There was only one reason to visit the conversion clinic and that was for system reassignment. It was an expensive and invasive procedure that came with many risks, but thanks to the myriad adverts, products and self-help workshops that fed on the mechanicals' self-doubt, said mechanicals were re-mortgaging and bankrupting themselves to get the job done.
There was a time when mechanicals, or automata as they were once called, were considered the latest in modern invention. They worked in side shows, fairgrounds, hospitals, schools... They had a role in life and with that came a sense of self-importance. But it wasn't long before that time became this time and the demand for digitals meant automata were losing their popularity. Soon they were being replaced by smooth-talking devices who swaggered around on silent caterpillar tracks as the sun glinted off their chic black casing. Employers no longer had to constantly wind keys and pull levers. A digital simply needed programming once and then recharging nightly. They were slim, manoeuvrable and silent, unlike their noisy wooden-footed, cymbal-crashing predecessors.
Digitals were sexy. Automata were not.
And they were constantly reminded of this. First on billboards, then on TV and then across the world on the internet. Words like 'ungainly' and 'outmoded' were thrown around. Soon the word 'automaton' itself fell out of use and the machines were called by what they really were - mechanical. Stripped of their identities, abandoned by their owners, they began to believe they really were just useless hunks of wood and metal.
But there was a solution. For many, those who had lost momentum, been caught forever red-handed, it was, sadly, too late. But there were some, the self-cranking types for instance, who were targeted by the media. System reassignment, they were told, was the way forward. For a "small" fee a mechanical might still be jumping through hoops, but he'd be doing so in digital style, with a whole new motherboard replacing his pulleys and levers. And for a slightly less small fee, they could even be given new casing so they would look (and ultimately feel) like a true digital. And mechanicals jumped at the chance. And soon there were general practitioners, shrinks, homeopaths, mechani-counsellors and hacks and quacks across the country jumping at the chance to make some extra cash.
When Ron rolled up to the doctor's surgery he was last in a queue of five, despite the doors having only just opened. He felt positively embarrassed to be there, behind these poor forgotten specimens in front of him. He watched as the receptionist wore a reluctant 'face of professionalism' rather than the 'face of disgust' she was obviously doing her best to keep at bay. When it was his turn her face showed 'absolute respect'. Obviously a mechaniphobe, she could barely stop beaming when she caught sight of him. Until he made his request. Her head twitched a little in confusion and she asked him to repeat it.
"I want a downgrade," he said.
Immediately her head whipped round 180 degrees, coming to a wobbly finish at a slightly sinister tilt (to ensure clarity of her feelings. A dextral angle would have conveyed a different message all together!) to reveal her ugly 'face of fear'. She pointed to the chair in the furthest corner of the room and told him to wait. In protest Ron sat on the chair closest to her desk and surveyed the other patients who all sat against the far wall. They were all mechanicals and they all refused to make eye contact with him, some actually rolling their eyes inwards while others navel-gazed. Ron could feel their resentment and loathing. Even if they hadn't heard his conversation with the receptionist they would have seen her reaction and besides, a digital had no reason to be here. Unless he wanted to regress.
The thing was, Ron had never been happy as a digital. He'd tried explaining this to owners, employers, doctors and whoever else might listen, but they didn't get it. They were actually flabbergasted that such an optimum device as he should want to be anything other than what he was. But whenever he saw his reflection, felt the easy dance of his movements and the pulse of his perfect binary pitch, he felt like a fraud. He just wanted a crankshaft. He wanted to experience the unexpected bumps and bungling grinds, to feel the quickening of his innards as they were wound up tightly and then the dizzy climax of the free-fall, the excitement of a kind of loss of control... He'd dreamed about it so often. Employer after employer had fired him for his accidental shut-downs as he lost himself in a dream. He was beginning to lose the will to get up in the mornings. Maybe, hopefully, this doctor would agree to help him.
"Well," said Dr Grafenberg, "I've got to tell you, this is a new one on me."
