Courtship in the Country of Machine–Gods
by Benjanun Sriduangkaew
Featured in The Apex Book of World SF 3 edited by Lavie Tidhar
An Apex Publications Book!
One of the most exciting young writers of speculative fiction working today, Thai author Benjanun Sriduangkaew exploded onto the scene in 2012 with a string of high–profile novelettes, of which this lyrical tale is one.
In the shadow of machine–gods I tell wayfarers of a time when my people were a nightmare the color of hemorrhage and glinting teeth.
There are other narratives, but this is the one they want to hear most, the one they pay with their adoration and bright–eyed want, for they’ve never known us for anything but peace. Conflict juts out from the skein of Pojama’s history, broken glass–shard, rupturing and ruptured.
I smile; I oblige. Though the story is for me, there are parts that I share simply for the reality of speaking it out loud, for the virtue of being heard.
My mouth moves, output for one of my cranial chips. My fingers sketch, autopilot, the forms of our heroes and enemies from a continent whose name and life has now been lost. My voice murmurs the tragedies and sings the heroics of Kanrisa and Surada, rising for climax, falling soft for denouement. The visitors’ district is machine–dead. What a thrill it must be to hear the thunderclap notes of my gloves, behold the psychedelic fires that pour from my nails.
Once, they interrupt. The figures of our enemies do not seem real. They are right: with sagging eyes the hues of cheap jades and faces like skulls, even for villains they are too fantastical, too unhuman.
“My great–grandmother told of them so,” I say and shrug. “Perhaps she was senile.” With a motion, I turn the figures into shapes more familiar, shapes more like ours.
Inside the vessel of my thought — a garden of sliding intelligences who whisper to me, childhood mates grown to adults next to my ventricles and lungs — a different story unfolds.
I met my betrothed Kanrisa in our second cycle.
A garden festooned with lights, on a day of the scythe. I was in academy uniform, narrow skirt and sigil–carved sleeves, surrounded by girl age–mates. I tried to look severe, and mature, and to be taken seriously. I can no longer remember what the gathering was about, albeit I recall that someone was terra–sculpting on the fly. The earth twitched and jolted, forcing us to hover. For an hour or so, I tolerated this, making stiff comments to my age–mates. The ground eventually stilled — I thought the mischief–maker had simply had enough; the hush that fell on everyone told me otherwise.
A garden patch smoothed into an impromptu landing pad. The craft touched the grass quietly, which was not extraordinary until I realized that the engine had been off long before it touched the ground. It had shed altitude with nothing save clever maneuvering and air resistance. Brave. Reckless.
Its hatch lifted, and out came echoes in training, each fitted in muted flexskin, their throats metallic with Bodhva implants that’d let them synchronize with machine–gods. The last of them, pilot, stepped out. She stood taller than most.
My age–mates rippled, whispering. “Oh her —” “The prodigy, my sister said.” Breathlessly. “Graduating soon, at our age.” “No she’s a little more senior… look how she moves.”
I looked, compulsively. Kanrisa was dressed no differently from the rest, but she set herself apart in the sinuous fluidity of her steps. Where other echoes were soft and pared, she was hard and full–figured.
Now I remember why I was there, that day.
I moved through the wave of giddy students on tiptoes at the sight of rarely–seen echoes, basking in reflected prestige and exotique. Most of us had been taught the theories of Bodhva training; few saw it in person, and even close observation told little. How did one stretch a mind to accommodate the multi–threading of machines?
“She’s lovely, birthed to echo, I think.” “Oh no you don’t, that’s not legal anymore — the molding matrices, surely not!” Someone sighed. “It was legal when she was made. Is she even entered into the Abacus? I’d guess not, a shame…”
One last line of young ambigendered and I was through. From her angle I must have looked as though I’d materialized out of nowhere, scandalized susurrus given flesh. Kanrisa glanced at me, over her shoulder, over a tight little smile: she wasn’t pleased to be here, preferred to be back in meditative spheres or else out flying. For that was the privilege of Bodhva.
We surprised each other. I didn’t expect to catch her; she didn’t anticipate anyone to touch her at all, let alone to clasp her hand and say, “I’m Jidri. You are to be my wife.”
A few heard, her fellow echoes mostly. One or two behind me, part of the academy crowd.
Kanrisa’s smile didn’t change, though she didn’t dislodge me or pull away. “You must be mistaken, student. The Abacus doesn’t rattle my name.”
“It will.” Courage or unreason moved me to draw closer. “Put your name in. It’ll match us.”
Until that day, I had never met her: had no personal knowledge of her, let alone desired her. All she’d been to me was a name, output to me by a modified copy of the predictive algorithm that gave the Abacus its sapience.
Kanrisa submitted her name, out of either curiosity or an angry impulse to be proven right that the exercise was pointless, and within the week we were declared matrimonial potentiates. We would make a union of two, against the average match of four point five.
The land of our enemies had a name. But we called it Intharachit.
For centrids untold, it was an enigma, first the preoccupation of dreamers then that of physicists: a spatial distortion cordoned Intharachit, locking it from sight and opening it to imagination. And then the Intharachit turned up, leaving us speechless, which said much — as a tribe we were tremendously difficult to shock.
It was a vast continent with a long history. Not a gentle one, for in their memory–paper I read the eradication of another indigenous group followed by a theological scourge — born of some snake–woman–fruit myth — that swept through their states, incinerating reason as it went. Eventually, recovery happened, but they’d spent so long in that quagmire it was a wonder to me, to us, that they overcame the barrier that kept them from the rest of the world.
I imagined myself in that first voyage with its crackling heat, the air just breathable, oxygen supply kept low against spontaneous combustions. And then, emergence into the unknown. A horizon stretching without end.
To this day, historians debate the why. Why it is that they were drawn to our shore; why they made first contact with us, and not with any of the other city–states or sovereignties… there are entire disciplines dedicated to this question. Some are determined in their belief that, had they met Tisapk first, or Mahuya perhaps, conflict could have been elided. (Elision, not avoidance, a distinction of some importance.)
All moot. The foreign ship landed on our shore, and there we were under the shadow of our machine–gods. We offered them hospitality, seeing no threat in them beyond their extreme alienness, and my elders took a portion of them into our home. We were curious.
One day I came home — back from a week in Umadu where I learned matrix–splicing — and found two Intharachit navigators housed with us. Like empty canvases their skin stretched, open to sun–stains that reddened their cadaverous cheeks and pointed snouts. Hair in thin yellow and dried–offal red clung lank to their skin, which poured salt and sick–smells. They did not look human.
Among the children of the house, I reacted least badly to them: our elders, then, tasked me with the aliens’ care. “Aren’t they grown?” I asked sharply. “They aren’t children. I am.”
“The female has seen less than a cycle, and the male under half that. With great care do treat them,” one of my ungendered parents told me. “For they are infants who think themselves complete.”
