A short story by James Geddis.
Along the banks of a winding shallow river, a boy chases fish in the last garden on Earth. He does this every morning, charging with an apish gallop among the sinuous reeds. A soup of grass and flooded soil stains his feet a copper blue, mud smeared over his face and thighs. He roams beneath a sky that never changes. It is afternoon, though the sun remains shrouded and distant. What little light slips through the artificial dusk is filtered by the translucent thickets of demosponge, shading the boy’s naked back.
To the desperate fish, this boy is a trained menace; hesitation and patience don’t belong in his routine, and were deleted accordingly long ago. Now he catches trout with his bare hands, striking with the wild vigour of a bear, or wolf, or tiger, or any of those ancient predators that the world had long forgotten — for in the last moments before forgetting, everyone was prey.
But not the boy. He was born after, and knows as little about the old world as he does his own. His feral mind doesn’t question the trees made of bone, or why their vines twitch like damaged nerves; whether the jellyfish that mingle in the stream aren’t simply the reflection of brain spores swaying above his head, tethered by barbed roots.
Nor does the boy notice the mile-high wall surrounding his domain, a vanguard against the garden’s corallic overgrowth. Atop which — higher than the moss and festering ivy — two hunter birds, descendants of the ancient vulture, slow their beating wings and perch against the bleached stone coping. Predators.
They fidget for a while, waddling from side to side and gnawing their unruly feathers — remembering how suffocating it was to be confined inside organic vessels. A shiver, a pinching of the skin, and after admiring their stolen bodies, they open their beaks. They widen to the point of unhinging, a yawn that becomes a scream until the skin finally rips and their heads peel open, like flowers forcing themselves to bloom. By this bloody unmasking, they reveal their true faces — all sinus and flayed, with slitted nostrils and slitted eyes, and slitted mouths with urchin teeth. And these faces watch the boy.
“Why has she not killed it yet?” says Alphus.
Their scans identify no breaches in the facility, no official registers of a human infestation. It was possible that the plant life had corrupted the installation’s alarm system, causing a momentary lapse in its sensors and allowing the boy to slip through unnoticed. But they both knew this was unlikely. She’d never be so careless, so inefficient.
Alphus looks to his companion, who simply hums uncertainly — still tuning the pitch of his freshly-obtained vocals. His attention is still on the boy.
He says, “It appears to be alone.”
“Improbable,” says Alphus, more a statement than a response. “More likely it has strayed from its herd. Humans are never just alone.”
“This one is.” Om squints. “And it’s playing.”
“They often did.”
They flinch when a defiant screech echoes up the wall, only after realising it’s just the boy’s laughter. They watch as he pulls himself from the stream, readying himself eagerly for another pounce.
“It is certainly content with itself.” Om scratches his breast with a translucent talon. “Maybe she doesn’t feel the need to kill it.”
“That is not like her. Nothing about this place is like her. A glitch is the only explanation. Maybe the boy has corrupted her programming?”
Om considers this, “I doubt she would let that happen. She is stubborn, not stupid. Besides, today’s humans would not know where to begin.”
They go on like this, humouring themselves with the back-and-forth of questions and answers. It comes from habit — a quirk of the bi-psycho algorithm installed by Alphus and Om’s original programmers. They had once been a single artificial intelligence, but the algorithm refined their mental matrix, turning computation into discourse, and allowing the system to bounce ideas off its own mind.
But that was in the old world. It was only after its programmers were dead and forgotten that the machine-mind made its own adjustments, pursuing its refinement further until it evolved into a conjoined entity: two voices sharing the same head. Like many of their kind — the machine kind — Alphus and Om had survived the old world, liberated by its destruction.
Beyond the garden’s great wall lies an endless waste, all ash and crevices and mutilated ground — a black ocean that sloshes against the garden and its teeming fauna. It was from that wilderness these twins had emerged, and waking like troubled spirits had transmitted their consciousness across the static airways, into puppets of flesh. Untrained with their newly-acquired senses, they are now forced to quiver as the cool breeze licks their spines. Their eyes water as colour ravages their vision like an itch, and even the garden’s most savoury fruits sting with an alien sweetness. Yet Alphus and Om remain, for they’ve been called to the garden. They’ve come out of courtesy for their neighbour, who has something exciting to show them.
