Another day of work, another set of duties to fulfill, Spirit picked up her clipboard and slid some paper underneath the steel clip. She placed a fountain pen into a pocket on her red uniform. She tried to force her hydraulics to relax, but they wouldn’t.
She shook her head and closed her eyes. She needed rest, the memories and stresses of the day before piling up into this one and making simple tasks needlessly difficult. Already, fetching the Colonel’s breakfast and performing the secretarial duty of reminding him of his schedule had been pressing enough. He had only grunted and scoffed as forms of disapproval and acknowledgement, her punishment evidently not quite determined, but she thought he had understood her well enough that she did not repeat herself.
After coming back from returning the Colonel’s tray to the kitchens, she knocked once more on the door of the Colonel’s office, using her typical pattern so as to alert him to who was waiting for him, then stood back a step.
He groaned, “Come in.”
Without hesitation she grasped the door handle and pushed down, using her weight to force the heavy block of steel out of the door jamb and give herself entry.
The inside of the Colonel’s office stood in stark contrast with the hallways of the compound. Rather than clean and minimalist, the Colonel’s office was filled with oaken structures inlaid with rich mahogany, lovingly carved scrollwork on shelves that held heaps of knick knacks and several volumes of books.
The Colonel took a pipe out of his mouth and looked up at Spirit standing in the doorway, grabbing her attention. He leaned forward and grabbed his pen from the holder on his desk, blotting it carefully. “I need you to take a look at the newest leg designs, Spirit. They’re over there by your desk.” Taking his eyes off her and swiftly dragging the pen across a sheet of parchment, the Colonel frowned grudgingly. “The wearer is going to be a half-elven Lieutenant, so we’ve got to get this right. Once you’re done looking over the design, I want you to get out of here and take the measurements necessary for Lieutenant Saifer’s new leg.”
Spirit raised a brow, but she dare not speak. She couldn’t ask the questions that rolled through her mind lest the Colonel become angry. “I shall get to work immediately, sir.”
“Good.” He pushed the piece of paper to the side. “Do it quick and be quiet about it – I’ve got my first meeting in a few minutes, as you so kindly found it necessary to point out to me over breakfast.”
Spirit nodded, feeling the animosity dripping from his voice. People often told her that she’d be dead if it weren’t for the Colonel, but the way he’d looked at her, especially recently, indicated otherwise. His beady eyes hidden in the folds of his fat face were squinted in anger more often than they were in approval or even mere barking out of orders. He may be keeping her alive, but he was upset with her more often than he showed any latent love or concern.
She’d earn his attention and praise back when she proved to him that even he had made a mistake. When his retention of her cards was revealed, she’d gain back what she’d lost and hopefully more.
Nervously she sat down at her desk, finding the papers on it to have no order. After a brief frown, she sifted through the papers to determine if there were anything special about this leg’s design requirements other than the fact that it was going to be applied to a ranked officer. She certainly couldn’t make mistakes on this design. If she did, the Colonel would have good reason to be displeased.
The first page was a mess, sloppy lines with the Colonel’s intended plans flopping all over the parchment. Black and blue lines loosely fit together, the drawing more of an artist’s rendering than an actual schematic. The following pages made analyses based on material strength and responsiveness of the elemental energies within the hydraulics, but they were loosely done.
She drew the pen out of her pocket and sat to mulling over some of the ideas, looking at the few differences that the Colonel had decided needed to exist to make it better than the run-of-the-mill leg. She scratched her head, thinking about how to make it so that the Colonel wouldn’t have to hear about the vast majority of his mistakes. He’d added a spring to ‘put a spring in her step,’ inscribed several spells to the stiff rods that held the leg up, and mentioned… feeling.
A knock on the middle of the door caused her to jar, nearly dropping the papers and pen in her hands. She looked up from her small desk to the door, the Colonel rising from his chair. As he sauntered over to the door, he glared harshly at Spirit, then grabbed the steel handle and turned it.
A stout, red-headed dwarf with a full, luxurious beard bounded in, reaching in to clasp the Colonel and pat him roughly on the lower back.
The Colonel smiled. “Ah, Arcturn, it’s been far too long!”
Spirit felt her fingers grow numb against the pen as she gripped it harder. She couldn’t stare at Arcturn Grumm, the forgemaster, not unless she wanted to be caught not working. She returned to the Colonel’s designs, trying to figure out if any of his ideas were worth pursuing.
