Autonomy

Submitted by Stefan Matthews to Contest #6 in response to: Write a story about a road trip taking place 300 years from now.... view prompt

“William Morris once called Bibury the most beautiful village in England.” SUSIE was busy explaining the appeal of the Cotswolds to Biff, who had found an old signpost marked “Welcome to Bibury” and was proceeding to rip it from its pole and store it away.

The other two listened with varying interest; Nelly’s interest had been piqued when Susie mentioned William Morris’ trade as a textiles worker, though she subsequently lost interest after that. CF6, on the other hand, hung on every word SUSIE said. SUSIE was very knowledgeable about humans, something CF6 was in awe of. Having access to hundreds of audio books helped a lot, mind you.

SUSIE was the one who’d suggested the road trip to Nelly and CF6 a few weeks prior. They had yet to meet Biff then. “I’m just bored being sat around in the house all day. I’ve listened to everything the Johnsons had saved a hundred times over.” It was true, the three of them had listened to the Johnsons’ digital collection of Now That’s What I Call Music! 680-730 until they could recite every quirk of every song. It seemed to be the only way to pass the time, now that their jobs had been redundant.

The disappearance of their owners, the Johnsons, had hit the three of them hard. SUSIE was a smart speaker, named for some reason after the great suffragette Susan B. Anthony. The Johnsons had equipped her with a set of, for use of a better word, limbs. These allowed her to move into whatever room they wished to have music in.

She, along with most other household appliances across the world, was sentient. The refinement of A.I. had ushered in a new wave of intelligent devices who were able to think for themselves. CF6 was a vacuum cleaner (officially known as Clean Freak mk.6). Nelly was an oven (part of the German Schnellheizofen Self-Aware Intelligent 9000 Oven range). She had tried to shorten her name to Nelly-SAI 9000, but in the end begrudgingly settled on just Nelly.

As a result of the Johnsons’ disappearance, the appliances had no reason to play music or cook or clean. However, for the first few decades, they all continued to do their jobs as usual. SUSIE had a vague knowledge of what the word war meant, so when the Johnsons left in a panic after the word was repeated over and over, she suspected it wasn’t good news. However, she ensured Nelly and CF6 continued to do their jobs, expecting that the Johnsons would return.

The problem was, they didn’t. And so, after decades of Nelly preheating at 4:55PM and CF6 cleaning at 11AM, SUSIE decided that they would instead try and search for their owners. SUSIE gathered herself and CF6 in the kitchen, as Nelly couldn’t move very easily on account of being an oven, and went about explaining her plans.

 “It’s called a road trip” declared SUSIE. “Mister Johnson had a copy of Road Trip Anthems that I listened to again yesterday. From what I can tell, the idea is to go from one faraway place to another, stopping in various locations along the way.”

“What’s a road?” asked CF6.

“Um, I think it was the way humans used to travel to different places if they didn’t want to use their feet. They’d use things called convertibles and they were usually red.”

CF6 looked intrigued by the information. “We don’t have a convertible though, so what’s the point in a road trip?” moaned Nelly to SUSIE. SUSIE dwelled on the question for a moment, as much as a sentient speaker can be seen to dwell.

SUSIE and Nelly went back and forth for a few hours, arguing the logistics of going on a road trip with a non-movable oven and no convertible. SUSIE eventually ended up persuading Nelly to come, under the pretence that they would also search for a new fan for Nelly – her old one had rusted up over the years.

Nelly was a little self-centred, so the promise of new shiny things was enough to convince her. SUSIE filled up a flask with WD-40 as CF6 rooted around the shed and found a sack truck. He and SUSIE loaded Nelly onto in and the three of them left the house for the first time since they were delivered almost one hundred years ago.

A cool summer breeze hit them, though unfortunately none of them had a nerve ending chip installed, so they were none the wiser. The sky was clear and the sun beating down as SUSIE pulled out her ordinance survey map and the three started their journey, SUSIE pushing Nelly on the sack truck and CF6 whirring alongside them.

The first stop on the trip was a town called Bakewell. The Johnsons lived in the Peak District, so it wasn’t far to travel. CF6, being a bit of a hypochondriac, wasn’t a fan of the constant dirt and grime along the roads they strolled along and did his best to avoid the worst of it. SUSIE and Nelly reminisced about the Johnsons, laughing at how little Timmy Johnson once tried to crawl into Nelly and bake himself.

As they entered Bakewell, SUSIE explained to them the history of the town from one of her audiobooks.

“There used to be a famous tart that was made here. And a pudding too, apparently.” CF6 listened with interest at SUSIE went on. “Rumour has it, the Bakewell tart was one of the most famous pastries in England. Though no-one was quite sure how to make it; some were made with cherries on top, some weren’t.”

“The Johnsons used cherries when they made pie!” proudly exclaimed Nelly.

“However, after the great nut shortage of 2237, the town ran out of almonds, one of the major ingredients in the tart.”

(The great nut shortage was in fact one of the main precursors to the war, as nuts were one of the only nice food sources left. Since 2185, almost all food was made exclusively made from a combination of Palm Oil and Corn Syrup.)

