I had an idea about the setting from the very start. I knew (despite steampunk itself feeling overplayed at the moment) that I wanted it to involve gears.
I wanted something a little timey-wimey, and I still recall that the moment that kicked off the thought process that lead to this exact story began when I observed a man fixing at escalator. I had thought about how what seemed like the ground level wasn’t really, and that there was some machinery beneath the surface making those stairs go around. I thought about how peculiar it would be if someone could do that just… anywhere.
A light cyan mist enveloped a larger room; a faint mimicry of the early morning fog of the world above. Wide copper pipes with angular rivets rose from the ground, and twisted off into the distant stone walls.
The ever-present sound of ticking echoed here from multiple sources, creating a soft clockwork melody. In the centre of the room, there was a large dome – the frame of it was tone with streaks of gold, that shone from certain angles. The dome also revealed the internal components of the machine through lightly stained windows. Inside were cogs of brass, silver, iron and gold – all teeth locked together.
“Best for last, huh?” asked Grace.
Avery approached the dome, and Grace found herself surprised that despite his usual passive involvement, he was actually willing to touch the machine. He had reached for a knob on the dome of the wall and pulled, opening a previously unseen door.
“Something has been lodged in the machine.”
Grace approached, though Avery held up a hand.
“We’re just looking then?” she asked.
He shook his head, “You are. I have to go inside.”
A fizz of green and white floated in the open doorway, wafting into the chamber and blinking out of existence with a hiss. She could feel them make contact with her skin, like a thousand tiny kisses.
“You finally show me something unique and I have to wait out here?”
“Not wait. You’re here because I need you to do something. None of the others could do it. None of the others lasted this long.”
“You weren’t the first Miss Tamlyn, but neither was I.”
“Tell me what it is we’re doing, Knox.”
“Of all the machines here. Of all the ones I’ve shown you, and the hundreds I’ve yet to uncover myself, this one is the most important. It is a clock. The Clock. The one that binds the passage of time in both our worlds.”
“A time… machine,” said Grace with a mouthful of irony.
“In almost every sense. Yet now it doesn’t tick. It won’t move, and every existence beyond this underworld has come to a halt. No death, but no life. Just a cessation.”
Grace swept a few traces of her fringe back behind her ears, and peered into inside of the dome. “And you need to go in there to fix it?”
“To remove the obstruction. And I need you to start the machine when I do.”
“So something’s caught in the gears? They really shouldn’t have a habit of doing that, right?”
“It shouldn’t happen. Ever. Right now I’m more concerned with fixing it, but something did this.”
Grace looked inside the dome, and her brow creased as her thoughts did laps inside her head. Something. “Or someone?”
“I don’t know. I just know how we fix it.”
The directions he gave next were more involved than the ones that had manifested an eclipse. Five cranks, multiple turns between them, but the closing sequence sounded like conducting an orchestra.
“Are you sure you have it? Are you sure you know what to do?”
“How hard can it be?”
“Is that a yes?” he asked.
Avery gave her a nod, then leaned in closer to her, and then stopped again.
“I’ve got it, Knox,” she said calmly.
He closed his eyes momentarily and smiled, nodding again. “I know. What we’re doing though… it’s big. Huge, really.”
Avery gave her another look over, and then stepped inside the dome. The click of the door closing behind him was the sign – the prompting that Grace needed to begin the process. She could see his distorted outline through the glass, and started the first turn.
The sound of the machinery moving filled the chamber; the first a high-pitched tick sounding every three seconds. The second crank came with its own deeper beat at a slower, erratic pace. One beat, five seconds, and then two fast ones. All happening every seven seconds.
By the time that the fifth had been started, the combined sounds sounded like the crashes of falling metal, and drowned out the rest of the clockwork.
The door opened, and at the edge of the entryway, Avery appeared. He held a metal bar in his hand; rusted over, yet without the right saturation of colour.
“It was sabotaged, Miss Tamlyn. One of the components is damaged.”
“So what do we do?” asked Grace.
“You have to balance the chorus without me.”
“Uh… do what?”
“Align the notes of each gear, until they sound as one. Each turn now will change their pace. Time will be erratic until it is fixed. Minutes could be days, and hours seconds. They must be in harmony.”
“You can’t tell me how?”
“I need to remain inside for the duration. To ensure that this,” he paused to shake the metal bar. “doesn’t happen again.”
“I can’t do this without you.”
“You must,” replied Avery. He grabbed her hand and squeezed. Grace noticed him breathe out as he did, and through it he added “I know you can do it.”
“What happens then?”
He shrugged. It wasn’t what she expected, and she raised an eyebrow at him.
“I suppose… time inside the dome is righted. Whatever changes you do will snap back once the gears are in harmony, and time should proceed as normal.”
“That’s my theory. There might be gaps in it. They could even be gaps in time.”
Grace nodded. “I suppose we’d better do it, then. Or time ends, right?”
Avery returned the nod, but for the first few moments, he didn’t move. He drew in his breath as if to speak, but didn’t say a word.
“I’ll be fine,” she said, filling the voice.
“I know,” he replied. “See you when this is over, Grace.”
The door closed behind Avery, leaving her along in the chamber with the machine, and with the cranks. The tempo of each felt erratic, though she started to turn them one by one. She only heard the speed of the individual ticks move as she turned a crank, evening out as she stopped. Only ever forward.
“Could’ve really used your help,” she mumbled to herself.
It reminded Grace of untangling headphones, but without a clarity of progress. She heard less solitary ticks – a jointed over every four seconds, and then the rest of them came at their own leisure. She looked up, letting her vision blur over the silhouette inside the dome, while she focused on the fourth note.; a muted fist-pump accompanied its alignment, even though there was still yet one to master.