The Road to Babel

Yaroslav Barsukov


At the end of each day, when time allowed it, I liked to spend at least ten minutes out on the balcony overlooking the market square; I would observe the rug merchants rolling their carpets, or the spice trader carefully putting his numerous jars into a large trunk, or street fakirs breathing the last spurts of flame before sunset.

Daylight in the desert washes away all paint, and only during a short time before the dusk does Babylon show its true face. It looks like a drawing done by a child—everything a bit too saturated, a bit too excessive; colors bleed where they shouldn’t, with the buildings in the distance merging with the sky, and the half-finished Tower almost touching the clouds.

I spotted two Teekaleena airships—or ‘sky carriages’, as I would’ve called them years ago—approaching the city from the west.

“Sin-ili, come inside, love, or your tuoko will get too hot and the kettle will melt.”

Tuoko sometimes found a way into my otherwise ascetic evening ritual—a light herbal drug the giants brought with them. Its consumption was now widespread in every Teekaleena city; when taken in modest quantities, tuoko had no negative effects, but helped one to relax and numb the mind a bit.

I turned around, and a breeze obligingly spread the curtains before me. Knowing my penchant for coziness, Ninu had lit a few tea-lights in ceramic holders—one on the table near the bed, another on the bookshelf.

I filled a bowl with tuoko and sat down on the corner of the bed, watching her.

My wife was a silhouette in the darkness, hair falling on her shoulders in a single black wave, her dress split high on the thighs; too high for my taste. I suppose she wore it to irritate me—it was all part of the game, as the saying in Babylon went.

“How was your day?” Her voice was low and velvety.

“I saw a man die.” I answered bluntly. “And a Teekaleenon at that. He had terrible burns all over his body.”

Ninu quickly turned to me. “A Teekaleenon?”

“They said it was… How did they put it… A sabotage? The word is unfamiliar to me.”

She paused. “To me, too.”

“Let’s talk about it some other time though, I don’t want to spoil the evening.”

Ninu shot an annoyed look in my direction, but then, as it often happened, her temper gave way to a strange expression I couldn’t quite pinpoint, but hoped to Sun was love. I would’ve paid a fortune to find out what she really saw when she looked at me. Ninu was so different from any other woman I’d known that I lacked a proper frame of reference. I smiled to her, and she smiled back.

“Come, sit with me,” I said.

“Only if you insist.”

In one gracious movement, she slipped onto the bed behind me and started massaging my shoulders. A massage wasn’t what I had in mind though; I half-turned and folded my arm around Ninu. Then we made love, and the world was calm and peaceful afterwards.

***

Should anyone tell you that there was ever a place more exuberant or mysterious than Babylon, feel free to call them a liar.

I remember the day six years ago when I came to the city to work on the Tower, how I goggled at the airships glistening against the transparent sky, or the huge tubes carrying water from the mountains—but it wasn’t until I’d actually entered the gates that Babylon grabbed me by the throat. Streets as wide as a creek, terraced gardens preceding the entrance to every second house, windows and balconies with foreign, out-of-this-world ornaments, and among all that—statuesque figures, human in appearance and yet far too large to be considered normal. Teekaleena, the giants, traversed the city with silent gravitas, sitting cross-legged on rectangular platforms which hovered at waist level. Every platform had four Men of Dirt—automata, as I learned to call them later—chained to its corners.

When I arrived at the workshop, a crowd of people were there already, whispering to each other, shifting their feet and looking generally uncomfortable. The workshop itself wasn’t as I had imagined; I expected to land in a carpenter’s hut, but found myself in a huge vaulted hall, dimly lit, where I could hardly see the walls or ceiling. It was a reorganized temple.

I’d never seen so many numbering machines or automata in one place. Multiple screens glowed pale green, granting the former place of worship back its sacred air. The thing in the corner I mistook for a statue was a huge human figure, or almost human: a Teekaleenon, solemnly inspecting the crowd of potential numberers. Next to him stood the most beautiful woman—actually, the most beautiful anything—I’d seen in my life. Dwarfed by her companion, of course, but nevertheless striking: tall, supple, with a proud tilt to her head.

