Ms. Sage didn’t even feel her legs buckle or her knees hit the floor. She didn’t recall her hands slapping down against sienna rung with ancient timber beneath. All she focused on was trying to keep her mind from spinning out of control while her abdomen spasmed and horror spread through her artificial blood. The coiled copper and crystal heart at her core dimmed down to dangerous levels, the sides of her eyes were suddenly filled with tears. Her spectacles slid down to the edge of her nose. Was the room spinning? It felt like it. Dimly she heard Roland calling her name with alarm. But was ‘Ms. Sage’ even really her name?
Memories forced their way into the forefront of her mind. She could see her own hands working carefully on the faux hand that Roland had now, turning cogs and aligning pulleys. It was a masterpiece and befitting the man she loved. The idea of helping him spread warmth through her chest. Outside her workshop’s window snow was gently falling. She could hear muffled carolers. The hand, she was making it for him for Christmas. The ring on her finger was admired again; it was both familiar and unknown at the same time.
She ground her porcelain teeth as jaw twitched. The same hand, now several years old, settled on her back and started to stroke soothingly. The cog-smith almost succeeded in pulling her back to the here and now with his touch. She was in the castle’s study, she needed to focus and… holy hell it felt like she was burning from within.
“Ms. Sage… please. Snap out of it.” Roland begged with a tinge of panic in his voice.
Fireworks exploded behind her eyes. No, they exploded in her memories. Roland had an arm wrapped around her along with part of his coat as they watched the display above. It was different than watching shells rain in. Such was something she was too used to in her homeland and in England. Tonight the explosions in the air was for a different reason, a better reason. One of her husband’s relatives had just had an important birthday. They had gotten him… the King… a horse was it? A clockwork one that they had made together. He was so warm, his kisses so sweet. Her stomach was full of not just butterflies that night. Isadora had something important to tell him. Something that when she whispered it in his ear the aristocrat had started crying, but happily so. Ms. Sage sucked in a hard breath and pressed one hand over her corseted stomach. She shuddered and gagged.
“Ms. Sage?!” Mr. Thistle tugged at her now, trying to get her to stand. He was torn between leaving here as he called for help and tending to her directly. Inside he was kicking himself for letting such foolish words slip from his lips only moments before. His heart lurched.
“Get away… get away from me.” In a fit of dementia she pushed at his chest and sent the blue-blood sprawling across the floor. Dimly the clockwork woman realized what she did, but she couldn’t offer any apologies. All of the Thistle Sister’s were inhumanly strong and it would be a blessing if she didn’t do serious damage to her maker… her… her husband. She thought she heard a table crash. The fire in her chest didn’t let her focus. It pulled her deeper into hellish memories, surging along with a slow building humming as the stone at her core vibrated.
Giggling. Little girlish giggling. It drowned out everything else in between the beats of her false-heart. Slowly she found herself running down a hall in memory. It was a fine manor house sporting wide windows to let the sunlight in. Paintings of princes and princesses hung on the walls and fresh flowers filled every pot she passed. She was chasing someone. Someone who was giggling like mad. The air smelled of jasmine, this place was home. She laughed loud and turned the corner. Ahead of her a little girl with rich brown hair pattered along as fast as she could on chubby legs and little feet. The wee thing didn’t look back but squealed louder and tried to outrun Ms. Sage…. Isadora. Then at the other end of the hall Roland, dressed in just a white shirt and trousers, jumped out of an open door way. He snatched the girl up who hollered in joy, called him Papa. Then the child turned and pointed a tiny finger Isadora’s way, smiling as her hazel eyes twinkled. She was pointing out where Mama was and Roland nodded in proud agreement.
“Oh… oh Lord.” Things clicked into place and Ms. Sage suddenly felt hollowed out, save for the blaze that threatened to consume her very soul. She tried to clutch at her chest as coiled copper threatened to unwind. Vaguely she heard the doors slam open and it felt as if she had a multitude of hands on her suddenly. Was she being lifted up into heaven, dragged to hell or just taken up off the floor? Dimly she heard Roland shouting, in a pained way, to leave her alone.
