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The Reverberation of a Blazing World

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"We came as a set," the clockwork man told Rodney easily enough when he turned it on. "We were aerialists."

"Hm," Rodney said. He had no idea why the Littlefield model for automatons included programming for conversation. Everything he needed to know should be obvious in the wires and twisted metal spread out on the worktable before him. He found it unnerving to look from the pile of unjointed fingers and toes, to the rusted holes in the torso, to the clear pale eyes that looked sideways at him. The clockwork man couldn't turn his head, obviously, as he had neither neck nor body, but Rodney felt like he would if he could.

"There were four of us," Rodney was told. "We were built in Afghanistan, for export. Mitch, Dex, Holland, and me. I'm Sheppard."

Rodney sighed. "Do you have to talk?"

Sheppard had a beautiful steel mouth, curving like a bow, the lower lip full. "I'm an aerialist," he said again. "Can you fix me? Because we were given as a gift to a king. We gave him our best performance, and he said it was perfect, and then he had us smashed down to gears. But I still remember..."

"You've been in a box for a long time," Rodney told him, irritated into actually engaging in conversation. "There are no more kings to be entertained. There are no more circuses of flight or aerialists. If I can assemble you, and if your programs are still any good, then you might have a future in the mills, or in energy farming, or possibly the might of Ba'al's automaton corps in the military."

"Oh," Sheppard said, and that beautiful curve to his mouth stilled. He closed his eyes.

Rodney set the magnifying lenses to his eyes, picked up a blade, and started the delicate work of opening Sheppard's skull. The wig had been attached with adhesive that had toughened and needed to be chipped away, and then the screws attaching the cranium plate had to be located, and lubricated, and gently eased out. It didn't help that Sheppard kept trying to sneak peeks at what Rodney was doing, as if he was worried that he was going to have his brains slopped out, erased, and reprogrammed.

The mechanical man was disturbing on several levels, Rodney decided. Not just the loquacity, but also a disturbing self-awareness. Not what many people wanted in a servant or laborer.

He got the last screw undone and used his magnetized pincette to remove it to the labeled glass dish, and then eased the plate away. Sheppard's eyes tracked it until Rodney set the plate down out of view, on the scales first, and then cut a neat hole in the cushioning foam. Rodney had never seen such a thick layer, but then he'd never worked on an actual aerialist. He imagined there was the risk of falling to protect against.

The inside of Sheppard's head was lined with neat trays of flat crystals, and Rodney felt himself grinning in fierce joy and unable to control himself. He'd heard rumors, but he'd never yet stumbled over an Ancient neural processor. Figuring out how it worked was going to be fun. He made a cursory sketch, and then popped one of the crystals out to examine it under the light.

"Don't," Sheppard said, voice slowed and cracking. "Hurts."

Rodney put the crystal back. "You have pain receptors?"

Sheppard made a slight grinding noise that Rodney interpreted as clearing his throat. "It's impossible to learn aerialism without both pain and fear," Sheppard said. Quoting someone, Rodney supposed. Someone with a terrible teaching technique.

"Did they also program you for enjoyment?" Rodney asked, out of curiosity. He'd never found fear a good motivator. That was his professional reason for allying with the resistance movement; revenge was his personal reason, but not many people knew that. Rodney had been in exile in the far North during the last regime change, and hadn't been able to keep Jeannie out of Ba'al's hands. After returning to the City he had set up business as nothing more than a junk dealer and mender of toasting-forks, but it hadn't taken him long to find Zelenka and through him, the people who wanted violent change.

Sheppard blinked in response, in a way that suggested he'd have shrugged if he had shoulders. "I had loyalty. I came as a set."

"You said that already." Rodney frowned. "Have we reached the limit of your conversational ability?"

Sheppard's eyes rotated as far to the side as they could, staring straight at Rodney. "I am a set," he said. "Help us?"

Rodney frowned. "You have memory uploads?" he asked, reaching for a velvet-lined tray. "I've heard about the properties of crystal. I suppose... not wireless, certainly, back in your day, but..." He grabbed a chalkboard tablet and a piece of dustless chalk and began taking notes on the crystal arrays. "I imagine it was cheaper to replace an aerialist than to try and repair it if it fell from a tightrope, or whatever."

