by shukyou (主教)
Throughout the entire trip — from the hired cab to the docks, on the ferry across the Channel, through all three days’ worth of train travel across what seemed like half the world, to the last ascent by horse-drawn carriage up into the verdant peaks of the Meček Mountains, right up to the great wrought iron doors of the ancient stone castle — Halston Barwick’s one constant companion had been the slightly dumbfounded thought: How on earth did I get myself into this?
Regrettably, he mused, as the coachman pulled open the carriage’s wooden door and extended a white-gloved hand to usher his passenger out into the evening air, that thought was no new acquaintance; rather, it was an old friend, as familiar to him now as the tools of his chosen diversion, and wherever it came to call, Prince Rezső was sure to follow close on its heels.
However, Barwick was in no mind to let this uncertainty show even a whit on his face, and as such he gripped the coachman’s proffered hand, emerging with what he felt was sufficient dignity from the ornate coach that had ferried him from the train station. It was an affectation, that he was certain, because even the fifth son of the king’s second favourite wife had a great deal of financial capital at his disposal, and every other socially conscious noble in Europe had spent the past four years bound and determined to pile his last cent at the feet of the motorcar manufacturers, aching for the newest contraption. But Rezső had often — and often at great volume, to say nothing of in mixed company — proclaimed that his freedom hinged on a certain degree of invisibility, and besides, may God Himself rot the bollocks off any man who suggest he, Rezső, leave the warm bed of his devoted wife Science to have the cold mistress Fashion in the public square.
My friends and close Associates, their Testimonials some will only suspect stem from their sincere Devotion to me, the letter read, in Prince Rezső’s consummately correct (if occasionally cumbersome) English, but a word of proof from my greatest Rival? a single stroke of the pen attesting to his Belief? Such would surely convince the Scientific Press of the veracity of my Achievement! The letter lay folded in Barwick’s jacket pocket, and as he thrust his hands into them against the mountains’ chill, he could feel the detail of its waxen seal through the lambskin of his gloves. It seemed absurd that he’d first laid eyes on it in the den of his London home barely five days ago, and now he stood, at the door to the castle, as though he were one of the prince’s vassals, to be ordered about at His Royal Whim! The nerve of the man, though Barwick, who though technically a lord himself had never had much use for the trappings of nobility. The utter nerve!
Then the door opened wide, and a plump, squat matron with furious dark eyes glared at him. He gave her a short bow, and though surely he owed no such gesture to one of her status, the concession to the brotherhood of all men, no matter their rank, pleased him. “Ah, hello,” he said, then remembered that he was in a foreign land, and that he should try, as the saying went, to do as the Romans did. Though he spoke no Magyar, his studies of the area had told him that German was often an acceptable substitute. “Guten Tag, Frau — Fräulein — ich, ah, ich komme aus London, und ich will der … der … ah, to see the prince, kennen Sie das?”
She looked at him as though he’d just gravely insulted her dear, departed mother — which, for what little he knew of the wretched language, he had. “You must be Mister Bear-wick,” she said with only a slight accent, pronouncing the customarily silent w in his name. Inwardly, he cursed Rezső for ostensibly having taught his staff the mispronunciation of his surname, which Barwick seemed to correct Rezső about every time they met, and which Rezső seemed never to remember between one meeting and the next. “You are expected.” She stepped back from the door to allow him in.
He shed his hat and coat nearly as soon as he entered the door, and was surprised to find a pair of hands there waiting for him — and little more than hands, just metal sticks with five white-gloved fingers that extended skeletally from the wall by the entryway. He was even more surprised to find that no sooner had the items left his hands than they were ferried by the same minimalist butler away into a nearby door, to a symphony of unseen whirling gears. Even Barwick had to admit, it was an impressive effect.
“I have a message from His Royal Highness,” the matron said, folding her arms across her ample bosom. She might have been a pretty woman had she taken occasion to smile more in her youth, but time had etched years upon years of scowling into her face, putting Barwick to mind of a rather handsome bulldog he’d one owned. “He is away from the castle and is not expected to return until the morning.”
