Before today, it had been a long time since I had seen any real heroes who had visited the World Mechanism. The remorseful, the reformed, and the spurned lovers still came in their usual numbers, of course, bearing the tokens and reminders that they wanted the gears to destroy. Increasingly, there were also those who came from sheer curiosity, those who merely wanted to watch the turning of the grand gears that rotate the earth on its Axis. It certainly is a sight: the massive golden pillar of the World Axis, wreathed in brilliant white flames, and at its base the great Gnashing of gears that were driven around and around by the very passage of time itself. All of this surrounded by a plane of the outer gears, each a mile or more in diameter, all slowly revolving in a great dance that reached into the darkness of the outer edges of the cavern. Along that dark horizon gleamed one thousand little lights like stars, each hanging over the entrance to one of the tunnels to the surface. Those tunnels must have grown much less dangerous than the old days for so many to make the journey to the center of the earth just for a spectacle. Or perhaps, in these times without heroes, people were simply more willing to take risks for a glimpse of wonder.
Each tunnel had a door somewhere in its final approach that, when opened, would cause the light over its arch to blink here in the cavern. That meant I always had a few hours of warning before any group arrived, and could use that time to make my way over to the entrance they would emerge from. So today, when the group of three passed through their archway, I was already on the gear just below their balcony, cleaning its teeth with my oilcloth while I watched for them. There were two men, wearing doublets and bearing pistols, and a woman in a plain gown who carried only a grease lamp. They looked just like the rest of the travelers this particular corner of the Mechanism had seen over the past few decades. None of them had the armor or swords or longbows that the heroes of the old days had carried, but I could tell what they were all the same.
The man who was obviously their leader barely even hesitated on the balcony overlooking the chamber before turning to make his way down the stairs to the gears themselves. He strode with purpose, not curiosity, and he carried himself high without any hint of shame or regret. Of the three, he looked the most like a hero. The other man followed him, smiling and laughing in his awe, but there was a dark tension to his expression to match the light. And then there was the third one, the woman. She hovered right behind the shoulders of the other two, her lamp held high despite its uselessness in the vast cavern. She paused mid-step down the stairs when her gaze fell upon me, then pulled at the leader’s arm to draw his attention to me. Sure enough, when their group reached the bottom of the stairs and stepped gingerly out onto the first of the golden gears, the leader set his course straight for me. They came all the way to the gear’s edge where I worked, which was the surest sign yet that they were heroes. It wasn’t that they didn’t notice the abyss beyond the gears; they simply had the confidence of those who had already faced such depths before.
“My name is Amadeus Ward,” the leader said. “These are my companions Beltran Tiphus and Jaysa Fletcher. We are looking for the Timekeeper.”
“And you think I am she,” I answered without looking up from the gear tooth I was cleaning.
“Are you?” the woman — Jaysa — asked. I shrugged.
“Many titles have been ascribed to me by many cultures. But I do not keep the time; I do not drive the Mechanism. I merely clean it.”
“But can you take us to the central gears?” Amadeus asked, looking towards the shining pillar. “Where the teeth meet?”
I rose to my feet, tucking my oilcloth into the belt of my tunic. “The Gnashing is this way,” I said, and started towards the center of the Mechanism. The three fell in behind me, and I listened to them whisper.
“To think we’re almost done! And we’ll get to see home again!”
“Steady, Beltran. Flamel is not defeated until the Stone is destroyed. Even now, we must be vigilant.”
I cast a glance over my shoulder. Amadeus met my gaze, not attempting to hide the suspicion there, and tightened his grip on a purse that was fastened to his belt. I turned back around so he wouldn’t see me roll my eyes.
Heroes. They always thought their battle was the struggle to end all struggles, that surely even I would care about their mission, like I hadn’t seen a thousand of their kind before. I couldn’t say I’d missed them.
I led the group along the side of the gear that was rotating inward. The Mechanism was a big place, but you could get around it pretty quickly if you knew how to move with the gears rather than fight them. It couldn’t have been more than twenty minutes before we reached the first junction, where the gear we were walking on interlocked with the next one.
“Don’t look down, Jaysa,” Amadeus said as we crossed. “And come on Beltran, it only gets harder the longer you wait.”
As the one man waited for the other, I turned to find Jaysa at my side.
“So the Mechanism, it really is unstoppable?” she asked.
“Whatever you are carrying, it can destroy,” I said, prompting a glare from Amadeus now that Beltran was safely across.
Jaysa glanced at him and huffed. “There’s no harm talking to her, Maddie. If she were somehow with Flamel, she would already know all about it anyways.” She looked back at me. “Sorry about him. We’ve had a lot of disappointments and conflicts in these past few weeks.”
“That’s how it always is,” I answered.
Jaysa laughed, then quieted. “So you’ve seen others like us before,” she said as we started forwards again. “How long have you lived here, cleaning the gears?”
