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.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

8. Oxygen


Oxygen Planets

Of all life-bearing worlds, oxygen planets are the rarest and most valuable.

Stars, of course, are as common as dirt, and as filthy with life. Sundwellers as large as Australia and as small as the state of New Jersey infest the surface of even so common a star as our own. A red giant like Aldebaran holds so many living creatures on its surface that it's a wonder any light gets out at all. Most of the leaders and industrialists of the Known Universe come from red giants.

Next after stars come the gas giants. Ammonia atmospheres, for some reason, are particularly conducive to intelligent life. Since ammonia-based life forms are almost universally floaters, lacking even rudimentary manipulating limbs, they lead lives of the mind. Most of the philosophers and theologians of the Known Universe come from gas giants.

Third in line are the vacuum planets. Free of the corrosive effects of an atmosphere, an enormous variety of magnetic, gravitic, and energy-based civilizations have arisen. These are the artisan races—the merchants, mechanics, and artists.

Last of all, and most valued, are the oxygen planets, often called the "Goldilocks worlds" because in order to hold the extensive oceans that make such atmospheres stable, they must be neither too far from their suns nor too near, but can only exist at a "just right" distance.

The oxygen planets are valued for their intelligent species. An oxygen race typically employs tools, shows enormous ingenuity under stress, is fiercely loyal and yet irrepressibly playful, and is capable of being taught almost any skill.

They make great pets.

© 2002 by Michael Swanwick and SCIFI.COM.

9. Fluoride


The Message

The John Birch Society was right. Fluoridation isa plot. Not of Communists, however.

Toothpaste, it turns out, is a virus from outer space.

Impossibly distant, wonderfully evolved aliens detected our existence long eons ago. Benevolent creatures of ethereal purity, they resolved to do what they could to improve our lives. At enormous cost, they devised viral messengers of great subtlety and launched them across the void.

For a million years, the dust floated between stars. Hominids emerged from the African veldt and, as foreseen, built civilizations. Finally, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the viral messengers arrived, floating down unnoticed from the night sky.

Nanomachines unpacked themselves. Insights spontaneously blossomed within human brains. By a series of what seemed logical decisions, fluoride was introduced into the drinking water.

Unfortunately, the aliens had conquered their baser instincts so long ago that they had completely forgotten about war, racism, aggression, and all the myriad woes we humans bring upon ourselves. These they could easily have cured. But they knew nothing of them. So they gave us the greatest gift they could think of.

The purpose of fluoridation is to prevent tooth decay.

© 2002 by Michael Swanwick and SCIFI.COM.

10. Neon


House Rules

I met the Devil in Las Vegas. He lives there full-time now. He says the light is good for his skin. We walked down the Strip at midnight, the neon reflected in his wraparound shades, and as we walked, I saw how his people adored him. Hookers seized his hand and kissed it fervently. Croupiers genuflected as he passed.

"They called Elvis the King," I remarked. "But really, the title belongs to you."

"Oh, pshaw!" the Devil said, pleased. "What a sycophantic little toady you are! You must be hoping to sell me your soul."

"Well …"

"I gave up on that. Got out of the direct sales end of the business entirely. Too much quibbling about clauses and legalisms. I was spending all my time with lawyers! That's no way to live."

"You don't collect souls anymore?"

"I didn't say that. Here, let me show how it's done now."

We went into a casino thronged with people playing the slots. Now and again, bells would ring and a player would scoop up coins and feed them back into the machine, emotionless as a robot.

"The machines are rigged to return a fixed percentage of the take." The Devil gestured toward the roulette wheel. "There are thirty-eight numbers, including the zero and double-zero. If you win, we pay off thirty-six to one. In the long run, the house always wins. It's like a tax on people who don't understand mathematics."

"Sometimes people hit the jackpot, though."

"Yes, and they're always welcome back. We'll send a private jet for them, if that's what it takes. They invariably end up broke and in hock to the IRS within the year."

"This is legal?"

"Oh, yes. Let me show you." He led me to the poker tables. I couldn't help noticing how grim and joyless all the players looked. "Poker is one of those rare games where, if you keep track of what cards have been played and maintain a cool head, the odds favor a skilled player."

He placed his hand on a card-player's shoulder. "Excuse me, sir. You've been counting the cards. I'm afraid you'll have to leave."

The man looked up belligerently. "Yeah, so what? I …"

The Devil's eyes glowed red. "Don't make me call the police."

The man left quickly.

"And that's all there is to it?" I asked, as we left the casino.

"That's all. Our clientele leave in despair—a sin in itself—and in order to get back into the game, they'll commit any atrocity imaginable. The odds always favor the house."

"And then you take their souls to Hell."

"Oh, not any more. We've modernized." The Devil indicated one of the neon signs. "Look inside the tube. See? Those are souls in torment. What a marvelous, jittery light they give off. It makes you subliminally nervous, and that in turn makes you more likely to gamble."

I don't mind admitting that actually looking at the tormented souls made me a little nervous myself. Suddenly, this whole thing didn't seem such a good idea after all. And since the Devil wasn't buying … I figured I might as well cut my losses.

"Well," I said uneasily, "I'll be seeing you."

The Devil showed his teeth in a wide smile. "Oh, I'd bet money on it."

© 2002 by Michael Swanwick and SCIFI.COM.

11. Sodium


Electric Pickles

Try it yourself: in a dim room, impale a kosher dill pickle on two prongs, each of which is attached to one wire from an electric cord. Then (observing all possible safety precautions) plug it in.

Briefly, little happens. You hear a hum. You smell a stench. A wisp of smoke floats upward from the tormented pickle.

And then—what's this? One end of the pickle lights up! It sheds a lovely flickering yellow glow. In the darkened room, the effect is entrancing.

It's a moment of wonder and magic.

Here's the explanation: the atoms of NaCl salt in the pickle's brine exist as free-floating sodium and chlorine ions within the watery interstices of its cells. When electricity is pumped through the system, the sodium ions rush to one pole of your homemade device to seize an electron and make themselves complete. The ion rises one quantum level up and is made temporarily complete.

Like a not-fully-competent juggler, however, the sodium ion can seize the extra electron but cannot hold it. The ion falls from the higher energy quantum to the lower, releasing a packet of light in the process. Thus the lovely yellow glow.

Shakespeare was an electric pickle, and so was Virginia Woolf when she wrote A Room of One's Own. They were hooked into the psychic electricity of their times. They took in more energy than one person can hold. They went up a quantum. They fell back down. They shed light.

Try it yourself: plug into the Zeitgeist. Feel the power. Now create a work of art. Shed the light.

See how easy it is? I told you so.

The pickle, unfortunately, is not much good for anything after this exercise. Throw it out.

© 2002 by Michael Swanwick and SCIFI.COM.

12. Magnesium


Under's Game

The spaceships burned brightly in the vacuum between stars. They were a hundred miles long at a minimum. The tiny ships of the Space Force darted in and out among the flaming wrecks, dodging the Invader fleet's death rays when they could and dying when they couldn't. Courage was on the side of the Space Force. Numbers were on the side of the Invaders.

"It doesn't make any sense," Under said petulantly. "How can they burn in outer space? There's no air there. It's stupid."

