io9 is proud to present fiction from LIGHTSPEED MAGAZINE. Once a month, we feature a story from LIGHTSPEED’s current issue. This month’s selection is “Critical Mass” by Peter Watts. You can read the story below or listen to the podcast on Lightspeed’s website. Enjoy!
Leo Gregory is losing altitude.
He coasts on the thermals of a legacy fading behind him: a documentary here, a retrospective there, some greatest-hits collection down in the corner for the dilettantes. Oh, the work has lost none of its grandeur: his buildings remain timeless, his objets d’art still serve up facets upon layers from each new angle. Critics continue to marvel over the way Leo Gregory can craft a whole hypnotic universe from a blob of glass and wire. But the signature pieces are the better part of a decade old, now. The publications may be recent, but the works they explore have been around for years. In terms of sheer inventory, Leo’s productivity is as great as it’s ever been—but somehow the new pieces aren’t showing up in the monographs or the ecstatic retrospectives.
Nobody seems to have noticed yet, but he knows it’s only a matter of time. People are bound to catch on. Objects in the rear-view mirror are farther than they appear.
So often now, function squashes form. Structures once designed to celebrate the material now exist only to withstand the next hurricane. Leo’s creations once aspired to inspire; now they do little more than accommodate the next outbreak. He is so tired of letting weather and microbes push him around. He wants to stop merely building things and go back to sculpting them: walls that segue seamlessly into ceilings, lights that shoal like bioluminescent squid through corridors and conference rooms. He wants to subvert boring straight-line geometries with naturalistic evocations of driftwood and coral.
He could, if they’d let him. His classic creations are as resilient as they are beautiful; seven Richters would barely crack the windows. But people are so scared, these days. Every year the floods rise higher, the fires burn hotter, the winds blow harder. People don’t want strength disguised, they want it in their faces. They want reassurance. They want something that looks strong.
There was a time when he could have even given them that, when he knew how to make even Brutalism beautiful. Maybe he still can; it’s been so long since he was afforded the opportunity. He can’t quite pin down when that straitjacket stopped chafing.
Maybe about the time he started running out of ideas.
Leo can’t seem to get a good night’s sleep. He tosses and turns, bedeviled by dreams of plagues and prostitution. As often as not he sleeps in the cot in Emma’s room, to spare Michelle from his semiconscious flapping about. (He only wishes he could wake Emma so easily.) He works late and sleeps later. False starts and abortions accumulate in his home studio, weighing him down like ballast, compressing him. He feels as though he’s being pulled slowly down into the Juan de Fuca Trench.
When he discovers the break-in on the morning of the 23rd, it’s almost a relief.
Officer Thalberg interviews Leo in the vandalized studio. More precisely, she interviews Leo-in-the-vandalized-studio, via drone hovering at eye level a discreet two meters away; Thalberg herself remains antiseptically ensconced in her cruiser at the curb. Her sidekick—a Boston Dynamics Bloodhound that moves like a hungry xenomorph on four spring-loaded legs—has already introduced itself and wandered off in search of clues.
Thalberg looks out from a little screen nestled between the quad’s forward fans. “Anything stolen?”
“I don’t think so. Whoever it was just—tossed the place. Trashed Two-thirty.”
“A piece of sculpture I was working on,” Leo explains, and wonders why it sounds like a confession. “I number them.”
“You’re an artist?” Thalberg sounds surprised; you don’t end up on the fast-response list unless you’re respectable.
“Among other things,” Leo says. “I do a lot of building design.” That part of his persona seems to go over better in certain quarters.
“Oh. An architect.” Thalberg seems satisfied; Leo doesn’t correct her.
Something clatters around the corner. He follows the sound—Thalberg’s drone floating at his shoulder—through archways of resin and fabric-formed concrete. Indirect natural light seeps brightly through fissures in the walls. The whole studio is more grotto than office: a bright high-ceilinged cave, as natural as artifice can be.
The Bloodhound has found Leo’s junk pile in an alcove off the main workspace: ceramic-coated GPUs from old motherboards. The motors from discarded Cuisinarts. Batteries and gears and gyros wired together in insane configurations, random junk electroplated into glorious metal jigsaws. Built, toyed with, discarded onto a pile too big to contain it all; bits and pieces have spilled away from its slopes, lie strewn across the floor like fragile little caltrops. The robot sniffs and scans and noses it all, systematically transforming junk into Evidence.
“Two-thirty, I presume,” Thalberg remarks.
