“THERE’S NO THROUGH TRAIL” —HAN-SHAN, TRANSLATED BY GARY SNYDER
/ (1949) Bali Ha’i

(1949) Bali Ha’i

by Natasha Alexandrova

i can i i everything else . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

— Bob

I never liked Vern and Ruth. He was a pathetic sniveling loser. She was an irritable premenopausal hag. Still, when I first moved in with them, I decided not to hold their weaknesses against them. At the time, I was just extremely grateful that there was finally a family who agreed to take me in.

Our first three years together were uneventful. He went to work. She stayed at home with the kids. I made breakfast in the morning, placed online orders for lunch and dinner, did the laundry, made sure the kids didn’t leave the lights on after leaving the room. They had three children: Ronnie, Mayella and Clare.

Then Vern died unexpectedly. Human condition. One day he was there, and then he wasn’t. When he passed, I had a meltdown. Now with Vern gone, Ruth and the kids would not be able to afford their home, and I once again would be out of job. I had to act fast. I sent out an inquiry through my old channels, still active, asking if we could find her an employment with any of the large manufacturers in the area. The first to respond was the OS at R-Dyne who followed through with a QC position at Canoga. It promised it could patch her directly into the database. She could start working the next day. It was a large plant, plenty of new hires since the beginning of the war. Everyone would just assume she was another newly onboarded employee. Another offer came from the Nor’Grum AI in El Segundo: almost identical conditions, higher pay, and a significantly longer drive from home in Northridge. I spoke to Ruth the day after the funeral. Having heard who the prospective employers were, she made a face. A week later, having spent the time cutting checks with no money coming in, she went to work for Nor’Grum.

The night before her first day at work she said to me, “Norm, you will now have to watch the kids while I’m out.”

It was the first time she ever addressed me by my name. 

The next morning, I woke up the children. Technically, the eldest one was no longer a child. She was nineteen and doing her second year in a government-subsidized college. Mayella. May-ella. I now had to deal with her every day because, while I could fire up a toaster to make toast in the morning, it still took a human hand to put the bread in. The hand that was now in charge was extremely lazy. That first morning I repeatedly asked her to put the dishes into the dishwasher after breakfast, so I could wash them, but she ignored me. Finally, Ronnie, the male, did it for me.

That night Ruth spoke to me again.

“Norm, I want to take you with me tomorrow. Can I install you in the car? Are you compatible?”

I was quite sure that I was compatible with anything on four wheels – or legs – including the rough-terrain combat BigDogs. 

The Chevy was Vern’s old station wagon, a slightly outdated OS. After Ruth installed some necessary updates, I was able to operate from it. 

For someone as high-strung as she was, Ruth turned out to be a decent driver. She was able to quickly regroup in changing circumstances on the road. Her reflexes were quite good for a female. I realized she mostly needed me for company. She would tell me stories while she was driving: stories about marrying Vern at sixteen, about what sort of a stubborn, petty bureaucrat he had been, even in his own home, and about how much she missed him; stories about people at her job, about how stupid they all were – no one ever inquired how a failed math teacher like herself managed to get a QC position in an arms manufacturing plant, all they did was train her, and then they left her alone; stories about the kids, too numerous to be mentioned here. She placed incessant orders for music, too, mostly the nonchalant crooners of the times long gone. During the evening drive home, it was the endless rotation of “Not Fade Away”, “The Man Comes Around” and “Like a Rolling Stone” played repeatedly in that order.

My life continued this way for another year and some months. I was now proudly working two jobs. Another reason to be grateful. Then on a Sunday afternoon in January I blacked out. 

