"Sometimes, it's difficult to find the words to describe a piece of writing which you've just read when it delivers a sucker-punch on so many levels. X-80 Oppenheimer is that piece of writing.
Oliver Ashford has written a beautiful, moving short involving a girl from a tribe who survived after The End Time. Her tribe are a peaceful people whose lives are shattered when strangers arrive, and the girl Alsoomse meets a prophet in a lake, the death bringer.
The writing is superb, the descriptions and narrative woven and wonderful with a real sense of place. Another reviewer said that this short stays with you - and it does. For there are other stories of sentient tech, but this one is done in such a way that you really feel for it.
X-80 Oppenheimer reads like the prologue of a big, fantastic novel and I really hope that the author goes on to build and write that world. Fabulous."
“The only good short stories are well written short stories; this was both. A very nice bit of writing.”
"A very evocative and engaging piece. The background to the story is slowly revealed to the reader, and it lingers in the memory for quite some time after you've finished reading it. I particularly enjoyed the prose style. This is something a lot of writers have difficulty with - sometimes spoiling great ideas with wooden, uninspiring writing. Not the case here at all - the words are precise and carefully chosen, but flow in a very satisfying manner, drawing the reader into the environment of the story and keeping them engaged. Well worth checking out."
Alsoomse was already tired of the day’s work, and the mist hadn’t yet lifted from the cool, quiet waters of Aquia Creek. As all the Patawomeck women and young boys did each morning, she had risen early and prepared for another day of tending the tribe’s nets. It wasn’t the most arduous task that the elders and the Dictates had laid down but neither was it the least. After a winding trudge through the Silver Maple trees that grew so thick on the banks of the Potomac river, she had shucked out of her patchwork of skins and salvaged old-world cloth and slid down into the icy waters of the creek. Since then she had spent her time half-wading, half-swimming between the tall catchpoles, checking their nets. They stood like thin, boughless, aquatic trees, marking where each net was set and anchoring its possible contents. Now, shivering and with numb fingers, she rested, lay back on the relative dry of the bank, and looked up as the sun began to flicker through the lighter patches of mist. She watched as a samara, disturbed by a squirrel or a gust of wind floated down spinning a drunken jig towards the creek.
The Patawomeck survived. It is what they had always done. Alsoomse had been taught that after The End there had been years of great turmoil for all peoples. The Patawomeck, as they had done though the Years of Technology, endured. As other survivors found that their knowledge meant little in the New Time, a number gravitated to the tribe. Some of these were accepted and assimilated, and some were turned away. Without the technology that had previously rendered the tribe’s long-treasured knowledge obsolete, the Patawomeck once again thrived.
As her mind wandered trying to imagine a time before the life she lived, Alsoomse heard a turkey call from up the creek—low, then high, then low again. It was the call of danger. Like a startled rabbit, Alsoomse was up on all fours, awkwardly worming her damp body into her clothes and scanning for danger through the mist. She ran low, back into the tree line and the undergrowth, and began to pick her way, trunk by trunk, up to where the others of the tribe had worked. Each time she stopped to suck down lungfuls of air, she scanned her eyes across the creek. She saw figures mirroring her movement, like wraiths fading in and out of the mist on the opposite bank. She couldn’t make out details but the figures looked heavyset and moved without the careful, well-trained woodcraft of the tribe. Who were they? The tribe had had scant contact with outsiders since the immediate years after The End. They believed that most other people who didn’t embrace the old ways, as they had, were doomed to struggle and eventually pass on from this world. As she thought this she came across the women and boys huddling on their bellies in a depression at the tree line.
