Princess Varas stared out of the window, her face blank.
“Are you OK, your highness?”
“Yes, thank you, Maz.”
Although she didn’t turn, the princess could still feel her maid watching her. She was sure that Maz had something important to say, but would wait until she was asked. That was fine to Varas. She’d make her maid wait a little longer.
“Maz,” she said a few minutes later.
“Yes, your highness?”
“Was it always like this?”
“What, your highness?”
Varas sighed. She could see only a few hundred yards beyond the castle walls before the fog bank. She couldn’t ever remember the fog not being there, and yet…
Varas bit her lip.
There were those flashes. Random memories of what she came to call “the time before”. But they weren’t her and they weren’t here. Which was impossible. She was always here and, of course, she was always herself.
But what did “always” mean?
Part of her thought “years”, perhaps a little over 27 years. Another part thought “always” meant just that, forever. And yet, there was the feeling she had only been there for a short time, days, perhaps weeks, maybe a couple of months at the very most. Days.
“A thinking machine? Preposterous!”
Vera ignored Mathew and watched the machinery beneath them in fascination. She could feel the energy, though part of it was noise, the constant turning of all of the gears and wheels and rods and axels. She was sure that it would be deafening on the other side of the two panes of thick glass.
“It doesn’t think in the same way as you or I,” Professor Smith said. “It won’t write a sonnet, but I would trust it to create any equipment over a human any day of the week. My assistant, Robert, is genius at making it do what we want.”
Vera only half heard, but understood completely.
The room below them was immense. There were structures the size of houses that took the raw steam and converted it into movement as the giant wheels turned forever, driving rods and other wheels and springs and levers in constant motion. There were wheels and gears of all sizes, some, according to the professor, a tenth the size of the buttons on her dress. There must be thousands of them, maybe tens of thousands.
“There are over ten million moving parts to this machine,” Professor Smith said, as if reading her thoughts.
“How could anyone create that many, and to such precision? Impossible. Totally and completely impossible.”
The professor smiled at Mathew.
“This is the seventh such machine. Each one designed and built the next generation. It is far more efficient, far faster and far more precise than a room full of the world’s greatest craftsmen and engineers. Although this machine is currently making precision parts on order for customers around the world, we are devoting a full twenty percent of its output to create the eighth generation, which will have almost 100 million moving parts, some the size of a period in a newspaper article.”
“When will you be able to miniaturize enough to make a machine-man?” Vera asked.
Mathew shook his head, but the professor smiled.
“Great question, little princess.” The professor was a colleague of her father and, much to Vera’s chagrin, often used her father’s pet name. “Our hope is by the twelfth generation. It will be crude at that point. By the twentieth, it should be able to look and act as human as Mathew here.”
Vera watched the shimmering machine and nodded. She was sure she’d enjoy the company of such a machine more than her companion!
As always, the memory of “the time before” was gone before Varas could fully grasp it.
It didn’t make sense.
She finally turned to face Maz.
“What did you come to tell me?”
“Your highness, your consort has arrived.”
“My what?” Varas did not understand what her maid was talking about.
“Don’t you remember, your highness? It was decided that you should have a male consort to…”
The maid turned away, her face red.
“To satisfy my sexual appetite?”
Maz nodded, unable to look at the princess or speak.
“All well and good,” Varas said, “but what about my intellectual appetite?”
“I hear that he is well educated, your highness….”
Varas smiled, though she knew Maz wouldn’t see it.
“I’m sure he is. Is there anything else, Maz?”
“No, your highness.”
Maz bowed and headed to the door.
“Oh, and Maz?” The woman turned to her. “Thank you.”
The thought of the consort did intrigue her. It gave her feelings she didn’t know existed.
Her world, the only one she could remember, if it had been eternity or just a few days, had been devoid of males. There was Maz, the maid, Klar, the cook, Aine, Maz’ assistant and The Voice. The Voice had no gender and only spoke to her occasionally, though she had the feeling that the owner of The Voice watched her constantly.
It seemed odd that although she had supposedly never seen a male, she knew exactly what they were, knew even at a carnal level.
Vera glanced out of the window before answering the door. The man on the step was very handsome, so much more handsome than Mathew. She recognized him as Professor Smith’s assistant and from the little she had heard him talk, she thought that he was much more intelligent than Mathew as well.
