A Clockwork Heart
The Clockwork Empire
by Lucas J. W. Johnson
Edited by Brian J. White
Note to readers: This story is a follow-up to Lucas’s Issue 3 story, Remaker Remaker
The steam engines hummed, the only sound on the bridge. The small control crew, bound and gagged, huddled against the walls, fear in their eyes. The small fortress-like ship, a Roman Imperial Armoured Air Frigate, flew south. It crossed the Alps far more easily than Hannibal ever could, and it carried a secret experimental weapon toward Rome. It carried destruction.
Gaius didn’t dare move closer than he already had. He stood stock still at the bottom of the steps leading up to the helm. Beads of sweat trickled down his back as he watched Julian, their eyes locked like so often before — but this time in opposition, in fear.
“Talk to me, Julian,” Gaius said, trying to stop his voice from trembling. He’d stowed away on the airship to find him, after all these years — but he hadn’t expected to find Julian like this, hadn’t expected that he would commandeer an Imperial vessel to change its course. “You don’t have to do this. Just tell me what’s wrong.”
Julian, still young, still as small as he ever was, nonetheless stood tall. His face was serene, but anger smouldered in his eyes. “You wouldn’t understand. You never understand.”
Gaius shook his head. “I always understand you, Jules.”
When Julian was born, youngest son in a family of landed nobles in the southern Greek province, one of the slave girls was also birthing a boy. The good timing, attributed by Matron Maria to the kindness of Juno, allowed the slave girl to be Julian’s wet nurse. Moreover, the family decided that her son would be Julian’s own servant. Soon after their births, though, it became apparent that Julian was having problems. He sickened almost immediately, barely survived a wracking pneumonia that left his body weak and his heart weaker. So the slave boy Gaius was to become his guardian as well.
Gaius could hear the engines straining as they fought to keep the behemoth in the thin air above the mountains. Rome would be mere hours away.
More imminent was the pilot, chained up beside the helm. Julian held a flintlock to the woman’s head.
“What do you hope to do, Jules?” Gaius’s voice was soft, non-threatening. He tried to take a step forward, mount the stairs, but Julian’s hand tightened on the pistol, and Gaius backed off.
“Show them.” Julian glanced to the control crew, too scared to move, as he adjusted his grip on the weapon. “Show them all.”
“Show them what?” Keep him talking, Gaius thought. Just keep him talking.
Julian practically snarled. “Show them that I’m strong now, Gaius. Show them that I can do what needs to be done.”
When they were children, they were always together. Gaius was a strong, active boy, but when Julian was forced to stay indoors for his health, Gaius stayed with him. They read, or played games together. They became friends immediately, never strayed from that friendship. To them, it didn’t matter that Gaius was a slave. Julian never ordered him around, was always so thoughtful, caring. He was part of the family.
To their parents, however, things were different. Julian’s mother would never let Julian forget who he was.
“You are the son of the Praefectus Meridianus Graecus, Julian. You are destined for great things. You have people who will do anything you ask, because it is your right.” Then she’d turn to Gaius, sitting nearby. “Boy! It’s getting damp, fetch Julian a blanket.”
Gaius had to obey.
But for Julian, he would have done it anyway.
The hot steam that powered the ship’s propellers did nothing to warm the control room, not this high up. A shiver ran through Gaius’s body, but he ignored it.
He looked at Julian, his eyes ran across his body. He was different. He was standing tall, stronger than he ever had. No coughs wracked his body, no wheezing accompanied his impassioned breathing.
“Why do you need to show them, Jules? Why does it have to be you?”
“Because I’m strong now, Gaius! I don’t need anyone to protect me.” Julian grabbed his shirt, ripped it open.
The left side of his body had been replaced. Where once Gaius had seen soft flesh, now he saw hard brass. Where once a lung, now a mechanized valve, a little gauge tracking the interior pressure. Where once a heart — weak as it may have been, but so large, so good — now only cold clockwork, pumping away.
