The Universal Directory of Dangerous Places




The doctors only told Alecko what they did to him after the operationbut they made it sound simple. We snipped some nerves here and there and replaced them with copper wires. Ten percent of your brain got computerized, but you still have the other ninety, eh? Then we changed out one of your eyes, so you won’t need contacts anymore. We couldn’t salvage your hands. The new ones should work better, at least. And we did have to do something about your heart.


Alecko knew they did something to it. He lay in the hospital bed and listened to the faint beep...beep...beep...coming from within his chest. He thought it should perturb him, but it didn’t. The room was circular in shape, and the white walls pressed around him like he was in a pale, unpoppable bubble.


His father sat in a chair beside him, sagging under some unseen weight. Age had etched deep lines into his face. In the hospital of efficient doctors and half-human patients and white rooms, his father was the only thing not mechanized and ordered. Alecko watched him. Only one of his eyes blinkedthe other, now a camera encased in a glass orb, no longer needed to. He thought his father looked sadmaybe it was the wetness in his eyesbut he didn’t know what to do with that piece of information.


The doctor was standing on the side of the room, typing something into a computer. A ceaseless clickety-clack. “They’ve just finished the analysis,” said the doctor. The words were aimed at his father. Alecko saw him sit up straighter.


“He’s fifty-one percent mechanized,” the doctor said. “And forty-nine percent flesh.”


“Oh,” said his father. It came out very small, and very quiet.


“He passes the 50% cut-off to be classified as a Lacking,” continued the doctor. He looked at Alecko for the first time. Alecko stared back, his face impassive. The doctor couldn’t hold the gaze. He bowed his head slightly towards Alecko’s father. “I’m sorry for your loss.” 


Then he exited the room, leaving them in silence.


Alecko practiced opening and closing his new metal hands.


“Do you remember the crash?” asked his father, leaning towards him. “There was a malfunctioning shipsome daredevil young gangster, they sayand he was skidding across the landing field.”


“Is that so…” said Alecko.


“He would have run over a whole crowd. But you had just landed. I always told people that you had a heroic soul. You intercepted that ship with your own, and there was a great crash.” His father mimed the collision by slamming his two fists together. “And you both came to a stop. They did some computations, say you saved eighty-nine people.”


“Is that so…” said Alecko.


“You don’t remember?” said his father.


“I do. My memory is perfect, actually.” Alecko’s eyes slid over the white walls, drifting aimlessly. All the details, the faces, the colors. They were the same to him. “People screamed. The ship crumpled. Not much else to it.”


“He’s suing you too.”


“I can’t see why.”


“He says you put a dent in his ship. The injustice of it...why won’t you get angry? Sad? Worried? Something.” He put his head in his hands.


“Justice,” Alecko mused. “I guess it sort of tickles.” 


“I didn’t want them to make you a Lacking. But the alternative was death.”


“Is that so?”


His father made a soft sound, something like a sob. Alecko reached a hand to the back of his own neck, where a small plate protruded from scarred skin. His fingers brushed over a dozen minute buttons before he found the right one. He pushed it. Tears welled out of his mechanical tear ducts.


He turned to his father, hoping this expression of grief would satisfy him, but his father shuddered at the sight of him. For Alecko was expressionless, and his tears might have been rain trickling down a cold stone statuea statue which neither felt them, nor knew their meaning.


#


The realization that something was wrong with him came to Alecko slowly, and by surprise. It came two weeks after he’d been discharged from the hospital. He sat at the desk in his old room, a small but well-lived in place in the Martian city of Alpha. Beside the desk was a bookshelf of bona-fide paper books that he’d collected over the years on some nostalgic impulse: textbooks on astronautics and piloting, dozens of filled-up journals, an ancient, crumbling volume titled Complete Works of William Shakespeare, and a newer book, The Universal Directory of Dangerous Places, which was dog-eared on over a dozen pages.


On the desk was a half-written letter to someone named Cassie. He’d started it before the accident, but never finished it. It was a love letter, and it went like this:


Infinity is when we drive far far out to the middle of a Martian nowhere, and we stand among the washed-up dust and the trodden on rocks the color of dead old red, but we look up and find a pure sky speckled with an infinity of stars, and I promise you we’ll explore every one. It’ll take us infinite years, but I’ll still love you then, an infinity times more.


Alecko picked up the note. What an odd choice of syntax, and an odd use of repetition. It was in his own handwriting, but it was alien to him.


And that was when he realized that there was something wrong with him, but he could not name what it was. It was a sense of...discomfort.


It was as though he had died in the accident and been reborn into a life that was no longer his own. He could recall every memory with crystal clarity, but it told him nothing about why he had become a pilot when there were better jobs, why he had bought those books when electronic ones were more practical, why he had loved Cassie when nothing compelled him to do so. He did not understand why he had never before looked at the amalgamation of illogical choices that made up his life, and seen that they were illogical.


He pulled The Universal Directory of Dangerous Places off the shelf and opened it. It was an encyclopedic work with exactly 522 entries. He had written notes on almost all of them, dreaming of visiting them one day and testing his mettle against them. He decided, then, that he would set off to visit these places, walking in the shadows of his old dreams to look for the specter he used to see there. The computer in him couldn’t bear this state of not understanding.