“I would no sooner count the revolutions of the gears than you would count your own heartbeats,” I said. “Time works differently for those who are sworn to its Mechanism.”
“And you’ve been alone all this time?”
“Well, there are the visitors. Like you. And I have my Predecessor. He used to be good fun, but now he’s just waiting for me to swear a Successor so he can die. He’s still around here on the gears somewhere, but I haven’t seen him in a very long time. Oh, no need to look like that, my life isn’t tragic. I have the Mechanism.” I stopped and gestured at the metal beneath our feet. “Here, look.”
“Jaysa,” Amadeus warned from behind us, “I’m not so sure about this.”
“Yes, reading obscure runic messages has never caused us any trouble before,” Beltran said. But Jaysa ignored him and crouched where I was pointing.
“Equations,” she said after a few seconds.
“The laws of nature,” I said. “They’re written in their entirety across the Mechanism. If you can find all of them, and then if you can manage to understand them all, you could model the whole world above you without leaving the cavern.”
“No,” Amadeus said, tone defiant enough to make Jaysa scramble to her feet, though her gaze strayed guiltily back to the writing.”You’d never be able to model the people.”
“You haven’t seen all the laws,” I said. “And the people are here, too. The gears that turn near the surface return inscribed with snippets of stories from what goes on above, anything that manages to echo down the tunnels.”
“So are we on here somewhere?” Beltran asked, surveying the gears with new eyes.
“Maybe. But the odds are low. The gears just pick up whatever happens to be going on when they pass by, so most of the stories it preserves are those ignored even as they are being lived. Man forgets, but the Mechanism remembers.”
“Is that why you clean the gears, then?” Jaysa asked.
“No. I clean them because they must be cleaned.”
“But I thought you said the Mechanism was unstoppable,”Amadeus interrupted. “Are you saying now that mere dust could stop the forces of time?”
Amadeus reached for the purse at his belt, horror crossing his face. “Even the adamant succumbs to dust in the turning of the Mechanism,” he quoted with all the fervor of a prayer. “If that’s not true… The Philosopher’s Stone already cheats death and the laws of decay. What if we place it in the teeth of the Mechanism and it doesn’t break? What if it stops the Mechanism itself? What if it ends time?”
Beltran laughed nervously. Jaysa, face pale, turned to me. This time, I couldn’t hide it when I rolled my eyes.
“Your stone will not stop the Mechanism,” I said.
“How can you be sure?” Amadeus challenged.
“Because I am sure, young one. But if you are not, then you are welcome to take your stone back to the surface. I do not care.”
He turned to Jaysa, eyes wide. But Jaysa was still looking at me.
“I believe you,” she said. “But tell me why.”
I liked this Jaysa.
“The only thing that can threaten the Mechanism,” I said, “is the same Time that drives it.” I started to walk again, and Jaysa eagerly fell into step beside me. Beltran and Amadeus trailed behind, still shell shocked. “When you place your artifact into the Gnashing of the Teeth, the contest is between the instant and the eternal. No matter how catastrophic the instant, the eternal will always win. But just as the Mechanism drives the decay and destruction of all things, so it drives its own demise. Given enough time, sand will wear away any steel — and the Mechanism always has enough time. If it is not cleaned and maintained, it will fall victim to its own forces.”
“So you’re saying that the Stone will be destroyed?” Beltran asked. I nodded, and he grinned. “You hear that, Amadeus? We’re here for more than just the view, after all!”
Amadeus started laughing as well, and I could hear the tension leaving them with the sound. It wasn’t the joke, I knew, but the relief. They had been expecting one last challenge, one last test, one last impossibility — and now they had overcome it. But Jaysa did not laugh with them. She stayed by my side, even more silent than before, deaf to the laughter of her companions. Thinking.
Amadeus noticed her quiet demeanor when we reached the next junction, and he tried to talk to her as we crossed the third and final gear in our journey. We were close enough now that Jaysa mostly ignored her companion, instead keeping her eyes trained upon the Gnashing up ahead. There, the flat plane of gears was broken by an infestation of gears of every size and scale, measured in inches or miles, as well as a host of pistons and springs and escapements that all interlocked in an incomprehensible web of brass and steel. Our path was bringing us to the meeting of two vertical gears, each about twenty feet across. Amadeus would be tall enough to place this Philosopher’s Stone of theirs directly into the teeth.
Eventually Amadeus, too, fell silent, focusing on the behemoth ahead. Even Beltran quieted, as the awe that absorbed most visitors to the Mechanism finally sank in. Their silence was filled by the rumbling of the gears, which grew louder this close to the Gnashing. Tourists always said its deep throb was like listening to the heartbeat of the earth, but I preferred to say that heartbeats sounded like the ticking of the Mechanism. The air was warmer here, too, heated by the flames of the World Axis. For a while, it also grew brighter, but then the many gears of the Gnashing began to overshadow us.
