Lightspeed: Edited by John Joseph Adams




The Day the Earthman Didn’t Show

He was supposed to show up.

He did not show up.

He was long foretold in prophecy.

The prophecy turned out to be bullshit.

This was impossible. The people of this world known as Elarimuth had a gift for prophecy unparalleled in all the known universe. They were tied into the chronoflow and as a result experienced both their many eons of past history and the general outline of the future from the very moment of their births. They were, as a minor consequence, born educated, a grand convenience that prevented school funding issues. As a major benefit, they knew the most important thing that would ever happen to their race, the arrival of the Earthman and the addition of his own genetic material to the royal bloodline. They were not great on biology and could not fathom why a creature born on an alien world would even have genetic material compatible with theirs, let alone why he would look so much like one of them, except for some minor differences in coloring and the utter absence of the pebbled ridge that adorned their foreheads, a distinction that would to their eyes make him look less intelligent; but they also knew that he would turn out to be crafty and courageous and that his love with that future era’s Princess Nara would sire an entirely new line of people with all the best qualities of their people and his own.

They knew all their history after that point would be glorious, and they knew this for a fact, and they had known since the days their most primitive ancestors had crawled from the paleolithic muck; and while this had always rendered surprising developments rather thin on the ground, there had always been consolations, among them peace and harmony and an utter lack of uncertainty over the rightness of their path as a species.

And yet the day came and he never showed up.

They had shepherded the fortunes of their species with unerring wisdom, in no small part because their great gifts of prophecy had also prevented them from making any of the tragic errors that cause many civilizations to crumble and fall from excess. They knew all about fossil fuels and what they led to and so they left them in the ground, thank you. They knew about habitat destruction and so they kept their own populations down to a few glorious cities and their extensive rural support systems, thus allowing megafauna like their equivalent of dinosaurs to continue to roam the landscape in isolated areas, where they would be fun to look at and where their grand heroic visitor the Earthman would someday be able to encounter them. They knew that slavery was ultimately more trouble than it was worth, not that it ever would have worked among them; the tribes that would have been snatched up by warships took the necessary precautions and the tribes that might have built those warships saw the great floods of bloodshed that their own corners of civilization would have fallen from, and said, “No, thank you; we will just build more efficient economic systems,” and so they did. Their world was not perfect, but it was utopian early on, excepting only those elements that needed to be engineered into sources of danger that would engage the Earthman. They knew that he would need some adventures, the poor thing, and so they planned accordingly, with the unerring skill of a people who always got to rehearse everything.

They built their sets. They arranged for the grandest and most beautiful of all their cities to have an elaborate palace at the center. They built an elaborate dungeon with torture chamber. They installed secret passages that included one the Earthman, set for bloody execution on the morrow, could discover with almost no effort whatsoever, and use to escape the city where he would be guided on a series of adventures that would end with his triumphant return at the head of noble barbarians who would help him overthrow the tyrant. They curated wildlife like their near-dinosaurs to imperil him, they placed a powerful energy weapon from a fabled past in a ruined temple where the Earthman could not help stumbling across it, they erected a high balcony where the Earthman and the Tyrant could have a final, improbable but precarious sword fight that would decide everything, and they rehearsed that final confrontation to the slightest reflex, knowing exactly how many times the Tyrant, greatest swordsman in all the land, would have to come close to killing the Earthman, in order for the Earthman’s final victory to have its greatest possible emotional value.

They did everything.

And still, the Earthman did not show up.

