Chapter 1: Clockwork Automata
The crisp air smelled of pale purple and chartreuse, and snowflakes danced gracefully outside the bus stop. Mio rested into feir wheelchair and refused to look at the time. After all, fey already knew the bus was ten minutes late.
“And will probably be at least ten more minutes.” Fey closed feir eyes, relishing the emptiness of the stop. Not many cars passed by either. A blessing, since after the appointment, fey needed quiet. And a hot bath. Even feir short hair ached.
The buzzing of an insect disturbed feir thoughts. Fey tried to wave it away, but rather than hitting soft wings, fey hit something metallic. A strange, iridescent scent hit feir nose. Machine oil?
In front of feym, a wasp the size of feir palm hovered, with a stinger glistening with a liquid. Mio tensed and feir eyes widened. With only a moment to react, fey sent an impulse to the back of feir hand. The skin thickened to metal, and Mio met the attacking automaton with feir closed fist at high speed. The whirling buzz of the wasp came to a screeching halt as it bounced off the fist, with coils and cogs flying like confetti.
“The hell did that come from?” Fey rubbed the skin as it turned back to normal. The iridescent smell still hung in the air, and when fey closed feir eyes again, fey heard the distant buzz of more insects. Maybe they’d go away if fey ignored them? A vein throbbed on feir forehead. Shouts, horns honking and screams drowned out the buzzing. “I’ll pay for this in the morning.”
Look right, then look left—just like when crossing the street. No one seemed to pay attention to feym. One button-press to change the colour of the frame from the normal metal to purple, and then carefully standing up to remove the jacket and shirt and tuck feir hair into the spandex hood. Sinking back into the seat, fey activated hovering mode. The wheels clunked into place under the seat, and the chair lifted from the ground with a soft humming.
As fey followed the noise, a large sphere towered above feym, sandwiched between two tall buildings. The surface gleamed like metal, and insects crawled on and around it, occasionally flying towards the crashed cars and fleeing people.
Feir skin hardened again, and fey fastened the belt around feir waist. “Into the flames we leap,” fey murmured as fey sped up towards the insects and the globe.
Nolwazi rushed down the stairs, with her backpack hanging off one shoulder, the purple scarf wrapped around her neck and the knitted hat in her hand. She slid in the slush on the stone floor inside the subway station and gripped the rail in reflex. It creaked and bent under her hand. No one seemed to have noticed it, thankfully.
“Whoops,” she murmured under her breath. The metal was crooked and had clear finger marks. “Here’s to hoping that people will just assume it’s … art or something.” She pushed a hand over her head and through the curly stubbles. Time to shave, but after work. Now, when would her subway train come in? “Oh, come on … delays?” Her phone rang, and she fished it up gently.
“Sawubona mama.” She pushed away her annoyance. “On my way to work. Looks like I’m walking; the trains are canceled due to snow.” She strolled towards the exit. No reason to rush if she had to walk. “Yeah, I know. Every year, they’re caught by surprise.” Or maybe she could get away with flying.
She ducked under the door frame and held the door open to the white couple passing her. The man’s glances at her muscles and frame were familiar. She tensed a moment, but the two moved on without incident. Good.
“Yes, I do. I’m going to stop and get dinner on my way, I promise.” She stifled a chuckle. “No, I am not starving. You don’t need to come here and cook for me. Take care of baba instead.”
Snowflakes twirled in the air, and the street was covered with melting snow mixing with gravel. A bird called above. Nolwazi froze. Not now. “Mama, I will have to call you back later, okay? I’ll call after work. Kisses, and kiss baba from me.” She slipped the phone back into her pack.
Only she could hear the bird as it called again. Her gaze flickered across the area as she waited with dread for whatever her companion was warning about.
The air shimmered and gleamed, as if heat rose from the frozen ground, and a large sphere flickered into existence. The surface seemed to be a mix of metals. Whatever it was, it warranted investigation. Nolwazi ducked into an alley to change.
She smoothed out her grey cloak and took to the air. Never had she been more grateful for splurging on fleece-lined fabric for her tights. Her chanting goshawk companion circled from above to join her as she approached the sphere.
No, it wasn’t a mix of metals. It was covered in a mass of writhing insects. The clockwork creatures dropped off the sphere in search for prey, and a beautiful dragonfly honed in on her. Its wings gleamed in the December light, and the edges appeared razor-sharp.
Nolwazi screeched, a drawn-out and high-pitched call. The shockwave of the sound hit the dragonfly square in the chest, and the front pair of wings broke. She dove after it and slashed at it with her extended talons. The rush of adrenaline soared in her mind, and she surrendered herself to the Spirit Hawk.
