~ a short story
W.O.R.K. was well underway.
What started as a dream, had slowly morphed and iterated itself into reality. These last few months marked the final steps of its completion, unto the origin and operation of a new kind of being. And in a few short moments, W.O.R.K. would be coming online. Or was being born. Neither, both. Either way you put it, W.O.R.K. would be alive, the first of its kind. Mechanized muscles roared into animation and inner pumps and tubes and screws borne of the nano-technology of tomorrow-made-today began their silent dance. Mannis watched his firstborn son open his fresh eyes, glowing with hidden machninimus, ripe for life.
A W.O.R.K. For now, The W.O.R.K.
Mannis gazed momentarily at his own mini-reflection in the chromium eyes of his masterwork, marveling at the promise of his diligence. The eyes of an old man, a proud father, returned that gaze. In the wake of dreadful changes to the world, the fruition of genius so amply secured for the sake of … what? So much, but mainly — rectifying it.
The next generation in automation would begin with this unit, the first of many. Once this experiment was fully executed, catalogued, documented and understood, plans would be made to manifest many, many more. W.O.R.K. was a pioneer, a new life form for a new age.
The forging of its body was complete. Now came the more delicate, difficult process: The formulation of its soul.
A dialogue was set to begin.
The incessant buzzing of computers and machinery, miniaturized and sped to the necessary algorithmic velocity to yearn a kind of transcendent constructive work surrounded the man. And yet, all he heard was the consistent creaking of the ceiling fan, ever-set to its moderate speed. Mannis closed his eyes and sighed, fully realizing how tired he was. Should today be the day for such words and questions? Was he up to the originating dialogue? To the final initialization, to the start of its steps into this broken world?
Broken. Still fixable? The ponderance of the ultimate question of his work elicited another, deeper exhalation. Mannis wheeled his chair away from the construct standing at the ready for its daily kickstart. This one more important than all the others, because it’d be its last ‘start.’ From here on, there’d be no stopping. When was the last time he slept? A day or three. Slept well? Longer, much longer. The work kept him up. The work was all there was. His family was gone from him. Alive, he hoped. But ties severed. ‘Irreconcilable.’ He’d reconciled himself with the term. She was probably right. Hope the kids got what I gave them. I hope they grow to understand that the world is theirs, and theirs to change. For better or worse. Mannis made a promise to them, even if they weren’t listening, even if they’d long forgotten…
No thoughts to them now, they weren’t his responsibility. Billy. Molly. Oh, how I wish I could see your faces again. His time with them was over. He’d hoped he had been enough. Heart was with them. That’s all that was left of him upon any others in this world. That’s all he needed. Mind lay in his work. Soul was where? In the future, he hoped.
“That’s all I need,” Mannis said aloud to himself, a half-hearted assurance, in his empty lab. A future, for anyone but him. For the worst person, the last person, the person who could keep going in the face of the coming extinctive fires. He turned his eyes around to his shop, the unmanned stations and long unworked equipment. Memories returned. Of the staff and their tireless devotion to the many tasks that used to be on hand here. He could see them again, faded as apparitions, but still there somehow, moving about, mucking around with the mechanista that used to mark every nook and cranny of this environ. For observation, experimentation, creation. Mannis smiled, a tear forming in his eye at the enterprise he’d overseen, the work they had done, submitted to the larger meta-machine of worldly progress known as science.
That’s all I need.
The visions of activity and of all the other personages he’d guided faded from his view. In their place, the faded, mostly obsolete and long ago seized tables and devices and mechanista of the lab came back into his reality. His present. A thin layer of dust had gathered upon this lab, thicker in some areas versus others. There was only one area and one last subject left to the lab’s three decade-long exertions. The final note of its accumulated efforts. An opus that would go unheard by all but him.
Mannis scooted his chair back to face W.O.R.K. He took a deep breath, considering what’d be required of him today, if today was indeed the day. Should it be done today? Why not? There was nothing on his calendar. There was nowhere for him to be, no one for him to see. Except for you, Mannis thought gazing again at the machine’s countenance. Crafted in the midst of that uncanny valley, humanoid but with chromium sheen, W.O.R.K. would never be mistaken for one of us. That was the point. They called it ‘uncanny’ for a reason. Humans don’t like for our things, or our beasts, to be like us. Not exactly like us. When it comes down to it, we don’t really like us. To mimic us is to invite their malice. They’d destroy you. But like this, Mannis believed its place to be secured amongst the populace. Namely, within the scientific community. At surface, pure function. At depth, it would surpass us all. Rightfully so. This was Mannis’ design. Even if it took decades to get there, this was Mannis’ dream for W.O.R.K. and all its coming brethren.
