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Stalemate

by Rose Lemberg

 

He wakes to warmth. The floor beneath his head. He stares at the spider-patterns etched into the ceiling, tiny and dense, gray against darker gray. No power runs through them. Inert now. Unneeded.

He wants to make the patterns work again.

—how could anyone survive a descent through Calamity storms?  Above him, someone’s shiny dark shirt smells of static, a faraway storm passing. How are they still alive?

Alive, forever, trapped inside this loneliness.

 

A full transcript appears under the cut:

 

Hello! Welcome to GlitterShip episode seven for May 21st, 2015. I’m your host, Keffy, and I’m super excited to be sharing this story with you.

Our story this week is “Stalemate” by Rose Lemberg.

Rose Lemberg is a queer bigender immigrant from Eastern Europe. Her work has appeared in Strange Horizons, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Interfictions, Uncanny, Sisters of the Revolution: A Feminist Speculative Fiction anthology, and other venues. Rose co-edits Stone Telling, a magazine of boundary-crossing poetry, with Shweta Narayan. She has edited Here, We Cross, an anthology of queer and genderfluid speculative poetry from Stone Telling (Stone Bird Press), and The Moment of Change, an anthology of feminist speculative poetry (Aqueduct Press). She is currently editing a new fiction anthology, An Alphabet of Embers. You can find Rose at http://roselemberg.net and @roselemberg, and support her on Patreon at patreon.com/roselemberg.

 

Stalemate

by Rose Lemberg

 

He wakes to warmth. The floor beneath his head. He stares at the spider-patterns etched into the ceiling, tiny and dense, gray against darker gray. No power runs through them. Inert now. Unneeded.

He wants to make the patterns work again.

—how could anyone survive a descent through Calamity storms?  Above him, someone’s shiny dark shirt smells of static, a faraway storm passing. How are they still alive?

Alive, forever, trapped inside this loneliness.

—where is their ship then? The Machine detected nothing—

Two people. A dark face leans over.

Who are you? Can you understand me?

Oh, yes. The language is familiar—like the warmth of meals shared between friends unknown, like the glinting of the tall glass domes, their shadows trembling in the heat of double suns. The memories dance and reflect off the polished blank steel of his mind, then scurry away.

“I remember,” he says, curling his tongue to make the clicking sounds this language requires.

Your name, they ask. He knows one: Kabede, but it is not his. He rolls his tongue around it, shakes his head—a no.

They take him away on a gurney. His eyes latch again onto the inert designs on the ceiling, and hold, and hold.

 

A room. The person from before is here. The serial number stitched upon their sleeve reads 050089. This person—Eighty-nine—fiddles with the displaywall.

Who are you? they keep asking. What is your number? What is your Q? Are you a miner? Did you fall from some other Habitat?

Some other habitat? The displaywall shows only one, this one, Neriu Habitat, the single rotating sphere encapsulated in light—but he knows of a hundred siblings, spheres of metal free-floating in Calamity season. Upon the displaywall the storms come together and break, toss the Habitat upon the face of the ocean. Under the wave the storms are snakes of green that spit and lash their tails; above the wave the storms are dense gray columns that funnel up and consume the sky.

Nothing can land on Gebe-2.

Who are you? What is your number? What is your Q? Do you know this interface?

Does he know this interface? His fingers trace a glyph in the air. The storms on the screen disappear, are replaced by an engineer’s dissection of the sphere along the vertical, showing the habitat’s levels—residential, control, mining, the engines with their clever navigating and locking mechanisms. He makes another glyph, flips the display to perimeter—the habitat’s receiving cavities and the inverted protrusions that are there to join seamlessly with—he counts—five other habitats, which, in turn, will join with others during the brief period of Convergence.

Someone enters the room, and Eighty-nine turns away from the display. There’s a sewn badge upon Eighty-nine’s tunic—a grebe, a diving bird. Security commune? He’s not familiar with the sigil.

They used the interface. They must be ours.

No. The new person is squat and powerful, with wiry hair and piercing eyes. Their skin is dark like Eighty-nine’s. No, they cannot be ours. Their memory has been erased. They had to pass through the atmosphere for that. And that offworld suit—

His eyes seek the newcomer’s badge out. Cormorant, for Control commune.  No, they will not let him hook up to the Machine until they know more. He could be dangerous to the Machine.

If they are ours, the Machine will recognize…

Shut up, Eighty-nine. How will the Machine recognize an off-worlder?

But so much of it is familiar. He must have been here before. Will the Machine return his name? But he doesn’t want to know it.

He doesn’t know why, but he had wanted this. His name is an empty cavity after a rotten tooth has been drawn. Will the Machine put the pain back?

