Today’s witch is brought to you by the prompt Clock. Don’t forget to check out the other short stories.
There are some who say a clockwork heart does not beat, but I beg to differ.
As it has every day for the past seven (or eight) hundred years or so, the clock tower overlooking Full Moons Fields roars to life six times when the early morning hour strikes. A deafening gong, followed by two seconds of silence as the pendulum swings, then another gong as the clapper smashes into the other side of the bronze bell. Ropes sway up and down, trembling with the force of the sound.
I stand before the great clock face overlooking the east, watching the sun creep over the distant, gray horizon. I listen to the mechanisms of the turret clock behind me work, the ropes and gears working in tandem to create a semblance of control over such a fickle thing as time. I take a sip of my black coffee, sighing in content. I tuck the end of my quilted scarf back over my shoulder, dipping my nose beneath its warm fabric.
An ice storm rocks the atmosphere outside the tower, but the magick lining the glass face and metal hands keeps the clock from freezing over. While losing time would’ve been a catastrophe back in my early days, it’s not so much the case anymore. Everyone is in touch with everything, always. From the time, to tomorrow’s gossip and the news. Nevertheless, I’ll keep the clocktower running, same as I always have.
“Are you ready for work?” Lily asks, burrowed in the scarf cast across my shoulder. I chuckle, reaching up to rub the mouse’s forehead.
“Of course, little one.” I whisper to my only companion.
I turn away from the world outside my tower, descending the spiral staircase centered in the building. After several flights, I come to a stop at my workshop, still a few floors above the ground level. Upon entering, the overhead lights flick on, illuminating two halves to a giant space. On one side, neatly organized piles of sheet metal, coils of wire and oil spills reign. Work benches rest against the walls which are covered in pegboard, home to tools of every variety.
Partial droids wait on some tables, while others are empty or contain the opposite, which are nearly complete works. I choose such a table, setting my coffee mug down upon its worn and gouged surface. I remove my wire rimmed glasses and rub my sleep filled eyes, then set them back upon my nose. I immediately return to the problem I was elbows deep in last night, wiring through the vertebrae of a service droid.
Rain and ice slaps the windows and brick dominating the four sides of the tower. The hibernation stations housing my personal droids hum quietly and soft jazz pours from the cathedral style, cherry wood radio that had turned on with the lights. The saxophone and accompanying raspy harmony drowns out the overwhelming hollowness that stems from a certain type of silence.
One born from living alone, perpetually so.
I can’t remember the last time I took on a commission in person, let alone spoke to anyone aloud besides Lily. Another blessing and curse bestowed by technology, the ability for customers to place their orders and request maintenance on the droids or inventions they’ve already acquired, all without me having to actually speak to them. A drop off and pick up area staged at the base of the tower, followed by payment online, eliminates any need for social contact.
“I figured it out in my sleep last night, Lil. I have to reverse the flow of energy, that’s why the fuses were snapping.” I say, squinting as I undo the wires I had spliced together yesterday, then merge them in a new pattern.
“In your sleep, huh? Is that a dragon thing?” Lily teases, scampering down my arm until she hops off my ebony hand and onto the work table. She stays clear of the droid rattled this way and that, her tail twitching as she watches me work.
“No, just a me thing, dear.” I say, even though she already knows that.
A rather loud crash sounds from beneath us, startling Lily and I both. The sound echoes up the stairs in the center of the tower, followed by the slamming of a door and a string of curses. More thunderous destruction ensues and Lily and I exchange a look, then I sigh deeply.
I cross over to the intercom situated near the doorway, making it there at the same time the selth’s hysterical voice comes through the system. “J-Josse! I n-need y-your help, p-please! It’s it’s it’s Floyd!”
“Get into the elevator,” I call down, pressing a series of buttons that activate the elevator system.
I clear off a table and collect the schematics for Floyd’s build, the papers worn by decades of time. I haven’t seen Bob and Floyd directly in years, and no news is good news I suppose, but then again, Floyd was my first. We’ve communicated via email and a long ago video call for Floyd’s annual checkup. Last I knew the droid was in tip-top shape, in good spirits and acclimating well to the move, not to mention living with Ren full time, Bob’s partner.
“Lil,” I start, but my familiar beats me to it, delivering a vial of bright purple liquid. I reach up to where she’s perched on my shoulder, taking the stored magick from her. I scratch between her ears with my forefinger, then she runs down my arm and onto the table. If memory serves me right, Bob has enough of this to last for a few more months, and there’s no way he’d let Floyd run dry, but I’ll get it ready just in case. The elevator dings and I hurry over, gasping at Bob and Floyd’s state.
The tips of the tentacles framing Bob’s face are blue, his overcoat is soaked through and stiff from the cold. His eyelashes are frozen over, nearly obscuring his onyx eyes. He shakes violently with Floyd’s unmoving form in his arms, his peachy face desperate. I rush over to him, gingerly taking Floyd from him.
“Here, sit here Bob,” I say, then give my attention to the hibernating droid in the corner that is remarkably sleeker and newer than Floyd is. “Barbara, can you prepare us a few cups of root tea, and gather some blankets for our guest?”
