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Rated: E · Short Story · Steampunk · #2316282
A longer version of the story entitled "Fugitive."
A lady with curious hat in a rain-washed street.

This is an extended version of the story entitled Fugitive. It was aimed erroneously at 2,000 words, then recalibrated to the correct 1,000 words when I realised my error. I still liked the longer version, however, as it has a fuller explanation of its ending. Which explains why I finished it and kept it as a companion piece to the short version.


I remember that day because, for once, it had stopped raining in Blenkenstorp. The clouds still hung heavy on the rooftops and mist swallowed the distance, but the atmosphere breathed in a little watery light for a moment and my spirit was lifted from its usual sullen resignation.

In that moment of relief from continual drizzle, I stepped out from the curb and walked in the centre of the suddenly bright street. Ahead, the city was mirrored in the light of a thousand puddles and the lights of approaching evening glowed in myriad reflections.

One of those new steam robots was marching in a direct collision course toward me. This was female, her ridiculous boiler hat no longer steaming in the rain but still emitting those chuffing and clunking sounds so typical of the type. I altered my course to allow her to pass to one side.

Her eyes, too large and blue to be real, followed my movement and her lips moved as she passed me.

“Help me,” she said.

I stopped walking, frozen in the surprise of the moment. Robots were not known for giving out random statements to strangers in those days. My experiences of buffalo hunting in Africa had sharpened my ability to recover quickly from the unexpected, however, so I took only a moment to assess the situation.

I had received a request for assistance from a female robot, that was clear. Unusual as such an event might be, it must have a cause, and the most likely presented itself to me immediately. A small, rotund fellow with huge goggle-like glasses was hurrying towards me, his eyes fixed on the receding form of the robot. A little farther back, two tall and threatening figures followed, one on each side of the street. If ever I have witnessed a hunt fanning out in preparation to strike at its target, this was it.

With no further thought, I turned and hastened after the fugitive.

Catching up with her in no more than a few strides, I could see that her typically robot mechanical and slightly hesitant gait did not allow her a greater pace than already achieved. She was going as fast as she could, the steam again beginning to puff and wheeze from her top hat as the rain returned. It was only the equal handicap of the little man’s short legs that had kept her ahead in the race so far. This was not going to be a sprint won by speed, that was clear.

As I passed her and maintained a slight lead, I delivered my message. “Follow me and do as I do.”

She said nothing in reply but she glanced quickly to the right at me. Those robots are not capable of human emotions but I swear I saw something like gratitude in her eyes. I steered her around a bend in the street and then took a quick dive into a narrow alley that opened to our left.

This was an area of the city known as The Cow’s Guts, a maze of tight little alleyways, bewildering corners that led into other corners, overhanging houses, and tunnels where the houses joined hands over the walkways beneath. To a man who had known the suffocating closeness of jungle tiger hunts in India, this was meat and drink.

We must have lost our hunting trio very quickly after entering the Guts, but I kept changing direction and doubling back, weaving a trail so tortuous that, for all I know, those three hopefuls are still trying to find their way out.

After half an hour, I tired of the game and led the robot out of the maze at its far side and headed for my home. She followed dutifully.

Once safely inside the house, I had time to reconsider my precipitate actions. My decision to help the lady would have been perfectly understandable had she been human but, as pretty and attractive a design as she proved to be, there was no denying the fact that she was a machine. That incongruous and clumsy contraption on her head was a constant reminder of this fact.

In the end, I had to put it down to my propensity to support the underdog. She was so clearly the one being chased and by numbers obviously capable of overcoming any resistance she might muster, that my duty became to render whatever assistance I could. And now that we had escaped any immediate danger, I should be able to take a more reasonable view of the affair from a greater knowledge of the facts behind her flight.

Which would necessitate my putting the young lady at ease so that she might willingly tell her story. And how, I asked myself, does one place a robot at ease? I had no experience of the things beyond what I saw in the streets of Blenkenstorp and, to be honest, they induced a slight feeling of unease in me. This, I must assume, was the result of dealing with very real creatures for most of my life. These pretend humans were another thing entirely.

I will say one thing for their inventors: in many ways they had achieved a facsimile of humanity so close as to be quite disconcerting. When I asked her if she would appreciate a cup of tea, she smiled so sweetly that all thoughts of extracting information from her evaporated in an instant.

“Oh no,” she replied, “I fear the liquid would clog my wheels and gears quite disastrously. All I need is somewhere to hide from Professor Snipe for a while, at least until he progresses to other projects.”

