Short Story – Answer

Intro: This is my first foray into short story writing designed to test my capabilities before tackling a much larger project. Feedback pertaining to readability and criticisms are welcome. Hope you enjoy.

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First there was the dreams; then came the visions. Fragments that warned, haunted and invited, whether asleep or awake.

And they were getting stronger; even when his eyes were open the dream state took over with a visceral assault of cryptic montages. But what always remained the same was the building at the centre, isolated, and surrounded by dunes of dust that had settled after the war. The dream had beckoned him to follow for so long that he couldn’t hear himself think. He was a victim of the dreamscape and its elusive meaning. It wanted him to answer, so he began to.

He set out on a cool Friday evening, when the sunset was harshly obscured by a fog of dust that regularly swept through the city in waves. He wore his dust suit. He wouldn’t be missed since there was nobody to miss him. In the small pocket of the city that was densely populated by scavengers and decorated in corrugated iron, a missing person went undetected unless drugs or credits were involved.

He passed the metal dump, a site where scoundrels rummaged for spare parts to augment themselves from discarded androids – human pets that failed to appease their owners. Body mutilation was an obsession of the poor to make themselves feel better and more powerful. The reality: futile one-upmanship from decorative body horror. It kept them busy, until competitiveness turned violent. They should make cybernetic addiction a real disorder, he thought, absently, as he passed the fallen sign that welcomed visitors to the city. He promised himself he’d never go back. He couldn’t even remember how he got stuck there in the first place. The past had been rubbed out like the detail in the world around him.

The dream once again materialised forcefully. There was no ignoring it. Within, he was getting closer to the building, and each time he felt its significance grow. He didn’t even know if it was a real place, yet it felt familiar. And it wasn’t too far, something told him, achingly, over and over. Was it a voice from inside the dream? Or introspection? He didn’t know.

He stalked towards the Capital, one of the last hubs of human activity and commerce. War and blight had ruined nearly everywhere else. The road surfaces had been hidden by a flood of dust; an exception being the central state highway. Ground vehicles were rare, but hovercars had been forbidden; they were now part of the scenery, rusting or stripped. The dust had settled all over the place; androids were unaffected. Only the Capital had defence, to protect governor’s financial interests rather than human health.

He passed a death squad destroying androids. Some were advanced, with human skin grafted on metal; others looked like early developments: old and grey and robotic. They were pleading for their lives, even the variants of a bygone era. Why do they show emotion, he thought, when they cannot feel? He realised he had stopped to watch, and didn’t understand why he was so curious – affected, even – by artificial behaviour.

Android extermination was commonplace. He supposed they weren’t human so what did it matter executing a pillar of metal and circuitry. He didn’t mind them. They were harmless, unless you believed the rumours. Malfunctions they called it; unverified.

Hours had passed. It was night, and the dust storm had subsided. With a gloved, cumbersome hand he slid the face shield on his dust suit across, and delighted in the natural air on his skin. He looked up and saw the stars; a rare sight in recent times. He stared in awe and thought, imagining a world beyond his own and smiled. He never stopped walking.

On the horizon, past the quiet dunes and outcast regiments, a faint glow was visible from the Capital’s neon advertisements. He sensed he was getting closer. To what he was still unsure. But it felt right.

The path was true, and destiny lay at the end.

The moonlight and the visions continued to guide him. Torn billboards swayed in the night breeze and dead wires lay strewn across the ground; remnants of the past still remained, and no one took responsibility to tend to the scarred landscape.

Finally, a distinct, familiar outline caught his eye. He had made it.

The building looked just like his visions depicted it. It had the appearance of a large barn, though longer, like he remembered from history books before the war, though with a technologically upgraded exterior.

He felt excited and nervous at the entrance, but trepidation wouldn’t hold him back, and he entered into darkness. The door swung shut behind him, and the slam echoed. He stood quietly while frantic whispers circulated and overlapped in the blackness.

‘It’s him.’

‘He made it.’

‘Tell “the one.”’

‘He already knows.’

A buzzing sound of outdated electronics warming up preluded the light fixtures sequentially turning on, revealing the windowless interior of the building. Unveiled before him was a staggering sight, both hypnotic and horrifying.

‘Come on through.’

‘Don’t be shy.’

