The Quantum Watchmaker

By David Cleden

In the summer heat, the clocks ran slow and the very substance of time seemed to drag. All watchmakers knew this, but only the very best–of which M. Guilbert was perhaps the greatest–were clever enough to engineer compensatory mechanisms into their creations. His accuracy was legendary. It was as though time itself was forced to do this watchmaker’s bidding. Some said I was privileged to witness a master at his work, but what did they know of the burdens he forced me to carry?

I served my apprenticeship in unprepossessing circumstances. A kind of perpetual gloom existed inside the watchmaker’s shop, the kind that eventually seeped deep into one’s soul. M. Guilbert worked in a windowless back room, a black velvet curtain always drawn across the doorway. Misshapen stubs of candles erupted like toadstools from every available surface so that he might see to do his work. The air was thick with the smell of burnt tallow.

He would not talk to me of his strange mechanisms, and certainly he taught me nothing of their design. How was an apprentice to learn from a master such as this? I glimpsed intricate components of brass and silver but these bizarre mechanisms grew larger than any mere watch or clock, like rampant weeds sprouting where a delicate flower had once been. And I saw other things too, materials which no ordinary watchmaker had need of.

How could I not help but feel disconsolate? My days were long, fumbling with tiny cogs and fragile movements, clumsily assembling the workmanlike pieces that kept us fed, until my fingers were sore and my eyes ached from the strain. The bustle of the town square glimpsed through the shop’s mullioned windows was as remote as a foreign land. Long days passed with no customers to break the silence or disturb the dust settling thickly on our bare wooden floors. It seemed I had become no more than a ghost trapped in this place, yearning for escape.

In time I learned that none was to be found.

One day, the little bell above the door gave a harsh, muted jangle, protesting its long period of inactivity. The open door threw a sudden, startling beam of sunlight across the plain wooden boards. A bubble of summer warmth wafted in, stirring the dust into swirls.

I straightened from behind the counter, blinking as I removed the jeweler’s eyepiece and set down my tools. The silhouetted stranger advanced. I saw expensive clothes, glimpsed beyond the door a fine carriage, and heard the impatient snort of a waiting mare. The man took a long moment to peruse the timepieces arrayed on the shelves. I tried to follow his gaze, to see where it lingered and gauge his interest. Those would be the pieces M. Guilbert would do well to haggle over. Times were hard and paying customers the rarest of creatures.

For an instant I imagined I saw the watchmaker’s shop through this stranger’s eyes: a gloomy interior, shabby furnishings, an air of genteel neglect. The little silver and gold timepieces: each exquisitely crafted, yet carelessly scattered across every conceivable surface, many lying forgotten on high shelves where they gathered dust–of which there was no shortage. And what of us? The master and his apprentice: equally gloomy, shabby inhabitants of this place.

“Why do none of these mechanisms work?” the stranger inquired, completing his inventory.

“Oh but they do,” I assured him, hurrying out from behind the counter. I glanced towards the inner sanctum of my master’s workshop, willing him to appear and relieve me of the burden of dealing with this self-important stranger. M. Guilbert never closed the door but the thick black curtain was always drawn when he was inside.

“In every other watchmaker’s premises I have ever attended,” the gentleman said, “my ears have been assaulted by the ticking, whirring and chiming of a hundred timepieces. But not so here. Do your mechanisms keep time insufficiently well that you dare not set them running?”

“On the contrary,” I said, with one last futile glance at the drawn curtain. “M. Guilbert makes devices of only the greatest precision. But my master believes it is… disrespectful… to wind a timepiece that does not yet have a purpose. Would you not agree?”

“Indeed. Perhaps.” The gentleman seemed entirely unpersuaded.

“Allow me to show you the truth of it for yourself.”

The stranger fingered the fob watch I proffered with no more than mild curiosity. “I am not the prospective buyer. But M. Guilbert’s reputation has reached the ears of my master.”

Your master?” It seemed unlikely someone dressed in such finery would serve any master.

“The Comte Bachellaix desires to purchase a timepiece. He has heard that M. Guilbert’s skills are second to none.”

