Discovery And Destruction
"It's no use, Father, I'll never learn." Frustrated, Josh pushed the pile of metal away from him and sat down on a nearby stool.
"These things take time and patience," Stephan tried to reassure his son.
"That's what you always tell me. I've been hearing the same thing for years and nothing's happened." He frowned. "If I ever want a better job, I'll need these skills. But no matter how hard I try, I just can't learn!"
"You've done just fine at the domes without doing any major repairs on the AIs, you don't need to worry. When you're older, I'm sure you'll be rewarded with a higher position."
Josh sighed. "If I could repair the machines now, I wouldn't have to wait. There are many younger mechanics who could easily replace me. I'm afraid I'll be stuck at the same job for the rest of my life."
"We both know that won't happen. And even if it were to happen, it's still a fine job, you would have nothing to be ashamed of."
"But Father, you don't understand. How can I be expected to get out on my own if I'm not able to support myself?"
"Out on your own? I didn't know you were planning on leaving any time soon." Stephan meant to say more, but the look on his son's face told him all he needed to know. "Let's go back inside and talk."
They took their usual positions in the worn armchairs next to the fire. "You know, I was only a year or so older than you are now when I married your mother," Stephan told his son.
Josh blinked at the mention of his mother. Since she had passed away when he was barely two years old, all he had was a very faint image of her imprinted on the back of his memory. "What does that have to do with anything?" he asked.
"All your talk about moving up in the world and making it on your own, you were planning on including Isolde in all these plans, were you not?"
Josh blushed slightly, "Well, yes, but..."
"Have you told her?" Stephan interrupted.
"Told her what?"
"About your intentions to marry her?" Stephan was only half-teasing.
"Not in so many words, but..."
"Well, what are you waiting for?" When Josh didn't answer, Stephan stood up and went to him. "Son, look at me." Josh obeyed. "I know you think you can do better as far as your work goes, you were always like that. What you make now is enough to support both you and Isolde and you know I would always be willing to help you out. But listen to me, you will someday get all you deserve, you can't ever doubt yourself."
Josh nodded. "If you believe that, Father, then I will believe it, too. But I still can't help worrying."
Stephan smiled. "You always worried too much, as well. Now let's get some rest."
The words of his father danced around Josh's thoughts through the whole night. He knew that his father was right, that he did have enough to live securely on his own, but he was still afraid it wasn't enough for Isolde. Though he loved her, he couldn't see why she felt the same way about him. To him, she had always seemed better suited for the more ambitious young men who had once lived in the village, the ones who had left to pursue more exciting lives. But for whatever reason, the ties between them had remained strong.
"Hard day at work?" Isolde inquired the next day as she gently brushed the dark circles under Josh's eyes.
He took her hand and kissed it. "Just a sleepless night," he told her.
She frowned. "Is anything wrong?"
He leaned back against the trunk of their favorite tree and sighed. "Not really," he finally said.
"That means something must be bothering you."
Josh turned to face her. "Can you answer a question for me?"
"Where do you see yourself years from now? What do you want to be doing with the rest of your life? Where do you think you'll be?"
Isolde smiled slightly. "That's more like three questions, Josh." The smile faded as she said, "I don't really think about the future all that much. I suppose I prefer to take each day as it comes." She paused. "Why do you ask?"
Josh didn't answer right away. Although he knew he could tell Isolde anything, he sometimes still had trouble sharing his deepest feelings with her. It wasn't because he didn't trust her; he had simply grown accustomed to not having a close companion for much of his life.
She reached out and touched his arm, reminding him that it was time to speak. "I love you, Isolde, you know that. And there's nothing I'd like more than to have you with me for the rest of my life. But more importantly, I want you to be happy, and I'm afraid that you won't be satisfied with being the wife of a mere mechanic when you deserve so much more."
"You don't think I'd be content staying here with you?" He nodded. "But Josh, where else would I go?" she asked. "This is my home, I belong here. I disliked living everywhere besides this town. I have no desire to up and leave."
"As much as you deny it, all your experiences have shaped you. You're so much more sophisticated and knowledgeable than everyone else in this tiny village. You've seen so much more, you know what else is out there..."
"And I hate it, you know that my time spent in the cities wasn't exactly pleasant. I don't want anything else besides what I have here." She finally smiled again at him. "That does include you, you know."
He raised one eyebrow. "Do I?"
"You should by now." She sighed. "I don't see why you worry so much."
