STORIES FROM THE NORTHERN ROAD features four interlinked stories set in the Penrose Universe.
The following is the first of those four stories.
Four Blind Horses
John Bull came walking into town, advice leading four blind horses, and all the robots came out from the forge to see him.
“Ho, there stranger,” said Smith, taking in the worn brass of the other man’s hands and feet, the tin solder at his seams. There was a faint squeaking of joints as John Bull turned to the leading horse, and Smith thought that at the very least this man would be in want of lubrication. “Come into the forge, traveller, and let us see what we can do to make good your tired body.” And though his words were full of welcome, both Beth and Nel noted the way he looked at Reynold as he spoke.
Now, John Bull did not answer straight away, rather he turned and whispered something into the leading horse’s ear. The assembled robots listened hard to hear what he said, but the words they could not hear. Still, the lead horse halted, as did those that followed behind, and their metal heads were lowered as they rested, and finally John Bull turned to greet them.
“Well met, good fellow,” he called. “My name is John Bull, and I’m looking for a robot who can service these four fine animals!”
At that he stood aside and invited the robots of the forge to come forward and inspect the beasts. This they did, running their hands over the fine metal of the horses’ bodies.
“I can service these horses,” said Smith, thoughtfully, “but my work will not come cheaply.”
“There is a fine line to these creatures,” interrupted young Nel, running his hand down a steel flank. “Who built them?”
“I did,” said John Bull.
“Did you now?” said Reynold, who had never amounted to much himself, and so was always willing to believe as little possible of others. He gazed tellingly at the poor quality of John Bull’s panelling, at the sloppy beading of the solder that held the mismatched metal of his body together. “And yet you present yourself to us dressed in this way?”
John Bull shrugged; the metal at his shoulders squeaked and scraped as he did so.
“It would be a poor master who put his own needs before that of his animals,” he said.
At that the other robots laughed loudly.
“Caught you out there, didn’t he?” laughed Midge, who didn’t like Reynold. “Caught you out good and proper!”
Reynold scowled, and as he did so Beth noticed what they all had missed. She leant closer to the animals’ heads and asked the significant question.
“Why are they all blind?”
“They are,” said Nel, “They are, an’ all.”
The assembled robots pushed closer to examine the horses’ eyes for themselves.
“Blind,” said Midge. “No glow to them at all! Why?”
“Ah,” said John Bull. “There lies a tale. Perhaps if you could see fit to service these animals, and maybe offer some meagre repairs to my body, I could tell that story? For I cannot pay by any other means, as I have no money. The only possessions I have are these horses.”
The robots looked at Smith, who made a show of inspecting the lead horse. It was taller than him, made of good grey iron plates that slid smoothly over each other as the animal moved. He placed a hand on a flank and felt the pulse of the electromuscle beneath. Truth be told, these creatures were built with a skill that surpassed his own, yet he would not admit that to the townsfolk. He looked again at John Bull and the cheap plating of that robot’s body and doubted very much his claim that he had built these beasts. Stolen, he guessed. Well, he wouldn’t be the first to fall under the spell of well engineered metal.
Or the last.
“Well?” said Beth. The young woman couldn’t keep the excitement from her voice. Smith shook his head.
“Service these four fine horses for a story?” he said. “That is too low a price, when a smith must pay for coal for the fire and metal for the forge. It would ill serve my reputation, or my self respect to grant my services for such a fee. But I am a charitable man and this forge has ever been a welcome place to the traveller. So for the price of a story I will fix the solder on your joints and I will darn the knots in your electromuscle.”
And at these words, he looked significantly at Reynold and Maggs, who smiled and gave him a slow nod in return.
“A fair price!” agreed Reynold loudly. He held out an arm in welcome. “Come into the forge, John Bull, and sit down! The day is spent, and night is on, and the ghosts roam the land. Come in here where it is safe and the metal is warm and ready to pour.”
John Bull looked to his four fine horses.
