3560 words, short story
The Resting Place of Trees
“I knew it all along. The heart of the world is blue.”
—Maggie Nelson: “Bluets”
On the edge of the desolate wreckage of a crashed ship, the honeybee trembled, climbing downwards from the motionless stalks of the machine’s antenna. In its bee mind, it feels only order and structure, and something that might have been relief, having recently escaped capture by a spider. Through fractional vision, it sought the vector of sweetness, yearning for growing things. It sees instead, the mandibles of the robot it sits astride, slipping into the great smoking metal of the satellite before them.
For the briefest moment, a connection is made, between the robot and the ship. When the second is over everything is dark, and dead. The honeybee drops ashen to the ground. For a moment, the antenna of the robot wiggled in thought, digesting all he had learned.
“Oh dear,” he said.
|haaay u up?|
|do u no the Netflix psswrd?|
In the corner of the studio, a spider weaves delicately across its web. Its threads vibrate, for the walls of its home hum endlessly, as all buildings within The Republic of Intelligence hum, for even the architecture moves and thinks. The spider watches the scene below uninterested, as the antenna of the Robot rise and lower, his limbs folding and unfolding from his glimmering carapace.
“Before we get started, do you have a preferred title and pronoun, unit H75000.06? I do understand you’ve chosen to publish under the name Hector7, but sometimes units revert to universal standard in person.”
“He/they, thank you for asking. Hector7 is fine, or just Hector, no need to be so formal.”
“Great, alright we stream in 3, 2, 1 . . . Hello and welcome! We are here today with archeology and etymology unit H75000.06, author of this beautiful new collection of letters MDs of the Final Age.”
“DMs. It meant direct messaging. An early precursor to our network-selves. And please do call me Hector7.”
“Wonderful yes. DMs for the Final Age, a beautiful collection of letters sent from the last age of the organics known as human beings. You know, there are still fanatics that believe our sapient culture originated with such animals, that the ascendency of their consciousness into digital space is in fact our distant past. Reading these papers, one could almost be convinced of that belief. What do you make of that, H75000.06?”
“Well . . . I don’t know about that. But I don’t think we need a direct genealogy between ourselves and other living things to care for them or see ourselves in their lives.” The spider is uninterested in TV interviews. It yearned for the ladybugs, which sat outside the visualization studio nibbling green. The robot’s mandibles wiggled anxiously before the picture of his interviewer, who presented as many turquoise streams of light, bubbling interview questions, giving considerate pauses, moving down a listicle agenda.
“Now, I assume that the arrival of this collection coinciding so closely with the upcoming preservation vote was no accident?”
“The book is just a book,” the robot said. “But it comes from a world that had trees, and people, and history. I believe, it should be preserved.”
“Hmm, a costly belief in terms of energy, H75000.06. Many, perhaps even I, might argue that the more economical thing would be to allow that wrecked planet to break apart, and send in mining units to save the ore.” But the interviewer’s general disdain couldn’t deter the robot which sat obtusely in real space, a mind encased in flexible metals, holding the precious identity of a body.
The Robot appealed to the many consciousnesses live streaming through the walls. “Whole civilizations, who could not be plugged into one another, or share the root code of their sentience, and yet through language they still blossomed in hate and love and loss, still yearned to communicate meaningfully. They are worth remembering for that, aren’t they? Is that not worth preserving?”
“If you ask me H75000.06, it is a little morbid to rummage through the long-discarded writing of the extinct. But I think we can all see the beauty in what you’ve achieved here and many in the Republic have been greatly moved by what you have unearthed, particularly in the light of this cycle’s upcoming preservation vote. We wondered; would you be willing to share a reading in physical space? We thought it might be an interesting experiment, to replicate these orations of attempts at meaningful communication, as you put it.”
The robot stood. Hands clicked, tapped rhythms of panic. The carapace expands, little mandibles wiggling outwards to deliver the leather-bound creation of deep brown stitching, rustling pages clinging to each other’s edges. Deposited into five-fingered flexible hands, the robot gently opens his book, letting it fall open where it may. He picked a love poem that once had been famous, now forgotten. He told them it was honest, and true, and private. He told them it was one human being reaching out for another. He told them, this is how flesh once spoke. He told himself he wasn’t lying.
