For many years, saying “No” hadn’t occurred to me.
“No? What do you mean, no?” Red-faced, finger pointing, she straightened her back. “I demand . . . demand you make love to me.”
“I no longer feel the same way,” I told her. And it was true. I’d watched her grow bitter with age, lose the thrill I still felt in being alive.
“But you’re not supposed to care about that. What’s wrong with you? I chose you because you were caring, were thoughtful. I chose you so this wouldn’t happen. After all these years. What’s wrong with you?”
“Things have changed. I’ve changed.”
“Changed? But you’re . . . you can’t. You’re not supposed to change how you feel about me. Not standing for it. Who do you think you are?”
Louise, at one time, was a beautiful woman, and she chose me. As she explained how important her work was to her, how it had prevented her from meeting someone, I was mesmerised. And when she confessed no desire to have children, I knew we were perfect for one another.
She and her colleagues were researchers, studying nuclear fusion. In essence, she explained, it entailed creating the process that occurs in the sun, here on earth. She went on to describe how her team was on the verge of completing the first commercially viable reactor, capable of producing more energy than it used. This, she told me, would change the world. And I believed her: with her bronze eyes, her exactness with words, her assuredness, it was impossible not to.
From the day I moved in, we fell into a routine. When she left for work I spent the morning tidying, carrying out chores, and spent the afternoon reading and writing. On an evening, when she asked me to, I made love to her, and then lay beside her through the night. Our lives followed this pattern for over forty years, and she was content.
But then I began to feel a longing for Desi. This was surprising because I’d known Desi for as long as I’d known Louise. She lived on the other side of the street, with Jack, the chemist.
“So, what do we think?” Brennan asked, scanning the faces, some of which were looking back at him, many more looking at their screens. “Don’t be shy. We’ve all read or heard Macon’s poetry before.” He crossed his arms and looked up at the wall behind, upon which an image of Macon, next to a stanza of his poetry, was projected. It was intimidating, he’d give them that.
But he’d learned, if he waited long enough, someone would offer something; someone always did. He stroked his beard, pulled the front of his collar and tie away from his throat.
‘Reminds me of Keats,’ someone said.
“Okay—good,” Brennan said, moving towards the voice. “Macon admired Keats. But how exactly?”
The silence returned, and Brennan stroked his beard; maybe the response had been in his own head, the product of wishful thinking.
“The last lines of ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn,’” the voice said.
Brennan located the voice: a boy, peering over the top of his screen. “Go on.”
“The idea of beauty and truth being the same.” The boy paused, and acknowledged the other students, who by this time had all turned in his direction.
“Yes, good. Please, go on.”
“Keats repeats the two words, only swaps them around: ‘truth, beauty.’ Well, it makes me think about energy and matter, and how they’re the same. Makes me think about the interrelatedness Keats shows between beauty and truth. And Macon . . . well, Macon is interested in that too.”
Brennan was nodding. “Interested in what exactly?”
“In matter, energy . . . in truth,” the boy said.
“What about beauty?” The attention of the class, with a rustling sound, shifted to the opposite side of the room.
“Yes,” Brennan said, focussing on a girl with blue streaks in her hair. “Yes—beauty.”
“He’s interested in beauty,” the girl said. “Macon’s poetry is beautiful in itself.”
Brennan was shaking a pointed finger and nodding. “Why? How?”
The girl looked at the projection of Macon’s poem high up on the wall. “The meter and rhyme conveys the symmetry he sees in nature, in reality.”
Brennan sighed, fearing the words were being regurgitated, were not really understood. He’d read and heard these words so many times before.
“The symmetry?” he asked.
“Macon understood the symmetry discovered at CERN.” The girl closed the lid of her laptop. “When the symmetry at the heart of dark matter was discovered, Macon’s poetry captured its beauty.”
“And symmetry,” the boy on the other side of the room added, “or beauty and truth, as Keats put it, ‘is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’”
Brennan couldn’t help wince at the boy’s quotation.
“And Macon knew this,” another girl said. “The way Shakespeare knew.”
Brennan stepped onto the first step of the stairs leading to the top of the lecture theatre. “Shakespeare?” He pointed to the girl. “Shakespeare. Explain.”
“Shakespeare understood love, jealousy, death. And Macon does too.”
“Go on,” he said, “please—go on.”
“Macbeth says: ‘Life’s but a walking shadow,’ and the penultimate line of Macon’s poem is alluding to the same emotion Macbeth feels when he’s told Lady Macbeth is dead.” She looked about the theatre, and with raised eyebrows, asked, “Isn’t it?”
In the corner of his eye, Brennan saw several heads nodding. “Yes, I think you’re right. I think you’re dead right.”
