Two giant polyps were nibbling at the husk of a shopping mall some miles off. I was focused on a sludge-tower, though, just a half mile down the hill from me. I’d have to pass it. From where I stood, on the street that zig-zagged down to the basin of the valley, I couldn’t see the tower’s base. A ridge, wearing a row of rotting condo roofs like an epaulet, was in the way.
For a second I wished my brother were with me. That I hadn’t ditched him in the raspberry thicket. He had a map in his head, and could close his eyes and find a route to any place in the valley. All I could do was memorize what happened where.
I felt something tapping at my ankle, and looked down. A mouse. With her small pink hand, she gestured at me. Wanted me to stoop down.
“Princess Tuuli,” she said. Her voice was quiet.
“Hello, Dokka,” I replied, crouching lower.
“I’m surprised to find you alone in this place,” continued Dokka. She twitched nervously, and flicked her ears, trying on the movements and manners of a mouse. Dokka had been many things, she told me, to see what each was like.
“There’s a house the polyps have passed over,” I told her. “I heard it’s full of books.” I couldn’t hold in my broad smile.
“But where is your brother?”
“Banjoko? Off by the raspberry patch, waiting for a courier drone. I gave him the slip.”
“He will be angry.”
“I had to!” I argued. The mouse winced, and I lowered my voice. “Banjoko won’t leave the drop-point until the drone gets there, but the sun is going down. I had to break one rule or the other.”
Dokka knew what I meant. Momsatu had two rules for her foster children: stick together, be home before dark. The mouse was unconvinced.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “Banjoko will get over it when I come back with an armload of new science books.”
“Very well. But mind the dangers of the valley, Princess.”
“There’s only the one sludge-tower, Dokka, and it’s sleepy and slow. It’s shutting down for the night, see?” I pointed, and Dokka acknowledged that the living skyscraper had barely moved in the last few minutes. Sludge-creatures reminded me of trolls in the old folktales, but in reverse: turning to stone at sunset instead of sunrise. I zipped up my hoodie. I had to get moving.
“Anyway, it will probably stay in the basin,” I added. “Banjoko says sludge-towers don’t like to waste energy climbing hills. And I think the house is on the near side of that ridge. I’ll be safe.”
Dokka shook her head. “The arcs,” she said.
“Well, you’re right,” I conceded. “I’ll have to be careful about that.” The solid sludge-towers, like this one, didn’t glom stuff like the more wispy polyps did. But sometimes, as they shut down, they grew buds that shot huge arcs of lightning.
Some said polyps were like sheep, and sludge-towers more like shepherds. Banjoko argued polyps and sludgers were more like different appendages of the same giant creature. Both formed in downdrafts from the sky-web, the layer of sooty strands up in the atmosphere. High up where, the grown-ups insisted, only clouds should be. And somehow, living in the filaments of the sky-web, was the upper world. Everyone had a different name for it. I called it Sky Island, from a story I read. Momsatu called it ‘cyberspace, or whatever’; she was never sure she had the right word. Uncle Hrithik called it Parama padam when he was drunk, and noetic space when he was sober. Most people just called it up there, or the world above. Dokka was from there.
And that’s where my birth family had gone.
Dokka and I said goodbye, and I headed down into the valley. I jogged where I could. Mostly I had to clamber over places where the pavement was cracked and jumbled (a polyp had torn up the street years ago, looking for fiber optic cables).
I came to a fork and couldn’t decide. Left or right? Cave, my sister Magda’s man, had discovered the house and told my uncle about it over coffee. My ears perked up, of course, and I tried to memorize the route he described. But he used street names I didn’t know. The polyps liked aluminum, and had glommed all the street signs before I moved here.
That ridge with the condo garden was to my right. Just behind it, only a few blocks away, the sludge-tower was still catching rose-gold sunlight on its upper third, while the rest of the valley was starting to get blue and dusky. I was realizing this wouldn’t be a fifteen minute trip, after all.
I felt the wind change, and goosebumps prickled all over my body. As I rubbed my arms, I noticed patches of soot on my hoodie sleeves changing texture. The particles of graphene were writhing, standing on end like iron filings reacting to a magnetic field. These were not good signs. I looked up.
The sludge tower was forming a bud, like a gall on a gigantic tree trunk. I thought, I am about to be struck by lightning.
My mind went blank with panic.
But, in the next moment, a starling swooped down from its perch on an old utility pole.
“This way, Princess Tuuli,” she said. It was Dokka again, in a new body. She called me Princess so I could always recognize her.
She fluttered and darted up the street that branched left. I followed, running hard to put distance between myself and the tower. I felt my hair starting to stand up, and I frantically pulled it down. As if that would protect me.
A flash of light. Thunder. It didn’t hit me, but it felt close.
The bird led me towards a park. A large one, with different types of dead trees.
“Under here,” called Dokka.
I followed her through a stand of skeletal pines. I ducked under branches, felt them scratch my face. An abandoned playground opened in front of me.
The floor of tire scraps was heaved up everywhere by saplings. Paper birch, black locust, ailanthus, sassafras. Dokka flitted from tree to tree, showing me a path to a clearing. Finally, next to the rotted, wooden stumps of a former jungle gym, I found a patch of rubbery ground and plopped myself down. Clever Dokka—rubber was an insulator.
Another sky-tearing flash and rumble.
“Will the tower come after me?” I asked Dokka, panting. My lungs hurt.
