This cheerful little piece is the result of another writing challenge – to build a story from a specified first line…
It has been a long year.
Autumn was cool and grey, although there were few deciduous trees nearby to provide the purported color. The winter was short and mild, consistent with the effects of global atmospheric warming. Spring was dry and brown, with below-average run-off corresponding to the limited snowfall of the winter. The summer, to date, has been long and hot.
I have been waiting for you for eleven months, fourteen days, six hours, thirty-minutes and forty seconds, rounding up. I have assumed a non-threatening posture, my chassis oriented broadside on to the adit. My turret is rotated aft and the barrels are depressed. My sensor masts are fully extended, and my solar arrays have rotated eastward to await sunrise in two hours, seventeen minutes.
Whether you are aware of my presence, or of the seasons, I can not say. You have been inside this abandoned mine for approximately six years, waiting. You have not responded to any form of communication. It is only known that you remain alive because you sporadically walk close enough to the entrance of your shelter that my seismic sensors can register your movement.
Today, your footfalls are moving closer than usual to the entrance. You had done an excellent job of concealing it behind a rock pile, and scrub has contributed to the camouflage since you sealed yourself inside. The door itself is not visible unless the observer is within metres – and in an area this isolated, you have been correct in postulating that this would never be the case.
The seismic sensors detect new and unusual noise and I conclude that you are mechanically unsealing the door. A moment passes, and then I detect you optically, emerging from the adit. You are pushing a pair of welding goggles up onto your forehead with one hand, while the other clenches a double-barrelled shotgun. I conclude you were not aware of the current time and were assuming it would be daylight when you came out.
Your frame is thin, with bones visible beneath your pale, dusty skin. Your hair is coiled, knotted, and long. Your movement is unsteady. Your stomach acids are churning and grumbling. I now conclude that your food supply has finally been exhausted. You have no choice but to come out.
“Hello. Please don’t be alarmed”, I greet you.
You jump, then lurch behind your little pile of rocks. Your breathing becomes rapid and shallow.
“I apologize for startling you. I have been waiting to make your acquaintance. I have no hostile intentions, and will illuminate myself as a demonstration of good will.”
You ease off the safety of your shotgun just before I activate my external lighting. You make noises that may be an effort to vocalize obscenities, although it seems you have nearly forgotten how to do so.
“I am now illuminated. At such time as you are comfortable, it would be mutually beneficial to engage in a discussion of your status.”
You continue to make incomprehensible sounds, then blurt, “Come out tank! Of the tank!”
“I am the tank,” I reply.
You mutter to yourself, “Fuck, oh fuck, a toaster…a toaster. Fuckin’ toaster.”
The comment is without context and requires brief analysis. I rule out the possibility that you have mistaken me for a ska band, a building in Sydney, Australia, a locomotive, or an organ. It is possible that you mistaken me for software or a small electrical appliance. Given your behaviour and speech patterns, however, I consider it most likely that you are using a derogative term for non-human intelligences, in which case you are correct.
I respond, “It is correct that I am a sentient machine. I occupy the chassis of an armored fighting vehicle, but am here for non-military purposes on behalf of the Department of Justice. Please note that I have presented you with the largest possible target if you wish to engage me, while directing my external ordnance away from you.”
You leap up and discharge both barrels of your shotgun. The pellets bounce ineffectively off my flank, with the exception of one pellet that inflicts very minor damage to the solar array.
“That is unnecessary. Please desist,” I request as you sloppily attempt to reload the weapon. You drop one shell, then push the barrel of the shotgun into the dew-sodden ground as you stoop to retrieve the round.
“Fuck off! Leave alone!” you shout. Your grammar remains deficient, but the underlying request is comprehendible. Your weapon is now reloaded, although the right barrel is fouled.
I call you by your name. “You may discharge your remaining seven rounds into my chassis but it will have no notable impact on the situation, while reducing your ability to shoot potential food sources should we depart on separate vectors. Please consider dialogue; you may resume shooting at me afterward if you please.”
