SPARROW AND G.D:SHRIKE
by Jude-Marie Green
My grandmother said this to me, her last words from her deathbed: “We do not merely survive, my little Sparrow. We live on in style.”
My brother Joseph, overhearing, said, “And the South will rise again, old woman. You’re hopeless!”
I understood that he spoke from grief, but still he spoke in anger. I backed away from him only just in time.
The lightning stroke selected him, lit him up from crown to toe. The meaty odor of bacon blasted us, along with the heat of his immolation. My skin pimpled and crawled from the ozone and my eyes saw negative images for a moment, after-effect of the brilliant heat blast. God’s Thumbprint on my right forearm tingled and for a moment I feared g.d:shrike’s wrath. When at last I could see again, my brother wasn’t even a pile of ashes on the unscorched carpet. Grandma was dead.
Her body made the slightest hill under her handmade quilt. I reached down and closed her eyes, crying as quietly as I could manage. I love you, Grandma. I swear I saw her breath my name one last time, but that was probably just my light blindness and tears.
She’d saved some old silver coins, tarnished black from disuse, but she’d told me what to do. I placed the dimes on her eyelids, payment for the ferryman. Grandma was religious, all right, but she still held to plenty of the old traditions. Like the one that said you had to take care of your three grandchildren when your own child died.
Grandma had raised us since our parents passed on from a shootout at the local bank. Just living in a small town didn’t make us safe from violence or crime. Once, we’d thought God’s Thumbprint would keep us from harm, since it kept track of everyone, made everyone – even little children – accountable. But being accounted for your crimes was not the same as being punished for your crimes, Grandma said. After a while, the government said the RFIDs weren’t enough. G.d:shrike was designed and loosed, swift punishment for criminals, they said.
She suffered through Matt’s petty criminal behavior when he was a teenager. Much as it pained her, she never had a bad word to say about him, just allowed that he was going through a phase and getting over the loss of our parents the only way he knew how.
Joseph she adored in a doting grandmotherly way, baking him special treats and patting his hair as often as he’d sit still at the kitchen table. He hated that, or so he said, but I knew he loved her with all the emotion he’d bestowed on our parents, transferred to her by some pagan magic. “The old woman loves us,” he’d said to me once, confidentially. No wonder her illness took him so hard. No wonder he called down the wrath of g.d:shrike. Sometimes suicide, an awful sin, is easier than going on alone.
Grandma called me ‘Sparrow,’ though my name is Sarah, because she said I was small and smart as a tiny bird. Sparrows are small and brown and unappealing to me. But I was smart, smallest and youngest of three orphan children. Smart enough to survive the apocalypse this long, anyway.
My oldest brother, Matt, had died in the first wave of the apocalypse. In those first days, billions of men and billions of women (don’t think women can’t get angry!) died. Were killed. By g.d:shrike. I think even g.d:shrike’s designers were surprised it could strike out so often. But they’d built it well, a phase unlimited laser weapons system (so Seth said, and he worked on it, so he’d know) with a personal connection to every person who had a God’s Thumbprint chip, and that pretty much meant every person on Earth. Perhaps some tiny wild enclaves of people, in forests or deserts, survived without the punitive touch of g.d:shrike, but the rest of us now understood: a single rude or angry word, gesture, action, and g.d:shrike would send a bolt of high energy lightning.
Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord, but somewhere along the line someone decided to help God along.
Angry men. Angry women. Angry children (and oh that raised a fuss, but by then g.d:shrike had killed its designers and everyone who knew how to halt it, so it became unstoppable.) Criminals. Minor thieves.
And that was only the first wave.
We survived under the hand of g.d:shrike by being nice. G.d:shrike can’t read thoughts, but it can hear lies. It can’t stop a person from striking out, but it strikes back with terrible speed. I think, though no one is left to write papers confirming my guesses, that the God’s Thumbprint chips broadcast telemetry data. Surely g.d:shrike’s computer is enormous, a distributed machine, to manage all that incoming data; not that so much comes in any more. Since g.d:shrike doesn’t leave bodies, doesn’t even leave piles of ashes, there’s no sure way to tell how many have died. But the absence of living people, the lack of public utilities or almost any public services, the utter silence from those who passed themselves off as our leaders, tells a story.
The few of us remaining these short months after the first wave feel the weight of g.d:shrike’s regard, and we shiver.