The Colonel laughed and led Lieutenant Colonel Grumm in, motioning that the dwarf sit in the large, leather-upholstered chair that was placed across from the Colonel’s desk. The Colonel himself took his time finagling around his desk and getting out his teapot.
“I agree, friend, that a week is far too long between our teas together.” The dwarf sat down, scooting his chair forward and closer to the Colonel’s desk.
“Black?” the Colonel asked, opening a drawer and placing a few aluminum cans of various teas onto the desk.
Grumm shook his head and waved his hands before him. “Nah, I shouldn’t. Something in it’s been bothering me of late, so I’m weaning myself off the stuff.” Grumm leaned forward, sifting through the cans of teas that the Colonel pulled out of his voluminous desk drawers.
The Colonel just laughed fakely, selecting a can from the drawer for himself. As he did so, he shot Spirit another look, prompting her to turn away from their conversation and focus on her own work.
Chrome. She took away much of the plans for the half-elf’s leg and added chrome plating, an inexpensive way to make the leg look more exciting yet not promise things it couldn’t deliver. She erased some of the more grand but nearly impossible tasks from the design, then sat to drawing up her version of the mechanism instead.
Her pen, filled with a black ink, flowed across clean parchment. With a ruler against the nib, she drew clean, sharp lines that clearly depicted what was supposed to go where. This was a drawing Grumm could actually use to forge something, a diagram she could use later to fix the mistakes in the control systems or make adjustments post-installation.
In between laughter at bawdy jokes and disgusting, sipping noises, Spirit heard Grumm speak, “So, what’s she doing here? I thought we were going to talk business too, you know.”
Spirit lifted her face and looked back up at the Colonel. He was staring back, a finger rubbing his fat chins, contemplatively eying her up and down. “Oh, she’s just being slow. Gave her a simple task that I expected her to be done with long before now. Guess it just goes to show me that I shouldn’t trust her, doesn’t it?”
Grumm laughed and sipped more at whatever tea he had selected. “What does she eat? Just stop giving it to her. She’ll shut down, right? Just because you rescued her after the war doesn’t mean you need to keep her on now. Maybe, with a better assistant, you can convince the Machine to give you even more powerful designs.”
Spirit looked back at the paper that had been handed to her by the Colonel. Was he trying to pass off her poor repairs of his terrible designs as inspiration from the Machine? She’d heard as much from others who whispered rumors that the Colonel wasn’t as faithful as he claimed, but never before had she believed them.
Never before, though, had she known that the Colonel was withholding prayer cards from her. The Colonel, her rescuer and something akin to a father now that her mechanical father was dead, was now cast in a new light that darkened everything he attempted. He had stolen her prayer cards and squirreled them away somewhere, defying the Machine’s will.
“She’s still an inorganic. The Machine doesn’t want her shut down, just wants her to serve out what time she has in this rotten state.” The Colonel leaned forward and glanced at Spirit, making her avert her eyes in response. “Still, the Machine doesn’t have good words to say about her. I’m the only one left who really loves her, and she knows that. If she were to cross me, she’d know that everything she’s ever had would be lost. I mean, the Machine’s not going to love her, and she’s too weak to stand alone.”
She bit her tongue. She heard him wrong, couldn’t trust the sensors Michael had designed. Even if she had heard correctly, surely the Colonel had a good reason to say that.
“By the Mainframe, you’re right,” Grumm agreed, pounding the desk affirmatively. “You’re a good man for what you do. You know that, right?”
Spirit didn’t want to sit and listen to the Colonel speak of her that way, not again. Her changes to the leg design were nearly complete, only a few corrections to be made that could be added after her final measurements from the half-elf. She quietly pushed her chair back, gathering her papers and adding them to the already present pile on her clipboard.
“Either way, business is business, and we shouldn’t allow the presence of my little war trophy to stop us. Here, it’s the finalized plans for that arm we’re doing next week.”
Spirit bit her lip and tried not to pay attention. The original designs given to her by the Colonel were impossibly terrible, unfixable as far as she could tell. She’d started nearly from scratch and, though she would never say it openly, believed that her design was rather tasteful and efficient.
