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Gene Wolfe

“You’ll know it right away,” Fil had said, smiling. He had a charming smile. “Our roof was designed by some lunatic, and it’s all tile, sort of between a greenish yellow and a yellowish green.” When she had said nothing Fil added, “Depends on how the sun strikes it. There’s nothing like it for thousands of kilos—nothing else like it in the world, probably. I mean, who’d want a roof like that?”

She had remarked that she still did not understand why the locator would not take her straight there. “Don’t know,” Fil had said. He had golden hair, like someone in an old, old painting. “Something Father did, probably.” Then he vanished, and a hundred vocal and keyed commands had not brought him back.

There it was, over there! That jumble of poisoned leaves! She guided L-87 with a gesture and told him to land with another.

It was all garden here, no paths at all that she could see, no paved paths, no bridle paths, just lush green grass among straggling rose bushes. Were not roses supposed to bloom all summer? All winter, too, even here north of the line? These roses did not know the rules, or most did not. A few blue or green blossoms here and there. And foliage, though not as lush as she had expected.

She took a dozen steps before the thought struck, but once it did she knew that it was quite correct. These roses had not been chosen for their blossoms or even for their foliage. Chosen for something else. From fear, she refrained from naming it, even silently. No name, and no looking at those.

Left, then right, then straight on for twenty-odd steps and here was the inhabitation. She positioned in front of the lens, standing far enough back to give it a full view. Blond, she reminded herself. That was what Fil’s yellow hair was called. Dark blue eyes? Was she imagining those? Could semihumans, even blond ones, really have two such eyes?

The voice of the door was not his. “Come right in. It’s not locked.”

A woe man’s? An android’s?

The door swung open before she touched it. The room beyond was large and many-shadowed, with a ceiling that had to be three stories high—no, five. It seemed to draw her up like sky, promising something she could not have named. A row of pillars to the left, mucus stretched from floor to ceiling.

“Father wanted you to come here.”

She looked around. The shemale was almost near enough to touch, though not quite.

“I thought I’d better tell you. You’ll want to think it was Fil.”

She wanted to say they had known all along who it was, but that would have been snapping the truth. She replaced it with, “Is Fil your sibling?”

“A third.” The shemale not quite close enough to touch smirked. “Same feather, different nest.”

She thought she knew what was meant by nest, and was slightly offended.

“Now you say left third or right, and I say bottom third.”

She stopped to look around at the shemale. “Then we’ll skip it.” The shemale had lion’s-mane hair and enormous green eyes. Not at all like the near-brother Fil? Thinking that, she was secretly pleased.

House or hice? If she were permitted more than one, would she want one like this? She shuddered.

“Fil soft-pedals everything, but Father will tell you truth.”

Was it time to resume walking? She decided against it. “What about you?”

“Oh, I won’t tell you anything.” The shemale paused thoughtfully. “Or at least, nothing you might believe.”

“You just told me something.”

“Doesn’t count.” The shemale’s glowing teeth were not pointed, yet she knew somehow that they were terribly sharp—sharp as knives. What a horror it must be to have teeth like that!

“What does your father want?”

“You.” The shemale moved off.

What if he cannot have me? “You mean he asked your semi-sibling to call me. What for?”

“He wasn’t paid. He must do what Father says. So must I.” This was said without looking back.

All right, two can play that game. A black leather divan waited between pillars. She crossed the room to it and sat down. There was a mirror in the shadowy distance, and she studied the images in that. Did she look tough enough? Clever enough? How tough was she? Really now? Though she did not move, the she in the mirror brushed back a lock of dusky hair.

A tall woman appeared at her left elbow. She looked around, half-expecting to see no such woman; but there was indeed a lofty figure wrapped in black there.

“May I sit with you?”

“I am sitting without permission,” she remarked at length. “I will make no objection to your sitting, at present.” She hesitated. “Are we inside or outside? I thought I knew but . . .”

“You have come to doubt yourself.”

No. To be rid of doubt. She nodded.

“What you see could be a dream, an illusion. An hallucination—”

“Or a reality,” she finished.

“Not so. No one can see reality. The mind processes a pattern of light reported by the optic nerves. The mind interprets that.”

“What if I were to touch you?”

The tall woman—seeming even taller now that she was sitting—laughed. “Your touching me would have no effect. Everything is unreal and real. We may see the real part or the unreal part.”

“Or both.”

“Or neither. I look for oranges, I see apples which are figs.”

“Really figs?”

“Is anything?”

“May I speak to Fil?”

The woman in black laughed. “Of course not.”

“Why not? We communicated. That’s why I came.”

“He has left, gone deaf, is sleeping or insane. More if you like.”

She nodded. “I understand. Unending fantasies and failures bar my way.”

“Those you dispatch, you will leave behind you. When you have gone, they will rise and make haste so as to be ahead of you.”

“Fil and I spoke shortly before I landed. Fil has golden hair and the voice of two poets.”

“You thought him here.”

“He said he was. I had no reason to doubt him. He promised to show me the Egg, so he must have been here.”

“He was on a seaplane flying at a depth of five hundred fathoms.”

“I take it the plane is bound for a volcano.”

The tall woman in black said nothing.

“I have come to see the Egg.”

“Or something else. Or nothing.”

“Fil knows that—knows why I came. I told him.”

“He is dead.”

“You said he was on a seaplane.”

The tall figure in black laughed. “Now I say that it crashed. Answer, clark!”

“Into the sea, you mean.”

“It struck the side of a submerged mountain.”

“I brought you something.” Reaching into a pants leg, she produced a bauble.

The black-robed woman stared through tall eyes. “Is this valuable?”

“It is invaluable.”

“Then come.” The black-robed woman led the way to a crystal pillar standing among ferns. “I have no reason to spare you.”

She went closer, to better see the Egg behind the crystal. It was copper-brown, with dots of rose, sallow, and ebony.

“In there? Is all the old humankind in there?”

The black-robed woman nodded, but by then she had seen the crevice, a crack no longer than her smallest nail. It grew by the width of an eyelash as she watched.

She stepped back, and fled.

Gene Wolfe attended Edgar Allen Poe Elementary School and has never quite left the ghoul-haunted woodlands of Weir. If you like this little story, you might look for Innocents Abroad, Endangered Species, The Best of Gene Wolfe, and other collections. He is old now, a widower who lives in Peoria, Illinois. But why should you care?

At my request, he supplied this afterword to his story.

Laugh if you like, but I feel a deep kinship with David Drake. As far as I know there are only three fantasy and science fiction writers who have actually gone to war and gotten shot at: David, Joe Haldeman (who was severely wounded), and me.

That’s a shame. Combat makes you experience a different reality. It teaches you that the calm of ordinary American life is in fact the calm of an extraordinary time and place. Homicidal people, it seems, are not confined to certain defined hours and channels on TV. You yourself are a homicidal person and so are all your friends, if you’re lucky. Explosions are not a mishap that occurred in an oil refinery in Oklahoma seven months ago. The most recent explosion was seven seconds ago and about five yards off, and here comes another one so stay down! Ditches are to live in, and women largely legendary. For all its virtues, science fiction must present a world that seems more or less plausible. The future will not be plausible. It never is.

Thus the story you have just read.

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