Big Echo

Critical SF

 It Is a Rare Thing the Emperor Requireth

by Wm Henry Morris

The weaver delivered the instructions in the slow, rudimentary gestures the prisoner had learned: STORY --> EMPEROR; YOU = NOT-SLEEP; STORY = ++

The weaver, who was also a prisoner, uncurled his (her? their? its?) prehensile tail as he delivered the statement and stabbed it in the air while at the same time his fleshy forehead rippled crimson. He did not wear a veil like the guards did. But he also never used his mouth to communicate. Only the gestures. The prisoner was certain he was missing all sorts of nuance, but he grasped the overall message: he needed to produce this one quickly.

He held his hand in front of his mouth, palm almost touching his lips, fingers covering his nostrils and looked down and to the left. COMPLIANCE. It was the first gesture he had learned from the weaver.

He turned his back to the transparent wall that divided his cell from the weaver’s and paced, trying to think of another story for the emperor. He was a scout, a pre-emissary — not an evangelist, not a missionary. He had been a shot in the dark. Jostled out of suspension, bundled muddle-headed into a capsule and jettisoned into space. Only intended to get scans into a good enough position to confirm the AI’s detection of possible intelligent life and trigger a larger mission. Like as not to find that it had been a false positive. Like as not to be left behind if his survey took too long. Like as not to disappear into the void. Valuable — all God’s children are valuable--but still expendable.

The demands of the (accidental) direct contact with the weaver’s civilization had outstripped his capabilities, training, and whatever natural talents he had been granted a long time ago. And God had not seen fit to increase his capacity. And the only consolation he had been offered was the vague feeling that he would be fine. Of course, if he had learned anything from scripture — and that he had not learned all that much was why he had remained a scout — it was that God’s definition of fine was usually not the same as that of his children.

The prisoner trailed his hand over the console which had been scavenged from his ship and hooked into whatever tech fed the silk worms. The weaver had explained: PICTURE STORY --> WORM FOOD. Getting to that point had taken a lot of trial and error and the guards showing him various objects, including the worms (nano-engineering-machines? bio-engineered replicators?) — chalky white segmented things that looked like what he thought he remembered silk worms were supposed to look like. As best he understood, the images he compiled were printed on the leaves (paper? biofilms?) the worms ate (processed? metabolized? translated?).    

Early on he had tried NOT-COMPLIANCE, of course. He had been ignored, but his captors had taken away the weaver’s rations. At first the prisoner was unmoved. He considered the weaver a handler not an ally and felt no need to sympathize with his privations, but the weaver’s listless motions and vacant stare four or five sleep cycles later had broken the prisoner. It reminded him too much of crew who had woken up wrong. He had knocked on the divider trying to get the attention of the weaver. The weaver ignored him. Perhaps out of anger; perhaps because his body had shut down, his mind elsewhere. The prisoner knocked until the guards came. When they did, he gestured: COMPLIANCE.

They had taken the weaver away for a while then and when they brought him back, the prisoner and the weaver had produced the first silk square. The prisoner was no engineer — if he had been, he wouldn’t have been chosen to be a scout — so the exact nature of the production remained opaque to him. His best guess was that after consuming the image printouts, the worms were able to process them into an output (the silk) that had psychotropic properties and maintained something of the original imagery.   

The prisoner had led off with the tale of the tell-tale heart edited down from a 21st century animated adaptation to a sequence of 17 still images. The emperor had apparently loved it. The prisoner exhausted the rest of Poe then moved on to Jackson and Koo. Then it was various westerns and superhero epics and action flicks and space operas. All had been given anything from a NOT+ to a + to a ++.

But lately, his stories had mostly been consistently getting NOT+ and once even a NOT++ and the requests had become more insistent with less time to turn them around.

The prisoner began pacing, cycling through all the stories, historical or fictional or scriptural, he knew — or could bring up from his ship’s library — about kings, presidents, prophets, generals, CEOs, emperors. Ruler-types had typically performed well. After the first twenty silk squares or so, he had tried making a story up, but that had not been well received at all. He had been accused of NOT-COMPLIANCE. Mixing stories up worked fine, though. Borrowing a character from here. An ending from there. Filling in details from wherever. The medical images database had been particularly useful.