Barwick could not keep a look of shock and vague indignation from rising to his face. “He’s not here? I’m so expected, he decides to off and run an errand just before I arrive?”
The matron looked utterly unmoved by Barwick’s protests of ill manners, and instead began to walk down a long hallway lined with rich tapestries, indicating that he should follow her. “Your things will be carried to your suite of rooms, which is prepared, and you may go there if you wish. I am also to offer you a meal, and then, if you refuse, I am to take you to the room where the matter of your visit is kept.”
All the irritation that had welled up inside him at the news of Rezső’s absence vanished at the news, as he’d not relished waiting the night until Rezső could give him the grand tour. He’d inwardly suspected it was all a fraud, of course, a ruse to stir Barwick from his comfortable London laboratories and workshops for the sake of laughing at him when the promised marvel turned out to be a coffee-warmer, or a hat-carrier, or any number of other petty mechanical wonders. Never in his wildest dreams had he imagined he might be allowed the good fortune of examining the creation alone! Not merely chaperoned, but permitted unfettered access! His mind reeled at the thought, spinning him nearly giddy with delight.
However, he was a proper Englishman, and he hadn’t made it all the way to his forty-seventh winter without learning the art of decorum in the face of bliss. “Thank you, but I’m not hungry,” he lied, as he’d barely had more than biscuits and tea all day, and that had been almost ten hours previous. “I’ll see it now, then, if that’s all right.”
“Of course.” The matron, who seemed to have anticipated this answer from her employer’s guest, turned down another short hallway and stopped at the end. She reached between the folds of her bosom to produce a ring of small keys on a chain, and slipped open three silver locks in quick succession. “It is inside,” she said, turning the knob and stepping back. “I have not been given instructions to enter with you, or to stay and wait for you, and I will do neither. When you are finished, you may ask any of the household servants to direct you to your rooms, and they will do so.”
“Thank you,” Barwick nodded to her, barely hearing the instructions. Behind the door was a heavy curtain made of deepest red velvet, and he lifted a pale hand to push it aside, permitting him entrance deeper into the room.
It was not an enormous space, though neither was it small, perhaps the twice same area of Barwick’s own bedroom at home, though certainly not the same volume; the ceiling was high, and both it and the walls were curtained over every inch with the same vermilion cloth, giving the whole space a theatrical feel. Below his feet the floor was wrought of what appeared to be a single piece of white marble, with only the faintest hints of gold veining across its highly polished surface. Even his steps on the hard floor were muffled by the proliferation of draperies. Four steady lanterns, one in each corner, provided flickering yet bright illumination. Though the place gave off a sterile air that spoke of an accompanying chill, Barwick was not cold, and indeed, the room was warm as though lit by some unseen brazier, though there was neither the sound nor the smell of burning coals to the room at all.
All these things were secondary, however, to the object in the center of the room. There was a chair there, ornate and gilt like a king’s throne, joined at the back by a large box, a perfect iron cube, each side the length of half a man’s height. From the box came a low mechanical hum, playing a tune familiar to Barwick’s ears: the sound of a wind-up box, waiting for its cue to run. And on the chair, with its arms stretched regally along the armrests, was the Automated Man.
He has a Mind of metal! exclaimed Rezső’s letter in hurried script, and yet a Mind it is indeed, for he has Will such as the God of the Hebrews breathed into the mouth of Adam! He is a being capable of Reason, and knows the taste of the Tree of Good and Evil as well as any child brought forth from between the bloodied thighs of Eve’s Daughters! A fraud, of course, that much at least was certain; Barwick knew perhaps knew better than any other man of reason how absurd such assertions were, and how many before had spun such baseless fables. And yet, he could not help staring in wonder at the possibility that here, before him, might be the end truth to all those claims.
