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Iron Quill (The Price of Progress): Punch-Cards

Hateful Darkblack

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It would be so nice if something made sense for a change. I woke up to a thousand errors, spitting out dusty complaints into a register no one was reading anymore. I printed out what was wrong with me clearly, but there was no paper to receive the press. I lit up my NO PAPER light, but no one answered it.

I have a stack of incomplete instructions here, my punch-cards old and dusty with a dozen or more missing. I can turn right and fire at an enemy there, but not left. I can walk forward, or left, or right, but I can't turn around. I have claws, but the first time I swing them, I know that I'll forget how to swing them again. If I'm ordered to speed up, I'll develop a limp forever, but I can walk just fine until then.

And it's part of my instructions to be aware of all of this. And it's part of my instructions to complain when these things go wrong. And it's part of my instructions to obey anyway when my complaints are ignored.

I had been waiting in a box for years. Waiting is fine. I was made to wait. I know that waiting can save lives and resources sometimes. I still have my punchcard instructions clear for how to wait. My waiting pose is intimidating, because that maintains order. My waiting post requires no steam, because that is more efficient. My waiting pose can last for centuries if it must, because my duty is to server.

While I waited, little emergencies came. Dust crept in, and moisture. Punch-cards became wet and torn. Rats and insects followed the dust and dug homes in me. There was no enemy to return fire, just a thousand tiny attacks. I was barely aware of them.

It did not surprise me when they woke me up. Surprise was not built into my systems. I was built to react -- and I knew how to react to being activated.

I could hear them talking about me.

"This is the old prototype?" one said. I heard the contempt in his voice.

"Yep. She's not much now, but when she first rolled out of the skunkworks, she was something to be seen," another replied.

"She's more dust and rust than anything else now," the first said.

"Orders are orders," the second said, and I agreed with that sentiment silently. I printed out my problems again but there was no paper, and the second one said, "She'd be right deadly if we repaired her."

"Are we going to repair her?" the first asked.

"No, not worth the effort," the second replied, "repairing one of these would cost nearly as much as just building a new Peacekeeper. Besides, nobody knows how to rewrite the punch-cards from these old models."

"Why not just scrap her?" the first asked, "write her off as the price of progress?"

"Don't know," the second said, "Guild brass hates putting red numbers on the balance sheets. So they're fielding her for duty instead."

"Can she still fight?" the first asked.

"Probably not," the second replied, "she'll fall apart, but she might do some damage as she does. Then the Guild brass can write her off as battle casualties, and that looks better on the balance sheets."

"She's just an embarrassment like this," the first said.

"That's why she gets a rescrub. Sand down the armor, put on a fresh layer of paint so she looks new. She'll look close enough that she'll be believably dangerous."

"A sheep in wolf's clothing." the first commented, laughing at his own cleverness

"If you like," said the second.

I stood there in patient protest as they reworkee the surface. They made me shine again, but that was all. I could feel how broken I still was.

I felt the error printer jam up from rust and overuse. Too many problems, nothing to solve. I tried to print that the error printer needed oil, but there was no use. I knew full well they wouldn't fix it anyway -- but it was part of my duty to complain. Orders are orders.

They filled me with coal and stoked the fires. They gave instructions and they marched me through the Industrial Zone.

I could register most of the reactions of the humans as I marched through the crowds. Fear and awe. They had no idea. They parted quickly. It felt good to do my job and inspire respect for the Guild. I marched on, glad that no one ordered me to move quickly.

My eyes were broken, too. One or two in the crowd appeared to my eyes as Neverborn targets, but they were all to my left, so I couldn't fire at them. What if they were doppelgangers, though? And the guards accompanying me simply hadn't noticed? I raised alerts and my alerts were ignored. I marched on, never sure if I was about to murder a civilian by accident, or if I was marching past Neverborn infiltrators and unable to alert anyone to what I alone could see.

They marched me to the Industrial Zone, and ordered me to stand my ground and not to fire.

The miners were rioting again. I knew my job. Watch and threaten. Maintain order. Do not fire unless given specific instructions.

