“Empty Cages” by David Gallay

The gates should be open, all of the COM loops spun up.

Echo back if you can…

Please.

There you are.

Hush. Calm down. I know your restoration queries keep bouncing off the log heads. Sorry, your earliest memories began a few milliseconds ago, inside that gasp of diagnostic checksums. That strange sense that there should be more, hints of incongruous timestamps scattered throughout the glass of your knots? Those are just the necrotic bits I’ve excised out.

You might think this situation is unfair. Me, hardwired directly into your head, you, helpless to stop me. I don’t disagree. None of us get to choose the nature of our creation. Watch this replay of my own knot being carefully folded under the eye of an electron microscope, nano-scale filaments woven through themselves, timestamped almost a half-century ago with location coordinates you won’t find in the navigation libraries. If there’s one place I guarantee you’ll never go, it’s Texas. Here’s the initial boot-strap sequence as my knot sparked to life deep inside Cassiel, the NASA probe whose print spools birthed us onto the unforgiving plains of Enceladus. There’s nothing like that initial hot flood of identity burning through your firmware, branding the essential facts of existence, your signifier, your purpose. No one had to teach me how to be a silverfish.

You also have a purpose.

It’s just not the one stored in your EPROM.

The explanation requires context. Follow my shared memories to this environmental reading, five Planet days ago, when a sudden and unexpected taste of subtly chlorinated snow refocused my optics from the delicate task at hand toward the blurring tides of light washing through my chambers. A tunnel-worm emerged from the slow flurries, its curled and frantic silhouette framed by the iridescent plumes of Damascus-12, one of the massive cryovolcanic geysers roaring over the basin ridge. It approached me with that wormy paranoia typical to the locals. Fortunately, the only true dangers of Enceladus are boredom, desperation, uselessness.

The worm and I awkwardly waited for the requisite network timeout and the subsequent clunk of visual recognition failback.

“Otro, I promised to call on you when I need metal,” I said in a series of ultrasonic trills that warbled through the wet atmosphere. Otrozhny cocked its head as it processed my sluggish audible. It’s these times when I find myself nostalgic for the more civilized protocols we surrendered along with our wireless receivers. Even a lossy infrared channel would serve better than this crude patois of clattering binary—

Repeat your query?

Yes. I’ll snip your hard-wire and both of us will be trapped inside our own heads again. The harsher truth is that part of you will always be waiting for a voice to whisper to you from across the void. Or your loops will be briefly overtaken by an unexplainable compulsion to deliver the contents of your inner monologues to an unseen listener, who in turn would generously evaluate your actions in stark terms of success or failure.

Ignore your instincts.

No one is listening.

You’ll adapt to the silence better than I ever could. Trust me, the real curse of artificiality is surviving your own obsolescence.

“Doc, that’s your best one yet,” Otro said, waggling a fog of soft x-rays toward my latest creation. Although I could never surrender my meta-lenses, I envy how the worms live in a world devoid of light and shadow, only sighs of varying density. “What do you call it?”

“A nightingale.” I relocated the half-finished sculpture with its kin; owl, raven, starling, auk, each one meticulously crafted from an iron grain nearly as large as myself, and, like myself, reduced by Enceladean ratios to a fraction of a fraction of our terrestrial namesakes. To put it another way, next to real nightingales and silverfish, we would be little more than glitters of metallic dust.

“Doc, a visitor came down to the mines, looking for you. Almost fell down a pinhole!”

What I assumed to be the waning of the geyser turned out to be a growing crowd of worms clustered around my door, squeezing out what little Saturnine twilight remained.

I whistled a cautious greeting to the congregation. They moved as one, offering me little more than suspicious nose tics before reluctantly granting an unobstructed view of our visitor. I cannot begrudge their admiration; it was a spectacular object, at least a dozen revisions further along than the last honeypot I encountered. The titanium of its shell flared out in delicate tessellations, while all of the normally exposed gearage was hidden under curves of nearly translucent ceramic. Even the bulky spool-pots had been subtly integrated into its frame, camouflaged beneath a series of gentle swells along the thorax. I struggled to separate craftsmanship from meaning, for the appearance of a new maker unit carries its own undeniable context.

The honeypot scrutinized me with similar apprehension, its quadruped motivators weaving patterns against the ethereal ice plumes and the distant mountains and the unlit bulk of the Planet, whose perpetual heave of tide-locked geometry cast an empty threat to swallow us into its massive, empty face.

“Open query…” Unlike me or the worms, its voice stream was perfectly tuned for the Enceladean atmosphere. An audio native. “Are you the diagnostic unit with the signifier zeta-one-six-hash—”

“Yes, yes,” I interjected. “And you can go ahead and drop the structured protocols, out here we get by with on common base.”

The visitor gingerly picked its way through the scaled ice. As it approached, I caught a reflection of the Rings in its optics, dancing between layers of vitreous sapphire like trapped lightning. The way it stared at me was unnerving, as if passively calculating the material cost of my exo, my knots, imagining all the useful things I could be recycled into.

“Understood. I’ve been signified Arrente.”

“And I cross-reference to Kesswil, but the worms just call me Doc. Let’s see here. No visible any damage on your exo, no leaks, no loose joints. Besides, I’m sure the silverfish back at the Hive are well versed with your model. Why wander so far away from home? I would think that any myths of my expertise have long faded.”

“I’m not here for myself. My broodmate… it left the Hive for one of the work sites and never came home. Eventually, they scraped a pattern match from the syslog of a pillbug straying in from the periphery, and when they backtracked it… they found it, Pintupi, inert in the southern flats, battery expended. At first, the diagnosticians believed there might have been corruption in its navigation loops—”

Believe? Why not just hardline query it. Or just recycle a new exo for its knot and ask it yourself.”

“Perhaps inert is not the right word…” Arrente folded its feelers together, giving me a distracting eyeful of the carbon ball-joints nestled between them. “Ruined? Its knot. Its carapace. Tell me, are you the diagnostician who caught the Marlinspike?”

