At night, Simon sleeplessly twisted his bed sheets around his thighs as if trying to stop the bleeding from a severed limb. Awake, head dangling from the side of the mattress, smooth silk sheets comfortably strangling his consciousness, Simon thought of the warehouse. Pitch black, for certain, with ceiling lights run out of power and cold without the flow of warm bodies.
Except for two contorting figures on the cold cement floor, in the dark. Merrick, with his head shrunken to a baby's size, frantically rasping for air while his fingers and legs splay out against the rough floor.
Sarah with no stomach. Sarah with bloodshot eyes and a purple face, sobbing and retching against bodily organs that were never designed to be separated without causing death. Sarah clutching the immense curve from the base of her rib cage to her torso. Beating the floor furiously with her wrists as if it could give back what it had taken. Or fading into exhaustion with lack of food and dehydration and sleeplessness and hyperventilation, but not sleeping-- weeping and screaming and tearing out hair.
It had been two weeks since John Dramery had destroyed (but not killed) the only two people that Simon could say he really knew. No one else in his life, not even the parents who had abandoned him as a child, could be sought to provide a true statement because Dramery, Simon had learned, could control a man's destiny and every imaginable experience along with it.
The ability to suspend a person in a near-death state was not unique to John. However, in all other cases, people would quickly recover after being critically injured, as if the need to live was a magical healing force.
What John had done could not be fixed. In his gut, Simon knew that Merrick and Sarah were alive down there. Alive and quickly losing whatever had made them human. The body and the mind were not built to withstand extreme sustained trauma like that, Simon thought to himself.
And tried, as atonement, to stay awake and remember them. "As if that could ever fix the fact that I am an utter coward," Simon whispered to himself in the dark.
In the day, Simon went to work, as he had before. Except now, his "partner" was supervising him directly.
Working directly under John for the first time in a few years was a nightmare for several reasons. First, because Simon now was keenly aware that John could destroy him in seconds should he choose to. That soured the work relationship a little. Second, because Simon still didn't entirely know how it was that John, being godlike in capabilities, needed Simon to do anything for him.
In the office, John Dramery carried himself with stately reverence for the world of books and laws and codes. He wore black suits accented only by a white, button-up shirt collar and the chain of a bronze pocket watch that ran across his stomach and into a vest pocket. Minimal show for a man who would sometimes frown, with no fewer than four forehead creases, at a whole day of Simon's work, handwritten legal briefs and court proceedings strewn across Simon's desk, only to lean close, letting Simon see his immaculately clean shaven grin just barely part his lips. John would flick one finger at the work Simon had done all day--paper would turn into soggy pulp on Simon's desk, and the ink, so meticulously written down, would bleed into the wood, staining it with black and blue flecks even after Simon had a chance to mop up the paper.
He wants to remind me, Simon realized, looking away from Dramery's unbroken shadowed grin. He wants me to remember that I am his puppet.
"Do you know what Somatis' chief export is, Simon?" Dramery asked one morning, in an unusually cheery voice that crackled with his apparent age. Simon never asked how old John was, though. He didn't dare.
"I never really thought about it, sir."
"Let me show you." Dramery bade Simon to follow him. Together, they walked through the snowy streets of the Juris District towards the central plaza. There, in the wide cobblestone courtyard, adorned with a fountain that never operated due to frost and perpetual darkness, one man labored while eleven men watched.
One man dragged what looked to be a wide, thin hoe across the ground, leveling a large square area a few feet away from the fountain. It must have taken him seconds to clear it, and the space was immaculately free of frost buildup when he was finished. At the perimeter of this area, there were ridges of built up ice from the clearing procedure--Simon guessed that leaving the ridgeline was important.
"They clear that ridge once a week," John stated, following Simon's gaze. Simon noticed another square area on the other side of the fountain, but John leaned forward and whispered, "Watch the worker."
As soon as he was finished, the worker laid down twelve radiantly steel cylinders of varying heights, the smallest of these being nearly as flat as the blade of the hoe. They were set roughly a foot apart from smallest to largest. Standing upright, the clearer lifted a gloved hand and pointed it at one of the men watching, sitting on an icy bench. With a sweep of the arm, he gestured to the largest piece. The men-in-waiting immediately stood up and formed a line with the man who was gestured to standing on the end.
There seemed to be a little indecision, some men swapping order with each other. The cleaner stepped out of the square and joined their line-up, somewhere around fifth from the man he had pointed at.
"I let them decide," John inputted, "which order they could work in. The man who cleans gets to choose who will be the next cleaner. Which is, incidentally, the last and largest piece. They treasure this, Simon; the only shred of autonomy that they possess besides the veneer of free time that they can elect to get by finishing their jobs as quickly as possible. They cling to it as if it were a form of clothing. Although, I suppose that it does define when it is that they have free time."
"I don't understand," Simon said, a little quiver in his voice for fear of being thought incompetent.
"It's time!" John laughed.
"Time for what?"
"Time for time! Frost builds here at a standard rate. In fact, it is the only thing in our world right now that has a standard anything. Everything is either a zero, as in zero movement from the sun and zero weather pattern shifts, or a variable, as in how long it takes you to regenerate a severed limb in different climates!"
"Frost build-up is standard?"
"Yes. And each of those steel cylinders is precisely one hour apart in terms of frost height. At the very moment that one of those cylinders becomes no more shiny or distinguishable than the snow surrounding it, you will see one of these waiting men take off running."
"Where is he going?"
"Everywhere. He will visit every known city in the world in a given sequence, loudly scream the current time, and then run back here."
"How does he keep it consistent though?" asked Simon, thinking about the "Town-Screamers" as they were often called on the street.
