This tale is an unusual take on an engineering exam that explores new concepts in machine design and function. All new machine discoveries must be investigated and classified. This is the story of three such machines and the truth or lie of their existence.
This short story was acquired and edited for Tor.com by consulting editor Ann VanderMeer.
Intrepid explorers venturing into Conceptual Machine-Space, which is the abstract space of all possible machines, will find in the terrain some gaps, holes, and tears. These represent the negative space where impossible machines reside, the ones that cannot exist because they violate known laws of reality. And yet such impossible machines are crucial to the topographical maps of Conceptual Machine-Space, and indeed to its topology. They therefore must be investigated and classified.
It is thus that the Ministry of Abstract Engineering has sent the topographers of Conceptual Machine-Space to various destinations so that they may collect reports, rumors, folktales, and intimations of machines that do not and cannot exist. Of these we excerpt below three accounts of the subcategory of Ambiguity Machines: those that blur or dissolve boundaries.
The candidate taking the exam for the position of Junior Navigator in the uncharted negative seas of Conceptual Machine-Space will read the three accounts below and follow the instructions thereafter.
The First Account
All machines grant wishes, but some grant more than we bargain for. One such device was conceived by a Mongolian engineer who spent the best years of his youth as a prisoner in a stone building in the Altai Mountains. The purpose of this machine was to conjure up the face of his beloved.
His captors were weaponheads of some sort; he didn’t know whether they were affiliated with any known political group or simply run by sociopath technophiles with an eye on the weapons market. They would let him out of his cell into a makeshift laboratory every day. Their hope was that he would construct for them a certain weapon, the plans for which had been found on his desk, and had led to his arrest. The engineer had a poetic sensibility, and the weapon described in his papers was metaphoric. But how can you explain metaphors to a man with a gun?
When the engineer was a young boy, stillness had fascinated him. He had been used to wandering with his family across the Gobi, and so he had made a study of stillness. In those days everything moved—the family with the ger, the camels and sheep, the milk sloshing in the pail as he helped his mother carry it, the stars in the circle of open sky in the roof above his head, the dust storms, dark shapes in shawls of wind, silhouetted against blue sky. The camels would fold themselves up into shaggy mounds between the bushes, closing their eyes and nostrils, waiting for the storm to pass. His grandfather would pull him into the ger, the door creaking shut, the window in the roof lashed closed, and he would think about the animals and the ger, their shared immobility in the face of the coming storm. Inside it would be dark, the roar of the dust storm muffled, and in the glow of the lamp his older sister’s voice would rise in song. Her voice and the circle of safety around him tethered him to this world. Sometimes he would bury his face in a camel’s shaggy flank as he combed its side with his fingers, breathing in the rich animal smell, hearing with his whole body the camel’s deep rumble of pleasure.
In such moments he would think of his whole life played out against the rugged canvas of the Gobi, an arc as serene as the motion of the stars across the night, and he would feel again that deep contentment. In his childhood he had thought there were only two worlds, the inside of the ger and the outside. But the first time he rode with his father to a town, he saw to his utmost wonder that there was another kind of world, where houses were anchored to the earth and people rode machines instead of animals, but they never went very far. They had gadgets and devices that seemed far more sophisticated than his family’s one TV, and they carried with them a subtle and unconscious air of privilege. He had no idea then that years later he would leave the Gobi and his family to live like this himself, an engineering student at a university in Ulaanbaatar, or that the streets of that once-unimaginable city would become as familiar to him as the pathways his family had traversed in the desert. The great coal and copper mines had, by then, transformed the land he thought would never change, and the familiarity was gone, as was his family, three generations scattered or dead.
Being tethered to one place, he discovered, was not the same as the stillness he had once sought and held through all the wanderings of his childhood. In the midst of all this turmoil he had found her, daughter of a family his had once traded with, studying to be a teacher. She was as familiar with the old Mongolia as he had been, and was critical and picky about both old and new. She had a temper, liked to laugh, and wanted to run a village school and raise goats. With her, the feeling of having a center in the world came back to him.