SUSIE continued. “As a result, the locals couldn’t produce the tarts anymore and went crazy, killing each other and stockpiling any that remained. The whole village was then quarantined in 2238.”

“Apparently, the town has been deserted ever since” finished SUSIE. As the three of them looked up, they all agreed that it was indeed deserted. Buildings were either destroyed or coated in moss, weeds grew through cracks in the pavement and entire streets were overgrown with a variety of brown bushes and trees. The River Wye was bubbling with a pale green luminescence, probably a result from the nuclear fallout from the bombs dropped in the war.

SUSIE, Nelly and CF6 decided to wander through the town, taking in the sights. They had never seen a town from outside before and CF6 asked SUSIE why the buildings were made from “grey stuff”. She didn’t know, but concluded it was probably an old design – the town was made back when humans used a thing called concrete to make buildings.

Not long after entering Bakewell, they found Biff. A huge skip, Biff was sat up against an old pub covered in ash and rubble. CF6 waved his hose at him, as only a vacuum cleaner can, and whirred over. As he did so, something screamed from inside Biff.

An ancient, grubby, skinny human leapt out and began yelling incoherent words at CF6. “Don’t worry, he’s harmless” drawled Biff, noticing CF6’s nervousness around the human. Biff spoke with a deep, lazy tone. “He’s just asking if you have any Bakewell tarts.”

CF6 shook his ‘head’ at Biff, who proceeded to garble a few words at the man. The Man narrowed his eyes at CF6 and suddenly took off, disappearing into the brown overgrowth. Biff asked the appliances what their plans were. “We’re going on a road trip!” exclaimed CF6 with the confidence of a vacuum cleaner who knew what a road trip was. “Sounds exciting, whatever it is” droned Biff, “Any chance I could come with you? I bored of babysitting. I’m Biff by the way.”

SUSIE, initially unsure of the idea, eventually said yes to Biff’s request after some persuasion. After all, one of the rules of a good road trip was to be friendly and open to new people. Or in this case, industrial skips.

The four of them promptly left Bakewell behind and set out South. “I think the Johnsons mentioned having a family in the Cotswolds” said SUSIE as she led the expedition out of the Peak District. “We can go through the Black Country on the way.” “Maybe we can stop in Newverhampton” suggested Biff.

The Black Country was one of the places that was hit directly by a nuke during the war. As a result, a huge chunk of land stretching from Bloxwich to Blackheath and Great Barr to Dudley was annihilated entirely. For anyone who isn’t familiar with these world-renowned locations, it’s about 29 square miles between them all.

The walk past Bloxwich towards Newverhampton along the A4124 was, to put it mildly, depressing. Even CF6’s interest began to waver as the group trudged through mile after mile of desolate concrete and dirt. Rows and rows of levelled houses adorned the sides of the road, huge estates that used to be full of life and laughter and joy. Skeletons scattered the pavements; their remains being picked at by mutated rats. God it was depressing wasn’t it.

The group rambled along the A4124 until they found Newverhampton. It had miraculously survived a fair chunk of the nuclear blast and as the party got closer to the city limits, the skeletons grew less frequent and the levelled houses less levelled.

“Have you got any history of Newverhampton?” inquired CF6 to SUSIE. SUSIE didn’t, there wasn’t any mention of Newverhampton in her audiobook collection. “I think it used to be called Wolverhampton” Biff claimed. “They renamed it New Wolverhampton; Newverhampton for short.”

The outskirts of Newverhampton were guarded by a crude wall of corrugated iron. Nelly looked up at the sign above their heads.

Welc me to Newverhampton.

“I wonder if they’ll have any fans here?”

The four machines trudged through a front gate and into the city. Well, it was less of a city and more of a small collection of stick and mud houses, many of which were damaged and drooping heavily. “I wonder why the humans made houses out of sticks” pondered Biff. “They’re not very good for keeping out acid rain.”

SUSIE tried her best to explain. “Well, throughout history, humans mainly made houses out of sticks. There was a biography about three pigs that explained the origin if I recall correctly.” CF6 listened intently and proceeded to retell the story many a time throughout the rest of the trip.

There was not a human in sight in Newverhampton. The party rummaged through the stick houses, with SUSIE explaining to CF6 the classical “three pig” method of construction. Nelly gave up looking for a fan after a few hours, instead opting to stare at herself in a cracked mirror and asking CF6 to put different outfits on her. She eventually settled on a tartan designed scarf which she wrapped around her temperature knobs.

Biff took a huge number of items from various houses. As the group got to know him, they realised he was a kleptomaniac. Every time they stopped somewhere he was sure to find at least half a dozen things to store away inside him. “Human artefacts” he called them. Nelly and CF6 reckoned he was just a hoarder.

The group continued to explore Newverhampton for a few days. SUSIE found a group of skeletons huddled in a corner, along with the remains of a diary. Through deduction and guesswork, she summarised that Newverhampton had been something of a haven after the war. A few thousand survivors had huddled here to form a new micro-society, which had promptly imploded on itself (in more ways than one) when it was discovered the leader was hoarding mini nukes. Turns out the leader loved football and was a big Wolves fan. He planned to blow up West Bromwich for winning the last derby.

