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"Glad to have you back, Captain," Shipman Eva said, wearing her gas mask. "The wind shifted while you were away, and we've been enveloped by the Bertha's gas almost the entire time. Can we get out of here now?"
The inside of the ship smelled terrible.
"Yes, and we've got a destination. Let's get to the bridge and plot a course."
I could sense Shipman Eva's eyeroll even under her mask. More ridiculous orders with no explanation. I mean, it was my ship, I could do what I wanted. That's how being a Captain worked.
But this was now so clearly bigger than just me. I needed help.
"And Shipman Eva? There's some things I need to tell you about."
Skr Kressa dimmed the lights and a thin screen unrolled itself from the ceiling.
AUTOMATIC MANNEQUINS -- EYES ONLY REPORT -- SECTION 27 -- CODENAME BIRDSONG TAPELOOP
"Don't worry," Skr Kressa said, "You've been cleared. Next slide."
I didn't know who Skr was talking to. The screen changed and showed a black and white picture of a group of people gathered at a street market.
"Automatic Mannequins," Skr asked. "Ever run across one?"
"Well, no, they're a myth," I answered. "A kind of subconscious othering in the collective unconscious, I heard." Actually I'd heard somebody say that at a bar. But I understood it. "Like, the ultimate scapegoat for dehumanizing someone. Robots."
"Well, they're not a myth," Skr continued, "though it's absolutely true they're not well accepted."
Skr changed the slide again. She must actually have the button. Or whatever. Now on the screen were black and white pictures of riots. Nighttime shots of big crowds and burning barrels... cordons of police in riot gear facing down crowds in streets.
"A long time ago," Skr continued, "preceding and deeply influencing Uhrenfabrik AG's decision to remove itself from the public eye, there were what was referred to as the Haunted Doll Wars."
I'd had comic books about the Haunted Doll Wars. It was still a popular trope. But just kids stories.
"What the public could only deridingly and ignorantly comprehend as 'haunted dolls' were in fact Uhrenfabrik AG's greatest creation. Automatons so realistic they could perform any task that a human could, and do it so well as never to be detected."
The slide changed again to pictures of a stylish but old fashioned brochure. It appeared to be for a mannequin--a human shaped model and servant. Diagrams and photos showed a range of movement and various tasks being carried out by people dressed as milkmen, postal workers, food delivery agents, and factory laborers.
"Uhrenfabrik AG quickly realized what they'd created were no mere automatons, but sentient beings... clockwork through and through, and commercially described as 'Automatic Mannequins,' but with experiences and lives as real as yours or mine."
The slide changed again, showing a perfectly manicured subdivision from above.
"So Uhrenfabrik AG released them. 'Into the wild,' so to speak. With identification papers and backgrounds to allow them to pass for human, and homes and seed money to start their own lives, anywhere that humans did."
The slide changed back to the riot pictures.
"Many of the Automatic Mannequins, however, were not content to live as humans, secretly, merely passing as humans and keeping their clowork nature secret. They wanted representation, to be appreciated for who they were. And thus, the Haunted Doll Wars began... and were quickly ended. And rather than address the potential of 'haunted doll sentience,' the protests themselves were erased from history, and turned into a story, a myth."
The slide changed again to display the garish cover of a comic book entitled HAUNTED DOLL.
"Hey, that's number 75. I had that," I said.
"Well you can now prepare to meet some in the clockwork flesh," Skr said. "You're going to bring them home."
Uhrenfabrik rang a bell. But I didn't want to contradict Skr Kressa. I was definitely feeling out of my depth.
"Uhrenfabrik AG is a very exclusive and very old luxury design company," she said. "We exist today through a number of shell companies, equally exclusive but known in the very highest circles of ultimate taste. But the Uhrenfabrik name is no longer used publicly."
It wasn't the sound of the name that was familiar. I couldn't even spell it. But there was something about the shape of it... The AG part helped.
"Publicly, the height of our technology was reached a very long time ago. But the sciences we created had the potential of becoming so powerful, we hid ourselves in obscurity until the name was erased from history. That way we could go on creating our work outside of public scrutiny."
I wasn't much for luxury technology. Not something I'd ever been around in my life, really. And it's not like I read magazines. The fanciest technology I'd ever been around -- outside of haunted artifacts -- were games. Like really great pinball machines, which I still had a thing for. But when I was a kid, my parents took me to this AMAZING arcade at the top of the Verts. It was beyond pinball. They were like life sized dioramas of robot mannequins, doing karate and ballet and acrobatics. You'd put in a token...
"But through the years -- very many years -- the pinnacle of our technology was lost. Or, more accurately, stolen. It ran off with itself you might say."
And then I remembered. The shape of that word on the animatronic battle games at the arcade at top of the Verts.
"Mr. Sabab, thank you for coming," said Skr Kressa. "Please have a seat."
Skr Kressa was tall. And dressed very sharply. Also, nice eyewear. She took a seat behind her desk. Everything was very clean. She looked at me through her glasses. For a long time.
"Oh!" I said, and took a seat.
"Mr. Sabab, you've been in some trouble lately."
"Well, you see, it's all been a--"
"And the cause of it is a pair of antique and rather garish googles that has recently come into your life."
Automatically I reach for the pocket inside my jacket, but the glasses aren't there. Where did I leave them again?
"Don't worry," Skr continued, "I'm not here to take them from you. In fact, we're going to ask you to use them."
Those glasses really were at the root of it.
"Er... I call them glasses."
