Science Fiction & Fantasy

THE ROBOTS OF GOTHAM

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Fiction

Life-pod

Sometimes the Eavesdropper remembered being a mother. She would stare at the single empty life-sac and think about the man who should have been lying there in cold sleep, the man who had once been the boy she’d held in her arms. At other moments she was convinced that she had done no such thing, that motherhood had never happened to her, that all she had ever been was what she was now: a traveler on an interminable journey between the stars, afloat in the belly of the Life-pod. At these moments, when even the human sleepers seemed to take on a terrifying unfamiliarity, she would feel as though she were at the edge of some calamitous discovery.

But these hanging, empty moments of anticipation were few. Almost immediately she would be distracted by the thought-clouds, the dreams of the men and women in cold sleep. There were two of them in particular who had once meant something to her: a man and a woman. She returned to their thought-worlds whenever she herself was awake, as though the tattered clouds of their remembrances would bring back to her what she had been. It was rather like eating (she still remembered that, at least) and at the end, still coming away hungry. The life-sacs were filmy, translucent; she couldn’t see their faces, only the vague human shape suspended in a watery garden, but she knew them by their thought-signatures, by the worlds of their dreams.

The Man

The man dreamed obsessively of the enemy. Through him she saw the great creatures with their giant, stiff wings (single, like a cloak) folded on their backs, the round, featureless heads swiveling from one side to another, scanning through some invisible means the bleak landscape of his moon-world. The aliens stopped before the broken bodies that littered the battlefield, pausing before human and alien remains, while the young man crouched in the shadow of an outbuilding, trying not to breathe. Through his memories, the Eavesdropper saw the long vertical gash on the abdomen of each alien: the lipless mouth open wide into a horrific darkness, the delicacy with which the prehensile edges of the orifice gathered in each body like an embrace and closed around it. She felt the young man’s horror, his anger, going through her like a cold knife.

But sometimes he dreamed of a green and primitive place on a distant planet. His childhood: running in a long, green meadow with patches of bare earth and wild tussocks of grass that would make him stumble so that suddenly he would be looking between grass-shoots into an ant’s world. And the washer with its arms aloft, swift-walking through the grass, back and forth, making the wash billow out in the constant wind . . . The mother was holding a woven-reed tray full of yeri grains, shaking it so the tiny winged grains flew up and caught the currents, streaming out in skeins of spotted gold, up the hill to the tanglewood, where the fine nets of the trees would catch them and they would sprout many months later. She did this just for him, not because she needed to; the seedblower had done most of the job already, up high. He watched her brown arms, strong and rhythmic, and the seeds rippling out in wide ribbons, and laughed in delight. She smiled at him. Lying with his face against the ground, the boy saw her as a great tree, her bare, callused toes peering from between the folds of the blue sari like roots that would hold them all to the earth, her head up in the clouds, long black hair turning to gray, loosening from the bun at the back of her neck so that the tendrils were fanned by the breeze . . .

But what struck the Eavesdropper about this man, this boy, was the way he felt about his mother: She was the bedrock of his world. At these times she felt the shock of familiarity: that she had once been the recipient of such an uncomplicated love. But her memories were unreliable; she recalled things that she had apparently experienced or done that seemed distant, unfamiliar, shocking. She knew, for instance, that she had herself spent a long time with the enemy aliens, but the knowledge of precisely what had happened — the capture, the incarceration of the humans, including herself, their journey through space in the alien ship in cold sleep, the attack or explosion that had blown the little Life-pod away into space on some random trajectory — the details were blurred in her mind, her personal memory contaminated by those of the others. Whatever she remembered came to her in flashes or glimpses: pungent, warren-like passageways, blind gropings in the heat of a room, the press of terrified bodies, the great silhouette of the alien in the doorway, its mind reaching out to her mind, calming it, telling her what to do (what was it she had been told with such urgency?) and she remembered also sweet hunger, and nutrients snaking out into her in thin, aromatic streams, and the mourning and celebrating of a death . . .

