Clockworks Warrior excerpt

Clockworks Warrior by Martin Vavpotic

Chapter 2 – Clockworks

Carrus spent the next four days locked in his new quarters. He could not complain about the accommodations he had been given. The apartment was small yet comfortable in every possible way but no trinket could possibly comfort him now. Dishes placed before him were taken away a few hours later, cold and forgotten.

On the fifth day, Gaston broke into his little world of pain and disappointment. “Your duties await, monsieur Vertigelli.” His pure Katalian accent turned the words into song.

“I respectfully refuse,” Carrus said with a hollow voice.

“You misunderstood me.” The old man walked up to him and looked him straight in the eye. “I wasn’t asking. I was giving you a command.”

Carrus erupted with rage. “I am the eldest son of Marchese Verti…”

“You are a Scholar of Scholar Society now. Here, we do what our superiors tell us. I am your superior, monsieur Vertigelli.”

Carrus stared at the old oaf in deaf fury; the old man calmly looked back. “I have no intention of repeating myself,” Gaston said. “Either you do as I commanded or I will send you home.”

Send me home. Carrus shivered with disgust. To be sent packing like a sniveling child to a disappointed father, a teary-eyed mother and a swarm of spiteful siblings who thought their crippled brother doesn’t deserve the attention he was getting.

The blue-tiled corridor seemed even narrower than the last time. Once more Carrus saw the cursed word, written above the great wooden door.

Clockworks. What kind of a word is that anyway? “So you expect me to build clocks?” he said with a hollow voice.

A slight smile crept across Gaston’s face. “Something of that nature.”

“I hate clocks,” Carrus muttered. It was most likely loud enough for Gaston to hear but he didn’t care.

Gaston reached the heavy door and pushed them open. Carrus’ jaw dropped. “What in the world…”

Everywhere, small objects on delicate wings fluttered through the air. At first he thought they were birds but their bodies were made of bright brass that glittered in the sunlight. Large windows covered the upper half of the walls; sunlight flooded in.

“What is this place?”

“Your department,” Gaston said matter-of-factly.

On the far side of the room, men and women sat hunched over their desks, looking at their work up close. Their hands seemed empty at first but they must have been handling instruments too small to see from afar. Some wore the most bizarre sets of headwear Carrus had ever seen. Whole rings of lenses hung around their ears on thin strands of wire. Every so often they would reach up and place a lens in front of their face. Some would rotate the wire rings before finding the right setting.

“Everybody, listen up,” Gaston called out. Everyone looked up from their work. “Our newest addition has arrived. This is Carrus Vertigelli.”

They dropped their work and focused all their attention at him. At least one of them was downright staring. It made Carrus uncomfortable, never mind that people had always given him looks. He managed to smile and wave politely.

All except Gaston were his age. Both genders seemed to be equally represented. One of the women, her chestnut hair tied behind her head, smiled back at him in a way that made Carrus look away embarrassed. He had been too young to think about girls before the accident and afterwards he was not something young women looked for in a potential suitor.

“He has much to learn and we need him to catch up as soon as possible,” Gaston was saying. “Taudal, I want you to stop ogling at Carrus’ chair and show him the basic functionalities of a speye.”

“Of a what?” Carrus said.

“A speye,” said the one who stared at him most unpleasantly, wiggling fingers above his head in a comical manner. “The buzzing thingies. Hope you noticed them. We build them.”

Taudal took him to an empty working desk. “You get Eiller’s workstation,” he said as he pulled the chair away so Carrus could park his wheeled chair in place. A woman sitting nearby gave Carrus a sullen look before returning to her work.

“Did I do something?”

“Oh, don’t mind Malia,” Taudal said. “She’s sulking because she was infatuated with Eiller.” The woman blushed and looked away.

“Where did Eiller go?” Carrus asked.

“He joined the night group. We’re the day group. Each team works half a day.”

“Is there a need for such a rigorous timetable?” Carrus asked.

“You’d be surprised. Did you build your chair?”

“What? No. I wasn’t allowed.”

“Allowed?” Taudal smirked. “Who would stop you from building one?”

