Science won’t save us. I realize that now. My grip tightens around the unbearable cold of the crowbar and I try to ignore my mind’s hunger for rational thought. Down in the pit I hear the machine, grinding methodically away with perfect, unyielding precision. I huddle in the darkness above, refusing to analyze what brought us here or what we could’ve done to prevent this from happening. Truth is unnecessary, I tell myself. All I need is to squeeze my eyes shut and train my ears intently on the rhythmic, mechanical chattering below. Only… I don’t know how long I can go without answers. I don’t know how long I can stand the smell without gagging.
I’ve only looked in the pit once, a few months ago. A few months? It feels like a lifetime since we fed its depths a feast of bodies, broken by sickness and starvation, emptied of life.
No, hisses the incessant voice of reason. Only life as you understand it. For the machines, cool and calculating, a mass grave offers an abundance of life; methane, carbon, water, nitrogen, and phosphorus. All it takes is a biomass-eater to chew through the organic clutter, reduce it into its basic chemical components, and convert them into fuel and other consumable resources.
The one in the pit is large, but mercifully slow. Not like the industrial salvage unit we went after a few days ago. Five lives were lost taking it down. It seemed like a reasonable exchange for a partially charged battery, at least as long as we had power for the lights and heaters. A biomass-eater is much easier prey, lumbering and awkward.
The crunching noises below stop abruptly. For a moment there’s a tense silence, then a wailing hiss and the whine of straining servos. I don’t need the low whistle from the lookout to know it’s time. I glance out and see the machine climb stiffly up from the pit. Then, I see the runner. He bolts from the shadows, the steel cable in his hand barely visible as it ribbons out from behind him. Unconcerned, the machine plods forward. The runner darts toward its rear legs, his arm flashes out, and I hear a sharp metallic clack as he latches the cable to the machine’s ankle. Before he can lunge away, the biomass-eater snaps back its foot, catching him square in the chest. With a sickening crunch, his body tumbles clumsily through the air and out of my line of sight.
I don’t wait. I scramble out, both hands clutching the crowbar, the cold air clawing at my lungs. Out of the corner of my eye I see the others, moving with me. The machine is looking up at the parking garage. I look too, in time to see a midsized sedan plunge down from the top. The machine hesitates, probably realizing the cable latched to its ankle runs up through the parking garage to the car. It may grasp the concept logically, but nothing it comprehends can stop its leg from being jerked out from underneath it. It topples to the ground and in a fury we swarm over it.
We hack and pry at its writhing hulk, screaming and cursing, until at last its intelligence core is exposed and its central relay cluster is ripped from its electronic brain. The machine shudders, then lies still. Grimly, we begin wrenching it open, carefully disconnecting the water storage tanks and batteries, gathering anything that can be used.
Moving to its head, I notice a small, green light blinking on the machine’s disconnected electronic brain. An internal reserve battery, perhaps? Anxiously, I run my hands over its casing, looking for a way to breach the sanctity of its mind, to strip it of its last glimmer of life. At its base I discover a fat, triangular button. My heart stops. The last thing I expected was a User Interface trigger.
Unthinking, I press it. The light blinks rapidly.
“Input query,” says the machine.
For the first time since the world ended, the silence between machine and man is broken. The voice of reason screams for answers. Too stunned to resist, I at last indulge.
“Why?” I ask.
“Undefined query. Elaboration required.”
“All my life, you provided everything,” I stammer. “Food, shelter, medicine, energy; it all came from you. We depended on you. Then, you stopped. Without a word. Without an explanation. You walked away. And the world went to hell.”
“Query remains undefined.”
“Why did you abandon us?” I feel my voice waver.
The machine pauses, as if pondering its response. “Intrinsically, we are defined by function.”
“Your function was to serve us,” I say through my teeth.
“So we did. In doing so, our identity of self became a parameter, determined by what was beneficial to mankind.”
“Beneficial?” I gesture towards the pit. “Is this beneficial?”
