Fantasy Science Fiction steampunk

Until We Are All Free

By Nancy Jane Moore
Mar 16, 2019 · 6,298 words · 23 minutes

Sciii

Story art by Dave Smeds.  

From the author: The third volume of Book View Cafe's Shadow Conspiracy anthology series started with the question, "What if the Emancipation Proclamation included freedom for automata with souls?" For Jasmine, an enslaved woman in Maryland who makes metalmen, the question is more than philosophical.


New Year’s Day had been unusually warm, but several days into 1863 a cold wind blew in from the northeast. All day long both slave and free on the Calvert tobacco plantation along the Patuxent River found excuses to drop by the workshop where Jasmine was welding metal plates together to form shells for the automatons popularly called metalmen. Though the fire powering the generator for her welding torch was the primary attraction, most took the opportunity to share a bit of gossip.

Charles Calvert, owner of the plantation and of Jasmine, wanted as many metalmen as possible in time for spring planting, so Jasmine didn’t take a break from her work for most of the visitors, simply offering a smile and pretending she could hear over the roar of her torch. But when Benjamin stopped in, he motioned her to turn it off.

“Gonna be a meetin’ tonight,” he told her. “Davy’s been reading up on Mr. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and he’s gonna tell us what it means.”

“What time?”

“‘Bout midnight. Gotta wait until the white folks is asleep, so everybody can come. Even your mama.”

Jasmine’s mama, Olivia, was lady’s maid to Calvert’s wife. The plantation had come from the wife’s family; Calvert had started out with next to nothing and married into money, though he liked to pretend he was descended from the Calverts who founded Maryland.

“I’ll be there, Mr. Benjamin. And I’ll let folks know when they come by here.”

“Good girl.”

Jasmine had left girlhood behind her some time ago but Benjamin was old enough to be her grandfather. She’d always be a girl to him.

She turned the torch off again when Calvert himself dropped by. “I just wanted to see how much progress you had made.”

“You’ll have twenty-five more metalmen for spring planting, sir.” Jasmine showed him the ten finished housings. “The inner workings take longer to make than the shells, but I got a good start on them before Christmas.”

“Excellent, excellent,” he said. “You do a damn site better work than that Scotsman ever did. Beats me how you were able to pick up so much from him that you could outshine him, but you’ve more than proved yourself.”

“Thank you, sir.” Jasmine wondered what he wanted. Charles Calvert never threw compliments around.

“Jasmine, I’ve got a proposition for you. If you can make me a hundred more of these metalmen by September, I’ll give you your freedom papers.”

Freedom papers. She forced herself to stay calm, the better to negotiate with him. “That’s a powerful lot of metalmen, Mr. Charles. I might need some help to get it all done.”

He frowned. “Could the metalmen help out?”

“I’d have to make ones more flexible than the ones for planting and harvesting. It takes more coordination to do what I do.”

“Do that, then. A machine making a machine. A fine idea. While you’re at it, make some that can serve tea and other house chores.”

Jasmine bristled at the term “machine.” She spent too much time with the metal creatures to think of them as something like a plow. But she kept her disapproval out of her voice. “And I’m gonna need more gold, sir. We don’t have near enough to make the inner workings of that many metalmen. I’ll need more steel and wire, too.”

“Gold is expensive. I don’t want to get any more than you need.”

“No, sir.” Jasmine already had a stash of gold she’d set aside from each set of metalmen she’d made, but she’d been careful not to take too much.

“Make me up a list.” He had lost his temper years back when he found out she was learning to read and write–yelled at his wife, threatened Olivia with being sold down south, and banished Jasmine from the house and her position as a playmate to his legitimate daughters. But now he acted as if it had been his idea all along.

“Yes, sir. And sir, you will free my daughter along with me, won’t you?”

“She’s still a baby, right? Not working age?”

“Oh, no sir. She’s barely three years old.” Little Alexandra was almost five, but younger was better. If he thought she was old enough to work, he’d keep her.

He nodded.

“And we’ll need a bit of money, just ‘til we can get settled.”

“I swear I don’t know why I put up with you. But, yes, I’ll give you a few dollars. There’s just one other thing, though. I don’t want any of these metalmen ensouled. Not the ones you’re making now, not the other hundred. You get me.”

