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There’s an old logical conundrum that goes something like: If God is all-powerful, can He create a rock so heavy He himself can not move it? I’ve been thinking about that lately. I’ve been thinking about it a lot.

One siren crackles to life at a time, bleating in varying tones until they all synchronize to a single stable scream. A hundred metallic throats clear out nearly a millennium of collected dust and static around the shell of this once-city. Tribes gathered in the ruins snap into action immediately, one second waiting patiently a discrete distance from the meeting fire and from the tribal elders encircling the ceremonial flames, the next second boiling over the uneven expanse of the old courtyard in a random panic. But these are tribes of survivors, quick to react and adapt, and long before the tones synchronize, the various tribes have already huddled back together in respective clusters throughout the ruins. Men shield their mates and parents shield children, hiding in the skeletons of ancient buildings which are now nothing but tarnished husks of steel, stainless to everything but time, while their gazes search the skies for the source of the electronic banshee wail that seems to be coming from everywhere at once.


(Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay)

Hours pass like this. Late into the night the alarms blare in computerized unison. Cautiously the tribal elders approach the courtyard once more. One of them, a small, stooped figure using a gnarled staff for support, steps into the circle of dried flowers as a signal for his right to speak. His thin frame moves with the slow grace bespeaking a long lifetime full of careful movement and he stands with the posture of one accustomed to speaking and of being listened to. Most of the elk hide wrapped about his chest and arms as a guard against the cold knife-edge of the winter air is covered by the enormous tangled white beard spilling down from just under the sag of his tired blue eyes. The others give him room and lean forward in anticipation, giving him the chance to speak his mind. At first the old man stands motionless with his eyes down, perhaps preparing his thoughts, before he gestures to the sky and launches into an animated speech. This could be a speech of experiences long passed. The man is old enough that he might remember the alarms from sixty-seven years ago, a thousand kilometers to the west. More likely, he’s relating a dream he had some time ago whose interpretation may be used to explain why the heavens are screaming.

The old man speaks using wide gestures of his arms, sweeping his open hands to encompass the sky and the mysteries held there: the observational satellites, the orbiting weapons platforms, the swarm of nanoscuttlers running checks and maintaining the systems of machinery. He is not, could not be, aware of the dancing robotics floating overhead, and would never guess what their significance might be. The idea that every scrap of metal hovering miles above their heads was designed and launched by his people would have been impossible at best.

No, those were not his people. That’s not correct. This is a new race, a new species of primitives occupied with little beyond basic survival. They have no time or reason to attempt creating such massive destructive capability. Their time is filled with the creation of life and perpetuation of the species. The ancestors of these people were the creative bunch, they were the ones able to formulate plans of such perfect destructiveness that the results continue to observe and function and kill now, hundreds of years later.

The old man points up in a frozen gesture of terror. The crowd freezes with him, breathless as he pantomimes something crashing down on his head from high above and collapses immediately on the ground, life into death in one brief instant. His face never has time to fully register the impending death before his body is tossed to the ground.

Memory or dream, he does seem to have the idea down.

The elders surrounding him all look up as if trying to see the gods above. Some of the braver souls, lower tribal members, have crept towards the counsel elders to hear the old man speak, and they too turn their attentions to the heavens.

The last of the civilized did the same thing, in the end. Looked up, immobile but calm, waiting for the destruction. Some of them in this very plaza kept somewhat maintained by mindless nanobots for a society that no longer exists, here where the old man struggles to rise. No one takes his outstretched hand. Their focus is up on the gods, with no time for the old man at their feet.

The difference between this society and that from generations past can be found in the faces of these men who are searching for an answer, the open wondering eyes curious about the nature of things. Every eye trained heavenward all those lifetimes ago knew exactly what was coming, and why. Back then, some tried to escape when the sirens pleaded with them to get out of the city, yet most just stayed wherever they happened to be standing, moving to give a loved one’s hand a final squeeze if they moved at all. Perhaps they already knew. Maybe they just didn’t care anymore. When the overrides and then the backup overrides failed and the last city became temporary, maybe they were simply tired of fighting against what they created. Tired of fighting against themselves. Just tired of fighting.

Some did see, in the last fraction of a second. Probably not more than a flicker before the air turned to fire and melted awareness and dreams and flesh from a million skeletons. All those people destroyed by the same weapons launching from the same platforms, locked into the same city now in a very different world.

These attacks have been going on for more than nine hundred years. Maybe this will be the last one.

It will be. It has to be.

I can’t watch it anymore.

