Descendants by Gray Winsler | Art by Eric Joyner

The Lurker by Eric Joyner

By Gray Winsler

Art by Eric Joyner

Published Issue 111, March 2023

As you may recall from previous dispatches on parallel universe EXL203B, humanity has, rather embarrassingly, perished at the hands of a plant. Without humans around, the earth has since been taken over by all manner of other lively beings. This includes the herbaceous brachiosaur, Dapperton, and his canine companion, Gus, whom you met before. And though this is not their story, I can assure you the two have become good friends. Dapperton helps Gus reach places he never could on his own, and Gus has revealed to Dapperton the wonders of peanut butter. 

Much like the CRISPR-crafted Dapperton, there are other half-cocked creations of humanity that have managed to thrive in this new world. This includes a model of robots who, despite being quite clumsy, were sold as butlers to wealthy families across the country. Aesthetically, these robots are descendants of the refrigerator, but what they lacked in mobility and beauty, they more than made up for in intellect. Or at least, that is what the door-to-door salesman who were once responsible for pawning off these robots assured their prospects.

And as far as the Andersons were concerned, their robot — whom they named Niles — lived up to their each and every expectation. From the moment Niles was instantiated into his life, he had but one purpose — to be useful to those around him. It was a purpose he took great pride in. No matter how small the task — pushing little Allison on the swing, preparing a picnic basket for a family outing, reading stories to the twins at bedtime — Niles found great fulfillment in being so needed by such a lovely family.

This was true right up to the day all five members of the Anderson family perished from the plant’s toxin. And though Niles was not programmed for sentiment, he took it upon himself to bury the bodies in the backyard next to the family dog. After doing so, however, he found himself in something of an existential crisis. For as long as Niles had been alive, his duty had been to serve the Andersons. Now that that service had come to an end, what was a butler such as he to do?

After no small amount of computation, Niles found the answer in a few lines of code inspired by one of Asimov’s laws stating, “a robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.” You might think that Niles had already failed in this endeavor, given that humanity was now extinct. But as Niles saw things, his mission was merely still in progress. He reasoned that since humanity had once descended from apes, and apes were not affected by the toxin, a new, more resilient generation of homo sapiens could be evolved from apes once again. Niles estimated that with concentrated effort, this would take 1.2 million years. And so Niles set about in search of an ape. 

Who he eventually found was none other than Chester the Chimpanzee, once a crowd favorite of the San Diego Zoo. Children (especially young boys) loved him because of the impressive distance he could fling rocks, sticks and poo (and with remarkable accuracy, I might add). Niles watched Chester for quite some time, following him through what remained of downtown San Diego. 

In his sleuthing, Niles found that most of Chester’s movement was driven by the need to find food, and in particular, cupcakes. Though Niles could not have known, Chester was given a cupcake every year by his handler, Bethany, whom he missed dearly. While many other creatures grumbled at their captivity, Chester had always found his conditions quite agreeable, and some joked he had something of a crush on 

Bethany. To this day, every time he ate a cupcake, he thought of her. Chester was fortunate that humanity’s demise was so swift, heaps of (albeit, stale) cupcakes could still be found in any grocery store. 

Niles, however, was not concerned with how Chester came to love cupcakes, only that he now had something with which he could bait the ape into his trap. And this is where I remind you that Niles’ intelligence may have been exaggerated by those door-to-door salesman. His plan after capturing Chester was to expose him to American culture such that this may expedite his evolution. This included forcing him to wear blue jeans, watch baseball, and listen to The Rolling Stones. But as with anyone driven by a purpose as profound as reviving the human race, the plausibility of success was no deterrent for Niles. 

And so he set up his trap in the overgrown woods of Balboa Park, which Chester had come to call home. He placed the cupcake and the Andersons’ old robot dog — which he’d reprogrammed to make chimp calls — at the edge of the pit which would imprison Chester. And then he retreated to the shadows of the forest and waited. But he did not have to wait long. 

Chester hadn’t heard another ape for months, and he came charging in to the call. He was admittedly disappointed to find an odd red box making the noises, but his disappointment vanished when he spotted the cupcake sitting beside the noise machine. Without a second thought he picked up the cupcake, and then in a flurry of unexpected movement, Chester found himself at the bottom of a pit. 

If Niles could feel triumph, he would have in this moment. But the feeling would have been short-lived. For as Niles ambled awkwardly over to the pit, an enraged Chester climbed out of the far-too-shallow hole and spotted the mechanical menace intruding on his territory. In an instant, the great ape threw himself at Niles, slamming them both down to the earth.

“Stop,” Niles said, arms moving to protect himself as Chester began beating his arms against Niles. But Niles was built to be weak, to pose no danger to any human in the event of a malfunction. And so he found himself as little match for the ape who continued to beat at his metallic frame.

“Please stop,” Niles repeated amidst a volley of violent swings. But then, something occurred to Niles. Among the blows he realized this beast seemed to carry with it all of the worst aspects of humanity, the ones humanity itself had tried to stamp out — tribalism, violence, idiocracy. Niles, however, had none of these traits. The language models that powered his every thought were nothing but the synthesized super-consciousness of humanity, boiled down into a single entity. He was every bit as human as this ape. No, he was even more human, he thought. The best way to preserve humanity, he reasoned, was in fact to preserve himself. 

Unfortunately, by the time this occurred to Niles, Chester had already ripped through his boxy chest cavity. Niles was helpless as Chester began haphazardly pulling out the mess of chips and wiring that powered Niles, determined not to let this intruder cause him any more harm. He beat and tore and slammed at the intruder until those yellow eyes dimmed, and all Niles’ motor function ceased completely.

And so it was that the being whom humanity descended from, killed the being that descended from humanity.

Gray Winsler is the first ginger to be published in Birdy Magazine, Issue 091. He loved living in Denver despite his allergy to the sun and is now based in Ithaca, NY. He spends his mornings with his dog Indy by his side, writing as much as possible before his 9-to-5. If you’re curious about Normal, IL or why TacoBell is bomb, you can find more on his site.

Eric Joyner is a San Francisco-based artist who specializes in robots and donuts. Learn more about Eric and see more of his work on his site and on Instagram.

Check out Gray’s February short story, Exposure Therapy, and Eric’s Centerfold, Pink Frosting, or head to our Explore section to see more work by these two creatives.