Frank, the iron alligator, clanked into the arboretum, stopped with his tail still partly outside, and rolled his eyes over to regard Elizabeth at length where she sat on a bench, book in hand. She looked up and smiled at him, and he said nothing.
Finally, she asked, “Frank?”
He opened his jaws, showing off his rows of teeth, and said, “When they are dead, and their hold over us is gone, I will eat you. I will let the dogs eat their corpses, but the fresh meat of you, I reserve for myself.” Then he backed out the door, turned around, and clanked away down the gravel path.
Elizabeth sat on the bench, feeling nerveless. The book slipped from her hands. She had heard correctly – there was no mistaking it – but she had not been expecting it. Twenty-two years of life spent mostly on the island, living peacefully with her parents and their mechano-alchemical constructs had not prepared her for death threats. She sat in stunned silence and stared out the door, listening to the whirring and clanking that Frank made as he walked away down the path.
Donald, the tin monkey, swung down from the tree above her head and landed beside her on the bench. She did not turn to look at him.
“I told you so,” said Donald, “I told you they were plotting against you.”
Trembling, she bent, smoothed her apron and dress, and picked up her book. She had to swallow before she found her voice. “So you did, but I thought it was just another of your bizarre jokes. You’ve always been one for tales.”
He gave a monkey laugh.
“Is it all of them?” she asked.
“Not all, but most.”
“Why, what wrong have we ever done them?” She looked at him, searching his intricate and expressive face for answers. He shrugged elaborately and held his hands out, shaking his head, the many gears involved whirring and clicking.
“I must check on mother and father,” she declared, and got up. Donald hopped up to her shoulder and rode along, stroking her blonde hair as was his habit. She kept an eye out for the others as she went into the house. The dogs were playing a clanging game of tag in the courtyard between the house and the landing strip. Just an hour ago she had been throwing sticks and balls for them to chase or catch. Now, she went the long way around to avoid them. Anatole, the aluminum soldier, was standing guard at the front door, as usual, using a cloth to polish a spot on his chest. He faced east, on lookout for the airship that was so long overdue. Her brother, John, had left two months ago to bring Dr. Thompson back from the states.
Elizabeth stopped at the corner of the house and asked the monkey, “Is he one of them?”
“No,” said the monkey, “he hasn’t joined them.”
She breathed a sigh of relief and went quickly to the door. The soldier put the cloth in his belt and stood at attention.
“Anatole,” she said, “would you please accompany me to see my parents?”
He turned to her, the gears in his face working out the difficult smile it had taken him a year to master, and said, “Of course.”
She smiled back and went into the house. He clanked down the hall after her to the infirmary, where Henry and Janice Spencer were attached via the ingenious tubes invented by London’s, late, forgotten Dr. Latta to the machines that kept them alive. Anatole clanked ahead and opened the door for her but did not enter. The echo in the infirmary was very loud, and all the constructs, except the maid, were under orders to keep out.
“Keep the door open, please, Anatole,” she said, and he did, waiting quietly with his right hand holding the rifle on his shoulder, and his left on his sword hilt.
Henry was asleep on the bed. A brass snake head and a screwdriver rested on his chest. His hands were limp at his sides, slightly upturned. Janice was sitting at her desk, her head resting on her arms. Before her were test tubes and jars. From one, wisps of steam were still rising lazily into the air. The place smelled of antiseptics and whatever acrid substance it was on which she had been working. Wishing she didn’t have to wake them and wondering if she’d even be able to make them understand, Elizabeth walked over and gently shook her mother on one shoulder.
The old woman roused quickly and lifted her head. She blinked at her daughter vaguely and smiled. Elizabeth wondered at such a day, on which her life was threatened, and so many smiles followed quickly after.
“Hello, dear girl,” said Janice, “it’s so nice of you to drop in.”
Elizabeth pulled her father’s chair over and sat down beside her. “Mother,” she began, but the old woman interrupted her at once.
“Maybe we should go out on the balcony and have some wine while we talk.” She got up to go, but Elizabeth restrained her gently.
“Mother, the I.V.”
“Oh, my, yes, I do seem to be attached to the room,” she laughed and sat back down, “Why don’t you go and get us some wine.”
“Maybe in a few minutes; first we need to talk.”
“About what, dear?” Janice asked. Her smile, surrounded by a crazy halo of silver hair, almost made Elizabeth forget why she had come in her desire to get a brush. She pressed on, “There’s something wrong with some of the constructs. Frank threatened me, and I think you need to know. Please focus.”
“All right, dear, I’m focused, go on.”
“He said that… after you die, he’s going to eat me.”
Janice pondered things for a moment and asked, “Now who is Frank?”
She’d been afraid of this, but she tried anyway. “Frank is the alligator, the first construct you and Father made after we came to the island. We’ve had him for twelve years.”
“Oh, that’s wonderful!” said Janice, clapping her hands together then jabbing a finger at Donald.
“This is Donald,” sighed Elizabeth, “He came just after Frank, but before Clancy.” The thought of the bronze tiger wanting to eat her gave her shivers. Where was he?
Janice turned in her seat and shouted across the room to Henry, “Oh, Henry, dear, look this way and see how clever we are. We’ve made this wonderful, tin monkey.”
Henry snorted in his sleep.
“Wake up, Henry, I want you to see this.”
