Every year in January Cast of Wonders takes a break to catch our breath, plan out the year ahead, and highlight some of our favourite episodes from the year just passed.
We hope you enjoy Marguerite’s favorite story from 2014, Master Madrigal’s Mechanical Man by Scott C. Mikula, which originally aired March 23, 2014 as Cast of Wonders 120.
Master Madrigal’s Mechanical Man
by Scott C. Mikula
I tried to shut out the crowd’s roar, but the thunder of a thousand feet pounding above us in the arena stands rose until I could feel the breastplate of the mechanical swordsman vibrate beneath my touch. Master Madrigal gestured with his palsied hand for me to replace the automaton’s helmet, but I hesitated to examine the delicate inner workings. Just one small adjustment
A cuff to the back of my head arrested my motion. “We have spoken of this, Cetta,” said Madrigal. “There is no problem with the balance.” He crossed his arms, tucking his useless right hand out of sight beneath his sleeve.
I persuaded my mother to send me to her uncle Madrigal after his illness, when I was just twelve years old. The word apprentice was never used. Girls did not apprentice to craftsmen like Madrigal, and I don’t think he would have taken an apprentice in any case. He referred to me as his hands. My deft fingers did the work his no longer could.
“Yes, Master Madrigal.” I set the helmet as he had indicated, covering switches and levers and the gyroscope I believed flawed, but my belly roiled with indignation. Madrigal thought me no more intelligent than the automaton, as though my head, too, were full of switches and levers contrived to direct me to his bidding. But I held my tongue. Contesting Madrigal’s opinion would only make him sour and stubborn.
The applause gave way to a muted anticipation as Lybron, the opposing swordsman, made his way to his corner of the combat yard. He was handsome, with a mane of golden-yellow hair that flowed loose behind him. He stood with an easy grace, exuding pride like a strong perfume.
The crowd cheered when the mechanical swordsman entered the arena, but it was punctuated by hushed mutters and sideways glances. The duke, in his box at the head of the arena, clapped politely. I took the crowd’s agitation as a good sign; in previous contests, our fighter of steel and false-sinew had earned nothing but laughter and sneers. Today the crowd had seen it dispatch four lesser swordsmen, and if it defeated Lybron it would take the victor’s laurels and the duke’s purse.
“Cetta! Come.” I hopped at Madrigal’s words, realizing I had been watching Lybron. If the swordsman was worried about the fight, he did not show it. As we stepped back to the stands, he met my eyes and gave me a ready smile. I stared ice shards back at him; I am no simpering court lady, to be charmed by a warm look.
The official directed the contestants forward. Lybron bowed towards the automaton, an expansive, mocking gesture that brought a laugh from the crowd. The automaton mimicked the motion exactly, to an echo of nervous laughter. A crease of uncertainty appeared on Lybron’s brow, quickly replaced by calm readiness. Lybron and the automaton drew their swords, and at the official’s signal the fight began.
Beside me, Madrigal leaned forward, gaze level and unblinking. The crowd’s murmur fell to a hush as the combatants circled each other. Thick hide leather padded the soles of the automaton’s feet and made whispers of its steps on the sandy arena floor. And then, as a mountain cat falls on its prey, Lybron attacked.
He assaulted the mechanical swordsman in a flurry of blows, as though to overwhelm it with sheer aggression. Yellow hair leaped wildly, like flames dancing, but his face was cool and confident. For a moment it looked like he would succeed as the automaton fell back with each blow.
Such an attack would have intimidated any human opponent, perhaps caused him to be more tentative, more defensive. But our mechanical man knows nothing of fear or worry. It fended off Lybron’s blows, gave no more ground than necessary, and when it found opportunity it pressed its own attack. Its arms seemed too limber to be made of steel, but they wielded their heavy broadsword with deadly precision.
“He sees now I’ve offered him no straw man to hack at as if in the practice yard,” Madrigal said. The frenzied exchange between the combatants had given way to a lull. They regarded each other, circling like dogs preparing to fight over a haunch of meat. “No, this time he faces a skill akin to his own.”
