It made a kind of squeaking sound and pitched forward—some of the leather parts I guess I hadn’t oiled well enough. Steam puffed out of a valve in its shoulder, and I was too afraid to reach out and close it. It trembled, and a sound came from inside its throat that reminded me of a dog growling. That scared me.
The steam wasn’t that bad. It wasn’t losing too much. And anyway, I knew it probably wouldn’t explode, so that was good.
Then it started to make a sound kinda like “Gah gah gah,” but not like a baby, more like a crow, but lower. I didn’t think I’d made it with such a deep voice. I didn’t really want it to have such a deep voice. I didn’t have a deep voice.
It was looking down with both of its eyes, then it looked up with one of them, its left, but not the right. It looked weird.
“Make the eyes move together,” I whispered to myself so I wouldn’t forget, and it must have heard me.
Its left eye moved to stare at me then its right slowly turned up, rotating a little too freely in its socket, and found me, too. It blinked, brass shutters closing around them—I’d had to use camera shutters, which didn’t look too natural, but when it blinked once it seemed like its eyes fixed together, and I didn’t have to adjust them after that. It didn’t strike me then as particularly weird that it managed to adjust its own eyes. All of it was pretty weird, anyway.
It made another sort of “gah gah gah,” sound as it looked at me. I couldn’t tell what it was trying to say. It didn’t really have any kind of facial expressions. I hadn’t really figured out how to do that. Maybe, like it did with its eyes, it would just figure that out on its own.
“Are you okay?” I asked it. “Can you understand me, and stuff?”
It twitched and that startled me. I laughed as the blood swirled around in my head. I always laughed after something startled me. I couldn’t help it.
“Gah gah gah.”
“I don’t know what that means,” I said. “Do you know where you are?”
I guess I couldn’t have expected it to know where it was: in my garage in New Jersey.
“Gah,” it said again. “Gah gah gah.”
Well, I thought, anyway, it worked. It was mostly working. I had made a friend.
* * * * *
I had had a few real friends, but not too many. We moved around too much for me to make too many friends. We’d lived in North Carolina—that’s where I was born—and Georgia, and Louisiana, and Texas, and Washington State, and Tennessee, then New Jersey. My father was a sergeant in the army. He was what they called a “career man,” which is when you join the army then never un-join it.
When the War to End All Wars started in Germany, he went there. Almost exactly a year later, a man came to our house and told my mother that my father was a hero, and he had died for his country. I guess she didn’t think that was a good enough reason for him to die, because she spent the next few days crying.
At his funeral she told one of her friends, whose husband was also a career man, that she only hoped that in the end, my father wasn’t too frightened. There was a lot about the funeral I didn’t understand, but that in particular. You see, my father was never frightened by anything. My mother seemed to be frightened all the time, of everything, and I get frightened sometimes, too—of other kids at school, my third grade teacher Mrs. Carmichael, or that dog that lived next door to us in Tennessee—but my father was frightened of nothing. That mouse that got into the kitchen, or spiders, or being in the army—he just took care of them. The war was probably scary for everyone but him.
No one explained to me how he died, exactly, just that it was in the war. Whatever it was, I knew for sure it didn’t scare him. Not him.
Also at the funeral I heard one of my father’s army friends say that there wasn’t enough left of my father to bury. Where had the rest of him gone? Anyway, what they gave to my mother for the funeral was a fancy-looking jar they said was full of ashes. They had burned him up, somehow, all the way, so all he was was ashes. My mother put the jar up on the mantle and used to stare at it and cry.
The funeral was February, 1916, and the war was over in April.
* * * * *
About a year later, in May of 1917, I was in my German class and the teacher assigned us to pick out a German magazine, find an article that interested us, and translate it into English. It was a pretty hard assignment, but the teacher was nice, and I was pretty good at learning German. My mother hated that I had to go to German class, but all the kids had to go, and I kinda liked it.
The article I picked out was about the thing they called “Waffe, um alle Waffen zu beenden,” which means “weapon to finish all weapons,” or “weapon to end all weapons.” Something like that. I had never heard of it before, but it was the thing that finally made the war end.
The Germans were the first to build automatons. They called them Soldat-mechanisch—mechanical soldiers—metal men who were immune to the poison gas. The first generation of them were powered by gasoline, but those exploded, or at least lit on fire when they got shot, and they ran out of gas really soon. Then they started to make them steam powered and they stopped lighting on fire. They could get blown up by bombs or shot by guns, but afterward there wouldn’t be a funeral.
The Weapon to End All Weapons was different, though. It didn’t look like a person. It was just a train, but all of the cars were great big bombs. The Germans drove the train into the middle of Paris and blew it up—the train and Paris. All of Paris. And in a few days the war was over, and though a million people died in and around Paris, which is in France, millions more lives were saved in other places, including New Jersey. The world was saved.
I couldn’t really understand the Weapon to End All Weapons. It was too big for me, and too strange, and too scary, but the mechanical soldiers were different. I stared at the pictures of them, studying every detail. They went to war without ever being frightened, and if they stopped working, no one cried. Maybe they got repaired and were fine, or anyway they never ended up in jars on the mantle. They were perfect.
I started collecting more magazines and even some books about mechanical soldiers and other automatons. For the whole summer, it was all I could think about. Then I started building one.
* * * * *
By Thanksgiving my friend had been working for a week or so, and I kept fiddling with it, but still all it could say was “gah gah gah.” It looked at stuff and staggered around, but didn’t seem to know what to do. When I talked to it, it looked like it was listening to me, but when I told it stuff, nothing seemed to make much of an impression.