Impossibilities in the Plains of the Wandering Automata

Feeling stuck on my main project, I decided to complete another flash fiction challenge from Miranda Boers’ site. I was able to finish this one in a couple days, instead of a couple weeks.

It’s 731 words. Thank you for reading.

“There’s no point in only coming once.” Abigail laughed as she danced between rusted beams. “We’ll have to come again to know if they’re moving.”

Eldon looked up at the motionless colossal machine Abigail was twirling under. Massive humanoid shadows blotted out the starlight, indicating dozens more surrounding them. “I don’t think they are.” He pointed towards the branches of a tree intertwined with the beams of the automaton. “The trees wouldn’t be able to grow like that if they were moving. The machines would rip them out.”

Abigail stopped dancing and looked at him, fists on her hips. “Oh, you’re no fun.” She attempted to portray a disheartened expression, but the gleam in her eyes gave her away. “Maybe they’re moving so slow that the trees have time to grow around them?”

Abigail’s eyes held Eldon in place for a moment, as they often did when they burned that way. They radiated with hope and a wonder for the impossible. Eldon longed for the ability to hope for impossible things like she did. Not just so he could share with her the excitement of wandering a plain full of haunted machines. He wished he could hope for other impossibilities. Like a fanciful girl being interested in a sober boy. One who lacked imagination and whimsy.

“But why?” He hoped his question would kindle some of the magic he had dispelled with his critical analysis. He didn’t want to risk extinguishing that gleam. “Why would spirits want to haunt machines that moved so slowly? What would they be doing?”

Abigail looked up at the stooped figure. She walked backwards until she was side by side with Eldon. “I think they’re dancing.”

“Dancing?” Eldon looked up at the massive figure. Bent over as it was, he thought it looked more like it had frozen in the middle of picking up a heavy object.

Abigail shuffled her feet. Eldon thought the gesture brought her a fraction of an inch closer his side. “That’s what I would do. If I didn’t have to eat, or sleep. If I didn’t have chores. Even if I couldn’t move fast, or gracefully. I’d just dance.”

They stood staring at the stooped figure. Eldon wished he could think of a meaningful response.

“Promise you’ll come back with me.” Abigail turned towards him. Her eyes blazed with new intensity, fueled again with hope for impossibilities. “To see if they’ve moved. We can come back to this spot. We can find out for ourselves if the stories are real.”

“It would take… at least a decade to see if they’ve moved” Eldon stammered. She seemed so close now. He forced himself not to take a step back.

“I know…” she said, her voice trailing off wistfully. She kept her vibrant eyes glued to his as she shuffled her feet again, bringing her the tiniest step forward.

Eldon tried not to gasp as her eyes blazed, absorbing all the air around them. He recognized what the impossible hope was that had been fueling that gleam. She hadn’t been hoping for the stories of the wandering automata to be true. She had been hoping for what he thought was impossible. He struggled to keep his voice level as he responded. “Ok” he said. “I promise.”

They spent the rest of the night staring up at the sorrowful figure in the moonlight. They both pretended not to notice as their hands interlocked one finger at a time.

A decade later, Eldon wrestled over the memory as he wondered the plain of broken machines. The day following their escapade, Abigail had come down with a fever. The village healer could do nothing to help her. The next time Eldon saw her was in a casket that he had helped her father and brothers build.

Eldon had brought flowers to lie at the feet of the stooped automaton they had held hands under that night. He followed all the markers they had memorized, but was unable to find it. After some searching, he decided to leave the flowers at the feet of another automaton. It was very near the spot where the stooped one should have been, and Eldon thought Abigail would have liked it. In fact, he was sure she must have seen it that night, even if he hadn’t. With arched back, and outstretched arms, it almost looked as if it were dancing.

System Failure

I took a break from my current project to complete a Flash Fiction Challenge.

The challenge is hosted by Miranda Kate. She has been running it weekly for over two years. I would highly recommend giving it a try if you are wanting to dabble with fiction, or join a writing community.

