Taking Care of Business

By Victoria Sandbrook
Mar 11, 2018 · 3,715 words · 14 minutes

Photo by Avi Agarwal via Unsplash.

From the author: A modern-day icon is resurrected as a biomechanical curiosity in steampunk London--to the deafening joy of his many fans.

Steam-powered gates hissed open, inviting the silent ticket holders up to the mansion’s dark facade. Anna’s indecision held her feet fast to the wet pavement as the others shuffled forward around her. If they had been outside one of Tom Norman’s store fronts to gape at freaks there would have been no shame. But this one-act curiosity show had every mama and vicar in London throwing fits. And Anna had already been. Twice.

But the show’s artiste was claiming more and more of Anna’s thoughts, and staying away the past week had only made the wanting worse. He was worth the risk of sure ruin if an acquaintance saw her in the crowd. So little stood between them now that she’d even paid the steam-hack to wait around the corner.

Anna squared her shoulders and shuffled down the path with the others. The men wore their woolen jacket collars high beneath their top hats, and the women pulled their coats and scarves tightly over evening silks. Any of them might have been more or less respectable than she, an MP’s eldest daughter, but they had all arrived as nondescript as they could manage. In such anonymity they could stare and gawk and ogle all they wanted. But none of them understood him like Anna did.

At the front door, Anna smiled and placed her blank ticket in the maid’s extended mech hand. The iron-jawed bio-mech didn’t smile back. Anna didn’t care; at least she’d tried to be polite. A custom-wired plate in the mechanical palm heated the thick stub until brown stains formed on the ticket: a lightning bolt and the letters T, C, and B. The bio-mech woman waved Anna further inside with a creak of cheaply oiled joints. There was no mech to take her coat; after all, the show wasn’t long. A forbidden thrill coursed through Anna. Leaving now would only draw attention.

 The line of attendees trickled into the sprawling salon. The richly papered walls recessed into the shadows. A gas-lit chandelier hung in the middle, throwing off a dim, mellow light. Fifty-some chairs formed tight crescent rows around a tall figure on a pedestal.

Black silk, draping to the floor, obscured the form’s finer details. Anna knew better than anyone the shape of his head, the line of his shoulder, the angle of his elbow, covered or no. Her fingers itched to pull the silk away, so much that she almost allowed her feet to carry her towards him, but she distracted herself from her fluttering heart by looking for a good seat.

There weren’t many options--she’d wanted something with a good view, but near an end. She sank into a chair in the third row and looked up to see the plume of a hat obscuring the pedestal. Anna clenched her teeth. After a quick glance around, she shifted her chair into the aisle slightly. Someone behind her coughed. Anna went cold with fear. She moved the chair back without turning around. If she craned her neck just so, she could pretend nothing was amiss. It would have to do.

The doctor entered the room from a door behind the figure. He walked with his arms folded across his chest, his dark eyebrows drawn together. He stopped near the figure and looked out to the crowd.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “tonight I present to you an extraordinary show. Some of you may have seen curiosities rolled out as acts at the theater. Some of you may have seen the novelties of my good colleague Mr. Norman. But unless you have been here before--and I know some of you have...” Anna’s heart skipped a beat, but he continued without looking at her. “--unless you have been here before you have never seen anything quite so...” He paused and smiled. “...electrifying as the curiosity I have for you this evening.

“This marvel defies everything you know about our modern capabilities. He is not some humble chimera like the bio-mechs that sweep your streets and polish your shoes, but an Adonis. In his own time, even Aphrodite would not be able to resurrect him, but our noble science pulled him back across the temporal river and breathed life into him.”

Anna licked her lips and held her breath.

The doctor’s fingers closed on the fabric. An age could have passed in her mind before he continued.

“I give you the one, the only...The King!” And he pulled the silk off the figure with a single sweep of his arm.

And there he was: the one who kept her heart beating fast in daylight and darkness. The gaslight echoed off of the jewels on the breast and collar of his pure white suit. His bio-mechanical right arm was bare, a knotted mass of gears and pistons extending to a hinged elbow, a pivoted wrist, and stiff, jointed digits. Thin rubber hoses connected various parts, pulsing and pumping with some unknown fluid, all running back under the cloth at his shoulder. Through the material of the left leg of his trousers, a light blinked every so often, belying the machinery beneath. And on his feet: a pair of suede shoes in the most remarkable shade of sapphire.

