Escape Pod 544: Only Human

Only Human

by Lavie Tidhar

There are four Three-times-Three Sisters in the House of Mirth, and five in the House of Heaven and Hell, and two in the House of Shelter. Four plus five plus two Three-by-Threes, and they represent one faction of the city.

You may have heard tales of the city of Polyphemus Port, on Titan, that moon of raging storms. First city on that lunar landscape, second oldest foothold of the Outer System, or so it is said, though who can tell, with the profusion of habitats in those faraway places of the solar system? A dome covers the city, but Polyport spreads underground – vertical development they called it, the old architects. And its tunnels reach far into the distance, linking to other settlements, small desolate towns on that wind-swept world, where majestic Saturn rises in the murky skies.

There are two Five-times-Six Sisters in the House of Forgetting, and five Eight-by-Eights in the House of Domicile. We who are a ones, and will one day be zeros, we cannot hope to understand the way of the Sisterhoods of Polyphemus Port, on Titan.

Understanding, as Ogko once said, is forgiveness.

Shereen was a cleaner in the House of Mirth in the day, and in the evening in the House of Domicile. It was a good, steady job. On Polyport all jobs connect to trade, to cargo. A thousand cults across space arise and fall around cargo. In the islands of the solar system cargo achieves mythical overtones, the ebb and flow of commerce across the inner and outer systems, of wild hagiratech from Jettisoned, best-grade hydroponics marijuana and raw materials from the belt, argumentative robots from the Galilean Republics, pop culture from Mars, weapons from Earth, anything and everything. Polyphemus Port services the cluster of habitats that circle Saturn, and links to the Galilean Republics on the four major moons of Jupiter. It links the inner system with the wild outposts of Pluto – with Dragon’s World on Hydra and Jettisoned on Charon, and the small but persistent human settlements beyond Saturn, in the dark echoey space that lies in between Uranus and Neptune.

People are strange in the Outer System, and the few Others, too, who make their homes there. Some say the Others, those digital intelligences bred long ago by St. Cohen in Earth’s first, primitive Breeding Grounds, have relocated en masse to the cold moons of the outer system, installing new Cores away from human habitation, but whether it is true or not, who can tell? Whatever the truth of all this is, it suffices to say that all jobs on Polyport, directly or indirectly, are linked with the business and worship of cargo, and that some jobs are always in demand.

Shereen apprenticed as a cleaner in the landing port beyond the city, a vast dust-bowl plane where RLVs like busy methane-breathing bees rise and fall from the surface to orbit, there to meet the incoming and outgoing space-going vessels to ferry people and cargo back and forth. She was seconded to Customs inspections slash Quarantine, scouring ships’ holds for unwanted passengers, the rodents and bacteria, fungus and von Neumann machines; from there she moved dome-side, abandoning her public sector job in favour of the private. She cleaned houses both above- and under-ground, until at last she settled on the dual work for the House of Mirth and the House of Domicile, a work associated, after all, with cargo and religion both.

It is said that Dragon, that enigmatic entity living on the moon Hydra, its body composed of millions of discarded battle dolls, had passed through Polyport on its way from Earth. If so, local historical documentation is nonexistent, and anecdotal evidence spurious. Nevertheless, an uncle of Shereen’s, a Guild-certified cleaner in his own right, used to tell the tale of Dragon’s arrival as though he had known it for truth.

In the story, Dragon’s Core, the hub of it, remained in orbit around Titan, carried as it were in a converted asteroid; and it trailed behind it kilometres-long lines of suspended second- and third-hand Vietnamese battle dolls, strung on wires; while Dragon manifested upon the streets of Polyport in a doll body of weathered humanoid form of little distinction. It was then, said Shereen’s uncle, that Dragon met the woman who had once been One-times-One, then One-times-Two, and was finally a Three-times-Three; but whose name had once been Haifa al-Sahara.

Did Dragon – who split itself across a million bodies – suggest to al-Sahara a similar possibility? Ask at the House of Mirth, or at the House of Forgetting, and you shall receive no answer. Yet whether it is felt the question too ridiculous to answer, or if, rather, there is a kernel of truth in it, the silence does not say.

Be that as it may. You can read more about the early history of the Houses in Sisters of Titan, by Hassan Sufjan, if you were so inclined or, of course, in Gidali’s classic novel, Three Times Three Is One (adapted by Phobos Studios into a lavish three-part production starring Sivan Shoshanim).

What’s important is that, at the time that Shereen was working at the Houses, trouble had been brewing for some time. And that, one day, a new novice came into service in the House of Mirth.