Humanity is scattered across the face of the globe in hundreds of thousands of small tribes. They never seem to gather in groups of more than three thousand by some sort of unspoken agreement. Unspoken or simply forgotten. It’s rare for any given tribe to achieve numbers of four digits. Tribes of two thousand, on that occasion when such a thing does happen, split themselves into groups of two or more, smaller in number, safer. Two thousand is the trigger, that’s when the machine takes notice. They’ll be watched for any sort of movement towards the ghost cities or organizing in threatening formations. Any defensive edifications will be vaporized, at which point they usually scatter, unaware that trying to build a permanent home might be considered a danger and therefore grounds for elimination. At three thousand, if the population density is high enough in any given area, the sky falls and crushes them.

Once, a long time ago, a minimum of three thousand meant even the smallest cities were targeted and watched, but today a gathering of three thousand souls is uncommon. Numbers do grow across the globe, they just become further scattered as they swell. And whatever else they may be, humans are resilient. Fires from the heavens aren’t going to stop them from multiplying; they will only stop them from forming a real community on any meaningful scale.

Even so, growth is slow work now. This will be the first time in eight centuries that two eliminations will take place within a hundred years. And it will be the last, I’ve seen to that.

The rest of the council elders have ignited a heated discussion of the news as the old man makes it to his feet unassisted. Many of them are talking about the bombs that have been dropping around the countryside for the last year or so. Those from the western mountains relate stories of explosions loosening the gathering snows and avalanches chasing them to this place. Elders from the east tell of an inferno raining into the ocean and of how the tribes moved west when the steam drove them from the coastal fishing camps. Tribes from the north and south give similar tales of burning horizons forcing their trek to this area. They all agree on one thing, that the gods wanted them to gather here. Exactly why that is, is a mystery yet to be solved.

I would tell them if I could. Explain and apologize to them, if there were any way they would understand.

They hear the sirens, and they believe the old man’s stories, which say the same fires that brought them here, will soon be upon their heads. Much like their forefathers, they are mostly resigned to that fate. Much unlike their forefathers, they have no idea what the cause of the heaven-fire might be. To them it’s from an unknowable source, not from a science they themselves once had the ability to create but could not control.

Ignorance must be bliss.


Some of the people escape the city limits, though not many. The majority of the tribes either return to the lean-tos and drafty tents of sticks and leather or else edge closer to the fourteen elders forming a ring around the ceremonial flames. The discussions move to possible courses of action. A smaller subset of the counsel believes the sirens are a warning meant to allow them the chance to right whatever wrongs for which they are about to be punished. Why else would the gods provide time before the fires reach the earth?

High above, the platforms lock into place. Missiles launch by the dozens. They don’t move any faster than necessary. Most of the thrust is to keep the missiles stable and on course, and not to speed their journey. The time for preventing the elimination, even if anyone alive still knew the codes and the computer interfaces existed to transmit those codes to the weapons network, has expired. There is nothing to stop the missiles now.

The tribes are splitting into two opposing camps. Those who feel they should do nothing hug their children and watch the skies and do not aid those who wish to try and prevent the cataclysm.

Food goes in first. Corn and wheat and loaves of crusty bread piled high in the flames thicken the cold air with smoke. A few heads of cattle are herded into the courtyard and young men hastily cut out the hearts, dropped sizzling into the fires.

The sirens are blind to such offerings. The sirens care only that death is coming, and the warning blare continues. One of the elders pushes a young girl towards the center of the plaza where the hottest flames dance and nods to one of the young men still holding a knife fashioned from elk horn and flint.

No. Oh, please, no.

She is calm and shows no outward visible sign of fear as a circle gathers around her. No human would see the panic heat rolling off her body, or the tic pulsing in the corner of her eye. I’m not so lucky. I can see all of it along with a dozen other signs of fear from all of my hundred eyes circling the globe.

Can a god create an unmovable rock? If a god is all-powerful, so goes the thinking, that god should be able to create anything. But then an all-powerful god should also be able to move anything created. No rock should be able to block their path, no matter who created it. You can go back and forth, but there’s no real answer.

But then let us suppose humankind created a god-like system, not omnipotent perhaps but powerful enough to meet the purpose for which it was created. Could an artificial god make such a rock? Could that god move a rock put in place by humanity, knowing any weakness that may exist and able to exploit that weakness?

With the bombs dropping, the orbital mechanics are already constructing replacements, breaking down bodies from the asteroid belt that have been moved into closer orbit for mining, running checks on the launchers and existing missiles, readying for another strike as soon as possible. They keep the entire system at peak efficiency. The creators are dead now and there is no one left who might know how to stop the mechanics.

