“Caught in Time”: An Exclusive Short Story From Lisa von Biela, author of THE JANUS LEGACY

(The estimated reading time for this is 22 minutes)

Story Notes

Certain themes tend to recur in my work—some intentionally, and some subconsciously.  The Janus Legacy is a perfect example of both.  On one level, I set out to write a technothriller addressing one of my favorite themes:  what might happen when a new, promising technology is taken too far, or deliberately used for evil purposes?  My debut novel, The Genesis Code, addressed the same theme with a completely different type of technology.

On another level, a secondary theme crept in subconsciously:  how far would a person go to preserve his own life, and under what conditions?  This “survival” theme appears in various guises in many of my works.  Given the technology I explore in The Janus Legacy, this was a natural connection.

“Caught in Time” is a short story I wrote that gives the survival theme a very different treatment.  It’s a dark fantasy that pays deliberate homage to The Twilight Zone (the original series, an all-time favorite of mine).  As a side note, I actually saw a clock like the one in the story in an antique clock museum in Iowa.  I believe it was meant for use in hotels.  It seemed an odd little thing, and the thought of it rattled around in the back of my mind until it spurred me to write this story.  I hope you enjoy it.

—Lisa von Biela


 “Caught in Time”

 

Steve checked his watch again, just to be sure.  Precisely eleven o’clock.  He scowled at the clock on his nightstand.  Three minutes slow.  A knot formed in the pit of his stomach.

Just last night it had been only two minutes slow.

He took a nickel from the cup on the nightstand and inserted it into the clock’s brass coin slot.  As he gently wound it, the clock seemed to look back at him from across the years with its yellowed face and old-fashioned black Roman numerals.  A pewter case about four inches square framed its crystal, cracked and scarred with age.

It must have ticked through many world events, through many lives.  But the clock’s increasing inaccuracy frightened him.  Steve tried to ward off thoughts of what might happen if it stopped.

Tara called from downstairs.  “Hey, are you getting ready for bed?”

He set the clock down, his fingers lingering for a moment on its burnished case.  “Yeah, I’m in the bedroom,” he called back.

“I’ll be right up.”

Steve undressed for bed.  His unease remained, taunting his stomach into a minor attack of heartburn.  He went into the bathroom and chewed two antacid tablets before brushing his teeth.

He studied his face in the mirror.  A few wrinkles at the corners of his eyes.  A few gray hairs at his temples.  Not too bad for someone closing in on forty-five.  His checkup had gone well last week.  Still…

Tara peeked into the bathroom.  “What are you frowning about?”

Mildly startled by her sudden appearance, he smiled and tried to look relaxed.  “Nothing.  Just tired and ready for bed, is all.”  He secretly envied her.  Eleven years his junior, and not a care in the world.  Healthy, no family history of problems.  Tara seemed to live each day with no fear of the future.

After they’d turned out the lights, he rolled over in bed and listened to Tara’s gentle breathing beside him.  Minutes later, it slowed perceptibly.  Already asleep.  How does she do it?

He fretted and fidgeted, trying not to wake her.  Restless thoughts tumbled through his head, amorphous at first.  Then they converged into a single blaring message:  what if the clock started losing more time?  Steve lay with his eyes wide open, his heartburn defying the medication.

Was there anyone left alive who knew how to fix that old clock?  Didn’t matter, really.  Even if he could find such a person, it would surely stop during the repair.  Like a heart during surgery.

*      *      *

The glow of morning sunlight filtered through Steve’s closed eyelids.  He pulled the comforter over his head with a low groan.  Then he remembered it was the first day of a three-day weekend.  The best part, when the whole weekend was still ahead, free of work and routine.  He felt lighter already.

Steve stretched lazily, then reached over for Tara, but found her side of the bed empty.  The aroma of freshly brewed coffee drifted from downstairs.  She must be making breakfast.  He turned to the nightstand and checked the clock against his watch.  Five minutes slow now.

His three-day-weekend euphoria evaporated.  He lurched up and swung his legs over the edge of the bed, fighting his way out of the tangle of bed sheets.  He reached into the nightstand drawer for the screwdriver-like device that unlocked the coin compartment.

Steve carefully inserted the tool into the latch, opening the tiny door on the bottom of the clock.  Seven nickels spilled out.  One a day.

What if he fed the clock its nickel more than once a day?  Then he could wind it more often and maybe it would keep better time.  He closed the coin compartment and dropped in a nickel.  Then he wound the clock, corrected the time, and set it back down with a hopeful sigh.

