I'd been watching the boy's approach through the twilight since he'd been detected by the proximity sensors some twenty minutes ago. He was about fifty meters away when he was surprised by the land crocodile. He was raising his spear at the creature, but I didn't want it hurt so I aimed the ultrasonic carrier at him and whispered in his ear, "Don't move and I promise you'll be safe from the monster." He barely jumped and resisted turning to look for the owner of the voice. Self control was one of the first things lost when civilisation was shattered and it was especially unusual to see it in a teenager.
The croc is useful as a deterrent. It's no danger to me because years ago I put a tracker on it to let me know exactly where it is, and the animal was easy to control. I activated the mesh of microscopic OLEDs I'd embedded in its eyes and sent it the image of a nice fat pig off to the other side, while blotting out the image of the boy. Smell was always a problem, but the youth must have been fairly clean because the croc obediently turned away to chase the computer-generated phantom into the forest to where its reward, a nice, juicy lump of vat-grown meat, would be waiting.
I don't like getting visitors. They bring disease, radiation, and ignorant attitudes. It is better for all concerned that they stay away. Don't get me wrong, I like people, just not here. Time grows shorter by the day, I have many things to do, and can do them better without the distraction.
Keeping the ultrasonic carrier pointed at him, I asked, "Why are you here? Don't you know this is a dangerous place?"
"And yet you live here, safely." He was peering around him at the tall, dark trees, the dim undergrowth, the soft carpet of leaves. He waved his arm around himself. "Are you invisible?" I sounded like I was next to him but he couldn't see anyone.
"Is this witchcraft?"
"Are you a fool? There's no such thing as witchcraft."
"How can you sound like you're here yet not be here?"
"Ultrasound can be aimed precisely, but the human ear can't hear it. By imposing my speech on it my voice can be carried directly to you without others, such as the crocodile, hearing. Do you understand that?"
"A little, I think." He seemd to relax somewhat. "Ultrasound is what bats use, yes?"
That was an unexpected surprise. "Yes. But you still haven't answered my question. Why are you here?"
"You're the keeper of knowledge." He stood proudly and put one hand on his chest. "I've come to learn from you."
"Sorry, you're too old to learn. Go away."
He looked briefly disappointed, but then cocked his head to one side and smiled, "Are you too old to learn?"
"I don't learn as fast as I'd like to anymore," I grumbled. It annoyed me greatly that the rate at which I consumed knowledge had been slowing as I aged, though I did have some ideas on how to fix it. It also worried me that I seemed to be becoming grumpy as time wore on. I should be careful about that and see if there was any way I could counteract it.
I looked over at him wearing raggy brown clothes, his long hair tied back from his face, little more than a child trying to prematurely to become a man. He was still standing in the small forest glade waiting patiently while peering around him into the gloom, trying to see where I might be.
Grudgingly, I asked, "What is it you want to learn?"
He smiled again. "Anything, everything. How to avoid the sickness; what holds the sun up in the sky; how to survive..."
I grunted. He looked to be in his late teens and so a bit old to learn much, also something about his manner struck me as unsuitable for a student, but I've been wrong before and it's important that knowledge be passed on, or what goddamn use is it? "All right. I'll teach you." And I switched off the camouflage.
He gasped as, about fifty meters from him, a thick tangle of thorny vines between the trees seemed to vanish, revealing my mud and thatch covered, dome-shaped hut. I would let him see only that, not the rest. He would need to prove himself much more than just an arrogant young man.
"Magic," he whispered.
I growled, "I told you before. There's no such thing as magic! I simply project an image that would discourage anybody from walking here. It's done with a machine. If you want me to teach you, you'd better start using your brain."
"I'm sorry Madam. Thank you for taking me into your confidence." He gave a small formal bow, little more than a nod of the head and shoulders and walked toward me.
It was encouraging that he could show some humility, so I stepped into my doorway, letting him see me. I looked like an old woman in order to prevent his thinking being affected by sexuality. I beckoned. "You may come inside, but no weapons are allowed in here." I pointed to a thin cupboard just outside the door. "Leave them there. Jewelry too."
"Pendants, rings, things like that. Don't worry, they'll be safe."
After leaving a dismaying array of weapons and a few rings and a pendant he attempted to step through the doorway, but his foot resisted. He looked puzzled. The image overlaid on my vision showed he had metal nails in his boots. The doorway's field induced currents with an opposing magnetic field in any metal. I switched the doorway's field off after making a quick scan to make sure he wasn't carrying any other weapons. "The doorway thought your boots might be weapons. I've switched it off so you're free to enter now."
