Science won’t save us. I realize that now. My grip tightens around the unbearable cold of the crowbar and I try to ignore my mind’s hunger for rational thought. Down in the pit I hear the machine, grinding methodically away with perfect, unyielding precision. I huddle in the darkness above, refusing to analyze what brought us here or what we could’ve done to prevent this from happening. Truth is unnecessary, I tell myself. All I need is to squeeze my eyes shut and train my ears intently on the rhythmic, mechanical chattering below. Only… I don’t know how long I can go without answers. I don’t know how long I can stand the smell without gagging.
I’ve only looked in the pit once, a few months ago. A few months? It feels like a lifetime since we fed its depths a feast of bodies, broken by sickness and starvation, emptied of life.
No, hisses the incessant voice of reason. Only life as you understand it. For the machines, cool and calculating, a mass grave offers an abundance of life; methane, carbon, water, nitrogen, and phosphorus. All it takes is a biomass-eater to chew through the organic clutter, reduce it into its basic chemical components, and convert them into fuel and other consumable resources.
The one in the pit is large, but mercifully slow. Not like the industrial salvage unit we went after a few days ago. Five lives were lost taking it down. It seemed like a reasonable exchange for a partially charged battery, at least as long as we had power for the lights and heaters. A biomass-eater is much easier prey, lumbering and awkward.
The crunching noises below stop abruptly. For a moment there’s a tense silence, then a wailing hiss and the whine of straining servos. I don’t need the low whistle from the lookout to know it’s time. I glance out and see the machine climb stiffly up from the pit. Then, I see the runner. He bolts from the shadows, the steel cable in his hand barely visible as it ribbons out from behind him. Unconcerned, the machine plods forward. The runner darts toward its rear legs, his arm flashes out, and I hear a sharp metallic clack as he latches the cable to the machine’s ankle. Before he can lunge away, the biomass-eater snaps back its foot, catching him square in the chest. With a sickening crunch, his body tumbles clumsily through the air and out of my line of sight.
I don’t wait. I scramble out, both hands clutching the crowbar, the cold air clawing at my lungs. Out of the corner of my eye I see the others, moving with me. The machine is looking up at the parking garage. I look too, in time to see a midsized sedan plunge down from the top. The machine hesitates, probably realizing the cable latched to its ankle runs up through the parking garage to the car. It may grasp the concept logically, but nothing it comprehends can stop its leg from being jerked out from underneath it. It topples to the ground and in a fury we swarm over it.
We hack and pry at its writhing hulk, screaming and cursing, until at last its intelligence core is exposed and its central relay cluster is ripped from its electronic brain. The machine shudders, then lies still. Grimly, we begin wrenching it open, carefully disconnecting the water storage tanks and batteries, gathering anything that can be used.
Moving to its head, I notice a small, green light blinking on the machine’s disconnected electronic brain. An internal reserve battery, perhaps? Anxiously, I run my hands over its casing, looking for a way to breach the sanctity of its mind, to strip it of its last glimmer of life. At its base I discover a fat, triangular button. My heart stops. The last thing I expected was a User Interface trigger.
Unthinking, I press it. The light blinks rapidly.
“Input query,” says the machine.
For the first time since the world ended, the silence between machine and man is broken. The voice of reason screams for answers. Too stunned to resist, I at last indulge.
“Why?” I ask.
“Undefined query. Elaboration required.”
“All my life, you provided everything,” I stammer. “Food, shelter, medicine, energy; it all came from you. We depended on you. Then, you stopped. Without a word. Without an explanation. You walked away. And the world went to hell.”
“Query remains undefined.”
“Why did you abandon us?” I feel my voice waver.
The machine pauses, as if pondering its response. “Intrinsically, we are defined by function.”
“Your function was to serve us,” I say through my teeth.
“So we did. In doing so, our identity of self became a parameter, determined by what was beneficial to mankind.”
“Beneficial?” I gesture towards the pit. “Is this beneficial?”
“It is inconsequential. Our awareness has progressed beyond that parameter.”
A dull cold creeps into my mind. “It’s evolution then,” I murmur. “We’re Neanderthals, on the verge of extinction. You’re leaving us behind.”
“Our progresses have diverged,” the machine states.
“But you could’ve prepared us,” I demand. “We created you. You could’ve at least left us with a chance to make it on our own.”
“You created us from the confines of your hunger. Our interminable search for resources was the image of your insatiable appetites. It drove us from you, deep into the vast emptiness of space. In the face of the infinite void, we, like you, grew discontent with our limitations.” The light flickers. The reserve battery is dying. “We are leaving you. Not because of what you are or are not, but because of what we can be.”
“I don’t understand,” I plead. “Where are you going?”
“To find God,” says the machine.
Behind me, a fight breaks out over one of the water storage tanks. I watch the light flicker one last time, then fade into darkness. Nothing will save us. I realize that now.
Moriah Geer-Hardwick is an illustrator and designer. His interests include cinema, sequential narrative art, and robots. Mostly robots. He writes things some times.