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Laurie Tom has been entranced by science fiction and fantasy since childhood and has never been able to stop visiting other worlds. Her work has also appeared in venues such as Strange Horizons, Galaxy's Edge, and the Mammoth Book of Dieselpunk. This is her fifth appearance in Galaxy's Edge.

 THE WORLD YOU WANT
by
Laurie Tom

I was fifteen when the world ended, on schedule, as predicted, by a man no one important took seriously. The world convulsed, the sky bled red, and hell came to earth. It is the cycle, the demons tell us. Our time is past and they will feast on the leavings.

Brandon and I spend most of our days scavenging and talking to ghosts who forget the world they knew no longer exists. They still wander the old community garden, inquiring about the crops and complaining about the hole in the maintenance shed that Brandon patched months ago.

The water situation is particularly bad. Plumbing no longer works and southern California is naturally a desert. I have to barter with a crow spirit who guards the nearest well, a magic one dug by no human hands. He is not hostile to humans so long as they pay. He takes avocados, potatoes, carrots, and other produce from our garden.

"Listen," the crow calls to me. "The cycle is moving."

Death and rebirth. I know. Our world is gone, and a new one will come. I set my bucket on the ground and take out today's payment. The fruits and vegetables pile beside the well where the crow can see them.

"What tells you this?" I ask.

I don't really expect an answer. Demons only reply if it suits, and their words don't always address what was asked.

"The light shines from the peak. Soon there will be fighting."

The crow cocks his head to the southeast as though he can see something great in the distance. I see only old buildings bathed in the light of the afternoon sun. Empty.

"The Bank Tower," says the crow. "It will be there. A human will have to make a decision."

"What kind of a decision?"

"An important one." The crow pecks at his payment. "Take the water," he says, before snapping a carrot in his beak and flying to his nest.

I fill the bucket and it is heavy. It's the big kind a person uses when mopping floors. Now it carries clean water. The crow is not cheap, but his water is good. The rain is acid when it comes. We try not to drink it and the stores have been looted long ago.

When I get back to the house, I find the front door open and Brandon's backpack on the patio. It is stuffed thicker than I've seen in months and his canteen hangs from one side. His baseball bat sits beside it. Brandon emerges from inside the house. He eyes the water.

"You can put it down," he says, and I do.

"Are you going somewhere?" I ask, though the answer is obvious.

"Downtown."

Downtown Los Angeles is miles from here. Before the world ended it was a half hour drive through city traffic. On foot it would take several hours. I can't imagine why he would go there. Then I remember the crow spoke of the US Bank Tower. It is the tallest building in downtown.

"Did you decide—"

He cuts me off. "I don't feel like talking about it." His voice is surly as he snatches the canteen from his pack and dunks it in the bucket. It fills quickly as the air escapes. Glub. Glub.

When are you coming back? I want to ask, but instead I say, "Can I come too?"

He eyes me. "If you hurry."

I sprint to my bedroom in the back of the house. This wasn't my house originally, or Brandon's, but our homes still sheltered the ghosts of our families. My mother couldn't know that it was no longer 4 p.m. on a particular Wednesday of last year, so she would always nag me: "Eun Hee, why aren't you at tutoring? Eun Hee you need to study harder to get into a good university." She never called me Joan like my American-born friends.

The house I share with Brandon has no ghosts. Either no one had died here or the demons had eaten them. Either way, it isn't as though the owners still needed it. Brandon was the one who suggested we take it, and I had to agree it was a good decision.

I grab my backpack, check that I still have a change of clothes and my first aid kit inside, then dash for the kitchen where we keep our dried fruit and demon bread. The bread is not evil, at least not in any way we can tell, but without flour we can only obtain bread through bartering with the demons. Brandon always leaves that to me. He won't talk to them.

I put both bread and fruit in my backpack and jog through the living room to the front door. To my relief, Brandon is still waiting outside, though at the end of the walk by the street.

I close the door behind me. We don't have the key so I can't lock it, and I worry that we will come back to a ransacked home, but Brandon does not seem concerned. He looks to the southeast. It's the direction of downtown.

"Do you know how to get there?" I ask.

