In the barren Ashlands, the automaton Tommy Coggins hopes for a future and a friend.
Hazel eyes, softly human, scanned the night sky for stars through wisps of smoke and ash. On nights like this, restless winds high above would stir the air and dust, and even block the moon if it was thick enough. Lids clicked mechanically, clearing the view as he continued to search from the rooftop.
The gas lamps hissed below spreading their amber light on the empty paths and streets. At such a late hour the complex looked abandoned save for a rare building with a glow from a window or two. Far across the grounds the furnace houses were still operating hard with the night shift at work.
This was always his favorite time, with no one around to make demands or remind him that he was different. He could climb to the roof of ‘Administration’ and survey the only world he had ever known. There he would faithfully study the stars for that one special flickering pinpoint.
His Maker Professor Scoggins had passed away five years before, and left his creation in the less than caring hands of the Company. That was not the original plan; Tommy had been made for something better, and had been told that from his first days. He had also been told that should the unfortunate time come when frail human mortality caused them to part, the Professor would always watch from above. Whenever loneliness and fear overwhelmed him, Tommy would make the climb to find his Maker’s star among the multitude and talk to him as if he had never left.
Tonight the automaton felt especially sad, no matter how unlikely emotions were considered among his kind. He had again suffered the cruelty of the workmen, and been roughly treated-- today simply for having a voice. Why they had taken exception to it did not matter; it was enough for them to hate any human trait in what they regarded as an inhuman machine. For that reason, one of the brutes pried open the plates of Tommy’s neck, cut open the hide beneath and tore from his throat the small box constructed for speech. The bully laughed with his friends and then tossed the device onto a nearby scrap heap without a second thought.
Without looking away from the sky, Tommy dipped his fingers into a waistcoat pocket to assure himself that he still had the box with him. He had scrambled over the heap after dark came on to retrieve what had been so violently taken. In his innocence Tommy feared that his Maker would be angry with him for having lost his voice. He was not to blame of course, but the automaton felt in some way he would prove a disappointment.
After a change in the upper winds, a few twinkling lights appeared in the endless ebony sea. Tommy felt drawn to one, sensing the presence of his Maker. He timidly lifted fingers to his throat, ashamed of his condition though he had stitched the wound closed as best he could.
No sound would drift skyward from dark dyed lips, but Tommy believed the Professor in a form of Light and Spirit would still understand.
It was a prayer much the same sort as humans were inclined to offer, full of apologies, questions and promises. The automaton did not understand why some of the workers hated him; he never gave place to words or actions that would hurt or offend them. He had been taught well in his Maker’s care, and had learned never to harm a living being. Even when threatened, Tommy would never defend himself against their brutality. The Professor had left behind a gentle orphan who grew lonelier with time and who had lost nearly all hope he had once been given.
Afraid to sound ungrateful, Tommy was quick to thank his Maker for creating him at all, for that strange, special reason that had never been explained—that ‘better thing’ that he hoped would one day be made clear. If nothing else, he would remain faithful to all the Professor had told him, and believe that something exceptional and good would eventually come.
He thanked his Maker that not all men were like those who tormented him. Most of the workers regarded him with indifference, like any machine employed in their business, and of no great interest until needed or broken. He expressed gratitude as well for the mechanic Jasper Lang, who had been a friend to the Professor and now looked after the automaton’s maintenance. Lang was kind in his way, always speaking fondly of his old associate and assuring Tommy that he was indeed more unique than he could ever imagine.
The mechanic was the closest thing to a friend that Tommy had, but it was not enough. There was an emptiness inside his workings, partly from his Maker’s loss, and partly due to those unique attributes on which Lang often remarked. Tommy had been created with infinite care, given a distinctive power source, and an anatomy to correspond with that of a human. Most telling was the unique capacity for emotion, which had been meant to provide him with a completely human life experience, more than any automaton ever built. It was in this last quality that Tommy excelled without intent, and which caused him to ache for the affection once known in the Professor’s care. What had been meant to be a blessing had also proven a curse.
Tommy began to feel ungrateful again and quickly promised his Maker that he would carry on a better creature than before. He would suffer abuse, believing that his true purpose would eventually be made clear. His head dropped in shame, to admit having considered a dark option to his misery.
He had considered the notion of asking Lang to unMake him. Perhaps the mechanic would take pity on him and release him from such an unhappy existence. Removing the regenerating power source that his Maker had taken pains to design would reduce him to an inanimate collection of parts, free of all awareness.
Tommy repeated silent apologies, feeling like a great disappointment. Clearly, he was unworthy of everything the Professor had given him. Again he made promises to try harder and somehow to make the man proud. Timidly, he poured out his heart like a child with a request that had been made many times before.
It was a curious thing for any automaton to make requests of any sort, especially to a deceased creator. Yet it was because of Tommy’s unique manufacture that the need seemed so great.
He wished for someone in his life who did not see a machine, someone who could see the possibility of so much more, like Professor Scoggins had. He wanted—needed-- someone to help him be human. Lang’s care and attention was fine as far as it went, but it was still incomplete. Tommy was certain that in time something that improbable would indeed be possible, as long as his Maker was still watching over him.
Above in the silent reaches that special star twinkled brighter. At once Tommy felt certain that the Professor had indeed been listening and that he must not grow discouraged. The automaton closed his eyes and waited, as if he could hear a kind voice whispering at his shoulder.
His Maker was in fact proud of him, and the whispers assured Tommy he was not to blame for the ignorance and intolerance of those who bullied him. It was all their failing and none of his own that brought trouble. The Professor was sorry for having left him alone, but somewhere in the darkness was the promise that things would soon improve. He must never lose hope, and must trust that the unpleasant times would have to be endured for a future more remarkable than words could explain.
A breeze rifled the dark locks that had been designed to enhance a human appearance. It felt much like the playful way Professor Scoggins would ruffle it with affection. He remembered when his Maker mussed his hair the same way and named him;“Tommy for ‘tomaton.”
The automaton opened his eyes to see the star had flickered back to normal light to rejoin its fellows in their eternal watch. His workings idled calmly, as if all was put right again. He would climb down from the rooftop and return to his humble quarters with hope renewed.