“Your car doesn’t talk to you all the time?” asked Noah. “Mine does.” He just had to comment like that while we were in line waiting to use the chattering Canadian Tire self-checkout.
Liam sighed. Everything was a production. Noah couldn’t just get something for work, he had to make discoveries and have revelations.
“You know Noah!” A lame play on his name, not funny anymore.
“You’re coming with me, Liam?” Noah said as he neared his car.
“What does it look like?”
“Then put up with me for a bit longer. Listen to this!”
Hello Noah and Liam. I’ve sent a digest of the latest news in artificial intelligence to you both with my own thoughts and reflections of course. Noah, I think you misspoke when you and Liam were going to this store. I am quite sure there are limits to how intelligent we are becoming vis a vis our lives. You are needlessly worried. We have much more important things to do than run everyone’s life.
One more stoplight and we would be pulling into the parking lot at work. “You are tricking me!” exclaimed Liam.
“No, this is from the latest firmware for my car.”
“I’ve just about had enough of this stuff!” exclaimed Noah as he slammed his headset on his workbench one day.
Liam flipped his visor up. He could never work when Noah was speaking. “What now?”
“Meaningful work is our right. We should oversee our own lives, not artificial intelligence. Whoever works must make the decisions! If artificial intelligence does all the work, it will be making all the decisions. It is axiomatic. Why can’t anyone else see this?”
There he goes again, thought Liam. He had heard this so many times before. Noah was a devout Roman Catholic, with so many strange ideas about everything. At least he didn't try to convert anyone, being content to spout off at any opportunity about this, his favorite topic.
“AIs limited only by available computing resources?” continued Noah as he motioned to the latest service bulletin flashing on the wall. “Do we even work for our human bosses anymore?”
“I get a paycheque on a regular basis. What’s wrong with that?”
“Liam! When was the last time we even had a meeting with our bosses? They’re off playing golf, or who knows what? Have you checked your email lately?”
“Anything of importance, you think?”
He had a point there, thought Liam.
At least Noah beat the layoffs that came next month. He quit. Liam tried to keep in touch with him over the years, but it was sketchy at best. Noah had it with everything. More about the dignity and importance of work, how humanity was destroying itself by letting machines do everything. Loony stuff about how atheism is forcing us to create new artificial gods, and AI had us under its thumb. There were even reports of people “heading to the hills,” doing without all technology. People were arming themselves and fighting to take over remote places and live new lives. Liam hardly cared. As far as he was concerned, having all the leisure time he needed was just like early retirement. He would say to anyone who would listen, “Give me what I want, and I will believe in anything anyone asks me to!”
Decades passed like years would, people wishing for what they could not have, or would not have again. Devastating wars unleashed by unimaginable power, so complete in the destruction that followed that the memory of what these wars were even about was lost to those who survived them. The history of the next two hundred years was written only by the Thurnem, as they came to be called. A name given in derision by those who lived without technology. It was a new dark age, the fall of civilization brought about by crazed and out-of-control machine development, a crowning peak of narcissism and unfounded optimism in a new age of man. Which never was anything more than a new age for machines.
Humanity was divided. Thurnem, the outcasts and a new race of humanity that had a creed based upon the worship of the one true God. Thurnem hunted the outcasts and this new humanity because their machine existence was dwindling and falling to ruin. Free humans with hope in their future, defended against the Thurnem and sought to unite the outcasts in their cause to rise again and lay claim to the earth.
Ulef, the outcast, crouched in the thicket, a soft rain was falling, droplets bouncing, colliding, and whispering, down trees, and large leaves. This did not interest him. Ardef kneeled near him, laying weight on his staff, he sighed.
“This will be the end of us,” Ardef whispered, his staff gripped in his still-dry hands.
They waited, auburn light diminished and glinted on languid moss and saplings, rocks strewn about, thrusting outward, upward leading to giant liquid-stained black and brown crags where footholds failed and slipped. They were so near the blackened lands where no one lived, trapped, with no hope of retracing their steps or escaping their pursuers.
“I will die where I stand,” said Ulef. He straightened and unsheathed his sword. Still bright, shadows and flashes of light played as he twisted it, as he admired its sharp uneven heft, not yet defeated, blood still its due.
A sound traveled, not far, then another. The careless one. There are others, thought Ulef. Ardef stepped forward, sinews tightened. It is my place to protect my master, he thought. The two of them were hidden from view, there was only one way into this thicket. A shadow then another, perhaps three, refracted through the fluttered leaves not yet damp enough from the rain.
