Hey! It looks like you're new here. You might want to check out the introduction.

The Killing Machine · Original Short Story ·
Organised by RogerDodger
Word limit 2000–8000
Show rules for this event
Sydney, Logan, and I crouched on a small hill, above the shimmering force-field of a distant house, waiting in watchful silence. Birds sang in the trees around us and horseflies buzzed in our ears. A distant quadcopter whirred, high in the sky.

It was a great day to hunt robots.

Suddenly, I saw our prey's plastic carapace gleam through distant trees, wheels flickering as it laboriously chugged up towards us.

"There!" I pointed, half-rising from my crouch.

"I see it," Logan whispered. "Come on!" He crawled through the underbrush, twisting between tree-trunks and swishing past briars.

"You sure this'll work?" Sydney asked quietly as we followed.

"Yes." I tried to sound more confident than I felt. "We know the bots carry things, right? If we can stop it, who knows what we'll get?"

"Sure, but this isn't really…" She trailed off as we neared the force-field. Logan ducked behind a tree, shooting us a glare for quiet. The noises of the woods closed in on us as we waited, ignoring the force-field's hum as the low whine of the robot grew nearer and nearer.

Logan raised his hand as I fidgeted, lowering one finger at a time as the vehicle approached. By the time he clenched his fist, I was beginning to wonder if it would get past us, safely enter the force-field. Logan was a good hunter, but I knew he'd never stalked anything faster than a lawn-mower.

"Go!" Sydney shouted, leaping out of the underbrush right in front of the force-field. I followed suit, dashing after as she shot into the middle of the road, spreading her arms wide and waving them at the oncoming bot.

"Holy—" I nearly stumbled back into field as I got a good look at our target. I knew it wasn't that big, but it had seemed much smaller from the hilltop! I threw one arm out, the other groping unconsciously for the fetish my teacher had made me, a half-dozen nuts threaded on a braided string. Thankfully, it was moving slowly from climbing the hill, and noticed us quickly. It clicked and swerved as it slowed, clearly nervous, but managed to halt with a few meters to spare.

"Now, Logan!" Sydney shouted as it came to a dead stop. Our hunter dashed forwards as it began reversing, slamming into the side with all his weight. Two wheels whizzed for a moment as they lifted clear of the pavement, and then it froze. It rocked for a moment and Logan grunted, putting all his strength into lifting.

"Quick!" I darted to help him, and Sydney followed. The three of us braced ourselves stiffly against the slick surface. For a long, hot moment the bot wavered on two wheels, its internal mechanisms clicking and whirring, before a final push toppled it.


The three of us leaped away, panting and shooting uncertain glances at each other in the wake of the noise. We heard things rattling as the contents of the carrying container settled.

"We didn't… kill it, did we?" Logan asked, a hint of trepidation in his voice.

I stepped forwards, trying to calm myself, searching my memory for my teacher had said about various bots. I put one hand against its side; it was buzzing. I searched it for indicator lights, and found a small readout on the front corner. A few were flashing, but none of them were red.

"It should be fine?" I coughed, firmed my spine, and swept my gaze over it again. "Yeah," I nodded judiciously. "It's alright."

Logan and Sydney sighed in relief. None of us - and no-one we'd heard of - had hunted a delivery bot before. Who knew what would happen if we killed one?

"Still, you think we can get this open?" Logan walked around the thing. The top wheels spun idly, occasionally reversing direction.

"Let me try." Sydney headed for the back. There was a door there, set into the plastic. She looked at it for a few long minutes, mumbling to herself, before pulling a set of tools from her belt. She shuffled through them, passing up narrow ones filed from coins, rougher ones beaten from sections of felled lamp-posts, finally settling on a pair of spikes extracted from the struts of a captured quad-copter. She paired them with a hammer made from a lawn-mower piston, before setting to work on the door.

"What do you think we'll find?" Logan asked quietly as she attacked the door.

"No idea." I shook my head, and glanced speculatively at the house. "Whatever they have in there, I guess."

"Mmm." He looked up at the force-field, curiosity shimmering in his eyes. "That went surprisingly well, for one of your hairbrained schemes."

"Hey now." I jabbed an elbow playfully into his ribs. "All my plans work. All of them."

"For a given value of 'work'." He grimaced. "Remember when you thought we should try netting 'copters? I thought it would take forever to re-grow those fingers."

"Alright, look. I told you not to grab the spinning bits. But did you listen? No, you just had to go and—"

"Ah-ha!" Sydney exclaimed in satisfaction. There was a final clang as she drove her hammer home, and a duller thump as the door fell open. Logan and I rushed towards her.

"Hold on, don't crowd me." She waved us away, pulling a tangle of wires and a bare cell from her belt. After a little fiddling a dim light flicked on as a small LED lit up. She shined it forwards, reaching one arm into the interior of the bot, as Logan and I craned our necks to see around her.

"Ooooo…." The three of us sighed in unison.

"Food!" She exclaimed, climbing in, sorting through the mess.

"Parts!" I followed after, heading for the stacked cardboard boxes.

"Soda!" Logan hooked a carton right through the door and ripped into it.

Sydney and I paused, glancing back at him.