The day of the apocalypse came and my oldest brother Matt was burned away while driving a stolen car. The car crashed into a van in a grocery parking lot, killing a woman and her baby. The woman had been screaming because her husband (known in our small community to drink too much and be free using his fists against his wife) had just been assumed into Heaven. The baby was screaming because her mother was screaming. Over the screams they didn’t hear the squeal of Matt’s stolen car, driverless, before it plowed into them.
It’s possible that g.d:shrike can be merciful. But so far, it has not been.
I was alone. I picked up an ornately framed photograph, put it down again. I almost tripped on the hooked rug and blindly reached for the door. I shut it behind me.
I needed help burying Grandma. I needed to arrange some kind of wake, some kind of remembrance. I’d put up a note on the bulletin board at the library, just like all the other notes except Grandma’s body was still here to grieve over. I’d put up the note, then I’d go see Seth.
In two hours’ leisurely walk I would be at the town’s library, still full of books and old newspapers and the meeting point for the town’s remaining people.
I walked out the front door. I didn’t lock it or even close it. No one these days would even think of violating a home, no matter the status of the front door.
I didn’t even glance at Grandma’s car in the driveway. Six months ago we would all have climbed into her nice Dodge sedan; not one of the fancy new models with automatic everything and more to boot but a nice stodgy comfortable car with cloth seats and air conditioning and a good radio. We’d have been in town in twenty minutes, dispersing to the four winds: Grandma to the grocery store where she could visit with her lady friends; my brothers to the pool hall or the corner bar, where they could brag with their buddies or leer at women brave enough to enter those places; me to the library.
No one drives any longer. The minor annoyances of sharing the road with others whose style of driving isn’t to your taste can now be a death sentence. Some folks have brought out their horses and mules as transportation, but what happens if the creature gets ornery? One angry word, one violent swat on the creature’s rump, and g.d:shrike will do away with you. Not the creature. Creatures are beneath g.d:shrike’s notice. Only us humans are required to act nice. Or else.
Our nearest neighbor, Old Man Herbert, who never said a mean word to anyone or raised a fist or even lied, for all I knew, sat on his front porch glider and watched me walk by. I wouldn’t ask him for help. Old Man Herbert had followed me with his eyes since I’d come to live with Grandma. Every time he looked at me I wanted to take a shower. But he never did anything. As long as his lust stayed in his heart, he was safe from g.d:shrike.
Grief overtook me on the road into town. Tears fell out of my eyes, fat and greasy to start with, and I ignored them; then silvery drips that mingled with the silvery snot running from my nose and I couldn’t see anymore through the prism of my grief. I fell to my knees by the culvert, finally collapsing onto the dusty grass. I cried until my lungs were sore and I began to hiccough. My eyes gummed up and were hot and swollen, but I could see again without the world swirling. I climbed shakily to my feet.
After the library, I’d go to Seth’s. I’d stay there until the project was done. If I died, I guess it didn’t matter much.
Revenge. I looked at that word in my head and my telemetry didn’t stir. Revenge is just a word.
I wanted to stop g.d:shrike. Destroy it. Blow it up into millions of messy tangled bits of metal.
Now my telemetry stirred. My blood boiled and the fine hairs on the back of my neck stood up as if I were under someone’s regard. Something’s regard. G.d:shrike stood ready to take me into Heaven at my merest angry utterance. I had alerted it with my rage.
Fine. That surveillance would fade once my telemetry calmed. No one is struck down for nightmares, so I’d been told. I consciously controlled my harsh breathing and tried to remember that Buddhist yoga breathing thing I’d learned at school. I slowed my stride to a short amble. Road dust kicked up behind every footfall and clung to my bare calves. The brambles in the culvert bloomed with white flowers, ready to produce some fine blackberries later in the summer. The trees cast swaying shadows over the road and the scent of pine tar and cedar made the heat bearable. Cardinals flew and sang. I saw a red squirrel climbing, then two, then three. One had a stumpy tail curled partway over its back.
Clouds floated in the hard blue sky. No airplanes. Technologically we were back in the 1900s; socially we lived in a place we never dreamed possible. Everyone nice, no violence, no crime, no pollution. Hell.
I brought my thoughts and emotions under control, slowly, and coated my insides with ice. Now that I knew what I wanted, I could plan how to do it.
I had seen how g.d:shrike killed. Supposedly it had no undefended weaknesses, but every system has an Achilles’ heel. I vowed that my job from now until g.d:shrike brought me to Heaven would be to find that gap in its system.
