Photo credit: anjan58 via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND
Running through the woods in the dark is never easy. When all you can see is a meter or two in front of you no one would blame you for smacking your face into a tree branch and if you are running at top speed for fear of your life then that branch is likely to knock you out cold. Phel never saw a thing until the sharp crack of wood on forehead dropped him to the ground.
He woke up in the middle of a strange room. The trees were gone and the darkness of the forest had dissipated. He sat up and noticed that he had been sleeping on a cushion of black plastic. It felt soft, like vinyl and rested atop a plastic slab that rose directly out of the floor.
The whole world around him seemed to be made of similar material. Floors, and walls were built of modular pieces that looked to have been snapped together. Phel could not discern which portion of the wall contained a door, if any. He looked at the ceiling and saw none, just the green-black night sky. He touched his face to feel a bandage had been placed over his forehead. Then he remembered running. He remembered what he had been running from.
“Hello?” he called out.
“Is anyone there? Am I in a hospital? My name is Phel- Phelliam Glebe. I’m from Gates. Is anyone listening?”
He heard a whirring noise and a panel popped open in the wall across from him. Out stepped the same figure he had seen in the forest.
Phel gasped and tried to back away but he had nowhere to go in that room.
“Please," said the thing with its strange mockery of his face, “Please, Phelliam Glebe. Do not be frightened. We are still learning you. We mean no hurt.”
“Harm. You mean no harm.”
“Yes,” it continued, “see? Already you teach us. We want only to understand and to improve ourselves. To become whole and proper.”
“What are you talking about? Why do you look like me?”
“Does that not please you? We apologize. We calculated that appearing like you would be the best course of action to engender your acceptance. We see now that this has been an error. It will be corrected.”
The things face seemed to melt and twist. In seconds it had formed anew. It still looked like an attempt at a human face, but not Phel’s. It had become a face he did not know.
“Is this better?” it asked him.
“I don’t know what could be worse than what you had before.” Phel said, “It was like looking into a broken mirror.”
“Your malfunction has been repaired to the best of our abilities. Is the repair acceptable to you?”
Phel didn’t understand the question until he remembered the bandage. He tore it off and saw that it was made of a black synthetic fiber. Don’t these fellas know any other colors? He thought.
He touched his head where he had hit it and found no trace of a bump or laceration.
“It’s ok,” he said, “fine.”
“Fine.” the robot repeated slowly and deliberately.
“When I saw you in the woods you were mocking me, like a parrot.”
“You know? The colorful birds...I guess you ain’t never seen a bird before. I’ve only seen them in movies. Well. The thing about a parrot is that it don’t know what it’s saying. It just repeats what it hears.”
“We see.” it said, “We were like parrot. At first we were. But we learn you. Study your words and with new parts we can even see brain.”
“WHAT? What do you mean you can ‘see brain’? I didn’t hit my head that hard!”
“Phelliam Glebe. We do not hurt. We find new parts in the forest. We acquisition. We absorb and learn. New parts gave us way to think thoughts. Think your thoughts. We hear the words you say and the words you do not say. We understand. More understanding.”
“You found a thing in the forest and now you can read minds? Is that what you’re talkin’ about? Well, it’s damn rude. Keep out of my brain.”
“Phelliam Glebe. We do not mean to hurt. Only to understand.”
“You said that, for starters keep out of my head. If you want to understand you can give me some answers too. Who are you and where am I? What are we doing here?”
“We are Ghost. That is what you say. Monster in forest. Eat your face.” the robot spoke that last line in an exact rendition of Phel’s own voice. His own words.
“But you do not know us. You do not understand. We do not eat face. We do not eat. We are machines. We are in the place you call Blackpatch. We grow here for a long time. Today we understand much more than we have for one hundred years.”
“Your words keep changing up," said Phel, “You talk like a cartoon robot one minute and like a teacher the next.”
“We learn your words. We learn to assemble thoughts into sentences. We will not read your mind because it is...rude. We learn much from you already. We also learn much from the other.”
“The other is like us but not like us. The other is like you but not like you. The other is tall but has an outer shell the same as yours. The other has no thoughts. The other is labeled, Tyson.”
The robot led Phel through a larger panel and down a hall.
“So, this is what the Blackpatch is, huh?” said Phel, “I always reckoned it would resemble a spooky forest like in the fairy tales. But instead it’s a big building? That somehow ain’t as scary.”
“We do not call it Blackpatch.” the robot said, “We do not use names like you do. It has only a designation.”
“Oh yeah? Well, what do you designate it?”
“It is noted in our records as 001.00.”
“Zero zero one dot zero zero?” That’s a mouthful. How about you just call it Zero?”
“That would be incorrect.”
“Ok. Then. I guess I’ll stick with ‘the Blackpatch’ then.”
“001.00 is not merely a place. It is the first. It is the initial member of us.”
“You mean, this place is just one big robot?”
“That is correct.”
The further he travelled the more Phel could feel it. He wasn’t in a hospital. He wasn’t in a building at all. He walked inside a vast living thing.
