Snakes and Snails and Puppy Dog Tales
By Anne S.
“For the Homeland!” the warrior cried, as his armor caught the bright rays of the sun and reflected them back in a labyrinth of light. Rallying the troops and letting the brilliant reflections momentarily blind those around him, he thrust his fist high above his head. His gaze fell upon those who surrounded him. “For the Homeland!” The battle cry erupted from his lips again, and the crowd poured past him toward the distant sound of clanging swords and shouting. He shook his head silently as he watched his troops race away and sighed. “For life,” he muttered to himself and ran to join the front ranks.
“Stop.” The teacher’s monotonous voice droned the command. A spinster well past her prime, she led her class in a dry, methodical manner. Lacking emotion, her voice contrasted starkly with that of the passionate warrior. In response to the teacher’s direction, a mechanical dog poised at the center of the room terminated its program. The fire-white color of its eyes dulled as the picture at the front of the room went black.
“Alpha!” The sleek, metal robot turned its head and barked a reply as a boy in the back of the room called its name. It bounded over to where he sat and leaped into the boy’s lap. Patting the cold, silver head of the pet, the youth sighed in resignation. Wishing that he could have held an actual live dog, he reflected on the last series of wars when most animal species had died out. He had learned that after the loss of these animals, including man’s beloved friend, robotic pets had been created to replace them. Now he found himself longing for a lost, more innocent world. The robot barked again and then fell silent. The only sound emanating from it was the low hum of electricity.
“So,” the teacher began, ignoring this outburst, “what does this tell us about the old way of fighting wars?”
“People fought wars back then instead of machines,” John, the boy in the back with the dog, blurted. “Back then, a warrior saw his enemy. The enemy didn’t hide like a coward.” With empty eyes that reminded John of the eyes of the war machines, the teacher’s piercing gaze burrowed into the boy, who defiantly stared back. Their gazes locked for a minute before the teacher ignored him completely and turned to the front of the class.
“Anyone else,” she barked, and several other students raised their hands. As a slight boy in the front of the class rambled on about how primitive the old cultures were, a girl leaned over to John and whispered in his ear.
“Don’t worry about it, John,” the girl smiled and patted Alpha on the head. “You’re right. She just doesn’t want to admit it.” Ariel leaned back in the chair and closed her eyes.
“No one admits it, Ariel,” he sighed and absently stroked the canine’s head.
“I do,” she smiled as she set her chair back down, her eyes still closed.
“And that, Ariel, is why you talk to me while everyone else stays as far away as possible.” Looking at the rest of the class, John sank lower into his chair. He was different – he knew that – and was proud of that fact. His views, however, did not go over well with those around him. Uncertain whether people cared at all about life, he had a feeling that he and Ariel were one of the few who were still aware of the destructiveness of war. His thoughts drifted back to the news that morning.
“London’s defenses fell last night, leaving the city open for attack. This morning, the machines invaded the city and all of the eight million inhabitants were killed.” John had watched in stony silence as the newscaster droned along, seemingly oblivious to the magnitude of the massacre. How long ago had soldiers still been human? How many eons had passed since a time when civilians and the innocent were spared death and when armies had consciences and did not slaughter because that was what they had been programmed to do?
“John,” his teacher startled him from his reverie, “put Alpha back on the floor.” John bent over as Alpha leaped from his lap. The mechanical dog pranced to the center of the room and sat down in the middle of the aisle.
“Commence,” the teacher ordered, and Alpha’s eyes again lit up to a brilliant white. Illuminated on the front wall, a mushroom cloud preceded images of death and destruction.
Machines entered their infancy during the twentieth century with planes, tanks, and submarines introduced during the World Wars and guided missile and smart bombs utilized during the Gulf Wars. These first primitive machines enabled countries to radically alter the political landscape of the earth. As some countries acquired greater power and wealth, residents of smaller, poorer countries harbored discontent and anger over the inequities in the world.
“So, war and death aren’t new after all,” John pondered. Soldiers had always killed mercilessly, just not in such large numbers. As he shifted uncomfortably in his chair, he remembered the cold stares that he often received from his classmates. Maybe man was just as well dead. Maybe mankind was getting what it deserved.