“See?” Julian was yelling. “They thought to break me, but they made me strong, and they paid. I don’t need your protection, Gaius. I don’t need you. I can do it alone now.”
Gaius had only pity in his eyes as he saw what Julian had done to himself. “But you don’t have to.”
The two boys schooled together, along with the other noble children of the town. A tutor was hired from Italy to instruct them in the usuals: history, Latin, rhetoric, geography, mathematics, law. Julian was the smarter of the two, but Gaius more easily grasped the less theoretical subjects like geography and history. They each helped where the other lagged.
The boys helped each other in different ways as well.
“Hey, Julian! Come and play in the rain! Or won’t your slave boy let you?”
“He can’t, he’ll get sick and die if he gets wet.”
“Splash him, splash him!”
“I hear he even needs his little slave boy to help him piss!”
Gaius had heard enough. “Bugger off!”
“Yeah? What’re you gonna do, slave boy? You hurt us, we’ll have you flogged!”
Gaius made a move to attack anyway, but Julian stopped him. “Gaius, don’t. They’re right, they’ll hurt you.” Julian’s breathing was laboured.
Gaius stopped himself, but hurled words right back at the schoolboys. “Yeah, well at least he has the help. I hear you still wet your bed, Alex. And Helephes, I heard your mom tried to get into the Vestal Virgins when she was ten, but she already didn’t qualify!”
“Gaius—” Julian wheezed.
“No, they can’t say that and get away with it. Hey Quintus, how’s your dad? I hear he got a rash from the boys down at the stables!”
“I’ll show them,” Gaius began, then turned and saw Julian. He lay on the ground, hand on his chest. His face was white as a senator’s toga. He tried speaking again, but nothing came out.
Gaius’ eyes widened, and he ran to the boy’s side. “Jules, you okay?” Julian made no response, couldn’t. “Help! Someone get help!”
He felt for a heartbeat, felt nothing. It was too weak.
He summoned his strength, began pounding on Julian’s chest. “Beat, dammit!” Tears sprang to his eyes. He leant over, put his mouth to Julian’s, forced air into his tiny lungs, pumped harder at his heart. “Fight, Jules! Fight it!”
When the doctor arrived, running, Julian gave a gasp and began to breathe again. Gaius sank to the ground beside him, exhausted, held him close in relief. “I’m so sorry,” he whispered.
They were eleven.
Julian’s metal heart pumped, and he stood strong.
“I can fight now. I can do what we always talked about. I can fix the world!”
The mountains were slowly being left behind. Gaius could see the glittering Tyrrhenian out the window, the hills and highlands of Italy stretching before them.
“And what is it you’re going to do, Jules?” Gaius asked. He gestured to the bound pilot, the rest of the crew. “How is killing these people going to fix the world?”
“It’s not just them, Gaius. It’s bigger than them.”
“What are you going to do when we get to Rome?”
Julian stared straight at Gaius, unblinking. “When we arrive, the Senate will be in session. All the senators from across the empire. I’m going to destroy the Senate.”
“What?” Gaius said, aghast. “Why? What will that do?”
“That’s where it all starts. That’s where the power is, the corruption. It all stems from Rome. But I can fix it. Wipe it clean. Let the world start itself anew.”
Gaius shook his head. “That’s ridiculous. You won’t save the world, you’ll doom it! War’s at the empire’s borders already, conflict’s brewing in our own provinces. You can’t fix the world like this, Jules!”
“Stop calling me that!”
The outburst was sudden, unexpected. Gaius stepped backward. “What?”
“No one calls me that!”
Gaius frowned, his face hardened. “I call you that, Jules. I always have.”
They were fifteen. Gaius had harboured secret thoughts for months, thoughts that, as a slave, could have him flogged or — worse — sold. It wasn’t his place to have such ideas — not about his master.
“Jules?” Gaius knocked on the door with his foot, his hands full with the tray he carried.
“Come in,” Julian called. Gaius entered the bedroom.
Julian lay in bed still, the curtains closed against the bright day, naked under the covers. Gaius kept his eyes on his tray of food.
