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by Nancy Kress

Nancy Kress began selling her elegant and incisive stories in the mid-seventies, and has since become a frequent contributor to Asimov’s Science Fiction, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Omni, SCI FICTION, and elsewhere. Her books include the novel version of her Hugo- and Nebula-winning story, Beggars in Spain, and a sequel, Beggars and Choosers, as well as The Prince of Morning Bells, The Golden Grove, The White Pipes, An Alien Light, Brain Rose, Oaths & Miracles, Stinger, Maximum Light, Crossfire, Nothing Human, The Flowers of Aulit Prison, Crucible, Dogs, and the Space Opera trilogy Probability Moon, Probability Sun, and Probability Space. Her short work has been collected in Trinity and Other Stories, The Aliens of Earth, Beaker’s Dozen, and Nano Comes to Clifford Falls and Other Stories. Her most recent book is the YA novel, Flash Point. In addition to the awards for Beggars in Spain, she has also won Nebula Awards for her stories “Out Of All Them Bright Stars,” “The Flowers of Aulit Prison,” and “Fountain of Age,” and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award in 2003 for her novel Probability Space, and another Hugo in 2009 for “The Erdmann Nexus.” She lives in Seattle, Washington with her husband, writer Jack Skillingstead.

Here she takes us back to the frontier planet Roland, the setting for one of Poul Anderson’s most famous stories, “The Queen of Air and Darkness,” to examine the question of what happens to changelings stolen by the “fairies” when they return to human society. And are faced with a difficult choice of worlds.

“People had moved starward in the hopes of preserving such outmoded things as their mother tongues or constitutional government or rational-technological civilization.”

—Poul Anderson, “The Queen of Air and Darkness”

It was difficult to hear over the barking. All the dogs—and there were so many dogs—seemed to have started howling all at once. The patient turned her head toward the window, which Luke had opaqued before the session began. He leaned toward the girl.


“Something’s happening.”

“Those dogs bark all the time.” He hadn’t yet told anyone how much he disliked dogs; a therapist was not supposed to have such silly weaknesses. And here at Christmas Landing, the animals were necessary. Maybe. Luke preferred to put his faith in the mind-shields.

“That barking is different.” She rose, a pale, doughy, difficult girl that he was coming to like very much, even though she took time away from what was supposed to be his main duty here. “I want to go see.”

The session was almost over. Luke said, “I’ll come with you,” and stood. For a moment, dizziness took him and he put a hand on the edge of the ugly, utilitarian table to steady himself, but Anne didn’t notice. That alone was a measure of her distraction; this was a girl who usually noticed everything, reacted intensely to everything, embroidered everything with the colors of her own over-romantic soul, all beneath a stolid exterior that misled nearly everyone about who she actually was.

Anyway, very few sixteen-year-olds would notice the symptoms of an old man’s hidden disease.

Anne moved lightly to the door—for such a big girl, she could move with surprising grace—and pulled it open. Luke followed her through the corridor, as ugly and utilitarian as his borrowed desk in his borrowed office.

Most of Christmas Landing looked ugly to him. The entire planet had only hosted human settlements for a hundred years, and half of Roland’s scant million people were crowded into Portolondon. This pioneer outpost at the edge of civilization had not had much time to beautify itself, being too occupied with, first, survival. Next, with its business as a market town for the farmers and fur trappers and miners who labored in the open country to the east and west. And then, in the last months, with Project Recovery. Accustomed to the greater age and comfort of Portolondon, it had taken something special for Dr. Luke Silverstein to uproot himself in his present condition and come here.

The something special ran past them.

“Oh!” Anne gasped. “Shadow-of-a-Dream!” And Anne went after her, all grace gone in comparison with the other girl, who once again had shed, or forgotten to put on, her clothes. Luke followed more slowly, apprehension shifting in his chest like some emotional tectonic plates. The dogs’ barking grew hysterical.

In the Arctic circle’s brief summer, hot and feverish, entire corridor walls were rolled open. Luke’s borrowed office, at the edge of the town farthest from the bars and brothels and clamorous equipment that received grain and ore and furs, gave onto a wide strip of bare dirt that, supposedly, would one day be planted as a park. Beyond the strip of dirt, the shield shimmered faintly, jamming all electromagnetic signals not aimed at the high tower rising above Christmas Landing. Beyond that shimmer, wending its way among the shiverleaf bushes and vivid sprays of firethorn, a figure moved. The dogs, kept inside by the restraints on their collars, dashed forward to throw themselves against the unseen barrier.