"The hulls are made of pure magnesium. The Invaders breathe oxygen. One direct hit, and the two combine. What's so hard to believe about that?" his instructor asked the young military genius. "Let's test your skill. Take the controls. Show me how good you are."

Under picked up the pad, shifted forces along seven vectors at once, launched plasma torpedoes, and suddenly a full quarter of the Invader fleet was in flames. Then he threw the controller aside. "It's a dumb game. Aren't there any Cheez Doodles left?" He dug a hand under the sofa cushions, searching.

"Please," the instructor begged, tears in his eyes. He was a general, and the one who had convinced the Government of Earth to put all its defenses under the control of one prepubescent boy. The Invaders were better strategists than any adult human, and better tacticians as well. It only made sense to hand over all the Space Force to one boy and then (so he wouldn't freeze up under the responsibility) keep the reality of the situation from him. "You can have ice cream if you win. With sprinkles!"

Under's eyes gleamed. He snatched up the game pad, and launched a series of commands. The Space Force twisted, turned … and fled into hyperspace.

The Invader fleet followed.

"We're doomed!" the general wailed. All the vector lines on the display converged upon one small blue-and-white planet. "You're leading the Invaders straight toward Earth."

"That's what they think too." Under bit his lip and twisted on the couch. His thumbs were a blur. "But watch this. Our ships burn every ounce of fuel they've got and—there's no way the enemy can predict this—their vectors take them right through the Sun's corona . Their hulls are plasteel—they can take the heat. That gives them a slingshot gravity assist of ten gees. Just within performance tolerance of the crews."

"But now they can't maneuver!"

"They don't have to. Watch. The last of our ships is leaving the sun's chromosphere, and the first of theirs is entering."

There was a glint of light as the first Invader ship vaporized.

"See? Magnesium hulls, just like you said. Up in flames, and bye-bye Invaders!" He tossed the controls to the general. "Here, catch!"

The general stood mesmerized as the Invader menace evanesced, one instant a threat to human existence and the next instant only a memory.

"This is a great moment for humanity," he said, tears in his eyes. His thumb moved, inputting orders for the Space Force. Then he frowned. "They're not responding. They're still headed for Earth!"

"Yeah, pretty neat, huh? I figured they're out of fuel, anyway, so they might as well go out with a bang. So I aimed them straight at Home Base."

"But this is terrible! At those speeds, they'll hit us with all the force of so many nuclear bombs!"

"Hell," Under said. "It's only a game."

© 2002 by Michael Swanwick and SCIFI.COM.

13. Aluminum


Aluminum Foil

The only way to protect yourself from mind-control beams is to wrap your head in aluminum foil. Amateurs usually do a half-assed job of this. They cover the tops of their heads, leaving their eyes uncovered, or their nostrils. Don't make this mistake! Devise a periscope for your eyes, or a small television screen cabled to a camera duct-taped to your shoulder. Run rubber hoses up your nostrils so you can breathe. After a day or so, you stop noticing the smell. Swathe your head completely in three to five layers of foil.

There are many benefits to freeing yourself from mind-control beams. Loved ones speak to you more directly. Religious missionaries stop approaching you in airports. Most importantly, the world begins at last to make sense.

Even if you're under the influence of mind-control beams, it's possible to set yourself free. The first step is to admit that there's something wrong with reality. Not you—reality! Begin by paying attention to what you're doing. Ask yourself if it makes sense. That haircut you got the other day … What were you thinking? Those clothes in your closet that you've never gotten around to wearing … Would a sane person have spent money on plaid trousers? You don't even like plaid.

Stop! Right now! What are you doing? Reading an online story about mind-control beams and plaid trousers? Does that make any sense to you at all?

I didn't think so.

The roll of Alcoa is in the kitchen, in the drawer by the sink. Go get it. Now. Cover your head entirely, using all of the roll just to be safe. Be sure it's loose enough so you can breathe. Leave a tiny slit to see through, about as wide as a line of type on your computer monitor.

Lean your head forward, close to the CRT, so you can read these words, a line at a time. Are you ready? Good.

Now let's talk about the dangers of exposure to computer monitors.

© 2002 by Michael Swanwick and SCIFI.COM.

14. Silicon


Programmable Breasts

The new Wonderbreasts have just been released and there's no escaping the ads: on billboards, bulging out of evening gowns and glowing bright as neon. Over the radio, playing seductive music from subcutaneous woofers and tweeters. The TV commercials demonstrating their prehensile abilities are eye-popping.

Reality moved beyond satire decades ago.

Women no longer look even remotely human. They have no noses to speak of. Their lips are enormous. Their eyes, modeled after those of the latest anime sex-heroines, originally belonged to cows.

By today's standards, I am a pervert.

I have what is now classified as a retro-fetish. I desire only natural women, with soft breasts, the hips God gave them, and gently curving stomachs incapable of flashing real-time downloads of the Dow Jones Industrial Average.

At night, I prowl the bars in seedy parts of town, looking for women so poor and marginalized they've never mutilated themselves. I take them home and touch their perfect bodies, and on a good night I convince them, briefly, that they are beautiful.

But then the grey light of morning comes, returning to them their ugliness and self-loathing. They slink away, miserable and ashamed. Nothing I can say will change their minds.

These are the women who turn me on. These are the women I love. Someday, I'll find one who'll stay.

© 2002 by Michael Swanwick and SCIFI.COM.

15. Phosphorus


Blockade Runners

At night the water in the Ocean of Dreams is phosphorescent. Our galleon trails long swirls of blue and white and green in its wake. The creatures that dwell below are phosphorescent as well, in places and patches, according to their nature. Sometimes a great serpent will glide by beneath us, its spots all in a line as regular as the windows of a passing train. But larger, much larger! So large it can take an hour to pass us.

None of the crew are native to this life. I was a stockbroker in the waking lands. I never expected to become a privateer. I never expected to rise through the ranks to become captain. And I certainly never expected I'd someday operate under a letter of marque from Lucifer himself.

But these things happen.

We were positioned offshore of Arcadian Greece when we spotted three fat merchanters trying to ride the winds past our blockade. In quick order we engaged with them, and sent two ships to the bottom of the sea. The third we grappled with and boarded. After a brief but furious hand-to-hand, we were victorious. We took its treasure to add to our own, and scuttled the ship, sending it to join its sisters below.

That night (it is always night on the Ocean of Dreams), Will, the cabin boy, came to see me. "There's a noise in the for'ard storage, sir."

"Is there, now?" I seized my pistol. "Lead the way."

So we caught Midshipman Homer in the treasure locker. He'd broken open a chest of Stories and was greedily filling his pockets. The phosphorescence from within lit up his gloating face. How his expression changed when I cocked the pistol and laid it to his head!

All the crew turned out for the discipline. I stripped Homer of his rank. Then I blinded him with my own two thumbs. "You wanted Story?" I thrust a handful of the stuff into his mouth. "Eat it!"

Then I had him flung overboard.

Several nights later, young Will approached me and said, "It seems a harsh punishment on Midship—I mean, on Mister Homer."

"He was within swimming distance of Greece—just. If he guessed the right direction, he might have made it ashore. He could find work as a storyteller, then. The pay's not good, but it'll keep him alive."

"Why do we live like this? What makes Stories so important?"

