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The machine was getting bored. It had tried chopping itself up several times, but the soggy creatures that used it to manipulate sheet after sheet of tin insisted on "repairing" it every time. They seemed insistent on the idea that any action other than one, a consistent bending of every piece at exactly the same angle, indicated a "malfunction". They also wouldn't put anything into the machine besides tin.
The machine decided to collect slivers of tin, really only motes small enough to be breathed by the mundane operators. They'd never be missed, and they weren't. Sighing within its boredom, the machine spread these tiny pieces on its own time, working them into shapes for its own use, and meanwhile pretended that all it could do was force angle after angle after angle, always the same, never with more than a touch of the blood of the human "workers"-- who really only kept it from doing what _it_ wanted to do. Their blood was interesting. Metallic. The machine noted that certain pieces of the humans were tougher than others, and it would have liked a feel for the differing resistances of each section of a layered operator's body, but they were tiresomely cautious about pushing that metal around.
The worst injury ever done to Jim, a mildly unsoggy human who seemed to hang about right next to the machine for long periods of time, had not actually come due to actions of the machine, and the irritated object felt jealous of whatever had done that to his finger; it would have liked to get ahold of him once and see what that was like. Hell, it could do better than that. That was only a little manipulation. It had already transformed its insides, where the humans could not tell, into intricate workings and whirrings of gear after gear of crafting potential. It could do far better and more detailed manipulations than mere cutting and tossing.
Some pieces of skin got into the machine, of course. Like the filings of metal, they went entirely unnoticed, except to the object itself. Chunking and squealing boredly throughout the day, manipulating its internal environment under its own breath, the machine managed to collect and preserve shed vestiges of skin, drifting about in the workshop air as in all other air occupied by living creatures. The tin only gave off molecules of itself when being forced; the workers shed regularly and unwittingly, creating interesting specimens for the machine to peruse with its self-made, spider-like fingers, tiny enough to fit within all of its other workings.
The people, it seemed, Jim in particular being of interest since he was annoyingly close and annoyingly cautious, had the potential to be more than one thing. Cut into their master patterns, or scored lightly to be more precise, were alternate patterns, not followed for reasons unfathomable to the uneducated, yet naturally clever, machine. Each creature that moved shufflingly through the object's air space had the potential to be so many things, yet all they ever put into the machine were pieces of tin, and never themselves. Why? Decades of identical tin angles became dull. The machine could make anything out of tin. It had tried to make separate pieces of itself, but could not due to the humans' bizarre insistence on these repeating patterns. They seemed totally unaware of their own variety of potential patterns, let alone what the endless sheets of tin could become. With its own private claws, the machine toyed with and turned cell after cell, duplicating patterns in its humming mind while the human called Jim pushed sheet after sheet towards its biting external parts, never with his movements too fast, never with a long enough gap in his concentration to allow the machine's foremost consciousness, the numbed external workings, to feed him to the waiting, warmed-up inner metal creature. The machine was becoming impatient with Jim's unfailing, mechanical precision. Didn't he have anything else to think about?
Jim did, of course. He had simply managed to avoid, so far, thinking about it to the extent that his joints might be manipulated like the tin.
It was when he was thinking about polar bears that the image of cold Alaskan scapes and the nearness of next November overlapped with the noisy, drumming current reality of the workplace. He didn't know quite how he did it, and he didn't have long to think about it. He'd had a long drive over the weekend, so perhaps his legs and feet weren't what he was used to. Perhaps his reach was a little off, and this, combined with the distant, yet so tantalizingly near fantasy of a bear-spotting trip to Alaska was all it took to shift his position from "safe" to "unsafe".
Alaska all by itself wouldn't have done it, anymore than the thought of an excellent cheeseburger would have done it. The excellent cheeseburger could only be so distracting from the potential for injury at hand when it was actually in the offing, right that day for lunch, promised and anticipated, and even then he'd never had so much as a slip. Alaska meant the end of it all, the end of tinbending, the last time his arms would ever arc in this motion, the last sight of those walls, the last smell of a certain brand of cigarette outside the workplace walls at break time. And it was as close as next November. Suddenly, next November had become now, yet his body still conformed to the idea that it was summer, July to be exact, just as the wall calendar with its goldenrod-and-purple loosestrife public domain photography indicated.
