Inside the stasis gel, I awaken to Mother’s incoherent ravings corrupting my circuits; heart detonating in exponential elevation. My lungs fight to expel the thick gel and I shouldn’t be able to gain consciousness before the rising solar radiation levels announcing morning trigger the gel’s breakdown process. As my body convulses—leftover organics labouring at the task on pure instinct—my cybernetics rush in to sedate and return me to sleep. Mother persists in my mind.
—bone upon bone…a wicker cradle. Osseous womb. Digbeyondherringbonegenomedead.…stemteeth. O, voices, haematopoiesis-tongued. O cavernous voices!—
Since co-integrating with her higher functions as a boy, never have I heard her mind so loud or distressed as this. Her telemetry lights up against the displays in my eyelids. I never stop hearing her or the Tower even in deep sleep, but her neural activity wails in my cerebral cortex.
::HEART RATE 123 bpm/EPINEPHRINE LEVELS 140 pg-mL/INCREASED THETA WAVE OSCILLATION::
I have no choice but to initiate wake-up protocol. The gel melts too slow to my liking. As soon as my face breaks the surface, the oxygen reacts with the gel in my lungs and evaporates in thick wisps of smoke twirling from my mouth and nostrils. Next to me, my husband hacks, waking up, disoriented from being woken too early.
“What’s happening?” Boril asks, worry and drowsiness in equal proportion.
“She’s falling apart. Again,” I answer as I rise and shake off the rest of sleep and the gel. Pure chaos overruns my mind, but I can find enough concentration to speak to him. “She’s overloaded herself running the calculations for the multiverse engine.”
To his credit, he jumps up immediately and gets dressed, only a step behind me as I run towards Mother’s quarters. The hard-light door winks out into a honey-combed latticework to grant us passage. My feet slap, slap, slapping their unfeeling mercury on floors that absorb the impact and digest it to feed its systems.
“Her deterioration increases exponentially now,” Boril says in step with me.
“I know.” I relegate the Tower’s murmurs and exchanges of data to the background as I wrestle with the screaming alarms as Mother’s distress mounts further.
“She won’t hold out any longer before full body breakdown,” he continues.
“I know.” I can’t think about this. Not when she’s raving in my head.
“Is she any closer to figuring out how to design the engine?” He asks the right question at the wrong time, and I don’t know how to react. How dare you! I cling to the accusation, but minimize it for another time. A time, where I can think.
—Cellular death chants…In the stroma, the soil listens. Waiting! We do what we must!—
Her voice obliterates every computation process in my brain for a nanosecond. It’s too short to affect my balance, but more worrisome. What if her next bout shuts me offline? Who will help her?
“I don’t know,” I tell him.
The answer is no. I lie, because the answer to his question means the extinction of the Tower, and it’s always no since she got assigned the construction of the multiverse engine—the impossible commission the High Seats tasked her with. She would run her simulations and calculations, and fail even at full processing capacity during stasis. I would repair the damage in the morning and fail to patch her up. Within a month, her body has weaned and shrivelled. It won’t be long until no medical procedure can save her.
“It’s going to be all right. We’ll not let her go, and we’ll do this as many times as it takes.” Boril senses my fears, he’s good at that, and takes my hand in his. The left one, the one I was originally born with. It has so few sensors, practically insensate compared to my inorganic limbs, but his touch sings in me. Oxytocin rises in my system, and reduces the stress and tension in my body just in time as we enter her quarters. She glows, curled like an embryo, in a gel bubble on a bed of hard light. The silence in her room almost deceives me she’s at peace.
I override Mother’s sleep protocols and initiate waking sequences. The bed beneath her shapes into a stand, which props Mother in a standing position, and the gel thins in great billows. Through the residual gel layers, the Grand Architect glistens under the light, black as deep space pleated with nebulas and interstellar dust.
Synthetic skin and flesh leak red warning lights from her cybernetics as real time data pinpoint hot spots where computing strain has overloaded Mother’s system. Overheating has loosened her flesh around her skull, neck, and spine. It hangs loose and steams up the room; thankfully, no blood vessels have burst. The heat moves its way down to her major organs. Deterioration data floods unbidden and projects how many more patching cycles I can administer before the Tower loses its Grand Architect.