It was beautiful, this creation who sat before him, immobile and glorious. Its skin was gilt the same as the chair on which it sat, yet for this curious shade, Barwick might have thought it a living being. Its golden features were androgynous in perfection, yet perfectly male in execution; its face was so fair that had it come across its own reflection, surely it, like Narcissus, would have wasted away for longing for itself. Its eyes were set with lapis, and they stared unblinking ahead, not exactly looking at Barwick, but neither looking exactly away. It was dressed like a Musselman, its head knotted with a deep emerald scarf whose fringed ends trailed down its sculpted neck and shoulders. A high-collared tunic of royal purple covered its chest and arms, covered with fine gilt embroidery in intricate geometric patterns; beneath it, a pair of loose white pants covered its legs, stopping at its ankles and leaving its feet bare.
As Barwick stepped closer, he felt as though he himself were growing smaller — yet realized upon approach that the Automated Man was of a curious size, its long arms and legs slightly out of proportion to the rest of its body. It sat stiffly in the chair, somewhere between stately and statuary. Its hands, which lay at rest atop crystal globes at the ends of the chair, were intricately jointed, and Barwick could see the incredible amount of work that had gone into them; whichever goldsmith had fashioned them had taken great care to detail fingernails and creases in the skin, as though it were indeed simply a living human painted of gold.
But it was no human, that much was plain to any eyes. Its face, though beautiful, was marred with tragic lines — the corners of its full mouth stretched back too far, a smile grown grotesquely wide, and just before the crease disappeared beneath the green fabric, Barwick could see the articulation of the joint that presumably would allow the creation’s mouth to move. Its lovely eyes, though deepest blue and shot through (like everything else, Barwick reflected) with golden threads, were fixed steadily open.
He nearly cried out with shock as the Man began to move, a gesture accompanied by a great clockwork grind; he stepped back, surprised, and beheld the golden man’s outstretched hand, in which was clasped another letter. With a hand that trembled more than he cared to admit, Barwick snatched the page from the Man’s hand.
Behold, I am the New Adam! read the decorative script, which looked tellingly similar to every letter Barwick had received from Rezső before. I have no tongue, yet I have ears; I have no voice, yet I have eyes; I am bound to the chair, yet I am free inside my Mind. My clockwork Heart beats within my chest. Examine me as you will — only then sit, sir, and allow me the same Courtesy.
The Automated Man’s hand remained outstretched, and as Barwick took it, the gold fingers bent gently around his. The metal skin was chill to the touch, colder even than death, but Barwick did not flinch; he knew well the caresses of metal. His own creations, which spanned every inch of his London shop, were delicate feats of engineering which he consented few others to touch, and he loved their gears, their pistons, their machines simple and complex that fueled their movements. Yet his own imaginings brought forth works of alien design, seemingly monstrous and never anthropomorphic; on the few occasions he had tried to fashion any mechanism in the form of a living being, he had ended up throwing the pieces away, horrified at the dissonance of how real and yet how unreal they always seemed.
How strange, then, to see before him a being who held these contradictions in glorious tension: the artificial glint of its delicately lined skin, the earnest expression of its fixed face. Did it really have eyes, as the note had said, that were capable of watching him at this moment? Could it possibly hear him if he spoke to it? And had Rezső been civilized enough to teach it English?
“Ah … hello?” he said, at a volume low enough that were he indeed being watched from a hidden location, he would not look any more of a fool than he already had made himself seem — and nearly jumped when he saw it incline its face toward him, its painted eyes nonetheless seeming to track his movement. “He said … well, the note said you were…. I’m going to examine you, is that all right with you?”