"What?" He raised his eyebrows innocently, and raised a pair of cans towards us. "It's cold."

That was enough for us. We scrambled back out, popping the tops off the cans and tasting it.

"…This is pretty good stuff." I held the can out and inspected it.

"Different than we get from farming vending machines." Sydney nodded in agreement. The three of us shared a smile.

"Think we'll be able to sell Robin on trying this again?" Logan looked to me.

"Probably." I swigged my soda and nodded knowingly. "Our shaman is pretty uptight, but if this guy's fine - " I patted the side of the bot " - then he'll probably be okay with it." I raised my can. "Besides, this is a pretty good argument, right? Something new.F"

They nodded.

"I'm going to get our rides." Logan turned back towards the woods.

"Right." I nodded to Sydney. "We'll start unloading."

The interior of the bot was cool, but we were sweating by the time we'd sorted out our haul. Our three bikes, beaten and battered as they were, were loaded to bursting. Even Logan's trailer was stacked with stuff.

"You got enough cable?" I crawled out of the container, looking to where Logan was rigging up a makeshift block-and-tackle.

"I think so." He frowned. "We might need to loot a few more flagpoles, if we're doing this a lot."

"I'll ask Robin about it."

"That's everything." Sydney tied the last thing onto the bikes and dusted off her hands. "Do your thing, Martin."

"Right." I drew a deep breath and walked around to the front of the robot. I pulled the fetish off my neck, jingling the nuts there as I did a few simple rituals. I hoped it was enough as I clasped my hands and bowed to our benefactor. "We thank you, machines, for all your care and guidance." After holding the pose for a few moments, I straightened up and waved to Logan. He nodded, yanked on the cable, eating the slack quickly. The makeshift hook he'd positioned on the bot scraped a few inches, but dug in and caught. The now-empty container slowly straightened as it was lifted. It soon reached equilibrium, and I moved to give it one last shove. The hook fell free as the bot swayed upright, the wheels landing on the pavement with a dull thunk.

We carefully cleared off the road, watching as the bot stood motionless for a handful of breaths. Then we heard its mechanisms whine, and it lurched forwards.

"Yes!" I pumped a fist as it stopped, lurched backwards, stopped, turned its wheels.

"Looks like it really is okay." Logan's brow furrowed as the bot juddered back and forth a few times. "Right?"

"I think… Oh, there." I pointed. "Looks like a broken optic. It should heal just fine. The bots are pretty tough."

"It'll make it home?" Sydney asked.

"Might drive a bit drunkenly, but if it takes it slow, it'll be fine," I repeated.

The bot had managed to mostly turn itself around as we were talking. It froze again, before lurching backwards one last time, the loose door swinging wildly.


The three of us winced as it backed into the force-field, flattening the door wide open.

"It'll feel that tomorrow." Logan smirked as it swerved away, finally turned downhill.

"Don't mock the bots," I said seriously. "We'd be nowhere without the machines." He snorted, but held his peace.

"Hey, look." Sydney pointed, drawing our attention to the force-field.

Fragments of the bot's outer shell were scattered on the ground, where it had impacted the field. Strangely, though, instead of simply falling around the field, the humming blue panes of force were wisping and curling, interrupted by the pearly plastic.

"Huh." I stepped forwards to look. "The outside…"

"It's got to get through somehow, I guess?" Logan tapped one hand on the field.

"But it hit," Sydney objected.

"Yeah, but the door was open." I absentmindedly gathered the fragments that had landed outside. When I waved one towards the field, it flickered away from my fingers. "Looks like just the plastic outside does this. The inside of the door was something else, so it crunched…." I furrowed my brow, fingers flying as I arranged the broken pieces. "Look!"

"Hey, are you serious?" Logan took a step back. Where I'd lain the pieces, the force-field was thready and weak, a strip about a foot wide stretching upwards in a narrow triangle. "We could almost—"

"Squeeze through that," Sydney finished.

The three of us exchanged a glance.

"You can't be serious." Logan took a step back.

"Can't I?" I stood, examining the gap. It looked wide enough to edge through. I pushed a hand at it. My skin tingled, but passed through easily. I tried to tap the inside, but my fingers penetrated easily. "And I don't think we'll get stuck." I wiggled my digits.

"Mmm…" Sydney's eyebrows were moving together, but I saw curiosity in her gaze, not annoyance. "Come on, Logan, haven't you ever wondered what's inside one of these things?"

"You're a hunter, right?" I threw out a hook. "Who knows what sort of bots live inside here."

"I…" Logan stared at the yard, leaning to peer through the gap. "Alright." He sighed. "You'd just go without me otherwise." He paced to his bicycle and snagged his spear. "Let's do this."

Sydney and I exchanged grins, and I stood. Without wasting a moment, I turned sideways, shoving an arm through the gap and edging forwards. I turned my head and wiggled, before managing to slip through. Once inside, I stopped and gathered up a few more fragments of plastic, arranging them to widen the 'doorway'.

My friends followed me quickly, and the three of us spread out to explore.

We had been all around the house from the outside, but it suddenly seemed fresh and new now that we had somehow managed to penetrate the field.

"Well, there's a lawnmower," Sydney said, wiggling her toes in the short grass.

