Keeping Time

by Phil Geusz

Phil has been known to summon me at odd hours. He has been known to ask me to do odd and dangerous things, to risk my life without sometimes ever even knowing why. But in all the years I had known him, he had never appeared at my workshop door. Until now.

The knocking threw me off the most, I guess. Phil is so quiet and reserved most of the time that one does not associate a robust "Bang, bang, bang!" with him. But I opened the door, and there Phil was. With Rupert, of course. Which explained all the noise, and then some. Rupert is anything but subtle.

"Rupert!" I said gleefully. "Phil!" Come right on in and make yourselves at home. The big silverback gorilla swarmed right into my place and made himself at home, of course, and bodily lifted Madog in a hug. "M'sha!" he grunted, "M'sha!" I realized I was being honored, as it took tremendous effort for Rupert to learn to speak a single word, and my name was one of the first he had mastered. Phil, being more cautious, sort of edged in slowly and reluctantly. Which was right and proper behavior for a lapine literally coming visiting in a fox's den, I realized. No wonder he was such a rare sight here! The poor guy was trembling visibly, now that I looked closely.

So I did everything I could think of to make him feel at home. Without asking permission, I whisked a chair across the room and set it right next to the door for him. And the door itself I left conspicuously ajar. Phil would never ask me to do these things, I knew. But I was determined to be a good host, all the more so since I suddenly felt vaguely guilty about the rabbit stew I had eaten the night before.

Rupert and I "talked" a bit in gestures, since he has of course lost the power of speech. But the old campaigner is one of the few that I know can tell combat stories to equal my own. If only I could get him off of guard duty and into the Long Scouts! But still Phil needed him, I knew, and no other could take care of our lapine Prince of a distant land so well. He served Metamor well where he was. Darn it.

And every once in a while he took care of an odd job or two. Odd jobs that tended to leave Nasoj and his boys more than a little upset with him.

Eventually, Phil began to settle down a bit. He was an old warrior too, deep down, and not averse to the swapping of tales. The convivial atmosphere calmed him in time, as I hoped it would. When I saw that he was truly relaxed, I turned to him. "Well, Phil, how may I be of service today?"

He looked lost for a minute, and my heart quickened. How many times had I seen that look before, at the outset of some tremendous adventure? What mysteries were about to be opened to me, what new chapters in my life?

Then I gulped soberly. Usually, that same look resulted in people getting killed.

But he surprised me. "Misha," he asked. "How accurately do you suppose you could make a clock run?"

I cocked my head, amazed. No one had ever asked me ANYTHING like that before. "Clocks are toys, mostly." I replied. "You know, the length of a day varies, so to break the day into twelve equal hours you have to adjust the thing every morning. And since you have to reset it at dawn anyway, why bother with making it too accurate? I suppose I am happy when one of my clocks is a quarter of an hour off in a day. It's far better than most clockmakers can manage. Whyever would you care?"

"Hmm," he replied thoughtfully. "You know I am a seaman, really."

I nodded, but remained mystified. What did clocks have to do with the sea?

"It is very easy for a seaman to determine his position North or South from the position of the Sun. But we get lost very easily in terms of East and West. We have no way of telling where we are, save dead reckoning. And even the best navigators get lost in storms or sometimes for no reason at all that we can determine. A lost of ships have been wrecked due to this."

I nodded. As Phil well knew, I had used a sextant myself on distant journeys. At sea, I imagined, the effects of getting lost could be rather permanent.

"But what has this to do with clocks?" I asked.

Phil looked up at Rupert, who produced a globe from his pack. "The world is round, Misha. We have known this for decades. Right?"

I nodded.

"If you look at the globe and imagine the Sun shining upon it from one side, you will see that morning must come at some places before others. So, if you had an accurate clock you could set it for dawn at, say, Whales City. If you went West, the dawn will come later in the day relative to Whales, and if you go East it must come earlier. If we could measure time exactly, we could determine our position much more precisely."

