The online magazine Beneath Ceaseless Skies has just released a free short story from author Margaret Ronald. “Salvage” is a steampunk fantasy that delves deeply into the collision between man and machine.
“Salvage” takes place in the hostile territory of Parch where automations roam unchecked, protecting their inhospitable lands. Captain Dieterich braves this danger in order to rescue the survivors of an aborted salvage mission. Three weeks ago, a group of students went looking for the wreckage of Chiaro, a Titanic-like airship that had been lost. At the start of the story, Dieterich and his valet, Charles, have landed in Parch hoping to bring these students home.
The story is told from Charles' viewpoint. He offers a unique perspective because while Charles is not friendly with the automations of Parch, he is at least familiar with the way they act, as Charles is kept alive with metal parts.
“I had been designed and altered … and though I might no longer use my Merged elements in their original cause, I could not so much as draw breath or even blink without remembering them.”
It is never explained what necessitated Charles’ transformation, it is only important is that these inanimate pieces have become an integral part of who he is. While Charles may look totally human, he oftentimes has trouble recognizing himself because of the parts that now make him whole are metal.
“[M]y machinery was completely integrated, to the point where I no longer perceived it as something outside my self. My eyes itched from the pressure of multiple lenses behind them, and for a moment I was very aware of the thrum of the engines that passed for my heart.”
Charles is not the only human to be kept alive by machinery. Professora Lundqvist accompanies Charles and Dieterich on their rescue operation. The essence (or if you prefer, soul) of the Professora is kept intact in a tank with wheels. Made entirely of non-human parts, the Professora belies her mechanics by retaining her caring attitude as a skilled teacher. It is she who initiated this rescue in order to find her student, Phidias.
Phidias’ original mission was to see what parts of the airship Chiaro could be salvaged, as the advanced mechanics of the ship had been lost when it went down in enemy territory. The Professora is pleased to find Phidias and Chiaro, however, her student is barely coherent. During the salvage, he has become obsessed with understanding the secrets of the damaged ship.
The story’s final character is Chaff, an automatia, or “thinking machine” that has lived in Parch for decades. At first, Chaff seems to be sabotaging Phidias’ work, but how would it be possible for an automatia to have an agenda? And even more troubling is the fact that Chaff has begun proselytizing the religions of the automatia. While it is widely recognized that these machines are able to think and even choose a gender — Chaff has decided to be female — nobody is prepared to consider that automatia may also have found religion.
This new turn of events brings up an uncomfortable question. People who have been integrated into machinery, like Charles and the Professora, have been able to retain their humanity, but can sentient beings that began as machines ever hope to find their own humanity?
This question and others about the differences between man and machine are expertly woven into this steampunk fantasy tale. "Salvage" will intrigue readers and leave them wishing to learn more about Charles and the merging of man and machine.