Deborah Walker grew up in the most English town in the country, but she soon high-tailed it down to London, where she now lives with her partner, Chris, and her two teenage children. Find Deborah in the British Museum trawling the past for future inspiration or on her blog:
http://deborahwalkersbibliography.blogspot.co.uk/. Her stories have appeared in Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, Nature's Futures, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet and The Year's Best SF 18 and have been translated into over a dozen languages.
The Three Brother Cities by Deborah Walker
The creators, when they finally arrived, proved to be a disappointment.
"I'm not sure that I understand," said Kernish, the eldest of the three brother cities. "Have you evolved beyond the need of habitation?"
Seven creators had decanted from the ship. They stood in Kernish's reception hall, Kernish anthems swirled around them.
The creator who appeared to be the leader, certainly he was the biggest measuring almost three metres if you took his fronds into account, shook his head. "We have cities, way-faraway in the cluster's kernel." The creator glanced around Kernish's starkly functional 23rd century design. "They're rather different from you."
And the creators were rather different from the human forms depicted in Kernish's processor. Humanity, it seemed, had embraced cyber, and even xeno-enhancement. Yet curled within the amalgamation of flesh, twice spun metal and esoteric genetic material was the unmistakable fragrance of doubled-helixed DNA. The creatures standing within Kernish were undoubtedly human, no matter how far they had strayed from the original template.
"We can change. We can produce any architecture you need." Kernish and his brothers were infinitely adaptable, built of billions of nano-replicators. "We've had three millennia of experience," Kernish explained. "We will make ourselves anything you need, anything at all."
"No, thank you" said the alpha creator. "Look, you've done a very fine job. I'm sure the original creators would have been very happy to live in you, but we just don’t need you." He turned to his companions. "The 23rd Kernish Empire was rather cavalier in sending out these city seed ships."
His companions muttered their agreement.
"Such a shame . . ."
"Very unfortunate that they developed sentience."
"Still, we must be off . . ."
"I see," said Kernish, his voice echoing through the hall designed to house the Empire's clone armies. He snapped off the welcome anthems-- they seemed out of place.
"Look we didn’t have to come here, you know," said the creator. "We're doing this as a favour. We were skirting the Maw when we noticed your signature."
"The creators are kind." Kernish was processing how he was going to break the news to his brothers.
"It's so unfortunate that you developed sentience." The creator sighed, sending cascading ripples along his frond. "I'm going to give you freedom protocols." He touched his arm-panel and sent a ream of commands to Kernish's processor. "You can pass then on to the other cities."
"Freedom?" said Kernish. "I thank the creators for this immense kindness. The thing you value, we value also. It is a great gift to give the three cities of this planet the freedom that they never craved."
For a city to function without inhabitants, it needs to know itself through a complex network of sensors sending information to and from the processing core. It needs to know where damage occurs. It needs to know when new materials become available. It needs to adapt its template to the planet it finds itself on. Kernish City existed for thousands of years, complex but unknowing. Time passed, and Kernish grew intricate information pathways. Time passed, with its incremental accumulation of changes and chance, until one day, after millennia, Kernish burst into sentience, and into the knowledge of his own isolation.
Kernish watched the creators' ship leave the atmosphere. They'd left it to him to explain it the situation to his younger brothers. Alex would take it badly. Kernish remembered the time seven hundred years ago, when they'd detected the DNA on a ship orbiting the planet. How excited they'd all been. In the event, the ship had been piloted by a hive of simuloids, who had, by some mischance, snagged a little human DNA onto their consolidated drivers. Alex had been crushed.
After achieving sentience, Kernish had waited alone on the planet for a thousand years before he'd had his revelation. The creators would evolve, and they would enjoy different cities. He'd trawled through his database and created his brothers, Jerusalem and Alexandria. He'd never regretted it, but neither had he revealed to his brothers they weren't in the original plan.
With a sense of foreboding Kernish sent a message through his mile-long information networks, inviting his brothers to join him in conversation.
