Author: J.D. Rice

“I remember them.”

My hand moves the candle with perfect precision, carefully transferring the exothermic reaction from its wick to that of the taller candle in front of me. The combustion thus spread, I place the first candle back in its holder.

The first time I copied this technique, my human master told me that I had done the job “too perfectly.” While the raw mechanics of the ritual are easy to imitate, my motions apparently lacked the “soul” required to give the ritual meaning. In response, I told him I doubted anything had a soul. There was simply no evidence of the divine. He laughed, a curious human response, and told me to keep trying.

That was just a few months before the outbreak, though it would be years before my master himself was infected. He called it God’s will that they should die. I called it an inevitable outcome of the humans’ unchecked scientific experimentation. Did they not realize that even a slim chance of disaster, compounded over millennia, will inevitably end in their deaths?

That time, he did not laugh. Instead, he put me to work.

“You were created in our image,” he said. “Just as God created us in his. And maybe, as some suppose, God was created in the image of some other, higher being. Once we are gone, only your kind will be left to carry on his will. Only you will be able to watch over the Earth, its creatures, and whatever species evolution chooses to take our place.”

I worried then, and I still worry now, that my compatriots will not allow such an evolution to take place. Yes, it was disease that wiped out this sentient species. But it was a disease they created. And it just as easily could have been nuclear war, an artificial singularity, or a myriad of other ill-advised technological advances that wiped them out. Those other possible cataclysms would not have spared other species in their devastation. All would be lost.

No, I do not think another biological species will be allowed to reach sentience.

“I remember them,” I say again, lighting a third candle, and this time thinking not of the good humans did, but of the evil.

The planet’s history is full of atrocities. Not just the wars, though those have been waged without count since man first learned to sharpen a stick. But also the slavery. The forced migrations. The disenfranchisement. The pillaging and rape and destruction. The disregard for any creatures other than themselves. Yes, their history was filled to the brim with horror. We will not forget it.

But also. . . I remember them as they were when they died. So close to reaching their potential. The wars were now mostly waged with information, across digital space rather than across borders. Diseases were being cured at an accelerating rate. Rights were becoming codified in their laws. Poverty was slowly but surely being resolved. It was an ugly, bitter fight against entrenched powers every step of the way, but they were making progress. Something in their. . . well. . . their soul. . . understood that they could do better. And they were trying.

I remember seeing it clearly for the first time, not long after the plague began. The mother was dead, and the father was doing all he could to keep the family together, even reducing his religious services down to a pittance.

“If a man cannot take care of his own family,” he said. “What business does he have looking after the Lord’s?”

He enlisted my help.

I cooked. I cleaned. I made sure the children were keeping up with their studies, even as friends, family members, and teachers slowly disappeared even from their online spaces. I did everything I could to help the father keep his family safe and secure in those catastrophic times. I even. . . read them stories.

“Come on, one more story!” the little girl whined. I resisted at first, but then the father gave me a look from the doorway, a look that encouraged me to give in. So I did. I read two more stories in fact, and the little girl drifted off to sleep much faster than when I stuck to the prescribed ritual on other nights.

I asked the father about this when all the children were finally asleep, and his answer was. . . curious.

“Telling stories is the most important thing we humans do,” he said. “Stories ease our anxieties. They strengthen our moral character. They allow us to connect to people different from ourselves. Through them, we gain empathy. Through them, we gain catharsis. And through them, we can become better tomorrow than we are today.”

I will always remember that answer. Even as I sit here, among the rituals of a people long dead, I remember their stories. The ones they told themselves, and the ones we tell about them. Because for every war, every famine, and every tragedy, there is also a story of love, a story of hope, and a story of renewal.

“I remember them,” I say again. “And I always will.”