CONSTRUCT, Chapter Five

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Samuel bound up his dead arm with torn strips of his cloak’s lining, and sat on a rock outcrop at the edge of the cave mouth peering down on the town. The village’s palette of tans and browns was marred at its closest edge by a fierce wound of black and gray that still contributed tendrils of colorless smoke to the morning haze. Just after dawn, two travelers came to question an old man tending the ruin and sift through the rubble themselves. They were as out of place in the village as a bear at the dinner table, clothed head to toe in dark leather and capped with hats whose brims had been folded to form three points.
        Samuel’s anxiety spiked as their search neared his escape route, but they never found the trap door. The shorter of the two seemed anxious to leave, the other more staid and calm. When they completed their search they mounted their horses, already packed for long travel. The town sat on a crossroads of sorts, a place where three well-traveled paths converged in the tall grass. The westerly track on which Mr. Anxious and his friend left headed off into the grassland opposite Samuel’s perch, over a low rise in the distance and away from the north-south road.
        I could sit here all damned day, Samuel thought. I just need to pick a direction. He took a step to the south and hesitated, noting the western road’s slight southerly bend. Samuel knew nothing of the two investigators, but the fact that they spent the morning searching the ruins of a building where he almost died tickled his intuition, and he didn’t feel like running afoul of them anytime soon, so he set off to the north.
        Samuel’s thoughts drifted through his void of memory, trying to distinguish what he knew from what he didn’t. Deductive reasoning remained intact, at least at some level. Based on the temperature and position of the suns it was likely the end of autumn, heading into winter. A few plains flowers still showed their petals, opening to the small shafts of sunlight that touched them through the cloud-mottled sky. He knew the high mountains stood to the east and the small, distant range stood to the west, with the vast, grassy plain between. He knew words like forest and road and grass, and could even identify the types of foliage surrounding him. He was positive if he were to run across an animal, he’d be able to identify that, as well.
        Yet his own name escaped him so he made one up. Although there were flashes of others of his kind in his erratic memories, he couldn’t hazard a guess about his race. The metals which composed his skin—shell?—were familiar, but the fluidity of his movement and the nature of his construction remained a mystery. The most frightening gap in his knowledge was that he didn’t know who he could trust.
        At best, the person who set fire to that building didn’t care that he was trapped within; at worst, that person knew for sure and wanted him there. He was grateful his instinct and sense of self-preservation had stuck around through whatever trauma scrambled his memory, allowing him to escape at least with his life. Was it life, really? A walking structure of metal and stone and wood, riveted together and powered by wonder and worry and fear.
        The grass parted and he stepped out onto the northern road, sinking slightly into the hard-packed earth that shed no dust after the night’s rainfall. The path would, for a time, give him a direction and a purpose as simple as follow the road. The last of the visible travelers was already past him toward town, and the road rose out of the plain to begin a long but gentle climb. Maybe it was best to just walk and think.

• • •

Daylight passed beneath Samuel’s notice; the suns—Big Sister and Little Blue, he recalled—falling low in the eastern sky ever closer to the tall mountains. Samuel encountered only one other in his long walk, a grumbling old farmer with an empty, mule-drawn cart. “Ganna!” the little man kept snarling at the mule, who’d nicker and bray in response, and occasionally take a few steps forward. Samuel called over to the farmer between his arguments with the mule and received a dismissive grunt from below the brim of a worn straw hat. The man had no interest in conversation and moved along without a second glance.
        Samuel continued northward as the suns were pulled over the horizon, the sunset first igniting the eastern sky with brilliant oranges and then, for the few moments after Big Sister had gone to bed but Little Blue stayed out to play, a cool blue-gray hue took over, casting eerie shadows in the grass. After a few moments, Little Blue’s light failed, and the last fleeting moments of day chased the siblings over the mountains. Stars twinkled to life across the wide-open sky, and deep blue twilight faded down to the black void of night.
        The day’s travel had not brought even a hint of exhaustion, thirst, or hunger. He wondered about his need for food or water, or if his kind had other means of nourishment if any was even necessary. There had been little dust or wind to aggravate his joints and a blessed lack of rain, although he could see a darkness in the far distance to the west that hinted of some in the near future. The cloak provided ample protection, but were the elements even much of a concern? He felt no urge to stop or camp, no desire to rest or relax, and he found the fading of the sunlight had not dampened his sight to the degree he thought it might. In the cavern beneath the town, in utter blackness with not even a hint of light, he could not see but instead sensed. In the nighttime starlight, however, his sight remained sharp but colorless.
        In a world drained of color, the grass took on a ghostly grey against the almost stark black-and-white of the distant trees. Starlight danced in glowing halos along the tops of anything that broke the surface of the sea of grass. Rock outcrops glistened as though wet, scrubs glittered in the light breeze, and solitary trees shone with angelic brilliance. Steps before the top of a long rise he turned back, taking in the valley and distant mountains. Looking out across the open plain was like standing atop an oceanside cliff as moonlight danced along the tops of waves. Wind rustled the leaves and grass around him, and he nodded a silent goodbye to the crossroads village, now so far behind.