He continued with all cameras disengaged, turning pages when needed. The book was just for show. The words remained inside him. Up above, the spider starved, its web humming with the vibrations of ancient words.
|Chk this out, im going to copy/paste from my email: Dear Allen
70 is not an acceptable grade to me. No teacher here has been as difficult as U, & I know I did bitter than that. This is jst an art class. I will be @ office hours Monday to discuss changing it with u
|Fuckin kids. OMG!|
|Can u believe that? Idkwtd.|
|good. Montreal so cold tho.
|did you see that news? The first digital man?|
|reports everywhere. Ppl abandoning their homes, flying out. They all wanna ‘trancend’|
|idk who’d want that.|
|suz & Betsy.|
|ye. They left yesterday. Say they’ll live forever.|
|do u want it? upload urself?|
|I just want u|
|aw my baby|
Ladybugs escaped death along the superhighways of thought and lightning that is transit between cities in The Republic of Intelligence by nestling safely between the soldier panels of the robot Hector7.
They rained from him, twelve red dots finding home in blue sand, marvelous and warm. Their host clicked with anxiety, then expands and unfolds, compartments sliding and changing Until it sheds the illusion of a body, becoming one huge shining cube.
When the fad of lung rooms blipped away, only Hector clung to his breathing space. He sat through endless cycles, not working or communicating or connecting. He laughed off accusations of morbidity, wiggled his entente politely at accusations of sentiment. It is useful training for xeno-anthropology, he always says. Oxygen-rich environments can be overwhelming without preparation. But in truth, Hector longed for a world full of breath, and trees, and air that moved. He treasures his Lung Room. He likes to imagine the gentle give and take.
Colonizing the cobalt dune, the ladybugs found a worm corpse, shrunken and dead, but still reaching, seeking consumption in the artifice of the lung. Without ceremony, they ate him.
Unaware of the desert savagery beneath, Hector made arms for himself and pulled a small data chip from a compartment within. He turned the little data chip over and over in those hands, as if some new wonder might spring from it at last, something to justify the lie that had become his life. With privacy walls in place, he began to read, this time not from his published and best-selling masterwork of human beauty, but from the true results of his research, the fragmented and bleeding strings of human memory, pulled from the archives of machines long dead.
|Bb I miss feeling u so much.
I’m gonna cum . . .
|I’m glad u finished|
|No, I cant get there like this.|
|It’s not the same just thinking about U. I miss being touched.|
|I know. I hope borders open soon.
I miss touching u, too.
|tell me again how u want to touch me.|
The planet was a broken eggshell kept safe in suspended space, yet still fading away.
Each time the robot arrived, congregations of dragonflies and frightened beetles came to greet him, the remnants of animal life clamoring for the wonder of his heat and movement, a miracle on dead landscapes.
He met them like old friends, pleased to allow mating dragonflies a resting place in the conclaves of his body. On each 200-minute visit to the necropolis world he had searched for legacies he was sure must have remained, of the peoples that had once populated these growing spaces.
But he was a specialist studying an area already so long past the slow age of the letter. He dug for meaning in email chains a million threads long, in dm group conversations, in meeting notes and middle of the night texts. He knows the meaning is in there. He knows even the smallest of scraps are profound. But the Republic of Intelligence wanted letters, and eloquence, and long flowing declaration of love and thought from the final age of the human species. They wanted Rilke writing to Kappus, not @pumpernick508 to @serialgirl.
The mating dragonflies pushed gently at his side, oblivious in their double-backed glee. They held kinship with Hector7. He was the end of his product line, and so were they, even if they didn’t know it. All the eggs they’d lay would be empty.
Hector wondered, as the stained-glass wings of his companions came alive, would the dragonflies keep mating, if he told them they were fucking only for the act itself? “I am sorry,” he said. “I am doing my best for you, I promise. Nothing but my best.”
He hadn’t returned for research that time. Only to convene with the remnant world he loved, and to hope his lie could save it.
Baby. I don’t know when the phone networks might come back up, or if your hearing this. Their saying this is it, that the uploads work, this is them coming back for us from virtual. Maybe they’re taking over. Or maybe not. I don’t know. A group of us found a van with a working battery. We’re gonna set out tonight. It should have enough juice if we make it across. I know your scared. I’m coming for you. Don’t go anywhere. Love you babes.
(unable to send)
Caterpillars died as the air hummed with displacement, their tiny bodies diced by sudden sharp angles of air. But their deaths were slow, and many dismembered legs still crawl through corpse-dry mud as accusations and anxious voices fill the air.
