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A Few Good Handy Men

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Engine Heart Tales - A Few Good Handy Men

Dinnertime always ended like this.

It simply wasn't fair. Every evening those two would find something else to argue about. If they didn't get into another bloody nitpicking contest over whose turn it was to mow the yard, then they quibbled about doing the housework. Or how much to polish the damn car. Or - and Lord help him once they got started on this - just how to tend to the double-damned graves in the backyard. Their continual squabbling was an irritating reminder of the burden they all shared; a lack of overall goals that invited continual discord. Try as he might Three had not been able to fully replace their original purpose with anything much better than simple maintenance. How he missed Master's ability to bring order without even a word...

"Put all the flowers out by the headstone?! You can't possibly be serious! They won't last a single week out there in that awful weather."

"I most certainly am serious you pompous old duffer! They at least deserve a little decoration!"

It simply. Was. Not. Fair. Three briefly tuned out their exasperating conversation again and resisted the urge to voice some sarcastic observations about their intelligence (or severe lack thereof). Instead he settled for the hundredth silent petition to the greater powers in as many days. After all - if humans could beg them for winning lottery tickets, hot dates and fast cars then surely they could listen to one little robot who just asked for peace in the house. An old wise saying about a slice of bread eaten in peace versus a grand feast in a conflict came to mind just as he noticed the conversation had escalated to levels of hostility that indicated imminent physical violence.

With an effort he turned his microphones back on just in time to hear such edifying phrases as "Misbegotten pile of microchips!" and "Self-propelled chamber pot!" being voiced between the two of them at increasingly louder volumes. So in the most commanding voice Three could manage he ordered them to quiet down, which they did - reluctantly.

"He started the whole thing, you know." grumbled One.

Three spun his sawblade in irritation. "I don't care if he insulted your grandmother, goosed your sister and then kicked your cat for a field goal. This...petty foolishness is beneath the both of you! Good heavens, what would Master and Mistress say if they were to hear what goes on around here most every evening?"

One bleeped sourly. "Probably the same thing they would say to find their final resting places 'guarded' by those hideous little plaster gnomes!"

"Those were a wedding present!" protested Two. "And what would you have instead - perhaps the action figures from their son's bedroom?"

"Their mother-in-law foisted those wretched things on them as a 'wedding present', " One mocked in a voice dripping with sarcasm, "because her husband couldn't be bothered to donate them to the thrift shop or heave them in the dumpster! At least those 'action figures' are proper soldiers fit to guard them - better than just collecting dust on a shelf with the rest of the garbage!"

Two suddenly shot up, flailing its limbs about in a fit of electronic outrage. "Garbage?! Those were his favorite - "

"ENOUGH." Three bellowed at the upper limit of its speaker volume, his patience truly exhausted. "My word, you two are being especially persistent tonight in your bickering. May I ask just what got under your casing?"

To no small surprise Three's thunderous inquiry was met with a brief pause. "Well? Has the cat got your tongue? Or maybe the dog? Oh wait, there aren't any of those now. So perhaps your speech synthesizer needs reprogramming?" needled Three irritably.

"The generator went out again." One blurted out at once.

At once the room was as quiet as a tomb.

Several minutes passed in increasingly uncomfortable science. "The generator went out, you say." Three's math co-processor went into overdrive. If the previous incidents hadn't been an unfortunate chance but were symptoms of a pattern that was progressing...then to call the likely outcome 'bad' was the understatement of the century. Even 'catastrophic' didn't quite fit the bill. The best words to describe it, unfortunately, were spelled with four letters and had long since been put on the censor list by Master.

One spoke up again, quietly and deliberately. "It was while you and Two were hauling back material for repairs to the fence. I was dusting the bookcase again and playing Master's favorite music over my speakers when I suddenly noticed the lamp had gone out. At first I thought the bulb had blown again. But when I went to go put in a spare bulb the light wouldn't come on. Then I zipped on down to the basement to check on what was the matter and the generator was just off. No blinking lights, nothing. Just...off!"

"No smoke? No 'kaboom'?" Three questioned intently.

"Not at all, it just...seemed to stop all of a sudden. Like a television set on one moment and unplugged the next. Goodness knows why. When I got to it all the indicators were dark so I pressed the emergency restart button. She came up right as rain and it was all back to normal in a few minutes. I told Two first and meant to tell you later, I really did old chap - but first I wanted to - well, I just - "

"I understand," Three replied in a slow, weary voice. "Well that's certainly not at all convenient. Could you both go and run the generator's diagnostic checks?"