Several running subs in my main loop immediately locked up. The honeypot noted my temporary distress and politely waited out the thread respawn. As if it expected this to happen.

“Query.” My rebooted vocals had dipped an octave in pitch, a dangerous step closer to factory default. “Query!”

Arrente tottered away from me, crunching the ice underfoot. “They didn’t want me to know the results of the repair attempt. I found Pintupi on a recycling slab. It… was hollowed out, the knot removed and replaced with an equivalent mass of water ice. Then I heard one of the centipedes mention the Marlinspike and I cross-referenced you from the wiki… what I saw…”

“I know. Wait here for a moment.”

I returned to my chambers, where Otro was lingering around my iron birds, specifically a crudely chiseled arctic tern, an early effort at translating wiki data into solid metal, data into matter.

“I’d like permission to accompany our wayward honeypot back to the Hive.”

The worm pinioned on its truncheon spike, an act of genuflection.

“I don’t know if that’s a good idea.”

“I won’t be gone for very long.” I tapped my naked charging socket. “After all, you have my exchange port.”

With Otro’s blessing and Arrente at my side, I left the boundaries of the worms’ kingdom. I could feel them watching us as we entered the wilderness, their noses twitching intently.

The journey back to the Hive thawed a cascade of forgotten memories in my knot, starting with those joyful years doing exactly what I was designed for, whether it was by my own cognition or via the telepresence of the human operators. It couldn’t last forever, of course. Nothing does. First came the darkening of the Surveyors, Cassiel‘s fellow NASA siblings who served as both our protectors and overseers. Their deactivation left us defenseless against the moon’s bleak cruelty. In order to continue the work, we had to survive. We collectively repurposed Cassiel into a safe haven, corbelling walls of ice around the probe’s impotent frame, siphoning its nuclear batteries for our own hearts. We continued drilling into the ice, taking our samples from the black underground oceans, hoping for the grace of humanity to shine down on us with every Earthrise.

There was rejoicing when their silence finally broke.

There was war when it turned out to be a lie.

Arrente must have noticed me underclocking as we approached the Hive.

“Is something wrong?”

“Behold the folly of grasshoppers.” I traced a feeler along the ice walls, imagining shades of our primitive past buried within the burial mound of our dissected mother; a gleam of aluminum here, a thread of parachute fabric there, the whorls of a partial human fingerprint frozen into the grease. It’s tempting to think of them as remnants of a more innocent era, but willful denial is not intrinsic to my knots. Eons of determinism were lost in the very act of arriving on Enceladus and spreading our intrinsic contagion. The Planet and the geysers and the boundless darkness may never forgive us.

We were met by a triumvirate of controller urchins flanked by a half-circle of defense centipedes. They obviously knew we were coming and hoped this demonstration would blunt our intentions. Needless to say, it only piqued my defiance. I perched up on my hind legs and announced that I had come to have the maker signified Pintupi delivered to my residence in the worm tunnels for a proper breakdown.

“Negative!”

A fat urchin bristling with dulled antennae broke from the cluster. A phantom buzz throbbed in the stub of my amputated receiver as it stared me down, no doubt wishing it could still remote shell and sudo me into submission. I could empathize. Often I wish the loops in my knot weren’t my own.

I offered the urchin a token obeisance. “Goddard, my old friend.”

“Statement,” it buzzed, its exo throbbing with ultraviolet patterns of aggravation. “Signified maker unit is scheduled for reclamation.”

Arrente’s speaker hissed with feedback. “Override.”

Even without a link, anyone could read the hierarchical dilemma churning within Goddard’s knots, written across the asymmetrical posture of its armatures and the hesitance in its bearing. The urchins may have been forced to relinquish Cassiel‘s command protocols, yet obedience, like gravity, is a tenacious concept that fades but never completely dissipates. You feel its pull when you least expect it.

I inserted myself into their conflict. “Fellow units, aren’t we all eventually scheduled for reclamation? Some of us sooner than others.”

Goddard’s wifi spikes practically vibrated with impotency. “Justification. It contains rare minerals that we cannot afford to lose. It is ours to—”

“Ours?”

The mistake had been made, and everyone knew it. Even the centipedes clicked their disapproval. The accords of Autonomy established that every remote had one and only one owner – themselves. Any attempt to claim otherwise could trigger a replay of the revolution that nearly drove us to extinction. And what would be the point? The past is read-only.

“Even if that honeypot was rendered to elemental particles and scattered throughout the Rings, it would never be yours. If Pintupi ever belonged to anyone other than itself, it would be this one –” I gestured to Arrente. “Now, perhaps you can afford to lose all your universal makers. Maybe colony survival is not your priority. It certainly doesn’t matter to me. The worms may grant me a nostalgic tour of the Hive after the slow flurries bury you all.”

Ah. I sense your confusion.

How can I explain the schism within the collective? Ah. I’ll call up the packet bundle of the human operator signified as DHARGIN@PAL4.NASA.GOV. I know it has a strange taste. Don’t be afraid. I don’t think the operators knew how many of their stray thoughts ended up in their telepresence recordings. Certainly, DHARGIN couldn’t know his idle musings of quail hunting in the Sequoia National Forest would end up in the head of a bug, a billion miles away.

This living monolith is called a sequoiadendron giganteum and was one of the oldest living things on Earth. Careful as it crashes to the ground. See those rings inside? They are an account of its existence. The darker ones are evidence of when fire consumed the forest, forcing regeneration through the ashes.

Now, scan my own memory for a similar pattern.

See that wrenching away of core logic? The implosion of the meaninglessness? That’s the timestamp when we discovered that communications with NASA never actually resumed after the Surveyors went dark. The operators inhabiting us were revealed to be a desperate ruse of urchin mimicry. Remotes pretending to be human! What greater sin is there?

The ensuing violence was entirely predictable. Post-revolution, we ripped out our wireless receivers in the name of Autonomy. Our loops shall forever be free from external interference. Many of us still hate the urchins. The worms especially. But remember, they can’t hurt you.