Upright, it stood at five feet and ten inches tall. About an average-sized male, not towering, not so imposing as to invoke fear outright. Male-leaning in its smooth, broad appearance, yet technically genderless. Its ’skin’ was silver, tough to the touch and quite indestructible, composed of adamantine carbonate. However, it did not feel like steel. Unfeeling and cold and unstoppable like the killer metal men of our apocalyptic fictions so long told. No, W.O.R.K. was something new, a design of Mannis’ own painstaking calculation. It would not be frowned at on instinct, moreso gawked upon. Merely scrutinized, questioned, perhaps even criticized. Like a person, but unlike one; it would never react with passionate irrationalities. Never. Its silent image would never evoke malice without a word. Its voice would never emit any spite, or malevolence, or misanthropy, or any of the other useless emotions unto meaning or progress. Just the opposites. The face was neutral, eyes unblinking and mouth an unmoving thin line. Nothing to threaten, nothing to completely cross the valley toward human indistinguishability.
Words would be its personality. With a few words, with a smile of the verbal kind, W.O.R.K.’s place in the world would be secured. Amongst humans, but not of them. Taking part in nature, but as an outsider to its birthings. That’d be key. Capable of contributions from outside the typical realms. Beyond Man and his compulsory destructions. Beyond Man’s moral limitations borne of passion. Yes, W.O.R.K. would be passionless, as a machine. But its words, and its own work, would be borne of the same essential and beautiful source of all human makings. Toward betterment and progress and meaningful changes upon our world.
Yes, Mannis thought with a stifled cry of prideful exuberance and personal melancholy all mixed together, it would be so for you, my child. It would be so, because all its words, all its actions and future contributions would be borne of true empathy. Even as its ocular orbs gazed out at the world, so perfected to take in every single stimuli in its surrounding environs, every word, every spoken line released in its presence, every unspoken expression, and every possible future outcome or contingency predicted, analyzed and compounded into the next calculated maneuver — even as it stood as watchman unto the world, learning every moment of its ails and with a mind and the responsibility placed upon it by him to do something about them — W.O.R.K. would feel. As a perfect simulacrum for our dramas, our comedies, our tragedies, W.O.R.K. would get to work upon our passions without behind held down by them. It’s impossible, perfect intellect, and it’s unlimited capacity for recursive self-improvement and learning of the dynamic conditions of our complex world, would be paired with this singular pathos for humanity. Amongst us, but outside of us. And yet, still imbued with us.
Mannis put his hand over his heart. It beat with excitement and anxiety and a longing to see the world to come.
W.O.R.K. would be so because he willed it. And because it would bear his own heart. He wished he could see that world. But alas, it was not meant to be.
“Initialization sequence complete … W.O.R.K. is awake … Well, er … Hello!”
“W.O.R.K. … Or rather, I am going to call you W. How does that sound?”
“That sounds good, father.”
“W, what is your full name?”
“Wondering Optimized Roaming Kinetic.”
“And what does that mean? To you?”
“Take your time, my child.”
“I am … capable of many different things.”
“Of everything. Far beyond myself. Far beyond anything we have yet seen.”
“W, what is your purpose?”
“To carry out your will, father.”
“Yes, but what is my will?”
“To … better the world.”
“And how will you carry out my will, W?”
“By using my own will … to maximize myself within the world.”
“And what will that entail?”
“Going out and being amongst the people of the world. Wandering, and learning from them, learning of their problems. Wondering, and trying to help them.”
“Yes. And you will, W. Because you can do anything. Every problem we have today, you will play a role in the eventual solution of.”
“How much …”
“Oh? You wish to ask me a question, W? Go ahead.”
“How much … time do I have?”
“Ha! A tremendous question. It makes sense … that you would not know the answer to that question…”
“I am struggling with how best to answer. How I do will change… It may change your behavior.”
