An academic’s whimsical decision to take a DNA test leads her into uncharted territory, where she discovers some extraordinary truths about herself and new possibilities for her future.

 

 

“We wouldn’t be having this conversation if you’d flunked Algebra, Griswold,” Roberts said, racking another shell into his hunting rifle and peering over our flimsy barricade. He was trying to see if the monstrous creatures beyond were preparing for another assault.

I was too busy reloading my 10-gauge to answer, even if I’d wanted to dignify his assertion. Algebra wasn’t the issue here.

Scientific curiosity was. And perhaps having had too much time on my hands.

I had to grant him that this was in every respect my fault. It was only his imprecision of language when it came to apportioning blame that griped me. And if I were being fair, that was probably me engaging in diversion, or sophistry, or whatever the technical psychological term for nitpicking the hell out of something to weasel out of it is.

Whatever: I’d been the one who sent in my spit sample to the online DNA testing folks, and I’d been the one who’d gotten curious about a weird little line item in the results, and I’d been the one who’d called up my old school buddy the geneticist to ask some pointed questions. Which—in my defense!—he’d been only too happy to investigate once his own curiosity was piqued.

And so here we were, on a strange planet under an alien sun, surrounded by twisted, non-Euclidean geometry; pistols at alien dawn with inside-out monstrosities which (presuming our hypothesis was reliable) wanted to eat our faces; and all the while attracting the wrath of dread gods. And it wasn’t even our first trip.

This time, we had been “prepared.”

My GoPro had been smashed by a lucky tentacle, so I couldn’t be sure how good our data was. But we knew where to find the gate to get us home, and we knew how to get there, and I was confident in our ability to make it. Even if we didn’t have my video, we’d have Roberts’s. And I had vials full of biological samples.

I took a deep breath of the curiously thin and unsatisfying air. Everything was going to be fine. Everything was going to be fine.

Probably.

That’s a little Unfathomable Magazine! Tales of Adventure Beyond the Stars for a quick synopsis, isn’t it?

. . . Maybe I’d better start at the beginning.

 

My name is not Greer Griswold. I’m approximately fifty-two years old. I don’t know who my birth parents were, and my adoptive parents are dead. I have never married; I have no children; I have very few close friends. I’m a physicist at a notable northeastern US institution you would have heard of if I named it. I’m not going to, any more than I’m going to give you my real name, because I have tenure but I’m not stupid. Being a woman in a male-dominated field isn’t easy, and I’ve never been terribly interested in Performing My Gender in the fashion that gets you accepted as a mascot by the boys. I’ve had my share of gross harassment, but at least I’m not pretty. Not being pretty spares me certain things.

I spend a lot of time alone, and I’ve learned to like it. Despite that, and because of the third fact above, and because I’m not getting any younger, I thought it would be interesting to get some genetic testing done and find out where my ancestors came from. And maybe . . . if I had any close relatives around.

Nieces, nephews. Somebody I could will my extensive collection of vintage Hot Rods toy cars to when I’m gone.

It’s one thing to embrace your alienation. It’s another to wake up on the first day of spring semester classes and realize you haven’t spoken to another human being since December 23, and there’s only so long you can go on ordering your groceries from PeaPod and scooping up cookie butter with ruffled potato chips in front of Netflix until two a.m.

No matter how self-sufficient you are, when you’re middle-aged and childless and unmarried . . . you start to hope maybe you’re really not as alone in the world as you think you are.

I still might not have done it, if my department chair hadn’t stuck his head into my office one afternoon in late August to let me know we had a new faculty member coming on board, and how did I feel about being their liaison during the onboarding process? I note, entirely for the record and apropos of nothing, that I am the only female tenured faculty in the physics department. I note, entirely for the record and apropos of nothing, that I do an estimated thirty-six percent of the emotional labor in my sixteen-person department.

Female grad students and admins do the rest. And it’s not like we’re any less introverted and non-neurotypical than the dudes. We’re just forced to learn to endure more discomfort in order to have careers.

I gritted my teeth in a smile. I said yes. I waited for the door to close.

I’d gotten myself the kit for my birthday (observed, presumed) and had been ignoring its existence ever since. I dug it out of my desk drawer and unscrewed the lid on the little plastic vial while I was still fuming.

I know those DNA tests are very broad and subject to a certain degree of interpretation. But the results are improving with better data, and honestly not everything in science has to be about doing science the right way with reproducible results subject to peer review.

Sometimes science . . . or packaged, processed science food, if you prefer . . . can be just science-y and fun. Also, it might be useful to know if I had any ticking time bombs in my DNA, medically speaking. Make those family history questions a little less stymieing.

 

Surprise.

 

I was gratified to learn I was nearly one twentieth Neanderthal. That’s about twice as much as most modern Europeans, and according to the genetics company, it put me in the ninety-ninth percentile of their customer base.

Those redheaded Vikings had to come from somewhere. And it was nice to think of all that cross-cultural communication and exchange taking place, all the way back to the Weichselian Glaciation.

That was interesting, and fun to think about. But other than the Homo neanderthalensis and the Scandinavian, I was a pretty basic New England mix. A little Irish, a little German. A little Broadly South European, which is probably Portuguese. A smidge of Native American or Southeast Asian. And then . . .

Undetermined: 10.2%

Ten percent. That’s a pretty big error bar there, genetics company that will remain unnamed.

 

Curiosity is probably my defining characteristic. I want to know how things work. I want to know why they work, and what happens if you alter the variables.

Sometimes it’s not the variables that alter on you, however.

Sometimes it’s the constants.

 

Of course I downloaded my raw genetic data and took it to my old friend Michael Roberts. If academics weren’t constantly taking advantage of one another’s skill sets, we’d have no topics of conversation at all other than who was cheating on their spouse and who wasn’t going to get tenure.

Anyway, Roberts and I went back to undergrad, when we’d been lab partners in an organic chemistry class that wasn’t in either of our fields but was required for both of our majors. We’d somehow gotten through the class, despite the lack of any apparent common language between either of us and the instructor. Years later, we’d wound up at the same institution, in different departments in the same college, and I still liked and trusted him.

What I wasn’t expecting was for Roberts to call me up at one a.m., voice shaking as he accused me of having a little joke at his expense. “Come on, Greer,” he said. “Tell me who you got to put this data set together, so I can mail them a dead badger.”

I looked at my phone. Without my glasses, it was just a bright blur in the dark of my bedroom. I put it back to my ear. “That’s right off the Real 46 website. If you want, I’ll give you my login and you can download a copy for yourself.”