So he thought of her in his incarceration, terrified that through this long separation he would forget her face, her voice. As the faces of his captors acquired more reality with each passing week or month or year, his life beforehand seemed to lose its solidity, and his memories of her seemed blurred, as though he was recollecting a dream. If he had been an artist he would have drawn a picture of her, but being an engineer, he turned to the lab. The laboratory was a confusion of discarded electronics: pieces of machinery bought from online auctions, piles of antiquated vacuum tubes, tangles of wires and other variegated junk. With these limited resources the engineer tried his best, always having to improvise and work around the absence of this part and that one. His intent was to make a pseudo-weapon that would fool his captors into releasing him, but he didn’t know much about weapons, and he knew that the attempt was doomed to failure. But it would be worth it to recreate his beloved’s face again, if only a machine-rendered copy of the real thing.
So into his design he put the smoothness of her cheek, and the light-flash of her intelligence, and the fiercely tender gaze of her eyes. He put in the swirl of her hair in the wind, and the way her anger would sometimes dissolve into laughter, and sometimes into tears. He worked at it, refining, improving, delaying as much as he dared.
And one day he could delay no more, for his captors gave him an ultimatum: The machine must be completed by the next day, and demonstrated to their leaders. Else he would pay with his life. He had become used to their threats and their roughness, and asked only that he be left alone to put the machine in its final form.
Alone in the laboratory, he began to assemble the machine. But soon he found that there was something essential missing. Rummaging about in the pile of debris that represented laboratory supplies, he found a piece of stone tile, one half of a square, broken along the diagonal. It was inlaid with a pattern of great beauty and delicacy, picked out in black and cream on the gray background. An idea for the complex circuit he had been struggling to configure suddenly came together in his mind. Setting aside the tile, he returned to work. At last the machine was done, and tomorrow he would die.
He turned on the machine.
Looking down into the central chamber, he saw her face. There was the light-flash of her intelligence, the swirl of her hair in the wind. I had forgotten, he whispered, the smoothness of her cheek, and he remembered that as a child, wandering the high desert with his family, he had once discovered a pond, its surface smooth as a mirror. He had thought it was a piece of the sky, fallen down. Now, as he spoke aloud in longing, he saw that the face was beginning to dissolve, and he could no longer distinguish her countenance from standing water, or her intelligence from a meteor shower, or her swirling hair from the vortex of a tornado. Then he looked up and around him in wonder, and it seemed to him that the stone walls were curtains of falling rain, and that he was no more than a wraithlike construct of atoms, mostly empty space—and as the thought crystallized in his mind, he found himself walking out with the machine in his arms, unnoticed by the double rows of armed guards. So he walked out of his prison, damp, but free.
How he found his way to the village near Dalanzadgad, where his beloved then lived, is a story we will not tell here. But he was at last restored to the woman he loved, who had been waiting for him all these years. Her cheek no longer had the smoothness of youth, but the familiar intelligence was in her eyes, and so was the love, the memory of which had kept him alive through his incarceration. They settled down together, growing vegetables in the summers and keeping some goats. The machine he kept hidden at the back of the goat shed.
But within the first year of his happiness the engineer noticed something troubling. Watching his wife, he would sometimes see her cheek acquire the translucency of an oasis under a desert sky. Looking into her eyes, he would feel as though he was traveling through a cosmos bright with stars. These events would occur in bursts, and after a while she would be restored to herself, and she would pass a hand across her forehead and say, I felt dizzy for a moment. As time passed, her face seemed to resemble more and more the fuzzy, staccato images on an old-fashioned television set that is just slightly out of tune with the channel. It occurred to him that he had, despite his best intentions, created a weapon after all.
So one cold winter night he crept out of the house to the shed, and uncovered the machine. He tried to take it apart, to break it to pieces, but it had acquired a reality not of this world. At last he spoke to it: You are a pile of dust! You are a column of stone! You are a floor tile! You are a heap of manure! But nothing happened. The machine seemed to be immune to its own power.
He stood among the goats, looking out at the winter moon that hung like a circle of frost in the sky. Slowly it came to him that there was nothing he could do except to protect everyone he loved from what he had created. So he returned to the house and in the dim light of a candle beheld once more the face of the woman he loved. There were fine wrinkles around her eyes, and she was no longer slim, nor was her hair as black as it had once been. She lay in the sweetness of sleep and, in thrall to some pleasant dream, smiled in slumber. He was almost undone by this, but he swallowed, gritted his teeth, and kept his resolve. Leaving a letter on the table, and taking a few supplies, he wrapped up the machine and walked out of the sleeping village and into the Gobi, the only other place where he had known stillness.