She had settled on the branch of a dead sassafras. She quietly chattered and purred, trying on the manners of a starling. After a moment she said, “No, Princess. You are safe.”
I collapsed, kicking up a puff of the ever-present soot. As I coughed a little and caught my breath, I stared up, and watched the drifting threads of the sky-web. Like the top of the tower, the web caught the pink light of the setting sun.
“The Kingdom of the Pinks,” I said, remembering the plot of Sky Island. I calmed down, and turned to smile at Starling-Dokka.
“My guardian angel,” I said.
“Ha. If you like,” said the bird. “That book-filled house you spoke of—are you close?” she asked.
“I think so.”
She abruptly turned to me, and said, “Well, this was fun. Goodbye.”
“Wait!” I said, but it was too late. The starling dropped off the branch, dead.
I watched as a bubble formed from the graphene caked on the skinny black locust tree next to me. The bulb of slime slid down the bark, and rolled over the mulch like a bead of water on a hot stove—but growing, not shrinking. When it touched the dead bird, it changed shape, then wrapped around the little feathered body. Then it hissed and boiled and settled into a neat pile of soot. The starling was gone.
This didn’t upset me. Actually, sometimes I was jealous that Dokka could shed a body like clothes. And I had seen her melt herself before. She had met me at the edge of camp one morning wearing the body of a white-tailed deer. After, as I watched her stalk into the verge of the woods, I heard an arrow whip by. It hit her flank with a thud, right under the shoulder blade. Cave, an expert shot, had done it for the venison, not knowing better. I ran to Dokka, crying. With her last breath, she said, “I didn’t expect the arrow to feel so hot. Interesting. I’ll be back.” She died, and her body just sort of dissolved when some nearby graphene bubbled up, rolled over, and digested her. All before Cave got there.
Now, sitting in the rubber mulch, I memorized the park in the gathering gloom. The place where Dokka saved me from the sludge-tower.
I heard some branches breaking, and I sprang to my feet. But it was only my brother. He was out of breath from running. I couldn’t tell if he was afraid, or angry, or about to throw up.
“Banjoko,” I said. “I can explain.”
He held up his hand. Breathed and breathed. Finally, he shook his head and pulled out his water bottle. He was about to take a swig, but handed it to me instead. I drank, handed it back.
“I had to dodge two arcs, trying to catch up with you. Didn’t know if you were safe,” he said, between breaths.
“You didn’t have to worry. Someone was looking out for me.”
He looked me over.
I self-consciously rearranged my hair. (A ‘tow-headed elf’—that’s what Momalix called me when I first arrived.) Generally I didn’t care if my hair was a tangled mop. But Banjoko had a way of examining you like a rare insect. Finally, he rolled his eyes.
“Let me guess. Dokka.”
He shouldered his bag, and offered his hand to pull me to my feet.
“We’re going home now,” he said. As he dusted me off—patting my jacket and leggings harder than necessary—he went on, saying, “I suppose there’s no point in reiterating that there can be no such person as Dokka.”
“That’s your opinion,” I said.
“Occam’s razor, Tuuli, Occam’s razor. Sure, we all hear stories of fakes and uploads descending in animal form. They’re great stories. But I’ve never seen one.”
“You’ve never seen a human fake, but you believe in those,” I argued. Of course, “human fake” was a contradiction in terms. Humans were born, and either stayed here or uploaded. Fakes were artificial intelligences from Sky Island who wore bodies to descend to Earth. But Banjoko knew what I meant.
“I have seen one. A fake piloted the transport that brought me here from Nigeria.”
“How do you know he was an artificial person?”
Banjoko ignored the question. He took his bearings and started power-walking to make up for lost time.
“Come on, slowpoke,” he said. “Let’s get back to camp.”
“But there’s still time,” I said.
“Time for what?”
He was beyond irritated, so I had to explain quickly and clearly about the house. The books inside. I was sure it was close by.
“Five minutes,” I said. “If we don’t find it in five minutes, we can head home.”
I half-believed my own rhetoric. But Banjoko was looking at the sky, and the tower. It was looming right over us at this point; the air was unsettled, warm, full of ozone and swirling soot.
“Sun’s setting,” said Banjoko. “We’re already in for it.”
“With the sun down,” I argued, “Old Sludge will go to sleep. It’ll be safe to hunt for books.”
Books. I could see Banjoko’s metaphorical mouth watering. He rubbed his close-cropped, wiry hair in exasperation. He was making his ‘cost-benefit analysis’ face. His lips pursed, his eyes distant.
“Fine,” he agreed. “I better find something good, though.” I told him the address Cave told me, and my brother nodded, mapping out a route in his head.
To keep our mind off the sludge-tower, we picked up our argument about Dokka as we half-jogged.
“Maybe animal-form Sky Islanders only show themselves to people like me, who believe in them,” I said.
“Ugh,” he said. “Say you did encounter ‘animal-form Sky Islanders’. Say you’ve had conversations with a mockingbird, a mouse, the elk that Cave took down—”
“Whatever. why would all these different entities be the same person, this Dokka? Why would a fake spend the energy taking different forms? AIs are all about conservation. How would that be efficient—reconfiguring your biology for each descent?”
“She just likes to. She wants to know what it’s like. You wouldn’t understand, because you have no imagination.”
That shut him up.
