Silkstrand, A Minute Of
by Anton Stark
Imperial Majesty, Lord-for-Countless-Years, Son of Heaven, Ruler of Industry and Wisdom; this your servant Cai Jing of the Ministry of Works greets you. As per your Imperial Decree, I have compiled the following report on the matter of Master Su’s Clock and its abnormal behaviour. The facts of the case, as far as truth has presented itself, are as follows:
Sometimes, when he behaved badly, they sent Little Sprocket to the Inbetween. Little Sprocket didn’t like it there. That’s where the Clock went to die. Flywheels and springs gathered dust, cogs heaped on mountains with spiders’ castles hanging like silkweave from their rust-brown teeth. Bird-leaves were scattered in the rainwater that pooled beneath the little window, so many Sprocket-worths of height up there. Little Sprocket dipped his feet in the muddy water – it stank something fierce, and the bird-leaves swam like little ships around his ankles. Sometimes there were frogs, lazy and tubby and uncaring about his toes — and he stared at the minutes as they passed away in wisps of cloud. In here there was no Clock. He could hear it working a dull dance against the lattice-work walls of the Inbetween, thrumming and thumping like the heart in his chest, but this was a forgotten place. Shafts of light from above, blades of sickly grass below, no time in any direction. No colour other than decayed browns of brass and wood and oily paper. He knew every nook and cranny, every small interstice, every splinter.
Everything but the eyes, brown and curious and scared, peering at him through a small hole, on the other side of the Inbetween.
It wasn’t often Little Sprocket was brought there. He was very mindful of his duties. “One has to be very mindful of one’s duties”, Imperial Timekeeper Yan always said, every week after tea. “The Emperor of All-Under-Heaven requires us to.” Sometimes he seemed pleased and gave Little Sprocket a sweet or a coin, which he stacked in his cubicle under the Coil of the East Wind and made little playing towers with, leaning against the gifts the man brought him every New Year. Other times he seemed frustrated, and sent Little Sprocket to wet his feet in the stagnant waters of the Inbetween, so he could think about his duties. Little Sprocket counted the minutes in a low voice, a steady hum that hid the anxiety of not being able to tend to the Clock.
“Hello?” he asked, and the eyes darted around in the hole, big as the coins Timekeeper Yan gave him, and disappeared. “Hello?” Little Sprocket repeated, standing in the water.
There was nothing.
Little Sprocket sat down and resumed his counting.
Timekeeper Yan always said the Clock could never stop, could never slow down. Not ever. “Without the Clock there is no order, and chaos and the demons will spring from the ten hells and consume All-Under-Heaven”. Little Sprocket bit his lip, and his eyes went round like pattern 15 ratchet wheels. Timekeeper Yan was peremptory. The Emperor trusted Little Sprocket, and Little Sprocket alone, with safeguarding the Kingdom from within. He was the guardian of the Clock. He was the caretaker of the Kingdom’s pulse. To fail in his remit was not an option, Timekeeper Yan said, and when he did his smile hung from the tips of his moustache and never travelled upwards to his eyes. Thus Little Sprocket toiled away, every day.
Your Majesty will recall your princedom, before Master Su’s Clock set the standard for time in All-Under-Heaven, how every province and county lagged or hurried in relation to the Imperial City according to its own traditions and rites; how the New Year crept in silky darkness on the Changbai Mountains whilst farmers toiled yet at the feet of the Kunlun peaks. Now every bell toll and factory whistle strikes the same, from Kashgar to Fuyuan. Now every astronomer and priest guides himself by Master Su’s astronomical sphere, and every spirit and god is appeased at the most auspicious time. Now every citizen rises at once by Your Majesty’s will, and on Your will they lie. So all is correct in All-Under-Heaven.
Yet, it was never a system without its flaws. Entropy takes its toll on Man’s every creation, none more so than the wonderful and the unique. Thus the keepers were devised, to care and maintain for Master Su’s apparatus, that it may keep the Middle Kingdom in prosperity for a thousand years and more.
It is often said, Imperial Majesty, that Fate brings souls together no matter how far apart they might be. This is true for flesh and metal. Is it surprising, then, that these two souls have come together, with but a single wall between them?
Fifteen minutes, eleven seconds. Little Sprocket’s heartspring hummed with panic. Levers 106 and 19 needed turning; axle 107 needed bracing; gear train 608 needed adjusting; Little Sprocket needed to work. But Timekeeper Yan had been very frustrated that day. There was a new Son of Heaven on the Dragon Throne, he said, with a mind for poetry and beauty and no thoughts of mechanics or industry. So the factories worked all night, and the Emperor didn’t bless them, too busy with volumes of prose; the airships flew all day, and the Emperor didn’t look up from his calligraphy; his soldiers marched in steam and flame to expand his rule, and the Emperor dismissed them with a wave and sat down to the amorous pleasing of jade flutes. Everywhere, All-Under-Heaven bowed to his glory, and the Emperor shut the doors of the Imperial City on it all, to listen to song birds and the eastern wind rising.
Timekeeper Yan could not punish the Son of Heaven, much as he would have liked to in his heart. But he could punish Little Sprocket.