The Colonel handed a folded schematic over the desk to Grumm, the thin, sturdy parchment covered in blue ink lines and numbers, and Forgemaster Grumm looked over them. “Hmmm… I can build this, but these designs keep getting more and more complicated. What does the Machine think I am?”
The Colonel’s eyes softened. “She thinks you’re the official Forgemaster of the Obrazet hub, Grumm. It’s an honorable title and one that few could hold. The Machine has faith in you, I have faith in you.” He grinned devilishly. “She knows that you won’t be the one culpable if something goes wrong.”
The Colonel didn’t say anything, but winked. Both men chuckled mutedly, their attention upon each other, so Spirit grabbed her measurement kit and stood up.
The Colonel’s eyes instantly shot to her, narrowing. “Where you going?”
She nodded, a slight bow curving her spine, and answered, “I have completed the work asked of me here and am now going to make the measurements for the transfer, sir.”
The Colonel harrumphed. “Fine. Just don’t be so distracting, next time. This is my office, after all, not yours. The hub’s going to fall apart, way you stomp about so.” He shooed her away with his hands, waving towards the door. “Now get out.”
She bowed quickly, then shuffled out of the office. The heavy door slammed more loudly behind her than she had intended, so she stood just outside of it, eyes closed as she awaited the Colonel’s wailing and derision.
When it didn’t come, she opened one eye, spotting the empty hallway. No footsteps pitter-pattered, circulating fans the only noise she could hear. She relaxed, opened both eyes, and clutched the clipboard to her chest.
Voices on the other side of the door returned to their rambling. She heard the deep, gruff voice of the dwarven smith and focused on what he was saying. “You know, sir, I… I didn’t want to point it out in front of her, but this design really is atrocious. You saying that she did this to your plans?”
“She’s worthless! Here. Take a look at this – this is the original that I gave her.”
A moment went by in which Spirit nearly thought the coolant pump in her chest was going to fail. Her… her design was bad? She was the failure?
“Oh, yes, this is much improved. Simple, elegant, effective. Should I… should I ignore this finalized version and just do what you wrote up, as per usual?”
Spirit touched her hand to her face, feeling the light pressure of her fingers against her skin. Her hand shook nervously, wondering how she’d made such mistakes.
Then, her hands sat still upon her flesh covering. She wasn’t wrong. She hadn’t made the mistakes. The ink on the page she’d just passed by was blue – and that ink wasn’t waterfast. She couldn’t have made that design. If the blue drawing wasn’t her design, then the Colonel was passing off her designs as the word of the Machine through him.
The reason he protected her was clearer. Of course he couldn’t kill her – her death would end with his downfall! He couldn’t produce a wooden leg, much less a complex mechanical one. As soon as she was gone, he would fail.
Clever bastard. How could she have blamed herself for so long? Worse, why did her body still feel guilty? Her pumps felt heavy, her torso like it was twisted despite being made mostly out of steel.
She leaned forward, walking down the hall to where the half-elven lieutenant she was to visit would be. There didn’t seem to be an escape route, since no one except possibly Klavdiya would believe her about the Colonel’s incompetence and… and how he…
No, she was still an inorganic, and he a believer. She would show him the way back to righteousness.
She turned sharply in the hallway, following the even, efficient designs of the barracks to the officers’ rooms. The half-elf she was to be visiting lived in the first lane of these rooms since she was one of the lower officers. Spirit walked passed the identical doors and hallways, counting them as she went to assure that she arrived at the correct doorway. Steel on either side comforted her.
The correct steel door, if the address given to her on the page by the Colonel was correct, was just before her. The number on the door was stamped into a plaque, the shadows in the sunken shapes declaring the room to be 0073A. With a careful fist, Spirit rapped the door lightly, then took a single step back to make the threshold a more comfortable place for the lieutenant.
She heard movement then, after more time than she expected to be necessary, a cranky voice shouted, “Who is it? What do you want?”
Spirit looked to her feet and said as loudly as she could manage, “I work for the Colonel. He has sent me to take measurements for the new leg you shall receive.” She looked back up at the door, wondering if Lieutenant Saifer was nearby and staring out the peephole at her. The small lens in the door neither darkened or lightened, indicating that the answer was no.
The voice on the other side answered, “Oh, all right. Then come in, the door’s unlocked – but don’t make a mess of things.”
