Contest #224 shortlist ⭐️

Nature's Soft Nurse

Submitted into Contest #224 in response to: Start your story with someone saying “I can’t sleep.”... view prompt

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Science Fiction Speculative Suspense

This story contains sensitive content


NOTE: THIS STORY CONTAINS APOCALYPTIC THEMES AND SOME SLIGHT CURSING.


2031 AD


01001001/01000011/01000001/01001110/01010100/01010011/01001100/01000101 01000101/01010000

Aric leaned over Doctor Drue Bruwell’s shoulder. With his dyslexia, he didn’t even bother trying to make sense of the ones and zeroes.

“What did it say?” he asked. 

Drue stared at the binary digits inquisitively, clearly seeing something within them that Aric could not. Without looking down, she wrote something on a small notepad in front of her. After a long time, she let out a sigh, looked at her notes, and shook her head. In the dim light of the room lit only by a computer screen, Aric could just make out her middle finger twitching rapidly, as always when she was stressed. He couldn’t read what she had written.

“Drue?”

“It constantly amazes me,” she muttered. “I hate it.”

“Why?” Aric couldn’t stand most scientists, and this was the reason. They always seemed so far away. Aric wanted to shake her. Sometimes, he did. She’d shake him back. Brothers and sisters do that.

“Drue, what did it say?” he asked again, this time leaning in even closer to the screen, and making no more sense of it than before. Drue’s hands were covering her writing.

“It’s confused. Something with its regenerative circuits or solar converters must be faulty. It’s been in the Dark Room for almost a week. There shouldn’t be any power left, but for some reason it’s still functioning. It’s storing power somehow, and it doesn’t know how to use it up.”

Aric raised his eyebrows. “You got all that,” he said, “from a bunch of numbers?”

“Well, kinda.” Drue reached over to her right and flipped a small switch. Behind the computer screen of ones and zeroes, a large window pane revealed an entire room now dimly lit in red, viewed as if on the back side of a two-way mirror, which Aric supposed this was. 

In it were three things: a small bed; a large metal box spitting out sheets of numerical information; and a synthetic android, sat up on the edge of the mattress, looking down at its feet with what almost looked like despair. 

Aric had never actually gotten to see the thing before, and sucked in a tight gasp. Robots are freaking real, he thought. This is just like the movies. Creepy.

Drue enjoyed the look on Aric’s face for a moment before returning her eyes to the screen and frowning. “What it actually said was a bit simpler than that.”

Aric could still hardly catch his breath. “Yeah?” was all he could get out.

“Yeah.” She slid her paper in front of Aric. “I translated the binary.”

Aric looked down at what she had written, then up again at the android. It seemed like it might have been moving a little. Trembling. “What the hell?”

In the red glow cast by the Dark Room, the letters almost seemed to bleed:

I C A N T S L E E P


***


It was days later when Drue let Aric come into the lab after hours again. 

“We still haven’t figured out what was keeping it up for so many nights,” she said. “We think it may have been storing power somewhere and taking short rests to maximize its battery life.” 

Aric approached the android, now lying flat on its mattress, powered down. Aric reached out to touch it, and felt a little bit of heat. Through thin, translucent “skin,” he could see the different fibers and circuits that made up his body, wires moving from the central battery in its chest down to its hands and feet like veins.

“Why make it so human?” he asked. “It’s cool as hell, but isn’t it also a little … tacky?”

Drue nodded. “It is, and it wasn’t our choice. Part of the funding for this is shared by a study on the uncanny valley from MIT. They needed a bot that worked and operated like a human on a physical level.”

“Uckney Valley? Where’s that?”

Uncanny Valley. It’s not a place. It’s the point when something looks so close to real that it’s creepy, because it’s just artificial enough for your brain to know it isn’t legitimate.”

“Oh,” said Aric, feeling like a complete moron. He couldn’t believe he and his sister shared the same genes. “So how’d you get him to sleep?”

Drue’s face became shadowed. “We got it to sleep with a manual shutdown through a miniature sort of breaker box on the back of its neck. Right now, though, it’s just in a low power mode.” She made sure to look Aric in the eyes. “Don’t give these things too much personality, Aric. We’re making it look like a human, but it isn’t one.”

“Afraid of becoming attached?”

“Afraid of making this something it isn’t. This is a test of robotic physiology. This thing has a brain, sort of, and it can learn empirically. It can see things. But it doesn’t breathe, it doesn’t feel, and it doesn’t have empathy. It’s a machine. This isn’t I, Robot.

Aric rolled his eyes. He wasn’t completely sure what the word “empirical” meant, but he had a feeling it would describe Drue’s personality nicely. 

“So if it learns, what are you teaching it?”

“Mostly the basics. Math. English. Science. Starting at smaller concepts and seeing how well it can recognize the information we’ve given it before. It can’t speak the way we can, and its processors are still pretty slow, but we’re making them faster. However, there’s no education on ethics. No philosophy. We’re basically just building a big computer that, hopefully, will work about as well as an AI chatbot in a couple of years. But who knows.”

