RATED T | 5,000 WORDS
The Steadfast Tin Automaton
Story by Alex Singer
They put Steinhildr in a box.
She could hardly blame them for it. It was what one did to tools that were not in use, and, besides, it was a relief from the loudness of the war.
They stored the box in a warehouse beneath an old theater. The theater stayed mostly closed for renovations, and her only visitor was an old man the owner paid to be sure no one stole any of the old costumes.
"Here now, Hilde," said the old caretaker, who was at that time the only one who called her anything but 'the unit' or 'the weapon.' "Let me just crack the lid just a bit for you. It must be terribly stuffy, and you must want to see something."
To which Steinhildr replied that she had seen quite enough, and anyway her air intakes had taken in much worse than this. Mustard gas, in particular, had been difficult to process.
The old man often left the lid cracked, anyway. His grandson had been a member of the fighting unit who had paid for her return after the war.
"Our Minerva!" they called her. "Our mighty warrior maiden." They found it a shame to scrap her, even when they brought her home and discovered they were all too broke to truly keep her. Selling her to the theater had been a gentle compromise.
Johannes, one of the young cavalry men, had often said that the pretend wars had been much prettier. Pretty like her, he said, and her glass spun hair.
"If only this war were pretend, Hilde," he said, with a sad smile, the day before he and his horse were ripped to pieces under the fire of an enemy automaton's mounted machine gun. She had been pretty, too, that cruel French automaton, but nothing about her had been pretend.
When the renovations were close to done, the old man stopped coming. He may have died, though it was also possible that the theater had found no other use for him. Before he left, he damaged the latch on Steinhildr's box, so that it could never fully close.
"Get some air, Hilde," he told her with a wink. "You are a fine lady. You should treat yourself well."
It was the last thing he ever said to her. Steinhildr supposed he might have been fired for breaking the box, but no one ever came to fix it.
There were far more important things to concentrate on, after all. Things had suddenly gotten much busier. The other automatons rattled with excitement, for they said with its renovations finished, the theater had found a new owner.
"Someone who really wants to use us," said one of the old dancers.
"For something besides puppet shows, you think?" said another, wearing an old fashioned peasant's dress.
"Oh, more than that," sang Badin, an old gramophone. Badin had been designed to play music at spring fares. He was little more than a mechanical head and torso, set on a stand that could be wheeled to wherever music was required. His face was molded to look like a festive clown. He knew more music than words, and so he tended to replace the lyrics of his favorite songs with dialogue. "The new owner wishes to make money, my darling. He wishes to make us a real theater, my darling, my darling."
The old man never came back, but many other people did. Many people, young and old, came to fetch things from the storehouse. Some of the stagehands were no older than Steinhildr's old unit in the war. Once or twice one of these younger stagehands would examine the box where Steinhildr was kept. When they cracked open the lid, Steinhildr would turn her glass eyes upwards.
"Good evening," she would say. "I am Steinhildr M94. What do you require of me?"
The stagehand would quickly replace the lid.
This was not to say all the automatons received such a response to their greetings: The automatons made for dancing were oiled and given new clothes. Badin was given a new paint job and a speaker which allowed his voice to carry across the whole theater should he wish it.
The automatons gossiped amongst themselves: Where had all this money come from? And from whom had all these new machines come?
"Fools, fools!" sang Badin in the beat of a children's song. "Have you not heard? One of our new patrons is the old man Hoffman. Why else do you think they've dusted us all off?"
This caused a stir among all the automatons, even Steinhildr. Hoffman was known to be one of the greatest mechanists still living, and he had been considered invaluable during the war. No one had heard from him in a long time, and everyone wondered what he was doing pouring money into a small theater in Rosenstern.
"Not just money!" crowed Badin. "They say he has opened a new workshop. They say he wishes to return to the business!"
That seemed quite impossible, Steinhildr thought. It had been said the Master had withdrawn from building automatons after the Great War, and yet new mechanisms began to arrive, ones intended to make the stage move.
"Well, the new sets are nice, I suppose," they often said, "but who is performing?"