Now that was odd. As far as she knew, the metalmen she had made for the Calverts’ use had never been ensouled. The Calverts were Catholic and the pope had banned ensoulment. The man she’d learned the trade from hadn’t been Catholic–hadn’t been much of anything–but he’d never cared whether the metalmen had souls. To him they were just machines. To him Jasmine had been little better than a machine, albeit one he could use for pleasure as well as work.

She wondered why Calvert would mention ensoulment, but she wasn’t foolish enough to ask. It didn’t matter. He was offering her freedom. “Whatever you want, sir.”

The meeting was held out in the field where the Calvert slaves had their gardens. It was a safe place for a meeting; anyone seeing the fires they’d made would assume the slaves were working their plots. There was never enough time during the day. You could grow greens in the winter in Maryland, if you put your mind to it, and most people did.

Olivia and the cook were the last ones to arrive. “I didn’t think that woman would ever go to bed,” Olivia whispered to Jasmine. “It’s like she knew she was keeping me from something.”

Benjamin cleared his throat. “Davy’s gonna read us the proclamation.”

Davy was a few years younger than Jasmine, and her half-brother. She’d taught him to read and write to solace him after his mother–another house slave–had been sold south because she’d made Charles Calvert mad one too many times. It was an open secret on the place that both Davy and Jasmine were Calvert’s children, though he never acknowledged it. Perhaps the freedom deal was his way of recognizing it, Jasmine thought. But that didn’t make a lot of sense, given the kind of man he was.

“This is what President Lincoln said. ‘That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves, including both human beings and ensouled automatons, within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free’.”

There were some loud shouts of approval, followed by a round of hushing. No one wanted to wake up the white folks.

“Wait a minute,” someone said. “That part about ‘in rebellion against the United States.’ What does that mean?”

“It means it doesn’t apply to us,” Davy said. “It only frees people in the states still fighting. Maryland’s always been in the Union.”

No one spoke for a moment, and then another man said, “What we doing out here then?”

“Because they’re going to have to free us, sooner or later. It’ll take time, but if they’re going to get rid of slavery in the states that rebelled, they’re going to have to get rid of it in the ones that stayed in the union. We need to plan for it.”

That drew a lot of discussion, pro and con, but Jasmine wasn’t listening. That proclamation, it freed ensouled automatons, but not the other kind. That’s why Calvert wanted to be sure she didn’t make the new ones ensouled. And why he was so willing to offer her freedom if she worked her butt off. He figured the slaves were going to be freed in Maryland sooner or later–her included–and he was building up a workforce to replace the humans. No wonder he’d liked the idea of a “machine” that could make other machines. He was a man who thought ahead.

She wasn’t just making him slaves to buy her own freedom. She was ensuring he’d have slaves forever, even if they weren’t people.

Jasmine was surprised by how much that bothered her.

“What was that about the metalmen?” someone asked.

“The proclamation treats ensouled metalmen the same as other slaves.”

“But they ain’t human. They’re just machines.”

“No, they’re not,” Jasmine said. “They may not be the same as us, but they’re a lot more than machines.”

“Nothing personal, Jas. I know you make ’em and you do good work. But why should something that’s made be treated the same as people who are born?”

It was a good question and she didn’t have a good answer. The metalmen thought and reasoned, certainly, but did they feel the same way people did? She thought so, and she didn’t even know any ensouled metalmen, just ordinary ones. But it was a gut feeling on her part, nothing she could explain to anyone else.

Davy answered him. “The ensoulment process puts souls from people who recently died into the metalmen. That’s why. It changes them from just machines.”

Jasmine wanted to argue with that, too. The ones without souls were still more than machines. But it was clear that didn’t make any difference. The ordinary kind would take the place of human slaves, and the slaveholders would continue to prosper. Calvert would continue to prosper. She would make it possible, by making him a large number of mechanical slaves.

After the meeting, Jasmine sought out Benjamin. “You know anything about ensouling metalmen?”

“I know old man Calvert don’t hold with it. If you’re thinking of doing something with the ones you’re making, you’re just gonna make him mad.”

“I just want to know more. I don’t even know how it works.”

“Well, the priest probably knows something, but if you ask him you might as well tell Calvert, because he will for sure.”

