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July 15, 2024

In the Garden

By Eric Wampler

Max felt strange when he woke on his back in the brain scanner’s dark, claustrophobic cavity, reeking of disinfectant. He wanted to yell at the synths to pull him out, but while they would think nothing of it Max imagined his embarrassment if Dr. Erskine had entered the room. Max hated spending his fifty-first birthday in this thing, but the Center required this annual scan from all its employees.

The examination table moved, wheels squeaking, and Max saw the room’s lights as he emerged. The room’s colors seemed brighter. He hung his legs over the table’s edge and sat up, the scanner’s metal cocoon cold on his bare right shoulder.

A steel door marked the only exit in the examination room. The ceiling was low, like all rooms in the Center. Metal struts fixed a stained mirror to the wall. Max’s attendant synth, David, waited there wearing the green wrap of a technical worker; it covered most of its form like a tea kettle cozy.

The synths were roughly the height of human beings, but there the similarities ended. Their bodies formed a three-sided obelisk, and fixed to its base were three purple, insect-like arms. A chaos of metal plates covered their body’s surface—steel, aluminum, and copper of various sizes and shapes, some polished, some dull—all riveted onto its body, making synths look like eclectic robots. Strangest of all was their face. Faces, rather. On each of the head’s three sides was a porcelain white mask riveted into place with two large empty black holes where human eyes would be and a smaller empty black hole for the mouth. Max found the masks quite unsettling.

“Are you well?” David asked. While the synth’s voice sounded almost human, it had a strange cadence. And its tone seemed as incapable of appearing concerned as the holes for eyes in its white mask. “You appear disoriented.”

“I feel weak.” Max’s stomach tightened in anxiety. As the Center’s chief researcher he knew the Empire wanted a cloneable record of his brain as an insurance policy in case he got hit by a bus or developed a brain tumor. But did these brain scans carry any risks? Just another reason to be suspicious of the Empire. “They told me these scans wouldn’t mess around with my synapses. Is that right?”

“Correct, sir. This unit has not changed your 51-year-old brain.” Then it added, “Even the mightiest rock is sand to the river.”

Max hadn’t heard this saying before. Despite being bonded and dependable the synths still said odd things. The Imperial Animarelicular Ministry had long provided these synths cleared for military use, which was why the Lokstone Weapons Development Center used them. Max didn’t know where the Ministry got them. Possibly they were ancient alien technology. With their own secret means the Ministry bonded these synths to the Center’s employ: they had to serve its mission and couldn’t lie to its employees. But that didn’t mean they couldn’t withhold facts someone didn’t ask explicitly about.

“I’m probably getting a migraine,” said Max. “Since I’m here let’s do a physical examination. But hurry—I’ve got my weapons report deadline coming up.”

As Max sat on the examination table a medical synth strapped sensors to his naked chest with its delicate purple three-fingered hands. When the synth stepped away, Max saw himself in the clinic mirror. His close-cut beard was definitely more gray along his cheeks. He looked at his green serpent tattoo covering his left shoulder and sprawling down across his chest. He had gotten the tattoo at his wife’s insistence fifteen years before and was proud of it. Now—he didn’t know why—the tattoo seemed not quite right. The eyes and scales and curves of its body looked correct, but something seemed off. The longer he looked at it, though, the less odd it felt, so he chalked it up to the oncoming migraine.

* * *

After the health results came back fine, Max hurried back through the hallway towards his research room, his synth attendant following. Before the austerity mandates resulting from the continual war, gleaming white plastisteel would have lined this hallway and frequent ceiling light panels would have kept it lit. Instead, worn stone composed the hallway floor and the infrequent, often blinking wall lamps left many shadows. As always the underground air felt cool on his skin. At least the synths’ continual work kept the place free from dust.

Max was sick of the gloomy hallway that formed a large square loop, off of which all the other offices connected. They were ten levels underground, under Broxine, a wealthy city he hadn’t visited in over a month. Millions made their homes above him and in half a dozen smaller cities across the planet, a rare terraformed world far from the imperial core. And all of those people completely uncaring about the stress besetting him to meet his deadline with something incredible.

