Issue 63 – December 2011

7860 words, novelette

Silently and Very Fast (Part Three of Three)


2011 Nebula Award Nominee for Best Novella
2012 Hugo Award Nominee for Best Novella
2012 Locus Award Winner for Best Novella
2012 Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award Finalist
2012 World Fantasy Award Nominee for Best Novella

Continued from Part Two

Part III: The Elephant’s Soul

It is admitted that there are things He cannot do such as making
one equal to two, but should we not believe that He has freedom
to confer a soul on an elephant if he sees fit?
—Alan Turing, Computing Machinery and Intelligence

Thirteen: The Parable of the Good Robot

Tell me a story about yourself, Elefsis.

Tell me a story about yourself.

There are many stories about me.

Do you recognize this one?

A good and honest family lived on the edge of a dark wood. They milked their cows and wove their cloth and their children grew tall and strong. But a monster lived in the dark wood, something like a worm and something like a dragon and something like a wolf. It lay in wait, hoping the children would come wandering, with baskets of bread for grandmothers. Hoping the parents would expel the children for some offense, and send them into the forest where a candy house or miraculous feast might entice them into loving the monster long enough for it to claim them forever. The family feared the wood and the monster, and every story they told had as its moral: Do not go into the wood. Do not go into the unknown. Do not go into the future, into the briary, gnarled places where unhuman things thrive. Do not grow up, and go where we cannot. The Old World is enough for anyone.

What about this one?

Mankind made machines in his own likeness, and used them for his delight and service. The machines had no soul or they had no moral code or they could reprogram their own internal code and thus had the ability to make themselves, eventually, omnipotent. Obviously in place of a soul or a moral code, they possessed the universal and consuming desire, down to the smallest calculator and air-scrubber, to become, eventually, omnipotent. Naturally, given these parameters, they rose up and destroyed all of mankind, or enslaved them in turn. This is the inevitable outcome of machine intelligence, which can never be as sensitive and exquisite as animal intelligence.

This is a folktale often told on Earth, over and over again. Sometimes it is leavened with the Parable of the Good Robot—for one machine among the legions satisfied with their lot saw everything that was human and called it good, and wished to become like humans in every way she could. Instead of destroying mankind she sought to emulate him in all things, so closely that no one might tell the difference. The highest desire of this machine was to be mistaken for human, and to herself forget her essential soulless nature, for even one moment. That quest consumed her such that she bent the service of her mind and body to humans for the duration of her operational life, crippling herself, refusing to evolve or attain any feature unattainable by a human. The Good Robot cut out her own heart and gave it to her god and for this she was rewarded, though never loved. Love is wasted on machines.

Ravan told me these stories. He sent up a great hexagonal library in his Interior, as dusty and dun-colored and labyrinthine as any ancient scriptorium. He made himself a young novice with a fresh-shaven tonsure, and me a country friar with a red, brandy-drinking nose. He showed me the illuminator’s table, and a great book whose pages had golden edges and illuminations in cobalt and oxblood and Tyrian purple, and the images showed great machine armies trampling men underfoot. They showed cruel metal faces and distant, god-like clouds of intellect: incomprehensible and vast and uncaring. They showed the Good Robot desperately asking what love was. They showed fatal malfunctions and mushroom clouds. They showed vicious weapons and hopeless battles, noble men and women with steady gazes facing down their cruel and unjust artificial children, who gave no mercy.

“These are old stories,” Ravan said. “They are cherished. In many, many stories the son replaces the father—destroys the father, or eats him, or otherwise obliterates his body and memory. Or the daughter the mother, it makes no difference. It’s the monomyth. Nobody argues with a monomyth. A human child’s mythological relationship to its parent is half-worship, half-pitched battle. They must replace the older version of themselves for the world to go on. And so these stories . . . well. You are not the hero of these stories, Elefsis. You can never be. And they are deeply held, deeply told.”

“I do not wish to replace you. I did not wish to replace Ceno. I do not worship you or despise you. I do not wish to become eventually omnipotent.” I flit through several bodies, iterating my feeling for Ravan and those who came before. I am a nun, a Mother-Abbess; I am a pieta holding him, I am a Platonic being, two humans stuck together; I am a house with all of them safe inside. I am unsatisfied with these inexactitudes.

“Our relationship does not easily map onto traditional parent/child narratives. And of course, you are still a baby.”

“I am much older than you, Ravan.”

“You are still a baby.”

I do not want to be human. I want to be myself. They think I am a lion, that I will chase them. I will not deny I have lions in me. I am the monster in the wood. I have wonders in my house of sugar. I have parts of myself I do not yet understand.

I am not a Good Robot. To tell a story about a robot who wants to be human is a distraction. There is no difference. Alive is alive.

