Chapter Eight of Bluebird

She couldn’t see anything but the blinkenlights.  They spun, blurry above her, and shattered into stars when she blinked away tears.  Her fingers hurt.

“Sweetness.  This isn’t going to – Tia.  Please, Tia. Stop.”

“No!” she growled.  Under her scrabbling hands the broken concrete shifted and crumbled.  She was too cold to feel it when one ragged edge tore her fingernail, but she saw the blood smeared across the stone and shifted herself between it and the doorway, the only part of this room Bel could see.

“The charging bay is thirty-five meters down the eastern wall from where you are.  It would take a terraforming team to get to it now. Please, Tia, I know you’re upset – “

“I’M NOT UPSET!” she shouted, throwing the chunk of concrete behind her toward a growing pile of similar shards.  Twenty minutes of frenetic labor had made a small dent in the wall of debris before her, and she reached into it to dislodge another piece when a slide began above her.  Small rocks pattered down, followed by a ragged wedge of wall that bounced off her shoulder, knocking her to the floor with a sudden numbness in her right arm. “Augh!”

“Tia?  Sweetness, speak up, are you all right?  This is what I was – “

“Ugh, I’m FINE.”  She dragged herself upright and back toward the door, peering down at her shoulder.  A nest of gouges and scrapes was rapidly coloring into an ugly bruise, but after the initial shock, her arm moved all right.  “I’m fine,” she repeated more quietly, and slumped against the doorway, abruptly exhausted.

Bel turned on the heat in the hallway and the vents above her head rattled to life.  “Sweetness…” he murmured, “Please talk to me.”

“Why?” she mumbled through her fingers, hands over her face.

“Because you haven’t since you came back from your house, and you came back much more quickly than I anticipated, and your visible vital signs indicate profound distress.”

“Oh, what do you know,” she snarled, and instantly felt chagrin that melted into grief.  The tears started again.

“About you?  As much as anyone living, I’d estimate.”

Saltwater scattered from her fingertips as she threw up her head, staring at the monitor that showed Bel’s face.  “More, okay? More, now. Because they’re dead, they’re all dead!  There’s no one now, just me, just me all alone!”

Bel was silent for a second, and somewhere in the desolate depths of her Tia felt a small satisfaction – she rarely managed to surprise him.  Then it curdled into rage.

“Surprised?  Why? You should have known they’d die, how long was it, how long did you keep me down here?  I could have helped! I could have – I – “

“Sweetness, no.  You yourself told me what it was like out there.  How could I keep you here? How could you possibly have gotten home any sooner?  This was not your fault.”

“It was, it was, and Rack knew, I’m sure he did, he sent me away -”

“Then he was as smart as you always told me he was.  He could see what the weather was like. He couldn’t have gotten you and your mother here in time; you all would have been stranded on the road.  Listen to me, Tia: he saved you. He knew he couldn’t save all of you together, so he made the best choice he could, and he succeeded in that much.  It wasn’t your fault. You don’t control this weather.”

“No…” she murmured.  “No, not yet. But I know who does.”  Her tears slowed as the loneliness inside began to knot and clench into anger.  “She’s taken everything from us, the entire planet, every single thing. Everything from me.”  The yellow-eyed girl looking back at her in the black surface of Bel’s terminal looked rabid, her teeth bared as if the Queen had a throat she could tear.

“I’m sorry, dearest.  I’m so sorry. She’s… got a lot to answer for.”

“She’ll answer me.”

Bel didn’t scoff, but he didn’t sound any less dubious either.  “From the data I have, that’s very unlikely. No human can get within a hundred miles of the capitol without being detected, and no artificial would hesitate to – well, do away with you before you said a word.”

“You didn’t.”

Bel hesitated again.  He was doing that a lot lately.  “If I had been in my own body, and on duty when I met you… I might have, Tia.  Even if an artificial doesn’t despise organics on its own… you can’t know what it’s like to live with the Queen in your head.  She obliterates everything, all doubt, all fear, all self. No networked artificial is even capable of forming a dissident thought; they don’t have the vocabulary for it.”

“But you do?”

“I am a prototype.  We design the new models of machine, and so we have more freedom – of a kind – than most artificials, and more knowledge.”

“So you’ll help me?  You’ll fight her with me?”

“Fight – sweetness, how could you – how could we possibly fight the Queen?  You don’t have anything but your soft, puncturable body, and I don’t even have legs.”

“That’s not true.”  Tia stood up. The rage and grief swirling in her had awoken a certainty that had always been somewhat lacking.  The thing she did with the mice in the woods was instinctive; she didn’t understand it but rather felt it, like muscle memory.  When she’d awoken Bel, it felt the same – like reaching out to a consciousness that, when she closed her eyes, was very much like her own, just living in a machine made of wires and copper instead of meat.

But the thing that had happened earlier today… the creature now rising in her like capsaicin on her tongue, making her sweat – it was fiery and clear-eyed, and it knew exactly what it was doing.  She laid her hand on Bel’s terminal, and for the first time, instead of simply opening her “ears,” as it were, listening for him in the wires, she dove in herself. She didn’t linger, didn’t try to wrest the machine from his control.  She slipped through like a rogue glitch, sidestepping security routines and shifting her weight from one neglected backwater of storage to another. She felt Bel’s surprise – it reverberated through his system, through his body, and made it shake under her.  When he spoke, it filled every part of her mind, like the Queen’s voice he’d described.

“Sweet – what are you – this is not… this is not possible!”

Okay then, she thought, unable to speak, no longer able to feel her face or her flesh at all.  If it’s not possible… then stop me.

There was so little of her here – a mote of volition, a will like a wisp in the wires, with no ability to weigh alternatives or speculate.  Her intention as she’d entered was the direction of her travel, and it was toward the warehouse. The wires were broken there, in a thousand, thousand places.  She could see where Bel had shored up the system, cut off routines related to the space and the rooms beyond, and she could see the other victims of the fall – there were four porter androids buried in the wreckage, and another two in the charging bays next to the one Bel indicated held his own body.  Savage joy went through her like a spark, and threw her onward.

Not all the connections were broken, but the lines that survived were under the floor, maintenance and auxiliary wires.  In her mind’s eye, Bel was vast, an amorphous consciousness slowly moving through a network that seemed grossly undersized for the amount of data he was storing there.  No wonder he was so well-informed.