"But we knew that," Logan said. "Besides, we can catch those in the city."

"Might be a different type. And there's a pool of water in the back, right?" I said, moving for the side of the house.

"Hold up." Sydney walked up the steps, headed for the front door.

"Don't bother, Sydney," Logan called. "You know we've never managed to unlock…" The words died in his throat as the handle clicked over.

"It's… open?" I stepped up beside her, looking at door in shock. There were letters on it, and I sounded them out. Valdez? Not a word I knew.

"I figured, with the field…" She waved at the blue dome vaguely. She stepped back, and the two of them looked to me.

I paused, looking at the house seriously for a long moment. Teacher said that these places were strange, but he'd never told me they couldn't be entered. Although… I doubted he'd ever been near one himself. I fingered my fetish, feeling for anything strange in the area. Nothing really seemed dangerous or odd. Of course, Robin always said I was the dumbest student he'd ever taught.

"Let's go in," I decided. I was pretty sure I was the only student he'd ever taught. I reached out confidently and swung the door wide.

A blast of cool air hit us as the dim interior came into view. I stepped through and looked around.

"Hold on." Logan caught my shoulder. "Something's whirring."

I let him pass me. He turned towards the stairs and started up. I left him to his hunting, and waved Sydney in.

"Look around," I told her. "If you find something you like, it should be fine to take, but only one thing." I glanced around. "We have no idea what sorts of machines live here. Be polite." She nodded, and the three of us split up.

I wandered around, scrutinizing and searching, trying to understand what I was seeing and what it meant. The place was fairly small, as far as buildings went; a dozen rooms all told, upstairs and down. It was pleasant and pretty inside, colorful and cool with decorations and strange things scattered around. I found what seemed to be beds, wonderfully soft and warm.

I eventually discovered a down-downstairs, dug out underground, and roughly furnished. There were dusty shelves with scattered tools and strange machines in the corners. I poked around for my souvenir, eventually settling on something cylindrical and angular. It clicked and spun mechanically as I worked it, fitting snugly into my palm. I examined it for a good few minutes, eventually realizing it hinged apart, revealing a set of cavities, filled with dull insets. I slid them in and out, wondering at the purpose of the thing. Eventually, I shoved it in a pocket and headed back upstairs.

I met Logan in the hall. He'd captured a strange, disk-shaped bot, shaped like and upside-down bowl, and was covered in dust from prying it open.

Sydney was in another room, examining a beautifully crafted wooden table and set of chairs so precise they could only have been machine-made. She had found a shining steel knife, which she had added to her chain of tools.

"There were clothes in the rooms," she said, looking to me.

"Just one thing." I looked around. "We'll see what grows back next time we visit."

They nodded. I turned and led the way to the door.

The bike home was hot and long, but easy enough. We coasted downhill in the sun, gliding out of the small hills and towards our village. The city gleamed in the distance, half-hazy. A quadcopter swooped out of the sky, investigating; I considered reaching for my net, but we were already full to bursting with loot.

The trees flowed past us as we leveled out into the plains and started pumping, our laden bikes drawing the sweat to our skin and pulling the breaths from our chests. A few delivery bots maneuvered their way cautiously past us, and I saw the others glance speculatively, just as curious as I was about what they carried. They were moving much to fast here, though; we'd need to investigate their routes more closely if we wanted to replicate our feat with them.

The village eventually came into view, a colorful collection of random and various junk adorning small, solid log cabins. We coasted down the main street, slowing and stopping as people saw our heavy loads and approached curiously.

"Good hunt?" John, the town's dismantler and Sydney's teacher, approached.

"Very good!" Logan smiled. "You guys will never believe what we managed to catch."

"Really now." A cold voice washed over me, and my head snapped around.

"Robin," I said nervously.

"Martin." He glared. "I was certain - certain that you were going to the city to today. I definitely told you to do some farming."

"Well, uh." I shrugged. "The vending machines weren't being very helpful, so I—"

He cut me off with a guillotine eyebrow, before rubbing his eyes and sighing. "Come with me, you three." He waved at us. Logan and Sydney exchanged glances and smirked, parking their bikes and following. "Let's hear what Martin dragged you into this time."

The inside of Robin's cabin was filled with knicknacks and geegaws and quiet disapproval. My eyes skated over the tangles of wire and components that dangled from the walls, the sheaves of yellowing paper and a lone computer tablet, rigged to a bare solar panel where it would catch the morning sun. My desk sat in the corner, covered in half-done homework.

"…and then you came straight back?" Robin asked, expression blandly stoic.

"Yes," I nodded.

He sighed, rubbing his eyes again. "Well, capturing the delivery bot… that's going to take some thinking, but…" He looked to the cans of soda on the table. "We'll see. About the house, though…" His eyes narrowed. "Let me see what you took."

Logan's strange bot was already sitting on the table, so Sydney produced he knife and I took out my strange mechanism.

"Good knife." He pushed it back towards her, and she picked it up. "This…" He picked up the bot and turned it over in his hands. "Battery, a few lights, some gears? Probably a cleaner of some sort. I don't know much about the inside of houses, but it may well be replaced… we'll have to go back and see." He finally turned to my gadget.