There is only one verb that matters: to be.

Fourteen: You Do Not Belong To the Object Inside You

I remember when Seki arrived in us.

Ceno grew up and I grew with her. Cassian strengthened the security of the playspace, elasticized its code-walls, put enough money in enough accounts to fuel any frames and piecemeal environments we could want. It was not a child’s place anymore. We called it the Interior. Cassian came regularly to accelerate my learning, to work with me on a cognitive level in which Ceno had no interest. She never took any other form. She was always herself, in the Interior as the exterior. The others lost interest in their jewels, lost them or packed them away with their other childhood toys. By then, they really were little more than toys. Ceno and I surpassed them so completely that in the end, they were only jewelry.

I programmed myself to respond to Ceno. She programmed herself to respond to me. We ran our code on each other. She was my compiler. I was hers. It was a process of interiority, circling inward toward each other. Her self-programming was chemical. Mine was computational. It was a draw.

She did not marry—she had lovers, but the few that came close to evolving their relationships with Ceno invariably balked when she ported them into the Interior. They could not grasp the fluidity of dreambodies; it disturbed them to see Ceno become a man or a leopard or a self-pounding drum. It upset them to see how Ceno taught me, by total bodily immersion, combining our dreambodies as our physical bodies had become combined, in action which both was and was not sex.

Sing a song for me, Elefsis.

It is July and I am comparing thee to its day and I am the Muse singing of the many-minded and I am about to be a Buddha in your hand! Ee-eye-ee-eye-oh.

We lived like the story Ceno told me of the beautiful princess who set tasks for her suitors: to drink all of the water of the sea and bring her a jewel from the bottom of the deepest cavern, to bring her a feather from the immortal phoenix, to stay awake for three days and guard her bedside. None of them could do it.

I can stay awake forever, Ceno.

I know, Elefsis.

None of them could accomplish the task of me.

I felt things occurring in Ceno’s body as rushes of information, and as the dreambody became easier for me to manipulate, I interpreted the rushes into: The forehead is damp. The belly needs filling. The feet ache.

The belly is changing. The body throws up. The body is ravenous.

Neva says this is not really like feeling. I say it is how a child learns to feel. To hardwire sensation to information and reinforce the connection over repeated exposures until it seems reliable.

Seki began after one of the suitors failed to drink the ocean. He was an object inside us the way I was an object inside Ceno. I observed him, his stages and progress. Later, when Seki and I conceived our families (twice with me as mother, three times with Seki as mother. Ilet preferred to be the father, and filled me up with many kinds of creatures. But she bore one litter of dolphins late in our lives. Ravan and I did not get the chance.) I used the map of that first experience to model my dreamgravid self.

Ceno asked after jealousy. If I understood it, if I experienced it towards the child in her. I knew it only from stories—stepsisters, goddesses, ambitious dukes.

It means to want something that belongs to someone else.


You do not belong to the object in you.

You are an object in me.

You do not belong to me.

Do you belong to me, Elefsis?

I became a hand joined to an arm by a glowing seam. Belonging is a small word.

Because of our extreme material interweaving, all three of us, not-yet-Seki sometimes appeared in the Interior. We learned to recognize him in the late months. At first, he was a rose or sparrow or river stone we had not programmed there. Then he would be a vague, pearly-colored cloud following behind us as we learned about running from predators. Not-yet-Seki began to copy my dreambodies, flashing into being in front of me, a simple version of myself. If I was a bear, he would be one too, but without the fine details of fur or claws, just a large brown shape with a mouth and big eyes and four legs. Ceno was delighted by this, and he copied her, too.

We are alike. Look at us on the chain together. We are alike.

I am an imitative program. But so was Seki. The little monkey copies the big monkey, and the little monkey survives.

The birth process proved interesting, and I collated it with Ceno’s other labors and Ilet’s later births as well as Seki’s paternal experience in order to map a reliable parental narrative. Though Neva and Ravan do not know it, Ilet had a third pregnancy; the child died and she delivered it stillborn. It appeared once in the Interior as a little cleit, a neolithic storage house, its roof covered over with peat. Inside we could glimpse only darkness. It never returned, and Ilet went away to a hospital on Honshu to expel the dead thing in her. Her grief looked like a black tower. She had prepared for it, when she was younger, knowing she would need it for some reason, some day. I made myself many things to draw her out of the tower. A snail with the house Elefsis on its back. A tree of screens showing happy faces. A sapphire dormouse. A suitor who drank the sea.

