by Matt Bliss
Kovak woke to sparks raining down his back, but it wasn’t the burning that woke him, it was the fumes. White smoke stinging his nostrils, searing the back of his throat, squeezing his lungs until he gasped for air. He rose from the rusted shavings piled around him, and eyed his outline left in the debris. The small space was yet another reminder of how fragile he was, compared to his counterparts. How small. How different.
He raked his thin fingers through his hair, combing out the remaining metal flakes, and looked up to Mother. Her watchful eye was not in its socket, and at that Kovak exhaled a sigh of relief. There’s time to get back, he thought, and hurried to the rail. Surely she knew he had left, she always knew, but he didn’t need to hear her lecture again.
Kovak gripped the pitted steel of the rail and peered deeper in the silo to The Foundry below. Rollers and jaws moved along their paths for as far as he could see. A network of right angles and jagged steel, crossing the open space until fusing at the hot glow of its heart beneath.
Kovak threw his legs over the railing, holding his body above the void below. He closed his eyes, listening to the metallic whines and grunts around him, feeling their rhythm like the pulse in his veins. Still time, he thought, syncing his own pulse with the roar of machines. Then, he jammed his legs into the deck, launching himself over the edge. Kovak drifted like the smelter’s vapor, weightless, adrift through the silo before gravity took hold and he started to fall. Exhaust rushed around him, gathering speed until something crossed his downward trajectory. A mechanical arm thrust into position and Kovak reached out to grab hold. The piece wobbled while Kovak quickly wrapped his legs around the cool steel and then gawked up at the dome.
The arm twisted and groaned in his arms. Kovak squeezed tighter until a voice rang out beside him. “How nice to see you again, Kovak. You know, you could just ask me for a ride next time,” Ardox said with a hiss from his turbines. His curved lens pulled through the lavender haze and fixed on him. “Why aren’t you at post? You know Mother—”
“Quiet! I don’t want you leading her here.” Kovak pressed himself flatter against his rising metal frame.
“Oh, not this again. She will find you if she wants to.” The frame jolted as hydraulics pumped and turned them sideways.
“Please, you can’t tell her. I don’t want to hear it again.”
“Why?” Ardox’s lens twisted sideways, catching the orange from beneath them and glinting it on the glass surface. “You are a part of The Foundry just as we are, and every part has its place.”
Kovak’s eyes rolled like bearings, and the tubular steel locked into place.
“But I’m not like you, Ardox. I’m not like any of you. I’m… different. Different doesn’t have a place here. Not every piece fits.” He crouched low, readying himself for a dive. “Thanks for the lift though.” And with that, Kovak stepped off, soaring down through the empty space. Wind howled in his ears until the conveyor came into view. Next, he wrapped his arms around himself and quickly fell inside the rollers curve. Looking up to the dome, he couldn’t see Mother while gliding across on the greased bearings. The dome, barely visible through the gloom, hung over him with its all seeing eye, missing from its socket.
The belt jolted from a sudden stop.
Blast it, Kovak thought while bolting up right. It was too late.
She found him.
Cancerous clouds parted as Mother’s round shape roared through the violet smoke. Wires and tubes spilling from a rust colored sun, with her eye burning in its center and settled directly on Kovak.
Her voice shook his chest more than the compressors from below. “I knew you left post again Kovak. This is starting to become a habit for you.”
“Come now; let’s get you back where you belong.” Her once silver arm reached out, bending itself into a loop perfectly shaped for Kovak. He sighed as Mother scooped him into it and rose through the acrid fumes toward the dome. “Why do you keep leaving post, small Kovak? You have duties the same as everyone else.” Her voice buzzed inside him.
“I just… need to get away sometimes. Away from Creeg, away from you, away from this place.” Kovak slumped against her shell, tracing the familiar rust splotches with his eyes.
“The Foundry provides you with nourishment and tasks. What more could you want?”
“I want others like me. Others who are different. I know what the rest of The Foundry thinks of me, I hear the chatter, but I can’t be like them. I’m just… broken I guess.”
Mother crested toward the dome before straying for the honeycomb of steel beams around its base.
“You are a far more crucial piece to this place than you know, young Kovak. One day you will understand that and truly find your place.”