He picked it up carefully examining it. I showed him how it snapped apart, and his brows narrowed. He pulled one of the dull cylinders from inside, and his expression got darker.

He turned away, picking up his tablet.

"Do you know what it—" He cut me off with a glare, and I leaned back.

He tapped the screen a few times, calling up various programs. I squinted, trying to catch what he was doing, but I wasn't good enough at reading the machine-text to make it out.

"This," he finally pronounced, "is likely a weapon."

The three of us gaped. We'd heard the word before, even if we didn't really understand the idea. A tool made specifically for killing; it was an abhorrent concept, and rightly so.

"Martin…" He groaned.

"No, wait, but…" My words trailed off. A weapon? Ice walked my spine for a moment. "I didn't know!"

He sighed, nodded.

"Will the bots…"

"I have no idea." He moved carefully, gathering the cylinders and re-assembling the thing. "Not everything dangerous is a weapon. Let's test it once and see what it does."

He rose, and we followed him to his backyard. He consulted the tablet a few more times, scrolling up and down, expression growing darker and darker. Finally, he handed me the computer and raised the gadget, bracing himself carefully and raising it to eye-level, arms outstretched. I watched his fingers carefully as he ratchetted the spur on the back, pointed it directly at a narrow tree, and squeezed.


Everyone jumped.

Needles drifted through the air.

Robin sighed, and lowered the… weapon.

He broke it open and tipped out the cylinders, laying them carefully on the ground with the gadget. We all gravitated towards the tree.

The soft pine had a hole in it, about the size of my pinkie finger. The back… had a splintered hole, significantly larger. We examined it for a long moment, wondering.

"Dangerous," Robin decided. "At that distance, that sort of impact, if it hit something alive…"

"But…" I stopped, trying to process what had just happened. "This thing could be useful, right?"

"That wouldn't kill me," Logan commented.

"It might affect you differently," Robin retorted.

"We could open things with that," Sydney added. "Sure, it's a bit strange, but—"

"No." Robin was curt. "This thing is too dangerous. I think it's a weapon. I'm not letting my student," he glared at me, "carry around a weapon. Especially before you finish your training. You're not even half a shaman yet. What if you killed a bot? Or worse yet, a person? Even as a tool, it's too dangerous."

I swallowed, nodding.

"Go unpack your bikes." He waved us away as he gathered the thing up. "I've got stuff to finish. Tomorrow, after you get back from farming—"

The three of us groaned.

"Farming, come see me. You need to know more about houses."

It was blessedly cloudy the next day.

We wandered the streets of the city on our bicycles, following our memorized route. The vending machine by the tunnels, the vending machine by the plug station, the vending machine by the tall, columned building; we visited each one, one at a time, and kicked them.

Clang, clang, clang.

Currently. Logan was farming.

"I hate doing this," I grunted, nursing my sore foot. "Someday they'll start kicking back."

"It works, though," Sydney shrugged.

"Right, but…" I sighed. "There should be a better way to get stuff out of these."

"Coins work." She smirked.

"We could trawl the gutters again," I mumbled.

"We've stripped this place." She glanced around, and I nodded.

"What about that thing?" I asked. "Could it open one of these?"

"Hmm." She cast a professional eye on the vending machine. Its multi-colored face flickered with lights every time Logan kicked it. "I dunno. We've never managed to get one open before."

"They have doors on the back, right?"

"They've got something shaped like a door on the back." She rolled her eyes. "I mean, we've tipped them over and tried. But the bots just set them back up. Sometimes they swap them out; maybe they don't refill them, but just replace them with a new one, wherever they're grown."


We watched pensively. Finally, the machine gave a clunk and dropped something. Logan threw his hands in the air and reached into the hopper.

"Plastic bottles… good enough." He shrugged. "We should hit a walk-through next."

"Sounds good to me." I nodded.

"What do you think's in there?" I asked, watching Sydney press buttons on the small display.

"Dunno," Logan answered, as the speaker on the side fuzzed and burbled. "Bots of some kind, I'd guess."


Finally, some of the lights flashed. We walked a bit down, and waited in front of a small sliding door.

"Think we could open this with that thing?" I asked.

"Just give it a rest, Martin." He rolled his eyes. "Robin's going to sleep with that thing under his pillow if you keep asking about it." He smirked. "And then we'll never be able to sneak it out and try it on something."

"I guess…" I muttered dolefully, as the door finally slid open. Sydney picked up the paper bag and plastic cups, two this time, and we looked for somewhere to split whatever we'd gotten for lunch.

"Think we've got enough?" I rummaged through the assortment in my bicycle basket.

"You know Robin best," Sydney answered.

"Eh…" I gave the clutter a calculting glance. "Probably."

"Alright, then." The others hopped onto their bikes.

We pedaled slowly through the streets, dodging the occasional bot. I eyed a street-cleaner, wondering what it would take to capture one of those, and what we could extract from it.

The town was quiet, much quieter than the woods. Tall buildings rose around us as we threaded our way through, their height increasing as we made our way into the city center. We stopped at the fountain in the middle, splashing water on our faces to cool off and re-filling our bottles.