The next morning his wife found the letter, and his footprints on the frosty ground. She followed them all the way to the edge of the village, where the desert lay white in the pale dawn. Among the ice-covered stones and the frozen tussocks of brush, his footsteps disappeared. At first she shook her fist in the direction he had gone, then she began to weep. Weeping, she went back to the village.
The villagers never saw him again. There are rumors that he came back a few months later, during a dust storm, because a year after his disappearance, his wife gave birth to a baby girl. But after that he never returned.
His wife lived a full life, and when she was ready to die, she said good-bye to her daughter and grandchildren and went into the desert. When all her food and water were finished, she found some shade by a clump of brush at the edge of a hollow, where she lay down. They say that she felt her bones dissolving, and her flesh becoming liquid, and her hair turning into wind. There is a small lake there now, and in its waters on a cold night, you can see meteors flashing in a sky rich with stars.
As for the engineer, there are rumors and folk legends about a shaman who rode storms as though they were horses. They say he ventured as far as Yakutz in Siberia and Siena in Italy; there is gossip about him in the narrow streets of old Istanbul, and in a certain village outside Zhengzhou, among other places. Wherever he stopped, he sought village healers and madmen, philosophers and logicians, confounding them with his talk of a machine that could blur the boundary between the physical realm and the metaphoric. His question was always the same: How do I destroy what I have created? Wherever he went, he brought with him a sudden squall of sand and dust that defied the predictions of local meteorologists, and left behind only a thin veil of desert sand flung upon the ground.
Some people believe that the Mongolian engineer is still with us. The nomads speak of him as the kindest of shamans, who protects their gers and their animals by pushing storms away from their path. As he once wandered the great expanse of the Gobi in his boyhood, so he now roams a universe without boundaries, in some dimension orthogonal to the ones we know. When he finds what he is seeking, they say, he will return to that small lake in the desert. He will breathe his last wish to the machine before he destroys it. Then he will lay himself down by the water, brushing away the dust of the journey, letting go of all his burdens. With his head resting on a pillow of sand, still at last, he will await his own transformation.
The Second Account
At the edge of a certain Italian town there is a small stone church, and beside it an overgrown tiled courtyard, surrounded entirely by an iron railing. The one gate is always kept locked. Tourists going by sometimes want to stop at the church and admire its timeworn façade, but rarely do they notice the fenced courtyard. Yet if anyone were to look carefully between the bars, they would see that the tiles, between the weeds and wildflowers, are of exceptional quality, pale gray stone inlaid with a fine intricacy of black marble and quartz. The patterns are delicate as circuit diagrams, celestial in their beauty. The careful observer will notice that one of the tiles in the far left quadrant is broken in half, and that grass and wildflowers fill the space.
The old priest who attends the church might, if plied with sufficient wine, rub his liver-spotted hands over his rheumy eyes and tell you how that tile came to be broken. When he was young, a bolt from a storm hit the precise center of the tile and killed a man sweeping the church floor not four yards away. Even before the good father’s time, the courtyard was forbidden ground, but the lightning didn’t know that. The strange thing is not so much that the tile broke almost perfectly across the diagonal, but that one half of it disappeared. When the funeral was over, the priest went cautiously to the part of the railing nearest the lightning strike and noted the absence of that half of the tile. Sighing, he nailed a freshly painted “No Entry” sign on an old tree trunk at the edge of the courtyard and hoped that curious boys and thunderstorms would take note.
It wasn’t a boy who ignored the sign and gained entry, however—it was a girl. She came skipping down the narrow street, watching the dappled sunlight play beneath the old trees, tossing a smooth, round pebble from hand to hand. She paused at the iron railing and stared between the bars, as she had done before. There was something mesmerizing about that afternoon, and the way the sunlight fell on the tiles. She hitched up her skirts and clambered over the fence. Inside, she stood on the perimeter and considered a game of hopscotch.
But now that she was there, in the forbidden place, she began to feel nervous and to look around fearfully. The church and the street were silent, drugged with the warm afternoon light, and many people were still at siesta. Then the church clock struck three, loudly and sonorously, and in that moment the girl made her decision. She gathered her courage and jumped onto the first tile, and the second and third, tossing her pebble.