The senior numberer arrived. He was an energetic fellow, far too energetic for the task he’d been assigned, all but dancing before the line of prospective journeymen who watched him with gloomy patience. The man gave the impression of being ready to solve the test himself, had the rules allowed him; it somehow had a discouraging effect on us.

The trial seemed simple on the surface. The senior numberer brought forward one of the automata. It was a standard unit, they all looked the same, as if someone had taken a human body, separated its different parts from each other—hands from arms, shins from thighs and so on—and then stitched them back together with metal rods. It bore resemblance to sophisticated clay dolls which were a children’s favorite in Teekaleena cities, in all but the face. The face was a mask, a static mould of a man’s features.

The numberer covered the automaton’s eyes with a sudra that a participant had contributed. The space in front of the unit was a labyrinth of tables, chairs, and all sorts of furniture you could imagine; our goal was to come up with numbers that would allow the automaton to pass through.

Needless to say, none of us knew how to deal with this problem. Path finding was a mandatory discipline in Teekaleena schools where we had received our education, but the main element has always been visual recognition. Take it away, and the automaton became thoroughly helpless in navigating its surroundings.

We each took turns at a numbering machine. I now felt grateful for having arrived so late, because this provided me with a chance to see what the others would do. Most of them didn’t do much anyway, except for a few notable examples. The first participant, a man nearing his twenties, had sent the automaton into a frenzy; it began flailing around with its hands, trying to feel its way through. In the end, it rammed itself into a heavy workbench and had to be replaced.

Another participant, a woman this time, put the automaton on all fours, perhaps in a misplaced attempt to imitate a guide dog; this proved to be a welcome distraction, because we all helped to fish the poor thing from under one of the tables.

When my turn came, a solution had already formed in my mind which seemed brilliant at the time and which curiously enough still seems brilliant all these years later.

“Can I use other things in this room to help me?” I asked the senior numberer in a voice that cracked slightly.

He measured me with his eyes.

“You can’t touch anything with your own hands and you can’t take the sudra off the automaton. Apart from that, you are free to do as you choose.”

My fingers nervously fluttered as the numbers emerged on the screen. At that moment I didn’t pay attention to the others, but I’d like to think they all watched with amazement as I asked the machine to produce not one, but two cards for me. Communication. Communication was the key to the test.

The concept certainly wasn’t foreign to us—we’d all seen a street beggar guiding his blind companion at one point or another—but apart from me, nobody had thought of applying it. The whole trial had been meticulously designed to distract the participants from the solution and make us focus on irrelevant technical details: a sudra, a workbench, a tumbled-over chair.

I took a step back and watched my scenario unfold. One automaton was talking to another, leading it through the wooden maze. There was no verbal exchange, of course, only a silent transfer of data—but because the automata looked so human, you couldn’t help but apply human concepts to them.

When they reached their goal, the hall went silent, and then the senior numberer erupted in applause amplified by the acoustics of the former temple.

“Wonderful, simply wonderful! Behold everybody… How did you manage to arrive at the solution?”

“Men of Dirt like to talk. Most people aren’t aware of that, but I am.”

There were some sour chuckles from the others.

“Oh, here we go with this word again.” This time, the senior numberer gave me a wintry smile. “They aren’t men, my dear, they are au-to-ma-ta. They have terracotta shells to prevent overheating,” he knocked on the body frame of the automaton closest to him, “and, believe me, there’s nothing inside them that would even remotely resemble what you have inside your body.”

I turned to look toward the Teekaleenon. My heart jumped because the girl was watching, and something in her eyes frightened me, something foreign. But the sensation was fleeting, and in the next moment I was again admiring the contours of her face.

