Fiction · 11/23/2016

When the robots arrived

The robots stood apart from us, some meters away, blandly surveying the unfolding scene with dull-glowing eyes.

“Now comes time for the question of what do we do in the aftermath? I, for one, am willing to bravely follow the robots toward an uncertain future,” the mayor said.

“Have we really lost entirely?” a woman, among the assembled masses, shouted to be heard.

“Think more in terms of what we’ve gained! And know still more how important it is to appreciate what we’ve gained and then submit to the whims and will of the robots. With arms outstretched, moving forward trustingly. Knowing that all will be well in time.”

The mayor began tottering toward the robots like an infant. And they gathered around him and lifted him up like doting parents and other extended family but with the absent emotion of robots.

They wouldn’t quit it — happily snuggling, or at least the mayor was. We other humans felt left out. We felt like evil stepchildren. Here was our mayor, and he was getting all the robots’ affections, or what passed as affections from the robots — “interest” might be the word for it. At first that was a real downer.

Then they started throwing the mayor. Taking him and launching him at one another, because they obviously didn’t know what else to do with him.

It happened gradually.

One robot tossed him to another when it was time for the one robot to go off out to the pasture and sit. The robots were compelled to the pasture at intervals. The mayor enjoyed getting thrown at first, too. But then, after a time, and progressively more and more daring throws, he seemed not to like it so much. He seemed resigned, dolorously looking away whenever anyone attempted eye contact with him, way up in the arms of a giant robot that was treating him more like a football than a human.

The robots were ostensibly pleased to have humans as their subordinates, existing beneath them in the robot world order, but it quickly became clear they had no other plans for humanity.

The robot world order was obviously much worse for the mayor than any of the rest of us, because they took such violent interest in him and appeared unable to conceive of the irreparable harm they were doing to his fleshy human form.

We were relegated to small communities, not unlike those they attribute to native peoples of the Americas who managed not to be decimated by disease in the wake of the arrival of European explorers. Hunters and gatherers, making the most of what little was left for us in the skeletal vestiges of society that the robots seemed indifferent to claiming for themselves.

The mayor couldn’t keep a suit clean. He’d prided himself on his clean suits once. They proved now to be a physical symbol of the depths to which he had fallen. Uncle Barrett once caught the mayor alone, apart from the robots for only a few minutes. He asked how the mayor was holding up, to which the mayor responded, “I hope everyone is appreciative of how bravely I’ve sacrificed myself for them at the hands of our cruel robot masters. I hope they see all that I’m doing for them, occupying the robots’ attention so that they might be a little more free to live their own lives.” My uncle nodded, honestly taking no pleasure in the mayor’s undoing.

Others weren’t as sympathetic.

The robots eventually found purpose, which might have seemed good for the mayor at first blush. With purpose they’d have less time, indeed, to hurl the mayor at each other as a football, pile driving him into an imaginary end zone like they were celebrating a touchdown. The mayor had a strong neck, which proved a great asset, if continuing to live was desirable to him. Lesser men would have been broken by this treatment far sooner, and might not have lasted a single day.

Regardless, the mayor was cowed. He was not prideful about how he had endured. He rarely spoke to anyone, his clothing no more than a ragged heap of grass stains, dirt, the stains of his own sweat and industrial-strength lubricants.

The purpose the robots found ended up being only a mild improvement for the mayor, unfortunately. Their purpose was one they were accustomed to but more deliberately now than ever before: aping a creature of earth.

They decided their number and habitat best accommodated their behaving as wolves. The robots were like wolves. Wolves that didn’t bite or scratch. They were going to raise the mayor to be just like them.

The mayor was fed raw meats, and chewed on them ferally. It really didn’t take him long to be fully subsumed by this new culture he’d been made to join. He seemed very fearful, completely alienated and apart from conditions he could actually thrive in.

We drank tall glasses of water and watched as he lapped hurriedly from puddles because every time he’d tried to lift a glass himself it was smacked away by a robotic paw.