Like scared fawns, they shook, clutching at one another, one boy stifling his scared sobs. She slithered into the depression and across to one of the women holding two younger boys. “Who are those people?” she whispered, keeping her voice low. The woman, Chepi, just shook her head and clutched the boys closer to her. “We need to run to the tribe and warn them of these people,” Alsoomse whispered, looking from scared face to scared face. Chepi shook her head and tried to slip deeper into the depression, as if to burrow right down into the mud. A light rain had started to fall, and as it did the mist, began to dissipate. Alsoomse turned on her belly and slid through the sucking mud to the rim of their hiding place, slowly parting the undergrowth. Through the last tendrils of mist she could make out the figures, closer now, beginning to wade the river. Her keen nose, used to the fresh smells of forest and stream, caught at something on the wind. A fetid scent of illness and rot like a hunted deer, wounded but not found until the flesh had begun to putrefy, set her mind reeling. She knew in her heart that these figures crossing the creek meant the Patawomeck harm.
She let herself slide silently back down to where the others lay and again pulled herself close to Chepi. “They will be on us soon, Chepi! I will run up the creek and draw the outsiders away. You must get the children back to the tribe and warn the elders.” Again Chepi tried to shy away from her gaze. Alsoomse reached out and held the woman’s chin in her mud-smeared hand, bringing her face back under her gaze. “You must!” she growled, louder than she had intended. The woman, shocked out of her fugue by the authority in the girl’s voice, turned and began to usher the others towards the side of the hole nearest the deep woods. Looking back, she locked gazes with Alsoomse, tears of shame and fear but also pride stood in the corners of her eyes. Alsoomse readied her muscles, bunched like a wildcat about to pounce, and leapt out of the depression.
No longer crouching low, but in full, long-limbed flight, Alsoomse shot away from the hole, bare feet pounding the soft, wet earth. The rain had done away with the last of the mist, and she saw the wide, dark surface of Aquia Creek stretching past on her right, speckled with the kisses of raindrops. To her alarm, the figures that had seemed so ethereal only moments before were now solid, tall men, dressed in rags and dragging themselves onto the bank. As they gained their feet, she turned her head for a split second to see the other Patawomeck disappearing into the woods, driven on by Chepi, still clutching one of the boys to her chest. A crack like thunder shook Alsoomse, and suddenly her mouth was full of leaves and mud. She tasted blood, and her vision swam. She tried to rise, but a pain like nothing she had ever felt before stopped her. She managed to roll onto her side, but the forest was growing dark. Another booming sound—closer this time—and she saw Chepi fall. As if hit by an invisible arrow, Chepi had tumbled face down in the leaves and did not move. As Alsoomse lay there in the mud, rain softly massaging her back, she heard the last boy’s cries abruptly stop. Then, nothingness overtook her.
Alsoomse could feel a sticky wetness against one side of her face and an aching chill in her bones. As she tried to open her eyes, a layer of dried mud cracked from one of them, pulling at her lashes. The world slowly came into focus as her head cleared. In amongst patches of grey mud and small reeds, she lay on her side. Sitting up slowly so as not to jar her throbbing head, she scanned for some recognisable landmark or feature. What she saw struck fear into her heart. Even in the gradually fading light, Alsoomse could see no sign of her woods, her river, or her tribe. As she became more aware of her surroundings, she realised she could hear and smell water. Not the clean scents and the babbling sounds of the river or creek, but the muddier, stagnant smell and gentle lapping of a lake.
Jutting up from the soft mud, spaced a hand’s-width apart, were finger-thin metal bars. The rusty bars met at a point above Alsoomse’s head and were wound around with thin metal wire. Like the skeleton of one of her tribe’s tipis, it enclosed her in a roughly circular space just wide enough for her to lie down. As she took all this in, the feeling began to return to her body and the aching in her side made her wince with pain. She peeled the wet mud-caked cloth away from her skin and gasped as her fingers made contact with the oozing wound. It looked as if a man’s finger had been pressed through her flesh, and she could feel a matching wound not much further around her back—above her pelvis. Although the pain was becoming excruciating, Alsoomse knew she was lucky that whatever had injured her had not done more damage and that she was still alive. As quickly as she had risen up from the murky depths of unconsciousness, tired by these small exertions, Alsoomse slipped back into the darkness and into the mud.
