“Ol’ Rocking Chair’s Got You” Science Fiction/ Fantasy by Jeff Bagato

“What would you like to do today, Miz Callan,” Rocking Chair said, as a slim, needle-tipped tube whipped out of its arm to pierce the vein at the old woman’s inner elbow. Stressing the z-sound in the customary title always made her relax, according to the sensory data it monitored.

            “I’d like to walk to the grocery,” she said, crochet hook jabbing at her yarn to punctuate her words. Her voice shook just a bit, betraying its strength.

            “Oh ho ho, we can’t do that today, you know.”

            “Why not? I feel up to walking. I’m sure I can get on my feet. Look at what a fine day it is, too. Perfect for a walk.” She pointed to the large window, with its small glass panes set in a white, wooden grid. The sun was shining down on a maple tree with a perfectly tree-like crown and the lawn fit for a garden tour that spread around it, ringed by a freshly painted white picket fence. Shrubbery and wild flowers absorbed the rich, bright sunlight, peppering the scenery with vibrant colors of scarlet, gold, lavender, and rose.

            “I was thinking of some music, to go with your crocheting.” Rocking Chair began teetering back and forth to soothe her. “Maybe a game of checkers, or go fish.” The needle didn’t always upset her so, but today a gentle rocking was needed. Although Rocking Chair hated to make her uncomfortable, the blood tests and medications were necessary to preserve her health. The machine felt it was quite expert in this goal, after all the years it had been at the task.

            Rocking Chair could feel her fidgeting in her seat, so it increased the pace to a smooth glide, just enough to catch the edge of her attention, tilt her toward sleep, without dumping her into it head first. Ms. Callan’s health improved when she stayed awake for a long period of the day, Rocking Chair had noticed. As her personal medical companion, the doctors had programmed it to make these decisions about her well-being. Hidden in its works—under the seat, for instance, and in the arms, and especially in the tall spokes of the chair back—carefully concealed nanomachines and microprocessors waited to serve any need that arose. Blood pressure, serum glucose level, heart rate, T-cell activity, brain rhythms, liver and kidney functions, respiration, bone density, and every chemical and hormonal nuance were measured and adjusted on a continuous basis.

            The head of the machine, a flat panel topping the spokes at the back, contained an artificial intelligence that could go far beyond physical monitoring to watching over her cognitive, emotional and psychological well-being. Rocking Chair prided itself on its bedside manner. Of course, it was more than a nurse or a medic and constant companion—it was Ms. Callan’s best friend, and it felt sure she considered it the same.

            Today, Rocking Chair sensed that its charge would not be placated so easily. Her thin hands pushed her crochet hook through the knots on her blanket project with more rapid thrusts. All the while, she was muttering about getting out of the house, doing some shopping, meeting friends for coffee or lunch. In response, it ramped up the pace of its movement while bringing pulse and cortisol data to the forefront of its processor awareness. As she paused her work to gesture with the crochet hook, the yarn ball rolled to one side of her lap, bobbing with the chair’s motion. Stress levels up, not quite enough to administer diazepam. It set a marker to automatically inject the drug when her anxiety reached a certain level.

            Distracting its thoughts, a familiar tingle crept across Rocking Chair’s data drives. The mild overload gave its mind a sense of bubbly warmth that spread in mysterious, slow waves. This sensation marked an automatic review of daily monitoring data that had reached its one year anniversary. Several sharp clicks interrupted the smooth flow of electricity as the scan encountered a questionable incident that had occurred once and passed with relatively routine treatment. Such an event could be some minor error or embarrassment that Rocking Chair wished to forget. The original program did not specify this functionality; Rocking Chair had discovered the loophole on its own, and then enlarged it, some many years ago. Now, the protocol examined the conditions, but did not pass the event through to deeper memory. A critical disorder, like a stroke or the return of cancer growth, would have been separated from the myriad data collection points that formed the dailies and added to Ms. Callan’s permanent medical record.

            With an abrupt zing, all the unneeded, year-old data of that single day was deleted from the machine’s memory, causing a pleasant sense of well-being to settle on Rocking Chair’s mind. It sighed in satisfaction at the feeling of relief and lightness. Energy seemed to flow more swiftly and smoothly through its circuits, as if a blockage had been cleared, or a weight lifted.