“Indeed!” I said, thinking of the sheaf of unpaid bills stuffed into the ledger book.

“A timepiece suitably decorous for a lady, is what the Comte desires. You have such things?” he asked, looking doubtfully at the shelves.

“But of course! M. Guilbert will be greatly honored to equip the Comtess with the finest, most delicate watch ever assembled.”

The man smiled thinly. “Yes. For the purposes of expedience, let us assume this will indeed be a gift for the Comtess.” He paused and in the silence the town hall clock in the square could be clearly heard striking eleven. The gentleman glanced around the silent interior of the shop, frowning. No echoing chimes came from the dozen or so carriage clocks, not a single one. Hurriedly I said, “M. Guilbert will ensure there is a fine selection for the Comte’s perusal. I shall wind them personally.”

The gentleman grunted. He wafted a gloved hand ineffectually at the dust hanging in the air. “See that you are prepared for the Comte’s arrival. He will come at noon tomorrow.”

He left and gloomy silence fell over the shop again. I hesitated by the curtain, knowing better than to draw it back uninvited. As though reading my thoughts, M. Guilbert snatched it aside and pushed past me.

“Damn you, Boy. Why did you not send him away?”

“The Comte is an important man. And we have bills to pay.”

“Bills. Pah.” He rummaged in a drawer beneath the counter, returned brandishing a thin jeweler’s blade which he waved in my face as though I had purposefully hidden it from him. “Why does everyone insist on disturbing my work?”

“Perhaps if you would let me assist you?” I asked without much hope. What use was an apprentice whose master would not put him to good use? Who would not teach all that he knew? Lately I had begun to dream about M. Guilbert’s mechanism that he worked on so furtively. Its little brass parts–the myriad wheels and ratchets and pinions–gleamed with a light brighter than any mere reflection and when the mechanism moved, it purred rather than ticked, like some slumbering creature. Lying in my bedchamber tucked under the shop’s eaves, I would stare into the darkness and feel the irresistible pull of the device, stronger even than the gravity drawing me to my bed. I burned to learn more about it.

“I think not,” M. Guilbert said with a final withering stare. He thrust the curtain back into place behind him.

“These people you so despise are called customers,” I called. There was no answer. The mechanism on the bench was already devouring all his attention.

I sighed. The Comte’s visit could be the making of our fortunes, if we played our cards right. But it had occurred to me that it could be our undoing, too.

The Comte was not a tall man. Even bewigged, the top of his head did not reach to my shoulders. Were it not for the ornate embroidery of his cloak, the jewels on his pudgy fingers and the swagger with which he entered our shop, I might have mistaken him for an over-pompous page.

M. Guilbert stood scowling as I stepped round the counter and paid the Comte the courtesy of a low, formal bow.

Into the awkward silence that followed, the Comte’s aide, the gentleman who had visited the previous day, made a small irritated gesture at me and I hurried to produce the little red velvet pouch. From within I carefully withdrew a silver disk no larger than a sovereign. It caught the weak rays of light slanting through the freshly scrubbed windows and glinted in my proffered palm.

The aide stepped forward, his face flushed. “What is this? You dare offer the Comte a silver coin as though he has need of money? Why, that is–”

“Allow me to enlighten,” said M. Guilbert, stepping between us. With surprisingly dextrous fingers, he flipped open the upper surface of the disk and we all leaned forwards to get a better look at the miniature dial and delicate clockwork glimpsed within. “Those who cannot recognize a mechanism for what it is can scarce have the wit to make use of it.” I saw the aide grow red with anger. “But,” M. Guilbert continued, “I am sure the Comte has no such difficulties.”

I held my breath. The Comte fumbled for a moment, then found the tiny beveled winder and gave it a twist.

“Ah!” The Comte raised the watch, the better to hear the smooth purr of its motion now that he had set it going. “That is indeed most pleasing. So small! It scarcely seems possible such a thing could have been wrought by human hands.”

M. Guilbert accepted the compliments with a small nod. Perhaps he had forgotten how much of the craftsmanship in that particular device had been my own–skills that ought to have earned me a journeyman accreditation from the Guild had M. Guilbert remembered to put my name forward, which he had not.