The three-story house was exactly as Cave described it: not a lick of soot on it, as though the polyps were afraid to touch it. Banjoko was the one who called the soot ‘graphene,’ and said polyps left it like slugs leave slime. But he couldn’t explain why they’d left this house alone.
It was well-built, the old house. But the front door was missing, and the roof sagged. The gutters were full of seedlings; the siding was mildewed and peeling off. Poor house. Uncared for since its owners uploaded. Stripped by looters, grimed up by squatters, but still standing.
“Black mold,” said Banjoko, pulling his respirator out of his bag. I had built my own, out of an old oxygen mask and a P100 filter, and kept it in my jacket’s baggy pocket. We put the masks on, and went inside.
Cave, Magda, and Momalix (our younger mom) were always telling us, if we were going to scavenge, to arm ourselves. Cave had even given Banjoko a switchblade. (Lean, muscular, tattooed, and a few years older, Cave had impressed Banjoko deeply when he arrived.) There were antisocials out there, Cave had said. Lawless refugees who avoided the cities, and would rather rough it alone than settle in a camp like ours. I don’t know what the grownups were so worried about. In all our scavenging missions, Banjoko and I had never run into anyone we didn’t know. Camp folk, transport pilots and traders, that’s all. You never knew, though. So I’d agreed to carry a folding knife, and generally let Banjoko lead the way when going into a new house or enclosed space.
Banjoko, with his knife drawn, cleared the foyer and the hallway, then motioned for me to enter. The first floor was safe. But we soon saw it had been looted years ago. There wasn’t a scrap of food. TVs, computers, microwave ovens, anything electronic had been taken. Only oddities remained—a table laid out with serving dishes, whose contents had long ago been reduced to black grease. Framed photos with the faces blotted out by water damage. A bicycle wheel in the fireplace.
“They were taken,” I said.
“No,” said Banjoko. He knew who I meant—the family that lived here, before the Weird Year. Before the polyps, the towers, the sky-web, the AIs with fake bodies, the upload exodus.
“No one is taken, Tuuli,” he said, tired of repeating this particular argument.
“I think this family was. Look how they left things—”
“Everyone who ascends to the upper world chooses to go,” he told me, for the hundredth time.
I let it go.
We found the library on the second floor. Eighteen bookcases, full, plus piles of books on a desk, on the floor, on the cushions of a window seat. Magazines, record albums, video disks. A few lower shelves were trashed, in a corner occupied by a grimy mattress and a jumble of empty food packages. But I could ignore this—I had never seen so many books.
I jumped up and clasped my arms around Banjoko’s neck.
“All right, all right,” said my brother. “Let’s be methodical about this. We only have a couple of minutes. I’ll finish clearing the house, to be safe. You start scanning the shelves.”
But just as he turned to leave the room, a strange man entered. The man didn’t seem to see Banjoko, and almost knocked him over. But my brother was light on his feet and scrambled out of the way.
Banjoko found his footing, and flourished his knife like Cave had taught him to. I crouched behind the desk, breathing through my filter as quietly as I could.
The man looked briefly at each of us, and then scanned the rest of the room. He noticed the record albums. Crouching down, he began pulling them off the shelves, one by one, to read their labels.
“Hey,” said Banjoko. “Hey!” He was tense, ready to spring.
But the man ignored him, and paused over an LP. He removed the record from the sleeve, handling it like an archaeological artifact. He adjusted the angle of the disk to catch the dim blue light from the large window.
Seeing the man’s calm demeanor, Banjoko tried a different tack.
“What did you find there, Mister?” he asked. His voice was shaking.
“The Al Meixner Orchestra Plays Favorites from Here and Abroad,” said the man. Then he put it back in its sleeve.
He selected another LP, and slid it out of its tattered cover to stare at it a while. Banjoko and I could see the man’s eyes jittering unnaturally.
“Are you playing it in your head? Do you see the music in the grooves?”
“I guess so,” the man said.
“Are you—are you a fake?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” said the man.
“He probably doesn’t call himself a ‘fake’, Tuuli,” explained Banjoko, without taking his eyes off the stranger. Banjoko addressed him: “You’re an artificial intelligence from—from up there. Aren’t you?”
The stranger looked up from his work, and mumbled my name. “Tuuli.” He stared as though he were deciding whether he’d seen me somewhere before. My skin crawled. But I kept my eyes on him.
His hair was wet-looking, parted on the side. His jaw was strong, curving gracefully into an egg-shaped chin. His nose sloped a little too perfectly. He wore no jacket or respirator. He was dressed like someone in an old picture.
“Tuuli,” he said again. “Tuulikki Saarinen.” My full name.
I put my hands in my hoodie pockets. Held tight to my knife.
But Banjoko was already swinging around to protect me, brandishing his knife again.
“Banjoko Akinwande,” said the man.
“You have, what, facial recognition?” asked my brother, trying to keep his cool. “Or were you following us? Well?”
“I did not expect to encounter the both of you here. But this happenstance validates my choice to incarnate at these coordinates.”
He was definitely from Sky Island, if he spoke like that.
“Keep talking,” said Banjoko.
“I am looking for a man named Hrithik Srinivasan, PhD, Professor of Educational Psychology. He is socially associated with you, yes?”
My brother and I traded looks of surprise. What could this random fake want with our old uncle? And how did he know Hrithik was in our matchbox? When households of upload-orphans and climate refugees, like ours, got matched up through the algorithm on the network, it was all very ad hoc. There was no registry.
