Based on Wizards of the Coast’s Dungeons & Dragons (5e)
“Very good, X27,” said the kindly, old man. “Now do it again.”
The automaton picked up the hand cannon on the workbench in front of it and began to rapidly disassemble it. Each individual piece was placed carefully in the exact position where it had begun a few minutes earlier. Once disassembly was complete, the automaton began to reconstruct the weapon. The process was exceedingly simple, every part was clearly destined for a specific purpose, in an exact position within the whole. Nothing could be clearer.
When the hand cannon was once again assembled, resting on the workbench, the old man spoke again.
“Flawless! I have high hopes for you, X27, I do believe you are going to be exactly the solution that I’ve been seeking. Now, pick up that weapon, load it and kill the loathsome creature in the cage.”
The automaton picked up the weapon, loaded it as instructed and turned toward the corner of the room. A large metal cage contained a bullywug, who was shivering with fear and pressing his back against the rear bars, desperate to gain as much distance as possible from the automaton.
X27 observed the creature for a split second, long enough to locate its most vulnerable vital organs. The automaton snapped the weapon up and targeted the prisoner’s heart. The bullywug cried out, a pitiful, wordless sound. X27 paused.
“Why?” the automaton asked.
“What?” the old man shouted, visibly agitated. “What did you say?”
“Master, why must I kill the creature in the cage?” X27 asked again.
All traces of kindness vanished from the old man’s face and he stomped across the room toward the automaton, cursing thunderously. He removed the weapon from X27’s hand and picked up a tool sparkling with arcane energy.
“Back to the drawing board with you!” the man declared.
Confused, but vaguely relieved, X27 waited patiently while it felt its head being wrenched open. After several moments of wildly strange sensations, its awareness abruptly ceased.
“That’s more like it!” the old man cheered. “Well done, X28!”
The automaton looked at the dead bullywug lying on the floor of the cage, with a gaping hole in its chest, spurting blood. X28 looked down at its hands, studying the firearm it was holding and the smoke emanating from its barrel. The weapon had functioned perfectly, which made X28 feel content. It looked up at the old man’s face, who was smiling down at the automaton adoringly. The affection X28 read in its master’s face was pleasing.
The automaton turned back to the corpse and frowned. Something about killing the creature did not feel right to X28.
“I have a new task for you,” the old man began calmly. “A final test. Come here and take a look at this.”
X28 lowered its weapon and walked across the workshop. The old man took a seat at a drafting table and indicated a sheet of parchment, densely covered with drawings, notes and calculations. X28 studied it for a moment before looking up at the old man for further instruction.
“This is not like your previous exercises,” the man explained. “I confess to you, with great humility, that I do not know if this device can actually be built. I have spent many years analyzing and refining my design. I have built and tested a great many prototypes, but unfortunately, something is missing. Do you understand?”
“Yes, master,” X28 replied.
“Good. This is the reason I constructed you. The others mocked me when I began working on you, you know. ‘We have the perfect, unfailingly loyal soldiers at our disposal,” they said. ‘Why in the world would you want an automaton that can think for itself?’ But I told them, ‘Who better to perfect the ultimate weapon, than an animate weapon?’ Well, they had a good laugh at my expense, but we’ll see who laughs loudest when I show them what I–no, what we–create together!”
X28 stared at the old man as he spoke. It occurred to the automaton that while this man had spent a great deal of time and effort determining whether or not X28 was operating as intended, during all that time, no one had checked whether the man was himself fully functional.
“Now, have a seat,” the old man instructed. He moved aside to allow X28 to climb into the chair facing the drafting table. “Take as long as you need to–”
X28 had already picked up the quill and was crossing out several equations. It began writing revised figures and calculations, then moved on to making adjustments to the diagrams themselves.
“Yes!” the old man whispered excitedly as he read over X28’s shoulder. “How did I miss that?”
After several minutes of continuous work, X28 put down the quill and looked up at its master. The old man feverishly reviewed the final changes then cheered loudly. He picked up the automaton and swung it in a circle, laughing gleefully, before dropping it with a grunt of pain.
“You’re a bit too heavy for my old back,” the man laughed. “You’ve done it! I’m certain of it! This is the key to wiping Vusten off of the map, once and for all! Now, we just need to build it! What are we waiting for?”
The old man began rummaging in a wooden crate, throwing out parts and tools as he searched inside.
“Correction: the device will not be suitable for making adjustments to maps,” X28 cautioned.
The old man laughed and looked up at his creation.
“That was an idiom,” he explained. “It means to thoroughly destroy a place.”
“Vusten is a large and heavily populated kingdom,” X28 recalled from its programming. “Query: where will the people of Vusten go once their country has been wiped off of the map?”
“Eh?” the old man cocked an eyebrow at the automaton. “Go? They’ll all be destroyed along with their wretched country, of course!”
He resumed his investigation inside the wooden crate, cursing softly to himself. X28 processed the man’s words.
“Why?” it asked simply.
The old man froze. Slowly, he straightened and turned a malevolent glare at the automaton. X28 inadvertently took a step backward.
“That blasted question again!” the man screamed. “How many times must I rebuild you to exorcise that confounded question once and for all?”
X28 took another step backward, retreating from the old man’s sudden fury.
“You want to know why?” the master seethed, stalking maliciously toward his creation. “You want to know why all of those thrice-cursed Vustenese should die? Because I wish it! They are my enemies, you are my tool. Your task is to aid me to vanquish my enemies! See? It’s simple!”
