The station hummed with life, people arriving and departing, coming together and splitting apart like nervous little animals come to size each other up before going about their business. A thousand conversations hung above the people like a cloud. Harried mothers struggled to keep their broods and their bags within sight while shooting wary glances at the huge clock that hung suspended from the forty-foot ceiling. Travelers, the weary ones just off a dirigible and the fresh faced ones looking to meet their conveyances, milled about in the confusion of the crowd, looking like toys that children had set in motion independently of each other, oblivious to the actions of their playmates.
I sat on a hard wooden bench and watched it all. The energy of the place made me think of a spring wound too tight. The tension in the station–the tension of departure and return–made me uneasy, as though one little problem with the dirigibles or the timetables, with luggage or tickets would throw everything out of balance; even something as simple as the discovery of a pickpocket would wind the spring one tick tighter and the whole place would pop into pandemonium. I felt it could happen. I always felt it could happen on days like this, and I did not want to be there.
All the more reason to get it over with, I thought. Just one more quarter and I would have enough to earn my night’s rest.
I’d been sizing up marks since the big clock had read 2:16. No one had struck me right. Now the clock read 4:02, and its ticking high above the rows of benches was just one more thing to worry about. If I didn’t find someone by 5:00, I would have a problem. There aren’t many places lonelier than a dirigible station on a Sunday evening once the majority of flights have left and most of the travelers have gone. The five o’clock chimes would signal the shift, the winding down of the springs, the beginning of the change from hectic to languid. I wouldn’t be entirely alone, not for a few more hours, but the crowds would thin to the point that it would be hard for me to move about unnoticed.
For now, I could, though. In all of this bustle, no one paid attention to a little boy who walked with purpose through the station. It was plain enough to see I was on my way to or from my parents, that I needed no help, made no demands. I could slip in and out of large and small parties, picking up bits of blustery greetings and tearful goodbyes as I looked for the right person. I was picky, had been taught to be, and it had always worked. I’d never failed, never been hauled up to one of the station police with their big coats and little eyes and ugly nightsticks.
Two benches away, someone’s aunt admonished her niece to be careful, not to talk to strange men on the flight, to go straight to her hotel when she reached San Francisco, to wire for money if she needed anything, and to come home right away if she felt the least bit unsafe. Her shrill voice cut through the hum of the station, and once I started listening to that voice, it would not be drowned out. I glanced back to see the pair. The aunt was gray and pinched. The niece was young and blonde but not a girl any more, and she smiled politely, surely having heard it all before, and probably having dealt already with more real dangers in life than the aunt would even let herself imagine. Neither one would make a decent mark–the aunt too cautious, the niece too eager.
I had only just dismissed them as possibilities when a more promising figure entered my line of sight. A man had sat down on the bench not far from me. He had a single, small valise at his feet, and he sat stiffly for a moment, pulling out a pocket watch and checking it against the clock above him. With a satisfied grin below his Clark Gable mustache, he let himself rest against the bench. He looked moneyed but not overly so–the kind of man who would want to hold on to what he had and who would look for opportunities to get more. His clothes were nice but not new. He had no wedding ring. All things I’d been trained to look for.
I stood, casually patted my jacket pocket to feel the bug even though I knew it was there, and walked toward the man. I didn’t look at him, didn’t even glance his way. Nothing to make him notice me. But as I passed him, I started counting my steps until I reached the end of the bench. Then I turned away from the waiting area and toward the platform.
Large marble pillars separated the waiting area from the loading platform, and I ducked behind one, glancing first at the mark I had chosen to make sure he was making no preparations to move. The clock read 4:06 now. The San Francisco flight would depart at 4:40 and would start boarding any moment. The trick was to get him just moments before he needed to start gathering his things for the trip. That way, if he was suspicious, his decision making process would be addled by the demands of the timetable, the cost of his ticket, and the importance of his destination. People make poor decisions when they have too many things to consider, like a machine running with too many parts rather than not enough.
The man had not moved, still sat there looking satisfied, like he had just eaten a big meal. He had not noticed me, and did not look my way now. I turned away, the pillar between us.
No one else had marked my passage toward the platform, and there was no one near me on this side of the pillars. If I stayed here long, by myself, I would eventually draw the attention of a stationmaster or ticket taker, but I knew how to be quick.
I pulled the bug from my coat pocket and considered it for a moment. A sleek, black beetle two inches long and a bit more than an inch wide. It had six beautifully jointed legs and flexible antennae. It was made of a metal lighter than it looked, and was so perfect that its artificiality was undetectable unless the observer actually held the bug in his hands.