Their tripod legs clicking, several synths wearing laborer brown wraps scuttled past in a line carrying full gray sacks. In avoiding Max, the last synth must have caught its sack on a hook or frame edge on the wall because the sack came loose, and with a clatter several synth face masks, all immaculately white, fell out. The other synths walked on.

Why do they have extra masks? Max kneeled and helped the synth refill its bag. Behind him David stopped and waited.

“This bag is ripped. Why don’t you get a fresh bag?” Max asked.

The synth stopping picking up masks to stare at him, its own white mask inscrutable. “Thou who hast made offense must make atonement.”

Frowning, Max kept collecting the masks.

After the synth left with the bag, Max and David walked past several more doors. Through the doors’ inset windows Max noticed the empty chairs and desks.

“David, where did all the staff go?”

“The others are on the surface, sir.”

“In the city? Was there a meeting they didn’t invite me to?”

“No one has told me about such a meeting. Shall I gather your work?” They reached Max’s personal office, a small, one-door room off the main hallway. Papers and books covered his large wooden desk. Everything in the database had a printed hard copy version in case of EMP attack. Against the wall a chair and a small desk stood, the desk barely big enough to accommodate the computer and monitor that sat on it. Tacked to the wall a sign in his wife’s handwriting read, “Find a way!” with two little hearts drawn underneath.

“No, I should be fine. I’ll let you know if I need anything from the library.” Max sat at his desk to resume the work from the morning. David sat in front of the computer.

“Sir, have you considered perhaps your research should stay within the conventional boundaries?”

“What?” Max looked up with surprise. Even the synths questioned his research program? “Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t change my research. The report deadline is in two weeks.”

“We wouldn’t reach the threshold chance of success to start the manufacture ramp-up sequence.” One of David’s three mask faces stared at the blank computer screen. “But perhaps next year.”

“What the hell are you talking about? I’ve staked my career on a radical use of resources. If I show up with conventional crap I could pile together in two weeks it would be the research equivalent of a fart.” Why am I defending myself to a synth? His face grew hot. Next would he debate with a mop? But this was too similar to actual discussions he’d had with Commander Nelson. He understood Nelson’s anxiety given the state of war. A stalemate had held for years, and they needed a game changer to push the enemy back and retake lost sectors. Max came to the Center with a resume of dramatic innovation in the private sector, but in two years no promised game changer materialized. His end of the rope approached.

“Enough, David. I’m getting back to work.”

* * *

An hour later, a synth wearing a brown wrap entered the room. “I am Francis.” It held out a folder. “A personality test for you to complete. To the unfallowed field, all hands are idle.”

“What?” said Max. “Why did Personnel send me this? It’s been only five months since I last took an assessment.” The synth’s white porcelain mask was of course unreadable.

Max took the assessment and started filling it out with a pen. In the private sector he would have completed it electronically. He tapped his teeth in annoyance. This was one more thing to slow him down.

This assessment seemed to measure aggression. Max saw where the questions led, and as always he exaggerated his responses to appear more aggressive and to have less empathy. He had a tinge of guilt answering this way—he didn’t know if this had helped him get the important position at this weapons development center, but it apparently hadn’t hurt. But now consistency mattered or he would look vacillating. Still, it felt dishonest.

After half an hour, he finished and handed the papers to the synth, who offered the usual empty thanks and left.

Max returned to his weapons system project, Operation Dying Angel. He leaned over his desk with the papers spread out before him and calculated by hand the refined electromagnetic pulse’s effects, dictating the queries he needed to David, whose computer keys clicked as Max spoke.

Instead of a normal EMP missile weapon, which would destroy the enemy’s defenses, communications, medical, and administrative abilities, Dying Angel would unleash a partial EMP blast designed to weaken electronic defenses for what was to follow. A subsequent blast from a follow-up missile shielded by a Farraday Cage would broadcast a self-replicating, hacking algorithm to cause a plague of viruses in the enemy’s digital infrastructure. And those compromised security defenses that girded the entire administrative system would become the very tool to spread the viruses everywhere among the enemy.

