Monday, March 26, 2012
The Clockwork Beyond
Pale burnt-orange reflections of a gaslight flickered amidst foggy Morrigan street. Chester could barely navigate the cobblestones before him as opaque, crepuscular tendrils chased away what little remained of a clear, starlit night. The Doctor passed alleyways and alcoves on either side that threatened to engulf him in their cloistered shadows. The city heaved with a Stygian rhythm that matched his own creaking pace. He slowly fought through the misty gauze until he finally reached the appointed location.
The signpost appeared as it was described to him; it depicted a black hourglass turned on its side, white sand split evenly between its reservoirs. A few words of text had been printed beneath the image, illegible in the fog. Chester stepped to the otherwise-nondescript doorway it adorned. He consulted his pocketwatch. The appointed hour drew close. It was dangerous for him- and for anyone, for that matter- to wait outdoors for an extended duration in such weather as this. He looked around and stroked his chin, a tic of impatience he had developed over his many years of meticulous punctuality.
The muffled plea of a foghorn heralded the daily delivery of ore to the distant harbor, rousing the usual early-morning cascade of chimney swifts from their unseen urban roosts.
A man approached the meeting place just as wan stirrings of sunlight began to creep over the city.
"Lyndrew," the newcomer announced as he joined Chester on the stoop.
"Chesterfield." The Doctor extended a gloved hand by way of introduction, which Lyndrew promptly dismissed.
"Our mutual friend told me much of your work, Dr. Chesterfield. I am eager to retain your services, but I would like our discourse to remain in strictly the most professional of provinces." He turned to the door.
"Very well." Chester sniffed, withdrew his hand.
Lyndrew rapped on the door. They stood in silence for a few minutes before the door opened.
Inside a smallish man greeted them and told them to wait. The master would see them in a moment. The Doctor handed his top hat and gloves to the man in a bundle. To the chagrin of the insistent valet, Lyndrew remained decked in his coat and tweed flat cap. The valet shuffled off in an injured huff.
As Dr. Chesterfield adjusted to the low light of the building's interior, he noticed they were standing in a spacious residential foyer. A winding staircase before them opened up into a formidable mezzanine encircling the room's second floor. The mezzanine was lined with great mahogany bookshelves of countless tomes.
"Where are we? It is not often I make my way to the Westephraim."
Lyndrew sighed. "We are in the antechamber of Lord Byridge. Did you not read the dossier our mutual friend so generously supplied? This is where the device has been kept since its discovery. It is the most secure choice of quite a few poor options."
"Then my briefing differed from yours. Dunston told me that I was to apply my archaeological expertise to inspect the actual discovery site."
"Yes, and my exolinguistics abilities shall complement your more.. atavistic specialties."
Chester was grateful to have exercised foresight in handing his gloves to the valet, or else one surely would have struck Lyndrew's impudent cheek. Before he could formulate a properly affronted response, a voice boomed from above.
"Now, now, we will have no such belittling talk. You have both been chosen for your strengths in this delicate matter." A wide gentleman appeared on the balcony. He was clad in a garish yellow smoking jacket and held a long-handled cigarette. He gently puffed on his accessory as he regarded his visitors through a lemon-tinted pince-nez. "Though you have never met me, Dunston vouches for each of your respective qualities of character, and your published works more than speak for themselves."
Chester puffed out his chest and smiled. Lyndrew crossed his arms and narrowed his eyes at the eccentrically garbed Lord Byridge.
"Dr. Chesterfield, your studies have taken you all across Colubus, exploring the sites of ancient civilizations. I followed your work on the clockwork nomads with particular gusto."
The host turned to his other guest. "And Lyndrew, your translation of contemporaneous accounts of the Great Atrophy has spawned entire fields of discipline concerning the birth of the modern world."
Chester's eyes widened. He turned to the man next to him and blurted, "YOU are the great J.A. Lynne?"
Lord Byridge roared with a near-deafening laugh. "Ha! Didn't expect a man so young, eh?"
Lyndrew rolled his eyes as he turned away from the dumbfounded Chester. "Yes, THAT J.A. Lynne. Please, spare me your supplication. It is foolish to focus on past accomplishments when there is so much that remains to be uncovered."
"And that, gents, brings us to the matter at hand." Byridge grunted with weighted strain as he managed to waddle down the staircase. "Your set of skills is ideal for understanding the origin and function of the device in question. I take it you folks have already met my homunculus?"
It took the Doctor a few moments to realize that the nobleman was referring to the valet who, in retrospect, did strike him as unnaturally small of build.
"Mark XX3, I presume?" Lyndrew inquired.
"XX3.4, to be precise." Byridge specified with a smile. "He will be as tall and as sophisticated as you one day, Lynne." Lynne silently glared at him in response.
"He will direct you to my study, where we have been holding the object for several months." He clapped three times, and the homunculus reappeared and signaled Chester and Lyndrew to follow.
The study was enormous. Its banisters of brass and teak framed a library that made the foyer's own collection appear quaint in comparison. A variety of globes stood at a man's height on the floor, fully equipped with the ocular assemblies needed to appreciate the meticulously depicted terrain ridges of Colubus.
But most impressive of all were the contents of a glass-paneled box on display in the middle of the room. Chester's jaw dropped upon seeing what was inside, and he even heard Lyndrew gasp quietly.
"It is... it is... organic," remarked Chester.
"It is alive," remarked Lyndrew.
"Its name is Roland, according to an analysis of the identifying documents that accompanied him," stated Byridge as he appeared behind the pair of academics. "And those same documents claim that this being is from the Century 21."
"Impossible," erupted Chester. "According to what little we know of the old-style date system, that is.."
"..before the Great Atrophy," finished Lyndrew.
The three observers drew closer to examine the specimen. "Object Designate: Roland" lay beneath the glass covering in a comatose state, its autonomic processes continuing to function at a slow, barely perceptible rate.
"Have you ever seen it before? Flesh and blood?" asked Byridge soberly.
Lyndrew removed his cap and scratched his head. "No."
As the trio leaned closer, the bright blue light from their mechanical eyes imbued the pale, breathing frame before them with a warm glow unmatched by the coldness of their own, fully metallic bodies.
Outside the house marked by the sideways hourglass, the morning's fog had dissipated. Beneath the image on the sign, words, in the modern tongue, came into focus: "01100111 01101000 01101111 01110011 01110100 00100000 01101001 01101110 00100000 01110100 01101000 01100101 00100000 01101101 01100001 01100011 01101000 01101001 01101110 01100101?"