Years later she would describe to her lover the two things she noticed immediately: that the pebble, which was her favorite thing, having a fine vein of rose-colored quartz running across it, had disappeared into thin air during its flight. The next thing she noticed was a disorientation, the kind you feel when transported to a different place very suddenly, as a sleeping child in a car leaving home awakes in a strange place, or, similarly, when one wakes up from an afternoon nap to find that the sun has set and the stars are out. Being a child in a world of adults, she was used to this sort of disorientation, but alone in this courtyard, with only the distant chirping of a bird to disturb the heat-drugged silence, she became frightened enough to step back to the perimeter. When she did so, all seemed to slip back to normality, but for the fact that there was the church clock, striking three again. She thought at the time that perhaps the ghosts in the graveyard behind the church were playing tricks on her, punishing her for having defied the sign on the tree.
But while lying with her lover in tangled white sheets on just such an afternoon many years later, she asked aloud: What if there is some other explanation? She traced a pattern on her lover’s back with her finger, trying to remember the designs on the tiles. Her lover turned over, brown skin flushed with heat and spent passion, eyes alive with interest. The lover was a Turkish immigrant and a mathematician, a woman of singular appearance and intellect, with fiery eyes and deep, disconcerting silences. She had only recently begun to emerge from grief after the death of her sole remaining relative, her father. Having decided that the world was bent on enforcing solitude upon her, she had embraced loneliness with an angry heart, only to have her plans foiled by the unexpected. She had been unprepared for love in the arms of an Italian woman—an artist, at that—grown up all her life in this provincial little town. But there it was. Now the mathematician brushed black ringlets from her face and kissed her lover. Take me there, she said.
So the two women went to the tree-shaded lane where the courtyard lay undisturbed. The tiles were bordered, as before, by grass and wildflowers, and a heaviness hung upon the place, as though of sleep. The church was silent; the only sounds were birdsong and distant traffic noises from the main road. The mathematician began to climb the railing.
Don’t, her lover said, but she recognized that nothing could stop the mathematician, so she shrugged and followed suit. They stood on the perimeter, the Italian woman remembering, the Turkish one thinking furiously.
Thus began the mathematician’s explorations of the mystery of the courtyard. Her lover would stand on the perimeter with a notebook while the mathematician moved from tile to tile, flickering in and out of focus, like a trout in a fast-moving stream when the sun is high. The trajectory of each path and the result of the experiment would be carefully noted, including discrepancies in time as experienced by the two of them. Which paths resulted in time-shifts, and by how much? Once a certain path led to the disappearance of the mathematician entirely, causing her lover to cry out, but she appeared about three minutes later on another tile. The largest time-shift so far! exulted the mathematician. Her lover shuddered and begged the mathematician to stop the experiment, or at least to consult with someone, perhaps from the nearest university. But, being an artist, she knew obsession when she saw it. Once she had discovered a windblown orchard with peaches fallen on the grass like hailstones, and had painted night and day for weeks, seeking to capture on the stillness of canvas the ever-changing vista. She sighed in resignation at the memory and went back to making notes.
The realization was dawning upon her slowly that the trajectories leading to the most interesting results had shapes similar to the very patterns on the tiles. Her artist’s hands sketched those patterns—doing so, she felt as though she was on flowing water, or among sailing clouds. The patterns spoke of motion but through a country she did not recognize. Looking up at the mathematician’s face, seeing the distracted look in the dark eyes, she thought: There will be a day when she steps just so, and she won’t come back.
And that day did come. The mathematician was testing a trajectory possessed of a pleasing symmetry, with some complex elements added to it. Her lover, standing on the perimeter with the notebook, was thinking how the moves not only resembled the pattern located on tile (3, 5), but also might be mistaken for a complicated version of hopscotch, and that any passerby would smile at the thought of two women reliving their girlhood—when it happened. She looked up, and the mathematician disappeared.
She must have stood there for hours, waiting, but finally she had to go home. She waited all day and all night, unable to sleep, tears and spilled wine mingling on the bedsheets. She waited for days and weeks and months. She went to confession for the first time in years, but the substitute priest, a stern and solemn young man, had nothing to offer, except to tell her that God was displeased with her for consorting with a woman. At last she gave up, embracing the solitude that her Turkish lover had shrugged off for her when they had first met. She painted furiously for months on end, making the canvas say what she couldn’t articulate in words—wild-eyed women with black hair rose from tiled floors, while mathematical symbols and intricate designs hovered in the warm air above.
Two years later, when she was famous; she took another lover, and she and the new love eventually swore marriage oaths to each other in a ceremony among friends. The marriage was fraught from the start, fueled by stormy arguments and passionate declarations, slammed doors and teary reconciliations. The artist could only remember her Turkish lover’s face when she looked at the paintings that had brought her such acclaim.