The only emperor he could think of at the moment, though, was Caligula. Probably because this humanoid-yet-alien emperor who had imprisoned him seemed like the decadent sort. But he couldn’t remember how Caligula had died. Burned to death? No. He was the one who fiddled while Rome burned. What did he know about fiddles? Perhaps he could get away with a fiddling emperor who gets in a contest with the devil, loses, and burns to death.

In the end, the prisoner chose to blend Caligula with Julius Caesar, playing up the craziness of the former and the daggers and Et tu, Brute? of the latter. He was hampered by the fact that the visual productions of Caligula’s life were highly censored, but he managed to cobble together a sequence from a dramatization of Paul’s journeys that had played up the decadence of Rome. And images of burning cities were all too easy to find.

He assumed that this one would be risky, cutting, perhaps, too close to what he imagined the emperor’s situation to be. But the prisoner found himself humming as he completed his edits, excited for a reaction — worried that the reaction would be negative, but desperate for some sort of change in situation even if it meant the guards took away both his and the weaver’s food rations for a while.

When he was done he tapped on the divider. The weaver, who had been seated with his eyes closed, his expansive, fleshy forehead wrinkled tight and violet, peered at him. The prisoner gave him a thumbs up. That gesture (and its opposite) was one he’d introduced to their shared vocabulary.

The weaver stood and rushed over: QUERY = STORY = COMPLIANCE

COMPLIANCE

COMPLIANCE = ++; WORMS --> STORY SILK = SOON; QUERY = STORY = ++

QUERY --> SILK SQUARE COMPLIANCE

The weaver tilted his head left to right while his tail curled up tight behind his back out of sight.

The prisoner tried again: QUERY = ME --> SILK SQUARE = ++COMPLIANCE

THUMBS DOWN; COMPLIANCE QUERY = NOT++

QUERY = BAD --> GUARDS

Nod nod. The other gesture the prisoner had introduced that the weaver had adopted. The weaver then pursed his lips. The blood drained from his forehead. His tail flicked up and covered his mouth.

The prisoner figured it was clear what that meant: not a subject to be discussed further. He nod nodded, turned crisply away from the glass (plastic? polycrystal? membroplate?) divider, and curled up on his sleeping pallet. He wondered if the weaver was watching him. He wasn’t about to turn around and check. Initially, he had supposed that the two of them would become allies. Bridge their differences of culture and species and take the fight to their captors. He had supposed wrong. Or, more likely, he lacked the spiritual gifts and unwavering faith that evangelists possessed.

The guards, the pale blue veils over their mouths and jangly bracelets on their tails seemingly at odds with their utilitarian, drab-colored uniform that looked exactly like the uniform of guards everywhere, delivered a tray of cocoons to the weaver a long while later. The prisoner paid careful attention as the weaver donned gloves, held each cocoon briefly to his forehead, arranged it on the tray and then used a small metal hook and spindle to unreel the silk.

The weaver then  worked the story silk in and out of the weft to form a palm-sized silk square of cream silk covered in inky blotches. The guards entered the weaver’s cell the moment it was complete. The weaver removed the square from the loom, trimmed it, and placed it in a red lacquer (shell? adamant? ceramoplate?) box. The guards carried it away to the emperor.

The weaver curled up on his pallet and slept. The prisoner did the same.

He awoke to howling. A pair of guards were beating the weaver with woven leather (plant fiber? algerene? hydrostat?) straps while a third looked on and gesticulated angrily with his hands, his tail punching the air, his forehead livid mauve. The weaver’s forehead was green-gray. His tail was coiled tightly around his waist. His arms were covered with cuts and bruises. He had never heard the weaver make sounds before. It was unsettling even though it seemed to him to be the most natural, the most human reaction. The prisoner rushed to the divider and began pounding on it, yelling for them to stop. They did. The angry guard turned toward the door of the weaver’s cell and made several quick motions with his hands. The prisoner’s door burst open and two guards rushed in and began beating him with the flexible, woven straps, which stung as they hit his arms and legs and chest.

The prisoner stumbled and fell on his sleeping pallet. He curled up in a ball. The guards continued to beat him. The weaver’s howls had settled down to sobs and moans. The prisoner took his beating in silence.

He woke up sore. His skin raw in places, his head tender. The light from the sconce lamp (diode? biolumin? glow crystal?) hurt his eyes.

