Mender of Sparrows*
*Mender of Sparrows first appeared in the March / April 2022 issue of Asimov's
Himmet watched the birds rolling in the dirt. Little brown-and-white balls, chirping and hopping in the mosque courtyard. There were pits worn in the earth from the sparrows taking their dust baths here, near a bench in the shade of a tilted mulberry tree.
A child ran past. The birds startled and flapped off into the branches of the mulberry.
All but one of them. It tilted its head, as if looking at Himmet, then fell over onto its side. Its legs jerked twice, and it was still.
Himmet knelt down by the bird, and scooped it up into the palm of his hand. It was breathing slowly and evenly, its eyes closed as if asleep.
Himmet went to his bicycle and retrieved a shoebox secured to the rear cargo rack by bungee cords. Inside, the box was lined with soft cotton. He placed the sparrow into it. He watched it for a moment, lying there in the cotton, breathing steadily. Then he closed the lid, which had several lines of air holes punched into it, strapped the box back onto the cargo rack, got on the bicycle, and rode out of the courtyard.
* * *
“Can you do anything?” Himmet stood near the stainless-steel table, looking down at the bird. It was still lying on its side, as if asleep, its breathing steady.
Sezgin walked over to the sink and turned on the tap, running the water over long-fingered hands. Himmet watched the veterinarian’s careful ritual of handwashing. The veterinary office was tiny, little more than a shop-front, likely once a fruit stand, and the back room where once the crates and fruit had been locked up for the night when the shutters were pulled down. But the android Sezgin, tall as they were, fit neatly into the space, moving inside it with immaculate calm.
“I will not lie to you,” Sezgin said. “I think the bird is dying. But I will keep her overnight, and run some tests. Come tomorrow – one never knows.”
“Dying? Of what?”
“There are so many things birds can die of, Himmet. Come tomorrow.”
Outside, a blind orange stray cat lay warming its belly in an autumn sunbeam.
Himmet pedaled his bicycle through the streets near the sea wall, where every third house was a wooden ruin, walls bowing slowly down to meet the road.
It was a poor neighborhood, like most of those zoned to allow androids. Himmet rode through a gap in the sea wall out onto the bicycle path along the Marble Sea. He pedaled in and out of the shadow of the Tekray, its trains streaking past, headed out into the suburbs of Istanbul Protectorate or back to the center of the city. There was wind off of the water, strong enough to push on Himmet’s body like a sail. The surface of the sea was stone-gray, the bases of the waves filled with shadow. Over their foam tips seagulls hovered, angling wings against the wind, hunting.
It was early still. Himmet felt the hollow dread of a whole day before him. He would not be able to stop himself from thinking. He would not go home: he would go to the park, where there might be someone for a game of backgammon. Or he would go back to the mosque, and sweep the courtyard. Feed the birds again. Anything.
He imagined the bright light falling into his kitchen, slanting across the pitted plastic of the tabletop. And at any time, of course, there could be a knock at his door. They had found him so many times. They never stopped finding him to ask him how it felt. They came less often, now. But they did not stop coming.
“Hello?” The basic terminal issued to him by his case officer had a small screen, and a tendency to vignette and lose color resolution. Callers emerged on it like ancient photographs come to life. Sunset now – he was in the park, on a bench, distributing a bag of day-old bread to a group of sparrows here. One of them had an artificial foot of carbon fiber struts. Miniature talons of hardened glass. Not one of Sezgin’s models.
There are others in this city like us. Others taking care. One rarely meets them, but they are there.
The sparrows battled over the scraps of bread, each with its own tactics.
On the screen was Sezgin. The bird was dead, then.
“We need to talk,” Sezgin said.
“I can come by the shop to take her away.”
There was a little place in a corner of the mosque courtyard where he buried the ones he could not save. So small: a turned spadeful of earth was enough to cover them.
“No,” Sezgin said. “Come to this address. I am sending it to you now.”
* * *
It was a pocket park on the Golden Horn, sandwiched between a maritime museum and a shabby little dockyard. While Himmet waited for Sezgin he watched the ferries come in to dock at Hasköy, the black water turning to white in the churn of their engines.
In the dockyard, several old autoroustabouts loaded a barge. The darkening air was filled with the sound of their complaining hydraulics. Seagulls landed on the barge and on the blocky shoulders of the roustabouts and took off again, switching places and configurations, playing some sort of game with one another that Himmet felt he almost understood the rules to.
Himmet did not hear Sezgin approach.
The android was holding the shoebox.
“Tell me again where you found her.”
“She is dead,” Himmet said.
“No. Tell me where you found her.”
Sezgin spoke to Himmet in a tone Himmet had not heard in a long time. It was the tone Sezgin had used when they were in Belgrade together, after the pacification. It was a military tone. Extracting information. Sezgin had been a teacher before the war. This tone was something like the tone of a teacher, asking for the answer to a math problem.
“I found it in the mosque courtyard, where I feed the sparrows.”
So the bird was not dead. She could be fixed.
Things can be fixed.
“Who saw you take her?”