The water was cold. Little Sprocket imagined it cold. He had gotten used to the feeling a long time ago, so now he just imagined the sensation. Perhaps he had imagined the eyes as well. Every time he stared at the hole, and thought about what it could’ve been. One time he’d tried going all the way around the Clock looking for it. He had found nothing but solid wood, and the Clock had shuddered with accumulated pressure, hurrying him back to his usual paths.
“Hello?” he asked, as he sometimes did. It felt good to imagine there was someone there, someone other than Timekeeper Yan. Someone like him.
The frog at his feet looked upwards, in sympathy. Little Sprocket nudged it along with a gentle kick.
“Hello,” the hole replied. The frog hopped away, mildly insulted, as Little Sprocket sprang from his seat.
The eyes. Again. They stared at him, and Little Sprocket stared back. Then they recoiled into the gloom, like a wounded beast.
“Wait.” The eyes hesitated. “Please, wait.”
Little Sprocket took a step forward. Then another. Careful, as if the ground were a thread of coil, taut and fragile like a petal. As he drew nearer, there was a nose, then a mouth. A boy. A boy like himself. Blue rags, like his own, hung from thin shoulders in old silk dappled oily brown.
“Who are you?”
The other boy fidgeted with his hands. They were dirty and small. And beautiful. More beautiful than any coin, or bird-leaf, or any glint of sunlight.
“Little Sprocket” he said, pointing to himself.
“Why are you named for a tool?”
“Why are you?” Little Sprocket replied, never having thought about his own name like that before.
Ratchet’s mouth wavered a reply, and gave up.
“What are you doing in the Clock?” Little Sprocket asked.
“I take care of it. The Son of Heaven has trusted me to” he added, with a note of pride in between the uncertainty.
“So do I,” said Little Sprocket, more than a little bit confused. He meant to ask something else, but a gear shaft whizzed impatiently behind Ratchet and cut him off. Around them, the Clock droned in exasperation. Ratchet turned his back to him, half engulfed by darkness and cog-shapes.
“When will I see you again?” Little Sprocket asked.
Ratchet didn’t reply.
“When there’s time,” the other boy finally said, and disappeared back into the Clock.
Ratchet. Who was he? How could he be there? Little Sprocket had told nothing to Timekeeper Yan as the man came to fetch him from the Inbetween. He handed back Little Sprocket’s tools and told him to get back to work. So he did, as the hours changed from darkness to light and dark again. But his mind kept going to Ratchet, to his eyes – brown like an oil slick, mellow like the summer breeze — to his beautiful hands. And as he worked he saw Ratchet in every corner and every gear train, every crank shaft and every piston.
When there was time, Ratchet had said.
Around him the Clock droned, inquisitive. Little Sprocket looked at the tools in his hand.
When there was time.
Slowly, Little Sprocket wound a cog back, then another, then another. Enough, he thought, to stall the Clock for a minute.
It is hard to precisely determine when the first minute was lost; for, while the Clock is infallible, Your Majesty’s chief computators work within a margin of error. Is it not said that a boat can’t always sail with the wind, and an army can’t always win its battles?
In the end, what is a minute, O Son of Heaven, if not a single drop in the ocean of Time?
And so the first minute, or the first few, went unnoticed to all.
They talked. It was only a minute at a time, a minute every week, but they talked. The Clock wound down – a low buzz, dormant, contented – and they hurried to the hole. Little Sprocket brought his treasures along, showed Ratchet his towers of coin. Ratchet had coins too, and a picture – a dancer and a musician in a market square, something Timekeeper Yan had dropped from a book and let him keep. The man visited them both, it turned out; and more questions flowed between the boys for several weeks afterwards.
Every stolen second, since the very first one, was a risk. Little Sprocket could only imagine the demon hordes tearing through the land, and he half expected to hear them, but there was nothing. Only a minute, and then another, and then another.
All the while Little Sprocket admired Ratchet’s hands. His fingers rose and fell like the tide, softly, gently, brushing against the torn wood of the hole when they handed Little Sprocket one of the other boy’s treasures.
The first time they touched, Little Sprocket shivered, paper-kite on a gust of air.
The first time they touched, they looked at one other, and neither could blush – but in their heartsprings there was warmth.
The first time they touched was only a second. And in the thirty four seconds afterwards, they did their best to ignore it – but in their eyes they could not.
It is said, O Son of Heaven, that if a grain of wheat were to be placed on the first square of a chessboard, then two on the second, and four on the third, and this be followed for the entirety of the board, there would be no wheat in All-Under-Heaven to fill the final square.
So the minutes thus stolen added up, and both good and bad added up as well. Minutes stolen during the day became extra goods from your factories, but also overtired and disgruntled workers; minutes stolen from the night became emptier warehouses in the morning, but also well-rested, contented families.
Yet, one minute stolen on the first square of the board became two, and two became four. And by then, the Ministry of Computation could no longer ignore the fact that something was amiss.
