a year in stories::fifty

So I figured I’d just end the year with some of my favorite shorts I wrote this year. They’re about robots, so the next three days will have far future ancient robots, which will lead into the novel[la] I’m going to be writing probably early next year, after I finish Girl with Ears & Demon with Limp II and the giant monster novel[la].

Anyrate, here it is.

The Forest in the Valley Past the Mountain at the End of the River Below the Moon

When all is lost, we will remember.

Those are the words of the Teacher passed along to us through winding ways and forgotten rivers, travelling over continents to meet us. I was a child the first time I heard them, too young even to realise I would internalise their lesson and reach after its meaning for all my many days to come.

There were whispers of the Teacher for my whole life, and several lives before me. Legends circulate this way but there was no information about her. Keying in searches, browsing archived and cached versions of long gone sites and search engines, but still nothing came. My parents told me that the Teacher was a myth from their grandparents’ generation, back when much of the world was analogue. They showed me actual paper with writing on it, the words of my grandmother writ with ink on yellowing paper. Brittle in my hands, my parents cautioned me and I held it like a butterfly, with only fingertips.

The Teacher lives deep in the final forest of the world. The whispers say only those who don’t look will find her. Some sort of zen rubbish, but I wonder if there’s truth to it. Perhaps many have met the Teacher but only few realise. Maybe the Teacher is not who we think she is. But it is just like the pseudospiritual to speak in foolish riddles about things they know perfectly well. The only real clue seems to be that the Teacher lives in the valley past the mountain at the end of the river below the moon. It’s the only thing every whispered source seems to agree on, and, of course, it’s more nonsense without context. Maybe the Teacher’s only a dream for late night thoughts like these.

I read it again. My parents gently pulled me away from it, replaced the journal in the cabinet and we ate.

But when they slept, I returned to the journal and read those words several more times. In the valley past the mountain at the end of the river below the moon–it truly sounded like nonsense, but also magic. To think there was still a place on earth that was untouched by civilisation. Some place off the grid, where no GPS worked and no one but the initiated saw.

It was a beautiful dream, and through that beginning I met my grandmother.

We learnt about the 21st century in school. About their obsession with the 20th century, their slow progress and acceptance of the new world the old world had designed and built. My grandmother preferred to write on paper in a world that was becoming more and more paperless. She didn’t correspond with anyone, only kept her thoughts there, offline, away from tech. Away from the burgeoning subreality of what they called the internet.

Some still call the 21st century the age of robots. It was one of the dreams of the 20th century. It dominates their fiction and film, and they worked tirelessly to make it possible. They built robots to resemble themselves who could do the dangerous tasks no human wanted to perform. Still caught in the 20th century, in the husk of its memories and ideals, they designed better and better robots. Not only ones for manual labor, but ones for thinking, for engineering. They made robots who could build more robots, who could design better robots, better everything. Unfettered by human intellect, the machines began to selfdirect the world. And then came the rift. The lower classes were expanding and starving. Every job possible was done by machines and those who benefited were those rich enough to own said machines. The descent into almost universal poverty caused an uprising, the purge. The age of robotics ended in a nightmare, with millions of robots meeting a violent destruction. The 20th century’s dream of an automated world disappeared by the time my parents were children.

It’s only a footnote to a wild twenty year period, but few people know it. The thing about the purge is that none of the robots fought back. We treat it as a time of heroism and humans reclaiming their destiny and dominion over the world, but I don’t believe the robots were trying to harm us. There are some, now, who consider it similar to the burning of the great libraries of the past. So much knowledge and technology developed in such a short amount of time and we lost it as quickly as we gained it. My grandmother, unsurprisingly, hated the idea of a robotic world.

I began to wonder what she would think of life now, fifty years later. What would she think of the implants we use to connect the world? She talked a lot about privacy and individuality, and I feel she’d be lost in this world of integration and openness, where even your deepest thoughts can be hacked and dug up. Highly illegal and very risky for everyone involved, but completely possible. How would a woman who wrote on paper adapt to a world as distant from the 20th century as the 20th century was to the Ming Dynasty?

