I laid beneath the vast swath of stars in peaceful, comfortable silence, the ground beneath me unforgiving but reassuring in its solidness. The innocent pinpricks of light above winked like millions of eyes, and I experimentally reached up with an arm. It seemed so easy to take them into my hand, to roll them like so many pebbles. I whined when I grasped at nothing but air, and my dad, who laid not far from me, laughed.
“What are you trying to do, Ian?”
“I want to get the stars. Put them in my hand.”
“You know you can't do that.”
“I know, but it doesn't stop me from trying.” I dropped my arm and stared at the winking sky. “This is the first time I've seen stars. This beats seeing a blue sky for the first time today.”
My dad nodded. “Because of smoke left behind by people long ago, there's a cloud that completely surrounds the Earth, and a break in it is rare. When one comes, though, everything stops.” He breathed in deeply. “Work, school, church. Everything. I heard that people years back didn't appreciate the blue sky or the stars. They took them for granted.”
I was shocked. When I had seen the purity of a blue sky, I had been entranced. Who could resist staring into that endless sea that never threatened to crash on top of you? Who couldn't help but pick out the shapes that cottony clouds formed like I had done all that day? “They're crazy,” I stated simply, not finding any other words.
“Yes, they were, but then if they saw us, they would think of us just as crazy with our short houses and pulled carriages and space stations,” said my dad, “It's ironic, really. Technology used to be everywhere years back. Now it's only in space.”
“Yes. It's a shame.” Something shot across the sky, a white streak that lived no longer than a second. My dad jumped up and pointed at it excitedly. “Look! A shooting star!”
“Stars can move?”
“No, it's just called that.” He sat back down, eyes still transfixed by the sky. When no more fell, he sighed and laid back down. After a few moments, my dad said suddenly, “You know, people a long time ago, time even before the cloud, used to think that each person had their own shooting star that raced across the sky when they died. It was a way to remember them.” He looked over to me. “You believe that?”
I laughed. “People back then were nuts! They didn't like the blue sky or the stars, right?”
“Right, right,” he muttered halfheartedly, “Just a myth.”
I smiled. We laid there for what seemed like hours in silence, exploring the sky with our eyes. I enjoyed feeling the grass beneath me and my dad's presence just feet away from me. He was an inventor as well as a teacher and usually locked himself up in his workshop. When I had banged on the metal hatch of the workshop and yelled that the sky was blue instead of steel gray, he had scrambled away from his work, but now he seemed to be locked up again. This time, however, I was with him. There was no replacing that.
I closed my eyes and breathed deeply. So much to process in one day. A blue sky and this starry blanket were miracles to me. They were something of such beauty that no words were adequate to describe them, and something of such rarity that time to cherish them fled too quickly. I opened my eyes and gasped to see the stars gone. I sat up on my elbows and swiveled my head to search for them, but the stars had been extinguished. My dad sighed sadly next to me.
“It seems like the clouds have rolled back in,” he observed, standing and helping me up, “I wish they could have held off longer.”
“You're not the only one,” I said.
“Beautiful, aren't they?”
“Yeah, and it gets you out of the shop.” He laughed but then sobered up at my serious expression.
“I know I spend hours in there, but I'm doing good,” he defended, “I'm trying to make something that can get rid of these clouds. It's something that I believe in. I want to have this kind of day with you forever, Ian, but we can't do that unless the clouds dissipate.”
“Still, you could come out of there more than just for dinner.”His head drooped dejectedly, and guilt panged through me. What kind of son was I? I was interfering with the work that my dad loved. His work was his life, and I had no right to order him around. But still, I wanted to spend time with him, talk to him face-to-face rather than through the shop's metal hatch. It was selfish of me. I shifted my feet uncomfortably, and then my dad raised his head, a gleam in his eye.
“I have a compromise.”
“Let's hear it.”
“How about you come into the shop and work alongside me? I can teach you anything that you want to know, and I can show you my work, our work. We could be even closer.” He grinned sheepishly. “I could also use the help. Things tend to get away from me.” My heart lifted. I grabbed him in a squeezing hug, and he patted my back. “Come on. Let's get started, Ian.”
Then my world had shattered.
I jerked awake, and panic flooded through me at the unfamiliar surroundings. I laid still for a minute, wrestling the panicked feeling under control and letting my eyes adjust to the room's darkness. I sighed resignedly as the barren, metal room came into clarity. Nothing had changed. It had been just a dream, a dream that was a real memory, the worst kind. I remembered my dad's fate, my confusion, and his grim face as someone had banged on the metal hatch. He had turned toward me, nodded to himself, and then revealed the truth.