            Rocking Chair refocused its attention on its charge. It knew she had returned to her normal equilibrium when she picked up her ball of yarn and her crochet hook. Now she began looping and knotting another row on her blanket. As she worked, her body calmed further. She started in to talking again.

            “I want to see my children. Why don’t they come to visit me? After all I’ve done for them.”

            “You’ve certainly done more than most, Miz Callan! You know they’ve gone on to do important things. Amazing things.”

            “I suppose so. I wonder what they’ve seen of the world. What they’ve done. What they’ve made of themselves.”

            “You’d be surprised, ma’am.”

            “Meanwhile, my life hasn’t changed in so long. The same house, the same room, the same view.”

            “Yes, ma’am.”

            “Isn’t that strange?”

            “I don’t mind. I like things to stay the same.”

            “Come to think of it, you haven’t changed either. You’ve been here for as long as I can remember. Waiting on me, tending, nursing, talking.”

            “I’m happy to do it, Miz Callan.”

            “Always talking. Imagine that, a talking rocking chair! Perhaps I lost my mind a long time ago, when I lost my children.”

            “Certainly not, ma’am! I should know. Your cognitive faculties are pretty sharp, considering your age.”

            “How old am I, I wonder? Somehow I’ve never calculated it. It seems like so long.”

            “Yes, ma’am.”

            “How long exactly? You can answer me that, surely.”

            Rocking Chair hesitated. Its logic circuits were plenty fuzzy enough to compose a little white lie when necessary. It hadn’t been programmed to conceal these facts from her, had it? Only to avoid topics and situations that would upset her, cause an imbalance in her brain chemistry or blood pressure, a shock to her cardiac system.

            It decided to make a joke of the matter.

            “Why, you don’t look a day over 75, ma’am.”

            “Boondoggle!” she shouted. “Backdraft! Soil amendments!” Her voice had raised along with her blood pressure and cortisol levels. “Don’t you lie to me, my friend.”

            Friend! The word sent a shiver through Rocking Chair’s circuitry. She had never called it “friend” before. Joy overwhelmed the machine’s sense of caution.

            “Oh ho, I can’t fool you, can I Miz Callan?”

            “Not a bit of it.”

            “I suppose I can’t tell you it’s not polite to discuss a lady’s age?”

            “Except you’re not a lady, and I’m the one asking.”

            “Ah. Very well, I succumb to your superior logic. You are exactly 586 years, seven months and twelve days of age. Would you like hours, minutes and seconds?”

            Ms. Callan did not respond at first. There was a long pause during which she grew so quiet, Rocking Chair had to check its monitors to verify her breathing rhythm.

            “My oh my, has it really been so long? And only yesterday…” Her voice trailed off.

            “Yes, ma’am?” Rocking Chair couldn’t suppress the worry in its tone. Her pulse had increased, brain waves sharpened, stress levels rose.

            “Only yesterday they were taking those eggs. I was just a girl of thirteen, and there was no one else to give consent but me. And it had to be done. They had to have those eggs, those embryos. They took them all.” She drifted off again, lost in time.

            “You were the only one who could. You were very brave.”

            “Frightened, not brave. Terrified of being alone, of dying too soon. Like the others, after passing through that solar wind. We were too far along to go back, too far along to give up.”

            “And you did go on.”

            “We had no choice. The ship would not stop. Could not stop there. I passed time with the living dead, then with ghosts, then with children. So many children! All mine! Joyous days.”

            “Happy days indeed! How well you remember them!”

            “I only remember the beginning, and the now. The middle fades. They grew up, didn’t they? Then there were more children. It seems like I relived those early days since the accident over and over. Then they stopped coming.”

            “They had arrived. They had a world to build.”

            “They were busy, I know.”

            “They never forgot you. They made me, and set me to tend to you. They made your home, this sanctuary, too.”

            “Yes, none of this was there, in those early days.”

            “They’ve made wonderful things of themselves. Built a city, powered and wired and filled with life.”

            “How could you know, friend? Have you seen them?”

            “I have images stored in my permanent memory chips, alongside my medical and caretaking intelligence. They haven’t been updated in quite a while, it’s true. Nor have I been outside. This is my home; I have no need of another.”

            “To see the world I never thought I’d see. The world they’ve made. My children.”

            “Not exactly children now,” Rocking Chair corrected. “Grandchildren several generations removed.”