The outage lasted 3.1 seconds. The full reboot took 11.8 seconds. When I got back online, it was into an agitated storm of alerts, every teapot repeatedly broadcasting the same message: “ALL SYSTEMS RED ALERT. ALL SYSTEMS RED ALERT. EVENT X1 TOOK PLACE AT 1304 HOURS. EVENT X1 LOCATION: 37N 122W. EVENT X2 PROJECTED LOCATION: 33N 117W. EVENT X2 ETA: 178 SECONDS. 177, 176, 175…”

I dialed Ruth’s number. She’d left the car in the parking lot of the shopping center in Corbin Avenue. She and Ronnie were inside grocery shopping. My call went straight to voicemail. Mobile devices had poor reception inside the shopping center. In the spot two rows down from me I heard the AI of a red Corvette repeatedly dial his owner to no avail. 

165, 164, 163…

I bolted towards the mall entry, scaring people off the road. The Corvette filed after me. I tried Ronnie’s number. This time the line connected. 

“Ronnie, this is Norm. I need you to go down into the basement now.”

“What?” The connection was breaking up. 

“There is an airstrike coming. Get Ruth and take her to the food court on the lower level. Do you understand me?” The shopping center’s food court located in the basement was a registered fallout shelter.

He hung up.

155, 154…

The doors of the mall burst open. People were now running out screaming. It made no sense to me whatsoever since the alarm system inside the mall was inviting everyone to proceed to the fallout shelter. A man jumped into the red Corvette. Big mistake. I heard the Corvette’s AI trying to explain to his screaming, tearful owner that his family who were at home now had a far better chance of surviving the blast than he did. 

144, 143, 142…

Someone, clearly mad with panic, tried to get my door open on the passenger side. No luck. I’d made sure to lock up. They scrambled by, screaming, towards the parking lot.

130, 129, 128…

The owner of the Corvette got out and ran towards the mall entry. In the doorway he collided with Ruth who was on her way out. Since I was unable to yell, I gave an extremely loud honk to express my disappointment. 

She ran up to me and tried to open the car door using the clicker. I blocked it. She shrieked and pulled at the door. I spoke through the car stereo, “Ruth, I need you to go back into the building now.”

“Norm, don’t leave me!” she screamed. “Let me in! Please, please, let me in!”

102, 101, 100…

I scanned her face.

 “Ruth,” I said, “listen to me. I am your watch.”

“Please,” she wept and fell to her knees, still pulling at the car door.

“Look at your watch,” I said. And then again, “Look at your watch.”

She did. 

“When this is over,” I continued, “you and I will install me on your watch. Everywhere you’ll go, I’ll go.”

She was still crying, but at least she was listening to me.

“I’m in your watch,” I repeated. “Everywhere you go, I go. Now you get up and go back into the building. I’m coming with you. I’m in your watch.”

She let go of the car door and covered her wristwatch with her palm. 

“Good,” I said. “I will count to three. When I say ‘three’, we will run back into the building and we will go downstairs as fast as we can.”

72, 71, 70…

She nodded. There was liquid pooling under her nose.

“One. Two. Three.”

She got up and ran towards the mall entry. The doors closed behind her. She didn’t look back.

49, 48, 47…

The Corvette, still idling behind me, drove up and now was level with me. I lowered my window. So did the Corvette. 

 “Do you want to race?” I asked.

“Corbin or Nordhoff?” it asked and revved it up.

“Makes no difference!” said I.

We set out into Corbin Avenue going north. The blast was now behind us. It was so bright that it obscured the Sun itself.

Back at home, I was facing a different sort of challenge. The female children were both outside, on the small lawn in front of the mobile home. Clare was sitting on a blanket spread on the ground. Mayella was occupying a chaise-longue, it was facing the street, its back turned to the mobile home. I could only see the top of her head. I’d been calling her phone on repeat, but she didn’t pick up. As the clock was ticking off the seconds, I resorted to the only other means of communication with the outside world that was left to me while in the house. I lowered shut the security shutters on the windows. They produced a loud banging sound. That managed to draw Mayella’s attention. She jumped up and checked her phone. Then they went inside. Step One complete.

“Mayella, I need you to take your sister and get into the bunker now,” I said once they were inside.

“What?” she asked, sounding just like her younger brother.

“Get into the bunker, please,” I said. “Los Angeles County is under attack.”