"I already lost you once, Isolde. And even to a five-year-old, it was devastating. Now, all these years later, I can't bear the thought of ever losing you again." He took her hands in both of his and looked directly into the big, unblinking green eyes across from him. "Promise me, Isolde, that you'll stay with me always, that you'll be mine forever. Nothing would make me happier."
She simply looked back at him for a moment, then leaned forward and quickly, gently brushed her lips against his. "If nothing would make you happier, how could I refuse?" she asked, her familiar mischievous grin spreading across her face.
He pulled her close to him and held her, resting his cheek on the mass of soft green hair. As they sat together in the fading sunlight, he silently vowed to himself that he would never let her go.
* * * * *
Josh happily whistled to himself as he eagerly waited for his shift to end. Although he still loved his work, there was so much waiting for him at home. Plans for the upcoming wedding, construction of the new cottage...Josh hadn't felt so excited since he first began working in the domes.
As he had been for the past few weeks, Stephan awaited his son's arrival, but today, instead of the usual look of happiness and anticipation, his face clearly showed that he was bothered about something. "What's wrong, Father?" Josh asked as he met him at the door.
"More visitors at the domes today. This time there were even Agents from the government accompanying the supervisors." Stephan frowned as he sat down in his favorite chair. "They won't even tell us what's going on. They just keep asking mysterious questions and checking various areas of the domes."
"What do you think is happening?"
"I honestly have no idea. And that's what bothers me the most."
Josh left for work the following morning feeling as confused as his father. He half-expected the Agents and the supervisors to show up at his workroom that day, but no one came. After a rather uneventful day, he went straight to see Isolde.
"Agents, you say?" she asked after hearing Josh's story. He nodded. "Well, don't expect to learn anything from them. They're only concerned with serving the government."
He sighed. "I just don't know what to think."
"I don't know what to tell you."
"Maybe my father will have more information when he gets home today." With that, Josh returned home and waited.
When Algo had completely disappeared behind the horizon, he decided it was time to start worrying. While Stephan occasionally worked past his shift, he had never been this late before.
"My father hasn't come home yet," he said as she opened the door to him.
"That's strange," Isolde said.
"I can't imagine where he is. He should have been back hours ago."
"What are you going to do?"
Josh paused to think. "I'm going to go see what's kept him so long."
"I'll come with you."
He stared at her. "Don't be silly, you have no reason to come. Besides, if there is some sort of problem, I'm sure you wouldn't be allowed inside."
"It's no use arguing, I'm coming."
Knowing he would never win, he allowed Isolde to close and lock the door behind her and the two set off for the dome. Though it was starting to get quite dark, Josh had accompanied his father to work several times and knew the way. As soon as he saw the glint of moonlight reflecting off the curved roof, he could tell something was wrong.
Armed guards, presumably Agents of the government, stood at the entrance. In all his years of working as a mechanic, he had never seen the doors to the domes blocked off. "You'd better stay here," he told Isolde before making his way over to the entrance.
"You may not enter," said one of the guards as Josh approached.
"What's going on?" Josh asked. "Why are you here?"
"This dome was evacuated earlier today. No one is allowed to enter."
The guard shook his head. "I cannot tell you. Please, return to your home. There is nothing to worry about."
It was all too obvious that this Agent was merely reciting responses. Realizing that he would get absolutely nowhere this way, Josh returned to the trees where Isolde was waiting for him.
"So what now?" she inquired.
"I'm going inside to find out what happened," he replied. "There should be a back entrance, you know, for emergencies. I'm pretty sure all the domes have one, I know mine does."
"Do you know where to find it?"
"It can't possibly be too different. They're all designed to be essentially the same."
They stayed in the shadows of the surrounding forest to avoid detection by the guards. When they were behind the dome and sure no one was watching, Josh stepped out into the clearing and began to search for the small opening.
"Any luck?" Isolde asked, following him.
"It should be around here somewhere." Spotting a small clump of overgrown shrubbery, Josh started pushing branches out of the way. "Well, this is efficient," he said, groping for the handle to the newly discovered door. "But I suppose it's for the best. If the Agents thought this was easily accessible, they'd probably send more guards to block it off." He pulled on the door, which stuck slightly from the years of not being used.
The moonlight streamed in the unclouded roof of the dome, illuminating everything in an eerie, pale glow. Motioning for Isolde to be quiet in order to not alert the guards, Josh cautiously stepped inside and looked around.