"The doorway is a machine?"
Huh, he was learning. I nodded. As he entered the doorway I watched the scan of his body imposed on my vision. His levels of radioactivity, especially in his bones, meant he wasn't really a good candidate as a student. He would surely sicken and die in the coming years. Nevertheless I had to try.
"When was the last time you ate?"
It was now mid-afternoon. Every day was dusky dim, even at noon. The forest obscured much of the feeble red sun. It's a wonder that anything grew anymore. "Would you like some food?"
"I can always eat food," he laughed looking around at this room. Someone had taught him manners, because he suddenly remembered them. "Thank you for your kind offer. I have food that I can share with you too, if you want." He patted a large pouch attached to his belt.
I shook my head, "Thank you, but no, I'm fine," and indicated the wooden chair at my table, "Sit. Tell me about yourself."
As he haltingly began his story I went to the other side of the room, opened the lid of my freezer, took out some vat-grown meat and put it in the oven along with some frozen vegetables from my hydroponic gardens. Then I went to my workbench, cleared wires and bits and pieces from another chair, carried it back over and sat at the other side of the table, facing him.
His family had been small — just his parents and one sister. They had all died slowly and painfully — probably radiation poisoning. He had figured that their seaside home wasn't safe so he'd left, taking what little he could with him, and spent some years living off the land and doing odd jobs for people. He'd heard of a witch who lived in the forest and who knew about the old days, when people could do almost anything. His parents used to tell him about the times before the darkness too, so here he was, to learn.
"Your parents were right. The time before the darkness was like paradise, when people were like gods, but strangely never really appreciated it. Unfortunately envy and greed were considered normal, and life became based on consuming faster and faster, out of control, with people rarely able to stop and realise that they were the luckiest in history. Sadly it wasn't until it was all lost that people came to appreciate what they had and how surprisingly fragile it was."
He made a movement with his hand to interrupt, "What is the darkness? Mum and Dad often spoke of it but I don't understand what it is."
"You don't remember how it was before? How light it used to be?"
He shook his head, puzzled.
"You must have been too young. Some called it a war, but the accidental launching of tens of thousands of nuclear bombs was not a war; it was a stupid accident. Though accident isn't really the right word for an event that could be predicted with absolute certaintly. Stupid, because it was completely avoidable."
I thought for a moment, trying to work out the best way to tell it. "Once upon a time there were two very rich countries, USA and USSR, who were terribly scared of each other because each believed their own lies that cast the other as inhuman and evil. They developed thousands of extremely powerful explosives, called nuclear bombs, and a policy called Mutually Assured Destruction, or MAD for short (how very appropriate). It meant that neither side could attack the other because it would destroy everything. This was a period called the Cold War. Eventually the cold war sent the USSR broke and it collapsed. They'd been spending too much money on weapons and spies and corrupt bureaucrats and too little on their social structure."
"You-ess-ay won? I haven't heard of them," he said doubtfully.
"Yes, they won. But here is you why you haven't heard of them: You would think that without an enemy the USA would've relaxed and enjoyed a new era of peace, but it had grown an enormous military industry that had addicted their society to weapons and war, and they were racing toward the same fate as the USSR. They were spending too much money on weapons and spies and corrupt bureaucrats and too little on social services. The structure of their society was falling apart all around them. The more they weakened, the more they convinced themselves they were the greatest, and the more paranoid they grew about threats. This accelerated spending on all the wrong things. Insanely, all those nuclear weapons were still aimed at the non-existent USSR and a few other places, waiting for the signal to launch, and their targets had similar weapons still aimed back at the USA. They had never been dismantled, even though their original lunatic reason for existing was gone. The system was always prone to failure, and had a few times, but had always been stopped before it was too late. Well, simple probability guaranteed that eventually it would fail in a way that it couldn't be stopped. And with their infrastructure crumbling that time came sooner, rather than later."
I paused with the weight and horror of what had happened. "Most of the people, and large numbers of the animals and plants on Earth were killed in the first few seconds. The rest have been dying of radiation poisoning and lack of food and water ever since. It produced a nuclear winter with dark clouds of radioactive dust enveloping the whole world — mostly the northern hemisphere first, then here in the south. The USA had less military bases below the equator to be hit by the automated response. Also, the north and south wind systems are largely separate with only slow mixing at the equator. But our skies gradually went dark too, though never as badly as the north. That is what the darkness is."
He frowned, trying to understand this, somewhat unsuccessfully, I imagine. He said, "So the dust clouds will fall and the sky will be light again?"