Or is that important? It was to Shereen, certainly, eventually. It was to the novice, too, whose name was Aliyah. How we assign importance depends on where we ourselves stand in the story. For Shereen, it was a moment of significance, the point in which light breaks through the transparent dome, and Saturn rises. Seeing Aliyah walk into the House of Mirth was like being thirsty, and then being given drink; like having been sick, and suddenly feeling better; and so on and so forth.

Aliyah came into the House of Mirth dressed in the modest jilaabah of the Sisters, in the plain black of the Noviates. Underneath it, Shereen knew, Aliyah would bear the scars and grafts of Noviatehood; while inside the filaments would be growing, burrowing under the skin and showing as fine blue lines under direct white light. Shereen was cleaning unobtrusively in the background. Robots could do some of the work, sure, but robots, or Others, were not welcome in the Houses of the Sisters. And humans were so much more… human. The Sisterhoods rejected the Way of Robot, and the ideal of Translation. They were, for whatever it’s worth, still human.

In a manner of speaking.

Underneath her head scarf, Shereen knew, Aliyah’s head would be shaven, misshaped by augmentation. Only her eyes could be seen, a startling, deep scarlet like the colour of the sky above the port. In her eyes were the storms of Titan. Perhaps it was then that Shereen fell in love. Or perhaps love is merely the illusion of body chemistry and brain software with deep-embedded evolutionary instincts. Though that hardly sounds very romantic.

The poet-traveller Bashō, who had visited Titan, once wrote:

Laf hemi wan samting

I no semak

Ol narafala samting

Which translates, from the Asteroid Pidgin, as: Love is one thing / that is not like / any other thing, and which is as unhelpful as Bashō ever got.

Their eyes met across a crowded room…

Though it was not crowded, and that first time Aliyah barely saw Shereen, only perhaps as a reflection in a shiny surface. It is easy to unsee cleaners, they walk like shadows, they are unobtrusive by training.

Shereen, then, watched as Aliyah arrived; and as she was ushered in to the inner sanctum by the Three-times-Three. And she brooded.

It was – as has been mentioned – a time of tensions in Polyphemus Port. The reasons are arcane and somewhat boring. It could be argued that Three-times-Three is the most stable form of Sisterhood, a linked network, nine minds all linked and working in parallel on a perfect grid.

But there were, at the time, as we’ve said, other forms. The asymmetrical Five-times-Sixes of the House of Forgetting, and the Eight-times-Eights of the House of Domicile – the largest Sisterhood on Titan. And these joined forces – politically speaking – against the older and more established Three-times-Three Sisters of Mirth, Shelter and the House of Heaven and Hell.

There is a lot of politics in the solar system. There is the corporate rule of most of the asteroid belt; the mellow capitalism of such old-established settlements like Tong Yun or Lunar Port; the socialism of the Martian Kibbutzim, or the despotic rule of dozens of obscure space habitats. There is the mind-meld democracy of the Zion asteroid (which had since departed the solar system to destinations unknown), the libertarian anarchy of Jettisoned, the militarism that had led to the Jovean Wars in the Galilean Republics for a time, and so on, and so forth.

Titan was, nominally, one of those places with no clear system in place beyond the benign rule of machines; which is to say, autonomous systems kept the fragile balance of human lives functioning on an essentially hostile world, and the humans, robots, Others, Martian Re-Born, tentacle junkies, followers of Ogko and so on simply got on with whatever it was they were doing, most of which – as we’ve said – revolved around cargo.

The rise of the Sisterhoods, however, changed things. They were not exactly a religious order, though their business was the transport of cargo and thus assumed religious nature. They were a mixture of business and religion, then, human mind-melds functioning like digital intelligences, their component parts replaced as they grew old and died, but the basic mind kept on, gaining new perspectives and notions with each new cell of a Three-times-Three or a Five-Times-Six. In a world with few genuine Others, and only the occasional robot pilgrim on its way to or from the Robot Vatican on Mars, the Sisterhoods were near unique, and their power had risen as they assumed onto themselves new followers.

Against this background of rising tension, Shereen and Aliyah had fallen in love.


‘Oh… hello.’

‘I am Shereen. I clean here.’

‘My name is Aliyah. I’m a Novice.’

‘I can tell.’

‘Can you? I guess you can, at that.’

‘I saw you here, before.’

‘Yes, I saw you, too. I think.’

‘Did you?’

‘No, I suppose…’

‘Your eyes are very beautiful.’

‘Thank you. I’m sorry, I have the strangest feeling, as if we’d met before. There are things moving behind my eyes, at least it feels that way.’

