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An Episode of Stardust by Michael Swanwick


The lanky, donkey-eared fey got onto the train at a nondescript station deep in the steppes of Fäerie, escorted by two marshals in the uniform of His Absent Majesty’s secret service. He smiled easily at the gawking passengers, as though he were a celebrity we had all come to see. One of the marshals was a sharp-featured woman with short red hair. The other was a tough-looking elf-bitch with skin so white it was almost blue. They both scowled in a way that discouraged questions.

The train returned to speed, and wheatfields flowed by the windows. This was the land where horses ate flesh and mice ate iron, if half the tales told of it were true, so doubtless the passing landscape was worth seeing. But I was born with a curiosity bump on the back of my skull, and I couldn’t help wondering what the newcomer’s crime had been, and what punishment he would receive when he arrived in Babylon.

So when, an hour or two later, the three of them got up from their seats and walked to the saloon car at the end of the train, I followed after them.

 The usual mixture of unseelies and commercial travelers thronged the saloon, along with a dinter or two, a pair of flower sprites, and a lone ogre who weighed four hundred pounds if he was a stone. This last was so anxious to retrieve his beer when the duppy-man came by with a tray, that he stumbled into me and almost fell. “Watch where you’re going, Shorty!” he barked. “You people are a menace.”

“My people mined and smelted the tracks this train moves on,” I said hotly. “We quarried the stone that clads the ziggurats at our destination, and delved the tunnel under the Gihon that we’ll be passing through. If you have any complaints about us, I suggest you take them up with the Low Court. But if your problem is against me personally, then Gabbro Hornfelsson backs down from nobody.” I thrust my calling card at his loathsome face. “Be it pistols, axes, or hand grenades, I’ll happily meet you on the field of honor.”

The ogre blanched and fled, his beer forgotten. I didn’t blame him. A dwarf in full wrath is a fearsome opponent, no matter how big you may be.

“Well spoken, Master Hornfelsson!” The donkey-eared fey clapped lightly, perforce pulling the red marshal’s hand to which he was cuffed above their table. She yanked it back down with a glare. “I’ve convinced my two companions that, the way to Babylon being long and without further stops, there’s no harm in us having a drink or two together. If you were to join us, I’d be honored to pick up your tab as well.”

I sat down beside him and nodded at the briefcase the white marshal held in her lap. “That’s evidence, I presume. Can you tell me its nature?”

“No, he cannot,” the red marshal snapped.

“Stardust, moonstones, rubies the size of plovers’ eggs . . .” the fey said whimsically. “Or something equally valuable. It might well be promissory notes. I forget its exact nature but, given how alluring it was, you could hardly blame me for making a play for it.”

“And yet, oddly enough,” said the red marshal, “we do.”

“My name is Nat Whilk,” the fey said without annoyance. I couldn’t help noticing his Armani suit and his manticore-leather shoes. “And I believe that I may say, without boasting, that in my time I have been both richer and poorer than anyone in this car. Once, I was both at the same time. It’s a long tale, but—” here he smiled in a self-deprecating way— “if you have the patience, I certainly have nothing better to do.”

A white-jacketed duppy came by then to take our orders. I asked for a Laphroaig, neat, and the two marshals called for beer. Minutes later, Nat Whilk took a long sip of his gin-and-tonic, and began to speak:


I was a gentleman in Babel once (Nat began) and not the scoundrel you see before you now. I ate from a silver trencher, and I speared my food with a gold knife. If I had to take a leak in the middle of the night, there were two servants to hold the bedpan and a third to shake my stick afterwards. It was no life for a man of my populist sensibilities. So one day I climbed out a window when nobody was looking and escaped.

You who had the good fortune of being born without wealth can have no idea how it felt. The streets were a kaleidoscope of pedestrians, and I was one of them, a moving speck of color, neither better nor worse than anyone else, and blissfully ignored by all. I was dizzy with excitement. My hands kept rising into the air like birds. My eyes danced to and fro, entranced by everything they saw.

It was glorious.

Down one street I went, turned a corner at random, and so, by Brownian motion, chanced upon a train station where I took a local to ground level. More purposefully then, I caught a rickshaw to the city limits and made my way outside.

