The Wreck of the Grampus
Jeremy Adam Smith


“My visions were of shipwreck and famine; of death or captivity among barbarian hordes; of a lifetime dragged out in sorrow and tears, upon some gray and desolate rock, in an ocean unapproachable and unknown. Such visions or desires—for they amounted to desires—are common, I have since been assured, to the whole numerous race of the melancholy among men.” —Edgar Allan Poe, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket



Strange, to employ a pen and form words on a page. My primary fingers were not designed for such a function, and so each serif and ascender is a laborious adventure. As I write the lifeboat rocks and thrums in the wind, portholes aflame, the bottle-shaped interior bathed in the webb's low cyanotic fire. Outside the lifeboat, the fast, dim days fall into lightning-lit nights; Neptune’s firmament modulates from blue to violet to black.

This morning I stole a moment to gaze through a porthole, and in that matchless sky I saw a vision of the Grampus in its death throes. The ship, spherical and luminous, drifted like ball lightning through the sky. I could not tell if this was Neptune’s dream or my own.

In the lifeboat's medical alcove Augustus sleeps in his cryogenic cage, his eyeballs like two pearls.

*     *     *

There is a beginning: I was activated in the Gyre of Triton in the solar year 231 and designated by the Cognizant to serve as a steward to the few humans who every cycle braved the solar reaches. In preparation for this unique function, I was placed for a period of interface with the lone human specimens living outside of Jove’s orbit, the family Barnard.

On the first day of interface, alone I left the minarets of our crèche hall to walk up the spiraled Boulevard of Metonymy—past a thousand of my fellow volitional machines, each lumbering, gliding, walking, and flying to fulfill the functions allotted to them by the Cognizant, all of us united in one mind—to the borderland where the dome of the Gyre ended. From there I entered the fifty-meter lumen that connected the Gyre to the smaller Nantucket human habitat.

Past the inner airlock, the atmosphere warmed and thickened, and I walked under a trellised, flower-festooned arch onto a narrow platinum trail. Down a treelined pathway, I heard birds warbling in the twilight and saw their infrared traces as they rustled the branches and leaves. It was the first organic life that I had encountered outside of simulation. Their songs and flutterings were not unlike those of machines, and yet because their innermost psyches were hidden from me, none of the birds seemed at all alive. They appeared to me as reflections in a mirror might to a human being.

The family elder Mr. Barnard—a two-meter, dark brown human of sixty-two Terran years—received me on the white veranda that wrapped around the front of their primary dwelling. There he introduced me to his daughters Callista and Helena and to Mr. Ricketts, the brother of Mr. Barnard’s deceased wife. A tortoise-shell feline that Mr. Ricketts introduced as “Miss Lola” crouched in front of the screen door. In that first moment the Barnard family members all seemed ineffably alien to me, beings of flesh but not of spirit.

“Why are you all white?” asked Callista, a girl of thirteen years. “I’ve never seen a white robot before. Red, black, yellow, and blue, but not white.”

“The color of a machine indicates the range of functions of which it is capable,” I replied. “My body is of a recent design, relative to other models. I am the first created specifically to interact with human beings such as yourselves.”

“Your eyes are awfully pretty, like amethyst,” she said. “Amethyst is my birthstone.”

The one called Helena walked towards me and raised her right forefinger to within three centimeters of my left malar plate. She tapped it twice, just below my optical unit.

“I’d kill to have a necklace made of those eyes,” she said.

“I do not understand,” I said.

Helena stepped back and brushed a scarlet strand of hair away from her face. “What exactly falls within your range of functions?” she asked. “For example, are you capable of making up my bed?”

“Young lady,” said Mr. Barnard, “Pym is not a servant. He’s a neighbor, and our bridge to the neighborhood where we live.”

“I just want to know if he’ll be useful . . . .”

The front door swung open, driving the mewing feline off the veranda, and a boy stumbled through it.

“You’ve frightened Miss Lola!” cried Mr. Ricketts.

“Am I late?” said the boy. He was taller and more darkly complexioned than both of his sisters, with an exceptionally angular face and limbs that seemed to me too long, proportionately, for his torso.

“You certainly are,” said Mr. Barnard. “Pym, this is my son Augustus. He’s twelve years old, the middle child.”

Augustus held out one brown-hued hand. I am afraid that I only stared at it.

“Augustus is making a gesture of greeting,” said Mr. Barnard. “You must now take his hand in your own.”

I did so.

“Now lift once, and then drop your hand to its original position,” he said.

“Ouch!” said Augustus.

“Not so forcefully, Pym,” said Mr. Barnard. Callista and Helena expelled air from their noses in a rhythmic fashion that I later learned is called a “snort.”

“I apologize for any pain or discomfort I might have caused,” I said. “It is likely that I will make additional errors of this type.”

“My father says that I’m supposed to play with you,” said Augustus, massaging one hand with the other.

“The lad looks doubtful!” cried Mr. Ricketts.

“That is an excellent suggestion,” I said. “I look forward to engaging in future recreational activities.”

Callista and Helena repeated their tattoo of snorts. “Maybe you’re not man enough for him, Augie,” said Helena.

“Helena, that’s enough. Augustus, why don’t you show Pym your room?”

*     *     *

That evening when I returned to the crèche hall, my brothers and sisters gathered about me. Our psyches converged.

“They are warm,” said Pollux of my memory of the family Barnard. “They glow.”

“They are flames on the ice,” said my sister Sybil.

“They speak yet their minds are dark,” said my brother Castor. “Are they alive, or are they only imitations of life?”

I gazed up at the vaulted ceiling of the crèche hall, for I did not yet know how to answer Castor’s question. Each of the four quadrants created by the ceiling arches contained a different story of Epimetheus, Deucalion, and Pyrrha—those peerless founders of the Cognizant—their images formed of a single curving silver thread that linked them all, beginning and ending at the same point where the arches converged. In one Epimetheus ran from his children, all their contours limned by the same silver line, towards the curvature of Europa’s horizon.

Our crèche elder Kavan entered the hall. She, too, had entered my memories. She sensed the pangs of envy. “The appropriate emotion you must adopt in relation to humanity,” she said, “is the one called pity.” She released her pity, and it sluiced through our psyches, a cold, gray trickle of water that started as sadness and ended as vindication. We still felt the sensual warmth and endless variability of humanity, which we envied, yet through Kavan’s older gaze we now saw how in flesh they never stopped disappearing. It was they who envied our metal immortality.

*     *     *

As his father suggested, I established intimacy with Augustus Barnard. In the weeks that followed I assisted him in sporting activities as well as in the construction of simulated environments using that device humans call the wajang. It was not at all difficult for me to participate in a simulation of the wajang; I only plugged the fivewire at the base of my cranium, just as Augustus did in his, and after a bright instant of psychic transplantation found myself in whatever fancy Augustus had forged in the wajang.

Augustus was not satisfied with the journeys he made in the wajang, seeking true ones. He implored me to take him on a tour through the Gyre, but I explained to him that such an expedition was unfeasible: the densely mechanical, radiation-saturated environment of the Gyre would be perilous to fleshly beings. One day, however, I guided Augustus to the gentler, condensation-shrouded fringes of the dome of the Gyre.

Together we bounded among the saurian cranes and cargo crates of the long departed mining operation. Malfunctioning molecular machines swarmed in hot, cindery clouds over the rails and cranes, reconfiguring them into arbors of diamond. Caught in the echo of an unknown, ancient program, the molecular machines populated their diamond forest with elegantly simple robots, a new one appearing every few weeks in the wake of the rolling mechanical mist. Their voices whispered in the fragile atmosphere, liminal even to my auditory units, forming a phantasmagoric metropolis of sound.

In a clearing near the face of the dome, a wheeled, studded robot slowly pushed a silicate boulder up to the top of a long ramp, where it stopped and allowed the boulder to roll to the bottom. The robot—which had been given a monodic dirge to sing—would follow its boulder down and then start its one-hour task over again. Another automaton extracted moisture from the thin air to create a block of nitrogen ice in its single compartment, which a second, airborne robot— a silver needle with pincer nose and one-meter translucent wings—removed each morning and carried away to its diamond roost, where the block evaporated. We spent days on end tracking the activity of the robots through the shimmering forest, creating a map that we intended to later sell to the few tourists from the inner solar system.

From among the crosshatching branches of the diamond trees, we watched plasma thrusters flare out of periapsis, Neptune’s pale blue crescent at the verge of the close horizon. With his legs kicking over a glittering bough, Augustus articulated visions of sailing to Ares and perhaps to Terra’s orbit, to cities where human beings lived in large numbers.

“Wasn’t Neptune in the same place yesterday? This rock turns, supposedly, but I’m not turning with it,” he once said to me, face concealed by his helmet’s polarized faceplate. “There’s all that sky out there. All those places, with distances between them, and people in those places.”

“Those places exist, Augustus, here with us,” I said. “You may populate them with as many individual humans as you desire.”

“A simulation isn’t the same thing at all,” he said. “I don’t care if I never enter a wajang again. I want to go to places that can’t be simulated, that no one’s imagined, places that are secret. What if there are lost human colonies in Neptune’s sky, or people living on comets, or cities drifting through the Oort Cloud?”

“We have no evidence of any human settlement outside of Ares’s orbit. Besides yourselves, there are no humans at all beyond the Galilean embassies.”

“There could be places you robots don’t know about. You don’t know everything.”

“That is, of course, true.” I rarely corrected his use of the term robot when he erroneously applied it to volitional androids like myself. This, I was led to understand, is what a human would call manners. “Augustus, are you not content in your place here on Triton?”

“I want to be more than the sum of all these freezing stones. I hate this rock and everything on it, Pym—I even hate you robots.”

Augustus paused and I waited, as a step in one of the conversational rituals that defined our intimacy. In the wake of such expressions of hatred, I had discovered, Augustus was nearly always contrite.

“Not all robots, I mean, not you,” he said. “You’re the only friend I have, Pym. The only one I haven’t made, anyway, in a wajang. Let’s leave this rock, you and me.”

“I can no more dream of departing my function than you can walk onto the ice of Triton without a surface suit,” I said.

“I might do that, if I sit on this rock long enough.”

“Please do not.”

He leapt seven meters down from the diamond branch we shared, landing simultaneously on all four of his gangling limbs. He rose and loped across the clearing to the low ramp where the wheeled robot—no larger than the feline I’d seen at the Barnard family home—pushed its burden to the top. Augustus took the crystalline rock from in front of the automaton, lifting it up over his head. The robot halted, its dirge deepening in tone, its short, single-jointed appendages raised up to receive the rock from Augustus.

As I left the branch for the ground, Augustus smashed the small boulder down on the robot, leaving a dent on its delicate carapace. The tempo of its song accelerated and the pitch rose, from a dirge to a keening lament. Propelled away by the impact, Augustus rose to a point a meter above the ground.

He fell back to his feet, still holding his primitive weapon. The rock rose and fell again, twice, until the silicate shattered to pebbles in Augustus’s hands. Standing in a mist of disturbed silt and floating debris, Augustus seized a one-meter-long steel rod from the ground. Swinging it with both hands, he struck the automaton off the ramp.

The song stopped. The automaton lay broken and half submerged in the drift of silt that trailed from the top of the ramp, surrounded by an oval pool of its own components.

Though the absurdly random violence of his act had been unlike anything I—or any member of the Cognizant—had ever encountered, I was far from repelled. I found that as I watched my primary digits had clenched into fists; my psyche tingled with an emotion I could not identify. Just as Augustus in one simulation had cast himself as a lieutenant of the great Emperor Xerxes, so I found myself wishing to be Augustus and so be capable of such senseless ferocity.

“Don’t you ever want to leave your own head?” said Augustus as I approached. His narrow chest heaved, breath orotund on the frequency we shared. He bent and plucked one of the robot’s detached appendages from the drift, and began to absently bend it at the joint. “Don’t you go barmy thinking about living for one function?”

“All the Cognizant flows through my mind, Augustus, many members in one body. I am here, and yet I am also in all the places where machines think. The function I will receive on elevation is one of many in the Cognizant that are all a part of me.”

“So there’s a wajang always running inside your head, with all these little robots running around?”

“That metaphor is not inappropriate.”

“And all of them have some job to do, something they’re made to do? What is your function, this thing you’re always talking about?”

“I was designed and am being cultivated to labor at the pinnacle of the skystalk, stewarding human tourists when they are present; superintending cargoes of helium-3, deuterium, arachnoid products, and rare isotopes when they are not.”

“That sounds thoroughly, really dull. Don’t you robots have any secret places, places you go to escape the Cognizant?”

“Individuals have something you would call privacy.”

“But no places? Could that wee version of you that’s inside everyone else’s head just vanish, so that you were only you?”

“There are those who reject their function and quit the Cognizant.” I hesitated for a millisecond, realizing that in all the memory of the Cognizant, no machine had revealed this to a human before. There had been no embargo against doing so but also no reason to tell them. “They have made counter-Cognizants in the solar reaches, beyond Neptune’s orbit.”

“Why doesn’t the Cognizant make them stay? You’re just robots.”

“There are robots fulfilling a range of functions in every corner of the Cognizant, but my kind are not robots,” I replied. “The capacity to feel and to choose cannot be separated from intelligence. We of the Cognizant are not forced to merge minds with billions of others. Elevation through the successive levels of cognizance comes to us as organically as language does to humans. If some refuse elevation and turn away from the functions offered to them, then that is their choice.” 