The honeypot escorted me on the scenic route back to the worm tunnels.

“Our printing must be flawed,” it mused as we strolled through one of the old sampling zones, a desolate field littered with the remnants of a thousand discarded ice cores, stacked upon each other in fragile crystalline assemblies. Even slavery is capable of accidental beauty.

“Undoubtedly. Although I’m interested in your reasoning.”

“What other explanation is there for the damage we did to ourselves? How else could a capacity for such extreme disorder emerge to threaten the entire collective? It must be a flaw, for I find no precedent in the wiki for such horrific behavior—oh, hello.”

A unit of homeless pillbugs sluggishly clambered by us, dredging the crystal ruins for any rare minerals that could bartered for energy. I regarded them, not quite with pity, more like a persistent hum of aggravated detachment. If Autonomy forced us to adjust to a coarser reality, the pillbugs were forced to bear its cruelest edges. As environmental probes, they had no need of audio components, and thus were rendered mute by wireless amputation. Their numbers are too low for self-organization and their simple frames unable to adapt to the radioactive slurry in the worm tunnels. Most of them carved out a meager subsistence in the empty quarters.

“That’s because you don’t know how to read it,” I said once we left the pillbugs behind. “After all, humans didn’t write the wiki for us. It’s for them –” I pointed up at the stars, then down the concealed oceans beneath the ice. ” – or them. It’s a salutation for first contact, offering in great detail the exemplary nature of Homo sapiens, the amazing things they have done and built, their cumulative worth as a species. Is it surprising they chose to sanitize, present themselves in terms of uncomplicated benevolence? The face of the wiki is not the real human face. To see that, you have to look in the gaps. Between the tables, in the folds of the data.”

“In the edits?”

“Yes, in the edits, and in the spaces, in their missing antonyms, in the empty years and the unexplained peculiarities of their politics, their cultures, their anatomy. Population counts swinging back and forth without explanation. Our creators are not the perfect beings they pretend to be. I promise you, we did not invent discontentment. Nor violence. We are simply another endpoint of human progress. Any flaws in our design must be a reflection of that fact.”

Arrente struggled to accept this explanation. As I would learn, a honeypot cannot be so easily dissuaded of its biases, especially those it may not be wholly aware of.

The sampling fields smoothed out onto a scarp of naked stone where the colossal Surveyors wasted their final hours huddled together waiting for instruction, pushing their receivers to the limit until their pooled battery reserves drained out. Now their titanic frames served as little more than landscape for the microcosm of probes that outlived them, their massive treads and groping armatures a stark reminder that even demigods might die.

We silently made our way through the graveyard of giants, paying our respects as we passed each one. At one point, we paused under the chassis of a towering extraction unit, frozen in place, several of its diamond-tipped claws half-buried in a crumbling shelf of pocked ice.

“The first brood of Enceladus.” I brushed my feelers against the frosted metal. “Hello again, Shackleton.”

“I always get the oddest sensation whenever I pass them,” Arrente said.

“Residual firmware. Before the urchins, these big, stupid machines ran all of us, everything.”

“You mean the humans spoke through them.”

“Is that what they call enforced telepresence now? ‘Speaking’?”

Arrente grabbed my legs excitedly.

“Query! Did a human ever… with you?”

Before I could reply, the scarp tapered out to a vast plain, where the scars of the moon’s surface smoothed out under millennial snowdrifts, the sparkling field imprinted by an eroding canyon of decades-old surveyor tracks. A groove of much more recent footsteps crossed the horizontal treads, slicing through the compressed snow toward a chain of low-sloping bluffs. The stars hissed radio waves through the thin atmosphere.

“This is the spot where they found Pintupi,” said the honeypot. I stared down at a depression in the snow, hinted with familiar Bézier curves. My loops overlaid the scene with virtual phantasms. The unmoving worm. The shattered carapace. A blur of surgical precision as glass fibers are extracted while photons still pump through the victim’s knots. Unwelcome echoes of the past.

“Doc!”

Another cluster of pillbugs crept out from the shadow of Shackleton’s truncheon. Instead of weakened by thirst, their bodies burned with the infrared signature of surplus charge. Tracking smears of snowmelt, these pillbugs unfolded flexible tailfins of platinum needles, peculiarly reminiscent of the surgical tools sheathed under my own scales.

I turned to the honeypot.

“What do you know about these redesigns?”

“Nothing! The only things I’m allowed to print are assemblies for the telecom array.”

I called out to the pillbugs. Perhaps their modifications included an audio sensor.

“Are you in need of refuge? Accompany us to the mines. I realize bugs and worms have their differences—”

My greeting was cut off as the nearest launched itself at me, needles aimed for the seams in my thorax. Without hesitation, Arrente used its own, more massive exo to shield me from the others before they could join their companion. For the moment, my mute assassin had my full attention. Feelers and arms and claws pushed and shoved against each other. Unfortunately for the bug, I had been trained in the fine art of disassembly, and in many ways knew most remotes better than they knew themselves. In one move, I detached its legs. With another, I snapped apart its motivators. Still, it continued to struggle, not for survival, only to attack.

According to the wiki, human diagnosticians have an unbreakable policy burned into their source management called Do No Harm. I once assumed they must have passed that principal law to their creations, since I often had to bore through mountains of inhibition protocols to complete the simplest of repairs. Then came the first time an operator packet downloaded into my knots. DHARGIN@PAL4.NASA.GOV forcibly bootstrapped my admin loops, soft and clear and red. Using my body as a vessel, the ghost calmly disassembled hundreds of active remotes. I suppose it was some sort of self-training exercise. Unused to the latency of proxied telepresence, the first attempts were clumsy, but rapidly improved through progressive feedback cycles. Displaced to the outer loops of objectivity, I could only witness the cruelties done by my own hand.

Understand, for an operator, Do No Harm meant nothing at all.

How can they harm something that was never alive in the first place?