That was all a long time ago. Now I stand, staring at the last forest on earth. Its trees thick and beautiful. I wept when I saw them this morning. I wept again when I touched their bark and climbed to their lowest leaves. The images found in subreality are nothing compared to this. There’s no smell like this anywhere else on earth. This greenness, fecundity. An ocean teeming with life. The howling sounds of the many creatures who live there so loud even just standing near.

A lot happened between discovering my grandmother’s journals and me standing here, flipping off my implant. I force my breath to slow though my heart beats so fast. I’ve never gone dark before, even when we used to test the limits of our connectivity during teenage years. I only pretended, too afraid of what the consequences of falling out of civilisation would be. My hand on bark, rough and coarse, I tell myself I’m not afraid and force myself to believe it. With the slowing of my breath, deep inhales and long exhales, my heart steadies. I reach behind my ear, in the recess between my skull and jaw, and press.

There’s no sound or notification but the readings gradually dim and then disappear. The constant chatter at my periphery of the world at large vanishes and the sounds of the world, this world, crash into me. Swollen. Casting myself adrift, retreating into the past, or into a future past all this, I hear wind like never before. It whistles past me and from the forest I hear so many things I have no names for.

I leave the vast Asiatic plains behind and step into the fertile soil of the last forest on earth, where the Teacher still teaches, or at least lives.

The thing about the whispers of the past is that they’re carried by us, by humanity. If you follow enough whispers you’ll find someone who’s actually talking. It took me decades. Hours of every day for years devoted to the teachings. The teachings were always simple and beautiful. Nothing was digital and none of the teachings existed in subreality. Every person who carried a copy of the teachings had a different reason why. They spoke of the ills of technology, the distortion of telling, the problem with translation, and so many other things.

The teachings are a small book. A pamphlet, really. Fifteen pages with only a handful of sentences each. It’s not difficult to memorise the entire thing, but the people who carry the teachings around say that the words are the least important part.

It’s not the words that get you there. It’s the message.

I asked what the message was.

We met in person, because these people wouldn’t tell you anything in subreality that had to do with the teachings. Drinking tea, she showed me her battered copy of the teachings. The paper worn and thin with notes filling the margins. Words were underlined and circled with commentary crowding out the teachings themselves.

Her voice was soft. I found that many of the followers of the Teacher spoke quietly, soothingly. When they spoke, they used few words, and I found that they preferred not to speak at all, but to simply sit. It felt like waiting to me but it also felt like something ancient and mystical. They were all disconnected for much of the day, and some were completely disconnected, having had their implants off for months or years, or even completely removed. Even thinking about it builds a fire raging at the base of my spine, shuddering.

She said, The message can’t be spoken. It can only be lived.

I nodded as I sipped my tea. By this time I had read the teachings. I had memorised them, and even found those words I first heard in childhood: When all is lost, we will remember.

I asked her what that meant, specifically.

She cocked her head and a wan smile crept over her face, This is the world we live in. We live in a world of loss. We have lost what made us creatures of this planet. We are now conquerors of this planet, and we have lain waste to it. And so we remember.

Each step through the forest becomes easier. I have climbed mountains to be here, traced the forgotten rivers to find this place, and now my journey nears its conclusion. My battered copy of the teachings is all I brought with me besides clothes, food, and bottles to store water. My food ran out long ago, somewhere on the final mountain as I made my descent. At my hungriest, I ate grass. After losing a day to sickness, I discovered seeds and fruits. I dug my hands into the dirt and cried. I was so thankful to eat the tiny seeds and sorrowful berries. And then I found the river, or its beginnings. It led me here, and it fed me, nourished me on the long hike to find the Teacher. Apples like I’ve never seen grow here. Not nearly as big as the ones we create, but their taste is so foreign. A real apple and it tastes nothing like an apple.

As days go by, I wander the forest and come across more foods I thought I knew. Pears and berries so different from any I’ve tasted before. The forest is alive with insects and tiny mammals, ones we thought we lost. The entire forest is a single creature with thousands of distinct parts. A symphony of insects and birds singing through the air, the trudge of my own feet through leaves and over dirt. Through the canopy at night I see stars and tears burst from my eyes. They’re faint but they’re there. Stars.

