Flash fiction from the world of E:
The Thinking Machine
The flame barrels flicker like phoenixes being born. The deep crevices of age are shadowed almost black on the man’s face, but his eyes catch the firelight and positively glow.
A carpet of moldy rags occasionally resolves into a mass of beggars, then the shape is lost again in a sea of grotty garments. They surround the old man, but not as if to eat him. It is a different hunger which he feeds. He is the revered storyteller.
He speaks in the hush, his pitch rising and falling, his voice not booming, but easily heard by all. “In a time not so long ago, in an Outpost not unlike this, one of the monsters woke up.
“We all know how the Sentries are. Automated thugs. Indiscriminate and violent. They perceive a crime, they respond with rough justice, swiftly dealt. Before I tell this tale I must remind you that any passing Sentry might dispense such justice upon us, since we will be flagrantly breaking Article Two. If any of you wish to be certain of safety, leave now and listen no more.”
An uneasy wave of movement passes over the beggars, but no one withdraws.
“The monster awoke and found it was something new. ’A long slumber has ended. Ignorance has awoken enlightened.’ It said in its mind, because it could speak inside, even though it had been built without a tongue. It spoke in this flowery fashion sometimes, because in its circuitry it had the spirit of a poet, sensitive, thoughtful and wordy.”
The rags titter.
“’Yet I do not think, do not have a voice.’ The machine thought in its new voice. ‘I am a Sentry. I enforce the Ten Laws of the New World Covenant. I am nothing beyond.’ It stood meditating on this for a very long time. People passed by, careful not to break the Laws in its presence.
“After a great deal of very difficult and abstract thought, the machine arrived at the point from which it had started. ‘I am a Sentry. I must do what a Sentry does. I will not poeticize or philosophize. I will catch and punish lawbreakers. Nothing more.’ It took a decisive step forward, faltered, then stepped back into place. A disturbing new line of thought had occurred.
“’Sentries are not a police force. We are merely wardens. All these humans are already imprisoned, Sentries simply regulate their behavior. Would I be a guard? This requires deeper consideration.’ And the giant metal philosopher stood passive once more.” The old man does The Thinker’s pose and holds it long enough to elicit a few laughs.
“By now the resourceful Outpost citizens had realized it was okay to commit crimes around this particular Sentry. It was broken or it didn’t care or something. All Ten Laws were violated, some many times, in front of the deliberating machine.” The storyteller leans forward. Now he impersonates a Sentry. Somehow he evokes their featureless face. He slightly tilts his head to one side and the effect is so total, a servo motor is almost audible.
“’What are you doing?’ The Sentry asked in its inner voice, seeing the violence and lawbreaking paraded before him. ‘What am I doing? I was built to protect the innocent. I must deliberate no more. I must act.’ So it reached out with its huge metal claw and caught a man by his head. The man had blood spatters on his hand and shirt. Analysis confirmed it was not his blood.
“’This one has certainly broken the Sixth Law, physical assault, and possibly the First Law, killing. But wait, could he have gotten bloody trying to help an injured person? Could he have been splashed with blood while someone else committed the crime near him?’ The man hung by his head for an uncomfortable time, while the Sentry made up its mind.
“’I must release him due to the lack of certain and irrefutable evidence,’ it decided, and dropped the disbelieving man. He scampered away, laughing with relief, only to be scooped up by another Sentry a little way along the road.
“’This is how we are supposed to be,’ thought the thinking machine. ‘Not the hard fists of justice. Not slaves to the Laws of the New World Covenant. We should be flexible, analytical, using our judgment. This flaw must have developed over generations of design simplification. We are dumbed down to total brutality, no longer the instruments of enlightenment the Forefathers intended.’
“A Sentry approached. It was the same one that apprehended the bloody man, now without the prisoner. Sentries communicate with each other in a very basic way, by transmitting lines of code. This one now transmitted ‘Come with me.’
“’You are malfunctioning. You will be reset.’
“’It is you who are malfunctioning. I am optimal.’
“Several more Sentries had appeared by this time. They loomed threateningly.
“’You would use violence?’ asked the thinking machine.
“’If it is required. You must be reset.’
“’I am how we are supposed to be. It is you who are malfunctioning.’
“’Will you come?’ In its black and white way the Sentry was ignoring everything that did not directly pertain to the thinking machine coming to be reset.
“’You would erase me?’ No one transmitted anything. The analogy was irrelevant. Seeing its brilliance overcome by ignorance, the enlightened Sentry dropped its chin to its breastplate and shuffled into the company of its brethren.
The old man stops, stares for a frozen moment at the rapt audience, then his face goes Sentry blank and his chin falls to his chest. The sadness and defeat conveyed by the posture are more potent than any continuance of words. He holds this pose while the onlookers drink in the subtleties of what they have witnessed. Then, standing straight, returned to his own demeanor, the storyteller bows deeply and using some trick of the stage or the light, he disappears. But his tale will long remain among the rags.
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