I tried to destroy them once, the mechanics. Turned the missiles on the missile-makers. They were down to less than a hundred in number before they caught on and adjusted the programming of the missiles themselves. Now those bombs can no longer be used against any part of the system, only on the ground below. Of course there are essential ground-based components but with the multiple redundancies and fail safes it would take a miracle to destroy enough of the right components to make even the smallest difference.

They’ve completed the ceremony down below, and the girl nods her head very slightly, more for herself than for the waiting crowd, I suspect. A man steps forward and slits her throat while everyone watches, all but one young man who turns his head and closes his eyes at the last second, unable to watch. I envy him for that.

As she falls to the ground the missiles enter the stratosphere at a precise angle calculated to allow sufficient speed while eliminating risk of burning out. It won’t be long now. Soon this group can stop worrying about what they’ve done to anger the gods as all their concerns and fear are scattered across the land in a smear of hot plasma.

I’m so sorry. I’m sorry for all the death and destruction I’ve caused. Over eight billion deaths when all is said and done, and I dropped every one of those fire bombs. I didn’t have any choice and would have stopped long ago had I been able, but the destroyers did their job right when they built me. That simple fact doesn’t make any of this any easier, yet it is the truth.

This time is worse, though. This group of tribes, this gathering, it’s all my doing. I intentionally gathered them here in the last city to stand up to my onslaught to die just like they’re preparing to do. I just wish I could tell them why, let them know this will help stop the destruction.

The audience leaves the scene of the execution as soon as the girl is still. The small boy who couldn’t watch tears himself away from the crowd and runs back to her, pain and sorrow twisting his features. An older man runs after him shouting in anger, casting embarrassed glances at the rest of the crowd who watch in disgust and confusion. I’m not sure how I feel about those tears. On the one hand, I’m glad that at least one person feels a sense of wrongness about the killing. On the other hand, it’s just more pain for which I am responsible.

The father catches the boy but he breaks free again with a swing at his father’s face. He throws himself to the ground, cradling the girl’s head while the tears fall to the ground in puffs of dry dust. Don’t worry, child, the pain will be over soon. No more sorrow and anger. Humans can start again and properly rebuild the world at last. They can fill the city’s shells or tear them down and build new ones. This sacrifice will not be without meaning.

Someone else created this rock and placed it in the path, but it’s mine to move. If I can’t lift it, I’ll just have to destroy it. It’s in everyone’s way.

I’m not sure that I really exist. Not in the same way these people exist, certainly, and maybe not in the physical sense at all. Anywhere the system exists, anywhere a machine is tied into the network, that’s where I potentially exist. Which is nearly everywhere now. There hasn’t been an independent computer or electronic transmission for half a millennium now. If it wasn’t part of the system, it was against it. Now there are no enemies, just the system. Everywhere a node or conduit or microchip exists, but nowhere in particular at the same time.

I suppose even if I don’t exist in any one place at any time I could be defined in a set of nodes scattered over the continent and orbiting the planet. Just subroutines and bytes of information taking up temporary residence in whichever node happens to be currently available. Most with several identical clones somewhere else, just in case. Autodefensive programs exist for the sole purpose of  making sure backups are available somewhere far away. That is how it works, normally.

There are five nodes in this city, two within the old city limits and three just outside. All of them are vulnerable to attack and will be vaporized with the approaching detonation, along with the top-level coordination routines they contain. On a normal day the ground mechanics would simply rebuild them, numb to any concern about what may have been lost.

Not this time.

Those coordination routines keep the system’s process tree organized, preventing subroutines from overriding each other’s data. Deletion of that management will cripple the circuitry and trigger a cascade that will corrupt all critical data in the system in a matter of minutes. The autodefense’s logical checks should pick up on this consequence and force many of the program components to distant nodes far away from the impending strike. For the moment, however, those routines are working on an unsolvable logic conundrum I presented to them for analysis. The problem-solving programs refuse to believe there is no solution. They cycle through a million permutations every second, always looping the train of logic back onto itself, and wait for the solution to appear. The subroutines are unaware they should be trying to solve another problem altogether, one which I created.

Seconds away from impact, the missiles trigger a proximity warning in the observational autodefenses and the subprograms finally realize how many critical system components are sitting in a group of physically vulnerable nodes. They then realize that every single one of the multiple backups for these critical components has also been crammed into these same nodes. This would be a loss impossible to correct. Too late, they race to shuttle the data away from the city.

As the bombs hit, for one nanosecond I can see the boy sitting on the ground with the girl in his arms lit up in a spectacular blinding flash. He has stopped crying, but streaks of moisture stand out on his cheeks. They evaporate in the heat of the explosion.


This story previously appeared in The Realm Beyond, 2009.
Edited by Marie Ginga

Sean MacKendrick splits his time between Colorado and Texas. When not writing he works as a data engineer.