Merry Christmas! Here's part 2 of steampunk horror story 'Cog519', which is now available as a podcast!
Back in the lab, Nef walked slowly around the table on which was sat Cog 519. It was much shinier now; even as it had been walking back to the workshop with him, its joints had eased as it self-lubricated. About halfway there, it had quietly announced “Self-cleaning system initiated. Do not be alarmed.” Nef had almost stumbled in sudden panic, but then he had heard a strange amberic crackling from behind him and, when he turned to look, the fine layer of dust and grime on the armour was simply being burned away. Lightning crackled over it, apparently generated from the shard of amber at its heart, and then the blue light effect died away. While not completely clean, it had definitely come down from needing ‘full clean’ to merely a ‘light buff’.
It had followed every command perfectly, including the one to deactivate, and now it was slumped to one side. Nef fingered the amber shard still held firmly in the cog’s chest; should he remove it?
“Another long-range recon unit in the making,” a low voice said behind him. He turned to see Supervisor Lot entering the room, his long white coat stuffed with tools of every sort. He came up to Nef and clapped one meaty hand onto his shoulder. “I heard you’d found a good one, but this… this is exceptional.”
Nef allowed himself a smile as Lot walked round 519, inspecting it. “Yes; all joints active, all centres apparently working to capacity; he was missing power, of course. And, erm, control circuits.”
Lot stopped, his smile freezing in place. “Missing its control circuits? How were you able to get it to follow you?”
“I identified as its controller,” Nef said, then hurriedly added, “I know, not by the manual; I should have called for-“
“You shouldn’t have activated the damned thing!” Lot shouted, now looking at 519 with wide eyes. “You had no idea what would happen! It could have gone berserk, wiped out half the hive, exploded…”
“But he did none of those things, and now we are here,” Nef said gently.
“I suppose so.” Lot prodded it with one finger. “What can it do? And it is an‘it’, Nef, don’t think I haven’t noticed. Not a he.”
“Sorry. Habit. It seems to be a special tactics cog. Ever heard of one of those?”
Lot sucked in a breath and sucked his teeth. “Yes. Nothing good.” He leaned against the workbench and took out a pipe. “You mind?”
Nef shook his head and Lot lit up, then took a long pull. “Ah, let’s see. It was the last weeks of the war, so the history matrices have it. The special tactics cogs were designed to be jack of all trades, you might say. Able to turn their hands to anything the commanders put them to. But they weren’t specialised, in a weirdly ironic way. Unspecialised special cogs.” He laughed, little clouds of smoke puffing out. “Anyway, there were only a few produced. Most were destroyed when Karak Ny’vin went up in smoke, and the rest, a handful, were lost.” He sucked his teeth again and rapped a knuckle on the cog. “And then we found one of them.”
“I’d like to reactivate it. Run it through tests,” Nef said. “If it’s truly a jack-of-all-trades, it might be wasted doing mechanical digging work. We have people for that who aren’t as highly skilled.” He frowned. “No, I think we could make something of this.”
“What if we… taught it?”
“Be… be like us. Be a person.”
Lot laughed bitterly. “You do understand that this is a killing machine, right? The only reason we’re having this conversation now is because you’ve exerted control over it.” He narrowed his eyes. “And, I might add, you’ve ensured that we can’t use it for work-crew business. By confirming that you are its controller, it will accept orders from none other than you. It ensured chain-of-command in the old days, and prevented treason.” Lot shook his head, his long hair bouncing around his shoulders. “Suspicious times. But yes; it won’t accept orders from anyone else.”
“Without his control circuits, 519’s at workshop settings. It’s like the day he was made. We can’t just destroy him.”
“It. And we damned well can.”
Nef felt his heart leap. “I won’t do it. It’s... unscientific. We can’t just destroy every new thing we find and don’t understand! It’s not even like we can’t control him, train him.”
Lot paused and sucked on his pipe. “That’s it, isn’t it. This is a pet for you. You’ve found a pet, made friends with it, given it a name for goodness’ sake…” He shook his head again. “Fine. Whatever. If it goes berserk, it’ll kill you first at least, and save me the trouble. Just… be careful.”
He walked out, leaving Nef alone in the quiet and cool of the echoing workshop.
