Progress - Short Story
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I was putting the finishing touches to my invention when my guest arrived, accompanied by a wisp of cold air. He didn’t ring the doorbell, or knock on the workshop door. Nothing so practical. He was just suddenly behind me. Looming. Death has a habit of doing that, I suppose.
I lurched upright and yowled in pain as my head made contact with the brassy underside of my latest work. It echoed dully, like a bell. Gritting my teeth against the pain, I turned to face Death, wrench firmly in my grip.
“Who the bloody hell are you?”
I’M DEATH, Death said. His gaze roamed around the garage, gaslight shining off the polished skull. I’M SORRY, YOUR NAME WAS...?
“Horace. Horace Goodfellow. But look, see here,” I said, but my bluster died before I could get any momentum going. “You’re... you’re really Death?”
He gave me a look. The eyesockets weren’t as much empty as bottomless; two pits of eternal darkness. I was reminded suddenly of Jethro Piggins, the lead scientist up at the observatory. His eyes were perfectly normal, of course, but he was always talking about black holes that could swallow up even light, even time. Death’s eyes were like that.
A chill spread up my legs and over my churning stomach. “Am I... dead?”
GOOD GRIEF NO. Death pointed at one of the cloth-covered piles in the corner. WHAT’S THAT?
“Hmm? Oh, that... it’s a pair of Powered Utility Trousers.” I walked over and pulled the cloth off, letting it slither to the ground. “They’re for really serious walkers, and for the army. A soldier wearing a pair of those could hike fifty miles in a day, if he wanted to.”
MURDER SOMEONE IN CAMBRIDGE AT DAWN, BE IN LONDON IN TIME FOR TEA. Death nodded, arms folded. THEY LOOK A LITTLE LIKE TALL BOOTS.
“Yes, well, they are. But you see, these little armatures come up and connect to the back of a man’s legs, and...” I tailed off; he’d already walked to the next pile and was pulling the tarpaulin away.
“That’s, well, that’s one of my earlier devices.” I heaved the large brass platform upright, revealing little propellers underneath. “An airborne delivery system. You see, every day the postman arrives, and every day things seem a little worse for him. More mail to deliver, angry dogs, long distances to walk, so on and so forth.”
IT CARRIES HIM AND THE MAIL? INGENIOUS.
“Actually no. This is a replacement. I call it the Cloud Mail Server. In these times of broad union strikes and disgruntled employees, one can’t be too careful.”
SURELY THAT IS A BAD THING FOR THE POSTMEN. Death cocked his head at me in what I assumed was a frown. YOU WOULD BE INUNDATED WITH ANGRY, UNEMPLOYED POSTMEN.
“I’m sure many of them can be retrained to service these devices.”
IT HAS MILITARY APPLICATIONS.
I shook my head, brow furrowed. “Only if you’re some sort of monster.”
HMM. DO YOU HAVE ANYTHING THAT HAS BEEN SUCCESSFUL?
I stopped short at that, and pulled myself up to my full height. “Look here,” I said, frowning up at him. “You can’t just come into a man’s workshop and insult him like this-“
MY APOLOGIES. I MEANT NO INSULT. I AM TRYING TO ESTABLISH IF YOU ARE THE CORRECT PERSON.
“The correct person for what? You need... an inventor?”
OF A SORT, YES. He reached one skeletal hand into the depths of his robe and pulled out a card. THIS IS YOURS, CORRECT?
I took the outstretched card, read my own little monogram and address. “Yes, this is mine... Wait, you’re coming to me as a client?”
I began to feel like the conversation was on firmer ground. “I don’t work for free, of course. Although I’ve heard of you, you’ve never struck me as a man of means.”
MONEY IS NOT AN ISSUE. I AM DEATH. I WAS THERE WHEN THE CONCEPT OF MONEY WAS INVENTED, AND I WILL BE THERE WHEN EVEN THAT IDEA FINALLY DIES.
I narrowed my eyes “Well... I’m not currently taking clients, but... I suppose I could make an exception. For the right price.”
I OFFER YOU ETERNITY.
“What are your needs?”
FIRST, ANSWER MY QUESTION. HAVE ANY OF YOUR INVENTIONS SEEN COMMERCIAL SUCCESS?
