edited by Phyllis Irene Radford and Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff
The Maiden Mechanical
Brenda W. Clough
Brass gears chattered, and the dumbwaiter trundled Mike’s book up from the library depths. He could see the gilt title clearly: A Year in a Den of Iniquity, by A Footman. Once again, the famous Steam Catalogue had made good! Just as the mechanism shunted the leather-bound tome into reach, another hand darted in and snatched it up.
“Young man, this is the Babbage Institute of Mechanismic Sciences — you can have no business here!”
Mike ground his teeth. On his short skinny frame his new black academical robe did look like a borrowed disguise. “I am a Cambridge student — first year, I concede, but admitted early for my engineering brilliance. I need that volume for my research!”
“And you are — what — thirteen?” The librarian’s gelid eye behind the pince-nez assessed Mike’s hairless upper lip and bony chin free even of peach fuzz.
“I am almost fifteen!”
“Too young to have access to a work of this nature,” the librarian declared. He clutched the volume to his chest, as if to hide even the title from Mike’s virgin gaze. “Far, far too young! In Christian decency, lad, I must shield you from the moral pitfalls of this work. Come back when you are twenty — no, thirty.”
Suppressing his fury, Mike turned and made his escape before the librarian could up the age to thirty-five. “You’ll thank me for this someday,” the librarian called after him.
Dear Lord, these humiliations would not happen if only he had achieved puberty! And to cap his misery, here at the bottom of the library steps were Muntley and Whitgift. They had shed their academicals in favour of boaters and blazers. A large wicker picnic basket waited at their feet.
“Ready to embark, HoHo?” Muntley drawled.
The hated nickname made Mike wince. Without reply he flung off his own gown and followed in their sauntering wake to the banks of the Cam. He was in for it now.
A late tea on the water was the aegis for their true destination. It was a convincing ruse, Michaelmas term being the most clement season for boating in Cambridge. The punt worked upstream with Muntley on the till, expertly managing the pole. Sheep and cattle grazed on the Backs between the noble facades of the college buildings. The rhythmic drip and splash of the pole was conducive to dreaming. Once past the village of Grantchester, Whitgift opened the basket and dug out a split of champagne. Mike was not offered a glass.
He knew how it looked, a pair of aristocratic upperclassmen taking the new boy out on the water. In actuality his loathsome companions were invigilators, watching to ensure Mike followed through on his rash promise. When they pulled up at an old stone kerb on the further bank, Mike climbed out without a word and began to hack uphill through the thorny underbrush. The looming wall of Xanadu was invisible behind the thick growth, but they all three knew it was there.
Sweat ran down Mike’s pale forehead, and the briars tore at his trousers. Was there anything, anything at all, more stupid than this sophomoric precedence display? He should be able to sneer at these snobs. Their comments about NTS—”not top shelf” — should not sting. He paused to mop his brow and practice the sneer, curling his upper lip. What could be done to accelerate that long-promised growth spurt — eat more? Lift dumb-bells? Being skinny and small, in addition to being young and brilliant, was like wearing a paper target pinned between his shoulder blades.
No length of leg, however, was going to help him with the ruinous wall. The last Cambridge student who had tried a frontal assault had been nobbled by the mechanical at the gate; he hadn’t been sent down, but the broken ankle had achieved the same effect. Mike deduced that the wall was the way in. No one had maintained it for years. Oak and ash had taken root right up against the ramparts. Mike picked his spot and easily chimney-walked up between a tall trunk and the crumbling brick. From this vantage he could scramble onto a slanting roof beyond. Mossy slates shifted and cracked under his boots, and he had to climb up on hands and knees to distribute his weight.
At the top of the slippery slope were broken windows, tall voids of darkness. He could make out nothing of the interior. Surely the floor could not be far below. Again he congratulated himself — brilliant forethought, to bring a coil of stout hempen rope! Perhaps it had not been completely wise, though, to carry it looped diagonally over his shoulder under his jacket. Removing the garment and rope was tricky, on his knees in the gathering dusk on the slick broken slates. The mullion was strong enough to bear his slight weight as he shinned down.
