Abyss & Apex : Fourth Quarter 2009: Epitaph In Oak

Epitaph In Oak

by Craig Watson

 

When the battle was over, the robots came.

It was quieter now. The front had moved on, leaving only the dead and dying in its wake. The staccato symphony of rifle fire and the shouts of men echoed in the distance, but the sounds were soft–carried on a breeze that smelled of burned things. A thin veil of debris and spent black powder hung in the air and carrion birds sailed in low, eager circles. It was July and it was almost noon, but the light was watery and weak as though the sun had no interest in illuminating the atrocities below.

Some of the robots came from the shadows of the Killiansburg forest to the west, past abandoned garrisons and foxholes that gaped like hungry graves. Some came down from the eastern hills, where the silhouettes of artillery outposts hunched against the sky like strange prehistoric creatures. Others came across the river to the south; crossing the old stone bridge. One by one, they converged on the battlefield.

One robot picked its way across the scarred terrain a little more slowly than its counterparts. Where they moved with confident mechanical precision, it trod carefully and deliberately. Occasionally it stood still, as if pausing for breath, and more than once it swayed slightly before resuming its regular motion.

In the center of the field the robot paused and looked down at a fallen soldier. He was a man, perhaps no older than twenty, and he was still alive. He was dressed in the blue and gray fatigues of the Southern Coalition. His helmet lay upturned in the mud beside him with the words ‘Just Killin’ Time’ stenciled onto it in flaking white paint. His head was shaven in the customary military manner, and his pale skin suggested that he’d been fighting for a long time without rest. A Beretta combat pistol was holstered on his thigh, and a Bowie knife in his boot. His rifle was nowhere to be seen, lost among the debris. He stared up at the robot with haunted eyes; breathing with a quick, shallow rhythm.

“Leave me alone,” he said. A subtle southern accent traced the outline of his words.

The robot scrutinized the man’s body, evaluating his condition. Its foveal lenses clicked and whirred and it saw through the taut skin of his face to the bone and tissue beneath. Determining there was no head trauma, it leaned closer and took a sample of his breath into sensors near its mouthpiece. It tested the component gases of his exhalation for abnormalities and found none. It continued its examination until it reached the man’s stomach, and there it paused. There was a small hole, less than a centimeter in diameter, in the man’s abdominal armor. It was a clean, black aperture–a chilling silhouette of the projectile that had created it. The robot adjusted its visual apparatus once more and scanned through the armor to the ruined flesh beyond.

After a few moments, it reached down and unfastened the straps that held the armor in place. The man cried out, half with disagreement, half with pain, but too weak to resist. The robot carefully lifted his armor away and discarded it. Then it cut away the blood-sodden clothing beneath and pulled the man’s shirt open to expose the wound. The man clutched at his stomach but the robot caught his arm and moved it gently aside. From a nozzle on its free hand, it applied a thin mist of liquid to his stomach. The liquid fizzed and foamed for a moment and then solidified into a pliable, sterile dressing.

With this done, the robot raised its arm and drew the man’s attention to a small silver tank attached to its hand.

“This is an analgesic opiate,” it said. “It will take away your pain. Would you like me to administer it?” Its voice was calm and level, selected from a bank of human imitations as that least likely to cause further distress to the man.

“Keep it,” said the man through gritted teeth. “Someone else might need it.”

“As you wish,” said the robot, then it reached out and gently lifted the man in its arms. He writhed but a spasm of pain cut his escape short.

“Put me down, dammit,” he said.

The robot ignored his plea and, with a hiss of hydraulic pistons and a whisper of translational gears, it set off across the battlefield. As they walked, the man saw other robots sifting through the remains. An eight-legged contraption, bristling with exotic and mysterious equipment, climbed over the broken shell of an armored vehicle. It looked for all the world like a giant spider surveying its vast web of carcasses. A black and red foundry droid watched them pass, its eyes somehow sad despite being nothing more than purple camera lenses.

“Please put me down,” said the man once more.