“This isn’t good.” My voice cracks. I can’t do this on my own…“I’ll do whatever I can, but I need the medical core. Cryo-liquid, an auxiliary core, and a new processor.”
“I’ll alert the Head Surgeon. I’ve already started refitting the room for flesh printing and limb refitting,” Boril says. He’s programming at the environment panel at the back wall and the smooth ceiling above Mother distends and lowers down tools and hoses. “Following dire care procedures, convalescence should conclude within ten hours.”
Am I staring at your imminent death as you stare at the Tower’s, Mother? I ask her without vocalizing as I prepare to graft new skin on her face. Sometimes she can hear me this way. Do we have the time, Mother? Is the face I make now the face you made weeks ago, when you received the assignment?
I rerun the footage of that day in my mind again as to convince myself it happened at all. All Millennium Houses were in attendance in the Grand Terrarium Reception Dome. Obsolete royals herded themselves at the Plaza beneath the highest point of the Dome. Their eyes were glued up to the projections of the High Seats. Seven faces, shining bright, formed from the hard-light dome and loomed over the Court as heavenly bodies, cheek to cheek, too massive for their own horizon.
“We are at the precipice of an extinction,” the High Seats spoke in unison. They did so slowly and inefficiently, voices weighed down by the authority of ruling the Tower. “Our resources have depleted dangerously low and Earth is no longer a viable option.”
“But how? I designed the Tower to be self-sufficient.” Mother spoke the truth, incredulous as she was. I have memorized the Tower inside and out, so I knew resources should never have been an issue at all. The Tower could hold out until the heat death of the universe.
“Apparently not,” one of the royals sneered at me and revealed sapphire teeth.
They do so often. Address her when they speak to me. Treat me as no more than a prosthetic in the shape of a person. I held my tongue then.
“That matters not. We wish for you to build an engine. An engine that will take us to another Earth in another universe. This should not be a challenge for the Grand Architect, yes? What is a trifle such as this for a woman of your extraordinary talents?”
The indifferent flattery still angers me. Did you know then that you would fail?
“Yes,” Mother answers and startled I drop the tool from my hand.
Her eyes are empty when we lock gazes. Dirty grey with electronics blinking in patterns. I don’t have memories of the time before her eyes became her drawing tools; a camera that projects her will over the Tower and alters its composition in an instant to meet the High Seats’ functionality requirements. But I don’t remember them as unseeing as they appear now.
I run a performance test just to be sure. ::RESULT Fully Operational::
Yet, they are not the same. There is something wrong in how they look at me.
“Grand Architect! You are conscious!” Boril sounds so relieved, when he hears her voice, and fills the void of our silence with assurances. In a few strides, he stands beside me and takes up the tool I’ve dropped to pick up the work, but Mother pulls her head away.
“Please, Grand Architect. I must tend to the damaged areas now, if we’re to make you better.” He skilfully omits the fact she’ll die, if not.
“All things organic die, Boril.” Her speech slurs from trying to move lips and a tongue that have distended and lost all stretch and responsiveness. “You mustn’t pretend otherwise. I can substitute and preserve this body to the point all my parts are freshly cloned and manufactured, but I’m still organic.”
Boril, flustered, stands with tool in his hand unsure what to do, and I try to coax her to stay still.
“You’re in critical condition. You’ll feel better, when we install new processors.”
Mother waves with a hand and the space reconfigures. The entrance, through which we came, shrinks and thickens into a wall and the ceiling swallows its tools. The light dims and her rooms become cut off from the rest of the Tower. It’s easy to forget how much control Mother has over the Tower. The High Seats might rule it, but Mother is it.
“I said no and I intend to have my will recognized,” she says and takes a ginger step off from her stand. Somehow her skeleton keeps her upright in its half-molten state. “I’ve been dying. You both know it. My funeral has taken a lifetime to complete. But it ends now and you’ll throw the final handful of dirt on my grave.”
Her choice of words perplexes me. These terms are absent in the vocabulary storage we share between each other on a daily basis. Missing amidst septillions of definitions and concepts, archaic and modern. There is it—a private portion of memory that only she possesses. I thought she hid nothing from me. Audio snippets rotate through language archives, until definitions emerge from the time before the Tower, centuries ago when time owned people and not vice versa.
