Clockwork Love by Tjep

Entropy in the Clockwork City (2006): Part One

‘Entropy in the Clockwork City’ is probably the best thing I’ve ever written above a thousand words in length (it is ten thousand words in all; I will be publishing it in three parts). I have always thought this, but looking back on all of my old fiction in order to publish it on Nostalgia For Infinity I have come to this conclusion again.

It has its own problems, of course. The story has always needed revisiting to attend to them, but for whatever reason I never did. Similarly, this story is based in a much broader setting, including elements of its plot (though it was always intended to stand alone) as well as the Clockwork City and the world it is a part of.

For the record – and though I don’t myself consider this part of the genre I can see how others might – I wrote this before ‘clockpunk’ became a thing. I’ve always had a bit of an issue with ‘steampunk’ and ‘clockpunk’ and their ilk, mostly because most practitioners have a very poor grasp on the significance of the suffix.

Anyway, I really hope you enjoy this. Parts two and three will be published soon.

 

Entropy in the Clockwork City (Part One)

The city began abruptly, as if it refused the validity of boundaries. Perhaps this was an unconscious expression of its essentially unlimited nature; perhaps it symbolized the ever-present capacity for expansion and consumption. The Clockwork City was the true metropolis, a hegemonic mass of architecture and culture that encompassed all things and made them its own.

Palak stood at the edge of the city and, looking up at the towering edifice that confronted him, felt his stomach quail as vertigo rushed over him. As if to enhance the perception of standing before a terrible drop, something winged launched itself from high above, flying up in a straight line that resembled nothing so much as a swan dive. Palak looked away hurriedly, but could not resist glancing up again.

The cloudscraper stretched up perhaps three hundred metres; a behemoth of buildings, but diminutive in comparison with much of the City. Palak could see part of a vast toothed cog emerging halfway up, turning slowly and emitting a low grinding noise that melded with the chorus of the city – an ever-present drone of friction and metal and stone. Fluted pipes stretched like treefingers from the same side of the cloudscraper, and they spat thin jets of steam at regular intervals. As Palak watched, the winged creature that had taken flight tacked towards the steam jets, flying almost too close before adopting a dizzying spiral that carried it around and around one of the jets. The steam was twisted into a counterspiral, dissipating faster and faster until it was all but invisible when the creature reached the peak of its flight. In a slow arc, the flyer turned about and glided down towards its point of origin. It was joined by another, which clung close by until they both landed. A mating ritual. Palak furrowed his brow. The city was old enough that its urban fauna had developed unique, environment-specific rituals. He found this intimidating. Popular legend claimed that the Clockwork City preceded its mostly human inhabitants. Perhaps these winged animals were one of the arguments used to support this claim. He himself did not know how long humans were supposed to have populated the Clockwork City. It was a moot point.

He tore his gaze away from the dizzying heights and leviathan machinery and mating flights, forcing himself to put one foot before another as he walked towards the base of the cloudscraper. Previously it had seemed to grow no nearer but now, since the sheer bloody scale of the thing had captivated him, it seemed just a few yards away. He reached the wall and reached out to touch it. There was cold, smooth stone which felt like granite or unyielding skin. The low temperature seeped through to his flesh and he pulled his hand away, flexing his fingers.

Palak gathered his loose robes around him, blocking out imagined breezes, and stretched his thin fingers around his quarterstaff. He had reached the City, the place where machine and man and others met to breed strange new ideas. The place where he might, at last, find a solution to the quest that had come to possess him. Here, in the place that was all things, Palak hoped to find a voice.

#

The Surrogate creaked and whistled as it eased itself out of its transport cocoon and off the train. Its thick piston legs thumped as they took its weight, extending as it rose to its full three-metre height. Around it a half-dozen other Surrogates went through the same stop-start animation as they surveyed the surrounding area. Behind them the steam engine whistled and roared as it pulled away from the station.

The Surrogates formed into a line of twos, tramping down from the platform, scattering flesh citizens before them as they marched with machine determination down into the network of slums and shanty-houses that filled, ‘scraper to ‘scraper, this district of the City.

The line halted near the foot of a pair of towers. These were great cylindrical rods that stretched up until they were lost amidst the clouds of smog and smoke that hung overhead. Several of the Surrogates turned to face one another, emitting a low creaking sound. Then the column marched off again, leaving four of their number behind. These four began to scale the towers, their heavy limbs digging into the weaker stone and somehow finding purchase.

