a year in stories::fifty two

The last story of my year in stories journey. It’s the third in the far future ancient robot stories. It’s one of my favorite stories I’ve written this year, so I hope you dig it too.

 

 I was born in a world without life

He was darkness. Roaming the forest that was her whole world, he settled nowhere and never joined in their celebrations and prayers to the god of the forest. Carrying a blade that sparked like fire but glowed blue and cut through tree and flesh as if they were air, the sight of him stilled her lungs and caused her heart to sprint.

Do not deal with that man, said the mother, for he is a daemon. He is blackness and we must always pray for the light. Do you not remember the songs the Elder taught you? That man is a daemon from the far away past. He uses the forbidden items from the dead world of our ancestors. It was monsters like him who poisoned the world and left us this darkened sky. All beyond the forest is waste and it is from there that he came. It is there that he disappears to feed on the blood of our children. On your sisters.

But mother, he is the only man I know.

Mother shook her head, You do not know him. There is no knowing such blackness.

Over the following months he appeared more and more often. Stories circulated that all the dying male children were killed by him, that he turned into a great monstrous beast with enormous fangs and claws used to rip the human body to shreds. The howling of the night and the moon were attributed to his daemonic hands. The rustling of leaves turned ominous, the wind in league with the monster stalking them. The dark clouds shielding the moonlight were his doing, the sickness that spread through the tribe and killed all the men started when he pissed into the rivers of the world. He captured children, mutilated them, and ate their souls. He grew to fifteen feet tall with red eyes and blazing black hair, his skin made of lightning, his voice of thunder, and he transformed at will, riding the wind to sow destruction and fear amongst the last people of the world.

She watched her brother die drowning in his own lungs, his legs no thicker than her wrist, his fingers like tiny sticks, and his skin as brittle as winter leaves. She prayed over his body, Deathly. She prayed to the god of the forest, but she did not ask for salvation, only that his passing be quick, and that he rejoin her soon, as a tree to watch over her life, and the life of her children and their children.

When the time came, the boy, the last boy in the tribe, swallowed the seed that would sprout to a tree and grow from his heart to become another guardian of the world. The Elder’s cracked lips spoke the words and the boy closed his eyes. The Elder hobbled away and only she and her mother stared at the mound that had been their son and brother, their final hope for a future.

Autumnal wind blew through the encampment and they crowded round the fire. The insects screamed, the fire cracked, and birds sang sorrowful notes encasing the tribe in walls of sound, trapping them in fear of every snapping twig, every scattered skittering leaf.

When the tribe slept, she rose from her place beside the mothers and sisters and crept away to the river. The noise washed over her, its current filling her chest, her limbs. The moon shown, slivered against the withering constellations of an uncaring sky. She pulled the braid loose and let her hair fall. Shaking it out, the smell of her own body bathed in moonlight brought a smile and lightened her heart. She sat with her feet in the cold water, eyes closed, humming a song without tune, one she had never heard.

The songs of the forest came to her. Every howled note reformed the song she hummed until she sang aloud with the chirping insects, the scurrying mammals, and the weary birds. The howling so far away created a rhythm to the disparate noises and brought a melody to her notes. A lilting song of sorrow and hope, of lost love and desperate joy.

A roar broke through, rattling her spine, silencing her song. Motionless, she opened her eyes and saw him watching her, the blade in his hand, blue light lapping at the darkness. Her chest full of bees, she stood but with one hand he motioned her to stay. Scanning the trees, his body taut, the muscles of his neck and shoulders catching moonlight, he pointed to a tree and gestured for her to climb.

Watching him from the tree, new sensations ran through her, from deep in her bowels to every corner of her body. Dizzy at the sight of him, his darkness, the blackness of his skin like permanent midnight, her heart no longer buzzed but flitted on butterfly wings. Only slightly taller than her but broader, his face and chest covered in hair, he turned in all directions, searching for the source of the roaring. He entered the trees and circled round, checking the earth for tracks, his energy blade always in his hands. Crossing the river, he stood beneath her but did not look up.

A new roar and from the trees came a great beast covered in fur. On all four legs it was the height of the man and its skull so massive it could carry her inside. Standing on its hind legs, its head level with hers, she screamed and the beast stared at her and roared once more, shaking the skin loose from her bones, splintering against the sound raging through the night.

The energy blade crackling in his hand, he rushed the beast and leapt at its stomach, slashing from left shoulder to right knee, and then diving away to the left, into the river.