He feels its humming all around him. The Machine maintains the grass-cloth patterns of the display-free walls. It spreads warmth through the brick-patterned floor. It is in the displaywall, and in the silent ceiling grid. It waits for him now, an embrace of empty light.

The two argue about his Q now. The Machine must assign it. How will he work if they don’t know what commune he belongs to?

“Engineering,” he mutters. “Just put me in Engineering.”

They take him back to the room, nothing more than a detention cell, where he spent the last night. Eighty-nine settles him into the hammock. The person’s hand briefly squeezes his. On Gebe-2, being alone is a punishment beyond measure.

“I won’t be lonely here,” he says to the closing door, not sure what moved him to say it. On a ship full of people he is a stranger, but the place makes him feel like three hundred years of companionable silences. Not a ship. A habitat. He tries to adjust to the hammock, his body too broad and too pale in the artificial half-light. The coarse brown strands in the hammock’s weave smell like basket reeds, but they too must be artificial.

 

—Dream with me.

He dreams of Gebe, a city paved with reinforced cinnabar and etched with mazes, a city of soaring spun glass and masonry coffeeshops—but now its beauty’s been smothered under the red skies marred with streaks of black fume. Dead engines hurtle from the sky like bugs sprayed with insecticide, and he barely dodges to avoid the smoldering, screeching debris. He runs, choking on the smell of burning meat and charra oil, resin and feces. He screams at the sharp cries of wild birds released from their protected wildspaces, the crashing glass spires that only a short while ago danced gracefully into a fearless sky.

Kabede. He must find Kabede.

The university. How they’d cursed the architect who slapped a utilitarian concrete rectangle in the middle of blown-glass dreams, but the engineering school is the only one left standing. It is whole on the inside as well, and softened by age-old Gebian crafts; thousands of people, students and faculty, crowd here on embroidered lotus carpets, argue loudly under chandeliers of blown glass shaped like ibises. They grab his hands, smile up his face and ask for news, but he doesn’t have time. He smiles back, pushes past them to the stairs. Downward. Each level is plainer than the one above —no hand-loomed carpets or chandeliers here, and even the ebony stairs give way to metallic railings painted in pale green. Kabede must be here. It’ll be all right.

His friend is at the bottom level, pacing in front of a huge black surface covered densely with blueprints and reading-screen files. Their eyes lock—Kabede’s pupils dilate, and their gaunt dark face splits into a grin. They embrace fiercely, then push away from each other. Kabede speaks, their words disjointed in a way of dreams and scientists. I must take them away from this war, from all wars, I must hide them away in a world without riches, a world undesirable to conquerors, a world stripped of all decoration with only what’s necessary to survive, like the Engineering building survived…

Help me, my friend. Help me.

He frowns back at Kabede. “You’d strip them of beautiful things just because other people would strip them of beautiful things?” It is, after all, what they are. The people of Gebe are artists, scientists, poets, craftsmen, yes, artisans, makers—it is because of this beauty that they are now hunted.

Kabede’s arms fly, accompanying the frantic flight of their speech. A commune where everyone is together and everyone is needed, without trinkets or petty obsessions, without possessions, nothing to distract from the threefold purpose of efficiency, survival, refuge—

“You will unmake them.”

But Kabede won’t listen. We’ll measure people’s aptitude, and each will be assigned to a commune according to their Q—

“You cannot take anybody off-world, Kabede. It’s a fantasy.”

Build me a ship, Kabede pleads. You’ve been working on something— but it isn’t anyone’s business what he’s been doing out on the asteroid belt for the last thirty years.

“No. No. I’m sorry.”

He offers Kabede a game of chess; they’ve always played before parting. But no, there is no time today, and Kabede’s hands curl into fists.

This war must end.

 

He hangs in the hammock, neck bent like a trussed bird’s, while shadows regard him across the threshold. The Control person, and a visitor, a frail and ancient darkness against the door’s bright light. More ancient than he is? Impossible.

The Keeper of Neriu Habitat gestures the light on and enters, but darkness steps in with them—a face mashed and old like a dried plum, eyes bright but crackled with a minute spiderweb of red around pupils the color of congealed blood. They speak, they praise the Control person’s caution. He is an unknown entity, possibly dangerous, but they are stretched thin and cannot waste workers, not with the Convergence only a month away. If there is danger, I trust the Machine can take it. Plug them in. 

More people come to take him to a room as faceless as the others, painted a different shade of rough tan, with the same spider-maze ceiling and warm floors. He doesn’t even try to memorize the faces, sounds, smells of the people that surround him. They aren’t his friends. And like with people everywhere, he cannot afford to become attached. Like the savannah blooms they will wither and die, and even when these people’s speech reminds him of someone he misses with every breath, it’s not the same. He cannot become attached.