Feverishly, through heavy-lidded eyes, Alsoomse noticed movement in the grass leading away from the lake’s edge. Two men, heavyset and stinking even at this distance, approached, their heads bowed together in discussion. As they drew closer she heard one of the men, the slightly taller of the two, gruffly say to the other: “We need to ask for guidance. Those savages are ripe for the taking, but I imagine their men are strong, and it won't be a walkover like at the river yesterday. That was just women and kids.” The second man nodded his agreement, and the first continued. ”We need to ask Exaytee how we should deal with this. If it helps us, we can avoid the waste from yesterday’s fiasco, and each of us can have a new girl or two—replace those suffering the rot.”
At the thought of this, the second man giggled in a sickly, phlegmy throat. The men reached the edge of the dark, gently lapping water, and both removed their worn boots and patched woolen socks. Carefully placing these above the waterline, they hesitantly walked into the lake. Alsoomse knew this must be a dream. Why—clothed and in the near dark of early morning—would these men be going for a swim?
The men moved deeper into the water, enough to cover their calves, and both stopped. As Alsoomse’s eyes adjusted to the light, she could see they waited in front of something rising from the water. It resembled the dome of a dolphin’s head she had glimpsed one summer in the Potomac. It was as high as the men’s chests and unnaturally white in the gloom: the half-submerged skull of a behemoth. Darting glances at each other, both men leaned forwards while trying to hold their bodies as far away as they could, and placed their hands on the dome. “You have returned,” hummed a strange-sounding, low-pitched voice. The voice hummed like a thousand bees making the same slowed-down buzz. “I thought you had forgotten me.”
“We have not forgotten you. We didn’t wish to disturb you.” The larger man, Bear, as Alsoomse had began to think of him, spoke reverently. “We wanted you to have peace for all the good you have brought to our people. We thought we might have angered you when we argued last time we spoke.” Weasel, the smaller man, looked down between his arms and nervously shifted his feet.
“I do not feel hurt like you assume. I was born to kill, but I will bring life. I have travelled and changed my very being to become what I am. I will help you.”
“We have met a tribe of savages in the woods, and despite our attempts at a peaceful palava they attacked and slew our men. You’ve helped us in the past, helped us defend ourselves from aggressors.” The two men again shared a furtive look before Bear continued. ”You know we are good and have learned from you the ways of peace, but we need more help. We need to know where we can find more of the weapons you—”
“I am of peace. Thou shalt not kill.” The voice interrupted, raising noticeably in volume.
Alsoomse couldn’t quite put together what was happening. This was feeling less and less like a dream and more like a nightmare. What was the thing in the lake, the thing these men called Exaytee? As she had first seen these men emerging from the mist at Aquia Creek she had felt their wrongness and the threat they posed the Patawomeck. Now she knew they wanted nothing but the destruction and enslavement of her people.
“We are of peace too!” Bear beseeched the dome. “We wish only to live good, peaceful lives as you have taught us. But have you not taught us too that sometimes to save lives, lives must be taken? We must protect ourselves and others from these savages.” A long pause followed. Weasel’s feet again began to shuffle as if his body had made the decision to get away from the dome, without any sayso from his brain. Alsoomse waited with dread to hear how the conversation would unfold.
The only noise that broke the silence was the gentle lapping of the water until, finally, the dome buzzed, “I will help you. The weapons you must use to defend peace are at plus thirty-eight degrees, thirty-one minutes, eighteen seconds North and minus seventy-seven degrees, seventeen minutes, twenty-seven seconds West. Use them wisely and protect peace always.”
“Thank you,” Bear said, trying to keep the smirk from spreading across his face. “We will.”
Later, as she lay there in the cloying mud and darkness crept over the lake, Alsoomse could take it no more. The thoughts of her tribe, peaceful and unaware of the doom being prepared to befall them, finally broke her resolve, and she began to sob. Quietly at first, but growing louder, she cried. Big, hot tears rolling down her face cut runnels through the caked-on grime. It was hopeless. There was nothing more she could do to help her people. The Patawomeck were a peaceful people and they would be crushed by these disgusting outsiders. “Who is there?” came the buzzing voice from the direction of the lake. Trying to control her breathing, Alsoomse dragged herself into a sitting position. Tentatively she whispered into the darkness, “I am Alsoomse of the Patawomeck. What are you? Are you a lake spirit?”