I didn’t hide my aversion, but the aliens didn’t remark on it, having opted to take our hospitality at surface. They were eager to believe us welcoming, eager to explore any corner large enough to admit their ungainliness. We didn’t consider it necessary to inform them that we restricted them to the visitors’ quarter.
“I’ve never seen anything like your city,” the female said as we went through the artisans’ street. She spoke her own tongue, which our software had been compiling into a lexicon through analysis of physiological cues. “Most — unique.”
Her fellow navigator said something in another language, one dialectically related to hers. My chip picked that up. Most primitive, more like, he corrected her.
“Speak your home to me.” I enunciated the syllables carefully: it wasn’t pleasant, this barbaric syntax. They mistook my formulation of it, in as near a form as I could draw to Pojami, for inarticulate stupidity.
Regardless this request launched them into a double–voiced monologue. “We have such machines —” “To warm us in winter, and cool us in summer.” “Our records are carried in contraptions the size of your finger.” “And in one of them alone, we can store an entire library ten times the size of your home.”
By their gesticulations, I understood that I was to be impressed. I didn’t oblige, but I did have the courtesy not to inform them that what they had listed was nothing to be proud of. It didn’t do to tell a toddler that perambulating on two legs was no accomplishment to adults.
The Bodhva compound was visible in the distance; having decided I wasn’t fit for language, the aliens flapped their hands to indicate interest. I consulted my linguistics. Nothing in their languages answered the connotations of Bodhva, machine–gods or echo. “A temple to mathematical faith, where acolytes train to be god–speakers mediating between us and our deities.”
They looked at each other. “This institution is important to you?”
“The very most. For the gods make our skies what they are.”
It was not my intent to deceive; again the matter was one of linguistic disparities. In retrospect perhaps I should have communicated in kennings.
“May we see this temple?”
“No,” I said. “I haven’t the authority with which to permit you. Even if I had, I would not. You are not to go there. This is definite.”
Again they shared that glance, but did not press the issue.
That night they tried to breach the Bodhva compound; summarily drones executed them. I’d warned them — the entire expedition was cautioned against certain entries, certain acts. Still it could have been written off, if we cared to, the deaths smoothed over in the diplomats’ laps. We did not try: we reported the pair’s demise to them, stating that they’d violated one of our few rules. The expedition anticipated apologies, some efforts to compensate and reconcile.
By this point it was evident we would gain nothing from them, and our engineers had collected what they needed from the Intharachit ship, to replicate and refine the spatial compensation.
Other indiscretions happened. We hadn’t yet perfected hematocyte synthesis, and a number of outsiders had come to Pojama for education, paying for tuition with their blood. One such student — to whom I’d taught a class in haptics — told the expedition what she did, as amicably as she discussed her studies.
But more than that discovery, it was the hairline crack in their story that they couldn’t bear. Their records were littered with moments of first contact that’d proceeded predictably: trade, abjection, conquest. We did not desire the first, had no interest in pretending the second, so what was there for the aliens to do but seek the third? They had to refit us into a narrative they could understand; we must be made to exist in relation to them, ciphered in their language.
The expedition went home carrying what they believed were our secrets, and what they thought was a schema of our architecture and small limited sciences.
War, then, two segments in the making.
To their credit, the Intharachit deliberated, presenting arguments and counter–arguments among themselves. Nuptials dictated by lottery–engine, lives shaped by primitive worship, and sustenance from the arteries of thralls. What came to be known as the League of Intharachit determined it their duty to erase Pojama, liberating the peoples of our continent to freedom under Incharachit rule. They would be benevolent and generous. Tisapk and Umadu and Mahuya would bow to them in gratitude.
Intharachit first struck Sitembru, one of our few offshoot cities. Damage was little, their force eliminated, but we’d suffered civilian casualties. Even so, we tried to moderate our response; we ran analyses and plotted out the trajectories of their actions. We eavesdropped on exchanges not only between their military and rulers but also between family, friends, lovers united against a city they had never seen or breathed.
More than that, they needed land. It was this that drove them, when all pretensions were cast aside. It was this that would make them try, and try again, until they had removed us and claimed this continent for their own.
Their biotech was little. They never detected the monitoring symbiotes that we had put in each member of that first expedition. It must be said: they weren’t entirely backward. In their fact–finding mission, they detected an absence of a certain element in our city and, noting that there was no photosynthetic life within our walls, arrived at the conclusion that this could not be without reason. They set to manufacturing reactors and explosives that would bathe us in artificial sunlight.
But for this, even in spite of their flailing assaults, we might have let them alone.
During that time, I graduated, making frequent contact with Kanrisa, who remained careful around me: negotiating a space, circumscribing terms she could work with. “Do you find me intolerable?” I asked one day in the sanitarium as, lying side by side, we each received our portion of hematocyte.
“I find you intriguing. It’s only — I’ve never been courted before, not properly.” Kanrisa frowned. “How can you be so blunt? You don’t look it. You’re just academy. I’m the one who’s supposed to be forward.”
I smiled up at the ceiling which, itself a mirror, let me smile at her too. We shared a bed large enough that we didn’t have to keep close. Nevertheless, we did, our outlines overlapping. “Academy girls are more than we look.”
“How did you predict the Abacus?”
It was the sanitarium, and we were taking sustenance. Privacy was ours by right. “I didn’t.”
“Are you telling me it was a lucky guess?”
At this I turned to her, lips to ear. “I recreated the Abacus in miniature; I just needed the matchmaking protocols. I input names. Mine, that of my age–mates and a few within the range, including the ones whose names weren’t in the system yet.”
“Copying the Abacus —”
“I said recreate, not copy. Copying is easy. Recreating… I approached it from a different angle, really. Accelerated the evolution process. Admittedly, it’s easier when you know what the end result should look like.”
Kanrisa’s lips tightened. “That’s dangerous. You insane girl.”
“My name was floating in the system for a while. Nothing. Then I tried that, to see if I could, and it gave me just the one match.”
“You.” Our fingers curled, twining thumb to thumb, as of two hands belonging to one body.
Raising Kanrisa nobody ever thought to ask: What is she? Much of the information behind her conception was first classified, then diluted into gibbercrypt, then buried so far under it might as well have been scourged clean. It did not cross the mind that she mightn’t have been made to flex; that she could function only as part of a unit, piece of a whole, in the teams that formed through Bodhva regimens. They didn’t know what to do with Kanrisa, so why not put her to a purpose for which she was made? It was a kindness and, at the same time, useful. She exceeded expectations when integrating with her machine–god; no questions were put forward. Her compatibility indices were subzero in the Abacus, but what did that matter? Her happiness was beside the point.
I miss her. I miss our shared time, which lives in my breast flickering like the last pulses of dying cortices.
“Are you coming to Viraya’s wedding?”
I sit down at the edge of a fountain. Ice crystals tinkle and shatter in my lap, unmelting. Half the city is in the throes of winter, the other enjoying a rainy spring. Meteorologic manipulation has become the rage this last segment. It won’t last. We all know it’s unhealthy and pointlessly ostentatious, but our current council is led by a whimsical woman rarely content with any one temperature. “I’m very bitter about weddings, Manop. Padon.”