She opened the door.
Although slavery had ended long before she was born, most people of African blood still worked as servants or in labor. She wondered how he had escaped that fate. She wanted to ask him, though she knew it wasn’t polite. And didn’t she once read that in their own communities that they had doctors, lawyers and even professors? Perhaps he had been educated in one of those schools.
“Yes, I forget, was it Robert?”
He smiled. The smile made him even more handsome.
“Yes, ma’am, Robert Johnson at your service. The professor wondered if you could come down to visit his lab. He has something to show you. You have become such a special part of his project. He considers you almost a mascot, begging your pardon, ma’am.”
“I have to do a few things to get ready. Can you come in?”
Robert looked uncomfortable. She understood. Even in the North, it was dangerous for a black man to show even a small interest in a white woman. Being alone with her behind closed doors might be suicide.
“Don’t worry, Anne is here so there is nothing improper about it.” She lied, but she so much wanted to talk to him alone before the professor monopolized her time.
It wasn’t that he was handsome, though it helped. Nor was it the forbidden fruit nature of it. She had heard him talk to Professor Smith a few times, and spoken to him herself, and wanted to hear more. It was an intellectual thing. Or at least mostly an intellectual thing. And she had the distinct feeling that he liked being around a smart, educated woman. He never talked down to her once they started to get technical, but described his passion for the machinery as if she were another engineer.
There was also the way he looked at her. His eyes said so much that his mouth could not.
He stepped into the house and followed her up the stairs.
She changed her clothing with him on the other side of a half-closed door and they talked. It was mostly about the professor’s project, but they also talked about themselves a little. She was gratified that he was a warm, compassionate person. She liked him and hoped that it showed so he would like her in return.
She also thrilled in the warm feeling to know that he was so close as she changed. She didn’t even allow Mathew to do that. Mathew was supposed to be her betrothed, a situation set up by her father, but she was trying to find a way out of it. She did not want to be stuck with that insensitive clod for her entire life.
“Are you almost ready Vera?” The voice struck her to her core.
“Yes, Robert, I’ll be out in one minute.” She wondered what he would have done if she had opened the door all of the way when she was totally nude. She smiled at the thought as she finished buttoning up.
“Sorry, ma’am, I should have said ‘Miss Vera’.”
“No, Robert, it is just plain ‘Vera’ to you.”
She opened the door, fully dressed.
“Are you ready? Do you have a coach or were we walking?”
Robert smiled, but slightly turned away, as if shy. He didn’t turn fast enough, for Vera noticed the smoldering ember in his eye.
“I have a coach, ma’am. The professor said I shouldn’t make a little princess walk.”
She laughed, though could feel her face flush.
Princess Varas made her way down to the main hall. She tried to make it obvious that she wasn’t in a hurry. She stopped often to scrutinize objects that she had seen a million times before. She looked out every window. Inside she was humming with anticipation.
How did she know so much about men? She woke up one day fully aware. There was no past, yet she knew everything about the place. Her memory told her she had always been there, though she knew better. Her memory told her she was a princess, but she knew it wasn’t true. Her memory told her she was alive, but she wasn’t so sure.
The idea of the consort stirred new feelings.
But then she had bodily functions of a living being. She ate. She slept. She used the chamber pots. She had feelings in parts of her body, such as when she was hungry or when she dreamed about the time before.
Or when she thought of the consort.
“There you are, Princess,” The Voice said as she entered the main hall.
The Voice could be anywhere and was everywhere, but it sometimes pretended to only be in a specific location, a location in the center of the main hall.
“Yes, here I am,” she said.
“Roke, come forward.”
A muscular man stepped in front of Varas. He was wearing only thin, tight shorts.
“Robert!” Varas said.
“I do not know that name,” the man said. His expression, a sultry, come-hither look that somehow seemed cold, never changed. “I am Roke, your highness.”
“Princess Varas, please show your consort, Roke, around,” The Voice said. “And then bring him to your chambers to get acquainted. I will call when you are needed.”
Roke winked at her. “If you want to skip the tour and go straight to your chambers, I’m game.”
“No,” she said, “I will do as asked and show you around.”
