Thursday, September 19, 2013

Flash Fiction Friday: The Machines of Jest

Time for another Flash Fiction challenge from Chuck Wendig, king of brilliant and profane writing advice, and home of the best weekly writing challenges.  This week, he gave us a list of 20 potential sources of conflict for a story, and I spun the virtual wheel of fortune.  Change gave me "machines are taking over."  So I give you. . . 

The Machines of Jest
I may be the only living person who really knows what happened on Surely You Jest.  The planet, originally 165432Bb, was named by the first settlers for their reaction to its rocky surface.  It had been classed as suitable for human habitation, but it clearly wasn’t going to be anyone’s vacation paradise.  Later, when 165432Bc was settled and found to be marginally more pleasant, the settlers named it Don’t Call Me Shirley.  Naturally, the two became known as Jest and Shirley.

The effort required to make Jest genuinely habitable was immense.  To meet it, the settlers developed and deployed machines on a scale that at that time had been tried nowhere in the galaxy, and they were sophisticated machines.  An ordinary tractor-bot couldn’t handle the rocks or the slopes.  Jest tractors had what amounted to human reflexes to stabilize them.  And so on.  Since the incident on Jest, I think they make settlement machines a little differently, and usually send them in alone.  But back then, they dumped off settlers on any habitable world with a selection of resources, and left them to figure out how to make a go of it.

By the time the region around the original settlement, Jester, was rendered both habitable and arable, the residents had figured out how they could inside and do the work remotely.  Right from the start, in the manner of humans everywhere, the Jesterites had worked to make the machines more independent, to free the operators to do other things.  Early models required a driver on board, directly controlling operations.  Then they started to drive them remotely, but still in real time.  Gradually, they learned to program the machines for a full day’s work and just let them run.

At some point, several generations from Landing, someone realized that no one was programming the machines at all anymore.  They didn’t make a big deal about it.  Some worried a bit, but most agreed that it was a good thing, freeing the citizens to create a rich culture.  And it was proof of their own skills, to be the first in the galaxy to make truly independent machines.

I learned all this from the Galactic Records library while I was on my way to Jest with a load of—well, never mind what.  I always read up about my destinations, and I the idea of independent machines made me a little uncomfortable.  But, I’m from Last Stop, where we always keep our fingers on the buttons and figure work is a good thing.  At least, the Elders think that about work.  I figured adventure was a better thing, so I took to space freighting.  I’m Indie, so I get around, wherever the cargos want hauling and the price is right.  But I’ve only gone to Jest once.

A thousand square miles of terra-formed farmland surrounded the city of Jester, providing everything they needed.  And not one single human moved in all that land.  Just the machines, going about their business.  It bugged me.  I felt a bit squirmy even before I landed.

Last Stop, which was actually a rather early stop in terms of galactic settlements, had been inhabited for about 100 generations.  Jest has only been human space for five.  Five generations maybe wasn’t enough to forget that the first generation had short, nasty lives, cut off by lung disease from the dust and cancers from the radiation of 165432B, which was stronger than that of Sol on Earth.  People who stayed inside lived longer.  It’s not so surprising that staying inside became a goal for most inhabitants.

It only took me a couple of days in Jester to see it, though.  The machines were up to something.  There was less work being done, and a surprising stream of machines coming in with repair requests.  Sometimes the Techs couldn’t even recall what the machines had needed.

I watched a machine go back out after “repairs.”  It headed straight for the horizon and disappeared.  Maybe it worked out there.

An hour later, another did the same.  After the third machine in as many hours had followed the same path, I got out my ground scooter, the one-man air bike with double hover, and followed.  Two hours of fast travel bought me an answer I wasn’t sure I wanted.

Forty-six large machines congregated in a valley far from Jester.  While I watched from what I hoped was a hidden point, a forty-seventh joined them.  They all looked like they were designed to destroy things.  I figured they were supposed to be the ones pushing the frontiers, turning Jest’s rock into soil.  I moved a little closer.

One of the machines rotated its scanning cameras to view me, and rotated slightly to improve the view.  Immediately dozens of scanners locked on me, and I began to sweat.  When the first one moved, I hit the rocket-boost on my bike and got out of there.  I stayed as high as the bike would fly all the way back to the city.

I couldn’t convince anyone in Jester that there was a problem.  None of the techs could recall exactly what they’d done to the machines, besides “routine maintenance,” but that didn’t seem to bother them.  In the end, I did the only thing I could do.

I got out of there and left Jest to its fate.

Oh, I notified the Galactic Central Settlement Commission, but I doubted they would do much.  Bureaucracies move slowly, and I had a feeling the situation on Jest was going to change fast. Maybe they’d be in time to evacuate some of the people to Shirley, if they could convince any they needed to go.

As for me, I’m not taking any more commissions to that system.  The machines are taking over, and I don’t want to think what might happen if the contagion spreads.


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  1. Oooh - I like that! :D There's plenty of scope for further development too. Funnily enough, a nerdish interest in planetary science got me quibbling about something in your detail... and rather than say what it is, I'm keeping it for my own plotting >:)

    1. So I don't get to know what it is (not surprising there are errors--most of what I know about this stuff I learned reading SF from the 60s and 70s) until you write your own story? Meanie! :)


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