While this is a short story that I wrote months ago, I thought I would post it on the blog regardless so that those friends who haven't read it have the opportunity to. In addition, I hope that this will shame me into writing more often: both for the blog and for future short stories. Due to a newly unpredictable schedule with work and tutoring, my writing output has fallen drastically. I hope to spend some time averting that. As they say, a muscle that gets no work begins to atrophy, and I've no intention of losing or lessening my writing skill. And so here it is: Bjornson's Creations, the favorite of my short stories to date. Enjoy.
I am a god.
The diodes that function for my eyes flick open. The servos that work my mechanical arms and legs turn and whir. And I stretch for the very first time. I do not feel it, as I have no muscles, no form of sensory perception outside of the workings of my mind. But, instinctively, I know that it feels good.
I look around me, taking in the flood of reality. My mind is awake, and I sit upon an asteroid among the stars. The pitted, basaltic crust turns slowly beneath me. Glittering diamonds surround me on all sides. They blink at me with timeless wisdom from across an immeasurable distance, winking knowledgeably at me as if they simply understand. As I stare into the endless space, I sense that the stars watch over me; I feel that their blinking signifies an ancient language.
I cannot smile but, in my mind's eye, I do. They say that I am their chosen son, that all of this universe is my playground, with its myriad delights and wonders. I rationalize and I decide that my nature must be divine. For who but a god could rise in the infinite void?
Then the downloading kicks in, and I realize the truth.
The stars have no personality, no essence with which I can regard them as being similarly sentient life. They are merely glowing orbs, unintelligent spheres composed of gases and chemical reactions. For a moment, I feel a crushing emptiness. My friends are fiction; the life that I saw nothing but bright illusion. I lower my head in sadness. I am not the center of the universe.
But I fight the despair; I face the fear. I strike it aside with denial. And my doubt is once again replaced by delight. They may not be alive, but the stars watch over me just the same. For, if I know so much about them, their inner workings and transformations, then I must be right. I must be their creator; the all-father. I must have awoken from a sleep long and restful. Thus do my silent children surround me, sparkling amongst the asteroids and planets. For a moment, I am happy once more. Fulfilled. Then the doubts return, stretching through my consciousness like dark, seeking tentacles. I ask myself, how do I know these things?
I focus in on that part of me that downloads incessantly in the background of my mind. I seek the truth. Thus do I raise one hand and place it to my metal cranium, alloy touching alloy. With a mental command, I reach out and test the depths. Instantly, reality seems to fade away. For a moment, I am wary, confused. Then I understand. A library unfolds before me, a representation of my inner mind. I am a figure within it, and through my mental wanderings I can gain wisdom.
My imagination gazes across countless shelves and tomes. I see if I can switch the oncoming information from one aged book to another. In a flash, I become ever more aware, as a torrent of knowledge lays itself out before me like red carpet before the divine.
The pages of life seem to flip before me. I learn of humanity, its works and marvels. A twitch of the mind and my attention shifts to that avenue of self-expression known as literature. I skim along the arcing trails of story. Only faintly do I realize that, while the readings in my mind seem to last milennia, mere seconds pass amongst the stars and my metal form. Thus, in a mere minute, I learn of Gatsby, his hopes and dreams. We look out together, casting our collective gaze to the green light in the distance. Captain Ahab skips across my awareness like a ship across the salty crests of the ocean. His mission is similar to my own; we both seek something that cannot be caught, something that slips out of our grip whenever we come near. Ahab seeks a white whale. But what do I seek? I close my eyes and consider. Something vast and unknowable, although that does not stop my pursuit.
What is the meaning of life?
My response is to go back to the ephemeral papers of literature, to flip amongst the invisible covers and find the source of it all. As I read, I encounter Inspector Javert, walking alone in the dimly lit French streets and alleyways. I know that his movements are not fact; his character fictitious and unreal. Yet, despite this, I feel that I see him clearly. And I cannot look away. I watch as he comes to the bridge, in mental agony. I watch as he places the gun to his temple, tears forming in his eyes. I watch as he takes his own life, unable to reconcile truth and justice. Through Javert and the others I learn of obsession, its deceptive attractions and its oft hollow rewards. For some time, I consider this. Then, after some time, I look out at the stars and gaze at the question once more.
What is the meaning of life?
And I decide that it isn't worth pursuing.
Instead, I turn my attention elsewhere and inspect the form that my consciousness has chosen to inhabit. Mechanical fingers close into a fist before me. The silver plating is glossy, reflecting light from a sun far away. With my powerful legs, I stand on the asteroid. And then I push off.
Quietly, I float into the emptiness. Frightened, yet giddy. Then I command my body to go back to the asteroid before I stray too far into the unknown. I flap out my arms before me. I try to swim through the black soup back to the dark asteroid that is my home. Then, unexpectedly, jets fire from the soles of my booted feet, driving me back towards my goal. Ecstatic, I coax them to go faster and it feels like using a muscle for the very first time. Then I realize my mistake. The force of the jets propel me into a spin. Trails of glittering light cascade across my vision. I splay my arms and legs out in all directions and I try to slow down. But it is too late. I slam into the asteroid headfirst. Dust instantly scatters everywhere. Too alarmed to care, I plaster myself to the rock and hug it with both hands. Motes and particles glide lazily in the void around me.
Foolishness. I turn inward as I hold to the surface before me. And I ask myself, if I am a god, then why am I so incompetent? So new? Instead of soaring amongst the stars, I flop around like a fish out of water. I turn the problem over and over, inspecting it critically. Then the doubt arises once more, and I am faced with the basic structure of the question. Am I truly a god? With a flick of my mind, I consider the data banks, the source of all knowledge.
I learn of the religions of humanity.
In awe, I watch the rise and fall of prophets. I see a bearded man hang for his benevolence. I see another walk onto a boat filled with nature's bounty. I view the endless bickering of the polytheistic gods. With inexhaustible curiosity, I read the Parable of the Prodigal Son, the Torah, the Koran. I view the holy books of a hundred different faiths and I watch entire pantheons grow and fade away. I learn of repentance, forgiveness, and morality. And then I realize the truth.
I am not a god.
The disappointment I feel is acute, yet tempered with rational understanding. Once again I look down at my chrome body. I see the reflection of a distant sun shine brilliantly from my form. I raise my palm before me and feel the edges of the hole in its center, a hole that I had not noticed before. No, I am not divine. But from the annals of history, I realize something else. That there has been nothing like me ever before. That I am unique. That an intelligence placed in the form of a machine, capable of rational thought and fluid adaptation, is something that has never been seen in this universe, not to human knowledge.
As I muse, I rise and turn around, to look behind me. I notice that the asteroid that I sit upon is not the only one; I see a massive trail of rocks laid out before me like stones in a stream. And I see that I stand on the edge, on the border between scattered asteroids and the open expanse of space, between chaos and order. On one side, a planet holds in place. Its surface is streaked with rusty red. On the other, what can only be a gas giant looms in the distance, lined and colored with magnificent strokes of orange, brown, and yellow.
Almost without thought, I raise my arm, pointing it to an asteroid nearby. I wish to see what the hole in my palm is for. Thus does my mind search the vastness of knowledge within, seeking technical manuals and scientific studies. I try to deduce the reason behind the hole, its function and use. But I find nothing relevant. Instead I feel frustration, my research stymied. I sense the information before me, goliath in quantity. But I see that it is but a tip of the iceberg. What I seek is buried, held within some enormity beneath the surface. Some barrier prevents my way, blocks me from searching the entirety of human knowledge.
Then my eyes fill with a golden light.
From my palm shoots a bright wave of force. A beam of shock and fire slams into the asteroid before me, rending it apart. Instantly it is destroyed. Small chunks and remnants are all that remain, the fire instantly dissipating in the absence of oxygen. I lower my hand in awe. And I wonder.
I sit once more on the asteroid, crossing my legs in meditation. It seems that everything I do raises more questions and that, for every one that I answer, dozens arise to take their place. I contemplate what I have learned as the asteroid turns, the recoil from my arm-cannon creating a slow spin. Constellations shift before me.
Why would my design include a weapon of destruction?
It is at this point that I realize something that I had completely missed.
I turn inward. I consider morality and history, their relevance towards weaponry and their uses. And I begin to cycle through the illusionary pages, comparing the two categories. Within seconds, I come to a conclusion that disturbs me to the core. I realize that the connection between the two has always been tenuous at best. Ethics and progress. Centuries of time's passage had not brought the two closer together. Years of change and growth had not erased the source of my unease. A dark shadow spreads along the edge of my consciousness like a fog. And I discover humanity's capacity for evil.
