Clockwork Heart (Part IX)

I had never been a man of conviction. In fact, quite the opposite. I would hesitate over every decision, questioning myself, envisaging every possible outcome with increasing degrees of dread. I worried and fretted over everything. That was who I was: a weak man, with a weak will. I was not that man any longer. I could not say what had transformed me so thoroughly, but I felt as if I was taken over by an intelligence that was not my own when I was presented with two possible paths. I no longer debated with myself on the best course of action, but simply acted. Since I had first closed my eyes on Aisa’s slab, it seemed as though all that had occurred had been somehow inevitable, like the relentless clockwork now ticking within me. I was a man no longer, but instead a machine driven by a motive force that was not the ephemeral majesty of the Christian soul, but a thing of artifice. I could no more stay my hand than could one cog exert its will over the others that drove it. I was powerless, even as my power seemed to swell. I walked quickly, moving indefatigably south. I did not hail a cab – that would mean more trouble – but the miles seemed to compress like a coiled spring as I journeyed. My legs pumped like pistons and my blood ran through my veins like fire. I breathed steam and sweated grease and oil, or so it seemed to me in my altered state. I knew where I must go and what I must do, for I was now being pursued. Dalton and his police would soon enough find out I was responsible for Pym’s death, and then everything would unravel. I would be imprisoned or hung, if not treated as a scientific curio for the modifications that had been visited upon me. I did not relish a life spent mouldering in a sanatorium, or surrendering to the ministrations of a curious biologist who would dispassionately dissect me as if I were merely a fascinating specimen.

And yet there was still some small part of me, possessed of my native timidity that had for so long been discarded, that quailed at the reality of what I must do. Inside, somewhere, a voice screamed in horror. Perhaps I ignored it, or perhaps I was now incapable of disobeying the clanking impulses of the mechanisms that drove me forward and gave me my unholy strength. I was inevitable, and the image came to me of the bronze beast of my nightmares, hunting me relentlessly. Had I become that grotesque aberration, that man of metal who threatened to consume me, piece by piece? Is that what my dreams represented? I did not know. I was beyond questions now. I passed through the streets of London beneath an oppressive gloom of cloud and smog. It was only late afternoon, but the sky was almost black. The frowning buildings on either side with their stained brickwork and filthy windows seemed like macabre spectators gathered at the edge of some hellish arena, preparing to feed their wretched souls with a bloody gladiatorial spectacle. My passage was not unmarked by human eyes either, for crowds still thronged the streets and carts, cabs and horses made their way through crooked thoroughfares. I swept through, a scythe cutting wheat, and all shrank back before the aura of dark wrath that seemed to surround me. My great clockwork arm was hidden beneath the sleeve of my jacket and the gloves I wore, but they could not fail to observe the grim aspect that hung in the air about me, and the purposeful stride that carried me forth. I looked a man of fell passions, I am certain, and the crowds parted. I did not hear their chattering. They were insects, unworthy of my attention, where I was touched by glory.

The city around me became more squalid, and the streets narrower. The buildings closed in upon me, no longer content merely to observe, but now involving themselves in my hunt, leering as they leaned over, willing me to indulge my barbarism for their delight. They howled silently for blood. The world around me was colourless and grey, but whether that was because of the weather and the reeking fume of the city or because my senses were dulled by my transformation I could not say. I had eyes and thoughts only for my quarry. Soon – far too soon – I entered a familiar passage. I strode between high, blank walls, black with soot, and stepped nonchalantly over the river of sewage that, a scant week ago, I had lain in while death took me. But I had returned from that darkness, rebuilt and renewed, and nothing could stay my wrath. I turned a corner, and now passed beneath an arch of bricks and thence onwards, down a winding street and to a door of flimsy clapboard. No candle burned in the parlour within now, and all was silent. The street was empty, for this was a part of London that did business by night, not day. No sound came from any of the windows in the surrounding buildings. I was alone, and yet I felt eyes on me all around. They watched, here. If there was one thing the denizens of this foul quarter were masters of, it was that. Indeed, that was precisely why I was in such mortal danger. This would not take long though. When my business was done, I would hasten away, and there would remain no evidence of my misbegotten dalliance here some nights previous.