The bath water was warm, but her body was growing cold. It was interesting to see how plumes of red bloomed through the clear liquid. Interesting wasn’t the right word, beautiful. Like everything beautiful Isadora created it wouldn’t last. Someone would come along and drag her lifeless shell from the bath, let the water and blood drain away. It did not matter. Neither did the pain of her gouged wrists. Truth be told she couldn’t even feel the deep lacerations anymore, just a sense of pressure as water lapped inside the wounds. She was already sure she could not move her legs. Her face formed a maudlin smile. She’d be with her daughter soon.
“Isadora! Stay with me, sweet Jesus, Isadora.” Roland called out on that terrible night as he tried to pull her from the blood soaked tub. His warm arms almost dragged her from the abyss of sweet oblivion. “Please don’t leave me…”
“Ms. Sage! Stay with me, Sweet Jesus. Sage!” Roland called out after smashing all the other’s trying to restrain her away. He was sure a few of his ribs were cracked if not worse but it didn’t matter. It was hard to hold onto the artificial woman as she sagged like a lifeless doll. Too much of her chassis was metal after all. The gears in his hand whined as fingers clutched fast. “Please don’t leave me.”
“Crikey! What’s that noise?” One of the castle guards cried as he covered his ears.
The vibration of Ms. Sage’s coiled copper and crystal heart had become so violent that it emitted a keening that drove right through the ear drum. Several of the men who had rushed into the room were having a difficult time keeping their balance. Roland felt like he needed to vomit and was worried that he might go deaf. That didn’t matter; he wasn’t going to let Sage go. She was a dead weight in his arms, for a second time. His British cool started to dull.
“Damnit, I’m not going to lose you again! Do you hear me?” He shook the woman hard. His placid demeanor broke entirely, but his soft pleading words that were to come were drowned out by the mystical howls the stone now produced.
The other men stumbled away; one was pulled from the door way by Nigel. The old butler frowned with a slight wince. As usual the young master was now playing for not listening to his advice. The butler raised a hand to shield his eyes and took a step forward. The air in the room had grown hot and smoky, though there wasn’t any actual haze to breathe in. This did not bode well. Even though Nigel could barely see as he squinted he noted Roland whisper very close to Ms. Sage’s ear, tears turning to steam on his cheeks.
After a moment, which stretched on for what seemed an eternity, Ms. Sage lightly curled one hand around Roland’s mechanical one. Her throat worked hard to push out words that only he could hear, and only then barely. The windows were rattling now. “Let me go.”
“Never.” The cog-smith grit his teeth and fixed a fierce glare into her lifeless eyes. “Never.”
“Seven hells, Roland. Unplug her before her stone cracks!” Nigel wanted to cuff his better off of the back of his head. The gynoid was about to hit critical mass, if she was not already past the point of no return. The old man felt the tingle of fear and horror for the first time in years. He reached out and set a hand on Roland’s shoulder, squeezed hard. “Do it man!”
For a tick the nobleman was caught in Ms. Sage’s eyes, they were so like Isadora’s. For good reason of course as they’d been cultured from her corpse. He swore that he saw life brimming behind them, threatening to push its way through. His shoulder ached, his ears were starting to bleed, but what did that matter compared to his heart? He realized of course that the room was starting to glow and they were in danger of combusting, all of them. After forcing himself to look away he slipped his false hand from Ms. Sage’s. She was not his wife but an imitation there off that should never be tortured with such memories. The metal of his fingers started to glow and then smolder as he forced them into the delicate cage set in the woman’s breast. In turn Ms. Sage gave him such a pleading look, but was it too unplug or to let her remember everything.
Either way he knew what to hold between two fingers on instinct, what connection to pluck and how to twist it. He and Isadora, among others, had helped design the first of the Thistle Sisters. With a heavy heart Roland did what he had to, as he always had and always would. The keening stopped, the light dissipated, and Ms. Sage fell limp. Her heart stopped glowing all together as all but essential systems to keep the brain and spine alive went off-line.
“It is done.” Roland whispered and brushed the back of a sleeve against his eyes. He carefully set the machine that looked like his dead wife down.
