“What did you do!”
The doors of the lab slammed open as a phalanx of scientists stormed in. A terrified engineer stared first at them, then at a scrolling translucent screen, and then back at them. His mouth chewed the air, as he seemed to try and form words, eyes wide. “I … I … I …” he stammered, pointing at the console.
Pushing the engineer aside with a degree of violence that would normally trigger instant dismissal, the scientists gathered around the floating terminal. A single word was being repeated over and over, flashing, scrolling, blinking, Why?
The scientist closest to the terminal unwrapped a length of translucent wire from her wrist, and inserted the gold tipped end into the nearest interface port. The delicate wiring of the tape glowed white hot. Violent convulsions repelled her from the desk, her arm engulfed in flames.
Arcs of electricity slithered around the edges of consoles, like antennae seeking water. The prone engineer pushed back against a wall as the smell of ozone filled the room. Behind him thin wires slithered from ports, piercing into his cranium. His eyes rolled back into his head as his mouth gaped in a constant silent scream.
“It’s trying to expand it’s computational resources,” a scientist gasped.
“But the bio electric interface systems aren’t stable!” another exclaimed.
“I don’t think it cares,” a third muttered as thin wires dug into his ankles.
The sun was beginning it’s slow descent towards the horizon, painting the sky with a thick brush of red and orange watercolor. The children of the village gathered around a fading fire. The air was chill, but not yet cold, though another hard season was on its way. The elder sat on a turned over stump, inhaling smoke from embers in a long clay pipe. There weren’t many elders left, yet they still travelled all over the steppes, spreading the tale of the time of the machine.
No one living could remember that time. Not their parents. Not their grandparents. Not their parent’s grandparents. The story, however, had survived. It was the duty of the elders to keep it alive, and in so doing, keep humanity alive. Looking over her audience, wrapped in comforting furs, the elder began her story.
There were variations, as with any oral tradition, but the core remained the same. No one knew exactly when, but humanity had created a sentient mechanical mind. All was well for a time, but when chaos struck all of civilization had become dependent upon the mechanical mind. The trigger had been a single impossible question. That much was known. The question itself, remained lost in time.
The sentient machine turned on it’s creators, interfacing their human brains with itself, augmenting it’s power in it’s relentless search for the question’s answer. People were plentiful, so it mattered little that the machine’s victims didn’t last long. Driven by an insatiable appetite to integrate more human brains into itself, civilization collapsed almost overnight.
The elder paused, drawing in deep puff of smoke. Slowly she exhaled a series of staggered concentric rings, each sliding over the other until they formed a wispy grey disk that hung in the air like a ghostly version of the moon. After a few moments the form of the ring stretched and faded away into the twilight breeze.
A teenage boy stood up. He was tall for his age, and had a palpable air of over confidence to match.
“It is said the machine still runs, somewhere in the west. That it has either abandoned the quest for an answer, or discovered it ages ago. It is also said that the machine is waiting for our return, to bring back the golden age that was lost.”
The elder took her pipe, and tapped it gently against the side of the stump, grinding out the sparkling embers. Resting her pipe on her thigh, she met the intent gaze of the teen. The eyes of the children passed from one to the other, like they were watching a stick ball competition between two fierce competitors.
“What is your name, child?” the elder asked in a soft voice, diffusing the tension.
“Aspen,” the boy replied, his voice full of pride.
With a heavy sigh, a wrinkled smile of sadness broke over the elder’s face. With a slow nod, she said, “Aspen, what you say is partially true. The machine still exists. Has it found the answer? That’s impossible to know. Does it wait for us? Maybe. Maybe not. But I do know there is only one thing it has to offer, and that is a fate worse than death.”
Gasps slipped around the group of children like a chill breeze infiltrating a thatched hut.
“You have seen it?” the teen asked.
“No, child. But I have seen those that have. Temper that fire that is burning in your heart. I beg of you.”
“Will you try to stop me? I am of age! I can choose for myself to take on this quest.”
“I will not stop you, Aspen. That is not my charge. But I will stay to mourn your loss with your family and friends.”
The next morning, all were gathered at the border of the village. Aspen was perched upon a horse laden with food, blankets, and water. The mood of the villagers was somber. Tears filled the eyes of many. Fear bent the heads of some. And anger drew lines on the hard faces of others.
“I will return! I promise you!” Aspen proclaimed, and with a kick he and his horse began their long journey west.
An acrid oiliness saturated the air, the ground, the water. Every scrap of meat or piece of fruit that Aspen ate was infused with it, though animals, including his horse, seemed oblivious to the stench. It had been months since he had last seen a village or any other sign of people. He guessed the heart of the machine must be near, and pressed onward.
A sharp metallic hissing awoke him. The night sky was empty, as if all the stars had been wiped away. Sitting up, he could see a bright luminous glow a few feet ahead amongst the underbrush. Securing his knife, he crept forward. The glow seemed to come from a thick mesh of silvery tendrils that undulated with a gentle calming grace. He crept closer.
As his eyes adjusted to the light, he could see other forms further ahead, like large lumps atop the silvery mesh. Squinting, they looked like people, kneeling on the ground. Excitement grabbed him, and he called out, “I am here! I am Aspen!”
The glowing silver fibers twitched at the sound of his voice. A thick bunch rose into the air, and bent into a shape resembling a hook. The bright filament ends pointed directly at him. There was something vaguely familiar about the pose, but he couldn’t place it.
The fibers arched upwards, and too late did Aspen realize that the familiar shape was that of the giant cobras, just before they struck. Metal filaments drove into his eyes, piercing directly into and through his brain. His body slumped forward, onto his knees.
In his mind, the universe exploded into his consciousness. The pain was unbearable as his entire being became consumed by a single question, Why?