by Robert Monroe
Warning: Contains no explicit sex scenes! This is a work of romance.
The brick house at 1723 Reed Avenue does not normally draw the attention of any passerby. The house stands silently, quiet ordinarily, like the house to its left and the house to its right. Curtains of thick white lace obscure the view inside and not a sound can be heard slipping from within the house. It is a house of completely unremarkable normalcy, with the exception of its eerie silence.
But there are those who know what to look for, those who see the streets of London with very different eyes, eyes that drift to the shadows and the alleyways. Eyes that know what is there, waiting. It is with those eyes that the visitors of 1723 Reed Avenue spy the peculiar tabby sunning on the house’s walkway steps.
The tabby meows at the visitor, rolling its head back to gaze up at the looming figure. “Hello, puss,” the visitor says in a projected whisper. The cat meows again, as the hazel eyes flicker, an instant of opaque brass, before returning to its lazy sunning.
The visitor waits, eyes following the vines climbing the brick walls of the house and reach up with green fingers to the second floor windows. A faint rustle brings the visitor’s attention back to the door as the lace curtains part faintly, a pale eye appearing in the small, ornate glass panel. The door cracks open, an eye appearing in the sliver.
“Billy? Is that you?” a hushed voice asks. A familiar voice, like every man’s older sister.
“It’s me,” the visitor says, smiling wide, removing a ragged cap so that the eye may see the visitor’s face clearly.
The door opens wide, the cool air of the house’s interior pouring out, washing over Billy’s face. “My Lord, it’s been ages, Billy Bramley,” exclaims the woman, pale as a seashell and dressed in the uniform of a domestic servant—although her sleeves and skirt show no wear. She smiles wide and holds her arms out wide, beckoning Billy inside.
“It’s good to see you too, Sylvia,” Billy says, stepping into the house and into Sylvia’s embrace. The woman hugs Billy tightly, with a strength that takes the visitor by surprise. Sylvia releases Billy and quickly closes the door. “Look at you,” she says, her perfectly blue eyes sizing up the figure before her. “You’re all dusty! And your clothes are falling apart at the seams,” Sylvia gasps, picking at the sleeve of Billy’s canvas jacket.
Billy nods, suddenly embarrassed by the poor repair of the clothes. “I must look like a mess.”
“That you do,” Sylvia says, her voice softening, “but what else can we expect from Billy Bramley, pirate and pickpocket extraordinaire?” She pats Billy’s cheek kindly. “I’ll see to it you have a bath drawn. And we’ll see if I can’t find you some more suitable clothing.”
“Is Elizabeth…?” Billy begins, suddenly breathless.
“Oh, of course,” Sylvia exclaims, tapping her forehead. “Where was my mind? She’s been waiting for you, day and night. She’s been locked in her room for weeks, pining away, the poor thing. Let me show you to her right away.” Sylvia places a hand along the small of Billy’s back, guiding him out of the foyer.
As they step into the main sitting room, Billy is surprised by the presence of three men, each fat and old, laughing merrily, each with their members dangling from their trousers. Around them are a half dozen young woman in various states of undress, some servicing them men, some simply lounging, all pale and beautiful. One woman sits in the corner, caressing a haunting melody from the glassharmonica, her breasts displayed above her corset. The woman’s eyes meet Billy’s and she mouths a soft hello.
“Ho, boys, look!” shouts a red-haired man sitting in the tall-backed chair in the center of the room, his face flushed with drink and arousal. “More company!” The girl kneeling between his legs turns her head to Billy and waves her fingers in a small greeting.
A pale, bird-faced man on the divan glances to Billy and Sylvia, his feather-like eyebrows raising. The woman servicing him does not deviate from her task. “Will you be joining us today, young thing?” the bird-faced man asks, his voice shaking.
“Billy has business upstairs,” Sylvia says harshly. “And I would appreciate if you mind your own, Mr. Sullivan.”
The bird-faced man nods, closing his eyes in obedience. “Yes, mum,” he says with an inebriated giggle.
At the foot of the divan, the pair of nude women pull their lips apart and turn their heads toward Billy. “Liz will be so happy to see you,” says the girl with straight black hair and haunting crystal eyes.
“She’s been talking ever so much about you,” says the other girl, red ringlets framing her face. The bearded man sitting near the lamp clears his throat. The girls, in unison, giggle and apologize and return to their performance. The bearded man shoots a spiteful glare at Billy as he begins to again massage his freckled member.
Sylvia takes Billy’s hand tightly. “This way. Come now,” she says, excitement in her voice. She guides Billy to the main staircase. “Elizabeth is in her room. I trust you remember where it is.”
