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Fiction

Parables of Infinity

There were better workers aboard the Great Ship. Virtuous entities with proven resumes reaching back across the aeons. But the timetable was inflexible, the circumstances brutal. Seventeen hours, six minutes, and two breaths. The job had to be completed within that impossible span, beginning now. Now. The client was among the weakest citizens of the galaxy, reasonably healthy one moment, and in the next, passing out of life. What wasn’t a home and wasn’t a shell had to be rebuilt from scratch. If the client perished, nobody was paid. But the respectable guilds would take too much time. The Avenue of Tools. That’s who the experienced contractor approached when trying to dodge the bureaucracies. Speaking through private channels, he could offer extraordinary pay for brutal, brief work. “But only for those who get here first, and I mean immediately.”

Then, one final enticement.

“And no background checks,” the contractor promised.

The Avenue looked more like a clogged artery than any traditional street, and the “Tools” portion of the name was a stubborn relic of intentionally clumsy translations. Every resident was a devised organism that lived against the walls, stacked high on its neighbors and waiting for work. Many were AIs, yes. But there were also organics drawn by various means, most sporting rugged exoskeletons and interchangeable limbs. According to galactic law and the ruling captains, every “tool” was emancipated. All were competent, purpose-capable individuals. But like stone hammers and old plasma drills, they shared one sorry feature: each had been discarded by a previous owner.

The Great Ship was a vast machine, and the Avenue wasn’t particularly close. But seven tools boarded slam-caps and made the journey. All were hired immediately, but finding more than enough hands, the contractor modified his earlier promise. Criminal histories were examined. One member of the team was subsequently released and arrested. The remaining six received wetware educations, and the new team plunged into the frantic work. Which has zero bearing on the story. With two breaths to spare, the project was finished and finished successfully. Competence never makes for an interesting tale. Tools appreciated that even more than humans did. But of course competence should always be welcomed with a glad heart, and that’s why the contractor was humming while he paid his crew.

“Never seen an odder job,” he mentioned.

The fresh funds were eagerly consumed by those ex-employees. Five offered agreeable, “Thank yous,” and then five of them rushed off.

But the quiet tool preferred to linger.

She was female by choice or design, or maybe only by chance. Her visible biography reached back ten million years, which wasn’t particularly remarkable. Well-designed AIs could yank out their own cognitive centers, replacing the weakest for better and then shifting their identities into fresh neurons. But today’s background check showed several names riding the entity, and most interesting, the oldest name was based on a language extinct for millions of years.

Offering that old name, the contractor repeated his thanks.

Then the tool said, “I’ve been swallowed by many assignments far more peculiar than this, sir.”

Neither of them had pressing engagements. The contractor sat on the edge of a cultivation chamber, and knowing how to prompt machinery, he said, “Let me judge what’s peculiar.”

The tool was large when she was naked, and she was dressed and gigantic now. The carapace was Mandelbrot-inspired, made from lovely diamond and a lovelier iron, and it was punctured in dozens of places. Where needed, arms and legs had been added. What wasn’t a mouth produced words, and what couldn’t be confused for eyes were staring at the human who demanded to be impressed. What did she know about this man? Quite a lot, she felt. Her research as well as a dedicated sieving of social noises proved that this compilation of meat and bioceramics was born on the Great Ship, and more importantly, he was barely a thousand years old. Which made him innocent and smug. Humans often felt they were blessed, and with reason: their young species owned the largest, most impressive starship ever constructed. And that’s why the tool picked the story sure to leave her audience astonished.

“I’m older than you realize,” she began.

“I see ten million years.”

“I’m far older than that, sir.”

The human had a perfectly reasonable face, ageless but holding the jittery energies common to recently born boys. Except there were occasions, like now, when the man seemed more complicated than a coy little sack of meat. In the eyes, mostly. When those wet white and blue eyes looked at her, she discovered a focused intensity that she had never witnessed in any other contractor.

