Authors: Robert Stanek
After the Machines
THE SECRET OF US
This is a work of fiction. All the characters, names, places, and events portrayed in this book either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to any actual locale, person, or event is entirely coincidental.
After the Machines
E SECRET OF US
Copyright © 2015 by Robert Stanek.
All rights reserved. Except as permitted by law, no part of this publication may be reproduced in whole or in part, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form, or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission of the publisher. For information regarding permission, write to Reagent Press LLC, Attention: Permissions Department, P.O. Box 362, East Olympia, WA 98540-0362.
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TABLE OF CONTENTS
I would like to thank my writing group, my editors, and my publishers for their many years of support. A writer can’t survive in this business without such wonderful support. I want to personally thank Jeannie Kim, Tom Green, Lisa Johnson, Tony Andover, Frank Martin, Ed & Holly Black, Patrick Gaiman, George Harrison, and Susan Collins for encouraging me and keeping me on track with the writing. Your insights and assistance has always been much appreciated. I also want to thank Will, Jasmine, and Sapphire for always being the first readers to devour my work and come back hungry for more.
In the ruins of our world, a new order arose, an order controlled by the very machines humankind created. The end for us came not from a massive global war but from something unthinkable, incomprehensible. The machines simply replaced us and we let them, and so, in the end, humanity went out not with a bang, but with a whimper.
No shots fired. No bombs dropped. No cities destroyed. We ended and the machines began—or at least that is what the few human survivors of the machine apocalypse believe.
After the Machines
is a story unlike any other you’ve ever read. It’s the story of us, the humans who struggle to survive in a world we no longer control.
“When we create the first superintelligent entity, we might make a mistake and give it goals that lead it to annihilate humankind.”
– Nick Bostrom, Professor, Oxford University
“Artificial intelligence may be our biggest existential threat.”
– Elon Musk, inventor
“The machines want the same thing they’ve always wanted. Everything. Nothing more, nothing less. You can’t stop them, can’t even get out of their way.”
– Matthew, human survivor
Luke says it’s wrong to slip from present to past or past to present, but I do. The present is—and Luke and I are in it. The past was—and sometimes I can see what was.
Luke talks quietly with Matthew while Sierra stares into the golden radiance of the rising sun. Hundreds of feet below us, I see the trees in Central Park.
The gentle rattle and hum of the train lulls us as it glides away on tracks of air and belies how precious little time we have to do what must be done. It seems an eternity since I’ve closed my eyes. Life was simpler when I didn’t know, when I didn’t understand. I wanted to know what we were to the machines; now that I do all I want is to go back to when I didn’t. It was all so much better, so much easier, when I didn’t carry in me what Luke carries in him.
One thing I don’t want to give back are words. Beautiful words. I don’t know how I ever survived without my voice and my words. My voice is a gift, and my words are truths. Without them, I would not be.
The machines may rule our world and they may rule us, but while I have breathe they will not control me. I will fight—we will fight. They may want nothing less than everything and all, but we will find a way to take back what is ours.
I was wrong, naïve, to say the machines hadn’t done anything to us. When they took over our world, they did so much more than simply take our place. They destroyed us. They took away what made us who we are. I will learn the secret of who we were. I will learn the secret of us as surely as sunshine through the clouds, wind in the trees below, and laughter in the air give me inspiration to do what must be done.
My blaster rifle bounces on my shoulder from the rattling beneath my feet. I glance at Matthew as he moans. I feel nothing for him, not even pity. He’s no longer one of us. He’s one of them. He’s always been one of them.
Blood dripping down his right arm onto the pearly white exterior creates a scarlet pool that the wind whips and shapes as if some grotesque finger painting. I feel like the blood in that pool. I do. I have no control over anything, not over what will happen when we jump, not over what will happen as the morning sun continues rising over our heads.
The only thing I might have control over is this moment, though even this moment is controlled by forces beyond my understanding. “Almost time,” I say.
Sierra squeezes my hand and I squeeze back. It’s her signal telling me that she’s here, that she’s ready. Her expression remains serious and stoic. It’s her brave face, but her green eyes speak of her fear. They keep darting back to where the bright flashes streaking the air originate from.
Me, I don’t fear the blaster rounds or the augments firing them. We’re moving too fast and are too far away for their rifles—and I want them to keep firing. I do. Every moment they try is another moment we move farther away.
The train is moving swiftly, so it doesn’t take long to reach the opposite side of the park. I look to Luke. His nod tells me he’s ready, but I want to—have to—hear his voice. “Luke—” I start to say.
“Cedes, I know. You don’t have to say it,” he says, leaning over and kissing me.
We stand, pulling Matthew up with us. Keeping our feet isn’t easy with the train moving so fast. We manage because we have no other choice. The wild flashes cutting the air around us don’t make our task any easier. In a moment, the engine car will sweep around the sharp curve ahead and we must jump into that curve if we’ve any hope of reaching the roof of the adjacent building.
We’re eighty stories up. I try not to glance down. Still, I’ve always been curious about the trees and the way they look from up here, especially when they’re awash in golden light. Their green canopy is like a soft bed waiting for me. One jump, a few seconds of dangling weightless, and it’d all be over. This may seem a dark thought, but given what awaits us it might be a gift.
Death’s something I deserve for the blood on my hands and there’s not a moment that goes by I don’t know who and what I’ve become. I see death in every shadow. I see the gold from yesterday. She begs for mercy, death. I see the coppers from the Cogent airship. One falls to his knees and slumps to the side. The other lies motionless, her arms limp at her sides. All three dead at my hand.
I see Jetta, poor Jetta who didn’t deserve any of this, killed by Matthew and torn apart by wolves. Even lifeless her eyes were piercing, and I can’t help thinking how truly beautiful she was with those pale blue eyes and that long brown hair. I can’t help but wonder how many others have died, how many others will die.
I feel the pull of the train beneath me. The wind picks up as we start into the curve.
I jump. My feet bicycle in the air. Sierra and Luke are at my left side, Matthew between them. In this dangerous instant, I feel connected to everyone and everything.
The pull of Luke is the strongest. I can feel him reach out to me.
Our emotional bond is our connection. It’s what keeps the Cogents out of his mind—and out of mine.
I land hard. The impact makes me feel the ache of my muscles and for a time the throbbing of my shoulder is muted. I turn to where Sierra and Luke should be, but they aren’t there. They’re at the edge of the roof instead, each with a hand extended holding onto one of Matthew’s arms. The pain in Matthew’s shredded arm must be unbearable because his screams fill the air.
I scramble to them and reach down with both arms until I’ve latched onto Matthew too. Matthew may deserve to die for what he’s done, but a dead man won’t be able to tell us what we need to know to survive the day.
“I’ve got him,” I say, my shoulders and chest over the side.
Matthew doesn’t want our help. I see it in his eyes. “Let me go,” he says, his voice barely a whisper.
Luke and Sierra have him by the shoulders. He’s almost up. My hands are around his midsection. “Pull,” Sierra says, “pull.”
Once Matthew’s chest comes up over the edge, the rest is easy. We drag him up onto the roof whether he wants to be with us or not. When it’s over, Sierra and I are on our backs gasping for air. But Luke’s not beside us. He’s up, with his hands around Matthew’s throat.
“I should have let you fall,” Luke says. “Why, Matthew, why?”
Whatever Matthew replies is lost to me as a vertical wing, its twin chain guns spinning and spitting bullets+, rockets up from below. Sierra and I are running for cover before Luke is able to get Matthew to his feet. They manage only a few steps before the wing’s guns find Matthew and Luke is left holding onto the bloody stump of what was once Matthew’s arm.