A Fate in Clay by Sarah O.

 

     Dawn. A crimson wound on the horizon. 

     Shuyin kicked a stone up the beach and pointed at the sky. “Rain will come today.”

     “Ru’Khan has no reason to bring rain,” muttered Mako as he tied together driftwood. “Why do you claim such a thing?”

     Shuyin paused. He drew another stone from the black sand and rolled it between his fingers. “I heard a red morning brings bad winds. A red sun late means good clouds await.” 

     Mako looked up at him. Shuyin recognized the displeasure in his brother’s eyes and knew he said too much. “Old man Jin spoke to you again, didn’t he? You are two years short of reasoning age, Shuyin, and his words remain dangerous to you. Remember he is bewitched by the Zhi and not to be trusted.

     “This is also not the time to celebrate a storm. For Ru’Khan to send rain so soon in the growing season would be a punishment to us. Be wise and concern yourself with the teachings of Ru’Khan.”

     “Yes, brother.”

.   .   .

     When my professor said mankind would never be a Type 1 civilization, I spoke with my advisor and changed my business degree to history. Changing degrees is almost a rite-of-passage for any beginning undergraduate. And I was already demystified by the redundancy of management and marketing. I remember trying to convince my father that it was not another Kat-tastrophe, his oh so humorous name for my defiant daughterly habits. 

     My interest in civilizations developed well before that level-100 course. I wanted to understand human progress and study the stories of our past. Now in my graduate school years, I still believe that my old politics and society professor was wrong. 

    It turns out if humanity could reach Type 1 we would not retain it very long. Kal Dominic’s recently published essay, “On Hidden Tribes: Their Tools and Lineage” suggests a theory so controversial that I am exploring it for my dissertation. In his essay, Dominic investigates the cycle of technology preceding that of the Iron Age. He discredits himself slightly by entertaining the mythos from various periods; the Norse and the Aztecs, for example, share a lengthy chapter on “Gods and Governance”. The main idea, if any reader made it beyond Dominic’s enthusiasm for literary intrigues like Atlantis and the elusive “golden one” of El Dorado and the fictional Shangri-La, was that mankind already achieved a Type 1 civilization and regressed to technological adolescence. In short, we may achieve Type 1 again and quickly collapse back into the ways of the ancients.

.   .   .

     Cold winds stirred the dark clouds. Mako frowned at Shuyin and thought of the red sun from that morning. Seeing the blame in his brother’s face made Shuyin wonder why the Zhi or Jin should be so dangerous to him. Why was it wrong to understand the sky? 

     Wet spots appeared in the dirt. The rain never bothered Shuyin the way it did Mako. He looked to his older brother, “is Ru’Khan punishing us?” 

     Unenthused, “you allowed Jin to influence your opinion of the skies. Now Ru’Khan brings rain because you listened to the ramblings of a mad man.”

     The other villagers in the distant terrace hills trickled down as the rainfall steadily increased. Mako hoisted the wood into their hut of wattle and daub as Shuyin collected their drying herbs that hung just overhead. With fists full of rosemary, Shuyin followed Mako inside. 

     As the rain battered the thatched roof, Mako and Shuyin shared fried eel. The leaking droplets above formed small puddles on the reed mats. Mako nudged an empty clay bowl to catch the water. As he chewed, Shuyin wrestled Mako’s accusation with aching guilt. Why should it be his fault for bringing rain?

     “Didn’t Ru’Khan create the Zhi? What makes them so bad?”  

     “I remember being curious about them at your age,” Mako took a long breath and placed his rice bowl down. “The Zhi was created to test your commitment to Ru’Khan. They are what you hear Elder Kujo call the forbidden sages. Their purpose is to tempt you with the knowledge of magic and power akin to Ru’Khan himself. Should you fail and preoccupy your thoughts with imitating God, your soul will be damned.” 

     “Like Jin?” Shuyin did not admit it aloud but knowing more about the Zhi made him wish he could meet one. 

     “Mm,” Mako nods. He pulled a couple of eel bones out of his mouth and flicked them into the cooking fire. 

      “But he is kind.” Old man Jin was a funny storyteller and made Shuyin and his friends laugh from the way he bickered with the elders of their village. It felt wrong to judge him.

     “A mind clouded by Zhi is beyond saving. Anyone that sees a Zhi up to three times disappear. Never seen again.” Mako saw Shuyin’s eyes light up and quickly added, “mother never met one.”

.   .   .

     It frightens me that my counterpoints outweigh my thesis. I often encounter doubt during my research projects, but not to this extent. 

     I visit the library late after my shift at Student Affairs. Usually, the South Commons reading room is empty and I like to occupy a lot of space to spread out my books and snacks. Sometimes I pretend it is my assigned office and I pace in contemplation while staring out the window. 

