And, on the conclusion of this, the first volume of many, let it be stated that Mechanization is a curse.
The book shut.
“Over.” Muttered Tig. “Finally.”
“You? Finished? Hours how long has it been Pratchet?”
The rounder man yawned with a quick glance thrown at his pocket watch, “Ten hours perhaps.”
Pratchet waved his chubby hand, “From whenever it was we started.”
“This is why we get singled for these tasks, Pratchet. We worship time. Our entire society thrives off of it, and we two can barely keep it.”
“Not our fault that.”
“Actually I think it is.” Wagered Charles.
“They’ve stopped moving.” said Tig.
The two silenced, and their eyes turned as slowly as their sockets would let them.
The Timebender held out a bony hand, “Not yet.”
Sure enough, the two reassumed their mad convulsions.
“But, it is a sign.” Continued the Timebender. “The process is working. They are recovering.”
“How long?” pressed Tig.
“It depends on them.”
Tig recalled the third law, “But time accelerates for as long as they’ve been decelerated is that right? Then the length they’ll be accelerated for should be known.”
The Timebender rose a brow, “Not if the duration should accelerate.”
It was a point he could not contest. The Observations on Mechanization Vol. 1 briefly outlined the Laws of Chronodynamics, much of which Tig had hurriedly debased.
“Oi half turn.” Started Charles. “Ten hours must be a pain for you and your half turn needs, better rest a bit, eh?”
Tig shuffled, eyes strewn at his companions. No matter how much he wanted to stay by their sides, the latrines seemed awfully tempting. Even if his needs had diminished given his turn, he was bound by those parts that remained fleshy, “Are you to follow me?” he asked quickly, his mind made up.
Pratchet grunted at Charles as if he had already surrendered the answer. The porcelain mask swished side to side.
“No, go. You’ll be a free man soon enough anyways. And I doubt you’ll want to go anywhere other than here.”
Tig nodded. Charles was a clever man when he wanted to be. A quick sidestep and he ventured down. How long? The question rebounded in his mind a hundred times. His chin lowered. There remained no answer.
He spotted a signs leading to the latrines, and found a room white that was entirely empty except another half turn. He made to the first open urinal he saw and fumbled at the zipper.
“You’re a chitik?”
The voice came unexpected, beside him and past the dirtied separator. The boy was about his height, not as turned and possibly as young.
His flattened nose and chocolate skin was unmistakable, “And so are yo--”
“I should let you finish.” He laughed with a zip.
Tig met him as the urinal drained in the background. He saw his eyes first, a rich orange, zipping and bright. While he held the same build as Tig, his face seemed the virtual opposite. His turn begun at his forehead. It was a light iron that crept down until it engulfed his top lids and carved an angular crest, splitting by the nose. His jaw still had skin and bones and flesh, while a bit of stubble poked out the end of it.
Knotted black hair with saffron tips stretched behind him. That bundle turned, and the rushing water quieted to a stop.
“Am I the first chitik you’ve seen?”
Tig shook his head and spun the tap, “Was I staring?”
Tig cracked a smile. The rush of water parted in static and the creak of his voice joined it, “I’ve this habit, you see.”
The boy leaned by the counter and crossed his arms. The white of his jacket seemed to meld into the marble counter, “They say those who stare, admire the spirits in things back in my village,”
The flow ended, “if only it was that. Your first assumption was correct. You are the first in a long while.”
“Then we are the same.” Said the boy, extending a hand of wood and stone. “Anu.”
The flow ended and Tig returned the shake, “Tig.”
“You’re hand glows.”
“Yes it’s part of my turn.”
“Fascinating. And have you studied it? Discerned the cause? It could have unseen implications to finding a cure—ah!” He leapt his feet and pulled at his jacket, stretching the white fabric. “I study medicine here. I’m still in the lower levels, sub twenty five, but I’ve gotten promising results. You?”
