Showcase: The Clockwork Hero, Chapter 1: Setting the Works

by Christine Nightstar

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Excerpt from the Journal of Randall Palmer, assistant to Professor Avery, 1850 to 1870:

Professor Josiah Avery was a man well ahead of his time. It didn’t take him long to guess the truth about me, after all, as much as I tried to hide it from him as well as everyone else. He put together the facts, all the little clues that told him I was from a very different place. Finally, he confronted me one day and told me he knew that I had traveled back through the corridors of time to his own era.

It was true. I’d arrived quite by accident to the mid-nineteenth century from my own war-torn time 200 years in the future. My grandfather was the Atom. I won’t explain further, lest I change the time stream more than I already have. The device had belonged to one of my grandfather’s enemies, and I was foolish enough to activate it.

Professor Avery took me in as his assistant, perhaps recognizing that I didn’t truly belong in this era any more than he did, and was like a second father. He was also a true genius who was unrecognized as such in his time. Just take, for example, his greatest creation, Ticks.

Years before my arrival, a young Josiah Avery designed a human-like automaton, a powerful prototype much broader and taller than a man. Unfortunately it was stolen by his rival and estranged former partner, Dr. Thaddeus Morgan, who destroyed Avery’s masterpiece in the process of dismantling the automaton in order to learn its secrets and build a humanoid lackey of his own. It was years before the professor could even consider designing another. By that time he had become a noted clocksmith and professor of engineering.

The day he took me in as his assistant was the day Professor Avery dusted off the long-neglected designs of his automaton, registered with the patent office years earlier. He told me he wanted me to make clockworks small yet strong and durable enough for his purposes, and would pay me a reasonable wage plus room and board. I accepted, not knowing how long until I could return to my own time. And that was when we started building Ticks, constructing him with care and passion. It was a real Pinocchio story.

First of all, I nicknamed the automaton Ticks because of the clock-like sounds that he made when he processed information, but the professor had his own name for him: Trenton. Neither of us particularly liked the name the other gave him. Second, the professor built his skeleton like that of a man, explaining that the human body was well-designed to a point, but didn’t elaborate further.

Meanwhile, I built miniature gears, cogs, sprockets, and springs, but knew Professor Avery needed the works to be even smaller. Two generations of exposure to dwarf-star radiation through my grandfather gave me the ability to shrink things, even though I can’t shrink my own body like my dad or grandfather could.

It took years to build Ticks. We started by building layers upon layers of clockworks in the chest cavity, many the size of a speck of sand. Professor Avery worked like a man possessed, and I’ve never seen finer, more detailed work or design even in my own time.

Ticks was able to eat, drink, and breathe. The professor had designed him to experience all of the senses with just the materials and technology available in the steam age.

Every once in awhile I’d catch him using a device that shouldn’t have existed until twenty or thirty years later. He’d explain, “No, I didn’t invent it, I’m just using a design someone else will come up with.” He was no time traveler like I was, but instead a man with an intellect able to project into the future. In all those years at his side, I never did learn how Professor Avery enabled Ticks to see, to feel pain or any other sensation beyond pressure, and to think and feel.

By the time we’d finished building Ticks and were putting him through his paces, the first American Civil War had begun. And, just like that, Professor Avery decided to place poor Trenton into storage beneath his Gotham City home, lest he be exploited by war profiteers who might recognize in him the capability of being the ultimate soldier, or worse, Dr. Morgan, who would undoubtedly seek to steal the professor’s second creation if he knew of its existence. As it was, that rascal Morgan put all his efforts to secretly begin building machines of war that he hoped in vain to turn the tide of the war in favor of his beloved South.

Even years after the War Between the States, the professor always refused my requests to continue testing Ticks, assuring me that Trenton was fine where he was.

Meanwhile, Morgan eventually would end up creating a humanoid for himself called Jason Morgan, a pale copy of Avery’s original automaton. But he would not live to enjoy the stolen fruit of Avery’s labor, as Morgan died in a fiery conflagration in the year 1884 when his laboratory exploded. If he had managed to build other humanoids, Morgan might have used them to avenge the South decades after the war’s end. (*)

Perhaps the professor had foreseen such a possibility and sought to thwart it. Thus Ticks remained underground long after the professor’s death and my return home.

End excerpt.

[(*) Editor’s note: See “More Than Human,” The Brave and the Bold #135 (July, 1977) and “Legacy of the Doomed,” The Brave and the Bold #136 (September, 1977).]

***

Gotham City, December, 1987:

Deltonio’s Deli had topped the Gotham Gazette’s list of best lunch spots for three years running, and was known for its coffee, biscotti, fine meats, and breads. The deli had been in the family for three generations, run by Frank Deltonio and his wife Louisa, known to all as Mama.

Frank had only ever thrown two people out of his deli: a much younger Rupert Thorne for trying to shake him down for protection money some twenty years earlier, and the infamous Penguin for threatening a patron with one of his umbrellas. That last incident had made Frank Deltonio something of a local celebrity, even if Oswald Cobblepot held a grudge afterward. Ever since then, Police Commissioner James W. Gordon had made a point of ordering his lunch from Deltonio’s every other week.

