Beating Heart of Machine

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Machine was an amazing city, even to someone who had grown up amid the endless whirring, clicking, and whistling motion. To some, it was a cacophony and the price of life, but as soon as Hemaut had learned the purpose of Machine, the sounds and movement were a constant comfort. They, along with the gentle clacking of his heart, reminded him that there was life to be had, and it was not to be taken for granted.

It was Hemaut's disposition toward Machine that intrigued Ollivan, and what convinced him to take the graduate-hopeful into mentorship. When the two first met, Hemaut was looking for someone to teach him the fundamentals of clockwork zoological animation, or as it was more commonly called, mechanical animals. Ollivan was known by some to house a substantial clockwork menagerie of his own creation. Yet while that was true, he had no desire to teach anyone how to make what he called “fake dogs.” His fondness was only for his organic animal collection, Tobbs the labrador.

Hemaut was surprised to find that anyone in Machine kept a real animal. The life-spans of beasts seem to be impossibly short against the back-drop of eternal human life. He told Ollivan as much, initiating the conversation that had become lesson one. As to the name or purpose of the course, Hemaut could not say. All he knew for certain was that he'd be better off not to ask. Instead he learned what he could, following a hunch that was more hope than intuition. The lessons that followed took the disguise of casual conversations about nothing in particular, punctuated with questions or statements that escaped ambiguity in such a way that Hemaut was certain it all meant something more than what he was hearing. At first he strained to glean a deeper meaning from Ollivan's words. (Were they really talking about the history of the cracked cog under the sewage house or was it all a metaphor for politics or something?) After a few weeks, though, Hemaut stopped trying to see what wasn't there. It did not come to him as a sudden resolution or realization. He didn't make the decision through any logical examination of methods or goals. Gradually Hemaut just started appreciating the conversations for what they were. When he told this to Ollivan, the white-haired, dark-skinned elder examined his young companion critically.

“You mean to say you aren't paying attention to what I say any more?” Ollivan asked.

“No, I am!” Hemaut protested. “I'm comfortable, that's all. I remember everything you've said.”

“Really?” Ollivan said, and if Hemaut were looking at only his mouth and listening to his tone, he would swear the old man was furious. However, if looking only at his eyes, Hemaut would have been certain it was Ollivan who was the one not paying attention.

Ever since then, Ollivan quizzed him on their past conversations – a question at the beginning of the visit, and one more to take home – and it was the last question that always greeted Hemaut as he let himself into Ollivan's gearhouse.

“Tobbs is eleven years old,” Ollivan called from somewhere out of sight.

Hemaut paused with his hand on the door, considering what the question would be. He had noticed that Ollivan always asked a question in two parts. The first part asked when the door opened, the second after the door was closed. He waited a few seconds longer, then pulled the lever to allow the heavy wooded door to tick slowly to a close.

“Why do I like him better than you?” Ollivan asked.

Hemaut smirked. The question was from one of their first conversations when Hemaut had asked why Ollivan (still Old Man then) kept the dog around; Tobbs looked as if he might die soon.

“You like him because he knows to squat outside and leave his... excrement there, whereas people like to drag their crap around wherever they go.”

Hemaut found Ollivan in his kitchen making coffee, frowning and shaking his head.

“I would never use a word as pretentious as 'whereas,'” the elder corrected. “I said, 'but' which is more appropriate because I also said 'do-do' instead of excrement.”

“I thought you might want to be remembered differently,” Hemaut teased, “so I paraphrased.”

Ollivan held out a steaming cup to Hemaut. “And that's why we're in our current situation.” Ollivan's face was a mask of bitterness over distant eyes. “You know which situation I mean, don't you? It's the problem with this city.”

The day's first question.

Hemaut thought for a while. Ollivan had mentioned several problems, but had he declared any one as the problem? He was about to say that there was no one answer when he rememberedOllivan mentioning a source of failure in the current civilization.

“You said we're too concerned with recreating the wonders of the past,” said Hemaut. “that we're too impatient, and our world isn't ready for itself.”

“Good,” Ollivan nodded and lead the way to the room with the bamboo furniture where the conversations took place. He moved slowly under the weight of an artificial lung strapped tight to his back, and one of nearly every organ hanging from clips at his chest and waist. Hemaut didn't even bother guessing at his age.