“Why would you assume we’re, uh, associated with such a person?” Asked Banjoko. He was having the same doubts as I was.
“What’s the phrase,” the man said. “A little bird told me.”
“Dokka,” I whispered.
“No, no, no,” said my brother.
“We can take you to Hrithik,” I called out. If Dokka trusted the fake, I could, too. Plus, I knew Hrithik and the moms: with an opportunity to play Good Samaritan, they’d likely be too busy to punish me and Banjoko.
The polyps on the horizon had pulled in their tentacles, and their silhouettes loomed like sleeping giants against the webbed, indigo sky. In the shadow of the dormant sludge-tower, the valley around us was pooling into a thick black.
But the fake, who called himself Polybus, had better night vision than a cat. Banjoko had the geolocation coordinates of our matchbox memorized, and I made him tell Polybus. In return, Banjoko required Polybus to answer his questions about Weird-Year technology.
We let the fake lead the way back, through the backyards and brambles and woods. As we marched through the darkness, my brother held his knife, and made me hold his hand. With my stack of books in the other, I couldn’t carry the flashlight. So Banjoko pocketed his knife, muttering something about a true scientist shedding light, not blood.
“Okay,” he said as we found our pace. “Tell me—why do the polyps never come within a mile of camp?”
“There are—rules. Agreements. The land is mapped,” said the fake, with effort.
“We use nom-nom holes to dissolve waste matter. Do they use the same technology as polyps?”
“I don’t know. Polyps dissolve resource material through a complex catalysis engineered by swarms of, um, shifty ribosomes.”
“Sorry. Polymorphic macromolecular machines.”
Banjoko asked why polyps leave graphene deposits, how the sky-web stayed afloat, whether the same ‘ribosomes’ that digested the bodies of uploads also built the bodies of fakes. With all the technical talk, my mind wandered. I started imagining my birth mother and father, lying down on the grass in Sibeliuksen Park. A bubble of slime covering them.
When we reached camp, we had to instruct Polybus not to cut through our neighbors’ gardens and dwellings. Sure, camp was a jumble of geodesic tents and mis-matched modular parts, aeroconcrete and flash-baked clay, but homes were homes. Our neighbors wouldn’t appreciate us tramping through with a strange fake. Finally, we reached our own matchbox.
Momsatu and Momalix were cuddling on the porch swing. Judy and Devansh were at their feet, playing a homemade game with a board and dice. Magda leaned on the railing, bundling chamomile for drying, her auburn dreadlocks tied back under her kerchief. Cave, her man, was standing in the doorway, inspecting the shafts of some new arrows. I hoped they were all there to share the lantern—not to make an audience for when Momsatu bawled us out.
She looked us over. Polybus included.
“Well?” she said.
Meanwhile, Momalix exhaled through pursed lips, running her fingers through her cropped, red hair. “Um, Satu? Why don’t I take the kids inside,” she said.
“Thanks, Alix,” said Momsatu, keeping her burning eye fixed on us. So, the younger mom picked up little Judy, and Devansh picked up his game board and slumped in after them, trying not to spill the pieces. Cave let them pass, then took the hint. He gathered his arrows and sauntered through the kitchen and up the stairs. Magda raised an eyebrow at us, then followed Cave.
Banjoko cleared his throat.
“We found this fake man in the valley. He says he needs help,” he said. “He says Uncle Hrithik can help him.”
“Polybus has already told me all that.” Momsatu tapped her temple.
“Oh, right,” my brother mumbled. Sometimes it was easy to forget our mom was meshed. Once, she explained it this way: in her head, she had a machine that could access the network, but because there was so much information, and because it changed form so quickly, it was usually like peering through a whirling, cloudy window to a land of dreams and nightmares. In certain cases, she could learn a language, get a clear view. She had a few friends in Sky Island, too, that would call her attention to certain things. Like, for example, me getting in trouble.
“Well?” she said. “What’s this I hear about an unaccompanied juvenile female?”
“‘Unaccompanied juvenile female in material resource area, request delay of static discharge until safety reestablished.’”
“Dokka,” I whispered to Banjoko. “She made a warding spell to keep us safe from the sludgers.”
Banjoko shook his head.
“Well?” Momsatu asked again. Her blue eyes were piercing, despite her kind face.
“I ran off alone. I should have stayed with Banjoko to wait for the drone.”
“And I’ll go do the dishes.”
“And read some of these new books to the kids?” I held up the five books I had managed to grab. Medieval Irish Poetry, The Rats of NIMH, Anne of Green Gables, The Once and Future King, and Wonders of the Human Body.
“You don’t seem all that penitent.” Momsatu was struggling to put her disappointment into just the right words. “Tuuli,” she finally said, “sometimes I feel like you are only playing along. Maybe it’s time to commit to this family. Don’t you think?”
I looked awkwardly at the ground. She wasn’t being fair. But what could I say? I knew that any further word would only dig the hole deeper.
Momsatu sighed. “Banjoko, Tuulikki, kitchen duty. And work together. I’ll take care of Polybus.”
“Yes, Mom,” we said.
While Momsatu fed Polybus some potato rieska with mango chutney, Momalix pried Uncle Hrithik out of bed and tidied him up. In a few minutes, he came down and asked me to put on some coffee.
“Are you sure?” I asked. Momsatu had the week’s coffee pre-measured. The coffee drone came to camp only twice a month.
