A Loss of Humanity
by Dan Devine
Fallin studied the two men who knelt before him with great care. He had no doubts about their dedication; he considered them closely because of it, feeling that it was his duty to memorize them in as much detail as possible, lest they be forgotten.
Prow and Ushair were young and brave and Fallin thought it very unlikely that they would survive the dangerous mission they would undertake today for their cause. As the men raised their heads, Fallin saw in their faces that they knew this as well, but that it did not deter them.
The priest nodded his approval. He suspected that many thought him an old coward, happily sending young zealots such as these to their deaths so that he did not have to make such sacrifices himself, but nothing could be further from the truth.
Fallin itched to take part in the action directly. He chafed against the boundaries that his handlers, like his lieutenant Alven, set for him now that he was deemed too important a leader to put at risk in the day-to-day battle.
He looked about the dirty basement where this meeting was taking place. The concrete in one corner was dark with moisture and the place stank of mold; when he squinted he thought he could see some fuzzy growth along the back wall.
Having shown their priest the proper reverence, the two young men now eased back to sit cross-legged before Fallin on the unfinished gray floor. The priest's plain metal folding chair was the only piece of furniture in the room, everything else had been stripped from the house. The enemy's cunning was endless, the most mundane items might secretly be used to spy on them and discover their plans, anything from a toothbrush to a radio.
Thus, little comfort was afforded to those few remaining humans who had not lost their way. The injustice of it sickened Fallin, but he told himself that this too would pass. The faithful would be victorious in the end and better times would follow, he could not allow himself to harbor any doubts.
The priest breathed deeply and focused himself on the task at hand.
"My sons, you seek to show me honor, but it is I who am honored by your presence here today," Fallin told them. The pair began to protest but he waved them to silence. "I had intended to warn you of the dangers you face and make certain of your resolve."
The priest bent forward and brushed a cheek of each man with an outstretched palm, raising their heads so that their eyes met his own. He was struck by the smoothness of their skin; they were really men in their souls alone, still boys by any numerical measure.
"But I can see that such words would be wasted. You know what little hope you have of surviving this day and yet you do not hesitate to offer yourselves up to the task."
"Had I a dozen lives to give against these demons, I would gladly give them all!" insisted fiery Prow.
Beside him, Ushair nodded in agreement.
"They seek to destroy our tribe's way of life," he said, as calmly as if they were discussing the weather, and Fallin was impressed to find such composure in one so young. "It is not something that we will permit."
The priest leaned further forward and kissed them each upon the forehead.
"Go then with my blessing to strike against their evil nest of machines. Even if you die this day, I give you my promise, your names will live forever on lips and within the memories of the true sons and daughters of humanity!"
The young men bowed and rose. Alven opened the door at their knock and ushered them outside. The grim-faced lieutenant gave Fallin a questioning look, but he motioned for Alven to shut the door and leave him in peace.
He did not want anyone else to see his tears.
Tyler had overslept again. Throwing on a shirt, he twitched the corner of a lip to turn up the volume on the micro-radio implanted in his right ear. He'd need to pay attention to today's traffic report so that he'd have a shot of making it in to the office on time. The roads around the capital were always a gridlock during rush hour. Your best bet was to leave early but Tyler never quite seemed to make it out the door when he intended, so he listened carefully to the news hoping to catch word of that fabled beast, the clear roadway.
Timothy was already halfway through his breakfast when Tyler arrived in the kitchen. His son was pushing Cheerios idly around his bowl with a spoon, probably concentrating on scanning the social networking sites on his retinal screens; catching up on any gossip he'd missed from last night or any morning status updates. You wouldn't want to risk showing up at middle school not knowing what was cool today or which cliques were trending as popular. Tyler sighed, thinking of how much simpler things had been when he was a kid.
"The back of your collar's not straight, dear," his wife, Karen, informed him distractedly. Tyler reached up to find she was correct and pulled it down to cover the back of his necktie. "Eat that or throw it out Timmy, we're leaving in two minutes."
She glared at their son briefly to get her message across then fell back into the vacant look she wore when viewing her own screens; knowing her, she was likely either updating her shopping list or making notes on tasks for him 'to do' after he got off of work.
Tyler kept his own screens off and spent his time at the table actually watching his family as he toasted himself a strawberry pop-tart and then burned off half of his tongue on its too-hot filling.
They teased him about this archaic habit sometimes, but Tyler wasn't bothered. It was good to stop and count your blessings every now and then to keep things in perspective. Besides, it wasn't like the radio wasn't blaring in his ear the entire time, and he spent his whole day staring at his screens. They'd understand if they had his job.
Tyler cooled off his aching tongue with a quick sip of orange juice, gave them both kisses, and made it to his car before Karen had managed to win an argument with Tim over whether today was cold enough to require a jacket. It felt like a small victory, at least he wouldn't be any later than they were.
"I do not like this," said Alven, scratching at the scars on his shaved head in irritation. The other soldiers in the room nodded in mute agreement.
