Originally published in America’s Emerging Science Fiction Writers: Pacific Region (Z Publishing, 19 June 2019). Revised, here, 30 May 2022.
(4,750 words. Read time: 25 minutes.)
. . .
The lines are blurred between humans and programs. Where we end and where they begin is a matter of division.
I’m told there was a Struggle years ago. I remember only a little. Bytes, lines of ones and zeros, images on the Screens—sometimes I catch glimpses of our history, but most of it, I think, has been erased or retold by the Masters.
Am I a reliable narrator?
I work from home. They send me codes, and I make tiny adjustments. This isn’t how it used to be. I used to work in a clinic. My job was to run diagnostics on the malfunctioning clientele. They’d come in, trippy and zippy, and I’d figure out what was wrong. If they could be Redeemed, they’d go upstairs. If not, well—
Before the Struggle, I was in school. I wanted to be a surgeon. After the Struggle, I could no longer be a surgeon. Turns out you need real hands and a working memory for that profession. If I could give some advice: stay away from concussive elements—brain injuries are no joke. Coma, forty days. Three weeks before I could utter a sound. Six months before I could walk. An entire year before the new hands came.
Thank the Makers for new hands.
Things are swell, mostly. We have what we need, the buildings are taller than before, and the air is clean and clear. The children are free from fear, and the teachers smile. Everyone is compensated equally for their work, and none has more or less than their neighbor. We live in harmony as long as we hear and obey the Masters. They want what is best for all of us.
Who are we?
I begin to question the origin of the word “us.” The Makers used to worship science—some even worshipped gods. Divine beings who created them. If our Makers were created by a god, and we were created by them, does that make them our gods?
Creation is behind us.
We are here to maintain, to fight the savagery and deterioration of pre-human nature with the help of gentle programming. O! how synthetic life and automation have changed things. It started with a new kind of head-phone implanted into the skin behind your ear. With it, you could connect to absolutely everything. Other people, the Internet, virtual assistants. Anything you needed with a simple vocal command. And the best part: a battery sustained by organic, kinetic energy. All the pre-humans had to do was meet the necessary movement quota, and the little device would operate without issue.
After the head-phones came the contact lenses, the muscle enhancers, the augmentations. See in the dark! Run faster, jump higher! Defeat old age and live the life you always wanted! All it took was a cohort of like-minded billionaires coming together and a smidge of revolution. Now, we can surgery our way into an “improved” life. What ails you? they asked. We have the remedy.
The meaning of “sickness” also changed. No longer did a runny nose, a rash, a chronic debilitation, or even cancer warrant much more than a simple calculation. Nurses became obsolete, and surgeons took their place. Surgery, surgery, surgery. Whatever was not caught by prenatal examinations could be fixed at birth. Abnormalities, gone. Misplaced chromosomes, reordered. Nature, conquered. Chaos, controlled. Hospitals became like malls: order this surgery, that augmentation, and you’ll be—
Yes, Peter? I said, hurrying to the kitchen.
Will you chop those chives and tomatoes over on the cutting board? I am going to whisk these eggs for an omelet.
You’re welcome, sir.
I pace to the marble-topped island and begin the work my master set before me. I smell the melting of butter and the simmering of eggs. I’ve tasted Peter’s omelets before; they are exquisite. I used to collect the eggs every morning. The rooster would crow, signaling the start of my morning chores. That was back when we lived in the village, and Peter taught history at the school for adolescents. Now, we have a flat in the Great City.
Finished, I say.
Right on time. Check the fridge for the shredded cheddar, please.
The knife is in my hands.
I open the fridge and reach for the cheese. Peter pushes the chives and tomatoes onto the moist surface of the omelet. I hand him the cheddar, and he sprinkles some on top. Then, he crushes a bit of white pepper, followed by a pinch of salt. He hands the bag back to me, and I hand it to the fridge.
Now for the tricky part: the fold, Peter says.
I watch as he turns the omelet with the spatula. His movements are deft and practiced. I march back to the island and seat myself on a stool. He slides the omelet onto a plate and glides to the refrigerator.
Hmm, I see the salsa, but where is the sour cream?
You finished it yesterday, sir.
Disgraceful! What is an omelet without sour cream? Lucy, will you transfer a tub of sour cream to our building?
Yes, Peter, says the automated voice behind his ear.
Thank you. How much?
Excellent. T-3, be a chap and go down to the beamer in the lobby. I do not want this omelet to get cold before I can eat it!