Her name was Ninu, and we married a few months later, when I became a full junior numberer. It turned out she was working as a maid in a Teekaleena house, and she knew more about their ways than even the head of the workshop could tell me. It is a hard thing for a man to admit, but she effectively made me into the person I am today; with her, I gradually got rid of my Ierevvan accent and started speaking and thinking in Teekaleena concepts.

Even after we were married, I caught the same foreign reflection in her eyes every now and then. But when you’re in love, you tend to let go of things that don’t fit in with your little idea of paradise.

***

Tuoko can only extend the sense of bliss that comes after lovemaking, but it can’t wish away the day’s worries. Eventually they return to you.

“Tell me about the burned Teekaleenon.”

“Beautiful women should not hear of such things,” I muttered, playing with Ninu’s hair swept across the pillow.

She smiled wryly.

“Sin-ili, I’m not just a pretty thing, my love. Even if you so like to believe that.”

She pulled me towards herself, and I let her, enveloped by the fragrance of her skin. Then I indeed told her everything; I was a fool this evening, just as I’d been a fool my whole life.

***

The details were still fresh in my mind, so telling the story to Ninu was easy.

That day had been incredibly hot, and adding to my misery was the humidity. The automata, even with their terracotta shells, were not designed for such temperatures, so the head numberer arranged for people from the city to haul a vat of cold water over every half hour. When an automaton submerged itself in the vat, columns of vapor would violently churn upward, making us all feel as if we were locked in a bath house.

Each time a fresh vat arrived, junior numberers flocked to it like hungry birds. I was happy I at least didn’t have to work to get my own water; my senior position guaranteed that somebody would bring me a bowl, accompanied by a slight nod and a few words of respect.

The whole eastern side of the Tower was covered with scaffolding, which went so high that special lifting platforms were needed to carry both the junior numberers and the automata to different levels. A journeyman’s task was not to write numbers, but to keep an eye on the automata and catch the moment when one malfunctioned before it could hinder the work of others. The automaton would then be put to sleep and simply thrown off the scaffolds; it was much faster and more economical than to arrange for the thing to be brought down properly. A band of thick fabric encircled the Tower’s foundation, preventing the automata from breaking when they fell. Once at the bottom, the unit would be picked up by the closest senior numberer and pulled away to the main tent to have its numbers examined and corrected.

Naturally, the higher you worked, the lower your standing was. Journeymen at the very top often stayed there the whole day, slowly baking like apples under sunlight; people at the bottom had more chances to get themselves some cool water, or a clean sudra once theirs had become soaked with sweat.

We called the structure the ‘Tower’ because we had no other name for it, and the Teekaleena word was too convoluted to make use of it on a daily basis. In reality though, the gargantuan construction wasn’t made of brick or clay or any other material I was familiar with. It was consistently gray, with no visible seams on its surface; if you knocked on it, you’d hear a hollow sound as if there was a lot of space inside. No one knew for sure, as no one had ever gone in there. At least not until that day.

First I heard agitated voices, and then a group of five Teekaleena entered the construction site. I overheard them telling the building foreman they were headed for the eighth level. Tabia, who would start his work there in a few minutes, was bending over the edge of the water vat, snorting like a dog. Upon realizing the Teekaleena had taken the only platform that had not yet gone up, he ran towards them in his usual manner, waving his arms and crying for them to wait. The platform continued its slow ascent.

I felt something heavy on my shoulder and turned around to see another Teekaleenon standing beside me.

“I don’t know what happened,” he said not looking at me, as if thinking aloud. “It’s very unusual, even in this weather. We risk overheating if we don’t act immediately.”

We all watched with lazy interest as the Teekaleena disappeared inside the Tower. I hoped they wouldn’t stay long, because, although unseen, their presence made many journeymen visibly uneasy. My wish was fulfilled: it was over rather quickly.

Only one of the Teekaleena came out though, or, better to say, tumbled outside with a cross between a howl and a croak. Even at this distance it became clear that the man was heavily burned. He tottered a few steps towards the lifting platform and collapsed on the scaffolds where we could no longer see him. My brain frantically took to work. So that’s what was inside the Tower? A fire of some sort, an oven perhaps?

