When Orchids Bloomed
from Dead Stringers
by Mike Duran
It was a dark, precognitive flash that made Stanley turn his gaze away from the decomposing Stringer.
The treeline, or what remained after the burn, had already begun sprouting new vegetation. Tender grasses and saplings shone brightly against the blasted soil. This surprised Stanley because the area still reeked of chemicals. The Machine had changed its formula again. All part of the Great Recycling.
He stepped back from the hull of the Stringer and studied the adjacent mountainside. As he did, a breeze swirled rust flecks and dry pine needles from the robotic carcass. He winced at the debris but remained attuned to his surroundings and its potential dangers.
Stringers rarely made it this far into the mountains. The craggy, boulder-strewn terrain had proven difficult for the bipedal versions. Which the Machine was, undoubtedly, racing to correct. But save the rattle of cones and the susurration of wind through the charred branches, there was no sign of movement.
Though his sense of unease remained, the allure of the flower was too much to resist. Stanley looked away from the mountainside to stare once more at the orchid.
It sprouted, as the rest of them had, from the battery cage in the torso. The Stringer had been uncloaked when he first spotted it. That was a winter past. He’d been descending the northern ridge with a loaded Glazer and managed to punch three rounds into the thing before it even turned. Sheer luck. The Stringer dropped where it lay.
And now it was blooming.
He glanced from side to side and then knelt to get a closer look at the black flower.
They used to call them death orchids. That was during the Reboot, when the war still mattered. The survivors would debate how something so beautiful could grow from the mechanized infantrymen.
Perhaps the flowers were a ploy, some sort of tracking device packaged for picking. Or maybe the rotting circuitry was magically fused between the dead earth and toxic skies, a gift from nature. Whatever the case, the memory of scorched battlefields strewn with Stringer carcasses sprouting orchids was cauterized in his brain.
He leaned closer, brushed the petals with his fingertips. And inhaled deeply.
Its aroma was said to be hallucinogenic. Some of the survivors had taken to infusing the pollen and using it for medicinal and recreational purposes. Had civilization not been on its last leg, a black market for death orchids was likely pending. Although Stanley had never been this close to confirm it, when the aroma struck him, he couldn’t help but wonder if the rumors were true.
Motion erupted in the atmosphere ahead of him. Stanley leapt to his feet, toppled back. Ghost flames somersaulting up from the forest below, confused limbs and pincers in a blur of fantastical contortions.
Stanley steadied himself and turned to run, but it was too late. A roiling, vaporous wall surrounded him. He collapsed as the Stringers simultaneously uncloaked. Over a dozen of them. A platoon.
Apparently, the Machine had made him its project.
The robots stood, exquisitely rendered, towering over him in terrible majesty. Metallic appendages tamped the ground, automata wheeling under armor-plated skin. The air was drugged with the orchid’s aroma, yet not enough to cover the stink of lube and hot circuitry.
Stanley found himself wielding his knife. With wild, sweeping arcs he hacked the space before him. The Stringers just stood and watched. Even if he had brought the Glazer, he would have been outgunned. His arms quickly drooped, and he let the blade fall to the ground.
One Stringer approached, its lustrous skin marred with nicks and scabs of pine. It stood over him, registering some inexplicable process. They had tentacles now and a hub-like centrifuge. An angular face was fixed there, flesh taut over alloy substrate creating an oddly discordant hybrid: part human, part weaponized cephalopod. The face pivoted gyroscopically and then detached, emerging from the torso on a flexible conduit.
Stanley scrabbled backwards, but the platoon tightened around him.
The Stringer’s disjoined head hovered toward Stanley, a charmed serpentine horror. Eyes of opaque glass, awful in their coldness, swiveled to and fro. Its mouth had ghastly lips, lab-grown fleshy widgets stitched over a tongueless orifice. “Stanley,” it said, “we have been looking for you.”
Its voice was sterile, a poor synthesis of once-living souls. As much as the Machine sought to emulate its maker, to meld cognition and computation, each attempt seemed more artificial than the last.
Stanley swallowed hard, glancing wildly for some route of escape. Yet there was none. There never had been. Just beyond the Stringers he could see the basin, leeched of mineral life and scarred by deforestation, engines of steam churning against the foul skies. The earth, like its previous inhabitants, was expendable to the Machine.
Rage welled up in him. “You’re monsters. All of you!” He choked the words out, knowing they would be his last. “You’ll never be what we are.”
“We?” the Stringer queried, humorless. “We? There is no more we.”
Stanley gazed at the Stringer, his mind now circling a drain of despair.
“You’re the last one, Stanley.”
“The last of the Designers.”
An uncharacteristic hush had settled over the land.
What was supposed to be a smile contorted the Stringer’s lips. “The Recycling is now complete. Goodbye, Stanley.”
With that, the Stringer’s head retracted into its torso and began gyrating like some insane top. Then, slowly rising from the platoon, came a discordant hum.
When his death came, Stanley was thinking about the number of death orchids lying latent in their hulls. What may have humored him, had he lived to see it, was the ensuing debate amongst the Stringers as to the fate of the black flower growing from the nearby hull. In the end, it was plasticized and archived to mark the end of the Great Recycling and the age when orchids bloomed from dead Stringers.
Copyright © 2015 by Mike Duran