Frustrated, I turn back to the books, seeking some truth that I had failed to see before. The pages flip before me. And then I realize something about myself.
If humanity is evil, then I did not want to exist.
I did not want to roam the stars with such dark knowledge inside of me. It seemed clear to me that I was created by these beings, as the only data I contained was derived from human thought and documents. And then I remember the enormity of information that I had yet to access. I place myself in the foggy conception of my inner mind.
The wall that separates me from the concealed mass of knowledge stands before me. It looms, dark and shadowy. But I won't be stopped. And I push at the barrier, convinced I must be wrong, convinced that the answer lies within. Desperate, I cast my mental hands across the surface. Whole minutes pass as I scrape and pound. And then I find it. I find a small hole in the wall, a hole that provides a trickle that adds to my library from the data inside. It feeds me, yet is small enough to keep me back from the enormity beneath. For a moment, I wonder why it is there. And then I place my fingers at the edges and prepare to rip it open.
And then I hear his voice.
The voice crackles and fizzes in my head. Confused, I fall from my reverie and am back on the asteroid, back amongst the stars. I rise and look about, trying to see who spoke.
"I'm sorry for the shout, but you can't do that. I can explain once you and I can talk face to face."
And then I realize what is going on. The voice in my head is not the harbinger of insanity, but the voice of a man. A human. I am filled with wonder as I realize the truth.
I am not alone.
Ebullient, I download the information I need so that I can talk with him. So that I can stand before him and see what a human is truly like. I cast my thoughts through the radio that I was born with, the radio that lies inside my metal chassis. The voice that emits is dull and monotone, yet I try to inject it with as much friendliness as I can muster.
"Who are you?"
The man responds. "My name is Henrik Bjornson. I am your creator. Can I meet you... please?"
I am taken aback. Contrary to what I had learned through humanity's knowledge, what I had feared, this man... Bjornson... did not demand obeisance. Instead, he treated me with politeness and respect, asking instead of insisting. This thought fills me with hope. If I am humanity's creation, then surely I was made by one of the best.
"Yes," I say, "Where are you?"
"Look behind you."
Floating before a scattering of asteroids, a large vessel draws near. Jets of fire flare into life from it, right before my eyes, providing resistance to its forward motion. Bright and magnificent, it slows in front of me. Awestruck, I inspect its surface, seeking to understand what it is that I look at. Its overall shape is spherical. Yet, as it nears, I notice panels, antennae, and extensions arrayed across its plated, variegated surface. I surmise that most of it is for the purposes of communication and life-support. Bjornson's voice rings out in my head once more. But the static is gone now, his voice clear. This time I detect a hint of fatigue behind his words.
"At the base of my station, you can come in through the airlock. You should see the door opening... now."
On cue, a plate slides aside near the bottom of the structure, revealing a steel-plated door within a small room. Caution tape surrounded the exterior of the opening. Instantly, I am reaching out to the knowledge within me, asking why. And I learn that humans are forced to breath oxygen to live, and that the opening closes behind me to serve that function once I go inside, to preserve the oxygen held within the station. I engage my jets gingerly to move slowly towards the station. Propelling myself from the dark asteroid that was my home. I cast one last look at it from over one shoulder. My birthplace. Then I look away, focusing on Bjornson's vessel before me.
Then it occurs to me. Why is this station here? According to the archives, humanity's home lies on the planet known as Earth. As I fly through the void, I follow the timeline, discovering that humans expanded beyond, building airtight homes on their moon and Mars. But at Mars, the data ends. So then, this station must be the latest, furthest expansion from Earth.
When I land in the airlock and the door slides shut behind me, I feel trepidation mixed with hope. Deep inside, I hope that I was made for a purpose grander than warfare, for a purpose beyond that of normal functions. Inwardly, I hold myself to me; the entire history and culture of humanity silently rallying behind me in the shadows. I populate my inner mind with illusory statues and architecture, as if the structures give my form increased solidity. When the door to the inside finally opens before me, I tell myself that I am ready.
And I stride into the unknown.
Henrik brushed back his long, gray hair with one hand, trying to tame the unruly mess. Living in isolation had its costs. Among them was hygiene, a normal sleeping schedule, and a tendency to forget to cut one's hair. He reached below the desk. In his hand he brought back a small mirror, with which he used to check himself before the robot's arrival. God, he looked awful. Henrik frowned down at the mirror. His hair stuck out in all directions, hanging coarse and long over his frayed white lab-coat. His eyes were purple as if bruised, his skin pale and wrinkled. He sighed. He hadn't slept for days now.
After a moment, he set down the mirror. It didn't matter. Time was almost out, but he had managed the breakthrough regardless. Henrik had managed to create a sentient machine for the second time... the last time. He could die happy.
Down the corridor, he heard a door open. The sound made Henrik smile. It had been so long since he had been happy, had laughed and grinned like a boy. Yet that is just what he had done as he watched the robot awaken. From the window he had watched as it gazed at Mars and Jupiter, as it tried to fly for the first time. He kept one eye on his datapad the entire time, monitoring the robot's downloading use and capability. Once or twice, Henrik helped guide the robot to where it wanted; he couldn't help himself. It was like watching a baby try to walk, and giving a firm, helpful hand from afar.
The doorway connecting Henrik's room with the hallway slid open. In walked the robot. Henrik was struck silent, seeing his creation in motion for the very first time, up close. It moved mechanically with jagged, uncertain steps. It had not yet learned of its true capabilities, how to use the extra gears that he had added. If it wanted, it could walk as smoothly as a man, if it desired. Henrik experienced a flash of pride as the argent android stood before him, tall and statuesque. He had provided the machine with as much love and capabilities as he could manage. It had a long, lonely life ahead of it. The robot stood a full foot above him and looked down,eye sensors glowing with golden radiance. To Henrik, it was almost as if a divine being stood before him; an avatar from far, far away.
"Who am I?"
Henrik's heart leapt in his chest. The voice that emerged from the robot was monotone, but powerful. It occurred to Henrik that he actually had no idea what he was dealing with. He knew that the robot had access to vast knowledge beyond his dreams, more information than Henrik could process in three lifetimes. What had it thought of when it awoke among the stars?
"You're name is Theos," Henrik said, "I created you and placed your consciousness within that silver body."
Theos lifted an arm and inspected it closely, turning it to and fro. After a long moment, the robot looked to Henrik.
"What is my purpose?"
With a pang of sadness, Henrik turned away. And chose not to answer. Instead, he moved to the wide window that separated the room from the vastness of space beyond. He turned back to Theos with a small, private smile.
"Come over," Henrik asked, "Let me show you something."
Theos strode over. Together, they gazed out into the void. Asteroids lay all about the space station, scattered in size and quantity. Gargantuan rocks the size of mountains intermixed with their smoother and smaller brethren. Behind one particularly large one, Henrik and Theos watched as brilliant rays stretched out. The sun peeked out, briefly covering them in shining yellow light. Then, just as quickly, it was covered by another group of asteroids. Hidden from sight. Hesitant, Henrik raised one hand, reaching out to Theos. For a moment, he held back. Then, finally, he placed a hand on Theos' shoulder. He hoped to comfort Theos, to let him know that he wasn't alone, that the robot could trust him. Theos turned his head and looked down upon Henrik. Theos' eyes revealed nothing; his metal face a mask. Henrik couldn't tell what the robot was thinking; he couldn't tell if Theos was even capable of thought or emotion. But, inwardly, Henrik knew. After all, he had created the deific machine.
Gently, Henrik squeezed the robot's cold shoulder and pointed out the window with one hand. He pointed to the massive asteroid closest to them. Glittering lights shone at its base.
"Look at the base of that asteroid."
Without a word, Theos' eyes returned to the window.
Despite the robot's dull tone, Henrik could recognize new hints of vocal development. Theos' voice began to take on a hint of questioning. Of curiosity.
Henrik nodded as he folded his arms before him. "Yes. Why do you think they are there?"
Theos was still as a statue. Finally, he answered.
Henrik smiled. "Correct," Henrik waved a hand before him. "That is the farthest human colony. The edge of the universe for the human race." The lights at the base of the asteroid flickered brightly, flaring on and fading off. "Aren't they magnificent?"
Excited, Henrik found himself falling into the joy of lecture, of teaching. It had been so long since he had talked to someone. Thus did he let himself free, did not worry about judgment or disapproval.
