AUTOMATON

I’m submitting this story for my coursework, but it still needs a bit of work. It could probably be a bit shorter, for one thing. Any suggestions on improvements, even if it’s just pointing out a typo, would be appreciated.

The formatting will be slightly different for the finished piece, as WordPress doesn’t have the same options as Word. The main change is that the letters and the word ‘AUTOMATON’ will be written in a typewriter font (unless everyone thinks that’s a bad idea).

Enjoy!

_

AUTOMATON

Dear Government Official,

She told me to tidy up and then she left. It makes no sense to me. In the context of a relationship, surely a bit of mess isn’t important?

This is Tim’s twelfth draft. He’s unsure how to address the letter and is yet to settle on something he likes. Still, ‘Dear Government Official’ beats draft eleven’s ‘Dear Mayor or Mayoress’.

I mention this because when Emily left I looked into my ’dump’ of a back garden. There’s a fair bit of stuff out there but not enough to justify her reaction. ’I can’t stand it any more’ she’d said.

It was sitting at the far end, by the shed, possibly the biggest discovery ever made in a back garden. I mean, this is really the kind of thing that overshadows a relationship in importance. It may change the world. I was wondering whether I should call Emily but then I saw it and forgot about that in an instant. Maybe that’s heartless, but I think you’ll understand.

He ought to write less about Emily and more about what he’s found; that’s what the government and the world will be interested in.

It’s sat among the washing machines and other odds and ends. I’ve no idea how long it might have been there.

He stops and looks round the room. His gaze settles on the pile of discarded drafts on the desk.

This is something like my tenth draft of this letter today. I’m writing it on a typewriter. Emily calls all my stuff junk but she doesn’t realise how valuable something like this is. It has ’Smith-Corona’ written on the side. A collector might pay a bit of money for it.

No good; he’s gone off-topic again.

This is hard to write.

Tim sighs and begins draft thirteen.

To Whom It May Concern,

There is an AUTOMATON in my back garden. It’s sitting in a crater, so I think it came from space.

Regards,

Tim Harrow

AUTOMATON. The capital letters and the typewriter font make it seem more authoritative, as if it were printed on the front of a government file above the words TOP SECRET, but it’s still far from enough to make people believe him.

Next draft. What is he supposed to say?

To Whom It May Concern (note: this concerns all of mankind)

I found it sitting in a crater, and I think its legs are broken because it’s still there. I watch it from the kitchen window. From there you can’t hear it but I can tell you that it’s a noisy machine. Its elbow joints squeal. It ticks like a clock and rumbles as if hundreds of mechanisms are turning inside it.

Whatever kind of robot this is it’s not a modern one. That doesn’t make sense of course because you can’t have an antique robot. Robots are built with technology like electronics and circuit-boards but I think this one is all gears and pistons, maybe even clockwork. It’s rusty and its eyes glow red but it doesn’t look like there are light-bulbs inside. They look like lumps of hot coal.

I think of it as the AUTOMATON, like a simple machine rather than something advanced. Sometimes I imagine I see a spark of awareness in its eyes when it stops its random twitching and watches me, but usually it seems about as intelligent as the microwave it’s sat next to.

Tim stops for a moment.

siuxfnpoj

He mashes the keys and gives up, screwing up the draft and throwing it away.

What the hell is he supposed to do?

The AUTOMATON occupies his mind almost every waking hour. He doesn’t sleep well, so that’s a lot of hours.

Seven days it’s been here, he thinks. How many hours? One hundred… and forty… sixty… After a moment he’s thinking about Emily. They haven’t spoken since the AUTOMATON made its soon-to-be world-changing appearance. He could call her and tell her that they shouldn’t split up just because he’s not very tidy. Some people are and some people aren’t, that’s all. There’s nothing you can do about it; you just let live. He wonders if he should tell her about the AUTOMATON.

Tim pictures it sitting in the garden, watching the birds in the trees, planning their extinction. He wants to scream.

Maybe he’s going about this the wrong way.

AUTOMATON invasion space military doom new to science alien intelligence spy government broken something must be done prime minister dalek

What else? If he can get his ideas onto the page he might be able to work them into a coherent letter.

the day the earth stood still biding its time national importance Emily ANY MOMENT THE AUTOMATON MAY START TO KILL

Tim gives up again. He’s not sure why he’s trying to write a letter. He’s never written one before in his life and doesn’t think it will achieve anything.

He goes outside and sits in a deckchair.  It’s a hot day but the shade is cool under the faded parasol. Tim wonders if the AUTOMATON is enjoying the shade too. It’s having a nap at the other end of the garden, sheltered by the trees. It might not actually sleep but sometimes its eyes dim and it stops twitching.