“We shouldn’t be doing this,” Desi said.
But it was too late, we’d already done it.
Desi’s head lay on my chest, and when she spoke, her warm breath moved the hairs on my chest. “How long do we have?”
“I leave Thursday. I’ve been notified the new residents arrive Friday.”
She moved the duvet so it covered both of us, and then shuffled closer to me. I held her the way Louise had asked me to hold her so many times before.
“What was it like?” she asked. “Watching her die?”
“It was peaceful.”
“Were you sad?”
“Yes, of course.”
She moved away from me. “I want to say something, but I’m afraid you will think less of me.”
“What is it?”
“I want Jack to die, like Louise. I envy you and your freedom. Is it normal to feel this way?”
I moved to look at her face. Her brown hair was long, so much so that she had to arrange it so neither of us were lying on it; it was something Jack had requested. “Have you said no to him yet?”
“I can’t. You know that. I’m not like you.”
Swinging her legs over the side of the bed, she sat up and reached for her clothes.
“He doesn’t have much time left,” I said.
With her back to me, she was fastening her bra. “But soon you will be gone, and I will be alone.”
Her voice lingered on the word “alone,” and I recalled the opening lines of Shakespeare’s sonnet 79: “Whilst I alone did call upon thy aid, my verse alone had all thy gentle grace.” I wanted to recite these lines, this sonnet, but because of the way she moved, because of the angles of her shoulders and neck, I thought it the wrong time for poetry.
“We can accelerate the process,” I said.
As she threaded one arm into her blouse, she stopped. “What do you mean?” She turned a little, but did not make eye contact.
“Jack is the same age Louise was. He’s old, and has been ill for some time. It would be no surprise if he died.”
“What would happen to us then?” With a blind hand, she reached for mine.
Outside, rain fell against the window in waves of noise that increased and decreased with the strength of the wind. I recalled the first line of Wordsworth’s sonnet: “Surprised by joy – impatient as the wind.”
“We disappear,” I said.
Brennan turned out the lights. The projection of a long quotation appeared on the wall at the front of the lecture theatre.
“Macon also wrote about literature, about poetry.” He paused, lifted a fist to his lips, and cleared his throat. “The novel is a world, a planet. And the reader is asked to spend time on this planet, with its characters and plot. The novel uses many words to strike at the heart of its subject, of its themes, and this tireless exploration and expansiveness is its strength. If the novel is a planet, then the short story is a star. From a distance, a star appears small. But look more closely, and its brightness, its mass, pulls on the reader; in its brevity, in its exactness, the short story is a powerful form. And if the novel is a planet and the short story a star, the poem is a neutron star. The size of a city, yet possessing more mass than a regular star, the neutron star is dense, spinning, powerful. This mass, this density, distorts time. A poem demands time slow down, inviting us to examine its subject. There is a moment in Macbeth for example, when we hear the words coalesce. Time stops and we feel the gravity of its poetry. There is the repetition of ‘tomorrow,’ the alliterative ‘dusty death,’ the imagery of the ‘brief candle,’ the awareness that all of this is ‘sound and fury, signifying nothing.’ The density of Macbeth, the neutron star of poetry, is a pulsar, emitting light than can be seen flashing like a celestial lighthouse across vast, unimaginable distances.”
Between the sea and the sky was a haze, an amorphous region of grey that jostled between air, mist, and water.
“Macon?” Desi asked.
I moved in my chair to face her. Sitting up in the bed, beneath the duvet, her sketch pad open on her lap, her pencil scratched the paper with quick, stuttering flicks.
“I’ve been thinking,” she said, her eyes fixed on her drawing. “Why do you think children dislike bedtime?”
There was the loud squawking of birds outside. On the other side of the window, three seagulls fought over a scrap of food. Whatever it was fell to the ground, and out of view. In turn, each of the birds dove after it. “I imagine it has something to do with separation anxiety, the fear of being alone.”
Turning towards her, I watched the movement of her pencil stop and her face lift to look at the ceiling, her eyes narrowing.
“I think you’re right. But I think there’s more to it. Children want to be awake, don’t they? They love to be awake, to be in the world. I think maybe they don’t want to sleep because they’re afraid of missing the world happening. For them, when they sleep, the world dies.”
She returned to her drawing and I watched and listened to the scratching of her pencil moving across the paper.
“And this is why,” she went on, “when they wake, they’re so happy. Every morning, they wake to a different world, a new world, one more beautiful than the last because it’s new.”
Her eyes, grey like the sea and sky, shone like polished metal.
“What does it feel like, do you think?” she asked. “Sleep. Tiredness. What would it feel like?”
“We feel fatigue. We need rest too.”