Like he had predicted, this dome was almost exactly like the one Josh worked in. He realized that they were in a small cubicle off the main chamber that was currently being used as a storeroom. Behind a pile of dusty boxes stood the door that led to the biggest space in the dome.
"It looks like no one's been in here for quite some time," Josh whispered to Isolde. "Let's hope the door will open easily and quietly." He led her past the boxes and gave the door a gentle push.
The sight that greeted them nearly made him vomit. Softly groaning to himself, he picked his way through the maze of bloody corpses to the center of the dome so he could see all that lay before him.
At least a dozen dead bodies were strewn about the farming equipment, some whole, some not. Josh knelt and examined the one closest to him, noting the types of wounds and position of the limbs. He sat back on the cold floor as the realization of what had happened made him dizzy with disbelief.
He heard footsteps behind him and looked upwards to face Isolde. "This is horrible," he simply stated.
"What do you think caused this?" she asked, the initial shock of seeing the carnage in front of her having worn off.
"The AIs. The robots, the androids, everything we used. These injuries could have only been caused by the mechanical strength of them. The human workers never even had a chance."
Suddenly remembering, Josh jumped to his feet. "My father..." he trailed off, as he began to look at each of the bodies. Isolde followed, silently hoping that if Stephan was indeed one of the victims, his remains would at least be identifiable.
They found his body, missing only an arm, thrown up against a wall in a darker area of the room. Josh leaned over and lightly brushed the blood-encrusted abrasion on his father's now-misshapen head. It moved slightly, and a beam of moonlight lit up the sapphire-colored eyes, forever frozen in a look of surprise and despair.
Josh felt a single tear roll down his cheek, soon followed by several more. He sat down and buried his face in his arms, never having cried so much ever since the day Isolde left all those years ago. She knelt beside him and quietly draped her arms around his shoulders, holding him close to her. He turned and sobbed into her shoulder, grateful to have her with him, but simultaneously slightly embarrassed at his open show of emotions.
The distant sound of the guards moving around at the entrance reminded Josh that perhaps the danger wasn't quite gone. "We have to get out of here," he said, drying his face on his sleeve. He pulled Isolde to her feet and the two slipped out the way they had come in.
"We have to go back to the village and warn everyone else," he said when they were a safe distance away. "Who knows what could happen now? I'll have to tell the other workers at my dome tomorrow as well." He briefly paused. "Then we'll have to leave."
"I can't let you stay here when there's a possibility of all the AIs in the area malfunctioning. It's too dangerous out here in these empty areas, we can start for Kueri by tomorrow afternoon."
She violently shook her head. "No. I won't set foot in any of the cities. It's just as dangerous there as it is out here, if not more."
"No," she cut him off. "Even if I wanted to, I couldn't. I won't leave my parents and if they go back to the cities, they'll be killed."
"Surely you don't think after all these years..." He sighed. "I still believe that Mother Brain..."
She wouldn't even let him finish his sentence. "After all this time, you still don't see," she said, her voice chillingly quiet. "You still don't understand." She turned away from him. "You know as well as I do that Mother Brain could have easily stopped those AIs from turning against their operators. She has the ultimate control and power, you know that as well. But she didn't do a thing, Josh. She let your father die because he, and you, and everyone else are worthless to her."
He didn't say anything. Isolde faced towards him again and stepped closer so she was looking right up into his shadowed eyes. "Your father is dead, Josh. What more has to happen before you finally realize that the government of Mota doesn't exist to protect the people? That it only exists for the protection of Mother Brain?"
He was speechless for another moment. "I still think it's safer in the city right now," he finally said. "If for no other reason than I'm sure a horde of malfunctioning androids won't be able to get in." He brushed a stray lock of hair from Isolde's eyes. "I'm not going to make you do anything you don't want to do. But I really want you to think about going somewhere safer."
"I don't think any place is safe anymore, Josh. But I still think you should tell the rest of the village what happened. They need to make up their own minds."
He agreed and as soon as Algo rose the next morning, they knocked on doors and gave brief descriptions of what had happened. Several families left right away, while others decided to wait to see what happened. Most placed their faith in Mother Brain and trusted that she wouldn't let harm come to the people of Mota.
"I'm going to the dome to tell the other workers what happened," Josh said to Isolde when they were finished. "I'll be back as soon as possible." He started to leave, but turned back around. "Please reconsider what I said," he pleaded.
She nodded. "I'll see you this afternoon," she said as she softly kissed him on the cheek.