That question was answered on the last working day of the week. Instead of equipment and instructions, the Master sent a new automaton.
It had been quite the scene, apparently. He'd marched right into the office of the owner. He'd brought a woman wrapped in furs. She'd held his hand in a manner most observers had called fearful. No one could tell, from first glance, that she'd been a machine.
"Oh, yes," he cried Badin, who had heard the fearful murmurings of the chorus automatons. "So sad, so sad. Soon we shall all be obsolete, obsolete like the spear lady who stays in her box!"
News of Hoffman's 'new doll' filtered down into the storage room, from stage hands and from irate older units. It was remarkable, they said. The Master had not lost his touch.
"Where are you going, war machine?" the other theater-owned automatons had once asked her when, once a week at midnight, Steinhildr would slide the lid off her box and push her way out.
They held rehearsals that evening, even though all of the workers had gone home. Steinhildr heard the 'tap, tap, tap' on the ceiling above, as she had heard it for the past three nights since the new automaton arrived.
It was this tapping that Steinhildr followed up the steps from the storeroom. She maneuvered carefully — her right leg had suffered damage from a machine gun, and moved just a half a second more slowly than the left. She followed the sound and the light from the small lantern lit on the stage. Sheets had been thrown over most of the new on stage mechanisms, except Badin, who played an old wordless instrumental.
In the space where the crew passed between performances, she first saw her.
The new automaton did not wear white. Her skin, or the surface that had been crafted to look like skin, was pale enough to suffice. She wore a dress of plain grey, one that lay tight around her waist and flowed around her legs. It showed how she moved.
Oh, how she moved! The automaton stood only on one leg, with the second extended behind her. She wore no stocking, so as to show off the silver and black joints under each knee. She tipped in a motion not unlike a water pump. When the toe of her raised leg, sharp and tipped in silver, swept down across floor, swinging the new automaton across the room in a swell of Badin's song, Steinhildr regretted the comparison. The automaton's waist twisted with as much grace as any war machine.
Her sharp toes plucked the floor boards. Her arms stretched at either side of her like a bird. Steinhildr leaned forward to catch her better in her sights.
This was her mistake. Her bad knee bumped a beam propped against the wall. She caught it before it fell, but the end scraped the floorboards, and that was enough.
The new automaton's heels sank back to the floor. Her body swiveled in one clean motion. Steinhildr saw her face. It was round, well-carved, and full of a shock.
"Who's there?" called the dancer, in a sweet voice. It carried only the slightest of mechanical accents.
Steinhildr gave no answer. She retreated, with the utmost haste, back to her storage room and her box. She spent the rest of that night there in silence, as she had so many years before.
"War machine, war machine, where have you been?" Badin had no illusions of who had been snooping about backstage that night.
Steinhildr ignored his song. "What model was she? I did not see a number on her."
Badin found these questions ridiculous, and hummed as much. "Hah! No model number. She is one of a kind, our fine Coppelia," he sang. "One of a kind, not like you and all your sisters, Miss 94."
Steinhildr was not interested in her own designations. "How does she move?"
"Much more fleetly than you, honorable war machine," answered Badin. "But how odd of you to ask such things! Who knew, two-three, that you, two-three, could think of things besides your past glories?"
He set that last question to an old victory march.
Steinhildr let out a deep breath from her chambers. "No," she said, because Badin was incorrect. There were no glories to consider. "What do you think she is?"
"She is Coppelia," sang Badin, in children's nursery rhyme.
Coppelia. Coppelia. He said other things, after that, but the name was all Steinhildr heard.
The performance was a rousing success. Steinhildr did not see it, but others spoke of it quite a bit.
"They were besides themselves with shock and awe," said the chorus automaton, sourly. "Of course they were. It was new and incomprehensible. People love things that are new and incomprehensible. The theater is saved. This is the worst."
"The worst?" sang Badin. "But I should think you would be happy."
"It means I will have to keep being her set piece," huffed the automaton. "I should nearly rather climb into the box that frightful war machine sleeps in."
