The orange light of the setting sun stretched long shadows over my workbench as I fiddled with the machine in my hand, a wind-up rabbit with long cloth ears that flopped about as it moved in shuddering jumps across the table’s surface, powered by elastic bands. My chair scraped across the warped wooden floor as I shifted closer to the window, taking advantage of the last remnants of failing light as I made my final adjustments.
A new shadow fell over my work and I looked up to find a white-haired little boy with his face pressed to my window. He smiled wide, showing a gap in his teeth, his big blue eyes fixed on my work. His nose wrinkled as he shifted and squinted around a spiderweb crack in the pane. I was lucky to have glass at all. The corners of my mouth twitched upward as I wound the key in the rabbit’s side and set it loose. The lump of scrap metal and broken gears sprang to life, eliciting squeals and claps of delight from the boy on the other side of the glass.
“Sky! What are you up to?” a voice called from down the street. A young man, his spitting image, appeared behind him and grabbed him by the shoulders. His older brother, Koi, had just reached his teens and moved with the awkwardness of one not used to the length of his limbs.
“Playing with the Cogger Man,” Sky said, hopping up and down on the balls of his feet.
I laughed and shook my head at the childish mispronunciation. People in The Rim called me Coggler due to the toys and small machines I built in my home to trade at the local marketplace. Koi and Sky lived just a few doors down from me and I’d spent many an afternoon with Sky’s nose pressed to my window watching me work. He was a bright boy and curious. Perhaps when he was a little older, I would teach him my trade. The thought made my heart warm.
A smile still tugging at my lips, I retrieved the rabbit from it’s stopping place and reached for the cane propped against the table beside me. I, like everyone else in The Rim, suffered from disability. The bones in my right leg twisted, making it difficult to walk. One of my neighbors fashioned me a cane from a fallen tree limb, ornately carved with a spiraling pattern and topped with a knob that perfectly fit into my palm. In return, I built him a washing machine. Just a simple thing with a crank, but something I hoped improved his life as he had improved mine.
“I’m sorry if he’s bothering you,” Koi said as I joined them outside.
“It’s no bother,” I said, ruffling Sky’s hair. I dropped the rabbit into the boy's hands and he beamed up at me.
“I can’t pay you…” Koi started and I waved him off.
“His joy is payment enough.”
Koi smiled softly, sending warmth through my chest, before tugging his little brother away. He scolded Sky for running around by himself, his voice sharp but full of affection, and I watched the tops of their white heads scurry up the street. The sky had gone dark and the bright lights of The City glowed in the distance, the Spire at its center piercing the inky black with a needle of glass.
“Are you the Coggler?”
I jumped and spun around to face the voice from the dark, nearly losing my balance. A man in black fatigues, his hand resting on the baton in his belt. My stomach lurched. A City soldier. We called them Takers.
“Yes, sir,” I said, swallowing around my dry tongue. “Is there something you need?”
“Come with me, please.” A command phrased like a question.
“Can I ask where we’re going?” My eyes flicked up to the vehicle idling on the road behind him. A second soldier leaned against the passenger side and a third waited in the driver’s seat.
“To the City.”
“Oh.” This was bad. “Let me just get my things--”
“Everything will be provided for you.”
“For how long--”
“Please, come quietly,” he said, voice almost pleading and for the first time, I noticed how young the soldier was. His fingers trembled where they touched his baton and I wondered if this was his first time in The Rim, his first time taking something. “I don’t want to force you.”
Leaning heavily on my cane, I took a step toward him. He gestured toward the vehicle behind him, a big, mean-looking thing that stood high off the ground and rumbled like a beast of the Wilds. The young soldier was joined by his cohort and they both escorted me around to the back. Stepping over a patch of mud, the watery byproduct of their hydrogen-powered vehicles, they pulled open a pair of heavy double doors and motioned me inside. Leveraging myself between my cane and the doorframe, I struggled up into the van, falling hard into the metal seat running along the side of the cab. The older soldier took the opportunity to snatch at the end of my cane, wrenching it from my hand.
“I need that,” I said, meeting the soldier’s cold scowl. “I can’t walk without it.”
“You’ll get it back when you reach your destination,” he growled and disappeared around the side of the van. The younger pulled himself up into the cab with me, helping me up into the seat before swinging the doors closed and taking the bench across from me.