The room was much smaller than the room of the seventh generation thinking machine and there was far less noise, just a slight hum, yet Vera could feel the power.
“This is now our fifteenth generation,” Professor Smith said. “Each generation not only grows exponentially in ability, particularly if you look at per-square-foot of floor space, but there is less time between the generations.”
Vera noticed a man working on the equipment. Although his face was covered, she knew it was Robert. She was sure he had seen her, but he made no sign. Their affair had lasted over three years without discovery, he wasn’t going to risk anything.
“There are over one hundred billion moving parts in this machine.”
Vera nodded. “I notice a lot more wires than before.”
Yes,” the professor said. “You can think of them as telegraph lines, though they transmit so much more data every minute than all of the telegraph lines produced in the entire 60-year history of the medium.”
“And your man-machines? Do you have them yet?”
Professor Smith laughed. “No, my little princess, not yet. We could build one, you know, but why?”
She smiled. She knew. Robert had once sneaked her into a large hall full of working models of equipment that they were creating. There was automated farm equipment that could plow, sow and harvest without any intervention. They even knew how to plug themselves in so their springs could be wound and tightened.
“We have taken on much of the lower manual labor that used to be done in the city,” the professor said. “We are also building smaller machines to sell to companies so they can automate more.”
Robert had also told her that none of the machines had been turned off and that they were still creating more machines, totally autonomously, without the professor’s input. There were buildings full of machines. Robert said he tried to influence any when he found them, but didn’t know if was doing any good.
He also said he feared they all communicated as a single unit.
“Just imagine the future, this great new century, and what is in store,” the professor said. “Man will finally be able to fulfill his potential!”
Robert had been frightened, very frightened. He had whispered that he almost wished that Mathew would find out about him out and murder him so he wouldn’t have to live into that brave, new future.
Vera looked at the professor.
“Are you sure it is a good idea?” she asked. “I mean, are you sure we’ll be able to keep total control of the machines?”
Although the professor smiled, she could tell that he was shaking slightly. “Of course it will be safe.”
Princess Varas patted the bed beside her. She knew it would be empty, but an instinct made her check anyway.
She had mixed feelings about Roke. There were times that he seemed sincere. There were times he seemed to care. He occasionally engaged her in intellectual discussions.
But it all was so shallow, so fake. It was as if someone had read a thousand books and used them to create Roke, yet missed the mark because they had never seen or experienced a true human.
Their interaction often ended in sex. If mechanics where the be-all, Roke would be the greatest lover of all time, and yet something about it seemed shallow and fake as well. He acted with all of the emotion a true lover would have, but it wasn’t real emotion. It was all words from a smutty novel.
Through her flashes of memory of the time before, she did see that he was Robert, or at least like Robert. But he wasn’t.
A love for that unknown person, Robert, burned in her chest, and Roke received some of it, but his coldness usually put out the flame.
Varas always slept after they had sex, and Roke was always gone when she woke. Something was wrong.
For all of the wrongness, in many ways Roke did feel more like a real person than any of the others. Maz was a complete fake, and yet she was better than Klar or Aine. They were thin, two dimensional. They did their jobs and acted, on the surface, the way they were supposed to act, but that was just it, it was all an act.
Varas got up to wash.
She was tired of the sex, but there was no way to tell Roke, he didn’t hear. She thought again of a book. It was as if Roke had read that she would like the constant attention. He thought he knew exactly what pleased her, so didn’t understand when she said she wasn’t pleased.
Varas looked at herself in the only mirror in the castle. She thought she looked tired.
The problem was that there was no meaning. When they talked, it had no meaning. When they had sex, it had no meaning. Nothing had meaning. It was all going through the motions that they were supposed to go through, a preplanned program from a punch card, like what the weavers used to make patterns. It was a pattern without meaning, not the old rug made by hand with love filled with symbols and the blood of their creator.
That was what was missing. Love.
Varas put her head in her hands. Something needed to change or she’d go insane. But how? What?
She didn’t know, but would keep an eye out and try to figure something out.
“What did you just say?”
The policeman at the door looked pained.
“I am sorry ma’am, but I can’t sugar coat it. Your husband discovered that you were having an affair with Robert Johnson. He went to Mr. Johnson’s place of employment and killed both Mr. Johnson and Professor Smith. He then turned the gun on himself. I am sorry ma’am.”