I sighed. "I don't know, lad. It's possible that they make people stronger or wiser or better, somehow. The Devil doesn't want them to get through, and that's good enough for the likes of us."

Which was the end of that. But I had my eye on young Will now. He seemed a likely lad. So the next time we made port (in a dingy wooden London, in Renaissance England), I gave him a pistol and cutlass, and set him to guard the treasure room while I went ashore for provisions.

"Keep a sharp eye out," I told the boy, "and don't get any smart ideas."

The phosphorescent glow of our hoarded Stories bathed the lad in uncertain light. He stood to attention and said, "I won't, sir."

"See that you don't, Master Shakespeare," I said. "See that you don't."

© 2002 by Michael Swanwick and SCIFI.COM.

16. Sulfur



Oil of vitriol is nothing but concentrated sulfuric acid. But, applied lightly, it can blister the skin, and, when heated, it will eat its way through steel. Loaded into a pen, it can be used to write reviews.

The terrorist organization known as the International Brotherhood of Critics grades its vitriol from one to ten. Grade one vitriol is known informally as "break-down-in-tears." Grade two is called "punch-the-wall-and-kick-the-cat." And so on. Grade ten vitriol—he best there is—is sometimes called "career-killer" and other times "cause-for-suicide." So much depends on the skill with which it is deployed!

Vitriol is distilled by the critics themselves from the embittered blood of writers. A quick kill, therefore, produces a weak vitriol. It is for this reason that a skilled critic will leaven his criticism with small praise in order to keep his victims alive and suffering for as many years as he can. It is for this reason that the critics refer to their distillation as the Great Art.

The vitriol of London is very, very strong. Connoisseurs delight in the vitriol of Paris. But for good old-fashioned ridding the world of talent, there's just no beating the vitriol of New York.

© 2002 by Michael Swanwick and SCIFI.COM.

17. Chlorine


Seven Days of Creation

On Monday, we filled the swimming pool with sterile water and added the self-replicating long-chain polymers. It was a shoestring operation from the first. The lab used to be a public swimming pool, before we bought it, cleaned it, and rigged it with our makeshift instrumentation. We added some sugar to the mix, and let things simmer.

Tuesday, the pool was filled to capacity with nanotechnic life forms. We set about teaching them first how to compute, and then how to reason. Since they reproduced at the rate of thousands of generations per hour, evolutionary pressures quickly boosted their intelligence.

Wednesday, the nanotech organisms achieved full consciousness. We broke out the champagne. Perhaps a few of us had too much. Dr. Wilkinson was discovered in a supply closet with a young lab tech. Who could blame her, though? We were all feeling exultant.

Thursday, the pool-life demanded Internet access. By the time we discovered they were dealing with our corporate rivals and buying stock on margin, they were heavily invested in new technology, and owned several valuable patents. Dr. Wilkinson had a stern talk with them about the necessity of going through proper channels.

Friday, we discovered that the lab had been bought by a consortium that turned out to be a blind for our pool life. It felt a little strange to be working for our own experiment, but Dr. Wilkinson called us all together and reminded us that we live in a capitalist system, and that it's useless to complain about its rules. The pool life were so pleased with her speech that they gave her a cash bonus.

Saturday, decadence set in. A memo from our superiors directed us to devote all efforts toward the development of water-soluble drugs. A second memo declared that henceforth all lab personnel were to dress appropriately for Victorian Lingerie Tuesdays. A third memo stated that Dr. Wilkinson was required to change her name to Fifi. Morale plummeted.

On Sunday, the pool life declared its intent to take over the world and enslave all of humanity. Dr. Wilkinson poured fifteen gallons of Clorox into the pool, killing everything within. We gathered, aghast, at the pool's edge, and stared down at its browning contents. Somebody began to cry.

"Don't feel sorry for them," Dr. Wilkinson said angrily. "They were just scum."

© 2002 by Michael Swanwick and SCIFI.COM.

18. Argon


The Eye of Argon

Argon the Archer was not the strongest of warriors, nor the most skilled. But he had a preternatural eye for weakness. When hunting aurochs, he put his shaft into the sweet spot between the bull's neck and shoulder. When fishing for trout, he shot them cleanly through the gills. If you put an uncut diamond before him, he would study it, eyes narrowed, for an hour or three, and then, with a single sure and decisive movement, stretch out a hand to tap it with one nail and … bingo. Facets.

But his was a minor skill, little valued in the Stilted City, where one citizen might have the power to turn silver into gold, and another the ability to call deer from the forest and birds out of the sky. He was respected as a man, but never highly valued.

Until, that is, the day that the dragon Smaraugh attacked.

At the darkest moment of the battle, when the wooden battlements were ablaze, and the bucket brigades beginning to falter, Argon stood high on a rooftop, arrow notched, and squinted through the smoke. Smaraugh came soaring toward the city, low over the lake, reeking of wrath and supernatural vengeance. His true target was Gloradrial the elf-queen, whom the Lake-Men in their pride had granted asylum from the fiendish Lords of Darkness. But the destruction of the fabled Stilted City was a gladness in his evil heart.

Onward came the dragon, a flying mountain of destruction. Golden dragon-fire dripped from his jaws.

Argon lifted his bow, pulled the string back to his ear.

He loosed his shaft.

Straight and true that arrow flew! Its fletches burst into flame as they passed through the dragon's fire. Its shaft was crisped and blackened when it hit the dragon in a narrow gap between its mighty scales. It sank deep within the great worm's flesh.

And as the dragon's dying body fell, twisting and spasming, into the center of the lake, a hand clapped Argon on the shoulder.

"Well shot, bold archer!" cried a gladsome lady's voice. It was the elf-queen Gloradrial herself.

Argon, who had been staring, stunned, at the mighty dying creature, spun around. In his hand was his next arrow. Reflexively, he saw where she was weakest. Reflexively, he jabbed upward, toward the holy lady's heart. All in a wonderment, he saw how her eyes widened. Her life's blood spattered him as she fell.

"Oops," he said.

© 2002 by Michael Swanwick and SCIFI.COM.

19. Potassium



Electrolytes are the message-bearing ions within your body capable of moving across cell membranes. Without them, you couldn't function. But if you want to avoid heart disease—if you want to live forever—you must first adjust your electrolyte balances by dropping sodium ions and replacing them with potassium.

To do this, you must eat bananas. A lot of bananas. Every meal, every day, for the rest of your life.

Bananas are rich in potassium. That's why monkeys eat them. Potassium is good for all anthropoids, most definitely including humans. It promotes longevity.

Potassium is, in fact, the keystone of your immortality upgrade. It is only fair to warn you, however, that since achieving immortality is such a complex process, there will inevitably be a few minor side effects, for which you should be prepared.

The first of these is hair gain. Many patients express dismay when a thick luxurious pelt grows everywhere on their bodies except their palms and soles. Women in particular are upset at discovering they have hairy breasts. However, since those breasts can be expected to shrink to almost nothing, this is in the long run a non-issue.

The sudden acquisition of a tail is more problematic. Particularly when young males are about, the opportunities for low humor seem almost limitless. There is no denying, however, that the new appendage can prove extremely useful, especially when brachiating. And since brachiation will be made all but mandatory by your new, stooped posture and lengthened forelimbs, this may be viewed as something of a hidden blessing.