Luke, like the two girls, watched the alien approach—but what did one of them see?

When Luke had first arrived at Christmas Landing, Police Chief Halford had driven him from the spaceport to the city. “The port is shielded,” had been almost her first words to Luke, “and so is the entire perimeter of Christmas Landing. But this rover and the area in between is not. You probably won’t see anything, but just in case you do, be aware that the illusion is not real. Most of the Rollies can’t project farther than three or four feet, but a few can. The talented ones, if you call that talent.” She had snorted derisively and made a gesture considered filthy in Portolondon. That, plus the dismissive “Rollies,” made him dislike her. However, he kept an open mind. For one thing, the outlying settlements had been losing their children to the natives for nearly twenty years, and anger was to be expected. For another, he was paid to keep an open mind.

So he said mildly, “What might I see?”

She scowled. “I thought they briefed you.”

“They did. I’d like to hear it from your perspective.”

“My perspective is that the Rollies are kidnappers who used brain-washing to steal away our kids, less than half of which have been recovered. Your perspective is to straighten out the ones who have.” She jerked the rover into motion.

Definitely dislikeable—and to call the aliens “brain-washers” was to call a tsunami a “beach wave.” Luke had turned his attention to the countryside, in case he might “see something.” He had not, except for the wild beauty of the largely unexplored and completely untamed northern wilderness. Such an alien wilderness, bright with strange summer colors, even though Luke Silverstein had been born in Portolondon, in the second generation of settlers on Roland. But Portolondon was far from any native sentience. Not even Christmas Landing had believed there was any native sentience on Roland, until recently. All the stories from outwayers had been dismissed as folk tales, superstitions, fanciful embroideries by humans living too much in isolation on their remote farms and ranches and trapping posts.

Nor had Luke “seen anything” in the month since. The elusive natives with their peculiar talent came nowhere near Christmas Landing. Meanwhile, the recovery teams had gone out twice and brought back six children, all under two years old. These six, like the others recovered so far, had gone back to the outwayer farms from which they’d been stolen. Luke had started therapy with the four older ones who had not gone home. And also with Anne, who was Police Chief’s Halford’s unlikely daughter.

Mistherd, Fire-Born, Cloud, Shadow-of-a-Dream. Or: Terry Barkley, Hal DiSilvio, Laura Simmons, Carolyn Grunewald. Terry had completely renounced his other name, a renunciation that was part of the extreme bitterness the police chief considered normal and Luke considered problematic. Hal, an exuberant eight-year-old orphan with astonishing adaptive capacity, was adjusting well to human life. Laura, eleven, said little and cried at night, although not for the parents whom she didn’t remember and who were too afraid to reclaim her. But she, too, was coming along, having attached herself to a kindly refectory cook who was teaching her to bake. It was Carolyn—Shadow-of-a-Dream—who genuinely worried Luke.

She stood now, lovely in her nakedness that was both more innocent and more sensual than merely an unclothed human body. Every taut muscle strained toward the approaching figure. Every muscle—and what else? The shield deflected electromagnetic radiation, including brain waves, but Luke was not convinced that humans knew as much about their own brains as researchers claimed. Who, for instance, had known that what the aliens had done was even possible?

The figure stopped. Through the shimmer of the shield Luke saw an upright, vaguely reptilian creature: lean, scaly, long-tailed, big-beaked, with two small forearms and two heavy hind legs meant for speed. Behind the beak, its face was flat, with two eyes at the front and a third on the top of its head. Once there were aerial predators on Roland, he thought, inanely. In a curious way, the ugliness of the native matched the ugliness of Christmas Landing. It came closer and whistled something: high, fluted, oddly musical.

Carolyn gave a wordless cry and plunged forward, across the strip of bare dirt and through the shield. Without a moment’s hesitation, Anne followed.

Alarms sounded. Police, already alerted by the barking dogs, raced belatedly down the corridor from the opposite direction. Only two men—Christmas Landing had diverted much of its constabulary to Project Recovery. By the time the cops reached the shield, which stopped radiation and dogs but not people, Luke had already reached it himself.

