Caress by Eli Easton (in the Steamed Up anthology), 12K words
Tinker Gray is only a sickly, penniless boy when the great machinist, Albertus, discovers his genius and makes him an apprentice. Unfortunately, Albertus dies before Tinker has served out his contract, and he’s sold to the British Army. He finds the task of making weapons a challenging puzzle—until he experiences the horror of seeing them in use. When he meets Captain Colin Davies, a cavalry officer who’s lost his hands, Tinker sees a chance to redeem himself and use his skill for something good.
Colin hates the war, hates killing, and he finds escape by filling notebooks full of melodies. When he loses both hands in a dynamite blast, he thinks his life is over.
But a shy machinist named Tinker makes him marvelous mechanical hands. The hands are programmed with a killing impulse, per the brigadier’s orders. But Colin finds that they also know how to caress him in a most intimate fashion. The hands reveal a secret—that Tinker loves him.
5+ stars from Top 2 Bottom Reviews — “Gosh, this was such a tearjerker, a perfectly beautiful love story, fragile and tender, a light of life in the midst of the darkness of war.”
4.5 stars from Live Your Life Buy The Book — “I enjoyed how the story developed between Tinker and the Captain and how Tinker tried to find some redemption in the beautiful creations he made and gave away. A beautiful bittersweet story with a happy ending.”
4 stars from Smut Book Club for whole anthology — “All the stories are well written, sometimes fun, sometimes hot, sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes all three. ”
4.5 stars from Hearts On Fire — “Two men caught up and used for war. Tinker, the Brain and creator of exquisite and deadly objects. I like his Edward Scissorhands-esque beginning and his transformation even more.”
4.5 stars from Boy in our Books — “Really well done and very imaginative…. It was a great read.”
5 stars from mm good book reviews — “I loved this read, it was not only fascinating, it was moving and sweet, and brilliant and I simply adored it. ”
Major Barker was most particular about the killing features of the hands. I programmed them and tested them in the lab while he watched, running them through an engine that would eventually empower the golem. Either hand could crush a brick to dust in seconds. They responded to spoken command. Barker was pleased.
On the next fitting, I had no choice but to explain the features to Colin.
“Only think what you want the hands to do, and they will do it,” I told him. “But you’ll have to strongly will it. Don’t worry about doing something accidently.”
I placed a towel over his lap and gave him a brick. “Squeeze it as hard as you can.”
He looked down at the hand.
Thought impulse sent to receptors, receptors filter out minor impulses, strong impulse drives the hands. Three thousand psi. There.
The brick disintegrated. Colin huffed something that was part laugh, part sob.
“You’ll be able to climb anything,” I assured him.
“And to punch hard enough to shatter bone,” he said flatly. He had been listening that day when he’d pretended sleep.
“Yes. Maybe the hands will save your life one day.”
“But I won’t always control the hands, will I? The brigadier said… they’ll respond to spoken commands too. From someone else.”
There was a catch in his voice, and I knew the idea truly frightened him. I focused on the hands, adjusting a screw that didn’t need adjusting. “Yes. But hardly anyone will know those commands.”
He sighed as if defeated. “It’s all right, Tinker. The army doesn’t build hands like these without asking for their pound of flesh. I know I should be grateful. Without them….”
He lay back on the pillow, and I cleared away the brick dust and towel. I cleaned the hand of tiny red particles. I liked holding the hand while he was wearing it. Just the simple act of attaching it to his connections, slotting it to the end of his arm, made it alive to me, made it his hand in a way that was completely illogical. By now, the skeleton was sheathed and there were enough feedback sensors in the fingers that I knew he could feel me as I stroked them clean. It gave me a strange thrill.
He didn’t pull away. I could feel the gaze on my face as I worked. Maybe it was the intimacy, but he began to speak haltingly. “I was in the expeditionary force that landed at Eupatoria. I fought with the Light Brigade at Balaclava. Almost half our men were killed or wounded in that battle. But I wasn’t. I mowed down everything in my path. Do you know why? Because I was terrified, you see. I killed so I wouldn’t be killed, like a sick dog lashing out. And the Russians, by God, they were so young and inexperienced. It was like scything down tender grass. I still see their faces when I close my eyes. Since then, there’ve been too many battles and too many faces.”
“I have killed too,” I said before realizing I was going to say it.
He looked at me in surprise and I could see the question in his eyes. At twenty-two I was still small and ever would be. My hair had been cut short when I joined the army but as a machinist it was not tended to with much frequency. It lay against my nape and, unruly and thick, stuck up on the top of my head. My face was thin and pale, the face of a scholar. To put it bluntly, I probably looked as dangerous to him as a plate of peas.
