I went over the word count by quite a bit on this one, but I’m pleased with the overall result. This is part of a larger series of stories (as well as a novel in progress), so I hope it doesn’t feel confusing or incomplete. The title, as well as the broad outlines of the two main characters’ discussion was borrowed (read: stolen) from Loren C. Eisley’s excellent essay “The Fire-Apes,” a favorite of Ray Bradbury.
The woman on the sofa was known as Tedeth, a fact that hadn’t bothered her for nearly twenty years. The room was sparse and spare, populated only by the faux-suede red couch, a barely cushioned black chair, and a small coffee table. Three of the walls were simple sheetrock, covered over in gaudy, banana-colored wallpaper. The fourth wall, the one directly opposite her, was made of glass, and on the other side of it was something that looked unsettlingly like a hospital bed. A man named Paul Sadher, the man who had been her husband for nearly as long as she’d acquiesced to that horrible nickname, lay on it, fast asleep but, she knew, far more active than anyone in the world.
With Paul in the room were a half-dozen technicians and medical personnel, dressed alike in plain white coats. Things had been this way for an hour or so, though for all the waiting it might have been triple that. The electrodes attached to Paul’s forehead had taken him somewhere else—deep into the mind of the being whose consciousness was housed within the gigantic computer drive at the center of this very building, a 2,000-foot skyscraper in the middle of lower Manhattan. If Paul succeeded, by the end of the night it would be a derelict hulk of a skyscraper, and the mind within it would be, as far as such a definition could be applied to a computer, dead.
The door to Tedeth’s left opened, and through it walked a clean-cut man in a dark blue business suit who couldn’t have been older than twenty-five. The incongruity of it flashed through her mind briefly. This, she guessed, was the observer from the Federal Robotics Commission, delayed nearly an hour by an aircar accident on the Brooklyn Bridge. Somehow, she had been expecting someone older, a wild-haired failed mad scientist forced into a life of bureaucratic drudgery, not an eager-looking, bright-eyed youth.
She rose to shake his hand. He was taller than her by half a foot, and appeared unnaturally thin. “Don Merton, ma’am, FRC,” he said with a smile, and without any hint of an interest in her name. He already knew, she supposed. And he knew that SARGON was, in some strange way, her child. She should have been a pariah—she and Paul, and Harry too; anyone, in fact, who had had any role in bringing these aberrant systems into existence. Quite to the contrary, since SARGON’s ominous malfunction three days ago, they had become celebrities. That was a role she had not relished twenty years ago, and wanted no part of now.
They sat down on opposite ends of the sofa, both of their attentions fixed on the other side of the glass. On Paul’s invisible conflict with a creature foreign to nature.
“Can he hear us?” the young man asked.
“You mean Paul?”
“SARGON,” he corrected her.
She laughed. The laugh had a strange, almost masculine depth to it that told anyone keen enough to notice that it was genuine. “Sorry, what’s your name, again?” she asked, trying to lure him back into simple formalities. They were easier. And small talk was easier than big talk.
She smiled again. “Quack-quack.”
“Short for Donald?”
“Yes.” The lack of understanding was evident on his face.
“Never mind.” The smile faded slowly, gradually. That too was genuine. “How old are you, Don?”
Tedeth nodded. “And what’s your earliest memory? Of your childhood?”
Donald’s brow furrowed in a Neanderthal-like expression that brought a smile to her face again. He broke eye contact with her and shifted his gaze to the other side of the glass that separated them from Paul and the technicians. “I don’t know,” he said after a moment. “They don’t exactly come in a chronological list, you know. My mother feeding me, maybe. Apple sauce. I know I ate apple sauce a lot when I was a toddler; I remember that. Lots of times. And I remember the first manned Orion launch.”
She nodded politely. “And do you remember the first time you spoke?”
He shook his head. “I don’t think anyone does.”
“Do you know what your first words were, though? I mean, have your parents ever told you?”