I climbed the steps up into the library and immediately appreciated the coolness of its dark after the hot summer sun outside. A younger man, the junior librarian, met me at the door with a glass of water.
“How-do, Sparrow,” he said. His official job was greeter, but unofficially he was threat assessment. Would the new person cause trouble, bring down g.d:shrike’s wrath? He knew me. I wasn’t a threat.
“Hey, Johnny,” I replied. I sipped the water politely instead of chugging the entire contents, despite my thirst. The sips soothed my throat well enough; chugging might have horrified the man into some kind of rudeness. New rules of social interaction: no shock, no awe.
“Mighty warm outside,” he said, mildly.
“Yessir, a perfect summer day,” I replied. A mistake and he stiffened. A definite statement of opinion could lead to argument, if some old-timer wanted to contest my definition of a perfect summer day. I took a deep breath and bowed my head in apology. Johnny relaxed, after a quick glance at the bench of farmers in denim overalls who were whittling chunks of cedar wood and watching us from the corners of their eyes. I counted one less farmer than had graced that bench last week.
“I just need to use the printer, please, Johnny,” I said. Hopefully I hadn’t blown away my welcome.
“You know the way,” he said. He held out his hand for the glass, which I surrendered with murmured thanks. The cool inside had turned bitterly cold; or perhaps that was just the ice in my blood.
I had to pass the bulletin boards on the way to the computer desks. Rumor says that g.d:shrike can’t read. Too bad. Perhaps if it could read all the notices and photographs pinned and posted to the library walls it would feel some shame, show some pity, stop. Just stop.
I sat at a computer to type in a notice about Grandma’s death. The words wouldn’t come. I sat with my fingers poised over the keyboard, frozen. My mind slipped away.
Grandma had supported g.d:shrike. She saw it as a guardian, a salvation. Even the loss of family didn’t sway her opinion; she just pursed her lips and said, “He’s in a better place where he’ll find peace.”
Now she was in a better place too. I hoped Grandma, my parents, my brothers, would all find each other and be peaceful in Heaven.
A reek of used alcohol assaulted my nose. Seth, one of the overalled farmers, had crept up behind me and was reading over my shoulder. All I’d written so far was Grandma’s name. My moment’s panic gave way to curiosity: why would he care what I was writing?
He had been a corn whiskey drunk for as long as Grandma could remember, though she never said a mean word about him. “Poor man,” she’d said just a few weeks ago. “Losing his wife that way, at the end of his life and all.”
His wife, Alma, must have known what would happen when she finally lost her temper at Seth, when he came home that night drunk and singing and happy as a pig in mud. She lost her temper and screeched cruel words at him and she was whisked away to Heaven by g.d:shrike.
Grandma sent Joseph and me around to Seth’s house with some sealed salad and macaroni. The old man barely acknowledged us, and he kept looking over our shoulders out to his old-fashioned red barn. He escorted us into his dim sitting room, lace curtains and worn velvet overstuffed chairs and prized books only just acquiring a layer of dust from his neglect. After putting the food in his icebox, we sat a while, keeping company. Joseph extended Grandma’s condolences.
“Your Grandma is a good woman,” Seth said. “Alma and her got along. I’m sorry she’s bed-ridden.” That was the last he spoke to us that day.
On our way out, I saw Seth’s diploma hanging on the wall, under portrait photos of his family and his wife. He’d gotten his degree in some science or another. He’d wanted to build spaceships, so the rumors had it, but the farm called him home and Alma settled him down. I quelled the pity in my heart and held the man’s shaking hand before we left.
After Alma’s death Seth sobered up and stayed that way for days. He’d begun some kind of project in his barn, super secret and shared with only certain friends. Rumor had it he was building a spaceship. But the whiskey got its hooks in him again before he completed the project and he went back to the alcohol, the kind of drinker who stays perfectly silent when he’s sober and perfectly sweet when drunk. He’d taken up sitting with the other good old boys on the bench at the library. For the company, I assumed.
He whispered something that I didn’t catch.
“I’m sorry, sir, but I did not hear you.” That was a safe reply.
“Mirrors,” he said again, enunciating as clearly as he could through his loose dentures. “Mirrors and lightning rods.”
I shook my head. “That’s been tried.”
He smiled at me. So sweet and tired. “Your Grandma’s a good woman,” he said. “Tell her goodbye for me.”
Seth pulled a bit of mirror from his pocket. It was oval and looked like a woman’s hand mirror without the usual frame and handle.
“For you,” he said. “I made it in my barn. My barn,” he repeated.
