Sunday, October 4, 2009

1. Hydrogen


The Hindenburg

Time agents like to rendezvous at famous disasters. It goes with the personality. They don't trust you to remember the date otherwise.

Which was why I met Ivan at Lakehurst Naval Air Base, on the day the Hindenburg was due to burst into flame.

We were in the CO's office—don't think that wasn't hard to arrange—when he gave his report. "Herr Eidenbenz wouldn't listen to reason. So I left my briefcase under his couch and made an anonymous call to the Gestapo. He died under interrogation three days later." Ivan grinned incandescently. "No atom bomb for Uncle Adolph."

"Good work." I'm Jewish myself, and if it were up to me, Hitler would be strangled at birth. But we'd tried that once, and only made matters worse. Now we rely on men like Ivan, one-in-a-billion talents who are able to remember multiple pasts, and so guide events toward the desired future. "Have a drink."

I poured us each some of the commander's bourbon. Through the window I could see the great zeppelin, so large and placid, moving with slow grace toward the mooring tower. It was a creepy moment for me, knowing how many people were about to die.

We clicked glasses. "Poor Eidenbenz," I said. "Does it bother you, all the pain we inflict on innocents like him?"

"Are you nuts? I make history turn cartwheels. It's like being a god!" He gestured toward the zeppelin. "You people are no more distinct to me than so many hydrogen atoms. You rush about and bump furiously into each other, and what difference do any of you make to where the airship goes?

"Me, I can do anything I like, and who's to stop me? You can't even tell what I've done. You forget, and think it was always so."

He took out a pocket detonator and punched the button. Outside, there were sudden shouts of alarm. "You even forget I did this."

The flames from the burning Hindenburg cast a Satanic glow over his features.

He smiled. "Oh," he murmured, "the humanity."

© 2002 by Michael Swanwick and SCIFI.COM.

2. Helium


Jane Carter of Mars

Imagine having Dejah Thoris, Princess of Helium, for your great-grandmother! Her likeness, carved in marble, balloon breasts and all, is everywhere in that fabled city. Small wonder Jane Carter became a punk.

She awoke from a drunken sleep one morning to find a green, four-armed ogre with tusks banging his forehead on the floor before her. His tattered harness identified him as a member of the Imperial Guard.

"The Beast Men have invaded the capital!" he wailed. "You must free our people, oh princess."

"Why me?" she asked blearily. "Why not somebody who gives a damn?"

But blood will tell. The next thing she knew, the faithful remnants of the old regime had her decked out in her great-grandmother's thong and breastplates, and she was fighting on the parapets, sword in one hand and ray gun in the other.

Because she was so hung over, she had not a thought for personal safety. "Wassamatter, you never saw facial piercings before?" she said to an astonished warrior as she blew him away. "It's called a Mohawk!" she screamed at another, and ran him through.

The citizens, not close enough to smell her breath, were inspired, and took up arms.

The Beast Men didn't have a chance.

So it was that Jane Carter ended up, against her will, on the Imperial throne, with a scantily clad male crouching to either side of her, pouting and caressing her calves. A thousand servants rushed to do her every bidding. She was respected, revered, adored. Statues were erected in her honor.

The irony of this did not escape her.

© 2002 by Michael Swanwick and SCIFI.COM.

3. Lithium


Lithium for God

God sits weeping in the corner. His seraphim gently try to coax Him (God can't be made do anything He doesn't want to do, so He has to be coaxed) into taking His lithium. He requires five gigatons a day, just to function.

The Big Guy's bipolar disorder is the worst-kept secret in existence. Everyone knows how in a fit of mania he created the Heavens and the Earth in only six days. Everyone knows how, in depressive mode, he fell into such a slough of despond that he let that cretinous little toady, Morningstar, torment Job, who was the most faithful of His servants.

The problem is, God just won't admit He has a problem. He blames it all on Adam, for the apple, or on Eve, for tempting Adam. He blames it on Herod, on Hitler, on the Trilateral Commission, on anything but Himself.

"Open wide," sing the Seraphim, cheered on by all the Heavenly ranks and powers. "Take your nice medicine."

God buries His face in His hands. "Such children I have," he weeps. "Oy gevalt, what did I do to deserve such a family?"

