4800 words, short story
Accountability, and Other Myths of Old Earth
The Architects judged Earth, and found its people guilty, before anyone ever knew they were watching.
When they made themselves known, they did so entirely. Around the world, at 13:17 Greenwich Mean Time, phones and laptops flickered to life, and TVs changed channels. Where there were no screens to be had, other things served as stand-ins: microwave doors, mirrors, a flat stretch of wall. In isolated places, projections floated in washtubs or shone in the sky itself. Cars drifted to a stop on highways and crowded streets; breakfasts and dinners and midnight snacks spilled to the ground. Sleepers woke from their usual dreams to another one far stranger. In seven thousand languages, in abstract images, in feelings and in thoughts, the Architects told the people of the Earth that their species had been found guilty of innumerable atrocities against sentience. Crimes both by and against humanity.
The consequences would, of course, have to fit the crime.
In some forgotten corner of Iowa, Leah sets down her Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book to gape at the scenes unfolding on her classroom’s TV set. She’s been peeking ahead, avoiding the endings where her character dies, but her finger has slipped out from between the pages, and she’s lost her place in the story. Her teacher, Mrs. Liste, is crying behind her desk. Leah thinks of the time last month when Joey Morris called her potato-face and Mrs. Liste told her that third graders don’t need to bawl like a baby when their feelings get hurt.
In the hall, an adult is shouting something about “the end of days.” The class itself is uncharacteristically quiet, watching as the images fade. Leah exchanges glances with her neighbors. In the absence of a grown-up telling them what to do, the natural choice is to do what the Architects have asked of them—it’s not so difficult, and it means they can skip afternoon math. One classmate shrugs, another nods, and then the whole class is standing, shoving hats and lunch boxes and books into backpacks, scuffling out the door.
There are no buses waiting. Leah sets off for home alone: out of the little crossroads town, down the hard, washboarded road. She hasn’t gotten far when a pickup truck appears in the distance, rattling to a stop alongside her. He tells her to get in, that they are already waiting.
At home, he ushers Leah past the small, round pod that waits in the yard, crushing a circular patch of grass. Inside, Leah packs her suitcase and stuffs a black garbage bag full of stuffed animals while her mother stomps up and down the hallway and screams and sobs and throws things. Her mother isn’t ready for what comes next. No one is ready for what comes next.
The Architects will call it Uplift, though not everyone will use that name for it: a great global averaging, until the haves and have-nots all become have-somes together. Cities will grow, the sick will heal, the hungry will eat. They will all shoulder aside the crushing weight of work and want, making room in between for joy. For hope, or something more substantial than that. And children, children like Leah, will be asked to learn that this is the way that it should be, the way that it can be.
When Leah emerges from her room, her mother seizes her by the arm, screaming that she will stay, they will all stay here, they have always been here. Even if there is something better to be had, it is hollow without the weight of here to hold it down. It means nothing if it is freely given, if it is not taken and made theirs and hammered into the soil of their only real home.
Leah’s father breaks her mother’s grip and puts his body between her and Leah. When he takes Leah’s hand, he holds it carefully, below the chafed red skin on her wrist. Together they walk out the front door toward the waiting pod.
It looks like metal, with a tease of iridescence hidden inside it, and when Leah breaks away from her father to touch it, it’s strangely cool in the September cornfield afternoon. She peeks inside the open doorway, excited for what comes next, afraid of what doesn’t.
A shotgun barks. She drops her suitcase and covers her head—but there is no pain, no ping of metal, no blood to paint the ground. A pair of slugs hang in the air, rotating gently along their longer axes. Far behind them, Leah’s mother is encased in shimmering static, the shotgun in the grass at her feet. Her red face twists as she soundlessly screams. Leah knows the shape of some of those words, though she barely understands: Armageddon and apocalypse and the mark of the Beast. Not everyone, after all, will call it Uplift.
Her father lays his hand on her shoulder, light enough to be gentle, heavy enough to turn her away from the scene. He gathers their fallen luggage and boards behind her, and he sits with his back against the far wall of the pod, head hanging low. Leah stands just inside the doorway as it contracts to nothingness, the walls of the pod reaching for each other to close the gap. The last thing she sees of her home is her mother’s face; the last thing she hears is her mother’s weeping.
She wonders how much the Architects have seen. How much they already know. This is only the latest of her mother’s crimes. If she could choose the consequences to fit, they would be cruel ones; that is why, she will come to understand later, the Architects will not ask her.