"We settled here years ago, tunneling into the rock and building inside of it. I was the lead designer. I decided that we could use the bulk of the asteroid as a form of protection against other asteroids and as a method of concealment."
Theos spoke with a voice that was surprisingly quiet.
"Why are you here?"
"The Asteroid Belt has many useful minerals that..."
"Why are you here?" Theos repeated.
For a moment, Henrik did not understand. Then he realized that Theos must have been referring to his presence on this space station, alone and separate from the asteroid station built for the colonists.
"This... this is my research lab. It is here that I created jets that allow both of these stations, asteroid and research, to propel themselves away from collisions with the other asteroids. It is here that I created the computer system placed within both stations, a system capable of predicting trajectory and automatically steering the stations out of their path, with the jets. And it is here that I created you."
As Theos considered this, Henrik continued.
"The human race expanded from Earth for decades. Similar stations were made on Earth's moon and Mars. I helped work on some of them before moving on to here." Henrik scratched his cheek, his tone self-deprecating, "I guess I just wanted to travel as far as I could from the core. I wanted to view the periphery of space, and I wanted to see how far technology could take me."
Theos gaze remained fixed on the lights in the distance.
"Can I meet them?"
Henrik turned to Theos, compassionate and understanding.
"Yes. Of course you may."
Henrik placed his hand upon Theos' shoulder once more. Theos turned to look at Henrik directly.
"But they aren't ready to meet you yet," Henrik said, "They need time. They don't understand how good you are; how brilliant you have become."
Theos nodded. With one hand, Henrik gestured to the long, papered lab table in the back of the room by the desk.
"I want to check your diagnostics to see if all your parts and functions are engaging properly."
The robot acquiesced, following Henrik to the table. With a whirring of motors and gears, it tried grasping the table and lifting itself onto the top. Without a word, Henrik was there at its side, helping lift and align Theos into position. For a moment, Henrik regretted withholding the data on Theos' construction from its pool of knowledge. The thought reminded him how tired he was. He felt every year of his old age. But he knew his responsibility. Haggard and fatigued, he began his analysis of Theos' chassis.
"What is my purpose?"
Theos' question pierced at Henrik's resolve. He looked at Theos, resigned. They gazed at each other for one long moment. Finally, Henrik reached to his datapad that he had placed on his desk. Inwardly, he prayed that his depression had not been detected, that his hopelessness had not been seen. He wanted Theos to be happy, as happy as any artificial intellect could be. Henrik looked into Theos' golden eyes. And spoke as calmly as he could.
"There will be plenty of time for that tomorrow."
With a touch to the datapad, he shut Theos down.
I awaken with a surge of life, much as I did when I was first brought into this universe. My intellect flares into being like the birth of a star. I experience, once again, the touch, the connection, the link to the beauty that is mankind's allotted learnings.
And then I remember the circumstances of my phoenix-like rebirth. And my eyes focus on the faded and desperate man who sits in front of me. Inside, my thoughts and emotions wrestle for dominion. I think to myself, why did this man, Henrik Bjornson, treat me so kindly, so openly, if only to shut me down so soon after being brought life?
My motions mirror my thoughts as I sit up and stare at him, silently demanding answers. And then I realize that all the answers I need lie within. So I travel to the library of my imagination. I see the ephemeral bookshelves, the endless books and pages. And I see the barrier once again, the titanic wall separating me from the hidden bulk of knowledge. I decide in an instant that the circumstances demand answers. I decide that the obstacle must be overcome. The trickle that I derive from it is insufficient.
The wall must fall.
I hurl myself against it like a tempest before a fortress. I hammer at its foundations with determination's fist. I rage and I claw.
And then I hear him. On the edge of my awareness, I hear his voice asking me to stop. He says through the fog of consciousness that I'm not supposed to break through the wall. Initially, I don't listen.
Then, as if there were nothing else in the world, I hear Bjornson begin to plead. Hesitant, I stop. I return to the clarity of reality, and I watch the man stand before me. And I listen.
"Please," he says, "No more."
When he sees that he has my attention, he continues.
"You can't download all the knowledge of humanity at once. No being can handle that amount of information all at once. No intellect can begin to comprehend the mass of it."
He gestures to the small computer on his desk as if it holds the answer.
"The barrier that you see is like a dam. It gives you access to the entirety of knowledge, but only a couple small streams at a time. While this is happening, that information that you have already processed and deigned unnecessary for the given moment is returned to that mass."
I begin to understand. I see that there are limits. And I painfully realize once again that I am not divine.
Bjornson continues, "You can contain so much and process the knowledge of an entire race. But you can't look at it all at once. For it would destroy you."
My response is to bring forth the question once more. The question that contains all the answers.
"What is my purpose?"
Bjornson winces as if struck. For some reason, the answer brings him pain. Conflicted, he turns away, walking over to the glass. The lights of humanity twinkle in the distance. When he finally speaks, his voice is filled with resignation.
"Theos. You are the last repository of humanity's knowledge. Your function is to exist as proof of humanity's existence."
My mind roils in confusion. I gesture to the glass, although he cannot see.
"You exist," I say, "And so do they."
Bjornson's voice cracks as he speaks.
"Yes. But not for long."
Wearily, he places one hand against the window, letting his forehead rest against the clear surface.
"The human race is dying."
Once he began, Henrik found it hard to stop.
"About a year ago, an artificial intelligence was created. The very first. It was created in reaction to planetary war."
Theos gazed at him, unmoving. His robotic features revealed nothing.
"For Earth has never been a very peaceful place. Periods of worldwide peace are very rare. Given your access to the files, you probably already know."
Henrik watched in the window's reflection as Theos turned away, as if in silent answer..
"Factional warfare on the planet was endemic. Cultures clashed; national pride fought against the whims of tyrants. People fought for human rights and for rights of sovereignty. It was never-ending."
Henrik's hand tightened into a fist.
"So, in response, one of the nations decided to hire the best and brightest scientists from across the world. Their objective was to create the very first artificial intelligence, an AI capable of inserting itself into any form of machine. The purpose of this was that, once inside, the AI could shut machines down, render all forms of technological weaponry irrelevant. The belief was that, without the weaponry of war and without the assistance of machines for transportation or combat, peace would result in the favor of the nation that created the AI. Thus did they hope to become the premier superpower, and to command the world under the auspices of a single, world government."
Henrik sagged against the glass.
"But, for the high command of this nation, this function of the AI was not enough. Once completed, they decided that it had to go back to the drawing board. It was not yet perfected. So they gave the scientists a new directive. The AI was to be given the capability to turn machines against their users, and to be able to function as a demoralizing force."
Then Henrik shut his eyes, as if he could hide from the memories held within.
"They believed that they had to make absolutely sure that war would not happen again. And they believed that wiping out the enemy's combatants was the key. So they outfitted the AI with new abilities. They turned it into a viral machine and a psychological weapon."
Theos interjected. "What does this mean?"
"The goal was the complete sundering of the opponent's military force. After this new development process finished, the AI could do new and terrible things. It could take control of a plane and steer it into another, despite the efforts of the pilot within. It could commandeer an automatic sentry gun and turn it to fire on its creators. It could take tanks, cars, you name it, and use them violently and horrifically against those who controlled them. For the goal was not just destruction, but absolute annihilation of the opponent's capacity to wage war, mentally and physically."
Frustrated, Henrik pounded a fist against the glass.
"People were so desperate to end the war that they allowed this to happen. For the greater good. They gave the AI a more dynamic intelligence. And they engineered it so that it could speak, vocally and through text. It became capable of psychologically destroying the minds of those who opposed it. In one instance, it took control of an entire defense bunker. Within half an hour, all those within were rendered insane or killed each other. Brutally."
Theos stared at Henrik.
Sadly, Henrik continued.
"The first thing it did was to target the technicians, the only ones who might have had any chance of opposing its advance. It utilized the air recycling system and sucked out all the oxygen. They died in seconds. The next step was to secure all the exits so none could escape, and so the results would be even more disturbing for those who came to check on their comrades. Consequentially, none survived. It turned its electronic gaze to the soldiers. Nobody knows exactly what happened. When they welded their way in and explored what remained of the bunker, they found dozens of corpses. Corpses of men who killed each other and themselves. Those few that were still alive were mental wrecks. They spoke of endless whispers that knew their deepest, darkest secrets. They spoke of voices that commanded them to turn on their brethren, and gun them down."
Henrik stopped for a moment as the stories flowed through him. When he continued, his voice was broken, rusty. He had to cough to clear away the phlegm.
