It was a quarter past two on a Monday afternoon—April 24, 1893, to be exact—when Miss Sophie Bradshaw’s office door flew open with hurricane force. This action sent every neatly collated paper on her desk skittering wildly, testing both her secretarial duties and social charms. She pursed her lips. Only one person arrived at Mayor Goldberg’s domain in such a whirling dervish. A glance at the tall man advancing across the tastefully furnished room confirmed her assumption. "Slow news day, Mr. Taylor?"
"That depends on your perspective, Miss Bradshaw." Jack Taylor flashed a cheeky grin while perching on a corner of her desk. "Somehow I never find the day to be slow whenever I’m around you."
The handsome rogue's intense, blue-eyed gaze made her wish she’d worn anything but her prim brown dress.
He withdrew a pad and pencil from one pocket of his charcoal cutaway. "Now, what’s the latest scuttlebutt from the mayor? I know you’re dying to tell me."
"Oh? I was under the impression that more important matters demanded my attention." Sophie gestured impatiently at the disheveled papers. "Perhaps I’ll think differently after my day’s work is properly restored." Her lips quirked. "Shall we see?"
Jack chuckled. "All the world’s tyrants have nothing on you, my dear." He placed his pad down and quickly re-organized the papers. One in particular caught his interest. It was stamped "Confidential: Not for Public Consumption." That part he ignored as he quickly scanned the rest. "I wouldn’t be a gentleman if I didn’t offer to help clean up your mess, now would I?"
"No, apparently not!" Sophie snatched the paper away from him. "I thank you for your virtue!" She gestured behind her to the closed door of the mayor’s office. "If you’ll excuse me, His Honor will be leaving for Doctor Vecktor’s presentation soon. I must accompany him."
"Ah. I’d wondered why the town hall was so deserted." After retrieving his pad and pencil, he settled into a chair opposite her desk. "I’d wager this is the most exciting event to happen in Daverton since Old Man Harris rode his prize goat during the Rhododendron Festival."
"I wouldn’t know."
Jack tsked. "Missed my thrilling expose there, did you? Pity. So what’s this I hear about Vecktor’s latest invention?"
Sophie continued collating without looking up. "Why don’t you ask him? That’s the purpose of the presentation before he heads to Chicago next week for the World's Columbian Exposition."
"I’ve heard it’s called the ‘Soldier of the Future’, the ‘iron man that will fight all of our coming wars’?"
Sophie glanced up from her files, but revealed nothing. Still, she was secretly impressed by Jack's tenacity. When the man was after something, "relentless" became his middle name. For some reason, the thought made her shiver.
"Now maybe it’s a bane of my profession, but let’s say I’ve met enough ‘miracle elixir’ salesmen in my time to learn that products don’t always meet their advertised promise. But maybe I’m just a cynic." Jack cocked a brow. "What do you think?"
"I think you’re certainly persistent and that such information is private until determined otherwise." Sophie placed the papers down. "But, if you really must know, ‘Mayor Goldberg salutes the work of Doctor Vecktor,’" she said, reciting the statement the mayor had reserved for the press. "‘His wondrous advances in steam technology are sure to revolutionize the art of warfare and resurrect America’s Manifest Destiny.’"
"I see his nephew has grown adept at speechwriting. Clever." Jack recorded the information dutifully. "However," he began, and then paused with a dramatic intake of breath.
He leaned across the desk, his expression serious. "There’s just one problem."
"That’s not the question I asked." He seized Sophie’s arm. "I want to know what you think, not what someone told you to read."
Sophie's breath hitched. The man’s nearness was…disconcerting, yet not altogether unpleasant. "I think…I would like to believe all possibilities for a brighter future."
Jack snorted while releasing her. "Now there’s a real headline for The Tattler." He fished a small package from a pocket. "By the way, this is for you." He plopped it into her hands.
As she opened it, Sophie gasped. "Black licorice! My favorite! How did you know?" She cleared her throat. "Not that I’m admitting to any such indulgence."
Jack smiled, once again displaying his attractive set of teeth. "It’s my job to notice these things, darling. How long have I been coming here, anyway? I can’t even recall."
"Every Monday for the past two years, three months, and one week."
"Really?" His rakish smile returned. "You certainly keep accurate records on our rendezvous."
