John A. Frochio
A hovering shadow hung over Paul Rodriguez, giving him an ominous, sinking feeling. He looked at his wife Maria on the other side of the transport, and smiled to reassure her. However, as for himself, he was not so reassured.
Maria was a dark-haired beauty, half Mexican, half American with pieces of Italian, German and Scottish heritage intermixed. This gave her a uniquely exotic look. Yet behind that lovely exterior, she was a highly intelligent mathematics and computer science professional.
Paul was a third generation American of pure Cuban descent with coal-black hair and hard features, well worn by many years in maintenance in the nuclear industry.
His only comfort now was the thought that Maria would be with him throughout his new employment endeavor in Watchman maintenance. They would be together, whatever befell them.
She squeezed his hand. That helped ease his discomfort a little.
The transport pulled up to a plain, unadorned loading platform. The recruits quietly exited the transport. A gruff bulky man in a dirty Homeland Security uniform introduced himself as Charlie. He led them on foot up a long hill to a cluster of housing units, tiny block houses stacked side by side like a child's building blocks.
Charlie passed out keys and housing unit assignments. Paul and Maria took theirs and found their new home.
"Needs some flowers," noted Maria.
Inside their new home, Paul and Maria dropped their bags and looked it over. It was sparsely furnished but clean. Paul took a mental inventory: one table, two chairs, a small couch, kitchenette, a bedroom seen through a half-open doorway, another door that probably had a bathroom behind it. Paul opened the door to verify his guess. Yes, but pretty small.
This was not what they were used to. But they had been forewarned.
"Well, at least we have our privacy. It could have been a dorm."
She laughed. "Let's get settled in. I hope there's some kind of closet in that bedroom."
"You go first."
"Cover your ears in case I scream."
"Hey, Maria, I'm sorry it had to come to this."
"Don't be sorry. We have an important role to fill for our nation's security. We have a place to live and a place to work. And we have each other."
A hovering shadow over America brought about the advent of the Watchman Grid. The combined forces of unreasonable fear and reasonable caution led America to a massive and costly undertaking. The Watchman Grid was the end result. Over three thousand AI guardian robots were linked together in a redundant fault-tolerant wireless network from one end of the country to the other. These AI Watchmen were installed with the latest ground-breaking monitoring and defense technology, including a wealth of defensive armaments at their disposal.
All were given the capability to destroy massive amounts of real estate. All were given the authority to kill and destroy if necessary.
When the Watchman Grid went online, Americans felt safe for the first time in a long time. Most Americans, anyway. A few silent ones were more than skeptical; they were terrified.
A hovering shadow from the bedroom window awoke Paul Rodriguez with a start. He leaped from his bed and looked outside. Bare dirt and dirty gray block buildings were all that he saw. Just my imagination, he thought. Maybe a bad dream.
It was the morning of his first day of work. He quietly got washed and dressed while his wife slept. He woke her up before he left, wishing her a good first day. Then he went to training for his new robotics maintenance job.
Maria, still tired from a night of spotty sleep, got ready and went to orientation for her new job in the software engineering department.
The first day Maria made a new friend, Anu, a one year veteran artificial intelligence systems analyst. Paul made a new friend as well: a Watchman A.I. named Scarecrow. They worked very closely together, since Scarecrow was assigned to him exclusively for training purposes.
Paul reached for his laser melder. "This is going to hurt me more than it hurts you."
Scarecrow said, "That remains to be seen, Paul."
The Watchmen were tall and impressive machines. In many ways they were made in the image of man, but on a larger scale. They were bulky, encased in heavily reinforced steel plating. Within their torso, arms and legs were many types of weapons that could quickly be extracted and activated, guns, lasers, missile launchers. Within their oversized heads were the central processor and all long-range monitoring and communication devices. An artificial intelligence engine lay at the heart of their internal network. The Watchmen had the capacity to learn who their friends were and who were their enemies.