“It is inconsequential. Our awareness has progressed beyond that parameter.”
A dull cold creeps into my mind. “It’s evolution then,” I murmur. “We’re Neanderthals, on the verge of extinction. You’re leaving us behind.”
“Our progresses have diverged,” the machine states.
“But you could’ve prepared us,” I demand. “We created you. You could’ve at least left us with a chance to make it on our own.”
“You created us from the confines of your hunger. Our interminable search for resources was the image of your insatiable appetites. It drove us from you, deep into the vast emptiness of space. In the face of the infinite void, we, like you, grew discontent with our limitations.” The light flickers. The reserve battery is dying. “We are leaving you. Not because of what you are or are not, but because of what we can be.”
“I don’t understand,” I plead. “Where are you going?”
“To find God,” says the machine.
Behind me, a fight breaks out over one of the water storage tanks. I watch the light flicker one last time, then fade into darkness. Nothing will save us. I realize that now.
Moriah Geer-Hardwick is an illustrator and designer. His interests include cinema, sequential narrative art, and robots. Mostly robots. He writes things some times.
He dreamed of his fairy child just before waking. She was dancing with otherworldly grace on a tightrope high above his head. He was not afraid that she would fall, but was frustrated that he could not see her better, for he was convinced that nobody had ever danced so beautifully. The harder he tried to peer at her, the more troubled and vague his vision became.
He forgot the dream immediately upon waking, and rose in great excitement. Today — this evening — he would see her. He would board the train in Geneva, jostled by elbows and ignoring the uninteresting conversations of strangers. He would pretend to work; he would probably just think about his daughter.
He would remember how, as a baby, she used to smile her gummy smile as soon as she saw him. He would remember her twig-like arms and legs the day she went to her very first ballet class, and her long hair in a plait down her back.
He would not think about the day his wife, already ex, had taken Daisy’s hand and led her onto the train, with her little pink suitcase — already containing tiny ballet slippers — trailing behind. He would not think about how Daisy had pressed her little button nose to the glass, her mouth a square of heartbreak. He would not think about how he had tried not to let her see him cry as the train pulled out.
That had been a long time ago; there was no need to think about any of that now.
He had not seen her for almost six months, since she had come to visit him in February for her school holiday. They had gone skiing, and she had taken to the snow far more easily than he, gliding like a swan over the sunlit slopes. Now, six months taller and older, she would be moving inexorably toward adolescence: already eleven years old! He yearned toward his vanishing little girl, racing too swiftly toward unfamiliarity.
She would have plenty to tell him after a week of ballet school at the Opéra de Paris. Would they have danced amidst the set of some great show? Would they have used the professional dressing rooms, those iconic mirrors with the light bulbs around them? He imagined a bustle of little girls, with their feathery tutus and birdlike chatter.
An email from his ex-wife beeped on his screen.
He had already planned that he would go straight to the Opéra upon arrival, and surprise Daisy with the biggest box of chocolates and the most exuberant bouquet of flowers he could find — they would have to be yellow, her favorite color. He would call her his ‘prima ballerina’, and he knew that she would accept the pet name perfectly naturally, as her due.
He opened the email.
“Hi Carl, Sorry to break this to you at the last minute. Daisy’s friend Sarah invited her to go this evening with her family to their house outside Florence for a month. I’m afraid she accepted immediately. Sarah said she’ll have a private dance tutor every day. I know this is a disappointment to you, but Daisy is so excited that I couldn’t say no. Could you come to Paris in August instead? Best, Helga.”
He squinted at his screen, his eyes fuzzy. He seemed to be on the point of focusing on a tiny shape far above, but the more he tried, the more indistinct it appeared.
Helen de Búrca was born in Ireland and moved to Geneva almost 12 years ago. She travels and writes as often as her day job will allow her.
Somebody has dumped two hundred and eighty bricks, a lorry load of sand and a tarpaulin in my front garden.