“Coffee,” repeated my uncle.
Momalix shrugged. This was her usual explanation for Hrithik’s drinking binges: a shrug. She patted his shoulders, and they joined the other adults on the porch.
“What brings you down to the land of left-behinds?” asked Hrithik, with forced heartiness.
“I need help,” said Polybus.
“Why descend to the post-suburban wilderness, then? Why not go to a thinker combine in the city? Or some expert in noetic space? I don’t see how an out-of-date education professor can help a superintelligent being like you.”
Then the conversation grew quiet. But through various tactics, my brother and I managed to overhear most of it. We washed, dried, swept, and mopped like foxes in a coop of sleeping chickens, as Cave would have said. Banjoko heated a basin of water on the nanocoil, rather than the faster propane range, because it was quieter. And I lingered when I brought out the coffee, pouring all four cups with uncharacteristic ceremony and diligence.
Using her meshed brain, Momsatu made a network connection with Polybus. They worked together to articulate his problem to my uncle.
The fake was saying that no one in ‘noetic space’ could help. Or would help, maybe. Intelligences like him were in trouble.
“Not an existential threat, though,” added Momsatu.
“No. But we—it’s like—” He broke off, and sighed.
“I think I understand,” said Momsatu. “So many human minds have uploaded to cyberspace—er, the virtual world of—you know, up there—that the original population of artificial intelligences are now the minority.”
This made sense. Banjoko had theorized it could happen: more uploads than fakes in Sky Island. More immigrants than natives.
“Yes,” said Polybus. He started to speak, with several false starts, but nothing came out.
“I have no way to translate that,” said Momsatu, reading Polybus’s unspoken thoughts. “Actually, though, I’m reminded of a daoist saying: when the whole is divided, the parts need names.”
Hrithik grunted. “An ontological schema,” he said. “We can’t think without categories to put things in.”
“Yes. After the tipping point, My divisions—my categories didn’t fit. The world was made of other divisions,” said Polybus. “The names didn’t fit the parts. The others don’t understand me.”
“Was this like a stroke? Aphasia?” that was Momalix’s voice.
“No, no,” said Momsatu. “More like the Tower of Babel. I think.”
“Is there more of the Mangifera compound?” asked the fake.
“Chutney, you mean. Take the jar. Polybus, darling—don’t use your hands. Here.”
“So, Polybus, you are not the only one suffering?” Hrithik asked.
“Many like me are affected, I think.”
“Interesting,” said Momsatu. “I’m getting images of—hm. Hrithik, you call the upper world ‘noetic space’. You mean a constructed reality derived from the intelligences that inhabit it. Right? Well, Polybus is saying that the parameters of his reality are a—function of the population. It’s as if they all vote on reality. So, when the uploaded post-humans outnumbered the artificials, there was—”
She didn’t finish the sentence. I assumed there was a hand gesture involved.
“Yes, yes,” said Hrithik. “A paradigm shift?”
“Well, not quite,” said Momsatu. “More like sudden-onset, acute culture shock. Imagine we woke up tomorrow to find our neighbors all, I don’t know, wearing togas, following the samurai code, and speaking Tok Pisin. Same neighbors, though.”
“Indeed, indeed,” muttered Hrithik. “Very interesting.”
Banjoko, carefully hanging a wok on its hook, nodded in agreement—very interesting.
“It amounts to a very serious problem for an artificial intelligence,” continued my uncle. “Gods. I had never considered how the constructed reality within the sky-web was, well, socially constructed.”
“Can you explain less like a PhD?” asked Momalix.
Hrithik laughed uncomfortably. “What Polybus needs,” he said, “is a kind of therapy. Here’s my suggestion, dear Bahiṇī.” That was what he called the moms, especially when he wanted something from them. “We adopt Polybus into the matchbox for a short time.”
I looked to Banjoko, and shook my head. This was a terrible idea. But he held up his finger, as if to say, suspend your judgement. We continued listening through the kitchen door.
“I don’t understand,” said Momsatu.
“I have a hunch about the nature of this ‘culture shock.’ Minds built for noetic space have their own way of seeing things. Minds raised in human flesh, in human societies, even when uploaded into digital form—their schemas, their way of seeing things, will conflict with—”
“Ah,” exclaimed Momalix, interrupting. “I see! Polybus—you need to learn how to family.”
“Hrithik?” That was Momsatu.
“Yes,” said my uncle. He sounded tentative, like he was thinking aloud. “Polybus needs to experience a little family life, a little camp life, so he has a kind of base reading on how we humans experience socially-constructed ontologies. The same kind of ontologies overtaking the system up there, in noetic space.”
“Yes, yes, yes,” said Polybus.
“Satu,” begged Momalix, “can we adopt him? Please?”
Before I knew what I was doing, I burst through the door, onto the porch.
“We can’t adopt him,” I said.
They all stared.
Hrithik, sitting on his floor cushion, played with his salt-and-pepper beard. After a beat, he gestured to me with an open palm. Wanted to hear what I had to say.
“It’s not a good idea,” I said, trying to form an argument while I had their attention. “You know, to just take a random person into the matchbox.”
“Oh?” said Momsatu. “Why’s that?”
I turned to her. “Momsatu, you—you don’t let me keep stray cats.”
“Faulty analogy, Tuuli. Cats and fakes—” she interrupted. But Hrithik cut her off with a raised hand.