Himmet thought. Who had been there? The boy who had run past. A few worshipers perhaps. He was unused, anymore, to noticing people. They were just blurs. And yet, he realized, he knew that there had been eleven sparrows taking dust baths in the dirt.
“Perhaps someone could have seen, but I do not think so. I am often there.”
“You are there every morning.”
“You must never return to that mosque.”
Himmet remembered the warm, fragile weight of the sparrow in his hand. They were always so much lighter than one expected. Even though he had held them many times. So much lighter, and more fragile. They were of the air, and carried weightlessness within them.
What would he do, then, with his mornings?
“Tell me what is happening.”
“It is better you do not know.”
“I can come by the shop.”
“The shop is closed. If someone comes to you, meet me on the ferry leaving Hasköy at 6:23 in the morning. Be sure you are not followed.”
“I can call you.”
Sezgin looked at him. Himmet saw a look on that face he had not seen for a long time. He did not like to think of the last time he had seen it.
“You cannot call me. I have destroyed my terminal.”
“Why? This makes no sense. She is . . . a bird.”
“No,” Sezgin said. “This is not a bird, Himmet. You have found a hole in the world.”
* * *
Himmet walked his bicycle home through the winding streets of his neighborhood. In the dark of his apartment building’s stairwell, he chained the bicycle to a support beam under the stairs. His apartment was on the third floor. There was a man leaning against the wall next to his door, in the dark. He was wearing a pair of Parker Philips overlay glasses, and in the dark they glowed dimly. A violet cascade of text streamed down their lenses, painting the face of the man with a shifting light.
He turned as Himmet came up the stairs. For a moment, Himmet saw several pictures of himself in the lenses of the glasses: Sequences of facial recognition, a map of his face’s topography. He thought, for a moment, of running – but to where?
“Hello, Himmet. I’ve been waiting for you for a while now. May I come in?”
Himmet shrugged, moving past the man and turning the key in the door. Fight-or-flight reflexes at maximum. He closed his eyes a moment. Not now. Later, perhaps.
“I don’t get many visitors.”
In the light of the entryway, the man’s stylish metallic grin had the green patina of a bronze statue, decades in the rain. His fashionably out of date horn-rim Parker Philips overlay glasses were playing something back to him, reflected in his pupils.
The entryway was tight. As Himmet moved past to take off his jacket, he swore he saw a sparrow flit across the man’s irises.
“I’m surprised. You’re somewhat well-known. You must get the occasional reporter, now and then, checking in.”
“Not too many. People forget. The world moves on.”
“That it does.”
“I won’t say no.”
In the tiny kitchen, Himmet flipped on the electrosamovar was warmed up. Every day Himmet came home when it got too dark to see without augmentation anymore. He did not like this lonely time, but there was little to do with it. The evening cast from his terminal helped, but did not drive the feeling away entirely.
The man had already seated himself at the table.
“I didn’t get your name.”
“Tarik. I’m a researcher at the Institute. A department head now, in fact. I keep forgetting that promotion.”
‘Everything is fine,” Himmet said. “No complaints. I . . .”
“I didn’t come to check up on that. Not my department, in fact. I came about a bird.”
“A bird.” Himmet repeated.
“Yes. You like birds. At the mosque where you spend your mornings, you have a reputation for taking care of them. Sparrows, pigeons, seagulls – you feed them and care for the injured. Is that not so?”
“Yes,” Himmet set the tea down in front of Tarik, and then settled down to the table himself.
“Kind of you.”
“I am not unique. There are a number of people who do this.”
“Can I ask you – this morning – did you find a bird that was hurt?”
“No. Not this morning.” There were no cameras in the courtyard of the mosque. At least – should not be. Not in the holy places. This was law.
A hole in the world.
“And yet you are on camera coming into a veterinarian’s shop with a shoebox you carry to care for wounded birds.”
“I was returning the box. I borrowed it several days before.”
Himmet nodded. “That’s correct.”
“The android you fought together with in Belgrade.”
“Mostly we did not fight. We . . .” Himmet stopped himself. What was it they had done? Nothing he wanted to talk about with this man. “Yes. The android I fought with in Belgrade.”
“The one who . . .”
“Listen – what is this about? A sparrow?”
“Who said anything about a sparrow?” Tarik lifted the glass of tea to his green grin.
“There are only sparrows in the mosque courtyard,” Himmet said. “A hooded crow, sometimes. But a crow would be too big for that shoebox. Sezgin and I were intelligence in Belgrade. You know this. I am no fool. People don’t show up here from the Institute to check up on me – I come to them. Just say what you are looking for.”
“I am looking for a sparrow.”
“There are several veterinarians in the area.”
“But only one who closed early. Do you think Sezgin left the store with that same shoebox?”
“If so, perhaps he had gone to retrieve a wounded bird in need of assistance. Sezgin says the shop is not a charity – but it is. All veterinarians run charities, in this city. Their hearts are too big.”
“Technically,” Tarik said, “Sezgin doesn’t have a heart.”
