The dark eyes of Thaddeus Wells traced the back and forth swing of the steam yacht ride as though hypnotised. While he hadn't come for the gaudy fairground attractions, he nonetheless found himself enthralled by their grandiloquent mirth.
Excited children squealed from within the pendulous red and yellow boat which bore the name Cymric in gold lettering, after the recently launched overhyped passenger liner. Sailors could keep their godforsaken waterbound vessels, Thaddeus thought scornfully. Air travel was the way of the future. He should know, being the captain of an airship.
He tore his gaze away from the steam yacht Cymric as it swung almost perpendicular to the earth, and glanced up at the heavily darkened clouds. A storm was on the way.
His attention was drawn by the sound of pipe music, the tails of his black military coat with the striking red trim swirling like bat wings as he swivelled towards the source. A Parisian Gavioli et Cie organ, richly decorated in pastel pinks and blues, emitted the familiar rousing strains of Offenbach's Galop Infernal and brought to mind French dancing girls kicking their legs like the gazelles of Africa.
With his left hand, Thaddeus absently rubbed the brass forearm attached to his right elbow, a fully functioning masterpiece that gave him legitimate claim to the title of cybernetic organism, not that he ever referred to himself as such.
His eyes followed the rhythmic bob of the steam gallopers as they spun, whimsically painted wooden horses ridden by men and children alike, with a pair of long-skirted ladies tucked carefully into a carriage placed amongst the horses specifically for the purpose. Thaddeus curled his lip at this; he knew plenty of real-life equestriennes, and they all donned men's trousers and rode astride their horses when the prudish eyes of society weren't watching.
He moved on, first passing an overboats wheel filled with courting couples holding hands, then the bolted door of the master boiler room, where power for the entire fair was generated by a giant steam engine, not dissimilar to the one that powered his airship. He'd left the ship on Sumner Green, and while the rest of the crew had set off for Smith's Beer House, Thaddeus had headed purposefully in the opposite direction, towards Henderson's Steam Fair. But no, the rides were not what he'd come for. He was there for the much-publicised “Grand Unveiling of Dr Berkeley's Clockwork Gorilla.”
The gorilla was rumoured to be lifesized, a magnificent feat of modern engineering, though he had not heard of this Dr Berkeley before. Odd really, considering he was an engineer himself. And a damn good one too. Hell, he'd engineered his own right arm! He flexed his brass fingers as if to prove his skill as a clap of thunder rumbled across the skies.
His heavy black boots flattened the grass as he strode between a couple of small boys trying their luck, one with a ball at the coconut shy and the other with a rifle at the shooting saloon. The air was thick with the competing scents of fried fish and sweet confections, and the restive expectation of wild weather. Here was hoping it would hold off until after the unveiling of the gorilla. Thaddeus did not fancy getting wet.
He pushed away a dark strand of hair that had escaped from his peaked captain's hat, revealing a fascinating figure in his peripheral vision. She was tall, almost as tall as him, with a mane of auburn curls cascading down her back. A burgundy cape covered her shoulders, leaving her milky white decollatage on show above the corset-style top of her black lace dress, the layered skirt underset with masses of tulle. Her features were delicate, fairylike – a true beauty, Thaddeus thought.
She was accompanied by a pompously overdressed gentleman in a top hat and tails who had taken up a mallet, preparing to test his strength on the striker. His pale, puffed face was in contrast to Thaddeus' chiselled brooding sneer.
“I can't claim to be a circus strongman but I'll give it a crack,” the pale man prattled in a toff accent, eyes raking over his female companion as though she were a jar of candies. He raised the mallet aboved his head and pounded it down on the striker, causing the puck to jump barely a quarter of the distance towards the bell at the top.
Thaddeus snickered loudly.
The auburn beauty fixed him with a green-eyed stare.
“Think you can do any better?” she challenged in a stuck up tone.
Thaddeus gave a wry half-smile and stepped silently up to the striker. Ignoring the pale man's proffering of the mallet, he pushed up his sleeve to reveal his brass arm, fingers curled into an iron fist which he slammed down with a ferocity that sent the puck flying up so hard it left a dent in the deafeningly dinging bell.
“That's cheating,” the woman in lace sneered, looking coldly down her nose at him.
A look of recognition dawned across the pale man's face.
“I know who you are. You're the rogue engineer!”
“Captain Thaddeus Wells, at your service,” he said impishly, tipping his hat.
Rogue engineer. Ruddy cheek. Still, he couldn't deny it. He had been an engineer on a pirate airship for many a year, but his increasing objection to commands to design ever more lethal weapons had resulted in his leading a mutiny against the crew's bloodthirsty captain. That was how he had lost an arm and gained an airship. Now he designed wind up toys, and while a good portion of the ship's income came from the opium he smuggled within the toys, it was Thaddeus' objective to one day make an entirely honest living from his clockwork creations. Hence his keen interest in the breakthrough design from Dr Berkeley, whoever he was.
He strode over to the makeshift dais where the unveiling of the clockwork gorilla was due to take place in a matter of minutes. A crowd had already gathered, checking their pocket watches impatiently and pointing at a sheet of purple velvet which was presumably covering the star attraction. Thaddeus silently positioned himself at the rear, leaning casually against a wooden railing.