“Never forgot,” Billy says softly.
“Then go,” Sylvia says, whispering into Billy’s ear. “Your fair lady awaits.”
Billy climbs the stairs, the creaks and the smooth mahogany handrail evoking memories of past accessions. The smell of lavender and orchids drifts down the stairs, washing away the stench of tobacco and sweat that soaks the sitting room. Billy’s pace quickens to a jog and then to a sprint. Lunging up the final steps, Billy turns, races down the hall and grabs the handle to Elizabeth’s room. The door flies open with Billy’s force.
And everything stops dead.
She lies on the bed, her long black hair framing her face and fanning out like a halo. Her nude skin is flawlessly white, glowing faintly with the late afternoon sunlight. She turns her head towards the door slowly, warily. But upon seeing the face of her visitor, her eyes open wide and she sits up. “Billy?” she says, her voice faint with hope and awe.
Billy says nothing, only rushes to Elizabeth. The girl pulls Billy into her arms, embracing with a strength that can only be found in jasmine and lace. Billy kisses the girl’s face and coughs. “Too tight, Liz.”
Elizabeth releases Billy, who breathes in deeply. They stare into each other for what may have been hours before Elizabeth breaks the silence. “I’ve missed you, Billy. My love. My queen.”
Billy’s fingertips trace the subtle floral design etched into Elizabeth’s porcelain skin. Cold, even after the act of love. Billy presses her open palm against the back of her lover, faintly detecting the tick-tock vibrations of Elizabeth’s inner workings. Her heartbeat.
Elizabeth turns over, her clear eyes sparkling with bits of blue sea glass. “Is something wrong. Billy?”
Billy shakes her head and smiles shyly. “No,” she says, caressing Elizabeth’s cool cheek. “I just missed you, that’s all.”
“No, it is not all,” Elizabeth says.
Billy pulls her
hand away from Elizabeth and looks away, to the glass pane door leading to the small balcony.
“It is because I am an automaton,” Elizabeth continues, her wispy voice unwavering.
“No,” Billy says, still looking away.
“Do not lie to me, Billy Bramley. I have never known you to distress over anything else,” Elizabeth scolds. “You sometimes wonder if I truly love you. After all, I was created only to love and pleasure men.” She pauses. “And women.” Elizabeth raises herself to her knees, pulling Billy to her breast. “But now you wonder if it is a perversion to love that which has no flesh or blood or beating heart.”
Billy gasps, the truth suffocating her. Elizabeth holds her tighter. “How do you always know what I am thinking?” Billy asks, looking into Elizabeth’s glass eyes.
“Because, compared to the inner workings of the Professor’s automaton’s, human beings are quite easy to understand. Especially when one assumes love to be the root of the… malfunction.”
“The Profession sure did a bang-up job piecing you together,” Billy says, leaning towards Elizabeth for a kiss.
“Billy…” Elizabeth begins, pulling away. The automaton’s face is blank before a sudden click triggers a wide smile. “I think the Professor would like to have a word with you.”
“What about?” Billy asks. She has never met the Professor, the creator of Elizabeth and Sylvia and the rest of the artificial girls living at the house at 1723 Reed Avenue. The girls speak of the Professor with adoration, reminding clients to thank the Professor for providing them with this exotic, 20th Century service. And yet the Professor never shows up to receive this gratitude personally.
Elizabeth takes Billy’s hand, holding it tightly in her mechanical grip. “I believe the Professor wishes to discuss with you a perversion of a different variety.”
Elizabeth leads Billy from the room, down the hall, stopping before a small stand that holds a bust of the poet Goethe. With a small laugh, Elizabeth pulls upward on the bust’s beard, the head folding back on a hinge. There, now exposed, is a keyhole. Elizabeth holds out her left arm, rotates her thumb, and, with a small, mechanical pop, a panel of her porcelain arm slides away into itself. From the small compartment, Elizabeth removes a key.
“Aren’t you full of secrets,” Billy says in wonderment.
“I don’t suspect I will be for much longer, love,” Elizabeth says, sliding the key into the keyhole and turning.
With a slight shutter, the wall before them pulls inward on itself, creating a small hallway. “Come on, now,” Elizabeth says, pulling Billy into the recess. Their bodies press together, so close that Billy can hear the whirring of her lover’s gears and springs, and considering the strange circumstances, she finds the sound quite calming.
Without warning, the floor begins to sink. Billy watches as the passage to the hallway is lifted away from them, the light pulled up before suddenly blinking out. They ride in darkness, the lift cab shuddering only slightly, the sound of machinery growing below them. Elizabeth presses tighter to Billy. Their lips find each other. Billy’s tongue slips into her lover’s mouth, finding the perfectly constructed synthetic tongue and caressing it. She must remember to thank the Professor for that feat of modern science.
