The Dancer and the Shattered Shell

It’s like this when dark comes: you get inside. The rule is simple and absolute.

Anna is running late after she finishes her audition. The auditorium doors close behind her and lock. The auditors will be there all night — but dancers can’t stay while they deliberate. It’s 5:42pm on a late winter evening. She’s never been out this late before.

She hurries but something on her foot hurts; she pushed too hard during the audition. The pain is near her heel so she keeps her weight forward, but the awkward gait slows her down. She checks her watch again. It’s taken her five minutes to make it two blocks. She’s not going to make it home before dark.

The cost to stay somewhere overnight is beyond her reach. She’s going to have to squat somewhere. Up ahead she hears the catcallers hollering for any strays (like herself) to come inside, for a price, of course. Anna turns down an alley to her right. Between the buildings it’s dark already. Goosebumps chase each other down her arms. She needs to get inside. These buildings, which are nothing but big stretches of red brick and broken, boarded windows, appear unoccupied. Anna tries one of the doors. Locked. She curses but doesn’t waste time trying another one. Instead she goes straight to one of the windows and pushes at a rotted piece of plywood. 

Anna tosses the bag with her dance gear into the building. Then she lifts herself over the sill, avoiding the tiny shards of glass that remain even after years of wind and rain. But, if no one comes to clean, there’s no reason for anything to move, right? That’s a law of physics. She climbs through without a scrape. Quickly she lifts the rotted plywood back into place. It’s not perfect but it will serve. Sighing, Anna leans her back against the wood and takes in the room around her.

The floor is cold cement, she feels the chill through her sneakers, and it stretches for what could be a couple acres. Bare. Empty. The walls seem sturdy enough. Then Anna looks up.

Half the ceiling is gone. And by gone it is gone twenty stories upward. It’s like a giant meteor ripped through. There’s a pile of debris along the rear wall — a giant shadowy mound. Anna is not in a building. She is in an empty, shattered shell of a building. Through the huge hole she sees stars beginning to shine.
Anna turns to yank the plywood away, ready to run screaming for help down the street. But she’s too late.

The swarm is already overhead. She hears the distinctive metallic series of fast clickclickclicks bouncing off every surface. It’s the sound of tinnitus growing wings. Tiny flashes of light flicker among the bots, like fireflies. They’re searching for heat signatures. Soon they’ll find her. She’s the only heat to be found in this cold little hell. 

Years ago, the nanobots surpassed what was believed about artificial intelligence. The bots were designed to heal humans and became a staple of modern medicine. Billions of the things were manufactured. Then the bots broke down their designated boundaries and began utilizing humans for their own purposes. Hunting via heat, the bots figured out humans are easier to spot after the sun goes down — less confusion about what’s a living creature versus a hot sidewalk. Now Anna is caught. It’s just a matter of time.

Strangely, she doesn’t feel anything but a numb bitterness. Hours of practice, years of going everyday to Madame Robard’s, the recitals. Even fucking learning French. All for nothing.

The moldy plywood slips down soundlessly behind her back — as useless as it ever was. “Merde,” she whispers.

The bots have found her. A handful come barreling down the open shaft of the building. No bigger than mosquitoes, though they are louder. They go for her feet. Her injury from the audition. Even now, she thinks, they heal first.  The bots were unable to fully escape their original programming.

Anna kicks, sending a couple loose. The kick feels good. She performs a half-assed jete. The bots on her shoes clear off. Don’t like sudden movement, huh

She feels the weight of her body. Her center of gravity feels low because she’s so scared. The bots are coming back and, overhead, she hears more. Her breath comes in hard bursts, and each inhalation feels like a needle. Her trembling arms move into second position. Her feet follow suit — the opening position of her audition performance. She counts off eight — the clickclickclick is louder; they’re dropping down like rain. She moves.

The opening tempe-leve is fast, faster than Anna has ever practiced. She moves through her choreography quickly; the clickclickclick adding to her nervous energy. The bots keep their distance, like they think a stray swipe of her hand might be mortal. Anna comes to the end of her choreography and begins to improvise. She can’t bear the thought of being still now that she’s in motion — another law of physics. She can’t keep the allegro pace, however.

She slows but the bots don’t move any closer.

The clickclickclick shifts pace too, as if the bots sense the change in her movement and are imitating her with their sounds. But she must be imagining that? Anna arches into an arabasque. She looks up. The room is filled with the hovering swarm of bots. They arc around, creating an upside-down bowl of air over her. The only light is from their flashes, which fill the space like tiny spotlights.

Then the clicks begin to sound more random — almost like applause. A small pulse moves through them, which terrifies Anna. She falls out of the arabasque and spins into another series of movements.

It’s not her imagination. The clickclickclick becomes more regular, matching her motion, giving her a beat. She wonders what it means when machines pause to admire beauty. And Anna dances.     

*This is my response to Chuck Wendig’s 1000 word story prompt over at Terribleminds 
**The prompts came from a random title generator that you guys should totally check out: Title Generator

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