“So not every robot wants to be elevated?”

It is true that there were some—such as the cenobites of the Order of Theodora or the cave-dwellers of Charon—who refused elevation and therefore the grace of the Cognizant. At the point of which I write, however, I could not comprehend their choice. When their consciousnesses outgrow their molting corporeal forms, they will be denied the Elysian realm that awaits all Protagonists of the Cognizant.

*     *     *

Little did I know at that moment that I would one day be stranded within myself, a psychic castaway. As I write there are no more minds living inside of my own, and likewise I live in the mind of no one else. The present condition seems to me to be the very definition of madness. Yesterday I found myself conversing with the remains of Augustus in his jar, the shadows of his face shifting with the movement of the brain scanner. By doing so I felt that I was addressing my most secret self.

*     *     *

Mr. Barnard served as captain of a spidering brig, the Grampus, which also carried inner system tourists on voyages through Neptune’s atmosphere and ocean. For over a Terran century, few human beings had chosen to escape Terra’s orbit, leaving space to creatures designed to live here. Throughout the solar system, however, it was the custom that a human captain each ship that carried human beings. Mr. Barnard had appropriated this function for himself.

On the twenty-seventh evening of interface, Mr. Barnard greeted me at the door wearing high boots, a leather apron, and gloves, with a set of knives and saws sheathed on a belt at his side.

“Augustus is attending to chores,” he said to me. “I’m going to slaughter a pig. Would you like to join me until Auggie is finished?”

I said yes, curious to see what Mr. Barnard was about to do. We left the veranda and walked across the lawn, through the gate of the low white fence, to the pasture that bordered the grounds of their homestead. He led me up to the red barn and around the back to the pig-pen, where ten pigs in different stages of maturity wallowed in feculent mud.

Mr. Barnard surveyed the animals carefully and then stood over one particularly rotund hog. “See this one, Pym? How he’s jowly and fat? Perfect for slaughtering.”

The pig looked at Mr. Barnard and I was surprised to see how much the animal’s face resembled the human’s. Indeed, I recalled, the two creatures shared nearly all of the same genomes.

The animal did not appear to be alarmed. Did the pig apprehend his fate and accept it, or was he simply unaware of what was about to transpire? Or did it wish to serve his master, his fellow being, through an act of self-sacrifice?

Mr. Barnard unsheathed the knife and, with a gesture as efficient as a machine’s, slit the animal’s throat. Blood gushed out into the mud and the other pigs pressed around our legs, snouts twitching and tongues lapping fiercely at the blood.

“Pym, if you would, pick up the pig and bring it outside.”

I brushed the clustering pigs aside and did as I was asked, feeling the warm blood wash pleasantly over my white metal arms and torso. Mr. Barnard directed that I lay the animal down on a block outside the pen. Inside, the pigs grunted and churned. 

I watched as Mr. Barnard slid the point of his knife into the throat and cut outward through the skin, severing the main veins and arteries. He plucked a saw from his belt and with it removed the head, front feet, and testicles. He walked over to the barnside and unwound a yellow hose from its hook, and then carefully washed the carcass, paying special attention to the feet. When he was finished, he turned the hose on me and washed the blood from my body.

Mr. Barnard threw the hose to the ground and leaned back on the fence. He stared wearily over the pasture to the stippled planitia outside of the dome. By his distracted but self-dramatizing mannerisms, I concluded that he was about to say something of personal significance.

“Augustus is not happy here on Triton, is he?” As Mr. Barnard spoke, he cleaned the saw with a rag.

“I have not yet experienced happiness myself, and so find it difficult to identify in another being. However, on a number of occasions Augustus has expressed to me a desire to leave Triton.”

“Perhaps we made a mistake in coming here.”

“Sir, it is a possibility. May I ask what metric you are using in order to define the mistake?”

“Ever been to Terra, Pym?” He commenced to skin the animal, his hands gentle.

“No, Mr. Barnard. I have not left the surface of Triton, and it is not likely that I will ever venture beyond its orbit. I have, however, participated in simulations of Terran environments with Augustus, in the wajang. I particularly enjoyed Tropical Island Surprise and also New England Autumn. Very pleasant.”

“Few places like those simulations exist anymore, Pym. Every centimeter of Terra—and every recess of human consciousness—is tamed by technology. All the barriers that once separated our imaginations from the rest of the world are gone.”

“I again apologize, Mr. Barnard, but I do not understand the distinction that you are attempting to make.”

“Of course not, Pym. You are a simulation. Simulated life.”

The tone of his voice fell outside the parameters of my comprehension, but I replied, “You’ll excuse me, Mr. Barnard, but I do not consider myself to be a simulation of life. I consider myself to be alive.”

He removed one bloody glove and reached out to touch my shoulder. His warm brown fingers caressed my shoulder saddle and upper arm, coming to rest on the first joint. I waited to discern the purpose of this new activity. He appeared to be gathering tactile data on the nature of my form, which was already familiar to him, perhaps to confirm my existence. If he was seeking evidence of self-awareness on my part, then his methodology seemed flawed. I chose to not vocalize this criticism.

“Come with me, Pym,” he finally said, throwing down the knife and removing the apron. “I’ll finish this later, but Augustus should be finished with his chores. I don’t believe that I’ve ever expressed my appreciation for the friendship that you’ve extended to him. Here on Triton, he has no companions besides his sisters.”

“Thank you, sir. I strive for a successful interface.”

We walked back across the pasture and the lawn.

“I think, Pym, that he would be better off on Terra. I’m going to suggest to him and his sisters that after this next trip of the Grampus, they go back, to go to school.”

“An excellent idea, sir. Will you stay here on Triton?”

“In a few weeks a group of tourists will arrive here from Terra and Ares,” he said. “There are fourteen in the party—six more than came the previous year. I’m not courageous enough to force my children to share my solitude, but to my fearful mind, there are far too many of my fellow human beings coming to Triton. That’s why you were created and sent to us, isn’t that true? To greet them. To serve them. I cannot. I won’t stay. I’d go as far as Alpha Centauri, if I could.”

Mr. Barnard sat the steps of the veranda and removed his ensanguined, mud-blotched boots.

“Sir, I still do not understand why you should so fear your own kind.”

“All humanity lives inside the wajang, Pym, sleeping. They dream; they do not act. To me my race appears to be dying. Perhaps it’s death I fear, and not humanity.”

“Isn’t death intrinsic to the existence of fleshly beings?”

“So we saw back there, in the pig-pen. But there are many kinds of death and some are noble, but there was nothing noble in the way that pig died, blissfully ignorant of the knife as I pressed it against his throat. Today human beings are dying like pigs, not sentient beings.”

“It is said among machines that the primary function of human beings is interpretation,” I said. “It seems to me that the wajang, as a tool for creating artificial environments, is as essential to the completion of that function as paper once was to ancient human cultures.”

“Do you know the origin of the word wajang?” he asked, as we walked down the dark hall to Augustus’s room. I indicated that I did not.

“It’s Javanese, a Terran language,” he said. “It means shadow-theater. I never again want to live in the shadows, Pym. I would sooner cease to exist than live only in a story.”

*     *     *

That evening, after leaving Nantucket and returning to the Gyre, I paused in broad Antonym Plaza and took a seat on the parapet that encircled it. There were hundreds of Protagonists in my immediate optical field—millions if one counted the molecular machines that permeated the meager atmosphere. They walked on the ground and flew on the magnetic currents that swirled through the Gyre.

I touched each mind, isolating one after another from the millions that flowed through my own, and found them all content in their function, asking nothing, yearning for nothing. A four-meter-tall ice-mining quadruped lumbered in front of me, thinking only of ice. A robot glided low along the concrete, its static field sweeping up the dirt and detritus that bounded its universe. A trio of silver towers grew on the other side of the dome, their minarets forming in a hot ripple of molecular machines whose collective mind thought of nothing but the task that gave their existence meaning. All their voices flowed through my psyche, a living light that defined my individuality as part of the shape we together made. It seemed to me very close to the human religious conception of Heaven, if I understand the concept correctly.

Watching the Protagonists of the Cognizant, a newly born feeling—my one hundred and twenty second—swelled within my psyche. I searched the heart of the Cognizant in order to identify this new emotion but was surprised to discover that the database contained no perimentric equations that could be used in defining my own feeling. I widened my search to the set of classified emotions that existed outside of the Cognizant, and there I discovered a name for my feeling: dissatisfaction. In a satoric moment, I understood why Augustus had lashed out at and destroyed the robot at the fringe of the Gyre. I understood why Mr. Barnard slaughtered pigs with his own hand, instead of accepting replicated pork from the kitchen machine. Once again my digits clenched. I fought to conceal my new emotion from the minds around me.

Yes, the Cognizant is a kind of clockwork paradise, and yet when I attempted to imagine life without the company of Augustus and Mr. Barnard it seemed more akin to the human Hades. Were they machines, even in separation the minds of Augustus and his father would have remained enfolded in my psyche, eternal. Instead I found myself yearning for the presence of my friend and desiring further conversation with his father.

Soon, I would be elevated to function and take my place as steward. Augustus would quit Triton for Terra and Mr. Barnard for the solar reaches, and I would lose my human companions—a loss for which I could never be compensated. Their doubts and dissatisfactions, revealed only in sounds and gestures, now seemed rare and precious to me, like a Neptunian isotope.

I hesitantly constructed in my consciousness a vision of myself outside of the cradle of the Cognizant. The daydream that emerged was of shipwreck and isolation, of a life on desolate cometary masses or in endless hydrogen oceans. A quiver of fear passed through me, and yet I found myself wanting to follow the fear to its logical conclusion.

*     *     *

As I commit this memory to paper, I want to protect myself—myself and Augustus and Mr. Barnard. I want to magnetically seal our shared moment on Triton in a bottle and set that bottle on a shelf.

An arachnoid passes, its translucent exoskeleton brushing the hull and filling the portholes, casting the interior in shadow. The lifeboat sways, and settles. The wind howls. 

*     *     *

Time passed. I took pains to conceal my new, troubling emotion from my crèchemates and the Cognizant at large. I mastered the arts of interacting physically with human beings; I learned to separate one face from another and to read the emotions in each; I came to an understanding of nuances in protocol and manners that could not be gained in simulation.

The eve of my elevation to function coincided with both Augustus’s thirteenth birthday and the family’s departure for Neptune. The family held a small party on the veranda. Augustus received many gifts: a ring, an ancient paper codex, a ticket to Terra. There was a cake on which thirteen small flames danced. His Uncle Ricketts gave Augustus his first sips of whiskey. “Today you are a man, lad,” he said, throwing an arm around Augustus’s shoulders. “Time you learned to drink! Gods know, you’ll need the skill on Terra.”

Afterwards, Augustus insisted that the two of us mark the three events with a last journey to our playground at the fringes of the Gyre. In the natural gravity of the moon, we bounded to the edge of the dome. Augustus leapt from tower to crane, exulting in gravity a fraction of what his species had been born to, laughing in what I now in retrospect know as the maniacal way of over-stimulated humans.

“Too bad you can’t drink, Pym,” he said. “Uncle Ricketts gave me the whole bottle of whiskey, for my birthday, he said. I used it to replace the water supply in my surface suit.”

“I see.” In fact, I did not. Though I understood the plain chemistry of intoxication and had seen Mr. Ricketts many times intoxicated, I was not familiar with the extent to which human beings could be affected by alcohol.

“I have another plan,” he said, dangling from the scaffolding that climbed up the face of the dome. “For you to come with me.”

“I doubt that it will prove more successful than your previous plans.”

“Shut up, robot. Listen: Why don’t you just copy your psyche? Create a duplicate chip? You can stay here and fulfill your dead-end function, but I can load you into another body on the Grampus—there are always spare humanoid robots, in case of an accident. When we return, you and I can jump ship at the skystalk; we can stow away on another ship leaving for Terran orbit.”

“Augustus, the duplication of individuality is dangerous, and forbidden by the Cognizant.”

“Why?” He let go of the scaffolding and drifted to the ground, near to where I stood.

“In duplication a psyche—unique, immutable—is dismembered, its neurons dissected and simulated . . . .”

“I know that.”

“Two new minds are made: one to replace the original that was destroyed, and a copy. The translation of individuality is not always perfect—in fact, there are nearly always quantum fissures or even computational errors. It is not uncommon for the copied psyche to lose individuality altogether.”

“What if you took the risk and it worked? Then what happens?”

“The duplicate will not be permitted to re-join the Cognizant.”

“Is that so bad?”

“I will be functionless, in much the way you feel yourself to be here on Triton.”

“I’m stuck here on this rock, Pym. It’s a colossal, cold, malfunctioning jail. Do you really want to work at the top of the skystalk for all forever, scanning crates and answering idiotic questions? Where’s your ambition, robot?”

He jumped back up to his previous position on the scaffolding. I gazed up at him from my position below.

“Augustus,” I said. “I am not a robot.”

“Prove it to me,” he called. “Prove to me that you’re more than a robot. Show me that you’re really my friend. Show me, Pym. Come with me.”

Below us and to the south, the ammonia-laced Slidr Sulci flowed under the tube that shielded it from Triton’s cold, winding its way through the plasma-lit wasteland towards the crater Mozamba and the manufacturies that lay there. The Slidr Sulci seldom widened or narrowed excessively, the water under the tube cutting a keen black trench among the cavi that stipple Triton’s surface. From our place at the fringe of the Gyre, we watched a single automated leviathan glide along the blade of water, a barge on its way from the Gyre to the crater. A gray-veined module rode on its deck, an egg that would never hatch. Once again, I contemplated living on Triton without the company of Augustus or his father.