Startled to find Ariel gently nudging his shoulder, he looked up to find an empty classroom and Ariel’s worried eyes staring into his own.
“Earth to John. Come in, John,” she chastised and pulled him up from where he sat. “Class is over, and everyone left while you were daydreaming.” Chuckling, she prodded, “Let’s go.”
“Alpha,” John called, and the robot woke from its sleep mode to scamper after them, its step light in contrast to the hopelessness in John’s gait. As they exited the basement room, no light filtered down into the lower-level hall, and shadows quickly crept from the corners into the hall itself. A red light above Alpha’s eyes flashed repeatedly. John rarely noticed it, but as they entered the dreariness of the school’s hall, the light flashed brightly.
“Recording again, Alpha? You better watch what you say, Ariel. It may end up on the front wall of Mrs. Augustus’ room,” John cautioned. Ariel’s laugh lifted his spirits, as they climbed up the school’s steps into the emptying courtyard. Raising his eyes to the sky, John anxiously searched for some sunlight beyond the eternally gray sky. He sighed as he remembered the sun’s radiance in the movie with the warrior. Never could he remember the sun so dazzling.
In an act of reassurance, Ariel came up behind him and lightly placed a hand on his shoulder. This protective gesture belied her concern. John had been very detached lately. Since few people remained at the school, the two friends started walking quickly along the nearly empty streets toward their homes, a small metallic dog trailing at their heels.
When they finally arrived at Ariel’s unobtrusive row home, John fondly kissed her on the cheek and watched silently as she stepped into the dark void beyond the open door. As he turned back toward the street, he noticed that no light penetrated the gathering darkness of the night. No one dared to call attention to the city. Only Alpha’s flashing red light pierced the darkening gloom.
John slowly headed home. As he climbed the stairs to his bedroom, he despondently lifted Alpha into his arms and carried it to his bed. “Commence,” he ordered the dog. Projected onto his bedroom wall, moving pictures accompanied another informative report.
Following the unpredictably massive casualties of the Great War and the continuing war against terror, man began to experiment with remote weaponry. Automated tanks and planes were invented in order to allow remote-controlled warfare. Countries were ecstatic that men were no longer sent to foreign countries to fight at great risk to their own safety. Mankind thought that it had eliminated the greatest hazard of warfare. Unfortunately, these machines also eliminated all empathy countries felt for one another. Now nothing restrained one nation from attacking another. As technology progressed, so did the efficiency of the machines. It was not long before the machines did not need mankind any more.
“Stop,” John whispered. The image faded to black as he turned to face the window. He could hear the faint boom of exploding munitions and could barely discern flashes of light on the far horizon. Since the presence of distant fires regularly dotted the horizon, people had become complacent. This time, however, these reminders of man’s continuing quest for power had been creeping ever closer since their appearance three days before. In response, the city had dispatched its own machines, but nevertheless, the explosions continued. With a sick, anxious feeling in the pit of his stomach, John climbed out his window and slid to the sidewalk below. Deserted skyscrapers stood as sentinels over the abandoned sidewalks, the dark, glassy eyes of the buildings staring ominously down on the insignificant figure resolutely heading for the edge of town. Hardly any sound echoed between the faceless edifices.
As the shadowy outline of the city’s stark skyscrapers blended into the black night, John quickened his step and approached the low hills that overlooked the fertile valley that surrounded the city. He scrambled up the dry slope, loose gravel giving way under his feet. Reaching the top, he gazed down at the scene stretching out before him, sucked in his breath, and suppressed a scream that was building inside his throat. Small, agile aircraft jettisoned through the sky, firing on selected targets with terrifying precision. Gigantic, mechanical monsters swept across the landscape, destroying everything in their path. The city’s machines- its soldiers- lay in mangled heaps of metal and circuitry. With the city’s battlements in ruins, the machines advanced toward their target, its inhabitants unaware of the impending doom. The city’s final defenses, hundred-foot walls of metal and electricity, were under assault. A symbol of safety and protection, the walls sparked and buckled when hit by the arsenal bombarding them. Since the advent of machine-only warfare, countries no longer trained human soldiers. Now there was nothing to halt the impending siege.
