This week’s Flash Fiction Challenge is back to a more “conventional” assignment for this week. Two lists, random number generator, get a title – go forthwith from there to spew 1,000 words or so with giddy abandon!
I rolled an 8 and a 16, which gives me “Bloody” and “Rider.” How hard can this be? More importantly, how creative and unconventional can I be? (Late note — it’s long, about 1,360 words, but while three editing passes tonight have polished it and cleaned up a lot, they haven’t shortened it much. And I really, really like it just as it is. So it’s not 1,000 words “or so”, unless by “or so” you mean plus or minus 35% to 40%. Tough, I like this one.)
As always, comments and constructive criticisms are appreciated.
THE BLOODY RIDERS
As bad as it is for me, I can only imagine how horrifying it is for everyone else, trapped helpless and powerless in their own heads, no control over their actions, screaming silently as they go insane. At least, I hope they went insane.
They used to say that reality was overrated. They had no idea.
In every science fiction story and movie, it was always the plucky underdog humans against the overwhelming evil enemy, with the clever monkey-spawn somehow finding a way to win in the end. “The War of the Worlds,” “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” “Independence Day,” every zombie movie ever made – they were all the same.
When the time came, we never got a chance to be plucky, scrappy, or even to die valiantly for a lost cause. It was over before anyone even knew there might be anything going on.
In a few short weeks, everyone changed. I don’t know if anyone even knew there was a problem. We no longer went to our jobs or schools, we no longer went to sporting events or concerts, we no longer did anything for entertainment or joy.
We no longer did anything.
Oh, we moved around. We breathed, ate, drank, saw, smelled, touched. We worked. We slaved endlessly. At least, our bodies did.
But we weren’t in charge of them. Our bodies had been hijacked, commandeered, each with our consciousness cast aside like useless gift wrap. We were at home, but there weren’t any lights on.
Our bodies had been turned into living, breathing, moving tools. We were worker ants, puppets, pulled by strings we couldn’t see, manipulated by masters we didn’t know existed.
The lucky ones died. Those too young, too old, handicapped, or injured, they were excess, useless. They had their bodies cast aside along with their souls. They simply stopped eating or drinking and waited to die.
The rest of us, each in our private solitary confinement, tried to figure out what was happening. I’m sure most of us tried to stop it, to fight it, to regain control from it, whatever “it” was. I don’t know if anyone was ever successful. I wasn’t.
Then everyone had a job, everyone was a cog in the machine, and everyone was a slave to their task. Before, that was a metaphor for the rat race we had created for ourselves. Now, it was the literal truth.
We eat. We drink. We relieve ourselves. We rest. We move. We function. We do not sleep. We do not talk to one another. We do not interact. We do not touch, except when our task requires it, and then it is not a human touch, but simply one fleshy meatbot coming into incidental contact with another fleshy meatbot.
I may be one of the very few who, through sheer luck, has an idea what might be happening and why. Not that I can stop it, slow it down, or get word of my knowledge out to the scrappy, plucky, human resistance fighters who never had a chance to start resisting.
Most of us are involved in simply keeping the machine of society functioning. Power plants have to be maintained. Oil and coal have to be mined, refined, and transported. Essential machinery has to be kept running. Food has to be grown, harvested, and transported.
It needs us alive and functioning. To work.
Anything non-essential stopped. Not destroyed, just abandoned. There was no hatred here of things human, no animosity toward our species, just a soulless obsession with function, aimed toward an unknown, unseen, and perhaps unknowable goal.
I was in the right place at the right time, if there can be any such thing in this unending, living hell. My meatsack body was one of the very first hijacked. Because of that, instead of simply slaving away at some menial but marginally necessary task, I found myself involuntarily walking up to the mountain summit where I worked, then working to build and maintain a thing.
I had no idea what this thing was. It hadn’t been there the day before. It might have been a plant, might have been a machine, maybe both.
As I kept it growing and feeding materials to it, helping it where I was commanded (by whom? or what?), I slowly started to see what it was doing.
High on the peak, buffeted by monstrous winds every second, it was growing something, expanding, developing ever larger and larger vats of fluid, atomizing and misting the finished product into the unrelenting wind, spreading something all around the world.
We were being infected.
It wasn’t the only thing doing this. It wasn’t just a factory, it was a control center, a brain, and connected to dozens or hundreds of others just like it. When I was brought near the center of the thing, deep inside where it had first started to grow, I knew it was talking to the others, working with them, a part of them and they a part of it. In the silence of my head, I could hear them.
One day one of the vats broke, split open like an overripe melon. The thousands of gallons of fluid inside spilled down the mountainside, staining it a dark crimson. I didn’t have any way of testing to see if it was human blood, but there wasn’t any doubt that it was.
In college I studied robotics. We talked about von Neumann machines, microscopic robots with infinitely intricate instructions, capable at first only of making copies of themselves, which would in turn make slightly more complicated versions, and so on.
Scatter properly designed von Neumann machines into the solar wind and let them fly out to the stars. In a hundred million years, a handful might find the right conditions to awaken them. After a million years and ten billion generations of growth, a single one could turn a barren planet of ice, minerals, and gas into a machine world capable of designing and building new von Neumann machines and scattering them into the solar wind. In a billion years you would fill the galaxy.
But what if you weren’t acting randomly? What if the world you wanted was full of life? Full of sentient creatures, just reaching for the stars, just hitting their stride after clawing their way out of the trees? Full of creatures who might soon discover other ways to travel between worlds and become a threat?
Starships might be mythical, expensive, captive to the limits of lightspeed. But there might be another way, a way to cheat Einstein, a way to walk between worlds – if you could build a gateway at the other end.
Why build a monstrously huge and complex gateway and send it across the light years? Why not send a single, tiny, incredibly complex machine and let it replicate. Let it grow. Let it learn.
Let it learn how the local inhabitants function, how their brains are wired, what their bodies are capable of and what they need to stay functional. Let it learn how to take over those bodies by building a different kind of machine, a virus-like speck that will replicate and latch onto the red cells in the bloodstream, riding them to every corner of the brain and body, finally reaching a point where it can short circuit the neural system and turn the remaining meatsack into a tool.
Use the slave bodies as tools to build your gateway. Use their industrial capacity to forge, manufacture, transport, and construct. Why waste time building a civilization when you can steal one?
When the gateway is done, your people can walk through to their new world, taking it from the now useless and disposable slaves.
I am one of the few who knows the fate of the human race, but I can’t stop it or change its course. For all the good it did, the effort to gain that knowledge has kept me sane, while everyone else has almost certainly abandoned a reality suddenly too cruel and horrible to imagine.
The gateway is beautiful.
I wonder what they will look like when they step through.