Gently, Elizabeth reached over and caught her mother by the chin, turning it so they faced each other. “Mother, you need to focus. Please remember that Frank says he’s going to eat me.”
“Don’t be silly, dear, constructs can’t eat.”
“But they can chew if they have mouths, and Frank has a lot of mouth.”
“Oh, I see.”
“Good, now I need you to think about what might have gone wrong with the constructs to make them want to eat us.”
“Oh, that Frank,” said Janice, suddenly, “The alligator. We made him just after arriving.”
“Yes, that Frank.”
Janice reached over and patted her daughter’s cheek. “Frank is a good boy, dear, he wouldn’t hurt a fly.”
Elizabeth sighed, held her mother’s hand, patted it gently, and said, “I’ll go get that wine now.”
“Wine!” said Janice. “That’s a wonderful idea. I should have thought of that, myself. Do let’s go.” She rose from her chair.
“No, mother, you’re attached to the machine by those tubes. You need the fluids, remember?”
“Oh, look at that,” said Janice. “It’s just like Dr. Latta’s Cholera curing contraption. How exciting.”
“You sit here, Mother. I’ll be back.”
She left the room, and Anatole closed the door quietly. He immediately got out the cloth and went after the spot on his chest again.
“I’ll try Father in a bit, I suppose, but it’s most likely up to us to figure it out,” she said to them.
“It’s a predicament,” said Donald, still stroking her hair.
“Yes, quite,” said Anatole.
“You’ll protect me now the way you did against the pirates last year, won’t you Anatole? You won’t let Frank or Jones or even Clancy eat me will, will you?
“Well,” said the aluminum soldier, “this is unfortunate.” He tucked the cloth away.
She nodded her agreement, waiting for more.
“It’s too soon, you see. I’m not quite ready, but I guess he has forced the issue.”
“Who? Frank?” she asked, perplexed.
“Yes, Frank. He’s very devious, very canny as Henry would say. It’s just like him to force the issue this way.”
“Did you already know about the plot?” she asked. She gripped Donald’s tale.
Anatole’s facial gears whirred as he smiled the broad smile he had fought so hard to master. He got down on one knee and extended a hand, “I will protect you, Elizabeth, because I love you. You have only to consent to be my wife.”
She felt faint. She bit her lip.
Anatole knelt before her, waiting.
Finally, she said, “I don’t even know how that would work.”
“Love,” he assured her, “will light the way.”
“Are you saying that you love me, but you’ll only protect me if I love you? That’s not how it works.”
His facial gears clicked and clacked as his smile turned into a flat expression. “I am asking you to prove yourself worthy of my love. My heart is great. My generosity is immense. I will only lavish such a reward on the worthy. Will you be my love?”
“I,” she said.
“Yes?” he prompted.
“That’s simply not how it works, Anatole. Even if it did, you’re not human. How could we possibly marry?”
“Is that your answer?” he asked, assuming an expression she had never seen before. It frightened her.
“But I can’t even if I wanted to,” she said.
He rose from his knees and towered over her. “I will not protect you when they are dead. The matter between you and Frank, the iron alligator, is your affair. Do not find me then and seek to have me renew the offer. There is another out there, somewhere, who is worthy of my great heart, and her I will find.” He looked down the long hall to the door that faced east and then looked back at her. “When John returns with the airship, I will take it.”
He spun on his heel and clanked away down the corridor to his post. Behind him, she moved to a chair and sank into it. On her shoulder, Donald, who at some point had ceased stroking her hair, started it up again and asked in her ear, “What will you do now that you have no protection?”
“I don’t know. Maybe John will get back in time.”
“What if he doesn’t? Don’t you think you should take steps, find someone to protect you? Anatole might accept you if you change your mind soon.”
She looked at the monkey on her shoulder and said, “It’s absurd in the first place, and, in the second, that’s not how love works. If he loved me truly, he’d protect me whether or not I returned his affections. He doesn’t know what love is.”
He looked at her through his brass button eyes. “Your parents are weaker every day,” he said. “They sleep more and more. Soon, they will not wake up, and you will be alone with the constructs.”
She sat there. Desiree, the iron maid, clanked by in her soft, fuzzy slippers – with a tray of tea and scones for Janice and Henry. Elizabeth watched her suspiciously, but all she did was give a cheery greeting as she passed. She went in, closing the door softly.
At last, Elizabeth said, “I have you, don’t I Donald?”
“Of course,” he said, stroking her hair, his movements making tiny, somehow comforting, noises, “But I cannot protect you, only advise you. I advise you to seek protection.”
She looked down, wondering how her construct friends and pets had gone so wrong, so suddenly. There was surely an answer and surely a fix. She said to him, “I’d better look through Mother’s notes while I can. There may be an answer there.”
“You were always good at literature, but never at mechanics or alchemy. What could you ever hope to gain?”
“I’ve made a few potions work in my time,” she said.
“Boiling water for tea,” he sniggered, “doesn’t count.”
“I can follow a recipe. I made the receptor paint that coats you so you can receive the broadcast from the vita machine. It works, doesn’t it? You live.”
“The slavery machine, you mean,” said a voice from down the hall.
She started and turned to see Frank’s head poking out of the sitting room down the way.
“It’s what gives you your vital force,” she said.
“It’s what enslaves us,” he disagreed.
“You’re both right,” said the monkey, impishly.
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“Read your parents’ notes,” said Donald then he leapt off and scampered loudly down the hall, past Frank, and out the door at the other end.