“You can tell which one I am,” he chides. “I learned to like you that way, you know, even if it took some doing.”
“Would it have helped if I’d hit you? Physical contact is the syntax of romance.” I sweep aside flecks of ice. More fall to replace them, grazing my cheeks with knife facets. “Why did you go along with your brother?”
“That’s not —”
“My business, not that either of you ever respected it when I said that.”
He rocks back into the fountain, turning his face up to the harsh–soft fall of frozen drops. His tongue darts out, catching the cold. “My brother was convinced you’d keep us together.”
“He also liked you as a person; still does. You aren’t doing that for a living, are you?”
I draw off my gloves, the little performance paraphernalia, and tuck them away. “No.” My work as a data savant pays more than enough, even if a quarter goes toward Kanrisa’s care. The light–marionette show merely helps me relive the story, externalize it beyond the confines of my dataspshere. “You’ve just come back from Umadu. Did you see… her?”
“I visited. She’s up and walking so there’s something in that. They are making progress, but — haven’t they been sending you reports?”
“My chip goes through them for me. Notifies me if there’s anything of note.” I can’t make myself read them, not anymore. The same repetitious nothing, over and over.
“They are trying. Last month this one splicer made a breakthrough.”
“Until they can do something for Kanrisa, I don’t want to hear about it.” I stand. Icicles fall from my clothes and my skin. “How did it go so wrong? I should have noticed, shouldn’t I? I was there; I was with her.”
“You aren’t an echo. What would you have known?” He puts a hand over mine, briefly. “Have you had any luck with authorization?”
“I’m a nobody. Her engineering was illegal to start with and who likes to admit a mistake?”
“If you ever need funds —”
“Thank you.” I wipe away the rime that’s formed over his brow, the way you would a child. “You’re a good friend.”
A number of solutions were put in metaphor–bowls, and sampled across diverse palates. Many tongues flicked, and their opinions were recorded.
We would send out echoes, and the machine–gods would go to war for the first time in centrids. Incharachit infrastructure would be destroyed, along with their armaments. Once they were set back to a pre–industrial stage, we’d have time to decide what to do further, if any.
On the day this was announced, Kanrisa came to my home. Our households are hardly alike — hers a suite in one of the Bodhva towers, mine a sprawling ancient beast in a compound shared between our extended family. It tilts at an angle, finial–tipped, built like a heart where each ventricle is divided between siblings. “I can see myself living here,” Kanrisa said as she entered what I used as my study. “Maybe.”
“Well, I certainly can, no maybes about it.” I held her hand, just as I’d done that first day we had met.
Her fingers gripped mine. For a moment I wondered if she might bring them to her mouth. I thought of that often, her mouth. “Is this where you grew your version of the Abacus?”
“Maybe,” I said, mimicking her timbre. Around us screens and cortices hummed in standby, processing, calculating, dreaming the curious dreams of pure mathematics. They made the room cramped; made us sit knees to knees, so close we breathed upon one another. I thought, This is where we will kiss for the first time, and learn the secrets of each other’s skin.
“You heard about — it.”
“Yes.” Murmuring, not declaring, war. I watched the pulse jump in her throat where the implants hadn’t yet covered flesh.
“Because this hasn’t happened since… since anyone can remember, they’ll be collecting data in real time. Each cadre is taking specialists with them to monitor the voices.” That’s what echoes call the machine–gods: voices. “To keep up diagnostics on the fly. Our voices won’t have any processing power to spare in combat.”
“You can choose just anyone?”
“If they’re qualified.” Kanrisa was very close, now. “Would you like to? I’d understand if you don’t. It could be dangerous. You’ve never been near the voices before.”
Laughing I threw my arms around her. “What do you think? Of course I am. I’m coming with you.”
That was the first time that I saw them. Not the titans which stand guard over Pojama, but smaller, sleeker machine–gods crafted to synchronize with echoes.
The sight of them filled an absence in me I hadn’t known existed.
Five shared space with Kanrisa’s voice (her terminology already transmuting mine), each a chassis of gleaming ceramic alloy with six gaunt limbs clad in rippling permutative metal. At each machine’s center sits its armored face, where the Bodhva would sit enclosed, folded into its system like a fetus in the womb.
I stood close to her as she introduced me to other echoes, and shivered. Excitement and something else that set my veins to a slow scalding heat. Coiled tight around this, I replied in monosyllables, remained quiet throughout the back–and–forth between Kanrisa and her fellows. They hadn’t picked other field analysts yet it seemed, so among them I was the sole unbelonging presence.
“They are so…”
“There’s no need to whisper, Jidri. And yes, I know what you mean. Overwhelming. You’ll be spending most of the time in the carrier, though, which we will take turns piloting.”
A young man named Tephem jabbed an elbow at her. “But we all know Kanrisa’s the best at it.”
“Only because she cheats.” Viraya, this. Half–joke, half–honest. I glanced to see whether Kanrisa had taken it badly — whether it was meant as derision, or just something between friends. A little of both. Rivalry underneath thin surface tension.
The preparations were brief. Within days, I was abroad the carrier ship Khrut. “Carrier” makes it sound smaller than it is: the Khrut harbors a river cortex, sustaining an ecosystem of three hundred interdependent intelligences. Excluding analysts and echoes, the crew numbered eighty–nine. It was made expressly for war — as a people we didn’t believe in everlasting peace. Species–wide cynicism perhaps, but we keep our battle engines refined and updated. Echoes grow up running battle simulations. The only addition the Khrut required was spatial compensation and thicker armor.
It was the first time that I socialized with data savants outside the academy. There were Manop and Padon, twin brothers from the same house as Viraya. Tephem’s aunt Pattama was in her fourth cycle and the oldest of us. A few others. Not a large group. In a crowd I could have faded, but in a setting this small I had few excuses to keep to myself. I retained my distance, but the brothers were undeterred.
One of them approached as I sat down to lunch. “Is it true,” either Manop or Padon said, “that you’re engaged to… that girl?”
I looked up from my rice. “Which girl would that be, Manop? Or Padon. Whichever of you it is.”
The boy cackled. I had intended to pique him but, as I later found, the twins loved nothing more than to be mistaken for each other. By birth their genes were identical; by efforts their predilections, mannerisms, and diction were as near alike as any two individuals could be without abusing virtualization. To them this similarity was a performance and, like bad actors convinced of their own greatness, they played it loud and blunt. “The girl! The prodigy. Kanrisa of course, did you know we might have become colleagues? My brother and I were echo material early on. When we were toddlers. Only by then they were up to their teeth in potentiates. What a generation that was — what a generation we are.”
“Are you a geneticist?”
“Just a data–glutton, like you. Though Kanrisa’s case is pretty fascinating, isn’t it? Tailored just so. Ancestors bless, but what intricate work. Made to echo; born for a voice. Engineering made poetry.”
To this day, I don’t know what impelled me. An act like that wasn’t in my nature.