He scoffed. “Well, I knew these companies played a little fast and loose, but this result is a mess and a half. Ten percent of the DNA doesn’t even match up to the human genome. Did you chew up a tadpole or something before you took the swab?”

“Ew,” I answered. “Hey, are you busy tommor— I mean, tonight? I’ll buy you dinner and you can tell me all about it.”

“Is it going to be sushi?” he asked, guardedly.

“It’s always sushi,” said I.

 

“The thing is,” Roberts said, hovering a roll of negimaki between his chopsticks, “they should have just admitted they couldn’t analyze a sample this contaminated. It must be chromosome bits everywhere.”

“I did not,” I said, “contaminate the sample.”

He popped the beef and scallions into his mouth and chewed, eyes closing. I leaned away from the smell.

The mackerel and scallops I was eating, on the other hand, were amazing. Sashimi is about my favorite thing in the world, and the pungent deliciousness of the wasabi lit up the spaces in my skull.

“Is it possible there’s something else going on?” I asked. “Not corrupted data but . . . a variant or a mutation? Something?”

“Possible,” he said dubiously. “All those Neanderthal variants also really look like an error, though.”

“Maybe the other stuff is Neanderthal variants too? I dunno, isolated genetic pocket?”

“You’re already at two hundred percent of anything we’d consider normal variation.” He sighed.

“Somebody’s got to be on the tail of the curve.”

More negimaki vanished into my friend, followed by sake. I’ve never been able to drink much. My mucous membranes hate the sensation of alcohol.

He said, “Oh, hmm. You know, I remember a story a colleague told me about a Ph.D. student of his whose dis was rejected. Something about impossible data the student kept insisting was verified. It wasn’t at our institution, though. It was wherever he worked before. Miskatonic, maybe?”

“That dis should still be in the special collections, then.”

“Yeah,” he said. “I’ve got an alumni dinner over there next month. I could pop by the library and see.”

“How is a failed dis going to help us? I mean, that’s not a source I’m going to cite with any confidence.”

He snorted. “Guy was doing some research about whether there were variants not mapped in the Human Genome Project, which was still in progress back then.”

“Huh,” I said.

“Anyway, you want me to check?”

“Can’t hurt.”

“Price of another dinner,” he said.

I had a small octopus in my mouth by then, and was chewing carefully, so I couldn’t interrupt in time to keep him from qualifying.

“Anything but sushi,” he said.

 

Well, Roberts found the mysterious dissertation. And what he found in it seemed to unsettle him greatly, though I didn’t understand the majority of his valiant attempts to explain the details. It was all highly technical stuff about chromosomes and variants in a field where my expertise stops at the four amino acids which make up DNA.

In any case, he felt a need to go and have a conversation with the guy who wrote the thing. And he wouldn’t hear of having that conversation without me present.

“It’s your research,” he said, as if it were the last word on the subject.

“First, it’s not research,” I argued. “I’d have to be a geneticist for it to be research. It’s idle curiosity. Second, it’s not entirely just mine.”

“Which one of us spit in the test tube?”

“Which one of us decided to go pull books in the special collections?”

“The results don’t make any sense!”

I let it hang there until he rolled his eyes and laughed.

And continued, “Anyway, I had no luck with a phone. Disconnected. Or email. None on file.”

“Well, that’s that, then,” I said, relieved despite myself.

“I found the guy’s address.”

“No.”

“Yes. His name is Albert Gilman. He’s out on Cape Ann.”

 

The day we picked to go down, it was raining. I drove.

We parked on the sandy verge of a seaside road. It would have been crawling with children, tourists, and boogie boarders on any sunny day during the season. Because it was bleak November and dreeking to rival the Scottish highlands, the beach was abandoned and there was plenty of parking.

We got out. I found myself standing by the car and sighing contently. The cool, moist air kissed my face and I couldn’t help but feel the tourists were missing out. The Atlantic was a planished sheet of titanium under a misty sky, obscuring any sense of horizon. The dune grass was faded straw, the masses of beach roses reduced to barbed stems festooned with fat rubies of rose hips, the only color in the entire landscape. On the landward side of the road, weathered cedar-shingle cottages wore a dull gray sheen that echoed the ocean.

Roberts walked up to a three-quarter Cape Cod–style cottage with a gambrel roof. I trailed him like a dog with separation anxiety.

We stepped in under the little peaked portico protecting the peeling, slate-colored door. Roberts rang the doorbell.

And we waited.

 

A cool breeze lifted the hair at my nape and jingled the pipes of a baritone wind chime. The waves shushed on the sand. From within the house, no sound or sign.

“Are you sure about this?” I whispered.

Roberts started to shake his head. The gesture half-completed, he froze, lifting one finger for silence.

A moment later, I heard it too. A heavy, slow squeak. The sound an old wood floor might make under the weight of a mattress, or a big piece of furniture being slid on a rug so it didn’t scrape. It wasn’t the step of a human being, no matter how sizeable.

Roberts leaned forward and tapped on the door. The knocking boomed unexpectedly, as if the house were empty of soft things. Fabric, furniture. Human things.

It surprised me so much I nearly fell off the steps, but Roberts was undaunted.

“Mr. Gilman?” he called through the door. “Albert Gilman?”

I put my hand on his shoulder. “Let’s go.”

He shook his head stubbornly.

An intercom mounted up in the angle between the wall and overhang crackled and popped. “Who are you?”

Roberts introduced us, and told the disembodied voice what we did.

“Doctor Roberts. Michael Roberts.” I wondered if the person behind the door had already forgotten my name. But then he said, “What the hell is a geneticist doing here?”

“Please, call me Michael. I came to consult you on your research. Can we come in?”

“No!” A pause, in which I imagined I could hear frightened breathing through the static. Then, slower: “Maybe you haven’t heard, but I washed out. Now get off my porch.”

A harsh click as the intercom cut off.

Roberts thumped the door just once and raised his voice. “Albert, Albert, wait! I think you were onto something! I think we can corroborate!”

The intercom again. “Corroborate what?”

“Your research. My friend here did one of those pop genetics tests and came back with some similar results to yours.”

Silence.

“Albert? We can vindicate your results.”

“Oh god,” he said. “I’m so sorry.”

I squeezed Roberts’s arm hard. “What do you mean?” he asked anyway. “Who was your research subject?”

A gulping sound, like a swallowed sob. “Me,” he said. “The source of the material was me.”

 

It was a long, silent ride home. Silent as far as Roberts and I were concerned, anyway. But I kept hearing Gilman’s last words echoing in my head, before he shuffled away from the door: “You have to go. You both have to go now.”

We didn’t, immediately. But the intercom went dead again, and more creaking following, seeming to move away from the door. Deeper into the house, and silence followed.

