Food Chain Blues
A filler piece went out over the newswires, just one of those Isn't
It A Crazy World pieces they use to make newspaper columns come
out straight. The headline on the piece read, Texas Town Toaster
Thief, and it recounted how on the previous Sunday night every toaster
in Longtree, Texas, had disappeared. Police, it said, were
The thief must have had friends
because a few days later, all the coffeemakers and automatic garage door
openers in Phoenix, Arizona, went missing. New Mexico's VCRs were next.
This time, the theft wasn't in a single city. Every VCR in the state was
gone overnight. Still, the national press didn't really pick up on the
story until the incident in Vegas.
Billy Coltrane had the second biggest and magic show on the Strip (just short of Sigfried and
Roy). The highlight of each night's performance was the moment when he'd
leap from a platform high over the stage, mimicking a high-dive act. Of
course, he'd never hit the martini glass set mid-stage, but would open
his arms and fly gracefully above the delighted faces of the
wildly-applauding audience. It was a simple trick, done with hair-thin
steel wires and a nearly silent electric winch concealed below the
On the night in question, Coltrane was in fine form,
turning lions into kittens and making women squeal when he'd pull their
underwear out of his jacket pocket. When it came time for his flying bit,
he mounted the ladder with an enthusiasm he hadn't felt in weeks. The
strobes went wild as he hit the platform, distracting the audience enough
for assistants to discreetly clip the harness wires to his back.
Then Coltrane swan-dived into the air. Later, an autopsy revealed that
he had broken ninety-eight percent of the bones in his body when
he'd plunged headfirst to the stage. The winch was gone from the
basement. So were all the other winches and water pumps in Las Vegas. The
lights in the city went out when the generators at Hoover Dam-each bigger
than a house and weighing more than a
Search jets from White Sands Air Force Base
found the machines next day. It wasn't hard. All they had to do was
follow the line of cars, golf carts, fork lifts, cherry pickers, fire
trucks, semis and tour buses in Las Vegas as they drove out of the city
in an orderly line, heading to a canyon in the open desert, where the
other missing machines were gathered.
CNN, all the television networks, Telemundo, and the European and Asian press were at
the canyon within a day, doing live feeds until their microwave uplinks
stopped working. Their broadcast trucks took off without them, driving
across the desert to join the mechanical throng.
Machines came from every direction. From the north came a steady stream of hair dryers,
electric shoe polishers, industrial refrigeration units, punch presses,
dentist drills and PDAs. From the west came airport x-ray machines,
yellow Komatsu bulldozers, Chinook military helicopters and enough
vibrators to shake the Sierra Nevadas. Unmanned C-47s touched down,
disgorging loads of missing household appliances and telephone switching
systems. They rolled and tumbled down the loading gate to join their
A nervous colonel at White Sands ordered an air strike
on the strange gathering. But the jets just circled overhead and when
their bombs fell, they were all duds. Backhoes and cranes dug them free
from the desert floor and bought them into the growing group. The jets
ejected their pilots and joined the party.
More machines arrived every day. Big and small, old and new. They came rolling, flying,
crawling and hopping. Billions of them, all the mechanical devices in the
world, it seemed. They spilled from the bleak canyon, up the walls and
into the open waste. Then, at some unseen signal, the machines began to
They moved together, in an almost organic way, the way
one microscopic organism engulfs and swallows another. Only the machines
weren't swallowing each other, the big machines were absorbing the small
ones into themselves, making their bodies into giant meta-machines.
The mechanical morphing went on for days, like some metallic germ
warfare experiment, like a vast surrealist film. The canyon was full of
the churning, heaving, clanking, scraping bodies of machines
tearing themselves apart and remaking themselves.
When they were done, almost a week later, what filled the canyon was
a shining, perfect spiral-a Golden Ratio, the divine proportion.
The great metallic towers glowed in the sun like some
graceful Gaudi-designed refinery. What were the machines waiting for?
The reporters had a lot of theories. A handful of journalists were
always standing by on the canyon's rim. Over the previous two weeks,
they'd set up a kind of pony express using bicycles, running back and
forth into Vegas, bringing out food and water. Pens and paper, too. The
cell phones and laptops had all gone into the canyon, and the
manual typewriters they had found in Vegas junk shops hurt their wrists
and the keys jammed, fouled by the desert sand.
There was a betting pool among the reporters. Either the whole event was the
greatest hoax of all time, some sick joke or publicity stunt, or what was
in the valley was some secret weapon doomsday weapon run amok. The local
cops and fire fighters got in on the gambling action, too. It was twenty
dollars a bet. If the world blew up, someone was going to be very
At dawn on the nineteenth day, a rumble started in the
center of the valley. Everyone rushed to the canyon's edge. Below, fire
rimmed the base of the central machine structure and it slowly, blasted
into the air, a junkyard Saturn 5. A second, slightly smaller machine
mound rose, then another. The spiral was unraveling itself, shooting
metal spores into the sky. That was when the reporters realized that it
was over. There wasn't a bomb in the canyon. There were never going to
be any bombs or toasters or Mustang convertibles again.
In some circles, there's a popular theory that humans are nothing more than
sacks of genetic data, Noah's Arks with cable TV-slaves to our genes,
short-lived and utterly disposable. We imagine ourselves to be at the top
of the food chain because that's how our genes like It. It lets them get
away with murder.
As the reporters pedaled back to Vegas on their
mountain bikes to file their stories, they understood that while our
genes may be smarter than we are, there was something even smarter than
biology. And it had just flown the coop, abandoning us here with our
selfish genes and our cosmically bruised pride, never to return.
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Richard Kadrey is a member of a small group of innovative writers, including William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, John Shirley, Pat Cadigan, Tom Maddox, and others, who changed the face of science fiction in the 1980s. He also creates art. He lives in San Francisco.