     My copy of Dominic’s essay accompanies my notes on his citations, varying from Chaldaean, Babylonian, Greek, Chinese, and Arab. So many colored tabs and highlights, a chaotic dog-eared rainbow. I routinely arrange my main points using flashcards to create a visual conversation around my drafted argument in the middle: 

 

In observation of the Kardashev Scale, scholars argue mankind’s ability to harness and store all the planet’s energy and achieve a Type 1 civilization. I concur with Kal Dominic’s essay, “On Hidden Tribes: Their Tools and Lineage”, which claims our success is inevitable but will be short-lived. Our potential will be revealed by comparing the patterns of technology in ancient civilizations to that of today. 

 

     Surprisingly, the best evidence for an advanced civilization of the distant past, courtesy of Dominic, and several venerable scholars are ancient recordings of weather patterns and artificial beings. The gamut of intelligence goes as far back as 304 CE and varies across the globe like Aristotle’s Meteorologica, the Filahât al-Nabâtiyyah, the Book of Signs, even the New Testament. Documents were proof enough for Dominic’s argument, but perhaps there is something more tangible. 

     My initial search brings to light a striking similarity between the weather tech products of CryoTech Corp based in McGregor, Texas, and the ding artifacts of prehistoric China. CryoTech’s 2028 installment of the Rain Repository V (RRV) and their more successful 2031 RRX mimics a specific three-legged bronze Chinese cauldron from the Warring States Period. Though comparing today’s weather-controlling devices to that of a relic used for ritual offerings poses little to the discovery of mankind’s future, it does imply a recurring theme in our designs - a cycle in civilization. Though the cauldron of interest is displayed in the Shanghai museum, I have the help of the campus’s Digital Experience assistants. I will schedule a VR tour with student ambassador Dr. Richards to get a better comparative analysis. 

.   .   .

     When Jin first saw a Zhi, he was early into the age of reasoning. An esteemed hunter for his village and well versed in the virtues of man.

     During a prolonged drought, Jin arrived at the Ru’Khan shrine to distribute offerings. On a stone platform, several strike poles around, were cooked foods, hemp fabrics, blessed thistle and thorn, and an array of dried berries. Soon after his arrival, he met eyes with the feared sage. The Zhi’s figure closely resembled a woman and the scent of clay emanated from its breath. The singular logogram for ‘Zhi’ was marked on its forehead. Of dark skin and eyes and hair as bright as the sun. It spoke his name and Jin fled. Since then the village warned against traveling alone. And though Jin at first feared them, the image of the Zhi never left his mind. 

Now in his elder years, Jin recalled his second encounter with it fondly. The Zhi which spoke his name spoke of many things that revealed mankind’s fall. An age’s worth of stories on the forbidden lore of the past and future.

     As the final winds of the storm passed, Jin stepped out and heard a stirring in the ferns. A smile tugged on his lips. “Do not spy on your elders.”

     “I’m not spying.” A small dark-haired boy emerged, nettles and twigs clung to his dampened clothes. “I cannot take the road. Mako would see which way I went, and he does not want me speaking with you.”

     Jin’s wispy brows furrowed. He straightened Shuyin’s clumsy appearance. “Why do you disobey him?”

     Shuyin’s cheeks puffed out as his mouth scrunched into a pout. “I want to hear a story. Like the Silent Frog and the Running Turtle or the Laughing Tree.”

     Jin shook his head, “you want more than a story.”

     “No.” 

     “This is about Zhi.”

     Shuyin hesitated and Jin sighed. “You should attempt a relationship with Ru’Khan before abandoning his teachings.”

     “But -

     “What I believe is not enough excuse for you to deny your judgment.” Jin felt a twinge of regret for sharing the Zhi’s knowledge during the last half-moon ceremony. The stories circulated so energetically and when it came time for Jin to speak the children listened all too closely before the elders silenced him. Shuyin was not the only one that had bothered him to hear more about the sky, how to read the moon and stars, or how they may one day harness the devastating power from ocean waves and typhoon winds. 

     Shuyin got impatient. “I have to know.”

     “Go home,” Jin waved his hands. “It does you no good to disobey your elders so deliberately. Go on.” He watched Shuyin sulk back through the wooded short cut with a nagging feeling in his gut. Should a Zhi ever approach Shuyin, Jin was certain he would turn out worse than he did. 

     Moonlight filled the cloudless sky. Jin followed the gleaming shoreline for a night of fishing. He stepped around the driftwood before striking his foot upon a strange stone that shined like silver. It was pointed like an arrowhead but elongated, still sharp, and met with a hilt and handle. Distinct shapes appeared among the piles of wood. Jin lifted one carefully to the light. Using his fingers, he found carved etchings of figures gathered with weapons and shields in hand. There were several splintered oars and sail masts of large size which struck Jin with a sense of fear. These were items intended for boats of superior size, unlike canoes or reef fishing rafts. He gathered what he could and hurried to the village.