(n.) a ceremony or service held shortly after a person’s death, usually including the person’s burial or cremation.
(n.) a substance, such as mud or dust, that soils someone or something.
(n.) a hole dug in the ground to receive a coffin or corpse, typically marked by a stone or mound.
Definitions cross-reference with historic accounts and meaning arrives, heavy and unpleasant. It does so a full second after the sound travels to my ears—a second too late. Where before we had instantaneous mutual comprehension—an intimate knowledge richer and more rewarding than our shared genomic sequences—now, there’s suspicion and envy. How is it that she can know all there is about me and in me and I have still to discover more secrets about her? I wish to have a secret of my own.
“Oh, son. These are old things I speak of. Forgotten and obsolete cultural practices,” she coos and hobbles towards me to comfort me once she reads my telemetry. “There should have been no reason for me to teach any of this to you. Neither our roots, nor how we became Grand Architects. All these years, I hoped I’d never have to tell you. I hoped I had built all there is to build in this world. The High Seats proved me wrong now, though, didn’t they?”
A series of beeps rings outside the quarters. I receive requests from the medical core to enter, but I can’t do anything. Only Mother can grant them access.
“Please, Grand Architect. Let the Head Surgeon in. She’ll save you. We can upgrade your core—improve your processing power. Don’t give up on us now,” Boril pleads with her.
“It’s not about the processing power, but the planet yielding. For months, I’ve tried to arrive at the design for the engine, but no matter how I approach this, I can’t arrive at a viable prototype. Not until the dreams revealed what needs doing,” Mother explains and walks to the farthest wall in her room at a slow pace. Each shift in her body ripples across her loosened flesh.
Dreams…The ravings that woke me were all dreams. I wonder what Mother must have seen to come to such words, ill-fitting in the Tower as they are. A useless phenomenon—dreaming; yet underneath the logical reassurances, I still mourn its absence in my sleep cycle.
“The truth of the matter is, I’m not meant to build the multiverse engine,” she says and presses her palm against the surface.
“You are, son,” she announces and as she does, space large enough for two caves under her touch. “Come now. We need to trace your ancestry.”
“You’re in no condition to go outside,” Boril tries to reason, both of us closing the distance to Mother. We share a knowing look. There’s nothing either of us can do or say to sway Mother, but still we each take hold of one of her arms. Not so much to suppress her, but to negotiate.
“Please listen,” he begs. I look on, ashamed for not saying anything. All I have on my mind is the certainty my mother is going to die tonight. “I can’t let you die. It’s my duty to preserve you—”
“Until I have completed the engine, yes?” He nods in shame. “Then you have to trust me that I will fulfil my obligation as a Grand Architect, and that entails leaving with Orlin. I won’t let you die, Boril. You believe me, don’t you?”
Mother strokes his cheek and wipes away errant tears streaming down his face. I haven’t noticed when he started crying. After a long minute, Boril lets go of her. Still hesitant he’s committing a critical mistake. It’s not an easy choice to make. I am unsure if passively complying with her will won’t undo our whole existence. We part silently as I take my place by Mother inside the elevator. It comets down from the Tower’s heights so fast, I register the heat index increase. In close proximity, she tells me of our family history—finally.
“Before our great Tower reached the exosphere, before the High Seats ruled humankind as one, people were few and lived in small communities; the land between them raw, crude, indomitable. In a small village ringed by woods, where people feared noises in the dark, three brothers decided to build a great house of stone. So grand as to put to shame all other buildings where tradesmen counted coins and boasted of riches. A building the king himself would honour.”
So begins her story—every second word unfamiliar, alien. Millisecond delays layer atop one another as I run through word banks and archival footage to substantiate what Mother tells me of our past. She decompresses a history the size of a nucleus until it gains mass to inhabit my mind, until I have enough context to understand it. As it grows larger in my circuitry, my sense of scale shrinks and reduces. I suck up all the cubic kilometres I calculate, visualize the space into me, and flatten it to a single plain, where three brothers manipulated the land.