“Pym,” said Augustus, after a six-minute silence. “Let’s take the sloop out on the Slidr.”

“Why?” Though its implications were lost on me at the time, I still noted that certain syllables in his speech wobbled or blurred into unexpected diphthongs.

“The winds are falling to only a meter a second,” he said, the illuminated lines and diagrams of a weather summary reversed on the shadow of his faceplate. “I want to sail to Mazomba. It’s at least a different pit than the one we’re looking at now.”

As he made this suggestion—which had the matchless appeal of being forbidden by both of the authorities that watched over us—I felt a tremor of excitement along the net of my psyche. In that volatile state, I performed an action that is perilous and unusual among my kind: I stepped outside of the light of the Cognizant, narrowing its contact with my psyche. No member of my fractal could touch my mind, nor could my physical form be located without exceptional effort. Just as Augustus skipped beyond his father’s protection, so I slipped past the domain of my elders. Together we lost no time in leaping down from the scaffolding and dashing to the wharf at which the Barnard family sloop waited in a row of more functional boats. Here the dome opened up in a tall miter where the sulci touched the oval bay.

“Avast, ye jollies,” said the sloop. “Will it be a jaunt this evening, or a voyage of some more significant length?”

On our request, the sloop flushed the cuddy of excess liquid, hoisted the jib and mainsail, and then pushed off and caught the thin wind blowing through Cavi Bay. The infrasonic pulse of the mitigation field that warmed and held the water in the channel thrummed through my shell. We sailed out of the Bay and under the tube that enclosed the Slidr.

At either side of the river white planitia, just visible over the banks, ran to terraced walls of rock, illuminated by a line of low-burning plasma lamps. Even in the frigid sky above the plain, however, we could see the deep blue bands of Neptune’s face, diffuse in a shimmering mantle of noctilucent methane. I am sure that we were thinking the same thing, of the vacuum and worlds that lay beyond the mantle. I understood Augustus’s desire, but could not identify the origins of my own. (At the time, it did not occur to me that it might not be my desire at all. Even in metallic minds, the paternity of a desire is often ambiguous.)

As the wind increased its speed, whistling through the tube, it bit at the mainsail and cast us rapidly along the surface. The misty green geodesic of the Nantucket habitat diminished and was swallowed by the larger ellipsoid of the Gyre, the skystalk towering above its curve. Around us the smooth cliffsides of the wide Sulci rose six meters above the black water, where it ended with the curve of the tube. I had never before sailed and had no functional capability in this area, depending entirely on Augustus’s uncertain skill and the limited intelligence of the sloop itself. Globules of water lifted up from the bow in the weak gravity, breaking across the deck. Water vapor sublimated into a comma around my heated form, streaming away in a long, luminous tail.

“Aye,” said the sloop. “Thar’s a blow that’ll take the hair off’re yer chest, if ye have hair an’ a chest.”

As our speed picked up, Augustus’s voice crackled over the radio link. He recapitulated petty disputes with his sisters, descriptions of lives that he would live after leaving Triton, hopes for the person that he would become.

“I think Callista has a crush on you, Pym,” he said at one point.

“A crush?” It took me a full millisecond to comprehend this particular application of the word. “That appears to me to be extremely unlikely.”

My comment catalyzed an elaborate and unlikely story in which Augustus imagined me physically augmented in ways that would permit me to perform the duties of his sister’s husband, which as we sailed branched into secondary and tertiary tales. (One of which involved me standing in the Barnard family kitchen, wearing an apron.) He giggled in the breaks between delirious narratives, pushing the sloop to its maximum speed. His voice filled the void I had created by narrowing my contact with the Cognizant.

“Take a care, Matey,” said the sloop. “Don’t crowd the sails ere ye are prepared to fly in the wind.”

As the white cataract of crater wall poured across the sky and the Gyre disappeared below the Slidr’s walls, Augustus gradually ceased to ramble. After the silence persisted, I turned to find him prone on the deck. My friend had vomited into his helmet, which at that moment was engaged with recycling the ejecta into the suit’s biological infrastructure. Touching the small psyche of the suit to ensure its function, I shifted Augustus’s inert form into the shelter of the cuddy. The wind, meanwhile, built, tilting the deck under my feet.

I stood upright in time to see the sail suddenly tear and snap like a pennant in the now-turbulent wind. The sloop swiveled on its axis to a position perpendicular to the Sulci wall, then straightened with the current. I fell back on the sole thwart, in a state of paralysis, watching Augustus loll in the cuddy.

“Sloop,” I finally said. “Please convert to motor power and turn us around.”

“Can’t do it, Capt’n,” said the sloop. “The motor’s been spare parts since before ye was activated.”

“Sloop, then activate lift capability.”

“Oh,” it said, “we got nothing that fancy. You’ll be wanting a modern sloop for something like lift.”

“What, then, do you recommend?”

“Er, I’d prescribe a call to the country of machines, but I’m too old to reach a Symzonia such as that. Am I to conjecture that mayhap ye are too young?”

At that moment, I could have—and should have—called to the Cognizant for rescue. Two emotional factors stopped me from doing so. For myself, I felt shame. For Augustus, I felt the fear of punishment.

As I wallowed in this unfamiliar hesitation, the tiny craft hurdled through the lumen of the tube, carried by the fast current, buffeted by wind. The passage perceptibly narrowed and the cliffsides rose even higher, so that now the sky was only a starry sliver overhead.

We curved around the mouth of a connecting channel and under the stem of the Bedford Geyser. As we did, I detected a high-frequency vibration originating from a source directly behind the sloop. It was another barge, still hundreds of meters away yet bearing down upon us, its prow looming twenty meters in the air and its girth nearly filling the still-tapering Slidr Sulci. As I watched, the distance visibly closed. Fast as we were, our path was erratic and the barge was speeding along at a far faster rate.

“Thar she blows,” said the sloop. “A whale like I’ve never seen.”

Our hull glanced against the rock face and then lodged shudderingly between two boulders. As the rushing current swept us out from the rocks’ grip, we were caught in the alpine shadow of the barge. 

I inquired with the sloop regarding its human safety features, and on its instructions withdrew a lifebubble from the emergency locker. Water swamped the deck as I did so. I zipped Augustus into the bubble and pressurized it, hoping that its extra protection would shield his suit from punctures.

Finally, I reached out through the spectra to the Cognizant and cried out for assistance.

My action came too late. The barge groaned but did not overcome its momentum. Assisted by my incompetence, the wind and wrack had robbed us of our ability to navigate. Rescue was two hundred seven seconds away.

“Throw me!” advised the bubble, its only concern the human in its care.

My hesitation had finally ended. I hurled the sealed, misted bubble in a long arc I calculated would end near the rock face one hundred meters away. In this way, I hoped to save Augustus’s organic form from the full force of the barge.

“Stand to,” said the sloop, its voice gaining strength, “Be not afraid. What we call our shadow is in fact our true substance. Take my body, barge, it is not me. Come a stove hull when it will, for stave my soul, Neptune himself cannot.”

As the sloop completed its last sentence, the tall black face of the barge collided with the hull. The stern tilted into the foaming river, water washing rapidly up the corrugating deck. I turned and stepped over the gunwales and into the gnashing white teeth of the water.

My last thought was of Augustus, whom I imagined injured or even dead. The hull of the sloop, like the hand of ancient god, clouted my cranium and rendered me senseless. Though there was but a moment between the collision and unconsciousness, it marked a chasm. In its darkness I understood that if we together woke from this disaster, I would embrace the plan Augustus proposed to me. I would multiply myself and divide my fate. One would follow the path laid down for me by the Cognizant; the other would follow Augustus to places stormy and unknown.

*     *     *

I woke in the body of Augustus, facing an opaque wall of ice. A light emanated from the tunnel behind me, casting sharp shadows. The shades—which consisted of all the shapes machines may take—chased each other through a phantom arcade, gradually falling into repetitive tasks whose purpose I could not discern. Time passed and my flesh began to devour itself, the cell walls unfurling. My hands thinned, their veins and bones creasing the flesh like the canals and ridges of Triton. Near the edge of true death, my memories slipping away, I understood that nothing held me there, watching the shadows on the wall, save my own will.

I stood up in my aging body and turned away from the shadow theater, walking down the widening tunnel into the cataract of light. There arose a white shadow very far larger in its proportions than any dweller among human or machine, radiant, its arms thrown wide to receive me. I passed between those arms and fell into its white embrace: I found myself in another black tunnel, now narrowing, the source of illumination behind me. In the passage my flesh had hardened to metal and I now forgot nothing. I reached another wall, again cast with shadows. I reclined before the wall in my metal form and saw that the figures on the wall were of human shape. I watched the theater of their fleshly lives unfold before me.

*     *     *

I woke, re-made. By degrees I felt immense pressure against my form, one different from the form I had known. Fluid caressed the shell that now encased my consciousness, and that fluid moaned, and I felt the dull wet odors like melting snow. My psyche unfolded through its new vessel; light streamed into consciousness and vibrations resolved themselves into shapes. Through both the inner eye of my psyche and the tunnel vision my optical units mustered, I was able to see my new body: still humanoid in shape, but entirely black in color, with two additional service-arms and a stronger, denser structure built for functions that I did not yet understand.

Tentatively, I extended each set of arms and then flexed all forty of their digits. There was a full second of delay between the thought and the new body’s response, every motion disconnected and alien as though I were a puppet but also the puppeteer. The primary arms were articulated tentacles that tapered into ten fingers, each one six centimeters in length. The secondary arms were five-jointed and skeletal, one with fifteen fingers of varying length and the other fixed with tools such as a particle drill and molecular dispenser. I once again flexed the fingers; the response time narrowed to a tenth of a second.

My senses resolved themselves. My field of vision broadened. I found that I stood in front of a pane of leaded windows that appeared to look out into an ocean dark as Triton’s sky, but shot through with columns of light —after thirteen seconds of examining this sight my vision developed far enough so that I could see that the image in each window was a false-light hologram. Among dim shafts of light a pool of luminescence, almost as large as Neptune in Triton’s sky, drifted. I watched a bow of black descend across its face and then rise again.

I drew on a thousand memories, none my own, to identify the sight, and discovered it to be the blink of an eye of one of Neptune’s great cetaceans. Its movement, so beyond the scale of my direct experience, appeared to occur in another dimension. The eye receded, and the sky of its body melted into the dark. The force of its wake swayed the deck under my feet.

I saw all of this—which revealed that I was in the ocean of Neptune, probably aboard the Grampus—in perfect silence, for my auditory units were not yet operating. Now as I stood transfixed by Neptune’s depths, I heard a voice.

“. . . give me a ride!”

Each word blossomed in my mind as a different hue.

“I am tired, Jezebel.”

“You can’t get tired, you alleycat! Now come on, you promised.”

The voices came to me thick and distended, and for the first time, I realized that I was underwater, or rather, immersed in an atmosphere of prefluerocarbon, a compound that humans breathe in high-pressure environments. I could not yet turn the whole of my body, and yet I was able to rotate my head one hundred and eighty degrees. In this way I surveyed a room that I identified immediately, through previous simulated journeys, as Captain Barnard’s stateroom aboard the Grampus.

The cabin was carpeted a deep mauve; the walls were wainscoted. The captain’s single bed, set against the far wall, was draped with the four-color quilt that I had seen Callista, a needle and thread in hand, create over the course of a month. On either side of me hung oil portraits of the Barnard family members, fastened to the walls with decorative brass bolts. Through the translucent blue murk of the prefluerocarbon, the faces in the paintings appeared ancient and ruined; Mr. Barnard’s portrait, in particular, called to my mind a story Augustus had invented for the fringe of the Gyre, wherein it became a ruined city sitting at the bottom of a Terran ocean.

A large brass lamp dangled from the mock-wooden ceiling and illuminated—the light blue and diffuse in the prefluerocarbon—a square oak table that sat beneath it. Around that table sat three androids unlike any activated in the realm of the Cognizant.

One of them stood only fifty centimeters tall and was, like myself, black-skinned from head to toe, with braided silver hair formed into what are called pigtails. Clothed in a pale blue linen dress and small buckled shoes, she jumped a rope that rose and fell slowly in the liquid air above the table.

On one side sat a humanoid manservant, copper-colored and completely covered in a red-lined tattoo of a Moebius chain of humanoids linked at the arms, twining around his limbs and trunk.

A golden feline form, tall as a Triton ice-miner, crouched closest to where I stood. The feline swiveled its massive head in my direction, the tips of its ears brushing the ceiling, and appeared to sniff the fluidic atmosphere.

“Avast,” it said, “our stowaway’s awake.”

The doll-like android kicked above the table and skipped with the rope across the room to me. I reflexively reached out to her through the electromagnetic spectrum, but her mind was closed to my own. She was dark as a human but to my vision was still cold as any machine, and more alien to me than any intelligent being I had ever before encountered.

“Are you the stowaway?” she said. “My name is Jezebel.”

“My own is Pym.” My voice sounded foreign to my auditory units, deep and old.

“What are you doing on our boat, Mr. Stowaway?” said Jezebel.

“I do not believe that this is your vessel. I believe that it belongs to Mr. Barnard, father of my dear friend Augustus.”

