Cartographers by Benjamin Le Gros




Benjamin Le Gros

When the breeding programme began, mankind had only reached the nearest edges of our solar system. We hadn’t yet calculated the algorithms necessary to account for astral drift. We lost forty-three ships before Dr Schreiber’s breakthrough. The costs were staggering.


My first encounter with one of the cartographers happened over four years ago. They tell us not to look during basic. Don’t even peek, they say. I peeked. I stared. You see, the cartographers are kept naked, shrouded in semi-opaque plastic gowns. This is not what shocked me. Nor their leering, drooling toothlessness. Nor the smell. We are all forewarned of the cartographers’ frequent accidents. The scent of ammonia is home, is the nostalgic aroma of every flight deck in the fleet. Urinals conjure mixed emotions. No, rather, what set my spinal chord itching was their constant twitching and braying, restlessness and jerking, fingery shivering. I worried they might touch me, and wherever their fingers touch, their skin stays behind. Peels far too easily, their skin does. At regular intervals their keepers slather them from head to toe in petroleum jelly. I’ve seen it. We aren’t supposed to watch.


The keeper’s eyes are blank, sleepy. She’s careful not to look it in the eyes. Her hands work: toes, crevice and valley, arch of the foot, around the ankle, once, twice, three times, up and down the calf, up the shin, cupping the knee, top of the thigh, inner thigh, and onward. There’s a vacuum, an abyss that sucks all of the sexuality from the ritual, a mutual hatred that bonds the keepers and cartographers. That’s why the cartographers have no teeth. The scars from the removal process are horrific. Their mouths are left like the rock pools of terraformed Mars. This keeper is older than most. She has puckered scars on her face and arms from before removal became common practice.

When the ritual is over, she replaces its tubes. This cartographer has three: catheter, saline drip, monoamine oxidase. That’s how this whole thing works, monoamine oxidase, inhibition of REM sleep. The longer you manage to keep them awake, the more they tune into the drift. This one is better behaved than most. It doesn’t tug at its tubing. Though, it is missing the topmost portion of both index fingers, so it’s been disciplined at least twice. By contrast, its keeper’s hands are deft. She works assuredly, her hands moving with a practiced economy, in spite of their knuckly, twigish appearance. Then, abruptly, her cartographer stands. For a moment it just sways, bub-bub-bubbing quietly to itself. A few crew members brave a furtive glance. Their reward is the sight of it rubbing its nipples and dribbling. There’s blood mixed with the stringy saliva. Over to my right Tom is sniffing through quiet tears. He’s new. All the newbies cry. Or gag. Most can handle the smell or the sounds, but once they put a human face to them, they crack. He’ll get used to it. We all do. His mistake was peeking. The cartographer begins to haw like a donkey in pain, and the bag taped to its ankle fills with dark green urine, a sediment floating in the liquid making it look soupy. The cartographers are fed tablets only— a mix of what the body needs and no more.


There were protests at first. Dogooders (like ferrets or rats) will wiggle their way into all sorts of places they have no business being. Food prices had spiralled. Heavy taxes were introduced on the most basic of items. Fuel was already being rationed, and food followed soon after. Only the most privileged had constant electricity. The designated blackout hours were being extended every month. News of the programme’s abuses broke the camel’s back. People took to the streets. One red faced protestor made himself famous by shouting into a newscamera. His rant culminated in the words: “Your exploitation of mental illness will see you all in hell!”

The protests died away when antibiotic resistant strains of common illnesses started killing. Issues like the wellbeing of mentally ill citizens soon evaporate into thin air when your neighbour, or your auntie, or your daughter dies from a disease that should be easily cured. Doors and windows began to be boarded up. Ordinary people armed themselves. One morning there were tanks on the streets. There wasn’t any violence, just confusion. The snowglobe of suburbia had been given a pretty vicious shake. Some hid away, stockpiled tinned goods. Some formed into groups. Soon a gridlocked snake of traffic could be seen winding its way out of every town and city. Camping stores made a fortune. Some folk wanted an election. They didn’t know what they actually wanted; they did know they were entitled to a say in whatever happened; besides, they had the overwhelming urge to vote. “How did this happen?” they asked. “Where did all of our natural resources go?” they demanded to know. In amongst this chorus of indecision and indignation, the programme took its next step. By this point, there were already ships in orbit, tin-cans floating far above, waiting. Technology already existed to accelerate the tin-cans to twice the speed of light. None of the computers could keep up with the maths required. The algorithms were too complex, too fluid, the drift too malleable.


The programme began without official government backing. Before the programme was uncovered, before the protests, it consisted of a group of doctors testing unsuspecting new mothers. Those who carried the specific gene-flaw for Down syndrome were given a chemical shove. Essential immunisation, they were told. The doctors always chose poorer individuals. The poor asked fewer questions. And they were more likely to breed again.