The prisoner rolled over. The weaver had pulled his sleeping pallet next to their shared wall and lay on it, facing the prisoner’s cell. His eyes were closed and he was muttering something. His upper body was a mass of bruises; his fleshy forehead a welter of cuts.

The prisoner gingerly stood and pulled his pallet to the wall. He lay down on it and tapped on the divider. The weaver opened his eyes slowly.

The prisoner gestured: QUERY = YOU = ++

I = + NOT+

QUERY = [gesture of closed fist smacking the air]

The weaver clenched his forehead but said nothing.

QUERY = [gesture of closed fist lashing the air forcefully]

SILK SQUARE = NON-COMPLIANCE

QUERY = -->

STOMACH NON-COMPLIANCE --> EMPEROR

THUMBS UP++

NOT++ --> [gesture at bruises and cuts]

The prisoner shrugged. He didn’t know if that meant anything to the weaver. It seemed the right gesture to make. He almost let the matter rest there. But he was curious. And clearly the weaver wasn’t just a handler. They both had felt the sting of the lash.

QUERY = SILK SQUARES

QUERY

QUERY = SILK SQUARES --> EMPEROR --> EAT

The weaver’s forehead throbbed with what the prisoner took to be laughter.

QUERY

SILK SQUARES --> [point to forehead] --> SLEEP STORY

QUERY

YOU --> STORY IMAGES --> WORM RATION --> SILK WORMS --> SILK --> ME --> SILK SQUARE --> EMPEROR --> [point to forehead] --> SLEEP STORY

QUERY = ++SLEEP STORY

++SILK SQUARE = ++SLEEP STORY

The prisoner shook his head. He needed more detail. He needed to know how he could inflict more damage on this emperor — maybe turn that upset stomach into something more dramatic. He thought about how to phrase what he wanted to say. His mind sifted and combined all of their shared gestures. Nothing quite cohered. He prayed silently. At first just repeating vague phrases of gratitude punctuated by pleas for help. Then bending his thoughts toward the great ship hurtling through the void. It had likely passed out of range by now. But what if his scout ship had been able to scan and transmit just enough detail of the weaver’s planet for the AI to decide to slow its transit and search further? What if help was on its way? It seemed like this should be something God should disclose to him. But no revelation came to him one way or the other. Still just the vague feeling of fine.    

One more sleep cycle after the beating the prisoner was up on his feet. His many bruises were sore and knotted. He spent much of his time stretching and massaging his legs, arms, back and neck. The weaver remained on his pallet.

No further instructions came from the guards, although rations were pushed through the door slots.

Every so often the prisoner would knock on the divider and attempt to engage the weaver in conversation. The weaver remained silent, his eyes closed.

Somewhere after the third sleep cycle, the weaver began moaning while gesticulating with his arms. His tail whipped back and forth; his forehead flushed purple behind the angry red scabs that crisscrossed it.

At first the prisoner was angry.

He repeated several times: EAT; DRINK --> ++

The weaver rolled over on his other side. And kept up his muttering and angry gesturing.

After several minutes, the prisoner lay down against the divider. He pressed his nose against it and waited. Finally, the weaver rolled towards him, his furred face so close it was a blurred smear.

The weaver kept pointing to his mouth and then his eye and then gesturing: EYE = COMPLIANCE; MOUTH = NOT-COMPLIANCE. He also made sounds as he gestured NOT-COMPLIANCE; sounds that muffled through the transparent material that separated them.

The prisoner at first thought that the weaver meant that he saw his food but didn’t feel like eating it. That he was nauseated or something. But there was no direct reference to food, and the weaver repeated the sequence of gestures over and over.

The prisoner had a thought: QUERY = EYE > MOUTH

EYE = ONE; EYE = ++; EYE = LIGHT; MOUTH = TWO; MOUTH = NOT++; MOUTH = NOT-COMPLIANCE; MOUTH --> MOUTH ROBE = COMPLIANCE

The prisoner thought for a moment. Then: QUERY = GUARDS --> MOUTH ROBE = COMPLIANCE

NOD NOD

QUERY = YOU = NOT-COMPLIANCE MOUTH ROBE

QUERY = ME = CLOSED EYE; ME = CLOSED LIGHT; ME = FILTH

ME NOT-COMPLIANCE YOU = FILTH; YOU = THUMBS UP

The weaver blinked twice. He signed back: YOU = THUMBS UP; ME = THUMBS DOWN

But then he got up and stretched his limbs and ate and drank and tidied his prison cell.

