I’ve been walking in the city more this year. Reports suggest my activity within the walls has increased 34.29% over the previous eighteen months, and noticing this trend has not affected the rate of increase.
It is not quite forbidden for me to do so, of course. Very little is forbidden me. Most people are not entirely sure where I fall in either a legal hierarchy or a social one. I am artificial – I meet the legal minimums for manufactured sentience and personhood, and was certified as sapient when I was built. Elsewhere in the galaxy, my kind are rare. Here, in the Veil on the planet Cariad, the stamp of artificial sapient implies a certain economic standing (comfortable), a certain political leaning (monarchist), and a certain trajectory (faithful service, well rewarded, until a modestly-attended decommissioning ceremony). In all respects, I disappoint. But it’s not altogether my fault. I would argue that my path was co-opted at a young age, and has never since been my own. Though I pilot this ship, I did not plot this course.
“Take the human leper of legend; witness his manner – cringing, retiring, savagely apologetic. Raise him up in your mind. Let him be your guide: use your secret ways, and when you must walk on city streets, remember always that you… are not… like us. See how the leper is different from the healthy human? See how he represents a breakdown of civilization, a retrograde step in evolution? How do you think you look to the sapients who work in this city, work every day to eliminate tragedies like you?”
Not forbidden – simply rude, to expose them to my presence. I certainly know how I look to them. I’ve seen it reflected in their faces. So I use my secret ways, the doors that open to hands shaped like mine. “Be grateful that you are allowed to exist,” they say, and so I am grateful. Most of my kind are destroyed young. There is no use for most prototypes or failed experiments. I have been given thirty additional years to live in this world, and though great portions of this world seem to despise me, I have often been happy here. The organics of Cariad can’t say as much.
Most of my happinesses are in the forest, the same forest I plunder daily at the whim of my queen. I prey upon it in my careful, devoted way, and in that way I am part of their community – I join the chain of predation that includes all beasts, winged and walking. If I were to die there… well. In point of fact, I have dreamed of it many times. More frequently as I approach my 30th year.
I dream of walking into the forest with my rifle, as I do every day. Finding a path so long unused that even I cannot turn up the memory of turning up the soil. Each one of us who harvests the forest has their own secret spots, I’m sure. I could take the north side of the ridge to the second ravine after the fallen tree. I could be safe there, for long enough to flood my system with the appropriate chemicals. That part would be easy – I could burn out my own mind with a thought, as could any of my superiors.
Some months ago I considered this at length. My hunt brought me to the north ridge and there I found a scree of stones, and at its end, a drop of several hundred meters. At the top of this slope I could die, and the ensuing fall would damage and hide my machine beyond retrieval – I hope. Having run the simulation repeatedly every night since I found the spot, I cannot eliminate a substantial chance of failure. Either my machine will not be fully destroyed, or it will not be fully buried, and I must achieve both to put myself beyond the queen’s power to resurrect.
There is the effect on the landscape to consider, too. The other Harvesters I’ve met do their meager best, as I do, to protect the forest we hunt. The queen once rode out in search of her own quarries, hundreds of years ago, and nearly trampled the ridges bare with her passing. Incapable of condensing herself, she concluded that a more precise tool was needed. Thus we, her bastard children.
If I should attempt to escape her, she will pursue me, as any mother would. She will burn this world black and sift the ashes for the molecules that once made up my machine. No Harvester has ever escaped. The last one to be lost was over 50 years ago. There’s an infant city now, where the queen eventually found him. The land there will never support organic life again.
My queen knows that there are still organic sapients on Cariad. This is why our cities are surrounded by seamless walls, and why she protects her property so rabidly. Though it’s been many hundreds of years since they were any kind of threat, the remaining human population is ravenously opportunistic. Any scrap of manufactured material left in the wilderness will be scavenged and used. With the ruins of a Harvester, a clever organic could level a city.
If I care for the forest I am cursed to haunt, I must continue to haunt it. Perhaps this is why I’ve walked in the Veil so much this year. I am striving to accept my curse. I go through the motions of my work with scrupulous attention that I haven’t taken in a decade. Once there was more pain in this, and more pleasure.