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Jay Lake’s first trade novel is an astounding creation. Lake has envisioned a clockwork solar system, where the planets move in a vast system of gears around the lamp of the Sun. It is a universe where the hand of the Creator is visible to anyone who simply looks up into the sky, and sees the track of the heavens, the wheels of the Moon, and the great Equatorial gears of the Earth itself. Mainspring is the story of a young clockmaker's apprentice, who is visited by the Archangel Gabriel. He is told that he must take the Key Perilous and rewind the Mainspring of the Earth. It is running down, and disaster will ensue if it's not rewound. From innocence and ignorance to power and self-knowledge, the young man will make the long and perilous journey to the South Polar Axis, to fulfill the commandment of his God.
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Jay Lake is the winner of the 2004 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. He is the author of over 100 published short stories, and has been nominated for the Hugo Award and the World Fantasy Award.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The angel gleamed in the light of Hethor’s reading candle bright as any brasswork automaton. The young man clutched his threadbare coverlet in the irrational hope that the quilted cotton scraps could shield him from whatever power had invaded his attic room. Trembling, he closed his eyes.
His master, the clockmaker Franklin Bodean, had taught Hethor to listen to the mechanisms of their work. But he’d found that he could listen to life, too. Hethor heard first and always his own breathing, even now heavy and slow despite his burgeoning sense of fear.
The old house on New Haven’s King George III Street creaked as it always did. A horse clopped past outside, buggy wheels rattling along with the echo of hooves on cobbles. Great steam-driven foghorns echoed over Long Island Sound. The new electrick lamps lighting the street outside hissed and popped. Underneath the noises of the city lay the ticking of Master Bodean’s clocks, and under that, if he listened very hard, the rattle of the world’s turning.
But there was no one in the room with him. No one else drew breath; no floorboard creaked. No strange smells either. Merely his own familiar sweat, the hot-tallow scent of his candle, the oils of the house—wood and machine—and a ribbon of salt air from the nearby sea.
Was this a dream?
“I am alone.” He said it as something between a prayer and the kind of spell he used to try to cast in the summer woods when he was a boy—calling on Indian lore and God’s word and dark magic from the Southern Earth and the timeless power of stone walls and spreading oaks.
Finally Hethor opened his eyes.
The angel was still there.
It no longer seemed made of brasswork. Rather, it looked almost human, save for the height, tall as his ceiling at the attic’s peak, close to seven feet. The great wings crowded the angel’s back to sweep close across its body like a cloak, feathers white as a swan. Its skin was pale as Hethor’s own, but the face was narrow, shaped like the nib of a fountain pen, with a pointed chin and gleaming black eyes. The lines and planes of the angel’s visage were sheer masterwork, finer than the statues of saints in the great churches of New Haven.
Hethor held his breath, afraid to even share the air with such perfection. No dream, this, but perhaps yet a nightmare.
The angel smiled. For the first time it appeared to be more than a statue. “Greetings, Hethor Jacques.”
With voice came breath, though the angel’s scent was still that of a statue—cold marble and damp stone. Or perhaps old metal, like a well-made clock.
Hethor dropped his grip on the blanket to grab the chain around his neck and traced the wheel-and-gear of Christ’s horofixion. “G-g-greetings . . . ,” he stammered. “And welcome.” Though that last was a lie, he felt he must say it.
“I am Gabriel,” said the angel, “come to charge you with a duty.”
“Duty.” Hethor sucked air between his teeth and lips, finally filling aching lungs with breath he had not even realized he had been holding in the strangeness of the moment. “My life is filled with duty, sir.” Duty to Master Bodean, to his studies at New Haven Latin Grammar School, to his late parents and the church and the crown.
The angel appeared to ignore Hethor’s statement. “The Key Perilous is lost.”
Key Perilous? Hethor had never heard of it. “I . . .”
“The Mainspring of the world winds down,” the angel continued. “Only a man, created in the image of the Tetragrammaton, can set it right. Only you, Hethor.”
Hethor’s fists clenched so tight he felt the tendons stand out. His pulse hissed in his ears. This was a trick, a trap, some fiendish silliness dreamt up by Bodean’s dreadful sons and their Yale friends. “There are no angels. Not anymore.”
Gabriel extended a fist toward Hethor, nearing the apprentice in his bed without seeming to move. The angel’s wings parted to reveal a body of marbled perfection clothed in a state of nature. The angel twisted its hand palm up and opened its fingers.
A tiny feather lay there. It was not much larger than the goose down from Hethor’s often-patched pillow. The angel pursed its lips, blew a breath that sparkled like shooting stars in a summer sky, then vanished. A thunderclap nearly deafened Hethor. As he shook his head to clear the noise, he heard all the bells of the house and shop below him ringing, clanging, banging—hundreds of clocks chiming heaven’s hour at once.