A few dozen feet above the ground, a family of arachnids was suspended in their webs. The webs were many and well-spread, the family having evidently expanded their home to house them all. Now the Surrogates approached and the family huddled together. The largest, a great female spider, pressed the smaller males and children behind her.

The Surrogates reached the bottom of the network of webs and began to tug at it. They extruded short blades from their forearms and sawed through the thicker strands of spidersilk that supported the webs. One of them climbed a little higher to begin attacking the webs further up.

The female struck at this one, moving with terrible speed. Her heavy forelimbs battered the machine as her jaws seized its head. It swayed a little as she struck it, then pressed itself closer to the tower. One of its arms reached out and seized a flailing leg, and with a quick tug the limb came free of the arachnid. She wailed and reared back in shock and pain.

The Surrogate took advantage of this respite to free its other hand. Gripping the tower with its feet, it threw the detached limb aside and seized two more. The arachnid immediately stopped its wailing and tried to pull away, but the Surrogate made another tugging motion and two more limbs came away from the female’s thorax. She screamed and fell, landing on her back at the base of the towers. There she lay and keened in pain.

Still holding the mother’s legs, the Surrogate turned its gaze on the rest of the family. They immediately began to scurry down the collapsing webs. One of the female young hissed and spat at the Surrogate, but allowed itself to be hurried away. They dropped down the rest of the distance, gathering around the wounded mother.

Eventually they righted her, and she hobbled away in their midst. They vanished among the shantytown crowds as the Surrogates continued to tear the web apart.

#

Palak advanced from a side street to a market square. It bustled with activity; street merchants bawled raucously, fighting to be heard over the din. The loudest, most aggressive, most confrontational made the most sales. Occasionally this would go wrong – an over-zealous seller might get a little too close to an igyak and be sent sprawling by a flex of the shambling beast’s muscles, or another merchant might trigger a bout of posturing with a competitor at a perceived theft of custom. All the while walkers, buyers, children, beggars, businessmen and more wove their way through the tightly packed crowds. Occasionally limbs would flick out and seize something from a cart or stall. Usually the vendors noticed and snapped out a few caustic words; by unspoken agreement, the unsuccessful thief would then flick a coin to their intended victim. The environment was predatory. It stank of filth and life and decay.

Few came near Palak. A few children rifled through his robes as they ran past, but came away disappointed. Most avoided him either out of respect for his profession or the knowledge that he probably had nothing saleable anyway. Except the staff which never left his fingers, and which would periodically nudge something or someone out of his path.

Palak’s eyes were not on his immediate surroundings. Markets were nothing new to a seasoned traveller, and even in a city like this a market was much the same. Instead he watched the cogs and wheels that roofed the neighbourhood, and the Surrogates that climbed, simian-like, between and around and over them. On the ground they looked clumsy, but here they swung and crawled with impressive agility from one part of the engine to another. Palak could not tell what they were working on. They were too far up to see clearly. He did not even know what this particular engine was supposed to do. Three axles stretched all the way down to the ground from the roof of teeth. One of them had been hollowed out to house some squalid dwellings. Hammocks and spinneret wire and crude metal boxes and even etherealate webs were strung up between the others, with the larger and more stable dwellings hung between all three. There were also nests from which small, brightly glowing flying things emerged. They provided the majority of the light in this cavernous square; beams of natural sunlight also streaked down through some components of the machine high above. Their positions shifted rhythmically, creating a dappled effect that would have been hypnotic had the environment allowed anyone to concentrate.

Three of the sides of the square were composed of tall, tombstone-like buildings. One of them had no windows or apparent entrances. It seemed to Palak a tomb, but given its size and setting he questioned that analysis. The others seemed to be as heaving with fleshlife as the market itself.

On the far side of the square to Palak, the wall was composed of a towering face of crude glass. It was rife with impurities that ran in irregular patterns, and was thick enough that it was effectively opaque. It glowed gently, more towards its peak, indicating that sunlight shone down upon it and some of it diffused through. Toward the bottom scaffolding stretched up from the ground, and large craters were visible in the glass even from a kilometre away. The glass was being mined from the wall. The base of the scaffolding was not visible from where Palak stood, but he suspected that a small industry sprouted from the base of the wall, and that the atmosphere was every bit as competitive among the glass-miners as among the street-traders.

