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Sooty

by Luke Lanyon-Hog

If there was one word to describe the city it was small. Tiny compared to the Fuel Era cities. Or at least the ruins of them. In the centre were the towers and the bigger buildings, not too dissimilar to the old cities. Just smaller. Every building had either a wind turbine on it or tracking solar array. When viewed from a distance it looked like a collection of potted flowers.

Outside the city centre, houses were simple bungalows. Every house had its own small wind turbine or solar array to supplement the main power from the centre of the city. Each house had an allotment too. Everyone got at least one day a week to grow their own food, to supplement the farms.

The cars and other vehicles were small too. An electric motor could only provide so much power, so small was the way forward for everything that needed machinery.

And that was the problem.

Isaac stood on a hill where he could get a good view of the main wind farm south of the city. These turbines had been built during the fuel era and they were huge. Dwarfing anything in the city. But they were very very old now. Simple subsidence in the land beneath the turbines had caused two to fall over. Turbine Four would have fallen over by now were it not for an extensive network of cables and supports holding it up far beyond its tipping point. Turbine Four could no longer produce power because of the cables. There was so much hope that by some miracle it could be restored, but to do so would require machines more powerful than the little electric machines they had.

Isaac pulled out a small measuring device and examined Turbine Four. It was leaning another degree further than yesterday. It would fall soon and there seemed to be only one thing he could do about it.

Only a few miles away from his city were the ruins of a Fuel Era city. Its huge towers, bridges and waterways had all been made possible by the construction machines of that bygone age. Those same construction machines had built the big wind farm and the big buildings at the centre of his city. Then the fuel had stopped. The construction machines had stopped and with them any ability to build on the scale of the Fuel Era.

Isaac was an engineer, and a good one. And he was a dreamer.

On the edge of the city was a derelict construction machine named Sooty. He had made it his pet project to make that machine work again on the renewable power of the city. With its power, he dreamed he could fix not only Turbine Four but all of the other problems the city had.

The city was as old as the wind turbines. The small buildings, they could repair with the small tools and machines they had, but the big buildings were an entirely different matter. Nothing the city possessed was big enough or powerful enough for the jobs that needed doing. Many of the big buildings had been abandoned for safety reasons. Eventually, they all would be.

If he could make Sooty work maybe he could change all that.

The first challenge he had to overcome on a daily basis was his children.

Sammy and Annabelle stood not far from Sooty glaring at each other. Sammy was the eldest, he was the artistic and creative one. While not as technically minded as Isaac would have liked, he was so often the source of inspiring ideas. Annabelle was the smart one, the logical problem solver and a true engineer. Some people said Annabelle was truly her father’s daughter, but he saw in both his children the essential qualities that he felt made him a good engineer. He just wished the parts worked together better when manifested in his children.

The argument had now descended to Sammy calling Annabelle small and Annabelle calling Sammy stupid.

‘That’s enough of that,’ Issac asserted, setting off across the field toward Sooty. ‘And I think I have a fair way of settling this. We’ll ask Sooty.’

‘Sooty is very smart and logical, of course he’ll agree with me,’ said Annabelle smugly.

‘No he won’t!’ declared Sammy.

Isaac frowned at them.

A short walk brought them to Sooty.

He was the size of eight of the city’s small cars stacked on top of each other. Four bulky arms ended in huge manipular claws, each with an inbuilt tool array. From his front, a manual control cab jutted forward. At his rear was the smokestack for his fuel engine. Someone a long time ago had painted the word Sooty on the stack and this was how he had got his name. Isaac could only imagine the machine belching thick clouds of exhaust smoke as it had worked.

On top of Sooty was a tiny, almost insignificant, sensor pod. This pivoted and tracked them as they approached. Restoring Sooty’s electrics and computer had been easy, Isaac had done this before either of his children had been born and had been both surprised and delighted to find Sooty’s artificial intelligence still worked.