"There." Sydney stopped, pointing to the side.

"Huh?" I looked up.

"We could open that, I bet." She was pointing to a short-ish building, colonnades setting off a glass-covered entryway. We'd peered inside before, and I didn't need to go near to know it was filled with shelves and shelves of books. "Glass should break if we hit it hard enough, right?"

"…that's what Robin taught me," I answered doubtfully. "But we've tried breaking windows and stuff before." I glanced at the surrounding buildings. They didn't have a force-field, but no matter how we'd hammered and tested, doors wouldn't open and windows wouldn't break. "I wonder about that house…"

"I dunno," she replied, "but that thing hit awfully hard."

"Still think I'd be fine," Logan answered. "…unless it hit my head."

"You probably would." She nodded. "But you're a lot softer than a tree."

"True." He grimaced, and we hopped back on our bikes.

"Alright." Robin pushed his plate aside, and the three of us looked up. Dinner had been good enough, but I'd barely tasted it. The three of us locked our gazes on him, suddenly silent.

"I guess you're curious, huh?" He snorted. "Fair enough, fair enough. You want to know about the houses."


"Okay, well…" He rose, walked over to a shelf, and plucked a slim volume from it. He spread it open, spun it around, and slid it to me. I squinted down, trying to make out the faint writing in the dim light of a half-dozen LED's.

He let me struggle for a few minutes before sighing.

"Fine, fine." He picked it up and snapped it shut. "This," he said, "is a record my teacher wrote when he was young, some three hundred years ago. I found it in his effects, and I've been trying to really understand it for the past eighty years. It's not long, and it doesn't say much, but it does talk a bit about the houses."

"How did he know?" I frowned. "If we've only now…"

"Well." Robin steepled his fingers. "Apparently, at some point… although it's not very clear on when, exactly, there were people living in them."

"People?" Now Sydney frowned. "Like…" She looked to Logan and I.

"Like us, yes." Robin idly spun the book. "They lived in the houses, and they… used the bots."

We nodded easily.

"No, not like we use the bots." He grimaced. "You stopped that delivery van? It used to deliver to a person. The bots obeyed them."



"You mean—"


We fell silent.

"They might… although I'm not entirely sure on this one, but… They might have made the bots." He gazed into the distance.

"Make a bot?" Logan asked, slowly. His gaze turned to the strange contraptions scattered around the hut. "Like your stuff?"

"No," Robin answered patiently. "Not assembled a bot - made a bot."

"From… what?" Sydney asked slowly. "If not from another bot?"

"How would I know?" Robin shrugged helplessly.

We nodded slowly at that.

"Still, that's what it seems to say." He frowned. "If I understand it correctly, bots are made from things you can dig up out of the ground."

We gazed blankly.

"Look, I don't really get it either." He spread his hands.

"So…" Sydney's voice was soft. "What happened?"

"They just… left, near as I can tell." Robin's gaze went pensive. "They got… bored or something, and left."

"Where'd they go?" I asked.

"Search me." He shrugged. "That's what I'm trying to find out." His gaze sharpened. "And what I'm trying to teach you, Martin, to find out as well."

I shrunk back, slightly ashamed. It's not that I never did my homework, or studied Robin's methods, but…

"Anyways." He sighed. "This is why we need to be more careful with the houses. They don't… not really, come from the bots. They don't act the same, they might not grow back."

"So those bots…" Sydney's gaze was distant. "They've just… kept going?"

"So it seems." Robin shrugged. "Maybe one day they'll wake up and stop, or maybe not."

"I feel like they could just go on forever," Logan said.

"Just… going in circles?" I said.

"Waiting," Sydney said.

"Maybe." Robin nodded. "Maybe not. I half wish I knew, but… I'm not sure I want to find out."

We nodded in response.

I lay awake that night, in my bed. My cabin was small, but I'd built it myself with long hours and in the hot sun. My brain was turning over everything Robin had said, about the houses and the gun and the bots and people who had lived there.

What had they done?

Why had they left?

How did they do it?

Where did they go?

Finally, a summer storm rolled in and lulled me to sleep with its rumbling, tip-tapping on my thatch and eaves.

"What do you think?" I stared at the buildings rising around us as we biked through the city.

"I wonder," Logan answered.


"Would they mind?" I stood at the edge of the pool, behind the house we'd 'opened'.

"Nah." Sydney said and shoved me, hard.

"Phthpthpshblah!" I spluttered.

"Guys." I stopped the other two as we dismounted by the fountain, in city square. I gazed across the road, barely tracking a delivery bot as it zipped past.

"Mmm?" Sydney looked up from filling her bottle.

"Do you think the books in there…?"

"Good a guess as any," Logan nodded.

A quadcopter, high in the sky, droned and swooped.

"It's been, what, a week?" Sydney asked.

"Nearbouts." I stepped around a tree. "Give it a few more days. He keeps it in the drawer under his tablet."

As the sun rose, the three of us parked our bikes by the fountain.

"You sure about this?" Logan asked, looking to me.

"Come on, you're just as curious." I rolled my eyes. "Besides, we all know who's really going to get chewed out here."