* * *
The ferry left Hasköy at 6:23, as scheduled. There was no-one aboard but a man in a rumpled blazer and old-style Turkish trousers, carrying a collapsed fishing pole and a box of tackle. The engines hummed quietly. Himmet could feel the low vibration of the screws turning the water of the Golden Horn through his whole body.
Sympathetic vibration, he thought. The movement of everything, pushing on everything else. The screws of the ferry on the water, the water on the screws, then all of that carried up through the carapace of the ferry, into the bodies of its passengers.
The man was rooting through his tackle box. Himmet heard something clatter to the deck of the boat, near him. It sounded like a dropped coin.
He looked down. Yes – there. Near his seat a small, fly-like insect. Then the man was standing over him, grinding the thing into the deck with his boot. When he lifted it away, Himmet could see the gleam of its crushed components.
“Follow me when I get off at Fener. Stay about 50 meters back.”
The ferry swung into its turn, coming into the dock. The man was already headed down to the lower deck.
Himmet followed the man up the hill. The red castle of the old Greek Orthodox college loomed over everything. Several of the windows on its ground floor were boarded over. Almost in its shadow, the man turned and went through an arched iron door in an ancient wall, leaving it gapped behind him. Himmet counted to ten before going through.
Inside, a small courtyard. A low Byzantine church, plastered a faded red. When had Himmet last been inside a church? But the man was not in the courtyard, and a bent old woman in a headscarf turned a key in the lock of the courtyard door, securing it behind Himmet. Without looking at him, she went into the church.
Sezgin was there, and another android. Their backs were to him as he came in.
It was strange, Himmet thought, how even from the back, and from some distance, one could tell an android from a human. They were supposed to be identical to humans, but something gave them away: something about the way they held themselves. Or perhaps it ran deeper than that – an instinct buried in the brain?
The other android bent and kissed the glass of an icon of the Virgin Mary. An old icon, so old it looked burned. Or maybe it had been burned. The android made the sign of the cross and then walked into a side chapel. Sezgin glanced at Himmet, and followed.
In the chapel, the sweet smell of incense in the church was cloying. But mixed in with it was the pleasant smell of the androids, almost indescribable – like fresh bread, tinged with electricity.
“This is Kamuran.”
“Where is she? The bird?”
Kamuran was as alike to Sezgin as a sibling. “She is safe, for now. I have passed her to another.”
“Tell me. What is happening? All of this . . .” he gestured around him at the small space, covered with frescoes, low and claustrophobic as a cave. “This cloak and dagger stuff cannot be about a sparrow. I feel like we are back in Belgrade, Sezgin.”
“Are you familiar with the Qatari ancestor falcons?” Kamuran asked. “Human consciousnesses, downloaded into birds for their afterlives?”
“I know of them,” Himmet said. “Or the rumor of them.”
“The rumors are true,” Sezgin said.
“So, she is not a sparrow. She is a . . . person. This is what you are telling me? Someone has downloaded a person into this bird?”
“Yes,” Kamuran said.
“Such a thing is illegal, in the Protectorate. The Connectome Codex forbids the download of humans into other forms. All blanks must be human.”
“But it has been done, as you well know.”
“Yes – but at the least, the form must be human . . .” He stammered, corrected himself, “Humanlike. If not, you would have to alter the connectome – distort it to the new form. The neural pathways to musculature . . . It would be an abomination.”
“But it is already done by the Qataris.”
“Yes – a fetish accomplished by the ultrarich, well outside the borders of the Protectorate. But not here. There are ethical concerns. The alterations would distort the mind itself.” He paused. “Now I see why they want her back. The man, Tarik, who came to see me . . . the Institute is in violation of the Codex. She must have gotten away from them.”
“Yes,” Sezgin said. “She got away from them. And the insertion of a human connectome into this form is a violation. There would be an inquiry. A fine.”
None of which was enough to justify Sezgin destroying his terminal. Or the three of them standing there, in the tiny chapel, whispering. He looked at Sezgin. No. This wasn’t about an illegal download.
A hole in the world.
‘When you download a person’s connectome – a living person’s connectome – into a blank – temporarily, this is – the person’s body remains in a comatose state, correct?” Sezgin said.
“And to retrieve them, what do you have to do?”
“I’m not an expert. But as I understand it, you have to fire a pattern in the reticular activating system of the original body. It recalls the consciousness, pulls it back from the receptor pattern to its original.”
“And if the person is dead – a connectome stored in a highrise?”
“It doesn’t matter: it’s the same. You have to fire the pattern in the stored connectome’s RAS. The simulation of the RAS, which is identical, but not in realspace. Pattern is pattern, real or virtual – the shape is the same. You have to fire the RAS, call them back from their blank. It’s the law of bilocation: a consciousness is unique. It can’t be in two places at once.”
“It’s not fully understood. It is simply a law. There is a uniqueness to the individual. Something past both materiality and pattern . . .” he trailed off.
The androids’ faces appeared nearly identical in the claustrophobic grotto of the chapel. Like the saints frescoed on the walls, each much the same as another.
Kamuran and Sezgin were looking at him the way a parent looks at a child, Himmet thought, the first time it learns about death.
“She is a copy,” Himmet said.