Sophie blushed. "I don’t! I mean, I’m required to maintain a visitor log." She pointed to the one splayed open before her. "Nothing special about you, Mr. Taylor, if your fragile ego can bear the news."
Unperturbed, he winked. "Is that your official reason?"
"Then perhaps," he said in a voice so low it curled her toes, "you would like to whisper the unofficial reason in my ear over dinner tonight?"
Such arrogance! But Sophie would never know how she might have answered, for just then a voice interrupted their exchange. "’Scuse me, Miss Bradshaw." A man in a gray uniform stood in the doorway. "Got any trash?"
Sophie smiled. "Please come in, Mr. Carter. There’s definitely a fair amount of rubbish in here." She cast a pointed look toward a bemused Jack as she gestured to an overflowing dustbin. The janitor went to work.
"All done, Miss," Carter said with a tip of his hat moments later. He nodded at Jack. "And a pleasant day to you, sir."
At the doorway, he turned back. "Yes?"
Sophie picked up the package of licorice and sashayed over to him. "How is Gracie?"
"Just fine, Miss Bradshaw, just fine."
"Excellent!" Sophie handed him the package with a smile. "Here. Sweets for your daughter."
Carter grinned back. The mahogany skin of his face practically glowed with excitement. "Thank you kindly, Miss Bradshaw! She’ll enjoy them, I’m sure." He tipped his hat again. "You have a very pleasant day."
After Carter’s exit, Sophie returned to her desk. Jack feigned a wounded expression. She rolled her eyes. "Oh, spare me. A lady does not surrender her heart for sweets alone. At least, this one doesn’t."
Jack rubbed a hand against his chin. "Hmm. I see." He flipped open his pad to a fresh page. "Well, let’s get back to business. I’ve one more question." Holding his pencil firmly, he regarded her with a dangerous glint in his eyes.
Sophie sighed. The man was incorrigible. "All right. What is it?"
"Will you marry me?"
Sophie’s heart pounded. Had she heard him correctly? As she stood there with her mouth hanging open, a cacophony exploded from within the mayor’s office. Glass breaking. Wood splintering. A chilling scream followed, only to fall abruptly silent.
Sophie and Jack exchanged shocked looks as they flew to the mayor’s door. Sophie reached it first and flung it open. At the sight before her, she pressed a hand to her mouth. "Oh no! Mr. Mayor!"
A heinous machine gripped the limp form of the mayor. Triple pairs of multi-jointed metal claws held him in a death grip. They slammed the mayor against the wall like a rag doll. The bulk of the attacker, an impossibly large, boxy contraption, stood outside. It had broken through the bay window overlooking Main Street.
The sight of the mechanical nightmare froze Sophie's blood. Where had it come from? The metallic devil was at least the height of two men. Brass-rimmed holes spotted its armored body, from which reticulated metal tentacles extended and retracted. A silver dome gave the appearance of a head—albeit an inhuman one.
Jack came up behind her. "What in holy hell is that?"
"We must help him!" Sophie ran inside. Instantly, another tentacle snaked its way out from one of the holes. In one fell swoop, it lifted the massive oak desk and hurled it against the door, sending a shower of splinters and wall plaster raining down on her.
The infernal device had trapped her.
Over the hiss of steam and grinding shrieks of the bizarre automaton, she could barely hear Jack’s shouts as he pounded on the other side of the blocked door.
Swallowing her fear, Sophie cried out the mayor’s name. Wet gurgling noises were her only answer. A sickening snapping sound followed--bones being broken. A thick river of blood followed. Crimson stains splattered the floor, the walls, and even the ceiling. The invader was literally tearing the man apart!
Sophie’s stomach roiled in revolt, but she forced herself into action regardless, searching frantically for a weapon or anything with enough power to stop the attacker. The poker by the Franklin stove seemed her only option. But to reach it, she’d have to come within range of the automaton.
The choice was clear.
Sophie made a run for it. During her flight, she threw books, papers and even objets d'art toward the attacker. Her effort made no difference. Or did it?
She heard a thump. Glancing left, she saw the mayor’s body on the floor. Faster than she could blink, a tentacle shot straight toward her. Sophie lunged for the poker. Her fingers closed upon air as a steely embrace jerked her back. She screamed as more tentacles quickly coiled about her torso.