“You’ve turned away every kitten I ever found in the valley. You always tell me it’s because a matchbox is a statistically vetted household.”
She would know; she was the founder. She was the one to post a psychometric profile on the MatchBox app, which identified her as a nucleus. The rest of us posted our stats, or had social workers or fakes post them for us. We were matched not one-to-one with Satu Jaakkola, but one-to-all with each other. And so we flew to her loving arms. Banjoko from Nigeria, Devansh from India, Alix from Quebec, myself from Finland, and so on. Each of us, alone, adrift, orphaned, was collected into a household of persons we could harmonize with. Assembling matchboxes seemed to be a kind of hobby for the AIs that drove transports. They whisked refugees anywhere around the planet, for free. Hrithik said the AIs were doing penance for the Weird Year, for destroying the world. I don’t know about that. But I remember clearly the day a talking aircar found me, huddled in the entryway of Temppeliaukio Church in Helsinki. It landed gently on the cobblestones, like a flying carpet, and a voice said, “Come away to your new home, Tuulikki Saarinen.”
“Polybus hasn’t been vetted,” I said. “He’s like a feral cat, isn’t he?”
Momsatu didn’t answer.
“Explain again why I can’t adopt a cat!” I half-shouted.
Polybus, with chutney all over his muzzle, stared at me like a village idiot.
“You are right, of course, Tuuli,” said Hrithik, finally. “There are risks in adopting Polybus. But we have the chance here to help not only Polybus, but many like him in noetic space.”
“It’s not fair,” I said. I felt my face get hot, and to avoid embarrassing myself further, I turned to go.
“We’ll all have to adjust,” Momsatu called after me. “Goodnight, Baby.”
I slammed the door.
When the house was quiet, I crept up the ladder to the third floor. The story was only half constructed, and parts of it were open to the sky. I shifted a stack of sponge bricks, rolled a sheet of cellulose for a pillow, and curled up to read my new books in the makeshift aerie. But with The Once and Future King open on my lap, all I could do was watch the sky.
The gibbous moon was about to bud a dish. Paraboloids, Banjoko called the dishes. He hypothesized they were meant to collect solar energy, or maybe transmit data. No one, not even meshed Momsatu, knew for sure. She said the moon was covered in the same stuff fakes and polyps and sludgers were made of, but the intelligences living there had their own language, their own goals, completely foreign to ours. They ignored all attempts at contact.
You could watch the dishes, on clear nights like this, slowly separate from the moon like drops of milk, and float off. Usually, they’d drift for a week or two, then join the other dishes that clustered near points in the sky Banjoko called L4 and L5. Banjoko. One night he had told me all about gravity and equilibrium points and orbits, until I fell asleep. He needed a willing ear, I guess; talking through the contents of a textbook helped him absorb it.
He was probably curled up in his bed right now, flipping through one of his new acquisitions, Essential Cell Biology, or Nanotechnology: Understanding Small Systems. I badly needed to talk to him. About how this fake, this Polybus, was going to poison the balance of our family. But he’d be hyperfocused, impossible to interrupt.
“Princess,” said a small, quiet voice.
“I’m here, Dokka.”
I looked around, and saw a horned owl perched on one of the concrete pillars.
“I like this body, don’t you? Interesting configuration for a bird,” she said. She blinked one eye at a time, and rotated her head nearly 360 degrees, trying on owlness for size. I smiled, despite myself.
“Something troubles you,” said the owl. “You are not your old self.”
“I know,” I said. I wanted to tell my friend everything—how my Uncle was allowed to break rules as he pleased. How I had burst out in anger. How, like a fool in a folktale, I had invited the vampire into my home. How it would be my fault if the interloper ruined the family. But if Momsatu could hear things from Dokka over the network, she might hear these things. So all I did was whine.
“If anyone can show up and join this family, how do I know I really belong here?”
“Maybe you don’t, Princess,” said the owl.
“What do you mean?”
“They say, up there, that MatchBox was only a game. The psychometric profiles were not scientific. AIs who enjoyed the challenges of transport logistics played it to earn credits.”
I wasn’t sure what I felt. But I shook as I exhaled.
“And what do you do for credits?” I said. “Play guardian angel? What’s that worth?”
“Princess,” Dokka hooted. Then she was quiet. She adjusted her head on her shoulders, blinked one eye. I had hurt her feelings.
“I’d like to tell you something,” said the owl, finally. I gave my permission. “I was duplicated from an intelligence named Dokkaebi_17, uploaded from a source named Park Eun-Jung.”
“Uploaded how long ago?”
“Twelve years. You know—that was the year after the Weird Year.”
“So you were one of the first to upload.”
“Park Eun-Jung was. She was a programmer. A neural network architect. She believed in something called the Singularity. Machine intelligence was supposed to surpass human intelligence and reshape the world. I guess things didn’t turn out how Eun-Jung expected.”
“The Weird Year.”
“Yes, Princess. But what I want to say is… I am thankful. Thankful for Park Eun-Jung, and the world she helped create. But I am also thankful for this world.”
She was trying to say, I think, that my friendship meant more to her than Sky Island credits. But she was thankful for the Weird Year? Some deep part of me bristled when Dokka said this. I tried to think why.
No one liked to talk about what happened that year, and I was too young to remember. I had no clear picture, just Banjoko’s theories, and bits I’d picked up from the moms, Hrithik, Cave, the neighbors.