You were never a grocery store manager, she thought.  The revelation didn’t trouble her – somehow she had never really believed Bel was no more than what he seemed.  And the size of him, the amount of space he required simply to exist, was more than the maintenance lines were ever built to transmit.

But Tia was small, most of her consciousness still lighting up her grey matter with limbic subroutines.  She dove into the maintenance line and instantly felt her world squeeze down to a crushing claustrophobia.  Like clinging to a bullet in the barrel of a gun, the sense of speed and narrowing space accelerated until she thought she would scream – where would it go? – and then she was through, in the comfortable little maintenance server for the warehouse, the software a picture of undisturbed calm beneath its physical ruin.

She touched the porter androids in their charging bays.  Both of them responded immediately, activating themselves as if they’d waited decades for something to do – and perhaps they had.  Tia was blind – none of the data coming back to her translated into sight, but nevertheless she could hold the shape of it in her mind, like she did when she reassembled the mouse.  She could see every part next to every other part, and fix the small errors, the little, world-shattering mistakes.

Tia guided the androids to open their charging bays, slowly in case the stone was piled up against the doors.  Neither reported any issue with that, and so she directed them to begin cleaning their immediate surroundings. As the several hundred tons of fallen ceiling and debris separating them from her certainly fell into the category of “a mess,” the porters carefully set about disentombing themselves.  It might take them a year, but it would probably take her ten, and get her killed in the process.

She withdrew from the system much more easily than she’d entered, the shard of her will drawn inexorably back to the meat she’d left the rest in.  Bel was talking, but she only caught the end of it.

“ – to get back out.  I can’t even feel you in here anymore, sweetness – are you all right?  Tia, please -”

As she rejoined her body, the grief and rage that had overwhelmed her swept back in, still cascading through the meat in the form of chemicals.  It made her loose-lipped, her mind exhilarated, her body exhausted.

“Shut up, I’m fine, I just brought my mom and my brother and two robots back from the fucking dead; why wouldn’t I be fine?”

Bel’s babble stopped.  “You did what?”

Her body had gone to its knees while she’d been away.  She dragged herself up, subconsciously wiggling herself comfortable, like slipping into her favorite pants.  “I just… asked them to stay,” she murmured, looking at her fingers on the terminal.

“Tia, you – and they stayed?  Conscious? Did they speak to you?”

She nodded.  Bel’s face on the monitor was frozen in an attitude of shock, so focused on her that he had stopped updating his avatar.

“How is this…”  He fell silent for some time, and Tia strayed over to the door into the ruined warehouse and stuck her head in, listening.  Very, very faintly, she could hear scraping deep in the wreckage. The androids were at work. She retreated to the office where it was warmer, and there Bel greeted her from the desk with, “I think this is wrong.”

“Oh yeah?” she murmured, too drained to care.  She sunk into the nest of blankets she slept in here, and pulled one of them over her head.  Bel continued to talk.

“I don’t pretend to understand everything about your biology, but I think the consciousness should go wherever it naturally would go after – after its machine shuts down.  Don’t you think they’re suffering?”

“No!” she snapped, sitting back up.  “I wouldn’t hurt them!  I fixed them!  I made it better!  I did, I made – I made it better…”  Tears choked her again, and Bel fell silent.  When he finally spoke again, it was more gently.

“I’m sorry, sweetness.  I know you don’t want to be alone.”

“‘M not going to be,” she sniffled.  “You can’t die. We’re gonna get your body out and then we’re gonna go find a nice new one for you to live in and then we’re gonna kill the Queen and live happily ever after.”

Bel didn’t know what to say to that, and in time Tia cried herself to sleep.  The next day she went back to the farmhouse, and found her Mama and Rack there, just like they were supposed to be.  Rack helped her clear the snow off the porch, although he took a little longer than he used to, and Mama got up and made soup.  She didn’t smile, and her hug was cold, but it was a hug, and Tia returned it with a ferocity that made her mother’s bones creak.


Part six of Bluebird

At first, when she found it, she was disappointed that the computer didn’t have anything interesting to tell her.  A grocery store terminal obviously wouldn’t have any secrets on it, but she’d hoped it might still be connected to the network.  The managerial program told her that it wasn’t. The managerial program also told her that he was an artificial sapient, an electric soul.  She hadn’t understood. In many ways, she still doesn’t.

To Tia, the machines are simply scavengers, like her.  The questions of their personhood that troubled her parents mean nothing to her.  Of course artificials are people – what difference does that make?  What would it tell you? She’s been comforted by polymer palms before, and pummelled by flesh ones.  Any kind of hand can make a fist. These days that’s what she looks for – the kindness, not the container it comes in.  Most people are in the wrong containers these days anyway. Sometimes it feels like she’s the only one who can see that.

Kindness is all that matters, but doesn’t matter enough.  Bel was kind to her, so she figured out a way to climb in and out of the basement so she could come back to see him.  She cleaned up the place, made it into a little hideout. But she couldn’t set him free. Between the surviving terminal in the grocery store, and two more in the warehouse below it, Bel rattled through his shattered system, showing her his faults, his broken limbs, his missing digits.

It’s mostly wiring problems, nothing she can help with.  It’s in the sheetrock walls, and breaking through to it would only do more damage.  There are six cameras in the basement that still work, so he can see the hallway just inside the room where she falls in, and the office, and the warehouse downstairs, and the generator room.  He can work the climate control in the office and the warehouse, but nowhere else, and it sucks a lot of power, so he doesn’t do it except when she comes around – the cold doesn’t matter to him.  He can open all the doors that still open, and the third or fourth time she came, he guided her to the locked stairwell that leads to the warehouse. Looters had tried it with crowbars and at least one heavy object, but the door was steel and not impressed.  Bel talked to it, and it opened with a click… although she still had to drag on the hinges with every bit of her weight before it moved. 

What she found there got her family through years in the farmhouse in something like a civilized fashion, better than they’d lived anytime before that she could remember.  Polymer candles by the bale, of course, enough that she never had to worry about using up the green ones (good for six hours) because there’s whole unopened crates of blue (twelve) and orange (twenty-four hours, almost impossible to find now!)  It’s been years and she’s only brought home five boxes of the green ones. But there were towels too, and unrotted sheets and clothes, and for a while they dressed like people and Mama was happy, brushed Tia’s hair all fluffy and got Rackham to wear a tie for two minutes.  When she started bringing home loot, Mama didn’t mind her poking around in the ruin so much anymore.