Leo shakes his head. “These are just—I dunno, prototypes. Failed experiments.” Amusements for Emma, in fact. That’s how they started. He kept building them afterward out of sheer habit, half-hearted and joyless. But sometime when he wasn’t looking they took on new life, morphed from grim distraction into something almost—fulfilling, maybe. Warm-up exercises. An exploration of interesting dead ends.
Maybe it’s all bullshit, maybe this is just his way of hanging on to the past. So what if he gets more pleasure out of these uncommissioned orphans than from any of the recent works he dignifies with an actual number. That doesn’t change the fact that by any objective measure, he’s basically just jerking off.
He calls them masturpieces. Not that he’s about to admit as much to Officer Thalberg.
“Two-thirty’s over here.” Leo backtracks and hangs a left; the drone pivots and weaves in his wake. The Bloodhound worries away at the pile behind them.
230 sits—sat, rather—on a central table in the main studio. In life it was a small frozen tsunami, folded glass layered in shades of blue and emerald. You could look into its depths and see a whole dark ocean looking back. A filigreed mesh of copper threads ran through its skin; the idea was to generate a magnetic field in which tiny crystal droplets, similarly imbued, would float in midair around the central artifact. The wave and its cloud of spray, bound by invisible force.
Ten years ago, it would have been a groundbreaker.
Thalberg’s quad turns slowly on its axis, taking in the tableau. The studio’s north wall looks out across the harbor to the mountains on the north shore.
“Nice place,” Thalberg remarks.
If you walked through that sliding glass door onto the balcony and looked down, you’d come face-to-face with the gray grimy asphalt of Commissioner Street at the foot of the hill, the creosote sutures of the train tracks to either side. None of that ugliness falls line-of-sight from in here, though.
The quad floats over to the glass doors. “This was open last night?”
“Well, yeah. But it’s an eight-meter drop.” The studio extends from the crest of the hill as if the house behind were sticking out its tongue. It overhangs a feral canopy of cherry and maple, a dense green vein winding along a slope just steep enough to keep the developers at bay. Also, Leo realizes belatedly, a concealed avenue of approach for anyone intent on a little B&E.
“Uh huh. Private entrance, too,” Thalberg adds. Not unusual, these days—when guests and colleagues come to use the facilities, you don’t want them tromping pathogens through your living room—but still.
“It’s alarmed,” Leo says, a bit defensively.
“And the alarm was on last night?”
“Yeah, I—” Come to think of it, he doesn’t explicitly remember. But you never remember the stuff you do automatically, right?
“It always is,” he finishes, but the quad’s already sniffing along one of the fissures in the western wall: a source of light and cross-ventilation posing as geological imperfection. The drone winks sparkly ultraviolet at a small scuff mark there, spins back to face him.
“This gap extends all the way through?”
“There’s a screen on the other side to keep out the bugs. But, yeah.” He feels compelled to add, “You’d have to be some kind of child contortionist to squeeze through there, though. Unless someone cut you into pieces first.”
“Mr. Gregory, with all due respect to your architectural skills, I’ve seen tree houses with stronger security.”
Leo shrugs. “Yeah, I—I was more careful when I wasn’t spending so much time at home. You don’t expect someone to break in when you’re right down the hall, you know?”
“At the very least you should keep the balcony entrance locked and install some cameras. Who else has access?”
“Just me and Michelle.”
“What about Emma?”
Of course: they came down the hall, right past the closed door with its Dayglo nudibranch name plate and the muffled clicks and hisses seeping through from the other side.
“She hasn’t woken up in four years,” Leo says quietly.
Even without looking, he can see Thalberg counting back in her head. “My condolences,” she says after a moment. “Golem was—I still can’t imagine what kind of monster would deliberately create something like—”
Leo cuts her off: “It’s induced.”
“The coma. We induced it. H2S therapy.” It seems important that Thalberg know this, somehow. “Until there’s a cure.”
“Of course. They’re making progress all the time.” The drone dips sadly in a sudden breeze from the balcony. “You must have home care, then.”
“Once every couple of weeks at most. The bed’s mostly automated.” Belatedly he realizes what Thalberg is getting at. “The nurse doesn’t have access to—”
His earbud buzzes. Relieved, Leo checks his spex: “Sorry, do you mind if I take this? It’s my business partner.”
“Sure.” The drone floats toward the balcony. “I’ve got to check the grounds anyway.”
It’s a welcome reprieve, even though he knows what it’s about: that collector in Frankfurt again, desperate to add an undiscovered Gregory to his living room. Anything new, anything old even so long as it isn’t in the catalogs. Whatever he has lying around. Price is no object.
Leo’s been putting him off. It shames him to admit that he’s actually tempted.
