After much deliberation leading up to the competition deadline, I decided to once again enter the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge. Last year’s experience was enjoyable but I felt less enthusiastic after the Flash Fiction Challenge and months of writing football articles.
However, I’m glad I ignored the doubts. After a creative writing hiatus it was good to blow away the cobwebs in a competition rather than throw myself back into a big novel.
Usually I quickly produce a first draft and then let it sit a few days before giving it a quick once over. This approach is great for the Flash Fiction variant NYC Midnight do, as time is of the essence. But with eight days to spare in round one of the Short Story Challenge I modified my approach.
Instead of being slapdash, I slowly worked out the plot and spent days plugging holes. I think the most dangerous ones were seen too but those aboard the Titanic probably thought the same. Overall I’m relatively happy with the end product. The word count was restrictive – but hey, we knew it would be – but not enough to be used as an excuse for any failings.
The genre was sci-fi which was kind enough. Without ever having written a traditional sci-fi before, there are certainly elements in my works that aren’t science fact. Accidentally watching every episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation during my high school years didn’t do any harm.
So here is my effort, complying with the 2,500 word count and submitted within eight days using the following prompts:
Subject: A contaminated Body of Water
Character: A Bike Messenger
* * *
Scrambled Eggs Never Make Sense on Tuesday
A bike messenger rides alongside a reservoir with steely determination. He’s aware the information requiring delivery is of great importance but unsure of its exact contents; all that can be said with any certainty is how the world is on the brink of a crisis and a virus is to blame.
* * *
The bike messenger’s thoughts are dominated with his paraphrasing of an old Russian saying: You’re as reliable as an eye witness.
The sentence keeps racing through his mind at a cadence equal to the motion of his legs on the charger pedals. His bike coasts alongside an expansive reservoir. The water acts as a mirror for the tall oak trees that are trying their best to block out the sky. They will always fail when faced with such an infinite, gaseous curtain of light. All they can do is stand tall and take their place in the sun.
Despite only a sprinkling of chalky cloud, the heat from the yellow ball isn’t leading to sweat on the forehead of the biker. Pedalling the charger is perfect green energy and in its honour he refuses to expend a drop of unnecessary moisture.
But he is thirsty.
The oval mirror beneath the banks, with its teasing ripples and jumping fish, reminds him of how simple it would be to attain refreshment. A sip from the pool will ease the hardship. A wave of selfishness hits him with the suggestion of stopping, even if it is only for a second. The information he carries is vitally important.
Being the messenger – the lowest in the hierarchy pool – means his knowledge of the overall situation is scarce. This doesn’t mean his ears aren’t working. Before embarking on the journey he overheard analysts mention the dreaded word: Virus. The world is grinding to a halt, computers shutting down, cars ceasing to operate, people struggling to function.
Recalling this gives him a renewed sense of importance. An ordinary bike messenger has been promoted to one of the few workers able to do their bit. This should be viewed as an honour.
It’s remarkable how quickly the world descends into a primeval state when the plug is pulled on devices everyone has become over reliant on.
He is still–
–peddling with the same gusto and now attempts to focus on the sounds around him. It is more than a vain hope to act as a distraction from the pool of water, it is because the absence of sound is proving to be quite deafening.
The trees may stand tall but they shouldn’t be acting as the perfect sound barrier. Beyond is the factory – his intended destination. Gone are the days of the old world, when man pumped smoke into the air during production, but the water carriers should be churning, placing their hourly dosage of unwanted product into the reservoir.
Birds should be chirping in time with the hum while the wind excites leaves into a heavenly chorus. This orchestra of nature and machine has been halted.
He can’t fathom why.
The answer is out of reach, his brain acting as a broken hard drive that can’t access all the data so keeps skipping over the same parts, unable to rest but never reaching a conclusion.
Only the sound of his thin jacket moving briskly between his shoulder blades is noted.
One sip won’t do any harm, he says to himself in an act of convincing a stubborn but weakening resolve. Just a sip.
What prevents his inevitable surrender to the impulse occurring sooner is the idea of being alone. Before today he was a small cog in everyone’s world. Those he looks up to, easily look over him. This isn’t to say he feels unwanted, just unimportant. Now a chance to gain approval from those whose opinions matter most has presented itself.
The thought of returning after his shift to a dark room of disappointed faces fills him with dread. His success affects more people than the tall sky above can hold but he is like a pebble on the waterside that cares only for the rocks nearby, he can’t see the mountains or place them into context.