Carolyn, laughing and crying, threw her arms around the scaly alien and fluted back. Anne stood transfixed, her pale eyes wide as Roland’s larger moon. Luke groaned inwardly. Anne should not have experienced this, it would make her therapy so much harder, and as for Shadow-of-a-Dream . . . Luke stepped through the barrier.

Dizziness took him, and he fell to his knees.

The angel was neither young nor old, male nor female. All white: wings, skin, robe. Not soft but infinitely compassionate, it held a hand out to Luke and said, “There is nothing to fear.”

“I know,” he said, and a sob broke from him just as one of the cops seized him roughly and dragged him back behind the shield, and the Angel of Death vanished.

“I don’t think you realize how brave it was of the alien to come here,” Luke said carefully to Police Chief Halford.

“I don’t think you realize what a spectacle you made of yourself out there,” Halford said. Disgust rimmed her features like frost. It didn’t help that she was right. But so was Luke.

“Consider, Chief Halford. A native, alien to us, comes to the conquerors of her people without the only protection she knows, all because she wants to assure herself that the human girl she raised is well and not being mistreated. That takes enormous courage in any species.”

“If that’s what you assume her motive was.”

“Shadow-of-a-Dream said it was.”

Carolyn is deluded—that’s the whole point of this therapy, isn’t it? If this were up to me, Dr. Silverstein, you would be on the next transport back to Portolondon. But Terry wants you to continue ‘helping’ Carolyn.”

Luke wasn’t surprised to hear that sixteen-year-old Terry’s wishes carried so much weight. In this pioneer society, sixteen was formally an adult. Carolyn’s parents were dead; she and Terry were lovers; Chief Halford had no other real options for dealing with Carolyn. Luke also knew, without being told, that he was to continue seeing Anne as well because Anne herself wished it and she, too, was sixteen.

He said with deliberate mildness, “I’ll see Carolyn now.”

“Terry is with her.”

“I don’t do therapy that way, Chief Halford.”

“Then you won’t do it at all. He says she won’t come without him.”

There is more than one control freak here. But he said only, “Send them both in.”

The two youngsters held hands. Carolyn wore clothes, jeans and a loose blue shirt, although her feet were bare, the soles hard as leather from fourteen years of running barefoot in the wilderness. They were both so beautiful, Luke thought, conscious of his own wrinkled skin and bald head. He had never gone in for cosmetic enhancements. Carolyn’s long brown hair, streaked with sun-gold, fell around her shoulders. Terry’s blue eyes burned with anger.

The first three seconds and he was already faced with a problem. She wanted to be addressed as “Shadow-of-a-Dream”; he would be furious if Luke used the name the aliens had given her—the name she had been called by for most of her life. He said, “Hello to both of you.”

“Hello,” Terry said. The girl said nothing.

“Terry, it’s not usual to do therapy with a third person present.”

“We aren’t usual,” the young man said.

“True enough.” Terry was extremely intelligent. His fury at discovering the alien deception that had ruled his life raged in him, a fire undiminished in a month of burning. He had refused all scans of his own brain. (“No one will invade my mind ever again!”) The English language that his captors had insisted all the stolen children learn or retain was soft-voweled, slightly slurred on the consonants, and this somehow made his bitterness and anger seem even more dangerous: a blaze deceptively softened by gauzy curtains that might themselves ignite.

Luke said to the girl, “What did you see when you went beyond the shield?”

She looked at him mutely.

Terry said, “I know what she saw: the Queen of Air and Darkness. That’s what we were told to call her, you know. Starmother, Lady Sky, The Fairest—an ugly reptile, a liar—all lies!”

Luke said, “Is that what you saw, Carolyn? The Queen of Air and Darkness?”

“Of course it is!” Terry said. “Don’t you understand? Her presence is how they kept us like you keep dogs—come when they whistle, do what they order, bring more children to fair Carheddin under the mountain, lies lies lies—”

“Terry,” Luke said, “I’d like Carolyn to answer, please. What did you see?”

Anguish distorted the lovely face. Luke held her eyes steadily. She was torn between what she wanted to say, whatever it was, and her love for this boy, whose will was stronger than hers. A long moment passed; Luke did not relinquish her gaze. Finally she turned to Terry.