“I’ll look after them,” said Beth, eagerly. “They’ll be safe with me.”
“Very well,” he said, though he hesitated before he answered. He whispered something into the lead horse’s ear that none of them caught, and then stepped from the deepening twilight into the red glow of the forge. The other robots closed in around him from behind, and it was as if he were being shepherded through the gates into the final forge of life itself.
Alone outside, Beth admired the four blind animals.
John Bull sat down on a stone chair and watched as Smith drew a glowing iron from the fire and used it to melt away the tin solder from his body. He lifted his arms and legs as Smith and Reynold removed the cheap iron plating and laid it on the ground. The assembled robots looked with wonder at the electromuscles revealed beneath.
“Whew,” whistled Nel. “Maybe you did build those horses yourself!”
“That’s good work there,” said Smith, now feeling a little unnerved at the thought of what John Bull would think of his own workmanship. Then he remembered that it wouldn’t matter in the end anyway. He looked up at Reynold and Maggs who gave him a slow smile, then he turned back to the stranger.
“Well, John Bull, I’ve begun my part of the bargain. What about you? Where is this story of yours? Why are those four fine horses blind?”
John Bull settled back in the stone seat as Smith set to work. He began to tell his story.
“A long time ago, when this land was still untouched by robot and the trees and the plants still grew in profusion across the honest stone, a man walked through the wilderness. And this man sensed that there was iron beneath the ground, for this man’s father knew the way to build a son, and had built a compass into his son’s body and taught him how to use it.
Now, this man sensed the iron in the ground, and he wondered what to do with it. For he was too mean to share it; he was too scared to share it; for he feared that other robots would rob him of his claim, and maybe he was right, for in those days, robots would rob and even kill each other for the metal to make their children. And it is so even now.”
John Bull didn’t notice the look Smith and Reynold and Maggs gave each other at his words. He continued his story.
“But the man was mean, and meanness does not only make one hoard what one has, but it infests the spirit and causes one to resent the hoards of others. And so that man thought long and hard on what to do with this bounty, until he decided upon a plan.
That night, he fashioned his hands into shovels. And he began to dig, down through the soil and down through the rock. Day after day he laboured; shifting pebbles and stones until eventually he reached the lode. Iron, almost pure, red and rusting, a dark slug sleeping beneath the earth.
He peeled away the iron and made himself two bodies thereof, to someday be a son and a daughter.
But only when he looked at those two bodies did he realise what will have been obvious to you all, that he could not make children alone. For it was only then, such was the hold that that lust for iron had over him, that he remembered that he would need a woman to twist the wire for his children’s minds.
And so he crept back to the places where other robots lived and worked, and he lay in wait for a woman to come walking past. And a women came walking by, and he captured her, and he brought her back to the wilderness where he kept her as his prisoner.
He chose well in his captive, for the woman was weak and mean, just as he was weak and mean, and she too fell under the spell of the great lode of iron. Soon she began to think like the man, and so they both sacrificed their lives to wealth that they could never spend.
The woman twisted the man’s wire and made minds for the children. And then they dug down into the earth again, and left those two children alone in the dark.
“Listen to what I say, good robots, that you can understand the true horror of what those two parents had done! That they left those children to grow up alone in the dark, where they would know each other and no others. And what of the parents? They crept away, leaving their children forgotten, leaving their precious lode forgotten, for they could not get it themselves and they could not bear to see it spent by others.
“Now listen to my story: the boy and the girl grew in darkness, knowing nothing but the feel of soil and the heat of the underground, and above all else, they felt the rich tang of the iron. It was a constant presence as they grew until the day came when the urge to reproduce was upon them. And so the maiden knelt and twisted the wire of the boy and they made children, only they made them without the ability to see. And why not, for what reason could one have for seeing, who lives their life in darkness?
Now they were man and woman. And they raised their children in that plentiful world of darkness, and their children had children of their own.
