science fiction and fantasy writer

The Alchemical Automaton Blues

The golem over the back was crying again.

With a sigh, I dropped my pen back into the inkpot and sat back to listen to the mournful moaning. Over by the fire, Graham the boarhound wuffed in response but didn’t wake. I sighed again: the golem’s crying never failed to bring a lump to my throat. I’m one of those who believe that once a golem is activated, it is alive and self-aware and should be treated appropriately. Even a simple guard golem, animated by little more than the Three Laws of Golematics imprinted on the parchment inside its head, needs social contact to maintain its mental wellbeing.

Sadly, our back neighbour was not of the same ethical persuasion. The closest thing to contact this poor golem ever had with its owner was when her bastard kids came out into the yard to throw rocks at it. Otherwise it was utterly ignored.

“That golem’s crying again, Iggy,” Deirdre called from the bedroom. “We should go and talk to them about it.”

“Yes, we should,” I replied automatically. We meant me, of course. I sighed a third time and grumbled irritably under my breath.

If one can resolve a disagreement with an ogre by just ‘talking’ then it is only because the ogre in question is either too stoned to knock one’s teeth down one’s throat or is a double-arm-double-leg amputee. One doesn’t just ‘talk’ to an ogre. Especially not when she’s a magic-moss-addled, half-ogrish, single mother who entertains her clients at home while her children run amok. And most especially not when her part-time boyfriend is a two-forty pound Ledonian giant so recently down from the highlands that he still hasn’t washed the woad from his face.

My wife, bless her, believes in talking about things. She even persisted for a while in trying to talk directly to the neighbour’s miserable golem: which confused the poor creature terribly, as its written instruction to guard its fence warred with its yearning for a kind voice. When it comes to confrontations, however, my wife believes in me doing the talking.

My personal fears for my own precious hide and—okay, I admit it—my particular prejudices aside, I knew that talking would get nowhere in this instance. Suggesting to the average ogre that they could treat their golem better would be met, at best, with blank incomprehension. Ogres generally don’t consider animals as worthy of decent treatment, let alone artificial constructs like golems. In civilised lands, ogres are barred from owning domestic pets, due to their indiscriminate culinary practices. Unfortunately, in most places—including our beloved City—there are no such constraints on the ownership of golems.

I glanced over at the pile of bodies in front of the fire. Graham was sprawled in the customary upside-down boneless heap at the edge of the hearth stones. A long string of drool hung from his floppy upper lip, vibrating gently in time with his snoring. As usual, between the dog and the fire our pair of foot-high toy golems lay on their backs, feet propped up against Graham, heads towards the flames, baking their little round clay skulls in the heat.

Dropsy, unsurprisingly, was completely absorbed in basking himself and utterly oblivious to the rest of his surroundings. Dropsy wasn’t the brightest crayon in the box. Deirdre and I often joked that the wizard who wrote the spells on his parchment had been dyslexic. Oopsy was alert though, head lifted slightly while he listened. He noticed me watching and looked back at me with round, black eyes.

“Sad,” he said.

I was surprised. Toy golems and their full-sized counterparts tend not to like each other very much. Our two terrors delighted in tormenting the neighbour’s golem as much as the neighbour’s kids did. Their favourite outdoor game—aside from throwing Graham’s poop over the front gate at passers-by—was to run up to the back fence and hammer on the planks until the guard golem started bellowing at them, and then run away so that it got in trouble but they didn’t. (Graham thought this was a grand game too, but was too dense to stop barking before he got caught). That Oopsy was affected by the lonely golem’s distress was both unexpected and touching.

“Yes,” I agreed, “It’s very sad.”

#

“Coming!” I called, clattering down the stairs from my study in an avalanche of golems and dog. Dropsy, of course, got himself under my feet and got kicked headfirst down the steps.

Oopsy and Graham set up a ferocious clamour at the front door while I put Dropsy right-way up again. Threatening mayhem, I shooed the lot of them into the kitchen before opening the door.

I looked down. “Yes?”

A bespectacled faun squinted up at me over a battered clipboard and a nose like the keel of a racing ship. He flashed an identity card at me and bobbed his horned head.

“Good morning, sah. I’m from The Bureau of Alchemical Automaton Services.”

Wearily, I asked, “What have the little horrors done now?”

“Sorry, sah?” Confusion made his squint even more pronounced.