Kovak slipped off the twisted arm holding him and plunked down to the decking. Gears whirred from within the structure as others turned to watch.
“I need you in your place, until you fit somewhere else. Please understand this, young Kovak,” Mother said. Her red eye pulsed a familiar shade of scarlet. She rose to her place in the oculus, trailing a jetty of oil-scented mist, and leaving Kovak in his metallic cocoon. Alone. He sat, swinging his feet over a space now moving with synchronized rhythm. He recognized that the pain in his chest was not from the rising fumes, or exhale of exhaust, but from being broken—being different. And that, he reasoned, was what hurt most of all.
The MIG sat hunched over with its rear panel removed. Kovak traced its connection to a board so covered in soot it was almost unrecognizable from the smelter resin. His slender fingers wormed inside the unit and worked the damaged part free.
Creeg turned his sharp lens to watch him as he tossed the damaged part on a pile of unrepairables. Creeg’s freshly greased joints twisted in silence while assembling another MIG. He jutted from one direction to the next in a flurry of swivels and sparks, all the while keeping his lens focused on Kovak.
“I don’t know why Mother keeps you,” Creeg finally said, moving the repaired MIG along the line. “After all of your troubles, and she posts you here with me.”
Kovak let out a sigh, watching the dust lift from the metal shell before him. The fine particles twisted in the dim overhead light before falling to his skin, already marked with much grime.
“If it were up to me,” Creeg continued, “I would have thrown you to the smelter below.”
“Well, good for me that it isn’t up to you,” Kovak said while he rifled through the parts pile for a replacement. His stained fingers stopped on a seemingly ancient process box and pulled it close to examine it. “Every part has its place I suppose, mine is just… unique. And believe me, I’m not happy about it either.”
“What good is unique? Look at you. You’re soft. You’re slow. I know Mother says every part has its place, but some parts don’t work,” Creeg gestured to the old process box in Kovak’s hands. “You… are one of them!”
Kovak glared at his reflection inside Creeg’s lens. He tried to burn a hole through it with the fire raging inside him. Not only did he struggle to fit in, but he had to put up with this relentless abuse as well. It wasn’t only Creeg either. The majority of The Foundry looked at him the same. Like a broken part they couldn’t melt down. It wasn’t fair. Kovak knew he didn’t belong with them. He knew there was nothing wrong with different, whether they knew it or not. Still, he was stuck there. A cog in the machine that couldn’t spin.
“You’re holding up the line,” Creeg said, shoving another MIG toward him.
Kovak flung the old process box at Creeg. It cracked against his shell and slid across the deck, falling to the shaft below. He’d had enough. He didn’t care if Mother found him and brought him back, he would leave again. Kovak turned and burst out of the room.
He ran, legs pumping like pistons, heart pounding like hammers, pressing deeper into the silo until his chest heaved with fumes, and his eyes welled with tears.
It wasn’t fair, he thought again. They expected him to be something that he wasn’t. Kovak scrambled into the shadows, a dark place far away from Mother’s watchful eye, but still she would know he was there. It is a place he had been many times before. A place where the others couldn’t hear his sobs. A place where no one could see his tears. Kovak looked through the grated steel flooring into The Foundry below, watching tears fall through the opening, toward the orange glow of it heart. All the while dreaming of being someone or something different.
He wiped his nose and turned to see Ardox rise through a cloud of steam below him. His optic swiveled and recognized him before slowing to a stop.
“Why is it that I keep finding you here, little Kovak?” Ardox said.
“I was just wondering the same thing.”
“I’m sorry you have so much trouble here. I know the others like to give you a hard time, and I wish I could do something to help.”
“Thanks, but unless you could get me out of here, or make me like you, I doubt you could help.”
Ardox let out a whine of twisting motors. “I suppose you’re right,” he said. “It’s my understanding that your types have always had a hard time fitting in here.”
Kovak’s eyebrow jolted up. “My types? You mean there were more here, like me?”
“Well, yes, but… it’s not for me to tell.”
Kovak pressed closer to Ardox’s rusted armature. “Look, you just said you wish you could do something to help me. This is something. This will help!”
