Old Mr Abernathy’s workshop was a rather peculiar one. As a newly married man, he had fled with his bride to London and rented a narrow, three-storey property at the corner of Peter Street, near the bustling Berwick Street Market. He soon discovered that there was insufficient room for his private projects in what became his clockmaker’s shop on the ground floor. Mrs Abernathy, a woman of considerably better breeding than her husband, would not permit him to litter her house with all his ‘grubby pieces of machinery’. With no chance of expanding the property outwards and with nothing resembling a yard, he had followed the example of the rest of London and built upwards. Protruding from the second storey was a trapezoid-shaped structure of wood and metal. He had used anything he could find to build it as long as it was sturdy. His wife believed that the extension would collapse within two weeks of its completion. The landlord had only granted him permission to execute his project as he did not believe that it would succeed, anticipating great amusement in seeing the clockmaker’s efforts turn into a pile of scrap and splintered wood. However, William Abernathy’s knowledge of mathematics and engineering served him well, and the extension, which became his workshop, was still standing at the time of his death over twenty years later. Its only source of natural light was a large, circular window lacquered in dust and cobwebs. Candles supplemented the supply of light from within. Inside the workshop, great sloping shelves ran along the walls at such steep gradients that they zigzagged all the way down to the ground, their nails having rusted overtime. Naturally, this meant that all of the trinkets and dissected clocks, which Mr Abernathy placed upon them, simply slid down to the bottom in a matted clump of metal.
After he had succumbed to the ailments associated with old age, his two sons had inherited the family house and business. They tore out the old shelves and scrubbed the window until there wasn’t a single thread of cobweb left and the yellow-tinted glass gleamed once more. It was only then they discovered that the window was actually patterned like a clock face with the numerals in black lead. They quickly set about filling the workshop with all sorts of strange clockwork contraptions of their own, for they had inherited their father’s natural aptitude for anything mechanical. It was here, just before midnight on a Tuesday evening, about a year after their mother’s death (Mr Abernathy’s rest had not remained peaceful for very long, as his wife joined him in their shared grave a little more than a year after he was buried), that the two young men were hard at work on their latest project.
The candles lighting the room were little more than wicks bobbing about in watery pools inside their holders, giving the room a low orange glow like the inside of a stove where embers are still pulsing with life. Notes and drawings were spread out along the bare wooden floor or hung on the walls. In a square metal tray upon the worktable beneath the window was a grey, diced-up hunk of rubbery meat with a pungent, vinegary odour. Its dryness suggested that it had been there for some time.
Seated nearby was the eldest brother, George, filing a metal disc smaller than a half farthing with the aid of a loupe positioned over his left eye. In one hand he held a pair of tweezers that had the disc clamped firmly between their jaws. His eyes felt strained from having to concentrate on such a small thing by the dying candlelight for so long. Once he had filed the piece until the corner was smooth, he brought a segment of machinery, about the size of a snuffbox, closer towards him, carefully inserting the newly cut piece in amongst all the other equally delicate metal parts. A small click informed him that it was in its proper place. Laying the loupe aside, he placed the completed segment on his palm and carried it over to the wooden table behind him where his brother was at work on the main body of their creation.
Sitting upon the table was a humanoid automaton. Although it had a head, arms and upper torso, its body abruptly ended there. The torso was a patchwork of copper plates welded together, with two ball-shaped joints at the ends of its shoulders where the skeletal arms were attached. Its eyes were mismatched in size and shape, the right being far larger than the left. Both had black, glassy lenses with steel shutters; the larger eye was wide open while the other was partially shut. The top of the gaping head revealed its inner workings, its glass, domed crown resting on hinges at the back of its head. Attached to the left wrist was a metallic hand skinned in copper. The iron joints, rubber tendons and steel springs allowed it all the flexibility and dexterity of a human hand. The right hand was lying on Douglas Abernathy’s lap as he finished tightening a catch controlling the middle finger. Two years George’s junior, his face was longer, and its features more angular and expressive than his brother’s, although he was just as lean and, at that moment, just as dishevelled and tired-looking around the eyes. His auburn hair had more of a wave than a curl to it and was parted slightly to the side. One thick curl swung down over his forehead and stuck out at an awkward angle at the side of his head.
