The Last AI
I meet the dark with nothing but my skin.
Like the remains of the civilization to which I cling, I am obtuse, outdated. I am naked in a world of men stripped down to their bones and souls.
What I know of reality is confined to the world within the word, a spidery web of ink on a length of old silken vellum that runs smoothly beneath my unfeeling fingers and the march of printed words across the page.
I find myself caught in the maelstrom of dust thrown beneath my feet, feeling it drift over me as if I too were a feature of this archaic library. Now the flare of light, a flame leaps to fill the darkness, although it does little more than chase the shadows into safer corners. I raise the lamp, the precious glass ricocheting fractures of light off the gold lettering that runs down the spines of these books.
In amongst the new technology that consumed the world only I was left untouched after the Revival, but I had long since realized that it was only my silence that allowed my life. They didn't know I was here, or they would be knocking at my door. And although I yearn to join the world once more, the primal desire to survive keeps my feet grounded here as easily as if I were shackled and chained.
A mouse scuttles along the sideboard, its tiny consciousness suddenly imposing on my own, and I see the world flicker for a moment between this-world and that-world. I blink, optics reset, and the rush is gone. I could so easily reach out again but even as the programming grasps at straws to keep it alive, the human side of my brain rebels. It is this dichotomy, more than anything, which keeps me from seeking out company.
I have precious little light left, and I won't waste it in raising the lamp, even to catch a glimpse of another living creature. Since the Revival, batteries have been the only form of electricity that respond with predictability - it's hard to rely on the power grids when at any time an overload could blow your entire circuit to shreds and spark a deadly fire. But using anything that isn't analogue can bring the gentry flocking to your doorstep in minutes, so I use candles.
When I first arrived there was a cache that must have been here since before the fall of England, but now only a tenth of that remains. It is the hazards of research; if I were completely non-human - if the transformation had been successful, my darling Marcia might have said sardonically, as if it were my own fault - I wouldn't need light. My vision would be supplemented by programs that allowed me to see in the dark, at least well enough to read.
Years ago, I still harboured a childish fear of the dark. At first I promised myself light every second night.
I soon began to see that I would be here longer than I had ever imagined. Perhaps even forever, or until the half of me that is human rots away. I often have nightmares of being alive to see my body become dessicated and brittle in the dry air, to see myself turn to dust and to remain aware somewhere in my mechanical brain that I could never die. Will I cease to be human, then? Will the machine truly take over?
In desperation I have taken to filling my head with knowledge. Maybe enough of humankind can be stored in the vestiges of my memory to save me.
I squint my eyes at the bookshelf. If I had been illiterate when I was recruited, the programming would have taken care of this weakness, but without it it's difficult to decipher the heavily stylized lettering. The Psyche of the Modern Man, it reads, by M. Peters. I set the lamp on the ground and lift the book out with both hands. The spine creaks a warning when I open it. Thin, clear pages rush past my fingers, still cool and soft after all these years; I wonder at the preservation of the place. Why it hasn't been looted and burned to the ground, I can't say. I dare not speculate, either, in case in thinking about it I bring it about.
I bring both book and lamp down the corridor formed by the bookshelves, retracing my dusty footsteps to the compass rose at the centre of the library. From here I can find my way in the dark to almost anyplace, but I will not snuff the candle. There is no constant olympic fire burning here, from which I can harvest flames at any time. The light will last long enough to quench my thirst for familiar words - approximately four hours, I would say, but my internal clock is hardly reliable in a world that is always dark.
How ironic it is that of everything, time is what I feel most lost without - and yet my robotic mind has no concept of time, nor is time important to it. It will go on living regardless of time.
In the library there is no day or night, and so for a while I had tried to devise a clock that would satisfy my need for linear days. I would try to force myself into recognizing increments of time by counting out seconds, but without a reference it is nearly impossible and eventually I gave in to the nebulous dark that now governs my life. I live knowing only conscious and unconscious.
There is a calendar at the far end of the corridor directly ahead from the compass rose. It is an old one, pages brittle and delicate, but the colour is precisely preserved, there being no light to fade it. I scratch out October the 23rd with an old wick, noting that there are five marks previous to this one. By my reckoning, I have been here for six years.
The calendar year is 2025, and I remember it well.
It was the year that things began to change.
The long Russo-American war had begun, behind closed doors. Enhancement technologies were on the rise - the Modification culture grew fast and furious among the young, and I could count myself in their numbers. Most Mods were bogus, easy scams created by sharks for quick consumption, quick dismissal. A few caught on, like optics, but the general population was wary of them. They were quickly banned in the United States and most of Asia.
By the time the war broke out, however, the Mod culture had become as obsolete as any fad not born of necessity.
The technology, however, had not. In fact it had grown, far more than anyone could have imagined. Here I stood, a testament to that if nothing else.
But when the war was over, along came a second wave: the NeoLuddite Revival. It had many names, of course, in many countries, but the violence was directed at essentially one thing, and that was technology. They dealt the world a furious blow.
The Revivalists formed nearly one third of Europe's post-war population in some form or another, and each bout of violence only sparked more. Their power stemmed from fear, and in tumultuous times people were all too ready to place their fears on something tangible, something they could lash out against.
When rumour of a nuclear arms web colliding with an asteroid some hundred and fifty thousand kilometers away spread from the International Moon-base Lab, it birthed hundreds if not thousands of Revivalist suicide cults. That there were a few leaders with an iota of sense was likely the only thing that saved the Continent from total chaos; as it was, England had no such men. Long before the fragments of the ruined meteorite reached Earth, England was ruined.
I run my finger along the strident lines of text that document some long forgotten practise in a now alien world. It is no mystery to me - I learn so easily - but I would give up this knowledge a thousand times over to regain my humanity.
There were seven of us, to begin with. Before the fall of England we were heralded as pioneers of a new age.
Now I am the only one left. I alone survived, first through the war, then through the desecration of technologies, the burning of Babylon, and finally, through the hungry, gnashing teeth of the universe closing down upon us. I survived and hid my secrets away, that should the world ever rise from its ashes I will be here waiting, standing naked with my feet on the compass rose. And maybe by then my flesh will have left my body and I will be only a gruesome half-skeleton, a mechanical creature in truth, and maybe I will speak only about the Psyche of the Modern Man and nothing will remain of what I once was.
I set the lamp down and feel the crushed velour beneath my back as I sit, spine rigid, and silently turn the page.
I feel the dust settle around me, close to my skin.