I flipped it over and popped the latch on its belly plate. Quickly, I set the dials to match the distance between the end of the bench and the place where my mark sat. Then I thumbed the wheel that wound the springs–three, four, five turns, each one harder to complete. When the wheel would turn no more, I knew it was ready.
I closed the belly plate, and popped the back latch. A little slot opened. Then I pulled a quarter from my pants pocket. This was always the hardest part. An investment, the professor had told me when he first gave me the bug. A risk, too, and a big one given how hard it was for a boy like me to get a quarter. The risk wasn’t that the bug would make off with my quarter but rather that it wouldn’t make it back with its prey. A double loss then.
Still, the bug needed to know what it was after. If I slipped a penny into the slot, it would go after another penny. If I dropped one grain of rice inside, it would come back with a second. And so I put my precious quarter into the slot, snapped it shut, and dropped the bug back into my pocket without giving it another look. Further inspection would serve no purpose.
Moments later I was back at the bench, sitting down at the spot on the end where I had counted my paces just a few minutes before. The clock read 4:10. My mark had his hands clasped in his lap, waiting patiently for the boarding announcement. Two benches back, the aunt still talked, and the niece still nodded. Poor thing, I thought, and wondered if I should have marked her instead just out of pity. It would have done no good. I’d have gotten a spare quarter out of it and no more, not from a mark like her.
The station still hummed with activity. I felt as though the hum was in my head. With so much commotion around, I thought nothing of reaching into my pocket, flipping the release on the bug’s main spring, and dropping it through the slats of the bench.
It hit the marble floor with a click that only I could hear. I didn’t need to peek through the slats to see that the bug had oriented itself to the coordinates I’d set and was now walking under the bench toward the man with the mustache. I thought I could hear the grinding of its gears as it went, but told myself that was impossible. The noise of the station was too much for such a little sound to penetrate.
In less than a minute, the bug was at the man’s valise. It climbed up the side of the leather bag and then bridged the gap to the man’s pant leg. I could see its antennae waving as it took in its surroundings and read them against the destination I’d set its dials to.
I looked away, conscious of the uncanny sensation people have when they are being watched. It would not do to draw the man’s gaze now. Even so, it was all but impossible to keep from looking again, to keep from staring at the man’s trousers and jacket, to watch the bug seek out his coin purse and navigate its way inside to fetch the desired quarter. The hunt was the bug’s sole reason for being, and even as it worked to fulfill its need, every movement meant another tick on the gears that held the springs, another infinitesimal winding down of the metal coils that gave it life.
While letting these thoughts run through my head, I felt the first moment’s relaxation since I had been in the station, an easing of all the tension that had been holding me bound for the last two hours.
My reverie, however, was shattered seconds later when I heard the mark express, “What? Good God! What is this?”
I looked, unable to help myself, and saw him holding the bug by the back, a shiny quarter in its pincers, its perfect legs moving helplessly in the air as its antennae flailed and tried to make sense of its new orientation. And in the second that I looked at the man, he looked at me, his eyes drawn to me inexorably, it seemed, simply because I had looked his way first.
And then, as though I had no will of my own, I was on my feet and running. I did not have to look back to know the man was after me. I had instincts of my own.
Perhaps I was tired, unnerved from all the time spent so alert in the highly charged atmosphere of the station. And perhaps the mark was just fast. In either case, he had a hand on my collar in seconds. He spun me around, holding tight to my shoulder, and squatted down to look me in the eye.
“What,” he said, slightly winded, “is this?”
As I listened to his voice, I also heard the loudspeaker announce boarding for the flight to San Francisco. The man’s expression barely changed. The exigencies of his schedule would not serve to set me free.
He fairly pushed the bug into my face. I watched a little sadly as its legs slowed and then stopped, the antennae’s impotent searches for information in the air coming to an end as well. I said nothing.
“Tell me what this is, boy, or I’ll turn you over to the police. They don’t take kindly to pickpockets, you see.”
“I wasn’t picking your pocket, sir,” I said. “And I don’t know what that thing is.”
“Liar,” he said and straightened up, his eyes scanning the building for a policeman’s uniform. I knew he meant to make good on his threat.
“All right,” I said. “I’ll tell you.”
He stopped his search and looked down at me, cocking an eyebrow by way of invitation.
