A Map of the Sky

They were service animals, part turtle and part dove. They voyaged into regions that the Roma-Greeks hadn't yet put their signature upon. In their bodies, they recorded the precise distances between alpha and beta, psi and omega. Their brains clicked, clicked. They assimilated landmarks-even the seemingly insignificant ones-using the combined acuity of reptile and bird.

When the animals returned to Roma-Greece, the cartographers dissected out the measurements. (A robust specimen would survive this surgery, and, stitched up again, could be sent out on many subsequent missions.) With little knives, they teased out the ideograms, then scrubbed them in an abrasive liquor, until they became crisp and easily deciphered. Then they copied them.

With these data, the cartographers built the maps. To each significant feature, they appended a proprietary label, aimed at the glory of Roma-Greece. Rivers became Emperors, seas became Gods, forests became Philosophers, and mountains became Giants and Monsters.

The cartographers also controlled the animals' breeding. Goals were set, aimed at augmenting what was presently good in the animals. Stronger, for instance. Or more discerning. Or with more aerodynamically tapered heads.

The bulk of the breeding work was, however, performed by lesser persons. Farmers and hatchery-nurses assigned copulatory pairs. They also inspected the eggs after they were laid. Each cycle, they eliminated specimens with undesirable characters-often simply by cracking the shells and eating the contents. They returned the other eggs, either to warm beneath their parents, or to be covered up with sand and left alone, depending on the breed.

These efforts, distributed across all of the borderland towers, over many centuries, created many breeds. Each was suited to a different kind of reconnaissance.

The aerial varieties, for example, were predominately dove. They were petite and winged and two-legged, and their feathers were only subtly interspersed with sections of reptilian scale. Their brains, though, had a turtle-based core. They were slow, steady, and inexorably focused upon the task of recording.

The aquatic varieties, by contrast, were predominately turtle. Their swimming forelimbs were reptilian, and their backs were shelled. Their necks, though, were equipped with several long feathers, which could be flared out or flattened, in order to rapidly adjust speed. They also had beaks, which were adapted to penetrate vegetative obstacles, or to fight sea monsters.

Other varieties, which trundled up mountainsides, or loped across deserts, were more equitable mixtures. Their shells and thick feet gave them physical protection, and their air-adapted forelimbs enabled long glides.

The turtle-doves gathered the data; the cartographers transcribed it. Next, the completed maps went to the generals, pre-labeled in anticipation of a Roma-Greek victory. Afterwards, the soldiers marched in, completing the occupation, as a kind of formality. Just a few steps behind, the merchants trailed, bearing the Emperor's coin. Then the architects. Then the agriculturalists. Finally came the linguists, speaking very loudly and using deliberately infectious turns of phrase, with the intent of annihilating the native language.

Within a short time, the new area became Roma-Greece, another province within it. In the soil, aged artifacts were implanted, with a classical nostalgia falsely attached to them. The birthplaces of certain great Roma-Greeks were reallocated there, together with the native pride at having birthed them. Convoluted pseudo-histories were written, resetting the area's history, deep into the past. It was, in the end, as if the locale had been forever so: as essential-as irreplaceable-as the very heart of the Empire.

This new identity was also marked with long earth furrows, set in the countryside. These were embedded with the same crops, and watered by a continuous irrigation system, which extended for thousands of miles. They articulated proudly, by means of grain and fruit: "We are Roma-Greece."

For many centuries, this process worked perfectly. The turtle-doves advanced, then retreated, the cartographers scribbled, and then the soldiers were dispatched.

Eventually, though, there were anomalies. Turtle-doves, on reconnaissance, would collide head-on with additional teams of turtle-doves, which seemed to be engaged in some equivalent mission. When they returned, they brought ideograms of what seemed to be crop furrows or other oddly familiar quirks of landscape. The cartographers, hesitant, would give these some ambiguous label, not prepared to accept them for what they were.

When the soldiers advanced, these abnormalities became more striking. The natives of the region, pleading for their lives, energetically protested that they were Roma-Greek. They also held out the familiar currency, stamped with the head of the Emperor, both as proof and as an attempted pay-off. "Don't kill us!" they urged, in perfect Roma-Greek.

Sometimes-and this was probably the most disturbing part-the army would even encounter parties of convincingly uniformed Roma-Greek soldiers. These soldiers marched from the opposite direction. They mirrored their own war postures, and they spoke identical words of menace: "I will kill you."

