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Benjamin Kinney’s “The Work Clock” strikes this morning, challenging how we perceive both time and work. ~ Julian and Fran, January 22, 2023
By Benjamin C. Kinney
Your job is your life. You can’t imagine who you’d be without it.
* * *
Zek tightened his tool belt and hustled through the Temple Works’ core. The clocks kept ticking, without one damn care why a man might fall behind.
Offices all morning, plus the factory floor, and a few other one-offs in between. Should need three people to check so many runes, but journeymen and master inspectors got vacation, and the apprentice better pick up the slack.
Had to keep someone on duty, true thing. Templars needed the factory’s money and magic for their real work, keeping the Destroyer sealed up forever below.
Funny thing. The world would bleed and die without an apprentice inspector to keep the Temple Works running, but didn’t mean the job paid well.
Still a long sight better than begging on the street. Which he would be again, if the master inspector came back to a complaint on his desk with Zek’s name all over it.
Next stop, an accountant’s office. Shutters sealed against the sun, work-clock swinging its brass pendulum. Locked desks, and one lonely assistant in a waistcoat, their quill flicking across a stack of papers.
Zek said, “Morning, hey! Hope you’re not too lonely?”
The assistant managed a weak smile. Wasn’t much, but Zek would take what he could with so few folks around.
To work, then. Each shutter panel had a machine-stamped rune, silver ink on tin plate, its magic struggling to keep the wooden shutter from warming in the sun’s heat. He sniffed the air for the prickly scent of mage-ink gone old. One rune wearing out. Supposed to fetch a new one from the depot on the other side of the Works, but who had time for that bollocks? Couldn’t spend half an hour on one rune.
A stopgap would do the trick. He opened a vial of silvery mage-ink and used his one little spell to brush ink into the grooves, layering new over old. The first time he’d tried this, he’d been all nervous about it. But it’d hold plenty fine until sixthday, when his route would take him straight from depot to here.
The work-clock rang, hammer against brass. Zek muttered. Noon already, behind schedule. Supposed to be in the sigil chamber by fourthday noon.
Long walk down into the crypts, and a long hike back. If he skipped it, he could get a head start on the factory. And he wouldn’t have to deal with the anchoress, who’d rather talk to herself than wish Good afternoon to someone real.
But the sigil chamber was the hand that held down the Destroyer. No skimping on the temple’s heart, no matter how creepy its guardian.
* * *
You count the chimes: ten, eleven, twelve. No sign of the talkative boy yet, not even his feet echoing down the stairs. You’ll manage for a while, but you only have three days’ worth of brass left. Too small a margin. It worries at your mind like a gear ticking out of sync.
The noon chimes finish. A ratchet wheel halts, the click between its teeth. The rest of the great sigil’s clockwork keeps moving, pistons and gears running smoothly, driven by engines far above your ceiling. The Destroyer’s prison never stops.
You always have work to do. These are the only realities in life: the constant tick of time, and things that need doing.
The clock has spoken. The ratchet after the noon chimes, so the machine needs a new soapstone focus. You collect a fresh block of blue-veined stone from your supplies, bend the universe into a knife, and carve the stone into symmetry. You lock the stone into its frame alongside three others and remove the oldest.
You don’t know the soapstone’s function, but you can’t be expected to understand everything. The Templars were very clear about that.
It takes constant work, to keep the world safe. You hate to leave a task undone.
* * *
Zek hustled down the spiral stairs as best he could, each step worn slippery by generations of feet. Cooler down here, at least. Made it all the more frustrating that he couldn’t run. But he wasn’t about to crack his skull for the Templars, true thing.
He inched open the sigil chamber door. All constant gears and wheels, clicks and clanks, movements keeping runes and spells in constant motion. The machinery reached down from the ceiling, drawing power from temple and factory above. High on the wall, light-runes kept the room bright, a ring of factory-stamped circles that lit every mechanism into a whir of metal and shadows, like the light alone could snip off a worker’s hand.
More complicated, and more fearsome, than all the factory’s mechanized looms and presses. This one didn’t spin cloth or stamp runes. Without the sigil mechanism, the Destroyer would rise from the earth below and maul the world until blood covered earth and sun and sky.
