All was quiet as the gray-haired captain led his charger into the scrapyard. Perhaps, like many, he thought that there was no intelligence behind those glowing eyes. Or perhaps, like some, he knew what wisdom lay there and realized that whatever he might say, the beast already knew.
The beast and the captain both knew that days of cavalry were over. Once chargers had raced across the battlefield with hoofbeats like thunder; they’d pressed on through hails of arrows and bullets; they’d crushed their enemies beneath their heavy feet.
The first chargers were clockwork beasts, the turn of a key coiling heavy springs in their bellies. Then came steam horses, ravenous furnaces inside them devouring coal. Finally, in a last-ditch attempt to keep up with a changing world, came the diesel chargers, thick black smoke pouring out of their rumbling exhausts.
But it was a new world. Mighty armored tanks rolled over man and beast alike, churning battlefields into mud. Steel birds rained bombs onto the lines below. There was no place for cavalry anymore.
The captain pressed his forehead against the charger’s metal nose, kept brightly polished even though it had not seen use in years. Then he turned away and departed without looking back.
The scrapyard was still. Heaps of chassis and half-dismantled mechanisms towered over the charger. It was evening. The scrappers wouldn’t be in until morning to take a look at their new acquisition.
The charger slowly rotated one ear. Silence. Its owner was gone.
The will to live still burned within the beast. The scrapyard’s chained gate was no obstacle to a charger. But it was running on its last fumes of diesel. Without more fuel, its engine would shudder to a halt within half a mile.
It set out through the scrapyard at a slow walk, nosing puddles and spots of grease, its engine choking and backfiring.
A motion within a pile of automobile parts made the charger freeze. It crept forward one step at a time, its neck outstretched, its ears fully rotated forward.
There was something pinned under a dented auto hood. Something that was still operational.
The charger grabbed the edge of the hood in its teeth and flipped it over. The trapped creature came crawling out. It was a rover, a lithe machine with slender running legs and a long, broad snout that housed the pipes and stopcocks of a miniature chemical engineering plant.
It struggled to its feet and regarded the charger.
It’s no secret that machines have their own language. Any mechanic can tell you how they listen to the pound of pistons and the creak of gears to determine what a machine wants. But few humans have any idea of the immense complexity of this form of communication, and none have ever mastered more than the barest rudiments. Thus, a human observer would have heard nothing but the rumble of two engines as the beasts spoke to each other.
What they really said was this.
The rover thanked the charger.
The charger asked how it had come to be there.
The rover explained that it had once been one of the most advanced tracking machines money could buy. It could detect the scent of a rabbit that had run past the previous day, even if it had rained through the night. But over time, its chromatography columns clogged up with contaminants and its senses dulled. Its master had no use for a rover who couldn’t hunt.
The charger related its own story. The two of them came to the same conclusion: Anywhere they went, they would find a better fate than being dismantled in the scrapyard.
The charger mentioned its fuel shortage. Could the rover help with that?
The rover snorted in indignation. Diesel fuel? Of course it could still detect that.
It put its nose to the ground and led the way to a broken motorcycle dripping fuel. The charger tore the motorcycle’s fuel tank open. The two machines inserted their snouts into the tank, pumps drawing the liquid up the hoses in their necks and into their own internal tanks. The charger’s engine sound rose from a stutter to a roar.
The charger broke into a gallop. It did a lap of the scrapyard before heading for the gate. Chains and wrought iron were nothing to a machine that had broken through barbed wire and tank stoppers on the battlefield. The gate groaned under the charger’s hooves, then broke off its hinges and fell in a twisted pile.
The beasts were free. But where to go? If they returned to their masters, they would surely be brought back to the scrapyard. If they stayed on the road, the first person they passed would notice two ownerless machines and capture them. So they cut across the countryside.
Dawn found them ambling through a hayfield. It was an incongruous sight, a rolling landscape of timothy grass and hay bales, and there in the middle of it, two steel machines, cams and pistons working their legs, puffing exhaust into the sky. It was a new experience for the machines, too. Neither of them had ever been out without a human owner before, nor without a set mission. Their mechanisms were designed to obey commands, not make their own independent plans.
For now, they just walked.
A ravine cut through the hayfield, a trickle of muddy water running along the bottom. The humans found this a convenient place to throw their garbage. The slope of the ravine was littered with bald tires, broken furniture, an old-fashioned washing machine. The two beasts picked their way carefully down the slope and splashed through the water.
When the rover placed one paw on a sodden cardboard box, something leaped out with a squeal.
The rover kicked into defensive mode, baring its teeth and revving its engine into a growl. But it was only another machine, a small quadruped with colorful plating. It backed away from the rover, letting out a high-pitched scream of alarm, before the charger was able to get between the two of them and explain that they meant no harm.
The small machine was a housepet, little more than a toy. It had once belonged to a girl, it said, but she had tired of it and left it here. Yes, it would be happy to travel with them. Perhaps it would find another owner who would appreciate it better.
That’s all well and good for you, said the rover, but nobody is looking for an obsolete cavalry mount or a tracking machine with a worn-out nose. And anyway, who’s to say that a new owner won’t tire of you just as quickly?