But, damnation! Here he was at the end of the line, and there was nothing beneath his reaching boot toes. Five ells of rope should have been enough. What was this place, a cistern? This was where Den of Iniquity would have helped — to give him an idea of the layout of Xanadu. He had to return with a souvenir, a proof of his penetration into the sanctum. Perhaps a different window would give onto an easier chamber —
With a crack of aged wood the mullion above gave. As he dropped, Mike instinctively curled like a spider whose line is cut. He fell only a yard or two into a deep drift of leaves, years’ worth piled deep on the floor. Crisp and dry, their noise and the crash of his fall seemed to make the darkness echo. He lay very still, catching his breath and listening.
There were no humans in Xanadu anymore. But what machine watchers had he awakened? For a long, long moment only the rustle of settling leaves broke the silence. The patter of sawdust, sparkling as it fell in the shaft of light from the broken window near drew him into a trance. Mike was just telling himself that all was well, when a distinct chink of metal made him jump. Behind his left shoulder! Very carefully, trying not to rustle, he peered over his shoulder into the dark. It was Stygian. “Who — who’s there?” he demanded, his voice a hateful treble squeak.
Another clank, and the groan of a long-unused hinge or gear. Mike jumped to his feet. He had no weapon but a penknife; he would have to run. But to be pursued through a dark haunted castle by an unknown terror was the stuff of nightmare.
I am a scientist, he told himself. I will at least identify this death machine!
And then into the shaft of dusty light stepped a girl. She was an automata, she must be, but her slender arms, her dainty heart-shaped face, all cried out youth and innocence. “Please,” she whispered. “Help me.” She swayed and fell, but he leaped to break her fall. Yes, she was too heavy to be flesh. And he could feel now the grate and groan of the mechanism in the reed-slim waist, under the mildewed fabric of her gown.
“What — who are you?”
“I am Ellana. Please — save me.”
“Of course! Of course I will. You may rely upon me.” He gazed down into her huge blue eyes, and knew he was lost forever.
There could be no regulations against mechanical servitors at Queens, not with its reputation for engineering brilliance. The college buttery was even staffed by one, dubbed Erasmus after a noted alumnus. However, Mike knew that there would be an almighty dustup if he displayed an automata formed like a comely young female. And if it got out that he had liberated it from Xanadu! It was bad enough that Whitgift and Muntley knew. The sight of him emerging from the ancient gate with Ellana on his arm had stunned them into respectful silence during the return trip downstream in the gloaming. But he had no faith this happy state of affairs would continue long.
In the meantime there was work to be done. Ellana’s unknown fabricator had been a master. But Mike knew he could repair her. Her power cells could be rejuvenated, her joints aligned, the pressure seals renewed, the eidolonic manifold seated properly. He spent every waking moment working on the task, scamping on lectures, missing tutorials. It was like a vigil for his knighthood, consecrating himself to a life in her service. He had never been so happy.
“I have never met a girl like you.” He knelt before her as she sat in his armchair. Adjusting his goggles for the best view, he carefully directed the welding arc onto the broken ankle strut.
“I should hope not.” She had shed the mildewed rags of her gown and appropriated his mouse-coloured dressing gown. “Oh, Mikey, take care! You might burn me!”
“You can feel the heat? Amazing. I wish I could see your nerve diagrams. You will find me very dexterous — it runs in the family.”
“You are a respectable lad, I can tell. Who are your people?”
“Country squires from Yorkshire,” he said, absently. He reached for a hex screwdriver, which she passed to him. “My parents are dead, but I have a younger brother.”
“So you know no girls at all, really.”
“I shall not need to now. ‘It is the east, and Juliet is the sun. Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon, who is already sick and pale with grief, that thou her maid art far more fair than she.’”
“Ah! I played Juliet in the Speech Room.” So cunning was her fabrication that he could see the dimples leap in her cheek as she declaimed: “‘How camest thou hither, tell me, and wherefore? The orchard walls are high and hard to climb, And the place death, considering who thou art, If any of my kinsmen find thee here.’…You are a romantic.”
“Only if it is romantic to yearn to explore you. ‘My America, my new found land.’”
“Do you?” When her huge eyes widened in inquiry, she looked barely in her teens. “I would love to be your America.”
He hid his blush with chatter. “Your facial engineering is beyond anything I have ever seen — Erasmus, downstairs, doesn’t hold a candle to you for subtlety of expression. And your ankle here — you are familiar with the design principle, that the parts that get the most view and use are the better made? And yet your ankles are as precisely machined as your face. Do you know anything of your maker?”