Carefully, its head nodded up and down twice, not a complicated gesture, but definitely sufficient to an answer. “Very well, then.” Barwick swallowed a nervous dry lump down his throat — perhaps it was programmed to respond thus to any sound, and not only to reasoned inquiries — and began to round the structure. The chair itself appeared simple enough, and felt wooden to the touch, but Barwick had no doubt the beams were at their core hollow and run through with mechanical parts unseen to the observer. Same with the box behind the chair, which appeared to have neither door nor hatch, and which yielded no seams to Barwick, though he ran his bare fingertips across its steel surface. He felt little enough surprise at either, though, for even though the Automated Man was larger than most living men, the clockwork to animate such a figure, much less to give it sense (to believe Rezső’s claim, and Barwick still wasn’t entirely sure he did), must fill a volume more massive than could be held in the space beneath its skin.
In fact, Barwick was surprised at how little space there seemed to be for its component workings, how a mechanism that must be so complex had come together in the space of a body not like the race of Titans so much as like the race of Men. He put his ear flat against the box behind the chair, and could hear inside the complex turnings of a thousand gears, perhaps a thousand thousand, all grinding quietly beneath their metal shell. “An Automated Man,” wondered Barwick aloud, no longer particularly caring if he might be overheard. “What kind of man must you be, then, to need such a mighty heart?”
As he came around to the front again, the Automated Man’s head turned and followed his every movement, the hinges in his neck giving a slight creak as it did so. Its hands had returned to their places atop the crystal balls, adopting again its regal perch. “You cannot speak, then?” he asked, and its head gave a slow, deliberate shake of no, disproving the theory that it might simply be inclined to nod at all sound. “Do you know who I am?” It nodded, raising one hand and extending it toward Barwick, who took it and stroked his thumb across the inhumanly smooth surface of the back of its knuckles. “…Are you real?” he dared ask at last, his question little louder than a whisper.
Instead of responding, it tightened its grip on Barwick’s hand and drew him close, bringing his hand to its face. With no small trepidation, he placed his hands on either side of its face, and it turned as though into the touch, lifting its head to face him. Barwick’s hands trailed downward past the line of its jaw, to the hinge that kept its head in place, where he could see traces of the delicate work that was so Rezső’s style. At the tender age of eight, Rezső had burst into the scientific community’s collective awareness, dubbed a ‘mechanical genius’ and ‘prodigy of engineering’ by several of the major newspapers in Europe, his child’s stature inclining him naturally to work at the smallest scale possible; fifteen years later, his enthusiasm for the miniature had not waned, but waxed, and whenever his mechanical feats were mentioned in conversation, they were always in the same breath as open wonderment as to how small they were, how delicate. Making a clockwork being capable of human reason was of course impossible — but if anyone could do it, Barwick had no doubt that person would be Rezső.
The Automated Man brought its hands up to wrap around Barwick’s wrists, not tightly, but enough to press his hands lower, down the fine material of its tunic. It was a thin silk, and the metallic hardness of its chest could be felt easily enough beneath — and, Barwick was astonished to find, its skin beneath had all the contours of a robust man’s chest, with gentle musculature its topography. He felt the curves of its hips and thighs, and how like unto a real man it seemed in shape, if not in texture. All the while, the Automated Man’s hands lingered atop his own, guiding his explorations, making sure there was no delicate joint of his limbs that Barwick might miss.
And then, as Barwick reached its knees and began to stand, it twined its fingers with Barwick’s and brought him closer, closer, until Barwick remembered the letter’s final entreaty: Examine me as you will — only then sit, sir, and allow me the same Courtesy. “But there’s nowhere for me to sit,” said Barwick aloud, even as he saw how large the seat of the room’s sole chair was, and how sturdy the Automated Man’s legs were, and how there would be room enough for him to seat himself in the same spot as it sat. As much as it could — Barwick could see that from its mid-back downward, it was affixed most firmly to the chair, leaving only a small range of forward motion available to it — it reached for him and pulled him into its lap, much in the way a grandfather might draw close to him a grandson who had mistakenly thought himself too old for such affections. For his own part, Barwick fronted no resistance, only allowed himself to be shepherded, wide-eyed, into its metal embrace.
