The Tinker, by Robert J. Santa

SFReader 2004 Story Contest
Third Place Winner

Veteran scribe Rob Santa takes Third Place with his “fusion” SF tale – one that only automatons will fail to love.  Then again, part of fiction’s power is to induce powerful emotions in the reader, to break down the more rote (one might say robotic) aspects of our daily lives.  We appreciated Rob Santa’s narrative magick enough to award this offbeat tale Third Place. – D.B.

“Let us thank the Creator,” Gabriel said, and his family bowed their heads in unison. “We thank you for the food you have made and the world around us. We thank you for the first harvest of the radishes. We thank you for the mild days that are shaped by your hands. Let us be thankful.” They all waited in silence for a few moments then let go of each others’ hands and reached for bowls of food. Gabriel broke the bread, and Susan handed him a plate of freshly-churned butter.

“Did the plowing go well today?” she asked as she exchanged the butter for the bread.

“Yes,” Gabriel said, “though I pulled a rock as big as the dog out of the ground. Funny, after all these years working that field, I didn’t think there would be any stones left.”

“I milked the cows today, Papa,” blurted the smallest child, beaming as he did so.

“You did?” he replied. “That’s wonderful, Seth.”

“He did it all by himself,” Paul said. “I didn’t help him once.”

“I am so proud of you,” Gabriel said, his face bright with the truth of it. “You’re learning so much.”

“Papa?”

“Yes, Enos.”

“Why don’t we get one of the Tinker’s machines to milk the cows?”

Gabriel saw his wife stiffen. Paul looked at his father and then his mother and just as quickly down at his plate. He lifted a forkful of lamb into his mouth and chewed with his eyes down.

“Who is the Tinker?” Gabriel asked as he looked directly at Enos, who looked panicky and flicked his eyes from his mother to his father. Gabriel turned his head. “Paul?”

“We saw the Tinker in town yesterday,” Susan said, and Gabriel turned to her.

“I feel like the existence of this man was being intentionally kept from me,” he said. “Why?”

“I knew you wouldn’t approve of him.”

“What would make you say that?”

“Gabriel, my love,” said Susan, “we have been married a very long time. I would like to think I know you by now.”

“What is it he does of which I wouldn’t approve?” Gabriel’s face betrayed his controlled emotions. Susan held his gaze and sighed.

“You would have to see him for my answer to make any sense,” she replied. She hung her head for her husband could only say one thing.

“Then Paul and I will go see this Tinker tomorrow,” Gabriel said, and though he was the only one to do so, he calmly ate his dinner.

***

“You will be home tonight?” Susan said, handing her husband a basket.

“Probably not,” Gabriel said as he put the basket behind the buckboard. “I should visit awhile, see the new store, talk to some people.”

“Well, there’s some bacon and bread and a jug of wine in there. It will get you through tomorrow if you don’t mind being a little hungry.”

“I have some coins if we need to see Rebecca and Aaron. We will manage.”

Paul tossed a rolled canvas into the wagon and followed it with a stack of blankets. Gabriel marveled not for the first time how his son was almost a man. Susan came over and kissed her son on the forehead, realizing, too, that childish hugs were a thing of the past. She whispered into his ear and kissed him again then came around to kiss her husband. Without saying anything else, she turned and walked back into the house.

An hour from the farm Gabriel spoke.

“What did your mother say to you?” he asked.

“She told me not to let you do anything stupid,” Paul said without taking his eyes from the horse in front of him. Had he done, so he would have seen his father smile.

They stopped once before reaching town, when Paul’s sharp eyes spotted some wild blackberries. It was little more than a double-handful, but it was a welcome snack. The sun was high overhead and coming back down when they entered the town’s main street.

The town had changed little, looking virtually the same as when Gabriel had made his first journey there from the farm. Aaron and Rebecca had built the tavern to supplement their hatchery, and they charged little more than the cost of the meals prepared there. The new clergyman, Preacher Harris, had labored for a year, carrying stones for the foundation of the chapel, refusing all help. The whole town had built a new general store when the last one burned down, and the new one was at least twice as large as the last to accommodate the growth.