"There are several ways," John Dramery beamed. "First, almost everyone throughout the whole world now possesses an intuitive sense of time, because they only see 24 runners in a given day. If they want to determine what the time is between runners, they extrapolate from personal perceptions to come to a proper conclusion. They do that internally until they become good at it. If a runner is not on time, they let me know, and I discipline that runner amazingly harshly.
"Second, the runners count to themselves. They count with a standardized stride equal to one second per step. They count until they return here after roughly twelve hours of running. A second time court will be cleared with twelve new runners waiting on it, to clarify, approximately twelve hours from now, less the time we've spent talking about this. The runners have twelve hours to rest and eat before starting their next run.
"Delays are not a problem, because runners do not need to always report the same minute of every day relative to each city, but losing track of your time is the same thing as forfeiting your job. I make life very comfortable for the families of these men, however, so they, who knew no other background besides physical exertion and construction, have a lucrative and socially meaningful role to fulfill. We export time itself to other cities, Simon."
"Are the runners happy?" Simon blurted.
"Runner," Dramery said, walking up to one of the men-in-waiting that yet lingered in the plaza- the man who had been gestured as the first to run by dint of having the shortest steel cylinder, "Are you unhappy?"
"No, sir, just tired," the worker said in a conciliatory tone.
"Would you rather I give this job to someone else?"
"No, please sir, I beg you. Let me be your runner."
"Very well. Carry on your good work," John said, clapping the man on his shoulder. Simon began to feel very uncomfortable, like a hostage being forced to wear his captor's clothes might feel. John wasn't synchronizing with the man who had, two weeks before, used strange and terrible magic to bring two powerfully willed people to their knees.
"I designed this system," John said, interrupting Simon's thoughts. He withdrew his pocket watch from his vest and opened the cover. "I watched frost form on the cover of the face of my clock while I counted the seconds, realizing that-"
Just as he showed Simon the clock face, Simon heard a howling in his head. It utterly blocked out John's explanation, filling Simon with a palpable fear that he could be missing out on something important. Simon tried very hard to keep a straight face and not let on that something was happening, completely disregarding the noise as an oddity.
"Bearer of the time, I plead you--" a disjoined voice roared gutturally .
"--were you listening, boy? Did you hear me?" John asked, with a cutting edge in his voice.
"Yes," was all Simon could say as they headed back to the office.
The howling died down as Simon got farther away from John Dramery. Simon treasured the moments, for the remainder of that day, that John worked within his own office. Even so, Simon could still faintly hear it.
Later that night, after falling asleep from exhaustion due to several nights lying awake, thinking of Sarah and Merrick, Simon awoke to the sound. Smooth this time, but clearer and less piercing than before.
It was the sound of the gears of a clock ticking.
"Bearer of the time, I plead you, release me from the prison in which you have placed me!" cried a man's voice. Simon knew intuitively that the sound was not emanating from anywhere besides the inside of his own head.
Tentatively, Simon replied, saying, "I don't know what you're talking about or who you are. Please explain."
"Then know, bearer, that I am the Aspect of Time. To me, evil is a blind unawareness of time's passage while labors, relationships, and dreams vanish into a sea of unproductivity. You conquered me by mastering my secrets and using them to inform, through the lives of those scattered throughout this new world, man's progress."
"I did that?"
"Yes. And now you have me bound within that bronze watch which you wear on your torso. Unbind me so that I bestow judgment upon you for the following crimes!" the voice cried.
"I'm listening," Simon dryly replied.
"You manipulate time to bring stagnation. You have used time to prevent alternatives from ever existing, essentially replaying the same day for most people in your society ad infinitum. Moreover, you have used time to physically inflict pain upon others. This is not an appropriate use of time's agency and, should I be released, I will strip you of your right to use my powers to these ends."
Simon began to understand the source of John's godlike powers, but he was confused on the point of having a conversation with an Aspect, bound to a pocket watch, that was somehow communicating with him while at home.
"My name is Simon," he said to the voice inside his own head.
"No. You are gravely mistaken and have been for your entire life."
"What do you mean?"
"Your name is John Dramery." The Aspect paused for effect, and Simon tried to rub from his eyes the idea he had just heard. "John Dramery and you are the same person divided by two different upbringings as children."
"I'm trying, but I still don't follow."
"John lived first. He outlived his father and traveled to Somatis. He earned through hard work, dedication, and no small amount of time magic, with which you Simon-John are now amply familiar, a life for himself in this firm. It was then that he decided to break situational causality for his own life in half."
"I don't know what that means!"
"He went back in his own personal history, back moments after the calamity that ended the world. He saved your life, which was originally his life, from the desolation that he experienced living with his father as a child. Foolishly, he believed he could retroactively break free from his own tragedy. Instead, he created you, a plucky, timid reminder that children are what their parents make them. Do you recollect his rearing of you?"
"Vaguely," Simon said, becoming dizzy with the information he was being given. Dizzy even while lying down.
"Think upon it," the Aspect commanded. "You are John Dramery. Today, for the first time ever, you learned his secret to keeping time, and you witnessed the tool he once used to do it. You are now no less culpable in my imprisonment and deliberate mishandling than he. The only difference is that I will aid you if you promise to free me. I will bestow upon you the gift to manipulate time. Do you accept?"
Simon considered the bed sheets sharply twisting around his thighs, cutting off blood flow. Simon thought of what John managed to do with his own powers, reversing Sarah's bodily development in the localized area of her stomach to leave her utterly without one. If I had help, I could reverse the circumstances of my friends, minds and bodies both, so that they could be whole again, he thought.
"Do you accept?" the Aspect asked once more.
Gritting his teeth against the unknown, Simon firmly nodded.