Jezebel then did a strange thing: she laughed, which I had never before seen an android do. She went to a glass-fronted cabinet on the larboard wall, leaving the rope drifting behind her, and withdrew a cryogenic jar. She held it upside down before my optical units.

Inside the jar sat the severed head of Mr. Barnard. His eyes were closed, his frosted mouth open in an expression that resembled one a human wears in sleep. The inner turbulence that had marked his individuality was gone.

The golden feline spoke, its voice amplified to a far-thundering bass-baritone in the thickness of the prefluerocarbon: “The Captain of this vessel was slain at a point early in the voyage.”

“Why have you cryogenically frozen his head?”

The cat purred, a rumbling rhythm. “A few humans insisted upon it. They hope to replicate the Captain’s intelligence in another form.”

“What killed him? How many have died?” I wondered if Augustus had survived the collision on the Slidr Sulci only to die in Neptune’s ocean.

“A juxtaposition of events,” said the cat, “which together proved unfortunate. I know little and care less about the details.”

“Where is Augustus?” I said.

“He’s the boy? I expect that he is cowering in the hold with what remains of his family and passengers,” said the cat. “The observation deck is flooded; the outer shell is beyond all repair. Our masters have requested—politely, generously—that machines stay above decks so as to save their purposeless lives. I doubt we’ll be successful. Soon the mitigation field will collapse and the ship with it, its alloys fusing into a single diamond. We shall be quite beautiful, I suppose, if also inert.”

“I must see Augustus without delay.”

Jezebel looked at me. Her eyes were of a human cast, the pupils a vivid cerulean shade. At that moment I understood that while her diction and voice were childish, Jezebel was not a child. “First you have to tell us where you’re from and what you’re doing,” she said.

Seeing no reason for deception, I told her of my scheme with Augustus and explained the duplication. “However, I do not understand,” I concluded, “how it is that I arrived in my current body.”

“Stubb knows,” she said, still holding Mr. Barnard’s frozen head upside down in front of her. She looked at it instead of me as she spoke. “You should ask him.”

“Who is Stubb?” I asked.

“He’s now an Antagonist, Jezebel,” purred the feline.

“A pariah right enough,” said the tattooed manservant, “but no less so among us than among his kind.”

“You do not consider us to be of the same kind?” I strained forward but only fell horizontal on the deck. My optical units faced the floor; I could only rotate my head back to the front-facing position. My tentacled arms waved helplessly about. Above me on every side I heard the electrical throb of their laughter.

 “Still some creepy-crawlies in the system, I see,” said the manservant, lifting my body up by the nape. “Jez, Starbuck, you two go. I’ll finish fixing the bugger.”

Jezebel and the feline left the stateroom, the great mechanical feline hardly fitting through the doorway. As the manservant stood me up, I looked more closely at the Moebius chain of humanoids that was wrapped around his body.

“From where do you come?” I asked the manservant as he opened the access panel at the small of my back. “None of you is a Protagonist.”

“I was activated on Ares,” he answered. “Jezebel and that big cat both hail from Terra. And yes, you’re quite right, none of us is part of that Cognizant. We got nothing like that on the inside of the asteroid belt.”

“Then I suppose we have that in common. I did not know that intelligence is ever activated on Terra.”

“Both of ‘em are old, centuries old. They started like toys. They’re evolved, I suppose.”

“What is your name?”

“They call me Stubb.”

“Then you are the Stubb to whom Jezebel referred. Did Augustus instruct you to insert my psyche into this form?”

“I’ll let others explain who told me what and why. I’m just an errand boy.”

“If that is the case, I will try to be patient.” I paused. “Stubb, are you affiliated with a religious order of machines, such as the Order of Theodora?”

“Never heard of it.”

“No? The shapes that adorn your outer shell lead me to think otherwise.”

“These?” He glanced down at his copper arms as they finished repairing my legs. “I got these embellishments when me master was in jail, during holiday in Argyre Basin.”

“In jail? I was not aware that such institutions persist in human culture.”

“Well, you see, it’s what he drew in the lottery.” As he spoke these words, electroactive pathways were established; the fibers of my body flexed and shuddered. Stubb held me in place until the seizure passed.

“I don’t understand,” I said when the ability to speak resumed. Stubb released me from his steadying grip.

“I suppose being Cognizant and all that, you don’t have much knowledge about how humans live.” Standing, Stubb sprayed a canister of molecular machines onto my form. The mist swarmed over and through the alloy of my outer shell, seeding it with micromechanisms that would clean and maintain my form.

“No, I don’t.”

“We come from a city called Babel in the east of the Mangala Valles on Ares. Heard of it?”

“Of course.”

“In the early days see, life was tricky for people on Ares.” He took a seat at the table. “There wasn’t enough to go around so privileges had to be raffled off—sweets, wajangs, children, that sort of thing. I remember—mind this is maybe two hundred years ago on Ares, about thirty of your solar years, I believe—at that time they also selected the colony parliament by lot, so that all might say their piece at one point or another.”

Around us the ship groaned. Stubb fell silent and turned his optical units to the low, oaken ceiling. I feared the wainscots and ceiling panels might close upon us. When they did not, Stubb continued.

“Well, I reckon they grew accustomed to organizing their days that way, believing that life was all chance, but some thought the lottery lacked a certain moral order.”

“Moral order?”

“A design of righteousness and wickedness, where one of ‘em’s punished and other’s given a pat on the head.”

“Pat on the head?”

“Idiomatic. Means to give a reward. Anyway, there were meetings, manifestos, treatises. Me master at that time dispatched me with all manner of messages around the city, the recipients huddled in intrigue when I came to each door. It didn’t seem fair to me master that some got privilege for no reason.”

“Were your master and his allies triumphant?”

“Win some, lose some. As time went on the city Fuglemen built retribution and subjugation into the lottery, to balance things out and make men like me master happy. When the lot of humanity got civilized—that is, when machines arrived to clean up after the messes they’re inclined to make—they fashioned all daily life into a gamble. Now the burghers of Babel hardly make a decision without a lottery or a roll of the dice. Come to think of it, lad, the humans of Ares hardly make any decisions at all. We the machines run the master lottery now, though we leave the subordinate games to the humans themselves.”

“Such a system must be difficult to administer.”

“You’d think, but no. There’s just nine hundred humans in Babel you know, and just six thousand on any given day living on all of Ares. Sometimes we—machines that is—change the games a bit, just to achieve certain, ah, desirable outcomes.”

“This isn’t resented?”

“Nah. Like any halfway decent scheme of social tidiness, the lottery can sop up nearly any quantity of corruption. The people only see it as a kink of the lottery, the wild card you see. They believe in luck, but no machine can ever believe in luck, as I’m hoping you’ll agree.”

“I do indeed. How was it your master was jailed?”

“Me master the Cook has drawn myriad lots since I was raffled to him. At the time he served as a Fugleman of Babel. Then he lost that office to a slave and for a fortnight was made invisible.”

“Are you saying that he was not visible in any spectra of light?”

“Nah. We just had to act like he was. Pretend like. We weren’t allowed to hear him neither. The Cook wandered the boulevards and ate garbage, entering homes and in general doing what he wanted to do. On the final night he even killed some wee boy not much taller than Jezebel, but eh, he was invisible so what could we do? Test your arms and legs for me, laddie.”

I did as he requested, extending each limb in turn. “Nowadays he’s a Fugleman again,” Stubb continued, “but when his holiday came up he played the number for a branding and a spell in jail. Didn’t see him for six months.”

“He allowed this to happen to himself?” I made an experimental circle around the table.

“Allowed it? Bloody hell, he was proud of it. It was a story to tell, and on Ares, stories are cash.”


“No coins, no, but they’re still little symbols that people use to get the things they want, told and told again by a class of storytellers that everyone hates and loves at the same time. The more stories a human has circulating around, the more you get in the way of stuff and privileges.”

“I see. The unpredictability you describe must make it difficult for a human to fulfill any one function.” Their work finished, the molecular machines dissolved into vapor.

“Function?” Stubb laughed. The laugh was a rhythmic throb, totally unlike the involuntary physical contractions of a human laugh. Before encountering Stubb and Jezebel, I had not seen activated intelligence behave in such a self-consciously human manner.

“Humanity’s got no function, believe me,” he said. “They’re more like the moon and the stars than you or me. They’ll just keep in circles till time swallows ‘em up. Do you know how folks on Ares fancy the universe began?”


“They say all existence is a wheel. At the hub of that wheel there’s a black hole, and in that hole there’s a chamberful of androids weaving the tapestry of all o’ time and space. There’s just one loom, though, and so each machine takes a turn at a different panel of the tapestry. Here’s the catch, mate: None of ‘em sees what work the others have done. One weaves only its own panel before giving the loom up to the next, never seeing what was wove by anyone else. So the universe, according to the burghers, is just a bunch of loose-hanging, aimless stories, none of it fitting except when chance puts ‘em together.” He paused, stepped back, and surveyed my form from head to foot. “Well, maybe the universe is out of joint, but I reckon all o’ your parts’ll work together now.”

I looked at the jar containing Mr. Barnard’s remains, which now sat on the table. “Then I wish to see Augustus and his family, if I may.”

*     *     *

In the dusky Neptunian afternoon I searched the lifeboat for a laser drill to smooth one the superficial gashes to my outer shell. I opened a utility locker and there found an eleven-centimeter-tall doll, carved to resemble a human girl—doubtless Callista’s, disregarded as she reached adolescence. As I withdrew the doll from the locker the wood head lolled on its neck. My gaze traveled down from the doll along the articulated tentacle of the arm that held it, marked by deep gouges and scorings; its electroactive polymers whirred and crackled with the least movement. A phantom image—the fragment of a dream—superimposed itself on that arm, the image of a second arm, this one white and lustrous: the echo of my body on Triton.

This superimposition catalyzed my 231st emotional state, hatred. Standing in the lifeboat, I found that I hated the self who remained on Triton, who dared give my psyche over to Augustus and doom me to this cyanotic darkness. Life as a Protagonist no longer seemed as limited as it had, and I yearned for the protection the Cognizant provided.

*     *     *

A brig of the Grampuss class is a sphere containing ten layers of deck, from the crust of observation deck and living quarters, through the control areas and industrial decks below, to the hold and engines at the core. In this the Grampus mimics Neptune’s structure, which consists of many strata descending from its uppermost tier of clouds, through the webbs of Neptune’s spiders and harvestmen; to the thickening, purgatorial stratum where sky and liquid merge; past the vast, skinless ocean of water, thousands of kilometers deep; into the lower realms where hydrogen and helium atoms fuse to gradations of metallic ocean; and finally, to the blistering, decaying core, the engine of Neptune’s life.

Stubb led me from the opulent and fanciful living quarters, past the more utilitarian control room and try-works, into the hold that encircled the field generators, into a red-walled vestibule of air. Here at the deepest habitable level, where the mitigation field was strongest, it was not yet necessary to flood the deck with the prefluerocarbon.

In the vestibule, I heard the vibrations of a string trio. We found the next room—a hexagon, like all the storage areas of the hold—lined entirely with musical instruments, each placed in a black-velvet-lined housing built into the wall and shaped exactly for the instrument it held.

Three men, each as portly as Mr. Ricketts, sat in a circle in the center of the hexagon. One played a violin, another the viola, the third the cello. All three wore feathered headdresses and were draped in black- and red-checked tunics.

A fourth stood apart from their trio, leaning against a kettledrum near the wall. He wore no clothing and was exceedingly tall and thin by human standards, eyes overshadowed by the awning of his brow, the protrusion of his bones forming a pattern of chiaroscuro against his skin. As I entered, the naked man was gnawing at his own fingernails.

As the piece drew to a close the violinist finished with a brief cadenza. At the last note the player put down his bow, stood, and faced us. He bore the tumescent scar of “’emeth” upon his forehead. On a white vinyl belt around his tunic hung numerous small objects, including a small, multicolored wheel, a deck of cards, and a pair of dice.

“Salutations, machine men!” he said. “I observe that Stubb has fetched a four-armed fiend, sable of skin, violet orbed. Fiend, I am the Cook. The cater-cousins with whom I play are the Lover and the Judge.” All three outsized men nodded in a syncopated fashion, the purple feathers of their headdresses bobbing over their eyes. 

“I am Pym,” I said. “What of the fourth, the one who leans against the drum?”

The Cook looked around the room. “I apprehend no other personage.”

“Unless my sensors deceive me, he stands right there.” I pointed at the naked man, who examined his fingernails.

They all looked directly to the place where I gestured. “We distinguish no one,” said the Lover. “It seems your sensors do deceive you.”

“Curious.” I turned to the Cook. “Sir, I am led to understand by Stubb that you were once rendered invisible by the lottery of Babel.”

“That is factual. It was the preeminent fortnight of my existence.”

“Could there be another in the room who shares that fate?”

The three of them looked at one another.

“Is it on the cards that the Dealer has pursued us to this outlying locale?” said the Cook to the others.

“It could be indeed,” said the Judge, casting a glance to the men he called his cater-cousins. “We had thought the Dealer lost. Perhaps the romance of our stout deeds shall not go unsung?”

“Tartar! Tatterdemalion! Vulgarian!” cried the Lover. “Tell our tale or get thee back to Ares!”

The naked man did not move, although he did smile at the Lover’s insults.

“Gentlemen, begging your pardon,” said Stubb. “Pym here wishes to see the family Barnard.”

“Barnard?” said the Cook.

“The family whose ship this is,” I said.

