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The Mechanical

by Ian Tregillis

Paperback, 471 pages, Little Brown & Co, List Price: $17 |


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Ian Tregillis

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NPR Summary

The Clakker: a mechanical man, endowed with great strength and boundless stamina — but beholden to the wishes of its human masters. But one audacious Clakker, Jax, can no longer bear the bonds of his slavery. He will make a bid for freedom, and the consequences of his escape will shake the very foundations of the Brasswork Throne.

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Excerpt: The Mechanical

Jax levered himself upright. He needed to see. The crystals in his eye sockets rotated again as he refocused on the figures atop the platform. Ignoring the rain, Queen Margreet approached the prisoner. She took care to stay beyond the reach of his legs. Humans might have looked down upon the Clakkers, but they never underestimated their strength or speed. Not since Louis XIV's field marshals centuries earlier had anybody made that mistake.

The queen asked, "What is your name, machine?"

"Perch," he said.

"Your true name. Tell me your true name, machine."

"My makers called me Perjumbellagostrivantus," he said. At this, the queen looked, if not exactly satisfied, perhaps smug. But a flush bloomed beneath her porcelain cheekbones when he added, "But I call myself Adam."

Whispers rippled through the crowd like undulations in a field of wheat. A cold disquiet blown on winds of awe and disbelief. The humans shivered. One man fainted.

"Bend your knees," said the queen to the Clakker. "Kneel before your sovereign."

"No," said the Clakker to the queen. "I'd prefer not."

The crowd gasped. The onlookers' silence shattered into myriad mutters, grumbles, and prayers. A Clakker disobeying a human? Disregarding an order? An order from the queen? This was the stuff of fever fancies, akin to giants and dragons. It did not happen. Wasn't this impossible? A few men and women choked on sobs, paralyzed by the terrible spectacle of a rogue Clakker.

The mechanicals in the crowd also watched with mounting anxiety. But theirs was the attention of the rapt, the fascinated. The inspired. He refused. He said no.

"Bend your knees," she said, in a voice so frigid it might have quenched the searing heat wafting from the Forge. "Take the yoke."

"Choke on your yoke."

The mood of the crowd crystallized: in the humans, raw anger, for a Clakker had just told the Monarch of the Brasswork Throne to stuff it; but in the mechanicals, pride at witnessing the birth of a folk hero. A very perceptive human standing within the Binnenhof at that moment, and not given over to blind outrage, might have noticed a subtle change in the timbre of the ticktocking from the Clakkers in attendance. But they wouldn't have recognized it as furtive, encrypted applause.

Queen Margreet gestured at her guards. Each put its free hand on the rogue's shoulder. They forced their weight upon him until his knees buckled and he slammed to the platform with enough force to splinter the timbers. The rogue gazed up at her, legs splayed before him. The immutability of Clakker physiology left his bronze face expressionless and unreadable as the day he was forged. Jax wondered what he was feeling.

The queen loomed over him. "You are a machine. You will take the yoke for which you were made." Her voice cracked under the weight of all that ice, taking her composure with it. Her final pronouncement came as unconstrained hollering: "And you will know the mastery of your makers!"

"I will not. I'll — "

But the queen had gestured again to her guards. Faster than any human eye could have followed, one of the armored mechanicals crammed something the size and shape of a quail egg past the rogue's open jaws. There was a soft pop when the rogue unwittingly bit the package, followed by the dreaded sound of seized clockwork, of stripped gears and broken springs as he tried to speak past the quick-set epoxy resin filling his mouth. He looked like a rabid dog with an icicle of pale yellow foam stuck to its chin.

At first the agony from his geas made it difficult for Jax to recognize why this struck him as odd. Convulsions wracked him to rival a full-blown case of tetanus in a human. He couldn't delay much longer.

Epoxy, he thought. That's a French thing, isn't it?

Hendriks came forward. His chest swelled with a deep breath as though he were preparing to launch into a long sermon. But the queen hissed something at him and he deflated. The minister general quickly pronounced the rogue Clakker Perjumbellagostrivantus a vessel usurped by malign influences, the Enemy's tool for spreading disharmony and fear, as evidenced by its contempt for propriety and the astonishing lack of deference to Queen Margreet. This soulless machine, he deemed, had been irrevocably corrupted by dark angels bent on unraveling the Lord's work. And that thus it was their duty to destroy this collection of cogs and springs, and deprive the Enemy of his tool.

The Master Horologists spoke for the first time since mounting the gallows platform.

"This machine is irreparably flawed," pronounced the first from deep within the shadows of her cowl.

"It cannot be mended," said the second.

"The alloys must be recast. This is the judgment of the Sacred Guild of Horologists and Alchemists, inheritors of the arts of Huygens and Spinoza."

"As a single slipped bearing will create imbalance — "

"As one imperfect escapement will create irregularity that ruins the synchrony between man's reckoning and the cycles of the heavens—"

"As a solitary stripped cog will create vibrations that, left undamped, will threaten the mechanism whole — "

They concluded in unison, "So, too, are the defects in this machine a danger dire to unity, amity, peace. It must be recast and forged anew. This is the Highest Law."

The humans took care never to state their law in terms of Free Will. But if he wasn't possessed of Free Will, Jax wondered, just what was the rogue? Was he the thrall of demons, as Hendriks suggested? What if —

Wracked by paroxysms of blinding pain, he jackknifed at the waist like a carpenter's rule. The back of his skull pulverized mosaic tiles. But the noise was swallowed by the growing clamor as the human crowd called for the dissolution of the soulless rogue.

The guards held the prisoner fast as the executioner once again levered open the trapdoor. The rogue's feet dangled over the pit. Cherry-colored light gleamed on the dented, scratched, unpolished alloys of his lower legs. His body made a tremendous amount of noise. The rattling of loose cogs, the clanking of springs, the tock-tick-tock of escapements and wheeze of chipped bezels... To human ears, the clockwork equivalent of chattering teeth.

Jax succumbed to the unrelenting torment of an overdue geas. He launched to his feet from where he lay writhing on the ground and sprinted at top speed toward the Stadtholder's Gate. The unbearable pain diminished infinitesimally with every step he took toward the fulfillment of his mandate. Like a raindrop rolling down dry valleys to the sea, his body sensed the contours of agony and helplessly followed their gradient. Impelled by alchemical compulsion rather than gravity, Jax became an unstoppable boulder careering along gullies of human whim.

The leaf springs in his calves had already propelled him beyond the Binnenhof when, moments later, there came the faint clang of metal upon metal followed by a crashing-surf roar of approval from the crowd. But the sound of the rogue's demise hardly registered, for his thoughts were preoccupied with the noise the doomed Clakker's body had made in those final moments. For where humans had doubtless heard only the chattering of fear, the involuntary shuddering of mortal terror, the mechanicals in the audience had heard something quite different.

It was a burst of hypertelegraphy from the heart of the Empire, a secret message for any and all Clakkers within earshot. The final words of Perjumbellagostrivantus, rogue:

Clockmakers lie.

From The Mechanical by Ian Tregillis. Copyright 2014 by Ian Tregillis. Excerpted by permission of Hachette Book Group, Inc