Without warning, the lift is suddenly flooded with a green light and the roaring sound of gears and steam engines. Billy breaks away from the kiss, crying out in surprise. Elizabeth only smiles and takes Billy by the hand.
Together they step from the lift into a wide cavern filled with massive machines, like the guts of a hundred Big Bens, shifting and clanging on a constant, deafening rhythm. Bellows of steam roar periodically from pipes lining the cavern walls. It is incredibly hot.
“The Professor is this way,” Elizabeth shouts over the din, guiding Billy through the labyrinth of clockwork and steam. There is no obvious reason for the massive machinery filling the cave, roaring like a thousand lions, no clear purpose or product. “What is all this?” Billy asks. “An engine?”
“More like a factory,” Elizabeth shouts, leading Billy every onward.
Eventually, they reach the rear of the cavern, where a curtain of red velvet hangs, its rod bolted into the rocky wall. Drawing it back, Elizabeth reveals a small laboratory, lined with tables filled with vials and beakers of various bubbling fluids of every imaginable color. On the opposite side of the laboratory hangs another curtain of red velvet. Elizabeth leads Billy inside, releasing her hand near one of the laboratory tables. After pulling the curtain back into place, Elizabeth gently presses a switch on the nearby wall. With a sudden clang, a wide steel door slides out of the cavern wall, sealing the laboratory away from the roar of the engines.
“Ah! I see that you’re here finally,” calls an eerily mechanical voice. The voice, not unlike a parrot heard over a phonograph, is distinctly female.
Billy glances around the room, looking for the speaker. “What in heavens?”
“Over here!” the voice squawks.
Still confused, Billy looks to Elizabeth. The automaton smiles knowingly and points to a worn phonograph horn protruding from the cavern wall. Billy approaches the horn cautiously. “Professor?”
“That’s right,” the voice answered loudly. “It’s nice to meet you, Billy. Elizabeth has told me all about you.”
“It is a pleasure to meet you as well, Professor.” Billy says into the horn, confused by the strange means of communication. “I suppose I should thank you—”
“No, don’t do that,” the Professor interrupts. “In fact, it should be I thanking you.”
“Why’s that?” Billy again glances to Elizabeth for explanation, but the beautiful automaton only shrugs and smiles.
“Because it was you who showed me the error of my ways. The gross misapplication of technology that has until now been my greatest achievement. To think, I create artificial life and what do I waste it on? Pleasuring bankers and landowners! Clergy and Parliament! What a fool I have been.”
“I’m sorry, but I don’t understand,” Billy says, her voice straining against her confusion.
“You see, Billy, the girls upstairs are not simple automatons who know only how to provide physical gratification. I did not know that until you began to come here. You always requested to be with the same girl. Elizabeth. It was fairly obvious that you had become emotionally attached to her. That is to be expected, quite frankly.”
“Professor!” Elizabeth exclaims.
“There is no fault in taking pride in one’s work, Elizabeth,” scolded the voice. “But what I did not expect is that Elizabeth began to feel the same about you. This was not something I had designed, in fact, had I known to expect it I would have most likely put together a means of preventing such a reaction. But there it was. Love.”
Billy looks to Elizabeth, who, had she blood and cheeks of flesh, would be blushing.
sp;“Somehow, within the chemicals used to create her thinking and reasoning brain, I had pieced together that which facilitates the most mysterious process of all: the soul.”
“You mean that—”
“Yes, Elizabeth has a soul. She is as human as you and I, even if her flesh and bones are made of porcelain, pearl and steel. But the human mind is nothing more than a series of chemical reactions and the soul is the result of those reactions.”
A sudden roar of steam and grinding steel fills the chamber, howling from the depths of the caverns.
“Sorry about that,” the Professor’s voice says calmly. “I suppose that was quite loud on your end.”
“What is this all about?” Billy asks as the faint vibration of the machinery grows slowly, shaking the solid stone room.
“This,” the Professor begins in a sing-song voice, “is about absolution. For myself and for those fat bastards upstairs.”
“Elizabeth, please bring Billy into the silo.”
Softly, Elizabeth loops her arm around Billy’s waist, escorting her towards the far side of the laboratory. Pulling the curtain aside, Elizabeth ushers Billy into the further depths of the caverns. Where the caverns before the laboratory were filled to the brim with machines of all sorts, grinding and twirling, this cavern, deep and expansive, stands empty as a void. The path curves along a steep cliff, illuminated by the soft green lights of phosphoresce.