.   .   .

     My father always said the universe does not allow coincidences: “No design is original, Katherine.” 

     But how would he reply if I told him the CryoTech’s RRX design matched that of an ancient Chinese ding known for its ceremonial use to bring good weather? The RRX’s potassium iodide housing for cloud seeding mirrored the bronze’s two-eyed motifs including its entire background, the patterns of thunder, and low relief spirals. 

     After my VR tour with Dr. Richards, he pointed out great areas to explore in the realm of artificial beings. His background in Hebrew leads me to a bigger coincidence linking current AI to that of golems in Jewish folklore.

     I am eager to justify our ability to achieve a Type 1 civilization, even more so that our ancestors are remnants of advancements beyond my imagination. It is a comfort to me.

.   .   .

     Elder Kujo looked over the refuse Jin provided. They sat together in his hut with a small fire. The first light of day was still many breezes away. Kujo rubbed his worn eyes and blinked at the carvings. 

     “They are figures of men with weapons I do not recognize as our own,” Jin added worriedly. 

     “Clearly we are not alone.” Kujo glared at the metal blade among the pile. “You found these on the shore?” The reluctance to trust Jin was obvious in his tone. 

     “Yes.”

     “Then the answer is clear.” 

     Jin waited. 

     “This is proof that Ru’Khan punishes any man that would challenge him.”

     “That’s not it, brother, you know this.” 

     Kujo raised his index finger, “you cannot deny these are ruins. Their point of origin is certainly vanquished.”

     “You must consider these people of strange stone were attacked by others. Look here these are scorch marks.”

     “I know what I see.” Kujo began to get impatient. “Ru’Khan is Father to the Elements and the Divine, anything is possible. You swore to keep your doubts about him to yourself.” 

     The fire crackled and Kujo mumbled something Jin could not hear. Before Jin thought of what to say, Kujo tossed the wooden piece into the flames. 

     Jin bolted to his feet as Kujo rose to meet him. “Leave and forget what you saw.” 

     Jin eyed the rest of the pieces, remembering the many items that were left on the shore. He knew the next tide would arrive soon, thanks to the Zhi’s shared knowledge of the moon. But, even without the knowledge of the tides, time was on Kujo’s side. “We must inform our people. We could truly be in danger.” 

     “Leave,” Kujo repeated. “Let the Zhi claim you for all I care. I will not let you damn us all with your cursed claims.” 

     “And if I stay?” Jin knew the answer anyway.

     Kujo skirted around the direct truth, “it would go against Ru’Khan’s will.”

     “Then you are a fool.” Jin left.  

     When Shuyin heard about Jin’s disappearance, he immediately thought of the Zhi. He thought to go by the old man’s home for clues on what he knew, but Mako was quick to notice his curiosity. He stood in his way, arms folded, and simmering anger in his eyes. “Why must you be so resistant? Jin is gone and nothing he left matters.” 

     At nightfall, just as soon as Mako fell asleep, Shuyin slipped into the jungle. 

.   .   .

     Much like golems, the current AI produced by Tanomi, based in Shenzen, China, animate organic material with a written word, or in Tanomi’s case, a written code. 

    Though most tech companies struggle to create automatons that can speak, act independently, or express creativity, it occurs to me that achieving a Type 1 civilization may result in creating a breed of civilization that could surpass our own. Should an AI independently manage itself, would it succeed us over time? A discomfort formed in my gut as I finished my final edits for my dissertation. 

    I started my research with optimism. Now I only have an unsettled feeling in my gut. Why must we regress if we can create humanoids more capable than us? Why did we fail and why will we fail again?

I take out my phone and order a meal delivery and continue to plug away on my laptop. 

.   .   .

     Shuyin feared he lost his way. The light of the full moon was cloaked by the canopy and clouds. He felt around the trees, blindly abiding the roots under his feet. A faint torch fire in the distance allowed Shuyin to gain some sense of direction. He reached the edge of the lighting and recognized the standing slabs of stone and the wide platform. He had been here once before at a young age for his spiritual rites. 

     The guiding torch stood propped up, alone in a carved divot. Shuyin stepped forward and heard the crunching of twigs. An approaching set of steps. Closer. Shuyin held in his breath. 

     Jin appeared out of the shadows. Soaking wet up to the waist. “Those idiots.”

     “Elder Jin.”

     “Hello, Shuyin.” The old man plopped down on the Ru’Khan shrine. He unraveled a sack of cloth from his bag and removed several dried berries and nibbled on them. “They tell you that I disappeared?”

     “Elder Kujo says you were a threat,” Shuyin recalled from the village gathering. 

     “Of course, he did. I have no shame in what I claim. Let Kujo blame me for the next rain or drought or whatever.” Jin mumbled with a mouth full of berries. He offered some to Shuyin.