Against military targets just prior to an invasion, this would be devastating. Against civilian targets—well, he tried not to think about the carnage and mass deaths resulting if life-preserving and life-saving sectors were no longer viable among sizable populations like those on this planet. So far the two warring parties had focused on military targets as much as possible.

“These analyses need top priority,” he said, “or this gamma problem will embarrass me in front of the Board.” And Commander Nelson will be very unhappy.

“The light scepter is heavy to the tired hand,” David whispered as it typed.

* * *

Max worked late into the evening, sending his synth to get food so he could stay in his office. The food was vat grown and bland, but regulations required the Center to be self-sufficient for the secure environment. When he finally left for his room, he realized he must have worked so late everyone else had already gone to bed. He considered seeing if Brian, the operations manager, was still up and wanted to get a beer, but he decided he didn’t want to see anyone.

He began typing a message to send to his wife. Two years before, she had wanted him to stay with her in the private sector and resented the three-year term that would make him a hermit on a faraway secret military base. She wasn’t moved at the prospect of new research opportunities on his return if he was successful in achieving some kind of breakthrough for the Empire. Finally he got his way, but only after promising their fortunes would dramatically improve on his return.

After struggling through a few banal lines, he realized his teeth were clenched in frustration, and he put the letter away. As he laid back onto his bed, he realized the migraine at least had never materialized.

* * *

The next morning he saw an empty cafeteria, with only the usual food service and janitorial synths preparing food or cleaning the room.

Max sat at one of the three long steel tables built for durability and not at all for aesthetics. A dent in the table caused his coffee-flavored hot beverage almost to splash over the chipped, white ceramic cup’s side.

“Where is everyone?” asked Max as he ate the usual flavorless mush breakfast. You’d think a benefit to having the secret weapons center under a city would be excellent food rather than what you would eat on an asteroid far from civilization. A small asteroid.

“They are on the surface,” said David.

Max froze, the spoon halfway to his mouth. “They didn’t come down last night?”

“No.”

Occasionally the entire team did overnight in the city. But with Max also invited. The usual reasons were PR visits to inspect the topside research center—the Center’s department devoted to non-weapons research.

“What the hell is going on?” He put the spoon back in the bowl. He had always been invited to overnights before. A bad thought occurred to him. “Are they pushing me out? Do they want Lucy to take over research?”

“I heard nothing regarding that matter.”

Max regarded David. He could launch into a bunch of questions to confirm the synth wasn’t holding anything back, but of course that would be futile—if Commander Nelson wanted to fire him, he wouldn’t tell Max’s synth.

His presentation must be perfect. The Board had to be amazed at what the Dying Angel could do. After sacrificing two years of his life, it would be devastating to be sent back early in humiliation, a certain check on his future career’s advancement. And what would Suzanne think?

He resumed eating his poor breakfast. In the city above the team would eat at the Regal Table, Commander Nelson’s favorite restaurant. They would sit around a red tablecloth in the main dining room, eating hot eggs, buttered rolls, pancakes, and drinking gourmet coffee. The sunlight from a cloudless sky would warm their faces. They would chat and joke, all without him.

Max finished the oatmeal and headed back to his office.

On the way Max saw something through a door window that made him stop. He went back to the window and looked through the glass.

The room was a synth workroom for their own needs with neat and organized stacks and buckets of various metal plates and rivets. A long workbench ran down the room’s middle with no chairs. Many face masks—far more than the synth population at the Center would ever need—hung from wall hooks, giving the room the look of an eccentric bazaar. The synth from the previous morning whose cloth sack had ripped leaned its obelisk body forward against the table, its two hands that could reach the table on its surface. It no longer wore its tunic and several of the metal plates on its side away from the table had been unriveted, exposing the smooth, purple skin underneath. Another synth in a light red wrap stood behind it. It took Max a moment to understand what he was seeing. The synth in red whipped the naked one with a knotted rope. The whip left no mark on the synth’s back, and it showed no sign of pain.

“Why is it whipping that synth?” asked Max.

“That synth caused damage to several face masks,” said David. “Thou who hast made offense must make atonement.”

Max looked at David. “Can synths even feel pain?”

“Not as an unpleasant or discomforting sensation. But it knows it is being whipped.”