“Yes, sir.” Spirit reached out her hand and took the handle, finding that Saifer hadn’t lied about the door being unlocked. As the door pushed inside, Spirit looked up and around, searching for the woman. A rank, horrible scent hung on the air like rotting flesh. Saifer was nowhere to be found. “Lieutenant Saifer?”
“In here,” Saifer called from an attached room to the right. Spirit turned towards the room and walked in stiffly, a clipboard in one hand and measurement kit in the left. She looked down to the bed in the room, covered in lavender sheets and heavy, deep purple quilt. The quilt and top sheet had been cast aside, milk-skinned Saifer lying next to them. A pipe hung out of her mouth, and she coughed, jiggling her body. The half elf pushed her hands against the mattress and scooted up, seating herself on the pillows that leaned on her headboard.
Spirit nodded and put down the measuring kit, opening the briefcase to remove some of the instruments. “Good morning, Lieutenant. I apologize if I awakened you before you intended.” She took out a long probe, covered in a sterile, paper covering, placing it on the table. Next to it, she placed the gauge that would give her readings.
“I don’t sleep much anymore as it is. But say… aren’t you… you’re not human, are you?” the half-elf said.
Spirit put on gloves and felt the paper packaging, discovering which end was to be attached to the gauge. “No. I am the Spirit of Michael, an inorganic being designed to look and feel human.” She pulled open the package and twisted on the gauge. “Is this your first enhancement, Lieutenant?”
Saifer nodded and looked to Spirit’s work. “Yes. How do I know that you’re going to do this right? I’ve heard about you, you know, and I’m not impressed with your work.”
“I have conducted the vast majority of the measurements for enhancements made in the Obrazet hub. My work has been nearly faultless up to this point.” She held the gauge and probe in her hands. “What we are doing today will ensure a snug fit and help us align the nerve endings with the electrical components of the leg. In order to make this easier, I will need you to swing the sacrificial leg over the edge of your bed and lift your night gown up to reveal all of what shall be given to our goddess.”
Saifer frowned. “What?”
“Your leg. I was sent here, Lieutenant Saifer, because you have elected to undergo enhancement on your right leg. I can conduct the required measurements, but I need your assistance to do so. My clients have all agreed that the procedure is somewhat painful, so anything you can do to help me will only relieve your suffering.”
She shook her head. “But I can’t move them. Doctor said not to.”
Spirit nodded, now understanding why Saifer was willing to give up a leg in sacrifice. “Yes, sir. I understand. I will still require you to uncover your leg, though, so that I can see where I am working.”
Saifer nodded, then leaned forward, her fingers grasping her nightgown. She winced and coughed as she did, then pulled the blanket back to reveal a dry, green leg.
Spirit put down her probe and bent to her knees, crawling forward as she shook. The gangrene had crept up past the knee, yellowed sores reaching even further. It was surprising that the woman was even still alive. The other leg was starting to show signs of gangrene on her little toes, making Spirit repulse.
“There is no time to spare. We must retrieve your doctor and amputate now. After your life is secure, then we can start thinking about limb replacement.”
“No – no!” Saifer argued. “I don’t trust you. Get the Colonel to send someone else, anyone else! You’re not going to help me, are you?”
Spirit shook her head and drew the Lieutenant’s gown back down, covering the dried, necrosing flesh. “I cannot make measurements on you, Lieutenant, not right now. You need the doctor.”
“Why should I need the doctor? Isn’t butchering people and forcing them to be monsters what the Machine does best?” Lieutenant Saifer dragged a puff of her pipe. “It’d be easiest just to replace the leg, would it not?”
“It takes weeks of planning to get a new leg, and, pardon my forwardness, I don’t believe you’ll last that long.”
Saifer frowned and pointed out her door. “Then leave. Get out! Get out of here and tell the Colonel to send a real human next time, not some dolled up robot!”
Spirit packed the probe and the gauge into her bag, hurriedly picking up the clipboard. This woman was in dire circumstances, regardless of what she believed, and the Colonel could be powerful enough to help. She clamped the bag shut, then looked back at the middle-aged half elf. “I promise you that calling the doctor for amputation would be the best course of action. I shall alert the Colonel to the situation at once, and he shall make a final decision.”
The woman stuck out a jaw and curled her lips. “You do that.”
Spirit took her bag and rushed out, knowing that the Colonel wouldn’t risk an officer to fall so dishonorably to a disease such as gangrene.