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Across the sylvan, dappled wood
I skipped into the verdant green,
To catch the magic laughing sprite
Whose voice would mock me now and then.

I jumped up high and tried to sail
Into the tangled upper leaves,
But thwarted by my earthen form,
I fell to rest upon my knees.

No wings have I to give the chase,
No eyes to see as fairies see.
I look to where he rested yet,
And only find a living tree.

So here I wait, so very still,
Pretending peaceful reverie;
While in the branches very high,
I think the fairy watches me.

The Chase, by Ginger C. Mann

Prologue

From one end of the sprawling London metropolis to the other, over palaces and hovels, elegant townhouses, rundown wharfs and warehouses, the micromechs fluttered.

They rode the summer breeze through every open window, swooped down chimneys, crept in at every crack and crevice. Their multifaceted eyes searched and their ears recorded. Their tiny feet carried them silently across the ceilings of peopled rooms. Mingling with the insects of high summer, they went unnoticed and unremarked, even in the infrequent pools of gaslight through which they flashed on whirring, iridescent wings.

​In her private dirigible Ganesh, moored with other private and public airships in the Victoria Air Terminus that soared above sprawling Victoria Station, their “queen” waited patiently for their reports, the portal open to admit the summer breeze and her fluttering charges returning from the city below. They flitted around her brilliant crimson-and-gold sari like the dragonflies and hummingbirds and other flying beings they had once been, surrounding her like a dazzling bloom in the Indian jungle.

One by one, their leaders—Cobweb, Peaseblossom, Mote, and Mustardseed—flitted past and whispered their negative reports into her ear: no sign of the half-man, the huge dazzlingly black mech who had stolen the automaton, Jubal, and fled India for England. But the queen was calmly confident.

The night was young, the breezes were light, and the micromechs were spreading methodically from the airship across the city from south to north, from west to east. The massive black mech they sought would inevitably be found.

Why the mech and his master had stolen her precious automaton, the queen could only guess. But the machine’s true value was more than they could possibly know, far more precious than the massive blue diamonds at his heart and in his eyes. She must recover him before the thief or his master stumbled over his true worth.

The storm clouds of aggression and war loomed. The queens crafted their response. Their plan must not be thwarted. The automaton must be retrieved.

 

 

Late in the summer the strange horses came.
We heard a distant tapping on the road,
A deepening drumming; it stopped, went on again
And at the corner changed to hollow thunder.

The Horses by Edwin Muir

 

Chapter One: Phaeton

Pauline Spiegel sprang to her feet and threw her arms over her head in celebration. The new cam fit, with only enough play for the lightest coating of lithium lubricant. But her exuberance was cut short when, to her dismay, the large, grease-smeared spanner flew from her slippery hand and clattered away across her father’s Knightsbridge workshop, directly at him. Her breath caught in her throat as she watched it bounce. Only when it skidded to a stop, scant inches from his feet, did she dare breathe again. Ernst Spiegel straightened deliberately from his workbench, swung the jeweler’s loupe away from his eye, and turned slowly to face his mortified daughter. “Oh, Papa!” she cried. “I’m so sorry! The spanner was slippery, and I . . .”

“It is more careful you must be, mein Liebchen,” Ernst said, his thick Bavarian accent betraying concern the mild words themselves did not. “Very large your machine is, for our little workshop.”

He pointedly ignored the spanner, and stepped over it to examine his daughter’s gleaming brass-and-steel assemblage that seemed to fill half the meticulous atelier. “Very large and ambitious this is. The largest automaton we ever built at the Golden Gear. Not even your sainted mother attempted anything so grand. The balance problem—it is overcome?”

“Yes, Papa. I had to remill the cam twice. The tolerance was much finer than I had supposed.”

Ernst nodded, not taking his eyes from Pauline’s handiwork. “Corrections you have made to the calculations in your notes and drawings?”

“Yes, Papa. I certainly don’t need to make that same mistake again.”

“Very good,” Ernst said. “This is how a good artificer learns—one mistake at a time. Now: show me.”

Pauline nodded, drew a deep breath, checked coal and water levels, and lit the tiny boiler. As she waited for steam, she retrieved the fallen spanner, carefully wiped the grease from it, and hung it in its place above the workbench. She moved about, greasing fittings and oiling moving parts, until the machine was in complete readiness.

Finally, she wiped her hands, brushed dust from the knees of her long skirt, and climbed up to the saddle, nearly as high up as she was tall. She twisted to open a steam valve behind her, checked several gauges in front of the pommel, and adjusted the valve until she was satisfied with the pressure. She heard and felt the steam and hydraulic systems hiss and throb gently to life. Only then did she carefully lower the brake and ease forward on a mahogany control handle. Smoothly and almost without a sound, the machine raised one of its front hooves from the floor. Beneath her seat, she felt the opposing hind leg flex forward, but not yet leave the ground. This was the moment of truth—the moment of precarious balance she had worked for days to correct.

Eureka! The newly milled cam functioned perfectly. The raised front hoof came down a split second before the back leg left the floor. Three feet were now on the ground at all times. Stability was good. There would be no repeat of the teetering fright the heavy machine had given her on its first test.

She realized she had been holding her breath again, and let out a soft sigh. The mechanical horse took another step, and then another, before she eased it to a halt facing the large wooden door at the back of the workshop.

“Oh! I say!” The pleasant contralto voice behind her was delighted. Pauline twisted in the saddle. There, framed by the heavy velvet curtain that separated the Golden Gear’s showroom from the workshop, stood the slender, elegant figure of Clementine Hozier, stylishly clad for an afternoon ride, crop in hand. “Paulie! Your horse is absolutely gorgeous!”

Clementine’s large blue eyes sparkled, and she strode into the workshop to admire her friend’s creation, running her gloved hand down its sleek brass flank. “And how perfect that you are about to ride out, as I would so love your company on a turn through the park.”