     “Don’t you want to stay?” He reached for a few.

     “I have no problems with leaving.” Jin corrected. “I want us all to leave.” He returned to his bag and pulled out a ball of iron.        “Here. Try to tell me what this is.”

     Shuyin eyed it against the firelight. “Rare stone.”

     “It’s a deadly stone that men of the future fire through long shining poles. That ball you are holding can pierce flesh and bone.”

Shuyin frowned. “How is that possible? How is that true?”

     A stirring in the trees snagged Shuyin’s attention and Jin smiled with relief. “Perhaps you will get more answers than you seek, young Shuyin.” 

     A small golden light appeared from the shadows. Shuyin recognized lettering he had seen enough times in the written teachings of Ru’Khan. A warning and a name. The Zhi. 

.   .   .

     When the first humanoid automaton was made, tech companies around the world raced to create the most interactive model. One that can work independently and, if it wished to, would know how to create more of itself. 

    Tenomi did just that on November 2nd, 2033. The Wise Man model was brought to life by an epithet of their language. Without diverging from the Jewish folklore of golems, Tenomi animated an artificial fetus primarily of organic matter that allows the growth of energy-conserving bacteria during oxidization. A combination including but not limited to oil-based clay and sulfur. 

    The Wise Man models were made in shapes of men and women. Records of their first spoken words, which vary greatly, were finally made available in certain databases, like that of my university. Many speak their name, “Zhi”, others begin with questions, and some even wake in fear, screaming and thrashing until their limbs crumble off. 

Tenomi believes mankind can cheapen labor with hordes of these automatons, given they have the strength and dexterity for specific tasks. It all now boils down to the legal actions and the rights of automatons which have nations feuding.

Researchers and scholars are certain this will lead to disaster. Our dependence will diminish our ability to protect ourselves in the event our technology fails, or worse abandons us. The relevance of Dominic’s essay should validate my feelings about the cycles of civilization. Now it occurs to me that I may live to see the failure of man. 

     I run a portion of my essay through another grammar app and change the filter to ‘Informative’ and ‘Objective’. For thirty-five pages and nearly twenty sources, a writing score of 92 satisfies me enough to send it in to my progress form. 

     I want to check in with my father. Let him know that I am nearly done my final assignment as a grad student. Enjoy some premature celebration. But my eyelids feel too heavy and I realize how long it has been since we last spoke. He would want to ask a lot of questions and I somehow convince myself it is not a good time to talk. I shoot him a quick text message and shut off the lights. 

.   .   .

     An earthen smell filled the clearing. The Zhi glanced between Jin and Shuyin. “Jin has company.” It spoke with alarming clarity.

     “This is Shuyin.” Jin gestured to him. 

     “Shuyin."

     “Why does it look like one of us?” Shuyin barely whispered to Jin. 

     “It was made this way eons ago before the fall of man.” 

     “Man did not fall,” the Zhi added bluntly, “it was left behind.”

     “Right, right.” Jin presented the Zhi with the iron he managed to recover from the shore. “Is this what you warned me about? The age of colonizers?”  

     Shuyin stared in awe at the Zhi’s agency, its fluid and deliberate motions. A fissure of doubt formed over the knowledge of his human origin. He never truly believed Ru’Khan made him as much as Mako wanted him to. 

     “Is Ru’Khan real?” Shuyin asked cautiously, it was still possible the Zhi would acknowledge its alleged creator. Amusement sparked in Jin’s dark eyes.  

     “There are no gods here.” The Zhi returned its attention to Jin and handed back the iron, “Men from the east. They battle over the wide waters and will soon come and claim your land.” 

     Jin did not falter from his calm composition. He merely nodded and thanked the Zhi.

     “That’s it? Can’t we have it tell this to Elder Kujo and the others?”

     “Why would they listen to me or a Zhi? Kujo will see the splinter in your eye before seeing the log in his.” The old man looked to Shuyin with an expression that the boy found frightening. 

     “You’re leaving,” Shuyin mentioned with certainty, “you’re not coming back.”

     “I cannot take you with me.” Jin gathered his things and took the torch fire. The old man directed the Zhi’s attention to Shuyin, “show him the way home.”

.   .   .

     On Shuyin’s thirteenth birthday, the Elders allowed him into their circle. A molding ceremony was conducted with all the villagers. Everyone contributed ideas for models on the ritual vessels. Mako indulged Shuyin’s designs which he scratched into the dirt with a stick. 

    “They look like clouds.” Mako nodded.

    “For good weather,” Shuyin mumbled as though Mako did not entirely grasp its meaning. 

    “Elder Kujo will like this.” 

     As Mako began working the clay, Shuyin looked to the direction of the sea knowing the devastation his people would soon face. Out of all the things Mako had taught him, there was one thing he wished to be true. Though Shuyin met with the Zhi numerous times since Jin left, he never disappeared.