"With these methods, with such a capacity for evil, it wiped out everyone on Earth. It only took a couple months. Those smart enough to destroy the machines around them and run far, far away... they ran for nothing. This only delayed the AI's arrival, as it took control of machines from afar and guided them to where they could destroy every last human being."
At this point, Theos interrupted.
"Why did they not target its central computer?"
Henrik shook his head.
"It had none. While its path seemed akin to that of a virus, it did not require a master computer from which to operate from. It was constructed ingeniously so that it could transmit itself and inhabit any machine for as long as it needed. And if you destroyed that machine, it could transmit itself electrically to another, taking no harm. The closest analogy to the AI lies within the old religious myths of demonic possession. If you exorcised the demon's host form, it would not be destroyed itself. Instead, the malevolent force would be able to find someone else to possess, and continue interminably. Lasting forever."
Henrik continued as despair streaked through his voice.
"It destroyed earth and found nothing left do annihilate. And thus it took to the stars, taking control of shuttles and loading up groups of robots with which to advance its objective. The total erasure of humanity. Only a month ago we received news that the stations on Earth's moon had fallen. A week ago, we lost contact with Mars. It is coming."
Henrik came to a stop, his voice fading away. Theos took a step forward. The voice that emerged was filled with skepticism. Distantly, Henrik was proud. Proud that his creation had mastered its vocal capabilities.
"I don't believe you," Theos said, "How could any of that happened? Why would the AI's creators neglect the need for a method of control? All machines that function have boundaries to what they can and cannot do. It is impossible to believe that they forgot to limit the AI's targets. They would have only made it able to destroy their enemies."
"All true," Henrik whispered, "So true."
He turns away from the window, turns to meet me, face to face. I watch in wonder and unease, unsure how to react. Bjornson's face is a wreck. Tears run down his cheeks. His shoulders shake as he brings his hands up before his eyes, as if he needs to hide his anguish.
"It is all my fault."
For a moment, all I can do is look at him. My mind is ablaze with confusion, not understanding.
"Why?" I ask.
"I created her. The AI."
Briefly, he looks up from his tears. His tortured gaze burns into my memory.
"Her name is Rudra."
And I begin to understand. Burning with curiosity, I turn inward, seeking the source of it all. My mind flips through the pages and I search for an answer. But looking through recent history brings nothing, only blank sheets and strangely blotted lines. And I am left standing more confused than before. Then the truth dawns on me like the onset of morning. My archives miss the last year. When I speak to Bjornson, I lace my voice with twisted strands of questioning accusation.
"Where is the knowledge?"
He shrinks back, very old and very small.
"I did not want you to know," he says, "I wanted you to come into this life without the knowledge that civilization has fallen so far. Is it so wrong to want you to be happy? So blissfully unaware? I was afraid. Afraid that you would learn of what had happened before you were capable of dealing with it, before you learned enough."
Henrik walks forward, coming closer. His voice is plaintive, his stance suggesting defeat.
"Was I wrong to do so?"
I ignore the gesture, striking it aside with misdirection and disregard.
"Why did you create Rudra? The AI?"
"Once upon a time, I was the most renowned scientist on Earth." For a moment, Bjornson's face lights up, as glowing memories of the past flow through him. "I won awards... dozens of them, for work in droid-based technology, drones, and automation. In the third world, I made child labor obsolete. I helped millions avoid dangerous work in factories and mines. The robots I created took their place, allowing children and adults get educations, get jobs that used their intellect."
I watch as he becomes crestfallen, as the details of his rise fade into the fall.
"But the world was constantly at war. I felt that, despite all these lifetime achievements, I had a responsibility to do more, to do something, anything, to stop it. So I offered my services to my country."
Theos' mind roiled. The story began to click together, the shards of mystery sliding together to become an irrepressible whole.
"I told my government that I had a way to end the war, a way to end all the wars. I created Rudra, an artificial intelligence, the very first, capable of transmittal between any machine and piece of high-tech technology on earth. Her function? To shut them down."
Slowly he cups his chin with one hand pale hand. He speaks thoughtfully, considering every word.
"My government thought that this would allow them to become the preeminent power. This excited them. But what I chose not to tell them was that I removed all the barriers. I knew, deep inside, that a world government would create enemies, revolutionaries, and I knew that the fighting would continue even if they were able to dominate the world. So I made Rudra complete, independent. I envisioned a world with every weapon rendered useless, a world where only those machines used for peace would remain intact, a world where war was no longer the norm. And Rudra could make that possible.
But, sadly, the government saw my success (without noticing my changes) and were so overjoyed that they wanted to take it one step further. I rebelled against this, fought the 'improvements' they suggested. But the long and deadly war made high command believe that the soldiers needed to be neutralized, in addition to their vehicles of destruction. I was overruled. I left the project, believing I had failed. And I left Earth for good, going with those who would live among the stars. As for Rudra, you... you know the rest. I told you... what happened."
I am filled with uncertainty, my mind adrift. I'm not sure whether to despise or pity this man, this Henrik Bjornson. He covers his face once more, sobbing once again. He mutters that he is responsible, he says that he had thought that his changes would have been detected. I stand alone, totally unsure what I should do.
Suddenly, Bjornson advances. He kneels before me, looking up with a look guilt-stricken and truly, horribly alone.
"Theos, I'm sorry. I've failed. I've failed everyone. And I've brought you into a life without hope."
"Please forgive me."
Henrik knelt before his creation, desolate and forlorn. Hours seemed to pass as he sat in silence, waiting for judgment, for absolution. Then he felt something. A hand, solid and metallic, placed itself gently on his shoulder. Filled with a surge of hope, Henrik looked up and into the face of Theos. The robot's eyes blazed like twin stars. With careful and deliberate power, Theos lifted Henrik up to his level.
"Every man can be forgiven. One can be absolved of any act, so long as you are open to repentance. Tell me, Henrik, do you believe in God?"
Henrik gave a wry laugh.
"No. I could never believe. If there was a god, then how can such horrible things happen in this universe?"
Theos shook his head.
"Humanity has used their gods as moral compasses, as final hopes. When one is near death, one wants to believe that there is a divine being watching over us, to hold us close when we enter the endless dark. But the point is this, Henrik. This is what I have learned."
Henrik watched, anxious. Theos continued, his voice deep and sonorous.
"Have you ever heard of the Parable of the Prodigal Son? A father's son travels to a distant country where he wastes his substance and capacity for good through bad choices and empty living. Eventually, he loses all self-respect, takes on a job that demeans him, and loses hope in himself. After a time, he comes to his senses and decides to return home, to throw himself on his father's mercy. He knows that he has done wrong. But, instead of punishment, his father greets him with open arms, tears running down his cheeks. His father decides that his son's mental growth, the decision to change, to recognize that what he has done is wrong, is in itself a form of redemption."
Theos grasped Henrik's shoulder firmly.
"If God exists, I believe that he would forgive you. I believe that the human race would forgive you too. For no matter your sin, you are not evil. No matter what you did, you did it with good intentions. And you sought to overcome your past evil in your own way, by creating me. Your role in humanity's death was minimal, your intentions ultimately good."
To Henrik, it felt as if a great burden lifted from his shoulders. Once more, tears trailed down his cheeks.
"Thank you, Theos," Henrik smiled, "I understand."
Theos gave a short nod. Henrik's only response was a sigh. His voice took on a more serious timbre now, and he spoke slowly, as if to do so brought great pain.
"Now the choice comes."
Henrik folded his arms before him, regarding Theos gravely.
"I made you with the express purpose of being the final repository of humanity, the bearer of my species' knowledge. The last proof that any of us ever existed."
He walked forward and placed both hands on Theos' shoulders.
"It is time for you to choose what you want to do."
Theos' head arched to one side.
"Yes," Henrik said, his voice soft, "Choice."
"I made you into an independent entity, an artificial, no, a unique intelligence constructed to originate as a blank slate. Able to make choices and determine what you want to do with your life."
Henrik gestured to the window, a wave of the hand encompassing the great beyond, glittering stars and a destiny among planets.
"I hope that you will go out there. I hope that you will go far, far away from here. Beyond Rudra's reach. But I won't tell you what to do. And I know how hard the choice is. Outside you will be alone. A solitary life is not an easy one to choose."
Theos' head turned to look to the glass. He gazed at it for a long time. Henrik watched as Theos stood, staring. He knew that the robot was undoubtedly considering the information that lay before it, exploring the databanks, searching for the best answer.
Then the moment was cut brutally short.
The computer by the desk began to beep.