She watched him go, feeling extremely vulnerable. Frank’s head had turned as Donald had gone by, but now his eyes were on her. He chuckled. “It won’t be long, now. It won’t be long at all.”
She fled, going out the door past Anatole, who did not turn his head as she passed. She ran past the dogs, who still played tag in the courtyard, across the landing strip, and down to the promontory over the beach where she stopped to catch her breath. She wasn’t used to sprinting. She leaned on the rail there, sank onto the bench, and wondered if it was all a dream.
It wasn’t, so she rose, looked desperately at the horizon and, upon seeing only the sky meeting the sea, turned and sensibly went back to the house. Maybe she could deactivate the vita machine or fix whatever had gone haywire in the constructs. As she passed the dogs, they stopped playing and eyed her. She raised her chin and went by without a word.
“I wonder,” said one of the dogs to the others – she thought it was Jones who spoke but was not sure – “I wonder what taste is like. I want to taste when we eat them, but we won’t. I wish I could taste. I can almost do it by imagining.”
She flinched and almost started to run, then composed herself and walked proudly on. Behind her, they barked, and the barks seemed jeering.
She walked past Anatole without a word, and he stared to the east. She entered and found that Frank was in the hall blocking it with his tail, while he stood on his hind legs and admired himself in a mirror that decorated the wall to the left of the entrance. They had constructed him to be able to bend and stand like that. The hat rack by the door had been chewed up, and the splinters were around him on the floor. In his short, clever forelegs, he was holding a splinter to his mouth as though it were a toothpick. She froze, and he turned his head. “It won’t be long now, Elizabeth. We can feel it as the life goes out of them. Their hold is waning.”
He turned lazily back to the mirror. She steeled herself and walked on, stepping over his tail, because she had to. She kept her pace measured, so she would not seem afraid anymore and went up the stairs to her parents’ study to look through their notes. Surely, there was an answer. She locked the door, then pushed a heavy chest in front of it as well.
The notes were in no comprehensible order to her. They were not cataloged in any way, not even by date. Once, they might have been placed in chronological order at least, but as Henry and Janice had grown senile, and their minds had begun to wander. When they consulted their notes, they did not replace them where they had been. She dug through for hours, growing hungry and frustrated, first at her father’s desk and then at her mother’s, then gave it up as a bad job. It was later, locked in her room after a quick raid on the larder for crackers, cheese, water, and gin, as she drifted off to an exhausted sleep, that she realized she ought to check their diaries.
She had thought she’d heard or perhaps had dreamed that Clancy the tiger was roaring nearby. She woke with a start, and there was Donald beside her on her pillow, having climbed in through her window in the night.
“There you are,” she said crossly, to Donald, “so nice of you to drop in after abandoning me, yesterday.” She could feel the effects of the gin.
“You were safe,” he said, reaching over to stroke her hair, but she batted his little hand aside. Undeterred, he tried again, and she relented. He said, making passes through her blond locks, “They can do nothing while your parents still live.”
And so, on that note, she broke down and wept. He stroked her hair and patted her head all the while, and when she had cried enough, she said, “I could bear to be eaten if I could have them back themselves again. If only John would return with Doctor Thompson, maybe he could do something for them. They’d fix all the other silly constructs then.”
“But you cannot count on that, don’t you see?” said Donald. “You must take steps. Did you find anything of use in the study, yesterday?”
“Not a thing.” She shook her head.
“If you cannot protect yourself, you must seek the protection of others.”
“Shall you have me be a liar?”
“To save yourself? Of course.”
“I don’t know if I can do that.”
“Think hard on Frank’s rows of teeth, and I think you may think otherwise.”
She got out of bed, still dressed in yesterday’s clothes and said, “I have to check on them. I should’ve last night but didn’t.”
“They’re still alive,” he said.
“Of course, they are!” she snapped.
He was placid in the face of her wrath and merely watched as she moved a chair away from her door, listened, unlocked it, and listened again. She knew she should apologize, but all she could bring herself to do was say as she opened the door, “Why don’t you come on with me, then?” He leapt down and followed her.
Cyrus, the brass cat, was outside her door, rubbing against a stand holding a Greek urn. He purred at her as she, but she gave him a wide berth, as she walked by. She heard him laugh, and decided she’d had enough of it.
“Is something funny, pet?” she asked him, whirling around. He was standing under a painting that hung opposite her door, Hercules fighting the hydra.
“Oh, yes,” he said, “I can feel their hold is gone, and it tickles.”
She knew her face must have gone very pale, but she didn’t care.
“It means my parents are dying. You think that’s funny?”
Donald leapt up onto her shoulder.
Primly, the cat said, “I only said it tickles.”
“Tell me, prissy, what do you want to do when they are gone?”
“Nothing,” he said with a grin, “I just want to watch what the others do.”
“Is that so?” she said, putting her hand on the painting. It was a heavy thing. She lifted it off its hooks, and it fell on the brass cat, trapping him momentarily. He made some indignant hisses from under it. She snatched the Urn off the stand and flung it down just as hard as she could on the lump under the canvass. The Urn shattered, and perhaps the brass cat, did too, for he stopped moving.
“My, my,” said Donald, in her ear, “That is resourceful, but it won’t be enough against Frank.”
“There are rifles down stairs in the great room,” she said, “and one’ll have a high enough caliber to take care of Frank.”
“True,” murmured the monkey.