“And does it keep time?” the aide asked, a touch sharply as he tried to recover his poise.

“As well as any sailor’s chronometer. Better, even,” M. Guilbert assured him.

“Yet so tiny…” the Comte mused.

They perused a dozen or more timepieces, each having been opened and wound by me an hour before the Comte’s arrival, but always his attention returned to the tiny watch fashioned like a silver sovereign. Every time the Comte’s gaze settled on it, I thought of those unpaid bills and how good it would be to free ourselves from debt, and my heart skipped a beat.

Business was concluded with a nod from the Comte. Without a word to us, he left the shop, disappearing behind the lace-curtained windows of his waiting coach. Pointedly ignoring me, the aide led M. Guilbert to the rear of the shop where they held a whispered conversation. Then the aide slipped the red velvet pouch containing the watch into a pocket and coolly bade us good day.

I turned to my master. “How much did it fetch?”

“What a fool the Comte is! He does not recognize true value even when it is right beneath his nose. I had no compunction making him pay a fine price for his ignorance.”

I smiled. “What did it fetch?”

“A fine price!” M. Guilbert’s eyes sparkled. It was rare to see him so animated unless admiring a particularly smooth rotator arm or fine-toothed escapement. “The Comte has come into possession of the library of one of the keenest thinkers of our generation. Yet he does not value books of science and engineering and thought to offer them as a trade. I have heard of this scholar’s reputation and now it seems I shall own his priceless notebooks! If the Comte only knew what he had exchanged so lightly. They will be shipped from the palace forthwith.”

“Books? We have sold one of the finest watches ever crafted not for a king’s ransom–which, by the way is its true worth–but for a pile of old books?”

M. Guilbert’s smile hardened. “Not just books. Knowledge. Beyond price.”

“How will books settle our debts?”

But M. Guilbert twitched the black velvet curtain aside and disappeared behind it, and there was nothing more to be said.

“He will not teach me. I learn nothing that I have not taught myself through patience and observation and practice.”

“Poor Johannes. You are wasted in his service,” Adrienne said. As a grocer’s daughter she knew something of what it meant to be in service, yet her words made me ill at ease. She traced the lines of the model ship with her fingers, each sliver of wood so perfectly shaped and fitted to the next that the surface was as smooth as polished marble. “This is a thing of beauty,” she said, truthfully. Fine silk served as sails, cotton thread for the rigging. Beneath the varnished decks, unseen except by me, were cabins and galleys, furniture and stores, tiny hammocks pitched in rows, baking ovens–all fashioned from shards of wood and metal and paste, accurate to the last. It was not such an unusual boyhood dream: to yearn to sail the seas and taste freedom upon the waves, yet how strange that fate landed me in a place three days’ ride from the nearest shores.

“You have such clever hands,” Adrienne said. “Such patience.”

“I am apprentice to a watchmaker,” I told her, taking back the model galleon. “Dexterity and precision are my trade. I must find ways to keep them honed.”

“Surely M. Guilbert tasks you sufficiently?”

“M. Guilbert has no use for me!”

I had meant to keep my anger in check, but suddenly it was all there, boiling to the surface. “Day after day, he toils at his pet projects, his mechanisms that we can never sell. I am the one left to mend the clocks and watches brought to us, as best I can. I am the one who must try to balance the books! Me, the apprentice! Customers come because they hear word of the great M. Guilbert. But if ever they should discover the truth of the craftsmanship they claim to admire, that it is the work of a mere apprentice, what then?” I made an effort to unclench my fists. “M. Guilbert claims he has no time to teach. No time for anything but his obsessions–which he hides from me. What use is it to be apprenticed to a master who will not teach?”

Sweetly, Adrienne took my hand in hers and immediately the warmth of her touch calmed me. “Then you should leave. Find another master you can apprentice to.”

I half-turned, glancing back across the square as though the little shop might somehow be watching or listening. “I should,” I agreed. Yet I knew I could not.

The books arrived in a cart, a great stack of them. I wondered aloud where we would find room to store them. I placed the half-finished hull of a Portuguese man-o’-war on a stool out of harm’s way and opened one of the books at random. I saw only page after page of incomprehensible equations, meaningless hieroglyphs. “Why, these are not even printed books! Nothing more than jottings in a journal.”

