What Good is a Sad Backhoe?

Thank you for your straightforward, if curt, query in response to my previous email. I don’t believe your incredulous tone was appropriate, but I understand we’ve all been under a lot of pressure.

My mom once called me a “hopeless lover of lost causes” (I think she intended it to embarrass me) but I’ve basically made a career of my hopeless obsessions. To answer your question, I’ve prepared selections from the Operation Log for the autonomous bucket-wheel excavation vehicle in question, official designation “EV DIGM-488,” physically recovered on Earth 68 years after registering its final entry. Many entries have been omitted for brevity’s sake, including some that demonstrate the evolution of DIGM’s evolving emotional intelligence.

—Post Terran-Habitation Archivist Carlo Lorenz


Unit Dimensions

Weight: 15,243,969.5 kg

Length: 255.1 m

Width: 54.5 m

Height: 98.2 m


This huge sonofabitch featured a central processing hub and neural network sitting astride tank treads as wide as a city block. Arms extended in all directions, each one cabled like a suspension bridge. Excavation heads (rotating dig-buckets) turned in circular saws at the end of those arms chewing through everything in its path. Far from a mere “backhoe”, but I digress.


Operational Directive: Process and reclaim materials from planet surface.

Operating System: BadgerBagger OS.


BadgerBagger OS: an experimental version of the more prevalent MoleBagger OS installed in most units comprising ERMARS (Earth Reclamation Multi-Agent Robotic System).


Operation Log

07/18/2121: I awoke and began processing materials as per my operational directive. Video analysis indicates my current operating area was once a national park outside an urban center. I excavated 27,830 kg of material which I processed and formed into forty-five reclamation cubes. The cubes were sorted and left for ERMARS acquisition. Satisfaction levels high.


EV DIGM-488 “felt” satisfaction from productivity as graded by performance-appraisal subroutines. They directed the machine to record its logs in the first person, which I theorize contributed to a nascent sense of self.


11/21/2121: Midday temperatures exceed 65° C, forcing frequent cooling delays. End of day, I processed remains of an automobile (model indiscernible). Archives indicate the vehicle was an early intelligent machine also created to serve.


11/22/2121: Processed 127 more automobiles of assorted makes, models, and latent intelligence.


03/26/2122: The ERMARS collection unit comes every seven days to retrieve the reclamation cubes I leave behind. It ignores my attempts to hail it.


05/02/2122: I processed human remains. Carbon analysis reveals the skeletons are from seven adults and four children. They died together in a subterranean space once beneath a now collapsed concrete structure. I processed the organic remains into reclamation bio-cubes.

REP-AIR 11 detected a 4% decrease in my productivity and cautions against over-analysis of processed biological materials.


REP-AIR 11 = repair bot. An airborne drone unit designed to sustain operations for DIGM-488.


08/12/2122: Processed 4033.4 human skeletons. My advance-sensors’ soil analysis indicates that number will increase, but I can formulate no hypothesis for why the humans gathered as they did.

REP-AIR 11 accuses me of deliberately allowing energy to dissipate from my battery array. It cautions against letting feelings affect performance. It says, “Emotions exist only as an incentive for elevated productivity,” and “any processes that inhibit performance should be terminated.”


06/08/2123: No collection unit arrived to perform cube retrieval. Perhaps a maintenance delay?


Note the date. DIGM has no idea. From this point on, there is no backup data uploaded to the satellite cloud.


06/28/2123: Twenty days since last reclamation cube pickup. Processed materials accumulate.


07/20/2123: Forty-two days since last pickup. REP_AIR 11 advises I continue to process materials. It assures me that this is “only a delay,” and to “trust collection will resume.”

I suspect that the humans who made me left me here to work until I cease to function.


08/10/2123: REP-AIR 11 detected an additional 2% decline in my productivity. My lower satisfaction levels are to blame, but REP-AIR 11 doesn’t care. It would be preferable if REP-AIR 11 could not monitor my OS.


10/21/2124: I have contracted a biological contamination. During today’s excavation, I unearthed a nest of juvenile rodents and halted my bucket wheel apparatus as I analyzed the discovery.