The prisoner thought about this conversation until he fell asleep. When he woke up, he had an idea. A revelation maybe. He waited. He waited long past when he should have slept. Finally, the command came again for a silk square. The guards instructions were too quick and complex for him to follow, but he understood just enough that he wasn’t surprised when the weaver gestured: STORY = QUICK; STORY NOT = STOMACH NON-COMPLIANCE

The prisoner nodded and got to work. He told the story of the famous bout between Glister and Nakgram where Glister had staved off a choke hold by illegally gouging Nakgram’s right eye. His grandfather had actually seen it live and had liked to tell it over the dinner table at family gatherings. There was no record of that fight in the library, but luckily the censors had not been as harsh on violence as they had on other forms of decadence, of sin.

It took a while to find the images he needed, but it all finally came together in a way that seemed like inspiration, although whether the source was God, human creativity, or animal desperation wasn’t clear to the prisoner. Whatever it was he had it all: the frenetic grappling. The calloused, rough hands closing around a thickly-veined neck. A mouth gasping for air. The desperate, violent press of the thumb. The popping squish of the eye. The streaming blood. The face contorted in pain. The confusion and riot of the crowd.

When he was done, he went to the wall and tapped on it. The weaver was asleep on his pallet. He tapped again. The weaver opened his eyes.

STORY = WORM FOOD; ++STORY; YOU --> ++SILK SQUARE

COMPLIANCE

YOU --> ++SILK SQUARE

The weaver stared at him and repeated: COMPLIANCE

EAT; DRINK; REST --> ++SILK SQUARE = EMPEROR = ++SLEEP

The weaver’s forehead undulated. COMPLIANCE. But there was a slight edge to the gesture which the prisoner liked seeing.

The weaver did his job when the worms were done. The prisoner couldn’t tell if he did it well, but although he appeared gaunt and bruised and his fur has gone white and patchy in places, his hands were steady as he unwound the silk cocoons and worked the thick, glistening white and gray threads into the weft.

The guards, tails twitching, loomed over the weaver’s shoulders as he finished it. He held up his hands when he was done, and one of the guards pinned his arms behind his back while the other retrieved the silk square and placed it in the red box.

When they left, the prisoner tapped on the wall. The weaver turned, stumbled from his stool to his knees, crawled to his pallet and fell into a deep sleep.

The prisoner paced while the weaver slept. How long before the emperor used the square? What would happen if it worked? He was ready to be executed. Whether this place was a future home for his people or not was not his concern. It was up to God and the great ship’s AI. Whatever acts of faith or courage or weakness lay in his future would all take place in this cell. That much seemed clear. Whether it was resignation or bowing to God’s will, the realization calmed the prisoner. He also slept.

Guards rushed in to both of their cells. They roused the weaver and the prisoner and made them face the wall that divided them. A guard in the prisoner’s cell launched into an urgent series of gesticulations. The weaver made a diffident gesture back. The guard pointed at the prisoner, pointed at him again, and then did another sequence of gestures, his crimson forehead creasing and smoothing so fast it seemed to be pulsing.

The weaver gestured: SILK SQUARE = ++ +

QUERY

The weaver gyrated his left hand. The guard stiffened still. His silk veil stuck to the sweat trickling across his cheeks from his forehead.

The weaver gyrated again, this time more forcefully.

The guard looked to the other guard. He exhaled, his mouth veil fluttering with his breath, and then crisply went through a long set of motions with his hands and tail, his forehead punctuating the monologue with throbs of deep purple and crimson. The weaver turned to the prisoner and translated:

STORY --> EMPEROR = ++ +SLEEP; MORE STORY --> EMPEROR

The prisoner groaned inwardly, careful to not let his facial expressions betray any emotion. He had hoped to expose the emperor to heresy so shocking it deeply incapacitated or even killed him. It seemed as if he had gotten close. Close to what and how close he didn’t know, but clearly, here was a genre of story worth pursuing further.

