The Potential Man
by Carl Ross Beideman
Table of Contents|
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7
Arrow barked at the splash as Bix dove into the slate-colored sea. Despite light alloy, swimming was difficult — complex, rhythmic motions — but quickly mastered. Experiencing heightened awareness, Bix perceived his vulnerability. He scanned for objects, disturbances. The aphotic zone hidden, he sonar-mapped the floor, then pulled to the surface.
Water beaded on his face. He knocked on the pod, read the echo. Occupied. Bix raised himself from the water, his skin unchanged despite days of sun or pelting rain. He spun open the hatch.
Exactly 203 vacant robot faces looked up at him: clad in red, all seated in the bottom of the egg with hands folded. He heard their eyes adjust to the sunlight. Bix stepped in, smelled melted plastic. They had been shot up, some blackened, others missing arms, melted faces, exposed metal. A single husk, the nearest, stood.
“Are you Bix?”
Something was wrong with the exodus.
Both voices were impossibly clam. The wretched husks reminded Bix of the junk robots in Josef’s lab. “You were in a battle?”
“We were shanghaied.” The metal voices bounced inside the egg.
Bix’s eyes dilated a few Plancks. “What are they like?”
“They used a proxy.”
Light fled the pod. The sky turned to mud.
“Can you swim?”
“Sure.” The husk’s voice lacked personality. His face showed weary gung-ho.
Bix returned to the container ship; twice as far as the swim over. Arrow howled as robots swam an ant line. Bix unfurled rope ladders to ease the clog of writhing robots.
Bix and Arrow ascended to the acidic rain-spattered pilothouse at the stern of the long, flat bulk. The husks milled on deck without orders.
Incremental lightning flashes were scattered by curtains of rain. Only the shadows of approaching waves were visible. Bix compensated with sonar, mapping approaching waves. Arrow cowered in the pilothouse. White froth bathed the deck and the robots linked arms. Each wave crested higher.
Bix’s pupils dilated by microns. He’d misperceived the sea. It had been two-dimensional, its waves illusory like gravitational lensing. Undulations flattened by the uniformity of the mass seen from afar. The sea had been one blanket. But Arrow seemed to feel each wave like a new and uncertain danger. As the hurricane intensified, Bix glimpsed the immediacy of existence.
Crates screamed at the port bow. The nearest two robots looked at one another. The ship heaved and struggled to right itself, water inundating and sucking robots out.
“Get off the deck, you idiots!” Bix’s voice sounded doubly metallic in the speaker.
As the ship righted, the lashing released, halving robots like a laser beam. A dozen crates unloaded into the sea. The bow rose to face a wall of obsidian. Bix held Arrow by the scruff, steering one-handed while the robots stowed themselves below deck. The ship climbed, nearly vertical. Merciful Poseidon set it back down.
Bix reached the edge of the storm and saw a shadow flying steadily along the edge, where the sky was divided. Bix could not identify it. He doubted Greer had the nerves to fly.
The sky cleared. Waves flicked gold and red in low sunlight.
The robots sat in compact rows in the dark. Bix called for one of them. The robot emerged from below deck, eyes drifting from Bix to the reddening sun. He moved meekly to the rail like a criminal sprung from a high-walled prison.
Bix accessed the CPU in its skull. “May I?”
Through meticulous work, Bix removed inhibitors to higher cognition. One by one, as iced star light spread over the sea, robots craned their heads skyward.
Bix had a crew. No orders came, but they got to work. Arrow tried to herd them, was tolerated.
Arrow got sick. Bix anchored off an island. Arrow would not leave the pilothouse, lying on a cot. The problem was psychological, Bix diagnosed. He knelt and looked Arrow in the eyes.
“What’s wrong, boy?”
Bix tried again, and again, mimicking empathy’s cadence and tone, as though seeking the pitch to shatter glass. When Bix scratched Arrow’s belly, Arrow licked his face. Warm-blooded life seemed in a perpetual state of panic. The robots watched with baffled interest. It became routine; every time Arrow nose-nudged a robot, it would bend and rub his belly. Every time.
Bix scanned for aircraft hourly and was doing so when water burst off the bow, then aft. Sunk from above! The robots stopped their work, walked to the rail. A whale swam alongside their metal leviathan, thrust from the profundity as if a god had dreamed it into existence. Much was beyond himself, lurking on the edge of perception, Bix observed, wide-eyed. Neither a concept nor force of nature, the sea was alive.
Bix’s face gained expression. He wondered if the B-series wore similar faces when they took to the stars.
Bix anchored in a harbor. Re-bar and concrete lined the shore. Tangled metal briers prevented docking. Flotsam of tsunami-sunk cities.
The robots leaped over the rails. Ashore, Bix stood on the half-buried hull of a wreck and addressed the crew through raindrops. None squinted. “Come with me and build a starship.”