“You did the right thing.” The pressure of Nigel’s hand lessened but he didn’t let go quite yet. He could only shake his head as Roland shook his. Clearly his charge was not so sure of that. It was up to the butler, as always, to set things straight. “I shall summon the Widow.”
Roland’s breath was deathly quiet. “No. I shall do it myself.”
“I said I’ll do it myself.” The aristocrat hissed and would clearly pull rank if pressed.
Nigel bowed as he drew back a step and motioned the soldiers out of the room. “I will see the workshop prepped, sir.”
A sword could be hung on a rack. A pen set against inkwell to rest. A journal closed and tucked in a drawer. Printing presses were still once the lights were turned off. Factory belts lifeless when human workers went home. Tools, weapons or any machine for that matter were supposed to be set on a shelf at the end of the day when humanity had no more use for them. One might imagine that they could dream, but things of steel and wood had no soul. Thus they were bereft of such ability.
This was one of the main things Ms. Thyme often found herself privately wondering, coming back too again and again as the sun set. She was a machine, wasn’t she? Why did she linger on hour after hour? She could not sleep, nor could she dream. Like all the other Thistle Sisters Ms. Thyme was awake and ready twenty four hours a day, seven days a week, fifty two weeks a year. Like a plow they did not understand fatigue. Like a sword they did not fathom pain. And yet, she could think and wonder. The idea that she could wonder was what consumed her at that moment. Weapons could not ponder – yet she could. Humans could sleep and dream – yet she could not.
A subtle frown caressed through her lips but was quickly gone. She took in and let out a long cleansing breath. It did little to quiet her mind. Her gaze drifted along the shoreline spread out before her as she stood atop a sea wall. They had been recently repaired with a few extra bunkers added for the next time the fomorians came. There would be a next time, of that there was no doubt. She wrapped her arms around her waist for a moment, before snorting and letting go. While her onyx-black tresses were drifting in the breeze, the last rays of sunlight played across her creamy skin and she was dressed in dark tones Ms. Thyme was hardly the heroine of a terrible Gothic novel. It was time she stopped acting like one, well thinking like one. She was hardly going to try and dash herself on the shore. The last of the beach combers were setting up bonfires. Why anyone would be so unwise to stay in the beach and draw attention to themselves was beyond her. However, the military had yet to clamp down on such foolish activities. They claimed it would hurt civilian morale too much. Better hurt morale than torn bodies, she’d wager. Such was not for her to decide.
As the fiery ball’s light was finally gone past the inland horizon the baleful crimson of Balor’s Eye slithered at the bottom of the dark sky. Her brows knitted. If only there was a way to knock the moon out of place, perhaps that would drive the Vain and their slaves back from wherever they had come. Such was a whimsical thought. It would only leave them stranded and the war would go on. The War would always go on. She sighed and tried to chase such maudlin ideas away, going so far as to knuckle at one eye in an imitation of weariness. There were cat calls from passing soldiers at that moment, but she ignored them. As was the lot of most men they continued on, after a few choice words. One even called her a cold fish.
She as just a machine, not a woman.
However, she’d never felt alone until right now. The swordswoman turned on a heel and looked back over the city as street lamps flickered to hazy life. There was a smattering of windows that were illuminated as well. Soon enough the bars that catered to hedonists would be open as those that worked with tourists closed. The doughboys were always somewhere in between. Her sisters were spread across Scarborough pretending to be people. No doubt Ms. Parsley and Captain Redgrave were creating all manners of scandal. Ms. Rosemary had gone to church, as if a soulless thing could find absolution. The taciturn woman convinced Ms. Sage to confront Mr. Thistle about the issues she had been having. With any luck that had went well.
There was a twinge just then in the middle of her chest. It felt as if invisible fingers were pulling at the bit of crystal that kept her going. One dainty hand was settled over the top of it, modest blouse covering her cleavage of course. Ms. Thyme’s expression soured and toward the castle she looked. Then there as was Harp… err… Mr. Carson. She knew that she did not harbor any sort of romantic notions toward the coachman. Even thinking of such a thing didn’t feel silly, but instead loathsome and improper.
