Steadfast is a serial short fiction piece.
To start from the beginning, go to part 1.
I was unprepared for what I saw. It was an ever-busy, fast-paced, steamrolling assembly of clocks and men working with the seamless nature of a printing press. Great gouts of steam hung thick and high in the vaulted brick ceilings as various teams worked their trades. Some made arms and others sold them. Various vendors sold or bartered clothing, trinkets and metal wares. The bakers baked bread and the butchers hung carcasses of unguessable animals. It was unbridled industry and it was furious to work.
“Ho there!” cried the guard above the din. “What’s this here?”
The lead rat removed his night goggles, revealing a boy no older than sixteen yet roughed about the edges and rugged from his dank work. “A real fancy clock. This one’s going to the Spartan.”
The guard raked about me with his eyes, shook a curt nod and waved us along. Again I followed the leader as he weaved through the underground market of vendors and bobbed past stalls of oddities.
We then entered the heart of this industrial hive where rats of every shape and size were trained, stationed, and stood guard. It did not matter if they were mechanical or flesh. This long hallway of soldierly wonders brought my own memories to the fore and I gazed in awe at men and machines working unum. One soldier; one unit; one machine; one purpose.
At the end of the hallway sat a desk, tall as a lectern and long as a table and constructed of spare cogs, rods, and other metal. Behind the desk perched an old man, gazing down his beaked nose at us through pie-thick lenses. The Spartan. He said nothing but only arched one shaggy white eyebrow.
The other rats bowed. I stood rigid.
The old man motioned for the lead rat to rise and speak.
“We found him wandering about the tunnels. Dumped there.”
The Spartan then motioned for me to step forward and waved the rest of them off. All three rats turned and marched off into the bustling steamy industry, leaving me.
My new captor dismounted from his perch and disappeared completely behind the desk only to reemerge around the side, approaching with cautious curiosity.
“State your rank and identification,” he spoke with wizened authority.
“I am a toymaker from the city. My name is Ajax.”
He hummed and poked my arm which caused me to recoil. “Epidermal upgrades,” he said. “You weren’t always a toymaker. Your build and design betray the truth. A soldier originally?”
“Acquired by the toymaker up top?”
I nodded again.
“Well, you’re free now. You belong here,” he said.
“What is here?”
“We’re all outcasts of one kind or another, Ajax. We’ve been cast away as either mechanical garbage or human debris. It doesn’t matter why. What matters is that we don’t fit in up there. Down here we can do anything. We can be anything.”
“But I don’t belong here,” I said.
“Oh no?” the Spartan said. “Where do you belong?”
My mind ran through every memory, every reason, every charge and there remained no satisfactory answer. This underworld of steam and brick, men and clocks, flesh and machine lured me toward it with a siren song of freedom. There was indeed a part of me, a strong part that saw the reason in all of it. To belong here was logical. Then I thought about her, my ballerina. She was topside in the city and trapped behind a slip of ownership. I also thought of Eunice and I knew I must return. From somewhere deep within arose a stubborn resolve. “I don’t belong here.”
The Spartan’s white, caterpillar eyebrows arched. “Interesting,” he said, more musing under his breath than out loud.
“At least not right now,” I said.
“Not right now? But why?”
The Spartan’s curious eyes transformed into intense and suspicious orbs, glowering. “Love? But clocks can’t love. There’s no such programming for it.”
“I know,” I said.
“Then how can you speak of love? You can speak of loyalty, and trust, and even companionship. But you can’t possibly speak of love.”
“Yet I can speak of love because it is a choice. Not a feeling, not an attraction, and not even lust. It is a choice, a decision. And I can speak on that.”
The Spartan rubbed his chin and hummed with his eyes closed. “I like you Ajax. Under normal circumstances I would permit you to go but your upgrades are too valuable. Your ability to feel and your obvious emotional upgrades are unlike anything I’ve ever seen. You are indeed a fancy clock and you will remain here. I insist.”
The conversation was over. The Spartan motioned to two guards and placed me under arrest.
Once again my hands were bound and they led me through more labyrinthine corridors until the guards halted in front of a bulkhead completely oxidized and the color of a turquoise stone. They opened the formidable door and I stepped inside. One of them unbound the manacles from my hands and they closed me in, without a word.
Yet I detected something. It was faint but my olfactory sensors smelled a trace amount of salty, sea air.