“My family,” Carrus said quietly.

‘There are men who are trained to perform such labor, son. A son of a Marchese does not soil his hands with work of commoners.’ Small wonder I never got past my childish obsessions.

“Too bad,” Taudal said. “Anyway, let’s get started, shall we?” He casually reached in the air and snatched a nearby floating machine in a matter-of-fact fashion. The wings immediately stopped twitching.

Carrus noticed a small bandage on Taudal’s hand. A working accident, most likely.

With a deft hand, Taudal found a crack in the brass casing and opened it up. The most complex mechanism Carrus could ever imagine appeared before his eyes, all stored in a sphere the size of a fist. A myriad of tiny spokes and wheels, all shining in the bright sunlight. At first glance, it all looked chaos until he noticed the precision and order that ruled the tiny machine.

“I didn’t know such tiny spokes could be forged,” Carrus said in awe.

“It’s not easy,” Taudal said casually. “The forging casts have to be flawless. That’s only possible if the metal is extra heated so it is as liquid as possible. Extra heat calls for special furnaces as well as special fuel and that does not come cheap, not to mention the ingredients in the alloy have to be in just the right ratios.”

As he listened, Carrus imagined the enormous production machine that stood behind these seemingly simple objects.

“Why are they called speyes?”

“Spy eyes. Speyes.”

“Oh. That’s… clever.”

“It’s simple and it serves its purpose, that’s what matters.”

Taudal began to describe the basic build of the tiny machine. Carrus could see his tutor had a great passion for such mechanics. Small wonder he couldn’t keep his eyes away from Carrus’ wheeled chair.

“Who designs the parts?” Carrus asked.

“We have an army of actual clockmakers who supply us,” Taudal said. “They work below, in the Guild Quarter of Koriantal. We also have some geomancers in our employ. They supply us with raw material, minerals, that sort of thing. We simply do not have the time to gather and manufacture the parts ourselves.”

Returning to his quarters that evening, Carrus’ head was full of spinning spokes and twirling wheels. He didn’t even notice that Nalvo lifted him from his chair and placed him on the bed. Only when he found himself looking at the wheels of his chair he noticed he’s no longer sitting in it.

These wheels have brought me in the land of spokes. Perhaps I might find my place here after all.

*****

Carrus was pushing his chair through the University courtyard towards the Research Hall before the sun had fully risen. He wheeled his way through the hallways and corridors and soon found himself looking at the door with the ‘Clockworks’ sign above it.

Gaston stood before the door, he smiled at the sight of Carrus. “It is good to see you’ve decided to return.” Carrus didn’t know if he was being mocked or applauded. To be safe, he smiled in response without a word.

“So,” Gaston said. “What was your first impression of Clockworks?”

“It is most impressive,” Carrus said as he wheeled himself closer. Gaston opened the door for him. Once more, Carrus’ eyes widened at the sight of the shining globes fluttering on their wings. “I do have a question, if I may,” he said.

“Ask.”

“It seems an awful lot of work just to get a tiny machine to fly around. I doubt you’re building them for entertainment sake, not with two shifts constantly working on them and such an industry behind it. What is the purpose of these devices?”

Gaston nodded with approval while his face remained serious. “Do you remember what I asked as we climbed the Viper Trail?”

“If my carriage encountered any Halmurri.”

“You saw none; you were fortunate. Some people aren’t fortunate. Whoever or whatever these things are, those Portals of theirs enable them to appear quickly and without warning. No one is safe from them. If our legions meet them man for man, ours are wiped from the face of the realm. The only true weapon we have against them is the information where they are at the moment so they can be overwhelmed with superior numbers and forced to retreat back through the Portals. That is why we build these machines. They are our eyes where an ordinary lookout cannot go.”

“Why ‘Clockworks’?”

“Because the design of speyes originated from the design of clocks.”

“Who came up with the idea of winged machines?”

“I did,” Gaston said. Instantly, Carrus saw the old man in a completely new way. “No mechanism that Man invents can rival that of Nature. Why invent something new if you can emulate perfection?”

“Indeed,” said Carrus. “But it must have taken you a long time to develop such a complex mechanism.”

