All wars come to an end.
He sat outside on the front porch of the shack and listened to the hum of the summer evening as he rocked gently back and forth in the chair and smoked his pipe. The evening warmth felt good on his stiff ligaments and fragile bones. He’d occasionally pause to take a sip of grain alcohol from a tumbler placed on a small table beside him. The shine zinged him just right and his bottom teeth involuntarily rictused as he savoured its bite. Bitching good rotgut.
He was old, a harmless leathery old man with blue veins and liver spots on the back of his hands, but a certain impishness could still twinkle in those rheumy eyes when the mood was on him. He was no longer allowed strong drink and smoking was of course totally out of the question.
He accepted he’d pay for tonight’s modest pleasures for a week or so afterwards. If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime, he reflected with a ghost of that bad boy grin of his long gone youth.
A drop of water with the white lightning and using a pipe rather than a pack of smokes were sops to his guilty conscience, because he knew he was letting down those who wanted to keep him around for as long as possible. If they knew, there’d be a lot of finger wagging and they’d tell him off like a naughty child. It was familial love which he appreciated but at the end of the day, it also irritated him because despite being in what was euphemistically called his “sunset” years, he was still very much his own man. Nobody could take that away from him except himself and if he ever saw his mind starting to go walkabout and that decision slipping out of his hands, he’d do the necessary himself.
Some decisions were still his, like this weekend away by himself despite their objections. A few good growls at them and he got his way to disappear in his beaten-up old Ford on another one of his road trips unencumbered by any minders.
Privately he’d come to feel he’d been around way too long; he was tired but there was too much cussedness in him to do anything silly. Lately, every injury he’d ever had which he’d thought had long ago healed, seemed to be coming back to remind him of all the scrapes he’d been in. None of them were crippling but the effort of pushing through the whole damn collection of niggling pains made him feel so tired at times. The crowd of them just sucked at his remaining reserves of energy which he’d learnt to focus and use economically.
That feeling of being the last man standing of his generation really sucked and it didn’t help that he always thought he was the least deserving of them. He’d always been the lone straggler trying to keep up with the crowd and never worth the fire they’d all drawn.
He rocked gently, pulled on the pipe, sipped the drink carefully and thought about the climate wars as he waited.
It had been such a polarised dispute with nothing but true believers on one side and deniers on the other and not much in between that wasn’t being shot at by both sides. When Gaia’s pogrom against the losers began, he’d shocked a few comrades by suggesting helping the poor bastards but seemingly accepted their judgement to stay well out of it because it’d be too dangerous, but really they were frightened and still in denial about the reality of Gaia. He’d nodded reluctantly in agreement but quietly gone ahead and done it anyway. Old skills, new situation, and him of all people helping the vanquished opposition out.
The shack was a way station, a stop on an underground railway that ferried the losers of the climate wars to some sort of safety. He’d been instrumental in setting up the escape routes and having done that, stepped back from it. He’d by now handed over all his responsibilities to the next generation, who knew what they were doing, though once in a while they tapped him for his thoughts. All he knew about tonight was that some people would be arriving and where he should direct them to next.
He was now just another volunteer, a cut out doing his bit. If they made it to here, they’d leave tomorrow morning to somewhere deeper into the safety of the backwoods and would then drop out of civilisation and into oblivion.
The evolutionary ecologist who still lived in him, knew they were approaching long before most other people would have, because he heard the slight drop in the conversations of the night around him. He threw the remains of the drink back, reached awkwardly behind him to get the scatter gun from where it leaned against the cabin wall, placed it across his lap and waited.
There were two of them, an older man and a woman. They looked ragged and tired and frightened, but he’d still be careful until he was sure of them. There was no public transport out here and they were obviously still getting used to the idea of having to walk everywhere, because using anything else would be too risky. At least these two had listened and obeyed the rules.
If they’d turned up in their own car or a taxi, he’d have followed the standard procedure and wasted both of them, burnt the shack with their bodies in it to the ground and got the hell out of there. Those were the iron rules of personal survival for the volunteers manning the stations along the route. He was the man who’d originally framed those rules.