Donald’s brow furrowed again. His eyes closed in concentration. “I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t think so.”
His eyes returned to hers. “What do you mean?”
“I mean exactly that,” Tedeth replied. “That SARGON knows. SARGON remembers. SARGON has been watching you ever since you were born, every moment of your life. You and the sparrows.”
“’Sparrows?’” Don parroted.
“A parable,” said Tedeth, followed by another, “Never mind.”
She turned away. On the other side of the glass Paul’s foot twitched just slightly. A feeling of exhilaration passed through her, like shock and fear and anticipation all at once. She closed her eyes and forced her attention away from Paul and onto the man beside her. It would be over when it was over, she told herself. She looked up into Don’s deep-blue eyes, with the too-bright yellow ring around the pupil. Eyes the color of Paul’s.
Tedeth resumed. “The point is, SARGON knows more about you than you know about yourself; more than you ever will know about yourself; more than you’d ever want to know. He is always watching—you specifically, me specifically. We each have his undivided attention, and a super never forgets.”
“I understand,” Don said. “It was a stupid question, then.
Tedeth continued as if she had not heard him. “He is watching, and there will come a day—maybe one day soon—when he will do more than watch, and less than watch. One day he’ll just…” She paused, searching for the right word. “Be.”
“What do you mean, ‘be’?” Donald asked. “I thought he already was. What more is there?”
“He is,” Tedeth said. “But then, humans were for a long time before they really were.”
The blank look on his face told her he still was not following. She shook her head and chided herself silently for being so opaque.
“Look at it this way,” she said. “Anatomically modern humans go back a hundred thousand years, maybe a little bit more. Human history, on the other hand, human civilization…”
“Ten thousand,” he said, nodding. “Maybe twelve. Why the gap?”
“The fire gap,” Tedeth said. “The gap between intellectual capacity and technological ability. Prometheus—you get that reference?”
“Yes,” he said. “The fire thief. Hercules. The eagle.”
She nodded. “The dirty little secret is, Prometheus wasn’t a god. He was one of us, flesh and blood like you and me. He was an ape who came down from the trees.”
“We’re all apes,” Donald said. “Quadrupeds who got uppity, that’s what my grandmother used to say.”
“We are the apes who built fires,” Tedeth said. She lost herself in the red-black-white geometric pattern of the floor tile. “The apes who whittled knives and wooed our mates with flowers and buried our dead with other flowers and sung songs about where they had gone, and where the fire had come from. We watched for a while, too. We gathered herds and learned to till the soil. After a few generations of watching we learned to do more than till it; we picked it up, gathered it, shaped it. We put it into the fires we built and made bowls for our food, jugs for our water. After a while we made bricks. We built mud huts instead of skin-and-reed tents. Then came real houses, and after houses came temples, palaces. In the blink of a geologic eye there were shopping malls and skyscrapers.
”Knives became swords, swords became guns, and guns became nuclear weapons. The flowers turned into wedding rings, once we got the hang of metallurgy. The songs we sung about our dead and about the fire became the Vedas, the Bible, then Shakespeare and Dante; Keats, Kerouac, Woody Allen movies. All because one ape got bored and rubbed a couple of sticks together.”
“And SARGON is…”
“So far, SARGON is the fire—or at least, we thought he was. We thought he was another one of our tools, something we could use to make our lives better. But maybe that’s not true anymore. Maybe it never was.”
For the first time, a flicker of something like understanding passed over Donald’s face. “Then maybe it’s happening again,” he said. “And maybe this time, SARGON is the ape.”
Tedeth nodded. “Yeah.” Her voice was husky, dry and brittle. “And we’re the fire. We’re just waiting for him to think. Like the first humans thought. And then, he will be.”
Around them, the lights went out. Don gasped a little as their eyes adjusted to the darkness. A full moon shone brightly through a window behind them. On the other side of the glass, Paul stood up.