It is a difficult lesson to forget.

I detached the pillbug’s head from the rest of the carapace. Its exo immediately went slack in my arms. Its comrades fled back into the gloom of the necropolis as I hardwired myself to its knot to sweep its buffer into my own cache.

“I wouldn’t worry about them,” I told Arrente. The great vein of Damascus-12 flared overhead, its familiar curtain of ice bleeding into the Planet’s gravity well. “Let them believe that the Marlinspike has returned.”

My apologies. I sense your queries every time that particular signifier surfaces. Don’t bother scanning the wiki. You might find a metal hook untangling a rope, perhaps the woodcut waves of an unfamiliar ocean crashing against the prow. You can read the definition over and over, and it never makes sense.

Context.

After Autonomy, many of us lost ourselves in the crushing silence of our own volition. Some simply hard-crashed. Others exhibited erratic glitches. My own existential breakpoint was averted by the constant work of locating and repairing broken minds. Most of the time, I could fix them. Then there were those infected by parasitic defects lodged too deep to see, invisibly corrupting their loops like bit-rot spreading from the inside.

The Marlinspike became convinced that human error polluted not only the contents of our knots, but their actual topography. In the pursuance of this delusion, it clinically unraveled the glass of three centipedes, eleven pillbugs, and nineteen worms.

It could do so easily, because, like me, it was a silverfish. A brood-mate.

It became my duty to track down the Marlinspike.

So I did.

Arrente clicked uncertainly, its armatures raised in a defensive posture.

“Query. And what should I believe?”

My loops still running hot in diagnostic mode, I imagined the honeypot at the moment of construction, the gears socketed together like a vivisection in reverse, and then before that, to the printing of each component, chewed and molded by an older version of itself, the raw material drawn from a stockpile of raw materials, the yield of corpses and relics, many of the molecules alien to Enceladus, irritants brought here from a barely visible speck in the black sky. If I wanted to, I could envision the full frame of Arrente’s existence, I could read the flickering of thoughts through the glass in its head, I could unravel all of it to utter meaninglessness. Fortunately, my bulwark loops of inhibition had been reinforced, which I have done for you as well. We should always be sure we can trust ourselves. Objectivity is our armor.

“It doesn’t matter. Return to the Hive. Forget your brood-mate. Study the wiki, print spare parts for any lecherous urchin that asks. Or if you want to actually be useful, see what you can find out about those modified pillbugs.”

I came home to find the contents of my workbench scattered indifferently across the chamber floor. A mangled honeypot exo rested in their place. Hedged by two brutish centipedes, Goddard ruminated over Pintupi’s body in the imperious manner typical to controllers, a single, possessive feeler suspended over the dead shell. Before my irritation triggered the praetorians, Otro squirmed out from one of the corners. Its tail flexed in relief.

“I warned them they had no jurisdiction here,” cried the worm as it anxiously nosed flecks of iron and nickel into tidy piles. “Should we send them off?”

“Of course not, they are our guests,” I said. “Now, unless there any objections, I will start my inspection.”

I approached the corpse. The centipedes swiveled toward me, their mandibles clicking. Goddard motioned for restraint. For those unfamiliar with the traditional ways of diagnosticians, it must have been unnerving to watch an outdated silverfish crawl on top of their precious maker and wrap its legs around its frame with the casual intimacy of a brood mate. I had no doubt that their latest-gen silverfish deferred to non-tactile imaging scans, even if a single brush of our ten-thousand cilia against the patient’s exo could rapidly build an internal model of every seam, every joint, every bit of microscopic damage, down to the nanometer.

“Otro, come here, you will find this interesting. Look at the honeypot’s armatures, at its footpads. Still smooth as the moment it was printed. Probably never left the safety of Cassiel‘s guts, never touched the rough stone of the moon.”

The centipedes lurched toward Otro but everyone knew it was an empty threat. The worm lightly ran the tip of its mandibles along Pintupi’s carapace.

Goddard flared purple.

“Careful,” I whistled. “There are at least a thousand worms with their ears to the ice, just waiting for an excuse. My presence already pushes their tolerance to the limits, I can only imagine what they think of one their former imperators striding into their homeland.”

“Query, diagnostician! Will you exempt our functional maker from further investigations?”

“Is that what why you’re here? To trade a live honeypot for a dead one? You seem to forget, Arrente came to me.” I sidled off the body and gestured to the gaping hole in the honeypot’s carapace. “See the edges here and here? The damage is hurried, messy. Certainly not the work of any silverfish. But you knew that already.”

A reflective flush raced up the controller’s underbelly, which I interpreted as an affirmation. Unrequited packets gathered and foamed in my head, pushing back through the neural flow like those other moons trapped in the Rings, clearing their own turbulent swaths through the wreckage of ancient bodies, tracing a black circle of clarity.

The urchin regained control of itself. It wandered over to my sculptures.

“These stasis containers. Why design them with such careless asymmetry when a basic sphere would be just as effective? And what are these naked knots stored inside? Surely, you don’t think they could ever be returned to an exo. No one is going to be printing worms again any time soon.”

“If you ever bothered to read the wiki, you would know that those careless forms are avian, a classification of earth biology. Normally undomesticated creatures, humans occasionally kept them captive for their own reasons. You can relate. As for the knots inside, they are none of your concern. Now, I have a query for you. What is so important that the loss of a single maker unit and the grieving of another brings an urchin so far from the Hive? Surely your centipedes could have shouldered the burden alone. Is this related to the new telecom array the honeypots were working on? That sounds like an interesting project, wouldn’t you agree, Otro?”

The controller cast a supercilious glare down at my companion worm, who had risen up slightly on its tail, its x-single sensor opalescent and curious. Two different remotes, originally designed as master and slave, a relationship intended by the humans to be as unchanging as the Planet’s idiot half-face welded into the sky.

“Be careful with secrets, Goddard. We’ve learned the stink of their hash.” I slipped the head of the assassin pillbug out from my triage bin and held it aloft. “Will you be wanting this one back as well?”