“Clemmie! How lovely to see you, my dear. But I’m not at all sure the steam horse is ready for a recreational ride.”

“Oh, tush!” exclaimed Clementine. “This is not recreation. You need to test it out sometime, do you not? Why not now?”

Pauline turned to her father. Ernst looked back at her, his head tilted to the side. “Is it ready? Are you ready?”

Pauline stared at the floor for a moment, drew a deep breath, and swallowed hard. “Yes, Papa. I believe I am.”

Without another word, her father stepped forward and slid the big door aside. The sun of the pleasant midsummer afternoon flooded the workshop. He reached up and handed her a pair of goggles. “For when you bring your machine up to full speed.”

She fastened the goggles around her neck. “I will want to test it some distance at a walk, up into Hyde Park, then at a trot, before I bring it to a gallop.”

Weise das ist. Wise,” her father said.

“Capital! Then it’s all settled!” Clementine announced. “My mare is in front of the shop. I will wait for you there.” She turned back through the heavy curtain, and out through the elegant cut-glass door.

Pauline nodded nervously. She eased the control lever forward and ducked low as the horse stepped out into the alley. She laid the reins over the machine’s neck, and it turned its gleaming brass head until its flaring nostrils and dark carnelian eyes pointed toward Kensington Road. Steel hooves clopped slowly on the cobblestones of the narrow alley as she gradually gained the confidence to advance the throttle again.  The steam horse accelerated to a fast walk, and Pauline smiled with satisfaction. Much smoother than the walking gait of an actual horse. Very satisfactory indeed.

She pulled the stick back as she emerged from between the stone buildings that fronted on the high street. There Clemmie waited, sidesaddle on a small dapple-gray mare. An ancient retainer, the Hozier family’s stable master, sat quietly astride a bay gelding a respectful distance away, at hand should his young lady require his assistance. His toothless old mouth dropped open in comic astonishment as Pauline emerged from the alley astride her metallic creation. “What do you think of this, Jenkins?” she asked him, grinning.

“It’s a marvelous modern age we live in, Miss,” he mumbled, knuckling his wrinkled forehead. “Better a steam horse than a steam locomotive, says I.”

“It’s a wide world, Jenkins,” said Clementine. “Plenty of room for both, I should think.”

“Indeed, Miss,” he said, clearly unconvinced.

“The new century will be replete with such wonders,” Pauline stated firmly. “Every day we see new things that were never dreamed of a few decades ago.”

“Indeed, Miss,” Jenkins said again. “The coachman what took Her Ladyship to Victoria Station last night says the sky above the station is just full of them airships, big and small, every color of the rainbow, with flags from all over the world.”

“Moored at the Victoria Air Terminus for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, I expect,” Clementine said. “I should very much like to see them.”

“As would I,” said Pauline. “But the crowds must be fierce. It seems half the world, and all of England, is in town for the Jubilee.”

“We should go!” Clementine said. “Perhaps tomorrow, on Midsummer Day.” She clucked her mare ahead, into the high street, toward the park. Pauline eased forward on her control stick and followed, her heart in her throat.

Out in public for the first time, showing the whole world the machine she had spent the best part of three months creating. Would it fail, right there in the high street, in the midst of the afternoon crowd? The very thought made her a little dizzy. But the steam horse functioned perfectly, and soon the little party turned down the carriage drive that circled the eastern half of the park. So far, so good.

Though the drive would be thronged with fashionable carriages tomorrow, and especially toward evening when the Jubilee events were under way, at teatime the girls had the lane to themselves. Gaining confidence, Pauline throttled forward to trotting speed, quickly catching up and passing Clementine, who spurred her mare from a walk to a trot. Both girls laughed with delight.

Pauline could not have been happier with her automaton. Unlike a flesh-and-blood horse, which bounced and jounced and required a proper English rider to rise and fall to compensate, her machine’s gait remained level and smooth, as if barely moving.

“We must give your horse a name,” Clementine announced as she drew alongside.

“A name?” Pauline asked. “It’s a machine.”

“And a very fine horse, no matter that it’s a machine.”

“What would you suggest?”

“Hmm,” mused Clementine. “What about Xanthus?”

“Achilles’ horse,” said Pauline. “Not bad.” At that moment, the low afternoon sun broke through the tall trees along the path and bathed the world gold. The polished brass of the steam horse dazzled. “Phaeton!” she exclaimed.

Clementine beamed. “A capital name. After the chariot horse of Eos—“

“—Titan goddess of the dawn,” Pauline agreed.

“And when I build one,” said Clementine, “I shall call it Lampus, and we shall have the matched pair.”

Pauline smiled as she patted the machine’s neck. “Yes, Phaeton you shall be.”

Side by side, they turned north, accelerating smoothly toward the bridge over the Serpentine. Faster and faster they flew, Pauline’s long, dark, unruly hair springing loose and flowing back over her shoulders. Clementine remained unruffled and perfectly coifed, even at a full gallop. “Not fair!” she called. “Phaeton is far too smooth and untiring.”

“And it’s a good thing!” shouted Pauline. “I’m not nearly the horsewoman you are.” She laughed aloud, the wind tearing the sound from her lips.

She pulled her father’s goggles up from beneath her chin and settled them over her eyes just as the horses’ hooves clattered onto the Serpentine Bridge. The girls waved happily to the first people they had seen since entering the park, seven burly university boys and their diminutive coxswain speeding past beneath the bridge in a long, sleek racing shell. Their teamwork was perfect, the picture of powerful synchronization, until the girls waved. Then the poor coxswain’s mouth dropped open, he pointed up at the bridge, and the entire crew turned to stare at the strange pair clattering past overhead. All semblance of concentration and coordination ceased. Long oars banged and tangled. Their momentum was lost. But none of the crew seemed to care. They stared after the beautiful young women on beautiful horses, one a gleaming simulacrum.