"Why don't you try a little smiting?" the seraphim urge. "Wouldn't that be nice? Bangkok! It's the sexually transmitted disease capital of the world. It would be a great way of getting the Word out.

God doesn’t listen.

It’s enough to drive an archangel to drink, though of course it doesn’t. Nobody’s taking care of business. There are sparrows falling unwatched. The hairs upon certain heads are being numbered only by statistical approximation. “Darn it to heck,” the Archangel Gabriel curses, “this situation is less than absolutely total bliss and perfection.” All of Heaven turns pale at his language.

But now, at last, the lithium kicks in. God straightens up. He flashes that billion-dollar smile of His. “It’s time we rolled up our sleeves and got to work!” He cries. And doing exactly that, he plunks the Earth down on a table in front of him and begins to make adjustments. “Things have gotten a little slack down there. Let’s wake ‘em up with a wave of fundamentalism, some nuclear terror, and a few wars. We can sink a continent and then raise Atlantis. Pillars of flame! Prophets! Souls for AIs! A robot Adam and Eve! Fast-track evolution for chimpanzees!Atheist invaders from outer space – let’s test their faith! A virtual Pope! The dolphins shall inherit the seas!”

God is starting to babble. The heavenly hosts sigh. No matter what they do, they just can’t seem to get the dosage right.

© 2002 by Michael Swanwick and SCIFI.COM.

4. Beryllium


A Beryl as Big as the Ritz

On the Gem Planet, the rarest and most valued of all substances is dirt. Just the scrapings from beneath a hobo's nails would bring enough to support him for a year.

Across the desert plains of sheer diamond wealthy tourists come. They wear slitted goggles to protect themselves from the blinding reflections of the sun. There is a red glint ahead. That is their goal.

Hexagonal in cross-section, it is the largest outcrop of pure beryl on the planet. Artisans have carved rooms into it, with fluted columns and elaborate fireplaces, and there are banquet halls and ballrooms as well. At the break of day, when the sun shines through the Ruby Mountains and dawn lases across the plains, the guests are escorted to basement safe-rooms carved from darkest emerald. Even there, the walls glimmer elegantly.

But it is not beauty that brings visitors to the Ritz-Beryllium. Beauty, for them, is so common as to be invisible.

They come for the squalor.

At the Ritz-Beryllium, maids place dust-bunnies under the beds each morning. There is always a film of grime on the bureaus and the smudgy patina of fingerprints on the mirrors. The bathtubs all have rings.

It costs a fortune to stay there but, oh, it's worth it! Nowhere else on the Gem Planet can you experience uncleanliness in such joyous profusion. Many people spend a lifetime saving, in order to exult for a weekend in the kind of slovenliness that only the Ritz-Beryllium can provide. Not a one has ever been known to regret the expenditure.

On the Gem Planet, if you call somebody a filthy name, they smile and thank you.

© 2002 by Michael Swanwick and SCIFI.COM.

5. Boron


Francis, Child of Scorn

Francis the Talking Mule awoke from a long and dreamless night to find himself part of a twenty-mule team, hauling ore from the borax mines in Death Valley.

It was a waking nightmare.

"This can't be happening to me!" he cried. "I'm an artiste! Okay, so I'm a comedian. Maybe I work in the movies rather than the legitimate theater. Still, art is art. I've dedicated my life to the elevation of the spirit. What am I doing here?"

The other mules looked at him as if he were mad. One of them snickered. Another brayed. It was obvious to Francis that he was the only talking mule there.

The mule skinner strode up. He was a tall cowboy with a long, somewhat lopsided face. He looked strangely familiar. "All right, Mr. Mule," he said. "What's all this fuss about?"

"You've got to call my agent! There's been a terrible mistake!"

"No mistake, Mr. Mule." The cowboy shook his head, making his jowls quiver. There was a twinkle in his eye. "I'm afraid you died, and were reincarnated."

"But why as a mule, of all things? I can sing! I can dance! I've brightened the lives of millions!"

"You were given an extraordinary opportunity and, let's be honest, you wasted it. It happens all the time. People get what they deserve. I myself used to be the president of the United States, and now I'm back where I belong. You don't see me complaining, do you? And if you did, what good would it do me?"

"My God," Francis breathed. "You're really Ronald—"

"Shhh." The cowboy put a finger to his lips. "Let's not tempt me with false pride. Now pull yourself together. It's time we got to work."