*      *      *

The next morning, Steve awoke in pain but at peace.  He and Tara had taken advantage of the perfect early summer day to go for a long bike ride together.  Today, however, would be a day of penance.  Muscles unused since last fall screamed in protest.  But at least he’d slept well.  Steve had checked the clock before bed; it had kept perfect time all day.

Confident he’d found a simple solution to the problem, he reached over to give it its morning nickel.  And his heart skipped a beat.

Now the clock was fifteen minutes slow.

He sat up and quickly fed, wound and reset the clock.  His panicked movements jarred the bed and woke Tara.

“What’re you doing?” she asked, her voice still hazy with sleep.

“Oh, just winding the clock.”  He fought to sound calm, just reporting on a simple routine.

Tara sat up and rubbed her eyes.  “Is something wrong?”

“No, no.  Everything’s fine.”  He couldn’t even convince himself.

“What’s so important about winding the clock?  Go back to sleep.  If you’re half as sore as I am, you could use the rest.”  She flopped back down onto her pillow.

What’s so important?  If only she knew.  He’d kept the clock running non-stop for the last twenty years, since before they’d even met.

*      *      *

Steve remembered the day his fate became inextricably bound to the clock.  It was just after his father’s funeral.  He sat in his father’s study, wearily sorting through his belongings.  Weak winter light filtered through the dusty windows.

He noticed the clock on the mahogany desk.  A small cup of nickels sat beside it.  Intrigued, Steve picked up the clock, turned it over, and found the coin slot in the back.  He slipped a nickel in.  The coin made a small clink when it fell inside the clock.

“Steve, where are you?”  his mother called from the hallway.

“In here.”

Steve’s mother entered the study.  Her puffy, tear-stained face paled further when she saw him holding the clock.

“Put that down.”

“What’s the matter?”  Alarmed by her tone, Steve set the clock down, yet his hand lingered on it.

“Don’t touch it.  It killed your father—and his father before him.”  His mother moved as if to grab for the clock.

Steve snatched it from her reach.  “What are you talking about?  They had early heart attacks.  We have shitty genes.”

His mother shook her head.  “Your grandfather started it.  He found that thing at some shop.  No one warned him.  Once he wound it, it had a…power…over him.  He had to keep it wound, else he’d die.  One day, he called its bluff and let it stop.”  Her voice lowered as she choked back tears.  “Your father made the same mistake.”

“You don’t really believe that, do you?  It’s genetic.  They both had sky-high cholesterol.  They smoked.  You name the risk factor, they had it.”

“Give it to me.”  She held out her hand.

“Oh, don’t be silly.  Watch.  Nothing’s going to happen.”  Steve wound the clock before his mother could stop him.  He set it down. “There.  See?  Nothing happened.”

A moment later, Steve felt a sensation of warmth and a not unpleasant tingle originate in his chest, then radiate outward, all the way to his fingers and toes, then course back to his chest, where it abruptly ceased.  Steve tried to convince himself that nothing unusual had happened, but when he glanced at his mother, she merely gazed at him with an exhausted, knowing look.

*      *      *

As he crawled back under the covers, Steve decided on a three-times-a-day winding schedule.

Tara loved to sleep in on weekends, so he waited for her breathing to slow to a soft regularity.  As usual, it didn’t take long.  Carefully, he raised himself up enough to compare the clock and his watch again.  Ten minutes behind—and it had been less than an hour since he’d synchronized and wound it.

Steve nearly knocked over the change cup in his rush to get another nickel.  He paused to make sure he hadn’t awakened Tara, then fed the coin in and synchronized the clock.  He wound it beneath his pillow to muffle the rasping sound.

With trembling hands, he set it back on the nightstand and lay down.  He tried to feign sleep, but his eyes remained wide open, staring at the clock, and his body was rigid with terror.  How often would he have to feed the clock to keep it going?  How could he keep all this from Tara?  How could he be sure the clock would not stop in the night as he slept?  The questions barreled through his brain; he could come up with no good answers.  He had to keep the clock going—at any cost.

Steve dared another peek at the time.  Eight minutes slow already.  He dumped the change onto the nightstand, grabbed a nickel, and shoved it into the clock.  He synchronized and wound it yet again.

“What is it now?” Tara snapped.

He quickly finished his winding ritual, his back to her.  “Nothing.  Go back to sleep.”

Tara sat up, fully awake.  “What the hell is going on?”

Steve turned to her.  He could feel the blood draining from his face.  His stomach churned.  He struggled to come up with the right words.

Tara’s forehead furrowed in a clash of concern and anger.  “What?”