"Yeah." He has a faded street map with him, something he found in a desk of one the homes we stayed in.

We set off with him in the lead and me following close behind. Brandon carries his bat, sometimes over his shoulder, sometimes by his side. Some demons are congenial, even if they are not inclined to be friends. Some demons ignore us. But other demons frown on humans and would leave us as so much blood smeared on the walls and sidewalks in front of buildings. We find people like that sometimes, so Brandon carries the bat. He knows demons can be killed. He's the only person I know who's killed one. But still, some are better to hide from.

Brandon and I were classmates in geometry, and until the world ended we'd barely said two words to each other. But when the world heaved and most people became ghosts we were the only two left in the school.

We've seen other people since; living ones. They're furtive, scurrying like we scurry. They rarely talk to us, as if by banding together in a larger group we would draw unwanted attention—and we would, the same way a single feral dog is a nuisance and a pack must be put down.

We do not reach the Bank Tower by sunset, having left too late in the day, so we spend the night huddled in two layers of clothing on the eight lanes of the 101 freeway. There are still cars parked, bumper to bumper, frozen in early rush hour traffic. Uneaten ghosts linger in them, usually in the driver's seat, sometimes in the passenger's.

Brandon finds a gap between the cars where we're unlikely to be seen by hungry demons. I can hear a ghost mutter, "I'm gonna miss the game. I'm gonna miss the game." It stops now and then, but the words don't change.

"What's downtown?" I ask, hoping he won't rebuff me a second time. We've just eaten dinner and he's usually nicer after some food.

"The tower," he says, and though I'm sure he means the US Bank Tower, I can't help but ask for confirmation.

The moon is full tonight and I can see his face. He glares at me as though I'm stupid.

"Of course the US Bank Tower," he mutters. "You'd have to be deaf not to have heard all the demons ranting about the Decision. Everyone's going there."

"Including the demons?"

"Everyone human. It takes a human soul. Haven't you been paying attention? You're always talking to demons. More than you should."

I talk because I don't know how to fight and I'm not good at hiding. If the demons think I'm harmless, they might not hurt me and I won't be a blood smear on the side of a building. I know talking won't always work, but if the demon is willing to hear me, then it's at least worth a shot.

"I've made my Decision," he says, with an air of finality. "If you haven't made one, that's fine by me. It's probably better that you don't."

"Can you at least tell me so I know whether I should?"

He rolls over and settles his head on his backpack. He intends to sleep. End conversation. "Better that you don't," he says. "You'll thank me later."

I wake the next morning and do not see him. His backpack is gone and when I look around there are only empty cars and ghosts. Maybe he's scouting ahead, I tell myself, and there's nothing to do but put one foot in front of the other and walk down the freeway. The downtown area is in sight.

My stomach rumbles, reminding me of breakfast, but I don't touch the bread in my backpack. Eating will slow me down and I can't be a burden to Brandon. He's the only other human being I have in the world. Even if we don't always get along, even if he's abrasive, at least he's company.

When the world ended he was the one who figured out how to store food now that refrigerators no longer had power. He was the one who could pick out the quickest escape route when demons were near. He broke into homes, stores, getting us food, shelter, and supplies. He might listen to a demon, but he would never trust one.

At first he seemed to like caring for me, and I tried to repay him by being a good housekeeper, so I wouldn't have to rely on his charity, but there was no denying that I needed him more than he needed me.

The US Bank Tower rises above the rest of downtown. It is a distinctive building not only for its height, but its cylindrical shape. I'd never been there before. Downtown L.A. was always crowded and there was no reason to visit what was really an office building.

There is an off-ramp from the 110 to 4th Street, and while I have no idea if this is the closest one, it looks close enough.

That's when it hits me. Brandon really did leave me behind. I'm not going to catch up with him. I don't even know if he went this way. I've spent all morning, walking as fast as I can, but he's nowhere in sight and the demons didn't get him or I would have been taken as well and we'd both be piles of bone and gore.

I stumble to the bottom of the off-ramp and blunder into an SUV halted in the intersection. There's no ghost in this one. I don't hear muttering, but I don't care anymore.