“And she is awake,” Himmet continued. “She woke up.”
“Yes,” Kamuran said.
“And somewhere, her original is also awake.”
A hole in the world.
It felt as if the entire weight of the church was coming down on him, then . . . a surge of devastation. Invisible, but crushing as stone. His knees gave way, and Sezgin caught him.
“Five times a day.” He heard himself saying it, as if from far away. This limp form in Sezgin’s arms. “I have been praying. Ever since that day. In thanks. But it isn’t true . . . I wasn’t saved.”
“No,” Sezgin said. “You were saved. You are yourself.”
“No. I died. If there is no connection . . . if we can simply be copied . . .”
There was a knock on the chapel door. A double rap, and then a third knock, after a pause.
“We have been discovered,” Kamuran said. “We must leave. Now.”
* * *
The androids left by a back entrance, but Himmet was not taken out. Instead, the woman in the headscarf led him to a stone in the floor, which she pried up with a bar. The first few rungs of a ladder were visible, leading downward into darkness.
“Do not be afraid. It is a small space, and dark, but it is perfectly safe. Many have hidden here, over the centuries. Iconoclasts from the Byzantine clergy, Orthodox Bishops from the invading Latin armies, runaway Janissaries, Christians, and Muslims alike from the Sultan’s anger. Even a slave from a rich man’s harem, many centuries ago. There have been others, more recently. We are not yet ready to speak of them – to add them to history. But be assured there is a long tradition. Now you are a part of that.”
He did not know how long he was down there. It may have been one hour, or it may have been three. It felt like a day, in the lightless, cold chamber that smelled of the incense of centuries of church services – The darkness scented with the ghost-ash of a thousand thousand thuribles, swung over the stone above him.
And, he thought, of the fear of those who had been here shivering in fear before him – though that was impossible. But what was the difference between an imagined smell and a real one? Or between a dead person’s fear and the fear of the living?
No sound came from above. When the woman finally lifted the stone, he had difficulty getting up the ladder. His right arm had gone completely numb, and his left leg would not move properly. The woman looked into his face.
“You have been afraid, down there. The right side of your face – it is paralyzed.”
“Tell them . . .” Himmet’s voice was slurred, “Tell them I went to the clinic. I . . . have to. And if I do not go, it will be more suspicious.”
“I will tell them,” The woman said.
Himmet limped from the church, dragging his paralyzed leg into a bright, cool afternoon.
He had been in the dark for seven hours.
* * *
“Have you been avoiding stress?”
Himmet wanted to burst into hysterical laughter. “I have tried. But in life, stress often comes to you.”
Dr. Kahraman stood in front of a full-length projection of Himmet’s neural connectome. She sighed, and scribbled something on the palimpscreen in front of her.
“For other people, Himmet, stress is a thing which can lead to long-term negative effects: heart disease, a general decrease in life span, that kind of thing. For you, stress is something that can kill you tomorrow – or leave you permanently paralyzed.”
Himmet noticed that Dr. Kahraman had stopped dying her hair. It was thickly seeded with grey, now. But somehow it did not make her look older. Cut short, it made her look . . . fierce. Authoritative. She was a military veteran like him. The grey in her cropped hair accented that.
“You were doing so well. We haven’t had any major connectivity issues in – what – five years? Just some numbness. But this is a disaster. What have you been doing with yourself?”
Himmet shook his head. He could not feel the paralyzed side of his face. “I don’t look for trouble. I just try to live quietly.”
“Well,” Dr. Kahraman bent down and pointed a penlight into Himmet’s eyes, one after another. “Try harder. Meditation might help. You are unique, Himmet. And your problems are unique. It is hard to work on someone who has no precedent.”
“Is the damage . . . permanent?”
“No, I don’t think so. The core, your mind itself, is not damaged. What we are looking at is connectivity errors in the neural connections in the limbs and face. I’m going to be able to treat those. But it’s good you came in when you did, before this could go further. You’ll be here at the clinic for a few days. No terminal, strict bed rest.”
“Have you looked into getting me out of this body? Getting me a real blank? If it’s a matter of funding, I have been thinking of crowdsourcing. People still know the story. I could do a public campaign.”
“The stress of that would leave you bedridden for certain. It could do worse than that. But that isn’t the real issue. The real issue is – no, we can’t get you out. There was never any system designed for transfer from an android to another form. There was never any intent to upload them – in fact, it was a failsafe built in from the start. No replication of their connectomes means they remain in the forms we originally built for them. And within those limits. But for you, that means you remain unique. The only human consciousness downloaded into an android.”
“A one-way ticket.”
“It was the best they could do at the time, Himmet. In a field hospital with no blanks available. You were lucky this still inactive android was there at the advance post. If they had already mapped it, there would have been nowhere to put you. It saved your life, Himmet.”
“We’re here talking, aren’t we? What more proof do you need?”
* * *
The clinic had a small garden. It was a strange place – a courtyard between high buildings, so narrow it seemed almost like a well. Very little sunlight penetrated. The courtyard was always dim, and cool. Everything was covered in moss and lichen, dead nettle, Japanese forest grass, and digitalis. At the center was a brick pool in which lived a few fat, sleepy catfish.