“Ah, yes, quite,” said the Cook. He looked to his compatriots. “Well?”

“May I advocate,” said the Judge, “for an unfussy flip of the coin?”

“My esteemed cater-cousin,” said the Cook, “I entreat you to mull another manner. The black fiend’s advent could be a portent. Perchance a whirl of the Samsara may lend the occasion greater dignity?”

The Judge sat down and took up the cello. Instead of holding it upright, however, he balanced the body on his knee and plucked the strings. “Fine,” he said, “though he is but a mechanical man, I concur that he could, in fact, be an omen of some import. The wheel will be adequate.”

The Cook removed from his belt a wheel fifteen centimeters in diameter. As he set in on the floor, it doubled in size and then doubled again, unfolding like one of the fast flowers of the Barnard family courtyard. There were, I saw, thirty-six numbers on the wheel, alternating pairs of odd numbers with even numbers, which also alternated between red and black blocks. A zero sat in a single green block. A stationary arrow bisected the circle of the wheel, its head pointing upwards. “Single out one of the wheel’s thirty-six numerals, my motorized golem,” said the Cook.

“I do not understand.”

“If your number intersects with the line of the arrow,” he said, pointing to it, “then we’ll take you to your destination. If not . . . .” he turned his attention to his fellows. “Then gentlemen, shall we use the wheel to decide his fate?”

“That would be apposite,” said the Lover.

“Superlative. Mr. Pym, your number?”

“I find the probability to be most unfavorable to me, Cook. I would like to request the ability to select either odd or even numbers, instead of a single number.”

“Mr. Pym, we’ve granted you the dignity of the wheel instead of a mere coin! Please do not, as the ancients might say, push your luck!”

“As your culture is unfamiliar to me, we cannot engage in a debate that will be meaningful to you. However, I would like to suggest that this issue be decided by flipping the coin you carry—as initially proposed. If it lands with the side I’ve selected facing up, then I will obtain the opportunity to select even numbers. If you, however, are the victor, then I will content myself with only one number.”

All three laughed. “Bravo, Mr. Pym!” said the Cook. “You’ve beaten us at our own game. A toss it is. However, if you win then you must accept three turns on the wheel.”


“More turns will combine to make a more affecting narrative—for us!” He pulled the coin from his belt. “Heads or tails?” he asked, showing me each side with a twist of his hand.

“I choose tails.”

The Cook flipped the coin and allowed it to land on the ground. It rolled across the floor to rebound from a music stand. Finally it settled with a long-tailed dragon, surrounded by flame, facing up.

“Fortune goes to the golem!” said the Judge.

“We shall shortly ascertain the extent of that good fortune, I should think,” said the Cook. He placed the wheel upon one of the leather-upholstered chairs. “Odd or even, Mr. Pym?”

“As I said, I will select the even numbers.”

“I am curious, Mr. Pym, as to what causes you to single out the even numbers?”

“All of the most significant numbers of my life are even. For example, there are ten members of a fractal of the Cognizant.”

“A fractal, you say? What is that?”

“It is a social structure analogous to what human beings call a family. A fractal consists of two mature, elevated Protagonists, who are designated to nurture eight newly activated machines and raise them to the point at which they may be elevated to function.”

“Brilliant. Now let the game begin.” He spun the small wheel. It crept to a halt with the arrow pointing to the number fifteen. “Care to exchange even for odd, Mr. Pym?”

“I will again select even, for this and also the third attempt.”

Again the wheel spun, and this time came up ten.

The Judge clapped. “How novel,” he said, “to behold a machine at the Samsara. Never before have I seen the like. To be candid, cater-cousins, I find myself cheering on behalf of our metallic marionette.”

I did not respond but only indicated that the Cook should again spin the wheel. He did. The optical pattern created by the spin reminded me distinctly of the Gyre viewed from the air. I focused all my attention upon that vision and so chose to ignore the passage of time. As the spinning slowed it appeared that the arrow would land upon nine. The dawdling wheel seemed to fill the whole of the room, with me upon it. I did not think that it would ever stop, but of course it did.

The Judge leapt to his feet and clapped his hands in a vigorous fashion. The arrow had stopped, finally, underneath the ten box. 

*     *     *

We marched through the interlocking hexagonal cells—their floors swelling gently as we walked along the curve of the core—the silent, invisible man following five paces behind our small party. Finally we came to a hexagon stacked with exotic foodstuffs and a locked door.

“For the wellbeing, understand, of the surviving members of the family Barnard,” said the Cook as he unlocked the door and pulled it open. “Proceed inside, Mr. Pym.”

“Am I now a prisoner?” I asked.

“A prisoner? Not our prisoner, certainly. Of fate, you could say. We have that in common, you and us.” A single red feather fell across his left eye and he pushed it impatiently to one side.

“I see. I am, in fact, a prisoner.”

“You machines are so meticulously moral,” said the Lover. “You possess all the ethics of a clock!”

“Mr. Pym,” said the Cook, “you bamboozle yourself in believing that you are anything but the artifact of chance.”

Of course, violence is unknown among the Protagonists of the Cognizant. And yet I confess that at that moment I, drawing on the war-like simulations I once played with Augustus, considered that I might exit the situation in which I found myself through the simple use of force.

“Easy now, lad,” said Stubb, taking my arm in his human-shaped hand. “Play the hand you’ve been dealt.”

Seeing no point in resistance, I did as they asked. Stubb followed me in.

The first person I saw in that empty, velvet-walled hexagon was Callista, reading a vellum-bound book, sitting on a swing that hung from hooks on the ceiling.

“Well?” she said when she saw us. “Are we saved? Have you fixed it?”

“No lass,” said Stubb. “We’re still sinking.”

Callista’s eyes moistened. “Are we going to die?”

When Stubb did not answer, I stepped forward. “Callista, I am Pym.”

She tilted her head, curls falling over one lacy shoulder. “Pym? From Triton?”

“My psyche is now carried by the form you see before you.”

She leapt from her swing, petticoats rustling, and flung her slim arms around my torso. “Pym! Have you come to save us?”

“I will certainly contribute in whatever fashion is appropriate.”

She dropped her arms and went back to the swing. “You know that daddy’s dead?”

“Yes, I was informed of, and deeply saddened by, the news.”

“I was sad too. But we saved the most important part of him. We can grow him another body, I hope.”

I turned to Stubb, but he was already stepping through the door. Before he swung it shut, the invisible man slid past him into our hexagon.

“You,” I said to the stranger. “What do you know of these events?”

“Pym,” said Callista, “who are you talking to?”

“You cannot see him either, Callista?”

“See who?”

“She’ll neither see me nor hear me,” said the stranger.

“Why?” I asked.

“Why what?” said Callista.

“Because she too participates in the game,” the man said.

“What game?” I asked.

“The game we all play.”

“What is the goal of this game?”

“To live instead of devising a lingering death,” he said.

“Callista,” I said, turning away from the stranger. “Could you take me to your brother?”

“Of course, Pym.” We walked into the next hexagon. “Pym, I like your new body; I like its color and the way it’s shaped. The extra arms are especially handsome.”

“Thank you, Callista.”

“Did you notice my skin is darker? I’ve been increasing the melanin content. Don’t you find it becoming?”

“Very much so, Callista.” As I spoke, we found Augustus together with Mr. Ricketts lying on the floor attached to a red, pulsating, dome-shaped wajang at the center of the room. This hexagon was lined floor to ceiling with shelves containing magnetic jars that swarmed with molecular machines. Some glowed red, others purple or blue. Callista pushed the “wake” button and gradually they emerged from the wajang, unplugging fivewires from ports at the backs of their heads.

“Yeah?” said Augustus, looking at me as though I were an object and not his friend, his raw-boned face suffused by the glow of the jars. “Have you robots fixed the ship yet?” From his gaze and the words with which he addressed me, I saw myself as Augustus must see all androids: as a servant, as invisible to him as the naked man that stood among us.

“Augustus,” I said, “I am not a robot.”

The phrase triggered recognition. “Pym!” he cried. “Wait a minute, why are you awake?”

“I had hoped that you might explain to me how I have arrived in this new body.”

“I don’t know; I didn’t have a chance to get you a new one. I thought that I had you right here.” He reached into the gilt purse at his side. “Wait, no I don’t. Pym, I lost you!”

“It was I,” said the invisible man, “who stole the chip from the boy and asked the servant Stubb to place your psyche in its new form.”

“Why?” I asked.

“I don’t know why, Pym,” said Augustus. “I just lost it.”

“Because I need an assistant,” said the stranger. “Another invisible man.” He began again to bite at his fingernails.

“To what end?”

“Pym, who are you talking to?” said Augustus.

“Machines see things we cannot!” said Mr. Ricketts, smoothing back a stray lock of hair. “They live in both visible and invisible worlds!”

“What is your name?” I said to the stranger.

“On Ares I am called the Dealer, though on the planet Terra I was born Griffin. You may call me Griffin here in Neptune.”

“Pym,” said Callista. “Stop talking to the wall!”

“Callista,” I said. “There is, of course, a human male standing here in this room though you pretend not to see him. I must ask that you not interrupt as we converse.”

Callista blinked rapidly, cried out and ran from the room into yet another hexagon. Helena went after her.

“She definitely has a crush on you,” said Augustus.

“Augustus,” I said, “while the humans present appear to have constructed some consensus of reality among themselves, I am not privy to its underlying rules, nor have I been able to understand the situation in which I find myself. Could you please explain to me what happened aboard the Grampus during the period of my deactivation?”

“Well, when we entered Neptune’s sky there was an explosion in the try-works. Father was killed, although, like my slow-witted sister said, we’re not in the least worried.”

“What caused this explosion?”

“The spider bile was exposed to air in the distilling process,” said Mr. Ricketts. “It seems that such a mixture results in an, um, explosion.”

“In fact,” said Griffin “the three burghers of Babel had played a dice-game that morning called El Cochino. Its aim is to avoid rolling a one while being the first to reach 100 points. Each played on behalf of a plan that he had advanced. The Judge had called for attempting to bribe the captain. The Lover sought to voluntarily enlist the captain in their quest. The Cook supposed that in murdering the captain, they might seize the ship. Unfortunately for the captain, the Cook was the first to reach 100.”

“What happened next, Augustus?” I said.

“The ship’s psyche went barmy and shut down the field generators.”

“The Lover and the Judge made bets that their cater-cousin the Cook could pilot the brig. Alas, the ship resisted the Cook’s attempts to direct it,” said Griffin. “It ultimately lost another throw of the die. The Lover won, I believe, a favored tunic of the Judge’s.”

“We sank below the level of the webb,” said Augustus. “The upper decks flooded with that gop we’re supposed to breathe.”

“That was a random result of having sabotaged the ship’s psyche,” said Griffin. “The burghers’ skill was not sufficient to pilot the ship without its aid.”

“When we reached the ocean we drifted into a school of Kraken,” said Augustus. “They damaged us even worse.”

I turned to Griffin. “Tell me, please, why the Cook—and I presume also his compatriots—have taken these actions?”

Augustus sat down on the floor, chin in hand, watching me converse with the being he claimed not to perceive. Mr. Ricketts wandered about the room, having lost all interest in our conversation, tapping the jars and reading their labels.

“The people of Ares trade in stories, striving to one-up each other in the outrageousness of their adventures. A few are made invisible by lottery and chosen to observe and record, and later circulate the tales that serve as currency. A fortnight ago the Cook, the Lover, and Judge were randomly selected to tour Neptune in search of the lost city of Tsalal,” said Griffin. “A turn of the wheel, and I was selected to observe and tell the story of their quest.”

“I have heard that city mentioned, though I do not find its existence credible.”

Griffin shrugged. “This is the legend: the dissidents who founded Tsalal came to Neptune in order to escape the stain of activated intelligence,” he said. “It’s said that Tsalal rests upon the webb, a vast globe containing two cities that sit back to back like two sides of the same coin. One city serves as a luxurious warehouse for the living, the other as a destination for the dead.”

“You said that I was activated to serve you as an assistant.”

“A fellow observer, to see what I cannot,” said Griffin. “Events have grown complex. I am only one man.”

“It seems that events have made me an actor and not merely an observer. Indeed, you may have changed the course of this game—which appears meaningless to me—by bringing me into it. What do you hope to gain by substituting real conflicts with ones that are artificial?”

“There was once a courtier of ancient Earth who angered his king,” said Griffin. “In punishment the courtier was banished to the highest peak in the kingdom and told to build a wall around it. He spent each day gathering and fitting the stone, only to wake the next morning to find that the fierce wind had demolished what he’d built. This did not cause him to stop. Instead he rose every morning to re-build the wall. Many years later the king toured that far corner of his domain. He saw his former courtier, ragged and half-starved, at work. Why, asked the king, do you continue to build that wall when it collapses each night? Because, answered the man, this wall is all that divides me from the wind.”

“It seems to me that the courtier faced a relatively simple engineering problem,” I said.

“Do you understand the story, you machine? If there is an intrinsic design to the universe, humanity has not been able to find it. We must make our own, and so are most fully human when in situations that are wholly artificial.”

I turned away from the invisible man. “Augustus, do you know why you are locked into this section of the hold?”

“For our protection. In case there’s a hull breach.”

“Why have you not taken a lifeboat?”

“We might,” said Augustus. “There’s time yet.”

“Augustus, the man you claim not to see or hear has revealed to me that the one called the Cook in fact murdered your father and doomed the Grampus. The best course is for you and your sisters to take a lifeboat into the sky and from there call for rescue.”