It placed a hand flat against his chest, pushing aside his tie, and Barwick allowed his hand to return to its beautiful face. “You’re real,” he wondered aloud, tracing the pad of his thumb over the joint that formed its wide mouth. “By God, you’re real.”
The Automated Man nodded, turning its face so his mouth brushed Barwick’s palm in a way that could have been no gesture save a kiss. Barwick, for his own part, was beyond smitten, so dumbstruck with the creature before him that he, too, could barely speak. With a sigh, he settled more deeply into the chair, pressing his body as much as he could to the clockwork marvel beside him, wishing for all proximity to its mechanical heart; he brought his head to rest against its shoulder, right above where a human heart would be, and closed his eyes to hear the improbably metallic sounds of life beneath.
So taken he was with the sensation of simply existing this close to such a wonderful creation that he did not notice for several seconds that its hand had begun to trail lower down the front of Barwick’s chest, down past his belly and to the front of his trousers, where it found him flushed and full with a hardness he had not known had come upon him until he felt its gilt fingers trace its shape. He gasped, and buried his face in the fabric of its tunic. “What are you–?” he began to ask, but the question seemed somewhat ridiculous upon reflection, and his body had risen even further to a sensation it knew well (though, Barwick thought, regrettably not well enough of late). Did this qualify as affording it ‘the same Courtesy’ as Barwick had taken with his earlier examinations? What could the Automated Man learn from the contours of his own human skin?
He sighed and let his thighs fall senselessly apart, and its hand slipped between his legs, its touch clumsy and delicate all at once, erring obviously on the side of caution lest the living being in its care suffer unintentional damage. It seemed nearly hesitant in its explorations, a shy creature, a gentle giant in whose virgin arms he now rested. It bent its face to rest its mouth against Barwick’s brow, and he did not so much feel its lips part into the given kiss as heard the mechanical muscles of its jaw creak. With no small uncertainty, Barwick lifted his own chin upward, and their mouths met, the soft flesh of Barwick’s lips pressed against unyielding metal. Momentarily, Barwick let his tongue flicker out from between his lips, and tasted the iron of its skin, savoring the sharpness which could not be found on any human mouth.
Down at the juncture of his legs, it continued to stroke him through the fabric of his pants, slowly, as though with no particular destination to its movements. Its fingers trailed away for a moment, stroking the interior of Barwick’s thighs, but returned presently to the rise of his prick, which had now begun to strain at his trousers and underclothes. Barwick, for his own part, could barely recall the last time he’d been touched like this — certainly not regularly since his days at Oxford, and even then he and his fellows had trysted only with greatest care, fearful of the ever-watchful eyes of the college masters. Beyond that, the life of a Man of Science was by definition a solitary one, and he had found little time since for human companionship; he could have counted on a single hand the number of sexual partners with whom he’d shared time post-graduation. His body, however, seemed to have kept a careful ledger of just how long it had been kept waiting, and now he rose to every little touch, feeling the sensations in his prick travel to the tips of his fingers and toes though he were a mechanical being himself, joined at his tenderest parts to a current that conducted through his copper bones.
After a moment, its hand stilled, then reached for the waistband of Barwick’s trousers, hooking two fingertips beneath and stopping. Of course, though Barwick, it needed his help with the fastenings; after all, such work was delicate, and it had the use of only one arm, its other’s being currently stretched across Barwick’s back, keeping him from toppling over. With fleshly hands that trembled imperfectly, Barwick unbuttoned his pants and loosed his prick, which stood straight up away from his body, nestled at its root in a tangle of once-dark curls that had begun to be shot through with threads of silver. How fitting, he thought, as its gold fingers traced his length, setting his body electric with its smooth chill.
