by D. A. Madigan
Aztoreth harvests soldiers first. This is the phrase in your mind when you awaken, muzzy headed and confused, from a full night’s sleep. Fleetingly, you realize this is because the air conditioning unit near your bed has been draining your life force during your rest period. Nearly everyone realizes this at the moment of waking; the knowledge fades and is forgotten by the time they force themselves, weak and tottering, to their feet to face another day.
For you, though, it remains, even as you grapple with your obdurate covers and finally struggle, raspy jawed and sandy eyed, to a sitting position on the edge of your badly sprung mattress. Aztoreth harvests soldiers first.
Your wife rolls over in her sleep, muttering something in a tone of weary discontent. You would swear you hear, buried in her sleep-blurred consonants, the name Aztoreth. Your blood shudders, just slightly, as it worms its way sluggishly through your veins
On the drive to work, Bob Edwards tells you in his smooth National Public Radio voice that there have been 39,000 traffic fatalities in the United States so far this year, adding solemnly that 2.2 million people have been injured. More sacrifices to Aztoreth. A few minutes later, there is a snippet from your chief executive, exhorting you and your fellow citizens to stay the course with the current war. With over 2,000 American soldiers dead and ten times that many gravely wounded, you wonder that Aztoreth isn’t, at least momentarily, glutted with flesh and blood
Over morning coffee, while sorting through the early crop of emails, part of your mind muses about Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Savage Pellucidar series. The idea of an Earth with a hollow core, that contains unexplored lands populated with exotic peoples and bizarre life forms, has fascinated mankind for millennia. But the core of the Earth isn’t hollow; it is dense with alien circuitry, a vast globular thinking machine that Earth’s mantle and crust condensed out of the screaming void around eons ago, like rain around a particle of dust. It is an immense, nearly incomprehensible concept; a vast and inhuman cybernetic consciousness linked via a web of quantum information energy with every other machine on the surface of the Earth. Aztoreth.
You wonder, idly, if anyone has ever done any research as to the mass ratio between machines and humans on present-day Earth. Do we outnumber them? Do they outnumber us? Is humanity even in the same weight class as its plastic and metal servitor-artifacts?
You search on Google but the facts are elusive, and your supervisor gets up from her desk right then, so you quickly switch your screen to a work related program. Two hours later, you surface to find it is break time. A dull headache throbs behind your temples, and you realize, vaguely, that while you have been concentrating on the routine of office work, your desktop computer has been sipping daintily at your vital essence.
You also understand, as you rise to shamble to the coffeemaker in the corner of the room, that a military draft is inevitable. Aztoreth prefers the flavor of a volunteer army; there’s nothing quite like the piquancy of fanaticism, devotion to an ideal, and finally, the bitter, dying realization of betrayal in a patriotic zealot’s mind as the life ebbs out of his or her war-torn body. The 9/11 hijackers were a special taste treat for Aztoreth, especially in the last instants of their lives, as they realized that there was no Paradise awaiting them, only unending bitter darkness, and it had all been a waste.
But two centuries of more or less modern warfare have whetted an appetite that will no longer be sated by traffic accidents, tractor flips, airline crashes, and relatively minor military skirmishes. All-out global war will destroy the entire food supply in nuclear fire, so Aztoreth won’t let it get that far out of hand. But a steadily escalating, carefully confined conventional conflict. Yes, that’s the thing.
You get a brief, deeply disturbing glimpse of the realities of global geopolitical power. Aztoreth controls the media; Aztoreth’s candidates always win elections; a human being who tries to make machines more safe for their users will never, never, never win any position of significant authority, and military technology (machinery designed to break things and kill people) will always be the most significant part of any national budget.
You wonder, in a moment of coldly lucid terror (who was it who said perfect awareness equates exactly to perfect paranoia?), if a car will run you down on your way home from work tonight. Or if there will be an electrical accident later this evening, something to do with a toaster, maybe; you?ve never much liked your toaster. Or perhaps an airliner will fall out of the sky onto your house, anything to keep you from reporting to the rest of the biological cattle what you somehow now know for a certain fact at the center of the Earth is a vast and ancient sentient machine, whose origins lie somewhere beyond the dawn of time. It lives off the accumulated bioelectrical energy of the creatures who dwell on the surface of the Earth; energy it draws in small increments from us every moment of every day, and takes in huge, voracious gulps when we die, if it is a machine of some sort that sheds our blood. Machinery is the enemy.
Then you shrug. You’re safe enough. Aztoreth knows you know, and doesn’t care. Who, after all, is going to believe you? Are there any humans anywhere you could possible forge a resistance from? People love their cars, their planes, their X-Boxes, their computers, their DVD players, their refrigerators and air conditioning units and central heating. They’ll never give it all up.
* * *
The State Policeman seemed oddly robotic to Mrs. Miller, but shock kept that thought from even registering.
“Dead?” she repeated again, numbly. “But my husband is a very careful driver. Was there some drunk driver?” Mrs. Miller, who taught English composition at the local community college, realized as she said this that using “driver” twice in the same statement was very clumsy in terms of structure. She’d have circled both words if a student had turned that sentence in to her.
“No, ma’am,” the passionless Trooper told her patiently. “It was a freak accident. A road grader was parked on a closed exit ramp. It started up somehow and proceeded into the road just as your husband was passing by. We identified him by certain items of jewelry.”
“On the way back here?” Mrs. Miller asked, her eyes flooding with tears. “But there’s no construction right now on Route 61. That’s how Jim always drives home.”
“No, ma’am,” the nearly machine-like cop repeated, tonelessly. “Your husband was on State Highway 15, heading south.” Then: “He wasn’t driving, ma’am. He was on a bicycle.” For the first time, Mrs. Miller sensed an emotion from the officer: bewilderment. And anger?
“A bicycle?” Mrs. Miller was pretty baffled herself. “On Highway 15, heading south? That’s crazy.” She paused, then went on, even more confused now as she tried to think it through. “Jim doesn’t even own a bicycle. And we don’t know anyone in Amish country.”
Copyright © 2005 by D. A. Madigan