Merry Christmas! Here's part 2 of steampunk horror story 'Cog519', which is now available as a podcast!
The amber light glinted off the exposed metal, the strange yellowish glow giving it a dull sheen. It was curved, definitely; Nef brushed a little more of the loose soil off of it and tried to assess his find.
Just an hour ago everything had been going full speed; the tunnels were needed for the incoming refugees, the Matron had said, and needed soon. Nef looked around at the earth-moving equipment, and the worried faces of his team. The site was going to have to be cordoned off, he realised. This was too dangerous to simply leave, or go around. The cog - what else could it be? - would have to be exhumed, examined, learned from and then probably recycled. And the workers… they’d have to be memory-modified. More time. More effort. More expense.
He turned around. “It’s a shield,” he said, “probably a few decades old, no more.” He smiled and shrugged. “I’ll bring it out; go have a cup of something hot and I’ll tell you when you can continue.”
“This going to take long?” the lead worker said. He was a big fellow, piece of cloth fastened across his mouth to prevent dust from choking him. His eyes glistened in the darkness, small, like a rat’s.
“Not long,” Nef said. “Sooner I get started, sooner I get finished.”
The workers started to turn and leave, but the big man stayed back. “Well can’t we just go on, pretend like we din’t see it? We’re behind already.”
“I’d… rather you didn’t. There might be subsidence when I pull it out, and I don’t want to put your men at risk.”
Nef matched the man’s stare; for a long second, it looked like he might try to dart past and get a closer look. Then the tension ebbed and he turned to follow his team.
Nef let out a sigh of relief, then turned back to the find. A cog! It was unusual to find one of these, the weapons of ages past. It might just turn out to be the chest piece of one or perhaps nothing more than a shoulder blade. He unhooked the dust morph from his belt and turned the tiny dial on its top to the correct setting. The tiny shard of amber inside whirred as it rotated on its axis, flooding the device with power, and he moved it close to the hard soil around the cog.
The soil seemed to liquify, becoming dust far faster than human hand could remove it. Slowly, the higher-density metal emerged from the dig site.
Some of the soil fell down over Nef’s hands and he looked down, straight into the hollow eyes of a brass skull. He froze at the twinkle of light glinting in its depths, then stumbled backwards, heart in his throat, holding his dust morph in front of him like a weapon.
There was silence.
A little more soil tumbled down and the skull sagged. Nef, his heart still racing, leaned forward and poked it, scuttling away as he did so. The skull waggled on its neck joint, leering gleefully at the ground.
It was dead. He breathed a sigh of relief and leaned forward to clear some more of the soil, slightly more wary now. The cog was in incredible condition; it was not a partial, as he had feared, but more and more kept being revealed. The skull, a stylized rendition of a human’s, gave way to an ornately armoured body, a cavity at its breastbone where the power cell should be. Scrollwork was etched into the armour in fantastic patterns, looping whorls and designs that, given time, would give up the name of its maker. The arms were attached and moved, albeit stiffly. As more was revealed, the effect was much like a suit of armour, filled with mechanical contrivances and arcane instruments or sensors.
Grunting under the weight, Nef dragged the cog out into the wider tunnel. Dust and soil streamed off it, pouring without end out of the joints; it would be doubtful if the thing could even move given the condition its insides might be in, but it had to be tried.
Turning it over revealed a small missing section of skull, and Nef frowned. He leaned over and had a closer look. Inside the skull was a small cavity that lead to a semi-circular slot, no more than a finger’s depth inside. The cavity was empty.
“Strange,” Nef murmured. Its control circuits were missing. Not just deactivated, like all the other complete examples they had found, but absent.
He turned the cog back over, mulling over his choices. He could reactivate it and lead it to one of the service tunnels. Without a control circuit it should default to the original workshop settings and mindlessly obey him. Or he could drag it to the lab himself. Over a mile.
“For science, then,” he murmured. He reached into his pocket for his logbook, and pressed the little stud on its top. The amber dome on its top lit up.
“This is Nef, researcher 345. Report that, as of this evening- ” he broke off and checked his small brass chronometer. “As of this evening, 7.56, I have encountered a complete cog specimen. Cog is missing its control circuit entirely and should be in workshop settings mode. Will power up, move to laboratory and power down. Unit seems in good working order, but was deep in a clay-like seam of soil and may be too soil-logged to function. Report ends.”
There. At least if anyone found his headless corpse they could probably work out what had happened, if the rampaging cog didn’t tell them first. He knelt down and pulled his pack over, taking out a roll of blue cloth which he lay down and unrolled. Inside, amber of every size, shape and lustre gleamed out at him, and he ran his fingers over both them and the empty slot on the chest plate until he found one that looked like it might fit. Slowly, taking care not to chip the sides of the stone on the claws that would hold it in place, he slid it almost fully into place.
Nef double checked everything. He put the amber roll away in his pack, slung the pack onto his back and prepared to run should it go horribly wrong. Of course, he might not get the chance.
Then, a small amount of sweat beading on his upper lip, Nef slid the amber home.
A hum began deep inside the body of the cog, slowly intensifying. Itrose up the scale and disappearing into nothingness. Nef scuttled backwards as little vibrations sent more dust pouring out of the cog’s joints. Its hand twitched, fingers closing, crushing inwards. The movement shuddered up its arm, the shoulder joint grinding as the ball rolled in the socket. With an incredible noise of ground-up stone, metal screeching on metal and incredible weight settling on ancient joints, each section of the cog began to move; it wiggled its pointed feet, flexed its biceps, sat up without any apparent effort and rolled its head around on the neck joint. Then it clambered to its feet.
It looked all around, its sightless eyes roving around the entire chamber, finally settling on Nef.
“H-hello,” Nef said, trying and failing to keep the quaver out of his voice. He dug in his memory for the correct commands. “Unit, report.”
The cog took a step forward and it was all Nef could do to stay where he was. The first footsteps were painfully grinding, each one slightly easier than the last. It stopped, five feet from Nef, and he suddenly realised how much taller it was than even him.
It spoke, the voice issuing from somewhere within its skull. “Unit 519. Special tactics cog, fifth battalion. Self testing.” There were some whirrs from inside, then a strange sound like someone stepping on a grape. “Joints require lubrication; applied. Some damage to interior mechanism. Control circuits… missing. Memory corrupted. Some disparity between internal chronometer and external sensors.” Its voice had a strange tinny quality, not all that dissimilar from a person but lacking the changes in tone. It looked down at Nef. “What is your designation?”
“Designation… Cog controller,” he said, blurting out the words. “You are to accompany me to a service station where your… damage and corruption will be assessed in advance of you returning to work.”
There was a silence, and Nef turned to go. After two steps he heard the crunching sound of heavy metal feet, and it was all he could do to keep facing forward as the immense threat behind him padded on, like a faithful dog.