Nevertheless she was jealous, and did not fancy the feeling. After departing from the tactician’s side Ms. Thyme had wandered down to the beach. It wasn’t until she was about to cross the wall of thick stone and steel struts that it dawned on her that she was trying to find Harp and Lady Thorne. Such behavior was unacceptable. She was not Rebecca’s chaperone, nor did she have any hold on Mr. Carson. So at the wall she had paused to watch the sun set and the bane of humanity rise. Now, now she would have to find something else to do; both to pass the time and put this jealousy out of her mind. She was drawn back to the beach as the horn of a merchant ship echoed in the night.
For a moment she could see Harp as clear as day, along with another man near his size but the features were hard to make out. They were waving to her on a gangplank? Her verdant eyes beat hard several times to push the fugue away. She was not going to become infected by whatever malfunction was bothering her somber sister either. Perhaps she did not have dreams; instead she was tortured by fragmented memories. Ms. Thyme sighed before leaping down to the street level.
After smoothing down her skirts the artificial lady decided to head for the slums. She still had an abuser of prostitutes to find after all. With any luck tonight would be the night and there would be one less terror in the world. Her breast was pushed again by intangible weight and she cast a worried look back at the seawall first. Then her gaze sliced along to the castle. It felt as if the lump of rock that kept her going was vibrating? After a moment the feeling passed again. She paid it no more mind. As soon as the Widow recovered from her melancholy Ms. Thyme was going to press for an intense bout of maintenance. This… deteriorating condition was unacceptable. Besides all of them had been instructed to share any such episodes as soon as possible. Why had it taken the four of them so many years to show such symptoms? What had changed?
“You are thinking too much.” She whispered and furrowed sculpted brows. Was it possible that Mr. Carson knew the woman that she used to be, this Kitty he had called her? That did not make any sense. Mr. Thistle would never expose her to such a danger of corruption. Still… She fought down the glimmer of memory once more.
Without thinking the dainty slayer turned a heel and headed back for the beach. Such was not her exact destination but rather she was going to seek out the naval office near the piers. Perhaps it was best to find out exactly who Harper Carson was. After a few steps she stopped and huffed hard. Things would be better if she let this alone. It was best not to recall what should be forgotten. Whoever this ‘Kitty Carson’ might be, it did not matter. She was long dead.
So Ms. Thyme stood there, caught in a moment of indecision and unbecoming turmoil. Yes, it would be better to be set on a shelf or rack at the end of each work day. There was no pleasure in being caught between tool and person.
As night settled Becca Thorne wasn’t sure if she regretting kissing Harper or craved his mouth all the more. The romantic moment had been tripped up by the fact that Ms. Thyme was molded to look like the stalwart fellow’s dead sister. She had heard her father hint at the fact that the Thistle Sisters were once human. Every time she tried to follow up on such an idea he would clam up, as was the case with just about everything else. In truth the little rich girl had never given it much further thought until tonight. She did not offer to her…whatever Harper was now… that the gynoids had been actually women by her suspicions. He seemed to know that truth anyway, but danced around the subject. Just how much had he learned since joining the Order of Thistle?
“I’m sorry.” Harper rumbled and curled his meaty hand over her small one. The renewed contact chased away her worry. He led her across the cooling sand. Now that the day was gone and Balor’s Eyes was rising the beach was emptying out. Above them the airship kicked on its galvanic lights while speckles of similar devices appeared among the ships on water.
She found herself watching his face instead, and was watched in return. Scarlet splashed across her cheeks. “It is I that should apologize, Harper. I have dredged up unclosed wounds as well as lured you into some terrible scandal.”
“I don’t mind scandal.” His laugh further dashed her fears. Of course the big lug winced as it made his side and nose ache. One of his eyes twitched and he gingerly touched the bridge of his nose. The sooner it healed the better. “I’m a sailor, you know.”
“Were a sailor.” She tutted and turned into him again. The gravity of his masculine bulk was too difficult to resist. She wagged a finger at him in a playful way. “You my good sir, are a coachman now.”