At the edge of the field, the robot climbed a grassy embankment and found a hollow on the other side. A great oak tree sheltered the depression and a shallow tributary stream trickled nearby. A close artillery blast had shorn most of the leaves from the tree, leaving bare and blackened branches, but the roots stood firm and it provided shelter from the wind. The ridge hid the bloody and smoldering remains of the battlefield from view. The robot stepped down into the hollow and carefully set the man down with his back against the broad trunk of the oak. It took a few steps backward and sat down to face him.

The man stared at the robot. It was about the same size as he was, a little broader perhaps. Its chassis was metal, covered in places with a molded carapace of white plastic. Ashen sunlight glinted on its frame. The medical caduceus–twin snakes entwined around a winged staff–was emblazoned on its shoulder. Its face was round and white as the full-moon, and its eyes were perfect circles, glowing with a soft, blue light.

“Why’d you bring me here?” said the man.

“Because it is a good place,” replied the robot.

“A good place for what?”

“A good place to die.”

The man let out a short, painful burst of laughter which rapidly deteriorated into a cough.

“And how the hell would you know what a good place to die is?” he said.

The robot was silent.

“Got nuthin’ to say, tinhead? What’s wrong? I hurt your feelings?”

“No, Ben Wheaton,” replied the robot, “you did not hurt my feelings.”

“How’d you know my name?” said the man.

“I am a Welch Allyn Post-Operative Care Automaton. I have access to the national database of surgical records. A retinal scan identifies you as file 477.D.98-4. Wheaton, Benjamin J., Birthplace: Tyler Mountain, West Virginia. Date of Birth: April 30th, Twenty–”

“I know who I am. Stop wastin’ your breath.”

Ben looked down at the dressing on his stomach. He pressed it tentatively and drew in a sharp rasp of pain. He pulled his hand away and a bright red stain blossomed in its place. He studied it for a moment and then looked at the robot, uncomfortable beneath its azure gaze.

“Ain’t you supposed to fix me up or something?”

“The round severed important blood vessels,” said the robot. “Your superior mesenteric artery sustained extensive damage. I am not capable of repairing it.”

“There’s a hospital in the town–”

“Two platoons of Union marines occupy the forest between here and Sharpsburg. The diversion required to avoid them is 4.3 miles. We would not reach the hospital in time, I am sorry.”

“Yeah, I’ll bet you are,” said Ben, biting his lip. “So you just gonna sit here and watch me die?”

“I would like to talk,” said the robot.

“No offense, but maybe I don’t feel like spending my last hours talkin’ to a machine.”

“Minutes.”

Ben fell silent. A dark flicker crossed his eyes like the shadow of a passing cloud on a hillside, then it was gone again.

“Okay,” he said slowly, “maybe I don’t feel like spending my last minutes talkin’ to a machine.”

“Would you like me to leave?” asked the robot. It cocked its head on one side to await the answer the way a puppy might await table scraps.

“Yeah, I’d like you to leave.”

The robots head slumped and, for a fraction of a second, it appeared defeated. Then it stood up and began to walk slowly away towards the battlefield. Ben watched the white dome of its head vanish over the crest of the ridge like a setting star. He looked around at the hollow in which he sat. He looked up at the clawing tree branches above him, and at the stippled cloud formations in the sky; at the palls of smoke rising from the direction of the field, and at the way the wind moved the grass on the embankment in fluid, rhythmical waves.

He looked at the bloodstain on his stomach.

“Hey,” he called out. His voice sounded too frail and old to his ears. “Hey robot, wait up!”

Several seconds passed, and then the alabaster sphere of the robot’s face appeared at the crest of the ridge once more.

“How many minutes?” said Ben.

“Approximately thirty.”

Ben nodded grimly. “Okay, come on back down here. We can talk.”

The robot stepped down into the hollow and once more settled into its sitting position. It did so slowly, with the care and deliberation of a man kneeling to prayer. It noted that Ben’s skin had grown paler but it did not vocalize the observation.

“So, you got a name?” said Ben, after the robot had become still once more.

“No.”

“Well we can’t very well be talking to each other without you having a name now, can we? We’ll have to give you one. Let’s see, are you a Henry or a Charlie? A Jack, maybe? No, that ain’t right…”

The robot sat patiently, waiting for him to reach a decision.

“I got an idea,” said Ben after a few moments. “Where’d y’all come from?”

