22 comments

Feb 23, 2021

American Contemporary Fantasy

Author's Note: This is an homage to the poem "Ozymandias" by Percy Bysshe Shelley


Amidst a flurry of multi-colored laser displays and droning bass notes, Oswald “Ozzy” Mondias strode confidently across the main stage and stood behind the podium, clicker in hand. A thousand flash bulbs held aloft by paparazzi and assorted tech and financial journalists popped in rapid succession. He posed, turning his gaze slightly upward and pouting his lips as he'd been coached to do by the publicists and consultants and makeup artists that surrounded him at all times.


At nineteen, he wore the scruffy beard of a man only recently pubescent. His hair was pulled back tightly in a bun and he wore a black hoodie, the logo of his company, a robotic head with a neutral expression and pixelated eyes, over the left breast, and tapered grey jeans. On his feet were fashionable low-top sneakers, undoubtedly one of a kind and very expensive.


He turned toward the screen behind him and raised his hands. The words “WELCOME TO THE NANOTEK FUTURE,” appeared perfectly on cue, as though manifested by nothing more than his will. Rapturous applause erupted through the massive auditorium, punctuated by hoots and hollers from the balcony and stages left and right. 


King of Kings, he’d been dubbed by Wired Magazine in a cover story showing Ozzy's visage rising above the heads of other widely-known Silicon Valley titans. He’d been pleased by that title and gladly accepted it, putting it on his business card, even, though he didn’t have any need for those. Everyone knew he was: the boy wonder who had enrolled in Stanford at sixteen, dropped out at seventeen after calling his professors “know nothing morons,” and started his company manufacturing nanorobots capable of both absolute subservience and moral self-determination, programmed to do no harm, safeguard the common good, act as a vanguard against vainglory. "More like Mr. Rogers," Ozzy called his technology whenever anyone compared it to The Terminator. "Think cardigans and slippers, not leather jackets and sawed offs."


Investors had banged on his door. Wall Street clambered for his attention. With his own technology, he built in record time a grandiose headquarters in the hills east of San Jose that architects called "a modern marvel, a shape shifting wonder, fluid in both its design and purpose, but always, always beautiful." Forbes put him at number four on the list of world’s wealthiest people, but the smart money was on him rising to the top by year’s end.


For a full minute, Ozzy stood on stage mouthing “thank you” and pointing off in various directions, putting his hands over his heart in feigned modesty, taking half a dozen bows. Then he signaled for silence, and the audience obeyed.


He cleared his throat.


“I am a traveler from an antique land,” he pronounced, raising his arms victoriously. And once again, the audience roared and flash bulbs flashed. He raised his voice and began to pace casually, basking in the adulation, soaking in the moment. A heavenly image of Earth appeared in magnificent high definition on the screen behind him. “In fact,” he continued, “we all are.” He motioned toward the image. “Look at her. Behold her beauty, her glory.” Ethereal orchestral string music began to play from hidden speakers throughout the auditorium, accompanied by oohs and ahs from the gathered masses.


“But what if we look a little closer?" Another image appeared, this one of plastic bottles and jellyfish-like plastic bags circling in great oceanic spirals as gulls swarmed overhead. The music grew moodier, more minor. A video then: wildfires tearing through evergreen forests, leaping over four lane highways, transformers exploding in showers of sparks, raining down on frantic drivers. A smattering of boos could be heard from the audience. “Yeah, I remember those too,” Ozzy said, acknowledging his audience, every member playing his or her role. “Pretty scary stuff.” Then in rapid succession, flashes of a starving boy with flies in his eyes, lines of people fleeing war, marching on the side of a road pockmarked by explosions, a glacier calving an enormous sheer of blue ice and triggering a roaring wave, flocks of gulls fleeing.


“Enough!” Ozzy shouted in a voice of well practiced pain as the music and the flashes of light and the bleats from the crowd climaxed. “This company we’ve built, this grand endeavor, our project. Look at all we’ve done for them. Do they appreciate it? Do they understand what we've given them?” Jeers rippled through through the audience, growing louder as they took on their own inertia.


On the podium was a glove with embedded wires and sensors. Ozzy picked it up and fitted it over his right hand. “We’ve tried to help them, to give them the gift of creation. We grow their food, entertain them, shelter them." He waved his hand, summoning a billion nanobots, each one smaller than the tiniest grain of sand. “And what do they do?” he scoffed. “They abuse it. They fill the world with garbage and misery." A wrinkled lip, a sneer of cold command, appeared on his face. "I don't know about you, but I'm tired of cleaning up after them."