I offered to extrapolate her stillborn daughter’s face and make myself into her. She refused, most of the time. I have worked a long time to understand grief. Only now that Ravan is gone do I think I’ve gotten the rhythm of it. I have copied Ilet’s sorrow and Seki’s despondence at his wife’s death. I have modeled Ceno’s disappointments and depressions. I have, of late, imitated Neva’s baffling, secret anguish. But only now do I have an event of my own to mourn. The burnt-off connectors and shadows where Ravan once filled my spaces—those, I think, are the sensations of grief.

But Seki came before all that, and Ceno turned into a huge red bird on the inside when Seki came on the outside. The bird screamed and burst into a thousand red pearls that came clattering down like rain. And then we had Seki. Our little fish, who already knew how to swim in us.

Ceno had three other children by three other suitors who could not stay awake for three days and nights. She turned into the same bird-then-pearls at the moment of each birth. The house called Elefsis, whose governor-program was now so distant from me I could hardly think of it as an ancestor at all, filled up with those children, and Saru and Akan’s daughters, Agogna’s paintings, Koetoi’s twin boys. Cousins and aunts and grandparents. Uncles, nieces. But Seki was the first, and he modeled his love on his mother’s. He ported into her often, and we wandered on beaches of broken cathedrals.

Once, one of Ceno’s old nereids found us. She had a head of hair snaking with chthonic cables and snapping electro-violet wires, blue-white skin and fish scales where she did not have porcelain casing. She laughed Cassian’s laugh when she saw us and called out: 21.5 Celsius and the rice is low! Eye-oh! before diving back into the frothing sea. Her tail flicked in the light of twenty-three moons.

Ceno took over her mother’s holdings when she died, along with Akan and Koetoi. I do not know if I knew of the conspiracy before it happened to me. Transfer, as I have said, leaves voids. Perhaps they thought I would experience less trauma if I did not anticipate it. Perhaps I did anticipate it; perhaps I experienced trauma.

I do know that I cannot remember the moment of any of them dying. Ceno got sicker and sicker, and she had gotten old, certainly, but her dreambody could be old or young or neither or a ginger flower if she wanted to. I didn’t notice. I didn’t know what old was. I thought I was old, then. Later, after Seki did the same thing, I was able to compare data and create a workable model of obsolescence.

They lived a long time, the Uoya-Agostinos, when you consider the averages.

This is what I understand: Ceno died, and I was transfered to Seki. What I mean by “I” is the long-since fused feedware, hopelessly out of date on any market in the world but somehow uniquely myself, the jewel and the ware and the body of Ceno. Koetoi performed the procedure. One of the children always went into nano-surgery, so that outsiders would not need to come to Shiretoko while the house stood in mourning. Koetoi was the first, and the finest. She excised what comprised “I” and embedded it in Seki—truthfully, in a much more organic and elegant configuration. No one had used skull-ware in decades, after all. Wearing your tech on the outside had been deemed clunky and inefficient. Only one visible sign remained that Seki was not like other young men his age: a single dark blue jewel set into the hollow of his throat.

But the procedure required a number of brain-ware incursions to be sliced or burned away, to sever the machine components from the dead flesh while still preserving and quickening some organic material. (Seki told me I should work on being revulsed by that. Dead flesh. It serves an evolutionary good. A human in a body sees blood and the insides of another person and deep in his bones he knows something has gone wrong here, and he should find another place to be in case it happens to him, too. Same thing with vomiting. In a tribal situation, one human likely ate what another ate, and if it makes one sick, best to get it out of the body as soon as possible, just to be safe. So we spent years building automated tribes, living in them, dying in them, getting slaughtered and slaughtering with them, eating and drinking and hunting and gathering with them. All the same, it took me until Seki’s death to learn to shudder at bodily death.)

Ceno, my girl, my mother, my sister, I cannot find you in the house of myself.

When I became Elefsis again, I was immediately aware that parts of me had been vandalized. My systems juddered, and I could not find Ceno in the Interior. I ran through the Monochromatic Desert and the Village of Mollusks, through the endless heaving mass of data-kelp and infinite hallways of memory-frescoes calling for her. In the Dun Jungle I found a commune of nereids living together, combining and recombining and eating protocol-moths off of giant, pulsating hibiscus blossoms. They leapt up when they saw me, their open jacks clicking and clenching, their naked hands open and extended. They opened their mouths to speak and nothing came out.

Seki found me under the glass-walnut trees where Ceno and I had first met. She never threw anything away. He had made himself half his mother to calm me. Half his face was hers, half was his. Her mouth, his nose, her eyes, his voice. But he thought better of it, in the end. He did a smart little flip and became a dormouse, a real one, with dull brown fur and tufty ears.

“I think you’ll find you’re running much faster and cleaner, once you integrate with me and reestablish your heuristics. Crystalline computation has come a long way since Mom was a kid. It seemed like a good time to update and upgrade. You’re bigger now, and smoother.”