The humanoid automation blinks open their soft yellow eyes which matches their metallic golden complexion. Barbara nods, silently leaving her post in search of the kitchen nook occupying the other side of this level. Having food on the same floor as my work space is efficient, as is the hammock I frequently sleep in that neighbors the kitchen.
“You’re foolish, Bob. This could’ve waited until the storm passed.” I chastise, and the selth shoots me glare, like I knew he would. I can still remember the day Bob commissioned Floyd. The selth was young and offered me his life savings, (which was admittedly not very much) and I accepted his bizarre request.
Unlike my other inventions, Floyd was never meant to be of service. He was always intended to be Bob’s companion, his friend. Perhaps that is what made Floyd different. I gave him a higher purpose, thought of him as a person, not a machine.
Nevertheless, I haven’t been able to replicate anything, or anyone, close to Floyd.
“He was doing fine, one minute we were wrapping presents for Ren, and then the next he just … collapsed.” Bob whispers, watching as I gently remove the panel of his friend’s back. As I bring a voltage tester to Floyd’s solar batteries, Bob shakes his head. “I already did that. I wouldn’t have bothered you if I didn’t try everything first.”
I raise a brow at the selth. “And his magick tank?”
“Full, I triple chickled.” Bob says, tentacles slowly coming to life as he takes a mug from Barbara and thanks them. Barbara bows their head, then returns to their station. Bob turns his attention back to me, breaking voice dropping a strained octave. “Is he going to be okay, Josse? What’s wrong with him?”
I adjust my glasses, then remove my scarf and wrap it around Bob’s shoulders. I gently pat his cheek, giving him a smile. “He’ll be fine, just you see.”
Twelve hours later, and Floyd is far from fine.
Bob fell into a fitful sleep in his chair shortly after dinner. He never left Floyd’s side as I essentially tore his friend to pieces, eliminating possibilities as I went. Barbara and Lily reminded me to take care of myself throughout the day, and I ate at regular intervals begrudgingly. As the day has gone on, the more irritated I’ve become.
“There’s something I’m missing,” I mutter, again.
“You need to take a break, you’re looking too hard.” Lily says, from atop a small piece of trim framing the windows, overlooking the ice wrought city.
I rub at my forehead, grimacing. “I can’t. I’ve updated all his systems, refreshed his batteries and injected him with a steroidal dose of magick, checked his wiring. By all rights, there’s nothing wrong with him, so why isn’t he waking up?”
I groan, and my frustration morphs into a low, timbre-filled growl. I only break humanoid form once a year, but the way I’m feeling right now is enough to trigger a wave of scales shifting beneath my soft flesh. I settle for a compromise, joining Lily at the windows and only putting a small amount of distance between Floyd and I.
An eerie calm has washed over the world outside our tower, the silence is deafening after hours of violent precipitation. No one dares to peek outside their homes until the layer of thick ice has either melted away or been taken care of by the local winter crews, lending further to a ghost town atmosphere. Yule lights no longer twinkle over storefronts and homes, evergreen wreaths have been tugged from their lamp posts, haphazardly blown into the streets with other decorations that are no longer festive but depressing.
It hits me, then.
Tomorrow is Yule, and poor Bob and Floyd are stuck here with me instead of at home, enacting traditions with Ren. The thread of guilt weaving through my heart frays even further and I sigh. Is Floyd’s lifelessness due to my old age; my magick isn’t what it used to be?
Even so, he should be turning on and functioning like a, a, … a droid without a consciousness. My magick does nothing but fuel the minds of my creations, and for most, like Barbara, it’s nothing more than a sort of basic intelligence. No emotions or memories, only an awareness and knowledge of the world, and a desire to serve.
My heart thrums oddly in its cage and I rub at my sternum, brows furrowing. The Full Moons bell a few floors above us chants the arrival of the seventh hour, allowing a two second reprieve before it gongs again, then again, and again, thrusting an idea into my chest with each reverberating announcement.
After hours upon hours of hard work, burns to my fingertips, and a near shift into full white dragon form, I gently shake Bob’s shoulder. He startles awake violently, of course, with tentacles flapping and an indignant snort escaping from his hidden lips.
“What’s happened?! Is he alright? How long have I been sleeping?” Bob asks in a whirlwind, jumping up to standing, then stumbling backwards into his chair.
“Calm down, friend, it’s only been a few hours. I think I may have cracked the problem, but I need your help.” I say, gently helping Bob to his feet. A full tapestry of night has fallen over the windows and half the lights in the lab have switched off, providing a warm and cozy atmosphere.
“Okay,” Bob scrubs a hand over his face, nodding absently. “What do you need me to do?”
“Come with me,” I say, leading Bob over to the table I’ve laid Floyd out on, the accordion panels of his metallic chest folded back and exposing a large, hollow chamber.
“Oh, Floyd,” Bob whispers, running a hand over the droid’s forehead. Bob is anything but graceful, however the gentleness he reserves for his friend is astounding. Bob looks up to me, onyx eyes glistening. “Why is his chest open? I didn’t know it could do that.”