#


He talked to Cassie on the evening of his departure. They stood on the launching pad as silhouettes before a bleak red Martian sky.


“What did it feel like?” he asked her. She was holding his hand, but the sensors in the metal plates registered her warm touch as nothing but pressure. She was wearing her engagement ring, too. Alecko had left his behindit no longer fit.


“You told me it felt like...fireworks in your heart,” she said, her voice quiet. Everyone spoke quietly to him, after the accident.


“I see.”


“You said you wanted to fly up and catch a dozen stars in a net of dreams.”


“Hmm.”


“And make them into a constellation in the shape of infinity.”


“But that’s not very scientific,” Alecko said. Cassie looked at him. Reflected in her eyes were the lonely colonies of Mars, set against its red dusks and bleached earth; an ephemeral portrait of memories now lost to him because he no longer knew what they felt like.


“I’m sorry,” Alecko said, because his social algorithm prompted him to do so.


He shook his hand free and walked away, towards his ship. He did not look back. 


#


The Academy of Frontier Pilots had no place for Lackings. He knew this. Before he left, he exchanged his black Academy ship for a nondescript silver one, gave up his uniform for civilian clothes, and found that the difference didn’t matter all that much to him. But he had not always been like this.


Years ago, he had stood in a bright room before the graduating committee of the Academy of Frontier Pilots. Two men, two women, eight eyes watching him. He still had all his limbs then, and all his heart.


They asked him dozens of questions, and he could hazard a guess at many of their answers. What is the place of mankind among the universe? What are the ethics of colonizing? What is in the future of galactic tourism? The textbooks told him how to reply to those. But it was the last one which stumped him. 


“Why do you want to be a pilot?”


He fidgeted before them, young and wide-eyed. He knew whybut it was a feeling, nebulous and undefinable, which had swept him up the first time he looked at the stars, and never really put him back down. The best he could do: “Because I dreamed of it.”


They passed him.


From then on he had steadily ascended through the ranks of the Academy. He was by no means a legend, but there was a handful of people who, upon hearing his name, would nod, smile, and say, “he’s one of the best of us.” 


And then he became a Lacking.


#


Alecko started on page one of the Directory, which described The Riddler’s Ocean. The book said this about it: located on 19 Cortix-B. A plankton-like hive mind infests the waters. They will ask impossible questions. Classification: Guaranteed Death.


The whole landscape of 19 Cortix-B was nothing but a seething black ocean beneath a grey sky. Alecko jumped out of his ship into the waters below, landing with a crash. He was more intrigued by the bubbles flying past the glass of his helmet than the darkening waters, or the dimly glowing plankton that swarmed him as he sank. They kept gathering and gathering until he couldn’t ignore themhe was surrounded by a storm of sparks.


And then they asked him, in a language so absolute it was as though the ocean had said it, what is infinity?

The sparks pulsated in unison, waiting to devour him if he could not answeras he should not have been able to.


But Alecko no longer knew such a thing as an impossible question. Deep in the Riddler’s Ocean, he was surprised that the hive had asked him something so easy. Circuits whizzed in perfect sync with neurons, and electrons buzzed at the tips of his fingers, transmitting his answer into the water. He didn’t answer them in words, but in a burst of mathematical computations. Infinity is something like a googol to the power of a googol to the power of a googolplex divided by a googolplexianth… And he went on like that, a thousand calculations a second, far faster than any human brain, until a buzzing sound went through the waters. The hive accepted defeat. A wave spat him out of the Riddler’s Oceanlike a wad of gum, he thought, feeling mildly amused. 


He climbed back onto his ship, realizing that what would have killed him as a human posed no threat to him as a machine. He pulled out the Directory and turned to the second page; he had 522 to get through.


#


The Gravity-Reversing Caves: Located on the eastern hemisphere of Muria 12. Scientists made some questionable decisions during experimentation, and now gravity reverses somewhere between the top and the bottom of the caves. Classification: Graveyard of Fools.


Alecko went free-falling into the caves. It was almost dark but for the shafts of light that broke through cracks in the cave’s ceiling, illuminating his trajectory: just when it looked like he would be skewered by the stalagmites below, gravity reversed with a topsy-turvy feeling in his gut, sending him hurtling up to the stalactites instead. He bounced around the mile-high caves for hours like this, his miniscule form seen in flashes when he passed through a sliver of light. When it grew boring, he started doing somersaults and flips.


All the while he listened to the beep...beep...beep… of his heart. It never went any faster than sixty beats per minute. He never felt anything other than a mild thrilland even that soon went away. The only thing left was a sense of lossbut of what, he couldn’t name.


He was reminded of a time where his heart did race, once. He and Cassie had gone to see what scientists dubbed the “Martian Miracle”: a flowerbrown, shriveled, and ugly, but a flower nonethelessthat had sprouted in the inhospitable dirt through sheer will to live. A thousand people came to see the flower. When it was finally Alecko and Cassie’s turn, Cassie had criedmany people had, overwhelmed by emotion.  He remembered that his heart had begun to beat faster, as if in solidarity with the little plant in the vast expanse. Both of them had eked out life in a colony in the depths of decline; they had failed at grandeur, even beautyyet they were obstinately alive. 