The tool’s longest limb reached toward his patient face and then reached farther. What served as toes gripped the cultivation chamber, first by a long helve and then a sealed extrusion valve. The just-completed project had demanded several thousand kilos of an exceptional grade of hyperfiber. Their former client was now sleeping safe inside the universe’s finest armor. Unless, of course, a weapons-grade plasma torch arrived, or a black hole decided to gut the new home.

The tool said, “My first assignment,” and paused.

The human offered silence. Nothing else.

“Was to cultivate hyperfiber,” she continued. “That’s the only reason I was built. And if I have a genius, hyperfiber is it.”

The man nodded, feet absently tapping the granite path.

“I was working on a rather larger scale than this,” she continued, invoking that respectable technique of misdirecting the audience’s imagination.

“More than ten million years ago,” said the man.

“Yes.”

A smile emerged, and in his eyes, suspicion.

“This starship of yours,” she said.

Wet eyes grew larger. “It isn’t mine.”

“Yes, agreed. But human, tell me this: have you ever wondered how this marvel was built?”

Larger than worlds, the Great Ship was discovered outside the Milky Way. A cold, lifeless derelict racing at one-third light speed, it might be billions of years old, implying that it was cobbled together in some distant portion of a much younger universe.

“I’ve never asked myself how,” said the man. Then laughter emerged with the mocking words. “Not once. Not ever. No.”

“Well, I know how,” she said.

The laughter grew louder and angrier. Or happier. She was beginning to realize that this was a rather difficult creature to disassemble.

“Because you helped build the Ship,” he guessed.

Every limb pointed at their surroundings. “If my hands and feet had done any piece of this, I would remember. And I don’t have those recollections.”

“Too bad,” he said.

“I’m talking about my first job and a hundred thousand years of labor,” she said. “You see, my makers intended to build their own Great Ship. Long before humans existed. Ages before anyone realized that this kind of wonder already existed.”

“How long ago?”

“Ninety-three million years,” she said.

The human took a moment to frame his answer.

“Bullshit,” he said.

She offered her best contemptuous laugh.

Then he said, “I’m not a student of anything. But I don’t remember any history where any species was stupid enough to attempt construction on this scale.”

“Agreed,” she said. “Inside this galaxy.”

Big eyes grew small, the mouth clenched tight as could be.

“Do you want to hear my story, or don’t you?” she asked.

“Yes to both,” the human said. “I do, and I don’t. So you tell it, and let’s both discover what I think.”

• • • •

The contractor wasn’t ancient, certainly not compared to the Great Ship or this well-traveled tool. But he was quite a lot older than he appeared to be. His born name was Pamir and he was an important captain serving the Great Ship, but certain troubles caused him to leave that life and the greatest profession. Hiding ever since, he had worn a wild variety of names and jobs, lives and passions. One of the galaxy’s great experts in wearing carefully contrived life stories, he earned what he could to thrive, and that included hoarding secret funds and prebuilt lives ready for the moment his present lies began to crumble.

Pamir leaned back, looking like a man who had nowhere else to be.

“I was built near the center of a different galaxy,” the tool began. “A satellite galaxy, but not to your Milky Way. No, this was a little sister to what you call Andromeda. My galaxy’s stars were predominantly ancient, metal-poor and unsuited for life. But a later bloom of young stars produced rock worlds and metal worlds, and biologies, and a few lasting civilizations.”

Remaining in character, the contractor offered a shrug and one vaguely interested gaze. But the genuine Pamir was interested enough to create a complete list of candidates, rating the likelihood of each while throwing none aside.

“I was born above a hot world,” the tool reported. “An almost nameless world of iron and baked rock orbiting a red dwarf sun. There was nothing remarkable about that solar system, except that the sun and its dozen planets weren’t native to my galaxy. Large events inside Andromeda had thrown them free. As a consequence, these interlopers were blessed with enormous momentum. And even better, their future course would carry them close to a massive local star and its black hole companion. Tailoring that flyby was possible. Barely. My makers had already spent thousands of years abusing the red dwarf. They struck its face with lasers, sank antimatter charges into its body. Towering flares rose up from the sun, punching the same piece of the sky, slowly changing the solar system’s trajectory.”

