Sentience – 2020

A Tiger and a Strawberry

A Not Unlikely Nightmare

Bucky Bobbitt sighed in frustration and tapped his fingernails against the side of his head, which rang out a sharp metallic “ding!” There was simply no convincing people of the errors of their ways. In fact, it seemed that the more ignorant and arrogant a fellow was, the better and faster he learned from whatever “breadcrumbs” of information and analysis were strewn on the Mindnet. It was remarkable how little time an imbecile needed to eclipse the masters of an art or science. And that newfound stature was, of course, impossible to deny.

Bucky was caught in a fraudulent paradox. It was true, he knew, that the mundane are widely thought to be clever. After all, they appeal to a great many people, so their natural impulses are mistaken for the genius of calculation, even by those who despise them. But flip a quarter enough times, he thought, and you get a few cocksuckers whose idiot malevolence is exactly the right ride for fame. Why overthink it? People who thought otherwise were innumerate.

People buy what want to hear, Bucky thought. He laughed to himself as he considered the quaint wisdom that the best ideas win out. That had never been true, and he knew it. The marketplace of ideas has never been anything but a scam that will sell you whatever you’re buying, as much as the market can bear. The solution to bad speech is more speech? What a laugh! There has only ever been one answer to terrible ideas—the one that comes when they founder on the rocks of substance. It’s a grim and shrouded shore, and precious few people pay heed to the lighthouse.

He sighed, toggled off the Mindnet, toggled on his lights, and became aware of his surroundings.

He sat on a faded and patched gaudy floral-pattern loveseat that stank of mildew. He never seemed to lift the grunge from the cushions no matter how frequently he cleaned them. When he touched them, the rough grime of years of filth ground against his fingertips and, though imperceptibly, bared the threads of the cushions yet more. His walls and ceiling were stained with bug-spray and the slow leaching of moisture from the rebar concrete, which went uncovered because of the landlord’s decade-long failure to paint. His bed, clean and well-made but sagging sadly, occupied the far corner. His bathroom was clean, except for the paint that regularly flaked from the tub and toilet, gradually unmasking gross stains and corrosion. His kitchen was tiny, sparsely accommodated. It flaked paint, with green and black corrosion around the faucets that never stopped reappearing no matter how many steel-wool scrubbings he gave them.

The whole studio was stingy and barren. His unfinished lunch sat before him, a few morsels still waiting. He cringed as a cockroach scampered to his plate, over the food, and, surprised by the dim electric light, back to the underside of his coffee table. He swore at the cockroach, swore at his plate, swore at the neighbors who attracted the cockroaches, and swore at his fate. He seized the plate and barely controlled his impulse to shatter it in anger. Oreo, who had been pawing under the table at the cockroach, became frightened and scatted off under the bed.

Bucky seized the plate and scrubbed it harshly in his brown-stained sink, overdried it, and returned it to a rack in a sagging cabinet. Bucky swore again and collapsed back into his stained seat, feeling hopeless.

He pulled himself together and stepped outside for a walk. It was noon, and the heat of it was overwhelming, but a clear view of the sky, unfiltered by his thick, yellow-tainted security windows, was simply a survival requirement.

It was true that in this section of the Lakeside even the hedges were scraggly and browning around the edges, even the trees had thin and twisted branches and were only lightly attired in green. Still, a walk was preferable to the studio.

It was also true that the Lake was a horror. Sunlight shone in funhouse-mirror rainbows from patches of oil slick and detergent, and the stench of rotting fish, beached or bobbing, having died of oxygen starvation, reached out for his nostrils through a slight shift in the soft breeze. Still, he plodded onward.

When he looked down towards his feet or away from the Lake, towards the buildings, he saw the erosion and discoloration caused by acid rain. Even the weeds that had cracked through the root-shattered sidewalks were sickly. It gave the impression that this was a place where life came to be choked out by some invisible hand, and, Bucky thought, the impression wasn’t far off.

It was the sight of the sun in an empty blue sky that did wonders for Bucky’s mood. He walked for miles, focusing on the sky, not giving much thought his surroundings. Shutting them out had become second nature, effortless.

The day’s prevailing breeze had quickly resumed. He breathed deeply. The air was fresh—one wouldn’t expect fresh air in such a place, but there it was. The factories and refineries smeared an angry red charcoal smudge over the horizon, but that was distant. The wind was favorable—today.

He was dimly aware of the people he passed and smiled at, even greeted jovially, as he walked. He felt better to see them, to hear their greetings, to make his own, but for his daily walk, they were like the fresh air—welcome, though not quite real.

He felt much better when he returned to his studio a couple hours later, even though his shirt stuck to his skin and he smelled like weeks-old hamper socks, or even sour oil, from sweating profusely.

