“Imagine, if you will, a world scorched. The smoke trails of rockets launching and curling into the atmosphere, cloying the very air you breathe. The contaminated sting washing through your lungs as you heave your body and soul through sludge. Your skin burns from the acid rain, and your feet are so blistered that you can barely hobble your way down the streets.
“There’s a crack of lightning, and you see the outline of another spaceship rising past the storm clouds and vapors. The orange and red ignition streak the plume of exhaust, and your heart trembles. This is your last chance to leave this godforsaken world, you think. Your only chance.”
The audience was rapt with fascination of the tale. Though they had heard it one hundred times before, the Epic of the Exodus never lost its significance. Its influence over those who listened with shining eyes and eager expressions.
“And imagine, if you will, that there are others just like you all racing for the cargo hold, to be rocketed off into far off galaxies. Only so many people can fit inside the ship. Only so many will survive. And so you race among these people to get in line, forgetting your humanity. Dropping your socially constructed politeness, forgoing ancient advice that women and children go first. In this war-torn world, there are no men, no women, and certainly no children.”
One of the girls sitting in the front row gasped and clutched her teddy bear tighter. Just like her, the stuffed animal was a tattered little thing, with missing tufts of fur and a single button eye. The other had long fallen off, leaving just a coil of thread.
“Everyone grew up far too quick. Everyone died far too soon.”
There was a breath from the crowd. An overwhelming sense of impending doom on the fringes of the campsite. As the bonfire’s light danced upon the leaves of the trees and highlighted the curves of the metal rooftops on the huts, the shadows moved too. And while they were indeed safe, there was always a chance that the monsters would come seeking fresh blood.
“With that solemn thought in mind, with your hands pushing through the tide of bodies, you race—forgetting the blisters, the pain, and the breathlessness you feel. You run. Over the speakers and sirens, you hear the final call for boarding. Others start to undulate, picking up speed, and soon you are part of the panicked wave. Everyone is screaming to be chosen, but this is a lottery in which there are no numbers.
“There is only luck, and back then, so many of us were unlucky. Back then, millions perished in that war between man and machine. But not your ancestors. No, Fortune and Favor smiled upon them, and they were able to either secure a seat or stow away aboard one of the ARCS.
“Your heart thuds as you somehow manage to slip past the armed soldiers and make your way down along the metal walkway. Others clang along beside your, their eyes wide as the green and red blinking lights contrast with the rapid flickers of lightning and explosions. You hear the rest of humanity screaming behind you, ‘Let us on!’ But no one listens, for enough time has been wasted. It’s time to go.
“You are directed down metal stairs that cut into your feet, into a crowded cargo bay full of people who probably won’t survive the trip to salvation. But you don’t care. You’re abroad, at last.”
People in the crowd who knew the story also knew what happened next, and already their faces showed traces of unease and displeasure. In the front row, the children huddled together closely under their blankets. They were too young to know how far humanity had fallen, and yet, they were wise beyond their years. Just because their bodies were new to the world, it didn’t mean their minds and souls were immature.
“Within this space, you notice the others. The ARCS, designed as they were to support human life for months or years, have trees and pools of fresh water, where people have gathered to eat and drink. There is a pale white light shining down from above, and the air smells sterile but also fresh. For the first time in many years, you breathe deeply, without tasting bitter metals on your tongue. For the first time in years, you can sup on juicy peaches that cause pulp to dribble down your chin.”
A little boy laughed at the image, but it didn’t reach the hollow depths of his gaze.
“The ARCS already feel like home. Except, the Autonomous Recolonization Ship is not home, nor will it ever be home. Most of the ships carry with them into space a dark and terrible secret.
“You may be wondering why the humans were running from Earth all those years ago. What caused the Exodus? Why was there so much smoke and blood and death? I’ll tell you why: Humans couldn’t learn to leave well enough alone. Once we mastered cloning and stem cells and nanotechnology, we sought immortality. We sought ways that were unnatural, and though we learned how to transcend the limitations instilled upon us by illness and disease and disabilities, we also tried to make ourselves God.