“The professor built it,” I said. “He gave it to me. I … I’m an orphan, sir. A quarter here and a quarter there…it’s all I need.”
I wished for tears but none came.
The man narrowed his eyes. “What professor?”
“I don’t know his name.”
“Where is he?”
Silent appraisal then. He was trying to determine how truthful I was being.
“Where do you live, boy? Here?”
“No, sir. In the professor’s old shop. I take care of all his machines.”
He raised an eyebrow. “There are others? Like this one?”
“And what do they do?”
“All manner of things, sir. Most I can’t begin to fathom. I just keep them oiled and wind them a bit here and there to keep everything working until…”
“Until I find someone who knows what to do with them.”
“Well.” The man straightened up now. Though he still held my collar, he changed his expression. He appeared more kindly now, the trace of an avuncular smile below the mustache, but I could tell that it was forced and deliberate, not natural or meaningful. “I think this may be your lucky day, boy. What’s your name?”
“Hephaestus, sir. Hephaestus Marvel. Are you an inventor? An engineer?”
“No. Never mind about me. It’s your little machines that matter. You’ll take me to them.”
I looked up at him. The faint smile looked in danger of fading, and I knew that consequences would follow. So I obeyed. What choice did I have?
As he led me back toward his seat, I caught the eye of the niece as she prepared to join the queue for the dirigible. I hadn’t meant to. I didn’t want to draw any attention at all. Again, it was the accident of two sets of eyes looking at each other at exactly the same time. She was pretty, and I saw concern in her blue eyes. I noticed again that she was young, though not terribly young; not yet anyone’s mother, but old enough for the sight of a child in trouble to stir something un-nameable in her heart, like a switch had been clicked on without her meaning for it to happen.
Not wanting any further attention, I gave her my Disarming Smile, the one I had worked on for quite some time. It was one of my favorite expressions.
The ploy worked. She smiled back and then went back to ignoring her aunt and gathering her bags.
The man steered me to his valise, retrieved it, and then pushed me on to the ticket counter where he negotiated a refund. Then we were off, headed for the glass doors and city street outside.
The man stopped once we were beyond the doors. “How far?” he asked, excitement and anticipation in his voice. “Walking distance, or a cab?”
I pointed to the south. “Not far. Two blocks.”
He narrowed his eyes at me, looking like he was trying to tell if I was lying or not.
“Come on, then,” he said and marched me toward the sidewalk.
Among the cabs and other cars parked before the station’s entryway sat a large, crème colored Packard, its hood up. The man who owned it stood looking into the engine compartment, agitation on his face. A Negro porter looked with him while another stood nearby with a cart loaded with luggage. To the side stood the man’s wife and two children–a boy and girl about my age who stared as I passed. They looked at me the way children of this sort always looked at me, like I was a different species or from another planet or a refugee from some unmapped place on the globe. It was because my clothes weren’t as new, my buttons not as shiny, my cheeks not as scrubbed or rosy. I wished, not for the first time, that I could make a child like them one of my marks, but it wouldn’t work. They didn’t fit the mold. Maybe someday, I consoled myself, when they were older, old enough to be like the man who led me past them. How old will I be then? I asked myself.
The children’s father was asking the porter, “Do you think it’s the battery?” as we passed.
“Likely,” the porter answered, and then we were beyond them.
Batteries, I thought as I led the way along the line of cabs and towards the first intersection. I didn’t understand how they worked but knew they stored energy, like a wound spring ready to be released. All these different modes of energy–springs and batteries and the gasoline that ran the motors and pulled the propellers into the station all day long–the possibilities made me shake my head in wonder. I could grasp so little, unlike the professor. For the second time in minutes, I thought Maybe someday and then pushed the thought out of my mind.
I had to concentrate now on the mark, and on getting him to the professor’s.
With the station behind us, the energy in the air seemed to lessen. Cars passed us, but they struck me as less urgent. Electricity hummed in the lines above us, but it went everywhere, not focused on the lights and the clock as it had been in the station. Here, it went into the factories and warehouses we hurried past, the streetlights and the phone boxes.
“How long have you been without your benefactor?” the man asked after we had crossed an intersection. He had not once taken his hand from my shoulder. Though his grasp had loosened slightly, less like talons digging into me, he must still have been telling himself that I would bolt at the first opportunity.
“The professor?” I asked. “Less than a year.”
“And the police have never picked you out for a thief? Never questioned why a little boy like you isn’t with his mother?”
I shrugged. “I blend in. No one notices me. And I never had a mother, so I suppose I don’t look like a boy who’s missing one.”