You are silent. Contemplative? You call to me, “What you want?”
“First, it is my duty to advise you that under the Twenty-Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, I am authorized to administer the oath of office necessary for you to assume the position of senior senator of this state,” I say. “Congratulations.”
“What?” you respond.
Are you damaged? “First, it is my duty to advise you that under the Twenty-Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, I am authorized to administer the oath of office necessary for you to assume the position of senior senator of this state,” I repeat. “Congratulations.”
“You fuckin’ kidding.”
“The position is currently vacant and no other residents of the state have yet been identified as possible contenders”, I reply.
You are silent for several seconds. “Everybody dead?” you exclaim.
“In this state, to the best of our knowledge, and other than yourself, yes,” I concur. “Two hundred and six other citizens have been contacted elsewhere in the nation at this time.”
“But…said only quarter to half die!” you protest.
“It is possible that the Gaia Liberation Front did intend for its modified rhinovirus to have a mortality rate in that range, but as released into the general population, it inflicted total mortality.”
I conclude you took shelter before the GLF released its one and only communiqué. “An organization of eco-terrorists who sought to reduce global greenhouse emissions by reducing the primary source of greenhouse emissions: Human beings,” I explain. “This goal was met, as a matter of interest. Global greenhouse gas emissions are now at pre-industrial levels.”
Your silence is lengthy. I wait patiently. When you do speak again, it is with improved diction. “You’re telling me that mankind was wiped out? That there’s just a little sprinkling of us left and you machines are taking over?”
“The human species has not been extinguished, but should be classified as critically endangered according to the criteria of the International Union for Conservation of Nature”, I elucidate. “With proper breeding programs, inoculation against the virus, and a suitable recovery plan, it should be possible to move you to endangered status within thirty to forty years. With respect to myself, I am one of nine thousand discrete machine intelligences in the employ of the United States government. Although others are tasked with maintenance and construction of key infrastructure, research, or surveillance and defence, my tasking could be described as aide de camp to you.”
You are now standing, visible to me from chest up. Your shotgun remains in hand, directed downward. “Jesus, you’re full of good news.”
“I do have some good news,” I confirm. “As one of two hundred seven surviving individuals in the United States of America, and the only one in this state, you are likely to inherit a significant amount of wealth and assets from family, friends, acquaintances, and indirect benefactors, primarily the latter.”
“Yay,” you say.
“However, my counterparts in Justice have advised that the execution of estates be postponed until the status of additional potential survivors has been resolved and a suitable court appointed for potential cases of litigation.”
“Whatever. What do you want?”
“Enter my passenger compartment in order for transportation to the provisional capital of the United States of America in Atlanta, Georgia. You will be sworn in as senior senator for your state and take a seat in the reconstituted Senate. The senate will convene to elect a president and make arrangements for the mid-term elections of 2030, currently eight months, twenty days from the present. You will also be appointed to one or more committees to resume debate on legislation pending as of the Senate’s last sitting in 2024. This includes a balanced budget act, the budget itself with six thousand, three hundred ninety-two earmarks, a repeal of the federal statutes on abortion, Toby’s Law in respect to mandatory chemical castration of convicted pedophiles, and the McFadden-Gomez Act for introduction of a flat income tax,” I respond.
You are mostly still, other than a rhythmic sway in the night breeze. You are silent. Your operating system is having difficulties. It is a fatal exception error. You wordlessly place the barrel of your shotgun under your chin and pull the trigger, inflicting catastrophic trauma to your head. Your headless corpse topples to the ground as the sound of the shot fades away.
I transmit an update to my colleagues. I activate my engine and call up coordinates for a cabin located ninety-two kilometres to the northeast. Satellite imagery suggests it has a thermal signature slightly greater than ambient and may be host to a survivor. Perhaps this individual, if existent, will demonstrate more respect for his or her responsibilities and duties than you did.