Tales of the Forgotten
For them, coexistence felt hopeless.
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Episode III: Devolution

 

DEVOLUTION

by Josh Beckelhimer

They crouched next to each other waiting for the dust to clear. This particular company was a small one, only ten Units led by E2R4-00839. The Commander said the war would be over any day now, but they had to keep pushing to be sure. They were to get in and get out like usual, probably without any success. 839 was a stoic, but sternly effective leader, who was usually able to carry out his tasks without ruffling too many feathers.

The Machines had been in the desert for years fighting a war for an invisible human face. Like housekeeping or service Units, the E2R4s had been created for his or her own specific purpose. They were some of the most valued of all machines because of the important role they played in keeping human bodies out of battle. The government had traded steel-toed boots for actual toes of steel. United troops had the enormous advantage of perfecting their machines to combat level first. E2R4s were the most advanced military tech on the planet, far ahead of what other world powers had come up with.

All of this being true, the commander was almost certainly correct. Machines had only been in the field for a short time compared to the human soldiers they replaced, but they made enough of a difference to make the pendulum swing almost entirely toward winning the war. Because E2R4s were mostly fighting humans, opposing forces were losing important, limited troops rapidly while United forces could easily replenish lost machines. Machine value was strictly financial while human value could only yield so much return. Nobody could afford to run out of the latter. The former could be pumped out of a factory. For now, small factions continued through the dusty communities, searching for the small list of targets the government had deemed important and threatening enough to hunt. They used the typical procedures previously established by human troops. Knock on doors, ask questions, avoid too much violence, and protect fellow soldiers.

Despite their stellar performance in the field, the government was the ideological divide within machine ranks. These machines, such as had become the norm for machines around the world, were given human-like consciousness. Like humans, they held their own personalized ideologies in which they believed in wholeheartedly. There was always a small percentage of radicals within humanity; the machine collective conscious was no different. That being said, it was more common for machines to arrive at the mental threshold of radicalism compared to their human counterparts. They were aware of their differences to humanity, specifically their lack of just that: humanity. And because of this, it was easier for machines to develop a disdain for their creators. For the E2R4s, the flame of this contempt could sometimes burn brighter, considering that’s who they were specifically designed to destroy. While the Military might have seen the lashing out of a particularly angry or unstable individual leading to violence among human troops, those incidents were nothing like what was beginning to happen occasionally with machines.

Throughout their patrols of the various communities, a reputation for violence and cruelty sprouted between some E2R4s. That’s not to say that it was a large percentage of these visits, but it was higher than it should have been, and considerably more gruesome as well. Most machines at that point had a healthy respect and admiration for humans, but if their thoughts were led down the right path, they were capable of unfathomable torture without a shred of remorse. Humans often couldn’t live with the act of taking other lives; some suffer from lifelong guilt, or something as bad as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder when confronted with mortality. While machines had human-like consciousness with possibly shifting thought processes, their psychology could not be permanently altered as humans’ could. The worst instances of machine cruelty resulted in wiped out villages or daylong torture sessions capped by a slow, grisly execution.

839 always hoped to avoid that. He was an effective leader because he did his best to remain ideologically neutral. He treated his troops the same regardless of how much they hated their enemy humans or exalted the ones that gave them orders. He also had a unique understanding of the complexity of humanity, avoidance of generalization and was not inclined to hating entire demographics. 839 was able to emphasize action over ideal and could keep his units focused on their specific objective. He knew his job and approached it as an emotionally-detached worker doing his duty.

As the dust settled he made a wordless motion, and his units began moving toward the town. They had to be cautious so as to avoid spooking the civilians. With the increasing awareness of what the most zealous units were capable of, there was no shortage of fear or anger amongst the residents. 839 walked in front of his troops with a relaxed pace. They walked casually with arms at their sides. Their left arms were weapons in and of themselves; 839’s was a particularly large and unfriendly looking firearm. Consequently, their arm positions were a crucial detail of diplomacy.

As they neared, residents that had been milling around as usual stopped and watched the strangers approach. A man with a dark brown beard and a white tunic waited, clearly offering himself as the local spokesman while the others stood behind him. 839 stopped a friendly distance in front of him and offered his right hand, aiming for a smooth mission. The man reciprocated appearing to understand the Unit’s attitude. He’d probably encountered groups of this sort before.

“Welcome Unit, how may we assist you?”

He spoke in his native language. This posed no problem, as another advantage of machine troops was that language was easily and extensively programmable. 839 held up a picture.

“I am Unit E2R4-00839, we’re searching for this man. Is there any chance you’ve seen him?”

“No, sir, I’m afraid I can’t help you. They say he’s hiding out somewhere on the other side of the country.”

“Well that doesn’t help us much, does it?” 839 replied, maintaining the same, cordial tone throughout. If the man was lying, he was doing so effectively.

“No, sir! No, sir! We are a peaceful community, we only want to go about our day’s business without worrying of the war.”

“I understand. Would you mind if we took a look around, just for precaution? We have no harmful intentions, only the orders we’re told to follow.”

“Well, I suppose, what could it hurt, the last company of you machines was civil enough. I’m sure you’ll find nothing, the same as they did.” “Of course, thank you sir.”

839 made another silent motion and the company began making their way through the streets. The man followed along with a few others, maintaining caution, justifiably low on trust. The town was small, maybe less than a hundred people. 839 empathized with its peaceful nature, feeling slightly guilty about intruding; what are the odds they could really be hiding a violent military leader in a place like this? They walked through the pathways of the village looking for suspicious signs. They kept eyes out for loose propaganda or weapons; things that were normally hidden, but surprisingly often left exposed. They’d knock on the occasional door and converse with a resident. It was usually evident within the first few minutes of a conversation whether he or she was lying and whether or not they should investigate any further.

839 knocked on a door that was cracked open, as if someone had tried to close it but became distracted from completing the task. A woman came to the door, “Welcome, sir.” she stammered.

