Eko and Narkiss
by Jeremy Adam Smith


Excerpted from Every Child’s Solar Encyclopedia: Myths and Legends of the Solar System (Babel: Woelfle, 452). What follows is the story of Eko and Narkiss as told by Arion Overture, famed in the third century for preserving the oral traditions of the ancient solar system. Overture was deactivated in 261, after he fell victim to Kafka's Syndrome and was unable to finish any story that he began.



The first settlers called Ares by another name, Mars. They came here in simple, close-walled ships from the shores of Terra, and they depended upon those ships and on their cargoes of civilization. It is difficult to imagine, but at that time Mars was a chilly and rust-colored and wind-swept place. There were no seas or birds. There were no cities, and so no cafes or theaters.


Then one dayit lasted only for a daythere was a war on Terra. Yes, the Penultimate War. That conflagration made humanity too weak to journey into the sky, and so the sky road between Terra and Mars fell to wild ruin.


Centuries passed, and no ships came, and the men and women of Mars forgot what it meant to be civilized. Those abandoned people went back to the infancy of the species, deep into themselves, back to the time of the fire and the wheel. Rocks woke up around them. The sky bellowed, as it once did to your ancestors on Terra.


In that long night another civilization grew from the volitional machines humanity left scattered across the moons of Jove. Those machines called themselves the Cognizant, and they thrived while humanity fell into barbarism. The Cognizant sent ten machines to observe and protect the beleaguered human inhabitants of Mars, but in those desperate, primordial days your ancestors thought the machines were demons and gods. The tribes of Mars feared and worshipped the machines, who roosted at the top of Olympus Mons, and they left offerings in the canyons and crevasses that surrounded the volcano. 


It’s said that one machine called Eko was dispatched by the Cognizant to watch over a village, called Erebus, which consisted of a dismal network of caves cut into the walls of the Valles Marineris. Eko dwelled in the cave-shadows, curving light and sound around her so that the humans seldom knew that a machine walked among them. Some lucky ones glimpsed her, but thought of her as a ghost or, at best, a god. 


One of those who caught sight of Eko was called Narkiss. Fair-haired and muscular, Narkiss was the privileged son of the village exarch, scorned for his selfishness but loved for his beauty. One noontime Narkiss was kneeling alone in an atrium, staring at his own reflection in the frog pond at its center, and Eko stood over him. Together they gazed upon his face, and they both found it pretty. Yes, it's true: a machine may enjoy the shape and symmetry of a human face.


Just then the molecular machinery that concealed Eko from human sight malfunctioned, and the boy saw Eko’s reflection in the water.


Who are you, asked the boy?


Eko, who was cast in the color of the atrium’s green flora, did not dare respond, but the same malfunction played the boy’s voice back to him, asking, Who are you?


Narkiss was not afraid. His pride made him powerful.


Ghost or god or demon, said the boy, You have no power over me.


… power over me, came back the voice.


Narkiss stood, turned, and groped for the vision he had seen, but Eko was only a flicker against the trees. She fled from the atrium, her metal feet bending and breaking blades of grass.


After their encounter Eko watched Narkiss more and more often. To Eko, Narkiss represented a kind of perfection that she had never before encountered among her clockwork kind; machines are designed and forged, but a human being like Narkiss is simply an accident, and thus un-reproducable, magical, precious. Her yearning slowly turned to a feeling that resembled lovethat, at least, is the emotion we anthropomorphically ascribe to Eko.


That season the crops of Erebus failed, and starvation and pestilence spread among the caves. Children and mothers were thrown together into graves, and fathers fought each other for sodden bread and fruit pulp. The people of Erebus thought that the gods of the rocks were angry and so sought to appease them with a sacrifice.


By lottery Narkiss was selected to be that sacrifice. When the exarch, his father, drew the ticket from the barrel, his mother fainted to the red dirt; Narkiss's eyes widened and sought to meet the eyes of the people around him, but each face was now like a wall.


He was painted silver and a mask of metal was fitted to his face, in imitation of the gods of Olympus Mons. He was carried, crying and begging for his life, to Elysia, the gigantic cave where crops were cultivated under lamps. He was tied to a stone pillar, and his own father raised the knife, and it is said that he did not try to hide his agony. The villagers stood around the father and son, watching in brittle silence, eager for the awful event to take its course.


Eko could not stand to see his perfection marred by the knife. Just as it was about to fall, the machine unveiled herself.


Do not be afraid, she said to the villagers. I offer myself in place of Narkiss.


A woman yelped; one man ran from the cave.


Yes, yes, cried Narkiss. Let a machine die in place of a man!


The villagers discussed the offer, and by the end of the day they accepted it. Eko submitted herself to the women of the village and, though they were afraid, they anointed her metal form with oil. As the women worked they saw themselves reflected in Eko’s argent skin. In the reflection they saw their own faces purged of the toil and despondency of their lives, and exalted to a higher, nobler plain of being.


When the men came for Eko, their wives and daughters would not let her go. They fought, limbs flailing. The men pried the women’s fingers off of Eko’s arms, and ten of the men dragged the machine across the floor and out the door. The men took Ekowho did not resist or speakto the forge of the village blacksmith, and put Eko to the hottest fire their simple technology could muster. Eko did not die. They cast stones at Eko’s body. The stones only shattered. Crying out in rage and fear and frustration, the men used their few metal tools to pry her apart, piece by piece.  This task took them many days.


After Eko ceased to function, they set her lightless head upon an altar in the atrium where Narkiss had first seen her. Over it were etched the words Let machines die in place of men.


The following season’s harvest was bountiful. The village recovered, and what could be more natural than to assume that Eko’s sacrifice gave them the bounty? From the scrap of her body, the women of the village fashioned lovely metal flowersvery much like these. This is why the people of Ares now make and sacrifice a machine at the start of every planting season, and why we forge narcissi from the scraps of the sacrifice. We lean close to these flowers not to sniff them, as we would natural flowers, but to see our own reflections in the argent petals. In this way, we learn something about ourselves, something that should not flatter us.


What happened to the boy? I will tell you. He grew old. He got ugly. Of course, in those primitive days this was the fate of all human beings. Forgotten and unloved, Narkiss spent every day in the atrium where he had first seen Eko. One day a strange android unveiled himself before Narkiss, whose creased and haggard face betrayed no surprise. The machine went to the altar where Eko’s head sat and took down the head, saying, Eko will live again.


No, do not take her, croaked Narkiss.


Why? asked the machine.


Because she is all that is left of my beauty.


Later that day, at twilightperhaps it was always twilight in those cavestwo young girls found Narkiss drowned in the frog pond.


His body was taken from the atrium and fed to the machine that turned corpses into water, and the villagers planted the metal narcissi around the pond where he died. You can still see that pond, in the Valles Marineris, with a plaque that tells the story. Not as well as I do, of course. Nearby you'll find a little cafe with a yellow awning, and it serves the most delightful cakes.




About the Author:

"Eko and Narkiss" is a myth from the universe of "The Wreck of the Grampus," which appeared in the April 2008 issue of Lone Star Stories. Jeremy Adam Smith is senior editor of Greater Good magazine and author of The Daddy Shift, forthcoming from Beacon Press in June 2009. His short stories, poems, and essays have appeared in Apex Digest, Interzone, Instant City, New York Review of Science Fiction, Our Stories, Strange Horizons, Flytrap, Utne Reader, Wired, and numerous other publications.




Story © 2009 Jeremy Adam Smith.