“Its stance is still uneven when at high guard.”
“Hardly.” Madrigal didn’t look away from the bout, where the automaton readily countered Lybron’s probing strikes. “Its defenses have proved firm so far, and I find it unlikely Lybron will have greater success than any of the others.”
“Because the automaton is faster, not because it is better.” I wondered whether Madrigal truly could not see the defects in our work, or if he willfully chose to overlook them. In the workshop we measure perfection in angles and momentum and fractions of seconds, but there is no way to calculate the sum of those things until it is tested in the field of combat. There its flaws should be obvious to any eye. “With Lybron, every movement he makes flows into the next, and he keeps his poise under the fiercest attacks.”
“And next you will wax eloquent about how graceful he is, how his every motion is like the stroke of a painter’s brush or the notes of a minstrel’s lyre. Gods, girl, he smiles at you once and you’re like to lose all reason. These things are nothing more than ostentation and showmanship. You would have my automaton swagger and parade before the crowd like every other entrant. It is a machine, Cetta. It needs no empty pride, nor must it know how to be graceful before it can perform its function.”
I clenched my teeth. Was that all Madrigal thought of me? It was not as if I believed the automaton harbored some hidden aesthetic beneath its metal chassis, or that Hespa, the muse of battle, could guide its sword-strokes the way Lybron claimed she did his. “I’m saying that since we can observe the automaton’s faults, we must be able to correct them. It can be flawless.”
“On the combat grounds, the only qualities that matter are victory and defeat.” Madrigal spoke with a finality that said he would hear nothing more from me. I smoldered like a banked ember. How could he be so uninspired, to settle for something less than what was possible?
The pace of the fight had increased, the automaton becoming more aggressive as it adapted to its opponent’s fighting style. Lybron wore a lionish grin and met the automaton blow for blow. They were well matched, but where our automaton got by on its speed and strength and consistency, Lybron fought like a flower petal on the wind, responding without thought to every turn and eddy of the battle. Beside him the mechanical swordsman looked cumbrous and awkward. Nothing so dramatic as a lurch or a misstep, but where a parry should have flowed effortlessly into a counterattack there was a hitch, like a scuff on polished leather. When Lybron pressed close, their swords locked together, I could see the slight waver before the automaton thrust him away. Tiny things, but each a vulnerability, if only for the span of a heartbeat.
As if to belie the flaws I observed, the automaton scored a resounding blow against Lybron’s armor. The swordsman staggered, a wide dent evident in his left shoulder plate, but he managed to duck away from the automaton’s following swing. Madrigal gripped the railing before him with his good hand, himself coiled as tightly as the master springs that lay in the automaton’s chest.
Sweat beaded on Lybron’s forehead, glistening in the sunlight. He was getting the worst of it now, giving ground more often than he took it. The automaton moved too quickly, responding to Lybron’s movements almost before he made them. Confidence had been replaced by grim determination. Even on the defensive, he fought with deadly grace, closer to a dance than a battle. But he was flagging, hard on breath, and the automaton continued implacably. I knew Lybron was too focused on fending it off to take advantage of–or even see–the tiny openings I had observed. It was only a matter of time before the mechanical swordsman bested Lybron, and the crowd knew it. There were no more whistles or shouts of encouragement, but every eye watched the melee with rapt attention.
A bell sounded the end of the first combat round. It was a concession to the human participant; our swordsman could have fought for hours without tiring, but this was a contest of skill, not endurance. The automaton halted its attack immediately, set the point of its sword on the ground, and rested both palms on the hilt. It could have been a statue. Lybron conjured a smile to his face, but I could see the strain it took to stand straight and wave to the crowd. His breath came in pants. The next round of combat would not go well for him.
