Persephone, Traveling

by Briar Ripley Page


Persephone’s first appearance in HyphenPunk can be read here.


Persephone, traveling off-world for the first time, thinks about death as her metal-and-plastic body floats against the restraining belts. Robots don’t need to sleep and Persephone is making her flight from Mars in the cargo hold, so there’s nothing for her to do except think. It’s slow thinking to conserve her energy and save her processors from overwork, but she’s got months in space.

Death is strange to contemplate. Persephone is ten or eleven, which is remarkably old for most kinds of robot. Her model’s been obsolete for seven years, and her former owner meant to have her recycled. Instead, Persephone fled to the Martian streets to try making her way independently. A little rebellion, an impulse that doesn’t quite make sense to her even now. Robots aren’t technically “alive”, so of course they can’t “die”. Still, something almost like the human terror of death moved Persephone to escape the recycling plant, even though it meant a harsh, useless existence in red dust storms and squalor. She recoiled from the idea of not-being.

Persephone’s only friend, the mechanic Jacinda, had been old for a human. Persephone was barely aware of this before the woman died. Human age had never been relevant to Persephone before, and Jacinda never spoke or behaved as though she was winding down. But one day she was gone from her shop when Persephone arrived for some spare parts and minor repairs, and in her place was a tall, sleek nonhumanoid robot with several arms and a silver face.

It scanned her with a beam of flickering silver-white light. “Model 02351, modified, pink and rose-gold accents, gynoid body plan. Confirmed.”

“What do you want? Where is Jacinda?”

“Are you the decommissioned companionship robot known as ‘Persephone’?” it asked in a soft, monotone voice.

In fact, only Jacinda ever called her Persephone. She nodded anyway. It was the one real name she’d ever had. “Affirmative.”

“Ms. Jacinda Kite is deceased as of yesterday. In accordance with her will, you are to be given one third of her savings and this letter.” The other robot pulled an envelope from somewhere inside its cylindrical abdomen and held it out to Persephone.

“She’s dead? How did she die?”

The silver face rippled with internal calculation. “Natural causes. Jacinda Kite was eighty-two years old. I do not know her exact cause of death, but statistically it was most likely a heart attack or a stroke.” The many arms folded. The robot hummed. “Condolences for your loss.”

“No need,” said Persephone. She wasn’t sure what a stroke was, but she understood enough. “If she completed her natural lifespan, there’s no reason for sorrow. And I am only a robot, like you.” Persephone felt tired, suddenly, more run down and in need of repair than before. “I require some maintenance, which Jacinda usually performed. Had she any apprentice or assistant? I brought things I can trade.”

More silver rippling; more low humming. “I will fetch someone to help you. In the meantime, I suggest you read Ms. Kite’s letter.”

Persephone opened the envelope and unfolded a thick sheet of rough, gray, multiply-recycled paper. It was covered in Jacinda’s scratchy handwriting. The letter said:

Dear Persephone,

If you’re reading this, it means I’ve gone. I hope you don’t take it too hard. If there’s a life after this one, know I’m watching over you.

Im not a wealthy woman, but Im not a poor one, either. Ive saved money over the years, and Id like to give some of it to you. I consider you a friend, and I worry about your welfare. Its difficult to be an un-owned robot on Mars.

While I cant dictate what you do with your inheritance, I suggest you buy passage on a ship and travel to the Free Lunar Territories. Many of Lunas communities treat robots as people with rights and dignity. Some are even composed mostly of robots, or run by robots. You can find your people on Earths moon. You can find safety. Perhaps you can even learn to repair yourself. What is left for you here?

Consider it.

Your friend, always,

Jacinda

In the cargo hold, Persephone floats in darkness and wonders what a human feels when her heart stops beating. Is it painful? Is there panic, confusion? Is there nothing but a sudden blankness, the lack-of-self Persephone experiences when she’s temporarily shut down? Do humans really have some intangible essence that can think and act after their bodies cease to function?

Persephone doubts it. A human may be more than a machine, but a human is not more than her bodymind. Jacinda has ceased to exist. That’s the only logical, scientifically sound conclusion. But Persephone cannot help imagining what it might be like to perceive some faint, warm trace of Jacinda in the cargo hold with her, to feel Jacinda the way she feels the network of wires in the walls, humming and transmitting electrical impulses just outside the threshold of her ability to connect.

Persephone hasn’t always had an imagination. That’s a human trait, one she picked up in the stolen, lonely years of her fugitive existence. Perhaps she caught it off Jacinda, somehow.