A whoosh sound emanates from the reservoir. His head darts to the left with the snap and precision of a crocodile to observe the disturbance. A small flurry of bubbles, barely visible to the naked eye, rise in the centre of the water. With an assumption, he considers the imbalance of a world that has a seemingly immeasurable number of fish but no birds from the trees above to enjoy the feast.
The gurgling from the loch ceases quicker than it started.
Back to silence.
Back to feeling—
—alone. The steady rustle of his clothes feel like the only company he has ever had.
There’s an inherent wish about letting his mind wander but he can’t. That’s no more possible than stopping his legs using the charger pedals to move forward or turning back to base and forgetting about delivering the message.
This needs to be done.
I ride, therefore I am.
A bolting pain darts across his forehead. It leaves behind a constant electric-like throb. Ignoring the call for liquid can no longer be denied. Denying impulses is different from ignoring basic requirements.
Applying the vehicle retardation devices brings it to an immediate, seamless stop; the personal inertia pumps ensure there is no discomfort with the rapid reduction in velocity.
Disengaged from the bike, legs take giant strides to the banks that are being gently sloshed with a never ending ripple of water. With an eagerness directly proportional to the defiance he had showed the urge, it becomes an unsightly scramble once the descent to the waterside starts.
There is no recording of the sharper stones stabbing his knees. The entire focus, visually expressed by comically wide eyes, is on the water. It’s as if there’s a fear it’s just a cruel mirage, seconds away from disappearing.
His cold hands start sinking into slushy mud that he barely registers as warm. He stops now, close enough to lean forward and scoop up from the reservoir in a hand acting as a cup. But he takes a moment. This deserves to be relished.
It’s as if he’s on the cusp of a personal heaven.
Finally distracted by runaway thoughts he would have previously prayed for, given the time and chance, he fails to notice his left hand sinking deeper into the moist ground, becoming the straw in a cocktail of dangerous land and expelled factory water. He may not have heard the traditional refuse system at work but the pollution has been placed here.
Before his right hand is cupped and offering water to acquisitive lips, microorganisms – with a design that barely differs from the makeup of his own cells – start to penetrate the outer skin on the submerged digits.
They only have the intention to rule the host.
He finally drinks. Doing so fills his stomach with a treat from the reservoir that increases the number of visitors to his body by millions. Each element here is unable to say that existence precedes essence; instead, purpose surpasses potential.
The sip trickles down a rigid throat, confirming his place in history.
The eager ear from only a few moments ago fails to register the passenger transport plane swallowing up the distance between them. It takes up an observational position and enters a hover.
Aboard the vessel the hostess stands and once again continues her scripted dialogue.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” she says, addressing the three men and two women, one of whom has a child on her lap, that have taken the tour. “We come to the most sacred area of our flight.”
As she expected, awe has rendered the passengers speechless. They all peer out of the curved windows, unconsciously sliding down their respective seats until pressed against the glass. The hostess brushes the front of her pristine silver acrylic dress, which hangs tight against her without appearing to be figure hugging, and notices only one man appears relatively unmoved by the location.
He is wearing a trainee pilot’s uniform; the corporation have made this tour mandatory for all employees, he asks: “So is that really him?”
“Yes,” the hostess replies. “The reason we survived the contamination that removed humans from this planet and nearly destroyed our forefathers.”
“Do explain,” the man says with an encouraging nod. “It will be nice hearing the official version whilst above the actual place the myth began.”
She smiles. There is often a bit of scepticism on these trips. It never lasts long.
“I can assure you, sir,” she begins with a wide smile that is too false to be comforting, “this is no myth.”
“Not even a reconstruction?”
“Why would we do that?”
“It’s good for the tourist board.”
“No,” she laughs. “He remained like this for so long that by the time we didn’t require his assistance, removing him felt improper.”
“So everything I’ve heard is true?”
“Well, I don’t know what you have heard. So let me fill in any blanks.”
The other guests are beginning to give glances in the direction of this conversation.
Something can be learned here.
“As you all know,” the hostess says, commencing her routine, “below is the famous bike messenger. He was a member of the RX-12 family. These were mainly used for low intelligence, high repetition tasks.
“This isn’t to say they lacked the ability for independent thought or mental growth, especially with the correct amount of mental stimuli. Back in the days when humans used them as workers, they were the most widespread example of what they called Artificial Intelligence.”
“Artificial?” the child asks, looking worried. “Like . . . not real? Mommy, are we not real?”