"Whatever," Sheppard repeated. He sounded sarcastic, and that... should be impossible. "We never fell."

Rodney's fingers twitched with suppressed greed. "You can learn," he postulated. "Not just be reprogrammed, but... artificial sentience." He'd read Langford's papers, of course, but he'd always assumed she was a theorist. "All four of you – Sheppard, Mix, Fix, and Norway?"

Sheppard looked away. "Holland's process was interrupted by a crowbar," he said, voice low. "There's hardly anything left. But Mitch and Dex. Yeah."

Rodney was starting to feel gleeful. He was more intelligent than Zelenka, his rival in the resistance, but recently he hadn't had any brilliant new inventions to demonstrate his superiority. He did have a prototype of a raygun, but currently it was two meters long and required half a ton of complicated refrigeration to work. Or as Sam Carter, chief fabricatrice of the movement, had told him, really only useful if you can make an enemy stand still on a big red X in your lab, McKay. Four automatons, with Ancient processors in their heads and – yes – he had his analysis of the simulacra Ba'al had created as a diversion, that he'd been itching to put into practical use. That would show... everyone.

He got up and crossed the laboratory to his bed, which he dragged away from the wall. He had a loose floorboard; he knew it was cliché, but it also worked. He pried it up with a screwdriver, undid the latches holding the neighboring boards in place, and set them all aside as he contemplated his safe. One mistake with the combination lock and the whole place would be instantly incinerated, but Rodney never made mistakes.

He clicked the tumblers into place, hauled the heavy iron door up, and studied his treasures with a great feeling of pride and contentment. Five years' worth of combing through refuse and rubble, and he had the largest collection of Ancient technology of anyone in the City, he imagined. FIt helped that Ba'al had had all the old temples demolished and their relics destroyed – Rodney had a good side business as a very efficient destroyer of relics. After, of course, he'd stripped them of all useful parts.

He had a lot of crystals, and even more importantly, he had a dynamotronic transcripticon for reading the crystals' contents and manipulating new programs into their matrices. He took it out now, as well as a leather crystal carrying case. He locked up, put his bed back, and moved everything over to a second worktable. This was going to be a big project. Maybe the biggest of his life.

"Who was the king when you were fabricated?" he asked Sheppard as he opened the transcripticon and began cranking it slowly, until the blue and amber lights gave off steady light.

"His Galactic Majesty Anubis," Sheppard said promptly, and then frowned in worry. "I'm programmed to be respectful," he added slowly. "Is respect towards Anubis disrespectful to the new king?"

"There are no kings. I told you that." Rodney leaned back in his chair and steepled his fingers, deciding what to do first. "We have Ba'al now, but he considers himself a god.

Fortunately for you," Rodney went on, steering the conversation away from dangerous directions, "I happen to be familiar with the technology Ba'al used to make his ten mechanical copies. I saw one, once. It was remarkable. Indistinguishable from a real man from the outside." He held up one of Sheppard's kneecaps. "The gleaming steel look is passé."

"I had a costume," Sheppard said defensively. "Black silk."

"I'm sure you were gorgeous," Rodney tossed off absently. He wasn't prepared for the bleak sorrow that somehow flitted across Sheppard's immobile features – it was those eyes – or the way his jaw seemed to set with stubborn anger. "You were created to be a beautiful distraction. That bothers you?"

For a moment he thought Sheppard wasn't going to answer, but apparently it just took a while for Sheppard to find words. "We thought we were artists," Sheppard said finally. "We were the creators, not the creation. But it turned out we were just toys. And toys get broken and are thrown away."

While Rodney wasn't a fanciful person, he couldn't think of a way to describe Sheppard's tone that wasn't bitter. Or furious.

"I don't make toys," Rodney said, dismissively, which appeared to be the right tack to take with Sheppard, if his smirk was anything to go by. "But once I get the rest of your set out of your head, we'll get each of you in a modern automaton unit. With a few... unique... modifications."

