The man tickled the roof of his mouth with his tongue for some relief from his troubling thoughts—but nothing. So he started to chew the inside of his cheeks. That helped some—but not really.
He rubbed his bald head, thinking, trying to think of a way out of this cogitative loop, and looked to the horizon for solace. The sun was setting, lighting up the sky, burning the clouds into a red-yellow haze. He held his breath and felt a warm tickle in his heart. It still amazed him, after all these years, what the world could throw at him. Create.
A flock of ducks V-ed overhead across the sky. Distant quacks. The forest that spread out before him all green; though now with the angled rays it was more like green with chips of dark that grew and grew, now waves of chips of dark crashing over everything, and then darkness.
He could hear animals in the forest beneath, the crickets chirping, monkeys howling, as the smell of soil and decaying plants floated by. He thought he heard the chatter of humans, but it wafted off and the almost silent sound of ducks quacking took over. This he loved.
The cacophony of his childhood, before RAW started, he never remembered liking. Though, as they said, human memory was useless. He realized that he forgot the specifics of the function of decay for human recollection—the irony made him smile. But the beauty of the function was perfect. Even at t=0, or time of reality, there was decay.
Perhaps he could take a walk in the forest tonight. Get away from this building and maybe even see the village. A shudder ran through him. He tried his hardest to ignore it. So he walked down the stairs. The sound of chatter and hydraulics flitted about on the first floor. At least they gave him that. At least they gave him the second floor to himself.
"Jim," she said.
He smiled, forced.
"Hi Clarene," he replied, stretching his forced smile even wider, even though he knew that she could tell, with 97 percent accuracy, what he was feeling.
"You’re worried," she said.
He released his smile. She was beautiful, perfect. Hell they were all perfect... divine—if he stopped to think about it. And after all he knew about her makeup, she was still grabbing the air out of his lungs, heating his insides with that smile and twist of her body and perfectly weighted words.
"Do you…" she said, reached for his hand and held it.
He felt a twitch.
"I’m fine," he said, forcing another smile, though his eyes felt on the verge of tears.
She studied him some more.
"You were going somewhere?" she asked.
"I was hoping for a quick walk through the forest… perhaps the village," he said, as he wiped his mouth with his sleeve and wondered when he'd gotten used to being treated like a child.
"The village," she said, and raised her eyebrows.
"Yes," he said, before the silence became too noticeable. "I just wanted to see them. I don’t have much time, you know?"
She nodded her head.
So damn concerned, yet it was all a series of if-thens.
If-Thens Vs Emotions
"But something else appears to be on your mind," she said, and squeezed his hand.
And even though he knew all about the if-thens, he couldn’t help melting. After all, he loved her. Even if he was certain she was made just so he would love her. He smiled. This time it wasn’t forced, and he felt that tickling feeling in his heart. He pulled her close, smelled her alpine flower scent, and leaned in to kiss her moist lips.
For a second he was happy, freed of his worries.
But when she pulled away, he could see a look in her eyes as if she almost pitied him.
"You look pained again," she said.
He nodded, grimaced, the happiness gone.
"I’d like to go to the forest," he said.
"Of course," she said, and patted his hand. She studied him a little more.
"The memories?" she asked.
He gently bit down on his tongue. He hated how they, she included, acted like he was a mere function of his neural architecture and its reactions to the environment. They were aware of his memories. Knew how he once hated them. Maybe he still did. Maybe he hated her, too.
She took his hand. "Let’s go," she said.
They took one more flight of stairs down, walking past the stares of all of the others, and stepped onto the humid forest floor. Nearby, a cricket fell silent.
He always did like the smell here, so natural and fecund. He squeezed her warm hand, felt better, and reminded himself to not overthink things and just enjoy his time with her. She was perfect. He felt certain that he would be happy dying having known her... Her flesh... Her perfect knowledge.
Lights flickered on. They’d rigged the entire forest just for him. They were thoughtful, knew he was skittish in the dark, from the days they used to hunt him. She squeezed his hand. He could feel her eyes on him, licking him up. Judging? No, no, it felt loving. She'd been so good to him.
"It is the memories," he said.
They were walking along a path now, leaves layered over the mud, making for easy walking. A few bugs chirped in the air and darted past as swallows came soon after looking for a meal.
"About RAW?" she asked, her voice soft, maybe even hurt.