How much of him was man and how much was mech, Anna had yet to discover. Her insides twisted and shivered at the prospect of seeing more of him. She took as big a breath as her corset would allow and let it out slowly. She shouldn’t enjoy this—it was unseemly, unnatural, unholy--but she could never turn away.

The bio-mech’s blue eyes glowed beneath lowered lids, not focusing on anything in particular as the mechanical bits of his torso and limbs whirred and hissed to life. His skin was pale, but a muscle in his firm jaw twitched; he swallowed and blinked. His head, at least, was human. His right side jerked and repositioned itself slightly. He ran his still-human left hand through his thick black hair and bit his lower lip. Anna bit her own lip and sat on the edge of her chair. A strand of hair fell onto his brow as he lifted the strangely-shaped guitar slung over his shoulder. She saw his chest rise and fall once--a steadying breath--was he as nervous as she?--and then he placed his fingers on the frets and breathed in.

The music was otherworldly: four simple strummed notes that skipped and rolled and hiccupped and pulsed. Everything about it was motion, building, cycling, and building again. Was all music like this where or when he was from? How anyone could think straight if it was? And just as Anna thought her heart was catching up, the bio-mech added his voice to the mix.

She still couldn’t breathe when she heard his smooth, deep baritone. His mouth formed words in a syncopated murmur that gripped the bottom of her ribcage and lured her forward. His head swung with the beat, keeping time until his shoulders joined in, loose and languid. Then he looked up into the audience, straight into the eyes of some fortunate woman as he crooned, “Don’t be cruel....”

Anna’s hands gripped the seat of her chair until her fingers hurt, her mouth shaping the now-familiar lyrics in silence. He couldn’t see her. If he had seen her, he would be singing to her. She needed him to see her.

The song’s second verse ended and the bio-mech moved his weight onto his toes and twisted his heels once, a sharp precursor to what was to come. Anna couldn’t keep herself from smiling as the chords changed and the music mirrored the rocking of his hips. He leaned forward for a few words then stood up straight on the phrase’s last beat. He leaned forward again for the next line, and Anna leaned toward him. And as he straightened, his eyes found her.

She gasped, dizzy with glee as she looked into his eyes. He smiled a bit more, as she’d always hoped someone would smile at her. Not the way normal men leered at normal women. The King was of that elusive breed of gentlemen that frequented the pages of novels but not the streets of London. He was the type to bring her flowers and enjoy cigars with Father and kiss her hand goodnight. She could tell from his smile.

He had to look elsewhere then; Anna knew he had to please the crowd. But he’d conveyed volumes in that brief moment. He’d been thinking of her, too.

The song drove on, the heads in front of her dipped and rocked to the beat. Someone in the crowd started clapping in time. The pulse, muted by gloves and propriety, spread through the room, infectious and undeniable. The music crested and the song ended, accompanied by polite applause and a few indiscreet whoops.  

“Thank you,” the bio-mech said, modestly. “Thank you, ladies and gentleman.” He stepped back into a neutral position, took a breath and looked up.

“This next song...” He cleared his throat and leaned to the right, his mechanical knee whirring as it bent. “See, you gotta stand like this to sing this song because if you stand up straight you’ll strip your gears, man.” He looked at the floor, his shoulders tensing in an inaudible chuckle at his own words. His hair fell further over his brow; Anna fought the urge to stand and brush it away.

The bio-mech’s face tightened into a sly smile that pulled his mouth to one side and collected in the wrinkles around his eyes. She liked this side of him: impish, playful. His hands were at the ready. And before his strumming even joined in, he unleashed his voice upon the crowd.

Anna hadn’t heard this one about the “hound dog” before. She bit her lip and smiled up at him. This...this was the song he chose to sing after seeing her again! She needed to know what it meant. But until then she could watch him move. She could watch him move forever.

All motion flowed from the lower half of his body. His hips rocked his weight onto his toes, then his heels. They led and the rest of him followed, a duet in a single body, thrusting the guitar out toward the audience on the downbeats. His knees worked in concert, bending and straightening, then teasing toward each other for a moment as if drawn by a magnet before flying outward again.

Anna’s heart was in her throat. She pressed her legs together; she would come apart at the seams otherwise. How could she say goodbye to him after this? How could she live, only seeing him in these brief, forbidden moments?

The crowd burst into another round of clapping, then everyone was on their feet. Anna couldn’t see over the shoulders in front of her, so she walked in front of them all, staying closer to the seats than to the pedestal. They’d never been this close. For the first time, there was no one standing between them. She smiled until her ears hurt.

He kept time with his right heel, leaning deeply into his enhanced knee, the left swinging freely to match. And then he looked down at her and winked.