And then we arrived. The two gears were ahead, their teeth inexorably plunging together again and again in a promise to destroy. I came to a halt and gestured ahead, no explanation needed. Amadeus hesitated, fingering that purse of his.
“You said you trusted her, Jaysa?” he asked. “This won’t end time as we know it?”
Jaysa looked into the Gnashing, turned to me, and then looked back again. “It won’t,” she declared.
“And if it does, we can always say we were misinformed,” Beltran offered. “Assuming we get a chance to say anything.”
Amadeus allowed himself a chuckle, and the smile remained on his face. He took out a roughly ellipsoid crystal, the size and shape of a bread roll, from the purse. It was clear but with a pale violet tint, and a geometric cut with many facets. I’d seen fancy rocks just like it a hundred times, but I had to admit that I particularly liked the color of this one.
“It’s time we ended this,” Amadeus said, and he walked towards the Gnashing.
Jaysa, however, stayed by my side. As Amadeus strode forward, with Beltran right behind him, she turned to me and grabbed my arm.
“You said you are sworn to the World Mechanism,” she said, and I nodded. “And you said you needed to swear a Successor.”
I knew I’d liked her.
“Well, not necessarily now,” I said, “but at some point before I lose my mind like my Predecessor has.”
“But what if you can’t find a Successor?”
“It’s possible. I haven’t found one yet, at least. The problem is that heroes always want to achieve something, and then go home.” I didn’t have to mention Amadeus or Beltran for my point to be clear. “But my work is never finished, though I eventually will be. And if that day comes and I have not found someone who is willing to shoulder the burden, then the gears will not be cleaned. Eventually, time will stop.”
Jaysa turned to stare at the Gnashing, then her gaze slid up toward the burning pillar of the World Axis. The light of its flames danced upon her face, illuminating awe and resolve and hunger. Her grip tightened on my arm.
“Tell me how I can swear the oath,” she whispered.
“It’s not the words that matter.” I smiled. “It’s what you mean by them.”
Jaysa took a deep breath, her gaze never leaving the Axis. “I swear,” she said, “to do whatever it takes to keep the World Mechanism turning.”
For just an instant, the flames around the Axis burned a little brighter, and the gears roared a little louder. Then they returned to normal.
A moment later, we heard Beltran cheer. We looked down at the foot of the gears to see Amadeus kneeling, letting a handful of violet dust run between his fingers. He turned back to us.
“We did it,” he said. Then a little louder. “We did it!”
Cheering just as loudly as Beltran now, he jumped to his feet and ran back to us. He picked Jaysa up by her waist and spun her around in the air. Then he set her back down and kissed her.
“We did it, Jaysa,” he repeated.
“You did it,” she said back. He didn’t seem to notice the difference in her words, instead moving on to throw his arms around Beltran, laughing.
“It’s like I said from the start,” Beltran offered. “We were never going to do anything other than succeed. Except maybe die trying.”
“Gutenberg will be so excited to see you again,” Amadeus said, and punched him in the shoulder. “Now come on. Let’s go home.”
He started walking, one arm around Beltran while the other reached for Jaysa. She stepped just far enough backwards that his hand only met empty air. He paused. “Jaysa?”
“I’m staying,” she said.
“Here, at the Mechanism, with the Timekeeper. I’m staying.”
Amadeus let go of Beltran altogether. “But Jaysa, we did it,” he said, reaching for her with both hands. “We destroyed the Stone. Wherever Flamel is, he’s dead. Gutenberg is safe again.”
“I know,” she said, stepping out of his reach once again. She now stood flush against my shoulder. “But I want to stay.”
“I thought you wanted to go back and teach the other women how to read?” Something was breaking in Amadeus’s chest, and the fragments of it were coming out in his voice. “I’m going to open my print shop, and we’re going to live there together. Remember?”
“I remember,” Jaysa said. She smiled. “I remember that’s what you want.”
“I want a life with you, Jaysa,” Amadeus whispered. “I love you.”
Silence. The throbbing of the Mechanism ticked once, twice.
“I admire you,” Jaysa said. “I respect you. I wanted to be you. But now I have the chance to be something more.”
“You’re something more to me, Jaysa,” he said. “You’re my dawn, you’re my dusk, you’re my smell of fresh bread in the morning, you’re my candle-lit window when I come home in the evening. You’re my hearthfire after a winter’s day, and my blue sky on a spring afternoon, and my sound of the rain on the roof on a summer night. You’re my sun, Jaysa. You’re my moon. You’re my stars. You’re my everything.”
“Yes,” she said, “But in the grand scheme of things, your everything is really quite small.” She looked back at the Mechanism, and the two gears whose teeth were now tinged with purple dust.
I handed her my oilcloth, and we got to work.