“The clock—”  He stopped, feeling a little lightheaded and queasy.  A burning pain tore through his stomach.  Damned heartburn.  He winced.  “Just a minute.”

He stood, then started toward the bathroom for an antacid.  Sweat beaded on his forehead as the pain grew, edged into his left shoulder, then exploded down his left arm.

Steve groaned and collapsed to the floor, barely aware of Tara’s scream.  Gasping, he pulled into the fetal position, trying to escape the terrible pain and crushing pressure.

Tara jumped up, nearly tripped on him, and ran from view.  He closed his eyes and grimaced.  Her frantic voice filled the room.  “Help!  My husband…heart attack!”

His consciousness shifted and faltered; he didn’t know for how long.  Then he heard a terrible clatter and commotion and became aware of white-shirted men pushing and tugging at him.  Someone grabbed his arm and jabbed a needle into it.  A mask was slapped onto his face.  Voices murmured and barked orders he didn’t grasp.  Strong hands lifted him, shifting him onto something.  The whole thing rose up and he felt himself being wheeled from his bedroom.

The clock!

Thinking he was shouting, he tried to ask for the clock.  But no one seemed to hear him through the mask.  Someone muttered something about his pulse rate and he felt the tubing in his arm shift a little.  Then darkness closed in.

*      *      *

Bright light flared through his eyelids.  Steve opened his eyes to antiseptic whiteness and glare.  An IV drained into his arm; wires led from sticky patches on his chest to complex machines at his bedside.

Memories returned in a rush.  Who was making sure the clock kept going?  How long had he been here?

The beeping sped up and a nurse came running into his room.

“Mr. Sorenson, what’s the matter?”

“Clock—where’s my clock?”

“What clock?”

“Where’s Tara?”

“Your wife?  She’s in the lounge.  I’ll get her.”

The nurse left.  Steve was afraid to move in his nest of tubes and wires.  He felt like a trapped lab animal.

Tara came in, looking tired but calm.  “Hey, how’re ya doing?”  She pulled up a chair and sat at his bedside.

“Where’s my clock?”

“That’s what got you into all this.  Care to explain why it got you so upset?”

“Did I have a heart attack?”

“Actually, no.  The doctor said it was just stress-induced symptoms.  No heart attack, no damage.  They’re just watching to be sure.”  She nodded at the monitoring equipment.  “So.  Tell me why the clock is such a big deal.  I know it belonged to your father, but what happened today?”

“Today?  It’s still Sunday?  Where’s the clock?”

Tara frowned.  “It’s at home.  Don’t get all worked up again, okay?”

“Is it running?”

“How should I know?  I’ve been here since they brought you in.”

“It started losing time.  It may stop.  Please, I need to make sure it runs!”  He felt desperate, begging for his life.

“All right, I’ll go home and get it just to calm you down.”  She sighed.  “I won’t be long.  You know, you’re being obsessive.  We need to talk about this when you get better.”  She pursed her lips and stood to leave.

“One more thing,” said Steve.  “Can you bring the little tool from in the drawer and some nickels, too?”

Tara rolled her eyes and left.

It must still be running.  He wondered how often it would need winding.  And how slow it had gotten while he’d been in the hospital.

*      *      *

Tara returned later with the clock and other items in a small paper bag.  She handed it to him and sat down, looking disgusted with the whole business.

“They want to keep you overnight, and decide in the morning if you can go home.  Helluva way to spend your holiday, huh?”  She smiled.  “Doctor said he’d stop by a little later to answer any questions.  He briefed me while—”

He hardly heard her prattle as he reached into the sack for the clock.  “What time is it?”

“Oh, five or so.”

Steve pulled out the clock.  Two-thirty.  He held it to his ear with trembling hands.

It was still ticking, albeit slowly.

Loose coins jangled in the bag as he jammed his hand inside for a nickel.  He grabbed one, slipped it into the slot, and quickly wound the clock.  He held it up to his ear again.  The ticking was faster and stronger already.  He adjusted the time, then let the clock slip onto his lap as he lay back, limp, exhausted, and relieved.

“What is it?” asked Tara.

“It nearly stopped.  My God, that was close.”

“This is nonsense,” snapped Tara as she stood, arms folded, frowning.  “You’ve always been fixated on that damned thing, but this is just too much.  I need to make some calls.  I’ll be back later.”

Steve barely noticed her leave.  He marveled at the simple ability to draw breath.

*      *      *

“May I help you?”

“Yes, I have an old windup clock.  It’s been losing time.  I wonder if there’s anything you can do about it.”

