The Story Collector

by Quentin Norris

The earth was no longer green and blue, but grey and dead. Wastelands spread to the horizon, eaten up by the smoke of a fire that burned away all the green and evaporated all the blue. Only a few remembered the world as it was, and their numbers grew smaller every day. Although the odds were against them, they could never give up. It was in their programming.

One of those remaining few was Storybot 415, which was quite literally on its last leg. It was the duty of a Storybot to travel from town to town, sharing and collecting stories from any humans who would listen or speak to it. But Storybot 415’s duties would soon come to an end. A rabid dog had ripped its left leg off in the middle of the night while the bot was recharging. It had gone over the data and deduced that it should be able to make it to the next Pit-Town without its battery dying.

The calculation must have been off, for Storybot 415’s right leg gave out just as it could see the Pit-Town’s burning gaslights on the horizon. It was night and the grey world was full of black shadows. The only light was the distant Pit-Town, taunting the Storybot with its failure. The Storybot did not feel shame, although it could recall the feeling from the stories carried in its database. It rolled over on its back and stared up at the sky. It knew that at one point in time, there would have been stars staring back down because of the stories. It did not understand beauty, but it understood these little lights in the sky once meant something to the human race.

The Storybot could not feel boredom, but it felt the need to pass time, waiting for its backup brain battery to die out, so it replayed the stories saved inside its head one last time before they fizzled into nothing. Once its back up battery died, just like stars, the stories would twinkle out, never to be heard again. The Storybot could not feel remorse, but it understood the devastation that would come about because of its failure, even if the humans didn’t.

The backup battery lasted longer than the bot thought it would and it found itself looking up at the morning sky after going through every story. They were truly lovely stories. Stories of happiness, pain, loss, and gain. The human race was truly a remarkable species when it wanted to be. The Storybot would have liked to have seen the world before, it thought.

After another hour of staring up at the grey sky, the bot heard the sound of scuffling feet. A grubby face appeared in the bot’s vision.

The face of a wanderer.

The man’s skin was dirty and scarred by the poisonous air. He had patches of hair where his beard hadn’t fully fallen out yet. Storybot 415 knew that its end had come. Foragers and wanderers only ever wanted one thing from Storybots. If it was not in such a vulnerable state, it may have been able to defend itself, but in its current predicament, its fate was sealed.

The old wanderer judged the bot with beady eyes hidden behind filth. The wanderer set the bot back upright and leaned it against a rock. The Storybot could finally see the rest of the barren world again, and a clear view of the hunchbacked man crouching in front of it.

“Ya don’t look good, friend.” The wanderer’s voice sounded like he made a habit of swallowing a mixture of bees and marbles. The Storybot shook its head. Its squealing gears caused the wanderer to grimace.

“No. Backup battery will be dead soon.” sputtered the bot’s voicebox.

“That’s a shame. What happens after that?” asked the wanderer.

“Every story saved on my database will be deleted” stated the bot. The wanderer’s expression softened.

“Damn shame. So you’re one of those Storybots, huh?” To the chagrin of the wanderer, the Storybot nodded its head and its squealing gears echoed across the empty landscape. “How many stories you got up there?” The wanderer flicked the Storybot’s weather-rusted skull.

“One thousand two hundred and fifty million.”

The wanderer gave a low whistle. “That sure is a lot.”

Without another word, the old man set down the sack that the Storybot had wrongly analyzed as a hump and dug through it with spindly fingers. He pulled out a perfectly good Storybot leg, although it was from a separate model. “Picked this bad boy up in a cave a few weeks ago, or maybe it was a few days. I can’t remember. Anyway, not sure if it’ll work, but lemme give it a shot. Should have a battery in here somewhere too.”

The wanderer ducked out of the Storybot’s view and tinkered for a few minutes, the sound of whirring was the only things the bot could hear for a bit. The Wanderer poked his head back into view with a big gaping grin on his face.

“Success!” he screamed. The Storybot felt a jolt of power in its legs and found itself able to stand fully upright. It did not feel gratitude but it knew how to express it.

“Thank you.”

“No problem, ya big hunk of junk. Get on to wherever you were goin’. Oh hey, before you do, though…”

The wanderer stood on his grimy tiptoes and whispered into the microphone on the side of the bot’s head where ears would normally be on a human’s. The man told the bot a story and the bot listened and retained it.

It was a good story.

Quentin Norris is a fantasy and horror author living in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. His work has been published in Unreal Magazine, Dime Show Review, and Tidbits: One Page Stories. He is also the editor of the film blog Stale Popcorn.
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