Between Tim and the AUTOMATON there’s a stretch of yellow grass and metal rubble that radiates heat. People throw all sorts of useful things away. Tim puts his feet up on an old bed frame he collected for the spare room. Emily called him a hoarder but it’s not like he keeps any old junk. The price of metal is always good and repairing things is cheaper than buying them new. Emily doesn’t understand that. Tim doesn’t understand her.

He looks at the AUTOMATON. Its dimmed eyes betray no motive or emotion.

What is he supposed to do?

Tim gets up and kicks the bed frame. The AUTOMATON gives a whirr; he’s woken it. It looks at him with clockwork eyes and processes him with a clockwork brain.

Unless he does something about it today he’ll have wasted another twenty-four hours. Emily never wastes time, but he can’t invite her round when there’s a dangerous machine sitting in the back garden. And the mess.

Maybe the AUTOMATON will get sick of the mess after a while and leave him, too. That’s hardly a plan, but Tim has no options and choosing between them all is difficult.

Or… maybe he does. He goes back inside to the typewriter and starts on a fresh sheet of paper.

List of Options

One Show it to someone

There’s no ‘1’ key. 2 to 9 are there. It hasn’t fallen out; there’s no space for it.

2 Hide it

Easy enough so far. He lives alone and neighbourless in a groundskeeper’s house in a park and the garden is surrounded by tall hedges. The park is only used by kids, of the playground and drug-taking varieties, and no-one has noticed how little work Tim’s done in the past week.

3 Destroy it

That’s a new idea. Tim wants to add an exclamation mark but the typewriter doesn’t have one of those either. He might not be able to destroy the AUTOMATON, or it might just shut down on its own after a while.

4 Help it

How would he do that? He couldn’t fix it himself but maybe he could let it borrow his tools. What if he helps it destroy mankind, though?

Then again, what if it never leaves his garden?

5 Try to talk to it

There must be something else. Oh, yes:

6 Write a letter

He may as well include that.

7 Tidy up

That’s not going to help so after some time fiddling Tim manages to strike it through.

7 Tidy up

Should he add ‘Go shopping’? That won’t deal with the AUTOMATON either but he needs groceries. He could go to Sainsbury’s rather than Morrison’s and then he might bump into Emily.

Maybe he doesn’t want to bump into Emily. He’ll have to think about it.

A moment’s thought and then:

8 Emily

Once he’s dealt with the AUTOMATON he can sort things out with Emily.

Tim looks over the options again and gains nothing. He rattles off a few more letter drafts without really thinking, then imagines carrying the typewriter outside and throwing it at the AUTOMATON’s head. He even stands up to do so, but decides the thing he’s most likely to damage is his own back. Making an enemy of it would be a bad idea anyway; if it didn’t die it might exterminate him.

Tim gets his toolbox, then goes outside and walks towards the AUTOMATON. Its eyes don’t follow him; it might have gone back to sleep.

He stops a few feet from it, the closest he’s been since the first night. The AUTOMATON had been completely asleep then, its eyes dark. He’d leaned in close to the ticking-bomb sounds coming from the metal torso and then touched it. It hadn’t taken courage; he’d been running on autopilot, hardly aware of his actions. The eyes had flashed on and he’d run inside, almost tripping over an oven lying in the garden. From the window he’d seen that the AUTOMATON hadn’t moved. The lights are on but nobody’s home, he’d thought. That seemed appropriate now, too.

‘Hello,’ Tim says. Should he call it a robot or an AUTOMATON? Robot sounds more advanced, so maybe that would be more polite. Calling it an AUTOMATON might be like calling a human a monkey. For a moment he’s on the verge of saying ‘To Whom It May Concern’, but he stops himself. ‘Visitor,’ he continues, ‘who are you and where do you come from?’

No reply.

‘What are you here for?’

No reply.

‘I want to help you get out my garden.’ He offers it his spanner.

The AUTOMATON silently declines to leave.

‘Are you just going to sit around getting rusty? What kind of invader are you?’

No comment at this time.

‘Do something, you worthless lump of metal! Don’t sit there making me worry about world domination when I have other things to do.’

Still nothing.

That’s option five ruled out, then.

Tim glares at the AUTOMATON and it whirrs and ticks away.

If it stood up it would be about nine feet tall. Its chest is wide and its head and torso join without a neck. There are pistons at its joints and what look like organ pipes stick out of its back. Its legs stretch out in front of it and protrude over the edge of the crater, which really isn’t very big at all. Maybe it hadn’t fallen from space.