The door was barred from within, but it presented no obstacle to me. I thrust my clockwork fist into the cheap timbers and ripped them asunder as if they were the thinnest paper. I smashed the door to pieces, tore it from its hinges and shouldered my way inside. The parlour was cold and dark, but I knew this house would not be unoccupied. The wooden staircase wound up into blackness, but I could hear commotion from above, for my entrance had made a great caterwauling. The alarm was raised far too late though: the fate of those who resided in the rooms upstairs was already sealed. I ascended the stairs, still advancing tirelessly, and came onto the landing. A light flickered in a room now and a woman came out, half-dressed in a nightgown, carrying a candle and stared at me in horror.

“Tick-Tock?”

It was the woman with the ugly teeth and straw-coloured hair who had greeted me first before. She was the eldest of the whores here, perhaps a kind of twisted matriarch to the other harlots, and she would consider it her duty to defend them, I was sure. I stepped towards her, and raised my clanking arm. In destroying the door, I had damaged the glove, and my claws protruded through ripped leather, gleaming faintly in the candlelight.

“Ere,” she said, beginning to back away towards her room, “we’s closed, all right, guv’? Go ‘ome. You ain’t welcome at this hour.” I could hear the tremor in her voice. I loomed tall over her, though I was not a large man. Or had not been, anyway.

“I have not come here to avail myself of your services, woman,” I said. My voice was not my own; it emerged as a harsh, metallic scraping. I could hear the ticking in the narrow room too; the relentless movement of my heart, echoing inside me irregularly. It filled the foetid air and sounded in time to my heavy footfalls as I approached the trembling slattern. She reached inside her gown and produced a cosh. She waved it threateningly at me. No doubt she had had to defend herself many times in the past but this time, her weapon would do her no good. I lifted my arm and opened my taloned hand, seeking to grip her throat. She swung, aiming for my wrist, but the bludgeon bounced harmlessly off the unfeeling metal of my monstrous limb. She reared back again, this time with greater determination, but now it was too late. I encircled her pale throat with my hand easily and lifted her off her feet. She dropped the candle and it guttered against the floorboards. I could barely smell the smoke. The poor whore fought me with what strength she had, but she was gasping for air, and I was far beyond the ability of mortals to harm now. Her eyes rolled back into her head as her face turned red, then purple, and then a ghastly black. When she stopped struggling, I threw her aside, where she landed in a sprawled heap by the stairs.

She was not the only one there. I went into each of the other rooms, ripping the girls from their beds. The two swarthy sisters shared a narrow cot and I dragged them to the ground. Both were naked and I tore the throat from the first one, splashing blood across the walls and floor and the other I silenced by forcing my brass claws into her eye sockets and levering her skull open like a tin can. I felt nothing at all as I undertook this gruesome butchery, only a sense of satisfaction that no one remained who could tell the story of my first visit here. There were screams by now, and panicked flight outside on the landing. But the flickering light without told me that the candle’s flame had caught, and now a fire burned near the top of the stairs, barring the only means of escape. I walked out and confronted the prostitutes who wailed and cried as they beheld both me and the blaze. My coat was discarded and my shirt ripped so that the huge, gleaming arm of clockwork was revealed, and reflections from the fire danced across its ruddy surface. These whores I had not seen the last time, but they were still witnesses, and I treated them no less savagely. I ripped and rent, hewed and hurled, until nothing remained of them but bloody scraps. I was by now a mess of crimson myself, a hideous vision in red, clothes torn and writhing scars revealed. I surveyed the carnage I had wrought, and saw that the most important of those I sought had not been present. Jenny, the pale, doe-eyed girl with whom I had taken my pleasure, was nowhere to be seen.

I turned back down the corridor and came to the room I had used last time. I opened the door slowly and found Jenny sitting on the sagging bed, watching me with no expression in her eyes. Like the sisters, she was naked, and the sight of her skinny frame and high, pert breasts, inflamed me with passion. But I was not here to indulge that particular sin.

“Why are you doin’ this, Tick-Tock?” she asked me dully.

“Because I must,” I clanked.