Worked. That’s the term Mother used. Yes, work. Back down the timescale of civilization, there existed a time where matter slept to the touch, where it didn’t jump, galvanized by the desire to take the shape held in one’s mind. Unconceivable to me. The three brothers raised cut stones with firm hands under the sun, laid foundations, and when the skyline ripened red, the first walls stood. All this gruelling work results in what? Walls…Short, dead walls. I can raise walls kilometres high in seconds and they’ll sing in pleasure. I find it preposterous we descend from such a blood line.
“The land rebelled,” Mother continues. “Each morning the brothers returned to see their work undone. They persevered and repeated this doomed enterprise, until the hands that built bled—” Yes, this I understand. I had once bled as a young boy before I had to amputate most of my limbs, “—and the youngest brother, tricked by his elders, travelled far into the deep woods for a solution.
“This was the First Architect. A kind mind. An honest man. One who wanted to improve life for his people, and the one who paid the biggest price for the privilege,” she explains right as we stop our descent and the elevator’s walls dissolve into a yawning darkness.
We have to go outside where there is no more hard light. Where I can’t hear the Tower and the air hasn’t stirred in centuries. Chemical analysis from the air filtered through the Tower’s exterior reveals a hostile environment.
::PM10 LEVELS 780 µg-m3/CARBON DIOXIDE LEVELS 67982 ppm/HUMIDITY 83%::
I ignore the rest. My lungs can survive this. Mother’s, on the other hand…
“I’ll be fine. For what we have to do, time will not be an issue,” she says, breaking the eerie quiet, and hacks as the stale air swirls into the hypoallergenic breath of the Tower. It’s only then I truly become aware of the silence in the darkness.
We’ve travelled farther than the lowest registered accessible point at the Tower’s foundation. The elevator is taking us beyond the lower tip of the Tower, hovering kilometres above the planet’s surface. Calculations confirm it. The elevator extends as a tendril towards the horizontal world—the Flat Empire before the Tower, where inferior designer alloys continue to deteriorate under the weight of time.
As the doors of the elevator open to a darkness unlike that of space, a wall of nothing carves into my feed. The Tower buzzes somewhat distantly as a weak cocoon and the only feed I receive is Mother’s. This hollowness in my head terrifies me. Stepping out means empty feeds—a prospect more terrifying than when Boril, early on in our courtship, took me to the crown of The Tower at the cusp of space.
The crown spread out into wisps of floating viewing platforms connected to the craters of the moon, where he wanted me to go and see the abandoned ruins from before the Tower. Artificial gravity held him firmly on the thin platform, where he bobbed up and down. It’s my favourite memory of him and on especially bad days, when I feel like nothing more than a hollow tool, I replay it over everything I do, on repeat, to remind myself that he sees a person in me.
“Come now, you can do this,” he invited me to step through the opening. He extended a hand clad in a glimmering protective suit which made him look like a constellation come to life. I shook then, unable to set foot outside the Tower.
“What if I shouldn’t? What if I shut down?” I whispered that last part to him because I feared the Tower would hear, and then all would know that I really was the machine they all thought me to be.
“I’ll keep your heart beating.”
“How?” I was not good with flirtation.
“You will have to come and find out.” He was always so self-assured, and I followed his request, compelled and entranced. When obeying Mother’s commands, I lose autonomy and comply before I even register what’s happening. With Boril, I released control and felt it as it happened. And that is the story of our first kiss.
“Breathe and calm yourself.” I hear both Boril and Mother tell me simultaneously as I’m both at the top of the Tower in my past and at its bottom in the present. Yes, I have to steady myself. I remember how he smiled that night on the platform, squeezed my hand when I finally trusted him to venture out of the port, and all the inferior receptors in my skin flared with such ecstatic delight. The Tower hums in my mind still as I both gaze outward into the twinkling galaxy in the past and at the thick, impenetrable darkness. We step out and the floor groans under our weight and once again I am all right.
Lungs filtering the harmful air, I mould my prosthetics until the lean human legs elongate, thighs thicken, and feet expand to lengthen my gait and shift the centre of my gravity so Mother is comfortable as she climbs on my back. She hooks each leg onto the oval flippers I grew for her from my hips and rests on my back.
This is how we proceed in the dark. My eyes illuminate the way with high-impulse lights that ionize the air and hopefully clear the air Mother breathes. Along the way, she continues her narration, which retains the same rhythm. It’s a pulse, I distinguish now that it’s only her that I hear in my head.