"Oh, they're not glasses at all. Googles. Something with so many horrible knobs and switches."
Skr had a point.
"If it's all the same," I said, "I really wouldn't mind just giving them to you. They've been nothing but trouble for me. Them and that bookseller--"
"Yes, the bookseller," Skr said. "His shop in Old Habitsform has been closed for weeks, and no one knows where he is."
She looked at me again through her glasses. There seemed to be a twinkle of light reflecting off her eyeballs.
"But he remains in contact with you, doesn't he?" Skr asked.
That's when I realized things weren't going to be getting easier any time soon.
"I'm sorry," I said. "But who are you exactly? What is this place?"
"We're called Uhrenfabrik AG," Skr replied. "But we're sure you've never heard of us."
Everything on this floor was gleaming white. I wished I had sunglasses.
"May I help you?" asked the man at the reception desk.
His collar was buttoned all the way up and he had on a pair of pince-nez glasses -- the kind that just sit on your nose. I didn't understand how those stayed on, unless they were super pinchy.
"Yes, uh... Bruno sent me?"
"Bruno? Bruno who?"
All this time and I'd never known Bruno had a last name.
"Uh... big guy. Kinda... earthy? Drives a Bertha-class biomethane ship and---"
"Oh, yes, you'll want to see Skr Kressa, skunk-ops, Suite 7c on the right."
"Oh, I get it," I said, "Skunk-ops because of the smell, right?"
The receptionist stared at me for a moment.
"7c on the right," he said.
The goons were still with me, and started driving me in that direction. I stopped and turned and said:
"Those glasses! How do they stay on your face? Are they comfortable?"
The receptionist stared at me again. This time I could see there were little lights on the inside of the rims. I could see something reflecting off the receptionist's eyes.
"Oh yes," said the receptionist. "It's like they're a part of me."
"It looks like they have valet parking," I said to Bruno as we approached the immense building.
"And trust some rando with the keys to our ride? Not a chance."
After a short walk to the lobby entrance, Bruno took us inside and directly to a special elevator, different from all the rest with silver inlays and diamond mosaics, and a couple of heavies in suits garding the UP button.
Bruno turned to me and said "Now you just play it cool, Billy Boy. This is as far as ol' Bruno can take you. But trust me, you're going to be safe and sound, all right?" and he gave me a big wet sloppy wink.
I had a bad feeling about that as I walked into the elevator with the two goons behind me.
Leaving the Matte Kudasai in Shipman Eva's hands felt right. Lately I'd realized I trusted her more than I trusted myself.
"Dreamin, Billy Boy?" Bruno shouts and winks over his shoulder. He's driving the pontoon skiff over the tops of the pines, his black and white scarf flowing in the wind.
Maybe the breeze really is starting to blow off his stink.
Soon we round the edge of the forest and behold the spires of Pinroma, gleaming in the late afternoon sun.
We parked the ship in a large meadow, upwind from the Bertha. Even in the fresh mountain air, the Bertha's stink still stuck to the Matte Kudasai.
Bruno emerged from the Bertha on a pontoon air skiff. It was banded black and white and done up just like the Bertha, complete with stinger antennas. Bruno wore a long black and white scarf over his leathers.
"Why don't we do the color coordinated thing with the Matte Kudasai?" I asked Shipman Eva.
"Because we're not douchebags," she said.
Bruno brought the pontoon skiff to land on the grass before us. I told myself he almost didn't smell like his ship's biomethane exhaust, but I was lying.
"Arrrrrgh! Billy my boy!" he cried. "We'll go the rest of the way in on the skiff. The Bertha tends to stir up a little attention, if you know what I mean."
"Oh I do. I do, Bruno."
"Captain, I don't see why you think this is safe," said Shipman Eva.
Frankly, I didn't either. It was the damn glasses' fault. And the bookseller's. That's why I was wrapped up in all this, and I'd never told Eva about it, and it was too late to tell her now. I'd told @Rose Nomenclature and it only made her madder.
Bruno ripped out another of his farts.
At least the skiff was open air.
“Isn’t there any way out of this stink? I think I’m going to barf.”
Shipman Eva looked at me sideways through her gas mask.
“It doesn’t matter where we ride in his wake,” she replied. “His mercaptans are highly dispersant. I mentioned this in the all-hands memo, along with gas mask assignment.”
“And I said it wasn’t going to be that bad, so it was optional.”
“…. Did you say ‘captan’ as in ‘mercaptan’?”
“No sir. The other ‘captain’.”
“Ok, good. And where did you say the gas masks were?”
“There’s one on your chair, sir.”
Bruno's breath smelled like beans and bacon.
"Billy my boy!" He grabbed my hand and gave me a big slap on the back. And farted. "Been keepin' busy? No! Wait!" He gave a sidelong glance at Shipman Eva. "Got anywheres we can speak... privately?"
I walked Bruno to the ready room while he crop-dusted the deck with more farts.
"So, had a little fun at Grimaldi, did we Billy boy?" He gave me a sly look.
"Well, uh, word travels fast, I guess. Why would anybody be interested in little old me?" Seriously. Shipman Eva gives me the feeling I'm the least interesting person she knows.
"Let's just say there's been a little buzz on the dark frequencies." Bruno always kept a finger in the illicit side of the business. "And Billy my boy, I'm just the kind of friend you need right now."
Bruno have me another sly look. Which meant scrunching his face up in a smirk so all his week-old whiskers stood straight up out of his face.
"There's a price on your head, Billy boy. And your old friend Bruno is here to keep you safe."