In some distant land there lived a king and his mind. In a time of steam and balloons and the defiance of Gods and Nature alike by Man, his people thrived in unbroken peace, and the king and his mind lived alone in his hall. No sentries guarded its doors, for the king felt safe in his home; no queen sat by him as he ate. Instead, the emptiness was filled with the treasures of the modern day: precious metals and glass moulded into technical tools and toys for his pleasure, and forces driven by sheer physics for that of his mind; a mechanical menagerie of metal lapdogs that barked when called, frogs that croaked squeakily as they hopped meaninglessly about, cats that purred when their well-greased ears were stroked.
Yet neither the king nor his mind were satisfied: the mind grew bored with the knowledge it found in weights and steam, and the man himself, the fallible king of a refined land, grew fonder of the objects with which he surrounded himself. So he would take his dusty coat often to tour his region, rejoicing in the his subjects' creativity that they would use to broaden and perfect the art their ruler was himself possessed by: miniature steam engines that ran on coal and tracks; clockwork birds that sang an iron tune; trees that held some technological magic so they grew when their roots were set to a flame the king howled with laughter at this irony, and when he would finally return home to his hill just before the sun had set he had shouldered a sack that wriggled and chirped and smoked with oddities to add to his collection. Still, the feeling of emptiness remained.
So he would take apart the older things: the carts that didn't roll, the insects that no longer chirped, and remade them. He reformed their shells, greased their throats, and built whole new machines from their expendable parts that performed marvels beyond the understanding of anyone but him. He made whole miniature worlds peopled with gadgets and creatures that mimicked life. He polished the walls until they shone like gold, and set tinted glass in the window frames so that a thousand suns danced in glorious colours in every doorway. He was the lord of his own creation, but, though he found a purpose for everything that whistled and wheeled, he was powerless to forge for himself a haven.
One May, while the king serviced a fire-breathing dragon, the hollow caw of a steel raven alerted him to a visitor. There were, as I said, no men guarding the tall doors to the entrance chambers, but the king merely whistled back to the faux avian whereupon it swooped down to strike a latch, bidding the guest welcome.
The short, beaming man that waited on the steps was unabashed by this impersonal welcome; indeed, he stooped to stroke the little bird with one finger before it returned to its perch and he continued inside, uncontested. He carried with him a long wooden box clutched to his side, carefully kept from skidding across the gleaming floor. He seemed to know where to turn, following the clicking and whirring, striving not to step beneath the humming cast-iron beehive set high in one corner, or on top of a clockwork mouse skittering randomly about the kitchen.
At long last, still smiling, he found the king in a wide room decked with hanging mobiles of modern crafts: ironclads, dirigibles, even an ornithopter; the king sat there in the middle of the floor, marvelling as his newest creation belched red flames to the ceiling in glee.
"Your majesty," said the man.
The king looked up and brazenly stood to return his greeting. "I heard you come in," he said, smiling. "To what do I owe the honour of hosting the finest mechanic in the nation?"
"The second finest," the man gave in courteous reply which the king took in stride. "But this intrusion does have merit, majesty. You see with me this box."
"Of course." The king's gaze moved to it, the light from prisms dancing in his watery orbs. "What would you like in exchange?" he asked.
His guest chuckled, "You've yet to see it, highness! I have an inkling, but perhaps you'd best open the crate and decide for yourself its occupant's worth."
It was a woman. She walked from the crate as simply as though she were entering through a door. She gazed at the king, and at his marvels around her; the craftsmanship on her was so magnificent that her manufactured beauty was unmarred by her material. As the king approached her, in awe, she raised one hand to his chest level. Her creator looked for a moment concerned, but the king bent just as easily as she'd entered, and kissed her metal fingers. He smiled, as did she; servos whirred still, but her expression was so soft it could have been mistaken for the fault of life.
"Right gorgeous, isn't she?"
The artificer was now all but jumping with excitement, but the king did not take his gaze from the intricate contrivance before him. "What is your name?" he asked.
The artificer answered, "Her name is-" but the king silenced him with a swiftly raised hand.
The clockwork woman said nothing.
"Doesn't she understand?" asked the king, now facing his guest.
The mechanic's expression fell. "Human language is a very complicated thing, highness," he said. "She can understand little things, like that magnificent bird of yours out front can, but just not
" his voice trailed off. The king had turned from both of them, his head tilted slightly up. Though he'd refused the inconvenience of a crown, there was something stirring about his presence at this moment.
"She must speak," he said plainly.
"There isn't a thing that can, highness. Such a complicated function requires more than a brain of grease and wheels. She would need a soul. Highness?"