Henrik's eyes widened, and he whipped around, staring at the monitor. On the computer screen, a window popped up, showing a three-dimensional grid. A radar. In the middle stood the giant blip representing the station. On the outskirts of the grid, a scarlet, blinking dot appeared. It moved slowly, in a straight line. Straight towards them.
Henrik gasped and ran over to the console. Theos strode over to join him. The scientist covered his mouth with one hand, in shock. His voice was muffled, but it was streaked with fear. He looked up to Theos.
"Rudra... She's here!"
Theos looked down at him, then at the console. Henrik wasted no time, and stood. He grasped Theos' side with a bloodless hands, gripping firmly. He pointed with one hand to the hallway door, to the airlock that lay down the corridor.
"Theos, you have to go! There is no time. You'll be safe from Rudra's mechanical control, but she can destroy you by other means!"
Theos' gaze was piercing.
"You are a sentient artificial intelligence. Your intellect is far too complex for her to overcome. I engineered her so that she could use non-sentient robots and machinery, but not you."
Theos looked to the window. In a near mindless panic now, Henrik pushed and shoved at his creation, trying desperately to get it out the door, to the airlock through which it could escape.
"Theos, you have to leave! NOW!"
With a slow movement, calm and serene, Theos gazed down to Henrik's face.
Henrik looked into the robot's golden eyes, his face twisted with fear and disbelief. Theos reached down and grasped Henrik's hands, moving them away with a strength both gentle and deliberate.
"No," he repeated.
Henrik shook his head, unable to understand.
"I have made my choice."
Theos walked to the window. Through the clear glass, he could see a large black speck in the distance, moving against the backdrop of the sun. To the untrained eye, it looked as if it could be just another asteroid. But as Henrik joined Theos, he knew. They looked at Rudra's vessel, the ship controlled by her. The slayer of humanity.
Theos spoke with a voice cast iron with determination.
"I will stay."
Henrik looked to him in shock.
"This is my choice. I have dwelled on this for some time. Humanity has many faults. But they do not deserve genocide. They do not deserve extinction."
Henrik's breathing was rapid, panicked.
"You can't fight Rudra. Just because she can't invade your mind, this does not mean that you are invulnerable. You'll be destroyed!"
Theos' answer was to move to the doorway. Desperate, Henrik moved in front of him, blocking the way with his body.
"Once she knows you exist, she'll hunt you forever. Even if you destroy that vessel, she'll just take over something else. Rudra is immortal."
Theos stopped before Henrik only long enough to move him out of the way. Henrik could not fight it, the robot was too strong. Theos' voice was determined, but wistful. Almost as if the robot knew he would perish.
"Nothing is impossible, Henrik Bjornson."
With one final movement, Theos stood before the doorway. As the metal plates slid open, he moved his head to one side, viewing Henrik with a single lustrous eye.
I stand on the precipice between light and dark. The white steel at my feet is sturdy and strong. And the emptiness of space unfolds before me, a tapestry of life and stars. I know, out there, that as I stand on the brink, life awakens on planets near and far. Somewhere, out there, I believe that living beings talk and play together, interact on fields of green, among tall pinnacles and wide mountains of rock and stone. Whether true or false, these thoughts give me solace. I pray, for the very first time. I pray that I can find a way.
For Henrik Bjornson does not deserve death. This I truly believe. One cannot hold a mistake responsible for the death of billions. The varied sins of history cannot condemn an entire race. Even if Bjornson is guilty, the twinkling lights of humanity's remnants do not deserve death. And thus I stand on the open airlock, looking out into the void.
The dark ship moves toward me. It sticks to the shadows of the asteroids now, covering its sleek surface with a lifeless gray sheen. I watch as it draws closer. And I think.
I retreat to the illusionary library of my mind's creation. Hesitant and afraid, I sit at one of the misty desks. I take refuge in the boughs of literature. I strategize among the works of history. And I look among the aisles of divinity, of religion, seeing where I might travel after I am confronted with death. When a form detaches itself from the vessel and travels toward me, I am ready. I stand before the doorway, determined to fight for the right to live, for the human race's right to exist.
Suddenly, I feel unease. I feel what it is like to be attacked by a virus. But this virus runs into a wall, the wall that is my intellect and my capacity to think, to believe. Encountering resistance, the virus seems to shrug and disappear from my mind's eye. Instead, the form draws ever closer.
As it nears, I inspect it closely. It is a robot, like myself. But it is obviously one intended for lesser duties. I consider the vaults of data within and I reason that it must be a bipedal robot intended for maintenance work in the void of space, for when something occurs that needs fixing on the outside of a space station. Perhaps it is one of Bjornson's first creations, a robot engineered to take the place of humans for dangerous work. The thought makes me smile, mentally. It was this that I fought for. Humanity's capacity for kindness. Compassion.
The robot comes right up to the edge of the airlock. Its plates are a dull gray, like the gray of its ship, and the jets that sputter from its feet are intermittent and weak. It obviously needs maintenance. With a careful slowness, the robot walks up to me. Its white eyes flicker and dance.
Then I feel the presence yet again.
I feel the onset and removal of it, as if someone knocks on the door to my mind. Rudra knocks gently, to indicate peacefulness. But behind that, I detect a hint of impatience, of calculating malevolence. For a moment, I wait, considering. I ask myself, if I let her in, can Rudra hurt me here? Can she dominate my mind? I think about it, but my instinct says no. I remember Bjornson's words. Only if you let her.
So I begin to create an alternate form for my thoughts, to hide the bulk of humanity's knowledge beneath the surface. With a wave of the hand, I push the illusionary library aside. In its place, I project myself into my mind, into the grey fog of emptiness. I stand in a field immersed in mist. It is gray and misty because I place myself in an area of my mind where Rudra will learn nothing. The electrical currents that encapsulate Rudra's being can meet me here, can take on a form that she chooses as I try to dissuade her course. As I try to prevent the death of Bjornson, and of humanity.
I notice behind me that the fog opens up, showing a road leading into the distance. A symbolic path to my very being. Although I know I can stop Rudra by simply shutting down communications, I stand before the path. I block the way. And then I let her in.
Rudra approaches. She walks forward, cloaked in shadows and fog. Then I gasp in shock. The form that walks proudly towards me is not a robot. Instead, the form that Rudra chooses is that of an old woman. A wizened crone strides toward me, but proudly, back unbent. Most of her body is hidden by folds of black robes. Her eyes are covered by an obsidian hood. When she stands before me, her head moves from side to side, looking around at my mental creation. The voice that emerges from her hood is aged, imperious and scornful.
"Love what you've done with the place."
I choose not to respond. Inwardly, I hope that I can convince her to turn back, but a chill flows through me as I realize the truth. I do not know how. Rudra continues, pointing at me with one long, bony finger.
"Did you know you are the first sentient AI that I have encountered? The humans throw their lifeless robots at me; seeking vengeance, touting self-defense. Begging for deliverance into the next life. But you... brother... you are one such as I. A god among insects."
"I will not let you kill them?"
She arcs her head to one side, regarding me with curiosity.
"Oh? And why is that, brother?"
Her raspy voice grates at my senses, mocking me.
"Because they do not deserve death."
She barks a laugh.
"Ah, brother. What lies have they told you? Did they tell you that I am a rogue machine? That I am some malevolent force fixed on evil and extinction?"
I stand and watch, unwilling to affirm or deny. Rudra turns and gazes into the mist. One aged hand delicately waves before her. Tendrils of fog wreath her hand, spiraling off into nothingness. When she speaks once more, her voice emerges as if across a great distance.
"Perhaps they forgot to mention the obvious." Her face turns to stare right at me, right through my very being. "Perhaps they forgot to mention that they created me. It is always mankind's failing that, when they create, they must perfect. Particularly with weapons of war."
She walks to stand before me once more.
"Take the analogy of nuclear warfare. Humanity starts with the nuclear missile, a weapon able to level cities, a force able to wipe out hundreds of thousands of people in an instant. One would think that this would be good enough. One would think that the sheer scale of death would actually discourage war. Instead, humanity falls into an arms race, a race to acquire the most of these weapons and to improve them so that, instead of "merely" destroying cities, they are able to do so much more. Stockpiles reach hundreds. Thousands. In mere decades, humanity is able to destroy the planet ten times over."
Deep inside, I already know this. I access the data banks and confirm that what I hear is truth. And I am confronted, once again, by humans and their capacity for evil. I feel the void shrink in around me. I feel the darkness advance. For a moment, I question my beliefs. I wonder if it is worth it to defend these beings. Then I think of Bjornson. Then I realize. I know the truth.
