A Soul's Worth

By TS_Barnett All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Horror

Chapter Twenty-Nine

In the autumn of 1891, Warren stood on the small, makeshift platform that had been erected at the entrance to a massive brick building. He wore a tailored black suit with long tails and a dark grey overcoat, the silver chain of his pocket watch glinting in the light as he checked the time. He tucked the watch back into the pocket of his grey waistcoat and glanced around at the gathering, feeling the weight of the flask in his pocket as he buttoned his coat.

Cam and Elizabeth stood off to the side with two other men in dress attire, and a large group of laborers filled the space between the platform and the building. The Travers stood on the ground at the front of the platform, ensuring that the gathered press kept a polite distance. Warren passed by a dark cloth covering something easily seven feet tall, the edge of the sheet fluttering slightly in the light breeze. Flashbulbs went off at the base of the platform, and Warren could hear the whirring of a few cinematographs capturing his movement as he approached the standing microphone at the front of the platform. He flinched very slightly against the light of the dreary day and paused to remove a pair of darkly tinted pince nez from his waistcoat pocket, settling them on his nose.

“Good afternoon, gentlemen,” he began. “I’m very pleased that you’ve come to celebrate the opening of this factory with me. With the help of the fine gentlemen you see here—as well as my lovely wife—I believe this factory can be the spearhead of a revolution in labor forces and worker safety. I’m sure that all of you are familiar with my automatons, and some of you may even have one in your home. My personal service line has shown that it is possible to create intelligent, self-motivated servants without sacrificing loyalty for awareness. Today, I would like to go a step further.”

He gestured back to Elizabeth and the men lined along the edge of the platform. “Coal mines are the foundation of modern society. Without fuel, every luxury—and every necessity—that we enjoy today would be impossible. But the human cost is high, and I for one would rather see far fewer families ruined by the loss of men simply wishing to provide for them. To that end, I am proud to introduce the zero-two line, available beginning this winter.”

At Warren’s signal, Cam tugged on one end of the cloth covering the new golem, and it slipped free to reveal the machine’s massive body, built of polished iron and fastened with thick bolts. The square on its chest glowed blue, as did the line that took the place of eyes on its mouthless face. The golem took a heavy step forward, rattling the platform, and stood still to allow the multitude of camera flashes to capture its likeness.

“Good afternoon,” it said in a rumbling voice that seemed to echo within its metal shape. The effect was a bit alarming without the humanizing motion of a mouth, but the golem bowed with grace seemingly disproportionate to its bulky form, and the applause from the surrounding press increased.

“This line is built to withstand the hard labor of a coal mine,” Warren said, touching the machine’s gleaming arm. “They will be able to dig deeper, build faster, and haul heavier loads than the strongest human worker. Each unit will come equipped with first aid knowledge so that they may help their human fellows in the event of an injury, as well as an internal methane detector to prevent workers from entering dangerous areas. It is my sincere hope that these machines will improve the efficiency of our mines, increase their output, and keep its workers safer.”

A new round of applause was soon replaced by raised hands and shouts, and Warren pointed out one of the men near the base of the platform. “John Platt, Fulham and Hammersmith Chronicle, Mr. Hayward,” the man called. “Do you mean to replace the workers themselves with your automatons? What good will they do the working man if he loses his employment because of them?”

“Absolutely not,” Warren answered immediately. “The zero-two line exists to supplement the worker, not replace him. In addition, I’ve already employed fifty workers at my factory here in London, and I expect that number only to grow. My automatons are intelligent, and they can be taught any number of skills, but only a man has the insight and intuition to judge a situation in the moment. I have no interest in putting good men out of work, and I believe the human element is necessary in any business.”

He gestured to one of the other shouting men, who addressed himself as “Phillip Palmer, South London Press.” When Warren nodded, the man went on, “Mr. Hayward, if the zero-two line proves a success, have you any plans to expand into other industries? Can we expect to see automatons manning shops or driving taxis in London? Perhaps even military applications?”

Warren raised a hand against the murmur that went through the crowd. “Thankfully, we are at present enjoying a time of peace,” he said, “but that is not to say that this will always be the case. I have been in early talks regarding the future safety and protection of Her Majesty’s empire, but I am not at liberty to say any more than this.”

More shouts sounded from the gathering, and Warren answered questions about the golem’s specifications, the state of the factory, how many machines he expected to ship before the year was out, and a number of other boring things. There would be no shortage of bodies to power his golems now. Elizabeth’s mines in Virginia lost plenty of workers every year to accident or disease—an accepted number that could be reasonably inflated without suspicion—and the men that his golems did inevitably displace would find themselves one of the poor unfortunates that went unmissed. Whether men stayed employed in the mines or not, there would always be bodies, either from England or America.

Simon knew the ritual and could pass it on to a limited number of trustworthy witches who didn’t mind working as butchers, and the factory had been placed strategically above an entrance to the den of the Llewan. Any questioning or investigation that might be done could easily be turned aside by Warren himself, either by money or magic.

The only obstacle in his path stood at the back of the crowd with folded arms, watching him with familiar hazel eyes. Ben had been like a ghost ever since their parting last winter—Warren saw him like a shadow out of the corner of his eye, seemingly everywhere he went. He kept waiting for the other man to make his move, but so far it hadn’t come. It was of little concern to him—he didn’t consider Ben a threat so much as a troubling reminder that he didn’t need.

He caught Ben’s eyes from across the chattering group of reporters, but the inspector’s face was hard and unforgiving as he leaned in to whisper to a man beside him. He knew that Ben was only waiting until the moment he thought Warren was vulnerable—even a single moment when he could be overpowered. There was very little chance of being able to set the blame for the continued disappearances at his feet without also revealing his use of magic to the world, which Ben simply couldn’t do. He would either look like a madman, or the truth would finally be revealed to the modern world. The chaos that would follow the latter outcome was not something Ben would be willing to risk, so his only remaining option was to take justice into his own hands.

Warren had heard through some quiet questioning that Ben was one of the most active inspectors in London—constantly on the street with his constables and on his own. He was looking for gaps in Warren’s security, lapses in judgment or consideration. Surely he hoped that with the opening of this new factory, he would be able to find some hole in Warren’s plan, but there could be none now. He was too focused, his mind too clear. He would no longer suffer the fear of discovery or the anxiety that came with the risk of maintaining a love like they had. He took his pleasure now where and when he desired, at a hotel or in one of Wakefield’s rooms during one of his many parties, and he did so without fear. Nothing could touch him now.

When Warren looked into Ben’s eyes, he saw a man desperate, driven to obsession by misplaced guilt. He knew that the inspector would never leave his shadow until one or the other of them was dead. Watching him now, Warren felt nothing of the love he had known in years past for the gentle man who glared at him with such bitterness. He felt nothing at all. He couldn’t feel the familiar patter his heart used to make when Ben entered a room or the exhilaration when Ben caught him in his arms and kissed him. He would never know again the warm touch of the inspector’s hand on his cheek, the sight of him smiling when he first woke up, or the sound of his voice muffled around a mouthful of stolen chocolate biscuits.

But he remembered.

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