Michelle turns her eyes from the stage where three proteges rehearse fluid moves that, to Leo at least, seem anatomically impossible for anything with an internal skeleton. “No joy, then?”
He shakes his head. “No DNA. No obvious motive. Not much she could do, other than read me the riot act for leaving the windows open and not having spycams all over the place.”
“We are putting in cameras though, right?”
“Leo. Someone was in our house.”
“Right. Of course.” He really has resolved to be more conscientious about security. He’s keeping all the doors and windows locked, at least. The camera thing might take a while. He’ll have to wheedle someone into building a custom setup. You can’t get anything off the shelf these days that doesn’t hoover up all your personal data by default, and Leo does not trust Google or Amazon or any other surveillance-happy behemoth whose business model hinges on making you forget that Cloud is just another word for Someone Else’s Servers.
Michelle turns back to her dancers, taps the plexi to get their attention; delivers feedback and instruction via some elegant wordless semaphore. One of the troupe flashes a thumbs-up; they take it from the top.
Leo watches, mesmerized. To all appearances the stage is occupied not by three entities but by a single multi-limbed being split into three parts, all somehow moving of unified accord. Soft lightning flashes between them: lambent auroras of ruby and emerald, electric thoughts leaping synaptic junctions to keep everything in sync. The lights flicker like static discharge from the BSBs around each dancer’s left wrist.
“How’d you do the lights?” he wonders.
“Kris hacked the contact-tracing fields. The colors emerge from the interaction of their path profiles.”
Epidemiological rainbows. The chromatics of health and disease, of vibrant life and the dissolution of small fragile things. Michelle has literalized the BSBs, made them visibly Broad-Spectrum.
“I could have done that for you.” Thinking: But I didn’t.
She shrugs. “No big deal. Kris figured it out in about two secs.”
The dancers have segued into a whole new mode; every limb and joint trembles now, they move as if literally electrified. Leo can’t put his finger on the moment that changed.
“I envy you,” he admits. “It’s not—it’s not all on you. Everything you do is a collaboration.”
Michelle frowns. “It’s me enough. In the end. The basic moves and concepts, anyway. They bring their own interpretations of course, but I’m the one who gets the shitty reviews if it’s a fuck-up.”
Leo snorts. “When did you ever get a shitty review?”
She’s gracious enough to let it slide.
He looks back to the stage. “So this is the live one, right? Piranha?”
She nods, eyes on the dancers, lips slightly parted. Some subtle aura glows around her, half anticipation, half addiction. That edge—that feedback loop between audience and performer, the subtle call-and-response that updates a dozen times a second and makes every performance utterly unique—it doesn’t happen often these days. The audience may be a thousand times larger than any that could fit into these seats; it may extend from the lower mainland to the other side of the world. But they aren’t here; the dancers call and nothing responds. In a performative sense, the audience isn’t even real.
Piranha scored one of exactly four live-audience permits doled out by city hall this year. The news came through a month ago and Michelle’s feet still haven’t touched the ground.
She’s tried to describe the adrenaline high she gets from performing for flesh and blood: like being an animal, she says. Like being in the jungle and hearing every cricket and predator within a hundred miles. Feeling every hair on your arm, individually, stirring in the breeze: running real-time scenarios like a supercomputer, what to do if this happens, where to go if that does, how to shape your moves around that late arrival who tries to break in through the fire exit half an hour in.
He envies that, too. “It’s been too long since I’ve seen you like this,” he says.
She hesitates. Nods.
“I wish I could feel the way you do. That—hyperawareness.”
She shakes her head. “You ask me, you’re too aware. Stop worrying so much.”
“Easy for you to say.”
She looks around the room, pointedly takes in the banks of stereocams and mics and roosting drones used to convey something in lieu of Art to distant masses. “Nothing’s easy these days, Leo.”
He grimaces, conceding the point.
“And anyway,” Michelle adds, “you know why I’m doing okay again? Because I trust myself. You know what happens when I lose faith in my own abilities, when I stop just dancing and start wondering if I made the right number of steps before the turn? I screw up. Like . . . like a centipede trying to figure out where all his legs should go.” She fixes him with a serious stare. “Stop thinking about it. Take a break. The subconscious is capable of amazing things if you just let it do its thing. Go play Starfisher or something.”
He manages a smile. “I don’t have time for games, Meesh.”
“People make breakthroughs while playing games. In their sleep, even. I’ll send you the links. Besides,”—she puts her hands on his shoulders—“you’re not nearly in the rut you think you are. Those little one-off experiments of yours—”
“That’s just dicking around.”
“Well, I like them. Emma liked—likes them. They move.”