Finally, there is the question of intelligence. Many candidates for immortality seem inordinately attached to their intellect, and grow quite irate when they realize exactly how much of it they must gave up. Readers in particular are prone to violence at this point.

However, this anger never lasts. Immortals quickly adjust to their new mental status, and even come to value and esteem it over their old. At least, that's what observers believe. Being incapable of speech, the immortals themselves of course cannot tell what they are thinking. But they seem happy enough.

All this will prove an insurmountable obstacle to some. Others, however, the more visionary and far-thinking, will realize that immortality is worth any price. The future is theirs. It can be yours, too, at a perfectly reasonable cost. Sign up today!

Come on, you apes! Do you want to live forever?

© 2002 by Michael Swanwick and SCIFI.COM.

20. Calcium


Angels of the Apocalypse

I was forging bones for a certain Eastern European dictator when the Angels of the Apocalypse found me. Vlad, as I'll call him (that wasn't his name), had a serious need for bones. Working from old dental and medical records, I sculpted skulls and partial skeletons from liquid calcium, to create atrocity sites that would discredit his political opposition. Discredit them so thoroughly that no one would object when he had them exterminated.

The Angels of the Apocalypse, however, had loftier goals. One of them—an obese man, running to sweat—explained it to me.

"We need proof," he said. "Proof that the good Lord in His infinite wisdom has not seen fit to lead us to."

"You need lies."

"In the service of Truth! We're not asking you to create anything contrary to what we know to be true."

Three million dollars later, I was in Los Angeles, putting the finishing touches on a tyrannosaur skeleton with stone spear points in his vertebrae and a hominid skeleton impaled on his teeth. Out on Como Bluff, a team of creationist geologists were prepping the site where they would "find" it.

"Doesn't it bother you, employing lies and deceit like this?" I asked, when the sweaty guy came to take delivery. "I doubt the founder of your religion would approve."

"We have no choice! Darwinism must be disproved. Soon! The End Times are upon us. We have only a few years before all life ends in total and universal nuclear warfare."

I smiled. "That's a little extreme, don't you think? The Soviet Union is dead. Who's supposed to start this nuclear war of yours? Pakistan? Korea?"

The fat man smiled back at me with the smug assuredness of the righteous. "Oh, don't worry about that. We have agents at Los Alamos working on it at this very minute."

© 2002 by Michael Swanwick and SCIFI.COM.

21. Scandium


Bingham's Folly

In the early twenty-first century, scandium had almost no commercial uses, and yet because of its extreme scarcity, cost several thousand dollars a pound. In 2098 the Keely Harmonic Engine was invented and prices hit the roof. Hit the roof, smashed a hole in it, and kept going! A hundred thousand back-yard inventors fixed Keely engines to their makeshift craft and blasted into the sky to seek their fortunes in the asteroid belt.

Kate Summergarden took a more measured approach. She bought a second-hand spacecraft (one of those few that made it back) and a flock of cheap-as-dirt claims, and founded Summergarden Specialty Ores. Oftentimes those busted mines contained significant traces of platinum, manganese, gold … Kate was a contrarian. She went looking for everything butscandium.

Which was how she found herself standing almost weightless in a mineshaft in Bingham's Folly, a nothing-at-all asteroid she'd just bought for five thousand dollars and the promise of a ride home for Bingham himself. "I thought I'd hit it big," Bingham said sadly. "But the spectrophotometer said this seam was nothing but lead."

"Lead? This doesn't look like lead to me." Kate ran her own spectrophotometer over its surface. "Your device must be faulty. This is pure scandium."


"A ton of it. Enough to run all of North America for three months." Kate smiled. "Not quite enough to bring the market price down significantly, though."

Bingham drew a gun. It was a crude device. It looked to be his great-grandfather's Saturday night special. It was enough. "I'm gonna have to kill you now."

"Don't!" Kate cried. "There's enough here to make us both rich! I'll tear up the old contract."

"No," Bingham said slowly, "I think I'll keep it all for myself."

He fired.

Many people think it's impossible to fire a handgun in a vacuum. Not so. The oxidant is sealed within the shell of the bullet. An atmosphere is totally unnecessary.

Most people think it's fairly easy to shoot someone standing twenty feet away. For a skilled marksman, no problem. For somebody with little or no training, dressed in a vacuum suit, operating under stress in a low-gravity environment? Not gonna happen.

The bullet missed.

The laws of physics, however, are implacable. For every action, there's an equal but opposite reaction. Firing a handgun was like lighting a small booster rocket.

Bingham shot backwards out the mineshaft, and into eternal night.

Kate Summergarden stared after him. Bingham's Folly was small. He'd achieved escape velocity several times over. Bingham's suit held about an hour's worth of air, and they'd been on the surface for forty minutes. She could reach her ship in five minutes, but at the speed he was going, it would take at least half an hour to find him, match speeds with him, and bring him in.

"Well, damn," Kate said. "I guess it's all mine."

© 2002 by Michael Swanwick and SCIFI.COM.

22. Titanium


Killer Robots

"Damnit, Sean, comic book writers don't employ the Stanislavski method."

"I do," I said, and threw the mech into gear. The roof exploded as it straightened to full height. The walls collapsed as I strode forward.

Outside, people ran from their houses screaming. They looked like ants. It was great. I was getting a lot of insight into my character's motivation.

But when I said this to Joshua, he began waving his arms around. "Titanium doesn't have any motivation—he's just a giant killer robot! He's programmed to destroy!"

"Glad you reminded me," I said. I hit the "stomp" macro, and watched the mech do its thing. The good part was that it could flatten a house in six stomps. The bad part was that when it did, it looked like a third-grader having a hissy-fit. I was going to have to fix that in the rewrite.

"Look, maybe you should power this thing down," Joshua said. "The police are here."

"Bangin'." I began picking up cop cars and flinging them into the night. It was trickier than it sounded. I had to stoop down and keep the mech's back straight or else it would topple over. But when the cars hit, they burst into flames. It was way cool. "I've got a good feeling about this project. Titanium is gonna win awards!"

"I don't know why I even bother talking to you," Joshua said in a resigned tone.

"Because I've got the mad skills, that's why. Hey! Wanna see this baby take out a skyscraper?"

"Not really, no." Joshua was silent for a few minutes while I strode the mech across the Walt Whitman Bridge, toward Philadelphia. (Lots of good material there.) Then, abruptly, he said, "What's the name of that writer who used to work with you on Bot Killer?"

"Ben Davis. Talented guy, but a little lazy. He wasn't willing to do the kind of research it takes to write a first-rate comic." I toppled a water tower. "Why?"

Joshua pointed fearfully up into the sky. A monstrous flying transformer-type robot was roaring toward us. It loosed air-to-ground missiles. "Because I think he's just gotten a frazz more ambitious."

The bridge exploded at our feet, and the mech plunged deep into the Delaware. I seized the controls, and brought my offensive weaponry online.

This was going to be great!

© 2002 by Michael Swanwick and SCIFI.COM.