"Yes. In perhaps another three hundred years. It's hard to say exactly when. I'm still trying to get more measurements on dust particle size, how high the dust extends, how much the wind patterns have been affected... and other things. By that time, anything with a lifespan longer than a few years will mostly have died out. Very few people will remain, and they will be cursed with genetic damage forever. Only plants that can survive low light levels will continue. Small, scavenging animals will be numerous, such as ants, beetles, cockroaches, rats, and mice, but most birds and mammals will be gone. Some reptiles that don't require much food may survive. I don't know what's happening in the seas where everything depends on the algae, and they're starved for light, so are dying off."
"You called it a nuclear winter. Doesn't 'winter' mean cold?"
"Winter used to refer to a cold season, yes. It was a part of the year, but we don't really have seasons anymore. It is much colder than it used to be, but before the darkness people had been gradually destroying the world in another way, called global warming, so things are not as cold as they could have been, but that's changing. It has been slowly getting colder and soon it will be cold enough for water to freeze solid."
He looked at me skeptically, but didn't say anything. Obviously he'd never seen ice or snow.
Ding! The oven's bell rang. I went over, removed the meal, and brought it back to put on the table before him with knife and fork. I cautioned, "Be careful, it's hot."
He looked at the knife and fork, then at the food. Tentatively, he touched the plate, which was only warm. He didn't need to touch the food. He could see the steam rising from it and feel its heat. He looked questioningly at me.
I tried to think of a way to tell him about cooking with microwaves that would make some kind of sense — special light waves that were about as long as your hand, that resonated with water's polar molecules, make them jiggle and tumble about, and since heat is movement the whole thing heats up? Instead, I sighed. "It's difficult to explain how this machine cooks unless you already know a lot of other things — what atoms and molecules are, the electron's field, and how light is a wave in that field. If you're willing, you could learn all this eventually."
He'd skewered the meat with the fork, was blowing on it and biting pieces off it, noisily blowing air in and out of his mouth to avoid burning himself too much. After a few tries he laid the meat down and started on the veggies instead, correctly supposing they'd cool faster and it would give time for the meat to be a more edible temperature.
He said around a mouthful, "I'm mostly interested in things that will help me survive."
I suspected I knew what he meant by that, but I ignored it and got up to fetch a large glass and fill it with water for him. When I set it down on the table for him he thanked me but said he'd prefer ale, if possible.
"No." I shook my head and sat again. "There is no ale or wine here. Hundreds of years ago drinking them was a survival trait because water was often impure, and wine and ale couldn't be brewed in contaminated water. Those days have returned where the dangers of bad water outweigh the damage from alcohol. But it's different here, in this house. This water is pure. Alcohol damages the brain and makes learning difficult — it makes you more stupid. The whole point of being here is to learn and become smarter."
He shrugged and nodded, "No problem," then pointed at his plate, "It's good food, thanks. It reminds me of what my Mum used to make when I was little."
"What if I give you the key to a mystery that people have searched for since the first people? A secret that built empires from religions, that made some people the most powerful people in the world by pretending that they knew its answer? Something that throughout the centuries people have grasped at and failed over and over again to seize. What if I could give you that secret now? Would you be interested?"
His eyes twinked with interest. "I'd say, by golly, yes."
Yes. He wanted power. What a pity. Well, I'd give it to him, though not in the way he was expecting.
"What is the meaning of life? This is the question that many people believe is the most important question of all. It is the foundation upon which all religions build, but are never able to resolve. The inability to answer this question is the reason for most of the problems people experience. Knowing the answer can bring you happiness and peace. And the more this knowledge is shared, the more powerful it becomes." I looked at him. He'd stopped eating.
"Go on," he said.
"The reason the answer is such a mystery is that everybody assumes it is something great and grand and complex and difficult to understand. In fact it is so ridiculously simple a child can understand it. Unfortunately religion is heavily invested in maintaining the mystery, not in revealing its answer, even if those at its center understood it, which they never do. They hypothesise a god and say that he holds the reason for life, but when asked what that reason is, they show how bankrupt they are with their answer: 'Only god knows'. Their reason is no reason at all. It's a bait and switch. But by putting so much effort into deceiving themselves that the imaginary is genuine, and looking for comfort in a meaningless riddle, they completely overlook the real purpose of life. It's profoundly tragic and has caused untold misery through the ages.
"The real answer is breathtakingly simple:
"Life is different from rocks or water or air. It has a purpose, an aim. The purpose of life is... life. It is its own purpose. Life creates life. That's its function, its purpose, its meaning.