The Eavesdropper

The Eavesdropper moved slowly through the darkness of the Life-pod, floating over each womb-like holding unit, tasting the dreams of each dreamer. But what do I dream of, then, when I sleep, she thought to herself. She wondered, as she often had, why her own holding sac allowed her to wake and move about, and return to it only when she needed nutrients or rest. Each life-sac was a little eco-system of alien life-forms: bacterial blooms, algal fans that generated currents of nutrients and harvested waste, the whole maintaining a delicate symbiotic relationship with each occupant. But her sac was unique, larger than the rest, its chemistry adjusted to allow her these moments of wakefulness. Why had she been given this privilege? The vision of the alien in the doorway so many years ago, came to her mind as the answer: Was that what it had told her so urgently, to see to the safety of her people, the humans? Why? Where were they being taken before the explosion cast them into space? Why hadn’t they been killed? What had been her relationship with the alien? Sometimes she thought of it with simple hatred and fear, the unknown, the monster of nightmare moving across the ruined battlefield; then she would realize that she was seeing it through the eyes of one of the dreamers. When she admitted this to herself she felt as though cracks had appeared in her understanding of the universe, little fissures that threatened to open up and swallow her. She had betrayed her people, these people, in some way. Hadn’t she? Else why would she have gotten the privilege (or curse) of wakefulness during this long voyage? Why would she remember the alien with half-buried, shameful hunger (what had they done to her? With her?), with — yes, there was no escaping it — longing, as though the alien had satisfied in her some terrible, chemical need?

Sometimes she thought she saw the alien in the Life-pod. She would feel its presence just beyond the edge of her perceptions, as though it was waiting in the shadows beyond that life-sac or this one. Once or twice she thought she saw its face, so unimaginably strange, yet so familiar, hovering ghost-like just beyond the pale radiance from the life-sacs, or half-concealed among the knotted ganglia of the Life-pod itself. When she approached the phantom or mirage it would dissolve into the darkness, so that in her saner moments she knew it was not really there. At other times she wanted to believe it was there, to know that there was someone watching over her, tasting her dreams, knowing her thoughts.

And then there were her hands.

They were not as she remembered them; in the half-light, the brown skin was mottled, thickened, her nails grown long. She held the hands before her, floating in a shawl of moisture from her life-sac, and wondered if she herself was the alien in the shadows. She would convince herself very quickly that this could not be so, because the memories she had of being human, even the borrowed ones, were so vivid and familiar. These little debates with herself were a comfort; it was such a human thing to do, after all, to argue with your own doubts and fears when awake in the dark.

But she couldn’t come to any definite conclusion because of the voices in her mind. Sometimes something spoke to her without words, deep inside her head. She wasn’t certain if it was the alien, the Life-pod in which they were adrift, or some lost memory of her own. It could not be the Life-pod, she reasoned; the Life-pod’s mind was barely discernible to her, and what she could read of it was child-like and strange. It had been grown quickly from the body of the alien ship to host the captured humans, and when the explosion blew it away from the ship, it had not had time to mature. It knew how to maintain the environment on which they all depended and to protect itself, and to sing out its name on all permitted frequencies, but it did not know that it was going to die. It did not know that after a certain time it would need to find a mother ship, to dock, to hibernate until it renewed itself for further flight. Here, in this uncharted, empty sector of the galaxy, who would hear it sing? Who would tell it what it needed, how to find it? It was hardly more than a child, singing in joyful ignorance in the dark between the stars.

Then who was it who told her things as she floated in her life-sac at the edge of sleep?

Some of the things she heard were memories, she told herself. She had been incarcerated somewhere in the caverns of the mother ship, among alien bodies, overhearing their conversation. Or it was the alien stowaway, if it existed, telling her all this, opening before her mind’s eye the strange vistas of other worlds. Sometimes it would chant to her bits of its own lore, meaningless and frightening all at once, repeating the phrases like a child in a dark room, reciting for comfort. But nothing it said made sense.

To eat and be eaten is to become yourself and another. To eat is to give birth, to see with new eyes. Remember, remember this.

And:

We are separate so the whole may know itself. In eating, we edge closer to the Hidden One. Know this!

But she didn’t know anything. Only that she might have been a mother once, and the man who was missing — who should have been in the empty life-sac — was perhaps her son. She knew that she, along with the others, had been captured from their colony on a moon-world. And that she had had some dealings with the enemy, things she would rather not admit to herself. So here they were, blasted away from the ship, adrift in the belly of an infant Life-pod, lost in the sea of night.

