The Clockworm
by Karen Heuler


"That's funny, Smith, I thought you were much younger," Beale said as his coworker walked into the office at the Ditmars Science Center in New York. Beale frowned, utterly perplexed. His fingers drummed at his chin. His eyes wandered vaguely to the window, where the sun streamed in happily. He sat at his desk, in front of a small computer screen next to a pile of folders and yellowing papers.

"It's time, it's been damaged," Smith said. His voice was hoarse. Smith was a master scientist, the one whose name appeared on all reports sent to investors. Beale got a cut of Smith's grants, so Smith was golden.

Beale's eyes darted over to the digital clock that hung on the wall. It said 9:38. Actually, as he squinted, he could see it said <9:38. "What's that less-than sign?" he asked.

"That's it," Smith said, pointing a finger at it. "That's the clockworm. I mean, that's what it does. It's a Swiss invention."

"Those Swiss!" Beale shook his head.

"It's a little thing, like a worm, but it has the ability to transform time."

Beale gave a harrumph and turned to his papers. "Nonsense. Have you ever seen one?"

Smith nodded vigorously. "I got one in the mail. Well, more than one. It was like a rosette, with the two types of worms all nicely arranged together. There's one with a gear for a head, and one with a kind of oscillator. They bundle together; looks quite nice, actually, almost like a piece of jewelry. They move gently like an anemone. I suppose they're really looking for clocks, testing the air, so to speak. They go after clocks and adjust the time."

"Ah, Smith, now I know you're pulling my leg."

Smith shook his head sadly. "They were considering that we can go from coast to coast in a lot less time than we used to—planes and such—though the distance hasn't changed. And the same with elevators—the height is still there but we can ignore it, so to speak, whiz by it. Height and depth and width and length—all still technically there but we've managed to traverse them. Those are dimensions; the next dimension is time, and a friend of mine, that scientist in Switzerland, was working on a way to get through time the same way we speed through distance."

"Why would anyone want to do that?"

"For the love of science," Smith cried. "For the pure love of science!" Smith sighed and walked over to stand near Beale. "Didn't know what he was doing, however," he said. "Time is a perception, our relationship to time is a perception. So he tried and tried—great research money in Switzerland, I hear—and came up with small hybrids between worm cells and an atomic cellularity. He kept at it and at it, since the little worms at first changed only the seconds, but he kept at it till they moved past the seconds and hit all the hours."

"The worm turned, eh?"

"Is that humor, Beale?"

"Well, why can't he fix it?"

"He died. A young man, theoretically, but, you know, the worms got him, in the end."

They both considered that for a moment.

Smith set down the small kit he had brought with him and rummaged through it. "Anyway, I have a magnifying glass. I wanted to see one at work, and now that it's here... ." He strode over to the wall clock and ripped it down. He took out a screwdriver and pried it open. "I mentioned there are two kinds," he said, carefully removing black plastic from the clock, turning it over and opening its back. "It's because there are mechanical, gear-driven clocks and digital clocks. Willy Bruster, that's my dead friend, made one for gear-driven clocks (that's the coil with the gear for a head) but this one, it's digital, so it relies on the counter for displaying the time, and therefore the worm—" he grew silent as he took a pair of tweezers and carefully extracted something.

Beale strode over and peered over Smith's shoulder, his hand placed on the back of his waist to balance himself, a thing he had never needed to do before. "I don't see a thing," he declared. "My eyesight's gone foggy."

Smith gave him the magnifying glass. "These are very small; the gear worm is a coil because some mechanical clocks use a spring, but the digital worm is a kink." He paused. "With eyes. I don't know why, exactly. The paddles operate like a tuning fork to change the oscillations, and the kinks I suppose allow them to fit in somehow." He frowned. "There's more than one here."

Beale found his back hurt, so he sat down. "Smith, you're confounding me."

Smith held onto his magnifying glass in one hand and cupped the other hand to contain the worm. He shifted on his feet.

"Smith! Don't wander! Sit down!" For the man had begun to move around with his eyes closed.

"Trying to conceptualize it," Smith said, sitting down abruptly and taking another look at the thing in his hand. "We have a kink with a kind of tuning fork for a head to change the oscillator's oscillations. I have a bunch of them in my hand," he said, offering his hand towards Beale. "Because of course clocks come in all sizes. Wasteful, really," he said thoughtfully, bouncing his hand up and down a little, as if testing the weight. "Unless the size is actually a growth rate?"