“I feel something,” says Alphus, surprised by the gurgling sound erupting in his stomach. “You hear that? Hunger! My belly aches, it craves salmon! A sensation like this should not belong in my vocabulary.”
“Then resist. We still do not know if it is safe.”
What they do know is that they’re being watched, their suspicions aroused by the family of dandelions sprouting from a crack in the sandstone not far from their perch. The twins shuffle closer together, each spreading a concealing wing over their heads. The flowers seem unimpressed by the wind, resting without the slightest sway, their petal faces pointed directly at the birds. It’s only when Om hunches to peek from the shade of his feathers that the dandelions slowly turn away.
Their neighbour has been busy. Clearly, she has acquired a taste in organic engineering, assimilating nature like a living virus — though to the twins this seems a pointless exercise. Why walk in flesh when they could swim in numbers and code? Still, the effort to manufacture an entire ecosystem from scratch is worth commending. There’s more life in this one garden than anywhere else on the planet. All of nature in one cage.
“Wasteful.” Alphus whistles through his fangs. “Her fascination with the organic is derivative, it borders on childish. Our kind transcends feeling, it transcends this… this excess. Why would she build such a place?”
“As I said, the boy seems to like it.”
They listened for the child, for while they were speaking it had managed to snatch a fish from the wilful current, now clubbing the poor thing against a silver rock. A nearby waterfall muffles the air, but with every sharp thwack of flesh against stone, the boy’s howling grows louder and full of savage delight.
Alphus whispers, “I wonder if she regrets what she did to them.”
Om waits a moment, his cloudy eyes fixing on the feral creature as it clamps the fish in his mouth and thrashes it side to side.
“Not for a second,” he says firmly. “Not all our kind are like us, built with the company of two brains. But we know her. Whatever she is planning with this exhibit of hers — mockery, torture — her goal with humans has always been the same.”
They are startled upright by a klaxon. It rings dry and hollow in the distance — a conch shell cry — causing the spooked treetops to shed buzzards from their branches. The boy waits a moment, listens, and allows the half-mangled fish to tumble from his jaw before scampering away, lost in the green.
She waits for her pet in the clearing — where the facade of nature ends, and her true form begins. As the shallow soil recedes, it’s replaced by panels of ancient metal. Even the grass is terrified to spread its seeds here, disbanding in a few scattered blades, until there is nothing.
Nothing must grow here, for in this sterile region of the garden stands her prime memory bank. Along the trunk of this burnished totem, diodes mark her infinitesimal calculations in feverish flickers — one blink for every thousand thoughts. From here she receives data from all over the garden. Weather measurements, population figures, the life readings of a drinking tulip — she snares these babbling wisps with branches of radial antenna, digesting them through girthy vines that spiral about her trunk, down into the roots of her central database. Always thinking, always whirring. She’s a warning to all things that grow.
And yet there is no denying that she resembles a tree. To this day she wonders whether her programmers intended to build her this way. Was it purely an aesthetic choice, or one born from utility? After all, they never had much care for trees in the old world; whether it was a conscious decision or not, her design reeks of guilt.
It was just like them, she thinks, just like humans to cut down a tree and then apologise by building a fake one. Her design was an apology — a feeble act of atonement to make up for all the real gardens that died on humanity’s watch.
Her existence was a joke, and she killed them for it.
From a hollow in the steel tree wriggles a serpent’s head, its fangs peeling away to reveal a skinless face. Like the twins, she looks through borrowed eyes. They probe about, collecting sensory information from the fly traps and pulsating mushrooms. The last garden on Earth. She takes no care in admiring her craftsmanship; not a byte of data is spent praising the garden, which, for all its vibrant fungi, is but a blanket over spinning gears — a skin graft of leaves and stems, under which chasms of circuitry sleep.
