“No… I can’t do that.”
A shaky, young Lucas Merriweather Buford sat, doing his accounts, in his office within Buford Automaton Company in Astam Junction, Antiford. He erased numbers from a few columns and tapped the pencil on his chin.
The goal was to balance the numbers such that nobody needed to be laid off or take a pay cut. He “creatively” funnelled funds from the rather profitable toy and doll company, Auto-Marie, which his company owned. He cut his own pay. He borrowed against the future. Nothing seemed to quite balance.
Being at the top of an industry doesn’t translate to money earned if your product is too niche. There hadn’t been much in the way of frivolous spenders or dangerous industries coming to place a new order is some months. The market for mechanical men was tough, simply because nobody yet believed they needed an automaton.
Not except the government. The Technocrats always seemed eager to show off their technological might to the world by buying and using another predictable, shiny robot. Lucas was certainly of two minds that the government he disliked were most often what kept his business afloat. He needed their business. It wasn’t a comfortable situation.
Lucas’s mind wandered to his stressors. He was frustrated that he only owned one outfit nice enough to attend business summits and other networking events with. The lack of support from the scientific community on his advancements stressed him out. Phinneus Cromwell constantly grieved him, upstaging his technical abilities and questioning his loyalty to the Order of the Badger—their group of subversive patriots fighting against the Technocrats in power.
Lucas put his pencil down and rubbed his forehead. He looked down to his pocket watch. I shouldn’t be focusing on this right now.
The door opened and a young woman poked her head in. “Sir, your guests have arrived.”
“Thank you, Stacey. Could you… maybe we can stall them five minutes?” he said.
“I’ll try, sir. No promises. They’re… pushy.”
He put the books into one of the drawers of his desk and tidied up a workspace on another desk. He could really let the place get messy, but today he needed to keep it presentable. He was expecting his best customer to arrive.
He fiddled with the adjustments on his mechanical arm, the right one. He attempted to look relaxed in his chair, which was far enough away from the desk as to look comfortable, but not far enough away to look odd. He hoped.
There were two knocks on the door and Stacey opened the door. Following her were a tall woman and slightly hunched “gentleman”.
The woman stuck her hand out firmly. “Mr. Buford, I presume?”
“And you must be, Ms. Lavashire?”
They shook exactly two, weighty times. Her movements were as precise and restrictive as her outfit.
She could pass for a general with a few ribbons and a hat, Lucas thought.
She gestured toward her compatriot. “And this is—”
“Mr. Peters,” Lucas interrupted, “how interesting to see you again. You seem to get around.”
Mr. Peters only grinned and attempted something resembling posture.
He’d been here before, with other Technocrats. He was a mute, as far as anyone could tell. And those noticeably large eyes of his traced every line of wall, every stitch of carpet, every pore of skin. He constantly had to be apologized for, though was never scolded. Not a single employee enjoyed his presence, but Buford had already petitioned against the tag-along, and his complaints went unanswered.
"The Ministry would like to see what you have been working on. I am authorized to purchase today, so do try to impress us," Ms. Lavashire said.
Lucas tilted his head and mustered up some bravado. “All of course! Whom do you think you’re shopping from? Follow me!”
He led them downstairs to a small office which overlooked one of the laboratories. He’d spent most of his time yesterday getting prototypes to this room after receiving the telegram that these guests would be coming.
“So, If I recall, you wanted to see what inventions we have that aren’t directly related to our automatons?” Lucas asked.
Ms. Lavashire adjusted her glasses. “That’s correct.”
Lucas picked up a dropper full of a darkly colored goo. “So, this here is a new industrial cleaner. It’s prepared by mixing a tiny amount of this concentrate with up to a whole gallon’s worth of water depending on how abrasive you want it. It’s cut costs on some things here and could do even more for you.”
Lucas dropped it into a dish with water and it changed color. He then dipped a metal part into the mixture, cleaning it. He held the part up, and smiled. After a moment, he realized his smiles would be met with none in return and moved onto the next demonstration.
“This gadget seems to greatly improve on ambient moisture collection. We were hoping to sell it to moisture farming folks out west. Again, early days, but a nice investment would move that further.”
Mr. Peters had his creepy gaze fixated everywhere but on the projects Lucas was actually demonstrating. Lucas anticipated he’d be coming along and so made sure there wasn’t too many interesting things happening below other than what the Technocracy had already been shown.
Ms. Lavashire was biting her lip and finishing her notes on a small pad. “Is that all, Mr. Buford?”
“Yes, well, your request was odd, to ask the Automaton Company to show you anything but. That and the short notice.”
“I’m disappointed, Mr. Buford. I asked you to impress me, not show me soap and condensation!” she said.
Lucas frowned and puffed out his chest. “I think you had better leave.”
“I think we better had.”
Ms. Lavashire’s eyes darted quickly to Mr. Peters. He quickly understood and made haste out of the room.
What was all that about? Lucas thought.
He wasn’t expecting such a horrid visit from the government. They’d been impatient or tiresome, but never rude or menacing before. This was not a good sign.