Then, one day, an old woman came to her door. Leaning on a stick, her face as wrinkled as crushed tissue paper, her mass of white ringlets half-falling across her face, the woman looked at her with tears in her black eyes. Do you remember me? she whispered.
Just then the artist’s wife called from inside the house, inquiring as to who had come. It’s just my great-aunt, come to visit, the artist said brightly, pulling the old woman in. Her wife was given to jealousy. The old woman played along, and was established in the spare room, where the artist looked after her with tender care. She knew that the mathematician had come here to die.
The story the mathematician told her was extraordinary. When she disappeared she had been transported to a vegetable market in what she later realized was China. Unable to speak the language, she had tried to mime telephones and airports, only to discover that nobody knew what she was talking about. Desperately she began to walk around, hoping to find someone who spoke one of the four languages she knew, noticing with horror the complete absence of the signs and symbols of the modern age—no cars, neon signs, plastic bags. At last her wanderings took her to an Arab merchant, who understood her Arabic, although his accent was strange to her. She was in Quinsai, (present-day Hangzhou, as she later discovered), and the Song dynasty was in power. Through the kindness of the merchant’s family, who took her in, she gradually pieced together the fact that she had jumped more than 800 years back in time. She made her life there, marrying and raising a family, traveling the sea routes back and forth to the Mediterranean. Her old life seemed like a dream, a mirage, but underneath her immersion in the new, there burned the desire to know the secret of the tiled courtyard.
It shouldn’t exist, she told the artist. I have yearned to find out how it could be. I have developed over lifetimes a mathematics that barely begins to describe it, let alone explain it.
How did you get back here? the artist asked her former lover.
I realized that if there was one such device, there may be others, she said. In my old life I was a traveler, a trade negotiator with Arabs. My journeys took me to many places that had strange reputations of unexplained disappearances. One of them was a shrine inside an enormous tree on the island of Borneo. Around the tree the roots created a pattern on the forest floor that reminded me of the patterns on the tiles. Several people had been known to disappear in the vicinity. So I waited until my children were grown, and my husband and lovers taken by war. Then I returned to the shrine. It took several tries and several lifetimes until I got the right sequence. And here I am.
The only things that the Turkish mathematician had brought with her were her notebooks containing the mathematics of a new theory of space-time. As the artist turned the pages, she saw that the mathematical symbols gradually got more complex, the diagrams stranger and denser, until the thick ropes of equations in dark ink and the empty spaces on the pages began to resemble, more and more, the surfaces of the tiles in the courtyard. That is my greatest work, the mathematician whispered. But what I’ve left out says as much as what I’ve written. Keep my notebooks until you find someone who will understand.
Over the next few months the artist wrote down the old woman’s stories from her various lifetimes in different places. In the few days since the mathematician arrived her wife had left her for someone else, but the artist’s heart didn’t break. She took tender care of the old woman, assisting her with her daily ablutions, making for her the most delicate of soups and broths. Sometimes, when they laughed together, it was as though not a minute had passed since that golden afternoon when they had lain in bed discussing, for the first time, the tiled courtyard.
Two weeks after the mathematician’s return, there was a sudden dust storm, a sirocco that blew into the city with high winds. During the storm the old woman passed away peacefully in her sleep. The artist found her the next morning, cold and still, covered with a layer of fine sand as though kissed by the wind. The storm had passed, leaving clear skies and a profound emptiness. At first the artist wept, but she pulled herself together as she had always done, and thought of the many lives her lover had lived. It occurred to her in a flash of inspiration that she would spend the rest of her one life painting those lifetimes.
At last, the artist said to her lover’s grave, where she came with flowers the day after the interment, at last the solitude we had both sought is mine.
The Third Account
Reports of a third impossible machine come from the Western Sahara, although there have been parallel, independent reports from the mountains of Peru and from Northern Ireland. A farmer from the outskirts of Lima, a truck driver in Belfast, and an academic from the University of Bamako in Mali all report devices that, while different in appearance, seem to have the same function. The academic from Mali has perhaps the clearest account.
