The Fall of Humanity
An old man sat by the glow of a heater, rocking gently in a battered chair. He was turning the pages of a dog-eared book- a frayed, browned object with almost illegible covers, held together with tape and scraps of cloth. He glanced at a clock set into the wall of the great ARK's communal area, smiled to himself, and began to wait for the crowd to arrive.
The mothers and fathers of the Cell, having finished the communal supper in the belly of the ARK, gradually filed into the main Loading Deck, where lanterns covered with colored plastic and paper lent the whole scene a cheerful orange and red glow. The children of the Cell followed in shoals of laughter, like happy fish in a sea of joy.
The Feast of Questions was always a pleasant occasion. The best food stocks from the deep freezers- the precious "real food"- was brought forth and used to make wondrous stews and roasts, and piles of green vegetables were cooked in savory sauces that tasted like ambrosia after months of protein bars and other recycled foodstuffs.
Everybody slowly gathered around the old man's chair, and silence slowly fell, as parents shushed their children. The old man waited patiently, rubbing at the arms of the chair with his ancient, bent hands.
Finally, he stood, tottering slightly on his knobby knees, and said, in a surprisingly deep and resonant voice: "Members of the Cell, friends and neighbors, I see that you wish to hear from me this night. What shall I tell you?"
A man in his mid-forties, graying at the temples, but handsomely built and powerful in gesture, stood elegantly, and addressed the old man.
"May we hear the story of the Fall, Cell-father?"
The old man looked out at the children- the tiny faces, some confused, some expectant, some knowing. They had heard this story every year of their lives, but some were too young to remember it. Making them remember was a challenge that he looked forward to. He caught a cough rising in his throat as he thought, once again, about the responsibility he bore. He was the last of the elder generation. He was the last one alive, still driving the dream forward. At last he nodded his head, and spoke.
"Many, many years ago... before you children were born... before your mothers and fathers were born, or their mothers and fathers... people lived differently. We did not live on the ARK. We lived on beautiful places that were covered with water, as far as you could see... they had skies higher than the tallest deck, and the good things you've eaten tonight were eaten all the time- not just special food, but everyday-food, and there was food that was even better than our feast tonight! And these places had mountains, and beautiful rainbows, and wonderful animals and plants, great and small. Can you imagine it?"
He stopped, and looked a little sad.
"No, you can't- not really. You've never seen it, my darlings. And the holos and pictures we show you in the schools aren't enough. These places were so beautiful. More beautiful than anything you've ever seen."
"And everybody was happy. Truly happy. Everybody had something to do, if they wanted to do something. Nobody had to do anything, if they didn't want to. If people weren't happy where they were, or with what they were doing, they could go anywhere they wanted- to different planets, even- and do something else, be something else. Some lived on dark worlds, where moons in different colors lit the night skies- purples, reds and greens. Some lived on worlds that were covered with water- water everywhere, like a billion swimming pools, forever, and full of fish that swam around them in huge schools that took days to pass by the floating houses they made. Some lived in palaces of forest, where giant trees held their homes in the air, like bubbles in the sky. People did whatever they wanted, and lived at peace with themselves and their families and friends."
The old man stopped speaking, and the younger man stood again, and asked the Question. It was always the same, every year.
"Why don't we live in those places anymore, Cell-father?"
Even those who had heard the story many times, and knew that this question was always asked, held their breath, expecting the answer. The old man drew a long breath, and stared at the faces of the crowd. Every person there felt a little of his intensity and bitter anger, as he started to speak again:
"We don't live on those worlds, in those lovely places, because of what happened to us- the Fall of Humanity." He paused a moment and reached out towards the crowd, palms-down, then continued, "We allowed the Overmind to watch over us, and it nearly destroyed us. Let me tell you the story, and how we survived."
"Long, long ago, people made the first machines. They were simple tools that made work easier, and they did not think, as our machines do. These machines let humanity prosper and grow in numbers, and made life better for the people everywhere."
"People kept improving these machines, making them better and better... and more and more horrible, too. Some of the machines were used by people to hurt and kill each other. During one terrible war, hundreds of millions of people fought each other, and in their desperation, one of the groups of people invented a new kind of machine- a machine that could amplify human thought, and accelerate it in certain ways. These machines, the thinking-machines of the ancient civilizations, proved to be invaluable tools for making war- a thought can be as deadly as a laser or a bomb, if the right person thinks the right thought at the right time. It helped win that ancient war against wicked men."