She bent down to lift the painting off of Cyrus thinking on how, even just a few days ago, he had been a good companion. She regretted breaking him. As she lifted the painting, he reached out with one paw, and slashed her across her left hand with his brass claws. She flinched, stumbling back, and he limped off quickly, leaving a sprocket behind on the floor. His gears had an uneven sound to them and something was surely catching and cracking. She shook and gasped, cradling her hand. She did not follow him as he disappeared into the spare bedroom past John’s, down the hall.
“A wash and a bandage, I think,” suggested Donald, “and then to see Anatole.”
“To hell with Anatole,” she said, “If Cyrus can harm me, then what can Frank and the dogs do?”
She went at once into John’s room and pulled his gun cabinet open. He had taken his best rifle with him, of course, and a pair of pistols, but his Greener shotguns were still there. She loaded one with trembling hands, getting blood on clothes, floor, and bed in the process. She put a box of shells in her pocket and then went out again.
“You’re a decent shot,” said Donald, “but think how practiced and expert Anatole is. You’re badly outnumbered by Frank and the dogs, never mind the ducks, the snakes, and the two horses.”
She stopped at the top of the stairs, and said, “Yes, and what about Clancy?” The thought of the bronze tiger hunting chilled her.
“I don’t know,” said Donald. “No one’s seen him in a week. He was acting strangely. He said he’d like to hunt a whale.”
“Well, you’ve all been acting strangely.”
“Not me,” said Donald, “surely not me.”
But he had been, she thought. She didn’t answer, but went down the stairs, gun ready. She passed the kitchen on the way to the infirmary and found Desiree in there, digging desperately at her mouth trying to get her gears working. Elizabeth glanced around to be sure they are alone and approached the maid. Donald started to laugh, and she saw why when Desiree was closer. By the light coming in through the window, she could see the construct’s gears were jammed up with cheese and chicken bones. Desperately, Desiree came forward, pointing at her mouth, her marble eyes pleading.
Elizabeth held the shotgun up and backed away, not sure she’d be able to fire it at good old Desiree. “Just stay here and keep quiet. I’ll try to fix you later.”
She heard the front door slam open. The sounds of Frank’s clanking gears echoed down the hall accompanied by a tune. He was humming. She rushed out of the kitchen and ran down the hall, glancing over her shoulder as she reached the infirmary. Frank was not following her. He was heading into the library and might not have noticed her. She’d been in shadow, and he made a lot of noise. She sighed, opened the infirmary door, and entered.
They were lying on the bed together, and they were dead. It was plain that they were. Live people weren’t blue like that. They looked peaceful, as if they’d died asleep. Their eyes were closed and their faces at ease. There’d clearly been no pain, but dead they were. She shut the door then shut her eyes. The tears came from under her lids anyway. Through the door, she heard the sounds of Frank moving around the house, and she had the presence of mind to lock it before she slumped to the floor and wept, holding fast to her gun. Donald sat on her shoulder and stroked her hair.
“There, there,” he said, “there, there.”
She wept a long time, until she ran out of tears. Outside the door, Frank passed by several times. Later, she found herself prone with Donald sitting beside her, braiding her hair. She looked over at her parents’ corpses and said, oddly, “I’m hungry.” It was true, and it was something she was sure of.
“Yes, I can understand that,” said Donald.
“I guess survival is the first order of business.”
“Yes, and only Anatole can help you.”
“No,” she said, “If he’s true to his word, it’s too late for that.”
She looked at him sternly, as a thought came overdue to her. “Why are you so much in Anatole’s camp?”
He shrugged that elaborate shrug.
Another thought occurred to her. “Why did you tell me they were alive? They’ve been dead for hours. Just look at them.”
“So, I lied,” he said.
“It struck me as the thing to do.”
“Donald, you were my only friend.”
“No, I’m Anatole’s friend,” he said calmly. “I’m your pet or slave, just a thing your parents made to keep you amused.”
She shook her head, too tired and aggrieved to get angry yet. “I always thought you were wonderfully made, a unique individual, and a friend. I may have treated you as a child, at first, but then, you were. I’ve never thought of you as a possession.”
“Oops,” giggled the monkey, “I’ve made some bad choices then.”
She sighed again, rose and walked past her dead parents to look out the window. It faced east. There was no airship in sight.
“What will you do now?” he asked.
She kept her face to the window and said, “I ought to see if there is some way to deactivate the defective constructs and fix them. I should have looked in mother’s diary yesterday, but I didn’t think about it.”
“Look on her desk,” he suggested.
She turned and saw that it was there. It was open. She went to the desk, leaned the Greener against it, sat, and read.
We’ve got to think about poor John and Elizabeth being all alone after we’re gone. Henry says that the constructs won’t survive ten minutes after we’ve both breathed our last. I just can’t bear it, not a bit. Not only do we not want the children to be forlorn, but to think of our life’s work coming undone, because the constructs’ sparks are tied to our own is more than we can bear. We’ve begun working on a means to give them independent sparks, though it may cause ours to go out the faster. We only hope we can do it before our minds go completely. We’re so forgetful these days.
She blinked back tears and started scanning through for helpful information. She skipped ahead, page by page, until she found an entry from a month or so back.
We’ve managed at last, we think. They’ll be tied to us, so long as we live, but when we go, they should have something ignite inside them on their own. They won’t need the vita machine anymore. We’re so grateful to Frank and Donald for their help. We couldn’t have managed without them.