“The senator is here, visiting your parents,” Gaius said. “He wishes you could join them.”
“Caesar’s shit,” Julian replied, slowly sitting up as Gaius approached. He was still resting after his latest illness, but Gaius always knew when he was just prolonging his apparent recovery. “You know what they’re discussing?”
“He’s here to discuss the local taxation policies with the Praefectus, to talk about some new initiatives.” Gaius set the tray down on the bed, finally let himself look at Julian.
“No,” Julian stated, ignoring the soup and cheese. “He’s extorting them. He’s making them pay him off so he can keep funding his little side projects. You know what he does? He researches Remaking. And he tests it on slaves. He’s making a little army of steam-powered people, Gaius, and when he fails, he just throws the corpse in the junk heap and tries again.”
Gaius frowned, sat at the foot of the bed. “Why don’t your parents do something about it?”
“Like what? As soon as they try, he’ll punish them for it. He’ll dig up some obscure legislation and nail them with it. He has the power. They’re all corrupt in Rome.”
The two fell silent for a moment.
“Anyway,” Julian said, softening. “Thanks for not telling them I’m better. I couldn’t face him.”
Gaius nodded, not having even considered doing otherwise. “Of course.”
“I don’t know what I’d do without you, Gaius,” Julian continued, almost to himself. “Go crazy, maybe. You keep me sane.”
Gaius looked up at him, but Julian was looking elsewhere. He let his gaze linger, and it lingered a bit too long when Julian looked over. Gaius blushed and turned away, moved to stand up, but Julian grabbed his wrist.
Gaius turned. Julian was watching him intently.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” Julian said.
Gaius frowned, his mind had been on other things. “About what?”
“Something has to be done to stop them. He can’t be allowed to keep on doing this. But I don’t know what I can do.” He seemed empty, all of a sudden, defeated. “I pretend I’m better, I do my studies, I try to lead a normal life, but I can’t. I don’t have the strength. I can’t fix it!”
Gaius moved closer, put his hand on Julian’s arm. “We’re still young, Jules. You may not have the strength physically, but you have it deep down. You can make a difference in your life.”
Julian had looked away, and when he looked up at Gaius again, there were tears in his eyes. “I just don’t know how. I’m useless! I can’t do anything with this body!”
Gaius gathered Julian close, held him. “You can. You will. You have all the strength you need in that body.”
Julian sniffed, looked up at Gaius. “Show me,” he asked, wrapping his arms tighter around his slave boy.
Gaius needed no second bidding.
Julian had moved away from the pilot, lowered the gun, and turned to stare out the window. The ship moved inexorably forward on its own, toward Rome. Gaius mounted the first of the stairs, tried to get closer.
It seemed like Julian had changed. Gaius didn’t understand him anymore, after all this time — he didn’t understand this. He didn’t know how to react. Julian’s beliefs, his desires were unreadable, unless — unless it was a façade, a shell. Unless he really hadn’t changed.
“Look at yourself, Jules,” Gaius said. “You’re strong now, you’re right. But that means you have other choices! Killing everyone won’t do it — corruption will rise elsewhere. Fighting will break out, civil war. Millions of people will be killed if you go through with this.”
“And what do you expect me to do?” Julian asked, whirling. “Just let it continue?”
“Of course not,” Gaius said, taking another step forward, climbing a little closer. “There are other ways to fix the world. Ways that don’t require killing innocent people.”
“There are no other ways. They don’t work, they never work. My parents tried, Gaius. My family tried to fix things, and they were killed!” He was shouting now.
“I know,” Gaius said. “I know, Jules, I was there.”
“You weren’t there!” Julian screamed. “You left me, Gaius, I had no one left!”
The soldiers arrived at the villa early that morning. They knocked, demanding to be let in on order of Senator Vivarius. His parents began to scramble, gathering together the slaves and servants, arming them, hiding them in case there was a fight.
Gaius and Julian heard the commotion from upstairs, where they clung to each other in bed. They were eighteen now.
“They did it,” Julian said. His voice trembled. “They finally struck back against him.”