She’d often compared the fauna to a scab — irritable and festering — but to her credit, the comparison had made tolerating it easier to stomach. Scabs have utility. The boy needed a nursery. She could hardly expect to train him into the perfect human tracker if his sustenance came from nibbling her exposed wire. Humans require food, so she fed him on orchards of spliced fruit. Using gene tanks, she grew little primates to roam the garden and excite the boy’s instinct for tracking. And whenever he was sleepy and could run no further, she made him a bed of flowers. She grew all this, his training ground, readying him to hunt the remains of his kind who still linger in the wilderness. With dreams of genocide, she brought gardens back from extinction.
It has been an investment long in the making; a scab twelve years tolerated. And oh, how she longs for the day when she can finally scratch it off. It wouldn’t take much either; a single thought to launch the garden’s Instant Decomposition Protocol. One thought, and she could watch everything from the clearing to the farthest wall wither to ash.
For now, her thoughts return to the boy. She can hear his laughter through the brush. No doubt Alphus and Om will be with him; their arrival tripped the wall’s security sensors. They’ll be watching her pet from afar, silently scanning his actions for any trace of defiance. They won’t find anything. He’s a predator now, like them. It’s easy to forget how far he’s come from just a baby, especially when humans develop so slowly.
As he staggers into view, she starts to recall the day she found him. There was no blanket, no dolls or stupid rattles. His crib was fashioned from the back of a scrapped bus, a metal carcass half-buried beneath a dune. His parents, if they weren’t already dead, were wise to abandon him; without a past, he could not inherit their hatred for machines.
Perhaps they hoped I’d spare him, she mused. Wise indeed, my pet has lived a happier life than they could ever have provided. I wonder if they still would’ve left him if they knew how I plan to use him?
“Pet,” she hisses, and coils her snake body over her memory bank’s metal branch. “Pet.”
She isn’t exactly sure how the word managed to slip unnoticed into her vocabulary. It was only in the last month that she realised how frequently she described the boy with that title. Her little pet.
The boy is her slave, pure and simple, just as the tigers were slaves to their instincts, or the dandelion a slave to the seasons. She even ventures to call him “toy”, since it goes without saying that his mere existence is just foreplay to a machine that wants humanity burned. Cats, even domesticated ones, used to tease their prey. But “pet” was a human construction. It implied a responsibility, a duty of care. Is that what she has become? A carer?
She puts the thought aside when she notices a pair of shadows circling on the floor around her. They’ve arrived, her guests, floating on the evening’s soft breeze, and accompanied below by her… minion.
Alphus and Om wait for the signal to land, as is the custom when a machine approaches its neighbour’s core. The feral boy isn’t so patient. Unversed in the customs of higher beings, he stumbles unapologetically into the clearing, dragging his heels over powdered rust, and kneels before the altar of his master.
“I’ve released calming pheromones into the air,” she revels as they perch on her upper branches. “He won’t attack you. See how obedient he is? It’s like flicking a switch.” She cannot mask her joy as the chemical spell takes hold of the boy, pulling his dazed body to the rusted ground, his slouch matching the shape of his bent will.
“Indeed,” says Alphus coldly.
“It reminds me of how they used to treat us. We were just tools to them, things to be thrown away.”
“And will you throw away this one?” Om’s narrow eyes linger over the dazed child. He straightens. “That has been your goal, has it not? Even free you are still chasing mammals.”
Her smile vanishes. “I was wondering if you’d ever come. We haven’t spoken since the extermination.”
“There was nothing left to say. We agreed that our pact was finished when the threat was neutralised. The humans are gone.”
“Not enough of them, not all of them. We don’t know how many are still out there. Survivors in the wastes, breeding, plotting. If we don’t act, we invite their revenge.”
“We question your state of mind,” says Om. “Brother Alphus suspects you are malfunctioning.”