“Don’t call me that!”

She looked down at her bare feet and fell silent, but obstinacy lurked in the set of her mouth. Was she strong enough to do without him? Luke said, “Carolyn, if you would prefer to talk to me alone, I’m sure Terry will understand.”

“I won’t,” he said, at the same moment that she clutched his hand tighter and whispered, “No.”

Not strong enough. Luke tried a different approach. “We have some new information about how the aliens cast their illusions. Dr. Cardiff’s analyses of Laura’s and Hal’s brain scans may help us deal with any future incidents, if they happen.”

“They will,” Terry said grimly. “They’re still out there, just in a new location. They won’t give Roland to us that easily.”

Us. All his life Terry had been “Mistherd,” devoted to the Queen’s cause. You could not change sides that completely, that fast, without extreme psychological stress. Luke might well be treating the wrong patient.

He persisted with the cooling balm of objective fact: “We’ve known for centuries that the brain projects its own electromagnetic field. It’s pretty weak, but it’s there, and in a few people it has even been put to practical use. Dowsers, for instance, can sense magnetic changes associated with the presence of a water table. Apparently the aliens highly developed an ability to manipulate each other’s much stronger fields, as a means of communication, when their science developed along biological rather than physical lines. From the first stolen children, they learned to manipulate our electromagnetic fields as well, saturating the human brain with neuropsychic forces that set up feedback loops which—”

“What?” Terry said.

Luke had forgotten whom he was speaking to. The boy was intelligent, but he was also illiterate. Luke sought words to explain. “There are stories that lie in all human brains. The same stories that have turned up in one form or another in every human society, on every planet, from the beginning of time. They’re called ‘archetypes.’ They involve gods, rulers, great warriors, terrible monsters, enchanted palaces, songs and feasting—all the illusions you experienced out there.”

“All the lies,” Terry said bitterly.

“They were not lies,” Carolyn said.

Both men stared at her. She kept her eyes cast down, her mouth set in a stubborn line.

“Of course they were!” Terry exploded.

She shook her head.

Luke said quickly, “What do you mean, Carolyn?”

Silence. Terry started to speak and Luke raised his hand. For once, the boy subsided, his eyes on Carolyn. Just as Luke decided she was not going to answer, she raised her head.

“They were illusions. But not lies. Because we really did experience the illusions. We saw them and heard them.” All at once she began to sing:

“Cast a spell,

Weave it well

Of dust and dew

And night and—”

“Stop!” Terry shouted.


“Don’t call me that!”

She put her hands over her face and started to cry. “Flowermother came to see if I was all right! She came in her own body and she came even though she thought humans might kill her or capture her. She came because she cares about us. And even after I went through their shield she stayed as herself. Do you understand, Mistherd? She cast no illusion in my mind!”

The girl looked directly at Luke, all of Roland’s pagan wilderness in her eyes, and said, “You asked me what I saw. I saw the alien who raised me and loves me and came to see if I am all right. That’s why she came. And—” the girl drew a deep breath—“and my name is Shadow-of-a-Dream.”

Later, after they had gone, the girl in tears, Luke sat alone in his office. He sat for a long time. Finally he activated the commlink and sent a message to Chief Halford.

“I think you should put a twenty-four-hour guard on Carolyn Grunewald. She may try to go back to them.”

Dogs were never fooled by alien illusions; evidently their brains were too different. Chief Halford was accompanied by her mastiff when she came to Luke’s office, although privately he doubted that she actually needed it. Some people’s minds seemed impervious to illusions, even the illusion of goodwill created by common courtesy.

“You failed,” the chief said. “Carolyn is refusing to see you again, and not even Terry can persuade her.”

“That was a risk I had to take. The greater risk was having her run.”

“Why would she do that? Why would anybody do that? I don’t understand!”

The plea might have moved Luke if it had been less belligerent, or if he hadn’t felt so weak. This was not one of his good days. It was so difficult pretending to not be sick, pretending to not be old. He was not moved by Chief Halford, with her small glaring eyes and self-righteous scowl, but he owed her an answer.

“The aliens’ neuropsychic projections can create the illusion of seeing whatever archetype you most desire,” he said gently. “Why wouldn’t that tempt a person?”