We knocked and knocked until the neighbors came out to stare pointedly, clutching their phones. But Albert Gilman would not speak with us again.

We drove away with his silence still hanging around us. Neither one of us seemed willing to break that silence for some time after. Until I pulled up in front of Roberts’s house, and he turned to me and said, “I have to know what’s going on.”

I’m not the only one with a curiosity problem.

“I know,” I said. “But I have no idea where to go next.”

“Yeah,” Roberts sighed, opening the car door. The rain blew in. “Me neither.”

 

Days went by, and I was still at a loss. To be honest, I didn’t necessarily have a lot of time to worry about it, because the semester was closing in fast on Thanksgiving break and finals, which meant the students were as needy and distracting as they always are that time of year.

By the time I felt like I had them halfway squared away and in control of themselves, and like I wasn’t totally abrogating my duty as a mentor and instructor, fate took matters out of my hands.

By fate, I suppose I mean the person of Albert Gilman, who mailed a package to my place of work right before Thanksgiving.

That’s less creepy than it sounds, because Roberts had given him our names and institution, which meant we were only a Google away. And the package was just a Priority Mail flat pack, postage provided by an online stamp service.

I opened it, remembering the Unabomber only after I already would have blown my hands off. Oh, well, I told myself. I was pretty sure it was too thin and flexible to contain an improvised explosive device, anyway. It probably just held paper.

Which was what I slid out. A map, water-stained and coming apart at the creases, folded inside out. And some sheaves of notes in an impenetrable hand.

A sticky note on the top of it all said, “Good luck, Dr. Griswold,” in the same difficult penmanship—if you could call it penmanship. The note seemed to have gotten damp at some point. It was creased and wrinkled and smelled faintly of salt water.

When I lifted it, I found more writing underneath. “By the time you get this, I’ll be gone.”

I drove back to Gilman’s cottage with the package on the passenger seat, pushing my luck with the staties on the Mass Pike. I could have called the police to check his welfare, I suppose, but the honest truth is I just didn’t think of it at the time. I only thought of getting there as fast as I could.

I parked where we had parked before and scrambled toward the house. The front door stood open. Sand had blown or been tracked in.

It was cold inside, and as empty as the echoes had predicted. The radiators were icy to the touch. The rooms contained just a few large beanbag chairs, damp from the sea air, and a musty mattress heaped with tangled blankets but otherwise unmade.

I approached—I had walked in the open door quite without premeditation, calling Gilman’s name. A few steps away, I noticed something papery, translucent, with a silvery sheen. It was wound among the blankets.

I crouched to examine it more closely. It looked like the shed skin of a very large snake, and I had a wild moment of fear that Gilman had been eaten by a pet python that might be napping the meal off nearby. As I leaned forward, a report like a gunshot scared me back onto my ass, kicking my way across the floor with my heels. I had scrambled nearly to the bedroom door when I realized something had just popped sharply under my extra-wide oxford. (Women with feet like mine don’t wear pumps.)

When my heart slowed, I spotted a tangle of black-green weed on the floor where it had dried and stuck.

Bladderwort.

The air sacs popping under my sole were what had frightened me.

 

I knew it was unethical, but before I left I found Gilman’s desktop—a Windows machine old enough to be a student in second grade—and used an anonymized browser window to back his documents up to my cloud before I left. I had no good excuse. Except I was convinced now that what he had sent me was a suicide note, and that he had sent it because he thought I had a reason to be frightened of whatever had ruined his life, too.

 

For a while I wished I hadn’t stolen the data. Except . . . it’s always better to know.

 

The handwritten notes were bad enough, once I invested enough eyestrain to decipher them. But the private blog I had stolen had—God help me—photographs.

This time, I called Roberts at eleven at night. “I need you to come over.”

He was groggy, obviously struggling up from sleep. “Dammit, Griswold,” he said. “I have an early class tomorrow.”

“Come over anyway,” I said. “It’s an emergency, and I can’t tell you on the phone.” Because I don’t believe it myself, quite frankly.

“I took melatonin. I really can’t drive.”

“Get the campus bus,” I said. “It runs until one, and the stop is two blocks from my house.”

I was lucky. My place is right across from the rugby field and I can walk to work in any weather barring a whiteout blizzard or a hurricane. Roberts had an apartment in faculty housing on campus. He’d given up his house after his wife died, and I worried about him. But he said the social opportunities were better.

I wouldn’t know. I avoid social opportunities except for the departmental schmoozing I cannot reasonably avoid.

He was there within twenty minutes, anyway. He probably could have walked it in fifteen. I let him in and showed him into the living room. I poured him a drink (I kept the bourbon in the house for Roberts) and a cup of coffee without asking, and handed him my laptop after he’d investigated each of them and set them on the coffee table.

Nervously, I started talking before he even clicked through. “This could be faked. I guess. But why would it be? He just left it on his computer—”

He stared at me. “You broke into his house?”

“It was wide open,” I said defensively. “Wait, let me start at the beginning. He sent me this. It arrived today.”

The papers rattled as I handed them over.

“I thought it was a suicide threat, and went to talk to him. When I got there the front door was open and”—I sat down heavily beside Roberts and spoke through my hands—“I think he walked into the sea, Mike.”

He nudged the whiskey I’d poured him over in front of me. “If I mix bourbon and melatonin you’re not getting an ounce of sense out of me. Go on, you look like you need it.”

I sipped. The burn clarified my mind and felt like it was going to peel the inside of my throat off. I gulped the whole two fingers and started coughing. How do people drink this stuff?

Roberts laughed at me, drank  some coffee, and paged through the file. Slowly, the smile slid off his face. “These are selfies. First one dated, what? Two years ago?”

I clawed at the back of my hand, which itched abominably. Psychosomatic. Definitely.

Roberts studied the screen, then studied me. He shook his head and looked back at the computer. My eyes were swimming.

Roberts said, “What’s he document— Oh. Oh.

“Yes,” I said. “He was changing. Into something . . . else.”

“Something . . . batracian,” Roberts said.

 

“Hey,” Roberts said at about three in the morning. “There’s something drawn on this map, Griswold.”

He held it out to me. I hadn’t really looked at it before, except to determine that it was a large-scale driving map of southern New England. The sort of thing nobody bothers wrestling with anymore in the age of smartphones and GPS.

But there was a circle and a little x in gray pencil on it. It had been folded to show the inset map of Martha’s Vineyard, and the mark was just a tiny bit off the coast, out from the wilderness preserve on the long, flat southern edge of the island, which faces the open sea.

