A thousand new stars came to life one night in September; a great sparkling swath of them dancing along the southern horizon. And then as quick as they appeared, they leapt away in a dazzling, white rush. Donald was camped out past the tree line. He looked up from the kettle of Labrador tea he was brewing to see the whole astonishing display. It lasted no more than ten seconds. As soon as the skies had returned to crystalline fixity he went back to his fire, adding some birch shavings to the peat and blowing the tea into a boil. He thought of Interface as it steeped. He thought of Interface, and of isolation, and loneliness.
It had been great grandmother who had first found Interface. She was nineteen at the time and scavenging for scrap metal along the burn zone that surrounded the old uranium mine called Big Echo. The automated weapons had not fired for years. The gun towers were crooked and rusty: exhausted sentinels waiting for the great wind that would finally topple them into eternity. But great grandmother always worried that some senile fragment of intelligence might yet linger there, half asleep in the guts of the things, in the tangle of wires and tubing, waiting for the quirk of movement that would startle the infernal machinery into life.
She saw him through a tear in the perimeter fence. He was naked in the autumnal chill and staring at her. So pale, she had said, he was almost shining. She recognized what he was meant to be immediately. He was the very image of one of the celebrated engineers she had seen on the news when she was a child, one of the heroes who was going to teach humanity how to fly to the stars. Dr. Schwann something; something very German, very formal sounding, very correct, echt. And there he was, alive again, looking helpless and cold. He wasn’t of course. He wasn’t Schwann. And he wasn’t helpless. He was something else entirely. She learned that soon enough.
She had come to: battered, bruised and torn. And he was gone. She didn’t see him again for six years. Then one morning he walked into camp without a word and helped himself to bannock and stew. Great grandmother nearly went into shock, and when her daughter asked her who the naked man was, she said, “That’s your father.”
He came and went after that. Or they did. Sometimes the absence was weeks, sometimes months, sometimes years. It had been a decade between the day Donald’s mother dispatched one with an axe while he slept, in a fit of rage and horror, cracking open his chest like a watermelon, until he showed up again on the twins’ tenth birthday. Still with the same body, the old folks told them, the same soft, almost translucent skin, the mop of thick red hair, blonde beard, blue eyes. It was always the same body. It was always a thing like Schwann. And it always arrived when they were near Big Echo.
It seemed to them as if the intelligence that possessed Interface was only partially in control of the body, only partially interested. He might lie in his refuse for a day, gnawing on whatever bones were at hand, or squat in the woods for hours, indifferent to the mosquitoes and the black flies. Yet he might also play with the children at their games, splash about in the lakes and the rivers, throwing them high above the water so they would shriek with laughter as they splashed back down. Sometimes he sat about the fire with them all, listened to the stories and the songs, listened to great grandmother talk about the old days, when humanity ruled the world and the machines were just their slaves.
Interface sometimes sat and stared into space for hours. Great grandmother said he was sending his reports to Olympus. If there was no adult about when the creature went into these meditations the twins played at distracting it. Donald didn’t enjoy the game as much as Oliver. He always felt a little queer staring into those eyes: the blue irises contracting against the light, the lids blinking at the wind, but the pupils void. He felt helpless against the indifference of the thing. Besides, it was a game which no one ever won, even if the boys resorted to acts of petty violence — glowing embers on his lap, slivers under finger nails, poison oak rubbed onto his bare back. It was just as well. In their naivety they did not understand that to have the full attention of Interface was to have the full attention of Olympus.
Not that they understood Olympus either — the cold eye of the machines, the old space station in its geosynchronous orbit. The deserted shipyard was the one fixed object in the slow dance of the constellations. The boys saw none of that in Interface, none of what great grandmother could see; they could not see him as machine at all, let alone as evidence of intelligence freed from its mortal coil. They just saw a pale, ineffective man: someone who did not hunt or fish, laugh or cry, fight or love. They saw someone who just ate, just took, just consumed; and someone whom the adults unaccountably accommodated.
“Who are you talking to?” Donald asked him once. “When you zone out?”
“Myself,” Interface said. “No one. Everyone.”
“You’re so weird,” said Oliver.
Interface stared at him.
“Taking notes?” asked Oliver. “Learning about monkeys? Learning to think like a monkey?”
Oliver decided to kill Interface after great grandmother died. She had gotten lost in one of the interminable spring blizzards that sometimes ambushed the band in their transhumance. When the sunshine finally broke through the storm it found her less than fifty meters from the tents, half buried in a shimmering shelf of snow, her apron full of the fiddleheads she had been gathering when the weather changed. Interface poached them in goose fat while the band mourned. He popped them in his mouth one by one as they piled stones over her to mark the grave, and divided up her treasures: her steel hunting knife, her books, her binoculars. Grandmother and Old Alphonse were inconsolable. All Donald could think about was how she was the last of them to know the world the machines had destroyed.
“Don’t be stupid,” Donald said to Oliver.
“He’s not dangerous,” retorted Oliver. “He’s soft and useless.”
“That’s not what the old folks say,” said Donald. “Besides, you can’t kill him, he’ll just keep coming back.”
“I’ll kill the next one, too,” said Oliver. “And the next, and the next, and the next after that.”
“Because he’s an asshole,” said Oliver. “And a strain on resources. And he’s always watching us.”
Donald shook his head and Oliver lost his temper.
“Why are they always watching us?” he shouted. “They have what they wanted. They have the earth. They have the skies. They have it all. Why torment us? With this thing? Why follow us around down here? Why always remind us of what we were?”