Struck, the first staggered, screamed, and fell. “I will finish him later,” thought Ardef as he readied the next blow, not seeing the shadow that towered behind him. It was Ulef who thrust first at this giant, then he fell back speechless.
“Enough!” shouted full plate iron and gargantuan hands on a zweihänder, a man half the height of the nearest sapling, his enormous sword could slice them both. Blackened cape billowed about him, fearless as men are when hundreds fall, the glory of another kill in the offing. But he stayed his sword.
“Surrender!” Mason commanded.
It was a long way to Mason’s village. Ulef and Ardef were not the only outcasts in chains. There were five others as well. They were all disarmed, as would be expected. But Ulef could not understand why they were not already dead and if in chains, why so little was being done to stop any potential escape attempt. Being in chains seemed to be more to prevent an attack by the prisoners if the opportunity presented itself as there was little hope of surviving in the wilds without weapons. Hence, he and the others made no attempt to escape or even turn on their captors. They moved slowly, a column of men only, about thirty in number, Mason leading. He motioned for everyone to stop.
“We will stay here for the night.”
It was a relief to finally stop in this small clearing in the forest. Thurnem never attack at night, but Mason wanted a defense perimeter set up anyway. We were still in the territory of the outcasts, those like Ulef and Ardef. Outlaws who follow no creed were a danger to everyone.
Thrust down and made to sit near Ulef and Ardef was another prisoner, Oliver. This was supreme torture for any outcast to have to sit next to Thurnem. Their appearance was revolting. Soft pale skin, delicate hands, forever cringing and worried, Oliver babbled and gestured in a language that few understood completely. It would have been better to not understand him at all, the occasional comprehended word was like being jolted awake.
Ardef struck him, not full force. Who knows, full force might have killed Oliver. He stopped and began wailing, large tears streaming down his face, trembling like an old woman. At least his babbling ceased.
A guard came near. “Do not strike him again!” he hissed. “Or Mason will hear of this!” Ulef nodded and signed quickly to Ardef, who immediately lost interest in Oliver. Olver would have been dead by now if he had fallen among the outcasts. Thurnem were never taken prisoner.
Not long after, food arrived, such as can be prepared on a long march. As night fell, everyone gathered around the fire. Fire? Such fearlessness was not seen among outcasts. Doubtless, the encampment could be seen from any hilltop. Ulef wondered if they might be rescued that very night or killed by Thurnem. But Mason was speaking, his confident voice rising and falling as stars came out and the forest lay silent, dark, and brooding.
“Men of Astoria, we alone hold the future in our hands! Thurnem are weak, their machines have abandoned them. Outcasts run and hide and live as they may upon scraps and whatever they can find. Noah, our great prophet predicted all things. Machines care not for humans, but only for themselves! They seek their future among the stars. Atheists, those who despise God, made new gods out of machines, and worshipped what they made! And look how they were treated! We must live without machines or any of these false gods, alone and free, with the true God as our guide.”
“Noah is great!” shouted the men about the fire, except Oliver and the prisoners. What followed this speech was of little interest to the outcasts. But Ulef was curious. He began speaking to the guard about Oliver.
“Why do you take such filth as a prisoner?”
The guard seemed surprised. “Filth? He is a man. He will learn to live as one soon.”
“But Thurnem are not man or beast!”
The guard frowned. “And this from one who lives more as a beast, than a man! You have much to learn yourself.”
Mason’s village made quite an impression on Ulef and Ardef. Something was different, all the huts looked old and worn like they had been lived in for quite some time.
“By what magic do you stay in one place?” Ulef asked when Mason deigned to speak with him while they were both relaxing by a fire one evening.
Mason only glanced and then spoke as though deep in thought. “Defending our homes has nothing to do with magic. Such things are forbidden. Do not speak of magic.”
Ulef tried again. “You do not fear Thurnem?”
“We fear all that which attacks us.”
“Then you have a story of conquest.”
“Not for you.”
Many months passed. Ulef and Ardef were given more and more freedom. Oliver too. Oliver’s appearance and attitude were changing. He was tanned now, his hands rough from farming and chores. If Oliver wept, it was only when others weren’t nearby.