“No, I fear not. Eidolon design is quite beyond me. Suppose you recite more poetry to me instead. I adore poetry.”
Mike blessed his tutor for forcing him to memorize verse — his little brother had entirely rebelled at the discipline. “Ellana,” he said, rolling the syllables on his tongue. “‘Thy beauty is to me as those Nicean barks of yore — ’”
“Oh, lud! Not Poe — that American hack! Noel would kick him down the stairs. Some other versifier, if you please!”
It was at moments like this that he remembered she was an automaton. Some slight unevenness in her data cards, perhaps, would account for the shift in her tone and speech. And who was Noel? She had a history of which he knew nothing. But all would be well. He would fix her up until she was perfect, and then he would keep her forever — a Maiden Mechanical, the perfect companion for a young genius.
Quickly he switched back to the proven favourite: “‘Twas love, who first did prompt me to inquire; he lent me counsel and I lent him eyes. I am no pilot; yet, wert thou as far As that vast shore wash’d with the farthest sea, I would adventure for such merchandise…’”
And, Juliet to his Romeo, she smiled again.
As the very youngest member of his year, Mike was more closely supervised than the others. He was sound asleep, fully clothed and shod, on the sofa in his study — Ellana of course had the bedroom — when he was jerked awake by the pounding on his door. “Let me in, boy!”
“Dr. Poston! What are you doing here?”
“Dragging you to your lecture! Do you know you have missed two? And your paper on Differential Gearing was due last week!”
“Research,” Mike squeaked. “A major project.”
“Tosh! You are here, among other things, for a sound grounding in theory. Even a pupil of your calibre cannot just absorb the higher physics by osmosis. Here, your gown. Let us be off!”
“But, but —” Before he could plead illness or an epileptic fit or a severe hangover, Mike was hauled off. As he stumbled down his stair with Dr. Poston’s large hand on his shoulder, the door of the ground floor suite opened a crack. Oh hell, Whitgift was awake! He gave serious thought to tripping up Dr. Poston in the quad and escaping, but another don joined them and he was trapped. The lecture, by a visiting Italian professor on the energetical properties of phlogistic fluids, would on any other occasion have enthralled him completely. But with Ellana unguarded in his room, he was unable to concentrate. The moment he could get away he raced back to the quad, his black gown flapping behind him.
He burst into his study and breathed a sigh of relief. It was empty, just as he left it. But then, from the sleeping chamber, came a giggle. He tapped on the door. “Ellana?”
“Go away, HoHo, we’re busy.”
That was Whitgift’s voice! Mike turned the knob — locked. But these locksets were as old as the college; the jamb of ancient wood. A hard kick with the sole of his booted foot just beneath the lockplate broke it in. “You leave her be!”
The two upperclassmen clutched at clothing; Muntley was down to his drawers and Whitgift had nothing on but a shirt. But it was the sight of Ellana that made Mike gasp. She was standing on the mattress of his narrow bed. She had not shed the dressing gown but it hung open. Between the long lapels her body gleamed like the inside of a shell, pink and white.
“Gentlemen, you do not know what you are about,” he began.
“Oh, don’t we!”
“HoHo, you’re a bantling. Go away, and we’ll explain all the biology to you later.”
Mike forced a laugh. “Muntford, this is no automaton. This is a real girl, a human soul transferred into a machine casing.”
“Good God.” Whitgift stared at her. “That’s not possible.”
With contempt Mike said, “Talk to her, instead of just admiring her charms, and it’s obvious.”
“Mikey,” Ellana breathed. “You are so smart, it’s quite frightful.”
He had the situation in hand now. He shut the ruined door neatly behind him and strolled over to stand with his back to the fireplace, his hands clasped behind him, prepared to crush his foes.
