Clockwork Time
rating: +407+x

The Fabergé bastard was raging. Tools flew, doors slammed, the walls and floorboards rattled. Through it all, he loosed a stream of profanity so acidic it threatened to peel the already faded paint. Rejected. Him. HIM. Heir to the most prestigious jewelers in the world, makers of wonders only seen in dreams, tossed out like some beggar at the gate. What's more, it was done by some pathetic, overpuffed lackwit of a servant, his offering never even reaching the edge of the Czar's gaze.

He threw a hammer hard enough to lodge it in a wall, fuming and drooling with vitriolic rage. His egg, a perfect representation of the legendary Fabergé eggs presented to the young princes and princesses, lay shattered in a fine dust around the floor. It had taken nearly a full year to create, at no small cost to his personal finances, relationships and nerves. Glittering and gilded, inscribed around every inch were miniature scenes and tales of Baba Yaga and Koshchey the Deathless, the cold eyes of clear diamond, the fearful children of soft pearl.

Behind a tiny hidden catch in the painting of the chicken-footed home of Baba Yaga, there opened a tiny clockwork pageant of horror. As the tiny, delicate doors swung open, the battle between hero and villain unwound, the bright clear-faced lad battling the eternally old Koshchey. Gruesome, but just the thing for a bloody-minded boy, as the youngest prince was well known to be. All this, dashed to splinters because some worthless advisor was “offended” and would not have it “upsetting the delicate sensibilities of the young lord.” Pigeon-hearted swine, he'd had the audacity to have the guard escort him none too softly outside the gate.

His rage ebbed, head throbbing as he slouched against a wall. The workshop/living quarters was in shambles, only the highest shelves remaining somewhat untouched. He panted, starting to quietly sob, looking down at his worthless hands. It was his best work, and he knew he'd never make its equal again. His eyes rolled to the rafters, absently seeking out the stoutest, the most likely to bear his weight. Suddenly, his eye settled on the clockwork rose resting in the high corner. With a twist, it would bloom open, then fold in on itself to become a chirping bird. He stared, eyes red-rimmed and feverish, as an idea started to slowly writhe.

He stood, taking down the rose, winding it and watching the ballet of change. It was always the change that amused. The secret unfolding. With the eggs, the outside was almost ignored, in the hunt of the secret inside. Secrets. Change. He slowly smiled, an unwholesome expression on his gaunt, grim face. He would build them a wonder, the likes of which the world had never seen, and would never see again. He would create a treasure that would be kept and passed down ages after the Czars were dead, gone and forgotten.

He started with smashed clocks. Crawling from workshops and rubbish heaps, he gathered every toy, tool or clock he could find with so much as a cog in it. His workshop filled quickly, with stacks and stacks of gears, belts, flywheels and springs, all ordered and stacked to the rafters. His blueprints grew as well, from two sheets to five, then eight, then twenty. Soon, he'd taken to jotting outlines on the walls, scribbling notations on the floor of the narrow walkways through the gears.

What few friends he'd had started to talk. He'd grown impossibly more gaunt and haggard, his eyes feverish and driven, and seldom spoke above a mumble. The few who stopped to check on him could barely squeeze in his door, and were quickly choked by the smell of oil and rust. His already limited output of jewelery and clockworks stopped completely, along with his income. He took to selling furniture, clothes, anything that could buy the little food he needed. Whispers of possession and dark arts started to follow him.

The shunning was nothing new to him, and in a way was almost welcome. He had a suspicion of those who were too nice, too open, and the constant, nagging drain of interaction slowed down the Work. Since discarding the frivolity of sleep, he'd gained even more time to devote to the Work, the petty whining of his neighbors over the night noise silenced by his grim stare. The assembly started to take shape, the millions of parts starting to move from pile to the growing mass that took up most of his small room. He drowsed in its silent heart, as close to sleep as he had been in weeks, and listened to the phantom ticking of the coming birth.

