The Automaton Anarchy: Chapter 6, Scene 2.
Rough boards prodded Ignatius’s ribs while he lay face down, like a slab of meat on the butcher block. The morphine in his system felt rather pleasant in combination with his endurance elixir. He could feel the cold touch of the scalpel and the firm pressure of Mary’s hand but not feel it at the same time. It was an unnerving dichotomy of sensations.
Mary clucked her tongue against her front teeth while the blade eased its way through Ignatius. With delicate fingers, she spread the incision. Peering into the cut, Mary could see a post with its wires running deeper into the body. In the poor lighting, she could barely see the dark blotches on the casing.
Moving along the different connectors, Mary ascertained that the other two had a similar appearance. Taking the tip of her scalpel, she delicately scraped along the metal. She could feel a roughness under the knife. Part of the dark matter came off onto the blade. She brought it up to her nose and inhaled. There was a scent of fungus, or possibly algae.
“Do you spend any great time immersed in water?” Mary asked.
“Yes, any time I bathe,” replied Ignatius.
“How clean is your water? Do you use bath salts at all?”
“Yes, I typically include salts. You ought to know the condition of the water at Wyndfast.”
“What about the hospital? What were the bathing conditions like there?”
An image of a dank, smelly room containing several claw-footed tubs of water fouled by blood and excrement sprang to mind. Ignatius gritted his teeth, shaking his head back and forth.
“They were not good,” Ignatius said. The concession gave him a small measure of relief, as though he were divulging a dark secret that no one had knowledge of before.
“I’m afraid the news isn’t good. There is fungus growing inside of you. It smells a little bit like a water plant of some kind. I don’t think I need to tell you that it isn’t good to have vegetation growing inside of you. I also felt some rough spots on the connector. It might be corrosion. What that means is that they need to come out and be replaced with good quality parts and a better seal against water.”
“Can you do something now?”
“I can suture and seal the incision with a sticking plaster. There isn’t anything to be done here and now to repair the connections.”
Ignatius sighed, “Sew me back up then. Will I be able to walk?”
“Yes, maybe. I am not sure. It will be a gamble. You may get a few steps or perhaps a few days before another episode.”
“I need to be on my feet. Do what you can, a thorough scrubbing maybe?”
“I can do that. It should buy you some extra time.”
Mary set about cautiously cleaning each piece with a swab and some clear alcohol. She leaned across Ignatius’s shoulders and poured a hearty dose of the clear liquid over the cut, allowing some of it to seep into the incision.
Even with the morphine and his endurance cocktail mixing about in his system, Ignatius felt the alcohol burning into his open cut. Fire raced across his lower back drawing convulsions out of him, while Mary tried to keep him on the table.
“Tarnation and Hellfire, that hurts,” exclaimed Ignatius.
“I’m sorry, but it was the best way to cleanse your insides. The pain should subside momentarily.”
“Well, since you are here. Tell me what you think about seeking refuge with Colonel Witmore.”
Mary bit her lip for a moment. She had not pondered the notion of going to the Government for assistance. Johnathan kept his work out of the public on purpose because he felt self-regulation was preferable to imposed rules. A safe place to recuperate is what he needed now. The security of the fort would go a long way in providing that.
“What sort of man is Colonel Witmore?” Mary asked.
“He is a veteran of the war, a devious man, a keen intellect. He was once the spymaster of the eastern seaboard. He looks favorably at technology, especially how its use can safeguard the country. That is above all else in his mind; the well-being of America.”
“Is he trustworthy? I mean personally. I will not risk losing Johnathan a second time. We hear rumors, you know. Hints of what attempts others make in our fields. I read an account of one of your lesser known exploits in the mountains near North Carolina. What you discovered there.”
Mary fell silent, matched by Ignatius. Neither spoke for a few minutes.
Finally Ignatius spoke, “You worry that your efforts will be seen as a corruption, rather than a new form of life saving? Colonel Witmore will be more broadminded than that. The trouble I uncovered was a foul experiment used for the worst purposes. It cannot be confused with your work to preserve Johnathan’s life.”
“Do you honestly believe that?” asked Mary.
“I do. I have thought about what we are attempting here and it is in no way the same. Here we are talking about the preservation of life.”
“You are too kind, Mr. St. Eligius,” said Mary.
She took up a thick paste while they talked. Using a hefty glob on her finger, she spread it on both sides of the incision. Mary then took up a needle and surgical thread and started to stitch Ignatius back together. The smell of chemically burned flesh rose to fill the room. Ignatius coughed as the smell stung his nose.
“What is that?” he asked.
“A homebrewed sealant for flesh that doesn’t smell pleasant, but it works better than anything else I’ve come across. You’ll be able to be up and about in an hour.”