Most people believed. Zek, too, these days. Templars wouldn’t spend a coin on this sigil mechanism if they didn’t need it.
The anchoress sat on the floor, hunched over a miniature workbench. Ignoring him as always, cranky as always. Wearing the same loose gray shirt and smock and pants like always too. Made her look like a laborer.
“Hey?” His voice vanished beneath a series of metallic clanks. For the best, maybe. He squatted by the door, set down a fresh vial of mage-ink and a brass ingot, and collected the anchoress’s trash. Chunks of stone, gears, and springs. The discards looked fine to Zek, always did; but down here, couldn’t let any part get within a stone’s throw of wearing out.
On her little workbench, the anchoress was boiling mage-ink over a tiny burner. The silvery fluid bubbled, rose into tubing as gray mist, and condensed in another flask as a trickle of sparks.
She hated interruptions, sure thing. Hated talking. He shouldn’t bother her now. He’d cleaned up her junk, left her supplies; easy to see the light-runes were all in top shape. The rest she could handle.
But distilling the ink? He’d found the workaround for that months ago. And if he taught the anchoress a new trick, she might be happy to say a few words.
“Hey, you should skip distilling the ink. Doesn’t do a lick of good. If you have gaps, a coat of fresh ink will hold you.”
“It won’t. Distilled ink lasts twice as long. Fresh ink doesn’t benefit from layers. You should know that. And you don’t know these runes.” And that without looking up from her work.
“Oh, true thing.” Zek scratched his neck. “I’m no rune-engineer. But you replace every part how often? Three, four days? So doesn’t matter if the ink lasts one week or two.”
She leapt to her feet. Zek flinched, but she was already relaxing her fists. Her eyes tracked upward, like watching a bird take wing from a rooftop. “You’re right. The rune you touched upstairs, it works fine. And you didn’t distill the ink for it.”
Zek snuck a hand along his breeches. Thought he’d wet himself for a second there, when she came up looking ready to fight. Not just creepy, this monk. Scary.
The anchoress muttered to herself, “You have spare time, then. That’s not right. There shouldn’t be extra. Maybe you can speed up the ratchet timing.” She lifted her gaze to the clockworks around them both, and continued aloud. “If the ink lasts a week, didn’t need to replace the transverse spring. Boy, did you grab the old one from the junk pile?”
“Well, hey, sure.” He tossed her the only spring. The anchoress caught it without a nod or a thank-you.
She bent over a mechanism, a steel frame of three blue soapstone squares, balanced on spring and rod and gears. She wiggled her fingers, unscrewing fasteners with magic fancier than anyone he knew.
Zek leaned forward. “You a rune-engineer, then?”
“The engineer never tells me anything.” Her mouth tightened. “But this needs doing.”
A spring leapt free from the mechanism. The anchoress plucked it from the air, blink-fast. A piston vibrated, up high where it disappeared into the ceiling. Something bounced around the mechanism’s insides with the ping of metal against metal. She made a fist, and the sound stopped.
The steel frame fell to the floor, and all three soapstone squares shattered.
The sigil mechanism halted. A thump, a screech of metal, and then an all-too-peaceful silence.
“Shit,” the anchoress said. She let the spring fall from her fingers. “Too late.”
Somewhere above, a bell tolled, again and again. Deep and distant, not like any work-clock. An alarm Zek had never heard. An alarm nobody’d heard in a thousand years, sure thing.
“The sigil’s broken.” The anchoress paled. “What do we do now?”
The light-runes went dark. And relit in crimson, the two of them circled by bloodred light, pulsing in time with the alarm bell.
* * *
You raise your fists to a fighting stance, ready to strike. Of all the rules burned into your mind from a hundred thousand repetitions, this one stands clear: You are the lynchpin. One way or another, the work all depends on you.
Nothing manifests. Yet.
The boy unfreezes. “Bollocks. We’re all dead, aren’t we? I’m sorry.”
