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Vignette #19 - Working Knowledge

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“I just want to see how it works.”

If any man can lay claim to a true mantra, that would be Viktor Beitel.

One of the earliest memories he could bring to mind, heavily featured the antique clock on the mantel. He remembered it vividly; an exquisite model encased in lovingly polished wood and wound meticulously by his father every night. The ticking was steady and precise, soothing even. He was often to be found in the drawing room where it presided grandly over the fireplace like some elderly retainer. He would sit on the carpet and stare at it for inordinate periods of time.

Early memories they were and fond ones, indeed. One of his later memories was the scolding that he’d received because of the clock.

He couldn’t have been more than four years old, but the memory was always revisited in perfect clarity. His father had caught him with the beautiful timepiece, removed carefully from its pride of place and with its innards meticulously spread out on the floor in front of a fascinated child. Cogs were arranged slightly obsessively in order of ascending size, springs were laid out and the clock’s hands were being held up for deep scrutiny.

“I just wanted to see how it worked,” had been his juvenile defence. It hadn’t stopped his father from administering a good thrashing, although all things were relative. Isaac Beitel was fond of his precocious child and it was more for the look of the thing than any actual desire to harm the boy. It satisfied Viktor’s strict mother well enough.

Later, when his wife was out visiting friends, Isaac sat down with his son and showed him how the clock fit back together. The immense satisfaction that Viktor had known when the clock resumed its steady rhythm had been tangible. The understanding that came with seeing how the clockwork mechanism worked fired his natural desire for learning and he became an avid student of exactly how it was that things worked.

Isaac indulged him in his curiosity, finding him simple items to strip back and study. When the family’s carriage was serviced, Viktor was allowed to crawl beneath it and learn about the axel and how it connected to the wheels. It was not surprising that he excelled in the sciences at school, although his teachers often murmured that it was always best not to seat him beside a window for fear he would ‘be off, flying with the birds’.

However, this desperate desire to understand did not always meet with approval. When he’d been eleven, his father had needed to step in and stop him from dissecting the family dog after it suddenly died of old age.

“I just wanted to see how it worked,” he’d protested. Isaac quietly despaired.

“The boy will be a doctor, or an engineer,” was the general consensus. As he grew older and his notions frequently veered toward the fanciful, his mother fretted that he was likely to become a wastrel. He was always buried in his books, always trying to build something, rarely succeeding, but demonstrating an indomitable spirit that kept him going forward.

Both of his parents had died before he had completed his schooling and while he had only ever had a stiff and formal relationship with his mother, he grieved her loss. In part, the devastation it caused his father meant the man never fully regained his will to live. He followed his wife into eternal rest soon after and left behind a broken-hearted son.

• • •

When his father had passed on, the clock had become his. It was the greatest comfort he possessed and a means by which he could always remember where his furious desire to know how the world worked had originated. Viktor wound it every night. When he was frustrated, he turned to its solicitous ticking for comfort, in the way that others turned to crime, or to madness – or to drink.

In the wake of the death of his parents, he’d spent his share of time contemplating the world from the bottom of a bottle of bourbon, but it had given him little insight into universal truths and had gifted him with entirely too many bad headaches. So he had sobered up and hunted gainful employment in the form of a sequence of increasingly unsatisfying apprenticeships. Nothing ever seemed to fit. He’d worked for a clockmaker for a short while, but it was evident that he was more keen to take the things apart, than he’d been to put them back together. A stint in a carriage works followed, but that similarly failed to hold his attention.

Then came the glorious times. The age of RJ-powered technology. It was the time to be alive and Viktor grabbed at it with both hands. He learned the process of distillation and refining working in a poorly-ventilated room with a handful of others. Producing the end product that was shipped out to fuel generators, weapons and vehicles in the United States and beyond. But Viktor would never be happy with that. Not when the raw material had so much potential. It had to have potential. He knew that.

It was just a case of… taking it apart. Seeing how it functioned. Interest turned to fascination and, over the years, fascination slowly turned to obsession. Obsession led to, often unsuccessful, experimentation. But every failed attempt to understand what he believed to be the deeply hidden transformative properties locked within the core of the miracle substance was met with the same eight words,

“I just want to see how it works.”

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