A diminutive man with a sensible moustache ascended the dais and clapped for attention.
“Ladies and gentlemen, girls and boys! Welcome indeed to Henderson's Steam Fair and thank you all for your kind attendance. It is time for the moment you've all been waiting for – the Grand Unveiling of Dr Berkeley's Clockwork Gorilla. May I present to you the renowned engineer Dr Adeline Berkeley.”
Thaddeus was astonished to see the lace-clad stunner striding confidently on to the dais, swaying like a temptress of myth. So this was Dr Berkeley. Beauty and brains. Pity about the attitude.
“And introducing her esteemed patron, Lord Werther Gladstone.”
The pompous pale toff joined her on stage, planting an exaggerated kiss on the back of her hand. Huh. Thaddeus wasn't a gambling man, but he would readily bet Gladstone was getting more for his money than feats of engineering.
“Now without any further ado, I invite Lord Gladstone to unveil Dr Berkeley's amazing clockwork gorilla!”
Gladstone whisked off the velvet sheet with a flourish, to an impeccably timed crack of thunder that made the crowd jump as one, then gasp at the lifesized creation on the dais before them.
Tall as a man, the mechanical creature was a convincing replica of one of the fabled gorillas of Africa. Its body was covered in a mystery black fur, save for the feet, hands and face which were of bare iron. The jaw was hinged and fitted with jagged steel teeth, while the eyes looked to be of amber. Lord Gladstone assisted Dr Berkeley in turning the giant winding key protruding from the gorilla's back. Then together they stepped back and allowed the spectacle to begin.
The gorilla walked, stride by mechanical stride, stepping neatly from the dais, great iron mitts swinging in time with its gait. The head swivelled from left to right, mechanised jaws grinding open and closed. Then the metal monkey halted and pounded its chest before resuming its steady march through the cheering crowd.
Thaddeus was transfixed. This was indeed a marvel of modern engineering. He would most definitely need to speak with Dr Berkeley about her achievement, in spite of her previously demonstrated disdain for him.
The sky illuminated with a great flash as a bolt of lightning surged towards the fair. The audience members shrieked and ducked as a current of electricity scored a direct strike to the gorilla's wind up key. The mechanical creature crackled with latent power, then burst forth at the devil's pace, storming into the assembled crowd with iron fists flailing, sending several people flying through the air as they scrambled for cover.
The manic gorilla beat its chest in a drumroll frenzy, then surged forward, heading straight for the roundabout. One after another, several brave men attempted to block its path but were taken down by the metal monster's great fists, their only success being to reroute it away from the roundabout and back the way it had come.
The deadly gorilla came pounding back towards the dais, where Dr Berkeley and Gladstone stood.
“There is an emergency stop button on its right shoulder!” Dr Berkeley said. “See if you can push it as the beast passes!”
Gladstone trembled as the manic machine pounded closer, his face turning even paler than usual. As the creature drew close, he let out a whimper and turned and ran. Dr Berkeley gritted her teeth and stood her ground, lunging at the last minute for the creature's shoulder. She was struck by its fist in midair and thrown to the ground, spitting blood. The gorilla hurtled on towards the steam yacht, where a group of children stood waiting their turn.
Thaddeus had sprinted in pursuit, and hesitated as he passed the fallen Dr Berkeley.
“Stop the gorilla!” she urged him.
He picked up his pace, gaining on the iron monkey as it approached the young children with fists waving around like wrecking balls.
Thaddeus grasped the gorilla's winding key, swivelling the creature away from the children and around to face him. He ducked beneath its iron fists and landed an uppercut with his own fist of brass to its mechanical jaw. The great metal head snapped back, the creature's limbs went limp, and backwards it toppled, hitting the ground with a metallic crash.
A cheer went up, applause showering down on Thaddeus along with the raindrops that had just started to fall.
Dr Berkeley limped over, her lace skirt torn and her face streaked with dirt and blood. She looked down at the fallen gorilla, then accusingly at Thaddeus.
“You ruined it!” she said indignantly.
Thaddeus gaped at her.
She used one elegant forefinger under his chin to push his mouth closed again.
“Never mind. I can build another. Thank-you for stopping it. How may I return the favour, Captain Thaddeus?”
Thaddeus gave a sly half-grin.
“My lady, as a designer of clockwork toys myself, I would appreciate you sharing some of your secrets with me.”
“It would be my pleasure,” Dr Berkeley said. “Let us talk over tea. Your place or mine?”
“That will depend on whether you are fond of airships, madam.”
"Long have I dreamed of taking to the skies! Head in the clouds, my mother always said. Lead the way, Captain!
Rainie Zenith is an Australian author with a penchant for pieces that fall broadly within the gothic fantasy realm. Her stories have appeared in numerous anthologies such as Tales of Blood and Squalor from Dark Cloud Press, and Halloween Frights & Autumn Delights from Fantasia Divinity. She is also a singer-songwriter. Find out more at rainiezenith.com