‘Good afternoon Mister Isaac, this will be your two thousand two hundred and seventy-third day off attempting to restore me to operation,’ said Sooty in his matter-of-fact tone. Isaac just smiled and laid down his tool bag. That was Sooty’s way of trying to tell him he thought the task before him was hopeless.

‘Sooty, I have an idea,’ announced Sammy.

‘A stupid idea,’ added Annabelle.

The sensor pod pivoted as it assessed them. The city had many artificial intelligences that ran parts of it far more efficiently than any human could. Isaac’s children had grown up with them, but Sooty was different. Having spent so much time working with their father on Sooty, Sooty was somewhere between a favourite pet and a big brother to the children.

‘Since your father restored the use of my arms, he has been unable to make any progress in making me move. Your renewable engines, while they can move my arms, are not powerful enough to move me. You and your father’s continued attempts to restore me cannot be described as sensible, so I will hear the idea, however impractical it might be.’

‘I want to repaint you,’ announced Sammy.

‘That will in no way address the fact that I am eleven tonnes more massive than your most powerful engine can move.’

‘I know.’

‘It will not address the issue that your renewable engines have a power-to-weight ratio that is so poor that adding additional engines will never move me.’

‘I knew that’s what he would say,’ smirked Annabelle.

She stepped to join her father. The sensor pod pivoted a few times as if Sooty were looking at himself.

‘ . . . I think I would like a new coat of paint,’ he said.

Sammy jumped for joy, then upended his bag and produced an unfathomably large quantity of painting supplies and his sketchbook.

‘I’ve done lots of preliminary designs,’ announced Sammy, holding up the sketchbook and flicking through the pages. ‘Tell me when you see a design you like. I’ve got you in green and blue and-’

‘My favourite colour is high-visibility yellow.’

‘Sunburst yellow coming up!’

Sammy produced a paint stripper from his supplies and set to work removing Sooty’s dull flaking paint. Annabelle watched him for a moment. In her mind, she had already worked out that Sammy had six days of very hard work ahead of him. Work that would do nothing toward their father’s goal. But even so, watching him made her feel a little envious: he was actually doing something for Sooty. All she and her father would probably do would be to spend six more days fruitlessly tinkering with the renewable engine they had installed, trying to squeeze more power out of it.

For an instant, she thought about helping Sammy. But she decided she was absolutely not going to dignify Sammy’s silly idea by participating!

Even if she wanted to…

Which she didn’t…

‘Isaac!’ called a familiar voice from across the field.

They all looked to see Bill, one of the senior engineers, approaching.

‘What do you want Bill?’ growled Isaac. ‘Come to ridicule my pet project again?’ ‘No, Isaac, we need your help.’ There was a deadly seriousness in Bill’s voice that Isaac knew too well.

An hour later, with his children safely home, Isaac was gathered with the other senior engineers in the city hall. Bill stepped onto the podium and fired up the projector.

‘A maintenance team has just identified a hairline fracture in a major support column in Tower Five on Green Street.’

A murmur of dismay rippled across the room.

‘The column must be replaced. The rest of the tower is still structurally sound so I have a plan. We can build a support brace between Tower Five and Towers Three and Seven. In simple terms, the two neighbouring towers will take the extra weight while we remove the damaged column and replace it.’

‘We spotted this one early,’ said Isaac, ‘Think we’ve got a shot at saving this building.’

There was a murmur of determined agreement.

The next few days saw a flurry of activity along Green Street as the city’s engineers worked. The quicker they could make this repair the better. Isaac was sad to be away from Sooty for so long, but this was too important.

Sammy and Annabelle came to watch their father work from behind the safety barriers every day. It was refreshing to see a new project, but Sooty was never far from their minds.

‘Sooty could do this whole job in five minutes,’ Annabelle was keen to point out.

Finally, the moment of truth arrived. The braces were in place. It was now or never.

The cutting teams stepped up and in a shower of sparks, the damaged column was freed. Cranes and pulleys tugged it out of Tower Five and laid it in the road next to the new column that would replace it. Swiftly the engineers began unfastening it and connecting the cranes to this replacement.

