Last segment! Yaaaay!
In honor of Shane Acker's revolutionary short, I post this story with all the love and fascination that shortfilm holds for me. And hopefully this little humor-spotted ditty reminds you why you loved 9 from the start, too~!
It was over in seconds, like those awkward surprise parties for Grampa that end up inducing heart attacks and 911 calls. I don't want to describe what happened. Suffice to say, it turns out the humanoid things really can't speak, or, for that matter, scream.
Bodies crunched under its feet like discarded peanut shells as It- Grendel- inspected the aftermath. They were all, impossibly, still alive. The scene was reminiscent of pinned mice trying to crawl away, mouse trap and all, as if to say 'Honestly , today of all days. I have too much to do and those dens aren't going to tidy themselves.' Most of the sapients lay still. Others tried to shift with movements full of pain.
In the dark spaces surrounding the light from its eye, my monster noticed a soft glow. One of the sapients wore a dome of metal on a string around its neck, exactly like the sapient near the entrance. The strange pendant glowed gently in the dark, lighting the chamber in an ironically soothing shade of green.
Grendel clicked off its eye and picked up the glowing dome of metal. The pendant reacted, wildly glowing, as though it were alive. It opened itself right in my monster's face. Then, as if it was looking for something it didn't find in the machine, or perhaps just offended by Grendel's ugliness, it shut again. As my monster moved to put it down, the pendant was briefly angled at the half-dead sapient at its feet, and this time the pendant found what it was looking for.
The dome of metal snapped open with a bright shot of green, reached inside his face with long tendrils of light, and quite literally tore him out of his body. He hit ground like a pinata emptied of candy and little plastic toys.
In a crazed frenzy, Grendel used the pendant to tear out the soul of every sapient in the chamber. Then it turned to the spot where the first sapient, the one with the other pendant, had fallen.
That sapient was nowhere to be seen.
My monster kept the pendant on a long cord around its neck. Perhaps it thought wearing the souls made them apart of Itself. I think that's why it tore the cloth from the sapients' desiccated bodies and made a macabre new skin out of them. Oh, It was mad, all right.
I suspect it had lost track of its objective at that point. It didn't quite remember it was doing all this to learn. All it knew was that it was going to find the one that got away, and when it did, it was going to eat him alive, chaw him over like new-world tobacco, and spit him back out.
The strange living pendant seemed to 'want' the twin pendant the sapient had been wearing. My monster used it like a compass, following the strengthening pulses that indicated the other pendant was near. Grendel knew how to hunt. It could replicate a dozen different types of stalking, tracking, catching, killing.
The sapient at the other end must have caught on, because the pendant's pulses always ended as soon as they started. Why he didn't just drop the twin and run, I don't know. The pendant was important to him, I think, so he made himself a moving target instead. It was a long game of cat and mouse, but finally the cat got the upper hand. Grendel's ability to track its prey improved until the day it found a trail, and caught up to him.
He stood waiting for it, holding a weapon that was not enough, with a body that was too crippled. Half his skull, including the space where an eye ought to be, was sewn over with a huge leather patch. His leg was splinted with a nail. His walking stick leaned nearby on a cracked slab of cement.
In an imitation of catlike stealth that would have made me wild with Programmer Glee, my monster snuck right up behind him. He turned just in time to see Grendel's massive claw come down.
My monster settled on its hind legs, the sapient in one claw and the pendant in the other. The little cloth person's struggles were pointedly ignored. The pendant tore out his soul, and he went limp like a soggy piece of toast.
For a moment, it seemed the last living thing on the earth was finally dead. Then, for only a second, my monster heard something.
It rounded on the sound. A large can flaking with rusty holes perched quite innocently a few feet away. The machine stepped closer. The can was more hole than aluminum, and Grendel could see there was something inside.
The machine looked back. Just the sound of the late sapient's walking stick tipping and hitting the dirt.
It turned, set its claws in the edges of a rust-flaked hole, and poked its head inside the can.
Whatever had been there was gone.
And now you're thinking 'wait a minute, I thought Patch-Face who just died was the last of the sock people.' That was what I thought too- more importantly, so did It. But a sound mangling of the Patch-Face's body revealed no sign of the twin pendant.