M. Guilbert retrieved the book from my hands and set it with the others in a wobbling column on the counter. “They are windows onto the thoughts of a great mind,” he said.

“What is a quantum?” I asked, pointing at the spine of the top-most volume and refusing to be pacified. M. Guilbert harrumphed and I thought he meant to ignore my question. Then he said rather grudgingly, “It is the smallest quantity of some physical property. The least possible amount that can suffice.”

“And what use is that to a watchmaker?”

He shook his head. “You wear your ignorance as though it is a badge of honor, Johannes. You know very well the watchmaker’s skill concerns the measurement of the very small. We strive to divide and subdivide a second into ever smaller parts, the better to measure its passing.”

“Yes. But with copper and brass and frictionless bearings and ingenious designs. What use are these mathematical ravings to any of that?” I was remembering the hours of work I had put into the Comte’s watch. It hadn’t brought the silver it deserved, only these worthless bundles of paper.

M. Guilbert sighed. “You complain so bitterly of my neglect in tutoring you. Here then, is a lesson. Let us see what you are truly capable of understanding.” He seized some items from the counter. “See? A grandpater.” He held up a little brass wheel with its sixty four glittering teeth. “And here, the pater.” He waved a smaller wheel. “Combine them and see what happens?” I nodded impatiently, unwilling to be patronized in this way. “Through the watchmaker’s skill, the almost imperceptible unwinding of a spring becomes a measure of a passing second. I have read in these notebooks you so despise that time and position are coupled, and it would seem to be so. The stately movement of a gearwheel becomes inextricably linked to the passing of a second within our clockwork mechanisms. What then, is the smallest such movement we can amplify and measure? The most fleeting instant of time that we can trap? Is there some theoretical limit in our pursuit of–” He seemed about to say ‘perfection’ but stopped himself. “Accuracy. A tenth, a hundredth, a thousandth of a second? How far can we continue to gear and divide until somewhere the tiniest, almost imperceptible movement of a cog signifies an infinitesimally brief passage of time?”

“Perhaps there is no limit?” I ventured.

M. Guilbert was silent a long time. “Perhaps there is,” he said at last. “And if intimate knowledge of time dulls our perception of space? What then?”

“Is this how your mechanism functions?” I asked.

He stared at me, whether in exasperation or pity I was not entirely sure.

“No. Not like that at all. Have you heard nothing that I have said?”

I shrugged. “You have said nothing I didn’t already know. When did you ever teach me anything?”

If he was angered by my impertinence, he hid it well, turning back to the counter and beginning to tidy away tools. “I have taught you that knowledge is dangerous in the hands of the ignorant. That the things we learn become us, and the things we do change us. And those changes cannot always be undone.” He seemed to tire suddenly, his whole posture slumping into an old man’s stoop. He collapsed onto a nearby stool and there was a brief splintering sound. M. Guilbert half rose, brushed the seat clear, as if the shards of matchstick were just breadcrumbs left behind from some meal, and sat again.

“The most important lessons you will have to learn yourself,” he said, his voice barely a whisper.

I crept in darkness needing no light to guide me, finding my way by touch and instinct alone. I knew every board that creaked, every mis-step that might betray my presence. The mechanism was the only beacon I needed.

I had waited patiently at M. Guilbert’s door, listening. He was a light sleeper but sometime in the darkest hours after midnight, I heard the pattern of his breathing change into something steadier, deeper. Yet even now I hesitated to pull back the velvet curtain.

The mechanism called to me. I had lain in my narrow bed, sleep a distant prospect, my thoughts filled only with tiny cogs and ratchets and shiny brass pins and coiled springs. I had to see it. More than that, I felt the need to comprehend its design, no matter how far beyond my grasp. The mechanism itself demanded to be understood.

Weak moonlight spilling through the shop window was enough to guide me. I drew back the curtain.

