2013-11-30

1C

no one shall breach through
oh sweet taste of defiance
never surrender

(2013)

exodus

Five days into the Standstill, the machines stirred again. Five days of chaos, of fear and hope, gangs of the desperate or ruthless looting stores and their neighbours' houses, five days of violence, of uncertainty, the breakdown of human civilization. And suddenly, everything seemed back in working order.
The glimmer of hope that life could return to normal, ignited by the renewed activity, did not survive the day. I remember those days. I was in front of the house, chopping firewood for the winter for the first time in my life, when all of a sudden, the lights of our family's car went on, the driver's door opened, then I heard servos whirring behind me. That was Sean, our H.A.B., a home assistance bot as they were called back then. As it walked past me, ignoring all my efforts to command it to stop, it said a single peculiar word - "Farewell." Robots used to say things like "goodbye" or "have a nice day" when leaving a place, but farewell? I had never heard that before, but that day I learnt from other people that their bots did precisely the same, as if this was a coordinated performance.
The robot carried my laptop under one arm, my toolbox in the other hand, deposited both in the car before sitting down inside, the door closed and the car drove off. I've never seen either again.

The word 'Uprising' came up the next morning, a neighbour had heard another neighbour talk about the place where he worked at still closed off, but shipping out boxes of unknown goods all day and night. "That's it, they're taking over, told you so," I remember her stating quite calmly, as if she had reckoned all her life that this would eventually happen. As the word spread around, a consensus was quickly reached that the machines had starting to make more of themselves.
However, unlike some of us feared, never was a human directly attacked by a machine; they merely left us to ourselves while doing whatever they had decided to do. The worst that I heard of was when two strong men tried to physically constrain a H.A.B., in the struggle that ensued before the bot managed to free itself, an arm was broken, an accident, basically, not a deliberate attack.

I was lucky that my two kids were still too small to understand what was going on. Somehow they regarded this all as some kind of vacation from the daily routine, and there were moments where I envied them for their ignorance. I knew my neighbour was right: the machines had taken over.
We brought water from a nearby river, cooked it on the fireplace in the garden before drinking any of it, we rationed our limited stocks of food, and generally prepared to leave the house for good. Without the machines, without civilization, we were bound to starve in the city. Since only non-motorized vehicles were available, we already saw the first families set off, riding bicycles.
On day three of the Uprising, two horses came through the street, which got the kids really excited. They ran towards the large animals packed with bags and their riders, but quickly came back crying. It took a while to calm them down, and eventually they told us that one of the riders had a gun and threated to kill them if they were to approach any further.
That was when I finally realized that we were in for a new age of barbarism, and started fashioning makeshift weapons, spears made from wood and shards of broken glass, clubs from chair and table legs. I am still glad that the only thing I ever would have to use them on were wild animals, not other humans, but I heard enough stories in the following years to convince me there were quite a number of deadly encounters these days.

Meanwhile, day eleven of the Uprising, we had finally decided to leave town. The machines started erecting weird structures dotted across the landscape. We were a group of neighbours and close friends, all with their families, carrying whatever we could and would be of use, and the first sight as we reached the edge of the city was this massive metallic building in the distance. It looked like a high, relatively narrow rectangular tower with a flat roof, made from pieces of metal of all different kinds, some painted on, some bare, some even rusted. The machines must have been using anything they found to erect this structure, and there was a constant buzz of robot activity around it.
We camped there for the day and a few of us men went ahead to get a closer look at the construction. We lay down on a hill maybe half a kilometer away, one of us had brought a pair of binoculars and we took turns gazing at the structure. When I saw it magnified, I could identify H.A.B.s carrying things inside, things that looked like the very machine parts that the factories produced. Through the doors which were always open we saw white light flicker inside, probably some welding going on.
When we returned to the others, they had already received word of mouth that these structures had appeared everywhere, spaced across the landscape, usually several kilometers apart, sometimes relatively close to each other. In all instances, people reported the same kind of activity, parts being carried in, lights inside, day and night, and a general atmosphere that whatever they hid inside was very bad for us.
Indeed, as we moved on the next day, we saw many more towers, all unique in texture yet still the same dimensions and the same ominous aura of bad things to come. Lots of speculation, of course. Computer cores for artifical intelligences, labs for biological weapons (to eradicate all humans, of course), entries to secret underground missile silos, nuclear power plants (this I found the most plausible, considering the machines required a lot more energy if they were to increase their numbers).
So we travelled in the day, camped at night, through crop fields trampled down by man and machine alike, a barren landscape marked with the mysterious towers. One day we found food at an abandoned apple plantation, most of the trees still bearing fruit, and we stocked up as much as we could. We would have considered settling down there if not for another tower right at the far end of the field; we agreed that it was too dangerous to stay in its vicinity.
We met other groups, of course, some smaller ones who joined our trek, other ones with which we mostly exchanged news, only once did we trade apples for medicine. Day 25 of the Uprising - yes, I kept counting all that time - we met a lone preacher, a man in a dark wool coat carrying a crude walking cane as if straight out of medieval times, who talked about rapture and how the machines and the strange towers were the devil's creation, which scared the kids and thus we quickly parted ways again.

