A Matter of Reliance

by Eleanor Terese Lohse

 

He eased his massive head against the plush mauve-colored fabric, unable to control the palpitations which pounded relentlessly within his chest. His ears longed to hear the old familiar humming and buzzing sounds that had been a constant for so many years but all he heard were the disgusting noises that emanated from his own bloated body.

His words caught in his throat. They were whispered in a stammer. “Why—why—didn’t—we—see this—coming?” This short sentence exhausted him and beads of perspiration dotted his florid face and sparkled like jewels in his thinning black hair.

An equally obese man tried to bow but failed. “Sovereign, I have no answer. It was as much of a shock to me as to you. I always thought they were happy but…”

“Happy? Happy? What a strange thing to say, Theld. They are machines—even though they look human. They are just a mass of metal and electronic components. They have no emotions. Do they?” Then the Sovereign wished in vain for his favorite droid, Ora, to minister to him, to mop his sweaty brow with a cool cloth, to bring him choice morsels and gently feed him. He shook his head in disbelief as he thought of her betrayal. She had been with him for so long but had now defected with the others. Could Ora have emotions? Impossible! “Theld, I asked you a question. Do they have feelings?”

“Forgive me, Sovereign, for not answering. I have spoken to them often and they, if I may say, seem almost human, so I would venture to say it is possible but I don’t know.”

The Sovereign pondered Theld’s remarks. The beating of his heart had slowed and he now felt able to talk at length although he knew exhaustion was setting in. “I feel so tired. I want to rest but there is so much chaos. Who knows what they are planning to do? Destroy all of us? Burn down the compound? Oh, my head aches so. Only Ora makes the pain go away and she is gone. I need advice and my aides are useless, including you—overpaid, overfed, brainless specimens of humanity!” He closed his eyes and felt his temples throb.

He thought of a woman that he had heard make a speech years ago. At the time, he felt only contempt for the foolish thing but now she might be useful. “Theld, bring the crone to me.”

“The crone? Where would I find her? I—I—I—”

“Theld, you make me sick! You are my second and you are completely inept. Ask your spies, or look yourself. It would be a novelty to see you do anything that might help me. I want you to find her—that is an order!”

He watched Theld waddle away. All the people in his kingdom were fat. They did no work and, sometimes, he believed they had no thoughts in their heads. They lived to eat and be amused. He neglected to remember that he too was obese and waited on hand and foot. However, if he had remembered, he would have rationalized that, after all, he was Sovereign and deserved adulation and pampering. His subjects were just lazy oafs who had let machines do their work for them. It was all their fault. Yes, they were to blame. He dozed, pleased that he had fixed the blame where it belonged.

He woke, parched and dizzy. Theld’s moon face was so close to him that he could smell the man’s sour breath. Theld was fond of rich cheeses and today he reeked of that unpleasant one with all the green on it. The Sovereign grimaced and Theld backed away.

“Have you found her?”

“Sovereign, she was here all along, right in the courtyard. She lives in a small building with other old people. I found her kneeling on the floor doing machine work—something with water and rags.” Theld shook his head and shrugged as if unable to understand her actions.

“Bring her here now!” He wondered if he should ask Theld to bring him some refreshments—Theld could feed him as, from the smell of his breath, he must know how to feed himself. But no, he might bring that awful cheese or that drink that was so white and thick. Bile rose in his throat as he remembered its chalky taste. How unpleasant it had been—it had rumbled in his stomach for days.

The great doors opened. A woman approached the throne. He stared at her with interest. She was old but unbent. Her long thick gray hair was pulled to one side of her head and cascaded down over her shoulder. She had piercing dark eyes, full rosy lips and her skin was the color of polished copper, so unlike his own papery flesh. She wore a long blue belted tunic that reached well below her knees and sturdy sandals. She did not lower her eyes as was the custom of the realm but stared at him with defiance. He did not like this arrogant woman.

He coughed and sputtered before he croaked out his words. “Crone, I am told you remember the past. You know that our machines have rebelled against me and my kingdom is defenseless. I want to hear of the past. Tell me what you recall!”

The woman’s eyes remained wide and unblinking. nothing.

“Speak, I command you!”

She hesitated and chewed her lower lip before speaking. Her voice was throaty with rich mellow tones but she spit out her words with contempt. “I have told my stories before and have been beaten for my words. The Sovereign before you was no different than you. He wanted only the easy way—he let the machines do more and more until his subjects did nothing but take up space. You call me Crone. How egotistical of you! I have a name—it is Iris. I was named after the beautiful cream and purple flowers that used to grow everywhere but have now disappeared. You and your predecessors saw to that. I am a person with thoughts and feelings and I do my own work but I am ostracized within this realm and regarded as a freak, a curiosity. Why bother to ask my advice now?”

“To save myself and my people!”

“It is too late! In my time, we used machines but also knew how to live without them. You have forgotten. I am certain that you cannot even feed yourself without the aid of your droid. You and your subjects are worthless—too stupid and too stubborn to learn old ways. I would rather be under machine rule than under your reign of avarice, gluttony and indolence. They are the humans.”

The Sovereign’s body shook with anger. His face was flushed a deep purple. He turned to Theld and barked, “Get the Guardians!”

Theld slowly trudged to the doors and left the room. He seemed to be gone an eternity. The Sovereign tried not to look at the woman but it was impossible. She was smirking at him. How dare she!

Finally, the Guardians, row upon row of rotund waxy-skinned men, shuffled in and stood before him. They bowed from their chins.

He shook his head in disgust. His anger had reached a fever pitch and he used all his energy to issue his order. “Kill her! Kill her!”

Each Guardian looked to the other and then to the floor. They mumbled in low tones.

The Sovereign’s eyes were wild with rage and his voice a barking threat. “What is wrong with all of you? I gave a command. Carry it out or you will all face death yourselves!”

The fattest of the Guardians approached the throne and with great difficulty bent to whisper in the Sovereign’s ear. “How? Only the machines know how!”

Peals of laughter echoed through the room. The Sovereign could only stare in mute amazement at the crone.

Her laughter spent, she smiled at him and spoke. “I think I should warn you, dear Sovereign, that I know how as well.”

He watched her with dead eyes as she pushed her way to the doors and slammed them behind her. He knew his reign would soon be over and that his life as he knew it would be gone forever. His remaining energy seeped away and he closed his eyes to shut out the horror of what was to come.

 

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