“Come, Cetta.” Madrigal kept his face impassive, but I detected a self-satisfied jaunt to his steps as I followed him into the combat yard. Lybron eyed us, but I stared pointedly past him. At Madrigal’s direction I examined the automaton, seeing that none of the joints had seized, that no sign of wear or weakness had appeared on its limbs. There was none; Lybron had not managed to lay a single solid blow on the automaton. My hand lingered at the helmet. I wanted to remove it, to see if perhaps an adjustment to the gyroscope…but Madrigal would never permit it.
One of the duke’s representatives in blue and white livery approached Madrigal. Madrigal made me a curt motion with his good hand: leave us. Of course. I was just a tool. Just a pair of hands. Not worthy to know what the duke had to say. Not smart enough, in Madrigal’s eyes, to see the automaton’s flaws or how to mend them. Indignation like bitter venom ran in my veins.
I stalked back towards the stands, seething, but hesitated as I came near Lybron. His eyes flitted to mine, not smiling this time, but wary. What business could I have with him? He was the opponent.
I glanced at Madrigal, but he was intent in conversation with the duke’s man. Leaning close to Lybron, I spoke quickly and softly.
Madrigal surveyed the mechanical man on the workbench. One arm was completely mangled. The network of small pneumatic tubes that controlled the fingers was severed and leaked fluid like pale, greasy blood. One of the small blue gems that served as the automaton’s eyes had been knocked from its socket, and the head twisted at an awkward angle where it had met the hard arena floor. I worked to replace the shattered forearm casing in satisfied silence.
“Careful with that,” Madrigal snapped, but he wasn’t looking at me. Consumed in thought, he examined the schematics rolled out before him. He grumbled to himself–I caught something about gimbles and minimizing external torque and made a short notation. He was already formulating improvements, new possibilities.
I did not betray my master, whatever you might think. I don’t enjoy seeing the mechanical man bested and broken. But, understand, I saw its weakness. I always see its weaknesses. Madrigal is a genius at his craft, but he is blind to some things. It falls to me to point them out, however I must.
Our mechanical man could have bested Lybron today. It could have earned the champion’s laurels and the thousand crown prize from the duke. That might be enough for my master, but it’s not enough for me. He can hit me, he can belittle me, he can pretend I’m worthless. None of that matters. What matters is that when we’re finished, Madrigal and I, our mechanical man won’t merely be the best–it will be perfect.
About the Author
Scott is a husband, father, software developer, board gamer, swing dancer, and has been told he makes a mean chocolate chip cookie. On his better days he is also a writer. His fiction has appeared in Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, Nature, and Cricket magazine. He lives in Washington State.
About the Narrators
Graeme Dunlop is a Software Solution Architect. Despite his somewhat mixed accent, he was born in Australia. He loves the spoken word and believes it has the ability to lift the printed word above and beyond cold words on a page. He and Barry J. Northern founded Cast of Wonders in 2011 and can be found narrating or hosting the occasional episode, or working on projects behind the scenes. He has read stories for all of Escape Artists podcasts. Graeme lives in Melbourne, Australia with his wife Amanda, and crazy boy dog, Jake. Follow him on Twitter.
Marguerite Kenner (she/her) is a California transplant living in the UK city named after her favorite pastime.
She runs Escape Artists with her partner Alasdair Stuart, and practices as a technology lawyer in London. She loves to voice minor characters in podcasts and play video games, often where people can watch.
Her contributions to genre fiction include being a 2021 Hugo Award Finalist, editing Cast of Wonders from 2013 to 2019, project groups for too many industry orgs to count anymore, community organising, mentoring, and teaching business skills to creatives.
You can follow her adventures across various social media platforms.
About the Artist
Barry is a game developer based in Bournemouth, England making freemium games for clients such LEGO and the BBC. His latest game is breaking all records on iOS, not surprising with a title like L”. It’s for younger kids, but if you fancy blasting alien brains check out LEGO Hero Factory Brain Attack.
All this game developing has meant that Barry hasn’t been as active in the podcasting and fiction world as he used to be. He still does the occasional narration for other shows, such as The Drabblecast, and appears on Cast of Wonders from time to time.