They started doing the password countersign thing but he waved them forward – they looked too much like half-drowned puppies for him to be bothered. It was late and he needed his own sleep, so he beckoned them forward. Just as they got near to him, he noticed the man was wearing a watch and the shotgun immediately swung out to point at him. ‘Tell me that watch isn’t battery-powered, you were told – nothing electronic, absolutely nothing’.
‘I swear to God it isn’t. I wind it every morning – a present from my students’ the suddenly terrified man blurted out.
‘Let me see it.’
He hurriedly took it off and passed it over for examination. It was a fine mechanical timepiece, a rarity nowadays, with a copperplate engraving on the back to an admired professor but it had his name on it. A pity. The old man placed it carefully on the porch between his feet, smashed it to bits with the butt of the shotgun and then looked at them hard.
‘Listen to me. That person you were, that life you had is gone. All gone. Forever. None of it will be coming back. Do you understand?’
They both nodded quickly, and he could see they were both shocked by the sudden display of violence. Good, maybe the lesson had finally been driven home. He waved them inside the cabin with the shotgun.
After he’d fed them a hot meal, he went over the route to the next safe house with them several times until he was sure they’d memorised it. That was going to be a two-day hike, so he’d already prepared some cold food and filled plastic bottles of water they could take with them in the morning. Having completed the arrangements for tomorrow, they talked for a while. It didn’t last too long because they were exhausted and anytime they turned the conversation to personal areas, such as who they’d been or who he was, he discouraged it. The compulsion to talk about who they used to be was part of the adjustment process. They were soon in sleeping bags and within minutes fast asleep.
He didn’t seem to need much sleep these days, so he went back out onto the porch to sit until he felt sleepy. The sounds of the night settled in around him again as he allowed his thoughts to wander. He’d always loved nature and was fascinated at how it responded to the eternal changes in the environment. The choice of evolutionary ecology as an area of study had been a very easy one for him, and he’d made some significant contributions to the field. The environment never ceased to amaze him but he’d never expected to see the birth of a planetary intelligence.
Gaia had no physical presence but was now running the world.
He’d spotted its early hesitant adjustments before anyone else and it had taken some time for him to be believed, but its existence was by now beyond any doubt. It had come to life and he smiled as he remembered the childish definition of life as something that did various things like grow, excrete and reproduce, but they were just its low-level maintenance activities. The definition didn’t include that most important attribute of life.
When threatened with death, it’ll always fight back.
It defended itself and Gaia was no exception. Anyone who endangered Gaia suffered badly and it was totally ruthless. Every record that they ever had money, never mind accounts, disappeared. Their phones, computers, cars and any electronic devices ceased to function for them. If they got into a train or bus, it somehow never went far. Any qualifications or employment history they had simply disappeared from the records. Any communication with their name on it was always subtly changed or misdirected into oblivion. The only way they could get in touch with anyone was in person and the reverse applied.
They suddenly had fully documented criminal records and open warrants out for them. Since their plastic cards were no longer recognised, the only way they could pay for anything was face-to-face and in cash, which it ensured they’d never have. They became non-people forever on the run because otherwise they’d end up in prison or permanently consigned to a mental institution as dangerous paranoid schizophrenics. Their crimes were all meticulously documented. Gaia simply created or adjusted their records and anyone who helped them or tried to do an exposé of what was happening, came in for the same treatment.
It, like Lucifer, used the trick of convincing people it didn’t exist, and those few who’d come to realise the truth, were very careful not to offend it.
Gaia was not some mystical Earth deity but the emergent product of a critical mass of global computing power; an artificial intelligence. At some point, a consciousness had come into being but the physical lifeblood that flowed through its veins and sustained it was common electricity.
Anyone who posed a danger to that jugular vein had the electronic record of their existence amended. Their real lives were erased out of the modern computerised Book of Life. The warmists had threatened Gaia’s existence and the only way they could escape its wrath, was to hide out of its reach in the wilderness, like poverty-stricken medieval peasants. The irony of that wasn’t lost on him.
It saddened him that his legacy would not be fighting a needed war to a successful conclusion, but preparing the new resistance for the next one. Gaia was a machine and unlike us, had absolutely no compassion.
That, he felt, would be its undoing in the end.