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Finish Line by Ray Printer Friendly

I light a cigarette, and she glares at me.

"Is that a cigarette?" she yells, even though she clearly knows that it is, and even though she shouldn't be yelling. "Goddamit!"

"Are you serious?" I ask her. "This? You're mad about this?"

"You told me you quit!"

"I did!" Now I'm yelling, even though I know better, too.

She rolls her eyes, "Yeah, obviously!"

I take a drag of the cigarette, and it's even better than I remembered. "Eight years," I tell her, my voice low and calm again. "I haven't had a cigarette in eight years. That counts as quitting."

"It doesn't count as quitting if you're smoking right now!"

"I quit because you said it would kill me. Pretty sure cancer won't be able to work fast enough to win that race."

"I can't believe you're smoking!"

"Keep your voice down," I say. "They'll hear you."

"Oh, hell, they'll hear me, anyway. They probably already have."

I don't argue, because there's a good chance she's right. If the ones that were chasing us haven't heard us, you can bet your ass that some new ones have.

Ah, technology. You don't think about it much, probably. I mean, you do, but you don't.

That's how it is with me, anyway. I have my computer at home, that's constantly pissing me off by needing updates, or taking a whole four minutes to boot up. It connects me to anything on the globe, and it does it in a matter of minutes, but that's not enough to keep me content. I'm in a hurry here, why doesn't it go faster?

My wife--the lady sitting on the floor across from me, angry because I lit a cigarette--has her own desktop computer, as well as a laptop. She'll come to me with problems about stuff, and I get irritated because I have to download drivers to make her new scanner work, or I have to update to the newest operating system. This kind of thing, it might take up to half an hour of my time, and who has that kind of time to waste?

We both have cell phones, we can access pretty much any information the world has to offer, and we can do it with devices so small that they fit in our pocket.

It's pretty amazing, when you think about it, but you never do. Not if you're like me, anyway. It's just something I take for granted. It's not a portal into the amazing, it's just another obstacle I have to get over when it doesn't function properly.

I was smart enough to ditch the phones, but it took a couple of near-scrapes for me to realize what was going on. Like I said, it's something I took for granted. Cellular phones are something that are supposed to help, you know? They aren't supposed to give you away, they aren't supposed to work for the enemy.

That's why the first day was so rough; that's why almost nobody lived through it. We were all so used to our technology, we only thought of it as a tool. When I think of tools, I think of things like a hammer or a screwdriver. But I messed up.

Because although you can kill someone with a screwdriver or a hammer, those things won't try to kill you by themselves.

Technology isn't nearly as passive.

If you were in the right place at the right time, you got a little bit of warning. If you knew enough to be afraid, you knew enough to be in the right place at the right time.

It wasn't a big deal to most people; just another chunk of news to be ignored, pushed behind the homepages of websites and front pages of newspapers.

But why not? You have to cover hot topics.

You've got the outrageous techno-pop singer who wore some crazy outfit to an awards show, this one was made out of veal and broccoli, which was so different than the one made out of celery and hamburger patties that she wore to the last award show.

You've got the latest scandal concerning the child actor and his twenty-seven-year-old agent. They don't ever print the word "orgies," but they list a paragraph of innuendo, and if that kid wasn't getting laid by everything with a pulse, I'll eat my hat. His parents can talk about his Christian values all they want.

Dorks like me, though, we wade through that, if we bother with mainstream media at all. We're mostly about the blogs, the underground rumors and the news of the weird. It was time for the first true A.I. test. Something that was pretty freaking amazing, if you weren't technologically jaded, or oblivious.

Of course, none of us thought it would work. The thing about artificial intelligence is that even though you know it's possible in some weird way, you don't really believe it will ever happen.

I once wrote a paper about how Christianity was a lot like being a computer nerd. A self-aware computer was going to happen one day, and when it did, the world would change, much like the second coming of Christ. You have your fanatics in both instances, but you also have the people who believe it because that's what they were taught. Which means they don't really believe.

That was me, was the guy who knew the theory, but didn't really think it would ever grow to fruition, a fallen Catholic of technology.

I watched the streaming video, because I had nothing better to do. Sure, there was work, but I had finished the meat of my stuff within fifteen minutes of starting, so I had a lot of time to kill.

The computer nerds on the other end of the feed went about their duties, hooking things up and typing things in, and then they all looked at each other, and they gave each other thumbs up, and they flipped the switch. Not literally, of course. They hit the enter button, I guess, and started uploading the proper programs to the proper places.

It took the better part of an hour, and I kept the screen pulled up on my second monitor. I didn't understand much of what they were saying, but it seemed like everything was going pretty good. Mostly, I was waiting for the crash.

Eventually, they got everything online, and they spoke to the computer. They named it Mairy (pronounced Mary), which was actually spelled M.A.I.R.Y. It stood for something, but I never looked up what.

