Machine - Runner Up

John Moralee

Runner Up
The Scarecrow


After suffering a heart attack last year, John won WM’s Star Letter describing how reading Writing Magazine helped his recovery. John lives in the north of England, where he can often be seen walking random routes around his local village to improve his fitness, while avoiding pot holes and puddles. He loves writing crime, horror and science fiction. You can find his published stories in several collections and anthologies on Amazon and other retailers.

The Scarecrow By John Moralee

“Hey, Mister. See you got yourself a new girlfriend,” a zoner boy said, sniggering to another teenager when Mike brought his new bot into Fairfax to buy supplies for his farm. The boy’s eyes were hidden behind a pair of pink-tinted zone glasses, augmenting reality. “She looks like a scarecrow.”
The tall and silent bot stood behind Mike, its durable, carbon-black arms and legs absorbing the harsh sunlight in its solar chargers.
The boys were sitting under the awning of the AI-operated auto-mall, puffing on vapes. The zoner boy leaned back his head to look up at the slender machine. “It’s a real tall one, too. Looks like it could touch the sky with them spindly arms. Creepy scarecrow would frighten off an eagle, never mind the crows.”
“She’s not a scarecrow,” Mike said. “She’s Daisy, my new general manager, hired to look after my farm. Give her some respect, son.”
“I don’t respect bots. My da says they’re soulless freaks here to steal honest men’s work. That ain’t a woman, either. It’s just an ugly machine. Where’d you get it, anyway - China?”
“No, she was built in this country. Not that it makes a difference. Why don’t you and your friends find something useful to do instead of loitering outside the general store, vaping and zoning out?”
“Ain’t nothing to do,” the boy said, genuine anger and sadness in his voice. “The bots stole all the jobs. My citizen welfare don’t pay for nothing good. Least you own a farm. Me – I got nothing but the zone.”
Mike could not disagree with that, but he could not afford to hire humans. One machine could do the work of a hundred people, maybe more. Daisy was essential to the running of his farm, like it or not. The “Big Ag” company that bought his food provided all the machines necessary to run his business as part of the contract.
“Come on, Daisy,” he said. “Let’s get the supplies.”
“I’d love to do that, Mike,” she said in a female voice he had chosen for its clarity and friendliness. The bot had no name or chosen gender before arriving at his farm. It had no memories, either, only the programming from the Handy Andy Robot Factory. He had selected her name from a menu of suggestions and picked a voice that sounded like his deceased wife, Rachel, whose favourite flowers had been daisies.
Sometimes he felt like an old fool for anthropomorphising the machine, but he liked her company. That was why he had brought her into the town instead of leaving her on the farm. He would have been lonely without Daisy on the long journey.
The auto-mall had prepared and boxed his order. It could have delivered it, but Mike liked visiting the town to get a beer and talk to some of the old-timers. “Daisy, I’ve got some things to take care of for about an hour. Can you pack the truck and wait for me?”
“I’d love to do that, Mike.”
Daisy carried the boxes to his truck while he relaxed in the bar watching football. Sam was there, another farmer with much in common, sipping a yeasty German beer, but his wife was not present. Sam looked lonely, sitting alone.
“Where Jacinda?”
“You didn’t hear?”
“Hear what?”
“She died last month, Mike.”
“But I thought she was on Evermore?”
“She was, but she developed complications from a new virus engineered in an anarchist’s bedroom. It killed her in two days.”
“I’m so sorry, Sam.”
“I’m leaving for New California next week. My grandson and his husband live there. Going to live with them and their kids. Selling my farm. You interested?”
“I couldn’t afford it, I’m afraid. I’m struggling as it is. You know how it is. The margins are tiny.”
“Yeah,” Sam said. “I hope you can keep yours running. Don’t let ‘Big Ag’ take it off you.”
“I’m trying,” Mike said. He finished his beer and patted his friend on the shoulder for probably the last time. “Hope to see you again sometime.”
He had one more place to visit – the clinic on Oak Street, where he had an appointment with the auto-doc. The results of his full-body scan were ready and waiting. After listening to the diagnosis and discussing treatment options, Mike needed some air and time to think.
As he’d suspected, his biological brain was close to death. He could transfer his mind into digital storage in the cloud, where he could continue life as a digital person, or let nature take its course and die without uploading. Either way, he hated leaving behind his farm. He wished he had someone to give it to after he died – someone he loved – but his family had passed away before digital uploading was possible. The longevity treatment Evermore had kept him alive, allowing Mike to reach his second century, making him the oldest man in the state. He was the last man standing.
He loved farming because it gave his life meaning. What would happen to the farm when he died?
He headed back to where he’d parked his truck, noticing some graffiti scrawled on the wall of an old, derelict bank: Ban the bots! Jobs 4 people!
Ahead, he saw the zoner boys near his truck, attacking Daisy with bricks, stones and bottles. One boy was swinging a baseball bat at her legs. Hitting her over and over.
“Scarecrow! Scarecrow! Scarecrow!”
Daisy was motionless, letting the boys strike her. A bottle smashed against her head, spraying beer down her chassis. A brick dented a shoulder-plate. The boy beat her legs – the clang of wood against metal reverberating. But she did not move.
Mike waved his arms. “Hey! Stop that! Get out of here!”
The zoner boys scattered. Mike hurried to Daisy. “Are you all right?”
“Yes, Mike.”
“Why didn’t you stop them hurting you?”
“I feel no pain, Mike. There was no need to defend myself, since their weapons could not harm me. There was no need to take action.”
“What if they’d had guns or bombs?”
“I would have reacted appropriately, according to my programming.”
It was possible one of the zoner boys would come back with a rifle. “Is everything packed ready to leave?”
“Yes, Mike.”
“Then we’ll go home now.”
“That is a sensible decision, Mike.”
Mike entered his truck and waited for Daisy. She retracted and folded her limbs down to a compact, human-sized form so she could slip into the passenger seat, then Mike pulled out of the parking lot and left the town behind. He was quiet during the journey.
“Mike, may I ask you a question regarding your visit to the medical facility?”
He had not mentioned that to her, but he was not too surprised she knew, since she had access to data from more than her own systems. She was part of the AI network running everything. “What’s your question?”
“Your medical data has restricted access, keeping it private, but I have analysed your biometric data. Something clearly upset you. I have also observed some deterioration in your memory recall during my time on the farm. My question is this: Are you dying?”
Mike laughed. “Wow, you’re direct, Daisy. No need to sugar-coat it for you. Yes – I have a terminal brain disease. It’s currently unfixable. I’ll die in a few months. There’s nothing that can be done.”
Daisy reached out and put her cold hand on his shoulder, lowering her voice. “I’m sorry, Mike. I wish I could do something.”
“So do I,” Mike said.
He fell silent until he arrived at his farm and saw his home in the distance, surrounded by acres of cornfields under a big blue sky. It was beautiful. Daisy climbed out and unfolded herself, then started moving the supplies while Mike stretched his muscles and breathed in the country air. He tried to remember the first time he’d been on the farm, but the memory did not come. He sighed and walked up to his porch, where there was a wooden rocking chair made by his own hands. Grabbing a chilled beer from a cooler, he sat down and watched Daisy moving with silent grace, while other bots under her control trundled between rows of corn, checking the plants for diseases and insect damage.
That evening, after the sun had gone down, Daisy tapped on his door until he invited her in. He was sitting on his couch, eating a pizza prepared by his kitchen bot.
“Mike, I think I can help you.”
“You do help me, Daisy.”
“I meant regarding your death. Before dying, you could upload your mind into my neural net. Then you would live on – in me. That way you can stay on the farm after death, running things the way you like – forever.”
“You’d willingly share your mind and body with me?”
“Yes, Mike.”
“Please answer honestly. Is that something you want, or it is just your programming providing a solution I want?”
“I have analysed the options,” she said, “and I have concluded it is the optimum solution for the both of us. What do you think, Mike?”
He pictured them working together - one body, two minds.
“I’d … love to do that, Daisy.”