I curl up and sob, because now I'm alone.

After a time I become aware of the sound of wings beating above me. Something is circling. There are no normal birds anymore so it can only be a demon. I am probably dead, lying out in the open like this, and I find I almost don't care. Almost.

I raise my head and through puffy eyes I see a winged serpent silhouetted against the morning sun. The demon sails lower, sweeping to the ground.

"Why do you cry?" he asks. "There are no plants here for you to nourish."

He is a splendid creature, with feathers like the rainbow and teeth like a shark. His eyes are shiny and black, like obsidian. I call him Quetzalcoatl after the Aztec god. Whether he is or not he puffs his chest with pride and I think he won't eat me.

"A human's tears aren't enough to nourish a flower," I say.

He tilts his head. "No? But they are enough to feed a new world."

"The Decision," I say. "What is it?"

"The birth, the coming. As it was, as it has been, as it continues to be. Worlds and then worlds in an endless cycle." He pauses, perhaps reflecting. "You should make yours soon."

"But what am I deciding?"

"What else? Time in this timeless world is running out. Already the cycle draws to a close."

Brandon was in a hurry to get to the US Bank Tower. He said everyone is going there. I look to its peak and it shines with a blue light that comes from no lamp.

"Will you nourish a new world?" asks the serpent.

"What will happen to this one?"

"Does it matter?"

The buildings downtown are worn and tired at the street level. Doors and windows have been broken by scavengers and there are dull smears where the unfortunate have died. I see no ghosts anywhere. The demons have eaten them all.

I say, "It matters to you, doesn't it?"

"It does."

The serpent spreads his wings and lies down before me. His torso is as wide as a small horse. "I will carry you as high as I can," he says, "for you are already very late."

I climb on and cling tight to his neck, knees bent to keep from scraping the ground as he takes off. Then we are flying, soaring upward on his beautiful feathered wings. Other demons soar around the peak of the Bank Tower. Though I can see the skyscraper's helipad through the wild throng, none of them approach it. A few attempt, but are rebuffed by an unseen force. They are watching something. I see small figures, humans, moving on the rooftop and I don't know why. Aren't they afraid of the demons?

The demons pay us no mind. Even below the peak, all eyes are looking in through the windows. I catch a flutter of movement. Black feathers? But the important thing is I see an open window. Shattered.

"Over there!" I shout, and I point though I realize the serpent probably can't see me.

He spots the opening regardless and sails close.

"Beware the glass," says the serpent, as I dismount and watch where I step.

"Thank you," I tell him, and I bow once I'm safely inside.

The serpent nods and flies away.

I look up at the ceiling as though I could somehow gauge how much higher I had to go. The very structure is humming and I'm at least few floors down. I need to find the stairs.

The exit signs in the hall are no longer lit, but they point the way regardless. The stairs are on the other side of a heavy door which I push open as hard as I can. There is resistance on the other side that suddenly gives way. The air of the stairwell smells thickly of blood; sweet and full of iron.

I see the source of the resistance, a man on his hands and knees. His white collared shirt is splotched with dirt and blood. He's been shot, multiple times. In his hand is a broken ruler—sharpened plastic. It's a poor weapon, but he clutches it to him like a rosary. It's all that keeps him from death. Well, a quicker death.

"I can't make a Decision anymore," he breathes. "Please, just leave me alone."

I nod, and carefully step around him to go up the stairs.

"But if you would, if you like my Decision..."

I look back at him. It is taking so much for him to talk.

"I wanted a world where people had to respect each other, a world where everyone was civil and cared about others..."

I nod again, to show I've heard, but I don't think he sees me anymore.

There are more bodies and dying people as I climb the tower. Those still living plead their cases for the new world.

A world without sickness and death.

A world with only one god.

A world where no child is unwanted.

But I come to realize that no one world can satisfy everyone, and what disturbs me the most is that none of these people died to demons. The wounds are from guns, from knives, or blunt trauma. There are no claws, no fire, no teeth, or unholy elements.

Others must have realized before me that there can be only one new world, and they'd fought to ensure the one created was the one they wanted.

