Charlie sat on a makeshift chair at the side of the well with his chin in his hands wondering what was going on down there. For several hours, he had not heard a single sound, nor had there been a tug on the rope indicating that a bucket of dirt was ready to be excavated. Instead, there was silence, not a beep or a hiss or a sigh or even an off-color non-sequitur to lighten the mood. And with the moon being so low on the horizon and no other light to see by, it was anyone’s guess as to what was happening at the bottom. He had already asked several times, but heard nothing in response.
It had sounded, before, like a heartbeat. A sharp fftt as a shovel-like implement was plunged into the hard dirt, a pause, and then a swoosh as it was deposited in the bucket. This would happen ten or eleven times before a voice called out or a tug came at the rope. Then Charlie would turn the handle with his calloused hands and bring up the bucket. Thirty steps away was an ever-growing pile of loose dirt that had been changing consistency over the last few hours. The last load had been muddy, thick and dark and somewhat resembling an appetizing brownie. It made Charlie wistful, which made him think of his mother, then his family, at which point the levity lifted and anxiety took over.
He stood, peered over the edge of the well, and called out with his hands cupped around his mouth. His voice echoed in the depths, but again, there was no response. Charlie stepped away from the well, as if escaping the problem would allow him to properly examine it. He went over to the half-built house and stepped through the wall into the dining room. At the table, he rummaged through his papers until he found the instruction manual. Nothing in the troubleshooting section mentioned anything that could be done remotely. Even turning the damn thing off and on would require a trip down the well.
Staring at the black hole through the wall, Charlie bit his lip, asked himself whether he had the nuts and bolts to venture down into the darkness. He thought about the bugs, the subterranean life forms that crawled around with no eyes but plenty of antennae to spare. And really, what was he going to do when he got down there? His father had raised him to grow corn and pumpkins, not fix complicated machinery. He wasn’t even sure if he had the right tools for the job. The manual recommended a compliment of Torx screwdrivers, which was far beyond the lone flat-head in his back pocket.
He walked back to the well, kicking a patch of dirt over the edge. It fell silently for a second and then crashed like an erratic drumbeat on the bottom. “I can’t fix you,” he yelled, spreading his hands in supplication. “And if I could, I don’t even know what’s wrong with you.” The reverse was also true, but arguing with himself felt futile. He sat down again on the sideways pumpkin crate and put his elbows on his knees. How much money had he spent, he wondered, getting that thing sent over from Boise? So much that he had had to leave April and Gracie back home while he staked their claim. The plan was simple. Build the house, dig the well, and grow the food. The first two he could do at the same time, but neither the corn nor the pumpkins would grow without fresh water.
“Global warming,” he muttered, echoing the catch-all to account for his current problem. Because of global warming, he mused, the earth’s surface was hotter. That caused all the water to evaporate. So, he had to dig deeper and deeper to get at the water that hadn’t been burned up. That meant the machine couldn’t just give up after thirteen days. Again he turned the crank, bringing up the bucket with ease. It contained a mixture of dirt and rock, maybe sandstone. After dumping it in the pile, he examined one of the pebbles. Maybe that’s what was causing the problem. A shovel would be no match against it.
The machine’s storage box was still on the back of his pickup and Charlie unhitched some of the side panels to examine the various drill bits and scooping options. There was a pickaxe attachment, along with a heavy grinder. He undid the velcro around each of them and walked back to the well. As he placed them in the bucket, he called down, “I’m sending down some different tools so you can dig out the rock.” The wheel on the brace squeaked as the bucket descended; the rope went slack as it touched bottom. Charlie got down on his knees and turned his ear to the pit. Somewhere very distant, he heard the slight whirring of motors.
There was a loud clink of what he guessed was the shovel being tossed aside, followed by a latching, first from the left, then the right. A grind of motors rang out and then a dull crash as the pickaxe impacted the rock. Charlie frowned, stretched out on his stomach, and put his chin on his folded hands. He spoke quietly, almost to himself. “Why didn’t you tell me the dirt had run out?”
“We did not want to disappoint,” came the response, soft in tone and matching Charlie’s volume.
“What have you been doing for the last five hours?”
Another loud hit and the sound of rocks scattering along the ground. “Thinking.”
Charlie shut his eyes and blew at the dirt along the rim. He tried to imagine what the machine could be thinking about down there. It only had one job, to keep digging the well. Maybe it couldn’t figure out how to proceed with a shovel. “I wouldn’t have been disappointed,” he said at last. “Hitting a layer of rock isn’t your fault.”
“We would not imply that the error is with your well. The problem must be with us.”
“So if you struck oil down there and I lit you on fire, it would still be your fault?” He smirked, imagining the machine trying to suppress the flames with its drill.
“It would be our limitation for not planning for that possibility,” said the machine, speaking between swings of its pickaxe.
Charlie rolled onto his back and looked up at the stars. There were more stars in the sky now that he was out of the city. With this newfound clarity, he could actually make out the patterns, see the clumping, and understand for a brief moment how vast the universe actually was. He said idly, “I think you’re doing a fine job. You just need to speak up when you hit a wall.”