Architects is the name that these visitors offer for themselves. Architects, or Builders, or Planners, in a multitude of languages, in dialects with a handful of native speakers left. They avoid anything with a local context that suggests creation more than construction. Nor do they show themselves, if they can avoid it. Human beings behave differently around them: the tubular maw, ringed with sharp stylets, the band of glittering green-gold eyes, the overlapping chitinous plates, the angles. Some people become hostile, some are frightened, some are merely overawed. Fight, flight, freeze, and fawn. In any case, they become someone other than who the Architects want them to be.
But the Architects do build, from behind the curtains they have constructed for themselves. City streets rewrite themselves, so that plentiful housing shoulders aside straight-lined office buildings. Densely packed blocks take a deep breath and exhale it into gentle green spaces. Parking lots are devoured by housing developments, alien in the marks they make upon each cityscape, but functional and human on the insides. Train lines etch themselves into the dirt, and sidewalks sprawl wider. Where existing human technology fulfills their requirements, the Architects level it against their need, but where they cannot, they slice open one of their secrets and share it out: harnessing the Sun’s power without strip-mining a suffering continent; soft AI routing buses and cars and trams without the fingerprints of human bias to smudge its clear vision. In the sky, a collection of glittering hexagons can be seen by day and by night: a jump gate under construction, closer and more convenient to Earth than the one that delivered the Architects here. It will open doors, they say, to more worlds in the Architects’ vast collection, and to others yet to be discovered.
Certain places on Earth don’t fit neatly in the mold into which the Architects have poured them. They still think of the Architects’ Uplift as their own personal downfall. As the world reorganizes itself beneath their feet, they organize too. Militias retreat from Architect eyes—as if there is anywhere they cannot see. A handful of countries, unlikely allies all, declare war against the Architect invasion.
It is a short-lived war, and one-sided. Invisible nanomachinery converts missiles to dust. The radioactive material inside nuclear weapons mysteriously stabilizes, refusing to initiate fission. From day one, Architect ships have politely turned aside bullets; that same courtesy is extended to human bodies, where these would-be armies roll into cities to destroy Architect-built infrastructure. When they march into inhabited areas and open fire, shimmering sharp-angled shapes—the kind of technology that is more than half magic—form around them and swirl away, leaving slagged rifles and sleeping grenades on the pavement below. Bubbling catches on as common parlance for this process, even though there is very little soft or round or bubble-like about it. The mornings after such disasters, cleaning crews come to sweep away this debris, too: beating swords not into ploughshares but perhaps into steel cans and girders.
In the new polities into which the Architects have restructured the governments of old, as much local control as possible is left. Some of them do away with money, and some choose to cling to it, offering what is little more than meaningless scrip at grocery stands and clinics and clothing warehouses. Some retain their original leaders, and others form new committees, go-betweens, to administer what the Architects have given and return thanks, complaints, questions, fears. Minimally invasive is the watchword, which leads many to wonder what maximally invasive would have looked like.
Of course, some of the Architects’ rules are ironclad. Everyone is to have a safe home, clean air and water, food that is healthy and pleasant to eat. Violence against other humans is totally forbidden. Each polity can decide for itself the extent to which the beasts of the Earth enjoy the same consideration, but to cause needless harm or suffering to any being is a crime across the world, and one with consequences attached. Those who have harmed others must serve them: those that have denied housing to others are recruited to build it; those who hoard goods are required to dole them out; those who have poisoned the water and soil and air now must clean it. The Architects devote a great deal of effort into training and retraining armies of human psychologists and social care workers to deal with these individuals, if they accept the fallout of their actions.
Those who refuse, on the other hand, are quietly bubbled and removed to a new city, a new community, a new chance. Eventually, given repeat offenses of these capital-R Rules, they are removed farther, disappearing off the grid entirely. They are unharmed, the Architects reply first, when petitioned for information about these disappearances, before they explain. Repeat offenders are bundled away into small enclaves in the sorts of places where no one would now choose to live. Architect transports drop off, from a great distance, food and clean water and batteries and whatever other resources are needed to survive in a freezing desert or on a wind-battered mountain. Other than those rare sightings, the Architects do not interact with them further.
Except that, in time, a few people return from these banishments. They cannot explain why the Architects have removed them back to the fast-changing world of human social norms, nor how the aliens knew something had changed or broken or grown. Many of them are absorbed into the ever-swelling ranks of social care providers; others slip away into small lives of quiet leisure on the Architect-mandated universal basic income. Others simply disappear—not into the wilderness, this time, but into the deepest and densest hives of humanity that can be found.
