Nothing, then the slow accretion of atoms pulling toget
A cold wind blew in off the desert. The walls of the bunker vibrated in sympathy, producing a low moaning at the limit of audibility. The wind never varied. Chalmers played the radio constantly to drown out the ghostly sound, but he could feel the vibration every time he touched anything that was anchored to the floor or walls.
Easy money, he’d thought, when he saw the job listing. Staff the outpost for a year. If anything needed to be replaced, like a battery or a memory block, replace it. There would be plenty of consumables and an almost infinite library of films and videos. He had never particularly needed company anyway. Discharged from the Guard and having no other prospects, he couldn’t say no.
Chalmers made coffee as hot as he could stand. He stood by the small circular window and stared at the blowing sand. The wind seemed to be whipping the sand past the window faster and faster, but the instruments consistently reported no change in wind velocity, no change in temperature. Chalmers shivered. He reheated the coffee and took a cautious sip. The trembling walls formed words. “We will blow you away, you cannot stay,” repeated again and again.
Chalmers woke with a start. He was at the hatch, fumbling with the controls. He had undone two of the 12 latches. And he had been, still was, whispering. “We will blow you away, you cannot stay.”
Chalmers put the table and chairs in front of the hatch and returned to bed, huddling under the blankets. It was hours until dawn, but he didn’t sleep at all.
One month. Chalmers had been in the outpost one month.. Under the relentless pressure of the wind the entire station was moaning. He had woken up again fumbling with the hatch, and had since rigged metal cables to seal it shut. There was no way he could undo them in his sleep.
The outpost was abandoned. The hatch was open and a meter of sand covered the floor of the facility. Chalmers had missed his weekly checkin and had not responded to queries over the radio, so a team had been sent.
They finally shoveled enough sand out to close and seal the hatch. Tegmen pulled off her helmet and rubbed her scalp vigorously.
“Oh God, that feels good!” She looked around. “This place is cozy. Killer video system. It would be a nice gig.”
Lambert cocked his head, listening. “The walls are shaking. Almost sounds like words.”
A sequel to yesterday’s “Directions.” (You’ll probably want to ready that story first.)
No problem with the first few. Goat path and royal city road were easy enough; the old woman was a little suspicious, but I helped get her cart out of the ditch and got the flower.
The trouble was the highwaymen. When they “robbed me of everything,” everything included the directions. Which they read. Then Octothorp, the leader of the highwaymen, had one of his henchfolk run back for my goat and planted the old woman’s flower.
We were climbing before it finished growing. Since I was the one it kicked least, I got to carry the goat. We must have been ahead of schedule, since the dragon didn’t show up for nearly an hour. It took quite a bit of terrified running before we wound up upwind of it.
When we finally got a snootfull of goat dander wafting the right direction, the first sneeze incinerated half the highway men, and, by the time the fourth sneeze shook the coins loose and sent the dragon shivering and sniffling away, only Octothorp and I remained.
We looked at the heaps of coins, re-read the instructions, looked back at the coins (the heavy, heavy coins), and then at each other. It was clear neither of us had remembered to save a couple petals from the “old woman’s” flower. No magical wings for us.
“Maybe the stalk we climbed has bloomed,” I said. We could see the vast stem in the distance, the only non-cloud thing in sight.
When we got there, having dragged as much gold as we (and the goat) could carry, the plant was wilting. The petals were too floppy to sustain flight, the stem that was our only remaining way home was rapidly shriveling.
“I’ve worked too hard for too many years to give up now I’m finally a success,” said Octothorp.
“There’s nothing here,” I said.
“Someone built that cloud-castle,” he pointed to the direction sheet. “Take what you want, and I’ll still have more than enough to make a new start. Been meaning to settle down…”
I filled my pockets, slung the goat over my shoulder, and started for home.
Things went well for me from then on — pockets full of gold are as good as the best directions. Some days when the sun slips, glittering, behind the clouds, I wonder how Octothorp is doing, and whether he ever reached his destination or his destiny.
Rat scuttled between metal legs, used to the robots getting in the way. Ever since they’d taken over and killed all the humans, they acted superior. Pretty uppity for man-made creatures, Rat thought.
Rat was unconcerned. Rat was a creature of God and his children’s children would still be here long after the robots industrialized themselves into extinction. Same thing had happened to the dinosaurs and humans, after all. The only thing that bothered Rat was that robots didn’t keep organic food around. He was positively famished. Life was better in the good old days when humans ruled the Earth.
Rat jumped over a couple metal toes, sniffing and searching for food, but stopped when he heard the robots talking.
“I hear there are some humans left up in the mountains,” the grey robot said.
“That’s stupid. We nuked ‘em all. They can’t live with radiation,” the green one answered.
“Ah, but don’t they evolve? Let me see… I’m sure I had a file on evolution somewhere.”
“Dude, seriously. You’ve gotta learn to classify your chips…”
The conversation trailed off, but Rat sat, thinking. Humans meant food.
For the first time, he regretted not being a cat or a dog, an animal that humans would find cute and take in, no questions asked. But Rat had evolved too and the radiation had helped. He was no longer like the stupid rats humans used to kill. If he could make himself useful, maybe the humans would let him stay with them.
Finding the explosives wasn’t hard; mixing and transporting them was. Rat enlisted all his friends and even a couple hamsters that were strolling by. Humans would dig the explosions, specially if they killed robots. Rat set the counters while his little army stole an old Blackberry from the Human Artifacts Museum.
“We are your Allies. We come in Peace,” he typed into the rat-sized screen. Now, he only needed to find the humans and show them the message. He hoped the humans hadn’t grown too stupid to understand that alliances were a give and take and that Rat and his friends expected to be paid. In food, preferably.