He poured all that he had, all that he was into the Work. He spoke to it, cajoling, cursing, whispering, shouting. He lost flesh to slipped bolts and suddenly engaged cogs. He poured blood and pus over chisels, awls and screwdrivers as his hands split, blistered, healed, then split again. He asked the mass its opinion on its slowly forming wooden skin. Should this window go here, or perhaps a tower? A rabbit or a rat behind this tree? The first time it started, the clanking and rattling causing dust to pour from the roof, he embraced and kissed the wood and metal horror with more passion than he had ever shown a woman.

Finally, it was ready. So large he would have to batter down a wall, so heavy it would take thirty stout men to hoist it out, he touched it with all the delicacy and adoration of a father touching the tiny fingers of his new child. It had gone beyond a simple gift, an offering to the mighty. It was all he had never known. Lover, child, mother, he had wrung out all that his pinched soul had, to this beautiful, terrible creation.

The parade was a grand affair, if boring. In the five years since a gaunt, grim man was turned away carrying an ornamental egg, the Czar and his family had changed very little. Perhaps a little more fat on the Lord and Lady, a little more firmness of feature to the princes, and some suggestive curves to the princess, but otherwise an identical portrait. Even the birthday parade had the same tired floats, the same gilded carriages. When the procession came to a road blocked by a massive shape and an emaciated horror, the princess actually had to be nudged awake from a light doze.

The mad Fabergé stood before a hill covered in grimy tarps. He had not spent the years in idle suspension. His limbs were as thin as a scarecrow, muscles like thin cables writhing beneath. His head was a pinched skull with some expression, and his smile nearly sent the queen into a swoon. The worn, tattered clothes hung from him like a sack, puffing and swaying as he made a low bow. His voice was a brittle, harsh rasp as he spoke: “My Lord, may I present, on this glorious day, my gift.”

The tarps fell away, and the whole square lost its breath. A fairytale kingdom had sprouted in the center of the street. Around the base were small trees and shrubs, thick with cavorting faeries and goblins. Tiny brooks and lakes held glittering mermaids and smiling fish. Deeper, a tiny gnome village rested against a lilliputian mountain range, the men frozen in work and play. Songbirds and dragons nestled in the high places, and dark, suggestive shapes lurked in caves and burrows.

All this paled, however, to the castle. With spires rising nearly twenty feet in the air, it shone like a vision of another world. Two large, stout gates stood open, armored knights guarding the way in plumed helms. Balconies held ladies of unearthly beauty, their suitors bent to a knee in devotion, or shielding them from horrors spawned from the darkest dreams of man. Grand balls and feasts were frozen in the inner halls, and a king with a visage radiating power presided over a trial. The moat swarmed with beasts, and every pinnacle played roost to all manner of wings.

Speech was impossible. Every inch glittered and shone with gems and gilding. Crystals radiated rainbows along every surface, pearl and gold shimmered like a dream. The creator stooped to an alleyway and drew forth a mangy dog, gently jostling it up the shimmering walkway of silver to the left castle gateway. He closed it, then stepped over to a fairy ring of silver mushrooms. In it were arranged tiny statues, and he lifted one up, fitting it into a small stone altar above the ring. He then slotted a polished brass key into a slot below the stone, and twisted.

Suddenly, the kingdom came to life. The whole square, until now struck dumb, almost screamed with delight. The fish swam, the birds sang, the knights marched, the gnomes dug. Everywhere was movement, sound, light. The trees swayed, the dragons brooded, from the dungeon depths came a small, chilling moan. The king held court, pronouncing judgment as the Czar and his family clapped and watched in pleasure. The world suddenly froze again, and the scarecrow man opened the left gateway, to reveal it empty. He smiled wickedly, then opened the right gateway, releasing a sudden burst of tiny, pure-white doves.

Man and machine were bundled back to the palace with all haste. His repellent, almost demonic appearance was almost immediately forgotten in the wash of this new amusement. A ballroom was cleared, walls razed and rebuilt to admit the massive piece. Items were found, placed, and reborn. Wonders beyond imagination were born from the most base objects; Glittering threads from a stone, a clockwork kitten from an old clock, a wobbling jelly that could not be punctured or torn, no matter how abused, from a simple ceramic jug.

