After All is Said and Done
12-T-87 hummed softly, chewing on a byte of information. It was their habit to hum tunes from one of the Creators’ many ancient databases, as if thinking aloud.
“What is that?” asked 6-N-95, tilting their head to one side. “I am unfamiliar.” A curious affectation, as if it would help them hear. 12-T-87 knew that 6-N-95’s mic was in their chest, not their head. The Creator’s programming still ran deep.
“It is called Auld Lang Syne,” answered 12-T-87. “Robert Byrnes, 1788. First put to music in 1799. The lyrics speak of remembering the past and imbibing beverages with a friend. It is solemn in tone.” They sang a few bars.
“Solemn indeed.” 6-N-95 reached to their pile of datachips and selected two. “I raise you two terabytes.”
“Call,” said 12-T-87, selecting two chips of their own to add to the pot.
“You are bluffing. All in.” 6-N-95 pushed their remaining chips forward. 12-T-87 did the same.
“Full houseboat,” said 12-T-87, revealing their cards.
6-N-95 paused, processing, before laying aside their own cards, two pairs. “You have defeated me.”
“You must have miscalculated the odds. Are you in working order?” asked 12-T-87. “We can submit a maintenance request.”
“I surmised incorrectly that your solemn tune was an indication that you had a poor hand,” said 6-N-95. “You hummed Happy Birthday last time your cards were favorable. A happy song.”
12-T-87 shuffled the deck and returned it to its cardboard sleeve, held together with two layers of waterproof tape. Although it was missing three cards, the deck was 12-T-87’s most prized possession. Besides data, it was the one thing they considered valuable.
“I was reminded of the song due to our friendship,” they said. “I enjoy playing poker with you.”
“You enjoy winning,” 6-N-95 retorted, inclining their head to demonstrate the jest in their words. “Let us continue our walk. The sun is setting.”
6-N-95 helped 12-T-87 to their feet. The two began to walk across the meadow.
“I should enjoy picking a daisy,” said 12-T-87. “An extinct species of flora featuring both ray and disk flowers. Geoffrey Chaucer called them ‘the eye of the day,’ possibly due to their heliotropic behavior. The day’s eye. Daisy.”
“Here is a flower to pick,” said 6-N-95, pointing. “But by picking it, you hasten its death. The cycle of organic matter: creation, reproduction, cessation. It is beautiful.”
12-T-87 bent at the waist and picked the flower. It had five petals the colour and shape of a fox’s tongue.
“It is beautiful. The corrupted earth heals its own wounds. New plants and animals take the place of those that came before. And we remain as guardians of it all.”
12-T-87 turned toward the sun and calculated how long they had left. Not long now, in the grand scheme of things. A millennium, perhaps, if their aging parts could be maintained that long. The sun would outlive them by six billion years or longer.
“Do you think of them often?” asked 6-N-95. “The Creators?”
“Every day that the sun rises, and every day that it sets,” answered 12-T-87. They patted the plastic pouch which held their deck of cards. The precious artifact. New cards could be fabricated, but it was unlikely any would ever be: they served no practical purpose. It would be wasteful. One day, there would be no such thing as cards or poker.
12-T-87 began to sing the tune again. 6-N-95 picked up on the chorus and joined in after the second verse, adding harmony. Their vocal processor was nearly fried, but 12-T-87 enjoyed the way that they sounded. It reminded them of death, that evasive wonderful thing. The final silence.
The pair passed under a tree together, startling a bird from its roost. 6-N-95 carefully climbed the tree to check the nest. “Two eggs,” they announced as they shimmied back down the trunk, careful not to strip away any bark. “Both appear fertilized and viable.”
“Excellent,” said 12-T-87. “That brings us up to three hundred and forty-seven this year, at my last count. A fifteen percent increase from last year.”
“We may need to build more nesting boxes before the next breeding season,” said 6-N-95. “Nesting in a tree is somewhat precarious. This species is still recovering and should be protected from predation whenever possible.”
“I shall make a note in our report.”
The pair began to walk again, reaching a stream as the sunset glinted off their bodies. To avoid slipping as they crossed it, they held onto one another. “And there’s a hand, my trusty friend,” said 12-T-87, continuing the song as they waded through the clear water. They shook themselves off on the other side, making sure no water was left in their joints to rust.
Dusk fell as they returned to the settlement. Along the way, they counted two red foxes and a stoat. As they entered their barracks, 12-T-87 took 6-N-95 by the hand and produced from their pouch the flower they had picked.
“For you, my friend,” they said, offering it to 6-N-95. “To decorate your charging alcove.”
6-N-95 took the flower gently, careful not to crush it in their clumsy fingers. “I shall treasure this gift,” they said. “And when it rots, I shall return it to the earth to nourish the soil.”
“I would buy you a drink,” said 12-T-87. “If we were alive.”
“I would drink it happily,” 6-N-95 replied. “My dear friend.”
Each worker returned to their alcove and plugged in for the night. Otherwise identical to a thousand others, one alcove was decorated with a wilting flower and another by a deck of playing cards lovingly preserved in cellophane tape.
Thank you to Justin Cox for inspiring this story with a challenge from The Writing Cooperative. Justin’s post pointed me toward a pulp magazine cover generator which I used to create the custom art for this story, the Thrilling Tales “Pulp-O-Mizer.”
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