“For what? Wasn’t your fault.” You run a hand through your hair, thick and short between your fingers. “Had one job, you know?”
This job was the only life you had. Now you ruined it so badly, you can’t see anything to fix.
The boy peers into the halted machine and magicks a pair of pliers from his belt to his hand. “Hey, don’t see any Destroyer kicking into the world yet. We have time to repair this?”
“Doesn’t work that way. Once the Destroyer’s moving— Or, maybe. Could be wrong. Get your boss.”
He winces. “He’s away. So’s his boss. What’s your emergency plan? Ought to be someone you’re supposed to get.”
“Not supposed to leave,” you say.
“Guess I’ll find someone.” The boy rubs the back of his neck.
You let him go. Amid the wrecked machinery, a few gears still engage. Enough to tell time, nothing more. The work-clock ticks along, its sound slightly warped. It won’t last long, but it manages a single tinny chime for quarter past the hour. Time to roll out the brass.
Heat, press, spin, cut. Nine minutes; you must’ve hurried. So easy to tune out the steady rhythm of alarms, distant gongs, and pulsing red light-runes.
If the Destroyer was beginning to tear free of his broken bonds, you could see no sign.
You pace the room. You’re supposed to stay. You’re on duty, even now. Or maybe you aren’t. It’s hard to know, with your job in ruins around you.
You trace where the boy went. His scant magic had brushed against the universe’s skin, and you can follow the raised hairs as plain as ink.
He’s working on salvaging this. Like you should be. There’s a task undone, and you can’t finish it here.
You push a hand against the universe’s skin. Dig your fingers into the flesh. Pinch off the veins one by one to make sure they won’t bleed.
You step through the wound, the Templars’ rules be damned.
* * *
Zek banged on the master engineer’s door one more time, then rested his head against the wood.
For the best, maybe. End of the world might be more fun than explaining this mess. If he somehow lived through this, the Templars would fire him for sure. Anchoress might take the blame for the sigil chamber, but they’d check his work, find his runes inked-over and un-distilled.
If there was any fate worse than begging for bread in a slaughtered world, it’d be some gold-pocket-watch Templar calling him a layabout for the things he did right.
The old alarm bell still rang, pealing the Destroyer’s rise. Light-runes pulsed in washed-out pink, exhausted from a harder day’s work than they ever expected.
Ought to be some knights around, summer or no, ready to slap the Destroyer’s fingers before they drew blood. But they’d need an engineer to fix the sigil mechanism and keep him pinned.
Zek cinched his tool belt. Apprentice engineer had to be somewhere, covering for her absent bosses, same as him. If she’d started deep in the Works, Zek could catch her before she fled.
Might be too late already. But if he stopped for that, he’d never get any damn work done.
He unlocked a connecting door and hustled toward the factory’s main foyer. The back hallway ran between the compound’s layers: one side old temple stone and sealed windows, the other side all factory brick.
Ought to be hearing the factory machines by now. Beyond the foyer, but plenty loud. All the looms and stamping-machines producing runes and gears and cloth. Some for the Destroyer’s wards, some for the rest of the Temple Works, most to be sold in the city and beyond for the money what kept it all running.
Not one thudding plate, no hiss of steam. Only the alarm bell.
The world tore. The anchoress stepped through.
Zek yelped. Skidded, stumbled, caught himself on hand and knee.
“What’s wrong? You need help, don’t you? We have a job to do.” She helped him up, muttering to herself.
Behind her, space squeezed back into place like water after a pebble. If a pond would seep like an unhealed wound, its pus drooling onto the flagstones.
“No, that ain’t—” He shook out the stinging in his palm. “How’d you get here?”
“Through the, you know.” She nodded toward the scar she’d left in empty air.
“Well, right.” Shouldn’t be possible, but he had bigger breaks to fix. He tested his knee: hurt, but it held his weight. “Hey, can you do that teleport thing again? I need to find the apprentice engineer.”
“Nah, need to see someone’s magic to dig to them. So, just to you. But we can cover more ground if we both search. This mess wasn’t your fault. You shouldn’t have to—” Crimson light washed her face, and she startled. “Is that normal?”