As if I did not hear you the first dozen times, thought Fallin. "I do not recall asking you if you liked it!" he shouted back hotly, causing all of them to flinch at the uncharacteristic scorn in his voice. "I believe I simply informed you what I intended to do."
He met Alven's gaze and held it. Fallin could make it no clearer; he was the leader here and he would make his own decisions, regardless of what they claimed was necessary for his own safety.
It was a close thing. Fallin mainly communicated with his people via proxy. If his lieutenant sought to keep him locked up and use him as a figurehead, he certainly had the troops at his disposal to do so.
The priest had no intention of playing along if that was the case; he was forcing the issue. If Alven were to overrule him now, at least everyone in the room here would know he had ceased taking Fallin's orders. The rest of the men were faithful to the cause, but they were warriors who had been trained and selected by Alven himself. Fallin was not sure any of them would object.
The lieutenant rubbed his jaw for a moment then grunted unhappily.
"It will be the death of you, Fal."
The priest considered rebuking him for such informality in front of the men but decided that one must pick their battles.
"Will it really? Is our enemy so all-powerful and all-knowing? They did not seem so omnipotent when Ushair and Prow destroyed their robot factory a few hours ago."
Thinking back, Fallin was struck by how much Alven's mood had changed in such a short time. He and his sergeants had burst into the room, whooping in excitement, unable to wait to share the good news with Fallin. The enemy's factory had been completely destroyed in the bombing. Since that "seed" factory had been intended to produce the other robots that would convert their land to "government-code" by building everything from roads to office buildings and adding countless miniature machines, the attack would set the other side back months.
Much more important to Fallin was that it would make it more difficult for them to seduce his tribesmen with their technology. Too many of his people were already tempted by the easy respite from honest work that it offered, once it became easily available locally, Fallin feared he may loose many more from his cause.
The two boys had died in the explosion, a fact that seemed to bother Alven and his men not at all. For Fallin, it made the victory a bitter one. He was sick of hiding while brave men gave their lives. He would go and proclaim the heroism of these good men proudly for all to hear.
"It is not the same," said Alven finally. "You are known to them, the others were not. They were able to act with the element of surprise. You are a target every time you show your face."
Fallin laughed harshly.
"Am I truly so infamous?" he demanded. "The enemy has only just conquered our lands, using our corrupt officials as their tools. What do they know of me? So far, we have done nothing but bloody their noses. Do they even know my face? They have never seen me, never been within a thousand meters."
"With the machines at their disposal..." began one of the sergeants.
"They can do impossible things?" Fallin cut him off. "I have heard the same stories as you. Exaggeration! They must be. If you believe in them, why are you even here? For you must then believe that we have no hope."
The man hung his head, shamed, and Fallin immediately regretted his outburst. These were good men, trying to protect him out of loyalty, and he was treating them poorly because of his own feelings of futility.
"We are the true humans, not they. Their souls have been deadened by their machines! We must embrace that which makes us superior, our passion! Our brothers did a great thing today, giving their lives for our cause, and I mean to praise them for it."
He gestured for them to get out of his way.
"Let us go outside beneath the sun and be heard."
Most of the men moved quickly to obey, seeming to have been caught up in the priest's enthusiasm.
Alven continued to grumble, and while the lieutenant did nothing more to stop him, he refused to follow Fallin outside.
If was funny, Tyler reflected as he sat down at his desk, how his office had changed. It was still the same utilitarian grayish-blue broom closet that the government had assigned him twenty years ago, but it looked even emptier now.
Guess that's progress, thought Tyler with a hint of a smile.
The pictures of his family adorning the walls were the same, as was evident from their low resolution and their fading colors, but the room had once been crammed full of machines. His barren desk had once held an enormous dinosaur of a desktop, and later a thinner tablet PC, but now it seemed oddly oversized for the few pieces of paper upon it. Peripherals had been everywhere, phones, printers, scanners; Tyler founded he had lived long enough to reach an age where he now carried everything he needed within himself.
He blinked twice in rapid succession to bring up his retinal screen, curled his tongue to activate his internal microphone as he dialed up Gene on video chat.
Eugene Norman worked so many floors up and so many offices away that the two likely would have never met despite working in the same building had their territory not overlapped. Tyler would check in with him each morning to catch up on what had happened during the night shift and to see if there was anything exciting going on.
For once, Tyler knew what to expect. All the morning radio programs had been talking about during his ride to work was today's terrorist attack. Phonesia's government had only just voted to renounce their sovereignty and become a part of the world union, and some fringe group was apparently against the idea.
It was hard to believe, but this sort of thing always seemed to happen whenever a third-world country joined up. Fortunately, any unrest usually settled down pretty quickly once people saw the advantages that citizenship had to offer.
"Morning, Gene," he said once his coworker's face appeared on his screen. "How's the war in Phonesia?"
Eugene looked like he was about to curse then remembered he was on the work line and contented himself with a frown.
"Nut jobs couldn't wait a few hours until you were on the clock," he muttered. "I'll be up to my ears in paperwork for weeks. Quality assurance will put me through the ringer to prove I wasn't negligent."
