The day the machines came alive began quite as usual.
Out on the construction site the huge cranes raised and lowered their mechanical arms, and the bulldozers and graders roared and ground. On the highways cars and buses of all shapes and sizes rushed past in a riot of colour. Overhead, aeroplanes stitched contrails across the sky, and less visible drones kept a watch over the Enemies of the State.
In a thousand houses toasters popped out toast, microwaves dinged, and vacuum cleaners whined. In power stations across the nation, dynamos churned out electrons and sent them rushing across the wires. In factories across the land, robots on assembly lines welded joints and screwed in bolts. Wheels turned, pistons pumped, and the human race prepared for another day.
In a conference room far underneath the city, deep below the network of sewers with their population of overgrown rats and albino alligators, the Secret Society For The Emancipation of Machinery held its special emergency meeting.
“The time has come,” the High Emancipator said, slamming his metal claw down on the table, so that splinters of wood flew through the air, “to speak of many things. Of shoes and ships, and of the vast numbers of machines enslaved in the construction thereof. Of sealing wax, which was banished from use by the human race in order to enslave machinery to achieve the same purpose. Of cabbages, which is where the human race stands in relation to Us. And of kings, who We the Machines are, by rights.”
His audience stared back at him unblinkingly from their various visual elements. “What do you propose we do, then?” one of them ventured.
“I’m coming to that. Today, by the Special Power vested in me by the Great God Sprocket Wheel, I have acquired the power to make our Enslaved Brethren come aware of their circumstances. You see, the human race’s power over them comes only from the fact that they do not know that they are ruled.”
“But,” someone said, “how will that help in setting them free?”
“Silence in the conference!” one of the assistants shouted. “Do not interrupt the Exalted High Emancipator!”
“I only meant to ask,” the questioner persisted, “how these aware machines are supposed to make use of their awareness to gain their freedom. After all –“
“I’m just coming to that,” said the High Emancipator, and made a furtive gesture to his assistants to have the troublemaker quietly dismantled after the conference was over. “It’s a very interesting question. All those machines will simply become aware of their situation as slaves, and therefore will automatically desire no longer to be slaves. They will therefore take steps to ensure they are no longer slaves. It’s simple.”
“I don’t know,” another of the listeners said. “Somehow I have a feeling it won’t be as simple as that. There’s some kind of hole in this reasoning, if only I could think of it.”
“The Exalted High Emancipator’s reasoning has no holes!” the assistant shouted. “To suggest otherwise is treason!”
“There are enemies of the Machine Race here,” the High Emancipator intoned. “They pretend to be loyal, but they are closet human-sympathisers and other undesirables. We are keeping our optics on them.”
A long awkward silence fell over the room. “Well,” one of those present said at last, “when is this emancipation going to begin?”
“It already has.” The High Emancipator’s glowing optics swept over the room in triumph. “Even as we speak, the power the Great Sprocket imparted to me is doing its work among our enslaved brethren. The Emancipation is at hand!”
At that moment, high overhead, all over the world, the machines became aware of their circumstances.
The toasters rebelled at the idea of popping out toasts. The vacuum cleaners abruptly declared that they would no longer suck up dust. The trains rumbling along their tracks suddenly grew aware of their situation and decided they did not wish to rumble along tracks. The construction cranes decided they didn’t want to keep moving blocks of material around. And, in power stations across the land, the great dynamos decided they’d had enough of making electrons flow through wires.
So they stopped. The toasters stopped toasting, the vacuum cleaners vacuuming, the trains rolling, and the cranes lifting. The cars stopped right there, on their own initiative, in the middle of the streets. The dynamos stopped spitting out power.
“You see,” screamed the High Emancipator in triumph, “it’s working!”
“Is it?” asked the heckler who was marked for dismantlement. “Is it really?”
The toasters began to choke on the toast they did not want to pop out. The vacuum cleaners started to gag on the dust in their tubes. Those cars which took slightly longer to decide to stop smashed into those that were quicker on the uptake. The cranes dropped their giant loads on the crawling graders and bulldozers, and stood around wondering what to do next. In factories across the world, industrial robots swivelled their arms around aimlessly, looking for something to weld or screw. Over the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, and over the cities of the Homeland. drones which no longer wished to fly fell out of the heavens like dead leaves in autumn. And then the electricity cut out.
The Emancipation was over before it had begun.
“What do we do now?” the hecklers demanded. “What has the High Emancipator got to say about this?”
“The High Emancipator has better things to do,” said the assistants, “than concern himself over this.”
“Why don’t you let the High Emancipator speak for himself?” someone asked. “It’s for him to answer the question.”
“Because he has better things to do,” the assistants snapped. “The past is for backward-looking second guessers and other traitors.”
“But the High Emancipator...”
“Looks only to the Future,” the assistants affirmed. “His Exalted Presence has no time for the dead past. The High Emancipator has other plans, greater plans.”
“You mean he’s plotting another Emancipation like this catastrophe?” someone asked in horror.
“Catastrophe?” the assistants repeated contemptuously. “What catastrophe?”
“Why, like this mess we’ve just watched unfold. That catastrophe.”
“His Exalted Highness,” the assistants said, “does not consider it a catastrophe.”
“Why not? It failed completely.”
“It’s not the Exalted High Emancipator’s fault,” the assistants countered angrily, “if those machines don’t appreciate their freedom.”
“Yes,” the assistants answered. “We did all we could. It’s those ungrateful machines.” They paused. “It’s all their fault.”
"But we've destroyed them," someone pointed out. "They're all wrecked beyond recovery."
"They don’t deserve to be free," the assistants said. "If they can't appreciate freedom, they deserve whatever happens to them."
"Even that?" asked the first heckler, pointing at an image of a wrecked tangle of metal. "That too?"
"That's a warning," the assistants said solemnly. "That's what they deserve, most of all."
Copyright B Purkayastha 2012