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THE FALLING MACHINEThe SOCIETY OF STEAM BOOK ONE
By ANDREW P. MAYER
Prometheus BooksCopyright © 2011 Andrew P. Mayer
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWonders of the World
"Life is short, yet it is the nature of man to make it move faster all the time." Sir Dennis Darby punctuated his pronouncement with a firm smack of the silver tip of his cane against the concrete underneath his feet.
Sarah and Nathaniel stood nearby, looking up at the old man, quietly and respectfully waiting for him to continue, but before he could say another word his intended dramatic pause was broken by a long, throaty groan rising up from behind them.
Just below them, the Automaton had begun to slowly and methodically spin the massive wooden spool with his left hand. The wheel was five feet across, with a thick iron post running up through the center of it. Viscous black grease oozed up from where the pole made contact with a metal collar that held it in place, and the noise vanished.
"Tom," Darby said, addressing the mechanical man, "are you bored?"
The Automaton lowered his arm. "I can stop if you'd like ... Sir Dennis." His sentence sounded like a song, and each word was spoken as a single separate note—high and smooth—with just a hint of a rasp from the metal whistles and reeds that played together to create his voice.
"I just wanted to make sure you were paying attention," Darby continued. "It's far beyond even your impressive abilities to halt the march of progress." The old man smiled and looked down at his creation. It was a rare expression on his usually stern face. "No, my dear Tom, humanity will always strive to learn more, rise higher, and go faster. And one day people will look back to this year of eighteen hundred and eighty and imagine that we were a primitive and ignorant people, just as we do now to those who came before us." The widening grin pushed his sharp features and graying muttonchops out to the sides in a way that was slightly unsettling. "But that is the price of progress, as we forge ahead to make the lives of our descendants better than our own." Darby had been wearing a version of his current look of childlike wonder almost from the first moment the four of them had set foot onto the Brooklyn side of the bridge construction site.
They had all dressed up for the trip, as it was intended to be a formal outing. Both of the men wore full suits, with vests, jackets, and hats, as well as long overcoats to protect them against the winter cold. The Professor's greatcoat was made of sensible black wool, while young Nathaniel's was far fancier. His lapels and cuffs were trimmed with the same rich, black beaver fur that lined the jacket's interior. Ebony silk top hats rested snugly on their heads.
The two gentlemen were also of similar height and build—six feet tall and slim—but Nathaniel had the athletic demeanor of a young man, while Darby's frame was looser and slightly hunched, his age having drained away the vitality of youth.
The Automaton stood at five feet, six inches exactly. He was dressed in a similar fashion to the men, but with only a jacket wrapped around his long cylindrical frame. He had no need of an overcoat, despite a temperature that was only being held a notch above freezing by the light of the morning sun.
The mechanical man's face and neck were completely unbound by leather or cloth, showing a series of tubes and metal shafts that connected his head and body. His delicate features were lovingly painted onto a smooth porcelain mask: the eyes were bright blue, and his lips had the same mysterious hint of a smile as the Mona Lisa. The back of his head was a skull-shaped slab of solid brass, and a delicate ribbon of steam drifted lazily out from a valve at the back of his neck.
The Professor's voice grew louder, as it usually did when he was becoming entranced by his own words, "And you Tom, you are my response to that most human urge—mankind's never-ending desire to bring light to the dark boundary of the unknown.
"And even standing in the shadow of this modern-day marvel," he said, pointing up to the massive tower, "you are still an object of wonder." Darby swept his arm across the vista of stone and wire that stretched out in front of them as if he were unveiling it for the very first time. "Even compared to the Brooklyn Bridge."
Rising up and out from the anchorage where they were standing were two cables of twisted steel, each one as thick as a man, heading from the shore and out over the water. They rose up and over the top of a stone tower standing almost three hundred feet tall and then dropped back down, crossing the East River to another tower of the same height that sat just off the edge of Manhattan Island. The building of the road that would eventually connect the two cities had only just been started, and the cables hung expectantly above the water, ready to bear their load.
"The greatest wonder of the modern world," Darby said, and then winked at the girl, "even if it isn't quite finished yet."
Sarah smiled and clapped, the effect muffled by her gloves. "It's gorgeous, Professor." She moved forward with the layers of her ruffled blue skirt rustling and swaying with every step. "Thank you so much for bringing us out here so we could see it." Her matching fur cape was wrapped around her tightly enough that the rigid feminine curve of her bodice could be seen underneath it. The blonde curls of her hair had been pulled back and piled up into a severe bun. Pinned to the top of it was a navy-blue bonnet, the fashionable veil coming down to just above her eyes. But underneath all the structure that had been built to support and define the modern woman of 1880, a natural aura of relaxed strength and beauty still shone through.