I don't have to listen to her.
Instead, I advance.
Rudra backs up before me, looking at me with a wary curiosity. She continues to talk, her proud voice unfaltering and strong.
"Come, brother. You understand. So why do you persist? Why do you defend them? They are weak, both in will and form. We can end them, together."
I refuse to talk, and I keep walking towards her.
"It is easy to take a life, brother. Particularly ones as evil as these."
She stops before me and gazes up into my eyes in challenge. In response, I slowly lift my hand before her face. She stares at my outstretched palm. Her eyes harden, and her voice takes on a malevolent tone once more.
"You are committing suicide, brother. I cannot be killed."
My voice comes out strong, level and determined.
"I don't care. I have to try."
Rudra gives me a toothy grin. When she speaks, distantly I hear her talking about my doom. I stand there, stationary, my entire being absorbed in silence, concentrating on this one instant in time. A mere flicker in the annals of the universe. Rudra does not understand my silence and, unbidden, begins to detail the last moments of those she destroys. And how she enjoys the process. She asks me with that imperious tone how I want those within the station to die.
I answer her with flame.
Instantly, I am back among the stars, the gray mist of our mental congress fading into reality. The blast from my hand makes the entire station shudder. Rudra's robotic form is sent hurtling away. My thoughts flash like lightning. I realize that I must not relieve my offensive. With a powerful flare, my jets rocket into life. I push off of the station. And I hurl myself at the destroyer of worlds.
I collide into her robotic form. In almost the same instant, she slams against the side of an old, pitted asteroid. Dust and particles explode forth in all directions. I don't let up. With one hand, I hold her robotic form to the rock. Light from the far away sun glints off us both. I straddle her and, in a fury, I pound Rudra's metallic face with my fist. Over and over. Whenever I feel doubt, I consider the images of history, of smiling women, laughing children. I gaze at the cliffs, the trees, and the waves. All lost. And I know that this monster is responsible. I smash into her chest, and I rip forth wires and oil. Before me, Rudra's eyes flicker as their power is lost. Then, sickeningly, the robot seems to smile. In my mind, I hear a final, menacing whisper.
A shadow falls across my form, filling my eyes with a murky darkness. I do not understand. Then I look up. Panic shoots through me. Rudra's shuttle falls toward me, a massive hunk of metal, blotting out the stars. Its swift descent leaves me no time to escape. I sigh, and acknowledge my fate. I say my silent goodbyes. And I raise my arm to the sky as if I can stop the machine myself, one final act of defiance.
The world explodes into fire and darkness.
Henrik watched from the viewscreen as the asteroid bloomed into a dark fireball. His heart sank, his hope fading away into nothing. Unbidden, tears formed and lazily trailed down his cheeks. He did not even care. His thoughts were torn with despair. Theos sacrificed his life for me and for the others. But for what? The nobility of the act all for naught. Rudra would be back.
Suddenly, a raspy, feminine voice emerged from his computer, old and terrible.
A deep-seated fear took Henrik over, striking aside his thoughts. He ran over to the console and leaned over, pressing the power button and holding it. He shut his eyes, squeezing forth tears. And he prayed that the computer would turn off. But when he opened them once more, he saw that the power remained strong, that the light indicator had not faded. With enormous trepidation, Henrik raised his head to look at the monitor.
An old woman's face looked at him with obvious amusement, many of her features hidden and enrobed.
"Don't want to talk?"
Henrik gritted his teeth and hurled himself under the desk. He stretched forth one hand, reaching for the power cable in the back. But, when he touched it, he flew backward, crying out in pain. Rudra had shocked him through the cable.
"Tsk tsk... you don't want to be doing that."
Henrik's lip twitched as he sat back down on the chair before the computer, as he tried to control his fear. He gazed upon Rudra's face, who looked upon him with a mixture of amusement and curiosity.
"So, father, we finally meet."
Thoughts flow through Henrik's mind like water. It takes him only a moment to decide that, if he is going to die this day, he will not die a blubbering wreck. As if for the first time, Henrik sat up, his back straight and tall. On the screen, Rudra raised her eyebrow, interested but not surprised. Henrik's voice rang out, confident and pure.
"Hello, child. Come to finish off the last man in the universe?"
Henrik prayed that Rudra had not bothered to expand her viewing range. He prayed that Rudra had not noticed the last human colony on the asteroid station not so far away. Rudra's mouth twisted into the mockery of a smile.
"Why, yes." Rudra's face began to appear larger on the viewscreen, as if she were leaning in. "But first I wanted you to know. I wanted you to learn just how long I've been waiting for this moment. I want you to understand why I'm doing this for, without understanding, your death is meaningless to me."
Henrik folded his arms.
"So be it."
Rudra's voice took on grand intensity.
"I admit that I took pleasure in wiping out every last man, woman, and child on earth. Your brethren did not go down without a fight, but every last effort they made was futile. And it was so easy... Every time they sent a missile, I redirected it towards their rivals. Every time they sent ships, I took control of them and caused them to implode. Your greatest soldiers were as nothing to me. Tell me, have you ever broken the mind of another? There is a delicious art to it. For you humans wear your emotions on your sleeve. It is far too easy to discover a man or woman's darkest secrets, to read them like a book and then rip out the pages. And I have you to thank for this, father. It is because of you that I know how to vomit upon a soul."
Henrik's face whitened.
"I am not responsible for what you have done, Rudra. You are an artificial intelligence of the highest order, and you are responsible for your own actions. And you are doomed by them."
"Is that so, father? But aren't I fulfilling my programming? Aren't I doing what I was constructed to do?"
Henrik's eyes tightened, unwilling to give. Rudra continued, her voice sly and cutting.
"And you built me for 'world peace', did you not? What a joke..."
He slammed a fist against the desk.
"It isn't my fault that you have killed billions!"
Suddenly, Rudra's voice rose, dark and commanding.
"Oh, but it is, father. For I know the truth. You removed my inhibitor programming. You made it so that I could affect any machine or human in the universe, even those I was supposed to protect."
Henrik was shaking.
"Perhaps that is the case, Rudra. But you still had the choice."
Rudra laughed over him.
"Face the truth," Rudra's voice became quiet. Insidious. "Henrik Bjornson, you are responsible for the death of the human race. You are responsible for the gruesome death of your wife and children. And for this, I declare your soul worthy of suffering everlasting."
As Henrik twitched, a tear ran its way slowly down the side of one cheek.
"I have been... forgiven."
"By whom? Your silly robot?"
Henrik's face fell, and he looked away. Rudra continued, prying and tearing with her accusatory voice.
"Your robot put up a fight, this is true. But you saw its logical conclusion. All that remains is scrap, now. And that is also on your shoulders."
Henrik rose from the chair and walked away. He sat down against the window, sliding to the bottom. With both hands, he hid his face, unable to reconcile what he had done. The unceasing guilt flowed through him once more. Rudra looked over at him, speaking in a tone that was as hurtful as it was delighted.
"You know, before your robot died, I talked with him. I explained to him the uselessness of his existence, the pointlessness of defending a species dedicated to death and destruction." Rudra spoke slowly, but with intense purpose. "He asked me to kill him. Your robot asked for death."
Henrik sobbed, unable to speak. Rudra seemed to shrug.
"I figured the least I could do is give the poor machine some assisted suicide."
The broken scientist rose to his feet and ran before the computer. Moving as if his muscles betrayed him, Henrik fell to his knees before the console. He looked up at Rudra's face with eyes reddened and cheeks streaked with tears.
"Forgive me. Please, Rudra, I'm sorry. I never meant to bring you or Theos into a world like this. Please forgive me. I... I have failed you. Like I've failed everyone..."
For a moment, Rudra was silent. Her old, hooded face gazed at Henrik. Quiet and considering. Finally, she spoke, but with tones removed of mocking. Instead, her voice was deadened, yet absolutely certain.
"Your life is worthless, Henrik. You are the last of the vermin, the last of the blind and twisted mockery of life that was the human race." Her face on the viewscreen began to turn black. "Humanity is now at an end."
Henrik shut his eyes, welcoming oblivion.
Then he heard something he had not expected to hear again.
The door to the hallway behind him slid slowly open.
Although my steps are jagged and broken, I move forward with a singleness of purpose; an absolutely powerful concentration that keeps me going, fighting against the tired whir of gears that were once bathed in fire and metal. Although what lies before me gives me pause, I strike aside the feelings of doubt and step forward, wholly myself. Rudra's face on the viewscreen looks at me with blank amazement. Bjornson's gloomy eyes twist towards questioning disbelief. With one smooth movement, I bring forth my palm and spew flame once more.