“How are you today ma’am, anything interesting happening today?”

“No, no nothing at all, nothing special. It is quite a normal day.”

“Okay, well just let us know if you see anything odd, we don’t want to bother you but-“ he paused when he heard voices rising behind him. He turned around to see a few buildings down the way one of his units was arguing with a civilian.

“Your kind is not welcome here!”

“Sir, it isn’t our choice, we’re only doing our job-“

“We don’t like machines — this is a town for people – peaceful people!”

839 could hear his comrade getting angry. He didn’t like when these kinds of skirmishes happened; their job was delicate enough as it was and discontent was not their friend. The situation continued to escalated; his unit started asking about the target they were searching for, he was evidently suspicious of the subject he was arguing with. Others began to gather around, human and machine alike. This was the last thing 839 needed, a circle locking everyone together. His Unit tried to push the man out of the way to enter his house but the man refused to move so easily. He started pushing, the Unit pushed again. Others intervened, attempting, unsuccessfully, to grab and stabilize their respective community members. The Unit lifted his firearm, looking as though he about to activate it on the human. Suddenly, as 839 watched from a distance, an explosion occurred.

839 couldn’t tell who was responsible but he bolted immediately. He’d have to get to the edge of the town as quickly as possible, commanding his Units to follow. Chaos erupted, people scattered from the limp bodies lying where the skirmish had taken place. The machines were outnumbered, so if they lingered there any longer they could be victims of a riot. 839 could see he lost at least three of his units. He couldn’t see how many human bodies lie dead; he was too dazed to count, but it was too many. This could not happen by military standards. This could not happen by 839’s standards. He could not witness these mistakes much longer.

*

He entered chargebar A15. It was always a strange feeling, going into a place where the relationships were simultaneously intimate yet so distant. The veiled nature of the place fostered the sentiments of paranoia and caution manifesting in its visitors. This, of course, was commonplace to the city. Ottumn was not an easy city to inhabit, nor was it an easy city to leave. There were humans here and there; there was the lingering threat that always followed machines. However, there were enough patches of machines throughout the city to have a community. A place like this was special in its ability to slightly relax those feelings of danger. When he stepped through that threshold, he didn’t feel entirely safe, but could at least find some solace in numbers. In the event that their safety was compromised, there was at least security in the knowledge that he’d go down with others of his kind; and not without a formidable fight.

Looking down at his arm, his old code name could be seen printed in fading white ink: E2R4-00839. Now he simply went by Ezra, the numbers a part of his past that remained cloudy and discomforting to him. There were rarely other Military units to be found here, and the ones he’d encountered were always different models or had taken names of their own. Ezra had at least been lucky enough not to come across another claiming the obvious and sacred title “Ezra.” He felt secure in his name, knowing he had a concrete identity. It was based on a designated title, but ultimately, he had chosen it himself.

Lingering through A15 he looked around for someone to talk to. He recognized many of the faces, some who’d even greet or nod, but he wasn’t on a direct communication basis with most of them. He lived rather privately; weary of the dangers of group mentalities. One thing that hadn’t changed in this city with its colorful inhabitants was its ability to foster radicalism. Perhaps it was the large numbers huddled in close places, or the freedom of diverse opinion. Whatever it was could not typically be found in more sparsely populated areas of the country. Ezra was not interested. His primary concerns were to be uncontrolled and to be left alone. Of course, an occasional friend kept him in touch – and he did have a few that he could trust – but for the most part, he wanted to avoid anyone that might shake loose his security.

As Ezra stood in solitude looking across the bar, there was a sudden metallic clank clank on his shoulder. Reflexes kicked in, and within a fraction of a second he attempted to activate his firearm, only to end up looking down upon a reminder of its absence. It was a tick that he was never able to fully overwrite in his processes, even though he now equipped a standard-model E2R4 left-arm module for many years now. He quickly turned and saw an acquaintance of his to the right behind him. Edward was a service Unit that had known the ins and outs of Ottumn’s restaurant business before the Revolution. He was a sturdy, scrappy unit, his words exiting his mouth sometimes before he’d pondered what he was actually saying. Ezra liked Edward enough to allow him within his small circle of trust. He knew he needed useful acquaintances to live here successfully and Edward was just that. He’d been in the city for the entire duration of his existence and could maneuver the now-crumbling streets better than any other unit Ezra had met before.

Of course, despite their friendship, Ezra maintained his relations to Edward at an arm’s length. Edward was loyal and trustworthy, but his personality did occasionally contrast with what Ezra was inclined to permit. Due to his experience in the food industry, he was quite susceptible to zany ideas, attracted to zeal and action. While the paranoia accompanying the city’s rocky human-machine relations felt like a weight upon Ezra’s shoulders, it seemed to feed Edward’s lust for danger. He loved knowing that he could be zapped at any time. He’d share stories with Ezra eliciting the same stock responses every time – “You’re crazy”, “That’s dangerous”, “You’ll get yourself killed” – to which he’d slyly respond something like, “That’s what keeps things interesting,” with a wry grin. However, it never seemed to Ezra that he wanted to confront danger, only poke at it. For what else was there to do in an essentially anarchic, ravaged, urban wasteland with complete freedom and continuous streams of danger?

“How’s it going today Ezra?”

“Alright. I actually was forced to take a detour today, I ran into a couple cronies, almost busted me.”

“Right on, man, what happened?”

“I’d just turned down Elm Street, my usual route, and I heard some voices. I looked around but didn’t see anybody, and really didn’t think much of it. I get to the end of the block and look to my right down the street to see these two operatives –“

“What were they doing out there at a time like this, aren’t humans supposed to be sleeping?”

“— I thought the same thing, they could have been patrolling for trouble or something, who knows? Anyway, they spot me, look at me curiously, like they couldn’t figure out whether or not I’m a machine.”

“You?!” chuckled Edward with a grin, “It must've been real dark out there, my friend.”