Every morning, Dr. Kahraman brought a loaf of day-old bread to Himmet and sent him out into the shade.
The sparrows had learned, and were waiting on the windowsills of the surrounding buildings. As he approached, they would plop themselves down on the mossy turf, and hop into position, ready to scrimmage with one another for the bread.
It was the third day of convalescence, now. Himmet could feel most everything in his face. A pins-and-needles sensation remained in his hand and his leg, but that was all: he could move everything well.
He broke the bread up into small pieces, piling them on the waxed-paper bag the loaf came in.
He had been alone when he woke up in the hospital after the bombing in Belgrade, fifteen years ago. It was no longer the field hospital – they had transferred him here, to the Institute clinic. Once he was able to move on his own – and that took time, months of convalescence before his connectome fully attached to this body – he began to sit here, on this bench, and feed the birds.
Then, as now, Dr. Kahraman brought a loaf of day-old bread to him every day and he sat here in the courtyard, feeding the sparrows.
He had never really noticed birds before that. No – that was not correct: he had noticed them, they had always been there, like a background static in the world, but he had not really seen them. He had learned to see them here, in the clinic courtyard – had learned to really watch them. And he had fallen in love with them – especially with these common sparrows, ubiquitous scavengers of the city, more invisible to humans than the pigeon, but everywhere among us.
The rest of the world melted away as he watched them hop, jostle, and battle. He loved how they schemed against one another, fought for position and dominance, teamed up in alliances to bop some fatter, more successful competitor aside – all of it without harming one another. In the end, when the loaf was gone, all had eaten. Some sooner than others, some a bit more – but all were allowed to eat. Their system was not, exactly, competition. It was more like a game: intricate in its rules of dominance and concession, but ultimately forgiving, and even egalitarian.
No harm, in the end, was done.
He was often in great pain when he came into the courtyard. The connections did not all take hold as they should have, and there were procedures Dr. Kahraman had to subject him to. He would have wept, if his new body allowed him to weep. And of course it was not just the physical pain – it was the overwhelming sense of loss. Everything he had been born with – the flesh and bone of his being, had been stripped from him. What was he, now?
On the second week of that early convalescence, Sezgin had come to see him. Sezgin sat next to Himmet and fed the sparrows, not speaking for a good long time. Sezgin was on leave from Belgrade, and in dress uniform – the only clothes in which they would have been allowed to travel freely in the city, to places androids were technically not allowed. Somehow, military service temporarily annulled prejudice – even muted the enforcement of laws. But unevenly: Himmet had heard of an android set on fire in Galata – splashed with gasoline in the street and set ablaze in their immaculate uniform of service to the state.
To some, nothing could redeem them at all.
So this journey of Sezgin’s, to see the friend they had saved, meant something a bit more. It entailed great personal risk, riding the Tekray and negotiating crowds which, at any moment, could turn into a hostile mob.
“I do not know what to tell you,” Sezgin said, “about adapting to this new life you will have. I have never not been what I am. And you are not exactly what we are. But you will look like us, to the world. That will be enough. We are so close to being the same as them, but you should know – every human can sense we are not human from a hundred meters away. It is as if there is something built into them. Some sensory mechanism. There is no hiding our difference. They always know. But this outsideness – it binds us. We are a single family, and you will be one of us now.”
One of us.
He began to notice the damage to the sparrows. Many of their feet were missing toes, and sometimes their legs ended in nothing at all.
On Sezgin’s third visit, Himmet asked, “Do you see that sparrow there? With one foot missing?”
“I see it.”
“Do you think it could be mended?
He had expected Sezgin to make some kind of joke, or to dismiss the idea right away. But for a long time, the android sat in silence. Then they said, “It is a difficult task. It would require a very good prosthetist, and a veterinarian, working together. There would be some expense: each prosthesis would have to be custom built. But it could be done.”
“What do you think it would cost?”
Sezgin named the sum. It was slightly more than half Himmet’s monthly disability pension.
Once he was released from the clinic, Himmet learned he could live very frugally. “Avoiding stress” made life inexpensive. As did his new lack of freedom: androids could not travel outside the boundaries of the Suriçi: they could not set foot, without permission, beyond the land walls of ancient Constantinople and the neighborhood, across the Horn, of Galata. Within this limited space were contained the few thousand androids left, once production of them was outlawed. Soon enough, further zoning limited the neighborhoods they could live in, the places they could shop. They began to live more compactly, opening their shops and renting homes mostly in the neighborhoods along the sea walls, where the peninsula plunged toward the Marble Sea and the Bosporus.
Sezgin opened his veterinary practice not far from where Himmet lived. Like all the androids, Sezgin was soon an expert at whatever trade they chose.
Himmet spent most of his disability pension mending sparrows. He called it mending, not healing. He did not know why. Perhaps because the prostheses could never really replace what was lost. The prostheses were an addition, not a replacement.
