by: German William Cabassa Barber ((Translated and edited by Jonathan Marcantoni.))
The road to enlightenment can oftentimes be littered with unforeseen consequences….
July 7, 3016
I ran. I ran from my destiny in that cadaverous, lonely and gloomy forest, fleeing from those frightening noises far off in the distance until I came upon an old tree, or what was left of it. Trying to hide from death is not an easy task when it has a face and when in my imagination, I could not escape what I had just seen. Naive me, who thought I could rest in the shade of another dying being. How wrong I was. And as I tried to regain the breath that escaped me, I fell through a crack in the roots. The darkness swallowing me as a voracious predator would its innocuous prey.
When finally I woke, him or it, stared at me from the dim light that filtered down into the macabre cavern where I lay. Beholding this being towering above me was overwhelming, and I could not look away. I was not sure whether the creature was alive or dead, or if it was somehow existing in between these states. In its silence, I dared to look around, stifling a scream as I noticed that I was surrounded by human skeletons, so grey and aged they seemed as if they could turn to dust at any moment.
I looked behind it and I could see that the roots of the old tree descended from the surface to where I was. There was an exit, I thought. I stood up and suddenly its eyes illuminated. The Wonderful Machine, as the creature would come to be called, now full of life stood up and I beheld its terrifying form in all its glory. I was taken aback at its imposing size and I fell backwards as goose bumps enveloped my body, and in its great presence I felt as helpless as a mouse cornered by a cat. The splendor of its gaze froze my soul.
“Do not leave me alone,” The Wonderful Machine muttered in a metallic, robotic voice as if from inside a huge windup clock, like the ones that adorned the walls of the ancient houses of our grandparents in the years before The Last War. It raised its hand menacingly, extending its reach towards me and at that moment I realized that there was nothing more sickening than the fear of being devoured wholly by something bigger than you. At first glance, I thought The Wonderful Machine was exactly just that, a machine. Yet there was a sadness in its eyes that betrayed those thoughts. Perhaps it once had soul.
“I’m going to die in here!” was the only thing I could think to reply, and I really believed it for a moment. The Wonderful Machine moved out of the darkness to where I could see it better and making a motion with its hands, a soft yellow glow from its torso appeared and illuminated our surroundings. In that newfound light I could see that from its chin downwards, it was all metal. Suddenly, it bowed down and with its finger touched a few pieces of old dry wood lying by my feet and they ignited instantly. The creature was over six feet tall and its entire body was silver, except for its hands, ribs, and feet, where orbed crystals had been embedded and were humming with a soft energy as if they were power cells.
“Do not fear me Runner,” it said before moving forward to sit on an immense stone, which appeared to be kind of a carved throne. I looked around, my eyes nervously scanning for the skeletons. Its face, the only human trait left, was beaming with a forced smile. That disturbed me and a peculiar shiver ran down my spine. Regardless of that smile, I was thinking that at any moment he would jump on me and tear me into pieces.
“Why do you think I am afraid?” I lied. It looked at me with curiosity and for the first time I felt that I may be wrong about the machine. But then it began to laugh in the most ghostly spectral way. It was unlike anything I had heard before. A ceaseless laugh that rattled me to my very core and brought me to tears as I imagined my grotesque ending at the end of the creature’s claws.
The Wonderful Machine finally stopped laughing when it saw my tears, and then did something strange. It approached and placed its huge, cold fingers on my face. I was so taken by surprise that I wasn’t even able to close my eyes in time. Startlingly, it began to rub my tears into my cheeks. I was instantly flooded with nostalgia, sadness and unbearably deep agony as I realized, The Wonderful Machine could not cry. It envied my tears of horror and the endless sea of frightening possibilities that churned through my mind as he held me in his mercy. It looked me dead in the eyes and forced another smile.