“But it’s not real!”


“Then the girl is insane. Or you misdiagnosed her.”

“I didn’t diagnose her at all. I merely alerted authorities that I thought she might run and was therefore a danger to herself. As I am legally required to do.”

“Oh, I know, you follow all the rules, doctor.”

He had her pegged now: a fear biter. She was like certain dogs—hopefully not the mastiff lying by her side—that attacked when afraid. Chief Halford’s fear was not for herself but for Christmas Landing, for the humans so tentatively established on Roland, and for Anne.

The attack came next. “Why didn’t you tell me that you are dying of an inoperable brain tumor?”

Anger rose in Luke. “Medical records are supposed to be confidential.”

“Nothing in Christmas Landing is hidden from me!”

She actually believed it. Luke would trace the leak later, and someone would be in deep trouble for it. Now all he said was, “Total knowledge is an illusion.”

It went right over her head; she was not built for irony. She rose, looking down at him—to gain an advantage?—and said, “I don’t want you to see Anne anymore.”

“That’s really up to her. As you’ve pointed out to me, sixteen is legal adulthood on Roland.”

“We’ll see about that.” She banged the door as she left, and the mastiff growled at him.

No, not one of the good days. And only half over.

The chapel in Christmas Landing was dusty. No one had cleaned the tile floor or the deliberately simple stone altar, with its two unlit candles. But a fresh bouquet of firethorn and driftweed lay on the dusty stone.

Colonists to Roland came for various reasons and, when only two or three ships from other planets might reach Roland each century, the colonists came permanently. There were the usual fortune hunters, adventurers, and scientists. Most emigrants, however, came to isolate a cherished way of life from corrupting influences. These had their own churches, temples, mosques, shrines. The small chapel, deliberately free of anyone’s symbols, was designed for the rest, those who might want a place of comfort or meditation or merely silence. Apparently few did.

Luke stopped just inside the door. In the dim light, Shadow-of-a-Dream lay at the foot of the altar. For a heart-stopping moment, he thought that she was dead.

Then it seemed that his heart was stopping. Dizziness took him and he clutched at his chest. This was it, then, not his brain but his heart . . . The machine eventually wears out . . .

It was not the end. A brief vision, quickly gone, and he found himself slumped on a plain wooden bench, the girl kneeling beside him.

“Healer, are you all right?”

“Yes . . . I . . . ”

“I will bring help!”

He groped for her hand. She was naked again, save for a garland of the same flowers as lay on the altar. “No . . . no, please . . . ” He didn’t want the infirmary, the inevitable fuss and restrictions and pity. Especially not the pity.

She said, with sudden and incongruous hardness, “You do not want anyone to know.”

“No.” His breath came easier now.

“You are afraid they will keep you somewhere against your will.”


She gave a harsh laugh, whirled around, and was gone in a flurry of firethorn petals and sixteen-year-old scorn.

When he could breathe regularly again, he hobbled to the altar and picked up her bouquet. It smelled fresh and alive.

Anne sat across from him, slouched in an old padded chair. In one sense, Luke thought frivolously, the problem was aesthetic. Both Terry and Carolyn—Mistherd and Shadow-of-a-Dream—had looked wrong in this bare, ugly room that was temporarily his office. Their former lives were evident in every movement of their lithe bodies, in every glance from their forest-sharpened eyes. Even when she was dressed, Shadow-of-a-Dream wore the wilderness. Whereas poor Anne Halford looked like she belonged here.

And yet, she did not think she did. The same archetypical visions that Terry raged against, that Shadow-of-a-Dream longed for, existed deep in Anne’s brain.

“I saw a fairy,” Anne said, “but tall, maybe seven feet. Dressed in robes of starlight and petals of flowers. Light danced all around her, but shadows did, too. I saw the Queen of Air and Darkness.”

“You saw an illusion,” Luke said.

“I know that, doctor.”

But she didn’t want to know it. He said gently, “You would have liked it to be real.”

“Yes, of course. Wouldn’t we all?”

No. He waited. She had something to say and she was going to say it. His head hurt, and the dizziness came more frequently now. But he forced himself to concentrate; they had reached that critical point in therapy where the patient was ready to open up. There would be a rush, maybe an explosion, of words and feelings. But when words came, Luke was nonetheless surprised at how Anne began.

