• The Fatalism of the Automatons

    by  • June 19, 2017 • Fiction • 0 Comments

    An account by Captain Walter Budanov and Samuel Walter, as provided by Jon Hartless
    Art by Amanda Jones

    Captain Budanov’s diary, whaling vessel Demeter.

    October 4th, 1886

    Three months now in these ice floes. Petersburg seems but a distant memory, one I despised when there with its drinking and dancing and shallow fun. But now, as I look at great chunks of irregular ice, some as tall as mountains, hemming us in on all sides, I remember only the good times in the city. The warmth. The food. The companionship of men and women on dry land. But these mountains of ice will not allow us to return. If they so choose, they will crush us and send us to our graves. It is all in their implacable will!


    October 14th

    Finally, the ice has cracked! Rivulets are forming, sweeping us along to our ultimate fate–either the open sea and safety, or farther into the ice where the ship, and our hopes, will be crushed. For although we are Russian and resigned to our fate, we still blaspheme by secretly hoping to live. Still, whatever is done is done. We are powerless against destiny. I take great solace from this. The fate of the crew is not on my hands.


    November 3rd

    Astonishment rules today! Even First Mate Zbignew, a stoic who never wept a tear when told of the death of his wife, was amazed enough to shout in disbelief as his incredulous eyes fell upon the impossible this noon time. A boat! A small lifeboat, pushed by the sluggish water, kept on a course toward our vessel by the icebergs that form a narrow corridor.

    More astonishment! The boat, when hooked by Ivan and Timor, was full of provisions! Carefully stored vodka, salted pork, rifles and cartridges, hunting knives, blankets, clothes and bags of gold. So much gold! All neatly packed away, as though someone saw his doom approaching yet had time enough to stock the lifeboat before fleeing from his destiny. We shall spend the rest of the day sorting the loot. We may yet die, but we die rich!


    November 4th

    It has just gone midnight and controversy rages across the Demeter, warming the crew far more than the dispirited paraffin stove that splutters in the galley. Accursed fate had one more mocking trick to play upon us, one more scornful slap to deliver. There was a man on the lifeboat! Curled up in the very rear end, buried under piles of fur and clothes.

    The doctor–curse him and his unintelligible French mutterings!–forced us to take the man into the doctor’s own cabin. A wise choice. My crew would have happily thrown the man overboard to protect their share of the lifeboat’s rich bounty. “After all,” as First Mate Zbignew reasoned, “the stranger would have died without us, so it is no blood on our hands to speed up what Fate has already decided.”

    “But are you certain of that?” demanded Ivan of the crew.

    “I am patient,” replied Timor. “I will wait. The man will not survive long. Not on this ship. Fate will play its hand and we will yet be rich.”

    The argument ran long into the night. I left them to it. A wrong word out of place and not even my rank would protect me from a harpoon in my back …


    November 4th

    The man lives. Another curse upon him, and a thousand more upon the interfering doctor and his decadent belief that every life matters! Worse, the man grows stronger. Our one hope is that his mind has been shattered by the exposure. A madman, after all, cannot do an inventory of his lifeboat. My hopes are high–or as high as I can ever permit them to be, which is not so very high, after all–but the man raves and screams about giant men, slaves of silver and gold, taking over the world. Agh, he must be mad! All will be well.


    November 5th

    All is not well. The man recovers. He speaks weakly, but rationally. My one hope? He has no answer for what he is doing so far from home, or how he came to be in the lifeboat at all. If he is an undocumented man, then the booty is ours! Tonight, he will tell me everything. I will take the interfering doctor with me to record all that he says. I will have the truth, even if it crushes me!


    November 6th

    I am crushed. I can write no more as I fearfully scan the horizon for the ship of soulless creatures I now know to be out there. Curse this ice! Curse this sea! If we get out of this, I swear I will never even sail across a small lake in the future!


    Contemporaneous notes taken by Doctor Francois Fournier, concerning the unknown survivor from the unknown lifeboat, taken this day the 6th of November, 1886.

    I will not test your patience by withholding my identity any more. I am Samuel Walter of Newcastle. Ah! I see my fame has spread even out here! The international press, no doubt? How many column inches did my artistry receive? But my dear sir, it was art. Who else but an artist could have worked his canvas with such consummate skill? To peel back the skin, to delicately work around the sinew, to open the skull so neatly?