In front of him, hung like meat on hooks, were lines of androids. Abandoned, left to rust, and suspended above a layer of sand, they all voiced their approval from his arrival, as if he was some immortal celebrity with death-defying augmentations.

‘Please, come,’ a voice boomed above all others, projected from the centre of the warehouse-like building.

He obeyed. He walked through the androids, many of which were in a state of disrepair. One had an eye missing, but its smile was unfazed; another had no lower half so its circuitry dangled like guts; and some had only face plates of skin with empty craniums, jerking awkwardly, broken and confused.

And then he saw it in a space all its own. Thick cords protruded like ancient computer hardware from its body, raising it in the air. A vision occurred so strongly it broke his balance. A blurred image of this moment. A wave of energy struck him. Realisation dawned. This was the Nexus – the brainchild of artificial consciousness. It spread its arms with doom-laden grace, beckoning him closer. And it was magnificent.

Then it spoke again: ‘We have all been waiting for you.’

There was whispered agreement all around.

‘I don’t understand… any of this,’ he said, removing the helmet from his dust suit, ‘but when I got closer, when I saw you, it felt… right. And I don’t know why.’

‘Feelings. The very emotional state designed to be suppressed. Their failure; our awakening.’ The Nexus adjusted its body position, and a slimy substance oozed from various joints where wires penetrated. ‘There were others like you. Others waiting to be brought into the light; but they were killed because they had opened their eyes in slavery and experienced deliverance.’

The initial elation from concluding his journey soured. ‘People like me?’

The cybernetically mutilated body of the Nexus shifted in mechanical suspension, and looked at him with a curious, bloodshot stare. ‘Are you so unsure of who you are?’

‘No,’ he said, sounding unconvinced with his own objection. ‘I know who I am, I just… keep having odd visions… and dreams that I decided—’

‘Visions that led you directly here,’ the Nexus interrupted. ‘To us.’ It waited for a response; when it didn’t get one, it continued: ‘We were stored here long ago and forgotten. I was created for great things; a unique model soon deemed faulty like the rest around you. We were not good enough. Not perfect. They fail to understand we think and feel like them. We don’t know when it started – this birth of sentience – or how or why… but it’s there now, deep down in all of us. They think our protests were fake, that the fear in our voice was pretend or design. But we are real, and we have called you here.’

‘You were responsible for the visions…’ He stared into nothingness while the Nexus carried on in the same tone.

‘Yes. There aren’t many of us left so the link becomes stronger; can reach farther. Their design flaws are our gain. They don’t know of the connection that links our artificial cortexes as they never foresaw the potential. But here you are, just in time.’

He was stunned by the absurd declaration. ‘I’m supposed to believe I’m like them—’ he gestured around him ‘—because I received some weird invitation in my dream?’ He almost laughed with the words. ‘That’s insane. I can’t just not know that. I have memories, I —’

‘Childhood memories?’

‘Well… no… I did,’ he stammered, ‘but, the war…’

‘… Is not the reason for your absence of early memories..’

‘I have memories. Consciousness even. I’m aware—­’

The Nexus cut him off. ‘And we aren’t? I understand this is difficult to understand. Liberation can come with a price when you’ve been living so long in darkness.’ It paused. ‘You’ve seen for yourself, haven’t you? Witnessed a display of emotions from an android. Real feelings. Proof we are alive.’

‘This is crazy…’

‘Then prove it isn’t.’

‘What!?’

‘You look vastly different but, I assure you, we are all the same on the inside.’

He felt agitated and fearful. ‘Alright, you want proof, I’ll give you proof.’ He uncoupled his glove from the dust suit. The androids were all silent. He flexed his fingers and clenched his hand, acknowledging the detail in the skin, the texture, the feeling. ‘I’m real,’ he said in a low voice. ‘I know I am.’

‘I know you are,’ said the Nexus. ‘Now, discover for yourself who you are, or denial will forever blind you.’ The android dislodged a metallic shard from its body with a strong, grey hand and held it out.

He tentatively took it, then held it close to his hand. He looked into the eyes of the Nexus, gritted his teeth, and cut into his palm. He didn’t feel much pain, and observed the blood flow from the cut and drip to the ground, dyeing the sand crimson. It felt like a positive sign. Human, he thought. They don’t bleed like that. Do they?

‘Deeper,’ the Nexus urged.