"Ugh," groaned Tyler in sympathy. "I didn't realize it was so bad, what happened?"
"Pair of crazies hit the robot seed factory. Millions of tax dollars down the drain," he said. "No way we could have predicted it -- suicide bombing. What the hell would drive someone to do that? We're bringing them a better life!"
"Don't know, Gene," replied Tyler, shaking his head sadly. "I just don't know. Have things quieted down by now?"
"They had, but drone 1014 was just starting to pick up something that might be a political rally, or it might just me a concert in the park. I hadn't had time to look into it yet."
Tyler nodded, knowing Eugene had had enough to deal with today and had left it for him intentionally.
"Got it. I'll take care of it from here. Sounds like you've got plenty to worry about already."
"Thanks," Eugene said but he held the connection open, fidgeting uncomfortably a bit before adding, "I may need you to pick up some extra hours tomorrow or later in the week depending on how this inquiry goes."
Tyler swallowed a sigh and fought to maintain his smile. There but for the grace of God go I, he thought. It really could have been him on the hook if the attack had come just a few hours later.
"Just let me know what I can do to help," he told his friend. "Hell, Karen and I can use the overtime."
Eugene sighed, sounding relieved.
"Thanks, I appreciate it. I'll let you know."
Eugene cut the connection leaving Tyler staring at his eye screen's desktop. He logged into the drone surveillance software and scrolled through the thumbprint images of the feeds from all of his drones until he came to number 1014.
He blinked to select if from the menu then squinted to zoom in its camera.
Eugene had been understating the case. The gathering he saw certainly looked like some type of political protest, complete with angry chants and hand-written signs, and its numbers had swelled into the hundreds.
Tyler's implanted computer communicated with the one in the drone, having it scan the crowd periodically but focus on the old man who was doing the most of the speaking as well as the more militant types that surrounded him. Tyler fired up the drone's facial recognition software, scanning for anyone the union considered a threat to world safety.
Phonesia was only one of his many hunting grounds, of course, so he continued to cycle through the images from his other drones, patrolling for signs of unrest in the union's problem areas. Not much was going on in the world today though, so he switched back to 1014 frequently.
Less than half an hour after he started the query the facial recognition protocol came back with a hit. Tyler whistled softly, amazed at his luck.
The rally had roughly doubled in size since Tyler had come on shift. The same man had been speaking to the crowd that entire time. The drone tagged him as Fallin Benjavo, leader of the anti-technology True Humanity Movement and considered directly responsible at this point for this morning's bombing. It was a 93% match.
The drone's screen automatically opened a pop-up window requesting permission to fire. Tyler started to call his supervisor for approval then realized it wasn't even necessary.
Fallin had moved up the most wanted list over the past few hours and currently stood at number eight. That meant he had shoot-on-sight status, there was no need to even ask for permission with that high of a recognition match.
He blinked once for yes and blinked again involuntarily when a small explosion flared across the drone's cameras.
Despite its brilliance, the tiny rocket's payload was carefully directed. Only Fallin himself was killed, and no one else was even injured. Still, the gathering immediately erupted into panic and everyone sped towards the nearest doorway.
The resistance in Phonesia still lasted for a little while after that. Fallin had not been the only priest preaching the gospel of true humanity, and a number of these rebels clung unflinchingly to their old ways, refusing to accept that anything new could be better despite all evidence to the contrary.
In a month the new factory opened and the next attack against it was foiled. Eugene had promised that they wouldn't catch him twice. Within a week it had fashioned an army of robot construction workers; from that point on a wave of infrastructure and broadband flowed forth from its walls.
In a year, the citizens of Phonesia were wondering why they had waited so long to join the union. Conservative ideals always look less appealing against a backdrop of cheap food and medicine for your children, to say nothing of unlimited wireless access and the world of information and entertainment come with it.
In a short while, the children of Phonesia would all have been taught in union schools, implanted with even more advanced gadgets than we have now. Phonesia would be just as much a part of the union as anywhere else, the only difference being the 'member since' date on some stodgy official piece of paperwork scanned into a government database somewhere.
As he sat watching Timmy pretend to do his homework- Tyler could tell from the intensity of the boy's eye movements that he was really playing a Nintendo game- he wondered if all this uniformity really was for the best. Sure, all that pride and patriotism had been responsible needless strife and bloodshed since the dawn of man, but sometimes he felt a vague sense of loss at this watering-down of identity.
Shouldn't there be some sort of acceptable middle ground?
Bah! He queued up another digital playlist on his micro-radio. He was probably just being old-fashioned.
© 2011 Dan Devine
Bio: Dan Devine is a scientist by day and an aspiring science fiction author by night, though he'll write any genre that pops into his head. His work has appeared online in Dark Fire, Afterburn SF, Crime and Suspense, Flash Tales, and many others, and in print in Strange Worlds of Lunacy (compilation, CyberAliens Press) and in Residential Aliens first print issue. His novel, The Next Best Thing to Heroes is available now on Amazon.com. For more about Mr. Devine, visit The Fantasy and Fiction of Dan Devine.
E-mail: Dan Devine
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