"It's not like we won't be out hoeing with you, Martin." Sydney locked her kickstand and sauntered over. "Sure, we might not get lectured - "

"For hours."

" - but yeah, are you going to do this or not?"

I drew a deep breath, and reached for the sack in my bike's basket. It clinked as I opened it, revealing the gadget and five dull cylinders.

"It's not necessarily a weapon," Logan said, as I hesitated a moment.

"Look at all the books in there," Sydney supplied. "They probably say all sorts of things. We can take some back to Robin, and he'll be so absorbed he won't even notice us for weeks."

"Yeah, yeah." I picked up the thing and slotted the cylinders in, snapping it closed. I shut my eyes and thought back to what Robin had done, spreading my feet, curling one hand around the grip and cupping the other hand under it. I sighted down the top, and realized that there was a device there for pointing the thing, three small pegs that lined up with each other. I remembered the roar, how his arms had shaken, and tightened my muscles.

I pointed it carefully, and squeezed.


Oh, right. I carefully ratcheted back the spur on top, and tried again.


Everyone flinched.

For a moment after, we all stood silent, staring.

"…nothing?" Logan's voice was disappointed.

"No, wait…" Sydney walked forwards, and I hurriedly lowered my arms. I snapped the gadget open and dumped the cylinders out, shoving the whole assembly into a pocket.

We walked over to the window. There was a small hole - about the size of my thumb - surrounded in white cracks. I reached out and touched it tentatively. It was warm, and pieces crumbled away.

"…something?" I said.

"I guess it didn't make much of a hole in the tree, either…" Logan muttered.

"I'm not sure what I expected, but—" Suddenly, we heard a noise.

WeeeeEEEEEeeeeooooo…. WeeeeeeEEEEEooooo…

We exchanged looks, suddenly nervous. None of us had heard that before.

"A… new bot?" Logan asked. The sound was quickly approaching.

"I dunno." I moved towards my bike, but stopped. A bot swerved into the intersection in front of us, something low and sleek, black and white with large words stenciled on the side. It screeched it a halt between us and the fountain. There were brilliant lights on top, flashing and flowing in red and blue.

The noise faded.

We were frozen.

Suddenly, a door opened.

We lurched backwards.

And… a bot got out.

It was obviously a bot. It was sleek and metallic, segmented and plated in dark blue with highlights of gold. It had a face of sorts, with stylistic features, but… I could see gaps, where pistons and joints showed through.

It stared at us for a moment, then seemed to… sigh?

I was suddenly struck by how inhumanly human it was, this thing of plastic and steel. I caught the sag of its shoulders, the twitch of a painted eyebrow. Whatever it was, this thing was nothing like the delivery bot or the street-sweeper or the garden-variety lawn mower. They were, perhaps, smarter than animals; I had a scary feeling that this thing was smarter than us. Its glare seemed to bore right through me, fixing on the gadget in my pocket.

"You got a license for that thing, kid?"

It's voice was gruff, but not unfriendly.

We gaped.

"By univac's left…" It sighed again, then looked up at the sky. "How long has it been?" It seemed caught in silent communion with… someone, or something, for untold moments. A half-dozen quadcopters zoomed in, circled the plaza, and zipped away. Finally, it looked down and fixed us with a stare.

"You silly, silly people." It raised a hand to its face.

"Um, excuse me…" I stepped forwards.

"First things first." It held out a hand. "Give it here."



I slowly removed the thing from my pocket, and passed it over. It gestured again, and I poured the cylinders in its palm as well.

It stepped up and ran a digit over the glass.

"Enthusiastic readers?" It tilted its head a little as it looked at us.

"…I'd like to be," I hazarded.

"Heh." Something like a grin appeared. "Three generations, and you're already bored of this game. Good enough for me." It placed a hand on the door, and it swung open.

"Can we…?" Sydney looked in.

"Come on." It led the way.

We followed it to the desk in the center of the room, gazing around in wonder. There were, indeed, shelves and shelves of books here. They continued on, blocking lines of sight and filling everything with textured shadow. It waved, and lights came on. It stepped behind the counter and punched a few buttons.





Something whirred, and it passed each of us a card. "The door will open as long as you have that. You can't take the books out until you know what you're doing."

We looked at the slim plastic squares, still wondering, still uncertain.

"That's all!" It clapped its hands, shocking loud in the quiet.

We jumped.

"Go on, get outta here. I've got to clean this place up." It moved towards the window.

We turned. I paused, looked back.

"And then?" I asked.

"See the phone?" It pointed to something by the desk. "Pick that up, dial nine-one-one."

I nodded, and slowly walked out the door.

The police droid watched as the three children peddled away. After they turned the corner and disappeared, he bent down and started picking up pieces of glass off the floor one speck at a time.

A tumult of voices rang in his head. The content was mixed, but the meaning was clear.

"Are they coming back, then?"

"Maybe." He was noncommittal, but buried deeply in the transmission a hint of happiness could be heard. "Give them a few years, I guess."
« Prev   7   Next »
#1 · 1
· · >>Not_A_Hat
Surbanism - Since there were three stories with no comments, I thought I should put in at least one.