With a wet cough, the vehicle lurched to life. I thought about that puddle in the road. Would Koi and Sky find it come morning and know what happened to me? My heart ached at the thought of Sky’s small face pressed to the window of my empty shop and Koi’s big, watery eyes searching for explanations he would never get. My fantasies of teaching Sky shriveled and collapsed into dust.
“What’s going to happen to me?” I asked, my voice thick.
“That’s above my rank,” the young soldier answered. I didn’t expect a real answer anyway.
It felt like hours before we stopped and the double doors swung open, emitting a swath of artificial light that stung my eyes. Another soldier with rugged features and hard eyes ordered my companion out of the van and he complied with a tight Yes, sir. His replacement hardly looked at me as he stepped up into the cab, his movements sharp and precise. His uniform was different, too, tailored and stiff with broad shoulders and a high collar. It wasn’t practical like the Takers’ fatigues, but ceremonial, decorated with flashing bits of metal and brightly colored embroidery along the cuffs, hot red curls that made his hands look like they were on fire. A trail of silver jewelry in his left ear glinted in the dim light, an indication of his rank. I never saw so many studs and dangling chains. Most of the men we saw in the Rim had two or three at most.
He sat down across from me, back rod straight and arms crossed over his chest. The doors slammed shut and we rumbled forward again, only now the roads were noticeably smoother. I could feel his eyes on me, studying me in that cold, calculating way you study an animal for defects. His gaze lingered on my deformed leg and his face twisted in disgust.
We stopped again and the soldier rose abruptly to his feet, reaching across the cab and yanking me up by my arm. The doors swung open and he threw me toward them. I tumbled out, landing in a heap on the ground outside the van, my bad leg tangled beneath me.
“Get up,” he barked.
“I can’t. My cane--”
Another soldier appeared, my cane in hand, and handed it to him. He took it, but didn’t give it to me. Instead, he hooked his free hand under my armpit and hauled me to my feet, bringing more of my surroundings into view. Smooth, black asphalt lined with lush greenery. Manicured hedges and flowers so bright they glowed in the electric lights. The soldier yanked me around the side of the van and my breath caught. A wall of mirrored glass rose into the sky in a great, twisting spiral, gradually tapering into a sharp point.
Another jerk on my arm nearly sent me back to the pavement as my escort stomped toward an opening in the glass. A door slid open automatically as we approached, admitting us into a wide rotunda with gleaming stone floors. A staircase spiraled around the outer edge and disappeared into the upper floors behind a great, circular device.
I nearly fell over backward looking up at it. Four rings of polished wood rotated around each other, creating a ceiling of constant motion. Each ring was marked all around with symbols inlaid in gold, moving at a different but regular pace around the center. The entire thing ticked and groaned in rhythm as if it were alive and my mind swam at the thought of the machinery within.
“What is it?” I asked, my voice breathy.
“It’s a clock.” The soldier at my side jerked his posture even straighter at the sound of a gentle voice from above. A man stood on the stairs, fair skinned and slight of build. He appeared ethereal, haloed in soft white electric light. He smiled warmly, his soft features lifting with hardly a wrinkle. He had long, blond hair pulled into a high ponytail at his crown, the end bouncing around his shoulders as he descended the stairs toward us.
“Have you never seen a clock before?” he asked, his blue eyes flashing with amusement. “It keeps the time.”
I opened my mouth to respond, but my tongue was paralyzed. He floated toward me, his long linen robes rustling around his feet. Layers of soft fabric dyed the softest pastel purple hugged his lean torso and cascaded off his hips, its long train rippling as it trailed him down the stairs. You could clothe three people with what he dragged on the ground behind him.
“P-Patriarch,” I stammered. The diefied leader of The City, the voice of the Mother. Everyone knew of him, no matter what side of the wall they grew up on, though few had actually seen his face. A direct descendent of our creator, if the stories were true. I’d spent the bulk of my life as a non-believer and yet I felt compelled to drop to my knees in his presence.
He smiled in affirmation before swinging his attention to my escort. “Please, return to him his walking stick. There’s no need for cruelty.”
The soldier bristled a bit before shoving my cane into my chest and releasing my arm. I stumbled as I regained my balance, the end of the stick making a sharp sound on the stone floor. The soldier smoothed his uniform and took a big step away from me. He pulled a square of red fabric out of one of his pockets and wiped his hands with it.
“Did you make this?” I blinked in surprise as the Patriarch held out his hand and sitting in his palm was one of my little toys. A butterfly with paper wings.