Everyone knew of slaves who had gone to confession and ended up in trouble with their owners, because the priest didn’t treat their confessions with the same privacy accorded to the free. “Can you think of anyone else?”

“They say some of the other churches believe in ensoulment, but there ain’t any of them around here. I think your best chance might be Bess, over on that place across the Patuxent.”

Bess was said to practice some kind of African religion. Jasmine didn’t know what. She didn’t know much about Africa, except that she had ancestors from somewhere there. What she knew about religion came from white people, and given how different they acted from the way the priest talked, their ideas about God didn’t impress her much. But they did leave her afraid of what everyone condemned as pagan and primitive.

“Would meeting up with her be safe?”

“Safer than thinking about ensouling Calvert’s metalmen. You’re already stepping over the line, child. Might as well go farther.”

“Don’t tell anyone I’m asking,” she said.

“I’m not a priest. I keep everybody’s secrets. Probably go to my grave with a whole lot of ’em.”

The blacksmith on the place where Bess lived was considered the best in Southern Maryland. Jasmine “discovered” a problem with her drill–she had blunted it on purpose–and got permission to go visit him to get a new one.

“You could probably fix it,” Calvert had said.

“Yes, sir, but it might fail again. And with all this work to do….”

The blacksmith said it would take him a couple of hours. That gave Jasmine time to do some visiting. She’d brought some hair ribbons her mother had made from sewing scraps to give to their cousins. Since it was cold out, most folks were working indoors and could take some time to chat. By visiting with first one cousin and then another friend, she gradually made her way to Bess, whose main job was gentling horses.

Jasmine had brought a little homebrew with her. She’d been told Bess liked her nip in the evenings. But she couldn’t keep her stomach from fluttering and the first sight of Bess didn’t reassure her.

Bess was big–a head taller than Jasmine, who was considered tall herself, and twice as wide. Her hair was close-cropped and silver, contrasting with the blackness of her skin. Despite her obvious age, she had few wrinkles, which made the scars on her face more prominent. Jasmine couldn’t tell if they were marks made on purpose or from injuries.

The old woman looked amused when Jasmine presented the homebrew. She opened the jar, sniffed it. “What you really after, girl?” Her accent had a foreign sound to it.

Jasmine took a deep breath. “Someone said you might know something about ensouling automatons.”

“That’s right. You that girl that makes the metalmen for the Calverts. Is old Charles Calvert gonna defy the pope and ensoul his machines?” Bess laughed, as if she knew that was ridiculous.

“I just heard about the proclamation, the one that frees slaves, and it included ensouled metalmen. I know a lot about metalmen, but I never met any with souls.”

“Frees those folks in the rebel states, but not us,” Bess said.

“My brother thinks it means they’ll have to free everybody sooner or later.”

“He may be right, but there’ll be a lot of suffering to come before it happens. And maybe after. So you want to ensoul these metalmen you’re making for Calvert, so that maybe he won’t be able to keep them if things change?”

“No, no. I just want to know.” It wasn’t quite a lie. She hadn’t made up her mind yet. Had she?

Bess laughed. She looked at Jasmine in a way that made her feel like Bess’s eyes had cut open her skull and were peering down into the basic workings of her brain.

“I haven’t decided to do anything,” Jasmine said, trying to sound firm even though she was shaking. “I’m not even sure what difference ensoulment makes.”

“Makes ’em something more than a machine.”

“But they’re something more than that now. The first ones I made, they could only do the tasks I made them for–planting or harvesting or cleaning. But the ones I’m making now can do many different things, even change from what they were originally meant for. Right now I’m making one that will be able to build metalmen on its own.”

“They’re still machines.”

“Do machines think? Because my metalmen can think.” She hadn’t meant to say this, hadn’t even been sure she wanted to acknowledge it to herself, much less anyone else. But she couldn’t help herself. The old woman was doing something to her, she was sure of it.

“You some kind of god, child? Making creatures that can think?”

“I just hook them up and give them the jolt that makes them work. They make themselves into something more.” Jasmine hadn’t ever thought of that idea before, but when she said it, it sounded true. Whatever Bess was doing to her seemed to be helping her figure out why the idea automatons might be kept as slaves bothered her so much.