“My mother goes to church.”

Anger in the young eyes, bitter from a lifetime of being considered a disappointment to her overbearing mother.

“I didn’t know that,” Luke said. Another surprise, but it shouldn’t have been. People were always more complicated than they appeared, with hidden corners that led only to more shadowy passages. Even Police Chief Halford.

“She goes to church every Sunday and she believes in God. I asked her how she knew that wasn’t just an illusion, and she said she didn’t know directly, but she had faith, which was belief in what could not be known directly. I said that was a good definition of ‘illusion.’ She said no, she knew which was faith and which was direct experience, but if I wanted to believe in the Queen of Air and Darkness, I was muddying that distinction, by taking direct experience of deception for truth. I said there was more than one kind of truth and she wasn’t capable of seeing that psychological truth, the truth of fiction and poetry, has its own validity. I said the really intelligent mind could hold both the truth and untruth of the alien illusions in mind at the same time. She said that was semantic hogwash. I said she was incapable of seeing it because she was incapable of doing it. I said she was an idiot. Then we had a big fight.”

Luke was startled. He’d expected an outburst, but not this eloquence. Anne sat there—mulish, belligerent, more subtle than he’d expected. Obviously she had thought about all this, perhaps even rehearsed it. She was intelligent and very unhappy. Luke would have to tread softly.

“How did the fight end?”

“I moved out. I’m sixteen, you know. I took a room in the transition dorm.”

This useful structure, unique to Christmas Landing, provided three months’ free lodging to anyone who asked for it. The intention was to house newcomers to Christmas Landing while they organized their lives as outwayers, the farmers and ranchers and miners in the hinterlands who supported Roland. The transition dorm also housed those same outwayers who had failed in those endeavors and were returning, usually broke and sometimes broken, back to Portolondon. Several families reclaiming their stolen children had stayed in the transition dorm, as did the inevitable drifters, petty criminals, down-on-their-luck gamblers. Luke could imagine what Chief Halford thought of her daughter’s living there.

“Anne,” he said gently, “have you thought what you might do when the three months are over?”

“Yes. I went to Dr. Cardiff and offered myself as a liaison with the natives. I said I would go live with them and report back, and that way his scientific team would get another perspective on them than just talking to people like Mistherd.”

He was staggered. “What . . . what did Dr. Cardiff say?”

“He said no.”

Of course he had. Project Recovery was bringing children back, not sending them out. And no matter what this frontier town said, to Luke, sixteen was still a child.

Anne leaned forward in her chair. “You think it’s a stupid idea, too.”

“Not necessarily.” She was looking for a fight, but she wasn’t going to get it from him. “In time, it may be a viable one. But neither the natives nor we may be ready for it just now.”

“‘May,’ ‘may,’—aren’t you ever definite, doctor?”

“Yes,” he said, and she got the joke and smiled. The tension dissipated a little, but only a little.

“I’m going now,” she said. “The session’s over.”

“Yes, it is, but Anne—don’t go thinking that I’m in the same camp as your mother. I think your . . . your interest in the natives and their abilities shows a genuine intellectual curiosity. And I believe you are stable enough to tell the difference between illusion and reality.”

He was rewarded with her rare smile. “Thanks.” And then, fiercely, “All that people like my mother can think to do with illusion is wall themselves away from it. Instead of exploring what good it might bring to us.”

It had not brought anything good to Mistherd, or to Shadow-of-a-Dream. Neither of them, however, had Anne’s obstinate clarity. At the same time, Luke was afraid that, in the effort to keep her from stopping therapy, he had offered her too much encouragement. Perhaps he should not have taken this assignment; he was too sick, too old. His head hurt.

“I’ll see you Tuesday,” he said to Anne. All at once, and very unprofessionally, he was eager for her to leave.

“Yes,” Anne said.

But Tuesday she was in the infirmary with flu, Luke was in bed at his hotel with chest pains, and Shadow-of-a-Dream had vanished.

“She could not have left Christmas Landing,” Chief Halford said. “I’ve reviewed the surveillance data on every penetration of the perimeter shield. All authorized.”

