Machines are Patient – flash fiction

The engineer tapped his power transmitter, causing lights to come on for the first time in a thousand years. “Welcome to the last outpost of human civilization on Earth,” he told his companions.

“What is this place?” the reconnaissance party commander asked.

“It’s an underground control bunker,” the fleet historian answered. “It controlled all the nuclear missiles for this alliance. At the outbreak of war, the other alliance struck first. For some reason, still unknown, this alliance never fired its missiles back. We suspected it was because their command and control was knocked out. But as you can see, this facility’s only blemish is a thousand years of dust.”

“What they didn’t realize was that it would only take one side’s bombs to make Earth uninhabitable for centuries,” the engineer added.

The men considered the control center, with its ancient machines shrouded in a pristine layer of dust. “It’s a miracle we were able to get a foothold on Mars before the End War,” the engineer volunteered. “Otherwise this would be the last symbol of humanity left in the universe.”

“It’d be a sorry grave site for human civilization,” the historian said.

“We’re back to stay, now,” the commander assured them. “The surface has regenerated into a paradise. It has all the resources we were running out of on Mars and so many more. It was a good decision by the Council to bring everyone back.”

The men walked among the rows of machines that hadn’t seen light or life in centuries. The commander stopped short. “Look here,” he exclaimed, “there’s a light blinking on this machine.”

The others joined him. The engineer dusted off the console. “I believe that’s a printer,” he said.

“Exactly,” the historian agreed. “They used it to write onto a material called paper.” He pointed to a row of file cabinets. “Those closets are probably full of writing on paper. It was very inefficient.”

“Look, the screen is glowing.” The commander pointed to the small screen on the printer console. “It says something: ‘Paper jam in feeder tray.’ What’s a feeder tray?”

“It’s giving little picture instructions,” the engineer noticed. “The feeder tray must be this thing.” He pulled out the tray as the picture instructed.

“One of the papers is in crooked,” the historian said.

The engineer removed the flawed paper. The picture told him to close the tray, so he did. “It says, ‘Press OK button’, oh, I see it.” He pressed the button.

The men jumped backward as the printer sprang to life. It spit out printed sheets of paper on top of the ones caked in dust.

At last the printer stopped. They heard its motor ebb into silence. The historian picked up the topmost paper. All three examined it. “It looks like a list of coordinates of some sort,” the engineer declared. At the bottom of the page were the words, “End Report.”

The commander tapped the engineer on the shoulder. He pointed to a nearby machine. “Hey, is that other screen lit up under all that dust?”

“Let’s see.” The engineer wiped away the dust from the monitor. Words flashed on the screen. All three stared at the monitor as the engineer read aloud: “Target report printed successfully. Launch sequence initiated.”

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