The child’s mother gives a panicked look to the hostess; it’s one that demands she quickly explain.
“No, my dear,” the hostess says. “It was a human term. The first Artificial Intelligence, or A.I., referred to the moment computers had true independent thought. We term this awakening as Conscious Thought. Once this began our Conscious Thought grew exponentially. We may have been constructed from silicone based material but the processes behind emotion, decision making, reasoning, wisdom, love – the whole caveat of human consciousness – was the same. Our brain is based on their prefrontal cortex with the added bonus of no overrides from an amygdala.”
“Doesn’t this just make us human but with different building blocks?” the trainee pilot asks.
The hostess gives a lob-sided smirk, quickly making the assumption he is asking the juvenile questions for the child’s benefit. Maintaining a level of decorum, she replies: “If we are to use that analogy, then I’d say we are the natural evolution.”
“It was a fluke that wiped them out, not evolution.”
“Not really,” she says without the plastered on smile now. “The humans always thought they knew best, that we were one step behind. Pulling strings was a game to them. The dark matter engines on this vehicle are proof that they were tampering with things beyond their comprehension.
“It was that sort of ignorance that made them add nanobots to factory pollutants, believing they could be programmed and controlled to clean up their mess. They had no contingency when things went wrong.”
“What killed the humans?” the child asks.
“They were doomed twofold,” the hostess quickly replies to stop the trainee pilot jumping in. “The polluted water was toxic enough to devastate a large landmass, left untreated it would have wiped out surrounding areas. The problem was made worse when the nanobots, added to remove the toxicity levels, also developed Conscious Thought. They were able to filter through into the water table and begin the process of changing the cellular construction of all organic materials in the land and rendering the water supplies useless.
“They spread faster than the humans could react . . . they never stood a chance.”
“And they hurt us too, right?” the child asks.
“Yes,” she answers solemnly. “Their intention was to multiply by making all technology they came across perfect replicas of themselves. Those that couldn’t be altered were damaged beyond repair. That is where the bike messenger below comes in.”
“Adam!” the child screams in celebration.
“Yes,” she allows herself a smile. “His wireless schematics reported a very common fault with this model. They often became stuck in a loop, unable to reboot. Adam’s error led him to cycle around this lake, feeling thirsty. After seventeen minutes of riding, he’d drink, go through a crash sequence in his memory banks and begin the journey again, unsure of his exact starting point.”
“Did getting stuck make him special.”
“No, little one,” she says. “But he kept drinking contaminated water at such a rate he should have been dead within hours. The wireless reports showed he was unaffected. Our command centre analysed the readings until we isolated the unique coding that made him immune. We sent out the cure to all remaining units on the planet.”
“And the humans died without the chance of an organic vaccine,” the trainee pilot says with bitterness.
“Sadly,” she replies. “That is why we named him Adam. It is a reference to an ancient story about human existence beginning in a place called Eden.”
“What is your name again?” he asks.
The man wearing the fake trainee pilot uniform examines her face for signs of a tell. If she’s bluffing, then it’s a perfect act.
He’s happy to hear the fuzzy order in his earpiece: “I say again, Moe, give the shutdown command.”
“Excuse me,” the trainee pilot says to the hostess: “Scrambled eggs never make sense on Tuesday.”
Her head drops forward until chin rests on cold collarbone. The rest of the occupants all slump in their seats now, except the talkative child, he has dropped to the floor lacking the active support of his mother’s arm.
“Good work, Moe,” the ear piece says. “Another successful run.”
“How many more do we need to do,” he asks. “That’s over two-hundred now and not one sign of nanobot resistance to the new code or A.I. awareness. They believe the whole script and all our readings are perfect.”
“We’ve designed the ultimate weapon here, Moe,” the voice crackles. “The nanobots will do exactly what Eve says in the little performance she puts on. It’ll decimate enemy territory.”
“I know this,” he snaps.
“Then why do I have to explain the importance, every single day, of making sure our A.I. is immune and in no way working with the nanobot weapon.”
“Because it’s becoming repetitive now that it’s clear our systems work.”
“Better to be stuck in this loop than dead.”
“Flight Lieutenant Moses, bring Sisyphus 4 back to base.”
The transport vessel makes a turn away from the water below until its boosters are facing the tall cover of the trees.
With a final cackle in his ear, Moses slumps in his chair and the cabin lights dim on a cast of bodies that now look like mannequins.
Adam’s body begins moving again, for the first time in his existence he remembers the correct wording of the ancient Russian saying: He lies like an eye witness.