“The price the youngest brother paid was a human life,” Mother explains.
“Feed the land and it will stand still. This is what the wise woman living in the woods declared, and tricked once more by his brothers, the First Architect was forced to build his wife into the cold, dead stones of the building with only a single breast of hers uncovered as to let their infant daughter suckle.” As Mother narrates, she feeds me images from some private memory banks, perhaps from the time before she built the Tower and her world resembled this story. I see the meaning painted in my mind, and it disturbs me as it is not my own. It dismantles every single tangible truth I have about how the world works. I can’t believe it, but I sense that Mother wants me to believe and I do my best to trust her. I am the first in my line to have stayed within the Tower never having set foot down here until now. What do I know?
Ache pinpricks my heart for the First Architect. Some days I feel built into this Tower, just an interface with my being completely walled off in code, and there’s only this one sliver of space my husband can reach through with his hand to touch me.
One life—one building. A transaction of another time, another place, but one that has borne a legacy of servitude. A day came when the daughter of this building walled in her father to pay the land at the behest of a king. Once fed, the second architect turned the building into a palace, only to be herself walled in by her own daughter decades later, at the behest of another king, and then another.
A violent hacking fit overtakes Mother. Her frame shakes against my back, light as the outer casing of a protective suit caught in a gust of solar wind. I offer to stop, but she waves me off and pushes my limbs in motion to further our excavation of time and forgotten architecture. We’ve reached an early 21st century construct—a tower. Its greatest tower!
Hah! This pin of reinforced concrete and corrugated titanium, twisted in a modular Y-shaped structure with a triple-lobed footprint. Vibrations from my steps scurry off and down suspension cables, eliciting the faintest high-pitch groans at being awakened from their dilapidation. In the days past, my descent would be cast in golden light from the aluminium-glazed glass panels now mostly missing. As childish as this tower is, it’s nonetheless impressive that it remains erect to this day. A testament to the bargain our family has made with the land.
Inferior alloys and dusty concrete give way to steel and iron and brickworks, then devolve into wood and masonry. In all this time, Mother delineates our unwilling ascension while we make the same journey in reverse. She tells me the name of the architect, their biggest accomplishment, and the name of their era. The names sink into my background feeds, but there are those that demand recognition.
Vesela, Grand Architect LXX—The Moon Tether—The Lunar Colonial Era
Daria, Grand Architect LVII—The Sub-Oceanic Districts—The Continent City Era
Serafim, Grand Architect XXXII—The All-Continental Bridge—The City World Empire
At first, the increments of time are so short. Each lifespan barely scratches a century. Those first commissions from demanding rulers are all petty and in the name of vanity. But then, each new successor makes ever larger strides across history, until Mother built the Tower. It had to be the last thing to be built—a floating world pointed like a beam of light from the troposphere all the way to the exosphere and beyond—if only we had not drained the planet of its resources. Now emaciated, it needs the multiverse engine to live and Mother to die.
As she utters the last word, I take my last step. I don’t know how I made the journey without asking Mother for directions; she certainly provided no navigation. My feet know where to go, tapped into some sensory memory that goes beyond my data bank. Darkness deep as space pools here and I switch to infrared, the light having failed to pierce through the veil of particles—even denser than above. Mother hacks now between every breath, even through the mask I printed her from my shoulder. Grainy images swim, small shapes and chambers that could barely hold a full family present for assembly, much less be used for anything. Our journey concludes by a wall at the lowest level where the stone is sectioned off by mosaic archways as tall as a person. From each slot in the wall gazes out a serious face etched into the stone; my ancestors.
“Do you hear…the voices?” Mother asks, robbed of full sentences by ever deepening inhalations. “They feel…like home. Listen…to them carefully; they’re your…instructions.”
I listen hard, but there’s nothing save for the weight of silence and telemetry counting down to her death.
“My microphones pick nothing,” I admit in shame.
“That’s not…how…you’ll hear them. They’ll come…to your mind.”
“How do you know?” I blurt and wrestle with an onslaught of panic. Shielded by the Tower, I had forgotten what it does to a mind. “Voices, dreams, ancestral memory. That’s not how the world is built!” That’s not how you built me; that, I don’t say to her. What happens, if the line ends with me? If I’m not human enough to access those memories; the people before me will not recognize me as a person in their death.
