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Rated: E · Short Story · Steampunk · #2312560
Thadeus Grimshaw finds more than was on his shopping list. 1st in StAG Firebox, Jan 2024.
Writers were asked to write a story based on this photo

Minfold’s Mechanical Menagerie

Thadeus found the shop tucked away in a narrow little street in the old quarter of the city. It was no surprise to him that he had never noticed it before, the building being rather narrow and overpowered by the taller edifices that flanked it. The face it presented to the world did not assist in making its delights being known, the paint being old and faded, even peeling in places. One small, dusty display window was filled with curious mechanical devices and components. Above it there hung a sign announcing the shop as Minfold’s Mechanical Menagerie.

It was exactly what Thadeus had been looking for. If he was to find any of the assorted and unlikely items on his shopping list, this was the most likely establishment to stock them. He gazed at the strange objects in the window for some time, identifying a few as parts of machines he knew, but having to guess at the uses of others.

Then he stepped to the side, pushed open the entrance door and stepped inside. A bell activated by the opening door announced his arrival.

In the dim light from the window, Thadeus could see that the walls of the place were covered in shelves and boxes, niches and crannies, filled with metallic oddities and strange devices similar to those displayed in the window. There was a counter across the back wall and a slight movement betrayed the presence of a bent figure, seated and poring over some complex contraption or other.

As Thadeus’ vision improved as he became accustomed to the gloom, he realised that the figure had ceased its concentration on the piece before it, and Thadeus was now being observed through a pair of thick bifocal spectacles. He stepped forward to the counter.

“Allow me to introduce myself,” he said. “My name is Thadeus Grimshaw and I’m looking for certain components that I’m going to need for my difference machine.”

The proprietor brightened at this. His wrinkled old face erupted into a beaming smile and he replied with some enthusiasm. “Ah, so you proceed down the same route as the famous Mr Babbage!”

“Not quite,” replied Thadeus. “I like the idea of his machine but I feel it can be achieved with more efficiency and utility if another method be used in its construction.”

The old man cackled quietly to himself. “Ohoh, I sense a competition developing here. But how may I assist you, sir?”

Thadeus consulted his list. “Well, to begin with, I need several switches. My machine is going to need a great many but I was hoping to start with at least twenty.”

“What kind of switches, sir? Mechanical? Manual or automatic? I have several types that might meet your requirements.”

“This is where it becomes difficult,” said Thadeus. He leaned over the counter and lowered his voice as he spoke into the proprietor’s ear. “Electrical. They must be electrical. No one else seems to have such a thing.”

The old man looked at him sharply. “Electrical, hey? Well, I can see why you’re having difficulties. There’s not many like to play around with electricity after all. But I think I have what you’re looking for.”

He glanced around at the shop and then continued, “But not here, not here. If you will follow me, sir…”

With that he lifted the gate that allowed entrance behind the counter, turned, and shuffled off to a door in the darkest corner of the room. Thadeus followed quickly and saw the gleam of metal as the man’s hand reached out to turn the doorknob. A mechanical hand!

Before Thadeus could ask about this, the man had entered the back room and Thadeus was forced to follow. The gloom was even denser than in the shop and Thadeus could see very little. But the old man had reached some sort of glass tube in the corner and was fiddling with one end of it. Suddenly it lit up with a light so bright that the entire room was visible in stark detail.

“My workshop!” announced the man.

Thadeus was conscious of even more clutter lining the walls and filling several tables, machines in various states of assembly and construction, but he was still fascinated by the source of the light. “That light,” he said. “How does that work? I didn’t see you doing anything more than turn a switch to get it to shine.”

The old man looked at the tube he was still holding. “This? Oh, just a little invention of mine. Works on a certain gas, you see. The tube is filled with it and, when I turn this switch…” He switched the light off and on again quickly. “It glows. Very convenient, I think.”

“But this is fantastic,” spluttered Thadeus. “Why, with this invention you could light up the world! And your hand - did I see that it’s mechanical?”

“Not just the hand,” replied the man. He rolled up his sleeve so that Thadeus could see the his whole arm was a mechanical construction. “Lost the arm when Bessie, my steam engine, chewed it up in a fit of impatience. The arm’s pretty good but I’m still working on the full dexterity of the fingers. Not much it can’t do, however.”

“But that’s incredible. Those are the most amazing inventions I’ve seen in all my travels and learning. What are you going to do with them?”

The proprietor looked at him in surprise. “Do? Why, nothing, of course. They serve well enough for me but that’s all.”

Thadeus waved his arms in frustration. “But you could make a fortune with inventions like these. The light alone would make you a millionaire.”

“And why would I do that?”

“To change the world, man. It’s crying out for this kind of thing.”

The old man shook his head. “Then it will just have to cry. The inventions are good enough. But what of humanity? Who knows what they’ll do…”

Word count: 995
For StAG Firebox, January 2024
Prompt: As per illustration.

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