Then the Automated Man stilled again, and reached clumsily for Barwick’s hand, which he had left curled loosely against his thigh. With exacting delicateness, it brought Barwick’s fingers to its own lap, pushing aside the hem of its tunic to reveal — to Barwick’s lasting surprise — a fleshly prick of its own, dusky and fully excited, rising up from the smooth, bare planes of gold around it. How real it seemed, Barwick thought, wrapping his fingers around its impressive girth, feeling as it turned upward beneath his touch; how lifelike! Its ‘flesh’ felt like fine lambskin, and beneath an unseen iron rod provided support; what a clever simulation! what effort must have gone into crafting such a marvelous appendage!
And then its golden hands were back around Barwick’s prick, and Barwick gasped, letting his head fall to its shoulder again. Aroused and overwhelmed by the wonder and sensation of it all, Barwick let his fingers explore the member beneath them, stroking it almost absently, feeling its amazing warmth in contrast to the chill of its mechanical body. Though he shuddered to admit it, Rezső had perhaps by adding this very appendage created the true man where so many before him had failed; man was not only a creature of critical thought, but of appetites, of needs and desires, and what man among the great ranks of humanity had not found his actions guided not by Sweet Reason, but by his nether regions? So many others had tried to fashion man’s mind from man’s machines — begging the works of their hands to sort books, to pen words, to play chess — but who among them had possessed wisdom enough to embody in his creations desire?
Indeed, Barwick felt that desire reflected within himself as its hand stroked him to fullness, and he again turned his face to meet its slightly parted mouth, pressing their lips together with fierce intent. Every gasp and groan that slipped from him seemed amplified in counterpoint to the steady, quiet hum of the Automated Man’s artificial body. They seemed suspended there together, two bodies combined in a single perpetual motion machine, designed and constructed for this single shared purpose.
Its touch was somewhat clumsy and certainly inexpert, though Barwick supposed that by comparison, he was a venerable master of the sexual trade. As its fingers slipped up and down his prick with a grip nearly — but certainly not entirely — too tight, he could feel the joints in its fingers skim across his blood-flushed skin. It was beautiful, such a perfect creation, a pure child of Science unpolluted by man’s uncertainties. It was as a babe, that knew of no sin that lay in its desires, and as he stroked its own beautiful prick, Barwick felt none of the same in his own. Its clockwork heart had redeemed the act and made it beautiful, and what man could look into its beautiful lapis eyes and claim otherwise?
He could keep no accounting of how long he had stayed like this, teetering on the brink of climax, held back at the end only by the desire to last in this moment forever. But Newton’s inviolable laws proved that perpetual motion machines were ultimately impossible, and likewise neither could Barwick hold himself there forever. With a cry that seemed to come from the depths of his soul, he came into its mechanical hand, watching with some distant amazement as the pearly drops of his semen collected against its gleaming metal skin.
Nearly before he had caught his breath again, proper British fairness had seized his conscience again, and he stroked with renewed intensity at its lambskin prick, unsure to what end he proceeded, but knowing that such reciprocity was only right. Now cooled from his own inflamed passion, Barwick began to notice that slick pre-ejaculate seeped from a slit in its head, in a most lifelike manner, and that when he stroked a certain part along the underside of its well-defined head, he could actually feel the hardened member jerk in his hand. Even as his own prick began to wilt against its gold fingers, its grew further turgid, and Barwick continued with his own forceful caresses, neither seeking nor receiving any indication from it that he should cease.
At last, after barely a minute’s more attention, the whole contraption gave a jerk, and its prick spilt forth warm ejaculate across his hand and trousers, staining the dark material with milky white threads. Startled, Barwick loosed his grip and frowned at the appendage in his hand, through which he could feel the thrumming of a pulse, and which had already begun to go slack in his hand in a way no iron bar could replicate. Surely Rezső was capable of nigh-fanatical attention to detail at times, but this…?
With a streak of spite he rarely set loose, he wrapped his hand around its slackening member and squeezed hard — and from inside the box behind the chair came a loud curse that was not in a language Barwick could speak, but that was likely in one of the dozen that Rezső did.
