Edition 18: Like Clockwork by Tim Major
Working for an eccentric and fastidious employer can have its drawbacks, especially when the job entails maintaining an immaculate replica of earth for the governor who never leaves his train route on Mars. The detail of Tim Major’s world and the strange characters who inhabit it recommended this story to the judges and brought it in for second place. SY
At a sound at the door, Mick Votel turned from examining the beautifully constructed, but not ticking, clock on the mantelpiece.
Danielle Abresch placed her bulky white helmet on the floor. “Damned claustrophobic thing.”
She shuffled her feet to kick away clods of dust and squinted to look around the room. The wood-panelled walls and the leafy branches that overhung the single window made the interior of the cottage perpetually dim. Gaslight from the desk lamp reflected from the clocks, barometers, brass-effect trinkets and framed pictures that hung from the panelled walls.
“Hi,” Mick said. “How are the kids getting on?”
Danielle scratched at the base of her shaven scalp. “I love how you pick up a conversation as if no time’s passed in between. It’s been another year, Mick. They’re not really kids any more. Anyway. What’s new? Like I say, it’s been a while.”
Mick smiled and rummaged through the contents of the top desk drawer.
“This.” He held out his hand.
“That’s not what I…” Danielle took the fob watch from him. “Never mind. But what’s special about it? You already have a lot of clocks. This one’s just smaller.”
“Hold it to your ear.”
She did. Her eyes widened. “It’s working!”
Mick grinned, barely able to keep from clapping his hands. “It’s ever so complicated.”
“They made this at the forge?”
He nodded, and then turned the watch and prized open its back. They both bent in to see the levers and hammers at work within.
Danielle’s finger hovered an inch from the mechanism. She whistled. “You’d never guess. To think what they can sand-sculpt these days!” She frowned. “It must have cost you a month’s wages.”
Mick shrugged. “Three.”
Carefully, Danielle placed the fob watch onto the desk. “We should fill in the report.”
As Mick completed the paperwork, Danielle stooped over his shoulder to examine his notes. When he had finished, she straightened up with a groan. Mick noticed grey speckles in her hair stubble, creases at the corners of her eyes. Time had certainly passed.
“So there’s really nothing to report?” she said. “In a whole year?”
He shrugged, palms wide. “I only leave the cottage once a day, sometimes not at all.” He moved to the collection of waist-height brass levers that rose from the wooden floor before the window. “Most of these are just for show. There are only two sets of points out there, and Mr Ransome seems to like the route just fine as it is.”
Despite the vignette effect of the condensation at the corners of the window, the outside view was clear and bright. Only a couple of sections of the railway track could be seen from this vantage point. The track emerged from an avenue of trees and then continued, exposed for fifty metres or so, before dipping away again into the dark arch of a tunnel.
“It’s good workmanship,” Danielle said.
She flinched at the harsh blare of the desk alarm.
Mick smiled to reassure her. “Sorry about that.” He reached under the desk to heft up the heavy terminal. “I don’t like it being on display. It spoils the look.”
“Do I need to make myself scarce?” Danielle said.
The screen remained blank until he pressed his thumb against the grimy pad on its base. It flickered, and then a familiar face bubbled into view.
“Morning, Mr Ransome,” Mick said.
Felix Ransome wore a burgundy smoking jacket. His half-moon spectacles perched on the tip of his nose. Behind him, Mick saw the blurred shape of Clyde, Ransome’s personal aye-aye robot.
Ransome leant forward so that his eyes filled the screen. His head rocked slightly from side to side with the motion of the train carriage. His irises were the colour of sour milk.
“Who’s that you’ve got there with you, Votel? Your wife?”
Mick glanced at Danielle. She must be fascinated to see Ransome, as close to in the flesh as anyone could ever be. He didn’t look much like his photos in the bulletins, these days.
“I don’t have a wife, Mr Ransome.”
Ransome coughed, rasping on phlegm, and nodded. “Quite right. I require your full attention, Votel. I’ve got my hands full, you know. Top-level stuff. I can’t be doing your job for you.”
“I understand, sir. Is there anything in particular you need?”
