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Chapter Five: Orders of Magnitude
Mitch tried very hard to split his attention. While it was very important to keep his eyes on the opening tube that held what might prove to be a very lethal fighting machine, he thought it was also vital to stuff as many of the papers he had been studying earlier into his pockets, in case running was a good idea.
Over by the toolracks, John Reeso clenched his hands into fists, then flipped them open again. The nails on the ends of his fingers started growing longer, thicker, and more structurally robust. He looked to the man who had apparently activated the machine through his ranting and raving.
"Hey Doc. I have an idea. Why don't we dunk some bread in caramel and pass it off as Halloween Candy?"
Dr. Vague's eye twitched. "HOW is that going to help us here and now?"
"Look, I said I had AN idea. Did I say I had a GOOD idea?"
"Smartass!" Dr. Vague spun around and grabbed a sturdy-looking ratchetted tool that was probably used to remove dime-sized sprockets deep inside clockworks, but looked like it could also be used to give a man a prostate exam from the next room.
"We'll smash the sucker till he falls!"
"Yes! Go Doc! Use that anger constructively! I mean deconstructively!"
Mitch looked at his hands and realized that the spike-tipped brass knuckles he was wearing would bring him dangerously close to whatever was inside the tube. Coughing as some ammonia fumes wafted his way, he turned back to the safe that Dr. Vague had cracked earlier. A jointed, spring-loaded trap tipped with blood-stained straight razors on the end was lying limply on the floor by the safe after John had stomped it. Mitch grabbed the not-so-sharp end and whipped around as the tube's forward section tipped forward and swung to the side.
Inside, an old man dressed in a ragged suit looked at each of the intruders, one by one. Except it wasn't a man, but a spring-powered mechanism that would give the average physicist screaming nightmares if he ever saw how the parts inside fit together. It stepped out of the tube.
"Please go away."
John and Dr. Vague looked at each other. "It can't be that easy, can it?"
"Tell you what, lets go up the stairs. If it doesn't stab us in the back, we'll know it's safe-"
The man lunged towards Mitch, who yelled in alarm and swung the trap arm. The blades at the end tore open the man's forehead, ripping off a large patch of false skin. Beneath it, there was a faint scratch in the metal skull. Undettered and seemingly oblivious to the attack, the machine placed one palm on Mitch's chest and extended both its leg and arm with enough speed to launch Mitch into the toolbench. Mitch flipped backwards and cursed as his head cracked onto the wood.
Dr. Vague rushed forward with his own improvised club and swung it low, like a golfer, crashing it into the groin of the machine. It turned and swung an arm at Vague's face, the hand flat like a knife edge. It barely clipped the nose and Dr. Vague reeled back, his eyes watering in reflex.
John rushed forward, crouching low, grabbed the floor with one hand and spun his legs around in a very precise kick to the side of the machine's leg. It slid back and the arms started to flail in order to keep balance. Dr. Vague hefted and threw his club at the head, and one arm automatically reached out to grab the club.
The added inertia pushed the machine's center of mass too far and it slammed on its back. The torso hinged upward, the hands planted on the floor, and one leg was drawn back. With a sound very much like a jack-in-the-box popping up, the clockwork bounced up and righted itself.
Dr. Vague spun back to the tool rack to grab another weapon as the machine walked forward. John narrowed his eyes and for the first time that day, actually looked serious about something. A spring-loaded punch snapped out, and was ducked as John crouched down again. Both clawed hands grabbed the cloth around the ankle holding all the weight, and pulled mightily. The clockwork flailed again as once again it was knocked on its back.
The head slammed against the hard floor and a sound much like a scratched record came out of the thing's mouth. "I want to see your manager. I want to see your manager. I want to see-" The repeating soundbite was stopped by a slow grinding. John got up carefully, stepping back from the mechanical man that seemed to be trying to sign a signature.
"I think it's stuck. Either we finish it off or we run like hell in case it fixes itself."
"I vote we finish it off."
"I vote we run like hell. To a store with aspirin."
John looked over at his apprentice. "Having fun?"
"Yeah. Let's go on that ride one more time, after I grab a shotgun from Wal-Mart."
Dr. Vague crab-walked up to the incapacitated clockwork man, holding a tension wrench like a samurai sword in front of him. "It wouldn't work. Machines don't bleed. They don't have hearts or lungs or livers. The bullets would just rattle around and knock out connecting gears. You'd have a hard time finding the mainspring."