‘How long do you have before Initiation?’

‘Twelve orbits to an Earth year of grafts and surgery.’

‘That’s terrible.’

‘It’s worth it. Or so they say. I would be a part of the Sisterhood. It’s a way of never really dying, isn’t it. Think about it, Haifa al-Sahara is still alive, in some form, in the Three-times-Three, and soon I will be a part of her, and she a part of me.’

‘Who’s to say if it is right not to die? Isn’t our humanity defined by our death?’

‘But which humanity? I’m sorry, I –’

‘You look flushed. Here, let me help you –’

‘It is probably the medication. Your hand feels so hot.’

‘Your brow is icy cold. Here, let me loosen your scarf.’

‘Thank you, I –’

‘I feel strange, sitting like this with you.’

‘No one can see us, can they?’

‘We are alone.’

‘Hold me. Shereen? Shereen.’

‘Aliyah. Aliyah?’

‘Yes. Yes.’


Things escalated when the Guild of Porters – swearing nominal allegiance to the House of Domicile – declared a general strike.

Without porters there can be no movement of cargo. Without cargo, Polyport and its adjacent settlements suffered. The House of Mirth sent its own people to replace the Porters, third-hand RLVs rising and falling from orbit. The strike turned violent. One of the RLVs crashed and burned in the violent atmosphere of the moon, and the scabs retired without grace. When at last the Porters went back to work the Cleaners went on strike. Beyond Polyport the nearest large settlement was El Quseir, on the other side of the moon. Now it threatened to rise in prominence as the Houses fought.

Human cells of each Sisterhood met to confer, and try to resolve the impasse. Shereen, cleaning, watched the meeting unobtrusively in the House of Domicile. The two women were almost sister-like – both short, dark haired, dark skinned, with violet eyes. Bare-headed, they were an amalgamation of protrusions and augs, their dark hair a mere fuzz on their shaven skulls. They spoke little in language, communicating somewhat by gestures but mostly in the high-bandwidth toktok of the Sisterhoods, which was both like and unlike the protocols of Others, the Toktok blong Narawan.

Their conversation in audio form, then, did not make much sense –


‘Times three, times four. Mirth –’ a raised finger. A shake of the head. ‘Port.’

‘Cargo. Flow.’



‘None –’ a face turned sideways, light falling on augs. ‘Impasse?’


Silence, two sets of violet eyes staring into each other. Shereen wiping the surface of a desk. ‘Loop.’




And depart, disengaging swiftly, the one Sister leaving the room, the House, the other remaining as its others joined her, a Quarter, Four-times-One of an Eight-times-Eight.

The rest of their conversation Shereen could not hear, they did not converse, they thought in parallel. Later, when she left…

Shereen lived on Level Two of Polyphemus Port. An old neighbourhood, dug-in about a century after first settlement. There were hydroponics gardens on that level, the lush vegetation that was everywhere in the humid, Earth-tropical weather of Polyport. Vines grew over the windows of Shereen’s bedroom. She lay in bed with Aliyah. It was late. Aliyah’s body was black and blue, bruised from her latest surgery. A One-times-Nine of one of the Sisters of the House of Mirth was ailing, dying. Aliyah would replace her, become a cell in the Three-times-Three. She was almost ready.

‘I can almost hear them, now,’ Aliyah said. Shereen ran her finger lightly down Aliyah’s spine, marvelling at the enforced skeleton that pressed against the delicate skin. ‘Whispering, at the edge of consciousness. It’s not quite a singular identity, not really, it’s more of a choir of voices, that merge into one. With old echoes, old voices weaving into the music. One day soon I will cease being a singular note, and become an orchestra.’

‘A part of an orchestra.’

‘Maybe. But at least I will keep on living, as sound, as one note in a perfect symphony.’

‘While mine will fade and die?’ Shereen said, wryly. Aliyah touched her face. ‘I did not mean…’ she said.

‘I know what you meant.’

Aliyah withdrew her hand. ‘I don’t want a fight,’ she said, softly.

‘Then don’t start one.’

They stared at each other in silence across the bed. Then: ‘I’m sorry,’ Shereen said.

‘No, I’m –’

Outside a mosque was calling the faithful to prayer; green cockatoos sang to each other across the tall spindly trees; a group of children ran down the corridor chasing a ball; inside the room it was dark; and nothing, for the moment, was resolved.

It was, essentially, a trade dispute.

Though what is trade if not religion, and what is religion if not commerce? It was, perhaps, first and foremost about prestige.