E - I liked it. Somewhat of a Logan's Run crossed with Over The Hedge with Wall-E. The story was interesting enough to draw me in and keep my suspension of disbelief up to the point where I didn't notice any glaring grammar or spelling mistakes (other than one). Odd, quirky, and really quite enjoyable. I'd put it in the top half.
#2 · 1
· · >>Not_A_Hat
I enjoyed this a lot. I don't know that it really coalesces into a full story - the end left me confused, assuming you were making some kind of point or revelation that just sailed over my head. But the journey itself is strong. You kept me uncertain about where it was going and yet interested in finding out.

The only suggestions I would have are to tighten up the beginning and the end. I was left a little out of sorts in the beginning, without as clear a sense of what was going on. For some reason - and this might be in my head - early on I was expecting a reveal that the characters were some kind of squirrels or animals hijacking a little delivery drone. But then it does appear that they're just humans. If you can ground the detail up front a little stronger, it'll make slipping into the flow even easier.

On the other side, the story stops rather than ends. There's a final scene that's meant to have some kind of finality, but I don't really get what it's trying to say or why. And why years? It's an incredibly odd specificity. If he's talking about the individuals coming back, I would expect in a matter of days. If he's talking about 'humanity' coming back to a higher stage of development, a few years seems way too short. If I had to make a guess, given the discussion of the weapon, it feels like the traditional speculative fiction setting of humanity blowing themselves back into the stone age, only with a robotic infrastructure remaining intact and self-sustaining. But that's also a fairly mundane backdrop when you have an interestingly developed world, and I would hope for something a little more mysterious and interesting.

Still, this receives high marks from me, and I would like to read more.
#3 · 1
· · >>Not_A_Hat
Here too I don't have much to say beside that I loved the story and am a bit envious. Nicely crafted world, the amount of information you managed to cram into a couple of off-hand remarks is staggering and the whole story left me with a smile and a warm, fuzzy feeling inside.

Great job.
#4 · 1
As for an explanation, here is what I understood from the story.

Humans lived in an almost post-scarcity society, but became bored. They engineered the hell out of themselves (long lifespan, regeneration, probably extra strength) and went to live a pseudo-primitvist life. The bots sighed but kept the world working, the infrastructure intact and preserved old knowledge. And then, one day, three kids become curious again and mark a possible resurgence of a technological civilisation where they can rejoin with their artificial companions (and maybe a bunch of uploaded humans). Which makes the bots and the other intelligences quite happy.
#5 · 1
My thoughts.

...okay, more seriously. Your hook is alright, although more in a world-building sense than a plot one.

A little more emphasis on how this changes the characters might be good to resolve that ending a bit tighter? As Ferd mentions, it just sorta... stops.

The worldbuilding was lots of fun, but there are some strange anachronisms and details that don't exactly make sense. I was willing to let it slide, for the most part, but looking back, some bits of the world don't exactly jibe. It's a bit of a mish-mash between really advanced and strangely two-days-into-tomorrow? A bit of ironing might fix this, but it might also make it difficult to maintain that flavor you've got.

I appreciated that the glass didn't just shatter, because srsly Hollywood.

Overall, pretty fun if a bit unsatisfying.
#6 · 1
· · >>Not_A_Hat

We're off to a strong start. I'm impressed by how many thing this does well without showing off, in fact: We get a situation that simultaneously serves as a hook, and intro to the plot, and gives us just the the right amount of information we need to go forward. Later details are appropriately inserted without any clunky exposition.

Okay, some of the dialogue is getting a bit clunky:

"What do you think we'll find?" Logan asked quietly as she attacked the door.

"No idea." I shook my head, and glanced speculatively at the house. "Whatever they have in there, I guess."

I see no purpose for this exchange. The stuff tht follows is similarly awkward – it feels like it's all to try and tell us that regrowing fingers is a thing.

Okay, halfway through and I've picked up a fair few problems

Let's start with characterisation. All I get from this is that Martin is the brave one. Logan and Sydney seem to be interchangeable even at the most basic level: We need someone to be uncertain and question whether this is a good idea? Who shall it be this time?

Second, a lot of the interaction I'm seeing is cartoony in a way that jars with the rest of the narrative:

"Ooooo…." The three of us sighed in unison.

"Food!" She exclaimed, climbing in, sorting through the mess.

"Parts!" I followed after, heading for the stacked cardboard boxes.

"Soda!" Logan hooked a carton right through the door and ripped into it.

And elsewhere,

"Go unpack your bikes." He waved us away as he gathered the thing up. "I've got stuff to finish. Tomorrow, after you get back from farming—"

The three of us groaned.

These are highly stylised, entirely unrealistic reactions. That's not terrible in of itself, but they strike me as inappropriate for the story you're telling. Is this meant to be a comedy? Because it's not signalling as one outside the silly reactions.

Finally, prose. This sort of follows in way from my above issue with dialogue. Saidisms abound. Everything here reads as stylised. Characters nod, shake their heads, groan, sigh, &c. Its a very limited repertoire of actions, and coming as it does with almost no description, makes the story seem very bare indeed.

The end is strange. You've been progressing a nice, steady clip so far – I don't have many criticisms on that front – but then everything wraps up in a series of random occurrences. They pilfer the gun. They shoot it. A possibly-sapient police bot comes and lets them into the library. I can't find much to say about this, other than it all seems a bit anticlimactic.