She was an archeologist who had obtained her Ph.D. from an American university. In America she had experienced a nightmarish separateness, the like of which she had not known existed. Away from family, distanced by the ignorance and prejudices of fellow graduate students, a stranger in a culture made more incomprehensible by proximity, separated from the sparse expatriate community by the intensity of her intellect, she would stand on the beach, gazing at the waters of the Atlantic and imagining the same waters washing the shores of West Africa. In her teens she had spent a summer with a friend in Senegal, her first terrifying journey away from home, and she still remembered how the fright of it had given way to thrill, and the heart-stopping delight of her first sight of the sea. At the time her greatest wish was to go to America for higher education, and it had occurred to her that on the other side of this very ocean lay the still unimagined places of her desire.
Years later, from that other side, she worked on her thesis, taking lonely walks on the beach between long periods of incarceration in the catacombs of the university library. Time slipped from her hands without warning. Her mother passed away, leaving her feeling orphaned, plagued with a horrific guilt because she had not been able to organize funds in time to go home. Aunts and uncles succumbed to death, or to war, or joined the flood of immigrants to other lands. Favorite cousins scattered, following the lure of the good life in France and Germany. It seemed that with her leaving for America, her history, her childhood, her very sense of self had begun to erode. The letters she had exchanged with her elder brother in Bamako had been her sole anchor to sanity. Returning home after her Ph.D., she had two years to nurse him through his final illness, which, despite the pain and trauma of his suffering, she was to remember as the last truly joyful years of her life. When he died she found herself bewildered by a feeling of utter isolation even though she was home, among her people. It was as though she had brought with her the disease of loneliness that had afflicted her in America.
Following her brother’s death, she buried herself in work. Her research eventually took her to the site of the medieval University of Sankore in Timbuktu, where she marveled at its sandcastle beauty as it rose, mirage-like, from the desert. Discovering a manuscript that spoke in passing of a fifteenth century expedition to a region not far from the desert town of Tessalit, she decided to travel there despite the dangers of political conflict in the region. The manuscript hinted of a fantastic device that had been commissioned by the king, and then removed for secret burial. She had come across oblique references to such a device in the songs and stories of griots, and in certain village tales; thus her discovery of the manuscript had given her a shock of recognition rather than revelation.
The archeologist had, by now, somewhat to her own surprise, acquired two graduate students: a man whose brilliance was matched only by his youthful impatience, and a woman of thirty-five whose placid outlook masked a slow, deep, persistent intelligence. Using a few key contacts, bribes, promises, and pleas, the archaeologist succeeded in finding transportation to Tessalit. The route was roundabout and the vehicles changed hands three times, but the ever-varying topography of the desert under the vast canopy of the sky gave her a reassuring feeling of continuity in the presence of change. So different from the environs of her youth—the lush verdure of south Mali, the broad ribbon of the Niger that had spoken to her in watery whispers in sleep and dreams, moderating the constant, crackly static that was the background noise of modern urban life. The desert was sometimes arid scrubland, with fantastic rock formations rearing out of the ground, and groups of short trees clustered like friends sharing secrets. At other times it gave way to a sandy moodiness, miles and miles of rich, undulating gold broken only by the occasional oasis, or the dust cloud of a vehicle passing them by. Rocky, mountainous ridges rose on the horizon as though to reassure travelers that there was an end to all journeys.
In Tessalit the atmosphere was fraught, but a fragile peace prevailed. With the help of a Tuareg guide, an elderly man with sympathetic eyes, the travelers found the site indicated on the manuscript. Because it did not exist on any current map, the archaeologist was surprised to find that the site had a small settlement of some sixty-odd people. Her guide said that the settlement was in fact a kind of asylum as well as a shrine. The people there, he said, were blessed or cursed with an unknown malady. Perhaps fortunately for them, the inhabitants seemed unable to leave the boundary of the brick wall that encircled the settlement. This village of the insane had become a kind of oasis in the midst of the armed uprising, and men brought food and clothing to the people there irrespective of their political or ethnic loyalties, as though it was a site of pilgrimage. Townspeople coming with offerings would leave very quickly, as they would experience disorienting symptoms when they entered the enclosure, including confusion and a dizzying, temporary amnesia.
Thanks to her study of the medieval manuscript, the archaeologist had some idea of what to expect, although it strained credulity. She and her students donned metal caps and veils made from steel mesh before entering the settlement with gifts of fruit and bread. There were perhaps thirty people—men and women, young and old—who poured out of the entrance of the largest building, a rectangular structure the color of sand. They were dressed in ill-fitting, secondhand clothing, loose robes and wraparound garments in white and blue and ochre, T-shirts and tattered jeans—and at first there was no reply to the archaeologist’s greeting. There was something odd about the way the villagers looked at their guests—a gaze reveals, after all, something of the nature of the soul within, but their gazes were abstracted, shifting, like the surface of a lake ruffled by the wind. But after a while a group of people came forward and welcomed them, some speaking in chorus, others in fragments, so that the welcome nevertheless sounded complete.