The river courses through the forest and I recite the teachings aloud to myself. I feel no fear, only the tacky sweat and humidity of this place. It breathes with the winds of the world and I try to capture it in my lungs, hold it deep inside, and hope it transforms me. A week disconnected and I’ve never felt so at peace. I’ve never felt so not alone.

The river pools here into a lake. A real lake. At the center of the lake is an island. I disrobe and leave the teachings on the shore. Looking down, I see the bottom, clear as glass. Reflecting the trees and sky above, swarms of tiny insects hover over it and I see fish swimming in groups. Swimming naked through the water, I imagine this to be the last clear lake in all the world. The last place a human can look into water and see the earth beneath. Following fish who scatter away from me, holding my breath as long as I can until I burst through the surface, laughing. Nothing has ever felt quite so good. Clean for the first time since I started my journey to the Teacher, my muscles relax and drift away from me. My arms and legs stretch through the water, reaching all the way down the river to the mountain I came from. My skin dissolves and I become the lake, feeling every fish, seeing every star, leaf, and insect above.

Dirt between my toes, I carry the soil beneath the water to the surface and stare at it. Slowly, it slips through my fingers and slaps into the water where it clouds and rejoins the lakebed. Shivering out of the water I roll in the grass to dry myself. Across the lake I see my pack and clothes. Birds hop nearby, pecking at the bag and then flying away when they understand it’s not food. On the island with me is a small tree growing out of a mound of rocks covered in green life. When I approach, a voice says, So you are here.

The voice is soft and metallic, distorted by rotting speakers, but I cannot find the source. There’s no one on the otherside of the lake that I see but when I turn around the mound of rocks shifts and the leaves of the tree shudder. The mound of rocks stands and when it stands I see that it’s my height, the tree growing out of its back. It moves awkwardly, its limbs quaking at every movement, as if it’s never done this before.

Its face is a blankness. White beneath the moss and dirt, the face is a mask of humanity. Its eyes are lights and it stares at me and says, Why have you come?

I find nothing inside me. No words. Only this boiling confusion as I come to see that this thing before me is a robot.

It nods to the nothing I say and says, Those who know do not speak. Those who speak do not know.

I’ve come looking for a teacher, I say but my voice cracks, crashes, shipwrecks.

It nods again, I too have looked for a teacher.

It sits in the lotus position and waves its hand for me to sit. Its hand is made of three fingers and a thumb, and it moves them clumsily.

What are you?

I am one who seeks.

I sit across from it, Are you the Teacher?

The wind cools me and I shiver again in my nakedness, and then it laughs. A hollow crackling laugh.

This place is the teacher, it says.

The tears bite at my throat and my voice falters, I’ve searched for so long. I’ve searched my whole life and it’s led me here. I’ve memorised all the teachings. I’ve made them a part of me. I lived for this moment. Thirty years and all I find is the last robot on earth.

What you found is the source of light.


Again, that laugh. No, dear girl. You did not find me for you did not look for me. You searched for the light. It is here. It is all around.

We sit facing one another for a long time. We sit until I can take the coldness no longer, and I swim again. It watches me the whole time. Its face emotionless, caught in a permanent plastic smile. I retrieve my bag from the otherside of the lake and return to the island, holding it above me as I swam.

Dried and wearing clothes to fight off the cold of impending night, I hand it the pamphlet containing the teachings, and ask if these were its words.

With an awkward grasp, it holds the pamphlet and sighs in a crackling hiss, I have said these things. There have been many who visit me. None of them stay.

Why should they stay?

It spreads its arms, Because this is all there is.

Did you know that you’re the last robot on earth?

It sits there and I look around, the dying light casting shadows. Then tiny lights take to the sky. Hundreds of them. Tiny lights drifting in the air all around. I approach and they flit around me as hundreds of insects, flashing light into the darkness. Above us hangs a slivered moon and the joy that fills me takes my legs and breath away.

In the morning it still watches me and I say, Why do you stay?

In knowing, there is nowhere but here. Nowhere is now here.

I stayed with it for several days and recorded every thing it said to me. The last thing it told me to do was stay.

The next morning I said goodbye and left the forest in the valley past the mountain at the end of the river below the moon.

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