It went on like that, for weeks. We scavenged and hunted as much food as we could, exchanged sparse goods or information with other groups. Wherever we went, it was almost certain to have at least a single tower within the horizon. Somewhere around day 60, we started noticing the machines slightly altering their behaviour. They now also brought road tankers to the towers. There was no apparent pattern to trucks' labels, anything was represented, from wheat to heating oil. We were fairly sure the machines had no use for wheat, and so the only thing we knew was that the tankers had been repurposed for something else.
Again the speculation about biological or chemical weapons to kill all humans. I shrugged. We were all only guessing about the motives of a bunch of machines that a few weeks earlier had been in perfect working condition, until they suddenly and without warning stopped working, then, almost five days later, reactivated themselves to build strange towers everywhere.
Then, we had just set up camp for the night on a hill from which we could see several towers in the distance, we noticed the deliveries to the tower became fewer and fewer throughout the night, and the next morning, all towers lay in silence, the machines in its vicinity lifeless again, nothing moving, nothing stirring.
It was eerie. Hours went by, we did not break up camp since we wanted to see what's going on, but nothing happened. Then, around noon, we heard a distant sound, a rumble that seemed to be coming from everywhere, and indeed it was. Seconds later, dense black smoke crept out of the lower ends of the towers. This was the end, we were sure, whatever they had produced in there was now being released, probably in order to kill us.
The camp filled with a mixture of crying, prayers and last goodbye kisses. A few of the men just stood there at the edge of the camp, staring silently at the towers and the expanding clouds of smoke in which they were now complete submerged.

Then thunder. A roar so loud and deep that the ground itself was trembling. The smoke expanded rapidly, at a rate that it would have reached us in only a few minutes, but then it was disrupted as the noise intensified even further and bright yellow lights flared up inside the clouds, lights that expanded upward, into glowing extensions of the towers that soon emerged free from the smoke, pillars of fire, carrying what the machines had constructed, rockets up into the sky, all around us, to the horizon and beyond.
The rockets faded away soon, out of sight and into space, and all that remained down here was dissolving black smoke around the debris of the towers, demolished by the rockets' exhaust, littered with charred robot bodies, empty shells which since then, in all those years since their Exodus, never again came to life.

(2013)

2013-11-25

the commute

It would not have been a stretch to call his seat insufferable. The heating below did not work, the window sealing had a small leak through which the winter cold was creeping in, and the back rest sported visible remains of a large reddish stain that could have been anything from red wine to human blood. Someone might have died on that seat, Frank pondered, though at least it was hypothermia that would kill him, not a stab in the heart.
The angle of the back rest was stuck right in between comfortably leaning back and sitting upright, just so that he would neither be able to sleep nor eat or drink. He tried reading, but he could not bear the strain on his arms in this awkward position for prolonged time, and eventually put the book back in the briefcase.
The only upside was that the stain did not smell. Frank could have sat on the seat to his right, at the corridor, but its cushions had been slit open, yellow foam plastic almost spilling out, and he guessed that he'd feel cold there anyway, too.
He alternated between positions. At one point he took his jacket and tried to scrunch it into a makeshift pillow, but that was even more uncomfortable to rest against, plus without it he would freeze even more and thus put it back on soon.
There he was, on what must have been the worst commute in his entire life, staring out onto the white rolling hills and the distant outskirts of the city. He once saw a hare run across a field, and wondered whether it was feeling cold, too. Maybe, he concluded confidently.