Circling above the sphere and swatting at insects coming too close, she surveyed the loud area. Cars were parked or crashed, but people had the sense to flee the sphere. Except a very familiar wheelchair, with a person in dark purple. She waved as she dove down.
“Duality! Good to see you.”
“You too. What are we up against?” Duality’s skin glimmered like metal and fey craned feir neck to take in the sphere.
“Not sure yet. Robot bugs, and that sphere came out of nowhere.” She pursed her lips. “Can you fly in that thing?”
“No, only hover, about as high as I’m doing right now.” Duality had an apologetic tone to feir contra-alto.
“I’ll take the ones higher up, you’ll take the lower ones?” After confirming that Duality seemed okay with that plan, Nolwazi flew back to the top of the sphere.
Bugs continued detaching from the sphere and swarming down towards them, but with the two working together, the ground soon became littered with broken machinery. The surface of the sphere was a milky white once it no longer was covered in metal.
She allowed herself a moment to catch her breath and turned towards Duality. The warning call from her companion came at the same time as the blade slashed into her hip.
Before Mio could shout out a warning, the massive clockwork creature forming out of the remaining bugs struck at Spirit Hawk. The woman came tumbling down, without any evidence that she’d be able to regain control before crashing into the ground.
“Satan.” Mio unbuckled feymself and redirected power into feir legs as fey leapt into the air. Fey grabbed Spirit Hawk before landing with a thud that shook the ground underneath them.
Spirit Hawk shook her head, as if to clear it. “Wait, I thought you couldn’t— never mind, we have more important issues.” She glanced up at the creature and then back toward the wheelchair. “Do you need a ride back?”
“Sure, thanks.” Not needing to spend an effort on walking or jumping back would be useful. Fey set Spirit Hawk down, and the woman wrapped a muscular arm around feir waist. A grey raptor with an orange beak circled above them. What kind of bird was that? “Best way to take down the big one?”
“Unsure.” Spirit Hawk set Mio down in the wheelchair and shaded her eyes to study their new foe.
“I can’t reach it from here.” Mio rubbed the back of feir neck. “If you could circle it or … something, to draw it down?”
“Wanting to be the cavalry to my skirmisher?” A grin pulled at her full lips. “Fine with me.” She touched her hip and stared at the blood on her fingers. “That stung. Alright. We have a … what in the hell is that thing, anyway?”
“Automaton?” Mio shrugged. “Soon, fit for the junkyard.”
Laughter trailed Spirit Hawk as she took to the air again, with her grey cape fluttering in the wind. She was a masterpiece, carved in darkest rosewood by an artisan’s hand. As she circled higher, her powerful body rippled and strained against the grey and orange fabric of her costume. Matching the bird, it seemed, making the raptor her companion.
Spirit Hawk harassed the buggy creature, swooping down to draw its attention downward. It buzzed and tried to replicate its original, successful, hit, but Spirit Hawk dodged it again and again. Finally it was in reach, and Mio lunged feir chair forward.
Slamming into the stomach, metal bent around feir fist, but did not yield. Another strike, this one on a leg, was more successful.
“Joints,” Mio called in the hopes that Spirit Hawk would hear. The woman gave thumbs up before screeching again. The sound resonated through the metal even down to where Mio sat. That must’ve hurt the creature.
Mio unleashed a barrage of blows aiming at breaking the vulnerable joints. Each hit echoed and shuddered through the metal hull, but soon the tone of the ringing changed. With a final blow, the construct collapsed into a scrapheap.
“Go us.” Spirit Hawk waved from her perch in the air. “Now let us— wait, something’s wrong!” She writhed in the air, as if caught by something. The sphere seemed to pull her towards it, and then into it.
With another curse, Mio sprung towards her, this time keeping the wheelchair with feym. If everything went bad, at least fey would have feir support. Fey grabbed Spirit Hawk’s hands and tried to pull her back, but it was too late.
The sphere pulled both of them into it, through the viscous outer shell and into a blinding bright room that smelled of scarlet and indigo.
Chapter 2: The Twelfth Chime
Mio’s eyes adjusted to the brightness, allowing feym to pick out shapes in the space they floated in. The floor looked like a cog, with door-less glass walls creating a room. Fey rested into the seat and feir hands shook.
“I think I need to throw up. Where are we?” Spirit Hawk stood unsteadily and placed a hand to her mouth.
“I’m not sure.” Mio closed feir eyes. Why did this have to happen today? “Can we stay here a bit?”
“Are you okay?” Spirit Hawk shuffled closer. “Actually, let’s rephrase that: what’s wrong?”
“I was exhausted before this happened, and then I spent the rest of my spoons.” Mio tried to smile. It hurt. “And probably some of tomorrow’s.”