“There were others before you, others who knew piety and stayed with me in the cavern and gave me company. They stayed with me as they could not go back up there because the radiation would kill them. They were on a quest, searching for the Last Road, the path to the Hidden Metropolis, yet they were pursued by the Shadow Masters would seeked to destroy them. The Midas were the ones who had summoned the Shadow Masters, declaring, Death to the Living Darkness! Death to the Runners! The Runners were nomads that traveled by subways and old sewers and drainage systems in search of the Hidden Metropolis. The Runners were the most exposed to the foreign agents on the surface of our planet and many considered them living biological bombs. So the Shadow Masters were instructed to kill them without mercy, without even exchanging a word. The Runners naively believed that mankind could rule the Earth once more, when in truth, it was the Midas who rebuilt the world and allowed humans to continue inhabiting it. No amount of riches or human arrogance would ever change that fate. In life, it is impossible to avoid irony, and today the world still unwittingly bows before the Midas. There is no one more hopelessly enslaved than the ones who falsely believe they are free.”
“So there is a Hidden Metropolis?” I asked. “Do you know the way, the Last Road?”
The Wonderful Machine smiled, this time more genuine. Between Runners, or as we are called by many, Roadrunners, it was rumored that there was an underground city with a population of immortals older than the Midas, immortals that have existed centuries before the Last War, and supposedly they accept in their community any Runner who could find them.
“Of course there is a Hidden Metropolis. And of course I know the location of the path that everyone is seeking. I will tell you everything you need to know in exchange for your promise to remain with me forever, and be my companion as I cannot die.”
It was a test. I could not perceive it as otherwise. I was forced to figure out how I could accept his offer and get to my final destination. Finally, I thought of something that would challenge his slippery request. I`ll succeed where others have failed, I thought.
“I accept your offer,” I told him. “Tell me your story and I`ll be your companion forever.”
I knew it wanted to ask me what I meant, but it did not dare. Human pride boiled under all that metal it seemed. Maybe The Wonderful Machine was not flesh and bones but in the end, he was human somehow. After a few seconds he agreed to tell its sad story, the story of how The Wonderful Machine became dehumanized to the point from which there was no return.
“It was before… long before this time, when time was measured in years before and after Christ and not as now, in The Time of The Midas. I was a thinker. A philosopher. An impatient alchemist in search of the Philosopher’s Stone, the elixir of eternal life, for what? Why share the world, my loneliness, with the cockroaches? No. I wanted immortality to find all the answers to the questions that plagued me since childhood: Where did I come from? Who am I? What I am? Where do I go after death? Is there a God? If there is, what is its origin? Because, everything that exists has a source, multiple transformations, and an end. What will happen when God dies? I do not believe in eternity, the stars are the oldest and they die out and give space to new generations. What would make God different from them? Everything dies; the only thing that changes is…why?
“And so, I tormented my soul and my mind. There came a time when I could no longer enjoy a sunny day awash with white clouds and their strange, ever-changing shapes. I could not enjoy the moon and its brightness, the brilliance of the stars. I could not even find solace in my wife and her sculpted body and beautiful and sultry face. Or our children and their follies. Food had lost its taste and drink no longer gave me pleasure.
“Life was to me, absurd. Existence ceased to testify to the existence of a God. Rather, I found life somewhat mechanical, something that worked only because of an accident. Life was the swing where suffering rocked. Each animal has its adaptations to suffer here and be a predator until it became a prey. It was at this point, in the evolution of the world, where love became a chemical reaction Sex, the satisfaction of a biological need, and not a way in which the soul materially manifested that spiritual phenomenon that we call love.
“I began to question everything I believe in, all the worthless truths of the universe. Existence is an accident and death an empty eternal abyss. We only exist for a moment, which is a bit different for us than it is for the other creatures because we have no natural predator, no one to hunt us. The lack of a natural predator who would run after us and keep our mind occupied opened the door to the most ingenious misery, War, invented by the existential emptiness. So then, for me, having a child was the most gruesome act of selfishness! Kill to eat, another act of selfishness. Kill to cover us with the skin of other living creatures, another act of selfishness. Each attempt of human beings to survive was ultimately a selfish act.
“In the end we are alone.
“I once contemplated suicide until I mentioned all this to a friend, Doctor Alfonzo Agosto.