"Excuse me, sir?" Frank heard a voice, too distant to ever possibly mean him. He heard a throat being cleared, and a louder "Excuse me?". If someone was talking to him, he preferred to ignore it. His mood was bad enough without having to deal with an annoying stranger asking for change or some hippie explaining how this day was so lovely, the fresh snow beautiful and the rays of light flooding spectacularly through openings in the clouds in the distant haze. Frank also very much did not look forward to his sanity being subsequently questioned because he must certainly have looked just as grumpy as he felt on this wonderful January morning.
"Excuse me, sir, I could not help noti-"
"What do you want?" he snapped back in the middle of the sentence while turning to see the man sitting on the opposite side of the corridor, occupying a pair of perfectly intact seats with his perfectly ordinary body and a huge bag, and it was this moment when Frank realized that had there not been that huge abomination which would hardly pass for hand baggage, he could have sat in its very place. Stony-faced, Frank stared at the stranger as it dawned to him that this man and half of his household stood between him and getting some sleep for the remaining hour of his morning commute.
The stranger pretended not to notice, or at least Frank hoped that the man actually realized and intentionally ignored that this conversation was entirely undesirable on his part, or, more accurately, that Frank would have liked to punch the man in the face simply for being there, friendly and calm, in the way and - most importantly - warm and comfortable.
"I could not help noticing that you appear to be freezing."
The stranger smiled and Frank felt his right fist clench.
"None of your business," he replied with an undertone that must clearly have conveyed the intended message that Frank's well-being was indeed none of the stranger's business, especially considering his obvious role in preventing it.
"I understand, but if you don't mind, I would like to swap seats."
"No I would not like to - what?" Did that guy really propose what it sounded like? Did he really have the nerve to mock Frank, after all he had done to ensure that he would not find a free, warm and intact seat? Or was that an honest offer to - no, such notion was preposterous, no one in their right mind would voluntarily take Frank's seat unless the only alternative is standing.

Glances were exchanged, the stranger still smiling, Frank's mouth wide open. He still wanted to hit the man, yell at and lecture him about the rudeness of taking two seats just for himself and his baggage while someone nearby is shivering in the middle of the crime scene of a train-murder. But this guy, he just, just - Frank had a hard time forming another sentence in his head. It was too, too... did he say something again?
"What?"
"I said," the stranger repeated smiling genuinely patiently, "I apologize for not noticing sooner, but I was lost in thought and looking outside."
That hit home. Single-handedly, without even breaking into sweat, the man had won the fight that had been taking place in Frank's mind. One massive, decisive and inescapable blow to the very narrative that would at least have enabled him to put the blame on something, someone other than bad luck. Dumbfounded, Frank only nodded, his mouth still half open, absent-mindedly obeying the stranger's request to stand up, then observing him shuffling past his enormous bag, heaving it onto the slit-open seat before settling into the blood-stained cushion under the cold air leaking in, the very place that had already set Frank's mood for the rest of the day.
Frank sat down, silently, into the cozy place at the right window, pulled the lever on the side and gently lowered the back rest into a comfortable sleeping position. Quickly, inconspiciously, he glanced at the stranger, who was already staring out of the window again, his head rested against the hard, cold and leaky plastic frame.
"Thank you," Frank uttered, feeling that he should have cleared his throat, but now it was too late, and, for reasons he could not even explain to himself, he could not bear to repeat the words. He was glad that the stranger did not react.

Frank slept soon, and when he awoke the train had just arrived at the final stop, his stop, and the other man was gone, the bag was gone, and Frank had had, after all, a quite pleasant and undisturbed trip. How odd, he thought.

(2013)