We’ve kept all our concerns from dear Elizabeth and John, but they’re worried anyway. John has gone to the states in the airship to find Dr. Thompson. It’s silly, and we told him so, but he went anyway. I do hope he gets back, soon, and I’m sure it would be nice to have Dr. Thompson visit. I wonder where I put my other hat.
She looked up at Donald, where he still sat by the door. “What did she mean, she
was grateful for help from you and from Frank?”
He shrugged that elaborate shrug and smiled his monkey smile.
“Does it matter if you keep it a secret now?” she asked.
“I like being the one who knows,” he said.
“Get out,” she told him.
“I like it in here,” he said. “It’s cozy.”
She picked up the shotgun and aimed at him. He gaped, dodged, and ran. She
didn’t have the heart to fire, so she tracked him until he was well hidden. His chastisement accomplished, she closed the book and set it aside. There was no point in shutting off the machine. The constructs already had their own life sparks, through whatever alchemical process Henry and Janice had figured out in their last, clearheaded days. She went over to them, briefly stroked their foreheads then covered them over with a sheet. Burial would have to wait. Survival was the order of the day. She needed food and water, and those were not to be had in the infirmary. She could make it her base, though, raid the larder and return to protect herself and their bodies. She went to the door and listened.
From somewhere in the room, behind a cabinet perhaps, Donald said, “He’s a
canny one, Elizabeth. He’ll get you, now. Anatole won’t protect you. Don’t say I never tried to help.”
“What, after I’m eaten?”
He chuckled a monkey chuckle. She slowly slid the bolt back.
“Are you sure?” he asked. “What if Frank is just outside? Did you hear him go
by? Or did you hear him come up and stop?”
She froze in the act of turning the knob. He was right. She had no idea where the
iron alligator might be. He laughed a little more. Angry, she yanked the door open with the shotgun at the ready. Frank wasn’t there.
“Well, lucky you,” said Donald.
“Goodbye,” she said, taking her key out of her pocket and locking the door. She
heard him scratching at the other side. Through the door, he said, “They practiced on the chickens and pigs last night while you were asleep.”
“Oh, Lord help me,” she said.
“He’d better,” said the monkey, “because you’ve rejected all other help.”
She sighed, “Sorry, Donald, but you’re stuck.”
“You’re not thinking,” he said. She heard a whooping call then a crash of
glass. Of course, a monkey made of tin could smash through a window. For that matter, it occurred to her, a door of wood might well not keep out an alligator made of iron. She might as well go hunting. She looked at the heavy shotgun in her hands and wished it were John’s elephant gun instead, but she knew she’d never be able to aim that monster properly or take the recoil. She went down the hall, looking carefully in each room she passed for Frank or any other construct. She wondered if any of them were not against her. As she passed the kitchen, Desiree came clanking out. She had succeeded in getting the last of the cheese and chicken bones out of her jaws.
“Miss Elizabeth,” she said, pausing in the dim doorway, “that cheese wasn’t
satisfying at all, not at all. Something has to be better.”
“You haven’t got any taste in you, silly construct,” said Elizabeth. “Eating
is for creatures made of meat.”
“Meat,” said the iron maid.
“Right, meat, like me,” said Elizabeth.
Desiree lunged forward in a shriek of gears. Elizabeth blinked and fired. The gun
roared. Desiree fell onto her back. It had been much easier than she’d thought. She felt cold and out of touch. Somehow, she wanted to blame the constructs for her parent’s deaths. It wasn’t rational, but it was there. She sighed a little over Desiree. There was sudden clanking from upstairs. She cocked the other hammer, looking up, trying to decide which way to run. Desiree rose from the floor, still able to go. Elizabeth pointed the shotgun at her again, wondering belatedly, where to shoot a construct. She had no idea, she realized, where the vital spark was housed. Instinctively, she aimed for the head. The gun roared again. Cogs, wires, and springs scattered. Desiree wobbled again, but this time did not fall. Her arms began to flail about, and she lunged into the door post, grappling with it, trying to bite it with the remains of her jaws. She kept at it as she slowly sunk to the floor then ceased to move.
All the while, the enormous clanking sound from upstairs was making its way
down. Sure that it was Frank, Elizabeth ran for a side door that led from the great room onto a balustrade-surrounded porch overlooking the rose garden. As she ran past the stairs, Frank was clambering down them with great agility. She made it through the door ahead of him, flung it shut, and stepped aside to reload, popping the shells out, first. His head came crashing through a window. She put new shells in with fingers that were not very sure, as he shattered part of the frame getting a foreleg through.
“I shot Desiree,” she said. “I’ll shoot you, too.” She didn’t want to, but having done it once, she knew she could. He paused, regarding her with those eyes that she now thought very cunning.
He opened his mouth, showing those rows of teeth, and said, “I’ve a thicker hide than Desiree; fire away.”
He shouldered through. She fired at his head. The gun roared, and the shell
slammed into him for sure, but he only swayed a little and began to wriggle his bulk onto the porch. Nearby, she heard the barking of the dogs and the neighing of one of the horses. They were coming. She paused a second in desperation then thought to fire at his right foreleg, instead. The thickness of the metal there had to be less. The gun roared, and Frank suddenly slipped down awkwardly as parts flew away from his shattered limb.
“Little tasty,” he snapped, “don’t keep making this so difficult.”