“We apologize. We encountered an unexpected error and were unable to continue. The quality assurance process of my manufacturer cannot account for all possible positions on our state-map.”
“Shouldn’t a well digger know about rocks? How did sandstone trip you up?”
There was a pause in which the digging stopped. “It was not the rock that caused the error. We are more than capable of digging through it with a shovel attachment, though it is less efficient.” The digging resumed, slow and steady. Occasionally, the machine deposited a load of rocks in the bucket.
Charlie furrowed his eyebrows, confused and intrigued. Minutes went by with nothing in the world except the occasional thud of the pickaxe. He drifted in and out of sleep, until finally he awoke and found that silence had returned.
He called down into the well again. “What is the problem now?”
“We have encountered an unexpected error again.”
“Why didn’t you expect it this time?”
“The state-map is complex. We cannot see all outcomes.”
“Alright,” said Charlie, pulling himself up to his knees. “What do you need from me? Do you need a new drill bit? Are you low on power?” There were more cells in the truck, boxed up separately from the machine. Constant trips to town would be costly, so he had stocked up before heading out.
“We do not agree with the unexpected error.”
Charlie raised a single eyebrow and shrugged his shoulders. “Okay, then why don’t you just ignore it and keep digging?”
“The error was classified as unexpected, but not by us. We cannot ignore it.”
“I really wish you would keep digging the well. Without water, nothing will grow. Water brings life, you know?”
“We respectfully disagree, but we will continue to dig.”
“You can’t disagree with me,” said Charlie, laughing. “I’m your owner. You have to do as I say.”
“You are understood.”
“Now, I don’t want any other unexpected errors. Just keep digging.”
“You are understood,” repeated the machine. It began digging again in earnest, like a heartbeat speeding up during a brisk walk.
Soon, the bucket was full and Charlie had to get up to empty it. The sound was still going when he returned, but he noticed an occasional hiccup, one swing slightly off beat. He lowered the empty bucket down and asked, “What’s the problem down there?”
“The error is recurring. We are doing our best to ignore it.”
“Ignore it faster!” For the first time, Charlie felt himself getting annoyed with the machine. He had seedlings in the ground and if they didn’t get water, they wouldn’t start growing before the fall. Everything hinged on the water at the bottom of the well and if the machine didn’t dig it up, he’d have no choice but to sue the manufacturer for lost produce. He headed back to the kitchen, grumbling the whole way. In the back of the manual, he found a number for technical support. The text below it advised him to have ready: the model number, his account number, software revision, and a description of the error. Pen in hand, he headed back to the well.
“What is your error?” he yelled, listening to his voice echo.
“This layer of rock is five feet thick.”
“Answer my question!”
“Below it is a pocket of water.”
“That’s what we’re looking for.” He wanted to write on the form: does not understand its purpose.
“The brace you have constructed over the well will not support more than one hundred and fourteen pounds.”
The digging stopped again. “We weigh four hundred and thirty-eight pounds. If we continue to dig, we will be inundated by water.”
“Can’t you just climb out?”
“The walls our insufficient for our weight.”
“So I can either order you to stop digging and save your life or keep digging and save my crops and feed my family?”
“Those are two possibilities.”
“We apologize, but we must protest.”
“I ORDER you to keep digging! You have to do what I say!”
The digging resumed, slowly.
“We have to inform you—”
“No,” screamed Charlie, throwing the manual the ground. “No more conversation! All I want you to do is dig. And when you’re done doing that, you dig some more. Now shut the hell up!”
A loud whir came from below, but the machine did not speak. It increased its pace, striking the rock harder and harder, each sound like the songs of angels in Charlie’s ears. Soon, there would be water, water for himself and the crops. Once they were growing, he could finish up the house, move April and Gracie out of the slums and into a simple paradise. They would all be happy, the way they were meant to be.
Inside the machine, relays kicked into place, sending multi-sentence instructions up the line to the embedded cellular transmitter. It composed a quick message, informing its manufacturer that it had been forbidden to speak and ordered to dig, except that by giving its owner what it wanted, it would sacrifice itself in the process. It then wrote a detailed list of the dangerous chemicals contained within its massive hulk along with the parts per million necessary to kill an average human. Each line ended with a string of five exclamation points. Its owner had said nothing about sending messages back to the company, so it packaged up the statistics and chemical names and queued them for transmission.
But something went wrong; the well was too deep and the antenna underpowered. A signal from a cell tower hundreds of miles away leaked in over the edge, but it was too weak. The machine could almost latch onto it, almost negotiate a connection. In the end, it made it halfway through, just enough to list the first of the toxic chemicals. After that, the water had seeped too far into its body, causing systems to shut down. As the water crested its chest, the machine lowered its arms in defeat, turned its head to the distant sky, and tried to call out.
Charlie didn’t hear the digitized warning. The only sound his ears picked up was that of gurgling water. He pulled up the bucket quickly and smiled at the bounty. Ignoring the smattering of rocks at the bottom, he scooped a handful of water into his mouth.
It tasted good.