The light-runes no longer pulsed pink, but a fierce crimson. Same as they had in the sigil chamber.
Only above the anchoress’s head. In either direction down the long hallway, the farther they got from her, the paler the red.
“Oh, bollocks,” Zek said.
The anchoress squinted up at the runes.
Behind her, twenty steps away, the foyer doors swung open. Two Templar Knights strode through, warrior-monks in sleeveless uniforms, bare feet slipping quietly across the floor. Arms tattooed with magic, carrying long chains of asymmetrical bronze links.
Silent and focused, bolts in a crossbow, aimed for the anchoress’s oblivious heart.
Zek shouted, “Hey!”
She whirled. Arm out, fingers curling around the shaft of an unseen tool. The knights leapt forward, chains swinging.
A sound like a snapping bone. A wave of force shook the air, and the knights fell to her feet in chunks.
The wave continued. Stone split, plaster crumbled. The door cracked, swung open, bounced closed. Around its lopsided edges, the roar of falling stone and a cloud of dust.
Zek’s stomach twisted. He wrenched his gaze up from the corpses. Toward the woman the knights had hunted, who set off all the alarms, who never left the sigil chamber.
Well, see, that couldn’t be right. She was creepy and brusque, and she hit hard when people jumped her. But she wouldn’t let a man take blame he didn’t earn.
The woman looked at the light-runes, the bodies. She curled her hands into fists, then forced them open. She said, “Impossible,” only like she didn’t believe it one bit.
Zek cleared his throat. “You never told me your name.”
“What’s that title they use? ‘Anchoress’?” She laughed, as brittle as cold tin. “Not sure that’s the right one.”
* * *
You wonder how long you’d spent in the guts of that machine crypt, finishing every task the Templars put in front of you.
Even now, you see the tasks that need doing. A knight’s fallen pocket watch calls out to you, its silent gears grinding at your attention. Each corpse is an unfinished puzzle, bones and flesh disjointed.
You could sew and fuse and reassemble them, but it wouldn’t bring the knights back to life.
Resurrection doesn’t seem like the sort of thing a Destroyer can do.
The boy says, “My name’s Zek.”
“Zek.” Realization gnaws at your stomach. All this time you’ve known him, you’ve never asked his name. Never wanted to acknowledge him, even though he’d brought you everything you needed, regular as clockwork.
Life was easier when you had one job. People weren’t part of it.
You say, “We were looking for the apprentice engineer.”
He pulls a rag from his tool belt, holds it over his mouth and nose. “Not sure it matters anymore.”
“Right.” There has to be something you can do. “You going to be okay?”
He glances at the corpses.
You should probably feel something for the dead. Regret, maybe? But all you have is a sinking worry that you’ve made Zek fear you.
Zek holds the rag against his lower face. His hand shaking, and he hadn’t even killed the knights.
Death must be either very peaceful or very inconvenient. Maybe you’ll never know. Odds are, if you were the dying sort, the Templars would’ve killed you long ago, instead of distracting you with busywork and endless tasks.
Unless they wanted you alive. To labor, for countless years, on a mechanism whose functions you never understood.
You poured enough work and magic into the sigil mechanism to power a factory.
The Templars were very clear about all kinds of things. Every rule a blindfold and a chain, to keep you from seeing how your only accomplishment was someone else’s profit.
Your fingers curl into fists, and the universe’s sinews tighten around them like knuckle-dusters.
Your job had been your life. But you don’t need to imagine who you’d be without it. There’s always something worth doing, and someone you have to be.
Vengeance is a task too long left undone.
* * *
She said, “If it’s a Destroyer they want, then I’ll destroy.”
Somewhere far away, a work-clock rang once. The bell off-kilter, then silent.
A hardworking man might pick up one of the knights’ chains, tie the Destroyer down. Might even pull it off. Knights had the right tools for their job; she hadn’t seen them coming until he shouted.
Bollocks to that. He wasn’t calling her Destroyer, and he sure wasn’t forcing her back to another thousand years in the crypts.