“Er, never mind,” I said. “How can I help you?”

“I’m investigating a complaint, sah, made by one of your neighbours—over the back, one house along—about the golem in the house to your rear.” He hesitated a moment before adding. “This particular gentlemen has something of a reputation for making, shall we say, ‘unsupported’ complaints to various agencies…”

“Ah, of course.” I nodded my understanding. The neighbour in question was a sour old Kurgar dwarf pensioner in his late two hundred and eighties, who was even more perturbed than me at having a half-ogre whore for a neighbour. When he first came to the Old City as a penniless refugee in the middle of the last century, this neighbourhood was poorer than it is today to be sure but—his words, not mine—they “didn’t tolerate no trash back then”.

I smiled at the faun—perhaps I could weasel my way out of trying to talk to our undesirable neighbour after all. “So he’s complained about the noise then?”

The faun brightened. “Yes, sah. Could you perhaps spare a few moments of your time?”

“Of course. Of course, please come inside.” I ushered him through the door and led the way into the kitchen.

“Er…” the faun hesitated, confronted at eye level by Graham’s drooling chops and bloodshot glare.

“Graham, on your bed.”

He slunk over to his mangy blanket in the corner and plopped himself down with a huff. I waved the faun into a chair and parked myself across the table. He perched awkwardly in the edge of the seat: faunish legs bend in the wrong places for human furniture. Oopsy and Dropsy clambered up into a vacant seat and sat side by side, watching us with solemn eyes, their noses just level with the tabletop.

The faun fumbled in his satchel for a moment and produced a tiny imp. Its outsized head jiggled precariously as the faun set the sleeping, four-inch high figure on the table.

“Ooo.” Oopsy immediately reached out stubby fingers towards the imp. I tapped him on the head with a finger and he subsided, grumbling.

“The Bureau must be doing alright at the moment,” I said, “if it can afford memory imps for its inspectors.”

He responded with a brief, tight smile and confided, “Bit of funding left over at the end of last year. Had to spend it before Treasury took it back.  Now… do you mind if I record, sah?”

“Not at all.”

“Very well.” He pinched the imp’s ear to wake it. “Can I have your name, sah?” The imp silently mouthed his words, a heartbeat after the faun spoke. Oopsy and Dropsy watched it in utter fascination.

“Ignatio Prendergill.”

He didn’t bat an eyelid; many people do. “Occupation?”

“University lecturer.”

“You live here alone, sah?”

“No, my wife Dierdre is at work. She’s an apothecary.”

“I see you’re a golem owner yourself, sah.”

“Mm,” I introduced the twin terrors. “Oopsy and Dropsy. Both charity cases. Oopsy was a stray—we think he was abused, he had cracks all over him when we found him. Dropsy was a friend’s unwanted Equinox gift—he would’ve been off to the Pound and then probably broken up and recycled if we hadn’t taken him.”

The faun nodded sagely. “So you have noticed the noise from your neighbour’s golem?”

“Well, you can hear it now,” I replied, “Actually you can see it.” I twisted around in my seat to point out the kitchen window. The golem was a reddish silhouette through the smoky glass, seated on top of its shed while it cried.

“How often does it do that, sah?” he asked.

“Most of the time. The poor thing’s totally neglected. They never speak to it or interact with it—except for when their kids are throwing rocks at it. It’s going out of its mind with loneliness. My wife tried talking to it, but of course that just upset it more because it didn’t know what to do.”

“Mm.”

I interpreted his proto-syllabic response to mean something along the lines of ‘I’m just a man doing his job, sah, rather than someone who necessarily subscribes to all that guff about golems being alive, but I’m too polite to say so’. Amazing how much meaning one can pack into a single grunt.

“So do you think you’ll be able to take it away from them and put it in a decent home?”

He shrugged. “Unlikely, sah. It’s got shelter and access to water and coal. By the letter of the law, it is in a decent home. Not a lot we can do.” He pinched the imp’s ear again and it slumped back into sleep. “To be honest with you, sah, there probably wouldn’t be a problem if it wasn’t for the boyfriend. I’ve been round there a few times already and she’s actually pretty malleable when he’s not around. Then he comes back and, well…” He shrugged again.

“So what can you do?”

