Short Story – “The Clockwork Man”

Ladies and Gentlemen, we present you a Sunday Steampunk Short Story. If you wish to submit your own prose for the reading pleasure of The Pandora Society please following the instructions at the end of this tale . . . 

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“The Clockwork Man”

A Boston Metaphysical Society Story

By M. Holly-Rosing

Based on the webcomic BOSTON METAPHYSICAL SOCIETY, this story takes place during the time of the House Wars, thirty-five years prior to the start of the webcomic.

 

Lucius Garrett knew he was dead when he woke up.

He knew because he had watched the steel rod fly through the air and plunge into his chest after the explosion. His breath had left his body as he was thrown backwards and crashed into a row of airship rigging. Now, he was awake, breathing, and very much afraid. The rumors were clearly true. His would have received a mortal wound had he not worked for Houses Hibbard and Tillinghast of Chicago.

Lucius woke up in a room the likes of which he had never seen. Steel-and-brass human legs and arms hung on one wall, while the other was a wooden shelf shaped like a beehive filled with various sizes of gears and springs instead of honey. A tube made of cattle intestines was imbedded into his arm, forcing a pale liquid into him by way of a steam-powered generator. A kind but rather strange man named Dr. Casselberry removed the tube as he told Lucius what an extraordinary man Lucius was and then showed him why he was still alive.

His heart had been crushed, so Dr. Casselberry had replaced it with a clockwork mechanism that ran on a metal spiral coil inside a clock barrel large enough to operate a medium-sized timepiece. His heart valves were stitched closed with the same rubberized cotton material used to create the hydrogen gas cells at the factory. A flap of that same material was glued to the surrounding skin on his chest to protect his heart. And there was something else.

A small device imbedded within the clockworks would explode when the mainspring ran down.

Overwhelmed by the thought that he was alive just in time to face impending death, Lucius could barely breathe. How could he go home knowing he was a walking time bomb? He told Dr. Casselberry it would have been better to let him die.

The older man shook his head and informed Lucius his family had perished in the same explosion that had injured him. Lucius was perplexed at how something like that could happen. When he asked, Dr. Casselberry uttered one word—sabotage. Someone had lit a spark in the hydrogen gas bag factory where Lucius worked killing men and women alike. Lucius remembered his wife had brought their young son to work to visit that day. The last thing he remembered was her screaming.

Lucius grabbed the doctor by his lapels and slammed him against the wall, demanding to know how House Hibbard would allow such a thing. The Hibbard family had no enemies. They were not part of the war between the Northern and Southern Houses. All they did was build airships. Lucius was wiry, but strong and two guards had to pry him off the startled man. After a few minutes Lucius calmed himself and apologized for overstepping the boundaries of propriety.

Dr. Casselberry explained that the merger of House Hibbard with House Tillinghast brought the Hibbard family financial stability, but may have brought Tillinghast enemies as well. It was believed that the Northern Houses were punishing both Hibbard and Tillinghast for not joining their war against the Southern Houses. Chicago had tried to stay neutral, but others sympathetic to the Southern Houses wanted them involved. When Lucius asked what his patriarch, Abraham Hibbard, thought, Dr. Casselberry said he was ordered to tell Lucius he had a duty to his House and his family to avenge the murdered workers. No matter what the cost.

Lucius agreed.

In a voice devoid of emotion, the doctor explained the task House Tillinghast had set forth for him. Lucius was impressed with how well every detail of the plan had been thought out by his betters. Almost as if they had planned for this moment for a long time. But how could they have? No one could prevent sabotage. You could prepare for it, try to thwart it, but if someone was determined enough to risk their lives – there was no way to stop them.

Dr. Casselberry had given him just enough opiate to handle the pain from the surgery. Not that Lucius needed it. The rage in his heart burned like molten iron, forcing the searing agony that racked his body far out of his mind. His mission was clear. He had money, uniforms, passwords and names of people he would pretend to know. All he wanted to do was to arrive in Boston in five days and stand in a theatre box and wait until his clockwork heart stopped. Lucius did not know who his target was and didn’t care. Anyone who murdered women and children deserved to die.