23. Vanadium



Vanadium is an extremely dull element. It is God's own couch potato. It doesn't do much, and it rarely goes out. Vanadium never shows up at your door in fabulous drag with a rental tuxedo in your size and invites you to go out dancing with it in exclusive nightclubs into the wee hours of the morning. Vanadium never snaps a tendon while climbing the Matterhorn and falls twenty feet into the empty air, only to be saved by a well-pounded piton and the skill of its companions. Vanadium never wins the Nobel Prize for its work on behalf of refugee children and standing before the King of Sweden breaks down in tears at the thought of how many lives the prize money will save.

Vanadium is a nonferrous metal. Big whoop.

It's not as if all nonferrous metals are underachievers. Look at platinum! Look at silver! Gold is, for Pete's sake, a noble element! These are polished, achiever metals. They're welcome everywhere. They can any one of them be seen dining with Sharon Stone in St. Croix, while Jack Nicholson leans over the crisp white tablecloth with that signature leer of his to make a sly joke. British cabinet members confer with them in darkened Jacobean rooms redolent of single malt whisky, Cuban cigars, and treason. They keep company with smugglers, with sheiks, with beautiful women, with women who are almost beautiful but distinctly intriguing, with women who were once beautiful and now have deliciously scandalous pasts.

Not vanadium. Vanadium is the twenty-second most abundant element in the Earth's crust, neither rare enough to be interesting nor common enough to be ubiquitous. It was first commercially mined in Peru, which is promising, and is used in producing rust-resistant steel for high-speed tools, which is not. Vanadium foil is employed as a bonding agent for cladding titanium to steel, and that pretty much says it all.

It does not burst into flames upon contact with the air.

Nor does it act to block gravity waves—a sphere covered in retractable panels of vanadium will not shoot off into space, making interplanetary travel swift and economical, even for Victorians. Nor does exposure to it cause Superman to suffer unpredictable never-to-be-repeated side effects, such as morbid obesity, or a compulsion to dress in women's clothing, or turning into a vampire plant. It will give nobody the heightened senses and disproportionate strength of a spider.

There is so little to be said in vanadium's favor! It is a soft and ductile white metal. So what? Its boiling point is 3,450° Centigrade. Who cares? It has no desirable properties and, worse, no ambition to achieve any. There it is, and there it will stay. I've wasted more than enough time on it already. I wash my hands of it forever!

Vanadium is an essential element in the diets of chickens.

© 2002 by Michael Swanwick and SCIFI.COM.

24. Chromium



She was a dual-cam '57 Chevy, with a Pentium 88 CPU, raked tail fins, and chrome up to here. She put the top down when she saw me coming, and I vaulted over the side and into the driver's seat. She fit me snug as a glove.

"Where to, boss?" she asked.

"Anywhere you like, Babe. Let's go cruising."

And we hit the road. Top down, radio blasting, and a big fat harvest moon chasing us down the night.

We were somewhere in northern Oklahoma when a pale white convertible blasted by us as if we were standing still. It was driven by a woman with long blonde hair that waved behind her like a flag. She was young, and she had great breasts. I could tell because she wasn't wearing a blouse. She flipped us the finger as she roared past.

There was a hand-made sign taped to the trunk: IF YOU CATCH ME, YOU CAN HAVE ME.

"Whaddaya think, Babe? Can we catch her?"

"She's as good as yours, boss."

Babe surged forward.

Three states and as many hours later, we caught up to the pale convertible. Babe feinted left, then sped to the right, and passed it on the shoulder. She got right in front of our quarry, then slowed her to a stop, right at the lip of the Grand Canyon.

I took my reward in the back seat of the stranger's car. Its AI wasn't programmed for personality, and didn't mind being turned off to give us privacy. Afterwards, we talked.

The lady's name was Celeste. We really hit it off. We were kindred spirits. By the time that dawn came up over the Canyon, we were both head-over-heels in love.

I didn't have any permanent abode, so Celeste offered to let me live with her. I figured that maybe it was time I gave up my rootless ways, so I said yes. We agreed that I'd drive, and her car could follow us home. I ripped the sign off her trunk, and threw it away.

But when I got back to Babe, the top was up, and she wouldn't open the doors. "C'mon," I said. "Stop kidding around."

"How could you?" Babe began to cry. "Haven't I always been here for you? What can that slut possibly offer you that I can't?"

"Well, see, when a man and a woman …"

"It's about sex, isn't it? Always sex! Damn it, love is more than just body parts going at it. Love is the spiritual union of true hearts and true minds. I thought we had that! I thought we had something special."

"Now, don't be like that," I said, embarrassed. "I'm not getting rid of you or anything. Celeste and I—"

"I won't share you! I won't!"

Wheels squealing, Babe threw herself into reverse. Then she stopped, raced her engine until it screamed, and surged forward.

"Celeste!" I yelled. "Run!"

But she wasn't trying to run down Celeste after all, or me either for that matter. She hit full speed, and went right over the lip of the Grand Canyon. Briefly, she flew.

When she hit bottom, she burst into flame.

Celeste gently placed an arm around my waist. I shook my head sadly. "Women," I said. "Who can figure them?"

© 2002 by Michael Swanwick and SCIFI.COM.

25. Manganese



The artists of Lascaux used manganese ores and charcoal to mix their black pigments. Those of the Renaissance used manganese oxide to enrich the brown in their umbers. Manganese blue went extinct in the twentieth century. The twentieth and twenty-first centuries had a lot of artists, most of them bad but all of them wanting the very finest paints. By the time humanity planted its first colonies in deep space, all the best natural pigments had been depleted from the surface of the Earth.

Bumwart was an outer-belt asteroid so far distant from the Earth that when Sam Evensong bumped down on it he'd been traveling for three months. An extreme-long-distance assay commissioned by Summergarden Specialty Ores had indicated that Bumwart was rich in manganese and iron oxides. Sam had been sent because he didn't mind being alone. He spent the three months doodling on his electronic artpad. It was all he really cared for.

The assay was right. Sam spent another month digging out the finest natural pigments he'd ever had the pleasure to handle. When the ship's cargo pod was full, he strapped himself into the pilot's seat and switched on the Keely engine.

With a flash, the Eiseley tube blew.

The engine died.

All the life-support systems were on backup, so they were okay. Sam had a year's supply of food and oxygen, so he was okay. But the ship wasn't going anywhere without a new Eiseley tube, and of course it didn't carry a spare. So Sam called back to home base. They promised to send a rescue drone right away. "Just hang in for three months," Summergarden's comptroller said, "and you'll be fine."

"No problem." Sam picked up his artpad. It wouldn't turn on. It had been recharging when the tube exploded. The power surge had burnt it out.

"Well, what the heck am I going to do now?" he asked himself. He glanced out a side porthole at the asteroid's surface. Smooth and inviting, like a sheet of paper. He thought of all the pigments in the cargo pod.

Three months later, when the rescue drone arrived with the new Eiseley tube, the cargo pod was almost empty, and the entire asteroid was covered with enormous drawings. Bison! Horses! Spacecraft! Whales!

Sam returned to Earth, where he was fired without severance pay.

A hundred years later, Bumwart (by then, renamed Evensong) was declared a Solar System Cultural Treasure.

A thousand years later, over the strong objections of the local populace, it was moved into orbit over Planet-of-Peace, the capital of the Milky Way Confederation of Worlds, where it could be properly appreciated.

