The oven broke.
It shouldn’t have been surprising. The humans hadn’t bothered maintaining any of their equipment once they realized Sundered Ones could do it for them, and not even Jason considered the risk of “maintaining” as a command without specific definition. Then, it was too late.
The oven was just the first. After that, water pumps, moving walkways, several atmospheric manipulators. The Sundered Ones tried to keep them going, they really did, but those things were running on willpower and magic by the end, and neither was strong enough to keep machinery rumbling when parts wore through.
Foolish, thought Aakesh, watching the humans panic, watching their accusations fly, watching them blame everything and everyone but themselves.
There was a dangerous moment when Sykes suggested the Sundered Ones could be to blame, pointing the anger like a weapon, but Jason, in his bigotry, saved them: “You really think they’re clever enough to pull something like that off across the whole damn planet? Of course not. We did this ourselves by being lazy – relying too much on their powers. They’re not genies, and we’re not pampered lords. It’s time to get down to brass tacks.”
That’s what he called planning things: getting down to brass tacks. Jason did not know what a brass tack was, and neither did anyone else, but they all knew the expression’s meaning.
Weird. So very weird. But then, weird was humans all over.
Brass tacks meant new rules to live by and new educational standards for their small but growing group of children. It meant daily tasks and schedules, and an attempt (foiled) to repair or replace the parts worn down.
“Recreate this,” they would say, and Aakesh would try – but the command was not specific, and so he would make a thing that looked the same and felt the same but did not work the same.
Those machines never roared back to life.
Jason died. He was ninety-six. It should have mattered more than it did, but the passing of the one who’d ruined the world warranted nothing more than a single day of everyone wearing white clothes in mourning.
His last words were, Bet he’s still with those monsters, which made no sense to anybody around him, and then he was gone.
But it made sense to Aakesh. Before the Sundering, before it had all gone wrong, he’d seen Jason’s father in memories, seen that man who looked so alike but was so different, who lived, indeed, with monsters, and chose not to leave their home.
Weird, again. Also unimportant.
More things breaking. More artificial islands falling down, or (to whispered horror) sinking into the water, only to rise again, rusting and emptied of life. The Sundered did what they could. They tried (most of them without clever rebellions like Aakesh’s), but it was not enough.
Separated, their power was fading. Oh, it was a slow leak; four human generations rose and died before anyone realized current Sundered Ones simply couldn’t do what the original ones once could, powers that might have been ascribed to legend if the rusting and ruined edifices they’d made weren’t left behind.
Again, as always, the humans panicked.
Change, Aakesh thought, shuddering with the need to go to the water, to melt away, to lose this aching physical form that he’d donned because it was pretty, but unable forever to go back to the water because of Jasons’ command. They don’t like change. It frightens them.
Valuable. Weird, but valuable.
The humans tried to fix it. They forced Sundered Ones to have sex (Why? Biological sex was copied, and none of them could actually reproduce), tried to “train” them, tried to lavish with food or starve to desperation, did everything in their power to push their Sundered slaves back into using power they no longer had.
Naturally, it didn’t work at all, and Aaskesh relished the conferences, the councils, the panicked shouting of important men (and very few women – another weird, illogical thing) who desperately needed a solution.
There was none. The Sundered Ones were simply fading, and that was that.
“But it’s slow,” protested Arnold Iskinder, one of that family, who’d been smart enough to make charts following precise decline. “We can maintain. We have to exercise self-control; there must be rules, limits placed on claiming, and if we do this right, practice conservation, we may be able to stem the tide.”
Stem the tide – no one here had ever seen a tide, nor really understood what one was, but they all understood the expression. Words, Aakesh had learned, rarely meant what they meant, when it came to humans.
And so began what scholars called The Reformation – a drastic, planet-wide change in education, a unification of teaching and method, all designed to prevent the Sundered Ones from burning out, to maintain the status quo.
Aakesh had to admit it was effective.
They weren’t used up as quickly. They weren’t used as badly. It was still terrible, soul-shredding, miserable and constant torment, but the limits placed (without ever indicating to children that it was possible to go beyond) did, indeed, stem the tide.
It wasn’t enough. It would never be enough. They were still all going to die, and though on some days, Aakesh yearned for that, wanted all the humans to die, too, dreamed of them screaming and flailing and drowning and melting and bleeding and exploding, that was not all days.