Innards spilt from the beast in a wet slapping noise as it groaned Deathly, pawing at its organs, and collapsing into a pile of fur and meat.

The man emerged from the river. She caught his eyes and he stared back, then set to cutting up the beast.

She helped him carry what meat they could to a clearing where a fire danced weakly. Adding more wood, he skewered the meat on sticks and roasted it over the flame. She watched all he did and took the meat he gave her. Rough and hot but delicious, she ate it all, grease covering her hands. He offered her more and she ate.

Before the sun peered through the trees, she returned to the tribe and slept.

Appearing more frequently, they considered the man a bane to their existence, a harbinger of blight, and they cursed him for every body lost or found mauled. The man stalked their tribe as the seasons rolled into one another and over into years.

She matured, her breasts budding and hair growing where it never grew before. At night she visited him and when she returned to the tribe she dreamt of his body, the fiery blackness of him. In the dreams he held her and the darkness spread over them until she was enveloped in a sea of night, tacky against her skin but filling her with light.

The Elder died and they were then only mothers and sisters. The mothers all said the words together and they planted the seed within her. They talked long of what was to be done, of how they could escape the plague of Death, the darkness haunting them. When the sun rose and no decision was found, they formed a circle and prayed to the god of the forest to save them, to protect them from the horrors of their final days. Many of the voices choked by tears, their prayers came as one long wail from dawn till noon. The mothers would never be mothers again and the sisters were coming of age. The new fear was not simply Death and extinction, but implantation. The daemon haunting them, they prayed for the purity of their children, of their sisters, that they not be ravaged and filled with a darkness uncanny.

She returned to him that night and he shared the meat of another monster with her. Staring at the fire, he did not look at her but her eyes never left his. When night swallowed the moon, she stood to return but he raised his hand. Standing, her body riotous, her skin crawling with thousands of insect legs called fear and hope, she waited, holding her breath. The man rose and stood before her, half a head shorter than her. Staring into her eyes then dropping his gaze to her breasts and hips, he took her hand.

Smiling the entire way back to the tribe, tears formed in her eyes and laughter rose in her. Laughter, for the first time since the dying began, since the men all fell away, Deathly. She did not sleep that night but rose with the others and wearily went about her work, the blood dried on her inner thighs till she swam in the river, screaming joy and hope underwater.

As the leaves greened and then browned, she expanded. The mothers wept and cursed the god of the forest for what happened to their daughter. They said the words and cursed the daemon stalking them, fearful that they would find all their daughters and sisters filled with tiny monsters.

At night he held her and put his ear against her growing womb. When dawn sneaked over the horizon, the man pulled her back to bed, and there she stayed until her son was born.

She did not return to the tribe but she and the man followed it. The energy blade protected them from the monsters of the forest as the tribe prayed to the god who would not answer or appear, but who kept all the other sisters and daughters safe from the ravages of the daemon still following them.

The mother came to her when her son had lived for a year. The boy walked on unsteady feet and smiled wide, dark like his father but with her lighter eyes.

Why do you stay with our pursuer? Why have you forsaken your tribe for daemons and Death?

Mother, she took her mother’s hands, I have embraced life. He is not a monster or a daemon. He is but a man. A powerful man. A strange man. He does not speak but he teaches me every day. I learn more of what this forest is and how we live with each passing day. And look at my son, your grandson. He has given us life. He has given light back to this forest.

Child, there is no light in darkness.

She shook her head, Mother, there is only light because of darkness.

Seasons wandered on and they followed the tribe who spent every waking moment searching for the god of the forest. They prayed three times every day and their pilgrimage lasted from sunup to sundown. The years tumbled forward but their god never appeared.

She no longer communicated with the tribe but remained in their shadow with the man. She studied how he dealt with his son. Playing, filling the trees with laughter, the man smiled wide and the boy screamed wildly, his tiny lungs full of only love.

Why does father never talk?

She held him beside the fire, Your father cannot speak but he talks. He talks to us daily. It’s how we know he loves us. Does he not teach you? Do you not learn so much from him?

Her son hugged her, I want to hear his voice.

She smiled, I do not think he has one, child. He is too good for words.

Why do we follow those other people?

Your father is their guardian, she sighed. He protects them but they do not understand. He was sent to them by the god of the forest, I think, but they believe him to be the cause of their destruction. If only they would listen to him, they would find what they seek.