The Weird Year started with alien invasions in Latvia and China. But they weren’t actually alien invasions. People figured out later that a superhuman AI had awoken, laying low for months, absorbing all the information it could. Including, Banjoko figured, nanotechnology and bioengineering research. The factories in Latvia and China went haywire and began spitting out gallons of sludge, which formed into hordes of oddball creatures (the ‘aliens’) that consumed everything like locusts. Nothing could stop them, and many people died trying. Then one day the armies of creatures just melted. While everyone celebrated, the goop then evaporated into a haze (the ‘miasma’) that blanketed the Earth, causing crop failures, famine, lung diseases, a bad winter. In the spring, holes of blue sky started to open. Eventually the miasma tightened itself into a web of filaments high in the atmosphere. That’s when a lot of the population (who hadn’t died in the invasions, wars, famines, or cold) began to disappear. My birth parents and brother included.
“Your mind is far away,” said Dokka.
“Sorry. Can I ask you something else? I’m not sure if you’d know,” I said.
“I’ll do my best to answer.”
“Were my parents and brother—taken to the other world? Or did they—” My face grew hot. “Did they choose to go, and leave me here?”
The owl was silent for some time.
“Tuulikki, rakas tyttö,” said Dokka. She had never spoken Finnish before. My heart skipped a beat. “No one is forced to upload. The question is, if you want to be with your family, why have you not followed?”
Uncle Hrithik was all sweetness the next day. He brought me breakfast in bed: a soft-boiled egg and warm cinnamon hemp milk. Probably had to trade the neighbors a few hours of tutoring or food prep for these.
He sat on the edge of my bed, and told my favorite old joke about the lazy-bones and the blanket thief. I faced the wall. Finally, he tried to explain why the adults agreed to accept a strange fake into our family.
“His mindset has frozen the wrong way,” he said. “He can’t acknowledge the fluid nature of his reality—sees it only in terms of pre-existing facts, in black and white. His world changed under his feet, and now, in effect, he is stricken with mental illness. We must help if we can.”
I was still angry with him. But I found a contradictory line of argument, and my tongue loosened.
“How can someone from the other world be mentally ill?” I challenged. “Didn’t all the sick people upload because brain chemistry and things make them sick down here, and in the upper world their minds can be pure?”
“Well, that’s what some say: the sick all uploaded, and became their perfect selves. But it’s not so simple.”
“Well, what is a perfect self, anyway?” he wondered. “I say down here we are all sick, to some degree. We must be, to stay on here, in this ruined world.” He laughed. I didn’t.
“This world isn’t ruined,” I said. “Just a little mixed up from everyone leaving.”
Hrithik nodded. I had taken the wind out of his sails, I guess.
He stood up, smoothed his robes. He wasn’t going to answer my question—how could a fake be mentally ill? He said, instead, “Assigning Polybus a role in this rag-tag family will do him good. Think what it’s done for you.”
My uncle held out a hand, inviting me to come downstairs with him. I let him hang, and he accepted my little punishment.
That morning, Banjoko and I would do our usual Tuesday duties together. But since Polybus was most familiar with my brother and me, the moms foisted him on us.
First, we worked on herbs and greens. Some from Magda’s aquaponics rig, others foraged by Magda and Judy earlier that morning. Polybus began sorting the greens by size and color and species, and we had to undo all his work, and explain that we were sorting them by preference and use. The ‘good’ greens had to be divided up fairly; the same went for the unpopular methi, lest someone be accused of having less than their fair share. Hrithik liked tart, so he got the arugula; Judy, Maeve, and Devansh shared the pea tendrils equally or there’d be a fight. We had to separate the chicory leaves from the chicory roots (for roasting). And so on.
In the middle of the process, Polybus abruptly stood up, and as abruptly left. Banjoko cried, “Hey!” and we chased him through the house. He had found Uncle Hrithik on the front porch, drinking coffee and playing fairy chess with Devansh.
“I understand,” said Polybus.
Hrithik shook his head, said, “Not yet. Back to your chores, nephew.”
The greens ended up taking us all morning. Then at lunch, the whole matchbox gathered. It was a feast day, Uncle said; a new family member was a special occasion. I felt hollow as the whole jumble of us found our seats in the yard—the only place we could fit all ten—eleven of us.
The chaotic meal reminded me of bees all crawling over each other on the comb. While everyone was grabbing and tearing bread, Polybus tried to eat Devansh’s woven chapati plate, which made Devansh start rocking anxiously. Uncle Hrithik, who had not planned the timing of his courses, was giving both moms incoherent orders in the kitchen—stir this, no, I said turmeric, take that off the heat—driving his ‘Bahiṇī’ crazy. Judy and Maeve, fighting over something, turned over a pitcher of water. Cave was holding forth feebly on some political point, and I’m not sure anyone was listening. Everyone picked the homebrew paneer out of Hrithik’s sauce, as he hadn’t drained off the whey and it was unpleasantly soft. Maeve and Judy tried to get Polybus to eat the pickings, insisting it was a privilege accorded the guest of honor. But he was only interested in more mango chutney, of which there was none. Banjoko pitched his paneer cubes to the nom-nom hole, which started a competition. Devansh developed a scoring method no one else followed. We were scolded for wasting food, but dessert came out anyway. Polybus lit up at the masala chai and printed jalebi, special ordered and delivered by courier drone that morning.