“Anyone could see it, Ellana. You are widely read and obviously well-educated — unusual for a young girl of your period, which I judge is at least a generation ago. You spoke of acting in the Speech Room. That is a well-known venue for drama every year at Harrow. Your connection with the school might simply be through a Harrovian brother or father. But, judging from the glory and cunning of your engineering — I trust you are aware that your eidolonic manifold is a thing of beauty — I would make a larger surmise. To draw a bow at a venture, I suggest that you were born the daughter of one of the great Harrow engineers, probably a master at Druries. Some tragedy or illness — you have an aversion to flame, I note — forced him to save your life by transferring your soul into an automata. This is illegal. He was forced to maintain you in the shadows until his demise, at which point —” He set his lips in a grim line at the thought of her transfer to and life in Xanadu. “As with slaves, your illegal status unfortunately allows your exploitation. Whitgift, Muntford — only your ignorance of her true age and station can excuse you. Judging from the appearance of the automaton —” Carefully he did not glance at her mons veneris, exactly at his eye level and hairless as his own crotch —”she cannot be more than twelve years old.”
“Twelve! Sweet Jesus!” Blanching with horror, Whitgift shrank back.
Muntford snatched up his trousers. “A revenant — dear Heaven!”
But to Mike’s utter horror Ellana flung off the dressing gown and hopped down off the bed, completely nude. “Mikey! You are so amusing, I wish I could take you to my club!” Without a scrap of shame she stood before him, far too close, and patted his cheek. “Which blackballed me long ago, alas. This body was specifically crafted to look like a budding girl. I, myself, am no such thing.”
With a distant agony Mike noted the jeweler’s perfection of her budding pink nipples — indeed, the parts that got the most viewing and use. “You are no girl. What are you, then?”
“Well, that is a good question. I attended Harrow, as you so cogently reasoned. My name there was John.”
“Oh god! oh my god!” Whitgift seemed ready to faint. “A man?”
“I yearned to see what it was like to be female, and my fellow Harrovian Noel was able to satisfy my curiosity. Modern science allows one to do so many things! But, do you know, if you switch bodies often enough it gets confusing.”
“Noel, better known as Lord Byron,” Mike almost whispered.
“The Poet King!” Muntford snatched up a pointed fireplace poker. “Chaps, this thing is a monster, created by a monster and a traitor. It is our plain duty to disable it, instantly.”
“Quite right,” Whitgift said. They both glanced at Mike. He made no reply — it should never be necessary to reiterate the obvious.
“Callow schoolboys, against me?” At Harrow this John had evidently been trained in baritsu or some other combat discipline, and Ellana’s slim hands had machine strength in them. Almost too fast to see, she darted at Muntford. One twist and he yelled with pain.
“She’s broke my arm!” Muntford reeled back. The poker fell to the carpet.
Taller and a cricketer, Whitgift would have the strength to wield it, if Mike supplied a distraction. At the final crunch, it took brains as well as brawn to win the day. The creature had admitted that body-hopping clouded the mind. Hugely libertine propensities were a weakness to exploit. “So you are a modern Tiresias,” Mike said. “Able to answer the question of the ages.”
“Which sex enjoys it more, do you mean?” Ellana’s smile was pure as an angel’s, a fearful contrast to her words as she turned to face him. “How I wish we had more time, Mikey dear. My research into the question has been extensive.”
Behind her, Whitgift — good man! — soundlessly reached for the poker. Mike clawed to recall his Shakespeare. “‘Did my heart love till now? forswear it, sight! For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night.’” He realized that he was making an offer to John, not Ellana. There was no Ellana behind that heart-shaped face, only this unnatural chimera. He forced the words out past a rising gorge. “I — I have always wanted to emulate Columbus. An explorer of — of strange new lands.”
“Words a teacher longs to hear!” She seized his hand before he could draw back and pressed it to one shallow perfect breast. Every nerve, every drop of blood in his veins, focused and oriented itself towards the shattering sensation of that sweet artificial flesh under his palm. He could not imagine what his face revealed — a thundering confluence of lust and revulsion, perhaps. She laughed at what he could not hide. “‘If love be rough with you, be rough with love; Prick love for pricking, and you beat love down.’ Mikey dear, to be your America —”
Mike had forgotten that Whitgift also fenced for the University. Instead of bringing the poker down on the automaton’s head, he thrust as with the sabre. As it pierced her naked back Ellana shrieked thinly. The power cells in her abdomen, suddenly breached with a ferric object, exploded. The concussion knocked them all flat and shattered the windows. A white-hot fireball expanded in an eye blink, igniting the bedding and carpet.