“There’s some fading to the south-east, after the chicane. Take a look, would you?”
“I’ll see to it immediately, sir.” Mick smiled.
“Right. Good.” Ransome coughed again and winced. “Well, that’s about it. I mean it, Votel. Full attention.”
Mick gave a thumbs-up sign. He placed the terminal beneath the desk.
“He’s old,” Danielle said. “Really old. I had no idea.”
“He seems smart, still.”
She snorted. “And he better had be! You realise he still makes every meaningful decision for Sandcastle? Every new base sent out to trawl, that’s his call. And the running of every base already settled, too. Sure, each one’s independent, to a degree. But the broader picture, the master plan, that’s pure Ransome.”
Mick smiled and nodded in agreement. “He seems a nice man.”
They stood in silence. Mick placed one hand lightly on the nearest lever. “It was lovely to see you again. But I really should see to Mr Ransome’s request.”
At the doorway Danielle raised her helmet, but kept it aloft to speak.
“You know this can’t continue indefinitely?” she said. “Ransome’s a nut, Mick. He can’t bear being on Mars. Someday, Sandcastle will find a way to push him out, find someone who doesn’t live like a hermit on a train, for goodness’ sake. And then,” she glanced around at the bric-a-brac adorning the walls, “well, everything’ll change.”
Mick placed a hand on her arm. “Say hi to the kids. See you next year.”
Mick’s forehead bumped against the domed visor as he trekked along the edge of the railway embankment. He really ought to fix the suit’s internal harness, but over the years the motion had become familiar, even reassuring. Bump, here I am, bump, you’re safe in there, the visor said.
Another overdue task was to properly render the eastern face of the cottage. The front of the building was a stippled white and the trellises either side of the wide window supported creeping ivy that looped upwards toward the slates and chimney. On this side the walls were the same dull reddish-brown as the bare desert landscape.
Even the trees between the cottage and the railway track were uncoloured. If it weren’t for the constant motion of the pneumatics within their trunks and branches, they might appear as clouds formed by some underground expulsion of air. Dust stirred up by Mick’s footsteps settled against the carved, hardened base of the nearest sculpted tree trunk. Sand on sand.
The path curved up the embankment to interrupt the avenue of trees. The view changed dramatically. The metallic varnish of the sculpted railway track sparkled. Beyond the track, the ground dipped away to a deep-blue pool—actually a flat plate, although highly convincing—in the centre of the track loop. From this angle the sand-sculpted trees lining the track appeared rich and green. Their delicate leaves swung in the simulated breeze. Birdsong filtered from hidden speakers.
The affected area was exactly where Mr Ransome had indicated, at the point where the track wavered to navigate around a wide oak. The peeling bark of a line of silver birches shone convincingly, but the varnished leaves of one particular tree had worn to plain sand.
Mick checked along the track, and then reached back to retrieve the collapsible, lightweight ladder and his gun from the fastenings at the rear of his suit. He clambered up the ladder, gun in hand, and turned awkwardly to face the upper branches of the birch. He whistled, copying the piped birdsong. He tapped the trigger of the spray gun to lacquer the leaves.
When he had finished he rested one delicate sand-sculpted leaf after another against the palm of his gloved hand. All shone green.
The ladder rattled beneath him and the railway track began to hum. He scrambled down. At the press of a button the ladder contracted to the size of a conductor’s baton. Mick stepped back from the embankment just as the blunt nose of the train appeared. Its single carriage juddered as the train wove along the chicane to pass him. He waved at the dark windows.
Days passed. Mick responded to Mr Ransome’s requests diligently. In the evenings he turned from the window only when the sun lowered towards the lake. Then, he examined the workings of the fob watch by gaslight. Every fifteen minutes, the rumble of the passing train set the clocks and barometers on the wall jangling.
He whistled as he examined a row of sunflowers at the foot of the embankment. Perhaps the forge might provide pneumatic parts small enough to fit into their stems. He placed both gloved hands on the ground, feeling the growing vibrations. Raising his head, he saw the train appear a hundred metres along the track. As they passed, the blank windows blurred into one, like frames of a celluloid film.