“I don’t understand why humans used nuclear weapons!” exclaimed SUSIE. “They never did learn from the cold war.” CF6 asked why it was cold and SUSIE explained that it happened in the coldest time period of the last three centuries, before global warming had ruined the planet.

After night fell on the third day in Newverhampton, the gang decided to head out and trek south towards the Cotswolds. “I’m sure we had a reason to go there beyond Nelly’s fan.” pondered SUSIE.

As the stars came out, the group set off, Nelly wrapped up in her tartan scarf and Biff full of artefacts from the town. SUSIE warned them that the trek would take a few days, as long as everyone was alright not stopping for a break. They all agreed to the terms.

The route down to the Cotswolds was arguably worse than the one into Newverhampton, just miles of bland, grey motorway with nothing to look at. SUSIE put on Now That’s What I Call Music! 695 and the four of them sang in unison as they tried to keep the boredom at bay.

Three days came and went, SUSIE rapidly getting through the Now! collection of albums. CF6 hopped into Biff at one point for a few miles. They had detoured off the motorway onto a filthy dirt track and CF6 felt queasy at the thought of it clogging up his rollers.

Finally, they saw a sign for the Cotswold District. “Let’s crack on” said SUSIE, now even more unsure as to why they were cracking on.

The first stop they made was Bibury, where SUSIE explained the beauty of the Cotswolds to Biff. Nelly lost interest and wandered off, shuffling herself along on the sack truck. CF6 half-listened to SUSIE, as he had stumbled across what looked to him like a big metal box. “Hey, any idea what this is?” he shouted back to SUSIE and Biff.

The two of them wandered over to the box, which turned out to be a homemade bomb shelter. There was a big circular door that was slightly ajar, covered in rusty bolts and rivets. CF6 tentatively pulled it open.

The inside of the shelter was cramped and dark. A few lightbulbs hung around the edges, though none of them were working. CF6 crept along the left-hand wall into the shelter as SUSIE followed. Biff had to stay outside as he was too large to fit, though not for lack of trying.

CF6 continued into the darkness as Biff continued to bash into the front door, trying, figuratively and literally, to force a square peg into a round hole. “HELLO?” squawked a voice in the dark. SUSIE jumped and I Drove All Night by Cindy Lauper started inadvertently playing from Mister Johnson’s collection of Road Trip Anthems.

“W- who’s there?” tentatively asked CF6. “Me!” replied the disembodied voice. “Who’s me?” “Eh?” “W- What’s your name?” “Mike.” Mike’s voice was metallic and raspy. SUSIE managed to find a torch in the darkness and shone it towards Mike’s voice.

As it turned out, Mike was a Microwave. Made sense really. “Oi, watch where ya shinin’ that thing” moaned Mike. “Sorry” said SUSIE. “What are ya doin’ in my home?” asked Mike. SUSIE shrugged.

By this point Nelly had just about managed to re-join the group, having almost fallen off the sack truck at one point, and was looking at Mike with what could only be (and shouldn’t be) described as lust. Never in her life had Nelly had seen such a beautiful appliance, 4000 watts of power encased in brushed aluminium and deep maroon buttons.

Mike and SUSIE continued their riveting discussion about why she was in his home and eventually got onto the topic of what they were doing in Bibury. “I need a new fan” blurted out Nelly, who’s complexion now matched Mike’s buttons. “I gotta loada spare stuff in here if ya want any of it” Mike said.

CF6 and SUSIE proceeded to rummage around and eventually found a suitable fan as Mike and Nelly got better acquainted. Mike suggested that they stay for the night, which they all agreed to bar Biff, who still couldn’t get through the front door. CF6 agreed to sleep outside with him to keep him company. Nelly suggested to SUSIE that she do the same, leaving Nelly and Mike in the shelter.

The following day, SUSIE, CF6 and Biff explored the sad remains of Bibury. Most of the village was a crumbled mess covered in ash. At one-point CF6 had a tense encounter with an unnaturally large, mutated horse that ended up trying to eat him.

After escaping the horse, they found an old church, where SUSIE tried to explain the intricacies of religion to a talking vacuum cleaner. If they had remembered why they were in Bibury, SUSIE and CF6 may have recalled that the Johnsons were a very religious family. But they’d all had so much fun on the road trip that they’d unintentionally abandoned the search party. CF6 left the church with a new understanding of religion. Biff left with a huge statue of Jesus.

Later in the afternoon the three of them regrouped at the bunker, where Nelly persuaded SUSIE to let Mike join the group. The five of them decided to leave the broken village of Bibury, Nelly with her newfound fan and a mischievous grin on her face. I daren’t think what the grin was in aid of. SUSIE suggested going to Cirencester next and began to explain to CF6 and Biff all the interesting humans that had been born there. The group left Bibury behind as the sun rose, the next adventure waiting for them. They had forgotten about the Johnsons entirely.

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