Percival

Automatic Horse

By Cristen E. Rose

I created Percival in Photoshop after I wrote this story.

I created Percival in Photoshop after I wrote this story.

My name is Percival. I was not told. Nor did I have the concept of what a name is for some days after my eyes were opened. My difference engine is a clever making. It clicks and whirrs inside me. On a pattern of fine gears and switches, I deduced this sound was my name. Because she spoke it on her lips.

She is not like me. She can move. Her movements are fluid as she walks or kneels beside me. She is not all metal. When her hands touch my cold surface, adjusting a gear or a bolt, winding my springs, the softness is a contradiction I find difficult to believe. Many times, my difference engine has put forth a program to solve this incongruity. But the equation contains too many variables. The heat generated by this intricate computation builds, threatening to overload my clockwork design. Thus I deduced I have limits. My existence is finite. My thoughts are inadequate, even to answer the questions I posit. To my limited experience, this seems unjust.

I am stationary. I cannot move my legs, or turn my head. Though, I am grateful for my eyes. Without them I would not know that I exist in a fixed point of space. I am grateful for my ears—small receptors without which I would not hear the patter of rain on dim days. Or the stirrings of other living things in the space around me. Nor would I know the sound of her voice. Because I have these gifts, I am content not to move.

She uses devices, instruments of metal, as she attends to my development. I have come to welcome the feeling of her wrench tightening a bolt under my neck, or the rasp of a diamond-file smoothing my inner gear-works. The sound of metal working on metal is her second voice. A language only for me.

It is dark now, but the long hours will stretch away into light. This constant pattern is measured by the metronome clicking of my mind. After a time there is rain. The shelter that surrounds me is inadequate to the elements, and a slow trickle of water falls on my back. Though it frightens me, I am thankful. The sensation has added new information to my mechanical memory.

She has designed me to learn from the data I observe. As water drops drum against my steel skin, I think of the water that once issued from her eye. She was silent, and it ran down her strange face. I surmised that her other eye—the one made of metal and glass like my own—could do no such thing. In that moment, she laid her organic cheek against mine. I was never more resentful of my lack of voice.

I know there is a doorway in this structure. It is behind me. Others use it as a point of entry and egress from this place. I watch their moving shadows on my walls. Some that use the doorway are unlike her. They have four legs like myself, though theirs are mobile. They have voices that are gruff and inarticulate. I do not think they have a mind that is like mine—this beautiful logic she gave me. But when they pass before my vision, I calculate their working angles. I observe their gait as they are led on ropes. They are guided by those like her, that walk on two.

I cannot know this. Nor could I dare dream it. But I imagine the larger creatures are shaped like me. It seems to be possible. They inhabit sections of this shelter that are equal to my own. Their height is similar. The few sensations I have of my four legs, my steel sides, my powerful neck, make me think I am shaped as they are. If they are indeed like me, I wonder if I could one day move as one of them. Perhaps that was my original design, but I have proven inadequate to the task. Perhaps I was only designed as a mockery of that form. No, I cannot believe that of her. The fault must be within me.

Those creatures that snort and stamp in this space have freedom they cannot understand. Though, I should not waste the energy of my fine gears on such comparisons. Those beings do not receive the attention from her that I do. And I cherish every hour of her presence beside me.

Light has once again returned. This is the twenty-third day since my eyes were opened. Though I cannot tell you how long I existed prior to that, or if I existed at all. The squeak of metal on metal announces the wide open door behind me. I am anxious—anticipation, tinged with fear. Will it be her, or another of her kind? Or one of those dumb creatures that walk as I dare not dream to walk?

I hear a voice, lower than hers. It says, “Out here? In the barn?”

Footsteps, bipedal, approach my space. Two sets.

“Yes,” she says. “Where else would one keep a horse?” She laughs. That sound is music, though I have heard no other.

They approach me and stand. Her appearance is different. A strange gathering of blue and white fabric wraps her from neck to floor. Her long hair is pinned up. She wears not the practical, oil-stained uniform that usually clings to her legs and torso, allowing her to move as she works on my construction. She is dressed like another being, yet I would never fail to recognize the one who created me.

The other is taller, having an internal structure more coarse. I surmise this must be a man. I have seen another like him from a distance. The younger one who tends this structure and its four-legged inhabitants is male. He has never approached me closer than two meters. Though sometimes he stares silently for long minutes. I can only think it is due to fascination, or fear.

This man is clothed in multiple layers of gray and black. A cylinder of black fabric sits atop his head. I can see no need for this article other than adornment. His hands are cloaked in white material, and he clutches a long stick that is crowned in shining metal. Perhaps the need for personal decoration is peculiar to the masculine gender of her species.

He speaks. “Wonderful.” He utters a sound that I have come to understand is breath. “Simply wonderful, Annabelle. You’ve outdone yourself this time. I’ve not seen its like. Why, it’s… sculptural.”

Annabelle! At last I know her name. I have wasted long hours in its pursuit. Would there be a movement of her graceful limbs as she connected my components, an expression in her organic eye as she gazed at me, or a syllable that passed her lips that would give hint of its truth? Annabelle. If I had a voice I would speak it now. All I have for reply is the mechanical clicking of my difference engine. And I know, because she has told me more than once when we were alone, that she loves its constant sound.

“His name is Percival,” she says. She smiles.

I have no way to react. But nothing as close to pride has ever coursed through my brass and steel mind as it does in this moment.

“Quite,” the man says. “Oh, that is charming enough. Perhaps I shall not change it, then.”

He makes a sound, not unlike the snorting of the quadrapedal beings that share my space. Then he taps the end of that stick against my side. The sound of metal against hollow metal rings out. Louder still for me because it echoes within my being.

“But, does he just stand there?”

She smiles again, and steps closer to me. “He can think. And he can hear you, Willis.” She walks beside me, and though I cannot turn my head, I know she has opened a panel in my strong side. I feel her soft hands there. She flips three switches. Vibrations pulse through me. Suddenly, I am not stable. My… knees are weak! She places a hand on my neck.

“Steady, Percival.” I do as commanded. She pours the contents of several buckets into me. I feel oddly full, but the weight seems right. Water is one. The other was what she once named coal.

She flips another switch inside me and I ignite! Fire heats the water to boiling and pistons move. Like a living pulse, my body courses with power and life. Now I breathe! Steam puffs from my well-formed nostrils. In shock I recoil my head. I can move!

The man is fearful of my movements, but I do not care. I have come alive.

“Yes. You are ready.” She strokes the side of my face. “Now follow me.”

I take my first step.

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