He chuckled. “Never had a mother?” I looked up to see his condescending smile. “How little you know, boy. Everyone has a mother. Even if she drops you in the dirt once she’s birthed you. As yours doubtless did.”
I let the words hang between us, knew they were meant as an insult, meant to put me in my place and keep me there. I took comfort in telling myself what my place really was, what his was, too, and how he was the one who knew so little.
“Here,” I said a minute later. “In there.”
We stood before a warehouse with gray metal siding, opaque windows high in the walls, and no sign above the non-descript door.
Again, he tried appraising my veracity. I remained neutral.
“Here?” he asked.
He pushed me a bit roughly toward the door. I found my key and seconds later felt the lock click under my fingers–little tumblers, a secret little machine.
The door opened. Dim light shone from inside.
“You first,” the man said, a bit of excitement in his voice. He was thinking about the bug, I knew, and the other treasures that the dark interior promised.
I did as he asked, walking ahead of him, his hand still on my shoulder.
“Where is the light?” he asked as we crossed the threshold.
It was not I who answered, but the professor.
The door swung shut, the light switched on, and a syringe punctured the flesh on the mark’s neck. He dropped his valise, and I watched him corkscrew to the floor, no understanding dawning in his eyes before they closed. Though it was good when things went this smoothly, I didn’t like it when the marks went down so fast that they didn’t have time to regret what they had done, to know they had underestimated me, to wonder for just a moment if their greed had done them in.
“Good job, Hephaestus,” the professor said as he squatted next to the mark. Expertly, he found the bug in the man’s clothes and set it on the floor beside the valise. “No problems? Not followed?”
“No, Professor,” I said. “No problems.”
I thought for a second of the pretty niece, how things would have been different if she hadn’t been disarmed by my smile. She wouldn’t have wanted to be led here. She’d have taken me home instead, taken care of me. Maybe someday, I thought.
“Good boy,” the professor said. “He has no wedding ring, I see. And he cashed in his ticket?”
“Excellent.” He smiled down at our victim. The man’s friends and associates in this city would expect him to be away, and so wouldn’t miss him for days. And there could be no alarm at his absence in the city of his destination, or else he would not have been so quick about refunding his ticket. No sweetheart awaited him there, no business associates.
The professor rubbed his hands together and said, “Help me now, will you?”
He was old and needed the help. We each hooked a hand into an armpit and began dragging the mark across the floor, the spent syringe left where he had fallen. Together, the professor and I pulled the man past rows of machines, lab tables with vials and tubes and burners, and a workbench with more springs and gears than I could ever hope to count. The bigger machines loomed around the edges of the warehouse, the big machines that needed the kind of power that only the mark could provide.
With some effort, we lifted him from the floor and dropped him into the tank the professor had prepared. It was filled with an amber fluid. Wires and apparatus floated in the liquid, awaiting him. A long row of identical tanks stretched into the shadows, each holding one of my previous marks. They were all connected to the same kind of apparatus that awaited this newest one, all suspended in a permanent twilight while the energy in their bodies and brains fed the professor’s machines, all kept alive in what the professor called amniotic fluid.
“Good job, Hephaestus,” the professor said again. “Are you tired?”
The professor gave a kindly nod. “Yes.” He patted my hand. “Yes,” he repeated. “You’ve earned your rest. Things are going well. I shouldn’t need another battery for a week or more. You can sleep now.”
We went to my cot, and I sat down. The professor put a gentle hand on my chest, and I dropped onto my back. Expertly, he ran his fingers across my chest. They found their way between the buttons of my shirt, and there he found the release switch.
“Goodnight, Hephaestus,” he whispered and flipped the switch. What had remained of the tension in my springs quickly wound out, and I felt myself slipping away into the void the professor called sleep. As my gears slowed, I focused for a second on his kindly face hovering above me, and then the shadows in the rafters caught my gaze. A trick of the light, or perhaps the imposition of my memories onto the shadows, let me a see a circle where there were none. I saw it at first as a clock face, its own springs and gears running down, and then, before I passed into oblivion, as the pupil in a pretty blue eye that looked back at me with love.
Richard Levesque is a professor at Fullerton College in California where he teaches English, including science fiction. His short stories have been published in The Colored Lens and Lissette’s Tales of the Imagination. He has also published a science fiction novel, Take Back Tomorrow, and an urban fantasy novella, Dead Man’s Hand with another release, Strictly Analog, to follow shortly.