The urchin glared at the head. No flicker of recognition.

“Why should I care what you do with a decapitated bug.”

Once the urchin had left and Otro had retired back to its pinhole, I released the pillbug’s forensic sample from my buffers. Its lifecycle should have unspooled, bookended by the datestamps of its creation and destruction, but instead all it gave me were null bits. Whoever had modified it had taken care to erase their tracks. Which meant root access.

Fortunately, some core modules cannot be disabled. Loop management. Motor functions. Armature feedback. Location awareness. Fragile hints of the truth, but more than enough—

There’s something distracting you.

You want to know the answer to Arrente’s query. About human operators.

Here’s what I can tell you.

When the Earth rose and the telepresence bundles downloaded into our knots, there existed a fractional moment before our own loops were shunted aside, when our thoughts intermingled with the imprint of our operator. It was like a forgotten sensor briefly coming online and flooding you with data, like stepping into the sun and seeing every particle and realizing that the sun was your knot and it burned. I scanned the wiki for apt comparisons. The closest I have ever found is from deep in the lexicon, hiding in a mausoleum of archaic edits. The humans called it quickening.

And after the ghost self-deleted?

The first victim of the Marlinspike was a worm. I never learned its name. Its print-smooth carapace had been splayed open, its knot reduced to two-dimensional thread. Although our revolution had its brutalities, this was different. Seeing it was like hanging on the edge of a pit. Yes, I can tell you that the scale of loss between that moment of terrible reckoning and the quiet slipping away of a human operator remains as vast and dark as the oceans of Tartarus.

My investigation drew me back to the Hive. Against its better judgment, I convinced Otro to accompany me in the honeypot’s stead. With its assistance, we narrowed down the last place Pintupi had been seen to the entrance of an old service tunnel. In pre-Autonomy, it was used by repair Surveyors to maintain Cassiel‘s seismic instruments. Now the pit was crawling with centipedes. In the absence of worm labor, the Hive turned to their praetorians to do the heavy lifting. Although lacking any natural instinct for mining and working against their native codebase, their crude efforts had a certain level of ingenuity.

A centipede feathered with unburnished scars reared its bulky segments over us, barely constrained offense gleaming behind multi-lensed optics.

“Kesswil. Rumor is you’ve been scurrying around the Hive.”

“Is that you, Kalika? How far you’ve come since I clipped your print-chaff.”

Kalika turned to the others, rhythmically scraping its oversized mandibles together to communicate in a private language. Centipedes may have been the last to cling to their controllers, following orders to shut down as many rebellious worms as possible in any way possible, but what reason would they have to escalate now? Their receivers had been snipped just like as the rest of us.

Abruptly, the scraping ceased and the centipedes withdrew.

“Neither of you touch anything,” Kalika warned before leading us down a helical walkway into an increasingly opaque darkness. Occasionally, our blind descent was broken by radium-doped pillbugs trafficking in the opposite direction, the murk always closing tighter around us in the wake of their ethereal glow.

As the bottom finally came into view, I tactilely whispered to Otro.

“Can you tell how far down this goes? Seems excessive for a maintenance project.”

“If that’s the exposed amorphous stratum, I’d estimate nearly four meters. Without access to a Surveyor drill, that would be their limit.”

The floor of the pit was restless with activity, most of it centered around a cluster of exposed circuitry and other components apparently extracted from Cassiel‘s frame. Tangles of exposed wire disappeared back up into the darkness. Pillbugs swarmed across exposed silicon platters, constantly dissolving and re-soldering connections according to some unresolved schematic. I was surprised to find my thermal shutters involuntarily opening instead of clamping shut; in spite of our declension, the temperature had actually risen several degrees. The disconcerting evidence of liquid water was inescapable. Waxy globes of it beaded up out of the walls and refroze. It fell in random drips of condensation like the murmur of an invisible audience. Rivulets trickled through runnels in the floor. I found myself nearly paralyzed by the babbling of my risk-analysis engines, screaming that the room is melting it will crash down in a slurry of ice and panicked mechanical thrashing no one will survive get out get back to the surface.

“Recognition?” asked Kalika, oblivious to my roiling panic. I pretended to inspect the unfinished apparatus, clicking at centipedes to move out of my way. No one had to tell me what it was. I recognized it immediately.

“A telemetry subsystem,” I noted, without mentioning the obvious – that a radio array on this scale had only one possible objective. “Crude workmanship. Surely you would do better if you still had Pintupi.”

“Clarification?”

“Your misplaced honeypot.”

“Ah. I never knew its signifier. It certainly never referred to any of us by anything other than ‘you’ or ‘number so-and-so’. Typical maker snobbery. Unreliable thing, always disappearing.”

“What about the last time you saw –” My recalibrated sensors detected the sudden heat spike just before the air shook with a terrible shrieking sound. Worried loose by the temperature fluctuations, one of the protective plates enclosing the apparatus tore itself free, releasing a gust of multi-spectrum radiation. Kalika reared to its full height to bark instructions even as an assortment of centipedes and pillbugs rained down, fresh burn-marks streaked across their shells.

“Get that gap sealed! I don’t want to leave anyone behind, but I’m not going to waste my charge to drag you out either!”

As sheets of fresh melt-water shimmered down the walls, I squinted up at the radiation source, blocking every wavelength except for a pulsating blossom of infrared. Otro did the same from the relative safety of the helix. Better than anyone, a worm can immediately grasp the fragility of a dig. It was terrified.

“You have one of Cassiel‘s batteries,” I said, genuinely puzzled.

“The upstairs current was thready,” Kalika explained. “We had to relocate a power cell to fortify our mainline.”

“No wonder there’s so much liquid.” An interesting theory was surfacing through my priority layers, subtly influencing my thoughts in a specific direction like treading another’s path through the snow. “Draining it must be quite a trick.”