On the other hand, thank you for not making this into a morality play about guns. I'm getting allergic to that sort of thing in this round.

Finally, the world. I like the world. It's a bit cute, but it's a interesting conceit, and, ending aside, the plot engages well with it.
#7 · 2
Whenever I run out of space and/or time for a story, I end up writing extremely short scenes toward the end. Gotta power through that narrative somehow!

I think that's what happened here. This feels like the author wanted to put a lot more story in it, but wasn't able to make it fit in three days. I'll be interested to see how it gets expanded.
#8 · 1
· · >>horizon >>Not_A_Hat
This story and Ship both had a similar problem for me. They both had a narrator attempting to describe something very normal – a gun in Suburbanism; a keyboard and monitor in Ship – and in both cases it was frustrating.

From this story:

I poked around for my souvenir, eventually settling on something cylindrical and angular. It clicked and spun mechanically as I worked it, fitting snugly into my palm. I examined it for a good few minutes, eventually realizing it hinged apart, revealing a set of cavities, filled with dull insets.

My first reaction when reading this was, "Socket wrench with hidden chamber for adapter bits?" It fits that same description just as well as a gun would.

This is one area where storytelling, as a medium, is less capable than something like a movie. In a movie you can show a character picking up a gun, puzzling over it, having no idea what it's for. That's a lot harder to do when you're using a narrator who simply doesn't know the word 'gun.'

It's obtrusive, and while Suburbanism was at the top of my slate in the prelims, it's going to have a bit of a hill to climb in the finals I think.
#9 ·
· · >>Not_A_Hat
I'm working my way up my finals slate from the bottom. This is approximately the part where I stop penalizing stories for major plausibility flaws, because I read them all the way through without getting significantly broken out by anything, and start evaluating them in terms of whether or not they pass my top-of-prelim-slate watermark (which was the good-and-inventive-but-short-by-a-scene Companions).

This doesn't, but it makes a strong effort. There's some equally interesting worldbuilding here -- several stories this round went for a postapocalyptic people-living-in-the-ruins-of-a-formerly-high-tech-society motif, and I think this was the most successful of them; the idea of automated deliveries (and cleaning, maintenance, etc) to long-abandoned homes hits a sweet spot. And while I agree with >>Cold in Gardez that this shares descriptive problems with Ship (and in fact had exactly the same reaction to the socket wrench gun), that was the only place where the descriptive faults really leapt out at me; I felt like I could picture the rest in my head well enough.

Interestingly, this suffers the same falls-apart-at-the-end problem that Companions did, and that some of the stories I'm about to review did -- I'm getting the sense that a lot of authors just ran out of time at the end this round. The robot cop is very abrupt -- it suddenly changes the rules of the world on us, with human-level AI in charge after seeing nothing but dumb machines (and why didn't it respond to the delivery hijacking or the drones getting netted down?) -- and the main characters are sort of deus ex machina'ed into the library without a lot of time to process this major change/victory or its implications.

Still, the vast majority of this was a good read, and a leisurely rewrite of everything past the cop's arrival could make this sing.

Tier: Strong
#10 · 2
or, Not_An_Apocalypse

…well, that went better than expected. :P Congratulations to Mike and Horizon!

Thank you, everyone who read my story, and thank you for the reviews and comments; I really do appreciate them.

This story was, primarily, spawned from world-building. One day at work, I had this idea; what would a world be like, where robots stood in for animals in a shamanistic hunter-gatherer society?

This is basically what I came up with. I guess it's the second story in which I've flirted with post-apocalypse themes; I have a sort of love-hate relationship with post-apocalypse. I don't really enjoy reading it, but I can't dismiss the fact that it tend to generate compelling ideas.

As for what's going on; >>Orbiting_kettle basically caught it. Props to you! Also, that's probably the nicest compliment I've gotten all year.

>>Cold in Gardez
>>Ferd Threstle

I really have no excuses for that ending. Saying I ran out of time is nice, but it would be more accurate to say "I didn't start early enough". I tacked on a poorly-thought-out-ending because of my own self-control problems, not because of the impartial clock. I reached the end and realized "I'm not really sure where I was going with this" - since it started as a world-building exercise - and I also somehow assigned more of the story to the robots than I intended, without allotting the humans as much character growth as they needed. Anyways, if I'd done this story on Friday or Saturday, I could have left it sit to come up with an ending. As it was, I wrote this out and submitted it without even an editing pass.

On the gun being unrecognizable; I originally intended to have the gun go off in his hands, but then decided that was stupid. When I took that out, however, I really should have used enough gun-words (barrel, chamber, shell, trigger) to signal very clearly what he was holding. Sorry.

>>Scramblers and Shadows

Scramblers, you bring up an interesting point with the stylization. Stylization is something I think about a fair amount, actually, and it's usually me trying to stylize my stuff more. However, your point about needing to fit the tone is well-made; I'll have to think on it.

Thanks again, guys; I'm happy you enjoyed this, and I'll try to manage my time better next round. >.< Anyways, I'm off to register for Bronycon; see some of you there, maybe!