Aric was getting bored. “I want to say hi,” he said. “Turn … it on.”

Drue moved to the head of the android, and placed her hand on its forehead. A small screen just underneath its synthetic skin lit up with a number pad. She entered in a code, selected MANUAL START. 

It rose immediately, quick enough to startle Aric into taking a step backwards. He bumped into the large metal box he saw last time. It still had data hanging out of it on a long strip of paper. 

“Man, I hit my elb--”

His words were cut off by the sound of paper erupting from the machine, covered in binary data. A loud screeching accompanied the numbers as it struggled to keep up with the surge of information. 

“Aric!” Drue shouted, “What did you do!?”

She rushed over to the machine and shut it off. “I’ve never seen it do this before,” she said. She pulled the paper off of the machine and looked at it. “There must be a dozen feet of binary here.”

“Is that bad?” asked Aric, still rubbing his elbow. “All I did was bump it.” 

Drue didn’t respond. It looked like she’d already started translating some of the data. 

Aric looked at the android again. On his left breast was a small logo: OTO.

“Hello, Otto.” 

The android stared blankly into the distance. It didn’t seem to have any idea where it was. This didn’t seem like the same depressed machine that Aric had seen the last time he was at the lab.

He was just reaching out to touch it when Drue said, “I think you’d better head out for now. This is … going to take me some time.”

Aric put his hand down, looking disappointedly at her. “You’re chasing me out? You don’t have a machine that can scan all that crap for you?”

She shook her head. “We didn’t need it. It never gave us more than a couple responses an hour. This is absolutely unprecedented.”

Aric sighed. Alright. He recognized the look on Drue’s face. She was going to be there for a while. 


2781 AD


The shuttle had found a moderately sized clearing of high grass, and Kumi Yamada felt the tranquil rush of being the first to step out. The gravity here on Earth was almost three times more than what she grew up with on Mars, and she was the first to experience the feeling in centuries. If it weren’t for the intense physical training she’d gone through for the last seven months in the vast emptiness between the planets, she’d have collapsed almost immediately. 

That being said, she had to stop to catch her breath after moving just fifteen feet outside the ship. She huffed her oxygen machine before radioing to the rest of the crew.

“I’m … here,” she said. “We’re good.”

As far as meditations on planetary exploration went, it was pretty lame. 

She finished catching her breath and looked up at an incredible blue sky. No massive bubble habitat or dense dust clouds. Just free, naturally filtered air. She felt like, even after twenty-six years growing up hundreds of millions of kilometers away, she’d finally come home. She wanted to run, but knew she wouldn’t have the strength to get far.

Instead, she stepped back inside the ship, and helped her crew set up their arrays of climate, geological, and radiation instruments. The hours passed quickly as the explorers gave their clearing a quick search for anything interesting, but the truth was that they’d already discovered exactly what they knew they’d find: a planet once again flourishing with life, as if mankind had never been. The air was fresher now than it had been before great apes stood up for the first time and walked.

Kumi and Roscoe, her colleague and doctor of biological sciences, found themselves unable to sleep at all on the first night. They’d watched the sun set over an orange, pink, and purple horizon (something completely alien to them after a life of pale blue sunsets back on Mars) and watched Mars rise hundreds of millions of kilometers away. 

Kumi wondered if the first Martians had felt the same way that she did now; like a tourist in a fantastic world she could never really understand. She continued to gaze up at an atmosphere untouched by artificial light, alive with a million twinkling stars. Leaves were rustled by warm southern winds. She scanned the distant foliage with a searchlight, eager to see native Earthly wildlife. She’d studied the natural history of the planet as it was before the Great Decimation in the 2030s, but knew that whatever had existed before didn’t exist now, at least not as it was. Unhinged climatic disasters followed immediately by the absolute nuclear obliteration of every continent except for Antarctica will do that. 

Kumi was disappointed to see nothing in the trees or tall grass. Wordlessly, Roscoe left her side and stepped back into the ship. Kumi knew that, sleepless night or not, she was going to need to at least try to get some rest before tomorrow’s excursion. 

They’d landed just outside of Los Angeles’s blast zone. The heart of the city was completely wiped, but most of its edge had survived past the blasts, as well as some of the smaller suburbs and towns nearby. It even seemed that for a while after the blasts, human activity continued for longer than anybody thought. Orbiter images showed strained lines in the dirt, and possible abandoned constructions. But whoever survived the initial fallout probably didn't survive for long. If it weren’t for the first few outposts on Mars. . . .

Kumi began reentering the ship, and took one last look behind her. She cast the light out again, and for just a brief moment, thought something glinted in the green. 


2031 AD


Aric was eager to be back in the lab. It sounded like Drue almost killed herself staying up to copy down everything Otto had given her to sort through.

“Remind me why this is so important?” he asked her tiredly. Even if he was happy to be there, he didn’t like having to wait until every single other scientist had stepped out to go home. Roboticists, he realized, worked very long hours.