I nod sagely, standing by his side. “It took some fabrication, but a necessary step, for this.” I reach into my knitted cardigan’s pocket, retrieving the mechanism that took me far longer to create than the fabrication job on Floyd’s chest. Bob’s eyes widen when I deposit a palm sized, brass anatomical heart into his large, cold hands.
He cradles it like he would a babe, kind and careful.
A tentacle reverently traces over the lattice framework protecting the atriums and ventricles of the heart, then follows up and down the gleaming arteries, across the curve of the aortic arch. Stagnant gears and cogs hide inside the chambers of the mechanism, waiting for something to engage them.
Bob looks up to me and asks, “What is this?”
I smile at the selth, cupping his cheek in my hand. “Something I’ve been working on aimlessly for quite some time, didn’t really know why, but I couldn’t stop thinking about a mechanical heart. Now, I think I know why.”
Bob leans into my palm, staring up at me. “I don’t understand, droids don’t need hearts.”
“Well, Floyd’s not just any automation, is he?” I say quietly, and Bob nods once, tentacles and fingers quivering. “We’ll start it together, alright?”
I blanket Bob’s hands with my own, gently closing his fingers over the device. Magick swells, cascading out of the flesh and blood heart inside my chest, rushing through my veins and arteries until the energy meets the capillaries in my hands. Power seeps into Floyd’s hands, intermingling with his life force before drifting down into the brass. Metal calls to my energy like a magnet, metallurgy has been my specialty since the day magick burst to life in my body.
“All I need you to do is think … Think of all the things that make Floyd, Floyd. Think about how much you love him, how much Ren loves him, how much he means to you.” I say softly, and Bob heaves out a shuddering breath.
“He likes pancakes. Not eating them, obviously, but he likes the smell of them, how the little bubbles burst on the uncooked side. He loves to help Ren in the shop, I think it gives him a purpose, you know? Now that my … side hustle isn’t going on anymore, and besides, all the people love Floyd. Ren says there’s been more customers coming in, all thanks to Floyd’s hospitality and how he arranges the displays a different way every day. He always makes sure the candles in the windows at home are lit at night, and that my coffee and Ren’s tea is ready in the morning. Oh, he has a cat now, too, did you know that? He named it Fluffy Paws, how original, right?”
Magick thrums in time to Bob and I’s heartbeats synchronized to the tick tick tick of the turret clock resting a few levels above us. A tender, soft and not overtly bright white glow surrounds our hands. Bob’s voice cracks and he sniffles, loud and wet.
“More than anything, he’s such a good friend, better than any selth deserves. He rubs my back when I’m sick, and he doesn’t mind that I fall all the time, or that I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed or that I have funny tentacles. Floyd is always there for me, no matter what.”
Something clicks in my heart, and I whisper, “L’hachiyot.”
A plume of thick magick explodes from our joined hands, immediately dousing the entire lab in a white fog. Bob startles and I inhale sharply, waiting for the inevitable crash.
But he doesn’t fall.
He doesn’t fumble the heart.
He doesn’t cry out.
He remains rock steady, for Floyd.
Magick fades and I blink several times, finding Bob doing the same. He shakes in place, hands trembling beneath mine. He opens and closes his mouth, then tries again. “Did it work?”
“Let’s have a look,” I say, because I’m honestly not sure.
Ever so gently, I open Bob’s hands to reveal the mechanical heart.
Not beating at all.
“No, I’ll be home soon my love, I won’t leave you alone on Yule morning. I … I just need a little bit more time with him. Yeah, okay, I will, I’ll see you in a little bit.”
Bob’s murmured words of comfort seep from the kitchen and into the silent lab, where I sit beside Floyd’s body, alone. I sigh, staring at the heart nestled into Floyd’s chest. I had thought maybe it wouldn’t beat until it was in his body, but even after connecting the organ to the necessary systems, it rests quiet and cold in the corpse of Bob’s friend, of my first creation. I never had children, but Floyd is close enough to a descendent that my heart aches.
“How did I fail you, dear friend?” I murmur, caressing Floyd’s metallic eyelids. “When Bob came to me and asked for a companion, I must admit that I never expected you. I knew you would be highly intelligent, yes, but … You care for Bob, and really everyone you encounter, I can feel it in your bones. Your feelings … Your memories, emotions, they lay just beneath your surface.”
I’m fairly certain I could extract the intangibilities of Floyd through their metallic complexion, but I won’t desecrate him like that.
“I somehow created exactly what I needed, too, now that I think about it. I needed someone to carry on my legacy, to hold a piece of myself inside them. Seeing Bob with you, it’s more than I could’ve ever hoped to achieve. You have done well, dear Floyd. You have been a loyal companion, a loving friend, much more than most breathing beings are. But,”
My hand rests over his warm heart.
“You can’t leave, not just yet. Your life is only beginning, you have a family to tend to, people who love you and need you. I need you, Floyd. I need you to remind me how much people need people, whether they be metal or flesh.”
Tick Thump Tick Thump Tick
The warm— oh Gods, it’s warm– heart thuds once under my hand.