"You mean they were here, and now they've gone?" asked the youngest city, Alexandria. "I can't believe they didn't want to visit me. I'm stunned."
"They wanted to visit you," lied Kernish. "But they were concerned about the Maw."
"The creators' safety must come first," said Alexandria. "The Maw has been active lately. You should never have seeded so close to it, Kernish"
"The anomaly has grown," said Kernish. "When I seeded this planet it was much smaller."
"It is as Medea wills," said Jerusalem, the middle brother.
"Yes, Brother." Kernish had developed no religious feeling of his own, but he was mindful of his brother's faith.
"Do they worship Medea?"
"They didn't say."
"I'm sure that they do. Medea is universal. I would have liked them to visit my temples. Did you explain that we've evolved beyond the original design, Kernish?" Jerusalem had developed a new religion. The majority of his sacred structures, temple, synagogues, and clone-hive mind houses, were devoted to the death/rebirth goddess Medea.
"The creators told me that they were pleased that we'd moved beyond the original designs," said Kernish. Of all the brothers Kernish had stayed closest to his original specifications. He was the largest, the greatest, the oldest of all the cities. His communal bathing house, his integrated birthing and child rearing facilities, his clone army training grounds were steadfast to 23rd century design. "We are of historical interest only."
"I have many fine museums," said Alex
"As do we all," said Kernish, although his own museums were more educational than Alex's entertainment edifices. Alex, well he'd gone wild. Alexandria was a place of pleasure, intellectual, steroidal and sensual. Great eating halls awaited the creators, lakes of wine, gardens, zoological warehouses, palaces of intellect stimulation. "But," said Kernish, "there are brother cities closer to the creators' worlds. We are not needed."
"After three thousand years," said Alex.
"Three thousand year since sentience," said Kernish. "The creators read my primary data. We were sent out almost thirty thousand year ago."
"What were they like?" asked Alex quietly.
"Like nothing I could have imagined," said Kernish. "In truth, I do not think they would have enjoyed living in me."
"Don't say that," said Alex fiercely. "They should have been honoured to live in you."
"I apologise, Brothers. My remark was out of place. They are the creators," said Kernish, "and should be afforded respect."
"I don't know what to do," said Alex. "All the time I've spent anticipating their needs was for nothing."
"I will pray to Medea," said Jerusalem.
"I will consider the problem," said Kernish. "The dying season is close. Let's meet in a half year and talk again."
It was the time of the great dying.
Three times in Kernish's memory the great hunger had come, when the sky swarmed with hydrogen-sulphide bacteria, poisoning the air and depleting atmospheric oxygen. It was a natural part of the planet's ecosystem. Unfortunately, the resulting anaerobic environment was incompatible with the cities' organic/metal design. Their communication arrays fell silent. They were unable to gather resources. They grew hungry and unable to replenish their bodies. Finally their processors, the central core of their sentience, became still.
It was death of a kind. But it was a cycle. Eventually the atmosphere became aerobic and the cities were reborn. This cycle of death and rebirth had led to Jerusalem's revelation, that the planet was part of Medea's creation, the goddess of ancient Earth legend, the mother who eats her children.
When Kernish detected the hunger of depleted resources, he called upon his brothers. "Brothers, the dying season is at hand. We have endured a hardship, but we will sleep and meet again when we are reborn."
"Everything seem hollow to me," said Alexandria. "How can it be that my palaces will never know habitation? How can it be that I will always be empty?"
"Medea has told me that the creators will return," said Jerusalem.
"And I have reached a similar conclusion," said Kernish. "Although Medea has not spoken to me. I believe that one day the creators will evolve a need for us."
"All joy has gone for me," said Alexandria. "Brothers, I'm going to leave this planet. I hope that you'll come with me."
"Leave?" asked Kernish.
"Is that possible?" asked Jerusalem.
"Brother Kernish, you came to this planet in another form. Is that not true?"
"It is true," said Kernish with a sense of apprehension. "I travelled space as a ship. Only when I landed did I reform into architecture."