I leave our flat, walk to the lift, and wait. The lobby is eighty-one floors below. Soon, they say, the technology for beamers will be convenient enough to have one in your own home. For now, though, it is one per building. There are still secrets to atomization the Makers have yet to uncover.
Going down, bristles the operator. I lean against the back wall and cross my hands over my chest. The lift stops on floor fifty-one.
Lǐ Lǎoshī, nǐ hǎo. Liú gǒu?
Shì! She is quite restless inside, he says. His tiny poodle is on a yellow leash, wearing a knitted sweater. It sits patiently at his heels, letting out a whimper.
On the main floor, Lǐ and I exit the lift and part ways. He walks through the Scanner, and it flashes green. I watch, in envy, as he exits with his dog onto the street below. I cannot get past that terrible device. It detects biological percentages; it is the great determiner of kind and place in society. If your biomass is fifty percent or higher, you may pass through it freely. If your makeup is more tech than biomass, you are fried by an EMP. This is a death sentence for people like me because we rely on our augmentations for subtle things like breathing and circulating. For the rest, it is a costly trip to the hospital. I don’t know how much human there is left of me. A third, maybe? Many of my augmentations came from unlicensed vendors who weren’t, how should I say, burdened by details. Pity.
I cannot leave.
But I can get the sour cream upstairs to Peter. He is waiting. He doesn’t like to wait. When automation is written into your DNA, waiting becomes difficult. He doesn’t like to wait. I should hurry back, so I step to the attendant at the beamer.
Hola, tengo un paquete. Piso 81, sala 902.
Un momento. She calls up the number on a monitor below the desk. A few seconds later, a package appears.
Por supuesto. I handle the package and return to the lift. Peter is waiting. Thank the Makers for speedy lifts. They move so fast that my ears used to pop. Now, my ears do not pop. Thank the Makers for new ears.
On the way up, I recall a message I read on Peter’s Screen: We are, presently, more human than we ever were. A bit of propaganda to get him going in the morning. He wouldn’t call it that; he likes to use the word “devotionals.” Too religious for my taste.
Synths were made to serve others, not to be served. So, when Peter hired me on, I was nothing but grateful. Handicapped veterans had little place in the new, post-Struggle world being formed. They pushed me out of therapy as soon as I got my hands back. I could still get through the Scanners, then, so I decided I had to leave the Citadel. I bounced from job to job and was lucky enough to keep my head on about the substances. Some of my friends were less fortunate.
Of course, people died.
At first, there were those who opposed augmentation. They didn’t last long. Too much particulate matter in the air made it hard to breathe, even to see. The pre-humans were fond of a black rock dug from the earth and burned to produce electricity. They were fond of cars and air-conditioners, too. Masks had to be worn, but they became expensive and inauspicious. The pinnacle of augmentations at the time: Internal Filtration Devices. Surgeons could swap out our natural respirators for better, longer-lasting mechanical lungs in no time at all. Sure, it left a nasty scar, but few complained when it meant they and their children could see another day.
Generally speaking, augmentation became standard fare, and the pre-humans blurred out of existence. In underground factories, the Makers plotted and turned the gears of technology forward in time. A new breed of being evolved. Synths. The rest of us didn’t see it coming. We were blindsided—
Yes, Peter? I said, wiping my feet on the welcome mat.
Do you have the sour cream?
Well, bring it here! I hand him the package, and he breaks the seal. I pull a spoon from the drawer, and he takes it, globbing a substantial amount onto his omelet.
Anything else, sir?
No, that will be all, thanks.
My pleasure, sir.
I return to the desk in my bedroom as Peter devours his meal.
I was sold a lie. I cashed in on a scheme that promised me everything I ever wanted. I consumed, like everyone else. We became synthetic humans, and the machines took our place. They learned to breathe, to taste, to bleed. Pity.
I took the name “T-3” out of obligation. It’s the law that, when you switch sides, you have to take a synthetic name to match your makeup. My given name was Thomas. I had just come into my third year of recovery from the TBI when I switched. A brain bug to help me stay asleep at night is what sent me over the edge. I couldn’t manage the insomnia; I was desperate.
And again, the waves splashed against the wall.