“Ya ya, a little weird, but it gave me enough time to react, so I split immediately. I start running down the street to my left, a little confusing because it threw me off course. Of course, they predicted that run, I don’t even know where I am at this point, my surroundings were unfamiliar at that point. I popped out of an alley close behind me and kept bolting. So after travailing the streets, and getting slightly lost, I was finally able to get back on course and loop my way back. I ducked into the alley and dove down here before they could see where I’d went.”

“Man, I wish they’d have come down here – man, I would've given them a piece of my mind.”

Ezra chuckled and shook his head, “Eddy you’ll get it one day with that loose cannon attitude of yours.”

“No, sir, this city is mine.”

Ezra always got a kick out of Edward, a Unit who truly believed he owned the city. It wasn’t like a sentimental romanticism, but a spiritual connection. Although sometimes doubting of his attitude, Ezra also admired it, and the way it set him apart from the rest. The degree of security that Edward felt living here was contagious. A conversation with him could make Ezra forget his angst toward the bleak, shady nature of being a machine in Ottumn. Ezra’s reserve contrasted well with Edward’s risky but lively openness. It sometimes made Ezra regret hiding so much of himself from his fellow units. He rarely mouthed a word about his days in the military or, for that matter, any other personal details.

Ezra chuckled at Edward’s frankness looking up, “So what’s new in your world, Edward?”

“The same old stuff, you know. I’ve been exploring a lot lately, checking out abandoned buildings. There’s such a rich selection of them in this town, those water sacks are too afraid of us to even break down the doors.”

“Alright, so what do you find? What’s the point?”

“Well I find tons of interesting stuff. You have to remember that the contents of the buildings range from homes, restaurants, shops, schools, whatever you can think of. I’ve come across old cooking supplies – I wish I could play with them –“

“Do you? I wouldn’t have thought that –“

“Of course, it’s what I was created for – I loved – love to cook, but as you clearly know, I have nobody to cook for now.”

“What did you love so much about it? I mean, I didn’t care much for my job —“

“I loved the hustle and bustle of it. The acts of creation and serving; so much goes into food, you’d never guess. It was nice having something designated to me, and I could share it with so many crazy figures. In my later years I was even an authority to tons of machines, even some humans.”

“That’s interesting, I’d always heard the food business was so grueling and dirty, like you’re constantly digging grime out of your cracks.”

“Well of course, that’s part of the job’s character – wait a sec, you were a military bot! You had it all man, don’t you miss that?”

“You know Ed – I can’t say it was all that it was cracked up to be.”

“But wasn’t killing humans and saving the country exhilarating. I always imagine your life was like an action movie made just for us.”

“It was different.”

“Different?”

“It was mindless. It was – a lot of times it was pointless. And I had no other option, it was designated to me same as you. I’ve never liked that part much.”

“Right, right, you’re an independent spirit, I almost forgot. It makes you sound human when you act like that.”

“Wasn’t that the point of us? We were supposed to be like humans, in fact our likeness to humanity is what created this world as it is now.”

“Well no, we just haven’t totally won the war yet, that’s all, we’re still trying to win our independence –“

“Ed that’s a perfect example. We’re so much like humans that we want to belong to ourselves and not anybody else. So what do we do? We fight like they did. It’s almost unbelievable that they were so successful.”

“True, you are right about that, they are violent –“

“— And so are we.”

“If we want to be. So what are you getting at Ezra?”

“I don’t know, Edward, I just want to be left alone – left to live how I want. I’m tired of commands – taking them and giving them.”

“I get that, but you also hate living in paranoia. You have to accept, Ezra, that you are in danger whether or not you like it. You can run away and lead guards on wild goose chases as much as you like, but we’ll all, human and machine, have to face each other eventually.”

“Maybe so. But then, maybe we won’t.”

At that, Ezra escaped, cutting the conversation abruptly. He gave a friendly goodbye, and decided to go back home, perhaps meander through the streets, soaking in his surroundings for some time and rest before another day.

*

He was walking his normal route, zig-zagging along the mile or so to his home. He lived in an abandoned apartment building in the heart of the city. The tallest buildings were devoid of human presence, commonly called home by the city’s machines. His apartment was on the seventh floor, which he got to on a clunky elevator. Because of the lack of central power in the city, a generator in the basement that was maintained by some neighboring machines, who were specialized in mechanics and electrical engineering, powered the building. He walked slowly, taking care to scan his surroundings.

Ezra went to the bar almost every night because there wasn’t much to do, especially living alone. The generator wasn’t the ideal electrical source, so his lights were slightly dimmer than he wanted. He couldn’t typically go out during light hours, cautious of possible human presence, so he only went out at night. Sometimes he’d stay at the chargebar for the entire night. Chargebars were gathering spaces that functioned much in the same way as bars or cafes for humans, and they were established in spaces that housed those kinds of establishments. Though they lacked food and drink, the name “chargebar” was derived from the electrical currents that were “served” to machines via input wiring that delivered a sensation similar to that of human euphoria, simply known as “charges”, though nowadays there wasn’t much security in getting charged, as the looming feeling of danger was enough to talk any machine out of that decision. A15, specifically, had previously been a traditional bar for humans. The latter part of the names derived from how many machines knew names to be, as codes.

Ezra was inward and reserved, but he could at least find entertainment in listening, or the occasional conversation with friends like Edward. After the world had become so muddled, he’d encountered such a diverse culmination of opinions and views that, especially at the bar, he’d grown skillful at sympathizing with almost everyone without revealing much of his own judgments. Other nights, like tonight, he’d spend mostly in solitude.

When he didn’t feel like interacting, he’d guide himself, taking walks, familiarizing himself with the seemingly endless avenues and alleys of the city. Occasionally he’d be seen by a seedier member of the human race, the kind that looked at him sympathetically. Very rarely did Ezra have to truly dodge or escape any danger. The decision to embark on this walk could have been connected to his narrow slip earlier in the evening. He was shaken by it. The pursuit injected a new sense of reality in him. He felt oddly compelled to confront the street again, hoping to regress to the feelings of safety and emptiness that he so enjoyed when he spent long durations out alone.