They clip the headset to his head. His eyes roll back.

 

He is in a brown cube without smells or sounds, a space defined by grid-like shining walls. The middle of the room flares up with a projection of three transparent pails. The first is filled with some substance, darker than water.

A disembodied voice speaks. Two miners are friends, but one got sick. The healthy friend had mined eight liters of gillium. The healthy one has two empty vessels. One vessel holds five liters, and the other three. How can the miner equally divide the fuel, so that both friends meet their quota?

That voice—it hovers on the edge of recognition. It speaks of friendship. Does this Machine have a friend, one it would share everything with, equally, if it could, if it knew where to look?

Solve the puzzle.

He has no voice here, no hands, no body, no eyes. He cannot touch the jars, but when he wills them to move, they do. He solves the problem in seven turns. It cannot be done in less.

The room flickers, and the amount of pails increases by one. The large vessel holds twenty four liters of gillium. The empty ones can hold five, eleven, and thirteen liters…

Good-naturedly he finds a solution, and the pail puzzle is replaced by an equation exercise, and after it, another. He remembers how to solve such problems by solving them, but there’s disappointment growing inside him. He opens his mouth to speak.

“Do you know Kabede?”

The room flickers, displaying now basic trigonometry problems. He solves one, two.

“Where is Kabede?”

The room blurs, reforms around holographic engineering designs—an airflow node first, then some complex console wiring, then a mining chute, all with nontrivial, tricky repairs. Lovely work. At last, his mind pulls reluctantly back.

“I want to speak to Kabede.”

The room is extinguished. He is expelled back into his long sweaty body sprawled on the floor.  They drag him up, slap a bird-badge upon his left shoulder. An ibis. He’s been assigned to Engineering commune.

 

At night in the Engineering dormitory he tosses and turns in his hammock, stumbling into dreams. He dreams of Gebe, a city once paved with reinforced cinnabar and etched with mazes, a city of soaring spun glass and masonry coffeeshops—but now its beauty’s been erased, drowned in shrapnel, reformed and erased again under the perpetual red skies choked with toxic fumes. There is no sign of spun-glass spires. The museums have been leveled long ago, their contents evacuated, fought over—so many sacrifices to keep the treasures safe, but now they’re lost. Forgotten. He looks up, but the sky is empty of birds; no avian species are left on Gebe. No animals of any kind, not even insects. Only the humans survive.

The university is a compound, the concrete rectangles of buildings crouch low to the ground. He remembers the poetry buildings, and history, art practice, music—but the arts and humanities had long ago been razed. Anthropology’s gone, too, once the most beautiful structure of all, with ornamental spires like cottontail reeds. The hot air smells of smoke and tar, fried canned meat and coffee. He doesn’t bother locating the cafeteria.

Engineering is crowded, but the students are all silent, all crouching on the concrete floor, working on small electronic tablets. The carpets are gone, and the glass chandeliers had been replaced by military-grade lamps. Not a single student lifts their head as he passes through to the staircase.

Kabede paces in the basement, room and person untouched by the two hundred years that elapsed since their last meeting. His friend’s always been here, framed between the concrete and the smoky air. Behind Kabede, on the table, a holographic image of a dome-like structure breaks into a hundred polished metal spheres that hurtle away from each other and join again. And have you built the ship for me, old friend?

The ship, yes, a vast entity of metal mined from the asteroid belt by his bots. The ship—his ship—all complex designs and warmth, always incomplete, always growing. His home.

“I haven’t promised you anything.”

But this coming war will be the fifth, Kabede says, and the world has been drained of solutions. I need to take them off-world now, my friend, or this war may well be their last.

“What are you trying to save?” Whatever’s been beautiful and sacred about Gebe has been destroyed by the wars, or by the Gebians themselves. “There’s nothing left here, Kabede. What value do your people have now, how are they better than millions of others dying on thousands of different worlds? Humans kill each other.” Or else they live small insignificant lives, and only the art they create will remain as they pass, only the art will matter long after they go.

But of course, Kabede doesn’t believe in art. Art creates commodities desired by others. They come to trade for it first, then they come to steal, then they come to destroy it because we have too much, and then they come because they always came. It is a mistake to think that art survives death. You can’t survive your death, unless you choose not to die.

“We may not die, my friend, but we are the children of loneliness.”

I am not lonely, Kabede says. My people are with me. You do not see them, but I do. They are my family, my living, breathing people—and they are everything to me. As you are, old friend. And you are my friend. So help me.