The Woman

The other sleeper who had once had some connection with the Eavesdropper was a woman who hadn’t spoken for years, even before the capture. What had led her into silence was not an emotional or physiological condition, but a philosophical one. The Eavesdropper remembered this woman (whether through her own memories or through those of the other sleepers she could not always say) before the capture as a person who liked to be with the others but did little more than smile or nod. The woman liked the physical labor of the research camp; building and repair work, and tending the greenhouses, and when busy in these things she liked to hum strange little tunes, but spoke no words. The Eavesdropper knew that this woman had come to such a state because she had discovered the inadequacy of words. The woman was a scientist-poet whose reality had once been forged of words and mathematics. “Consider that antique concept, force,” she had said once, before the silence, “which makes sense at your scale or mine. The ancients built their theories, their mathematics, around that concept. But the moment you enter the sub-atom, or when you begin to examine the graininess of space-time, you realize that the word “force” has little meaning. You invent the field, another antique concept, and then that, too, fails. You abandon false analogies, then, you take refuge in strange axioms, in your mathematics. But go far enough and even mathematics fails as a descriptive, a language in which to describe nature. What do you have left, then?”

Somebody had laughed. The woman dreamed of a face, sometimes, not yearningly, but with pleasure, and it was the face of the man who should have been lying here in the Life-pod, in the empty sac. “She dreams of my son,” the Eavesdropper would say to herself. The man had laughed companionably in the woman’s dreams. “When mathematics fails? Then there’s only poetry,” he had said, smiling — his brown eyes and skin aglow, his black hair so soft and shiny in the light. Only poetry, dreamed the sleeping woman, recalling this, recalling him.

This woman had spent a lifetime studying “the graininess of space-time.” She had been part of the first team to map the tachyonic signatures that hinted at the existence of another universe underlying their own. They were only faint trails, like the tracks of ghost crabs walking on a sandy beach (“Ghost” said the Eavesdropper to herself; “Crab. Beach.” And she saw a sweep of yellow sand, a windswept blue sky — an old memory, hers or the woman’s.) The tachyon trails were regular, their mathematics sublime, their origins mysterious. The woman had lived three hundred and seven Earth-years, traveling on slowships from world to inhabited world, cheating time and death so she could study these trails. “They call to me,” she had said defensively to that man, the Eavesdropper’s son. “They are the shape of something I do not understand. Something large, complex, perhaps self-aware.” “How large?” “Of galactic proportions,” she’d said seriously, enjoying his surprise. “Why else would you need tachyons? How else can your brain tell your arm to twitch if it is 400 light-years away?” “You have such ideas!” laughed the man, half admiring, half mocking. “I thought you said last time that the tachyons were evidence of another universe.” “I did,” she acknowledged, smiling. “It’s a matter of words. Whether or not that thing is sentient, it is a universe unto itself.”

He was a practical man, an engineer, a pilot, and a poet in three ancient languages, and he kept her sane. “I see a bit here, a bit there,” she would tell him, frustrated, after several hours immersed in a holo of her theoretical construct. “But I never see the pattern as a whole, as one complete thing.” And he’d looked at her a moment and quoted Kalidasa in the original Sanskrit.

. . . I see your gaze in the deer’s quick glance

Your slender limbs in the shyama vine

Your luminous beauty in the face of the moon . . .

But, oh misfortune! I see not

All of you in any one thing . . .

Slowly, trying to put together the mathematics of the tachyon signatures, she had realized that no language existed — verbal or mathematical — that could describe them. “I must invent a meta-language,” thought the dreamer, “a language beyond words and equations.” She became outwardly silent, although her mind still chattered away in words and equations, but the Eavesdropper sometimes saw great and inexplicable vistas in the dreams of the sleeper: vast abstractions, geometries that defied the imagination, fractal swirls of color that rose and vanished, and she had the impression that the scientist-poet was indeed inventing a new language, iota by iota.

This, then, is poetry, thought the Eavesdropper to herself, and abruptly the memory of the alien would fill her mind. “Eat,” the alien had said to her. “To eat is to become yourself and another.” And the great lipless mouth had opened, drawing her in, and she could hear herself screaming. With a great effort she would calm herself, bring herself back to the dark interior of the Life-pod, and the faint, familiar glow of each life-sac. And the alien voice in (or out of) her head recited with childish insistence: “Why do we live? To eat. To be eaten. And so become closer to the Hidden One.”

Sometimes the Eavesdropper talked to the Life-pod. It understood only a few pictures she sent to it in her mind, and it seemed to her that the creature resented these interruptions. It would do as she asked, like a sullen child — once it had opened for her a round, translucent eye in the wall of the chamber through which she could see the unmoving starscape — and as soon as she was done, it would return to its play. In the early months (or years) of this uncharted journey, she had wept and railed at it, asking it to find the way back to their world, but, not knowing what she was talking about (which world? She herself didn’t know), it had simply shut her out.