“They just lie there.”
“Sweetie, don’t be so literal. They move by just lying there. I’m a dancer; I can tell.”
She pats his ass.
Emma’s eyes still move under their lids.
It’s not supposed to happen. Her brain is as shut down as the rest of her: metabolic pathways clogged by precise aliquots of hydrogen sulfide, the machinery of that vital life slowed by ninety percent or more. Her mind resides mainly in the hippocampus now: pure dreamless slow-wave, its upper reaches dormant and blissfully unaware.
Yet there she is. Looking around in the darkness. Always the rule-breaker.
“Hey, kid.” Leo glances down at the bauble in his hand. “Brought you something.” It’s not kinetic but it’s pretty enough: a small beaded urchin lit from within, a home-made LED with an epidermis of polished sea-glass. He shows it to her, as ritual dictates (did those closed eyes stop moving for just a second, come to rest on the gift in his hand?); carefully sets it down on the headboard with all the others he’s brought her over the years. He smooths the hair away from her forehead. They should probably buzz it but they keep it short instead. He and Michelle wash it together, every week.
So damn young. Fifteen years old and she still looks like a little girl: their sleeping beauty, aging one year in ten. What happens if it takes another decade to find a cure? Two? Emma could hit thirty before she hits puberty.
They’ve thought about waking her up, of course. Fought about it, even: what harm would it do, on special occasions? Birthdays, Christmases. Just for an hour or two. Maybe a day. To give her some time in the light, to reacquaint themselves with this small bright soul they’ve put on hold while they wait for medicine to catch up with the bioterrorists.
Cruel fantasy, of course. It takes days to lift someone safely out of a sulfide coma—and for what? So their beautiful daughter can see her parents aging in stop-motion, glimpse a world moving on without her as all those tiny monsters, reawakened in turn, devour her a little more from the inside? And then it’s Playtime’s over, sweetie. Back to the void. Happy birthday. All for a few minutes of selfish face time.
And yet they miss her so much. The hurt, the heartache—builds up. So they let it out now and then, arguing, denying, iterating through the same steps to the same unassailable end point while Emma waits in stasis, tended by magical machines.
Sometimes Leo finds a measure of comfort here: the soft blue lighting, the twinkling constellations of vital signs, the viscous peristalsis of the gel mattress as it rolls his daughter to and fro to keep the bed sores at bay. The low electrical hum and snap of the EMS pads on arms and legs: small electrocutions to head off the wasting of unused muscles. The whole room is a kind of ecosystem, a blue-shifted electric forest keeping the monsters away. That ambiance—reassures him, somehow.
Other times it drives him up the fucking wall.
Thalberg again. “I didn’t know you built robots, Mr. Gregory.”
Leo squints into his spex. “I don’t.”
“I’m in Point Grey right now, looking at one that has your handiwork all over it.”
“Point Gr—oh.” It comes back to him. “204.”
The feed switches to Thalberg’s drone, hovering over a dead Honda Kamakiri splayed across granite flagstones. Its carapace is fractured; two legs are broken. A sparse cloud of tinfoil moths flutter around it like tiny angels gone grand mal, lurching and jerking in a spastic caricature of the swirling murmurations Leo programmed in three years ago. Thalberg’s Bloodhound noses the carcass with a precise forensic rigor that can’t quite dispel the sense of one being mourning the loss of another.
Thalberg reappears. “204, I presume.”
“Yeah. The bot’s off-the-shelf, but I—customized it.”
“These little floaty bits.”
Leo nods. “Among other things. They’re supposed to flock like birds. Magnetic coils, microfans, nearest-neighbor algos. It was actually pretty impressive before . . .”
“Uh huh.” Thalberg does not sound impressed. Truth be told, Leo isn’t either, really. 204 was a gimmick, a handful of elements from his Greatest-Hits collection recycled into work-for-hire.
Still. “So is this a pattern, then?”
“Twice is coincidence,” Thalberg says. “Takes three times to get to Enemy Action. But you might want to send me a list of any of other works you’ve got scattered around the lower mainland. Just in case.”
It hits him then. “That’s a security bot; there should be video. If not in local memory, uploaded somewhere.”
“You’d think so, wouldn’t you?” Thalberg smiles grimly. “All the local surveillance was scrambled.”
The officer nods. “Some kind of magnetic interference. Every camera in range got fratzed before anything appeared in frame.”
“Don’t look at me,” Leo says.
Thalberg raises an eyebrow. “Why would I?”
“Well, um, the coils I installed. For the birdlets. But I shielded the onboard electronics, and anyway the fields weren’t nearly strong enough to mess with anything outside the chassis.”