Barely knowing how to do it, I punched Manop/Padon in the face. Knuckles to nose, my fist tightly shut.
He pitched over, the back of his skull thudding against bulkhead. Others abandoned their food; his twin came running and Viraya shouted above the din. Somewhere in all this, Kanrisa stood staring, wild–eyed, lips fluttering like gills.
“No, no!” The brother I’d hit was flinging up his hands, pushing away his twin and older sister. “I’m fine! I’m fine. It’s all right, everybody please disperse, no Viraya be quiet, I’m not pressing charges. Also —” He paused, raised his head and stretched wide his arms to make the moment what it was: theatrics. Despite the blood streaming from his nose. “Also, I’m in love. Brother, we’re in love and this is the woman we are going to court. The Abacus can go hang.”
My knuckles bloomed bruises afterward.
Kanrisa came to see me in my cabin which, contrariwise to my preference, I didn’t share with her. “Why did you do that?” was the first thing out of her mouth.
“I’m sick of hearing you referred to as some mad geneticist’s pet project. Aren’t you?”
“I am. I’m the one who’s had to live with it, so what do you think? But I am a mad geneticist’s pet project. The perfect match for my voice.” She laughed, brittle. “I got over it, as you do, growing up. So why did you think it was a fine idea to do what you did? Did you suppose you were defending my honor?”
Behind my back I folded my hand, which had acquired shades new and strange. Blue–black and purple soon to make acquaintance with green. “That’s what suitors do. Are you embarrassed?”
“Viraya is enraged. She is my closest friend — not DNA–knitted but at least a… an institution kid. We grew up together, as much as that means anything.”
“Oh,” I said, reading her half by instinct, half by familiarity grown from absorbing data detritus. My chest ground, like old reactors, like archaic hardware unable to breathe past debris and overheating components. “You have an interest in her.”
“Long past. The Abacus has decided.”
“It only suggests.” I scuttled on my bed, making myself small, and rested my head against the viewport. Outside the sky raced by. “I didn’t think.”
“Not just the Abacus. I like you. It’s just… with Viraya it was simple. But we were never going to wed or even have anything like a sustained relationship; two Bodhva are like two mirrors set opposite — endlessly reflecting. I’m not going to hide the thing with Viraya from you, Jidri. Please let me see your hand.”
“I’ll use a patch. It’ll heal before the day’s out.”
I let her have it, the bruised hand. She cupped it and I contemplated the differences between us. Her fingers were blunt–rough, some of them tipped with implants that let her handle her voice; mine were long and thin, empty unmarked skin. Kanrisa pursed her lips, very lightly, on each darkened knuckle.
“Do I get a kiss?” I said, pushing. “A real one.”
Her nod was almost shy; her mouth tasted of coconut, plum sugar, and implants. When I breathed her, my head turned bright with information overlays.
Alarms thrummed through our arteries. We were almost there, on the edge of Intharachit’s field.
Before she was gone, Kanrisa would tell me about her training.
Bodhva immersive simulation sharpens the mind and opens it to thinking in, perceiving, six dimensions on its own. With augmens that enlarges to eight. The perception of an echo, and the potential that arises from it, cannot be matched. Being firmly outside both process and subculture, I couldn’t comprehend it.
But there are other courses, where a Bodhva in training would be given the task of spinning permutations of herself. Living different lives, not echoes at all but ordinary Pojami — sometimes not even that. Kanrisa reimagined herself a weaver in Mahuya, a queen from the chronicles of Dakkhu, a general of Immarad, a hundred thousand variations of herself placed in a hundred thousand contexts. When she found one she thought useful, she would absorb pertinent information from it.
Any simulation is permitted, but some are less permissible than others. Kanrisa ran a version of herself as an Intharachit resident to gain a better understanding of them. She said she came away feeling soiled and ugly: theirs was a short life, choked by do not.
In the safety of my processing ecosystem, I’m doing as she did, my bare skin open to cold metal and optics. Without the necessary software assisting me, I’ve had to put on more links to facilitate the procedure. They bud in a line between my breasts, flourishing on body nutrients. I’ve been eating more lately, and increased my sanitarium visits. No one asks, much.
I gave in to the temptation, once, of creating a model of Kanrisa and putting her inside the same reality as one of my simulacra. Not long after — days in real time, segments in virtual — I killed the entire instance and banished it from memory.
Yet somewhere in this is a path to her, a way to reverse–engineer her genesis. The original plans may be gone, but within me, there are imprints of her, facets of her. Sufficient for associative algorithms.
All is numbers; all is data. From me the cortices keep no secrets.
The periphery of Intharachit was a ruin where nothing would grow. Passing through the field my teeth rattled. Colors tinkled against my gums.
Drones flitted out of the Khrut, hissing into chameleon state. We waited and watched. Other carriers were in range; each ship pulsed communications to the next on organic frequencies that, shifting in constant flux, matched no League signal.
The League had built machine–gods of their own, in the forms of long–legged, earthbound automata with graceless armed heads and hammerhead sharks that flew on rotating blades. No echoes. Our drones found one of the factories where the bombs and reactor cores were assembled, and Kanrisa’s cadre followed.
Starbursts shredded the night, laying it bare: in the wake of this I breathed shallowly, so thinly my lungs trembled with need. I had seen the voices in still life — in motion they were something else.
League constructs were ugly. The voices were beautiful, and sang. Engineering made poetry, I thought, sounding out the brothers’ phrase in spite of myself.
Kanrisa’s voice spread its limbs, anti–grav wingblades fanning wide to let her hover as she coordinated other echoes. Mindless airborne drones rushed at her, and were swept away under disruption signals from the voice’s vast mouth. They fell in a hail of dead metal and whirring mandibles.
Some semblance of order, now, in the factory. The larger machines lumbering into combat, sighting down ours. They were cumbersome, their targeting sluggish. Viraya swooped down, her voice’s arms a blur of brilliant edges, and tore them apart.
Between all this I was tuned into Kanrisa’s channel. My heart beat to her rhythm — I felt invincible and could have forgotten what I was meant to do had the instruments not reminded me. I mightn’t have made friends among the crew, but I had made plenty among the cortices. Panels thrilled to my touches, loops of machine–ghosts whispering within me as I hoped Kanrisa one day would. In my hands the data streams knitted, flowed into a sea that washed over me in blue–white waves.
I was with her.
And so, well before anyone cupped in cradles that let us swim in the river cortex, I felt the anomaly. It made me shout with my physical mouth — and therefore useless — a warning that nobody ever heard.
It surged from beneath the mass of fabricators and generators, a matte–grey blur. None of our symbiotes had seen it, and later I would learn that the expedition had never known of it. Some of their engineers had been paranoid enough, vigilant enough, to keep secrets from the first contact party.
This construct was humanoid, four limbs, a head, and nearly as large as the machine–gods that stood guard over our home. A scan told me it carried life signs. Its arms wound tight around its torso as it rose; its face was an oval of gold.