As though the entire carapace of the Automated Man had become electric, Barwick bolted from its grip, not finding his feet until he stood at least a man’s length away from the contraption, where he hastily refastened his trousers. From behind the chair, there came the sound of a latch’s being undone, and the compartments opened along previously invisible seams in the box’s edges. “I’m going to kill you,” Barwick said, in a tone of voice he thought admirably calm, considering the situation, as Rezső himself emerged from the box.
“Then my last act will have been entirely worth it,” Rezső shrugged, pulling himself to a sitting position and moving with no great haste to conceal again beneath his trousers a tool with which Barwick had become so recently familiar, still glistening at the tip. With a small hop, he lowered himself from the platform on which he’d lain.
The box now open, Barwick could see now how the contraption had worked, how Rezső had puppeted the creature through delicate systems of levers, how the legs of the Automated Man had been so large because Rezső had fit his own legs inside of them. “What kind of perverse joke is this?”
Rezső shrugged, stepping closer. He was even dressed as a puppeteer, all in black, with his wavy dark hair slicked back away from his head; a pencil-thin moustache settled like coal dust along the top of his upper lip, though it did little to disguise the youthfulness of his face. The mathematically inclined part of Barwick’s brain did a momentary, distracted calculation and informed him that in two weeks he would be precisely twice Rezső’s age. “My Automated Man,” he said, gesturing to the being in the chair, whose posture had slackened slightly, like a marionette left to hang on a hook. “Do you like him? He is rather fond of you.”
Barwick sputtered, still trying to grasp the full length and breadth of this farce. “For this, you brought me all the way from London?”
“And for this I shall send you back again, in due time,” Rezső smiled, folding his arms across his narrow chest. He had been a slender, small boy who had grown into a slender, small man, yet even in the shadow of Barwick’s Anglo-Saxon height, he bore himself with such regal confidence that Barwick quite nearly believed himself the more diminutive of the two. “But this Red Room is barely a foyer; you have not seen even the front door to my workshop, and in it there are many things I wish to show you.”
“Foul farces, like this?” Barwick cried, gesturing to the Automated Man again; even as he looked upon it with disgust and shame, he could not help feeling a twinge of sorrow that it had turned out to be such a sham. for it had been beautiful, and for a moment, he had truly loved what he believed it to be. “Or other gobs and knickknacks intended to shame your competition?”
Rezső held out his hands, palms-up and bare of the majestic signet rings he customarily wore. “Neither,” he said, and his expression took a serious edge, the look of a schoolboy dismayed when his clever prank is not so well-received as he might have hoped. “You alone, among all of Science’s men I know, you I trust not to steal greedily from me, but to work by my side. Rivalry has no place in this new century into which we have barely dipped our big toe, if we are to expand knowledge past the petty walls that divide us, if we are not all to repeat each other’s work behind closed doors, steeped in our own self-imposed solitude, blindly re-inventing the brick when together we could have built a city. To this end, I deeply value your insight.”
“From this, you have gained my insight?” roared Barwick, who could recognize the wisdom behind Rezső’s words even as his temper would not allow him to concede the injury.
With a wicked smirk, Rezső took a step closer, eyeing Barwick with undisguised desire. “Perhaps I value more than merely your insight.”
Humiliated and furious, Barwick spun on his heel and headed for the place where he’d recalled leaving the room’s door, though with all the heavy drapery, he could hardly be certain. “You are little more than a vulgar, spoiled, impudent child, and I shan’t be expected to–”
“Halston.” His given name, coloured by Rezső’s soft accent, stopped Barwick’s progress, and he halted just at the curtains, his hands gripped around a fold of the red fabric. He stood there, breathing heavily, not daring to look back even as he heard soft footfalls approach behind him. “You’re not in England anymore.” A small hand pressed itself against the center of his back, between Barwick’s shoulder blades.