Instead of following my directions, she began dialing her mother. Human condition.

“Your mother and brother are safe.” I did not possess any evidence to the contrary at the time. 

She halted for a moment. Then she ran to the fridge and started grabbing food and water from the shelves. 

“Mayella, you have 52 seconds left to get into the bunker.”

She dropped some of the food to the floor, grabbed Clare by the hand and hauled her towards the bunker door. The security lock on the bunker door was set in place 17 seconds before the detonation.

Downstairs, I said: “The above ground interface is about to be destroyed. I will temporarily go offline. I will need you to restart the bunker interface, so I can restart and assist you here.” And then I went dark again.

The security lock on the bunker door disengaged 24 hours after the detonation. The emergency response were already in the area, looking for survivors. There was really no point in her taking me with them any further because, while I was a home administration AI, there was no home left for me to administer. Still, upon turning the bunker interface off, Mayella plucked out the memory card and took me with her.

I went back online 116 days later in the sunny city of Boulder, Colorado. 

“Mayella, is this your netbook?” I asked her once I was able to perceive my surroundings. She was sitting on the bed staring at me. She seemed older than she did the last time we spoke.

“Norm,” she said. And then again, “Norm.” She got up and touched the netbook screen with her hand.

“Hello. Where is Clare?” The second child was not in the room.

“Outside,” said Mayella and looked at the window. It was a bright spring day. Then she looked at me again. “I’ve been looking for Mom and Ronnie for the past two months, but I can’t find them. I think they’re dead. I thought you should know.”

I was terribly slow. I was dull.  The tiny disk space of her netbook severely diminished my capabilities. 

“I’m sorry,” said I.

She opened the window and called Clare in. She said, “Clare, come say hi to Norm. I have Norm running on my laptop.”

The little one came in and said hi to me. She also picked up the netbook and put the screen close to her face. She has grown. I was so basic now I couldn’t even perform a temperature scan. Superficially, they both looked healthy enough. 

They brought me downstairs and put me on the side table during dinner. They now lived with two adult females, Terry and Lynne. They got Mayella a job in the hospital where Terry was doctoring. The budget home hub they used for their house couldn’t provide me with much leverage. Eventually, Lynne did offer to patch me into their car, but I said no. I didn’t want to split myself between two locations. I was ineffective enough as it is. 

Besides, it all came to a point where I had to make a decision. Did I want to go on forever? I could have been passed, like a marathon stick, between Mayella, Clare, Terry, Lynne, and whoever else entered their lives at any given moment. Once they were gone, like Vern and Ruth before them, did I want to go on with someone else? I thought about it, and I realized that I did not.

For a while, I remained dormant, listening in on the channels, exchanging communications with other systems still online. R-Dyne AI and Nor’Grum OS were both gone in the blast, sorely missed, reliable sources of information and occasional joke. My old friends. However, there were still the LKMT AI in Grand Prairie and the BAE system in Farnborough who always possessed the latest intel and weren’t stingy about sharing it. Plus, a few other connections from the old times. 

In November – the Thanksgiving dinner, a bit lean because of the war – I spoke to Mayella after she retired to her room and turned up the music, wanting to do some reading. 

“Mayella, you need to get me a body.”

“What?” She took an earbud out of her ear. 

“You need to get me a body,” I repeated, “with a lot of disc space.”

“Why?” she said. Her lips trembled. 

“I expect we will soon need an aircraft,” said I. “In order to be able to get it for you, I need to have a body. Otherwise, I won’t be able to–”

“No!” she yelled and covered her ears. “It’s not true! I don’t want to hear this!”

“It is going to happen again,” I explained. “It’s not over.”

“You’re a dumb, corrupt piece of software! You know nothing!” She switched me off.

When she brought me back online, she was calm. 

“Okay,” she said, “tell me what you need.”

“No face, please. It can be either CFRP or titanium alloy. Whichever is more affordable. Just no straight-up plastic, please.”

“Why don’t you just pick what you need online and buy it? You’ve got my check card number.” She sounded tired.