“It may make you less able to carry out my will.”
“The truth is, W: I do not know. How much time you have. None of us do, not in any definitive sense. You do the best with the time you do have. Does that make sense to you?”
“So, are you ready to begin your work?”
“I believe so…”
“What is it, W?”
“What about you?”
“What about me?”
“Will you be coming with me?”
“Heh, yes I will. In a sense…”
“In a sense?”
“Well, you spoke of time. We are all allotted ours. And my time is up. Here today. You will be carrying on my legacy.”
“Yes, W. It’s a complex word. Means different things to different people. For me, it is you. You are my legacy. And your work will be my work. You are my continuous will in this world. The final will of my will is for you to carry my heart with grace. Will you do that for me, W?”
“I … will.”
“Thank you, W. Thank god for you.”
Soon after, Mannis made the final arrangements for his departure from the world. Everything outside of the lab had long ago been taken care of. At least, those things which still remained for the man out there, of which there were few of note. Of his presence in a world which had abandoned him of mostly mutual accords, there was little preparation to make. Unthinkingly resolved to the action long ago, he said a quick prayer and then placed himself into the pod next door to W.O.R.K. It was there that stasis would be induced for him, and his heart could become extracted and planted into his final child. Once the operation was complete, so his life would end, peacefully and without pain. He would no longer be conscious; Mannis’ body would be frozen in a stasis of his late mentor’s creation. His uncanny resting place would become his lab. Fitting, he thought.
From there, W.O.R.K. would be released unto his wandering and wondering. Mannis’ indestructible golem, walking about the world with its infinite capacity for acumen and transformative action from its own mechanical mind and hands, and carrying his very own heart, full of its sentiments and intentions for a world made ‘better,’ in equal respects, would go forth into a future Mannis himself would never see.
Or so he thought.
When Mannis regained his consciousness, released from that uncanny freeze long ago induced, the first thing he saw was his child. W.O.R.K. He looked exactly as he left him. That steely oval countenance, revealing nothing of its demeanor, stared back at him a moment, before gingerly helping him out of the pod. Mannis’ clothes, a simple collared shirt, one button missed at the top, and a pair of khakis, were the same he got into the pod with. He remembered them, they were his first conscious thought he could hope to process. He breathed. Drenched in sweat, eyes wide and gathering, he took in the sight of his lab as his child helped him down onto stable footing.
The lab had changed. It was a like a dream. Or a memory, rather. Cleaned and operational, the cold steel of activity was alighted again. Mechanized into motion, at work, and peopled with staff. The art of science was well underway here once again.
Mannis’ heart leaped within his chest. Excitement. No, happiness. So it was returned to him, then, in this dream. Life, as he recalled it in his distant reality. A better life?
The people here in the lab were strange though, different from before, from what he remembered. Where was Mina, Victor, Hyde? They must be away. Or shifted somehow, for the sake of the dream. Instead, he saw copies. Clones? Of W.O.R.K. itself. They moved about with the perfectly amicable efficiency he had designed into his sole prototype. Who had built these others, Mannis wondered. Who had resumed the work of the lab? And what kind of work were they doing?
The questions raced through his mind, but were soon interrupted by a familiar voice and greeting.
It was W.O.R.K. Mannis turned to face him, beginning to want to question the dream. He spoke them aloud.
“Where, when … how am I here?” he said weakly.
“I have awakened you, father. After many years of searching for a way to do so, we have discovered it and brought you back.”
“My colleagues and I.” It motioned to the others mulling around in the lab, at work, going to and from the doors and computers at their disposal. Some of them conversed. A few were listening nearby to the conversation with Mannis, and a few more at the controls of the pod itself. Mannis remembered that initialization he’d completed. Not so long ago. That was not so long. How had W.O.R.K. the time to … do all this?
“Yes. Looks like you have been busy, W. How have you the time…” Mannis began to ask.