She nodded, as if understanding the inevitably of her predicament. As I reached for her, she barely resisted. Like the first woman, I killed her with a hand around her throat, choking the life from her, and leaving her swollen and discoloured in her sparse and dreary room. A small pale life, ended by the whim of something beyond her understanding. It was unstoppable now, this demented path of destruction. It would only end when whatever cruel gods now watched over me had satiated their nightmare thirst for blood and death.

A cry came from below. The fire was raging now, but I recognised the voice of Clement. He was frightened and furious, thinking himself the victim of arson I supposed. It was so much worse than that. I stepped from the room and looked at the fire. Even changed as I was, I would not survive a passage through the conflagration that now licked up walls and ceiling and filled the landing with deadly black smoke. I returned to Jenny’s room and knew my first moment of indecision since I had left Marjory’s side. My only option was the window, but this was a high, narrow house, and the street below was cobbled. I did not see any other choice open to me though, and so I charged the window pane, crashing through smeared glass and rotting timbers. I tried to turn in midair to lessen the harm as I fell, but I had not accounted for the weight of my new arm and I tumbled gracelessly to the ground below, landing hard upon the clockwork appendage. I heard the crunch of metal and gears and felt a jolt of pain as some deep internal working was sent out of alignment. I dragged myself to my feet and saw some scraps of metal, cogs and springs lying in the mud around me. I flexed the arm and was rewarded with an agonising mechanical scraping that set my teeth on edge and made my whole body itch in a strange fashion. Another twist and turn of the arm and I seemed to work the worst of any break or blockage free, and had sufficient liberty to manoeuvre at least.

Whatever respite I had gained would be short-lived though, for now Clement’s shout came from behind and I turned to see him racing through what remained of his door and then goggle at me in disbelief. “Tick-Tock?” He took in my grotesque arm and the scars that covered my chest, the key that wound my heart and, of course, the blood that covered me from head to foot. What must he have thought of me? I saw the disgust in his eyes, the look of one who had gazed upon something truly abhorrent, and I saw then how far I had fallen. That I, once a gentleman, should now be regarded by a man of such low standing, uncouth manner and dreadful reputation, as somehow beneath even him, was too repulsive a notion to entertain. I wallowed, I knew, in true savagery.

I fled. I fled, even though Clement was the most damning witness of all to my crimes. Not only could he place me at his foul establishment on the night of Pym’s death, but he had also seen the aftermath of my even more wicked crimes today. I disappeared into the warren of alleys and passages that were thereabout and the darkness closed in upon me further. Which man was I then, in that moment? I do not know. I was not the relentless daemon I had been earlier, nor the frail shadow of my former life, but now something caught between, a frightened animal, quailing in terror from himself. I was revolted by the state of myself, especially by the blood that soaked my torn clothing, but more horrible still was the arm that now hung limply by my side. I wanted to blame it for what had transpired, but I could not escape the memory of the moment when I had so casually slaughtered those women mere minutes ago, and the satisfaction that had come from ending their bleak lives. I did not know myself, and I wished only to find some way to pull clear of the disgusting mire my life had been reduced to.

Abruptly, I came to a dead end – a wall of bricks that reached high into the gloom above me, unblemished by any window, cornice or guttering, completely inviolable and unavoidable. I stepped backwards, craning my neck up to see whether the top was within reach somehow, but I could make out nothing beyond the rows of sooty bricks before me. I turned to find some other path through these grim streets, but at the end of the passage stood a figure blocking my escape. I recognised the slope of his shoulders and the grizzled jaw even in the shadows of this fell place, and I knew that Clement had found me.

“Tick-Tock,” he sneered, “I always fought you was a bad’un…”

I raised my arm threateningly. The workings screamed again, but I could move it well enough. “Clement. Stand aside.” My voice was weak and wavering now.

“I don’t fink so, guv’. No, I fink we’s gonna ‘ave to ‘ave it out right ‘ere an’ now, eh?” He advanced, and though he was a small, stooped man with bandy legs and more bone than flesh, he seemed intimidating then. This was his kingdom, after all, and he knew the lie of the land far better than I.

“What will you do?” I asked, drawing myself up as much as I could, “send for the police? Is the notorious villain Clement so happy to collaborate with the peelers?”