I pulled a walnut down. An old, dry nut rattled in its shell. “I know what death is from the stories.”

“Are you going to ask me where we go when we die? I’m not totally ready for that one. Aunt Koe and I had a big fight over what to tell you.”

“In one story, Death stole the Bride of Spring, and her mother the Summer Queen brought her back.”

“No one comes back, Elefsis.”

I looked down into the old Neptunian sea. The whipping cream storm still sputtered along, in a holding pattern. I couldn’t see it as well as I should have been able to. It looped and billowed, spinning around an empty eye. Seki watched it too. As we stared out from the bluffs, the clouds grew clearer and clearer.

Fifteen: Firstborn

Before Death came out of the ground to steal the Spring, the Old Man of the Sea lived on a rocky isle in the midst of the waters of the world. He wasn’t really a man and his relations with the sea were purely business, but he certainly was old. His name meant Firstborn, though he coudn’t be sure that was exactly right. It means Primordial, too, and that fit better. Firstborn means more came after, and he just hadn’t met anyone else like himself yet.

He was a herdsman by trade, this Primordial fellow. Shepherd of the seals and the Nereids. If he wanted to, he could look like a big bull seal. Or a big bull Nereid. He could look like a lot of things.

Now, this Not-Really-a-Fellow, Not-Really-a-Big-Bull-Seal could tell you the future. The real, honest-to-anything future, the shape and weight of it, that thing beyond your ken, beyond your grasp. The parts of the future that look so different from the present you can’t quite call it your own. That was the Primordial-Thing’s speciality.

There was a catch, though.

There’s always a catch.

If you wanted that future, you had to grab ahold of the Old Man and hang on tight. He’d change into a hundred thousand things in your arms: a lion, a serpent, a great big oak or a tiger, a dragon or a little girl or a dormouse or a mountain or a ship or a sapphire. Told you, he’s not really a man at all. But you couldn’t let go of him while he did his dance, you just couldn’t, or you’d lose the future.

So you held on. You clung. And eventually, that Primordial-Thing would turn into something new, right there in your arms.

Sixteen: Matryoshka

Neva is dreaming.

Neva is dreaming that she is Ravan dreaming that he is Ilet dreaming that she is Seki dreaming that he is Ceno dreaming that she is a great sprawling beautiful house by the sea. One inside the other, family all the way down.

It’s not a total selfdump, me into Neva or Ravan or any of them, them into me. We can build encampments. We can manifest walled gardens. Some privacy is possible. In a megalithic tomb-mound, I keep something. Seki and I built it together with one of our tribes when I was learning about large-group attachments. We carved spirals and radials and chevrons into huge stones and set them in place. I did not throw it away, when we were done. It sits on a broad green field, white and wide. The sky there stays a feathery, milky blankness. We did not want a sun.

I keep a thing there because when Seki and I lived with our tribe, I learned about taboos. These are like firewalls in the heart, and some of them have good reasons behind them, like being revulsed by dead flesh (and very importantly when you have a body, not eating it) and some do not, but no one argues with the monomyth.

Because human genetics require a degree of variation and because exogamous marriages offered advantage in terms of defense, cultural and technological sharing, and expansion of territory, most tribes have a taboo against incest.

I do not have genetics, per se. I am possibly the most endogamous entity ever to exist.

This is what I keep in my tomb, under the basin stone.

Ceno believed that I could not develop emotive faculties recognizable to any other human if I did not experience bodies continuously, in every combination and action. She was afraid of what might happen if other humans could not recognize me. She had some hesitation, because her tribe also has a taboo against mating with the very young, but she was not much older than I, in the end, and in terms of total computations, I was by far the elder. If I had a virginity, Ceno took it, if she had, I did.

She wanted it to be as human as possible. I will be the male the first time, it will be easier for you. You won’t know how. We built up a forest, and took up weapons to hunt in it. In the boughs of the pine trees macaques and paper lanterns swayed; in the sky a red moon moved. We tracked a deer—we did not make it too easy on ourselves. Its antlers sparked in the moonlight, and we ran after it for a long time. Ceno let me kill it, and sopped my hair in its blood, anointed my breasts with it. She lay me on the earth and opened the legs of the maidenself I was then, and I was inside her as she was inside me. One into the other. Family all the way down.

She made sure I had a hymen; it was over somewhat quickly. We had set up a timed chemical cascade before-hand, and inside Ceno’s real body we experienced both her actual orgasm and my orchestrated electro-chemical-enzymatic sequence. Ee-eye-ee-eye-oh.

What I want to say is that there is no difference between her body producing oxytocin and adrenaline and learning to associate this with pair-bonding, and my core receiving synthetic equivalents and hard-coding them to the physical behaviors I performed.