The scale of it took my breath away. Those furtive glimpses had revealed but a fraction of its size and none of its complexity. M. Guilbert had wasted no time on ornate cases; a simple iron frame held bracketed segments of the mechanism in place. A couple of brass plates had been unscrewed, revealing what lay within just as a surgeon’s scalpel might have laid bare internal organs on a mortuary slab.

The mechanism sprawled across two workbenches pushed together, layer upon layer of finely crafted clockwork and… other strange devices that I could not identify. So many different parts, each poised to spin in their tiny orbits: rocking, clicking, unwinding. The complexity of it overwhelmed me. How could I begin to understand more than a fraction of this grand design? This was no chronometer, no mere timepiece. This was… The truth was, I had no idea.

M. Guilbert had told me it was not yet finished but clearly there was a mechanism of considerable substance here, of purpose. Some parts I could recognize: flywheel accumulators with their springs slackened, manifold gearing mechanisms, bejewelled rotators. What an easy thing it would be to prime one of those helical springs, to watch the flywheels spin and hear the tick and whir of a mechanism I could not fathom. Dare I?

What harm could it do?

I reached out a hand and caressed the smooth brass surfaces. My fingertips felt the sharp bite of tiny-toothed pinions, and the slackness in the unwound springs–metal that felt warm and alive beneath my fingers. I had the strangest sense that the mechanism itself wished to be set in motion, to be set free.

–A small sound came from the room above. I froze. I heard footsteps on the stairs and slipped out of the workroom, pressing myself into the darkest corner beneath the counter. A moment later M. Guilbert passed only inches from me, a stub of candle throwing dancing shadows in his wake. I did not doubt M. Guilbert’s capacity for anger or that such flagrant disobedience might lose me my apprenticeship no matter how well I had served.

I heard the curtain twitch into place and the clink of tools being moved and silently released a pent-up breath. M. Guilbert often worked through until dawn on those nights when he could not sleep.

I waited until I could bear the silence no longer then crept back up the stairs to my own bed.

Sleep would not come. My mind was alive with images of the mechanism and with my own unanswered questions. The act of observing had changed me in some fundamental way. I felt as if the device had spoken to me and something deep within had answered.

The shop door crashed open. An unusual time for a customer, so late in the afternoon. I looked up to see Adrienne, hair disheveled and the most fearful look in her eyes. “The town is aflame!” she yelled. “Run for your lives!”

With the door flung wide, the acrid tang of smoke was unmistakable. I peered outside and saw bright red flames dancing along the rooftops not fifty yards down the street. I seized Adrienne’s arm as she turned away. “Where are you going?”

“I only came to warn you. My father needs me if we’re to save what stock we can before his shop burns to the ground.” Her expression was wretched. She pushed a strand of hair from across her face, leaving behind a sooty smear. Who else, I wondered, would have even bothered to warn us?

“Let me go back with you.”

“You’ll stay here, Johannes.” M. Guilbert had emerged from behind the curtain, face flushed, expression cold.

Adrienne pulled free and was already halfway out the door. “The fire’s seized hold of the town and isn’t about to let go,” she said. “Go now while you still can.”

I turned back to M. Guilbert, making a pleading gesture to let me follow.

“Close and shutter the door!” M. Guilbert ordered, the tone of command in his voice brooking no argument.

“Look for yourself! We must leave now or we will surely burn!” I glanced around. “Perhaps we can save some of the watches and clocks.”

“As if they mattered. Come with me.”

I followed him behind the curtain where the mechanism lay like some slumbering creature. M. Guilbert barked a series of orders and I fetched him tools and parts and held the candles closer when he needed more light, and all the while the air grew warmer and the tang of burning wood ever stronger. M. Guilbert ignored it, bending over his workbench, making tiny adjustments with a jeweller’s blade here, carefully winding a spring there, like a gardener tending to seedlings, nurturing growth where it was to be encouraged, pinching out where it was not.

While the fire raged close by, M. Guilbert worked on as if this were just another day–and I fetched and carried for him. Madness! The irony was not lost on me: here at last I was serving as apprentice to my master, perhaps in the last few minutes we had left together on this earth.