"Well, at least I'd have a hard time from a couple dozen feet away."
"Whatever." Dr. Vague stabbed the wrench just below where a human's ribcage would be. There was the sound of squealing metal, and the motions of the hand slowed to a stop. "I know that thing probably could have killed us all, but this still feels really disappointing."
"Were you expecting an epic, Kung Fu battle, prologued with a little villainous exposition?"
"No, but it would have helped out."
Dr. Vague started swinging a large hammer at the tube that held the clockwork, while John and Mitch started gathering up the paperwork from the safe. Mitch looked over at the wild swings against the pipes and joints.
"Why is he doing that? Blowing off steam?"
"Have you ever played the MegaMan X games?"
"Dr. Light, who created Mega Man and Mega Man X, also created these capsules that held upgrades and messages. This one may just have a remote repair routine, or hidden legs or something. It's safest to mangle everything we find."
"If that freezer tube was able to fix the clockwork man, wouldn't it have been written in that log of inventions we found?"
"Look, do YOU want to ride with him when he hasn't had the chance to work off his frustrations?"
"Good point. Hey, is this a receipt?" Mitch pulled out a narrow strip of paper from a book of sketches of machine parts. John reached over and took it.
"Hmmm. Let me see... no date, which is kinda strange. Most cash registers print that out. Oil... screws... cereal... milk... paperback copy of The Langoliers by Stephen King-"
"How do you know it's a paperback?"
"It says it cost $7.99. Average price for a Stephen King paperback in most supermarkets I've been to is $7.99."
"You're a Stephen King fan?"
"Yeah. Most people never see past the scars, tattoos, mojo or offensive T-Shirt, but yeah, I like King's work."
"What's your favorite book?"
Mitch paused and scratched his chin while John looked down the receipt. "Gerald's Game."
"That's the one where-"
"She gets handcuffed to the bed and trapped, yeah."
"...do I even want to know?"
"Probably not, but I'll tell you anyway. She gets out by stripping the skin off of one hand. Escape through self-injury. King speaks sooth and he probably doesn't even know it."
"Aha! Doc! Over here!"
Dr. Vague stopped swinging at the tube and walked over to where John and Mitch were crouched down. "Wazzit?"
"In this very pile-o-stuff, is the CD booklet to the latest Five Horsemen's CD. Borrowing Time."
"Whoop-de-fuck. The guy has the same taste in music you do."
"Borrowing Time is the most recent album they put out. Came out five weeks ago."
"So your guy must have come by to put some stuff up sometime within the past five weeks."
"...a window? Timeframe?"
"Yes. You go look around in the master bedroom, if you can find it. I'll check the garage. Mitch, you go out and let Doubting Thomas know we still live."
"Go, go, zom-bie, go, go, yeah yeah yeah, yeah!"
"What are you doing?"
"It seemed appropriate. Why? What happened inside?" Thomas leaned out the window of the passenger side door.
"Okay, we went inside, ran from scary looking kitchen appliances, went down into the basement, woke up a wind up kung fu badass, broke something important inside it, and found a lot of notes and stuff."
"Notes, you say?"
"Somehow it does not surprise me at all that you didn't say anything about the windup badass. Look, you're supposed to be some sort of genius, or at least some sort of guy with some sort of photographic memory, so take a look at these." Mitch pulled out the small notebook of ranting and a few pages of what looked like calculus done in a mirror. Doubting Thomas glanced at each page of math, then started flipping through the notebook.
After about fifteen minutes, when John and Dr. Vague opened the front door of the house, Thomas closed the small notebook and gave it to Mitch. "Hold onto this."
"What'd you find out? Did you find anything at all?"
"Yeah, but first things first. Don't let Dr. Vague have that notebook, don't even let him know you have it. Trust me."
"I take it this is more important than you expected."
"Sure. I'll tell everyone. But keep that thing under wraps."
"And now, we all go back to my place for coffee and cake and extreme indoor paintball! Woooo!" John ran forward, did a cartwheel and crashed upside down into a tree.
"What the hell did he get into in the garage?"
"So what did you two find?"
"There was a CD Player in his bedroom, with a whole stack of those Horsemen CDs, and no other music. Must be a real fan."
John scratched his chin. "There was nothing in the garage, so at great peril to life and limb, I went into the kitchen and made myself some cold cereal."
