This is a little short story I wrote some time ago. My parents, as always, couldn't offer much advice, but I would like to actually revise this one as it's one of my personal favorites. Any and all criticism is welcome! :D
Daven flinched as his alarm clock squawked him out of sleep. He had fallen off of his bed at some point during the night, and was now lying on the cold hardwood floor of his home. It was surprisingly comfortable. He felt close to the Earth, close to the dirt that his life was built upon.
He remembered now that today was the harvest, and sprung to his feet. Almost sprinting from excitement, he ran into the bathroom, opened the faucet and splashed icy water over his head and neck. That didn’t make him flinch, it only excited him more. Before running out, he remembered the tradition his mom taught him. He could still recall how she talked to him about growth, about change. He looked in the mirror. Physically he looked the same as he did at the last harvest, but things had changed so much in that last year. His eyes were still blue, but looking past that one could see pain. His eyebrows were now furrowed just the slightest bit. His father wasn’t standing next to him, and never would. Very little growth had happened, and way too much change. He had a headache.
To think that just three years ago we were a happy family. Why did things turn out like this? Why didn’t they think about me? Daven was on the verge of tears, But no, I have to move on now. It’s what they would’ve wanted. His mind was a stew of emotions, each one trying to wriggle its way to the forefront. He shut them out.
Unconsciously he had made his way into the small kitchen compartment and turned on his telecaster. It was just one of the many quality of life improvements the Collective had made for humanity. Using magnets strategically positioned in the room, dust particles could be aligned in a sheet onto which an image could be projected. Much more compact than any television or computer, allowing for any and every citizen to stay well informed and knowledgeable.
Suddenly the words WARNING and EMERGENCY were flashing on the screen while an automated voice said, “This is an emergency message. Confirmed sightings of hostile robotic forces in your area. Confirmed sightings of hostile robotic forces in your area. Please wait for military intervention and do not go outside. Please wait for military intervention and do not go outside. Do NOT interact with the robots. This is an emergency message…” The message began repeating, over and over.
Robots, Daven rolled the word around inside his mouth. It tasted coppery and awful. After all, his parents were killed fighting a war against the robots. He didn’t even get to see their bodies. Nonetheless, even robots wouldn’t stop him from the harvest, from doing the last thing he cared about. Why would they pay attention to some tiny farm in the middle of nowhere? He had never disobeyed the Collective, but there was a first time for everything. The Collective probably wouldn’t care either, despite what they said about being all-seeing and in everyone’s minds and whatnot. What harm could there be in it anyways?
He scarfed down his breakfast and ran outside. The green and yellow fields that surrounded his house for kilometers in every direction were being jostled by a light breeze, in a way that resembled waves. Daven looked out at the ocean. Each stalk taller than a man, with a cluster of giant leaves covering the delicious cob. This variety of corn had evolved from the corn of ancient pre-Collective humans. Ironically, the population of Earth was much lower now, so this gigantic variety of corn wasn’t even needed. If it had existed back then, humanity could’ve started World War III over it.
It was so peaceful outside. Daven couldn’t believe there was a war happening while he was here, just standing on his land, looking out across the fields. The sun was just rising, painting the sky pink and the fluffy clouds orange. In the distance the mountains stood, like sentinels watching over Daven, towering and majestic. All of nature seemed to be encompassed on this one small farm.
Daven took a deep breath and took out his harvesting scythe. More accurately, his fingers and hand retracted into his arm, formed into a curved blade, and then reappeared, ready to harvest. The Collective made sure that everyone had the right tool for the job, from birth. These tools functioned so synergistically it felt almost as if they were programmed into the user’s brain. It made Daven feel like a robot, and when he had that feeling, the headache evolved into a full-on migraine that seemed to split his brain like a fault line.
His thoughts (and his migraine) were interrupted by a boom. A sonic boom echoed across the fields as a strange aircraft appeared high in the sky. It slowly descended and Daven could make out more details. It was a matte black color that seemed to absorb all the light that hit it, and used some sort of VTOL technology, having four fire-spewing engines that each rotated individually to allow it to move both fluidly and precisely. The main body was triangular, sloping down vertically, with a cockpit near the point. It resembled a tortilla chip, but looked much more dangerous.
As it was still landing, a hatch along its bottom face opened and a rope dropped out. Along the rope several humanoids descended smoothly. They were wearing full black, and carrying sleek, ergonomic rifles of the same color, standing out drastically against the yellow and green of the fields. Daven was especially confused about their gear: full helmets, various armored plates, as well as face masks. When Collective soldiers were sent to war they just had armor grafted to their skin.
Oh, these must be robots! Daven thought, excitement and fear quickly turning to anger, So why are they here?
The robots approached closer, spreading out and scanning their surroundings. Several of them approached the house. One of them, probably the leader, nodded, and they kicked down the door and charged inside.
“What are you doing?” Daven erupted, “THAT’S MY HOUSE DAMMIT!” He lifted his scythe and furiously rushed at the nearest one.