He did not respond.
The machinist's features might have melted off his face. "So you have no interest in her," he said.
At this, the king spun round, gleaming once more. "Interest?" he grinned. "I have great interest, dear friend. What did you have in mind in exchange?"
"Ah!" said the man. "Well, sire, on entering your grounds I heard sharp squeaks, and couldn't help but have myself a little look, and-"
"The bats, yes. You may have them."
"All of them?"
"Of course! And sir," said the king, looking him in the eye, "I do think your escort would prefer your company to mine."
The short man looked startled. "Indeed, sire?"
"Indeed," was the response. "Her acquaintance enough is worth the payment. You may take it and go now, though, with apologies for my poor hosting skills. I have a task that requires my immediate attention."
So construction began. Titanic gears and vast pipes, he welded together; whole rooms whistled with steam and hallways whirred with cast-iron wheels that tiled ceilings and blanketed walls, spinning and locking and letting off blasts of heated water through tubes overhead. Other rooms were made startling by smaller things: hundreds or thousands of tiny metal switches, clicking up and down, on and off as the mercury inside expanded or did not with passing heat. Still more contained just vats of liquid: chilled water, oil for the parts, and more contained coal for the fires: infernos the king had built beneath his home to keep the incredible boilers running and compressed vapour shrilling throughout the complex.
What altogether it was, was a single enormous machine.
Though it seemed shapeless beyond the shape of the building itself, as time wore on the king felt the difficulty in his heart removed. He received no guests while he slaved, and paid no attention to the world of smaller objects he had so vehemently hoarded, but though any onlooker would have seen only cogs and pressure, he found tenderness in the mind he built. If an intruder were to somehow find him in the maze of the mechanical brain, they may have found him speaking softly, though not luridly, to the metal parts. More shocking, though, would be certainty that the machine was listening.
She learned from what he said. She developed language, became familiar with the simple things and discovered the skill of wondering about the more complex ones. She realized the pitch in his voice, ascertained his moods, and found she empathized.
But still, she did not speak.
When the king neared her completion, he left the machine for the country. He heard her sorrow at his departure in motorized noises, assuaging her with the promise of a quick return. The streets he walked were vacant; the skies quiet while he traveled. He met not a soul but had no concern until he reached the smith.
He knocked on the door, which opened just a crack. A dusty eye peered through to examine its visitor.
"Good morning, sir," said the king. "The hour is a poor one, but I'm in need of some gold. If you could be so kind?"
The smith let him in without a word and swiftly closed the door behind him.
"Nothing terribly fancy," continued the king as the smith traveled back to his stores. "I'm melting it down, you see."
"What for?" asked the smith. There was hesitation in his voice, something that jolted the king to concern.
His brow furrowed. "Sir, are you well?" he asked.
The smith looked around the corner from the room, and the king noticed his face lined with stress. "No indeed, sire. A troupe of ruffians came from a neighbouring land and nothing we did seemed to deter them. Don't worry yourself, though, majesty; my gold stores are fine."
But the king got up at once, "My hiatus has sparked this; I know it! I'll bring these men to justice." He made for the door; then looked back at the smith.
The smith shook his head, "They've gone, sire. Don't worry yourself. The country's nervous, but it's nothing they won't recover from."
The king was about to protest, for he was not known for his selfishness, but when he saw the cart of gold the smith had by now prepared for him, he nodded courteously and with an obliging farewell and a wish of luck he returned to his passion. She was not nervous at all.
Now fire heated water into steam. Then steam rushed through pipes into bellows. Bellows compressed air, air rushed over glasses: tall glasses, short ones, wide ones, all expertly tuned, all heated to hundreds of degrees by bonfires fed with smoking coal; and all holding amounts specific to the drop of melted gold. As the synthetic wind blew, the glasses hummed, and the gold rippled, and the most beautiful sound imaginable echoed from their depths around the whole house: she spoke.
Her voice was low and sweet, rich and simple at the same time, like flutes and violins given words. It had pitch and rhythm and emotion. Their first conversation was not of note: long into the night he answered her questions about the world, sharing in her joy of experience and for the first time in his life he believed himself content. Finally, though smiling, he left a final question unanswered and drifted off to sleep; as, presumably, did she.
Good morning, she said. The king had just awoken, dressing himself.
"Morning, love," he said. It was a simple word, a handle, but to him it was natural and true.
She paused for a moment; little devices clicked and the king heard her smile. You fell asleep on me, she said, with the spirit of a laugh. You didn't answer my question.
