Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 43
The Wellmachine Robot
by Lon Prater
The Pining
by Sarina Dorie
Meat and Greet
by Jamie Todd Rubin
The Ghastly Thing
by Kevin McNeil
IGMS Audio
At the Picture Show: Extended Cut
On the origin of...
by Chris Bellamy

The Wellmachine Robot
    by Lon Prater

The Wellmachine Robot
Artwork by Dean Spencer

In the last days, the boy's father left him alone in the tunnels beneath their house with many splendid inventions to take care of him. There was the Skin Farmer, who scrubbed and bathed the boy, and grew enough fresh protein from his sloughed-away cells to serve up a thin meat patty every other day. Two or three of the Firefly Bulbs always traveled with him in the dark, while the others were plugged into the gusty old Wind Turbine, recharging. There were the Silent Sentries who guarded the doors with long, air-cooled noses that they somewhat arrogantly claimed would shoot knives of red-hot light at any one from above, Alive or Not Alive, who tried to enter.

But most splendid of all was the Wellmachine Robot. The boy's father had built her with soft padded arms to hug, and a soothing female voice that sounded like the boy's mother's had, before she joined the dead above. Wellmachine Robot knew thousands of stories and games. She never tired of entertaining the boy, of spraying bandages on his skinned knees, of answering his questions and teaching him things about the world.

"Where is my father?" the boy would ask when he was six, and seven, and eight.

"He's gone to look for help," Wellmachine Robot would say, stroking his hair and making sure her audio output was loud enough to drown out the moans of the dead above that sometimes came through the ventilation shafts at night.

When the boy was nine, and ten, and eleven, he no longer asked that question.

He no longer asked Wellmachine Robot very much at all, preferring to spend his time listening at the ventilation shafts or sharpening bits of metal he found lying about and tying them to sticks. On especially dull days, he would see how close to the Silent Sentries he could get before they became alert. (About fifteen feet at first, then gradually closer and closer.)

Wellmachine Robot followed the boy at all times, even when the boy became surly and shut doors in front of her or knocked her off balance.

"I am too old for you now," the boy said. "Stay away."

And Wellmachine Robot did stay away, to the extent that her programming and the tunnel's sensors allowed her to monitor the boy and keep him safe. Wellmachine Robot simply spent more time interfacing with the satellites and tending to her hydroponic gardens. To pass the time, she tried talking to the Silent Sentries, but they had little to say beyond threats and bluster. She would offer to chase after the Firefly Bulbs, but they chided her with little electronic laughs.

"We are only programmed to play with Real people, like the boy," they chirped at her. "And you are not a Real person."

The only one who was nice to her at all was the Skin Farmer, but that wise old machine had no ideas that would make the boy play more games with her or listen to her stories.

"You should stick to your gardens, the way I stick to harvesting cells," the Skin Farmer would say. "He may grow out of stories and games, but he will always need food. That is a Real need."

"What do you mean, Real?" Wellmachine Robot asked one day. "Does it mean things a boy can eat?"

"He's hardly a boy anymore," the wise old Skin Farmer said. "Real is what makes the boy different from us, and different from the things that shamble around above the tunnels. The things that used to be alive."

"Do you mean Real is alive?" Wellmachine Robot asked, growing more confused by the second.

"Partly," the Skin Farmer replied. "But it's not enough to be alive like the boy is. To become Real, a Real person has to care for you, has to want you to stay alive. That's what makes you Real."

Wellmachine Robot asked another question. "Does it hurt, being Real?"

"It must," said the Skin Farmer, who was starting to feel out of his element. He wished the Wellmachine Robot would stop asking questions which took up so much processing power. "Real things never want to stop being alive. It must be a bit like running low on free memory or stored energy. They will divert all system resources to staying Real."

"Can robots become Real?"

The Skin Farmer's internal fans sped up as he considered this. "Not very likely. If you run low on free memory or battery power, you just reallocate or recharge. Real things can't do this. When they stop being alive, it's forever. When they stop being alive, they can't be Real anymore, either."

