The photoshoot had gone great, Reid thought. It was rare enough to find a willing model, much less one that had the combination of good bone structure, natural-looking long blonde hair, and violet eyes.

It had gone so well, in fact, that Reid’s assistant had drawn him aside during a break. “Does something strike you as a little…odd…about this model?” he asked.

“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean, love,” said Reid.

“I dunno. Something about her just seems a little…unnatural.”

“Well, that’s not her natural hair color, if that’s what you mean,” Reid laughed. “But you ought to know that by now, love. No human has that color naturally–it’s dye or wig or chromosome engineering from one of those fly-by-night gene labs in the Beral Lands.”

“But…her eyes, and her skin…I just don’t feel like they’re real,” Reid’s assistant persisted.

“Well, I can assure you that they are her real eyes and her real skin,” laughed Reid. “Not a skinjob, this one! But I agree, she does have a very exotic otherworldly beauty about her. Sometimes I can scarcely believe it’s real myself!” He turned away abruptly and clapped his hands. “Okay, that’s a wrap with this one! Miss, you’re been lovely. Please send out the next model from the green room, if you please.”

The model nodded, and walked into the small room that Reid had set aside for the use of his models, locking it behind her. It was completely empty, save a for a small trunk.

The model took off her hair–a very convincing nanofiber wig–and replaced it with one that was short, dark brown, and tightly curled. Then she took off her nose and ears–they were both prostheses made of nanomaterials as well. Carefully hovering over a selection of replacements, she decided on a pair of small lobeless ears and a wide nose with flared nostrils, both dark-skinned. She could have opted for more flexible shape-and-color changing nano-protheses, naturally, but custom-made ones with a single shape were less likely to stand out and had a more natural look.

As she shimmied into a fresh outfit laid out by Reid ahead of time, the model adjusted the chromatophores in her eyes and skin to fresh hues. The photographer had asked for dark skin and green eyes, and so she obliged–matching her overall hue to that of her fresh prostheses and her eyes to a color wheel with the aid of a mirror.

There was a knock on the door. “Ma’am?” said Reid’s assistant.

“Ready in a moment, dear,” the model cried, rearranging her multi-layered vocal cords to produce a much lower, huskier register.

It would be easier to have the assistant and camera crew in on the fact that their model was a Callistan, surely. But Callistans were hated, discriminated, against, even outlawed–not least because they were spies and assassins as often as they were fashion models. But–in the model’s mind, anyway–if she had the ability to change her appearance at will, and the prosthetics and wigs to make it happen, why not use it to earn a little safe money at the expense of others?

The unspoken code of Callistans was very clear on that point: it was perfectly okay to fool, rob, or kill Zeussians (as they called all other humans), so long as you didn’t abandon your secret Callistan identity or fall in love with one.

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“It’s a note from the Boss.” The courier needed say nothing more as he handed over the note.

Nervously, Konstantinov and Polzin looked at each other and unfolded the missive.

Konstantinov & Polzin,

Join me in the Kremlin theater tonight for some movies. We’ll be hearing Commissar Bolshakov translate the new Howard Hawks cowboy movie Red River. Bring an appetite, as there will be dinner afterwards. We start at 10 o’clock sharp.


“Should we go?” Polzin said. “It’ll be well after midnight when the movie is over, and I hear that you get forced to drink Georgian wine at the dinner to make sure you don’t blurt out anything reactionary. The Boss will understand if we send our regrets, won’t he? He was a poet in his youth, surely he understands that, as ‘engineers of the human soul,’ our writing comes first?”

Konstantinov sighed. “You should know better than that. Do you know that the Boss put a stop to a translation of his poem into Russian? Beria had Pasternak–Pasternak!–translating it, and the Boss put the kibosh on it. I hear that he keeps Bukharin’s last note in his desk for sentimental reasons, but that didn’t keep the Boss from having him shot.”

“So if we know what’s good for us, we’ll go.”

“If we know what’s good for us, we’ll be the first ones there and the last ones to leave.”

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He remembered, all right. Dr. Carlsson had left a garageful of books to the library, but his illness meant that the only living things that’d set foot in there for five years were rats and roaches. Half the books had to be thrown out—including some more than 200 years old—because they’d been chewed to pieces for rat nests or smeared with droppings and mold. Even so, the donation had been a treasure trove, with books dating back as far as 1697 in excellent readable condition.

“He took it out with a community user card. The card was real enough—we issued it—but the address is bogus. This street only goes up to 750 and the address is a 902.”

“Those kids at circulation dropping the ball again?”