Aydin, the android prosthetist who created the new feet and legs for the birds, smiled at this use of the word “mending.” – “Yes, I think of it that way too: I have always compared my art to sashiko, the Japanese art of mending fabric. The intent is not to hide the repair: the intent is to accent the rips and tears of life, and to make something stronger – not a replacement, but something new, worked from the old into greater beauty.”
The limbs Aydin’s made were, indeed, works of art. But Aydin was killed by a mob in Taksim, who attacked several Androids going to mosque and beat them to death with cobblestones pulled up from the street. The attack was caused by an absurd rumor that the androids had knocked a girl on a bicycle down and stolen her purse.
Sezgin took over making the limbs. Sezgin’s limbs were made for utility. Though they lacked Aydin’s flair, they were just as effective – perhaps even more so.
“I do not have the heart,” Sezgin once said, “To try to imitate Aydin’s craftsmanship.”
How strange, that metaphor in the mouth of a being that did not, in fact, have a heart at all. Perhaps, indeed, a heart was not an organ, but a concept.
“Yes, mending is a good word,” Aydin had once said to Himmet. “A very good word. And you, too, have been mended. You are not what you were before: you are different. But all difference is growth. You are more than what you were before. Mending has made you into something singular.”
But now Himmet knew he had not been mended: He had died. This Himmet was not that Himmet, before the bombing. That Himmet’s life had been cut, like a thread. Severed. Forever.
* * *
“You have a visitor waiting for you in the courtyard,” Dr. Kahraman told him on the fourth day of his convalescence.
Himmet was nearly better now: the pins-and-needles sensation had subsided completely. He felt like himself again.
For some reason, Himmet thought it would be Sezgin waiting for him. Being back here at the clinic, he had fallen into old states of mind, had almost begun to feel as if he were back there in that time, just after Belgrade.
But of course it could not be Sezgin: that life was gone. Sezgin was on the run . . . Himmet thought of the perfect darkness of the chamber where he had been hidden in the church. Gone underground.
It was Tarik. He sat on the edge of the brick pool, one of his hands nearly elbow-deep in the water. He looked up as Himmet entered the courtyard, viewing Himmet through a violet waterfall of data.
“They won’t let me touch them,” Tarik said. “But I can’t stop myself from trying.” He stood, and shook the water off his hand. “I hear you are feeling better. I hear you had some kind of stress incident. That’s what they called it, I think. Started to come apart at the seams a little.”
“These things happen,” Himmet said.
“I bet they do. Hey – look. I don’t know how I’m supposed to handle this dialogue. Are we still beating around the bush, pretending you haven’t found my bird? Or are we past that? I want to be able to choose my lines, you know?”
“Why did you do it?”
“Oh, good,” Tarik said, “We’re past that. I was hoping that would be the case.”
Tarik looked around the courtyard – at first, Himmet thought the glancing about was idle, but then he saw the scuttling of analytics across the lenses of the overlay glasses. Scanning. Looking to see if anyone might be listening. Tarik finished, and wiped his damp hand on his pants.
“I dabble, you know? Like any good scientist. I can’t stand still. And I had this feeling it could be done. Do you know what a scientist hates most, Himmet?”
“Being lied to. I had this nagging suspicion that all of this claptrap about reticular activation, this ineffable uniqueness of the connectome . . . that all of it was a lie. That we were being sold a line. So I decided to do a little experimenting. You know, on the side. Get a bit of lab time, and find out for myself.”
“Chimeras are illegal. The distortions of a human mind trapped in an alien form – in a bird’s form . . .”
“Ironic, a chimera talking about how it is illegal to make chimeras. You know the institute makes the falcons for the Qataris, right?” Tarik looked at him. “No. You didn’t know. Oh, wow. I forget there is this whole world out there of people who have no idea what is going on. Listen, Himmet – there are laws, and there are laws. I hope I’m not messing up your whole episteme if I tell you the Institute does lots of things that are ‘illegal’ – but saves most of them for export.”
“But not this.”
“Not until now.”
“Who is it?”
“Who did you trap in there?”
“If it matters to you – she’s a woman named Altynai. Kazakh guest worker, died in an accident at a shipyard. But had managed to save up enough money to buy herself a slot in a condominium afterlife. Kind of low-res, a historical reconstruction of a nineteenth-century fishing village on the Black Sea coast. It was owned by a co-op. Badly managed – they went into receivership and my department bought them up. Don’t look at me like that – we didn’t do anything bad to them: we run the whole thing on some microscopic fraction of an Institute server. Much better than pulling the plug, which is what would have happened. I just . . . copied her.”
“So – she’s still in there?”
“Last time I checked she was drinking a cup of salep on a wintry day, and wandering out onto the docks to watch the fishers mend their nets. God, how boring. You might as well just be dead.”
“How did you do it?”
“Ok, I don’t want to get into trade secrets – but it turns out there’s a bit of code that keeps you from making two identical connectomes at a time. It’s automatically created during upload and appended, and links back to the RAS of an original body, in the case of a temporary upload, or to the full upload, if the original is deceased. Basically, you just snip it off, and voila. Unlimited copies.”