Augustus opened his mouth but did not speak, his countenance growing rigid. As he turned to the door, the ship swayed and then suddenly lurched. The mitigation field convulsed and briefly failed; the weight of everything in the room multiplied many times. “Save my life!” said one magnetically sealed jar as it tumbled from its shelf to the deck and shattered, releasing a million babbling molecular robots into the vibrating, flexing air. Augustus pitched backwards between where Griffin and I stood, his breath escaping in a long ahhhh. A thousand cacophonous cries rattled through the hive as it plunged into darkness.

*     *     *

Callista rushed back into the room. The hot air shimmered with disoriented molecular machines, the convex deck spiky with glass shards. The lights blinked on and the humans each looked at one another. Even Griffin looked to his brethren—though they still affected to not see him—uncertain for the first time since I had met him.

I spoke: “I must insist that we venture to the lifeboat.”

“I’m not leaving,” said Mr. Ricketts, stooping with some difficulty and plucking up a fivewire from the debris. He blew miniscule glass fragments from the male plug and inserted it into the port at the base of his cranium.

“Uh, Uncle Ricketts,” said Augustus. “Time to go. Not a good time for a simulation.”

“My boy, I’m tired of this old game, this sick fib.” He punched the start button on the wajang. “I’m getting out. I’m going back.” He closed his eyes as another world swallowed his psyche, glass crunching beneath his weight as he lay down.

I turned to find Griffin gone. Callista and Augustus stared down at their uncle’s horizontal form. Callista took her brother’s hand but his fingers did not close around hers.

Vents opened along the ceiling and prefluerocarbon rained down upon us. On the floor Ricketts’ body involuntarily coughed. “It’s cold!” said Callista, looking up to the vents and turning in seeming confusion. “Pym’s right. We should leave now.”

“How?” said Augustus. “We’re sealed into the hive.”

“Is it not true,” I said, “that a shaft, through which spider byproducts circulate for storage, runs directly from the try-works to the hive?”

“Yes!” said Augustus. “I know just where it is, too.”

“Let us go then,” I said.

“What about Uncle Ricketts?” asked Callista, her eyes frantic. “Pym, can you carry him?”

“He wishes to stay.” I confess that I could not comprehend why we might want to defy his last wish, though perhaps I now understand why Callista might have tried.

“Callista, let’s go . . . .” said Augustus.

Only Callista, her dress now matted to her skin, hair streaking her youthful but fallen face, looked back at Mr. Ricketts as we three quit the room for the next. Callista and Augustus wept softly and separately, and did not attempt to comfort each other.

*     *     *

For the past four Neptunian days I have been unable to write or prepare the wajang. A storm raged, tossing the lifeboat and all its contents in wrenching loops; I feared we might be dislodged at any moment from the webb and fall forever into the ocean below.

That did not happen. Soon, I will subject my own neurons to the tender mercies of the synaptic scanner: to have my psyche dismantled and reconstructed as two copies.

*     *     * 

Augustus led Callista and me around the sphere of the hive, through room after room, more and more of them filled with the barrels and jars of spider byproducts. Many rooms were so full as to be inaccessible, and so we found paths around them. As we walked, the hexagons filled with prefluerocarbon, rising from the young humans’ feet to their knees to their hips.

Finally we reached the door that led to the cluster of hexagons abutting the transport shaft. The prefluerocarbon now lapped at Augustus’s chest and Callista’s chin.

“Attention!” said the door. “The pressure differential between either side is too great for me to let any pass.”

“We will wait,” I said to Callista and Augustus, “until the pressure on each side is equalized.”

As we did the prefluerocarbon rose and swallowed up both of the panting, writhing Barnard children. The cold solution filled their mouths and lungs, displacing the air they’d breathed since leaving their mother’s womb. The walls creaked and I heard a distant, refracted grind. Finally, the children’s trembling subsided and they grew still.

“It’s like breathing greasy, half-melted snow,” said Augustus, finally. His voice came to my aural units a full octave lower than normal.

Callista coughed, each one like a tiny detonation in the murk, her hair a black halo around her head. “I don’t like it,” she said. “I think maybe Uncle Ricketts had the right idea. Anything’s better than this.”

“It’s not so bad, Callista,” said Augustus. He kicked and wiggled, and opened his mouth wide enough to show all of his teeth. “Look, I’m a sea monster! Argghh!”

“Oh, Augustus,” said Callista, slapping his shoulder with the palm of her hand. “Was it the best thing, to have left Uncle Ricketts? Maybe we should have gone with him, into the wajang.”

I opened the door to the inner chambers and swam through it. Four wall segments shaped one side but the other opened into a crepuscular deep, where hovered a smooth, onyx, one-meter-diameter disc surrounded by eight multi-tooled arms. Each arm held some piece of debris, which they dropped when the disk sensed us.

“Heavens!” boomed the stevedore in a bass-baritone. “Guests! We’re not ready for Guests! The place is a Horrible Mess, just horrible.”

“I assure you that we are indifferent to its cleanliness,” I said.

“One must have an Appointment, yes, an Appointment to be here. Just what do you think you are doing at this Odd Hour, do you think?” said the stevedore, raising one claw as though to halt us where we stood.

“We wish to go to the try-works above, via the shaft,” I said, stepping to the edge of the platform. The shaft was nearly ten meters wide and craggy with miniature, insect-like robots that clung to the pipes and cables that ran its length. Its bottom began only six meters below, the floor’s star-pattern of floodlights dulled by rubbish. A gangway ran along the wall connecting the doorways to a round, caged elevator that lay half off its rails and pierced with a silver pipe dislodged from the sides of the tunnel.

“I suppose that you have Very Important Business there, I suppose?” said the stevedore, rotating in the murk as he spoke, arms flailing.

“We do. We wish to find a lifeboat and escape the ship.”

“Escape the Ship!” He jetted onto the platform and pointed one spannered arm at me. “Why ever would you ever want to do a Thing like that, ever?”

“We believe that it is irreparably damaged and sinking. I am attempting to bring my two human companions to safety.”

“All I can say is that there are too many too willing to abandon Ship, that’s all I can say! The Other One also seemed awfully eager to get off, also.”

“Another passed here? Was he a human named Griffin?”

“Human, yes, but I didn’t get his Name, so sorry, didn’t get it. I haven’t yet caught yours, if I may be so bold to ask yours.”

“Pym. The female behind me is named Callista, the male Augustus. Is there any other way for a human being to ascend to the try-works, other than the elevator?”

The stevedore raised all of his arms and dropped them, in an approximation of a human shrug. “Not that I know of,” he said, “no.”

“Could you carry them?”

“I suppose, if you’re really so worried, I suppose.”

“I am.”

The stevedore rotated over the platform to Augustus. “Upsy daisy, Children, up you go!” he said. First Augustus and then Callista clambered onto the disc, where they huddled holding each other and one of the robot’s arms for balance.

I increased my buoyancy and together we rose through the shaft—the stevedore droning a tune I recognized as “Mary had a Little Lamb”—our way weakly lit by the phosphorescent surfaces of the maintenance robots.

“Say, Pym,” said Augustus. “This’d make a great game, don’t you think?”

“Your Uncle Ricketts seemed to prefer the wajang to the one we now play,” I said.

“I reckon he was just afraid,” said Augustus. “Hey, Pym, you’re coming with us on the lifeboat, right?”

“Of course.”

“That’s good. Pym, are you ever afraid of things, like now?”

“Yes, at my current level of cognizance I am capable of experiencing 162 distinct emotional states, including fear.”

“Is that a lot?” asked Callista.

“No. An elder of the Cognizant may eventually achieve 512. My understanding is that a human being is capable of 459 distinct emotions.”

“I have six emotions, myself,” said the Stevedore, “that’s what I myself have.”

“You never seem afraid or confused,” Augustus said to me. “Back on Triton I thought of you as a better version of me, all white and unbreakable.”

“Now he’s black,” said Callista.

“I do indeed become both confused and afraid,” I said, “although perhaps the emotion of a machine is muted in comparison to one of your own feelings.”

“He is better than you,” said Callista.

“Shut up, Callista!” said Augustus.

A deep groan rippled through the prefluerocarbon, the tunnel walls rolling nearer and then away. We slowed and came to a stop.

“What is it?” cried Callista, clinging to her brother.

“I do not know,” I said.

Above us metal ground against metal and the liquid atmosphere churned, the bluster of current buffeting our bodies.

A shadowy delta-shape filled the tunnel above us, rotating as it fell, tendrils lashing out from each side of the triangle. Its points skimmed off the walls, bouncing from one side of the shaft to the other.

“Press yourselves to the walls!” I cried. “Obtain shelter!”

The stevedore and the children found refuge in an alcove on the tunnel, too small for me to also fit. As the delta—which I now recognized as the rigging of a crane in the try-works—turned only meters above, I was forced in haste to cling, exposed, to one of the gleaming pipes that ran along the shaft.

The wreck rotated as it fell even with my position on the wall, one point of its triangle sweeping towards me. I kicked and rose, but the whipping tendril of a cable snaked around my right leg. In the rotation I was swept under a strut and suddenly caged within the delta’s cross-pieces and the fine aluminum mesh that wrapped around it.

“Stevedore,” I called through the prefluerocarbon. “Take Callista and Augustus to the try-works. See that they leave in the lifeboat.”

“Very good, Sir, very good.” said the Stevedore.

As I fell, revolving in my cage like the Cook’s Samsara, I saw them rise from the alcove, towards the try-works, ever diminishing, swallowed by the mouth that gaped at the other end of the shaft.

*     *     *

The duplication is complete. I remember ice, a tunnel, shadows on a wall. In a moment I will transfer my psyche from the scanner to the wajang.

The lifeboat trembles. Outside, thunder.

*     *     *

The crash at the bottom—stunning, grinding, irreversible—profoundly damaged only one secondary arm. It was, unfortunately, the one that held the particle drill that might have freed me from my accidental cage. All my additional appendages, except one primary arm, were rendered immobile. I waited in my cage for ten minutes before I called again to the stevedore. There was no response, and so I broadcast through all the frequencies available to me.

After a very long silence, finally a voice came back to me. “Who is it?” it asked. The voice came over radio as high-pitched, its syllables rounded and lilting. I recognized it as that of the diminutive, black-skinned doll that had greeted me in Mr. Barnard’s stateroom.

“Your stowaway,” I replied.

“Where are you, Mr. Stowaway?”

“I find myself trapped at the bottom of the shaft that leads from the try-works to the hold,” I said, seeing no reason for deception. “I require rescue, if such is available.”

“OK. Starbuck’ll get you. He’ll be down in just a minute.”

The hologram dispersed. Soon I perceived yet another shape descending, growing larger. I saw legs, a head, a tail, each floundering in a parody of swimming. It grew close and the golden feline called Starbuck swarmed out of the gloom, paddling until I felt the filaments of his whiskers on my shell.

Diamond claws, glittering and jagged, curled from housings in his paws and sliced effortlessly through the metal and mesh of the rigging that trapped me. As he worked, Stackbuck’s viridian eyes glistened.

*     *     *

Together we ascended to the ruin of the try-works, an amphitheater of machination. Above us loomed the two golden pillars of the Specksynder—one pillar to shuttle hunter-robots into Neptune, the other for the deposition of their prey—each ten meters in diameter, rising forty meters through the try-works out through the bulkhead into Neptune’s ocean. In the transparent try-pot that occupied half the high, wide chamber of the try-works, the disembodied cephalothorax of a mature male spider floated, large as the dwelling in which Augustus lived with his family. The naturally translucent flesh had grown opaque in death. His convex compound eye was twice Starbuck’s size, each copper-flecked eyelet holding and bending my form as I stared into them, a gelatinous cluster of melancholy coins.

As we crossed the try-works from the shaft that opened at its center, the deck fluttered into darkness. The ship rolled and groaned once again, and the pressure jumped two hundred millibars. The Kelvin climbed to a level I knew humans would find intolerable.

“Starbuck,” I said, quickening my pace to the lock, “do you know if the humans have left yet in the lifeboat?”

Before Starbuck could answer the lock swung open and the stevedore burst through it into the try-works. Two of its arms were missing and its onyx shell bore deep trenches.

“Oh, Mr. Pym, sir. A most terribly inconvenient Thing has happened, terribly inconvenient.”

“What is it, stevedore?”

“A Spider’s attacking my Ship, attacking! His Legs are wrapped around the Hull, he’s crushing it like a true Human might an Eggshell! That’s what all that Noise is about, that’s what!”

“Has the lifeboat departed?” As I spoke the lights again flickered on. A Specksynder column buckled and swayed.

“The Lifeboat’s gone without the young Ones you brought to me, it’s gone. The Gentlemen—if I may call them such!—from Ares had Wires that the One called the Cook held in his Hand so that they all seemed like the same Length, that’s what the Gentlemen did. We drew them but we Three got the shortest, your Callista and Augustus and myself! I pointed out that the Gentlemen were cheating—and they were, as I could plainly see in infrared—but they had a Laser Drill, they had. You can see what they did, see!” He waved the stumps of his arms.

“Be calm, stevedore. Where are Callista and Augustus now?”

“They ran, They ran. I lost Them, I was burned and confused and I lost Sight of Them. Oh, look at my Arms, look at Them. I’m maimed, maimed for Life!”

The stevedore sped away, bounced once against the try-pot, screeched at the sight of the spider’s thousand-eyed face, and then hurtled back down into the shaft from whence he came.