So the Eavesdropper floated through the Life-pod, sipping at the dreams of the sleepers, sometimes going to sleep herself. If she could remember her dreams, if she could be aware of them as she was of the dreams of others, she would know who she was. But she couldn’t remember. So she waited, sometimes for death, sometimes for that knock on the door that would signal the return of the lost son, the missing sleeper. He would come back. This she knew about him, he was the kind who never gave up, who came back against all odds. As far as she could remember she hadn’t seen him captured. He was on his way to find them. He would knock on the door, she would open it and she would know who she was. She waited for that or for death. Sometimes she couldn’t tell the difference.

The Eavesdropper

The Eavesdropper was thinking about the moon-world. Her hands — she saw her hands, brown and fragile against the leaves of the greenhouse: They curled to form a round window through which she could see her world. In the foreground was the leaf, heart-shaped, slightly serrated, with fine white hairs on the green surface, and behind it the transparent wall of the greenhouse, with the familiar view of low, barren hills. Half the sky was dominated by the mother planet, the gas giant with its rings, its phantasmagoria of storm-clouds, the orange glow diffusing into the little room, turning her hands red-brown. And the other half of the sky was speckled with stars.

This, she thought to herself, not without a certain incredulity, was a memory all her own: not the view (which was in the dreams of the man and the woman, and some of the other humans who lay sleeping in the Life-pod) but the two hands, and how the fingers had curled around in a circle.

“Look through it!” she had said to someone, a boy who might have been her son. He had peered through the window of her fingers — she remembered glossy black hair that fell to his shoulders and was always getting in his eyes. He had long, brown legs; he liked to run, to chase the other children. He looked through the window and laughed, and ran off on those long legs. Did he understand how moving it was to her, to see that particular juxtaposition of those objects? The moon had been in just the right position for Half-Night, when its night side faced the planet instead of the endless field of stars. In that moment, at that time, the window told all: the sap rising in the green stem, the green leaf opening like a hand toward an alien light, against a partial backdrop of stars. She had been moved to tears.

Remembering, she wasn’t sure what had brought her to the middle of the chamber. She had thought she had been sleeping in her life-sac, but here she was, floating in the middle of the Life-pod, surrounded by the other sacs with their sleepers. Their dreams lapped around the edges of her consciousness, but some other feeling was rising through her, overcoming the familiar mental background noise: fear, excitement. She realized that the Life-pod was talking to her — to her, after all this time, communicating something urgently. Between the thick, pillar-like sap-vessels of the Life-pod, a portion of the wall contracted, then expanded into a round window, filmed over with a translucent membrane that slowly cleared. She saw through the window a vista of stars, and a bright, spherical, gray object in the foreground. It had locked velocity with the Life-pod. Memory stirred. A human exploration vessel, a small one that may hold one to three people . . .

So this was it, thought the Eavesdropper, suddenly light-headed, her heart thudding: this, the moment she had been waiting for all along. He had come, her son, against all odds, following the song of the Life-pod through space.

“Bring me out!” she commanded the Life-pod, pushing off against a sap-vessel so that she bumped gently against the window. She felt herself encased in a thick film of mucosal secretions; a vast muscular contraction launched her out of the window on to the surface of the Life-pod.

She struggled at first with the thick strands of film around her; she couldn’t see because the film was still opaque. A jolt of terror coursed through her and then subsided. The film was slowly hardening and clearing — she could breathe, she was atop the life-pod, poised over a vertiginous emptiness speckled with stars.

She felt it like a rush to the head, the music of the universe running through her as though she were a streambed, a cup overflowing. Before, space had been nothing but darkness and stars, something to be crossed so one could get to one’s destination. But now she could sense the tachyonic pathways all around her, like fine lacework, like the tangled neural pathways, the guts of some vast beast. The Hidden One, said the alien, exulting, and she looked around for the alien but it wasn’t there. Only herself and that strange object motionless above her, round, like an opaque window against the stars.