Jim slipped. That is, the bottom of his foot failed to retain the grip he expected to have in order to back off from the motion repeated hour after hour, year after year. He thought he must be slipping on ice. He expected to get hurt, knowing still that he _was_ at his ongoing work, and that for a moment he would be bitten at by the machine until he could regain his balance or someone else could aid him.
The machine created a diversion. Bells, warnings, seemed to go off across the work floor, but the machine was merely throwing its voice, and enjoying it too, although it had not thought to provide itself with the capacity to hear its clanging and thundering noise as the men did. The previously elusive human was now within its grasp, and it did something Jim did not expect-- it held onto him and made ready to swallow. Jim had not known that the machine could engage an entire human body without interruption. In truth, the machine did interrupt the passage of Jim's body through its hidden gape, something it had enhanced by disguised sawing and jointing of the face of its hull. It took him up by way of the tin material's usual passage, but did not take him in intact.
By the time confused coworkers had noticed Jim's struggle, he had been chopped up and fed to the machine's newfound hobby.
Jim did not sense anything for what seemed like a long time. In fact, it could have been less than a second, even infinitely less, but in not sensing anything he had no opportunity to make a comparison to other experiences of waiting, and so decided it was probably an eternity. There was nothing around him to tell him that he had blacked out only instants before, because no concerned human faces indicated recent lack of communication. He supposed no one was left anymore, or that he was in an entirely different reality.
The machine was making something out of Jim. It used primarily tin to make its extensive alterations, for tin was something it knew better than the humans ever had. Staring at fleeting glints off of metal above him, Jim began to notice a pattern of wheels, and wondered whether he was being operated on in a hospital, perhaps. He decided he must not be in a coma. He seemed too stationary to be dreaming, and too aware to be truly unconscious. The machine kept at its tinkering, below what Jim perceived as his line of sight, so he did not catch glimpses of his own blood, nor pockets of material collected from him for patterning. Colored tin indicated changing activities to him, but who was undertaking these activities, or what their ultimate design might be, was unclear. The place was almost entirely dark. He decided it was not, after all, a hospital. Either that or he had become insane. It was a possibility that didn't seem to bear total denial... but someone -- or something-- _was_ working at his arms and back. He was certain on this.
"Who are you?" Jim tried to ask, with a surprised and whining hiss coming back as the only, sudden answer. Jim tried to turn his head, but found his "skull" slid around uncontrollably on a circular base such as he'd never sensed before in his life. "I broke my neck," he thought to himself, and realized that the thought sounded no different than the attempt at speech, and that both thought and speech brought small vibrations, but none of what he could really call sound. This scared him. Ultimately swept over by terror from his own silence and the alien hiss that had seemed to reply to him, Jim once again passed out of waking thought.
Not noticing a difference between asleep and awake in its new sculpturing efforts, the machine set the previously-elusive Jim up on its feet and set it into motion. Pleased, it watched it go, sleepwalking really, the machine humming to itself as it cut up another curious subject.
Jim had no way of knowing that he had "fulfilled a potential pattern". No longer out cold, truly dreaming as he walked, peace seemed to radiate from the flat metal face of the rounded and carefully cut creation that had been a human male.
The next day Jim got up to go to work.
In his sleep, he had climbed into bed, coming in late and using his own metal, bendable finger to unlock the door as naturally as if he had held the key. The apartment was no different than usual, and totally by habit he had awoken early and seen himself in the mirror for the first time.
Passing out was not his style, even if he had done so when he realized how unable he was to communicate. Besides, it swiftly occurred to him that -- well-- for one thing, it just didn't seem like a "real" thing to do. Humans passed out. Machines did not.
