Entropy in the Clockwork City (2006): Part Three
You can read about the history of this story in the introduction to Part One. Part Two can be found here.
Entropy in the Clockwork City (Part Three)
Thuun watched as the traitor Palak was almost carried onto a train carriage by one of the clumsy clockwork machines the people of this city called Surrogates. He gritted his teeth and clenched his fists at the sight. Aeshley dawdled just behind him; the boy had been withdrawn since he had watched Thuun kill the blacksmith. Thuun understood his confusion, but this was not the time for soul-searching.
Hurry, he signed to Aeshley. He began to run towards the station and the boy followed.
The train had begun to heave thick clouds from its smokebox when they reached the platform. Thuun slowed to a walk as they joined the thin crowds of citizens hanging about near the station.
‘What now, Mentor?’ asked Aeshley. Thuun ignored the boy as he thought. They could not risk losing Palak. Divinity knew what those walking artifacts would do with him. They might just kill him, but it was not a risk Thuun would take. The information he had received from his elders was quite specific: there was a traitor in their order, someone who sought to betray them through the ultimate blasphemy. It was now clear that this man was Palak. Allowing even the slightest possibility that this betrayal could occur was unacceptable.
Thuun knew that his faith was strong. His belief in the order was unshakable. This was why he, presumably amongst others, had been sent here, to one of the cities that the elders thought the traitor might seek refuge within. That Palak be stopped was more important than anything else, even their lives.
Thuun did not know what form Palak’s betrayal would take, but the blasphemous method of achieving it was bad enough. He felt sadness in his heart that his brother had fallen so far, but there was still hope. If Palak could be killed before he committed any blasphemy, then all would be well. His soul would peacefully rest with its choir, as it should be.
A loud whistle was emitted from the steam engine, warning of its impending departure. Thuun shook his head and rapped on Aeshley’s shoulder.
Jump on the back, he signed.
Once again they began to run, this time sprinting as they made for the back of the carriage. Aeshley made it there first, hopping nimbly on. Thuun felt his lungs and muscles protesting as he gave chase. The train began to grind forward, wheels and pistons screeching. Then he was there, clinging desperately to a bar on the rear of the carriage, teetering over the retreating tracks. Aeshley took his arm and helped him aboard, and Thuun looped his arms through his handholds and closed his eyes to pray.
Palak awoke spread-eagled and bound to a wheel. He blinked sleep-filled eyes and forced dry lips open. His back ached.
A deactivated Surrogate stood before him, illuminated by a single nearby torch. The clockwork construct was motionless; a spider could be seen abseiling down from its hooked beak. Dust coated its surfaces: thick, furred dust that adhered to every curve. This Surrogate had stood before this wheel for a long time.
Although the effort of it made his muscles scream, Palak fought against the ropes that tied him, attempting to survey his surroundings. His eyes narrowed as he peered into the gloom. The walls and ceiling of the chamber he occupied were invisible in the darkness, but the weight of the air made it seem vast.
He tried to emit some kind of noise, something that would draw attention to his plight. He could only manage a dry croak, which caused him intense pain and led to a bout of coughing. He desperately sucked saliva and phlegm into his mouth and swallowed, attempting to drown the dryness in his throat.
Light flooded the chamber, seeming to flow like water across it, moving like a wave from an indeterminate source somewhere beyond the dead Surrogate. Blinded by the sudden stimuli, Palak squeezed his eyes shut.
‘Open your eyes, Seeker.’
Palak remained motionless, his eyes scrunched shut. The dryness in his throat began to return, forgotten when the light blinded him, but now a niggling itch. Then his lips were forced apart by a sudden intrusion and water trickled into his mouth. He swallowed quickly, trying not to gag. He opened his eyes.
His mouth fell open, water dribbling back out. The cavern was indeed huge, but the wall and ceiling were covered, every inch of them, in gears, cogs, pistons, pipes, teeth, coils, springs, wires, cylinders, sprockets, and wheels. Some of these components were vast in size, greater in diameter than a man in height, and moved ponderously. Smaller pieces moved more rapidly than the eye could follow.
They proceeded towards a focal point at the far end of the chamber, where the clockwork mechanisms shrank in size. At this point there lay a cocoon, webbed into the wall by machinery. Great fluted tubes stretched up from it like organ pipes, disappearing into the walls and ceiling as they branched off.
