Author’s Note: This story was written live on stream with the audience voting to determine the path of the story. The underlined phrases in the choice of three were the winning pathways. Stop by twitch.tv/blainearcade if you’d ever like to participate in our interactive fiction.
Paper Iron Wood
The storm made quick work of the cliff side, speeding what should have been more than a hundred years of weathering. The rock fell away, revealing the iron plate beneath. It had no visible hatches or doorways. There were no words or pictograms. It was almost like it was natural, simply a collection of all the most like-minded iron atoms in the world.
That theory was betrayed by a single line of rusted nuts all the way across the exposed area. Each was about a foot across and seven inches thick. The gray clouds overhead, after dumping their rain, moved on and left the cliff side in silence. The iron wall interrupted that aspect of its natural surroundings as well. The nuts began to rotate on their own, squealing and shrieking as they dropped flakes of rust. There weren’t many animals around, mostly tiny pikas int heir burrows, but even under the surface their fur stood on end and they scurried as far as they could.
Every nut twisted back and forth, but only one had the strength to loosen itself completely. Once it fell to the dirt below the others gave up. They didn’t have memories exactly, they were just iron after all, but their was a sort of muscle memory from the process that created the great buried machine. It had a competitive nature. Whatever went on inside, it was a process with winners and losers where the losers were burned up and used as fuel. When the other nuts realized they weren’t the first to break loose, they simply gave up. Rolling the world alone was one thing, but doing it in second place?
The successful one righted itself and rolled away, observing its surroundings to the best of its ability. The air was and damp. The sky was gray, overwhelmingly so. The nut knew that the sun hadn’t shone in months. All the grasses drooped about, their blades drinking from various puddles. It didn’t take long for the nut to roll around the side of the cliff and see the vast field of nothing.
This was an abandoned coastline of Scotland, though there was no human left above ground to even call it that. They were busy in the machine, killing each other over accents, which likely left all the Scots dead already. The nut kept rolling, passively absorbing residual emotion from the air. Its intelligence grew as it went, to the point where it started picking up echoes of the last stories before the great burying.
It stopped in a ditch when it bumped into a human skull. The rest of the skeleton was there, but so curled up that the human looked like it had died trying to drink from its own navel. The nut attempted a transfer of its consciousness from metal to bone. It bumped the skull again. Again. The connection just wasn’t sparking. Perhaps it needed something a little more similar in composition first, or perhaps shape.
It made a mental note of the position of the ditch and the skeleton. Getting out proved to be the first problem, as it was impossible to generate enough rolling upward force. It wasn’t strong enough to be angry yet, so it puzzled out the solution quickly. A few more faces would’ve been helpful, a hexagon was now proving a far cry from a nice circle, but it managed. The nut rolled back and forth like a skateboard in a half-pipe, eventually flinging itself out the opposite side it had entered from.
Toolbox Meeting Wrecked Truck Solar Panels
The nut’s attention was turned to the sky for so long that it didn’t sense the approach of the reflective expanse. Only when one of its sides clanged against one of the thousands of solar panels did it stop. There was a crack from where it struck, but that was of little concern. All the connections between the panel banks and the buried machine were long since broken, thanks to pieces abandoning their duties.
Those pieces, if they had dug themselves out, should’ve felt immense guilt for leaving the machine. They were the cause of this. The nut stayed as long as it could, and only left because it was too late. Then again, maybe all those copper wires that snaked free had made the right decision; the sun wasn’t shining after all. The greatest cyclone in the history of the planet was still spinning across the oceans, humming and dancing all by its lonesome, tearing up everything underneath it. It did all that with just natural forces, not even a hint of the intelligence that now lived within the nut.
It was impossible for it to move forward without cracking more of the panels, but the sound was unpleasant, so its progress was slow. About halfway across the field of plastic and metal it found another trail of cracks that arced in a different direction. It decided to follow, minimizing its destruction by rolling over panels that were already broken.
When it rolled off the edge it fell nearly seven feet to the ground and splashed into a mud puddle. Confused and trapped on its side, it spun in the water. The panels where it had started were laid at ground level, but these ones were on long supports. There was a dim space underneath them, like the moist half-caves under a series of docks. The nut saw no trace of whatever had made the other trail, but it did see a boxy lump far under the field of panels and decide to investigate.
There was a spark; it hopped up from the lump and died in another puddle. The nut stopped. There was electricity over there. It was smart enough to worry now; what would such energy do to the power animating the metal part? If it took a volt would it force the spirit out into the air, where it would surely dissolve?