“Medicine as well. Though I’ve only just arrived, so none of what you said made sense.”
He chuckled to that, “Perfect, then let me give you a tour.”
Tig’s grin grew flat and his eyes wandered behind his goggles, “Already had one.”
Anu clutched his wrist before he knew it. “Come on!” urged the chitik, drawing him towards the door. “Let’s give you another.”
They were out of the hospital in seconds and running. Some soldiers parted far ahead to let them through. Others spied at them curiously. Tig drew his head down.
“Look up!” puffed Anu between steps. “Can’t run properly otherwise.”
Tig frowned, keeping behind him all the while. He could not fathom Anu’s intentions. It was preposterous, damnable and absurd in every way. Until he listened. That was when the world expanded. What once was clouded by Remy’s back and some far-fetched fear became real. And it spread an eternity above.
Kura was more than its long and crowded halls. It was a library. An unrestrained monster of texts and scriptures. Unnumbered books stuffed unnumbered rows all along the high halls of Kura. This continued to the main paths, down the descending trips and even into the main plazas where the two slowed for some breath. Small clockwork machines flew about collecting various books off the highest shelves. One zipped overhead and Tig narrowly ducked it.
“Hours what… ?” It was a wonder why he had not seen them before.
Anu scratched his stubble, “Uh, ticks. They’re the manufactured residents of Kura and the pets of librarians. If you ever need a book they’ll find you it, granted that books lies in the areas you have access to.”
“I see.” Said Tig.
“Watch.” Anu placed two fingers just under his lips and blew. It was a short, curving whistle, one that was followed by a tick that flew down to meet them.
Tig studied it curiously. Its whole body was the size of his head. That is if a head, torso and shell could be considered a body. Two golden rimmed specs, centered by a fluorescent blue, constituted its eyes. The beetle shell and cap was a brass gold and three spindle arms jutted on either side, constantly twitching in insectoid motions. It clicked and whirled as it awaited commands.
Anu levied a stone digit at Tig’s satchel, “What book you got in there?”
“The Observations on Mechanization Vol. 1.” he recounted woefully. “Just finished it.”
Anu nodded and flashed a brass watch he had hidden under his sleeve, one that, curiously, did not move.
“Bring me The Observations on Mechanization Vol. 2.” Commanded Anu.
Tig shifted, “You really didn’t need to--”
“Nonsense! This is the perfect opportunity to show you how it works.”
The tick buzzed to life and its head spun completely around. After a few internals clicks and clacks it shot in some esoteric direction.
Tig’s eyes followed its ascent for as long as he could before it vanished into the endless heights. He knew he had to read far more to become a doctor but he secretly wished that machine would get lost in its journey.
“Takes sometime but they come through. Oh.” He said lifting his watch, “You’ll need one of these.”
The watch was a brilliant, gold inlaid thing. Tig scoured it for details. The second hand was near the five minute mark, the minute hand was stuck a little before two and the hour hand remained a sliver passed twelve.
“I’m on the twenty fourth level, close to the twenty fifth should I pass the next test.”
“What…” Tig spied around, “levels?”
Anu smiled. His answer was a downward gesture.
“How deep do you think this tree goes, my friend?”
“The bottom of the ocean I assume.”
“And how deep is that?”
Tig swallowed. No one knew. He didn’t think anyone did.
“Do you… know?” he ventured asking.
Anu shook his head and his bundle became a metronome, “Only librarians and those who complete all the levels truly know and those who do never return. If you’re pursuing the same course as I then know that you’ll need reach the sixtieth level before you’re fully qualified.”
“That’s it? I reach that level and I’m a doctor. Why, you’re nearly halfway there.”
Anu gestured forwards and the two continued, more ticks rushed overhead.
“It gets harder. And the tests you pass to get there determine what degrees you get.” Said Anu. “Each level becomes a test of the previous level and the answers are not always at your level some are not even on Kura.”