But that was then. Now, Alecko could not understand for the life of him why it had been such a big deal. Tapping his head with a metal finger, he wondered if a circuit was off-kilter, bringing up strange and dead memories. 


Alecko did thirty-three flips in the journey from top to bottom, thinking as he flew, I need something more dangerous.


#


Alecko was meant to be in cryosleep as he traveled to his next destination, but the computerized parts of him were still awake. A bit of a brain, two mechanized hands, and a single eye observed the small world of the sleeping chamber in cold, absolute silence. One hand gripped a picture: it was an antique oddity, printed on real paper. It showed Cassie with a beaming smile, and a once-young, once-man named Alecko with a cheery grin. Their heads were tilted together ever so slightly, as though the two of them were subject to the tug of their own exclusive gravitational field. His prosthetic eye whizzed over every atom of the paper as he puzzled over why his teeth were still the same, but his smile, not.


#


The third page. Chrona Hurricanes: Located on the planet Chrona, where natural phenomena seem to occur at slower speeds. Beyond scientific understanding. Regardless of the science, lightning bolts last long enough to be skated on, and waves stand as still as mountains. Classification: Last Thing You’ll Ever Do.


Alecko watched the planet from the window, his cold fingers pressed against the cold glass. Storm clouds hung like a turbulent ceiling above a series of mountain ranges. Only they were not mountains, but waves, falling inexplicably slow. 


Alecko put on a pair of hiking books and pulled a helmet over his head, then jumped out of the ship, landing on the surface of the water below. The molecules moved too slowly for him to sink, so long as he kept moving. He looked up at the wave towering before him and began to climb.


It took Alecko three hours to climb the thousand-foot wave to its peak. In that time, the wave barely seemed to shift. He at last pushed past a cloud of suspended sea foam to stand on the wave’s crest. And then the whole world opened up before him. He saw the water falling away from him like a sheer blue cliff, giving way to a ceaseless, turbulent sky. It was a landscape painted in jagged swaths of cobalt and steel, and broken up only by lightning: blinding white cracks in the sky that stayed etched there for minutes. Some might have called it ugly, or mystic, or even poetic.


Alecko looked out to the farthest reaches of the world before him, absorbing and memorizing and analyzing every detail. He had a vision as sharp as the most advanced camera lens. He knew this, and he believed there was nothing he did not see. He might have stood there for a minute, or an hour--for time was inconsequential in this placeand still arrived at the same conclusion. 


“Mundane.”


Alecko began the long trek back down.


#


A long time in the future, and a long stretch across space, a man walked into one of the Crossroads: a small space station built for ships to stop on their lightyears-long journeys. This particular Crossroads was a small place, designed to look like the inside of a log cabin, reminiscent of homely old days on long-abandoned Earth.


The man walked up to an old wooden table. No sooner had he sat down when a woman sat down at the same table, dressed in one of the new pilot uniforms of the Academy fleet.


“So where are you going?” she asked, in a tone that told the man she asked this question of everybody, but rarely paid attention to the reply.


The man pulled out a small, terribly crumpled picture of a young couple. The woman looked at it with mild curiosity.


“She looks a bit like my grandmother.”


“Is that so,” said the man, his voice flat.


“So you’re looking for a person, then?”


“A reason.” He sat in grim silence, staring at the picture.


“Do you know why they built the crossroads?” the woman asked. She chatted just to fill up space. The man gave her a blank stare. “They made it for the humans,” she said. “We’re the ones that needin an inexplicable, but inescapable wayto see another face and a warm bowl of soup. The computers could be out in space for a hundred years and not care, but we do.”


“Is that so...”


“Is that all you can say?”


“So it seems.”


A waiter set two steaming bowls of soup before them. The man began eating his soup. He did it with mechanical accuracy, ten milliliters of fluid in each spoonful.


“I’ve been flying for eight years,” the woman said, fidgeting a little in the silence. “What about you?”


“A hundred years,” said the man. He finished his soup, and his eyes once more settled on the picture. “A hundred years, six months, three days, five hours, and...eight minutes, for 521 destinations.”


The woman became still. “Do you have a name?”


“Alecko...Lacking.” The title was a part of him now.


An immediate change came over the woman. She leaned back slightly, and her smile faded. 


“I see.” She looked over her shoulder at the other pilots in the Crossroads, who sat in clusters and talked and told stories and laughed. “Looks like they’re playing chess. Do you mind if Ioh. You wouldn’t mind.”


“I suppose not.”


It took very little time for her to leave. She found much better company in the next table over. For a moment he watched them play chess. In the Crossroads they could lie to themselves, delude themselves, and forget that, for the past thousand years, there had existed machines that could beat them every timethat, logically, there was nothing a machine couldn’t do better than a human. Logically, logically, logically...the logic in it had escaped Alecko for a hundred years.


Alecko put away his picture. He did so precisely and carefully. Then he got up and left. No one noticed him leave, and he didn’t notice them. A moment later, a little silver speck of dust set off across the cosmic shadows.





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