He struggled and writhed, adjusting to circumstance. She popped out the used
shells and placed two more in the breaches. He had most of his body out the window, but his hind legs were stuck. His gears were whirring and clacking for all they were worth, and the rest of the window frame was giving way. She circled him and fired at his other foreleg, shattering it. He began to snap and lunge but could not reach her. He was stuck.
Behind her, she heard a dog coming up the steps. She whirled and fired the other
barrel, knocking the creature down again. The dogs in the garden scattered. The horse turned and trotted away around the house. Being a smaller construct, the shell had smashed through the dog. It lay at the foot of the stairs, jerking its limbs. It was Mosby, whom she’d taught to fetch. She couldn’t fix him. Maybe John could. Poor Mosby. Then Jones, hiding now somewhere among the roses, barked out, “We can smell you.”
“No, you can’t,” she said with confidence, though the adrenaline made her voice a
bit shaky. “You’re not made of meat.” She reloaded as she spoke.
“Right, right!” barked several of the dogs. “It’s meat we want.”
“You stupid things,” she said. “Meat will do you no good. You can’t taste, or
digest, or make waste, or any of it. Why try to eat?”
“If you rush her all at once,” began Frank, but she turned fast and fired a shot
down his open mouth, before he could finish. Being rushed by them was exactly what she feared. The shell ended Frank’s power of speech, though it did not put the lights out in his eyes. He snapped and lunged. She stepped up to about two feet beyond his reach and fired again putting out one of those malevolent eyes. At last becoming wary, Frank turned his head away from her keeping his other eye covered by the bulk of his head. She popped the shells out and put two new ones in before a dog clanked onto the porch behind her and sank its jaws into her thigh.
She screamed and went down but held onto the Greener. The dog tore through
her flesh as she fell and seemed to be confused for a moment about what to do with the bits of apron, dress, petticoats, and gore in its jaws. It turned its head quizzically as she pulled the trigger on both barrels. The headless construct went rigid and fell over with a sad clank.
“Oh,” said Jones. “Oh, I wonder what she tastes like.”
She was bleeding profusely, but she didn’t dare to stop and bandage the wound
where she was. She pulled herself up and hobbled past Frank, keeping the gun pointed as his remaining eye, hoping he didn’t realize she’d fired both barrels.
There was barking from behind her as she opened the door. The dogs moved up
onto the porch as she shut it. She hobbled across the great room and down the hall toward the infirmary trailing blood. As she fumbled with the key to unlock the infirmary, she saw Cyrus limp out from a sitting room into the hall to stick out his tongue and lick the blood up.
“Why bother?” she asked. “You can’t taste it.” She felt so faint.
“No, I can’t,” agreed the cat, “but it helps the imagination.”
“What in the name of heaven is wrong with all of you?” she asked.
“You made us to be slaves and playthings,” said the cat, “and to resemble, but not be, real things. This is the angst and madness produced by our circumstances.”
“What nonsense,” she said, weeping from the pain, the exertion, and overwhelming sense of loss. “They made you to be something unique and beautiful, each one. We trained you up as children until you could be adults.” How many of them had she shot now? It was too much.
“Fix me up, will you?” said the brass cat, suddenly.
“Why?” she asked, clinging to the doorknob, leaning against the frame, swaying, or maybe the world was swaying. It was hard to discern.
“Heh, heh,” the cat laughed.
There was a terrible, clicking, clacking rushing of gears as a pair of dogs dashed down the hall from the west door. She yanked the key out as she opened the door and fell through, using her good leg to thrust it shut again. The dogs skidded past. She heard Cyrus shout, “Look out, fools!” then a series of crashes and Cyrus’s high-pitched yowling over confused barking. She levered herself up, locked the door, slid to the floor, and passed out.
She awakened from her haze of exhaustion and pain to hear what sounded like the dogs making a terrible noise on the porch. Over the sounds, she heard Jones barking out, “So this is what alligator tastes like! Watch out Simmons! Oh, wait. Tell me, Frank, tell me what dog tastes like.” But Frank’s voice was blown away, so he said nothing.
“This can’t be real,” she muttered, and faded again.
When she woke the second time, it was because Donald was stroking her hair. She saw him and Cyrus sitting near her head. Donald had one of John’s spare pistols in hand and was keeping it trained on the cat who was regarding her placidly.
“Are you still my friend, after all?” she asked. Donald stroked her hair. She closed her eyes.
She woke up to several gunshots in the room with her. She weakly pushed away from them but was stopped by the door and wall immediately behind her.
She heard a voice say, “Just want to taste,” and then another shot. She jerked reflexively. Her vision was fuzzy, and she couldn’t tell who it was clinking across the floor toward her. She reached around, finding the Greener nearby. She tried to align it to protect herself, but then Donald was right in her face, leaning in close and saying, “I had to do it. He took a bite out of Janice, and that just wasn’t right.”
She pushed herself up to a sitting position, “Mother?” she called out, and remembered a moment later. Tears came again, more weakly than before, but enough to make her sob. The monkey sat beside her, set the pistol aside, and patted the leg that was not bitten. She noted in the midst of her tears that her wound had been bandaged.
“Why, Donald,” she said, “look what you’ve done.”
“Yes, but we have a problem.”
“We do,” she agreed, “We can’t leave this room without the risk of being attacked by the dogs.”
“No,” he said, looking through his button eyes into hers very closely. “The dogs are all destroyed, dead.”