The trooping fairies had come to Babel and set up a goblin market just outside the Ivory Gate. Vendors sold shish kabob and cotton candy, T-shirts and pashmina scarves, gris gris bags and enchanted swords, tame magpies and Fast Luck Uncrossing Power vigil candles. Charango players filled the air with music. I could not have been happier.

“Hey, shithead! Yeah, you—the ass with the ears! Listen when a lady speaks to you!”

I looked around.

“Up here, Solomon!”

The voice came from a booth whose brightly painted arch read Rock! The! Fox! At the end of a long canvas-walled alley, a vixen grinned at me from an elevated cage, her front feet tucked neatly under her and her black tongue lolling. Seeing she’d caught my eye, she leapt up and began padding quickly from one end of the cage to the other, talking all the while. “Faggot! Bed-wetter! Asshole! Your dick is limp and you throw like a girl!”

“Three for a dollar,” a follet said, holding up a baseball. Then, mistaking my confusion for skepticism, he added, “Perfectly honest, monsieur,” and lightly tossed the ball into the cage. The vixen nimbly evaded it, then nosed it back out between the bars so that it fell to the ground below. “Hit the fox and win a prize.”

There was a trick to it, I later learned. Though they looked evenly spaced, only the one pair of bars was wide enough that a baseball could get through. All the vixen had to do was avoid that spot and she was as safe as houses. But even without knowing the game was rigged, I didn’t want to play. I was filled with an irrational love for everyone and everything. Today of all days, I would not see a fellow creature locked in a cage.

“How much for the vixen?” I asked.

C’est impossible,” the follet said. “She has a mouth on her, sir. You wouldn’t want her.”

By then I had my wallet out. “Take it all.” The follet’s eyes grew large as dinner plates, and by this token I knew that I overpaid. But after all, I reasoned, I had plenty more in my carpetbag.

After the follet had opened the cage and made a fast fade, the vixen genuflected at my feet. Wheedlingly, she said, “I didn’t mean none of the things I said, master. That was just patter, you know. Now that I’m yours, I’ll serve you faithfully. Command and I’ll obey. I shall devote my life to your welfare, if you but allow me to.”

I put down my bag so I could remove the vixen’s slave collar. Gruffly, I said,“I don’t want your obedience. Do whatever you want, obey me in no matters, don’t give a thought to my gods-be-damned welfare. You’re free now.”

“You can’t mean that,” the vixen said, shocked.

“I can and I do. So if you—”

“Sweet Mother of Beasts!” the vixen gasped, staring over my shoulder. “Look out!

I whirled around, but there was nothing behind me but more booths and fair-goers. Puzzled, I turned back to the vixen, only to discover that she was gone.

And she had stolen my bag.

* * *

So it was that I came to learn exactly how freedom tastes when you haven’t any money. Cursing the vixen and my own gullibility with equal venom, I put the goblin market behind me. Somehow I wound up on the bank of the Gihon. There I struck up a conversation with a waterman who motored me out to the docks and put me onto a tugboat captained by a friend of his. It was hauling a garbage scow upriver to Whinny Moor Landfill.

As it turned out, the landfill was no good place to be let off. Though there were roads leading up into the trashlands, there were none that led onward, along the river, where I wanted to go. And the smell! Indescribable.

A clutch of buildings huddled by the docks in the shadow of a garbage promontory. These were garages for the dump trucks mostly, but also Quonset hut repair and storage facilities and a few leftover brownstones with their windows bricked over that were used for offices and the like. One housed a bar with a sputtering neon sign saying Brig-O-Doom. In the parking lot behind it was, incongruously enough, an overflowing dumpster.

Here it was I fetched up.

I had never been hungry before, you must understand—not real, gnaw-at-your-belly hungry. I’d skipped breakfast that morning in my excitement over leaving, and I’d had the lightest of dinners the day before. On the tugboat I’d watched the captain slowly eat two sandwiches and an apple and been too proud to beg a taste from him. What agonies I suffered when he threw the apple core overboard! And now . . .

Now, to my horror, I found myself moving toward the dumpster. I turned away in disgust when I saw a rat skitter out from behind it. But it called me back. I was like a moth that’s discovered a candle. I hoped there would be food in the dumpster, and I feared that if there were I would eat it.

It was then, in that darkest of hours, that I heard the one voice I had expected never to hear again. “Hey, shit-for-brains! Aintcha gonna say you’re glad to see me?”