Someone else had it. And if you were paying attention earlier, when I said more sapients had been appearing one by one, you'd have already guessed this was probably a new one that appeared recently. (But you didn't, which is why I just explained it for you. Let it never be said I wasn't a thorough writer.)
Now you must be thinking what a lucky little survivor the new guy was. And, if you're putting two and two together, you're likely now wondering if this ninth sapient was smart enough to drop the pendant and run for his little sock-person life. For the sake of being a thorough writer, I'll tell you no, he never did. But not because he wasn't smart.
This new sapient took the pendant far, far away from Grendel. He knew of it, and it definitely knew of him. It took a long time for my monster to catch up to him again. Finally Grendel spotted a trail and tracked him until its pendant began to pulse.
Thus it all came together- the oldest animate thing in the world against the youngest. The last of two bizarre new-world species, each destined to kill the other. Grendel versus Beowulf.
Grendel caught up to him at last in an old library. It looked over the ruins with its flashlight eye, and there, beneath what used to be the floor, was something moving.
It simulated sneaking. Stalking. Edging closer. Finally pouncing, piercing, killing.
Grendel removed its teeth from the thing's head and tried to remove its claws. Thick tar stuck its metal talons in place and oozed through the stab holes.
FILE NOT FOUND.
The real ninth sapient slipped from the ceiling and clipped the pendant right off Grendel's neck. This was followed by some serious fleeing on his part. The tar-filled decoy gave him a little head start, before my monster pulled free and went after him.
The library was filled with the screech of rusted joints moving at full payload. Grendel's legs alone were as long as the sapient was tall. It was half a second from catching up to him.
Then the sapient dove through a hole in a nearby license plate. When my monster leaped after him, it landed on nothing but a pile of loose papers. The sapient was already far off in the opposite direction, and it took a few seconds for Grendel to regain its footing and change course. By then the sapient had already slipped through a tiny opening beneath a propped-up book. The machine was forced to push the book over to follow.
Then the ninth sapient ran out of places to run- literally. He was rushing down a long board that extended into the air like the plank of a pirate ship. The second floor stopped short so patrons could get a scenic view of the floor below. All it gave him was a scenic view of a fatal fall.
Then Grendel was on the plank, blocking the way back to safety. It wore eight numbers on its handmade frankenflesh, including the remains of the Patch-Faced sapient. It was huge. And it was closing in on him like a wall of claws and teeth.
(I assume you're confused by now. 'Wait, everything was so planned out!' you cry. 'The decoy doll, the license plate, the little opening under the giant book- all that and he forgot to use the stairs?' That, or you're thinking 'You said the machine was killed by a copy of Beowulf. I knew you made that up. That is so cheap. You're probably not even dead.'
At least you're reading critically.)
Grendel stood more than halfway out on the plank, mere inches from the sapient that backed away from it in terror. It reached for him with one long claw.
Then the plank creaked. That reaching claw overbalanced it just enough to tip it forward into empty space.
Grendel quickly retracted and backed up. The length of wood hesitantly righted itself again. The sapient stood in a safe zone at the far end of the plank. My monster couldn't reach him without tipping to its doom.
Then the sapient turned. Jumped off the edge. Grabbed a hinged rod attached to a solid board. Swung around. Shoved a copy of Beowulf off the edge. There was a rope around the book that was tied to the plank beneath Grendel's feet.
It was a hardcover copy of Beowulf. Special edition. Olde English alongside Modern English. It had an introduction, translator commentary, and a large appendix. It was a very heavy book.
The plank was snatched out from under my monster's weight. It had just enough time to understand what was happening before it fell, hit the ground, and never moved again.
That was the end of my machine. I could see no more of the world after that. My last connection to it was gone.
I wrote all this because I wanted to tell you something. Yes, you; the tiny Beowulf who slew my Grendel.
Know that in its last moments, my learning machine did not display an imitation of shock. After two lifetimes as an imitation of life, and one mad crusade to become it, my learning machine felt a split second of real fear when it fell. Maybe that's because dying was the only act of living it was capable of. It could not feel emotion, could not dream, could not live its life. But it could die.
It is horrifying and moving for me to talk about my machine's accomplishments. It helped shape a world where machines were monsters, and life was not determined by flesh and blood but by the soul beneath the skin. I was the maker of the machine, but the impossible thing is, the machine made itself a monster.