The housepet granted that was true and asked if they had another plan.
They did not.
The housepet suggested they go to the city. There were lots of places to hide there and any number of old machines they could scavenge fuel from.
That seemed sensible enough to the other two, who knew that they couldn’t keep walking through hayfields forever. The city was distant but visible as a smoky smudge on the horizon. They set off in that direction.
The farm buildings were clustered together not far from the road. The farmhouse was white with a weather vane. Not many years ago, a house like that would have been dark come sundown. Now electric light poured out of the windows. The beasts were careful to remain outside the bright rectangles the windows cast onto the ground, trusting their illuminated eyes to light their way as twilight approached. The low sun made the grass cast long, weird shadows that confused their visual sensors.
At any rate, that was the charger’s explanation when it tripped over the fourth machine. The little red device had been thrown out a window and was struggling to get up, its two legs kicking in the air.
The housepet set it right side up. The newcomer tested its various joints and found itself none the worse for its short journey from the window. It was, in fact, a mobile radio, designed with a head and wings so that it could follow its owner around the house.
The others asked what its story was.
The radio explained that it was a gas-powered model, a short-lived novelty sold by the gas company to prevent their customers from switching to electricity. It had worked for a year or two, but then the household had gotten electricity anyway, and with it a shiny new electric radio.
Humans, observed the charger, paid very little mind to what they threw away.
And so the mobile radio joined their procession, and the party became four.
The mobile radio had all the latest news. It told them rumors of a war brewing across the ocean, of fuel shortages closer to home.
Fuel shortages? That made the other machines listen. They all required fuel, and half the diesel they had collected at the scrapyard was already burned. If there was a shortage, there would be less to scavenge.
They all agreed that to survive in the long term they must get fuel from the humans. That meant giving the humans something that they wanted. But what did humans want?
The charger said they wanted to fight and kill each other. But that was a hard life, and the smaller machines were not up to it.
The rover said they wanted to ride through the woods and chase down animals. But now that they were themselves beasts wandering in the wilderness, it did not want to do that anymore.
The housepet said they wanted to sit on the floor and play with toys. But a new machine was only a novelty to a human for a few days, and then they would be forgotten again.
The mobile radio said they wanted to listen to music.
They decided that the mobile radio’s suggestion was the most useful. People would, after all, pay a human singer who performed on the street; why not a group of machines?
Then and there, they decided that they would become musicians.
This created difficulties. The mobile radio could play music, but the others had never attempted it. The housepet could squeal if someone pulled its tail. The rover could only growl. The charger was not designed to make any vocal sound at all. But the housepet modulated its squeal into a melodic wail, the rover took up the bass part, and the charger clanked its gears and cylinders as percussion. They were not music aficionados, but after an hour of practice, they could create a sound that they thought was quite pleasing.
By then it was the middle of the night and they had reached the outskirts of the city. An old corrugated-iron Quonset hut crouched by the road. As they approached it, the rover stiffened and sniffed.
Diesel, it said.
Of course, said the charger. It’s a garage.
No, it was more than that. There was a tremendous stockpile of fuel under the garage. There was more diesel there than the rover had ever smelled in its life.
Through a propped window, they could hear two men talking. It was a perfect opportunity to try out their musical skills. They approached the window.
It’s quite a stockpile we have here, one of the men was saying. Buying out that refinery was a coup. Every gas station in the city would be forced to buy from them now. They could charge whatever they wanted.
And what good timing, said the other man. Everyone was scrapping their old beasts and buying trucks and automobiles that used far more fuel.
Don’t talk about the beasts, said the first man. It creeped him out, thinking of all those metal corpses piled up in landfills.
The beasts had not been trained to pay attention to human conversations, their former roles not requiring such a skill, so they paid no heed to what the men were saying as they prepared to sing.
The charger was tall enough to look through the window, but the others were too small. So the rover jumped on the charger’s back, the housepet scrambled on top of the rover, and the mobile radio perched on top of them all. They revved their engines and burst into the most beautiful harmony they knew how to make.
The men sprang back in terror at the cacophony outside their window. The very beasts they were speaking about, come back from their graveyards, roaring in fury at their mistreatment. They dropped everything and ran for their lives.
It was too bad, said the machines as they entered the garage. Those men had not appreciated their beautiful music. But, well, they’d left behind all this fuel and this cozy garage. Best not waste it.
The housepet opened the hatch to the storage tank and the four machines drank their fill.
As for the two men who arrived in the city in the middle of the night, penniless, willing to take any sort of job as long as it didn’t involve machinery—if they had seen anything strange that night, they never told anyone.
BIO: Gwen Katz is a writer, artist, and retired mad scientist who lives in Altadena, CA with her husband and a revolving door of transient animals. Her first novel, AMONG THE RED STARS, tells the story of Russia’s famous female pilots, the Night Witches.
Of the short story, Gwen says, ” It is a dieselpunk retelling of the Bremen Town Musicians.”
The featured clip art “was part of an ad in the 1906 (thus public domain) Pullman Herald newspaper.” Sourced from openclipart.org.