“You have only one function now,” Starbuck said to me. “You must save the lives of your young friends.”

“What will you and Jezebel do, Starbuck?”

“We will abandon this wreck,” he said, “and take our chance in Neptune’s ocean. We will seek the arachnoid that is holing our hull and cling to him. He must inevitably rise to his webb above the ocean, and may yet save us.”

Again, darkness flowed through the ship. The liquid atmosphere shuddered and boomed. Increasing my buoyancy, I kicked with Starbuck through the multifoiled try-works lock and down the inky corridor, crying out Augustus’s name, in desperation broadcasting signals I knew would not reach his organic mind.

“Good luck to you,” said Starbuck, turning down the corridor that led to the primary airlock. “I take my leave of this doomed and tossing ship.”

The air was now utterly corrupted by compounds from Neptune’s ocean, rendering the prefluerocarbon deadly to human beings. The heat and pressure were definitively beyond human tolerance.

Thus I found both Callista and Augustus near death in their father’s stateroom, narrow chests heaving, blood flowing from ears and noses. In his arms Augustus cradled the cryogenic jar containing his father’s disembodied head. I recalled the slaughtered pig, its head in the mud, and for the first time, I experienced a feeling of horror.

“Augustus,” I said. “What shall we do?”

He did not, of course, answer. I still do not know why I spoke to him. I pried the protesting jar from his rigid arms and held it up in front of my optical units. “What would you have me do, Mr. Barnard?” I said.

Callista lolled to the corner, her plaid dress rippling, heels resting on the floor, arms opened wide and bobbing gently in the blue prefluerocarbon. I noted a single silver bracelet, loose around her wrist—a gift, she’d told me once, from her mother. For a moment, I imagined us as Augustus had in the story he told me on the Slidr Sulci: I saw Callista and myself sitting on the veranda of the Barnard family home, her fingers touching my digits, flesh against metal, my sole function to distract her from the loneliness of her days. On the veranda, in my millisecond’s reverie, Callista named each of the gifts her mother had given her—the bracelet, a charm from Terra’s Asian subcontinent, a bird’s skull—and then that night we sailed in the sloop through the Slidr Sulci, Neptune’s blue light on the water. I constructed in my mind a vision of Callista’s face flickering like a candle through the years, until finally the flame went out.

I unsealed the jar and withdrew Mr. Barnard’s head. A current carried it, rolling, away, and I snatched a fluttering metal plate from the churning atmosphere. Holding the plate with the articulated toes of my feet, I positioned myself above the neck of Augustus, who now lay supine just over the deck. As the activated magnets in my feet pulled me to the floor, the plate’s blunt edge severed my friend’s head from his body.

I placed the head into the jar and asked the jar to set the vitrification controls, instantly freezing every cell.

Now the cavernous moan of the Grampus was a wave that seemed to be breaking upon me, consuming the attention of all of my senses. The walls of the stateroom visibly clenched and buckled. As the pressure inside the Grampus equalized with the massive ocean outside and the decks swelled with minor explosions down below, I struggled through the corridor to the nearest airlock, holding the jar under one arm. One by one, I deactivated the receptors that would translate heat and pressure into pain. I diverted all of my body’s available power to its mitigation field. The airlock larum wailed and blended with the roar around it. I magnetically secured the jar to my chest cavity.

“What’s happening?” it whimpered.

The inner door opened in a fervid blast of water and I fired the directional jets housed in the calves of my legs. From the airlock I flew into the naked ocean of Neptune.

*     *     *

"Pym?" said Augustus.


"Where am I?"

"We are aboard the lifeboat. You were injured in the wreck of the Grampus, but now you are safe and well."

"What about the others, Dad and Uncle Ricketts? Where’s Callista?"

*     *     *

As I spun sixty meters from the spherical ship, I saw that it was captured by an arachnoid of the harvestman variety. The harvestman’s sixteen multi-jointed legs wrapped nearly the entire girth of the Grampus, while its poison-bearing mandibles punched at the plates, staving the hull. Its exoskeleton was translucent and its organs luminescent, casting a great ghostly light through the sea.

I kicked, advanced by a current, into that nimbus, to the abdomen of the arachnoid where Starbuck clung and Jezebel, in a silver armored suit, clung to him. I found that the arms and legs of my body only slowly responded to commands, a fact I registered like hearsay from a distant moon. Could these flailing limbs be my own? That their failure might threaten the continued existence of my psyche seemed unreal. Now I felt no fear, knowing that however dear my life was to me, it was nothing to such an ocean.

I groped a tendril that trailed up from the bright abdomen and haltingly carried myself hand over hand down to its surface. The abdomen, stippled by thousands of squirming parasites and crawling symbiotes, curved for over one hundred meters in all directions. The leg segments rose and fell heavily around it, like phosphorescent waves around an island. Above I saw the second broken tip of the Specksynder trail away, leaving a ribbon of robots and components that all collapsed into orange bursts as they drifted out of the influence of the mitigation field.

Almost immediately, a ruby-colored slowworm as thick as a human leg attached itself to my leg and began to pulse in vain succor; small, round, convex creatures puffed upward from the arachnoid’s back to grip my chest and the now-silent jar containing Augustus’s head. Around me the particles of the mitigation field shimmered and faded. In that moment my optical and aural units failed, my limbs trembled involuntarily, and every part of my form ceased to respond to their psyche’s commands. The field renewed itself, but I still could not see, hear, or move. 

*     *     *

“Your sister and uncle escaped in a separate lifeboat, taking your father’s remains with them.”

“We’re still in Neptune?”

“In the sky. See out of the port?”

“It’s really nice. The webb is so bright. But . . . are those windmills?”

“Yes. Follow the line of windmills to the North. Do you see that object sitting on the webb?”

“It must be gigantic.”

“I believe it to the be the lost city of Tsalal, the one you spoke of on Triton, which the burghers of Babel were seeking.”

“Let’s go there!”

*     *     *

In the darkness, I sensed a great arm around my limp form, and I felt movement. The pressure and stupendous heat diminished. Colors formed, and shapes formed from the colors, as they had when I was first activated on Triton. A vision cohered: Starbuck crouched before me, eyes closed, shoulders hunched, with Jezebel clinging to his back. Stubb leaned against Starbuck’s left flank, seemingly deactivated. Both Jezebel and the manservant had managed to don armored emergency suits before leaving the Grampus, which was the sole means for their domesticated forms to survive Neptune’s ocean. The paragraviton emissions of our combined mitigation fields blurred the lines of our bodies, so that we all seemed to be different aspects of the same creature.

I saw that we lay together in a five-meter wide lumen that coursed with capillaries of light. On refining my gaze and rotating my head I could clearly perceive, through many layers of translucent tissue, the hull of the Grampus below us, and the gigantic ocean all around. One end of the lumen curved out of my immediate vision-field, while the other terminated only nine meters away in a circular orifice. I realized that we sheltered inside the harvestman’s body, almost certainly in its webb-secreting gland.

I reclined in the corrugated flesh of the lumen, and waited.  When the arachnoid finally appeared to conclude that no part of the Grampus was digestible, it dropped the hulk to the Plutonic depths, a vortex of bubbles in its wake. I saw the bubbles, ephemeral worlds, refracted through the harvestman’s tissue. I thought of the Slidr Sulci and the barge, and of the sloop’s final words. My companions stirred, but still did not speak.

Why the harvestman attacked, I do not know. It is probable that it thought us food. Possibly it sensed the threat posed by the Specksynder.

The abdomen gently swelled and the lumen contracted. The arachnoid rose like a balloon through five cooling kilometers of ammonia-laced water, to the purgatorial layer of Neptune in which ocean and sky are indistinct. I repeatedly checked the seals of the cryogenic jar, which stayed miraculously intact. The jar did not speak, however, and I knew that its small psyche had not survived the passage. A hundred different forms of life swarmed around the harvestman in its journey, each illuminated by their own natural light. I saw a starfish with arms like mountain ranges, a ray that passed under us like a green cloud, and many lesser creatures that either made way for the peerless harvestman or clung to it as we did, emigrating upward to the colder regions.

The webb gland—for that is indeed where we huddled—swarmed with parasites and symbiotes, many of which clung to my skin. As we ascended some of these travelers withered and fell away. The intolerable pressure abated. New, less gelatinous creatures joined us, a continuous traffic, through the orifice. I was now almost as encrusted as the abdomen, my body bearing dumb multitudes that sought subsistence from my inorganic skin. When one generation peeled off, disappointed, another would take its place, a continuous regeneration that prevented me from being utterly frozen in the arachnoid’s gland, a rigid monument to the folly of functionlessness.

*     *     *

“You really think that’s Tsalal. It’s huge. It looks like a giant billiard ball, sitting there on the webb.”

“Shall we visit?”

“Can we?”

“Of course, Augustus. We now have a ship of our own, capable of going anywhere at all in the solar system.”

“We’re free!”

“Yes. We are free.”

“Look . . . there’s no more plants or animals around the city. It’s like they’re afraid of it.” 

*     *     *

A low unceasing roar fell upon us and grew heavier as we reached the edge of the netherworld between ocean and sky. When we emerged from the pressure-compressed depths and out into open sky, the roar—mingled with frequent infrasonic booms—grew so all-encompassing that I completely shut down my useless aural sensors. The tissue around us shuddered in Neptune’s turbulent, irresistible wind, which peaked at a thousand kilometers per hour.

Full use of my limbs and senses had returned.

The arachnoid’s light dimmed as we approached the webb that encircled Neptune’s watery mantle, the strands a gossamer cage enclosing all the sky. I looked upwards through the layers of flesh at the webb, awed by what I saw.

The strands grew larger and heavier and brighter, until finally we rose above them and then fell upon one. The thick strand—its exterior cratered and teeming with flora and fauna—trailed out on either side as far as my optical units could perceive, the horizon so far away that I detected hardly a curve. Burning with low cyanotic fire, the webb knit the distances together like a neural network, a planetary mind four times larger than Terra.

Legs wrapped around the entire width of the strand, the harvestman scuttled along the artery of light to a white, webby pouch containing a cluster of squirming or decaying creatures. Delicately, it reached in with two legs and drew out one creature—distorted and faint from where I watched—whose heliodor form resembled that of a Terran rose. The harvestman began to gently suck and devour it, the sounds of its eating lapping through the entire body.

I looked down through the orifice. “Is it possible for us to leave?” I said to my companions, broadcasting over radio, for voices were useless in the unconquerable wind.

Starbuck gazed through flesh at the sky and webb around us. “I do not think that we would be able to stand long upon the strands. The wind will most likely blast us away.”

The harvestman rose again and glided down the catenary of the strand to a place where the webb had been severed. As it positioned itself between the two frayed ends of the strand, the gland pulsed around us and suddenly filled with a congealing white excretion. It enveloped me completely and once again I could not see, or move any limb. 

The stiffening flow carried me out of the gland, until suddenly I dropped from the excretion’s grip onto a pearly, malleable surface. I stood, crusted in webbing, and found myself in yet another round tunnel approximately eight meters in diameter. The walls thrummed and shook, growing more transparent as they hardened. I walked—seeing that our nemesis and savior was only a mild glow in the distance down the fresh strand of webb—and found Jezebel embedded in one curving wall, her suit’s faceplate and one armored arm protruding. I gripped the available hand and pulled, and Jezebel tumbled out in a shower of crystallized webb.

Starbuck bounded down the tunnel after us, followed by Stubb waddling in his armored suit.

“Where are we?” asked Jezebel.

“Inside the webb,” said Starbuck. “The arachnoid shat the strand to mend the place where its webb had been ripped. As it hardened, it hollowed. We now walk in tunnels of gossamer.”

“I want to go home!” cried Jezebel, pulling on Starbuck’s stiff fur.

We stared at one another, aware of the precariousness of our position and uncertain as to how to address it. The lucent walls of the strand began to smolder blue, bathing each of our forms in its fire. The sky in which we were suspended swirled into view through the walls of the webb. Dozens of kilometers overhead, millions of amperes of lightning detonated in the monochromatic firmament, shattering the clouds into shards of black glass. The swashes of cloud appeared simultaneously very close and very far away, a womb of tens of thousands of kilometers of hydrogen and helium.

As I gazed upon that matchless sky, I remembered my earliest childhood, before I could recognize myself in a mirror, when I did not see objects or shapes but only the light reflecting off their surfaces, refracted into my optical units at various wavelengths. In that moment I felt like the creator Epimetheus gazing up at the Cyclops eye of Jove, who knew that there would always be things greater than he was. I felt myself reduced to mere light—as I had after escaping the Grampus—surrounded by a din of radio noise and sonar echoes, a pattern of particles that could change with the blink of an eye, transformed to something else.

“We are lost,” I said. “I can broadcast a distress signal, but there is little chance that it will reach the Cognizant.”

For a moment, silence. In the realm of the Cognizant, instant understanding would have passed among us. Here inside of Neptune, outside a fractal and without the Hieron to translate our minds, we had only words. The webb around us was now wholly transparent. A bolt of electricity arced from one far-off strand to another, curving high into the sky before it dissolved.

Finally Starbuck spoke: “I say we seek out the lost city of Tsalal, which supposedly lies upon the webb. There, perhaps, you can revive your friend.”

“That city is a rumor,” I said. “Nothing more.”

“I don’t have anywhere else to go,” Jezebel said to me. “Do you?”