“Okay, we’ll rest here a while.” Spirit Hawk’s lips quirked. “After all, what’s to say we’re safer somewhere else?” She sank down on the metal ground and crossed her sculpted legs underneath her. “So, what do you think? Trap for us, trap for anyone, or a strange side effect of the automata?”
“Likelier to be a trap.” Fey rubbed at their neck and pursed their lips. “I won’t be able to help much, in case of danger … just so you know.”
“I understand.” Spirit Hawk shrugged. “Hopefully we won’t need you to fight. Do you need me to help with your wheelchair?”
“No, it’s the wrong design for that. As long as it has juice, I can have it on hover.”
“Alright.” Spirit Hawk glanced around the area before strolling to one of the walls and pressing her fingers against it. “There’s a mechanism here for opening it. Or, at least, it seems slidable but locked.”
“Did you hear that?” Mio tensed as fey tried to localise the sound. “Is there a bomb in here?”
“Or a clock.” Spirit Hawk beckoned feym to her. “The door just slid open. I think we may want to get out of here before the next tick.”
“You think it’ll close again?” The chair followed Spirit Hawk out onto a mass of spinning wheels hooking into each other. Below and above them, emptiness echoed, and the iridescent smell of machine oil wafted from somewhere.
“Not sure, but I don’t want to risk it.” She glanced back over her shoulder. “Just let me know if you need anything, okay?”
They continued on in silence, with Mio resting into the chair. Occasionally the wheels and cogs shifted, opening a new path, or closing one behind them. And every so often, another tick, the only sound apart from them, sounded through the air.
“I really don’t like this.” Spirit Hawk stopped and peer down into the abyss. “How long before we have no way forward?”
“Not sure.” Confusion filled Mio as fey recognised the lack of a tone in the symphony of fatigue and pain. “Shouldn’t we be hungry by now? I’m not feeling hungry or thirsty.” In the distance a gong rang. Ding. It resonated through the air and made the path vibrate. Ding.
“You’re right.” Spirit Hawk bit into her lip. Ding. “Though, to get away from some of the doom and gloom here—no reason to focus on the negatives—maybe we should go with a proper introduction, not just code names.” She turned fully and held out a hand. “Nolwazi. Nolwazi Khumalo.” Ding.
Mio shook it briefly. “Mio Sund, and— A door, hurry!”
They reached the inside of the room before the final ding, which closed the door behind them, nearly snagging on Nolwazi’s cape. This one looked a lot like the first room, but something that looked a lot like a cocoon hung from the ceiling.
It writhed in front of them.
“Okay.” Nolwazi stared at the cocoon. “Stand back. If that’s an enemy, I want it loose on our terms … which means I’m going to poke it now.”
She hovered close to the cocoon, before gently cutting it open with her talons.
Helena tumbled out of the cocoon and landed on the metal floor with a thud. She rubbed at her shoulder and blinked awkwardly at the figure sitting in a wheelchair. Another person landed next to her, with talons the size of— actually, never mind the talons. Legs that went on forever, and broad hips.
“Thanks for saving me!” She drew a deep breath and savoured the sensation of not having her throat tickled with metallic netting. “I’m Corona, and who are you, gorgeous … I mean, who are you?”
“I’m Spirit Hawk, with she-pronouns, and this is Duality, with fey-pronounces.” The magnificent Spirit Hawk rubbed at her neck in what looked like an awkward habit.
“Fey-pronouns? Mine are she-pronouns, by the way.”
“Fey, feym, feir, feirs, feirself.” Duality spoke with a voice that lacked lustre, and feir face had ashen tones. “How did you end up in that cocoon?”
“The spiders finally caught up to me. I was dragged into the sphere when I touched it, and then I dodged the guards for what felt like years.”
“Okay, so we need to watch out for spiders. I’m assuming automata ones?” Spirit Hawk waited for the quick nod before continuing. “Do you know anything about the opening and closing of the doors?”
“Yes, it’s regular. Most of them open every 15th or 30th tick or so. You didn’t happen to find an exit, did you?”
“Not yet.” Spirit Hawk shook her head and bit into her lip. “Duality, was this enough rest to continue, or …?”
Duality opened feir mouth to speak, with every movement showing exhaustion. Even feir eyes looked tired.
“You know, if you all need to rest, we can camp here. I’ll take the first shift, and then you can take the second, Spirit Hawk.”
“That would actually be lovely.” A faint smile flickered over Duality’s pale features, before it turned into a grimace. “I … hate to ask, but can either of you help me.” Fey winced. “I ache all over.”
“Of course.” Spirit Hawk walked up to the wheelchair. “Put you on the ground, or …?”
As the other two discussed sleeping arrangements on the solid floor, Helena made herself comfortable with her legs crossed underneath her. She rested back on her arms and stared out into the bluish void dotted with metallic wheels and cogs. The air was still, as if it never moved, and soon the only sounds that disrupted the silence was the occasional tick and the light wheezing of Spirit Hawk and the rhythmic snoring of Duality. One wrapped up in her cape, the other in feir jacket that had been stuffed underneath the seat of the wheelchair.