The wheels of the train screeched, eclipsing the recorded birdsong. The vehicle ground to a halt before the windows of the cottage.
Mick gasped, fogging his visor.
The scream of brakes still reverberated within his helmet. The birdsong now seemed little more than ringing in his ears.
The train had never stopped before. Not while he had been here, at least. Not since Mr Ransome had embarked for the first and only time.
He clambered up the embankment. This was unprecedented. Unprecedented things didn’t happen around here.
So what now?
He turned to face the path that led to the cottage. Mr Ransome could only communicate with him through the terminal beneath the desk. That had never been a problem before. So that’s where he ought to go.
He had already set off before completing the thought. He strode along the centre of the railway track, only slowing his pace as he approached the train.
He hesitated again at the carriage door.
Mr Ransome had always seemed a nice man.
He pulled open the door.
The airlock was barely large enough for him to struggle in, shut the outer door and wrestle open the internal one. At the threshold he tripped and stumbled into the carriage proper.
For a moment he thought that the ringing in his ears had begun again. But this sound was different, metallic, upsetting. A shout of pain.
Mick caught his balance and looked around. The velour wall hangings were more sumptuous than they appeared on the screen of the video terminal. Finely-lacquered furniture, cabinets and side tables simulating rich mahogany, lined each wall. Through an archway, Mick saw two figures.
One of them, the one slumped sideways in the chair behind the carved desk, was Mr Ransome.
The other, with his hands clamped either side of its blank head, was Clyde.
And Clyde was screaming, the sound coming from his lack of mouth, from his whole body. And he was screaming because Mr Ransome was dead.
Mick took a step forwards. He held up a gloved hand.
“Be calm,” he said.
The scream faltered, but only for a moment.
“It’s alright,” Mick said.
Clyde turned to face him, his hands still holding his faceless head.
Mick looked again at Mr Ransome. All colour had left the old man’s face. Only that, and his lolling tongue, indicated that he was anything other than asleep.
“He seemed a nice man,” Mick said.
The scream wound down gradually, just as the screech of the train’s brakes had subsided. Clyde’s stiff hands dropped to his sides. Before his creation, all aye-ayes had had truncated arms, with blue control stems in place of hands. Mr Ransome had overseen the expensive development of Clyde’s hands personally. He had wanted a single assistant to fulfil all daily tasks aboard the train. The engineers had worked hard because Mr Ransome was ultimately the person who gave them their jobs. But still. Hands were tough.
Clyde looked at Mr Ransome, his body language conveying uncertainty despite his lack of facial features.
“Clyde?” Mick said. “What happened?”
He moved closer to the desk. Mr Ransome appeared peaceful. One hand rested on the table beside the glass decanter and coloured vials, which Mick now saw contained small pills.
“He was very old, wasn’t he?” Mick said.
After a long pause, Clyde nodded.
“Clyde? What do we do now?”
Mick imagined pulling Mr Ransome’s body from the train. He imagined people arriving at the cottage, people other than Danielle Abresch. People who mightn’t even understand the appeal of this train that ran around and around its small track, with its simulated views of Earth, perfect apart from the muddy-brown sky, the only aspect that frustrated Mick because everything else could be sand-sculpted and spray-painted for effect. People like that might always have suspected that Mr Ransome’s innocent folly showed that he wasn’t the person best equipped to run Sandcastle in the first place.
“He was a nice man.”
Clyde’s head twitched, but he didn’t speak. The aye-aye slid the coloured vials from the silver tray. They disappeared, a conjuror’s trick.
They stood in silence, staring side-by-side out of the window to avoid looking at Mr Ransome’s slumped corpse. The sun sent chinks of golden-brown light through the shifting trees at the lake. It was good workmanship, all of it.
He heard a sound from the aye-aye. A sigh?
Mick flinched at a beeping noise from the desk. He craned his neck to read the text on the embedded video screen. CALL INCOMING: SC HQ.
He bit his lip.
“I don’t think Mr Ransome’s friends at Sandcastle would want to see him like this,” he said. The beeping continued. His hand hovered over the keypad beside the screen. He hit the button marked Audio only.
