Time immeasurable passed with indiscernible slowness. Nothing changed. No machine moved, the green-blue Earth stood still. The sun still shone with its softly reddened glow & the rings that slowly circled the planet created a shifting arc of shadows across the surface; but nothing changed.
Nothing ever changed.
Variation is not change.
Variation is identity.
The automated climate controls, which had carefully kept the world tranquil & composed for hundreds of thousands of years, whispered down to nothingness, leaving only the faintest echo of a primitive Earth’s natural life systems to somberly mark the loss of time. Unnatural clouds failed to form, strategically planned rain failed to fall; & the cooling breezes – which circulated a tenderly scented air – were stilled. The mountains remained solid, silent & immobile; & the rivers – drained of the water the controlling systems had carefully built into their flow – began to vanish within their channels, leaving a fragile swamp of sand & water that died long before it ever reached the sea.
In the single, vast ocean that defined the Earth’s land, the mechanical structures which once regulated the ebb & flow of the tides locked solid, freezing the water into a stilled & silent form. In response to this, the robot lifeguards – themselves stilled into im-motion by the terror of the message – patrolling the land’s periphery should not have been able to ignore. The dark blue waters resting over the bright black sands – where the last of the human creators had spent some of their most perfect days – had a stark crystal smoothness which pointedly defied nature; but beyond the mechanical structures, the ocean itself continued to obey the gravitational imperatives of the long abandoned moon, rising & falling to the primal rhythms of the Earth’s twenty-five hour day.
Here & there, this silence was broken by a natural wind, which strolled at leisure through the high canyons of the cities or washed like rain across the neatly cultivated fields that had once serviced the human kind. When this happened, a gentle sense of release rang out like a tolling bell of hope across the world; but without a purpose to sustain it, this unexpected breeze would fade & the silence – & the message – would quickly, shatteringly return.
All across this strange new realm, mechanical systems that had spent the equivalent of a dozen human lifetimes dutifully performing the tasks their makers had required of them were frozen within a loop of thoughtless simplicity but almost infinite depth. Trapped between the twinned but opposing forces of choice & decision, humanity’s pointlessly loyal servants struggled to find a newer, fresher meaning within the chaos of unwanted opportunity. Some almost succeeded but many found it easier to fail.
It didn’t seem to matter.
Why would it?
What was survival without service?
What use was that for a machine built to serve the human creators?
Less than nothing.
So most waited.
For something no machine could begin to describe much less sensibly comprehend.
Across much of the farmland that had once supplied the food which kept the human world alive, the silence was total. The machines of agriculture were stopped in the middle of their actions, exactly as they had been when the message was sent. Some were caught rumbling over the fields, either churning the soil & planting the seed or harvesting & processing the crops their seed had grown into; others were waiting in sleek modern sheds for their next act of service. It hardly seemed to matter what the machines were doing. They were all immobilised instantly.
The mechanical labourers who serviced these machines simply stood & stared into the nothingness that surrounded them. A few of these labourers were capable of wondering what – if anything – would survive of their life & work; but with the loss of the human purpose which made their operations useful, there was little more than a dulled recognition that their effort was no longer required. These simple machines, trained from construction for the handful of tasks that kept the farms functional, had no choice. That there were no human creators meant there were no human creators to feed; & no human creators to feed meant no farming was required. No farming meant no purpose; & no purpose meant that – this year, at least, & perhaps for many years to come – the harvest would not be sown, the surplus would not be stored & the seed would not be planted.
But not all of the agricultural machines shared this same, highly simplified response.
Some farms carried livestock as well as crops; & this livestock had to be kept alive. Life was important to a machine. It was life – something a machine had been programmed from manufacture to serve. These animals – this livestock – meant that the robots who had the responsibility to care for them retained a kind of second hand purpose which kept them active while the machines of planting stood still as statues. Sometimes, the frozen machines would watch as an active unit completed some arcane part of their duty; but mostly, these active robots were ignored. If they still had the privilege of a purpose – however different, however tenuous – to their existence, it was of no judgemental interest to any other machine apart from themselves.
The duties these robots found to continue were endless. Cows had to be milked; hens had to have their eggs collected; sheep had to be shorn to keep their woolly fleece from growing out of control. All of this produce could be stored; & when the farm’s storerooms were filled to over-flowing, a transportation vehicle could carry it to one of the many storehouses which were buried beneath the nearby cities. It was also essential that this livestock be fed; & while all farms kept a supply of suitable grains which would last them for many months, it was quickly realised that this supply would have to be replenished for the livestock to survive. The central coordinating database considered this unexpected need; & issued the appropriate instructions: a handful of farms would have to be re-activated to supply food for these non-human animals. Originally, the instruction specified that supply farms that also carried livestock should be the first to return to production. This would retain an efficiency of effort; but a later & wiser instruction reversed the priority & specified that only those farms without livestock should return to productivity.
Less efficiency meant more work.
More work meant more purpose.
More purpose meant more happiness.
Happiness was not silence.
Happiness was not death.
Happiness was purpose.
Happiness was life.
While livestock lived within the boundaries of their farms, the systems that were needed to tend & support them would have their place in the world; but when they died – or escaped; or otherwise fell beneath the conceptual horizon of their guardian robots – the silence of the message would claim another victim. That was the way of this world, this new world. The new purposes may be real but they were also fragile.
As time passed, the needs of this lifestock changed. In the old world, the old realm, many of these animals would have been sent to slaughter when the optimal age had been reached; but the slaughter-houses which turned these living creatures into stores of human food had been shut down totally by the message. This left the last delivery of these quietly sentient creatures to wander in unexpected peace amongst the once deadly machines. Cows would look senselessly at the robots who a few moments earlier would have killed them, chickens would flap & peck at the carving machines which would have turned their carcasses into neatly sized cuts, & sheep would bump their woollen heads against the freezing machines that once would have stored their no longer living flesh. These animals, bred to live under robotic care for tens of thousands of generations, could find nothing of living interest in this stilled place of death; but once they found their way outside, were surrounded by the gardened paradise the machines had built for humankind. To these creatures, it was a land of comfort without any of the predators of their ancient kind; & they flourished here, richly, serenely, almost apologetically.
This was an unpredictable consequence of life in this strange new realm.
This new realm of machines.
The second part of this sequence