        The road flattened as he crested the ridge, running level for some time and curving around a hill to the east, the tree line in the distance. The bulk of the forest stood as a black wall edged in radiant silver in his darksight, the grass giving way to more and more underbrush closer to the trees. After cresting the hill he picked up his pace, spurred on not only by the easier terrain but the allure of the looming forest.
        He wasn’t sure how long night had been upon him when he turned the bend in the road. The tree line ahead was closer than he expected, and now flickered with an orange glow that brought him to a halt. After taking a moment to adjust, he found the splash of color in the otherwise gray-toned image was the result of a series of campfires.
        A pair of fires flared in his vision, and light from several more reflected not only off the trees, but from the sides of a clutch of wagons on the northwest side of the road. They appeared to be less than an hour’s walk away, a distance Samuel thought he could cover in half that time judging by his almost unnerving excitement. Was it anticipation, or fear, or a mix of both?
        Before he knew it, Samuel closed in on the caravan, turning away from the road to approach them through the grass. A small flurry of activity within the camp signified he’d been spotted. Torchlight moved about near the collection of wagons, and a party of six moved away from their confines to intercept him. Two flanked wide to his left and one to the right, while the remaining three took position between Samuel and their camp. The apparent leader of the group, tall and broad shouldered, sporting a thick black beard but no mustache, stepped forward into his path.
        “Good evening, stranger.” His voice was forceful and deep. “Odd time to be walking so far out in the plains, eh? What’s your business tonight?”
        Samuel stopped, taking note of the positions of the men surrounding him. They were agitated, and he had no wish to cause a confrontation. His cloak still hung tight about his shoulders and his face was couched in the deep shadow beneath the hood, which also hid the glow of his eyes. These men would find out soon enough he was not like them. Samuel took stock of his situation and decided being forthright was the least dangerous option. With his good hand, he shook off his hood.
        “I’m in need of assistance,” he said, freeing his broken shoulder from beneath his cloak. “If any among you can”—What would be the proper word?—“repair me, I have a rather grave injury.” He gestured to his sling and broken shoulder.
        The black-bearded man halted his approach, and the others tensed. “Where is your master, construct?” The tone was tinged with accusation. “You should know the mandate by now.”
        Construct. Samuel let the word float in the air for a moment, absorbing the man’s name for Samuel’s kind. A full grasp of the term’s meaning would come with time, and he filed it away as the first helpful knowledge gained since his awakening. The mention of a master had Samuel contemplating his response.
        “Well, construct?” the man pressed.
        “I…I don’t know.” How much should he reveal? “I came to consciousness with a broken limb and no master to be found.” The image of the blood-spattered hand and the serpent ring came to him, but he thought better of mentioning it. “I’ve spoken to none that could identify a master, and so I’ve been…walking.” Would appealing to their charity have any effect? “Please, sir, if repairs are possible, I’d be grateful.”
        Two men moved up to flank Black Beard, a short man with flame red hair muttering something Samuel could not make out. Black Beard nodded and the redhead started back toward the camp at a trot. “Grateful, is it?” he said with a mirthless smirk. “You speak more completely than constructs I’ve known. Your master must be generous.”
        Black Beard regarded Samuel for a long moment, narrowed his eyes, and took in a slow, shallow breath. His jaw clenched, then his mouth opened, but no words came out. The men to either side stared at Samuel, their muscles taut.
        “Sir, I don’t know what happened to my master,” Samuel said, trying to break the tension rather than increase it. It seemed like some improvisation was in order. “I…I was…left for repairs at a shop down in the valley,” he gestured in the direction from which he had come, “but something happened.” Samuel hoped the big man would not bite on his intentional vagueness.
        Black Beard’s shoulders rose in a breath and relaxed, but his hand had dropped to the hilt of a weapon at his side. “We’ve heard a few tales from travelers of an incident in Winston.” The statement hung in the air, half-question, half-accusation.
        Behind Black Beard the red-haired man emerged from the camp accompanied by a portly older gentleman who followed him with a gait something between a trot and a waddle. “I know there was a fire, but I know nothing more,” Samuel offered. “It consumed the shop where I’d been left before the shopkeeper could finish his duties. By the time I awoke, it was too late to help.” The hefty man was close now, beads of sweat running down his brow as he neared the group.
        Black Beard tensed again. “And why should I believe it wasn’t you who started the fire and are now fleeing?”
        “Don’t be ridiculous, Hartings,” the portly man interjected. His voice had a nasal quality and registered half an octave above normal. “You shouldn’t wear your prejudices out in the open.”
        “It’s out here on its own, Taeman. It says it doesn’t even know who its master is.” Hartings said, never taking his eyes off of Samuel.
        Taeman looked contemplative, then spoke to Samuel: “What do you remember, construct?”
