Every week in Friday Free Web Fiction I post a first draft scene from my work in progress (WIP), or a short story, or an excerpt from one of my books. Today’s offering is from my Prunella Smith WIP, Past Worlds, The Lock Smith’s Secret. This follows on from previous posts on Steampunk Nell.
Nell parked her steam powered car at the back of Beth’s house, walked through the kitchen garden, down the well-worn steps to the cellar and knocked on the door.
‘Just a minute,’ came a muffled voice from inside.
Nell turned from the door with its peeling green paint and scanned the Lawton’s garden while she waited in the sunshine. Hollyhocks, marigolds and daisies grew among lettuces, silver beet and beans, and a neatly pruned box hedge separated the kitchen garden from the driveway and lawn beyond. The two-story house’s sandstone walls held the heat of the day and felt warm at her back, and Nell couldn’t help wondering at the stupidity of whoever had been responsible for building it with its living rooms and largest windows facing south. They’d taken plans designed for England and built them in Australia without ever considering that the sunny side was the north not the south. Her own family home was a rare one, built facing north. Her grandfather had been smarter than most. Still, she thought as the door creaked open, this way, sunshine flowed into her friend Beth’s workshop through the row of windows at ground level. It would be a miserable place had it been on the south side in the southern hemisphere.
The door swung open on smoothly oiled hinges. Beth poked her head out and blinked in the bright light. Her eyes looked huge behind the thick lenses in her spectacles. ‘Nell! How lovely. Please, come in.’
She pushed the door wide and stepped back to let Nell pass. Nell stepped inside, registered the new addition to Beth’s clockwork collection and turned to her friend with a grin.
Beth shrugged and pushed a lock of mousy blond hair that had escaped her pony tail behind her ear. Her tiny friend—though of normal height, Nell felt like an Amazon beside her—didn’t have classic good looks, but she had exceptional eyes—brilliant blue—and they sparkled now. She would never brag about her work—a lady to the end—but her pride in it showed in that sparkle. And rightly so.
‘It’s magnificent,’ Nell said, referring to the construction on the workbench.
‘I know. And it’s a ‘she’.’
Nell peered beneath the life-sized mechanical dog for evidence.
Beth giggled. ‘I didn’t bother with that kind of thing; she’s just too pretty to be a boy.’
‘She’s gorgeous all right.’ Nell’s gaze roamed appreciatively over the shining copper, leather and wooden structure. ‘You’ve given her spaniel ears.’
Beth nodded. ‘I had to base her on something.’
‘What does it do?’
Something screeched across the floor before Beth could answer. Nell looked down and jumped out of the way as a clockwork rat raced past her boots and up the bench leg. Then it proceeded to whir around the dog in a most excited fashion.
‘Stop it Rattus,’ Beth said. The creature stopped and looked up at her, his little eyes gleaming.
Nell screwed up her face in distaste. ‘Why did your first successful experiment on imbuing a clockwork with ether have to be a rat?’
‘Oh, come on, he’s cute.’ Beth put her hand on the bench, palm up and the rat rolled onto it. She lifted it to in front of her face and stroked it as if it were alive. Perhaps it was.
‘Are you sure you can turn it off?’
Beth shook her head and looked at her friend with disappointment in her eyes. ‘Of course. I told you, I’d never make anything completely independent. I may have animated it, but it doesn’t have a soul. Look …’ She pulled the small brass key out of the rat’s back. It sunk on its wheels and the gleam went out of its eyes. ‘Simple.’
‘And this one?’ Nell said turning to the dog.
Nell nodded. ‘Right. Katie. What does she do?’
‘I don’t know. I haven’t tried her yet.’
Nell raised her eye brows in query.
‘I mean, I’ve tried the basic clockwork, of course. All that works. It’s the next stage I haven’t tried. She has the right equipment for animation, but I haven’t done the procedure yet. I’ll have to work up to that.’ She looked down at her rusty coloured men’s trousers and picked a bit of fluff off her thigh.
