Outskirts of London, 1880.
Young Michael McGillicuddy sat in the workshop across from his father, Seamus, at an old wooden table, aged just eleven. It was Michael’s eleventh birthday, no less. They had just returned to the workshop from gathering some wood to feed a small pot belly stove in the corner, its meager flames providing a bit of warmth, and a touch of extra light. Seamus sat on his stool, hunched over, with his elbows on the table and his teacup set to the side. He was focused on his work, staring through thick magnifying goggles, like watchmakers use, fitted with magnifying lenses that flip down over the eye, each lens providing greater magnification than the last. The goggles enabled him to work on the tiniest of gears, with the best visibility into the delicate clockwork machinery he was handling. He held a device in his left hand and turned a screwdriver with his right. Michael sat with eager anticipation, watching his father intently.
He was a precocious child, to say the least. And although wise, capable and mature beyond his years, he was still gangly, with scrawny arms and legs which he struggled to control gracefully. With his tousled brown hair and a light dusting of freckles across his nose, he was just an average eleven-year-old boy by most appearances, and just awkward enough to be teased pretty regularly at school.
They were building a mechanical device together. It was roughly a foot tall, and person-shaped in the most basic possible sense. It had a metal, heavy-framed torso, a head and metal arms and legs that moved independent of each other. The table was crowded with jars of rivets and screws, and other spare parts, and the tools were all neatly sorted. Michael had pulled them from Seamus’ tool chest and held them at the ready, in case his father needed help. They had spent endless hours here, sorting, tinkering and pulling things in and out of that old chest. Although Michael didn’t realize it yet, Seamus planned to give the chest to his son. It would be his birthday gift, tonight, just after supper was finished.
While he waited to help, Michael organized the parts into proper jars and groupings. If parts didn’t already have their own jar, he sorted them into neatly stacked piles, first by type, then by shape, then by size. Washers with washers. Nuts with nuts. Bolts with bolts. All arranged in symmetrical stacks. From a very early age, Michael craved order, neatness and symmetry. This wasn’t Seamus’ teaching, but Michael’s own compulsion. He couldn’t help himself.
The family was of modest means, and like their home, the workshop was simple. Its walls were lined with wood cabinets and black countertops. The cabinets were filled with tools, spare parts and other items of varying utility that Seamus had collected over the years. They had been working on this project for months and Michael was eager for the payoff.
“Can I close him up now?” Michael asked.
“It’s ready. Go ahead, son.”
“What are they called again?”
“Automaton, it’s a small machine that moves on its own, and in some ways acts like a person,” Seamus said. “Some are small and simple, like this one. Others are big and more complex. Some are the same size as me, if you can believe that. ”
“Au-TOM-a-ton.” Michael repeated, nodding in agreement.
Michael smiled. His gaze went soft, and he found himself stuck in a distant stare. His imagination had run off without him again, considering all the things he could build, but after a moment, his attention snapped back to the workshop with a jolt. It was time. He could barely contain his excitement. He held the figurine in his hand and studied its makeup. Inside the torso of the small automaton, he could see all the rockers, springs and gears. It looked like the inside of a clock, but far more complicated. It was a beautiful piece of machinery, the most amazing thing Michael had ever seen. It was so intricate, so fine and so unbelievably complicated for something that he could hold in his hand. The idea, the automaton’s design, was actually his own. Seamus had simply helped build it. Michael picked up the chest plate from the table and screwed it shut, covering up all of its delicate inner mechanics.
“This is our best one yet,” Michael said.
“I think you’re right,” Seamus said. “You thought up a good one, son. I’m very impressed. Now go on, wind it up.”
Seamus couldn’t decide who was more excited; him or Michael. He handed over a key, like the ones used to wind music boxes, and Michael pushed the key into its lower back. He wound its springs tight and set it on the table top. As he pressed a button in the back, just between the shoulders, the automaton set in motion. It walked smoothly across the table, feet stepping and arms rocking in offsetting rhythm to keep balance. Michael stared in amazement with his mouth hanging open. Seamus stared at his son, beaming with pride.
“It’s amazing,” Michael whispered.
“You’re really going to be something,” Seamus said.
Michael was preoccupied by its hypnotic movement.
“Can we add the piston spear on its arm tomorrow?” he asked. “The piston spear is the best weapon there is, hard to beat in competition.”
“Of course we can,” Seamus said with a smile. “You have a very real gift, Michael. You know that right?”
“You mean my birthday gift?”
“No, son. Not your birthday gift. I’m talking about your vision. Your ability to imagine things out of thin air, and then build them. Your ability to see things, patterns and solutions, things that other people don’t see. It’s extraordinary. What do you plan to do with it?”
Michael wiped his nose with the back of his wrist and sniffed.
“Well, I don’t know. I guess I can help you. Maybe someday I can be in your crew, for one of your races. I can help you with the engines, and fix things if they break. Like you do at the factory.”
“Maybe you could, son. I would like that very much. And that day may not be far off. I’m preparing for a race right now, you know. I have a lot of work to do to get my vehicles in shape, and I could certainly use an extra set of hands. They’re beat up rather badly from the last one.”