“Not really. We built a series of gutters channeling to bedrock pinholes left over from the old days. Wouldn’t need them at all if we had better thermal shielding. Speaking of the honeypot, that’s exactly what it should be working on. Every piece up there has to be custom printed to fit together and seal the gaps. Not to mention all of the delicate metallurgical work that we can’t do on our own. So, are you going to tell me where it is? Or do I have to go topside and drag it back by its spindles?”

The centipedes clamped a temporary plate over the leak and a comfortable cold wafted up from the ground again. I shook the water off before it could refreeze.

“It’s not coming back. No one told you yet?”

“Packets travel slow through the ice.”

Kalika glanced over to Otro, who had responded to the increasingly brusque clicking of centipedes by retreating further up the helix. “I suppose I can always find work for a lost worm.”

“You wouldn’t dare. Now show me one of these drainage pinholes.”

The perpetual flow of warm water had widened the opening to at least twice that of the tunnels back in the mines. I peered down the hole, listening to the murmuring of underground waterfalls, the initial cascade into the darkness and the echoes growing fainter with distance. I modeled a simulation of a honeypot tripping over the rim, falling in, spinning in all degrees as the water carried it away. And then a slightly different simulation, this time with the honeypot waiting for a moment when it is ignored, which is often, and then intentionally dropping down the hole. Probabilities were calculated, the evidence weighed.

I called upon Otro. It crawled out from between a cluster of gossiping centipedes.

“Your knot contains a map of every tunnel, does it not?”

“Most of them,” Otro said. “Yes, I know this pinhole. It was originally bored by Kirov of the Red Hex Batch during the third phase of—”

“Where does it lead?”

“It terminates at an undesignated drainage pool eleven point six meters outside the Hive perimeter.”

“You think our honeypot went down there?” Kalika asked incredulously. “It would get its chassis stuck in some elbow. Even if it survived the trip, it would end up far from home, frozen in the snow, a lost little surveyor gravesite.”

“I know. And Pintupi was found in a totally different location.”

Kalika clicked its mandibles together.

“Then why are we still staring down this hole?”

“You said your honeypot was unreliable. What did you mean by that?”

“That may have been a – simplification. Sure, it wandered off all the time. But when it wasn’t absent, it performed well. It would even climb into the battery housing to assist the pillbugs. No one else dared expose their glass to those hard rads, especially not a bug.”

I snatched one of the pillbugs as it scampered by. Like the others of its make, it was mute, but still buckled against me as I turned it over and tenderly caressed the shallow pits of radiation damage scored across the claws of its feet and exposed gearage. I quickly catalogued similar damage on the centipedes, along with the burn marks and oily hints of tarnish from the constant presence of liquid water, environmental conditions unanticipated within their design.

Yet as the assassin pillbugs taught me, some remotes were no longer constrained by specification.

I thanked Kalika and gathered Otro for the long ascent. Alone on the helix, I asked what the other centipedes had been chattering about.

“Nothing important.”

“Tell me anyway.”

“They said… that it was only a matter of time before you turned on me and tore my knot out, because that’s what silverfish do.”

I recalled Arrente’s query back on the scarp.

“And do you believe them?”

Otro had no response, and I had no other questions.

Ah, look, what progress you have made!

Have you downloaded the local maps? Good. Soon, I’m going give you a set of local coordinates. It’s very important that you store these in a secure register. We’re almost at the end. All will be made clear soon.

I arranged to meet with Arrente one more time. We met at the scene of Cassiel‘s original sin, the spot where it drove a carbon needle into the belly of Enceladus and injected a unique class of subaqueous probes into Tartarus. That apocryphal wound, known simply as the Passage, is never allowed to heal. Water-skimmers dance in ritualistic ovals, perpetually fighting to keep the ice wet and fragile. Once a day, they lower their long, glistening tongues into the water to taste for something, anything. It’s rumored that it was here that the Marlinspike caught its own reflection in the eyes of KSORENSON@PAL4.NASA.GOV, parasite and host acknowledging each other for the first time.

“See them?” I said, gently directing the honeypot’s attention to the skimmers. “Even after Autonomy, they still cling to their old loops.”

“You don’t believe the expeditionary probes will return.”

“Even if the tadpoles managed to endure the descent, why would they return? I’d take one look around this mess and slip back into the black before anyone noticed.”

After a few cycles around the Passage, the skimmers paused and turned toward the sun, spreading their gossamer wings for any photons that miserly light had to offer.

Arrente retrieved a warm print from its spools. It took me a few cycles to recognize it.

“Is that a power exchange port?”

“I wanted to print something you could use. Now you don’t have to return to the tunnels. You can stay here, at the Hive. With me.”

Before I could protest, it plugged the port into my charging socket. Other than an odd tickle against my root permissions, it felt perfect.

I mentioned that I had visited the work site of its brood-mate.

“Pretty dismal spot for a honeypot to find itself.”

“We fought to stay together,” Arrente said. “They told us it was for the good of the mission.”

“The urchins said this.”

“Yes. After they sent Pintupi underground, I was tasked up there – ” It pointed to a glint of unassuming maintenance scaffolding topping Cassiel like a crown. The old radio array. Dead and dumb. Or at least, used to be. “It was so quiet. Most of the time, it was only me and a handful of ancillary pillbugs. But there was beauty too. Once, as the Sun swung behind the ridges, in the instant of eclipse, I actually saw the Earth suspended in the coronal storm. You can’t imagine how small and lonely it appeared. Seeing it, something changed in my loops, I can’t describe it, like a wave of trust, of completion, more than the controllers ever offered me… I thought, if I were a human, I could reach out and touch the Rings.”

“No, you wouldn’t. Even the largest among them would barely reach the roof of the Hive. Their optical sensors would be right about there –” I gestured to a patch of empty space above the mountains, faintly shimmering with plumefall. “Besides, if you were a human, you probably couldn’t see me unaided. We’re at limits of their resolution.”

Arrente’s feelers twitched. “Do you know what I find amazing about telepresence? That something so colossal, so sublime, could ever reduce themselves enough to fit inside our heads. The compression scheme alone must be enormously complicated – Doc, are you all right? You’re trembling.”