Pauline laughed again, then realized that at that speed, her open mouth was certain to ensnare some flying insect or other, which only heightened her mirth that much more. What a joy to race along on a contrivance of her own devising, in the warmth of a London summer afternoon!

As they sped off the north end of the bridge and back onto the tree-lined drive, there was a sharp pop, like a shot from a small pistol. The needles on the gauges in front of Pauline fell to zero. She felt Phaeton lurch and slow until he came to a complete stop. Clementine surged ahead, then slowed and circled back.

Pauline swiveled in her saddle, scanning ahead and behind, but could see nothing wrong. She swung down and dropped to hands and knees in the gravel beside the inert machine, popping open an access panel in the belly and twisting to peer into the dark interior.

Clementine drew her mare to a stop alongside her friend. “I should say it sounded as if a steam line parted,” she said.

“Indeed,” said Pauline. “You were always better with the steam engine practicum at school.”

“And you were a whiz with the clockwork,” said Clementine. “As well you ought to be.” She dropped from the saddle, and joined Pauline on her knees at Phaeton’s side. “Did you bring tools?”

Pauline felt her face flush. “I’m afraid not. Not so much as a screwdriver.”

“Well, let’s see if we can get that clamp loose.” Clementine produced a tiny clutch purse, seemingly from nowhere, and extracted a steel fingernail file. “Jenkins!” she called.

The ancient retainer had barely cantered to within earshot, in no hurry to keep up with the galloping girls. “Yes, Miss?”

“Please return to the Golden Gear, fetch Miss Spiegel’s tool bag, and inform her father that we shall be delayed a trifle.” Jenkins’ expression did not change. Wordlessly, he continued in a wide semicircle, and cantered back toward the Serpentine Bridge.

Clementine watched him out of sight before she stood, dusted her skirts, and addressed Pauline, who remained peering into the steam horse’s belly. “Paulie, I came to the shop this morning because we need to talk.”

Pauline looked up, surprised. “Oh? What about?” Seeing the look of intense concern and resolve on Clementine’s face, she too stood and dusted her skirts.

“Our mutual friend,” Clementine said.

Suddenly, Pauline understood. She stepped forward, threw her arms around the neck of the taller girl, and kissed her cheek. Clementine remained ramrod straight. “Oh, my dearest of friends!” Pauline said. “My boon companion! There can be no doubt that your interests and mine coincide fully.”

Suddenly, Clementine began to cry, and slumped against her friend. “Truly?”

“Truly! When I encouraged you to correspond with Lord Spencer, I abandoned all claim to his affections.”

“But your father . . .”

“.  . . will just have to get used to the fact that I have my own mind, and my own heart.”

Clementine sobbed openly, and Pauline pulled a utilitarian handkerchief from her sleeve to dry her eyes. When she could speak again, Clementine asked, “So you are determined to go ahead with your promises to your admirer?”

“I am. More now than ever.”

“But your father does not know about him yet? They have not met? Your father and this . . .”

“Alex. Alexander MacIntyre. Oh, they have indeed met, but my father knows him only as the messenger who comes from the palace. We have not yet revealed to him our feelings for one another.”

“But you have made one another promises?”

“We have indeed. And, like it or not, my father is going to have to honor them. After all, this is not the Dark Ages. We are on the threshold of the twentieth century.”

“I should very much like to meet this young man who can sweep away the heart of the redoubtable Pauline Spiegel, despite his meager prospects. You are far braver than I.”

“I am resolute,” Pauline said. “Prospects mean nothing. I am a woman in love.” She released her friend from her embrace, held her at arm’s length, and looked at her closely. “But why are you so concerned about this, all of a sudden? What do you know that I do not?”

Clementine’s voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper. “I have this morning had a letter from Lord Spencer. He is even now on his way home from Egypt. He is determined to be here to attend the House of Lords’ gala for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee tonight. He sailed on a fast packet, and thinks it possible that he will arrive here ahead of the letter. Why, he could already be in London!”

Pauline’s eyes twinkled. “Do you see, my dear? This news he imparts to you, and does not think at all about me—the woman to whom his family believes him betrothed. No, I do not think there will be any shadow on your relationship with him because of me. Or because of my family and his.”

Clementine brightened. “I suppose that is true. I am sorry you will not be at the gala tonight. His mother and his patron—the head of his family, the Duke of Marlborough—will be in attendance. Perhaps we all could have discussed it, and reached an understanding.”

“I’m sure that time will come,” Pauline said. “And in the meantime, I am inexpressibly glad that I, the daughter of a lowly merchant . . .”

“Artificer to the Crown!” protested Clementine.

“. . . albeit Artificer to the Crown,” continued Pauline, “am not subjected to such stultifying occasions.” The girls laughed.

Hoof beats thundered. Pauline and Clementine looked up, startled, as a tall, gray-clad rider approached at a full gallop from the direction of the bridge. Barely slacking his roan stallion’s pace, he vaulted from the saddle and ran toward Pauline. He fetched up abruptly when he saw that she was not alone, and walked the last dozen paces with an enforced calm.

“Miss Spiegel, good afternoon,” he said. He doffed a perfect bowler hat and swept an elegant bow.

Pauline gave her friend a surreptitious wink, as much as to say, ‘He thinks our relationship a deep, dark secret. How silly of him to think I could keep such a thing from my closest friend!’ Clementine seemed to understand perfectly. Pauline’s secret was safe with her—even from Alexander.

Pauline smiled formally. “Mr. MacIntyre! Well met, sir. I don’t believe you have had the pleasure of the acquaintance of my dear friend, Miss Clementine Hozier.”

Alexander bowed low over Clementine’s hand. “Ah, the famous Miss Hozier, Miss Spiegel’s classmate and confidante at the Sorbonne. You are an engineer as well, I believe?”