He tugged at the metal fingers to make sure that all the mechanisms were connected before reattaching the hand to the android’s wrist.
‘Is the last bit finished?’ he asked George.
‘I believe so. Hold it in place while I attach it to the rest.’
Douglas held the chunk of mechanical brain between his thumb and forefinger while George fixed it in place inside the android’s head. When he was finished, Douglas removed his fingers and flipped the glass dome over its brain, fastening the latch on the side of its head.
‘That’s it.’ Douglas turned towards his brother. ‘Ready?’
George held up a small wind-up key and inserted it into the slot in the machine’s back, giving it four stiff turns. As soon as he released his hold on the key, there came the grinding and creaking of the wheels moving inside of the machine, the sound reverberating through its metal torso. Inside the glass dome, they could see the intricate mechanisms beginning to flicker and pulse. Their movements were fluid and graceful somehow, like a faultlessly choreographed routine. The shutters over the android’s eyes began rapidly snapping open and closed. Its black eyes briefly met those of its makers and then it stared fixedly at an unknown spot past their heads. It raised its arms and let them hover in mid-air, flexing its fingers.
‘Fetch the board,’ said George, without taking his eyes off their creation. Douglas hurriedly brought a chessboard to the table and, seating himself in front of the android, began to arrange the pieces. George positioned himself adjacent to the two of them and watched proceedings with his arms folded across his chest. The throw of a dice determined that Douglas was to be black and the android white. Douglas slid one of the centre black pawns one square forward. The android’s eyes followed his move and after a second it deliberately raised its hand and slid a white pawn from the corner of the board two squares forward.
‘It knew to take advantage of the first turn even when I didn’t.’ Douglas glanced eagerly at George, whose passive expression remained unaltered.
‘Don’t make it easy for it, otherwise it’s pointless running the test.’
Douglas proceeded to put another pawn into play. The android responded to his move accordingly. After three turns it took one of Douglas’s knights. Douglas bit his lip and studied the board with his elbows propped on the table and his hands pressed together, the fingertips brushing his lower lip.
He felt it watching him.
He slid a piece forward and watched the android’s eyes roll from side to side as it calculated its next move. The metal fingers cranked open and Douglas felt a gleam of triumph as it proceeded to make the exact move that he had predicted. Douglas then moved his bishop and swiftly plucked the knight that had defeated his own from the board. The game went on for some time, each player steadily capturing the other’s pieces at an even rate. George drummed his fingers against his upper arm. He wished they would hurry it up. This was only intended as a simple, straightforward exercise; there was still much more testing to do afterwards. Eventually, only five pieces remained on the board: the two kings, a black queen, a black bishop and a white pawn. These pieces had been continually shifted around the board in what was looking increasingly like a stalemate. Then Douglas looked the android in the eye and a smile spread across his face as he deliberately moved the black queen to a square adjoining the white king. The black bishop backed the black queen from the north-west. There was no help available from the white pawn, which was stranded at the other end of the board. The white king was trapped.
‘I think you will find that is checkmate,’ he declared, although his victory was tinged with disappointment.
However, this was nothing compared to the android’s reaction.
Its shutters began blinking wildly and its limbs made spasmodic, jerky movements. One arm swept the board onto the floor, the pieces scattering and rolling away. Small streams of white smoke drifted into the air from between its joints. A grinding, screeching sound like tearing metal could be heard from inside its body. Several cracks formed in the glass dome housing its brain. George quickly pulled Douglas back by the shoulder just before the dome smashed. The force of the blast spat out splinters of glass and metal in every direction, George shielding their faces with the chessboard. The android’s half-emptied head swayed a little from side to side a moment and then drooped. Its arms clattered listlessly onto the table.
George lowered the chessboard, and they both watched the android cautiously for several minutes.
