Along the walls were brightly glowing wires lit by arcane energy that coursed through them. Lined up in a perfect array, bowing upon the cold, steel floor, were 256 chosen worshippers. They were considered the most devout followers, all of them orderly and obedient to their deity.
As she passed between the bowed worshippers like an electron through a gate, her fingers dipped into the shallow bowl of oil. The oil was yellow and thick, the kind of stuff that lubricated moving parts made of steel and aluminum. She rubbed the oil between her thumb and pointer finger, feeling them slide over each other before drawing her fingers out of the blessed dish. With a calm, deliberate flick, she aimed droplets of oil onto the heads and backs of the worshippers. Those that felt the falling droplets mumbled the sacred words: “Great is the Machine, the General to whom we are of service.”
A bowed worshipper jumped at being hit on the neck with a warm droplet of oil. He looked up at her, eyes wide in shock, but his surprise soon furrowed into a squinting grimace of disdain and suspicion. He chanted his loyalty and returned his face to the ground.
She moved on, dipping her fingers into the bowl and sprinkling with every step towards the sacred altar.
The altar was forged with steel and had been sterilized by alcohol that had been brewed and distilled in the finest houses of the Vokadan empire. Upon it was a human man, only a sheet of aluminum foil covering the parts human sensibility called unseemly, his eyes closed as he chanted his loyalty to the Machine. She recognized his face, the high brow and sharp nose like a beacon in her memory.
During the war he’d been in line to become one of the Holy Machine’s mechanical men. As rumors spread amongst prisoners of war, many became horrified of what awaited them and tried to escape. The only substitute for order – pure, simple, wonderful order – was, of course, tyranny, and those who attempted to run were put under the knife first. It was a misfortune that the unruly were blessed with salvation first, but they had to be.
As a result, the faithful were often forced to wait. Many who weren’t true believers, as far as she knew, lengthened their pathetic, lonely lives by pretending to be loyal to the Machine.
Now, however, the Machine’s followers – both faithful and liars – were hunted. The man on the table was volunteering to help the faithful by becoming stronger, or perhaps he was being heavily pushed by the Colonel or other officers. Fewer and fewer people were willing to go through with enhancement, especially since the Sterling and Vokadan soldiers despised and feared those with mechanical augments. After skirmishes with the more numerous organic forces, the enhanced followers’ mangled and broken bodies were left out to rot and rust. The enemy soldiers held vengeance in their hearts against the Machine’s righteous battle.
There was, then, good in the face of this evil. Even though the war had eventually been lost, the Machine had still succeeded in instilling the need for order and conquest in the hearts of so many. The Sterlingish wanted revenge for how the Machine had ravaged their lands, the Vokadans sought payback for their dead warriors, and the dragons’ hate had reawakened. All of this could be used, and everything would work out for the mechanical goddess in the end.
She placed the bowl of oil on a small table and wiped her fingertips on a square hand towel, getting the residual grease off. She then washed her hands in the bowl of alcohol, drying them on a clean towel before slipping some rubber gloves over her slender fingers. The thick rubber was hot and made her usual fine motor control somewhat clumsy.
“Are you finished?” the Colonel, high priest of the Obrazet hub, snapped at her.
She nodded briefly in return and took her place by the head of the man on the table. The dark eyes of the man glared at her, squinted with suspicion. She wasn’t required to look at him long, so she lifted her face to watch the priest for her cues instead.
Raising his gloved hands worshipfully to the air, the chubby Colonel addressed the faithful, “As is dictated in the Holy Manual, Sir Galann has chosen to show his faith through sacrifice on this glad day! Let us all rejoice.”
“One.” The audience’s voices were muffled by their faces to the floor, but their mass allowed the hushed whisper to be heard throughout the steel chamber. She relished the sound of unity even though she sensed the seeds of chaos amongst the followers’ ranks.
The priest nodded to her, so she lifted up a vial containing a sweet potion. “Drink,” she instructed, lifting up Galann’s head, careful not to pull any of his curls.
Galann pinched his brows at her. “I’ll only follow the Colonel’s instructions, not yours.” He turned his face to the Colonel, but the high priest’s back was turned at the time, and his receding hairline wasn’t going to do much for Galann.
