A couple of weeks ago, the most wonderful Chuck Wendig (maybe I’ll get a chance to finally meet him and thank him in person at Worldcon? Dare I hope?) said he was thinking of reviving his Flash Fiction Challenge prompts. This was tremendously tremendous news. I dearly loved writing those stories.
Well, he’s done it. Last week I was swamped and buried and having nervous breakdowns and all of those good things, so I didn’t write the story that’s in my head, but I’m going to still try. Because the story has revealed itself to me and embedded itself in my cranium.
Chuck is generating story prompts in the form of images from the Midjourney AI art robot app. This week we were given five prompts. I picked this one, printed it, glanced at it every now and then, let it simmer in my brain, and yesterday I knew the story that it was telling me. So now I’m going to share that story (imperfect as it might be) with you!
A thin covering of snow had fallen overnight, but with the morning’s sun most of it had melted, draining into the puddles and tank tracks embossed into the frozen mud. The exhausted world tried to squeeze all color out of existence, reality hoping to save some bandwidth by becoming monochrome. So far it was succeeding.
As I led my team approaching the test site, a slash of color could be seen battling back, stark against the patches of white snow and black mud. I could hear the hum of drones in the distance, lost in the fog beyond the leafless trees, some gathering data, some scattering yet more test seedlings across the next patch of barren, deadly ground.
Here, where we had deposited our first precious samples last week, the ground was again blood red, an echo of the years of waste and rage, but now with the potential promise of a better future. The bizarre, mutant, bioengineered flowers didn’t have the delicacy of roses or the delicate fragrance of violets, but they had something better.
They had a purpose.
The edge of the first fields beyond the road were littered with multiple warning signs. Some were the battered remnants of desperate battle communications, spray painted in scraps of plywood. Others reeked of their more bureaucratic origins, red, yellow, and black hazard signs of a government trying to get back on its feet after decades of conflict. A few more recent, less deteriorated signs had the colorful logo of our agency with boastful credits for our project along with additional safety warnings, only a few sporting bullet holes.
Perched atop a line of tall utility poles, lights were aimed at the fields, cameras scanned in short arcs from side to side, and solar panels were warming up to give life for another day. In the distance, a kilometer or so away, were the first housing tract ruins. Lumber, bricks, and other debris filled the roadway leading into the village outskirts. The red flowers were more scattered there, but a handful could be seen on most of the overgrown, weed covered lawns.
Between the security towers and the town there were pockets of trees and some winding walkways. A few planters and benches dotted the area. Sand pit playgrounds were betrayed by the rusting remains of swings, jungle gyms, and slides sticking up from the sand. Covering almost everything were the red flowers.
I moved behind one of the protective barriers we had erected, steel and concrete, with sheets of thick, clear polycarbonate to look through. Others of my team followed and spread out, plugging in laptops and monitoring equipment, activating cameras, and preparing for what could be a long day out in the open.
Safe there, I stood motionless, cold, staring at the playground for an eternity. The breeze moving through the trees separating the fields, the sound of the wind moving through the burnt-out houses, all could have been the distant sound of children laughing and playing. The clinking of chains from the swing sets tried to imitate the high-pitched laughter of running toddlers playing tag.
It was all lies and we knew it.
When I dried my eyes on my sleeve and refocused, the bizarre red flowers swayed in the wind across the field, but nothing else moved. The flowers started a few feet from the road, spread throughout the park, then faded again going into town. I noticed one or two flowers on the far side of the road behind us. The team had cordoned them off with safety tape so that everyone would give them a wide berth.
Our testing data said that today would be the day. Years of research and development born of desperation and sorrow had led to this first full scale field test. The seeds had been sown, the flowers had been allowed to seek their required nutrient source, attach themselves and sprout. Growing quickly to fulfill their fate and reproduce, their strong roots gripped their targets and would be slowly tightening their grip.
We had designed them with some simple needs and a touch of mobility. Not entirely plants, they had genetic material from animals that allowed them to sense or smell, to seek. Not quite animals, they sprouted roots, grew flowers, and took nourishment from the sun and soil. Designed to be unique, they always sought and required their elixir, their life-giving spark – the chemical compounds which made up deadly high explosives.
Far off in the frigid field, a shower of dirt was settling back down to earth while a plume of black smoke rose.
Everyone had instinctively ducked at the sound, but now they quickly recovered and peered out toward the field. A smattering of cheers and applause rose, but quickly died.
With the first detonation done it was only a few moments before the second. Then a third and a fourth. Like a slowly growing chain reaction, each of the tall, red flowers in turn matured, slowly squeezed their prey, and triggered the land mines and cluster bombs which had been scattered far and wide across the civilian countryside to maim and murder.
Occasionally a bit of mud or ice would be thrown high into an arch, far enough to reach the small group behind the barriers, but not energetic enough to cause serious harm. More concerning were the bits of shrapnel which pinged off of the glass, only to ricochet off to the side. The crackle of walkie-talkies kept up a constant background hum as team members checked in to verify their continued safety.
Slowly the large field cratered itself, a humongous, self-popping piece of bubble wrap. With each explosion, the eruption of debris and cloud of smoke spread downwind, carrying with it a confetti spray of red flowers, stems, and seeds, an unnatural servent unleashed to look for its next deadly prey. With each gust of wind, we moved a bit closer to recovering our land, our home, from the evil that had tried to take it from us.
As the explosions finally became more infrequent and the noise began to abate, I again heard children calling on the wind. I looked out through the smoke and fog and thought I saw a familiar, small shape, hooded, silent, about the size of a six-year old named Becca, standing still, looking at me. Then a final explosion scattered the illusion into the sky.
For the thousandth time I asked myself, “What sort of monster would mine a children’s playground?” Neither Becca nor the wind had an answer.