“But humans can never be such a thing. We are not supreme, nor are we perfect. When symbiotechnology was introduced, it was also our conclusion. Because what can go wrong when billions of nanomachines are fused into the human brain? What can go wrong when a human mind is controlled by both artificial and natural intelligence? Well, we learned what could go wrong, and that is why we are where we are today…
“Even the ARCS—our final hope of survival—spurned us. For the symbioids had found their way onboard every single spaceship, and they bided their time, hiding among the people, pretending and smiling and offering platitudes, until it was time to act. And no one knew. There were few ways to tell a symbioid from a human, unless they had mechanized body modifications. But without those robotic additions? The only way to tell was to look a symbioid in the eyes and ask it a sentimental question. Does anyone know why?”
The question provoked a dozen aggrieved utterances. No one liked to think about symbioids, even though the danger was still relevant. Out here, in the middle of nowhere, people liked to think they had more than the machines to worry about. And there was, without a doubt, a plethora of dangers in the world for them to constantly be mindful of. But their most indefatigable nemesis would always be the symbioids.
A girl holding the one-eyed bear was the only one brave enough to speak, however. She looked into the fire as she spoke with a soft voice, “The robots don’t feel like we do. They can’t get sad and cry. They don’t get angry. They aren’t people.”
“They may insist otherwise. But you are correct. If I asked anyone in this audience how they would feel letting someone precious to them drown, you would be very, very upset about it, wouldn’t you? The idea alone of someone you love dying is enough to stir you into action. Your pupils dilate. Your breathing becomes shallower.
“Symbioids don’t have this physiological reaction to such things. In their minds, they might understand why a human would shudder, but their neurons are more like circuitry, and the little nanomachines attached to the synapses infect their conscience. Every emotion is modulated. Every reaction is controlled. But they can behave like humans so convincingly that, unless you ask them something poignant, they can slip through the cracks undetected. And so, they did.
“No one knows for sure why the machines would sacrifice themselves to attempt taking over the ARCS, why they couldn’t sit still and wait until the new planet was properly colonized. But they tried. Some of machine’s plots failed. Some ships self-destructed, and others wound up on uncharted courses, never to be heard from again.
“But I choose to believe that the symbioids were afraid—like us. Earth was dying, and once the humans left, the nuclear fallout would surely eradicate all remaining life, machines included. Even if the cloud-mind could be saved, the symbioids would have to wait millennia before Earth was once again inhabitable. And since symbioids are androids with human biology, it would be impossible to wait that long.
“And so they were afraid, just like everyone else. And they sought to flee, just like everyone else. Fortunately, the chances they took to seize control of humanity’s recolonization efforts ultimately failed, and humans were able to settle light years away from Earth. From the Milky Way, and everything else we knew.
“Yet, just like the parasites they are, the symbioids found their way throughout the universe with us. The cloud-mind, we later learned, hitchhiked across the galaxies in the circuitry of our ships, and many symbioids blended in for years, avoiding detection. We may have won the battle of man versus machine, but the war continues on, centuries later, and that is where we are today.”
The Epic of the Exodus didn’t end there, but that is where it would for the evening. There was much of their history to be recited, yet twice as much had been lost to the tides of time, or dissolved into the spaces between planets. Humans were scattered across the universe these days, each of them struggling in their own ways. It just so happened that this group of people found themselves around this campfire, under these silvery bright stars and an indigo sky, surrounded by ramshackle huts. The Epic of the Exodus explained why this had happened. It told them of their mistakes. Incredibly human mistakes.
It also warned them that after nearly a millennia of escaping from Earth, humanity still was no safe.
“Zachariah, you’re needed,” a dark-haired man said from the back of the audience. His eyes were hidden behind night vision goggles, and he carried an Equalizer, a hybridized cross between a sword and assault rifle.
“Right. That’s all for tonight, everyone. Thanks for listening in,” smiled Zach to the crowd, to those he knew by name and those just passing through.
Every night he told them a story, as his father and great grandfather had before him; and every night, he wished he had something kinder to say. But history was history, and it would never change.
Thankfully, we still have our future.
Note from author: This is a snippet (and prologue) to an upcoming sci-fi novel, a current work-in-progress. Hope you enjoy it.