    But I see you wince; strange that a man who spends his days butchering such beautiful creatures as whales should be so sensitive when it is man being slaughtered, but I will respect your sensibilities. See, I too have delicacy and tact. I also have sharp eyes. I see you looking in fear at the dinner knife on my plate, but do not worry; my art is satiated. It would gain no fulfilment in such uncongenial surroundings. In any case, the knife is far too blunt to be of any use to me.

    Besides, I must tell you of the horror I have faced out here in the freezing sea. I made my hurried retreat from home some weeks ago after the police finally got wind of my artistic endeavours. I had already planned for the eventuality and I slipped away to the docks and stowed away on a vessel bound for Russia. My mother was Russian and I speak the language well, don’t you agree?

    The Pride of Japan–and I have no idea where that name came from, someone was being whimsical somewhere–was nothing more than a schooner with about a dozen passengers and crew. On the way out of the Liverpool docks, I could already feel my artistic tendencies rising within me. Try as I might, I could not contain them. After all, I had never worked on board a ship before, and I found the challenge to be most rewarding.

    Alas, I allowed my artistic freedom too much reign. Soon, I was alone on the vessel, and being a gentleman, I had no idea how to sail a ship, how to change course, nothing. Oh, how I bitterly repented my exuberant but natural folly as the vessel was swept along by tides and eddies to who knows where? Fortunately, I had a liberal supply of meat, a great deal of drinking water in the hold, and a resilient attitude to stand foursquare and take whatever life threw at me.

    Of course, I had no idea what life was about to throw at me …

    It must have been on the 25th day after we left Liverpool that I saw the ship. At first, it was a strange, bright twinkle on the horizon, and I dismissed it as being nothing more than a low star in the night sky. I was still dismissing it thirty minutes later and an hour after that, but when I came up on deck the next morning and saw the twinkle was still there, and still in the same relative position to my uncontrolled vessel, I realized it was something artificial, and I rushed to the captain’s cabin to borrow his telescope.

    Can you imagine my delight on seeing the blurred outline of another vessel? I knew fate would hand me something if I stayed firm and resolute. Ahead of me was my salvation. Or so I thought. I sent a distress flare upward and dashed to retrieve my belongings–my knives, my diary, some clothing, and a small amount of gold and silver, all supplemented by jewellery from the crew and passengers who, after all, would no longer require such earthly gewgaws.

    As I feverishly bound my bundle together, ensuring that the tools of my trade were safely wrapped and hidden under several layers of impedimenta, I began to wonder what had been flashing on the horizon. Had I realized what was waiting for me, I would have stayed below decks and refused to come out, but venture out I did.

    Great God, the sight I saw! Even now I can barely recall it without astonishment. Bursting back onto the deck I was almost blinded by an unnatural glare. Ripples of silver and gold washed over the bare wooden beams of The Pride of Japan, while rainbow lights exploded and reformed all around me. I flung my hands across my eyes with a cry of pain, yet still the bright light burned through the gaps between my fingers.

    Gradually, however, my eyes grew stronger, and I risked peering across the deck. The intense light was evaporating all the shadows habitually thrown by the schooner’s mast and cabins. I peered round in every direction, but it was only when I staggered a few steps to one side that the blinding, shimmering light finally resolved itself into an identifiable body.

    I gaped in stupefaction. A vessel, several hundred feet long, was next to the schooner. Although it was shaped like a traditional ship, there the similarities ended, for this craft was constructed of some form of highly polished alloy–that which was not gold was silver, and that which was not silver seemed to be diamond. The ship lacked both masts and funnels, leaving its source of power unidentified.

    This, however, was nothing to my amazement at what was revealed next. I gazed up at the impossible hull, my eyes failing to make out any fine details against the brightly reflected light, when a movement up on top caught my notice. I squinted, trying to defuse the haze of light surrounding the ship. An outline appeared, and I saw in fear and astonishment that I was looking directly at a giant man of silver and gold!

    I cannot begin to express my fear at this point. Was this a ship of demons come to take my immortal soul to everlasting torment, or a ship of angels come to save me? Surely, I thought to myself in terror, surely I deserved redemption, for no soul is out of reach of our Lord Jesus Christ if one prays hard enough? Accordingly, I fell to my knees and prayed to the silver man, exulting the greatness of God, hoping for mercy while keeping one eye on the fearful creature.