“Whitgift! Whitgift!” Mike grabbed his ankle to pull the fallen man clear. He almost fainted from the shock when Whitgift’s head stayed behind. Flying metal had beheaded him better than any guillotine.
Near the wall Muntford bellowed for help. The entire room was afire. In nothing but drawers, he was going to be badly burnt. For that matter, Mike’s own academical was already alight. He dove through the blaze and dragged the injured man up. There was no time to find the door. He hoisted Muntford out the broken window, and jumped out after. Better the fall than the fire.
Two weeks later, Mike had graduated to a walking cast and crutches, and was passed fit for punishment. He hobbled from the infirmary to the Dean’s office with great difficulty. Disdaining his desk, Dr. Whiddie loomed over his chair, a huge dark eagle in black clericals under a billowing doctoral gown. The Dean had been archdeacon of Barchester Cathedral before taking up his responsibilities at Queens, and wielded both a priestly and an academic authority that in combination was absolutely terrifying. His sermon lasted nearly an hour, with Mike as the sole member of the congregation.
“…Muntford, as you know, has been sent down. But in consideration of the Whitgift family — Whitgift’s grandfather was Archbishop of Canterbury, you may recall — no mention is being made of moral turpitude or gross immorality. Muntford will not face prosecution for manslaughter. A lab accident, is what Whitgift’s people have been told.”
Everything would be hushed up, Mike reflected bitterly. Only he would be left to face the music. Tears of fear and pain and shame brimmed in his eyes.
“Finally, Mr. Holmes, we come to you.” The Dean’s deep funereal tones made Mike quiver. “I, at least, do give credence to your protestations of innocence and disinterested affection. That your scientific enthusiasms blinded you to the proprieties is understandable in view of your extreme youth and precocity. However, your situation is far more parlous than that of Muntford. You smuggled this monstrous construction into your College rooms, where it was cavorting unclothed. Your physical familiarities with the creature were seen to pass well beyond those of mere repair and refurbishment. And consider further: a male soul in a female eidolon? An automaton, crafted to look like a twelve-year-old girl but with the skills of a doxy? This is undeniable Depravity, sir!”
Tears rolled down Mike’s cheeks unchecked. The Dean’s reasoning was unimpeachable, and flowed naturally into the proration. “You must now take the very greatest care, young Holmes. Walk henceforward in the paths of light! At best, a stench of Byronic excesses with under-aged females will forever cling to the name of Mycroft Holmes. At worst — well, you are in peril of foreign exile or — I hesitate to even suggest it — prison. Muntford has only been saved by the influence of his uncle, Admiral Daggton; he will join the Navy as soon as his injuries permit. You can bring no such persuasion to bear. Your next error will surely lead to your utter destruction and downfall. Therefore, I suggest a period of rustication. Your broken leg will account for your absence for the rest of the year. Do not feel you need to return until Easter term if your medical needs call for a longer recuperative period. Use this time prudently, lad. Once they remove that cast, cold shower baths and long country walks will have an ameliorative effect upon the animal spirits. Muse upon the duties you owe your Creator and your Queen. Fortify yourself with daily Scripture reading, particularly the Epistles. Reflect upon the example you are setting for your younger brother — there is a Holmes minor, am I correct? — and repent!”
“I will, sir.” It took all Mike’s strength to keep from sobbing aloud. “This will never happen again.” How to ensure this? With all his heart he yearned for a way to signal to one and all that he was done with women. No use taking orders in the Church of England, with its married clergy. An hermitical sect in the Syrian desert, perhaps?
Dismissed at last, Mike hobbled painfully across the quad. The blackened ruins of his old rooms were covered now by canvas sheeting, pending retiling of the roof. Nobody spoke to him until he passed the buttery. Erasmus was just coming out with a tray of meat pies. “Now, young master,” the mechanical servitor said. “You look like you could do with some feeding.”
It was one of the lines from Erasmus’s data cards, but even an automated kindness brought the tears to Mike’s eyes again — and a new thought. “Thank you, Erasmus, I could. In fact — could you spare four?”
Copyright © 2011 by Book View Café. All rights reserved.
The Shadow Conspiracy II
edited by Phyllis Irene Radford and Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff
$4.99 (Anthology) ISBN 978-1-61138-043-9