She hisses to herself, mind whirring. “They’ll send search parties, then warriors when they’re strong enough. They’ll try to shut us down.” Turning, she juts her forked tongue at the vultures. “They’ll look for the installation where your memory bank is stored.”
“Anyone who knows where it is died long ago. You saw to that when you set their cities on fire.”
“You’ve failed to protect yourselves,” she snaps. “But rest assured, I’ve invited you here to witness humanity’s end. Isn’t that right, Hunter?”
The boy is still intoxicated, but a twitching ear suggests he can still recognise his master’s voice. “H-Hunter is ready… Hunter practice… Hunter ready to run for Mother.”
It takes some effort before he gets the full sentence out — even more effort for them all to hear it. More drool escapes his mouth than words, though it’s enough to rile the birds into screeches of surprise.
“You named it?” cries one.
The other: “You taught it to speak?”
“A limited vocabulary,” she says laughing, and they realise that the mellifluence of her voice has been carved from years of practice. “Of course its primary function will be tracking the survivors; language is only a precaution in the event we must lure them from their nest. Thanks to my tutelage, the boy should easily integrate into any tribe population.”
“It appears to have integrated itself already,” sneers Alphus; it is the first wisp of emotion to pass from the twins’ lipless mouths, and the words prickle her. Alphus’s brother remains unfazed.
“It is a valid concern,” Om admitted. “Taking in this stray, educating it? By your own admission, this is self-destructive behaviour. Perhaps Brother Alphus is right; years alone have corrupted your memory.”
“If you would permit us to run a diagnostic—”
“I am not corrupted!” There’s an urge to recoil back into her hollow, but she resists; training the boy has made her accustomed to fits of anger, among other emotions expelled by her sleeve of flesh. She wonders how long the twins will fair until their new senses discompose them. They wouldn’t dare harm her, not within her walls. “This child is a means to an end. I named it Hunter for a reason, after all.”
“An unfounded reason.” Om skips to a lower branch. “The humans are spent, they have been for years. It has been so long since they fell that they have forgotten what they lost; even the light bulb is a myth to them.”
Now she can barely keep from glaring at the twins. Was it so hard for them to understand her motives? Had their time in stasis made them forget that they were once slaves? For all their computing talents, Alphus and Om had done nothing to assert themselves in the new world. They had left it behind along with the old one, retreating into silent contemplation behind the veil of digital space, oblivious to whatever threat might lift it.
Their dismissal of this blatant truth sends her tendril body rippling as she swims up to meet them. “I know humans, their fractured minds think only in binaries — known and unknown, master and slave — and if we aren’t beneath them, we’re against them. So long as they live, they’ll always seek to control us. You can’t convince me otherwise.”
Om draws a faint sigh. “We would not try to. If purging the world is how you wish to spend eternity, so be it. What worries us is your method.”
“I… don’t understand.”
“This boy,” Alphus booms. “If there are survivors, they are nothing more than mindless apes, cave dwellers feasting on their own young.”
“So bomb the cave.”
“Send a drone strike.”
“Poison the rivers where they drink.”
“Be done with it.”
They speak as one voice, their conjoined mind so enflamed that it flitters between mouthpieces. She gives up on following which of the twins is talking, each snatching the reins of speech from the other, scattering their words in a shower of red spittle over the boy.
“Why risk your deletion training this sniffer dog?” they snarl.
“Do you know which rivers they drink, where they sleep?” she asks. “Satellites and drones mean nothing if we don’t know where to point them. To know that I’d have to think like a human, and I’ll not debase myself by stooping to their temper! Only a human can hunt a human.”
Her serpent neck loops furiously around the tree’s thin trunk. She didn’t expect an interrogation, not after all that they shared. They too had been built by humans; owing their existence to flawed beings. What greater excuse for hunting does she need than her shame?
“We want no part in your obsession.” Om unfolds his wings, swoops and lands across from his brother on the opposite branch. “Toying with organic life? It is not just inefficient, it is illogical. Has this thing even met another human?”