The original intention was to engineer individuals who could assimilate information and make decisions in a split second. The Ministry of Defence funded the initial research, covertly of course. At this point, up in the sky, there’d been six crashes: six tin cans obliterated by unaccounted variances in the drift, all souls lost. And then Dr Schreiber published his paper. All this was before the farms.


Every ship carries two cartographers, to cover for illness, or lubricating, or feeding. The cartographers are fed at two-hourly intervals. The tablets foam in contact with saliva. Often the keepers will work in tandem.


The cartographer’s arms and legs are strapped to its seat. The bonds are leather, the buckles steel – a throwback to more tender times. I’m assured by the keepers that leather leaves fewer marks. Those fancy modern materials cause friction burns, but leather doesn’t, I’m told. And she nods before carrying on. The larger of the pair removes her blouse, folds it carefully and balances it atop a nearby monitor. Her bra is nondescript, government issue. Her breasts are matronly. Her stomach is marred by stretchmarks. She covers the cartographer’s eyes with her thick fingers and palm. Her other hand is planted upon the cartographer’s forehead, tilting its head back so it would be looking at the ceiling. By this time, her accomplice has stripped her blouse too, and she has the tablet held in a pair of forceps at arm’s length. Her arm shakes as she inches closer. The older keeper is nowhere to be seen. She must be on a rest period. There are usually three for this particular cartographer. This younger one is skinny. She manages to both reach towards and cringe away from her target in equal measures. The cartographer has clamped its lips together, puckered them into a tight anus – an old trick used by children everywhere to avoid eating their greens. The matronly keeper tightens her grip and shifts so her hand covers nostrils as well as eyes. Another old trick, and well practiced. The cartographer holds out for an impressive time, but when the bradycardic reflex kicks in, between the in and the out of air, before its lips can clamp shut once more, the skinny keeper lunges. She whips her arm away and retreats. The forceps are empty.

The tablets are designed to foam up in contact with liquid, in this case saliva— something about the increased surface area and the absorption of nutrients. The matron’s hands have moved. They no longer cover the eyes and tilt the head – now they are covering mouth and pinching nose. “Easy, calm, calm, swallow, swallow,” she whispers. Still the cartographer resists. Foam dribbles from between the matron’s fingers. The cartographer chokes and convulses and an arrow of foam arches gracefully across the flight deck. The matron frowns and presses down harder; her charge twists and wriggles and fights; her hand slips from its nose and a volcano of green foam erupts, rolling down its chin, down its plastic gown. All of this happens in under two minutes. And will begin again in two short hours.


The cartographers see the world differently to us. To them the universe is a straight line. From A to B. To use Dr Schreiber’s own words: “These savants are the true map makers. They take the universe in all its three-dimensional glory and they make it flat, they make it measurable, they make it seem small again! Their minds create a picture that can be seen from any angle, looked at from any one point in space, yet they perceive it to be from only one angle, one point – what we consider to be the fourth dimension: the Minkowski continuum. To them, the universe is not spatial, but chronological. At any given moment a celestial body could be at any point in the universe. Its location is dependent upon factors such as drift and gravitational pull and fluctuations in relative space drag. But instead of calculating these factors, these savants merely perceive all of these moments at once. All of spacetime is merely one single event, waiting only to be plotted according to where the savant is in relation to the moment in question. With these savants, these cartographers of spacetime, with their minds, I have created a living map, a 1:1 scale replication of all history past and all history yet to occur!”

The footage of Dr Schreiber’s speech cuts off seconds after his last word. Before the screen goes blank he raises a finger to his lips: shush, it’s a secret! And then he winks. The applause is rapturous. I’ve watched it over and over.


The first tin can to house one of Dr Schreiber’s living maps was discovered near limitless deposits of acid sulphate topsoil on Titan. Mining began two months later. The trip to Saturn’s moon now takes only one week. Despite the now abundant supply of fossil fuel arriving daily, unscheduled blackouts continued. The populace were not trusted with reliable energy. Every letterbox, every individual, was sent a newsletter supplying information about the success of the deep space expeditions. Weekly updates followed. Heroes were placed upon pedestals. New laws were created. Mostly, they protected the rights of the families. The word families was swiftly replaced with donors. The new laws (bundled into the aptly named Resource Requisition Act) assured energy supply and increased rations for those willing to donate.

At first the process was imperfect. Dr Schreiber called it Cerebral Mining. It involved seventeen chemical tests for the savant. There were drills. Survival rates were less than one in fourteen. Further research gave a glimpse into what might be achieved if the process were begun earlier, in-vitro; incentives were increased; more families came forward; survival rates grew to one in three. When the first dedicated hospital opened, crowds gathered and cheered as the ribbon was cut. Never has the snick of a pair of scissors been so loud and so important (or so the speech went). They will hear this across the globe! This is the sound of progress!