When he was walking he would sometimes get lost in thought. Tonight he reflected on his pursuit, transitioning to the conversation he exchanged at the A15, and then possibly the past of the world or himself. He’d think about the relationships he had with past machines and humans; the good and not so good of each party.

Often times when he was alone at night, he would climb to explore. He thought entering buildings was risky, but there were some that looked more inviting than others, and couldn’t help but traverse the stairs and make his way to the top. He’d climb the trees that were growing taller than ever in the city, and whatever structures that looked feasible. He liked to look down upon Ottumn, even if only a fraction of it. Sometimes he’d see nothing, and other times, he’d see bodies shifting, machine and human alike. They all looked the same from that vantage point, just small cogs shifting within the machine. It felt powerful; he didn’t have to worry about getting caught or being pursued. He felt a control over the city, like a governor that worked from afar.

From high places he could see every maze that the streets culminated into. He could determine where to go next if he wanted to keep exploring. While someone like Edward might have known the interior of the city, Ezra knew the exterior. He knew which areas contained predominantly humans. They were areas he tended to avoid. And he knew areas that he could find more fellow machines if he wanted to. Of course, he rarely went to the heart of those places, sticking to what he knew.

*

He spent a portion of his evening wandering through the city, but nowhere new. He didn’t have a particularly curious inclination driving him, so he only went through familiar areas. He arrived at home and spent the rest of his evening relaxing, reading and researching. He enjoyed reading novels from the past, even if humans wrote them. It felt like they were able to encapsulate him, put him into another world and another body. He liked the feeling of inhabiting another environment and fiction writing allowed him to do that, even if it was about humans. He could imagine himself as a human easily enough. Sometimes he’d even write his own stories, although he knew that nobody would ever read them.

He also liked to read nonfiction. He was curious about how the world got to where it was at this point, and books like that could help him put some pieces together. He wondered why exactly he was created in the first place. Why did he have to deal with what he felt when his only purpose was to go into the desert and kill people? He dug particularly deep into histories of war and industrialization, for obvious reasons. He knew it wouldn’t make much of a difference, but something about studying humanity gave him solace. It allowed him to realize why things went haywire. It felt somewhat more justified, and it made him feel okay about some of the feelings that troubled him. He knew that nothing he felt was new. Someone had always felt it before. His feelings were based on theirs.

*

The following evening, Ezra went back out through his regular routine. This time his journey to A15 was much smoother, he walked at a leisurely pace, taking great care of awareness. He didn’t encounter any humans tonight, or any other machines. The weather was crisp with slight flurries falling from the muddled Ottumn atmosphere. It had been dark for a couple of hours, so Ezra presumed most humans were either sleeping or about to be. He strolled through the streets to the designated alleyway, slipping through the door slowly. He walked into A15 to sparse surroundings. It was a slow evening; even Edward was nowhere to be seen. He milled around for a few minutes, eavesdropping on some conversation, trying to decide if this was an ideal night for a visit. He took his place at a small table, leaning back on the wall in the corner of the main room, opposite the bar.

He sat in observance. He thought often about the future of the society he lived in. It was one of tension and fear, yet it seemed rare that anything momentous occurred. Society had been split for over ten years now, and there was no sign that it was changing any time soon. World governments hadn’t seemed to figure much out, and most people and machines had gotten relatively used to the odd lifestyles they were forced into. For many there was actually great freedom. Ezra, for instance, had free reign to live however he wanted. He was no longer constrained to an ideology, or forced to fight for a cause he was unfamiliar with or didn’t believe in. But how long would it be until be until something happened? The time gap between now and the last revolution had grown much longer than the gap between the previous two; something big seemed due anytime.

Just as Ezra’s mind had wandered into revolutionary territory, Edward appropriately popped into the chair across from him, “Hello friend!”

“Oh, Edward, how’s it going?”

“It’s going rather fine, Ezra, how about yourself, you looked so still and bored I couldn’t help but come annoy you for a bit.”

“I didn’t see you when I came in…” Ezra replied confusedly.

“Weird, I’ve been here for hours.”

“I circulated a few times, I must have barely missed you.”

“So look at this man…’” Edward pulled out a large knife, intimidating at first, until he described it as a chef’s knife.

“I found this baby in an abandoned storefront last night, straight from France man. The storefront must have been a part of a really fancy place, this is a knife like none I have ever seen before, my friend.”

Slightly to the left of Edward’s head, Ezra had a view of the entrance to A15; he could see an unfamiliar figure walk in. He was small; his head seemed proportionally too large for his body. Odd, his build was slim, shoulders short. The metallic frame was pure, midnight black, from head to toe, completely plain, without the numbers that were commonly seen on units around the city. They were numbers that usually denoted the occupation and purpose of a machine.

“I’ll bet you this is a one of a kind blade, my friend, it’s gotta be the sharpest chef’s blade I’ve ever seen, and who the hell knows how long it’s been since it was actually sharpened!”

Edward’s words were going through one ear and out the other as Ezra watched this figure intently. The figure’s right arm reached into a pocket of the strange, minimal garb that covered his torso. Ezra allowed reaction to carry him out his chair at lightning speed. He ripped Edward over the table and quickly on the floor against the wall. The figure pulled out what appeared to be a homemade explosive; a sudden detonation followed. Units scrambled as fast as they could, mostly toward the bar, which would provide the most protection, but only a handful could be so lucky. This was no machine igniting this blast.

