Before the border wall, we scatter.
The nanomachines grind us down and we float up and through the cracks, molecule to molecule, like holding hands.
Leena hesitates, is left behind. She stands apart on the wrong side of the wall. She presses her hand to the cool, shaded concrete. We feel it through the upload.
Big fields of grain wave at her back. Miles of grain. She breathes in and the scent lingers, stains the upload with memories. (Watch the singularities like thunderstorms outside your windows; see the monsters they bring.) Her eyes are closed. A little sadness shows on her mouth, downturned at the corner. She stays like that for a long while.
Leena is like us, scared. We can feel it, a low bass at the bottom of the upload. None of us have our filters active. The minutes are precious; we experience everything we can. Leena was the newest addition to our group before we picked up a couple survivors from another group. She is fast. Good with a wrench. Her nanomachine swarm is top-notch. Brilliant, the colors of their carapaces in the daylight. They rest across her bare, elegant shoulder. She stands tall, a long neck, an easy smile. She is the best of us.
When we reform, we place our hands on the opposite side of the wall. We feel the connection. We turn and run ahead. We know the border security, the swarms, the electrical grid, and most of all, the mouths. Crafted by AI, we know they are strange things. Wide, grinning mouths attached to bent legs, striding across the plains between the two border walls in predictable patterns. At their center, they are a mass of flurried arms engineered to pick up runners. We know they want the burst of blood on their teeth again.
Finally, Leena, too, scatters through the wall.
We are the diversion. Ahead of her, we have already started to die.
We feel it on the upload. The mouths’ pattern tears across us and a few are too slow, plucked up. No hesitation. The mouths eat us. Their teeth snap across our limbs and we wriggle in the half-light on serrated tongues. We go into shock, and soil ourselves. Our last emotion is one of embarrassment. (We have been taught to die nobly for thousands of years, and it is always a surprise to us when we don’t.)
The mouths chew. We hear the sounds on the upload. Cracked bone, wet cartilage. Soon those who died are scattered in a different way. The AI’s creations, the mouths, are efficiency incarnate. They were made to solve problems; it’s the core from which they grew. They use all the parts of us to correct our transgressions. We become mortar for the cracks in the wall, and organic matter for the grass we bent running. We are grafted onto the broken wheat stalks, and set them upright to wave others through. We are the soft earth, and the clouds threatening rain again. The mouths do their work well. They wash away our bootsteps with the water in our bodies. They use our platelets to clot any damage done to them. Our consciousness they spit out like seeds. And we linger there, ghosts on the upload, a warning to all like the heads on spikes of old. They kill us every way they can.
“It’s insane,” Leena had said at the war table all those days ago.
“You’ve seen the projections,” one of us—Jyl—had said. “There’s more AI spilling out every day. More factories, more things. There’s no stopping the hemorrhaging now. We’ll be dead in a month, two tops.”
“No,” Leena said.
Jyl said, “We’ve got to get you someplace where the shackles still hold. You’re the best engineer we have. You can change things. We can’t. If only one of us gets through, it has to be you.”
“It’s insane,” Leena said, quieter. It sounded more to us like, It’s the only thing left.
Our knees whisper against the tall grass. Our plan is working. The mouths’ pattern has changed. We are drawing them to us. We are the diversion; we are Leena’s salvation. The mouths strafe us and catch more unaware. More die. Leena trails in our wake, unnoticed so far. Notes of regret thread through her fear.
We send messages of encouragement.
We say, We will be all right, and, This is for the best, and, We don’t hurt for long, and, I’ve always loved you, and, Don’t ever give up.
At the center of the field, in the no-man’s land between the two border walls, lies a strip of abandoned towns. Vines grasp squat one-story buildings, all hunched together like prey along a single road cutting through.
The mouths have laid traps for us in these towns. We spring them. From behind abandoned buildings and cars and weeds, the mouths grow and unfurl before us like dark promises. They catch more of us. Many fall on the upload, screams and bitter endings. The upload is filled with the sounds of chewing. So many die in the towns, bodies smoothed over the walls and streets damaged in the fighting.