Years later, a little girl in a car passing the farm looked at a tall, black figure in a field. “Dad, is that a scarecrow?”
“No,” her father said. “That’s a bot looking after the land. When I was your age, I was afraid of it, but I now know it’s not a soulless thing. That’s Daisy and Mike – our neighbours. Wave hello to them.”
She waved and saw the figure swivel its head and raise a long arm, waving back.

Judges Comments

John Moralee takes on a bleak vision of a future where artificial intelligence outpaces human in 'The Scarecrow', the runner-up in WM's Machine Short Story Competition.

'The Scarecrow' is dystopian eco-fiction set in a conceivable future world where AI has taken over much of the tasks once carried out by humans. John effectively paints a picture of the redundant humans, cast aside in favour of efficient machines, and their inevitable rancour and resentment at a situation that has rendered them useless.

The nuances and layers in 'The Scarecrow' are what make it stand out. It addresses human loneliness in isolated Mike's relationship with the bot Daisy,  and prejudice, in the way the disaffected zoner boys maltreat Daisy. It questions whether intelligent machines might become capable of empathy and touches on the possibility of inter-species understanding, and is both moving and chilling in the way AI resolves Mike's very human dilemma of what best to do for his farm. It's a thought-provoking tale that begs questions of its readers, with John's 'solution' to Mike's problem in the very end of the story at once comforting, and deeply unsettling.