Crouched atop a nearby utility truck was the vixen.

“You!” I cried, but did not add you foul creature, as my instincts bade me. Already, poverty was teaching me politesse. “How did you follow me here?”

“Oh, I have my ways.”

Hope fluttered in my chest like a wild bird. “Do you still have my bag?”

“Of course I don’t. What would a fox do with luggage? I threw it away. But I kept the key. Wasn’t I a good girl?” She dipped her head, and a small key on a loop of string slipped from her neck and fell to the tarmac with a sharp clink.

“Idiot fox!” I cried. “What possible good is a key to a bag I no longer own?”

She told me.


The Brig o’ Doom was a real dive. There was a black-and-white television up in one corner tuned to the fights and a pool table with ripped felt to the back. On the toilet door, some joker had painted Tir na bOg in crude white letters. I sat down at the bar. “Beer,” I told the tappie.

“Red Stripe or Dragon Stout?”

“Surprise me.”

When my drink came, I downed half of it in a single draft. It made my stomach ache and my head spin, but I didn’t mind. It was the first sustenance I’d had in twenty-six hours. Then I turned around on the stool and addressed the bar as a whole: “I’m looking for a guide. Someone who can take me to a place in the landfill that I’ve seen in a vision. A place by a stream where garbage bags float up to the surface and burst with a terrible stench—”

A tokoloshe snorted. He was a particularly nasty piece of business, a hairy brown dwarf with burning eyes and yellow teeth. “Could be anywhere.” The fossegrim sitting with him snickered sycophantically. It was clear who was the brains of this outfit.

“—and two bronze legs from the lighthouse of Rhodes lie half-buried in the reeds.”

The tokoloshe hesitated, and then moved over to make space for me in his booth. The fossegrim, tall and lean with hair as white as a chimneysweeper’s, leaned over the table to listen as he growled sotto voce, “What’s the pitch?”

“There’s a bag that goes with this key,” I said quietly. “It’s buried out there somewhere. I’ll pay to find it again.”

“Haughm,” the tokoloshe said. “Well, me and my friend know the place you’re looking for. And there’s an oni I know can do the digging. That’s three. Will you pay us a hundred each?”

“Yes. When the bag is found. Not before.”

“How about a thousand?”

Carefully, I said, “Not if you’re just going to keep jacking up the price until you find the ceiling.”

“Here’s my final offer: Ten percent of whatever’s in the bag. Each.” Then, when I hesitated, “We’ll pick up your bar tab, too.”

It was as the vixen had said. I was dressed as only the rich dressed, yet I was disheveled and dirty. That and my extreme anxiety to regain my bag told my newfound partners everything they needed to know.

“Twenty percent,” I said. “Total. Split it however you choose. But first you’ll buy me a meal—steak and eggs, if they have it.”


The sun had set and the sky was yellow and purple as a bruise, turning to black around the edges. Into the darkness our pickup truck jolted by secret and winding ways. The grim drove and the tokoloshe took occasional swigs from a flask of Jeyes Fluid, without offering me any. Nobody spoke. The oni, who could hardly have fit in the cab with us, sat in the bed with his feet dangling over the back. His name was Yoshi.

Miles into the interior of the landfill, we came to a stop above a black stream beside which lay two vast and badly corroded bronze legs. “Can you find a forked stick?” I asked.

The tokoloshe pulled a clothes hanger out of the mingled trash and clay. “Use this.”

I twisted the wire into a wishbone, tied the key string to the short end, and took the long ends in my hands. The key hung a good half-inch off true. Then, stumbling over ground that crunched underfoot from buried rusty cans, I walked one way and the other, until the string hung straight down. “Here.”

The tokoloshe brought out a bag of flour. “How deep do you think it’s buried?”

“Pretty deep,” I said. “Ten feet, I’m guessing.”

 He measured off a square on the ground—or, rather, surface, for the dumpings here were only hours old. At his command, Yoshi passed out shovels, and we all set to work.

When the hole reached six feet, it was too cramped for Yoshi to share. He was a big creature and all muscle. Two small horns sprouted from his forehead and a pair of short fangs jutted up from his jaw. He labored mightily, and the pile of excavated trash alongside the hole grew taller and taller. At nine feet, he was sweating like a pig. He threw a washing machine over the lip, and then stopped and grumbled, “Why am I doing all the work here?”