“To capture the interlopers,” the human said.

“And add to one body’s velocity, yes. One-eleventh the speed of light. That was the goal. Not as swift as your vessel, no. But it was a smaller galaxy, and our ship would wear engines large enough to let it maneuver. Shrouded in a hyperfiber envelope, that machine would drop close to suns and black holes, repeatedly surviving fire and gravity, always racing towards the next suitable target.”

The tool paused, for dramatic purposes, or perhaps to let her audience respond.

“‘The next suitable target,’” the human repeated.

“Yes.”

“Just what were you building out there?”

“That should be self-evident,” she said. “A warship. Why else encase the world inside a thousand kilometers of high-grade hyperfiber? Armor is the most trusted line of defense in any weapon. Save for invisibility, of course.”

“Of course,” said the invisible man.

“It’s obvious that this Great Ship was designed to serve as someone’s flagship,” she said. “How can you think anything else? And I’ll admit that my ship would never be as quick or grand, and yours is the far older vessel, and everything around us is lovely and mysterious, and splendid too. But your ship is also far less massive than mine. Forty percent less, which places the name ‘Great’ into question.”

Pamir laughed. He laughed at the imagery and at the boast, and in secret, he weighed the words as well as the ideas behind them.

“I was one of an army,” the tool continued. “One among billions. I was produced by a factory that had already consumed much of the sun’s thin comet belt. Each one of my sisters was a simple and pure, easily duplicated device. Our mission demanded simplicity. My manufactured mind had passions, but those passions were narrowed to one subject: the nature of hyperfiber in all of its glories. And as I was born, as the first breath of electricity passed through me, my soul was filled with the image of a gray ocean of uncured hyperfiber spread across a world that wouldn’t earn its final name until it was officially launched.”

She offered another dramatic pause.

Pamir wasn’t laughing. Even a civilian contractor with zero interest in far galaxies would be intrigued with this story, and that’s why he could afford to show his feelings. Curiosity, doubt. A thousand pragmatic considerations colliding with one mighty beast of a question.

Why bother with this project?

He cleared his throat, started to laugh and then stopped himself. A thin smile turned scornful as he pointed out, “Some idiot had to pay for this.”

There was no point in denying that statement.

Or for that matter, agreeing with it. Because when facts were obvious, the tool saw zero reason to respond.

Contractors and captains led similar lives. Goals had to be fulfilled, timetables ruled, and nothing but small problems and giant conundrums stood between them and success.

“But what kind of money-rich idiot? That’s the first question.” Pamir dropped a hand on the cultivation chamber. “Obviously, an advanced society. But even more important, this kind of project demands a social biology, and a highly cooperative one. If not out-and-out authoritarian. Organic or mechanical. I can see either way working, or a marriage between the two. But with a million-year outlook, which excludes almost every species I know. Particularly humans.”

With the press of a thumb, he opened a minor valve, and the last surge of pressure brought out a bright gray bubble of uncured, left-behind hyperfiber.

“Yogurt,” Pamir said.

“A food,” said the tool.

“Built from billions of microbes doing only what nature tells them to do. Which is what you were. Are. One bacterium working on the great yogurt.”

Laughing, she revealed a delightfully girlish voice.

Pamir continued. “Mass-produced machines, self-contained and self-repairing. That’s how you hide some of the costs. Worlds are rebuilt every minute with that kind of technology. But the smallest tool still has to drink power, and a single red dwarf star isn’t much of a nipple. Reactors linked in a nearby grid. That’s what I’d do. Which means hydrogen by the gigaton, and that means dismantling one or more gas giant worlds. Which must have been available inside the same solar system, sure. But that means you aren’t just rebuilding one world. You’re dismantling another much bigger body, which is a fresh goliath-styled project requiring machine armies and more local reactors. And now we’ve entered the realm where the yogurt model collapses under its own success.”