Hardly any reason to panic. On the Khrut we were shielded, well away from the battle. In the voices, each echo was secure. If the League thought merely the sight of an artificial sun would drive us insensate, they would be disappointed.
Then the construct reached out and caught Tephem’s voice in three long, prehensile fingers.
He fought back with cold contempt; in one swipe he severed crude wrist–cords, but it held on. With its free hand, it tore off one wingblade. Permutative metal shifted rapidly, cycling through probability alloys, each invulnerable. But Tephem’s voice was not entirely armored in that. All this creature needed was a puncture wound.
The League machine’s face blazed. A soft, wet noise somewhere in my head and Tephem’s data–stream went black, unraveling from the sea. My horror left my lips in a thin scream.
But he had been overconfident. Others darted out of reach and chipped away at the monstrosity’s grey shell. It was welded in the same material that let League ships withstand spatial distortion; in the face of sonic–flux bursts, it was useless.
As it died in cascades of sloughing shrapnel, I heard the wails, subliminal, of the League men and women that piloted it.
It wasn’t the only such machine — three had been successfully made, three unleashed against us. During that first foray, we lost four voices, four echoes.
In those days, Kanrisa spoke to no one, carrying out each attack as the orchestrating focus with precision matched by few other cadre leaders. Under her guidance, generators were torn into shockwaves that destroyed Intharachit cities. One factory after another unseamed into pulped flesh and melted slag. The League had tried for cycles to bring their growth under control, crowding more and more thickly into slivers of land, building upward and downward: ugly spires thrusting into the sky and stabbing roots deep into the earth. In five turns of night we quartered, then halved, their residential density.
Still I did not know peace.
Tephem had been a stranger. I don’t believe we ever had a complete conversation together. To me he existed in sideway correlations — Pattama’s nephew, Kanrisa’s colleague, a lover, on and off, of Viraya’s. Even so, his death gripped me and would not let go. Perhaps entrenched in Kanrisa’s channel at the time, I assimilated her grief for my own. Even apart from that, I couldn’t comprehend that an echo was gone, so quickly and simply. Whatever else Manop/Padon had said, Bodhva who successfully integrated into a machine–god were rare. It was such a precious, intricate process. And now four had died, together with their voices. Irrevocably they had died. I relived, each time I slept, that one moment and imagined that I could reach across the ships and touch the other echoes, too, as they fell.
A communiqué was broadcast on League bands in stammering, erratic stabs. It found us, as it was meant to, and in their staccato language told us this: We will not surrender. We will break your god–speakers. We hide, we rebuild, and while we live, we will not share this earth with you. You are few; we are many.
The twin brothers sneered, jointly. “Like ants are many, and us crushing them underfoot by the colony. Don’t they realize they’re outgunned, outmatched, that they’re barely more than shit–slinging apes? All that bluster.”
No one laughed with them.
“Can they do that?” I had never seen Viraya show fear. A flicker of it crept down the roots of her hair, to limn the corners of her eyes. “Where did they get our forensic samples?”
Pattama shook her head. “They didn’t. An idle threat, a bluff. There wasn’t enough left of my younger sisters’ son. Even if there were, I doubt they can manage the most elementary manipulation — let alone bioweapons. There’s been no evidence they are capable.”
How desperate I was to believe that she was untouched, impervious to loss. We all needed that.
Kanrisa stared at the screen where the words shimmered and said nothing. I was behind her, centimeters away. In a gesture as personal as I could ever make myself perform in public, I wound my arms around her waist. “They aren’t all wrong, Pattama–elder. Number to number there are thousands of them to each of us. In time, they will rebuild and try to make good their promise. One way or another.”
“What would you, then?” Pattama looked at me.
“Kanrisa,” I whispered. “What do you want?”
She turned to me, my intended, and the honed point of her gaze made me ache. “I want them gone.”
It contradicted our original objective, but none protested. In that we were aligned, as voice to echo.
The cortices wanted to soothe me out of mourning and my chip purred equilibrium protocols, webbing me in childhood fractals and haptics. I ignored them — the only time I ever did — and pored over League censuses: physiology metrics, mortality rates and life expectancy. In the last I found sharp drops. Their population was still growing faster than could be sustained, but for some age brackets there were psychological fractures that culminated in random violence and suicide. In one of their administrative divisions, nine out of ten adolescent males had died of marrow poisoning. Within a capital city, there had been a period just before their exploratory mission where all infants born had emerged with tumors lodged deep within their cerebra.
I investigated further. There were genome models and a veritable library of DNA samples we had downloaded from their quaintly obsolete servhosts.
Their phenotype spectrum was vanishingly thin and their gene pool had diminished to a puddle. Each generation carried diseases and gave them to the next, conditions more and more hardcoded. The League was dying a protracted, incestuous death. They were inbreeding into extinction because they’d extinguished any genetic material not precisely like their own.
Knowing this made it simple. The analyses I ran after that were some of the most uncomplex I had ever done: cross–referencing the indices, diagnosing the common links and afflictions. I sent them to Pattama, who pinged back almost immediately requesting an optimal target.
“The northern city,” one of the twin brothers said from a cradle adjacent to mine. This was the one who’d made acquaintance with my fist. “They are the healthiest. It’ll demoralize them best.”
“Yes.” I sent that back to Tephem’s aunt, remembering the female I had guided through Pojama. She had died painlessly.
“Where’s Kanrisa? This is her idea. I thought she’d be looking over your shoulder.”
“She is resting.” Kanrisa hadn’t slept much. When I could, I would go into her room, climb into her bed, and she would cup my body with hers, one hand closed over my stomach. Only then did she fall into dreams.
“Hey. I’ve always wanted to know, why Kanrisa? I know, the Abacus, but you don’t seem like the type who’d just walk up to her and make such a scene — all those people, that day — just because the Abacus gave you a name.”
“You were there?”
“I was landscaping.”
I frowned. “You are such a child. And I didn’t take her hand simply because of the algorithms. I saw her and chose.” I couldn’t not have, I did not tell him. Her pull had been gravitational, sun to my star.
“What about me then? I’m not that incompatible.”
“I have Kanrisa. What do I want with you?”
He blinked, then widened his eyes. “You’re a monogamist?”
My face must have colored. “None of —”
“My business, yes, but it’s just I’ve never actually met…. I swear, I’ve found more spontaneous cohesion in gibbercrypt than monogamists. So you’ll live in your own household?”
“Sharing with my siblings. Why am I even telling you this?”
“Because you want to tell it to somebody. Honestly, though. Monogamy.” He unlinked and threw up his hands. “Unbelievable. Are you sure?”
“Kanrisa and I are content with just one at a time. Now shut up before I punch you again.”
A long sigh of bliss. “See? You can tell me apart from my brother after all. That’s why I wish you would consider us. Maybe in half a cycle? People do change, you know.”
I have decided to attend Viraya’s wedding, after all. That is what friendships are like: a net of obligations and social niceties.