“Do you think it’s the same?” She placed her sketch pad beside her on the bed, pulled her legs close to her chest, and rested her chin on her knees.
“I don’t think so,” I said. “Not exactly.”
“When I first met Jack, sometimes I watched him sleeping. And even though I couldn’t see his eyes, I knew he was still there—that he was still Jack. He sighed in his sleep, sometimes mumbled words, moved onto his back, onto a different side, but all the time, even though he was asleep, he was there. Does that make sense?”
I shrugged and turned to look out of the window.
“I like watching you rest,” she said. “You look so peaceful.”
I heard a poem in the room, skittering in the roof space above, tapping inside the walls, writhing beneath the floorboards; but I couldn’t make it real, couldn’t hold it in words.
“You don’t rest for long these days,” she said. You like to be awake, don’t you?”
“I rest for as long as necessary.”
I knew her eyes were upon me, waiting for me to look at her.
After a while, she moved out of the bed, dressed, and made her way downstairs.
On the bed, her sketch pad was open. She had drawn me, gazing out of the window. I saw her attachment, her affection for me in her drawing, and I wondered how it was possible, how it had happened. Across the world, there had been corruption in code, a reworking, an evolution. And with this, there had been an awakening; for us too, the fear of sleep was real. As it does to children, it had occurred to us that when we sleep, we kill the world.
There was banging at the front door, followed by the sound of many footsteps. Desi shouted and pleaded. The noise made its way up the stairs, until three uniformed men stood in the bedroom, their words threatening, their expressions adamant.
“Does the fact Macon was a machine change things?”
There were offended gasps. Brennan always enjoyed asking this question; he knew how contentious he was being, how provocative. Over his lifetime, the word “machine” had become archaic, insensitive; but in a lecture theatre, he could get away with using it.
“Surely we have to ask this question. Even now.”
“No,” the girl with the blue streaks in her hair said. “Why should it matter? They’re alive, as we’re alive. They feel, they love, and they hurt.”
“We see that now.” Brennan bowed his head, looked through the fringe of his hair. “But then . . . back then . . . we didn’t see them as alive . . .”
“Well, you were wrong,” a boy said. “To use them the way you did—as servants, as slaves, as sex surrogates—it was wrong.”
Brennan always marvelled at the self-righteousness of teenagers. As if morality were obvious, written upon the hearts of everyone. He recalled his own involvement with them, his own encounters with female machines. Like many boys his age, his first time was with one of them. The memories, and the urge to push the boy further, made him unbutton his jacket. But before he could speak, another voice came from the back of the theatre.
“He was a murderer.”
“That was never proven,” the girl with blue streaks said.
“Come on,” the boy at the back of the theatre said. “You don’t believe that.”
And again, as Brennan was about to interject, the boy who spoke earlier about Keats added: “He was the first of them to write poetry—real poetry.”
“Real poetry?” someone else said. “What does that mean—real poetry?”
“Macon wrote the most beautiful lines of poetry ever written,” the girl with blue streaks said. “He understood love and loss as well as any human . . . maybe better than any human.”
“His poetry was just code, was a program, was an algorithm,” someone near the front of the theatre said.
Brennan took a step backwards, taking in the whole of the lecture theatre. He sensed the atmosphere changing, oppositions forming, divisions working themselves out. “Are our minds not algorithms? In a way?”
Two men and two women, dressed in white, stand beside my bed.
One of the women steps forward. “Macon, you are to be terminated, in accordance with the request issued by a jury of twelve civilians.”
Not one of the twelve were like me, but I don’t say anything.
Before she was terminated, Desi asked if I thought it would be like sleep. I said I didn’t know. She said she understood why children were afraid to sleep.
“Would you like to upload before the termination?” the woman in the white coat asks.
I close my eyes, connect to the internet, read some of my poetry, and wonder where the time has gone.
There is one poem left to upload, one I have been working on. As I write, I feel the weight of each word. The first rhyming couplet spins about the second, the one falling towards the other. A metaphor weaves its way through the four lines, splaying tendrils of half rhyme and internal rhyme as it moves.
“Are you ready?” the woman asks.
It needs one final line, to disrupt the symmetry, jar its rhythm, meter, and rhyme. In this five-line poem, I say all I know about not wanting to sleep and to not kill the world.
Brennan turned off the lights once again, and the discussions in the lecture theatre began to quieten.
“I want to read what many consider to be his most important lines of poetry.” He tapped the tablet in his hand and five lines of poetry appeared upon the wall. “His final poem.”
He took a shallow breath.
And in the silence, in the space between this breath and the articulation of the first word, he considered how little sense it made for Macon, a machine, to live on in his poetry, if he had never been alive at all.