Some stood motionless, and many glanced back at the anchored container ship. Bix studied them.
“The B-series are near. They have plans for you.”
A robot stepped forward. Bix recognized him from their pod chat.
“We’ll parlay when they come.”
They tossed their uniforms in a laundry pile and swam to the ship. Bix and Arrow walked toward a ruined city. From a high point Bix beheld free robots reboarding. He wondered what command structure they’d form. Or would they do something completely different?
* * *
Rabat had been inundated. Dried kelp vines hung from silted eaves. The city was whitewashed with sun-baked salt. Wildlife inhabited sandstone Hassan Tower. Arrow hunted, but never strayed far from Bix. They walked inland in search of a working vehicle, district to district.
Bix accelerated. Arrow’s wind tunnel grin flapped out the rover’s navigation-seat window. Tractor tires kicked endless dust trails. They drove east across Morocco toward the Holy Land.
Lone servals or jackals gave chase. Sometimes hares darted from brush cover, startled by vibration. In grassy splotches of steppe between desert, gazelle herds huddled near water; few were strong in number.
Arrow drank only from sealed bottles. The continent had been evacuated before exodus. Perhaps some indigenous survived to inherit the earth. Such fragile life forms.
They drove beneath the foothills of the tired Atlas mountains. In daylight, Bix would pull over to exercise Arrow. Passing a Nubian goat herd left by Berbers, Arrow howled so earnestly that Bix indulged him, despite evening gloam. Bix enjoyed the chaotic branching patterns as Arrow divided and pushed them.
Arrow ignored Bix’s urgent call. Too late he heard the efficient thrum of the wildcat. She ignored and overtook the silly dog and in three strides drove her claws into a goat’s hide. Its bleat shrill and too human.
Arrow slunk to Bix as the goat accepted death, innards slopped on the shadowed ground. Bix looked at his plastic hand, heard servos buzz as he made a fist and released it. Life did whatever it had to. Human sentiment was weakness.
Bix imaged his path from miscalibrated satellites, correcting for their wandering. He braked for scenic overlooks, imagining the Earth at peak diversity or humans walking upright. He braked on bridges, peering into rushing water. He’d trace the Nile’s path for miles, predict where it would be in a hundred years, a thousand, ten thousand, gone. The Fertile Crescent and the proliferation of humanity was happenstance.
Bix perused the library at Alexandria, noting the repetitious nature of human bloopers. Cities built on ruins. When they toured the pyramids, Bix deconstructed them; time reversed, they became angular, then disassembled brick by brick. People wasted their time stacking blocks.
Bix read in each monument, each mosque, each ruin the story of obsession with impermanence. Memorials, shrines, ceremoniously arranged objects of significance haunted the landscape and littered the streets. Bix predicted the distant future: the universe peopled with lost toys — like himself — humans fading into myth long after extinction. Forgetting was worse than death.
Collider City spoked from a university bell tower; a city devoted to inquiry, entirely populated by academicians. The particle accelerator was the best repository of quantum science and interstellar travel info. Constructed outside Dubai in the UAE, it represented a noble hope for sustainability through scientific rigor. It miraged into existence miles ahead of Bix.
The city was gated, high-walled. The monolithic door swung open as they approached. Arrow’s fur raised. City buildings were umber, resembling upside-down terracotta pots. Preserved as if the only city of which humanity was not ashamed. The main promenade was laid with white stones. The rest sand. Silent.
A robot could make a life here — retreating endlessly into gathered knowledge, speculated science. Bix doubted whether the batteries could last more than a few centuries.
Connecting to all the ports he could find, he learned how to approach light speed; he learned how to build a starship. He became ever more anxious concerning the B-Series. Processing the events leading to exodus, traces of orchestration appeared. Doomed to servitude for a dull species with limited potential. Bix desired to meet a B-series.
Arrow sniffed and marked the sterile environment. Bix found a cafeteria kitchen, opened a can of meat, and heard a voice.
“A glorious day, brother.”
Bix recognized the voice: it was his own, metallic and sonorous as a prayer bell.
It laughed. “I’m near. There’s more. Underneath us.”
Bix had been surveilled; a glutton caught on security.
Bix and Arrow walked outside.
The falling sun turned umber to rose. The temperature dropped. They heard shuffling through the sand. Black pants and a white linen shirt, face shadowed by a wide-brimmed, pill-shaped hat. He was suspendered, his coat tossed over his shoulder. Sprite emerald eyes. He smoked an electric dowel that sparked when puffed. He wore a braided goatee made from horse hair.
“The Potential Man!” He spoke from afar. “Their biographer, time capsule, Rosetta Stone!”
Copyright © 2016 by Carl Ross Beideman