He had obviously been briefed on the matter before Ron was called on, and had set his face to 'impartial' to avoid the betrayal of his unease.
"It won't be easy," he continued, peering over his anti-glare screen. "We'll have to switch you off for a few hours while we remove your CPU and transplant a matching mechanism. Fortunately mechanical transplants are freely available at the moment so finding a good match shouldn't be a problem. You will, of course, not be able to return to a 'normal' life for a few weeks as your body adapts to the changes. And there is always the risk of rejection, in which case we would have to give you the re-boot, but even in safe mode this could cause irreversible damage. We would have to unplug you if that happened."
"Okay," said Ron.
"Do you hear what I'm saying? This operation could leave you with system failure. It's far riskier than the mechanical to digital process. Perhaps you could try some anti-depressants, and make an appointment with the mechani-counsellor. If that doesn't help, come and see me again in a year or two. I'm sure transplantation will have come on in leaps and bounds by then. Though, perhaps not to your exact specifications."
Ron felt a surge of panic. Wait another two years? How many more suicide attempts would that be? How many more jobs would be lost and how high would his debts be?
"Doctor, please, I've tried it all. Nothing works. I need to be mechanical. Please. I just need you to do this for me. I can pay. I've sold my house for this. Do you want me to sell my soul as well?"
"Okay okay," said Grafenberg. "Let's not start with the drama. Go and speak to the receptionist and she'll book you in. It'll have to be next week."
"It has to be now!" Ron was trembling at the prospect, literally on a roll around the office.
"It can't be now, Ron. I have other patients to see to."
"Then operate on me and a mechanical simultaneously," he said, smiling for the first time in months. "Yes, transplant us right here and now. It will lower the risk of a virus if our two systems are still in situ. Then we can both walk out of here looking and feeling like new men."
The doctor looked hard at Ron. "You're not saying... you're not suggesting I downgrade your exterior too?"
"But that would be almost impossible. It's one thing to transplant a swinging pendulum into a digital's unit, but to transplant a microchip, and keep it functioning, into a mechanical... well it's just never been done."
"Then be the first, doctor."
The doctor looked long and hard at Ron. Had he been a mechanical you might have heard him ticking as he thought over everything that had been said.
"Wait here a moment will you?" He rolled out of the office. A moment later he was summoning in a very nervous, slightly shabby-looking mechanical.
The doctor cancelled the rest of that day's appointments and sent for his nurse. He was scrubbed down and gowned up by the time she arrived. She sterilized her digits over a Bunsen burner and Dr Grafenberg began to open Ron up.
"Oh my -" he gasped as he peered inside the cavity. "Well that explains a lot."
After the operation Ron was a changed man. No longer did he skulk around with his gaze to the floor, heavy with the weight of the world on his back. These days he positively marched to his own beat, tipping his hat to everyone he met, grinning from ear to ear. He felt as though released from a cage, free to be the mechanical he always had been. He went on to get a job working on a medieval clock. It was a simple job. Every hour on the hour he presented himself to the crowd, smiling and tipping his hat as he marched in circles. It was simple yet wonderful. And he fell in love with a milk-maid who was on a separate circuit. Only their gaze ever met, for they were on tracks and unable to physically connect. But this was enough for Ron. This locking of their gaze every hour made his spirits soar and for the first time in his life everything felt right.
Because, as the doctor had discovered, Ron was a special case, the likes of which had never been seen before. Ticking away inside his circuitry had been a tiny, self-regulating, mechanical heart. Somehow, during his construction a piece of mechanical apparatus had got itself lodged inside him, surely an impossible feat considering there were no longer any companies making mechanicals, and they certainly wouldn't have shared factory space with digital components. Someone, somewhere, (a short, near-sighted man in Brighton) was creating dual machines with the sole mission of ending the digital age so subtly that it would go undetected for years. Unfortunately he only completed two of these hybrids before his early demise. The other has yet to be discovered.