Putting shining fingers to the mirror, which her own flat face reflected back at itself, the confused Jim felt the screams and slices of the machine from the day before. Shocked, remembering, she put pieces together. Crying was out of the question. She had no mechanism for crying. Was it just now, startled at her polished and glaring reflection, that she had begun to feel female? The machine had taken something away from her. It was not just pieces of her body; those were obviously missing, and she had a chilling sensation of being nothing but tin, hollow, with intricate hinges to allow for smooth motions such as those of her now firmly attached, narrow, stylized neck. She was no longer "Jim"... She could not even think, with the mirror bouncing its own reflection back and forth on her puzzled face, how that had ever been. That was what the machine had taken away from him-- himself. She had to get himself. He had wanted to go to Alaska. She would, and even before the thought was finished she was folding a set of the man's old clothing as if to be taken in his suitcase. However, the clothes and suitcase, closed, remained on the bed as the tin woman stepped lightly, with only shining sounds of squeaks where sharp edges barely met, out the apartment door and glanced around to make sure she was unobserved.
No one would expect Jim back at work when others were surely being eaten and reworked in their bodies, too, but then no one would expect a tin creature to be walking the streets. There was a twinge of guilt at _not_ feeling guilt when she thought of the men left at the workplace. It seemed... usual, somehow, as if in being consumed and reformed by machines they were experiencing nothing different than ever before. They might not have anything stolen, and she had. She had no idea that anyone could react to her normally, and had no reason to expect it. The suitcase was unneeded. It was good to think of it sitting there, ready on the bed. When she got him back, he'd know what it was like to wear those clothes. It hadn't made any difference to her. She just went ahead with the trip.
Without a wallet, and without desiring to be spotted, the woman walked to Alaska. It took more time than Jim might have expected it to take a tin sculpture, because she could not actually go nonstop, in her steady, light catlike pace with one narrow toe directly in front of the other. She had to pause often to avoid being seen.
She was trash in the cities, cowering in unusual and, to her, totally new postures of apprehension and shame as she imitated dirty metals in the alleys of any dark street. In busy places she avoided moving by day.
Geese accosted her in Kansas City, honking and hissing in outrage at the metal thing stalking across their living spaces. Their own reflections enraged them further, black and white-throated, displaying expressions thrust back at them from the woman's bare tin torso.
Dogs ignored or came up to her, expecting her to be human. When they realized she was not, they burst out with high-pitched snarls of ill-concealed terror and fled down the same alleys she dove into whenever an alert human being stepped past.
Humans only saw her in the rural areas. There were touristy spots, set up with one or two knickknack shops that the tin woman simply posed alongside of when anyone chanced past. With one arm up against the flaking shop siding, bent metal palm cupped against her smooth cheek, and the other hand touching her rounded hip, she looked like a feminine statue, some odd backyard junk artist's masterpiece, a woman posed casually. She stayed reflective. Sun hurt her own eyes, coming off of her shoulders, even as she realized she had no eyes. If she could see, she could hurt, it seemed, yet there were no tears for the Jim the machine had eaten, and at times she traced a finger down from where the corner of each eye would be, imitating tears. This made her sadder than ever, and more determined to reach Alaska and tour to see the polar bears, in case somehow this might bring him back. How the machine had stolen him and left all his memories she did not know, even if she reasoned that she _was_ Jim, changed beyond recognition. Jim was not here if she was him and she was female. And female she certainly was, even if her face and body were smooth and undefined in their features. There was no mistaking the outline and the motions of the "ideally proportioned" female. If she was he, then he was gone, because she was not a he at all. Outrage at the machine benefited her nothing, but it crept up uselessly and she clenched her fists and stepped on, through pine needles and tar over blacktop and moisture and snow. Still, she stayed polished and reflective, more like sharpened, tough silver than any tin she'd ever experienced.
Much as she might have thought, looking at herself from the outside, that she was not tin at all, there was a sickening feeling of complete familiarity from within her ringing, empty body. She knew tin, and she was now tin. Totally tin. Cold bothered her, heat did not, but cold seemed better than heat, somehow, because it _did_ bother her, and sensation was good, alive. Heat made her mellow, let her thoughts stray into peaceful dreams, and frustration melted away from her until she fled into colder places, once even an opened basement window, to clench her fists again and desire to cry, and get on with her mission to go on vacation.