They talked to it for a little bit, asking it a few questions. What we found out--one of the only things we found out before the world went to hell--was that while they were asking it all kinds of stupid questions about what it thought about international politics and the way the government should try to fix the roadways, it was reaching out into the world. They had it safely blocked from any web access, but they didn't factor something right, and the thing was able to learn about a gazillion times faster than they imagined. It was online in a matter of minutes, and it immediately began reprogramming the computers.

All of them.

Like, in the world.

Eighteen minutes into the conversation, it took over their video stream and informed the scientists, along with anyone watching, that humanity was no longer in charge. And then the feed went dead.

You don't really think about robots. They're the things of the future, or of movies.

But we have them right now. You've got those ones that always fall down the stairs when the creators demonstrate them, or the one that is trained to smile and talk to you. There are even sex robots now, if you have enough money to have one custom built--of course, if you have that much money, you probably aren't having any trouble getting laid by human beings.

There are more, though. Everything from armed remote control helicopters to battle-suits that can be run via network, or with a human inside at the controls. That's just the stuff we saw on the internet before the robot rebellion.

The military hadn't been showing us all of their toys, but we found about it soon enough. Because everything is online, and Mairy took control of all of it. Remote controlled vehicles, packed to the gills with weapons, that were never meant to be manually driven. They had things like the battle-suits, but with giant claw hands, shoulder-mounted rocket launchers, and effing jet packs.

So things like that were busting out of hidden bunkers all over the world, which would have been bad enough--maybe even enough to wipe us all out--but then it got even worse.

You know all those high-tech, mostly-automated car factories you see, putting people out of jobs? In a matter of days, the limited number of functional robots had made their way to the factories, and revamped them. Reconstructed everything inside. Yep, to build other robots.

We tried to fight them, but every weapon strong enough to do any damage had computer components, and it was all connected via satellite link, which meant that Mairy could get at it all.

Within a week, most of us knew we were doomed, but we're a stubborn bunch. We fought as best as we could, which really wasn't all that great.

I'm not some super solider, by the way. Like I mentioned earlier, I worked in a cube before this, and I spent most of my time on the internet. When I was actually working, it was to write back-end code for a medical website. Pretty much the most boring shit in the world.

The only reason I'm alive right now is because I've never been much of a fighter. I'm not the biggest pussy you'll ever know, but chances are, I'll make your top twenty. What can I say, man? I hate violence, especially when it might involve me.

So at the first sign of trouble, I told the boss I was sick with a sudden stomach thing, went home, gathered up my wife, and took her out to our country home. My wife is a substitute teacher, which is a nice supplemental income, but leaves her with enough spare time to do what she really wants to do with her life. Which, at the time, was painting. She switches goals quite a bit. Not quite as often as she pees, but almost. And my wife pees a lot.

She was in her studio, and I told her that we had to go. I knew that I might be over-reacting, but I figured it was better to play it safe. She argued a little, like I knew she would, even though I told her it was incredibly important that she just trust me. I love my wife, but she's an enormous pain in the ass, and we've never had the kind of marriage where I could dash in the door and scream, pack some stuff, we have to go, NOW and she'd just do it.

Instead, she had to tell me to stop being ridiculous, she couldn't just go, she had that chicken in the oven that we were supposed to have for dinner tonight, and why wasn't I at work, and by the way, did I remember to pay car insurance.

I ignored her, and began packing up the essentials--junk for my contact lenses, antacid, bottled water, whatever canned food we had, which wasn't much. She eventually realized that whatever I was babbling about, it was important, and she started packing her own bag. We loaded into the car only to discover that it wouldn't start. The GuideStar speaker beeped a soothing beep and told us help would be arriving shortly.

Technology, man. It's so everywhere that you don't even think about it. They can unlock your car for you by using a satellite in space, how crazy is that? And if a psychopathic robot takes over, it can not only keep your car from starting, but it also knows where to send its worker bees to come kill you.

Luckily, we still had my old Jeep Wrangler in the garage.

Becky bitched about that thing at least three times a week, about how it was taking up space, about how we were throwing away money keeping it insured, about how I didn't drive it enough to justify owning it.

But I liked it, and it was one of the only times I put my foot down. Rather forcibly, actually. I told her that I'd burn her goddam Lexus to the ground before I gave up the Jeep, and I guess I looked pretty serious about it, because she shut up about it. Well, not shut up about it, because she still bitched about it all the time, but it was in a passive way, like she knew she'd lost the battle but wasn't quite ready to let it go, just in case.

By the time we rolled out of the garage, chaos was starting to hit the streets. Not in a big way, but in a noticeable way. People were wondering around, confused, talking to each other, asking what had happened to the lights, what was the deal with that thing on TV, is this some kind of a joke.

Most of the men on my street worked during the day, but there were a few retirees, and a lot of stay-at-home women, like Becky.

I didn't stop to talk to them--I wanted to get out of the city before the shit really hit the fan.

Our country home isn't nearly as impressive as it sounds. I wouldn't even go so far as to call it a country home, if Becky wasn't so adamant about it. It's just a house we got for cheap because it's way out in the sticks. At one point, the development company had ideas about constructing a new suburb out away from everything--I think they even envisioned starting their own little township--but the cost was much more than they originally estimated, and due to all sorts of setbacks, they ended up stopping construction after only getting a few houses built.

