoot," he said.
It's a read-only universe, Carlotta thinks. The Old Ones have said as much, so it must be true. And yet, she knows, she remembers, that the younger Carlotta will surely wake and find her here: a ghostly presence, speaking wisdom.
But how can she make herself perceptible to this sleeping child? The senses are so stubbornly material, electrochemical data cascading into vastly complex neural networks ... is it possible she could intervene in some way at the borderland of quanta and perception? For a moment, Carlotta chooses to look at her younger self with different eyes, sampling the fine gradients of molecular magnetic fields. The child's skin and skull grow faint and then transparent as Carlotta shrinks her point of view and wanders briefly through the carnival of her own animal mind, the buzzing innerscape where skeins of dream merge and separate like fractal soapbubbles. If she could manipulate even a single boson — influence the charge at some critical synaptic junction, say —
But she can't. The past simply doesn't have a handle on it. There's no uncertainty here anymore, no alternate outcomes. To influence the past would be to change the past, and, by definition, that's impossible.
The shouting from the next room grows suddenly louder and more vicious, and Carlotta senses her younger self moving from sleep toward an awakening, too soon.
Of course, I figured it out eventually, with Erasmus's help. Oh, girl, I won't bore you with the story of those first few years — they bored me, heaven knows.
Of course "heaven" is exactly where we weren't. Lots of folks were inclined to see it that way — assumed they must have died and been delivered to whatever afterlife they happened to believe in. Which was actually not too far off the mark: but, of course, God had nothing to do with it. The Fleet was a real-world business, and ours wasn't the first sentient species it had raptured up. Lots of planets got destroyed, Erasmus said, and the Fleet didn't always get to them in time to salvage the population, hard as they tried — we were lucky, sort of.
So I asked him what it was that caused all these planets to blow up.
"We don't know, Carlotta. We call it the Invisible Enemy. It doesn't leave a signature, whatever it is. But it systematically seeks out worlds with flourishing civilizations and marks them for destruction." He added, "It doesn't like the Fleet much, either. There are parts of the galaxy where we don't go — because if we do go there, we don't come back."
At the time, I wasn't even sure what a "galaxy" was, so I dropped the subject, except to ask him if I could see what it looked like — the destruction of the Earth, I meant. At first, Erasmus didn't want to show me; but after a lot of coaxing, he turned himself into a sort of floating TV screen and displayed a view "looking back from above the plane of the solar ecliptic," words which meant nothing to me.
What I saw was ... well, no more little blue planet, basically.
More like a ball of boiling red snot.
"What about my mother? What about Dan-O?"
I didn't have to explain who these people were. The Fleet had sucked up all kinds of data about human civilization, I don't know how. Erasmus paused as if he was consulting some invisible Rolodex. Then he said, "They aren't with us."
"You mean they're dead?"
"Yes. Abby and Dan-O are dead."
But the news didn't surprise me. It was almost as if I'd known it all along, as if I had had a vision of their deaths, a dark vision to go along with that ghostly visit the night before, the woman in a white dress telling me go fast.
Excerpted from The Year's Best Science Fiction by Gardner Dozois. Copyright © 2010 Gardner Dozois. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Table of Contents
UTRIUSQUE COSMI Robert Charles Wilson,
A STORY, WITH BEANS Steven Gould,
UNDER THE SHOUTING SKY Karl Bunker,
EVENTS PRECEDING THE HELVETICAN RENAISSANCE John Kessel,
USELESS THINGS Maureen F. McHugh,
BLACK SWAN Bruce Sterling,
CRIMES AND GLORY Paul J. McAuley,
SEVENTH FALL Alexander Irvine,
BUTTERFLY BOMB Dominic Green,
INFINITIES Vandana Singh,
THINGS UNDONE John Barnes,
ON THE HUMAN PLAN Jay Lake,
THE ISLAND Peter Watts,
THE INTEGRITY OF THE CHAIN Lavie Tidhar,
LION WALK Mary Rosenblum,
ESCAPE TO OTHER WORLDS WITH SCIENCE FICTION Jo Walton,
THREE LEAVES OF ALOE Rand B. Lee,
MONGOOSE Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette,
PARADISO LOST Albert E. Cowdrey,
IT TAKES TWO Nicola Griffith,
BLOCKED Geoff Ryman,
SOLACE James Van Pelt,
ACT ONE Nancy Kress,
TWILIGHT OF THE GODS John C. Wright,
BLOOD DAUBER Ted Kosmatka and Michael Poore,
THIS WIND BLOWING, AND THIS TIDE Damien Broderick,
HAIR Adam Roberts,
BEFORE MY LAST BREATH Robert Reed,
ONE OF OUR BASTARDS IS MISSING Paul Cornell,
EDISON'S FRANKENSTEIN Chris Roberson,
EROSION Ian Creasey,
VISHNU AT THE CAT CIRCUS Ian McDonald,
HONORABLE MENTIONS: 2009,