The image prompt below is “See No Evil” by Zummerfish.

System Failure

The rain fell on Blackburn’s windshield in a perfect, predictable pattern. Others would have described it as chaotic, but not him. He saw a sequence of events that he could parameterize and reproduce. An equation that — fed into THEO — could predict the exact pattern this storm would create on this glass canvas.


He felt a twist of grief whenever he thought of his lost chance at apotheosis. But THEO had been his sole purpose for so long that even now his trains of thought always ended with the project.

He had nurtured THEO from a single digital cell running on a simple processing device. He had reverse engineered life and created a perfect simulation of its origins. It had progressed just as the ecosystem it was designed from. THEO had was an exact simulation of the planet’s biological history. Every system that was ever influenced by biological impulses would exist in THEO. Complex ecosystems in prehistoric eras existed exactly as they had in the past. THEO had only been a couple years away from completion when the disaster happened. Then Blackburn would have had access to everything. The stock market, dictated by the hopes and fears of creatures thriving for survival. His body, decaying as the chemicals in his body weakened him. Even the evolution of mankind could be guided and manipulated through simulated experimentation. He could have manipulated any of these systems to his advantage.

Omnipotence, omniscience, immortality would have been capable with THEO. He would have been a god. But the only source of funding he had been able to acquire was from the university. They stipulated that he had to take on grad students on his team to secure the funding.

He wasn’t sure which of the students was accountable for the failure that ended the project. Likely they all were. One of the nodes had been completely down, an unknown failure causing it to completely crash. Not an unexpected event in a distributed system like THEO. He thought he had prepared for such a failure by implementing a disaster recovery system.

Unfortunately, the grad students had implemented the disaster recovery system. After it failed to restore THEO to a working state, Blackburn had reviewed the system. It was worthless. An over complicated design that failed to accomplish its intended purpose. The inadequate system could not restore THEO. The only solution was to restart ten years worth of simulation.

Tires squeaked on the wet asphalt as Blackburn pulled from the parking lot. “It’s just a setback” he told himself. Now, four years later, THEO was complex enough to require a cluster again. He was on his way to speak with potential investors.

A sudden jolt threw Blackburn from his vehicle. Initially he thought that a truck had hit him. But it seemed odd that a truck could launch him across the city. He felt instant heat, and then freezing cold as he watched the earth plummet beneath him. As he was flung across the cosmos, it seemed to fall away from him into an infinite chasm. It became an indiscernible sparkle in the contrail of particles that followed him. Strangely, the glistening particles were the only thing Blackburn could recognize. They were his atoms. Ripped from his body by the incredible speed at which he had been flung across space.

He had only a few milliseconds to process all this. Then, he ceased to process anything at all.

* * *

Gabriel gaped at the CPU that lay shattered at his feet. The Junior Astral Engineer looked around the simagogue to ensure he was alone. Only the vacant expressions of the GoDOS units returned his gaze. Hundreds of face like interfaces lit by the dull glow of the CPUs in flat, outstretch receptors. Intricate covers hid the condemning recordings of their optic inputs.

Nobody had seen Gabriel knock over the Cosmic Processing Unit from the GoDOS next to him.

Panicked, he scooped up the microscopic particles and returned them to the receptor. Only afterwards did he realize the futility of the action.

Gabriel slipped from the simagogue unnoticed, and he realized his good fortune. Nobody would ever be able to determine that he had brought the GoDOS node down. But they would have to use the disaster recovery system he designed to restore the cluster. He would likely receive honors for preserving a millennia of processing cycles.

Gabriel beamed as he returned home. For once, all seemed to be going right in the universe.

The Cute Little Red-Headed Girl With Big Eyes and Me

“Okay, now picture a horse.”