The various members of the Royal Court had prepared. There were lords and ladies and skulking robed figures whose exact offices might have been obscure but whose backstories had been put together and whose precise moments of fateful decision had been sculpted to the very last nano-second, to serve the story long curated. They would be lined up on both sides of the gleaming and exotic hall as the Earthman was dragged in by guards, chains rattling, face bruised just so; and they would all gasp in unison at their first sight of this alien and barbarous being, whose great crime had been to materialize naked in the middle of the sacred forest and demand to know just where the cosmic flux had brought him, a trespass that their hoariest law books specified was punishable by death. Exactly why a mere trespasser would be dragged to the other end of the landscape and brought before an all-powerful ruler who would presumably have better uses for his authority was unclear and had long been a matter of frenzied debate, but the general belief was that this Earthman was so visibly alien that he would just have to be brought to the Tyrant as a nice distracting oddity, at the very least; but still the importance of this part of the story was clearly to give the monster a chance to sneer and fulminate and establish himself as evil, thus rendering the conflict personal.

The Princess was literally bred for the part, her precise looks and measurements an ideal to which many generations before her aspired. She had to be the most beautiful woman the Earthman had ever seen, and so various miracles of nutrition and animal husbandry had been planned and pulled off, finally producing a creature of unbearable pulchritude who would initially look upon the Earthman as an interesting animal but would at a key moment profess her love. The proper disposition for this character beat took many, many years to perfect, the biggest problem being the necessity to go only so far without rendering her a total idiot. One of the things they did to avoid that unwanted result was to also arrange a natural gift at fencing that she could unveil at a key moment, rescuing the Earthman and establishing her bonafides as not just another pretty face. This was also a lot of work, and it must be said that she did her own share of grumbling, practicing ten hours a day when other girls her age were out enjoying all the pleasures available to those without prime supporting roles. Her main consolation was that the Earthman was coming, that she was primed for him to be her perfect mate, and that by the time they would find themselves on the run from the Tyrant’s men and in a ruined temple with a view of the moon and improbably soft stone floors, she would be more in the mood for love than any sword-wielding spoiled princess ever. She would be prepared.

The morality of this on the part of prior generations and in particular her own parents was of course debatable. Honestly, if you want to take the position that she’d been bred like a prize poodle and that this was a direct insult to all women everywhere, you are not wrong. But, again, it was something her entire race had been planning since their stone age, and she was the culmination, as the Tyrant himself was a culmination, in that he had a voice, a face, and a way of carrying himself that would just naturally make the Earthman want to punch him real hard. One key story thread awaiting the reaction of the Earthman, that this piece of garbage was also pressuring the Princess to marry him, was just gravy. Honestly, that was absolutely designed to drive the Earthman into a frenzy.

The hill tribes were prepared. They were just outside the city, huddled in the steppes and prepared with their spears and their traditions of ceremonial combat. The largest and most musclebound member of their clan was painted with war paint and prepared to give the Earthman a harsh battle that would end with him falling to ignoble defeat but pledging his eternal fealty to the strange visitor from another world. The old wise woman was prepared. She was placed in a cave and furnished with cauldrons and whatnot, so that when the Earthman was brought to her, she could cackle knowingly and educate him about the prophecy—not the prophecy that had induced the entire planet to go along with this rigamarole, but a much simplified one about his own place in the planet’s future, at the moment when the stars were in the proper alignment and the people, the precious people, were crying out for justice.

This was all like a school play where the cast was literally everyone, where the sets were literally everything, where the rehearsals had gone on since the dawn of time, and where the audience of one was also a participant.

Except that he didn’t show up.

Why did he not show up?

They knew everything they needed to know about this guy. They knew that he was a soldier and an adventurer. They knew that he was a naturally rebellious sort, and a fellow with not much gift for decoding the givens of societies alien to himself. He was, because of this, appallingly racist about some demographics in his own species. Still, he was not without charm or nobility. He would be a great King, as long as he was given the right advisors to influence him toward the decisions that everybody wanted him to make anyway. And the infusion of that genetic material—well, after a few generations it would require some substantial effort to correct for the trend toward diminishing intelligence, but the good features could be encouraged and the bad features painstakingly weeded out, which would be relatively easy compared to the small miracles of breeding that had produced the Princess. Overall, the benefits would be significant. If he showed up.

Which all the prophecies said he would.