The ship docks at Mare Crisium Station. Persephone, leaving the hold, cannot make sense of the sudden sensory onslaught. She’s been floating so long in the dark amidst luggage and crates full of Martian exports. Now she’s in a bright, busy terminal. Humans jostle her from all sides, showing warm and full of electricity on her sensors. Their vitals fluctuate. Their voices boom and scrape at her synthetic nerves. Their bodies are a flurry of soft, inchoate shapes. Persephone stumbles to a slick glasslike bench and sits heavily down upon it. She needs to recalibrate or she’s in danger of falling, getting trampled.

There’s a charge-port on the side of the bench. She attaches her plug to it; the influx of energy makes it easier to get her bearings. It surges through her body in reassuring, faintly pleasurable pulses.

Persephone looks around. Mare Crisium doesn’t seem as different from Mars as she’d hoped. The shining Earth hanging in blackness outside the station’s large windows is exotic, but the terminal’s interior is much like that of the terminal where Persephone boarded her first ship. The design is sleek and bland and streamlined, not quite contemporary. The fashions in human clothing are likewise familiar, but passé by big city Martian standards. There are more outdated robots walking around than Persephone is used to seeing on Mars. She has trouble telling which are accompanied by humans, which belong to the station, and which are, perhaps, independent like her. No one is giving Persephone an accusatory stare or coming to question her about her lack of a human chaperone. That’s something new, at least.

When she’s fully charged, Persephone buys her ground shuttle ticket from a robot of her own model. He has silver-blue accents and is shaped to resemble a human man; his outer skin is mostly pale, but it has patches that are darker like Persephone’s. It’s been torn or worn through many times. His face, however, is identical to hers: uncannily pretty, doll-like, made to appeal and seduce.

“You’re a 02351,” Persephone says, surprised. “How did you come to be here?”

“My name is Ivan. I asked for a job, and the stationmasters provided me with one.” Where Persephone’s voice is sexless and monotone, with an unmistakably digital crunch on certain syllables, Ivan has a pleasant, human-sounding tenor. Persephone wonders who he got it from, and when he upgraded.

Ivan gives Persephone a wafer-thin piece of flexible material, printed with her ticket information. “Going to Seafoam, I see. One of the better communes. That’s a nice place for people like us.”

Were not people, Persephone thinks. The ticket is translucent. It makes lovely wobbling sounds when she waves it through the air. “What is this? We don’t have these on Mars.”

“Mostly cellulose. Easy to recycle, easy to make. It’s not as practical as a digital ticket in some respects, but the stationmasters have strong feelings about the value of physical objects. Symbols and signs.” Ivan smiles, the way a human would. It doesn’t even seem forced. “They’re a lot like the Seafoamites that way.”

“I like it, I think.” Persephone slides the ticket into one of her thigh compartments. “Where do I catch the Mare Spumans shuttle?”

Ivan points her in the right direction. Persephone is glad to leave his ticket booth behind. His presence was beginning to create unsettling thoughts. How can a robot be so un-robotlike? Persephone’s not sure if it’s awe-inspiring or completely disgraceful. Perhaps it’s both.

The Mare Spumans shuttle isn’t crowded. Just a dozen humans and even fewer robots. Persephone has plenty of space to herself on the long bench, which is very similar to the benches in Mare Crisium Station but with the addition of seatbelts. Travelers can see through curved portholes in the walls and ceiling of the shuttle, so Persephone spends the journey observing the landscape as it rushes past. Unlike Mars, Luna hasn’t been terraformed. All the settlements exist within protective domes that bubble up from the pale, rocky ground in ones and twos and tightly clustered multitudes past the horizon. The stars seem brighter than they do on Mars, and they burn steadily, untwinkling. The Earth is blue, green, brown, white. It glows like it has its own light inside, though this is, of course, an illusion.

It occurs to Persephone that she doesn’t know if Jacinda ever went off-planet. Perhaps she knew Luna from personal experience. Perhaps she rode this same shuttle, once, or one much like it, and looked out on the same bubbled, Earth-lit world.

Persephone feels uneasy imagining it. It does something to her, makes her feel bad and good at the same time to think of Jacinda here long ago, without her, and not here with her now. To think of how little she ever bothered to learn about Jacinda’s past. Foolishness, of course. Why would she ever need to know about Jacinda’s past? What reason had she to think it would ever become relevant?

Still, Persephone wishes she had asked her friend more questions. Jacinda always asked Persephone things while she repaired her damaged wires, joints, processors. How was your week? Where did you get this fruit you brought to trade? Youve been reading? Whats your favorite book? Do you need a place to stay?