I sat for a moment, mulling it over. The idea was…

Revolutionary. New sea routes might be opened, new lands discovered. And with ships not having to stay close inshore so much, trade might double or treble.

All because of a good clock.

Phil was peering intently at me, probably to see if I understood what was at stake. Slowly I nodded. "It could open the world!" I said wonderingly.

"The ships of Whales are stout," he replied. "But there are places from which only legends return. Do you think it is possible, Misha?"

"We would need to be accurate to a minute a day at the least," I mulled. "And the varying day lengths mess everything up-"

"A whole day and night together are always twenty-four hours long, Misha," Phil pointed out, "If you look at it that way, all are the same length."

"But a clock set up like that wold not be compatible with hourglasses!" I objected. "The day has always been broken up into twelve equal hours."

"It's OK," Phil soothed. "These would be for navigation only. Not to tell REAL time."

"Hmm," I replied doubtfully. "Then they would have to run continually. You could never let the weights go all the way down. How could you ever move the weights without stopping it?"

"Maybe you could have two clocks, and arrange things so both never stop at once. That way you could set one to the other."

"Maybe," I replied doubtfully. "Maybe."

"Well, if you cannot work anything out, I will understand." At this point Phil actually put a forepaw up on my shoulder sympathetically. "You are a warrior first, of course, and a clockmaker second. Maybe I can find another way to tell time, if you cannot make me a clock. Or perhaps I can find a more skilled clockmaker in another land." And with that the odd pair said their goodbyes and left me alone.

I sat alone for a long time then, listening to the clocks ticking all around me. Madog came and sat beside me, but I hardly noticed. The rabbit had irritated me by hinting that I might not be able to handle the job, and the fact that I realized that the irritation was deliberate, was in fact a cheap stage trick, did not help matters. Sometimes, Phil was just TOO manipulative…

Idly I stroked Madog, thinking for just a moment about rabbit stew. Then I sighed audibly and confronted the problem. Phil was just trying to make something happen for the benefit of everyone, after all. A stronger Fleet for Whales was good for Metamor, and more trade was good for everyone. This was an IMPORTANT job. Perhaps it was no wonder that Phil had prodded me a bit.

But what mechanism could possibly be so accurate as to keep time for days on end? Damn that rabbit, I thought! What kind of miracles did he expect of me? For a bit I stood up and paced about the shop, idly examining and rejecting bits and pieces of this and that. Then I sat down again and crossed my legs in irritation. "If you cannot work anything out, I will understand," I quoted sneeringly to Madog. "Keep time accurately, for weeks on end. No one has ever done it before. But if you cannot work anything out, I will understand. Maybe foreign workmen are smarter than you!" Madog took this outburst as an invitation, and flowed easily up into my lap. Absently my hand stroked him, as I got madder and madder. Damn that rabbit! What made him think I cared what he thought of me? Where did he get the right to imply that I was not as good as some clockmaker from a fancy foreign land? The fact that I knew he intended me to get angry just made things worse and worse and worse. There was no escaping the trap of Phil's high expectations. I scritched Madog behind his metal ear, and he shifted the appendage a bit so as to let me get at it better.

And instantly I had my answer! In a blinding flash, I saw again before me Madog's filthy innards, as they were when I first found them, and one particularly puzzling mechanism I had labeled the "escapement", because it let a spring unwind slowly. And accurately.

A spring-powered clock! When all the others in the world were powered by water or slowly falling weights?

Well, why not?

And whistling happily I went to work, my irritation at Phil forgotten in a warm glow of creative pleasure. I would not have his clock ready in a week, or a month, or a year. There would be heartache upon heartache in the making of it. But it would work, and in the end mean far more for the world than any pile of Lutin skulls that I could ever hope to assemble. I would be remembered as an artisan even more than as a warrior. Forevermore, when I was done, ships would sail more safely because of my work.

And it was kind of nice, in a selfish sort of way, to know that Phil would not have to hunt around for a "master" clockmaker. Metamor had the finest staff of artisans and inventors in the known world, after all.

As well as, I had to admit, one rather bright if sometimes highly irritating rabbit.