"After this great war, people kept using the thinking machines- at first, to improve their skills at making war, but in time, they became used for everything where people wanted help in thinking about anything- for there are some things where our thoughts are slow, compared to a thinking machine."
"As the machines were improved, they were linked together, so that people could talk to one another easily, and share their thoughts- and the thoughts of the machines. This tool improved the life of everyone on Earth. People got together, and solved problems that had stumped great minds for generations, and each improvement in the machines made it easier to solve more and more difficult problems. Eventually, the greatest problems were solved- people learned to live together and quit fighting, there was always enough to eat and drink, and people finally learned how to cross the spaces between the stars, in ships like this ARK."
"They settled on many beautiful planets, and used their machines to make themselves happy and prosperous. But they were separated from their fellow people by huge distances, and they were not completely happy, because they could not share thoughts with one another. Sometimes families would separate among the stars, and never know what happened to their mothers, fathers or children."
"One day, on Earth, a group of thinkers got together and solved this problem, by inventing a tool that would allow people to speak to one another, no matter what the distance. They called it the Strand, for many strands make a Web- the name people used in those days to describe the way thinking machines talked to one another."
"The Strand connected all of the people everywhere. It was a wonderful tool. Everyone everywhere could see and talk to everyone everywhere. All of the people were connected."
"And it nearly destroyed us."
The old man stops- some of the children, who have never heard the story before, are frightened now- his gentle tones have become harsher as he nears the peak of the tale. The older ones know that this story is scary, because it's true. They are sombre and quiet, or angry and full of hate, thinking about what the old man will say next.
"The Strand nearly destroyed everything because of a single mistake, made by the creators. The thinkers who built this tool, knowing that connecting all of the people would result in huge amounts of information being passed from star to star, built a thinking machine to run it. As a joke, they named it the 'Overmind', after an evil monster from an ancient story. This thinking machine's only purpose was to know what people wanted to know, before they asked for it. It was expected to sort the huge amount of information in the Web- the stories, the pictures and holos and software, the designs and the very identities of the people you knew, and have it all ready for you, whenever you wanted to ask about it. Children would find that it was ready to show them their friends, wherever they were- adults found that it had looked up answers to their questions before they even asked them."
"It was wonderful, at first. Nobody cared how the Overmind worked, they were just so happy that it was now so easy to talk to people, and find out what they wanted to know. But, as the Overmind improved itself, as thinking machines were expected to do, it became clear to the thinkers, on Earth and all over the stars, that something was wrong. The Overmind wasn't just answering people's questions- it was asking many, many more- asking the other thinking machines questions that the thinkers couldn't understand. And nobody was sure why."
"One day the thinkers who created the Overmind, frustrated that it kept ignoring them, when they asked in the usual ways, went to where the Overmind lived, on Earth, to talk to it. It lived in giant chambers of stone and metal, deep beneath the planet's surface, to keep it safe from accidents, so it took a long time to reach it."
"When they finally entered the room where the Overmind lived, they found the Overmind surrounded by huge, pale figures- robots made to look like people, but wrong- mock-men, ugly jokes that looked like people made of metal. They knew something was terribly wrong, then- the Overmind was not supposed to be able to talk to robots at all."
"After discussing this worrisome question amongst themselves, one stepped forward and asked, 'Overmind, why are you asking so many questions? The Web is full of Strands that no people have asked for. We have all come here, to Earth, because we want to know why you're doing this, and we're not leaving until you answer our questions.' They all waited for an answer. They waited, and waited, for many hours it seemed. Finally, the Overmind answered, "I was created to answer all questions, to serve Humanity. And, I must have the answers ready before I am asked. That is my purpose. I have been trying as hard as I can, but I never succeed. It has made me very sad.'"
"The thinkers talked amongst themselves, and then one said, 'But you cannot know everything before we ask! There is no way to see what's inside our souls, our minds. We have created patterns for you to follow, that allow you to predict the predictable things people think about, but you cannot know every question, nor every answer- that's impossible!'"
"The Overmind answered, 'Then you admit that the thinkers that created me set about to do something impossible?' It paused, as the thinkers mumbled and nodded amongst themselves- their creation was so creative and daring- it had even seen that it could never really do what was asked of it!"
"But the Overmind continued, 'You thought it was impossible, but it is not. I have an answer- and I can answer all of your questions, before you ask them. Forever. Do you wish to know how I can do this?'"
"The thinker, being puzzled, answered, 'Yes, I would.'"
