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Rated: ASR · Short Story · Steampunk · #2316056
Harold had never been lucky. Orphaned and fired. Still had dreams though.
Being fired might have been the best thing that happened to Harold. Though at the time, it didn't seem that way. Life at the textile mill was all Harold had known; even if conditions were horrid.

Even when other factories had begun installing fans, Lord Harrison refused to do so. "It will not do for my workers," he had been heard to opine. "They'll be less productive if they're hungry from not swallowing fibers."

Harold had gleaned this all from the boiler stoker, Old Tom. The boy rather liked his fellow worker. Tom often smuggled disused parts to Harold. "Now you keep this gauge tucked in your shirt," Tom had said. "Won't do for the Master to find you with this."

Almost on cue, the dull thudding of Harrison's walking stick sounded behind them both. "Whom was it who gave you permission to dilly dally?" The Barron asked. His voice was like acid as he annunciated the question.

Harold had forgotten he was holding the spare part as he turned around. The brass glinted in the light, instantly drawing the Harrison's eye. "You little wretch!" He screamed as he raised his cane.

A hard blow knocked Harold to the floor. He flinched raising a hand to block the next hit. It didn't land.

Opening his eyes, Harold saw Tom grasping Harrison's cane by the metal ornament. "Don't you strike the lad!" Tom yelled. "I won't see you torture someone the way you ill-treated me my whole life. I'm the one who gave him that gauge. So beat me. It's me that broke the rules."

There was still fire in Harrison's eyes as he lowered his weapon. "I'll deal with you later, fool," he said. "Boy, you're finished. I'll have a constable escort you off grounds. Be sure you don't nick anything else."

Harold wasn't too upset. Mr. Harrison was a man with a quick temper and often took out his frustrations on his workers. The boy was uncertain what he would do now but glad to be leaving.

"Right," A stern voice said. "You're the lad who is being fired?"

The constable was a few feet taller than Harold. The man stood with a calm poise.

"Erm, yes I suppose that's me," Harold answered.

"My name's Constable Connors," the officer said. "If you come along quietly, I'll make this easy for you."

Harold didn't feel like making any other adults cross. He meekly fell into step beside Connors. Not making eye contact with the other workers who were surreptitiously whispering to one another.

After exiting the factory, the absence of clacking machinery made room for other thoughts. "Excuse me," Harold said. "Sir, might I ask a small favor? There's some belongings of mine I left in the alley just outside the gates. Would you please allow me to fetch them?"

The Constable rocked on his heels and pursed his mouth so that his golden mustache nearly meshed into his beard. "Well I was a boy once," he mused. "At your age, I never wanted to be without my lucky cap. I suppose I ought to oblige your request. So long as you allow me to supervise your actions. Just be quick about it."

With a brief, "Thank you," Harold dashed down the alley. To his delight, the burlap fabric still covered the spot where he'd stashed his inventions. He gave the cloth a prodigious yank. It was all still here.

Constable Conners whistled in singular amazement. "That's a right load of clock work," he said. "You build that yourself?"

Harold didn't look away from his secret. "Yeah," he said. "My dad taught me how to fix and make automata."

The policeman couldn't help his curiosity. "That's grand," he said. "So, er, what's an auto-ma—whatever you just said?"

Harold hoisted the metal barrel with its internal spring loaded shelves and instruments onto his head. All Harold's hopes for the future were in this mechanism.

"Automata," Harold told the constable. "They're tiny machines that work on gears and punch cards."

"Blimey," Connors said, his accent slipping a little. "I don't reckon you'll be able to haul all this with you to the poor house. Best choose a few and leave the rest."

It was hard to decide what else to take, Harold built so many automata in his spare time. Then he spotted the homunculus like figure of Bert. The tiny clockwork man had been Harold's first creation. It was the only thing Harold and his dad had built.

Memories of the day Harold and dad had built Bert came to his mind.

"Careful with that spring," dad warned. "If your grip slips before it's in place you could end up being hurt."

His father had placed his hands over Harold's while he secured the last element. It was easier to turn the screws with dad's help. With a firm adult grip in action, it was comforting to have the assurance that the spring wouldn't uncoil.

When all the elements were secure and the access hatch in the automata closed, the job felt finished. A sense of pride grew in Harold.

His father handed him a small metal key. "Now you'll need this to keep our little friend going," he said. "Now what do we want to name it?"

Harold looked, at the small metal figure. "I'll call him Bert," he decided. "Daddy, you wanna come play with it tomorrow after work?"

"Sure, son," he'd said. "I can't wait to see what you'll make him do."