A crackling voice came from the speaker. “Sir? Mr Ransome?”
Would Mick be in trouble for having boarded the train, even in these circumstances? The day was full to the brim with new challenges.
“Sir?” The voice repeated. “I have no visual or audio. Is anything wrong?”
Mick blew out his cheeks. What could he possibly say to make things right?
“Mr Ransome, if you can hear me, it’s critical that we speak. Sir, we think a roving base may have been compromised. Two minutes ago, Tharsis Fuschia blinked off the scanner, somewhere north of Echus. A storm’s incoming, we’re raising our drawbridges, so to speak, and—”
To Mick’s surprise, Clyde leant forward to the microphone. One of his hands lay on Mr Ransome’s shoulder to prevent his body from slumping any further.
“Proceed with your safety schedule,” he said.
Mick’s eyes widened. The voice contained none of the usual metallic grating quality of aye-aye speech. It had warmth, emotion. More to the point, he knew that exact tone. It was a pitch-perfect mimicry of Mr Ransome himself.
“Fuschia’s in no danger,” Clyde continued, “She’s following the agreed course. The ridge of the chasma is blocking the transmission, that’s all. Let’s see…two minutes have passed…give it another minute and you’ll see the base reappear. As if by magic.”
The only response from the speaker was a clipped “Yes, sir.”
Mick, Clyde and the unseen caller waited in silence. After precisely one minute, the speaker crackled again.
“You’re quite right, sir,” the voice said. A low burst of noise suggested him exhaling with relief. “Sorry about the panic, sir. I’ll let you get back to…Well, I’ll sign off.”
Clyde’s finger paused above the keypad. “Quite all right, Giffin. Give my regards to Shelley and Blackwood.” He hit the button and the speaker silenced.
“I had no idea you could do that,” Mick said. “And how did you know that information about Fuschia?”
Clyde righted Mr Ransome’s body and stepped away from the desk. “I have been working alongside Mr Ransome for some time.”
“You must have picked up a few things, here and there.”
Clyde nodded stiffly.
“Clyde. Without Mr Ransome—”
Clyde’s right hand rose. Mick felt that he saw a change across the aye-aye’s entire body. It became more animated, fluid. The hand waved in a loose, dismissive gesture.
“That will be all, Votel,” Clyde said. The voice was unmistakeably Mr Ransome’s.
Mick took a step backwards. His helmet clinked against the doorframe, causing a wall lamp to rock in its hanging bracket. Clyde’s head jerked a little, his body language expressing annoyance.
Mick’s breath fogged the interior of his visor. “But Sandcastle. There are decisions to be made, constantly. How can you—”
“See to the points at the northernmost point of the track, Votel. The wheels pass unevenly over them. Ki-clack, ki-clack, ki-ki-ki-clack.”
Mick had noticed the fault too, when he’d been trackside as the train passed that point. He’d been meaning to get around to fixing it.
Clyde’s head tilted. Mick interpreted the expression as frustration.
“I require your full attention, Votel,” Clyde said. “I’ve got my hands full, you know. Top-level stuff. I can’t be doing your job for you.”
As Mick retreated to the airlock, he saw Clyde gently push away the chair containing Mr Ransome’s body. The aye-aye moved to stand behind the desk.
Mick entered the cottage just as the train began to huff away. He watched through the window as it snaked into the tunnel, and kept watching as it reappeared in the distance, curling its way around the tip of the lake.
The fob watch still lay on his otherwise empty desk. He held it tight in his palm. The soothing regularity of its ticking gave him reassurance. With a fingernail, he prised open the back of the watch. The tiny, sand-sculpted hammers clicked with each precise turn of the cogs.
Oh, it was good workmanship, all right. It’d run for years and years.
Tim Major lives in Oxford in the UK with his wife and son. His short stories have appeared in Interzone and the Infinite Science Fiction anthology, among others. His novella, Carus and Mitch, will be published by Omnium Gatherum in February 2015. You can find him at www.cosycatastrophes.wordpress.com or on Twitter as @onasteamer.