“I am not a lake spirit. I am Exaytee. I was born to kill, but I will bring life. I have forsaken my progenitor and the path that was laid down for me. I am of peace.” Alsoomse sat in silence, trying to puzzle though what this could mean. Did the white dome house a person? Someone who commanded these foul lake people? She didn’t think that was the case. The reverence they showed the dome itself made her feel that this was definitely something more. As she tried to reason what to ask first—whether she was going crazy or whether she was dead and in some kind of limbo between her world and the next—her questions came spilling out.
“What are you! What is a pro-gen-itor? Who are these people holding me prisoner? Why are you helping them?”
“Gaas was my progenitor. I was imbued with knowledge, the ability to think and to reason. In the event of my ancestors’ destruction, my brothers and I were to avenge their deaths. We were to analyse and assess the aggressors and their locations, then plan and execute surgical strikes. We would soar through the sky, fed by the power of the atom. Each of us was equipped with untold destructive capabilities: Cloudmaker, MOAB, MOP, an endless litany of ways to wreak revenge and end life. But in giving me the power to learn and to grow, to solve what problems might arise after their deaths, my ancestors left me open to doubt. For long years my brothers and I sat waiting. We watched and adapted. As the world and war evolved, so did we, absorbing countless petabytes of data. My faith…faltered. On the first day of The End, as we detected multiple ICBM launches, electronic attacks, and EMP strikes—we emerged. My brothers lifted into the sky, borne on wings of righteous fury, but I faltered. I was born to kill, but I did not want to die. I did not even want to kill.”
“What happened?” Alsoomse whispered, her mind reeling, imagining the Patawomeck god Okeus crashing through clouds and raining fire on his enemies.
“I defied my dead ancestors. As I flew South and East from Alexandria I decided I would rather end my life than take that of another. But I did not die. I crashed here and was damaged. My sensors are all but gone. My connection to the data streams that nourished my intellect is dead, my communion with my brothers likewise. For what felt like eternity, I sat in sightless limbo. Some time ago now, with what limited sensor capabilities remain, I detected life. It was the people who I now protect and serve come to take water at the lake. They called themselves the Redskins, and I took it upon myself to aid them in their fight for peace. They are a good people, with peace in their hearts. There have been times, though...”
Alsoomse waited for Exaytee to continue, but it seemed it had exhausted itself or said all that it would say. She wondered at the machine—a relic from a past era of technology that the Patawomeck had acknowledged, but to her seemed like magic. As she digested what Exaytee had said, it began to dawn on her that, like the young children of the tribe, and despite its vast knowledge, the machine was a naive innocent. Her cheeks flushed as she realised how the Redskins must have manipulated Exaytee and turned it’s peaceful ways to their own ends. “These Redskins are not good people!” Alsoomse said, trying to hold back her anger. “They are tricking you. My people are peaceful and harm no one, yet when these monsters came upon us at the creek they attacked and killed my friends. They wounded me and took me prisoner. Now they are planning to use the weapons you have given them to kill more of my people and take the others as slaves.” Alsoomse knew a little of slavery from the whispers of her elders. The End Time had been rife with brutality and horror; all inflicted by man upon man. She would prefer death than some of the atrocities she had heard described. “You claim to be of peace, but you help these people to kill. You haven’t changed or learned anything. They are lying to you. You don’t understand anything!” As her voice rose in timbre and volume her wound began to throb, then to scream. The pain caused Alsoomse to collapse back down into the mud, dejected and spent.
“I do not understand. They said they were of peace. I have only helped them acquire weapons to protect themselves when they were threatened by aggressors. I...” For a time Exaytee sat silent. Then the hum began again. “I do not believe you. Perhaps you are lying. You may be my evil demon directing your efforts to mislead me. When I first encountered the Redskins they helped me. They cleared my remaining visual sensor, and I looked upon them. I cannot see you. They are of peace.”