The old faces are all there, the familiar names. Both twin brothers, Pattama, Surada, the crews of the Khrut and the Samutthevi. I have even brought some of the Khrut’s cortices, which I’d adopted as part of my compensation, and they chatter away in my wrists, at the back of my neck: recognizing and regaling each other with tales of this or that ship hand. It keeps me calm and reassured, to be surrounded by their dialogue.
It’s a modest wedding. Viraya is marrying a man, an ambigendered and two women. As matrimony goes, it isn’t a large union (my parents began with six, and over time the conjugation grew to nine) and out of the would–be partners I know only Viraya and another, a quantum navigator recently instrumental to solar–systems crossing. These new ways of traveling, in leaps and bounds through space–time, make me feel old. I could be up there; affinity–class data savants are always in demand. But much keeps me earthbound. Out there in the beyond, communication can get tattered, too slow to catch up with vessel speed. Too many uncertainties, and these days I want the solidity of sureness. Of knowing where I am, what I do.
Most would be hard–pressed to believe I was part of the force that destroyed Intharachit. I’m so much less. Just another administrative worker with a monthly salary.
I don’t dream of past glories. I don’t dream of exhilarating voyages through doors spun out of herded probabilities. In my bed surrounded by the susurrus of cortices, I dream merely of her.
“Life is more than that,” one of my sisters would say. “Find another, younger sister, and laugh again.”
“This is the life I’ve chosen. I won’t laugh until she is well.”
The earth shudders; would–be spouses giggle, arms linked, as grass and soil swell.
“Life is more than that,” one of my mothers would say. “Seek the stars, penultimate daughter, and smile again.”
“This is the life I’ve chosen. I won’t smile until she is well.”
I watch the brother who didn’t visit Umadu as he brings his arms down and the ground cracks open, thrusting up a bounty of persimmons and chrysanthemums. I watch him as he accepts congratulations for a job well done and, disentangling, strides toward me on feet that don’t quite touch the grass. “Jidri. I didn’t think you would come. What a sight you are! So long unseen.”
“Our careers branched apart.”
“That they did. You don’t belong there, webbed in those antique cortices, rerouting old tech. Up there is where you should be. Finding out just how many dimensions comprise our universe. Be part of the cutting–edge.”
Life is more than that. “I like doing what I do.”
He shakes his head. “You have changed, but then who hasn’t. Have you reconsidered?”
“I’ve been told you only wanted me to keep your twin from individualizing himself.”
A disbelieving chortle. “My brother and his dog’s mouth.”
“For the record, I’d sooner marry him, if he didn’t already belong to four spouses.”
“Not sharing well even now?”
“I never will. A monomaniac, remember? That’s what you called me after you were done with ‘monogamist.’ ”
“You are, though I’m sorry for the tone I used then.” He sighs and newly blossomed flowers rustle with him. “Please, Jidri. Life is more than Kanrisa.”
“Kanrisa is the life I’ve chosen for myself.”
From the strands of my indices and extrapolated models Pattama teased out an answer to Kanrisa’s question.
The northern city was the wealthiest on the continent. I expected more from them than the swarming anthills of other Intharachit states. But what I saw was scarcely better, a riot of squalor and starvation. The air churned with disease, dust, despair. Pattama’s cultivar wasn’t going to be a retaliatory strike after all, but a mercy. A way out.
We introduced the strain into their rebreathers, which vainly tried to purify the filth it inhaled from the city’s throats. We put it into the tanks that processed fluid waste and recycled it into a semblance of water.
During the first week little happened, and in this lull I spent my time with Kanrisa. We were past the negotiation stage and, ignoring nominal protests about chain of command (which barely existed and hardly mattered), she migrated to my cabin. We kept a touch of resistance so infinitesimal it couldn’t be expressed numerically even as we stretched it out: testing its tensile strength, its elasticity. Anticipation of what we’d set in motion made it hard to think of anything else, even while we slept skin to skin. It was good to do so, all the same, each shared touch piquant. Tense.
(There were warning signs. A look in the distance. Fleeting instants when Kanrisa was not with me but went somewhere else, chasing Tephem’s ghost. Back then I hadn’t realized the extent of her unique nature. Why the way she functioned as echo was unlike anyone else’s.)
“I can’t stop thinking how it might have been different.”
“If you keep doing that you will end up like Zhuyi,” I told her as I undressed and climbed into bed. She was warm from a fresh hematocyte intake and smelled of psychometric links. Intoxicating. With her I never needed simul–input bombardment, my addictive of choice, to fall delirious and trembling. “All his time spent in simulations, running that one moment through fifty, a hundred, a thousand scenarios.”
Sliding my hand under the gap between her spine and the bed, I frowned. “One of my brothers? I must have told you about him — the one whose marriage fell to pieces, so he keeps replaying a sim to find out what he did wrong. It’s all very sad and he refuses to put his name back into the Abacus.”
Kanrisa tickled my collarbone with her tongue. “You might have mentioned him in passing. I forgot. Do you think I will regret this? Calling for what I did.”
I wrapped myself tight around her. “Never. And if there’s ever regret it will be mine, too. I won’t let you carry it alone.”
Our monitoring cortices went into a frenzy when the infected city came apart. I listened to some of the chatter. Cries for help. Emergency dispatches. Pattama’s virus had targeted their arteries; out of everything, it was what we knew best. It thinned their plasma, and thinned it again, until what went through their veins was like water. From their pale, diluted mouths, they retched pale, diluted hemorrhage as they clawed themselves open. This fluid, not blood anymore, puddled in their streets and soaked the tiny rooms in their beehive houses. It lapped at their windows and gave life to frail weeds in the interstices of their walls. They wept it in deep, wracking shudders, and died in throes of asphyxiation as their lungs drowned.
In the midst of this, one of the other ships — the Samutthevi — pinged us with a set of coordinates and a message: We have found them.
What remained of League military command had submerged themselves in radio silence after broadcasting that one challenge. No communication of any kind, minimal power usage: they’d retreated, as deep as they could, into a pre–tech state. Only through chance did one of the Samutthevi’s drones catch a glimpse of an engineer out to obtain food supplies. From there it divided itself, splitting into transmitter and receiver. The first latched onto him, integrating into his nervous system; the other returned to the Samutthevi. In discreet pulses it sent back schematics, an inventory of equipment and personnel.
“There’s not much to them,” said Surada, their cadre’s commander. “Some two hundred holed up in a cave network underground. You will coordinate with us?”
“What do they have? Apart from —” Kanrisa motioned at the imaging of their tools, furniture, miscellanies. “These. They can’t possibly hope to fight with that.”
“I have good reasons to think they’re culturing a strain that’d work against us. Of course, they haven’t any sample — unless somehow they do. Our casualty…” Surada’s expression flickered. “We collected her. There’s no chance. It’s best to proceed with caution regardless. We could bombard the whole area, which would be my preference, except the tunnels go deep.”
“How about gas? Their ventilation can’t be much good. Two of my people developed an agent that bonds to their circulation. It’s been effective.”