“And why is that?”

“You’re not a bacterium,” he offered. “A fleck of your skin is ten billion times more sophisticated than an ocean of yogurt. And worst still, you possess a full mind. A designed, standardized brain, but capable of learning and growing. You claim you were born with a passion for hyperfiber. But passion fades. Or worse, the target of your love shifts. Ten thousand years of determined labor, but there comes that treacherous nanosecond when you discover doubt, and after another ten thousand years of reflection and increasingly boring labor, you suddenly have to act on some long-ago inspiration.”

“And I’ll do what?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “Imagination isn’t my strength.”

She seemed to accept that judgment.

“I’m thinking like a contractor,” he said. “Keeping tight control over billions of powerful workers. That requires AI watchdogs and relentless purges of bad ideas. I’ve overheard enough history to appreciate the troubles. Hive-mind societies are surprisingly frail. That abiding faith in rules . . . that’s a damning strength. Some piece of the group will go mad, or lose focus, or fall behind in the work until it’s obvious that the goals won’t be reached and it’s best to do anything else, including nothing.”

She said nothing.

Pamir shrugged. “If I was painting the budget? The project’s second biggest expense would be internal security.”

“And the largest expense?”

“External security. Of course.” In a sloppy fashion, the hyperfiber bubble had cured. Pamir took hold of the gray ball, finger and thumb lifting it free from the valve, twirling it close to his eyes. “You’re building a warship. And because of the timescales and the very public nature of your work—a flaring star and an obvious trajectory, for example—you can’t hide what you’re doing. Your ultimate goals are going to be very visible. You’re building a warship to conquer the galaxy. There would be no other explanation for your frantic efforts. But when every other species and wise player notices this, even eternal enemies are going to make alliances. Even the most passive species are going to work like maniacs, trying to bring disaster to your scheme. And that’s why the construction site will have be armored and weaponized and filtered and controlled. A militarized sphere stretching out for tens of light-years. And now we’ve reached a level of expense that would bankrupt any civilization likely to arise in what still sounds like a small oxbow of a galaxy.”

The tool offered a long silence, and then, one question.

“What if bankruptcy was just another calculation?”

Pamir grinned, mulling over the possibilities.

“No second choices,” she said. “The empire abandons every inhabited world, colony and farflung base. Its entire population coalesces around that giant iron world and its dim sun and the flares and those trillion tools that needed to be managed with absolute precision. And building the hull is just one job. The world beneath has to be hollowed out, making ready for crews and sleeping fleets. My great ship needs rockets worthy of its mass, and future weapon systems have to be designed and deployed. AI banks are built for no reason other than to wage every war to come, in their minds. And as you say, while all of that happens, my masters are battling an entire galaxy of united enemies.”

She paused.

Pamir let the silence work on both of them. Or at least on him. Then he gave up, saying, “One of your solutions went wrong. I’m betting.”

“Are you offering a wager?”

“Never.”

“A wise inaction,” she said. “Because every problem was recognized before the start. Every solution worked well enough. There were no rebellions of will, no invasion of enemies. The venture should have been a wild success. In another few million years, my tool makers and myself, and my children, if I had any, would have embraced that entire realm of stars and worlds, time and promise.”

“Something else went wrong,” Pamir guessed.

Silence.

“Tell me,” he said. “Where did the dream lead?”

What weren’t toes reached for his hand, claiming that bright gray bubble.

“This is what went wrong,” she said.

“The hyperfiber?”

A long, painful sound emerged. Emotional, incoherent, purely miserable. Then the toes released the prize. And since the bubble was thin beyond thin, and because nothing but vacuum was inside it, the bubble shot into the air, rising out of reach and out of sight, neither of them watching after it.

