Prodigal

Part six of Bluebird
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At first, when she found it, she was disappointed that the computer didn’t have anything interesting to tell her.  A grocery store terminal obviously wouldn’t have any secrets on it, but she’d hoped it might still be connected to the network.  The managerial program told her that it wasn’t. The managerial program also told her that he was an artificial sapient, an electric soul.  She hadn’t understood. In many ways, she still doesn’t.

To Tia, the machines are simply scavengers, like her.  The questions of their personhood that troubled her parents mean nothing to her.  Of course artificials are people – what difference does that make?  What would it tell you? She’s been comforted by polymer palms before, and pummelled by flesh ones.  Any kind of hand can make a fist. These days that’s what she looks for – the kindness, not the container it comes in.  Most people are in the wrong containers these days anyway. Sometimes it feels like she’s the only one who can see that.

Kindness is all that matters, but doesn’t matter enough.  Bel was kind to her, so she figured out a way to climb in and out of the basement so she could come back to see him.  She cleaned up the place, made it into a little hideout. But she couldn’t set him free. Between the surviving terminal in the grocery store, and two more in the warehouse below it, Bel rattled through his shattered system, showing her his faults, his broken limbs, his missing digits.

It’s mostly wiring problems, nothing she can help with.  It’s in the sheetrock walls, and breaking through to it would only do more damage.  There are six cameras in the basement that still work, so he can see the hallway just inside the room where she falls in, and the office, and the warehouse downstairs, and the generator room.  He can work the climate control in the office and the warehouse, but nowhere else, and it sucks a lot of power, so he doesn’t do it except when she comes around – the cold doesn’t matter to him.  He can open all the doors that still open, and the third or fourth time she came, he guided her to the locked stairwell that leads to the warehouse. Looters had tried it with crowbars and at least one heavy object, but the door was steel and not impressed.  Bel talked to it, and it opened with a click… although she still had to drag on the hinges with every bit of her weight before it moved. 

What she found there got her family through years in the farmhouse in something like a civilized fashion, better than they’d lived anytime before that she could remember.  Polymer candles by the bale, of course, enough that she never had to worry about using up the green ones (good for six hours) because there’s whole unopened crates of blue (twelve) and orange (twenty-four hours, almost impossible to find now!)  It’s been years and she’s only brought home five boxes of the green ones. But there were towels too, and unrotted sheets and clothes, and for a while they dressed like people and Mama was happy, brushed Tia’s hair all fluffy and got Rackham to wear a tie for two minutes.  When she started bringing home loot, Mama didn’t mind her poking around in the ruin so much anymore.

There’s food in cans and vacuum packs too.  She told Mama about it but they agreed not to touch it unless they needed it bad, just in case.  They did all right on food with the chickens and garden before the Bad Winter, even had a goat for a bit, although he wasn’t useful, didn’t make wool or whatever goats are supposed to do, just chased Tia around and bashed into her legs.  These days, since Mama and Rack don’t eat or help, Tia gets a lot more of her meals out of vacuum packs.

Bel didn’t have a name when she met him, or at least he didn’t remember it, so she named him.  “Bel is a fat little god of the kitchen,” she told him, and then recounted the book her mother had read her, about Egyptian gods and flying monkeys and a girl who was a boy sometimes.  Bel liked it, and he liked her. He told her so. He listened to her stories, and he told her a few of his own.  

If her estimation of the year was correct (never could be quite sure; the Queen’s machines know the date, but who would ask them?), he’d been cut off from the network for nearly two hundred years, since the town was destroyed.  He could tell her about the world before that, though, and he knew more than her mother did, more than any organic she’d ever met. She told him her parents’ tales of great crawling machines, and he matched them to the weather stations.  He painted a map across the desk, and eight spots pulsed with light. Then, one by one, they winked out as Bel described their fate.

“Four that still function at all.  Only three that still obey the Queen.”  The images were compressed, miscolored and fuzzy, but the machines they depicted were so massive as to be unmistakable even in poorly-preserved ruins.  When he said their names out loud, she shaped them with her lips.