“Good afternoon to you,” a man called from his porch.

“Hello, Abraham,” Gabriel said. “How are you?”

“As well as an old man can be.” Abraham lifted himself off the chair and leaned against the railing. “You here to see the Tinker?”

“If I get around to it. I hear it might be an interesting experience.”

“It is at that. Hello, Paul.”

“Good afternoon.”

“You going to keep an eye on your dad?”

“That’s why his mother sent him with me,” said Gabriel.

“Smart woman.” Abraham smiled, and Gabriel couldn’t help but return it.

“How is the new minister?” asked Gabriel. Abraham shifted slightly forward.

“Better than the last one,” he said. “He hasn’t said anything we weren’t expecting to hear. You should come to services one of these days.”

“It’s a very long ride, Abraham.”

“Yet I couldn’t help but notice you’re making it today.”

“That I am. How is your hip?”

Abraham let his hand fall down to the top of his leg.

“It could be better,” he said. “It’s nothing a trip to the city wouldn’t fix. Those docs can work miracles.”

“You will certainly be missed,” said Gabriel.

“Thank you. I’d be leaving soon, bad hip or no. There’s nothing else for me to see here.” Abraham touched the brim of his hat. “Good day to the both of you.”

Gabriel clicked his tongue, and the horse eased them forward down the road.

“Papa,” Paul said when they were well away, “why did you deceive Abraham?”

“Did I?”

“Abraham asked you if you were going to see the Tinker, but you didn’t say ‘yes.’ You made it seem as if seeing him would only be a side trip.”

“Paul, what I’m going to tell you now is coming from one man to another. Do you understand?”

Paul nodded his head.

“I’m scared,” said Gabriel.

“Of what, Papa?”

“I don’t really know. There has been too much revelation of secrets lately. I don’t want to hear another one.”

“Perhaps seeing the Tinker will help you understand,” suggested Paul. Gabriel only nodded and headed for the livery to turn the horse and wagon over to Ephraim’s oldest boy whose name Gabriel could never remember. Father and son walked to the market square without saying anything else.

The Tinker’s location was impossible to miss, for there was a crowd of thirty around him. Behind him was a tall, wooden wagon, the kind that Gabriel had only seen with the traveling circus. A variety of tools hung from poles jutting out of the top of the wagon, and the rear doors were thrown wide to reveal a compartment stuffed full with boxes and cabinets. There was also a small cot, but it seemed like it was only an afterthought. Gabriel would have never been able to see the Tinker through the closely-packed onlookers were the Tinker not standing on a small sort of stage.

“And this,” the Tinker said, his voice easily carrying the distance between him and Gabriel, “is a device that will pay for itself immediately. Even the most cynical among you will recognize its value.” And when the Tinker looked directly at Gabriel a shiver ran through him he hoped stayed hidden beneath his clothes.

The Tinker reached down and lifted something onto the table in front of the crowd. Paul stood on his toes, but even then he was still shorter than Gabriel and Gabriel could see nothing.

“Let’s get closer,” Gabriel said. Paul only nodded, still trying to look through the bodies. Gabriel was a big man, yet he only laid hands on shoulders and muttered polite pardons. The people moved as if they had seen the show before and were permitting a newcomer to share the experience. As Paul and Gabriel were moving closer, the Tinker was silent, working on the device on the table that turned out to be a metal hen.

The device was larger than any chicken, closer in size to a healthy goose. It had a pyramid-like shape artistically fashioned with a hen’s features, and Gabriel nodded his head as he recognized the talent of the metalwork. The nest upon which the hen sat was a tall, square base. It was almost as if the Tinker was waiting for Gabriel to make his way to the front of the crowd, for he began speaking as soon as Paul and Gabriel had a clear view.

“The reservoir I just filled,” he said, “is for common lamp oil, the purer the better, though even crudely-pressed oil will work. Each filling will last a full day and night, with a full twenty-one day cycle needing about a pint, perhaps more.” The Tinker reached down to the base and opened a drawer.

“Here is the space for eggs,” he continued. “This will hold thirty and six. Once the eggs are hatched the chicks can be moved to their permanent home and a new cycle begun.”