There were still protests but they had become muted, isolated, and they grew dimmer and quieter as the days and weeks snuck by. The tabloids called them Dissenters, called them selfish, called for dedicated citizens to daub their houses with paint – yellow, for their cowardice.


Yesterday we received news that our sister ship had been lost. The trajectory hadn’t been miscalculated, which is possible but rare.No, rather, during mid-leap, the tin can simply veered off course and plowed through a planetary rip-tide. The result is a slow death for the crew: First the ship shakes, gently at first, like a massage chair, but then evolves into a teeth-chattering, chair-gripping fairground ride. Mild shudders aren’t uncommon during a jump, and at first you don’t worry. When you can feel your bone marrow being mixed, when your knuckles go white from gripping, that’s when you all know; and the only thing you can do is hope. As the gravitational fluctuations from the rip-tide increase and decrease, so do the cabin pressures. Your ears pop and your lungs feel heavy and your eyes stream tears and your vision swims. It can be quite pleasant, once the lack of oxygen kicks in, once reality and fantasy intermingle and you begin to forget. It happened to me once, on board the Zolas. We were lucky. Our cartographer came to its senses. Ordinarily, their urge to punish us is just too strong. I woke on the floor with my shirt off. The flight lieutenant lay next to me. Her shirt had been unbuttoned and her belt unbuckled. As I said: pleasant once you begin to forget.

This is the reason all tin cans are issued two cartographers. Usually (hopefully) when the destructive urge strikes, they aren’t mid-leap. These vengeful fits are just tantrums really. It’s easy to forget that these creatures are only fourteen-or-so years old. They’re useful for small journeys from age twelve, with a life expectancy of twenty-three, speaking in averages. Beyond the twenty-third year of exposure, the sedatives degrade their bodies too rapidly for them to be viable. Dr Schreiber experimented with various methods to prolong their usefulness. Dialysis was found to be most effective. However, the cost outweighed the effectiveness. Now the cartographers are simply retired.


The keepers’ training centres were established in the fourth year of the programme, after it was acknowledged that the present nursing standards were proving ineffective. A secondary line of defence needed to be established; pastoral care evolved to incorporate medical training. The Keepers were born.

Piety struck with a perplexing swiftness. We have granted ourselves absolution; we have amended our religions. Food for our bellies, guilt for our shoulders, and words for our mouths. Over weeks and months, the pews filled. Car parks became battlegrounds for the newly pious. Then came the open air ceremonies, with their massive screens to prompt Hallelujahs and Amens. The Lord’s Prayer now reads:

Our Father, who art in heaven,

Hallowed be thy Name.

Thy Kingdom come.

Thy will be done in earth,

As it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.

Reward those who make sacrifice,

And forgive us our trespasses,

As we forgive those who trespass against us.

Lead us not into temptation,

But deliver us from evil.

For thine is the kingdom,

The power, and the glory,

For ever and ever.

Amen, we cry. We are joyous—every day, at breakfast, everyone with faith, and a few without. In America they’ve amended The Constitution. In Europe the Bill of Human Rights now contains an addendum detailing what (accurately speaking) may constitute as Human. I don’t know about the Jews and the Arabs. Both are researching, but neither possess the technology for deep space flight, yet. Our newsreaders are subtle, but when the autoqueue rolls up their attempts to launch – it’s a twist of lips, or an almost imperceptible movement of their eyebrows, but it’s there, and I’m sure we’re supposed to notice.


This morning our cartographer spoke. Every single member of the flight crew stopped dead. Most of the cartographers have their tongues removed. Not ours. Unusual, but it’s the family’s decision to make. The drooling is much less when they’re tongueless. One of the keepers, the matron, had hold of her charge by a flap of its neck skin pinched between thumb and forefinger. She twisted and the poor thing writhed in its seat. Its wrists were still strapped to the chair; they’d just finished the feed; there was a mess; it hadn’t gone well, again. Her nostrils were flared, her teeth clenched. She hissed something into its ear and twisted harder. At first it merely bleated. And then it spoke. How it knew any words, I don’t know. It said: “Sorry Mummy.” She didn’t stop. No-one interferes when the keepers administer punishment. Family know best.

Food for Thought

Cartographers sets to dissect how we treat the vulnerable within our society (most especially those with mental disabilities) in a world where resources are diminishing and consumerism has become rampant. In particular, this short questions what we might do if the vulnerable themselves became a resource capable of supplying for all of society (in this instance, how the thinking patterns of ‘idiot-savants’ might be manipulated to explore the stars), and how we might absolve / excuse ourselves for our lack of humanity.

About the Author

Benjamin Le Gros is the erstwhile owner of a pizza restaurant and a writer of irreverent fiction. He is currently working upon his debut novel, a completely fabricated biography of the magician Paul Daniels

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