“You mean you have to travel?”
“Anu!” cried an approaching girl, “Was that your tick you sent out?”
“That was certainly his whistle- sha.” Said a boy besides her.
“Cinder, Hau. Meet my new friend, Tig.”
“A chitik, hours.” Hushed Cinder. She smiled at Anu, iron plated cheeks rising high. “Finally, one of your kind.”
Tig noticed the visible bits under her grey robe were smoldering and bright. She had orange rings for irises and coals for pupils and everything else. She was a Tangata, an imperial people who had beaks instead of noses, black burning feathers and talons instead of feet. Her turn seemed to have shifted her beak into a glinting tungsten and her most her feathers into jagged obsidian.
The boy beside her was fleshier to say the least. Tig wagered he were a cross between an Above Lander and an Imperial. Tannish skin, single lid eyes, lean black hair and round build. He had barely turned, much like Franco. In fact, all that was mechanized was his left ear, now silver and glinting. His grey robes were baggy, too big even for him.
The three of them were locked in conversation and gleefully laughing. Tig shied away only to be snapped back into it by Anu’s abrupt slap on the back.
“I intend to give him a tour.” Declared the boy.
“Well, don’t want to stop that-sha.” Grumbled Hau. “Promise to meet by the up spot-sha.”
“Bring your new friend to.” Said Cinder.
“Our new friend.” Corrected Anu.
The three of them confirmed it with easy smiles.
Tig followed their exits and thought back, the figures at the dock began to make sense, “So to really improve here, you need to travel?”
“Or money and lots of it. Knowledge is everything in the great tree. Some lose everything to it, others get rich. That’s my plan by the way: getting rich. There’s a tournament on the seventh sea in a month or so. The prize is a key the scholars will pay nine hundred cogs for, perhaps even a sprocket.”
Anu smiled, “You’re a man of little fortune, much like myself. Indeed, a sprocket. Imagine it my friend. One of the lone turned remnants of the old king’s living gold. Could last you a lifetime that, speed up your learning if need be.” His eyes wandered and fixed. “Speaking of that, come this way.”
Anu led him to another hall on the far side of the plaza. The moment he pushed the door open, a couple grey hats rushed by and nearly toppled Tig.
Anu caught him by the hand at the last moment.
“You seem more aloof than most chitik I’ve known.” Said Anu.
“I’ve a lot on mind.” Said Tig. If only that was the half of it.
Anu pulled him forwards and the two ran haphazardly, skipping two steps at a time on occasion and quickly meeting each step near the bottom. The stairs spiraled and a door finished the end.
Air howled by when it opened and the sight of a long, circular pathway revealed itself. Dozens of ticks zoomed by. A parapet covered the circumference. Tig ran to the railing and leaned into it. Four more storeys of similar layers led to a green middle area where a large oak sprouted and toped near the third level from the bottom. Hundreds gathered by that middle garden. Small tables and hazel gazebos dotted the verdant expanse. All of it bright and blinding.
Covering the tops of his goggles, Tig peered up at where the light came. It was night and yet it seemed to be daytime in the chamber. In fact it had been that way all through out. Just as he had remained ignorant to the ticks, and the books, and the ceilings, Tig had not questioned the impossible light.
“Light bending.” Said Anu. “There’s a machine on the eightieth floor that fashions it. They say a clock engine bends light captured in a tiny crystal and illuminates the entire tree by itself.”
“Incredible.” Hushed Tig. He glanced at his hand and remembered the Gatekeeper. The blue glow swam in his chocolate specs and beyond that, books.
Bookshelves lumbered on either side of him and even more shelves after those, continuing all the way along the circle. A quick glance at the next level and the next revealed a similar pattern.
Anu patted his black coated shoulder, “Worry not, my friend. If you managed to finish the Observations I’m sure you’ll pass to the fifth level at least. Down there.” He said pointing at the garden.
