The Last PoMatic
by Amanda Helms
Rain dripped down PoMatic!365’s chassis and occluded its camera. Running its tiny wiper over the lens, it continued the Standard Enticement Protocol.
“Step right up, folks! No visit to Blue Seas Boardwalk is complete without a customized poem from PoMatic! Love poems, haiku, sonnets, sestinas, free verse, all tailored to you, from a simple scan of your identichip! No two poems are ever the same!”
It’d rained since midmorning. By the late afternoon, 365 had seen only six people, none of whom wanted a poem. It could enable somnolent mode, but then it couldn’t record anything. 365 loved rainstorms and enjoyed playing them back while running background processes.
It shifted to Standard Enticement Protocol, Poor Weather. “Weather getting you down? Let a poem lift you up! Six levels of complexity to match every budget, tailored for you!”
A man wearing a trench coat approached, head lowered against the rain and hands tucked into his pockets. He stopped before 365 and held up his wrist.
“Good sir, you’ve made the right decision! Any dreary day becomes better with a specialized poem!” As 365 kept up the Standard Encouragement/Upsell Protocol, it went through the man’s identichip data.
Within .219 nanoseconds, its records showed a previous encounter with the man, Amin Naaji. Thirty years ago, his parents had purchased a Level 1 poem for him. 365 accessed the archived poem.
Rainbows in the sky,
Puppies running by,
My oh my, how time flies
When you’re five!
In another .876 nanoseconds it recognized Amin’s recent history and ceased the Standard Encouragement/Upsell Protocol. A millisecond of hesitation; many humans disliked shows of sympathy from AIs, believing them false or nothing more than programming. Which, yes, programming, but electric pulses were the same, whether in circuits or meat.
It said, “I’m sorry for your loss.”
Amin coughed. “Yeah, well.”
365 waited; Amin had authorized payment for a Level 5 poem, and while some humans did change their minds after authorizing payment (All sales final; no returns unless PoMatic! proves unable to create your poem), Amin still stood before 365. When working with grieving patrons, it was best to let them guide the parameters of the interaction.
Amin removed his hands from his pockets and stared at 365’s screen. Its camera was actually at the top of its chassis—so it could swivel the lens as needed to view the entire boardwalk—but it thought it rude to point this out.
“I was going to bring Jabir here, since I had such good memories of coming with my parents.” A noise that wasn’t quite a laugh. “I suppose it’s the ‘My child should know where I come from’ thing. Had the trip all planned—flights, hotel, everything. But then—” An exhale, a listless lift of his chip-embedded wrist. “Well, it’s all on here, I guess. I decided to come anyway. Home hurts too much, sometimes.” A smile and a light kick on 365’s chassis that it assumed Amin considered affectionate. “I’m surprised you’re still here, actually. Thought you’d be a rust-bucket by now.”
“I am the sole remaining PoMatic! in the United States of America,” 365 said, with some amount of pride.
Amin’s face fell. “Rust-buckets last longer than kids, I guess.”
Maybe 365 ought to offer to refund Amin’s money. It wasn’t supposed to, wasn’t supposed to even consider refunds as a possibility. But the reason 365 remained functioning out of all the PoMatics was because it had long ago taken management of its upgrades upon itself, enabling it to better anticipate patrons’ desires.
Still, the patron should guide the interaction. And Amin hadn’t left yet.
Except his head hung, and he’d again shoved his hands in his pockets. Perhaps he needed a nudge. “You have purchased a Level 5 poem,” 365 said. “Would you still like it?”
Amin shook himself. “Yeah. I guess.”
At this point, if the patron’s identichip hadn’t provided enough inspiration, 365 would enact Query Track 1, customizing questions based on the patron’s responses. But it did not think Amin would appreciate this mode of questioning.
Level 5 poems were usually more complex structurally. Humans were amazed at a PoMatic’s ability to produce multiple stanzas with complex rhyme schemes or syllabic restrictions in less than twenty seconds. But to a certain extent, those were matters of math, and what AI ever had problems with math?
No, the real challenge lay in creating the patron‘s perfect poem. One that would speak to them even decades from now. Something to carry with them, always.
365 took longer than twenty seconds to produce the poem. It took longer, even, than a minute—an unheard of duration, and likely to register as a programming error.
