Darren faced his greatest creation and failure. The torso and head of the mechanical man leaned in the corner of the basement. Even limbless and freckled by rust, the old prototype was an awesome sight. It dominated the room, as it once dominated over armies.
“I hate you,” Darren whispered, but felt nothing at the words.
The rest of the workshop was empty. So was Darren’s belly. His house. His cot. All that remained was this… thing. A relic of his youth, his stupidity, his fervent belief in the glory of his nation.
“My mechs can end this war within a year,” he had said to Sophia.
“You’ll save us all, my love.” She had smiled, believing him. She had been foolish like that.
His creations did their job well, so well that the enemy designed their own. The war didn’t end; it evolved. Twenty-hour work days blurred the months together.
Sophia had gone shopping in the market that day. A quick trip, that’s all. He heard the distant blasts, and somehow, he knew. Darren brought her home cradled in crimson canvas and swore he would never create another mech, never hold another broken life in his arms. He sold off the factories, threw the proceeds at a hospital, and scraped along in his new life as a clockmaker.
But his contribution to the war was already well established, and no matter how he meddled with time pieces in his palm, he couldn’t undo what had already been done. A walk along the street meant encounters with widows in black lace, orphan children pleading for a copper coin, amputees carrying their crutches and scars. And it all began with this prototype. This ugly hunk of steel. This one thing he was reluctant to dispose of, for all it meant. He had pried the jewels from the eyes years ago; the legs, the arms, had been sold for scrap over recent months. Why was it so hard to get rid of this damned thing? Was it because Sophia’s shrewd mind had honed those first initial drafts, her nails had traced those embarrassingly rough seams? This was the invention that would have granted them security and a future. With the money from his metal army, they would have bought an estate out of the city, filled it with laughing children and clockwork toy men.
Darren shuffled forward. These days, the metal scrap from his basement earned more coins than the clocks he designed in the shop above. No one cared to see the time on their wrist, not when the numbers only reminded them of how long their bellies ached with hunger. The metal man’s gaping eye sockets stared into him, the black steel of its mouth a passive line.
Sophia had believed in Darren, in what their man of bolted metal could do. That old anger flared in Darren’s chest, his throat too tight for words. He clenched his wrench in his fist then swung it, hard. Metal crunched and squealed, the decaying chest plate dropping to the floor in a shower of powdered red. A flurry of movement was barely visible in the dim light. He paused, shoulders heaving, the wrench still upraised in his hand.
A mouse scampered along the tines of gears, a whiplash of tail vanishing within the dark recesses of the abdomen. Beside the curved metal of the heart, its tiny babies could not flee. They writhed and mewed within a nest of rotting rubber belts and twine.
Vermin. His lip curled in disgust.
The mama mouse ducked into the nest. The babies wiggled around her with their mouths agape.
Darren breathed, keenly aware of the rise and fall of his chest, of the metal held tight in the sweaty well of his palm. He stared, entranced. He lowered his arm. Set the wrench on the floor. Picked up the chest plate with trembling fingers.
These creatures — this family — he could save, small as they were. These souls wouldn’t weigh on his stooped back, dragging him to the floor faster than gravity ever could.
Darren wedged the battered chest plate to cover the exposed cavity of the heart, and for the first time in decades he looked at his creation and smiled.
Beth Cato resides in Arizona with her husband and son. Her work has appeared such places as Daily Science Fiction, Flash Fiction Online, and Stupefying Stories. For information on her latest projects, please visit www.bethcato.com.