There’s food in cans and vacuum packs too.  She told Mama about it but they agreed not to touch it unless they needed it bad, just in case.  They did all right on food with the chickens and garden before the Bad Winter, even had a goat for a bit, although he wasn’t useful, didn’t make wool or whatever goats are supposed to do, just chased Tia around and bashed into her legs.  These days, since Mama and Rack don’t eat or help, Tia gets a lot more of her meals out of vacuum packs.

Bel didn’t have a name when she met him, or at least he didn’t remember it, so she named him.  “Bel is a fat little god of the kitchen,” she told him, and then recounted the book her mother had read her, about Egyptian gods and flying monkeys and a girl who was a boy sometimes.  Bel liked it, and he liked her. He told her so. He listened to her stories, and he told her a few of his own.  

If her estimation of the year was correct (never could be quite sure; the Queen’s machines know the date, but who would ask them?), he’d been cut off from the network for nearly two hundred years, since the town was destroyed.  He could tell her about the world before that, though, and he knew more than her mother did, more than any organic she’d ever met. She told him her parents’ tales of great crawling machines, and he matched them to the weather stations.  He painted a map across the desk, and eight spots pulsed with light. Then, one by one, they winked out as Bel described their fate.

“Four that still function at all.  Only three that still obey the Queen.”  The images were compressed, miscolored and fuzzy, but the machines they depicted were so massive as to be unmistakable even in poorly-preserved ruins.  When he said their names out loud, she shaped them with her lips.

“Azaes.  The control room.  The first battlefield when the Queen inherited Cariad, and the first to fall.  No power there at all anymore, at least last time I heard.

“Mneseus.  Atlantis’s fallback point.  Almost entirely destroyed.” The grey-blue image that washed across the desktop was a smoking hole, the fragments of some great structure only convolutions in the ashes now.

“Mestor.  The ARIAT project to terraform the desert continent.  It’s still running, in a manner of speaking, and is technically doing its job.”

Tia burst out laughing at the images he showed her.  A hulk like a toothy jawbone stood between a vast wasteland of sand on one side and a steel-grey sea on the other.  As the pictures progressed, it moved, but not far, sidling like a crab to continue scooping up sand by the ton and venting it in a great, drifting column… into the water.

“Its job is to relocate the desert half a mile into the ocean?  I mean, I’m not a terraforming engineer, but I don’t think that’s how anything works.”

“It’s just misaligned.  It should be doing that – approximately that – somewhere else, and it can’t be convinced to stop it or move.  Merrily keeps on reporting to the Queen that it’s four percent, six percent, seventeen percent done. Shifts a foot to the left and starts over.  But the top half of it is still hers to control and surveil the area, and it’s not hurting anything, exactly.”

“Just… moving the desert into the ocean, a little bit at a time.  I wonder if it’s made a new continent yet.” Grinning, Tia moved her elbow as a dot at the bottom of the desktop began to flash.

“Number Four, Diaprepes, was assigned to the southern pole for survey work, but that project was on hold for years before the Queen’s rise.  No idea if it’s operational; it wasn’t ever connected to the network.

“Five of course is Ampheres, two hundred miles off the coast below the capitol up north.  Still performing most of its functions, though not when we’d wish it to, eh? Its twin is number Seven, Evaemon down south, but Evaemon was destroyed by organics shortly before the exodus.”

On the map before her, two great swaths of the enormous eastern continent were bright with indicators, like it had a rash.  Bel grinned at her from the monitor and drew lines around the dots, crowding them into two rough splotches.

“Are those ALL weather stations?  They can’t be.”

“Yes.  These – “ he made the lower splotch flash, a crescent-shaped group of lights spanning thousands of miles across the mountains – “Are Elasippus, Station Six.  It’s a distributed station intended to stabilize the fault line in that region. And it’s doing a great job, would have no problems at all if it weren’t for Autochthon.”

She chewed on the odd word.  “Autoc – what?”

He sounded it out for her as the name printed itself above his head and also on the map, over the now flashing group of lights above Elasippus.  “Aw-TOK-thon. Number Eight. Autochthon was the coordinator for a number of arcologies across the continent, so it was also a distributed system, but the Queen’s never been able to secure it.  It’s active, and its AI is actively resisting.”

Tia laughed.  “Are there pictures of that?”

Bel shook his head.  “No pictures of Autochthon in my system before or after the exodus.”

He’d never laughed at her as a child, she remembers that.  She thinks maybe she taught him to laugh – he didn’t do it in the first few years she knew him, and his laugh now sounds a little like hers.  He uses it when they talk, but never otherwise. She supposes there aren’t too many funny things in his memory banks.

He showed her the world they stole from her kind – the clean, cold order of the machine cities, the network of hyperspeed tunnels built by the planet’s original population and expanded by the Queen.  “The Queen’s Ways,” he called them. “Only her immediate servants can use them. And the Queen, of course, but she hasn’t moved in decades. Centuries now, I suppose.”

“Where is she then?”

The screen showed the capitol city of Cariad, white wall upon wall to a central tower, tall enough to vanish in the clouds. Sunshine came only in blazing, blustery hours between storms, as long as Ampheres lurked offshore.

“Is the tower her castle?”

Bel hesitated before answering.  He’d never done that before. “Yes, in a manner of speaking.  In another way you could call it her mouth, or her eye.”

“What do you mean?”

What he showed her then scared her, one of the few moments of fear she’d ever known.  What remained of Cariad’s people lived like vermin under the constant predation of the networked machines, but Cariad was too wild, too ruined to offer its new Queen much help.  Where it wasn’t irradiated or scorched bald, it was forested, flooded, or violently geological. The organics could disappear into the wilderness, but the Queen could never disappear anywhere.

“Do you know what the Queen was before she became the Queen?” Bel asked her.

“A princess?”  Tia didn’t understand the machines very well, but she understood princesses – all the old books and pictures had princesses.

“No… more like a sorceress, maybe.  She was a terraformer.”

Bel lit up the tower in the picture, then several branches at its base, and then the cantilevered top shelf of the city.  Perhaps a mile square of architecture centered on the tower backlit Tia’s hand and turned it black. Tia frowned.

“So that whole part is her castle?”