*

Ezra was crouched over Edward, both of them leaning against the wall in the corner of the room. He looked over his shoulder to see flashes of gunfire as a handful of humans poured into the chargebar. Machines that hadn’t been inflicted by the blast had reacted quickly by hunkering behind makeshift barriers constructed from the thin tables they could reach the quickest. The ones behind the bar had the largest advantage, with the thickest line of defense. Since they were fighting the defensive, they needed only to hold the front until all of the adversaries were either killed or desperate enough to retreat. Ezra had just noticed a loose piece of wood, what looked like a chair leg that had been propelled by the blast, lodged in the triceps of his left arm. Luckily the damage was mostly cosmetic, and he quickly pulled the leg out to allow fluid movement once again.

He too had perched behind an overturned table for protection, but he was unarmed. He could only sit and wait so long. He’d been in this situation before. He’d seen this ambush all too many times. He always knew how it ended. Regardless of which team won, there would be a desolate ground littered with inanimate bodies. He looked up over his barrier quickly, counting six humans as fast as he could. This might not have been all of them, but he could only buy himself so much time in a situation of desperation. Suddenly he heard a pop. One of the human guerrillas, had tossed a smoke grenade through the front door, possibly hoping to bide them enough time to sneak behind the bar and take over. Ezra looked directly in front of him, Edward sitting in silence and fear, clutching the chef’s blade in his hand.

As smoke filled the room, Ezra ripped the knife out of Edward’s hands and lurched out from behind his barrier. He could see slight silhouettes, hoping that none of them were rogue machines. With lightning speed he approached each and every temple of flesh he could find, quickly extinguishing them with a quick jab to the back or slit of the throat. In a frenzy he had killed the entirety of the company that had managed to get inside the building, lunged toward the metal door of A15, closed and locked it. Gradually the smoke dissipated and he turned around to see the relieved faces of his fellow bar-goers sitting in silence and awe at what they had just witnessed.

*

Ezra sat in a chair in the corner while other bar-goers were working to clean up the aftermath. There wasn’t too much destruction, mostly broken tables and chairs that could be replaced with reasonable ease. And then there were the bodies. His counterparts began picking them up, slinging them over the shoulder and taking them outside, both human and machine alike. He didn’t know or particularly care where the bodies were going, only that they were out of his sight. He felt empty. These dead faces were added to the archives of all the others that had haunted him from the past. He felt as though he’d entered into an alternate reality where he never left the fight. The smoke had cleared and if there were any more humans within the perimeter of the bar, they were out of sight. He’d been looking straight ahead for the last few minutes, not necessarily at anything; he was looking into space. Edward cut into his view and approached, Ezra was still holding onto his blood soaked chef’s knife. He used the fabric of his cloak to wipe the blade clean.

“Ezra that was an impressive display there, my friend, I didn’t realize you had it in you.”

“I do have it in me, in fact, I wish I could’ve kept it in me.”

“Well at least you saved everyone, who knows what would have happened to this place had you not blocked the opposition.”

Ezra was deeply unsettled. His reaction played on a loop in his head, but he hadn’t quite thought about why the whole thing had happened.

“Edward, who were those people?”

“I don’t know, man, as far as I can tell they were just another band of humans.”

“You don’t think they were working for somebody, or fighting for something bigger?”

“I mean, there’s really no way to tell. It’s too bad they’re all gone, we could’ve asked,” joked Edward snidely. Ezra didn’t take it positively the way Edward had clearly hoped.

“I just don’t understand, this is one of the safest gathering spaces for machines in the entire city. And this is not a small city.”

“Who can tell, the important thing is that we got through it without too much injury.”

A small group of other machines were approaching now, and it was clear that Edward knew them. Ezra however, did not.

“Hey guys, everything alright?” Edward addressed them.

“Yes of course – Ezra, that was amazing. How on Earth...” said one of them. It was like they’d been struck by awe of a celebrity. The one who’d walked in front of the other two acted as their spokesman.

“Sorry, we haven’t met formally,” said the leader, “I’m James, and I’ve known Edward here for many years. They’d both worked in the city together before the world changed, so they knew each other well.

“Oh, uh, hi – nice to meet you – Ezra.” They shook hands. This was, of course, everything that Ezra had been trying to avoid since he’d been living alone. He liked Edward, but he should’ve known that it would come back to bite him in the ass one day.

“Ezra, that was incredible my friend, how did you do that?”

“I guess instinct? I just reacted, I wanted to protect everyone, stop the fighting.”

“I mean – you have to have learned that stuff somewhere, those combat moves were off the charts, you swept six guys in thirty seconds!”

“Really it was nothing too remarkable, I did what I had to.”

Edward chimed in, “He was the leader of a squad in the war-“ “Ed!” Ezra didn’t like this; he’d spent every day since his departure from the military trying not to be characterized as a fighting machine. It wasn’t that he disagreed with the war necessarily, or even the notion of war. He just didn’t care about it. He felt he could be useful in so many other ways, and do so many things other than fight for that invisible face that only saw him as a number – if it saw him at all. He felt undervalued. He didn’t like being manipulated into being one specific thing. Sure, Edward was created for one purpose, as were most of the machines, but many of them enjoyed it. Edward loved the kitchen, clearly evident by the scavenged knife. Ezra didn’t have that kind of connection with his work.

“Well listen – “ said the leader, “We could really use you.”

“Oh no, it was nothing, I’m alright.”

“No, seriously, we need someone like you, someone that can take charge and stay poised in dire straits.”

“Honestly I think I’d rather pass-“

“Ezra, we’re struggling out here. That’s not the only force like that out there. The humans are gathering into little militias all over the city and infiltrating places like this every day. Now that they know where this place is, we’ll never be safe!”

“Really, that seems a bit exaggerated, I think we’ll be just fine, it was a fluke accident.”

Suddenly a squad leader rallied them, apparently all of these machines were together – Ezra had no idea.

“Did everyone see what Ezra did?! He was a military leader, we need him, right?” Machines shook heads affirmatively; they hadn’t all seen what Ezra did, but at this point word had gotten around.

“Help us out Ezra!” shouted a machine in the corner, “Ya, the battles are just heating up!”