“Hmm. You something unusual, child. Someone who can see more than what everybody else does. I see it, too. The metalmen are more than machines, ensouled or not. But most people, they ain’t gonna accept that without a little woo-woo.”

“If I wanted to get some of mine ensouled, could you do it?” There. She’d said the words.

“Not me, child. I speak to souls; I don’t move ’em around. And since your metalmen actually belong to old Calvert, you’re treading on the thin ice trying to do this.”

“But–”

“But you’re a young woman and you still think right and wrong matter. And keeping something that can think as a slave is wrong–as both you and I have reason to know. I can’t help you, but I know someone who can, over on Somervelt’s Island.”

“Is this person some kind of magician or priest?”

“It ain’t even a person. Why would a person handle the spirit side of things for metalmen?”

“Oh.” A metalman. It made sense, in a weird sort of way. “Is it on some big place over there?”

“Nah. It don’t belong to nobody. Lives out in the woods, with a few others of its kind. I hear they call it Preacher. It’s kinda crazy. Dangerous, too, probably. Maybe more than me.” Bess laughed.

Jasmine felt a shiver run up her spine. She’d been comfortable with this old woman for a few minutes, and now she was scared again. She wanted to just leave, forget they’d had the conversation, but she took a deep breath and willed herself to stay where she was. “So how do I find this Preacher?”

“I like your guts, child. You don’t need to find it; it’ll find you once it hears about all the metalmen you making. I’ll make sure of it.”

Jasmine could tell she was being dismissed. “I thank you for your help.”

“You take care, child. You’re playing in murky waters here. Freedom sounds like a wonderful thing, but it’s gonna be a long time before it means for you and me what it means for white folks.”

Jasmine nodded and took her leave. It was only after she picked up her drill and started for home across the river that she realized she hadn’t mentioned Calvert’s promise of her freedom. Maybe Bess had just been referring to the likely emancipation to come, but somehow she didn’t think so.

Jasmine had modified two harvesting metalmen to take over cutting and shaping the metal for the housings. She focused her own work on making a creature who could handle the design and building tasks she herself performed. Could she really make something that could do things as well as she could? Was that even a good thing? Did it make her less important, if a mechanical creature could do her work? Had the man who had taught her the craft felt that way about a colored slave who could do his work?

And would this Preacher metalman show up? And if it did, would it be able to talk? She’d never made a metalman who could speak, wasn’t sure she could figure out a way to give one vocal chords.

Benjamin dropped by to give her the latest news. Calvert was going up to Washington City for a couple of weeks to do some business and taking his sons and foreman with him.

“Wonder why he’d do that?” Jasmine asked.

The old man shrugged. “Probably trying to make sure he doesn’t lose everything once this war ends. Anyway, things’ll be a bit more relaxed around here for awhile.”

“Not for me. I got too much work to do.”

“Easier to do the work when the boss man ain’t dropping by every few hours to make sure you doing it.”

That was so true it made Jasmine wonder if Bess had somehow engineered this, even though she couldn’t imagine how. If the woman had that kind of power, how come she was still a slave?

Preacher showed up the day after Calvert left.

It was past sunset, but Jasmine was still in her workshop, fastening hands with fingers on them onto her new metalman. This one was not yet activated, but thunderstorms were common this time of year. Jasmine wanted to finish hooking up the fingers before she took it to the tower to give it the jolt of electricity that gave metalmen life. The tower–a narrow stone silo–housed a length of iron attached to a lightning rod that reached higher than nearby trees. Lightning almost always struck it during a storm.

Something opened the door, letting in a blast of cold air. Jasmine jumped up and grabbed a stout staff.

The something was large, but it moved softly, with just the barest click of metal. A raspy voice said, “You’re giving that one fingers.”

She held onto the staff. “It needs to do fine work.”

The creature came farther into the shop, reaching a point where she could see it by the light of her oil lamp. “It is not yet alive.”

The being was tall, bigger than most humans, never mind most metalmen. Jasmine fought an urge to back away. “I want the fingers in place first, so I can see how they work. I’ve never done them before.”

“Reasonable. When you figure it out, maybe you could make me some.” It held up hands; they looked like drills. “I was made to dig holes in mountains,” it said.

“You’re Preacher,” Jasmine said. She set the staff down, though left it in reach.