Truth that I hated.
I sat up and felt magnetic cuffs around my wrists. When the metal hatch had been blow open, it had clipped my dad in the head, opening a large gash that had poured red. I had screamed and tried to shield him from the figures in white that rushed through the opening, but they had grabbed me and plunged a cold needle into the back of my neck. I had woken up here in this cell, and nightmares plagued me every time I closed my eyes. One regretful thought accompanied the nightmares: I hadn't even seen his shooting star.
I shook my head. Why did I believe that?
There was a pneumatic hiss, and part of the wall slid away. I was blinded by light, and someone grabbed me by the scruff of the neck. I was yanked onto my feet and thrown out the door into a white, sterile hallway. The wall slid back in place, and I looked up and immediately flinched to see a white figure like those who had attacked the shop. Its gender couldn't be placed. It had no face, no kind of identifying mark on its body. It reached for me, and I scrambled back awkwardly on my cuffed hands.
It caught me by the ankle and dragged me down the hallway, and I screamed and struggled vainly to find purchase on the slick floor. I lashed out with a kick and connected on the figure's wrist. It stopped, and I kicked again. The figure whipped around and caught my leg, and I froze. It seemed to stare into my eyes for a moment before slowly lowering my legs to the floor. I watched the figure suspiciously for any sign of malice, but it simply stood still, waiting for something.
I climbed to my feet. The figure beckoned me to follow, but I didn't move. It beckoned again, and when I still didn't move, it reached for me. I then decided to comply. I followed it to another part of the wall which looked no different from the rest. The wall slid open into another white room. The figure vanished into it, and I was alone. I considered running at that moment, considered anything that could have delayed my going into that room, but it was inevitable. I had to go into the room.
I stepped into it and realized it was a small courtroom containing only the judge's bench. A man in white uniform, not one of those figures, sat at it, gazing down imperiously at me. The figures stood in a line against the walls and seemed to melt into the background. I started to tremble. I didn't want to be here. I didn't want to speak the truth that my dad had died for. I wanted to run, but those figures would erupt from their posts and stop me. I was trapped, and I knew it.
“Do you know why you are here?” asked the judge suddenly.
“Then let the questioning begin.” He fired the questions like barbed bullets, and I stuttered out the answers one by one. My voice was weak, and the judge's powerful words slammed into my will. Slowly, painstakingly, he extracted the truth from my unwilling lips. I tried to retreat deep within myself for protection, but that inexorable judge kept on with his wheedling questions. I wrung my hands, bit my lip, looked everywhere but at the man in front of me.
I wondered what he saw in front of him. Did he see a convict too dangerous to enter society? Did he see a terrified teenager with dirty, torn clothing? Did he see the truth hidden within me, the truth that everyone like him did not want to acknowledge? I wondered, but it was futile. He saw what he saw. The truth would not change, and so the sentence would not either.
The truth was a crime. I knew that, but why, why, was it crime? The truth harmed nothing and no one. It was, in fact, miraculous; the truth showed just how far we had come in the field of technology, and we could do so much more. But the people, who feared what they didn't understand didn't, want to admit it. Because of their ignorance, the truth I held was a crime. They were the majority, the power, the ignorant.
With that realization, resignation replaced my fear. I could do nothing but await my sentence. The judge, now ironically armed with the truth, ruled my destiny, and the figures stood ready to enforce it. The room was silent now, and I let out a sigh. The judge snapped his head up. “What was that?” he demanded.
“A sigh of relief.”
“My life is over. Over. I'm done.”
“You had and have no life.”
“Not by your standards, but by my standards, the short life I did have was blessed.”
“You cannot be blessed,” pointed out the judge dryly, “You are nothing.” I felt something strange then, an emotion I wouldn't have expected to feel toward the man about to sentence me. Pity. I pitied him. I pitied him and every other person who thought I couldn't be blessed, who thought I was nothing. I smiled up at him, smiled as if he was a child. Red blotches surfaced on his face, and he barked an order to the white figures.
As they hauled me from the room, I told him calmly, “Remember my name. Remember Ian.”
