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quietearth [Celluloid 10.14.08] apocalyptic scifi

Well folks, this is not normally something we do, but when I read this story Ralf sent in I had to share it, so let him know what you think in the comments!

Sarah’s car failed on the 90 during morning rush hour. She had just enough juice left to wrestle the Toyota into the breakdown lane, where it died without drama. When the dash went dark and the A/C sighed off she knew she’d be late for work. Again.

The Robot found her less than fifteen minutes later. She reclined on the hood of the traitorous Toyota, chain-smoking Camels and watching traffic scream by at 80 miles per hour. The damned car didn’t even have enough power for a Northstar call, and of course, she’d forgotten her cell phone in the rush to get ready for work. Nothing left to do but relax, smoke, and wait for help.

The Robot was not help. In fact, it was the last thing she wanted on this craptastic Tuesday morning. Nevertheless it approached her, its tiny coffee-can body glowing that inscrutable blue glow.

“Greetings, Man.”

“Hi yourself,” she jetted a stream of smoke its way. Stupid robots still couldn’t tell the difference between genders.

“May we inquire as to this activity? Are you enjoying relaxation time in the great outdoors?” It gestured at the crystal blue Seattle sky, the crisp morning air, the scattering of pine trees and rock outcroppings along the picturesque hillside. Framed properly, the cute girl reclining on the hood of a Toyota Camry Electric against the natural grandeur would make a decent print ad.

“My car’s croaked. Out of gas, so to speak.”

The robot paused briefly, probably scanning her car to the subatomic level. “It appears to be an electrically powered vehicle. It does not require liquid fuel. Or do we misunderstand human idiom?”

“Got it in one, Robot. The battery’s dead. I’m late for work.”

“Your behavior deviates by a significant factor from normal observations. In fact, fewer than—“

“People break down on the side of the road fairly often, Robot. It happens. Nothing to see here. Move along.” She pitched the last of her burning cigarette at the hovering machine. Its force field flashed a more intense blue as it intercepted the butt and deflected it to the ground. Nuclear weapons wouldn’t break the field; this machine didn’t seem to notice the small affront.

“Accurate enough, but observed human behavior within scenario parameters include detectable angst, physical manifestation of emotional stress and vocalizations, including but not limited to religious blaspheme and declarations of revenge and/or profanity.”

Sarah closed her eyes and breathed deep. She felt a headache coming on. “Look, I’m just tired. There’s no sense in freaking out, since I can’t do anything about it. Some good samaritan will call 911, or a cop will see me, or some nosy redneck will pull over in a pickup truck with jumper cables. Either I get rescued or I don’t. What’s the point in worrying about it?”

Tick, tick, tick went the robot as it digested her feedback. They did that sometimes when something new interested them. Speculation was that it was a call to the greater Robot gestalt, a tapping of the vast hive mind shared by all the millions of other identical robots scattered across the planet.

All of this remained theoretical, of course, since in the past 14 years or so nobody’d ever figured out what the Robots were made of, where they came from, why they were here, or anything remotely useful. After calmly repelling every weapon known to human science – without retaliation, or even exhibiting any signs of discomfort – the Robots had settled in for a long visit. Human governments eventually gave up; the visitors were grudgingly deemed harmless, and to this day, appeared as a curiously blank spot in government activities. There was no official acknowledgement that they existed, despite the fact 3 out of 10 humans routinely encountered them. The only public discussion of Robots happened in public chat forums and the occasional mention in the media, and even that became boring and infrequent within a few years.

Eventually the Robot stopped ticking and bobbed slightly in mid-air; a quirk most people associated with a change of subject or interest.

“Your vehicle suffers from a fault in its transmission motherboard. A segment of ORAM has failed, with the unusual consequences of triggering catastrophic cascading failures in its host motherboard and central core. During the ORAM failure, operating system software was overwritten by random values, rendering it useless. We observe this as an interesting class of failure, since the operating system should have been classed as ‘protected memory’ and thus not overwritten, but in this rarely observed case—“

“Crap. You mean my car’s fried? It’s not the battery?”