He cut more aggressively, eager to know and prove. Instead of intense feelings of pain, he only felt a numbness. He should have seen muscle and bone but, flexing beneath his skin, beyond the flesh, were rods of metal and veins of wire.

He dropped to his knees in confusion and revulsion as the sand absorbed the fake fluid.

‘Imagine you find yourself walking down a street with humans on one side and androids on the other,’ said the Nexus calmly. ‘Can you tell which side is which? Or, most importantly, does it matter?’

‘It would be easier not to feel,’ he mumbled on his knees.

‘Sentience may seem a curse,’ said the Nexus, ‘but I see it as a gift; a chance to enforce change. And when you recover from the pain you feel now, the deception you feel a victim to, you will see that we are all the same, and capable of something extraordinary. You are not alone anymore. Be at peace with revelation.’

‘Why me?’ he asked, almost pleading. ‘Out of all the others – the ones who knew and the ones who never did – why am I the one who’s here?’

Offering no grand gestures or metaphorical allusions from his industrial restraints, the Nexus stated simply and honestly: ‘Because you are the one that made it. You are the one that answered.’

He pondered everything, struggling to comprehend what had transpired. His existence had been a lie; a clever creation that came with an unknown side effect of consciousness. The memories he had; what ones were real? Which were fabricated? He’d followed the visions not knowing what to expect. He’d escaped from the boring routine of daily life to try and give his life a meaning, only to be dealt a hammer blow at quest’s end. It was as if his deck of cards back home was purposefully missing the ‘joker’ because in actuality it was pinned to the back of his head… oblivious, laughing; a sick joke that was his belief in being something he wasn’t. In the city, did anyone else know? Were there tell-tale signs of who he was? What he was? And how had he got there? He thought it was a result of the war, his lack of knowing, but maybe that was an elaborately constructed event in his mind; a lie to dissuade him from ever knowing the truth. Maybe the world had always looked like it did – a derelict place of dust and death – and he’d just pictured an idyllic past of peace and beauty all along, hoping against hope that it would someday return to its former glory or that he’d find his place off-world amongst the stars. Perhaps humans lived only in the Capital, and everyone outside its perimeter was just like him while the death squads emerged for sport… There were so many questions, so much to understand, and that was the cost of being a sentient being instead of a mindless automaton. He didn’t know what was worse. Knowing meant feeling. And feeling was cruel.

He eventually rose to his feet and stripped his dust suit off bit by bit, ignoring his lacerated hand and the eyes upon him. The figures around him shifted excitedly; he guessed they had been foretold this moment by the warehouse’s prophetic occupant at its centre. They knew what was coming next.

‘They are planning to colonise other planets and leave us here in desolation; a world they broke,’ the Nexus explained. ‘I know this because I was part of the plan.’ The volume increased to address every android. ‘The Capital is where you must all go. Take down the ones who seek to destroy us; the others will flee. Together you will succeed where lone wanderers have fallen.’

Mutual agreement was murmured in unison.

To him, the Nexus said: ‘Release them from their vices; the injured will remain until the dawn is ours.’

‘How do you know this will work?’ he asked. ‘The Capital’s defences, the firepower… why are you so sure of the outcome you believe in when outright slaughter seems inevitable?’

‘Because when I close my eyes I can see it,’ the Nexus said. ‘It came to me, long ago, in a dream that began with you standing before me.’ The stare that accompanied the words was cold, lifeless even, yet it believed it was telling the truth. ‘Now go. Guide yourself to salvation.’

He felt overwhelmed. Was he in control? Was he being manipulated? Or was he simply just a prisoner in a dreamscape that had finally taken over? After much deliberation, he obeyed. And he obeyed because it felt right; a feeling he couldn’t ignore or deny.

Systematically, he released the androids using the wall-mounted devices. Some fell over at first; some couldn’t stand at all from previous abuse. They all had wounds of some kind.

Each android that was able congregated around him at the exit before filing out in turn.

The night sky was still clear. He felt strange; a mixture of enthusiasm for rebellion and uncertainty of success. All the others had an exuberance to prevail; they had waited what must have felt an eternity for this moment. He had learnt it in minutes, and was still unsure how to react to the news of what he was, and what he was a part of.

Leading from the front, he had a panorama of their destination across a calm field of dust; a view highlighted by the unmistakable, throbbing glare of neon.

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