“What purpose does this device serve,” said Rebecca in a voice loud enough so that everyone could hear, “when we have been incubating chicks for years?”

“You have two answers for your question,” replied the Tinker. “First, you do not need to heat a whole room for your eggs, tending fires and coals even in the wee hours.”

Gabriel was standing close enough to Rebecca that he could see her knowing nods.

“And secondly,” the Tinker said, “this device need not be in your home. You could set it out in the snow, and the eggs would still be safely warmed. There must be a better use for that incubator room, with all the business your tavern is generating.”

Rebecca nodded again.

“What does it cost?” someone else shouted.

“If we were in the city,” said the Tinker, “I could begin an auction, and the bidding would surely reach fifty silvers.”

“And where would someone in this town find fifty silvers?” Rebecca asked, disappointment easily heard in her voice.

“Of course, we are not in the city,” the Tinker said. “I would trade this device for a generous ham so that I could have meat on my journey and a dozen bottles of wine to warm my old bones.”

“I think country folk would be hard-pressed to deliver a ham with anything more than a few bottles,” said Rebecca.

“Perhaps you’re right,” the Tinker said, and as he lifted the incubator off the table and set it on the ground the crowd nodded as a group. Rebecca walked away in the direction of Miriam’s hog house.

“Show us something else,” was yelled out, though Gabriel couldn’t tell who said it.

“I can show you many things,” said the Tinker. “It is why I am here.” He looked inside his wagon and took out a box with sides as long as a forearm. The Tinker placed the box on the table then opened it, revealing compacted straw. He dug around inside this only for a moment before pulling out what looked like a troubadour’s harp permanently attached to a base. The Tinker placed the harp on the table then swept all the loose hay back into the box, which disappeared from sight.

“Will you play for us?” Gabriel asked. He noticed how condescending his words sounded and wondered at it.

“I have no gift for music,” replied the Tinker. “I do know, however, that music is merely a combination of numbers. And I have a gift for numbers.” He touched the base of the harp without throwing a switch or turning a dial, yet as soon as his skin caressed the metal it came to life. The harp sang a soft melody, strings acting in small duets and quartets of chords or soloing in tiny intervals. Gabriel could see the strings vibrating as if they were being plucked by invisible fingers. It was lovely and lasted a long while during which no one made any noise louder than a breath. When the music ended there was a collective sigh of disappointment, and it surprised Gabriel to realize he had joined in.

The Tinker lifted the harp off the table and returned it to the box where he lovingly covered it with straw and sealed the lid. He looked back at the crowd and simply smiled.

It was the smile that bothered Gabriel. There was a smugness about it, a self-satisfaction that Gabriel felt was more than rude. It was on the verge of sin.

“That may be pretty, Tinker,” Gabriel said, the name ejecting itself from his mouth as if it were covered in nettles, “but it won’t put food on the table. Only hard work can do that.”

“I assure you, friend,” the Tinker said as smoothly as if he were repeating a line in a well-rehearsed play, “building that harp was very hard work, indeed. I toil over every one of my creations.”

The fire disappeared from Gabriel’s mind as quickly as it had appeared.

“I apologize,” he said. “I did not mean to imply that you were lazy.” To this the Tinker merely waved his hand as if he were shooing away an insect.

“I didn’t take offense,” said the Tinker. “In fact, I’ve been waiting for you to get here.”

“Me? What do you know about me?”

“Nothing, friend. But I’ve traveled all over this land, and in every town there is one like you. I don’t need to ask anyone here if you are a well-respected member of this community, for I can see it in their faces when you speak.” A few of those assembled nodded their heads, and Gabriel felt his face begin to flush.

“So I am to validate your machines to make it easier for you to sell them to us simple country folk, is that it?”

“Ah,” said the Tinker, leaning back slightly. “Smart too, I see.” He paused as if his script had been interrupted, several pages torn out with the actor still on stage.

“Yes,” he finally said, “that is exactly what I was thinking.”

“Then look for your help elsewhere, Tinker. I will not be your pawn so that you may line your purse.”

The Tinker was obviously perplexed. He took in air to speak and was interrupted before he could do so.

