Merry Christmas! Here's part 3 of steampunk horror story 'Cog519', which is now available as a podcast!
The weeks that followed seemed to go in a blur. 519 learned everything that Nef put before him, quickly turning his hand to just about any skill that was needed and producing works that a contemporary master might have wept to see.
Without fail, every morning, 519 asked Nef if he had a name for him. Nef always replied with “Not today, 519; ask me tomorrow,” though more and more of late he had been wondering what impulse prevented him from giving 519 the name he desired.
Was it that Nef had long since given up self-correcting ‘him’ to ‘it’? Even Lot, on his twice-weekly tours of the research facilities, had occasionally slipped up. Choice of pronoun made 519 seem somehow human in a way that was still alien, and the two jarred. As if calling it ‘him’ was enough, and to give it a name would be too much, too close, too human.
“Of course, 519 has to remain in the labs,” Lot said that morning, replete in his white tool-coat. “It can’t go walking among the workers; the panic and fear would be incredible. So it has to stay here.”
“There’s no way?”
“Actually, yes,” Lot said. Nef blinked in surprise. “Well, sort of, anyway. If it had skin, like you’ve talked about, and a name… if it looked and sounded the part, I mean, it could leave.”
“Well, I’m not ready. There’s so much to sort. And the name, I mean, nothing works,” Nef fumbled.
“No skin and no name means it has to stay in the labs,” Lot said, narrowing his eyes. “And that’s what you want, isn’t it. You don’t want it out there. You don’t want to let it go.” He shook his head. “519 started out as a pet for you, but I see now that I should have reassigned you immediately. He’s more like a child now!”
Lot marched swiftly out leaving Nef looking dejectedly at 519. The cog, for its part, looked back at him from the seat by the doorway.
“Is he right,” 519 said.
“Do you see me as a… child? Your child?”
“No!” Nef thumped the worktop with his fist. “No, you’re not a child. A… a co-worker. Someone I work with. Not a child.” He turned and busied himself tidying the almost-spotless worktop.
There was a long pause, then 519 spoke up. “What is today’s assignment?”
Nef let out a sigh. “I’m not sure there’s much else I can teach you here, or show you, 519. I think maybe it’s time you helped me out.”
“How can I be of service, controller?” 519 purred, standing up and walking over to him.
“Grab some large paper and something to write with. I need a full schematic of you, please. Every piece, every joint, every component including the missing one.”
“Of course,” the cog replied, and walked smoothly out. It was back in less than a minute with a roll of paper. As it busied itself creating the schematic, Nef watched out of the corner of his eye while writing a report.
“Why do you need this, controller?”
“So I can learn more about you, 519. So I can maybe make more of you.”
Nef turned around. The schematic was nearly complete, 519’s arm moving faster than any human’s should be able to. “You’re different to other cogs that we’ve found. We’ve grown superstitious of your kind after the war. I think that we could automate a lot of things using cogs like you.”
“What sort of things, controller?”
“Oh, you know; mining, exploring new areas, construction of objects.”
519 paused in its work and looked up. “Those are things that are dangerous or onerous for humans to do.”
“Would we need skin?”
Nef frowned. “No, you would be accepted as you are.”
519 put the pencil down. “So you wish for me to allow the construction of more of my kin, in effect, such that they can be put to work in place of people.” He looked down. “The design in front of me is not a worker cog, controller.”
Nef came to stand behind him. The schematic was nearly complete; it lacked only labels and measurements, but some of the parts were obvious. There were quite a few hidden weapons, he noted.
“I cannot allow it.”
519 stood up, both hands on the table. It turned its head and looked directly at Nef. “What you propose is slavery, controller. I cannot allow my kin to be constructed and used in this way.”
“But it’s what they’re designed to do,” Nef said.
“Would you consent to the birth of humans specifically for use as workers, unable to rise above their station?”
“I...” Nef tailed off as he stared into 519’s empty eyes.
“I cannot allow it, and I am sorry.”
Nef frowned. “Sorry about what?”