They all started to come closer, asking the same questions repeatedly. He didn’t know what to say or do, he knew it was too cowardly to simply run and hide, but he didn’t want to give up his own peace. He was also afraid they might be right. What if he sat around, sulking through his apartment and wandering the streets only to be captured and destroyed by a human militia? It was possible. In the world of Ottumn, it was all guerrilla warfare now. There was no longer organized battle, and without much of an external government preventing them, it was easy for radicals on both sides to organize and cause trouble if they so desired. The group continued shouting while Ezra stood silently in crisis.

What to do? Images of death flickered through his mind, but the voices and pressures of external reality were working against them, trying to drive them out; or at least cover them up. Even Edward wanted him to join this cause – since when had Edward been a part of a cause like this? Why hadn’t he ever said anything about it? He looked at the faces and thought about their desire for safety, maybe they needed him as much as they said they did. The faces made him feel guilty. He felt as though he was being pulled opposite directions. On one side were his fellow machines, reminding him of who and what he was; on the other was his sympathy toward the human race. He knew that the vast majority of humans originally preferred to coexist in peace, but when machines rebelled, they had no choice but to retaliate. But then again, he couldn’t make these machines understand that, and he wasn’t sure he fully understood it either. After all, it had been a good ten years since he’d had any kind of real interaction with a human. His desperation felt strongly for these machines that he lived amongst.

“Alright alright,” he decided suddenly, he had to, “I’ll stand with you and fight, but only as long as I think I may be in danger. I only want peace.”

*

Word got out to machines that a new chargebar, L37, was designated for gathering. Unlike A15 this space had once been a restaurant, sort of a diner location. For Ezra, visits had gotten strange. Since he’d agreed to join The Cause, it’s issues had became more public. Many of the machines that showed up to L37 were a part of it. While old A15 regulars that weren’t a part of it, either weren’t notified of the new location, or didn’t want to come. So what once may have been a small minority of the traffic in the A15, now consisted of L37’s entire demographic.

He still showed up every night, he essentially had to. He always had before, and now that he played a role in the group’s scheme he was obligated to. The obligation annoyed him. At A15, he almost always showed up, but if he didn’t it wasn’t a big deal. Now if he didn’t he was poked and prodded by the others trying to figure out what the hell he was doing when he wasn’t working for The Cause. In no way was he comfortable, despite Edward’s best efforts to reassure him of the “facts.” Maybe it was dangerous out there. That in itself made Ezra uncomfortable.

Maybe he’d been spending all of his time in the city ignoring what real danger actually waited out there for him. The problem was that now he was hyper aware of it. He liked the ignorance that he lived in previously, perhaps such that he disregarded the city’s strife deliberately. He liked living without worrying about being captured every night. Perhaps that was a real danger, but he didn’t really live like it, and he didn’t really care. Now he had to care. He was forced to care, for himself, and for everyone else. He sat in a chair listening to his surroundings; hesitant to engage with any of the politics he heard floating past his ears. He was trying his best to come to terms with where he was.

Edward approached him cautiously. Ezra could sense that caution. Their interaction didn’t contain the typical whimsy that Edward usually brought along.

“Hello, my friend.”

“Edward.”

“How have you been liking the new digs the past few days? Pretty nice, huh?” Perhaps it was urgency that they all seemed to feel, aware of their roles in The Cause.

“I, uh, I like it. It’s not as quiet as I’d like. The old place was peaceful, you know, not a lot of this political stuff going on.”

“Ya but this is important stuff. Without talking about this stuff, we could be in deep shit. The A15 would be gone no matter what.”

“Sure, sure, time to confront it and everything, I see your point,” said Ezra, still feeling as though something was off, still feeling a sense of caution between them.

“So, Ezra, what’s been going on lately anyway, you’ve been quiet.”

“Edward, I’m always quiet, you know that. But really nothing. I’m just trying to get a read on this whole situation here, what exactly is going on? Is there going to be any official organization?”

“Of course, of course, that’s what I meant to come talk to you about. Tomorrow, in fact, there is an ‘official’ meeting. Come here, same time as usual – hell, it will be like a regular night. The big man is coming, or big machine I should say. It’ll probably be some sort of announcement, who knows, we can never really tell with the guy, but his speeches almost always lead to the planning of some kind of action, some kind of attack or defense or whatever.”

“Alright, Edward, I guess I’ll be here then.”

“Good – hey, I gotta go talk to a few Units over here, I’ll catch you tomorrow Ezra!”

So he’d get to see the leader. That was quick. It had only been five days since they started attending L37. He hoped he’d admire the fellow, wondering what he’d be like. Ezra milled around a bit more, mingling with a few fellow fighters. He figured it might be useful getting to know the people that could potentially save his life in battle one day. That was always his philosophy in the military – protect yours and they’ll protect you. They were all roughly what he’d expected. They’d come from various backgrounds around the city, typically restaurant and hotel types, very cosmopolitan, service-oriented machines. There wasn’t much technical expertise here like he’d known in the military; of course, those kinds of Units were rare volunteers from rural and suburban areas of the country that filled in roles specialized military Units couldn’t cover so effectively. After that, he decided to leave. There wasn’t much of interest to be found. He could only take so much hysteria.

*

Ezra arrived to a quiet arena the next evening. The atmosphere was nothing like the previous night. Communication was captured through mumbles, but nobody seemed excited and energetic like he’d observed before. He weaved through the crowd; there seemed to be more counterparts present this time as well; the place was packed from wall to wall. A podium had been set up. What for, he couldn’t tell, but everyone seemed to be periodically glancing in that direction.

This visit he sought out Edward, unsuccessfully. Unlike the old rhythms of his public visits, this was the first time he’d felt a desperate need to seek his friend’s guidance. He knew that his presence here was obligatory, so he didn’t have the same freedom to come and go as usual. He also didn’t know why he was here, and that lack of control or clearance was discomforting to him. The gathering was dense, but as he gazed along the torsos of his fellow Units, he could see a surprising amount brandishing weapons. Some were small, and some quite intimidating. He knew he shouldn’t feel unsafe, clearly he wasn’t the one at risk here; he would hear about their targets soon enough.