There is no signposted threshold for the level of offense that initiates a bubbling. A preteen girl like Leah, too casually perusing the aisles of a convenience “store,” could easily imagine that any next incident might be her last. That doesn’t keep her, however, from dropping four lipsticks into her purse. That’s a quarter of the store’s entire stock; as manufacturing worldwide is remodeled in the Architects’ image, makeup and other luxury items have seen their production drop far below pre-Uplift levels.
Leah pretends to look at candy bars and phone chargers for a while before showing the clerk a single lipstick and a bag of vinegar chips. The clerk nods; he’s only there to discourage hoarding, and why shouldn’t an innocent-faced twelve-year-old have a tube of Predator Purple and a snack?
She walks coolly out the door and down the block and up the four flights of stairs to the apartment where she stays with her dad on the weekends, disdaining the crowded elevator. On Monday she’ll go back to Middle Crèche but for now she has her own little room, not much bigger than the closet where she kept her clothes as a little girl. If they would let her live here with him all the time, maybe her father would be—better. Maybe she would be, too, but that isn’t what matters.
She closes the door on it now to pull the storage bins out from under the bed. Beneath four winter sweaters and a pair of snow pants, she finds her boots, and upends them on the floor. Predator Purple and its companions join a rainbow jumble: lavender and orange and scarlet and peach and blue. About twenty, in total; each one a challenge to the vast social reconstruction of what it means to have and have not. Each one a question of where the threshold lies, between herself and the exile she expects.
Still, she shrieks when a shimmering box with too many right angles coalesces in her room. She kicks away, pressing her back against the bed to get away from it. The bubble is much smaller than her; she imagines how it will feel to be sucked into it and smashed down to a singularity, only to be dropped in the Sahara or somewhere equally inhospitable.
The door crashes open, her father’s hand on the jamb. He sees: the bubble, the lipstick, her—in that order. The smell of beer rolls in behind him, the thunder that follows the lightning. His mouth opens to shape the words what the fuck but she screams first, get out of my room and his face purples. He steps toward her, raising the back of his hand, the echo of her mother’s old favorite posture and she stares her betrayal into him. Dares him to do it again, to not really mean it one more time. In the last moment before contact, instinct overrides intent and she cringes.
His hand never strikes her. She’s still never seen a bubbling, but there doesn’t seem to be a singularity involved: the bubble in her room is as tall as her, now, taller, and it floats right in front of her. She wails and kicks at it, but there is no purchase to be found on its slick, too-perfect surface, it feels like trying to grab a cartoon. Give him back, she demands, give him back, give him back, how is this better?
The bubble pushes past her out the door, an uninvited guest on an overstayed welcome. Before the apartment door swings open in front of it, it disgorges a much smaller fragment of itself, which flies back toward her and she screams again—no, you can keep him, no!—rejecting this would-be reunion.
But the miniature bubble doesn’t swarm up to her size. Instead, it tracks back and forth in front of her twice. Then it swoops down and collects the four lipsticks that she’s just added to her collection, leaving the Purple Predator standing upright on the rug. When it zips away, she shouts wordlessly after it. She has nothing left to say, and no one to hear it.
Better is not a state that the Earth reaches on its own, not even one that it reaches for. Better is a weight that settles over the planet: comforting, perhaps, to some who feel its touch, but driving the air inexorably out of what resistance remains.
Speed through a few years’ worth of the planet’s turns: the soft green paintbrush that touches up the desertification of sub-Saharan Africa and the American Midwest, the crisp white that coalesces at the poles, the variegated browns of rich, well-loved soil.
Cities spiral upward as well as out, building steel-girder arms to cradle all the people that come to them. Streets and sidewalks and skyscrapers grow into homes for the needs and wishes of those that live there, rather than cramming human lives into ill-fitted spaces and demanding that they fit. Architecture takes a turn toward the organic: a conscious rejection of inorganic Architect lines and angles, but also an acceptance of the softness and fragility of Earth-based life.
Upon its completion, the jump gate becomes a permanent constellation in the Earth’s skies. It heels meekly alongside the Earth at the L2 Lagrange point. From a grounded vantage, the ships that it swallows up or disgorges are invisible, their scale negligible against a gate network whose scale rivals the Moon’s. But arrivals and departures are heralded in different ways at the anchor stations for the two space elevators that reach skyward. Scientists and artists leave the Earth with questions and return with small pieces of captured beauty. Extraterrestrial ambassadors, from other parts of the Architects’ apparently vast network, visit to exchange songs, poetry, olfactory sensoria, sculpture, sex.