When he wasn’t at school, seventeen-year-old Frank Jr. worked behind the meat counter under his papa’s watchful eye, while thirteen-year-old Tony mopped the floor, and sixteen-year-old twins Cleo and Alicia made bread dough for Mama. At the front counter former beauty pageant contestant Betty Canardo made coffee, watched the register, and took orders, flirting with the patrons enough to keep them coming back.

At seven o’clock, Frank Deltonio would start closing up the deli and getting things ready for the next day. Seats at unoccupied tables would be flipped up%2 and the floor would be mopped, while Betty would wait on the few stragglers left over from the early dinner crowd. By eight o’clock, Frank would turn off the lights, don his jacket and hat, and usher out anyone still left inside, before locking the front door and heading up the creaky stairs to their cramped home. Each and every day, Frank made sure that everything in his deli ran like clockwork.

It was the week before Christmas, and the deli was colder than usual, so after locking up Frank ventured into the basement to check on the furnace. Boxes were piled up to the ceiling, containing three generations’ worth of family belongings, along with several sturdy, locked wooden crates left from the previous owners of the building.

Although Frank had always taken good care of the building, the basement had been rather neglected over the years; the deli always came first. Still, he wasn’t expecting to fall flat on his face when the last step creaked under his weight before breaking.

Muttering a few choice words under his breath, Frank called for Betty to bring down a flashlight from the back room. Soon, Betty came down the steps, skipping over the broken one before Frank thought to warn her about it.

“How’d you know that stair broke?” Frank asked her.

“Heard the crash — and you cussing,” she said. “You’re lucky Mama didn’t hear you all the way in the kitchen!”

Frank just frowned as he limped over to the furnace and began tinkering with it, while Betty held out the flashlight for him. After a few moments she gasped and turned the flashlight toward the shadows.

“I think I saw something!” Betty whispered, her eyes wide.

Taking the flashlight from her, Frank shined the light in the direction she was looking, but there was nothing there. “Probably just a mouse,” he muttered. “I’ll call pest control in the morning. The furnace should be working now, anyway.”

But as they headed back upstairs a couple of minutes later, they heard a voice.

“Do you know where Professor Avery or Mr. Palmer is?” The voice was soft, like that of a young boy.

Pointing the flashlight toward what looked like a boy dressed in old-fashioned clothes, Frank said, “What’re you doing in my basement, kid?”

“This is Professor Avery’s building. I was left here by him.”

“My family’s owned this building for almost ninety years,” said Frank. “Never heard of a Professor Avery.”

“That is impossible. I have only been inactive for… it seems like a few months. What is the date?”

Realizing Frank had no patience for any of this, Betty interrupted, “It’s December 16th, 1987. What do you think the date is?”

“It’s been over a hundred years. Last I remember, it was June 3rd, 1861.” Just then, the boy saw his reflection in an old mirror beside the stairs. “What happened to me? I look almost human,” the boy said, running his fingers through his blond hair.

“I asked you, kid, what are you doing in my basement?” demanded Frank.

“I was built by Professor Josiah Avery and his assistant, Mr. Randall Palmer, over the course of ten years,” the boy said, taking off his shirt and standing before the mirror. “My body was completed in 1861. But something has changed my appearance. I have skin!”

Frank’s eyes went wide as he saw that the boy’s skin did not cover his whole body, just his head, upper torso, and arms, while the rest appeared to be metallic. For the first time in his life, Frank was speechless; this was no practical joke.

“What is your name?” Betty asked tentatively.

“Professor Avery always called me Trenton, but Mr. Palmer called me Ticks.”

“Do you have a last name?” she asked.

“Not that I know of. Is it important?”

“Not really, unless you want a job,” she said. “Trenton ‘Ticks’ Avery — sounds good enough for now.”

***

Ticks was brought upstairs to meet the rest of the Deltonio family, who listened to his story. Mama insisted, despite Frank’s objections, on keeping him as a boarder, saying he could pay for his room and board by working in the deli. Frank knew his wife well enough not to push the point any further, unless he wanted to sleep on the couch tonight, and that was that.

At six feet, two inches, Ticks was as tall as Frank Jr., almost as skinny as the twins, and a bit heavier than Betty. He carried a side of beef easier than Frank ever could, and was even more stubborn than Mama in arguments of logic. During closing hours, he spent his time reading every book in the Deltonio home, as well as some Betty brought from the library, before the Christmas season was over.

By New Year’s Day, Mama began talking about enrolling Trenton in school, though Frank was doubtful about the idea, reminding her that he was, after all, a robot and not a real boy. Only Mama would call him Trenton; he preferred to be called Ticks.

Mama and Betty had even bought him some new clothes, but Ticks found most of modern-day fashion to be quite unsettling, and much too tight around certain areas for his comfort. With a bit of help from Frank Jr. and the twins, Ticks managed to fill a small closet with modern clothing more suited to his tastes.