“Yes,” he says. “I’ll see what I can do.”

Kabede nods, produces an ancient ebony-and-ivory chessboard. They sit down together at the table.

 

Engineering brings his memories back, slowly. He’s always been good at making things work. As a child, he fixed the broken toy trains for the dimly-remembered children next door, he flushed toys down the toilet to see how much the drain would take before clogging, and then unclogged it again using a very long stick and an improvised drill. He fixed the grandfather clock silent since his grandfather’s youth. He cannot quite recall his grandparents, but he remembers how the cogs shone inside the clock, silent first, then shrill in hurried, disbelieving reawakening.

He knows that even if all the memories return, the faces of his family won’t be among them.

‘We may not die, my friend, but we are the children of loneliness…’

How long ago? He remembers now how a scholarship took him away from his homeworld and brought him to Gebe, Kabede’s home—a world famous for its arts, a world illustrious with science. He’d learned so much there—engineering, of course, but also other things. The beauty of glass and groove and light. The Gebian language, with its seventeen emotions to experience art, that marked no genders in speech or custom.

He remembers Kabede at the university, bent over some antique flimsy-display reader. Kabede couldn’t make it work again, being always far better at new designs. He remembers repairing the reader for Kabede, bits of century-old diplastic warped and soft like clipped-off fingernails. They learned about the Boundless from that flimsy—the most talented scientists chosen somehow to discard death forever, chosen perhaps by the older Boundless always secretly on the prowl, always searching.

They found more information about the Boundless at the great library of Gebe, and a mention of a hidden meeting-place, a planet of wonders. But they have never met a single Boundless other than themselves, not to recognize. Death-lack seemed splendid at twenty, doubtful at best at four hundred or so.

Four hundred years. Long enough to unlearn about love if one didn’t pay any attention to it in the first place.

He shakes his head. People do not matter. Work matters. Work and art— those things that can be salvaged after the people leave you. Tangible things. Except, of course, Kabede. There’ll always be Kabede.

 

Neriu Habitat is painfully small. The forty three engineers in his commune do not talk much, but sometimes they nod at him. Work matters—repairing the ailing Habitat, with never enough workers to direct. Always repairing, never expanding. Again he asks about Kabede. You must wait for the Convergence to see him, they say. Just do your work. He does—and it is soothing, like the air that circulates through the habitat, purified but always the same, never changing. They make nothing here that is beautiful. Only bland warmth. How is it better than pain?

 

Eighty-nine comes to visit him in the dorms one evening, to play a game, like everyone does here. Eighty-nine teaches him games from Security commune, first simple and then increasingly elaborate clapping games that require coordination and quick thinking. He loses cheerfully to Eighty-nine, engrossed until his fellow dorm-mates intervene. Engineers don’t play such games, they say. “Chess?” he asks, but they don’t know the word, even though he speaks their language. They do not use any game-pieces, no frivolous objects shaped into arbitrary designs that serve no immediate purpose. Too much like art. Instead, they teach him games that require only the mind—language puzzles in which every letter is assigned a numeric value, and the value of whole words is calculated through complex equations. These he enjoys, but Eighty-nine doesn’t, and he does not want Eighty-nine to feel left out.

“Let’s play something else,” he says.

There’s an old game they play here that the people of Gebe played also. The questioner asks a quick question, any question, tricking the players into responding with the word yes; if they do, they lose.  Are you from here? Eighty-one asks him, an easy question. Then, is your Q higher than mine? Question after question, round after round in rapid succession to trick the players to respond with a short truthful yes in response to a trivial query. One after one, his Engineering fellows lose, and leave the game. Nine out of twelve remain. Seven out of twelve. Do you like it here? The yes is frozen on his lips. What’s not to like? The warm air, calculated to the perfect pleasantness he remembers from his university days, never changes here to a winter storm’s intensity or the sun’s summer scorching; fascinating detailed work; the Machine everywhere, comforting on the edge of his senses. Even the lack of adornment seems soothing now. What’s not to like? Only himself, his returning identity that’ll spit him out in the end, back into the vacuum of loneliness. He can unlearn it with these people. But they… The old Gebians—the people he came to love are burned, are buried, forgotten under the rubble of dreams. He cannot allow himself to become attached again.

“I do not like myself,” he says.

And us? Do you like us?

“Yes,” he lies. Loses.

 

His dreaming drains him further into memory. Ten thousand people on a ship that could hold thirty thousand more. The ship is huge—in the two hundred years since Kabede’s first question he’d perfected his miner bots and dismantled a few small moons. His modular designs for it are genius. Immodest, but true enough; after all, only geniuses become Boundless, only geniuses are punished for their competence with this unending pain.