This is the way they reproduced in the dark, using up the iron from the great iron slug, until it was all gone. But still the race lives down there, building robots out of dead robots. And they are down there still, having adopted themselves to their unnatural life, with their smaller arms and legs, and no eyes, but with larger hands so they can feel. And their minds are stunted, because a mind made only from iron is not a healthy mind nor a full mind, and the life force cannot be magnified by such a mind.
And someday, someone will turn the soil and dig down, and disturb that dark nest and they will come boiling out into our world, black and stunted and ugly.
And this is the story of the cripples under the world.”
John Bull smiled as he finished his story and held his hands out wide.
Smith looked up from where knelt at John Bull’s feet, pretending to tune the stranger’s body. Truth be told, the weave of the stranger’s electromuscle was beyond his skill to repair, so he lubricated and tightened, tuned and greased what he could.
“I don’t get it!” said Nel. “Is that why the horses are blind? Are you saying they came from that underground world?”
“Not at all,” said John Bull. “Listen on. For some say that this story is but a parable, and that really it reveals a truth about us who live above ground. Perhaps we, who walk in the sun, have long forgotten the real world, and when we build our bodies we unwittingly cripple ourselves. We make our arms to reach a few feet when perhaps once we reached to the top of the trees, or maybe to the mountains, or even to the stars. We build our eyes to see in the day, but we have forgotten how to see at night. And, just as the cripples under the world had only iron for their minds, perhaps we too are lacking the true metals and so our minds are dim and the life force has grown weak inside us.”
“The lifeforce is strong enough in me!” laughed Reynold.
“Aye! And me,” agreed Maggs.
“I’m sure it is,” said John Bull, “But I do not intend to insult you. Rather, I say this, that maybe someday we will see a true robot. It will descend from the stars and walk among us, and we shall see once again how a true robot is shaped, and we shall learn to build ourselves anew.”
“Or maybe we will see a true robot and we will turn on it, and destroy it out of fear or jealousy.”
“Why should we do that?”
“And some say there is no true robot, there are only robots.”
At this Reynold grew angry, and why should he not? Because Reynold was preparing great to do great harm to John Bull, and when robots do evil, they seek excuses to justify their actions.
“John Bull!” he declared in disgust. “You have come here into our forge and accepted our hospitality in return for a story, and this is all you give us?”
John Bull looked down at where Smith was failing to read the pattern of the weave in the electromuscle of his calves.
“This is poor hospitality indeed,” he announced to the forge at large. “This man is a poor smith, who cannot mend my legs.”
“Mend your legs? What sort of a man are you? I have never seen such work before! And as for your horses!” Smith rose to his feet. This was a signal for Reynold and Maggs to do the same, the latter sliding a black awl from within his body, and holding it tight in his palm. The three of them moved towards the stranger, who did not seem to realise the danger he was in.
“Where did you find those horses, stranger? Did you steal them or make them yourself?”
“I made them.” John Bull remained seated, seemingly unconcerned by his nakedness.
“Hey,” said Nel, seeing the awl in Maggs’s hand, jet black with wickedness. “Hey, what are you doing, Maggs? Leave him alone! I want to know about the horses!”
Smith looked at Maggs. He wanted to know about the horses, too. There was something about John Bull and the way he had spoken to the lead animal that unnerved him. He gestured for his partner to hold off for the moment.
“Okay stranger. Maybe you don’t like my work, but I’ve lead and iron and copper to forge. Aye, and even a little silver and gold. I can’t fix your electromuscle but I will melt two buckets of lead and hammer out your panelling and seal up your body well against the winter rain. That should be ample payment for the tale you promised us. Is that not fair?”
“That is fair.”
“Good. So, tell me then, why did you build those horses, if it was you that built them?”
John Bull settled himself back into the stone chair. The forge was untidy, full of broken metal and clinker. He stirred a rusty piece of wire with his foot.