The beautiful, witty, charismatic red-headed girl and I have just finished hosting our first Christmas party in our new home. She has always enjoyed bringing people together. She was sitting next to me with a green wig hiding her red hair. The dress she wore looked like something one of Santa’s elves would have worn in a claymation Christmas special, except covered in Christmas icons like candy canes, presents, and lights. The rest of us were all wearing out ugliest Christmas sweaters. Earlier in the evening, we all voted that she should have won the “Ugly Christmas Outfit” contest, but she had refused to win a contest she was hosting and had passed the prize she had prepared to the runner up.

The stragglers in our after party consisted of the couple across the street who have offered to “cube” us. This has been an experience that has been talked up to us for quite some time. Supposedly it is quite the taboo to cube a wife and a husband together, but they had decided that we had demonstrated enough security and commitment in our relationship that we would be okay.

“Describe to me what you pictured” requested the woman running our session to our solo guest. The last guest at our table besides the other couple and us is a friend who came alone. His family were out of town, but he knew he would be welcome to join us solo, and with nothing else to do with the evening or the next day, he had stayed for the Cube Test.

He describes a palomino. He discusses it’s strength, almost intimidating. And he feels that it is also warm and compassionate. He feels comfortable with it, and cares about it strongly. It is concerned about the coming storm, and he wants to comfort it.

“Very nice,” the wife administering the test says warmly. “She turns to me, and what does your horse look like?”

“Out of place.” I say.

She looks at me quizzically, a bit of concern on her face. “Can you elaborate?”

“Sure,” I continue. “Like, the rest of the image we have been drawing has been so dramatic and realistic, and when you asked me to add a horse, I just thought ‘there’s no place for a horse in this picture.’ So instead of a real horse, I have this cartoon horse.”

“What do you mean by a cartoon horse?”

“I mean it looks like it’s cell shaded, like a cartoon. And it’s features are all exaggerate. I also think it’s a dumb horse.”

The couple start laughing nervously. “Why do you think it’s dumb?”

“Well, it’s eyes are pointing in opposite directions, it’s tongue is kind of hanging out, and it runs all gimpy. Like it’s barely able to keep running, like it’s awkward and constantly tripping over itself.”

The couple are laughing harder now, their faces turning red.

“Ok and what about your horse?” She asks, turning to the red-headed girl.

“My horse is dead.” She declares.

The couple break into riotous laughter.

After a few clarifying questions, the couple begins to tell us the interpretations behind the images we imagined.

“And the horse I asked you to envision,” she continues hesitantly. “This… well, this could represent a lot of things — and bear in mind it’s up to you interpret the meaning of this — The horse represents your spouse. Or your marriage. Or maybe just your view of marriage.” The last two sentences she adds quickly, as if softening a blow. As if it’s more acceptable if my wife views all marriages as being dead, rather than just ours.

“Oh my gosh!” My wife says, mocking a distressed expression. “You think I’m a dumb horse?”

“What are you talking about?” I respond defensively. “I said I pictured a sexy unicorn with a golden red mane. Now I understand why I was a little aroused by it.”

“Why can’t you love me like our friend here loves his wife? Strong, and loving. What does the fact that it was a palomino mean?” She asks our cubist.

“Uh, it means he finds her fair and attractive.” The couple is looking at us nervously.

“See?” My wife says, backhanding my shoulder lightly. “Why couldn’t you say that about me?”

“Hey! At least my horse wasn’t dead!”

After sharing some interpretations that allowed us to put a positive spin on our sorry horses, we said goodbye to our guests. The couple who had done the cubing speaking to us gently — as if we might be deeply wounded — and passing each other nervous glances before excusing themselves.

There were a few seconds of awkward silence after I returned from walking the guests out. “So,” I started. “Do we need to talk about the dead horse in the room?”

“You didn’t take that seriously, did you?” She asks incredulously.

I smile widely as I wrap my arms around her, and she raises her chin for a kiss. “Of course not. I just wanted to make sure you didn’t either.”

“You already know what I think. Even if you decided to leave me, I know we’d just end up back together again after a few years.”

“Oh, I know.” I always respond when she tells me this.

Believe me, I know.