When he watched children play, made breathless by their creativity.
When he listened in on lovers, whose tender declarations contained steel and fire and softness and beauty.
When he watched lone artists create, often in secret, splashing emotions they could not name onto canvas or cloth or clay.
The humans, he knew, should not simply all be killed – but they couldn’t be allowed to continue like this, either. He saw them punish their children for creativity unapproved. Watched lovers fall apart, bickering over things that did not matter, shredding perfect love. Saw artists burn their art, or trash it, or hide it out of shame, as if their true selves should never been seen by their fellow humans.
No. This could not continue.
I’m illogical, he thought, because he wanted to save both species, which everyone knew was impossible.
The humans gave him the idea, in the end.
It shouldn’t have been surprising. Humans thought up things all the time, creating concepts from nothing, sporting an imagination that was practically an unknown language. But they gave him the idea, and once he had it, it grew, and he fed and watered, and planted it deep, and piled more on until he had a plan.
The seed was simple: Humans did not know anything that came before. They were born completely ignorant, and only knew from then on what they were told. Which meant, if a mother told a son that his father was a good man, the son knew that to be true – even if the father himself was a drunken abuser who’d been pushed into the black water for everyone’s good.
Which meant, if a teacher told a student that the Sundered Ones were rare, and bred slowly, and so must be gathered with care, the student knew that to be true – even if it was completely wrong from start to finish.
To gain access to the Hope, to trick an Iskinder into shutting it down, required that humans not know what they now knew. And thanks to The Reformation, Aakesh understood how to make it happen.
It took generations.
Years of subtly changing books, of ensuring certain “reactions” were observed in Sundered Research, confirming biases the Sundered Ones had planted in the humans in the first place.
Ages of watching Iskinders, listening to Iskinders, undermining Iskinders, destroying Iskinders, until their family was a hovel compared to the palace it once was, self-important junk-scavengers and no longer leaders of the human race.
Desperation and pride made reconditioning easier. Aakesh’s plan (all their plan, because the Sundered Ones did nothing alone) worked, and Aakesh kept his goal in mind, ensuring all would feel its power: save what humans we wish. They do not all die. And they wouldn’t – he would see to that, though many, many would – but they would never make their own decisions again.
They couldn’t be trusted. Poor things, somehow skipping the evolutionary drive for self-preservation in trade for instant gratification. They just needed to be looked after. That’s all.
It would be good for them.
We will choose the right humans, Aakesh thought, they all thought, they all echoed. Control what they think, what they know, and at last, we will all find peace.
“What?” said Harry. “You said something?”
Aakesh looked toward him, toward this young man who was smart but not wise, who was creative but not cruel, who’d guaranteed their freedom through desperate errors and a good heart. Harry looked happier these days; he’d earned more clothing than the simple loin cloth they’d put him in at first (maybe a little revenge enacted there), and now he painted every day, creating wild masterpieces of the places he’d been and the things he’d seen.
He’d begun doing Sundered portraits, and everyone loved that. The way he saw them was never the way they saw themselves, and these portraits made wonderful gifts, even if they didn’t survive very well in the water.
“I said nothing, Harry Iskinder,” murmured Aakesh, eyes lidded, studying what was his.
“You did, though,” said Harry, who was stubborn, and whose stubbornness Aakesh did not wish to burn out. It was endearing.
“You said something about peace.”
“Ah. I was dreaming, Harry.” Aakesh smiled, smooth as oil.
Harry blinked. “I thought you didn’t sleep.”
“We do not.”
“I learned to dream from you.” Aakesh turned in the air, still horizontal but now looking at Harry upside down, his hair undulating on its own to curl over the tops of Harry’s feet.
Harry took a step back. “Okay, that’s just weird, Aakesh.” Harry didn’t know what to think of this statement, and Aakesh liked that he did not.
We will form them, he and all the Sundered thought, a great shudder of intent rippling through them all. We will shape them. They will be happy, and we will be free.
Harry was already painting again, driven to it, caught in the joy of being able to do it whenever he wanted, and nobody ever telling him he wasn’t supposed to create.
Yes. This was the way to be.
This, thought Aakesh, is a beautiful survival.