“Don’t be so hard on them. This guy obviously went to a lot of trouble to get his hands on the thing; you can’t be prepared for that sort of thing.”

“No, I guess not.”

“So where does that leave us? ‘On Symbologie’ has walked off with this Mr. Richat.”

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Dr. Noah Sexton won a number of prominent physics prizes for his work on astrophysical X-ray sources. A PhD at 18, with his earliest major paper published at 20 and his first major award at 23, he was for a time regarded as an up-and-coming enfant terrible in the discipline, headed for a major academic or research position.

This changed, and rather forcefully, with his paper on “Nchimsi Background Radiation” penned at 27. Dr. Sexton argued that a certain type of background radiation, undetectable by all but the most sensitive instruments, contained a record of future events. The first such article, which was published but later withdrawn by the Canadian Journal of High Energy Particle Physics, proposed that the effect was on a quantum scale and only detectable under strict laboratory conditions.

His work went unchallenged for a year until a research team from Cambridge attempted to reproduce Sexton’s results. They found no evidence of the effects he described, serious problems with his procedure, and inexplicable errors in his mathematics (which was complex enough that the CJHEP had not bothered to check it). Sexton’s assertion that the name “nchimsi” that he applied to the background radiation came from a Sumerian goddess of future events also proved unfounded, with no such figure appearing in any authentic text from Sumer.

Sexton’s response was to compose a lengthy, rambling letter to the CJHEP defending his findings and accusing the Cambridge team of “petty jealousy.” He attempted to publish a follow-up paper, reporting data from experiments in his garage with a homemade apparatus and extending the timeframe of the “Nchimsi Background Radiation” to a scale detectable by humans. Every journal he submitted the new article to rejected it outright; Dr. Sexton eventually had it published by a vanity press at considerable expense.

His colleagues began to suspect that Sexton had undergone some kind of psychotic break, but he angrily refused to seek treatment and withdrew to his parents’ old home. Sexton continued to produce papers explaining how his discovery could predict the future, unlock the secrets of the universe, gift humanity with immortality, and more. He had them printed and mailed to libraries and academics, a practice that steadily drained his funds.

Sexton’s emaciated body was discovered by a neighbor not long after his 50th birthday; he had apparently starved to death after running out of food and money and refusing to leave his home in search of either. In what the coroner remarked as a fascinating coincidence, Sexton was found near his “Nchimi detector” with a scrawled note in his hand, which happened to be the same as a banner headline from the next morning, announcing his death.

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“I’ve had my share of difficult breakups,” Karen sniffed. “I don’t think I have to tell you how outrageously sexist that notion is.”

“All right then, let’s compare notes,” I said. “Tell me about your worst, most devastating breakup, and I’ll do the same. One example doesn’t make a trend, but it’ll be ‘strong qualitative evidence’ as my professor used to put it.”

Karen set her jaw. “Fine. That would have to be Aaron. He was a musician, and a poet, but it just wasn’t working out and I was leaving to come to SMU. So I talked to him on the stairs in the old house he shared, and…it was devastating. The sadness in his eyes, the way he crumpled as he sat down on the stairs…I felt like a monster.”

“You had to see the look of sadness in his eyes,” I deadpanned. “That’s it? O tragic tale that hath such sadness in it. How did you ever survive a sad and reproachful glance from a person you were breaking up with?”

“I just told you how badly it affected me,” Karen shot back, her eyes burning.

I took a deep breath. “Okay, first of all: it can’t be a bad breakup if you’re the one doing the breaking. Have you ever even been the dumpee and not the dumper?”

“Well, sometimes it was a mut-”

I nodded smugly. “I didn’t think so. I, on the other hand, have never been the dumper, and I think my best breakup was worse than your worst. Want to hear some real angst?”

Karen, continuing to glare, didn’t say anything. She beckoned for me to continue with a sarcastic hand gesture.

“First: Camilla. She decided that the best way to break up would be to agree to every date I proposed and then just not show up, with the coup de grace being when she finally showed up…with someone else.”

“Maybe she-”

“Second,” I said, counting the instances off on my fingers. “Beck. She sent me a Dear John. In the form of a MySpace message. From her new boyfriend’s account, or rather his shitty emo band’s account. The best part is that I’m the one who took her to one of their shows in the first place hoping to impress her.”

“Well, if your music tast-”

“Third.” I was pressing a bit too hard, maybe, but there was no stopping in the heat of a passionate argument. “Steph. Turns out she was still carrying a torch for her ex. She ditched me for him. At the mall. They ran into each other randomly, I have it on good authority that they made out in the food court’s family bathroom, and then left together. I combed the mall for two hours before she deigned to text me. From his cell phone.”

