‘Ghost in the Machine’: A Short Story

machine gears small

‘Ghost in the Machine’ is an old short story I wrote for class back in 2013, but I forgot about it in the rush of writing. Let me know what you think in the comments!

Ghost in the Machine
by Clinton Nix

“That about does it,” Hendrick said as he shut the latch on a rusted security panel. He was standing next to a colossal machine that towered over him, which had massive arms that could be used to punch holes in just about anything in its way. It was the Hydraulic Arm Unit 3R5.

The HAU-3R5 was one of the last of Immersion Robotics’ oldest drone worker units. It was a particularly sturdy piece of equipment, designed for heavy lifting and transporting of cargo, with the original intention of being a multipurpose military unit. The HAUs were made just before the boom of the new Self Sustaining Units and their advanced artificial intelligence, but production continued for a number of years later, mainly because the low maintenance and durability kept them as a favorable investment. The SSUs needed costly routine maintenance about every four months, but after 10 years of production, their technology was perfected so that maintenance and durability was almost equal to the earlier HAUs.

Hedrick always sought to service the 3R5 without delay, for fear that any slightest possibility of hindrance would cause management to disable the machine. He’d worked with it for 30 years, and it had become a sturdy, steady companion through tough times. People came and went, some were promoted, some fired, and many of the original machines had become re-purposed scrap metal. But Hendrick and the HAU-3R5 were always there, always running the same routine, always ticking in unison. They were the backbone, Hendrick thought, the foundation, and he couldn’t bare to think what he’d do if the machine was disassembled.

Hendrick climbed up the side-ladder of the goliath and hoisted himself into the operator’s seat. A short and portly man approached just after and waved for Hendrick’s attention.

“Hendrick, we’ve got to make room for the new shipment of SAUs—I need this area cleared in three hours,” he shouted.

Hendrick raised his arm and gave a solid thumb up in recognition of the order. The stumpy man waddled back into into his office and Hendrick pulled a giant-knobbed lever. The usual hum emitted from the machine that he often thought of as ‘melodious.’ He paused to soak in the machine-music that his companion was making, when a piercing metallic scream echoed from somewhere within.

“Oh, damn it all. I know they heard that,” he muttered quietly.

Hendrick’s face squeezed in horror as if he were sharing the same pain. He also had pains of his own; he developed a limp after a serious accident last spring when one of the pistons in the hydraulic arm went haywire while he was mounting the machine. The fall left him bedridden for six months, until finally he could muster the strength to come back to work.

Hendrick wiped a bead of sweat that dripped into his right eye and then rested his hand on the lever. What am I going to do now, he thought. The 3R5 was his baby. He’d spent two hours servicing electrical connections that mysteriously fried earlier in the day, so he knew that the clock was ticking, and it wasn’t looking good for his old friend.

“Come on baby, let’s get this job done, and then you can rest. Just a couple of hours.” He sweet talked it, as he found that sometimes it had a magical effect. 3R5 was getting moody in its old age, and sometimes all he could do was try to sooth its stubbornness with sweet words. He gently tugged on the lever but could feel a hint of resistance.

“Just work for me. Come on,” he whispered. He noticed other workers were stopping to glance over in curiosity.

“Just this one time is all, just this once,” he said, and then slammed the lever into place. The machine let out a ghastly, grinding whine that nearly burst Hendrick’s eardrums.

“Dammit, what was I thinking?” He panicked at the sight of the emergency light blinking in steady rhythm in the front panel. He felt for the knob and jiggled it, but there was far too much play. After trying every possible option he could think of, Hendrick admitted defeat and climbed out of the dying beast.

He kept his eyes down towards the dusty concrete floor, took his hat off and wiped the sweat from his brow. He sat for a few moments in silent contemplation, which was broken suddenly by a tap on his shoulder.

“Hendrick, is it?” It was a younger man in his early twenties. Hendrick hadn’t seen him around before.
“I’m Hendrick, yes.”
“I’m Roger Wendel. Please, if I could have a word with you in the office.” The young man turned his back immediately and walked away.

They’re going to put it out of commission for sure, Hendrick thought. He examined the dark stain on the brim of his hat, and then slid it back on his head. Time to face the music, he thought.

“Please, sit down,” Roger said as he pointed at the chair on the opposite side of the desk. He pressed the rim of his glasses up against his nose and eyed a piece of paper. There was a long pause, and Roger twiddled his fingers and then looked straight at Hendrick.
“I’m terrible at this so I’m just going to say it. You’re being terminated,” he said with a cold apathy that hollowed out his eyes.

Hendrick was speechless. All he could think about was servicing 3R5, and of what fate would befall his lifelong companion.

“I know this may come as a shock, but you’re getting old, Hendrick. I have records of several accidents that have left you out of work for months, and upon return, your productivity has decreased significantly. One of these days, it might end up being someone else that is injured, or worse–killed. The company has worked out a severance plan for you, so take a look at this packet. I think it’s rather robust for someone of your position.”

Roger slid a blue folder that had ‘A Happy Ending’ written on it across the table. Hendrick flipped through the papers, but none of the words sunk in.

“What of 3R5?” Hendrick finally had to ask.
“What about it?”
Hendrick paused to form the words in his mind.
“It’s a relic of Immersion Robotics, a piece of history.”
“Oh, it’s a relic alright,” Roger said with a laugh as he leaned back in his chair. “Don’t worry, that metal is precious. The company values the resources that the machine will make for our research and development department.”

Hendrick hung his head, gazing down at the blue folder in disbelief.

After the meeting, Hendrick went immediately to the carcass that remained of 3R5. He took his hat off once more and lowered his head out of respect. He placed his open palm on the side of the beast, and uttered a final goodbye.

“You were too good for them. Too good for me. But I guess it’s time, isn’t it? We had a good go, you and I.”

Hendrick took one last moment of silence, and he could feel the cold stillness of the machine, as if the very soul that made it tick had left.


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