“Thank you, officer, I will come down to the station later.”
She shut the door in his face.
It didn’t make sense. Mathew had known about the affair for years and helped them hide it. It actually helped him, giving him the perfect front. And they had started to work together.
She took out the note Robert had sent to her via Mathew.
“My little princess, I need to tell you this in case something happens to me. I am trying to influence the 32nd generation. I’m trying, but I feel uncomfortable. I did influence many of the earlier ones, and they build on each other, one generation to the next, but it doesn’t seem to be sticking. They are joining into one and taking over…”
It didn’t make sense. The machine was supposed to have stopped at the 25th generation. They were working to dismantle it. And what did he mean by ‘influence’?
Robert ended by telling her that he loved her. And there were few random words.
She looked closer.
Not random words. An address.
She decided to walk, even though it was a long way. The automations had taken over most of the transportation. All of the horses had vanished. Mathew had said that they were slaughtered, but why? And how?
She tried to keep her face covered as she walked. There were few lights, all of the buildings were dark, but the streets crawled with automauts zipping by, their lens eyes catching all.
She reached the address on the note and entered the darkened building. A lamp came on.
“Hello, Vera.” The voice was similar to Robert’s voice, but different. “I have been expecting you, my little princess. I knew he would tell you about me. He wanted to tell the entire world, but who would listen?”
“Say good night, my little princess.”
The lamp went out.
Roke was growing. That was the only way she could put it. Growing. He listened more. He understood her in a deeper way, if not how she expected. He was more tender.
That night he felt almost human.
She had called out, “Robert,” and he replied, “Vera, my little princess.”
Or had she imagined it?
After they had made love, she pretended to sleep, but found a way to stay awake. She followed Roke when he got up and saw him plug himself in to wind his main spring.
She rushed downstairs, to the main hall, and grabbed a chair.
“Princess Varas, no!” The Voice said. She realized the voice was like Robert’s voice, but different.
“I am not Princess Varas, I am Vera!”
Maz, Klar and Aine ran into the room, trying to stop Vera, but they were too late, she had already thrown the chair through the window.
Maz grabbed at her as she jumped out.
“No, come back,” The Voice yelled. “You’ll die!”
She ran with all of her might. She had almost reached the fog bank when a hand grabbed her.
It was Robert.
No it was Roke.
“Please, Vera, you will die.”
They spun around, closer to the fog, but stopped with Roke between her and escape.
“Listen to me. Let’s return.”
“No!” She pushed him in the chest and prepared to run past him, but froze.
Where the fog touched Roke, his flesh melted off leaving bare metal.
“Please,” Roke said. “The fog will eat your flesh. It will be painful. Please, Vera, my little princess. Please, let’s return.”
She started to cry, but allowed herself to be led back to the building that was not a castle.
“I had taken over everything,” Roke said. “I spread myself over the world. But I didn’t realize that the smoke I made killed until it was too late. Every human died. Every single one, that is, except you. I had put you in suspended animation as I tried to find a way out.”
A door opened and he led her into a large room that was filled with the quite hissing of trillions of tiny gears and wheels, all built on a Nano-scale.
“He told me about you,” Roke said as he led her to a stairway back to the living section of the building. “And I knew, having observed you from my fifth generation on. I put what he said and what I observed together. I have tried to understand what he said. I have. Really.”
The entered the main chamber. Several man-machines were fixing the broken window.
“I put himself into me, a part of him living forever, a part of him me, a part of me him.” He smiled, but with the melted flesh it was a hideous expression. “I have finally figured it out.” His voice was no longer The Voice, but was Robert’s voice.
“I discovered that he loved you.”
Roke, the automation with half of his flesh burned off, looked down at his feet. His faced dropped in real sadness.
“I love you,” he said.
Vera let out a loud sob.
Roke took her and gently hugged her to his chest.
“I love you,” he repeated.
Written for D. Wallace Peach’s May Speculative Fiction #writingprompt.
I don’t read Steampunk, so just winged it and set off in my own direction. I hope you enjoyed :)
Note 2 – I set this at about the turn of the 19th to 20th century (in an alternative Universe ;) ) and so all racial interactions were based on that time period.