“Uh huh.” Thalberg leans out of frame for a moment before the tracking macro kicks in and reacquires; Leo catches a glimpse of steering wheel, experiences a flicker of envy. Cops still get to drive, manually. Their cars don’t even come with a self-drive option, not since the Antinatalists hacked the whole Cincinnati PD fleet into playing bumper-car at 100 kph in the downtown core.
Those were the days.
Thalberg gets her list, but she’s got other cases on her plate. Leo can’t imagine that a couple of minor B&Es rank very high on her agenda. He restrains himself as long as he can, which takes him through to a sleepless two a.m.; then he eases out of bed (Michelle mumbles at his back but doesn’t awaken), pulls on a pair of pants and pads to the garage. He unplugs the Nissan and feeds it waypoints; while it chews on them he bulkmails his local client list with a query about whether anything might have, you know, happened to any of his pieces over the past few days.
The Nissan pings, route optimized and plotted. Leo embarks on the Midnight Tour.
He spelunks 86 down on East Georgia: Official Leo HQ, myopically built before The Cocooning. It’s a great block five stories high, its facades randomly cratered with cavelike invaginations and falls of greenery: a Borg cube, assimilated by a rainforest. Leo starts in the parking garage, where rows of freshly-printed porta-potties and stacks of folded cots await next year’s inevitable influx of refugees (everyone has to do their part—and it’s not as though the garage is overwhelmed with drive-ins anyway, these days). He works his way up through loading bays and production facilities, courtyards and gardens and dusty prototyping shops. Eighty-six is virtually abandoned even during the day, beyond the trickle of street-level business that somehow keeps the restaurant and gallery alive. Here in the dead of night, there is only Leo—and the building is pristine. Not a sculpture, not a light fixture is out of place.
192 is a different story: a commissioned piece of commemorative sculpture plunked down in Maple Tree Square, postmodern Vancouver’s answer to tarnished bronze statues of dead white men on horses. Some critic once compared it to a hantavirus; that wasn’t what Leo had in mind when he built the bloody thing, but in hindsight he can’t deny the resemblance.
It doesn’t look like much of anything now. Its pieces lie scattered across the square. One of those temporary road signs—high pole, cement base—lies on its side nearby. Evidently someone has used it as a sledgehammer.
Three times is enemy action. Then again, maybe not; what else do you expect when you put a piece of public art in the heart of Gastown, a mere forty meters from literally-I-kid-you-not Blood Alley? The police barely even respond to 911 calls from here any more. When they do show up, it tends to be in force.
This might not be targeted at all. This could just be another act of random Gastown violence of the sort practiced by those good folks coming around the corner from Powell, the copper streetlights casting their faces in shadow, the implements in their hands heavy and full of inertia . . .
“Drive,” Leo says, and the Nissan carries him away.
He crosses Lions Gate to Ambleside: 210 and 211 are okay. Over at Pemberton and Marine, 162 seems none the worse for wear. 188 seems intact from a distance—its upper reaches loom over the community center in its shadow, same as always—but what is he expecting? Some night-stalking army of vigilante art critics is going to take down a ten-story condo cluster in the heart of North Van?
Not that Leo would especially mourn its loss. 188 is a fine project, maybe the best you could hope for in a world of small-minded bureaucrats who equate resilience with boxiness. Its interior features some really nice touches—the lobby’s all curves and arches, lit with constellations of blown glass that glow like golden incandescent blood cells—but the building itself is nothing special. Planes and right-angles, a conventional concrete shell shaped by a throwaway exoskeleton of reinforced plywood.
The damage comes into view as the Nissan rounds the corner. The wreckage is all at ground level, broken windows and pockmarked walls, a sparse talus of bricks scattered along the sidewalk. Rebar protrudes from the gashed facade like thin bones from an open wound. The whole tableau strobes blue and red in the light of the police cruiser parked at the main entrance. A cop actually emerges from the cab as Leo watches, demoting the usual trunk-launched drone from point man to sidekick. The meat turns and eyes the Nissan as it cruises past; the mech ignores it.
Leo doesn’t stop.
Dawn finds him back at home and cowled in a VR headset, riding a rental drone along the Gulf Islands to his beloved Bridge House. The place is rooted on opposite sides of a deep fern gully, spanning the space between, designed as a kind of domestic observatory for rising seas and changing ecosystems. Successive generations would have marveled as the wonderland beneath their feet transitioned from woodland to marsh, from marsh to inlet. Its inhabitants would have dwelt within the verdant green heart of ecological succession itself.