Nef unseated the amber power source in 519’s chest, then replaced it. The connection restored power to the entire construct and it whirred back into life. The sound was much less intrusive this time, without hundreds of years of soil and grit to mar it.
“Working,” came 519’s voice.
“Stand,” Nef said. It stood, smoothly sliding off the table and coming to rest with barely a sound, despite its weight.
“What can you do?”
There was a pause. Then: “Would you like the list alphabetically or in the order I was assigned the skill?”
Nef raised an eyebrow. “Alphabetically,” he said.
“Skill brackets: Accounting. Acrobatics. Agriculture. Alchemy. Ambush. Animal Husbandry. Archery. Bluff. Calligraphy. Carpentry. Chemistry. Chirurgery. Climbing. Cooking-“
“Enough,” Nef said, and 519 fell silent. “Within Accounting, what can you do?”
“Analysis of profit and loss; salaries, taking into account pensionable workers and tax; beneficiaries of-“
“Stop,” Nef said, and 519 again cut off dead. “What was your primary function?”
“Primary function is infiltration of communities, potentially for years at a time, in advance of procuring information, eliminating targets of choice and, eventually, extraction.”
Nef took a moment to analyse what 519 had said and was thus completely caught off guard when it spoke again.
“Why did you say ‘was’, controller?”
“Hmm?” Nef said, then took a step back. “You… you asked a question.”
“Yes, controller. You said ‘what was your primary function’, past tense. Is my primary function no longer a priority?”
Nef sighed. “The war is over. You have been buried for hundreds of years; this accounts for the disparity in your chronometers.”
“The war is over.” There was a pause, and 519 cocked its head to one side so that it could look at Nef. It was a curiously human gesture. “Am I to be dismantled?”
“Would that be a… problem?”
A slightly shorter pause, then “I would not be able to oppose it. But I was made for a purpose and regret that the resources and time required to make me have been wasted on behalf of the controllers.”
Nef felt the first flutterings of panic in his breast, but quelled them as best he could. “You regret?”
519 nodded. “I have been given an understanding of human emotions and thinking to enable me to more easily integrate myself into a community. For example, I refer to myself in the first person where others of my kind do not.”
“I can ensure that you won’t be dismantled,” Nef said. “But there need to be some ground rules.”
519’s head snapped upright and his entire body squared itself off. “Awaiting priority command input,” it said, suddenly every inch a mechanism.
“No killing.” Nef said. “Do not… don’t hurt anyone, in fact, unless hurting someone prevents greater harm.” He paused. “If you find yourself in danger, protect yourself as long as no human is hurt. Commands end.”
“Processing,” 519 said. The whirring, so faint now as to be barely noticeable as the machinery inside the casing cleaned itself, grew slightly louder, then faded again. “Does the controller wish to give this unit a new designation?”
Nef paused. A name. “Not at this point,” he said finally. “Ask every morning until told to stop by me, though.”
“Confirmed,” 519 said, then relaxed. It sat down on the edge of the table, twisting its upper body to look at Nef. It was even moving slightly, he realised, mimicking the tiny movements humans made even at rest.
“519, explain more about your infiltration programming,” Nef said. “You don’t look human. How would you have blended in?”
“A special material, skin-like in texture, would have been grown to cover me,” 519 said. “My voice would have been tuned to match my appearance, which itself would have been tailored to match the community of which I was to become a part. In this way, I could gather intelligence.” Nef started to move around in front of 519, amazed to watch the cog’s head and upper body move to follow him in a completely natural way. “I am programmed to make mistakes, mimic learning new skills at a human-slow pace, bluff and generally pass as a person.”
“From what I’ve seen, you do a good job of that,” Nef said.
“What is to be done with me?”
Nef beckoned. “Calligraphy was one of your skills, yes? I need a written report. First, your full list of skills, each skill tree given its own table of skills. Second, I need the formula for the skin-like covering that you would have been given. We may not have the manpower or some of the knowledge, but you’d be amazed what we get up to.”
He pulled out a notebook from a desk drawer, grabbed a pencil and watched as the cog began to write.
What have I begun, his brain screamed.
Something wonderful, a small part replied.