“Hey. Priest. Seeker.”

Palak’s muscles twitched, almost imperceptibly, as the sharply spoken words cut through the racket around him. Controlling himself, he followed the source of the sound and met the steady gaze of a street-trader. The man was seated on a crate, with another box placed in front of him. The latter was filled with tiny mechanical items, devices and ornaments. The man himself was part machine. The skin of one arm was damaged and torn, revealing delicate wheels and axles beneath.

Clutching his quarterstaff, Palak made his way through a gang of teenaged children. They giggled and spat at him but soon lost interest when he paid them no heed. Then he was stood before the street hawker. He found his gaze drawn again to the man’s arm.

‘Curious, hey, Seeker?’ said the man. ‘No surprise. Lost my arm long ago. Accident. Man named Corvax built this for me. He’s good. You looking for something?’

Palak nodded.

‘I read sign,’ said the man. ‘So you can talk to me.’

A smile spread over Palak’s face. Those who understood the sign language used by his order were rare. As a result of this two-way communication was rare, for all his brothers were mute. This was the concept on which their philosophy hinged.

I am glad, he signed to the man.

‘They really cut your tongues out?’

Palak nodded. There is no pain.

‘What you looking for, Seeker?’

Keeping his face blank, Palak signed his response. Why do you call me Seeker?

‘Seer, Seeker, I’m a farseer. I sense things. Once for nobility. Until they were displeased. Now I like a simpler life. You’re looking for something. Tell me.’

Palak hesitated for a moment. He deliberated over the risk of entrusting this man with even a small amount of information regarding his purpose here. Eventually he decided that he could take a small risk.

I am searching for someone who can build me something.

‘Something built? Corvax will be your man. See Corvax. Blacksmith. Metallurge. Sometime alchemist.’

Where?

‘Not far. Half-dozen miles. Guild district; Corvax does good trade. Honest man sometimes wins. Head North-West, past the glass wall. Takes you that way.’

Thank you.

‘Welcome, Seeker. Your kind are honoured. Great respect is due. When I lost my arm, talked to one of you. He helped. Good listeners. Best listeners.’

Palak nodded and smiled. So we intend. I am honoured we could ease your burden.

‘Buy a trinket, friend?’ The hawker gestured at his box of damaged wares. He shoved both hands into it, and one of them clinked as the metal beneath the skin rapped against his goods. Then he drew out a tiny little toy; an automaton, small and perhaps once carefully crafted. It had seen better days.

I carry no currency. I am sorry.

‘A gift, then,’ said the man. He reached out and pressed the toy to Palak’s chest, and as he leaned forwards Palak caught a glimpse of something in his eyes. He couldn’t discern the emotion, well-hidden as it was behind the neutral musculature of the hawker’s face, but he took the toy. It had thick legs like pistons and a wolf-like face. He looked back at the hawker.

Thank you. Farewell.

The man nodded, the spark gone from his eyes. A smile twitched at one corner of his lips as he bade Palak farewell.

The priest moved away, back into the thick crowds that eddied around the currents of the market. As he left the man slumped down into himself. He emitted a long sigh that tapered away, and the light faded from his eyes.

From behind him, a tiny monkey-sized Surrogate emerged. Its delicate fingers were bloodied. It looked in the direction that Palak had gone, and then scampered towards and then up the nearest wall.

#

Several streets and one small bridge beyond the glass wall, Palak became aware that he was being followed. Through the seemingly random dynamics of the crowds that populated the byways of the city he sensed a pattern. Curiosity and suspicion flushed through him. He did not fear, but he wondered.

He hunched down in his robes, making himself smaller, and shifted his grip on his quarterstaff. The need rarely arose, but as a traveling priest of the Ordo Exaudio he was occasionally required to defend himself. Sometimes a bloodied nose was needed to establish the respect his position demanded.

His eyes flicked back and forth as he scanned his surroundings. The street he was walking was wide, and busy, but seemed as much residential as mercantile. The crowds were thinner than those in the market, but thick enough to get lost in. Palak waited until he had passed through a tight knot of pedestrians and quickly moved into a narrow alleyway that was barely as wide as his shoulders. He pulled his hood up and over his head, hiding his olive skin, and pressed his back against the wall.