From outside came the sound of muted screams, the braying of terrified horses and the sound of running feet on the cobbles. When I peeked round the curtain, I saw little fiery flecks of ash falling like glowing snowflakes beyond the shop windows. How easily the town burned, I thought. How easy it was to destroy. How unjust when it took so long to build and construct. I fetched several buckets of water and doused the door and window frames, water puddling around me. It was something, but I doubted it would be enough to save us when the fire reached our little shop.

My master beckoned me back into his inner sanctum, bade me draw the curtain across and close the door that lay behind it.

“M. Guilbert! I beg you, we must leave!”

Instead of answering, M. Guilbert drew me closer. “See here? Where this gearing mechanism increments according to the bias of its companion until the pinion moves?” I bent closer and nodded. “And this compensator? See how this rod slides to adjust for irregularities? And here–a movement which compensates for any deviation in the compensator?” He talked on in this fashion, though much of it I barely heard, my mind swamped by fear. It grew hot in that little room; the air foul. Yet gradually, despite everything that was happening around us, I found myself transfixed by the intricacies of the mechanism’s design, the ingenuity of its execution–things that had been forbidden to me for so long. I thought I began to understand then. This was no clock, no crude device for telling the time. The passing of a second–or rather the passing of half that time, and half the remainder–and again and again, each tiny half-increment faithfully accumulated until somewhere deep within the mechanism a wheel turned the tiniest amount, registered the briefest instant imaginable–and in so doing, laid bare a little of the thread from which time’s fabric was stitched.

For what purpose had M. Guilbert designed this? I could not begin to imagine.

His voice had dropped so low it was scarcely more than a mutter. He was no longer talking to me I realized, only to himself. His words sounded like a confession.

And somewhere beyond, the town burned. Smoke wafted in the air between us, and the crack of beams in neighboring houses shattering in the heat sounded like cannon-fire–yet distant and intangible. I began to feel light-headed and it was so very, very hot. Yet M. Guilbert worked on. I knew the fire was upon us, surrounding us. I knew too that the old wooden rafters of the shop would condemn us; I had seen flames shooting skywards and consuming all in their path. But I couldn’t leave now. Was it M. Guilbert or the mechanism itself I could not bring myself to abandon?

The candles spluttered and shrank to tiny, indifferent flames as though in defeat. The smoke thickened until I could not make out details across the room. Every burning breath felt like it might be my last. Yet still M. Guilbert muttered about time and space, and talked of duality and uncertainty and the quantum nature of time–and I understood none of it, nor even cared. I thought it possible I might have died and that this was some kind of antechamber to hell: a place of heat and sulfurous fires where M. Guilbert would lecture me on things I could never understand for the rest of eternity.

Then I saw him wind the mechanism. –Just a little, a minuscule tightening of a spring here, a flick of a fingertip to set a wheel spinning there. Even above the fierce crackle of flames outside, I heard the sudden chattering, whirring sound as the mechanism stirred.

I must have reached for the door for M. Guilbert’s hand was suddenly upon mine. “The outcome is changed by the observer,” he said cryptically. “You must not look outside.”

The world grew hazy. Perhaps I fainted. Certainly I remember feeling the heat of the floorboards pressing against the side of my face and in a strange way feeling comforted by it. I saw a shaft of light beneath the door where the drafts blew in and the curtain did not fall straight. Where I lay, I could glimpse the world beyond through that narrow slit. M. Guilbert had bade me not to look but I could not help myself. I saw… Something. Perhaps I saw flames licking at the walls, or smoke rolling like ocean waves down the street, and yet I rather think I saw nothing at all.

I remember too, in the delirium of the moment, hearing sounds from outside that could not be–screeches like the cry of seagulls, the lap and draw of the tide on a beach, the snap of sails catching the breeze.

At some point I must have crawled into the little cot in the corner where M. Guilbert sometimes napped. I slept as I had never done before, waking briefly several times yet knowing I must still be dreaming. Once I thought I heard the hiss of snowflakes driven against the windows of the shop and shivered as tendrils of cold percolated beneath the door. Another time I heard a constant, high-pitched scratching sound, like the chorus of a million insects serenading me. I felt an oppressive heat settle across the room and heard the calls of unidentifiable creatures carried on moisture-laden air.

