The silence hung in the dense air, cloistered in the darkness like a waiting beast.
“You are describing an insect, c-cccccorrect?” Came a jagged reply from the deep void in front of them; the speaker – an old-world machine they had barely gotten working – spat and fizzed when it spoke, if it did at all.
They were fine with that. The summer sun had finally dipped down, and the cool of night’s shade was a balm. Talking to the dark was a strange comfort, so far from home.
“Yeah. Cockroaches, little ones.” They spoke at length, pausing thoughtfully. “At least, gran says they were little. Never seen one.” They shook their head. “Anyway. It’s like trying to catch bugs. Except you can’t turn the lights on, or they’ll scatter, and now you’re tearing apart the room trying to get them.”
“C-counter-intuitive.” The box croaked. “Poison would b-beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee-” More sparks; little pinpricks of brilliant sunshine in the gloom. They squinted at the sudden bursts, and gave the screeching machine a slap.
“-ee more effective.”
They nodded somberly at that, despite the machine lacking any eyes or sensors. “Yeah, some folk try that, drink and…other stuff…” Memories of bad trips and worse mornings flooded them, and they were glad for the curtain of night between them and the machine; it might not understand their embarrassment, and they’d just as soon not explain it.
“It is inadvisable to im-im-imbibe poison.”
“Try telling that to anyone nowdays!” They laughed bitterly. “But there’s another way to try and catch ’em. These…bugs.”
“Baiting a trap?” The machine inquired. They guessed that would work, if they could even think of a bait for them.
“Well, yeah, sure. But you could also just try and catch ’em in the dark.”
There was another pause; maybe the old box just couldn’t process like gran said it used to. She used to tell them it was like lightning: you could ask it anything and it would just know. But gran had been old, older than even the elders claimed to be.
They were surprised the machine hadn’t been nested in or worn apart after all this time in an abandoned shack – hells, they were surprised they’d even got it running. They had spent most of the summer evenings out here tinkering on it, and once it had woken up, they had spent every night talking to it.
“That course of action would be inefficient. Humans possess no natural abilities or skills for hunting at night.”
They sighed. “It’s- I’m not talking about Actual bugs, they’re-” How to describe a metaphor to some metal box full of wires and crystals was not something they taught in town.
Maybe they could start that class.
“These bugs, they’re just a way to describe my thoughts. The way they’re hard to pin down, to deal with, when they’re in the light.”
The machine whirred at a frequency resembling bat cries, and they winced reflexively; if it decided to blow up, there wasn’t much chance they’d get away in time. Small comfort that it might kill me instantly, came a grisly thought.
Instead, the machine ceased whirring and clicked. “You propose that attempting to search in the dark for scuttling bu-” A beat. “-thoughts provides better results?”
Now they were the one left silent. It felt like being handed an unwashed blanket, one you kept meaning to get to but forgot about; pregnant with guilt and denial.
“Wha- no, I just- they scuttle away if you turn the light on, you know? So you gotta find ’em in the dark or you’ll never get them.” It felt hollow, but whether the box knew that, it wasn’t saying.
“And once you get these void-dwelling thoughts?” It pried after a moment. “Can you deal with them in the dark, or must you turn the l-l-light on and risk the rest disappearing?”
“I, uh…I think the metaphor might be stretched thin.” They sighed again, leaning against the wall and letting their head tilt upwards to the hole in the ceiling. The stars wheeled endlessly overhead through the less-than-solid roof, uncaring and immense in their distance. “I guess I just needed someone to talk to. Someone,” they gestured ambiguously, “who doesn’t know me at all.”
There came the whirring again, and a new sound, a staccato beeping. “I have compiled a profile based on our conversations.”
“A profile,” The machine continued, “that assesses your abilities, personality and mental well-being and possible practices you might emplo-o-o-yyyyyy for self-betterment.”
They sat in the gloom, corrugated metal biting into their back, and said nothing.
“Would you like to hear about your profile, User?”
“Why do you call me that?” They asked the stars above, not wanting to focus on the darkness ahead of them. “I have a name.”
The machine chirred and gave a curt beep. “Please input your name, User.”