Dr. Vague rolled his eyes and moved towards the truck.
"Hold up Doc. Doesn't that strike you as odd?"
"Odd? ODD? John, in the time I've known you, you've tried to stuff a goat into my glovebox, mailed guy-on-guy porn to my ex-boss using the names of the lead actors on Miami Vice, tried to shove a pool cue up my nose when I had the flu, and sent me thirty pounds of American cheese as a birthday gift. To be honest, cereal is kind of anti-climactic."
John smirked. "Yeah... good times. Good times. The milk was FRESH."
Dr. Vague stared, then his mouth opened of its own accord. Doubting Thomas held up a hand. "I happen to know that even inside a fridge set to just above freezing, milk will not last beyond a week before going bad."
"He was here within a WEEK?"
"Sometime in the last seven days. Probably closer to five."
"Wait, couldn't the milk and stuff be one of those chores that killer machine was supposed to do?"
"Good point. Mitch, do you have the catalogue of clockworks?"
Dr. Vague pulled it out of his own coat. "I do. Assuming he listed every function of every machine, this will clear it up."
After finding his place from the basement, Dr. Vague checked the specifications listed for the clockwork man. After a minute, he closed the book and nodded. "The thing was built to keep the house legally owned, and to release two other machines."
"A spider that would crawl around and keep things fixed, like windows and gutters, and a robotic French-Maid to keep things dusted. There wouldn't be any reason to get groceries, since the guy wouldn't always be here to eat them, and the clockworks don't need food."
"A spider and a french-maid?" Mitch rubbed his head where it collided with the workbench. "I know things were a little hectic down there, but I think we would have noticed something like that."
"Actually, this explains what I found in the attic. I mentioned the junkpile? One of the things in there looked like a dead spider. Upside down, legs curled, tools on the end of the legs. I'm betting the French-Maid makes up a good portion of the pile of smashed parts."
"So, we know the guy was here within the past week. We know he got some food. Now this raises another question. Assuming that this guy doesn't operate like I do, then there has to be a reason why he'd leave his machinery scrapped in the attic."
"Maybe they broke down and he didn't have enough-"
"Actually, I think I may have the answer to that." Doubting Thomas pulled out the pages of math symbols and calculations. "Mitch brought this out to me earlier. I can sometimes tell what people mean when I read what they write down, and this stuff just reeks of craziness."
"That's not writing. That's numbering."
"It's both. Have any of you guys heard of the Calculus of Statement?"
There were no nods.
"Thought so. It's a sort of cross breed between something called the Calculus of Infinites and language syntax. Good for solving problems, but learning it causes plenty of problems on its own. The Calculus of Infinites drove the guy who actually developed it insane, so adding words to the mix is not good for your mental health. If I'm using the right symbol set, then this guy, whoever he is, is missing almost all of his long term memory."
"So he IS a clockworker, and not just some guy fencing the hardware."
"Sure looks like it. From this stuff I know that he knows Calculus of Statement, but he didn't know he knew until he started writing this out. He was really panicky, trying to find a way out."
"Out of what? Out of the house?"
"Probably something more abstract. You can ask him, if you don't end up killing him first. He wrote this all with his right hand and broke the pencil twice."
"Very informative. It doesn't help us find him though."
"Hold up. I haven't told you everything. Based on the handwriting and the symbol set, and especially on where you opened that book of designs, I'd say that our mystery Mechanomancer no longer remembers killing your wife."
"...well, that makes it easier for me, right? If he doesn't know I'm coming for him, his defenses will be weaker. He won't be expecting it."
"Yes he will, that's what half the symbols are about. Something tells me that before he burned his memories to power his clockworks, he was hardly an upstanding citizen. You aren't the only person on his trail, and the other people not only got closer to him than you, they made him super jumpy."
Dr. Vague stared at Doubting Thomas, then spat on the ground.
"Big fucking deal. We'll still find him and expose his amnesia-riddled brain to the light of the noonday sun."
"How poetic! Lemme try, lemme try. Ahem. 'We will strike him down with all of our hatred and our journey to the dark side will be complete!'"
"...no. Just... no."
In the back of the pickup, Mitch had obliged to keep his head down for the duration of the ride. Out of the rush of air, a conversation was much easier to maintain.
"Congratulations on the fight with the bad humor machine."
"I landed one hit before I got thrown into a wall and very nearly concussed."