“How long have you been here?’ asked Tig focussing on those greens.
“Two years.” He said coolly. “Not much to do back home, not since then anyways.”
That struck him hard. Tig stepped back, “Perhaps I should go.”
“Why? We’ve only just begun.”
The door creaked as his back brushed it, “It’s my friends. They’ve been hospitalized and I promised I’d see to them.”
“Oh! Practical training. Care if I join you?”
Tig hesitated. Perhaps if Anu strayed from the topic he would be ok. Gemjo was a northerner and she didn’t know. He could ask the soldiers to stay quiet, blackmail Remy if need be. He pressed the door further and paused.
“Two years?” he began despite his better judgement. “As in after you underwent the awakening ritual?”
“Then you can call spirits?”
Anu’s black brows lowered, “You can’t?”
Tig stumbled, the door balked against his weight, “I well, uh, it’s complicated.”
Anu stepped close, “You’re a chitik but you can’t call spirits? What village are you from?”
“Again.” He stressed. “Complicated.”
Something other than ‘friend’ seemed on the verge of flicking off his tongue. Tig could feel it.
“One more question,” Prompted Anu. “What is your father’s name?”
“No it’s not. Even orphans are taken in by stray villages and raised.”
The door opened further and two students passed him by.
Anu was his opposite in every way, not just in his turn. If he made a choice he stuck to it. If he wanted answers he got them.
Tig straightened his posture. A first name, that’s all he wanted. Tig considered the unlikely scenario. Perhaps it was a common one? His eyes flicked to Anu and stayed there. He had to try.
Half turned teeth grit and a hand clawed at Tig’s face in blinding speed. Tig stammered back, forcing the door past its hinges. His hands had raised in self-defence, but a defence too late. The chocolatey filter he had over the world had vanished. Slowly, he felt at his bare lids. Found them warm, damp. His eyes exposed. Naked.
“The image of the blue moon inked in black.” breathed Anu. “Mother Merivya’s curse, the mark of the traitor child.”
The man from six years a go had called him the same thing. He had insisted upon it until his final breath. So Tig insisted upon the reverse, “I’m no traitor.”
“You’re alive aren’t you?” spat Anu. His stone palm slammed against the door. “Can you say the same about the others? About the third of our people that perished?”
Anu jabbed him the chest, “Can you say the same about my father, Yutu, hunter of man?”
Tig pushed him back and climbed the first few steps, “I am not the one who killed him.”
“Who are you then? Why did you survive?”
It was a question he asked himself the instant he smelled fire, when those awfully memories gripped him and made him wince at his own cruel thoughts. He only knew of the answer his adoptive family gave him.
“Tiguak Trimbly.” He said, his eyes wavering, “And I am not them.”
Tig ran the rest of the way back. His surroundings blurred in browns. It was strange thing to have a name that turned others into enemies. It was his curse as much as mechanizations was everyone’s. Only he had not known it in Verace. Not as pronounced. He was protected there, guarded. It made him wonder why his family insisted upon him staying there.
Perhaps it was to protect him.
He slowed near the final ascent. Some blue hats pushed past him. No, they were wrong, they were murderers. They were monsters, red hats, criminals, villains and… his family.
No matter how hard he tried to escape that fact, it would always claw back at him. Cursed or not.
The voice was Charles and it was closing.
“Tig!” he repeated now seconds ahead of him. “Hours there you are. Come quick!”
“Just come will you?”
Tig followed him wordlessly. Now he could think of nothing other than Anu. There were no chitiks around that much was apparent. But what of Anu himself?
“Your goggles break, half turn?” asked Charles as he pushed the hospital door.
Tig felt at his face and realised it still bare.
“They may have… fallen off.” He lied.
“Right, hopefully those friends of yours recognize you without them. Didn’t think I would till I saw you slump. One of kind that slump.”
Tig managed a smile. Sometimes Charles could be clever, other times he became a fool who happened to know just what to say.
