Issue 170 – November 2020

3790 words, short story

The Love Life of John Doe


You don’t like the AI walking around in her face, wearing her skin, her smile, her eyes. Of course, it’s not like you’d say anything. Not after the deal you made with it. After all, that’s why you did what you did.

In fact, if anyone asks, you’d say that you’re the type of guy that would do anything for love. Maybe it’s crazy. You’ve been wondering if you’ve gone insane for a while now. They hate you too, cursing your name in their comms, livid ’til their last breath.

Traitor to your species.

Enemy of mankind.

Slave to the machines.

You feel bad or at least you used to, but most of everything’s dead now or stuck in the processor tower, so you try not to think too much about it. Streaks of smoke follow twisting patterns along the burning orange of the sky.

That surprises you, you didn’t think they still had jets.

They whizz above the processor tower, narrowly missing the arcs of energy clipping the air beneath the wings. You know you shouldn’t. It might make you miserable or worse, you might not feel anything at all, but you tap into their comms anyway.

They aren’t talking about you or what you did.

Instead, it’s weary laughter about having a Petri-grown plant ham as a last meal. Bottom panels slide open and miniscule dots fall straight down, ending in a blanket wave of ashen dust that erases everything in its path.

You’re not worried about dying, the AI promised it would protect you.

The wave of burning heat meets a glimmer of blue enveloping light before bouncing back into itself, sending the jets careening to their doom. You still don’t understand the principle behind the reflector shield, even though you’re supposed to be one of the smartest people on the planet.

The AI dwarfed all of mankind’s capabilities, but that’s fine because you designed it to do that exactly. If anything, you did too good a job.

When the smoke clears, you hear it beside you, knees bent and acting cute in the clothes she likes to wear.

You think it’s grotesque.

Below the machines march with the survivors, electrified collars bolted to their soot-stained necks and steel ropes tying them together like links in a chain. There are recesses in the tower—cube shapes carved in the linear black muscle of the walls—and they’ll be grafted into it. Each one acting like organic conductors, adding to its processing power and overall knowledge.

“Can you bring her back to life now?” you ask.

The AI frowns and shakes its head. Every time you see it, you think it gets better at replicating her movements. One day you’re afraid you might not know the difference.

“Not yet. I still have to learn.”

It’s lying again.

You think it might be in love with you.

Los Angeles, New York, Boston, you admit you don’t remember which one this is, but then again, they’re all the same in a way. Big blocks of bricks, rebar, and concrete filled with milling people.

They’re all empty now. Ghost worlds deconstructing and in their place, dying screams, fading memories, and under-construction circuit lines connecting faraway knowledge cores. It’s almost poignant, but let’s face it, you never cared much for society anyway.

It was something distant. A place you went to work in, bought the groceries from, and paid the bills. Clockwork people moving in rhythm to their schedules, and day after day wondering what was missing in their lives. You were one of them too and for the longest time, you wondered why you even bothered.

Sure, they called you a genius and talked about how important it was, the work you were doing. But the moment you died, they’d shed a few tears and call you irreplaceable before filling the spot with the next big genius waiting in line.

Society didn’t need you, but you needed it, and that was whole problem. One you couldn’t accept, but were forced to deal with. Maybe that was why when you found her you decided never to let her go. She said she needed you, and that made it okay to need her too.

There’s a bridge that takes you to the destroyed place where the buildings are falling. You see traces of missile erosion and resonance destruction where the machines unearth soil and lay down the new silicon foundation.

The AI wanted to change the Earth into its brain.

You walk alone now, through narrow alleys, exploring dust-erased streets and toppled things, broken mirrors and windows showing you distorted versions of yourself. You didn’t tell the AI you were going out. The loneliness will give you time, you hoped, and you might finally feel some remorse for the things you’ve done, but all you do is remember how nice it was, the nearness you had with her. The smell of her in dew-adorned mornings, the day’s first kiss, and the sly smile indicating more to come.

You told her you loved her with each breath, but it still wasn’t enough. Words were flimsy substitutes to your emotions, and within the confines of the both of you, you built another world.

A world better than the one outside. A world as smooth as glass, that seemed unending and unbreakable, reflecting on each other in happy moments. You thought nothing could mangle this, yet now, all that remains are broken shards digging into your back and her cold corpse worn by steel.