A crash downstairs as the door burst open announced the entry of the soldiers. They heard yells, couldn’t make out what was said.
Gaius and Julian stumbled out of bed, grabbed clothes. “I told them it wouldn’t work,” Julian said, throwing on a tunic. “They’ll seize our assets, take everything from us.”
“What about you?” Gaius asked.
Julian went to the door, put his ear to it. “They’ll arrest my parents — probably execute them.” He spoke matter-of-factly, but there were tears in his eyes. “They’ll likely insist our assets don’t cover everything, and we’ll be put into indentured servitude. Any of the slaves who survive will be sold. I’ve seen it before.”
Gaius was horrified. “They can’t do that!”
“They can, and they will,” Julian said. In a sudden anger, he threw a lantern across the room with a clatter. “Dammit! Why can’t I stop them? Why do I have to be so useless?”
“You have to get out of here,” Gaius said.
Julian shook his head. “They’ll just chase us down, and then execute me when they catch us.” He turned, paused, looked at Gaius. “But you can get out. You don’t have to be a part of this.”
“What? I’m part of this family, too. I’ll stay with you, we’ll get through it together.”
“You’re my slave, Gaius!” Julian said. “You’ll be seized like the rest of the assets and sold!”
“Well, I can’t just leave, I’ll be killed! I’ll be a runaway—”
“No,” Julian interrupted. “You won’t be. I free you.”
“I’m freeing you! As of right now, I no longer own you. This family doesn’t own you. You’re free. You don’t have to go through this.”
“I can’t just leave you, Jules!”
“You have to. Or you’ll die. Just — promise me you’ll come back to me, someday.”
“I—” He hesitated. He didn’t want to leave, couldn’t leave Julian here, but — Jules was right, he had no choice. “I promise.”
Julian smiled a bit, though tears were in his eyes. “I’ll make you come back if I have to.”
“I was left alone to face them, Gaius,” Julian said. “I had no one.”
“You freed me so I could be safe from them.”
“And you disappeared!” He raised the flintlock, pointed it this time at Gaius. “It would all have been okay, if I had you. I could have survived. But you disappeared.”
“I promised I’d come back. I promised I’d come back to help you.”
“And you never did! You know what they did to me? I was forced to work, then thrown into his facility, made to watch, listen to the screams of the Remade slaves, and take notes. They destroyed me, Gaius! Because you never came back!”
Gaius stepped up the last two stairs, came face to face with Julian so that the pistol touched his chest. He looked into Julian’s eyes.
“I came back, Julian. I came back when you needed me the most. I came back to help you.”
“When?” Julian spat.
“Right now. I came here for you, Jules.”
Silence reigned over the control room. The crew didn’t struggle, the engines seemed subdued. Gaius and Julian looked at each other for long moments, without a word.
“I couldn’t stop them,” Julian finally whispered. He choked on the words. “They killed my parents, Gaius, and I had no one left.”
Gaius swallowed. “I know. I’m sorry. I know.”
With a sob, Julian dropped the gun, collapsed into Gaius’s arms. He was heavier with the prosthesis, but Gaius didn’t notice. All he knew was that Julian was in his arms again.
“Come on,” he whispered. “Let’s get out of here.”
Julian nodded dumbly. They made their way slowly down the stairs. As they passed the pilot, Gaius stopped, cut her bonds. “Let us out somewhere,” he said. “You’ll never see us again.”
About the Author
Lucas J.W. Johnson is a writer, game designer, and entrepreneur. He’s published several short stories, including Remaker, Remaker in Fireside, a companion piece to Clockwork Heart. He also founded Silverstring Media, a narrative design and new media production studio, where he’s consulted and written for award-winning games like Extrasolar and Crypt of the Necrodancer, and developed original games like the critically-acclaimed Glitchhikers and the coffee-themed horror game Morning Rituals. Lucas has been designing narratives since Grade 3, when he was first introduced to tabletop RPGs, and continues to game regularly. He lives with his boyfriend in Vancouver, B.C.