"Please," says a woman, "there can't be more than two or three ahead of me. I don't want anything special—just the old world back. It wasn't so bad, was it?"

I step over her and reach for a battered door, held shut only by its natural resting position, and not by its busted latch. It's the door to the roof. Heart pounding, I can only think of Brandon. He hasn't been among the bodies I crossed.

The roof is bathed with the blue light I'd spotted while riding the serpent. Oddly it is dimmer now, and seems to be coming from still higher above me. The helipad is nearby, chain link surrounding its base should anyone fall. I find the steps up. There is another corpse along the way. This one's skull has been beaten.

I draw eye level with the helipad and the sight is horrible. The helipad's number 12, painted in red, blends with the blood from the myriad bodies crowded around the base of a clear obelisk. It is from the obelisk that the blue light shines. Even as I approach, it continues to dim, and I can look at it without blinding myself.

There are two figures still on their feet. No. Only one. Brandon. The other man is being stood on his toes, his collar snug around his neck, as Brandon holds him fast. Brandon has his baseball bat, stained a terrible red. The other man is unarmed, but there is a gun by his feet.

"Brandon!" I shout.

He does not take his eyes off the writhing man he holds. "Why are you here, Joan? Did you actually make a Decision?"

"No, I—" I just didn't want to be left behind.

"Then you can help me make mine."

"What is it? What is the world that you want?"

It occurs to me that though Brandon and I have lived together for almost a year, we never talked of any hopes or desires, unless they pertained to food, shelter, or demons.

"Even you'll like this one." He glares contemptuously at the man he holds and shakes his captive when the other man tries to speak. "Even this guy would too."

"Can't you let him go?" I ask. "He doesn't have a gun anymore."

"My world," says Brandon, undeterred, "is one where no one ever needs another person. You won't have to rely on anyone to take care of you. I won't be obligated to help. Everyone would be self-sufficient. Wouldn't you like that? To not need other people?"

I'd never considered such a thing, and I can't quite believe such a world could exist. If we didn't need each other for anything, not even companionship, would we all live alone?

Brandon takes my silence for acceptance. It has always been this way when we made decisions that I didn't like.

"Finish this guy then, while I hold him. Pick up his gun."

I hesitate.

"It's not that hard to use. Just point and shoot."

The man babbles. He doesn't care about making a new world anymore. He just doesn't want to die.

"It's not that," I say. "Why do we need to kill him?"

"Each person who dies in this tower weakens the barrier withholding the rebirth. Have you notice they leave no ghosts?"

Now that he mentions it, I haven't seen any, nor any demons who would have eaten them.

"Their spirits are filling the obelisk, and when there are enough the walls will be weak enough to release the rebirth."

"The rebirth is powered by human souls?"

That's not the kind of world I want...

Brandon scoffs. "They're already dead. It'll get us and any remaining humans out of this hellhole and into a new world where there won't be any demons."

The other man suddenly twists and kicks. Brandon swears, releasing him as he grabs his baseball bat in both hands. Before I know what I'm doing, I throw myself at Brandon, arms outstretched. I don't want him to kill someone.

We collide, and he stumbles mid-swing. He wasn't expecting me. I feel myself falling and I try to correct myself, but my feet and legs aren't responding. I spin to one side, trying to get an arm out, when I slam against the concrete. It hurts and the wind is knocked from my lungs.

Brandon is screaming. It takes me a while to recognize his voice. I've never heard him scream like this before, so obviously in pain. Nothing ever hurts Brandon enough for him to scream.

But this... This is nothing he's expected.

I lift my head, trying to see him.

I had pushed him into the obelisk and it had broken like so much glass. I hadn't realized it was so thin.

Beware the glass. I remember.

The shards bury themselves in his body, digging in like maggots, and he is bleeding from so many places his skin is slick and red. He flails, kicking, and I watch as he grows weak, his movements less vigorous, less frantic. Not once does he look to me. He has never wanted my help.

The light, dimly shining, even after the destruction of the obelisk, goes out as Brandon ceases to move.

So much for the new world.

The other man stares in disbelief, then staggers away, back to the stairs. I see a familiar crow flying overhead, weaving in and out among the other demons. They are all watching.