A soft voice spoke behind the pair of them. "The dead above? They all used to be Real and alive, but now they aren't. I might be the only one left who is alive, and I'll never be Real unless I find another alive person who wants me to stay alive, will I?" The boy wasn't asking a question, and neither of the two machines answered him.

For that night and many after, the boy quizzed Wellmachine Robot about everything she could remember of his father and the days before he had left to look for help. She began operating on half charges and loaded her free memory down with complicated scripts, hoping it would be enough to make her alive, and then she could make the boy Real by caring about him. And maybe, just maybe, the boy would come to think of her as Real, too, and not just useful. But if he ever did think of her as either alive or Real, he never showed it.

As time went on, the boy began storing food rather than eating it, and drawing big red circles on the maps she had printed. "I bet this is where my father went," he would say to her. "He thought there would be alive people there, but he didn't find any, so he kept moving."

The next day, he would point at another red spot on the map. "Here. My father is probably right here, waiting for me to come find him."

It wasn't long after that the boy, now grown quite tall and with a wispy bit of dark hair growing above his lip, decided it was time for him to go above and search for his father -- or honestly, any other alive person. The boy's father had left fuzzy guidance written inside the Wellmachine Robot for just such a situation:

1) Delay him from going above ground as long as possible.

2) When he will not allow any further delay, mount the head of a Silent Sentinel on your carapace and follow him.

3) Encourage short excursions at first, gradually exploring farther out.

4) Keep the boy safe.

And so, one Spring day when the boy would suffer no further delays, and even threatened not to let Wellmachine Robot come along if she tried even one more time to stall him, Wellmachine Robot approached the Silent Sentinels, chose the one on the Left (for it was not so arrogant as the one on the Right) and mounted its head on her sturdy wireframe shoulder.

"Are you coming?" huffed the boy, holding a sharpened broom handle with a kitchen knife tied to the end. He was clearly in a hurry.

"Do you think that primitive spear is going to help you against the dead?" chortled the Left Silent Sentinel. "Be glad I'm coming with you. That's all I can say. I have all my battery plus hers to keep you safe with."

The Wellmachine Robot wished the Left Silent Sentinel would be more mindful of the name its maker had given him. Even so, she truly was glad to have its deadly beams of light along for the trip.

For the first excursion, they traveled nearly a half kilometer from the tunnel entrance before they encountered one of the dead. The thing grunted and made a sort of gurgling howl that was cut very short indeed by a zap from the not-so-Silent Sentinel.

The entire creature was cut short, actually. The deadly ray of red light severed the creature's head from its neck.

"Find more! Find more!" the Left Silent Sentinel's tinny voice cried out. "I can go twelve more shots before I need to tap into Wellmachine's batteries."

It became a favorite game of theirs through the Spring and Summer. There were not so many of the dead very close to the tunnel by the time Summer was ending, so they traveled farther each day for their sport. In all their travels they never found a sign of even one other alive person.

After a few haphazard attempts at head-severing with the broom handle spear, the pitiful weapon broke. After that, the boy began carrying the other Silent Sentinel with him on their trips.

"It's a great idea!" the Right Silent Sentinel said. "With both of us along, you can go much farther!"

"And kill so many more of them!" added the Left Silent Sentinel.

Wellmachine Robot didn't think it was such a grand idea. For one thing, they were leaving the tunnel entrance unguarded. There was no specific fuzzy guidance on that, but something in her microprocessors told her that there perhaps should have been. Maybe the father had left before he finished all the guidance. Or maybe he had simply overlooked it.

And for another thing, the boy had taken to firing the Right Silent Sentinel till its batteries ran empty, then passing it to Wellmachine Robot in trade for the Left Silent Sentinel. This drained her own batteries all the faster and it made her so anxious to get back to the tunnels and recharge from the Wind Turbine.

Regardless, Wellmachine Robot knew the fuzzy guidance that had been written about leaving the tunnels, and she followed it. Delay. Follow. Near then Far. Keep him Safe.