She kicked, punched, scratched—all to no avail. Visions of the mayor’s fate fed her panic anew. But no matter how wildly she thrashed about, the shattered bay window rushed toward her at breakneck speed.
Pain registered sharply all over her body as her captor yanked her outside amid splintered glass. Then she was soaring through the air, completely disoriented and fearing imminent death.
Only the flowerbed on the lawn saved her from such a fate. Still, the shock of landing rendered her completely breathless. Vaguely, she became aware of someone calling her name.
"Sophie! Where are you?" Footsteps pounded nearby. Then, "Sophie! Are you all right?"
Strong yet gentle hands began assessing her for injuries. Jack. She opened her eyes. The concern in his gaze nearly melted away her pain.
Movement over his shoulder drew her attention away. She saw the invader advancing toward the town square. With a violent thrust forward, it quickly gained momentum upon its network of industrial-strength wheels. Beyond it, a mere block away, was the platform for Vecktor’s presentation. Sophie shuddered. Nearly all of the townspeople would gather at the platform for the event.
She grabbed Jack's arm. "Must stop…that machine. It will kill everyone."
Jack nodded while helping her into a sitting position. "Stay here."
"Wait!" Sophie tightened her grip. "You can’t do it alone. Trust me." At Jack’s questioning look, she pointed south of the invader. A figure was chasing it, his stained white lab coat flapping in the air behind him.
"Help me stand, Jack." The reporter pulled her up effortlessly, an act that made her almost as breathless as her fall. She tugged on his hand and pointed. "There’s Dr. Vecktor. He might know how to shut it off. Hurry!"
Pain shot through Sophie’s right side. Grimacing, she did her level best to ignore it as they raced toward the scientist. As they neared, she saw that his gaze was fixed on the automaton.
Sophie waved for his attention. "Excuse me! Dr. Vecktor!"
Vecktor’s bushy gray mustache twitched in perfect syncopation as he jotted notes as fast as his pencil would allow. "Not now, child. This presents a rare opportunity for observation. No further interruptions, if you please."
Sophie and Jack shared a look of disbelief. Jack spoke first. "That fiend is on a rampage! It’ll destroy us all!"
"And the mayor! Oh, Doctor Vecktor, you should have seen what it did to him! He…it…." The disturbing memory hit her like an avalanche. She buried her face against Jack’s shoulder. "He’s dead. I saw it happen…all of it!"
Vecktor stopped writing. He turned to the pair. "Killed him?"
Sophie could practically see the wheels turning in his mind. How could he be so nonchalant in the face of such horror?
"Yes, man, that's what we're trying to tell you!" Jack boomed.
Vecktor's eyes gleamed. "He must have threatened X59 in some manner. It’s the only explanation."
Jack scowled. "You mean you know that thing?"
"Know it? Well, of course I ‘know it.’ I built it. X59 is my gift to the world."
Jack lunged forward, fists raised. Sophie pulled him back. "Stop! There’s been enough violence for one day, and…I’m sure Dr. Vecktor has his reasons. The most important goal now is to stop that menace."
Vecktor adjusted his glasses, coolly and calmly. "I’ll do nothing of the sort. You young people and your petty isolationism! Forces are even now mobilizing in Europe. They'll launch a conflagration of death the world has never yet seen. In this sense, X59 and his descendants will be our soldiers of the new century. If some eggs need to be broken to see my plan through, so be it."
Sophie couldn’t believe what she was hearing. And from Jack’s expression, neither could he. The pair turned to the war machine, which was currently bashing a statue of Daverton’s founder to pebbles. The scene was completely incongruous with Vecktor’s detachment.
"Doctor, is that really your idea of a gift?" said Jack.
"That, boy, is science in motion. Progress. But I wouldn’t expect you to understand."
Sophie turned to Jack. His eyebrow cocked; his intention was obvious. She turned a withering gaze upon the scientist. "What I said before, Jack? Never mind."
Pow! One haymaker later, Vecktor lay in the dust. His notepad fell beside him, leafed through by a slight breeze.
Jack straightened his waistcoat. "I rather enjoyed that."
"Not as much as I did," Sophie replied.
A scream from across the square broke the reverie. After destroying the statue, X59 had set its destructive goals elsewhere—a group of bystanders. Tentacles waving, it advanced toward them like a mechanized Medusa. Squaring his shoulders, Jack stepped forward.
