Lessons for Machines
by Fred Nolan
We cannot walk far, even in boots. A long trip is hard, our skin might break. My brother Ibrahim does not understand. ‘But papa goes for miles and miles!’
What I keep to myself is this: another man has papa in his stomach.
No longer is our father bound to the dry, sharp earth the way we are. Because, those other men, their feet are not like ours. They could walk the whole desert if they chose.
If I said that, you know what his next question would be.
Ibrahim begs to see where the oxen sleep. He wants to hear them wake for morning. Mama swore those were the most wonderful songs of all, it is why she traveled there. She said the animals loved it, even pigeons came! Whole herds arrived to listen and sing along, and there was nothing able to stop them.
Well, someone stopped mama, but that’s another thing we keep from Ibrahim.
I should say, before you assume—these are not oxen in the normal sense. We call them that because they plow fields, build dams, haul water, just like cattle. A better name would be automatons, wind-ups. Gear soldiers. We’ll give an infantry machine a name like Grandpa or Eight Forty-Five.
Mama told us, every day at sunset, when their dusk symphony was finished, the last sounds were true, ranting madness. Metal-on-metal, grinding, slowing to a halt. The automatons’ eyes started to dim and, in a way, they slept.
Ibrahim asks, ‘Victoria?’ That is how he begins every question.
‘What is it?’
’Is it so bad when the weather changes?’
We woke early, started the hour’s trip downhill, to the closest camp.
I was praying he does not see people detained. The wind-ups build traps for us locals and, on occasion, they catch one. They jab swords between the bars and say nonsense like ‘Talk, tell us everything!’
I say it is nonsense because an automaton cannot learn. Even if it could hear, nothing we say would change its card punches. It was the engineering corps who brought them from the capital; these automated colonists you’re sure were always here. But they are, in fact, rather new. That was forty years ago, maybe.
The sun-powered service machines wake first, then wind up every rancher’s mainspring, send it out with enough juice for a day’s work. That is the music I spoke of, the sounds of coils powering up and spinning.
There are shepherd-machines that chase game from the river. The engineers came to irrigate; it does no good if the antelopes drink all the water.
There are dam-building automatons. Butcher-automatons that kill animals for grease. There are winter-only machines, and there are machines for autumn, spring, summer-only. Between all the models there are three hundred at least.
I answer, ‘You mean are the seasons bad? No, that’s how it works, Ibrahim. We need four full seasons.’
‘I mean is it bad for them?’
He points; I have to squint. Peppering the fields are rancher-models and farmer-models toppled over, stuck in water. Some are upright and functioning, but tending rows without crops. Some are oxidizing.
In a few cases the engineers used batteries. Those circuits have all turned to gruel and spilled down machine faces, corroding their expressions clean.
‘That’s nothing to do with the seasons. They redirected the waters and changed the land, but never changed their programs. In the end they all will break down. That’s the capital’s fault.’
‘And what about us?’
‘What about us? We outlast them. We use their housing for dinner plates when they are gone.’
‘Until then, all I do is survive like my cat, right?’
Ibrahim has a kitten; it is bold and feral, believes itself to be a bear. I worry that it will claw him good. That he finishes the question with right? means I have told him once already.
We see why mama loved the music. It is clangy, dissonant fun, the sound of rust giving in to D-major. No pigeons, though.
We do not stay for the evening song. That is how mama was caught. She tried returning home in the dark, and stepped into a trap.
She took a sword to the chest the next morning. Papa had gone looking and saw it happen. It should not have been a killing blow, more of a glancing thing between arm and breast. Anyway, she burst, the same as an animal skin too full of wine.
By then papa had to tell me: we evolved when the oxen came. Our insides are freshwater now. We had organs before, and those made us hungry, thirsty, out of breath. All of that is gone; today we spend time on childrearing and books. The only disadvantages are being near sharp things, and how walking hurts our feet.
Every time papa sets out to find the engineers, he hides in a well, until an ordinary man comes along, drinks him up without knowing. Then papa tells the man’s bones where they need to go.
I see why he is mad with revenge. Mama’s hair was full, her skin warm. She would take me up in her lap and say, ’Do you see our fingerprints, Victoria? See how it looks like spiders under the skin? You are as strong as a spider and you will catch all of us in your magnificent web.’
I think of her dying, flooding the cage. I know her runoff would have slipped through the gaps in my cobwebs, even if I had them. I could never catch her with anything. She only said it to be a good mother. Affectionate, deceitful.
What other, pretty things did she lie about? The animals? The music?
If the engineers knew how much drinking water we carried, they would invite us to the capital as saviors. But their programming is set, too. And now ours is, and that of our parents.
About the Author:
Fred Nolan is a speculative fiction writer from Texas. He has published short stories, technical construction articles, and one novel (Alexei and the Second Empress, with Emery Press Books). He lives near McKinney with his wife, children and old retriever. Please say hello on Twitter: @The_Fredspins.