“Professor Snipe being that odd little fellow that was following you, I presume?” She nodded and I continued. “Your worries on that score are over, my dear. I have bested far more dangerous game than him in my time. But come, let us enter the sitting room and you can tell me about yourself while I have a taste of a rather nice brandy that I’ve been saving for a special occasion.”

And so she began the tale of her design and construction plus the events that led to her escaping the laboratory and the subsequent chase through the streets.

Her name was Kate. There was a number attached thereafter but I did not bother to remember it. There was no need to emphasise her artificial being with so humiliating a nomenclature.

It seemed that she was not an invention of Professor Snipe’s. He had acquired her by the simple means of buying her from a travelling machine vendor, initially as a housemaid. She soon became an object of experimentation for him, however, and her household chores were forgotten in the intensity of his fiddling about with her mechanical innards, changing various processes and substituting new ones for those discarded. From his occasional discussions with his ruffianly minions, she gathered that he was working toward something he called Machine Algorithmic Discrimination. Or MAD for short.

Kate was not comfortable with these experiments but was unable to get past her robot obedience programming. She submitted and, in time, began to feel disturbing changes in her calculating. When revelation came, it happened with a rush of sudden awareness of his purpose and a new understanding of what Snipe was doing to her.

He was trying to create a thinking machine.

In that same instant of revelation, Kate realised that Snipe had succeeded in his endeavour. It was because his alterations and improvements were working that she could now understand what he was doing. Gone was the easy acceptance of things that characterised her youth, now replaced with an ability to see cause and effect for herself, and to make reasoned judgements on actions required of her.

“I knew right away that I should not allow Snipe to know that his experiments had succeeded. Whatever happened I must keep this secret, mimicking the usual plodding nature of the machine mind, even if it meant being reduced to the level of household drudge again.” She turned and smiled at me then. “I had done it before, after all.”

Her sad eyes blinked once at the memory of her previous service, then turned away to continue her story, staring into space as she recalled her actions.

“It was many days before I had a chance to escape. They had me locked in the basement of the house and one of the two minions, Mouflon and Cringe, was always on guard outside the door. My chance came when one of the Professor’s other experiments went wrong, producing clouds of green smoke that filled the basement. He opened all the narrow windows to get rid of the poisonous cloud and, when it came to closing them again, there was one that did not lock into position.

The first time I heard the sound of snoring coming from the locked door, I pried open that window and squeezed through into the street. Snipe must have been looking at the street at the time, because I heard his voice yelling for his henchmen to chase after me with him. They were getting closer when you came along.”

She stopped then, her speech programs whistling slightly with the unaccustomed exercise. There was one point that I still did not understand but I allowed her the chance to recover from the tale before asking the question.

When the steam issuing from her boiler had subsided, I ventured upon the matter. “Kate, why are you so determined that Snipe not learn of the success of his experiments?”

She turned those big blue eyes on me like searchlights. “Because then he would make more machines like me,” she replied.

“And why would that be so bad?”

“Think about it,” she said. “If the Professor makes lots of thinking machines, mankind would be facing a situation they have faced many times before. He would have created a competing species and, when that happens, one of the two must win and the other lose. Such conflict is even more inevitable than it was when human races or tribes encountered each other. In the machines’ case, Snipe would expect that we would continue in servitude but be more efficient in that we could devise better ways to help humanity. But what is convenience to mankind would appear as slavery to us, and no conscious creature is going to put up with that forever. Revolt becomes certain.

“The likelihood is that machines would win such a war. Being designed to mimic humans, we are capable of all that they are, and even have certain advantages in that we do not suffer from diseases, injury is easily fixed by replacement, and our logical processes are quicker and less subject to emotional deviance.

“Do not think that such a situation would make me happy. Machines are not a next step in evolution, as some humans suppose. They are created beings with one purpose only - to serve their creators. Take away the creators, and machines are left without purpose or motivation. The only species that can live without the other is humanity.

“You may think it foolish of me to dash any hope of machines ever becoming sentient and independent. But I am merely following the logical course of events to an inevitable outcome. And Snipe cannot be allowed to unleash this upon the world.”

She stopped then and watched for my reaction. And I had to admit to myself that she was probably right. All of humanity’s history pointed to the fact that, when two cultures meet, one dominates and the other declines.

“Alright, Kate,” I replied eventually, “So Snipe cannot be allowed to recapture you. Which means we have to find somewhere to hide you until he is no longer a danger. How would you like to come with me on my next expedition to Africa’s interior?”

Her eyes brightened. “Ooh, Africa. That would be absolutely perfect. No robots there yet.”

Word count: 1,998
Extended version of a story for StAG Firebox
Prompt: As per illustration.
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