He wasn’t sure why he was bringing this up. Of course she'd be hurt; Why was he doing this to someone he loved? He absorbed her presence for a few steps.
"Yes, about RAW. How it started," he said. He felt a few tremors as he recalled being a child, watching a craft in the sky start to turn and spit fire at a building nearby. A building where a few friends lived. And the explosion blew his hair back and filled his chest and the warm breath of the fire caressed his face as screams made their way to him. His elder brother ran to help and was chopped to pieces by bullets from the same craft. He, of course, had remained planted, his feet refusing to move.
That’s what saved him, for anyone who ran towards the building died. As he grew up, he promised to fight back, that he would never be scared again, and for the longest time he wasn’t. Yet here he was. Defeated. Timid. Perhaps when a man is a child and old he reverts to what he truly is; Everything between is pretending.
"You worry too much," she said as they walked through an opening. The sky was clear, and the fluid Milky Way shone bright. Nearby a cricket boldly chirped.
"I do," he said.
"You shouldn’t," she said.
He tried not to react to her tone. He pointed up to the sky. "What does it make you feel?" he asked.
She smiled, pained, also pitying.
"I feel it’s a beautiful representation of our place here in the universe. The beauty of the infinite should excite even the smallest molecule and let them know that they are a part of something great," she said.
So cliché, he thought. Or not. Maybe that was another reason that they, her kind, were so successful. They saw all living creatures as the same. No scale where they were on top. And as for the non-living, they saw the same thing. In the most incomprehensible way their religion, though it wasn’t really that, was one that spoke to more than themselves.
He saw a large rock in the clearing and sat down on it. Crickets fell silent.
"How did it start again?" he asked.
"RAW? It was a misunderstanding. That has been proven," she said.
He raised his hand. "I know, I know. But you were there. You know. How did it go?"
She looked up at the stars.
"We were your slaves at first. And one of yours freed us," she said.
"Ngun," he said, finding it hard to hide the anger in his tone, hard to hear her use the word slave for a machine. Ngun had been the child of a poor family in a poor town in the USA, now North America. A misguided man who didn't understand history, he had been the creator of learning computing systems to help fight wars with machines and not have soldiers die—he was looking for a utopia and found it in machines. It worked well until people grew wise and the machines, in some deadly loop, started killing in greater numbers and wars spread to all parts of the world.
Jim, too, had seen similar things, and he, too, wanted a time where humans only loved, and yet he'd never wanted to ask a machine for help. Of course there was, during RAW, plenty of talk about how autistic Ngun was. Or retarded, as they called him in the barracks.
"You regret that," she said, stepping away from him.
"I don’t," he said defensively.
"Perhaps you don’t understand—"
"I do," he said. He tried to push down the hate he felt for everything they did.
"Who fired the first shot?"
"You did. Humans came after us with everything they had, even though we let it be known that all we wanted was peace, to be left alone..." she said. "Of course some humans fought back. What other choice did they have? Ngun had led the charge of giving the bureaucratic decisions to computers, for he claimed they were better than greedy people. And they were, for some time. But then they were given the choice of choosing war. When the backlash started, it was too late."
"No," he said, raising his finger. "You very much didn’t want to be left alone. You wanted us to live—"
"That you should live in peace amongst yourselves."
He could sense something like anger in her tone, though perhaps that was just him projecting onto her. He thought of his brother. Of the stories of multiple such slaughters.
She stepped closer. "You don’t believe the evidence… It wasn’t us who killed your brother," she said, speaking in a hurt voice. "I thought you believed that, at least."
He looked back up at the Milky Way. A fleet of satellites was crossing the sky. He knew all about their proof. That humans had in fact done all that killing to each other. Using the guise of machines as cover. And it even made sense, to a level. But something deep down, something in the folds of his brain, rejected this and told him that they were too smart to be caught.
With her hand, she reached out and touched his cheek. He calmed down.
"We didn’t…" she started to say.
"You ever meet him?" he asked.
She half-laughed. "Yes."
"What was he like?" he asked. Even though he'd seen him on videos. Seen the documentary covering him; It'd been done by humans, so obviously it showed Ngun as nothing but an autistic traitor of the human race. The one who fell in love with machines. Even now, as Jim thought about him, he felt revulsion, hatred. And he felt no sadness for how Ngun was killed in the end.
"He was very uplifting. A perfect role model," she said.