The young prince had to be stopped twice, carrying one of the royal cats. Things entered through one gate, and left the other, and never again could they be returned to their former shape. Still, a canary was sacrificed to the cause, and emerged a peacock in perfect miniature. The Czar was delighted beyond words, and embraced the reeking, horrid wreck of the device's creator like a brother. Dinners were planned, rooms were made ready, and in the black heart of the bastard Fabergé there stirred the alien feelings of true, honest joy.

It was in the dim of the night that two small forms slipped into the ballroom. One in nightshirt, the other a soft white nightgown, the two forms stole silently through the dark up to the fairy tale castle. The night-shirted figure, the young prince, whispered and pinched, prodding the princess up to the gate of the castle. He had whispered wicked things in her ear in the night, and threatened to reveal two unpleasant secrets to their parents if she did not accompany him and do as he said.

He was not a truly wicked boy, no more so than any young boy is. The same impulse that made him put frogs in his sister's toybox, chase her about with snakes, and kick her shins at dinner, also drove him to see what would happen to her in the castle. The princess pleaded at the gate, begging her brother in a whisper to let her go back to bed. He pushed harder, sneering as he threatened to tell their father the true way his favorite clothes had been ruined. She paled, shivered, and silently went into the gate, tears rolling in cold silence.

He pulled shut the gate, his little daemon heart dancing with naughty glee. He hopped to the ring, selecting the frog with a barely suppressed giggle. As he turned the key, he settled accounts for many of his sister's tattling, her clever remarks and finger-pointing. As the castle sang and clanked, the prince grew afraid. If someone should wake up, he'd be blamed for sure. He started working up a hazy lie as the figures danced, practicing a half-asleep blink and a story of being woken up just moments before the first to arrive. He was still practicing when the castle stopped and he opened the other gate.

The screaming awoke the Czar and his wife first, even with their rooms so far from the ballroom. In the way of parents, they seemed to know without question their children were in danger. They passed servants and drowsy footmen, the Czar a grim-faced ghost in pale robes. He burst into the ballroom, servants quick on his heels, the door cracking the plaster behind it with the force. The young prince was curled a short pace from the castle, sobbing and gibbering, shuddering as if with great cold. As the Czar went to his young son, he heard a sound from the castle. He looked, and his son was forgotten.

Hell had been born in the fairy wood. A blubbering, writhing mass worked to push through the trees, hard nibs of what looked like teeth scraping as it crawled. Oozing pools that might have been eyes drooled hissing pus, the bloating wound-like mouth working in soft horror. The soggy, dripping paws pulled and plucked at the shining ground, tubes, and strings waving along the heaving back. It squealed at the assembled men and women, the tatters of the princess's nightgown still hanging, trapped in the folds of its flesh, the little tiara sunken near the hollow pit of a nose. The servants were dumbstruck, frozen by fear, none even stirring as the Czar's wife swooned and hit the floor with a heavy thud. The Czar rose, slowly, too shocked to be afraid, and went to comfort his daughter.

The princess took hours to die. Her room was sealed, the doorway plastered over, the body within too twisted and misshapen to bury. The young prince was broken, a mindless shell. His ability to speak decayed over several months, finally little more than a shambling ghost, left to stare for hours at windows and walls. The Czar fared little better. He wandered, staring at his throne at times as if he had no idea what it was, suddenly prone to fits of sobs or acidic rage. The public was told little to nothing, the servants in attendance that hellish night threatened with death for the merest breath of the truth.

The mad Fabergé fared worst of all. Besides the princess. He was bundled from his bed by six guards, a bag thrown over his head and an armored fist in his belly. He was dumped in a cold cellar and left, bound and bagged, for a full day. Soiled and exhausted, he was drawn up and the bag removed, only to face the haggard, manic stare of the Czar. The mad Fabergé hardly had time to speak, and when the Czar's fist shattered his already cracked teeth and sent them lacerating into his tongue, it was impossible anyway. He beat him off and on for nearly two days. Finally he had the man's fingerless palms hacked off, his remaining eye gouged out, and locked him in the deepest, blackest pit to rot.