I looked around the workshop. Most of the central area was taken up by the horse, of course, its brass guts mostly spread on the concrete floor. The long bench against the house wall overflowed with springs and lengths of brass tubing, pots of grease and a miniature steam engine prototype. Tools were scattered haphazardly around, everything sort of ‘in use’. A smaller table to the left held the last couple of covered inventions, but they weren’t anything of note; a small device for contacting people at distance, and a type of refillable pencil.
“...no. No, I can’t say I’ve been particularly financially successful. I think people just don’t understand what it is I’m trying to do.”
WOULD YOU SAY THAT YOUR WORK IS MAINLY SEEN AS BEFORE ITS TIME?
“Yes! Finally, someone who understands!” Relief coursed through me, and I slapped my hand down onto the huge brass horse. “Take this, for example. It’s what I’m working on now. Horses; the blight of society. Some damnfool up at the Society is talking about making horseless carriages, but I said, why not just improve the horse?”
Death began to walk slowly around the horse, his eyes roaming up and down it. YES. THIS IS WHAT I AM INTERESTED IN. CONTINUE.
“Well, horse carriages are fantastic. I think it’s fair to say that horses have revolutionised us as a species. But they’re pernickety, sir, and capricious, and we’re fair drowning in their leavings. If you catch my meaning.” I rapped on the horse’s side. “This is something designed to replace the horse. Capable of running without respite, powered by a miniature steam engine of my own devising, the Horseless Horse is-“
THAT IS WHAT YOU ARE CALLING IT?
I narrowed my eyes. “Do I detect a hint of a snigger in your voice, good sir?”
NOT AT ALL, Death said, far too quickly for my liking.
“Well then. So, I envision the Horseless Horse having a veritable plethora of applications. Army. Delivery. Leisure. Transport. A faster Horse for a faster you. Virtually any situation where a horse can be used now, and more besides; no stabling or expensive feed is required. It is the Horse of tomorrow, but today.”
QUITE A PITCH, Death said. His hands rattled together in a tiny bit of applause.
“Well, I hope so. I’m speaking at the Society tomorrow, hoping to rustle up some investors.”
YOU WILL HAVE NO NEED OF INVESTORS, MR GOODFELLOW. THIS WILL COVER IT.
From inside his cloak, Death produced a small bag. He let it drop and, as I dove to catch it, I heard it clink heavily.
“But you haven’t actually told me what it is you want me to do,” I protested.
YOU HAVE ALREADY DONE IT. Death’s hand swept out, encompassing me, my workshop, every one of my inventions, and came to rest on the flank of the Horse. YOU ARE TO BE THE FIFTH HORSEMAN OF THE APOCALYPSE. THIS SHALL BE YOUR HORSE, AND YOU WILL WIELD THE SWORD WHOSE EDGE BLEEDS. YOU NAME SHALL BE PROGRESS – THE UNATTAINABLE FUTURE IN WHOSE NAME ALL SHALL BE SACRIFICED.
IN THE SAME WAY THAT I PERSONIFY DEATH, YOU PERSONIFY PROGRESS SIMPLY FOR THE SAKE OF PROGRESS.
“That’s not at all true!” I said, waving my hands in front of him. “No no no! When everyone has their mail delivered to them automatically, and they’re carried around on horseless horses, things will be better!”
“We’ll have... more... time! To think about things!”
“Deep, philosophical things! And to improve ourselves as a race! Wars will end! Hatred will cease!”
THAT SOUNDS EXTREMELY VAGUE, Death said.
“I just... this ‘horseman’ thing sounds entirely too much. Not at all where I want to be. I... I just want to be recognised. To improve the world.”
TOO LATE, Death said.
There was a knock at the workshop door but I couldn’t turn away from Death. His cadaver smile was mocking, but also somehow sympathetic.
IT’S FOR YOU.
I looked over at the door, then walked slowly over to it. I opened it a crack, revealing a bearded man in a suit, silhouetted against another brilliantly clear day.
“Are you Horace Goodfellow?” He harrumphed when I nodded, then opened the little leather briefcase he carried. “Ernest Jones. Her Majesty’s Postal service. You sent us some plans quite some time ago for an invention of yours – some sort of mechanical horse - and in the wake of recent strike action we were wondering if we could still engage your services...”
A chill breeze behind me carried the ghostly echo of laughter. I looked back, but Death was gone.