Couldn’t call her anger wrong, after all that time a prisoner. Worse, a slave. The factory wouldn’t stop so sudden for the workers’ safety. But pull away its power source, that’d shut it all down sure and quick.
Funny thing. She wanted revenge, but she’d ruined the Templars the minute she stepped out of that crypt. But easy for him to call that payback enough, when he hadn’t been the one locked down there.
The woman threw the broken doors off their hinges. The main foyer beyond was a wreck, shattered by the wave of force she’d thrown through the knights. The floor was littered with bricks and iron, stone chunks from vaulted ceiling and fancy pillars. Where the two types of roof once joined, now open sky. The air full of powdered stone, bright in the sunlight and clotted with moans.
A breeze blew in like a fist. Summer heat, the reek of blood, and eye-stinging dust.
She clapped once. The air cleared. The sound of her hands echoed, and in its wake rose scattered cries of pain. A man shouted another man’s name, again and again, his throat raw with sobs.
The woman hesitated. Her back to him, her voice a growl. “Zek. Who’s in charge? Where do I find them?”
Sweat caught in his eyebrows. No cooling-runes down here, but they wouldn’t help anyway. They couldn’t handle open air and the world unwalled. Neither could he.
“Never mind.” She straightened her spine. “Faster if I tear it all down.”
Zek swallowed. Once the woman got going, she didn’t let go until someone threw a new task in front of her. If she started to crack the world’s bones, wouldn’t be long until nothing remained of earth or sun or sky.
If she wanted revenge, who’d have the brass to stop her?
Wasn’t his job. Except it was, really. Templars and paychecks had nothing to do with it. He was Apprentice Inspector Zek, who kept the rooms lit and cool, stocked and safe. He bent rules to do his job better, not worse.
The both of them had plenty of work ahead. Long as it was work of their own choice.
He said, “I’ve got another job for you first, hey. If you want.”
“Another? I—” Her voice cracked. She froze mid-step and planted her feet like the stones would shake beneath her. Her words clicked back into motion, small and querulous. “I’ve never had options.”
Zek wasn’t sure what broke her, but he had tools enough to help. “Always feels like that, sure thing. But you’re not alone in that crypt anymore.”
She loosened her fists, and the space around them rippled and lay calm.
Zek pointed at a slab of stone, where a blood-smeared arm reached out from beneath, scrabbling for purchase. The woman flicked a finger and the slab flipped away. A second gesture, and she set the man’s broken bones. Then another trapped and wounded person, and another. The sobbing man embraced his companion, a layer of stone dust casting their rough smock and fine waistcoat into the same color.
By the end they’d rescued twelve, and recovered four bodies.
“Right.” The woman dusted off her hands. “What time is it?”
“Doesn’t matter. No work-clock telling us what to do. Not now, and not again.”
Her gaze flicked from one survivor to another. The man in the smock broke the silence with a stammered thanks.
The once-anchoress cringed. Her jaw tight, her shoulders hunched. Every bit as lost and afraid as the survivors.
So many people’d built their lives around the Templars’ paychecks and prisons. But there were more ways a person could get their bread than begging on the streets or running around for rich folks’ profit.
“We still have work, if we want it.” Zek gestured at the survivors. “People need all kinds of things. Homes, food, magic. Bet these folk need our help. Lots of people begging for bread out there. You can help ’em build.”
“I can try.” Her shoulders loosened. She struggled toward eye contact with the man in the smock, but broke away and ran a hand through her hair. “I don’t know anything about the . . . out there. The world. People.”
“S’alright,” he said. “You don’t need to talk to anyone you don’t want to. Promise.”
Zek tightened his tool belt. No vacation for an apprentice, or for a Builder’s guide. But he could go a long while yet, summer or not. With work like this, wouldn’t want to fall behind.
Thank you for joining our journey this week.
Benjamin C. Kinney is a neuroscientist, SFF writer, and assistant editor of the science fiction magazine Escape Pod. You can find more of his work at https://benjaminckinney.com or track him across the broken bones of our social media universe via linktr.ee/benckinney.
“The Work-Clock,” © Benjamin C. Kinney, 2023.
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