The Hopeful Wanderer – The Lonely Operator

Though the warped radio station door stuck to the jamb when I pulled it open, just inside, unseen machinery hummed productively. Unseen, because thin smoke drifted along the floor, curling around my shoes. I reopened the door, letting the strong breeze outside push it wide.

A distorted voice, as if piped through a ham radio, echoed from within the smoke. “Qpn-zee? Is that you?”

Ah. Wrong number. “No,” I called back. “But I got your signal.”

Eyes watering, I pulled my shirt up over my nose and stepped deeper into the station. The vague outline of a room opened out into a single, circular control booth, lit with the ambient glow of a constellation of buttons. Through the haze, I just made out a person seated at the widest control panel, twisted around to face me, one eye glowing.

Through the muffling fabric of my shirt, I said, “What’s on fire?” But as I moved closer, I could see the way the smoke rolled out from beneath the control panel. How the person did not move away from the danger, because their entire lower half trailed away in a thick tangle of wires to various locations around the booth.

This was a bot, hardwired into the station itself.

“One of my processors overheated,” the bot explained. “I am Static. Designation?”

“From trying to call Qpn-zee?” I asked.

“Designation?” it repeated.

I shrugged a little, never sure how to introduce myself. “I’m called the Wanderer.”

“Yeah, and I’m called the Operator,” said Static. It adjusted a knob and a whine I hadn’t noticed diminished. “Your real name?”

My mouth opened and closed. “I… don’t know.” I had never known.

Static narrowed its single eye at me. “You’re that Wanderer, then.”

I spread my hands, my shirt sliding off my nose. “That’s who you reached. Can we do something about this smoke?”

Static faced forward again, laughing a hard little laugh. “I didn’t ask you to help me. Only one person can do that.”

Stepping around an exposed pile of wires, I sidled toward the wall. “Qpn-zee?” I said. “Your signal got pretty far. Could be they’re just behind me.” I had noticed a window here covered with duct tape. Vinyl crinkled beneath my searching fingertips.

“How did you even hear me?” Static asked. It cut its gaze toward me just as I popped the window latch. “Hey, what are you-!”

I pushed the window outward and a gust blew in, stirring dust and smoke alike. Sunlight flooded the control booth, glinting off Static’s brushed metal face. It looked surprised at the fact of daylight.

I leaned my hip against the windowsill. “I don’t know much about digital machinery,” I explained, “but I do know you have to keep it cool. Can’t do that with everything boarded up.”

“I couldn’t-” Static started. “After Qpn-zee left, I… I couldn’t do that.”

Dusting my hands, I said, “I know I can’t help you, like you said. But if I meet Qpn-zee in my wanderings, I’ll send them out here.” I picked my way back to the hallway. On my way, I paused to face Static. “In your broadcast… it sounds like you miss them.”

Static looked flabbergasted. At what I had done or the fact of me, I couldn’t tell. Then it sort of smiled with its one eye. “Yeah. I do.”

As I stepped outside, its ham radio voice called out. “Hey! What am I supposed to do if it rains?!”

I raised an arm, waving behind me. “I’d say this place could use a little moss.”

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