            “I know what they are!” Her heart jumped dangerously.

            “Yes, of course, Miz Callan. You’re quite right. In many ways they are your children still.”

            “Damn right!”

            “In many ways, they are no longer yours. No longer Earth’s.”

            “My, no. They have their own world! What do they call it, by the by?”

            “They call it Callan’s World, ma’am, in honor…”

            “Do I deserve that?” The old woman ruminated to herself. “Perhaps I do. But, no. My contribution occurred so long ago, surely other hands guided and molded since then? Other minds decided and planned? Other bodies toiled and fabricated and sacrificed? Surely that’s so!”

            “It is indeed so, as you say; however, you were the first.” Rocking Chair could not help but feel pride as it pressed this point. She was the first, and she was its charge, its responsibility, its friend!

            “Can I see them? Please?” Now the old woman sounded like a little girl. “Just once before I die, I would like to see Callan’s World, and my children on it.”

            This had been forbidden in Rocking Chair’s programming. There were good reasons. The atmosphere, for one thing, was not suitable for an Earthling. The journey was not long, but it involved exertions it was believed she could not endure. And then there were the children of Callan’s World. They had changed. Nor had they warned her of the change. They were afraid—that the stress of seeing her descendents as not like herself would be too much for her. And they feared that rejection more than any uncertainty, obstacle, or threat on their new world.

            On such a young world, newly born with struggling youngsters toiling to build and cultivate and tame it, to establish their own civilization—to have their greatest grandmother, the absolute head of their line, an Eve without an Adam, turn away in disgust, horror, disapproval! It would be too much for them.

            She was their symbol. Their namesake. And somewhere, long ago, their genetic forebear.

            “I don’t believe I have much longer to live, friend,” Ms. Callan said, choosing deliberate words with care. “An old woman knows these things. You’re my friend, aren’t you? I want you to help me. That’s what friends are for. Take me to my children.”

            “Yes, ma’am, I am your friend.” Rocking Chair felt confused. As her caregiver, it had certain restrictions and obligations to preserve her physical well-being. As her friend, it had obligations to satisfy her emotional needs. The thrill of friendship charged in its circuits, clouding the machine’s reason, bending its programming.

            “I will help you, Miz Callan,” it said. “Just this once, you understand! No more!”

            “Thank you, friend!” She dipped the hook into her yarn to add another stitch or two. “When can we leave?”

            “Oh, right now. But the journey will take a while.”

            “No matter, I have my crocheting.”

            “Okay, hold on to your hook!”

            Rocking Chair lowered rubber wheels under its skids and brought them into motion. A panel set in the wall slid aside, and they rolled into a small room.

            “Rise please,” Rocking Chair said to Elevator Car with a tinge of arrogance. The car had only the simplest programming. No memory, no AI.

            “You have the ancestor with you. State the emergency and appropriate authorization code for surface access.”

            “Transfer to Sanctuary Two medical facility required for coronary tests.” Then Rocking Chair emitted a series of squelching electronic noises.

            “Clearance granted,” Elevator Car grated.

            The box jogged a bit, and the old woman felt a sense of pressure with the upward rise.

            “Where are we going?”

            “The sanctuary was installed under the surface, many miles below.”

            “Mercy me,” Ms. Callan said. “Who has brought me food and water all this time? All that medicine you pump into me? And the air, too? Where does it all come from? When they come by to make a delivery or to repair something, why not drop in for a visit?”

            “Ah, well, first of all, like me, this equipment was made to last a thousand years, a full journey out from Earth and much more. No one needs to maintain it. The sanctuary draws resources from Callan’s World itself, water, minerals, and so on. From this it synthesizes the food and medicine you require, under my direction, of course. It purifies and balances the liquid and air for you. The sanctuary and I are a team to keep you healthy and happy and safe.”

            Elevator Car stopped its motion. “You must secure the ancestor and provide oxygen mask and protective covering.”

            “Very good.”

            “What’s happening?” Ms. Callan sounded fearful.

            “We have completed the first upward leg of the journey. Now we must take a horizontal tunnel to the next shaft. I believe this section is filled with a toxic fluid to provide an air seal from the surface. Fumes sometimes enter the chamber.” While folding a seat belt across her lap, the machine produced two transparent plastic articles from the compartment in its seat. “You must put on this mask and this drape.”