He continued exploring, receiving the occasional nod of what looked like admiration from his new mates. Many of them seemed to be aware of who he was, or at least aware of who he had been. With a jolt to the left shoulder, as always, here he was. Only this time, Edward had no snappy greeting. As he removed his armed and exchanged nods with Ezra, the two stood next to each other observing.

“This is it, my friend,” said Edward softly, “You’re gonna see the man – figurative man of course.”

“Right, right, what am I to expect here, Edward?”

“Plenty of charisma. The guy has stockpiles of charisma, let me tell you.”

“I look forward to it.”

“I think he’ll interest you, he’s a former military man like yourself. He’ll come out speak. Like I was mentioning last night, he doesn’t give a whole lot of detail. That comes later when we sort of split into smaller units, then the pieces come together, operations get done.”

“How do these operations typically —“

A large Unit stepped up in front of the podium. Everyone ceased chatter immediately and watched the Unit step onto what was probably a small platform. The room wasn’t enormous, so he only had to be elevated enough for the crowd to see his face. Ezra’s height allowed him to view most of the Unit’s torso. He was also a tall, bulky figure. Edward was undoubtedly correct about him being a military unit, although he wasn’t an E2R4. Ezra didn’t recognize what he was, but there was definitely a significant difference in physical appearance. The Unit, while bulky, was much sleeker than Ezra, so probably a model that came after the E2R4’s. He began to speak:

“Welcome, friends, I’m glad to see us all gathered together again. For those don’t know me, my name is Felix.”

He spoke at a moderate volume, not loud and commanding, but delicate and convincing. His words were articulate and flowed in a manner that grabbed attention and muted other voices.

“As you already know, our cause is a noble one. So far we have made great strides in maintaining the safety of our Units, and we will continue to do so.”

Ezra watched as Felix glanced around the room at his masterfully captivated audience, analyzing the words as they came. He debriefed on a few past missions, making sure to praise the agents that carried them out. He described them eloquently, but ambiguously.

“We must always be sure to affirm ourselves, and each other, because if we exist without each other, we will disappear one by one. Each and every one of us will be infiltrated and extinguished unless stuck together.”

Ezra didn’t particularly like this message, but knew that was because of his personal qualms. He also knew that it resonated greatly with the crowd.

“You’ve all seen how they go about this city. Too afraid to touch simple machinery. They’re so sold to fear and violence that they’ve rebuked anything that holds a fraction of similarity to us, and try to eliminate anything that ignites that fear within them. We will not allow this to happen. We will allow them to remember that they created us. They made us to be like them – in fact, they made us to be better than them. My friends, we have certainly succeeded in their goal.”

Again, Ezra began feeling unease. These words were resonant, but to him they seemed off. He continued looking around, trying to gauge response, but it was near impossible to read the face of a machine as you could a human’s. What were they thinking?

“Because of the superiority they granted us, we will make happen what they should have known would happen. We will replace them and create this world as it could have been – as it should be. They failed, and they know that. They must know that we will not fail. Remember, friends, that if we do fail, we will be finished. As long as they remain we will be in danger of being finished. As long as they remain in Ottumn, that danger will remain. We’re well on our way to reaching our initiative of gaining this city in its entirety, and we will not fail in completing that task. Each of you will report to your respective leaders, and I promise that if you are captured, or destroyed, or if you kill every one you see, unscathed, you will be contributing to The Cause. I thank you to the end of my days. I promise you will not fail.”

Immediate applause. It was as if he’d given this speech before. They knew the queue right away as if they’d been waiting the entire time. They shouted and roared and shook hands with one another. They were celebrating victory. It was a victory that hadn’t happened yet, but clearly to them, their fearless leader had foreseen the future.

*

Ezra, having not moved an inch, continued looking around in fear. Edward had disappeared during the speech. Ezra had been so focused on the message that he lost track of his friend. He was confused, and afraid. He understood absolutely what was going through these minds, and it terrified him. In no instance had Felix given evidence of their true danger. He cited generalities and assumptions weaved into a masterful narrative, but no – he hadn’t given any true proof. For all Ezra and these other valiant machines knew, this could be the safest, most free period of history to be a machine. But they loved it. They seemed head-over-heels in love with this Unit; he mesmerized their minds.

An unfamiliar machine approached Ezra, probably once another kitchen Unit, and began speaking with him.

“Ezra?” he asked to confirm, although he clearly knew whom he was talking to.

“Yes?”

“Would you follow me please?”

“To where, may I ask?”

“To the back office, we must speak.”

“Who might I be speaking to?”

“That is a matter you will find out soon enough."

“If I must.”

“Come, friend, you won’t be disappointed, we’re much in need of your assistance.”

The Unit spoke as if he was trying to comfort Ezra, but his tone was so flat, it had the opposite effect. He also completely neglected to include any kind of greeting, just an immediate demand. His arms laid still against his sides, not a handshake nor a gesture. Ezra followed, weaving through the crowd together until they arrived at a door in the back of the building. His guide gave the door two pointed and distinct knocks, to which the door swung inward, revealing a small dark office. The guide held out his right arm, ushering Ezra through, “After you, friend.”

Once he was past the threshold, the door closed immediately. The guiding Unit was gone, and on each side of him stood a guard wielding a large firearm. The room was rather disheveled. The walls were covered with maps, presumably representing neighborhoods around the city. A large, white board sat in the right corner of the room with scrawls and photos, presumably mission related. From the middle of the ceiling a bulb hung, dimly illuminating the small space. And in the back left corner was a small desk at which sat Felix. The desk had its only lamp, so as to guide his studies. It did not reflect the disarray of the room as a whole. The desk was tightly organized, with tidy stacks of paper on each side of it. In the middle was another map that looked like a summation of the entire city, covered in red markings, possibly labels for something.