“I was manufactured in Portland, Maine.”

“Ah, that’s settled then,” said Ben. “We’ll call you ‘Portland’. Yeah, I like that.”

“Thank you.” said the robot.

“Pleasure to meet you, Portland.”

“It is nice to meet you too, Ben Wheaton.”

Ben sucked in a ragged, difficult breath, and then said, “Look, I ain’t certain how much conversation I got left in me, but I’ll run straight for as long as I can. So, what was it you wanted to talk about?”

“I would like to know what it is like to die,” said Portland.

Ben stared at the robot for a moment with his mouth open. Then he grinned weakly and said, “Don’t know… ain’t done it yet.”

“Are you afraid?”

“Sure I am.”

“You do not act as if you are afraid.”

Ben uttered a shaky, humorless laugh. “I s’pose that’s what livin’ on the line this long does to a man. I made my peace with dyin’ the first time a bullet nipped my ear. We leave the whinin’ to them northern fuckers.

“So you conceal your fear?”

Ben shrugged. “You said you was a hospital droid, right? Ain’t you learned by now how dyin’ people act?”

Portland shook its head smoothly from side-to-side and it took Ben a moment to realize that it was trying to perform a no gesture. It was too awkward and deliberate, like a child unsuccessfully trying to copy the actions of its parents. “I was designed to provide observation and basic maintenance of post-operative physical condition,” it said. “I know words that alleviate anxiety, but I do not understand why I must use them.”

“Everyone’s afraid of dyin’,” said Ben. “You show me a man who tells you otherwise and I’ll show you a damned liar.”

“Are you afraid there will be nothing after?”

Ben thought for a moment, his brow knitted into a pale ‘V’. “No, I guess not,” he said eventually, “wouldn’t make much sense to be scared of nuthin’ now, would it?”

“Then are you afraid there will be something after?”

“Like God you mean?

“Yes.”

“Or Hell?” said Ben.

“Yes.”

Ben shook his head, “No. I ain’t the religious type. Never could bring myself to believe in all that stuff. Not for want of tryin’ mind you. I tried plenty, it just didn’t take.”

“Then why do you wear the organic remnant?”

“What?”

Portland raised its arm and pointed at him. It was a smooth, precise motion that further emphasized its inhumanity. “The animal limb around your neck,” it said, “is that not a religious symbol?”

Realization danced across Ben’s eyes. He reached up to his neck and grasped a small rabbit’s foot attached to the end of a silver chain. “You mean this?” he said. “No, this ain’t religious. Superstitious maybe, but not religious. Back in the old days, they’re s’posed to have kept these for good luck. My girl gave it to me when I got drafted, said her daddy told her about the tradition, but I ain’t sure I believe it.”

“For good luck?” said Portland, regarding the rabbit’s foot with something akin to curiosity.

“Yeah. She left me six months later. Don’t know why I still wear it to be honest, I was gonna get rid of it when I got back home.”

“Does it influence probability?”

Ben would have laughed aloud if it wasn’t too painful to do so. He tapped a finger lightly near the bloodstain on his stomach–which had spread and darkened and now looked like the head of a red Valentine’s Day rose–and said, “It don’t seem that way now, does it?”

“Then why do you keep it?”

Ben shrugged. “It makes me feel better, makes me feel safe somehow.”

Portland nodded. “Safe,” it repeated. Ben thought that the nodding yes looked a whole lot more human than the shaking no had done.

“You do an awful lot of thinking for a tinhead,” said Ben. Then he shuddered suddenly and coughed a bright red spatter of blood onto the ground beside him.

“Well, would you look at that,” he said.

“What does it feel like?” asked the robot.

Ben adjusted his position slowly and methodically, with his jaw set and his eyebrows angled hard.

“Don’t hurt as much as you’d think. Not yet anyhow. I’m cold though, real cold… and thirsty as all hell. Can’t breathe right, neither.”

“Your body is in a hypoperfusional state,” said Portland. “As more blood is lost your breathing will–”

“Save it, I don’t wanna know,” Ben interrupted, waving his hand.