Pratchet was by the door and yawning, he double took when he spotted them.
“Ah, Nister Tig, We’ve been awaiting you.”
“We’re soldiers, Pratchet, not butlers.”
“Right.” Said with a lazy salute, “Nister Tig, sir.”
“Tig?” the voice came from within. It was riddled in yawns and creaks and one of a kind.
Tig jetted into the room.
Gemjo was frowning utterly and completely. More so at him than anything else.
“So I got poisoned, frozen, and sped up and your course of action was intrust me in the hands of the navy?”
“Army actually.” Corrected Pratchet.
The Seawolf stretched, “Same thing, different hat.”
Tig ran and tumbled at the last step. He lifted himself to a knee, and with snot dribbling out his nose and eyes balling, he hugged her.
Her tired frown quickly shifted to warranted shock. Her tail straightened out and stilled.
“What… what is this?” she wheezed.
“I believe its called relief.” Spoke Pratchet.
“Right, well will you relieve me of it?”
He pulled out of the embrace, sniffing madly.
She blinked at him, “You’re eyes have moons in them.”
“Moons you say?” said an instantly curious Charles. He wandered to their sides and kneeled to Tig’s sitting height. Even then he had to tilt his head to meet the boy’s eyes. “Oh my, blue crescent moons.”
Gemjo’s frown remained, “The blue is positively shimmering off your snot.”
Tig swept it with his hand and re-clutched her shoulder. Her half open eyes fell to it and stayed there, her jaw slowly dropping.
“Anyway.” He sobbed. “When Vene did that to you I couldn’t… I – it was my fault. If you hadn’t met me you wouldn’t have gone through any of that.”
“That much is obvious.” Sighed the Seawolf.
“You’re not mad?”
“I’m alive aren’t I?” said the Sea wolf. “Besides it’s not that I chose to meet you or that bumbling drunk. It just happened. Much the same way your murderous brother happened upon us. One moment we were running the next, incapacitated. And now if my luck wasn’t rotten enough, these two idiots are here to arrest me.”
“For stealing a ship, Niss.” Said Pratchet.
“Why isn’t he in chains?” she said nudging her head at Tig.
“He was granted clemency, Niss.”
“Getting dragged into a stolen ship by a bumbling drunk, Niss.”
By now, Gemjo brows had dropped immeasurably low, her voice equally so, “Free me.”
“We do not have the authority, Niss.” Noted Pratchet.
“So what do you have? Blue hats, dumb names, and voices that’d better serve pigeons?”
Charles shrugged, “She’s right you know.”
“I mean look at us? Soldiers? No. Cleaners, half-turn sitters, the lowest of the low. I say we free them and become vagrants.”
“Charles.” Repeated Pratchet, stretching the word.
“Stick it to that slave driver Webly I say. There’s over a hundred levels in this god awful tree, let’s get lost in one.”
“What’s this about Mutiny?”
Charles turned crookedly to the brass man now behind him.
“Sergeant Webly, sir. I was only contemplating the hypothetical, unlikely scenario that on the occasion we should oppose you, how you’d easily route us out. Squash our lowly existences if you will.”
“Your existence isn’t lowly, Charles.”
Webly crouched low to meet charles’ height. A wicked grin curled on the sergeant’s pointed face, “Yet.”
“So this one requests clemency?”
“As a matter of fact, I deserve it.” Added Gemjo
Webly nodded and produced a pad, “Right then.” He started. “Lets us record the facts shall we? What is your name?”
“Gemjo of clan Yuka.”
“Reason for being on that ship?”
“Fell asleep on the job.”
Tig’s happy expression quickly reassumed his usual cover of disbelief. There was no shame in her voice as she said that.
“Reason for staying?” scribbled the man.
The pen stopped, “You’ve little faith in the military if you stayed away from us that long. Why is that Niss Gemjo?”