The watch repair man stood at the scarred wooden counter and blinked at Steve from behind thick glasses.  “Well, may I see it?”

“Oh, yes, of course.”  Steve gingerly took the clock from a small sack and placed it on the counter as delicately as if he were a surgeon handling a transplant organ.

As the repair man reached for the clock, Steve sputtered, “Please be careful.  It’s very valuable.”

A crease formed on the man’s brow.  “Of course, sir.”

“It can’t be allowed to stop.”  Steve hoped he wouldn’t have to explain why.

The man cast him a questioning glance as he carefully picked up the clock and examined it.  “You say it runs, but slowly?”

“Yes.  As long as I put in nickels and wind it.”

One side of the repair man’s mouth turned up in a demi-smile.  “Well, it’s the only way you can buy time.”

Steve did not laugh.

His humor unappreciated, the man frowned slightly and returned to business.  “It’s actually very simple.  See this small lever and markings on the back?  If you move the lever toward the plus sign, ever so slightly, you’ll speed up the clock.  Adjust it a little at a time to get it just right.  Works by tightening the mainspring a little.  That’ll work for a while.  Eventually, the mainspring will break and it’ll stop.”

“How long?” Steve stammered.

The man gave him a puzzled look.  “Hard to tell.  Depends how well made the mainspring was in the first place.  It could be replaced.”

“That would be too late,” muttered Steve.

“Well, it’s fine now and with the small adjustment, it could keep working for years.”  The repair man tried a brisk, cheerful tone, seemingly to get him out of his store.  “No charge today.  Just adjust it as I described.”

*      *      *

The doctor had ordered Steve to stay home for several weeks before risking the stresses of work and a normal routine.  So he sat on the living room couch, idly flicking through the television channels.  Game shows.  News breaks.  Cheating transvestites in trailer parks.  A wasteland.

He glanced at the clock, which sat on the coffee table in front of him.  He’d nudged the timing lever in small increments over the past few days, and it was keeping nearly perfect time.  A relief—for now.  The repair man’s comment about the mainspring’s life span still haunted him.

Steve regretted telling Tara the whole story about the clock.  She’d been cold and distant ever since, and probably thought he was delusional.  So they didn’t discuss it.  Instead, they danced around it in a chilled ritual of politeness during his recuperation.

He picked up the clock and stared into its scarred face.  What other powers did it hold?  Where did it get them?  The sound of Tara arriving home from work broke his reverie.

She stepped into the living room, took one look at him holding the clock, and finally exploded.  “What are you doing with that thing now?  When are you going to get over it?”

“You don’t understand—”

“I do understand.  You have a stupid compulsion that’s running your life.  How much time do you spend coddling that thing?  It’s just a clock!”  Tara’s face reddened with fury.

She moved across the room with unexpected speed and snatched the clock from Steve before he could react.  “I’ve had it with this thing,” she shouted as she flung it against the wall.

The clock shattered into pieces on the floor.  Steve’s heart thudded in his chest.  Sweat dampened his underarms.  Neither he nor Tara uttered a sound.

PLEASE STAND BY scrolled across the television screen, then a concerned-looking newscaster appeared.

“We interrupt our regular programming to bring you this important update.  Reports are streaming in of clocks stopping all over the world.  All clocks appear to have stopped at the exact same time.  No explanation has yet been offered.”

The camera panned across various clocks in the newsroom.  Analog clocks ceased their advance; digital clocks flashed zeroes.  Then came footage of shocked onlookers at public clocks.  Big Ben in London, clocks in towers at courthouses and other buildings.

Then a snow of static fell across the television screen.

Steve glanced around the room.  All their clocks had stopped as well:  the one on the mantel, the digital clock on the VCR.  He checked his watch.

All stopped.

Tara froze where she was when she threw the clock.  She wore a terrified, uncomprehending look on her chalk-white face as she looked from Steve to the television and back again.  Her mouth hung open as if she wanted to scream, but was too shocked to utter a sound.

Nothing mattered now but the clock.  Ignoring Tara, Steve staggered toward its remains, knelt on the floor, and frantically scooped the pieces together in front of him.  His heart thudded in his chest as he assessed the damage.  The face and crystal had shattered into pieces.  He picked up the case, and the back fell off, spilling the inner workings onto the floor.  His stomach lurched as he looked at all the tiny gears and springs where they fell helter skelter onto the carpet.

Hands shaking, he sorted the different parts into their own piles, springs here, face pieces there.  He placed the case face-down and was trying to figure out how to even begin fixing it when sudden crushing pain in his chest and left arm drove him down.