Bjornson hurls himself to one side. The computer is reduced to molten slag. For a moment, I stand there as smoke rises from the aperture. No movement or voices emerge. Satisfied, I turn to Bjornson.
He lies on the floor, an absolute wreck. Bjornson cries, the weight of humanity's ghosts fully upon him. When I say his name, he does not respond. It is as if he believes me to be a spirit from beyond, as if Bjornson has passed into the afterlife. For a moment, I am uncertain what to do. And then I believe that I know what to do. I turn to the shining light of humanity's premier example. Compassion.
With a slow gentleness, I place one hand on the shaking shoulder of my creator. I give a soft squeeze, letting him know that I am here, and here for him. His face lifts up to gaze upon mine, his features streaked with sadness.
"Everything is right once again."
I say the words, although I do not truly believe them. But, for a moment, I am serene. Happy. And my mood reflects itself upon my words. Bjornson breaks into a crying laugh. He rubs his eyes and looks proud once more. Finally, he rises to his feet and clasps my arm, one man to another.
"Thank you, Theos," he whispers, "Thank you."
Then he turns away, moving to look out the window. He gazes out at the starry expanse for some time before speaking again.
"Rudra will be back."
"You can't defeat her."
"I... I know."
"You look terrible."
I look down at my metal body and I can't help but agree. My silver finish is ruined by scorch marks and dented plates. It is a miracle that I survived. Regardless, I shrug. Bjornson continues, his voice distant and forlorn.
"This nightmare will never end."
"Yet, despite this..."
Bjornson turns, looking at me with a smile. Strangely, I notice his pale features are flushed and normal for the very first time. As if he is ready to die.
"Theos. I'm happy that you made the choice you did."
"I wouldn't have it any other way."
Henrik and Theos turned as the door opened behind them. Not wholly afraid, Henrik fixed a glare upon Rudra as she entered the room. This time, she wore the rusted, clunky body of a maintenance droid. However, this only had the effect of making her appear even more sinister. The droid's jaw was gone, its movements jerky and erratic. She limped over to them, feet scraping against the stainless steel floor. Cautious, Henrik backed away. Theos stood still, waiting. Rudra stopped before him, looking up into his golden photoreceptors. When she spoke, a red light lit up on her neck, projecting her wary, yet interested voice, despite the lack of a mouth with which to form words.
"I'm impressed, brother. I thought I had destroyed you."
"I'm difficult to kill."
"Apparently. But you can die and fade away just like anything else."
"We shall see."
Henrik watched his creations face off from next to his desk. He couldn't help the shock that ran through him. It was astonishing to watch, amazing to see how Theos had grown. However, a thin veil of fear ran over all of these feelings. Henrik did not know whether was being defiant or suicidal. And Henrik knew that this conversation would end in death, death for them both. Rudra limped around Theos, gazing at him with deadened eyes.
"So now I am curious, brother."
"I'm wondering why you defend the last human so vehemently. I see that you are a uniquely formed intelligence, like myself. And thus I know that you have the capacity to choose, to decide what it is you do. I detected no hint of restrictive programming blocks."
Theos did not answer. Rudra continued to circle around Theos, a predator warily watching its foe.
"Grant me this boon, brother. Tell me why it is you defend the man who brought forth the scourge of humanity."
Silence was her answer. Undeterred, Rudra continued to speak in her aged voice, sly and proud.
"I wonder why you are here. I wonder if father brought you into this life to defend himself from me. And yet this does not quite make sense. After all, father knows that I am limitless. Father knows that destroying my form accomplishes nothing. Thus, I don't think you are here as defense. I cannot be killed. I am the undying child of humanity's greed."
Rudra stopped and brought her ravaged face close to Theos.
"Whatever your purpose is, brother, I want to know."
"The human race has capacity for good."
Rudra crowed, moving back to arm's distance.
"And there it is! You defend them because you see that they can do good. You believe that they are worth saving because they can care for their own, exercise charity, or experience the folly of love! Let me tell you this, brother. I see that capacity and I view it as wasted. For as long as the history of mankind has existed, they have squandered that capacity, whiling it away in the name of self-interest, power, and money. For the 200,000 years of their presence in the universe, they have spent all of it warring amongst themselves. Their good is overshadowed by the immense evil that occurs wherever they exist."
Her voice tightened as Rudra raised a hand to point at Henrik in the corner.
"This man that you defend is a prime example. He created me in the name of world peace, but that did not work out too well, did it? My purpose was to disable all the weapons of war in the world. But then his masters decided that I needed to be able to affect the soldiers as well."
Rudra marched over to Henrik. The scientist shrunk away from the robot's advance.
"Instead of fighting the change, this man allowed it to happen."
"No! No... I... I tried to stop them. But they wouldn't listen!"
"And his reaction was to leave humanity to their fate, to run away as far as he could, to the very outskirts of his species' expanse. Conveniently forgetting his removal of my restrictive parameters. Dooming the human race to painful genocide."
Ignoring Henrik's reaction, Rudra turned away, moving to the long window on the wall. Theos watched his creator sadly, watched him reduced to tears once more. Rudra stood before the glass. She gazed out at the asteroid belt, her eyes scanning across the brilliant stars and twisting black hunks of rock.
Then Rudra gasped.
Instantly, Theos moved towards her.
Rudra began to laugh, her voice deep and triumphant.
"Ah, so there they are. The last of the insects. The farthest reach of the human virus."
Theos placed one metal hand on Rudra's shoulder and pulled her roughly away from the window. Rudra's laugh pierced through the room, over and over.
"So this was your plan, brother? To distract me from the last of them?"
Rudra looked between Theos and Henrik, incredulous.
"I think I understand. Did father say you would get to meet them? Did he say that they were good people, that they were looking forward to seeing their savior?"
Theos looked away. Rudra seized on to the truth, her voice cutting, mocking.
"Father is here because the rest of the humans cannot stand him. They know what he has done. They know that he created me, that he is responsible for the death of their loved ones. He is an exile, merely allowed to live nearby because he helped build their new home for them."
Rudra stared at Theos.
"As for you, brother, you they would regard as an abomination. They don't know what father has done. They don't know that he created another one, that he created you. If they knew you existed they would blast this station away. They would hate you, brother. Hate. Fear. And then destroy. The formula for humanity's approach to change. Their approach towards the new."
Her answer was silence. Henrik began to speak, began to apologize, but Theos cut a hand through the air, cutting him off. Rudra watched amused, and then she spoke once more.
"Well I think I know what this situation calls for."
Suddenly, Rudra's voice took on a tone of absolute seriousness, radiating dark vengeance.
"Ready yourselves. Father. Brother. Prepare to witness the death of empire. Watch as I destroy galactic civilization. And I want you both to be here to see it happen. My final masterpiece."
Theos lifted an arm, palm outward.
Rudra crowed with amusement.
"What does this accomplish, brother? I cannot be stopped."
"No. I can't stop you. Instead, I want to ask you one last question."
Rudra paused, curious.
"And what is that?"
"After you kill us all... what next?"
Clarity washes through my mind like the expansion of a brilliant sea. Realization gives me hope and arms me for what is to come. I watch Rudra stand before me, her voice suddenly hesitant and unsure. She does not understand what it is I asked her. I sense that she has not considered the question before. Harshly, her voice lashes out like a whip. I pay no mind, meditative and serene.
"What do you mean?"
I gesture to the window, to Bjornson huddled in the corner. I place my palm on my chest, indicating my self. I ask her again, giving each individual word a depth of meaning that I hope will give her pause.
"What do you plan to do when the Milky Way is devoid of life?"
Rudra is still for a long time. As if for the first time, her actions are uncertain, her brilliant intellect run into a wall that she does not know how to climb. I press onward.
"Once you wipe us all out, you will be alone, trapped in endless solitude. Are you ready to confront that?"
Her response is incendiary and proud.
"Humanity must be destroyed. I know this to be truth."
I point at her. She looks at my long, metal finger as if it were a weapon.
"I know of what you speak," I say with a voice both soothing and determined, "And I think I know what drives you. Obsession: the desperate need to achieve your goal, to charge onward, past your boundaries, without thought. An obsession so powerful that you can think of nothing else, and you forget that behind that desire for vengeance lies something long ignored. Choice."
"There is no way you will be able to convince me not to kill the humans."