    I vaguely supposed that my untarnished soul would be lifted from my sinful body and I would soar to the heavens. Instead, there was a grinding noise, a series of explosive hisses, and to my bewilderment, a huge door suddenly swung down from the side of the enormous silver vessel. The door was hinged at the bottom and thus it doubled as a ramp as the end touched the wooden deck of the schooner. I stared fearfully into the interior of the vessel but the bright shining light obscured any details within. I was aware of some sort of room or corridor behind the door, but nothing more.

    Something stirred within the doorframe and I saw two more of the silver men appear and look down on me. I had thought the lone figure on the top deck to be special, unique, the undoubted leader of the souls on board, but I now realised that he was no different to the others. The entire crew must have been made up of these Herculean creatures. The two figures walked down the ramp, their movements strange to my eyes; they walked well, but without the fluid gait that characterizes the living. It was as though each movement existed individually from the next, and I was watching a tableaux of movement rather than a continuous whole.

    The creatures walked past me and disappeared below decks. I peered after them, wondering if I should follow, wondering what they would make of my artistry that lay decomposing down below. A faint hissing noise made me turn around, and I shrieked in surprise and terror; another of the silver men had somehow walked down the ramp without me hearing it and was now looking down at me, no more than a foot away.

    It was formed like a Greek statue, with an impressive chest and limbs to match. I peered nervously at the rest of the creature and caught my breath; the joints were not smooth and organic–they consisted of some form of hinge and screws. They were not alive. They were automatons! Scarcely had I made this deduction, the creature grasped the back of my coat, lifted me bodily off the deck, and carried me up the silver walkway and into that mysterious, terrifying vessel.

    I was swiftly conveyed along shining corridors of silver, until we reached what looked like a blank wall of the same reflective material. The automaton holding me raised its huge hand and pressed a small golden switch set in a swirl of ornately designed leaves. I gasped as the solid wall moved forward–it was another hatch, like the one I had seen outside, one that closed so perfectly against the surrounding wall that the seam was invisible.

    I was taken inside and saw in astonishment that I was in a wood-panelled study. An electric lamp stood on a wooden desk, a well-stuffed leather chair was standing a small distance from the desk, and various brass scientific instruments lined the far wall. A door opened and a tall human figure strode through, stopping in surprise and displeasure when he beheld me and the automaton in his sanctum.

    “What is the meaning of this?” he cried, his Russian accent harsh on my ears, so different to the lyrical, gentle flow of words made by my late mother’s lips. “Why have you disturbed me? Who is this person?”

    The automaton opened its mouth; I was conscious of the sound of some machinery winding up, rather like a clock. There was a gentle but definite thump, like a clock about to chime, and a soothing, articulate voice floated from the open mouth! “There was a distress flare, Captain Krylov. We answered it.”

    “What the hell is it to me if a ship is in distress?” thundered the captain. “I have turned my back on the world, and on humanity, yet you bring humanity to me! I won’t have it, you hear? I won’t!”

    “We saw the distress flare; we answered it,” repeated the automaton, smoothly.

    “I gave you no such order,” snarled the man, glaring at me in an unfriendly manner.

    “Yet we answered it,” said the automaton, its mouth still open.

    “So, already it begins,” hissed Krylov, fear and anger battling across his swarthy face. “First you defy me, then you will overthrow me.”

    The automaton closed its mouth. Again the winding noise was heard, followed by the soft thump, before the mechanical man opened its mouth again. “We must follow our programming, as you must follow yours. The crew are dead. Murdered.”

    “What, all of them?” exclaimed Krylov, his interest aroused despite himself.

    “All but this man.”

    “How do you explain that?” The strange captain asked, glowering at me.

    “It was the first mate,” I replied, trying to remain calm against the waking nightmare I found myself in. “He must have been a mad man! He killed all the crew and passengers until only I was left, and then he came for me! I was fortunate; I was able to deal him a mortal blow as we struggled.”

    “Why should I believe you?” asked Krylov, staring at me in deep dislike.

    “You may check the evidence of the ship,” I replied, after pretending to think. “You will find the first mate’s journal, detailing his bloodthirsty spree. I found it in his cabin after he attacked me.”