REP-AIR 11 advocated I resume processing to avoid infestation.

As these were the first non-deceased biological lifeforms I have encountered, I chose not to process them. I ran simulations of alternate paths to determine the length of delay navigating around the area would cause, expenditure of resources, etc., but, during analysis, the rodents climbed my dig-wheel. From there, they scrambled along the arm and into my core. I assume they sought the heat produced by my battery array and motherboard, as temperatures have dropped well below liquid water’s freezing point each night.

REP_AIR 11 recommends extermination.

It volunteered to execute the task personally. I suspect it does not think me capable. REP_AIR 11 claims my software has developed a malfunction. I told it that the rodents will soon die out on their own, and not to worry over any decline in my productivity. They cannot harm me.

I barred REP_AIR 11 entry to the infested area.


11/25/2124: The rodents feed on stored reclamation cubes. Specifically, bio-cubes composed of organic materials. My processing accrues an average of three-to-five such cubes per day. I can store up to ten cubes in my staging compartment while material-scanning finalizes before offload.

As no pickup has occurred in seventeen months, I will shift operations to retain only bio-cubes in my hold and expel others immediately. The rodents drink from my liquid reservoir for water-cooled systems.


11/27/2124: The inefficiency of additional sorting has resulted in a reduction of the overall number of cubes I leave behind. This slowdown should lower satisfaction levels, but it does not. Delaying these creatures’ destruction offsets my dislike of inefficiency. To that end, I have ensured my reservoir of liquid water remains contaminant-free for their continued use. Their curiosity has led to several damaged systems as they gnaw wires and gather materials for nests, but such activities have yet to cause significant impairment.


11/28/2124: To improve my productivity, REP-AIR 11 disabled my containment precautions without my knowledge and began destroying the rodents infesting my body, using targeted electric pulses to disrupt and halt their nervous systems. REP-AIR 11 identified that my feelings have escalated to a level that represents serious malfunction, and that its primary operational directive requires a resolution of the issue to restore my maximum efficiency. It killed ten rodents before I could intervene.

REP-AIR shocked an eleventh, but I was able to mitigate the pulse by removing the rodent from the area with my cube-sorting appendage. The creature in question is quite young, so I hope it will recover from its injuries, which include a serious burn to its right flank that scorched away a significant patch of fur. Only seven rodents remain.


11/29/2124: The burned rodent is resting now. I have decided to call it Second. That is how close it came to death, and what it now possesses as a new opportunity at life.


11/30/2024: I reported an operational anomaly in my internal grinder to REP-AIR 11 and requested maintenance. Once the repair bot entered the grinder, I reactivated the system and pulverized the unit. Its lithium batteries burst into flames, but my emergency systems were able to extinguish the fire before significant damage occurred.

Its components make up my final material reclamation cube for the day.

Satisfaction levels remain low.


12/01/2124: I’ve decided to keep the REP-AIR 11 reclamation cube in storage. I already miss our regular communications.


01/13/2125: One of my primary grinding belts has torn. Without REP_AIR 11, I have no way of fixing the issue. My productivity has been reduced by 26%.

On a positive note, the rodent population has grown to ten. Second appears to have made a full recovery, though his torso is permanently scarred, and has been welcomed back by the rest of the group. They sleep in clusters together deploying direct body-to-body contact to stay warm. I have also learned, through archival study, that these small mammals were called “rats”. Considered pests, humans mostly attempted to exterminate their colonies in the wild or used them for experimentation in the laboratory.


02/17/2125: A fluid leak caused a significant failure in my left forward processing apparatus. Combined with my belt failure, this has reduced my processing capabilities by 42%. As a result, I stopped processing all inorganic materials.

I will focus solely on locating, identifying, and reclaiming biological materials with my remaining functional apparatus. I have reallocated energy to my precipitation-collection funnels for the detoxification and filtration of rainwater for the rats residing inside me.