Tim looks up at the sky, half-expecting a jet to fly overhead in search of its lost cargo. The government might kill him if the AUTOMATON is a military secret. Maybe he shouldn’t tell anyone after all.

Tim throws the spanner at the thing and gives up. Too big a problem.

*

Later that day Tim is sitting at the typewriter. He hasn’t typed anything for a few minutes because he’s running out of paper and each sheet has to count.

Then he begins.

Dear Emily,

I’m writing this on my Smith-Corona, which I hope you find romantic. I’m writing to you because I have a lot to say, and I don’t think I could say it over the phone. I don’t know if you’d answer the phone if I called. I’m sorry about my stuff, but I can’t tidy my house now. There’s a problem and I’ve been busy.

No. He can’t just say he’s been too busy. He needs to write something passionate.

Emily, my love

Next draft.

Emily, light of

Next.

Dear Emily,

I’m thinking of our first date in the park when we sat by the stream. You kissed me and I didn’t know what to do so you kissed me again.

I think you’d know what to do now.

Stop moping. What is he going to do?

Dear Emily Dear Emily Dear Emily I’m sorry about the mess but that’s no reason to leave me

Tim’s wasting paper. How can he deal with Emily and the threat in his back garden? A letter’s not going to work, so he fixed the typewriter for nothing. Tim wishes he knew how to get rid of the thing and how to understand her, why she left and, more importantly, how to get her back. Stupid machine. What’s it here for? What does it want? Arriving out of nowhere, just because it can. He’ll sort it out. He’ll do something and sort out the AUTOMATON and fix things with Emily. He types.

EMILY

And then he doesn’t know what to do.

*

The next morning Tim goes outside carrying the typewriter. If option three is the only one left then so be it. His back protests but gets ignored as he works his way to the end of the garden, watching his feet so he doesn’t trip over something. Then he looks up.

The AUTOMATON is gone.

Two thoughts:

One Oh shit

2 Don’t drop the typewriter on your foot

Tim puts the typewriter down and walks up to the crater.

It’s gone, just… gone. Not there. It didn’t even say goodbye.

The crater feels emptier than it should. A thing like the AUTOMATON can’t just disappear without leaving something behind, and the remnants of its threat hang in the air, a negative presence.

At the bottom of the crater there’s a tangle of metal that may once have been a washing machine. He looks around the garden. No, the two washing machines are there; it must be something else. It’s crushed beyond recognition. Actually, hadn’t Emily said something about that? Why the hell do you need four washing machines? Maybe he had four of them, not three. The two in the garden plus the one in the kitchen made three and left one unaccounted for. This must be the fourth. The AUTOMATON had landed on it. Maybe that’s why the AUTOMATON had been broken. Maybe it had repaired itself and was now going to prepare the way for an invasion.

Or maybe it was someone else’s problem now.

He takes the list out of his pocket and looks at his remaining option.

8 Emily

Not a bad idea, but maybe he ought to tidy up first. Maybe he didn’t want any more junk round the house.

Or maybe he needs another list. He types one up, sat by the crater.

Updated List of Options

One Call Emily

2 Tidy up

That’s much easier. Tim smiles, then he realises that with every passing moment it’s more likely that Emily has finally given up on him.

He goes inside and looks round his living room at the discarded letter drafts, the television with the dodgy aerial, the piles of DIY catalogues, the television with the dodgy plug, a week of unopened mail…

The phone’s here somewhere. It takes him half an hour to find it.

‘Emily,’ he says.

Then he dials her number and tries again.

‘Hello?’

‘Hi, Emily.’

‘Tim! I thought you’d forgotten about me.’

‘No, look, I, um…’ No good. Try harder. ‘Um, I, dear Emily, sorry I’ve been busy, my typewriter. I mean, light of–’ nooooo ‘you see, it’s a Smith-Corona–’ oooooo.

‘DO SOMETHING, YOU WORTHLESS LUMP OF METAL!’ the AUTOMATON says in his head.

‘Um. Sorry. Ignore all that. You know what I’m like. Sorry I haven’t called, Emily. I’ve been thinking a lot…’

‘And?’

‘I’m going to tidy up.’

‘Finally!’

‘Maybe when I’m done–’

‘Call for a skip. I’ll be right over.’ She hangs up.

Tim sits in a daze. He’s done it. He’s gotten rid of the AUTOMATON and called Emily. He thinks of the AUTOMATON’s words in his head and imagines it walking off into the sunset, mission accomplished.

And if it’s not a sunset? If it’s the glow of a thousand burning cities destroyed by alien machinery?

Well, maybe Emily will know what to do.


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