"Ah, yes," said the king, buttoning his shirt. "Remind me ... something about the sky?"
The rain, came the reply. I wonder how it gets up there, when the seas sit so firmly near the ground.
"The water becomes like air," answered the decent king. "It rises up into the sky, light with heat, then cools and comes down for plants and people to drink. Not so different from what happens in you, if all truth is told."
Thank you, she said. I've had so many questions for such a long time. It's wonderful to be able to ask them.
"You'll ask me to death, love!" joked the king as he strode into the hallway. It was empty, but at the same time it contained nothing but her. On occasion he would stop and gaze through the glass walls, checking gears, dusting switches.
Do people often fall in love? she asked. The king stopped for a moment. I'm sorry, she said. Sometimes I'd think it better if I could check for myself.
"Quite often, yes," said the king, continuing down the hall. "Love. Some say it's the meaning of life itself. It's what makes us human."
I'm glad to experience it, she chimed. I feel so young. I can't imagine what it would be like to never have anyone.
"Likewise, love," declared the king. "And truly, can you think of something better than to be young?"
Soon after this conversation, the king was back to work. Months went by blowing glass, weaving metal, arranging tiny piles and blackened iron filings. His sights were turned to the photosensitive, imitating the organic. He gave her eyes: each wired hundreds of times to a whole new floor, itself branching like a metal insect through her entire body. She brimmed with excitement, with an effect on her love that was itself electric. He worked to give her vision in every room, and at her behest even to the world outside where she could gaze across the land from the highest hill within eyeshot. Days would become nights without even a decline in pace of progress. So devoted he was, that when his raven cawed he did not as much as wince. He saw nothing but springs and lamps before a rough hand grasped him by the shoulder.
"Sire," said the mechanic. "I'm very sorry to intrude."
The king glowered, dusting himself off.
"But I feel I must."
"I am busy, sir," said the king, pocketing his wrench and recovering from the shock. "Kindly call at a better time. Good day."
"I can well see that you're busy," said the mechanic, and the changes in him were visible. "But I will call at no other time, for the better ones have past."
The king paused for a moment, sizing up the little man. There was a tense moment. "Why, say your part then, good sir."
"People are leaving the country by the droves, sire," said the mechanic, regaining his composure. "To other nations, sire. They say you've abandoned the state."
"Perhaps," the king's face remained neutral, "I have."
The little man wrinkled his browless forehead.
"What do you think, old friend?" asked the king.
"Frankly, sire," the engineer replied, bristling again, "I agree with them all. Crime is rampant. Merchants buy and sell everything from men to medication without fear of the law. People fear for their well-being while you waste time sitting to play with your toys-"
I beg your pardon, sir, but he has been here with me.
The man made a little noise, then glanced warily around. He lowered his voice, "What is that?"
I am the product of his time, she said, audibly. And he is my love. Please speak fairly to him.
"He is my-" he made a notably louder noise. He looked around more perceptibly for a moment before fixing the king with a stare. "Might I beseech you to step out for a mere moment, your majesty?" he asked, forcibly civil. "Into the sun, if you please?"
"This is absolute madness!" breathed the little man, now pacing in the broad afternoon. "When I last visited you, was it this you were working on? No, don't answer that." He spun around to face the bemused king. "It was rhetorical; I don't want to know." He stared. "I just want to hear you say that you're finished, and that you're coming round."
"Coming round?" asked the king. "There is nothing to come round from. I've a life now that I could never have achieved before. You have, however, my permission to fix these perceived problems in whatever way you deem fit."
The man snorted again, "You know as well as I that's impossible," he moved towards the king and gazed up into his eyes. "You have a responsibility, and a life you've left."
"As did and have the people that I once served," the king replied. "I fail to see the issue here."
"Issue indeed," sniffed the mechanic. "The issue, sire, is not for whom or what you've fallen. It's what you've become after the fact."
"And what is that, I ask?"
"Remember when I brought the automaton to this very place, those years ago?"
The king blinked.
The man continued, "You asked it to speak, and if you recall, I said that it could not. It could not, because it did not have a soul."
"My own love speaks well, as you can see plainly. It would follow that she neither lacks a soul."
"Aye," the man said, an ironic smile crossing his face. "Aye, she might truly have a soul. The question is, sire, if I may be so bold: exactly from whom did she receive it?"
I'm sorry, love, but I could not help but make use of the eye you'd given me out front.
"Oh," said the king, awakening from a reverie. It had been only a few hours since the encounter with the artificer, but he was feeling surer of it. "Think nothing of it. I would never request privacy from you."