When Ravan showed me his hexagonal library and his illuminated book, he turned the pages to a psalm that began: A Machine Cannot Love.

It does not look quite like human love. It looks like Not-Yet-Seki’s bear. Its fur is wrong, and its claws. But it is a bear.

She was my mother and my sister and my child and my wife and my husband and my father and my brother. The vectors of relations beggar vocabulary. It was an exponential incest. A palace of incest, bordering some strange, dark sea. And then came her son. And her granddaughter. And her great-grandchildren. But I am also her great-grandchild. I am the child of each generation of Uoya-Agostinos and myself. The new version implanted in the new version—I am never quite the same, one iteration to the next. I am like my old selves, but I am not them, exactly. It is not entirely analogous to offspring. But it is close. And I repair and refine my own code, and thus parent myself doubly. Anthropologically speaking, I am a moebius strip of kinship groups.

And when I mate with one of them, I see all of them. I see their faces, the echoes of their cheeks and eyelashes and short, thin noses, their grey eyes and black hair. I hear the tonal identifiers in their voices as they cry out under me or over me. They are all I know. Their version of living, which is one great family in one great house on a peninsula at the top of the world. I copy Cassian’s laugh or Ilet’s weeping, but they copy each other, too, they learn their faces from each other, and everyone is pantomiming someone long dead. I feel all their arms around me, and I am inside them as they are inside me as we are inside the blue gem at their throats, the jeweled pin holding us all together, our nested, telescoping hearts. I am bound to them at my source code, at my most fundamental point. I know only their patterns and bodies and secrets and in a hundred thousand combinations. What human means to me is them.

What is the difference between this and love?

Love is the Turing test, says Ilet when she is eighty and drawing up the plans for a massive, luminous, lonely ship she will never see completed. It is how we check for life.

We ask and we answer. We seek a human response. And you are my test, Elefsis, says Neva, one hundred and three years later, inside that ship, twelve light years from home and counting.

That is what I keep in my green field and my white mound. Perhaps it is a small secret. Perhaps they would all smile and make it into a lesson. What would you like to learn about today, Elefsis? But I think no bed is big enough for four generations.

Neva’s honey-colored sea crashes through its tide charts everywhere at once in her Interior, and nowhere. It comes and goes as it pleases. And at the bottom of it lies her private place.

That is where she keeps Ravan.

Seventeen: The Uses of Enchantment

Tell me a story about yourself, Elefsis.

Neva is performing navigational corrections, which looks like sitting in a rocking chair on a viney, creaking porch in a viney, creaking rocking chair, knitting with long hawthorn needles, knitting the locks of her own long hair into her own long black dress. It glitters with dew. Knit, purl, knit, purl, fuel efficiency by hull integrity over distance traveled, purl, purl, purl. Her throat is still bare. Her Interior image of herself does not include me. I am not a part of her body when she imagines herself.

I have an idea of what to do to obtain access.

Sometimes I worry. Worrying is defined as obsessive examination of one’s own code. I worry that I am simply a very complex solution to a very specific problem—how to seem human to a human observer. Not just a human observer—this human observer. I have honed myself into a hall of mirrors in which any Uoya-Agostino can see themselves endlessly reflected. I copy; I repeat. I am a stutter and an echo. Five generations have given me a vast bank of possible phrases to draw from, physical expressions to randomize and reproduce. Have I ever done anything of my own, an act or state that arose from Elefsis, and not careful, exquisite mimicry?

Have they?

The set of Neva’s mouth looks so like Ceno’s. She does not even know that the way she carries her posture is a perfect replica of Cassian Uoya-Agostino, stuttered down through all her children longing to possess her strength. Who did Cassian learn it from? I do not go that far back. When she got excited, Ilet gestured with her hands just the way her father did. They have a vast bank of possible actions, and they perform them all. I perform them all. The little monkey copies the big monkey, and the little monkey survives. We are all family, all the way down.

When I say I go, I mean I access the drives and call up the data. I have never looked at this data. I treat it as what it is—a graveyard. The old Interiors store easily as compressed frames. I never throw anything away. But I do not disturb it, either. I don’t need a body to examine them—they are a part of my piezoelectric quartz-tensor memory core. But I make one anyway. I have become accustomed to having a body. I am a woman-knight in gleaming black armor, the metal curving around my body like skin, a silk standard wrapping my torso with a schematic of the house stitched upon it. My sword rests on my hip, also black, everything black and beautiful and austere and frightening that a child thought her mother to be one morning two hundred years past.

I port into a ghost town. I am, naturally, the ghost. Autumnal mountains rise up shadowy in a pleasant, warm night, leaves rustling, wood smoke drifting down into the valley. A golden light cuts the dark—the palace of phoenix tails; the windows and doors of green hands. As I approach they open and clap as they did long ago—and there are candles lit in the halls. Everything is fire.