Master Bodean’s sleep-muddled curses rose through the floor as the tiny feather circled where the angel had stood.
Hethor scooped it up, cutting his right palm in the process. As he struggled left-handed into his breeches, he looked at what he had caught.
The feather was solid silver, with razored edges. It gleamed in the candlelight. The cut on his palm was in the shape of a key.
“Hethor!” bellowed Master Bodean from below. “Are yer alive up there, boy?”
“Coming, sir,” Hethor yelled back. Setting the feather on his writing desk, he stepped into his boots—two sizes too small—grabbed his coat, which was a size too small, and raced out the little door and down the attic stairs. It took more than an hour to settle all the clocks in Master Bodean’s workshop. Some had sounded out the sum of the hours—the holy number twelve—then resumed their ticking slumber. Others, especially the smaller, more delicate mechanisms, had been possessed of a nervous tinkling that could only be dampened by careful attention with rubber mallets and soft chamois. Hethor and Master Bodean moved from clock to clock, ministering to their brass and copper hearts, right through the chiming of eleven o’clock of the evening.
Finally they stood in the workroom. Both were exhausted from the hour and the work. Master Bodean, red-faced and round-bodied in his nightshirt and gray cable-knit sweater, nodded to Hethor. “Good work, boy.” He was always a fair man, even in meting out punishments.
“Thank you, sir.” Hethor glanced around the workroom. All was in comforting and familiar order. A tiny furnace, newly powered by electricks. Casting slugs. Tools, ranging from hammers almost too small to see to vises large enough to crack a man’s head. And parts in their bins; springs and gears and escapements, all the myriad incarnations of brass, steel, and movement jewels.
It seemed as if the angel Gabriel—archangel? Hethor suddenly wondered—had risen from the genius loci of this workshop. He had felt a sense of deliberation, precision, even power, from his visitor that reminded him of the greatest and slowest of clocks.
“Yer all right, boy?” Bodean asked, interrupting Hethor’s reverie. “You’re ordinarily a bit more talkish than this.”
Hethor found himself unwilling to mention the angel. Bodean would have thought him mad, for one thing. The very idea sounded horrendously self-important. He needed to sort his own thoughts, try to understand what had taken place. “I . . . it was the lightning, Master. It frightened me.”
“Lightning, eh? Some bolt that must’ve been. Never seen a storm set all the clocks a-chiming before.” Bodean shook his head. “Lightning and more than lightning. One of the good Lord’s mysteries, I’ll warrant.” He walked over to his locked cupboards and pulled a set of keys from a pocket in his nightshirt. He took down a small pewter flask and two tumblers. “Sounds like you need a little lightning of your own, boy.” Golden liquid splashed into each glass. “This’ll help you sleep.”
Hethor had never tasted anything stronger than table wine. The whiskey, or whatever it was, had no attraction for him. Yet here was Master Bodean, holding out the little glass, smiling. Hethor took it and sniffed. He almost choked on the sharp scent alone.
“This is true lightning,” said Master Bodean with a broken-toothed grin. He tipped the glass to his lips and drank it all in one quick swallow.
Hethor tried to imitate Bodean. It was like drinking fire. The whiskey went down, barely. He had to cup his hand over his lips to keep from coughing some of it out. It tasted like he imagined lamp oil might taste—foul and sharp and strange.
Laughing, Master Bodean slapped Hethor’s back, which only made the choking worse. “Never fear, lad, this will all seem less than a dream to yer in the morning.”
Hethor stumbled to bed to lie hot and thick-skulled under his blanket waiting for sleep. He barely heard the clatter of sidereal midnight echoing through the skies, never heard the clocks of the house strike the twelfth hour. Cotton-mouthed and woolly-headed, he dreamt all night of keys and feathers and clocks with steel teeth.
Morning brought sunlight, a headache, and the realization that he was going to be late for his studies at New Haven Latin. Hethor scrambled into his good trousers and his second-best shirt while he tried to shake the clouds out of his mind. Though he kept no clock in his attic room, Hethor always knew the time. He would be late for Master Sullivan’s maths class. Knowing Master Sullivan, the door would be locked and Hethor would be forced to seek Headmaster Brownlee’s indulgence.
As a mere apprentice, that was dangerous. No one would think to question Brownlee throwing a boy of Hethor’s low standing out of school, even in his final year. Only Master Bodean’s goodwill and the last of the money from Hethor’s late father had kept him enrolled until the age of sixteen.
Hethor shrugged into his corduroy coat—yet another Bodean family hand-me-down. Boots gripped by his fingertips, he was just about to hurl himself out the door and down the stairs when something caught his eye. It was the little silver feather, glinting on his writing desk.