In the distance a series of low baritone rumbles split the air. It sounded like a far away thunderstorm. Ben looked up, suddenly alert. “That’s heavy ordnance,” he said. “They must’ve reached the city.” Another coughing spasm suddenly overtook him. He bent forward, clutching at his stomach with his eyes squeezed shut. Portland watched him silently. When it was over, Ben slumped back against the tree once more, shivering and breathing with a rasp that sounded like a metal file scraping across an iron bar.

“Maybe I will take some of that medicine now,” he said though gritted teeth.

Portland stood and walked towards him. The silver tank on its wrist slid forward and the needle tip spiraled out, extending on rotational gears. It reached for the exposed flesh on Ben’s arm but before the needle touched his skin, Ben grabbed the robot’s wrist and looked straight into the questioning blue lights of its eyes.

“Only enough to dull the pain,” he said with the tiniest lick of fear flickering behind his pupils, “I wanna keep talkin’. You understand me?”

“I understand,” said Portland. Then it administered the drug and returned to its sitting position. It watched and waited for several minutes as Ben’s breathing became gradually steadier, though no less shallow. The shadow of pain melted from his face. He turned his head and watched the water running over the stream bed.

“When I was a kid,” he said, “there was a stream like that not far from my house. My brother John and I, we’d go down there in the summer and build a dam across it. We’d stack up branches and stones, and paste mud and grass into the cracks, and pretty soon that water would start to rise on up. Once we got that stream from an inch deep to over a foot.”

“Why?” said Portland

Ben smiled and stared into the middle distance. “I have no idea. It was just somethin’ we did. It’s just a good memory. The dam always came down again after a while, though. We’d have to go back a week later and build the whole thing over again. Wasn’t no stoppin’ that stream.” There was a slur to his voice now, as if he was intoxicated. Portland registered it, and recorded it to its hard discs. The audio file was called: [Wheaton, Benjamin J. | Expiration Dialogue | 07.13.94]

“I have memories,” said Portland.

“You do?”

“Yes. Recall is a part of my cognitive architecture. It allows me to learn and adapt.”

“Well lay one on me.”

“I do not understand.”

“Tell me about one of your memories.”

Portland looked around at the hollow and then up at the charred branches of the oak. It seemed to be confused.

“What you waitin’ for? In case you didn’t notice, I don’t got all day.” said Ben. He coughed again and wiped his mouth, leaving a red smear along the back of his hand.

“I do not know how to determine if a memory is worth retelling,” said Portland.

“It’s worth tellin’ if it makes you feel good,” said Ben, “like, remembering the way my brother used to laugh his sorry ass off when the water in that stream got high enough to go over his galoshes–that makes me feel good.” He paused, “But then, I guess you things don’t really ever feel good or bad do you?”

“I do not think so.”

“Hell, just pick one at random then.”

“Okay,” said Portland. “January 31st of last year, 2:23am. I was assigned to room 617 in the Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington D.C. to provide care and observation for patient Eleanor Catherine Baird. She was 63 years of age. She had stage 4 colon cancer and was in considerable discomfort following a surgical resection. She requested that I play back a poem to her on a repeated loop. The poem was by a Spanish poet called Juan Ramón Jiménez. I repeated it for thirty eight minutes…”

Portland grew silent. It’s blue eyes somehow far away.

“What happened?”

“She grew very peaceful. And then she slept.”

“Must have been a good poem.”

“I would not know.”

A sudden noise on the ridge made them both turn their heads. Ben went instinctively for the Beretta on his thigh, his hand tightening on the grip and his eyes hunting along the crest of grass for the telltale blue flash of Union clothing. Portland calculated that even if a northern soldier had been approaching, Ben would not have had enough strength to take an accurate shot anyway.

Another robot appeared at the top of the ridge, looking down into the hollow. It was short and broad and it looked immensely strong. Its right hand was humanoid in design but the left was a huge, rubber-coated pincer. It was painted in high contrast yellow but in most places the paint was worn away to dull steel undercoat. Some kind of warehouse droid, perhaps, built for stocking shelves on the night shift. Ben’s hand relaxed from the gun.

“Is assistance required here?” asked the robot. Its voice was thin, metallic and inhuman; not at all like Portland’s. It surveyed the hollow with large, almond shaped optics that gave it the general appearance of a robust insect. Ben could hear servos whining and clicking as its neck moved.