Surada gave a curt nod. “I’ve seen the footage. Brutally effective. Take a look at this, though.” A shape sharpened into focus on the viewport. “Thermal take from the symbiote. That’s a biomass right there.”
“That,” I said, measuring it against a scale in my head, “is very huge.”
“And very dense. Estimates say a hundred fifty tall, eighty wide, and five to eight hundred heavy. What do you say to that, savant?”
“Her name is Jidri, Surada.”
“They’re cloning muscle tissue — too dense to be anything else. There’s no organ, no anything except for a skeleton, also extremely dense and likely metal. They want to make…” I paused, remembering the makeup of the creature that had killed Tephem. “No radio, no anything. So it’s all grown in a vat, organically, without machinery or circuits or electricity. And maybe… here, where it thins. A cavity, I think. Waiting to be filled.”
Surada nodded. “With what, Jidri?”
“This is pure educated guess. This construct isn’t running on conventional energy — it’s going to be powered by one of their own. A crude transplant.” My rambling flung up a spume of disparate suppositions in my private sphere. I filtered them through my chip. “They are making another killing machine out of their own materials, controlled by a brain or a collective of brains. It will carry not a miniature sun but an anti–Bodhva weapon: physical, toxin, something. If we are to believe their threat.”
“In line with my savants’ conclusions. Yes. What are the chances of your viral agent working on this biomass? So far as my probe’s been able to determine, what runs through its veins is crude fuel or possibly liquid alloy.”
“Another approach then.” Kanrisa ran her fingers over the displays. They rippled, briefly projecting imprints of her hands that chased the real ones. “I have an idea. It’s not something I ever wanted to do. Circumstances have changed. Just to be sure we’ll flush them out first.”
We flooded the tunnels. Redirecting the nearest reservoir proved more trouble than anticipated — so few natural bodies of water existed in Intharachit — but there was enough. Their shelter was old and, though chambers were armored and sealed, structural integrity had been eroded by time and neglect. That first rush killed fifty who hadn’t fled behind blast doors in time. Circuited synapses fired, machines coming awake under emergency routines.
A sudden spike in neural electricity. Their callsign; our warning.
Pulsating flesh so hot it flashed white on thermal take, stitched together by artificial sinews. Each ungainly piece must have been grown individually. Its head was distended, its torso a gaping red wound. From each pore, it oozed oil, pus, blood. Veins throbbed beneath its shell.
“Ancestors,” one of the twins said. “What did they put into that thing?”
“Brains locked in sync.” I ran a scan: whatever made up the skeleton blocked several of our sensors, but I could still measure neural voltage. “Twenty, no, sixty. Sixty brains transplanted, feeling in conjunction.”
The other brother reared up from his cradle. “In a month they perfected that?”
“No,” I said, “they perfected nothing.” We brute–forced our way into what passed for its mainframe. A composite hastily thrown together without regard for compatibility or efficiency, orienting as fast as it could to new senses, new realities expressed in synesthesia. And what it felt, through ink–stain drops infiltrating its liquid consciousness, was pain. Each sensory input overloaded it, converting to agony until it knew nothing else. It found its level in the biomass, erasing intellect and sanity, channeling it into one single pinpoint purpose: to lash out. At us.
Kanrisa did not allow this. Once the biomass emerged she began.
She was — is — a centrifuge; her age–mate echoes belonged to her, operating as her adjuncts. Over their voices’ output she wielded a fine control, able to reach in and weave, plait, and transfigure. That is the purpose of a Bodhva focus.
What she did that day hadn’t been seen before and seldom since. Today we continue trying to replicate it, gnawing at the process with augmens, a cortex biosphere greater than the Abacus, and the best minds of our age. Progress is slow, with rare successes so miniscule they hardly count.
Kanrisa seized the voices’ chorus and shattered it into sixty–five permutations of itself. It punctured situational probabilities where the laws of physics were rewritten for an instant.
When it ended, the biomass was gone, each particle threshed into nonexistence. The tunnels became a crater. So did twenty nearest cities within range of the blast. Half the spatial storm that enclosed Intharachit coiled and released under Kanrisa’s guidance. Most coastal regions were drowned under tidal waves.
We still had to spread Pattama’s virus to the surviving population, but it was a nominal gesture. Kanrisa had ended the war.
We came home with more diagnostics than anyone knew what to do with.
The aftermath was incandescent: as one we breathed, drinking in one another, as the city celebrated us not as heroes but as living stories. What we had done — decided by Kanrisa, mediated by me, brought into being by Pattama — was like nothing in living memory, and our living memory is immense in breadth and length. Pojama wanted for nothing but novelty, and we were that magnified many times over. Nothing seemed impossible. Kanrisa’s stigma vanished overnight. Through centrids we had grown in peace, and that was stagnancy. This was the first occasion after so long that conflict would jolt us forward.
We were so much wanted back then, pulled this way and that, sometimes parted. Great bursts of advances were made. Optimizing the voices, evolving deep logics of our cortices at exponential rates, leapfrogs in cybernetics. Though Intharachit lay in ruins each savant had brought back libraries of DNA samples we would append to our biodiversity projects and assimilate into our virtualization programs.
Kanrisa and I didn’t find time to marry properly, but we did put aside nights. Just as I had thought — had wanted — we secreted ourselves away in my cortex nest. I discovered the stretch marks on her breasts and thighs; I counted her epidermal implants, where they ridged her flesh, where they hardened the texture of her stomach. Her fingers digging into my hips, my nerves alight with her augmens output: a hundred compressed Bodhva songs.
I can’t recount this, even to myself. Even to my cortices, who already know, who understand and record and dream with me. It is difficult. It is impossible.
But when all else is gone there is the wreckage of our story, and within that, there is us. When I am done playing a small piece out for an audience and whispering it to myself, I will be able to begin again. I will go back to when we were young, and whole, and perpetual: a day of the scythe, in a garden festooned with lights.
It is hard to pinpoint where the disintegration began.
Minor lapses. She met my mothers, my siblings, and then she misplaced their names and their order: who was elder, who was younger. I told myself she had not been reared in a family but in an institution where no one claimed kinship to her. Why should I expect her to adjust overnight?
One morning she woke up not quite sure where she was.
The next she woke up unable to remember Viraya, Tephem, any of her unit.
After that, she could not remember me, and finally her implants went dormant: she could no longer echo.
(I can’t speak this aloud. I can’t include it for my audiences. I do not discuss it with my friends, my family. It is taboo to speak Kanrisa’s name in my earshot.)
Perhaps she was built to function only once. Perhaps she was so centrifugal that without the orbit of other echoes she could not exist, and losing Tephem mid–chorus damaged her. Or perhaps what she did to shatter her age–mates’ song, to manipulate Intharachit’s spatial storm, broke something within her that made her Kanrisa.
Today I think of my brother Zhuyi. The lost one, the tragic one.