She put the vial down next to his head. “I am unconcerned whether you drink the potion or not. Drinking it will make this easier, though, that is for certain. The Machine advises advancement and use of technology to further her reach, make the worship of her ways more achievable.”
“Like I’m supposed to trust what you say, Spirit?” He shook his head and glared at her angrily. “I know what you are. The only reason you got this position was because the Colonel was afraid to kill one of your kind. If it weren’t for the circuit-damned order of things, I would have strangled you myself. Lots of us would have.”
Spirit put a stopper in the vial and sat it down on the table next to Galann’s head, all the while smiling coyly. Inside, her pumps whirred, hydraulic fluid rushing all around, in stark contrast with the calm she had to outwardly show. “If you wish to go against his will, and thus the Holy Machine’s, you are free to make the attempt.” She slipped a cloth into the bowl of alcohol and wiped off his left shoulder, letting the alcohol dry quickly afterward. Once the alcohol had evaporated, she took a quill filled with ink and made a thin line on his arm, lifting the appendage to wrap the line all the way around before letting it back down to the table.
The Colonel, now prepared with long gloves, a breathing mask, and a clean apron, raised his hands above Galann. The remaining alcohol on his gloves sparkled in the bright lights of the arcane aura. “You willfully accept what is coming to you, a glorious show of the love of our commander?”
Galann nodded. “Your… ‘acolyte’ tried to make me drink a potion, Colonel, without your direct order.”
The Colonel shook his head and glared at Galann. A few concerned lines wrinkled upon his priestly brow, the creases of smiles flattening. “Do you still want to go through with this, then?”
Spirit smiled and turned off her breathing. It was far too late, even if the Colonel had offered him the potion.
The Colonel nodded, his chins folding upon each other. “Spirit, if you would?”
She reached below, removing a thick, rubber mouthpiece with a handle from a steamed box. “Open your mouth,” she ordered. Galann opened, taking the mouthpiece over his teeth and biting down as soon as it was in.
The Colonel drew out a saw, placing the sharp teeth exactly – well, a few micrometers off center, but who was counting – over the thin line that Spirit had drawn.
As she moved his arm so that it was hanging off the side of the table over a steel bucket beneath, Spirit leaned close to Galann’s ear. “Don’t scream.” She gripped Galann’s shoulder tightly, pressing him down onto the table.
Galann blinked quickly, his breath fast. He looked at her, looked at the Colonel, chest heaving with anxious fear.
As she lifted her head back up, the Colonel pushed the saw down and forward, and Galann’s cries screeched uncontrollably. Blood splattered all over the steel floor, and the majority of the fleshy waste dripped down into the bucket beneath him, splashing. As Galann cried, she held onto him, pressing him to the table so the Colonel wouldn’t mess up.
The teeth of the saw began to grate against bone, Galann giving up one last, mournful cry as he looked to his arm and quickly passed out.
Spirit smiled. The man’s insistence upon disobeying her orders had ended in his own demise. He would have been unconscious by the time the Colonel had put the saw to his arm if he’d just taken the potion as requested. As it was, the man would reap what he had sown, a just reward.
Patience always served one well, always allowed justice to run its full course. That was the way of the Machine.
The Colonel dropped the arm into the bucket and turned to his table covered in equipment. From it he took some scissors and a set of pliers, using both to carefully arrange the muscles and fibers in Galann’s arm. Spirit knew she would have done a better job if the Colonel or Galann had permitted it, but she couldn’t say anything. The Colonel was of a much higher rank.
As it was, the Colonel quickly completed the first steps of the surgery and returned to his table, retrieving the masterpiece created by Forgemaster Grumm. A mechanical marvel, the brass arm that was going over Galann’s shoulder would strengthen him and allow him to perform the Machine’s will. Spirit squeezed the bloody stump into the opening and held the arm in place as the Colonel tightened the screws into Galann’s shoulder. The bones grated as the screws dug into them.
Once the tiring job was over, Spirit bent the metal arm at the elbow and wrapped it in a sling. It would be a few days before Galann would awaken, a few weeks more until his arm would be useful. The Machine’s tiny, holy mechanisms couldn’t attach his nervous system to the synthetics immediately.
The Colonel stepped back, bloody hands in the air. “It is finished!” he announced. “Let the Machine in all her intelligent designs deem this man worthy of being under her command.” His hands lowered and he removed his gloves carefully, pushing them into the bucket with Galann’s arm and blood. Once that was complete, he removed the apron and his mask.