Josh was almost to the dome when one of his fellow mechanics nearly ran right into him. "Josh, what are you doing here?" he exclaimed. "Get as far away as you possibly can!"
"What's going on?"
"Haven't you heard? The AIs in every dome in the area are attacking! No matter what we do, they won't listen to our commands!"
"I knew this could happen," Josh murmured to himself.
The mechanic didn't hear him. "They soon started escaping from the domes, destroying everything in their path! Stay away from them!" With that, he disappeared into the woods.
Josh was faced with the decision of going to the dome and seeing for himself or going back home to get Isolde and her parents. Opting for the latter, he turned around and ran back to the village.
Half the structures were destroyed by the time he got there. He didn't see any AIs, but guessed they had come from the south. Trying to ignore the smoking buildings and the occasional mutilated body, he went straight to Isolde's house.
The door was missing, so Josh carefully stepped inside, fearing the worst. Blocking out the sight of her dead parents slumped over the blood-covered table, he searched the house top to bottom. No Isolde.
"Where could she be?" Josh wondered to himself. His own house had been partially destroyed, so he knew she couldn't be there. It suddenly occurred to him that as soon as the first android arrived in the village, she would try to find him.
As he realized this, he caught a glimpse of shiny metal reflecting the sunlight from the second-story window of Isolde's house. They were back. Praying to whatever higher power there was, he slipped downstairs and out the back door, hoping that their sensors would not take notice of him. Or, if they did, that he would be able to outrun them.
Josh started to retrace his steps back to the dome, ever conscious of the surrounding noises. He jumped at the sound of each breaking twig, the rustle of leaves, the scraping sound of branches hitting each other, knowing that there could easily be any number of AIs hidden in the shadows of the woods. He passed several corpses, some dressed in the uniforms of the dome employees, but refused to stop to see if he recognized any. Only one thing was on his mind and he knew he had to find her.
Strange sounds coming from his left made him stop and look around. He thought perhaps it was his mind playing tricks, but he heard it again.
Again fearing what he would find, Josh ran through the thick clusters of trees and bushes until he got to a small clearing. Stifling a scream, he could only stare at the gruesome sight that lay before him.
As in his worst nightmares, the latest victim was Isolde. Her mouth was open as if she were trying to call out, but the mechanical hands squeezed around her slender neck prevented any noise from escaping. Her bright green eyes met Josh's and he knew that, for now, she was still alive.
Without even thinking, Josh reached out one hand and shielded his eyes with the other as a blindingly bright burst of energy struck the android, destroying its machinery. When it had stopped moving, Josh rushed over and pried the cold hands from Isolde's throat.
She looked up at him, her lips moving, but no sound coming out. "Shh, don't try to speak." Without even looking at the dark red marks covering her delicate pale skin, he knew that there was nothing he could do to save her.
A tiny tear formed at the corner of Isolde's eye and Josh quickly brushed it away. He scooped her fragile body up into his arms and sat with her in the tall grass, no longer caring if a wayward android stumbled across them. Cursing himself for not arriving sooner, he stroked the messy green hair and wept into it. She had promised she would never leave him, but shortly, he would be alone once again.
Within a few minutes, he finally felt her stop gasping for breath. He laid her body beneath a nearby tree, knowing that he needed to leave soon for his own safety. He wished he could bring her back near the home she had always loved, but the trip would be much too perilous. Wiping away the small trickle of blood that had dripped from Isolde's lips, he kissed her one last time.
Before leaving the clearing, he briefly examined the still body of the android. Josh knew now that regardless of what his father had said, his destiny was not to repair the machines; it was to destroy them. Casting one final look around the clearing, he said a final silent farewell to Isolde and left.
Luck was with him, for he reached the town of Kueri without anymore encounters with the AIs. He felt a bit overwhelmed at the number of people and buildings as he looked for a place to spend the night. Fighting to ignore the control towers in the center of the town, he went to a house on the outskirts.
It belonged to an inventor who agreed to let Josh stay the night. He told Josh of a small group of people from Paseo, Mota's capital, who were working to rid the area of biomonsters and could use all the help they could get. Josh had never worked with anything but machines, but this group intrigued him. After what seemed like endless questions, the inventor gave him the address in Paseo and a few mesetas to teleport there the next morning.
When Josh arrived in Paseo, the first thing he noticed were the tall towers with
flashing lights and power lines, which immediately reminded him of Isolde. I know
you'll always be with me, he thought to the memory of her. Pushing all negative
thoughts out of his head, he quickly found the house of Rolf and knocked on the door.