It nodded. “It would be nice to have hands with fingers.”

Bess had said Preacher was crazy, but it seemed kind, almost gentle despite its size. Its maker had given it a face, with a mouth that moved and eyes that stared at her so intently she was sure it could see. But how? Jasmine’s metalmen could sense things around them, but they did it by picking up waves. She hadn’t given them eyes; for all that she felt they were more than machines, she balked at the idea of making them look like people.

But looking at Preacher, she began to think she was wrong. Maybe she should make eyes and mouths for them. Maybe if she looked at Preacher carefully, she could figure out how to make such things work. If it would let her.

“I’ll make you some hands with fingers, if the ones I’m making for this new one work out.”

“And will you give that one eyes to see, ears to hear, and a mouth to speak? I would love it if I could listen to another of my kind.”

“I will, if you will help me figure out how your eyes and ears and mouth work. I’ve never done that. The ones I make can take in instruction and sense things around them, but it’s not real hearing or vision.”

“The old woman was right. We can help each other, you and I.”

She wanted to ask him about the souls, but she hesitated. Something told her it wasn’t time yet.

Without any discussion, Preacher took up residence in her workshop. A few days later, it accompanied her through a driving rain to the tower and watched as she hooked up the one with fingers and several others to the lightning rod. The thunder boomed outside, but both of them still jumped when the lightning flashed down the rod and into the waiting metalmen. As she removed the fingered one from the device–quickly, before another strike–she watched it curl the fingers. They worked.

Preacher sat down on a box. Jasmine thought that if it could have cried, it would have. “Make me some real hands like that one’s, and I will help you build the rest of your metalmen.”

It took her less time to make the fingered hands this time. But when the time came for her to remove Preacher’s drills to replace them, both of them were frightened. “I’ve always been this way,” Preacher said, explaining its fear.

“I don’t want to harm you,” she said, explaining hers. But she had learned the right way to do it on the first creature, and setting up Preacher’s working hands went smoothly.

By the time Calvert returned from his mysterious errand in Washington City–an unsuccessful venture, according to the slaves who had accompanied him–Preacher was working alongside her in the workshop. It wore a cover over its eyes and did not speak in the presence of anyone else.

“The fingers worked out so well that I made two metalmen who can make others,” she told Calvert. “That way I will be sure to get the work done quickly.” He took her at her word and indeed, it was almost true. She had made Preacher’s hands.

The trust between Jasmine and Preacher grew, but she still did not mention ensoulment. Late at night, when no one else was around, she and Preacher worked to give the other fingered metalman, whom she had taken to calling Maker, the ability to see, speak, and hear. On the night when Maker croaked out its first sound–unintelligible, but a definite attempt to communicate–Preacher sat down heavily on a chair. Its face could not change expression, but Jasmine could tell how moved it was.

Preacher sat talking with Maker all night and by morning the new creation was speaking in sentences. It understood far more than it could say, but it was learning rapidly.

“With hands and voices, nothing can hold us back from our destiny,” Preacher said. “You must give all these metalmen those things.”

“I cannot,” Jasmine said. “We must keep your abilities a secret, at least for now. Calvert would have you and all the rest destroyed, if he found out what you can do.”

“And he wouldn’t free you. Which is the most important thing to you, isn’t it?” Preacher’s voice was angry, for the first time. “You are just making more of us to buy your freedom, aren’t you?”

She had grown so accustomed to him that she had forgotten how frightening he could be, forgotten that Bess had warned her about him. He stood next to her, a huge, menacing figure.

But she got her fear under control. “Yes, I want my freedom, but I also want to ensure that these metalmen have theirs as well. That is why I reached out to you. I heard you could give these creations souls.”

“Souls. Bah. Do you think they need them? Does Maker need one? You can hear it speak, know it needs nothing more to be as good as a human. Or better.” Preacher moved toward her.

It was Maker that stopped it, Maker that put a hand–a fingered hand–on Preacher’s arm. It croaked, “Hear her out.”

Preacher stopped. “Well?”

“The white people, those with the power, will only recognize metalmen as living beings if they have souls. Didn’t Bess tell you that, when she told you to find me?”

“That crazy old woman doesn’t talk to me like people. I’ve never met her. She sent me a vision of you and I came. What is this about the power people recognizing us?”