 “Because you’re stupid,” the fossegrim jeered.

The tokoloshe hit him. “Keep digging,” he told the oni. “I’m paying you fifty bucks for this gig.”

“It’s not enough.”

“Okay, okay.” The tokoloshe pulled a couple of bills from his pocket and gave them to me. “Take the pickup to the Brig-O and bring back a quart of beer for Yoshi.”

I did then as stupid a thing as ever I’ve done in my life.

So far I’d been following the script the vixen had laid out for me, and everything had gone exactly as she’d said it would. Now, rather than playing along with the tokoloshe as she’d advised, I got my back up. We were close to finding the bag and, fool that I was, I thought they would share.

“Just how dumb do you think I am?” I asked. “You won’t get rid of me that easily.”

The tokoloshe shrugged. “Tough shit, Ichabod.”

He and the fossegrim knocked me down. They duct-taped my ankles together and my wrists behind my back. Then they dumped me in the bed of the pickup. “Scream if you want to,” the tokoloshe said. “We don’t mind, and there’s nobody else to hear you.”

I was terrified, of course. But I’d barely had time to realize exactly how desperate my situation had become when Yoshi whooped, “I found it!”

The fossegrim and the tokoloshe scurried to the top of the unsteady trash pile. “Did you find it?” cried one, and the other said, “Hand it up.”

“Don’t do it, Yoshi!” I shouted. “There’s money in that bag, a lot more than fifty dollars, and you can have half of it.”

“Give me the bag,” the tokoloshe said grimly.

By his side, the fossegrim was dancing excitedly. Bottles and cans rolled away from his feet. “Yeah,” he said. “Hand it up.”

But Yoshi hesitated. “Half ?” he said.

“You can have it all!” I screamed. “Just leave me alive and it’s yours!”

The tokoloshe stumbled down toward the oni, shovel raised. His buddy followed after in similar stance.

So began a terrible and comic fight, the lesser creatures leaping and falling on the unsteady slope, all the while swinging their shovels murderously, and the great brute enduring their blows and trying to seize hold of his tormentors. I could not see the battle—no more than a few slashes of the shovels—though I managed to struggle to my knees, for the discards from Yoshi’s excavations rose too high. But I could hear it, the cursing and threats, the harsh clang of a shovel against Yoshi’s head and the fossegrim’s scream as one mighty hand finally closed about him.

Simultaneous with that scream there was a great clanking and sliding sound of what I can only assume was the tokoloshe’s final charge. In my mind’s eye I can see him now, racing downslope with the shovel held like a spear, its point aimed at Yoshi’s throat. But whether blade ever connected with flesh or not I do not know, for it set the trash to slipping and sliding in a kind of avalanche.

Once started, the trash was unstoppable. Down it flowed, sliding over itself, all in motion. Down it flowed, rattling and clattering, land made liquid, yet for all that still retaining its brutal mass. Down it flowed, a force of nature, irresistible, burying all three so completely there was no chance that any of them survived.

Then there was silence.


“Well!” said the vixen. “That was a tidy little melodrama. Though I must say it would have gone easier on you if you’d simply done as I told you to in the first place.” She was sitting on the roof of the cab.

I had never been so glad to see anybody as I was then. “This is the second time you showed up just when things were looking worst,” I said, giddy with relief. “How do you manage it?”

“Oh, I ate a grain of stardust when I was a cub, and ever since then there’s been nary a spot I can’t get into or out of, if I set my mind to it.”

“Good, good, I’m glad. Now, set me free!”

“Oh dear. I wish you hadn’t said that.”


“Years ago and for reasons that are none of your business I swore a mighty oath never again to obey the orders of a man. That’s why I’ve been tagging along after you—because you ordered me not to be concerned with your welfare. So of course I am. But now you’ve ordered me to free you, and thus I can’t.”

“Listen to me carefully,” I said. “If you disobey an order from me, then you’ve obeyed my previous order not to obey me. So your oath is meaningless.”

“I know. It’s quite dizzying.” The fox lay down, tucking her paws beneath her chest. “Here’s another one: There’s a barber in Seville who shaves everyone who doesn’t shave himself, but nobody else. Now—”

“Please,” I said. “I beg you. Sweet fox, dear creature, most adorable of animals . . . If you would be so kind as to untie me out of the goodness of your heart and of your own free will, I’d be forever grateful to you.”