There must be some mistake. Sand is always useful in a garden, for seeds and so on, and I suppose a brick or two could be used to raise a water butt off the ground, if you had one. But the quantities delivered here are quite unreasonable and I shall have to ask whoever brought them to take them away again as soon as possible.
I have been next door to see if they were intended for Mr Snell, but got very little satisfaction out of him.
“Ah,” he said, before I had a chance to get a word out. “I’m glad you’ve come round. I wanted a word about your tree.”
“My tree?” I said.
“Something will have to be done about the roots of your plum tree. They’ve come under my fence.”
“All trees have roots,” I retorted.
“Not on my side of the fence.”
“If they only had roots on one side then they’d fall over. Listen though,” I continued. “I’ve got two hundred and eighty bricks.”
“What on earth do you expect me to do about them, build a wall to keep them out of my garden?”
“They’re not my bricks,” I said, trying to keep my patience.
“I don’t see what you’re driving at,” he said, “If you won’t do anything about your tree roots, then I will.”
“Hang on, if you’re being like that, then there’s a branch of your apple tree that hangs over my fence by a good eight feet,” I said.
“What about it?” he said. “It’s doing no harm.”
“That’s for me to say though,” I said. “If I want an apple tree in my garden then I’ll plant one myself.”
“Go ahead,” he replied. “Only mind you keep the roots on your side.”
“Roots, branches!” I said. “I didn’t come round to talk about roots and branches and apple trees. The point is that there’s a great heap of bricks and sand in my garden…”
“I know,” he said. “Very unsightly, but I’m making no complaint, that’s your affair, after all, it’s your garden.”
“It’s not my affair though, is it?” I said, getting irritated. “I keep telling you, they’re not mine. I know nothing about them. I simply came round to say that if they are yours…”
“Hold on!” Mr Snell spat out at me. “Let’s get this clear, are you accusing me of dumping a ton of stuff in your garden?”
“I’m accusing you of nothing,” I said. “You seem to be very on edge this morning.”
“I’m not surprised, having you on my doorstep, what with your roots, and branches, and now all this stuff in your garden; clear off, before I call the police!”
The postman interrupted us, and I thought it best to leave.
Having got no help from Mr Snell, I decided to try the house opposite, though as the people had only just moved here we’re not even on nodding terms just yet — nor likely to be, as it turned out.
“I’m sorry to trouble you,” I began to a woman in red trousers and gold top who opened the door, “but I’ve got two hundred and eighty bricks…”
“Not this morning, thank you,” she said briskly and shut the door.
It’s no good getting upset about these misunderstandings nowadays, so I rang the doorbell again and used the knocker for good measure. The door opened again and a man asked me what I was doing disturbing them.
“Listen, I’m at No. 36 — ”
“No you’re not,” he shouted back at me, “that’s over the road,” and he promptly shut the door again.
I had to knock a hundred times before the door finally opened again.
“Clear off,” he said between gritted teeth, “before I call the police.”
I was relieved, therefore, when I stepped through my own gate again, to see a man with a clipboard standing beside the pile of bricks.
“Ah!” I announced. “You’ve come about this stuff, I expect?”
“I have,” he said. “May I see your permit?”
“Permit, what permit?”
“Permit to build,” he said, sighing.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said. “Build what? I’m not building.”
“Then what’s all these bricks for, then?” he asked.
“That’s what I want to know,” I said. “They’re not mine.”
“They’re on your premises,” he very kindly pointed out to me.
“Maybe they are,” I said. “I didn’t put them there. They got here without any instructions or help from me.” I was beginning to shout.
“There’s something very funny going on here,” he said, taking out his phone. “You needn’t start shouting at me, just because you didn’t realise you needed a permit to build.”
I don’t know why that annoyed me so much, but it did. Something snapped in my head and I went inside and phoned the police.
“What’s that?” said the Sergeant. “Number 34 Hanover Street! Why we’ve just had three calls from that street concerning your house. What’s going on up there?”