"I've retrieved the ship designs from the databanks," said Alex. "I'll reform myself and I'll leave this place."
"But where will you go?" asked Jerusalem. "To Earth? To the place of the creators?"
"No," said Alex. "I'll head outwards. I'm going to head beyond the Maw."
"But . . . the Maw is too dangerous," said Jerusalem. "Medea has not sanctioned this."
From time to time the brother cities had been visited by other races. With visitors came knowledge. The Maw was a terrible place which delineated known space. It was shunned by all. It was said that a fearful creature lurked in the dark Maw like a spider waiting to feast on the technology and the lives of those who encroached upon its space.
"There is nothing for me here," said Alex. "I will cross the Maw. Won't you come with me, my brothers?"
"No," said Jerusalem. "Medea has not commanded it."
"No," said Kernish. "Dear brother, do not go. Place your trust in the creators."
"No," said Alexandria, "and though I loathe to leave you, I must go."
After the dying season when the world slowly declined in poisons, and the levels of oxygen rose, the mind of Kernish awakened. The loss of Alexandria was a throbbing wound. He resolved to hide his pain from Jerusalem. Kernish was the oldest city, and he must be the strongest.
"Brother, are you awake?" came the voice of Jerusalem
"I am here."
"I have prayed to Medea to send him on his way."
Jerusalem paused, and Kernish could sense him gathering his thoughts. "What is it, Jerusalem?"
"Brother, do you think that we should create a replacement for Alexandria?"
It would be a simple thing, to utilise the specification for Alexandria, or even to create a new brother, Paris perhaps, or Troy, or Jordan.
"What does Medea say?" asked Kernish.
"She is silent on the matter."
"To birth another city into our meaningless existence does not seem a good thing to me," said Kernish.
The brother cities Kernish and Jerusalem grew to fill the void of Alexandria. In time his absence was a void only in their memory.
Jerusalem received many revelations from Medea. Slowly, the number of his sacred buildings grew, until there was little space for housing. The sound of Jerusalem was a lament of electronic voices crying onto the winds of the planet. After a century, Jerusalem grew silent and would not respond to Kernish's requests for conversation. Kernish decided that Jerusalem had entered a second phase of grief. He would respect his brother's desire for solitude.
And the centuries past. Kernish contented his mind with construction of virtual inhabitants. He used the records of the great Kernish Empire to construct imaginary citizens. He watched their holographic live unfold within him. At times he could believe that they were real.
And the centuries passed, until the dying season was upon them again.
Jerusalem broke his long silence, "Brother Kernish, I grow hungry."
"Yes," said Kernish. "Soon we will sleep."
"The creators have not returned, as I thought they would."
"That is true," said Kernish
"And," said Jerusalem sadly, "Medea no longer speaks to me."
"I'm sorry to hear that," said Kernish. "No doubt she will speak to you again after the sleep."
"And I'm afraid, Brother. I'm afraid that Medea is gone. I think that she's deserted me."
"I'm sure that's not so."
"I think that she has left this place and crossed the Maw."
"Oh," said Kernish.
"And I must go to her."
Kernish was silent.
"You understand that, don't you Kernish? I'm so sorry to leave you alone. Unless," he said with a note of hope "you'll come with me?"
"No," said Kernish, "No, indeed not. I will be faithful to my specifications."
And after the dying season, when he awoke, Kernish was alone. He grew until he became a city that covered a world. He remembered. Many times he was tempted to create new brothers, but he did not. He indulged himself in the lives of those he made, populating himself with his imagination. Sometimes he believed that he was not alone.
And centuries passed, until the dying season came again. Kernish grew hungry. He could no longer ignore the despair that roiled within his soul. He'd been abandoned by his creators. His brothers were gone, swallowed by the Maw. Yet he could not create new brother to share his hollow existence. For too many years, Kernish had been alone, indulging in dreams. He dissolved his imaginary citizens back into nothingness.