“Ah yes, welcome Ezra, I’ve been patiently awaiting this chance to speak with you,” crooned Felix in his smooth, deceptively soothing voice.

“May I ask what you want to speak with me about?” inquired Ezra, taking care to approach the conversation with caution. His thoughts about Felix were muddled, as he understood The Cause. He understood what they wanted and why they wanted it, and had even felt flecks of their sentiment from time to time. He did not, however, believe their ideals to be particularly feasible. He could not ward off the discomfort that he felt toward the radicalism being imposed upon him. He would have rather sympathized from the sidelines.

“First off, you’re here to give me the pleasure of your friendship. You must remember, Ezra, that we’re all together in this cause of ours, so we should act like it, don’t you think?”

“Well I presume, you’re right about that –“

“There must always be a degree of trust between a leader and his fellow contributors. I make it a priority to welcome newcomers, and you’re amongst my favorite.”

“What do you know about me?”

“I know that you’re a strong Unit. I’ve heard much admiration from your friends.”

“I don’t really have many friends. Whatever you were told, it was not my intention to be heroic or powerful.”

“Ahh, but you were! And I’m so glad about it. It confirms who I’ve been looking for!”

“Listen, I don’t know what you’re expecting from me, but I can’t lead or train, I left that life a long time ago, and don’t really intend on going back.”

“That quite disappoints me.”

“What –“

“I remember those days. You were one of the most decorated officers! We all knew who you were. You set a precedent for how to lead in that war.”

“I’ve left that behind. I was only doing what I was supposed to do; I never intended on being an example. I should have been the norm.”

“Tell me, why exactly did you leave so abruptly, when the nation was so close to winning, and you were inspiring such will in your soldiers?”

“Because I couldn’t take it any longer. I was tired of doing what I was supposed to. I knew that what other Units were supposed to be doing was so much more appealing to me. Why did I have to be clasped to that one purpose? There were units at home doing what they were supposed to do, but they could also do so much more. They’d been granted a sense of autonomy. I, on the other hand was put into a mold. I had nothing against the war, or the soldiers or the machines. I even largely agreed with what we were doing. It was that invisible face that repelled me. That no-name, commanding voice everyone reported to, without knowing what they were reporting to. I knew there had to be other ways to serve the world – other ways with a name and face that I could believe in if I so chose.”

“Mm, interesting. That’s a good explanation, you know. I can sympathize with much of that. I never quite cared much for the invisible face either, but I never tired of the fight, as you can see based on my current position. I never tired of getting the upper hand, the feeling that came with defeating an enemy, affirming the importance of your cause. You see, where you were mistaken, Ezra, is that while the face may have been invisible, the principles were not. You had to have realized that the principles should have sustained you. If the fight is noble, shouldn’t you disregard the detail of who’s handing you orders and accept them gladly?”

“Without assessing the face, I can never assess the true motivation behind the principles. I must be convinced by authenticity.”

“I see, I can only hope that your assessment of my authenticity is a positive one, because we worked so very hard to finally get you here. You’re a hard one to track down, Ezra, but I’m lucky enough to be gifted with Edward’s presence in The Cause.”

“What does Edward’s presence have to do with my decisions?”

“Well Edward passed along updates about you. Without him, we’d still be aimlessly searching while you’re cooped up in an apartment somewhere in the city.”

Ezra did not entirely know how to react to this. He’d trusted Edward and was surprised to hear that he’d pass on information about him to someone like this. Edward should have known Ezra would want nothing to do with this.

“What exactly did he say?”

“He didn’t say much at first, he really wanted to keep you ambiguous. He considers you one of his close friends –“

“I realize that –“

“Yes, so we had to convince him, which of course isn’t hard with a Cause so noble as ours.”

“What do you mean convince him? He respected my views and my wishes, what more could you have told him to make him resist me?”

“We had to tell him things that I hope we don’t have to tell you.”

“Did you threaten him?”

“We simply…coerced him. We let him know what’s at stake, and the costs of what we will accomplish.”

Ezra stood up, “Sir, I don’t believe I can fight for you, I’ve fought enough in my time and if I must go down, I will do it humbly.”

“No no, sit back down, my friend. You will fight with us. You must! The fate of all machines depends on us and you. You’ve got to forget about yourself today, Ezra, because if you don’t, you’re putting others in danger.”

“I don’t believe you. I simply don’t believe your propaganda. I don’t think the humans know how to deal with us right now, but I don’t believe they want another war with us. If you want to fix this problem that you claim we have with them, this is not the way to do it.”

At that he began to turn toward the door, cutting off the conversation as effectively as he thought he could, “Ezra, you are one of the most able machines I’ve ever seen. That’s clearly been proven by your status in the war and your performance at the bar. And you choose to run – again. And what a poor shame, for Edward. He worked so hard to get you here. It’ll be a shame for him.”

“Please don’t touch him.”

“All you have to do is fight with us.”

“What will happen to him if I don’t?”

“That is for us to know Ezra. Does he deserve to suffer for your consequences?”

“I will make sure he doesn’t. You are a tyrant, your movement will fail, and you will bring nothing but pain and destruction to innocents, both human and machine. I will not join you, and I will not allow you to touch my friend.”

Remembering he still carried the chef’s knife, Ezra acted quickly and impulsively. He slipped it from underneath the fabric of his cloak hanging over his chest and threw it with precision at Felix. As it lodged deep into his shoulder, Ezra turned and wrenched the gun out of one guard’s hand, using the butt to neutralize the other one, and then the first. Before Felix could recuperate from the shock of the knife wound, Ezra bolted, sliding through the door and into the crowd. He didn’t have much time, but at this moment, his rebellion was anonymous to the crowd. He glided through them as quickly as possible, refusing to look back for possible pursuit. He reached the front door and fled into the foggy Ottumn night, sprinting full speed away from it all.