“I like that notion. How capable would you say the Automatons are?”
“They can run and fight moderately well. They aren’t too quiet, so sneaking up on someone is out of the question. They have a vast array of knowledge.”
“They could be useful to someone like the Colonel then?” said Ignatius.
“I suppose so. If it becomes a question of turning them over in exchange for our safety, Johnathan and I would both refuse. You should know that, before you go trying to make any deals with the Colonel,” Mary advised Ignatius.
“We shall endeavor to keep that in mind. I know Johnathan devised the Automatons for domestic duties, yet I cannot help feel as though they might be just as ably suited to defense.”
“I hope they will not be tested before we can leave here. I do not wish to undermine confidence in my Automatons, mind you. After witnessing the change they have undergone, I am not sure they would know what to do in a defensive situation. We are treating them like any other person, and not the radically altered machines that they are which may have serious repercussions.”
“Do you feel that their self-awareness is simple mimicry?”
“At first blush it does not appear so. If their story is true, then they demonstrate abilities that could only originate from an individual capable of learning. That, in and of itself is a miracle.” Mary said.
“What does your future entail? Surely you will not be returning to my service, not with the shabby treatment those plants in the solarium received,” chided Ignatius.”
“I think it will entail continuing my work with the Automatons. I think there are new, broad vistas to explore now that they have manifested some form of higher ability. I wish to delve into that and see if I can’t work out what changes affected them. I wish to settle down with Johnathan, too.”
A wistful look shone in Mary’s eyes. Distracted, she put the scalpel down and rinsed her hands in a small pan of water. Mary let the water drip back down into the container, staring at her fingers. Images battered against her mind, pictures of Johnathan smiling from his workbench. There were the long nights drawing schematics, plotting how each part would fit and finding themselves growing closer each moment. Then dreadful letters started to arrive soon after completing work on the LMk 1 model of Automatons set Mary and Johnathan on edge.
The soured triumph of creating a machine that could think for itself kept growing more bitter as letters continued to arrive. They demanded Mary’s services for something stained with evil intent. It was never clear what the task would be. The secrecy surrounding it was an unnatural impulse to keep whatever it was out of the public view. Now after all of the maneuvering, running and hiding, they were no closer to living their lives as free people.
“Mary?” said Ignatius.
His voice pulled Mary back to the present moment. With a final flick of her fingertips, Mary turned to Ignatius and smiled down at him.
“If you think Colonel Witmore is our best option, then Johnathan and I will place ourselves in your hands. I only want to end this game of cat and mouse and take Johnathan somewhere private where he can recuperate.”
“You have my word, the Colonel will see to your safety. How long before I can get up?”
Mary leaned over Igantius’s back and examined the sutures. Her plaster worked as she expected. Joining the flesh along the thread, the wound was not even seeping any blood.
“I would give the plaster at least another forty minutes to set up. Will you excuse me? I’m going to check on Johnathan.”
“Would you send Johnathan 2.0 in if you see him?”
Mary exited the room leaving Ignatius to his own thoughts. Elijah was the greatest concern now. Ignatius knew that it would be a matter of time before the ruthless Negro tracked Mary and Johnathan down. There were other agendas in progress, which needed his attention. The shadowy radical advocating the rise of the machines was one. Lesser problems also clamored for his attention, such as the Mayor and Bey-Feng. They may be attempting to seize power in their respective circles, who could say?
“You asked to see me Mr. St. Eligius?” The Automata asked.
“Yes. How are things out on the street?”
“We have seen no evidence to suggest that anyone is interested in this building. Traffic on the street and canal picked up as is the custom during a weekday. Several trains have also gone through the city.”
“Any word on Allison Hill?”
“We could see a few last vestiges of smoke drifting up from where we sat on the rooftop, but nothing better than that,” said the Automata.
“Keep watching, I sense something is not quite right. May I ask you a question?”
“Do you have hopes and dreams?” Ignatius asked.
The Automata titled its head to one side, contemplating Ignatius. The soft whoosh of air venting out of the machine punctuated the silence as the machine processed Ignatius’s question.
“I would like to see Father awake and moving about. I would like to be able to wander across the country without a human watching my every step. I dream of a time when I will be able to exist side by side with humans.”
“Those are all very formidable notions. I sincerely hope that whatever happens in the future you will consider me a friend. I am so very intrigued by you and your brethren.”
“What would you do with us?”
“I would like to know what caused you to suddenly be able to do more than just respond to an instruction set. To learn how your thoughts work may give us insight into the nature of being. Do you see?”
“I do. We need to know where we come from. Whether it is a simple accidental application of electricity, or some divine intervention, the answer would assist us in figuring out if we were meant to be.”