"Yeah, but unlike many people fighting clockworks, you did not shit yourself in mortal terror."
"Well, I fought clockworks before. Mannequins rebuilt by an Italian guy I was trying to shake down for information. Of course, I didn't realize how much clockworkers hate to be asked questions at the time."
"You beat them?"
"Yeah, but I was lucky. They were mostly plastic, and all old. Even trying to hit me was enough to break off their own arms. Guess the old guy didn't think that far ahead."
"Well, the devil's in the details, and when there are holes in your memory, I guess details can fall into them."
"During the basement fight, did you see what I did with my hands? Or did you get hit first?"
"All my attention was on the machine first, followed by my head."
"Then you didn't notice that I grew very cool looking claws."
Mitch looked at John's completely normal hands.
"They only lasted a minute or two. It's not something I know by heart, it's an improvised thing."
"Yeah. When you cast a certain spell or cause a certain effect enough, it becomes a lot easier. Learning by rote and by instinct. They have soldiers do that with their weapons, taking them apart and re-building them, over and over so they can do it automatically even under fire."
"Why would soldiers need to take apart their guns in the middle of a fight?"
"I'm not sure. Maybe to clean some dirt out of the moving parts. In any case, the spells you try enough, they become almost like second nature. When you want to whip something up, or do something that none of your spells was made for, that's not as easy."
"Also, there are levels."
"When you power up by cutting or stabbing or jumping on a barbed-wire fence, there's two distinct levels to how strong it makes you. Normal power is for stuff really basic to the magick. Healing wounds, changing body structures, making one organ suddenly work a lot better, make somebody's tears congeal into mucus and blind them, something like that."
"And the other?"
"That's the really good stuff. Where normal power just does stuff that COULD be rationalized logically, the high yield energy lets you do things that have a more symbolic bent. You mentioned when we met that you heard bullets could go right through me without causing any trouble?"
"Yeah. That's a high energy spell?"
"I call it Terminator, after that liquid metal T-1000 in the second movie. The results are very similar. Except of course, there's more red than silver. The human body is mostly water, and I just work from there."
"I bet that comes in handy."
"Against guns, very. Against clubs and knives and birds, it's better than nothing. Against fire and electricity? Not worth the effort."
"The electricity I get, but why not the fire? I mean, a small fire you could smother in the muscle and fat, right?"
"Yes, but even when combustion stops, the heat is still there. Blistering and such."
"Yeah. I learned that the hard way."
"Must have left a mark."
"Actually, no. I didn't do the smothering thing to gain power. You have to be in a certain state of mind when you injure yourself to benefit from it. I was able to smooth things out."
"One more thing. I've heard stories about another level of magick."
"Higher than the high yield stuff?"
"Much higher. It's called the Big One. They say with a Big One, anyone can do anything. Trap human souls into clockworks, teleport a busload of people to the opposite side of the earth, stop time and walk around while everyone else in the city is stuck between seconds, raise people from the dead... of course, a lot of these stories come from people who are piss drunk, and aren't that trustworthy when sober."
"So it could be nothing."
"Well... gossip in the Occult Underground is like a pearl, but in reverse. In an oyster or such, some grit gets inside the shell and annoys the animal, so it coats the thing in layers of something a lot like mucus, until eventually it becomes a little shiny thing that people will pay lots of money for."
"And in the Underground, the valuable truth is surrounded by layers and layers of bullshit until nobody pays any attention."
"Aye, matey. The only way to be sure is to do it yourself, and if you don't know how, that makes it tricky. It's tempting to just go after it, but then again, once you got it, what do you do with it? Seeking power for the sake of power is not a good long-term approach. People can use your greed to trap you."
"I'll be sure to keep that in mind. On a different note... just where the hell are we going?"
"Dale's Bar and Grill, for information and those drinks with the little umbrellas in 'em."
"...I'm picking up the tab again, aren't I."
"The price of knowledge must be payed in calories. So it has been written, so shall it be."
"Written WHERE, exactly?"
"In a spiral upon the rod of my manhood. Want to check for spelling mistakes?"
"...I'll take your word for it."
"As long as we're on the subject, how many 'L's in 'knowledge'?"
Keep them coming!
Mattias | profile | Aug 02, 06 | 5:43 am
Aye good stuff kudos once again
ervae | profile | Aug 03, 06 | 5:36 pm