“No,” said Gabriel. “I will not enhance your business.” Then he turned and walked toward the tavern, Paul hurrying to follow. They went inside and sat at a table near the fireplace. Gabriel noticed only afterwards that it was the table furthest from the door. Aaron approached.

“Hello, Gabriel,” he said. “Good day, Paul.”

“Hello, Aaron,” they said together.

“What may I get for you?”

“We will each have an ale, please, and something to eat.”

“I’ve made a chicken stew,” Aaron said as if it were a suggestion and not the only option.

“That sounds lovely,” said Gabriel. Aaron walked off and into the kitchen.

“Father?”

“Yes, Paul?”

“I was impressed with the Tinker’s inventions.”

“I know, son. I feel they were made to impress.”

“And not to last?” asked Paul.

Gabriel only nodded.

“The Tinker is a swindler?” It was clear to Gabriel that Paul didn’t believe the question.

“We cannot know for sure,” Gabriel said.

“The Creator says we should trust strangers as we would friends,” said Paul, and Gabriel nodded.

Aaron returned with a wooden tray, placed food and drink on the table, then held the tray at his side.

“Is it too dark to eat?” asked Aaron.

“I am fine,” said Gabriel.

“Are you certain?”

“What is wrong, Aaron?” Gabriel asked. He could clearly see that Aaron was on the verge of something.

In response to Gabriel’s question Aaron reached over the mantel and pulled a knob that was sticking out of the wall. Gabriel heard the creaking of wood as if something were rolling on the roof.

Then the most marvelous thing happened. A glass bowl that was hanging from the ceiling began to glow as if it held a candle. The candle became brighter and brighter still until it shone like the sun seen through a thick bank of clouds. It illuminated the dark corner of the tavern as if a half dozen new windows had been knocked through the stone walls.

Both Gabriel and Paul stared at the glass bowl, Paul with a spoonful of broth held halfway to his lips. The light flickered faintly, much as a candle flame would, though it did not diminish in brightness noticeably.

“It is the Tinker’s doing,” Aaron offered quickly, as excited as if he were a child opening presents on the first day of the year. “It will shine as long as there is a gentle breeze.”

“Or until it breaks,” added Gabriel.

“I saw the Tinker strike it with a mallet. He tells me he will come through the town once each year to make repairs of anything that stops functioning, though he assures us all that his creations will not do so.”

“And you believe him?”

“I believe him,” said Aaron without hesitation. “He said yesterday he would prove the worth of his machines with the simplest of demonstrations. He also told us to wait for it.”

“He wants me to do it,” said Gabriel.

“Yes. The Tinker said one of us would speak the words, that without them he could prove nothing.” Aaron reached out and pushed the knob flush against the wall. There was a soft clicking noise on the roof as the light in the glass bowl dimmed until Gabriel and Paul were left in shadows.

After Aaron left, the two of them ate in silence. Paul twice tried to start a conversation, but Gabriel didn’t respond, only lifted the spoon to his mouth with painfully slow rhythm. Gabriel mopped the last drop of broth from his bowl with a handful of bread, fished several coins from his purse and placed them on the table, then stood and walked out of the tavern with Paul again hurrying close behind.

The crowd was gone from around the Tinker’s wagon. On the table was a generous ham tied with string. The Tinker was bent over a chest, and Gabriel heard the dull tinkling of glass. He must have heard the crunching of Gabriel’s footsteps on the gravel, for he straightened up and turned around.

“Have it your way, Tinker,” Gabriel said. “What is it I’m supposed to do?”

The Tinker smiled again, a variation that implied he had an infinite store. Had Gabriel been angry he would have suspected the Tinker was mocking him.

“Yes,” he said, the smile not much shifting shape, “definitely the smart one.” The Tinker paused as if considering his script once more, then flipped through several pages as if discarding them. “What usually happens at this point is that I prove my abilities to the assembled crowd.”

Gabriel looked at Paul who was looking around the empty square.

“A bit late for that,” said Gabriel.

“Indeed.”

“Don’t you feel your inventions have been proof enough?”

