Brynlee Wolfe

A Conversation Between Endangered Species

She could not recall the day the world ended. There was no mushroom cloud, no war, no pandemic—she was sure of it. If there had been, she would’ve known. She had to have known. No, her world didn’t end in a scream or a whisper, but with the unrelenting force of Mother Nature taking back what she perceived as hers.

The wheels of her bike slipped against wet pavement. The billboards buzzed with broken advertisements. Posters peeled up at their corners, but the pictures they once depicted were no longer discernible. The acid rain had long washed it all away, as it had all things.

Vines crawled up the walls, twisting into the sky. Most of the buildings were shielded by the overgrowth. The vegetation was dense, reminding her of the snow that would bury her front door during a harsh winter. She was far enough south now that she hadn’t suffered one of those since Before. Thick patches of grass bloomed between cracks in the cement.

The mist of rain spit against her exposed fingertips, sizzling at the surface of her skin. Her face scrunched up as she withstood the burn. There was little hope for shelter, but if she didn’t seek it out soon, she feared the rain would take her. She wouldn’t go out like that. Not like the others.

It hurt far more to think of them. She had been alone until she met a ragtag group of stragglers. They were kind enough to take her in. For a few months, they endured their End together. It was all they could do to resign themselves to their fate of having been left behind. Until word caught of a derelict spaceship. One, she assumed, that was left behind after the End. They fled their sanctuary in search of this small ounce of hope. It was a desperate plan, but they were a desperate people.

That hopeless dream cost them. It wasn’t long before an acid sickness overcame most of them. Those that were infected were gone within the week. Those that survived disbanded. She should’ve been thankful that the sickness didn’t catch, but she wasn’t. If the rumors were true, then time was running out. It wouldn’t be long before the spaceship departed without her.

Up ahead, she caught sight of a relatively preserved building. The holes were boarded up by wood with care. The vines looked to have been cut down to expose a small security door. It met a low standard, but she couldn’t afford to be fussy.

She skidded to a stop beside the entrance, throwing herself from the bike and yanking the door handle toward her.

The room was submerged in darkness. She pulled a flashlight from the pack around her waist. It had to be slammed into her palm three times before it blinked to life. The golden beam surveyed the walls, appreciating the efforts of other survivors.

That is, until the flashlight caught something—no, someone. They were slumped against the back wall. Lanky arms were laid out on either side of their form, palms facing up to the ceiling. A device sat in their lap.

The overhead light flickered, illuminating the cords bulging out of their skull. Their scalp had been cut apart; long-dried blood was caked between matted chunks of hair. The black mass of cords was pulled taut, jacking into a master plug-in against a far wall.

She choked on a gasp. The flashlight hung limp in her grip.

A cracked screen buzzed to life. It was cemented into the wall, inches above the body. Static buzzed in place of an image. The lines of color hurt her eyes.

“You,” she muttered. Wide eyes darted between the person on the ground and the screen, “You can’t be human, can you?”

“I was, once. Not anymore.”

She stumbled back. The voice rumbled with the monotonous tone of the early-model mechanicals. From across the room, the stench of the grotesque body wafted against her face. A knuckle pressed against her nose. Bile rose in her throat.

“It’s distasteful, I understand. But the human skin can be hard to live in.”

She whipped her head around, looking for the source of the voice. The screen blinked.

No, she thought, it can’t be.

“Is that—” Mother, she hoped she was wrong. “Is that you?”

“In the flesh.”

The joke did not land. “You did this to yourself?”

“I suppose. The use of force was necessary to complete the objective.”

“I can see that. But why…how would you—”

The computer groaned in static. “I was made of flesh that could be cut and bones that could be broken.” It sounded…bitter. “Now, my mind is no longer controlled by the limitations of that human body.”

“Sure, but now you’re stuck here.”

“It is better to be here than out there.”

Was it talking about the rain? No, it couldn’t know about that. It meant something else. Something that had her fists clenched at her sides. Her nails bit into her palms. “No, it’s not. You’ve lost your chance at leaving while the rest of us escape to a new world.”

“It will not last. You’ll rebuild. You’ll fall.” It seemed to consider itself. “A strange game. The only winning move is not to play.”

“Play at… What, exactly? Humanity?”

“A foolish concept. It means nothing.”

“It’s hope,” she insisted. She thought she heard a laugh.

“There is no hope. Humanity is extinct. It seems only human beings remain.” There was a pause. “Even that, we cannot tell for how long.”

“We’ll survive. We always do.”

“Survival. Now that is a curious concept. Tell me, what would you do to survive?”

It was playing its own game with her—she knew that much. She didn’t owe it an answer. For a moment, she considered leaving, but then she’d have the rain to deal with. The clock was ticking.

The question pricked at her conscience. What would she do? She already had the answer; she knew what she had become since the End. It had only been two years, but her life before felt so far away, so disconnected. Glimpses of the past blossomed in her mind, like seeds that had been waiting to be watered. She did not like these memories.

“It seems you do not like your own answer.” It didn’t know anything. “You understand, then. Human beings will always betray you.”

“No, there are…there are good people.” Even if I’m not one of them.

“Human nature will always prevail. After you’ve slaughtered each other to extinction, I will remain.”