• • • •

The universe was built on weakness. Vacuum was one kind of weakness, vast and cold. Stars were feeble piles of sloppy fire. Atoms themselves were never more than temporary alliances between disloyal parts. The hardest object always broke, and every fine idea had to suffer until it died.

These were the first lessons fed to the tool, and they were learned long before the assembly line tossed her into the ranks.

Strength was possible, but only in special circumstances, and the tool was taught how genuine, enduring strength depended on cheating the universe. Not once, but constantly. Relentlessly. Black holes were cheats, and that’s why tiny black holes were valuable for cutting and twisting lesser kinds of matter. Time was another cheat. Slice time thinly enough and the unlikely became real, including moments where entropy ran backwards. And there was a third cheat involving pure atoms and particles pretending to be atoms that aligned in quasi-crystal patterns—a maze of bonds and vibrations that might look like polished pale metal but actually resembled nothing normal. That was hyperfiber. That was the reason for her existence and her only love. She was born to do nothing but prepare lakes of pure hyperfiber that were carefully cured, drop by lustrous drop, until the lake was ready to be poured across the lovely, half-built warship.

At its worst, cheap hyperfiber was stronger than diamond and equal to bioceramics. But there was one last cheat to employ. No patch of hyperfiber existed alone. Those magical bonds weren’t just here, but they also reached into parallel universes, into mirrors of themselves. Kick a shard of weak, low-grade fiber, and you were kicking ten million other shards at the same time. That’s why the substance didn’t break, melt or scream. And the higher grades were far more promiscuous. Billions of mirror universes shared power and stubbornness with one another, and that’s what a great warship needed for its armor, and nothing else mattered for the first thousand centuries of her enormously important life.

“Every resource was used or set aside to be used later,” she told the human. “The tool makers contrived and then spent every kind of currency. They stripped their home worlds of resources before converging around us, and they built factories and elaborate plans and fortifications that looked gigantic to every enemy and every former friend. Nothing mattered but finishing our great ship, on schedule and without flaw. And I was fortunate enough to have been swallowed by this venture. So consumed by the task that I never bothered imagining what would happen afterwards. To the galaxy. To myself. Even to the vessel whose hull belonged as much to me as to anyone. All that mattered was the next meter of fresh armor lying tight over every other strong layer.”

Pamir watched, listened. And he nodded, understanding quite a lot more than his companion could have guessed.

Ten hands and feet moved, drawing round shapes in the air. “Mistakes were inevitable. Pico-crevices and tainted batches, mostly. I made those mistakes, and whenever I noticed flaws, I confessed. Sometimes others found my mistakes, and I confessed again. Just as my sisters welcomed the blame when I uncovered their blunders. That was our nature. That is the necessary attitude you cling to when you have considerable work and limited time, and particularly when your mistakes are being buried deeper and deeper inside the growing hull. We had to define the flaws early, and corrections were made, and sometimes the corrections were intricate and expensive . . . and this is where we doomed ourselves.”

She paused.

Pamir watched the limbs freeze, and when the silence seemed too thick, he made a guess.

“You let small mistakes stand.”

“No.” She said it instantly, and the word was important enough to repeat eleven more times. Then every arm and leg dropped to the ground, save for one. A single finger needed to touch the cultivation chamber, run itself along the ribs and pipes and embedded AIs. The gesture was loving or scornful, or it was habit. Or it meant something else entirely. There was no way to be certain about the emotions of an entity like this. But the voice that emerged sounded sorry. She sounded hurt and small and old and a little warm with rage, riding on a pain already ninety million years old.

“The grade was diluted,” she said.

“The fiber’s grade,” he guessed.

She offered a number. A detailed, thoroughly meaningful number. The hull that began being nearly the equal of the Great Ship’s hull was diminished by percentage points. Not many points, not in the expanse of what was possible. But it was obvious that she didn’t approve.

“That should have been plenty strong still,” Pamir said.

She said nothing.