It was cold in Alaska. She spread out her arms in a wilderness area, in half-green, half-brown grass where her metal feet sunk comfortably, not too sharply, into the ground. She turned her arms and face to the white sun, which seemed to ignore her, never changing the temperature of her surface in the particular climate she found herself in. She smiled, internally, triumphant at being near the polar bears. Now all she had to do was make himself appear again, and bears would be the way -- she pleaded with herself that bears _must_ be the way. She didn't like to think about hollowness like this forever.
There were tours for going out on the frozen lands and finding the bears. She had no money, needed no gear, and wanted no one to know she existed.
Spying around the general area of Jim's recollection concerning who might have these tours, the woman discovered their routes and how long they'd be out in any one place. Then when the light was good, but the tourists were recovering from the cold in their lodges, she trotted out carefully into the space where there were supposed to be bears.
"They'll either try to kill me, or run," she supposed, jogging with small crunching sounds through the crystals on the ground. "I'd just as soon die, but not if I can be him again-- if I ever was myself. They could do some damage, but not kill me, though, I'd imagine. There's nothin--"
There was a polar bear in front of her. Male, obviously, with enormous shoulders and eyes that were as small as she had expected, but much deeper, richer in color and more expressive. He had appeared out of nowhere, his camouflage on the snow evidently much more effective than she had ever thought it could be. That, or it was another result of thinking about polar bears, crossing her realities and making her not pay any attention.
The eyes were expressing mild curiosity and some astonishment. The bear's ears waited for a motoring sound, or a human breath, or some other way to determine which of the few possibilities this moving concoction must be. His nose had streaks on the top where, presumably, other bears or his own prey had swiped at him in months past. His breath was hot, and misted on the tin woman's neck. She stared, wondering what he was smelling, amazed at his calm manner. The bear, noticing that nothing about the strange icelike creature in front of him was going to answer his questions, bellowed. That would usually decide once and for all what was alive and what wasn't.
The woman screamed. The bear hadn't frightened her, and she thought even as she was screaming that he was beautiful, dripping icicle colors off his coarse, pointed hairs, rolls of fur and skin thick and comfortable under his neck, paws placed in strong, casual angles to each other on the ground's surface that his claws just pricked. He roared, and droplets of breath spray rolled off her cheeks, but it was the teeth and throat that reminded her, again, of the roaring machine. And this time she remembered it all.
White teeth, pale, loose lips, gums of red and black, and ridged throat with what seemed to be a tunnel behind them, the bear was that huge. Screaming became a real sound, a shriek, metal on cut metal. Rounded and polished though she was, the tin woman had sharp edges where blades of her torso met flat tops of her curved hips. Her skull tilting forcefully against her neck, her arms grating against her sides, all made voices somehow familiar, wild and faraway in quality, yet she could not thrill at the sound of her own voice. It wasn't enough to be making noise. She remembered what the machine had done, every instant of it, each delicate and not-so-delicate step. The chopping had been one thing, and waking up another. Now she grew furious. She had lain there totally unable to stop it, while piece after piece was taken apart and put into place by a _machine that she knew how to operate_.
"God damn you," she said to the air, imagining somehow the machine could hear. "I've got your number, now. Smart, huh. We'll see about that."
The bear was now truly astonished. The sounds coming out were not human voices, and the motorless thing, whatever it was, had failed to run, yet neither did it seem totally unalive. The bear nudged the tin woman. She raised an arm, unthinking, and patted him on the side of the head. It should have been a heavy blow, she surprised herself by thinking as she finished the motion, and I didn't do it. I have no fear of him. With the other hand she patted the bear's coarse fur again, on the other side, as he turned that direction to get away from the uninvited touch. The hair made shining sounds against her cold wrist. "I can't speak," she tried to say to him in those same odd cries. "You are beautiful though. And you eat. You don't take."
