“Maam” #183 agreed with a salute, his worn servo’s whining as he did so. “This one is afraid he could not save Company Employee Lives. This one could not find him.” He said, before trudging off towards where he was ordered to with his hands by his sides. He was not in pain, for it was an alien sensation to him. He was aware however, of the damaged condition of his internal machinery by the noises they were making, the shaking squeals where dust had gotten between the gears and all of the stiffness was obvious to him. His hands had worn down the most – the rubber padding that was placed on the underside of his hands to give his palms more grip had almost completely worn off overnight due to the amount of heavy wear that he’d put them through, all that remained was the outline of a handprint, tiny specks of black trapped between joint lines originally designed to keep the rubber on.
Running metallic fingertips across those rough rubbed flecks, #183 walked into the industrial yard that housed the east division of the merchant company. The first thing that he noticed were just how many damaged automatons there were standing, sitting or laying around in the work yard. They had came here with no other orders, regardless of how damaged they were because that is what they were supposed to do. Of the 30 or so mechanical men that filled the yard at least half of their fires had died out permenantly, never to be rekindled into life. The thought terrified him.
Not that automatons were easy to destroy, of course. They were thick skinned, capable of withstanding damage from a falling cargo crate and able to be repaired back into full working order. The fire in their bellies could be extinguished and it would put the automaton into an equivalent of sleep, though they did not dream. Re-lighting an automaton’s fire was a simple process and would re-awaken it. #183 knelt down beside one of his fallen kind and reached forward, lifting the head that was on the ground beside its body up to look into its eyes. Its skull had been crushed, no doubt by falling debris and the delicate machinery inside its head had been broken. That was one way to ensure that while a fire could be lit, the automaton would never awaken again. Nervous, #183 took off his hat and ran a hand across his head, checking it for damage. His hand caught on something and it made him jolt suddenly, dropping the head that was in his other hand. It had been a sharp sensation, like a lightning bolt had struck the inside of his head. Carefully, he reached back and felt what had caused it.
Pulling the sliver of metal from the back of his head was like having a heavy burden taken from his shoulders, he was unaware of how much of a problem it was causing until it was gone. He looked at it, a strange type of metal he couldn’t identify, wafer thin and a few inches long. It must have been travelling at some speed to have pierced the metal of his head and he suspected that it had grazed the delicate machinery inside, causing the strange sensation he had felt when his finger had bumped against it. He looked carefully at the sliver, wondering how close he had actually been to his existence being ended by it and wondered what to do. Able to think of no better plan, he slipped the sliver of metal into the lining of his flat cap as a reminder of how close he came.
“… And the damnest thing?”
“I swear I saw someone out there last night killing people they found under the rubble. Like he was putting them out of their misery” two voices discussed in the background while #183 looked around the mess of destroyed and damaged automatons. He turned his head slightly to see who it was – two employees of the company, who were on a break and sharing a cigarette between them both. “Your kidding.” The second one rebutted “Aint no way and no how someone would ruin lives like that.”
“I’m telling you I saw it, Biggs. I dunno if it was some addle headed killer looking for fun or what, but I tell you this…” the first said, taking a long draw on the cigarette before he passed it back. “… people might see him as a saint when they come to realise they ain’t got no home no more. Tell you at least half of the people in this district are going to be destitute. It’ll ruin lives, will a catastrophy like that. Mark my words”
“You’re a pessimist is what you are, Wedge”
#183 turned back to look at the smashed-headed automaton he was crouched by. That’s what the overseer had meant when she had ordered him to save lives. She was talking about other humans, not a specific person whose name was Lives. He realised he had made a mistake, and that his orders had not been completed. He pulled his cap back on his head and rubbed the back of his neck, hearing a squeal of metal that surprised him. He had forgotten that he was still in need of repair, and that he had been ordered here for a reason. He stood up and walked over to the two employees on break, saluting. “Sirs! This one has been ordered to return to this facility for repairs so this one can continue saving lives and making people safe, sirs!”.
“183? Huh.” Biggs said, standing up and putting his hands on his side, stretching his back slowly.