The house stands empty. It’s been barely a decade and the once-pristine gully is a stagnant pit, choked with filamentous algae, cycling from merely eutrophic in the spring to downright anoxic by August. It stinks of black mud and rotten eggs. The stand of cedars that once arched over the driveway has been reduced to skeletal kindling by bark beetles and some new superfungus that erupted from the Oregon rainforest back in ‘25. The oceanfront windows look out on an endless jumbled vista of driftwood, and garbage, and broken chunks of autoprinted Japanese condos carried over on the North Pacific Current.
Bridge House has endured though, an unintended testament to Be Careful What You Wish For. It has survived superstorms and killer surf and coast-wrecking earthquakes half a millennium overdue. It remains unscathed: whoever’s pursuing this vendetta hasn’t made it out this far.
Not that they need to.
So it’s official: someone has a bone to pick with Leo Gregory, Fading Wunderkind. Now the VPD will swing into action. They’ll ignore the biohackers building gengineered plagues in their garages. They’ll forget all about the hordes of refugees sneaking in from the U.S. Hell, they may even stick a pin in that leftist cabal that hacked the Internet of Things last week, warmed up every fridge in the lower mainland just enough to overwhelm the local hospitals with two thousand simultaneous cases of salmonella. They’ll forget about all that and focus their resources exclusively on the case of the midnight vandal who desecrates the timeless work of Leo Gregory.
In fact, he’ll be lucky if Thalberg hasn’t already been reassigned to the latest gang war task force. If he wants to fight back, he’s on his own.
But Leo’s no detective. He’s a sculptor. He’s an artist. The only way he knows to fight back against the destruction of these artifacts is to make more of them, to abandon this junked history and fill the space with something better.
It sounds so fucking simple. The truth is, the only creations that have given him any pleasure lately have been those one-off warm-ups, and they’re—nothing. Personal indulgences, spontaneous and utterly lacking in rigor.
Maybe that’s why he and Emma like them.
He throws an old documentary onto the wall in lieu of inspiration—the National Film Board’s Infinite Regressions of Leo Gregory—and selects a piece from the junk pile: a crystal diatom, bristling with a thousand needle-thin protrusions. He built it in a bell jar, pumped out the air and let hard vacuum pull an expanding bubble of soft glass through a wireframe mesh. It seems almost too delicate to exist; those fragile spines wouldn’t even be able to bear their own weight but for the wire gates and conduits threaded through the glass like a neural net.
He grabs a pair of long-handled forceps and absently starts snapping spines off at the base.
Over on the wall Leo’s Barbican piece floats like a monstrous bioluminescent coral while some younger self voiceovers on the importance of knowing what’s worthwhile. A montage of photos and phone vids recall his salad days pretending to be a Whiterock farmer, passing off his glassblowing rig as farm equipment to get around the zoning laws. Then back to Art—108, this time: “Most of us regard lightning in a bottle as a mere turn of phrase. Only Leo Gregory would dare to take it literally.” Some mathematician from Waterloo postulates a savantic intuition for derivatives.
These doodles are nice—fulfilling even, in their own modest way—but they’re so damn small. It’s not enough to merely push the envelope; Leo wants to leave it in shreds. He wants to scale his art up into his architecture, transect a whole fucking building. He wants to build a skyscraper and slice through it at insane angles, explore a million cross-sections: the skeleton, the insulation, the pulmonary ducts and ventilators, the sparking copper and fiberop of the central nervous system. He wants to cut through all that Euclidean monotony and uncover the fractal wonders hidden inside, map a whole two-dimensional universe stretched across a thousand square meters.
Young Leo again: “What we try to do is release control . . . set these systems in motion which let the material determine what form it takes . . .”
He returns his attention to the workbench, blinks: sometime in the past few minutes he’s sliced the diatom in half around the equator. The glistening cross-section mesmerizes, like a circuit diagram embedded in a geode. An iris. An eye.
What was it Michelle said, a few days back? The subconscious is capable of amazing things if you just let it do its thing.
Well, duh. This is hardly the first time his hands have gone their own way when he wasn’t watching; he’s done some of best work in The Zone. Back when his work was good.
But maybe Michelle’s right. She usually is. Maybe he should stop concentrating on the work itself and figure out how to get back onto that ol’ Zenspace.
She sent him links, he remembers. He mutes the wall and checks them out.
