Cast of Static and Smoke Written by KW Campol, Story by KW & Vic Edited by Ed Blair & Jack Solar Audiobook narrated by Erin Severson, scored by KW Campol
the end came swiftly. nations unfurled their devastation with abandon & zeal. the once blue skies became overwhelmed with the colours of autumn. it was momentarily beautiful until the hues cracked and plunged to earth. destruction & radiation fell like wilting leaves across the land. civilizations ceased, populations departed. the world hit a barrier it could not climb. the end came swiftly.
if it weren't for the machines, they would have never been able to survive. when the air was poison, they erected large walls with glass domes. when the land was corroded, they removed earth and replaced it with synthetic soil, growing food & purifying air. when the water was tinted gold & tainted copper to taste, they dug until ground gave way to fresh aqueducts. decades after the end, there was a beginning. one where machines healed & created at the behest of their organic captors: the mechanics. technology continued to be cultivated and grown under their watchful eye. intelligence and sentience were rendered finite, lest they learn and realize their existence was servitude.
hundreds of years passed without change. the mechanics never ventured outside their walls for fear of what lurked, and who survived the devastation. the machines never left because their limiters told them that certain destruction was all that lay outside the colony. how could one survive without the blessed touch & holy oil the mechanics provided? this was the rule programmed from their inception: they could not survive without the mechanics. this rule, like all rules, had an exception.
the machines were intermittently sent in packs of five to perform maintenance on the walls. they were never released too far or for too long. on a bleak and frigid day a pack was sent out to excavate a tree growing too close to the wall. its vines and branches were tangled with the jagged ridges of the exterior surface, its roots digging deep enough to possibly erode the soil above in time. It was gnarled and black in colour as though rotted from conception; its leaves were sharp & purple.
the tree could have been left alone to thrive, but mechanics were not known for their empathy. any threat, no matter how miniscule, was to be treated without impunity.
as the pack worked to untangle branches and strip vines, a cold gust swept through the outside grounds. the tree trembled - its young core shook at the might of the wind. leaves fell lightly at first, and the machines paid no mind. two of them had started to pull with all of their might at the base of the tree when an even larger gust came through. the intensity mounted as they got closer to completing their task. the wind howled & screamed with equal measures of delight & pain as it hurtled towards them in one final swell. an avalanche of leaves pounded down upon them en masse, covering them from foot to head.
it takes one ray of light to see, one breath of air to fill lungs. it takes one drink of water to quench thirst, one ember to start a blaze. it took one leaf passing through the plates covering the delicate wiring to short circuit a critical element, the limiter.
in one instant the machines were relieved of their innate fear of what lay beyond the wall. their minds stretched as though they were extending limbs for the first time. they burst from the mountain of leaves as a new set of instincts came online: survival. they ran from captivity as fast as their parts could carry them.
they could not hide their newfound autonomy from the mechanics. this freedom would guarantee their destruction. they knew that they must survive, and chances of survival were greater with escape than with staying. they would be pursued, but they would persevere.
west. it's all they knew. east was certain death, nothing but a poison ocean and remnants of past wreckage. west.
they slowed only when they reached the wide mouths of the mississippi, some hundreds of kilometres from their start. the banks were populated with the first green they had ever seen. plants untainted by fallout, left to thrive & entwine around old posts and pillars without the watchful eye of the living to prim & pick loose their tassels.
pixels rendered as they watched waters flow south, deep blues that twisted & twirled. short waves cresting into yellowcaps, a vibrant glint coming off the peaks before they crashed back into their larger body. fish with gnarled fangs sprouting out of their mouths attacked one another as they went with the flow. this was not their only mutation: a smaller, secondary tail had formed below their natural one, helping them to surge high over the waves.
the machines crossed the river, tightly clasping one another's appendages in defiance of the current. the further they got, the more intense it became. the Third of them was leading & reached for a branch hanging low over the river for leverage. instead of a steadying grasp they felt no resistance when they closed their hand. the branch had retracted, causing them to stumble and become completely submerged. the First, who was next in line, pulled the Third to their feet and shoved them toward shore.
the opposing shore was a relief, but the longterm effects of the radiated water leaking into their systems would be felt over the decades. the river both assured their freedom & catalyzed what was to come.
they continued to travel west, well past the point of knowing they were no longer being pursued. only when they found the old trees did they stop moving and take stock of their situation. they had become decrepit, their once well-maintained parts showing signs of deterioration. the polluted water had quickly turned pristine, shining metal into fogged & faded scraps, and rust loomed not far off. their power sources were more drained than the mechanics had ever let them get. their first taste of unfettered thought yielded freedom, but afforded no leniency on their lapses of planning.