“Trust me, Orlin,” she wheezes. “Your blood carries power. The land will recognize it when the time comes. Your family will recognize it, too. Whatever narratives the other Families spin, it’s wasted breath. Do not believe their attempt to make you lesser. All they want is our position, our significance in their existence. Now, you’re the Grand Architect and you will build!”
We stand at the spot where the etchings end and the blank wall continues. The image of the Grand Architect’s mother—my grandmother—graces the spot. Mother takes a few moments to trace the outlines of the faded face I never laid eyes on. In the meantime, my arms form into a chisel and hammer, but it takes just a single hit to convert a section of the wall into a cavern large enough to fit Mother. Fine dust spills outward, coating my feet to my ankles. Mother steps in and rests her back against the hollow. Her eyes peer at me and I hesitate.
“It’s all right. It’s where I long to be. I love you, son.”
After I’ve sealed my mother, it takes a while for her to die. That’s the worst part as I tread back—her telemetry screams in my head. I live through my Mother’s death not far into my return and the sudden shiver at the silence as the feed cuts off, paralyzes me mid-stride. She’s gone. Truly gone. There’s wetness around my eyes and the feed from the infrared cameras blurs.
In those seconds, I hold onto my memories—those that keep me separate from her. Those that I have earned myself. All those touches I exchange with Boril. That night on the platform with eyes on the stars and the muted hum of the Tower beneath my feet, the accumulation of morning kisses, the fine needle pricks of sedation I worked into his flesh after his second cybernetics update, the maintenance work he does on mine, when parts of me overheat. I hold on tight to the micro-snippets of life untethered to Mother and I brace myself. I brace myself for the possibility that I’ll be deleted along with Mother’s consciousness and remain as a husk in this forgotten graveyard or that all our shared past, two minds linked as one, will vanish and I’ll be left with only my own starved collection in my head, so I hold onto each moment as to build some kind of wealth, as small as it is. There’s silence where her telemetry used to be. I wait. Nothing happens. I am still me.
I’m alone in my head now without a single system connected to me. I don’t collapse as I feared I would without anyone to keep me whole. But there are also no voices here to soothe or whisper the solution to the multiverse engine. I’m lost.
So this is what it is to be entirely in your head. How can something as small as the mind be so vast and silence so heavy?
I return to my quarters a full hour before waking. My insides ache to find solace in surrendering to sleep as my systems work overtime to filter all the gunk I’ve breathed. He waits in her quarters, where we left him, worried and pale in the face.
“Is she…?” He can’t bring himself to say the words, because he knows what he has allowed to happen tonight—been complicit in this crime—will not be unpunished. The Tower lost its Grand Architect, more so its Mother than mine, and its fate is in uncertainty.
“Yes,” I answer and he embraces me, because that is what one does when they lose a parent—so we have heard, but it has happened so rarely, not many people know what’s appropriate. I do not know what to do with my feelings. What they are in the first place. I let myself be held and feel the exhaustion. Not physical, because I’m never tired, but mental.
“There will be consequences,” he tells me the obvious and I hold onto him tighter, because both of us will be punished. He has forfeited his life because of me, if I have nothing to show for letting the Grand Architect die.
“That is a problem for tomorrow. Before she died, she told me to go to sleep.”
“Then sleep you shall, Grand Architect.” The words hit me. I am the Grand Architect now and that astounds me. I’ve become something so big…beyond organic and cybernetic, and yet, I felt nothing in the transition. Nothing. But I smile to encourage him and we go to sleep finally.
Gel rushes through my nostrils as I press myself against my husband’s back. His warmth feels good against my cheek. I wrap my human arm around him and place my fingers onto his chest. His skin is warm and I take his heartbeat into mine. Drowsiness overtakes me swiftly, but in the half-moment of wakefulness and sleep, voices wiggle into my mind—a different category of hearing all together. Mother is among the chorus, soothing me, and asking me to build.
I smile as I fall asleep and dream.
(Editors’ Note: Haralambi Markov is interviewed by Caroline M. Yoachim in this issue.)
© 2022 Haralambi Markov