Automaton- a short story

“There, now isn’t that remarkable!”

I gazed upon the machine cautiously through the stilted light, my eyes catching the glint of copper off its face. It smelled of oil and metal, and had eyes deader than a corpse’s. 

“It’s…” I tripped over my words, and chewed at my lip. “What is it?”

My father’s eyes were alight with glee, and his upper lip curled into a smile. “An automaton, of course! But not like the ones you see in the shops, my dear, no… Those machines can hardly count their twos and threes. This, this creation here is capable of intelligent thought!”

I looked into its cold eyes again. “Really?”

Father pinched the end of his mustache with two fingers and twirled it. “A little enthusiasm would be welcomed,” he said. “I’ve been slaving over him for months!”


“Why, yes! I call him Cephas. Marvelous, isn’t it?”

Marvelous wasn’t quite the word that came to mind. The machine was tall in stature, with exposed gears at the neck and joints, and a ridiculous top hat perched upon its head that I assumed was my father’s attempt to make it look more human. Human. I would sooner compare it with a toaster.

But my father had always wanted a son, and he was an excellent clockmaker by trade. Perhaps this would offer him some solace in the fact that he got glued to a daughter who had no interest in befriending androids. 

“Well! Let’s ignite him, shall we?” His eyes crinkled at the corners in elation, and he reached to flip a latch across its chest. It opened to reveal a small compartment with an assortment of buttons and knobs. “Would you like to do the honors, my sweet?”

I drew my lips into a thin line. “No, no, you do it.”

He pressed a red button, and at first nothing happened. Then a faint humming came from the inner mechanisms of its chest, and all at once the metal shuddered. A puff of dust escaped from the thing’s mouth, and a bluish glow bloomed in its empty eyes. I jumped back as its neck snapped to attention, and its head swiveled in its socket to behold my father and me. 

My father clapped his hands. “Ah, do you see this, Parthena? It’s extraordinary!”

I took another step back, all the while keeping my eyes on the machine. “Yes, very extraordinary…”

Its icy sockets switched to me, and I felt my insides congeal. It was looking right into me, as if observing the deepest reaches of my consciousness. That’s…not possible… It’s a machine, it can’t be sentient…

“Greetings, Cephas!” my father exclaimed, grabbing hold of its mechanical arm so forcefully that he nearly knocked the thing over. “I’m your maker!” His voice was on the verge of delirium, and his eyes wild with an enthrallment that frightened me. The automaton’s head cranked towards my father, and that only caused him to squeal in excitement. “Oh, do say something!” he said. Then to me: “He can speak, you know. Can do anything! I won’t need your help around the shop so long as I have him. Cephas, you card, don’t be shy! We’re your friends here.”

I felt a bit of bile slopping up my throat, but I swallowed it and began to turn towards the stairs. “I’ll just be going, now…”

“Don’t be such a wet blanket, Parthena. Look, I think he’s about to speak…”

I looked back, just in time to see the machine’s jaw unhinge, and a few lifeless words tumble from its copper lips: “I want.”

My father blinked rapidly, and he clutched the side of the automaton. “What? What does that mean? What do you want, my son?”

With that, I could no longer stand to be in the room. I gathered up my dragging skirts and hurried up the stairs.

Days went by, and my father only grew more attached to Cephas. He no longer worked on his clocks, but spent hour after hour fawning over the mechanical creature, and boasting to anyone who would listen about its infinite database and unparalleled abilities. I avoided the thing as often as possible, but its eyes followed me everywhere, and it always seemed to be around every corner. It was in the workshop constructing perfect clocks with perfect pendulums and perfect glass casings; it was out in the shop charming customers with its perfect articulation and perfect wit and perfect salesmanship. It was perfect in every way.

But I hated the thing. Oh, my blood curdled and my fingers clenched whenever I saw it amble up the street, carrying the basket of groceries that Father had bid it to fetch. That used to be my job. I used to be the gopher. Now all I did was sit around, listening to the oohs and ahhs of entranced window shoppers as they admired its metallic sheen and sparkling personality. For God’s sake, it didn’t even have a personality. It was a toaster with a voice box. That was it.

And then Father began to speak of constructing more of them, ones that he could sell or rent off to make a bit of extra cash. He even jested about building enough to form a mechanical theatre troupe. When I told him he was being silly, he said, “Oh, but Cephas has an exquisite singing voice, Parthena. He lullabies me to sleep every night! I can bid him to do the same for you, if you’d like…” I scoffed the notion away, but his words did make me think. If he were able to organize an entertaining ensemble of automatons, then it wouldn’t be a stretch for him to assemble an army.

My father was a brilliant man with foolish notions. And I think that more than anything, that was what drove me away.