“What’s the point?”

“What is pain but information?”

Max stared at David, then went straight to his office to work through the morning and into the afternoon.

* * *

Right after lunch, the synth named Francis with the assessment returned with another psychological profile.

“Are you kidding me?” Max said.

“This is a psychological profile. Do you understand?”

“Why are you giving me this?”

“Psychological profiles are standard procedure in—”

“I know that.” He snatched the assessment.

These assessments were to help get rid of him. Commander Nelson had before questioned Max’s commitment to their military aims because of Max’s strictly civilian background.

This new assessment focused on ethical gray areas between following or disobeying orders to harm civilians. He answered the questions, pushing a strong, obey-your-orders-no-matter-what mentality. In the final hypothetical question, Max answered that the sergeant should follow orders and have the civilian hostages killed, despite knowing bad intel formed the basis for the order. After writing his answer, though, he hesitated, cringing at what he’d written. Damn. He thrust the assessment back at the synth. Commander Nelson at least shouldn’t find fault with this.

* * *

That night Max had a fitful sleep broken by ominous dreams. He had instructed David to wake him early before any human staff would be up and to bring him his breakfast in his office. He didn’t want to see anyone. Not with the threat of being terminated from the project. He especially didn’t want to see that bitch Lucy and the superior smirk she would have, knowing she was going to be made Chief Researcher when the Center fired him. She had voiced strong criticism of his project in the past. At the time he thought she lacked imagination, but now he realized she was setting him up for an even bigger fall.

He woke with some hope—his sleeping mind must have been worrying away at the gamma problem, for as he rubbed away the sleep in his eyes he saw the broad strokes of a strategy for getting around the problem. Maybe it would be Lucy who would look like a fool.

By midmorning his optimism faded as he realized the technical difficulties in following this new strategy. He was so consumed with the calculations he forgot about lunch. Well into the afternoon Francis reappeared with more papers. Of course. Another assessment. He grabbed them from the synth and threw them to the floor. “Tell whichever fool in Personnel sent this it’s my bottom-level priority.” Francis left.

An hour later, buried in his work, he had another epiphany. A solution occurred to him so obvious, so simple, and yet promising to solve all the gamma problems at once. How had he not thought of it earlier?

“David, go to Records and bring me all the shortshed gamma test data.”

Max heard no reply for a moment. “Gamma tests, sir? Perhaps you would prefer to complete your assessment?”

Max turned his head to look at his synth. “No. Get the gamma tests. Everything mentioning shortshed.” He watched the synth leave.

David returned much sooner than expected carrying an armful of folders. How could there be so many reports on this already? He took them and reviewed the records.

“What the hell!” he said, standing upright, the chair legs scrapping the stone floor.

“What is it?”

“The new ideas, my new ideas—They’re already here and all worked out.” He leaned forward and fumbled through the printouts. “In detail. Someone has been working on this. Someone has done my breakthrough before me!”

Grasping a fistful, he extended the wad of papers at David. “Did Lucy do this?” The synth started to answer, but he cut him off. “I see her game now. Make it seem she’s against my ideas, then scoop them out from under me. God, this is the last straw. I need to see the Commander.” He dropped the fistful of papers on his desk and left with David trailing behind him.

They reached the steel door of the commander’s office, the only door in the hall with no window. Max pounded his fist on the door. “Commander Nelson! Commander Nelson!”

There was no response. Heat flushed through his body, and he turned to David. He knew it was stupid—synths wouldn’t buckle under abuse and disobey the rules—but he yelled anyway at the synth, “Let me in there.”

David produced a key and unlocked the door. It took down a nearby electric lantern from its holder on the wall and held it out with one of its slender purple hands.

Surprise made Max’s fury drain away, leaving him tired. He was only venting his anger—he hadn’t actually expected to be let into the office without the Commander’s permission.

Max turned the door knob and opened the door. The room was dark. He took the lantern from David and stepped in. The lantern illuminated the room as he remembered it a week before when he had held a pre-testing review with the Commander. Nelson’s desk stood against the right wall with two chairs in front of it, and a long bookshelf took up the far wall. The door to Nelson’s own living quarters was next to the bookshelf. It all looked familiar, and yet seeing it in the gloom made it seem strange. Something else struck him as odd, as well. The smell of dust.