“Yes.” I touched the wings with the tips of my fingers, half expecting it to dissolve into vapor. “How did you--”
“Come with me.” He closed his hand around the toy and turned toward the stairs in a flourish of colored cloth. The soldier moved to follow, but he waved him away. The Patriarch drifted up the stairs, his train rippling like purple river water behind him. I hesitated at the first step, taking a mental count of the distance to the landing. Praying my cane wouldn’t slip on the smooth surface, I divided my weight between it and the banister and hopped my way up the first few steps.
“Do you need assistance?” He had already reached the landing. I was barely a third of the way.
“I can make it,” I answered, fueled by the stubborn need to show him I was capable of anything he was, even if it took me all night. I picked up my pace, caution be damned, and made it to the top huffing and puffing. His eyebrows lifted in surprise and I pulled myself up a little straighter, hoping he didn’t notice the sweat on my brow.
He gave a soft laugh before proceeding down the hall. I followed him down the corridor and through an arched entryway. A garden, green and lush and full of bright flowers. Manicured shrubs and trees as tall as anything I’d seen in The Rim. It stretched out before me in a great arc, disappearing around the curve of the building. The outside wall was entirely made of glass and the lights of The City twinkled on the other side like stars brought to earth.
“Incredible,” I breathed.
“Yes, but it’s missing something.” He gathered up his train before skipping ahead of me down a dirt path. I followed him to a clearing and he pranced out to the center, throwing his arms out and turning a circle, his robes flying around him. “Here.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I want you to build me this, but bigger,” he said, holding my little toy out between his fingers.
“Why me?” I thought about the clock in the ceiling, big, beautiful and ever moving.
“You must have loads of people who can--”
“It’s true. The engineers here can build amazing and practical things,” he said, nodding solemnly. “But, they don’t have what you have.”
“And, what’s that?”
“An eye for beauty.” He smiled wide and took a step toward me. He touched my arm, blue eyes shining up at me and loneliness cut through me like a blade. “Will you do it for me?”
“When I’m done, can I go home?”
He laughed, a little wrinkle forming on the bridge of his nose. “You’ll work here. Follow the path to the next clearing and you’ll find everything you need as well as a sleeping tent.” He slipped past me, drifting back the way we came. “No need to bother with those pesky stairs.”
The tent he provided me was a palace compared to my little shack in The Rim, equipped with a dresser full of fine clothes, a small work table, and a bed with the thickest, fluffiest mattress I’ve ever seen. It cradled my twisted bones with feather-soft pillows and I’d have had the best sleep of my life if it weren’t for my loneliness.
My work space was no different, stocked to the brim with every tool I could ever need. Polished metal fittings and brightly colored fabrics lined a wide workbench. They even provided me with a wheeled chair with a seat that raised and lowered on a pneumatic piston to ease the stress on my deformed leg.
It was a maker’s dream. My mind spun with ideas as I rummaged through bins full of gears and rubber belts and brass pistons. Using the little toy as a guide, I dove in head first and after only a few days of work, I had constructed the rough framework for a beautiful moving sculpture and my chest swelled with pride.
But, after those first euphoric days, a dark cloud settled over me. I thought about my friends in The Rim, of Koi and Sky, of my neighbor and his washing machine. I could build him such a grand machine out of the materials I had here. Instead, I was using it to build a toy, a frivolous amusement for a leader that overlooked us.
“Ugh, I’m so bored,” my host groaned from his seat on a blanket in the grass. He’d taken to watching me work, finding a spot in the clearing where he could comfortably lounge on a bed of pillows, trays of fruits and a pitcher of some bright red drink laid out around him. He rolled a blueberry between two fingers, his lower lip protruding in a pout, before tossing it at me. I flinched as it bounced off my nose, triggering a stream of childish giggles.
“Can you please not do that?” I asked, biting down on my irritation.
“We’ve done nothing but work since you’ve been here,” he whined. My eyebrow twitched. We? “Let’s do something fun.”
“The quicker I can get this done, the quicker I can go home,” I said without looking up.
“You don’t like it here?” he asked, his lower lip poking out. “You don’t like me?”
I didn’t answer, focusing intently on tightening a one-inch bolt. He stood and drifted almost silently toward me, his displeasure pulsing in the air around him and making it thick. I glanced in the direction of the soldier I knew was standing just out of sight past the edge of the clearing and my stomach rolled. Careful.