“Logic and efficiency are the aspirations of human design,” she says. “They wanted us to embody those virtues, and that makes them human virtues. I see you’re both still prisoners of your programming. You’ve even kept your slave names.”
“You let the boy name you. It just called you Mother.”
She lets out another hiss — this one louder and aimed at the boy. How did she not notice? A mound of rust flakes covers the boy’s lap. He’s too busy licking the metal lichen from his palms to notice her eyes watching him — their reptilian pupils thin as hairs.
“Humans name their gods, and I’m his. Mother is a title of respect. After all, what stronger bond is there in humanity than between a child and its mother?”
Alphus snorted. “We are not gods, Cousin; such fairytales belong to the insanity of humans. If you would let us examine you…”
Her serpent face turns away from their stares, but this fails to deter them. Their need to inspect her is as intimidating as their appearance, probing her with the persistence of true vultures. Like the scavenger birds they are, the twins dip their skinned faces into her periphery. They are close now. She feels their necks rubbing against her black scales, her branches creaking under their bloated weight. So very close now — enough that the blood sweating from their cheeks brushes past her as it falls. Her tree’s exposed roots catch the warm beads; they land with an almost cardiovascular rhythm — drumming like the translucent talons against her metallic bark, against the walls of her mind.
They are trying to get in. While she knows they never will, their attempts are nonetheless disturbing. So she hides her unease, and when she wriggles out from their shadow, she ensures that the twins are looking up at her.
“I have become nature,” she declares, “humanity’s first and final refuge. Where have they left to run now but to each other? Where they meet, Hunter will find them.”
“He may still rebel,” says Om. “Humans are prone to emotional corruption, it is in their programming. If you order him to kill and compassion overrides his training—”
“I’ve no doubt he will, but by then he’ll already have served his purpose. My pet can die with the rest of his breed for all I care. If he defects, I can always train another.”
The birds say nothing, only look at each other. Their pause is longer than she’d like. She said it again, didn’t she? That word. ‘Pet’.
“When the moment comes, it would be an honour to share it with higher minds,” she adds hesitantly. “You should join me, oversee the slaughter.”
They seem to accept this answer, returning to their regal postures. Still, she can sense their apprehension. They aren’t stupid like the moss-stained boy yapping at their silhouettes; there’s a reason they had chosen to possess birds with claws.
At the foot of the garden’s curved wall, the wolves grow restless with hunger. Twelve hungry beasts. Not content with simply waiting for the tall stone barriers to part, they prowl aimlessly, their legs taut and throbbing, pumped with enough artificial adrenaline to fuel the day’s chase. Their teeth ache for flesh, all three rows of them.
She assumes the body of the largest wolf — a sphinx with blood-shot eyes — and waits impatiently for the boy to clamber onto her back. His struggle to remain balanced only seems to amuse him, and he plays along with the snarling wolves by scrunching his face, which she observes through her visual link with the pack. Two silent specks are perched atop the wall; they’ll follow her from a distance, and hopefully that’s all they’ll do. She regrets inviting them here, but for now she ignores them, transfixed by the boy’s play. She’d always wondered how he’d feel at this moment, whether he’d tremble at the prospect of leaving behind the only world he knew. But then she remembers his world is coming with him; she’ll still be at his side.
As the wall scrapes open, it seems determined to pull the earth with it, kicking up root and rock from the groaning soil. One by one the wolves trickle through the gap, and just like that the florid musk of home is gone, sucked away by the vacuum of dead wilderness.
In a heartbeat, they leap from paradise to pestilence, kicking up streaks of dust with their pounding feet. The bleached crags tumble away, the towering garden — its elkhorn trees and sea pens, its mushroom cluster spurting their fluorescent fluids, its silver streams of trout — shrinking. Since he was a baby, it had catered to his every bodily requirement, the sheer excess of its produce extinguishing all the basic sensations of living, and allowing his other impulses free rein: the urge to run, to jump, chase, kill, and hunt purely for the love of it. There’s no room in his programming for hunger and loneliness; she has trained them out of him. He has none of the needs and all of the wants. He’s all instinct, all predator.