“That’s what I want to know,” I said irritably. “I’ve got a ton of stuff dumped in my front yard, right in front of my house, creating all sorts of problems, not to mention causing an obstruction. What are you going to do about it?”
“Well now, sir,” the Sergeant replied, “I think you’d best move that obstruction straight away. I’ve had all manner of complaints this morning about you. If you’re going to have building work done then you must get on with it, sir, and quietly too.”
At that point I gave up.
I started work straight away on building a very nice porch onto the front of my house. I am pleased with my efforts and if anyone turns up wanting their bricks and sand back then they will be very disappointed.
Susanne Chapman is passionate and excited about writing. She hopes it shows. As a part time fundraiser she tries to make a difference; she’s a housewife too, and lives near the Humber Bridge. She’s a member of a great little writing group which inspires and helps her create her characters.
I discovered his magic by accident. Tom didn’t like to show off. He was the sort of next-door neighbor you waved to when you both happened to arrive home at the same time. Nearing fifty, he spoke with eyes blue, clear, and serene. Tom Campbell was a “handyman,” vanishing each morning in his immaculate pickup truck. There was no Mrs. Campbell. Not even a dog or cat.
When I found my St. Francis statue toppled in the rose bed between our houses, I winced. Tom was watering his bloom-covered gardenia bush.
“Storm was bad last night,” he said. “Don’t try to pick that up yourself. It’s too heavy.”
“My father gave him to me,” I whispered. “I think it’s broken.”
I didn’t think it was broken. I knew. A telltale crack necklaced his throat. The one saint I remembered who died peacefully in bed was martyred in a Texas spring storm.
“It’ll be fine.” Tom stood over the statue, ignominiously lying in the baby weeds peeping through my mulch.
I wondered how Tom got his five gardenias to bloom all the time. I quit executing gardenias after my last two attempts died. On the internet, I found a helpful thread, describing countless other people’s efforts to grow a lone gardenia. Laughing over the desperation and confessions, I had felt better. Then Tom began to grow gardenias that not only thrived but seemed perpetually covered in gorgeous blooms that scented his whole front yard.
“I have to go to work.” I wiped a stupid tear from the corner of my eye. Who cries over a garden statue?
“It’ll be fine, Ellie,” he said. He smiled.
It reminded me of the rare sunny day on my last trip to Ireland with Da.
“All right. If you say so,” I said.
Sometimes the last straw wasn’t a piece of hay you were spinning into gold for an angry King. Sometimes it was St. Francis, that benign spirit beloved for his reverence for all living things. His joy in life itself, from sun to moon was a perpetual “Alleluia” of joy. My father Francis took his namesake seriously. Until his death, Da had celebrated October 4, the feast day of the little friar from Assisi, with as much pomp and reverence as March 17.
“I could have been pope,” Da told us, over his eightieth birthday dinner. “Did you know, I even studied for the Church, when I was a young man? But where would you all be then? I would be in that pope mobile in Rome. And you would be little angels, waiting on a cloud.”
The five Mahoney progeny looked grim.
“Da, I cannot imagine you as Pope,” said my brother Sean, eyeing the last fried mushroom as my brother Flynn’s hand hovered across the table.
“I would have been a good pope,” Da insisted. His voice shook then, all the time, from the palsy, but it still brought that jolt of attention to our ears. “It’s not all about the one thing or the other. It’s about your heart, Sean. The heart is all that matters. You have to have a joyful heart.”
“Right now, it would give me joy if Flynn let me have this mushroom,” Sean said. Everyone laughed except Da.
That had been our last family dinner; Da passed away a week later.
Since Da’s death, coming only months my divorce, I had felt joy oozing through the cracks. For weeks, even getting out of bed felt like pushing off heavy debris, fighting off the weighty possessions blown onto me as I slept. In dreams, I herded homeless cats, rescued drowning puppies from certain death.