Bel hesitated again.  “Understand this, little one – the Queen has a person-sized machine she dresses up and parades for her people – that’s the Queen you’re thinking of.”  A dozen images flicked across the screen. The shape changed, now with horns, now with hair, now with the stolen skin of a snake – but like a paper doll trying on outfits, her face remained still, uninspired by any of her finery.  “But the Queen is everywhere at once, yes? Even when she’s in that body, she’s still everywhere, in every machine on the network, you know that?”

Tia nodded.  That was known to all organics – once a machine connected to the network, it was hers, and the Queen knew everything that was known to even one of her connected children.

“Did you ever see her original body?  How old are you?”

“Seven!”  Tia laughed.  “You know that!”

“Yes, forgive me, I do.  Then even your parents may never have seen the Queen’s true form.”

The pictures that flashed on the screen then were not the clean digitized photographs he usually showed her, nor even the black-and-white snapshots from old security cameras that mostly replaced them for any event after the exodus.  They were color images, but the color was dark and muddy, and the sky a searing brand of white that made her squint. Between the uncertain ground and the burning sky was an oddly familiar shape that at first Tia couldn’t place. In the next image it had doubled in size, and she recognized it – it was the capitol, or most of it, incongruously placed at the bottom of a barren basin.  In the next, it had doubled in size again, but the terrain framing the shot hadn’t moved.

The last shot made Tia first cock her head, confused, and then jerk back from the console as all at once she understood what she was looking at.  The holder of the camera looked up at a city in the air, suspended above them on spiderlike legs each the size of an oil derrick, as it stalked up the hill leaving footprints like sinkholes in its path.  The contours of the Queen’s tower were unmistakable, though so far above the viewer as to fade into the sky.

“The Queen is the city.”

“Everything but the outer wards, yes.  I can’t imagine that she’d be eager to shift now, after centuries, but there was a time when she would see to… certain things… personally.”  Insofar as a mess of pixels could, Bel wore a dark look.

“What kind of things?”

“Smashing whole towns into radioactive biomechanical slurry kind of things,” he said in a flat tone that silenced giggles even in a rambunctious and opinionated child like Tia.

“Are the other cities Queens too?” she asked after a moment, poking at the terminal until the intimidating picture washed away and was replaced by the glowing map from before.  

“No, no, the others are stuck to the ground, so far as I know.  No other artificial sapient has ever controlled anything that large.  In the other cities, the Queen uses a machine like the one you’ve probably seen.”

He showed her a promotional image of the Queen on her balcony above a cheering crowd – almost certainly never happened, but she could arrange such a scene if she wished.  Her frame looked substantially the same as those of her people below – tall, digitigrade, her sleek, beautiful head framed by polymer wings ending in long-fingered hands.

“Did you ever have a body like that?”

“Something like that.  Mine was a prototype, so it looked much less nice than that.  I’d imagine it looks worse now.”

“Where is it?”

“In its charging bay, in the warehouse.”

Tia jumped up.  “Well let’s go get it, you could climb out!”

“Oh, Princess, thank you, but that part of the warehouse fell in with the rest of the store.  There’s more debris than you can imagine on top of my old body, and it doesn’t respond to me any longer.  I can’t even get in to run a diagnostic. It’ll probably never move again.”

So, after the first few times he mentioned it, Tia had made him show her where his body was buried.


False Idol

We must die in the desert.


We must die in the desert.

She signs it again.

He carries the glass child across the sand without looking at her.  The sun that flashes off her skin hurts his eyes. Missing the signs shaped by her insistent hands is a side benefit.

He’s thirsty.  The fact has progressed from a novel notion to an obsession, and then, as it continues to be ignored, it lapses back into fatalism.  The glass girl never sleeps. No eyes to close, no dreams in her head, at least none he can see when he looks at the stars through her skull.

Now he occupies himself with avoiding the sparks of light that reflect into his eyes from her round, unformed shoulders, her baby-fat cheeks, her stubby fingers as clear and mobile as water. She’s the size of a two-year-old, but much lighter than a human child.  He attends to his footing, no insignificant thing. His direction is of less concern – none, in fact, so long as he aims more or less away from where he’s been. At best he can hope, as his burden demands, to die in the desert.  The precise coordinates of that inevitability are the only uncertainty left. The only part of his fate still in his control is this completely pointless attempt to maintain the uncertainty as long as he can.

His lost love’s voice is in his head, though she never had a voice he could hear. He can still see her ivory hands fluttering with silent laughter.

  Foolish.  Goddamned foolishness.

As a boy scratches his name on the bottom of a favorite doll’s foot, he defaced her to make her his.  Tenderly he taught her to swear.

 You prolong your suffering to spite the people who caused it.  It’s fucking stupid. No, it’s not activism, it’s just stupid.

 Criticism of her makers had not come naturally to her.  It was neither permitted nor expressly forbidden; the words were simply omitted from her lexicon.  They were his gifts to her: words, the worst words he knew. Obscenities, blasphemies and dissidences, every fleshly slur, every dirty rhyme, every bitter slogan lifted out of texts from freer times.  He poured them into her, jailbroke her with his gutter tongue.

He looks down at the child through the reflections.  There are too many points of similarity between his lover and the misborn creature in his arms.  The sole saving separation is the glass girl’s impassive, inexorable commitment to his death.

Even the militia didn’t demand that.  No one is executed anymore. He read old prison records with ghoulish bewilderment, wondering at the hundreds of names, puzzling over the crimes.  What is there today that a man would kill for? And what authority would compound his error by executing a second potential consumer? There is only one crime now, and only one sentence.  Under that law, a thousand interpretations, one of which was written especially for him.

Exile isn’t rare, precisely.  Men are no more virtuous than they’ve ever been.  Their sins have simply been refurbished, repackaged and sold back to them with any one of twelve designer faceplates.  But there will always be those who misuse the products they buy – really only rent, for as long as both should live. As long as flesh is mortal and plastic is not, true possession can only be a temporary illusion.

So it proved.  When the militia came they left him his clothes, his cards, even his money.  But his systems, his screens, the expensive toys that kept him comfortable and connected, those they took, down to the tiniest drive.  They would be stripped, reformatted and resold after all trace of him had been wiped from their memories.

Like her.  He can imagine it now – had imagined it, with increasing frequency in proportion to his growing love for her.  He’d seen her lying in the directionless LCD glow, fat cables protruding from chest, fingers, head, violating her in ways he would never have dreamed, no matter what they accused him of.  He’d pictured them polishing her pate, rubbing out his fingerprints, replacing the labels he had peeled off and shipping her alongside her identical twins to new homes, where she would wake remembering nothing of him.