"Wait, Mr. Taylor."
Sophie and Jack turned to see Mr. Carter approaching. Several thick chains crisscrossed his chest and he carried a dented metal toolbox in his right hand. "I saw what that crazy monster did. You go charging off alone, you’re liable to wind up like His Honor, God rest his soul." He laid down the chains and opened the toolbox. "But my auntie always told me three heads were better than one." He brought out two iron pipes. "Now I don’t know what that thing is, but I know from my smithy days I ain’t never met an opponent who can live up to one of these." He brandished one of the pipes, smacking its business end into his other hand.
Jack rushed up to him, a cocky grin on his face. "I’d like to meet your auntie one day so we two can tell her how we gave Vecktor's steam-belching invader a righteous thrashing!"
"I hope by saying 'two,'" Sophie said, picking up one of the chains, "that you meant 'three.' Right, Jack?"
Jack opened his mouth to respond, but quickly reconsidered. "Right. Here’s what we do."
Metallic claws clicking ferociously, X59 advanced toward the
bystanders. They backed away slowly. One tripped and fell as the attacker
bellowed a guttural grinding sound. An unholy scent of oil and death hung in
X59 raised a claw. As it descended, a long chain whipped around its base. Another immediately followed and secured the opposite claw. The X59 stopped, obviously confused.
At the other end of the chains, Mr. Carter strained to pull the monster back. He dug his boot heels into the ground to gain traction. Heat and ash vomited forth from the automaton's exhaust vents. Its wheels sped up, throwing loose gravel in the janitor’s sweaty face.
"Go!" Carter yelled. "I can only hold it for a few minutes!"
Sophie and Jack ran forth in tandem—both with determined grimaces, both wielding pipes above their heads. Their target: the automaton’s silver dome. Jack leaped to it and then hauled Sophie up beside him.
They delivered blow after smashing blow. Dents appeared. Then one heavy stroke from Jack knocked the automaton's "head" partially aside. Sophie glimpsed a mass of tubes and spinning gears. "That's our target!" she cried. She and Jack simply had to remove the dome in time.
Jack raised his pipe to deliver the final blow, but one of X59’s tentacles knocked his arm back. Another coiled around his chest, and then his neck.
"Jack!" Fear gripped Sophie. Was he doomed to the same fate as the mayor?
Jack struggled to speak, but the monster was crushing the air from his lungs. With great effort, he pointed to the disjointed head.
Sophie understood. Though her ribs wailed in protest, she delivered her mightiest blow against the dome—only it wasn’t enough. Three more tentacles shot out, capturing her. Then X59 broke free of an exhausted Carter. The unbound chains whipped through the air like vipers.
As the tentacles began constricting her, Sophie knew she had only one chance before she lost consciousness. And only one chance to save Jack's life.
She wedged her pipe into the opening, using the dome as a lever and the main body as the fulcrum. Her vision started to fade as pain radiated throughout her body. Please! Just a few more seconds!
Sophie exerted her last ounce of strength. The silver dome flew off the X59 in a mini explosion of sparks. She then plunged her pipe into its mechanical brain as deep as it would go. Would it be enough?
The automaton screeched to a halt. Sophie and Jack tumbled to the ground.
Air rushed back into her lungs. She raised her head above the billowing dust. X59 emitted a metallic howl along with a few sporadic puffs of steam. But it didn't move.
X59 was no more.
A victorious smile spread across Sophie's face. She and Jack had succeeded. Together.
Jack stood, eyeing the automaton one last time to ensure it posed no further threat. Sophie admired him from below. His towering figure looked like an imposing warrior of old against the bright blue sky. Smiling, he extended his arm down. She slipped her hand into his large, warm one and rose to her feet.
As the death knell of the fallen X59 faded, the townspeople crept out of hiding. But Sophie and Jack—bruised, bloodied, but alive—didn’t notice. They were too busy with other matters, namely, each other.
Sophie placed a tentative hand against his chest. "Jack, I have a question for you, this time."
Jack pulled her close. "Yes?"
"Is your offer of marriage still open?"
His expression grew tender. "More than ever, darling. More than ever!"Without further ado, Jack kissed Sophie passionately. She had to admit it was a fitting end to a most unfitting day.