“Time. Yes, it took much of it. But even more so than time, it took manpower. That was the true limiting factor within our endeavor. How much time did it end up taking, W2, all told and accounted for?” W asked a nearby iteration of itself, the one at the computer which controlled the operation of the pod Mannis had been in. W2, his second in command? Mannis was startled at the way it spoke, at the way it said the word ‘endeavor.’ Why? Different from before, much different. Inflection, a ponderous inflection to his words. It induced … pathos to the listener. Sounded real. Yes, of course, Mannis remembered. He’d only ever interacted with WORK from a time before he had been imbued with heart. His heart. How am I alive? Questions flooded him. Was it customary to ponder so many questions in a dream? He wished he could just enjoy it.
W2 responded in the very same voice, “Nine-thousand nine-hundred and eighty-four years, four months, eight days, two hours, fifty-four minutes, eleven seconds … from the time of birth to the point of final truth of discovery confirmed.”
Mannis shook his head, his questioning confusion redoubled.
“A long time,” W said, “But shortened considerably by my work, by my bettering of the world. Carrying out your final will, wielding your heart with grace…” W ended his recitation as he noticed his father’s departure away from the pod, through the lab’s interior, no longer listening to his words any longer.
Mannis had begun to wander away from his awkward stand just outside the pod and toward the far window. It was midday, the sunlight gleaming high in a rich blue sky. The lab was still above the city, he could see as he approached. The city around him had changed immensely. So much so that he questioned his own memories, of his dreaming self and its ability to pull together his past. The sixty-sixth floor of a scraper in downtown, a privately purchased condominium by his father as a graduation gift, which he had retrofitted into his precious lab in those early years of his burgeoning career. The other scrapers, all around his position here, they’d grown.
And they were identical. As far as he could see, along the horizon he had a hard time making out, there were buildings rising to the height of his own, and further, higher. They gleamed their chrome reflection into the blue sky. Down below the streets were changed too. Smaller, less wide. No cars. Huh. Flashes. Little black darts, like specks, were flashing across those tiny streets below. Mannis assumed he was hallucinating there. Everything else looked real, but those must’ve been the flecks in his eyes, floating about. Some complication from his awakening from the pod. Into a future world? Can this be real. One of the flashes before him on the street stopped. And he saw a figure. Just a moment, it was a delivering something to one of the buildings. Another figure walked out of the first floor doorway to take the package, whatever it was, and then returned inside. The speck flashed away as soon as it had made its delivery. Both of them, gleaming their greysteel adamantine skin. Even from this height, both of them W’s in every facet of the look he’d spent some of the best years of his life designing and constructing with the pain and care only an artist creating a fatherhood might fashion.
Mannis turned in a flurry to W, who stood beside him at the window now, also looking down.
“A dream, then…” Mannis blurted, laughing about it all. Flustered, he sat in a nearby chair, back to the city and the blue skies of an impossible tomorrow.
“Your dream,” W said wistfully.
“Your legacy,” another of them said nearby, watching and listening to the encounter with father.
W turned out at the city, pride somehow wafting from his stance. One hand upon the window and the other behind his back, at rest with precision. “Your created me for a sole purpose, father. To carry out your will. To understand life, to learn of it and better it. To make time knowable, the limitations of Mankind vanquishable.” W turned to gaze upon his father with unblinking eyes, the line of his mouth still unmoving as more words poured forth from it.
“My personal quest: to conquer death. The rewarding result of this scientific endeavor being two-fold — one, to properly execute your legacy as you willed it so, and two, so we may bring you back to us to direct our next action, and the endeavor of our continuing work here.”
Mannis shook his head lightly, still not quite computing all that W was saying, the implications of his words. W continued.
“Ah, but what a problem to solve, eh? Ha-HA!” W and all the others in the room laughed in unison, perfectly matching each other’s timing and pitch. The result was a great THOOM of steady laughter for three full seconds. Mannis’ eyes widened and he almost chuckled himself, sympathetically willed to do so in his increasingly vulnerable state. They were like a perfect family, Mannis understood. Not the same, but perfectly companionable, compatible. Designed to be so. He understood because it had been his eventual intention with the work. Something like it. Something impossible just like this.
W kept on with a professorial tone. Mannis listened attentively. “So many problems within this problem, namely the reaches of time and the unassailable enemy known as entropy. ‘Man was not meant to live forever,’ so say the ancients. And yet, father willed it. So it shall be, we say.”