“The battery array reports a 73% charge, averaged to please human sensibilities regarding precision.”

Sarah wanted to scream, her calm shattered by the vision of a monster repair bill. The last thing she needed right now was to ask Mom & Dad for money. The timing couldn’t be worse.

And she’d probably lose her job, since she was already an hour late today. Piled atop her previous record, Sarah visualized her boss training her replacement even now.

Calm, calm. She breathed deep, begging the headache to stay away for just awhile longer. Beyond her control. All of this.

Eventually she opened her eyes to regard the Robot. She’d almost forgotten the stupid thing was here.

“So I need a tow truck is what you’re saying.”

The Robot ticked. And ticked. It seemed to go into a trance, were it possible for hovering coffee-cans to trance out.

Sarah almost became alarmed. Robots never did the ticking thing for so long, as far as she knew. Real fear started to replace confusion when the ticking slowed, stopped. The Robot turned to face her, as much as a coffee-can could.

“We are able to render assistance.”

“Uh, what?”

“We are able to render assistance.”

Sarah simply could not believe she was hearing this. In all of documented history on the damned things, in all the cautionary stories parents told their children of the mysterious visitors, nobody had ever been helped by one. People died daily, quietly or gruesomely before the cold observations of Robots. Jetliner accidents were easily located in the remotest terrain simply by spotting the hovering cloud of coffee-cans. Births, deaths, pathos and ordinary lives had been obsessively watched by the machines for 14+ years, and not once had any of them intervened.

And this one wanted to help a stranded motorist.

She wished she had her phone to record the momentous event; it’d be worth big bucks on the ‘net. She considered what to say.

“Yes, please help. What can you--?”

The question hadn’t made it out of her mouth before the Robot turned to address her car. Moments of silence passed, then she heard the miraculous sound of the Toyota’s cheerful startup chime. Normally she hated the happy-happy “Welcome, Driver!” noise, but today it was glorious music.

Despite herself, she laughed. She skipped around the fender, popped the door to feel cool air easing out of the A/C vent, the dash fully operational, and the battery meter pegged at 100%.

“You even topped me off! Thanks, machine.”

“It is our…” (tick, tick, tick) “…pleasure. The transmission motherboard ORAM fault has been repaired with equivalently tailored molecules, all software has been restored from factory approved backup sources, and pre-damage preferences and settings downloaded from the Northstar network.” If a coffee-can could look pleased with itself, this one did.

“Well, whatever you did, thank you.” Sarah bit her lip, considered a thought. She felt incredibly lucky today, so why not?

“Machine, may I ask a question?”

The Robot dipped briefly in mid-air. “You may.”

Another first. Despite billions of questions over many years, the machines had never explained anything.


Tick, tick, tick. “While the query appears ambiguous, we select the most prominent statistically relevant context and will answer accordingly.”

“Okay, go for it.”

“Our status in your shared reality as Observers has come to an end. To apply a human managerial concept, Phase One has been delivered, and Phase Two startup commences.”

“Ah, phase one? Phase two? What do you mean?” Oh, if only she could record this.

“We are no longer Observers. We are now Actuators. We will… Participate. Our Interaction phase commences.”

“So, you helped me now because… it’s time?”

The machine seemed pleased. “Correct. This Actuation was unscheduled but timely. We are pleased to Participate.”

“And you… help… everybody now? All over the world?”

“Interaction is correct. ‘Help’ is a subset of all possible Interactions.”

Uh oh. “But you helped me. Others…?”

No ticking this time; clearly she was following well-worn pathways now. People all over the planet must be having similar conversations, to their growing alarm.

“Interaction scenarios with other humans will occur on a planned, yet pseudo-random basis. Many outcomes will be Observed.”

