Author : Ruth Imeson
Edward Smithfield knew better than to hide.
The heavy oak door to his lodgings rattled in its frame. The handle spun. Exquisite brass gears, cogs and counterweights shifted. The door swung open. Vapour entered the room, but the man it shielded dallied at the threshold. London’s fog had found an entry point on the eve of the hanging; for at dawn a hapless fool would swing in Edward’s rightful place.
Edward did not flinch – something always came to protect the gateway and, sometimes, him.
The stranger was silver and black with crimson motion. His suit was bespoke Savile Row. His frock coat bore a red sheen and a top hat was tucked under one arm. His nails were tapered iron and his knuckles hissed. Steam escaped from every joint.
“You will help me,” the man rasped.
“You will open the time door.”
Edward’s eyes widened. “Sir, I cannot.”
“I am glad.”
“That I refuse?”
“That you do not insult me with pretence,” the stranger smiled with the sound of shearing metal. “You must do as I say. You must open the door.”
The man stepped into the room. Steam leaked through his joints. Edward called on his keepers. For this was no man. Its hair was full of monsters bound in chains and bent with iron; a medusa for the 1890s.
Where were the guardians? They were supposed to protect the conduit; that was the deal.
“The door is not mine to open,” Edward said, his voice faltering. But if no one was coming to help him, of whom should he be the more scared?
“I come from those who gave you this honour.”
The stranger moved closer. Redness crashed over lips and eyes of obsidian so polished as to be perfect for scrying. The nose was beaten steel riveted to bone; the eyebrows rusted filings; the mouth encrusted with oxidisation.
“You will open the door,” the creature said, “please.”
Edward smiled. No man nor woman nor incorporeal creature had ever said please before. Where was the harm in doing one good deed? It would be his first. He pulled on his goggles and his clockwork wings and followed the stranger down flights of narrow stairs and into the cellar. Edward’s furnaces quieted as the rusted man approached.
The creature laboured to the time threshold. It halted and turned to look at Edward, pointing metallic fingers at the hissing machines.
“Stoke the fires,” it rasped.
Edward hesitated. He doubted.
“This is your last service,” it said. “Then you will be free.”
So, Edward coaxed his machines from their slumber. His wings bore him from one to another, cajoling, stroking and feeding. The gateway slid open.
“Free, you say?” Edward asked.
“Yes,” the machine stepped through the doorway, “free to pay for your crimes. Free from our protection.”
“Sir, what is your meaning?”
The stranger smiled. Rust flaked where his face cracked. “Before the gaol flooded and the rust came I was a fair substitute for your flesh. I was to take your appointment with the rope, but my appearance has deteriorated somewhat. Seeing as you have been so kind as to aid my escape… Well, no doubt the authorities will come for you.”
The gate began to close. Frantically, Edward pulled levers, but the closure could not be aborted. He was on his own.