The Teekaleenon that had remained below turned to us.

“Help him, bring him down!” he barked, not addressing anyone in particular.

If only we could. The lifting platform was up there, effectively blocking the whole level, and Tabia was here with us. Even taking his laziness and unreliability into account, they should’ve waited for him. All they had now was a couple of automata, and the automata needed numbers to help the burned man.

At that moment, a thought entered my mind, and my feet carried me to the tent where the numbering machine was.

Men of Dirt could communicate at short distances. Until now, they’d only been exchanging data: danger ahead, stop. Give me this tool. Let’s lift the rock together. But now, coming to think of it, it became clear to me that the numbers they had inside of them were data as well. So why not write the numbers, feed them to an automaton, and then make it recite these numbers to another unit on the first level, then on the second, on the third and so on? It sounded wild, but was worth a try.

When I emerged outside, things hadn’t changed a lot. The Teekaleenon tried to take control of the situation, but he couldn’t do much from the ground. Journeymen were running around, and I noticed a few platforms going up and down, in a way that seemed completely random. Not feeling a particular need to explain myself, I walked to the closest automaton and gave it the numbers.

What happened next was a delight to behold; for the second time in my life, I was genuinely proud of my own work. The automata worked like a tight-knit team. Now they reminded me more than ever of real people, only they were communicating incredibly difficult concepts at a pace unthinkable for us. Within a minute, an automaton at the top approached the fallen Teekaleenon, lifted him in the air and flung him down.

The body plunged like a boulder, and the sound that accompanied its landing only served to strengthen the impression.

Nobody understood what I had done, apart from the Teekaleenon below, that is. After the burned man, no longer crying, had been carried away on a palankeen, the Teekaleenon approached me with a resolution that didn’t promise anything good.

“Show me your numbers,” he ordered shortly, and we went to the numbering machine in the tent.

There, the huge man took his time studying my writing. He then turned away from the screen and gave me an estranged look.

“No one should see this, do you understand?”

“Actually I don’t. If I may ask…”

The Teekaleenon relented a bit.

“Imagine someone could write numbers to make an automaton attack a human. This hypothetical person would need to feed the numbers only to a single unit, and your approach would take care of the rest. A little private army in a matter of minutes, you see? This,” he pointed at the screen with a finger the size of my neck, “This is like… a disease that spreads from person to person. A weapon. You should forget you’ve ever written it.”

I slowly nodded, reached into my pocket and felt for the second card that I’d had the machine produce for me.

***

After I finished my story, we both went silent for a time. Then I finally asked her the question that had been bothering me. “Did you know there was fire inside the Tower?”

She paused, looking at the window. “Sin-ili, have you ever wondered as to the purpose of the Tower, now that you’ve worked on it for—how long?—six years?”

I pressed Ninu close to me, stroking her hair. “Common people say the Teekaleena want to reach God. Superstitions, I know…”

“It’s a weapon, Sin-ili. It’s a terrible weapon that flies and brings death and desolation to wherever it lands.”

I drew back and studied her face for a moment. “How are you always aware of these things, love?”

“Don’t you know who I am?”

“You are the light of my life. And why are you telling me about this only now?”

“Because now you’ve seen with your own eyes what the Tower can do to people. And believe me, you’ve only seen a fraction of that.”

Another pause followed.

“So have you destroyed the card?”

I wondered for a second if I should tell her.

“It’s there, on the table. I… I think it’s the key to our future, Ninu.”

She gave me a wry smile. “You’re incurable. Here, have more tuoko. It will help you let go of your worries.”

I drank, we talked a little more, and then sleep overtook me.