"Thanks," Sheppard said. "Remind me to shake your hand when I can."

"Shut up," Rodney said, embarrassed. "I'm going to pull your crystals now. So you should power down. I'll see you in a while."

Sheppard closed his eyes obediently. "Night," he said, his features stilling. Rodney waited a moment, just to be sure, and then started taking him apart.

o~0~O^O~0~o

Finding the money to create three automatons was tricky, especially since Rodney didn't want to give away exactly what he was creating. He worked on the project in his spare time for several months, experimenting with artificial skins and muscles, procuring molds for good-sized, even teeth, and painstakingly transcribing data from Sheppard's crystal array to the new ones he was building. When the stress got too much for him, he turned Sheppard on and spent long hours arguing with him and beating him at chess. He suspected Sheppard let him win out of pity, and got some degree of revenge making Sheppard model all the new wig designs.

Rodney waffled over who to approach about the money problem, and finally decided to make an appointment with Elizabeth Weir, who was the highest-ranking resistance member he knew. She didn't particularly like him, but Rodney performed occasional small services for Ba'al; she owed him for the intel he brought back, details about air ducts and sewers, even the occasional news of personnel transfers.

Elizabeth was gracious and met with Rodney at a tea shop on the mezzanine level of Central Station.

"Aerialists," she said, with an indulgent smile. "That's unique."

Rodney set his cup down on the saucer and leaned forward. "Aerialists destroyed by Anubis, with no love for the Goa'uld, and possessing artificial sentience."

"Can they be programmed to fight?" Elizabeth asked.

"They can be taught to fight," Rodney said, tapping his forefinger on the table to emphasize his words. "They've got an unimaginably vast memory capacity. And their appearance is so human you wouldn't look twice at one if it passed you on the road."

Elizabeth still didn't look convinced, but she nodded and took a card and pencil out of her reticule. On it she wrote a name – E. Lorne – and a room number in a boarding hotel. "Persuade Lorne that he wants them, and I'll pay," she said. "He wants to head up a team of his own, after the last one he was in ran into... trouble." Her mouth thinned, and Rodney assumed she meant they were injured, dead, or worse than dead.

"Thank you," Rodney said, his mouth awkward with the attempt to convey sincerity. "He'll want them. I know he will."

"I have faith in you," Elizabeth said, and gave Rodney a fond smile.

Rodney woke Sheppard up as soon as he got home, demanding a precise summary of the abilities of each member of his set. Sheppard cooperated, grumbling that it would be easier if he just activated the others as well and asked them directly.

"You're more talkative than Dex, and less smug than Mitch," Rodney said, and then took a deep breath. Time to break the news. "I found a buyer – a potential buyer, but once he finds out your skills and capacities, I have complete confidence that he'll take your whole set."

Sheppard stared at him. "I thought we were friends," he said, crossing his arms and tightening his jaw in a very human-like manifestation of hurt feelings.

"You think I should have fixed you for free?" Rodney asked, busy setting up the pantograph to copy out some diagrams that looked impressive but would be useless if they fell into the wrong hands. "How would I have bought all your pretty new pieces?" Sheppard didn't say anything. Rodney sighed and slapped a page of notes down in the tray with unnecessary force. "If you were a man, you'd have been paid for your aerial performances. Good money – enough to buy food, rent a room, go out and have fun when you wanted." He spread his hands. "Some people have tools that help them make money. That's what you are – a machine. Your job is to work so someone else gets paid. In this case, me."

"I could help you here," Sheppard said, jerking his chin to indicate the workshop.

Rodney gave him a weighty look. "And you'd be satisfied hiding indoors the rest of your existence, fetching this and dismantling that, instead of dashing about raiding enemy strongholds and blowing stuff up."

Sheppard's shoulders dropped.

"You'll have fun," Rodney said bracingly. "And you can always come back and visit." He lowered the heavy glass plate over the tray and beckoned Sheppard over. "Copy this stuff," he said, gesturing comprehensively. "And then I'll show you how to make explosives out of simple household chemicals."

"Okay," Sheppard said, subdued. Rodney resolutely did not let himself feel bad, not even a little bit.