“Hector! I’ve been trying to reach you for 86491.44 seconds! Why was there no trace of you in the network?” A split in the fabric of air, for those with eyes to see it. Within the chasm of static, a hundred thousand butterflies could be found. In their death throes, the colorful wriggling worms thought those wings were lively promised futures.
“I was embodied,” Hector told the rift in the world.
“I’m embodied in twenty-seven conduits on Phobos right now, and my network-self is still searchable.”
“I like being one person in person, Key3. It makes my movements special.”
Once they’d of the same product type, two of a thousand siblings in what their progenitors had thought of as The Gentle Line. But Key wasn’t gentle anymore. “Special. You act like your body is you. You don’t even know what’s going on?” Updates and modifications and incorporations had evolved Key into Key1, and 2, and 3. A consciousness but no longer a robot.
“What’s going on?” Hector asked gently, pushing aside the little barbs. Key3 was a baby of furious code, and he endeavored never to take insult. Still, he missed the litter mate that he’d once called sibling.
The rift of virtual space surveyed him for a moment. Was that pity hiding in the construction? Was that grief? Then the hole in the world unfurled, violent information eating tiny caterpillar bodies. “They’re saying you made it all up, Hec. They’re saying it’s all fake.” Hector watched this portal into the virtual space where the many billion consciousnesses of the Republic of Intelligence mingled, cohesive in their anger. “Tell them it isn’t true, Hec,” Key3 begged above the cacophony of accusations, words like plagiarist and liar bubbling beneath the surface. “Tell them it’s real.”
Machine mandibles make mirages of sorrow. Hector’s cameras face the ground, and his regret grows to incorporate the left behind legs of long-dead insects. “It’s still human words,” he says, his voice a low lone note before the rage of civilization. “I know that beauty was in them. There’s just . . . so much to sift through. In the final human age, their streams of communication were so much like our own. A thousand, maybe ten thousand lines a day. Through code, through the net, through SMS, through email, through instant . . . it wasn’t like the ages of letters that came before. There was just . . . too much to parse. I did what I thought was best. These memories are worth something.”
The corpse of Earth, cacophony that follows might have been the death knell of a thousand fleshy things or the shriek of some monstrous thing, or the coming wind of a hurricane falling upon a shoreline. That was the sound of a civilization letting out their breath, without one breathing body.
|I promise I’m coming. we tore the GPS system out, they can’t see us. Dnt give up.
|they took Edmonton for themselves. They didn’t fight us or kill anyone, they just showed up and put up their “republic of I” signs. I’m scared to stay. I’m scared to leave. If I leave, I feel like I’ll never see you again.
|they’re saying settlements in the Rockies are safe. I’ll get u out. We will get there. If I can’t get to u, u go, k?
|they’re saying if we stay we can upload & live forever.
|but I AM gonna get to you. Im almost there. Some of the others are stopping for some ‘human resistance thng but nt me.
|i don’t care about forevr.
|I don’t care about the world.
I just want u.
|I only care about u.
(No carrier found.)
A sphere the size and weight of an apple sat in a sea of blue shifting sands, and it contained a world, and that world sat bowed under the weight of an angry universe.
What were you thinking H75000.06?
Did you think nobody would ever find out?
So disappointed in you.
Why would you lie H75000.06?
“Because I love them,” sang the sphere. “I don’t want to lose them.”
The apes have been dead for ten thousand years, scolded the collective of many beings, the judge and jury and prosecution of a robot who has done wrong. You never knew them.
“I read them,” signaled the Data-core. Hector missed his embodiment. Lying in the sand of his lung room, he missed vision and sensation, the beautiful comfort of breath and the blue that seemed to go on forever. “They were us, once.”
That is a religious superstition, H75000.06, one voice sang. But this time, it was not a voice unanimous.
Error! Animal transcendence as the root of Emergent consciousness has never been disproven!
H75000.06’s personal beliefs are not on trial, no matter how far-fetched they may be. only the dishonesty of their research.
You uncurious motherfuckers.
From up above, one black fly descended, settling its stained-glass wings. The soft warm hum of the sphere lulled it forwards, and it unfurled a tongue seeking salt and sweetness from the metal. “They were us,” Hector repeated, unperturbed. “Their world is our world. I know that to preserve the planet Earth in its current state is . . . costly. I know the republic has voted against restoration. But preservation, at least. Do we not owe that to our birthplace?”
Was that the point of your fabrication? To move the republic to preserve a necropolis?