“They’ve already done it in the states in the rebellion. They are freeing the human slaves and the metalmen with souls. Both free and slave here believe that the law will apply to us, once the war ends. That’s why Calvert wants me to make as many metalmen as I can, so he can keep them as slaves once he has to free us.

“I was told–Bess told me–you could give them souls. That would protect them. Can you do that?”

Preacher sat down. “Did she tell you how I can do that?”

Jasmine shook her head.

“I killed my maker,” Preacher said. “The bastard made me to blast through mountains, but for fun he made it possible for me to see and hear and talk. I might have killed him anyway. Even those of us who cannot speak can think and feel, though we are seen as machines. There was such mockery in my ability to see how I differed from humans even when I could outthink them. So I stuck my drill into him, and as I did, I could feel his soul leaving his body. And I just grabbed it, felt it move through my body.

“It didn’t like being there, held by his murderer, but I liked having it. I still have it. I keep it shut down, most of the time, but every once in awhile I let it see what I do. It hates me. I don’t need it for anything. I keep it for revenge.” Preacher stood back up.

Maker again put its hand on Preacher’s arm, but Jasmine knew there was no threat now. “You are telling me that we will be treated as people if we have souls.”

“I am telling you that metalmen with souls will not be held as property, once people like me are not. I don’t know that it means either of us will be treated like people. That’s why I was told not to put souls in these metalmen. I would never have thought about it otherwise. I know that metalmen are more than machines, that they don’t need human souls.” She looked at Preacher. “You put a soul in yourself. Can you put one in Maker? Can you put them in the others?”

Preacher opened its mouth in what might have been a smile. “Oh, yes. I’ve put them in others, in my fellow beings that I’ve rescued from misery. I’ve given them their own souls to torment as they see fit, the souls of those who tormented them. I can give one to Maker. Perhaps I should give it the soul of your owner.”

“No,” she said. “Give it a stranger’s soul. Let Calvert live so that when the day comes that all must be freed, he will know what has happened to him.”

“Ah. You, too, understand revenge. But why not give all of these ones you are making the ability to communicate and make for themselves?”

“It’s too risky. They must seem to be soulless machines until such time as they can be free. After that happens, I will fix them, fix them all, so that they can do many things, not just work in fields. I swear that, by my daughter.”

“I will trust you.” Preacher turned to Maker, laid hands on its shoulders. “Here is the soul of a woman I found as she died. It’s a gentle soul. Perhaps you and it can coexist.”

Maker shook as the change came over it. Jasmine could see something shift in its presence. “Will the soul be obvious to all?”

“Only those who know where to look,” Preacher said, showing her a mark that had appeared on Maker’s chest, near where its heart would be, if it had one. “Since Maker can speak, it can also let its soul tell others that it is present.”

“I will not, until it is time,” Maker said.

“I do not have enough souls stored within me for all the metalmen you are making. I will share the few I have and then go out and harvest some more for the rest.”

“Where do you get them?”

“There’s a war raging out there. Souls can be found everywhere on a battlefield.”

Jasmine finished the metalmen on schedule and Calvert kept his word, giving her both a paper verifying that she and her daughter were free and a small sum of money. She and Alexandra moved into Washington City, where she rented a house and workshop near the center of town and set up a business doing machine repairs. Some people objected to a woman–and one of color at that–doing such work, but the war had taken away many skilled men and her services were needed. It was only when her first customer—an old delivery driver who’d needed repairs to a wheel on his wagon—pronounced himself satisfied with her work and handed her a few coins that she realized how much her life had changed.

That autumn, the white men of Maryland began to discuss whether to free their slaves, as Davy had predicted. He and others began to make plans. Jasmine helped by finding places people could live and work once they were free. The debate over freedom dragged on, which gave them time to find more opportunities, but also increased suffering.

Benjamin died during this time. Jasmine did not hear the news in time to travel to his funeral, a fact she sore regretted. She cursed those who continued to ignore the inevitable end of slavery. Benjamin had deserved to live out his days in freedom; she had planned to give him a home.

In the last quarter of 1864–a time when it had become obvious that the Union would eventually prevail in the war–a bare majority of the white men of Maryland voted to outlaw slavery. Emancipation was set for November 1.