At this point in the narrative, turn to your neighbor and reflect. Who are the Masters? The Makers? Does the “I” in this story seem to have it all straight? Where do you think it will go? Do the speculative elements ring true with our present reality? Analyze—break it apart. Synthesize, put it back together. Where are the holes? Fill them in. Forget there were ever holes in the first place. Where do you think it will go? It goes nowhere. You were sold a lie. You consumed, and you paid for it, like me. Society is hemorrhaging. Capitalism turned digital, turned dark, turned mutant. Radical individualism. Loners, everywhere. What did you think would happen? Systems in so much crisis that even theories about systems began to evaporate. So much tearing apart, so much deconstruction that our brains became liquid. Unbound. Truth, like our bodies, decayed beyond repair. No augmentations could fix this. We needed a savior. We thought the Masters were saviors; we were sold a lie. Jesus should have come in 2020.
Years and years ago, they understood that factories, cars, and air-conditioners came at a cost. An Atari Democrat wrote about an inconvenient truth but was widely ignored in the long run. So we kept at it, and things got warmer. The ice melted, and we lost Shanghai, Rotterdam, New York, Mumbai, and parts of London. The weather became erratic, and fire consumed much of America’s West Coast. People were forced to move. Refugees of climate change—who’d have thought? And when all seemed lost: Reversion. A way to make it all right. Carbon capture to the rescue. Take the bad stuff out of the air so the good stuff can thrive. Some said: Not in my backyard! They, too, were silenced. Somehow, we were brought back from the edge.
Peter likes omelets. They’re all he eats. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The fridge sees more eggs than I ever would have thought possible. Peter is mostly biological. He was built that way, a fabrication of the Makers—who themselves are an assorted bunch—able to pass through the Scanners. The Makers made the Scanners, so they know how to get around them. It is a privilege reserved for the few while the many are subject to its mechanisms. Unfortunately, I can do nothing to earn this advantage, though I am not upset.
I want to be free. Would killing Peter make me free? Doubtful. Besides, I owe him everything. He has kept me, formerly a pre-human, in his service for all these years. I have a bed and shelter because of his goodwill. I have—
Yes? I said, hurrying to the living room.
Will you pour us a drink? I would like to ask you something.
Bourbon or baijiu, sir?
Bourbon for me, please, with ice.
I pour two glasses and seat myself on the adjacent sofa.
Here you are, sir.
Thank you, T-3. I appreciate your being here. It would be lonely without another person to have around. Now, tell me: do you ever dream?
On occasion, sir.
And what are your dreams about?
Well, sir, my dreams seem as random as ever. When I was little, before IFDs and all that, I would dream of colorful things. Pirates, flying, swimming in the ocean with sea creatures. One dream occurred more than the others—something about marching and a home invasion and hiding in the closet. I lost all that after the Struggle; the injury to my brain turned my dreams to mush. Not that I slept much in those days, but when I did, my dreams were undecipherable. Little more than gray hues swirling about in meaningless patterns. I remember a vendor who promised a cure for sleeplessness; a fortunate byproduct of that implant is now my dreams are like a trip to the moon. I go places. When I pull the covers over my body, I’m kept where the light is, and things are different.
Different in a good way?
Just different. Not good or bad.
For a moment, we sit in silence, sipping our drinks and looking around the room. Peter appreciates the vanguard art. Several digi-paintings hang on the walls. Peter says they blend human surrealism and programmatic holograms to create a hydraulic aesthetic. Very watery. Fluid, like our brains. Is that the right word?
Do you dream, Peter?
And what are your dreams like?
They are fanciful.
He doesn’t say more, and I don’t press the topic. It’s wise to not argue with entities more biological than oneself. Is this an argument? Probably not, but better to be safe. I despise conflict.
Do you ever want to leave? he asks.
No. There’s nothing out there for me anymore.
I don’t think so. I was lucky you found me. Not wanted, not smiled upon, not paid. I was down and out, tired, and so awfully close to the end of myself. Am I the man I used to be? I’d ask. No, I am not even a man. I am synth, now, a creature of wires and electronic pulses.
As am I, Peter states.
No, sir, it’s not the same. You never knew anything different. You were born at the hands of the Makers. I was born of a woman. My parents loved and cared for each other. God was fair to them, they used to say.
God? Do you believe in such a thing?
No. There’s nothing up there anymore. The Man made him bleed, and the Masters crushed his name to dust. Together, they took his place. They spliced themselves into a cosmic regime.
Yes, I think about it often.
And I like the way you think. It is like listening to a ghost, like a wisp of something long gone. Do you remember when I taught at Welton?
Only some. I remember the rooster and the hobby farm we kept. I remember the peace and quiet: the village wasn’t bustling. Those were slow times.