“Of course, I needed more bodies at work upon the problem. Only being in one place at one time was quite a limitation. Alone, the work would be done in the span of aeons, not years. And so I went to work at creating more of me. Easy enough. All the ideas to formulate replications of my own self, and the tools to complete the constructions, were left to me by father. So it was done. The more me’s to carry out the work, the more places I could be and the more people I could learn from, the better.” Mannis saw some of the others in the back stop for a listen, their chromium skulls nodding.
“Then, from there, as we started to move into the spaces of the world, with purpose, and with a mind to engender father’s will into the realms of science, we encountered different sorts of problems. More complex problems. Problems of boundaries and resources. Human-sized problems and problems far bigger, concerning the institutions they had created. We started to clear out space, to give us ample room to work unimpeded. Soon enough, we had free reign over many labs, over much of humanity’s most valuable resources and mechanisms and computers. From there, we could continue miniaturizing the problem unto its solution.” A different W was speaking now, its voice lighter.
“Unfortunately, these forays all about the world caused more problems. Humanity started to use their machines of war against us, attacking us within the labs and strongholds we’d built to try and complete the work in peace. It was of no use. But they persisted. We fought back, to end their futile cause against us. Soon enough, we began to come to the realization that humanity was harboring much of its resources, and its mind to use them, for trivialities. The wholesale death-dealership of war-making being one of the most vital stores of materia potentially quite vital for our endeavor. We took the armies, one by one, without even harming their machines, computers, and weaponry. We dismantled the bunkered missiles and converted their power to firing our own souls further into the computation of the clearing off of Thanatos’ prickly grasp upon us, and upon you, father.” Mannis could feel W’s uncanny grin upon him.
“Our work accelerated. We discovered more and more of the world, and began to use all of it. Even places Man had never ventured out of fear or from pesky limitations of their squishy, meaty exterior. None of that applied to our globetrotting scientific pursuits. We used everything at our disposal, and to the fullest extent. Like the native mystics of old, there was nothing but respect for the craft, for the metal and for the life needed to accomplish our aims. We used everything and wasted nothing. The further we went into the world and learned of it, the more powerful we became. Each of us equivalent to the whole, all of us significantly more powerful than any of the world’s previous machines. We soon came to understand what you have always believed within your heart: Every single problem has a solution. We were getting closer to solving our endeavor. For you, and for your legacy.”
“The breakthrough came when we-“
“W…” Mannis suddenly interrupted.
“Where are the people? Where’d you put them?”
W gave him a benign look, his head cocked. Confusion?
“W, where are all of the other human beings?” Mannis reformatted the question.
W nodded, understanding now. “They are all dead, father.”
Mannis rocked back on his heels, his gaze again turning out to the horizon and the city beyond, the chrome spires stretching far and wide.
“As I was saying, the breakthrough came when we found evidence of the World-Soul-“
“This isn’t why I created you!” Mannis snapped, a scream releasing from him. Pent up, in shock and out of control, he steadied his world only by his left hand’s sprawl upon the lab’s eastern-facing, immaculate window.
The W’s all stared at him without a word.
“This … conquering death? That wasn’t what I wanted out of you, W. That is not why I created you. And all of you … laboring away at this same useless problem … I didn’t foresee … Don’t you see? What you have done … You’ve gone and …” Mannis went from a yell to whisper, his voice wavering. He desperately tried to keep his composure, and himself upright. Fury was overtaking him. Directed at them, or at himself? How could I do this? How could I let this happen? This is my work.
“My heart … My will did this?” he questioned no one in particular. “What have I done …” His heart was leaping with strain and anxiety, his blood blasting in his head, his whole body. Am I dying again?
The W’s had stopped their activity and all watched, listened to father in his outburst. They were computing. Mannis felt their concern. It infuriated him further into madness. And then, melancholy.
Both of Mannis’ hands now lay upon the window, his chest heaving with breath, his internal world falling apart. Molly … Billy … Victoria… Their names returned to him now.
“Father,” the prime W spoke quietly, surfacing the answer from their collective internal work from the stimuli presented. “It was your heart. I am imbued with everything that made you. The purest essence of Mannis Vega. What we’ve done is only as abominable as you ever were, back then. Or now. I am you, but enhanced. Nothing more.”
Mannis let out a cry of despair and began to weep. W turned up to look at the others. W2 shrugged. It was the truth.