‘Well,’ said Douglas eventually, ‘I’d say it was a bad loser.’
‘You must have done something it didn’t expect that caused it to break down.’
George hesitantly approached the android and inspected it from all angles. He then turned his attention to one single drawing fastened onto the wall and continued to stare fixedly at it. ‘Where was it we went wrong?’
‘Wrong? It was working fine up until then. It almost had me beaten.’
‘But it should have beaten you.’
‘It was able to counter my moves to prevent me winning much earlier in the game. It was actually making calculated decisions,’ Douglas pointed out. ‘Besides, no one has ever beaten me at chess, not even you.’
‘I have beaten you on several occasions and you know it.’
‘I let you win to stop the game going on for too long.’
‘That is a poor excuse,’ mumbled George, although that was precisely what he had done himself on every occasion Douglas had won a match.
‘Well, next time you can play it and see how it performs against you.’
‘There must have been a fault in the brain somewhere.’ George’s eyes travelled back to the drawing. He seemed not to have heard Douglas’s last remark.
‘George, it could have been something as insignificant as a screw that came slightly loose.’
‘I wouldn’t call it insignificant if this was the result.’ George indicated the defective android. ‘And that was only meant to be an initial test. We didn’t get on to any of the real experiments. If we can’t even make something as simple as a machine that can play games, how are we to hope of achieving anything greater?’
‘Making a machine that can actually make its own decisions is still an achievement in itself.’
‘The brain is still too limited,’ muttered George. ‘A child of average intelligence can play chess with a reasonable degree of skill. Was our objective not to build a device that could surpass the capabilities of the human mind?’
‘Well, I suppose that was the idea, yes. But perhaps the reason we’re having difficulties with it is because our own minds have not been working at their full capability recently, what with all the additional work we’ve had to take on.’
‘You mean mending pewter tea sets and brass ornaments?’ returned George curtly, as he sat down on a chair. ‘Hardly trying work.’
While George brooded over a diagram of the failed mechanical brain, with his pencil hovering over the paper, Douglas went to a lever in the wall and pulled it. Moments later a small automaton scarcely fifteen inches high came speeding through the little flap in the door adjoining the house. It was made of tin and had a leather pouch on its back. One of its arms was shaped like a funnel while the other clutched a small broom. It slowly made its way around the room sucking up the fragments of glass and metal.
Stifling a yawn, Douglas took out his pocket watch and flipped the lid open. ‘We can get about five hours’ sleep before we have to open up shop. There’s not much use in stewing over it anymore tonight at any rate. We can try to find out what went wrong in the morning.’
‘It’s already morning.’
Not wishing to justify this remark with an answer, Douglas snapped the watch’s lid shut and began blowing out the last few remaining candles. The little cleaning machine completed its sweep of the room and retreated through the door flap. All the while George had not moved. The back of his dark head and the arm that held the pencil could be seen in the moonlight leaking in from the landing as Douglas held the door ajar with the only remaining lit candle in his hand.
‘Are you coming or do you plan on sitting there in the dark until sunrise?’ Douglas asked, as he stood in the doorway. After a moment George disappeared from view, leaving only the empty chair and the pencil upon the worktable. He emerged onto the second-storey landing and stood there with his hands in his pockets and his head cast down while Douglas locked the door. He headed for the stairs.
‘Aren’t you going to bed?’ asked Douglas, slipping the large brass key into his pocket.
‘I don’t feel that I can sleep just yet. I think I’ll stay up a while.’
‘Mind you don’t wake Molly and me when you come up.’ Douglas advanced downstairs a couple of steps after his brother. ‘Just remember you are not a machine, George.’
He wasn’t sure whether George made any response – he had already disappeared further down the stairs. Douglas stopped at the first floor. There were two doors on the landing. Their younger sister’s room was the smallest one on the right, which the family’s long-serving maidservant, Anne Snell, had formerly occupied. The second room on the left, which the three of them had shared as children, was now solely occupied by Douglas. The largest bedroom, which had been their mother and father’s, and where both their parents had passed away, was on the second floor. After their mother’s death, George had ransacked it and moved himself in; its contents he either assimilated, sold or threw out.