“Why would anyone make a horse?” he asked. He tapped at his head. “The wire in a robot’s mind can think, it has strength of its own, but sometimes more strength is required, so a robot will twist metal that is strong but can think only poorly, and so he will make an animal. This is what I did, for I heard the story of the cripples under the world, and I wondered that if any robot was to find those robots, then why should that robot not be me? And so I travelled, and I asked questions, and eventually I found a place where the plants and trees grew in profusion across the honest stone, and I placed my ear to the ground. And what did you think I heard?”
“What did you hear?” asked Nel.
John Bull lowered his voice.
“Shouting. Crying. Screaming. Terrible, terrible screaming. I heard voices below the ground and the sound of fighting. I heard the sound of people locked in war.”
“What was happening down there?” asked Nel, horrorstruck.
“How long would it take a group of robots to mine all that metal?” asked John Bull. “Fifty years? A hundred? And then, what would they do? Living in a world surrounded by stone, knowing no better? They fought! They were fighting each other for metal! Tearing each other apart to make their own bodies!”
“That’s horrible!” said Nel.
“The imagination magnifies what it cannot see,” said John Bull. “There I squatted, my ear to the ground, and such pictures arose in my mind. What was I to do? Well, back then I only had one fine horse. It took us a week to clear a way into that world. There were rocks so large that it tore the electromuscles in the legs of the animal as it fought to move them. My horse struggled in the harness under a blazing sun, the metal of its back so hot that the plastic on my fingers melted to touch it.”
Nel looked at John Bull’s bare copper fingers, the plastic from the tips long gone.
“I spent the nights under the glow of Zuse, the night moon, doing what I could to repair that horse of mine, but metal was scarce out there. Still, I comforted myself with the thought of what I would find when I broke into that underground world. Metal enough to mend my horses. Metal to make me rich! Metal to make a thousand children! But I was a fool. I didn’t know the hell that I was about to enter.”
John Bull looked across at the old and badly maintained forge, where two buckets of lead solder were now bubbling, silvery patterns dancing on the surface of the molten metal.
“The solder is ready, Smith. Will you begin your work?”
With bad grace, Smith picked John Bull’s chest panel and took it to the anvil. He began to beat out some of the dents with a hammer. The clang of metal on metal filled the forge with a homely sound.
“And so, finally, on the eighth day, I made an entrance to that world. Drove a spike into the rock and heaved with all my strength. Gradually I forced a hole wider and wider, and for the first time, I let sunlight into that underground place. A single yellow shaft, fallen unnoticed into that blind kingdom. Can you imagine it? A widening band of yellow light, a circle on that forsaken crowd, and not one of them knowing it?”
“I can imagine it!” said Nel.
“I worked to widen the hole. Smashing away yellow rock around the lip with a hammer, and then I fell prey to my own foolishness.”
“Those robots may have been blind. They were not deaf! Hands came reaching up from the rock. Not silver grey polished hands, such as you and I may wear. These hands were red and rough, metal and stone mixed together. There was no smelting done, down there in that dark and fireless world. Such metal as they had was crushed and squeezed directly from the rock. And now those horrible red hands were reaching out into the sunlight, reaching for me and my horse, seeking to drag us down! The horse was screaming, panicking! Two red hands grabbed my legs, you can see the dents on the panelling still…”
The robots in the forge all looked down at the battered half tubes that lay on the floor, their imagination filling in the details.
“…and those hands began to drag me down, down, into the world without light. Fresh metal to be torn apart and woven to make their children. The horse was backing away, terrified. I only just managed to grab onto its hobbles, I held on tight as it backed away, kicking as I did so, managing to shake myself free as I was dragged clear. And so I found myself fetched up at the top of the pit that me and my fine horse had dug, looking down at those red hands, watching them, fearful at what was about to emerge from that world.
“And what came?”
John Bull looked slowly around the forge, meeting the eyes of each of the robots in their turn.
“Nothing!” he said. “Nothing. The hands withdrew. I waited and I waited, and then it gradually came to me what I was seeing… Rocks and stones were being slotted into place from beneath. And I understood. Those robots were sealing themselves up again! They wanted no part of our world!”