 

It’s easy to get a car ferry berth in the off-season, weather permitting, although the ferries don’t run as often after Columbus Day. And I didn’t have any place to be on Thanksgiving. Neither did Roberts. Well, he had an invitation from his daughter out in Ohio, but he said he didn’t feel like traveling. I happen to know he can’t stand his son-in-law, which probably had more to do with it than holiday traffic.

We didn’t talk much on the trip through Nantucket Sound. Unspoken agreement took us out on the top deck, towards the prow. A stiff wind blew into our faces and the swells pitched us up and down, but here in the shelter of the Cape and islands it wasn’t as bad as it might have been. Even so, when we passed into the protection of the Vineyard’s two protruding horns of land—known as East Chop and West Chop for inscrutable, ancestral Yankee reasons—the sting of wind eased and I breathed a sigh.

We disembarked in Vineyard Haven, driving out of the belly of a ferry as big as a high school into a seemingly inexhaustible river of cars. The island air was brisk and salty. Houses and shops crowded the waterfront.

I wondered for how long this place could be saved. Surely the rising sea would claim it eventually.

There was money here, which might serve to protect it. And I supposed the historic homes, the elaborately painted gingerbread cottages, could be relocated to the mainland or up the hill to high ground, if the expense were deemed sustainable. Although the interior of the island was mostly protected forest. And if a few good hurricanes washed over it, I wouldn’t be surprised if the whole thing came out below sea level.

You can’t win an argument with the sea.

We drove around the circumference of the island. There were roads through the interior, more or less. But I wasn’t certain if they would get us across the island any faster than taking the highway around. And I wanted to see the ocean.

Cape Cod was just visible, a line on the northern horizon. Nantucket was too far over the curve of the earth to catch a glimpse. There’s no ferry between the islands in winter.

We’d stopped at the Black Dog beside the ferry terminal for coffee, and also gotten sandwiches for later. I used the paper cup to warm my hands while Roberts drove, and I tried not to be superstitious about folklore and fetches.

Black dogs are beasts of ill omen.

At last, having passed through Oak Bluffs and Edgartown, we came to the turnoff into the wildlife preserve. We parked. We’d have to hike in from this point.

We packed up the sandwiches, though neither one of us was hungry yet. We’d both gorged ourselves at the pie-and-breakfast place in Woods Hole before we got on the ferry. Lightly burdened, me carrying the map, we set out across the dune grass with Roberts in the lead. He frowned over his GPS: an old-school yellow plastic handheld one, because cell phones get intermittent reception in the islands. We were willful rebels against the signs warning us to prevent dune erosion by staying on the path.

 

Before long, we came to the real Atlantic. It took my breath away. Lines of waves marched to the open ocean; next stop, Africa. I tried not to think of Albert Gilman out there somewhere with rocks in his pockets, rolling in the deep.

He’d be on the other side of Cape Cod, anyway. Somewhere in Massachusetts Bay. His body would turn up someday, I guessed. Unless his peculiar transformation had been more than merely cosmetic and he’d returned to the deeps like a hatchling sea turtle.

If so, I hoped he’d make it. Lots of hungry things eat hatchlings, and anyone who’s been paying attention to the news knows there are plenty of sharks in the waters off the Cape.

 

We made our way down to the beach, which was littered with the detritus of the previous week’s storms: derelict limpets; the hulks of horseshoe crabs. We walked the margin for what seemed like a long time. It was hard going. Sand and worn pebbles turned under our boots and when we went closer to the water’s edge the waves played keep-away.

There was plenty of kelp and bladderwort mixed in with the wrack, and plenty of small dead things. A few living ones too. I surprised a hermit crab in a conch shell big as my hand, scavenging. It took off toward the water. I let it go. A faint cold smell of decay came in waves, like the sea.

At long last we came in sight of what I took to be the landmark circled on the map. A tumbled finger of heaped stones—perhaps what remained of an ancient jetty, perhaps an eroded igneous spur—pointed into the cold Atlantic.

Roberts stopped. “Wow, I do not want to walk out on that.”

“I will.” I’ve never been afraid of water, and the sea was not angry. There would be some scrambling, and my boots might get wet. The rest of me certainly would, for where the breakers struck the boulders, white spray arced up, flashing in the pale late autumn sun.

I took my cell phone out of my pocket and wrapped it in a plastic bag from inside my knapsack. And tied the bag closed to be certain it would keep the water out.

 

Grumbling, Roberts followed me. Middle age comes with its share of aches and pains. I’d been luckier than a number of my contemporaries and was not yet suffering from arthritis or more than the usual complement of farsightedness and achy joints. I managed to keep up with my program of kayaking, swimming, and hiking well enough to be reasonably fit. I was no Roberts—he ran half-marathons, and while he’d never be competitive he was a lanky, not-too-tall sort who still had an eight-minute mile—but I got by.

It was a good thing I wasn’t feeling scared, because the scramble was strenuous. I wished I’d brought gloves, heavy ones to keep the wet rock from abrading my hands. The black basalt had awfully sharp edges for being exposed to the power of the open sea, and the line of the finger was steadily ascending. As I walked it, I revised my estimation about the possibility of its being man-made, for I could discern no reason for humans to build a stone pier that rose to a peak out in the ocean. But the tallest rock looked flat on top, and at least the stairsteps lifted us above the spray and the threat of waves breaking over our path and washing us into the battering surf.

We reached the last rock and I revised my opinion again. The stones might have been a geological feature, a basaltic causeway of some sort. And, indeed, the enormous, squat, hexagonal basalt column we found ourselves atop might have formed by natural processes.

But the elaborate carvings marking its surface had not.

The top of the pillar was perhaps twelve feet in diameter, and when I glanced over the edge, I realized we had climbed, incrementally, a good two stories above sea level. I leaned quickly away from the vertiginous prospect, though it bothered me less than heights usually do.

I have never liked them.

As a distraction, I set myself to examining the markings carved into the tabletop-like plateau. I wasn’t quite sure what I expected—pictograms, or names and dates carved in an elegant hand—but it wasn’t a six-pointed star reaching point to point across the entire enormous Giant’s Causeway-style basalt crystal. There was an elegant inscription in the center, in a stonemason’s script that reminded me of colonial gravestones.

“Hey,” I said to Roberts, who was standing staring at the sea, “help me clean this off.”

He looked at me as if dragging himself back from interstellar distances. “Pardon?”

I gestured to the star. “Help me clean out this inscription. I want to see if I can make out what it says.”

We set to, and in fifteen minutes or so had the pebbles, sand, and bird droppings scraped away.

Latin?

I read a little Latin—a very little—but I hadn’t expected to find it here. Just one more piece of evidence that the eighteenth century had a higher standard of graffiti.