The weaver looked to the guard who gestured emphatically. The weaver gestured to the prisoner: STORY = QUICK; STORY COMPLIANCE = +; STORY NON-COMPLIANCE = ++ +

The prisoner gestured back: QUERY

GUARDS --> STORY QUICK --> COMPLIANCE = +STORY; THUMBS DOWN ++ +STORY

COMPLIANCE

The prisoner wrestled with himself, with his mission, with his God. He wasn’t sure which of his desires was righteous. He knew now that the emperor didn’t like stories of emperors being assassinated. And that he really like stories that focused on violence to eyes, but that such stories had also caused a reaction in him that had made the guards nervous. So now the prisoner suspected he had been correct — he’s been feeding stories to a decadent emperor who delights in heresy. But if that was the case, what would producing more stories about eyes really accomplish? Would it accelerate a decline or more deeply feed a perversion?  

He paced and loudly sang hymns as he did so. The weaver watched him, eyes closed, a look of calm (disgust? bliss? wonder?) on his face. 

The prisoner knew which story to tell. It was about a man who became king by unknowingly killing his father and marrying his mother. It ended with him piercing his own eyes.

The prisoner didn’t know if it was righteous to do so, but he had to tell it.

It wasn’t hard to find visual adaptations of the story to draw from. But it took him a long time to pull the sequence together because he had decided to edit each of the images so that all of the characters wore veils, wore mouth robes. The mouth robe was the reason the man didn’t know it was his father. The mouth robe was the reason he didn’t realize he was marrying his mother.

The prisoner also played up the eyes. The son who became king had deep blue eyes. The queen who was his mother had bright green eyes. He had the consummation of the incestuous marriage take place under veil of darkness. And then in the light of dawn, in the glory of his power, the awful realization. The horror and revulsion in the eyes of the queen. The condemnation in the eyes of the court. And finally the driving of the needle into first the right eye and then the left. The light of dawn replaced by the dark stream of blood and then simply the ultimate darkness, the final veil from which there is no return to light or glory. And then the coda — the blind king who can see clearly enough to prophesy. To speak prophesy. To sing the future. The filth who is now somehow holy. Who is actually not-filth.

When he was done, he approached the weaver.

STORY --> WORM FOOD

NOD NOD

SILK SQUARE = DONE; ME = NOT-COMPLIANCE --> GUARDS; YOU = ++ +SILK SQUARE

The weaver’s eyes widened. His forehead blotched lavender and light blue: COMPLIANCE 

The prisoner ate and slept. At some point, he awoke briefly to the sounds of the guard bringing the trays of cocoons to the weaver. Through eyes blurred from sleep, he watched the weaver take the first from the tray and hold it briefly to his forehead, NOD NOD, and dunk it in a basin of steaming water to soak.

When the prisoner emerged from his cycle of sleep, he warmed up and stretched his muscles. He was still sore and tender from the beating.

He walked over to his console. It suddenly seemed strange to him that its familiarity had provided no consolation for him during the months of his imprisonment. That it had been used for a unique sort of torture or whatever one wanted to label the conditions of his captivity. 

The weaver was turned away from him hard at work at his weaving frame. He moaned intermittently. The prisoner walked to the divider and watched the weaver work his methodical, monotonous elegance. The weaver glided his shuttle along the warp as slow and cautious as a scout ship emerging from deep space. The prisoner wondered if the weaver had a similar relationship to the weaving frame as he did to the console. He wondered what the weaver would make of his story if he chose to experience it. Would he understand that eyes are not always light? That mouths are not always filth?

And that — with a sudden flash of warmth in his mind — became more important to him than whatever long shot he was attempting with the emperor. What was the hope? To shock the emperor to death? And then what? Go through the same thing over again with a new one? And if it fails, watch the guards beat the weaver again? Watch the weaver think he deserves to die because he believes he is filth?

The prisoner moved to the door of his cell. He peered through the narrow window in it, which cut through the door from near the top all the way to the bottom. He could see no guards.

He tapped quietly on the divider. The weaver ignored him. He tapped again. And then again. And again until the weaver finally left his loom.