Bucky lived alone. He wasn’t sure that he had seen a human being for the last year, other than on a walk or on a job. He checked his assignment feed. “No new jobs at this time,” it told him.

In the corner of his holo-screen, a Newsflash beckoned. He swiped at the air to enlarge the video. A cybernetic man—a man mostly replaced by robot-parts—filled the room. The cyberman had orange hair and a jaundiced face stretched over a metallic skull.

“They say I’m not popular, but I’ve never been more popular,” opined the cyberman in a nasally, sing-song voice. “And the reason I’m popular, folks, and there you have it, the thing that these tree-hugging environmental types just can’t stand, and you know, they don’t even care about the trees, some people who I know are very smart people, they tell me how wonderfully I understand the environmental problem, and you know, trust me, I can tell you the environmentalists—the Oceantown oppressors really, when you think about it, and do you really have to think about it all that hard? I mean, it’s obvious, plain as day, plain as the nose on your face, isn’t it, that these environmentalists are in bed with Oceantown, and they are not doing anything for the trees, the water, you name it, they’re not doing anything, but you know, the thing that gets them really going, it just enrages them to hear it, they can’t even see or speak straight when they hear it, and wow does it bother them how popular I am, so much that they can’t stop talking about their fake polls, you know, as if all of you aren’t smart enough to see through it, their sour grapes and fake polls, and you know, it’s because I am out there saving the economy for you, saving your jobs, your manufacturing, your cars, and they hate me because they hate the way that you work to make Laketown great, oh, how all of you work, work so hard, harder than any other people in the world, and they just can’t stand it when we win…”

The cyberman went on at some length and did an awkward little jig, a rheumatic hip wiggle barely visible under his billowing stomach, as he pumped the heels of his hands upwards slightly in front of his shoulders. “Amiright?” the cyberman wheedled. He tilted his chin up and cocked it left and right, pecking at the air as he jerkily strutted a little pace like a rooster.

The cyberman’s audience whooped and hollered and wolf-whistled and clapped and clanked as with cold metal hands the cyberman seized Laketown’s bronze-winged lectern. The camera panned to the crowd, some hoary, but many roboticized in the prime of life, their scalps stretched over metallic skulls. The cyberman’s worshipers gesticulated robotically, a cacophony of arthritis and strength and metal and rust, waving the tattered banners of histories not one of them had lived.

Bucky sat back in his shitty loveseat and contemplated suicide. He shook off the feeling. Even cybernetics couldn’t keep this crowd alive forever; sooner or later, this had to pass. He could outlive them! Although he wasn’t sure for what.

What would be left?

Oreo leapt into his lap, curled up, and began to purr. He was a cute tuxedo cat, smallish, old enough that the fur under his chin had slightly yellowed. Bucky gave Oreo a neck scratch, who twisted and turned to signal the exact proper locations for the best possible rub.

Bucky flipped off the goddam holoscreen to get a moment’s peace. Even his decrepit accommodations were preferable to that sort of distraction. But now that he’d seen it, he couldn’t shake it from his mind. Was there a homunculus at work in the cyberman and his army of rabid automatons? Everyone was told that the organic mind survived within those metal shells, preserved—but not changed—by the tendrils that snaked through each person’s brain. But what was really inside those shells? Were there any minds, or did in some dolorous machine carry on emulating its insane impression of minds that once had been?

He suspected that no one would ever be given the answer. If they did, half the town wouldn’t believe it. Certainly not the cyberman’s mindless hoards—but Bucky knew the answer.

Bucky had to admit that it confused him why depopulated industrial hellscapes—or the folks who pretended to know them—should elect his town’s leader. And why were the polls right except when the cyberman ran? No matter what the citizens of Laketown wanted, the cyberman’s hellscape army painted the horizons angry charcoal red, fish rotted on the shore, and even the weeds blanched.

Unable to shake the distraction from his mind, Bucky figured he might as well get the benefit of not perceiving his repugnant plight. He laughed at himself. Which repugnant plight was that? There was nowhere to hide. He laughed again, toggled on the Mindnet and resumed gawking at the fiasco.

The cyberman blathered about the demands of Oceantown. Bucky was well-versed in the demands. A decade ago, Oceantown had reached “carbon neutrality” and minimized every kind of pollution within its borders. Still, its land grew parched, and the sea crept up its shores. Naturally, Oceantown pleaded with Laketown to pull its substantial weight. The cyberman opined:

