Shifting his weight unevenly in his couch Sir Seymour LeGreen, said "I jest not, it's the latest innovation. Worthy of Méliès himself."
A rotund gentleman with a perchance for naval double-breasted suits, Seymour's ash-whiskered face glowed like a carnation as he reached for another pistachio biscotti to share the company of his Earl Grey, the ivy green Victorian Recamier groaning out beneath him. He frowned at its protests but said nothing further.
Across the mahogany breakfast table, on which sat an assortment of muffins, tea cakes and other treats with a pot of jasmine puffing steam into the open air alongside the Earl, Lord Bramble sighed. He scratched his left temple, the tingle of silver beneath his chestnut hair more unbearable with each passing year. Sitting to the left, he leaned against his couch's armrest; blue jays twittered outside the window, perhaps to the gentle hum of Lady Bramble's humming as she strolled with Lady LeGreen.
He numbly paid half-attention to his guest and answered once he realized Seymour had stopped three minutes past. The mint flower which hung in his lapel shifted, falling deeper into his frock, freshly picked from the Lord's morning hunt.
"I don't know," Lord Bramble said, glancing to the ivory apron of the well-padded maid in the corner of the room, waiting for orders. "We already have three. No need for more. What can it do that the others cannot?"
His leather shoes squeaked harshly on the dark oak flooring as the Lord shifted back on Seymour.
Crumbs erupted from Sir Seymour's mouth, his voice rattling the crystal ice chandelier above. It swayed unsettlingly from side to side, Bramble noted, before thankfully coming to a stop.
"Oh yes, but this most recent model is nearly silent. No noisy ball-and-joints constantly needing oil. Save for the odd whirl here and there, it appears completely normal."
What crumbs that were not caught on Seymour's handlebar moustache sprinkled Bramble's freshly tailored frock. The pair glanced at the mistake, the Lord blandly but the gentleman with rising horror. To Seymour's fervent relief, Bramble accepted the apology.
"Completely normal, you say? How so? Can they go outdoors now?" Half the time he took his out for hunts, the blasted things would fall over and alert all nearby mallards and hares. It was most frustrating. Now, he confined them to the indoors, though even there they caused no end of trouble with awkward movements and rattling noise.
Sir Seymour grinned, the momentum of easing the idea into the Lord's mind building. "They handle both urban and rugged terrain almost as good as we can. They're nothing like their clunky, clumsy predecessors. Why, I could even get mine to shoot down a mallard."
Lord Bramble's eyes widened, leaning forward in his seat. His left knee ached from the position and he cursed that damned musket that pierced his leg, ages ago.
Blight on the foolhardiness of youth, he thought. Those penny dreadfuls knew nothing of honor, or the cost of bravery, the horrors of war. As if rushing into battle, gun blazing was a right and duty a triviality. Boys shouldn't even know what guns are. And those silly bits of clockwork, the Works… they knew nothing at all. What right did they have to lift a rifle, even to a poor dumb duck?
"So, Sir Seymour, what you're basically saying is that the Works look human, sound human and know how to fire guns?" Lord Bramble knew little of technology, the complexity of oiled gizmos whirling in perfect order, the sublime pleasure of gears meshing together. But it didn't take much know-how to understand that beneath it all that metal didn't know or care about the significance of sending lead through human guts. He glanced to his maid again, boiled in the luxury of self-hatred for a second, before scotching several inches in his couch away from the servant. "Isn't that profoundly dangerous?"
Seymour waved a hand away. Draining the last of the Earl in his parchment-thin china down, Sir Seymour placed the cup back on its saucer. It rattled slightly before coming to a stop.
"Not at all. They're programmed not to hurt any living human."
"Programmed? What does that mean? How can you 'program' a soul into copper?" Lord Bramble bit the first joint of his forefinger on his right hand. He knew what the peerage thought. Paranoid, behind the times, an eccentric. He knew what 'eccentric' meant, among his ring of peers and knew he'd never live it down. But didn't they all feel it, deep down? The uncertainty of what bounced in those porcelain skulls other than sprogs and coils?
Sir Seymour clicked his tongue in his bullfrog cheek. "Perhaps a demonstration is in order? Here, I brought one with me just in case." Standing out of the couch like a sperm whale making landfall, he pointed to the maid. "If you'd be so kind, open the door for the Lord's other guest."
"Directive Accepted," responded the maid, its hollow voice vibrating across a brass mesh tube hidden deep behind a rubber face, like a dying cat mewing out in agony, trapped in a brass barrel. Iron feet clanking across the hardwood floor, it eased its way to the morning room door. The chandelier jerked with each step, Lord Bramble eyeing it with uncertainty before turning back to Seymour.
Rising out of his Ming dynasty rosewood couch like a Chinese firecracker, Captain the Viscount Bramble glared at Sir Seymour, Knight of Birmingham. His voice remained steady, but strained.
"You brought a killer Work into my manor? You go too far, sir." He swallowed and raised an open hand palm to the automaton maid.
"Stop. Do not answer that door."
The automaton maid stopped with a jerk, as if the floor had inhaled its feet. It swayed for a moment until it became inhumanly still.
Sir Seymour edged around the breakfast table and approached Lord Bramble, hand out and open. His oily eyes glistened with the electric spark of tomorrow, his voice the docile tones of the beggar. And yet, as the knight spoke, all that Lord Bramble heard was a tinny static, tasting copper on his tongue.