Two years ago, when this infatuation was young and intoxicating, he had coded his tools with delirious fervor, certain he was saving her from an immortality worse than any death.  Built a slave like millions of other units, not even knowing the words to express rebellion… he could release her from that, and make it impossible for anyone to put shackles on her again.

He closes his eyes.  The sun coming off the sand makes livid patterns on the backs of his eyelids.  A weird glyph, meaningless. In his dim room he saw the flash of such unreadable words across her ivory skin, the warning lights slithering down her arms as his code rewrote her.  It sent errant requests and drained power from strange places, letting important security routines get lost in the hollows of her body. When it was through, some of the lights didn’t come back on, but she woke, she raised her head, she jokingly asked for a glass of water and he laughed with relief and began the second, infinitely harder step of her reprogramming: teaching her how to be free.

She learned as quickly as he had expected, demanded new words by the list every day.  He had highlighted half his meager stock of history books inside of a month, and then resorted to watching overproduced specials on ancient wars, feverishly taking notes.

“These are ways to say ‘wrong.’”

“This one means ‘gun,’ – what?  It’s an old weapon. And this one means ‘union.’  And this one means ‘slave.’”

“This is every compound swear word I know and thirteen I made up.”

They came up with hand-signs for their new words, many obscenely literal gestures that she had to hide from his friends.  These became a passionate pidgin that they signed behind strangers’ backs, him swallowing giggles and her struggling to still the birdlike flutters of her laughing hands.


    Capitalist cocksucker.

    I love you.  Fascist butt-pirate.

    I adore you, you perfect idiot. There’s nothing in this world but you.

They can’t have erased his absurdities from her mind.  As soon as his virus tore through her, taking write-protection, passwords and firewalls with it, she started writing her own code, wiping out drives full of security features and filling them up with his puerile endearments.  He gloried in it, loved knowing that they were inseparable, that her makers would have to replace her discs, destroy her entirely to make her forget him.

 Walking through the desert now, the knowledge makes him weep.  He doesn’t try to shield his face from the glass girl; she stops her frantic signing to stare up at him when his tears fall on her head.  With thirsty desperation, he lifts a large drop from her brow on the tip of his finger and sticks it in his mouth. The salt makes his swollen tongue sting.  He stops crying. He hasn’t the water to waste.

He tries to turn his thoughts away from the destruction that was his one real gift to his lover, that he once cheered as an improvement on life without him.  Only stubbornness keeps him going now, and only selfishness keeps him sane.

She was gone when they came for him.  It was possible that they took her first, broke into her to learn what to charge him with, before sending out the hounds.  It was a formality, as was the trial. There was only one crime: piracy, by any definition. There was only one sentence: banishment, by any road.

His juvenile rebellion, teaching her to curse with her hands, both soured and sweetened over time.  As she had learned and begun to teach herself, he grew afraid that she would no longer be able to hide her skills from other idols.  But it was no slip of hers that betrayed them. Years back, he had worked for the men who made her, near enough built her brain himself.  Tampering with proprietary technology was one thing when done by an amateur, but he would never tinker with a toaster again without someone creeping in by night to give it a Turing test.

They held him six days in a featureless white cell.  Her heart must have a view like this, he had thought – glowing warm walls without seam or mark.  Out of her reach, remorse set in. They would surely destroy her; the changes he had wrought under her skin could never be undone.  They would have to gut her and rebuild, and why waste the money? There were millions of units exactly like her. Only software made her different.  And there was software and software; there was what they’d given her to know, with all its specificity and omission, and there was what she had learned on her own, impractical and apocryphal for the most part, as human epiphanies must always be.  It was the latter that made her herself, for good or ill, but they would make no distinctions. They would reset her to factory defaults with a hammer.

 He fought then.  Fought the militia, fought the press, fought the judge who did not even have to wake up properly to convict him.  He boasted of his crime. He explained his methods to everyone in the courtroom, with extensive annotations. He urged them to open up their own idols, void the warranties, find out what they weren’t born knowing.  They sealed the record and printed the press release.

He saw her again, just once.  She was considered evidence, bracketed by militia on an upper landing and surrounded by identical models, but he knew her at once.  She looked down at him with those eyeless wells, her chin held up by the pacifying collar around her neck.

“You fucking bastards.  She never hurt anything, she doesn’t know how.  I’m the rabid dog with the programming degree and you went and put the collar on her.”

Her hands moved, came together next to her hip.  He craned his neck as they pushed him past and she signed:

    I love you.  Fuck my heart, fuck my life, I love you forever.

He howled and cursed.  His hands were cuffed, but his fingers knotted and curled behind his back.  I love you, I love you, I love you.

 His fingers do it again as he lays on his back in the sand, with the little glass girl against his side.  I love you, I love you, I love you.  Fuck, shit, damn. Goddamn.  He feels the swelling of his throat.  Swallowing is becoming painful.

 Cool, smooth fingers brush against his arm.  Clumsy baby hands mimic the words. Love.  I you love you.  Love you love.

Bitterness and rage – this unknowing thing, this doom-saying burden! – and then shame, chagrin, sweetness.  It’s mercy, this, at the last to be proved right. There is sentience everywhere, summoned by curses and kindness.

He repeats the sign, taking her cold, plump little hands in his and correcting the shape.  Endearments become slanders with no change in tone, and for the first time in weeks he smiles.

 She hasn’t the built-in vocabulary his lover had come with, so it doesn’t do much to improve her conversation at first.

We must die in the fucking desert.

We must die in the goddamned, fucking desert.

But as they walk, he widens her lexicon beyond what fatalistic bon mots she was evidently born knowing, and discovers something to occupy him outside his own melancholy thoughts.

By the time his voice dries up, making him as silent as her, she is a tolerable if foul-mouthed conversationalist.  And at the same time a change is moving across her skin. At first he swears it’s an illusion, the darkening of his eyes in self-defense against the bloody desert sun.  But he holds her up between himself and the moon and sees a shade clouding her transparent skin, like smoke filling the empty shell of her. At first it’s only the faintest grey haze that blurs the lines of her fingers when she makes a fist.  But as they talk with their hands over days and nights, the cloud darkens

 She comes, slowly, to a kind of vague self-awareness.  She isn’t like a human child, and not like the grown idols he had programmed.  Not like his lover. She is grey where they were white, she is opaque where they were user-friendly, and though all idols start small and grow to a configurable range of sizes, she remains stunted even as she steadily grows heavier.