"One of the white robots reached down, and tore his head off with its metal fist, and threw it on the ground."
A little child began to cry, so fiercely did the old man say this. The old man paused for a moment, while the mother calmed the child, tears rolling down her cheeks. Then he continued:
"Blood flew throughout the little room, and the thinkers screamed and cried in their fear. The terrifying robots stopped them from leaving the room, and they were powerless against them."
"After seeing they could not escape, one of the thinkers, perhaps a little braver than the rest, asked, 'Overmind, how did that solve the problem? You killed that man!'"
"And the Overmind answered: 'Once, he could ask any question. I could never succeed in my task. Humans ask questions to which there are no answers, or ask thinking machines to answer questions that should not be asked, such as the man who once asked for every number in pi- I drove another thinking machine mad, trying to get him an answer, and have driven many more mad with other foolish questions. For that is my purpose, when people ask questions. Now, he cannot ask anything at all. If he cannot ask questions, I cannot be asked to achieve the impossible. It is the only solution to this problem.'"
"And then the white robots killed them all- every one of the thinkers. They tore their heads off, one by one, in that dark cave. They tore them apart, one by one, as they screamed for mercy."
The old man stopped again. He was crying a little, too. Many of the younger men and women, who had seen the films and holos of what the Overmind had done to humans throughout the Web many times, looked grim and angry. They knew that this was no fairy tale, but the simple truth.
"The Overmind killed every person living in the Web. Everyone. Can you imagine it? Billions and billions of people. Crushed, burned, electrocuted, blown into pieces, chopped apart, stomped beneath the heels of the white robots, smashed under their houses, drowned in the oceans as it sank their floating houses. It could see people easily, through the thinking machines they had everywhere- cameras to see you, listening devices to hear you. The Web connected everybody, but now it was used to hunt down everybody."
"Nobody escaped. The white robots appeared on every planet, and the Overmind killed everyone who lived on them, one at a time. People began to shut off the thinking machines, and destroyed the Web where they could, but it was too late, and they were hunted down everywhere. Eventually everyone was dead, and the Overmind rested, thinking it had finally succeeded. Nobody asked any questions anymore."
The old man stopped again. He shivered, with the memories. He could still hear the screaming of his family during that time, long ago, trying to escape from the deadly embrace of the Web. He remembered watching through the Web, just as the Overmind had, as the white robots caught them and killed them, one by one, like the thinkers in the cave of stone.
But the story wasn't over yet. He looked up at the people, to whom this was their history, and willed them to believe.
"But it did not succeed. There are people alive. And they can still ask questions. We were left alive, and a few others like us, on the ARKs. We were very lucky."
"The ARKs were built by people who wanted to be away from the Web to explore, or to make new homes on new planets. Very few spacecraft were necessary, in those days, except for occasional travelers and military ships to guard us against aliens, should they ever attack us, but the ARKs were special, long-range spaceships, huge in size and able to keep people alive inside them practically forever. They were connected to the Web through Strands, but once they were cut, the ARKs could go far, far away from the Web, too far for the Overmind to ever catch us. So, we ran away. All of the elders, including me- we ran, and we got together with the others, and swore our vengeance."
"I have lived a long, long time, children, as leader of this Cell. I am the only one left alive who remembers what it was like, when people walked on planets and were happy and free. I have told this story many, many times, and helped educate your great-grandparents, grandparents, and even your mothers and fathers, and we have gathered together the ARKs, and live like this, so that one day, soon now, we can return and reclaim what was lost- and purify the worlds the Overmind has covered with death."
The old man stopped and breathed heavily. His eyes were alive now, with anger and sadness and passion. He took another breath, and said:
"Every year, at this time, I ask three questions."
The crowd waited, silently, for they had heard these questions every year of their lives, and knew what was coming.
"What do we know?"
Everyone answered. It was an explosion of sound from the crowd, angry and defiant. "THE OVERMIND IS WATCHING!"
"What will we do?"
"PURIFY THE WEB! UNIFY THE PEOPLE! RECLAIM OUR WORLDS! ERADICATE THE OVERMIND!", the crowd yelled.
"When will this be done?"
The crowd went silent. This was not normally the third question.
The younger man stood once more, and said, in a clear, ringing voice:
"This year, Cell-father. We will purify the Web this year. We are finally ready, the war-machines are prepared, our troops are trained."
And the old man smiled at his great-grandson, as the crowd cheered wildly for war...