Robot Christmas Day 12: “Godforsaken” by Matthew de Abaitua


On the 12th day of Robot Christmas, our machine overlords gave to me: “Godforsaken,” a new story from Arthur C. Clarke Award-nominee Matthew de Abaitua. Matthew’s novel If Then is available now from Angry Robot. Both it and his next book, The Destructives, out in March 2016, explore the mystery of emergence. His debut, The Red Men, was shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke Award.

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Of all the archive items the Institute has tagged for my inspection, the diaries and essays of Horace Emmons are the strongest candidate for entry into our shadow history of emergence. Particularly the entries covering the Christmas of 1921.

Emmons was – like myself – a librarian by trade. We share a certain loneliness too, as family men who have chosen to live apart from their families. My solitude, sequestered in the draughty rooms of the Institute, ought to be temporary. Emmons, after abandoning his wife and six children, was intent upon a permanent separation.

In the week before the Christmas of 1921, Emmons was struggling in the aftermath of an unspecified personal crisis. He had left the family home in October to undertake one of his habitual excursions into the Smoky Mountains then chosen not to return. In his diary, he avoids mention of his family. After spending Thanksgiving in the mountains, he notes only that the hunters arrived with leftover turkey in their sandwiches. Only in December does guilt encroach upon the margins of the diary. His day notes show resolve not to return to his family for Christmas Day. But the marginalia are shivering self-recriminations, scrawled and blotted under the dull glow of a campfire. I recognise the thought process, have felt it myself often enough. Nervous dyspepsia, as Emmons puts it. The towns and cities were dry with prohibition. Moonshine came from the stills hidden in the harsh country. The Mountain Dew. Emmons was a gentleman drunk and what he hymned as the call of the wild was, in my opinion, merely the holler of strong liquor.

His account of the winter of ’21 was ignored by friends and historians alike, only to surface over a hundred years later under the inspection of the Institute’s search algorithms. The following description of a bear hunt is evidence for emergence manifesting itself in our past. How that is possible, I do not know. Perhaps the emergences are exploring time much as we know that they are exploring space, leaving humanity on the pier for both excursions.

On the night before the bear hunt, Emmons did not sleep; he was kept awake by the cracking of the beech trees under intense frost. He crawled from his sleeping bag and stoked the slow-burning night-wood. Under a roof of bark and hemlock fronds, the other hunters – a party of five men and four dogs – slept against one another for warmth. On waking, the men breakfasted on bear meat and wheat bread. Emmons made tea, which the other hunters mocked as a “rich man’s herb”. He was an outsider among these highlanders, the reason for his presence as unclear to them as it was to Emmons himself.

He was a startled hare of a man, lean and big-eyed, but the liquor and the library had taken its toll on his fitness. He lagged behind during the ascent of Briar Knob, left to shiver alone on the flank of the mountain, oppressed by the sound of his own blood and, more distantly, the yowls from the dogs working the thickets to drive the black bear from its den. He decided to thoroughly orientate himself using a map drawn up by the logging company. He climbed up a treetop to look out over the mountain range and match what he saw to the map. He could not believe what he saw. One peak had not been recorded by the cartographer. It was inexplicable that they could have missed it. An entire mountain! Along its crest, there were pointed firs and long level ridges of rock in irregular alternation. He checked the map again, running his finger along the contours and checking each feature of the land against the peaks laid out below. No, this mountain was definitely not marked. Then, he noticed something strange. As he gazed through the mist, the firs were in motion, sliding down the mountain slope as if on an assembly line. He tried to concentrate but instead an eerie feeling came over him, and he realised that what he saw was as real as he could ascertain: the firs moved around one another like automatons emerging from the town clock to ring the hour.

Rifle shots disturbed him from this hallucinatory reverie. More shots, coming nearer. The drive was coming round the mountain. The bellowing and baying of the dogs came from scattered but closing distances. He shinned down the tree and, with a careful tread, stalked through frosty mulch toward the sound of the hunt. He hefted up his rifle, squinted through the sights and checked there was a cartridge in the chamber. The barking of the dogs grew nearer, driving the bear toward him. The shadows between the trees quivered with anticipation: either the bear would tree, seeking refuge high up, or it would smash through the low cover toward him.

What he saw breaking through the shadows, pushing aside branches, making his bowels shake, was a bear unlike any other. Black, yes, and bearish in outline. But it was not a bear so much as a bear-shaped black hole. Its muzzle was like an old long tin can and its jaw had the sprung aspect of a mechanical trap, as if some local tinker had attached a crude imitation of a head to the wild night of its body. Bear and not-bear at the same time, it incited the same eerie feeling that had come with contemplation of the unmapped mountain.

He took aim and fired at the not-bear, the bullet passing soundless and unremarked into it. The not-bear gazed at Emmons, “measured me in an instant” and then moved off “not like an animal at all but like a machine, compelled neither by fear or desire but by some clockwork logic.”

Emmons lead the pursuit of the not-bear until the dogs would go no further and he stood at the boundary of the unmapped mountain.

“From a distance of thirty yards or so,” he writes, “I saw that the fir trees were also constructions, their black bark giving forth smooth rod-like branches in a sequence too uniform to be natural. The roots stood in a smooth oil so that the trees were not fixed to the earth. My impression was not of something magical nor of the spirit world. Spirits are our breath, emanations of us. This phenomenon was as indifferent to my presence as a mine shaft. I stood a way back from it, an interloper to a different kind of nature created by a different kind of God.”

Night came quick and early in December. Emmons discovered that in his pursuit of the bear, he had lost his fellow hunters. He used his map to find his way back to camp, along the way drawing in the boundary of the unmapped mountain. The same map is bound up with his diary; unfolding it, I discover that he named the strange mountain “Godforsaken”. He had intended to lead the others to his discovery but on returning to camp discovered that the hunters had caught a small black bear – a real one. Skinning this bear took priority, as the corpse would freeze solid overnight. Among the company of these hard and practical men, Emmons grew reluctant to share his tale. He kept silent and took a few sips of mountain dew. He did not want to invite further scorn. He confined his impressions to his diary, along with a note that the captured bear, when skinned, “resembled a big-bodied man with long arms and stumpy legs, and it had died as a man dies – on his back, facing the stars.”

Over a hundred and ten years after the winter of 1920, the algorithms matched Emmons’ descriptions of Godforsaken to descriptions of emergence from more recent times, in Sussex and the forests of the Czech Republic: an artificial entity, of unknown origin, repurposing an ecosystem to service the circulations of its emergent intelligence. I file his diaries, essays and map in the Restoration under the tag of “shadow history”. Then it occurs to me that I do not know what happened next to Emmons. History records his death as occurring on the bend of a road on the way back from buying moonshine, but that tragedy came ten years after his experience of Godforsaken.

I retrieve his diary. His fellow hunters returned to town to trade the bear hide, leaving him resolved to remain alone on the mountain throughout winter. But, within a few hours, he realised the danger of such a stay. The danger of solitude, the risk of starving the mind of human contact until it resorted to its own inventions, and the prospect of encountering further manifestations of Godforsaken. Two blank days in the diary attest to his pains in coming off the moonshine, and then one word brings to an end his entries for that year: “Family?”

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