***

It should’ve been an ordinary morning, but it didn’t feel like one. My body awakened slowly, as if I were underwater trying to fight my way through the blue, my eyelids refusing to open at first. When they finally did, the light was too bright: I must’ve slept into the afternoon. Tuoko, I thought to myself, too much of a good thing will do this to you: you will slumber like a baby, you will have the sweetest dreams of all, and you will wake up with the feeling of having been hit on the head with a big and dusty sack.

There was only one problem with this theory: even after a couple of minutes, I still could not move my limbs.

My wife entered the room. Quickly she took something from the table by the bed and then put it with a few other things into her travel bag.

“Ninu… Can’t move,” I croaked.

She paid no attention, she didn’t even turn to look in my direction. Her movements appeared mundane, as if nothing had happened, and I simply wasn’t in the room with her. I had this recurring dream in my youth of being locked behind a mirror; I would see my family and friends on the other side, and all they needed to do was break the polished copper surface. But unlike me, they only saw their reflections.

I realized that the thing my wife took from the table was the card with my latest numbers, the ones the Teekaleenon likened to a disease. A sudden whiplash of fear must have brought me to my senses a bit, at least speech-wise.

“Ninu, please, please. For the love of Sun, what are you doing?”

She straightened up and finally looked at me. I realized an incredibly bad thing had happened, because the foreign reflection I sometimes noticed in her gaze was now filling her eyes completely; a little more, and it would spill on the floor.

“Don’t you know who I am?”

Suddenly, all the pieces fell together.

“You are a Teekaleenon!” I exhaled.

She just kept staring at me.

“But how? They are so huge, and you are so…”

“It’s a syndrome… an illness a few of us are born with.” She smiled wryly.

Seeing that I didn’t understand, she elaborated:

“One of us at some point in the past lay with one of you. Just as we’ve been doing all these years, only in the former case, an offspring was produced. We all carry a little bit of that union inside us, so every now and then…” She pointed at herself.

A long pause followed, because I had absolutely nothing to say to her at that moment, and she was clearly expecting a reaction.

“Makes it easy to hide, to blend in,” she continued at last. “I’d been sent to spy on our people, but then I saw you at the workshop. You weren’t even a junior numberer, and yet you did this wonderful thing with two automata…”

Something salty touched my lips—I began crying. Her face slightly twitched.

“And I realized there was… I don’t know, a kind of greatness to you. I suspected you would eventually come up with something I could use. And then I fell in love with you.”

She said all that, the beautiful things and the horrible things, in one breath, never even changing the tone of her voice.

“Why are you doing this?” I asked.

She questioningly pointed at her chest.

“No, I mean you as a group. Whomever you are with.”

“Not all of us act and think in the same way, although it may appear so to you,” she said. “Some of us do not believe in violence. Some of us do not deem it acceptable to level cities and whole valleys simply because the people living there express different beliefs. The weapon—the Tower—must be destroyed before it has the chance to fly. It will probably take the city with it.”

“But you will kill thousands.”

Her face twitched again, and then immediately hardened.

“Some will escape. And a lot more people will perish, ours and yours alike, if the weapon flies. Many will die in other places… instantaneously.”

It was clear the conversation was over. She went to the door. There, she hesitated and half-turned to me.

“I love you, Sin-ili. I gave you a triple dose of tuoko yesterday, but it will wear off soon. After that, please, for the love of Sun, run as fast as you can. And don’t look back. This is important, Sin-ili. Don’t look back. Just run.”

***

I did as she told me, only I ran in the opposite direction. When tuoko finally let go of my limbs, there were already voices and racket outside; the gusting wind through the open window brought in a bitter taste of smoke. I rolled off the bed and tried to rise, unsuccessfully at first. After a couple more attempts, I managed to pull myself off the floor using the edge of the bed as a prop. Once I was standing, moving became easier.

The streets were a mess. People were running towards me—away from the Tower, and I kept stumbling over sacks and bags. At one point I heard a booming sound, and an airship slowly rose from behind a building to the left. Roof tiles rained down upon the pavement.