What do they seek?

They seek their god, she said and lay him down to sleep, pointing out the stars that shined and the ones that did not.

As the leaves fell Deathly from trees, her womb filled once more. The man and her son danced when she told them and pressed their hands and ears to her skin, waiting to hear the call of the new life growing within her.

The wintry rains came and she struggled for warmth. And then the roaring came, a new noise from a new monster’s lungs. The energy blade flickering in his hands, biting at the darkness of night, she grabbed his wrist and begged for him to stay. Smiling, he kissed her forehead, nodded, and raced into the falling blackness.

In the cave they sheltered themselves in, the boy slept but she rubbed her womb, singing a song for the man, her boy, and the new son growing within her. The song was old, taught to her by the forest when first she shared time and space with the man and his glittering blackness. The fire kept the air of the cave close and she wrapped the fur of dead monsters round her shoulder, stepping into the rain. Far away she heard the tribe praying, screaming against the storming sky for their god to appear, to save them.

In the morning the rain continued but the man did not return. She waited and the boy asked after his father but she quieted his fears and told him that nothing could harm the man, that he was not a daemon but the son of a god. The boy smiled and flexed his wiry muscles.

As day drew to a close, her heart racing and the cave air stifling her, she stepped into the rain. Resonating through the raindrops came the cheers and screaming prayers of the tribe. Dizzy, her skull rattling with bees and decayed leaves, she found the meaning to the words amongst the noise.

Stay here, sweet boy. I must go see about your father.

The boy nodded but when she left, he followed her, quietly as his father taught him.

She burst into the encampment, her hair matted with rain, the pelts of monsters heavy. Where is he, she screamed, silencing the songs, turning every head to her.

He is dead, her mother howled, many smiles visible against the lightning.

The many mothers and sisters held aloft a body, ripped to shreds by the beasts he fought so long. Her womb bulging, she stormed through the tribe, beating away the other women until she held the man in her arms, the tears choked away by the rage. The mothers and sisters approached, calling him daemon, monsters, demanding his flesh, that no words be said for him. The hilt of the energy blade still in his hand, she took it and the blade crackled to life, the blue light piercing through the storm.

This man was no daemon but the sole light of your endless night, she yelled through the storm. Protector though you hated him, lover though you feared him, he gave life to the forest long after we all deserved to die. The world is rising against us, to shatter us into extinction, and he was our only armor, our only shelter. And you celebrate his Death.

When their hands approached to take his body, she slashed at them with the blade, leaving fingers and arms in the mud.

Her son watched as she dragged the man’s limp body from the tribe. He watched as she beat away the women, cursed them, spit in their direction, and cut away any offending body part that reached too close. Following her, her watched where she gave up, collapsing in despair and weakness, crying over the man who gave him life and light.

A hand on her shuddering shoulder, she turned sharply and held the blade to the throat of her son. He did not flinch but pushed her hand away. Dropping the blade that fizzled against the mud and grass, she held onto her boy and wailed till her voice shipwrecked, hoarse and painful.

She said the words over his body and planted a new life inside him to grow, to watch over them as he had done for her.

Her voice a whisper, I promise to live. Only for you and the light you gave me.

Through winter, they lived in the cave and survived on the stores they had made in autumn. When she felt strong, she hunted with the help of her son. He helped her make the traps, tie the knots, but she skinned the animals and prepared them for the fire. Together, they prayed for the man and the tree he would grow into, and they prayed for each animal they took from the forest, promising to return their bones to the earth.

The boy held his mother at night and asked about the life growing within her. She told him stories instead. Stories of the ancient world, of flying machines, of oceans, of tribes so large they filled every inch of the forest.

He asked often of his father that winter but her answers were soaked in tears and loss. By spring, he no longer asked but continued to pray for him before sleeping. He prayed to the god of the forest and begged it to show him how to be like his father, how to protect what was left of the world.

In spring a sister arrived at their cave.

You intend to birth a new son to that monster, yes? said the sister.

She blue light of the blade licked at the sister’s skin and no other words passed between them. The sister stared at the boy and at her womb. Scowling, she made a ward with her hands and left.

With the growth of new life, she and her son left the cave but avoided the tribe. For weeks they walked alone through the forest eating what they found. No longer hunting, she made the blade into a necklace and wore it always but never held it to bring its blade to life.

Where are we going, mother?

Gasping, her joints swollen, her chest full of sick, and her head light, We go to find the god of the forest. It will know what to do.