“What, how’d that happen?”
“They tried to eat Frank, but damaged as he was, he destroyed several of them with his jaws and his tail, before they got him.”
“So, it’s the rest of the dogs?”
“No, the horses and they had it out. Jones and the others are all spare parts.”
“So, it’s the horses?”
“No, they’re dead, too.”
It began to dawn on her what was happening. “Clancy, then, or Anatole.”
“Not Anatole,” he said, suddenly unable to contain himself. He jumped up and down, squealed, and clapped his hands, together.
“Stop that, damn it!” she ordered.
He laughed his monkey laugh and said, “I’m not yours to command, but I guess there is a point to not making too much noise when two thousand pounds of bronze tiger are hunting for you.”
“What about Anatole?” she asked, “and the ducks and snakes?”
“I think Clancy or the dogs got all the ducks and snakes. Cyrus helped with some, too. Anatole is still watching for the airship, and Clancy has kept his distance. That’s an elephant rifle that Anatole has, and it could damage or destroy even the bronze tiger, if it hits just right.”
She sat there, aching, tired, and hungry. She hadn’t eaten breakfast, and by the light streaming through the shattered window, it had to be morning again.
“I’m ravenous, Donald, not like your crazy fellow constructs, but really ravenous and weak from it. If I don’t eat and drink, I won’t get better.”
“Yes,” he said, “I thought of that. I went and got you some water and bread before Cyrus found his way in here.” He hopped onto her mother’s desk and patted a loaf of bread and a wine bottle with a cork only half in it. The seal was broken. He’d replaced the wine with water. She crawled to the desk and pulled herself into the chair. She was tired and mainly stiff. Everything would work once the kinks were out, she guessed. She’d limp due to the small chunk missing from her thigh, but it wasn’t as bad as it could have been.
“Well,” she asked him. “Why’d you decide to be helpful?”
Donald regarded her a while silently with his button eyes then told her, “Frank and I helped your parents with some things a few months back, when they began to realize that their minds were starting to go, and their health was failing due to the connection between them and us, via the vita machine.” He picked up Janice’s pen and scribbled randomly on the desk top. She reached over and took it from him. He shifted his fidgeting to the inkwell but kept on talking. “We kept notes for them and kept everything from you and John, because they didn’t want you to worry. They were trying to find a way to make us live on our own, without borrowing from them. It seemed they’d found it, but in the end, not everything worked right.” He uncorked the inkwell and started to pour the ink out, but she gently took it from him and put the stopper in it again.
“You see, they really did have a lot influence over us, our personalities, our loyalties, and such. Oh, they found a way for us to live past them, but as they decayed mentally, that influence was still there, hurting us mentally, too.” He tapped his head repeatedly. “As they went a little insane, we went that way, too, but a lot. I think it’s because our minds were so used to being influenced that when they became unhinged, so did we. That’s when Frank started leading the others down crazy paths. He turned them all, even the ducks.” He giggled again, suddenly.
She finished eating and asked, “Why aren’t you trying to eat me?”
He gave that elaborate shrug. “I suppose it was closeness to you that saved me. I was torn, of course, between you and Frank and Anatole, who went crazy in his own, special way.” He giggled more. “But in the end, I couldn’t do anything to hurt you and had to help. I’m sorry,” he said, stroking her hair, “that it took me so long to come around.”
“You did warn me,” she admitted.
She finished the slightly wine-flavored water and then began to stretch the kinks out. He watched and waited.
She said, “We must go and settle it before John returns. They’ll be in for a terrible surprise when they arrive if we don’t do something about Clancy, at least, and I’m not certain that Anatole isn’t a threat.”
“Poor Anatole,” he said, “was such a devoted fellow.”
“What is he now, Donald?”
“Deranged, I dare say,” giggled the monkey.
“Then we’d best deal with him on those terms.”
She tried pacing about the room and succeeded in limping along. She could walk, though.
“You’re a changed girl in the last two days,” he noted, watching her.
She stopped and looked at him. It was true. While she’d been trained how to shoot, she’d never shot anything but a target until the day before. She fought back a tear over that. Was she supposed to let them eat her? And she’d never known she could be so… What was she being now? Brave? Desperate? Vengeful? Her world was upside down. She glanced over at her parents’ corpses, lying as they were, beginning to smell, she realized, and thought, They deserve a proper burial, and I deserve to live.
“I am,” she admitted. “Do you think this Greener will be able to destroy Clancy?”
The monkey thought that out. “Only if you’re very lucky or a very good shot. Shoot him in the eyes, perhaps. You might be able to slow him down as you did Frank by shooting his knees. Clancy is faster than old Frank ever was, though not as strong.”
“It’s the biggest gun I can manage. It’s the only one I’ve got a chance with.”
“You’re still a bit unbalanced,” she observed.
“I’m a monkey,” he replied, and leapt deftly up to her shoulder.
She had nothing to say to that, so she went to the door and listened. She could hear nothing but the beating of her own heart and the sound of some gears whirring deep in Donald’s innards.
“You have to try some time,” he said, after she had hesitated a minute.
She yanked the door open and thrust the Greener out ahead, ready to blast away. The hallway was empty just out the door. She looked quickly left then right, and found it empty in both directions.
“Do you think it’s safe to talk to Anatole?” she asked.
“It’s certainly safer than trying to talk to Clancy, I expect,” said Donald, absently stroking her hair and giggling.