When I finally reached the Tower, fires burned everywhere. If a primitive man gazed upon the scene, he would see strange human shapes moving amidst the gusts of smoke, bumping into each other, unable to communicate. He would probably think God had confused their tongues. But I wasn’t a primitive man, and that made the picture I witnessed all the more tragic. It didn’t take long to guess what had happened here: my prized invention turned every single automaton at the Tower into a mindless construct, quickly and effectively. Ninu must have altered the card she took from me, nudging a number here, removing a number there, rendering the useful commands the automata were supposed to share among themselves completely inane. You don’t need to be a numberer to spoil someone else’s writing; it’s as easy as it gets. And, with no one to tend to it, the fire inside the Tower must have gotten out.

I rushed to the numbering machine. I had to at least try to reverse the damage my wife had caused with my own writing.

It was all a fool’s errand, of course. I realized at first glance that the Tower, and Babylon with it, was doomed; and yet I still frantically typed in the numbers, clinging to what had been my life for the past six years.

There was the sound of an airship landing outside, and at the same time something cracked in the tent behind my back. An invisible force threw me at the numbering machine, toppling us both onto the floor, and a low hum filled my ears. Trying to shake it off, I rose on all fours and looked at the screen. It remained indifferently black. Delirious, I began hammering at the machine with my fists, crying for it to come back to life.

Huge hands pulled me away from the dead screen, from the tent, and into unconsciousness.

When I woke, I found myself sitting in a chair that was definitely too big for me. Glyph-spangled panels covered the walls, and small spheres lined up on the ceiling, emitting an even light. It took me a minute to realize that I was inside the Teekaleena airship. There was a window, and I peeked out; we soared high above the desert, making increasingly large circles around the city and the Tower, slowly crawling up the firmament.

I kept looking as a second sun rose over Babylon, and then I didn’t see anything anymore. I screamed, but the constant hum in my ears I still hadn’t been able to shake off drowned out all the sounds. Then, after a time, lightness filled my body. I fell back on my chair and deeper, into nothingness.

***

The sound of sea waves was fading in the distance. Why do I hear the sea, I thought to myself, I’ve only seen it once, as a child… I tried opening my eyes, and realised they were already open: I was blind. Strange, but there was no pain, only numbness in and around the eyelids—a sensation that reminded me of tuoko. They had given me something, maybe out of pity, or maybe because they couldn’t stand to see a small man curled up on his seat, crying like a baby.

Voices gently filled my ears.

“Why did he look? I shouted for him to turn away…”

“He had a concussion, sister,” a sad baritone responded. “His nose is bleeding, see? The fool had been working at the numbering machine when the power generator blew in his face. He’s lucky to have his head in one piece.”

“Oh Sun… Can we do anything for him?”

“Well, we’re going to the station anyway, I’ll let my doctors examine him there. But please understand, sister, I’m only doing this because he seems important to you. Are you crying?”

“Will I be able to visit him?”

“I’m here, Ninu.” Saying this took a lot of effort. “Don’t talk like I’m not here.”

There was a gasp and a drumming of footsteps.

“Sin-ili, Sin-ili…” Ninu touched my face. “We’ll heal you, don’t worry, we can do wonders…”

She sounded as if she wanted to convince herself as much as me.

“Thirty seconds to acceleration,” an indifferent metallic voice announced.

“I have to go,” Ninu said. “I love you.”

Her hand slipped from mine, and an invisible force pressed me into my seat.

Weary minutes passed, and I began to die. My world was still filled with sounds—the hum of the engines, somebody speaking quietly—but I could no longer sense the weight of my own body.

It was then that I finally understood. I thought I was being punished for my sins when my wife had betrayed me, or when my life’s work had been taken away from me; but the universe doesn’t function in such convoluted ways. I was dying simply because there was no place for me where they were headed.

“Orbital velocity achieved,” the same metallic voice declared, and I tried to forget everything but the feeling of Ninu’s hands on my face.

Who knows, perhaps the universe would falter this time.