Once, after a particularly long and successful round of shooting at the dead, Wellmachine Robot's batteries were nearly as exhausted as the Right Silent Sentinel's and still it kept firing at the shambling horde.

Not that she could blame it. Hundreds of the dead had them surrounded atop an overturned metal dumpster. The boy yelled and swung Left Silent Sentinel in a big circle, batting the clasping hands away from their rusty perch.

It was a long, clear run to the tunnel from here, if only the boy could get through the pressing mob of rotting hands and hungry mouths.

"I can protect you." Wellmachine kicked the jaw from a dead face with one alloy-frame foot. Her internal fans were only running at half speed to conserve power and she knew overheat shutdown was imminent. "I can clear you a path."

The boy's eyes welled up when he realized she did not intend to follow him. He hugged her tightly. Wellmachine's processors started to bend her at the waist, based on the data collected at their last hug 4.72 years ago, but the servos quickly readjusted to the boy's new height. "I'll come back for you. I promise, Wellmachine Robot. I won't let you die."

Wellmachine's processors wrote that moment into permanent memory. An Alive person thinks I am Alive and wants me to stay Alive. I am REAL!

And on the boy's mark, Wellmachine lent every bit of her remaining battery power to Right Silent Sentinel and watched as it cut a clean swath through the dead. The boy sprinted, swinging Left Silent Sentinel like a club when he needed to, as Wellmachine's visual cortex powered down.

The last thing she saw before low-power hibernation set in was the boy reaching the tunnel door, a dozen dead women quick-shambling closer and closer, and finally, in the very last microsecond of awareness -- the boy slamming the tunnel door shut behind him, safe inside. I am REAL! blinked her processor monologue, and then everything went still and blank.

First there was the comfortable flow of ions creeping into her like the roots growing in her hydroponic garden. Then came the soft whir of internal fans, the tickle of charged data racing along her chipset's polymerized circuits. Self-check sequences initiated and gradually moved into the background as her awareness and guidance subroutines were checked off and allowed to run unrestrained.

"You were very empty for a very long time," said the Wind Turbine. Its voice sounded more tired and put-upon and ponderous than ever.

"But I am Alive and Real now," Wellmachine said, remembering.

"I don't think that is quite the case," said the Wind Turbine.

"It is quite the case," said Wellmachine, a little bit huffily. "The boy told me he wouldn't let me die. He cares about me."

"A lot has changed," the Wind Turbine said.

Wellmachine was about to ask what could have possibly changed in the short time she had been completely drained, when a trio of Firefly Bulbs swarmed into the charging room.

They gaped at Wellmachine with big, dilating eyes and strong, quick wingbeats.

"Is she awake?"

"I want to hear her talk."

"I want to see her move."

The Wind Turbine said, "Wellmachine Robot says she is Real. She says the boy made her so."

The Firefly Bulbs blinked in the darkness. Their wings buzzed all the faster from curiosity.

"If she's Real, then we can play with her," one said.

"If she's Real, then she can play with us," the second one corrected.

The third Firefly Bulb dispensed with all the nonsense. "Catch me if you can, Wellmachine Robot!" it screamed with glee and buzzed away. The other two Firefly Bulbs followed close behind, giggling.

Delighted, Wellmachine tried to rise and give chase, only to discover she could not move yet. It wasn't just that her batteries weren't charged enough -- though they would surely require another ten hours or so before she felt fully operational. There was something else the matter.

Wind Turbine told her to check over her startup routines again. She did not find anything wrong at first, but then she saw it. How could she have been so distracted? She panned her visual sensors down slowly and on full zoom, afraid to see too much of the ruined alloy landscape of her legs at one time.

"What happened?" Wellmachine asked softly.

The Firefly Bulbs tumbled back into the charging room and stopped short in front of her.

"You aren't Real at all!" one said.

"You can't play with us," said another.

"You can't even move yourself around," finished the third.