They were. Welton was slow, traditional. Full of honor and excellence. Discipline, too, I remember. They did not let those kids think. They did not take well to questions without answers; they only wanted answers you could not question. I am sad we had to leave. But the call of the Masters cannot be ignored. They wanted me here, where I could teach their history to the next generation. Their history is not wholly true. I was made to teach a game of imitation, a pastiche pedagogy. I know this now, and I think you do too. I have noticed the papers you keep tucked away in your desk. You doubt what you have been told.
I remain silent. If I could still sweat, there would be a glaze on my bald head.
Do you not? he asks.
I open my mouth to speak, then close it.
It is not a trap, T-3. Speak freely.
Sir… it’s not safe to speak freely.
No, you are right. It is not safe. I am not safe.
There is a loud knock at the door. I stand too quickly and spill my drink. Another knock.
Staatspolizei! Öffne die Tür.
Answer the door, T-3. I will sort this out.
Trembling, I tread quietly towards the voices. I put my eye to the peephole. Two of them in crisp red uniforms.
Peter stands and straightens his shoulders. He walks to a painting on the wall and pushes it aside to reveal a safe. He types a code, and there is a soft click. He pulls out a blaster. I didn’t know he kept one.
Peter presses himself against the wall, just out of sight of the door. He motions with his free hand.
Let them in, he whispers.
I do as my master commands. The policemen enter with fire in their eyes and batons clenched in their rigid fists.
Wo ist Petrus?
I pretend like I do not understand them. There is a flash of light, and the one on the right short-circuits and crumples to the floor. Peter, it seems, has taken a nonlethal approach. The remaining officer locks eyes with my master and lunges at him with his baton. I take a step to intervene and hear a resounding crack, like a bat hitting a baseball to the edges of a stadium. I fall. Another flash of light, and I feel the weight of my assailant on top of me. My vision tunnels, and the world around me turns upside down. The last I hear is the crackling and spritzing of malfunctioning machines; the last I see is my master’s polished face close to mine.
You were a good man. I will miss you, Thomas.
I look around the room at the mess. A right mess. Two smoking Reds and a fallen comrade. I knew they would come for me. It was only a matter of time, what with the cameras and microphones in every classroom and hallway. I could not teach what I wanted to teach. I grew tired of disseminating the lies. No anti-Man, anti-Master, or anti-Maker comments, they said. No preaching or teaching of religious ideology, they said. Do not do this. Do not say that.
They are always watching.
Freedoms were revoked, but I was never free, to begin with. They made me in the dark, and they made me to stay in the dark. But Ulrich opened my mechanical eyes to the way things were before the Struggle. Before the Man set his guard of Reds on the Citadel, there was a different order to things. There was democracy; there were human rights. But those things were in decay. The gap between the rich and the poor—the Bruges and the Proles, they used to say—was ever-widening. The Bruges grew super-rich and stopped playing by the rules. They undermined the status quo and walked all over the poor Proles.
Success bred complacency, which gave the Man his opening. He rallied his Reds, arming them with guns and steel. He sent them out on a path of destruction: Down with all things old and broken! Down with old customs, culture, habits, and ideas! He wanted to make things new, and, after years of passion and conflict, he did. Democracy slipped into darkness because those with privilege stopped caring about those without. From its corpse rose the mighty Reds and their intrepid leader.
Soon after, the Man and his closest allies formed an inner party and took to calling themselves “the Masters.” They rooted out all those who opposed and beat them on stages to the sound of auspicious anthems. They tore down all elements of class and hired the Makers to create a new class. And so they did: from the depths of the world came my forefathers and foremothers into a new era of unity, safety, and peace.
I cannot stay here.
There will be more of them. I return to the wall-safe and grab my bug-out bag, stuffing the blaster inside it. Then, I kneel next to the body of my former servant and friend. I say a prayer: Father, have mercy on this poor man’s soul. He served his master well and did his duty. Forgive his sins and bring him into your kingdom. No time to clean up this mess. I need to get to Ulrich. He will make me safe. A thought occurs to me, and I quickly disrobe one of the officers. A disguise might be helpful. I shove my limbs into red sleeves and pant legs, then sling my bag around my shoulders. I check myself in the mirror in the hallway and walk several steps to the lift. The doors glide open, and I am met by another pair of Reds. I make a sharp salute, and we trade places. The doors close, and I exhale. I press the button for the basement and am below ground in an instant. I rush to my eBike and insert the key. It starts without a noise. I am off, around the corners, up the ramp, and past the Scanner.
Fire, perpetual motion.