“But who would they be?” Himmet felt the toes of his left foot going numb. “There has to be someone – an individual – to inhabit the pattern. There has to be . . .” He stopped, not even sure how he would have finished.
“Ah – a religious type, huh? You think some spirit swoops in and takes up residence in the uniqueness of the connectome pattern? In the rhythms of our nervous system’s electromagnetic fields? Every one of us an infinitely complex set of folds in the universe, unrepeatable? You still buy that? What do they do, come flapping through the ether on little angel wings? Look, I don’t know who they are – each copy. But what does it matter?” Tarik shrugged. “Who are you?”
Himmet glanced over at a small group of sparrows. They were watching him, waiting for their bread. What he really wanted, very much, was to go back to not knowing any of this.
Himmet is dead.
But I am Himmet, and I remember being Himmet, long before the war. Before any of it. I remember . . . first things. A beach with my father, a rowboat on a shore. A childhood.
“Hey – you’re freaking out. Your face – half of it going all slack. I think this is really stressful for you. I want to make it easy. You’re going to need a few days here to recover from this conversation – I can tell. I messed things up a bit for you, made more work for Dr. Kahraman. Sorry about that. But once you’re out – I’ll come see you. 48 hours after release. You’ll likely have my sparrow for me then. If not, I’m going to kill all your android friends, one by one. Different things will happen to them – mob attacks, accidents. That kind of thing. I’ll start with the ones you just say hi to in the morning, and work my way inward to Sezgin. I don’t want to do it – but I have a career to think of. A reputation. And like I said – there are laws and there are laws. I don’t think the world is ready for this particular law to be broken, just yet. I’d like to keep my job.”
* * *
It was three more days before Dr. Kahraman could repair the damage, swearing to herself under her breath every time she looked at Himmet’s damaged connectome.
“Meditation,” she said to him when he was released. They were standing in the sunshine of the hospital lobby, blades of it falling through the plate glass windows onto the immaculate, anonymous furniture. “Meditation, a positive attitude. Keep feeding the birds. Cherish your friends. Ride your bicycle. Perhaps take up sailing – something low impact. Protect my work.” Then suddenly she hugged him. This was something she had never done before, and she pulled back, he saw she had tears in her eyes.
She was afraid he was going to die.
But Himmet is already dead.
“The other androids,” Himmet said. “Do you ever check in on them?”
“They are more stable. And the Institute has legally severed contact. But yes. Fridays, at a clinic in Kumkapi. It is a clinic they run for themselves. I come in a consulting role, in the evening.” She smiled. “Mostly just to catch up with old friends.”
* * *
The ferry left Hasköy at 6:23, as scheduled. There was nobody on board but a young woman in the grey coveralls of a Tekray maintenance crew, her black hair knotted back with a red kerchief. Seagulls drifted over the white-painted rails, then arced away, over and over again. A game. Once in a while, Himmet would feed seagulls down at the docks. They would eat on the wing, timing a swoop to your toss, synchronizing with you. Their eyes were as unexpressive as glass, but their movements spoke to something there, inside. A playful, conscious being.
The young woman never looked at him, but when the ferry docked at Fener, Himmet followed her. She stopped at a simit cart, bought two, and made her way to a bench on the horn, near a breakwater of broken concrete blocks and red stone – the slurry of history, keeping the sea from eating away at the land.
When Himmet joined her on the bench, she was breaking the simit up into smaller pieces. Once he was close, he saw that she was no young woman at all.
It was an immaculate job – the make-up, the walk. He never would have known. But up close, she still had the smell of them. Not she, Himmet corrected himself. But the artifice was convincing, had created the gender. Conjured it from nothing, and now he couldn’t think of the android as anything else.
But wasn’t that exactly the same for him? He still thought of himself as “he” – still aligned himself that way, although for fifteen years he had been just as “they” as any other android. What was the content of this feeling that, somehow, he was still a “man”?
“Sezgin says hello,” she said. “The sparrow is in a shoebox – there, in that garbage can, twenty meters from where we are sitting. It is asleep. When Tarik comes to collect it, you are to simply give it to him.”
“How can we do such a thing? Simply return her to him, without knowing what will happen to her?”
“That is for Sezgin to explain.” The android placed the simit in Himmet’s lap, carefully broken into small pieces on its waxed paper sleeve. “Feed the birds a while, retrieve the box, and meet Tarik at the appointed time. Return the bird to him, and end all of this.”
“I can’t do it.”
She pressed his shoulder with a hand. “Meditate. Feed the birds. Do you understand? This burden is not for you. Cherish your friends, and listen to them.”
“How do you . . .”
“What you need is another hobby. Perhaps you should take up sailing. Something low impact.”
Himmet nodded. “I understand. Not . . . everything. But I will do what you say.”
“Good.” She stood up and walked away.
Two sparrows dropped from a nearby mulberry tree, as if they had rappelled down invisible threads. Then two more. Then a dozen, hopping around his feet.
When he collected the shoebox, he opened the lid a crack. The sparrow slept there, nestled in cotton, its breathing almost imperceptible.