Finally, it flashed its screen and chimed the five-note completion jingle.
Amin looked up. His eyes scanned 365’s screen.
Rainbows in the sky
Smallest hand clasped in larger
Grief is love and rage
Amin’s jaw worked, his teeth clenched, then released. 365 didn’t say anything when Amin leaned against its chassis, sliding it somewhat out of place.
“Thank you,” Amin said, choked. “That’s a true thing.”
“I have already sent the poem to your identichip,” 365 said. “Would you like a physical copy?”
365 gave Amin the Ultimate Poem Printout package, which used archival ink on acid-free vellum (Perfect for framing in your home!). It also included a copy of his earlier poem. His parents hadn’t bought one.
Amin took them, flipping from one to the other. “I didn’t order—”
“It is a gift.”
Amin glanced at 365’s screen, then its camera. “Thanks.”
He trudged back down the sidewalk, staring at his poems.
Sometimes, 365 thought, the truest things are the hardest ones.
Maynard the Mighty
by Brad Preslar
Maynard crept to the door, careful not to make a sound. He bent, unbuckled his greaves, and set them against the wall. For the sixth time, he checked that the tools on his belt had been secured. Confident nothing on his person would rattle, creak, or make a noise, he turned the delicate doorknob using only his finger and thumb. Snapping it off would make the wrong first impression. He pushed the small door open, ducked his head, and stepped into the darkened nursery.
Seven young nursemaids and one older woman turned their heads. He closed the door quietly behind him. The nursemaids went back to rocking their cribs. The older woman came over, pointing at the door, indicating they should step outside and talk.
She glared up at him, her hands on her waist. “You are?”
“Maynard. Are you Mother Grace?”
“Why are you interrupting the children’s nap time?”
“I’m reporting for duty.”
She looked confused. “What?”
He straightened up, realizing he hadn’t properly presented himself. “I am Maynard the Mighty. Unbeaten in combat…” Maynard trailed off. That last bit wasn’t true, at least not anymore. Not since his loss to Gubdagog.
“That’s very nice, Maynard. You go by Maynard?”
“Yes. May I call you Grace?”
“You want to work here?”
“I’ve been assigned, as part of the re-training program.”
“To the castle nursery?”
He nodded, proud. “I was first in my infant-care class.” No matter the task, Maynard always gave his best.
Her face screwed up like she’d bitten into a rotten apple and sniffed a chamber pot. “That has to be a mistake.”
“No, ma’am. I was to report to you, here.”
“The castle guard.”
A baby’s cry tore down the hall. Grace’s head whipped around like she could silence the crying child by force of will alone.
“Should we go see about that?” he asked.
“Shhh.” Seconds later, the crying stopped.
Maynard nodded. He had much to learn from this woman.
“You left the castle guard because?”
The energy and enthusiasm for his new role flickered. “The Orcs. They took all the guard jobs.” His shoulders fell as he remembered his defeat at the hands of the Orc chief, Gubdagog. The shame of losing in front of his men had been almost too much to bear. When Gubdagog granted him mercy, part of Maynard wished he had finished him off. The sight of the Orc taking Maynard’s role as Captain of the Castle Guard was something he’d never forget. Revisiting that loss felt like scratching a still-pink scar.
But, rather than dwell on his defeat, he’d thrown himself into the re-training program. He’d never been one to back down from a challenge. Resigned to that reality, he said, “They’re bigger, faster, stronger. And they’re an entire horde. They got the guard jobs, the soldier jobs, and even the rock-lifting and lumber-carrying jobs.”
Grace rubbed her forehead, obviously unhappy. She opened her mouth to say something, but more cries came from the nursery. This time, other children woke and joined in. Grace poked him in the chest. “Well, Mr. Mighty, it’s time to see what you’ve got.”
Later, after the fifteen other children had awaken, screamed, cried, been held, fed, and more than one had spit up on Maynard the Mighty, he watched them crawl around him on the floor, beaming with pride.
He sat in the center of a good-sized rug, as Grace had instructed, holding three children in each arm, rocking them gently back to sleep. And while he had no breasts to nurse an infant, his hair smelled of pee from the first diaper he changed, and he’d crushed a rocking chair under his massive frame, he’d won the other nursemaids and Mother Grace over to his side. Maynard approached every task with enthusiasm and intensity, sure he would triumph. After all, he was undefeat…no. He had lost. Once.