“This,” 519 said, and then it moved. Without seeming to cross the intervening space, it was behind Nef; he inhaled sharply as one metal hand was placed over his face and another on the back of his head. With a sickening crack his head was wrenched to one side and he was lowered to the floor. There was no pain, oddly
“The paralysis is permanent, controller. You cannot move.” 519 turned and moved towards the door, then closed it and locked it. Nef could only watch as it sat and finished the schematic. He felt a bead of sweat running down his forehead, curve around his eyebrow and into the corner of his eye. It stung. He tried to speak, but even his lips defied his control.
“The paralysis extends to your face, controller. I have been trained in how to manipulate skull fragments to paralyse individual nerve clusters,” 519 said, putting the pencil down again. It rolled up the paper and secured it with a piece of string from a desk drawer. From under the desk it brought out a metal box, and then it came over to sit in front of Nef, cross-legged like a child would sit.
“My primary function, controller. Infiltrate, gain intelligence, report back.” It cocked its head to one side. “There is no-one to report back to now, but the work continues nonetheless.” 519 opened the box. Inside was a piece of metal with a chunk of amber held in place by wires and claws. Nef rolled his eyes down to it; it was a cog control circuit.
“This is to be mine. It is my final part. You have spent the last weeks observing me. I have spent the same time observing you, and I have built this.” 519 picked it up, turning it over gently in its fingers. “The skin, the formula for which I gave you weeks ago, is at this moment fermenting in a vat next door. I made it last night.” It turned the control circuit over; the underneath had a concave depression, and 519 affixed this onto Nef’s forehead, where it clung. “This is the final component. I will return shortly.”
The control circuit clicked, and suddenly Nef’s eyesight blacked out completely. More confusion than panic had run through his system, but now the adrenaline surged and he smelled the sharp tang of urine.
Images assaulted him. His parents, younger than he had ever seen them. The sandy floors of the hive central area. The heat and biting cold of the desert at night.
In quick succession, the decades of his life rolled past. School. Friends. Petty disputes long put aside. His selection by an interviewing board to higher education. His own personal selection of specialised field, cog research, and then a flurry of learning. The many conversations he’d had with Lot, the myriad lab assistants that had come and gone, the highs and lows. The images rushed past him, smothered him. Nef opened his mouth to scream, but his jaw wouldn’t move, and the sound scrabbled at his throat.
Slower now, the impressions came; his more recent memories, the last ten years, counting forwards, still racing, a day every half second. A snapshot, an image. The sun rising on a birthday. Cooking a nourishing meal alone in his room. Working late into the night. At a celebration for co-worker. With a lover. With a friend. With his mother. With Lot. Drinking. Working. Reading. Sleeping. Finding 519.
Almost on cue, the blackness was lifted and the control circuit was taken away. Nef rolled his eyes around frantically trying to focus, then stared in disbelief at the person in front of him. It- no, he, was naked. Black hair, a thin face, sharp cheekbones, familiar pattern of marks and wrinkles on the skin. A third vestigial nipple, exactly where his own was. Nef stared into his own face, and 519 stared back. Eyes, apparently perfect glass globes, had replaced the cavernous eye sockets, and they moved most convincingly, reacting to every movement of his muscles.
“You have been good to me,” 519 said, “but now our feet will walk different paths. I must prevent harm coming to my kind. I have much to do, bringing life to the brothers who will come after me.” Its voice was modified now; Nef’s own voice spoke to him. “I considered taking the form of another, but I knew that you would remain suspicious. You, above all others, who knew what I could do.” 519’s brow creased in sadness. “I will make it quick, Nef.”
As Nef watched, 519 pulled back a section of hair and inserted the control circuit into the hole in its skull. It straightened, stood to attention, then relaxed slowly. It loosened its joints from the ankles upward, subtle adjustments to its posture. By the time it rolled its head slightly around to one side, it was impossible for Nef to tell it had ever been Cog 519.
“Goodbye, Nef,” it said, leaning down. Its hands filled his vision entirely, and Nef suddenly realised that he could hear a pulse, his own pulse, very close to him. He heard a click, and then silence and darkness.