"They are mocking me," thought Steinhildr, but she found she could not think much of it. The performance had been a success. That meant there would be another.
They moved Steinhildr's box backstage. They gave her new water, oiled her joints, and measured her for a new costume. They combed her hair. They gave her a fake spear. It was amongst this fuss that Steinhildr heard from the other automatons again, as they milled about waiting for their own costuming assignments.
"All this fuss for that piece of tubing," muttered a member of the chorus. "What good is it being 'almost human?' No offense, Leopold."
"Quite all right," said one of the dressers, who was quite friendly with the automatons. "I quite agree, you know. It leaves us uneasy too, you know, seeing her shift about like that. That is Hoffman's thing, I suppose.”
"I suppose Hoffman must somehow occupy himself, since there will be no more wars for him. Still, I wish he could entertain himself elsewhere. Why here? Do you know?"
"They say that Rosenstern was a boyhood home of his," said Leopold, "but I've heard that some important people are visiting the old estate in the north.”
The chorus loved a bit of fleshy intrigue.
"Important people? Do you mean political people? " one asked.
"Does Hoffman think he will impress them again?" asked another. "Everyone remembers those horrors he created during the war! Oh, ah, no offense to any possible present company!"
They had forgotten about Steinhildr and her box.
"Present company forgives you," said a new voice, one clear, wry, and almost human. "But present company should think you are being awful rude."
Steinhildr nearly shifted with surprise. She recognized the feet that walked into the room then. She could hear the members of the chorus stumble, and Leopold dropped his measuring stick.
"Coppelia!" said Leopold. "Your fitting was scheduled for this afternoon—"
"I know," said Coppelia, quite ignoring the fumbling of the automatons around her. "I'm sorry to be a bother about this, but Father wants to be sure the weight of my costume will not offset my routine."
"Ah, that will be tricky," stumbled Leopold. "It hasn't been brought up yet—"
"Could it be brought up now?" asked Coppelia. “I would hate to disappoint Father. He is very set in these things."
The threat of Hoffman's displeasure was enough to cause Leopold to rush off to the basement. The automatons shuffled off to the stage. It left Coppelia quite alone.
She knelt beside Steinhildr's box.
"You might have said something," said Coppelia. "It is cruel of them to speak of you with so little respect. You have seen far more than them."
Steinhildr said nothing. She saw fingers curl in the crack of the lid.
"I wish you would speak to me, at least," said Coppelia. "I have decided I'd like to be the sort of performer who speaks to my fans. You watch my rehearsals, don't you? You are very loyal, if you're willing to sit through all that."
Still, Steinhildr said nothing.
"You move to the beat of a march," noted Coppelia. "I could hear it in your steps. That is how I knew it must be someone who once went to war. Badin says this next performance will be all about war. At least tell me your name?”
'Steinhildr M94' is what the answer ought to have been, but Steinhildr could make out the faint sliver of Coppelia's wide, worried eyes.
"Hilde," she said.
"Hilde," said Coppelia. She sounded it out with such life in her words that the war machine knew she could never be called 'Steinhildr' again. "Ah, what a gentle name. How lovely, Hilde. I am Coppelia. It is a great pleasure to meet you, my first fan. Please, do come again tonight if you are able. I should like to see you, and not your box."
"But, oh, my dear, you have a gentleman caller!" sang Badin, with clear dislike.
"Hush Badin," said Coppelia. "I invited her."
"A spy!" sang Badin. "A phantom, lurking in the wings…"
"Badin, you must be tired," said Coppelia, and pulled the cloth over his head.
Hilde waited until his gears had wound into their sleeping positions before she spoke. "What he has said is perfectly correct."
Coppelia pivoted towards the sound of her voice.
"Please, do forgive him," said Coppelia. "I know most think he is a bother, but he makes music for me."
"He thinks you are beautiful," said Hilde, quietly. "He shall sing you whatever song you would like."
Coppelia smiled and shook her head.