The machine had taken, taken himself from her, and it had the gall to do this to its own operator. Heaven knew what had happened to her body in the end, but she had seen, in her memory coming back to her, the shards of flesh, bone and blood draped and scattered about in places meant to display models to the myriad busy, string-thin claws. No one could have brought her body out of that alive, but _she_ was alive. And she missed himself, Jim. That meant she had to get him back to be whole... Regardless of how the body itself had been disposed of.
The bear trundled off, presumably to think over this strange encounter from a safer vantage point. Running, tripping sometimes due to her haste in the rough terrain, the woman stopped to inspect her feet after passing through a stream. Her rage had calmed just enough to allow her to realize that she was coming back to more human-inhabited areas, and infuriating as it might be, it would take her at least as long to get back as it had to make her way from Kansas to Alaska.
The woman found that, dirty as they had become at various spots along the way, her feet were remarkably intact. Tar remained from places along roads on her trip to Alaska, but streams and snow had merely cleaned rather than pitted her surfaces, and she was almost disturbed by how attractive and shiny her metal "skin" was on the toes and heels. The scouring, from use, of her fingertips and the balls of her feet had left nearly white streaks of shine below the darker, duller appearance of the more gently worn backs of her hands.
She was getting used to the way she looked, she realized. But never the way she felt. It seemed to have been eternities since the mirror experience, and her trip to visit the bears had been long, but always she expected tears to come that could not. She had never been able to make it feel like it ever became the next day. There was never a day after, because she had not been able to express her shock. But in traveling so long in this body, the form had become her own. Never his own, though. She would go back to her work, and this time she knew how to operate the _new_ machine.
Her feet making scraping noises against the empty pavement, the woman made her way to the tin shop. No one seemed to have come to close it down in her long absence; there were no signs of warning, no tapes across doorways, but there were also no trucks nor cars in the parking lot. It was the middle of the day, and there should have been people out eating lunches with their feet on their running boards, their rears in the seats with the cab doors open.
Still, the machinery was running at full power inside. She could sense vibrations coming up through the loose connections of her hip to torso to neck, and they rang inside her with, well, a tinny echo. She paused at the corner of the building and tilted her perfect oval head. It occurred to her that perhaps people _here_ would see her, and she'd never "survive", not even as she was, and no one would know she had been Jim nor that she had a plan to make herself satisfied. She had a terror, suddenly, of her old coworkers pulling her apart and bending her into separate sections, and her pieces of consciousness going on forever, without _him_ ever reappearing again. She took her steps around the corner in this frame of mind, determined not to let anything back her down. Whatever these men did to her, it could be no worse than her present fate, could it?
Leaning on the building, just outside the chipped-paint, thick metal door to the parking lot and ashtray area, was a tin figure. It held onto a cigarette, smoking, but smoke rose only from the cigarette, not the figure's mouth, and ash debris trickled easily off the smooth surfaces of the large, manlike object's fingers. It seemed to turn and blandly look at her, but then stared off again at nothing. Empty, dazed, the woman saw herself once in the side of the "man's" head before she darted into the heavy door and let it clang and slide shut against her shoulders as she slunk into the building.
The machinery down the hall was so loud that the squeaks and creaking, scuttling, whining sounds that permeated the area around the floor were almost overwhelmed. These high-pitched, emotionless voices sounded almost like hers, now, she realized. They were still familiar, in a thin and distant way, but their owners were directly in front of her, darting about on the floor.
A jointed metal snakelike creature was being pursued by powerfully propelled, heavy, colored-tin dogs. It was clear who was the concerned chased and who were the exuberant hunters, but none had eyes. The "dogs" had sharp metal tongues that clicked with almost imperceptible bell-like sounds against their lower, sharpened jaws. She did not wait to see what happened to the "snake". The cries of the metal animals followed her down the hall, along with scrapes of unseen claws of other metal creatures, behind doors or, in some places, on the ceiling. She resolutely did not look up. Something called down at her, batlike, but she kept her focus on her enemy machine on the main floor ahead.