“I ain’t involvin’ no peelers, Tick-Tock, not on your flamin’ life…whatever that’s worth now.” He looked at me with his squinting eyes, and gave the clockwork arm an appraising look. “Well fancy that, eh? Now I fink I’ve seen everyfink…”

I held up the bloodstained talon. “Leave me,” I said, my voice now growing in strength. Standing in such close proximity, Clement seemed less threatening, and I knew I had a deadly weapon.

“Nah, that ain’t what’s going’ to ‘appen, Tick-Tock. See, you done me a great wrong. You came into my ‘ouse wivout so much as a by-your-leave an’ you got up to no good. You been doin’ mischief, ain’t that right? Oh yes, the kind of mischief you gentleman always like. Funny ‘ow that works, ain’t it? You looks down your noses at us paupers who ain’t got a shilling to our names, puttin’ on all your airs an’ sniffin’ when we gets too close, but when it come down to it, we ain’t the ones who do the really nasty stuff, are we? Nah: we might be villains, we might be fieves, but we ain’t killers, not like this. Fings might get out of ‘and, or maybe some fellow’s got it comin’ to ‘im, but we don’t take no pleasure in it, see? In my experience, that partic’lar vice is somefink wholly reserved for you so-called gentlemen.”

He had no fear of me at all, I realised. Jenny had been the same. Were those two just such degraded examples of humanity that they were numb to ordinary emotions? Certainly Clement showed no anger or grief at what had been done to his house and his girls. He was mocking me, just as he had in the parlour when I’d first visited, just as he had in the rough tavern where we’d met. He called me Tick-Tock, a pun on my true name, for the sound of my clockwork heart, though I could not reveal its source. “I’ll kill you,” I told him simply.

“I don’t doubt you’ll ‘ave a good try. Seems you ‘ave quite a talent for it, Tick-Tock, quite a talent indeed. Now, understand somefink ‘ere,” he continued, almost conversationally, “what I’m gonna do to you now ain’t personal in the slightest. It’s just business, see? You’ve gone and caused me no end of bovver with what you done just now, an’ I got to be seen to be protectin’ my assets, understand? I can’t just let some rich fellow with ‘oo-knows-what perversions come into my establishment an’ start murderin’ my girls. I do that an’ before you know it every cove south of the river finks he can do whatever he likes to old Clement.” He was standing very close to me now, staring into my eyes, and I didn’t even notice as he drove the knife into my side. I felt my muscles tense, and then he twisted the blade with a toothless grin and yanked it free.

I stumbled backwards, but curiously I felt no pain. There was a deep wound in my abdomen, and the blood poured from it freely. I could feel it draining out of me, and my head felt light, but still there was no more sensation than when I had killed Jenny and the other prostitutes. I regarded the terrible injury with only fascinated horror, as the blood pulsed out of me in time to the increasingly rapid ticking of my heart. I looked up at Clement who was still grinning, but who now seemed less sure of himself, for I still stood upright and had not so much as cried out. I put my human hand across the gash and then forced myself to smile. “Look at me, Clement,” I said in a low voice, “do you think I can be killed so easily?”

His smile faded, and he turned to run, but I was faster and grabbed him by the back of his filthy collar, hauling him off his feet with my artificial arm. I spun him around and, with savage abandon, thrust my claw into his stomach and reached inside his crooked body. His screams filled the passage, but like all sensation it barely made an impression upon me. I forced my hand upwards and grabbed his pulsing heart and then yanked it free and held it before him. For one horrible moment he gazed at it in confusion and terror, and then he fell backwards to the ground, quite dead. I looked at the heart in my hands. An ordinary human heart, pinkish-red and fleshy, still pumping feebly as blood leaked from the veins and arteries, staining me with yet more crimson. I had once had a heart like this, and I had once been a man like Clement. Now I did not truly know what I was.

Shadows began to cloud my vision, and suddenly my strength deserted me. I lost my balance and fell to the ground, grovelling in the dirt beside the corpse of Clement. The wound in my side still bled profusely, and now it leaked through my fingers. I was lying in a pool of my own blood, and it was as if it was the only colour I could truly perceive. My head felt stuffed with cotton, and I was very cold all of a sudden. I knew I had reached the end here, in this awful place. It was fitting, I decided, that it should be this way, after all I had selfishly brought to ruin. Strange there should be no pain: it was as if my nightmares played out again, as I was numbly dismembered by my tormentor. Perhaps that was significant, but I no longer had the strength to care. What a fool I was. What a damned fool. I wished for nothing more than the final darkness to come, to be judged if that was indeed the fate of mortals, and in either case to leave the cares of this world behind me. I took my bloody hand from my side and held the key in my chest. I had only to yank it free and my heart would run down even if the loss of blood did not kill me. I tried to secure purchase upon its smooth surface, but it was small and my hand moved clumsily, slick with my own blood as it was. Another try, but still it eluded me. And then I tumbled into nothingness, and believed I would know no more pain.