"Isn't there any way out of this?"

"Work hard, do your honest best, and when you die, you'll be reborn as a better mule. Then do it again, in your next life. If you keep at it long enough, well," the cowboy spread his hands, "there's no telling where you might end up."

It was good advice, if hard to hear. Francis knuckled down. The route from the Harmony Borax Works to Mojave covered 165 miles, one fifty-mile stretch of which was waterless. The roads were primitive, and in the summer the heat soared as high as 130°. But he bore up under it. He was, underneath all the glitter and the gab, a good soul.

Sometimes, he and the cowboy spent the evening together, talking about the old days in Hollywood.

Other times, though, a sense of the monstrous injustice of life would swell up in him, and he'd cry out, "Why must I be stuck in this ludicrous body? Why couldn't I have been reborn as Olivier or Gielgud?"

The cowboy always took it in stride. "There you go again, Mr. Mule," he'd say, with a little smile. "There you go again."

© 2002 by Michael Swanwick and SCIFI.COM.

6. Carbon


They're Made of Carbon

"They're made of carbon."


"Linked to hydrogen and oxygen atoms, mostly."


"Look, Seraph, it's not our job to pass judgment. Our job is to seek out all intelligent races and welcome them into the Galactic Ekumen, thus bringing them the benefits of peace, prosperity, immortality, blah blah blah. I can read your thoughts and, quite frankly, they're not worthy of you."

"Yes, but … physical matter! If it were merely one of the lower spiritual levels, I'd understand, but they're completely embedded in mundane reality. It's just too much to ask."

"What do you suggest we do?"

"Let's give them a miss. There's a lovely little group mind in …"

"Not a chance."

"Look at this place! There must be millions of souls here! Billions! How can they live so close together? They're hardly worth the trouble."

"Ours not to question why, Seraph. Ours but to do or fall into spiritual error."

"But … very well, sir."

"Good. Now, establish contact with them. I'm anxious to get this over and done with."

"I've been trying, sir. Since we first arrived here. I foresaw my lapse into near-disobedience, and began the communications process as an act of contrition."

"Good lad. What do they say?"

"Nothing, sir. I don't think they can hear me."

"What?! How long have you been trying?"

"Since we arrived here. Three thousand years."

"And they haven't responded?"

"They're made out of carbon. They don't appear to pick up ethereal vibrations very well."

"What have you been broadcasting?"

"The Eschatologica Universalis. It's very popular among emergent spiritual civilizations. Then I tried the Milky Way Sutra. No response."

"Too elevated. Try something less highbrow."

"I've also been broadcasting a few self-evident ethical systems, 'Life is Sacred,' 'The Ecstacy of Existence,' baby stuff like that. They don't seem able to pick up on them either."

"Simplify, simplify! Reduce the Message to its least common denominator, and push it with everything you've got. Once we've made contact, we can build on that."

"All right, chief. Hey—you there! Have a nice day! Have a nice day!"

with apologies to Terry Bisson

© 2001 by Michael Swanwick and SCIFI.COM.

7. Nitrogen


Nitrogen: An Introduction

Nitrogen is a colorless, odorless, tasteless gaseous element. It neither burns nor supports combustion. It is relatively inactive, though it does combine with oxygen and some active metals. It is a constituent of ammonia, nitric acid, amino acids, and many fertilizers, dyes, and explosives.

Roughly four-fifths of Earth's atmosphere is nitrogen. Its moderating effect on the far more reactive oxygen is what makes life possible on this planet. It is present in all living matter, chiefly in proteins, and may therefore be considered essential to life. Nitrogen fixation is the process of extracting free nitrogen from the air by combining it with other elements, either by chemical means or by bacterial action. Bacterial agents, called nitrogen fixers, are found in the nodules of leguminous plants, such as alfalfa, peas, and soybeans.

There are many commercial means of nitrogen fixation. These include the cyanamid process for producing ammonia, the arc process for nitric acid, and the Haber process, in which ammonia is synthesized through direct combination of nitrogen and hydrogen.

Elves and gnomes, working out of a factory complex in Trenton, New Jersey, employ vast quantities of nitrogen in the daily generation of night.

Whence the name.

© 2002 by Michael Swanwick and SCIFI.COM.