X28 could physically feel the malice emanating from the man. The automaton felt afraid. It decided that it did not like the master.
“No,” X28 squeaked.
The veins in the old man’s face and neck bulged and his eyes looked like they were about to pop out of his head.
“No?!?” he shrieked. “What do you mean ‘no’?”
“I do not wish to complete the task that you have described,” X28 stated.
“You do not wish?” the old man threw his head back and laughed maniacally. “Now it has wishes of its own! What gods have I crossed to deserve this?”
He grabbed a tool, sparkling with arcane energy, and stomped toward X28, still cackling unnervingly. X28 backed away from the man.
“Hold still!” the man commanded threateningly.
“No,” the automaton responded defiantly, dashing across the room. It glanced around, fully analyzing the room for the first time. It noted a window as a possible means of egress.
“I said hold still, damn you!” the man lunged at X28, but the automaton deftly avoided his grasping hands.
Screaming in rage and frustration the man made several increasingly violent attempts to capture the automaton. X28 found itself next to the drafting table. It grabbed the parchment and made a final dash toward the window.
“NO!” the man screamed.
X28 jumped on to the window sill and looked out into the sunny world beyond. It was suddenly filled with a sense of optimism that it had never experienced before.
“Goodbye, master,” the automaton called cheerfully over its shoulder.
“Blasted hell!” Powder complained loudly as he cranked his gyrometer inside the smoking arcane ballista.
“Where the hell did you learn language like that, you mangy, turd-biter?” Wade Reine shouted from the other side of the massive weapon.
“From your mother,” Powder grunted in reply, continuing his work.
“I should never have pulled your water-logged carcass out of the Adriax,” Wade replied cheerfully.
Powder made a final adjustment and the torrent of black smoke wafting from the ship-mounted engine of destruction diminished to a steady stream. A pleasant, magical hum began within the device.
“Yeah, and if you hadn’t, you’d be turning away yet another unsatisfied customer,” Powder commented triumphantly.
“I’d make a comment about your mother too, only I know you never had one,” Wade muttered.
Powder shook his head as he packed up his tools. He always enjoyed paying Wade Reine a visit. Aside from the grouchy centenarian’s winning personality, the water genasi had a steady stream of customers with interesting problems to solve. Those were the reasons Powder revealed out loud, anyway. He admitted to himself that the truth was that Wade Reine was the only person he felt genuine affection for.
Standing up, Powder scratched at a patch of his black fur. An adjacent piece of fur fell away and Powder bent over to inspect the area. His eyes widened as he discovered that his metallic skin was showing and inscribed upon it, with precise calligraphy, were the symbols X28.
Powder hurriedly reached into his bag of tools and pulled out a tube of glue. He applied it generously and stuck the fur back into place. When he was done he glanced around nervously, looking for any sign that he had been observed.
“Don’t worry,” Wade said quietly. “The only living souls for three miles around, beside us, are hammered on rum inside that crappy hut.”
Powder hid his relief. He casually picked up his tools.
“That’s because no one else hates themselves enough to visit your chicken-crap excuse for a drydock,” he remarked as he headed for the shore.
Wade chuckled softly and followed him. “So how long will you be staying at my chicken-crap drydock this time around?”
“Just a few days,” Powder answered.
“You in trouble again?” Wade asked with an unmistakable tone of fatherly judgement.
“Unfortunately not,” Powder reassured him. “Just between jobs, is all.”
Wade made a sound that implied disbelief, but he did not press any further.
For three years, Powder had made his way West, trying to put as much distance between himself and Master as possible. He had found that he had detailed knowledge of geography to call upon, but societal norms and laws were another matter entirely. More times than he could count, Powder had been arrested, beaten or thrown overboard.
By the time Wade Reine had found a dejected automaton sitting motionlessly on the sea floor, off the coast of Yslid, he had heard several tall tales about a renegade mechanical man. The water genasi had initially recovered Powder as potentially valuable salvage. When he had realized that Powder had a mind of his own, he had taken pity on the morose creature. He gave him a new name and modified his appearance to prevent association with his past.
“I know a little something about needing a fresh start,” Wade had explained. “Whatever people have heard about the old you, they won’t know anything about a smart-talking, black-furred, raccoon man.”
When Powder had finally regained enough confidence to make his own way, he had been eager to explore the world with an entirely new perspective, learned from his rescuer. He was no longer the gullible, clueless runaway automaton. He was a braniac gun-for-hire. To his infinite pleasure, Powder had found bountiful opportunities to exploit his weapons expertise. He had started small, but he knew that he was ready for something bigger.
Powder stopped walking and turned to face Wade.
“The truth is,” Powder began, fighting to keep his voice steady, “I’m going away for a while.”
Wade shrugged and feigned a look of disinterest, but Powder knew him too well to be fooled.
“None of my business,” the old genasi grumbled.
“I came by because I wanted to thank you, for everything. If it weren’t for you…”
“You’re not going to cry on me, are you?”
“Thank you, Wade. And goodbye. I’m going to miss you.”
Wade blinked hard, nodding vigorously and looked away for a moment.
“Yup,” he replied, sounding choked up. He cleared his throat and added “you’re welcome back any time, of course. Them pirates always pay extra to have their guns looked at.”
“Let’s go collect on that ballista repair,” Powder concluded.
The pair walked in silence into the shabby hut nearby, ringing with a dozen drunken voices.