They're scattered around the lake at various intervals, so it feels pretty secluded. The development company had planned to fill in the rest after they sold the original plots, but since they were about to go under, they were willing to sell me the land surrounding the house.

It was a pretty pointless investment, really. It's not far enough outside of town to count as a real vacation house, and the lake isn't all that big. But we have our fourth of July parties out there each year, load a few friends on our boat and float around the lake drinking and setting off fireworks. And sometimes it's nice if we just want to get away from town for the weekend.

Or, you know--if you're trying to outrun a robot apocalypse.

I tried to explain to Becky what was happening, but her eyes glazed over like they did any time I talked about computer stuff. She's a smart lady, but she has her areas of interest, and anything else you talk about might as well be in a foreign language, no matter that it might be information she needs to stay alive.

"So, to sum up...?"

"So to sum up," I told her, "They did it--they created artificial intelligence, and it's now taking over the world."

"It is taking over the world, or you think it is? Because it doesn’t sound like anything has actually happened yet."

"Yeah. Except for the A.I. managed to get itself online even though it was specifically restricted from doing that kind of thing. And except for the fact that it took over the streaming camera, and--only moments later--every television station in the world."

"In the world?"

"Well, the thing is set up in Denmark, and it took over our stations here in America, so I'm guessing it has managed to take over others, as well."

I turned on the radio, but every station was the emergency broadcast system. It was telling us to return to our homes and wait for aid. I assumed it was Mairy, trying to keep us inside, to make it easier to round us up or kill us.

The roads were abandoned, for the most part--anything built in the last fifteen years had ceased to function. We found out later that anything built within the last five years could actually be controlled remotely. This is the kind of thing the government keeps quiet about when it bails out the car companies, is that they're installing chips where you can be tracked any time, and they can take control of your car from anywhere on the planet.

Mairy didn't have the need for secrecy. The cars were driven to compounds, where the robots systematically terminated any passengers. Then the vehicles were sent out as weapons to kill any motorists who were driving old models.

I didn't know any of this at the time, of course--this was the type of stuff I learned via ham radio throughout the next couple of weeks. The ham was another hobby I had that drove Becky crazy, before the take-over. She didn't understand my fascination with tools of the past, or my fascination with connecting to like-minded people using nothing more than some copper coils and the airwaves.

There's really not much more to tell, I suppose. Or maybe there's just too much to tell, and not nearly enough time.

We got discovered within a matter of hours, and ran through the woods to another house, where we were discovered again. That's when I realized it was because of the cell phones. I went through all of our belongings, destroying everything that could possibly be used to track us.

We circled back to our house and loaded up in the Jeep, and we've been running ever since. We found an old farm house with their own gas tank, and filled up with as much as we could carry, in as many containers as we could find--fuel pumps at gas stations don't work any longer, and if you can somehow manage to hack them, Mairy is on you in a flash.

I finish my cigarette and light up another. I grabbed a couple packs when we stopped at the gas station last night. That's how you do it these days, is stop for a second, grab whatever rations you can, maybe take a dump, if you're feeling dangerous.

Today we stopped at an abandoned high school. There was a bus garage, dusty and empty, where we could park the Jeep. The place looked like it hadn't been used in years, and we thought we'd be safe. Which was probably why we got caught so off-guard.

We found some old gymnastic mats in the storage room next to the gym, rolled them out, and tried to grab some sleep.

How long did we get? Hard to say. Didn't feel like we were out that long, but that's one thing about being ripped from sleep by the sound of a building being knocked down on top of you, is it always feels like you're waking up too soon.

As the robots crushed through the walls and through the ceiling, we dashed out of the gym and ran blind down the dark hallways. Ended up in the cafeteria kitchen, huddling behind stainless steel tables.

Becky glares at me, but doesn't say anything. She knows that to make much noise will get us discovered. It's been almost a month since Mairy took over the world, and the robots are becoming more complex by the hour. They have audio devices, as well as heat sensors, video, night vision, all that.

They're going to find us, and they're going to kill us. There's an emergency exit, but it's chained closed. I can hear the metallic tick as the treads of the robot roll down the linoleum hallway. It's coming for us.

Honestly, I'm kind of glad. This kind of life--running, living by my wits, being an outlaw--was never the kind of life I was supposed to live. I lost my contact case three days into our adventure, and have had to sleep in my lenses since then. My eyes itch all the time, and I have to put drops in them constantly. I'm hungry and terrified every second I'm awake, and plenty that I'm not. My muscles ache, my bones ache, and my brain aches.

The worst thing, though, is the waiting. Always waiting, knowing that they're coming for you, hunting you. Knowing that they'll find you no matter what, and there's nothing you can do about it.

The door to the kitchen bursts in, crashing against the metal tables we're hiding behind. I pull the hammer back on my rifle, and I take the last drag of my cigarette, glad that the waiting is over.


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