“Wondered where you had gotten off to when everything went downhill last night. Who gave you those orders where you weren’t supposed to follow protocol and return to the yard, eh?”
“Sir, Overseer Boudreaux, sir”
“Oh” Biggs said, clearing his throat a little as the authority that he thought he had was quickly removed. “Well, we’re on break for another hour, see?” He motioned at Wedge, who waved the cigarette at the big automaton. “You’ll have to wait.”
“This one understands, Sir” … But that didn’t mean this one liked it, is what he omitted from his reply. He walked away from the pair and went back to the yard, ignoring the chuckles and insults that were coming from behind him. He sat down on a thick bench, listening to the creaking of his gears mix with the creaking of the wood. He looked around the yard a little, with nothing better to do other then sit hunched over, arms on his thighs and shedding the dust of a night’s work. Tools dotted all over the place, discarded body parts from automatons who were too damaged to be repaired, sheet metal.
“… This one was not given an order” He realised, speaking to himself for the first time ever while thinking about what the employees had said. “… This one could repair itself. It would still be following the overseer’s orders. It would not be breaking any rules.” It was a slow realisation, one that he rolled around in his head for a while before standing up silently. He walked over to the crush-headed automaton and picked it up with one hand inside its neck cavity, walking over to one of the toolboxes and setting it down carefully.
#183 was good with his hands, as he came to discover. Even if those hands were not his own. With a technical savvy he wasn’t aware he had, he removed one of his arms completely as well as stripping out a few of the worn gears from inside his shoulder, working one handed as he re-attached one of the other auto’s undamaged arms in its place. This was repeated again with the other arm, working left handed as he cleaned, cut and welded things back into place.
The new arms felt good and fresh, he thought and flexed them. He looked down at the armless body beside him and felt odd for a few moments. He knew that unit could never be brought back due to extensive brain damage, but he still wanted to do something in order to make sure that he remembered where his new strength had come from. “117” He said to himself, touching the embroidered number on its overalls, stained with soot and grime as they were. Absent-mindedly, he picked up a fine detail welding torch and clicked its flame into life. He copied the number on his wrist, just under the joint and worked it onto his own skin, a permenant reminder of the auto that had given up part of itself. He watched the metal redden and cool, waiting for it to set before he used a piece of cloth to wipe down the surface. Now he would remember.
When #183 had returned to the crash site, he did so with a tool box. Oh yes, it was full of tools, but it also held a spare set of hands and gears inside it, just in case his hands became damaged again. It would save another journey back to the work yard when his orders were to help people and keep them safe. He had also washed himself down and cleaned out his insides with a bucket of grease in order to keep himself in good and working order. Tucked under his other arm was a bag of coal and an empty bucket for water.
He walked past a crowd and back to where he was working, setting the toolbox and his things beside one of the piles of lumber he had built up last night. Stretching his arms out just to make sure they were in perfect order, he started to lift out large chunks of rubble that had fallen down while he was gone. Work was easier in the light, he realised, as he could see things better. He was even making good time when a spatter of water hit him on the head, followed by another. He looked up at the sky, which had started raining and washing away the dirt of the night. People were huddling under what cover there was in the street, many of them unable to go home to get out of it since they had no homes to go to.
#183 looked in the direction of the work yard, knowing that the staff would be taking the automatons inside now to get them out of the rain and stop the rust. The humans had gotten out of the rain themselves, not needing an order. Were they likely to rust if they hadn’t? He remembered what the one ‘Wedge’ had said. Homeless, destitute. He thought back to the small human sounding her siren.
And then, he did something that no other automaton had ever done. He had an idea.
“What are you doing, 183?” Overseer Boudreaux asked him as he started hammering nails into wooden beams loudly in the middle of the street, holding up a large sheet of metal every so often to check the distance between the beams as he worked underneath it out of the rain. “Keeping people safe, Maam. Saving lives.” He said, putting the sheet down on top of the beams to create a roof to keep the rain out from inside it. He’d built it up against a ruined wall with no other purpose. People had already snuck inside to get out of the rain, taking sheets with them to keep warm. He patted the roof of the make shift shelter. “Just like you said, Maam”