Three days later, Lucius was on an airship halfway between Chicago and Boston. A fierce crosswind pushed against the hydrogen balloon as it fought to stay on course. He took a deep breath and instead of feeling his heart pump, he heard whirring gears. Liberated from a heart that no longer existed, he was glad his time on this earth was limited, for Dr. Casselberry had told him that the limits of current clock-spring technology meant he would wind down in two more days.

The airship crabbed against the crosswind, then seemed to give up and turned to starboard. It vented hydrogen and descended. A crewman secured a rope ladder and threw it over the side. He gave Lucius a jerk of his head to let him know it was time.

Apprehensive, Lucius strapped on his pack, stepped out of the gondola and onto the ladder. He did his best not to look at the ground. Although he’d been an airship rigger for over eight years, he still didn’t like flying in these monster balloons he’d helped build.

Landing near a cemetery caused him to wonder once again where his wife and son were buried. He had sneaked out before he left to pay his respects, but could not find their graves in the company plot. The newly tilled earth had made it easy for him to find several friends who had perished, but he saw no sign of Mary or George. He wanted to ask Dr. Casselberry about it but feared if he did, they would send someone else to Boston.

The rest of the journey was less adventuresome. Lucius hitched a ride to the train station on a horse-drawn cart and bought a ticket to Boston. He cleaned himself up in the train’s facilities and put on the nice suit he carried with him. Worried someone might hear the ticking in his chest, he tried to sit alone. When that did not work, Lucius realized the noise from the train and the passengers masked the sound. When he arrived in Boston, Lucius followed his strict instructions and took a room in a boarding house appropriate for well-bred travelers on a budget. He paid a week’s rent in advance and settled in for the night.

With a mere twenty-four hours to live, Dr. Casselberry suggested Lucius use this time to enjoy the small things in life: an ice cream, a fine meal, or even the company of a lovely woman. Lucius would not have any of it. For without his family, small pleasures had no meaning. As he watched the sun come up after not sleeping, he tried not to let the beauty of it sway his resolve; however, impending death made every color, every sound, even smells more vibrant. The day ended more quickly than he thought possible, and he dressed in the uniform of a Northern House. Holding on to his anger like a drowning man hanging on to a life vest, Lucius straightened his jacket and prepared to end his life.

His instructions were to go to the side entrance of the theatre and present his papers. He had memorized the passwords and information Dr. Casselberry had given him. When he arrived, the guards allowed him through after a brief pause over his credentials and a joke about the idiosyncrasies of his alleged employers. He marveled at the spy network House Tillinghast possessed that provided him such easy access.

He kept a neutral expression as he marched up the back stairs to a corridor where the box seats were located. Two guards stood outside of the one where his target sat. They wore the same ship emblem on their lapel that he did. Lucius gave them a nod, then tapped on the door. When he entered, Lucius expected to see the definition of evil.

What he found was a middle-aged woman who appeared to have been attractive once and a seven-year-old boy.

“Where is my grandson?” she barked at him.

“Ma’am?” Lucius stared at her, dumbfounded.

She glared at him with fierce eyes. “You’re all useless. Stay with the boy.” The woman swept passed him and out of the theatre box.

The boy sat on the floor taking apart a mechanical toy horse.

The boy looked up at him and grinned. “Do you want to play?” he asked holding up the toy.

Unable to speak, Lucius slumped into a seat trembling with shock and anxiety. This was not what he imagined. How could killing a woman, a child, and a few guards be right? But he hardened his resolve, knowing his own family had suffered a horrible death. It was only just that the families who had murdered his should die. He would sit here until his life ran out.

Lucius composed himself. “No,” he responded with no hint of emotion.

The boy shrugged and continued to disassemble the toy horse. With gears and springs soon spread out over the floor, the boy grew bored and plopped onto the seat next to him. He paused for a moment, then leaned closer to Lucius as if listening for something. Suddenly, his eyes lit up in joy.