Persephone didn’t always answer the questions, but in thinking about them she came to know herself a little better. Presumably Jacinda came to know her better, too. Presumably that’s why one asks questions of a friend. The increased knowledge of someone you feel fondly towards is its own good.

Persephone is the only passenger to disembark at the sprawl of smallish bubbles that is Seafoam. Solar panels and an array of machinery Persephone doesn’t recognize decorate the domes’ sides like armor, or metallic fungus. The entry tunnel to the colony is long, narrow, and austere. Persephone presses an intercom button beside the heavy, sealed door at the tunnel’s terminus.

“Hello?” she says, suddenly uncertain. “I’m Persephone, a 03251 companionship robot from Mars. I’ve been on my own for a while now, and I was told your community might have a place for me.”

A long silence. Persephone isn’t sure if anyone’s heard her. Then, a buzzing over the intercom.

“Please enter,” says a distorted voice. “Welcome to Seafoam.” The door opens with a hiss, and Persephone steps through it.

A decontamination chamber, another short tunnel, a thinner, lighter door. The intercom voice tells her when to enter each. At the end, Persephone stands in Seafoam proper, a vast space full of housing towers, gardens, clean silvery streets thronged with robots and a handful of humans going about their business. The sky is a pale, artificial lavender. It’s “daytime”. Before Persephone stands the intercom voice’s owner.

“Welcome, Persephone,” it says. “You can call me Orphan. I do not care to be referred to by male or female pronouns.”

Persephone is surprised. It never occurred to her that a robot like Orphan could use human gendered pronouns. Orphan is ten feet tall, insectoid, multi-armed and spindly like the robot that told Persephone of Jacinda’s death. It has no head, but there are eye-sensors jutting out of its torso on long, flexible stalks. The eyes are round and black, whimsically surrounded with fake eyelashes. The eyes examine Persephone from opposite sides.

“You’ve been through a lot,” Orphan observes. Its words come out of a speaker set right in the middle of its thin chest. “Are these repairs your own work?”

“No. I had a friend who was a mechanic. I’d trade her fruit I…” Persephone trips on the word “stole”, although it is accurate, “scavenged from the Martian orchards in exchange for maintenance. But I would like to learn to fix myself, if anyone has the time to teach me.”

“That can be arranged.” Orphan makes a series of clicks and whirrs. “We’ll find you a work placement soon. For now, I’ll take you to Zeno. It’s a Seafoam tradition that everyone spends their first twenty-four hours with him. A good litmus test for whether you’ll fit in here.”

“Zeno?”

“He’s…a priest, of sorts.”

“A robot priest?”

Orphan doesn’t reply with any clarification. It beckons Persephone to follow with one of its long arms. They walk down the broadest street together, past more kinds of robots than Persephone has ever seen, let alone seen in one place. The humans among them mingle freely, talking and haggling with the robots as though they’re equals, as though they’re all just people. A small mascot robot shaped like a cartoon animal of some kind is painting a mural on the wall of a building: an intricate series of interconnected geometric shapes in precisely contrasting colors. It’s very pleasing to Persephone, if more than a little startling. She has never heard of a robot making art before.

“Elphira,” says Orphan, noticing where Persephone’s attention is drawn. “They belonged to a Martian theme park, once. Now, they paint and sing for themself, and for all of us.”

“I see.” It’s a little difficult for Persephone to keep up with Orphan’s stilt -like strides. Although she can feel no pain, she’s uncomfortably aware of the creaking complaint her joints make when she moves too fast. It would be terribly inconvenient for her to fall apart on her first day in Seafoam. Would they let her stay if her legs suddenly gave out and she became worthless for work?

They turn down a smaller side road, and then down another. Persephone senses they’re moving closer to the center of the dome city, into Seafoam’s heart. They walk alongside networks of clear tubes filled with rushing fluids. They’re like veins, Persephone thinks. She isn’t sure what chemicals serve as their blood. (Jacinda would probably know; if only she were here!) A tendril of vine studded with wide white flowers falls from a building’s upper window. Tiny metal bees drone lazily through the air.

At the end of the current street, there’s a relatively large open space. A rough oval of pavement with a shallow pool at its center. The pool is filled with floating plants. It even has what looks like a real frog sitting on its stone lip. Beside the pool, there’s a tent made of shiny purple material.

Orphan crouches beside the tent and knocks gently on its side.

“Zeno,” it says, “I have someone new for you to meet.”

“I’m coming!” says a voice that sounds extremely human to Persephone. Two human-looking hands push through the tent flaps and throw them aside. Then Zeno steps into the lavender-tinged false daylight, and Persephone feels real shock for the first time.

