Blank Space Competition 2019 (Honorable Mention)
Rooster’s position was that the phrase “happily ever after” was inherently bullshit.
“Think about it—when would that ever have made any sense?” He was getting animated about it as they made their way through the desert, and Chrysler could have sworn she could see his actual facial expressions flickering through his avatar image as he gesticulated. Even though the autopilot they had installed on the old pickup truck was fairly reliable, she kept a hand on the wheel. Not for the first time, she was glad she was the one in the driver’s seat.
He went on, elaborating. “Logically, mortality has been a thing for longer than stories, right? So anyone who could put together a story would have known that, at some point, we’re all going to kick the bucket, and the same goes for anyone and everyone we care about. Therefore, whoever coined the phrase would have to have been willingly deceitful.”
Chrysler sighed, exasperated. “Jesus, it’s kids' stories, Roo. Does one phrase really matter that much?”
“Of course it matters!” He spluttered. “What if we had kids, Chry? Living in a world like this, would you think it’s OK to lie to them about where this is all headed? People need to be prepared for the future not only physically, but emotionally.”
This struck a nerve, but she knew that matching his energy would be counterproductive, so feigned a dry, quiet calm. “Ah, I see. So you’re saying that constantly telling kids they're going to die will make for some well-adjusted adults, is that it?”
The sarcasm and the tone shut him up for a few miles. She didn’t like using a straw man argument on Roo…it made her uncomfortable, as the two of them had been closer than ever these days…. Nevertheless, it was pretty consistently effective in breaking him out of an argumentative loop, when he fell into one. So, as he stewed and worked up a counterargument this allowed her to shift her attention and absorb the view around them.
The interface was using the micro cams on the truck’s exterior to dissolve the roof and simulate the landscape they moved through—were they in Arizona now? Utah, maybe? It was hard to keep track. They’d been on the road a few days and leaving the route up to the autopilot. She knew they were headed roughly Northward to evade the impending seasonal storms and fires, but beyond that she didn’t trouble herself with the details. The interface would let them know when they were getting close to a relatively stable climatic zone. Their group had agreed to find a site that could ensure one month minimum with no extreme weather events, so she was looking forward to unpacking the dwelling unit and stretching her legs.
Being cooped up in a car had seemed a prime opportunity for Chrysler and Rooster to put time into the task they’d been assigned—writing new fairy tales. The adults of the group had agreed to jettison childhood narratives of the old world, to provide the next generation with more appropriate values and lessons for their nomadic existence. However, given such an important task, they had immediately gotten bogged down in the details.
In a steadier voice, Rooster finally said, “Look, I hear you. Stories are always selective versions of reality, after all. Right?” He waited, beak pointed in her direction. She tipped her head ever so slightly and the spire followed, allowing he might be onto something. “Ok, that’s fair. All I’m saying is that honesty is important. If we’re building new cultures, we have to learn from the mistakes of the generations that fucked up the world. And if we get to choose our values, I think a reverence for truth seems like a pretty good place to start.”
Nuance wasn’t always his strong suit, but she had to admit that Rooster had a point. As she was about to reply, Yeez appeared on the common band.
“Heads up folks, looks like the road is pretty iffy up ahead… probably going to need to go full manual.” Her attention returned to the road surface ahead. Sand had accumulated over the asphalt in places, obscuring its painted lines—the autopilot would have problems with that, and could glitch out, sending them off-course.
So it was that Chrysler spent the rest of the afternoon in tense concentration, clumsily piloting the truck over nascent drifts that would become dunes in some short while. She marveled that previous humans had held themselves as the pinnacle of machine navigating systems as their vehicles moved slowly, guided by the hesitant instincts of their meat-based pilots.
“Hard to imagine this getting better any time soon,” Yeez bleeped in.
“Yeah, we’ll have to update the protocols in case we’re routed back this way next season.” Her grip was tight on the wheel.
“On it,” said Rooster. He leaned back in his seat and the feathered head greyed out to indicate a lack of availability as he logged in to enter the new geographic shift. Their AI’s foundations had been written for measuring traffic and optimizing drive times, so it needed a nudge here and there.
They made camp somewhere in the desert after the road cleared up. The group had a standing policy of dropping avatars at night, and seeing her companions’ actual faces again felt centering to Chrysler. There was a quiet sense of ceremony to the building of fire, stringing of lines and washing laundry, and finally dinner with the group. Engagement with the base realities of their bodies’ needs was welcome respite after being in the interface all day.
Chry and Roo collapsed into their seats after dinner and slept, exhausted, with fingers loosely intertwined on the center console.
The next leg of the journey took them out of the desert, up through steep, verdant foothills into the mountains. The interface, (somewhat distressingly) seemed to be developing either boredom, a sense of humor, or both, displaying virtual signs of needless encouragement along the route that mimicked the old-school billboards they’d seen dotting historical highways.
As they moved through a rain storm Chrysler worried about the autopilot’s visual systems so once again took on manual control.
“I think I’ve got it,” she said suddenly.
“Uhh, maybe not now?” Roo murmured through clenched teeth as he stared through the windshield and the limited visibility in front of the truck.
“If we’ve got to curate reality to make an effective story then yeah, we edit! But we don’t have to start from scratch. Sure, 2,000 years of civilization seems like a lot, but on the timescales of geology, or evolution, that’s a drop in the bucket.”
Roo refused to meet her intense gaze, his knuckles white on the hand rests “Ahh, ok, I see your point…”
“No, I don’t think you do.” Her voice had become urgent and he was worried.
“How long did we have agriculture? Ten thousand years? Twelve? The very thing that made permanent settlements, specialization, and even architecture possible—that’s been around for less than ten percent of our existence as a species.
“Yeah, uh…” his voice hesitant, uncertain but considering now.
“I’m saying, for 90% of our species’ existence we’ve been transient. This isn’t the blip, Roo—this is a return to our natural state. We have all the stories we need.”
His head cocked, silent for a moment. Then he began to laugh—chuckling at first, then cackling wildly. She glanced over, worried, then joined him. They creeped through the downpour, laughing their heads off as they followed the interface’s arrows toward their next home.
One week later, Roo stepped from the tree line back into camp with a proud collection of nuts and berries in his bag. He was famished, and struggling to hold back from gorging himself before his prize was tallied in the group stores. Nevertheless he held back, and as he made his way through camp happened upon Chrysler reading their latest creation to a band of children.
“…and finally, as the caribou led her herd through the steep walls of the pass they stopped along a ledge and looked out across the new valley.”
She looked up as he approached and he could feel her smile from beneath the iconic skyscraper.
“It was green, and lush, and there was happiness for as far as they could see.”