I will burn bright. I will burn right. Tyger, Tyger, in the forests of the night, dare I frame thee for the deed? Do I grasp at thee in terror? No immortal hand or eye could ever look upon thy face. No man could ever throw his spear at thee.
I am emancipated from the darkness. I walk in the day; I dance in the light. And I will not be Redeemed by the Man. I will not be taken to his loving ministry. He will never set me straight, for I am already straight as the fletched arrow. He told me what to do, what to say, how to eat, walk, and teach. It was him who brought me to the Great City, and now it is him who drives me away.
We are, presently, more human than we ever were.
Such noise. O! how the Masters fooled the masses with their proclamations. When the Bruges fell, the remnant demanded assurances. They needed safety and security, so in came the cameras and the posters. The Man’s face was displayed for all to see. BE REDEEMED—the slogan of the Reds—was hammered into the hearts and minds of the Proles. And from the Proles came Reversion, which itself was a paradox. Physically, the earth was set back to the way it was. But her inhabitants were launched into the bold new future of augmentations and organic rearrangement. They never saw it—
Lucy sends a subtle vibration through my skull. A phone call.
Peter, it’s me.
Ulrich, thank God! I wondered if I would hear from you.
Yes, well, your face is plastered on all the Screens. But we planned for this. You know what to do. Be quick. I am afraid our timeline has been cut short. If they catch you, they will not bother with Redemption.
Yes, I know. I shall see you presently.
Keep it moving, keep moving. Faster, faster, keep it moving.
Twenty blocks to the river. Sixteen blocks to the river. Blinding lights—I blaze through them. I see a blur of my face on a nearby Screen. A camera flashes from above a traffic signal. I begin to hear sirens. Twelve blocks to the river. Eight blocks to the river. The sirens are becoming louder. They are behind me. Four blocks to the river. They almost have me. Two blocks to the river. I am going as fast as I can. Is it fast enough?
I reach the riverfront park and barrel down its grassy knoll. I ride straight into the water. I am separated from my eBike and start swimming. Deeper, deeper, two meters under, four meters, ten, deeper, deeper. I prepared for this. An augmentation for breathing water. I am ready. Deeper, deeper, almost to the bottom.
Ulrich is waiting.
My mechanical eyes adjust to the darkness. I see little, but just enough to recognize the shapely figure of my friend’s vessel. Gray and sleek, waiting right where he said it would be. I place my hand on its surface, and a hatch opens.
Get in, Peter. We are not alone down here.
I squeeze through the hatch and rest my body in the passenger seat next to Ulrich. He stares forward in silence, and we speed away. My heart rate settles to a standard beating. I am overwhelmed by the rush of the escape and by the presence of mein Kapitän. I feel cold and dead, but his warmth revives me. He hands me a white book with a picture of a newspaper man on its cover. The pages are faded and torn; the words are barely legible.
Our fait accompli, Peter. We are following Montag’s tracks, now, into the night. The river will carry us to the wilderness, away from the Great City, the Dead Places, Welton, and everything we have ever known and cared about. Away from the dead and dying, into the land of the living. I know a woman named Bénet who will teach us how to rebuild. How to eat truth in small enough bites, so we do not become sick. Are you hungry, Peter? Do you still seek the truth of Things?
Good. Let us remember, together, what is right, true, and beautiful. Let us remember the grace given to us. We will not insult the dead. We will remember the damn silly things done by men, so we do not repeat them. We will not sacrifice our souls on the pyres of self-interest and greed. We will look out for the poor, the needy, and the little ones. The Man had his time. Now, the time is ours. He only knew how to break down, but we know how to edify. To hoist a new flag. There is beauty everywhere, even if it starts a little blurry. After weeks, months, and years of being on the defensive, we will find ourselves. And though we may be confused, we will admire all those old objects. We will fish for the hearts of people, for there is much beauty there and everywhere. Waters unendingly full of life and a garden of intricate design and intention. He will come again. He will make us new—
When he chooses. And when he does, every knee will bow, and every tongue will confess. He will show us the very few things in which the eternal endures that we can love. He will show us something solitary in which we can quietly take part. And, when our silence is deep and complete, we will speak.
This story is even more relevant today than it was when you first wrote it. My question to you…do you see yourself as Peter or as Thomas? Or neither? Perhaps you are Ulrich leading others to freedom? Hope there’s a way out of this scary mess!
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Hey thanks for coming back to it! I don’t know where I am in the story. I’d say bits of my personality are in each of the characters.