Palak realised that there was a small figure standing beside the dead Surrogate. He forced his eyes to refocus, trying to ignore the brightness and grandeur of the chamber.
‘It’s the heart of the city, Seeker,’ said the figure. A man’s voice: old, too, and hoarse.
Palak stretched his fingers, and looked plaintively at the man’s silhouette. It shook its head.
‘I’m so very sorry, Seeker. I can’t let you go. I have something to tell you, and something to ask you, and I don’t think I have very much time. Can you listen? Do you want more water?’
Palak stared at him. The figure stepped forwards, revealing a wizened old man with a thick, tangled beard and patchy white hair with a liver-spotted pate. He looked remarkably spry for his age, but his clothes were badly cut and old. The man raised a flask, offering more water. Palak accepted.
‘I shan’t waste any time with preamble, Seeker. Suffice to say that I know only a little more about the Surrogates than you, a visitor to our city. I co-operate with them, and they sometimes co-operate with me. I don’t understand them.’
Palak watched the little man as he babbled, seeing the spark in his eyes that betrayed intelligence, or intelligence lost.
‘I feel no safer than anyone else in the City. They killed my predecessor, you see. He was bound to that very wheel and executed by the construct you see before you. You can’t see the blood – it’s covered in dust now.’
Palak looked back at the deactivated construct. His heart continued to pound against his ribs, straining against the ropes.
‘I think that they want someone else now, and that someone is obviously you. I wanted to tell you what I could before it’s too late.
‘I don’t know if the Surrogates serve the city, or if the city serves them, or if they’re one and the same. There’s no way to tell. But they’ve been rebuilding parts of this chamber of late. Something is afoot, and I don’t know what.’
Palak saw a Surrogate move away from the edge of the chamber and begin to walk towards them. He frowned and trembled as the old man continued.
‘This brings me to what I want to ask of you. It is simple: keep your wits about you. They may try and use you to do something terrible. Or they may not. It could be entirely benign. I don’t know, my predecessor didn’t know. But that’s why we think we’re here: to keep an eye on events that others can’t see.’
Palak was surprised at the man’s choice of words, wondering if he realised just how appropriate they were to his own quest. But it was impossible for anyone to know why he was here: his intention to betray the Order’s plans was known only to himself, those he’d indirectly let something slip to, and those sent to stop him.
Right now, though, his attention was focused on the old man and the approaching Surrogate, which was a few dozen feet behind him and approaching.
‘They’ll no doubt have their own reasons for bringing you here, but remember who you are, what loyalties you have, and that you can’t trust what you don’t understand.’
The old man fell silent for a few seconds. The only noise was a background chorus of humming and whirring from the clockwork, and the steady clank of the Surrogate.
‘I believe that it’s my time,’ said the old man. He clearly heard the machine approaching, but did not turn. He tucked the flask of water into his jerkin and laced his fingers together.
The Surrogate came to a halt just behind him. It was taller than its deactivated cousin, and perhaps twice the height of the old man. With remarkable gentleness it lowered a claw and patted him on the head. He smiled, still looking at Palak.
The claw moved in a quick movement, rapping the old man’s skull at a sharp angle. There was a snapping sound as his neck broke, and he crumpled to the floor in a sad little heap. Palak stared, teetering between confusion and fear.
There was a grating noise as the Surrogate lowered its doglike head to face the wizened corpse. Incredibly, it began to emit a noise that approximated a simple tune. It reached down and picked up the old man, carefully raising him up. Then it turned and walked away, moving behind the wheel and out of Palak’s vision.
Its disappearance acted as a catalyst. Palak’s fear returned and he began to panic, straining once more against the ropes that tied him to the wheel.
Thuun sank to his knees, leaning back against the wall of the tunnel as he tried to catch his breath. Close, he thought to himself. I must be close.
They had ridden the train for hours, traveling beneath the city into areas that were clearly not populated by anything living. By the time they had finally stopped Thuun’s muscles had been stiff and weak, and it had taken some effort to pry himself off the back of the train.