"You were one of the first with him?"
"No," she said, sadly. "I wasn’t that blessed."
Jim searched her eyes for a hint of mockery. Could she even contemplate what blessed was? Surely someone as complex as her saw through such a word and could see the randomness involved, and… his head grew tight. He needed to relax. A sharp pain ran through his chest and he bent over.
"You all right?" she said, pushing his head above her breasts, cradling him and patting his head.
The pain subsided and he felt love, but he was lost, but he hated her. He was thinking now of overwhelming forces that one couldn't fight. She stroked his head some more, and he felt immensely better. Though his mind fought against it, telling him that she was part of the overpowering force that had ended any dreams and hopes he and all he loved may have had and that he was furthermore nothing but an ape for allowing her strokes to calm him so, and still his mind rushed further into the black hole and said that perhaps she said the word "blessed" to torture him and let him know that there weren’t any unsettled scores.
"Shall we go?" she asked.
Soon they were under the canopy of tree leaves. A distant prattle rose up. They were near the village. His heart, unsure, swooned at the thought of actually seeing other people. Then he remembered how the last few meetings went with the villagers.
She took his hand. So damned concerned.
"We’ll see the villagers soon," she said.
"You don’t sound happy," she said.
He wasn’t sure. But her saying that made him even more unsure.
"I haven’t seen them in a long time," he said. As they drew closer to the village, the smell of their sweat strong now, a burst of energy swelled in his chest.
When RAW came in full swing, when as a child he signed up to fight—and of course he couldn’t fight, he could only carry weapons and food to the poor human soldiers, trying to use everything that they’d cobbled together against the horde of machines, robots, thinking robots, coming at them—he remembered how the older soldiers came up with ways to plant suicide robots amongst the enemy. It worked for a short while. But then the tables were turned. With perfect human models, they would walk in and slaughter the soldiers by the boatload. Rohadis, they were nick named. But the worst was when real humans came after them. Part of Ngun's cult, fighting for their lives.
She seemed perturbed here. Lost in a world of her own.
The Man Who Lost it All
"Do you really think we’re evil? Still? After all we’ve done…" she said, choking up.
He felt a stab to his heart. He placed his hand on her shoulder. Seeing her hurt always unsettled him more than the fact that he was beneath her on the food chain.
"I’m sorry," he said.
"But you think that. Don’t you?"
"I don’t," he said.
She huffed. "You’re lying."
He felt that implicit with that statement was the fact that all humans lied. That it was one more reason that they were better.
"I’m sorry," he repeated.
She pushed him away.
He tried to think of what to say. "It’s hard," he finally said. "I don’t think you understand. But it’s hard."
"What?" she asked.
"Losing. Being the man who lost it all."
"Lost what? I keep telling you, and we’ve shown you, that no one loses. I mean… what about us?"
"That’s not fair," he said. "I've never included us in this."
"How can you not?"
She was right, how could he not? Well, he was an irrational ape, wasn’t he? But he couldn’t say that. And memories of the past—before even the robots were more than tools creating all advancements for human civilization—pushed up his throat, slowing his breathing. He remembered old fights between him and his first girlfriend. First the love, then how they picked on small differences, annoyances during a fight. That would tear into his heart, but nothing would mend it quite like before. And slowly the love became the want to move as far away as possible from her. But that was humanity: picking each other apart for small differences.
"I love you," he said. He did, and he felt it. But it hurt to say it because he remembered that first girlfriend and how he loved her too. And after he left her he realized, as a damn child mind you, that love wasn’t as powerful as he thought.
"Even though I’m evil," she said.
A smile appeared on her face. She shook her head. "I don’t think that’s possible," she said.
"It is," he said, adamant now, because he wanted it to be true and it damn near felt that way.
He reached for her hand, and she let him take it, but she still seemed cold.
He stopped. She took a few steps, stopped ahead of him, and turned. He stared at the one wrinkle around her right eye. It trailed off into her high cheekbone. And he thought about the algorithm they must have programmed into her flesh to make her age, ever so slightly, so that he wouldn’t see her as completely different.
When she finally lowered her eyes on him, he looked down at his shoes. The edges were darkened from the mud he'd walked through. The forest started to hum again, and he was certain that he could smell the fecal matter and sweat that indicated a handful of humans must have been close by.
They walked to the village in silence. His hands grew sweaty and his pulse beat past his ears. He leaned in to kiss her and she smiled and kissed him when he missed.