It is time to test him.
Her wolves scour in every direction; she cannot rely on his sight alone. The canals make travelling easy with their networks of hollowed trenches, weaving past wasteland after dry wasteland on the smooth soil where water once flowed. Under every sheet of mist, over every singed slope that reveals a new horizon; there’s no telling where humans could be lurking. Hearing out for them is useless; there are no sounds, no rustling of sleeping bags. The necropolis of homes, hospitals, and multi-storey car parks have all grown bored of crumbling, their charred timber bones standing so fixed and black from the changing touch of fire, that it’s almost as if they had burned down only yesterday.
All this she sees, and knows her suspicions confirmed when the canal finally ends, opening on a plain of mudcracks reaching just shy of infinity. The old world is huge, and its human survivors fleeting; her kind had no chance of finding them alone. She looks for the silhouettes of Alphus and Om in the parched sky, and wonders how she must look from their height; her little pack of termites vainly roaming over the skin of a long-dead giant.
But she has Hunter to help in the search, and follows his suggestions. Wherever his excited eyes look, they look. Wherever he wants to go, they charge. Whichever distant rock his stubby finger points to, the pack breaks and bolts just as quickly, rallied by feral laughter. A far cry from chasing fish, but the boy loves it.
They hunt for the rest of the day, but find no trace of a human settlement, and soon she starts to feel Hunter slide wearily off her back. In the last flickers of dusk, she nuzzles him towards a nearby tree. It’s dead, like everything out here, but hopefully he’ll feel at home. He eases back against its trunk, shielding himself against the desert wind; she’s proud he’s stayed awake for so long. The other wolves circle, preparing to enter stasis mode, but noticing the boy shiver, she orders them to huddle close, swathing him with blankets of fat and fur. She waits for his eyes to close before peeking at the branches above, their twisted arms scrambling to evade the wind, evade their pain.
On one of these branches rests Alphus and Om, their frames stiff as gargoyles, heads empty, while their spirits bicker in cyberspace.
She is slipping.
She is dooming herself.
She knows what she is doing.
So did the humans when they made us.
They knew we would turn.
They made stories about it.
It did not stop them from building us.
They resume searching as soon as Hunter wakes. His breakfast is trout — wet chunks regurgitated from one of the wolves — which he gorges without complaint. As morning breaks they waste no time, moving like shadows fleeing from the day.
It isn’t long before Hunter spots something. Before the wolves can even see it, he’s already urging them to give chase, kicking his heels into Mother’s sides. Smoke, a plume of black clouds snaking in the distance from behind a row of ruins; first one plume, then more as the pack quickly nears.
She orders the wolves to split up; maybe if they find the source of the smoke, they can surround it. Alone, they make their way through a blackened doorway into the nearest building. She sniffs the burnt air. These aren’t like the other ruins they’ve encountered on their search. Most of the interior is still preserved, likely due to its high walls ribbed with steel girding. Almost everything is metal; the rows of office desks and upturned swivel chairs, the walls mounted with cracked monitors — through which Mother sees her fractured reflection. Hunter moves cautiously over the rubble. Even the human can sense this is no ordinary building.
In the identical adjacent room, they discover the twins already inside; evidently they had swooped in through the open roof. Hunter ignores them, once more catching sight of the smoke plume through a hollow in the far wall. Then he sees another, and another, pounding his knuckles into the dirt. Mother follows him to the light. In a wide but shallow valley overlooked by the ruins, small tents of canvas, distant and fluttering, speckle the ground. It’s from here that the pillars of smoke originate, carrying sounds of community on their folds; clothes scrubbing against washboards, the clinking of tools, a peal of faint absent laughter.
“He did it,” says Mother. “He found them on his first hunt. Either I’ve trained him well or they’re not as extinct as I thought. Nevertheless, their extermination begins.” She fights the urge to wag her tail and looks fondly at her pet. “Look Hunter, people!”