The robots began collecting the shed fur of forest animals and made strange fur capes, which were meant to simulate this aspect of a wolf. The mayor was running around on all fours wearing his cape, being force-fed raw meat. He grew used to the raw meat, with time. He seemed to, because he ate it, and he continued to live.

The mayor’s transformation was strangely subtle by the end. When he’d been the robots’ plaything he was still like us. Beaten to the earth and sodden, but very much retaining those human aspects that allowed our sympathy (felt of course by only those of us not feeling betrayed by and hard-hearted to him).

It was sad and true that many people felt strangely relieved when he became a man-wolf. It removed his greatest remaining quality, the power of identification. He lost himself and he lost humans entirely, without even being aware of the change. He no longer had a chance to make men like my uncle feel guilt for his situation. He’d entirely earned his othering. The politician once in him torn to ribbons, just as his clothing had been.

He earned his wolfhood, too. The last betrayal coming when he absconded with a young girl of our tribe named Lisa. He coldly snapped her neck in his newly powerful jaws and ran off with the body, to feed in quiet and safety.

I was called upon to hunt him down. I was considered strongest. Most able. I’d always been a strong hunter for our tribe in the time since the robots had risen and human society collapsed. I hadn’t meant to be. I didn’t want to be skilled as I was. I wanted other skills, skills that were less vicious in nature. They wanted me to end the terror.

The robots were unable to do any real harm themselves, at least not as wolves. They had no teeth or even functional mandibles. They were also preoccupied with more traditional wolf prey, rabbits and squirrels and other small animals. That was what their encyclopedic intelligence (a mainframe of the sum of all human knowledge coupled with their ever-growing self-awareness) told them to pursue. Only the mayor had developed a taste for his erstwhile kind.

He had to be gotten and stopped. And there was really only the one way to do that.

I tracked him back to his lair. He kept it surprisingly neat, a vestige of his old self, perhaps. (He was a very tidy mayor, and ran for election based on his tidiness, talking of cleaning streets in all the ways streets can be cleaned.)

He was not hiding. He was immediately visible. He looked up at me from his sniffing and scrounging in the dirt. There was in him the look of familiarity. Its tinge. And he drooled but he also grinned. He caught me off-guard finally when he actually spoke, a weird gravelly approximation of the human language he used to speak, still something of the mayor’s charm and certitude there. “This is a farce, isn’t it.”

“You could call it that, I suppose,” I said.

“And you’ve come to kill me. That why you’ve got the spear,” he said.

“I’m a hunter. That’s why I’ve got the spear,” I said.

I changed tack. “I’m impressed, though, by your ability to communicate. You’ve retained it better than anyone suspected. They thought you were entirely lost to animalism, a monster now, even.”

“I’m a wolf of the peoples. As such I’m still able to speak peoples.”

“I do have to kill you now,” I said. “I’m sorry,” and I ran the mayor through the chest with my spear. He let out a deafening howl and then keeled over, expired. It was all very horrific, his winding death spiral, the details of which are surreal to me still and swirl grimly, grayly in my memory. The robo-wolves came. They heard the cry of their child, who’d stolen away from the pack, but who was one of their number. And always would be.

Knowing I was woefully overmatched, I took flight (knowing likewise that even just one of the robots could crush my bones). I wanted no part of a battle with the robots. We’d fought and lost enough already. But I sincerely doubted, with this insult and now their own grief to suffer through, the robots would soon free me or any of the others from our debt. We took their only child and left them all alone.

Their howling as wolves had vastly improved, and so too their ability to hunt.

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Matt Rowan lives in Chicago. He founded and edits Untoward and is managing editor of Another Chicago Magazine. He’s author of the collections, Big Venerable (CCLaP, 2015) and Why God Why (Love Symbol Press, 2013). His work has appeared in Gigantic Worlds Anthology, Timber Journal, Pacifica Literary Review, Noctua Review, and SmokeLong Quarterly, among others.