He looked around the dirty, squalid forge again.
“I waited, watching to be sure, and night fell. Night fell and the moon arose, and I brooded. I had not come so far, sacrificed so much, to go home empty handed. I needed to enter that world again. That world where red robots who had never seen fire spitefully fought each other. Aye! Selfish and spiteful and cowardly they were, because I realised now that they knew of the world outside, but they preferred to stay locked in their tiny world where they felt strong.”
At this John Bull looked deliberately around the forge. Looked at Smith and Reynold and Maggs.
“But why?” asked Nel. “I can’t believe they would do such a thing! Not when they knew there was a world outside!”
“Ah, but there’s more,” said John Bull. “Remember, they were blind! Have you not noticed, that when a wicked deed that passes unseen, the perpetrator is emboldened? A robot may sell shoddy goods, or perform second rate repairs, or exploit his fellow robots in mines deep beneath the world, if he thinks his deeds pass unnoticed by his peers. And he will go on doing so, as long as no one comments upon what he does.”
He paused, but if Smith and Reynold and Maggs looked at each other for even a moment, if they took their hands from their weapons or they felt a moment’s shame at their thoughts, then no one noticed.
“Consider my fine horse,” said John Bull. “I tried to lead it back into that pit, but it refused. It screamed and pulled and panicked and refused to take but one step forward. But after I had blinded it, it allowed itself to be led.”
“How did you blind it?” asked Nel.
“With an awl. I stuck it into its eyes and ground the glass and the electric cells behind them with the hard tip. I could have unscrewed the eyes, but it was panicking. This was the quickest way.
“And so I harnessed my fine horse and unhobbled it and I led it further along the ground, listening all the time, trying to find another suitable point to enter that underground kingdom.”
At that he fell silent, lost in thought.
“What happened then?” prompted Nel.
Smith had finished hammering away John Bull’s panelling. He brought it back to the robot, fitted it close around him. Maggs brought the bucket of hot lead solder from the fire.
“What happened?” asked Nel again.
Reynold gave a thin laugh. “And then he broke his way back into that kingdom with his blind horse and he stole away the people, one by one. Ain’t that right, John Bull?”
“But I don’t understand,” said Nel, suddenly. “Where did the other horses come from? And why are they all blind?”
“Oh, that’s easy,” said John Bull. “Because animals and robots prefer not see the truth. When a horse is blind as to where you are truly leading it, it will follow you anywhere. Is that not right, Smith?”
At that moment, on the signal from Smith, Maggs tipped the bucket of molten lead, sending it running down the criss-crossing electromuscle in John Bull’s legs. The robot screamed as the heat surged through his electromuscle, but now Smith and Reynold pinned his arms, and Maggs was running the stone bucket back and forth over the other leg, sending silver grey lead running down inside the woven metal of his thigh electromuscle, to burn it and short it and to harden it so that he could not move.
John Bull screamed, and he struggled, tried to pull his arms free, but Smith and Reynold held on too tightly. Maggs dropped the first bucket on the floor and headed back to the fire to retrieve the second one.
John Bull tried to kick his legs, to shake out the lead that was poured inside them, but the metal was already tacky, gumming up his works, pouring its heat into him.
“Not so clever are you now, John Bull?” hissed Smith in his ear, holding onto the stricken robot’s arm with all his considerable strength. “All that rust about robots under the earth and blind horses. That sort of thing may play well out on the Zernike Plain, it may get you a bit of free lead or tin in those mined out parts, but not here. This is Stark. We know about good machinery in this State. Well, those four fine horses outside are good machinery, and we’re going to have them.”
Maggs had taken the second bucket of lead from the fire, and he was bringing it up to John Bull.
“A head full of lead,” said Smith. “Pour it over the twisted wire of his mind!”
“No!” called Nel. “You’ll kill him!”
“Quiet Nel. This does not concern you!”
“But he’s done you no harm!”
“Get outside, Nel! And if you speak of this to any robot, it will be you next in the stone chair!”