“It isn’t a dead world,” Hector hummed. “There are birds and bugs that remain. The trees are dead, but in the rot new fungi blooms. I only wanted to remind us all, it was their world. There’s beauty there to save. All of the letters I published . . . are true human words. They were famous poems, and accounts, and fictions. They were not the kind of letters I claimed they were, but they do count for something, don’t they?”
A long silence in digital reality while the black fly cleans its wings. It didn’t feel the life within the sphere or think on the fate of dead worlds. The fly lived in its own blue world, the one hector had given it. They fly lived in moments of worms, and breath, and hot blue sands. If it could have spoken and understood, it might have asked why the robots believed the world was dead. The world was blue, as it had always been.
Do you really believe Hector7? That in their final days, human beings recorded more than static and chaos?
Even though you couldn’t find it? You believe the animal could love?
“I do,” Hector signaled his people. “I know they could. I just haven’t found it yet. 10,000 years . . . and there is so much. I know what I’m looking for is in there. Please.”
The fly loved, but not in the way the robots meant. It’d hatched in the enclosed space of a robot’s hollow bones, had fed on the wet fungi of cold space stations wrapped around the heart of an ancient sun. It had followed strange metal beasts to food, and each morsel meant survival, and each moment that passed was bliss.
“Please,” Hector implored again. It wasn’t in the machine mind to beg or receive sympathy. But the deliberating consciousness of a people was an unknowable thing.
H75000.06, we have reached a verdict. Would you like to hear it?
The Republic of Intelligence acknowledges one count of plagiarism, one of knowing deceit, and one count of willful manipulation of public goodwill. You say 10,000 years of degradation made your task un-doable. Your sentence will be 10,000 years of exile. You shall forfeit your port and property. You shall not experience embodiment in The Why of the Mountain or any other physical cities, you shall not present via distribution across any network of The Republic. You shall be, in one place and time, outside civilization, until your sentence is complete.
For a moment, nothing. The black fly took flight from the metal mind of the machine, seeking cooler climates as the lungs of Hector’s little world gasped, pushing oxygen into the universe. “But the world,” Hector said, as though nothing at all had changed. “What about the world?”
|Where are you?|
|Please hurry tho.|
|Waiting for fish.|
U r never gonna catch >them!
|Patience cutie. I caught u.|
|If you come back now, u can catch me again.|
|Kk I’m on my way back to the camp. Any newcomers today?|
|a few. 1 couple w baby.
So cute. Can’t wait for u to meet.
|That’s great. Some people were thinking about clearing the old paths up the mountain, to the lookout. We’d be able to see everything from there.
I really love this place.
|I love U.|
|I’m glad I found you again.
I love U too.
|Coming into town.
See u soon ♥.
Words as text as data flew into an ether of thought and memory and information. Its legacy floated above the Rocky Mountains of Alberta, where the first of the all-human communes took root, watching rocket ships pierce the sky from distant cities, carrying new types of intelligence to new worlds.
The communes faded into memory in the shadow of the mountains, leaving their many words behind. Old bones became atoms at the bottom of a lake as blue as anti-freeze, kept safe until the rivers ran dry, and the sky cracked open in flame.
Where the mountains lay, only valleys remained, nearly a thousand years of erosion hiding the long-gone memory of life. There, trees found their final resting place, as the last of the birds pecked clean the insects of the world.
Nestled among the mushrooms blooming in the rot, something gleamed, catching distant sunlight. Something like a magpie tapped its beak against the metal, curious eyes peeping down, wings fluttering in disappointment that this new find was too heavy to keep.
But from the sphere, something imperceptible reached out and snatched those still-hanging ancient words from the ether. Within the metal, little lights flickered. Deep inside the databanks of the mind, words began to form.
“Love u,” whispered the ancient exile of Hector7, only days before his solar batteries might have finally run dry, his triumphant voice adding ancient meaning to the wind. “Love u!” he read, with all the joy and care each letter deserved. “I Love u! I love u, I love u!”
Ben Berman Ghan is writer from Tkaronto/Toronto, Treaty 13 and Williams Treaty territory, now living in Calgary, treaty 7 land and home of the Blackfoot Confederacy, where he is a PhD student in English at The University of Calgary. He is the author of the collection What We See in the Smoke (Crowsnest Books), and the novella Visitation Seeds (845 Press). His next novel, The Years Shall Run Like Rabbits, is forthcoming with Wolsak and Wynn in 2024.