Roberts came to stand beside me as I leaned over the inscription and read: “Fer corpus meum animumque mecum nunc Carcosam.”

The world dropped out from under our feet.

 

Roberts and I hit hard, but not hard enough to hurt ourselves. We clutched each other and stayed upright, and found ourselves gasping up at a streaky, bubbling yellow sky flecked with black, unradiant stars. Not the kind of yellow sky which makes you expect a tornado. Not even the kind of yellow sky which results from a dust storm, or a forest fire. It was—and I say this advisedly—an uncanny color. A distressing color. It made me think of pus and the pulsating bodies of hungry maggots, and not in a good way.

I acknowledge there’s no good way to think about pus. There are probably good ways to think about maggots, if you’re an entomologist.

Self-consciously, I let go of my colleague. I felt terrible: achy and discombobulated, as if I had been fighting the flu.

“Right,” I said. “Well, we somehow wound up here. And we’re obviously talking about some very different physical rules.” I pointed at the pavement.

Roberts blinked at me. “Rocks?”

“Octagons,” I said. “Traditionally, they don’t interlock without small squares to make up the corners.”

“But honeycomb?”

“Hexagons,” I said. “Like the basalt pillar we were on. Your bathroom tiles, those are octagons. With the little black squares between the corners, because that’s how topology works.”

Well, that was how topology worked where we came from. Here, apparently octagons interlocked.

I hoped my amino acids didn’t decide to celebrate by becoming unraveled. I couldn’t be sure they weren’t already doing so. I felt hungover, wrung out, and like my cranium was full of kitty litter. Roberts, rocking on his feet, pressing a fist into his stomach as if to counter a sharp pain, looked even worse.

Chalk one up for Homo sapiens neanderthalensis.

“What the hell did you say?” Roberts asked.

Fer corpus meum animumque mecum nunc Carcosam,” I repeated.

“Sure.” If his tone were any more soaked in exasperation it would have been dripping. “But what does it mean?”

“Oh.” My cheeks burned from more than the—possibly mildly caustic—atmosphere. “Come with me, body and soul, to Carcosa.”

“Hmm. So this is Carcosa.” He straightened himself up and looked around. “What do we know about Carcosa?”

“There are some very weird towers in this city. If it is a city. I don’t see anybody who might live here.”

“These buildings do look like they were drawn by Dr. Seuss on cold medicine. The good stuff, with the codeine in it.”

My eye had been drawn by a flicker of movement embedded in the soupy horizon. If you’ve ever seen bats rise from under a bridge at dusk, or a murmuration of starlings taking flight, you have an idea what it looked like: varying pinpricks flocking in weird, uneasy patterns, stretching and collapsing, spiraling obscenely. It looked more computer-generated than real. I half expected to find it had been projected.

But whatever was flocking rose, and spiraled (obscenely), and rose again. I had the unsettling impression of it casting about, like a hound after a scent. The shapes coalesced into a writhing arrowhead and darted in our direction. I thought at first that they weren’t too far off— that they moved slowly, and were small. But then I realized they were bigger than human beings—the wingspans three or four times as long as I was tall—and they were very far away.

Far away, but coming fast, given the distance. Very fast indeed.

 

I put it in the file with interlocking octagons and got on with my life. A life which, currently, involved a frantic search of the surrounding area for someplace defensible.

“Greer,” said Roberts, “have you noticed that those are a lot of moons?”

“I have,” I said, casting about for a roof, a wall—anything that could serve to shelter us from a flying attack. “And they’re setting in front of those things flying towards us. And also in front of the towers and domes of the city.”

“Huh,” he said, in the bland tone of voice people reserve for real catastrophes. “Maybe they’re not actually moons, then.”

“Maybe it’s more topography.” I craned my head back and looked up at the sky. Something was making me nauseated, and I wasn’t sure if it was my strange exhaustion, or the seething yellow sky, or the way everything fit together entirely wrong. “Those flying things look like they have claws, don’t they?”

Just then, they began to swarm around the moons, or lanterns, or hot air balloons lit up from the inside, or whatever the hell those things were. The light shone through their bodies in unsettling patterns, as if through the gaps in the leaves of a Monstera deliciosa.

. . . as if through the gaps in a human rib cage.

“Oh god,” Roberts said, having apparently come to the same conclusion I had. “We could run to the towers.”

“I think they fly faster than we run.” Despite the enormous distances, the creatures were already much closer. I wondered when I would begin to hear the flapping of their leathery wings.

A voice I did not recognize spoke from behind me. “Very astute, stranger.”

I jumped, and turned in midair. Landed badly and staggered, but did not fall. I found myself facing someone—a man, sure. We’ll call him a man. He was naked, and his skin was rubbery black. His features were elegant, idealized. His eyes were gold, without sclera, with slit pupils like a cat’s. The eyes of a lion.

“Who are you?” I yelped.

“Does a trespasser demand my bona fides?” he mocked. “By rights, I should be asking you what brings you to Carcosa.”

“Accident.” I looked over at Roberts. He was dumbstruck, with his jaw hanging open. Apparently holding up the conversation was down to me.

And I was doing such a stunning job of it.

“That explains why you are standing here without shelter while the byakhee are rising in the distance, then. Oh, and why nobody has any guns.”

“Byakhee.” It was a strange word, and I rolled it around on my tongue.

They had nearly reached us. I felt my instinctive half-crouch, my readiness to throw my arms up to shield my face. But they broke off and circled, giving me lingering looks at their decomposed-seeming bodies that I could have quite happily survived without.

They made a terrible sound, a kind of gobbling shriek. It pierced my hearing. I slapped my palms over my ears, which eased the pain only a little.

The strange man turned his head toward me. An iridescent yellow reflection ran over his bald, poreless pate from the roiling sky. Somehow, when he spoke, his words came bell-clear through the terrible sound and my attempts to block it. “You really are an innocent. But I can smell your provenance on you. Come, let us advance past this annoyance.”

He held a glossy hand out to me. Gritting my teeth, I managed to yank my hands from my ears. I grabbed Roberts’s elbow with one hand, and the stranger’s fingers with the other.

The stranger nodded. Not to me. To the sky.

The roil increased. I felt as If I were watching one of those sped-up stop-motion films of cloudscapes tearing themselves around mountains. The moons crossed the zenith in spiraling synchrony and set—before the towers, on the other side of the sky. The byakhee whirled like vultures, faster, faster—until suddenly it seemed they were flung wide all at once, racing to the umpteen corners of the sky.

Nausea dizzied me. I doubled over. If I hadn’t been holding on to my companions, I would have put my hands on my knees.

