Time is of the essence for those who have clockwork hearts.
The words ring out when the midday clock strikes. All over Ixesha, every tick-tocking soul says this motto in unison. Completely in sync. That is, except Menzi and Lindiwe.
To be clear, these two lovers do know the motto of their great African nation and they can speak. Just their timing is… off. It’s been that way since the day they met.
Flashback to December 21. Menzi had just clocked out at the gear factory. After WorkTime, he usually went home to tinker with his new personal analytical engine. But he chose to check out the city’s central power source: the Great Waterfall.
Meanwhile, Lindiwe had just clocked out too. She does her WorkTime at the solarium in Time Circle. She told her manager she “felt ill.” Which was true. But she also wanted to experience the first day of summer.
Many had come to the waterfall to pay respects, casting defective cogs into the water to ward off evil spirits thought to cause malfunctions. With all the clockwork people there, Menzi and Lindewi were exactly 3.41 seconds away from missing each other. But time was in fate’s hands.
When Menzi saw Lindiwe, his heart skipped a beat.
When Lindiwe saw Menzi, her heart froze.
And the two of them have been out of sync ever since, with his clockwork heart now a beat early and hers now a beat late.
Can you imagine the ramifications?
You can’t walk together. You can’t swim together. You can’t hold a regular conversation.
When it’s DinnerTime, Menzi’s always finished eating before Lindiwe even sits down.
When it’s BedTime, Menzi’s always snoring up a storm before Lindiwe gets her clothes off.
When it’s PartyTime, Menzi’s always a step ahead of Lindiwe on the dance floor.
And ScrewTime? Well, let’s just say Menzi’s all tocked out before Lindiwe even starts ticking.
In public, they try to act like it’s normal, their incompatibility.
“We are just offbeat,” Lindiwe tells her coworkers at the solarium.
“We have our own rhythm,” Menzi tells his fellow gearheads at the factory.
In private, they tried to fix this glitch. They put their wind-up keys into their heart ports and tried to sync back up. But without a regulator, the heart is way too complex to be hacked.
The clockwork lovers haven’t screwed in nine weeks.
Menzi’s in bed now ready to go. But Lindiwe’s been in the oil room an hour “getting ready.” Impatient, Menzi takes matters in his own hand.
When Lindiwe finally emerges, she frowns. “What are you doing, dear?”
Menzi ignores her, keeps turning his wind-up key in the sacral port below his belly button.
“I told you I was coming,” Lindiwe says.
When the key can’t turn anymore, Menzi releases with an exhale. Then he moves his key to his third-eye port to initiate dreaming. “Night.”
Night?! Too tense to sleep, Lindiwe uses their personal analytical engine. She types:
“How to sync your spouse”
She feeds the punch card into the slot. For hours she corresponds with the engine, desperate. Finally, the engine prints the last piece of advice Lindiwe ever thought she would read:
Go see a watchman
That morning, Menzi wakes up at the sight of Lindiwe over him, already dressed, her dark skin caught in the early light. She hands him the punch card.
“A watchman?” Menzi looks horrified. “Why?”
“We have a malfunctional marriage. And unless we go see a watchman, it will only get worse until our hearts stop working altogether. Don’t you want us to work?”
The watchman assigned to Menzi and Lindiwe is an older man with umber-brown skin over his mechanical frame, silver hair, and the special bronze goggles all watchmen wear. He asks how they handle DinnerTime and BedTime and PartyTime and ScrewTime. They answer honestly, knowing his goggles can detect any false clicks in speech patterns.
Lindiwe puts her wind-up key into her throat port to relieve the tightness. “Are we the only… out of sync couple?”
“Oh no, marriages are malfunctioning all around us,” he says. “Some are just better at hiding being ticked off.”
“How do we move forward?” Menzi asks, the gears in his head grinding.
The watchman retrieves a box-shaped machine: a regulator. “If I could just have you face each other. And open your chest plates.”
Seated on the floor, Menzi and Lindiwe use their keys to open their chest plates, revealing their clockwork hearts. The watchman hooks them up, turns dials to try to synchronize the beats.
After a while, he says: “It seems the two of you cannot be synced up.”
“Why not?” Lindiwe asks, clutching her stomach.
“My best guess is because this irregularity is the basis for your love story. I cannot adjust your timing without the risk of breaking your hearts.”
Menzi glares at his wife. “I can’t believe you brought me to this cuckoo!”
Lindiwe folds her hands, pleading. “Any alternative?”
“Well,” the watchman says, “I can reset you.”
“Back to factory settings?” Lindiwe says. “But that’ll erase all memories!”
“Indeed, but you’ll be in sync again,” the watchman says. “Two hearts beating as one.”
Lindiwe looks up at Menzi, but he refuses to face her. In those precious seconds of silence, Menzi thinks this is all his wife’s fault. He was ticking just fine before he met her.
“Who knows,” the watchman says, “maybe a child will help you find your rhythm.”
“Ha!” Menzi says. “We would make terrible parents.”
But right at that moment, he realizes he spoke too soon as Lindiwe parts her lips to confess:
And then the midday clock strikes. All over Ixesha, every tick-tocking soul says the motto of their great African nation in unison. Completely in sync.
That is, except Menzi and Lindiwe.
They stand still, speechless.
Then, without a second thought, Menzi reaches out to his pregnant wife and, after a beat, Lindiwe takes his mechanical, trembling hand.
About the author
Russell Nichols is a spec-fic writer and endangered journalist from Richmond, CA. His story about a black vampire on trial in Boston was included in the Best of Apex Magazine: Volume 1. Find his work in Terraform, Nightmare Magazine’s POC Destroy Horror special issue, and other anthologies. He left the States in 2011 to wander the world, living out of a backpack with his wife. Look for him at www.russellnichols.com.