He back away from the row of computer tables and stretched up as tall as his old scrunched back would let him. Johnny walked towards him, but stopped a prudent distance away. The other old-timers never even stood up from their bench. We all knew what was going to happen next. Suicide was becoming common.
“God damn you!” he said, not in a big voice but with huge emotion. “God damn you, Alma, for leaving me alone!”
He’d barely finished his second statement when g.d:shrike flared down at him and assumed him into Heaven.
The mirror jumped in my hand and I gasped a little. The other people in the library glared at me and I bowed my head again. My fingers hurt. Burned. The glass was heavier. The fibers woven into its backing held the charge of the reflected lightning bolt.
Why would Seth design a mirrored capacitor? I could only imagine that he designed it specifically to hold charge from g.d:shrike bolts.
Before g.d:shrike’s second wave had erased most of my remaining friends, we’d discussed — in roundabout, gentle terms — ways to be rid of g.d:shrike. Someone had suggested using a heat weapon on g.d:shrike, giving it some of its own back. Of course we were blue-skying. How could we begin to make a heat weapon?
But perhaps Seth had come up with something. What had he said to me? In the barn.
I finished the sign about Grandma, printed it out. The printer’s soft whirr melded with other muted sounds in the library, but I noticed no voices. No whispering. No breaking of the rules and no unwary conversation. Just whirrs and hums and flutter of paper and book leaves.
I pinned my sign to the bulletin board. Folks would probably come over the next day, to help with Grandma’s body and to sit with me a spell. Before that, I wanted to check out Seth’s barn. Maybe there was something to see.
I nodded to Johnny, to the old-timers on the bench, who nodded back at me. Seth’s farm wasn’t too far away, easy walking.
Mirrors and lightning rods.
Apparently Seth’s mirrors could hold charges. Were the lightning rods meant to channel the energy as it rained down? But then, what to do with all that stored energy?
What did Seth have in mind?
Seth’s barn doors were both open on their rails. I knew in my heart I was entering his property for good reasons, that I wasn’t trespassing, in fact I was invited, so g.d:shrike could find no reason to remove me. I entered the dirt-floored barn and there it was, not hidden from anyone’s sight.
At first I wasn’t sure what it was. The half-dome like a huge inverted salad bowl stood almost as high as the barn’s second level. Like a salad bowl, this half-dome was glass, thousands — maybe millions — of glass ovals like I had in my pocket, all laced together. A hexagonal set of the glass ovals opened like a door in the dome’s side.
I stepped into it.
In the center I saw a plate of green glass, perhaps originally a desk anti-static mat. Under the plate I saw some rubber bath mats. This stood on the packed dirt of the barn floor.
Glass and rubber. This was a place to stand. Stand and not be electrocuted.
Next to the mat was a pole that ended about waist-high to me. On the pole was a round press-button. The pole itself was unremarkable PVC pipe, probably buried a good couple feet down, probably filled with wiring of some kind. Unfortunately I could not see the wires. I could only guess.
I was beginning to get an idea but I refused to consider these ideas. I clamped down hard on my excitement. G.d:shrike wouldn’t mind curiosity, though. I stepped out of the bowl and examined its perimeter. The dome edge was countersunk just a little into the dirt. Every few feet around the edge a metal knob stuck up. I touched a knob; it looked like copper and felt gritty. Salt. Salt for better grounding, if I remembered correctly.
So Seth had built a room to attract and hold lightning. I guess he figured g.d:shrike’s bolts were the same as lightning. But how to attract a strike? The only way would be to stand inside and… sin.
A cold sweat sprang up all over my body, especially on my scalp. The mirrors would keep me safe, I guessed. The lightning rods would pull away the extra energy. And store it somewhere, I didn’t need to guess, since I’d walked all the way to the other side of the half-dome. Racks of batteries – big old truck batteries – hundreds of batteries – stood arranged in a half-circle. Cables snaked up from the dirt and into the batteries.
Okay, so this was one half of an equation. With this dome and the lightning rods and the batteries, Seth could keep safe from a strike and store the energy.
But this wasn’t good enough. I didn’t want to deflect g.d:shrike’s bolts, I wanted to destroy g.d:shrike.
Of course all that energy would be a weapon in its turn. Had Seth designed a way to use g.d:shrike’s energy against it? That would mean a directed weapon somewhere nearby.
I searched. I assumed I’d find something pointing up or cables leading away to another discovery or, I don’t know, a rifle. A cannon. Something. But all I found was a sheet of paper taped to a battery.
