Dear Bob — “Dear Bob.” I can’t believe I’ve written that. Did I ever think you’d read this letter? Dear Bob — Dear Bob!!! I’ve done it. I’m writing the letter. How are you? But I won’t know that, will I? Not until I read your letter. Don’t forget—put it where you found mine, between Asimov and Bester, fourth shelf up in the science fiction section of Cray Point’s library, just as we agreed. I’ll pick it up when I’m next through, I promise, and God willing, I’ll leave you another letter that day. Then we’ll swap letters, just like that couple in 84 Charing Cross Road, swapping our lives between the lines.
A Vortal ripped open in the heart of Manhattan. It began as a microscopic dot, invisible to the naked eye. Just hung there in midair, almost two meters above the street. People walked, drove, biked, rollerbladed, skateboarded, jogged, and one dude on his way to a Broadway audition even tap-danced by without noticing it. It grew. A day later, it was the size of a pea. A Metro bus struck it. It was still barely visible and the Sikh driver was hardly expecting to collide with a nearly invisible pea-sized obstacle suspended six feet up in the air.
Though Marietta’s eyes are closed, she is wide awake, fingering the new sheets she gave Asher as part of his six-month anniversary present. The other parts were dinner, followed by multiple sexual favors. She has already thought ahead, to the seven-month anniversary, when she will trade dinner for breakfast, trade a languorous night of sex for a quickie. She worries about thinking so far ahead and having expectations concerning things she cannot fully control. Is this really the way being in love should feel?
Pretty much everybody made peace with it very early on in the process. It wasn’t the most pleasant prospect in this world, or any other. But it had been explained to us in the most rational and persuasive terms imaginable, in sentences so simple that even the dumbest among us were capable of getting it; and once we swallowed that pill and incorporated it into our daily lives, it really didn’t make much of a difference in the scheme of things. We were adults about it. But that doesn’t make much of a difference when your four-year-old daughter looks up at you with her big brown eyes and asks you, “Daddy? Why are the space men going to grind us into hamburgers?”
Dan Linh had walked out of the Purple Forbidden City not expecting to return to it—thankful that the Empress had seen fit to spare her life; that she wasn’t walking to her execution for threefold treason. Twenty years later—after the nightmares had faded, after she was finally used to the diminished, eventless life on the Sixty-First Planet—she did come back, to find it unchanged: the Midday Gate towering over the moat; the sleek ballet of spaceships between the pagodas and the orbitals; the ambient sound of zithers and declaimed poetry slowly replacing the bustle of the city at their backs.
It was difficult to sleep at night, wishing good men dead. This was but one of the hurtful things I felt in my bones and wished I could ignore. It was an ugly truth waving its arms that I turned my gaze from, that I didn’t like to admit even to myself. But while my bag warmed me with the last of its power and my breath spilled out in white plumes toward the roof of our tent, while the flicker of a whisperstove melted snow for midnight tea, I lay in that dead zone above sixty thousand feet and hoped not just for the failure of those above me, but that no man summit and live to tell the tale. Not before I had my chance.
The ship dies in orbit above an abandoned world. Kitshan curses. Metal bones shudder around him as the last of the ship’s breath is sucked into vacuum. His skill at the helm and hasty patch jobs have kept the engines together, but luck is scarce out here, and his is gone. The ship is unminded. Lifeless metal, basic programming, and manual flight operations are things he can tolerate better than another consciousness wrapped against his. The viewscreen flickers and a cold vista stretches across the interior curve of the cockpit: the small star, bright and distilled against the void.
That’s how Cynthia and Ugo met. The Easter egg hunt had just started when little Cynthia noticed a dark, short-haired nine-year-old boy, all alone, sitting by the church steps. Her first impression of him was his quietness, and the way he stared at her. When she told him (well, shouted) that it was impolite to stare at strangers, and why wasn’t he running like all others?—the dark-haired boy walked quietly over and told her that they didn’t need to hurry.
Wren Hex-Yemenni woke early. They had to teach her everything from scratch, and there wasn’t time for her to learn anything new before she hit fifty and had to be expired. “Watch it,” the other techs told me when I was starting out. “You don’t want a Hex on your hands.” By then we were monitoring Wren Hepta-Yemenni. She fell into bed with Dorado ambassador 214, though I don’t know what he did to deserve it and she didn’t even seem sad when he expired.
“Ladies and gentlemen, everyone you know—the entire world you know—is now dead.” Murmurs ripple through the assembled cadets. Not because they’re shocked—everyone knew what they were signing up for—but because it all happened without fanfare, a jump across light-years of space unaccompanied by any grand orchestral swell or roaring engine thrusts. The wiry guy with a shaved head standing next to Tone mutters, “Jesus, I didn’t even feel anything.”