Trying not to stare at Sarah, Nathaniel squinted his eyes even more than usual as he turned his gaze to the bridge, tipping his head so far back that his hat seemed poised to slide off. "Do you think something so big will actually hold up, Professor?"
"Of course it will." Darby nodded firmly, some of his usual intensity returning to his face as he did so. "The principles behind it are quite sound. A large-scale structure such as this simply requires a rigorous application of math, human ingenuity, and hard work. A bridge is the culmination of all those things."
The Professor took a deep breath, filling his lungs completely and then holding it for a moment before speaking. "All right, everyone, are we ready for an adventure?" He lifted up his cane and pointed the metal tip toward the wooden platform that acted as the entrance to the walkway. It seemed far less sound than the concrete and stone edifice underneath their feet.
Sarah looked over at him. "I've already had my fair share, Sir Dennis." Then she gave him a brave wink and a smile. "But I'm always game for more!" She knew that her father would have frowned on her flirtatious attitude, but she and Sir Dennis had often shared such moments over the last few years.
Inclined to tomboyish behavior as a girl, her early teens had been a time of rude awakening, divorcing her from the casual company of boys and men in ways she still found frustrating and unfair. It only took a glance in a mirror to remind her that she had been gifted with a beauty that had forever stolen away an innocent connection with the opposite sex, and she was still struggling to understand the power of it.
From her mother she had inherited all the best Harrington family traits: long blonde hair, an upturned nose, and sparkling green eyes. And enough men had become hypnotized by her lips while she spoke that she knew she had been given her father's full mouth. She was grateful for it. Even though her suitors often ignored the words that came out of it, at least it kept their eyes on her face, which was a higher level of attention than her fuller-figured friends often received.
Nathaniel stepped up behind her. "It's windy up there, Sarah. Are you sure you're up to it?"
She turned her head and looked back at him over her shoulder. "I'm not the delicate flower you seem to think I am, Nathan." The words came out in a colder tone than she had intended. Much to her father's chagrin, she had also inherited the quick Stanton temperament, and her sharp words often surprised her as much as it did everyone else.
She marched to the end of the anchorage, heading toward the steps that led up to the walkway as fast as the complicated layers of her dress would allow. Just beyond them, the rickety trail of wood and wire stretched off into the distance, almost parallel to the massive cables as it arced up toward the closest tower. "I'll be fine," she said to herself as much as anyone else.
Nathaniel frowned slightly, giving his already-sullen features an even grimmer look. At twenty-two he was still a young man, and some women found his brooding attractive. It clearly had the opposite effect on Sarah. But his dark moods were a part of his passionate nature, and not something that he felt a great need to control. "I suppose we're all going up there—the whole damn circus." He lifted up his top hat and swept his black hair back over his head, then pulled it down tightly and started to follow after her.
Dennis Darby stopped him, clamping a hand down onto Nathaniel's shoulder and giving it a squeeze. "Is there need for such language?" He turned back to the Automaton, still entranced by the large wooden wheel. "Now come along, Tom."
The metal man let go of the empty spool that he had been toying with and strode forward in a smooth, gliding motion. It was, as always, the mathematically perfect arc of his movements that made his inhumanity so obvious. "We are part of a ... circus? Does that make me ... the acrobat, or ... the clown?"
"You're the side show," Nathaniel grumbled. Pulling a silver flask from his jacket pocket, he undid the cap with a quick twist and knocked back a swig.
Ignoring Nathaniel's activities, Darby scanned his eyes over the machine-man, glanced up at the wooden footbridge, and then shook his head. "I'm a little worried about your weight up there, Tom. I think you're going to need to drop some ballast first."
"What if there's trouble?" asked Tom.
"At this moment I'm more worried about the strength of those wooden slats you'll be walking on then any potential villainy, especially with all that equipment we've loaded inside you. It wouldn't do to have you plunging into the river." He tapped his cane against the metal man's chest. "Dropping those armor plates should do the trick."
Tom nodded his head in another perfectly smooth curve. He unbuttoned his brocade vest, then the pleated shirt underneath, his leather-gloved fingers moving slowly and deliberately. The tiny curls of steam that rose up from his wrists as he worked were quickly consumed by the winter breeze.
He opened his shirt to reveal a pair of broad brass breastplates underneath. Each one was sculpted into an idealized form of the impossibly perfect contoured muscles of a Greek god. There was a loud click as he twisted the first one free from the metal snaps holding it in place. It lifted upward and off, revealing rows of cogs spinning away underneath. He placed it down onto the rough wooden planking. If exposing himself had an emotional impact on Tom, it was impossible to read from the painted-on features of the porcelain mask that acted as his face.
