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.”
“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
“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
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 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?”
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
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
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
“We have no evidence of any human settlement outside of Ares’s
orbit. Besides yourselves, there are no humans at all beyond the
“There could be places you robots don’t know about. You don’t
“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
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
“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
“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
“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
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
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.”
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.
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
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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.
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.
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
“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
“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
“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
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,
“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
“A crush?” It took me a full millisecond to comprehend this
particular application of the word. “That appears to me to be
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
“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.
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
“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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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,
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.
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
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
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
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
“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
“What killed him? How many have died?” I wondered if Augustus
had survived the collision on the Slidr Sulci only to die in
“A juxtaposition of events,” said the cat, “which together
proved unfortunate. I know little and care less about the
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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?”
“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
“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.”
“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
“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.”
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
“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.”
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.
brig of the Grampus’s 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.
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
“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
“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
“Curious.” I turned to the Cook. “Sir, I am led to understand by
Stubb that you were once rendered invisible by the lottery of
“That is factual. It was the preeminent fortnight of my
“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
“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
“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.
“May I advocate,” said the Judge, “for an unfussy flip of the
“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
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
“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
“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
“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
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
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
“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
“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
She tilted her head, curls falling over one lacy shoulder. “Pym?
“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
She dropped her arms and went back to the swing. “You know that
“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.”
turned to Stubb, but he was already stepping through the door.
Before he swung it shut, the invisible man slid past him into
“You,” I said to the stranger. “What do you know of these
“Pym,” said Callista, “who are you talking to?”
“You cannot see him either, Callista?”
“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
“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
“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,
“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
“What happened next, Augustus?” I said.
“The ship’s psyche went barmy and shut down the field
“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.”
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
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.”
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.”
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
“I assure you that we are indifferent to its cleanliness,” I
“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,
“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,
“Could you carry them?”
“I suppose, if you’re really so worried, I suppose.”
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.
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
“Say, Pym,” said Augustus. “This’d make a great game, don’t you
“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?”
“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
“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
“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.
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.
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
“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.
“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
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
“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.
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.
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
“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.
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.
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
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
“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
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
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
Why the harvestman attacked, I do not know. It is probable that
it thought us food. Possibly it sensed the threat posed by the
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
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?”
“Of course, Augustus. We now have a ship of our own, capable of
going anywhere at all in the solar system.”
“Yes. We are free.”
“Look . . . there’s no more plants or animals around the city.
It’s like they’re afraid of it.”
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
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.
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
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
“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
“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
“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
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.
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.
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
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.”
retreated deeper into the cave of the strand, driving my fingers
into the crystalline surface. The weeping went on, rising and
“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
“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.
“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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.”
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.
addressed the sloop: “I would like to apologize for my role in
“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 .
. . .”
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.
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.
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
novel which was also directly inspired by Poe’s novella and
shares with it many images and settings.
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.