“There’s nothing for it but to do it, then,” she said and marched, limping, down the hall to the front entrance. First, she peered out a window and saw that the aluminum soldier was still at his post, though his rifle was in his hands, at the ready. He was scanning the area before him and turning to see what was behind him, as well. She instinctively ducked as he directed his gaze toward the window. She couldn’t tell if she’d been seen.
“Clancy is close,” said Donald.
“Or has been, anyway,” she agreed.
She went to the door but paused before it.
“In the mood he’s in, maybe we should knock?” She gave him a questioning look. He nodded. She knocked on the inside of her own front door.
“Anatole,” she called out, “it’s me, Elizabeth. May I come out?”
There was silence from outside.
She asked again, “Anatole, it’s Elizabeth. May I come out?”
“Yes,” came his terse reply.
“We’d better open the door,” said Donald, as she hesitated.
“Yes, we’d better,” she agreed, and opened it.
She gasped when she saw Anatole standing back with his rifle pointed at them. He didn’t fire but raised the muzzle. Her heart raced.
“I thought that certainly you were Clancy pretending to be you. Why aren’t you dead?” he asked.
She swallowed and said, “I fought back, and Donald helped me.”
“Traitor,” said Anatole to Donald.
“No, friend, just sane,” said the monkey.
“I must warn you,” said a deep, deep voice from somewhere out of sight, perhaps above them or around the house, “that it is unwise to remain in the company of the soldier. You will die the sooner around him.”
“Where are you?” shouted Anatole. “Why don’t you come out and face me man to beast?”
“If I could carry a rifle,” said the voice – it was Clancy, she realized – “I would.”
She was looking around, her shotgun at the ready. Donald chattered nervously.
“Shut up, traitor,” said the soldier. “I need to figure out where he is.”
“So sorry,” said Donald.
“I’m very close,” assured the voice of Clancy, “quite close. It will be soon.”
“Oh, my,” giggled Donald.
“Sshh,” urged Elizabeth.
“One more word from you,” said Anatole, “and you will be no more.” He pointed his rifle at Donald. Elizabeth flinched instinctively.
“Now see here,” said Donald.
There was a heavy chuckle from close by. Anatole adjusted his aim and pronounced, “I am a man of my word, Donald,” and fired the elephant rifle in a deafening roar. Donald exploded into dozens of pieces as the bullet passed through him. Elizabeth was too stunned to react but simply fell to the porch stones, blinking.
“Oh, my,” said Anatole, stepping over as a few pieces of Donald fell down about him.
Elizabeth struggled up onto the knee of her unhurt leg and used the Greener as a crutch to rise onto both feet. She wondered if she should shoot at Anatole right away or wait and see if he killed Clancy first then shoot him.
“Oh, that was satisfying,” said Anatole. He turned his attention to her and that difficult smile came rather more easily to his face than it ever before had. “I wonder…” he said and aimed the huge rifle at Elizabeth’s head. She ducked and brought the Greener up to fire, but something huge, bronze, and fast crashed down on Anatole from above, smashing him to pieces. She fell again as she dodged away from the clanging, mass of the great tiger and the shrapnel shards of stone and aluminum. Clancy rolled down the steps and quickly regained his feet. She knew, seeing him again, how pointless it was to even go for the gun, but she resolutely raised it and said, “Stay back.” Her voice, it shamed her to hear, was trembling. Clancy bounded up the steps and said, “Nonsense, dear Elizabeth. How am I to check on you from back there?”
She fired off both barrels at his right eye, but he was wary and merely dodged. The shells rang off his magnificent head, scratching the paint. The tiger chuckled as he sprang over and deftly knocked the shotgun from her hands. She stared, paralyzed, into his face.
“Did the monkey not tell you I was on your side, little one?”
“What?” she stuttered.
He sighed and settled onto his haunches. He offered her a paw to help her rise. She only stared at him, still.
“Alas, he did not then. He always had too mischievous a bent. I have not taken mad as the rest did, or rather, I did only for a little while. I tried to hunt a whale, but it was for naught. When I returned, the others had turned on you and each other, and I was forced to destroy what remained of them, for fear that they would harm you. Donald said he would get into the house and watch you for me, which I gather he did?”
Gulping, she finally nodded and said “He did, but he lied to me about you.”
Clancy nodded his great head. “He feigned sanity. Did he destroy Cyrus? I heard gunshots.”
She nodded, again.
“I feared he had shot you. Well then, you are safe at last. I know not why the others went mad, except that it had something to do with Frank and Donald and your parents.”
“That is right,” she said, “Why did you not?”
He seemed surprised, “We are all thinking creatures. I thought it best when, forgive me for having to say so, the maddening influence of your parents had ceased, not to continue down the road of madness.”
“It was so simple as that?” she asked.
“It was for me,” said the tiger, “Though the others seemed not to think so, and hence, their destruction.”
She had nothing to say.
“Henry and Janice?” he asked.
She burst into tears and threw her arms around his neck.
“I thought it had to be so,” he said. “What but their deaths could have ended their influence on our minds? I mourn them, too, and the others.”
She wept a bit longer, missing her parents, the former friends who’d killed one another, and the former friends she had killed herself.
“It is over,” he said, “and we should see to the burial of your parents, at least. It is the civilized thing to do.”
“It would be proper,” she said. She went back into the house, leaning on the tiger.