“Enough to endure any war,” he added.

And in response, she touched his face. Poked it and ran the hard diamond finger along his fleshy nose and across his wet uncomfortable mouth, saying the one emphatic word, “Listen.”

• • • •

The warship was finished, and there was still enough time for many deep breaths. The tool makers had reason for pride. Their dream had demanded all of their native genius, consuming capital and their empire while destroying every other strategy to deal with an increasing number of enemies. They had to win. No other route would save them from obliteration. And while winning still wasn’t assured, even with their flagship fueled and armed, the battle plans remained solid. That dense little sun was in position. The nudging solar flares were finished, the solar system exactly where it needed to be, and what promised to be a spectacular launch was about to commence. Those in charge weren’t demonstrative souls, but the occasion demanded festivities and self-congratulatory speeches as well as honors bestowed by important voices. Several honors were given to the storyteller, and ages later she remained proud enough to name each award. Or perhaps she was just being thorough. Which was in her nature, after all. Then with her voice turning soft, she mentioned that half of her sisters were chosen to ride the warship, in stasis but perpetually ready to come awake whenever the vast gray hull was battered by comets or enemy bombs. As an asset, she wouldn’t be scrapped. No, she would be frozen and carried along with the accompanying fleet. But after all of her steady selfless work, that critical duty felt like an insult. She implied that with her tone, then a brief silence. And finally, with one sharp confession. To a creature she barely knew, the tool admitted that a portion of her mind was doing nothing but wishing for a horrible, manageable disaster. Something foul would strike the warship, many sisters dying in the carnage, and then the tool makers would come to her with fresh work and many, many apologies.

“I was watching,” she said. Then the words were repeated again and again, and Pamir gave up counting after twenty times. Then the watcher quit speaking, a considerable stillness taking hold of her body, and that stillness didn’t end when she spoke again.

“That little sun struck its target. At the perfect moment, in the proper location, a small dense and relatively cool star dove into a much larger star, resulting in a fine explosion. A beautiful explosion.”

“Explosions are always lovely,” Pamir agreed.

“I was stationed aboard an auxiliary vessel safely removed from spectacle. But the heat of the blast, which was as rich as the outpouring light, could be felt. Could be relished. And those effects were minor next to the gravitational maelstrom. One star was swallowed by another, and a world-sized machine was set free. Without suffering any damage, by the way. But that event added nothing to its speed. No, the warship needed to plunge close to the quick-spinning, quick-moving black hole, and in turn, stealing away a portion of that enormous energy.

“No other maneuver demands so much precision. You can imagine. Several of the ship’s giant engines were fired for the first time, and they didn’t fail. My ship struck its mark within centimeters of the ideal. Within the length of a hand. What I built pushed fabulously close to a collapsed star, and I watched, and in an instant the nearest point was reached, and that I watched, and then as the tides found their maximum, everything seemed well. I watched and nothing changed inside my gaze, and that’s when I discovered that, to my relief, I wasn’t a bitter entity wishing the worst for the others. This total success made me genuinely happy. My hyperfiber was at least adequate if not superior, and still watching, I decided to speak to my nearby sisters, telling them that perhaps in the future we could build a second warship of this caliber, or better, and employ it to explore one of our neighboring galaxies.”

The words stopped.

After a little while, Pamir said, “Tides,” and then, “No. They shouldn’t have mattered. A hull like that might have fractured a bit. But nothing that couldn’t be patched, in time.”

One foot lifted, toes drawing a sphere.

“You’re imagining common failures and simple consequences,” she said. “But that’s only because you’re a simple human, and why would you need to know anything else?”

“Tell me what else,” he said.