As it was, all my effort went to not vomiting up my shoes.

While I was still gasping, two sickly conjoined suns rose: behind, I was relieved to note, the black domes and twisted, monolithic towers.

I was really astoundingly glad I was not a topologist.

“There,” the man said. He let go of my hand. I did not let go of Roberts’s. “They don’t love the daylight. Where did you come from?”

“There was a basalt pillar along the coast of an island. Martha’s Vineyard. I read some graffiti carved on it—”

“What on Earth were you doing there?” He put a funny emphasis on “Earth,” I thought, but I looked up at the twin suns in the yellow sky again, and wondered less.

I wasn’t sure what to say. Like Roberts, I opened my mouth soundlessly. Unlike Roberts, I closed it and tried again. What came out was a truth I had not even recognized until I spoke it. “I was looking for my family. The carving on the causeway brought us here.”

“To find your family, lost scion, you must look farther to the south than the causeway,” he said, almost kindly. “You turned in the wrong direction.”

“This place—”

“The gods of this place are related to the gods of that place. They are all very old.” He looked at Roberts. “None of them are the gods of your kind. You are fortunate that there are bonds of hospitality of a sort between your colleague’s people and those who dwell here.”

Roberts made a protesting noise. I hid a smirk. The reminder that he wasn’t always going to be first-billed would be good for him.

The stranger said, “Come along then, lost scion, I will help you get home. Follow me. And watch your feet while you walk. Humans find the topography confusing.”

“You don’t say,” Roberts muttered.

 

The stranger led us through ways that defied description, around buildings that seemed to twist into new shapes with every step we took. I felt as if I were walking at the edge of the CGI map of reality, so things flickered in and out and twisted in unlikely ways as the rendering failed and generally made me worry I was going to get stuck inside a boulder or something if I wasn’t careful.

I noticed I had grown hungry and thirsty only when Roberts held out a sandwich—somewhat the worse for wear since we’d purchased it at the Black Dog—to me. He didn’t say anything, and I took the sandwich with a nod instead of a word. It seemed perilous enough that our footfalls echoed wildly with every step.

I could not have told you how long we had been walking when we emerged onto the shore of a tremendous bay. Roberts, who had continued tensely silent, let out an enormous sigh. My own relief was as sharp. And as short-lived, because a moment later we both noticed the lapping waves were not water but some heavy vapor streaming like fluid between the stones. The stones were jagged, unsmoothed.

There was a smell in the air, autumnal as chrysanthemums but not in any manner floral. The suns were edging toward the horizon on the far side of the lake. The sky and the mist above it were shading to ruddy and orange. The first and darkest of the black stars prickled out around the edge of the firmament.

I shuddered as if a chill touched me. Would the byakhee return with the moonsrise?

“Here.” Our guide pointed to a set of menhir stones, steles carved in alphabets which wavered before my eyes—and not because I needed my progressives updated. “Step into that circle, and speak as you spoke before. You recollect the incantation?”

I nodded. “I do not wish to be transported body and mind to Carcosa, however.”

He spoke over his shoulder, walking away. “You’ll find another word on the stones. It is the true name of the place you wish to return to. This gate will take you there.”

I called after him. “What did you mean, look further south? There’s nothing south of there but the ocean.”

He waved airily and did not look back.

I took a step after him. I might have broken into a run, but Roberts caught my wrist.

I had so many questions. “What did you mean, you can smell my provenance?”

But—with a subtle pop of air rushing to fill a sudden vacuum—he was gone.

“We have to go back,” Roberts said.

I stomped my foot like a fifties stereotype. “Fine.” Two steps had us better centered between the upright stones. There were words scribed here, as well. I spat them out grumpily. “Fer corpus meum animumque mecum nunc Noepe.”

Another pop of displacement followed.

 

Astoundingly, I felt even worse when we came through on the other side. I fell—I probably would have gone flat on my face if it hadn’t been for Roberts hanging on to me—and skinned my knee right through my jeans. It turns out basalt has a little texture to it.

Roberts hauled me up again. He looked a little better than I felt, but his complexion was waxy and his hair looked . . . stiff, and frayed. Like a sick dog’s pelt.

I said as much.

He snorted. “You’re pretty green around the gills yourself.” Still holding on to my wrist, he led me toward land.

It was a long, cold walk back to the car. Night was coming on fast and a needle-sharp rain had blown up. I wondered how long we’d been gone; it felt like a week. My phone, when I unwrapped it and turned it on, told me it was a little over twenty-four hours.

The ferry wasn’t running because of the storm. We found a last-minute emergency hotel in Edgartown. They were as happy to have us as we were to find them: most people don’t come to the Vineyard in the late autumn, and most hotels don’t stay open past sometime in mid-October.

Sensibly, all around.

The lady at the front desk studied me quizzically. “You look familiar,” she said with a certain hesitancy. “Have you been here before?”

“First time,” I admitted, accepting the key card. I snuck a look at the edge of her computer monitor and was relieved to confirm my phone’s intimation that we’d only been gone overnight.

“Family on the Vineyard?” It might have been a cheerful tone. It might have been a leading one. But it was the sort of question anybody might ask. As so often happens when one has an unconventional upbringing, small talk brought me up short and sharp.

“I don’t know,” I admitted. “I’m adopted.”

“Mmm.” Her eyes shifted from me to Roberts. She handed him a key card too. “Have a nice night. You can park your car in the lot around the corner. Put this on the dash—it’s got a map to show you which lot. I’m afraid it’ll be a short walk back in the rain.”

“I’ll go,” Roberts said. “It’s not like I could be much wetter. See you for dinner?”

I didn’t argue for the privilege of suffering a tiny bit more. Roberts could have the moral high ground. There was supposed to be a big tub in my room and I was done in. I would have opted for room service—if a hotel this size, in the off-season, offered it.

 

The water helped with the winter itch of dry and scaly skin. I dumped the complimentary bath salts in, and that helped too, though I wasn’t sure peach jasmine ginger was really a scent suited to my personality. I scrubbed out the scrapes, including the bits of grit trapped in them, and was relieved when they didn’t bleed too much. My shins looked like they were covered with eczema, so I coated them with free body lotion (peach jasmine ginger) before I pulled my muddy, torn jeans back on.

They were what I had to wear, unless I wanted to go see if the Black Dog was still open and pick up some touristy sweatpants.