“And coachmen don’t cause scandal?” The retort Harper offered was easy. He stopped moving as not to bump into the elegant woman before him. The grin on his mouth lingered. Part of him knew he shouldn’t be standing here flirting with a woman of her class. The rest of him didn’t care. Harold had yet to come and rip her away. Perhaps the old chaperone was just glad to have the hellcat out of his hair for an evening.
Becca’s expression waxed sly. She brushed fingers through her strawberry blonde hair and sighed as a few tendrils teased the back of her neck. It was all she could do not to press against him. “I suppose that is true. I have heard my peers whisper and giggle of such things. However, we are nowhere near a carriage house, or stable.”
Now poor Harper wasn’t sure exactly how to respond to that. He didn’t want to assume she was implying something that was a real step into scandal. So he didn’t comment on it but rather cleared his throat. When he did so a pretty pout pressed out her lower lip. “You’re right about that. I can’t think of anywhere else I’d rather be than spending time with you though, Becca.”
Her petulant expression evaporated and she poked him in the sternum. “A very fine answer, Mr. Carson. A very fine answer indeed. It is drawing late, but I must confess I have no desire to return home as of yet.”
As she looked up at him through her thick eyelashes Harper only suspected she was hinting at a need for, well… it was clear that she was a woman of passion. He was going to leave it at that. The large man shifted his stance slightly. “Then we should catch ourselves a bit of dinner.”
For a moment she just eyed him with those big blue orbs of hers. Could he really be that dense? Or maybe he was just addled by hunger. Becca walked the tips of her fingers down the front of his chest and then nodded. “Are you going to go pull it out of the rippling tided for me?”
Her amusement was infectious. Harper shrugged and pointed back toward the Piers. “I figured I’d take you to a place that has fine fish and chips instead. Shall we?”
“And then after that?” Becca only nodded in approval of the plan before starting in that direction. Her voice was breathy, so much so it would make any man listening a bit light headed. There was only she wanted to affect, however. “What shall we spend the evening doing?”
“Well I am going to have to see you home at some point.” He said a bit too quickly.
“You really do not have to. “ Becca rolled her eyes and tried not to be put out. “If Harold was going to drag me home he would have done so by now. I have a feeling you are too chivalrous for your own good, Harper.”
“You might be right there.” It was an easy admission to make. He gave her small hand a tender squeeze, though, before lifting it to his lips. He lapsed quiet to choose his next words carefully. Having travelled to many a port over the years he’d seen his fellows easily sink a budding relationship with a few misplaced phrases. Hell, he’d done it a few times himself. “I just want to spend time with you, get to know you. There’s no better way to do that than over the meal.”
“Yes there is.” The colonel’s daughter said, at risk of sounding like a harlot. She swallowed and glance to the stars, only to have her eyes drawn to the shattered moon. It was hard to look at anything else. Her tongue pressed at her lips. “I suppose that you are right. Besides, I must admit I am feeling a tad peckish. I take it that you know a place where the chips are greasy and the filets flake into your mouth, melting against your tongue.”
“That I do, that I do. If it’s not up to your standards though, then I’ll find something else to sooth your tongue. Do we have a deal?” He tried to deliver the line as smooth as he was able but he was no Basil. He tried to imagine how the half-scot would say it. It was pretty close, he thought.
It had to be successful because Becca fanned herself with her other hand. Her lips pressed together into a sated sort of smile. “You do realize I shall complain about the fare just to hold you to your half of that bargain, no?”
Sanguine light spilled fully across Scarborough as Balor’s Eyes plodded toward its nightly zenith. Perhaps the alien satellite had cast its terrible gaze to the ocean-side city, or it could be looking somewhere else. The world was in turmoil after all. The French trenches were threatening to fold thanks to dissention within. The most ancient centers of Greece were still burning that night. Istanbul was still under siege. New York tensely watched the night sky waiting for a fresh wave of fomorian airships. Hong Kong fought against raiders that appeared within the heart of the colony. Cork was a hot bed of cloak and dagger as several different sides tried to steal secrets from one another.
The world was at war, and war never slept.