Karen was silent, one eyebrow cocked. “You about finished there, Mr. Lonelyhearts? Maybe, if you like, we could have an actual discussion without all the emotional hand grenades you’re throwing. Or are we done here?”

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“You selfish, self-important bastard!” Konrad the navigator cried. “You’d put the lives of our entire crew, and their families, in the hands of that…thing? That computer? I refuse to have any part in the dismantling of my bridge!”

“Please, Alik,” Captain Lebedev said. “There’s no need for this.”

“There is!” Konrad roared, stabbing a finger at Berenty. “Surely there is! We’ve put up with this bully for too long, all of us! Now the safety of this ship—of your families—is at risk! Who else will stand up with me?”

Berenty said nothing; there was a curiously neutral expression on his face.

“Step down, you fool,” Lebedev hissed at Konrad.

“No, I will not!” continued Konrad. “I’ve seen enough! Good men turned into lapdogs, just like in the old days, armed men down every corridor, and the stink of fear for everyone. You, Grisha Sergeyevich Berenty, will be the death of everyone aboard.”

“You are correct,” Berenty said, suddenly. He shrugged.

“What?” said Konrad.

Lebedev later theorized that Berenty’s shrug must have been a prearranged signal, for the next moment Korenchkin had unlimbered his AKS and leveled it at Konrad. He snapped off a tight burst of shots, filling the room with a deafening report and an overwhelming stink of gunpowder. Konrad’s chest was reduced to a swamp of frothy blood; the navigator toppled to the floor without a sound.

“No!” Lebedev cried. He rushed to his fallen officer and tried to step the flow of blood with his own crumpled captain’s jacket, but it was too late. Konrad had bled to death and the light had gone out of his eyes after no more than a few seconds.

“Yes, he was correct!” Berenty shouted. “I will indeed be the death of everyone aboard if they do not do as they are told! I will be the death of every traitor, every malcontent, every wrecker the miserable lot of you has to offer! We are engaged in a great work here, and every one of us is expendable to further the cause!”

Thick hands seized the captain’s collar and hauled him upright. “You and your crew will be retained as advisors in case of a temporary malfunction of the Elbrus,” said Berenty. “Unless, of course, any of you feel some solidarity with the late Officer Konrad?”

Burning, seething hatred bubbled at the captain’s temples and threatened to turn his vision red. But with great effort, he restrained himself—it would do no good for anyone if he were to end up like Konrad. “No, colonel,” Lebedev said, almost in a monotone.

“Are you sure of that, captain?” asked Berenty. “You seemed rather emotional a moment ago when your man got his nine grams ten times over.”

“I have never lost a man under my command,” Lebedev said. “I fear for how his rash actions will reflect upon me.”

Berenty grinned. “Worry not, captain! Your own conduct has been exemplary. Get yourself cleaned up.”

“Yes, colonel,” said Lebedev, and he slunk away to his quarters—beaten, but alive. From his window, he saw Mikoyan and Korenchkin fling Konrad’s body into the sea, and bitter, helpless tears burned on his cheeks.

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The Cascadia Company had had plenty of accidents over the years, and much as the tried to maintain a high standard for community theater some mishaps were bound to occur.

There was the time that the fire escape set had collapsed during dress rehearsals for West Side Story, largely thanks to Debbie Hannover’s insistence that it be made out of real metal. No one was injured, but the scene wound up being played on a stepladder opening night.

Then there was the Cascadia Festival performance of Twelfth Night where the swordfight between “Cesario” and Sir Andrew Aguecheek ended with Bryan Culbert getting swatted with a blunt prop sword and breaking his nose. To his credit, he delivered his subsequent lines even as fresh blood soaked through his white gloves and even worked references to the injury into his dialogue. The show must go on, after all, even if you must be rushed to the hospital afterwards.

And who could forget the time that the pyrotechnic charges in Godspell (don’t ask) accidentally caught Harry Plover, playing Jesus Christ, on fire. They stopped the performance for that one, even though Harry escaped with only second-degree burns and managed to get off a very funny line about knowing how the burning bush felt.

Those had all entered the lore of the Cascadia Company, passed down as older members retired and new high school seniors or starry-eyed Osborn University undergrads rose up to take their place. No matter how badly someone missed their cue or how sour that last note of Oklahoma! sounded, they said, it could never get any worse.

Of course, that was before Carl Weisschrift died of a myocardian infarction onstage as King Lear.