"Many forms of life have an additional purpose. They have brains capable of learning. The human brain is perhaps the greatest in this respect, and its intelligence is driven by curiosity to learn. The purpose of intelligence is to learn. That's what gives it meaning.
"Some forms of life have another purpose on top of those. They're social, like ants and dogs and humans, and they fulfil that purpose by helping one another to do more than any individual could on their own. Humans can understand far more than other creatures so can avoid being limited by families, or tribes, or villages, or cities, or countries, or races, or species. The human mind can see past all that to realise that all life is kin. All have the same DNA. All are related. All are dependent upon each other. In humans the third purpose comes full circle to the first: to help life."
I held up three fingers. "To foster life, to learn, to help your fellows. These are the three ultimate meanings for human existence. This is why humanity came undone. They didn't understand the meaning of life. You ignore it at your peril, and you gain everything from accepting and spreading it."
He was frowning. I could see from his expression that he wanted to say he'd been expecting the keys to the kingdom and been given banalities, but he couldn't think of a way to put it politely.
I made a calming motion with my hand. "As I said, this is absurdly simple. People fail to see it because they're looking for something grand and mysterious and distant, so they completely miss the obvious answer lying right at their feet. Its simplicity doesn't change its power. Remaining true to it will bring you a fulfilled life. If you ignore it you'll find conflict and unhappiness and be bedevilled by an emptiness to the end of your days."
I held up those three fingers again. "Foster life, learn, help your fellows. You can add as many extra purposes as you want beyond that, so long as they don't conflict with those three. You can desire to climb high mountains, make comfortable shoes, sing songs — whatever interests you. Those are your choices. But maintain the three simple rules of life for intelligent social creatures and you can help create the best of possible worlds out of this broken one."
He had finished his meal now and drunk the water. He crossed his arms and sat, looking down at his plate, thinking. I could see it before he said anything. He thought I was a fake, that I didn't have any real knowledge, that I was a deluded old hag living alone in the forest with a few interesting toys left over from the old days.
"I know you mean well," he said, trying to look sympathetic, "But look at the real world out there. Weapons are true power. What use are words against those that would crush and kill? I wish the best for you and all, but I can't see the point in being a pacifist hiding in the forest, learning about toys and tricks, and nice sounding, but ineffective words."
I sighed sadly, "You're right. I have nothing of use to you."
"Well, the ultrasonic speaking machine could be useful, and the device that stops weapons coming through the door. You could give me those."
"Do you have a strong wagon pulled by several horses? The doorway uses large coils, too heavy for a single person to lift, and a great bank of supercapacitors to supply enough electricity, charged by hundreds of small solar panels that are like leaves in the treetops above, as well as computers to control sensing and energising. The ultrasonic carrier is lighter, but still requires some computing power, some supercapacitors for electricity, and many solar leaves to charge them. It would take weeks packing it all up, and months, perhaps years, teaching you its use and maintenance."
He stood and thanked me again for the meal. As he headed to the door he said, "I might come this way again one day. Is there anything you'd like me to bring you?"
"Seeds," I said. "If, in your travels, you find interesting plants, especially edible ones, I'd very much appreciate their seeds for my collection." I opened a small cupboard near the door and took out a small bag with an adjustable strap, and handed it to him. "You can put them in this, if you would."
He nodded, then quickly gathered up all the weapons and ornaments he'd left by the door. When they were all once again on his person he turned and gave me a brief wave."
I followed him a few steps outside. "You'll be safe from the land croc, but be careful, there are more on the other side of the hill that I have no influence over."
He nodded again and left.
When he'd gone, I walked back inside, closed the door and set the illusion of the thick undergrowth covered in thorny vines to hide the house. My hut was once again well lit by its thousands of lights in the ceiling, and the back wall had opened to reveal the large, lower room. I walked toward it and with each step I straightened up, and changed my appearance so that I no longer looked like an old woman, nor even exactly human. Ahead of me, coming to meet me, walking up the ramp out of that room were my five sisters, identical in appearance to myself — tall, slender, smooth, gray silicone, hairless.
The nearest touched me on my upper arm in consolation and spoke without voice, A pity he wasn't suitable.
I shrugged, Eventually we'll find someone.
The others spoke in turn while approaching me sympathetically.
We can wait.
And even in the worst case, if humanity is doomed by its nature, we may yet serve.
Other intelligent species might be encouraged.
Dogs, crows, parrots...
Elephantfish, gigantiops... the others offered.
I shook my head. Humans aren't finished yet. They were smart enough to build us. We'll find someone who can understand. We just have to be patient and keep trying.