“I’ve had some time on my hands.” There was something in the way Gaston said it that caught Carrus’ attention. “Discretion has always been our motto and so it should become yours.”

“Any particular reason?”

“The chance of sabotage, for one. There have been reports that some of our own kind have pledged allegiance to the invader. Rumors yet to be confirmed but it’s a reason why there are no servants allowed on the University grounds except the refectory and dormitory.”

“Yet you tell me all these things and I’ve only been here one day.”

“Thank Thrason for that,” Gaston said. “The very fact you did not know what department you’ll be joining makes you the most trusted member of the department.”

“Except you,” said Carrus. “As a leader, your loyalty goes unquestioned.”

“You would think so wouldn’t you?” Gaston said with a cryptic smile that left Carrus speechless.

*****

It was absolutely remarkable how much effort went into such a small device. After the first day, Carrus thought he would need a week and he would be able to perform whatever it is they wanted him to do. After a month of listening to Taudal he had barely scratched the surface of the knowledge. Without knowing when, he fell in love with these tiny and yet so demanding machines.

Taudal was truly obsessed with speyes. There was nothing else for him in life. Small wonder Gaston gave him the job of tutor. Carrus began to appreciate and soon admire him. However, Taudal couldn’t spend every day teaching as he had to perform his regular job as well. When he was busy with his own speyes, someone else had to take over. That someone turned out to be Sielle or as Carrus remembered her the woman with the chestnut hair that gave him the embarrassing smile on his first day.

Sielle proved to be quite a different instructor. While Taudal would talk and point so fast Carrus could barely keep up, Sielle surrendered her tools and told him to explore on his own. She answered any question Carrus had yet not in the same way as Taudal. Her replies were only directional and she never gave away information freely. If he wanted to learn anything from Sielle, Carrus had to ask questions. If he wanted to ask a rational question, he had to learn something first. Sielle’s way forced him to recall what Taudal had already told him and to build from there. He had to struggle to keep up with Taudal. With Sielle, he always had the feeling she was evaluating, even judging him.

After weeks of intense studies, Carrus got the feeling there is something they were not telling him. “I see a serious problem here,” he said in one of Sielle’s lessons.

“What’s that?” she said.

“There’s no way to control these once they are released.”

Sielle’s face didn’t change. Only her eyes darted to somewhere behind him. She gave the slightest of nods.

Carrus turned. Gaston stood there, with a smile of someone who knew everything there is to know in this world. “I advise you to come with me,” the old man said and led Carrus to the back of the workshop where there was a door he hadn’t noticed before. Gaston opened it for him, allowing Carrus to enter first.

After beholding the Clockworks for the first time, Carrus believed nothing could surprise him. Yet now the strangest sight presented itself. Several people sat the most unusual seats. He recognized them as other Clockworks employees who worked by Taudal’s and Sielle’s side. They sat in lying positions. A thin metallic belt circled around the forehead of each of them, sliding through the head of the seat.

Behind their closed lids, their eyes were moving as if they were dreaming.

“These are Steersman Seats,” Gaston declared. “With this seat you get to control your speye and move it through the air as if it were a part of you.”

He turned to Sielle. “Will you show him?” She nodded and climbed one of the vacant chairs. Carrus saw her pull an object from her pocket. It looked like a semi-precious stone, polished and shaped into a column. She plugged it into a hole at the head of the chosen seat and gave it a twist as if the stone were a key of some sort. Then she sat down and placed the thin metallic belt so it could spin around her forehead.

Gaston moved to the large mirror that hung above the chairs; it didn’t seem to be giving off a reflection. Gaston touched a small stone on the mirror’s edge and a jewel on Sielle’s chair began to glow green. The mirror came to life before Carrus’ eyes, showing an image of a landscape as clearly as if he were sitting outside instead of deep in the University’s bowels. He felt his jaw dropping but didn’t bother to adjust it.

“The feus, as the mirror is called, shows us what the speye pilot sees,” Gaston was saying from somewhere far away. “With this stone here you can switch between sights of every pilot currently sitting the Steersman Seats.” He touched the edge of the mirror again. The image changed, revealing the familiar sight of Koriantal’s Triple Wall; the speye must had been flying right above the colossal structure.