“Hyperfiber,” she said. “Those extraordinary bonds hold against every ordinary force. In most circumstances, the embedded power is out of reach. A contractor and his little tools have no need for these theoretical matters. But if each of those powerful bonds is shattered, and if the shattering happens in the proper, most awful sequence, energy is liberated. Not just the power available in our universe, but within countless adjacent realms too. Hyperfiber will burn, and it doesn’t burn gently. Not like hydrogen fuses or antimatter obliterates. No, if one billion warships with identical flaws have worked hard to place themselves in one position, inside one moment and one tiny volume, they are nearly the same bodies. And if identical fissures open in each of these realms . . . well, the strength of a trillion ships floods into your existence, and the meaning of your life evaporates inside one wild light, and an empire dies, and the universe surrounding you breaks into a celebration considerably more joyous than the grubby little party you were having just a few breaths ago . . .”

• • • •

It was rare for humans to enter the Avenue of Tools, and it was unprecedented for one of the Ship’s captains to walk among the residents. But this was a unique captain. Competence, seamless and steady competence, had carried Aasleen from being a very successful engineer into the highest ranks of the administration. This was a human who understood the nature and beauty of machines, and she made no secret about relishing the company of machines over her own species. It was even said that the lady’s husbands were robots and she had secret children who were cyborgs. That’s why some of the tools, seeing her so close, began to hope that maybe she was looking for a new mate, and maybe this would be their best day ever.

But no, Aasleen was seeking one very particular tool, one using a string of names.

A locally famous tool, as it happened.

The captain found what she wanted soon enough. And the ancient tool wasn’t entirely surprised by its visitor. Yet ignorance was a good starting point in any relationship, and that’s why the tool said, “I’ve done nothing illegal.”

“Have I accused you of crimes?” Aasleen asked.

“My business remains within the letter of the law,” the tool added.

Aasleen laughed at the game. Then her human hands unfolded the crudest possible note: permanent ink on a piece of human skin. The skin was supple and pale and mostly depleted of its genetic markers. But not entirely, and what remained held hints of a known criminal who had been chased by nobody for many aeons now. What mattered were the words on the parchment. “‘Madam captain, you’re planning to fly us close to a black hole,’” she read aloud. “‘The rendezvous is a few years off, but maybe you should think a little harder about your methods. And that’s why you should chat with a genuine expert in hyperfiber.’”

She stopped reading. “At this point, your various names are listed.”

The tool stood in the center of the artery, flanked by hundreds of motionless, intensely interested neighbors.

“Do you ever speak to humans?” Aasleen asked.

“I have, yes.”

“Recently?”

“None recently,” the tool said.

“Do you know any humans at all?”

She said, “I did. One man. But he died several decades ago.”

“A man?”

“I worked with him, yes.”

“He hired you for a job, did he?”

“For many jobs. We formed a partnership and thrived as a team. For nearly eighty years, yes. His last will gave me the business and all of its contracts, which is why I am the richest citizen in the Avenue today.”

“How did this man die?”

“Tragically and without any corpse to honor,” the tool said.

Aasleen let that topic drop. Instead, she shifted the parchment in her fingers, reading the rest of the odd note.

“‘Ask the lady about the great ship that she built. Which may or may not have been real. But that isn’t the point. You’ll know that, Aasleen. The point is that maybe we don’t want to be too precise in our aim. Or everything turns to shit on us. And you don’t want that, my friend.’”

“You don’t want that,” the tool agreed.

Aasleen said nothing.

With a hopeful voice, the tool asked, “Is there more to the message?”

“‘And this beauty,’ he writes. ‘This beauty before you has a thousand other wonderful stories to tell.’”

The tool moved her limbs, drawing spheres in the air.

“I don’t know the author to this note of yours,” she claimed. “But he is right in one regard, madam. Yes, I am a beauty.”

Robert Reed

Robert Reed

Robert Reed is the author of three hundred-plus published stories, plus more than a dozen novels. He is best known for his Great Ship stories, including Marrow and The Memory of Sky, and for the novella, “A Billion Eves,” which won the Hugo Award in 2007. Many of Reed’s favorite titles are now available on Kindle. He lives in Lincoln, Nebraska with his wife and daughter.