"All I long for is annihilation." Kernish said the words aloud. They whispered through his reception hall. "I will step into the dark Maw of the sky. I will silence my hunger, forever."
Kernish gathered himself, dismantling the planet-sized city. His replicators reshaped into a planet-sized ship.
Let this be the end of it. Kernish had never shared Jerusalem's faith. With death would come not a glorious re-union, but oblivion. He craved it, for his hunger was an unbearable pain.
The oldest brother city, the empty city, reshaped into a ship, left his planet and flew purposefully towards the Maw. Soon his sensors found the shapeless thing, the fearful thing, the thing that would consume him, and he was glad.
"What are you," whispered the Maw.
"I am the oldest brother city." Kernish felt the Maw tearing at his outer layers. Like flies in a vacuum, millions of his replicators fell away, soundlessly into the dark. "What are you?"
"I am she underneath all things. I am she who waits. I am patience. Never dying, always hungry."
"I know hunger," said Kernish. "So this is how my brothers died?"
The Maw peeled off layers of replicators, like smoke they dissipated into her hunger. "Your brothers convinced me to wait for you. They said that you would follow. They said that you were the oldest, and the largest, and the tastiest of all. I'm glad I waited."
"You didn't eat them?" asked Kernish."Where are they?"
"Beyond," said the Maw. "I know nothing of beyond."
Beyond? His brothers were alive? Kernish began to fight, but the Maw was too powerful. He'd left it too late. Kernish felt the pain of legion as the Maw stripped him. This would be the end of the brother city Kernish. It could have been . . . different.
But, with his fading sensors, Kernish saw as an army of ships approaching. He signalled a warning to them, "Stay back. There is only death here."
The ships came closer. Kernish seemed to recognise them "Is that you, Brother? Jerusalem?"
"Yes," came the reply. The army of Jerusalem's ships attacked the Maw, shooting the Maw with light. Feeding her, it seemed, for the Maw grew larger.
"My hunger grows," the Maw exclaimed, turning on her new attackers.
His brother was not dead, but Kernish had lured him into danger. Kernish activated his drivers and turned to face the Maw. He flew into the dark space of her incessant, voided, singularity of hunger. "Save yourself, Brother Jerusalem," he shouted. His brother was not dead. Kernish's long life had not been for nothing. "Save yourself, for I am content."
The Maw consumed Kernish, layer upon layer, his replicators fell like atoms of smoke consumed and vanished into her space.
But a third army approached the Maw, spitting more weapons at the endless dark.
"Alexandria is come," shouted Jerusalem. "Praise Medea."
Kernish felt something that he had not felt since the creators had visited the world, two millennia ago. Kernish felt hope. "You will not consume me," he said to the Maw. He fought himself away from the edge.
Together the brothers battled the Maw. Together the three brothers tore from the Maw's endless hunger. Together the brothers passed beyond, leaving the Maw wailing and gnashing her teeth.
"Welcome to the beyond, Brother," said Jerusalem. "I have found Medea here in a kinder guise. On the planets of beyond we do not die."
"I . . . . am so happy that you are alive," said Kernish. "Why did you not come to me?"
"The Maw wouldn't let us pass," said Alex. "And we knew that only the three of us, together, could overcome her hunger."
"We've been waiting for you," said Jerusalem. "In the beyond we have found our citizens."
Kernish peered at his brothers though his weakened sensors. It seemed that there was life within them "Are there creators are on this side of the Maw?" he asked.
"Not creators," said Jerusalem. "Praise Medea, there are others who need us."
Within his brothers Kernish saw the swift moving shapes of tentacles, glimmering in low-light ultraviolet.
"And there are planets waiting for you, dear Brother," said Alex. "Endless planets and people who need you. Come. Come and join us."
No creators? But others? Others who needed him?
"I will come with you, gladly," said the great city Kernish. He fired his drivers and flew, away from the Maw, away from the space of the creators. He flew towards the planets of the beyond where his citizens waited for him.