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art by Melissa Mead

Just Like Clockwork

K.G. Jewell lives and writes in Austin, Texas. He once testified before congress. Unfortunately, they didn't ask him about rockets or robots. His website, which is rarely updated, is lit.kgjewell.com. This is his third story for Daily Science Fiction.

The trumpet of the elephant announced the closing of the gates. Zookeeper Hemiz set down his pencil, pushed away the timing equations for the new arctic exhibit, and leaned back in his office chair with his eyes closed. It had been a long month at Krinnia's Earth Animal Clockwork Zoo. Tomorrow was The Winding, a busy event in itself, but tonight's closing, the finale of the month-long program, was his favorite.
The elephant's solo ended. The canaries chirped in response, then the gorillas added the percussion of their chests. The owls joined the melody with soft hoots, syncopating with the bleats of the sheep as the cries of animals across the zoo rose to a cacophonous crescendo, then faded. The parakeets tweeted, setting up the close.
The lion roared, prematurely.
Hemiz sat up, shaking his head. The Shurilian lion's roar was the last sound of the month, but it had come a half-beat early, before the parakeets' final note.
Hemiz rose, stepping out of his office onto the workshop floor. His assistant, Lara, sat hunched over the half-disassembled tin carcass of a penguin, her workbench cluttered with piles of brass cogs and gears.
"Did you hear that?" Hemiz asked.
"What?" Lara looked up, lifting the magnifying monocle suspended from her visor.
"The Shurilian lion. It's running fast."
"So much for Galactic Technology. Can you get a refund?" She chuckled. The lion had been a gift from the Shurilians after they'd been granted landfall on an equatorial island unused by the Krinnians. The Krinnians would be happy to reverse the transaction.
"As if. Let's look it over tomorrow."
Zookeeper Hemiz couldn't sleep. The Shurilian lion kept roaring in his dreams, ruining his otherwise perfect zoo. He rose, careful not to disturb the sleeping form of his wife Narrissa, and made his way to the kitchen in the darkness.
He threw a log in the stove, set the teapot on its cast iron top, and dropped a teabag into an earthenware mug. He moved his rocking chair to the window. The third moon was near full, illuminating the southern mountain range. Hemiz had chosen this house, at the edge of the city, because of this view. Coniferous trees blanketed the mountain's lower shoulders, but the raw rock and snow pack of the high reaches were a reminder that the planet's untouched wilderness surrounded the small, tidy streets of the Krinnian capital.
He was still sitting at the window, the mug long empty, as the sun and Narrissa rose.
"Bad night?" she asked, standing in the doorway. A member of the governing council, Narrissa was already in the first layer of her formal robes.
"Trouble letting go of work. You're up early. Big meeting?"
"Yes. We finally got a meeting with the Shurilian plenipotentiary about the earthquakes. They must be related to the Shurilian space elevator, but the council is wary of complaining to the Sector authorities if it's not. We used all our political capital fighting the Shurilian landfall and don't have much to spare."
"The Shurilians are behind everyone's troubles. Their fancy donation to the zoo is running fast. It's messing up the whole program. If we don't get it straightened out we're going to have to adjust everything else to compensate."
Narrissa stepped forward and gave him a kiss on his forehead. "You'll get it figured out. You're the zookeeper."
Hemiz hoped she was right.
Seventy-eight independent pendulums ran the clockwork of the zoo. The monthly winding began hours before the gates opened, Hemiz and Lara walking from exhibit to exhibit, cranking up the weight of each with the meter-long zookeeper's key.
They were winding the five-tonne steel-and-iron elephant in the Earth Savanna exhibit when the ground shook.
"Maybe the earthquakes are upsetting the lion's timing," said Lara.
"I don't think so," said Hemiz, leaning into the key for the last turn of the elephant's winding. The very substantial elephant automaton was powered by a combination of hydraulics and clockwork, and the weight behind its pendulum gears was the heaviest in the zoo. "The lion's timepiece is Shurilian, but it's installed on one of our isolation platforms and the vibrations are well within those specs." The spring-mounted platform dampened resonant interference from the environment, including the vibrations of neighboring clocks, passersby, and minor earthquakes.
"It just seems more than a coincidence that the error began a few weeks after the earthquakes became fairly regular."
"Correlation isn't causation," Hemiz reminded her, checking the oil tank pressurized by a pump powered via the winding mechanism. The dial indicated it was fully charged.
The elephant was unique in that the animal detached from the pendulum gears every hour, on the hour, strutting around the savannah exhibit and trumpeting under hydraulic power before returning to the gears to be recharged by the potential energy stored in the raised weight. On slow days at the zoo, Hemiz gave children rides on the elephant, steering it from a control panel in its neck.
"Correlation isn't causation, but sometimes it's a big hint," Lara retorted.
The lion was on the other end of the two-decare simulated earth savannah. The copper-skinned, wire-maned automation lazed on a rock. As they stepped into the observation space it yawned, mirrored teeth reflecting in the overhead arc light. The lion swished its tail, sparks arcing between the wire tuft at its end and the rock floor.