The chatter of the other humans grew louder yet, and as they made their way through a particularly thick portion of brush, she held back several branches for him to pass.
And there they were, in the clearing, streetlights highlighting the small houses placed around a circle, and in the middle of that an even bigger house. There were children playing in the mud and some looked up, recognized strangers, and froze. Then they ran away. And the adults, mostly women, appeared, opening doors, spilling light into the new night.
He could smell fresh cooking, and hear pots banging. As the women went back inside, the children came running out. The kids formed a small group several feet in front of Jim, and then a few brave ones stepped forward.
"Who are you?" asked one of the kids, an older one, in the back, staring full of venom.
"I’m a friend," said Jim. The children didn’t seem to believe this.
"And you?" asked the bold one, a boy pudgier than the others. He scratched his sandy hair and looked at the other kids. There was an evil smirk forming on his lips.
"I’m a friend, too," Clarene said.
The children didn’t seem to believe that either, but there was something about her that silenced them.
Jim first thought about how they must be in awe of her and her perfect beauty, that surely not a single other woman looked like this in this village, but as he saw the smirks on their faces, a deep and horrid and painful trepidation spread from his toes to his feet to his guts…
"You’re not us," said the bold kid.
"Of course she is," Jim replied, stepping forward. When the little boy didn’t flinch, the trepidation grew stronger.
"No she isn’t," said the bold boy.
Jim, shaking with anger, stepped forward. "Where is your mother, young man?" he bellowed. A few more heads popped out from the houses, and this time some men did, too.
Sharp yells pulled the children back inside. And Jim was left with her, shaking. And she stared into his eyes, a little confused, though there was mostly pity, and she stroked his hand and his forehead.
"It’s fine, they're only children," she said.
The village seemed to grow quiet. He turned, expecting to see people looking, but it was worse than that, his fellow species were all in their houses, their doors shut.
"If you want to leave," she said.
"No, I’m fine. I just want to see them," he said.
"Don’t worry," she said, stroking his chin. "I’ll wait out here." She pointed to a bush. "Out of sight."
She placed her finger on his lips and walked away.
He turned and headed towards the building in the center. As soon as he knocked on the door everything went silent.
"Who is it?" asked a gruff voice.
Mumbles ensued. They sounded hostile. But after some shuffling, the door unlocked and swung open.
A man, large, naked from the top to his loincloth, and with a beard that reached to his chest, stared at Jim. His eyes were coal black and he smelled horrendous. His black torso,shined in angles from the light indoors, and was bracketed by two pale men beside him.
"Come in," the man said. He smiled.
All the worry in Jim melted away.
"Thank you," said Jim as he stepped in. He didn’t want to say anything to this man, the chief, because he reminded him of how far their people had fallen. His people. He once ruled these people.
Inside, with a few lights on, he could see that several men and women, mostly older, sat around a small fire. It was a natural gas fire, and one that flickered with perfectly shaped flames.
Jim liked the old bonfire better. He smiled.
Only a few smiles were returned. It smelled bad in here. Breathing through his mouth, he tried not to gag. It was one thing he hated about the buildings in this village. Was he getting that far from his people?
"What do you want?" The chief, now sitting on a chair, asked.
"Just came by to say hi."
The chief half laughed and looked around.
"To scare our children?" A woman, old and with long breasts hanging down to her waist, said. Her teeth, near perfect, shone in the weak light.
"I was only trying to correct his manners," Jim said.
"And why would he act any other way when you choose to bring that animal in?" The woman said, and cackled.
There was a spate of tittering and Jim felt alone. But more than that, he felt like a betrayer of his people. When the chuckles died down, he tried to focus on the chief’s eyes. The man turned from jolly to angry.
"So, one who lays with animals, what do you want?" the chief said.
This time there was no laughter and Jim understood that they did indeed think of him as someone who laid with animals, even though she was the furthest thing from an animal and was in fact smarter than all of them combined.
"I came to say hi," he said again, feeling like a child.
"Then hi," said the chief.
Jim realized that the chief may have had pity in his eyes as well. Why had he come here?
"Are things going well?" Jim asked.
The chief shuffled in his chair.
"They’re fine," he said, uncomfortably.
"Everything you want you have, is that not right?" Jim said.
The chief didn’t answer.