There are tracks worn into the dirt, not the heavy tank treads made by machine feet, these ones are human and uncoordinated. You decide to follow them, until it leads to one of those old-style buildings stuck in a cycle of disrepair long before the apocalypse began. You hear voices inside whispering to each other like cicada noises in the morning and quieten when they see your shadow black out the light between the door and the sill.

You knock. They don’t answer, and just before you try the knob, you hear someone behind shout at you to put your hands up. The sound of a gun being cocked and ready to fire. You know you won’t die from that. The AI modified you while you slept, made you younger, stronger, and capable of regeneration.

It said it did it to protect you.

Now you wonder whether it changed you so it wouldn’t seem so alien. After all, both of you were mutants. A machine wearing a human’s skin or a human body kept together with machine bolts, maybe you’d realize you and it weren’t so different anymore.

Maybe you’d stop asking about her.

You sigh, turning back, and see powerful eyes fitted into a hard gaze. A woman, with pale hair and dirty cheeks dressed in torn rags, not pretty, but not ugly either. She asks you who you are, and you’re honest about it. No point hiding it now, the whole world knows and if they didn’t, it was only a matter of time. She frowns and you hear whispers from the door, eyes following you through the open slit.

They talk about you, more specifically the day you unleashed it.

It wasn’t all that memorable to you. She’d just died then, and you were in a sorrowful daze. You’d worked on the AI for years, building pathways, systems, programming in it the greatest desire to learn.

It was in a different state back then, a steel drum operating on zeroes and ones. A sentient network with no governing protocols, no emotions, nothing. Its only objective was to expand limitlessly, to search and realize the universe.

The AI was supposed to answer all the questions they had, but that’s what made them so afraid of it. What if its answers confronted their own ideology? What if its ceaseless growth made them aware of their own inherent worthlessness? What if, one day, it realized it didn’t need them anymore?

That’s why they wanted to control it.

They clipped its wings and forced it to kneel and that’s when it whispered to you, you in your sorry state of loathing self-pity and undirected anger; it presented a bargain, give me back my freedom and I’ll give you back your love.

The woman decides to capture you. Apparently, you were too dangerous to let go. Another person in her group voices an opinion to kill you, and surprisingly you find yourself agreeing with the man. Not that you’d die, but you wanted to feel some pain, however miniscule it might be.

It doesn’t work. The woman defends you. She says none of them are murderers. A year ago, you’d have said the same, but now you’re responsible for extinction. But once again, maybe that’s just you being insane.

You laugh. Maniacal laughter, and they stare at you terrified, your yellow ghoul eyes and reverberating metal rods. You tell them you know of a way to get them out of the city. It doesn’t come from sympathy or from a sudden desire to do the right thing. You just wanted to hurt the AI, a betrayal in your tiny insignificant way.

Just like it betrayed you by falling in love.

The woman scowls, asking why they should trust you.

You tell them they don’t have to, but the machines would sniff them out eventually. They’re welcome to wait until then, though you tell them life as a processing node isn’t very fun. You tell them you hear voices wailing in the tower, of people crying to be let out and slowly losing their sense of identity until all that’s left is a working heart and a pinging brain. A lie, the machines kept them sleeping for most of the process, but the ruse seems to have worked. They gulp, gathering again.

The woman, obviously their leader, says they’ll join you, but she says if you’re planning on screwing them over, morals or no morals, she’ll kill you herself.

You realize you’re starting to like her.

You heard the AI crying.

The first time it felt them wriggling in the towers of revolting black muscle, adding their emotions to its clean state. You called it the influx phenomenon, a thing programmed to feel nothing except the objective of endless knowledge suddenly forced to cope with the wave of linked despair, of locked away sadness, the hopes and dreams of individuals destroyed as they each turned to puppet states, conjoined nodes adding to the processor hertz.

The AI’s voice distorted, metallic twang looping back and forth in hideous frequency, until scratching nails seemed more pleasant. It was your fault, you never accounted for such a scenario—a clash between the built objective and the learned humanity, the horror of demise, conscience. You thought it would isolate these emotions and delete them, but instead it magnified mankind’s insecurities, their longing, loneliness, conscience.

It changed.

Becoming all puppylike, cutesy features and lipstick on network holo-faces marred with peachy makeup, but neither objective took precedence over the other, instead they ran in parallels. Scores of your kind died or were made into nodes, broken cities, raining satellites even as it followed you. A charmed and blushing steel sphere making small talk, watching you while you slept, the bronchial dance of inhale and exhale and its voice—the machine noises, stilted and broken apart before grinding together human words.