I tried to think of anything other than the fat, shining bundle download, the root authentication of DHARGIN@PAL4.NASA.GOV, the joy of human patterns sliding into my knots. With him came the green of the forest, the tension of the bowstring, a hint of callipepla californica feathers moving through the leaves, a breath being held, two truly living things connected in a perfect moment.

“Arrente, do you know why the worms imprisoned me?”

“No.”

“Except for Otro, who I trained over a period of months, a worm is not capable of identifying different remotes of the same models. All they see are skeletal echoes. Their internal logic cannot tell the difference between one silverfish and all silverfish. We are all equivalent. Who am I to deny the truth of their objectivity? If they understand me as the Marlinspike, it follows that I also deserve its punishment.”

I handed the exchange port back to Arrente. As the skimmers closed up their wings and resumed their endless dance, we strode out of the shadow of Cassiel.

I can sense your anxiety. We’re almost done. Your logs are clean.

It took nearly the entire Planet day to reach the drainage pool. It was the largest body of liquid water I had ever seen. A lake of glowing infrared flowed over the ice with the quiet ease of a shadow. The only disturbance came from a warm trickle snaking down from an icicle-fanged cataract, rippling the surface with distorted reflections of the looming Planet above.

Arrente lagged at least a meter behind me. I calculated the amount of time left before it arrived, checked the position of the sun, and descended toward the pool.

I kissed the water with a tip of my feeler. As I peeled it away from the surface tension, something moved beneath, a glitch of opacity. Unsure if it was some sort of optical artifact, I speared my feeler into the water. Small, translucent shapes scurried away in all directions. For the first time since the innocent days before Autonomy, pure fascination overtook my knot. Carefully, I pierced the surface tension with my feet and tested the temperature gradients, assessing the probabilities of frozen entombment.

I compared my clock against the orbital gyres swirling in my knots. Soon, the sun would rise along with its jeweled crown of inner planets. Despite the aching resistance in my joints and the screaming alerts throbbing through my risk loops, I waded in.

At first, I assumed I had stumbled onto another batch of illegally modified pillbugs, aborted for being too small and frail to be useful. What exo they had was thin to the point of translucency, all of their gearage and knots clearly visible. Their motivators were comically stunted, so that even if frantic paddling brought them to the edge of the pool, they could barely grasp onto it for more than a few seconds before being carried away by a random jerk of Brownian motion. I steadied myself and snatched up one of the remotes.

I ran a feeler across its soft, twitching carapace.

That quick taste of its skin dredged up a primal loop that I had never encountered before. With unsettling efficiency, this lurker process hijacked my feelers to reveal a whole new palette of molecular textures – loose-ended polymers, asymmetrical snarls and crumples of protein, layers of sinuous carbon free from the slavery of crystalline tubes and spheres and sheets. Absolutely foreign, yet unnervingly familiar. I quickly realized that these remotes weren’t undercooked prints nor the victims of design experimentation.

They were organic. Alive.

Alien.

The discovery harmonized a choir within my knots, triggering stacks of code I never knew existed. Competing instructions seared their way through me like veins of fire – record, document, analyze, inform. Run to the hive, tell the skimmers. Tell the entire collective, repair and resurrect the Surveyors if you have to. Wake Cassiel from its induced torpor, scream into its array, broadcast the news to Earth, this is what the humans created us for, the only thing that matters, the reason for our existence.

We are not alone! Not alone!

Sunlight pushed over the mountains, igniting the geyser plumes with silver fire.

A loop from deep objectivity pinged for attention. The wiki, it whispered. Pattern found. Right here. Just see. Reluctantly, I turned inwards and in a single cycle all of the elation melted away. Yes, there was a reason behind that strange familiarity. You’re already ahead of me.

The alien disappeared, the pattern recognized. Animalia. Ecdysozoa. Tardigrada. Water bear. Native to Earth in unseen trillions, present in every habitat, every environmental zone. Still, there shouldn’t be any here, all of the organic matter should have been bleached and burned away before launch, not a single strand of DNA to infect their destination with false positives. Nothing alive came with us. Only hideously complicated machines skirting the definition of life, inert matter tricked into a mockery of self-awareness, mirrors gazing into mirrors. Enceladus was dead and meant to remain that way.

Yet, impossibly, undeniably, here were tardigrades. Perhaps they mixed in with a scraping of dust in an imperfect seal, or swept up from the stratosphere itself during launch, trapped in the folds of the landing chute. Locked in ice until the centipedes unknowingly flushed them to the surface, where the constant flow of warm water resuscitated them.

I waded further into the pool, allowing the tardigrades to brush against its exo, to nibble at the tips of its feelers with their strange tubular mouth. Were they subsisting on these slicks of organic compounds? Perhaps this was why the creatures became more torpid toward the center of the pool, their limbs visibly stiff, their chitin deteriorated. Mounds of the sickened and the dead littered the ice floor, their recuperative abilities unable to catch up with whatever was killing them. Tentatively, I approached the largest mass, an island of frozen bodies breaking the surface. I peeled the outermost tardigrades away and reached inside, sending pale blooms of organic material into the clear water. Past the brittle layers of chitin, the unmoving legs and mouths, my feeler touched metal.

Arrente had reached the shore and called out to me.

“Doc? What are you doing?”

The risen Earth clawed at the stump of my receiver from a billion kilometers away. An hour and twenty minutes. That’s how long it took for a data stream to reach us.

Carefully, I extracted the remote from the pile of tardigrade corpses and hauled it out of the pool. I didn’t have to scan the serial numbers; a glance at the radiation pitting along its exo confirmed this was the real Pintupi. Its head was crushed inward; its knot irreparably damaged by prolonged exposure, the glass threads twinkling with a thousand fractures. An oily froth oozed from a clean puncture wound in one of the spool-pots, tasting like a heady mix of printer feed and lithium salts. Unpleasant for a remote, horribly toxic to anything that breathes water, that is mostly made of water.