Nell understood her nerves. It had taken her days to recover from animating Rattus, and though Katie was only a small dog, she was still ten times bigger than Rattus. ‘You don’t have to animate it, you know.’
‘If I don’t try, I’ll never know if it’s possible or not. If I can’t do it, then maybe no one can. But if I can, then … what if someone without my scruples can do it?’
Nell nodded. The serial killer was a prudent reminder that some people had no scruples at all. Ever since her friend had animated the little rat, she’d worried about how such entities could be used in the wrong hands. A rat plague of any kind was still a plague. ‘Wouldn’t we hear if anyone else had achieved such a thing? It would make such great news.’
‘Don’t you dare!’
‘Don’t worry. I won’t. I get it.’
Beth visibly relaxed.
She’d made Nell swear not to say a word about Rattus, and though the newspaper reporter in her desperately wanted to be responsible for the revelation of such ground-breaking news, she agreed that the world was not, and perhaps never would be, ready for such a revelation.
Nell wandered to the table covered in little toys that Beth made to give to poor children at Christmas, and picked up a cute little clown, painted in bright colours. She twisted its key several times, then placed it back on the table. A song—the Twelve Days of Christmas—tinkled from the little toy and it danced stiffly to the tune. She watched it until it slowed and eventually stopped. This simple toy was nothing like Rattus. The ether not only kept his clockwork running, it gave him a will of his own. Was it luck that the rat had a good temperament? That it obeyed commands—at least from its maker? Did will equal consciousness? The gleam in his eyes when the key was in his back, gave Nell the feeling that it did.
‘What if Katie doesn’t turn out to be as nice as Rattus?’ she asked.
Beth pulled the key from the dog’s back and held it up. ‘So long as we can catch her. It’s no problem. I should even be able to reverse the procedure and return the animating force to the ether from which it came.’
‘In theory, anyway … you want to see Katie in action?’
‘Sure, then we’re going to lunch.’
Beth blinked, then a shy smile followed. ‘I’ll have to get dressed first.’
‘I know, you promised your mother.’
Beth nodded. Even so, her hair was beyond anything her maid could do in less than an hour, and Nell wasn’t going to wait for that.
‘A brush will do,’ Nell said. ‘And we can stick it under a hat.’
Beth nodded, then lifted the mechanical dog from the work bench, stuck the large key—perhaps easy to grab if it ran amuck—into the dog’s back and twisted until she could turn it no more. With a here-goes look at her friend, she set Katie on the concrete floor and stepped back.
The tail wagged first, at which Katie gave a delighted squeak, then the dog’s head began to move from side to side, and finally with a click and a whirr it trotted forward. Beth raced to the door and threw it open. The dog trotted along behind her and made its way shakily up the steps. ‘She’s a little wobbly on the stairs, but she makes it,’ Beth said proudly.
Nell just grinned and shook her head in amazement as she followed.
‘If I want her to turn,’ Beth explained, ‘I do this.’ She twisted a dial at the base of the dog’s neck and Katie turned and followed Beth towards her house.
‘That is truly wonderful. Can I write a story about her? As she is, I mean. No ether animation or anything. I’ve never heard of anyone else having such large clockworks. All the kids will want one.’
Beth shook her head. ‘I don’t want to draw attention to myself or my work. Mother would have a fit. Anything other than my little toys must remain a secret.’
Did other people have large working clockworks and keep them a secret? Nell wondered as she walked beside the clockwork dog. If Beth could do it, others could too. If Nell could find someone else like Beth. … She could see the headlines now: LARGE WORKING CLOCKWORKS DISCOVERED. No one could question her right to be a reporter if she could break a story like that.
Beth had a reason to keep her work secret, but who else would have a reason for secrecy when money could be made from selling such toys. Had no one else made large clockworks or did they keep it secret for nefarious reasons? Whatever the answer, Nell intended to find out.
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