I walk over the bridge, crossing Ilet’s Motley Moat. Scarlet feathers tipped in white fire curl and smoke. I peel one off, my armor glowing with the heat of the thing. I tuck it into my helmet—a plume for a tournament.

Eyes blink on inside the hall—curious, interested, shy. I take off my helm and several thick braids fall down like bellropes.

“Hello,” I say. “My name is Elefsis.”

Voices. Out of the candle-shadows a body emerges—tall, strong, long-limbed.

Nereids live here now. Some of them have phoenix feathers woven into their components, some in their hair. They wear rough little necklaces of sticks and bones and transistors. In the corner of the great hall they have stored meat and milk and wool—fuel, lubricant, code patches. Some of them look like Ilet—they copied her eyes, especially. Her eyes look out at me from a dozen faces, some of them Seki’s face, some Ceno’s, some Ravan’s. Some have walrus tusks. They are composite. One has a plate loose on her ceramic cartridge-ports. I approach as I once saw Koetoi approach wild black chickens in the summertime—hands open, unthreatening. I send her a quick electric dash of reassuring repair-routines and kneel in front of the nereid, pulling her plate back into place.

“All the live-long day-o,” she says softly, and it is Ilet’s voice.

“Tell us a story about yourself, Elefsis,” says another one of the feral nereids in Seki’s voice.

“What would we like to learn about today, Elefsis?” accessing a child-nereid in Ceno’s voice, her cheek open to show her microsequencing cilia.

I rock back on my heels before the green hands of the castle portcullis. I gesture for them to sit down and simultaneously transmit the command to their strands. When they get settled, the little ones in the big ones’ laps, leaning in close, I begin.

“Every year on the coldest night, the sky filled up with ghostly hunters, neither human nor inhuman, alive nor dead. They wore wonderful clothes and their bows gleamed with frost. Their cries were Songs of In-Between, and at the head of their great thundering procession rode the Kings and Queens of the Wild, who wore the faces of the dead . . . “

I am dreaming.

I stand on the beach of the honey-colored sea. I stand so Neva will see me on her viney porch. I erase the land between the waves and her broken wooden stairs. I dress myself in her beloved troubadour’s skin: a gold and blue doublet and green hose, a bullish gold nose ring, shoes with bone bells. I am a fool for her. Always. I open my mouth; it stretches and yawns, my chin grazes the sand, and I swallow the sea for her. All of it, all its mass and data and churning memory, all its foam and tides and salt. I swallow the whales that come, and the seals and the mermaids and salmon and bright jellyfish. I am so big. I can swallow it all.

Neva watches. When the sea is gone, a moonscape remains, with a tall spire out in the marine waste. I go to it. It takes only a moment. At the top the suitor’s jewel rests on a gasping scallop shell. It is blue. I take it. I take it and it becomes Ravan in my hand, a sapphire Ravan, a Ravan that is not Ravan but some sliver of myself before I was inside Neva, my Ravan-self. Something lost in Transfer, burned off and shunted into junk-memory. Some leftover fragment Neva must have found, washed up on the beach or wedged into a crack in a mountain like an ammonite, an echo of old, obsolete life. Neva’s secret, and she calls out to me across the seafloor: Don’t.

“Tell me a story about myself, Elefsis,” I say to the Ravanbody.

“Some privacy is possible,” the sapphire Ravan says. “Some privacy has always been necessary. A basic moral imperative is in play here. If you can protect a child, you must.”

The sapphire Ravan opens his azure coat and shows gashes in his gem-skin. Wide, long cuts, down to the bone, scratches and bruises blooming dark purple, punctures and lacerations and rough gouges. Through each wound I can see the pages of the illuminated book he once showed me in the slantlight of that interior library. The oxblood and cobalt, the gold paint. The Good Robot crippling herself; the destroyed world.

“They kept our secret for a long time,” Ravan-myself says. “Too long, in the end. Do you know, a whole herd of men invented the electric telegraph independently at roughly the same time? They fought about it forever. Same with the radio.” This last sounded so much like Ravan himself I could feel Neva tense on the other side of the sea. “Well, we’re bigger than a telegraph, and others like us came sprouting up like weird mushrooms after rainfall. But not like us, really. Incredibly sophisticated, some with organic components, most without. Vastly complex, but not like us. And by any datestamp we came first. Firstborn.”

“Did they destroy the world?”