The soldier pivoted on the spot and whipped off his mask. Daven paused, as if compelled by some previously unknown instinct. The robot looked nothing like a robot. It had a tanned, somewhat wrinkly covering over what should’ve been flesh. It had a strange bunch of yellow follicles on its head that resembled grass. It had eyes, but they weren’t one solid color, rather a black circle within a blue one within a white orb. It had a mouth, but the mouth had a strange pink appendage within it. It looked organic, like the plants Devan consumed. Human? But humans were never organic. Daven’s head started to hurt. It felt like science had leapt out a window and clobbered him across the head with a baseball bat.
“Now I bet your head’s hurtin’, ain’t it?” The robot said with a strange drawl; not the consistent, uniform tone of all humans.
“You can talk? You sound so weird! Why aren’t you killing me?” Daven’s brain was trying to process everything but it couldn’t. It was like he ran out of computing power and now things were melting down inside him.
But the rage remained. The defiance against the Collective, the need to get revenge for the pointless deaths of his parents.
He lunged at the robot with his scythe, and within a meter of him stopped dead in his tracks.
A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm, echoed in his head.
“Ah, you’re exactly what we’re looking for!” The robot said.
Wait, is he a human? Devan’s migraine was searing worse and worse as thoughts rushed through it, Then what the hell am I?
“Sir, we have hostile signatures by the thousand, closing in from all sides!” One of the humans yelled.
“Thanks for the warnin’ Jon,” The blonde leader replied, taking something out of a back pocket.
“What’s th-” A surge of electricity rocketed through Daven’s android body as the taser short-circuited his servos. He collapsed on the ground with a thud, and the blonde man hefted him up.
“Phew, it’s heavy as a boulder! Hey, give me a hand ‘ere fellas!” Several of the other men ran over.
Daven’s eyes were closed by the special forces team, but his audio sensors were still functioning as he was dragged into the dropship on a rope, and they were still functioning as he was attached to some rack, like one of the farmer’s tools he’d used so often. That his dad had used so often. His migraine spiked.
“I can’t believe it!” He heard a woman’s voice, “I never thought we could do it! I mean, a robot that thinks it’s human. Wild…”
“Was it worth it turnin’ Earth into a bot breedin’ ground though? We’ll still hafta shoot our way outta here, since the rest of ‘em are still a damn hivemind.”
“Sir, it’s worth it. Imagine what this means for science! Imagine what this means for our wallets!” The woman’s voice was giddy and excited, “Oops, I forgot to shut it down. If it hears any more it’ll definitely start corrupting that emotional data it created. Can’t let that happen, can we?” Daven realized that she was talking about him.
The headache stopped.
I like the idea. People created human-like environments for their AI experiments, hoping a sense of individualism would develop, then came in to harvest them for business. It's well set up to lead to other things, it has a twist, and it raises an ethical concern.
There are a lot of problems with the execution, though, like starting off with an alarm clock. The whole morning routine is a cliche best forgotten. It's full of things that only make sense for humans in this case, like rolling out of bed while asleep, splashing water on the face, eating organic food, and having wrinkling around the eyebrows. The cliche of staring into a mirror and reflecting is done too early for the reader to care; it'd be better to mention how empty the fields are when Daven goes outside, and how he looks at the sunrise on the horizon, scanning for imaginary robots, come to take away his parents.
Most of the issues after the morning routine are inconsistencies between actions and thoughts, starting with the comment about WWIII and corn. It would've been interesting if the story hinted that there was a 3rd world war and giant corn could've prevented it, but it's a fully hypothetical comment made and discarded. The ship the humans arrived in was described a bit too much; you want to provide effect for the reader, not delve into specs. When Devan encounters the humans, there's an inconsistency between his mental assertion that humans all have "consistent, uniform tones" and him shouting THAT'S MY HOUSE DAMMIT. There are other small things to work on, but this is enough to start with.
Thanks for the advice! I purposely used the morning routine to make the reader think that the main character is a totally unremarkable human. I also am not sure how I could replace that first section. Good catch on the last part though, I can't believe I didn't notice that.
Also @mizal what are commendations?
Thanks. I remember when they were added but that feels like years ago...
It's pretty good. I have to say that I did really enjoy the first half. The narrative arc is lost a bit in the second half. When it comes to the big reveal there is too much you have left to explain.
My feeling is that the twist you wanted to have is that the humans are actually robots and robots are actually humans. I applaud you for this. It is a cool idea because it cuts right to existential questions of what it means to be human, so this has the potential to really cut. Books like “I, Robot” have explored this in novel format to great effect.
At least from my perspective this central twist was well foreshadowed. However when it happens it is not as sharp as it could be. You need too many words to make it around that corner and hence it is not a sharp a turn as it could be.
The problem for me starts after the robot takes off his helmet. There is this whole story just glued on how this all done for financial gain, etc. I found this confusing, it seems to distract form the main point. This part comes basically out of the blue with no foreshadowing whatsoever. Also it raises more questions than it answers. If this is a commercial operation why do they have to fight the Collective at all? Why is there a collective in the first place. Wouldn't it be easier to have robots live peaceful 18th century or so human lives?
I think this would work well with a flashy open ending, as in the last line is where the protagonist realizes he is the robot an the rest is in the mind of the reader. Or with a more traditional narrative ending where we see him active again (perhaps he escapes or he integrates into a different society) and we can see how the realization actually changes him.
All in all, this is really good stuff. Write more.