For months-years-they struggled to understand it. One theory, which was briefly popular, held that the program of land assimilation had by this time been so perfected, that the very act of mapmaking-or the mere intention to do it-could, itself, create Roma-Greece. It was a delightfully patriotic idea. A minority, in consequence, would continue to favor it, even in the face of everything that came after.

Eventually, though, there was a different consensus, which the facts forced upon them. As curious as it might seem, the opposite edges of the Empire were identical. Or, rather: continuous. This, over time, led to the grudging acceptance of a cosmological model, which had been previously proposed but had never gained much traction. Roma-Greece was, in fact, a Sphere.

It didn't change everything. Within the Sphere, there were still mapping projects to complete: regions beneath the earth, for example, and at the bottom of the sea. Less suspense, however, now attended these projects, since the ultimate endpoints, on the other side, had already been defined. What remained was like a dish to be eaten: constrained, on all sides, by the plate and the eating knife and the crook of the eater's arm. It would be assimilated; that was inevitable.

In this new era, the only important boundary was the sky. Or, rather: the Sky. The logic of the New Geometry favored this direction of expansion: to swell, swell, as a sphere would do, if volume were added evenly in all directions. As if-imagine it-heated air were forced into a fabric composed of some yielding material, which would stretch and stretch, without ever breaking.

Before the New Geometry, astronomy had been a degraded profession. It was practiced by lesser persons, too foolish or ill-bred to have become real cartographers. Their star sketches were immature constructions, consisting of bright points, which had been spattered with an eye towards "Beauty." Or something. They gave no information about distance, and they suggested no strategy for assimilation.

Using these pictures, the astronomers of this early era made popular presentations. Behind them, they tacked up grubby bits of black parchment, upon which a great number of yellow circles had been sprinkled. Lines, drawn between these stars, formed unconvincing skeletons, over which different kinds of pictures might be overlaid. Of these, they might shout, "This is Pegasus!" Or: "This is Hercules!"

To augment their acts, some of these astronomers pretended to commune with prop "turtle-doves." Before great crowds, they threw up pigeons, which they'd outfitted in awkward vests, and studded with cheap jewelry. (Under torchlight, these accoutrements resembled turtle shells.) Others threw up literal stitchings together of a bird and reptile, which generally didn't survive the surgery. "Fly, my servants! Fly!" they cried, as they sent the fraudulent animals, or animal corpses, spinning through the air. Later, when the creatures flew back, or fell, after some supposed mission of reconnaissance, the astronomers would take them in their hands and whisper to them: "Yes, Yes, Yes..." It was a bit of theater that a true initiate would have recognized as ludicrous, but that a typical plebeian was inclined to see as soulful.

After the New Geometry, this degraded profession was reformed. The streets were cleared. Existing astronomers were demoted to street jugglers, or just imprisoned. To the cartographers' operational towers, new tools were exported. These included far-seeing glasses, which were shaped solely for function. (Not for theater.) Their exteriors were streamlined and tasteful, and their storage cases were stamped with the head of the Emperor.

To create new service animals, different cartographers took different approaches. Some decided to improve the existing mountaintop breeds, which could already function in thin air. Others chose to begin with the subterranean varieties, which had been bred to endure abrasive conditions.

Still others, having no specific strategy, simply mashed together whatever they could find. A few even imported feral populations of turtles and doves, which had long been excluded from the mating pools, with the intent of reintroducing lost variation. Much of this variation would, of course, turn out to be utter garbage, related to the irrelevant purpose of functioning as pure Turtles or as pure Doves. (Which was why, centuries ago, it had first been eliminated.) Some fraction of it, though, might conceivably be useful. There was a proverb, after all, which had been attributed to one of the duller contemporaries of Aristotle: "When one is at a loss, just try everything."

In the courtyards, outside of the cartographers' towers, many thousands of new breeding pairs were organized. Later, once the offspring matured, the cartographers' assistants evaluated them by throwing them star-wards. Up. Up. Up. This latter part, in some ways, resembled one of the demonstrations of the charlatan astronomers, except that it was more tedious.

The outcomes, of course, were always discouraging. Of all the new forms that were produced, most just couldn't make it. The airlessness made them dizzy, or interfered with the operation of their wings. At various positions within the barrier between sky and Sky, they swooned down.