“What manner of beings are you?” they were asked after the greetings were done. “We do not see you, although you are clearly visible.”
“We are visitors,” the archaeologist said, puzzled. “We come with gifts and the desire to share learning.” And with this the newcomers were admitted to the settlement.
Within the central chamber of the main building, as the visitors’ eyes adjusted to the dimness, they beheld before them something fantastic. Woven in complex, changing patterns was a vast tapestry so long that it must have wrapped around the inner wall several times. Here, many-hued strips of cloth were woven between white ones to form an abstract design the like of which the newcomers had never seen before. People in small groups worked at various tasks—some tore long lengths of what must have been old clothing, others worked a complex loom that creaked rhythmically. Bright patterns of astonishing complexity emerged from the loom, to be attached along the wall by other sets of hands. Another group was huddled around a cauldron in which some kind of rich stew bubbled. In the very center of the chamber was a meter-high, six-faced column of black stone—or so it seemed—inlaid with fine silver lacework. This must, then, be the device whose use and function had been described in the medieval manuscript—a product of a golden period of Mali culture, marked by great achievements in science and the arts. The fifteenth century expedition had been organized in order to bury the device in the desert, to be guarded by men taking turns, part of a secret cadre of soldiers. Yet here it was, in the center of a village of the insane.
Looking about her, the archaeologist noticed some odd things. A hot drop of stew fell on the arm of a woman tending the cauldron—yet as she cried out, so did the four people surrounding her, all at about the same time. Similarly, as the loom workers manipulated the loom, they seemed to know almost before it happened that a drop of sweat would roll down the forehead of one man—each immediately raised an arm, or pulled down a headcloth to wipe off the drop, even if it wasn’t there. She could not tell whether men and women had different roles, because of the way individuals would break off one group and join another, with apparent spontaneity. Just as in speech, their actions had a continuity to them across different individuals, so as one would finish stirring the soup, the other, without a pause, would bring the tasting cup close, as though they had choreographed these movements in advance. As for the working of the loom, it was poetry in motion. Each person seemed to be at the same time independent and yet tightly connected to the others. The archaeologist was already abandoning the hypothesis that this was a community of telepaths, because their interactions did not seem to be as simple as mind reading. They spoke to each other, for one thing, and had names for each individual, complicated by prefixes and suffixes that appeared to change with context. There were a few children running around as well: quick, shy, with eyes as liquid as a gazelle’s. One of them showed the travelers a stone he unwrapped from a cloth, a rare, smooth pebble with a vein of rose quartz shot through it, but when the archaeologist asked how he had come by it they all laughed, as though at an absurdity, and ran off.
It was after a few days of living with these people that the archaeologist decided to remove her metal cap and veil. She told her students that they must on no account ever do so—and that if she were to act strangely they were to forcibly put her cap and veil back on. They were uncomfortable with this—the young man, in particular, longed to return home—but they agreed, with reluctance.
When she removed her protective gear, the villagers near her immediately turned to look at her, as though she had suddenly become visible to them. She was conscious of a feeling akin to drowning—a sudden disorientation. She must have cried out because a woman nearby put her arms around her and held her and crooned to her as though she was a child, and other people took up the crooning. Her two students, looking on with their mouths open, seemed to be delineated in her mind by a clear, sharp boundary, while all the others appeared to leak into each other, like figures in a child’s watercolor painting. She could sense, vaguely, the itch on a man’s arm from an insect bite, and the fact that the women were menstruating, and the dull ache of a healing bone in some other individual’s ankle—but it seemed as though she was simultaneously inhabiting the man’s arm, the women’s bodies, the broken ankle. After the initial fright a kind of wonder came upon her, a feeling she knew originated from her, but which was shared as a secondhand awareness by the villagers.