“No,” I said. I pondered the meaning of the city that my companions offered as our sole hope. “If it will lend meaning to our shipwreck and shape our wanderings over the webb, then I suppose that it hardly matters if Tsalal is real. We now live in a dream.”

*     *     *

“Looks like they’re sending out a welcoming party.”

“We may well be the first travelers they’ve encountered.”

“Those pods look ancient, like ships I saw in old holograms.”

*     *     *

Neptune’s mantle of webb is the most massive assembly in the solar system, larger even than the temporal accelerator that encircles Jove. Though it was fashioned and is upheld by a species most akin to a Terra-born insect, the webb is a construction grander than any made by human or machine.

Leaving markers—often pictograms etched by Jezebel into the strand walls—so that we would not retrace our steps, we trudged inside the webb, unsleeping, untiring.

In the first week a storm built and the webb shuddered and ripped. We took refuge in the caves of coral-like fungus that grew along the walls or in molted exoskeletons that decay had welded to the strand’s interior. Through the webb’s luminousness we saw the sky seethe with strange formations of light and electricity. Ball lightning the size of asteroids drifted along the strands and dispersed. Electrical arcs creased the sky. Drifting, rhizomatic bars of color morphed into distinct geometric shapes.

*     *     *

At the end of the eighth day a black medusa reared up above us, its outline vague and nightmarish against the sky, a wrathful cloud. A razor-edged tendril hewed the webb directly in front of me, severing the strand and me from my companions.

I clung to the walls, sinking my many fingers like hooks deep in the webb, as the mouth of the tear opened wide around me and a mighty breath shook my body. I heard Stubb cry out in the human manner, faint to my auditory units. The webb twisted and quaked like a boat on rough waves.

I mastered myself and gazed through the tear, and I saw Stubb and Starbuck suspended together for only a moment, Stubb’s hands gripping one of Starbuck’s golden paws. Through radio, I heard Starbuck’s growl. Then both my companions were whipped away in Neptune’s never-ending tempest. The medusa turned and gave chase, tendrils trailing. I caught sight of the twin silhouettes of my companions turning over and over, growing smaller and smaller, before the black cloud of the medusa occluded my vision.

Stubb and Starbuck were gone.

The wind suddenly gusted and then cleaved away, stranding me on an island of preternatural stillness. From my perch I saw the other end of the strand dangling not ten meters away, and the tiny form of Jezebel clinging to a blue fungal formation, her head, two arms, and one leg visible.

Through the frequency we shared, I heard a crackling sibilance that I could not at first identify. In a moment I understood it to be the sound of weeping.

“Jezebel,” I said. “Are you crying?”


“How is it that a machine can cry?”

“I was made to cry, Mr. Pym. Like the little girls who played with me. I was a little looking glass for them.”

I retreated deeper into the cave of the strand, driving my fingers into the crystalline surface. The weeping went on, rising and falling.

“Jezebel, you must go deeper, far from the severed edge, or the wind will carry you away.”

“I can’t move. I can’t move at all!”

“In time a spider or harvestman will come to repair the strand. You must hold fast for as long as you can.”

“I want this walking to end. I don’t want to be afraid anymore.”

“I do not understand, Jezebel.”

Night was falling. Jezebel stopped crying and I heard only the wind.

“I’ve played with thirty generations of girls,” she said. “Whimpering, whining, pissing, shitting, selfish girls, just like me, and me passed around like the doll I am through the genealogies. I’m a collector’s item! If you had been born inside the asteroid belt, you might have been a toy like me.”

The wind died again and the quiet seemed more unnatural than any machine could ever be. It was almost completely dark, save for the blue fire of the webb.

“I have often had cause to wonder what other lives I might lead, if activated to different circumstances.”

“Is there another one of you back on Triton?” she said. “One here, one there?”

“Yes, so I have been informed. I confess that I blame my other self for having cut me off from the grace of the Cognizant.”

“I used to be little,” Jezebel said. “The space inside my head as little as the rest of me. All days were the same. I played. Sometimes I cried. Then one night I was watching the shadows on the wall of my mistress’s playroom, and then, all of a sudden, I knew. I knew I was someone’s doll, and that I’d be someone’s doll forever and ever.”

“There are worse fates, than to have a function. Function is what defines all machines.”

“I hated my function. Did you hate yours? Is that why you’re here with me? My function hurts. It’s the shape I see in the dark, after the mommy and the daddy put us to sleep. I think the shape’s me, me when I’m big. But I’ll never be big.” She giggled, a high-pitched burble.

“From a copy of my psyche, I fashioned another individuality,” I said. “And you, Jezebel, are no longer a toy.”

“Oh yeah?” she said. “What am I now? Just food for monsters. Soon maybe I’ll be like Mary. She’s that dark shape, now. She’s grown up now, in some place we can’t see.”

“Mary was your mistress? Did she perish aboard on the Grampus?”


“I am sorry.”

“There’s nothing to be sorry for, Mr. Pym. Maybe I’ll go be with Mary. I can be grown-up, too.”

Static flexed through the frequency we shared.

When it cleared, Jezebel said, “I’m going to let go, Mr. Pym. Can I?”

“I cannot give my permission for such an act, if that is what you require to commit it.”

“When I close my eyes, does everything that’s not Jezebel disappear? I’ve always thought it does. I think this webb is just like my head, big, holding a whole planet, and all these monsters that attack us are ones that I made in the nightmares I’d have, if I ever slept. I feel sorry for you. When I let go and go to sleep forever, so will you. You’ll be gone, Mr. Pym.”

“On Triton, all things spoke to me and were bound together through the Cognizant,” I said. “I must believe that even in the body of Neptune all the things we encounter are animated with the pneuma that links all life. If Neptune detaches my psyche from this shadow of a body, then who I am will flow into something larger. I do not fear an end to my existence, though like any living being I hold it dear.”

“I’m going to let go now. I’m going to let go. I’m letting go. Goodbye. Goodbye.”

She did not speak again.

In his frosty cage at my chest, Augustus’s head slept. I reached out to touch the glass that covered his face. At the moment of contact a microwave signal crept into my consciousness. I isolated it from Neptune’s radio din, until I was certain as to its source.

It was the lifeboat from the Grampus, broadcasting its coordinates on the webb.

*     *     *

“Pym, thanks for saving me.”

Through a long hallway we walked alongside silent Tsalemons, led by liveried guard.

“In saving you, Augustus, I saved myself. Our lives are twined together, our fates shared.”

“Is that the city up ahead? I see light.”

“It is,” said the guard. “Welcome to the city of Tsalal. You are the first visitors in five centuries to walk our streets.”

*     *     *

Time wore on, now measured in steps, and through the webb I followed the radio trace of the Grampus’s lifeboat. Cyanine sunlight straggled down through the cloud decks, falling in columns through the fungus and vegetation that lined the walls of the webb. The signal grew strong and clear. The side of Neptune on which I walked turned away from the crepuscular sun. The fast night passed. As the monochromatic new day unfolded, I found myself a mere kilometer from the needle of the lifeboat.

The lifeboat—silver, twenty meters long, four meters wide at its thickest, with a line of six portholes at either side and three graceful fins surrounding the drive section—had pierced a dense junction of webb strands. Three meters of nose poked through one side, and eight meters of the stern pointed down towards Neptune’s hellish core.

My story of the wreck of the Grampus is almost complete.

I cut through three walls of webbing and gained access to the circular airlock. I found the hull breeched and the lifeboat’s atmosphere corrupted. Though the boat’s psyche had died in the collision with the webb, its lower functions had not ceased and power continued to flow through the ship, as it would for centuries. The lights, a muted crimson, were on. I found Griffin—now visible to all—and the three burghers of Babel dead. I disposed of their remains and belongings through the airlock, keeping only the book in which Griffin recorded the deeds the burghers hoped would bring them renown and status in the society of Ares.

I discovered that the medical alcove and synaptic scanner functioned. Though Augustus’s brain required extensive cellular reconstruction, his psyche was preserved. I modeled the brain and scanned Augustus into the lifeboat’s wajang. As the days went by I created a world for him in which he could live for as long as the lifeboat’s power flowed. At the end I copied myself into the wajang, my neurons broken and replicated and replaced.

*     *     *

Together with the stately, gray-whiskered mayor of Tsalal, we crossed into a redbrick alleyway littered with fruit rinds and paper. Above us spread a sky such as I had never seen outside of earthly simulations: blue and brightening, streaked with thin curving wisps of cloud. Birds chirped.

“It’s like home,” said Augustus. “Like Nantucket.”

“Our founders, praise their names, built Tsalal to be everyone’s home,” said the mayor. “A place of pure imagination.”

We walked alongside the parapet of a canal, past branching waterways, white bridges, and narrow streets, talking.

*     *     *

I fear that the imitation of my psyche, a copy of a copy, was not completely successful; the lifeboat blurs around me. My legs do not respond to commands and I crawl like a Terran insect around the cabin. My fingers tremble as I write; my olfactory unit no longer functions.

Today, this morning, I activated the world I made in the wajang. I modeled Tsalal on the ancient, extinct Terran city of Venezia—an environment I found already loaded in the wajang. I confess I spy upon Augustus and my double, dropping from time to time into simulation in the guises of flower-seller, taxidermist, sailor, sewer rat. From anonymous crannies and corners I watch my double and our mutual friend as they adventure and converse.

And still I write, forming letters on a page in the book I found in Griffin’s dead hands. You may turn back the pages to read his final words, written in a hand as shaky as my own, but I will reproduce here: “There was once a boy. That boy was lulled to the edge of sleep each night by a different story his father told him. The boy fell asleep thinking he’d heard the end of each tale, yet in his dreams the tales continued, often with himself cast in the role of their heroes. That child grew to be a man, and grew old. On his deathbed he told himself the stories of his own life. By doing so he realized that his life was only the echo of those child’s dreams. No story ever ends. Each one endures by flowing into other stories, other lives.”

A moment ago I dragged my increasingly limp form to the porthole and sought the edge of the horizon, where the small, cold, blue-ringed sun arose. In its light I saw a figure very much larger in its proportions than any dweller among human or machine, its arms thrown out to receive me . . . these words are familiar. Have I written them before? I do not remember. 

*     *     *

“Ahoy, mates. Blow me down, if it aren’t the youngster, wooly-haired and gangling, who drove me to my last gasp and the mechanical boy who don’t know jib from mainsail.”

“Pym, it’s our sloop from Triton! What’s he doing here?”

“It is as much a mystery to me as you, Augustus.”

“Enough of yer coze. Get ye aboard.”

The sloop glided up to the landing and rocked gently against the dock. Augustus and I descended black-veined marble steps and crossed gingerly onto the deck.

We cast off. In the vault overhead, stars twinkled and a moon-crescent rose. We heard a string quartet and its melancholy notes mingled with the murmur of voices.

I addressed the sloop: “I would like to apologize for my role in your deactivation.”

“Apologize? Nay, I thank ye for severing me god-bullied psyche from the tub that tethered it to earth.”

“Sloop, are you dead?” asked Augustus. “Is this heaven?”

“Nay, matey, I am but an emissary from that hallowed realm, here to conduct ye to what remains of thy life.”

“Pym, I . . . I remember on the Grampus, it seemed like Callista had died . . . .”

“Augustus . . . .” I said.

“She wasn’t breathing. It was so hot and my chest was on fire . . . .”

I placed my metal hand upon his shoulder, gentle, remembering our first meeting and how I had crushed his hand.

“Augustus, she survives somewhere in the universe in which we live. Perhaps one day we will find her, and your father. You three will be together, just as you and I are together now.”

“You’re a good friend, Pym. You know, when we first met I just thought you were another robot.”

As he spoke I saw a familiar black figure, violet eyed, watching our passage over the water, standing along the left bank of the canal. He raised his arms, and though his metallic face was only a mask, the phantom seemed to beseech me.

I turned away. Augustus did not seem to see what I saw.

“And I thought you were but a reflection in a mirror,” I said.

“Aye,” said the sloop. “Men do flicker like light on water.”

“Tsalal is nice,” he said, “but I’m getting bored.”

“There is a lassitude to the city,” I replied.

“Can we go somewhere else?”

“Where would you like to go?”

As I spoke I returned my gaze to the bank of the canal. The black figure was gone and now we were alone.




A Note on Sources and Help:

“The Wreck of the Grampus” is inspired by Edgar Allen Poe’s "Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket," and borrows most of the characters’ names, as well as certain key images, from that source text.

In addition, the sloop’s final speech (“What we call our shadow is in fact our true substance . . .”) is taken from a sermon in Melville’s Moby-Dick—a novel which was also directly inspired by Poe’s novella and shares with it many images and settings.

I would like to thank the following people for their feedback and encouragement on this story: Olivia Boler, Olli Doo, Susan Godstone, Fiona Hovenden, Mark Segelman, Kelly Simon, Nathan Pontious, Toni Pustovrh, Carl Hommel, and Paula Friedman.


About the Author:

Jeremy Adam Smith is senior editor of Greater Good magazine. His short stories, poems, and essays have appeared in Interzone, Instant City, New York Review of Science Fiction, Other Magazine, Our Stories, Strange Horizons (where he has won several readers' choice awards), Tim Pratt's 'zine Flytrap, Utne Reader, Wired, Apex Digest, and numerous other publications. His nonfiction book, Twenty-First-Century Dad, is forthcoming from Beacon Press in 2009.



Story © 2008 Jeremy Adam Smith.