She clasped her hands to her heart and screamed. All of the unbridled excitement inside her projected into that shrill affirmation of his power over her. He couldn’t possibly doubt her adoration.

But as Anna’s breath ran short, the others joined in. Lace fans worked furiously to cool flushed skin as women’s giggles and shrieks mingled with gruff coughs and grumbles of clapping men. The King’s smile grew in the glow of their obvious esteem. Anna’s stomach lurched. Surely he didn’t love them more than her. She was sure of it.

After the second verse, he stopped singing and channeled everything he had into the music and the dance. Forward went the hips; sideways, backwards, rolling forward again. His human and mechanical joints both circled smoothly over strong legs, always bent. His hips gyrated in ways Anna would not have thought possible. She wanted to match that movement, to be the guitar he so lovingly strummed. Her bosoms pressed against her bodice and her mouth was dry.

Three other women--now five, no six--were shouldering Anna out of the way, screaming, swooning until she could barely hear the music at all. One chit threw her handkerchief at him; Anna had to fist her hands to keep from tearing the trollop’s cap from her head. He picked it up without missing a beat. There was no time to waste, it seemed.

Anna pushed her way back to the front, not caring who she jostled or how hard. The women to either side of her squealed in protest, but it was no matter: Anna was so close to him she could smell his machine oil. When he bent his knees, his metal hand grazing the strings was level with her face. His heels tapped and his hips rocked until Anna couldn’t help herself.

Anna reached out, grabbed his mechanical hand, and pulled herself up onto the pedestal. The bio-mech stopped singing abruptly, jaw slack and eyes wide when he looked at her. She slipped her hand behind his neck and pulled him down for a kiss. Her fingers discovered knobs and wires along the back of his neck, but his lips were soft, entirely human. Not at all demanding or overpowering. The doctor was right: he was the King. He was her King.

Hands knotted in Anna’s coat and skirts to pull her backward. She clung to him with her arms and teeth. He was hers. Hers to save from the rabid crowds. Hers to bring home to her parents.

Her assailants’ burly mech arms were winning out over her devotion. Her hand found the King’s lapel, warm from the bio-mech components and his exertion. A hose threaded through a small hole, connecting the mech to the man. This couldn’t be the last time she touched him. They would be happy together. He would dance and sing for her every night. It would just take time and patience. Or something bolder than she’d ever dared....

Her finger looped around the hose and tore.

The bio-mech servants severed her grip with brute force. Dark, warm viscus liquid splattered Anna from hem to hair. She licked a drop off her lip and gasped as her love toppled backward into the frenzied mob behind the pedestal. Everyone else in the audience was screaming, fighting for the chance to touch the King. Anna flailed, unable to do more than kick her own skirts about as she howled after him.

His mechanical hand grappled for the edge of the pedestal. He pulled himself upright again, his human limb cradling the guitar. He placed the instrument on the platform. His eyes, now as wide and round as they were bright and blue, met Anna’s. A sharp pain ate at her stomach when she saw his misery.

More mechs with batons streamed into the room. A servant’s metal-clad arm looped around Anna’s waist and hauled her away.

Anna wiggled and writhed, but his arm was too strong and when they were free of the crowd, she was over the man’s shoulder. From this perch, she could see the King. Black oil pulsed onto his white jacket, which was ripped down his torso exposing metal and wire and gears. She wanted to tell him that all would be well, that she’d fix everything, reconnect the hoses, mend his suit by the fireside while he read the evening news. She could almost feel the metal beneath her hands.

Two bouncers looped the King’s arms around their shoulders and carried him away. He looked back for a brief moment and Anna’s heart fluttered. He wanted to make sure she was alright!

But his eyes went to the guitar, still untouched and forgotten atop the pedestal. The tension in his face eased, and his head hung forward as they hauled him out of the room.

With every step, the servant carried Anna further and further away from the mob. Her heart pounded in her ears. It was done; they’d never let her see him again. She looked down at the hose clenched in her fist. How would she go on without him?

“So vulgar!” a woman in front of Anna said. “Just shameful for a man to move like that.”

“No gentleman would,” the woman’s companion agreed, his mustache twitching. “Only a machine or savage could be so indecent in a public place.”

A hundred harsh words welled up in Anna’s throat. If they couldn’t see the warmth and purpose behind all that metal, they were blind. He was just as invisible as she was, and it made her ache to her core.

She tugged on the back of the guard’s coat. Maybe because he was a bio-mech, too...