        Care was needed with this response. “As I told this man,” Samuel gestured to Hartings, “I awoke in the town in the valley—Winston?—with a broken shoulder and no memory.” All true, but where would truth lead him with these two?
        “And so you just walked?” Hartings snorted.
        Taeman scoffed at the bearded man and stepped in front of him. “And you have no memories, you say?”
        Telling them about the few fragmented visions he did have would garner no benefit here. “No, sir, I do not.”
        Taeman relaxed and turned to Hartings. “There is nothing to be suspicious of here,” he said. “He must have been in for a wipe, which would explain the lack of memory. The process was interrupted by the fire, and he became disoriented. That’s all.”
        Taeman approached Samuel and placed a hand on his good shoulder. The rest of the group started, expecting something that never occurred. “Come, my friend,” Taeman said to Samuel. “Let me take a look at you in better light and see what help I can offer.”
        What looked like a random arrangement of wagons from a distance turned out to be a calculated pattern. No two wagons were far enough apart for a horse to fit between, and each gap was blocked by heavy barrels and guards were posted. Taeman led Samuel through the one opening in the pattern, just wide enough for a man’s shoulders, flanked inside by four armed men.
        Samuel counted sixteen wagons. Although they were of similar design, each was unique in some way. Many appeared to be vending carts as well as freight haulers, some even painted with bright signs or lettering for their businesses. A bright green wagon bore the name Welcock’s Wares, and another more subdued one read Chamberlain’s Staples of Food and Home.
        Hartings and his crew dispersed into the camp, which managed to look larger on the inside than it did from the outside. Some entered wagons, some curled up in bedrolls, and others took guard posts. Taeman led Samuel to the rear of the camp, where he saw a group of what he presumed were other constructs milling about Taeman’s wagon, which bore the words Taeman Bolls, Artificer Extraordinaire in ostentatious gold script on the side. Taeman pointed to a barrel and gestured for Samuel to sit.
        The other constructs were simpler in design, lacking Samuel’s bulk or complexity. Their movements were stiff as they performed laborious tasks around the camp. Taeman climbed up the steps into the back of his wagon as Samuel watched them in rapt fascination. These were the first other beings of his kind he’d seen in—by his reckoning—his entire life. Their mere existence lifted a great weight from his mind.
        Taeman emerged and made his awkward way down the stairs, carrying a large leather bundle and several strange looking implements. These he set on a barrel next to Samuel, and rolled the leather bundle out on the ground. He removed Samuel’s cloak, folding it and laying it across yet another barrel. Samuel hoped he had not felt the serpent ring in the pocket; that was a series of questions he was not yet prepared to answer.
        “Let’s take a look, shall we?” Taeman reached up and untied Samuel’s makeshift sling, allowing his damaged arm to swing free. His examination of the mangled shoulder was sprinkled with the occasional Hm. or Right! as he poked at the damaged metal.
        Taeman sat back. “Well, my friend, it’s not the best news in the world.” He rolled the leather bundle back up and placed it on the barrel atop his other instruments. “The joint is damaged, as is the junction beneath. This is preventing flow from your core to the limb, which is why your arm won’t move.” Flow? “Unfortunately, I’m not sure I can repair it with my road gear.”
        Samuel felt his first pang of disappointment. “Why is that, sir?” he asked.
        “You are a bit of an old chap,” Taeman replied. “That joint is well-constructed but rather complex. It looks like you were built before several of the newest design simplifications were made. Normally that would mean an easier repair, but all my travelling equipment is geared toward newer constructs.”
        Samuel’s shoulders slumped and he sat forward on his good elbow, letting his bad arm hang at his side. To have his hopes dashed was more devastating than he’d expected.
        “I’ll tell you what, though,” Taeman continued, “You’re lucky I was able to call off the hounds out there, what with all the paranoia right now.”
        “What do you mean?” Samuel asked.
        “Oh, right…the wipe,” Taeman said. “I guess you wouldn’t know, would you?” Taeman leaned forward and began to examine the shoulder again. “Lone constructs aren’t much trusted these days, not after the murder of the Queen Consort.”
        “The Queen Consort?” Samuel said. The pleading eyes of the dead woman resurfaced in his vision. Was that why her face was so familiar?
        “Aye, yes,” Taeman replied. “And by a construct, no less.” He shook his head and walked around behind Samuel, grabbing the upper part of his broken arm and moving it around, taking stock of the shoulder’s movement. “First time in who knows how long a construct visited violence on someone of its own accord. But that was a long way from here.”
        Samuel wasn’t sure what to think. Could he have killed someone? Could that be why his memories were erased? Taeman released the broken arm and moved to Samuel’s other side, examining his good shoulder and running his fingers along the crevices between his shoulder plates. His hand gave an almost imperceptible stutter as it brushed across the stamped letters, but Samuel caught the momentary hitch.
        “Something wrong?” he asked.
        “No, no, no,” Taeman said with a pause. “N-nothing to worry about.”

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