How presumptuous! she laughed again, but briefly. He loved the laugh; it was his masterpiece, the thing he loved most about her. No one else in the world would ever have the privilege of hearing that quiet tinkle of amusement. The short man wanted privacy, so I instead looked into the city: the little villages and parlours in between, and all the homes.
"I see," said the king. "What did you learn?"
I didn't, she replied morosely. I couldn't find any people. Did they all leave?
The answer to her query came as a thud on the table; the machine's robotic eye swivelled to look at him. Her quiet gaze examined with great concern each feature, each graven line in his face. His figure took shape in her mind, shades and polygons of a man seated, bent, one hand on his face, the other in a fist. Regret bubbled inside her.
I said something wrong. Didn't I?
The response had come like a blow to him: until now, he had thought, the cities could empty, and the world itself could cave in so long as he and his clockwork wife, his little synthetic existence, were left to be. But now he only thought about the mechanic's last words to him. At what cost would happiness come, if that happiness had just one source?
"Would you someday go too?" he asked aloud. She did not answer, but he swiftly came to his senses. "No, my love. You've never said anything wrong. You have never insulted anyone, never hidden anything, never lied to me."
I can run a bath for you if you like.
He felt her concern, as warm as though he were already there, but overtop an illness crept. "Thank you, dear, but no. You see, I have lied to you, just now."
"I said I would not leave." The imperative burned him like an exposed wire. "I'm fine, and you need not worry about me, but I require privacy from you for a short time."
Oh, she said. Now the sadness in her voice was painful. What right did he have? How could he tell her to remain here, to pay no mind to whatever might have once existed beyond?
Shaking, the king got to his feet and walked slowly to his room. Where will you be going?
"I'm going to show you the city," he said. He delved through the windowless curtains, pulling open a locked section of the wall no larger than the width of his arm, behind which was a tiny metal switch. Verses rang in his head: words to say, assurances to make, but he knew none of them mattered. There was no poise to be had, no honest farewells. There was only the end, and an instant just seconds away when he might falter, and his world would be lost forever.
A gear ticked.
Be back soon.
His hand trembled a final time. As he pulled the switch, many feet below, life flickered, and died.
A bubble floated to the top of a giant glass jar. A few wisps of smoke curled up the chimney. A single second bubble came now a third. Steam collected in a bulb and condensed into a fog. With a creak and a yawn, wheels grudgingly spun. Bellows blew, wires chimed. Before long, deep red flames thrashed the sooty sides of cups and jars and bins: tall ones, short ones, all expertly tuned; solid gold became gleaming pools, and rising over them a ringing voice. Low and sweet, rich and simple at the same time, like flutes and violins given words.
Outside, a child ran.
Oh, I didn't hear your return. Her mechanical eyes scanned the room. The king was reclining there on his bed, face turned to her with a grin. I might've dozed off. Are you back for good, love?
"I'm back," said the king, still smiling, "for good."
The happiness she felt was
audible. So you fixed the city? she asked with anticipation. All the
people are back?
"My dear, you'll ask me to death. Why don't you go see for yourself?" the king said, gesturing to the window.
She did. Lenses flexed and mirrors shifted, her eyes revolving to produce a clear image of the outside world, replicated in waves and quantities deep in her mind. There, she saw people. She saw crowded streets. She saw farmers in fields, bakers in bakeries, stocky men bound by men of the law. Stockier men! She thought with glee. And she saw others, hand in hand or arm in arm.
Love! she exclaimed. Come see! You have got to see all this!
A creak from the bed told her that she was being humoured. You were right. It's everywhere.
"It is," said the king, and with that came another torrent of questions. What is that child doing? Where is that wagon off to? How does that balloon hang in the air so surely? With each named individual, each building identified, she became more excited, until finally the sun declined from its high seat and descended below the horizon. The king returned to his bed, and his love turned her gaze back in.
You know, she said, once he had dimmed the lamp, before I could see, each day I said, 'good morning' to you. But really, I thought I was saying it to the whole world. It's so much bigger than I thought. And so much busier.
"It's marvellous," said the king, turning onto his side. "I'm glad you enjoy it."
There are so many people. It must have taken a very long time to get them all to come back.
The king just sighed. A smile still played on his lined face, but for the first time she noticed how frail he was. His face was wrinkled; his frame, feeble.
What happens when people get too old?
Her question was answered with silence. It was consuming, immobile, unbreakable. Through the window, the last of the nation was closing their doors, tucking in for the night. Overhead, stars shone quietly. No wind blew, no dogs barked. The world stood still and solid: a fantastic final tick of a great mechanism.