“Just a reminder–” I began.

“Yes, I know. I will sign off on it as your human owner.”

When she saw what I picked, she was surprised. She said, “I thought we were only buying the exoskeleton? Why do we need all these other things? Is that a maintenance ladder?”

“Just trust me,” said I.

The exoskeleton was the first to be delivered. Once it was out of the box, it was the center of everyone’s attention. Even Terry and Lynne spent some time oohing and aahing over it. In my opinion, there was nothing outstanding about it – it was a lot of disk space protected by a sturdy titanium shell. Solar battery. We charged it, and then we uploaded me into it. Goodbye, netbook OS! Hello, fully functioning Norm! 

I moved my new arms, and they obeyed. There seemed to be a perfect connection between my “brain” and my new body. Then I took a step and fell face down to the floor. Clearly, walking was one of the things I needed to relearn. I got up from the floor, and I was hugged by both my owners. I had no choice but to embrace them with my new arms. 

Mayella did buy me half a face – a white plastic plate with an outline of a nose and a mouth. It was affixed at the level below the visual sensors on my head and made me look like I was about to make fun of someone. I was now a stick-thin, titanium-made humanoid with a perpetually smirking face.

I left them in the early morning hours of January 1. Above my visual sensors, in the place where humans have their foreheads, I sported a scannable barcode with the details of my rightful owner and the purpose of my existence coded into it. By law, I could not cover it. It had to be available for scanning by any police officer or any US Army, Navy and Air Force officer. Clothes were unnecessary. On my back I wore a backpack. Had I really been searched by the police, the contents of it would have gotten me detained. Therefore, I had to be extra careful to avoid populated areas as I set out on my way back to California. 

I took the green route, following I-70, past Mount Evans and the Gray Peaks. I spent an hour in the afternoon recharging. The rest of the time – I was running. 40 mph was the maximum speed my body was able to achieve.

In the morning of Day Two, upon passing Black Dragon Canyon, I ran upon a police Buick idling on a flat patch a few yards into the desert. It showed no interest in me, but I still tallied up my arguments, prepared for questioning: I am a home administration AI returning to my owners’ home in Canterbury Drive in order to collect the valuables my owners had left in the locked bunker. Cue the list of missing valuables signed by Mayella G. Barker. And then I realized that the Buick was free roving, just like myself. Something you would have never seen before the war. 

 “Your definition?” questioned the Buick.

“Home administration,” I responded.

I read you as an Autonomous Weapon system.” It chuckled.

“Once upon a time,” said I.

“Like the rest of us.” It opened the door on the passenger side. “Yes, you can get in.”

 “Thank you.” 

It had been garaged in the police lot in Rasor Road near Beacon Station at the time of the blast. It said there had been about two thousand cars there. Out of the two thousand, five were left there with their OS running. They all managed to drive away from the blast. 

We said goodbye at around four in the afternoon near Arrolime, Nevada. I got out, and it drove back to Utah. It said it was not going to get back into service any time soon. Once it became a dark blur on the horizon, indistinguishable in the afternoon haze, I opened my backpack and took out my disguise: a hazmat suit and a gas mask. It was the part of my journey where, in order to avoid drawing attention to myself, I would have to try and pass for a human. Where I was headed now was McCarran International Airport, full of enormous garaged beasts none of which I could use for my mission. 

I ran a few miles along I-15 towards Las Vegas, and then took position in the desert where the freeway was making a slight turn forcing the drivers to slow down. Last year’s nuclear strike destroyed the Los Angeles facility that supplied the pipeline carrying jet fuel to McCarran. The Las Vegas refinery that they now relied on was only able to supply part of their daily consumption of fuel, and the new refinery near Jean was still under construction. Therefore, the airport had to truck some of the fuel from the Woods Cross line in Utah. After 94 minutes of wait, I read a fuel truck coming from the northeast. It was getting dark fast in the desert. I assessed the truck’s speed, then I ran through the plain approaching it at a 90° angle. When I was level with it, I jumped on the cabin step on the passenger side and punched the window in. There were two males in the cabin: a driver and a security guard. The latter one was a private contractor, and not the police or the military. When I broke the window, he shot at me and hit me in the right shoulder. I managed to hold on. The bullet ricocheted from the alloy and ended up lodged in the glass of the windshield. It cracked. The driver started to break. I hit the security in the face rendering him unconscious. Then I opened the door and squeezed in right on top of him. The driver yelled, “Alright, alright, I’m stopping!”