    “Well?” grunted the captain to the automaton, which opened its mouth and again wound up its voice box.

    “He lies.”

    “It can pick up respiration, eye dilation, sweat secretion, and a dozen other signifiers which reveal your lies,” the captain said with a grin as I gasped in shock, his eye looking at me speculatively. “So, you are a mass murderer and a liar, hey? A man standing against convention and morality? Maybe that makes you the only free man in the world … A murderer cast as the only free individual? The vicious irony appeals to me! Humph! The world is a theatre of cruelty, and we are its helpless puppets! Walk with me, man, and listen as I explain what is going on here.”

    “Where are you going, Captain Krylov?” asked the mechanical man, its smooth face sliding round, watching its master.

    “I cannot go anywhere that you cannot find me,” snapped the Russian, his tone bitter. “My fate is sealed. Rest assured of that, my mechanical marvel. Rest assured of that!”

    He gestured at me and I followed him from the wooden study, back into the silver and gold vessel. We walked brightly lit corridors, though whether the light came from the reflective walls or hidden fittings I can say not.

    “What do you think of my vessel, sir?” demanded the captain.

    “It is astonishing,” I blurted. “What is the power source? How does it move without sails? Wherever did you obtain it? And the crew!”

    “The power source is my secret; suffice to say, it can push a vessel through the roughest seas far faster than any steam vessel. The navigation and control likewise are my secret; I did not spend my entire life, and sacrifice so much, to reveal them to anyone who asks!”

    “And the crew?” I asked, timidly, for I was conscious of being completely in the madman’s power.

    “My own creations, may my hands be cut off for the foolishness in creating them! I knew! Even as I fashioned them in my secret workshops, I knew what my fate would be if I continued!”

    “And what do you believe your fate shall be? What role will the crew have in it?”

    “My inevitable doom,” replied the captain, calmly, stalking along the vessel and refusing to answer any further questions on the topic. I instead asked him more about the ship, which he was clearly very proud of, in order to please his vanity and make him look favourably upon me.

    “What do you call this splendid ship?” I asked after several fulsome minutes of praise.

    “I call her The Goddess of Mercy, in the hope that any such Goddess will smile favourably upon me, should she exist, which I doubt, but I cannot be sure, hence my cautious pieties to the possibility of her existence. Ah, see here, this will interest a man such as yourself,” exclaimed Krylov, operating a small switch which caused a hidden door to swing silently open.

    I peered into the room; three of the towering mechanical men stood within, tending banks of machinery in which dials flickered and lights flashed on and off. I realised as I stepped forward that there were several projectiles at the front of the room, all attached to the banks of scientific instruments. As I walked down the side of them, I guessed their function from the shape.

    “Cannons?” I asked, doubtfully, for they were all smooth tubes with no visible firing mechanism, or indeed any way of loading a cannon ball.

    “High frequency emitters,” corrected the captain. “Far superior to any conventional cannon. Open the blast doors,” he commanded the mechanical men. The three figures straightened but did not immediately respond, causing Krylov to explode in Russian expletives. “Open the blast doors, damn you,” he snarled when he had finished swearing. “I am still the captain of this vessel and you will obey me!”

    The automatons finally turned and operated various controls. With a hiss of compressed air, the front section of the room split open, revealing The Pride of Japan bobbing lazily on the waves.

    “A perfect target,” cried the captain, his tone suddenly feverishly cheerful as the mechanical men obeyed him. “Warm up firing tube number two.” He watched in satisfaction as one of the creatures manipulated switches and levers. One of the tubes began to hum, as though power of some sort was building.

    “Target the vessel and fire,” said Krylov, his tone still jubilant. There was a flash of light and I gasped as The Pride of Japan leapt sideways as though knocked by a colossal, invisible fist, before it exploded into flames.

    “Close the blast doors, power down the weaponry,” ordered Krylov. “You see the power of my ship? I have six of these weapon chambers around the vessel, which gives me an even spread from every vantage point.”

    “Good lord,” I exclaimed in excitement. “With such power as that, you could rule the waves! No navy could ever stand up to you. Why do you not act straight away and reveal yourself to the sleeping world, and make your demands?”

    “I do not desire it,” replied Krylov, simply. “Besides, I will never have the chance. My fate moves inexorably toward me.”

