“A Need for Expanded Abilities of a Discreet Nature”
For Your Delectation, a Sample from My Short Story
So. This was Professor Rufus Cornelius Abercrombie-Stubbins.
She curtseyed stiffly before the Englishman. Gentleman, truth be told, for gentleman he surely was, despite the smear of oil on his cheek and his steamed-over spectacles. He whipped them off and wiped them on a filthy silk handkerchief. “You are from Mr. Claggmarten, I take it?”
“Yes,” she lied. “My name is Eglantine,” she lied again.
“No. You are not to have a name. I do not want you to have a name. In fact–You are not even what I ordered.” He slid his spectacles back onto the high bridge of his nose. “I know what I ordered—and you are not she. Not it. Not—” He snatched up a packet of papers from his cluttered desktop and began rifling through them. “Not,” he said, “what I ordered. You are not the model I saw in Mr. Claggmarten’s place of business. If they have switched my order at this crucial moment when I have urgent and specific needs—“
Suddenly, he strode toward her with such ferocity it was all she could do to hold her ground, keep her chin raised and her gaze firm. He circled her, his upper lip curled into a disdainful sneer, taking in the dark grey traveling cloak, the cheap, sensible black shoes that pinched her toes, the dove-grey hat that didn’t perch quite neatly on her heavy coil of hair, much heavier than the automaton’s. She clutched the heavy carpetbag before her, hoping it had ceased to emit unfortunate noises.
He slapped the packet of papers against his thigh. “I demand to know why I have been foisted off with a substitute!”
She met his glare calmly, without flinching. “I am endowed with all of the attributes you ordered. All of them,” she added significantly.
“But tonight. He promised me you would be here in time for my final attempt tonight—and now he has sent me an entirely different model and I am supposed to take it on faith that you are equal to the automaton I ordered?”
“Superior.” The familiar rage simmered in her veins. “I am superior.”
“Well, your appearance is lifelike, I must admit. In fact, I am certain I have never encountered an automaton quite as—well, as distinctive as you–on either side of the Atlantic.”
“Mr. Claggmarten will be most gratified by that observation. He is not only the finest automaton creator in Savannah, but in the entire South.”
She kept her stare wide-eyed and placid and repeated the words spoken so recently to her by the thing she had replaced. “I am a Nova-Model Exquisite Female Automaton, created on the eleventh day of November, in 1864, the year of our Lord, activated for use on this afternoon for your order. In addition to the fine array of capabilities all Claggmarten creations bear, I also have Exceptional and Expanded Abilities of a Discreet Nature—”
“Enough.” He cleared his throat. “It is not your—the—more discreet abilities that I’ll be needing.
She was, as always, grateful that her complexion was not prone to blushes. It was a safe guess that blushing was not meant to be in her repertoire.
In the quick flicker of a glance she allowed herself before lowering her gaze, she noted that it was his cheeks that stained red. How confusing. He’d ordered the Courtesan Model, after all.
“If you would honor me with an explanation of this unwanted and unexpected change…”
“The model you ordered did not satisfy the rigorous testing demanded of a Nova Model Automaton upon activation. It exhibited an unfortunate…” She paused delicately. “Tendency.”
“Tendency?” he repeated, alarmed.
Why should he care, if he truly had no interest in sexual congress?
“What sort of tendency?” he asked nervously.
“You indicated a preference not to discuss our more discreet abilities.”
His face blanched.
This was truly too easy.
He cleared his throat, suddenly eyeing her even more warily. “How can I trust that you are more reliable than the model I ordered turned out to be?”
“Because Mr. Craggmarten sent me in her stead, Professor.” Her sister’s governess had never chided so sternly.
“May I?” His question was no question, but instead a clear demand, as he took the carpetbag from her, and dropped it, startled. It clanked.
Was that a soft hiss of steam coming from within? Or a… sigh? She maintained her rigid pose.
Was the pulse at her throat beating as wildly as it felt? Did the collar of her blouse hide it?
He took her left hand in his and bent it this way and that, curling her fingers, flexing her thumb, and finally flipped a coin high. “Catch it.”
Her hand shot out of its own volition and snatched the coin out of the air.
Lord have mercy. No automaton could be able to do that. Could it?
His snort sounded less than satisfied. He then took her right hand and opened it, splaying her fingers wide. With agonizing slowness, he dragged a finger across her palm. She stood frozen, her palm tickled as if stroked by a feather, the need to yank her hand away overwhelming. She could do nothing; she could not stop its flesh from twitching.
He stroked her palm again, clearly intrigued by the twitch.
She wanted to jerk her hand away, to slap him, and yet here she stood, once again forced to accept the attentions of those who held themselves superio. But this time would be different. This would be the last time. She could tolerate anything, knowing that.
In the meantime, if if he discovered the truth, his dissatisfaction would be the least of her concerns. One step out of this house and onto the streets, and it would all be over.
Twelve hours. She must remain hidden from the Patrol for twelve more hours.
And so she stood frozen as he lifted her hand higher and blew across her knuckles. “Amazing.” He released her.
She felt his eyes piercing into her but she did not raise her lashes, could not raise her lashes, could not risk betraying herself.
“You are almost lifelike,” he announced.
She stifled a wild laugh.
“Your hands appear to be as dexterous and as small as the French model I ordered. Thus, I hope you will be adequate. However, I shall write to Mr. Claggmarten to voice my displeasure that—”
“I will provide you with the proper form, sir.”
“I am not a Sir. I am a Professor.”
“Professor, I provide the form. I will also deliver it for you. Satisfaction is guaranteed, and delivering your remarks to my creator is one of my… duties.” If the inventor of the Nova-Model Exquisite Female Automaton hadn’t designed the voice to curl seductively around that word, well, they should have done so.
He flushed crimson again. “Eglantine,” he said, using her name after all, she noted. “In future, do remember that I define your duties.” He whirled away from her and strode back to his desk so quickly, he seemed to be making a retreat. But the way he sank into his chair and leaned back and studied her as if she were on exhibit for his curiosity, left her quite unsettled. “Your lifelike appearance is confusing me. In fact, I’m quite certain I don’t care for it, not one little bit. If I could have purchased a less lifelike automaton with your unusual abilities I would certainly have done so.”
He finally dismissed her with a flick of his long fingers. “Your trunk was delivered this morning. It is in a room on the top floor. Mr. Claggmarten did not indicate you would need so much… gear. I went to open it—“
He had opened her trunk? Calm… calm. She blinked once. Slowly.
“—but it was quite secured. Oh well, it doesn’t signify right now.” He glared at her over the tops of his spectacles. “It is time to put you to the test, and for all our sakes, I pray you capable of all your creator promised.” He flung his papers out of his way and rose to his feet.
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