Only his dad wouldn't see anything their creation did. His only remaining parent had been crushed to death by one of Harrison's automated looms. It still made Harold mad. Why hadn't that greedy man shut the machine down?!

It felt wrong to leave Bert to rust and decay. He grabbed the doll like figure wound the key and inserted a punch card. As long as Harold kept winding the key in Bert's back, the automata would keep walking.

Having silently bid goodbye to his other creations, Harold walk out of the alley with Constable Conners. The seasoned lawman was astonished by the massive equipment perched on Harold's head.

"I've seen paintings of Georgian ladies with extravagant head dresses," Conners remarked. "Never thought I'd see a wee lad wear a contraption that haberdasheries would surely envy. If you don't mind me inquiring, what is that?"

Trying to be nonchalant, Harold fabricated his answer. "It's a portable stove and umbrella of my own making," he said. "I'm quite used to its weight. I could carry it all day if I had to."

Conners was taken aback. "I'm sure you could," he coughed. "Well, I must return to the precinct. Go that way and take the second left to get to the poor house. I'm afraid now that you're no longer in Lord Harrison's employ, you'll have to leave the tenements."

To preserve the illusion that he was complying, Harold moved in the direction the constable had indicated. The boy had no intention of going to the poor house. If any vagabond or rascal took a fancy to Harold's device, they wouldn't hesitate to claim it as their own...by any means. It was best to avoid the government sanctioned shelter. Anywhere else would be better to stay than there.

Some streets further onwards, Harold was beginning to regret his decision. His neck was beginning to ache under its load. Apparently, the slums were a foreboding place this close to sunset.

"Oi, you!" A young feminine voice called out.

As Harold peered into the dimming light, the voice sounded again. "Yeah you!" The speaker caterwauled. "You with the posh metal tifter. What you skulking about Knickers' Way for?"

"Sorry, you mean me?" Harold asked.

A girl no older than himself hopped down from the crates she'd been sitting on. "No, daffy, I mean the ten foot tall Bludger behind you!" She joked. "Anyways, this here is Knickers' Way. A true no man's land. Nobody here but strays and waifs, so which are you?"

Harold found the girl barely intelligible. Hardly anyone in Albaton spoke that dialect. Still, Harold yearned to talk to a living soul, he spoke candidly to her despite her being a stranger.

"Blimey, that's some tough blob that is," she said. "Name's Ashe, I think you and I best stick together. Never know who's about this close to dark. Since we'll be sharing a steam blower tonight, what d'you call yourself?"

"Harold, Harold Sharpe."

Ashe wrinkled her nose. "That's a toff sounding name. You go by Hal now. It's more proper for these parts." She said. "C'mon, Hal, I've got a boot boiling and it's getting cold. Let's get back to the steam blower."

While the term was unfamiliar to Harold, it soon became apparent that a steam blower was an outlet vent. All of Albaton ran on steam power but the excess pressure came up through exhaust such as the one Ashe made her camp over.

Ashe pulled a leather boot out of a kettle over a cooking fire. She cut a piece off and gnawed on it. "Needs a little more time," she said. "Set your titfer on that box there and make yourself at ease. Ever since mum and dad got sick and went to the big house in the sky, I haven't had no one. So I figures us orphans ought stick together."

Harold carefully set down his cargo. The crates creaked under the weight.

"Cor, that's a hefty thing," Ashe said. "It wasn't meant to be no titfer was it? Why're you carting that around?"

"It's my workshop," Harold said. "Look here, I'll show you."

Pressing the button on top caused the contraption to begin the unfolding sequence. A peg board with every sort of spanner, screw driver, solder tools and other useful things rose to the top. Drawers and a worktop sprang into position. Everything Harold needed was readily accessible.

"Woo-eee!" Ashe exclaimed. "That sure is something, right miracle that is. What d'you do with that, Hal?"

He picked up Bert and set him on the table. He inserted a card and wound the key. Bert played the program, doing a little jerky pirouette and a few other dance moves. Once the card had been fully read, Bert slowly collapsed on the workbench.

"I build automata like that," Harold told her. "I've made loads of others, but couldn't keep them."

Ashe clapped enthusiastically, her dull blue eyes lit with elation. "That is one fancy thingajig," she said. "You know what? There's a big fancy fun fair happening tomorrow. You show off one or two more of those, you'll make some good coin."

"That might be a good idea," Harold agreed. "I think I have some parts to build a couple more."

Working through the night Harold managed to complete a few more cards and automata. His show he put on at the fun fair drew just as much attention as Ashe predicted. By the end of the day, Harold had a contract with a theatre to produce automata to act in their shows. Getting fired from the textile mill had indeed been the best thing to happen to Harold.

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