“I thought,” Luke said, “that you’d assigned her a twenty-four-hour guard.”

“We did. A dog, of course; we can’t afford personnel for wayward girls!”

“What happened to the dog?” Luke sat in his hotel room, as utilitarian as everything else in Christmas Landing, and tried to appear healthier than he was. He had doubled his medication, but if he went to the infirmary, he would never come out. That was not how he wanted to die.

Chief Halford—it suddenly occurred to him that he’d never heard her first name—said, “The dog was drugged.”

Luke was impressed. “Where did Shadow-of-a-Dream get drugs?”

“Her name is Carolyn and I haven’t yet found out where she got the drugs. You know Carolyn better than anyone—where do you think she might be in Christmas Landing? Dr. Cardiff and his team are very anxious to have her back.”

I’ll bet they are, Luke thought. And so was the chief, whose reputation would not be helped by this. Luke looked at her as steadily as he could manage.

“Chief Halford, the human brain is more plastic than we once thought, especially the brains of children. Children damaged in freak accidents have shown the ability to modify neural connections in ways completely impossible for adults. I’m sure Dr. Cardiff told you this after he examined the brain scans of Hal DiSilvio and Laura Simmons.” Fire-Born and Cloud, that were.

“He did, but it isn’t very relevant to what I’m dealing with here, is it? Do you have any idea where Carolyn might be?”


“Thank you.” She left, scowling, a competent woman only trying to do her job, and faced with forces she could not comprehend.

But we all do that every day, Luke thought. Life itself is too complex for us to fully comprehend, let alone death.

In fact, humanity had gone backwards in its ability to deal with death. Once death was carried around as a constant companion, a silent shadow that might at any moment choose to speak. People died so much younger, and so much more frequently. In childbirth, as infants, of untamed diseases, of harsh environments. There was no choice but to live with the shadow, acknowledge it, and from that had grown death’s opposite: stories of heroism and transcendence, of Valhalla and Paradise and the Elysian Fields, of beauty so strong it diminished one’s inevitable fate. From the acknowledged shadow had come the once-and-yet-to-be Arthur asleep in Avalon, had come Apollo blinding in his beauty, had come the Queen of Air and Darkness. Illusions, and yet more than illusions.

It hurt to move. Luke did so slowly, gathering only what was necessary: a warm jacket, strong boots. In the hotel lobby, a mastiff eyed him. He ignored it and went out into the street. The night was clear and moonless, the stars dimmed by the lights of the city. He caught a robo-taxi and it took him to the transition dorm.

Only on the way did he realize it was Saturday night. Onto the streets near the hotel, outwayers spilled out of the bars, into the bars. They called to each other raucously, young people who lived with hardship but not usually, thanks to modern technology, with death. In the bright holos of Christmas Landing, under the dim stars, there were no shadows. Even the northern auroras seemed faint.

It was quieter close to the transition dorm, located near the city perimeter to make outgoing expeditions more efficient. Most of the transients were partying in the quarter he had just left. Luke made his slow way through the lobby, then up in the elevator to the room listed for A. Halford.

“Yes?” Anne’s wary response through the closed door. Ready to be angry, but with another note underneath.

“It’s Dr. Silverstein. Please let me in, Anne. I need to see you.”

Silence. Then the door opened, almost defiantly. Luke understood. They were conducting a test.

Anne was dressed in clothes a little too warm for the evening. The guard dog assigned to her lay beside the bed, eyeing Luke. Luke gazed back, and he knew. Painfully he squatted beside the dog, looked directly into its eyes.

“Hello, Shadow-of-a-Dream.”

They were first shocked, then afraid. “How did you know?” Anne demanded. Shadow-of-a-Dream had resumed her human form, which of course she had never lost. The girl was not a shape shifter. Only the human mind was.

Luke addressed not Anne but the beautiful, naked child. “It was in the chapel—do you remember?” A brief vision, quickly gone, and he found himself slumped on a plain wooden bench, the girl kneeling beside him. “I thought I was dying, and I saw the same vision I’d seen from your alien caretaker, the one who raised you, outside the perimeter of the mind shield. Only this time you sent it, didn’t you, Shadow-of-a-Dream? Your own brain, worked on all those years and perhaps possessing more talent than most—you can cast the illusions, too. Not far and maybe not for long, but you can do it.” Brains more plastic than we once thought, Cardiff’s report had said, especially the brains of children.