The paper didn’t contain instructions or even words. Just a line drawing. And that’s when I understood.
A small male stick figure stood below, a slanting halo drawn around his balloon head. Far above, a satellite hovered: g.d:shrike. At four points between the man and the satellite, big black x’s marked repeater stations.
Repeater stations allowed satellites to broadcast information no matter if they were on the other side of the planet. Repeater stations. Of course. G.d:shrike couldn’t be overhead everywhere at once.
The drawing showed the stick figure pressing a button on a stick. Showed electricity streaming from the lightning rods into the repeater stations and from the repeaters stations up to g.d:shrike.
Backflow the energy and burn out the system. Not a simple solution, not something I could have worked out, but Seth had been trained for the space program. He knew materials. He knew systems. He knew how to destroy it.
I couldn’t wait. I couldn’t let fear start up. I couldn’t give g.d:shrike an excuse to notice me. I rushed back to the half-dome and climbed in again. It took just a moment to secure the door behind me. I went to the glass mat and stood up straight.
I took a deep breath. That did not help my trembling. Was I afraid to die? Well yes, of course I was. But I was more afraid to keep on living.
“Damn you!” I screamed. I shook my fists upwards. I even hit myself, in my left shoulder, not enough to bruise, I hoped, but enough to sting. I screamed again. “God damn you, it’s our lives you’re stealing!”
The lightning rained down. It was beautiful.
Though the bolts from g.d:shrike always looked white, when they hit the mirror dome they split into all the colors of the spectrum, brilliant rainbows cascading down the sides of the dome. The hair on my skin floated a little, whether from static build-up or from my reaction to the display of power I was not sure. I was, deep-down, god-struck with awe.
The hesitation between the first and second strikes proved Seth’s hypothesis to me. Somewhere, somehow, feedback was being sent to g.d:shrike, feedback not related to my telemetry chip. If my hunch was right, then when I pushed the button I’d send all that stored energy flowing through the feedback system and burn out g.d:shrike.
I stopped just short of pushing the button. Why hadn’t Seth done this? Why had he left it to commit suicide in front of his remaining friends? What if this didn’t work at all?
I did not want to die. At this point however I had no option. I had to finish this experiment upon myself.
I breathed. My hands were sweat-slick.
I pushed the button.
As far as I could tell, nothing happened.
No sparks flew. No smoke wisped. No voice from Heaven summoned me to the Pearly Gates.
I pushed the button again but got exactly the same result. Power certainly flowed from the mirror capacitors and out the lightning rods towards whatever sent the bolts, I had surely backflowed the system, but was it enough?
I breathed again. A deep breath. Then I screeched, “Fuck you, g.d:shrike!”
And for the first time, there was no lightning bolt. Nothing.
“God damn you, you fucking piece of machinery!”
“Damn you to hell, you murdering bastard!”
A third time, no result.
Could g.d:shrike be waiting for me to leave the dome’s protection? Was it that sly? I only had one way to finish this experiment. I did not realize a person could actually shake this much. I had trouble moving my feet in the right direction, off the glass plate and to the hatch.
But then I said the words of zen that a Native American chief had once spoken.
“Today is a good day to die.”
I flung open the hatch.
I stepped outside the bowl.
g.d:shrike should have blown me to Kingdom Come. And I was either still alive or experiencing a very detailed death dream. I slapped myself. No, I felt the slap, but g.d:shrike did not strike me down for violence.
One last test remained.
I closed my eyes.
“In my family’s name,” I said. “Damn you. Whoever built you. Damn them too.”
I remained unscathed.
I wanted nothing more right then than to find a place to lay down and sleep. Yet this day was not done for me. I needed to get home, get behind familiar doors, and get safe.
g.d:shrike had assured that what remained of humanity was preselected as survivors. Most of us would be bone-deep nice and polite. But some would be the kind that survived by being cunning and sly and quick. It might take that sort a while to figure out that g.d:shrike no longer threatened them. I wanted to be prepared before then. Old Man Herbert still lived down the lane.
Jude-Marie Green lives in Southern California in a city known for its ravens. She has edited for Abyss&Apex, Noctem Aeternus, and 10Flash Quarterly. She is a Clarion West 2010 graduate and the winner of the 2013 Speculative Literature Foundation’s Older Writer’s Grant, for a story published by Penumbra. Mostly she writes, howls at the moon, and writes. Her blog: judemarie.wordpress.com