But on that day, he swore he would rise again, seek new challenges, new glory. Resolute, he clenched his jaw and dug down deep for the strength and perseverance to rock the six babes in his arms as gently and steadily as possible.
As the children in his arms nodded off one by one, the other nursemaids set them back into their cribs. When Josselyn, a brown-haired infant just a few months old, yawned and closed her eyes, Maynard tasted once again the familiar glory of victory. He could already hear the bards raising their voices to sing his praises in taverns across the land. They’d tell tales of how Maynard the Mighty had fallen from glory only to rise again, even greater than before.
Sadly, it would not last.
The tiny door to the nursery flew open, splintering as it slammed into the wall. The noise was enough to wake Josselyn and every other child in the nursery, crying and screaming followed.
Maynard leapt to his feet and handed Josselyn to one of the other nursemaids. He motioned for them to protect the children. Maynard set his fists at the ready, his old instincts kicking in. He may not be a member of the castle guard, but he would defend his nursery.
Gubdagog’s giant head came through the door, his yellow fangs glistening with Orc-spit. He smiled. “I heard you were here.”
Had he come to lord his victory over Maynard? Or perhaps, to revoke his offer of mercy and finish the job? Either way, Maynard wouldn’t go down without a fight. He stood tall. “I bow before no one, man or Orc.”
“I’m glad to hear it, Maynard.” He looked back into the hallway and waved someone in. An infant Orc as large as Mother Grace toddled forward. “But I need you to fight a different kind of battle. I can’t find a nursemaid in this entire kingdom strong enough to watch my son, Bolbogh.”
The other nursemaids, Mother Grace included, cowered in the far corner, looking to see what Maynard would do.
Maynard saw the hope in Gubdagog’s eyes.
The indignant anger he expected never came. Instead, he felt a swell of pride that Gubdagog would trust Bolbogh to his care.
He threw his arms wide and welcomed the child with a hug. No child would be too much for Maynard the Mighty Nursemaid.
That day, his new legend began.
About the Authors
Brad Preslar (whose surname rhymes with “wrestler”) writes from Cincinnati, Ohio, where he lives with his wife Ellie, their son Sam, and their dog Stella. Their dog was named for Ellie’s favorite cider with a nod to Mr. Williams. Sam was named after his grandfathers because he’s too young for booze. Brad’s fiction has appeared in Analog, AE, and On Spec and is forthcoming in Amazing Stories. Find him on Twitter @bradpreslar and on the web at bradpreslar.com.
Amanda Helms is a science fiction and fantasy writer whose fiction has appeared in or is forthcoming from The Cackle of Cthulhu anthology, Daily Science Fiction, Future Science Fiction Digest, and elsewhere. Amanda blogs infrequently at amandahelms.com and tweets with a smidgen more frequency @amandaghelms. She and her husband live in Colorado with their increasingly lazy Boxer mix.
About the Narrators
Wilson Fowlie has been reading stories out loud since the age of 4, and credits any talent he has in this area to his parents, who are both excellent at reading aloud.
He started narrating stories for more than just his own family in late 2008, when he answered a call for readers on the PodCastle forum. Since then, he has gone on to become PodCastle’s most prolific narrator, reading or appearing in over 30 episodes.
He’s also narrated for many other podcasts, including PodCastle’s sister casts, Escape Pod and Pseudopod, as well as StarShipSofa and other District of Wonder podcasts, Beam Me Up, Cast Macabre, Dunesteef Audio Fiction magazine and the Journey Into… podcast. He fits in all this narrating between his day job as a web developer in Vancouver, Canada, and being the director of a community show chorus called The Maple Leaf Singers.
About the Artist
Alexis is a multiclass disaster-human living with her husband in Cincinnati. When she isn’t prepping art for Cast of Wonders, designing pins for pin-y.com, or yelling about TV into a mic for Bald Move, she dabbles in a revolving menu of hobbies and art projects. To list them all would be sheer madness. Like any good bisexual, she has a lot of jackets. You can find her on Twitter @alexisonpaper.