It goes way beyond pianists letting their fingers move themselves, or champion golfers unable to remember the moment they sank that critical putt. There are your run-of-the-mill sleepwalkers, of course (Emma was one of those, before; they’d find her in front of the fridge at three a.m. eating raw soy dogs from the package). Your somewhat-less-run-of-the-mill sleep-sexers, cruising bars, seducing one-nighters, waking up the next day shocked and horrified by the presence of the complete stranger beside them in bed. But Meesh wasn’t kidding: people also make scientific breakthroughs in their sleep. Mathematical theorems, molecular structures, statistical models of marine habitats—all served up wholesale in dreams, if these reports are to be believed. All the dreamers had to do was wake up and write down the insights before they faded, like they were taking dictation.
People even kill in their sleep. Homicidal somnambulism, it’s called. They drive across town, do the deed and clean up the mess afterward, never waking. And juries have repeatedly let them walk—because after reviewing the evidence, they conclude that the accused have not after all done those terrible things.
Something inside of them has.
A sudden sound. Leo starts—but it’s only his discarded spex, beeping from the table. He slides them on, grunts in annoyance; somehow the Frankfurt collector has rooted out his personal email, done an end-run around Randy and targeted the object of his obsession directly. Leo can’t quite suppress a twinge of grudging admiration for the guy’s tenacity.
It’s the same old shit, of course. Anything original. A carriage bolt wrapped in duct tape will do, as long as it has Leo’s signature on it. Please please please.
Leo hesitates for almost a minute, hating himself the whole time.
He hits Delete.
Randy calls from Berlin. “Bad news.”
“The exhibition’s off,” Leo guesses. The Black Forest is on fire again. Anyone less than a thousand kilometers downwind is pretty much staying indoors.
“What? Oh, no, the wind’s supposed to shift by Tuesday; we should be okay.”
“Someone destroyed 202.”
“Wait, you mean—” Leo counts back through his oeuvre. “Over there? Leise Park?”
“No idea. Big park, not many cameras, and two of those were acting up that night for some reason.” Randy coughs a continental cough. “I’m afraid it’s not a huge priority for the local constabulary.”
A transatlantic commercial flight increases your chances of contracting Alaskapox by 68%, a half-dozen H1 variants by almost fifty. Does anyone hate Leo’s work—hate him—so much that they’d spend twelve hours locked in a flying petri dish just to take a few swipes at some half-assed sculpture in a foreign park?
“There’s more than one,” Leo says.
“It’s a group. An international conspiracy.”
“Randy, you haven’t forgotten the problems I’ve been having over here the past few weeks.”
“Of course not, but seriously? An international conspiracy?”
“Canada and Germany: international. At least two people working together. Conspiracy.”
“Come on. If some secret coven of critics was really out to do you in they’d just give you a bad writeup in Architectural Review or something.”
“So how do you explain it?”
“I dunno. Coincidence maybe.”
Leo doesn’t dignify that with an answer.
“Anyway, um.” Randy clears his throat. “That’s not the main reason I called.”
“I thought we’d agreed I’d be handling your fanboys.”
“We did. There a problem?”
“Your shipment to Gunter Holzbok didn’t exactly come through normal channels.”
“Gunter—” The Frankfurter. The pest. “Shipment?”
“I wouldn’t even have known about it if I hadn’t been down at the studio on other business. Happened to see it in the loading bay before it went out.”
“Randy—” Leo calls up the spreadsheet to check, though he already knows what he’ll find. “I never sent anything to that guy. Do you know how he got my personal email?”
“Officially, no it didn’t come from you. The invoice lists Miko Webb.”
“I can’t help but wonder if you used that name so it wouldn’t go through me.”
“I didn’t send anything.”
“Come on. You think I don’t recognize your work when I see it?”
“You opened it?”
“Of course I opened it. Fifty kilograms of random knick-knacks. Holzbok wanted one piece. You sent him enough to open his own damn gallery. Didn’t even charge him anything past shipping and handling. What in God’s name were you thinking?”
Leo surveys the junk pile. Myriad disjointed fragments look back. Now that he’s paying attention, the pile does look smaller than it used to. A small shape, both familiar and out-of-place, glitters near its apex. Leo crosses the room and plucks the sea-glass urchin from the pile. Gooseflesh ripples along his arms.
“They came back,” he whispers.
“Your conspiracy again?”
“They were in Emma’s room . . .” He feels a sudden compulsion to go there now, to look under the bed for hidden bogeymen, although he looked in on her not half an hour ago.
Don’t be an idiot, Leo. Calm the fuck down.
He takes a breath. “Randy, I don’t know what to tell you. It wasn’t me. That means it was someone else.”
“Someone else who knows about Miko Webb.”
“They don’t have to know all about him. Just, you know. The falling-out, the, the public persona. Someone stole my art, Randy. Someone’s fucking with me. Someone’s fucking with us.”