Light momentarily vanished from the alleyway as a large figure blocked the way back onto the street. Then the figure was gone, and he saw the searing light of the sun bathing the sand and concrete beyond. More distant figures moved, features and identities unknown, indiscernible. A smaller figure peered into the alleyway.

‘Here, Mentor. Here!’

The voice was high and gentle; the voice of a boy. And “Mentor”? Palak blinked and reached up to his forehead, intending to sweep his hood away. Then he remembered himself and let his hand fall. He stepped towards the silhouetted boy. The child moved back as he approached, and with sweat-slick fingers about his staff, Palak stepped into the light.

He made out the boy, now; a young man of no more than twelve swathed in too-small brown robes. He stood beside a larger robed man, who also wore the accoutrements of the Ordo Exaudio. Palak recognized the man but hoped that it would not be mutual, as that could endanger his efforts here. But either way there would be suspicion, and the situation demanded caution. He signed a semi-formal greeting to this man, Thuun, a sign such as traveling and practicing Listeners might use. The other priest mimicked the greeting but the movements were not fluid or habitual. The boy did not move, staring at the ground instead. This was proper behaviour for acolytes, who must learn silence before they receive the gift.

I am the one known as Palak. He emphasized each letter of his name, spelling them with sharp flicks and curves of his finger.

Thuun, came the reply. And my acolyte, Aeshley. The boy, watching his Mentor’s hands out of the corner of his eye, bobbed his head at the signing of his name. Then Thuun’s hands were moving again.

It is a pleasure to meet a brother in the Great City. So far from home. You do the good work here often?

Palak let none of his relief show. Thuun’s line of question was transparent. So his enemies among the order had indeed caught wind of his intentions – but they did not know who to suspect, and this agent had loyalty but no guile.

I travel widely, Palak responded. Last summer I walked the tundra to the north, savouring silence, and now I Listen beneath the ticking of clocks. He raised his open palms skywards. Above them bridges of pistons and metal arms clunked, driven by toothed cogs.

You are faithful, was Thuun’s reply. His face, like Palak’s, was unmoving, locked in a small and serene smile.

The city has called you, too?

They say she calls all souls in time, replied Thuun. But yes, the Order has sent me to Listen to the populace of this city. They are legion, and bear such heavy burdens of secrecy and guilt.

Palak inclined his head a little, making a show of respect for Thuun’s good work. It was clear to him that Thuun was a stooge, an investigator fitted to his role by circumstance.

A crowd had begun to gather around them, holding some distance back. Many of them had recognized the uniform of the order of Listeners, but others were simply drawn to the unusual exchange. They watched the two robed men smile at one another, their hands flickering with small movements.

I should go, signed Palak. I regret that, of necessity, I have business I must attend to.

Of course, brother, Thuun responded. Will you inform us of where you are staying? It is so rare to chance across a fellow of the Order, and we must both have burdens to share.

Palak nodded his head again, closing his eyes in an expression of serene compliance. I regret that I have yet to secure lodgings. I arrived this morning.

Thuun’s expression cracked slightly, though he attempted to hide it quickly. Then you must stay with us. We have a room in a spinneret not two streets from the great clock face. It is beside a taxidermist’s.

I thank you for your kindness, brother, but now I really must depart. The crowd around them had not grown but had begun to constrict. Although it was clear to their audience that two of the Order stood in public like this would not be practising  curiosity drove them forwards. Several children had begun a clumsy caricature of the priest’s conversation, laughed and clapped on by their peers.

Thuun nodded to Palak and they exchanged a farewell appropriate to those who will see one another again soon. Then Palak turned and walked away. The crowd made way for him, several pairs of eyes watching his back. The crowd began to disperse, although a few still hovered nervously near Thuun, hungry for vindication or redemption. They were ignored. As they watched, Thuun bent and carefully signed something to Aeshley. Then he straightened and stared after Palak, already lost in the crowds, with a faint expression of concern washing over his mask. Then he turned and walked away in the opposite direction to his brother. The supplicants followed him at a distance. None of them noticed Aeshley setting off after Palak, losing himself in a cloak of urbanity.

#

[‘Entropy in the Clockwork City’, Part One, Shaun Green, 2006. Cover image is a close-up photograph of a piece of jewellery by Tjep.]

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  1. […] can read about the history of this story in the introduction to Part One. Part Three will be published […]