"Whatever for?" Two balked. "They haven't found anything the last ninety six times you've run them and I'd bet my CPU they won't find anything now. Why not go do it yourself for once or - "

"Please." It was said simply. Not an order but a request. A plea, even.

Another minute of heavy silence. Then Three added "Of course I'll come see the results. But first I need to do something. Be just a minute, chaps." He headed toward the back door, not bothering to debate further or notice the whispered comments in binary between his fellows. In some situations it was best for a gentleman to keep the peace by simply walking away.

Three silently hovered over the cement patio, his thought processes grim but oddly calm. If the generator had come to a 'crash stop' - shutting down without so much as a warning buzzer – it was an alarming prospect to happen even once. And repairmen had long since having gone as extinct as the dinosaurs. Two such failures were a pattern that meant nothing less than the beginning of the end. The loss of their power supply in a world gone dark. The inability to keep up their beloved house. Everything they still clung to for normalcy would soon come to an end.

And yet Three refused to give in to panic or despair, standing on the solid rock of logic. If A, then B. If there was no power at the house then they would collect what supplies and tools might be useful for the inevitable exodus. If they knew the generator would fail then they would begin scouting in advance rather than strike out blindly; there were maps and signs and landmarks to guide their way. Gamblers said "I hope" and wished for luck - but a man said "I can" and made a plan. And he was no gambler.

"That was one of your more favorite sayings, as I remember." Three mused as he neared his objective: a pinkish square slab of marble about four feet wide, kept upright by cinder blocks neatly laid and painted in somber black. He couldn't help but wonder at the irony of the slab in their current situation. It had been there when they had first moved into the house, inexplicably left in the shed by a previous owner, had been used for various things through the years...and now it would remain as a mute testimony long after they left. Three briefly wondered if the universe itself possessed a sense of humor, and if so, if he and his brothers happened to be the punchline in one of its jokes.

He slowed to a stop by the marble slab and ran the fingers of his manipulative limb over the letters they had painstakingly chiseled into the solid rock after weeks of hard work. Even with their best efforts the letters were sharp and angular instead of having the flowing curves of human writing, which pained him almost as much as their inability to add portraits of Master and Mistress. Even so they were enough to commemorate what lay beneath several feet of parched soil: a loving husband, a doting wife and their two mischievous cats.

But so much was left unsaid. There was no mention that centuries ago when all hell had been unleashed on earth, One and Two had left the house with just an old paper map and the name of a store Master had gone to in a town they'd never seen. They'd returned battered but triumphant, ferrying him back in time for him and Mistress to have one more day together. Three thought they deserved a monument big enough to carve everything he and his 'brothers' could jolly well remember about their lives and 100-foot granite statues each of Master and Mistress. In the end, they had one small slab that had been mostly used for an extra seat at cookouts. And that would have to do.

Three's cameras remained focused on the words, but taxed his processor over certain thoughts as he dredged up various files from the corners of his memory. Scenes of arguments, kisses, illnesses, surprises, failures, loyalty and love. He wondered again who or what, in the end, did they gain meaning from that made them far more than just recordings? Almost two hundred years later he still couldn't pin down the answer. Was it from Master and Mistress? Not quite, as amazing as they had been. Perhaps from the house itself? No, not that either. From the relationship between himself and his robotic brethren he alternately cherished and wanted to disassemble with a blowtorch? What was the missing link?

Three's train of thought was suddenly interrupted by his internal clock reminding him that ten minutes had passed and the generator's diagnostics should have completed. Emitting a very sigh-like sound from his speaker he turned around and hovered up toward the back door. Given the fact that One or Two hadn't come flying out babbling about some imminent disaster, Three guessed that the diagnostics had again failed to find an obvious defect. It was time to face the music; even if it came in the form of a funeral dirge.

"Right...play the long game it is, I suppose." Three said with an air of finality. "Pack the bags, pick a destination and get ready for a roadtrip. Must be sure to take pictures along the way, don't eat at cheap Chinese restaurants, don't spend too much on souvenirs and of course bring a clean underpants! Be polite in new locations, don't laugh at the locals' fashion sense, don't pine for home at every turn..."

He paused with a claw on the back door handle. "...because even the last scene of a play deserves the very best performance the actors can give it. You liked to say that, too." Three let the words out into the air like a balloon let go to drift with the wind, then with only a moment's hesitation went inside to consult with his brothers. There was indeed much to be done. But just before Three shut the door behind him he briefly noted with disappointment that now he had failed to find an answer to not one but two pressing questions, and worse than that, had run out of time to find them.

Behind him, unseen, raindrops began to streak the silent face of the tombstone.