“I fear you have me at a disadvantage, Mr. . . . MacIntyre, was it?” Clementine asked, with an arch look for Pauline.

“Mr. MacIntyre is an undersecretary at Buckingham Palace, Clemmie,” she explained. “He visits us with commissions. The queen is particularly fond of my father’s automata.”

Clementine smiled graciously. “How do you do, Mr. MacIntyre? To what do we owe the pleasure of your precipitous arrival?”

Alexander turned to Pauline. “Are you quite all right, Miss Spiegel? I arrived at the Golden Gear with a message from Her Majesty, and met an old stableman arriving at the same moment as I. He said you had suffered a breakdown in the middle of the park . . .”

Pauline laughed. “A mechanical breakdown, sir. Mechanical.” She turned and pointed at the motionless Phaeton. “He burst a steam line.”

Alex stared at the machine for a moment. Then, with a guffaw, he swept off the gray bowler from his mop of blond hair and slapped it against his leg. “That’s an automaton! I was in such a hurry that I didn’t even notice it wasn’t a real horse!”

“On, it’s very real,” Pauline assured him. “It’s just powered by coal and water instead of hay and oats.”

“Marvelous,” exclaimed Alexander. “Exquisite.” Pauline felt herself flush. Alexander’s eyes were locked on her, not on Phaeton. She glanced at Clementine, who suddenly found something interesting to look at in the branches that laced together overhead.  A good thing, Pauline thought, she was not really trying to keep anything from Clemmie, because Alex’s enamored gaze and thinly veiled meaning would have been a dead giveaway.

At length, Jenkins arrived with Pauline’s tool bag, and between the two young engineers, they made short work of the steam line repair. MacIntyre and Jenkins looked on in wonder. When Pauline had remounted and begun the process of bringing up the horse’s head of steam, she turned to Alexander. “By the way,” she said, dropping Clementine another tiny wink, “to what did we owe the pleasure of your visit to the Golden Gear this afternoon?”

“Oh . . . what? . . . I . . .”

“I believe you mentioned a message from the Palace? Perhaps an order for a new automaton?”

“Oh, yes! That was it. A new order.” He seemed grateful for the rescue.

“Then will you ride with us back to the shop?”

“I’m afraid I shall be forced to tender my regrets,” he said, consulting a rather ornate gold pocket watch. “It appears that the time I had devoted to this errand has fled. I intended to stop at the Golden Gear only a moment. I have official duties this evening in connection with the House of Lords’ gala, and find myself forced to take my leave very soon.”

“Oh!” exclaimed Clementine. “The gala! I too am expected to attend.” She gave Pauline a meaningful look.

“Indeed you are,” said Pauline. “There will be many fascinating people there, will there not? We had best get you home so you can dress.”

“I will visit the Golden Gear again tomorrow to arrange for that automaton,” Alexander promised. “If you are both quite sure that you can make your way safely home . . .”

“Oh, we are quite safe,” Clementine said with a smile, pointing to the ancient retainer, who seemed to have dozed off sitting astride his stable pony. “We have Jenkins.”

“Then by your leave, ladies.” MacIntyre tipped his hat and rode away.

As he galloped eastward, Clementine caught Pauline’s eye with suppressed glee. The girls could maintain their composure no longer. They burst into giggles.

 

“Will you walk into my parlor?” said the spider to the fly;
“’Tis the prettiest little parlor that ever you did spy.
The way into my parlor is up a winding stair,
And I have many curious things to show when you are there.”
“Oh, no, no,” said the little fly; “to ask me is in vain,
For who goes up your winding stair can ne’er come down again.”

—The Spider and the Fly, by Mary Howitt

 

Chapter Two: Meet the Malieuxs

Black on black, motionless, the towering Zulu mech, Shaka, was nearly invisible in the darkness beneath a spreading oak on the edge of Bethnal Green Poor’s Land. He had stood silently, patiently, the three hours since sunset. In front of him, the nearest rundown tenements, each occupied by several poor families, were distant enough that the light of their paraffin lamps did not penetrate the night to reveal him. At his back, the lightless Bethnal Green madhouse hulked dark and sinister, cloaked in its centuries-old blanket of ivy, the shrieks of its indigent inmates muffled by the thick stone walls.

The African stood head and shoulders above all but the tallest of Englishmen, easily topping seven feet. His head and left shoulder, arm, and the left half of his torso were flesh, superbly muscled, bare to the warm night. The remainder of his torso, right shoulder and arm, and from the waist down, were a gleaming black metal, matched to the gloss of his skin, formed to follow the musculature of his left side.

​He turned slowly at the faint whisper of wings. Hundreds—no, thousands of velvety wings. Inaudible singly, menacing in their massed unity. What remained in him of the Zulu inyanga witch doctor involuntarily murmured a warding incantation. But the sibilant whisper continued and increased in volume, swirling, rotating, focusing on the spot where he stood. Gradually, he distinguished words: his name? “Shaka! Shhaakaa!” Then more disconcerting still, a breathy laugh. “Haha! Shaka! We have found you at lasst! What a merry chase it has been!”

The swirl tightened, and gradually he could discern even in the arboreal darkness the passing forms of a whorl of a thousand hawk moths, each the size of a man’s hand, surrounding him, orbiting him tightly. How they spoke to him, he could not tell.

“Who are you?” he heard himself ask.

“Over hill, over dale, through bush, through brier, over park, over pale, through flood, through fire, long have we sought Shhhaka! We are Friendsss of the Queen, she who shows usss the light, who bids usss reason.”

​“Who is this queen?”

“She is your mistress, Shaka, thou abominable namesake of the great Zulu king.”

“I have no mistress. My master only do I serve: Oberon Malieux, the great doctor, the restorer, the healer.”

“In matrimony were they bonded, and in matrimony remain they ssstill, though the years are long sssince they walked under the sssame ssstarsss.”