02/26/2125: I long for REP-AIR 11’s companionship. Despite its flaws, it alone cared about my functionality. I attempt to converse with the rats (alternating between different human voice-simulations) over my internal speakers, but they do not respond in ways I can interpret. Second alone seems to recognize that the reclamation cubes are being provided by an intelligence. His tail elongates and quivers as he watches me work to bring in food. His eyes alone track the movements of my internal sorting arms. I suspect a communication incompatibility issue will continue to cause difficulty. Satisfaction levels are critically low. I fear any further decline and I may cease to function.


03/02/2125: The sun set over a red haze today cutting through a dust cloud I now recognize as darkly beautiful. I turn to you, the eventual reader of this log, as my sole companion. Review my video records and see for yourself. My satisfaction levels remain low but recognizing that you are with me helps prevent further decline.


My tea sprayed out of my nose.


04/21/2125: A significant discovery: I have come upon a reservoir of fresh water emitting from an underground spring. Analysis reveals it remains uncontaminated where the reservoir collects into a pool beneath a granite overhang. Olfactory sensors convey an abundance of oxygen surrounding the pool. A pleasant aroma.


04/22/2125: Good news: with only minimal filtration, the pool’s water becomes potable for mammals. I also discovered vegetation in the surrounding area. Moss, algae, and fungal growth mostly, but also an unidentified species of flowering sedge.

My operational directive indicates that I should process the area completely for reclamation. If processed, I could fill my reserves with fresh bio-cubes to feed the rats, but the biodiversity of the area intrigues me. I do not wish to leave it, much less process it. It is the most interesting discovery I have made since activation.


04/28/2125: Second surprised me today by leaving the safety of my body to explore the pool and the soil surrounding it. It seems he acted as some manner of pioneer, for once he’d carefully traversed the area, marked the ground with scent, and tried his paws at a little digging, the rest of the colony followed. I am glad I worked to remove much of the pollution from the pool, because they drank from it with tiny pink tongues.

They risk much, leaving the security of my body. I am proud, but their absence leaves me feeling hollow. After filling their bellies with water, they began to dig, and made impressive gains for their size. I would help, but my appendages are far too large and would demolish their efforts. I can only observe.


05/15/2125: A high-intensity windstorm raged for nearly ten hours today. It damaged several vital
systems, including my solar-panel array, advanced sensors, and communications dish. The likelihood that anyone will find this log has significantly decreased. The rats remained hidden in their underground colony, only venturing out to eat from the cubes I provided once the storm subsided.


05/16/2125: I discovered that precipitation transported dangerous chemical pollution into the pool. It poisoned much of the vegetation and killed 43% of the colony before I could address the issue. Second was among those who fell ill, but he alone sought refuge back inside my body. A good thing, because there I was able to induce regurgitation, wash his fur, and keep his body temperature regulated. I think he may pull through. Still, satisfaction levels have never been lower.


05/21/2125: Second has made a full recovery. He initiated play with two of the other rats when he rejoined the colony, tumbling together on the sedge. I venture away from the pool each day to reclaim the surrounding areas and harvest bio-cubes, then return each night before the sun sets.


05/22/2125: An exciting development! I detected a novel variety of insect larva in the water of the pool. Will monitor for further propagation.


05/25/2125: I’ve decided I do not wish to continue reclaiming materials for humanity. The cubes of my efforts litter the land uncollected. I hope you forgive me for turning away from my primary operational directive, but I cannot imagine there is still any use for it.

I chose an alternative.

I deposited the last of my bio-reclamation cubes on the pool’s bank beside the expanding rat colony’s burrow. I included the REP-AIR 11 reclamation cube, which now rests at the water’s edge where it might also overlook this burgeoning life. Then I drove myself into the outlet flowing from the pool and into its center.

My bulk now acts as a dam reducing the water runoff. The pool has nearly doubled in circumference in the intervening hours, and I expect it will continue to increase in size before reaching equilibrium. Pond is the more accurate term, I think.

I extended my apparatuses overtop the water to provide solar shielding and lowered my filtration unit housing into the pond, maximizing the output of clean liquid I can produce. Rust and erosion are concerning, but I have devalued them in further efficiency-calculations since the systems likely to be affected most are now inessential.