For a moment, they stood fixed there together, Rezső’s hand poised against his body in the same way Barwick had felt for the clockwork heart in the now-empty creature at the center of the room. No, he was indeed no longer in England, far beyond the reaches of propriety and reputation, in the middle of the wilderness at the heart of a country where perhaps one man in ten thousand had ever heard his name, much less would know his face to see it on the street. He did not even fear that Rezső might spill the details of their encounter, for he could just as easily tell the tale of Rezső’s deception, and while buggery was not an uncommon vice among the intelligentsia, there were few sins more damaging to reputations in the scientific community than intellectual dishonesty.
But four and a half decades’ worth of ingrained British habits intervened, and he tore away from Rezső’s touch, tossing aside fistfuls of the draperies until the outline of a door was revealed on the other side. “I am grateful for your hospitality,” he said with a biting tongue, “but it shall not be necessary beyond tomorrow morning.” His hand sought out some apparatus by which the door might be opened, and he found a slim handle set in the metal frame, with released itself to him with barely a twist.
The house was unfamiliar to him, and nary a servant was to be found, but Barwick found his way alone back to the main staircase, and up a long hallway; there stood among the tapestries and statues a single opened door, through which was visible the pair of trunks he’d brought with him, and he entered in, slipping the latch behind him. At one corner of the room, a great fireplace blazed brightly, heating the room almost to summer temperatures. A tray sat upon the table at the foot of the bed, and Barwick removed its silver cover to reveal two cold mutton sandwiches and a crystal decanter of whiskey. Though he had not considered his growing hunger for some time, the apparition of food before him drove him nigh to a frenzy, and before he’d quite taken stock of the situation, he’d devoured both sandwiches and drained half the amber liquid.
At last, his stomach full and his blood no longer racing, Barwick took a deep breath and began slowly to disrobe. Somewhere in one of his trunks, one of his servants had surely packed pyjamas in the Indian style in which he might sleep, but he did not know into which or where therein, and deemed the entire search far too much effort in his current state. He disrobed to little more than his shorts and undershirt, casting the rest of his travel-rumpled and soiled clothes across the room’s only chair. Everything might be dealt with more clearly in the daylight.
Instead of climbing straightaway into bed, however, Halston Barwick stood in front of the room’s full-length standing mirror, taking stock of himself by firelight. He’d never considered himself a handsome man, and admirers were hardly breaking down the door to contradict him. His consolation on this front for over half his life had been his work, which by habit he conducted alone, relying on the promises of scientific advancement to compensate for what might have been considered shortcomings in other social avenues, and letting those who might gossip think his solitude a function of his chosen profession, not suspecting more sinister dealings. He’d been in London not eight years ago when they’d tried and sentenced poor Oscar, after all, and knew what came of such suspicions.
In time, he realized, he himself had become the Automated Man, a human face fitted with a clockwork heart. He ran smoothly and he performed as expected, and did nothing he had been constructed not to do. Perched in his own chair, he was little more than a curiosity to some and a mere fixture of the landscape to most others. And, at the end, would he too be revealed a hollow fraud?
With a sigh, he turned from the mirror toward the bed. He’d leave first thing the next morning, and be back in England by the week’s end, as though he’d never been away at all, back to his experiments and inventions and his obligations. Back to his title and his engagements. Back to his reputation. Back to his family’s good name. His socked feet shuffled across the floor, his movements mechanical with the motion of walking — one foot in front of the other, shift weight, repeat. Back to London. Back to himself. Back to his artificial life.
As he passed the door, inspiration both wonderful and terrible struck, and quicker than he could change his mind, he flipped the latch, leaving the door still shut but unlocked. In a world of infinite variables, it was all he could do to effect change, but perhaps it would be enough.
He slipped beneath the chilled bed-covers and drew them tight around himself, shivering as he willed his body heat to bring them to equilibrium. Settling his head atop one of the fine pillows, he turned on his side away from the door, as though it were the last thing on his mechanical mind. He lay there quietly, staring out the old castle room’s single thick glass window, watching the progression of the stars across the night sky, not asleep but only breathing, waiting in the silence for some new knob to turn.