With the flourish of his gloved hand, a vessel appeared on stage, sleek and silver and bearing the same company logo on its tail fins. More thunderous applause. “Yeah, pretty awesome, huh?” He chuckled. “What if I told you that I want to build a new place? A place free from all of that, the pollution, the stupidity, the greed, the war and the pestilence and the ugliness?” On the screen appeared the Earth again, this time zooming out until the entirety of the solar system appeared, and then refocusing on Mars, spinning gently, its red surface gently reflecting the sun’s glow.


“Announcing Project Perseus,” he declared triumphantly. "A world for us, for the enlightened, the creators, the makers, the gods. It's time to leave the rest behind. Let's see how well they do with out us. Let's let them wallow in their filth!" The vessel that had stood on stage was now rearranging itself into elegant towers and amphitheaters and sprawling manicured parks, more nanobots swarming from backstage and descending from the rafters. Bigger the model grew until Ozzy was surrounded by his creation, walking amidst its majesty, marveling at its perfection. A wry smile spread across his face. "Let them perish!"


“King of Kings, King of Kings,” chanted the crowd.


“But wait,” Ozzy said, stepping out of the dense array and standing at the front of the stage. “I’ve saved the best for last.” He paused, savoring the moment, letting the tension build until someone from the back of the room bellowed, “tell us what it is, Ozzy! We can't stand it any longer!" They clambered and chanted and grunted and bayed.


“What if I told you it’s already done?” Gasps and a sudden hushed silence descended. “Can we bring up the live feed from Mars?” he asked a technician off stage. Ozzy was still facing the audience.


Behind him a barren landscape appeared, red and dusty, swirls of nanobots worked furiously, dismantling whatever had once been there. In the distance, two crumbling towers stood alone like trunkless legs of stone. Without turning, he addressed the crowd. This was his crowning moment, his moment of glory. “My name is Ozzy Mondias, King of Kings. Look on my work, ye mighty, and despair!”


There was no sound. No applause, only stunned silence. Finally, Ozzy turned and gazed upon the vacant landscape, the ruins of this grand plans. “It can’t be,” was all he could say as he gazed upon the wreck, boundless and bare. He fell to his knees, head in hands as the stage began to crumble. From the crowd came shrieks and screams as the chairs and aisles disintegrated into the basic elements from which they'd been assembled, the barely visible bots busily carrying out their coded morality. There was a panicked rush for the doors, which melted into nothing as they clambered over one another to push through.


And then he was alone, abandoned by the hangers on and the admirers and the idolizers. Around the decay, nothing beside remained but the lone and level sands stretching far away.

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22 comments

Zilla Babbitt
22:42 Feb 24, 2021

Wow, this is such a fascinating idea. I suggest you read the juvenile book The Fog Diver -- it dives (haha) into the discussion of nanobots and pollution. Eventually the nanos take over and force humans up into the mountains, creating a poisonous Fog until the earth is finally "clean" again. Anyway, I really enjoyed this. Your stories are all so unique. From "Just Yet" to a futuristic sort of horrifying story like this. Things I loved: the descriptions of Ozzy, his feigned modesty, the music and audience all working together to create a pr...

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David Gottfried
02:44 Feb 25, 2021

Thank you, Zilla. I always appreciate your thoughts. There’s a nugget of something interesting here; I like the idea of a modern day tech titan as future Ozymandias, a person full of hubris, a king of kings, whose empire fades into dust. I tried to build in different elements from the poem to build that comparison. That said, I’m not sure this story accomplishes what I wanted it to. I’m also not sure it’s worth investing a lot more time in, but I will take another look at the ending and see if there’s more I can do there. The way I have it e...

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Zilla Babbitt
16:40 Feb 27, 2021

It certainly has potential. Maybe you'll reread this when you're old and well-off and revisit :). I had to go reread that poem to be sure exactly of its origin material but I'm glad I did. A modern or dystopian version of "Ozymandias." I agree with all that. I've gotten much better at creating a fully-rounded story within two days or less, but it's also diminished my ability for novel work (takes too long, end's too far away!) and turned Friday into a day for self-examination and stress. I told Thom, there's just too many excellent writers ...

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David Gottfried
23:26 Feb 23, 2021

Just a flicker of an idea for now, with apologies to Percy Bysshe Shelley. Let's see where this one goes.

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Matthew Hummel
17:36 Mar 03, 2021

I thought this story was great. Different from your regular stories but still had your wonderful use of imagery. It did remind me a lot of Big Hero 6 in a darker way.

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David Gottfried
17:59 Mar 04, 2021

Thank you, Matthew! And good reference. Big Hero 6 is one of my top two or three of the Pixar-type movies. Weirdly, it was only after I wrote this story that it occurred to me that there were similarities. It goes to show how we’re influenced by what we read and watch, even if we don’t recognize it immediately. Thanks for reading!

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L. Mc Roy
19:57 Mar 04, 2021

As Ozymandias is my favorite poem, I thought this idea was unique and clever! It was well written, and I loved Ozzy’s character. He was stuck up, but hid it well :) Good job!