Which he did not.

The script had been written. On a night when there were strange lights in the sky (as there were), when the forces of the universe were in disarray (as they always are), when the world was crying out for its deliverance (as it was, everybody with a firm eye on the script), he would be on his own world, in the right spot, confronting a portal to another world. And he would step through the portal and be transported thousands of light years to Elarimuth, where his name already lived in legend and where he could actually do the things that he was always supposed to do, including make babies with a Princess.

If he showed up.


Which he did not.

Because the place where he was supposed to emerge from Elarimuth’s part of the portal was kept under constant surveillance, and he did not come through.

It remained open for five minutes and then closed.

Elarimuth trembled.

It was a terrible disruption of their whole plan for themselves.

Had some decimal been misplaced? Had the legendary hero been displaced by the cosmic winds, and deposited some other place entirely?

They reviewed their work. They found no flaws in their thinking.

They found plenty of flaws in Earthmen.

The being who was always scheduled to find himself opposite that portal, and step through, and have any number of adventures on the glorious and magical world of Elarimuth, whose existence had seemed inevitable, had fallen prey to factors their people had somehow missed, including his race’s incredibly idiotic stewardship of their own planet. Totally bound up in the planning of the last few generations, when every aspect of the grand pageant had to be calculated down to the one hundredth decimal point, nobody had focused their powers of prophecy at the well-being of the race scheduled to spawn him. Unfortunately, things sucked there now. They would continue to suck and they would suck until the planet tumbled the rest of the way to oblivion. And until then, he was nowhere to be found.

And this was a kick in the head.

Three things happened because of this.

First, everybody who had possessed a significant part in the adventures he would have had shrugged and worked on their back-up plans. The people of the Hill Tribes, who had mostly enjoyed being the people of the Hill Tribes, continued being the people of the Hill Tribes. The old woman in the cave moved back to the city, secured more luxurious quarters, and began work on her memoirs.

Second, the Tyrant decided that he might as well remain in office. Honestly, it wasn’t like he actually made any decisions, in this world where policy was determined by consensus vote anyway. He did like the lifestyle, and for the years to come he just went on ranting and giving villainous proclamations, none of which altered anybody’s behavior in any way. He was secretly happy that he did not need to fall from the parapet, as he had always been aware that the landing would hurt.

Third, the Princess emerged after one day of mourning, wandered around the palace until she found a spear-carrier who she’d always regarded with sad contemplation, and yanked him into a certain darkened alcove.

Beyond that, nothing changed. Some people thought they saw another possible future, long obscured by this one, taking shape on the horizon, but it was even farther away from their current point in history than the arrival of the Earthman had been, when everyone first saw it coming. They didn’t really have to worry about it.

And right now, they were going to take some time off before considering any further projects.

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Adam-Troy Castro

Adam-Troy Castro. A sixty-year old bearded white male showing extreme love for a cat of siamese ancestry.

Adam-Troy Castro made his first non-fiction sale to Spy magazine in 1987. His books to date include four Spider-Man novels, three novels about his profoundly damaged far-future murder investigator Andrea Cort, and six middle-grade novels about the dimension-spanning adventures of young Gustav Gloom. Adam’s works have won the Philip K. Dick Award and the Seiun (Japan), and have been nominated for eight Nebulas, three Stokers, two Hugos, one World Fantasy Award, and, internationally, the Ignotus (Spain), the Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire (France), and the Kurd-Laßwitz Preis (Germany). The audio collection My Wife Hates Time Travel And Other Stories (Skyboat Media) features thirteen hours of his fiction, including the new stories “The Hour In Between” and “Big Stupe and the Buried Big Glowing Booger.” In 2022 he came out with two collections, his The Author’s Wife Vs. The Giant Robot and his thirtieth book, A Touch of Strange. Adam will be an Author Guest of Honor at 2023’s World Fantasy Convention. Adam lives in Florida with a pair of chaotic paladin cats.