They had not got far when a groan of tortured metal echoed down the street. Windows shattered in Tower Three and suddenly the supporting tower was leaning. Shouts went up across the street.

Isaac stepped forward in the panic.

‘Get the replacement column into Tower Five!’ he commanded, ‘That will take the weight off Tower Three.’

The replacement column was hoisted upright in minutes. But as it was finally maneuvered into position, the engineers realized in horror Tower Five was now sagging. The column would no longer fit.

Annabelle watched this, her mind turning. There was only one solution.

‘Sooty can fix this,’ she said to Sammy.

‘But how? He can’t move.’

‘I don’t know, but we have to think of something.’

She grabbed him by the hand and they both ran. Never had either of them run so far and so fast in their lives. But long after they had left Green Street behind, the shouts and the sounds of tearing metal seemed to echo behind them, chasing them onward.

Finally, utterly exhausted, they staggered into the field and stood before Sooty.

‘Sooty, there’s an emergency! They need you!’ gasped Annabelle.

‘I am eleven tonnes too heavy for your motor to move me,’ replied Sooty in the same matter-of-fact tone.

‘You’ve got to move!’ cried Annabelle, now pulling at his treads.

‘Unless you procure more fuel for my engine, I will never move.’

‘There is no more fuel! That engine is useless!’

‘ . . . Then he doesn’t need it,’ mused Sammy thoughtfully. ‘ . . . What if we just made him . . . lighter.’

‘Sammy you can’t-’ objected Annabelle.

But Sammy had already picked up a power saw. In a shower of sparks, he began to cut. The smokestack after which Sooty had been named fell away, accompanied by a cry from Annabelle.

‘. . . I am ten tonnes too heavy,’ announced Sooty.

Wasting no time Sammy started work on the engine itself. Streaming tears, Annabelle picked up a second saw and joined him. After several moments of furious work, Sooty’s arm swung in and ripped the huge engine from his own chassis.

‘I am five tonnes overweight.’

The fuel tank came next. Followed by the manual control cab.

‘I am four tonnes overweight.’

‘Oh Sooty, I am so sorry!’ wept Annabelle. She swung her saw again and sliced one of Sooty’s arms off. It fell to the ground with a dull thud. For a few seconds, there was silence. Then the gentle hum of the renewable engine.

Sooty lurched forward.

‘Direct me to where I am needed.’

The sight of the huge tracked machine powering down the city roads caused everyone to scramble out of its way. At Green Street, the hive of activity paused at the rumbling of his treads. The watching crowds parted and Sooty ploughed through the safety barrier. In a microsecond, Sooty had assessed the situation and thundered forward.

Rising to his full height, Sooty gripped a tower with each arm. The motors Isaac had spent a lifetime installing whined. He began to lift.

The engineers watched dumbstruck as his third arm delicately maneuvered the replacement column into place and in a flash, it was welded firm.

The sensor module pivoted to assess Tower Three. It too needed a support column replaced. The engineers had already brought the necessary replacement, but this building was more damaged than the first.

Sooty grasped Tower Three with two of his remaining arms and, with another whine of his motors, he heaved the lurching tower back upright. His third arm began tearing down walls to get at the damaged column.

Isaac watched the work with terrified fascination. But even as he did, he became aware of the pitch of Sooty’s engines rising. Smoke was rising from his joints.

Faster than any human, Sooty performed a number of cuts, then pulled the buckled column free. Despite the fact all his motors were now glowing with heat, Sooty laid the column down with almost artistic delicacy. Fire burst out as he lifted the replacement into place.

Within a few seconds, Sooty’s body was a raging pillar of flame.

The engineers rushed forward with fire extinguishers, but even as they started to spray all three arms went limp and crashed to the ground.

But the tower did not fall.

It did not move.

It did not even make a sound.

The only sound was that of cooling metal from Sooty’s slumped body.