Where does it live?

She shook her head, This way.

The pregnancy wore on her. Every morning, sickness took her and the boy brought her water and nuts and fruit. The boy assisted her in everything she did and as spring departed and summer greened, she doubled in size. Every day full of pain, they walked on, following rivers, tracking signs he did not see or understand.

Where do we go, mother?

We go to find the god of the forest that is the world.

Is this the right way?

She nodded, Can you not hear them singing?

At night, the boy prayed for his mother. At every step she took, his heart fell through the earth, and at every gasping snore she made in sleep, he chewed on his fingertips until they bled. Many nights, he sat beside her, checking her breathing by putting his hand beneath her nose. He woke her often and when she asked him why, he only chewed his fingers more.

He made her a cane. Sweat covered her all the time and he fanned her as they moved. She grew so constantly weary that he let her rest and watched over her.

Crossing a river, she collapsed upon reaching the otherside. He prayed for her, watching over her, begging for a god or his father to come save them.

The noises began then. He did not tell his mother, but something stalked them from morning to morning. So caught in the war inside her body, she was blind and deaf to the world round her. She did not notice when he took the blade from round her neck or how he carried it always in his hands, the way he had seen his father. When night fell, he stood staring at the blue light flickering against the night. Every sound weighed on him, and the night turned blacker, the sky lightless, moonless, starless. The canopy so thick that there was only the forest and its many noises rebounding over and over, turning the songs of birds into terrifying echoes. The insects swarmed and he built a shelter for his mother, to protect her from the darkness, from the unknown.

The trees surged round him and he caught glimpses of a great beast watching them. A beast made of the forest itself, covered in green, a tree sprouting from it.

Their journey became slower and slower as his mother grew weaker and weaker. She did not notice the great lumbering green monsters always at the periphery of their life, and he did not tell her. He spent his days and nights in vigilance, chewing away his fingers, clutching the energy blade, and staring into the darkness.

As they followed a river, they came to a great clearing where a lake formed. In the middle of the lake was an island. The boy brought his mother into the water and the light of her returned. Weightless, the aches and pains of her long journey and painful pregnancy washed away. She swam for a long time, laughing, splashing water at him. They played and he laughed for the first time since his father became a sapling. She held him and asked where they were and how they got there.

I don’t know, mother. I thought you were leading me.

She held him close that night as they slept on the island, beneath the starry sky, the halved moon coating them. The boy did not sleep but listened close to the sounds of the world around him. A howling, birds singing, insects raging, and the constant rustling of underbrush, of wind blowing.

In the morning his mother stared at him, You look so weak and tired, dear son. What is wrong?

His lip quivered and his eyes collapsed, holding back tears until she took him in her arms and promised him it would be okay.

You’re only a child yet, you needn’t carry the world on your shoulders. Only five summers and you’ve become a man, but we shall be okay. You must learn to be a child again.

The words choked in his mouth and when he opened it to speak only sobs racked him to silence.

Looking over his shoulder to the treeline, she noticed a tree on the island that was not there the night before. Her brow furrowed, scrutinising the tree. It grew from a piled heap of foliage and leaves, rocks covered in moss and growth. Apples not yet ripe bloomed from the tree and she let go of her son and rose to take it.

Her hand on the apple, she found herself staring into a face covered in green.

You have come, a voice cracked, distorted, as if from the bottom of a well.

Falling backwards, hands caught her, cold and metallic, and laid her on the grass. Screaming, the boy jumped over his mother, the blade blazing in his hand, but the great green creature caught the boy by his wrist and torso.

You will not need that, the twisted broken voice said and pried the blade from the boy, then set him down beside his mother.

They stared up at it. Shaped like a human but covered in growth, the leaves of its skin shook when it moved, the metal of its bones kept it steady, and its movements were awkward, disjointed, rusted. It sat with legs crossed and faced them. Its voice came again, I have waited for you for a long time. You are the hope of your species. You and your son. You must live, and I will guide you.

Her voice weak, her body quaking, she said, What are you?

I am who you have looked for your whole life.

The boy’s whisper, The god of the forest.

A metallic brittle laugh rose from it, I am not a god but I am ancient as one and built by your kind a thousand years ago. I am nothing and nowhere but you are life and light. Where is the man?

He died, her voice still weak, her head swimming.

It nodded then pointed at the boy, Then you must be the new man. Though you are young, you must protect the life that grows inside your mother. The two of you will recreate humanity.

