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Authors: Nancy Kress

Tags: #Science Fiction, #Short Stories

The Best of Nancy Kress

BOOK: The Best of Nancy Kress
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Subterranean Press 2015

 

The Best of Nancy Kress
Copyright © 2015 by Nancy Kress. All rights reserved.

 

Dust jacket illustration Copyright © 2015 by Tom Canty. All rights reserved.

 

Interior design Copyright © 2015 by Desert Isle Design, LLC. All rights reserved.

 

Electronic Edition

 

ISBN

9781596067226

 

See end of book for individual story credits. 

 

Subterranean Press

PO Box 190106

Burton, MI 48519

 

subterraneanpress.com

INTRODUCTION

 

How do you choose the best stories an author ever wrote? And why should the author be the one doing the choosing?

These are not trivial questions, because they bring along, like the debris unavoidably entangled in a comet’s tail, all the much-debated issues about “standards” in art. Are there objective criteria for judging a story “good”? If so, what are they? Or is the entire question of value purely a subjective one? I once had a woman say to me, “If I like it, it’s good.” Well—what if you like it and I don’t? Can a work of fiction be both good and bad at the same time? That makes nonsense of the very words.

Unless…

I think that stories are usually good in parts. Some have compelling, realistic, fascinating characters but the plot is predictable. Others are amazingly inventive in narrative but the writing is pedestrian: it never surprises, never soars. Others, especially in science fiction, explore fascinating ideas, but the characters have all the depth of a solar sail. Every once in a while a story has everything—character, idea, plot, language—and we gasp in admiration. But there are still readers out there who will hate it. This doesn’t imply the absence of standards or even the presence of wholly individual standards; rather, it means that some readers care only about one of the parts of fiction (a hero I care about! Weird aliens! A new scientific idea!). The other parts just don’t register, as all wavelengths of light not near 475 nanometers will be thrown back by an object that is “blue.” Nothing not-blue is absorbed.

I know readers like this. Sometimes I
am
a reader like this, disappointed by a story that does not satisfy the standards I happen to value most, even as I can recognize that the story includes other excellences. Sometimes this is true of a writer’s entire output. I’m not going to name names; I want to keep my friends.

The stories in this book try to do different things. Some, such as “People Like Us,” are predominately idea stories. Some, like “Laws of Survival,” are mostly interested in what a character would do in an impossible situation. Some, like “Unto the Daughters,” were written because I enjoyed writing the voice. At least one, “Casey’s Empire,” is a comment on writing science fiction: why, how, and at what cost one may become an SF writer. Just as I had different motivations for writing these stories, the stories themselves meet different standards of “good.” Or else they don’t—you, the reader, must judge that for yourself.

As to why the author was the one to choose her “best” from among over a hundred stories: because, after decades of waiting for editors to accept or reject manuscripts, it was just so much
fun
to finally be the one doing the choosing. A few favorite but very long novellas had to be left out due to length, notably “The Erdmann Nexus” (which won me my second Hugo) and “Fountain of Age” (a Nebula). But for the most part, for better or worse, these are the stories of my own that I like the best.

Now the judging is up to you.

AND WILD FOR TO HOLD

 

The demon came to her first in the long gallery at Hever Castle. She had gone there to watch Henry ride away, magnificent on his huge charger, the horse’s legs barely visible through the summer dust raised by the king’s entourage. But Henry himself was visible. He rose in his stirrups to half-turn his gaze back to the manor house, searching its sun-glazed windows to see if she watched. The spurned lover, riding off, watching over his shoulder the effect he himself made. She knew just how his eyes would look, small blue eyes under the curling red-gold hair. Mournful. Shrewd. Undeterred.

Anne Boleyn was not moved. Let him ride. She had not wanted him at Hever in the first place.

As she turned from the gallery window, a glint of light in the far corner caught her eye, and there for the first time was the demon.

It was made all of light, which did not surprise her. Was not Satan himself called Lucifer? The light was square, a perfectly square box such as no light had ever been before. Anne crossed herself and stepped forward. The box of light brightened, then winked out.

Anne stood perfectly still. She was not afraid; very little made her afraid. But nonetheless she crossed herself again and uttered a prayer. It would be unfortunate if a demon took up residence at Hever. Demons could be dangerous.