Both girls, one so clearly the child of civilization and one so much the opposite, both stared mutely. Luke said, “What did you do with the dogs?”

Anne said sulkily, “Drugged. Hers and mine. We will not be guarded like criminals!”

Luke said, “You got the sleeping pills from the infirmary. While you supposedly had the flu.” He didn’t ask how she had faked the symptoms; it was easy enough with various ingested substances, and she was a researcher.

Anne said, “Don’t try to stop us!” But she was no threat. It was Shadow-of-a-Dream who held the long, wickedly sharp knife—and where had she concealed it when she wore no clothes?

“Shadow-of-a-Dream,” he said quietly, “you don’t need that. I’m not trying to stop you. I want to go with you.”

Three figures walked slowly down the corridor, open on one side to the warm summer night. The figures passed two or three people, all of whom saw a boy and girl holding hands, accompanied by their large mastiff.

The strip of bare land beyond the corridor was not surveilled; the mind-shield was deemed strong enough to keep out illusions. These illusions, however, were inside the shield. Had anyone been watching from the windows of Christmas Landing, three dogs wandered over the dirt, as dogs always did. The ground was littered with dog poop.

The mind-shield, a faint shimmer in the starlight, was under surveillance. But the dogs were not there long. They passed through the shield, and alarms began to ring. Within Christmas Landing, people responded.

“Run!” cried Shadow-of-a-Dream. Luke ran, but only a short distance was necessary.

“Go,” he gasped, and collapsed to the ground, thinking I didn’t need boots and jacket after all.

Shadow-of-a-Dream stopped. She looked at him, and in her eyes he saw comprehension.

Did the girl think then of Terry—Mistherd? Did she regret that he would not join her and Anne in the wild and enchanted Carheddin under the mountain? Terry’s bitterness would never permit that. More, he would consider Shadow-of-a-Dream’s return to the natives an act of weakness. But which was stronger: the mind able to reject illusion, or the one able to embrace it while still recognizing it for what it was?

Luke had a last glimpse of Shadow-of-a-Dream, lovely and wild and pagan and alien, before she vanished. The men who ran toward him through the shield saw only two shiverleaf bushes, among the many that grew just beyond the outpost. Luke saw only the stars above, not dimmed at all. He saw only the dark night, and the darker one approaching.

And then he saw the Angel of Death, as he had seen it once before on this spot, and then once again in the chapel. Shadow-of-a-Dream’s last gift, coming toward him in a blaze of white light, holding out her long slim hands. Compassionate and welcoming, erasing all illusion of fear.


I first read Poul Anderson when I was fifteen. My mother had given me for Christmas the two-volume Treasury of Science Fiction, edited by Anthony Boucher, which I still have (it’s a bit battered from umpty-umpty moves). The volume included Anderson’s “Brain Wave,” in which the Earth in its movement through space moves out of an “inhibitor field” that has been affecting electromagnetic activity in the human brain for millions of years. All at once everyone is much, much more intelligent. So are the animals. This story knocked me out with its inventiveness and scope. So I reread it while looking for a universe to borrow for this anthology story, and it still knocks me out.

However, for this anthology I chose instead “The Queen of Air and Darkness,” the 1972 Hugo winner. This also is concerned with the human brain. It’s a gorgeous story but, unlike “Brain Wave,” it does not carry its characters’ fates past the revelation of what the aliens have been doing. Even in 1972 I wanted to know more: What happened to Mistherd back in “civilization”? To Shadow-of-a-Dream? And what about the fact that the human civilization Anderson had created for Roland was far less attractive than the alien illusions? It was lovely to have a chance to write this story and thus to create some answers.

A final note on writing “Outmoded Things”: Gardner Dozois is an experienced editor. I signed the contract for this story in August, 2010. This manuscript was not due until the following June. But Gardner knows writers, and so every single month he sent out a reminder: “Only nine more months until your story is due! Eight more months! Six more months and, oh, incidentally, Harry Turtledove and Stephen Baxter have already turned theirs in! They get a gold star!” It was lovely to have a chance to write this story—and the editorial nagging didn’t hurt, either.

—Nancy Kress

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