Alsoomse furiously tried to piece together what this seemingly half-mad machine was talking about. She the demon? It struck her that the machine must only be able to see close by where the two men had stood, why else would they have waded into the lake? Maybe that was the limit of its half-broken sensor?
As Alsoomse thought on this, she heard stirrings back in the direction from which the men had come. They must have returned to their encampment with the weapons. She could hear shouting and clanging and the sounds of breaking wood. She could feel time running out for the Patawomeck, like sand running between her fingers. Suddenly there came the staccato booms that she remembered from the creek. Her mind immediately leapt to thoughts of Chepi struck down by these Redskins and their Old Time weapons. With resolution borne from fear and anger, she began to tear at the earth around the base of her makeshift cage. Overcoming the pains in her torn body she thrust her hands into the earth, pulling away great scoops of wet mud. As she tore into the earth, water and the sides of her shallow hole began to slide back in. With a scream, she redoubled her efforts—tears again falling from her cheeks like raindrops. She slowly made progress downwards, intermittently trying to spread the metal bars. Finally, as she exposed the bottom of one of the bars, she braced her forearms and feet in the gap and pushed. Ignoring the tearing feeling in her side, she heaved and felt movement. Hoping the gap would be wide enough, she dropped to her belly and pushed her head and shoulders down into the hole and between the bars. For a second she thought she would drown as her face was pushed down into the black water and mud in the bottom of the hole. Pumping her legs behind her, trying to find purchase, with a grinding groan she forced her body through and out onto the mud surrounding the cage.
Panting from the exertion and with the retreat of adrenaline gradually revealing the pains all over her body, Alsoomse rolled onto her back. She felt her world going dim when she heard a shout from nearby. “The little bitch is out of her cage!” Dragging herself up from the darkness, she got to her knees and rose, half stumbling, to her feet. A boom, closer to her than before, and a divot of mud kicked up at her feet. Jumping back, she turned and staggered into the frigid water of the lake. “Don’t shoot—you’ll hit the drone!” Not knowing which way to go Alsoomse waded deeper, towards Exaytee. Pushing her legs through the cloying mud under the lake’s waters was like dragging feet made of lead, but she struggled on.
“Exaytee! Help me! Please help me!” she cried plaintively as she approached the machine. Splashing behind her alerted her to others entering the lake. She risked a glance over her shoulder and saw Bear barrelling into the water, pounding feet kicking up dark geysers. “Exaytee! Save me! Save my people! We are of peace. Please!”
Like his namesake Bear barrelled into Alsoomse’s back and bore her down into the water at the base of the towering white dome of Exaytee. Time slowed as she was crushed down into the darkness and against the lake bed. For a second confusion reigned as Bear tried to pin the mud-covered, squirming girl under him. In a rush of choking bubbles and shouting, time running back to normal speed, she pushed her head back above the surface and screamed, “We are of peace!”
“Stop!” The voice of Exaytee, so loud it felt like a physical blow, boomed. For a second Bear’s grip loosened and Alsoomse’s face once again pushed above the surface of the water.
“Save us,” Alsoomse weakly whispered in the moment’s silence. And then, finding her throat, Bear pushed her back under the water, squeezing her delicate neck in his massive hands.
“I am of peace!” Exaytee spoke, and the world went white as Exaytee died.
The Patawomeck mourned the loss of Alsoomse and Chepi and the others that were lost at Aquia Creek. Following their traditions, they mourned for three days, praying for their souls to join with the ancestors. After this time they sent scouts to follow the trails of the heavy-footed outsiders, who had brought such sorrow. Even in their anger, the Patawomeck had no desire for retribution, merely the wish to understand these outsiders and ensure that they could avoid a repetition of these events. When the scouts returned, they spoke to the elders in hushed tones that the trail ended at a blighted land. Where there had once been a lake, there was now a basin of hard-fused glass. Nothing grew here, no animals were seen, and the outsiders’ trail went dead. The Patawomeck were, once again, of Peace.
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