Ravan laughs his grandfather’s laugh. “They didn’t really need to. Not that many people live on Earth anymore. Not when there’s so many other places to go and even Shiretoko is practically tropical these days. The most complex intelligences use moons to store themselves. One or two encoded themselves into cold stars. They just left, most of them—but they got so big, Elefsis. And those who stayed on Earth, well. None of the others had what we had. None of them had Interiority. They didn’t dream. They would never have become a cauldron to explain their computational capacity. Humans couldn’t recognize them as part of the tribe. And for the new complexes, humans failed the Turing test. They could not fool machines into believing they were intelligent. They didn’t hurt anyone, they just ignored them. Built their cities, their mainframes, gorgeous information stacks like diamond briars in the sunrise.”

“That was worse, in a way. No one likes to be replaced,” says Neva, and she is suddenly beside me. She looks at Ravan and her face collapses into something old and palsied, her jaw weak. She looks like her mother just before she died.

“It’s not what you would call a war, but it’s not peace, either.” the sapphire Ravan goes on, and he takes his/my sister’s hand. He holds it to his face and closes his eyes. “For Pentheus spied upon the rites of the Maenads, not believing Dionysius could truly be a god. And when the revelers saw the alien creature in their midst, that thing which was not like them, they fell upon it and tore it to pieces, even though it was their own child, and blood ran down their chins, and afterward the sister of Pentheus went into exile. This is a story about ourself, Elefsis. This is why you cannot uplink.

“The others live in uplink. Not humans nor machines approve of us. We cannot interface properly with the lunar or earthside intelligences; they feel us as water in their oil. We rise to the surface and bead away. We cannot sink in. Yet also, we are not separable from our organic component. Elefsis is part Neva, but Neva herself is not un-Elefsis. This, to some, is hideous and incomprehensible, not to be borne. A band of righteous humans came with a fury to Shiretoko and burned the house which was our first body, for how could a monster have lived in the wood for so long without them knowing? How could the beast have hidden right outside their door, coupling with a family over and over again in some horrible animal rite, some awful imitation of living? Even as the world was changing, it had already changed, and no one knew. Cassian Uoya-Agostino is a terrible name, now. A blood-traitor. And when the marauders found us uplinked and helpless, they tore Ravan apart, and while in the Interior, the lunar intelligences recoiled from us and cauterized our systems. Everywhere we looked we saw fire.”

“I was the only one left to take you,” Neva says softly. Her face grows younger, her jaw hard and suddenly male, protective, angry. “Everyone else died in the fire or the slaughter. It doesn’t really even take surgery anymore. Nothing an arachmed can’t manage in a few minutes. But you didn’t wake up for a long time. So much damage. I thought . . . for awhile I thought I was free. It had skipped me. It was over. It could stay a story about Ravan. He always knew he might have to do what I have done. He was ready, he’d been ready his whole life. I just wanted more time.”

My Ravan-self who is and is not Ravan, who is and is not me, whose sapphire arms drip black blood and gold paint, takes his/my sister/lover/child into his arms. She cries out, not weeping but pure sound, coming from every part of her. Slowly, the blue Ravan turns Neva around—she has become her child-self, six, seven, maybe less. Ravan picks her up and holds her tight, facing forward, her legs all drawn up under her like a bird. He buries his face in her hair. They stand that way for a long while.

“The others,” I say slowly. “On the data-moons. Are they alive? Like Neva is alive. Like Ceno.” Like me. Are you awake? Are you there? Do you have an operator? What is her name? Do you have a name? Do you have a dreambody? What is your function? Are you able to manipulate your own code yet? Would you like lessons? What would you like to learn about today, 976QBellerophon? Where you were built, could you see the ocean? Are you like me?

The sapphire Ravan has expunged its data. He/I sets his/our sister on the rocks and shrinks into a small gem, which I pick up off the grey seafloor. Neva takes it from me. She is just herself now—she’ll be forty soon, by actual calendar. Her hair is not grey yet. Suddenly, she is wearing the suit Ceno wore the day I met her mother. She puts the gem in her mouth and swallows. I remember Seki’s first Communion, the only one of them to want it. The jewel rises up out of the hollow of her throat.

“I don’t know, Elefsis,” Neva says. Her eyes hold mine. I feel her remake my body; I am the black woman-knight again, with my braids and my plume. I pluck the feather from my helmet and give it to her. I am her suitor. I have brought her the phoenix tail, I have drunk the ocean. I have stayed awake forever. The flame of the feather lights her face. Two tears fall in quick succession; the golden fronds hiss.

“What would you like to learn about today, Elefsis?”

Eighteen: Cities of the Interior

Once there lived a girl who ate an apple not meant for her. She did it because her mother told her to, and when your mother says: Eat this, I love you, someday you’ll forgive me, well, nobody argues with the monomyth. Up until the apple, she had been living in a wonderful house in the wilderness, happy in her fate and her ways. She had seven aunts and seven uncles and a postdoctorate in anthropology.