“How can you listen to that?” she asked him over the din of the receding crowd.

“Can’t get angry at the patrons, love,” he said. She tried again to pull free, and he smacked her backside like it was nothing. “Settle down, pet. He worked finer fillies than you into a lather tonight.”

Anna seethed. This one was just like the rest of them: base like the men and directionless like the mechs. And if he couldn’t see, he wouldn’t help her.

She pushed herself upwards until she could reach the back of his head.

He kept talking as if she were listening. “You poppets are too precious--”

Anna pulled a handful of tubes and wires out of his neck. He ground to a halt and stopped speaking. The last of the exiting crowd paid them no heed. The room was empty; the other servants must have been busy with patrons. This servant was gasping for air, his human parts revolting against the loss of the mech. He couldn’t do more than mumble through his inoperable lips. If no one stumbled on the quickly fading hulk of crude engineering and morality in time to repair him, it would be no great loss.

Anna pried herself out of his grip. Oil dribbled down his back and pooled on the floor. She avoided the puddle as she climbed down, shed her soaked coat, and rearranged her wool skirts.

She was glad she’d thought to wear such nondescript attire. No one would pay a girl so plain any mind if she kept her head down. So very little stood between Anna and her love: what were dark hallways, a couple doors, a few mech servants easily dispatched? She licked her lips. She would find him, console him, reassure him that someone saw beneath his skin and mech. Fix him body and soul. She smiled as she stepped into the shadows at the edge of the room.

A trail of his oil led down a gas-lit corridor, past dark doors and silent rooms. Ahead, a servant bustled through swinging double doors into the hallway and hurried away. Anna darted ahead on silent feet, easing the swinging door closed behind her.

The bare-chested King was prone on a wheeled exam table. The doctor stood before him, hands and lab coat covered in oil, tools of his trade strewn about side tables and the floor. Anna froze, but the man didn’t acknowledge her.

The King’s mech was still; his skin pale. His blue eyes were dark and blank. His lips hung loose above his perfect, white teeth. She wanted to kiss them until he awoke.

But the doctor was between them. He was a man, not a mech. An unexpected hurdle. But it could not be harder to dispatch mortal life than it had been to end a mechanical one. Anna picked up a wrench with a head as big as her fist. She stepped forward. Then the doctor spoke.

“Hand me that plumber’s wrench, Sophia.”

He reached backwards and snapped twice. Anna’s throat went dry. When she didn’t move, the doctor turned.

“Where the devil is Sophia?”

Anna swallowed. “Kitchen?”

He snatched the tool out of her hand, and fit it over a huge nut above where the King’s heart should be. After two turns, the doctor threw a switch in the middle of the mech’s metal chest.

Lights blinked furtively. Gears whirred, stuttered, whirred again.

“Blast! Have you no will to live?” The doctor slammed his fist on the mech so hard, even the King’s feet twitched. “I didn’t bring you here to die again, damn it!”

The doctor’s hand went back to the switch as an alarm cry met their ears. Anna’s blood ran cold: they’d found the bio-mech servant in the salon. Feet ran past the door, and the doctor cursed again. He stood and wiped his hands on his coat.

“Shut him down,” he said and brushed past her without waiting for a reply.

The doors rocked closed. The sounds of alarm retreated. There was only the pounding of Anna’s heart and the weak hiccupping of the King’s mech.

Alone! She flew to his side and brought her face close to his, running her hands across skin and mech. A gasp of escaped her lips. His eyes flickered; he’d recognized her. She kissed his lips until they shuddered. She laughed, choking back tears of relief and joy.

“I’m here, my love,” she whispered.

His lips twitched again and his lungs ground out an attempt at a sound. She watched carefully, stroking his face as he tried again and again to speak.

“He...lp.” His eyes rolled toward the door and his fingers twitched toward the edge of the table. She took his hand. His voice got stronger. “Help.”

“Yes,” Anna assured him. “Yes, I’m here to help.” She released the breaks on the table and turned it toward the doors.

She sped through hallways toward the back of the house where the steam-hack would be waiting.

The loading dock was deserted except for her driver. His eyebrows shot up when he saw the King.

“I ain’t no hired thief, miss,” he protested. “My hack’s mech, but I ain’t sunk that low yet.”

“Get him in the back and keep to your own business,” she told him, more calm and sure than she’d ever been. “He’s mine.”

This story originally appeared in Swords & Steam Short Stories.

Victoria Sandbrook

Victoria Sandbrook writes speculative fiction of the resistance, attic wives, and the fantastic.