Old tensions rose to the lunar surface…

The Houses were never so crass as to engage in open warfare. A century earlier the so-called Format Wars erupted in Polyport. Who is to say a Three-times-Three is the perfect format, for instance, for a human network? It is linked on a grid. A single unit – a One-times-One – can operate independently when need be, at normal human capacity, but it can also link with two of its sisters, forming a One-times-Three linear triple processor. Those Trips can then link vertically and horizontally to form a grid, a perfect – so they say – unit, a true Sisterhood.

Haifa al-Sahara, or rather the Three-times-Three Sisterhood that had once contained the human once known by that name, argued for the perfection of the form. But others had ambition, and no such faith in the purity of her numbers.

The first Eight-times-Eight had founded the House of Domicile, and others soon followed. The Sisters of the House of Mirth argued the form was too cumbersome, processing ponderous, optimal operations sluggish at best.

And yet the Eight-times-Eights flourished, and the House of Domicile soon encompassed five Sisterhoods, of which it was said that they sometimes joined, in a grid of Five-times-Eight-times-Eight, a massive processing mind occupying some four stories of real estate, only one of which was above ground.

Obviously, the House of Domicile proclaimed its own superiority, and that – naturally – rankled with the House of Mirth, as the oldest and – up to that time – strongest of the newly-risen Houses and Sisterhoods. Then came the Sisterhoods of Odd, the Five-times-Sixes of the House of Forgetting, asymmetrical and strange, and they allied themselves with the House of Domicile’s Eight-times-Eights.

Two factions, then: the three houses of the Three-times-Threes, versus the other two houses and their multiplicity of Sisterhoods.

A century back, the rise of the Houses led to conflicts both within and without; over a period of some twenty years the Houses consolidated, accumulated followers and adherents, and finally rested in an uneasy peace.

That peace was now in danger of breaking, and thus unsettling Titanic society as a whole.

The Houses, therefore, sought a compromise…

It was late at night, in Shereen’s apartment. That special silence that comes with deep night, when even the birds sleep. When I-loops all across and down the city processed slowly, neural networks embedded in a grey mass within a bone skull, billions of neurons firing together into the illusion of an ‘I’, a ‘me’, all sinking, momentarily, into a dream or dreamless state, the one akin to hallucination, the other to death.

They had made love; the bedsheets clung to their skin with the sweat. A single candle burned on Shereen’s windowsill. Aliyah said, ‘The old cell, the One-times-One: her health is better.’

‘I see.’

‘You are happy?’

Shereen pulled herself up, the light from the candle threw shadows on the wall. ‘I don’t want you to become one of them,’ she said. The words cost her everything. Getting them out at last felt like a revelation. Aliyah laughed, softly. ‘Do you think I don’t know?’

‘Then why do you do it? Do you not love me?’

‘You know I do.’

‘Then why?’

‘Because I want to. I need to. Because there is more to life than you or me. I want to be a part of something bigger than either of us.’

‘But why?’ all the pain inside her came out in that voice.

‘I don’t know why,’ Aliyah said, but gently. That night she was very gentle, even her love-making was filled with care; it contrasted with Shereen’s urgency. ‘I just know.’

‘But they will not take you. Not the Three-times-Threes. Not when they have all their parts –’

‘Yes –’

‘What?’ Shereen said – demanded. Suspicion, hurt, in her eyes.

‘I have been going to the House of Domicile,’ Aliyah said quietly.

‘When?’ Shereen’s voice, too, was low. ‘I did not see you there.’

‘I know. I went when you were not working. I did not want to upset you.’

‘And now?’

‘You’re upset. We can talk about it in the morning.’

‘We can talk about it now.’

Aliyah sighed.

‘Why have you been going to the House of Domicile?’ That suspicion, again. ‘You want to join another Sisterhood?’

‘Not… exactly.’

‘Then what? I don’t –’

‘Don’t you?’

It was so quiet in the room. The candle fluttered in invisible wind from outside. ‘They won’t,’ Shereen said. ‘They can’t.’

Aliyah moved to her; Shereen moved away. ‘Don’t,’ she said.

‘They can. We can. Shereen –’


‘It is better that I do this. It is better than conflict. Better than war. We cannot afford it, not again, not so soon. Not the city, not the world. The Houses have too much power, now.’

‘It should never have come to that.’

‘What would you have instead? Others?’

‘People,’ Shereen said.

‘Oh, grow up, Shereen.’ She made as if to push back a lock of hair, then found that, of course, it wasn’t there. There was something innocent, human, about that gesture. At that moment Shereen couldn’t help but love her very much. ‘And we are people, too.’