“Remarkable,” Carrus whispered, too astonished to say it louder. Then his mind readjusted. “How is this possible? What connects the pilot with the speye?”

“What indeed,” said Gaston, again that freakishly knowing smile on his lips.

They are not telling me until I prove I can be trusted with the knowledge. I have waited twelve years. I can wait some more.

“Can I fly one?” Carrus asked when he and Sielle were back behind the desk.

“Each of us builds their own speyes,” she said.  “If you wish to fly one, you have to build one.”

“Why?”

“Because we need you to be as motivated as possible to keep your speye intact. If you break it, you don’t get to fly one until you build a new one.”

“Makes sense,” Carrus admitted.

*****

Gradually, most of his lessons were taken over by Sielle. Taudal grew ever busier with his own work and Sielle’s lessons turned into long conversations though Carrus did most of the talking. It was strange that after such conversations he could not tell how much time had passed.

It was in one of these conversations when he finally said: “I think something is missing.”

For the longest moment, Sielle refused to make eye contact. “What is missing?” she finally said.

“A power source.” Carrus didn’t know why he spoke in a whisper. “There is nothing in this speye that would give its wings power to move. Nothing that would make this whole mechanism come alive.”

It was something he had suspected for a while yet chose to remain quiet, not wishing to shame himself if he were wrong after all. Yet judging from Sielle demeanor Carrus sensed that he had in fact stumbled onto something important.

Slowly, Sielle looked up from the mechanics on the desk and looked him in the eye. “They don’t need a power source,” she said, her voice low.

“I respectfully disagree,” Carrus replied with a matching tone, not taking his eyes off hers.

“I meant it doesn’t need a power source because the connection to the pilot supplies the power.”

“But you still haven’t told me what the connection is.”

Instead of responding, Sielle stretched out her arm and placed her hand in front of him. At first Carrus had no clue what this meant until he noticed the bandage on her hand. It was on the same spot as the bandage on Taudal’s hand. Gaston also wore a bandage on the exact same spot.

So did everyone else in Clockworks.

“To pilot the speyes, we cut a tiny piece of our flesh and put it into the speye’s central mechanism, here. Because of this, the speye draws power from our own life force.”

A shiver ran down Carrus’ spine. As a child, he had heard stories of men and women who were able to extend their own lives by drawing the life force from other living beings, including other people. Such men and women had come to be called Life Stealers by common people but the proper term for them was Necromancers.

Slowly, Carrus made his chair move backwards, putting distance between himself and Sielle.

“We are not what you might think.” Carrus turned. Gaston stood there, for once without that all-knowing smile on his face. “When I was young, I joined a group of people who wanted to achieve immortality by drawing life out of lesser creatures. We told ourselves that animals are slaughtered and eaten every day. How would this be any different? It wasn’t… until one of us tried it on another human being and learned that a person’s life force is exceedingly larger than a beast’s. From then on, we were no longer idealists. We turned into murderers.”

The word reverberated through Clockworks and through Carrus’ mind. “Somewhere on that journey,” Gaston continued, “I decided the price for eternal life was too great. I chose to abandon my friends, surrender myself to Scholar Society and accept any punishment they deemed necessary but not before learning how to tap into the life force. To make amends for my crimes, I placed all that terrible knowledge into the hands of the Scholars, hoping that something good might come of it.”

“Why are you telling me this?” Carrus said, his voice trembling.

“Because you are ready to hear it and with that you are ready to truly join Clockworks department. What I and my friends did so many years ago was unspeakable but it is this same knowledge that has enabled Sielle, Taudal and all the rest to pilot these speyes. They are not murderers as my friends of old were. They lend their own life force to these machines. Using cursed knowledge, they shield the people of this land from Halmurri. Never forget that.”

“What about you?” Carrus asked.

“I will spend the rest of my life atoning for what I’ve done in my youth,” Gaston answered, his face like a slab of stone. “And it probably won’t be long enough.”

###

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