Helena flicked a spark of electricity between her hands and watched it fly in arcs between her fingers. The power hummed in her, even here where everything was powered with clockwork. She extended her senses, probing for anything to play with.
Duality’s wheelchair aluminium frame and battery, of course. After the first touches, she pulled away. Probably best to wait and ask for permission.
The air hung thick, with a touch of greasiness to it. How long had she been here, in the cocoon? Helena chewed on her inner lip and unfolded her legs.
“Maybe ten years or so?” She murmured to herself and peeked over at Duality and Spirit Hawk. Duality’s jeans with a tight top, and Spirit Hawk’s breastplate with tights and a cape didn’t give any suggestion on the changes of fashion. “Please make it ten or fifteen years. My supervisor will kill me—or at least force me to refile my thesis—if it’s been shorter than that.” She groaned and lay down on her back, distracting herself with counting the tics between the doors opening.
Nolwazi stretched out to her full height and jogged in place for a few seconds. The movement made her back pop and other muscles warm up. She stopped once she felt the blood pumping through her veins and the knot of tiredness dissipate with mild adrenaline.
“You seem to be in a good mood.” Mio stood on wobbly legs and hobbled over to feir chair. Though fey sank into it with a contented sigh, feir face was more relaxed and less pinched.
“Good enough, at least.” Nolwazi shrugged and rolled her shoulders. “I like to wake up my muscles gently in the morning. I always worry that if I don’t, maybe I’ll lose my strength and other abilities.” She moved into a lunge. “You look like you’re feeling better. Still out of spoons?”
“I might have a few, at least enough to move.” A smile flickered over feir face. “Thanks for asking.”
“Speaking of asking things.” Corona pulled a hand over her black cornrows. “Duality, right? Would you mind if I checked over your chair a bit?”
“Depends.” Mio frowned momentarily. “What do you want to do with it?”
“Well, I noticed that your chair is running low on electricity—by the way, I really love how that battery works; brilliant!—and I want to see if I could recharge it.”
“If … you can recharge it?” Mio blinked a few times. “Oh, you’re an electricity controller?”
“Electromagnetism, technically.” She chewed on her lip. “And my non-super name is Helena. Helena Johansson.”
The other two introduced themselves, before Helena squatted down by the chair. Arcs of light hopped between her fingers, and then toward the chair. Nolwazi bent backwards to stretch out her abdominal muscles. Her mind buzzed with the memories of her dream, and she tried to piece it together. How could she be so certain it was prophetic, and not just an absurdity inspired by their surreal surroundings?
The door slid open.
“Let’s go.” Nolwazi stood. “Assuming you are done?”
“It’ll hold for a bit, at least.” Helena sprinted towards the door, followed by Mio in the chair, and Nolwazi took up the rear. She pulled her cape tight to not get it clipped as the door closed.
“I had a dream last night.” Nolwazi paused on the cogwheel outside the room. “And I think it’s important.” She still felt ridiculous as she continued: “It started in South Africa, when my grandfather was teaching me the clock and … no, I guess that’s not too relevant.” In her mind the scene played out, with her greying and withering father’s father showing her the clock. Something that had never happened; she was older than that when she first met him. She’d already learned to tell time, in a school with many white and pink faces, and far fewer brown and black ones. “Anyway, it turned into a giant clock, and the three of us were on one cog, and there were two other people on different cogs, and everything started to spin faster and faster, almost out of control, until the clock struck twelve. Then everything stopped, and nothing moved even an inch.”
“It’s struck twelve before.” Helena pursed her lips. “So the world doesn’t end, but …” She shrugged. “Alright. We’ll keep it in mind, okay?”
“Yes, that’s about the only thing we can do.” Nolwazi pushed a hand over her shaved head. “And it doesn’t tell us anything about where we go from here. So let’s go.”
“One thing to keep in mind are the spiders.” Helena walked alongside Mio, with one hand barely touching the metal of the chair. “They’re the size of dogs, with razors attached to the legs, and sedatives in their fangs.”
“Electrical?” Mio glanced over at Helena, who shook her head.
“No, mechanical. And mainly bronze and copper, so not too magnetic either.” She flashed a wry smile that glittered in her eyes. “Perfect for me to face.”
“How do you suggest we deal with them?” Nolwazi stared ahead, only paying some attention to the conversation behind her.
“Hide if we can. Fight hard if we have to.”
Nolwazi nodded and brushed out her cape. “We’ll manage.” She glanced back at them, forcing a smile to her lips in hopes it would seem comforting. “And we’ll find our way out, I promise.