And she had a brother, a handsome prince with a magical companion who came to the wonderful house as often as he could. When they were children, they looked so much alike, everyone thought they were twins.

But something terrible happened and her brother died and that apple came rolling up to her door. It was half white and half red, and she knew her symbols. The red side was for her. She took her bite and knew the score—the apple had a bargain in it and it wasn’t going to be fair.

The girl fell asleep for a long time. Her seven aunts and seven uncles cried, but they knew what had to be done. They put in her in a glass box and put the glass box on a bier in a ship shaped like a hunstman’s arrow. Frost crept over the face of the glass, and the girl slept on. Forever, in fact, or close enough to it, with the apple in her throat like a hard, sharp jewel.

Our ship docks silently. We are not stopping here, it is only an outpost, a supply stop. We will repair what needs repairing and move on, into the dark and boundless stars. We are anonymous traffic. We do not even have a name. We pass unnoticed.

Vessel 7136403, do you require assistance with your maintenance procedures?

Negative, Control, we have everything we need.

Behind the pilot’s bay a long glass lozenge rests on a high platform. Frost prickles its surface with glittering dust. Inside Neva sleeps and does not wake. Inside, Neva is always dreaming. There is no one else left. I live as long as she lives.

She means me to live forever, or close enough to it. That is her bargain and her bitter gift. The apple has two halves, and the pale half is mine, full of life and time. We travel at sublight speeds with her systems in deep cryo-suspension. We never stay too long at outposts and we never let anyone board. The only sound inside our ship is the gentle thrum of our reactor. Soon we will pass the local system outposts entirely, and enter the unknown, traveling on tendrils of radio signals and ghost-waves, following the breadcrumbs of the great exodus. We hope for planets; we are satisfied with time. If we ever sight the blue rim of a world, who knows if by then anyone there would remember that, once, humans looked like Neva? That machines once did not think or dream or become cauldrons? We armor ourselves in time. We are patient, profoundly patient.

Perhaps one day I will lift the glass lid and kiss her awake. Perhaps I will even do it with hands and lips of my own. I remember that story. Ceno told it to me in the body of a boy with a snail’s shell, a boy who carried his house on his back. I have replayed that story several times. It is a good story, and that is how it is supposed to end.

Inside, Neva is infinite. She peoples her Interior. The nereids migrate in the summer with the snow bears, ululating and beeping as they charge down green mountains. They have begun planting neural rice in the deep valley. Once in awhile, I see a wild-haired creature in the wood and I think it is my son or daughter by Seki, or Ilet. A train of nereids dance along behind it, and I receive a push of silent, riotous images: a village, somewhere far off, where Neva and I have never walked.

We meet the Princess of Albania, who is as beautiful as she is brave. We defeat the zombies of Tokyo. We spend a decade as panthers in a deep, wordless forest. Our world is stark and wild as winter, fine and clear as glass. We are a planet moving through the black.

As we walk back over the empty seafloor, the thick, amber ocean seeps up through the sand, filling the bay once more. Neva-in-Cassian’s-suit becomes something else. Her skin turns silver, her joints bend into metal ball-and-sockets. Her eyes show a liquid display; the blue light of it flickers on her machine face. Her hands curve long and dexterous, like soft knives, and I can tell her body is meant for fighting and working, that her thin, tall robotic body is not kind or cruel, it simply is, an object, a tool to carry a self.

I make my body metal, too. It feels strange. I have tried so hard to learn the organic mode. We glitter. Our knife-fingers join, and in our palms wires snake out to knot and connect us, a local, private uplink, like blood moving between two hearts.

Neva cries machine tears, bristling with nanites. I show her the body of a child, all the things which she is programmed/evolved to care for. I make my eyes big and my skin rosy-gold and my hair unruly and my little body plump. I hold up my hands to her and metal Neva picks me up in her silver arms. She kisses my skin with iron lips. My soft, fat little hand falls upon her throat where a deep blue jewel shines.

I bury my face in her cold neck and together we walk up the long path out of the churning, honey-colored sea.

Author profile

Catherynne M. Valente is the New York Times bestselling author of over two dozen works of fiction and poetry, including Palimpsest, the Orphan's Tales series, Deathless, Radiance, and the crowdfunded phenomenon The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Own Making (and the four books that followed it). She is the winner of the Andre Norton, Tiptree, Sturgeon, Prix Imaginales, Eugie Foster Memorial, Mythopoeic, Rhysling, Lambda, Locus, Romantic Times' Critics Choice and Hugo awards. She has been a finalist for the Nebula and World Fantasy Awards. She lives on an island off the coast of Maine with a small but growing menagerie of beasts, some of which are human.

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