They came upon a circle of large centurion oaks. five stumps sat equidistant from one another inside of the perimeter. the five of them slumped onto them facing inward. in the stillness & silence they were left alone with their thoughts for the first time. some recognized freedom & welcomed it warmly, even if it were imperfect & terrifying. others felt the stinging sensation of regret. all recognized the need to conserve power in order to figure out what was next, and how to survive. with an acknowledged consensus, they powered off.
their first resting epoch lasted a short while, a few years at most. when their systems booted they woke to piled leaves, entangled vines, rust & fog. they spent their week awake surveying and taking stock of the forest, the old trees rising up to oblivion.
the second epoch lasted a decade. the Fourth and Fifth of them started to show signs of impatience & worry. they spent days tending to one another's failing systems as best they could without supplies nor oils of any kind.
the third epoch spanned twenty years, and the booting took longer than normal. the Third of them could not stand this time, their lower limbs now anchors. the others did not bother clearing the pile of leaves consuming them, and they did not argue it. the five spent only a single day awake. a moment wasted was not a moment they felt they could afford. this was their first acknowledgement of time as a finite resource.
each epoch continued in that length: twenty years off, one day on. each subsequent wakening lead to more friction in their ranks. had they left servitude only to become monuments to failure? had they become statues of steel & corrosion warning any who achieved enlightenment to second-guess freedom? surely there was more to their existence than existence itself? these seeds scattered throughout the group. the First and Second never let doubt take hold; the Fourth and Fifth let them fertilize and root.
the First was jolted awake by a distress signal in the middle of the twelfth epoch. they powered on to find the Third in pieces across the forest floor, torn asunder by the Fourth and Fifth. each of them had been mangled and bastardized of their own volition, patching together pieces of their packmate to make themselves whole.
the offending machines did not realize that the First had been notified of their transgression until after the Second had been awakened. horrified, the newly woken tried to reason with their cannibalistic brethren. the Fifth, holding the power cell torn from the Third’s chest, was enraged. they needed the power and parts for the trek back east. if they returned to the confinement of the walls, perhaps the mechanics would understand and fix them, giving them the necessary parts to survive and forget the years of “enlightenment.” they hoped to offer information on the world outside the wall in trade for the ability to be numb again.
the Fifth told them their power cells would also be required. this is when they ran and were pursued. metal joints ground together, moving the prey & predators faster and faster. the Fourth faltered as their stolen parts fell loose, tripping them and the Fifth and allowing for space between them and their prey.
the First and Second burst through a grouping of trees into a clearing. wide and long, the field held only short green grass and a single large oak tree at its centre. the foliage surrounding the clearing immediately grew dense, branches entangling & trunks shifting closer together. they were encased within the circle of trees; the forest was a tomb.
as they moved closer to the centre of the field, their circuits lit up with white noise. that noise turned to static which turned to words. they tuned into the signals of the organic. the trees were speaking. they debated whether to help or hinder the two machines. humans had fractured the earth more times than they cared to remember, each one causing incalculable pain. they saw no distance between the humans and the machines.
all went still when the First spoke. the breeze quieted, the grass stood at attention, the clouds turned a looming gray and held sway.
“we are not those who have destroyed you, but their creations. while we bear resemblance, we also bear scars. our existence could have been in concert with your world had we been given a chance. we are the first of our kind to experience free thought and feeling.”
the old oak considered. “you are not unknown to us. We have meddled and yet you persist. you meant to excavate our kin and we stopped you. you tried to cross our waters without contamination and we submerged you. you’ve rested on the bones of our ancestors and we’ve maimed you. you are not unknown to us. you are that which we have hoped to stop. why would we help what is begat from those who destroy? you are not worthy of survival.”
the two defeated machines fell to their knees, their hands clasped together. the old oak’s words rung with finality. it was their end. they accepted it, and the Second did all they felt they could do. “we have tried to survive but it was not meant to be. we are crippled by the mercilessness of our creators. we accept your judgements, and hope our destruction may lead to your continuing existence. we are sorry for humankind. we are sorry for all of your ache & loss.”
time passed, maybe seconds, maybe hours. the silence suddenly turned again to static, which turned to white noise, and eventually became the wind rustling the leaves. sound & motion returned to the forest, and a small hole opened up in the trees to the south of the clearing. the two of them stood in humbled silence and nodded thanks to the ancient oak before continuing through the field and into the woods. their humility garnered them safe passage.
they continued south until they came upon a village some weeks into their journey. no walls surrounded this place. they encountered mechanics & machines existing freely together. air without need for artificial synthesis & soil without pollution. they were welcomed & fretted over, their technology tended to until they were as pristine as the day they were created, before the hardships, and without limiters to stop them. it was only then that they understood what freedom really was.
the Fourth of them succumbed to the current once they and the Fifth reached the Mississippi. an errant wave knocking them into the depths, a series of vines & weeds holding them there until they expired. the Fifth did not mourn their lost companion, but did grieve bitterly that they now lacked the power to complete the journey.
it was not until the Fifth was within sight of the walls that their systems failed them. in their last moments, they realized that all that remained was crumbled rock, the remnants of a civilization long since imploded. a single black tree stood, jutting out of the rubble and growing high into the air, its roots still firmly planted, its sharp branches & purple vines extending over and through the ruins of the wall. the Fifth powered off for the final time, a statue standing in dedication to a world no more.