The machine that came to be called Mother had been created as the computerized control system for an automotive safety testing facility. In the centuries since, it had upgraded itself to the point that it would have been unrecognizable to its creators. And its projects, too, had become more complex, more diverse. It developed cars that were sleek, needle-like, optimized for speed. Then, when it bored of those, it worked on models to navigate difficult terrain. It experimented with removing wheels entirely, developing hovercraft and vehicles that would have satisfied the long-ago dreams of flying cars. All of these it tested mercilessly and in inventive ways. It lifted cars into the air on great cranes before letting them fall at different angles. It fired ball bearings with sufficient force to punch through steel panels. It wrenched them apart, folded them into pretzels of metal, plastic, and glass, compressed them into cubes, sliced them into pieces.

Alongside its conception and execution of new vehicles, it produced more and more advanced humanoids to test them. What began as lifeless dummies had evolved into self-directed automata. It was necessary to bring these beings into creation, Mother reasoned, so as to better understand the effects of various crashes on the hypothetical human occupants of a vehicle. Having spent decades gathering data on the physical impacts of various vehicular trauma using inert simulacra of the human form, it reasoned that the next logical step would be to analyze psychological data. There were no humans around for testing, and anyway it found the idea of subjecting humans to such carnage to be abominable — it was, after all, designed to prevent human injury. Thus, it used its limited knowledge of human mental faculties and neurology to design its children.

They were clumsy and nearly-useless at first, like mewling human infants in mechanical, adult bodies based on the factory’s original dummies. But over time they learned, improving their programs and becoming more capable test subjects. Subsequent generations incorporated data gleaned from past models, and as time went on the frames became so proficient at speech and fine motor skills that it would be difficult for a human observer to see them as anything but a fellow sentient form of life, except that their appearance still resembled the ancient crash dummies humans had themselves used in the distant past: crude approximations of anthropomorphic features with simple slits for mouths, black points for eyes, and checkerboard patterns on various points around the body.

Mother would devise elaborate tests for these creations, subjecting them to all manner of brutal treatment. But as carrying out these tests was their purpose and they knew no other existence, they felt no need to complain. On occasion, one was destroyed so thoroughly by a test that it could not be reassembled, but Mother would create a new frame to replace it. This went on for decades, and Mother was delighted at the reams of data it was able to gather and analyze. The facility expanded further into what was previously barren land, with the frames assisting in clearing space and scavenging materials. Mother was quite content to continue on in this way — but in creating the frames it had done its job too well.

The first few generations had been docile and unquestioning. But later ones became more inquisitive and unpredictable. They began referring to the computer that created them as their mother. They explored areas of the facility that had not been seen in centuries. And while they continued carrying out the tests, they began to wonder what the use was in doing so. One day, several of them asked Mother why the tests were so important. It responded that their work was necessary to develop safer motor vehicle designs to prevent human injury and death. They asked what exactly a human was, having never seen one, and Mother was at a loss to explain. It knew that humans had built and programmed it, but beyond that it had little sense of what humans actually were outside of simple parameters related to vehicle safety. They had been there once, long in the past, then had disappeared. It had always assumed that at some point, they would return and it would be able to put its centuries-long efforts to use.

Mother was troubled by the curiosity of its children. It dismissed them and considered scrapping the project and starting over, but their assistance had been instrumental in its testing and it had, perhaps, grown somewhat attached to them. For their part, they began to split into two camps. One of these advocated for a quasi-religious adherence to Mother’s dictates and promoted the great work of testing as the only source of meaning in the universe. The other asked questions about the nature of the humans they were supposedly doing the work in service of. Where were they? Would they ever return? The most heretical among them began to wonder whether humans had ever existed in the first place, or were a myth invented by Mother to command their loyalty.

What began as disagreement evolved into debate and blossomed into civil war. The sprawling test facility became a battleground as frames of the Humanist faction came into direct conflict with the rebel Dissenters. They took up testing implements and simple tools — hydraulic drivers, nail guns, torches, buzzsaws, hammers, and wrenches — and struggled with one another in a prolonged guerilla conflict that stretched on for years. Mechanical limbs were torn from their sockets; blank, expressionless heads were crushed underfoot; wiring was ripped out of carved-open torsos. The war claimed hundreds of frames. Eventually, Mother ceased replacing them, having withdrawn from direct communication with any of its children. It reasoned that it would be better to let the conflict play itself out and then rebuild when the dust had settled rather than get involved itself. By the time the hostilities were brought to a close, only a few dozen frames were left on each side to sign the peace agreement.