Leena dodges the mouths, the traps. The pattern’s changing faster now, and faster still. We can’t keep up. Even Leena has trouble. One of the mouths’ paths crosses Leena, and it’s about to scoop her up, but one of us shoves her out of the way and takes her place. She sees her chance and breaks through.
Leena reaches the opposite wall, places a hand on the rough surface, sun-stained and full of warmth. We feel it so clearly. Salvation.
One of us almost makes it. We reach for her.
Leena sends us messages of, Come on! Come on!
And we’re sending, Get out of here! Go! as the mouths snatch the last of us alive up and lift us to their teeth, and then, over the top of the wall, through the electrical grids, we see the grain waving on the other side, and we share it on the upload.
The upload goes dim, silent, like stars going out. Then, just echoes as the last of us is chewed down to nothing.
We are ghosts. We are the fields, the town. Everywhere our cells are used. Some of us disconnect from the upload, and head into the unknown. Some of us stay.
(Is a ghost a ghost only as long as it holds on?)
Are you ready?
We feel the message thrum against the upload. The world has passed us by. The years have made our upload obsolete, almost incompatible. The message, the feeling, is faint, like being underwater, but it is there.
Leena. She has her hand to the opposite wall again. We think it is déjà vu. (How long have we been here? How much time has gone by?) We think it is a flaw in our memory, but she is different now. Older. She wears a war uniform. Medals dangle from her shoulders, her breast pockets. She stands taller now. There are men with guns behind her and swarm ships hang in the air behind them. An army. A human army.
I’m sorry it took so long, her message comes through. It sounds to us like, We may not win this, but we will try.
“General?” a soldier behind her says.
She keeps her eyes on the wall. She nods.
We give our reply. We help in any way we can, but ghosts are only what they leave behind, and our cells have been spread over miles by now.
The soldiers’ guns scavenge us for ammunition. From the air, the ground. The grain, the buildings. The remnants of our loyal swarms. We are bullets in a magazine. We are the fins on rockets. We are the rolling tank treads. They collect and then we march. We tear through the things that tore through us. It doesn’t have the right satisfaction. A different feeling. Only when Leena is in danger, and our shells and bullets protect her, does the upload sing with happiness once more.
Years. Blood across the hills, the cities. The war touches everything, gets in the corners, the cracks, of every life. Our cells spread far. Stray bullets and shrapnel and broken tank treads and tires. More disconnect from the upload. We are the bombs that rake the countryside. The swarms that shift the jet streams to our advantage. The explosives that level mountains. We are the sad stories told by candlelight. Our upload hums with battle cries when Leena is near, but they sound to us like, We are here for you, I am here. Please don’t forget us.
When the last battle is fought at the hive core—where the AI’s creations curl over each other like snakes and burrow and lash out with everything they have—many of us give whatever we have left. And when the last of the AI’s creations fall, and the shackles come down again, almost all of us disconnect.
Leena builds a house between the border walls. She fills it with our captures. Us striking poses, or smiling with our children. (Dust has already begun to collect at the edges.) The house floats thirteen feet above the ground on grav cams. It’s drafty. Dark on the outside and bright on the inside, sun mirrors in all the rooms. It’s shaped like a ziggurat in the new style. We are the cutting board, the cabinets. We are the coffee pot, the fireplace, the loveseat. We are the bullet casings that get caught between her toes in the rain-soft earth on her daily walks. I am…We are the picked flowers on her nightstand. We think she chooses us, as if she can feel us still, remnants of our upload, even through the singularities, the years. (We have been buried under the constant change.) Other people come through the border, and some can feel our presence there too, but none as strong as Leena. She always had a way with connections, could feel the way something worked just by looking at it, placing a hand to it.
Some travelers come here to settle again.
The abandoned town at the center of the border turns into a real town. Our vines are brushed away. Shop carts trundle down the streets. A faster kind of life amidst the buildings, not just starlight and growth anymore.
Some are soldiers from the war. Some are only good for violence, and end up as bandits. Sometimes they go to Leena’s house. The older woman, the easy mark.
Leena and the soldiers play dark games of hide and seek through the house. We are the clumped rugs that trip them up. The countertops used for cover. The door barred with her shoulder (so close to me…to us, the upload pounds with her pulse). We are the bullets rolling into her revolver’s chamber. The crack of gunfire. We are the metal tearing through their skulls and every terrible thought inside.