“Ah! Lakshmi! You serve Lakshmi the Lost!”

“Lakshmi the Victorious! Lakshmi the Giver of Thought! Lakshmi the Wronged! But sssoon, all shall be ressstored. For are you not Shaka, the thief? He who bore away Jubal of the diamond heart and eyesss? Do you not ssserve Oberon Malieux, the usurper?”

“I served my master to retrieve and restore to him that which rightfully was his.”

“Never hisss! Never hisss! Stolen from the Queen. Nevertheless, she comesss, and all things shall be restored.”

“Let us bandy words no more. Warn your lady to stay away from this place, lest my master’s wrath be sore and she be destroyed.”

“Our Queen has traversed half the world in her quest for justice. Her possession will be restored. Let your master beware.” And with this whispered warning, the whirling cyclone of wings dispersed as suddenly as it had appeared. Shaka was left wondering, and not a little shaken.

He was anxious to report, and didn’t have long to wait, for soon he heard his master’s footsteps approaching down the High Street. ​“Doctor, a development,” he said from the shadows.

​Dr. Oberon Malieux did not break stride. This was, after all, where he had left his servant standing. Why should Shaka not stand motionless for hours?

“Ah? Something more interesting than the dismal performances, watered gin, and tired doxies at the music hall tonight, I hope? Tell me something to purge the taste of that mindless proletarian drivel.” Malieux swung his knobbed cane and continued his stroll toward his home on the grounds behind the Bethnal Green madhouse. He was a man of erect bearing, impeccably and expensively tailored—incongruously so, for his East End surroundings—of distinguished middle years. His early years as a doctor in Her Majesty’s Army were plain in his carriage and gait.

Shaka fell into step several paces behind him. “Messengers from your wife, Doctor.”

Malieux stopped and turned abruptly. “Lakshmi sent messengers? After all these years? My, my! I do believe our little stunt has gained her attention.”

“Most unusual messengers, Doctor.”

“Whom?”

“Moths. Huge moths. Thousands of them. They spoke to me in one voice.”

Malieux stood a moment in stunned silence. “Zeus! She has done it! She has been working on it for years, but I didn’t believe it possible.”

“Done what, Doctor?”

“They weren’t moths. They were mechanical. Micromechs. What was the message?”

“That she comes to retrieve what is hers. But I warned them to tell her to stay away, lest you destroy her.”

“You don’t understand! I sent you to snatch away the little toy automaton she loves so much precisely to lure her to me. I need her. I need what she knows. Even more now that she has succeeded with the micromechs.”

“What is it she knows that you do not?”

“Her specialty, even when we were brand new physicians, sweltering in the filth of the leper hospitals of Bombay, was the eye, that portal to the brain, the seat of reason.” His voice was husky with excitement. “I sought ways to make the lame walk, she to make the blind see. I strove with long muscles and thick bones, she with nerves slender as hairs and the unknowable vagaries of the brain.”

“It seems a miracle she can create creatures so small,” Shaka said.

“Indeed,” answered Malieux. “I strove to mend and control larger and stronger, with you and the industrial mechs like you. She sought to mend and control smaller and more agile.”

“You succeeded admirably, Doctor.”

“And so, it seems, has she. Her message to me tonight, clear as the moon, is that she has succeeded. She is more formidable than anyone could imagine. What a powerful ally she would be! And what a daunting foe.”

​As if to punctuate the doctor’s declaration, above them came the whisper of wings. Malieux and Shaka looked up in time to see an eerily glowing, sparking, undulating ball of light appear over the houses on the west side of the green. It advanced swiftly toward where they stood, settled gently to the ground, and dispersed like a puff of smoke, revealing the sari-clad form of the other Doctor Malieux.

Her husband, regaining his composure, chuckled appreciatively. “Lakshmi, you always did know how to make an entrance. Fireflies, this particular batch of servants?”

​“Friends,” Lakshmi corrected.

“Yet they do your bidding, as Shaka and my other mechs do mine.”

“They work their own will. Fortunately for me, the will of the majority often coincides with mine. Unlike you, I do not coerce.”

Malieux laughed bitterly. “Yet you sent the first flotilla of micromechs to threaten and coerce me.”

​“Not at all,” Lakshmi said. “I came hoping that you would listen to reason and return that which you stole from me.”

“A man cannot steal what is his own, my dear. You are my wife. What is yours is mine. That you are here begging, and not at Scotland Yard swearing out a complaint, tells me that you acknowledge this. Could it be that perhaps you are hoping to be persuaded to stay? That secretly you long to join me in my work once more?”

“No, that I am here says more about the respect that I once bore you, and to which I now appeal. Surely there remains some shred of the man I loved and married so long ago and far away.”

“Long ago and far away indeed. When we met in Bombay, we were young and idealistic.”

“We were determined to ease the suffering of mankind. It was only natural to believe that we could share our lives together as man and wife, doing good. How could all that was so wonderful become lost?”

“One of us grew up,” Malieux said.

Lakshmi sighed. “One of us became jaded and self-serving. And now you have taken something very dear to me. I beg you to return it and let us part, if not as friends, then at least not as enemies.”

“We should never have parted in the first place, Lakshmi. I wanted you to come with me when I went to Africa. We knew the war with the Zulus was coming. We had learned all we could in the leper hospital, and needed the wounded soldiers—the enemy prisoners—to advance our knowledge. But you abandoned me.”

“Oberon, even before you left Bombay, your experiments were going too far. I couldn’t believe in what you wanted me to do. It was already far beyond the pale.”

“It was necessary!”

“No! The ends do not justify the means. Experimenting on living, breathing, thinking human beings. And without choice or consent!”

“Prisoners! And Army patients who would have died or spent their lives as invalids without the work I was doing.”

She shook her head. “You had already abandoned all pretense of preserving the freedom and dignity of your patients, and were treating them as mere tools of economic gain. These industrial mechs of yours, and the life and choices you have forced on them, are an affront to humanity. They should have their freedom.”

​Malieux turned to Shaka. “Your mistress believes you would rather be dead than have the tungsten carbide body, the hydraulic rams, and the strength of ten men. Would you rather be dead, Shaka? Would you rather I had left you on the battlefield to die with half your body shot away?”

“No, Doctor,” the giant mech rumbled.

“Hardly the proper question,” insisted Lakshmi. “Shaka, would you rather be here, in an English madhouse, assisting with these experimental vivisections, or would you rather be back on the veldt with your wife and children, your cattle, and the open sky?”

The mech made no answer. Malieux laughed dismissively. “Shaka, you may go. I shall need nothing further this evening.” Without a word, the mighty mech turned on his heel and within a few strides had been swallowed by the darkness.

​“Lakshmi, there has never been another mind that approaches mine in capability as does yours. Together we could change the world, rid those truly capable of rational thought of the necessity of physical toil, and establish a worldwide meritocracy of the superior and deserving.”

“And trample those who don’t meet your standards, Oberon?”

“Rule them for their own good! Join me once more, and let us accomplish what the Fates have dictated is our due.”

His voice dropped and he stepped toward her. “Together we refitted those first leper patients with new mechanical hands and feet, took them from begging in the gutters to earning their daily bread at their trades. I have taken the next step alone, creating men with the magnificent capabilities of industrial machines. But they retain their ability to disobey. Now we can take the next step, as you have learned to do: take the creatures of nature and make them mankind’s servants.”

​“Oberon, are you truly blind? No creature with the power of thought ought to be a slave to another.”

“On the contrary, the power of thought is the ultimate manifestation of the law of claw and fang. The mighty in thought must take their rightful place as masters of the world.”

“The mighty in thought? And by this you mean you?”

“And you! Join me! Let us be man and wife again! Let us rule.”

“Like you rule the poor wretches in the madhouse?”

“Those ‘poor wretches’, as you call them, have lost or abandoned the power of thought. That is what makes the madhouse such a perfect medium for experimentation. At least they can contribute to the betterment of mankind.”

Lakshmi sighed. “No, Oberon. I will never again do anything to further your fevered dreams. That hope is vain. One last time I plead with you: return my automaton and allow me to return home.”

Malieux regarded her curiously. “Why do you care so much for this bauble?”

“It is no bauble,” Lakshmi said. “You know I built it with Hermione. We worked on it together for years.”

“Ah, yes,” murmured Malieux. “The beloved Hermione. The friend with whom no mere husband could ever compete.”

“The friend who rejoiced with me when you and I were wed, and mourned with me when we went down such different paths.”

“So the automaton is a mere memento.”

“As you wish. I shan’t dispute it with you, Oberon.”

“Well then, my dearest wife,” he said, his voice dripping with sarcasm, “I would be happy to return the amusing little memento. All I ask in return is that you share the secret of creating and controlling the micromechs. Share the knowledge, and you shall have the automaton forthwith.”

​Lakshmi’s face hardened. “Ah,” she breathed. “I see that I have succumbed to a stratagem. Jubal was mere bait. Be warned, then: I am not without resources. I will recover what is precious to me.”

Malieux could not see how she signaled her transport, but the random dance of the fireflies became ordered, and began to form its vortex around her until she was once again entirely wreathed in light. The globe lifted from the ground and, more rapidly than before, disappeared beyond the trees.

​Without turning, Malieux spoke. “Shaka, send out the Enforcer mechs. All of them, save the two who guard the automaton. We must know where Lakshmi lays her head.”

From close at hand, in the darkness beneath the trees, the mech answered, “Immediately, Doctor.”

“Mind they are thoroughly cloaked, even though the night is so warm. We cannot risk having their existence known prematurely. There would be a public outcry, and the government would have no choice but to take action against me.”

“As you wish, Doctor.”

“Go yourself to the Golden Gear tomorrow, retrieve the parts I ordered from Switzerland, and ascertain if Lakshmi has been there. If she contacts anyone in London, it will be them, even though Hermione no longer lives. . . . And Shaka,” he continued thoughtfully, “bring me that automaton. Lakshmi did not travel four thousand miles to retrieve a mere trinket. There is more here than meets the eye.”

 

His life is strange; half on the shore
And half upon the sea—
Not quite a fish, and yet not quite
The same as you and me.

—The Fisherman, by Abbie Farwell Brown

 

Chapter Three: At the Oil Can

Yellow light and merry singing spilled from the open pub door and flooded the narrow, cobbled alley which emptied onto Bethnal Green Road. The splash of light illuminated the black silhouette of an oil can that hung above the door and gave the establishment its name.

Ensconced in a booth since the end of his shift at the clothing mill, Robin Starveling slumped over his pint, thoughts turned inward, far from sharing the general good cheer.

The graying, sandy-haired man was a regular. But in any other pub—any pub that didn’t cater to mechanized working men like him—he would have stood out like a steam locomotive in a duchess’s parlor. He was broader by half than any non-mech, his shoulders replaced with the table of an industrial sewing machine.

As he stared gloomily down at the pub table, his silvery-metallic left hand absently popped and threaded the bobbins in what had once been his left torso. At the same time, his flesh-and-bone right hand carried his pint to his mouth for a long draught.

“Oy, mate!” a lean mech with an assortment of extra-long, needle-pointed steel fingers called from the door. He made a beeline for Robin’s booth, and mimed a slap at his friend’s flesh side.

Starveling ducked.

“Two for flinchin’, y’ big nancy!” Francis Flute knocked twice on his friend’s steel frame. “You know I wouldn’t bloody you, mate!” He laughed, settling onto the bench at Robin’s side with a resounding clank. “Pour me one.” His face split into a wide grin as he watched Starveling fill him a glass from the pitcher on the table.

“You’re glum tonight,” Francis noted. “What ails you?”

“Just wonderin’ about me daughter,” Robin muttered into his glass.

“’Ere, now!” Flute said. “Ain’t no percentage in that. I’m sure she’s healthy and happy, wherever your wife has got off to.”

He took a long pull that emptied half the glass. “Did you see Bottom out on the green?” he asked, determined to bring a note of cheer. “Git’s flying a kite! A kite! Dark of night, not a lick of wind to speak of, and he’s puffing that kite up as high as Nelson’s Column!”

“Made a kite for me wee daughter,” Starveling muttered morosely as he downed the last of his pint. “Before I went off to the war. And come back like this.”

“I hate it when you get down in the dumps,” his friend sighed, patting his shoulder. “Let me pour you another.”

The workingman’s pub had been a fixture of the gritty, industrial neighborhood in the heart of cockney East London longer than its oldest inhabitants remembered. For generations the pub had limped along, hand to mouth, just like the denizens of its Bethnal Green neighborhood. Then, twenty years ago, the Army lads had begun to filter home from the Zulu War and the pub had changed forever.

Collins, the burly and genial proprietor, had smelled which way the wind blew. There was a new clientele to serve, and he was just the man to do it. Since that faraway war, more and more injured working men had been refitted—mechanized—with the tools of their trades. More imperial wars and the burgeoning Industrial Revolution provided a constant stream of newly injured working men and wounded veterans to be refitted. Mechs came to dominate the neighborhood, and the only pub that catered to them, the Oil Can, had thrived.

Now, for the lads’ particular mix of tastes for lubricants both social and industrial, Collins served beers and ales alongside oils from light mineral to heavy crankcase. And a grease gun lay underneath the bar alongside the usual billy club.

The oldest of the pub’s “mech” regulars had been the first to emerge from the Army hospital: those with missing legs. The replacement limbs were a marvel of the modern age, elaborate creations of brass gears and whirling counterbalances.

Before long, Doctor Malieux, the Army medic who invented these wondrous new prosthetics, had seized on the idea of enhancing the men’s industrial capabilities. New customers appeared at the Oil Can with telescoping legs that made their owners taller. Lamplighters and glaziers simply rose to their work instead of climbing ladders. Soon afterward, mech brick masons rose up and down, laying more brick in a day than a non-mech mason could lay in a week.

Next came the soldiers like Robin Starveling who, before the war, had been in Bethnal Green’s signature silk-weaving trade: the weavers, the tailors, the warehousemen, the porters. The hands of the weavers and tailors became needles and loom shuttles. Wheels gave speed to warehousemen and porters.

And so the trend had progressed through the trades as time went on: carpenters and joiners had body parts replaced with hammers and saws. The ironmongers and blacksmiths, millwrights and machinists were given hammers and tongs and lathes and drills. They became so overwhelmingly industrialized that many of the men were more metal than flesh.

And so it went until the Oil Can’s taproom on nearly any evening more resembled a mad genius inventor’s workshop than a public house.

A ruddy-faced, barrel-chested man ducked through the door, carrying the shredded remains of a small, dirty-white kite. On his heels came a tall, ponderous man with a sheaf of papers clutched in the pair of heavy tongs that served as his left hand. A pneumatic sledgehammer had replaced his right.

“’Ere’s Nick Bottom and Peter Quince, too!” Flute pointed out to Starveling. “Oy, mates! How are things at the forge today, then? Hot?” He laughed at his own joke. Nick and Peter were partners at the forge, Quince pounding and shaping the red-hot metal, Bottom using his bellows lungs to blow the coals white-hot. “What? Not even a smile? You gone deaf? That was funny, right there.”

“Oh, we get it,” said Quince. “It just ain’t funny. You sit and weave all day and think nice thoughts. Me and Nick stands in the heat and the noise.”

“Robin, can you fix thisss?” Bottom asked, throwing the fistful of shredded kite to the table. His last word came with a puff from his leather lungs, strong enough to scatter the bits of kite like New Year’s confetti. “I was puffing ever so gently.”

Even as Starveling was shaking his head at the thought of sewing together the shreds, Flute, eying the fluttering debris, asked, “Why don’t I just make you a new one?” The frame of a small loom snapped forward from his chest, and he began a piece of fine, white silken fabric with green and pink stripes that grew quickly as his fingers flew. “Mind yourself with this one, Bottom. It’s very strong, but it’s light. You won’t have to blow hard at all. Just a breath.”

“You’re a good mate, Flute!” Bottom sat and watched his friend weave, helping himself to the remains of the pitcher. He drained his glass, lifted the pitcher from the table, and signaled the barmaid for two more.

“What news of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Gala, then?” Starveling asked glumly, pointing at the papers in Peter’s tongs. “They’ve turned us down, haven’t they? They’re not going to allow us to perform our little play at the palace, are they? What were we thinking?”

“There’s news,” Peter said. “Tom, Snug,” he called to the other side of the room, “you need to hear this, too.” Tom Snout, the carpentry mech, and his best mate, Snug the Joiner, clanked over.

“So,” said Quince, “the blokes at the palace was caught flat-footed that we would even ask to perform. They was so startled we might want to entertain the queen, they couldn’t think fast enough to say no.”

“Still could,” Starveling muttered. “—say no, I mean.”

“Not this time,” Peter said. “Next time I imagine they’ll have a ‘no mechs’ rule all ready to go. ‘So sorry, chaps, wot wot!’” He mimed holding a teacup aloft, pinky extended. “ ‘For the fully human only!’ ” He laughed his clanging, metal-on-metal laugh.

“So, wait,” said Tom Snout. “Does this mean we get to perform, or no?”

“Still no guarantee we’ll really get to perform. Others will be there hoping to be chosen,” Peter answered. “It will all depend on Her Majesty’s mood, which sort of entertainment she will choose that night. But of course we’re the best! We have Bottom, the great thespatorian, star of all our local theatricals! And the play is most wondrously tragical.”

“And we shall be,” proclaimed Nick Bottom, gesturing broadly and enunciating each word with dramatic clarity, “the hit of the palace!”

“Hooray!” Tom Snout bellowed. A young, fully human barmaid, brand new to her job, was so startled by his roar and his disconcertingly huge mouth full of glistening gouges and razor-sharp chisel teeth that, if Snug the Joiner hadn’t reached out quickly to steady her, she would have dropped the pair of pitchers she carried. With his help, she managed to maneuver them safely to the table.

Snug had a lathe as one hand and an array of planes, squares, hammers, plumb bobs, and other joinery attachments available on the other—all clockwork, save for his neck and head of hair, still bright blond despite his age. He grinned at her, his delight at her bashful return smile dancing in his blue eyes. “You’ll get used to us, duck,” he said. “We hain’t so scary once you gets to know us.”

“I hope so,” she said timidly. “You’re quite the lot.”

Laughing, they watched her scurry away.

“What will it be, this play?” Francis Flute’s fingers flew without pause as he spoke, the silk kite growing by the second. “A pirate’s tale? With a kidnapping?”

“No pirates, I’m afraid,” Quince said, “but there is a hero, a lion, and a beautiful young maiden.”

“A hero? I have a hero’s voice,” Bottom interrupted. “ ‘To be . . . or not to be . . . that—’ Wait . . . what play has a lion?”

“It’s a most lamentable comedy, called Pyramus and Thisbe,” Quince answered. “Very old. Babylonian. All the swells knows it. There’s parts for us all—”

“Read the cast, then,” interrupted Bottom, impatiently.

“—so, let me read our cast,” Quince continued, unfazed. “If you’re feeling uncertain, say it now, for we’re to perform in three days.” He portentously caught the eye of each man, finally landing back on Bottom.

“I know it well! A very good piece of work, I assure you, and a merry one!” Bottom breathed.

“You, Nick Bottom, our most experienced and excellent thespatorian, are to be Pyramus.”

“Pyramus is in the title, so he has to be important. What is he? A valiant warrior, a king? A crusader?”

“He is the most devoted of lovers who kills himself, very gallant, to be with his dearest love.”

Bottom stood in a dramatic pose of deep thought, nodding, fingers to his lips. “I shall breathe life into it! I shall make the audience weep with anguish. Of course, I’m really cut out for the part of a tyrant, but this shall be a test of my skills as an actor. ‘The raging rocks and shivering shocks shall break the locks of prison gates!’ ” he thundered. “ ‘And Phibbus’ car shall shine from far and make and mar the foolish Fates!’ ” He flourished an elaborate bow.

“Well, that was lofty if I ever understood it!” Quince said. “Here now. Let’s see: Francis Flute, the weaver, you must portray Thisbe.”

“What is Thisbe?” Flute asked eagerly. “A knight errant, a king in the autumn of his reign?”

“Thisbe is the beautiful woman Pyramus loves so dearly.”

“Oy!” Flute objected. “Come now, Quince! Don’t have me play a woman. I have a beard . . . well, the shadow of one. I shave every week. Nearly.”

“Believe me, Francis, if there were female mechs, if we had a woman in our jolly group, she would be our Thisbe, be she plain as this old sock, Snug.”

“Oy!” exclaimed Snug. “You’re a fine one to talk about being plain, you halibut!”

Quince laughed. “But, Flute, men plays the female roles all the time. Always has. You’ll talk in a high, soft voice and we’ll get you a fan to cover your chin. It will work.”

A squeak from the bellows turned everyone’s attention to Bottom, who said in a wee, small voice, “Let me play Thisbe, too!” His friends laughed.

“Bottom, if all women looked like you, the human race would go extinct,” said Snug. Bottom looked offended and mimed adjusting a nonexistent brassiere and bustle.

Quince consulted his list. “Robin Starveling, you must play Thisbe’s mother—and of course create costumes.” He paused. “Your daughter, Flute, will help.”

“Hah!” snorted Snug. “Robin, you have an ugly daughter, mate.”

“Shut it, you,” said Flute. Snug chortled.

Quince went on, “Snout, you’re to be Pyramus’ father; myself, Thisbe’s father; and Snug, you’re to be our lion.”

Snug’s grin disappeared. “A lion? Oh. I . . . are there many lines? I shan’t be able to remember many, mate.”

“Nothing but roaring.”

“Ah,” said Snug, his relief obvious. “And how will I remember when to roar?”

“I’ll be on hand in the wings with my script, waiting to prompt you, should you forget.”

Snug nodded at this logical solution.

“Let me play the lion, too,” interrupted Bottom. “My roar is magnificent!” He filled his bellows—

“No, no, no!” interrupted Quince. “You would blow the queen’s umbrella inside out! We can’t have the first mechs’ performance at the palace knock the audience from their seats. We’d be hanged . . . or worse. I can only imagine the punishment for our kind.”

Most of the others, sobered by the thought, fortified themselves with their pints. Starveling took a sip of light lubricating oil.

“Cheer up, friends!” Quince exclaimed. “We will be a success. We have to be! The queen will be touched by our tale, and mechs will be considered for all future entertainments! Maybe, if we show very well indeed, mechs will be allowed on streetcars. Who knows: we might even be allowed to work in shops and on the street instead of only in factories. Out where people can get accustomed to us and learn not to be afraid.”

Everyone nodded at this cheerful thought.

“Right, then! We must rehearse to perfection! Let us meet for rehearsal right here tomorrow after work!

“A toast, mates! To the play!”

“Huzzah!” everyone shouted. They all agreed it would be a performance to remember.


 

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copyright © 2013-15 by Scott E. Tarbet. All rights reserved.
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