Hemiz unlocked the access hatch marked "Zookeeper only" and they ducked behind and underneath the exhibit. The lion's timing assembly was tiny, a sealed black box barely the size of a loaf of bread. The Shurilians claimed the lion was accurate to one second per millennium and would never need to be wound. It was integrated into the zoo's choreography through a lever triggered by a wire connected to the monthly program kickoff.
Hemiz reviewed the isolation platform, the connection into the timing device, and the power shaft from the timing device to the lion's mechanics. "Nothing looks off here," he said.
Lara nodded. "If they've got a problem, it's in their system."
Hemiz and Narrissa sat at the kitchen table over a meal of bread and stew. "The plenipotentiary denies the earthquakes have anything to do with their new space elevator," Narrissa said, dipping her bread in the stew's salty broth.
"What is behind it, then?" Hemiz asked.
"She claims it's tidal forces from the moon alignment. There is nothing odd about the current alignment, but she says we just can't understand the problem because our planetary models are incomplete--but she won't share their model with us because of technology transfer restrictions."
Hemiz frowned and focused on a particularly chewy root vegetable in his stew. Generations ago, Krinnia's founders had left Earth and its weaponized, polluted dystopia to get a 'fresh start' on technology, and a Sector treaty granted them the right to independent technological development.
"I told her their fancy lion was malfunctioning," Narrissa added. "She got all huffy and checked something on her little hand-held device, and said it was working just fine. She said the lion was more accurate than we could imagine, and the problem was on our end."
"If she can check it remotely, the lion should have been embargoed under the technology transfer restriction too," he snorted. "Thanks for asking." If the lion wasn't running fast, that implied the rest of the zoo was running slow. That wasn't helpful.
Hemiz attributed his position as head zookeeper to a windup caterpillar kit he'd received for his eighth birthday. That gift led to an apprenticeship with a clockmaker, then a contract helping to build and maintain the parakeet exhibit, and then, a decade ago, he'd been offered the zookeeper position. He took it in an instant. He was a perfectionist, and this was a job where perfectionism wasn't just appreciated, it was necessary.
But perfection led to late nights. Hemiz and Lara spent the next week combing the zoo, looking for an explanation of the timing discrepancy between the Shurilian lion and the other seventy-eight pendulum-driven animals that made up the zoo.
They found nothing. Everything was running smoothly. Everything was in order.
Except the results. By the next month's closing, the lion was a full second early.
After the gates closed, Hemiz and Lara sat on a rock in Savannah exhibit and commiserated over a bottle of whiskey.
"It's got to be the lion," said Lara after her third shot. "Our clocks are tight and right."
"Galactic Tech." Hemiz shook his head and poured them both another. "Accuracy you can't even imagine," he quoted.
"We've eliminated every possible source of systematic error on our end. That leaves random error. You really think that's what it is?"
"Correlated random error in seventy-eight independent clocks?" responded Hemiz. "Unlikely." He picked up a pebble and threw it at the lion. He hit its open eye with a vaguely satisfying clink. The lion yawned.
"Except for the Galactic Tech lion, they're all pendulum clocks, " said Lara. "Maybe that has something to do with it?"
At this point, Hemiz was willing to consider anything. He pulled a notebook from his vest pocket and scrawled a formula upon it.
T = 2π (l/g)^(1/2)
"Let's start from basic principles," he said. "T is the period of the pendulum. The clocks are running slow, so T is larger than it should be. The period of a pendulum increases as a function of l, the distance between the pivot and the weight. Are the pendulum rods getting longer? Stretching?"
Lara frowned. "No. I checked them all with the caliper."
"Maybe the caliper has gotten longer, too. Heat expansion?" Hemiz said, racking his brain. "Although I don't think it's been unusually warm."
"It hasn't. In fact, it's been almost exactly normal," said Lara.
The earth shook.
"I tell you, it's got to be the earthquakes. The Shurilians are behind this somehow," she said.
"No, again--the isolation chambers. They are all intact, and these earthquakes are within the design parameters," Hemiz answered. He took a shot. "Maybe Shurilians are messing with the pendulum speed though. The period of the pendulum also depends on gravitational acceleration. Maybe their fancy Galactic Tech transit drive skews the gravitational constant, big G. That would change the local gravity, little g, and mess up the period of the clocks."
"I'm pretty sure that's not possible, even with Galactic Tech," Lara said. "They didn't get here on FTL--they play by the same rules of physics we do. They just have better toys."
"They still could be messing with little g--just within the rules."
"What are they doing with that elevator, anyway?" Hemiz said. "What if they're stealing part of the planet?"
"I get it. Less planetary mass, smaller little g, bigger T, slower clocks." Lara rolled her eyes and scribbled her own set of equations on Hemiz's notepad. She snorted and threw down her pencil.
"What's more likely, that the Shurilians have stolen eight parts per million of the planet, or that our clocks are just having a bad day? Eight parts per million is still about 4.6 quintillian kilos, by the way."