John pivoted quickly, dread consuming his soul. Why had not the city’s residents been warned? Where were the government officials? Had they left the city to its own devices? The people needed to know. Frantically pushing himself off the top of the crest, he let his feet slide down the loose dirt to the bottom of the hill. He gasped as the sleek, aerodynamic aircraft swept past him in the sky. “Alpha,” he cried, and the robot, whose light flashed as its eyes surveyed the scene below, jumped into his arms.
Terrified, John dashed toward the city, his breaths racking his chest. As he sped past the Denver city limits sign, he beheld fiery trajectories slicing toward the rooftops. He ran screaming toward the familiar streets, as the menacing, metallic titans advanced closer.
Unable to warn the residents before the machines besieged the city, he arrived to a scene of horror and pandemonium. Although no sound came from the machines, the chaos and tumult of destruction were deafening. The city was racked with the throes of death. People screaming, buildings crumbling and toppling to the ground, and the whine of sirens saturated the air. When the metal behemoths smashed into the city, the explosions accelerated, and people scrambled past him. Fiery blasts knocked him to his feet as he raced for cover. Spying the school, he sped through the mangled front door as another explosion rattled the windows. Practically plummeting down the flight of stairs, John sped down to the basement classroom, which afforded the only protection he could find. Although the explosions still rocked the building, in the murky cellar they sounded distant and surreal. Collapsing into a chair, he recalled how the room had been full of students just hours before. Had not history documented the accelerating violence? They had been forewarned, but no one had paid any attention. Alpha had recorded all of man’s destructive history, but no one took heed.
He began to cry. Sobs welled up in his throat and burst forth with an unexpected violence. This was the end, and there was nothing that he could do about it. Suddenly, a shadowy form stirred from a corner behind the teacher’s desk. A figure stood up and walked slowly toward him with arms outstretched. “John,” a soft, warm voice consoled him, “I’m here with you.” Ariel hugged him close and comforted him. “It’s not over. The machines will not win.” They clung to each other as their world ended around them.
The scene darkened before a photograph of a warrior arrayed in polished splendor adorned the crumbling wall. “For the Homeland!” The film flickered unevenly over the rough surface. The warrior continued to rouse his followers until the scene of a young boy in the back of a school classroom appeared. As a robotic dog leaped into his lap, a stern, nondescript woman standing in the front of the room questioned the boy.
The film continued to illumine the wall as the sky above the ravaged school darkened then brightened. Finally, the picture on the pocked, war-ravaged wall slowed and faded. The image of two young innocents huddling together as their world collapsed around them lingered momentarily before disappearing altogether. As the eyes of the robotic dog dimmed, the luminous white faded to black. How much time had passed since the two children had sought refuge was indeterminable, except that all signs of life had disappeared long ago. The crater in which the dog sat opened to a barren wasteland. Howling, the wind tossed dirt and debris around the shells of ancient skyscrapers. Only one other sound but that of the wind broke the eerie silence. A low hum continued to emanate from the dog.
The program had ended. The mechanical canine’s eyes no longer recorded or reported. Filled to capacity, its memory and power source were running low. With the flashing red light no longer blinking, the robot’s documentation of world history had ended. It craned its nose toward the moon in an animalistic ritual that had been programmed many decades earlier. With the passing of time and the resulting neglect, the mutt, its joints creaking, slowly climbed the few remaining steps out of the crater. Noticing other robotic animals scratching at the dirt, it hobbled over to where they fought over an uncovered memory chip, the only thought in their programmed minds to store and recall.
Cocking its head ever so slightly, Alpha stepped back from the mechanical horde. Something in its memory reminded it of an idealistic boy who continued to believe that there was more to this world than machines. It turned from the mindless pack and trotted away from the ruined landscape. As it distanced itself from the devastation, it felt as though its metal limbs were transforming into rippling muscles. Its sleek, silver body stretched and quivered as its feet pounded the hard ground. Running faster with thoughts flooding its mind, it could not tell whether it was remembering stored data or whether it had acquired actual memory. With eyes absorbing all aspects of the countryside surrounding it, Alpha leaped from the rocky outcropping on which the city had once so impressively stood onto an open plain. Dust flying from beneath its feet, the dog sprinted through the prairie grass and sensed, or thought it sensed, the warmth of the setting sun on its back.