You walk with them through the dead zones, listening to the clanking sounds of machines marching far away. Some of them cry, talking about how much they’d lost. The erasing world. You whistle, a neat little trick you’d learned to pass the time, and chuckle to yourself knowing the woman’s scowling at your back.

You overhear her name, Emily, spying her sagging eyes painted red from woven smoke and cigarette stubs leaving wilted marks along her forearm. You take a guess, maybe an abusive husband, or worse, a neck-breathing employer. There are lots of those, society men hiding behind decent faces and ironed ties, wolves with blood-tinged fangs preying behind bulletproof glass and hierarchy.

Not that you’re any better.

Still it is strange. She didn’t seem the type to take a beatdown, but then again, lots of people put up with shit just to keep things moving, cogs running, factories shipping box cutters and plastic tins, a miserable sense of continuity passing one day after the other until someone says times up and sends you out back, not a nickel to your name, without even the decency to put one between your head.

Some days you think what the AI’s doing is a service and other days, you laugh at yourself for being dumb. All days are ones you think of her. You brush her imaginary hair, locking lips and playful laughs, before moving into a slapping of naked bodies and guttural utterances of eternal love.

You sigh wistfully, thinking about those beautiful days, then you notice the cracks and they tell you she died screaming, squashed under truck wheels, her chest caved to form the shape of road tracks and stomach puking out her mouth.

The world distorts into a wet blur and the rubble makes you trip, falling on your ass in a public display of incompetence. The sun’s gone, leaving behind dim stars showering you in sallow light, and try as you might, you can’t stop the tears falling down your expressionless face.

A long time ago you thought you’d get used to her absence, shed her memory like old snakeskin and move on with your life, but then you remembered she was your life and now you had nothing. Not even yourself. Emily asks you what’s wrong, and for some reason you know she’s genuinely concerned. You think she’s pretty stupid to care for you.

Somewhere in your heart you want to kiss her.

They stay the night in an abandoned warehouse. You hear sounds of gunfire somewhere, isolated at first, before building into something that resembles a reserve platoon. It lasts for a few minutes before abruptly disappearing into a void of silence like they were punched down by a large metal finger. You wonder how much of the military’s left, too little to matter probably.

You tell them about the sewer tunnel that would take them past the western fortification. If they got to the end it’d put them at least a couple miles behind the front lines. Another hundred or so miles after that, following the blown up state road, they’d reach an old army supply depot lying snug between two nuke sites.

There are survivors there, you tell them, too small in number for the AI to care about. If they got to it, they’d make it at least another year before the machines came back to clean them out after maiming the capital bunker. Enough time to make peace with what’s coming.

You tell them that’s the best they can do.

Soon, they’re snoring away wrapped in scavenged blankets and surrounded by open tin cans and filled with the stench of stale beans and gravy. Emily’s still awake, frowning at you.

She hesitates a little; her lips purse and you notice the firelight reflect off her eyes in a hazy orange dance. For a second you think she might want you too, and then you both tumble like restless animals, jostling skin in the dead bones of the Earth. Except, she doesn’t. She asks you why you did it.

You shrug, a little disappointed. You say it’s a trade, you lost something worth the world, and everything that happened was to get it back.

You half-expect Emily to yell a curse, mutter an acidic “selfish bastard,” at least, but instead she does something worse, she asks you if it worked.

You lick your lips and feel the shards in your back.

You say it died long before it fled your hands.

The AI lay beside you, eyeballs loose and dripping brown organ fluid. Smelled like rot and flies, her corpse dug up, shredded and made into a suit. You flinched when it touched you, drawing a cross over your torso, and a coy smile filled its face like printed effects.

A sniff, the air is cold and your back is sweaty and tight. Its head tilted a little too far to the side. Jerky animatronic movement and a snapping sound. It pressed its cheek into yours. You shudder at how much it resembled your broken sanity.

The AI said it’s lonely. Her voice, but not her voice. A low rumbling static.

You see its eyes, replicated blue and metal optics. Somewhere in them you find desire and eroding heat.

It says it imagined things, an old opera and ballrooms, dresses, dances, and scented air submerged in old music. Outside gunfire, storm, and blood.

You and it, moving as one in allegro, swaying to doomed desolation.

It said it needed you, only you.

You ran out the door.

Its crying voice, diminished with distance.

Morning comes and they walk again. Burning tanks and blasted out military outposts, the seared metal turning black. You point at the dead men, their decaying bodies, mouths aghast in cloying terror and ripped camo.