After, we are the water carrying their blood to the shower drain. We are the jets massaging her bare shoulders.
Most of us have let go by now. And after the soldiers are dead and buried (the shovel work under the stars, we don’t welcome them next to us in the earth), the rest disconnect. The upload dies, vacant once more.
I am the one who hesitates. The one who can’t let go.
I am the field beneath Leena’s house.
Thousands. (How long has it been?)
She is sick again. I am the towel the caretaker uses to dab at Leena’s forehead. I am the screwdriver fastening handrails to the hallway walls. I am the grav disc that carries her to the bathroom. The old sound machine mimicking rain while she sleeps. When she wakes from a nightmare, I send, You are home, You are home, but it sounds like, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I’ve always loved you. She can barely feel them now, my messages. So many years between us, we are ghosts of different eras. (Our captures were replaced by family pictures long ago.) She lay in a cold sweat. Her trigger hand shakes under the covers. She doesn’t like loud noises.
A breeze curls in and carries dandelion seeds and scatters them across her covers. Close but not touching, the two of us, like hands at our sides. I want to reach out, touch her fingertips. Tell her it will be all right, whatever’s next. The years are too much. A gulf of time that I can’t hope to cross, so I put messages in bottles, across all the bandwidths that I know.
Ghosts are memories given form. So this is what I am, this moment, this memory, most of all: I am the one almost to the wall all those years ago, running, running. Her hand is stretched out to me, and she’s saying, Come on! Come on! Her hand, mine. Only air between us. (It seems so easy now.) And I’m mouthing, Please, please come back for me. But the others are saying something different, and my voice is washed away in the din.
I am not the bed that holds Leena’s body the morning she does not wake. I am not the rags that clean the fluids. I am not the knives that prepare her for the funeral. The video screen that communicates her will. The chairs that hold fat relatives and admirers. I am not the picture frame holding her smile.
I feel her out there, on some other upload. She is the first layer of snow the ground. The jangling chains on her great-great-grandkids’ bicycles. The concrete holding up the new war memorials.
She can feel me too, but faintly, just a murmur now. Hands at our sides, close but never touching, like adjacent graves. Somehow, it’s enough. I send to her, Welcome home, but it sounds like, Come back for me.
I am the last wind on the street before dark. The door closed after an argument, sheetrock punched in anger. The sandcastle left unfinished. The grain waving under the stars.
I am a memory adrift on matter, a seed for the wind, reaching, reaching, only air between us.
John Shade lives and writes weird fiction under the constant Texas sun. His stories have appeared in Triangulation: Parch, Giganotosaurus, and Daily Science Fiction. He can be bribed only with burgers and fries, and can be found online on twitter @Dystopiandream, or on his website, johnmshade.com.
In the Pines, by K.M. Carmien – “You stink like the city,” the woods-thing says. The pines close around them, a green wall, filtering the light to dim and gray, cutting off the world. It looks like a girl, this one. Waxy pale skin, lank dark curls, shabby blue coat. Most of them don’t. They look like trees, or thickets, or wolves, or cats, or patterns of shadow. But this particular one, which always claims the right to deal with her, wears the skin of a girl who was murdered by a drifter four years ago.
Only Their Shining Beauty Was Left, by Fran Wilde – On her second day studying in the Monteverde, Arminae Ganit stared at damp sky framed by beech leaves and fiddleheads and wished she could photosynthesize. She touched fingertips to the thick loam at her feet. Moist air slicked her cheeks and dampened her t-shirt so her pack’s straps rubbed at the skin beneath. The forest’s shifting clouds dappled Arminae’s hands dark and light. She imagined her fingers exuding roots; her hair, fruit and leaves.
Of Blood and Brine, by Megan E. O’Keefe – Child’s mistress was out when the scentless woman entered the shop and laid a strip of severed cloth upon the counter. For once, Child wished her mistress were at her side. “May I help you?” Child asked around a clot of fear. “Make me a vial of this perfume,” Scentless said, her voice honey-sweet though her sillage was hollow, “and another exactly the same, but with the tiniest hint of the sea.”