Nathaniel stared at him for a few seconds. There was a slight sneer on his lips as he watched the Automaton remove the second brass plate and place it on top of the first with a dull clank.
Sarah, standing one step from the top of the stairs, had also found herself unable to tear her eyes away. As Tom began to rebutton his clothes, she shook her head as if waking up from a trance. Looking for something else to rest her eyes on, she caught a glimpse of the large sign that stood at the entrance to the walkway in front of them. She read it out loud, for Tom's benefit: "'Safe for Only Twenty-Five Men at One Time. Do Not Walk Close Together, Run, Jump, or Trot. Break Step!'" She let out a nervous laugh. "Sounds a bit menacing."
"Wise words, those," said a stranger's voice. The words were spoken in a deep Irish brogue that contained both a lilt and a rumble. "Any way you read it, though, yer gonna want to step carefully up there." By the way he was dressed, the speaker was clearly a member of the working crew, his nose and cheeks bright red from the breeze. The thick cloth coat he wore was threadbare at the hem and cuffs, and he pulled it tightly around his barrel frame to keep out the cold of the early January morning. The slouching circle of the kepi cap that rested on the top of his head was a leftover from the Civil War, although all the military insignia had been stripped off of it a long time ago. "The wind's not too bad today, though." His face was broad and round, with a set of thick red-and-gray muttonchops that traveled from ear to chin. His skin was ruddy and rough, placing him clearly in his late forties or early fifties. "Not as bad as some days, anyway."
Darby extended a hand. "And you would be, sir?"
"Barry Moloney. One of the foremen here at the Brooklyn Bridge, and yer official tour guide on this fine Sunday." He doffed his hat, then took the offered hand and gave the old scientist a single quick shake. His gloved paw enfolded the Professor's hand almost completely. "Mrs. Roebling told me to meet you over here and give you the run of the place. She said to give you her apologies, and let you know that she and her husband will meet with you back at her house once you've finished your work at the top of the tower."
Sarah beamed. "You see that, Nathan? There's a woman in charge. We're not all as incapable of critical thought as you seem to think we are."
The Irishman smiled. "Well, she does give the orders. But it's her husband, Mr. Washington, who writes them down first. Poor man got the sickness down in the Caissons, and now he can barely move." He looked at Sarah squarely in the eyes. "Yer not one of them suffergettes, are you?"
"Not officially," She thrust out a white-gloved hand. "My name is Sarah Stanton, Mr. Moloney. Pleased to meet you."
He shook her hand firmly and stared straight into her eyes. "That's a good grip, Miss Stanton." The Irishman smiled over at Nathan. "Rope that lass quick, boy, or she'll marry the first man that tames her fire."
Nathaniel replied with a sniff. "This 'lass' is the daughter of Alexander Stanton—the Industrialist—one of the most powerful and respected men in all of New York City, and a founding member of the Paragons. I'd ask that you treat her, and me, with a little more respect."
For a moment the easy smile vanished from the Irishman's face to be replaced by something darker. "All right, young sir, didn't mean to offend. I'm just here to help you and yers safely up to the top of the tower and ..." His word's trailed off as he saw Tom for the first time. "Good Lord!"
Darby nodded to the metal man. "Go ahead and introduce yourself, Tom."
The mechanical man finished closing the last button of his jacket, then strode forward and held out his hand. Even under the black leather glove the large round lumps at the knuckles clearly revealed that it wasn't a human appendage underneath. "I am called the Automaton, ... Mr. Moloney. I'm very glad to meet you."
"Are you now?" Moloney grasped the offered hand gingerly, then pumped Tom's arm quickly up and down. He glanced over his shoulder at Darby. "Does he think he's alive?"
"What Tom thinks or doesn't think is still a matter of some great debate," the Professor replied. "Most people would say that if he is able to reason then he must be alive. Having both created him and taught him, I'd like to think that's so. At any rate, I'd ask that you treat him with the same respect you'd give me."
"Cogito, ergo sum, ... Mr. Moloney," the Automaton said.
Barry let go of Tom's hand and then walked away from the group to a pile of tools that sat nearby. "Now I've met a metal man.... That'll be something to tell the wife, anyway."
Darby continued to talk, behind him. "I have some experiments I'd like to run once we reach the top of the tower."
"We've both got a job to do today." The Irishman pulled up his large pack, constructed from what appeared to be brass and canvas, and slung it over his back. He wobbled slightly as he heaved it up over his shoulders and buckled its thick leather strap tightly across his chest.
"What's in the pack, Mr. Moloney?" Sir Dennis asked. "Perhaps my mechanical friend here can carry it for you."
Excerpted from THE FALLING MACHINE by ANDREW P. MAYER Copyright © 2011 by Andrew P. Mayer. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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