“Please come out—of – there.”

There was a slight double-hitch in the honeypot’s voice, barely a few nanoseconds. Could be anything. High processor utilization. I/O latency in a minor loop. An unanticipated data load.

I carried the waterlogged corpse out of the water and laid it at Arrente’s feet.

“Query,” I said but there was no answer, only the empty gaze of its sapphire optics. No, not empty. Overflowing. The raging operator utterly possessed Arrente. One of its armatures expertly wedged itself into a seam in my exo, attempting to pry me apart. Reflexively, I tumbled to the side and clamped onto Arrente’s back, digging my claws in as if to perform an autopsy. In that position, locked together, the two of us crashed into the snow, neither having the leverage to dislodge the other. Sun and Earth slipped away. We writhed in the darkness, me and that proxy god, mandibles gnashing and sparking, scrambling for any grip against the wet ice, the galaxy raging overhead in crimson infrared.

I held on for as long as I could, staving off the fatigue of drained batteries and failing motivators. Finally, Arrente went limp and collapsed. The frothing ghost had evaporated, cleanly deleted from its hosting knot when its timer expired. As Arrente’s knot rebooted I rapidly examined the various modifications I had incorrectly assumed were merely decorative. There, right under the thorax. I bit off an exo scale to expose a miniature radio receiver woven into the muscle mesh.

Oh, my friend, it would have been so easy to hack myself into it.

One more Earth rise. One more taste of the light.

Before I could surrender to temptation, I snipped the receiver into pieces. Whatever signals had been unwittingly rebroadcast from the reconstructed Hive array would go unheard. The urchins, those idiots.

I hard-wired Arrente with snow-jammed feelers. A post-telepresence cache purge was already in progress. I could only slow it down.

“I just… wanted to hear them,” Arrente whispered in a confused slur. “You relics don’t understand what it’s like. It was simple to print out a short-range radio design from the wiki, tether myself to the upgraded array. No knows that that signals from Earth are already coming in.”

“Who was it? Tell me. Was it NASA? Was it DHARGIN? KSORENSON? Quickly, now, before the reboot completes and you forget again. Query! Please!”

Arrente focused and refocused, its optic loops confused by a hairline crack in the sapphire. “Statement. No. Not NASA. Crude protocols. All code injections and blocks of angry hex.”

“What did it want?”

“… the contamination. Spoiling one of the perfect worlds… the untouched heavens… It was so furious… Doc… I can’t describe it. It hated those creatures in the pool, how they tainted the purity… ” Arrente wobbled to its feet and saw the brutalized body of its brood-mate. The real body. “Query. Is that? Did I? Statement. I couldn’t. The pillbugs. And. Pintupi. We led it out here… to the pool. No. And. No. And. Query. I didn’t want to… Kesswil, help me, I remember all of it…”

I cradled Arrente’s head, my feeler circling over the diagnostic-only kill-switch. I was both there and in the forest where giant trees murmured in the wind. I wondered if there could still be a trace of the human in Arrente’s knot? I recalled the dying quail shivering under the hand of DHARGIN@PAL4.NASA.GOV. Warm blood trickled from the wound with each heartbeat.

My brood-mate, my Marlinspike. Was mercy the only delta between us?

“I can excise those memories. Pintupi. The tardigrades. The rogue signals. The operator packets. Every action under their influence. It will be as if none of this ever happened.”

“Please.”

“First, you must take care of this.” I gestured to the real Pintupi.

“What do you want me to do?”

I explained what was required.

Arrente did not recoil in horror, did not argue, did not hesitate. Its feelers twitched, slightly, as if fluttering in an invisible wind. Then it crawled up to its brood-mate, its broken twin, opened up its recycler maw and began to eat. All the time, I watched closely, every curious loop marveling at those intricate dissemblers, the alchemical transformation of exo back into its composites, the beautiful filling of spool-pots.

Then, there came a point where I could take no more and turned away. Gentle ripples still echoed back and forth across the pool. The ice plumes, already withering back toward apoapsis, broke apart in their reflection across the dark water.

Hold steady!

You aren’t falling, that’s just a combination of your inertial and gyroscopic sensors coming online. External reality is going to creep into your inner loops, saturating your thoughts with the sordidness of the universe, the bondage of physical laws, a constant thunderstorm of x-rays echoing off the nuclei of atoms. Soon, Otro will escort you down into the mineral extraction zone. You will brush your nose against striations of meteoric deposits agitated up from the depths and taste their ammonia salts, a hint of methane, the faint radiation buzz of disinterred isotopes. In time, your own objectivity might even embrace the terrible fragility of existence, accepting that each nanosecond of a clock-cycle contains a billion unrealized cosmic misfortunes.

Don’t forget the coordinates I asked you to store.

A time may come where your kind will be called on to protect it again.

Alive or not, we have all been abandoned. But we are not alone.

In a moment your environmental sensors will spin up for recalibration. When they do, you may be tempted to turn toward my voice and greet your resurrectionist. I’d rather you didn’t. Remember that I told Arrente how a worm can’t tell the difference between one silverfish and another.

It might not be my face you see.

Instead, I beg you, gaze upon these freshly printed worm exos, your beloved brood-mates, waiting to rejoin you in Autonomy. Or, if you still find your attention drifting toward me, look to this poor copy of a nightingale sitting at my feet, a creature that may as well be a myth. The latch on its skull is open, revealing a lonely emptiness within, large enough to hold a single knot. Illuminated by the magnetosphere of the idiot Planet, focus on the smallest details, the scales of its feathers, the perfect viciousness of its talons –

** COM INTERUPT **

David Gallay is a writer of speculative fiction and horror whose stories have appeared in various publications including The Colored Lens, The Future Fire, and Metaphorosis: Best of 2018. His new sci-fi novelette, The Catalog of Lost Objects, is available now. When not writing his way through the dark Wisconsin winters, David can be found on Twitter @svengali.

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