He puffed out his cheeks for a moment in thought. “Well,” he said, drawing out the word, “the laws governing the welfare of golems and suchlike are pretty rudimentary. But the Kurgar gentleman has been keeping a diary of when the golem howls (“Yeah, I’ll bet he has,” I said) and yourself and your other neighbours all substantiate his complaint. We could maybe get a ruling that it’s become a public nuisance and have it removed that way. We’d need someone to sign a declaration though…”

“Someone other than the dwarf, you mean?”

With a pained expression, he nodded.

“Would it be confidential?”

“Absolutely, sah.”

Feeling compelled to justify myself, I said, “I only ask because, given the way they treat their own golem, I wouldn’t put it past them to harm my two or the dog, if they thought they had cause. And, of course, my wife and I can’t be here all the time…”

“Certainly sah. I understand completely.” He watched me expectantly.

I licked my lips. “I’d sign a declaration,” I said, before my courage failed me.

“Would you? That would be very helpful, sah.” He delved into his satchel and, after some shuffling of papers, produced the correct official proforma, in triplicate. He pulled out an expensive—and no doubt taxpayer funded—nib pen and inkpot and handed the lot over to me. He waited patiently while I filled the form out (in triplicate) and signed.

“This’ll do the trick, sah,” he told me. “I’ll get a hearing as soon as I can, should be able to get an order out right away after that.”

“That’s terrific,” I said, and meant it.

With a sudden spring in his movements, he put the imp and writing paraphernalia back in his satchel, gathered his clipboard and hopped down from his seat. I’d misjudged him and his ethics regarding golems, it seemed. I stood with him and followed him back to the front door.

“What will happen to it after it’s removed?”

“Well, we’ll have to give them an eightnight to remedy the situation of their own accord—not likely I think, sah. Then we’ll try the SPCAA first, of course. But if they don’t have space for it, it’ll have to go to the Pound, sadly.”

“Poor bugger.”

“Mm.” He stuck out a spidery hand to shake. “Well, good day to you, sah. Thankyou very much for your time. “

“Not a problem.”

“Thankyou again.”

I watched him go, then glanced down at Oopsy, who was peeping around my knees. “I guess we’ll just have to hope for the best then, won’t we?”

“Okay,” he said. Sometimes I wonder how much golems really do understand.

#

A few days later, Dierdre announced her arrival home from work with her usual cry of, “Where’s my dinner, wench?”

I bounded out of the kitchen, grinning like a maniac, grabbed her by the arm and bundled her through the house and out the back door.

“What?” she asked breathlessly, laughing at the same time.

“What don’t you see?” I said.

She peered around the yard, then stopped, frowned and did a double take. “The golem’s gone!”

“Yep. Look’s like the guy from Golem Services got his ruling.”

Deirdre hugged me happily. “Oh Iggy, well done, love.”

I waved her off. “Ah, I didn’t do anything. Come on, dinner’s nearly ready.”

The golem was still gone the next day, and the one after that. On the day after that though, I arrived home from the university to find Deirdre looking very long in the face.

“What’s wrong?” I asked, mildly alarmed.

“It’s back,” she said, “Come see.” She led me out into the yard and pointed over the back fence.

The neighbour’s golem was back on the roof of its shed, mouth open, rocking slightly back and forward where it sat. But the only sound it was making was a hollow rasp of escaping air. I frowned at Deirdre in confusion.

“Look at its poor head,” she said, tears glistening in her eyes.

I looked, and swore softly. Where before the golem’s skull had been a smooth, orange dome, it was now marred by an ugly ridge of darker clay running around its circumference above its brow. Above the ridge, the clay of its now misshapen cranium was a brownish colour that didn’t quite match the rest of its body.

“Damn,” I said, “They broke its head open…”

“And took away its voice,” Deirdre finished.

I stared at the pathetic creature in revulsion. I couldn’t believe what the bastards had done. Never mind that it was clearly a shoddy back-yard job by the cheapest, clumsiest hedge wizard imaginable: all they’d bothered to do was take away its voice. They hadn’t even tried to have its animating spells changed to take away its longing for companionship.

“Bloody bastards,” I said. I couldn’t think of anything else to say, so I said it again.

Something bumped against my shin. A hollow clunk followed. Absently, I bent over and set Dropsy back on his feet. He wobbled for a moment then tottered off towards the house. I put my arm around Deirdre’s shoulders and followed him inside. 

 

~END~

 

Ian McHugh, (c) 2004

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