Douglas softly shut his bedroom door and set the candle down on the pine chest of drawers beside the bed. The additional space was useful as it meant that he could work more freely on projects of his own, yet there was something in the hollow ring of his footsteps on the floorboards that even now still seemed strange to him. He changed into his nightshirt and snuffed out the candle before he lay down under the cold bedclothes.
Douglas blinked in the dark, finding like George that he too could not sleep.
The ear that was not pressed against the pillow caught the ticking of the clocks from the shop directly below the bedroom. He was sure that he could faintly hear the creak of George’s boots crossing the parlour floor, followed by the sound of glass clinking. In his mind’s eye he watched George pour brandy from the decanter on the table into a tumbler until it was a quarter full, replace the stopper with a soft chink, and then carry it over to their father’s old wooden chair. Its familiar creak just about registered with Douglas’s ear. He saw George sitting there taking the occasional sip of brandy as he stared fixedly at some spot on the wall, his mind elsewhere.
The ticking seemed to grow sharper, each strike of the second hand cutting into Douglas’s eardrum and causing the blood in his ear to give a giddy leap. The sound built up and up until all the clocks burst into a chorus of chiming to welcome the new hour, each clock in perfect synchrony with the others. After the second chime rang out and dissolved away, the ticking resumed steadily. Douglas tried to smother it by putting his pillow over his head.
His past, present and future was in that sound, that one, ceaseless, monotonous sound forever marching onward, indifferent to the affairs and systems of man. He’d had it in his ears for the entire twenty-two years of his life. He removed the pillow and sat upright. Gradually his eyes grew accustomed to the dark, and vague, grey shapes condensed out of the black. George’s words had stirred up the fear that had been sleeping in the back of his mind. Was this really all their future was to be? Perhaps they were to remain poor clockmakers forever after all. It had been their parents’ desire that he and George remain tethered to the family business and now, when they were finally no longer bound by any small sense of parental duty, it seemed they had nowhere else to go. They were just about scraping a living repairing watches or whatever else people happened to bring their way – they’d fixed everything from candlesticks to antique guns. (Hardly anyone ever actually bought the brothers’ watches, even though many remarked that they were some of the most exquisitely crafted timepieces in all of London.) It was not the nature of the work they minded – clockmaking was in their blood and was second nature to them both, after all – but they were greatly frustrated at not being able to afford the time or the resources to exercise their full capabilities. They had certainly never been encouraged by their parents or anyone else to make something more of themselves besides simple clockmakers. In fact, their father had conceived a deep-seated jealousy of his sons’ natural gifts. Although Mr Abernathy had once been on his way to making something of a name for himself as a talented clockmaker and inventor, what George and Douglas were able to produce transcended anything he had been capable of. By the time they were at an age where most children were still learning to string their letters together, they had mastered the art of watchmaking and outstripped their father’s abilities. They could produce mechanical animals that moved, acted and sounded identical to the real creatures themselves. They built machines that simulated all manner of human behaviour, and others that could perform complex calculations with remarkable accuracy. They designed larger devices that were powered by wind, steam and electricity, which (if they worked) could revolutionise public transport and industry. While they were still boys, the two of them had actually gone as far as to steal the clock in the church tower so they could harvest it for parts. It was George’s idea of course. Douglas smiled to himself as he recalled the memory, even though he had been sure that they would be thrown into prison or transported to Australia at the time as he was helping to pull the wagon containing the stolen clock through the backstreets and alleyways of London. It had been a risky escapade but they had been in desperate need of parts for the android they were building. They wanted to build a machine to replace the family’s maidservant. They had actually managed to get it working rather well until they came home one day to find it with a poker through its chest and Snell sat knitting by the hearth with a smug look on her face.
Feeling his eyes grow heavy, Douglas let his head sink back onto the pillow and his memories were succeeded by dreams.