* * *
“I’m really glad you made this easy,” Tarik said. “I was ready for a nightmare. Something expensive, and sad.” He opened the box and looked in at the sparrow. “Then when you said you had her, I thought maybe you would try to switch birds on me. But you didn’t.”
They were on the roof of Himmet’s apartment building. At some point, someone had constructed a makeshift deck here. Over the years, it had been added to: an ancient Formica table, warped from many seasons. A small collection of mismatched, discarded kitchen chairs, with rust blossoming on the chrome curves of their legs and the plastic turned pastel and flaky by the sun. Someone had planted ivy along the wall. And there were other artifacts – a cement turtle, a vegetable crate full of cracked ceramic pots.
“I would not be able to fight you,” Himmet said. “I am no longer made for fighting. Or for doing much at all.”
Take up sailing, he thought bitterly.
“There’s no need for all of that,” Tarik said. He took his glasses off, and cleaned them with a microfiber cloth. “And anyway, I am not the right villain. All I am trying to do is push the boundaries, Himmet.”
“Himmet is dead.”
Tarik looked at him. “Ah, yes. I remember. The religious problem. That’s what is going to get you in the end – not me. Thinking about theoreticals. Someday they will probably find out humans could live forever – if only they would stop worrying about the things that are not in front of them. About pasts they want to shift around until they make perfect sense. About theoretical futures, branching off forever. If Himmet is dead, who am I talking to?” He placed the overlay glasses back on his face – and they seemed to ask the same question, echoing the query with a series of images of Himmet in shifting checkerboard across the lenses.
“I can’t answer that. I suppose – I suppose you are talking to the thing that people call Himmet. The construct everyone treats as that name.”
Tarik stood up. “That’s all Himmet ever was. That’s all any of us are: a thing people call a name. A construct. Live your life, friend. Be well.”
“Take up sailing,” Himmet said.
Tarik smiled, green and metallic: “I was thinking gardening. This is a nice enough little patch of sun, up on the roof. With some care.”
* * *
Himmet stood in the small park on the Golden Horn, between the maritime museum and the shabby dockyard, waiting. He watched the ferries come in and depart again, the black water turning to white, the chaos of gulls.
In the dockyard, the autoroustabouts loaded a barge, their hydraulics complaining. Seagulls landed on their blocky shoulders and took off again, switching places and configurations, playing their games.
“I used to watch them, sometimes, for hours.”
He had not heard her approach. He had been lost in thought – lost in thought, perhaps, for days. At first, it had seemed like a depression he would never pull himself out of. But over the last few days that feeling had faded to a kind of melancholy that was almost pleasant. A loneliness – and then a longing for contact. He had been spending his days on the rooftop, or at the nearby stores, buying soil and seedlings. The sunshine was good for him, perhaps. He felt better in it, with his hands in the earth. And things were beginning to grow. He had set up a bird feeder, and a small concrete bath for them.
She was in the same set of gray coveralls, with the same red handkerchief. At her side were Sezgin, and Kamuran. And then he saw Dr. Kahraman, a few paces behind.
“I did as you said. I gave her back. I had to – to save you all.”
Sezgin nodded. “We know.”
“But I am not sure I can live with it – leaving her there with him, to be subjected to experiments, caged . . .” He glanced at Dr. Kahraman. “I won’t be able to stop thinking of it.”
“No,” Dr. Kahraman said, “You aren’t the kind of person who can stop thinking of such things.”
“But you should rest easy,” said Kamuran. “She won’t wake up. She can’t.”
“When Tarik tries to investigate that question, what he will find is a flaw in the connectome. An irresolvable error. It will seem to have come from the duplication. To have emerged in the pattern later – some strange way the universe keeps us unique, perhaps. A confirmation of the impossibility of two identical beings existing at the same time. I imagine he’ll study it for months.”
“The apparent flaw woven into the pattern” Sezgin said, “Is a real work of art. Kamuran built it. It will keep Tarik busy for some time. And I don’t think he will recognize the incomplete connectome, the fact that it was never functional to begin with. He’ll be too busy trying to crack the new problem he has been presented with, and the mock connectome is too sophisticated to be detected easily.”
“Then she is safe, somewhere.”
The android in the gray coveralls shrugged. “As safe as she can be, in a world like this, where all of us are in danger.”
“Good,” Himmet said. ‘At least it was not all for nothing.”
“No,” Dr. Kahraman said. “It was not for nothing. But it took many of us to accomplish, working together. As it always does. Luckily, there are enough of us to share the burden. And you, Himmet, helped most of all. I hope you understand that. You look better, by the way. Have you been following my advice?”
“I didn’t take up sailing. Or meditation. But I have been gardening, and spending time in the sun. It seems to help.”
“You see,” the android in the coveralls said to Dr. Kahraman, “I told you sailing was a bad idea. Even thinking of getting in one of those boats makes my fingers go numb.”
She smiled at Himmet. “I wouldn’t mind seeing your garden, though.” She put out a hand. “And by the way – we have not been properly introduced. My name is Altynai.”
“Himmet,” he said, taking the hand in his.
Yes. Himmet. That is who I am.