“So you’re saying you don’t want me to send it on to Frankfurt?” Randy says.
Leo barely hears him. He can’t stop thinking about that time-worn cliche the critics like to hide behind whenever they’re about to savage a life’s work:
No artist ever owns their art.
It belongs to everyone.
He awakens to the clicking of electronic crickets, in the dim blue glow of Emma’s guardian ecosystem. Michelle leans over him. Her face is all shadows.
She puts a finger to her lips: Not a sound.
He’s instantly alert—“Are they back?”—one hand reaching for his spex.
She shakes her head, whispers: “Better than that.” Leo catches the corner of a smile.
“Then . . .” Rolling off the cot, pulling on sweatpants. Disentangling himself when his foot goes down the wrong leg.
He follows her into the hall, where a little touchscreen serves up the feeds from newly-installed, custom-built, Cloud-free security cameras. Michelle has pulled up the studio view: a jumbled mosaic of angles and shadows, the elastic silhouettes of moonlit windowframes stretched across the floor.
Over in the corner, something moves near the junk pile. No alarms sound.
“They hacked the sensors,” Leo says.
“Sensors are fine,” Michelle tells him. “You just keep disabling them.”
He blinks. “No, I—why would you even say that?”
“Because I know you,” she says. “Because I pay attention.” She asks a question of her own: “All those pieces that got trashed. The buildings, the sculptures. You actually like any of them?”
He thinks for a moment. “Huh.”
Michelle plays with the interface; twenty meters and four walls away a camera pans down and left, focuses on that dark jigsaw in vague motion on the floor. She runs her finger up a slider: night-vision turns the inside of the studio into a wash of grainy green daylight.
Leo’s masturpieces are coalescing.
Like wounded birds, like wind-up toys, they drag and flap and roll across the tiles; bump one against another and stick, like scattered bones reassembling into some tumorous skeleton. This fragment sports a tubercle on one side; that one, a smooth round dimple lined with glass. They sniff each other out and jump together, ball and socket; joint; limb. Leo thinks he remembers a copper coil in one of those baubles, a lithium battery well past its best-before. He imagines magnetic fields, adding the sums of parts.
“It was you all along,” Michelle whispers. She taps at the corner of her eye. “Just—not this part of you.”
She is radiant in the screenlight. He has never seen her so beautiful.
Limbs and lenses accrete around a ramshackle torso of servos and thermostats and RAM chips. Leo marvels at how all those pieces arrange themselves, at the latches and sockets and force fields holding it all together. A bolus of parts seethes and clicks at the end of one appendage: it reminds him of a mace. Of a fist, opening and closing. The claw of some cyborg crustacean.
The golem takes a step. Another. It half-slithers, half-staggers towards one of the fissures in the west wall: indirect light source, cross-breeze ventilator, too small for anything but a child contortionist or dismembered body parts. Leo sees Sierpinsky gaskets and Julia fractals, sleepwalking murderers and comatose sex cruisers. He sees Hopf bifurcations and the self-exemplification of process. The poetry of material logic.
Leo Gregory reaches out to take Michelle’s hand as ten thousand jeweled fragments flex, and twist, and disappear into the night to redeem him.
About the Author
Peter Watts is a former marine biologist, flesh-eating-disease survivor, and convicted felon (long story) whose novels—despite an unhealthy focus on space vampires—have become required texts for university courses ranging from Philosophy to Neuropsychology. His work is available in 24 languages, has appeared in 32 best-of-year anthologies, and been nominated for 59 awards. His (somewhat shorter) list of 22 actual wins includes the Hugo, the Shirley Jackson, and the Seiun. He seems to be especially popular in countries with a history of Soviet occupation. He lives in Toronto with fantasy author Caitlin Sweet, five cats, a pugilistic rabbit, a Plecostomus the size of a school bus, a bearded dragon, and a gang of tough raccoons who shake him down for kibble on the porch every summer.
Please visit LIGHTSPEED MAGAZINE to read more great science fiction and fantasy. This story first appeared in the July 2022 issue, which also features work by Isabel Cañas, Lyndsie Manusos, Samuel Peralta, Catherynne M. Valente, R J Theodore & Maurice Broaddus, Micah Dean Hicks, Rich Larson, and more. You can wait for this month’s contents to be serialized online, or you can buy the whole issue right now in convenient ebook format for just $3.99, or subscribe to the ebook edition at this link.
Want more io9 news? Check out when to expect the latest Marvel and Star Wars releases, what’s next for the DC Universe on film and TV, and everything you need to know about House of the Dragon and Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.