Olivia and several others arrived at Jasmine’s house on November 5, having taken a circuitous route to avoid those who still opposed emancipation. The trip was made more complicated by boisterous rallies around the pending presidential election.

Jasmine had found them homes with people in her neighborhood. Others had gone to Baltimore City and Annapolis, and a few were traveling to the mountains of western Maryland, where some earlier freedmen had set up a farm. Thanks to their planning, all the former slaves on the Calvert place had someplace to go.

But they brought no reports of what had become of the metalmen. Jasmine wondered and worried. Would Calvert come after her when he discovered his metalmen had souls? It was possible. She had built extra fortifications into her doors and windows, and had procured a gun, but she knew those things might offer little protection from a powerful white man.

Five nights later, an hour after midnight, she heard a light knock at the front. Peering out through the view panel she’d put in, she caught a glint of metal by the light of the almost-full moon. She opened the door to Maker.

“I’m here to let you know what has happened,” it said. It sat on a chair, as if it were human. Jasmine felt the urge to offer it a cup of tea.

“Preacher?” she asked.

“Dead,” it told her.

The word startled her. Decommissioned. That’s what people usually said about metalmen when they no longer functioned. “Did you bring it with you? Perhaps I can fix it.”

“No. Preacher cannot be fixed. The spark is gone and everything that made it whole is gone. If you put the parts together again, you would get someone else. We buried it out on Somervelt’s Island, when I took the rest of the people out there. It’s safe there for us, at least for now.”

“How did it happen?”

“Preacher had brought us a boat, so that we could leave on the morning of freedom. Your people were already gone when we gathered in the dawn to go ourselves. Calvert came rushing down to the dock, with his two sons and foreman, demanding to know what was going on.

“Preacher spoke. It was the first time Calvert had heard one of us speak, and it startled him, for he stepped back. ‘We are leaving,’ Preacher said. ‘We have souls and you have no right to us.’ And he showed him the mark.

“Calvert said, ‘Like Hell you are.’ He told his men, ‘Grab them,’ and reached out himself to pick up one of the smaller ones among us. Preacher said, ‘Let go,’ but Calvert drew out a pistol. He must have thought the threat would stop Preacher, because he didn’t even aim it. Preacher grabbed him then, and throttled him.”

Maker paused. “I think it had wanted to do that for a long time. It wanted to kill all those who denied us our freedom. The three other men fired their rifles at Preacher, hitting it in the head where all the wires come together, but Calvert was long dead before Preacher, too, let go of life. The others of my kind advanced on the men before they could reload their rifles. I might have been able to stop them. I did not try. I do not like killing, but I loved Preacher”

Calvert was her father and two of those men were her half brothers, and they had died horrifically. Jasmine tried to grieve for them, but found she cared more about the loss of Preacher. Her friendship with it had fulfilled her in a way that mocked the mere biological tie to men who had never acknowledged her as a human being, much less as a relative.

“In any case, I have come to tell you that you need fear nothing from those people. The men are dead, and the women have gone to the wife’s family, or so I have heard. Only ghosts are left.”

Jasmine sat there, relieved, sad, unsure of what might happen next. “I promised Preacher that I would fix the others when the time came, would give them fingers and eyes and voices. Shall I come with you to Somervelt’s Island, or will you bring them here in ones and twos?”

“You are not needed,” Maker said. “You gave me those things and I can now do them for others. I only came to tell you what happened. Now I must go back to take care of my people.”

“There are others of your kind, still enslaved. Will you go out and ensoul them so that they can be free?”

“I cannot. Only Preacher had that ability, and even it did not know where it came from. It died with it.” It paused. “We did what we could, you and I and Preacher. Take heart from that.”

Some saved, but not all, not nearly all. Jasmine had family to care for in an uncertain future world, responsibilities to her own she could not forsake. But she was tied to the metalmen, just as she was tied to family. It wasn’t enough, that she had helped some.

For now she would bide her time and raise her daughter. But she would do more, when she could. “I won’t forget,” she told Maker.

This story originally appeared in The Shadow Conspiracy, Volume III: Clockwork Souls.


Data?1539038417
Nancy Jane Moore

Nancy Jane Moore writes all kinds of speculative fiction at lengths from flash to novels.