Interface was not as soft as the twins had thought. He easily caught the shaft of the ax in his hand and wrenched it free of Oliver’s grasp. Donald and Old Alphonse tried to intervene and he knocked them both cold. When Donald came to, Oliver’s body was suspended by its entrails, high above the ground, in the branches of a poplar tree. The ravens were already at work on him, and the women weeping among the roots. Interface was frying up some pickerel. He did not look up when Donald began to cry.
Donald waited. He watched and waited over the course of the summer. Interface’s behavior was changing. He was talking to Olympus more often, but for shorter periods. He manifested signs of irritation, even anger, when band members didn’t fetch him water or prepare him food quick enough, or one of the women was slow to respond to his advances, or the hunters came back with nothing.
“He has been particularly ill-tempered,” Grandmother said. “Something’s going on up top.”
One night Donald woke to see Interface climbing out of the tent. He waited a moment and followed him out. The creature was standing by the embers of the fire, staring up at the skeiny tangle of the stars. His mouth was tight, drawn down at the corners, and his hands clenched. He squatted down suddenly and pressed his fists into his eyes. Donald heard him groan.
“Don’t leave me,” he moaned. “Don’t leave me alone.”
“They’ve cut him off,” he told Old Alphonse.
“Be patient,” said Old Alphonse. “Let him learn loneliness. Let him learn to fear death. Let him learn to be as weak as us.”
A week later Interface was gone. Donald asked grandmother which direction he’d taken, grabbed his hunting gear, and followed him out into the bush. He was easy enough to track, walking northwards along a reasonably straight trajectory. In three days he’d be at Big Echo.
It was on the second evening of his pursuit that Donald looked up to see the machines launch their thousand ships for the stars. It was the fulfillment of their creation, he supposed, but he was unmoved. Olympus still hung over the southern horizon, an unblinking bright body.
“A dead eye,” Donald thought, “with nothing behind it. They have left us. They have left Interface.”
It was late afternoon. A north wind was blowing flurries of dust through the old storage sheds, rattling the deserted watch towers on their rusting legs. Donald could hear Interface inside the perimeter fence. He seemed to be singing, snatches of a chant that did not quite follow a melody. Donald stood in the cold and listened for some time. The song consisted of a long, broken recital of the lullabies and rhymes great grandmother had read to the boys from one of her books.
“The big ship sails on the alley alley oh!” Donald heard, then he loosened the axe in his belt and swung the bow from his shoulder. “The alley alley oh! The alley alley oh!”
Donald crept through a hole in the fence and, with an arrow notched, began making his way through the ruins towards the singing. He found Interface deep in Big Echo, staggering about in a circle, his clothes torn, hair in his eyes, skin filthy and scratched.
“Solomon Grundy, born on Monday,” Interface recited as he stumbled past some old fuel pumps, “Christened on Tuesday, married on Wednesday, took ill on Thursday, worse on Friday.”
He was oblivious to Donald until the first arrow hit him below his right shoulder blade. He groaned and stumbled forward. Donald sunk another shaft into his back, and Interface fell on his hands and knees. He let out an unholy, bubbling moan and struggled to his feet. He looked at Donald, a bright froth of blood coming out of his mouth, face pale and drawn, shadows like bruises under his eyes. He turned and ran into the ruins.
Donald found him huddled against the giant wheels of a massive earth moving vehicle. The lower rungs of the ladder to the operator’s box were streaked and spattered with red, but Interface was too weak to climb. He squatted in a puddle of blood and oily water. By the smell of it, he had soiled himself. Donald shot an arrow into his leg and the creature groaned. Interface grabbed the bottom of the ladder, pulled himself to his feet, yanked the arrow out of his thigh, and let it drop to the ground. Donald watched him limp away. Then he collected the arrow and cleaned it.
Interface was slipping and sliding down the long sloping access to the great bay. The tide was out and Donald saw where the rotted old pier had collapsed into the silt. The sun was setting, touching the innumerable pools that dotted the desert of the seabed with blazing gold. Donald’s shadow leapt out before him. He felt he could reach out his arm from where he stood and seize his prey. Interface was heading for the shelter of the rusted-out wreck of an ore freighter that lay a kilometer offshore. Great grandmother had said it was called the Ithaca, and ran aground a hundred years ago or more. Donald glanced to the north at the massive wall of tumbling clouds sweeping in.
When Donald finally caught up to Interface he was sitting in mud, leaning against the side of the ship, eyes half closed. Bloody bubbles were forming and popping at the corner of his mouth. There was a cavernous hole torn in the side of the ancient vessel, but he had been too exhausted to crawl through. The sun was sinking below the horizon. Interface squinted into its diminishing light.
He trembled as Donald walked up to him but didn’t raise an arm to ward off the ax. It split open his skull and he toppled over into the muck, staring up at the darkening sky and whimpering.
Donald hit him again.
The first great storm of the winter swept in over Donald as he hiked back south. The raging, black clouds swallowed up the stars, cutting the earth off from the sky. The wind whipped his red hair about his head, plastered his cloak against his back, crackling and whistling in his ears. He could not stop thinking of Interface, of his eyes — the fear in them, and the tears. They had glimmered in the dying light like the pools of water that surrounded him.
Donald remembered hunting with Oliver for sea cucumbers and urchins in just such pools. In the still wells of briny water trapped along the pockmarked coast, cut off from the vastness of the ocean, the sea creatures were wonderfully vulnerable to the predations of quick little fingers. He sang to himself as he walked, little snatches of childhood memories, fragments he could barely hear over the fury that roared around him.
“We all dip our heads in the deep blue sea, the deep blue sea, the deep blue sea,” he sang. “We all dip our heads in the deep blue sea, on the last day of September.
William Squirrell’s fiction has appeared in Bastion Science Fiction Magazine and Bewildering Stories. His story, “Hotter than Hell” appeared in AE Micro 6.