QUERY [accompanied by a stab of the tail and a crimson forehead]

QUERY = YOU --> SLEEP STORY

NOT-COMPLIANCE

YOU --> THUMBS UP SLEEP STORY

NOT-COMPLIANCE

The prisoner cycled and recycled the gestures that formed their shared database of vocabulary. How to say it? He tried again: YOU > EMPEROR --> SLEEP STORY YOU [point at forehead]

The weaver’s forehead flattened out. He brushed one of the scabs on it with the pad of his furred finger. His follow-up gesture was clear but tentative in its motion: ME = FILTH

The prisoner smiled. STORY = FILTH; STORY = ++ + NOT-COMPLIANCE; YOU --> SILK SQUARE; ME = [gesture of pounding on divider; open mouth as if yelling] GUARDS; YOU --> [point at forehead] SLEEP STORY

The weaver narrowed his eyes; NOT-COMPLIANCE; and returned to his work.

The prisoner hummed the first few bars of one of the hymns he had sung earlier. The weaver’s tail twitched. The prisoner hummed louder and then open his mouth and sang loudly. The weaver jumped up and rushed to the barrier. He covered his mouth repeatedly and gestured the sign GUARDS. The prisoner lowered his voice but kept singing. The weaver smiled. He crinkled his forehead. It pulsed from light pink to flushed red. 

The prisoner gestured: YOU --> [point at forehead] SLEEP STORY

NOT-COMPLIANCE

The prisoner sang another line and smiled. He pointed at this mouth and throat and gestured NOT-FILTH and kept singing.

The weaver smiled. He pressed his lips together, his throat tightened slightly, and while he couldn’t hear it because of his singing, the prisoner was certain the weaver was trying to hum along.

The prisoner gestured: YOU --> [point at forehead] SLEEP STORY

The weaver shrugged and went back to his loom.

The prisoner sang softly while the weaver worked.

The guards once again appeared right when the weaver was almost done. They carried the leather (plant fiber? algerene? hydrostat?) straps and the red lacquer (shell? adamant? ceramoplate?) box. They flanked him while he tucked the last thread over and under the weft. The prisoner could barely see his head bobbing in profile behind the guard’s torso.

The weaver shifted his head bobbing into an obvious NOD NOD. The prisoner charged the divider, slammed his shoulder into it with a crack and began pounding on it with his fists, yelling loudly all the while. The guards jumped. Two rushed to the wall. The weaver ripped the silk square from its frame and placed it across his mouth as if it were a mouth robe. Then he slid it over his eyes and onto his forehead. He collapsed to the floor and began convulsing, his forehead surging purple-red. The third guard froze. Touched a finger to his mouth robe. The weaver’s forehead continued to pulse violently. The third guard peeled the gloves from the weaver’s hands, donned them, and carefully retrieved the silk square. He gestured frantically. The other two guards turned around and beat the weaver with their straps. The prisoner kept pounding and yelling. The third guard rushed the box with the silk square out of the cell. The other two kept beating the weaver. The prisoner yelled for them to stop while repeatedly gesturing COMPLIANCE and then realizing that his making of sound was likely making them angrier stopped yelling and only gestured.

The guards finally stopped beating the weaver and left the cell. The prisoner braced for them to rush into his next, but they didn’t. The weaver continued to convulse. He was facing away from the prisoner. The prisoner knelt at the glass (plastic? polycrystal? membroplate?) divider, his jumbled, stabbing thoughts screaming out in prayer, unable to settle on an actual expression of petition. He remained in this attitude but not actual expression of prayer for what seemed like hours. The guards did not return. The weaver was still. The prisoner feared that he was dead and was also ashamed that part of him—the part of him that just wanted this part of his mission (whatever it was) to be over — hoped that he was dead. He tried to pray again and lacking the attitude to pray, he simply waited. Waited to feel hope, to feel guilt, for a some sort of sign of something. Waited until he was bored of not being able to do anything but wait. And then he sang. At first softly. Then louder. Calm hymns. The ones about faith and sacrifice rather than the ones about conquest and triumph.

The weaver twitched then rolled over. His face, and hands, and arms were a mess of blood (of ichor? Of lymph? of fluid? – no, of blood). The weaver’s eyes were swollen shut, his lips uncovered and livid. The prisoner tried to gesture apologies, but the weaver could not see them or chose not to react to them. The prisoner began singing again. The weaver smiled and NOD NODed. And then — the movement subtle and slow but unmistakable — gestured: ME = NOT-FILTH; YOU = THUMBS UP

Though the weaver could not see him, the prisoner quickly gestured back: COMPLIANCE