The 256 worshippers stood as one as the Colonel lifted his hands palms up, their feet sounding thunderous as they stomped upon the steel floor. “Go, and in obedience watch and pray. Make supplication for your brother Galann, for the others who are still recovering from their sacrifice.”
Chaos. Once the Colonel surrendered control over the faithful, the little ants fell out of sync. As always happened when they performed the sacred ceremony of first blood, they tried to get out as soon as possible, leaving the sterile and bloody smell behind.
Once the thunder of the worshippers’ footsteps had died down, the Colonel snapped his fingers. “You going to get on with it?” he asked harshly. He pointed to the bucket and the blood that had splattered over the floor, angrily waving his finger around at the broad mess.
Spirit nodded to her superior. “Yes, sir.” She removed her own gloves, shoving them into the bucket as well before plucking up new ones. She unfolded a small towel and dipped a corner in the bowl of soapy water, wringing out the excess and bending to the floor, wiping from the outside moving in towards the bucket.
The Colonel washed his hands in soapy water and dried them off on a clean towel. “Once you’re done cleaning, I expect you to take everything to the incinerator and get rid of it.”
“Yes, sir. May I assume, then, that you will be taking care of wheeling Galann’s gurney to the recovery room?”
He shook his head and glared at Spirit, combing his hair with his own, fleshy fingers. “What? I give you one extra job and you’re going to start whining? By the Holy Mainframe, Spirit… what am I going to do with you?”
She blinked. “I shall not assume such things in the future. I will wheel Galann to recovery as soon as his waste has been contained as per protocol.”
“’As per protocol.’ You never follow protocol, you useless… useless hunk of scrap!” The Colonel took off his priestly robes, revealing something akin to a military uniform underneath. It looked like trappings from the bygone era of a foreign country, somewhat alien. “If you followed protocol, you’d have just shoved the potion down Galann’s mouth when he started complaining. If you followed protocol, that last leg replacement wouldn’t have ended in Schnein’s death!”
Spirit nodded. She didn’t have room to backtalk her superior, not here, but she did have room to warn him from straying. “The Machine demands perfection and obedience, sir.”
He grimaced at her and walked up behind her, hands clenched in angry fists. “That’s right – that’s right, obedience to superiors. And what am I? Your superior, that’s what.” He stomped away a few steps, stopping before he left the altar. “The more I think about it, the more I wonder what the right thing to do about you actually is.”
Spirit just nodded and kept wiping down the floor. The Colonel, though he was the high priest, wasn’t the most studious of The Machine’s followers. He wouldn’t do anything to Spirit, not as long as he didn’t have either proof of her insurrection (which he would never receive) or direct confirmation from higher up.
“If you were organic, I’d probably have already gotten rid of you. Just cut off all your arms and legs, shoved chips into your brain, and made you into an obedient foot soldier. You’re worthless, Spirit. Too weak to be a soldier, too stupid to be a priest, too… too…” He spun his wrist around as he thought. “Too unfixable.”
She wrung the rag out into the bucket, then picked up more soapy water with it. “The Machine will reward those who are truly faithful.”
“That’s right,” the Colonel said. He sneered at her, his stupid, fat face grinning to show his poorly kept teeth. “She rewards the faithful, Spirit, by not subjecting them to the torture that liars and spies will be.”
“It is as you say.” Spirit nodded to him and continued scrubbing, watching the blood as it was pooled toward the bucket. It wouldn’t take long to complete the cleaning job, and then she would be free to cart Galann off to the recovery room.
The Colonel walked away without saying anything else, glaring back at Spirit every so often. She recognized his paranoia, his fear, and his confusion whenever he dealt with her. In part she didn’t blame him, but in another she wondered why she was deserving of his disdain.
So she smiled. Long ago she had decided that order demanded better leadership of the higher ups, not just complete obedience of the lower ranks. The Colonel wasn’t a good leader, that was for certain. The Machine, in all her glory, had to see what was going wrong amongst her people. If she did not, well, that meant that the Colonel was probably right and Spirit was the most useless of creations.
Spirit put the bloody towel and her gloves into the bucket, shoving them aside while she wheeled up the cart that would take Galann to the recovery room.