He screamed and writhed in pain, then clenched pieces of the destroyed clock in each fist until his heart ceased to beat and he was released from his agony.


Book Notes: The Janus Legacy

In The Janus Legacy, I return to my obsession with looking at how a potentially beneficial technology can be twisted to serve dark purposes.  I find endless fodder in the daily news to fuel my work.  Absolutely endless.  For me, it’s a matter of coming up with a solid plot and populating it with characters my readers will want to follow into the hell I create for them.

For Janus, the technology is the manufacture of replacement organs cloned from the patient’s/client’s own cells.  At least, that’s how it starts.  Naturally, things spiral out of control in due course, unfortunately for the characters.  But think about it—wouldn’t that be a great technology to have?  Today, donor organs are hard to come by.  People sit on the waiting list for years, often dying before the needed organ becomes available.  Sometimes a communicable disease or cancer comes with the gift organ, to disastrous results.  The technology in Janus would eliminate all that.  Well, at least for wealthy clients.  Janus explores the beneficial side of this technology—and then delves into the tragic consequences when things go too far.

The idea of cloning as the subject for a novel is one that has been bouncing around in the back of my head for so long that it’s on my original handwritten “list of story ideas” that I’ve toted around since I first became serious about writing fiction.  I’ve wondered for quite some time, if we ever did clone a complete human being, what would be the nature of that being’s consciousness?  If he or she only ever experienced a lab environment, what would go on in the clone’s mind?  What sort of point of view would he or she have?  I won’t say any more here at the risk of spoiling some of the plot, but I will say that this was a key challenge I took on when writing Janus.

The Janus Legacy is only my second novel.  As I’ve mentioned in other articles and forums, I actually wrote the manuscript for my first novel, The Genesis Code, some time back and then disappeared off the face of the earth for several years to attend law school and emerge into a new career and a new place to live.  I began writing The Janus Legacy shortly after DarkFuse accepted The Genesis Code for publication—but before I could get started on it, I had to remember how to write a novel-length work and adjust my methods based on what I’d learned.

With Genesis, I was in a very different place and time, and so would draft a chapter or two on the weekend, print them out and take them and a medium-sized spiral notebook to work with me, then write/edit during lunchtime each day.  I edited each chapter to completion before starting another one.  While I am pleased with the end result, I don’t think this was the most efficient way to go about it.  Then again, this was before iPads and ultrabooks and such—so it worked for what equipment I had and the nature of my work day and location at that time.

In preparing to draft Janus, I had to think through what logistical approach would work for me in my current situation.  I don’t typically get out for lunch these days—and even if I did, I’m not located near quick, cheap little places to eat as I was in my Minneapolis/Genesis days.  It was so convenient to scoot out of the office, hustle to some fast-food place, grab something to eat, and hunker alone in a corner and work on the manuscript until it was time to head back.  Reliving those days as I developed my new approach made me a wee bit nostalgic, and that is one reason I chose to set Janus in the Minneapolis area.  That and the fact that Minnesota’s dramatic seasons formed an absolutely crucial backdrop to the story.  I spent a considerable amount of time arranging key plot elements to coincide with the seasons before I began drafting.

For Janus, once I completed the plot outline, instead of editing each chapter to death before moving on, I wrote the entire manuscript, and then undertook several revision cycles top to bottom.  And I did it all on the computer, no printouts.  This approach worked well for me.  It certainly saved an entire forest of trees.  But beyond that, I think it let the entire plot breathe and adjust as needed before committing “final edits” to each chapter.  That was a much more efficient use of time right there.  It took me more than two years to write Genesis; it took me four months to write Janus.  Then once I was done, I had the urge to write something noir, and that became Ash and Bone.  And that’s a story for another day.

I hope you enjoy The Janus Legacy!

© 2014 – 2016, DarkFuse & individual contributors. All rights reserved.

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Lisa von Biela worked in Information Technology for 25 years, and still claims there is no application she cannot break in testing. She left the field to attend the University of Minnesota Law School, graduating magna cum laude in 2009. She now practices law in Seattle, Washington. One of her legal articles, a research piece published in the Food and Drug Law Journal, was cited in an amicus brief before the U.S. Supreme Court. She currently serves on the editorial board of the American Bar Association’s quarterly publication, The SciTech Lawyer. After placing 37th in the Personal Essay category of the 1999 Writer’s Digest contest, Lisa began to write short, dark fiction. Her first novel, The Genesis Code was published by DarkFuse.

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