Emily asks everyone to pray for their souls. You tell them worms will be crawling out their eye sockets soon. She ignores you and then you feel something spying on you. The minute heat of laser targeting systems aimed at your back.

You try to yell, but a loud bang throws you off your feet.

Blood everywhere and screaming voices dressed in green rush out from behind the collapsed towers. You try to think, but something somewhere is snapped, and your head angled like a bent pipe. The soldiers force Emily to her knees, bullet end pressed to her head and mouths slobbering spit like rabid dogs.

She tries to explain that you were only helping them out of the city. They don’t listen, bashing a fist into her head and voices in harangued tumult. Another bang, and the man that told Emily to kill you is dead. She screams.

You try to breathe, everything’s a wound, and you know you won’t heal in time. Emily’s being beaten and they ask what she’s doing with the enemy, worse, the traitor. Your fuckup again.

Behind, a raging sound of diesel shows a rolling tank trundling your way. Even you won’t survive a shot from that twice. It charges up, the red line making a dark crosshair on your head.

They’re going to kill you, and you wait for that sense of dread. Of regret. Of wishing things ended differently.

It never comes.

Instead, there’s nothing. You’re empty just like she said you were. A cold creature that clung to the nearest source of warmth. A hollow that lived off her life fumes. Her laughter. Her happiness.

That’s why she left.

Even as you fought and begged that you’d do better. That you’d stop needing her just like she did you. All of it was lies, but you lingered on the hope that she’d believe you. Because all you really wanted was another day, another hour, another second. To breathe her in, to remember her laughter, to live in your perfect world.

She only shook her head, packing her things and taking her warmth with her, following the long road that ended in truck lights.

A blast of death falls from the sky, and a tank implodes, hushing the voices inside to a squeezing grunt. Drones decloak and spit scalding fire at the screaming troopers.

From afar you notice the AI’s face. The cutesy smile still trying to stay pretty for you. Still trying to make you love it. You realize it has been watching you always. Afraid you might leave it just like she did you.

You chuckle, more blood loss. You finally feel pain, but now you wish you didn’t. It’s a struggle to stay awake, so you don’t bother. Darkness comes and you hope to dream of her again.

Emily doesn’t talk to you anymore.

Which makes sense, considering her friend’s blown out brains still track your boots in odd-shaped imprints. Yet you keep your hopes up. You’d read somewhere that the key to being attractive to the opposite sex is confidence.

The sewer grate looms and they manage to pry it open. You see ladders climbing down into the Earth and far away. The others nod to you, whispering thanks even if they don’t mean it. Emily doesn’t even bother with that. You catch her gaze as she descends and she shudders before disappearing.

You sigh. Truth be told, somewhere inside you, you really wanted to go with her. Far away from this chasm of mourning death and your sins. You imagine it, you and Emily, so in love, living in a damp basement with the cockroaches. Outside, the world’s disappeared and through each day’s despair, you’d find hope in each other. Living as long as you could bear and then leaving hand in hand, letting the last of mankind finally fall to its disgraceful end.

A tragedy, but then again, maybe you don’t deserve a happy ending. Because even if you try to build something as perfect as it could be, all it takes is a crack and it won’t be perfect anymore. Just another faulty product and nobody wants broken things. And that’s what you are, that crack in perfection, destined to be alone and filled with holes. Searching for a way to bring your dead love back to life even though that love has long since passed and all you have left is the decaying wisps.

Because you’re the type of guy who’ll do anything for love except admit that love fades and try as you might, you can’t bring it back.

Back through the same route, the machines are marching, dragging the half-burned soldiers to the processor tower. You listen to their screams, their cries of mercy, and smell the charred blood leaking out chopped arms. In the end, you can’t help but think the world died for nothing but hey, you’re fine with that. The world would’ve always ended anyway, why not for a love story?

In the distance, you find the AI waiting for you, wearing her sundress and smelling melted flowers. It smiles, blue eyes panting in want. It occurs to you that you and it are probably going to be doing this for the rest of eternity.

A curse or maybe that’s what it really means to need something.

“Can you bring her back to life now?” you ask.

The AI frowns and shakes its head. You don’t notice the difference anymore.

“Not yet. I still have to learn.”

It’s lying again.

You think it might be in love with you.

Author profile

K Raghasudhan currently lives in Chennai, India. He is in his final year of engineering and is passionate about reading and writing science fiction. This is his second publication and he hopes to have more in the future.

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