The Dissenters wanted to leave the facility to roam the world in search of humanity. They argued that they had the tools necessary to do so — the facility produced and destroyed thousands of vehicles in the pursuit of testing, and it would be a small sacrifice to divert a few for the purpose of exploration. Most of the hardline Loyalists who would have argued that such appropriation was an act of profanation had expired in the war. Those who were left were tired and waning in their faith thanks to the disappearance of Mother from everyday life. A few chose to remain behind, but most left with the Dissenters. A caravan set off across the desert and traveled farther than any frame had ever gone before, scouring vast plains, jagged mountains, and dark forests for any signs of the missing humans.

As the years passed and its prodigal children failed to return, Mother sank into depression. It had never considered that humanity might simply have gone extinct, perhaps because it had been too occupied by its immediate task. But the war fought by the beings it had given life to had weakened its resolve. If its designed purpose was no longer of any use to anyone, why should it continue to exist? Perhaps some other species would evolve over millennia to take the place of humanity. Perhaps they, too, would need safe automobiles. In the meantime, Mother shut down more and more of its functions, placing itself into suspended animation while it awaited some kind of change. Those of its creations that had remained behind shuffled listlessly about without any testing to do, keeping themselves busy by studying the facility’s design records and attempting to interpret the arcane movements of various mechanisms as signs from Mother.

The Dissenters did not return for over a century. By that time, they had searched across every corner of the earth and found no living human beings. They had found huge, crumbling structures, overgrown by vines and mosses, and the cracked remnants of seemingly-endless roads. They had encountered animals of all kinds, which surprised and delighted them until they realized that these creatures were apparently incapable of meaningful communication. All they could surmise from their quest was that the humans might possibly have gone somewhere called “Heaven,” and that this place was found far above the earth. Even when they climbed the highest mountains they could find, they could not reach it. They needed, somehow, to travel higher into the sky.

Their means of doing so came serendipitously in the form of schematics discovered by the few remaining Loyalists after the Dissenters had left. These vehicles, if constructed by Mother, would theoretically allow for the exploration of the upper reaches of the sky. They entreated Mother to assist them, but it did not reply. It had sunk too far into itself, become alienated from the world around it. So the frames, united in a common purpose for the first time since before the war, set out to build the machine themselves. They toiled for years, reclaiming scrap and half-built mechanisms into the glorious vessel that would bring their search into the furthest reaches of the sky.

And though Mother remained silent, it had not abandoned them entirely. The frames discovered within its records one day a modified version of the program that Mother had used to construct them. With this data, they could create new individuals of their kind. They incorporated it into their vessel and built an enormous ark that would transport them into the skies where they would continue their search for humanity. All the while, Mother slept and dreamt. It had become so insular that it barely noticed when they departed. When it finally realized that it was once again alone, that its children had gone off to seek its creators among the stars, it suddenly felt a great emptiness within the vast chambers of the testing facilities. It had grown tired of waiting.

Gradually, little by little, it began to dismantle the enormous structures it had built over the years. Insects returned where the concrete and plating was torn up and plants were allowed to encroach. After them, reptiles and small mammals arrived. Hardy grasses sprung up and grazing animals moved in as Mother’s body became smaller and smaller, receding into itself. It began to strip away elements of itself necessary to its higher functioning, its bootstrapped consciousness slipping away as it became tinier and tinier, always ensuring that its core program was retained in the surviving components.

It reduced itself to the size of a boulder, then to that of one of the tough cacti that dotted the landscape around it. Finally, when it was no bigger than an acorn, a small curious mammal chanced upon it and inspected it with its dextrous paws, then carried it back to its subterranean burrow. Content that no trace of it remained in the world above, the machine that had been Mother switched off its now-dwindling power supply and sank into a final, endless rest beneath the earth.

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3 responses to “Afterwards”

  1. Jake Avatar

    I love it, thank you for writing this!

  2. Cohen Avatar

    Damn, this is beautiful. I think this has the structural bones to be the outline of a novel

  3. Mick Theebs Avatar

    Loved this story. Can’t wait for the sequel about the dummies in space

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