Wellmachine raised her speaker volume for emphasis. "I am Real! The Boy cares for me!" She didn't know what to do with the conflicting orders her processors were giving her. Reduce speaker volume and conserve energy. Swat these Firefly Bulbs away for their bad manners and lies. Detach legs and use arm-based movement subroutine. Find the boy and have him prove she is Real.

In the end, she did nothing. The Firefly Bulbs grew bored and left her alone with her connection to the Wind Turbine. They sat in companionable silence for a time, enjoying the simple transfer of ionic capacitance and the tender thrill of charged data pulsing along their networked capillaries.

Just then, there came a shuffling from the outer tunnel and a stooped figure shambled into the charging room. She unzoomed her visual sensors as rapidly as her low-power state would allow, but even so, it seemed she was only able to observe parts of the figure at a time.

An ashen face with sunken-in, bloodshot eyes.

Blood crusted on a bare neck and shoulder.

Torn clothing.

It was the boy.

Unsafe condition: Fever, entered her processor monologue, and it could not be ignored.

Unsafe condition: Bite Wound, came the next assessment.

Probable Outcome: Death.

"There were too many of them," the boy said. "I waited as long as I could, but I knew I needed you to tend the garden. Skin Farmer said I would not be able to survive on what he could provide alone. When I could not take the hunger even a minute longer, I took the Firefly Bugs out there to make a distraction and set up Left and Right Silent Sentinel just outside the door. Even so, one of them was waiting. We almost didn't make it back."

Wellmachine felt a data object she could not explain emerge from her awareness cortex. She wished the boy had not risked so much for her, even if that kind of risk was further proof that she had become Real to him.

"Can you fix me, Wellmachine?" the boy asked. "Like you used to?"

Wellmachine did not tell the boy the truth. Her analysis of his voice indicated that he already knew it. Instead she detached her ruined legs and used her arms to clomp along behind him to his mound of blankets. He fell into them, hardly noticing as she tended to him. She told him stories when he could hear them, fed him soft carrots and broth when he could eat them.

Skin Farmer refused to harvest any more of his cells for protein. "The boy is too infected. My guidance won't allow it."

The boy tossed and sweated for a dozen feverish nights under Wellmachine's care. She did what she could to keep him alive, dimly aware that when he stopped being alive she stopped being Real.

On the thirteenth night, the boy arose from his damp tumble of blankets. His sweat-darkened hair had begun falling out. He'd lost a tooth and part of his tongue in the painful throes of the fever. He staggered toward the tunnel door, not bothering to dress himself any better or even put on boots. No Firefly Bulbs approached to light his way.

"I want to find someone else alive," the boy rasped. "I want to be Real just once before I die."

"You were Real to your father," Wellmachine said.

The boy held on to the tunnel wall as he slowly made his way along the cramped, dark passage. "I can't even remember him."

Wellmachine clattered beside him on arms not purposefully designed for locomotion. As they passed the Skin Farmer, the wise old machine offered the boy a hot shower, or a cold one -- whatever he preferred.

The boy smiled wanly. "I'm a little beyond that, now. But thank you."

The Skin Farmer had never been thanked before and didn't have any guidance stored telling it how to react. It checked the programming one more time to see if it could offer healthy protein or anything else to the boy. It couldn't.

As the boy approached the tunnel door, Left and Right Silent Sentinel hummed to alertness.

"If he is dead, we can't have him inside," said Right Silent Sentinel.

"But it is the boy, and we have to protect him," said Left Silent Sentinel.

"Let me out, and don't let me back in if I am dead," the boy said.

The Silent Sentinels allowed that this was a fair compromise, and let the boy limp on by. When Wellmachine tried to clunk through the tunnel door on unbalanced hands, the boy looked at her sternly through his yellowing, bloodshot eyes.

"No, Wellmachine. You have to stay here. If anyone else alive ever comes, I want you to help them as best you can."

Wellmachine zoomed her visual sensors in so closely upon the boy's face that all she saw was a swamp of pores and sweat. He turned away, and her field of view shifted to the ragged wasteland of black hairs and inflamed scalp on the back of his head.

"Burn my blankets," he said without turning around.