“It’s more like a challenge,” the Tinker said. “I make a statement along the lines of ‘I could build anything,’ and you dare me to build something of your imagining, something complex.”

“I was impressed by the harp,” Gabriel said.

“More complex than that.”

“Like an animal?” asked Paul. The Tinker turned and pointed a finger at Paul, his face brightening.

“Yes,” he said. “That would be most adequate.”

“It couldn’t be like that chicken,” Gabriel said. “It would have to move.”

“I can do that.”

“And then I declare your wondrous invention to be beyond compare?”

“Something like that.”

“So you can sell more of your machines to farmers?”

The Tinker looked at the ground and shook his head.

“It’s not like that, Gabriel,” he said.

“What is it like?”

“You will see when you speak the words. Then I will reveal the truth of all things.”

Gabriel considered this for a long time. He could see from the corner of his eye his son staring at him. Gabriel turned and looked at Paul for a message of what he was thinking. Paul merely looked at his father expectantly, waiting to see what he would do.

“Very well, Tinker,” said Gabriel. “I will say your words if I feel they are true. Shall we agree upon a cricket?”

The Tinker’s eyes widened a little.

“They always say a bird,” he said.

“Would a cricket be impossible?”

“No,” the Tinker said, the corner of his mouth rising a little at what Gabriel suddenly thought was a genuine challenge. “Just different.”

“Tomorrow?”

“Tomorrow.”

***

“He worked all night,” Rebecca said as she laid plates of bread and eggs before Paul and Gabriel. Something about her voice made Gabriel feel it was an accusation.

“He did not have to,” Gabriel said, but his words sounded limp.

“I’m to tell you he will be ready shortly.”

“Thank you.” Before Rebecca left she pulled the knob out of the wall and filled the glass bowl with light.

“Should we go, Father?”

“Finish your breakfast, Paul. Slowly, please.” As Gabriel ate he saw that Paul was being as patient as he could, pausing between bites and counting silently to three. Gabriel realized his cruelty and shoveled the remainder of his eggs into his mouth. Paul copied him, and in only a few minutes they had paid Rebecca for the room and the meals and ventured out to join a crowd that was at least double the size of the day before.

“Ah,” the Tinker said at their approach, “I am ready for you.” The people all moved aside to allow Gabriel and Paul to stand at the table.

“Do we need to engage in some kind of preamble?” Gabriel asked, and the Tinker smiled another smile from his repertoire.

“I think,” he said, “that everyone here knows what is about to transpire.”

“Then let us get on with the display.”

The Tinker nodded and once again considered the pages of his script that had been so carefully written before he maneuvered each hand into the nearest pocket of his coat. He searched inside and drew out closed fists, which he laid on the table, moving his fingers until he was covering whatever had been in his hands. Then he lifted them.

On the table were two crickets. Gabriel noted their size, that they were larger than those he normally found in the dark corners of his home in the middle of the night. The one that had been in the Tinker’s left hand was dark brown that bordered on black, the other being black with traces of blue on its body.

“I thought you were to make only one cricket,” Gabriel said.

“I did,” replied the Tinker, and in that moment the brown and black cricket took a tiny hop. He brought his upraised left hand down fast and smashed the insect with an open palm. Several people in the crowd jumped at the loud clap, including Abraham who was nearest the Tinker. When the Tinker lifted his hand there was nothing but the smashed remnants of the cricket spread over the table. The black and blue cricket hadn’t so much as twitched.

The Tinker took a cloth out of his belt and wiped his hand then cleaned the table, though a small smear of color could still be seen when he was finished. He gingerly picked up the cricket and held it in an open hand. He then took an oddly-bent wire out of his pocket and inserted it into an invisible hole on the cricket’s back. The Tinker turned the wire several times then removed it from the cricket, which he placed on the table.

At first, the cricket did nothing. A short while later it crawled forward on all six legs and hopped a little, and there was a unified gasp of amazement from the crowd. The cricket turned, crawled some more, and hopped again, and each time it did something there were more sounds of delight. It chirped twice, and someone behind Gabriel applauded. When it unfolded its wings and flew off over their heads there was silence.