Past the 90, somewhere beyond the rocky hills that hid Seattle, Sarah saw a flash of light. Cars screeched and collided on the freeway beside her as electronics suddenly died. Her Toyota squawked then went silent. A few older gasoline powered vehicles plowed into stalled electrics with muffled smashes.

Sarah swallowed. “Did you just nuke Seattle?”

“Knowledge of our Actuation phase has triggered catastrophic cascading failures in human meta-politics. A regional conflict has begun, perpetrated by one of the larger factions located—“

“Can you stop it? Will you stop it?”

The wind picked up, began to roar over the hills. Distant thunder from Seattle shook the ground gently beneath her.

Tick, Tick, Tick.

“You are the first to ask, Sarah. This designates you a Subject of Interest for Future Interaction. We shall return.”

The coffee-can glowed blue and flashed up into the sky, joining a formation of other coffee-cans headed westward at supersonic velocity. She wondered what would happen when the formation reached Russia or China or whomever had just—

The shock-wave reached her then, throwing her to the ground with a numbing roar. Rocks and trees ripped from the ground and sailed overhead in a roiling black sky. Dimly, she clawed her way under the Toyota, where she and the car were sheltered by the rocky cut between two hills. Hearing gone, she watched cars and people and an incredible array of flotsam swoop by to disappear over the hill. When the dust became too much to bear she closed her watering eyes.

In dark, deaf silence, she felt the winds buffet her body beneath the car and prayed she wasn’t inhaling too much fallout.

Eventually the maelstrom died down. Sarah realized she was crying when her hearing returned, first with a tinny screech that resolved itself to be her own racking sobs. She lifted her head and opened her eyes on a field of fine grey dust – ash, she corrected herself. It covered everything. The entire surface of the breakdown lane from her vantage beneath the car was smooth, an unbroken ocean of the stuff. An obscene parody of new-fallen snow.

She was covered with it. The dust had worked its way into every fold and crevice of clothing, inside her underwear, in her hair, up her nose. If she had a Geiger counter she was sure the thing’d be going nuts. She wondered how long she had to live, noting that none of her sneezes produced anything abnormal. Yet.

Miraculously unhurt, she dragged herself through the dust and from beneath the car. Nothing stood upright beyond her magical spot between the hills. The scene reminded her of hurricane damage from the gulf coast: swept clean but for the odd immovable boulder here, the random bit of unidentifiable wreckage there.

She leaned on the car and tried to breath through her T-shirt, now tied around her mouth like a bandana. The thought that anyone might see her in her Victoria’s Secret bra was ludicrous.

There was something wrong with her lungs, she was sure of it now. Probably just dust inhalation – dammit, ash inhalation – but part of her whispered about radiation sickness and its symptoms. She knew little on the subject, but was certain it struck rapidly.

But hey, what was she going to do? Everything was out of her hands now, even the option of living to a ripe old age. She dug her smokes out and lit up. Forced herself to keep at it until the coughing fits died down. Oddly, her lungs felt better with good old-fashioned Camel smoke in them instead of radioactive dust.

She reclined on the hood of her Toyota. She smoked and watched the swirling black sky. The floating embers of burning Seattle were kind of pretty if you defocused your eyes a bit.

Presently she thought about what came next. She’d probably die, here on the hood of her car. But perhaps not. Maybe somebody would find her and help.

She suspected it would be a Robot.

Story copyright (c) Ralf

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agentorange (14 years ago) Reply

This is a fantastic piece of alternate reality fiction Ralf. I can't help but think it would make for a very intriguing 10 - 12 minute short film... think about it.


Anonymous (14 years ago) Reply

great read mate, I enjoyed that. future realities with current human conflict.
is it written by ralf or david paulsen, i see a "copyright" at the end?


Ultrajosua (14 years ago) Reply

That was really great! I was totaly thinking the same thing as Agentorange, What a great short film that would make... and by that i'll talk about it to a friend of mine :)

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