Gasping, the boy stood, If you are not a god, then what are you?

The leaves shook in the wind, I am like this blade. Ancient and designed for a purpose. This blade was made to kill but you have used it to protect. I was made to build but I have chosen to grow. I am a steward, waiting for this day. Now, we must get this baby out of your mother or she may die. Fetch some water.

The boy did all that the god of the forest said and met his new brother as his mother’s life pirouetted on the precipice of life and Death.

a year in stories::fifty one

Another story about the distant future and my ancient robot.

Watched three Godzilla movies last night to prepare for my giant monster novel, which I’m very excited to write.

Anyrate, my internet is the slowest thing in the world the last couple days and it makes it impossible to do anything.

But, yeah, here it is.

Make me as Humans Dream

The world expanded round it in shades of green and yellow. Birds sang as one, insects chirped and shrieked, and tiny mammals scurried through trees and over grass, seeking food. The lake surrounding the island was alive with fish and wind whipped ripples over the surface. Morning struck the forest and painted one side of the clearing with light.

The tree grew from within its chest cavity. A bed of soil thick against the bottom of its thorax, the tree sprouting through the space between its left shoulder and neck. Rising behind its head, the tree curled round to its other shoulder and rose, the branches casting a permanent shade over it.

With thousand year old metal bones, the synthetic skin over its casing rotted, grown over and through by bacteria, by algae, by tiny plants sprouting tiny leaves. Beneath greygreen growth remained a plastic mask resembling humanity with eyes emitting light. In ricket movements, it stood, teetering until balance was found, and it watched the birds hopping in the grass, flying in the air.

For hours it stood watching the world at play around it. When night came it walked to the shore of the island and sat. Dipping its three fingered hand in, the water coursed through the hanging vines and foliage of his arms. Pulling back, hand cupped, the water dripped from the leaves. It spread its fingers and watched in acceletated detail as the water slipped from its hand and pounded against the surface, drop by drop. A crackling poured through its speakers as it laughed, closing its eyes.

Through the night it listened to the forest breath, the life of whispering trees and flowers, the singing and playing of birds and animals, the slapping of fish against the surface, and the hum and shouts of insects. By morning the sound of day returned and it walked in circles round the island.

It watched the fish move as one, the birds fly as a single many bodied creature ripping through sky, the mammals collecting and feeding one another.

A rustling in the leaves past the trees and it turned to face the new noise. Louder than any heard in a century, its eyes focused deeper into the sun dappled darkness of the forest, but saw nothing past the densely packed trees. The sound of panting breath and an uneven gait, it waited, unmoving.

The human emerged. A woman, past middle age and dressed in rags withering against her weatherbeaten skin. Dark and grey, she limped to the lake and drank deeply, quickly, and then vomited in the grass. After weeping there, curled in a ball as the sun rose overhead, she returned to the water and drank. This time slow, stopping to take breaths, to cherish. When satiated, she stripped the worn fabric from her and dove into the lake.

It watched her without moving, without speaking. Its eyes captured every moment of her, recording it, playing it against all the many humans it had seen before, and then she emerged from the water two meters in front of it, smiling. On the island, she stretched out beneath the sun, gasping. It measured her heart rate, the breaths she took. Slowly, it pressed a finger to the earth and felt the seismic roll of her movements against the grass.

I have waited a long time, it said, its voice full of static and distortion, and she jumped to her feet, turning in all directions, using her hands to cover her nakedness. She faced it but did not see it, her eyes wide, eyebrows low, lips drawn.

It stood and reached out a hand, It is okay, child. It is only me.

The woman screamed, falling backwards into the wet shore.

It stood, the leaves shaking on its body, from its tree, the dark green growth catching the light and holding it. It said, I have waited so long for another human to appear. It has been o’er a hundred year since the last. We have much to talk about and I have much to teach you.

The woman’s heart raced and her breathing crippled her ability to speak or move. When it approached her, she scrambled back into the water, choking on it. Rising up, taking a deep breath, she dived back into the lake and swam away, emerging on the other shore. She turned to see it still reaching after her, a lake apart, and she ran back into the forest, into darkness.

The earth rolled away from the sun and darkness came once more. It stood, still watching where she ran. A bird landed in its tree and pecked at the insects who lived there.

Slowly, it sat again in the lotus position, its eyes scanning the forest, and it waited.

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.

You?

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.