Like kings.

 

 

Lambert half-turned from her console toward Culhane, working across the room. “Culhane—they said she was a witch.”

“Yes? So?” Culhane said. “In the 1500s they said any powerful woman was a witch.”

“No, it was more. They said it
before
she became powerful.” Culhane didn’t answer. After a moment Lambert said quietly, “The Rahvoli equations keep flagging her.”

Culhane grew very still. Finally he said, “Let me see.” He crossed the bare, small room to Lambert’s console. She steadied the picture on the central square. At the moment the console appeared in this location as a series of interlocking squares mounting from floor to ceiling. Some of the squares were solid real-time alloys; some were holo simulations; some were not there at all, neither in space nor time, although they appeared to be. The project focus square, which
was
there, said:

TIME RESCUE PROJECT

UNITED FEDERATION OF UPPER SLIB, EARTH

FOCUS: ANNE BOLEYN

HEVER CASTLE, KENT, ENGLAND, EUROPE

1525:645:89:3

CHURCH OF THE HOLY HOSTAGE TEMPORARY PERMIT #4592

In the time-jump square was framed a young girl, dark hair just visible below her coif, her hand arrested at her long, slender neck in the act of signing the cross.

Lambert said, as if to herself, “She considered herself a good Catholic.”

Culhane stared at the image. His head had been freshly shaved, in honor of his promotion to project head. He wore, Lambert thought, his new importance as if it were a fragile implant, liable to be rejected. She found that touching.

Lambert said, “The Rahvoli probability is .798. She’s a definite key.”

Culhane sucked in his cheeks. The dye on them had barely dried. He said, “So is the other. I think we should talk to Brill.”

 

 

The serving women had finally left. The priests had left, the doctors, the courtiers, the nurses, taking with them the baby. Even Henry had left, gone…where? To play cards with Harry Norris? To his latest mistress? Never mind—they had all at last left her alone.

A girl.

Anne rolled over in her bed and pounded her fists on the pillow. A girl. Not a prince, not the son that England needed, that she needed…a girl. And Henry growing colder every day, she could feel it, he no longer desired her, no longer loved her. He would bed with her—oh, that, most certainly, if it would get him his boy, but her power was going. Was gone. The power she had hated, despised, but had used nonetheless because it was there and Henry should feel it, as he had made her feel his power over and over again…her power was going. She was queen of England, but her power was slipping away like the Thames at ebb tide, and she just as helpless to stop it as to stop the tide itself. The only thing that could have preserved her power was a son. And she had borne a girl. Strong, lusty, with Henry’s own red, curling hair…but a girl.

Anne rolled over on her back, painfully. Elizabeth was already a month old, but everything in Anne hurt. She had contracted white-leg, so much less dreaded than childbed fever but still weakening, and for the whole month had not left her bedchamber. Servants and ladies and musicians came and went, while Anne lay feverish, trying to plan.

Henry had as yet made no move. He had even seemed to take the baby’s sex well: “She seems a lusty wench. I pray God will send her a brother in the same good shape.” But Anne knew. She always knew. She had known when Henry’s eye first fell upon her. Had known to a shade the exact intensity of his longing during the nine years she had kept him waiting: nine years of celibacy, of denial. She had known the exact moment when that hard mind behind the small blue eyes had decided:
It is worth it. I will divorce Katherine and make Anne queen
. Anne had known before he did when he decided it had all been a mistake. The price for making her queen had been too high. She was not worth it. Unless she gave him a son.

And if she did not…

In the darkness Anne squeezed her eyes shut. This was but an attack of childbed vapors; it signified nothing. She was never afraid, not she. This was only a night terror, and when she opened her eyes it would pass, because it must. She must go on fighting, must get herself heavy with a son, must safeguard her crown. And her daughter. There was no one else to do it for her, and there was no way out.

When she opened her eyes a demon, shaped like a square of light, glowed in the corner of the curtained bedchamber.

 

 

Lambert dipped her head respectfully as the high priest passed.