"I dunno. Like you said, they have some pretty cool toys."
Narrissa came by on her way home from a council meeting, a rare one that got out before midnight. By then Hemiz and Lara had convinced themselves the Shurilians were stealing the molten core of their planet for mass to build a Dyson sphere around the local sun. The zookeepers were taking turns sitting on the elephant, throwing rocks across the exhibit at the lion. They explained their theory to Narrissa.
"How sure are you about this?" asked Narrissa, looking skeptically at the empty bottle of whiskey on the ground in front of the elephant.
"Not sure at all. It's ridiculously improbable," Hemiz said from the elephant's back. "But we've eliminated all the other possibilities--it's the only option left."
"It would explain the earthquakes too," chimed in Lara.
"I'd need proof to go to council. Not just an idea cooked up by a couple of drunk zookeepers."
"We can get proof. Lara came up with a testable hypothesis." Hemiz gestured for Lara to explain her idea. He hefted his last rock. Lara was up one throw in their ad-hoc game of hit-the-lion; he needed a bull's-eye to tie.
"If the Shurilians are removing mass with the space elevator," Lara said, "the planet's rotation should slow as the mass lifts away from the planet's center of gravity--like an ice skater slowing her spin by spreading her arms. That means the day should be getting longer. We'll use a spring-driven clock, which won't be affected by the change in mass, to measure the length of the day and compare it to historical data from the university observatory,"
"If," Narrissa mused, "If you can get someone at the university to corroborate this and testify before council, I can get the council to request an inquiry from the Sector authorities. Council was pretty dissatisfied with the Shurilian explanation for the earthquakes--this could push them to action."
"It would be unwise to pursue this."
Hemiz jumped at the new voice, almost falling off the elephant's back. A woman walked onto the observation floor--Miranda, the Shurilian plenipotentiary. Hemiz had seen her at the ceremony in which the Shurilians had presented the Krinnians with the lion as a symbol of greeting and peace. She was the only Shurilian any Krinnian had ever seen face-to-face.
She wore one-piece overalls. The Shurilians were human, their genetic divergence from the Krinnians minimal despite the generations separating their exoduses from Earth.
"I'm glad I've got you all in one place. You know, one reason the lion is so accurate is that it monitors its environment to correct for disturbances that could disrupt its operations. When that monitoring system overheard your conversation, it sent me a message. It seems it deems your ideas a threat to its operations." Miranda smiled. "You do have an interesting theory. Planetary theft of mass." She laughed, then her face turned serious. "Unfortunately for you, it's correct."
Miranda pulled out her handheld device and stepped over the short rope separating the observation deck from the exhibit. "Once we finish our extraction, your planet will implode and with it any witnesses to report a treaty violation to the Sector authorities. When they finally notice you are gone, we'll provide documentation of the tragic accident caused by one of your scientists attempting to experiment with N-space." She pushed some buttons. "Unfortunately, we need a couple more months to complete the extraction--so you'll have to be eliminated early."
Miranda stepped forward, pointing her device at Narrissa.
"Run!" Hemiz shouted. He threw the rock at Miranda.
It ricocheted off her shoulder. She spun towards him. "Throwing rocks against Galactic Tech? You Krinnians really are a bunch of monkeys. You don't deserve a planet."
Narrissa was backing up, quietly inching towards the exit. Hemiz needed to buy her more time. He slid back the access panel in the elephant's neck and pulled a lever. The elephant trumpeted and stepped forward. Its trunk swung out, knocking Miranda to the ground. The device flew from Miranda's hand, spinning across the packed dirt.
He directed the elephant forward, the floor shaking with each footstep. Miranda scrambled after the device.
Hemiz and the elephant got there first. The device crunched beneath five metric tonnes of clockwork elephant.
Miranda screamed and stomped her foot. "You backward, ignorant, low-tech morons!"
Hemiz twisted a dial, wrapping the elephant's trunk around Miranda and lifting her into the air.
Narrissa and Lara had made it to the door. They stopped, turned around, and laughed.
"You want to feed her to the lion?" Narrissa asked.
Lara fetched the colony police, who agreed to hold Miranda at Narrissa's request. Narrissa made an emergency request for intervention to the Sector authorities. With the Sector authorities en route, the Shurilians left for parts unknown.
In time, the earthquakes slowed, and then stopped. Hemiz and Lara adjusted the pendulums to account for the reduced mass and rebuilt the lion with Krinnian technology. The zoo worked once again, the finale running smoothly.
Just like clockwork.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, August 9th, 2013

Author Comments

A clockwork zoo is still a clock, right? And what are clocks good for? Physics experiments. And what are physics experiments good for? Inspiring science fiction. This story is dedicated to all the science teachers out there, including my high school physics teacher, Mr. Deshaies.

- K.G. Jewell
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