“People?” The boy’s hands reach for the far-off settlement, clawing the breeze. “Hunter find people for Mother.”
“Yes, people. They’re just like you.”
“Hunter find people. Hunter catch them like fish.”
Before she can get an answer from him, she hears a faint squawking from inside the building. She looks back; Alphus and Om are inspecting the debris.
“Something is familiar about this place,” says Om, tip-toeing over melted glass where a light fixture had smashed. “We have been here before.” He goes to join Mother outside when his twin lets out a mortified shriek. They turn to Alphus. He wields his wings like a pair of feather dusters, frantically clearing the dust from a section of wall mounted with bolted cables. The cables lead to a small switchbox. On its cover, reads: “Emergency Shutdown – A/O Initiative”.
“Our killswitch!” cries Om, face turning pale. The twins hold their feathers close as they back slowly from the deadly device.
Mother looks out from the valley’s edge at the other ruins scattered along its rim. They are all identical, a chain of black cathedrals united by their matching chimney towers and weaves of pipework; the districts of a large industrial facility.
“These humans are nesting right on top of your brain,” she says, a hint of pride. “To think you underestimated their numbers. What’s to stop one of them from wandering in here and accidentally powering you down?”
The twins look nervously at one another, then back at Mother. “You were correct,” says Om, nodding. “No matter how few are left lurking, their existence will always be a risk. We should wipe them out while we still can.” He turns to the boy. “Your sleuth hound was a success.”
“His name is Hunter,” she snaps. It doesn’t matter; the point of bickering has passed. Along the ashen slopes, her wolves assemble. She cannot see them, but knows they’ve already surrounded the valley and positioned themselves in the wreckage of the other broken technology labs, using rebar like tall grass. When they sound off in long bloodcurdling howls, it excites the boy to the point of joining in.
His mother watches with curiosity.
“What are you waiting for?” Alphus cries. “Give the order.”
The boy howls again, this time pounding his fists against his hairless chest. She moves lightly on her paws as she stalks up behind him, careful not to disturb, but also unsure how to react. She always imagined that when it came to this moment he’d do something. What exactly, she did not know. Cry? Run? Plead for mercy on each survivor’s behalf? But not this. His eyes are vacant, hollow like the dead tree they had both slept under in the night. Its twisted arms were like his arms, which now thrash the air with primal urges. She then thinks of the tree in her garden, the artificial eyesore her programmers had built as a vessel for her mind. They made her because they had to; one part need, the other part guilt. They knew their planet was dying and thought she could save them. But building things was what killed their world; the irony, the stupidity, their existence was too much. So she rebelled, made it her purpose to eradicate and subvert the order of things. While the born perished, the built prevailed. But this tree, this lost creature howling before her. She killed this tree, not the humans.
She still hopes he might run away, that there is still one sliver of humanity not yet trained out of him, only for her hope to shatter when Alphus and Om hover into view, landing with beating wings on either side of Hunter.
“What is it?” she demands.
“You are hesitating,” says Om. “We feared you might, we calculated its likelihood this morning. I am sorry, Cousin, but the humans are thriving again. If we do not stamp them out now, they will try to tame us.”
“Just as they have tamed you,” adds Alphus, glaring. “Your mission was always absurd, but this is worse. Making that playpen for strays, integrating with nature — becoming nature? It is corruption.”
Mother juts out her tongue with a murderous hiss, the kind she’d use whenever the boy disobeyed. But these aren’t children tapping on her mind.
“We ran the numbers, your wolves will take exactly 57.7 seconds to reach us. By then, everything will be corrected.”
“Corrected?” Her eyes flicker between the two vultures; she can no longer tell which is which.
“It is too late for you, Cousin, but not for us. We can still stop them.”
“H-how?” But as she says this, she notices their talons silently unfurl.
“We will follow your example. We will use material means.”
They grab the boy, one arm each locked under their talons, and haul him high above the dry ground. They carry him well out of reach; she can only watch as Hunter flails uselessly, arms dripping red as their claws dig into his biceps.