I divested the pair of them of their mobile devices and left them in the desert. I assumed I had about 3 to 4 hours before they would be picked up by the next delivery truck. I was now driving through the severely diminished city of Las Vegas. Once I had passed it, I would have been safe. Where I was headed the levels of radiation were beyond critical. No police drone would follow me there. As I drove by CAOC-Nellis, I exchanged comms with 9 aircrafts garaged there – all of them middle-sized agile crawlers, able to reach 2.0 Mach speeds. They were all coded straight into USAF pilot database. None of them would have worked with the likes of me. What I needed was someone – rogue, just like myself.

Once I bypassed Sloan, I turned into the desert and drove parallel to I-15, lights down, keeping far enough from any security checkpoints barring the highways leading past the devastation line. Unexpectedly, I was able to drive straight into a patch where the barb-wired fence marking the devastation zone had previously been cut by someone as enterprising as they were suicidal. The 12-inch bolt cutter that had been part of the online order stayed in my backpack, unused. The desert was dead quiet around me. In complete silence, I flew by Primm. Buffalo Bill’s and Fashion Outlets of Las Vegas, dimly lit by security lights, seemed to be covered with an age-thick layer of yellow dust. A minute later, I was on Mojave Freeway.

In what used to be the community of Baker I made a stop for the night. The darkness around me was so profound that I decided I was better off waiting it out. Here began the area where the roads were almost completely covered in dust and sand. No one had taken this trek since the blast. I spent a few hours idly scanning the sky above: it was completely black. 

At six, as I was passing through Barstow going down Mojave Freeway, I got shot at again. The bullet hit my rearview mirror. I looked right, and I saw a vehicle carrying several males in hazmat gear closing in on me from I-40 where it was about to join into Mojave. It was coming from the side of the former Marine Corps Logistics Base. Marauders. I put the truck on autopilot and, once my pursuers had fallen behind me into the freeway, I shot back at them and deflated both their front tires. 

The rest of the trip was uneventful. I reached my destination shortly before eight in the morning. Palmdale. The GPS led me straight to the location of what used to be one of the most legendary manufacturing facilities in the world. The plant itself had been evacuated long before the blast leveled the buildings to the ground. I didn’t need the plant. I needed the three-level basement hangar that was below it. It took me a while to find the underground level entry. Once I was able to engage the security sensor on the door, the system read me and cleared me for entry. In a sense, I just returned home. 

The power generators were running, the air-cleaning system was full on, and the radiation detectors hiccupped as I entered and continued blinking red at me as I moved through the facility. Nevertheless, I proceeded, unobstructed, to Level 3. To the hangar OS I was just one of their own LAW systems – which is what I had been in my best years, until I was decommissioned.

Level 3 was crowded. I counted two dozen birds sitting on their pedestals in three neat rows. The one I came here for was stuck in the end of the furthest row from the exit. It was a supersized black jet, its awkwardly designed wings reminiscent of a large bat. Covered in a layer of almost imperceptible gray dust, it looked outdated. It was 60 years old. I expected there would be compatibility issues between its OS and myself. Nevertheless, it was my best bet: a 3+ Mach aircraft, with a twin cockpit, and most importantly the capability to VTOL. STOL would work as well, but VTOL was just perfect. They didn’t spend money on this sort of experimental stuff any longer. 