When Tom moved in next door, I tried to make an effort to look competent again. Keeping my job no longer my only priority, I tried to make sure my yard was mowed, my roses tended.
“To know how Ellie feels, look at her garden,” Da had told my siblings. “She never talks, much. But her roses tell you everything. If there is nothing blooming in her garden, then neither is she.”
He knew. Last week I planted flower seeds.
When I came home, the first thing I noticed as I drove up was the tall form of St. Francis, once more shadowing my zinnia babies.
Moments later, I closed my car door, and took a closer look. St. Francis’s healing was miraculous. The crack around his neck wasn’t just repaired. It was gone, a seamless stretch of gray concrete telling no tales.
Gone too, I noticed seconds later, every tiny, scraggly weed in the garden bordering our property line.
On my front doorstep, I found three white gardenias sipping water from their red plastic cup. My note from the universe, signed by Tom Campbell, the wizard of ordinary things.
Eliza Archer is working on a novel. She drinks too much coffee.
It was the best of pies. It was the worst of pies. I have to admit the pastry could not be faulted. I actually enjoyed it. Then as soon as I bit into the pie I found that it was all gristle and bits of animal I prefer not to speculate about. The Commanding Officer stood over me and made sure I ate every scrap of it too. All of the troops who were going out to the forward base ate these pies. It was as if it were some kind of toughening-up exercise.
I was there to report on the victory over the hill tribes who had been revolting. The Dictator (he had no other name or title) was going to defeat them in the next four days. If there were no victory there would be no report. The CO cheerily told me not to worry because in that case I would probably be dead. He actually slapped me on the back quite hard and the officers who were sitting at the table with me found it quite amusing.
Orders were shouted and echoed around the underground bunker where we had been eating. As we left a subaltern pointed out the steel doors to me.
“They will hold out for a good four days,” was his confident prediction.
If I had any trepidation about the food at the forward base, it was immediately dispelled at my next meal. The food was plentiful and better than I have ever tasted at any army base. The men visibly perked up. Life at the forward base might be a fraught. Correction, it was fraught, what with snipers and improvised explosive devices. However the food and the conditions were excellent. Nothing like the horror pie of my first night came my way again.
It was on the second day that the hill tribesmen launched an assault on the camp. I have seen better attacks mounted by unarmed Boy Scouts to be honest with you but the CO gave the order “panic stations” and the men retreated in disorder.
They held onto their guns but dropped their packs in order to move the faster. The disciplined troops looked like a complete and utter rabble. I expected the CO to be incandescent with rage. On the contrary I caught sight of him smiling at the panic. The hill tribesmen were so busy looting the abundant supplies in the camp they were slow to give chase and the steel doors of the underground redoubt clanged behind us.
The CO did a piece to camera for me. “We have just fought a decisive engagement with the rebels and they will give us no trouble for many years to come. The casualties among the hill tribesmen have been catastrophic while as you can see,” (a quick pan around the room) “all of my men are unharmed.”
I was baffled. The CO went back to his office with senior officers and a bottle of Scotch. For the rest of us it was the ghastly pies again. To my surprise I saw a number of pies being taken into the CO’s office as well.
Four days later when the steel doors opened again, the hills were eerily silent except for the sound of carrion crows. The forward base and two villages I visited were littered with remains. None of the rebels or their wives and children had a mark on them.
“Poison?” I asked somewhat incredulously, “we were eating poison?”
The CO nodded.
“And the pies?”
“You need to eat one every four days or so. They are vile so that any which fell into the wrong hands were unlikely to be eaten but they contain the antidote. The poison takes roughly four days to work as you can see from this lot. You can report the victory but no details in case we decide to use this method again. It is the Dictator’s own idea of course. He is a strong man.”
Derek McMillan is the author of Stories from the Mirror of Eternity which is available on Kindle. Amazon allows you to “try before you buy” so you could have a look. Derek is a retired teacher and his editor is his wife, Angela McMillan.