Men of metal and steel, borne out of the minds of the Age's most genius yet daft inventors and melded into shape in the fiery, unforgivable factories of the Revolution; the Works. Had it really been just a short decade and half since the first Work stumbled, its bronze clockwork feet creaking, out of the assembly line?
Time seemed to go by so fast these days, Lord Bramble thought. Had the Works' ever-spreading influence across all spheres of this Victorian society whizzed over his head, or his decrepit brain playing tricks on him? Bramble did not know.
There was a time when he wasn't so alone in his suspicions. There were days when you could talk to someone about the Works and not hear lauding approval of their efficiency, their part in the ever-expanding Empire. Priests condemned them as a mockery of the Lord's Great Design, older men as a sign of the degeneration of the country's work ethic. Once, Seymour had been among the most adamant against these abominations. What had happened to him? Lord Bramble missed those days and his old friend.
Worse still, people seemed to want ever greater improvements on their machine slaves. Some mad tinker somewhere was always improving the design, making them less machine, more human; hiding away the steel beneath rubber, porcelain, leather. The Works were obviously progressing, growing more complex and brilliant with each model. But when did they plan to stop? It was as if Darwin's theory had been applied to machines, evolving to bigger and greater heights, but without the weakness of the flesh. When did it stop? And what place did humans have, in a world run entirely by the Works? Out of everything, the Viscount wanted to know that the most.
Lord Bramble shook his head and the noise echoing therein as Sir Seymour concluded with his speech. Tears brimmed out of the older gentleman's eyes; for a fleeting moment, the Lord felt guilty for ignoring his friend. His words were nonsense, but ignoring Seymour was simply too rude.
"I'm sorry, I didn't quite catch that," said Lord Bramble. He frowned apologetically when Sir Seymour's shoulders sagged.
"B-but." Sir Seymour recovered quickly, folding his arms across his chest. "In that case, I do terribly insist that you meet the Work."
One could split wood with the sharpness of his voice. All the same, it was funny how the knight thought things would go.
"It's already killed." Lord Bramble shook his head. "It's already killed. It could already walk and talk, and now it's killed. It was only after our hands were stained that we humans knew what death meant. Now something that isn't even alive know what it means to kill. A deathless object knows and can bring death."
The Lord shuddered. Even after walking with death, nothing terrified him quite like that thought.
"I don't trust it."
Seymour smiled, more out of desperation than humor. "Ah, you've always been a pessimist, my Lord. Please, give it a glance over."
Lord Bramble stared long and hard at the gentleman. A bead of sweat dripped down the side of Seymour's cheek. Sir Seymour shrugged helplessly, his moustache drooping.
"Struggling with me won't do you any good. I hate to admit it, but I approached Lady Bramble earlier this week. She, er-" Seymour took a step back, Lord Bramble advancing on him.
The Viscount's fists clenched and unclenched slowly, vigorously. "Um, as I was saying, she uh purchased my model off me." Lord Bramble's face bled cold winter ice, which burned like blue fire. Seymour backpedalled without so much as a look over his shoulder.
The maid automaton's shoulder jerked forward when Seymour rammed into its side. Seymour's hand outstretched for Lord Bramble, who remained stock still, glaring. Sir Seymour winced when a leathery vice clamped down on his wrist, almost crushing the bone in two.
Eyes harsh green without true light, the automaton the maid said, "Apologies, sir. Might I assist you? Confirm order."
It spoke not without dead tones, but a monotone unfamiliar with life and its end at all. Weakly, Seymour nodded his head. The automaton looked without looking. Lord Bramble groaned and rubbed his eyes.
"Ugh, let me guess. Your latest model understands body language?"
"Yes, of course. Most language is-"
"Body language, right Well, my maladjusted friend, this one requires voice command." For now. Until it is upgraded, or worse, replaced entirely; Lord knows his wife would be quite insistent on that point. "Assist Sir Seymour, you thing."
Bramble shook his head again and approached the morning room door, ignoring the sound of the automaton assisting Seymour to his feet. Perhaps, in retrospect, it wasn't that surprising that Sir Seymour liked the Works so much. Seymour always had a keen eye on the future, largely how little he had left of it. Lord Bramble, with age lines growing more pronounced each day, felt he could sympathize with him in that respect. Sometimes, it was not unknown for men to mistake the churning pits of hell for the saving grace of heaven's light from death.
Well, if Julia had already purchased this damned, damned thing, there was little hope for him. Once the Lady made up her mind, it remained so. Blast it, she'd better not try to use it as a bleeding nurse maid for the children. Again. His hands fell on the door, hesitantly.
"So, Sir Seymour," He said over his shoulder. The old gentleman continued adjusting his suit to a presentable state. "You think these automatons, these Works are the future? That they will usher in some bright future for this Empire, one which might last a thousand years? May your vision come true."
Lord Bramble pulled back on the doors, taking a step back as they swung open. Sitting there, across the hallway against the wall in a scarlet padded chair carved of walnut, was the automaton Work. With a single flawless motion, it rose out of its chair; only the faintest whirl betrayed the metal beneath. Emerald eyes keyed on him with disconcerting alertness. Harp strings twanged as it moved its lips.
"Hello, Captain the Viscount Bramble. It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance; so much has been said about you. What are your orders? I exist only to serve, my Lord."
Lord Bramble saw the future.