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David Gottfried
21:31 Mar 04, 2021

Thank you L. m.! It's an outstanding poem. I hope I didn't do it too much injustice!

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K. Antonio
03:04 Mar 02, 2021

I can honestly say, that I probably would have never thought of this, cuz well, sci-fi is not up my alley. I love that you attempted this prompt. I think that you show here an insane amount of detail, right at the beginning I got an idea of who Ozzy was and how he looked (I kind of got America God vibes, for some reason I was seeing him as Technological Boy). I think the way you built the scene and really put us into the environment was great. I understood the ending, I see a lot of people contributed with some ideas and I get why the ch...

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David Gottfried
14:29 Mar 02, 2021

Thank you, K.! The prompt was "near future," and this is probably very near future! We haven't colonized Mars with nanobots just yet! As I was writing, I had a sort of composite character of Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, and Jack Dorsey floating around in my mind. I'm glad you liked the man bun!

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A.Dot Ram
04:17 Feb 26, 2021

I love that you tried this idea! I went back and read the poem and you captured a lot of it. A tech mogul is a good character to embody a modern-day Ozymandias, and my second favorite part after the concept is the way you nailed the Silicon Valley theatrics. The thing I missed were the functional details of his technology and its motivation. I didn't get that it was capable of moral judgement, so didn't understand why everything fell apart.

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David Gottfried
18:52 Feb 26, 2021

Thank you, Anne. I agree; that's the big flaw here. There's not a clear reason for the nanobots to turn on Ozzy. It's something to do with the fact that he's evil and they're designed to protect the greater humanity, but it's pretty convoluted.

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Tom .
12:53 Feb 25, 2021

Sci fi is my home i see lots in this, from George R Martin's 'The Sand Kings' (it was turned into an awesome outer limits episode), to elements of Moore and Gibbons 'Watchmen'. Despite that this is original and definitely worth developing. I have some problems with the ending. I get it but i don't know everyone will see its true implied intention. It needs something scarier. It needs a win for the bad guy. I would use Mars but focus on the model becoming bigger and all consuming. Create a truly evil philosopher king. With nods and implicatio...

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David Gottfried
02:55 Feb 26, 2021

Thank you, Tom. I'm glad you liked what I have so far. I loved Watchmen, but never did have the temperament for George R. Martin (although I did watch most of the HBO version of King of Thrones). I tinkered with the end a bit, but I'm afraid I can't give you what you want. In classic fashion, Ozzy needs to suffer the hubristic downfall. I also want to stick with the arc of the poem. Without that, I'm worried I don't have much here.

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Tom .
08:24 Feb 26, 2021

I look forward to having a reread.

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Christina Marie
01:44 Feb 25, 2021

Great job as always, David! I really enjoyed the obscene grandeur of the presenter and the satisfying reality check to his ego at the end.

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Heather Mc Quaid
16:52 Feb 24, 2021

Hi David, I like the seed idea...a technology titan's vision is betrayed by his own creations. I'm wondering whether we can get a notion of what the stakes are a bit earlier (is there a hint of what's to come, for him, if his vision does or does not pan out?). Just as a sidenote...I've been reflecting on what I've read and learned about best practices for writing short stories over the past weeks (by watching videos and doing masterclasses). This week, I've been trying to apply what I've learnt when I read/critique stories on Reedsy, in e...

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David Gottfried
17:20 Feb 24, 2021

Thank you, Heather. I agree with your critique. There's not a great arc to this story. Frankly, I'm feeling a bit like my well of creativity is starting to run dry. Maybe it's time to take some time to refresh. The idea here was to mimic the arch in Ozymandias: the crescendo of hubris and then the crashing down of the civilization with nothing left but sand and dust and an inscription to gaze upon the works and despair. The nanobots turn on their creator because they're capable of making moral decisions and they recognize that Ozzy is too hu...

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Heather Mc Quaid
17:32 Feb 24, 2021

Yeah, I really struggled to come up with seed ideas for my last few stories. Usually it only takes me an hour to generate three or four, but it's been more like days now. Anyway, I think we could all use a refresh! Also, I'm not familiar with Ozymandias, so I was missing lots of context/background knowledge, which may have helped explain why the nanobots were destroying things (I assumed something was wrong with the programming). :)

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David Gottfried
17:37 Feb 24, 2021

It’s one of the great poems of English language! I think you’d enjoy it. It’s very short. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/46565/ozymandias

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Heather Mc Quaid
17:44 Feb 24, 2021

Thank you. I got chills reading it.

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Heather Mc Quaid
12:08 Feb 28, 2021

Ooo, I like the revised ending. We see Ozzy's comeuppance plus it's a nice twist that the destruction is not limited to Mars. The nanobots are following him and where his hubris leads. :)

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