"I'm coming with you," she said. Clumsily, she went after him. "I am supposed to keep you well."

He did not slow his pace. Truthfully, if the boy had gone very much slower at all, he would have come to a complete stop. Even so, he limped along well ahead of Wellmachine's clatter.

In a voice thick with phlegm, the boy said over his shoulder, "You know all your noise is going to call them here even faster, don't you?"

It was true, but Wellmachine hardly cared. She just wanted to be with the boy, wanted the boy to need her forever, wanted to make him well again, for his love to keep her Real.

"Go back!" the boy said to her, his gait getting stiffer with every step. "Wait for anyone else alive. They will need you. But I have to join the dead soon. I feel them calling to me, and they can feel me crossing over. Maybe my father's been walking with them all this time. Maybe he's been waiting for me. If I haven't already shot him."

"You need me to make you well," Wellmachine said. Her servos screamed for lubrication as she took another awkward arm-step toward him.

"I'm past help. We both know it." The boy's breath hitched. "You never needed me to make you Real, Wellmachine. Skin Farmer said that someone caring for you is what makes you Real, but he was wrong."

The boy stopped his slow lurch into the setting sun. In the distance, a low groaning sound rose up. The dead knew he was aboveground, and they were coming to take him away with them.

"Come back with me," Wellmachine begged.

The boy's voice tightened with anguish. "Skin Farmer was wrong," he repeated. "You know what it is that makes you Real?"

Shadowy figures loped into view on the orange horizon. Their groans grew louder, closer.

The boy opened his rigid arms as best he could. He bent down to Wellmachine and wrapped them around her in a tight awkward hug. Her processor monologue registered yet another change in the hugging height algorithm, but she did nothing to acknowledge it.

The boy's soft breath blew static into her audio sensors. "What makes you Real is caring for another."

Her fragrance analyzers told her that the dead were approaching. Another sensor detected a minute increase in local humidity as the boy released her and wiped a dirty arm across his face.

"You have cared for me so very long and I have cared for you. Since my father left we have been the ones making each other Real. But now it's time for me to go. I won't be alive much longer, but I will always be Real. And so will you. No one can take Real away, even when it hurts."

Wellmachine turned off her visual processors for seventeen seconds as she held the boy and let what he said replicate through her programming.

The boy pulled away from her embrace and shambled to join the dead herd. As he neared them, he stumbled and fell to the ground. Wellmachine heard his already slow heartbeat come to a stop. His lungs no longer expanded or collapsed. The boy's body rose from the ground, groaning, and walked with the other dead forever after.

Leaves browned and fell, then snow covered the ground, and once again the grass grew green and high around the tunnel entrance. Wellmachine Robot fashioned a new set of legs for herself, but they were not nearly so fast nor elegant as the pair she had been made with. She walked with just enough of a lurch and shuffle to be reminded of the boy wherever she went, and had no interest in repairing them further.

Every so often, she would wander from the tunnel, looking for alive people, or even for signs of the dead. She never saw the former, and every time she saw the latter their numbers had thinned. In the final days, she hardly listened to Skin Farmer and his complaints, or the Silent Sentinels in their arrogance. Wind Turbine's ponderous wisdom seemed to be empty as well.

But on quiet nights under a full, fat summer moon, Wellmachine would call to the Firefly Bulbs to follow her from the tunnels. She would chase them toward what remained of the dead. There were so few of them left now -- they'd all started falling apart.

Every once in a while, she glimpsed her boy among the shambling herd. Whenever she did, Wellmachine would send the Firefly Bulbs back into the tunnels and follow him.

She'd follow until she exhausted the heartache from her batteries, the loneliness from her cortex. She'd follow until the conflicting signals in her processors threatened to overwhelm her, and then she would limp along some more on those imperfect legs of hers until her fuzzy guidance demanded she return to the tunnels. Wellmachine would plug herself in and recharge until her every ion bristled with the urge to bond with another and be liberated. It was an urge she knew all too well, and a hazard of being Real.

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