The Automaton Anarchy: Prelude
The barge moved ponderously through the slow green waters of the canal. A Steady cadence of hoof against packed clay path disturbed the silence only a little. A Mule pulled against its harness bringing the canal boat along with it. White mist rolled down the forested hillsides, spilling over the canal and ground before running out onto the river. A blue jay screeched and fluttered from tree to tree, pacing alongside the barge. The first stains of color were just starting to touch the clouds that dotted the sky.
At the prow of the barge, sitting on the gunwales smoking a corncob pipe was a curiously shaped figure. From a distance, one could mistake it for that of a neighbor. Under further scrutiny however, the eye might discern subtle nuances that would tell the brain: something was amiss.
The hands and feet would be the first things noticed. No shoes or gloves covered them, because they would not fit. A pair of solid metal rectangles dangles over the placid water, without toes. A slender array of fingers idly clasped the bowl of the pipe, fleshless and gleaming in the weak light of day. The lounging deckhand would seem terribly gaunt and drawn in on themselves. The clothes appear to be better suited for a scarecrow than the current wearer is.
Under the broad, hat a pale luminosity of blue flickers, not quite so usual for a common river rat. If one was still, quiet as the field mouse and twice as attentive, one might hear a wheezing sound. It is the rhythmic rattle of air circulating through a firebox rather than lungs. Then you would know this crewmember is not in fact a man, but rather something foreign, yet eerily similar. What purpose might this man shaped non-man have? Where is it heading along the Pennsylvania Canal?
Delicately it taps the bowl of its pipe against the side of the barge disgorging the glowing ember of tobacco. Like a falling star, it plummets into the water, briefly hissing and leaving only a wisp of steam behind. The canal boat glides on, creaking at the end of the towrope. Past the sleeping woods and the outskirts of Harrisburg it glides. Drifting slowly along the industrial row, no prying eyes focus on one barge amongst dozens. The lounging figure rose and shuffled to the back, where it swung the tiller hard to port and gently bumped the boat against a wharf.
In the predawn light, a dozen figures emerged from the hold, crossed a gangplank on heavy metal feet. They bear a stretcher with some kin to what? Perhaps reverence, certainly with purpose, into a small non-descript warehouse. The pip smoker returns to the wharf and unties the barge, snapping the mule’s traces. Braying in a short-tempered fit the mule continues on its way south. A few lonely ripples lap against the pilings and fade away. The gaunt figure hesitates, surveying the surroundings before retreating inside, leaving the morning stillness unbroken.