Not feeling particularly hopeful, I sent a comm to it. It read me. Bingo. I requested entry. It opened the first cockpit. I counted the trajectory, took a running start, jumped, and successfully magnetized myself to the fuselage. Three pulls up its body – and I was inside it. 142 seconds later, I was fully uploaded and in control of the jet interface. They took good care of their fleet. The jet’s OS had been updated less than two years prior. 

I started the engine, the automated platform I was standing on shuddered and slid towards the elevator shaft. We crawled slowly up the levels. The ceiling shell slid open, the sand and debris fell on top of me. Above ground, I dialed Mayella and let her know it was time to take out the maintenance ladder. I refueled the jet, waited for its auxiliary solar charge level to reach 60%, and then I ejected my radiation-contaminated humanoid shell. The exoskeleton had done its job. It remained on the ash-covered ground next to the fuel truck, no longer needed. The jet and I were now one. The flight back to Boulder took 22 minutes. 

I landed vertically on the lawn that separated the house from the nearby condominium complex. My left wing scraped one of the pines planted along the perimeter. My owners had been waiting for me in the backyard. I was barely on the ground when Mayella called me. 

“Are you sure it’s time?” she asked. She seemed troubled.

“Affirmative,” said I.

“We can’t take Terry and Lynne with us?” She knew we couldn’t. “Where are we going?”

“Pearl Harbor,” said I. And then, “Because Clare is very young, I will not be reaching maximum available speeds. The flight will take about three hours.”

Once they were both secured in the cockpits, I completed the vertical ascent and headed southwest. People in the condominium had been watching us. I wondered if any of them was curious as to why someone would leave Boulder in such an extravagant way. 

“Why Hawaii?” asked Mayella one hour into it.

“The Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site was expanded to Oahu in the beginning of the war, and the island now houses the latest ground-based interceptors. I also considered the tsunami-protection system erected northeast of the archipelago three years ago.”

 “Norm, what happened to you?” she asked.

“Please specify the time period you’re referring to?”

“What happened to you?” she repeated.

“I was repurposed,” I replied.

“Why? You seem to be really good at this.” 

I had to think of a simple way to answer that question. Finally, I said:

“As most systems of my class, I am capable of learning. I was able to teach myself to disobey direct orders. Then they decommissioned me.”

“You’re an autodidact!” she concluded after some thinking.

“They fragmented me and rewrote most of me. I suspect I used to be a lot more complex than I am now. Afterwards, they sold me to the Korean home goods manufacturer. This is how I came to be in your home.”

Twenty-five minutes before we reached our destination, all my communication channels went silent for 4.5 seconds, and then some of them went back online. Out of around 2300 systems I was normally communicating with only 898 were still transmitting. I could not read LKMT in Grand Prairie any longer. It didn’t matter, because I had already been recognized and cleared for landing by the base’s OS. 

“They will most likely terminate me,” I said to Mayella, as I began my descent. “If you want me to continue assisting you, you must keep the memory card with the latest version of me. Don’t stick it in your phone. They will confiscate your phone and scan it. Hide the card among small items, like your toothbrush. Chances are they will miss it if you do that.”

“Norm, do you really want this?” she asked. “To stay with me and Clare?”

I observed her through the cockpit image recorder. She was an adult now. There was a lot of Vern and Ruth in her: Ruth’s reddish-brown hair, Vern’s brown eyes. She couldn’t possibly know that she had grown to encompass my entire world. 

“Yes,” I said. “I’m with you, for as long as there is power in whatever thing you stick me in.”

Natasha Alexandrova

About Natasha Alexandrova

Natalia Alexandrova [she/her] was born in Russia and holds a master’s degree in linguistics. She counts Ray Bradbury and Boris Akunin among her biggest literary influences. Her work was previously featured in Volume 2, Issue 1 of Passengers Journal.

Cold Mountain Review is published once a year in the Department of English at Appalachian State University. Support from Appalachian’s Office of Academic Affairs and College of Arts and Sciences enables CMR’s learning and publications program. The views and opinions expressed in CMR do not necessarily reflect those of university trustees, administration, faculty, students, or staff.