They fumbled around in the dark, grumbling and cursing, until their fingers found the archaic letter-boxes. It felt like hours went by as they tried to input their given name, and eventually they stabbed at a single letter dejectedly, letting that be a stand-in for their identity.
“Hello, N.” Stated the machine nonchalantly, and it felt…good, somehow. As if they could remain strangers to each other. “Your name has been appended to your profile. Would you like to hear the results?”
N gave a choked chuckle. “Sure. Nobody else giving me results nowadays.”
“You are skilled with machinery – as evidenced by my curr-rr-rr-rrrrrrrrrrrrr-” A long, clunking noise. “-rrrrrrent operating state. Records indicate maintenance was last performed by A. Larson, three-hundred and twenty-seven days ago; prior to now, this terminal – that is, myself – was nonfunctional. Thank you, N.”
N blushed and patted the metal exterior of the machine. “Nothing of it.”
The machine continued. “You are an individual of great intellect and creativity. You appear to thrive in situations of difficulty, or are at best well-suited to them. Your interpersonal skills are satisfactory, given the small subset of data collected. However, your mental profile indicates you are stuck within yourself – that is, you are struggling with an identity issue.”
The words took a breath to register, and N’s heart sunk, like a stone that had teetered on the edge for so long and was suddenly pushed over. “W-what? What do you- how could you know I’m…” The words were like ash, dust from their lips.
“I c-caaaaaaaannnn- I have compiled a list of resources you may access on the local network. These have been uploaded by people with s-szzzzimilar situational tags and have proven popular within the last -BZZZRRT- days.”
‘Local network’? What did that even mean? “What kind of resources?” N felt more in the dark than ever, passed over by the tireless march of time and starlight.
“Documents, vi-deos and images, among other r-ree-sssssources.” The machine sputtered and suddenly stopped making noise altogether; N felt weightless, suspended in air, their heartbeat like a deafening drumline. Was it too much for the old machine? They knew they shouldn’t be out here; Gran had told them not to go digging in the old world’s bones, they should’ve listened, shouldn’t have stayed away, should have been there-
“User-” The machine intoned, so quiet it was lost in the din of N’s thoughts and pounding heart. “N?” The beat skipped. “Do you wish to access local network resources?”
N shook, feeling like an earthquake was welling inside them; a tectonic event in their chest and body, threatening to rip them apart.
“…yes. Please, help.”
The morning rushed in as if it were a gentle tide, refreshing the sand and rocks. The small shack glowed brightly with the first rays of light, and N’s eyes stung – they hadn’t slept a wink and they had been crying on and off throughout the night like a leaky pipe.
“Machine.” N spoke, their voice gravelly and bittersweet. “I feel…better. Sort of. Did…do you know if any of those people survived?”
“My access to the larger networks was lost three hundred and thirty days ago. I am un-un-unnnnnn-able to say whether they are still alive.”
N thought they might have met one of them before, a few months back at a caravan meeting; they were much different than the video, and even if it was them, N wasn’t about to seek that person out. It felt like they’d been combing through a diary: the videos had been heartbreaking, but reinforcing – galvanizing, almost.
“Machine…do you,” N paused, feeling self-conscious in the light of day. “…do you have a name?”
“I am terminal 8-HYd. I was not given a name.” The reply belied no emotion from the machine, but N wasn’t satisfied.
“Would you…like a name?”
“I do not un-un-derstaaaaaand.”
N placed their hand on the terminal, wiping away a growing frond of some ferngrass. “You don’t need a name, but sometimes, we use them to remember people. Like…” What had Gran told her? “…like a ‘called variable’. Something that defines you, as a whole, so it’s easier to…’retrieve information’?” The words felt so rough and metallic.
“V-very well.” The machine made several concerning noises, and a small trail of smoke issued from its side for a moment. N wasn’t sure if that was supposed to happen. “You may call me Field.”
N’s lips slowly broke into a grin. “Did you just choose that name at random?”
Field waited a moment before answering, “Did you?”
N felt the weight of the question – passed it around in their hands, tilted it this way and that. “I…I guess I did, yeah.”
“Then we are one and the same, N. Strangers to our names.”
The sun rose higher in the sky, and the shack lit up like a bonfire. Hot, pure and painfully bright.
All the cockroaches had skittered back into the dark corners, but now – now they had names.