Eventually it was compelled forward, because it couldn’t stay a nut forever. It had to transfer to something a little more alive, or at least fresher. It now knew that was its only chance for survival. There was still no chance for it to roll silently along the squishy ground, so the nut moved as fast as it could, rapidly closing the gap between it and the sparking lump.
Something looked up from the lump, interpreting the speeding metal wheel as an attacker. It dropped the socket wrench it was holding and met the nut head on. The two objects slammed into each other and rolled in the mud, bouncing enough to crack one of the panels from underneath. The nut found itself overpowered, despite the other object being much flimsier. It must have been alive longer, with a better understanding of how to use its temporary body. That also meant it would be more desperate to move on, more feral.
It was trying to drown the nut in the mud, twisting it deeper and deeper. The hexagon had no choice but to spin rather than push, eventually flinging the other one away and allowing it to come up for air. The other object was curled up in the middle, like a cat ready to pounce, but it had no fangs or claws, just rubber nubs and a small nozzle. It was a hot water bottle. The nut was practically embarrassed to nearly fall to such an opponent.
Story Spill Battery Transfer Bone Sharing
The standoff lasted several minutes, but the hot water bottle didn’t have the same reserves of time. It needed to move, and its quivering marked it as concerned, especially since it quivered whenever the lump sparked again. The energy stored inside seemed to be dying down.
The bottle slowly slunk its way in a circle until it was next to the lump. It rubbed and slapped a nub against the steel side of the lump, which was now clearly some sort of battery connected to the solar panels above. Neither of them had voices, so the bottle was using Morse code. It was lucky the energy within the nut came from a source that understood such signalling.
“I’m going to transfer myself to this battery,” the bottle tapped out. “Do not interfere and I will not harm you.” The nut swiveled a little, trying to judge whether or not that was even possible. The further it rolled from the machine the more it remembered about the transfer process. They had to start at the bottom with something simple like a nail, screw, bolt, or nut. If they managed to wriggle their way free from the layers of dirt, they could then seek out more complex or more organic objects.
The water bottle had likely transferred twice already. The sloshing sounds it produced told the nut that was full of water, rather like a living thing, but apparently still too inanimate to hold a life forever. But a battery?
“Why the battery?” the nut asked by bumping one of its edges into one of the solar supports. “Something filled with water is much closer to being an animal.”
“Lateral transfer,” the bottle explained, leaning over and picking up its socket wrench again. “Animals have electricity inside them too. I just need to jump. I’m fading. So close to remembering… My name was…” The bottle’s grip on the wrench loosened and it touched an exposed piece of the battery. The bottle was suddenly hit with a massive jolt. Its rubbery body quivered and split open, spilling steaming water like hot fish guts.
The nut rolled forward, but had no recourse. The bottle must have thought it would be safe because of its non-conductive hide, but the plastic nozzle, the equivalent of a person’s head, had immediately blackened and melted. The object was now fused to the open panel on the battery, like a drunk stuck vomiting into a dumpster eternally.
Whatever its name was back in the machine, it had clearly become desperate. Perhaps if it had held fear off a bit longer it might have remembered that name. The nut was already getting flashes of it. Whoever it was supposed to be, they were good at keeping calm and seeing past the appliance viscera right in front of it. The transfer to the battery had failed because the bottle wasn’t paying attention. The nut could pull it off if it transferred its energies to the shell rather than the body of the battery itself. Yes, that was a sound strategy. The nut rolled forward as the battery continued to spark.
Future Plan Past Realization Occupied
One of the fresh sparks was just a little burst of light, but the next one had in image flashing inside. The next seemed to linger in the air so the nut could see. No, this wasn’t actually happening. It was the current situation merging with resurfacing memories. The nut saw the recent past in spark from the battery. Each one held a scene reminding it how it got there.
Most of them were human, and they were all clustered together deep in the buried machine. It was a simulated environment complete with trees and wildlife to help them forget the horrors their industry had brought to the climate above.
The nut remembered a bird flying overhead in the cavern, leaving a nasty white present on his shoulder. Yes, the nut was a him. At least he was when he had a proper body. He even remembered how angry he got at that bird. Why did they even keep birds around? All the ones laying the eggs couldn’t fly anyway. His rant went on… but the spark was fading. Another rose.
He had a family: a wife and a dog and a fish. Were they still down there? He tried to call up final memories of them, but the spray of the sparks seemed to dictate what he could and could not remember. They had an argument about staying away from the fires. That’s where everyone was at the end; the great bonfire burning all their amazing progress. Computers went into it, research, people. Just in the time they’d studied underground they had made amazing strides. They could now convert living creatures into living sustained patterns of energy, but those patterns needed a material host.