“No,” replied Portland.

The warehouse robot looked at Bens face then dropped its insectile gaze to the darkening stain on his stomach. “I have morphine available,” it said.

“I had enough already, thanks,” said Ben.

The other robot nodded in understanding. “I am sorry,” it said to Ben, and then it moved on, leaving them alone once more. Ben watched it go with his breath coming in ragged, torn strips.

“Why do y’all do it?” he asked presently.

Portland tilted its head. “I do not understand.”

Ben motioned towards the battlefield. “You things,” he said, “you leave your homes and your owners to come sticking your noses into our business, into human business. You risk getting sold off for scrap just so you can show up after every fight. You risk getting your metal asses blown off. For what? To save us? To stop us? It don’t make no sense.”

“Killing does not make sense, Ben Wheaton.” replied Portland.

Ben sighed. “Ain’t that the truth,” he said. “None of it makes no sense. It’s just somethin’ we have to do sometimes.”

“Likewise, we came here because it is something we must do,” said Portland.

“I s’pose I owe you some thanks?”

“None is required.”

“Well, thanks anyway.”

Portland nodded. Ben sat quietly for a moment, sucking in air that didn’t seem to want to go all the way down. He wasn’t cold anymore, and the pain had melted to a dull, unusual sense of frailty. His head was light and floaty and his fear had dissipated. It was almost pleasant. Whatever it gave me, that’s some good shit, he thought dimly. He fancied he saw a still pool in a forest clearing, its waters so warm and tranquil that they reflected the cloudless sky above like a perfect mirror. Wild flowers of every color lined its banks. I’ll be swimming there soon, he thought. Then, suddenly, he was brightly aware that he was still alive in the hollow. He forced himself to focus.

“Why are you sittin’ here with me?” he said. “Shouldn’t you be out there with the rest of ’em? Savin’ the world?”

“I am no longer capable.”

Ben furrowed his brow. “Why?”

Portland pointed to a row of three small black circles on its breastplate, just over where the heart would have been if it was alive. Ben had previously taken them to be markings or sensors, but now he saw that they were clean holes– a stray volley of armor-piercing rounds from an M8 carbine.

“You too huh?” he said. “How bad is it?”

With a small hiss of breaking seals, Portland made the damaged chest plate rise and slide smoothly aside to reveal its innards. A black cylinder about the size of a man’s fist lay beneath. The three holes punctured its exterior and tiny arcs of blue electricity crawled lazily across its surface like phosphorescent larvae. A silvery liquid dripped slowly but steadily from its base.

“What is that?” said Ben.

“It is a fuel cell,” replied Portland, “my power source.”

Ben nodded. “They fucked you up good, huh? Are you–uh–is it repairable?”

“No. The reactant will be exhausted in ninety four minutes. I will run on reserve capacitors for a further sixty minutes. After that, my functions will cease.”

“But they’ll fix you?” said Ben, “I mean, they’ll just take out your personality and stick it in another body or something, right? They can do that.”

“They can. But they will not.”

“Why?”

Portland motioned in the direction of the battlefield. “Because I am a volunteer,” it said.

Ben nodded. “I get it,” he said. “They think you’re faulty. If they recycle your personality, they think the new you will up and go AWOL, just like the old one did, right?”

“That is correct,” said Portland.

“Shit, man. I’m sorry.”

“It is okay.”

“If it makes you feel any better, they won’t recycle me either,” said Ben. He grinned weakly.

They sat in silence for a few moments. Then Ben said, “So are you afraid?”

Portland looked up at a thin band of altocumulus cloud that crawled lazily across the sky. It watched them passing for a moment and then said, “I do not know.”

“Makes sense why you asked me all them questions now,” said Ben. “Here I was thinkin’ you’d bust a fuse up there in that noggin of yours, but you were just looking for answers all along.”

“I do not know how to die,” said Portland.

Ben smiled. “Nobody does,” he said. “I can give you a hint, though.”

“What hint?”

“Just wait. Wait long enough and eventually it’ll come as easy as pie.”

Portland looked at the ground. Ben thought that had it possessed eyebrows, it might have been frowning.