The teapot smashed against a coil of wire, spraying tea across the small room, on the cogs and the instruments, on Little Sprocket’s face, like the tears he couldn’t cry. He kowtowed and begged for forgiveness as the man berated him, shouted at him, kicked away the tea table and the tea cups and Little Sprocket’s meagre belongings. He had never seen Timekeeper Yan like this. The Emperor, the man growled at him, had been extremely displeased at receiving so many pleas and reports on the malfunctioning Clock, a flurry of paper that prevented him from quietly enjoying the pleasures of the Hall of Eternal Peace. Timekeeper Yan hadn’t been able to furnish him with an explanation, so now he demanded one from Little Sprocket.
In return, the boy had only a question:
“Who is Ratchet?”
Timekeeper Yan’s face went ashen, like a mid-autumn’s overcast sky. When he spoke again, his voice rang from every hanging coil, every twirling cog. He forbade Little Sprocket from seeing Ratchet again. He forbade him from going to the Inbetween again, or straying from his route, or doing anything other than tending to the Clock. There would be no more coins, he said, no more talks and no more tea. Little Sprocket nodded, head hanging over the floor, to appease him. His heartspring, however, wound tighter and tighter as the truth trickled from Timekeeper Yan’s words, pooling like the turgid waters in the Inbetween.
In the middle of the shouts, there was silence about one thing.
There had been no chaos. There had been no demons.
There had only been a displeased Son of Heaven, too busy about his music to care about a malfunctioning mechanism.
“Ratchet,” he called.
After a moment – sixteen seconds – Ratchet’s face lit up the darkness.
“There are no demons,” Little Sprocket said before Ratchet could speak. The other boy clasped his hands together in doubt.
“They lied?” he asked.
Little Sprocket shook his head. When he looked to Ratchet again, there was a glint in his eyes, some fire to the amber that burnt everything away and left them both standing, alone, on a great white expanse of Ratchet’s thoughts. At least, that was the feeling Little Sprocket got.
“Let’s do it then,” Ratchet finally said.
Ratchet nodded. Little Sprocket smiled. In their chests, their heartsprings fluttered like golden songbirds.
When a person walks, they leave footprints. When a bird flies, it leaves its feathers. The truth, O Son of Heaven, leaves its traces too. And those who have been lied to will follow them — to whatever end.
It was almost the New Year.
They knew it because the Clock chuffed away as if dancing to the music outside, as if marking every step and turn with the booming of fireworks.
It is almost the New Year, they said to one another in silence, smiling from either side of the hole as they counted under their breaths.
Ratchet pulled, and the wood broke some more.
Carefully, Little Sprocket went through.
Ratchet unscrewed the top plate, and they both climbed up.
The sky exploded in colour, greens and yellows casting light on a great many bands of bronze arranged as a sphere, held up by two enormous dragons. Little Sprocket led Ratchet beneath the mechanism of the heavens and they sat down, staring at the Imperial City.
All-Under-Heaven. The golden rooftops crowned by twirls of smoke, the red walls and the red lanterns and the red faces — red of joy, red of laughter — all around them, like a sea. Out there, there was no Clock. They could hear it singing happily under them — a song of brass and steam and coiled springs — and in their heartsprings they sang along, basking under the flowers blooming in the sky, showers of red fire like silkstrand, a minute of silence and then more. And they both counted under their breaths.
Ratchet held out his hand. A small, beautiful hand. Little Sprocket’s fingers closed around it like a garland.
The Clock’s song stopped. Out there, there was no Clock, there was no Time. There was just them. Little Sprocket held onto Ratchet’s hand, and it was green and yellow and red. In the middle of all that, who would notice a stolen day?
This, O Son of Heaven, is the truth as far as it surrendered itself to the ministries. The consequences, we all know, were for the most part insignificant: by your Majesty’s imperial decree, the first day of the calendar was suppressed and given to the people as an additional day of revelry, leading to much the enjoyment and respect for Your Imperial Majesty. As for the two keepers, we respectfully ask for your advice, and the punishment to be bestowed.
This your servant will dare these final words, that they might help Your Majesty come to a decision: It is true that an ounce of gold will not buy an inch of time, and so time lost cannot ever be bought back. But who among us can truthfully say that, for love, they have never wished to steal a day from the gods?
About the Author
Anton Stark is the pseudonym of a Portuguese professional editor and translator, amateur historian and hoplologist, and neophyte historical reenactor. He was born in 1991, a few short months before the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Coincidence? Almost certainly. Or was it? His recent works include the first Portuguese cyberpunk anthology, Proxy (as editor), and the short story “Videri Quam Esse” in the Steampunk International Anthology (published by New Con Press in the UK, Editorial Divergência in Portugal, and Osuuskumma in Finland).
About the Narrator
Once a Silicon Valley software engineer, Curtis C. Chen now writes fiction and runs puzzle games near Portland, Oregon. His debut novel Waypoint Kangaroo is a science fiction thriller about a superpowered spy facing his toughest mission yet: vacation. The sequel, Kangaroo Too, sends our hero to the Moon. Curtis is part of the writing team for NINTH STEP STATION, a new fiction series premiering January 9, 2019, on Serial Box.