Art by Nathan Susnik.
From the author: The clockwork deckhand has been decommissioned. But what if he could go back to the time when steamboats ruled the river? Steampunk flash fiction inspired by the Book of Ecclesiastes.
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Peering through the pilothouse windows, the clockwork deckhand logs the miles traveled today: 0. Although he is four stories up, he cannot see the river. Only asphalt surrounds the dry dock. He descends three flights of blue stairs, returning to his stool behind the engineer’s stand. His joints creak. A single word rings through his mechanical head.
He looks at his watch.
It goes: tick tock.
If only it went: tock tick.
Then, generations of crews would return, with an engineer, always a fat man, shouting into the speaking-tube to the pilot, and the pilot, always a skinny man, shouting back. Every pilot was the same, except for the last. She had been a skinny woman. The clockwork deckhand had called her Pilottess. She had called him obsolete.
If his watch went: tock tick, then generations of summers would return, with water lapping on hull and sun glinting on water and the cook grumbling in the galley and utensils clinking on second deck, while the summer people, wearing smiling eyes and short pants, chew steaming mouthfuls. And the wonder-eyed children would stop looking at their tiny, flashing screens to marvel at the churning paddlewheel and see the shushing engines and hear the shrill calliope.
And the clockwork deckhand would work and be happy.
If his watch went: tock tick, then generations of travelers would return. They would follow the river south to the sea. And the boat would pass through locks, the clockwork deckhand waiting to see new wonders on the other side. There, he would meet the collared-man, and during lock delays, while the towboats traveled back and forth, pushing barges three by three, they would talk.
“Do you like your work?” the collared-man would ask.
“Yes, I am made for it.”
“That is good,” the collared-man would say. “Most people do not know what they are made for.”
“I have never asked for your name,” the collared-man would say when they arrive at the sea.
“Koheleth, first generation A.I.”
The collared-man would rub his chin, gazing out over the endless water.
“Koheleth,” he would say. “Remember, all the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full.”
And the clockwork deckhand would understand. He was the river, the boat his sea. But now, the tick tocking of his watch has antiquated steam, has dried his sea, has made him obsolete.
If his watch went: tock tick, then he would marvel at the sea. If his watch went: tock tick, then he would be a river again. But no matter how often he winds it backwards, his watch only goes tick tock.
Creaking joints frozen with rust, the clockwork deckhand sits, considering river and sea until his ancient watch stops. In the sudden silence, he looks up. The boat is on the water again, the deckhand at the helm. Behind him, thousands of rivers crisscross his main channel. In front of him is a closed gate. Next to him stands the collared-man. “Have no fear,” the collared-man whispers, taking Koheleth's metal hand in his. “This is only lock delay; beyond lies endless sea.”
This story originally appeared in Gallery of Curiosities.