“It might be that the question is the answer. Man asks the same thing of himself all the time. I…”
Ignatius trailed off and frowned. He put his hand next to his ear and strained to listen. Johnathan 2.0 looked at Ignatius.
“What is the matter?” he asked the inventor.
“I thought I heard something,” Ignatius replied. He wished that he had his bag with him, instead of leaving it in the coach. There were miniature clockworks in it to scout areas and report when they found something.
“Johnathan, have the Automatons sweep this building to bottom, but leave a couple on watch. You stay with Mary.”
“I understand, Mr. St. Eligius.”
The Automata strode from the room with haste. Ignatius fervently hoped that he was wrong. Minutes dragged by. The engine in the other room beat a steady rhythm as fast as Ignatius’s heart was beating.
The crack of a gun, though muffled by the ceiling made Ignatius start. More shots came like rain driven by a powerful storm. Another disturbance reached him. The lift engine lowered the cage down to the basement level.
Frantically he reached around and groped at the waistband of the braces until his fingers found the wire leads. Moving as quickly as possible, he traced the wire back to the connection on the braces, figuring out which wire he held. Then using his right hand to locate the receptor he connected the plug. The lift banged to a halt and the gate rattled upward. A second wire identified and reconnected leaving one more to go. Feet shuffled into the corridor, heavy feet in hard boots that moved without caution.
A cry of surprise changed into a watery gurgle and then followed by the sound of panicked gunfire. Metal feet raced up the hallway into the chamber where Mary, Johnathan and Johnathan 2.0 were. Mary’s voice called commands out to her Automatons.
The third plug! Ignatius shoved it home into the jack and felt the familiar tingle in his spine. He tried to throw his leg off the table and swing himself upright. Nothing happened. Damnation! Ignatius cursed he had forgotten the time it would take the braces to recognize a connection and build up enough bioelectricity to trigger movement.
“Grab the lady,” a rough voice demanded.
Mary’s shriek cut through the cold air. Ignatius tried again to move and managed to tumble from the table onto the floor.
“Tell them to stop, unless theys wants to see yuh gutted.”
“Stop All Functions,” Mary sobbed.
“What about Stubbins?” a whiny voice asked.
“Ferget him. He ain’t worth the trouble a’ carryin’ out.”
Ignatius clawed at the hard floor pulling himself forward mostly by sheer willpower. He managed to crawl to the doorway and positioned himself to peer around the edge. In the room before him were several men in dirty, torn clothing. The nearest one held a pistol stained brown by rust.
An Automata lay near by a pool of viscous fluid collecting underneath the chest unit. A Colt lay next to the door, having just fallen from the numb fingers of the slowly expiring Stubbins. From the first floor, shouts and the noise of fighting reached Ignatius’s ears. Wellsie’s deep baritone rose up over the calamity.
Much younger voices screamed inside Ignatius’s head as his fingers sought the chipped wood grip. His fingertips brushed the wood at the same time that a boot came down on his outstretched hand. Any thought of picking up the weapon fled his mind. Ignatius twisted around to look up at his assailant. Dead black eyes filled with the rage and hatred stared down at Ignatius. A cruel sneer hooked across the Negro’s mouth.
“Well, Mr. St. Eligius. How nice to make your acquaintance again,” said Elijah.
A pitted skinning knife appeared in his massive hand and chuckling with glee, Elijah cut the wires exposed on Ignatius’s back. Immediately Ignatius felt his hips and legs go slack. A boot propelled him onto his side, pushing him against the doorway. It afforded him a better view of the chamber but he could have done without the pain.
Mary was in the clutches of one of the men, her arms pinned back behind her. Four of the Automatons were in the room, but none of the moved or even registered the ability to function. From the cocoon, Johnathan groaned in his coma.
“My master wants yuh tah live a while longer, in order to make his victory that much sweeter. You do get tuh watch me take this lil’ ol’ gal and one of these metal mans wit me.”
“There will not be any place safe enough, tell your master that,” Ignatius said.
“Right, I’ll relay that message, cripple.” Elijah shook his head at Ignatius. “Me an’ the boys are goin’ teh mosey now. You jus’ sit tight now, yuh hear?”
Laughing from his gut, Elijah stood upright and beckoned to the other street toughs to follow him back to the lift. One of them broke off from the group and wandered over to Ignatius.
“Didn’t expect to see me again didja?” said Franco, the engineer from the Maudlin Rose. “I got something for you. A sweet little something from my dearly departed brother,” Franco hissed, and viciously kicked Ignatius in the face several times. Fortunately, the pain did not last long, as Ignatius slid into unconsciousness.