A Beginning, of Sorts

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Prologue

The comfortable, if a bit worn, wooden desk chair creaked as William sat back in it to rest his eyes; strained from poring over the dusty volume lying open on his desk. He had been meaning to read the laboratory journal of Balthus for years, but the cramped, disorganized script in which the great man had jotted down his notes two centuries past was trying even his formidable skills. He could have purchased a modern, printed version at any corner bookshop with a section on the history of alchemy, but it wasn’t dry technical information he desired to obtain from the yellowed pages before him, it was the insight to be gained by seeing the margin notes and hand-penned illustrations made by the master himself; the great organizer and unifier who did for alchemy what Neston had done for physics only a few decades earlier.

He took a moment to look out through the plate glass windows, seeing the backwards letters painted onto the glass proclaim: “skooB euqitnA dna eraR fo reyassA dna royevruP :ppurK mailliW.” Of course, to the various people moving about on the street outside, the message, written in the flowing but workmanlike script common to storefronts in Allemania, read: “William Krupp: Purveyor and Assayer of Rare and Antique Books.”

Taking his eyes away from the various vehicles and people outside the shop, William let his gaze wander over to where Ava was tidying up one of the stacks of books that had collected in the corners of the shop, the only places where they could be put so as not to block access to the ceiling-height bookcases that dominated the cramped space. Having finished her task, Ava stiffly straightened from her bent-over position and, turning, walked to the front of the desk with a series of precise steps.

Now that she was closer, William heard low clicking and scraping noises coming from Ava’s torso. He shook his head sadly. He had topped up her lubricant canisters only the day before, so it wasn’t that her mechanisms were running dry. He studied her for a moment; the straw-colored hair tied back in a bun so as not to interfere with her vision, the smooth blemishless quality of her skin, and the always empty-seeming eyes she turned on him. She stared back for a few seconds as a barely-audible set of clicking and whirring noises emanated from her head. She was taking longer than ever to process information, too, he glumly reflected.

“I have completed the… the… the…” the general-purpose automaton said, a louder-than-usual click sounding from inside her with each repetition. William sighed and, leaning forwards, thumped her on the shoulder with his fist just hard enough to knock the stuck mechanism free. “…assigned task, master William,” she completed. That said, she stood as still as a statue, seemingly inanimate but for the sounds coming from her aging machineries. She wore a simple white blouse with a burgundy vest over it (the top few buttons left undone to allow for her respectable bust), and a pair of grey ladies’ trousers with laced boots.

“You know, dear, I think you’re getting rather long in the tooth,” he said, as much to himself as to the machine.

“That statement is not… is not…. is no…” another thump, “compatible with any of my function templates, please confine orders to actions for which I have been programmed,” she replied; much as William had expected her to.

“Well, I suppose you could sweep up a bit, but after that I think I should like you to shut down for the night, so as to spare your mechanisms any excessive wear,” he said, returning to his earlier task of deciphering the alchemical text; the contents of which had established the base principles by which automatons like Ava, as well as a great many other indispensable modern machines, were constructed. He was so lost in this that he failed to notice how the scuffing and clicking noises from Ava were growing steadily louder and more abrasive as she went about the task of cleaning up the dust that invariably gathered on the floor of his shop.

He was finally broken out of his reverie by a loud noise as that of a loosed spring; he looked over, startled, to find that the source of the noise was his mechanical assistant. The first noise was followed by that of cogs grinding together; then the sudden whirr of released tension and tinkling of sheared-off gear teeth as Ava’s body lurched. She dropped the broom she had been using, her right hand rising to her chest (the source of the disturbance) while her other arm stood out rigidly from her body at a downward angle.

“Ava, what’s wrong?” William asked, springing to his feet as another set of grinding noises gripped the female automaton.

“Does not fit… function template not found… internal functions-functions-functions disordered…” she rambled, the tone of her voice queerly changed. She seemed to hear his question, and attempted to approach him, but stumbled after only a single step, barely managing to recover. Over the louder noises of her body, William detected scuffing and tinkling noises from within the head of the clockwork woman, and he saw smoke waft from her ears and nose as the machineries and fluid emulsions of her comprehensors overheated.

Suddenly, Ava’s head swung sharply to the right, then the left, then the right again; her back arching as the whirring and clicking from inside her came to fever pitch and her voice speeding up until William couldn’t determine where one word ended and another began. He tried to get close enough to hit the emergency halt button on the small of her back, but her arms swung about menacingly as her torso twisted back and forth in a thoroughly inhuman manner involving no movement of the hips. Finally, conceding defeat, he stood back and watched, a sad look on his face.

Thin lubricating oil began to leak from between Ava’s parted lips as the whirring gave way to an abrasive scuffing; her movements becoming more and more halted and mechanical with each passing moment until with a loud crunch her body came to a halt. This was followed by a hollow popping noise as that of a lumin-bulb popping that emanated from within her head, and it was this that finally put an end to the unfortunate display of mechanical fallibility that had broken William’s routine. The driving force and intelligence, if it may be called that, gone; Ava toppled forwards as stiffly as a mannequin, luckily missing a pile of rare folios near where she had been working.

Standing over the formerly animate form of the feminine automaton, William sighed again; more deeply. Most owners did not name their automata, so as to preserve the distinction between that which was Person and that which was not, but he had always been at odds with that tradition; feeling that having some measure of personal care in one’s mechanical helpers came at no greater cost than favoring a particular horse or dog. Now that he had seen the sad end of his first such acquisition, he understood that holding such an attitude might have done him a disservice. He felt strangely melancholy about losing Ava, almost as though instead of an appliance he had lost a human companion.

At least it would give him the opportunity to purchase a more recently (and perhaps better) manufactured sort than Ava had been…


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