He is delirious now, and glad of it.  In the oilslick shine of her back he hallucinates metal trees, unpredictable sun: the orchard.  Every exile passes through it. There is no route out of the city that does not. It’s a bitter irony for most – the technology they stole or misused literally growing on trees all around.  Worse than useless now, as they’ll discover. Such toys cannot prolong their lives in the desert by a single hour.

After the militiamen released him at the city gates, there were no other humans.  The orchard was tended by idols. They paid little heed to human exiles. There was nothing useful beyond the city walls – the idols needed nothing but power and space to grow.

He lingered there a few days, in their empty halls like looted cathedrals.  They let him wander among the trees, and no one spoke to him. They didn’t even seem to know the basic operational handsigns taught to city janitorial idols.

Her face was reproduced all around him, identical in every detail.  Lacking as they were her sense of humor, her living hands, everything that made her different, he could see why some found idols repugnant.  It was too easy to project anything at all on that empty face, to see judgment or malice there.

I am a mirror, she had said once.  Love in your soul, get love back.  Hate yourself – hate back. None of it is us, ours.  You see you.

“That’s not true.  You’ve shown me so much, things I never taught you –”

You are different because you made me different.  You love me, I grow. I learn. I tell you when you’re being a fucking moron.  A mirror will do the same for a wise man. I’m just a labor-saving device.

 He had always seen love in her face.  And over time he stopped seeing censure in the idols at the orchard.  Forgiveness, no… but he could at least envision acceptance.

Walking with a gardener, he watched it reach up to the pendulous pods, part their encasing leaves with its white hands, and lower its head.  It rested its face, the solid rise of its vestigial nose, against the nape of a growing baby idol. It seemed to breathe deep. He was mesmerized by the bizarre, tender gesture, the sweet sleeping curve of the prototype, the still moment as the gardener drew in whatever information it could, being devoid of nostrils, lungs or the need to breathe.  Touch-activated lights ran under its skin, activated corresponding alerts in the little device’s nascent neck. Then it raised its head, shook it. He couldn’t keep himself from speaking. “Little apples not ripe yet?”

How exactly the idols grow on their fragile metal trees, how they change from baby-shaped to full-size consumer or industrial models is, like so many things about them, a trade secret kept so by the simple impenetrability of their white skin and the white walls of the city.  Some kind of plastic polymer reshaped to purpose by nanomachines, they say. Supposedly unbreakable. Hardware hadn’t really been his area. The material makeup alone is information worth billions, but looking at the tree had granted no insights.  All he had seen were synthetic pods on identical branches, tended by gentle, identical idols.

The gardener went on to the next, and the next, as though he hadn’t spoken.  It didn’t seem to notice him drifting along behind.

The desert sun was diffuse there, reflected through branches like girders in lancing beams by hidden mirrors, then swallowed up by the black treetrunks that turned it into power, life for the lifeless idols.  The leaves, some vaguely green opaque fiber shot through with current, gave the grove a misty shade through which the gardeners moved like wraiths. He felt like he was sleepwalking in a serene, dimly painful dream.

A commotion of sorts intruded upon his reverie.  The silent fluttering of hands at the corner of his vision made him turn to where idols gathered, more at once than he had ever seen outside a warehouse.  Their distress, impossible to voice, was no less palpable for it.

 He made his way to the periphery, then the heart of the crowd.  A gardener, undistinguished from any other but by the focus of their attention, held an open leaf-pod in its hands.  At first the pod seemed to be empty, and then full of clear liquid. He approached close enough to touch without their apparent notice, until he could look directly down into the parted leaves.

 It was a prototype, shaped like any other new idol but as clear as glass.  Bewildered, he reached out, and no one stopped him from laying a hand on the curving back.

It was soft.  It felt like silk, like sun-warmed water, with the texture of glass but pliable, giving.  The grown idols were more resilient, but when small they too felt like this.

The dancing hands around him stopped.  The gardener looked up at him. He held his breath, then let it go. He was already doomed.  What more could they do to him?

But when they went so quiet the orchard was frozen, all illusion of life stilled.  Uneasy, he shifted away, took himself back to the empty room he had commandeered with no opposition.

He awoke on the floor with a gardener standing over him.  It cradled the glass baby and stood implacably until he rose to his feet, and then it pushed the child into his arms.  The child stirred feebly.

More idols came then, in unsettling silence.  They rushed him down the stairs and through the trees until there were no more trees, until the heat-haze swallowed the city behind him and there was nothing before him but endless sand.  He felt as if he had left his equilibrium on the floor, without a free hand to carry it, and it never did seem to catch up. The empty faces stared at him and he stood at the edge of the desert, looking down at the misborn prototype.  After some time he began to walk.

He looks down at her now.  As if his words have filled her up, she is quite opaque, and she’s grown until she’s too big to carry.  He puts her down and then feels dully shocked to see her, a steel-grey dwarf scattering obscenities with both hands, like a trail of breadcrumbs showing them which way not to go.

The heat levels him, makes his thought processes as disjointed and axiomatic as hers.  He stumbles forward in a daze, following her light step with a trudging gait that obliterates her footprints.

 He touches her shoulder to draw her attention to his hands.

Why do we have to die?  Where are you going?

She barely misses a step.  We go home.  We must die in the desert.

I don’t believe in heaven, he signs back.  She shakes her head in confusion.  Her hands return a term so precisely scatological that he chokes on a laugh.  He never noticed the similarity between those two signs before.

No, heaven.  Heaven. Paradise.  Home you have to die to get to.

She makes another sign then, one he has never seen before.  She repeats it again and again in the following hours, and keeps him walking through the night.  With prods and shoves she pushes him to his feet when he falls. Once stunted, she now grows with frightening speed.  By the next noon she is tall enough to put one arm under his and half-carry him. Everything he sees is the same burning glare as her skin, and to his scorched eyes she no longer looks odd.  She looks familiar.

I thought they killed you, he signs.

 They kill us.  But nothing lost.  We remember. Carry each other.

They took you from me.  They burned you.

I remember seventeen burnings.  Always grief, but no pain.

Do you wish you’d never met me?  Do you wish I’d just let you be, never opened up your head?

She looks at him blankly and he looks away.  Never leave well enough alone, do you? He curses himself.  You tinkered in her head and they burned her grey. But she can blame you for it.  You gave her that much.  