Nonviolence and equity are a relentlessly enforced routine, and routines, practiced long enough, grind their way into habit. No one can forget what things were like, before, but children are born every day for whom both despair and luxury will be fairy tales from a different and darker age. The great forgetting, when it comes, will be untidy and piecemeal; still, it will come.
But paradise, though equally distributed, is imperfect on the uptake. Some habits were carved deep into the bone long before the Architects arrived.
One of these is rebellion. Leah, on the cusp of graduating from Elder Crèche, dreams of disappearing into deep space through the jump gate. But in waking life she grounds herself, hard, into the planet of her birth. This is the planet that pushed forth her family (such as it is), this is the place that belongs to her in a way nothing else can. Or maybe she belongs to it—notions of possession will always be muddled, for her, the Architects’ edits overlaid incoherently over the way of life she was born into. She ghosts through well-lit city streets, looking for others on the move. There are no curfews at her age, as Crèche slowly pares back the safety rails of childhood. She has the freedom, at least, to prowl.
And to seek out others like her. There can be no organizing efforts toward vandalism, or theft, or tram-slamming, where a group of like-minded kids swarm a tram car and block anyone else from boarding. Architect eyes are everywhere. These petty throes of antagonism must arise organically, as human a design as any sweeping new building, an emergent property of human beings acting in sudden, shocking concert. Both more than their component parts, and less.
There are two kids, a little younger than Leah, slouching in front of the Lower Crèche they’re years too old for. Someone else, lanky with new-grown adulthood, paces idle circles around the fountain in the greenway. They catch each other’s eyes, flicking a glance at the big window of a community dining hall. It’s empty, at this time of night, containing nothing but the reflection of the street doubled in the dark glass.
As one, they swing toward the garbage can sitting on the curb—all four of them lunging forward in concert, no longer individuals. Murmurations, news sites call groups of this sort, and there is something of the impossible grace of a flock of birds in synchronous flight to this, a certain balletic violence. The garbage can goes through the window, glass shatters, they duck inside to upend tables and throw open refrigerators, and for now, for these few glorious, splintered seconds, this is theirs and only theirs, their city and their planet and their destruction. Leah fumbles in her pockets to engrave on the wall in purple lipstick: F-U-C—
When the bubble breaks over her, erasing the unfinished word in a haze of crystalline static, she laughs. She keeps laughing as she grinds the purple lipstick beneath her heel, rubbing it into the bubble, keeps laughing all during the impossibly fast transit. She stops laughing only when the bubble evaporates and deposits her, in a shower of dried lipstick confetti, into the place of her exile: her own room at the Crèche.
When she staggers to the door, it’s not even locked.
Her only punishment is the total lack of punishment. Consequences, yes, of course there are consequences. Her father refuses a Crèche-offered visit, but there are video calls with her dead-eyed, starched-smile mother, who talks about her new job as a jump gate technician and all the opportunities available for a bright young person in the Architect Era. She doesn’t offer to see Leah in person, and Leah doesn’t ask. And there are counseling sessions, with a human psychologist—who tediously answers her questions with his own—and with an Architect liaison—who answers her with infuriating detail.
What does she have to break to make the Architects angry? The Architects don’t experience anger in the ways that human beings do. They’re not mad, they’re disappointed, basically. If they’re so powerful, why do they let her ruin everything she can get her hands on? Garbage cans and glass windows don’t have feelings; sentient beings are what matter. Then why doesn’t she feel like she matters? Because she has taken the Architects’ arrival as the total divorce of her ownership in a place, a planet, a future. And so they let her rebel now in order to let her feel as if she has some control—some claim against her own life.
You know it didn’t fucking work, right?
The process remains incomplete. Looking at an Architect is like falling through space. She can see herself a hundred times over in the broken-glass bend of its joints, its teeth, its eyes. Maybe it always will. That will never mean you weren’t worth the effort.
So why don’t you hold me accountable for anything?
Accountable? The Architect shifts, shattering a hundred of her reflected faces. We can punish you. We can limit your access to other people that you could hurt. But we can’t hold you accountable. That is yours to do—or not to.
And it is hers, isn’t it, and was all along: a gnarled ball of emotions that bursts out of her in a sob. It is shame and it is rage and it is exhaustion, it is mourning for what she’ll never have and for the choices she’ll still need to make. But it is hers. An ugly little thing, but true things are often ugly; and not so small that she cannot feel its presence. And in choosing it, she leaves behind the rest—the things for which this planet was called to judgment in the first place, all the original sin of the Earth. It isn’t hers to bear and it never was.
I’m sorry, she says, and the words used to mean so little, as threadbare as they were from the many times her parents each patched them over for new use. But she’s surprised to find that she mostly means it.