“That’s better. I was beginning to think you had no manners at all.”

The vixen tugged and bit at the duct tape on my wrists until it came undone. Then I was able to free my ankles. We both got into the cab. Neither of us suggested we try digging for my bag. As far as I was concerned, it was lost forever.

But driving down out of the landfill, I heard a cough and glanced over at the vixen, sitting on the seat beside me. More than ever, I felt certain that she was laughing at me. “Your money’s in a cardboard box under the seat,” she said, “along with a fresh change of clothing—which, confidentially, you badly need—and the family signet ring. What’s buried out there is only the bag, stuffed full of newspapers.”

“My head aches,” I said. “If you had my money all along, what was the point of this charade?”

“There’s an old saying: Teach a man to fish, and he’ll only eat when the fish are biting. Teach him a good scam, and the suckers will always bite.” The vixen grinned. “A confidence trickster can always use a partner. We’re partners now, you and me, ain’t we?”


When the story ended, I stood and bowed. “Truly, sir, thou hast the gift of bullshit.”

“Coming from a dwarf,” Nat said, “that is high praise indeed.”

One of the marshals—the white one—stood. “Too much beer,” she said. “I have to use the powder room.”

Her comrade looked pointedly at the briefcase, and in that glance and the way the marshal drew herself up at it, I read that the two women neither liked nor trusted each other. “Where could I go?” White asked.

“Where in the regulations does it say that makes any difference?” Red replied. “The evidence case must remain within sight of two designated agents at all times.”

With a sigh, the white marshal freed herself from the briefcase and handcuffed it to her red-haired compatriot. Then she put her hand on my shoulder and said, “All right, Short Stuff, I’m deputizing you as a representative of His Absent Majesty’s governance. Keep an eye on the case for the duration of my tinkle, okay?”

I didn’t think much of her heightist slur, of course. But a gentleman doesn’t go picking fights with ladies. “Fine,” I said.

As soon as she was gone, Nat Whilk said, “That calls for a smoke.” He held out a hand, twisted it about, and a Macanudo appeared between thumb and forefinger. He bit off the end and was about to conjure up a light when our duppy-man appeared at his elbow.

“I’m sorry, sir,” the duppy said firmly. “But smoking is not allowed inside the train.”

 Nat shrugged. “Well, then. It’s the rear platform or nothing, I suppose.” He turned to his companion and said, “Shall we?” Then, when she hesitated, “I’m hardly likely to throw myself from the train. Not at these speeds.”

His words convinced her. A C-note laid down on the table, and Nat’s polite direction to the duppy to let me drink my fill and then pocket the change, made our two faces smile. I watched as he and the marshal stepped to the rear of the car, and through the door. Nat leaned against the rail. A wisp of smoke from the cigar was seized by the wind and flung away.

I watched them for a while. Then my second drink came. I had just taken my first sip of it when the white marshal returned.

“Where are they?” she cried.

“They went—” I gestured toward the rear platform, and froze. Through the door windows it could be seen that the platform was empty. Lamely, I said, “They were there a second ago.”

“Sweet Mother of Night,” the marshal cried, “that case contained over twenty ounces of industrial-grade stardust!”

We ran, the both of us, to the platform. When we got there, we saw two small figures in the distance, standing by the side of the track, waving. As we shouted and gestured, one of the two dwindled in size until it was no larger than a dog. It was red, like a fox, and I got the distinct impression it was laughing at us.

The fox trotted away. Nat Whilk followed it down a sandy track into the scrub. Our shouts dwindled to nothing as we realized how futile they were.

The train turned a bend and the two tricksters disappeared from our ken forever…

Please make sure to
check out the exciting conclusion
in our January issue, on sale now!

Michael Swanwick is currently at work on a new novel. This spring, he’s the guest of honor at Sferakon, Croatia’s largest science fiction convention. In the meantime, he’s been writing stories, creating tales for his author’s blurb, and sending me poems by Robert Frost. Since Frost isn’t in public domain, and since I usually stick to facts in my blurbs, these useless, but hilarious, letters will not be quoted here until Michael writes a sequel to “Letters to the Editor” (October/November 2001).


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"An Episode of Stardust" by Michael Swanwick, copyright © 2005, with permission of the author.

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