Beads of sweat dripped from Charles's forehead onto the umber metal casing, a punctuation of his effort more fitting than the clang of his hammer. His was a labor defined by determination. Ridicule and persecution be damned, Charles was proud of his work and he would finish it today.
He wiped the contoured surface of the metal with a fresh rag and turned the casing in the lamp light. The matte surface reflected the light as a warm glow, like bronzed skin. As it should. Charles trailed his calloused fingers down the defined curves and smooth planes of the metal casing. The thing was an ideal crafted from a memory embellished by time, but Charles had worked too long to care.
He carried the final piece of casing into the small room adjoining his shop. The familiar warmth of the rich tapestries and brocade curtains of the room calmed his nerves. He stood in front of the metal body strapped to the tilted table at the room's center and smiled. This was it. The final testament to his endeavor of love.
The interior had been the most difficult part of the job. Replicating facial muscles with man's supplies, not God's, had nearly forced Charles to abandon his work. For months it had seemed too delicate, too complex. Yet Charles never could accept that his task was impossible.
Charles took one final look at the exposed cross section of cogs, gears and elements meticulously crafted and painstakingly assembled from his own blueprints, and felt ready to complete years of work. He reached between the metal ribs and gripped the end of the small key protruding from the heart with trembling fingers. One swift turn set the gears in place, and Charles pulled the key free.
He frowned as silence reigned. No whirring. No gentle hum of rotating gears. No piston beats.
Charles gripped the metal in his hands until his knuckles turned white. He'd tested the design piece by piece! The lungs worked! The heart could beat! He'd seen it with his own eyes.
A chill took hold of his spine. Had he missed some essential connection or piece? Was his overall design poor? Charles could not bear the thought of ripping apart his creation. He feared what he would find. Flaws. Failure. Desiccation.
He placed the chest casing carefully over the exposed works of the metal body and brushed his fingertips against the vessel's cheek. The tanner, after receiving exorbitant monetary compensation, had done a perfect job of saving James's face, which Charles had positioned over the metal skull with the utmost care. The rest of James's skin had been lost in the fire that took his life.
What the flames had taken away, Charles would return with his machine. He shoved his fears aside and, after setting the key and chest casing on a nearby chair, examined every tube, gear and connection within his view.
Minutes ticked by on the mantle clock. Then hours. Everything looked the way it should. Charles triple checked his blueprints and found, as he'd known all along, the machine was to his specifications. He growled in frustration.
As a last resort, Charles unscrewed the tiny bolts holding the front panel of James's new heart in place and pulled the metal panel away. The problem stared back at him. So simple! Charles laughed at his own frustration and tightened a loose screw that had forced a small wheel to become misaligned.
The heart whirred to life. Charles scrambled to refasten the heart's panel, having no idea how long it would take for James to awaken in his new body.
Metal finger joints rustled. The machine's head shifted downward, and when Charles looked up from his work it was into the green glass eyes, perfect mimics of lost tissue, of the lover he'd thought lost forever.
"I'm almost done," Charles said, grinning like a schoolboy. With the heart sealed again, he grabbed the chest casing from its perch and screwed it into place.
James made a curious noise, much like a sound a small child would make. His brows furrowed slightly.
"Take your time in speaking, dear heart. We have all the time in the world left to us now." Charles carefully unbuckled the leather restraints holding James to the table and helped the clockwork man to his feet. He marveled at the rapidly changing expressions on James's face, though they did seem more subdued than they once were. A minor drawback in the scheme of things. The love of Charles's life was returned to him. By his own hands!
James slowly surveyed the room. His eyes fell on Charles again and he opened and closed his mouth several times, as if testing the aperture. All of the gears and joints had been well oiled, and Charles knew the vocal system worked.
"Sir," James said. His voice was deep, breathy, and not at all like the melodic tenor he once had.
"Sir?" Charles echoed.
"Who am I?"