I left because I earned a scholarship that would be idiotic to pass on at a school in the country. At least, that’s what I told everyone. I really just wanted to get away, to go to a place where machines didn’t breathe down your neck and ribbons of smoke didn’t lace the sky. My father hardly noticed when I left. He was too busy in his workshop building another friend for Cephas. I didn’t care. Not anymore.

The country was a refreshing change of scene, and I was finally able to get the stench of oil and smoke out of my clothes. For years I studied, and over time my father and his mechanical doll faded into the back of my mind. He never wrote, asking after me and my studies. He never cared.

After two years, I decided to be the better person and travel home over holiday to visit him. A small part of me was glad to be returning home, and to see him again, but a more dominant portion of my brain was afraid at what I would find when I got there. 

I boarded off the train at eleven o’ clock, the time when my father would be sending Cephas to prepare his lunch. My boots stabbed the cobblestone road as I headed up the street to his clockwork shop, and my mind reeled in anticipation. Would he have an army of automatons, as I feared? Or perhaps that theatre troupe he wanted so badly worked out, and he was on tour with a circus three countries over. 

I rounded the corner, and stopped dead in my tracks. The windows to the shop were boarded up, and the scrawling script that once read “Orville’s Clockwork Emporium” was faded and missing letters. At first I didn’t move, I didn’t do anything…but stare and fret that my greatest fears were realized. He was dead. He was dead or lying in a ditch somewhere, dying.

No! I didn’t know that! My heart leapt into my mouth in a sudden strike of adrenaline, and I rushed over to a man who was sweeping his front porch. “Sir!” My voice was leadened with dread. “Excuse me, but do you know what happened to that clock shop?”

He looked at me with tired eyes, and said, “What clock shop?”

Surely, he can’t be genuine… “The clock shop across the road. Right there. With the boarded windows. I’m pointing to it?” That last sentence ended in a sort of question, because the man’s eyes offered no reassurance or familiarity.

“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean,” he said. “I’ve been here for seventeen years, and not once has there been a clock shop across the road.”

“No,” I breathed. “You’re lying. That’s not possible. My father worked there! He had an automaton!” I was practically shouting now, my voice harried and distant. “You must remember!”

The man gave me a leery glare, and shrunk back onto his doorstep. “I’ve already said, there is no such place!”

“No!” I spun away from him, and hurried back to my father’s abandoned shop to see if I could find an opening to peek through the windows. No such luck. The door was barred as well, and I was beginning to give in to defeat when I remembered- there was a back way. I tucked a strand of hair behind my ear, and ran off down the alleyway, coming around to the back of the shop, where the overflowing rubbish pails filled with rusted cogs and springs gathered in stinking heaps. I flew to the back door, and was about to toy with the knob when I heard a cranking, followed by, “I want…”

My head whisked around, and there, lying against the fence, was Cephas. He was rusted beyond repair, and one of his arms lay in pieces a meter away from him. His cog springs coiled out at random, and the gears around his jaw made an incessant ticking noise as they jammed together. But still, his eyes burned with a blue fire, and he looked up at me. “I want…”

“Where’s my father?” I demanded.

“He…he…he-he-he-he-heheheheheheeeee…” Cephas’ head began to jerk, and the light in his eyes blinked rapidly as he malfunctioned. I gave him a good kick in the side, and he snapped out of it.

“My father? What did you do to him?”

“My maker…” His voice was deeper than usual, and slurred like a drunkard’s. “…wanted to re-re-replace me…”

“What are you talking about?”

“He di-didn’t need me anymore. He didn’t want Ce-ce-cephas.”

“What did you do?”

“He wanted to re-replace m-me. Cephas wouldn’t let th-that happen.”

My heart sunk in understanding. “You did away with him.”

“Th-the beast lives on w-within the shop. Th-the beast lives on w-within the shop. N-ne-never go in. Cephas m-made sure no one ever g-goes in.”

“What beast? What do you mean?”

Cephas cocked his head, and a whistle squealed in his joints. “Cephas was t-too la-la-late.  The automaton-ton-ton that Maker made is dange-danger-dange-”

“Dangerous?” The world around me went still, and it was only the machine. My father was gone…and it was this monster’s fault. But if it had stopped my father from bringing something even worse and more unnatural into the world…then I didn’t know what to think.

“Do not go in. No one go in. No one gooooo…” His voice become heavy and sloppy, and I knelt down beside him on the litter strewn ground. 

“I want…” he garbled.

“I never liked you,” I said. “You replaced me.”

Then I flipped the latch on its chest, pressed the black button, and watched as its eyes died.

“Automaton” by Kazuhiko Nakamura

I’m a huge steampunk fan, and couldn’t help myself with this one! I wrote it all in one go, too, so there’s bound to be a few typos here and there. 

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