She was tall and wore no external augments. Eyes, arms, ears, shaved head, legs under the gray-green ceremonial robe—all were her own, as required by the charter of the Church of the Holy Hostage. Lambert had heard a rumor that before her election to high priest she had had brilliant, violet-augmented eyes and gamma-strength arms, but on her election had had both removed and the originals restored. The free representative of all the hostages in the solar system could not walk around enjoying high-maintenance augments. Hostages could, of course, but the person in charge of their spiritual and material welfare must appear human to any hostage she chose to visit. A four-handed spacer held in a free-fall chamber on Mars must find the high priest as human as did a genetically altered flier of Ipsu being held hostage by the New Trien Republic. The only way to do that was to forego external augments.

Internals, of course, were a different thing.

Beside the high priest walked the director of the Time Research Institute, Toshio Brill. No ban on externals for
him
: Brill wore gold-plated sensors in his shaved black head, a display Lambert found slightly ostentatious. Also puzzling: Brill was not ordinarily a flamboyant man. Perhaps he was differentiating himself from Her Holiness. Behind Brill his project heads, including Culhane, stood silent, not speaking unless spoken to. Culhane looked nervous: He was ambitious, Lambert knew. She sometimes wondered why she was not.

“So far I am impressed,” the high priest said. “Impeccable hostage conditions on the material side.”

Brill murmured, “Of course, the spiritual is difficult. The three hostages are so different from each other, and even for culture specialists and historians…. The hostages arrive here very upset.”

“As would you or I,” the high priest said, not smiling, “in similar circumstances.”

“Yes, Your Holiness.”

“And now you wish to add a fourth hostage, from a fourth time stream.”

“Yes.”

The high priest looked slowly around at the main console; Lambert noticed that she looked right past the time-jump square itself. Not trained in peripheral vision techniques. But she looked a long time at the stasis square. They all did; outsiders were unduly fascinated by the idea that the whole building existed between time streams. Or maybe Her Holiness merely objected to the fact that the Time Research Institute, like some larger but hardly richer institutions, was exempt from the all-world taxation that supported the Church. Real-estate outside time was also outside taxation.

The high priest said, “I cannot give permission for such a political disruption without understanding fully every possible detail. Tell me again.”

Lambert hid a grin. The high priest did not need to hear it again. She knew the whole argument, had pored over it for days, most likely, with her advisers. And she would agree—why wouldn’t she? It could only add to her power. Brill knew that. He was being asked to explain only to show that the high priest could force him to do it, again and again, until she—not he—decided the explanation was sufficient and the Church of the Holy Hostage issued a permanent hostage permit to hold one Anne Boleyn, of England Time Delta, for the altruistic purpose of preventing a demonstrable, Class One war.

Brill showed no outward recognition that he was being humbled. “Your Holiness, this woman is a fulcrum. The Rahvoli equations, developed in the last century by—”

“I know the Rahvoli equations,” the high priest said. And smiled sweetly.

“Then Your Holiness knows that any person identified by the equations as a fulcrum is directly responsible for the course of history. Even if he or she seems powerless in local time. Mistress Boleyn was the second wife of Henry the Eighth of England. In order to marry her, he divorced his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, and in order to do that, he took all of England out of the Catholic Church. Protestantism was—”

“And what, again, was that?” Her Holiness said, and even Culhane glanced sideways at Lambert, appalled. The high priest was
playing
. With a research director. Lambert hid her smile. Did Culhane know that high seriousness opened one to the charge of pomposity? Probably not.

“Protestantism was another branch of Christianity,” the director said patiently. So far, by refusing to be provoked, he was winning. “It was warlike, as was Catholicism. In 1642 various branches of Protestantism were contending for political power within England, as was a Catholic faction. King Charles was Catholic, in fact. Contention led to civil war. Thousands of people died fighting, starved to death, were hung as traitors, were tortured as betrayers…”

Lambert saw Her Holiness wince. She must hear this all the time, Lambert thought. What else was her office for? Yet the wince looked genuine.

Brill pressed his point. “Children were reduced to eating rats to survive. In Cornwall, rebels’ hands and feet were cut off, gibbets were erected in market squares and men hung on them alive, and—”

“Enough,” the high priest said. “This is why the Church exists. To promote the holy hostages that prevent war.”

“And that is what we wish to do,” Brill said swiftly, “in other time streams, now that our own has been brought to peace. In Stream Delta, which has only reached the sixteenth century—Your Holiness knows that each stream progresses at a different relative rate—”

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