There was a vast machine; a clattering and rattling, clanking and clicking, ticking and tocking machine. Its skeleton was plastic and tin, its veins were rubber tubes, its nerves were glass. Its blood was sticky red and pelagic blue and pus yellow and oily black and greasy-clear, pumped by the creaking electric bellows that formed the machine’s heart. Lightning trapped in bell jars, sputtering miniature suns burning white-bright, nested among the gears and piston-fingers.
A man sat at the center of the machine, upon a reclined chair. An old man, whose eyes were filled with static, whose thin skins were crossed over and again with dark stiches, who at his edges looked smeared like oil paint. Pipes and tubes and cables flowed out from his arteries and veins, his spine, his skull, from underneath his fingernails and from underneath his rumpled, drool-stained shirt.
The door opened, and the maid entered the room. The machine sang its clunky, noisy song, and the old man stirred.
“Theo? Is that you, Theo?” His voice was weak, and he strained forward in his chair. His test-channel eyes stared right through the maid.
“I’m sorry, sir. It’s just me,” the maid said. She took off her scarf and her coat and her gloves, and hung them up on the coat rack.
“By God, Theo, how long has it been? Come in, come in!” the old man said. “It’s so good to see you again.”
“It’s good to see you too,” the maid said. She opened a compartment of the machine and unfolded the ironing board. From a second compartment, she began pulling out laundry
“It’s such a shame that we couldn’t meet at the Hart, like we used to. They tore it down, did you know that? They tore it down, years ago. Went out of business, and then someone tore it down and built a new one. I think it’s called the Queen, now. The Black Queen. It’s not the same, not the same at all…but, I don’t think we should let that stop us. We’re fine as we are. Do you want something to drink, something to eat?”
The maid began ironing the old man’s shirts. Their once-bright colors had faded to near white, and their threads had been worn thin enough to be whisper-light. Oftentimes the buttons did not match, having been replaced so often. He had once been very fond of buttons.
“Ah, fine. No, it’s no trouble at all. I’ll have the maid fetch you something if you change your mind.” The old man settled back in his chair, sunk low. “No, I don’t know where Edwin is. I haven’t seen him in years, and I don’t care to. I don’t like that crowd he ran off with. Shady sorts. A man who puts money in front of friendship is not worth asking about.”
The maid folded each shirt with exact precision. Each line was clean, each seam straightened, each bulge and wrinkle ironed flat. Folded shirts were placed neatly in a wicker basket at her feet.
“Though…I miss the old days, Theo,” the old man said. “The three of us ready to make something fantastic. It hasn’t been the same since you left. We could have done something fantastic, the three of us, but…fate, I suppose. No, I don’t blame you. You were always the Queen’s man first. I’m glad to see it worked out for you.”
The pile in the basket grew ever higher as the maid worked with mechanical precision. Threadbare slacks and faded silk ties were added to the shirts.
“No, I, uh…business is not as good as I would like. Sales are down, and I’ve had a lot of failed projects of late. The Misters and Misses series never took off as big as I’d hoped. I brought in some people from the outside to help: they know all about business and marketing and shares and stocks. Synergy, too, they like synergy. They brought a lot of people with them, so now I have management. With executives, even.” The old man bobbed his head back and forth. “It’s all Greek to me, but they say that they’ll help.”
The maid finished folding the last item of clothing: long jacket that had started purple, been turned into a patchwork of quilt squares, and then eaten up by moths.
“I don’t understand it much either, sir,” she said as she folded up the ironing board. She took the basket and the clothes over to another compartment and stored them away.
“They claim it’s not actually magic, but I don’t believe them. It has to be magic. Though they are a grey and dull sort of wizards.”
“Very disappointing, sir,” the maid said, drawing a feather duster from a machine closet.
“I wish there was another way, Theo, but Redd’s dead. I had to put him down. He wasn’t right in the head, just like all the others. Every single one has been defective. None of them lasted, none of them worked. But…” the old man’s eyes brightened for a moment, and he looked to have a stirring of pride in his heart. “I have a daughter now, Theo. A beautiful little baby girl. I made her special, more so than any of the others. But…” the old man’s face furrowed. “I think she’s defective too. I think she is. She was supposed to have everything, all up in her head, but there’s nothing there. She’s a beautiful, wonderful child, but she doesn’t have the stuff. None of it at all.”