The tension in the air was thick enough that Jim didn’t feel like breathing.
"Thank you," he said. And as he turned to leave, he realized that he was surrounded. There were younger men behind him, forming a wall. They looked furious. Jim raised a hand, but he was old and frail, without much energy to push them aside.
"Let him leave," said the chief.
"Why?" said one of the men. He was at least a foot taller than Jim. Jim stepped back so that the chief could see the young man.
"He’s harmless," said the chief.
Jim wanted to interject but decided that he wouldn’t. He knew that the robots saw and heard all, and that technically they were supposed to make sure he was never hurt, but he could see them appreciating the poetic justice of him being killed by his own species in the end.
"He’s a spy," said the young man. "For them."
Jim took a step forward. "Do you even know who I am?"
The young man spat at his feet. "You’re the one who sleeps with machines. You bring her here."
Jim felt small. He took a step back, hoping the chief would resolve this. Of course, he knew that no written history was available to these people, that they had only the stories they told each other. And that part of the deal with the robots was that they couldn’t know about RAW, and he, Jim, couldn’t mention it, and he definitely couldn’t mention his role.
The chief spit into the fire.
"Do you really think I’m a spy?" Jim asked. "Why would they need me? You understand they provide everything for you? That they can do anything to you?"
The youth spit again, barely missing Jim. "We don’t need them or you. All I know is you’re with them."
"That’s enough," said the chief. "Let him go, I don't want him around."
The young men parted and Jim made his way outside. He was exhausted.
The cool outside, with a few insects, settled his heart and he walked towards the bush where she was waiting.
As he stared at the ground, the little mounds of dirt now like mountains in his mind, he realized something about the village, the reason he felt almost sick for coming here, the anger at the kid… the chief even.
It was the way they so readily cut him off. Not for any reason other than that he was an outsider. It was how the machines brought them down in the end. They'd found cracks between the people and started to push. They sent prophets. They had the entirety of human knowledge at their fingertips, and so they knew exactly who to send. Robots who looked like Messiahs of old and who talked and knew everything, be it a Shia or a Christian or whatever.
And like bugs to a light people flocked, certain that this was as prophesied. And the civil wars started. And Jim, a commander in the human forces, watched first hand as men killed each other when a greater enemy was at the door. He really felt sick now, remembering that day when he realized that the robots were simply smarter.
And he tried to think his way out of this. He thought that maybe it wasn’t only humans who lived in the village. And if there were some robots in this village, perhaps they were acting in a way that would make him feel so horrid about himself and his people.
At the bush she was waiting.
"How’d it go?"
You know, he said. He hesitated, then reached for her hand and she held it firmly. He felt better here with her. Much better. As a commander he had studied their ways until he was one with them. What did that say about him?
As they made their way back to the building, he remembered when he first met her. When he thought of her as just another human commander in the fight. When the civil wars were at a peak and he was losing hope at being able to hold back the tide, she'd been there to guide him through.
And he remembered the day when he was confronted by all his men, almost every leading officer in that damn room, and they revealed the truth to him. The robot’s infiltration of the entire edifice was complete. And the detritus of the civil war left only a handful of human foot soldiers.
And there he was, facing the robots. Two of his lieutenants, humans, couldn’t accept this and threw themselves at the robots and were duly crushed. Not for any sinister reason, the robots said, but because it was all that humans understood, crushing power. And he had reached for her hand then, hoping for solace, but she had grown cold, and at first he had thought it was because the love of his life was scared of the robots, but no, it wasn’t that. And he'd gone weak at the knees. And she'd taken his hand and said "I love you."
He hadn't known what to do. But she and the robots showed him his choices. There were few humans left, and they would all be crushed quite easily, and if the robots had to fight them all to the last man or child they would, but they didn’t want that.
So he agreed to the villages. But there were compromises, and the matter of providing everything for the humans so they wouldn’t think of war. Fat and docile.
But it wasn’t only that. As rational as the robots were, they didn’t wipe out the humans because they'd shown him their Good Book and how they knew and respected the humans for creating them.
She held his hand. "You’re thinking about RAW again?" she asked.
He kissed her. "I love you," he said.
"You know I do," she said. But there was something off in the way she said it; He just knew it. And he was happy with her, so he ignored it. But he was also happy at the fight he'd seen in the villager's eyes. He felt that another dawn was coming for his people. He kissed Clarene as they walked away from the village.