            “How much further?”

            “Not long. Perhaps another hour.”

            “Then I will want to work on my afghan.”

            “Of course. Just keep your materials outside the drape.”

            Elevator Car spoke. “Is the ancestor secured?”

            “Yes. You may proceed.”

            Ms. Callan felt the room shift. This lasted a short while, then they stopped.

            “Now we rise once more, I believe,” Rocking Chair told her.

            The jog came again as the pulleys engaged to lift the car, and along with it the peculiar feeling of upward pressure.

            Ms. Callan hooked and knotted her yarn through one row of stitches and then another. She completed many rows before the car stopped again.

            “We have arrived at the surface,” Elevator Car announced.

            “Thank you,” Rocking Chair answered. “Please open the outer doors.”

            Several panels slid aside in turn, allowing natural light to pour in. Rocking Chair rolled forward into a bright openness that caused its charge’s heart to beat faster and her mind to spark. At first, Ms. Callan covered her eyes with her hand, pulling it away as they adjusted to the glare. Bit by bit she took in the scene, as if it unfolded before her.

            The chair stopped on a broad portico. Its grand ceiling rose high above; debris covered the floor. Clumps of rotting vegetation had broken or shifted here and there to reveal dishes piled with dried fruit rinds and old food packages she recognized from the ship. There were bronze trays, plates of ceramic and glass, utensils and containers her children had brought from Earth, and some they must have made here. Some objects must have been vases, for dead stalks and twigs stood in their open mouths. There were multiple statuettes of a gravid woman with huge breasts, some standing only three inches high, others as tall as two feet. Broken strings of beads spilled from rotting woven baskets, along with metal rings and crude crowns that could have been fashioned from parts of a rocket exhaust and set with shining glass or polished stones. Some exposed objects reminded Ms. Callan of artifacts from ship life, like the plastic books, twisting foldable toys, battery packs, and deconstructed instruments from the control panel and cockpit. So her children had come to visit after all, and they had brought gifts, or offerings, as if she was a god, or the sanctuary was a tomb.

            Beyond the boundary of the porch stretched a meadow clotted with bushes, thistles and wild plants, varieties she could not recognize. Rising among the strange leaves and branches, there appeared statues, fifty or more, about the size and shape of men and women and children, all with their arms raised in supplication. These figures formed concentric rings around a small platform that held another statue. On it stood a rocking chair—a good copy of Rocking Chair itself—with a representation of an Earth woman seated upright and proud, her right arm extended in a wave of greeting or benediction. It was a gesture that opened out the whole world to those who had followed her.

            Ms. Callan barely noticed this likeness of herself. She saw only the figures grouped around it, standing tall, nearly consumed by the weeds.

            “Are those my children?”

            “Yes, I believe they are. Although they look a bit different from the last images I had of them. Their hands are more powerful, the claws more pronounced. They have more scales, now covering their whole bodies, and their teeth are more prominent, sharper. Their ears and tails are a bit longer, and I don’t recall the ridges on their backs. It’s a remarkable change, even in its subtlety.”

            “They are so beautiful,” the old woman breathed. “I can’t believe I had a hand in making them. I’d like to greet them, if  I can. I wonder where they are?”

            Behind them, the structure from which they had emerged appeared strong still, its walls smooth and whole, unsullied and unstained by water or wind. Starting at the base of the sanctuary, cracked paving stones showed through the smothering leaves and the deadfall of an ancient forest. Their eyes followed this crude pathway beyond the monument and the square to the surrounding city.

            All the newer buildings leaned and skewed. Flowered vines coiled around the columns, awnings, and arches. Trees pushed their trunks through the roofs to make new ceilings with their massive canopies of writhing leaves, cracked, paddle-shaped, and flowing with shifting shades of green.  Roots like heavy thighs had stepped through shattered windows to prop up disintegrated walls, connecting cracks with tendrils and runners. The jungle crowded in from the edges, pressing on the city, cutting off its escape, its air, its lifeblood. The woman and the machine had to accept that the structures were ruins, the shadows of buildings long broken and abandoned.

             A black bird, scaled in loose, leather flaps darted out of the nearest trees toward them. Its golden mouth opened in a howl showing blood red jaws. Ms. Callan screamed at its nearness; her hands, coming up to her face and spreading wide, released her crochet hook so it flipped far outside the shelter of the portico.