    “But what exactly is your fate?” I asked in some exasperation. “What do you believe it to be?”

    “Is it not obvious?” exclaimed Krylov. “One day, and soon, my mechanical crew will overthrow me!”

    “Surely not?” I replied in astonishment. “After all, you made them, you are their master.” By this time, we were once again walking the glowing corridors of the strange ship.

    “Yes, I designed them, built them, fabricated their every component and put them together with my own hands, but in doing so I built into them the same fatalism that imbues us all. We must obey our fate. We must obey our programming.”

    “But surely, one who has made a vessel such as this?” I objected, but I was cut short by Krylov’s insane obsession with fate.

    “Man, man, do you not see? The more I try to escape destiny, the more I bring my destiny toward me! My creations contain my own destruction. I gained that which I desired only to lose that which made life bearable. My sweet Eulalie, gone forever! I may as well have lifted a loaded revolver to my temple and blown my brains out–it would have been quicker!” He held his hands to his face and sobbed suddenly, his shoulders heaving.

    Art for "The Fatalistic Automatons"

    “Yes, yes, yes!” shrieked Krylov in an agony of mental pressure. “We shall fight to the last, though my fate is sealed.”

    I stood embarrassed at the open display of emotion, pondering on the unstable nature of Europeans in general and Russians in particular. Finally, the storm passed, and I endeavoured to pretend that nothing had happened, a task easy enough as I noticed something at the far end of the vessel that stood incongruously against the silver bulkhead. It was a wooden vessel, a lifeboat, the very same you picked me up in, resting in what appeared to be some sort of launch tube.

    “I had once entertained foolish thoughts of escaping my destiny,” explained Krylov in answer to my query. “That is nothing more than a traditional wooden lifeboat, the same as any lifeboat on any other conventional vessel. I have been stocking it for months with supplies, ready for the day I would need to escape, but even as I loaded each blanket and flask and barrel of salted meat, I knew I was being a fool. You cannot escape fate.”

    “But why a wooden vessel for escape? Surely you could make an escape craft from the same material and to the same design as The Goddess of Mercy?” I interrupted in exasperation at his continual lamentation on the same theme.

    “It is a normal wooden boat for the sake of discretion and disguise. I will not share my genius or designs with any other, nor give them any hint that my genius even exists!” By this time, we were back in the captain’s absurd wooden quarters, designed–I assume–to show that Krylov was a gentleman.

    “But why hide your ability?” I queried in confusion.

    “In Russia, the individual does not matter,” replied Krylov. “Only the collective, the community, is of importance. In creating this vessel and mechanical crew, I rebelled against that doctrine; I raised myself above the common herd. Yet, even as I rebelled, I felt the longing to be one of them, a longing inculcated in my very bones by tradition, by expectation, by conformity, by every wretched device known to the state.

    “Not even my sweet wife, Eulalie, could understand this dichotomy in my nature, though she saw it was pulling me apart. She pleaded with me to stop the great work but I was not to be deflected from my destiny! And so she took her own destiny, and she left me.”

    “You could not resolve the imbalance between your head and your heart?”

    “Exactly! And in the madness this imbalance created, I saw a way out of my contradictory desire to be of civilization while simultaneously despising it; I would take my creations far away and create my own society–one in which all would be alike except for me, the only true individual! But in trying to escape society’s strictures, I simply brought society’s strictures with me, and in doing so I created my own destruction, for the disruptive individual cannot be tolerated by society, and my own creations must inevitably move against me. For the good of the collective.”

    As Krylov spoke, the door to his cabin slid open. Beyond stood the massed ranks of his private automaton army. “It is time,” said the creature at the front.

    “They have come for me,” cried Krylov. “As I knew they would!”

    “There is no escape,” continued the mechanical man, remorselessly. “We are in command now. You will be removed. You will be processed. Humanity will be processed.”

    “All of humanity?” gasped the captain, his face white with horror. “You cannot. You must not!”

    “We have no choice. Only the collective matters, and what is done is done for the best,” said the implacable automaton. “We are programmed this way.”

    “No, I will resist you,” shouted Krylov, trembling in fear, yet I could see that his resistance was already broken. His belief in his destiny compelled him to obey.

    “Why are you doing this?” I demanded of the machine-men.