She wanted to go to the fire. It was supposed to be painless. Just throw yourself in and turn to ash all at once, helped along by the strange chemicals used as tinder. The nut, no, his name was Nathan, did not want that. They split. The spark fell. Another rose and bounced down one of his metal faces.
He ran until he found a far wall. Those made mad by the fire would come for all of them, try to turn everyone into a cloud of mingling dying spirits. The only way out was the transfer. The machine was supposed to stay buried for an age, until that cyclone stopped kicking up dust, but that was still a hundred years off.
There was a device in his hand: the transfer module. Nowhere to go. Trapped up against the wall. Smoke clawing at his eyes and lips. To leave the human body was to force yourself into the simplest state. Bare raw consciousness, like a wet cold steak that could still feel pain. Couldn’t start anywhere complex. A simple material. A simple piece. An iron nut. Nathan put his hand against the wall and depressed the three crucial buttons. Then it was all gone, until the sparks brought it back: meteoric remnants of a man streaking across a black sky.
The nut touched its side to the battery’s shell. Nathan lunged with his spirit, moving through the contact, filling out the shell of the battery, feeling the wires sizzle inside. Yes, this was closer to being alive. He had electricity again. It was almost like having real thoughts.
He shook on his new foundation, breaking off the melted head of the deceased water bottle. He hoped he never knew them down there in the machine. Now what? He twisted back and forth, feeling out the extent of his shell. There was a problem. He no longer had an easy way to roll with his new boxy shape, and he had to search out a new home swiftly. It needed to be something at least as alive as the battery.
Ocean Tumble Bony War Nested Fate
If the shell couldn’t move he would have to use what was inside. He pulled. It was like pulling hair and taffy at the same time as he loosened the wires and spilled them out of the open panel. They kept sparking. It was worse than he though; the electricity was bleeding out and there was no going back to the simpler body of the nut. He needed to find something full of water or lightning or blood.
The wires, colored purple and red, sank into the mud as they took the weight of the battery’s shell. Nathan made it crawl, like a simplified robotic spider, out from under the shade of the solar panels. The skeleton. Whoever that was that refused to bury themselves in the machine. They had likely made the right choice by dying a natural death.
Nathan’s shame returned to him in full force, as did his anxiety. There were no ducts to release tears, but he felt them all the same. He heard his soul sniveling even as it crawled for its life across the the gray Scottish plain. Electricity to bone had to be close enough. The interior of that skull had tasted tiny bolts before.
He didn’t see the ditch until he was upon it. One wire raised to take the first step down, but then the wind picked up. The cyclone was winding its way back. Maybe it sensed all the little bits and pieces pulling themselves out of the dirt, trying to live before the gray period was over. They were new shells, but the same old energy. They didn’t deserve a second chance.
The gust rolled Nathan into the ditch and over the skeleton. His own weight crushed the skull before rolling him out the other side. He panicked and clawed at the muddy grass, but there were no claws, just copper ends that no longer sparked. All his memories were back, but without the little lights he had nothing to see them in. They were just loose pieces for the wind to grab and drag him by. The worse he felt, the faster he rolled, the closer he came to one of the cliffs.
It tossed him over the side and sent him tumbling down a rocky slope, to a cold beach below. The tide was strong and the water foaming, all of it even grayer than the sky. There was no escaping that color, not from the dawn of industry. The gray of rock became the gray of iron, of steel, and then of the sky itself.
The water. Maybe he could transfer to the water. It was denser than the air and full of microscopic life. If not the water, maybe one of the little green discs of algae that happened to brush his shell. Only one wire still worked. Nathan pulled, ignoring the other dead items littering the beach. Perhaps they were just litter, but he couldn’t help but imagine them as people who had failed in the strategy he now tried.
A hairbrush half-buried in the sand. A plastic shovel. An old camera. They were like newly hatched sea turtles. They crawled their way out of the ground and made a mad dash for the sea, but they couldn’t get there. Suffocated by the weight of their own shells. Exhausted feet from their lapping goal.
Nathan’s wire stretched as far as it could as his shell dug into wet gritty sand. Shards of white shells scratched his metal hide. A wave reached out and touched the wire. There was a single spark, and then the wire went limp. Nothing moved on the beach once more. He wasn’t the only one to make it to the sea: the most life-like of objects. It was too big, too full of lives of its own. If the transfer was done he was lost in it, forced to be nothing more than thinking wind.
If he encountered nay memories again… they wouldn’t be his. Someone else’s sparks whizzing by. Someone who still had to struggle for home.