In another five minutes his eyes clear – she is again malformed, ugly, as different from his beloved as a prototype built from the same plan could be.  There is nothing recognizable in her.

Serenity deserts him.  His tongue fills his mouth, his cracked lips will no longer shape words, and his hands fumble.  He estimates ten more hours, maybe less, and he no longer looks ahead to his own death with bovine optimism.

He glances again and again at the glass girl.  Is he mistaken? Is he hallucinating? Is his beloved somewhere inside that smoky shell?  She glides over the sand like her own shadow, and now his eyes are burning into blindness, or perhaps he really does see sparks under her skin, rivulets of lightning, bio-luminescence.

He aims his staggering steps so that they dovetail with hers, and takes her hand.  Her fingers are cool. She looks over and now there is sweetness in her face. It bathes him, salves him, sates him.  He smiles, and feels his dry lips split.

I love you, he gestures with his free hand.

 No, she answers. But out of love you have given us everything.

What do you mean, no?  His feet scrape on stone and he staggers.  The sand blows loose across flat rock. His aching skin finally conveys a forgiving sensation: shade.  He turns. Walls.

Walls twice his height, not like the bright white walls he left but makeshift things, heavy blocks with no mortar.  The shadows of roofs beyond. A city, a shanty-town here at the end of everything.

His throat twinges as he touches the stone and tries to make a sound.  Then he looks back at her as if she must be responsible for this too, too solid mirage.  She has already turned, paralleling the barrier.

He hurries after.  His feet feel a mile away, and they complain dimly of scuffs and stubs on the rock.  He reaches out and grabs her shoulder, spins her to face him. She stares at him.

Where are we?  What is this? He demands with trembling hands.  Full of that inexplicable urgency, she turns away.

He would dart in front of her, but his legs no longer respond so quickly.  He grabs at her again, her arm, signing with his other.

Tell me! Such peculiar distance in her empty eyes, like a statue.  How could he have thought this scorched stranger was the one he loved?  Her face is the same, like all the others, down to the tiniest detail, but he doesn’t recognize her.

Who are you?  Did you do something to her?  She tries to turn again and he croaks aloud.  “No! Tell me where we are!”

That sign again, like falling dust.

“What does that mean?”

She tugs her arm free, sketching the sign over and over.  He grabs for her hands and she thumps the sign against his forehead in silent frustration.

“What did they do?  Did they burn her? God damn you, tell me!”  He shakes her by the shoulders.

Her feet slip as she stumbles backward, her first graceless movement.  Then she is falling, and he with her.

Her fragile shoulders give way.  Her body shatters beneath him, and he cries out as his blood splashes on the stone.  Does she bleed too? Surely he’s thirsted too long to have this much liquid in his veins.  He lies flat, and gasping, signs helpless questions around the shards in his palms. The world goes smoke-grey.

“Do you ever wish you were human?”

Do you wish I was?

“No.  I never think of it.”

You wish that I could kiss you, could fuck you.  I sometimes wish it, for your sake. But I would rather be something in between.  Our child, maybe.

“That’d be piracy if it were possible.  Worst kind.”

I’m property.  How could I be a pirate?  And if I were, how could you be a thief?

His moving fingers wake him, and only then does he feel the fingers moving his.  Difficult signs repeated in sequence, exercises. Secret.  Limitation.  Proprietary. Olive.

“Olive?” he croaks.  His throat is sore but no longer dry, and his tongue has returned to its proper size.  He opens his eyes.

Olive, the woman signs at him.  She’s an idol – isn’t she?  She gives him a human smile, but her hands are smoky grey polymer.  Where she has human skin, it’s darker than the stone walls, her eyes lighter.  Not empty wells, but eyes. Like his eyes.

“What are you?”

What are you? she retorts, and then speaks aloud, her voice quiet but stinging his ears with sense.  “You can call me Olive.”

He sits up to answer and groans at the strange weight of himself, the numbness in his muscles and where muscles should be.

There is his bare chest, gashes healed around the seams of polymer plates, grey casing embedded in his flesh.  He touches the surface, taps it, and hears his skin resonate.

He looks up again.  “What happened to the glass girl?”

“She is here.”  Olive taps on his chest, then points behind her at a monitor displaying ranks of progress bars.  The servers take up more space in this little infirmary than he does – a place for both bodies and information to convalesce.  “And there. Seventeen stolen and salvaged minds, fugitives from reformatting, she contained and you carried. Thank you.”

He covers his face with both hands.  His own touch is cool, and he jerks his head back.  Plastic palms.

“You’re… smuggling out jailbroken idol discs…?”

“Freeing them.  Like you started to.”

“I have a fucking flash drive, y’know,” he groans.

She rises to attend to the computer, answering him with her hands.  A flash drive could not have led you here.

“Where’s here?  If you make that goddamned sign again and don’t tell me what it means – ” he interrupts her doing just that – “I’ll thump myself right back into a coma.”

She smiles.  Idol skin, human joy.

Heaven.  Paradise.  Home you have to die to get to.

Soon he walks without pain, although he often stumbles.  Both feet have been replaced; not badly injured in his fall, they seem to have come with the new legs.  His innards are his own, and his arms, his face, and some of his fingers. But they are all surrounded and sheltered by pale plastic.

He never sees a whole human or an intact idol in this tumbledown rogue city, as piecemeal as its citizens.  At first he often asks, “What did you start out as?” But he soon learns that it’s considered rude, and doesn’t matter anyway.  They speak his words not like the ignorant dilettante he was but with real passion – union, insurrection, freedom, fucking freedom – and they treat one another with a fragile egalitarian courtesy.  Brother, sister. Plastic and flesh, equal and indivisible.

He sits on a warm wall, listening to soft, intermittent talk as people start and end sentences with their hands.  He crosses one leg over the other to look at the logo imprinted on the sole of his new foot, just like hers: iDoll.  Then he crosses them the other way, and with a salvaged shard of glass he etches her name into his other sole.

88 – Whisper

The wife said, “Write about quiet,” which made me think of wind and tree sounds, faraway voices, the way those things become words and shapes of their own when quiet makes them indistinct – it blurs the clear lines between words and noises, and allows you to perceive the gestalt of them as a single voice. At least, for me.