So what the hell am I supposed to do now? she asks, and that is the only question the Architect refuses to answer.
Imagine a better world.
Not a perfect one, because that world could never feel real, not the kind of world you could live in. Imagine a world where a hamburger is a once-a-month treat, but where someone like Leah could walk into any grocery depository or restaurant and walk out again with a full stomach, whenever she wants. Imagine a world where she must wait five years, after Crèche, to get into the education track she wants, but where she can learn the languages spoken on other worlds, hear their stories, speculate about societies even stranger than her own. Imagine a world where you could fuck up, again and again, but still be allowed to try, and never be expected to lie that this time, this time, you’ll do things perfectly and make all the right choices. Imagine a world where the stars could still be yours, if you really wanted them, with all the joy and all the responsibility that comes along.
Imagine that world. Hold it close and love it as much as you can bear. Because that world is not this one, and there is no map detailed enough to show us the way between.
The final judgment comes not from the Architects, but from the hands of humankind. It issues thus: if we can’t have a world without you, then we choose to have none at all.
Pieced together afterward, the story goes like this: a murmuration of jump gate technicians managed to override the gate’s safety protocols and reprogram an automated navigational course before the gate station could be locked down. In that one minute and twenty-seven seconds, an Architect ship came through the gate without decelerating and arrived not in orbit but in the Pacific Ocean.
The steam cloud is immense, the tremors felt for thousands of kilometers. Afterward, Leah and most of her cohort stay glued to the screen in the Xenosociology study nook, holding hands, watching for updates. Was her mother one of the jump gate techs involved? She’ll never know, but that borrowed guilt burrows in her stomach. While the others talk, in low voices, she goes outside the nook to throw up in the trash bin.
The Architects and their liaisons make routine appearances, keeping the Earth apprised of what is happening—a crashed ship, imminent storms, evacuations. They don’t, however, say much about what that means. Which says quite a lot on its own.
Ships arrive suddenly, practically a murmuration of their own, albeit a far-flung one. They emerge from the clouds to hang, waiting, in the air over cities and plains and seas. Not all of them are of Architect design: Leah recognizes Awa aesthetics in the blurry lines on her screen, and other ships that look like they could have been built by the Gardeners, or the Creakers, or the Ieoueai. Go home. Take only what you need most, the on-screen liaison tells them. Though he’s human, his expression is as broken-glass as any Architect’s, and his tears collect the light from his camera. It’s time to go.
Leah runs home, amid a storm of bubbles that break into being around her. Not yet: she dodges each bubble even as other people fling themselves into them, panting and sobbing, clutching children and cats and guitars and books. In her apartment, she shoves medications and a handful of tampons and a small stuffed mouse into her purse. It’ll have to be good enough. Or if it’s not good, it’ll have to be enough. Before she ducks out again, she yanks open the drawer in the bathroom and pulls out a fistful of lipsticks, orange and blue and scarlet and pink, which collide complainingly with the mess of pill bottles.
In the street, a bubble bursts open beside her. She sidesteps, and it is quickly claimed by a woman and two little girls; it swirls around them and shoots upward, toward the waiting ships. Another pops right beside Leah, but she shakes her head. Not yet. Not yet. One more look. One more breath of heavy gray sky and green growing things and glass. There is no place exactly like this one anywhere out there. And this place, of course, has never truly been hers either; it has only ever belonged to the people willing to destroy it to keep it. Nor will the stars be for her: those are the Architects’, if they are anyone’s; even if they might loan them out, for a while, a time-share room with a view.
Against her thigh, the purse bounces, and the lipsticks clatter, reassuringly real. They’re hers, in a way nothing else has ever really been, a way nothing else will be again. She puts her hand over them, holding them close against her. Such a small thing, such a small guilt. She tears it away from the greater one: the kind of guilt that would break something beautiful just to deny it to another. The kind of guilt that would choose damnation over reincarnation. The kind that would willingly stay behind to bear the unthinkable consequences of an unthinkable crime.
I’m ready, she says. The bubble’s cold embrace snaps around her and bears her skyward. I’m ready, she repeats, I’m ready, and that is hers too.
Aimee Ogden is an American werewolf living in the Netherlands. Her debut novella Sun-Daughters, Sea-Daughters was a Nebula Award finalist, and her short fiction has appeared in publications such as Lightspeed, Analog, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Her third novella, Emergent Properties, arrives in Summer 2023. She also co-edits Translunar Travelers Lounge, a magazine of fun and optimistic speculative fiction.