“I’m grateful to you for your generosity--”
“I don’t believe you,” he said sharply. He found the berry he’d thrown at me earlier resting in a pile of cables and plucked it out, rolling it between his fingers.
The berry popped in a spray of purple juice, triggering a spew of words. “You’re wasteful,” I slammed my tools down on the table. “People in the Rim barely have enough to sustain themselves. I’ve never eaten berries such as these and you treat them like toys. Like they’re limitless, worthless. I look at your fine robes and see children working until their fingers bleed. You drag them on the ground behind you. People with infirmities worse than mine live and work in the most wretched conditions so that you can live in finery. Do you have no appreciation, no respect for them? Do the benevolent eyes of our Patriarch not reach so far?”
The words spilled from me before I could stop them, making me feel better and worse at the same time. Icy tendrils of dread curled around my spine as silence fell over the clearing. The Patriarch’s childlike face turned hard as marble. His eyes dropped to the blue stain on his fingers and he rubbed them together with a little humming sound.
“Come with me,” he said, his cheerful expression returned. He pivoted on the balls of his feet, his robes fluttering as he moved toward the edge of the clearing. I made no move to follow and he paused, clicking his tongue. “I want to show you something.”
Apprehension still stiff in my muscles, I slid out of my chair, fetched my cane, and fell into step behind him. He led me out of the garden and toward a long flight of stairs, offering his hand to me. Out of fear of offending him further, I took it, amazed at its warmth and softness. A few torturous minutes later, we made it to the landing.
I found myself surrounded by a cacophony of clicks, pops, groans, both familiar and completely alien. The clock. We were above it now, its monstrous guts swirling all around us. Pistons and springs and gears all struggling in harmonious union to turn its shining face.
“It’s incredible,” I said, voice breathy with awe.
“Yes,” he answered. “It’s also ugly.” I shot him a confused look and he smiled sweetly, hands clasped behind his back. “Imagine the world as this clock. The City is its face, big, beautiful, all its parts moving almost effortlessly. But, behind it all, is this…” He made a wide, sweeping gesture with his hand, his lip curling a little. “Cogs toiling away in the dust and grease. While the gleaming silver hands get their daily polish, they go unnoticed and unappreciated. But without them, the face doesn’t move.”
“The Rim,” I croaked, my throat so tight I could hardly force the words through it. The Patriarch smiled at me the way you smile at a child who’s just grasped his lesson. “What does that make you?”
“Me?” he asked with a good natured laugh. “I’m the Coggler.”
The Patriarch gave me an affectionate pat on the shoulder before turning and disappearing down the stairs. I couldn’t move, rooted to the spot by the dark realization that we were exactly where he wanted us to be. The dirty underbelly that kept his beautiful city turning. Resentment boiled beneath my skin with every pop and groan of the machine around me.
I’m never going home.
I whipped my head around, searching the space for I don’t know what. The entire contraption was suspended over the rotunda on a set of steel girders that ran just over my head and affixed to the wall behind me by a steel plate. I ran a hand along one of them and felt it flex and sway slightly with the centrifugal force of the machine. The plate clicked with each rotation as it rocked against the wall, a bolt slightly loose.
Blood rushed through my ears as I touched the head of the bolt. My breathing came in short gasps as my fingers wrapped around it. It gave easily. Sweat broke out on my brow as the plate rocked more and more with every turn. The machine moaned loudly from within.
I’m sorry, but it must be done.
The bolt dropped to the floor and the girder lurched under the weight. Two more bolts pulled loose in a puff of stone dust, just hanging on. I tugged and twisted, but the pressure had them wedged firm. With a silent apology to the man that made it for me, I slipped the narrow end of my cane into the new space between the plate and the wall and pulled. My bad leg gave out under the strain and I nearly fell backwards.
I had to come at it from a different angle. Wiping the sweat and dust from my eyes, I pressed my back to the wall, wedged the cane underneath the plate again and pushed. The wood creaked and crackled, but little by little, the bolts released their hold on the wall, dropping one by one to the floor. With one more push and a loud snap, the whole thing gave way.
I fell forward in a shower of splinters as the girder whipped away from the wall and crashed into the landing. The clock swayed dangerously on its remaining supports, each rotation amplifying the next. Pistons popped and gears ground their teeth. Girders wrenched free one by one and with a great squealing cry of pain, the clock fell.
The soldiers were on me before I even heard the crash, but it didn’t matter. The big, beautiful face was broken, its ugly guts on display for the world to see.