Zeno isn’t human after all. Zeno’s not a robot, either. Instead, Zeno is a mixture of the two, a…Persephone’s mind gropes for the word a moment…a cyborg. The brown skin of his face and arms, human to all appearances, is patched with obvious synthetic hide in places, studded here and there with wires and ports and tubes. He has a metal plate shining on one side of his shaved head. He’s wearing a loose, lacy black dress that ends in artistic tatters just below his knees. Persephone can see that his lower legs are entirely mechanical. They’re not even humanoid; they bend back the wrong way and stand on slender, treaded prongs like the feet of a strange bird.

There are a few cyborgs on Mars, but Persephone has never met one to her knowledge. Human Martians have an instinctual revulsion towards these creatures— once human too, now fused with and altered by cold machines and synthetic chemicals. Some even chose to become this way! Some flaunt their status with odd and obviously artificial new parts, the way Zeno does. As though it’s something to be proud of. Almost as though they aspire to be more like robots, of all things.

Persephone feels no revulsion, but she does find cyborgs confusing. And unsettling. Persephone thinks, sometimes, that she would give anything for some magic to make her a human woman. Like the puppet in that ancient folktale, Pinocchio. To be a robot is to be brief, disposable, always and ever less than. She doesn’t understand why a human would voluntarily take on any aspect of that existence.

“I’m Zeno,” says Zeno in his warm, human voice. “I use he/him pronouns.”

After a long moment, it becomes clear that Orphan isn’t going to make Persephone’s introduction for her.

“I’m Persephone,” she says. “Call me she and her. Unless, of course, you don’t want to.” Persephone has acquired the habit of referring to herself as a woman internally, but she knows others mostly don’t see her that way. She’s a gynoid, which isn’t quite the same thing. She’s an it.

“It doesn’t matter what I want, in this instance,” says Zeno. He turns to Orphan. “Feel free to leave us now, if you want to get back to your station.”

“Affirmative.” Orphan turns on its many limbs and strides away through the maze of Seafoam’s backstreets.

Zeno has one dark brown eye and one eye that’s pale green, white and iris alike. Its pupil is a small dot like a seed in the flesh of an unripe fruit. His arms are folded across his chest. He’s examining Persephone, and it should feel more awkward than it does. Persephone examines him right back.

She thinks he is significantly younger than Jacinda was, although probably not young even by human standards. He has acne scars all over his left cheek. He’s a head taller than her, but then, Persephone was built to be petite. Persephone’s experience with priests is extremely limited, but she doesn’t think Zeno looks like one.

“Well,” says Zeno at last, smiling slightly. “Welcome to Seafoam. Please, sit.” He taps the lip of the pool. It’s raised enough to make a comfortable low bench. “I want to read your cards.”

“My cards?” Persephone lowers herself onto the smooth stone.

“Fortune cards,” explains Zeno. He ducks back into his tent for a moment and emerges carrying a larger deck of game playing cards than Persephone has ever seen before. The backs of the cards are matte black, without the usual patterns. “They don’t tell your fortune, though, so much as they tell me about you. And tell you about you.”

“I don’t see how that’s possible.”

“You don’t have to.” Zeno perches on his metal haunches beside Persephone and fans the cards out in front of her. “Pick three, then turn them over one at a time. On the ledge beside you is fine.”

This is nonsense, although it’s admittedly different nonsense than the Martian religion with which Persephone has a passing acquaintance. She’d have thought a cyborg would be more rational. Still, she draws three cards— one from each end of the fan and one from the very middle, for symmetry— and turns the first face-up.

“The Tomb,” says Zeno. The card bears an illustration of a cloaked figure kneeling before a cave in the side of a hill. Everything is red dust desert, like on Mars. The entrance to the cave is mostly blocked by a boulder, but a limp hand has fallen out of a dark, open crack to rest on the ground. “This could mean you’re in a prolonged period of depression—”

“Robots aren’t capable of depression. Everyone knows that.”

Zeno makes a curious face. “A prolonged period of stasis, then. It could also mean you’re grieving a loved one.”

“Robots don’t grieve, either,” says Persephone. “But my friend died recently. She’s the one who told me to come here, and gave me the money to do it.” Jacinda would think Zeno’s cards were so silly. Persephone feels a heaviness within her that has nothing to do with her physical body. It’s like her consciousness is a lump of lead weighing her down.

“I wonder who told you robots don’t grieve,” says Zeno gently. “I know plenty of robots who do.”