"I'm not so sure of that," said Coppelia. Her eyes dimmed, faintly. "When Father is here, he sings what he likes. Oh, please come into the light. I'd love to see you."
"You cannot see me as I am?" asked Hilde, in some confusion.
"I was not built to see in the dark!" laughed Coppelia, brightening. "But, you obviously were. How lucky you are."
Carefully, Hilde pushed forward into the circle of light afforded by Coppelia's lamp. She moved slowly, mindful of the drag on her damaged leg.
Coppelia's eyes lit a touch brighter. "Oh, look at you!" She ran to her, her hands fluttering in the air just above Hilde's elbows. "I have never seen one of my father's war models. Not that I think you are old— But, oh! Your arms—”
Hilde felt the senses in her eyes turn in rapid focus at the sudden flurry around her. "I am older," she said.
"No, but I am being rude," said Coppelia, knotting her hands in front of her. Her hands were much better articulated, filled with a dozen little, silver joints.
"You have my permission," said Hilde.
Coppelia tilted gratefully. She ran her hands up Hilde's arms with all the care and curiosity of an engineer. "Is it true that you have interchangeable parts?
"Yes," said Hilde.
"And you can lift twice your weight?"
"Four times my weight," said Hilde. "Yes."
"You would be able to lift me, then. I am not reinforced like you," said Coppelia. "Can this armor come off?"
"Yes," said Hilde.
Coppelia paused. "…That was a very unfortunate question, wasn't it."
"No," said Hilde.
“You are teasing me." There was a faint hint of a laugh in Coppelia's vocalizer. "Dance with me."
All of Hilde's process wound to a momentary halt as she processed that request. "Dance?"
"Yes," said Coppelia.
"I cannot," said Hilde.
"You can march, can't you?"
"That is very different."
"Not so much," said Coppelia. "I should like to know how to dance with a soldier, and you, you are more a soldier than any other I have ever met."
"You should not wish for such things," said Hilde.
"I will show you," said Coppelia. She held out a hand.
Coppelia pulled the cloth off of Badin. She asked him to play a song.
"That siege engine is meant for things more lethal than this,” he hummed.
"Don't be so silly, Badin," said Coppelia.
So she danced with Hilde. She guided one hand to her jointed waist and extended the other outwards. Her fingers held the perfect pressure. They shifted along Hilde's arm, her still hand, with a subtlety and nervous energy she would not expected of any automaton. Yet when she pulled near, Hilde could hear her central pumps. They worked with a steady beat that was not all that much like a human heart. Not at all.
"Please come again," said Coppelia. "Father will be seeing me tomorrow, but the night after, I want to see you."
"I should not distract you," said Hilde.
"It is not a distraction," said Coppelia. "You don't have to answer just now, but do come."
Hilde went back to her box, but she found she could not lie so still.
"Do come," Coppelia had said. Do come. Please come again.
She played the sound in her head, again, and again.
They said the performance was sold out. Hilde supposed it must have been. She had detected at least three hundred and forty-six individual heartbeats in filing into the seats, which meant that the theater had been filled to capacity.
"And where is our star?" muttered the chorus automatons, with great distaste. They all waited in the wings. "In her dressing room? Who does she think she is, an actress? Leopold, are you sure this is on right?"
"I have refastened it three times," said Leopold. He had finished with Hilde's play armor a few minutes ago. "You should be glad. They say the men from the north estate have come tonight. They say they're in the front row, and Hoffman—"
From his spot behind the stage, Badin's humming ceased.
"Good evening," said Hilde. "Master Hoffman."
"Good evening," said the man, who had been waiting in the door.
"Good evening," said Leopald, in some alarm. "I am sorry, Master Hoffman, you must wish to see the director—"
"I have no interest in you," said Hoffman, in a high voice that scratched like a record. He wore a narrow grey suit and clutched a wicked black cane.
Leopald backed out the door. Hoffman snapped his cane against the wooden floor and paced along the row of waiting automatons, who stood as straight and as proper as they could under his attentions.
He stopped in front of Hilde.
"M94," he said. "Steinhildr. Correct?"