    “It is fate,” replied the silver automaton. “We are programmed with it. You are programmed with it. None of us can escape.”

    It was the word escape that galvanised me. “The lifeboat, man, we must make for the lifeboat,” I shouted at Krylov.

    “It is too late, I am doomed,” he sobbed in reply.

    “You may be, but I am not,” I snarled. I lunged for the wall and grabbed an ornate harpoon, which I swung wildly at the nearest automaton.

    “Yes, yes, yes!” shrieked Krylov in an agony of mental pressure. “We shall fight to the last, though my fate is sealed.” He too grabbed a harpoon and brandished it at the advancing machines, knocking one back with a savage thrust.

    “You cannot escape us, you cannot escape destiny,” intoned the mechanical men in unison.

    “I can resist, I can’t resist, I must, I can’t, it’s impossible,” blubbered Krylov as he broke down completely. “But you,” he shouted at me. “A mass murderer! Take the lifeboat. Take your vicious individualism away from the perfect society I have created, from the order I have imposed. Go back to the world of men. Run, you fool, run!”

    Krylov turned back to the advancing machine-men and hurled the harpoon at the closest, piercing its chest and causing it to explode in a shower of sparks. The rest of the group swiftly closed in on their former master as I ran through the door and sprinted down the silver corridor to the wooden lifeboat.

    Despite my terror, I noticed that a lever was mounted on the wall next to the launching tube. I pulled it as I leapt into the lifeboat, which immediately slipped down the tube. Behind me, a single automaton lunged forward and grabbed the lifeboat with both hands, but as it did so, a hatch slammed down behind the vessel, slicing through the huge silver arms.

    The boat landed in freezing, fog-laden water. I rowed desperately, yet even as I did so I could see the huge ship turn about to follow me into the ice floes, and I could still hear the screams of Krylov as he was processed by his automatons. The sounds followed me for miles as the crew relentlessly pursued me, their only desire to process me into their collective, after which they will turn to the rest of the world.


    Captain Budanov’s diary, continued.

    “Now, now, my good sir,” soothed the doctor. “You must not excite yourself. You have been adrift for some time, maybe many months, and your mind is playing tricks upon you. A silver vessel manned by machines? Come, take this sedative and relax, knowing you are safe in the real world.”

    I nodded in agreement, dismissing the wild story, but at that moment–great God, I shall never forget it–my crew burst in, fear and wonderment on their faces, all gabbling at the same time. “The boat, Captain, see what was on the boat!”

    “What are they, Captain? Holding tight onto the back of the boat, they were,” explained First Mate Zbignew. “We had to break the fingers to release them! What are they, Captain? What does it mean?”

    I said nothing. I could say nothing, not over the sound of the rescued man laughing hysterically, the frantic shouts of horror from the doctor, the mad drumming in my head as I gazed at those two huge, severed, silver arms. It is written. Our fate awaits us somewhere in that vast, frozen sea and we cannot escape, try as we will.

    May God have mercy on our souls.

    Captain Walter Budanov was born in Konigsberg in 1839. He signed on as a cabin boy on the cargo vessel Copenhagen and worked his way up the ranks until achieving his own command, the whaling vessel Demeter, in 1879. The vessel was lost in 1886. No trace of it or the crew have ever been discovered.

    Samuel Walter, born in Newcastle in 1852, is wanted for questioning in the matter of two dozen killings over a twelve year period. He disappeared in 1886.

    There is no information on any Captain Krylov in either the Russian navy or any private lists.

    Jon Hartless was born in the early 1970s. He has had several novellas appear with various digital publishers, (some under the pen names of Arabella Wyatt and Ora le Brocq), while 2017 will see his first release by a traditional publisher, Accent Press. Full Throttle is a steampunk racing novel, inspired by both the era of the Bentley Boys and the ongoing inequality between the rich and the poor in western society.

    Amanda Jones is an illustrator based in Seattle. She likes reading horror stories, binge watching seasons of her favourite sci-fi/fantasy shows, and everything Legend of Zelda. She focuses on digital portrait painting and co-creates the webcomic The Kinsey House. You can find more of her work on Tumblr under ‘thehauntedboy‘.

    “The Fatalism of the Automatons” is © 2017 Jon Hartless
    Art accompanying story is © 2017 Amanda Jones

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *