Photo by AMG 123
I wanted to thank everyone who made this contest possible by taking the time out of their busy holiday schedules to write something fantastic and send it in.
I have posted the entries below anonymously, and you can find a voting poll in the side margins. Voting will close on Monday, January 18th at 8 am EST. You are only allowed to vote once, and though I know I need not say it, I ask that everyone participating please play fair. Of course, I'd love for you to promote the contest on your blog, but I ask that you let readers make their own decisions. I would not have even thought to bring this up, except that similar issues did arise during the first contest, and I want this to be an enjoyable and fair experience for all involved.
If you come across any problems, or if I did not receive your entry, please let me know! Also, feel free to leave comments about the entries. I'm sure the writers would love the feedback, especially since, for many of them, this is their first attempt at steampunk and in many cases, romance also.
Without further ado, I give you the short stories.
Entry 1 - Love, Lace and Gears
Ada looked at the thick heavy gear in her hand and ran her finger along the teeth. She surveyed the different sprockets and springs and slowly put the pieces together in her mind. Lost in the fantastical creation she jumped when a kiss fell on her neck. “Charles, you frightened me near to death!”
Charles gave her an amused grin, “What are you doing?”
“I’m looking at our work.”
“Yes.” She said with a defiant tone and wry grin. “Even if I cannot speak of such things in public, it is our work.”
He slipped her small frame into his arms, “Agreed this is my work as much as yours, let us hope they approve the funding.”
“Of course they will. How could they deny this one? The applications are endless and will change the world.” Her face flushed with excitement making her eyes sparkle. Charles could not help, but steal a kiss.
“You truly believe you can convince your husband to help your lover?”
“This isn’t about love.”
He started looking a bit shocked.
Ada continued, “This is about changing the world, making Britain even greater. Besides he thinks you and I were done long ago.”
He slowly let his lips play across her neck, “How could I ever give you up, Ada ….you pulled me from a dark melancholy and help bring my dreams to reality.”
She grinned softly and ran her fingers through his hair gently touching the increasing grey. “It’s about politics, Charles.”
He gruffed softly and looked up from his adoration of her skin, “Why must it be about power and politics it is simply a machine to decrease error and improve life.”
“And those that have it can gain power over those that don’t.” He tried to pull away, but she held his arm tightly and she gently kissed him before checking the watch pinned to her bodice. “I must go.”
His mood had darkened, but he nodded softly and when she kissed him one last time his eyes sparkled back. She reached over, picked up her hat, “I will courier the final sketches once I complete them tonight.”
The light was dimming in Ada ’s reading room forcing her to crouch closer to the paper working out fine details, and perfect lines. She looked up as the door creaked open and a tall slender man stood in the frame.
"You missed dinner.” Her husband said. William’s face was gaunt and clashed against the brilliant red cravat tied around his throat.
She looked across to the clock slowly whirring on the mantle. “I’m sorry dear, but the servants brought me dinner.”
"I know I was the one who sent them.”
She smiled pleasantly, “That was thoughtful.”
He drew in a deep breath. “I thought you were done with this.”
He stared at the stacks of papers surrounding his wife with great malice.
She attempted to release a casual laugh, but it stopped half way, “William, it is what I do. It is what you in fact taught me and it is what I love.”
"It is no longer your duty to waste hours studying numbers and other people’s works. You are a mother, a wife, and a Countess. You have more important duties than numbers.
Ada’s temper stirred, “I do not lack in my duties, but I will not be denied my passion.”
“Your mother was right you are like your father where he got lost in verse you get lost in equations! She didn’t staunch the insanity she simply fed it a different drug.”
She looked away from William and slipped the manuscript she was working on into a leather jacket with lace ties.
“I will not help you.” that chill returning to his voice. “I know what you have been working on and with whom.”
"And what, William? Are you jealous? Like you were so many years ago?” Watching his jaw tense seemed to give her more courage, “My mother may have chosen my husband, but she did not choose what my soul needs. With you I feel as trapped and sickly as I did at home, but with him I am alive. My heartbeats in pace with the clicking gears of our creation, it may not be of flesh and blood, but it is made with the same passion.” A prideful smile spread across her face, but only briefly as a stabbing pain in her stomach caused her to drop the manuscript and cry out. She crumpled to the floor and while trying to fight the pain she watched his feet slowly move towards her.
“Did you really think you could sway me to help him? The man is a crackpot and will not waste her Majesty’s wealth on useless machines.” He picked up the servant’s bell and rung it loudly. Help scurried in from all quarters and aided the ailing Ada.
“Fetch the doctor, I fear the illness of her youth has returned and she will be sick for quite some time.”
To the servants merely listening to his words they seemed dreadful and worried, but William’s eyes coldly followed Ada as she was carried away. He grabbed the elbow of a young servant girl. “Burn all of the Mistress’s work. It has made her ill and must be destroyed.”
The girl nodded obediently and set to work. Hours later she tapped on her Master’s door. “Yes?” He asked without looking up from his book.
“It is done.” She softly said.
Later the girl gently mopped the sweat from Ada ’s brow and said, “It has been sent, Mistress, just as you asked.” Ada closed her eyes and once again heard the soothing click of gears falling into place.
A somber servant entered his Mistress’s chambers and set down a package wrapped in leather and lace. “Your Majesty, the item from the Countess of Lovelace.” She nodded and read the attached letter. She then glanced up and replied, “Send for Charles Babbage.”
Entry 2- The End
Marie’s eyes stared deep into Harvey’s. “Then…this is it,” she whispered, with a wry smile.
The corners of Harvey’s mouth turned up ever so slightly, the best smile he could manage. He kissed Marie’s fingers and gently dropped her hands to her side before taking two strides to the observatory door. He turned the handle and pushed it shut, silencing the sound of shouts already coming up the stairs from the vestibule. He turned the key three times, all the parts of his intricate lock design falling into place. He went to pull the key from the lock but realised there would be little point.
He turned back towards Marie. She had her silver locket held firmly in her clenched hands and was whispering something into them. Maybe she was saying a prayer, he thought. Maybe she was telling her mother to look out for her soon.
A loud shout from beyond the door startled Harvey. He leaned back to the oak panels and pressed an ear to it; the voices sounded close. He knew the acoustics of the building would have amplified the shout, but even so, he knew their time was short.
He strode to his desk and squatted down in front of it. He drew the small rosewood box close to the edge and shifted himself so as to allow as much sunlight onto the mechanical bomb as he could. He took a silver pin from the desktop and slowly pushed it into the centre of the largest gear. When it came to a stop after only a few millimetres, Harvey pushed against the pinhead with his thumb to force it through the paper-thin copper casing of the chemical funnel. With a click and a hiss, the device sprang to life; the four driving cogs began turning, quickly followed by the six smaller ones. Harvey breathed a short sigh of relief and leant back, taking a moment to admire his handicraft. As much as he wanted to, he had no time to marvel at the mechanics of his latest and last invention. He gently lowered the box lid, pushed up on the desk back to his feet and turned to Marie.
"It’s…begun,” he whispered, as he walked to her. “Marie, I needed…”
She stopped him with a firm kiss. “No more words” she whispered back. “Not yet. Later.” Harvey closed his eyes and leant forward, his forehead pressing against hers. He lifted his head again and kissed her softly on the lips whilst every sound in the room fell to silence, save for the ticking of the clock mechanism in the box.
After about five more seconds the ticking stopped. Then, after a short pause, the wooden box cracked.
The crack of the box casing caught Harvey off-guard; he’d been expecting the initial force of the blast to vaporize the box instantly and the sound of a muted explosion and sharp crack panicked him, albeit only for a fraction of a second. A dozen thoughts ran through his mind at once; had the chemical mix been right? Had the trigger mechanism failed? Had the device melted? During the course of his dozens of tests he had seen the chemicals erode the smallest of the cogs at a far quicker rate than he had anticipated. His eyes opened ever so-slightly at the sound of the crack, a subconscious reaction of his inquisitive nature that had helped him accumulate an abundance of awards, admirers and enemies across his thirty-five years of life.
However, within that same second, all of his fears were eradicated as the explosion kicked and tore through the room and through the lovers’ bodies. Realising that his focus had been momentarily drawn away by that crack and fearing that his lover may have noticed, Harvey squeezed his eyes shut and clenched Marie’s arms hard. His mouth pushed harder against hers, feeling her last hot breath billow across the roof of his dry mouth. He tasted her last tear as it rolled across her top lip and onto his tongue; the salty taste of it was bitter, yet strangely sweeter than he expected.
He felt guilty about bringing the love of his life to tears; he had never once seen Marie cry during their six years of their affair. She had been the perfect picture of luminosity and exuberance, of energy and hope. She had been, in every way, his muse. She had inspired him to create and build; she pointed out all of the good things he and his work had achieved. His life had been made perfect by her being part of it, and after today his afterlife would be too. They could be eternally together in love, free of fear and retribution from the evils that had relentlessly pursued them recently.
Harvey felt Marie gasp as white hot flames seared across them. All he could really hear was the sound of the flames leaping and billowing outwards. In an effort to try and visualise the sound, all he could picture was that it sounded like a steam engine falling down a well. He wanted to hear Marie laugh, he wanted to believe that that tear had been one of satisfaction that she had played her part in helping her lover elude the wrath of her father and his cohorts. He wanted to hear those gentlemen outside the room scream in pain as the red brick walls fell around them or as shards of glass from the windows rained down on them to the pavement below.
Harvey let out one final breath as the flames consumed him. The heat was so fierce it disintegrated the lovers’ flesh within seconds. The pain was so intense that even before nerves sensed the pain, they were dead and gone. Harvey had been expecting the blast to launch them out of the room, but the explosion had been so much fiercer than previous experiments there was no physical part of them left to launch.
Entry 3- Untitled
He pulled her into his room and she embraced him. Even as their lips touched, she heard the faint sound of gears whirling and rotors turning. Curious. What is that? The ambient hum matched the throb beneath her ribcage.
She reached for his belt, but he stepped back and pushed her away.
"I love you," she said.
"I know," he replied.
"Then why won't you let me in?" She batted his hands away. "Stop this game. You're breaking my heart."
An impious fire ignited in his eyes. "I musn't do that. I need you."
"If you only you'd open up, I'd give myself to you."
Unbuttoning his oxford, he nodded. She stared at the small metal plate grafted over his muscled chest. She reached to touch it, but he gripped her wrist.
"I don't understand," she said. "What--"
"I need you, Christine. If I only had a heart." The needle seemed to erupt from his forefinger.
"This will only sting for a moment," he said.
Entry 4- Evangeline
It was at Sir Blackmoore’s house that I first saw her. He is one of our most brilliant scientists. Invented the engines that power our air navies. Also gave us the system for sending a load of explosive miles away. Not sure how happy I am for that one, actually.
I was standing with Lord Strathington when Blackmoore appeared. His vest was of a strange material I’d never seen before. It shimmered with the light, danced in the most amazing ways. His chronometer chain was more extensive than the last time I’d seen him. However, the man himself appeared pensive. Occupied.
And I could understand why. There had been a terribly attempt on his life, and it was his daughter, his dearest Evangeline, who’d paid the deepest price. There is a group operating in London, sympathetic to the enemy cause. This group sent Lord Richard a package: an explosive device devised to go off as the outer wrapping is removed. Diabolical contraption. Diabolical people! They meant to destroy one of England’s grandest minds, and one of her greatest military and scientific assets.
Only, Sir Richard never received that package. He was in his laboratory. Evangeline only meant to denude the box from its outer wrappings. The blast nearly killed her. Poor child lost her right arm. No one saw Sir Richard for some time after that.
Yet, here he was. Pensive, as I said, however I thought I could perceive a certain amount of excitement in the man.
The clock struck ten. Chimes rang out, echoing throughout the large, marble-floored room. Sir Richard walked to the grand door that led to the entryway and turned to face the crowd.
“My dear friends,” he began, “allow me my deepest thanks to you on this evening. Although our country is locked in bitter struggle with forces far from home, we gather to celebrate the future. We look forward to a time when a man who has lost a leg in battle will once again be able to walk. When a soldier who once lost an arm, will be able to hold his loved one in his arms, and give them a great embrace.” Here he cleared his throat, then continued. “As you know, my darling daughter, Evangeline, was the victim of a cowardly attack by the enemies of our fair country. She survived. Not only because she is Blackmoore, but because she is English. Ladies and gentlemen, will you please welcome my beloved daughter, Evangeline.”
There was a hush as Evangeline entered. She was radiant. The lady wore a satin evening gown the color of the sky at sunset. Her alabaster skin was luminescent. Her hair was the color of honey upon which the sun shines. However, her eyes held a veiled sadness. Like a sun hidden behind clouds.
However, all this paled in comparison to her arm. Yes, her right arm. Where before it was flesh and blood, now it was brass and silver. It was made to be an exact replica of her left. It was perfect. But then, oh dear God, but then… it moved. She waved to the stunned crowd; a shy girl waving to a group of strangers. The fingers worked as normal digits. I could see no hinge work. No seams. Nothing. Her father handed her a glass of wine, and she took it. Again, there was no hesitation in the way the arm moved.
“Let us have music!” Sir Richard called, and one of our latest war songs came over a hidden amplification system. A crowd formed around Evangeline, as was to be expected. I received a drink from a passing butler and made my way to the large balcony that overlooked the grounds. I stared north, towards London. There was a glow, just on the horizon line. Orange. I wondered if the terrorists had set the town ablaze again.
I heard a whisper of fabric behind me, and then she was there. I turned to see Evangeline move to the railing, to gaze up at the moon.
“Your father is a brilliant man,” I said to her, not knowing what else to say.
In response, she looked down at her metal arm. She brought it up, holding it as if she were making a toast with a ghostly goblet in her hand. The moonlight reflected off the brass. I noticed then that the nails were of bronze. They glittered like polished stones. “Yes,” she finally said, “he is that, sir.”
I indicated the doorway with my glass. “I suppose this is a bit much, for your first party? It certainly would be for me.”
She nodded, and then did the most amazing thing. She held out her mechanical arm to me, palm upwards to the sky. “Please, good sir,” she asked quietly, “would you hold my hand?”
“Please?” And I noticed there were tears in her eyes. Sadness, in those beautiful eyes.
I moved to her, and gently took her hand. Again, I marveled at the warmth.
As if reading my thoughts, she said, “My father, O brilliant man that he is, has harnessed the sun. It is that which powers this metallic, mechanized appendage of mine. Father says that steam is the way of the past. The sun, the god Sun, is the way of the future.”
I gazed down at her arm. It was a thing most beautiful. Sublime, really. “How does it… move?”
“It moves,” she replied, “due to the surgeries I had to endure this last year. The muscles in my shoulder are tied to mechanisms in the arm. Mechanisms calibrated to an almost impossible fraction.”
“It’s a truly wonderful thing he has invented. It will help thousands soldiers readjust to civilian life once this dreadful war is over.”
Then she looked at me. Those eyes. Those beautiful, sad eyes. “Would you stand here with me, Sir? Stand here with me, and hold my hand?”
“I can think of no other thing I’d rather do, dear Evangeline,” I replied.
Entry 5- Breaking Barriers
She had waited over a year for this moment, and now it had finally come.
Eleanor Hodgson stood in the doorway, her arms stiff as boards, as she peered into the hidden room in her father's basement. Lit only by the glow of the oil lamps that lined the stonewalls, and not the broken electric lanterns that had been fitted between them, the room teetered on the line between life and death, light and darkness. Each flicker within the lamps cast moving shadows over the hunks of machinery that littered the floor, dancing like ghostly waifs before they retreated into the recesses of the lab.
And away from Charles Butler.
An average man, he was neither handsome nor homely, but carried the stench of hard labor in his oily clothes. Lost to his tinkering, Charlie--as he liked to be called--hunched over a metal contraption, one of her father's unfinished experiments, which rested on a small mahogany table. She still felt the loss, yet knew that her father's work was in capable hands. He hadn't recruited the former garret-master without good reason.
Her attention returned to the broken lamps.
"Blew them out," Charlie said, answering her unspoken question. He turned and offered a lopsided grin, the smudge of forgotten soot highlighting the lines on his face. "Come right in, Ellie."
"Miss Hodgson," she said. She tightened the pin that held her hair and stepped into the workroom, closing the door behind her. "Remember your place."
Charlie gave a lazy shrug and smiled before returning to the mangled mess of valves, pipes, and tubes that comprised the heart of the monstrosity. A typewriter rested in front, connected to the steam turbine by copper wires. Brass plating lined the sides of the typewriter, giving it a haunted gleam in the dim light.
Her father's spectregraph.
A machine to reach the other side. A gadget to change the world. That had been her father's last invention before his untimely death, one he had never been able to finish on his own.
She glanced at Charlie.
He handed her a spare pair of goggles. "It'll help see through the steam."
She accepted the goggles and waited for his mark. A spark of mischief danced in his blue eyes as he pulled the lever and hopped back. An abrupt hiss signaled the start. Steam pushed through the valves, while the typewriter trembled from the pressure.
A crack of electricity charged the air; Eleanor took Charlie's hand and squeezed.
All the same in death: her father's final words. He had once told her that his inventions would help revolutionize not just London, but the world. He had told her they would break down every last barrier.
He had told her that one day she would need to let go.
She had waited a year to ask him what he'd meant.
Eleanor held her breath while the keys clinked one by one. As the bars pounded the paper beneath the brass plating, she couldn't stop her excitement from getting the better of her. Her father, and now Charlie, had managed to create something extraordinary.
She approached the typewriter. The paper was damp from the steam, but the ink was legible. As she leaned closer, she felt Charlie's unwelcome hand on her back.
Today, she didn't stop him.
She read the print: As should be in life.
The words meant nothing to her. She frowned and shot an accusing glare at Charlie. He kept smiling, his good-natured flare shining through the darkness that shrouded the spectregraph.
"What do you find so amusing?"
"That'd be him, Ellie."
She ignored his indiscretion. Her father had always been a man of few words, but words that held an immeasurable weight. But was this really him? Not some parlor trick or demonic ploy? Was that all the spectregraph could accomplish? Mere bits of esoteric phrases would do nothing to revolutionize the world.
"What do you mean?" she asked. "What barriers? What must I let go?"
The typewriter punched out a few more words.
You know, they said. You know.
"Maybe he's talking 'bout different barriers than you're thinking," Charlie offered.
It wasn't a remark filled with scorn or conceit. Charlie's voice was warm and compassionate with a hint of sorrow. She found the comfort of his hand on her back more reassuring than ever.
She took off her goggles and stared at the dying spectregraph as the last of the steam sputtered through the pipes. While the results could have been created by a wayward spirit, a psychic ruse, or by other supernatural entities, in her heart, she knew that Charlie was right. She should be happy that her father's machine worked.
Instead, she was miserable knowing there would be no more midnight rendezvous in the dark room. No more long lazy summer evenings where the two of them would debate the morality of her father's wishes, test and experiment his gadgets, or pore over his feverish notes.
There would be no more Charlie.
She had never understood what her father had meant. Yet, as she stood with Charlie and stared at her father's final work, she finally understood his simple words. She had been a fool.
Charlie knew it as well. "I guess that's it then," he said, his voice low.
"I suppose it is." Eleanor paused, considering her future, her past, and what the present could hold for her and Charlie. "Though, I wonder… My father would never have settled for merely chatting with the dead. He would have wanted to communicate with a full manifestation."
Charlie arched his eyebrows, barely noticeable under his raised goggles, though she could see the knowing smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. "I wouldn't want to let Mister Hodgson down."
Eleanor pulled the pin from her loose bun, and after giving her hair a hearty shake, she turned to Charlie. "Then we have much work to do." She snapped on her goggles and grinned. "Shall we?"
Entry 6- Keep Going
The revolver clapped twice in quick succession before the alchemical silver bullets spun from the barrel. As they traveled through the heat-soaked air, they flung little pieces of themselves in all directions. They might have dissolved into nothing if not for the short trip between the gun and the leathery hide of the demon.
Part gargoyle and part zombie, the creature had been lunging for Jacob's throat when the bullets burrowed into its chest. It shrieked in pain and fell to the pine deck of the airship. One tight fist of only three clawed fingers pounded on the wood while the other clutched at the wounds. In front of the man's eyes, the creatures veins bulged through skin that resembled slate. They grew and grew until rupturing. Black ichor, wreaking of sulfur, splashed over everything including Jacob.
Another flock of the smaller demons bounced off the invisible shield that surrounded the airship. These creatures, varied through all the colors of a burnt rainbow, couldn't pass through like the larger ones did. Still, with each impact, Jacob could hear the glut of mason jars in the hull rattling. The vacuum-sealed prayers powered the protective bubble. He knew the yellow glow in the jars had dropped below the halfway point and that the protection would run out eventually.
He had expected them to last longer and to protect him completely. Neither of those things had turned out to be true. Just two weeks in to his journey through the bowels of Hell and Jacob had encountered more demons than he ever thought possible. They kept him awake all hours without rest.
Wiping his mouth with the back of his sleeve, Jacob stumbled over to the wooden steering wheel. That same hand ducked into the pocket of his vest and pulled out a small bottle. He gave it a shake and found that it sounded mostly empty. His thumb flicked the cap off and he emptied the white tablets into his mouth. His friend and dentist, Lloyd, had given him the cocaine toothache drops in case his pesky molar acted up during the trip. Surprisingly, that was the one part of him that didn't hurt.
Suddenly the ship lurched as the bow raised high in the air. Jacob turned just in time to see a huge metal hook cut through the air. He ducked, managing to avoid getting gouged but the chain that hung from that hook caught under his arm. It picked him up and then dropped him like a marionette with cut strings. The revolver flew through the air and over the rail. He knew it was gone; it had surely been consumed by the lava flows below.
Standing on the back of the deck, its horns pressed into the balloon stories above, was a massive quadrupedal demon. The hook-and-chain weapon was grasped between two arms that jutted out halfway between the front legs and a grotesque head. From his perspective, Jacob couldn't see anything but gnashing teeth.
He hadn't seen a demon this large before. So far, the biggest ones had been man-sized, although they looked much more imposing given their huge wingspan. This toad-skinned abomination didn't have wings and Jacob wondered how it boarded the ship. There wasn't an outcropping of rock nearby and he certainly hoped the forces of darkness didn't have their own airships.
It was moments like this, the fifth or sixth of this adventure, that caused Jacob to do two things. First, he soiled himself. He had gone through the bulk of his luggage thanks to his body's natural reactions to the demons. And he certainly wasn't going to waste his limited steam and drinking water on cleaning.
The second thing that Jacob did during these attacks was to doubt the journey. His friends had told him it was a fool's errand to tear in to Hell on a dirigible but he hadn't listened. They eventually relented and assisted in whatever way they could. Better to send him off prepared, they had said.
The brute spun the chain around, clipping one of the ropes that held the ship to the balloon. Before Jacob could calculate how many of those ropes he could afford to lose, the broad flat part of the weapon descended towards him. He rolled to the side moments before the weapon splintered through the deck.
Laying on his stomach in front of the steering wheel, Jacob looked up. Tacked to the wooden pole was a picture of a gorgeous woman with hair that could teach the lava a thing or two about being fiery. She was posed with one foot up on a steam boiler, showing off more of her leg than was appropriate for a lady. His family, the neighbors and even Lloyd had called her a superfluous woman. After her death, they told him to simply forget her.
But how could he? Every time he smelled the potpourri made from her perfume and the dried flowers from her grave, he remembered. He remembered the nights they spent together in the brothel and then the days in his shop. She was as handy with a wrench as she was with, well, his other tool. He'd have made an honest woman out of her if not for her untimely death.
Summoning up all the strength in his weary body, Jacob lunged forward to grab the lever for the airship's fire suppression system. With one strong tug, the valves open and water rained down on them. Water was precious commodity in the inferno but it was also blessed by Father O'Leary. The hulking brute screamed in agony as flesh was flayed from it. With a powerful lunge that shook the whole airship, the creature careened over the railing.
More ropes were torn in the escape but they could be fixed. Jacob shut the water off before draping his shaking hands over the steering wheel. He quickly put the craft back on course.
“I'm coming, Elle. I'm coming.”
Entry 7- Mutual Admiration
Elva had hoped the pleasure obtained would be worth the time spent piling her lifted petticoats underneath her as a cushion to raise her hips to the correct level. It was.
She edged her still-quaking body away from the machine, letting its phallus pull out of her. Her elbows lost the will to prop her up, and she collapsed flat on the coarse blanket covering the barn floor. Panting, Elva had barely enough strength to push her skirts back down over her thighs. She closed her eyes and thought to herself, What could Stephen expect, with all that talk of pistons? Her breathing slowed to its usual pace, rather than the one set by the apparatus, hissing and grinding as it pumped its prosthesis into the open air, as if searching for something else to fill.
Elva did not notice Stephen, partially obscured by shadow, standing behind a post. When she heard his tentative steps forward and saw his dropped jaw, Elva quickly sat up and folded her legs underneath her skirts, summoning just enough strength to shout over the din of her apparatus, "I beg your pardon."
Stephen immediately averted his eyes. "I heard machinery. I heard you crying out. I thought you might--"
"Might, what?" Elva demanded, bringing her knees to her chest. She scanned the barn floor around her trying to find the drawers she cast aside.
"I apologize. For intruding...." Stephen backed away a step, and stood transfixed at Elva's machine. A look Elva hadn't seen for her in a long time.
"Forgive me. Please," he said. "I don't blame you--"
"Nor should you," she said.
"You were expecting to find me here with a stable boy? Some ranch hand? A Negro rail worker, perhaps? Would you have even cared?"
"I won't dignify that." Stephen crouched by Elva's machine and wiped his forehead on a rolled-up shirt sleeve. "You built this...yourself?"
She nodded. "You were so absorbed in your work, I decided turnabout was fair play. Not that you noticed."
"I did notice," Stephen protested.
"You noticed the occasional missing part, perhaps."
"I noticed your random questions about pressure variables and valve sealant." Stephen smiled.
So did Elva, though she quickly suppressed it.
Stephen ran his fingers along some rubber tubing, along the wheel-crank thrusting the piston out and back, until he found the lever controlling the speed. He shifted the lever back and forth and watched the machine's response. "This control alone must have taken you months," he said.
"A fortnight," said Elva.
"It would've taken me a fortnight just to calculate the scale."
"I know," Elva said. "Doubtless, the only reason you tolerate my presence."
"I'm not allowed to appreciate your intelligence? You told me that was what attracted you to me." Stephen knelt down and inspected the engine more closely. "This is brilliant," he said.
"Don't patronize me."
"I wouldn't dream of it." He picked up another section of tubing, inspecting its snug connection to a small valve. "You're brilliant. And beautiful and wonderful and woefully neglected. And I hope, forgiving?"
Elva eyed her engine's thrusting piston. "Yes, I am brilliant, aren't I?" She raised her petticoats above her waist and laid back. She inched down, reaching a foot toward the machine's speed lever. "One would almost wonder why I need you."
"That's just cruel," Stephen said. Slowly, he rose and turned to leave.
Elva nudged the lever to the off position. With one long hiss, the piston stopped thrusting. "Almost wonder," she said, holding out her hand to him.
Entry 8- Withdrawn after contest
Entry 9- The Envoy
The Envoy stood before the Prime Minister and the Prime Minister was afraid. Sweat prickled his brow and the chamber felt suffocatingly warm. The Envoy bowed stiffly in a series of small jerks, its glistening black carapace making the movement difficult.
He could smell it clearly despite the incense placed judiciously throughout the chamber - a sour metallic tang that hung high in the air like bad music. It straightened again, spreading two of its limbs wide and rearranging several of its facial orifices and mandibles in what the Prime Minister had been assured was the equivalent of a smile. Then the bristles around its upper set of eyes quivered, the spiricles along its sides gaped open and closed like a row of hungry mouths and its chest-plates thrummed as it began to speak.
"Has her Majesty come to a decision?"
The sound was a suprisingly rich baritone, with only a faint buzz. The Prime Minister's heart hammered in his chest. He was fairly sure the Envoy could hear it. Every natural instinct within him was howling at him to run and hide, to get away from the unspeakable thing that stood and glistened and drooled before him. But he was Prime Minister for good reason and he was a consummate diplomat above all else, so he swallowed the sour fear that flooded his mouth and forced his voice to remain level.
"And her answer?"
"Her answer is yes."
The Envoy gave another careful bow.
"Then my Masters will be most pleased. Please extend my congratulations to her Majesty. She has made the right decision and Great Britain will soon be unmatched amongst the great powers of the world."
The Prime Minister shifted uncomfortably.
"And we have your utmost assurance that they will not be harmed?"
"Again, you have our word that none of them will receive anything but the very best treatment. No harm will come to them, physical or mental."
The Prime Minister stood then, his face ashen.
"Our thanks to you, then. May this be the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship."
"I have no doubt of it. But before I take my leave sir, I have brought this small token of our respect and appreciation for her Majesty. It is a mere trifle, really, but one that my Masters earnestly hope that she will enjoy."
The Envoy turned towards the doors and gibbered and chittered something in its own language. The doors opened and another, near-identical creature entered carrying a small, highly polished wooden box which it handed to the Envoy before leaving. The Envoy turned to the Prime Minister and opened the box.
Inside was a brass nightingale, lying still and silent. Its small black eyes were bright and glossy, its feathers perfectly arranged.
"It is merely a simulacrum" said the Envoy, "An artificial copy, but so close to the real thing as to be indistinguishable. Not only will it sing on command, but it will speak when her Majesty chooses to speak to it. We trust it will make a fine amusement as well as a most charming companion."
The Prime Minister was acutely aware of how close the Envoy was standing and he realised that he'd been holding his breath. He forced himself to smile and accepted the box from the Envoy, but made absolutely damn sure not to touch him in the process.
"Her Majesty will be delighted by your generous gift, I'm sure."
The Envoy looked at him with all of its eyes and gave its obscene parody of a smile again.
"It is the merest trifle, as I say, but also an indication of the scientific possibilities that will soon be yours, sir. And with that I must beg my leave - my Masters will be most eager to hear the wonderful news."
The Prime Minister had no doubt that they already knew, but he nodded again and wished the Envoy a safe journey. As soon as the heavy oak doors of the chamber had closed behind him, the Prime Minister collapsed back into his chair and covered his face with his hands. He shuddered and gasped for breath, but the air still seemed tainted. He didn't think he'd ever get the taste of it out of his mouth...
That night he lay in bed, listening to the dark. His wife moved softly beside him.
"You're still awake, aren't you?" she said.
"Shall I ring for some tea?"
"Some laudanum then?"
There was a pause then, the only sound the distant clopping of a hansom cab carrying someone safely home.
"You did the right thing, you know."
She rolled over to face him, her eyes wide and earnest, her skin smelling of warmth and lavender.
"You did the only thing you could do, Charles. You put put the good of the Empire first. No-one can ever say that you didn't."
"And what of the price, Mary? How can I sleep ever again knowing the price we've agreed to pay - the bargain we've made with those...things."
"They said they wouldn't hurt them."
"We only have their word for that though, don't we? What if their concept of harm isn't the same as ours? We don't even know what they want them for!"
Mary pursed her lips.
"In time," she said softly, "if people ever find out, they will understand. History will not judge you harshly Charles."
"The hell with history! What of Louisa? What of my own daughter? Will she judge me harshly? Will she ever be able to look at me again when she learns what I've done?"
"He's my flesh and blood too, Charles. Don't think I don't feel it just as sharply, but when all's done, it's only five of them. What are five children compared to the good of the entire Empire?"
He said nothing.
Eventually he put an arm around her and they held each other close in the dark. He turned to look out of the window at the stars above. There were more than he could ever remember seeing, and they shone so hard, so bright. Like a million knives poised above the world.
Entry 10 - Untitled
Perhaps when observing someone it would benefit the observer to be in the same room as their target; however, when one is spying on a person who has closed the door behind them, squinting through the keyhole is the best option available.
Mr. Bennett had given them all strict orders to stay away and stay quiet for however long his guest was inside the manor. Even the cook was forbidden to bring out tea. This just made Irene even more curious than she usually was and since she had never missed an opportunity to spy on her uncle's guests since her arrival at the manor after her father's death, she decided that tonight should be no different. She lifted her skirts just high enough to kneel comfortably on the wooden floor outside of the study and pressed her face into the cool metal.
At first, all she could see was her uncle standing stiffly be the fireplace, but with a slight shift of her head she caught sight of the visiting man’s fingers tapping unconsciously on the armrest of the sitting chair. She cursed her luck for only being able to see the back of the chair and for it being so large. All she knew was that he wore no band on his wedding finger. What good was that information if she couldn’t even tell if the man was greying like her uncle or young like cousin Amelia’s new husband?
Mr. Bennett spoke softly, disdain clear in his expression and posture. His caller’s emotions were obviously not as controlled: his arms began to flail about and his voice got louder. Irene could finally make out sentences such as “he had a duty to fulfil”, “you can no longer provide adequate protection”, and “neither you nor I have a say in the matter”. Mr. Bennett turned to the fire and used the iron stroker to poke at the burning logs. The man’s voice lowered again but his finger was squishing its tip into the red material of the chair emphatically.
Mr. Bennett spun around quite suddenly, waving the stroker and jabbing the hot tip forcefully towards the man. There was a loud squawk and Mr. Bennett jumped, swinging the rod at the table beside the chair. There was a tiny creature hunched on the table, hissing at Mr. Bennett.
It was unlike anything Irene had ever seen before in all her nineteen years. It looked like the illustrations in one of her books, the one about dragons, but different somehow. Its metallic scales did not sparkle like diamonds as her book suggested, instead they reflected the light from the fire dully, and the membrane of its wings looked more like the material of her boots than anything she would have associated with a dragon.
It backed away from the stroker and spread its wings in defence. She pressed her face harder into the door. If it was a machine, how was it able to function so freely?
The man reached out to soothingly pet the creature and as soon as Mr. Bennett put the stroker away, it relaxed and leaned into the man’s touch. The two men continued their conversation, but Irene was longer interested in them. She watched the creature as it stared at Mr. Bennett until it seemed satisfied he would not try to attack anyone with the stroker again. It snorted, two miniscule puffs of smoke escaping its nostrils, and turned to look around the room. She couldn’t believe it. This machine was, for lack of a better word, alive. How was that even possible?
It reminded her of Danny, the boy who used to live down the street.
One time when they were children, her cousins had teased her about the two of them getting married someday and she had cried for hours. Of course, that was when she still believed boys were infected with cooties. After a few years, they all matured and became close friends. The girls loved to annoy him by going on about boys and fashion, and in turn he would bore them with talk of science and his new inventions that never seemed to work. Danny would have loved to see this creature. Unfortunately, it had been a few years since any of them had last heard of him: on his fifteenth birthday, he had moved out of the city to become an apprentice for a wealthy inventor.
The creature’s gaze stopped on the door. It tilted its head and squawked. The man looked over the armrest at his pet. He was a rather large man with a plain face and his grey hair tied at the back of his neck. The most distinguishing feature was a black patch over his right eye.
Irene gasped and pulled back from the door, staring at the keyhole in shock. She had seen that man before. That was the man rumoured to be the cause of her fathers’ death. That was the man Danny had gone to work for. That was the man they called The Inventor.