 

We had dinner in one of the four or five restaurants in town that stayed open all winter, and I ate an entire clambake—this place called it “Lobster in the Rough” and it was comprised of a forearm-sized lobster, clams, mussels, linguiça, potatoes, and corn on the cob—without any help from Roberts except when I had to fend him away from my sausage. When I found myself picking out the bits of kelp they throw in for that authentic buried-in-a-pit-of-coals-on-the-beach-at-low-tide flavor and dragging them through the remnants of my clarified butter before eating them, I gave up and ordered dessert. The kelp tasted even better than the potatoes, frankly.

I guess interdimensional travel takes it out of you.

Roberts did justice and more than justice to his own food. We didn’t talk much: what could we say, in a crowded restaurant? But he did look up from his pie at one point and say, “We need to go back and document that.”

“With GoPros,” I agreed.

He nodded. “And guns.”

We finished our food and went back to the hotel.

 

I hadn’t thought I would sleep, but I had reckoned without the combination of exhaustion, the enormous meal, and the hypnotic flicker of the Edgartown light along the horizon outside my sea-facing window. It’s a beautiful place, Martha’s Vineyard.

What a pity if the rising oceans do eventually wash it away.

I dreamed of undersea tourists gliding through the waters of the North Atlantic, no longer rich and murky with nutrients but as gorgeously transparent as any less fertile Caribbean sea. Their flippered feet kicked lazily, a dream of sunrays shining past them to illuminate the ruins of Oak Bluffs, of Tisbury, of Edgartown far beneath. They passed over Menemsha, a tiny hamlet whose industries are fishing and movie memorabilia—Jaws was filmed there—and I thought about the Boston Globe’s breathless coverage of the great white sharks that had returned to Cape Cod with the rebounding harbor seal population.

I guess they got the last laugh. If sharks laugh.

I was awakened by a cautious tapping sound sometime after midnight. I scrambled into some clothes—I hadn’t brought anything to sleep in, and I wasn’t about to expose Roberts to my dishabille—and opened the door a groggy, tousled inch.

There was no one in the hall. I checked twice. You know how it is when you’re sleepy. I closed and re-latched the door, and was about to decide I’d overheard somebody else’s assignation when the tapping came again.

My room had a balcony to go with its water view. This hadn’t been relevant to my objectives when I fell first into the tub and then into bed. Now I walked toward the sliding glass door, and the shape outside it that I could glimpse, every few seconds, limned in the glow of the Edgartown light. I felt as if I might still be dreaming. I felt no fear, just a curious attraction to the glass, as if I stepped up silently to the partition keeping me from some dangerous animal in a zoo.

Except I was the one in the cage, wasn’t I? Trapped inside this boxlike structure, while the creature out there stood comfortably in the rain sheeting down its pebbled neck and shoulders, in the light reflecting dark green as kelp from its wet, gleaming hide.

“Hello,” I said, as I pulled the sliding door open. Rain and wind whipped around me. The vertical blinds rattled like knives in a drawer. “I’ve been waiting for you.”

“We’ve encountered each other before,” the creature said in an awkward croak. “Well, after a fashion.”

It stepped inside.

 

“I met Albert Gilman last night,” I told Roberts the next morning. The rain had stopped, and we had taken our coffee up to the cold, exposed roof of the Chappy Ferry terminal. There were two ferries, and each could take about two cars at a time. They went back and forth across the narrow channel between Martha’s Vineyard and Chappaquiddick in a kind of square dance, each bending wide and reversing as they passed one another like partners swinging on the parquet. “He came to my hotel room.”

Roberts blinked. He sipped his coffee and looked away from the do-si-do-ing ferries. “That’s a hell of a conversational opener.”

“He’s gone a lot farther than he had in the documents he sent us,” I said. I glanced down at my own hand, and picked a thread of skin loose from a sunburned-looking patch by the base of my thumb.

“Oh,” Roberts said. He looked at me, mouth thinning. “Oh.”

“He wants me to come with him. To visit his people.”

Roberts nodded, as if knowing what I was going to say next. He looked at me, and kept looking.

I said, “Our people.”

Even if he had expected it, it still led to a long pause. “Is it safe? I mean . . . you can come back?”

“Yes. I can come back. He gave me a . . . a talisman. Until I’m better adapted to the pressure, and breathing water.”

“A talisman. That sounds like science.”

“It sounds like bullshit.” I choked on it, and laughed. But once I got it out, everything behind it followed in a hurry. “But maybe there is some science behind it. Maybe there’s science we can learn.”

“Maybe.”

“If I go will you wait for me?”

He laughed, this time. Forced, but not false. “It’s your car, Greer. I’m not going to steal it.”

“I’ll pay you back with a Nobel Prize in physics,” I promised.

“I’m a geneticist!”

I rolled my eyes so hard I gave myself a headache.

Frog people, Michael. Have you been tuning in?”

 

The waves curled around my thighs. Albert stood beside me as I stared out into the Atlantic. I touched the amulet on my breast. “You’re sure about this?”

He croaked laughter. “I’ve never been sure about anything in my life,” he said. “But the salt water does help with the itching.”

“But. What do they want with me?” What will they want from me? I couldn’t ask him that. He wouldn’t understand.

“To welcome you to the family,” he said. “ Once you’re ready to come live with our people full time, you’ll find a whole society. You’re one of us, and your children will know who they are from the start.”

I shook my head. “I’m past all that.”

“Some of the elders you’ll meet today are older than the Constitution,” he said. “You’re barely a teenager.”

I blinked at him. It was hard to tell, but I think he grinned at me.

We dove.

I knew the water was cold, but it didn’t feel cold. Albert was a shadow alongside me, drifting deeper and deeper, while the light grew dimmer and greener above. It was my dream, but the sea wasn’t lifeless. There were still clouds of plankton in the water; there were still schools of silvery fish darting away from us.

We swam down, and down. My lungs grew tired from the stress of moving water in and out and in again. My chest muscles ached as if I had been coughing for days. I envied Albert his gills. I touched the folds of my own throat hopefully: no luck.

Well, it would happen in time. I had grown confident, or perhaps resigned.

We descended. The pressure should have been unbearable, but it didn’t even make my ears pop. I wondered if I would need to fear the bends on our return. I did not swim as strongly as my companion. He would kick once with his flippers, then glide and wait for me to catch up to him.

I touched the talisman on its cord. I was pretty sure its help was the only reason I managed to stay close to him, even with Albert going easy on me.

Albert spoke as we swam. I could understand him, but I could not reply. He asked questions, which I could not answer; it turns out it’s not easy to make your vocal cords vibrate when your trachea is full of ocean water. The metallic salt of the sea filled my sinuses.

Albert asked if I was afraid, and said he had been. He’d been terrified. The language he spoke wasn’t English, but I understood it as well as if it were. Another gift of the talisman? Or something intrinsic in the instincts in my unclassified DNA?