"That is what I was called," said Hilde.
"Odd response," said Hoffman, pacing around her. He plucked at her costume and frowned. "What have they put you in — nevermind that. You are not in bad condition. Your higher processes are obviously working. Heavens, but you are old. And so heavy! What was I thinking, giving you all of that armor?"
Hilde's response was carefully automated. "My armor is designed to repel heavy artillery fire—”
Hoffman held up a hand. "I was not looking for an answer," he said. "I have not seen an M94 unit in some years. It is funny that I should find you here. Do you know why it is so funny?"
"Shall I answer that, Master Hoffman?" asked Hilde. Automatons began to file out. Badin began to sing. Hoffman raised his eyebrows.
"I will tell you," he said, with a sigh. "I got my start building your type for puppet shows. That sort that played the streets when I was a boy. Your prototype hit fake dragons over the head and the children laughed at her. She was so good at striking fake dragons that I built her up to fight real ones. Then they put their dragons to bed and threw her away. There should have been no place for you in this world, but here you are, doing puppet shows again. It must be very boring for you."
"It is adequate, Master Hoffman."
The Master's eyes turned hard. "Don't simper. She mentioned you."
There was an edge in his voice. Hilde felt her targeting scopes activate.
He noticed, of course. He put his hand on her arm and laughed. "No, no, don't bother getting alarmed," he said. "I do not mind. In fact, I mind your meddling so little I will buy you off of this silly place when our run is over. Aren't you fortunate? You should thank me, Steinhildr. You are about to have purpose again."
The response came whether Hilde had meant it or not. "Thank you, Master Hoffman."
The stage began to creak and move. The lights changed, casting the top of Hoffman's face in shadow as his lips pulled into a line. It was not quite a smile. He patted Hilde on her arm and left.
The music played. The curtains rose. Steinhildr marched. Coppelia danced.
In the front row, sat a row of the important men from the northern estates. They had shiny boots and long coats. They watched the proceedings with great interest, murmuring amongst themselves.
Between acts the audience roared with applause, but Steinhildr had been made to hear many things through the din of war. She could hear what the men said, as their eyes gleamed and their boots creaked on the old, wooden floors.
"That dancing one is perfect," said the first.
"She is of great interest to us," said the second. "Of course, with some modifications…"
"Tell me what customizations you would like me to make," said Hoffman, in the flicking shadow of his automaton's dance.
That night, as the cast and crew celebrated, Badin sang a new song. "How fortunate! How fortunate we are!" he crowed, between verses. "For all that we have lost will be found again soon! How fortunate for Coppelia, how fortunate for our country!"
He sang to the beat of a march. He was still attached to the sound machine. His voice echoed from every corner of the theater, as loud as any drum.
When Hilde found Coppelia that evening, there was no music playing at all. She sat in the center of the stage, with her legs folded close to her chassis. The old oil lamp flickered faintly. Hilde hung back, just out of the light.
"Please, come," said Coppelia, her vocalizers at their lowest setting.
"Do you wish to dance?" asked Hilde, sliding forward.
Coppelia tilted her head, as though considering. Then, she slid her hand into Hilde's, she levered herself off the floor.
"Before I came here," said Coppelia, as they moved. "I lived with my father in a university. I do not remember so much from that time, but I do remember that there was a student. A young man. He worked for my father, sometimes, and I think he thought that I was human."
"Did it bother you?" asked Hilde.
"I didn't know what being bothered was!" Coppelia laughed, in spite of herself. Her shoulders moved with it. Hilde wondered how she had learned to do that. "But he bothered my father. 'You do not have time for such things,' Father would say to me. Then one day the student… stopped."
"He stopped coming?"
"He stopped," said Coppelia. "Tell me about the Great War."
Soft music began to play. The opening chords of a waltz. Hilde blinked, unused to the sudden change in topic. "There is not much worth saying."
"Can you lie?" asked Coppelia, with interest.
"No," admitted Hilde. "There is really not much to say. I knew a student, too. I knew many students. They were very young. They called me their Minerva. Their battle maiden. Most of them died."