*

This dream was worst of all. No long pursuit, no panicked flight. It was already upon me, the hellish titan, carving me apart. This time there was pain: indescribable agony as each bit of me was removed slowly and methodically. First heart then left arm, then right, then legs and groin, and then he purloined my organs, opening me up like a triptych and clawing each out in turn. And every one was purest agony, such that I felt certain death must come soon, but it was not so. Instead I lay there, limbless and helpless as I was dismantled like a machine and could only watch as the monster put each part he stole into his raging, fiery gullet, consuming all that had once been me. And when it was done, his eyes blazed with light, and he was no longer an expressionless simulacrum, but instead my own face, rendered in bronze, stared back at me, and I knew that I was him and he me, and that death was too kind a reward for my sins.

I awoke in a darkness that was absolute. It was as if I were blind. I tried to move, to find out where I was and what had befallen me, but I could not. From my limbs there was no response at all, as if they were tightly bound, and yet I also felt no sensation from them. I was completely adrift, blind and powerless, as if I were nothing more than an immaterial spirit, lost between worlds, capable only of formulating the knowledge that I existed, but unable to affect the world in any way. I quailed at the thought, and then I realised I was not completely disembodied, for I could still hear the familiar ticking of my heart. It was almost comforting in that moment, as dread a sound as it had come to be for me, for it reassured me that I was still alive in some fashion, and that there might be some hope for me, despite my earlier longing for the release of death. I tried again to move, but could not. I opened my mouth to speak, but my throat was hoarse and dry and only a thin croaking emerged. Oddly, I felt no thirst, and no hunger, and certainly no discomfort or pain. In fact I felt nothing at all. It was disturbing, and I began to panic, but then relief came as a thin slash of light appeared before me. I recalled the moment in the darkness of Aisa’s strange corridor when I had felt myself bereft in a seemingly infinite void, and the doors had opened in just such a fashion, ushering me towards light and hope. Perhaps this would prove to be the same? Perhaps, indeed, that was where I was, having been brought here somehow, in my injurious state, but only left here for the mistress of the house to discover. No wonder I was unable to move if that were the case – I was surely as close to death as I had been the last time I was brought here, packed like fish in a cab full of ice. I hoped it would not be too late to save me now. Could even Aisa’s magic bring me back after what had happened? And did I truly want it to?

The ribbon of light widened, and I found myself looking at the interior of two opening doors, but these were not decorated like those that led into Aisa’s sanctum, instead bare and black. I blinked in the light, and when I could see again it was the beautiful face of the very woman I had expected that greeted me. She smiled her red smile at me as she held the doors apart with her lithe arms. She was dressed as she always was, in her tight red dress and jacket. “James,” she said, “my darling.”

I tried to make sense of my surroundings. I looked into Aisa’s workshop, but not from a vantage I had had before. What door had I entered by? And then, on the gurney, I saw a dread vision. The figure of Theseus, the marvellous and ghastly automaton, lay reposed in the place that had been mine, and he appeared very different. In place of the arm he had given me was another; a human arm, but discoloured and swollen, much repaired with stitching to make it whole. His legs, likewise were of flesh instead of clockwork; two thin and gangly legs, too small for his great frame, unlovely and pale, but human nonetheless. His chest was open, but I could not see inside, save to tell that in place of the metal organs I had once observed there, were living vitals, red and gory. That was when I understood where I was, and that it was not a door through with I gazed, but the opening of the tall box that had held Theseus, the coffin-like wardrobe at the end of the workshop. I was stood inside it, as the clockwork man had been, for a reason I could not begin to guess.

“My poor James,” Aisa said, reaching out and touching my cheek as she often did, “I am so sorry for all that has happened to you.”