As he was chewing his dessert, the artificial man abruptly stood again, let the pastry fall out of his mouth (prompting appreciative ‘ewwwws’ from Judy, Maeve, and Devansh) and said, “I understand.”
“Not yet,” said Hrithik, peering through the doorway with a sauté pan in hand. He was enjoying himself.
“Don’t talk with your mouth full,” said Momsatu. “Polybus, you are downright feral.”
Everyone laughed. Except me. I couldn’t take the farce any longer, and walked away from the table.
“Tuulikki,” called Momsatu, with an edge in her voice. I heard Hrithik mutter something about giving me space, but she had none of it.
“Don’t you walk away,” she commanded.
I turned and pointed to the fake. “He doesn’t belong here!”
Polybus was still standing at the table, as if he meant to give a speech. But he only looked at me and said, “Explain.”
The rest of the matchbox stared, unsure what to do.
“Actually, none of us belong here,” I said. “I know about matchboxes. They were just puzzles put together by fakes like you, for fun. Or for money. It doesn’t matter. They aren’t real families.”
Momalix was at the head of the table, farthest from me. She put her hand to her mouth. Banjoko concentrated on a chapati Cave was breaking into tiny pieces. Momsatu stared at me, her eyes rimmed with red.
“Tuuli,” she said.
I tried to say, “I don’t belong here,” but my lips were all twisted up, and I only sobbed.
“Tuulikki. You’re right,” said Momsatu. “The matching algorithm was a load of crap. There’s no science to—to this,” she opened her hands in a gesture that indicated the whole group.
“But it doesn’t matter,” she continued. “It doesn’t matter how we were thrown together. We became a family. Like something from nothing—”
“Oh,” said Polybus.
“Yes, yes,” said Uncle Hrithik.
“I don’t belong here,” I screamed, emphasizing each word. “I belong up there, with my real family,” I managed to say.
“I understand now, Tuuli,” Polybus said, turning to me. His expression was flat and unsympathetic. “Your emotional stress has clarified the structural features of… an ontology derived from familial bonds. Thank you.”
The fake turned to my uncle, saying, “‘When the whole is divided, the parts need names.’ My presence divided Tuuli’s reality, causing her to name her former social unit her ‘real family.’”
“Gods,” said Hrithik, stroking his beard and staring at the ground.
“I will return now, and discuss my findings with the other AIs.”
Cave cursed. We all looked at him, confused by his outburst. His eyes were on Polybus, directly across the table from him. Cave quickly staggered to his feet just in time to catch the fake before he collapsed on the table. Maeve screamed. Devansh ran to the far corner of the yard.
“Grab him, grab him,” Cave was saying. Banjoko helped lower Polybus’ limp body back into his seat. Alix checked the body for a pulse, and found none.
“How rude,” said Momsatu. “Leaving his body. I suppose he expects us to take it out to polyp territory.”
“Did I ever tell you what my name means?” asked Banjoko.
“No,” I said.
We were eating barbeque TVP buns on the front porch, watching the street. Two boys from another matchbox passed a ball back and forth, langorous in the hot and sticky evening. The Sky Islanders had built an anvil cloud, which hung pregnant with rain. (Mondays and Thursdays were rain days. One of the agreements between worlds, Momsatu said. Sky Island wanted lightning; we wanted the rain for our gardens and crops.)
Banjoko and I were exhausted. We had volunteered to return Polybus’ body to the valley. Seemed fair and fitting. We borrowed a neighbor’s wheelbarrow and had to explain ourselves to quite a few nosy camp folk. We stayed to watch the graphene slime dissolve him.
And seeing as we had a wheelbarrow, we made the most of it. Lugged home one hundred twelve books.
“So? What does your name mean?”
“My mother,” Banjoko said, after another bite, “my biological mother—was a Yoruba. And in Yoruba tradition, names have special powers. A sister was born before me, but she died. So my mother gave me a name to discourage my spirit from leaving the world. Banjoko means ‘stay with me’.”
I thought about this, but had nothing to say.
“Anyway, my mother, my father, my uncles—everyone—they were the ones who left. For a while I wondered if my name cursed me, kept me in this world. But that’s stupid.”
“It’s not so stupid,” I countered.
Yoruba magic had bound us together, I thought to myself. Every time I called or thought Banjoko’s name, I was invoking the spell: stay with me.
“Your turn,” said my brother. “Tell me something. Now that this Polybus thing is all over. Do you really want to upload?”
“Maybe someday,” I said slowly. “The thing is, you were right. No one is taken. My birth family chose to upload. I believe that now. And I’m sorry I was so stubborn about it.”
Banjoko did something very unlike him, then. He dropped his plate on the ground and grabbed me in a hug.
“I’m sorry I didn’t believe you about Dokka.”
“Banjoko, Banjoko, Banjoko,” I incanted, smiling.
“And, Tuuli?” he said, “I’ve felt sometimes like I wanted to ascend, too.”
“It hurts,” was all I could say. But I knew he understood. Being left behind by your family. It hurt. All of us, everyone in the matchbox, shared that hurt, and it kept us together. So the hurt wasn’t all bad.
“Well,” said Banjoko. “I guess we’ll have to eat this.”
He leaned over and pulled a jar out from behind his cushion.
“Momsatu special ordered it for Polybus,” he said. “Too bad.”
“We’ll keep it for him,” I said, snatching away the mango chutney. “He’ll be back. For better or for worse, he’s family now.”