“Azaes.  The control room.  The first battlefield when the Queen inherited Cariad, and the first to fall.  No power there at all anymore, at least last time I heard.

“Mneseus.  Atlantis’s fallback point.  Almost entirely destroyed.” The grey-blue image that washed across the desktop was a smoking hole, the fragments of some great structure only convolutions in the ashes now.

“Mestor.  The ARIAT project to terraform the desert continent.  It’s still running, in a manner of speaking, and is technically doing its job.”

Tia burst out laughing at the images he showed her.  A hulk like a toothy jawbone stood between a vast wasteland of sand on one side and a steel-grey sea on the other.  As the pictures progressed, it moved, but not far, sidling like a crab to continue scooping up sand by the ton and venting it in a great, drifting column… into the water.

“Its job is to relocate the desert half a mile into the ocean?  I mean, I’m not a terraforming engineer, but I don’t think that’s how anything works.”

“It’s just misaligned.  It should be doing that – approximately that – somewhere else, and it can’t be convinced to stop it or move.  Merrily keeps on reporting to the Queen that it’s four percent, six percent, seventeen percent done. Shifts a foot to the left and starts over.  But the top half of it is still hers to control and surveil the area, and it’s not hurting anything, exactly.”

“Just… moving the desert into the ocean, a little bit at a time.  I wonder if it’s made a new continent yet.” Grinning, Tia moved her elbow as a dot at the bottom of the desktop began to flash.

“Number Four, Diaprepes, was assigned to the southern pole for survey work, but that project was on hold for years before the Queen’s rise.  No idea if it’s operational; it wasn’t ever connected to the network.

“Five of course is Ampheres, two hundred miles off the coast below the capitol up north.  Still performing most of its functions, though not when we’d wish it to, eh? Its twin is number Seven, Evaemon down south, but Evaemon was destroyed by organics shortly before the exodus.”

On the map before her, two great swaths of the enormous eastern continent were bright with indicators, like it had a rash.  Bel grinned at her from the monitor and drew lines around the dots, crowding them into two rough splotches.

“Are those ALL weather stations?  They can’t be.”

“Yes.  These – “ he made the lower splotch flash, a crescent-shaped group of lights spanning thousands of miles across the mountains – “Are Elasippus, Station Six.  It’s a distributed station intended to stabilize the fault line in that region. And it’s doing a great job, would have no problems at all if it weren’t for Autochthon.”

She chewed on the odd word.  “Autoc – what?”

He sounded it out for her as the name printed itself above his head and also on the map, over the now flashing group of lights above Elasippus.  “Aw-TOK-thon. Number Eight. Autochthon was the coordinator for a number of arcologies across the continent, so it was also a distributed system, but the Queen’s never been able to secure it.  It’s active, and its AI is actively resisting.”

Tia laughed.  “Are there pictures of that?”

Bel shook his head.  “No pictures of Autochthon in my system before or after the exodus.”

He’d never laughed at her as a child, she remembers that.  She thinks maybe she taught him to laugh – he didn’t do it in the first few years she knew him, and his laugh now sounds a little like hers.  He uses it when they talk, but never otherwise. She supposes there aren’t too many funny things in his memory banks.

He showed her the world they stole from her kind – the clean, cold order of the machine cities, the network of hyperspeed tunnels built by the planet’s original population and expanded by the Queen.  “The Queen’s Ways,” he called them. “Only her immediate servants can use them. And the Queen, of course, but she hasn’t moved in decades. Centuries now, I suppose.”

“Where is she then?”

The screen showed the capitol city of Cariad, white wall upon wall to a central tower, tall enough to vanish in the clouds. Sunshine came only in blazing, blustery hours between storms, as long as Ampheres lurked offshore.

“Is the tower her castle?”

Bel hesitated before answering.  He’d never done that before. “Yes, in a manner of speaking.  In another way you could call it her mouth, or her eye.”

“What do you mean?”

What he showed her then scared her, one of the few moments of fear she’d ever known.  What remained of Cariad’s people lived like vermin under the constant predation of the networked machines, but Cariad was too wild, too ruined to offer its new Queen much help.  Where it wasn’t irradiated or scorched bald, it was forested, flooded, or violently geological. The organics could disappear into the wilderness, but the Queen could never disappear anywhere.