“I’m all right,” she started to say to her students, anxious to reassure them, although the word “I” felt inaccurate. But as she started to say it, the village woman who had been holding her spoke the next word, and someone else said the next, in their own dialect, so that the sentence was complete. She felt like the crest of a wave in the ocean. The crest might be considered a separate thing from the sequence of crests and troughs behind it, but what would be the point? The impact of such a crest hitting a boat, for example, would be felt by the entire chain. The great loneliness that had afflicted her for so long began, at last, to dissolve. It was frightening and thrilling all at once. She laughed out loud, and felt the people around her possess, lightly, that same complex of fear and joy. Gazing around at the enormous tapestry, she saw it as though for the first time. There was no concept, no language that could express what it was—it was irreducible, describable only by itself. She looked at it and heard her name, all their names, all names of all things that had ever been, spoken out loud without a sound, reverberating in the silence.
She found, over the next few days, that the conjugal groups among the people of the settlement had the same fluidity as other aspects of their lives. The huts in the rest of the compound were used by various groups as they formed and re-formed. It felt as natural as sand grains in a shallow stream that clump together and break apart, and regroup in some other way, and break apart again. The pattern that underlay these groupings seemed obvious in practice but impossible to express in ordinary language. Those related by blood did not cohabit amongst themselves, nor did children with adults—they were like the canvas upon which the pattern was made, becoming part of it and separate from it with as much ease as breathing. On fine nights the people would gather around a fire, and make poetry, and sing, and this was so extraordinary a thing that the archaeologist was moved to ask her students to remove their caps and veils and experience it for themselves. But by this time the young man was worn out by unfamiliarity and hard living—he was desperate to be back home in Bamako, and was seriously considering a career outside academia. The older, female student was worried about the news from town that violence in the region would shortly escalate. So they would not be persuaded.
After a few days, when the archaeologist showed no sign of rejoining her students for the trip home—for enough time had passed by now, and their Tuareg guide was concerned about the impending conflict—the students decided to act according to their instructions. Without warning they set upon the archaeologist, binding her arms and forcing her to wear the cap and veil. They saw the change ripple across her face, and the people nearby turned around, as before. But this time their faces were grim and sad, and they moved as one toward the three visitors. The archaeologist set up a great wailing, like a child locked in an empty room. Terrified, the students pulled her out of the building, dragging her at a good pace, with the villagers following. If the Tuareg guide had not been waiting at the perimeter the visitors would surely have been overtaken, because he came forward at a run and pulled them beyond the boundary.
Thus the archaeologist was forced to return to Bamako.
Some years later, having recovered from her experience, the archaeologist wrote up her notes, entrusted them to her former student, and disappeared from Bamako. She was traced as far as Tessalit. With the fighting having intensified, nobody was able to investigate for over a year. The woman to whom she had left her notes returned to try to find her, guessing that she had gone to the settlement, but where the settlement had been, there were only ruins. The people had vanished, she was told, in the middle of a sandstorm. There was no sign of their belongings, let alone the great tapestry. The only thing she could find in the empty, arid, rocky wasteland was a small, round pebble, shot with a vein of rose quartz.
In the notes she left behind, the archaeologist had written down her conclusions—that the machine generated a field of a certain range, and that this field had the power to dissolve, or at least blur, the boundary between self and other. She wrote in French, and in Arabic, and in her mother tongue, Bambara, but after a while the regularity of her script began to break up, as a sandcastle loses its sharp edges and recognizable boundaries when the tide comes in. Thereafter her notes turned into intricate, indecipherable symbols reminiscent of the great tapestry that had hung in the main chamber of the settlement. These continued for several pages and finally, on the last page, she had written in French: I cannot bear it. I must return.
Thus end the three accounts.
Candidates will observe the requisite moment of contemplation.
The candidate will now consult the Compendium of Machine Anomalies, the Hephaestian Mysteries, and the Yantric Oracle, which will help put these accounts in context. Having completed its perusal, the candidate will make the requisite changes to its own parts in order to generate hypotheses on these questions. Is the negative space of ambiguity machines infinite? Is it continuous? Are the conceptual sub-spaces occupied by each machine connected to each other—by geography, concept, or some other as-yet-undiscovered attribute? What can we make of the relationship between human and machine? If an engineer can dream a machine, can a machine dream an engineer? An artist? A mathematician? An archaeologist? A story? Is the space of ambiguity machines set like a jewel or a braid within the greater expanse of the space of impossible machines? Is it here, in the realm of dream and imagination, that the intelligent machine might at last transcend the ultimate boundary—between machine and non-machine? To take inspiration from human longing, from the organic, syncretic fecundity of nature, the candidate must be willing to consider and enable its own transformation.
“Ambiguity Machines: An Examination” copyright © 2015 by Vandana Singh
Art copyright © 2015 by Pascal Campion