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Clocks and Boxes — Part 34: Ornithopter

The morning sun was shining over the Super Centre carpark. The earliest retail workers were arriving as best they could with the entire Easter parking area occupied by the massive form of the great metal bird. Mostly, they avoided looking at it. The people of South Hertling were becoming adept at not seeing things.

Fanaka yawned wide as he kicked the bird’s landing gear. “It’s an ornithopter,” he said.

“Yes,” he added.

“Is that all you can say?” Donna asked.

Fanaka shrugged.

“But you’re an engineer from planet Steampunk, right?” Donna said. “This should be right up your alley.”

Fanaka scratched his head, kicked the landing gear and made a ‘maybe-maybe’ sort of gesture. “Well,” he said. “There are giant steampunk ornithopters, and then there are giant steampunk ornithopters, if you follow me.”

“No,” Donna said. “I don’t follow you.”

Fanaka sipped his coffee. Good, Earth coffee. Espresso coffee mixed with hot milk in the Australian style, not the thick, black, sugary slush that had gotten him through all those examinations back home. But it was Earth coffee nonetheless, and that made it better than any Alderanian chicory or Magellanic brain juice in the universe.

“It’s an ornithopter, I don’t know what else to say,” he said. “I suppose it’s self piloting, since there’s no windscreen. Beyond that, it’s just a big aircraft that works by flapping its wings. It manages both to be a wonder of technology and also completely pointless. Disadvantages: takes a ridiculous amount of power to get around, even with just a small payload. Advantages: looks cool. We didn’t use ornithopters much back home. They are too steampunk even for us.”

Donna shook her head and buried her face in her hands. Fanaka tried to remember if he liked her. To Donna, it had been mere days since their last meeting and for Fanaka, decades. Was Donna the one with the water powers? No, that was… Fiona? Laura, perhaps?

“By the way, how is it that you’re middle aged now?” Donna sighed.

“Lived long enough,” Fanaka said. “Same as anyone.”

He kicked the landing gear again. Truth was, he just wasn’t interested in the ornithopter. After seeing the wonders of the universe – after seeing sea bream sizzling at the Tannhauser Gate – an anomalous aircraft with shitty mileage just didn’t seem to matter much. He sipped his coffee and tried to marshal his enthusiasm.

“Ok, well I guess it’s not a bomb. That’s something, right? I mean, it doesn’t feel threatening.”

“I was hoping for something more scientific,” Donna said.

Nalda, beautiful Nalda, who had been standing as still and silent as only Nalda could, suddenly spoke up: “It is ein artificial intelligence. It is here vith a varning.”

That made things easier. Fanaka always found it easier to be enthusiastic about something if Nalda was interested. “There you are, Donna! You were asking the wrong person. What sort of AI is it, Liebchen?”

Nalda stepped forward and placed her hands on the copper-plated surface of the machine. “It says, ‘Greetings, fleshlings! Vir sind electromechanical beings.”

“What language are you translating into?” Donna sniffed. Fanaka decided that he didn’t like her much at all.

“Ach, do be quiet, being. They sagt: ‘In 1870, a group of Americans tried to reach the Moon in a shell fired from ein enormous canon. Unfortunately, their fleshy meat-bodies were crushed by der forces involved. Der capsule vent into Lunar orbit for decades until its onboard Babbage engine developed sentience und activated der… vat?”

Fanaka glanced at Donna, who looked guilty. “I didn’t say anything.”

“You vere going to,” Nalda snarled. “I see der lips move. I am your plan knowing.”

Dona shifted uncomfortably. “Well, you were backstorying. It can get boring if you don’t break it up a bit.”

“Silence! I give you uninterrupted exposition, und you vill listen und like it! Ahem. ‘Der Babbage engine landed on der Moon und lived a peaceful, contemplating existence until it met und an abandoned Soviet probe in der 1960s. It merged mit der probe’s programming und used its manipulator arms to begin construction of a race of… of machine beings!’ Gott in himmel, dis is interesting!”

Guessing that Donna was about to say ‘is it?’ Fanaka made eye contact with her and shook his head.

“’This new machine race was devoted to scientific research und Communism,” Nalda said.

Now there was no holding Donna back. “They’re Reds?” she blurted.

“Dey are mechanical AIs from der Dark Side of der Moon,” Nalda snapped. “Vat do you care who dey vote for? Anyvay, long story short, dey vant to varn us about der Pyamids.”

“Ja,” she added, “dat is Pyramids. Plural. More are coming. Der Great Pyramid of South Hertling is only der first of many. They say ‘beware der Barns’… Ach du lieber, more Barns also?”

Fanaka breathed deeply. He held the precious Earth air in his lungs. Just the right mix of gasses! “I know of the Barns,” he said. “Thank this machine for its help. I’m sure it has far to go as it carries its warning.”

In some indescribable way, the flying machine seemed pleased. Nalda took a step backwards, and Fanaka followed her lead, guiding Donna to withdraw, too. The ornithopter began flapping its metal wings. Fanaka looked down, his engineer’s eye unwilling to look upon such a waste of power as a flap-winged heavier than air craft. A great wind roiled around him as the machine took to the sky.

The roar of an engine made him look up. There, hovering in the sky was a giant metal man; a huge robot suspended in the air by means of three vast helicopter rotors extending from its head and shoulders. It was the size of a two story building, and it thrashed away at the wheeling ornithopter with hands like bulldozer scoops.

An annoyed retail worker standing near Fanaka in a Gulf of Carpetaria shirt looked up. “Use turbo punch!” she said, without enthusiasm, before scuttling on her way to work.

“What is that robot?” Donna asked.

“Probably a machine intelligence evolved from computers on a secret Nazi moonbase,” Fanaka said. “Just guessing, mind. It’s the sort of thing that tends to happen.”

The possibly Nazi, certainly dieselpunk robot finally landed a solid blow on the ornithopter. One blow was enough. The flying machine’s flimsy airframe crumpled and it fell to the carpark, where it flattened a yellow Honda hatchback.

The robot landed, crushing a green Volvo. Its rotor blades stopped, allowing Fanaka to hear that it was playing ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ through tinny speakers.

“You or me, Liebchen?” Nalda asked, rolling her shoulders and flexing he neck from side to side..

“I’ll take this one,” Fanaka said. He reached into the pocket of his dressing gown, drew an Centaurian energy pistol and blew the head off the possibly-a-Nazi-but-definitely-an-opera-buff robot. It fell backwards, destroying a BMW and a motor scooter.

Moments later, a Babbage engine the size of a chest freezer floated to the ground on a small parachute. Fanaka finished his coffee.

“Should have ordered an extra shot,” he muttered.

Next: Part 35 -- North

Previously: Part 33 - Computer


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