Hemaut took a moment before sitting to look around at walls lined with the smallest specimens of Ollivan's work. Shelves jutted out with miniature, life-like dioramas. On one shelf was an African plain where giraffes, only eight centimeters tall, wandered around poking their noses at a grove of broad-topped trees. On another shelf, dragonflies hummed over a still pond where frogs watched them with hungry eyes. In the corner of the room next to the single, shaded window were the brass budgies hopping from perch to perch in a large, decorative cage.

Ollivan settled himself into his customary chair and eyed Hemaut over the rim of his mug. “Give me an example,” he said.

“What?” Hemaut had been watching the birds and marveling at the detail in their feathers and feet.

“We've gotten ahead of ourselves,” Ollivan said. “How so?”

Hemaut stalled with a sip of his coffee and tried to come up with an answer. “I don't know,” he finally said.

“You didn't understand what I was talking about,” Ollivan replied. “It's ok. I didn't explain. You should know this answer, though: Why is this age called the Third Civilization?”

Hemaut smiled and settled himself into his usual chair across from Ollivan's. It was a fact all children learn from an early age. “Human beings used to have a plethora of wonderful technologies at their disposal. This was the Accomplished Civilization. There was a terrible plague that spread through the whole world, killing both people and their inventions. When people rebuilt the world, they put a special effort into cleaning the earth. That was the Civilized Age of Decontamination. After that technology languished, and it wasn't until a great visionary created an archive of the wonders of the Accomplished Civilization that we began to focus on the progression of technology. Ever since, we have been rebuilding the machines of that first age so we might see the world restored to its former glory.”

Ollivan pursed his lips and nodded. “What have we been able to replicate so far?”

“We have blimps,” said Hemaut. “That was one of the first signs that we were on the right course. There's also automobiles, but those are still pretty limited compared to what they were at the end of the Accomplished Civilization. Then we started into biological gadgetry and now we have hearts, kidneys, livers, lungs and other organs built of stronger materials than our weak, organic bodies have.” Hemaut flicked at his heart, hanging from his shoulder strap. It produced a high, tinny chime. “And of course, there's the city that keeps us alive so we can more rapidly rebuild civilization.”

Ollivan set his coffee down on the small table beside his seat and leaned forward to stare intently into Hemaut's eyes. “Do you believe we have properly replicated each of these technological marvels?”

“Yes...” Hemaut held onto the word, like holding a finger on a game-piece while considering a recent, uncertain play. “Yes.” The finger removed. “They each fit the description according to the Archive. They might not be exactly the same, but each device serves it's intended purpose.”

Ollivan frowned at Hemaut. “That's your definition of proper replication?”

“I suppose if there were a better way to go about making something – the blimp, for example – then that would be preferable.”

Ollivan spat out a derisive breath. “The blimp of all things,” he muttered. “Fine. We'll use the blimp. Supposing there was a better way to make the blimp, would that be truer to the definition you'll find in the Archive, or would that be an improvement?”

“It would be...” Hemaut thought for a few moments. “It's not an improvement on the Archive's definition if it still only fits the parameters of the original specifications.”

“Specifications?” Ollivan asked. “There isn't anything specific about the Archive.”

Hemaut's stomach lurched and he inhaled sharply. Ollivan was prone to occasional outbursts against the Archive, even though most were trained from a young age to respect and revere – almost worship – the foundation of the current age of civilization.

“You're going to have to get past your aversions,” Ollivan said in a half sneer. “Further discussion is going to rely a good deal on how I feel about the over-rated Archive.”

“Sorry,” Hemaut rubbed a finger over the rim of his mug. “I'm trying to keep an open mind.”

“Anyway, back to it.” Ollivan cleared his throat. “What are the so-called specifications of the blimp?”

“A large pouch of gas that's lighter than air,” Hemaut said. “that has a room underneath it where people can ride. And it's steered by propellers.”

“That's it?” Ollivan asked. “That's the whole entry?”

Hemaut nodded. “I think so.”

“I'm giving you homework tonight,” Ollivan said. “I've got to hook in for maintenance, so we're done early today. When you visit me next week, I want to hear a presentation on four vehicles that meet the specifications of the blimp. They have to be original concepts and each completely different.”

Hemaut took the mugs into the kitchen, washed and put them away. When he returned to the room with the bamboo furniture, Ollivan was already gone.

“See you next week.” He said to the empty room and left.

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