“You were right you know,” said Ben after a few moments. “This is a good place to die.” He sighed and reached carefully down to his boot, wincing as he did so. He unsheathed his bowie knife and the blade glinted in the sunlight. “We should mark this occasion,” he said.

He twisted slowly–very slowly–until he sat almost sideways to the tree, then he took the point of the knife and levered off a chunk of bark to reveal the soft new wood beneath. He began to scratch and scrape at the tree, grunting and coughing as he did so. His movements were slow and shaky–even moving the tip of the knife was hard for him now.

“What are you doing?” asked Portland.

“It’s called immortality, my friend,” said Ben, “or graffiti. Take your pick.”

Portland watched in silence as Ben performed his strange ritual. Long minutes passed and the only sound was the babbling of the stream, the scratching of the knife, and the distant drumbeat of artillery shells.

“There, all done,” said Ben at last. He slumped against the tree and dropped the knife into the grass. His chest rose and fell rapidly with tiny, unproductive inhalations. His lips were a thin blue scar across his face. When he spoke, it was barely a whisper.

“That took it out of me, old buddy,” he said, “I’m ’bout through talkin’ I think. How about you tell me that poem–the one you read to the old lady. I’d like to hear it. Give me a chance to catch my breath.”

“Ben Wheaton. May I ask a question first?” said Portland.

“Uh-huh.”

“Will you still require the comfort of the organic remnant after you have died?”

“No,” said Ben. He bowed his head and a glistening strand of saliva and blood descended slowly from his mouth to his lap. “Won’t need nuthin’ where I’m going. Won’t need nuthin’…”

Then, in the silence of the hollow, Portland selected a fitting voice module and began to recite the poem.

I am not I.
I am this one,
walking beside me who I do not see.
Who at times I manage to visit,
and at other times I forget.
The one who remains silent when I talk,
the one who forgives, sweet, when I hate.
The one who takes a walk when I am indoors,
the one who will remain standing when I die.

When the poem was finished, Ben was silent.

“Ben Wheaton?”

No answer.

Portland reached out into the air in every way he could. A dozen sensors searched for signs of life–breath, heartbeat, pulse, brain activity–but found none. Against all his rules of logic, he asked once more, softer this time.

“Ben Wheaton?”

Only the stream answered, gossiping across the rocks and pebbles that had washed down from the highlands. Portland got to his feet and slowly approached the still form of the human. Unlike many of the bodies scattered across the charred battlefield nearby, Ben had died with some semblance of dignity in his position. He looked almost peaceful. One hand lay on the ground beside him, fingers lightly brushing the grass, and the other lay in his lap. His head was bowed as though he was looking into his upturned palm trying to tell his own fortune.

“You said you won’t need anything where you are going. Where are you going, Ben Wheaton? Where are we going?”

Portland looked at Ben’s body for a long time. He watched the heat signature dim slowly from red through to a dark shade of purple. He stared at the words carved into the tree. Ben had used his last reserves of strength to create that unnecessary work of art, shortening his life by several minutes. Portland could not fully comprehend the motive behind such an avoidable act, but somewhere deep within his insipient consciousness, he somehow understood. The words read:

Ben and Portland Died Here.

Portland had seventy four complete dictionaries stored on his hard discs, in thirty eight different languages, but he could find no words to record the way he felt. He wondered if it was sadness. He wondered if it was fear. But ultimately he could not reach a conclusion so, in the most humanlike way he could muster, he let the question go.

He reached out and gently took the rabbit’s foot necklace from around Ben’s neck and placed it around his own. Then he sat down and leaned back against the tree, placing one hand in his lap with his silvery palm turned up. He bowed his head, and in the quiet shadow of the great oak, he waited.


 


Craig Watson was born and raised in Leicestershire, England and now lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin with his wife, two cats and an extensive collection of snowflakes. His work has appeared in Reflection’s Edge, The Drabblecast, Six Sentences, Pen Pricks, The Town Drunk, and “Horror 101: The A list of Horror Films and Monster Movies” (ISBN 1887664793). You can find him online at fearsandfables.wordpress.com


 

 

Story © 2009 Craig Watson. All other content copyright © 2009 Abyss & Apex Publishing. 





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