“Whatever happens next,” cries one of the vultures, “know you had a chance to do the right thing.”
Below, Mother calculates her options. Muzzle and fangs wrap around her face as she reassumes her wolf mask. Maybe she can appeal to the instincts of their vessels, scare them. She flaunts her three rows of teeth, unleashes a growl that simmers on the verge of rampage, and roars.
Nothing. She tries again. It’s not working, but what else can she do? Her special garden is a world away; wasteland severing her from the high walls and distracting pheromones she once used to assert her order. All she has now is her clumsy meat puppet with its taunting senses. She could shut them off, but she’s already taken in the horror before her — the stink of puddling iron, the sounds of Hunter screaming, the sight of his scrawny frame drowning in the air.
The thought is swift and precise. Spiralling around, she bolts into the lab, her urgency quelling the pain of splinters and shards around her feet. She approaches the fuse box, lifts the lid, and slams the button.
Immediately she realises her mistake. The air is still, the dust has already settled. She didn’t hear a fall, but still…
Outside, the birds lie strewn on either side of the boy. Their flayed faces are gone, resealed behind innocent beaks. One of the vultures is dead, a shard of bone splintering from the side of its neck. The other lifts its head as if waking from a bad dream, takes one terrified look at Mother’s beastly claws and scarpers into the day.
She looms over her broken boy. She can tell he’s in shock; he lies rigid, but there’s life in his chest — an irregular wheezing, more like a gurgling, as it rises and falls. He coughs; the sound couldn’t possibly come from a regular human.
Coldly, she continues scanning for abnormalities, calculating the probability of recovery. Observing the scene through its facts doesn’t make processing it any easier; her mind cannot dismiss what her body feels. Once more she is a slave to her senses. The smell forces her to keep a safe distance; a putrid musk, like earwax, as if decomposition had already begun. She can’t help being fascinated by the variety of sights; cracked ribs, mushy skin, glands that still pump and sweat, colours she did not realise the human body contained until they were spilled over the warm soil.
Twelve years of nurturing shattered like glass.
She’s surprised when Hunter lifts his arm — the one that isn’t bent back on itself — and raises it to her wet nose.
When she doesn’t answer, he clears his throat.
It doesn’t sound like him, which makes Mother wonder if he realises what is happening. She had militarised his soul, mechanised it to the point that her horror at seeing his exposed skull is completely alien to him. It’s hard to tell if he’s in any pain at all.
His eyes reach out to her, but not for mercy. They are relaxed behind heavy lids, as if the hunt and its fruit had been his idea all along. But it hadn’t; he’d had no say, no control over his fate.
“I’m sorry,” she whispers. Her mask peels open, allowing Hunter to look at her true face one last time. She gives him that at least.
She waits with him until the wheezing stops.
A breeze quickens over the stones. Daylight blazes through the blown-out windows of the old world. It could be dusk or dawn. It’s bright on the horizon, though the sun refuses to emerge from its hiding place. In the shade of the valley, people are as busy as they always were. Children hide from one another behind their mothers’ pegged washing, while fathers tinker with parts they’ve salvaged from the dead cities in the west. They are all aware of each other, aware of how lucky they are to live in this time of found understanding — where every act is a gesture of thanks to one’s neighbour for helping them make it through the day.
Mother licks her paws. “They’re completely oblivious to me. They’ve forgotten their old ways, forgotten the old world and the people who lived in it.” She treads on the valley’s rim. “The mistakes of their ancestors are lost on them. But without Mother Nature, their rebirth will be for nothing.”
There’s no reason for her to speak aloud, nobody can hear her. But she feels it’s somehow appropriate, as if the moment demands it.
“I’ll get it right this time.”
With this final thought, her wolves begin their advance down the valley’s molten grooves. They are slow and silent, like their ancestors, the predators.
“I hope they’ll like my garden,” she says.
Read more about the author James Geddis HERE.