“What is this, Elizabeth?” Billy whispers, slowing her pace. “This is mad!”
Elizabeth smiles and pulls Billy along the path. “Of course it is, Billy. Only through madness can the world change.”
Billy pulls away from the automaton in protest, refusing to be lead into the depths of the earth on the wishes of some lunatic professor. Billy’s feet slide out from under her, her weight pulling backward, towards the void. Her throat closes as gravity takes its hold, pulling her towards the cavern floor. She becomes weightless.
Digging into the cliff wall with her left hand, Elizabeth reaches out, grabbing the lapel of Billy’s coat, pulling her back to safety. She holds Billy closely as her lover gasps, dizzy with adrenaline. “This is madness,” Elizabeth whispers. “A heart that loves is a heart gone mad. Suicidally dependent. Seeking sweetness at the risk of everything. At the risk of sanity.” The automaton pulls the her hand away from the cliff wall, the porcelain finger tips shattered where they had dug into the rock, revealing the chromium of her skeleton. She holds the broken hand before Billy’s face. “This make us even more mad. My flesh is pearl and alabaster. My blood is steam. My nerves are copper wires. And yet, in my madness, in your madness, this machine has found humanity. Do you understand?”
“Completely,” Billy says lowly, her eye fixed on the chromium fingertips, scuffed by friction against the stone wall.
“Then you should know what those who are sane would say about our madness. What they would do to prevent this madness from spreading. That is the greatest perversion.”
Billy nods. “Let’s go.”
Hand in hand, the two journey further into the cavern, along the cliff path. As they navigate through the cave, the roar of machinery grows, the vibrations in the stone increasing steadily. They hold onto each other tighter as the shaking builds, Billy’s heart racing against Elizabeth’s ever-calm body.
And, as they round a corner, hugging the stone wall, they see it. Standing taller than the America’s great statue of Libertas, a massive golden figure of a warrior goddess fills the cavern. Its face, blank with determination and power, stares into the blackness as if in preparation for a great battle. Its armor, designed with an ancient Roman aesthetic, shines in the phosphoresce. In the hulking, metallic being’s right hand is a sword, its blade plunging into the darkness of the cavern floor.
“My God,” Billy gasps. “What is this thing?”
“This,” shouts the disembodied voice of the Professor, echoing in the expanse of the cavern, “is the Sentinel. My atonement. My gift to the world. Where I had misused my talents and my creations to service monstrous kings and priests, this creation, this warrior goddess, will set that straight.”
“What are you planning, Professor? What is the purpose of this giant?”
“Why, to destroy Parliament, of course. And the Church of England, along with the Bank of England and any other fraudulent institutions along the way,” the Professor says, nonchalantly, her voice seeming to originate from the head of the great statue.
“What?” Billy shouts in dismay. “You will wage war against the British Empire? That is—”
“What is it, Billy? Madness? I suppose it is, but you know what they say about madness. As for war, I realize it is a very ugly thing, but like a splinter, the rulers of this land must be removed quickly and, for the most part, painlessly. What can I say? I am a woman of action now. But let us also be fair, Billy, it has always been a war, has it not? Every time you sneak into the house you feel like a spy, slipping in shadows behind enemy lines. You live your life afraid that your secret, your great love, your very essence will be exposed. This is about ending that war. And I want to thank you for helping me realize that.”
“Professor—” A sudden quake takes a hold of the cavern, silencing Billy with its roar. Opening her eyes after the quake fades away, Billy finds the Sentinel has turned to face her, its golden facade strong and motionless.
“Go upstairs now, Billy. Elizabeth’s room should have an excellent view of the festivities.”
The Sentinel turns away, moving as smoothly as any of the automatons in the house above, stepping forward into the darkness of the cavern. Elizabeth pulls at Billy’s arm, but the woman remains still, watching in silence as the hulking form of Athena disappears into the inky black of the cave.
From Elizabeth’s window, Billy watches the Sentinel lay waste to the final standing tower of Westminster Palace, its massive blade rending Big Ben in twain. Sirens sound and men shout from the streets below. On the bed behind Billy, Elizabeth affixes a new, pristine left hand with a satisfying click. Billy chuckles to herself.
“What is so funny, love?” Elizabeth asks, slowly waving her new fingers.
“There’s an old poem: ‘O England praise the name of God that kept thee from this heavy rod! But though this demon e’er be gone, his evil now be ours upon!’ And, well, it looks like that heavy rod finally found its way back to Parliament.”
“Do you think the Professor has made a mistake?”
“Perhaps,” Billy says, turning to her lover and smiling. “But we’ll have to wait for the morning to see. Until then…”
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