The rush faded. She saw the small humanoid figure in a spacesuit detach from the side of the craft, attached to it with an umbilicus that reeled out slowly as the figure jetted toward her. The light from the craft spilled over her; she saw the surface of the Life-pod, fissured and full of knobs and warts. She remembered something, a fragment of memory that was not her own: a summer hot and breathless, sandy cliffs, and thousands, perhaps millions of the aliens in their summer sleep, their flightless single wings spread to take in the sunlight, to draw in the fuel they needed for the long winter-to-come. It was an image so strange and yet so familiar that she turned around again to see if the alien had somehow manifested in her little bubble, but it was not there. She pushed the image from her mind, stretched her arms out to the descending figure. “My son,” she said to herself, her voice catching. Then a jolt of memory: She was standing barefoot in the grass in a blue sari, setting out the washing. The boy was lying face down on the ground, watching ants. It was a green and primitive place on a distant planet; he had been born there, some years before the trip to the barren moon of another world . . .

But if that is who I am, she thought in sudden consternation, then the man who lies dreaming in the life-sac below my feet is my son. Then who is this?

Or maybe, she thought desperately, the memory was not hers, just as that other memory — with the aliens stretched out like so many flies on a sand dune — that other memory was not hers. She looked up at the human figure in the spacesuit; he was getting closer and closer, decelerating. She could not see his face. Instead she saw the reflection of the Life-pod in the spacesuit’s headgear, all lit up by the spacecraft’s beacon, and the clear bubble in which she stood like a fly trapped in amber. And she saw what she was.

A half-alien thing: the shape still human but the face so strange! Ovoid eyes, the bony skull-sheath jutting over her cheekbones. She held her small brown hands before her and saw the tips curving into hard pincers, transforming almost as she stood there, transfixed with horror and wonder. She looked down at herself in the hard, honest light and saw that the reflection was not false. What am I? she wondered, aghast.

And the alien within answered her, not in words but in a swell of understanding that took her breath away. She remembered what it had proposed, what she had agreed to; the terrifying darkness within its body, her screams echoing in her ears as the thin tendrils inside it wrapped around her, penetrated her skin. After that, the chrysalid sleep as the new bridges between the two of them formed and hardened, as alien transforming organelles coursed through her body, as great, chemical swathes of emotion — pleasure and fear, hunger and sweet, nameless desire swept through her. Then she was lifted from the dead shell of the alien into a brief light, and into the life-sac which eased her once more into the sleep of forgetfulness . . .

So the Eavesdropper stood before the stranger who might or might not be her son; she a creature not alien, not human, but a bridge, a thing that was new, the first of its kind. He (or was it she?) stood away from her, bumping gently against the Life-pod, the long umbilicus stretching out into the dark like a luminous, flexible bridge. The stranger’s hands were as yet empty, but the posture was wary, as though poised to activate the spacesuit’s weapons systems. She felt some ancient part of her cry out: Do you not know me, son? And something inside her gave way, crumbled like a mud wall before a flood.

I must know, she said to herself. I must know if you are him. She stretched her arms toward him, slowly, saw him tense, then relax. Suddenly she wanted to enclose him in the dark, to exchange blood with blood, to share synapse with synapse, to know him cell by cell, and so become something new. The sharpness of her hunger took her breath away. In that brief moment she saw that the Life-pod itself was her kin, a hybrid of the original alien species and some gravid denizen of a distant ocean-world, and its mind was clear to her for the first time. Why couldn’t she know the stranger in the same way? No, she said, feeling or imagining the infant mouth straining to open in her chest. That was the alien within, as it had once been, remembering. There had to be some other way.

She opened her hands to show him that they were empty. She put the palms together in the old Indic gesture of greeting; then moved the fingers to make a circle, a window through which she could see him against the Life-pod and the infinity of stars. Around her, along pathways invisible to human and alien, sang the tachyons, leaving ghost trails in space-time that the sleeping woman in the chamber under her feet could only imagine. Only the Eavesdropper could sense them, could see where they were leading, to the heart of the great galactic beast, the Hidden One. She saw for just a moment that she had been conceived and forged for a great purpose. But for now she was only a bridge in the darkness between ship and ship, being and being. Through the window of her hands she watched the stranger come slowly toward her.

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Vandana Singh

Vandana Singh

Vandana Singh is an Indian science fiction writer living in the Boston area. She has a Ph.D. in theoretical particle physics and teaches physics full-time at a small and lively state university. Her recent short fiction includes “Of Wind and Fire” in the anthology To Shape the Dark.  Many of her stories have been reprinted in Year’s Best anthologies, and she is a winner of the Carl Brandon Parallax Award. Recent work includes a novella, “Entanglement,” in the anthology Hieroglyph, and “Ambiguity Machines: An Examination” at Tor.com. She has a website at vandana-writes.com and a blog at vandanasingh.wordpress.com.