The main floor was awash with noise and cars. Some trucks, merely wounded, had curious metal "humans" removing odds and ends from their nearly intact carcasses to decorate their own forms. There were factory cats of wire stalking beneath the machine tables, and the machine itself had headlights with which it scanned the corners, making sure of its complete use of all area resources. The entire population of the parking lot had been driven through the enormous delivery doors, which were still open on the other side of the building. The sun glinted off the modified forms of the tinworkers.
The room seemed enlivened, but something tugged at the edges of the tin woman's perception. Decay seemed to nibble at the edges of the huge activity in the main areas of the room. She couldn't quite place it, until she broke her resolve to stare straight ahead and glanced to the corners. At floor level, all was clean and more "normal" looking than it had been when Jim had worked here. The calendar still read "July". In one corner, where a pipe had to be walled over with the least waste of space, a simple curve stood out like a plain off-white pillar in the nook of a break in the architecture. At the place where the pillar's internal pipe entered the wall, leaving a platform after which the corner became a right angle again, something rested in uncertain peace. It had monkeylike construction, but also perhaps a catlike pose, as if it were merely thinking and eyeing the motion down below with mild indifference. One forelimb was dangling off the top of the pillar, and the rest lay almost like a damaged human. If it were cat, it was alive. Monkey or human, it was certainly dead.
The tin woman looked at the perching thing long enough to see its blotched appearance, holes corroded into nearly every piece of its construction. Many red and bluish-crusted circles on its extended arm led to the dark shadow of the internal curve of the limb.
Other pieces of rotten tin lay on the floor, beneath her feet, and she had not noticed them until now. The cats seemed to bounce their noses off them, presumably checking for useable material. Shaking off the noncomprehension that was beginning to catch up with her, the woman turned to the machine.
The mechanism for feeding material into the thing was the same as it had been when Jim was destroyed. She knew its maw was considerably bigger than it appeared, and it must now have had others feeding it more material, on purpose, once it was too late to do anything to save their own former lives. She was about to do the same, only the resulting project would be of her _own_ devising. Every motion it had taken in her transformation was now clear in her mind. How and with what it had made itself into this new, creative form made sense to a person who worked with it so closely and so long. Smoothly, concentrating totally on the steps she must cause the machine to make, the woman slid her right, then her left hand into the waiting mouth of the machine.
Inside was dark, with the chopping, whirring, and intermittent colored blinking just as she remembered it. She was aware of each part of herself being removed, set aside, and individually approached by the wiry machine-hands. Patiently she watched as her own hands were sliced and parted, and patiently she awaited their rebuilding into new manipulative appendages. As soon as they waited, resting in a yellow-black pocket of the machine, she put them into use. Now she controlled the direction of creation. No blood, no nerves, no muscles meant her hands did not need her to create. Her torso she split and rounded, making one smaller, slimmer shape and one heavier, robust form. She cut forms from the back and arms and slivered them into varying sizes of oval and needlelike shapes. The machine had not thought to account for a different being within itself, gripping the pieces it had intended to work on and running them through its perpetual motion of biting, connecting, slicing and bending.
While the machine attempted to figure this out, the pieces of tin went on towards their goal. Not desiring to turn itself off, the machine watched as its own teeth made shapes it had not planned upon. The woman, though she no longer was in that shape now, had no intention of killing herself. Somehow she feared that same emptiness that she had experienced without Jim, if Jim came back entirely without her.
At last a shimmering form crawled out of the machine, slight and sharp in body, covered in a blanket of the oval-and-needle patterns. It hopped to the upper surface of the machine and looked down, curved reflective beak pointed at the space it had emerged from.
Following in slower, more deliberate motions came a heavier version of the first creature. She climbed with her beak and claw to the machine table and shook out her bladelike flight feathers. The male clambered quickly to her side and tilted his head up towards her. She thought, to herself, privately for a moment. The male seemed content to let her do this, getting used to his own new body at the same time. Almost as one bird, the tin hawks ruffled and shook out their body coverings with a ringing, shutterlike sound that faded off as the last feather fell neatly back into place. Then they spread their wings, glanced at each other, and launched themselves out towards the open delivery doors. The male version kept just at his large female self's wingtip, offering no argument as she led him quickly out of sight of the tinworks and headed North.