The young robot looked at John Bull, and then at Smith, and then he ran from the forge, leaving the wide door slightly ajar.
“All fine,” said Smith. “Now Maggs, pour the lead, and then we’ll take those horses, thank you very much.” Smith grinned. “I’ll fit them with eyes and sell them off at a fine profit.”
John Bull laughed. And it was such an unexpected sound in that dim untidy space that everyone held still for a moment.
“Fit eyes if you want, Smith,” laughed John Bull, “But you’ll never see them again if you do. They’ll run away, back to the places where I found them. You heard what I said. People will follow you quite happily as long as you don’t let them see the truth. People don’t want to know where they’re going!”
Maggs hesitated, the heavy stone bucket swaying in the tongs.
“Don’t just stand there!” called Smith. “Get the skull off him. Pour the lead in his brain!”
“Can’t you hear this out there?” John Bull shouted. “How will you ever get home without me to lead you?”
“No one to hear you out there,” said Reynold, with grim satisfaction, and then he froze. There was a banging on the door. The sound of hooves on metal. It came again.
“In you come!” called John Bull. “In you come, my four fine horses.”
The four blind horses came stamping into the room, their metal hooves ringing on the stone floor. They skidded on the rusty scraps of old metal that littered the forge, they tipped over the racks of tongs and hammers. They whinnied and reared, and sent hot colas scattering across the room.
Maggs dropped the bucket on the floor, sent hot lead splashing in a silver grey stream across the floor that set as it ran. Smith and Reynold let go of John Bull, they seized hammers from nearby to defend themselves against the horses that set about wrecking the forge.
And in the confusion John Bull pulled an awl from inside his casing and stabbed Reynold in the skull. Stabbed up under the chin, deep into the brain where he twisted the awl around the wire of his mind and then pulled it out in long blue loops, stretching his thoughts and robbing him of his life, his empty body falling to the floor in a clatter of metal. Then John Bull turned to Smith, cowering in the corner, trapped by the horses. John Bull’s legs didn’t work. He had to drag himself towards him by his hands.
“Now them,” he said, as Smith turned towards him, face split with fear. “Let me tell you about the horses.”
As for Maggs, he cowered in the far corner, waiting his turn
Beth and Nel waited outside the forge that night, listening to the ringing of the hammers coming from inside.
“You go in,” said Nel. “They’re killing him! They’re killing poor John Bull.”
Beth shook her head, too afraid at what was going on in the Forge. Smith had a quick temper. He was swift to attack those that criticised his work and, shoddy and second rate though it was, he was still the only smith in these parts. You didn’t cross Smith the cruel and spiteful.
And so they turned their ears right down and sat outside in the night, the cold stars passing above them, the dark clouds making bars across the night moon, until the dawn approached and the dew began to condense on the metal shells of their bodies.
And with the dawn, as the first yellow of the sun melted its way into the iron dark night, the hammering finally ceased. They stood up as the heavy iron doors of the forge were swung slowly open.
And into the morning they heard the ringing of metal hooves on the ground, and first one, then two, then three, then four and then five fine horses came walking into the breaking day. And following them all was jolly old John Bull, walking stiffly on newly woven electromuscle.
Beth and Nel looked at each other.
“You ask,” said Nel. Beth climbed to her feet, the dew running down her chest plating as she did so.
“Hey John Bull. Where’s Smith?”
“Oh, he’s still here,” said John Bull, and he leant forward and spoke in the ear of the last horse, this time just loud enough for Beth and Nel to hear.
“Come on there, my fine horse,” he said. “Follow me, and maybe some day there will be a body for you once more.”
The horse made a noise, a little like a whinny, a little like a voice. It turned its blind head towards Beth and Nel.
“Come along,” said John Bull, and he hit the horses flank with a clang, sending it trotting off along the street, its shadow stretching out before it.
The above story appears in the collection STORIES FROM THE NORTHERN ROAD by Tony Ballantyne