The maid dusted off a shelf of tin machine-men soldiers; Aged veterans all, who had traded their long and distinguished tours of service for the quiet, forgotten gloom.
“I don’t know if I have the stuff anymore, either. I can feel them, all inside my head, but I can’t think them. As if those parts of my mind are made out of clay. I try to bring them back, to light the fires back up, but nothing works. My other mes are as good as dead. After all that trouble finding them, working with them, picking them apart to find out what made us all tick, nothing. Nothing, nothing, nothing.”
The maid swept up the crumbs that covered the coffee table, so that the black carbon bits wouldn’t attract clockwork mice.
“All I wanted to do is make toys, Theo. To make people happy. Toys help make life better, and people deserve better lives than what they have. That’s all I wanted. But all I have is a failing company and a daughter who is stuck in her own imagination. She was going to make things right, Theo. She was going to make things right. Where I’d failed, where Redd had failed, where all the others failed, she was going to make things right.” The old man stared out into the dim room, at the machinery that was his home. “She’ll have the company, but what good is that? She’s going to be devoured. You’ve seen what they’re like out there. All the factories in the world, just eating and eating, forever, until there’s no world left.”
The machine’s choked notes and flickering fires filled the silence.
“She was supposed to beat them.” The old man’s voice had an edge to it now. “She was going to beat them, Theo. She was going to burn that damnable factory down to the ground!”
The old man leaned forward as far as he could, holding out a shaking arm. An iron manacle, and a single link of chain, hung on his skinny wrist.
“Do you see this, Theo?” he shook his arm at the maid, his voice rising in pitch. “I was chained to my desk! I saw children born to mothers on the assembly lines and thrown into the furnace! I saw machines greased with blood, porridge made out of their bonemeal! The factories devour, Theo, and they will eat the sun! I cut myself free, I was free, I WAS FREE, but I never escaped! The World’s Fair, the new name, the new toys, none of that helped! None of that helped!” the old man was screaming now, waving his blistered wrist about in the air. Tears poured down his wrinkled face.
“The factories are still devouring, Theo! They are feeding humanity into the furnace! What good is a toymaker when coffins come in child sizes? Why do coffins come in child sizes, Theo?”
“Children die sometimes,” the maid said.
“No! No, no, no! Wrong! All wrong! I will not stand for it! No more, not again! No more child-sized coffins! None! I’m Doctor Wondertainment! I’m Doctor Wondertainment! I am Doctor God-Damn Wondertainment! No factory, no Edwin Dark, not even death itself is going to stop me!” The old man sobbed, his wheezing breath choking in his throat. “But I can’t do it. I can’t do it, Theo. Coffins come in child sizes and I can’t do anything about it. I can only make toys, and my toys aren’t good enough. I can’t save them. I can’t save my company, I can’t even save my daughter.” His voice trailed off. He slumped back in his chair and was silent and still.
The maid drew an object from a cabinet and walked over to the old man on his chair. He noticed her this time, perking up his head just slightly.
“Ah, there you are, dear. Have you met Theo? He should be around here, I think he’s using the toilet.”
“I’m afraid Lord Theodore has to leave now, sir,” the maid said.
“Oh, does he? A shame, a shame. We were having such a good time. Well, make sure to tell him to visit again.”
“I will, sir.”
“You’ve been such a help for all these years. I’m sad to send you off, but send you off I must. There’s nothing left for you here. I wish you the best of luck.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“I left a gift for you in the kitchen, a little going away present.”
“Thank you, sir.”
The maid hovered there at the old man’s side for a moment longer.
“You’re free to go, dear,” he said. “Don’t look back. You don’t work for me anymore. Go find something new for your life.”
The maid took a last, long look at the old man, and pressed a finger to his neck. His eyes flicked, and then went dark. The machine’s song slowed, and faded, rumbling into silence. The bellows went soft, the lights dimmed, the gears fell asleep, the pistons ground to a stop.
The maid stepped down from the machine and walked over to the hat rack. She put on her hat and her coat, and wrapped her scarf around her neck. As the old man had said, there was a parcel sitting on the counter, wrapped in brown paper and twine.
The machine let out a groaning sigh, and began to fold in upon itself, the old man it its center. It folded and folded and grew smaller and smaller, leaving bare walls behind it.
Emma Aislethorp-Brown stepped out onto the midwinter stoop and locked the door behind her. She walked away under the crystal sun, and did not look back.