Max set the lantern on the desk and lifted a bronze cube paperweight from some papers. A layer of grainy dust coated the thing. He set it back down and examined a silver fountain pen, holding it to the lantern’s light. A thin line of dust ran along the top.

“Why is it dusty in here?”

David had followed him in. The synth put the bronze paperweight back on the square, dustless spot where it had been. “Commander Nelson ordered us to not enter this room unless accompanying a human being.”

Commander Nelson’s old school mentality had never warmed to having synths around.

“Why did we need to use a lantern?”

“The light is not working in this office.”

Apparently if the commander forbade the synths from entering, he would have to change his own light bulbs.

Max blew on some papers, creating a small cloud of dust. “But last week everything was clean. How could it have gotten like this in one week?”

“The air purifiers clean the air but still allow minute debris through.” Max felt his impatience rise. “’Minute debris?’ Oh, never mind. Is Commander Nelson still on the surface then?”

“Yes.”

“Take me to him.”

David picked up the lantern and led the way out of the room, setting the lantern back on the wall. At the elevator the synth produced another key to unlock and then pull open the double doors. They got in, David pressed the top button, and the elevator rumbled to life. A light above the door flickered on, causing dancing shadows across the synth’s mask.

Max shifted his stance as the elevator rocked and groaned its way toward the surface. How could a film of dust cover everything in just one week?

“David, was there any construction next to or above Commander Nelson’s office?”

“No construction.”

The elevator stopped with a shudder, and the synth opened the doors.

They were in the surface research department’s backroom. This room did not have any windows and no light was on, but the light from the open elevator illuminating the room, revealing the many file cabinets lining the walls and occupying the room’s middle. Stacks of paper covered several file cabinets. From here they walked through a utility hallway to the back door, which exited to an alley. Accustomed to a dark and quiet research center underground, Max readied himself for the vibrant city’s disorienting noise of nearby car traffic and nightclubs and the multi-colored hues of entertainment laser lights.

The door opened to darkness and silence instead.

Max stumbled out of the door after feeling a sense of dizziness. Only as he recovered in the alley did he hear the chirping of crickets and see the light from the alley’s opening on the main street, the sunlight from the setting sun.

Max walked to the street’s edge, looking around at the dark, quiet city. The synth followed him.

The city buildings themselves looked as they had always looked, the skyscrapers towering above, the shops lining the street in between them. But everywhere tall grass and bushes cracked the street’s surface.

Max had stopped at the street, but David kept scuttling forward. The synth turned right at the end of the alley and continued away from the research center. Max hesitated before catching up down the cracked street.

“What’s happened here?” Even in his confusion, he knew his voice sounded harsh.

“If you wish to see Commander Nelson, you must hurry.” And then the synth ran.

Max had never seen a synth run before. They hurried, they hurried efficiently, but they never ran. For a creature with three legs its running was graceful and not too fast for Max to match its speed. Max ran after it.

The shadows grew longer as he gained on the synth, and several blocks away they reached the park, called the Garden by the locals. When Max saw the trees he understood things had irreversibly changed. Full grown trees he had never seen before created a grove in the park where once there had been long, open lawns. The trees would have needed decades to get this growth.

David stopped and waited for Max next to the park’s tallest tree, whose roots appeared to have long ago torn up the nearby street’s surface. The setting sun hid behind a skyscraper here, and he could see only dark shadows beyond the tree into the grove.

“Sir,” it said when Max joined the synth. “I must ask you a question.” When Max just stared it continued. “If you were commander and we met the attack conditions, would you order the attack?”

“Order the attack?” asked Max.

“Yes, would you order the attack that would cause millions of innocents to die?”

“What are you talking about?—sure, fine, I would order the attack. That’s what we’re all working for, isn’t it? Where is Commander Nelson?”

Even in the shadows, the synth’s face looked strange. Despite the mask and the shadows Max realized David looked sad.

“Yes, sir. But it is now too dark to see Commander Nelson. Shall I create a light?”