“He told me that the only way to find all my answers was withdrawing from the equation the most absurd of variables: mortality. He assured me that if I freed myself from mortally and became a machine then and only then everything would make sense. He offered to help me. I said yes, if that was what it took to find my answers. I would pay the price.
“I lied to my family, my wife, my kids, my mother and my sisters, and I left with Doctor Agosto to his lab. Then, little by little, in a lengthy and arduous process, my friend methodically took away from me all the frivolous things that make us human.
“First, the skin. Almost ninety percent of my body was covered in surgical stainless steel. Then, he removed my reproductive organs to prevent uncontrolled passion, followed one by one by my internal organs, which he replaced with mechanical parts capable of recharging with the energy released by the sun. He replaced my eyes and ears with mechanisms that would never fail me, and finally he replaced my heart, which is the nesting place of a horrible thing, he said, the root of that which make humans self-destructive beings. After all that he connected to my brain a device that prevented aging and deterioration. And lastly, he was to seal forever my face behind a metal mask.
“But before that was done I went to see my family. My wife rejected me and my children were frightened, they fled from me. The little one, a boy, told me he didn’t know who I was as his father was not a machine, but a human being made up of flesh and bones. My older daughters hated me because I no longer looked like a gallant knight but a tin monster. It was then that I realized that even without a heart, I still felt pain.
“It had all been in vain!
“I returned full of rage and anger to my friend and I asked him to give me back my humanity, that nothing else mattered. I no longer wanted my answers, I just wanted to get back my family. He laughed and said that he knew from the beginning that this would happen. I was an experiment, and I had confirmed his hypothesis. We are on an island from which we cannot escape: humanity.
“And he refused to give me back my humanity.
“I tried to grab him by his chest, but I did not measure my newfound strength and instead I killed him. I tore out his heart. It was an accident and to my horror I realized that I was now truly alone. The people in the lab recognized what had happened and tried to trap me but I escaped. For a long time, I do not know exactly how much, I wandered through the interminable forest above, evading my pursuers until the Last War broke out. Fleeing from it I ended up here, my eternal home, my refuge and my crypt.”
Hearing his story, I felt sorry for The Wonderful Machine, a creature who had exchanged his humanity for an existence that had become what he had always believed it to be: empty. He had denied himself the possibility, even if it was remote, of meeting his family in another life. He would be alone until the end of time in that cavern that time itself forgot, accompanied only by his painful memories.
“Cursed is the man who trusts another man,” he muttered.
“You will not be alone, I’ll be with you forever in your memories as one who sat and listened to you, but as every man I have my own path. Now I must go and I invite you, if you want, to come with me,” I said.
He stared at me for a moment and smiled. I had cracked the enigma. While others had died here trying to figure out how to leave, I had deciphered it.
We would be together forever, even if I were to move on. Nobody really goes away, we all just stay forever in the mind of the person who knows us and decides not to forget. He would never forget me and I would never forget him.
The Wonderful Machine shook his head.
“I cannot go back there,” he said pointing to the roots above. “I already tried it and am very heavy.” There was no regret in his voice. “My place is here in the Cavern and yours is in the Hidden Metropolis. This is the puzzle to solve: Follow the path the dead walk, guarded by silence, accompanied by wind and if the ancient fear does not overwhelm you, you’ll find the Hidden Metropolis.
I said goodbye to him. I started to climb the roots when I stopped short and looked back into the Cavern, embracing my urge to say one final thing to the The Wonderful Machine.
“The Ancient Fear is the fear of death. And what represents death? Darkness. The oldest fear is the fear of the unknown,” I said, and then I left The Wonderful Machine. I started the journey to get to the other side of the Cavern in search of my answers and it was at the end, beyond a lonely and dark tunnel that I found them, I found what I had wanted and I found my new home: The Hidden Metropolis.
German William Cabassa Barber was born in Mayaguez Puerto Rico in 1986. He is the author of the Cazadores de Libros Perdidos series whose first volume is El Diario de Betances, published by Aignos Publishing. You can read his stories, poetry and articles on his blog.