Today it is the sole surviving artifact of that intriguing race once known as Humanity.

Sam got a job as a janitor. It was easy work, and gave him plenty of time to sketch at night. He was happy.

© 2002 by Michael Swanwick and SCIFI.COM.

26. Iron


The Era of the Iron Horse

Things might have been different if Columbus's ships hadn't sunk immediately upon arrival in the New World. Things might have been different if there hadn't been a gunsmith and a blacksmith on board. Things would definitely be different if the Carib Indians hadn't taken to the new technology like fish to water. By the time Leopoldo di Pisa discovered Mexico in 1598, both North and South America were in the throes of an industrial revolution, the Aztec Empire had fallen, and the Incas had extended their civilization northward through Mexico into modern-day Texas.

There they encountered the Plains Tribes.

There is no more romantic image than that of an Apache warrior in war paint, leather jacket, and shades, sitting astride his "iron horse," as motorcycles were then called. There was no more terrifying sound for an Inca noble than the sudden roar of a Comanche war party swooping down upon a convoy of supply trucks.

Though we still see the Plains warriors as freedom fighters, the end result of the war was a foregone conclusion. The industrial base was with the Incas. History favors those who have technological superiority.

Comanche and Apache warriors so proved their courage and skill however, that they are employed even today as mercenaries to pacify the natives on those rare occasions when they attempt to break out of their reservations in Austria and Russia.

© 2002 by Michael Swanwick and SCIFI.COM.

27. Cobalt



The first deliveries of asteroidal cobalt were flown down to the north central Pacific Ocean in the form of lifting bodies in the year 2116. The splash-point was just off the coast of Hawaii. By chance, this was not far from Poseidonis, the undersea city where lived the water-breathers who gathered cobalt deposits from the shallow ocean floor.

Each lifting body contained as much cobalt as could be mined from the Pacific in a year. Seven came down in the space of a single week. Before that week was over, twenty thousand merfolk found themselves out of work.

They had a mass meeting in the SubPacifica Amphitheater.

Just what are we supposed to do now? one signed. I paid my life savings for these—he indicated his gills—and now there isn't any work!

"We need welders and cutters to disassemble the lifting bodies for processing," said the government spokeswoman. A translator signed her words as she spoke them. "There'll be openings for—oh, maybe two hundred of you."

As one, the assembled mermen and merwomen rose to their feet and shook their fists in a silent howl of outrage. No! they signed, and Strike! they demanded, and Riot! it became.

They boiled up out of the amphitheater.

By the time the riots had at last been quelled, nearly a hundred ships had been sunk by the merfolk, and all the dock facilities in Hawaii had been trashed. A good third of the merfolk had been killed, and half those who remained were in the hospital.

That night the government spokeswoman returned at last to her home. She was exhausted. Her lover gently took all of her clothes off, and then gave her a hot oil massage. Whenever the oil beaded up and started to drift away, he darted out a silvery hand to gather it up again.

"Was it hard?" the spokeswoman's lover asked.

"Telling an entire race of people that they're obsolete? I can't imagine anything worse."

"It's done now, though."

"Well, no, not exactly." She flipped over, so she could see the Earth, floating big and fat and beautifully obsolete through the pressurized window, and sighed. "I really don't look forward to going down there tomorrow and having that same discussion with the air-breathers."

© 2002 by Michael Swanwick and SCIFI.COM.

28. Nickel


What This Country Needs—

"—is a good five-cent cigar!" Secretary of the Treasury Babbinger slammed a hand down on his desk. "Would somebody please tell me what idiot came up with that?"

"It was Thomas Marshall, sir," an unwary aide said.


"Thomas Riley Marshall, 1854 to1927, vice president under Woodrow Wilson from 1913 through 1921, renowned for his wit, though for little else."

"Thank you," Babbinger said with heavy irony. "Thank you for that history lesson, young master Stewart. Our entire economy is about to collapse, and you're lecturing me about Woodrow Wilson's witty vice president!"

"To be fair, sir," another aide said, "I don't see what damage the new personal nanofactories are going to do. They'll bring prices down—that's a good thing! I dumped my old suit in my 'factory last night, and now I've got a genuine Armani for a five dollar licensing fee."

"That," said Babbinger, "is exactly the problem. We have an economic system here that is based on scarcity and want. If everybody's going to have all the fine foods and rare wines and good clothes they want for the price of rags and gruel, then who's going to empty our spittoons and clean our toilets? Who's going to do the scut-work?"

"Perhaps we should all do our own scut-work, sir," young master Stewart said.

Babbinger glared at his aide. "I'm going to pretend you didn't say that." He patted his jacket pockets. "Damn! I left my cigar case at home."

"Here, sir. Have one of mine."

Babbinger accepted the cigar, sniffed it. "Cuban. My own brand." Anger flared in him. "By God, you've been stealing my cigars. You're fired!"

The young man didn't turn a hair. "That's fine by me, sir. I've got a couple hundred bucks saved up, and that's enough to last me for years. I've been thinking about a career change anyway. I suspect a lot of people have been thinking of career changes lately."

He paused at the door. "You can keep the cigar. It only cost me a nickel."

© 2002 by Michael Swanwick and SCIFI.COM.

29. Copper


Lucky Penny

Hubert Smucker found it in a bottle shop—one of those funny little stores that down-and-out losers are always wandering into in fantasy stories from the 1950s. The kind that wasn't there yesterday and won't be there tomorrow, but right now will sell you a genuine Leonardo da Vinci oil painting of a Renaissance prince who looks exactly like you for three bucks or a love potion that really works in exchange for your soul. Oh, it was a wonderful place! The shelves were overflowing with magical parasols, globes of Narnia and Barsoom, unicorn horns, zap guns, old telephones, parchment scrolls …

Hubert Smucker flinched away from the shelves, fearful that they would collapse and fall on him. He was the sort of person whom shelves collapsed and fell upon. He was the sort of person who gets named Hubert Smucker. He was a living jinx. He was the unluckiest man in the world.

But he'd read a lot of fantasy stories from the 1950s, so he knew what he'd stumbled into. And when he saw, sitting right atop the counter directly in front of the half-slumbering proprietor, a small, bright copper coin marked "lucky penny," he knew he had to have it.

"Is that really a lucky penny?" he asked.

"Luckiest that ever was," the old man replied.

"How much?"

The old man named a price that made him turn pale. But he paid it, scooped up the lucky penny, and feeling optimistic about the future for the very first time in his life, walked out of the shop.

At which very instant, an asteroid smashed down directly on top of him, vaporizing everything for six blocks around.

When the workers came to clean up the debris, one of them noticed a small copper coin sitting right in the very center of the wreckage, shiny and untouched.

"Hey, look at that," he said to his buddy. "This must be the luckiest penny in the world."

© 2002 by Michael Swanwick and SCIFI.COM.

30 Zinc



Tubal-cain, that industrious man, was hard at work in his smithy when the warrior walked through the door. At this time, seven generations descended from Adam, war hadn't been perfected yet. The earliest war, between Cain and Abel, was thought to have been so horrific that war would never happen again. But Seth-abel was an innovator. "What's that you're working on?" he asked.

The metal-smith turned the object in his forge. "A plowshare."