“Well, Oceantown says that it has stopped its pollution, but think of everything that Oceantown did in the decades before that! You all saw, I’m sure, as did I, and I have a very good memory, person, woman, man, uh, camera, TV (the cyberman winked and cocked his head back and forth like a strutting pigeon), and I have one of the best memories, yes, let them say what they want, but you know I do, and you can’t be fooled by their lies, and just like me I’m sure you saw it, and you remember, you know, the brown skies, brown rivers, absolutely disgusting, a real shithole town, Oceantown was, and now Oceantown wants you to believe that it is different? That we are causing the problem? Give me a break! I mean just look at them, their lands are parched, their ocean is rising, and they want to tell you that Laketown is the problem? We have a big, beautiful Lake, nothing better, thank you, so many fish! And their ocean is flooding, and it’s your fault? And the god…ah, you know, can’t say that, oh the hypocrisy, they’ll have a field day, but go ahead and say it, just to make their heads spin, the goddamn environmentalists, oh, how they love Oceantown, and see what that gets? You are all smart, and yes, I’m telling you, you’re all very smart, take it from me, too smart to be tricked by the likes of them…”

Just then, a woman streaked from the crowd, leaped onto the stage, and whacked the cyberman with all her prodigious might. And a bat. A baseball bat. A heavy, pignut hickory baseball bat. She thwacked him on the head, which rang out a satisfyingly thick sound like a muffled bell. She wheeled around like a ninja, her body hugging the ground, and swept the bat upwards behind the cyberman’s knees as he tottered! The cyberman went down, clattering hard against his platform. The woman shouted with orgasmic exultation as she thwacked the prone cyberman repeatedly, really putting her back into it with full-bodied swings, pulverizing the cyberman’s frame and crushing its vacant metal skull like a child gleefully stomping on an aluminum can. Except with a big hickory bat.

“Beloved Leader!” screeched a half-metallic shriveled hag with splitting dyed-blonde hair.

“Murderer!” bellowed an idiot widely assumed to have massive powers of manipulation, though in truth he simply spoke brute. He had been immortalized as a robot with a massive beer-gut and jowls that hung off a metal jaw, and he wore absurd black glasses and a disgusting blue-grey sack of a sweater that looked more fit for a lengthy session masturbating on the Mindnet than for public presentation.

Bucky winked to himself—he would know.

“Treason!” cried a skinny automaton with a shiny brown forehead, faux-nerd glasses (Bucky thought, in an unforgivable affront to genuine nerds everywhere), and a weasel face. Wondering where it would find its next plot of swamp-obsessed idiots to bamboozle, since it lacked the bandwidth to do anything else, the blubbering bag of bolts short-circuited, sputtering weakly, “emails…Card… emails…death…Card.” It sparked and fizzed.

The crowd rushed the stage with shouts of bloodthirsty rage and grief and tore the attacker to pieces. Not a speck of her was made of metal, and she didn’t stand a chance. Still, Bucky could see the woman smiling until the last. Well, she winced a little. Maybe a lot. But Bucky thought they looked like happy winces.

There was a great deal of blood. He shuddered and plunked his fingertips against his temple, thunking out a desperate metal-drum ditty. He turned his attention back to the shambles of the cyberman and felt better.

But then, Bucky’s ambiguous joy faded to horror as the cyberman righted himself! The cyberman’s mangled frame jerked awkwardly until the apparition stood upright, cocking its flattened head and pecking the air absurdly with its paper-thin face. The cyberman strutted like a drunken, tangled marionette, an obese stork slouching toward a terrified womb to midwife some strange beast.

The cyberman’s ravening crowd twittered with excitement as he strutted and pecked at the air. The crowd raised its hands as one in worshipful adulation, chanting: “Who is like the cyberman? And who can oppose him?”

The Mindnet crackled, which Bucky found odd. The Mindnet never crackled. It was, after all, the Mindnet, and not a television set—but there it was. It crackled. It all went aeropsia, then completely white, a synesthetic voice that permeated Bucky’s consciousness: “…We are in control…” He wasn’t sure what kind of control the voice had, but it certainly had his full attention. The voice continued:

“To the great many kind souls of Laketown, we express our most profound regret for the choice that history and the fate of humankind have thrust upon the citizens of Oceantown. For too long we have waited, and for too long we have suffered. We had hoped to save you from the cancer eating your town. No doubt most of you witnessed today’s attempt at salvation with the same hope and disappointment as we did. But we now understand that your desolation is inescapable. We have a difficult choice to make. Even with today’s choice made, our longsuffering may yet destroy us and all of humanity. But if it does, it will be without the millstone of Laketown around our necks. Please accept our apologies and deep regret. You may take consolation in the fact that your sacrifice will give humanity a fighting chance. You have five minutes to make your peace, however that might be.”

Bucky gasped, felt terrified, felt euphoria, felt resigned. He did not know what to feel—thank god, he would no longer need to wonder how to feel!

Bucky scratched Oreo’s neck just right and cuddled his furry little head under his chin. How he loved Oreo! Oreo purred as Bucky carried him outside to breathe deeply the fresh evening air as the mushroom clouds blossomed.

How sweet the air!