The figures carried me to another section of the white walls which slid away into darkness. I thought they had taken me back to my cell, but then they unlocked the magnetic cuffs. I rubbed my reddened, raw wrists and scrutinized my guards which almost shone in the darkness. “What is this room?” They remained silent. “Who are you?” Nothing. “What are you?” Still nothing.
The lights flickered on, revealing a bare room of steel, and I read a single word etched into the wall near the 'door': airlock. My eyes widened in fear, and I was rigid as the figures moved to leave. I glanced over to one that lingered strangely. It cocked its head in a grotesque imitation of a curious dog, and then it turned to leave. My anger flared, replacing my complacency. If the last act of my life was to simply whimper and whine as they killed me, I would never forgive myself. I needed to do something, anything.
I tackled the figure to the ground, and it was stunned for a brief moment before it started to struggle. I grabbed one of its arms, feeling something like fabric underneath my hands. I tried to punch, but it twisted away, and my fists bashed against the metal floor. I swore but kept enough sense to seize its face as it stood, and a ripping sound filled the room. I held a piece of white cloth in my hand, and the sight that greeted me was horrendous.
I had expected camera-like eyes, circuit boards, microchips, anything mechanical that validated their robotic ways. What I saw was a pair of brown, stolid eyes framed by brown hair and cheeks flushed from the fight. It was a man, but not a man. Those eyes saw nothing but were not blind. The mock humanness made the sight all the more horrifying.
Our eyes met, and I was locked in place even after the figure had left and the door had slid closed. The lights shut off, and I suddenly felt my body become weightless. Dread sickened me, and then the airlock opened. I flew out in a whoosh of air, and I was in the vacuum of space, the once-welcoming stars that I and my dad had looked at from our home now stark pinpricks against the black void.
I breathed. It was strange to know that I could breathe in space while others couldn't, strange to know that my body wouldn't explode from the lack of pressure, strange to know that I wouldn't freeze or boil. It was strange to know that I used to think I was human, but, in reality, I never was.
The questioning played back in my head.
What is your name?
Ian. Intelligence of Artificial Nature.
What is your age?
Seventeen, but I was built four years ago.
What is your crime?
Existing. Being created by man, not God.
What is your father's crime?
For playing God. For trying to advance mankind.
What are you?
I am artificial intelligence. An android.
Do you know your sentence?
The last word resounded with me. Purging. It carried with it the weight of thousands of deaths, but mine would be different. I would plunge through the atmosphere below and burn in the intense heat generated by friction. I would never reach the ground. I would forever be ash, trapped in the never-ending cloud. No one would remember me. No one would care. I would die forgotten.
I would not let that happen.
I felt the pull of Earth's gravity drag me toward death, and I took off my shirt and pressed a finger over my heart. A compartment hidden under the false skin sprang open, and a small vial of green liquid sat in its padded safe. I took it out and studied it. This was the fruit of mine and my dad's labor. After he had revealed that hated but inescapable truth, he had entrusted me with this, knowing what my final act would be. With this, the people below would finally know what a blue sky and stars were.
A breath of wind brushed past my ear, and warmth started to gather at the small of my back. I closed my eyes. The judge didn't know what he had done when he had sentenced me to purging. He didn't understand that I was more human than those white mockeries of humans with cold eyes. He didn't realize that I was not scared of death.
The warmth turned to fire, and my clothes crumbled. My skin charred. There was nothing but pain coloring my vision red. My blackened skin peeled off in tatters, exposing my titanium endoskeleton. My fingers became talons of metal that clutched the vial closely. I squeezed my eyes shut, and the roar of the wind filled my ears.
Then, the slightest relief from the heat. I was in the clouds. I opened my eyes to take one last look at the vial in my metal hand, and then I crushed it. Wind tore away at the green liquid as it gushed from the vial, and fiery light enclosed my body. My purpose was fulfilled. I closed my eyes with a smile.
It was nighttime, and a small girl sat on the porch railing of a rickety, wooden house with her family cleaning up after dinner inside. She swung her feet nonchalantly off and stared up at the velvet sheet of black. She sighed; it had been so long since she had seen the stars, so long since she had seen the blue sky.
She clasped her tiny hands in front of her and bowed her head. She prayed that the stars would wink at her again, that the blue sky would shine down over the meadow. All the innocence of a child, all the fervor of a cleric, and all the resolve of a warrior were encapsulated in her one lone prayer. She raised her head, and the clouds parted miraculously with the stars winking down at her like forgotten family.
And then she saw her first shooting star.