“Wh..what is…what is this?” My voice was cracked and thin, but she seemed to understand me well enough.

“You were very badly hurt,” she explained, with an impish light dancing in her eyes even as her brow furrowed prettily with concern, “much worse than before even. This time your heart was not the problem – it was the knife wound in your side.”

“I went…I went to make things…make things right…” It all seemed so strange now. What had possessed me to go back there and do those terrible things? Why had I been taken by such madness?

“Of course, of course,” Aisa said, “I understand. Sometimes, we lose control of our destinies. We are no longer responsible for ourselves.” She caressed my cheek with the back of her hand. “But do not worry, James. This fate was not in vain. Your suffering will serve a purpose, I assure you.”

I could not understand what she meant. She had saved me before, but now her words were much more cryptic. I tried to shake my head, but could not even move my neck. Had she bound me in this wardrobe? Had she numbed my limbs with another of her strange oriental unguents?

“Please, my darling, you must relax. Your debt to me has been settled now. All will be well.”

“My debt?”

“Yes. For my services. Do you not recall? You asked about payment when you woke the first time, and I told you I had what I required from you.”

“I remember…” I said, frowning.

“Good.” Her smile was predatory as she stepped away from me. “Let me show you the good you have done, James. Let me give you your just reward.” She held a hand out to Theseus on the gurney and, wonder of wonders, he reached up with a perfectly natural movement and took it with his own. His arm – his right arm – was human too, and as pale and thin as his legs. There was something familiar about that arm too. Theseus rose, moving just like a man, perhaps a little unsteady on his feeble legs, but nonetheless as fine a piece of work as always. But as he stood beside Aisa and then turned to me, I beheld the open chest cavity of the giant, and saw within a sight that filled me with cold dread. His organs pulsed and squirmed, and they were indeed the organs of a human being, but in the centre of his chest, resplendent between two ordinary lungs, was a twisted and malformed heart, stitched together from five pieces, but beating healthily in the ribcage of shining steel. It was my heart: the heart that Aisa had removed piece by piece. That was her payment. As I had been given Theseus’s heart, so he had been given mine. When I looked aghast at the automaton’s face, I saw that his glass eyes were no longer dull and expressionless but filled with light and life. His motionless countenance, a Grecian carving in bronze, seemed to be smirking.

It was only then that I realised the full horror of what I was seeing. My heart was not all that he had: all of his human organs had been taken from me. First the rotting arm she had replaced, now grafted onto Theseus, and thereafter my lungs, stomach, kidneys, intestines, liver, my legs and remaining arm, all harvested and affixed inside this clockwork golem. And what, my mind now screamed at me, did that leave me with? I rolled my eyes downwards, trying to see what had become of me, and gasped at the metal framework that supported me in my imprisonment. The clockwork organs that had once belonged to my counterpart, including the ticking heart, sustained me, and arms and legs were positioned in their usual places – clockwork arms and legs, those of Theseus, of course – but I had no strength to move them and I saw then they were not connected at all, but hung lifelessly beside me in a cruel mockery of wholeness. I was not tied down, but only a memory of flesh remained to me below the neck. I would have surely vomited, but I possessed no bile and no stomach to hold it if I did.

“Why?” I managed to whisper.

“My darling,” Aisa said, stepping in front of Theseus, “did you believe I made my creations from nothing? That would be impossible. In order to create the semblance of life, I must take a living creature and, piece by piece, replace it with clockwork. That bird that so enchanted you was once flesh and blood. When did it turn from animal to machine? That is a philosophical conundrum I have long struggled with. So much so, that I resolved to experiment. I had taken a living thing from meat and bone to metal and cog before, but never the reverse. I had never resurrected one of my toys.” She turned slightly and placed an affectionate hand on Theseus. He still seemed to smile at me with wry amusement, despite his face never changing. “Where does Theseus end and you begin, James? Did he become you when he gained your heart and vice versa? Are you one in the same until this is done?”

“Done?” I prayed this was another nightmare, but I knew it was not. I was here, disembodied in the most literal fashion, at the mercy of a madwoman. And all that had been mine was now in service to her monstrous creation.