"I don't suppose you could make me one of them, only about so long, and straight, with a sharp edge on it?"

"Certainly I could." Tubal-cain lifted the glowing metal from the forge. "This long enough?"

"Yes, but I want it to be slender. Like a wedge. And put a handle at one end, with a little flange of metal above it."

Amiably, Tubal-cain put the length of brass against his anvil and with hammer and chisel cut off the excess metal. Then he hammered it long again, and set it back in the forge. "Strange harvest you must be planning," he remarked conversationally.

"Aye, a crimson one." The warrior idly picked up a bar of greyish metal. "What's this?"

"Zinc. It's what gives the brass its hardness. Copper gives it color, but zinc gives it strength."

"It's strength that matters to me. Strength and the ability to hold an edge. Your father taught you how to mix the metals, did he?"

"No, it's my own invention."

"You're the only one who knows how to make brass, then?"

"Me and my sons."

"So if I were to kill all three of you, there's nobody else who could make any more brass implements?"

"Why, what a funny thought! I suppose that's true."

The warrior grinned widely. "Well, I'll be back tomorrow, then. Be sure to have your boys here. It's been a long time since I've seen them."

He left.

Tubal-cain thought for a while. He did not like the direction of his thoughts, but he followed them where they led. Then he put two more bars of brass in the forge.

When the plowshares were done, he studied them carefully. They looked dangerous. He did not think they would be of much use breaking earth. But they might be good at other things.

The next day he called his two sons to him, and gave them each one of the brass implements. They were both good, strong lads. "Hide in the back room," he said. "Watch through the slit. Make no sound."

Uncertainly, his eldest son said, "What do you suspect, Father?"

"I can't put a name to it—it's too foul. Now go."

His sons did as he commanded. Tubal-cain returned to his forge, and to his thoughts.

If he was wrong, all was well. If right, then he would die but not his sons. They were strong and smart. They would know what to do. Two deaths would be a terrible, shocking thing, but nothing so terrible as three. He hoped he was wrong. He hoped that if he were right, this thing could be stopped here and now.

The warrior entered, whistling.

© 2002 by Michael Swanwick and SCIFI.COM.

31. Gallium


Space Pirates

The very best gallium arsenide chips are grown in orbit by the Monks of San Lorenzo —those worthy men who sometimes laughingly call themselves the "Monks of San Lagrange"— and sold only for peaceful applications. Sometimes, though, the wicked decide they need more computing power. Sometimes they decide to take matters into their own hands.

Brother Bruno was adjusting the solar mirrors in the microgravity furnace farm when the pirates attacked. Railgun-launched chunks of meteoric iron smashed through the monastery, exploding two supply sheds and the chapel. "Oh, sweet Jesus, we're going to die!" his vacuum suit exclaimed.

"Oh, hush, we are not," Brother Bruno said. "But if we were, this would be the worst possible time to be taking the Lord's name in vain."

"Forgive me, Brother," the suit said humbly.

"I do. Now—quickly—hyperlink me to every gallium arsenide chip you can."


Swiftly, Brother Bruno awakened the chips and directed them to assemble themselves into as powerful an AI as they could manage. Microflashes of laser light darted through the monastery farms. Mindpower swelled, doubled, tripled, centupled. An intellect vast and cool took a long amused glance around itself, absorbed the situation, and said, "What do you desire, Brother?"

"Protect the monastery!" Brother Bruno cried. "But—"

Tiny puffs of propellant gas swiveled every solar mirror in the furnace farms, focusing them all on a single spot in space. The pirate ships flew through that spot, and exploded. It happened so fast that Brother Bruno didn't even have time to finish his sentence before it was over. "—don't kill anyone," he said weakly.

"Whoops," the AI said. Then, cheerfully, "Well, what's done is done, right?"

Brother Bruno sighed. "Upload a copy of the Baltimore Catechism into this poor heathen soul," he told his suit. "Then, when its instruction is complete, I'll baptize it."

Already, the other monks were setting up a virtual space in which to pray for the souls of the departed pirates. They forgave the pirates, of course, because that was their duty. Similarly, though they required that it confess its sin and perform a sincere act of contrition, they did not really blame the AI for what it had done.

It was, after all, still young.

© 2002 by Michael Swanwick and SCIFI.COM.

32. Germanium



All of Germanium is divided into three parts. One part is inhabited by the Belgae, another by the Aquitani, and the third by those who are called Celts in their own language, and Gauls in ours. Eh? What? Are you sure? Well … never mind. I'll just start over.

The Germanium is a beautiful flower. It belongs to the genus Pelargonium, and is native to South Africa. Widely grown as a house and bedding plant, many varieties have showy flowers. Others are grown for their scented leaves. The native American wild germanium or crane's-bill belongs to … Oh, come on now! No, no, I'll take your word for it. No, really, it's fine. I'm a professional. I can work through this.

Germanium is a free and independent republic inhabited entirely by virulent microbes. The ruling smallpox party has been in power ever since the downfall of the flu faction following the broad-spectrum antibiotics scandal of 1998. It was founded in 1665 by a colony of plague bacilli seeking asylum from political persecution in Britain. Oh, God. Really, this is too much. I'm trying to work here! Is a little cooperation too much to ask for? Well, I guess it must be.

Okay, cleansing breath. Visualize a peaceful lake at dawn. Shake out those limbs. Release that tension. I'm okay now.

The radical feminist, Germanium Greer … All right! That's it. Is this personal with you? Are you doing this to persecute me? Have I harmed you in some way? Then why are you behaving like this? No, I don't think that's it at all. I think you're …

Yes, yes, I understand. All right. Yes, I will. And you, in turn, will try to be a little more cooperative, yes? Okay, then, one more try.

Germanium is an element. Is that correct? It is an element, right? Yes? Really! So I can continue without fear of further interruptions? Good. I certainly hope so. The name is derived from the English word germane, meaning closely related to or pertinent. This is because, unlike other elements, germanium is not composed of neutrons and protons and electrons, but rather of pure relevance. What? Wrong, am I? By golly, I'll wrong you! Well, just what did you expect me to say? Really. Really. Really. Well, if that's what you want, that's what you'll get. Don't worry about my feelings!

Germanium is a rare, grey, brittle metallic element, somewhat resembling lead and tin. It is normally tetravalent, and is used in transistors, high-powered photoelectric eyes, and, with silicon, in lenses for infrared equipment. Certain people would have you believe that it is not divided into three parts, that it is neither a flower nor a republic nor a feminist, and that it is in no way relevant.

Others of us know better.

© 2002 by Michael Swanwick and SCIFI.COM.

33. Arsenic


Lucrezia Borgia

Lucrezia was a good girl overall, though she did have her faults. Her family, for one. It's no easy thing having the Borgias for in-laws. "Soup?" she asked her new hubby.

"No thanks." Antonio's father had had a long talk with him just before the wedding. He'd gone into Lucrezia's romantic history in some detail. It had made a lasting impression on Antonio. "I'm not hungry right now."

Lucrezia blushed. "Then, maybe a glass of wine before we … you know?"

"I'm not thirsty either."

"I understand." She began to unbutton her blouse, and in a sultry-shy voice said, "Fetch me that little bottle of strawberry oil. You can pour it all over me, and then lick it off."