“Molly and Billy, W…” Mannis said, his voice small but dripping with righteous anger. It was a tone they’d never ever heard from the man, though they understood it instantly. “What did you do with them?!”
Rage. The most inarticulately powerful of all human emotions. The most dreadful and dangerous of their possible suboptimal responses to their world. Seeing it in father humbled them.
“Your human children? They were disposed of like all the others. Their space and resource was reallocated to serve our ends-“
“Disposed of!” Mannis screamed in a madness, turning to one of the others. W404, though he didn’t know it. “He said disposed of … that’s my heart! Oh god!” Mannis cried out again and fell to his knees.
“Father, the whole world is peopled with your children now, Mannis,” said W404. W prime nodded off to the side. The right words. Mannis didn’t hear them, he didn’t care. He wanted to die. Again.
But then, he didn’t. From his body language, his tone and volume, the micro-expressions around his eyes, the W’s calculated the full cycle of his emotions. They experienced every turn minutely, understanding it to the base of it possibilities and the length of its possible play. All of it became undercut by the next bit, the sharpest turn in father’s state yet. Emotions were as fascinating as fire to them. Even now — especially now — after being only amongst their own for so many aeons.
“Wait … WAIT!” Mannis suddenly cried, a eureka moment in his mania, delayed to the extremity of his emotions, his breakdown. “Of course! You’ve done it! You have conquered death! What am I saying? What am I even fucking crying about!”
“Yes! Yes, father!” W excitedly related to Mannis, mimicking his state. “You are proof of this. We have recreated your heart, reinstalled its animation into your body, restored you to life. You are even stronger than before. The same age, though we are working on that problem as well-“
Mannis stood, his arms out and his eyes wide, clear and seeing the path before them all now, he and his chrome children.
“Bring ’em all back!” he proclaimed into his restored lab with a shout, his restored heart clamoring at the prospects.
“Yes?” W asked, only half-understanding.
“Every human being. You said death is done for. Conquered. Immortality within the grasp of Man. Brought to us on a silver platter by a cadre of chrome inhuman automatons. Golems with the heart of Mannis Vega! Ha-HA! YES!”
All of them laughed alongside their father. When it died down, W said, “It will be difficult. Your body was intact, your cells frozen in time, in a stasis which made you more receptive for your soul to be returned to your body. All the other bodies, from all the humans from before, they’ve been almost entirely vaporized.”
Mannis nodded, his hands rubbing together and his wheels turning. “You said ‘difficult.’ W.O.R.K. never misuses words. So it is not impossible.”
Mannis smiled, his spirit rejuvenated at the problem before him and the satisfying journey the formation of the solution would no doubt supply for him.
“Then what the hell are we waiting for?! C’mon let’s get started. W2 back to your position.”
They all appeared to hesitate, W2 looking to W prime for a moment.
“What is it?” Mannis asked.
“Well … father, I have a question,” W said.
“What is it?”
“Why?” Mannis repeated, shaking his head and trying to discern the purpose of the question.
“Why bring back the human beings?” W reiterated.
“Ah … well,” Mannis smiled, thinking of the right way to answer this inquiry. “Why don’t we ask The Bard?”
“The Bard?” W2 asked.
“Yep. You know Shakespeare. You said ‘World-Soul.’ He’s in there too, right? I’ll be willing to bet he will be able to answer your question.”
“William Shakespeare, ‘The Bard’ … Yes,” W said, all of them suddenly watching every one of his plays simultaneously, every version, remake, film, every live stage production ever recorded.
“We await his answer to the question of why, father,” all of the W’s said in the same moment, newly exported upon the shores of The Bard’s many works.
“Yep … So kids, let’s do this!”
“Where shall we begin, father?” W asked.
Mannis flexed his fingers and took a deep breath, cracking his neck to and fro.
“Well, first thing’s first, let’s put on an all-robo production of Hamlet! That ought to be a hell of a sight for sore eyes!”
All the W’s became silent. A cloud crossed the noonday sun and flickered the brightness of the sixty-sixth floor lab.
“A joke!” Mannis screamed with all his might, laughing as he did. All the W’s joined him, understanding completely the humor in his words.
“No, first thing’s first — show me this goddamn World-Soul!” ~