“If Mother wanted you to know—”
“Please! I’m begging you, I need something, anything!”
Sparks rained down around them, falling like shooting stars from a rusted sky.
Ardox shifted uneasily. “Before I was created, your kind lived alongside The Foundry’s kind. They kept it alive—they kept the heart aglow.”
Kovak’s eyes glazed over with wonder.
“This was until Mother came, of course. Mother changed things, and your kind did not like that. Soon, the two were at odds and the fighting began. Until your kind found a way to escape.”
“Escape?” Kovak’s heart thumped in his chest.
“Yes, escape. They found a way to… cast a spell, I suppose. A spell of sleep. They put Mother, The Foundry, everything around us, into a deep sleep that lasted longer than any of us know.”
Kovak was bristling with excitement. He gripped both sides of Ardox’s lens and pulled closer. “How? How did they do it? Where did my people go?”
“I don’t think even Mother knows that. Eventually, she woke up, and found some more of your kind to keep with her. She needs you Kovak. She needs you more than you know, for a reason only she understands.”
A klaxon rang out from above and the two looked up to see Mother out of place.
“We must leave. Goodbye, Kovak,” Ardox said, and he lifted into a stream of smoke.
Kovak mouthed the words, thank you, and reached a hand over the rail. Then he turned around and hurried back toward post.
His mind hummed like a processor working overdrive. It was as if his whole life made sense now. This is why he didn’t fit in. This is why he was different. This is why Mother kept him here. Kovak scrambled to the edge of the deck and gripped hold of a vertical beam. He questioned what purpose Mother kept him, and how his people put her to sleep. He wrapped his legs around the rough metal beam and shimmied up until something caught his eye. Something that made him pause.
On the ledge in front of him, sat the process box he threw earlier. The one sent cracking into Creeg’s frame. The one that was broken, like him. Its light blinked on its end, switching from red to blue to red.
Kovak stretched upward until he could reach the small unit and quickly tuck it under an arm. He had as many questions as he did answers now, yet he suspected that he would find more. He hoped, however, looking up into the dome, that the answers would lead him somewhere new, and for once, he would be happy there.
Either Creeg didn’t notice Kovak’s return to post, or he didn’t care. In any case, Kovak was thankful. He at once started tinkering with a MIG, tedious work to hide his examining the process box. It was older than anything he knew how to repair, everything that old was usually torn apart and recycled for its alloy. Yet somehow, the box vibrated in his hand like something was inside, trying to escape.
Kovak spliced the unit to a display and watched the screen burst with color.
He glanced over his shoulder. Creeg was still focused on work, so Kovak started cycling through the options. The command history held the usual process commands, mostly related to repairs, but the last was highlighted red. He cycled through more data, each time though he noticed the processes ended in red at a specific point.
Is this the sleep, he wondered? Was this their escape?
Kovak selected the last command with trembling fingers. He twitched with excitement as it started to run, and then he found something inside.
A face. Soft with gentle curves. A face like his.
No metal, no wires, no lenses, —no, this was what he saw in the polished gleam of Mother’s eyes. This was what he felt when he ran his fingers over his flesh. This was the face he knew, but never got to know.
It told him everything he needed to know. It told him that he wasn’t a broken piece. It told him who he really was, and what it was that he had to do next.
Kovak climbed toward the dome as Creeg screeched at him from below. Mother, still in the oculus, didn’t turn to face him, and for once he wanted her too. He wanted to see the glow of her red eye. He wanted to feel the thrumming in his chest. The arm that held him in place. His chest burned as he climbed through fumes trapped inside the dome. Each breath pierced into his lungs with tiny needles, sending a fire coursing through his veins. He scrambled to the top of the steel honeycomb, sprinting to the structures edge, and gazed out at the sea of rusted metal below. It was suddenly peaceful in the dome, the grind and hiss below were only a dull roar here. Kovak could see why Mother stayed here.
He could see it all.
He knew all.
Mother came to life with a clatter of joints, screaming to be greased. She turned toward Kovak with a hum of energy that trembled the air around them. Her riveted shell dropping from the spider web of wires and hose to meet him.
“I see you have left post once again, small Kovak,” Mother’s tones reached through him. Shaking him from head to toe. “Why have you come up here—to speak with me?”