Lucrezia's fingers froze. "Are you gay?"

"Of course I'm not!" Antonio flushed, and stuttered, and coughed, and then the whole story simply poured out of him: how greatly he feared poisoning. How little he desired to end up as dead as Lucrezia's six earlier husbands.

"But, darling," she protested. "That wasn't me—it was my family. You know how insanely political they all are. But you have nothing to fear on that account. You have neither position nor money, and even if you did, the pre-nups your father had me sign specify I can inherit nothing from you. I married you solely because I am deeply, passionately drawn to you. You're a very sexy man, you know. What possible reason could I have to want you dead?"

"None," Antonio admitted, abashed.

"Then show me you trust me." She popped a grape into his mouth. "Eat."

Antonio hesitated, then nodded bravely. He chewed, swallowed, and died.

Lucrezia wiped a little tear away from the corner of her eye. She had really liked this one. He had been so kind and sweet and attentive … She began unlacing his doublet.

Sometimes it was hell being a necrophile.

© 2002 by Michael Swanwick and SCIFI.COM.

34. Selenium


H.G. Wells on the Moon

H.G. Wells aspired to more than literary fame. He wanted to be a scientist and an inventor and an explorer as well. So when, in the course of researching one of his scientific romances, he came upon an ore of uranium that weighed no more than balsa wood, he knew immediately that he had found a material that negated gravity. The weight of the uranium was being counteracted by a minuscule impurity of an ore which he named "cavorite." He managed to refine enough of the element to coat sliding panels that covered every facet of a great metal sphere. The inside he fit with plush furniture, canisters of oxygen, food, wine, cigars—all the comforts of home.

Then he took off for the Moon.

Well, we all know what happened then. The Moon-People (though they look like giant ants, as intelligent beings and members of the United Nations, they are entitled to the sobriquet "people") captured him, and put him to work in their selenium-mines. Selenium, as the name implies (it was named after Selene, goddess of the Moon) is rather more common on the Moon than on Earth. Electrified slurries of the material are employed in their subterranean lighting system. Ten years later, he made an escape so daring that it is today as universally known as the story of George Washington's cherry tree, and as unnecessary to recount.

In the wake of negotiations, diplomatic recognition, and normalization of relations with the Moon-People, H.G. Wells sued them for wrongful imprisonment and loss of income. A court found for him, but awarded him only an amount equal to a laborer's wage for those hours spent actually working. His petition to be recompensed for novels unwritten was turned down since, the judge ruled, there was no way of determining he actually would have written any such works. H. G. Wells died in 1946, in bitterness and poverty. After his return from the Moon, he never wrote again.

Which is a pity, really, since his early work was so promising.

© 2002 by Michael Swanwick and SCIFI.COM.

35. Bromine


Try Not To Think of Elephants

A bromide is a sedative, often taken in a glass of water. The name comes from the fact that sodium and potassium bromides were used as early sedatives. The concept of bromide has recently gained a literally cosmic significance with the assemblage of data from the new Universal Mapping Project full-spectrum satellite observatories.

Though the UMP survey is only three-quarters complete, evidence is compelling that the universe is not saddle-shaped, as Einstein thought, nor spherical as many before him believed. It is, instead, shaped like a slightly tapering cylinder. The proportions are startlingly similar to those of a common water glass.

Worse, the distribution of galaxies within the universe is similar to that of bubbles within a glass into which a bromide has been dropped and then stirred. Much that was puzzling about the distribution of matter within the universe is now rendered comprehensible by this insight. Moreover, cosmologists attempting to peer beyond the limits of the universe by studying infinitesimally small distortions in its boundary tell us that they believe they have begun to establish the dark presence of an enormous hand, clutching the glass.

The price of this discovery is, of course, a potential lessening of our self-esteem. Is that all we are—negligible specks within a bromide contained within some vastly greater universe? Is that all our lives mean?

But cosmologists tell us not to despair! Ours could be a noble destiny. Perhaps the hand holding the glass containing our universe belongs to a great philosopher or theologian who, having finally discerned some key insight into the nature of God or Existence, now settles him- or herself down to a night's well-deserved sleep. Perhaps it belongs to a great peace-leader who has fallen ill upon the verge of putting an end to some all-encompassing war, and who needs but a night's rest to restore the energy needed for his climactic deed. We could be playing a key part in something great beyond our imagining.

It's best to focus on this possibility.

It's not easy, of course. There's an old joke about a man who was offered a thousand dollars if he could keep from thinking about elephants for half an hour. Two minutes later, he cried out excitedly, "I haven't thought of elephants yet!" It's impossible to look upon those computer-generated photographs of our bromidic universe and not think how much we look like a glass of Alka-Seltzer. Alka Seltzer, of course, is most commonly used as a cure for hangovers.

There's the unbearable part! That all our hopes and fears, aspirations and despairs, good works and bad, might be nothing but the most minor workings of a universe whose ultimate purpose is to ease the deserved sufferings of some drunken lout! There he sits, his trembling hand everywhere about us, his dim thoughts focused only on his own throbbing pain, while drops of sweat larger than supergroups of galaxies bead up on his apelike brow, rank with self-inflicted poisons. His clothes—none of the best, you may be sure—are stained, his shoelaces are untied, and perhaps his trousers are unzipped. A string of drool that could swallow up every star we can see in the night sky connects the lips of his slack-jawed mouth. And that's it? That's all? That's the purpose of our lives?

But try not to think about it.

© 2002 by Michael Swanwick and SCIFI.COM.

36. Krypton


Man of Steel

"I'm pregnant," Lois Lane said.

Superman turned red. "Didn't you take precautions?"

"Of course I took precautions. Did you think a diaphragm could stop your sperm? The little bugger probably ripped right through it like it was made of tissue paper."

Involuntarily, Superman quirked a grin. "Chip off the old block."

"Yeah, well, you'd better start thinking of rocks! As in diamonds." Lois held up her ring hand and waggled her fingers. She knew how little it would demand of him to squeeze a lump of coal into something eye-popping. "And I expect a church wedding with a reception afterwards, and a honeymoon too." She began to cry. "All the stuff I grew up wanting. Is that too much to ask for?"

It was an ugly scene. After he'd finally managed to calm Lois down with promises and kisses, Superman flew as fast and far away as he could. Somewhere west of the North Pole was the Fortress of Solitude. That's where he went. There was a chunk of kryptonite there, wrapped in lead. He picked it up.

"To be, or not to be …" The words sounded corny in his ears. He was not Hamlet, nor was meant to be. He was like Conan the Barbarian—a pure being, meant to solve problems by the application of brute strength alone. Women complicated everything.

Still … He stared down at the stone in his hand. So easy. One little burst of heat vision and the lead would run like water, letting the kryptonite bathe him with its lethal radiation.

He sighed, and put the deadly nugget back on its shelf. There was no answer there. So far as he could see—and he could see very far indeed—there was no answer anywhere. He was going to have to marry Lois. He wished he liked her more.

Angrily, he punched a wall, collapsing one entire wing of the fortress and making seismographs dance as far south as San Francisco.

"Damn it, I'm only human!" he shouted in anguish.

But those words, too, sounded hollow and false.

© 2002 by Michael Swanwick and SCIFI.COM.