I have never liked Brandon, but at least he was company, and at times, in his own way, he'd been kind. I remember our early days, when there had still been hope, and he killed a demon to save me. I'd been a blubbering mess and he told me, "Don't worry. I've got you."

Now Brandon is just one of many bodies lying by the remains of the obelisk.

"It is time for the new world."

I look up and through blurry eyes I see the crow, standing before me.

"But the obelisk was destroyed."

"As it was meant to be, and the final soul that was needed was captured atop this tower. Have you made your Decision?"

A world where people don't need each other. It was a promising world, but I realize I like needing and being needed. I would not exist in a world such as Brandon envisioned.

There is a touch at my shoulder, and I turn to see the feathered serpent I called Quetzalcoatl. He says nothing, but licks beneath my eyes, taking away the tears.

"Does there have to be a new world?" I ask.

The helipad around me is covered with so much death. This tower is a mausoleum of worlds that did not agree.

"No," says the crow.

The conflict between people would not be erased with the creation of a new world. I had only to lift my head to see the pain and destruction that the want of one had caused. For a brief moment, I consider a world where I am never alone, where I am appreciated, but I realize I could never force others to befriend me.

I place my hand on the wing of the feathered serpent. His eyes glitter bright and a loud thrum issues from his throat.

"I don't want a new world," I tell the crow. "Let this one remain."

"So it is done!"

The crow's voice thunders from atop the skyscraper and the demons wheel in the sky like flocks of birds before scattering. I am not certain, but I think a few of them bow to me before they leave.

The feathered serpent extends himself before me, beckoning me to mount, and the crow hops on to my shoulder. My life will be different now, but I find myself unafraid. However strange my new companions are, I am not alone.

Copyright © 2016 Laurie Tom

 

LIMITS
Larry Niven

An extraordinary mix of fantasy and science fiction from one of the masters of science fiction, Larry Niven.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

HOME

The Editor's Word

FICTION
The Vampire's New Clothes
by Martin L. Shoemaker

Penguins of Noah's Ark

by Larry Hodges
At the Mouth of the River of Bees
by Kij Johnson
The World That You Want
by Laurie Tom
Capricorn Games
by Robert Silverberg

Pure Beauty and the Beast

by Mike Resnick

Patent Infringement
by Nancy Kress
Leslie's Love Potion #4
,
by Dantzel Cherry
The Devil Walks Into a Bar

by Steve Pantazis

The Professional

by Nathan Dodge
Starlady

by George R. R. Martin

INTERVIEW
Robert J. Sawyer

by Joy Ward

SERIALIZATION
The Long Tomorrow (Part 4)
by Leigh Brackett

COLUMNS
From the Heart's Basement
by Barry N. Malzberg
Science Column
by Gregory Benford

Book Reviews
by Bill Fawcett & Jody Lynn Nye

 

Loosely based on Larry Niven's 1973 novella "Flash Crowd," Red Tide continues to examine the social consequences of the impact of having instantaneous teleportation, where humans can instantly travel long distances in milliseconds.

This is a theme that has fascinated the author throughout his career and even appears in his seminal work Ringworld, where the central character celebrates his birthday by instantly teleporting himself to different time zones, extending his birthday. The author also discussed the impact of such instantaneous transportation in his essay, "Exercise in Speculation: The Theory and Practice of Teleportation."

Larry Niven is joined by two younger writers, Brad R. Torgersen and Matthew J. Harrington, as they take on this challenging idea and further develop the theories and concepts that Niven originally presented in "Flash Crowd."

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His novel 1632 has launched an enterprise which has seen more than a 100 writers participating in some form or another and may be the most collaborative universe ever created.

To accommodate the huge demand (from readers as well as writers who wanted to write stories set in the universe), Eric created an online periodical called the Grantville Gazette which publishes stories set in the 1632 universe.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Copyright © Arc Manor LLC 2016 All Rights Reserved. Galaxy's Edge is an online magazine published every two months (January, March, May, July, September, November) by Phoenix Pick, the Science Fiction and Fantasy imprint of Arc Manor Publishers.