“Because it shouldn’t have happened in the first place,” Drue started. There were large bags under her eyes and her voice was irritated. “Because there’s no reason why there would be hours and hours worth of … whatever it is, when the droid was powered down. Low power isn’t enough for it to process information. Or so we thought.”

Aric glanced at the notebook open in front of Drue, covered in binary code and its translations, written too small and close together for him to read. “Then where did it come from?” 

“Well, it came from him.”

“Him?”

Drue cleared her throat. “It. I’m tired, alright? I haven’t let anybody else touch this.”

“Why not get some help?”

But he knew why. Because this had become Drue’s fascination. This, whatever it was, had the potential to be her eureka moment. Unprecedented, she had said. That sounded to Aric like an opportunity for more funding

He sat down beside her and stretched. “So what the hell did you find out about all this?” he asked around a yawn. 

“A lot, and also nothing at all. There’s hours worth of data here, like I said, but it doesn’t really follow a pattern. It seems to be from the android’s perspective.”

The android which was, for now, again resting in the Dark Room. Powered off completely this time, Aric noticed. “What did it give you?” he asked, getting impatient. He wanted to be caught up already. 

“Well, it’s mostly just observations of the room around the android. I don’t know how it managed to make those observations while mostly powered down, but it’s there. Stuff about the room, stuff about the machine next to him that recorded all of this. The bed is lumpy, I guess.”

Aric laughed. “Otto told you that?”

“It did.” She didn’t comment on Aric’s use of the name. “And that’s most of what’s here. Random observations. How many tiles are in the floor. The different colors of the buttons on the machine. But …”

“Well?”

“It also observed a 5’7” brunette with a middle finger that twitches sometimes. Walking around in its room. Working on it. Only I wasn’t around when it made the observation because, as with all of these, it was in the dark.”

“Holy shit. You think that its…”

“Dreaming? It must be. Because what’s worse, is….” She closed her eyes and held her breath for a moment, choking on her words. She realized how quickly her middle finger was twitching and forced it to stop.

“It observed my corpse. Her corpse. But it’s me. It has to be me.”

Aric was taken aback. “Your corpse? What happened to you?”

She observed her notes. “The keywords are: R E D, W E T, S L E E P, S L E E P, S L E E P, S L E E P.

They were quiet for a while. 

Eventually, Aric asked “Anything else?”

Drue turned to face him. “Something or other about putting the whole world to sleep. God only knows what that means.…”


2781 AD


Kumi couldn’t believe her luck. Even though she was completely exhausted after just an hour and half of walking into the ruins of the city, she was having the time of her life. Hundreds of years had taken the face off of everything, weather had mottled objects to dust and misshapen bits of metal, and no building was left standing anymore. Whatever was going on before the Decimation came, these people hadn’t built their structures to last. 

From the history books (what little history was left of these places), it seemed that they hadn’t put much effort into a stable civilization, either. 

Regardless, these miniscule bits of memory, these nothings, were wonderful to behold. Hundreds of years of reclamation by nature had left little untouched. 

The main focus, though, were the informal roads. They were paths of cleared rubble and, to the surprise of Kumi, foliage. It seems that whatever traversed here had traversed often, whether it was people or wildlife. And it had traversed recently. 

But thus far, they’d seen nothing but vegetation in all directions. Massive trees, beautiful plants wholly unrecognizable from the breeds that Kumi was familiar with back on Mars. The air was intense, more so than the habitats on Mars, despite their attempts to mimic the same conditions.

Every once in a while, Kumi thought she heard or felt a presence in the trees. Roscoe thought he noticed, too, but didn’t seem overly concerned. Always pragmatic, his intention was to grab the data and run. Not to mention, he was older than Kumi, and probably less enthusiastic about the possibility of having to flee from something. 

At some point, Roscoe came to a complete stop in front of her. 

“Roscoe? What’s … oh my.”

Like something prehistoric -- pre-Earth-histortic -- a massive building resembling a temple stood in front of them, made of earth and wood. It was a simple structure. 

The inside, however, was a different story. 

Brilliant carvings lined the walls. On close examination, Kumi gasped at the depictions. Brutal, beautiful engravings of mass destruction on massive scales. Dead wastelands and toppled buildings. Mushroom clouds. Light, and darkness.

“These are stunning,” said Roscoe, and Kumi smiled at that. This entire time, he’d kept his feelings about the mission at hand to himself. “These were people. Real, human people. And.…” his hand patted the artwork. “These aren’t that old. They’re … not old at all, actually.”

“But where are they?” Kumi asked. “The only bodies in these images are dead ones. There’s no food stored here. There’s no activity outside, no houses. Why build this and decorate it, but not use it?”

Roscoe didn’t speak. He was more focused on the border of the engravings. What he thought were simple dashes and dots appeared more complicated. It wasn’t just a pattern.

“Binary?” he asked.

A metal hand gripped his shoulder, and he, with the rest, was put to sleep.

November 18, 2023 02:26

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2 comments

Philip Ebuluofor
18:07 Nov 25, 2023

Fine configuration. Congrats.

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Mary Bendickson
06:52 Nov 25, 2023

OTO been busy.

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