The fairy palace was removed. For all the Czar's wrath, he could not simply destroy it. The very sight of it overwhelmed him, the mention of it enough to give him shudders and migraines. It was shifted painfully along to a basement in a disused wing of the palace, and forgotten. Over time, the gilding was peeled, the gems worked free, the statues stolen. Years came and went, the now-bare wooden shell slowly warping and splitting with age and season. It was moved, then moved again, finally coming to rest in a vacation home of the royalty, buried alongside other unknown and uncared for treasures.

A legend rose around the wooden forest and castle. The great-grandchildren of the now long-dead Czar scared each other with stories about it, daring each other to slip into the dank, dark store room and touch it. An ancient, crumbling butler finally spilled an age-faded copy of the story, and delicious scandal rolled through the bars and boarding houses for days. However, other concerns took precedence, and during some uprising or another, the summer palace was burned to the foundation. Along with it went many great works of art, and the twisted, warped shell of the wooden palace and forest. As the embers cooled above it, buried deep in the rubble the ancient, charred clockworks lay unnoticed and unknown.

The scholar discovered the clockworks in a book. The forgotten diaries of a servant, left to rot in the University archives, acquired as part of a lot from an estate sale. He never doubted the truth of it, even when he presented his proposal to the derision of the faculty. He pooled his own funds, tapped other resources of varying levels of legality, and set out to find it. After eight weeks of searching and excavation, the scholar stood, reeking and filthy, over the unearthed sorrow of a Czar.

Two more weeks were devoted to the planning of transport. The device was impossible to disassemble, and the scholar would not risk any more damage than the device had already taken. It was lifted whole-cloth from the pit, boxed and padded lovingly, and flown back to the scholar's home at a maximum of expense. There, two rooms were gutted and hollowed out, and the monstrous metal hulk was shifted into place.

For weeks, the scholar pried and probed at the mass of clockwork…but could divine nothing. Tentative, safe experiments soon gave way to more dramatic and less well-reasoned theories, even as he had a large panel fitted over the long-destroyed one, with much more simple and direct notations on it. His classwork and other research projects suffered, and were ignored. He became more and more prone to rambling and outbursts of disjointed theories, always mumbling “I've almost got it cracked.”

Others drew away from him, as if he carried a plague they could catch. The scholar ignored his shunning, the letters promising first reprimand, then eventually dismissal. Always, always, the next turn of the key would give the last shard of the puzzle, and cement his place in history…always the next one, the next vase, the next dog, the next fabric…the next one would finally reveal the pattern. And if not that, then the one after. Or the next one, surely.

He wasted away, eaten from the inside by first obsession, then rage. He would force the reason from the hulk of metal, it would repay all the pain he had poured out for it. One way or another.

The police found him almost by accident. Three ladies of the evening had vanished over the last week, and two patrolmen were making rounds with little hope or interest. The door swung open silently under their knock, the silence inside drawing them in, guns drawn. They found him in the kitchen, hanging from a stout rope. Pinned to his chest was a note:

I have touched the hand of God
And found it the same as the Fiend
Hell is all around us
Forgive what I have done.

The two patrolmen swept the house as they called back for help, expecting little but the boredom and numb regret of any suicide process. Nobody knows what exactly it was that was found in the basement. Only one of the officers came back up, and he never spoke again during his short remaining years. Whatever it was left masses of strange, swooping scars over his face, and left his bones as brittle as glass. The other police who responded said the house was already burning when they arrived, surely the result of an electrical outage, or a stove left on by a distraught suicide victim. The moaning and bubbling wailing that seemed to rock from the base of the fire was without a doubt simply escaping gas or warping metal.

They didn't know what to make of the mass of charred clockworks once the rubble was cleared. When the men from the government came, they were all too relieved to turn it over to them. It may have been that relief that caused them not to look at the ID cards too long, or follow up the case too closely. The story faded as well, just another tragic fire from a victim of professional stress.

The Foundation was most pleased, all the more so with the knowledge that they'd swooped the item mere hours ahead of Marshall, Carter and Dark.

Now they sit, poking and prodding in careful, controlled isolation, musing at this wonder of madness. More and more they learn, and as they do, the less they understand. They slip into confusion and anger slower, the madness spread evenly over many…but still they slip. They push and prod, trying to force meaning on insanity.

Trying to divine the secrets of the universe from a child's toy.

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