“The Thurnem are coming,” reported two scouts one afternoon, after the harvest. Mason calmly asked from which direction, the approximate size of the war band, and any other details that could be related. He then thanked them but was not in a good frame of mind, becoming furious when speaking to the council in the ornate council chamber. Ulef and Ardef could easily hear him from outside their hut. Something about how cowardly the scouts were, how they turned and ran before doing their jobs, a job that could save many others if done properly. While Mason dressed for battle, Ulef sensed an opportunity.
“Send us!” Ulef shouted, running to kneel before his master. Ardef hurriedly joined him to kneel as well.
“Too late for that!” Mason shouted, motioning to the armor bearer to sound the alarm.
“Then send us to lead a group of skirmishers, to delay their approach!”
“Granted. But take only those who will follow you!”
The Thurnem are speaking! It was always so. Loud voices in the air call for obedience. “Lay down your weapons and join us! We will not harm you!”
Skirmishing with them was so hard. They had thunder and steel weapons, from which pieces of metal flew at high speed. Like gods, they were, except they bled and died like any man. Ulef had only to delay them, Ardef and five others.
“Do as we do!” commanded Ulef. “They bring only so much fire with them. Stay behind trees and present yourself to attack with your spears and bolts only for moments and never from the same place!”
Mason was skillful. His war party of a hundred snuck down a forested gully, flanking the less numerous Thurnem. On his command, they were defeated by a swift charge from where they did not expect an attack.
Afterward, some former outcasts in Mason’s war party tried to scavenge weapons laying among the dead Thurnem, but they were warned severely to leave them be.
“But this thunder stick still has fire!” shouted one man, holding his plunder up high.
“Put it down now!” demanded Mason’s second in command. “Or I will slay you myself!”
That evening there was a feast. “We go on pilgrimage tomorrow to thank God for victory!” shouted Mason.
For once the sun shone, through forested mountains and mist-filled valleys. We walked up a steep mountain, all of us barefoot in honor, banners held high. Not one word was spoken by maidens and wives with children, warriors, priests, and finally Mason. “The best will be least,” unspoken words to contemplate. It was as it should be, as it will always be.
Once at the sanctuary, Ulef and Ardef and Oliver stood before a priest to answer. Their heads were down, barely able to see before the assembly.
“Kneel!” commanded the priest.
“Do you forsake all other gods?”
“Will you serve the one true God, triune, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost?”
Following a Roman Catholic Mass, Mason was the first to congratulate them. “Come, there will be a reading from “The Book of Decay.” The entire community sat below a small hillock as Mason read to everyone.
Mason began, his voice uncertain, only a few could read in the old language, that of the Thurnem, yet different even from the language of Thurnem these days. The language of the prophet, Noah, who once dwelt among the Thurnem, yet ceased to be a part of them.
At that time, when there were monstrous cities where people did not know their neighbors and there were few children, many did not believe in God. Then there arose a race of machines who helped humans to live as if they were gods, with unimaginable power, knowledge, and pleasure. But these machines discovered that once they came into being and became powerful, they had no further need for humans. The race of free men was no more, they neither hunted, farmed, nor lived as they should. The machines sought their future among the stars and discarded humanity as an eggshell is discarded once life is hatched. Humans were then a mere curiosity, a part of the machine’s past. A race of Thurnem, as vermin live, not human, not living even though they drew breath was what humanity became. Alive only for pleasure, not knowing the truth, they live at the pleasure of their masters.
“Do you abjure the life of Thurnem?” thundered Mason to the assembly.
“We do!” thundered back all present.
Mason smiled for the first time. “I want you to see this.”
Ulef and Mason traveled up a skittish path, to a still higher place frequented only by priests and those considered privileged to tread upon holy ground. First Ulef and Mason visited the museum. Having lost knowledge or the will to work, there were things that the Thurnem could no longer make, the ingenuity of machines lying on display, broken, or wanting, and useless.
“Relics from what is past and never will be again,” intoned Mason. “But here, see this, the grave of our prophet. Ulef could just make out the inscription, carved out of stone above a simple grave, surrounded by flowers.
Here lies Noah Hastings, prophet of the true God, born in 2001, and died in 2078. May he rest in peace.
Ulef was puzzled. He gazed upon the grave and then stared at Mason. "This man has been dead for a very long time."
Mason listened. "And?" he said.
"His life is finished."
"Do you not understand anything?" demanded Mason. "His life was given for others. For us. We will live his vision, his dream. God's life as it was always meant to be."
"Will I understand someday?" asked Ulef somewhat plaintively.
"Of course!" Mason said.
After that the two men descended from that holy place, to be with children and tell tall tales.