‘Since when is it we?’ Shereen said; but she sounded defeated. ‘When?’ she said.


‘And they agree? Both of them?’

‘They agree to try.’

‘We would not see each other.’


‘Would you even know who I was?’

‘Of course I would. We would. You would always live on, Shereen. In my – in our – memory. Even when my body and yours are back in the ground, fertilisers of new life in the gardens.’

‘Trust you to bring the conversation back to death, and fertiliser?’ Shereen tried to laugh; it came out choked. ‘Were you always so obsessed with death?’

‘Not with death but with not dying,’ Aliyah said; her body shook, and it took Shereen a moment to realise she was crying.

‘Come here,’ she said, awkwardly. Aliyah came to her and nestled in Shereen’s arms. Shereen could feel her heart beating, inside the fragile, human frame of her. ‘Is it really so bad?’ she said, but even as she spoke, she knew it was futile; that Aliyah had already decided, decided long ago, perhaps; and that this was simply her choosing of a time to finally say goodbye.

The Initiation and the end of Aliyah’s Novitiate came some two weeks later, at a private ceremony in the House of Forgetting, which was historically the least affiliated – and the weakest – of the Houses. A Three-times-Three from the House of Mirth was there, and an Eight-times-Eight from the House of Domicile. And there, in between them, was Aliyah – dressed in a plain white shift, her head unscarfed and bare, the fine blue veins of filaments running underneath her translucent skin.

Shereen, too, was there – not as a guest, but unobtrusive, cleaning. She saw the Sisterhoods meet, half-heard as they conversed, aware of the high-bandwidth transfer of data around her, and the half-understood words, and subtle signals of physical signs. She daren’t watch too much, there was something in her eyes, it must have been the chemicals in the new cleaning fluid, its smell made it hard for her to breathe.

Aliyah shone brightly, like an angel. Light suffused her, it rose from her skin, from her eyes. The Houses could not fight and so they’d reached a compromise, a way of speaking which was a way of sharing: and a One-times-One became a point linking two networks, became a router and a hub, became a One-times-Eight-times-Eight-times-Three-times-Three, was cleaved in two; and spliced together.

When it was over there was no discernible sign; only the act of both Sisterhoods slowly departing, without words; only their hosts remaining, and the newest Sister, the one who belonged to two Sisterhoods, and had once known Shereen.

Shereen scrubbed the surface of the table, scrubbed it until its wooden surface shone. When she raised her head again even the host Sisters were gone; when she turned back to the surface of the table, she saw Aliyah, momentarily, reflected in it. She turned her head. Aliyah stood there, watching her. Shereen raised her hand. Her fingers brushed Aliyah’s cheek, the skin of her face. Aliyah bore it without words. Her eyes watched Shereen, and yet they didn’t see her. After a moment she inched her head, as if acknowledging, or settling, something. Then she, too, were gone.

There are four Three-times-Three Sisters in the House of Mirth, and five in the House of Heaven and Hell, and two in the House of Shelter. Four plus five plus two Three-by-Threes, and they represent one faction of the city.

There are two Five-time-Six Sisters in the House of Forgetting, and five Eight-by-Eights in the House of Domicile, and they represent a second faction of the city.

There is a bridge between them, now. An understanding, and cargo continues to come and go through Polyphemus Port. And Shereen who is a one, and will one day be zero, continues to work in the house of Mirth, and in the house of Domicile, and she watches the Sisters on their silent comings and goings; and she wonders, sometimes, of what could have been, and of what didn’t; but to do that is, after all, only human.

About the Author

Lavie Tidhar

Lavie Tidhar’s latest novel, Central Station, is out now to rave reviews. He is the author of the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize winning A Man Lies Dreaming, of the World Fantasy Award winning Osama, and many other books and short stories. He lives in London.

Find more by Lavie Tidhar


About the Narrator

Summer Brooks

Summer Brooks

Summer Brooks is a story addict who watches way too much television. She enjoys putting her encyclopedic knowledge to the test during discussions and interviews about scifi, horror and comics, and does so as the longtime host and producer of Slice of SciFi, and as co-host of The Babylon Podcast.

Summer also does voiceovers & narrations for Tales to Terrify, StarShipSofa and Escape Pod, among others, and is an avid reader and writer of science fiction, fantasy and thrillers, with a handful of publishing credits to her name. Next on her agenda is writing an urban fantasy tale, and a monster movie creature feature or two.

Find more by Summer Brooks

Summer Brooks