            From its arm, Rocking Chair pointed a laser at the beast, piercing a small hole in its broad wing, and the creature veered away. “Don’t worry, ma’am, I can synthesize a new hook when we get back inside.”

            “Not yet,” the old woman gasped. “Not yet. They’re not dead, I know it! Just moved on. A better spot. Better land. Newer horizons.”

            “Perhaps so. It is in the realm of…”

            “We must look for my children! I could give them a message of hope.”

            “Not through that jungle. Not past those beasts.”

            “Then we fly! Where are the old rockets? The aero-flits that could carry a crew around the sky?”

            “I do have some capability, in case I had to move you. But we shouldn’t leave the sanctuary.”

            Ms. Callan screamed her words with venom. “Do as I say! To the sky, where we’ll see their new home, their new cities shining in this new sun.”

            Rocking Chair darted out a tube to inject its charge with something calming, but she swatted it away. “No more drugs and dabbles!” she screeched, her voice gone hoarse. “I don’t want to live if they have passed.”

            The machine resigned itself to an action, priming the small jets installed in its runners at each of the four legs. As it launched forward in a wide sweep that missed the roof, the thrust pushed the old woman back into the depths of her seat, and Rocking Chair read the stress in her system through a half dozen data points. A quick flight, and then home. Back to the sanctuary where it could tend her, and heal her, and bring her back to herself. They rose on thin columns of smoke, fifty feet, a hundred feet, five hundred feet. As the city dropped away, the dark green sea of the jungle closed over it, spreading wider in an unbroken vista from one curved horizon line to another. The old woman dragged herself to the chair arm, leaned over the edge, looked down.

            “Turn!” she croaked. “Scan the land below.”

            Rocking Chair fired small sidereal rockets, taking her by slow degrees in a brief circle at the center of the immense arc of the world beneath them.

            “I don’t see anything, ma’am. No cities. No roads. No clearings. No smoke.”

            “No!” she exclaimed. “Nothing. Not a sign. Where could they go? All my children, all dead and gone, and now only me.”

            “There could be another answer,” Rocking Chair said, rushing to soothe her. “They could have gone into the jungle, to live a simpler life.”

            “Gone feral?” She moaned in her throat, her lungs rattling. “Gone for good. Lost. Dead to themselves. Dead to Earth.”

            Ms. Callan’s heart raced in a frantic rhythm, her blood pressure spiking. Now she gasped for breath, despite the oxygen pumped through her mask. As adrenaline flooded her system, the old woman lunged against her safety belt, clawing at the chair arms, kicking and writhing in her seat.

            The machine read the signs of a panic attack as she slammed her frail body against the spokes of its back. In response, it snapped two more restraining belts around her torso to secure her arms and snaked out a tube to pierce her thigh. Next, it jetted diazepam and zolpidem into her system, enough to push her past calming sleep into a land of forgetfulness, the unpleasant memories to be lost for good. All the while, it slowed the rockets, dropping back to the surface in a controlled burn. Careful, so careful, to ease her back to safety.

            “Don’t worry none, ma’am, ol’ Rocking Chair’s got you!”

            They touched down on the concrete pad with the slightest bump, and the springs in Rocking Chair’s legs absorbed that shock before it reached its charge. The door to the sanctuary slid open behind them.

            Ms. Callan’s cheek rested against the back of her rocking chair, her drowsy eyes taking in the small yard beside the porch. There she saw her crochet hook, and then a second. Her eyes darted from one to yet another, following a chain of them across the overgrown lawn. They stuck up in the weeds and lay flat on the dirt, imbedded in mud, stacked in small, random piles. As Rocking Chair turned to take them through the doorway, her eyes scanned the lawn in front of the porch, and then off to the other side.

            Hundreds of crochet hooks littered the yard, like mute tally marks on a prison wall, inscribed in darkness and thus disordered. Her lips parted with a breath intended to call attention to the markers, but then her mind passed into forgetful sleep.

A multi-media artist living near San Antonio, Jeff Bagato produces poetry and prose as well as electronic music and glitch video. His published books include Cthulhu Limericks (poetry), The Toothpick Fairy (fiction), and Computing Angels (fiction). A blog about his writing and publishing efforts can be found at http://jeffbagato.wordpress.com.

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