“Right.” Webly flipped the paper. Tig held back a laugh as he saw it. Far from the list Webly had supposedly compiled, what lay before them was a number of fees relating to services on board and in the hospital.
“Th-th-thirty cogs!?” Choked Gemjo.
“You missed a zero.”
Gemjo fell over, her steel arms over her eyes, “Alright take it back. The cure failed. I’m dead.”
“You know you could pay with service to the military.” Offered Webly.
That was it. Tig knew it then. It was Webly’s plan all along. He knew of the powers of the Sea wolf and long coveted one on his team. Tig nodded fervently. It was genius. Everything until then was a ruse. He turned to Gemjo expecting her response.
The genius plan failed.
“And do you have three hundred cogs laying around?”
“I will, in a few months.” She wagered.
“I doubt that.”
Gemjo pulled Webly close and he winced at the strange drip on her arm, “I’ve a treasure stashed away on an island of owl creatures. I can give you a map. Three hundred cogs? Try three fifty.”
“And why did you leave it there?”
“We were sold off as slaves.” She said matter-of-factedly. “In no way was I going to barter with slavers.”
“Wise choice, but your proposition requires extra work on our part. Why would we go then?”
“Well there is something--”
Tig had pulled her low. “Not that.” He snapped.
“Not what?” asked Webly.
“We’ll pay.” Said Tig. “One day, not now, consider it a loan.” His brows lowered and he remembered Franco. He spun to him and saw him huddled in the corner, eyes locked on the beige walls. “Is the payment doubled with Franco?”
Webly rose to his full height, his expression an immediate shift, narrow and telling, “No. I owe a relative of his a great debt.”
“A Cantinio?” asked Tig.
Franco spoke up to that, “I’m no Cantinio.”
“Franco…” began Tig with a rise.
“Forget about me Tig.” He spouted, his arms squeezing his knees. “I betrayed you. This.” He said gawking at his own silver hands. “This was the price of my failure. Just go, take Gemjo, even that Professor and leave me.”
Tig took a step but Webly stilled him. The brass man shook his head and continued ahead, stopping shortly by Franco.
“What do you want?” snapped Franco.
“I knew your grandfather.”
Franco flinched, “You—but, so what? I’m not him. Never will be with him gone.”
“He was afraid of heights.”
“Ever since he was a half turn he was deathly afraid of heights. He could never hold his liquor, terrible with women-- the absolute worst-- had a running stutter others ruthlessly made fun off and he got sick a lot. Hours, he’d spend half his morning vomiting oil into the latrines.”
“He was all those things as well as a great man, the greatest I’ve known in fact. And you tell me, with a man like tat as your grandfather, you’d rather cower here? Good god man, you’re only afraid of the sea!”
“Only.” Quivered Franco. “Huh. Only afraid of the sea. I never thought of it that way.”
“If you have half the qualities of that man and that is your lone weakness imagine what you’d be if you overcame it.”
“The greatest.” Started Franco, quiet at first. “And not just the greatest.” He said standing. “No! Greater than that. I, Francisco Santos Carlo el Cantinio will be the man to—Mffflmfffl.”
“Surpass Fron.” Laughed Tig, covering his mouth. “Definitely that.”
“If that is his goal. I support it.” Hummed Webly.
Charles ambled to Webly’s side, “Sergeant Webly, are you… crying?”
“Tears of disgust soldier. An unnamed fluid appears drenched in my coat.”
“Um, sergeant Webly?” quirked Tig.
“What is it boy?”
“Suppose we have one last visit with Professor?”
“Whatever for? He’s the bumbling drunk who got you in this mess.”
“A farewell.” Said Tig. “Though a bumbling drunk he may be, he’s also saved my life. I owe him a farewell at least.”
“Admirable.” Grunted the sergeant. “Very well. One visit, chaperoned and before we leave. That should be within a week once we resupply. That work for you?”
Tig smiled, “Splendidly.”