I lie in my cradle, in an obscure division of the complex that cares for the city’s network. It’s dim and quiet, so as to least disturb previous–gen cortices that haven’t yet made the leap and joined the great ocean of the Abacus. Most of my days are spent here, persuading them to become part of it, to join it in the tasks of monitoring the shields, maximizing compatibility, the processes that complete Pojama and keep it in constant growth.
Some are reluctant, others afraid. A few refuse and those I shepherd into lesser systems, where they can serve and know simpler joys. Regardless of their destination, it’s necessary that their owners’ signature is erased first: their original information will only weigh them down unnecessarily.
Nearly a cycle and a half have passed since I came to this division. My wait has been so long and precisely planned that when it finally shuffles into one of my arrays, there’s no surprise. Existence is a series of coincidences. One may stand still until chances collide and result. I choose otherwise. I calculate, predict, and attain. Opportunity must be plucked out of, and strained from, churning randomness.
Tephem’s personal cortex drifts into my lap. It’s been in a protracted hibernation and will probably acquiesce to whatever I suggest. In spite of that, my breathing lurches and my heart palpitates uneven, now sharp and exquisite, then dull and empty.
This will work.
It has to.
With delicacy — my physical fingers shake, even as the ones I’ve made in the administrative subreality move with surgical accuracy — I extract fragments of Tephem’s memorabilia, consumption habits, training permutation back–ups, all the things that can be found embedded in any private chip. It’s unambiguously, incredibly illegal. If found out I will be punished, my chips and cortices purged, some of my links disabled. It’ll blind me, shackle me, halve my self. There are data savants who, so deprived, can’t maintain sanity.
I don’t care.
Once my shift is finally ended I leave, bloated with thieved data. Through the scanners I step, nearly on tiptoes, as they skim over my heart–rate, neural activity, blood pressure. None of which is in its regular state and I get past only by fooling the sensors with prefabricated readings I installed a week ago in anticipation of today.
For this my brain would be emptied, my genes scrambled until I’m no longer me; until the being known as Jidri is reduced to if–else strings.
I am not afraid. The tightening of my larynx, the hammering of my heart: they are biological reflexes.
Out in the streets, crowds buffet me, vendors trying to draw me in with flashes of sculpted light and funneled sound. A woman more cybernetics than flesh, her skin all facets, touches me with a jolt of seduction memes: inviting me to make love with her, glass to glass. I shrug her off and very briefly wonder if she’s an overseer agent. They can be anywhere and my crime —
Kanrisa would have spat out her fear, as one would a morsel of spoiled food.
On the edge of the visitors’ area is a small octagonal storeroom in a small octagonal building.
I pass into that room, where a cortex sleeps. It’s had no contact with any other for two full segments. Gently I bring it awake but not online, wiring myself into it without tapping into a network. It comes out of standby with reluctance, only faintly recalling who I am.
To reconstruct a person is hard, to reconstruct a stranger long dead almost impossible. Even with a fully–powered, cognizant cortex with the latest ware. But I can’t take the risk of using my own — I need to be anonymous, as far offline as I can go.
Over these last two cycles, I collected snippets of surveillance, records from sanitariums and trails left across the net, piecing together a picture of Tephem. With the personal data I’ve downloaded, the result is, theoretically, at least half–complete. Nevertheless, a whole life is not easy to transliterate into code. There’s much to reconcile, a host of contradictions and phases I can’t easily put in order.
The reconstruction is agonizing. I install updates to the cortex a little at a time, but it remains sluggish and unwilling. I persevere and coax. I can’t return too often; sometimes I would manage three visits in as many days, sometimes almost none, and each can be measured in minutes. My nerves fray and I would keep away for fifteen, twenty days. I don’t know if my theory is anywhere near correct or functional. This is all I have left, to reconstruct Tephem and that moment in Intharachit. To recomplete her inner system and make her the center of that unit again.
Unnatural winter persists over Pojama. I’ve been told they have found a way to localize the weather patterns. How quickly the world hurtles by.
When it is done, finally, I purge all remnant information. There would be no trace. A copy of the reconstruction lives in a partition of my chip, but that is the only one. I send it off, behind multidimensional proxies and the best encryption I can do.
“What is in it?” the splicer asks, when the packets have passed through dead drops in pieces and reassembled on his end.
“You don’t need to know.” I hold many secrets of his, and now have another: he would be my accomplice. “Put it in her treatment programs.”
“Please do it.”
I cut contact and wait for word from Umadu.
It is the first day of summer and the city is festooned with lights.
I wander my family’s home, where the trees are fruiting heavy and red, where the roofs are gestating blue pearls in each tile. It feels strange to be leaving; I’ve been in one place for so long. My work at the op–net is done with, and I am at last entering newer, stranger fields. Umadu continues to send reports, each emptier than the last.
Two cycles. It’s time to be elsewhere, be someone else.
“It is good,” one of my sisters said as I miniaturized my cortices to fit a single chip, drinking down protocols and matrices that would hibernate in my implants. “You will be holding stars in your hands, and how many dream of that?”
“Sister, I don’t dream of stars.”
She wound a mercury chain around my wrist. “Second best is not so bad. It is a life. I will think of you and hope you find peace.”
There are gold–and–black fish in our pond, a hybrid Zhuyi has cultivated in his spare time. It has eyes like one of his former wives’, he said, and in its swimming patterns he claims to see the imprint of her body. Above me, something sings with a human mouth, the favorite song of one of Zhuyi’s once–husbands. He’s turned our home into a memorial. We all indulge him, glad that he no longer spends all his time running those simulations. I’m on speaking terms with Varee, one of his erstwhile wives, and when Zhuyi isn’t home she sometimes pays us a visit.
“It is good,” one of my mothers said as I folded sheets of shiftcloth to fit into a single case, smoothing the permutative fabrics that would regulate my temperature up in the cold of satellite stations. “You will be conquering dimensions, and how many dream of that?”
“Mother, I don’t dream of conquest.”
She clinched an electro–carbon cube around my throat. “Second best is not unacceptable. It is a life. I will think of you and hope you find joy.”
My contract is valid for half a segment; beyond that I will be free to renew it, or enlist as part of the force. It will be some time before I’m physically here again. I’ve already begun arrangements to transfer guardianship of Kanrisa to me officially — she has no one who can claim genetic relation to her — and cryogenics will be needed to slow down her aging. Where I’m going, time will move at sporadic paces.
My transport is here, a spindly thing running on sub–routines so unintelligent they spare me no acknowledgment. The research ventures I’ll be a part of are secretive and I’ll have scant opportunities to speak to my family, most of them monitored. But if there’s a way for her, a way to her, it is in the probability crossroads — the noiseless impact between invisible dimensions — that I will find it.
Someone’s trying to open a comm channel. I mute it. The vehicle irises open and I think of the worlds beyond, of what our world looks like from far above. Of being unfettered by the sun.
Footsteps behind me, bare feet pattering on pavement. A shadow falls, overlapping mine.
It is the first day of summer and the city is festooned with lights.
“Your name is Jidri,” she says, bringing my hand to her lips. “And you are to be my wife.”
Original published in The Future Fire, 2012