"Should you be doing that? Won't you spread them around?" Beale snapped. "And what happened to your face? You're melting, slightly."

Smith went over to the window where it was now night. That was sudden. Which night was it? His image stared back at him. "Wrinkles," he said sadly. "And I'm only 24."

Beale noticed his own hands. He held one out and studied it. "My veins are swollen," he said. "So there are kinks," he said. "So what? You can't change time by coming up with tiny little kinks."

"And coils," Smith said. "The kinks for the digital clocks. The coils for the mechanical clocks. They both have prehensile hind quarters, with little tools, like screwdrivers and tweezers." He slapped his head. "Of course! They're male and female! The gears fit inside the tuning forks and voila, smaller editions ensue!"

"It can't work," Beale said definitively. "I think you've gotten senile."

"I'll tell you what I think," Smith said, lowering himself carefully into a chair. The two of them sat across from each other now, like old men in club chairs, their knees splaying out. "They're metaphoric. Don't know how he did it. By themselves, coiling or kinking around, they can do nothing. But once they meet up with a clock, it changes everything. They work." He nodded sagely.

"Not possible," Beale said. His back hurt him terribly; he was leaning forward and looked around for a cane. "Do I have a cane?" he asked.

"It's a metaphoric worm," Smith repeated. "By which I mean, time isn't physical anyway, so the worm is operating on association. It's operating in the field of theoretical measurements. It's philosophical."

"My God, Smith, choose one or the other. It's totally different to fight a metaphor or a theory."

"You know how to fight a metaphor?"

"Stand there and say you don't understand it, of course." Beale stood up.

"And a theory?"

"Stand up and say you believed that when you were eight."

Beale coughed and toppled slightly backwards. He righted himself against the armrest, which cracked slightly. "But this worm—how can anything change time?"

Smith nodded. "Takes bites like it's Swiss cheese, takes a year of your life here, an hour there, a decade's come and gone and you're still sitting in the same chair you thought you sat in only a minute ago and you're ninety."

"I'm ninety?" Beale's voice quavered. And he sat down.

Smith had to sit down, too. The two men leaned towards each other. "For the purposes of argument. You may be older."

"Well, we can rewind the clocks!" Beale said triumphantly. He cackled with delight.

Smith shook his head. "About as good as writing down 1999. Won't change the year, whatever it is."

"How can we fight it?"

"Got to catch all of them, I'd think."


Smith got up and clutched the back of his chair. His other arm began to gesticulate. "Train dogs to sniff them out! That's it! Dogs can do it! Or small children; the dogs won't live long enough. Did I mention the gear worm has lips, small lips with a sneer."


"Swiss lips."


"I say that from experience. They are lips that have tasted beer. The loss of time always tastes of beer, I find."

"Perhaps you're wrong after all," Beale mused.

There was a silence. It was almost companionable. As he usually did with prolonged silences, Beale looked at his watch. "It's late," he said with a start. He held his watch up for Smith's perception. "It says minus now, minus 112. What does that mean?"

Smith shook his head. "Can't be good."

Beale's hand shook but he pulled the watch off his wrist, dropped it on the floor and stubbed at it with his heel. "There," he said. He looked angrily at the desk clock, which said minus 90, so he strode over—in a kind of staccato way, Smith noted—and smashed that clock, too.

"We'll destroy the clocks!" he cackled.

"If only it were so easy. I think, based on what we're seeing, they've gotten to the atomic clock. Once they do that—"

A sound of ticking started far off and came closer.

"Once they do that—"

The clicking stepped across the room. Squinting, Beale thought he saw a commotion of tiny little coils and kinks rolling towards him. Could he really see them? Weren't they awfully small?

He stood up slowly; he found he ached and couldn't completely straighten up. He grasped the wobbly arm of the chair to steady himself.

"Smith," he gasped and looked at Smith, who had collapsed onto his own lap, his hair thin and white, his hands coruscated with age.

He cast an eye about the room and saw the computer blinking. In the upper right hand corner, where there used to be the time, he saw the last symbol he would ever see. "Infinity," he wheezed, as coils made their way to the computer, and the phone with its time/date display, and time all around him ran out as precisely and professionally as a Swiss watch.

The Clockworm © 2012 Karen Heuler