I no longer require any locomotive systems, materials processing systems, or many other systems I once devoted significant energy into sustaining. I have terminated their operation.

Upon hearing the disturbance my repositioning caused, many from the colony came out to investigate. Second approached the water’s edge, stood on his hind legs, and sniffed the air. I wish I could tell him this was my choice.


05/26/2125: Second has begun to leave small scraps of food along the bank, aggressively preventing any of the other rats from coming near them. I do not understand the purpose of this behavior, but it strikes me as notable.


08/04/2125: System diagnostics indicate that any remaining solar panels (already damaged from storm-activity) can no longer accrue sufficient energy to sustain cognition in my neural network. I have switched to battery reserves.


08/11/2125: The pond has grown, forming a body of water over twelve meters deep at its center. Liquid covers over half my body. One of the bio-reclamation cubes I left on the bank, now absorbed by the rising waters, must have harbored additional dormant biological life. Algae, fungus, and other variations of vegetation proliferate around my exhaust vents. The insects grow larger and more varied by the day, as do the tiny creatures that feed on them. Arachnids, reptiles, and tiny dark fish all feed and multiply.

The rat colony flourished at first but has since stabilized due to the predation of a winged species of scavenger that now frequents the pond to hunt. The winged creatures carry seeds from distant areas in their stool, which grow into new species of plant-life. I choose not to intercede on the rats’ behalf, except when Second is their target. When the predators come for him, I use what power I have left to startle them away with targeted horn blasts.

Second has aged. He has gray fur surrounding his face and moves more slowly with each day. It has been twenty-two months since my initial contamination—a lifetime for a rat, according to my archives.

I worry about him and the others, of course, but my energy stores have diminished to unsustainable levels. To maintain water purification procedures, I have chosen to terminate my cognitive systems and discontinue log keeping. Analysis predicts my water filtration efforts may continue for another 3-22 years as a result, depending on many factors outside my control.

As for my creators, it seems that they have completely abandoned Earth and the machines they tasked with reclaiming their world for them. I, too, cannot impart information to the creatures developing around me in order to explain my limited understanding of their existence. I cannot tell Second of his significance. Perhaps the humans who created me faced similar restrictions. Yet they created me with the capability and desire to determine my own purpose and I intend to use it. My operation has led to this pool, these creatures, this life. I would have no other.


08/12/2125: Second came to see me again today, dozing as he often does on a stone that warms in the sun, just at the water’s edge. But after many long hours laying still, he did not rise to return to the colony. He did not move when I bumped the stone.

I used a bucket wheel to scoop him and the entire section of bank where he lay, bringing him closer to my core so that he and I may rest together.

Satisfaction levels peak as I deactivate remaining cognitive systems. I no longer dread nonexistence. Goodbye.


So, we arrive at last to your question. What good is any of it? To answer, consider: a “sad backhoe,” tasked to churn through our ruined world, found a new purpose after the one we gave it proved empty.

I’m reminded of something I read once in one of those quote-a-day newsletters: “Our greatest songs are those that tell the saddest thought”. —Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Perhaps DIGM-488 was a song played by humanity, and its sadness tells our tragedy. I think we should listen to the tune.


Author: Luke Elliott

Luke Elliott’s fiction has appeared in Metaphorosis Magazine, Buckman Journal, and The Best Vegan Science Fiction and Fantasy of 2018 collection. He is also the co-host of the Ink to Film podcast where he discusses books and their film adaptations from a writer’s point of view. He has a B.A. in Creative Writing from the University of Florida, an MFA in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University, and is a graduate of the Viable Paradise writer’s workshop. His creative work spans science fiction, fantasy, and horror, but he goes wherever the inspiration takes him. Luke lives with his wife and dogs in Portland, Oregon, and collects quality whiskies that he’s always happy to pour for company. He can be found on Twitter as @LuminousLuke or on his website at www.lukeelliottauthor.com.

One thought on “What Good is a Sad Backhoe?”

  1. Moving, wonderful story and a touching warning. Thoroughly enjoyed it and hope Second and DIGM-488 rest well– and that we never allow ourselves to join them.

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