At first, Ticks often sat in his room quietly, lost in deep thought as he tried to get used to his new environs. Eventually, he took to strolling around the neighborhood during the day whenever he wasn’t working at the deli, and was astonished at how much Gotham City had changed in some ways, yet remained the same in others. The familiar smell of manure and gaslight had been replaced by ozone and gasoline.

Just the fact that he could smell and taste things took some getting used to, though he didn’t understand how Professor Avery could have engineered these refinements or caused them to emerge well over a century later. It didn’t help that the professor had left no notes on his creation, or at least any that Ticks could find just yet.

***

One evening in the first week of January, Ticks brought the week’s deposits for Deltonio’s to the bank, where he also planned to cash his very first paycheck. He felt happiness about that, as well as confusion over his emotions. But while Ticks was standing in line at the bank, looking at his first paycheck while considering what he would spent it on, an incident occurred that changed his life.

The bank was being robbed. Several men wearing black outfits, gloves, and ski masks, carrying sports bags and strange-looking guns burst into the bank, firing at a device on the wall before demanding that everyone hand over their money. Ticks looked at his paycheck, then at the envelope with the week’s deposits from the deli, and the situation struck him as wrong.

“I’m afraid I can’t allow you to do that,” Ticks began as one of the robbers tried to grab the items from his hands. Before the man could even reply, Ticks gave him a backhanded slap, sending the robber across the floor and into one of the signing stations. Bullets started striking Ticks a moment later, tearing his outfit to shreds and revealing his metal body even as he leaped into action.

“What the hell do we have here, Louie?” asked one robber next to the teller.

“Looks like some sort of robot, Bobbie,” replied another behind the counter.

Moving faster than humanly possible, Ticks dispatched the robbers with a ferocity akin to that of the Batman, and within moments the bank robbers had all been disarmed and subdued.

Later, after the police had arrived, taken the criminals away, and interviewed everyone, Ticks finally made his way to the teller, who asked uneasily, “What can I do for you today, sir?”

“I have the deposit for Deltonio’s Deli, and I would also like to start a bank account of my own, please,” Ticks said, smiling.

“I would be glad to accommodate you, sir.”

***

CLOCKWORK HERO FOILS BANK ROBBERY!

The headline flashed across the front page of the Gotham Gazette the next morning, accompanied by a photograph of the hero himself, as Ticks’ actions had made him a topic of conversation in the city. By lunchtime, word had spread that Ticks worked in Deltonio’s Deli, bringing in the most profitable — and stressful — lunch hours in Frank’s memory.

Commissioner James W. Gordon himself dropped by Deltonio’s that afternoon, ostensibly to meet Gotham’s newest hero, but also to find out a few things about him for other interested parties.

“I didn’t plan on stopping the robbery, Commissioner Gordon,” Ticks explained.

“So why did you stop the robbery, uh, son?” asked Gordon.

“I was trusted with Mr. Deltonio’s deposits and had my first paycheck, and it seemed wrong to betray that trust and all that I’ve worked for these past few weeks,” said Ticks. “It was my first paycheck. I couldn’t just let those men take it from me without doing something.”

“Understandable, but reckless,” said Gordon. “Did you even consider that you or someone else could get hurt by single-handedly taking on those bank robbers?”

“I don’t even know how I fought them, Commissioner. I remember everything happening, but I don’t remember ever being programmed with or taught those skills.”

“So you were just reacting, not acting,” Gordon concluded. “Fortunately, nobody got hurt besides those robbers. Do you plan on taking up any more crime-fighting?”

“I have no idea what I’m going to do,” Ticks explained. “I just awoke a few weeks ago in Mr. Deltonio’s basement, which used to be beneath Professor Avery’s laboratory. I work here so I can live here. I’m still learning.”

“Be on the roof of the building tonight, son,” Gordon said quietly. “I’ll pass word to someone who might be able to help you. Unless something holds him up, he’ll meet you there around nine o’clock.”

“He’ll meet me on the roof?” asked Ticks with a frown. “Who will meet me? And will you be with him?”

“You’ll know him when you see him,” Gordon replied. “I try not to meddle too much in his affairs.”

“Who is he?”

“We call him the Batman.”

***

Elsewhere in Gotham City:

“Number Four won’t like the news, especially that our first daylight action in Gotham City was foiled by a robot,” a man in black said as he descended a ladder.

“Definitely. Not only could this blow our cover, but it could expose us to Batman and his helpers.”

“I have already heard about the failed robbery,” came a soft, velvety voice from behind the two men. “I trust that you have liquidated all those captured by the police.”

“We have Fatality working on it as we speak, Number Four,” replied the second man.

“Fatality is expensive and often lacks the subtlety that we require,” said Number Four. “Tell Fatality that if it doesn’t look like they’ve died of natural causes, the payment won’t be made.”

“That’s a bit extreme, don’t you think, Number Four?”

“We are trying to establish a center of operations in a city where the world’s allegedly greatest detective operates. We do anything to arouse his interest, and our Gotham City operations will be ended, and then we will all have to be liquidated to protect our superiors.”

“I understand, Number Four.”

“Now, tell me what went wrong with the bank robbery.”

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