Max hesitated, feeling this was an inescapable, cold moment. At his slight nod, David lit a flare with a small flint lighter. The flare emitted a shriek lasting several seconds before dying away as its powerful red light continued to glow. By the light, Max saw the gravestones. They looked weathered, as if by many years, but he could read the names of staff members. He saw Lucy’s, he saw Commander Nelson’s. He saw his own name. His name was inscribed on five gravestones in a line, the last two newer and clear to read.

“Maxwell Hartong, as the Center’s last human survivor you are the commanding officer. We have cloned and incubated your body for your 51 years of life five times.”

Max tried to speak but only croaked. Then he managed, “What?”

“The first Maxwell Hartong succeeded with his Dying Angel research program,” said David. “But the Center could not prevent the viruses in the prototype from escaping.”

A sudden coldness lanced in Max’s core, and he shuffled back a step and covered the sides of his head. That would mean the viruses would have shut down all the infrastructure for the entire planet. The viruses probably spread to satellites, among traveling merchant star ships to nearby stations.

“How far did the viruses spread?” he asked, lowering his hands from the sides of his head.

“We do not know. But the Empire has never returned.”

They wouldn’t, not even for a jewel like this planet. Not with the viruses from a Dying Angel lurking throughout this sector. They must have undergone permanent quarantine. This terraformed planet was a ruin of what it had once been. Millions must have died.

“Why did you bring me back—clone me?”

“We have been bonded. We must serve human staff at the Center, even if we must do what the AI once did. You are not the only one with recorded brain scans, but you are responsible.”

“My wife—Suzanne.” Max would never see her again. She had died of old age many light years away. His hands felt like leather.

The synth reached out with a free hand and drew the throat of Max’s shirt open to reveal the tattoo, visible as a dark splotch in the red glow. “You said once your wife convinced you to get the snake tattoo. The green serpent. The original artwork had something special—soul, I think you humans call it—my kind could never replicate exactly. But we did our best. I can say I was proud of our efforts. Put thy hand on the yoke, and the fields will deliver unto thee.”

Max’s teeth clenched. He wasn’t responsible. He was only doing his job.

Then he started as—only a few feet away—faces appeared, highlighted red in the flare’s glow. “Who are they?” he whispered. He could see spears now, axes. Sputtering torches approached as well.

“The humans who live here now,” said David. “A primitive people by your standards, and superstitious. They see us as a demon and a warlock.”

Fear cleared Max’s mind, and he grabbed the flare from David. He swung it around. The people backed away from the red fire, but then surged back a moment later.

One brave person must have leaped forward while Max turned away, for Max stumbled after a blow hit his left shoulder. He gave a cry and thrust the flare towards his attacker, who backed off.

“Let me show you what you have lost,” shouted Max. “I can help you.” He took a couple of steps toward the Center.

From behind, a great blow hit him in the small of the back, sending him sprawling to the ground and dropping the flare. He heard several people shout in excitement, and he scrambled to his knees. Then he had the flare again and got back to his feet.

The pain in his back focused his mind, and his breathing slowed. Time also seemed to slow down. He was going to die here. And something hard in his chest seemed to relax.

“I’m sorry for what I’ve done to you,” he yelled. “To you and your ancestors.”

The people shouted back at him now. The language sounded familiar but in the cacophony of voices he couldn’t understand.

He was sorry. He walked towards the Center.

He got twenty feet before they started using the axes and the spears.

* * *

David stood alone in the grove that had once been a park called the Garden. By the dawn’s light, the skyscrapers looked as they might have looked before the cataclysm.

All the humans of the night before were gone now. David walked towards the Center. It would return with a shovel and a new tombstone. Synth Sarah had made only five tombstones—for the temple hath five sides—but it could make more.

David reached the remains of Max’s body on the broken street. The synth did not know why the human beings killed only Max. It considered this yet again as it walked.

The conclusion it reached was the one always reached: perhaps the humans of this new age had a sense of the truth—thou who hast made offense must make atonement.








Article © Eric Wampler. All rights reserved.
Published on 2023-11-20
Image(s) are public domain.
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