“I can hear your heart. It’s clockwork. Can I see it?” the boy pleaded.

Used to obeying orders, Lucius opened his shirt and peeled back the flap that protected his mechanical heart.

The boy examined it, then frowned. “You’re winding down.”

“Time has taken on new meaning,” Lucius answered with no hint of irony.

“You’ll die. Why’d they build it that way? It’s silly.” The boy looked annoyed for some reason Lucius couldn’t fathom. “I can fix it.”

“What?” Stunned, Lucius tried to peer inside his own chest. “That’s not possible.”

“They used a simple spiral mainspring instead of a reverse one. See.” The boy picked up a spring from the floor that curled back on itself at both ends. “This is too small, but I’ve got one that should fit.” He dug into his pocket and pulled out a man’s pocket watch. “This should work.”

Lucius grabbed the boy’s arm dragging him in closer. “You’re lying. This is a trick,” he said, his voice turning guttural.

Hurt, the boy tried to pull away. “No. I can do it. Really. Why doesn’t anyone believe me but Father?”

“How long?” Lucius demanded. “How long will the mainspring last?”

“A long time, I think. Father told me this time piece was forty years old. But if you keep replacing the mainspring before it wears out…” the boy shrugged again. “I don’t really know.”

Emotions roiled within him so intensely he thought he was going to be ill. Lucius gripped the boy harder to steady himself. If a boy could fix his heart, there was no reason Dr. Casselberry wouldn’t be able to. So why didn’t he? Did he lie about not being able to fix his heart permanently? If yes, what else had he lied about? The situation was almost too much for Lucius to comprehend until he realized he was just one of the many gears in the machine known as House Tillinghast.

The scared yet eager look on the boy’s face brought him back to reality. He released him and made a decision.

“Be quick about it, boy.”

As the boy pried open the pocket, Lucius saw the initials C.W. etched on the inside of the cover. The boy removed the mainspring and placed it in Lucius’s hand for safe keeping. After lifting off the clock barrel-head in Lucius’s chest, the boy gasped. “It’s almost wound down.”

“If I hold my breath, would that give the mainspring more time?” Lucius asked.

“It might. I… I don’t really know.” For the first time, the boy sounded unsure.

“Yes or no?” Lucius demanded.

The boy hesitated a moment then said, “Yes.” He hovered over the device with a jeweler’s tool he’d used on the mechanical horse. “Now.”

Lucius held his breath expecting it to be his last.

The boy shook from nervousness and dropped the mainspring on the ground. He scrambled around on the carpeted floor, then thrust his hand in the air in victory and returned to his task.

Lucius’ lungs felt like they were being seared from the inside out.

“Almost there,” the boy announced working as fast as he could. After a moment more, he stepped away from Lucius with a hopeful look on his face. “Breathe.”

Lucius exhaled, then inhaled. No explosion. Nothing.

“It worked.” The boy skipped around in joy.

As relief washed over him, Lucius felt a new emotion form—hope. But with it came a cold hard edge meant for those who had deceived him.

“Thank you,” Lucius said as he shook the boy’s hand. After a few more words, Lucius took his leave.

When the woman returned to find the boy alone, she was livid. “Jonathan Weldsmore, where’s your body guard?”

“He went home,” the boy replied, trying not to show joy at his accomplishment.

***

Lucius left the theatre thinking about what he would do next. For he knew if Dr. Casselberry had lied about his clockwork heart, then he may have lied about something much more important—the death of his family. Lucius resolved to discover the truth no matter what it took.

For unlike most men, he had all the time in the world.

Madeleine Holly-Rosing is the writer/creator of he steampunk comic Boston Metaphysical Society and its companion novellas. You can read more about the comic on the website: http://www.bostonmetaphysicalsociety.com  The novellas are available on Amazon, Nook, Smashwords and DrivethruFiction.

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