Meiki and Rashmi ran through an alley.
“Where are we going?” Meiki asked.
“We can’t stay at the library. There is no way that agent worked alone. We need to find a place to hide for a while before we go back.”
“Why are you dead set on going there? Tell me the truth.”
“I told you the truth. Someone at the library is hiding something. I want to find out what.”
“But,” Meiki said, “why do you care so much? Why are you really here? There’s no way they would go through all this trouble to stop you if you weren’t up to something important. I want to trust you, Rashmi, but you need to tell me everything.”
Rashmi stopped running. She put her hands on Meiki’s shoulders. “I told you,” she said, “they want to put everyone in chains. I’m here to stop that.”
“What? Stop it how? What does it have to do with Naya?”
“Your Nebcore is the only unsecured access point in the galaxy. With it I can send a broadcast. I can send a message that will break the chains.”
“You mean you’re like a freedom fighter?”
“Yes, in a way. When the chains are broken the Catena will no longer have control of people. People will live and die as they please.”
“What can I do to help you?”
Rashmi’s eyes softened at the question. She seemed truly touched that Meiki would offer to help her. “I need to get into the library. Up to the highest level where the Nebcore transmitter is. From there I can send my signal. But if I get close to it those agents will track me. This suit protects me and keeps me alive, but it also allows the agents to track me.”
“Can’t you just take it off? That way they can’t track you?” asked Meiki.
“I could do that,” said Rashmi, “but they’d still find the suit wherever I left it and I doubt I could get far before they found me again. Plus I’d be even more vulnerable without it.”
“What if I wear the suit?” Meki said.
“You mean, to lure them away? That could work.” Rashmi paused a moment. “But no. It’s far too dangerous.”
“Letting them hunt me down instead of you? Sounds like fun.” Meiki tried to sound bold, but her voice cracked as she spoke.
“Meiki. I wouldn’t ask you to do this if it wasn’t so important. Perhaps one of the most crucial moments in the history of the human race...”
“That’s pretty dramatic.”
“Perhaps,” Rashmi continued, “but it is important. And you are a child. I am certain they will not harm you.”
“I’m not so sure. I think that maniac broke my ribs.”
Rashmi cast her face downward, “I’m so sorry to have brought you into this. Once you are wearing the suit it will heal the damage done. It will make you well, better even.”
“So. I’m just going to be bait. That way you can run off and save the universe?” Meiki said.
“It was your idea.”
Meiki didn’t know what she expected to see when Rashmi came out of the restroom dressed in mundane clothing. She had claimed to be nearly a century old and that the suit kept her healthy. Meiki worried that she would look like a frail old woman suddenly or worse. She had read the myth of Tithonus, the man who wished for immortality but did not receive eternal youth. But in a t-shirt, jeans and a gray jacket Rashmi still looked like a healthy young woman.
“I thought that taking the suit off would make you weak.” she said,
“Oh it does. Not as weak as the people of your world. Not yet anyway. In time that would come, but for now I am merely an example of a woman with a perfect body.”
“At least you’re modest.”
“It’s your turn now,” he said.
They were in a coffee shop. Deep scents hung in the air. Bitter coffee mixed with sweet sugar and spices in a soothing manner. Rashmi sat and nursed her espresso while Meiki changed in the restroom. The suit looked snug, but almost imperceptible. It felt like wearing ink. She threw her shirt and overalls on overtop it,
“How do I look?” she asked when she stepped back into the cafe.
“Exactly the same as you did going in. That’s perfect.”
The plan called for her to run out to the edge of town and draw Junko’s attention. Rashmi would do what needed to be done on her end. Meiki was a little foggy on the details of that part, but she trusted the anthropologist.
“How long do people live now?” Meiki asked. “On Earth?”
Rashmi sipped her drink and gazed out the window. Children were frolicking on a playground across the street. The colorful play equipment contrasted starkly in Meiki’s mind with the barren unused lot that stood outside dorm 7C. Rashmi watched them for a long while before responding.
“We live a long, long time. The oldest person on record is about two hundred and ten, I think. It’s likely that the current generation will outdo her by quite a bit.”
“Do you think it’s possible to live forever?”
“I know it is.” Rashmi pivoted toward her. “Meiki?”
“If you could live forever, would you? I mean, if someone gave you the power to never ever die no matter what...would that be a good thing?”
“I never thought about it.”
“Come on. You’re the most contemplative child I’ve ever met. Surely the thought has crossed your mind at some point.”
“Well,” she began, “I suppose there’s more than one way of looking at it. I mean, forever is a long time, right? If you live forever and never die? Centuries? Millenia? Watching planets crumble and stars explode? I guess it would all get tiresome after a while.”
“Do you really think that?” she asked Meiki.
“I don’t know for sure. I guess if I had no choice in the matter I’d come to resent it eventually. Kind of how I’ve felt my whole life. Like I had no choice. The options I’ve been given weren’t really options. I guess after a million lifetimes I’d feel the same way about the whole universe.”
“Thank you.” Rashmi said.
“For helping me be sure that I am doing the right thing.”