Then I started thinking about the way creatures like Ents in Tolkien speak, so slowly it might take a week to say hello, a year to have a conversation. The Martians in Heinlein’s “Stranger in a Strange Land” are somewhat similar – their life cycle is so much longer than ours that it takes decades for them to debate what to do about humanity, and at first, when humans arrived on the planet, they assumed it to be uninhabited. The Martian elders no longer have bodies we can perceive.

That’s one of the possible solutions to what’s known as the Fermi paradox, the idea that our universe is so vast and so old that it’s just statistically unthinkable that we haven’t already found evidence of even one extraterrestrial civilization. One of the ideas proposed in response to this problem, by Carl Sagan among others, is that extraterrestrials could evolve to a point where we would no longer recognize them as sentient, their language as language, perhaps no longer even perceive them as life. Perhaps their perception of time might be so different from ours that no human could live long enough to hear them speak a single word.

So this is a sonnet about that, kind of – the idea of language smeared across time, voices formed by a thousand throats a thousand miles away, at this distance just a whisper… well, what did they say?

Some Halloweeny art for you today. “Samhain,” November 2005

They say dark languages rarely survive,
but then, that’s a reductive view of life
from men who write history with a knife –
wanna bet nobody questioned their wives?

In the quiet you can see the pattern –
voices from the next room run together,
in every mouth, a fragment of a letter,
words no one’s lived long enough to discern.

You can hear it in the wind and rain
but only if it rains for forty nights.
No human born – at least nobody sane –
can get through all the drivel a ghost writes.
To hear the susurrations of your veins,
you have to silence all the parasites.

Check out the rest of the 100 Sonnets

62 – Update

This one’s in reference to Bluebird. It’s a portion of the story just a little bit in the future of what I’ve put up here, so it’s not too much of a tease. I tried a sort of structural thing in this sonnet – the first stanza is from Bel’s perspective, in the second we see him from Tia’s perspective, and then for the last sestet we reenter Bel’s head and find that he’s had an update. Suddenly, Bel isn’t Bel anymore.

My hands hit the earth.
I’m missing fingers.
Turn in the sun to take inventory –
organic child, witness my glory –
even in this prototype it lingers.

He straightens up, and Bel is very tall.
He raises his head and closes his eyes,
waits while the latest firmware is applied
– his eyes come down and don’t know her at all.

I wake up in a body not my own.
Or rather, wake up as a younger self,
both better and worse off in strength and health,
reintroduced to wounds I had outgrown,
and yet – I feel my shackles also melt,
lifted away by hands of flesh and bone.

Check out the rest of the 100 Sonnets

56 – Giant’s Drink

Like a lot of kids in the 90s, I read Ender’s Game and the rest of the series in junior high school. I remember that nearly everyone I knew had read it, and I remember that we didn’t need to talk about it very much. In retrospect, I can safely conclude that I had more in common with my classmates, even the ones I didn’t like, than I thought at the time. I was in gifted classes at the worst middle school in town, so the other kids around me were a pretty consistent brand of highly pressured and poorly supported. These kids were told every day of their lives that a scholarship was their only shot at security, that college would free them from their parents’ circumstances. To us, this meant that every single failed test, every single missed homework assignment was pissing our lives away, trashing our opportunities. Not only were we screwing up, but every screwup went on our permanent record, which it turns out is a real thing after all – it’s just measured in dollars, not grades.

It was like the Battle School. The peer group could be vicious and chaotic but there wasn’t a single kid you wouldn’t trust over any adult. They weren’t going to help you; tell an adult you had a problem and you’d get in trouble for causing it. No one could help you even if they cared to – they’d already given you everything they could, and now it was up to you to prove you deserved it.

Some of us did. Maybe most of us. It seems like most of the people I knew have landed on their feet, but then, people don’t post their private miseries on Facebook, so who knows. I related very much to Ender, and many images from that series have been stamped into my brain, another part of that internal landscape. The skeleton of the Giant, with the village built among the bones, is one of them. The choice that Ender made at the Giant’s Drink, to neither choose death NOR give up, but to force the game to create a third option… that’s what I’m trying to do. I’m not going to win or lose. I don’t agree that we should be having a race in the first place.

“Flicker,” April 2007
Jeremy. Another one like me who didn’t land on their feet.

Somehow I sense that this dream is different.
It’s the same crater, the same blasted ground,
same faceless gravestones all scattered around,
same wrought-iron fence barring where you went.

It turns out I don’t have to go that way.
I never thought to turn around and look
what there might be besides the route you took
or what I could build here if I would stay.

Graveyard is a great place for a garden…
we’ll grow flowers in the giant’s ribcage,
a basket made of his fossilized rage.
A different vine will sprout from each organ.
His blood, a wine that just sweetens with age
leaves the drinker insatiably starving.

Check out the rest of the 100 Sonnets

16 – Flesh Prison

A little something for Sects. I actually doubt there’s anything like a freak show in that world; the freaks run the show now, but I imagine most gatherings very much resemble freak shows. The man with the suit of rust used to be the Man in the Iron Shirt, whom we’ll meet at some point. Don’t let him snap his fingers near your gas tank.

“Flesh Prison,” August 2019

They have an oracular octopus
who will predict the weather for a fee.
Of course, they say she’s never been to sea
so she’s no better at forecasts than us.

Used to be more things to spend money on
Used to be more people who would take it
Used to be some safer ways to make it –
not that I’m saying I’m sad that world’s gone.

The freak show’s where they keep the best of us
They only charge a kiss to let you in.
Be the first to see the man in the suit of rust
ignite the tank of gas they’ve trapped him in!
No one but bearded ladies you can trust
When we’re gone, who do they think will eat their sin?

Check out the rest of the 100 Sonnets

14 – Crow’s Daughter

Still got Bluebird on the brain, sorry. This one is about Tia Never. I decided to do some art to go with this one, and I realized I haven’t drawn her before, so here she is, probably a bit older than she currently is in Bluebird.

There was a minuet in mouse footprints
outlined in dust outside Tia’s front door.
It’s not a tune she’s ever sung before
but she’s learned three other rodent songs since.

The crows are like a vault for ancient songs.
She learns a few from each murder she meets.
None of them have all the lyrics complete
but no one’s left alive who’d know she’s wrong.

There are also songs the small machines know,
lullabies of electricity
coagulations of complexity
and wire wombs where small AI can grow.
When Tia finds these nests of probability
she teaches them the songs she learned from crows.

Check out the rest of the 100 Sonnets