The following piece was prompted by a Chuck Wendig Flash Fiction Challenge from August 5, 2022. For my story, I was inspired by the second image Mr. Wendig shared, which I will attach to this post.
“Has it started?” Tina asked, crowding her way into a space between Jonathan and Mike.
“Just about,” Mike replied. “The announcer is telling us the rules while the camera bots scan the ruins for survivors.”
“I can’t believe you took the time to make popcorn and sandwiches, along with mixing some margaritas. This isn’t a party, Tina.” Jonathan took the offered margarita with a grimace.
“Sure, it’s a party. After all, we’re not the ones stuck out there flailing at the robots with rusted swords and crappy armor. We get to watch the excitement, see the lava burns from above–which really are quite lovely–and wait to see if any humans actually survive this year.”
“It’s not the fucking Hunger Games, Tina. These are real, actual people out there. Ben is out there somewhere, for fuck’s sake.” Jonathan sloshed some of his margarita as he gestured at the screen showing a large lava flow moving quickly toward the last known location of safety for this year’s combatants.
“Jon, we all know how you feel about Ben, but that’s all in the past now. You’ve simply go to let him go. Perhaps, look around and see that others… care for you. Would be there for you, if you’ only let them in.” The longing in Mike’s voice and the way he leaned around Tina to almost-touch Jonathan’s shoulder told everyone–except Jonathan–exactly who Mike thought Jonathan should look at.
But Jon, as always, was oblivious to what he could have, Tina thought. Including me.
“Damnit, don’t either of you understand anything? Sure, I care about Ben. Deeply. But this is about so much more than that. He’s the son of the Premier. A doctor. A surgeon, even. He’s the kind of person whose name should never even be on the list of possible combatants, let alone have him actually be dumped in the middle of a lava flow with a sack of weapons and no hope. If the bots can pull a name like his and actually force him to battle, then no one is safe anymore.”
“Circuits and stars, Jon. Of course we’re all fucking doomed. We were doomed when our grandparents’ grandparents’ grandparents tried and failed to escape Earth. The only thing that saved us was that AI was sentient but still a toddler. A toddler powerful enough to protect and use humanity until it didn’t need our species anymore. Go back and read any of the Prophets. Jemisin, Okorafor, even Scalzi and Wendig. They all saw–imperfectly–what was to come.”
“Who cares if they saw what was coming? Why didn’t they do something to stop it?” Jonathan shoved to his feet, dumping the rest of his margarita on the floor. “Why didn’t any of those all-knowing Prophets fucking stop the robot apocalypse from happening?”
“Where were you in school, Jonathan?” Leanna stirred in the darker corner of the room, and the light from the display flickered oddly over their eyes as it always did.
Tina fought to hide a shudder at Leanna’s eerie gaze.
“Did you even bother to read any of the Books of Prophecy? More importantly, did you actually listen to the recordings of their interviews? The Prophets–may they arise and defeat the bots–considered themselves storytellers. Mere entertainers.” They reached for the side table with their left hand, their sensitive fingers tracing the outline of the coaster before they placed their margarita on it.
“Interviews? What do you mean?” Mike asked. “What interviews?”
Leanna made a pitying noise. “Are you three really so cubed that you never bothered looking for any of the forbidden recordings? You mean you’ve never actually heard any of their voices? Their descriptions of the magics they commanded? How they spoke of storycraft as if the magic they could use was a living, breathing entity that one could study and master?”
“You’ve… you’ve actually heard their voices? Where? How’d you ever get forbidden artifacts like that past the bot censors?” Tina wasn’t sure she believed Leanna. But, if they had actually heard recordings in which the Prophets spoke…
“That’s excrement. It’s pure excrement and you know it.” Mike’s tone was bitter. “There is no way that you or any other human has ever heard the Prophets speak. The bots destroyed all of those recordings in the first wave of the takeover. There’s no way anything survived 250 years of flooding, fires, and the AI scans.”
Leanna’s smile was icy. “Keep believing that, Michael. We all know you wouldn’t lift a digit to save any of us.” Their gaze swept up and down Mike’s form, and Tina shuddered again. “So, when will the bots finally break up this little gathering, anyway?”
“What?” Jonathan looked from Mike to Leanna and back again. “What the hell are you talking about?”
“You can’t tell?” Leanna’s scorn felt like a blow. “Mike’s an ‘dro’. It’s an it, not a they or a he. Its job is to infiltrate, identify, record, and terminate. We’re being tracked by the bots to see if we’re actually a threat or not.” Leanna’s face took on a hungry expression. “So, ‘dro’, are we about to be captured and taken for re-education? Or, will your self-destruct mode engage and destroy this building along with all of us? Which will it be?”
“You… You can’t be serious. Mike’s as human as we are.” Jonathan’s tone was bewildered as he stared at Mike. “I’ve… I’ve known him since we were twelve. We grew up together, for fuck’s sake.”
“No, you knew him. But I’m guessing this ‘dro’ was swapped for the real Mike about the time he hit puberty. The bots can gradually age an ‘dro’ to make it look like an adult. But the puberty transition still can’t be convincingly replicated.” Leanna continued to study Mike’s form.