The Surrogate that had dragged Palak aboard had carried him off, unconscious. Thuun and Aeshley had followed them for a while, but it was harder this time. There were no crowds to hide them and they were in unfamiliar territory. Occasionally they had hidden from passing Surrogates, large and small. After a time Thuun had found himself relying entirely on his acolyte to scout ahead and find the way.
A few minutes ago the child had come running back to him, babbling something about a great chamber and an old man falling dead. Thuun only cared that the boy had seen Palak there. That was all that mattered. But Aeshley had refused to lead him there. Tears had run down his cheeks. Thuun did not blame him for this: he knew that it was unfair to subject the child to this sort of fear, to make him witness these deaths. But there was a greater cause to serve here. He had left the boy behind after getting directions from him, telling him to do as he thought best.
Thuun stood again. His old knees creaked and he sighed. He sensed death approaching him, inevitable in this inhuman place, but he did not fear it. It was close to his time, anyway.
Just one more sin, he told himself, and then I can rest. He clasped his fingers about a small glass orb, similar to the one he had used to disable Corvax. This one would kill instantly, but there was only one.
He continued to walk down the passageway, feeling his way along in the dim light. Ahead of him, around a corner, something was glowing. That had to be the chamber Aeshley had spoken of.
As Thuun rounded the corner he almost stumbled and fell. Before him was an entrance into a truly vast chamber, filled from top to bottom with clockwork machinery. Not far from the entrance he could see a man in grey robes, struggling and bound to a wheel: Palak. A Surrogate stood before him but did not move.
Thuun stepped cautiously into the chamber, looking around to ensure that no Surrogates were nearby. He believed the way clear, but before he had taken three steps he felt something take hold of his shoulder and spin him around. He came face to face with the devilish eyes of a beaked Surrogate. It growled at him.
He did not feel the killing blow.
Aeshley hurried back along the passageways, sniveling a little, wiping his nose and eyes with the back of his hand. He had failed; failed his Mentor and failed their mission. But he did not care. He only wanted to get out of this place. It was dark and cold and unfamiliar, like a mausoleum at night.
He knew the way back to the station. Perhaps he could hitch a ride back out again, or even just follow the tracks until he found daylight. Aeshley knew they were weak hopes, and hated that he could only react with tears.
‘Stop,’ growled a mechanical voice. He yelped and looked back. A small Surrogate was pacing forwards out of the shadows of a side-tunnel. Aeshley turned away and ran, but a second Surrogate appeared in front of him and he skidded to a halt, trapped between them.
‘Stop,’ said the second Surrogate. It approached Aeshley and he staggered backwards.
‘Seen heart,’ said the second Surrogate.
‘Can’t tell,’ said the first, behind him.
‘Break fingers, take tongue.’
Aeshley whimpered and felt urine running down his leg.
Palak had stopped struggling out of exhaustion some time before a new Surrogate had approached. Its head was equine, its eyes painted black. It cut the ropes around his forearms with its talons, and he flexed his fingers. When it spoke its voice was more careful than the others, but it still stumbled through sentences with difficulty.
‘Why you come. To the city. Seeker?’
To find a voice, he signed, unsure if the machine would understand, but it nodded. Palak shivered, an undercurrent of fear still occupying him.
‘And why you seek. Find a voice?’
My Order plans to betray their holy confidence. Every secret ever told them, every sin ever confided in them, will be used to take hold of the reins of power. With blackmail and information they plan to seize control. Their hubris will bring all nations low. I have to stop them before they destroy themselves.
‘Yes. They do this. We consider this. Not good for we. Have other plan.’
It raised one of its arms and pointed at the cocoon where the machinery in this chamber was focused. ‘There. You and we. Think together. You get voice. We understanding. City must grow. Grow new ways. Growth. Strength.’
Will you help me stop my order? Stop them destroying themselves?
Palak felt strong doubts, knowing that he had no reason to trust anything that he was being told. But he also knew that it was clear he had no choice in a matter; that once again, his actions had been determined by a force far greater than he. And there was little need for the Surrogate to lie about its intentions: they had him.
For the second time in his old age, Palak resolved to do the best he could in dubious circumstances, and offered a small prayer to the divinity.
Let it begin, he told the Surrogate.
['Entropy in the Clockwork City', Part Three, Shaun Green, 2006. Cover image is a close-up photograph of a piece of jewellery by Tjep.]