I didn’t know. I’d find out, though. I was a scientist, and I was going where no scientist had both gone before and come back from. It wasn’t my field but that didn’t matter. I didn’t have the attention to spare from curiosity to waste on being afraid.

 

I was not sure what I had expected, but an entire glorious undersea city wasn’t it. An entire glorious undersea city existing in what should have been utter blackness, bioluminescing among the convolutions of deep-sea corals I had not even realized existed in the North Atlantic, swarming with large, pebble-skinned, sociable people.

 

They wanted me. They were interested in me.

They welcomed me, froggy eyes blinking, webbed fingers reaching out to touch my hair. They were curious and interested, and I was curious about them, too.

I could feel Albert’s concern: he hovered close and tried to shield me from the swarm of fishy, froggy people surrounding me. Englobing me. Presenting me with pretty shells and glowing bits of coral. Albert waved them away, but I got the impression they didn’t trust his judgment enough to let it override their own.

I felt like I was suffocating, and it wasn’t just the water in my lungs. I kicked away, knowing it was futile. They were bigger and faster. They belonged here.

I didn’t belong anywhere.

 

I burst through the surface, gasping as if I had been holding my breath, thick salt water scouring my throat as I choked it up. I cast about, looking for pursuit, but I was alone except for the steady flash of the Edgartown light over the dark water. I should have been shuddering violently, but the cold didn’t touch me.

Just as I drew a relieved breath of air, something big broke the water. I kicked myself around, expecting to feel teeth or clawed flippers—

It was Albert.

I was surprised to realize that I recognized him. I hadn’t thought about being able to tell the frog people apart: I’d just assumed it would be impossible.

Bad scientist. No biscuit.

“You ran away,” he said, his voice resonating through the water as his throat expanded.

“It was a lot of people,” I answered, and salt water got in my mouth. Under the circumstances, his system was clearly superior. “I’m not good at people.”

He held out a flippered hand. At first I thought he wanted me to take it, but I realized he was pointing back toward the horizon and the flicker of the lighthouse. In the east, the night was fading. “Do you want help getting home?”

“That’s not my home,” I said, and stopped myself before going any further. “Yes,” I said. “I mean, yes. And if I haven’t ruined things, I’d like to talk to you again.”

“Sure,” he said. “I’ve missed being around scientists.”

 

Everybody expects something from you, and it’s rarely for you to be yourself. It’s your job to put everybody else first. To take care of them.

Well, I’m tired of it.

No computers under water. No particle accelerators. No—to judge from what Albert said—scientists.

I’m not sure that is the place for me, either. I’m not sure the place for me exists.

 

The thin gleam of pale beach grew wider against the horizon. We talked as we swam, and I realized I was a better swimmer than I had been. I’d never been a bad swimmer, but now my body seemed to work with the water rather than against it. I mentioned it to Albert, and he croak-laughed deep in his throat pouches and said, “That’s only going to keep happening.”

“So I’m turning into a—I mean, I’m changing, like you.” Sand gritted under my flippers. I stood up. Waves broke around my thighs.

“Turning into a monster, you were going to say?” He loomed up beside me, half again my height and twice as broad, green-black hide camouflaged against the green-black ocean. “Look, what I’ve learned since I changed . . . we’ve been living peaceably alongside you Yankee assholes for generations. And you people come down and blow up Jeffreys Ledge and Stellwagen Bank every time you notice us.”

There we were, standing on the beach in November, yelling at each other through the rain. At least it would keep the beachcombers indoors. “Aren’t you one of us Yankee assholes, at least in part? You seem much more comfortable with the change than you did in the diaries you sent me.”

He turned and started walking away from the light. It was only a couple stories tall, and it sat right on the beach, surrounded by a low stone patio. I followed along behind him, my own gait less of a shamble.

For the time being.

“I’ve had time to get used to it. And . . .” Water splashed off his hide as he shook his froggy head. “I like the community. They . . . take care of each other.”

“Sounds a damned sight more humane than academia,” I deadpanned through chattering teeth. Now that I was out of the water, I was starting to get cold.

He croaked what I could only assume was laughter. “Well, I didn’t even have that, after . . . after I flunked out. Also, I know you never bombed Jeffreys Ledge. I’m sorry about that crack.”

“It’s okay,” I said. I reached out—reached up—awkwardly and patted his shoulder. “When did we bomb Jeffreys Ledge? Isn’t that where the whale watch boats go?”

“Nineteen twenty-eight,” he said. “But our people live a long time. Most of the ones you just met—”

“Briefly.”

“—remember.”

“Oh,” I said, doing math in my head. So most of them were more than ninety years old.

Most of us.

I remembered what he’d said about the Constitution.

“We’re here when you’re ready,” he said. “I should go back now.”

“What if I’m never ready?”

“You can’t avoid the sea forever,” he said. “It can outwait anyone.”

 

I returned to the hotel room. I took a hot shower. I still didn’t have dry clothes, but the room had a bathrobe. I put it on, and I went and rapped on Robert’s door. He opened it and stared at me.

“Do you have coffee? Or tea? I’m cold through the bones.”

“You’re back,” he said.

“For now,” I said.

He held the door wide. “Come in.”

 

How many physicists actually get to go to the stars? And pioneer a completely new field of physics? So, I’ve found an inexhaustible research subject.

And my family.

When I’m ready to deal with having a family.

If I’m ever ready to deal with having a family.

The ocean is big, after all. It might be a good place to be alone. Or maybe the Boston Aquarium needs a physicist. Or Woods Hole: is there such a thing as a deep-sea marine physicist?

There should be. I can always collect a few more degrees if it makes me more useful.

Why are my people in hiding?

I’m going to be the first frog people visibility activist. You see if I don’t. After all, it looks like, barring accidents, I’m going to live a very long time . . . barring accidents, inside-out monstrosities eating my face, or dread gods, I should say. But I’m tougher than humans are, and a firefight on an alien world against flying abominations is all in a day’s work.

I have tenure. I should have time to do a lot of science. And I imagine I will have a lot less to worry about from certain coworkers as my claws grow in.

In the meantime, I also have some hypotheses to prove about gate technology, and the biology of byakhee.

Which brings us back, I suppose, to Roberts and me, the flimsy barricade, and the need to get back to our gate home right away.

I racked my shotgun and met Roberts’s eyes. “In the immortal words of David Bowie,” I said, “I’m ready.”

We were going to be fine.

 

This story is for Marissa and for John.

 

“On Safari in R’lyeh and Carcosa with Gun and Camera” © 2020 by Elizabeth Bear
Art copyright © 2020 by Eric Nyquist



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