“I know the truth. I know about my people. I know about what you did to them.”
Mother surged closer with the thrumming of hydraulics, fixing her eye on his.
“Why did you take me? Why didn’t you tell me the truth?”
“I told you the truth. I told you that you are a far more crucial piece than you know. I told you that you are too small now, but will grow into the place I need you. This… is the truth.” Mother’s eye burned red and hot.
“Just tell me why! Why me?”
“Because like I always say, every part has its place.”
Mother’s eye burned brighter, and The Foundry began to move around him. Pieces shifting into position, threatening him under Mother’s watchful glass lens. Mother had become The Foundry, a mass of parts that bended to her will. All of them, except Kovak.
Kovak stuck out his arm, holding the blinking box over the edge, listening to the tempo of machines, feeling the rhythm of its movement.
“You have a purpose here, Kovak.” She said as her parts moved around him—clamps open, and wires hot with rage, enveloping him in steel.
Kovak closed his eyes. He knew the movements of The Foundry. He could hear the clicking gears. He could feel the wheeze of exhaust. Whether he liked it or not, he was part of this machine and he knew the timing of its movements. He trusted the face he saw. He believed what he heard, and he held his own salvation.
Mother rushed forward, the silver arm that once cradled him jutted out and twisted around his neck. Tightening with each pulse of her hydraulics.
Still, Kovak held the unit out, feeling it vibrate in his hand.
Mother pressed tighter, causing blood to pool in his neck, a ringing screamed in his ears. If he didn’t fit, she would press him into the shape she envisioned, with force.
Even over the warnings firing in his head, Kovak listened to The Foundry’s pulse, pounding its rhythm, singing its song. Kovak found the place, the gap in the tune, an artery flowing straight to its heat. And at that, Kovak dropped the box into the shaft below.
Mother’s lens turned to watch the box fall. It disappeared below like the tears from Kovak’s eyes. Arms and conveyors moved around its downward path, as if structured in perfect synchronicity. They all watched it fall into the orange glow, and then the last clink of movement sounded.
A blue wave rushed through the shaft with an ear-piercing scream of crackling energy, leaving a dark stillness in its wake. One by one, the parts and machines Kovak had grown with went dark as the blue spell put them into an everlasting sleep with a sizzling hiss.
The light wrapped itself around Kovak, raising the tiny hairs on his arm before turning toward Mother. Mother’s eye turned cold. Her arm hung limp, dropping Kovak as he gasped in the poisonous air. Mother hung from her wires and tubes that tethered her, as the light smashed into the dome above. The dome howled from the blast that peeled the steel shell open. Pieces rained down around Kovak, permitting bits of light to shine in from the darkness beyond.
Kovak breathed the cool air pouring in from above. Air that was clean. Air that filled his lungs with goodness and hope. He gripped hold of the nearest beam and climbed. He moved hand over hand, rising above the sleeping world. Climbing to the sparkles that hung in the blackness above. Kovak reached the oculus of the dome, the place Mother once lived to watch over The Foundry, and with a stained hand, Kovak pulled free of the silo and climbed into a new world. A world of space. A world of silence.
He dragged his legs to the surface and stood, marveling at a space around him that seemed to run on forever. He looked out in the distance and smiled, until something rose from the ground before him.
A shape, not made of metal or steel, but skin like him, rising from a different dome, like his. A face that was different, like his.
The two approached one another, eyes too afraid to look away, hearts pounding like pistons, feeling the electricity between them. The two of them knowing it was they who had woken from a long sleep. Free from a curse that only they knew. Kovak held out his hand, and the one like him reached for his in return. Their fingers locked around one another, pieces fitting into place, made to fit perfectly together.
They walked toward the seemingly endless sky, feeling different, together, but knowing that now, they had finally found their place.
Matt Bliss is a writer living in Las Vegas, Nevada with his wife, daughters, and far too many pets. His short fiction has appeared in Chimera from Lost Boys Press, Scare Street’s Night Terrors and other various published or forthcoming works. If you don’t find him haunting the used book section of your local thrift store, you can always find him along with links to his work on Twitter at @MattJBliss.