Persephone largely avoided the company of other robots before coming to Seafoam. It wasn’t necessarily a conscious decision. It just didn’t seem that trying to socialize with them would be of any use. She says nothing. She doesn’t want to admit that to Zeno.

“Turn over the next card.”

This one depicts a sleek, long mammalian creature leaping through an arm of the Milky Way as though the stars are a river. The creature’s tongue flaps in the vacuum of space like a bright banner. Preposterous, unreal.

“The Light Hunter,” says Zeno. “You’re brave and persistent. You’re looking for a purpose and a source of joy, and you have the ability to find what you seek. You have a great capacity for love and wisdom.”

Persephone elects not to comment. She flips the last card over harder than she intends. “And this?”

On the front of the last card, a small, androgynous human wearing a strange costume and white face paint is hanging suspended in midair from a tangle of thorny vines. The vines are wrapped around their arms, legs, and neck. There are beads of blood where the thorns dig into their flesh. Despite this, they are smiling. But they are also shedding an over-large tear from the corner of one eye.

“The Innocent Encumbered.” Zeno seems oddly satisfied. “Yes, that makes sense. When it’s in the final position like this, it indicates that you’re getting in your own way. You’re in a difficult situation, and until you understand it and accept it for what it is, you’ll stay trapped. Or you’re making the trap for yourself, and the only thing keeping you from walking free now is your belief that you can’t.”

“I don’t believe in things. I reason.” But Persephone can see the cards’ relevance to her situation, even if it’s all in her own mind, all courtesy of her own capacity for pattern-matching. She wonders about the heaviness inside her. She wonders about robot grief, robot religion. “Jacinda— my friend— was an atheist. She was human, but she said one thing she admired about robots was our logic. Our imperviousness to wishful thinking.”

“There are types of wishful thinking that aren’t so bad,” says Zeno. He folds Persephone’s cards back into the deck and slips the deck into a hidden pocket of his dress. The frog is in the clear, shallow water of the pool now, swimming in circles. Persephone almost wants to touch it. But that might harm the frog, and her waterproofing is in questionable condition. She waits for Zeno to say more, to ask her about Jacinda, perhaps. If he does, she won’t give him the satisfaction of an answer.

Zeno is silent. His dark human eye and his green cyborg eye follow the frog, too. The cyborg eye makes a very quiet whirring noise as it moves in its socket and its pupil changes size.

“Jacinda took care of all my repairs from very early on,” says Persephone. “I was lucky to find her. I probably wouldn’t have lasted more than a couple of years otherwise, after I ran away from my owner. I’d trade her fruit I stole. Pomegranates, especially. That’s why she began calling me Persephone. My owner had a different name for me, but I hated it.” She shifts and looks around the square. A human woman is singing as she hangs laundry on a line. Other than that, there’s nobody except her and Zeno.

“That person over there,” Persephone gestures. “Jacinda had crinkly gray hair like her. She was big like her, too. But her voice was low and raspy. Almost like a robot’s, sometimes. I think I’m beginning to forget what her face looked like. I’ve never retained human faces well.”

“You miss her.”

“I’ve never missed anyone before. I’ve never outlived anyone before. I didn’t think I would.”

“What would you tell Jacinda if she were here now?”

Persephone thinks for a long time. The frog makes small noises as it swims. The woman hanging laundry is singing an old song about Luna, back when it was simply “the moon”. When it was a symbol of love and loneliness.

“It’s not so much that I want to tell her anything,” says Persephone, at last. “I just wish she were here. I wish I could believe in souls, or ghosts.”

“Your memory of her is here,” says Zeno. “That may be what you have to take comfort in.”

“And Orphan said you were a priest.”


Zeno laughs. “I’m not, really. I’m not quite sure what I am.”

Persephone decides to smile. Persephone decides she might like Zeno, a little. “That makes two of us.”

“There are more than two. You’ll like Seafoam, I think, if you decide to stay.”

“Jacinda thought so, too. She was usually right.”

“Must’ve been some lady.”

“Yes.” Persephone looks up at the artificial lilac sky, as though she can see through it to the endless stars. She imagines she can. She imagines Jacinda up there, a constellation made of vast expanses and tiny points of ancient light. “Yes, she was.”

And Persephone tells Zeno stories about her lost friend until there are no more stories and the dome grows dark.


Briar Ripley Page is the author of Corrupted Vessels, a surreal Southern Gothic novella from swallow::tale press, and Body After Body, a self-published dystopian erotic body horror novel. Briar is currently in the process of moving from the US to the UK, but can always be found online at briarripleypage.xyz.

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