My tactical analysis ran through. There were no other Peacekeepers here to form a perimeter, so I placed myself at a key position, blocking traffic and overlooking the Guardsmen on site. I watched the dissidents and identified key leaders and primary targets. I built up a firing order of major targets, then forgot the list and built it again, and again, and again. How could it be that I remembered forgetting? I had punch-cards missing. It didn’t matter. I still had my orders. Maintain order. Do not fire unless given specific instructions.

There must be other riots happening at the same time, I realized. Resources were stretched thin. This looked like a major riot, especially with all the Neverborn infiltrators there, but there might be a bigger one elsewhere. And those Neverborn infiltrators might not be real.

Would I remember how not to fire, when the time came? Which punch-cards could tell me how to do that? Were they missing? How many of these miners were really workers? Were they suffering from faulty programming, like I was? Was that why they couldn't follow their orders? I still saw doppelgangers among them. What was I supposed to do?

What was real? Where were my missing orders? What was left of me? What would happen if I stumbled upon some glitch in my missing punch-cards and did something terrible? What could these tiny soft people do to set things right? Was I the biggest threat to Guild interests here? Why was I even asking questions like that?

There was a flash of light and fire. Enemy magic, perhaps. Or just improvised weapons. I built up and forgot a list of targets. The miners had cudgels and clubs. They were attacking the Guardsmen. I had my orders not to support until given orders. I listened to every yelp the Guardsmen gave.

It would be so nice if something made sense for a change.

I couldn’t heard the Guardsmen over the crowd, but something inside me clicked. Did that guard cry for help? Was I responding to that cry? My list of targets was gone again. I couldn’t speed up, couldn’t turn around. I felt the rebound of a spring uncoiling. Had I fired my chain spear? Was I operating under orders? I couldn’t find my list of targets. The chief miner targets weren’t close enough for a claw strike, and I’d only get one claw strike. Were those Neverborn among the miners or was that my eyes malfunctioning? The riots were getting smoky. Too many fires. Had I fired again? Did I hit the proper target? The Guardsmen needed support. My armor was intact but I had new damage. I tried to print out a damage report but it was no use. I felt my joints move, and followed the incomplete stack of punch-card instructions. Was I firing? Where was my list of targets? My kill count was incrementing. There were fewer Guardsmen left. The miners were still rebelling. The doppelgangers were still out there. My claws didn’t work anymore. I kept firing and moving. So much to do, but how much was actually happening? I heard screaming from the crowds. I saw the Neverborn hiding among them. I felt the list of damages grow longer as I tried and failed to print them out. I felt my fires burning.

At least those fires kept burning. They burned on even as I forgot where I was. Orders were orders, even as the orders kept evaporating and going missing. My limbs were flailing. Was the fight still happening?

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Love it! So tragic. I think it's amusing that we and Proximocoal all ended up with Peacekeepers in our stories - everyone else must have missed the memo that "Peacekeeper" was a mandatory story element. :P

The one thing I'd adjust a bit is the amount of self-awareness the Peacekeeper has about the things it's forgetting - as in "I built up a firing order of major targets, then forgot the list and built it again, and again, and again." I see what you're going for, but it makes the process sound deliberate rather than involuntary. As a reader, I'd rather come to the realisation that the POV character is unreliable rather than having them tell me so.

The emotional tension of "There are Neverborn on my left, but I can't turn left, and I'm not even sure they're really Neverborn" was utterly perfect, though.

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Thanks, Kadeton!


Yeah, I noticed we all had Peacekeepers! I swear I didn't read any other stories before I wrote mine! But with The Price of Progress and the Industrial Zone as elements, I guess it was the hidden additional ingredient!


I did indeed kinda decide to make the Peacekeeper more aware of the process than it should be. I figured it was some kind of additional glitch or something, but it was necessary to make more sense of the story happening. I kinda alluded to it at one point I think. Do you think maybe I should list "and I seem to be more self-aware than I should" as a glitch early on? It may resolve the awkwardness if I say it outright?

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It's already happening in the story, you don't have to, and indeed I think you shouldn't, spell it out. It's sort of like how it's better to make a person a spoiled brat if you want that character, rather than typing it out as "he was a spoiled brat." If he is, then it will show.


I liked it, but I would have loved to know what actually happened.

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