“Weapons,” I said with a tight smile. “I design weapons.”
“Like what?” he asked, curious now.
“The dervish,” I admitted. It was a device shaped like an orange. But when it was activated, slicing blades emerged and spun. They acted like wings, allowing the device to fly. A mercury core steered its course to the nearest warm body. Its navigational system was calibrated to move forward for a dozen yards, and from thence in a widening cone seeking a target. This would presumably ensure that the sender, and his fellow countrymen, would be safe. And yet I could not pretend the thing had not killed the innocent or even a horse or dog unlucky enough to get in its path. I had nightmares about it chasing me.
His eyes widened. “That was yours?”
I nodded. “And the stinger.” The dart was a better design; it carried death a little less randomly. It had to be aimed at a specific target and engaged. Then it would fly to that target with the speed of an arrow. Point-one millimeters of poison injected into the flesh, a killing dose.
He was staring at me in shock. I felt a debilitating pain of the heart. He saw it now: I was a monster. I looked at the floor, blinking back the unfathomable threat of tears.
His left hand closed over mine and tugged me closer. If I’d been less embarrassed, I might have felt a creator’s pride at the tenderness with which he could grasp my fingers.
“You’re brilliant, then, Tinker,” he said quietly. “A genius.”
I gave a bitter laugh. “Only a trained mind, one in the service of the devil.”
“No,” he said firmly. “We need all the help you can give us out there. But—I do understand.”
I looked up and saw regret and sympathy on his face. I swallowed a lump and nodded.
“Liberty and ease for those at home—it has a high price,” he parroted.
Did he still believe those words? That the scrabble for bits of the Ottoman Empire really affected the lives of people back in England? If he could believe it, I was glad for him.
I suddenly realized how close we were. I was pressed against the side of the bed. My left hand rested in his mechanical fingers and my right, somehow, had moved onto his chest, which was covered only by a thin hospital johnny. We were staring deeply into each other’s eyes. It was rather a shock to realize how we were arranged, as if I’d woken from a dream with no idea how I’d gotten there. I almost pulled away, but I stopped.
If this was being offered to me, why shouldn’t I take it?
It was a moment of vulnerability, a moment of understanding, of humanity, a moment of something else too—lust, not to put too fine a point on it. He was strong, rugged, and handsome, the stuff of my erotic dreams. And what I saw in his eyes was no less longing than my own. I didn’t understand how it could be there, not for me, for small, unimportant Tinker, but I drank it in greedily. Heat rushed through my body.
In my mind, I drew back, knowing this was dangerous ground. But my body didn’t obey. My hand remained heavy on his chest, my fingers barely stroking. I was painfully aroused where I pressed against the bed, but thankfully, my white coat covered my folly. If only I could as easily hide what must be written all over my face.
“Tinker,” he said, questioning.
I nodded, not trusting my voice.
“Could I ask you something terribly personal?”
I nodded again.
He blushed. “I—” He tried again. “I know the hands must be set to kill. I know this. But….”
“Can you make them do other things as well?” He looked down where his hand held mine, frowning at it as if he didn’t trust its current gentleness.
“Can you make the hands… caress?” His blush deepened and he couldn’t meet my eyes. “No one will want a mechanical man, you see, to be touched by things like these.” He held the hands up to look at them. I missed the weight of his hand on mine immediately.
“That’s not true. Many men have prosthetics. And you’re a handsome man.”
He looked at me sharply but without much hope. “You’re used to mechanisms. But for most people…. They’ll frighten away any lover.”
I noted that he did not say the word woman. I swallowed.
“And if the hands don’t keep them away, the blood on them will,” he said roughly. “I’m already a killer. But with these…. If I ever see England again, I’ll be soaked in blood.”
I couldn’t argue with him. I knew what duty he and his hands were bound for. But my fingers rubbed his chest to offer comfort, as if they had a will of their own.
He closed his eyes as he choked out the request. “Allow me to be tender to myself at least. No one else will ever want to touch me.”
I felt my face heat, understanding his meaning perfectly. Ten pounds psi, twenty, scrotum, shaft, glans. The ideas it sent rushing through my head overwhelmed me, intellect and body both.
He mistook my silence and pulled away, rolling onto his side to put his back to me. “My apologies. I didn’t intend to ask. I shouldn’t have. Please forget I ever said it. Please, Tinker.”
He was distraught. I felt the strongest urge to lean down and kiss his hair. I was losing my mind. I did lean down, but only to whisper in his ear.
“I will teach the hands to caress, Colin,” I vowed with all my heart.
He froze, then nodded.
And before I could do anything else irredeemably foolish, I removed the hands and took them away to be finished.