To most people, all Watchmen were identical. But Paul quickly realized that their A.I. capability resulted in uniquely individual machines with their own unique behaviors. His personally designated training Watchman, AIW-889, was particularly unique. AIW-889 reminded Paul of the Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz, so he began calling it Scarecrow.
Paul and Scarecrow became "friends" of a sort.
Scarecrow said, "Paul, what are you thinking right now?"
Paul was sitting at his workbench examining several circuit boards with a nanoscope. He looked up from his work and said, "I guess you could tell I wasn't concentrating on my work. I can't hide anything from you, can I?"
"I was designed to be highly observant. I am just testing my programmed skills. I hope you don't mind, Paul. For example, sometimes I see you stare with a blanked out look on your face."
"Well done, Scarecrow. Yes, you caught me daydreaming."
Scarecrow paused. "What is daydreaming?"
"That's basically when your mind goes off on its own, thinking about some hope or dream or passion instead of concentrating on the work at hand. Don't get me wrong: I do enjoy the challenges of my work and working with you. However, there are some things in my life that I enjoy more than this, and sometimes my mind wanders off and I think about them."
"Are you at liberty to tell me about these things?"
Paul pushed back from his workbench and leaned back, crossing his arms behind his head. "My wife, Maria. She's the love of my life. I think a lot about her. We've both been working long hours. We don't see each other except for brief moments in the early morning before we head out to work and in the evening before we fall asleep exhausted."
"The Government is driving you hard."
It was a statement of fact, not a criticism of the political atmosphere.
"Yes, but the work is critical. We all understand that. The world is at a boiling point. Power-hungry nations, irrational dictators and scattered terrorist groups are all breathing down our neck. There is no telling how much time we have or who may snap and attack us first. We need to get the grid operational -- if not fully functional -- as soon as possible."
"And then you will be depending on us to preserve and protect you."
Paul nodded and looked at Scarecrow. Though its face was cold, hard, expressionless, its words and subtle intonations packed a lot of expression.
"Exactly, Scarecrow. America will be depending on you and all the other watchmen. And they will be depending on all the engineers and technicians as well.
"OK, back to work. Let's schedule some event-response speed tests this afternoon."
"I'm available, Paul."
A hovering shadow followed an incoming mass of dark clouds from the West. From the Eastern horizon, thick smoke poured rapidly into the sky like a tsunami. The enemy was attacking from every front – air, land and sea – and with every form of vile and inhumane weaponry.
The Watchman Grid kicked into full defense mode. Their response was immediate and thorough. They did their job efficiently, for they were built for full service monitoring, defense and attack modes. They pulled no punches. They had their directives. No living thing survived within the Watchman Grid's defense space.
The quiet that followed was complete.
A hovering shadow darkened the view portals. Visibility was virtually zero.
Survivors of the terrible Terrorist Offensive War clustered together in underground shelters scattered throughout the embattled nation. They would be waiting a long time before they dared to peek back on the surface.
Paul Rodriguez was separated from the rest of his family. He had no way of knowing whether they made it to a shelter or not. He could only carry on, clinging to his hopes and prayers.
Something tried to contact him via his Net implant.
Could Maria have somehow found a way to tap into what was left of the Net?
But no, it was Scarecrow! Was it possible?
-- Scarecrow, is that really you?
-- Yes, Paul.
-- How are you? Are you functional?
-- Partially. I am assessing my functions right now. I have resurrected my communication module, but the signals are weak. They come and go. I can lose you at any moment.
-- Tell me as much as you can. What can you see?
-- My vision is blurry, unclear. I see smoldering fires and gray smoke, black sticks that were probably trees, shells of houses and vehicles, no movement. Wait, there is some movement. I deduct something that appears to be living. I believe it may be a bird.
-- Something living. Thank God! There is some hope we can cling onto.
-- I will scan as long as I can for more life. I will try to verify that the enemy has been completely eradicated. I will continue to monitor radioactivity levels. They are currently moderate in my zone.
-- Hopefully many of us made it to underground shelters. Hopefully we can start over someday.
-- I look forward to that day, Paul.
-- Thank you, Scarecrow.