The previous night came back to him in a collapsing rush: the angel Gabriel and the feather and the clocks and the Key Perilous.
He was not mad; he had not dreamed. But he needed to understand before he could explain it to Master Bodean or anyone else.
Hethor dropped the boots, stepped into them, swept up the feather, and clattered down the stairs. New Haven Latin lay fifteen minutes’ walk south and east of Bodean’s Finer Clocks, Repairs and Special Commissions Welcome. Instead, Hethor headed along King George III Street and left on Elm Street. West, toward Yale University and deeper into Headmaster Brownlee’s bad books.
The angel’s visit had been too real to ignore.
Master Bodean’s eldest son, Pryce, read divinity at the Berkeley School at Yale. Of Bodean’s three boys, Pryce had spent the least time tormenting Hethor since he had moved into the Bodean attic at the age of eleven. In point of fact, Pryce had spent the least time paying any attention to Hethor whatsoever. On the few occasions when they had spoken, Pryce had been the most considerate, if not exactly kind.
Hethor hoped his master’s eldest would grant him some counsel, out of loyalty to his father. Or possibly sheer Christian virtue if nothing else.
Pryce pursued most of his studies in Yale’s Fayerweather Hall. Hethor set his course for the university, figuring on locating the building when he got there. The morning was fine, beeches and elms along Elm Street in bloom, flowerbeds beneath them bright with the colors of spring. The air tasted of May, while the dust of dozens of varietals of bloom tickled his nose. The brass ring of the Earth’s orbital track glinted bright in the cloudless sky, its curve making horns that arced across the blue. There were few enough people out that the day almost seemed to belong to him. Electrick trolleys that he had never had enough spare money to ride rattled by every so often. A few horsemen passed as well, but otherwise the street was as quiet as the morning of Creation. Not even the nannies were out with their charges yet. The morning dew hadn’t quite burned off, lending damp potential to the day.
The campus itself surprised Hethor. Having come to New Haven only for his apprenticeship to Master Bodean—a seven-day-a-week affair, save for school and church—he’d never had the opportunity to simply wander the streets. Rushing about on his master’s errands, head down and feet pounding, Hethor didn’t know much of the city except as a limited collection of well-traveled routes.
Yale insinuated itself in the heart of New Haven as though the university were a vital organ in its own right. First a building here or there—a church, a students’ rooming house—each marked by a discreet sign or a college coat of arms. Then suddenly wide-lawned parks and a bloom of towering red brick buildings with white trim. His own New Haven Latin school was but a pale imitation of these great precincts of learning.
He found Fayerweather Hall by virtue of nearly running into a signpost that announced the Berkeley Oval. Fayerweather was one of five such buildings standing on a circled drive just off Elm Street.
Hethor gripped his bookstrap tight and ascended the worn marble steps. With luck, Pryce Bodean would be somewhere within. With more luck, Pryce would agree to see Hethor. With the greatest luck of all, Hethor might be able to slip back into his own school without being suspended or worse. The elderly porter was almost kind to Hethor, making him wait inside a dusty room occupied mostly by wide-headed brushes intended for the cleaning of sidewalks. Hethor didn’t mind. He stared out a grubby window set in an odd corner of the building’s front and rubbed the silver feather between his fingers, careful to avoid the sharp edges.
Elm Street was still slow and quiet. Here within the confines of Fayerweather Hall, Hethor felt a kind of peace.
The porter came back, rattling the door as he opened it. “Mister Bodean will see you in the receiving room,” the old man said, balanced on the edge between dignity and pomposity.
Together they walked across a hall that gleamed with the labor of generations of charwomen. The porter held open a door eight feet tall and four feet wide.
No one had ever held a door for Hethor before.
The receiving room contained two tables, with chairs on each side, surrounded by book-lined walls. Tall, narrow windows faced trees outside. Pryce Bodean stood behind the second table, by his build and features a short, thin copy of his father. Where Master Franklin Bodean was ruddy with thick dark hair fading to silver, Pryce was pale, green-eyed, his sandy hair already growing sparse—his late mother’s coloration.
Hethor had known Mistress Bodean for less than a year before a stroke took first her speech, then her life.
“Have you an errand from my father?” Pryce asked in a clear, thoughtful voice, as if he were even now practicing to preach. “Porter Andrew implied that this was so.”
“No, sir,” Hethor said slowly. He had to be careful, lest Pryce simply have him thrown out, then send a message to Master Bodean that Hethor was skylarking instead of studying. “I am in sore need of advice.”
“An apprentice takes his guidance from his master.” Pryce allowed a measured tone of exasperation into his cadenced speech. “Surely my father can aid you in whatever petty concerns you have found to occupy your idle mind.”
“Not in this, sir.” Hethor found his words rushing out o...
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