Michael smiled and nodded, wiping his nose again.
“Ok, Poppa. I can help you. We can be partners.”
Seamus rustled the hair on top of Michael’s head with his hand. He smiled down adoringly at his son and nodded toward the house.
“Mum called us in for supper some time ago. It’s never wise to keep her waiting,” he said. “So, in you go.”
Michael grumbled. Not ready to leave the workshop yet, he searched for a way to stretch their time together. His eyes dashed left and right. He had it.
“Tell me again about the time you beat the Baron, Poppa!”
Seamus’s belly shook as he laughed.
“That was a long time ago, Michael, but alright.”
Seamus pretended it was a chore. But in truth, he never grew tired of telling it, not to Michael or anyone else for that matter. But he especially liked telling Michael.
“We were near the end,” he started, “I was in my dirigible, and the Baron was in his. It was just me against him! There was no one else in sight.”
Seamus paused for dramatic effect and finished his tea, gulping it down slowly, staring at Michael as he drank. Michael stared on with wide-eyed anticipation, desperately waiting for the next little morsel. Seamus set his teacup down and continued.
“We’d been through all manner of peril. Storms. Fires. Sabotage.”
“Don’t forget the sea creatures!” Michael shouted, wagging his finger at Seamus.
“Yes, even horrible sea creatures!” Seamus roared.
He held his hands up with his fingers curled like large, foreboding hooks.
“With hooks for hands! Hooks I tell you! We were tattered and torn, exhausted from our journey.”
“Yes!” Michael nodded. “And then…”
“The Baron and I were flying neck-and-neck. He was pulling away from me, just as we approached the finish line. He extended his lead, and he was starting to move out of reach.”
“And then, on the brink of loss, ready to embrace my own defeat, I had an idea. A brilliant idea it was. I went to the engine compartment. I ripped off the cover. I opened the baffle to its widest possible setting. It was pure insanity, something the average man would never dare try. It would give me the extra bit of speed I needed to win, but the cost would be high. The engine would run hot, and maybe even blow. It was a risk like none I’d ever taken!”
The anticipation was killing him. Seamus leaned back on the counter.
“And then I waited to see if it worked.”
“But what then, Poppa? Say the next part.”
“Then my dirigible picked up speed, then a little more, and more still. The engine hummed. The rotors whirred, and pushed me through the air. The engine glowed red. I didn’t know if it would last!”
“I was gaining on the Baron, inching closer and closer. Finally, in the last hundred feet or so, I barely passed him. I won the race by a hair. Maybe two hairs, but not much more! As I crossed the finish line, the seals on the engine blew. Steam shot everywhere. My craft slowed, and the engine was ruined. But not before I had reached out and snatched a victory straight from the Baron’s own two hands! I took it right from him.”
“Yes, and then…?”
The pitch in Michael’s voice rose. His eyes widened, and his face beamed with joy. His fists were clenched, pumping up and down. This was his favorite part.
“Keep going, Poppa. Then what?”
“I anchored my dirigible, and I slid down a rope to the cheering masses. I was crowned the winner and awarded my prize! I was hoisted up on the shoulders of all, and I was celebrated for a most amazing victory!”
As Seamus went on, he stepped around the table and hoisted Michael up on his big, burly shoulder and pranced around the table, bouncing him up and down as if Michael himself had won. Michael laughed out loud with the pure and uninhibited joy that only a child can experience.
“Go around again, Poppa!”
Seamus pranced around the table again, bouncing up and down.
“Sea-mus! Sea-mus! Sea-mus!” he chanted. “They cheered my name!”
Michael grinned as he hugged his father’s head. He pranced another lap, and Soairse yelled from the house again.
“Seamus, get in here and eat right now, or you’ll be sleeping with the horses!”
Hearing her call, he took a final victory lap around the table. Then he slowed and lowered Michael to the ground gently. He stared down at his son, with doting eyes.
“We’d really better get in there, son,” he said with a huff. “It’s time.”
He was short of breath.
“Yeah. I guess.”
Michael’s words hung heavy with disappointment. As he walked to the workshop door to head back to the house, he had one last idea. He stared up the muddy path that led back to the house.
“I’ll race you to the porch, Poppa!”
Michael turned and looked back at Seamus with his bright-eyed look, ready to run. But as he turned, his face went blank.
“Just give me a second, Michael.”
“Are you alright?” he asked.
Seamus was leaning over, with one hand on the workshop table bracing himself. His other hand was on his chest.
“I may have overdone it, Michael, with all that bouncing…”
“Just give me a second, then we’ll run up.”
Fear shone through in his eyes and resounded in his voice. His breath was labored.
“Yes, just. Another second.”
Seamus winced and clutched his chest. With a long groan, he collapsed to the floor. Michael ran to his side, terrified. His eyes welled up. Tears streamed down his cheeks.
“I’m sorry, Poppa,” he uttered meekly.
Tears continued to stream.
“Please wake up. I’m sorry! I won’t ask you bounce me anymore!”
Seamus didn’t respond.