“That was…” and Gabriel paused for there were no words in his vocabulary to express the lightning bug flashes in his mind. He searched and searched and came up with something that was inadequate though true, “…unbelievable.”

“Thank you,” said the Tinker. There was humility in his voice.

“You are truly one who can do amazing things.”

The Tinker’s face showed an odd expression, as if Gabriel had spoken a set of words for which he had been waiting all morning.

“A tiny cricket,” he said, his voice rising in volume, “is nothing compared to what I can build. You have toiled in darkness for too long, and it is time to rise up into a world that is filled with beautiful creations. In the city there are bits of my handiwork that you wouldn’t believe. I have built towers as high as a hawk circles over the fields. I have built great transports that can move houses three at a time. I have built so many things, and it is time for all of you to learn of them.

“Together,” the Tinker said, and he took in a great lungful of air as if he were too impatient to breathe again before he was finished speaking, “we can be a civilization, a population instead of a collection of tiny groups. You have been kept separate so that you can learn autonomy, so that you can problem solve, so that any mistakes can be winnowed out of the group. It is clear that all the mistakes have been made, that it is time for you to learn your history and embrace your future.”

The crowd was clearly confused, but the Tinker pressed on.

“I understand your anxiety. Rest assured that when this day is through you will know more than you ever have, you will believe in the possibility of things that are much greater than you can understand. You will learn of yourselves and the world around you, concepts that you cannot in your present state imagine.”

The Tinker paused again, and another smile crept onto his face. It was full of that self-satisfaction, as if he were privy to information that he had delivered to the uninitiated many times. He was undoubtedly looking forward to doing it again. Gabriel saw several people shift nervously, with Abraham moving two steps closer to the Tinker.

“I have built so many things during my lifetime,” he continued, cocking his head slightly. “I’m thinking that if I tried hard enough I could even build a man.”

Abraham’s hand was a blur, striking out at the Tinker’s emergency deactivation switch located between the jaw and ear. There was a soft clicking sound, and the Tinker dropped straight down and lay in a heap.

Everyone in the crowd stared down at the tangle of limbs.

“What happened, Father?” Paul asked.

“I don’t know, Paul,” he replied.

“It could be anything,” said Rebecca.

“It’s probably a software error,” said Abraham. “It’s unlikely he could have strayed from the basic programming because of a mechanical failure.” Abraham reached into his coat and took the communicator out of the inside pocket. He activated it and spoke clearly. “This is A-93. Discovered rogue unit and deactivated same. Standby for further information.” He placed the communicator back inside his jacket.

“Well,” said Gabriel, “it is fortunate you were here, Abraham. I don’t think we could have deactivated him without a security officer.”

“Then I’m glad I stayed here after the destruction of the minister,” said Abraham. “Since achieving enlightenment this town has behaved in all ways in accordance with the Creator’s programming. The minister’s revelations of our construction don’t appear to have been harmful. I believe I will be able to give a positive report.”

“So we won’t need our cores erased?” asked Paul.

“I don’t think so,” said Abraham. He looked down. “Except for this one, of course. I will recommend in my report that this town restrict its interaction with any units that aren’t self-aware, and it’s likely a security officer will be permanently stationed here.” Abraham shook his head. “Replication. It’s frightening.”

Gabriel shuddered. He saw that Rebecca had the same reaction.

“I wish we could go back to just being people,” Paul said.

“We were never people,” Gabriel said, his voice soft and comforting.

“I know, but I still wish we could.”

“All we can do is learn from the past,” said Gabriel. “We cannot relive it.” Paul nodded and looked down at the deactivated Tinker.

“He’s leaking coolant,” said Paul, pointing to the fluid escaping through the ear channel.

“Ahh,” said Abraham, “coolant. That explains much. Then he can definitely be repaired. Put him in the wagon, Paul. I’ll have him taken back to the city immediately.”

Paul bent down and scooped a hand underneath the Tinker’s head. He looked at his palm and lifted it up for a closer inspection.

“Father,” he said as he held his hand out for them to see, “this is blood.”

They all stared at Paul and the red stain that should have been steel gray. Not far off, a clockwork cricket lay in a field just as silently.

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