“I must complete my experiment,” she said coldly, “I must replace each of Theseus’s parts with yours, until he is flesh and blood once again. It is many, many years since he walked beneath the sun as a man. But I wonder which of you he will be? It is fascinating, do you not agree?”

“You can’t do this…”

Again she approached me, and now stroked my trembling head. She leaned close, so our foreheads touched and I could feel her breath against my face. “We have so much more to do, you and I, James. The difficult part is only just beginning. I must take you piece by tiny piece.” She put her finger to my lips. “Mouth and tongue first, so Theseus can have a voice again. Will not that be wonderful? And then…” Her fingers touched my ears. “Ears to hear. And nose to smell. A face, so that I can see his smile again.” She continued to touch me, and I could do nothing to stop her. “Eyes, to see,” she murmured, brushing my eyelashes with her fingertips. I wanted to scream, but I could not. I could do nothing but stare at her in stark terror. “And your brain, James, that will be the hardest of all. I will do it last, and the procedure may take years. I will cut out each fold and wrinkle and reassemble them like the pieces of a puzzle to be given to Theseus. It must be done delicately, slowly, not all at once. That is the nature of the experiment: to determine when a thing becomes another thing. Whose thoughts will he have, do you think? Will he remember this conversation?” She brought her mouth close to my ear. “Will you?”

She drew back again. I wanted to weep, but my eyes were dry and scratchy. I imagined myself, blind and dumb, only my thoughts for company, and those gradually removed from me one by one. How could I exist in two places at once? I would not wake up to find myself in the body of Theseus, I knew that. The idea of it was pure insanity, but I did not doubt her skills. She had kept me alive when removing my heart after all. So I would be robbed of all knowledge of the outside world, and then my inner world would be disassembled. What would I be at the end? Would I be cognisant? Would I be alive? There was but one hope left to me, and I summoned up what strength I could to spit my last ounce of defiance in her face. “You cannot do this, Aisa. They will come looking for me. My absence will be noticed.”

“And who would know you are here, James?” she threw back.

“Dr Callow,” I said triumphantly. “He will not stand by and let this madness happen.”

“Ah yes, Dr Callow. A fine man indeed.” She clicked her fingers and from the side of the room, invisible to me thanks to the open door of the wardrobe, the stout figure of Callow stepped into view. He took his place on the other side of Aisa, regarding me impassively.

“Doctor,” I pleaded, “look at this! Look what this…this she-demon is doing! You have to save me!”

“James, James,” Aisa said as she shook her head, “do you really think you are the first man in this city to have lain upon my gurney? I have spent a long, long time perfecting my art, transforming living creatures into machines. During the process, you would not even guess what lay beneath their flesh, unless you knew exactly what to look for.” She reached up into Callow’s thick whiskers, and there was a click as she released some unseen catch. The doctor’s face fell open, revealing beneath an empty shell of ticking clockwork. Teeth and tongue were human enough, suspended in the intricate brass machinery, and the grey swell of a brain loomed behind the most awful aspect of all: two staring eyes, now lidless and exposed, suspended on delicate hinged spindles that hooked directly into that sweating, wrinkled organ. The monstrous assemblage seemed to leer at me and I shut my eyes; the only defence left to me.

I heard Aisa’s throaty laugh and then the same click as before. Then a rustle of fabric and felt that she was beside me again. I opened my eyes. “So you see, James, it is all done. You and I will explore the frontiers of natural science together, and you need never worry about a thing again. You have no need of food or water, nor even air. Your clockwork heart is all you need.” She tapped the keyhole, now exposed and protruding like a mushroom from the surface of the heart, with the tip of her finger. “Do not be afraid – I will always make sure to keep it wound up.” She drew a golden chain out from her collar and held the key in front of me. My whole existence, such as it was, was bound to that tiny golden object. The only hope remaining was that she might lose it, or forget to attend to me, and I would finally be released from this Hell. But I knew she would not.

“All troubles are removed for you, James,” she continued, now placing her hands on the doors. Theseus and Callow still watched silently behind her, “you have only to think your thoughts, and to dream, forever.” She closed the doors slowly, sealing me in absolute darkness again. I heard the lock turn, and then all there was was the tick-tick-tick of my clockwork heart.

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This entry was posted in Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Horror, Magical Realism, Novella. Bookmark the permalink.

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