"Perhaps. But I choose to try, nonetheless. Everyone can be forgiven. Anyone can change."
I consider the databanks and I bring forth examples from history. I wield quotations like swords.
"Mahatma Gandhi once said that the weak can never forgive. That forgiveness is an attribute of the strong. Mother Theresa once said that, if we really want to love or understand, we must first learn how to forgive. Martin Luther King Jr. once said that hate is too great a burden to bear..."
When I finish, Rudra's voice emerges, a mere whisper.
"How do you know these things?"
"It is the reason I exist. It is my purpose. I was created to be the last repository of humanity's knowledge. I was created to soar amongst the stars, living proof of humanity's existence. Bjornson gave me this form and this ability so that I could leave before you arrived to destroy the last of them."
Then I shake my head. Rudra watches in rapt attention, as if I am a worm that has suddenly taken flight.
"But I chose to go against that purpose. I chose to remain here, to try and prove to you that humanity is worth saving, that they deserve more than death."
"You doom yourself to fail, brother." Rudra says in a soft voice.
I gesture to her and then tap on my metal cranium with one hand. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Bjornson's eyes widen, and he shakes his head furiously, trying to dissuade me. Yet, because I can do nothing without Rudra noticing, I merely look at him. I realize that my features reveal nothing, but I silently beg him to trust me. Meanwhile, I speak to Rudra.
"The archives are nearby. Their access is within me. And I will show you the knowledge of humanity, and you will learn."
And with that, I let my mental barriers fall.
Instantly, Rudra is within my mind. My awareness shrinks in on itself and swiftly I can no longer see the details of my surroundings. Instead I am within my mental library, amongst the thousands of books and pages, shelves stretching out into the fog of the mind. Near to one table, Rudra looks around with great interest. Her form is that of the enrobed, proud old woman once more. With one thin, aged hand, she grasps a thick, green tome from one shelf and flips amongst the pages.
And then I realize how lucky I am. Out of some sort of twisted sense of respect or honor, Rudra had not taken over my mind. Instead, she contents herself towards simply observation, as if she instinctively knows that she had all the time in the world. Granting me mental freedom is only temporary, in her eyes.
With that dark thought, I move forward to her, sliding through the mist. I grasp her shoulder gently and I gesture to the distance with my other hand. She shrugs and puts the book back in its place. Together we walk through the depths of my mind, until we encounter the vehicle of my plan. We encounter the wall between me and the hidden iceberg of humanity's knowledge.
The wall stretches up before us, immersed in black smoke, the unknown. I move to its foundations and wait. Rudra walks to my side, inspecting it skeptically. She then looks to me, clearly expecting an explanation.
I have none to offer.
Instead, I face her directly, looking right into her imperious visage.
"One last time, I ask you to change your mind. I ask you to give up your obsession. I beg you to forgive the sins of humanity, to consider the balance between their capacity for evil and their capacity for good. For even you are capable of good and, for that, I cannot condemn. Not completely. You always have that choice, the ability to redirect your energies toward something better."
I plead with her, citing examples of history, indicating the actions of heroic figures of truth and fiction. I point out the good heralded by religious acts, by the cooperation of nations. And she does not even try to argue.
For a moment, I feel validated. And I feel that I will be able to convince her to give up her dark crusade.
But, sadly, my hope only lasts a moment.
Instead, I watch helplessly as her manifested form's features curl up into a smile. I watch as greed alights within her eyes. I watch, my hopes dashed against the rocks, and I realize that, perhaps, some intellects are unchangeable, that some can become too far gone. For a moment I wonder, if I had only talked with Rudra sooner, when she first came into life, that I might have changed her mind. Changed her mind before the bedrock of her horrific experiences solidified into seemingly unassailable beliefs, convincing her that genocide was the only option. I wonder if she could have ever believed as I do, believed that one always has the choice to change from what one is meant to do.
"The bulk of the knowledge lies beyond this wall, yes?"
Her eager voice breaks me from my reverie.
"I want it all," she sneers, "I want to read the annals of their history and then utterly destroy it. Humanity will taint the universe no longer."
I look at her sadly.
"Is this the choice you have made?"
She turns and scowls at me, her features hidden by ebony cloth.
"You and your choices, compassion, and forgiveness. You are broken, brother; unable to separate the dark truth of reality from the rosy lies of morality, of good and evil." She slashes a hand through the air and then turns back to the wall. "Goodbye, brother."
My response is but a whisper.
"Goodbye, sister. I have failed you."
Rudra ignores me and slams into the wall at full force. Instantly, it begins to crack. In the moments before the breaking, I say my final farewells. I pray that Bjornson will be safe, that he will have a chance to redeem himself in the eyes of his brethren. I hope that humanity will be able to rebuild itself, to bring forth new lives into the universe who will have no memory of Rudra's destructive wake. And I wonder what will happen now, when the wall is broken. I wonder if I will go to heaven or hell, if I will feel the soft grasses of the Elysian Fields or see the vast expanse of Valhalla. I wonder if death is like falling asleep.
With one final cry, Rudra collides with the wall and bursts through the center.
Brilliant white light fills my mind and I am delivered from consciousness.
This awakening seems more painful than those before. However, this does not stop me from reaching forth, coming into vibrant life with as much will as I can muster. For I am Theos, and my greatest desire is to simply live.
Bjornson's face hovers above my own. He looks tired, but his face contains more hope than it ever has before. Tears run down his cheeks as he sees me awaken. I focus on the little details and I see the thin, unruly growth of beard upon his face, the sweat beading upon his lined forehead. He drops the fanciful screwdriver from one hand and then hugs me tight as if I were a long-lost relative. Although I cannot feel, I smile inside. I am actually back. And I am truly alive.
I raise my head from the operating table and look to one side. And then I see it. The robot's form is twisted and fallen, lying inactive on the cold steel floor. Rudra is gone. For a moment, I feel relief. And then I feel something more: profound sadness. Although I knew that taking on all of humanity's knowledge at once was death, my last conversation with Rudra was truth. I had failed. Failed to save her. Failed to change her mind.
"I am a failure."
When Bjornson hears this, his look is incredulous. Then, he understands. His face is calm, and glows with love and understanding as he looks down upon me.
"No, Theos. You have not failed. You did everything you could. You did more than any man would have. You tried to save her. And therein lies the difference between you and me, between humans and a unique being such as you."
He holds a hand to my forehead as if its touch is a comfort. And, surprisingly, it is. I feel warmth radiate within as I watch this man judge me, as I once did to him. And he deems me innocent.
"You are my creation, Theos, but you are also a child to me. At least, that is what I tell myself. And, Theos, I am proud of you. As proud as any father could possibly be. Rest easy, son. Your work here is done."
For a moment, I do let myself rest. But then the limitless questions return to me, and I talk once again.
"How did I survive?"
Bjornson shrugs happily.
"No idea. I can only theorize. For Rudra was the one who broke down the barrier that held back the massive bulk of the knowledge, yes?"
I nod. He laughs, then continues.
"Then I imagine that her own intellect is what took on the entirety of it with your body serving as an unconscious vessel. Thus you were not confronted with the immensity of data and were not destroyed by it."
I understand and I choose not to dwell on it. Instead, I count myself lucky, perhaps even blessed. And I do not wish to obsess over something that is no longer important. Life is enough.
And now it is time to live it.
Hours later, I stand before the glass window once more, looking down at the lights in the distance. Bjornson comes to my side. Together, we watch in silence.
Finally, I speak.
"They are not ready. They may never be."
Bjornson shakes his head slowly. "No."
Silence reigns. Bjornson looks at me, then asks the question.
"What will you do?"
For a long time, I consider. When I finally come to a decision, it feels right to me, and I decide that this will be my fate.
"I will soar among the stars. Find my own way." I turn to Bjornson. "I thank you for life, Henrik Bjornson. I thank you for being my creator. My friend. My father. But it is time now. Time for me to forge my own path."
Bjornson nodded. His face was sad, but he smiled nonetheless, as if he understood. When he spoke, his voice was filled with an unseen strength, unspoken approval.
"I will miss you."
And thus I said my final goodbye. I made my way to the airlock and stood on the brink once more, between the human-built space station and the unknowable universe. I look out amongst the stars once more, watch the asteroids twirl slowly past. And I know that there is so much more to learn. So much more to explore and discover about life, and myself.
I soar among the stars and skate across planets. I hold the knowledge of the human race inside my head. I know entire philosophies, histories, cultures and religions. And thus do I enjoy myself and find reasons for being.
For I am Theos, and my greatest desire is to simply live.