Forty thousand people could fit here easily, but the fifth war really is the last. Only ten thousand survivors, wounded and bleeding. Adults clutch emaciated children, elders crouch quietly, their toothless mouths open; those who still can walk around, frantically trying to be useful to someone, somehow, anything to escape the staring stillness. And Kabede—Kabede is not among them; his friend lies stretched out under the medi-dome, dying from a head wound that cannot possibly be repaired. A Boundless cannot die, but a Boundless can still be killed.

It was a mistake to agree to Kabede’s request. They should have left the war behind, gone away together like he wanted. But instead he’d said yes. He’d found a world, a watery planet plagued by storms—increased by Kabede’s designs to such vehemence than nobody would bother to come here. The storms would hide Kabede’s world from curious eyes, prevent the colonists from leaving. Forever, peace—sheltering the people from all wars, taking them away even from themselves.

He remembers wondering if the people would find a way to make art, but the walls of the engineering dorm are bare. The reeds of his hammock are woven into uneven patterns that dig into his skin and signify nothing.

 

The ancient Keeper of Neriu Habitat comes to see him once more, in the Engineering dorm. The Convergence is coming, and Kabede, the keeper says, will see him in three days’ time.

His eyes trace the spiderweb patterns of the ceiling. He designed them for his ship, just for beauty. Lit up, they were thin lines that rotated and danced, forming an imaginary starmap of the universe, with confirmed constellations warming up to an orange and the unconfirmed to a shimmery gray. Once he’d thought it Kabede’s mistake to believe that art doesn’t survive death, for if he were somehow to die, this ship of his, these minutely patterned ceilings would survive.

He is alive yet, but his art, his ceilings are not in use here. Kabede would never approve of something so frivolous.

Three days’ time.

 

He remembers most of it now. Kabede gave him the memory leecher, to be installed in the upper atmosphere. If strangers came to Gebe-2 to wage their war, intent and knowledge would be drained of them before they fell into the storms.

Once you have the habitats defined, transfer me, Kabede asked, back when they’d made their plans. I want to be embedded in my world. He begged against it, when Kabede was alive. “You won’t have a body anymore…” But his pleading didn’t matter. Kabede was dead now. There wasn’t enough left to exist when the hundred specified nodes were separate. Kabede would only be whole and aware when the habitats came together, briefly, once every three or four years, to synchronize their memories and share mined fuel. The rest of the time Kabede’s mind would be divided into a hundred pieces and scattered across the ocean, memoryless, friendless. A hundred habitats, Kabede had insisted—even if war were somehow to find this world, the people would be divided, easy to hide, safe.

Such a waste. They should have left Gebe together to search for the hidden planet of the Boundless, on his ship. This ship.

He remembers now how he broke it down. Unmade his home. Reforged it into a hundred Habitats for his only friend.

 

 

Neriu Habitat screeches in joining others, like a flock of birds pressed together into a ball. Eighty-nine is there when they come to transfer him from Neriu to Deselin, but there is nothing to say.

 

Deselin Habitat corresponds to the medical wing where Kabede had died. Most of what’s left of them survives here, and now, joined with other bits of their scattered cognition, Kabede is as whole as they will ever be. There is no need to don the headset—a hologram appears to him in the room recreated to be identical to the Gebe basement. It is Kabede as they were in death, tall and gaunt, their dark face glistening with projected sweat, but there is nothing to embrace. Only bits of colored light. “It’s good to see you.”

I am glad you visit me, Kabede says.

“How many times have I done this?”

This is the third time. Every sixty years. Every twenty Convergences. Kabede’s image flickers. I’m sorry about your memory, old friend, but I have to protect my people. I will return it to you when you leave, and erase you again from the system. I wish…

“Don’t say it, please.” But there is no need to speak. They know the dialogue by heart.

I wish so much you’d stay.

‘But nothing changes here, Kabede. Nothing evolves.’

My people—

‘—are ghosts.’

They survive. It is peaceful, efficient—

‘There is no hope.’

Yes, he remembers now. They played this game before, went through the same moves over and over. And I will come again, and lose my memory, to see you. But no matter how we play this, it’s a stalemate, Kabede.

There are no chairs for them to sit. They squat on the floor, with the holographic chessboard between them.

 

END

 

“Stalemate” was originally published in Lackington’s issue 4, in 2014.

This recording is a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license which means you can share it with anyone you’d like, but please don’t change or sell it. Our theme is “Aurora Borealis” by Bird Creek, available through the Google Audio Library.

Thanks for listening, and I’ll have another story for you on May 28th.

[Music plays out]

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