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People moaned about how much things had changed, but Petra had been around for a while. Were pharmaceuticals really all that different these days? They still gave them made-up, optimistic sounding names: Purpure, Shineol, Welaire, Atatrea.

It didn’t matter how the prescriptions were bought and paid for, either; that may have changed, but people still wanted their drugs for longer than their pharmacist was willing to let them. People were still willing to pay for the privilege of experiencing side-effects that made it easier to take life one day at a time.

Petra chuckled as she typed, recalling how things had been done when she was a girl. Paying dealers strung out on their own product in a dirty alley and getting stolen pills that had been cut with laundry detergent…no more. People had been suspicious of a 16-year-old girl with a pharmacy in her medicine cabinet; people saw a 70-year-old woman with pill bottles all over the place, they didn’t even blink.

And of course distribution was so much easier these days.

“Prescription Atatrea available in 5, 10, and 15 pill packs,” Petra typed. “100, 200, and 400mg doses.” She hit enter and sat back, smiling. A little feigned arthritis, a lonely old doctor not above being charmed, and she had pills to sell without ever having to touch a bill or step into anything dirtier than the local post office.

By all accounts, Charles Balm was a lifelong student of film. He moved to California at 16, leaving behind his native Kentucky to stay with relatives and enroll in a community college at graduation with hopes of transferring to USC. “USC wasn’t really interested in someone like me,” he remarked during a 2004 interview. “I didn’t have family connections or money, my grades in every subject except English and Programming were mediocre, and I contributed exactly zero to campus diversity.”

Balm was able to gain admission to California State, but found his ambitions difficult to realize in the hypercompetitive film program. While waiting during the summer of 2002 for word from a studio internship program, Balm began dabbling with animation and posted a short film featuring Greeble, a loudmouthed and outspoken aardvark, and his dimwitted yet good-hearted roommate Josh. The first “Greeble and Josh” web cartoons attracted a small audience to Balm’s student web space, but after a change in format that solicited videos from fans (with Greeble and Josh adding commentary and performing interstitial skits) the site took off.

In less than a year, “Greeble and Josh” had its own domain and had broken into the Alexa top 100. The cartoons remained ad-free, but Balm’s graphic designer girlfriend created merchandise that was widely sold online and at independent book and comic stores. “It was a runaway success,” Balm noted in a 2005 appearance on KCAL, “I’ve won a few Webbys, which has made it tough for even USC to ignore me.” “Greeble and Josh” merchandise appeared on Iraqi bases, in orbit, and even a 30-minute TV special which aired in 2006. That special, and the Nintendo game that followed, represented the high water mark of “Greeble and Josh.”

On January 17, 2007, Charles Balm released his last “Greeble and Josh” cartoon. A message went up a few months later that the site was going on a short hiatus; no further updates were ever released. Fans keep a mirror of the site online, and “Greeble and Josh” merchandise quickly became collector’s items after the domain name for the site store lapsed in 2009. When a crew from KSCI tracked him down in the fall of 2009, a visibly relaxed Balm claimed that he had a film project in the works, and that he was enrolled in the USC film school under an alias. “‘Greeble and Josh’ was a means to an end, and it’s in my past,” he said.

Fans speculate that the “C. B. Smithy” credited as writer and director of the 2010 film “Love’s Last Gasp,” was actually Charles Balm. The film was barely released in theaters and prints have become difficult to find; the distributors refuse to comment on the identity of C. B. Smithy, other than to confirm that the film did not break even and led to a substantial loss for all parties involved.

It’s safe to say nobody cared much for Edward “Bitter” Tannen. When he’d first come aboard at Delacroix & Masterson the office wags had taken to calling him “Biff” after the character from “Back to the Future.” But it soon emerged that this Tannen was anything but the swaggering, aggressive fictional character. He was a morose man, face always lined in worry rather than age, and any conversation with him tended to turn quickly to recrimination–against unnamed persecutors, Tannen’s ex-wife, his grown daughter, Canadian society at large, and so on.

So to his back he was “Bitter” Tannen. He’d have been fired long ago if he hadn’t been, in addition to all that, a stellar researcher, brief writer, clerk, and all-around workaholic. Tannen took on jobs that people with an eye on making partner wouldn’t, and he did them well. That was enough for Mme. Delacroix and Mr. Masterson to overlook any complaints about his behavior in the office. He was, in the words of a co-worker, a cog who needed twice the grease for three times the work.

When he died at his desk late last July, no one noticed until a brief wasn’t handed to the right person nearly two days later.