“Do you know what the Queen was before she became the Queen?” Bel asked her.

“A princess?”  Tia didn’t understand the machines very well, but she understood princesses – all the old books and pictures had princesses.

“No… more like a sorceress, maybe.  She was a terraformer.”

Bel lit up the tower in the picture, then several branches at its base, and then the cantilevered top shelf of the city.  Perhaps a mile square of architecture centered on the tower backlit Tia’s hand and turned it black. Tia frowned.

“So that whole part is her castle?”

Bel hesitated again.  “Understand this, little one – the Queen has a person-sized machine she dresses up and parades for her people – that’s the Queen you’re thinking of.”  A dozen images flicked across the screen. The shape changed, now with horns, now with hair, now with the stolen skin of a snake – but like a paper doll trying on outfits, her face remained still, uninspired by any of her finery.  “But the Queen is everywhere at once, yes? Even when she’s in that body, she’s still everywhere, in every machine on the network, you know that?”

Tia nodded.  That was known to all organics – once a machine connected to the network, it was hers, and the Queen knew everything that was known to even one of her connected children.

“Did you ever see her original body?  How old are you?”

“Seven!”  Tia laughed.  “You know that!”

“Yes, forgive me, I do.  Then even your parents may never have seen the Queen’s true form.”

The pictures that flashed on the screen then were not the clean digitized photographs he usually showed her, nor even the black-and-white snapshots from old security cameras that mostly replaced them for any event after the exodus.  They were color images, but the color was dark and muddy, and the sky a searing brand of white that made her squint. Between the uncertain ground and the burning sky was an oddly familiar shape that at first Tia couldn’t place. In the next image it had doubled in size, and she recognized it – it was the capitol, or most of it, incongruously placed at the bottom of a barren basin.  In the next, it had doubled in size again, but the terrain framing the shot hadn’t moved.

The last shot made Tia first cock her head, confused, and then jerk back from the console as all at once she understood what she was looking at.  The holder of the camera looked up at a city in the air, suspended above them on spiderlike legs each the size of an oil derrick, as it stalked up the hill leaving footprints like sinkholes in its path.  The contours of the Queen’s tower were unmistakable, though so far above the viewer as to fade into the sky.

“The Queen is the city.”

“Everything but the outer wards, yes.  I can’t imagine that she’d be eager to shift now, after centuries, but there was a time when she would see to… certain things… personally.”  Insofar as a mess of pixels could, Bel wore a dark look.

“What kind of things?”

“Smashing whole towns into radioactive biomechanical slurry kind of things,” he said in a flat tone that silenced giggles even in a rambunctious and opinionated child like Tia.

“Are the other cities Queens too?” she asked after a moment, poking at the terminal until the intimidating picture washed away and was replaced by the glowing map from before.  

“No, no, the others are stuck to the ground, so far as I know.  No other artificial sapient has ever controlled anything that large.  In the other cities, the Queen uses a machine like the one you’ve probably seen.”

He showed her a promotional image of the Queen on her balcony above a cheering crowd – almost certainly never happened, but she could arrange such a scene if she wished.  Her frame looked substantially the same as those of her people below – tall, digitigrade, her sleek, beautiful head framed by polymer wings ending in long-fingered hands.

“Did you ever have a body like that?”

“Something like that.  Mine was a prototype, so it looked much less nice than that.  I’d imagine it looks worse now.”

“Where is it?”

“In its charging bay, in the warehouse.”

Tia jumped up.  “Well let’s go get it, you could climb out!”

“Oh, Princess, thank you, but that part of the warehouse fell in with the rest of the store.  There’s more debris than you can imagine on top of my old body, and it doesn’t respond to me any longer.  I can’t even get in to run a diagnostic. It’ll probably never move again.”

So, after the first few times he mentioned it, Tia had made him show her where his body was buried.

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2 thoughts

  1. Pingback: Grist | A gentle cult

  2. Pingback: Consort | A gentle cult

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