That night, Stephen dreamed. His room was full of clocks, each one of a different style. Tiny jeweled boxes squatted side by side with huge, severe grandfather clocks. A thousand ticks erupted with every passing moment, each with its own distinct timbre. No two clocks showed the same time; each one counted away the seconds at its own unique pace. For a time Stephen stood alone in the room, looking at each clock in turn, feeling the differences within them. Then a loud crash behind him diverted his attention. A figure in a black cloak sat in the center of the room amid the remains of a shattered clock. Stephen couldn't quite see the man's features under the dark hood. The man sifted through the gears and springs that surrounded him, absorbed in his delicate work. Occasionally he would reach out to a nearby clock and snatch a piece from it, adding it to the work before him.
“I don't think those gears belong there,” Stephen said.
The man never paused, but a chuckle floated out from under the hood. “They will,” the man said. His voice was deep and smooth, and tinged with amusement. “These pieces were nothing special where they were, just drab little parts of drab little mechanisms,” he continued. “Soon they'll be part of something wondrous.”
The man plucked another bit from a clock beside him. Stephen watched as the hands fluttered in distress, and heard a grinding drone underneath the ticking. If he listened closely, he could hear the change in the room as more and more clocks struggled along without vital pieces. “It's not right.” Stephen took a step closer to the cloaked man. “You're hurting them,” he said.
“They're not important. I told you; I'm making something better.” The hood tilted, and from the shadows beneath it Stephen could feel the man looking at him. “Why don't you help me?” he asked. “I could use another tool.” He gestured to the floor beside him, where a jumble of implements lay discarded.
Stephen shook his head. “I can't,” he said, taking another step closer. “You're stealing from them, mixing them up. They're supposed to be different.” It was suddenly difficult to approach the seated man, but Stephen forced himself to keep moving. “I can't let you continue.”
The cloaked man laughed. “You'll be hard pressed to stop me,” he cackled. “After all, you're already part of the great work.” He reached out, still laughing, and his hand grew vast and terrible. Stephen tried to turn, to run, but he was plucked from his feet. The room swept away, growing huge and distant. A clockwork darkness enveloped him, and the last thing he felt was a jarring snap as he was put into his appointed place.
Stephen opened his eyes. His breathing was regular, and he felt no lingering panic. Dreams were fantasy, after all, and couldn't harm him in the waking world. But this one felt odd, as if it had grander implications. He turned the scene over in his mind, examining what had happened. Usually his dreams reflected some element of the day, as his brain subconsciously sorted through his experience. Try as he might, Stephen could find nothing to hang this dream onto. It was as if it had come from somewhere else.
And why not? Who's to say yours is the only mind you dream of?
“Past experience,” Stephen muttered. “I don't recall ever dreaming about anyone's life but my own.”
The voice's amusement was an eerie mirror of the man in the dream. There's a first time for everything.
Stephen gave an internal shrug. “It's an interesting idea, I suppose. But not the most important one. There was something else in the dream that bothered me.”
Oh? He could almost hear the voice lean closer. And what might that be?
“The tools,” Stephen said, feeling himself drift off again. “I think I recognized them.” He turned over and closed his eyes, calling up the image of the cloaked man and his work. Yes, the tools were familiar. He finished the train of thought just as he fell into sleep once more.
He knew who they were.