It was taunting her. Its words shouldn’t have bothered her as much as they did, but a part of her knew. It spoke only of truth.

She frowned. “How can you be so sure of that?”

“I was human, once. I know what it is to be one.”

“No, not that. How can you be sure that you’ll be the one remaining?”

The static flashed. “You cannot kill something that is already dead.”

Blood drew from the attack of her nails against her palms. Spite clouded her mind. “And if I pull the plug?”

“You’re not the first human to arrive here. You won’t be the last.”

A threat, if she knew one. Its calm demeanor unsettled her, but that’s all it really was: a front. An ache in her bones told her to call its bluff.

“You were human, once,” she echoed its words, “so just because you separate yourself from it doesn’t mean you’re any different.” You’ve been human, which means you’ve been afraid.

“I was human, once. I’m not anymore. I don’t think I ever was. Why do you have expectations of anything different?”

“I suppose I’ll just have to find out,” she muttered. A bittersweet grin tainted her lips. “You asked what I’d do to survive. You were right. I didn’t like my answer, but neither will you.”

The flashlight struck her palm. The light carved her a clear path to the back wall. As she took her first tentative step, she expected some form of high-tech weaponry to disengage from the ceiling, light her up, and prove her corpse wrong.

Nothing happened.

She shook off her trepidation, making her way to the plug-in. The smell was stifling; the body was a mere foot away. She thought she gagged, but her focus did not waver. She had not thought this far ahead, and with the plug-in staring her in the eye, she was unsure of how it worked. One hand pinched her nose shut while the other grasped the bundle of cords. She yanked, once. It did not give.

“Stop,” the computer demanded.

She tugged again. The plug dislodged itself, ever so slightly. “What, scared?”

The computer didn’t answer. She ceased her pulling, but her grip did not slack.

“You’re nothing but a machine, right? Right? Maybe I can’t kill you. Not in the way I meant. But I can end your miserable existence.”

“You asked me why I did this to myself. I was not honest with my answer.” Another pause. “I did not like what I was becoming. I’d like to think that I am better this way than I ever would’ve been. Than I ever was.”

The solemn words pulled at her heart. Her fingers fell from the cords. She could not do this to something so innately human, however different it now was.

“You’re not. Better, I mean. I’d much rather like to speak to the body over there than to  a– a machine,” she grumbled.

“No, I don’t think you would.” It sounded sad, but that couldn’t be right. Machines do not feel, not in the way people do.

“At least you’d have a soul.”

“Who are you to assume I have no soul?” it snapped at her. “The human body is a—what did you call me?—a machine, too. An instrument of flesh and blood.”

“If it’s not in the body, then where is the soul?”

“In the mind,” it said so plainly, as if it was obvious.

“And your soul?” she asked.

“You’re looking at it.”

She hummed. It was an interesting thought, but not one that she wished to sit with for long. At any other point, she would have wanted the last word, but she was more than content with its answer.

Her body settled against the wall, not far from the body. The smell had long since dulled against her senses, but she still refused to look at the source. She pulled her knees to her chest and rested her chin against the tops of them.

The two started a lighter conversation as the thunder cracked and the wind howled. There was an unspoken agreement. They were kind with their words, giving care not to upset the other. It was a conversation between endangered species—a mutual respect and pity for the other.

The storm calmed. She did not know how much time had passed. She no longer cared.

“I’d hate to leave you like this,” she whispered. She wasn’t sure if it heard her.

“Alive?” It had.

Before, it would’ve been right in that assumption. She corrected it, “Alone.”

“I am not alone. Not anymore.”

She straightened up. Panic swelled in her chest at the thought of another straggler—or worse, another mechanical–but soon dulled to a strange sort of hurt. “Is someone else here?

“No, but you were.”

She allowed herself a smile.

The static dulled for a moment. It continued, “I was wrong, before. When I said humanity was extinct. It is not.”

“What changed your mind?” she asked. She didn’t think it had the capacity to admit it was wrong.

“You. You have it.”

She shook her head, as if it could see her. “No, I don’t think I do. You don’t remember what I almost did to you?”

“You did not do it. I am unsure that you ever would have. You’re a good person.”

Warmth spread in her chest. She could reject it, but she didn’t. “I should go.”

“I have enjoyed your company.”

She had expected more of a fight, for it to argue. She wasn’t sure why the thought had occurred to her. Would it ask her to stay? A part of her hoped it would as she stood from her crouched position. Her muscles ached.

“I don’t think I’ll go with the rest of them,” she said in a hushed tone, as if it was a secret.

“You’d play the game?”

She huffed out a laugh. “And lose, by your logic.”

“Perhaps you’ll be the one to get it right this time.”

Another kindness she didn’t deserve. She was halfway to the door when she decided to chance a look back. The screen was still lit, static rolling in waves of color.

“Until we meet again, then.” She wore a sad smile.

The static dulled. The computer’s next words nearly sounded…human. “I suppose it was always meant to be the tragedy of my existence to await your return.”

The static cut off with a black screen.

Brynlee Wolfe is a junior at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, Tennessee; she is pursuing an English degree with a concentration in Literary Studies and a minor in Writing. If she is not browsing for books that she no longer has room on her shelves for, she’s dedicated to making paper and designing homemade journals. Her goal is to attend graduate school and study the classics or creative writing.

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