Eventually, there was a breakthrough. A team of cartographical servants, frustrated by the tedium-or just very badly trained-decided to test the hatchlings much earlier. That is: before they hatched. Into the sky, they catapulted the freshly-laid eggs: some round, some oblong. They were partially aided by a fire-based technology, which had just begun to come into its own, when the Sphere-based wars of conquest had ended. Boom, Boom, Boom.

A few of these eggs returned intact. Or mostly intact. Later, when the hatchlings toddled out of them, they retained memories of their experiences...what little, that is, that the filter of the eggshell had permitted them to perceive. They remembered where the light had been intense and where it had seemed to fade. They remembered where, in collision, they might have sustained some injury, and what the feeling of impact might have implied about the material that caused it. Under the cartographers' dissections, they divulged everything.

It was a surprising advance. In light of it, most of the cartographers overhauled their operations. Eggs, eggs, eggs pelted the Sky.

This new investigatory strategy required a new kind of analysis. In it, the distribution of eggs that did not return to Roma-Greece was also regarded as informative. Their absence implied-assuredly-regions of great smashing hazard, lying in the directions into which these eggs had been launched.

The new maps, generated by this preliminary groping, were very simple. They had wide spots, labelled with uncertain adjectives, like "Bright" and "Deadly." In the first many decades, this information was insufficient to mobilize the soldiers. Unable to go forward, the armies instead made ornamental forays, which were ironically referred to as "triumphs." In long, slow paths, they circled the Sphere. March, march, march.

In the meantime, the service animals-or, rather, the service embryos-were optimized. Varieties that developed slowly and that could remain for longer periods in their protective sky-hulled egg sheaths were preferentially selected. Varieties in which, conversely, the development of the senses and the recording brain was accelerated with reference to the rest of the body were also selected. During reconnaissance missions, these embryos would be better able to see and to remember and afterwards be able to report.

A second revolutionary innovation, in the latter category, relied upon a predisposition to twinning. It was an accidental discovery. One clutch of eggs, sent out together, was, by chance, given to multiples. Many of the shells contained two embryos. During their missions, these embryo pairs could observe in two directions at once. Upon return, they gave notably better reports. Smarter, cleaner, and more thorough.

A few decades later, an additional sub-variety, derived from the first, was discovered. It produced a high frequency of conjoined twins. With extra encouragement, provided by a bit of alchemy, this occurrence could be brought to nearly 100%. When the angles were just perfect, the embryos were connected back to back and head to head. They shared a common, oblong skull and a single, commingled brain. Through this contact, they were able to coordinate their observations even more precisely. When they returned to the cartographers, their flesh contained a single, integrated report, obtained through two sets of eyes.

There had been a suggestion, early in the breed's development, of calling it "Castor-and-Pollux," after the twins of legend. In the ancient story, these twins had emerged from a single bird's egg, after Zeus, disguised as a swan, had raped their mother. In most versions, only Pollux had been Zeus' son and therefore immortal. Castor was the son of their mother's human husband, and should have died a mortal's death. The twins, however, had elected to remain together, diluting the burden of Castor's mortality, so that they might exist in the same state of half-life and half-death.

After the breed's next stage of development, the "Castor-and-Pollux" label stuck more firmly. In this new system, one of the conjoined turtle-dove twins, physically dead, dangled from shell's exterior, head facing out. Thus positioned, it plugged up the hole, so that the second twin, still alive, could remain safely inside. The first twin, being dead, was protected from any further death. At the same time, it borrowed a little from the second twin's life, to the extent that it could still see. Since its eyes were directly exposed to the light and black, rather than being diluted by shell, it provided much better observations than before. Cold, solid, precise. These were transduced into the brain of the living twin, who carefully recorded them, ready to report.

In the long term, death took the whole of each Castor-and-Pollux, rendering it non-functional. Necrosis from the first embryo seeped into the second. For the cartographers, it was important to time this death, so that it happened after the mission, rather than before. This inevitability, constrained, as it was, by the biology of real creatures, was unlike the legend.

For the most part, the mission-going Castor-and-Polluxes did not themselves reproduce. The journey killed-or mostly killed-them. Instead, the population was regenerated through same-parent siblings contained in other eggs. These remained in honored enclaves, close to the cartographers' towers. They mated and brooded, but barely ever ascended. Of the Sky, outside the boundary, they knew nothing at all.