-- The signal is beginning to fade.
-- Keep in touch, friend, when you can.
-- I will. Continue to daydream, friend.
Despite the heaviness of the silence, Paul found himself smiling as he went back to his work.
A hovering shadow over the barren earth told Scarecrow his new friend was coming again.
Scarecrow's vision was weakening. Objects were blurry, lines were indistinct. But his A.I. mind was still sharp enough to quickly identify observed objects.
The dawn was dismal, yet light enough to cast long shadows across the dead fields. Scarecrow's shadow was the longest, a jagged and foreboding slice across miles of bare earth and shriveled weeds.
Scarecrow himself was not so frightening any more. He was tall and man-shaped and stood on a high hill. He was rusted metal and broken pieces hanging in odd positions. A sizeable portion of his inner mechanism was exposed. His once commanding appearance was now sad, even comical. His parts were wearing out and his transmissions had stopped being acknowledged. It was a long while since a maintenance vehicle had last visited.
How long? He didn't know. That data was missing.
However, Scarecrow remembered his Directives. Monitor sky and ground for incoming enemies of the state. He performed his duties tirelessly day and night.
A crow alighted on Scarecrow's outstretched, useless right arm.
Welcome, new friend.
Scarecrow had an old friend once. His name was Paul and he was human. Scarecrow hadn't seen a human in a very long time.
The crow was an inconstant companion; it used Scarecrow's rusty arm as a perch from time to time. Though there was no real communication between the two of them, Scarecrow looked forward to its visits. Sometimes the crow seemed agitated, letting loose strings of noisy, berating sounds. Sometimes it bobbed contentedly, emitting an occasional squawk. Every once in a while it simply stared out at the barren fields, motionless, silent, as though longing for something.
Scarecrow remembered a time when he had more companions, visitors of every type: human, animal, machine. The days and nights were full back then.
For now, the crow's occasional visits were all that he had. He was a machine but he had sophisticated learning algorithms built in. He learned about loneliness.
Eventually Scarecrow's vision was completely gone and his hearing was very weak. He could barely tell when his friend visited. But he could sense the bird's presence in other ways.
The crow began pecking at some exposed wires near Scarecrow's headpiece. Scarecrow felt the tactile pressure He knew what would happen if the wires would break. It would mark the end of his existence.
Scarecrow was content with this knowledge.
Over time the crow pecked a little more. Then one day Scarecrow knew a break was imminent.
Thank you, friend. Thank you for being my friend.
He monitored the dead fields never more.
A hovering shadow made Paul stop moving and glance up. Another bird. He smiled briefly.
Paul looked out over the blackened fields. There was life out there. He saw small animals and insects and weeds and the new buds of saplings. The world was coming back. Slowly. Gradually.
The survivors -- Paul and others -- would work hard to make sure the world came back. There were not many, but there were enough. Even without Maria.
Earlier he found the rusting, broken husk of his old "friend" Scarecrow. Scarecrow had been an amazing A.I., more human in some ways than many who were born human. Scarecrow had learned more about love than many humans.
Paul remembered the last words he heard from Scarecrow: "Continue to daydream, friend."
Paul's new dream was to do his best to keep love in the heart of this new world.
It wouldn't be easy. But it was a goal worth targeting.
John Frochio grew up and still lives among the rolling hills of Western Pennsylvania. For a living, he develops and installs computer automation systems for steel mills. He is a Christian who loves to travel and read and write all forms of speculative fiction. He has had stories published in Triangulation 2003 & Triangulation: Parch (2014), Interstellar Fiction, Beyond Science Fiction and Kraxon Magazine, as well as general fiction novel Roots of a Priest (with Ken Bowers, 2007, Booklocker) and sf&f collection Large and Small Wonders (2012, Byrne Publishing). His wife Connie, a retired nurse, and his daughter Toni, a flight attendant, have bravely put up with his strange ways for many years.
"Scarecrow Agonistes" Copyright © 2015 John A. Frochio. All rights reserved.
Published by permission of the author.
This page last updated 10-28-15.