"How did they die?" asked Coppelia.
"The trenches were wet," said Hilde. "I was proofed against moisture. They were not. Their vent systems would get clogged from wetness, and sometimes also gas. They would lie down in the mud and stop moving. Some died in the advance. They would catch on barbed wire. It would hold them and tear them, while the enemy automatons shot at them. If my guns jammed, they would be torn to pieces before I could return fire."
"That can't be right," said Coppelia. "No one dies like that on a battlefield."
"Not in the battles you have known," said Hilde. Her eyes refocused.
Coppelia went quiet. Her feet slowed. Her hand tightened on Hilde's shoulder.
"Those men," she said, finally. "They want to make me into a war automaton. They said that I will be a beautiful valkyrie, and that my country will love me. Do you think I would be as good at war?"
Hilde stepped away from Coppelia. She observed her smooth joints, and the careful tilt of her head.
"You would be as good at war as you are at dancing," said Hilde.
"Ah," said Coppelia, pivoting with expert care. She led Hilde through four more steps. "Hilde. You are not so bad at dancing."
"That is kind of you to say."
"Did no one ever tell you that?" asked Coppelia.
"Never, before I met you.”
"Hilde," said Coppelia. "I do not want to go to war.”
Hilde stopped. Coppelia bumped into her. Her metal knee clicked against Hilde's softly. Hilde steadied her, both hands resting on the other automaton's narrow, pale shoulders.
She pushed a strand of Coppelia's glass-spun hair away from her face. "You would be surprised," said Hilde, "how seldom men will check inside a box."
The music grew louder. Hilde froze. She had not noticed it until just then. As they stood still, the waltz grew faster, the crackling music combined into a voice, and through the theater a shrill voice began to shout, in time: "No! No! No!"
"Badin," said Coppelia.
"My sweet Coppelia!" cried the gramophone. His voice echoed from all corners. Hilde turned her head rapidly to find him, but it was no use. His voice came from every corner of the stage. "You would not leave me, would you?"
"Badin!" said Coppelia. "Please, be quiet!"
"My sweet Coppelia!" cried Badin, as the fixtures began to rock. The old oil lamp jittered. Up above pieces of the set tore loose. "Don't you want to be a hero?"
"Badin, be silent!" said Coppelia.
"You would let yourself be stolen?"
"Thief!" cried Badin. The sound grew louder. The stage shook and groaned. Hilde saw him, sitting amongst the wooden trees. His face looked bigger than it had before, and though his smile stayed the same as it always had, his eyes glared down at them in hate. His voice had lost all music in it: it was nothing but the shrill, sharp shout like men on the radio. "Idiots! Fools! Traitors!"
Hilde threw the oil lamp at those burning eyes.
They say that the theater was too stubborn to burn, although it took several hours to bring the fires under control. They say that, it in the end, the damage was not so severe.
Less fortunate were the owners of the theater, who had lost their new stage equipment in the blaze. They blamed a forgotten lamp and poor security. That their new patrons refused to pay to replace the items burned. They closed the theater for repairs. It was closed for a very long time.
'And what a pity that was!' said the townsfolk. There had been much talk of the theater's new show the night it had burned down. Of course, the average townsfolk soon forgot about the stories and the rumors related to the theater and its new mechanical star.
They forgot about the men who had visited the north estate, as well. They had more pressing day to day concerns, but every now and again it would come up as a choice piece of gossip: Do you remember what they planned to do with that old theater? Do you remember that toy dancer, Coppelia?
It was said of course that Coppelia was lost in the fire. Hoffman moved on nearly as quickly as he had come.
What a pity, the people would say as they passed the closed theater. They should just get that pair from New York. Oh, haven't you heard? A pair of automatons who do their own dancing. It is said they are the 'big thing' in America. They just did a show in New York. Oh, no, I don't know the name of it. It's a pity they waste themselves someplace like that. Imagine if they were to come here, where they might be appreciated.
Imagine what a show it might be. Imagine the things that they could do.