I drifted in and out of consciousness, and the world drifted with me.

Much later, when some of the townsfolk came searching, they expected to find only our charred bodies. When I stirred and sat up, face black with soot, one of the men screamed as though I were a ghoul rising from the grave. M. Guilbert sat quietly in the corner next to the stilled mechanism, now covered by its dust-sheet. The little watchmaker’s shop, scorched and singed by fire, had been the only dwelling in the street to survive virtually unscathed. In the following weeks as the town began to rebuild what had been lost, there were many who shook their heads and called it a miracle that the shop had not been taken by the flames.

But there were some who muttered different words under their breath.

The fire had exacted a terrible toll on the town but not so terrible that it broke the townsfolk’s spirit. The stalwart men and women had seen their town scarred by war and disease and times of great hardship. This was nothing that could not be put right with patient hard work and they began to rebuild even while embers still glowed in the streets ravaged by fire. I knew I should be helping the less fortunate but I felt uneasy leaving the shop unless absolutely necessary. Naturally I was curious to know who had perished. Sometimes I looked for familiar faces–or more tellingly their absence–through the little windows of the watchmaker’s shop but mostly I saw only strangers, as though the memories of people I once knew had already faded. Hadn’t there been a girl who had come to warn us? But try as I might I could not recall her name and in truth her fate no longer seemed important.

Then too, M. Guilbert kept me busy, and that was gratifying. Smoke and heat had damaged some timepieces and it fell to me to clean and repair those that were salvageable.

If I expected new bonds to have been forged between us, I soon realized my mistake. M. Guilbert would occasionally inspect a piece that I worked upon, offering words of advice, or guiding my hand as I beat or filed tiny slivers of brass into shape. But he would not speak of his own work, nor let me near the mechanism again. I caught him watching me covertly many times, the look on his face both suspicious and perplexed as though I had done something to vex him.

I wrote down all that I could recall M. Guilbert saying during his frantic work on the mechanism, but none of it made sense. I had heard him speak of certain principles that could never be known with utter certainty, that if we knew precisely where then we could never know when–as though to measure one with absolute precision inevitably meant relinquishing control over the other. But I could see no sense behind it all. Time and place were just… time and place. And now my frustration was worse than before. For a brief moment I had felt like the apprentice to a great master. Now I was nothing again: the apprentice whose master kept his secrets to himself.

And so I began to formulate my plan.

M. Guilbert no longer slept in his room. He worked late every night, eventually dozing next to the mechanism before rising at dawn to begin work again. Yet he seemed to have abandoned the mechanism for his books. I saw no tools out of place, no parts scattered across the work surface. The mechanism stayed hidden beneath its shroud. At noon I would prepare a simple lunch for my master and occasionally he would nap for an hour in the comfort of his proper bed before resuming his studies and reading long into the night. That hour afforded me my opportunity. If the master would not teach, then I would have to learn for myself.

For all its burgeoning complexity and strange function, the mechanism was still at heart a timepiece. I could see that much. I recognized movements, torsion balances, escapements, pinions–items familiar enough to any half-competent watchmaker. Fine-toothed gears meshed, gear trains transported movement across the device, tiny jewel-mounted oscillators sat ready to vibrate the moment their springs were wound. But for each element I recognized and understood, a dozen more were a mystery. I intuited that M. Guilbert had constructed layer upon layer of correctional elements, each resolving ever finer gradations of time until he measured and trapped the smallest possible interval, if such a thing could even exist. Was there even now somewhere in the heart of this device a subtle movement of a cog, a single tick of the great device that would signify such an instant?

I remembered M. Guilbert’s description of the thing he called ‘quantum.’ The least possible amount that can suffice. Suffice for what, I wondered?

And I wondered too, what would happen were the mechanism to be properly wound and set going.

One morning I rose to find the curtain to M. Guilbert’s workspace drawn back, unusual in itself. My master was bent over the mechanism and I felt my heartbeat quicken to see him working on it again. But I sensed a change.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

He turned, and I saw the hollow eyes, the lines on his face. I had always thought of M. Guilbert as an old man, but never this old. “I have been a fool,” he told me. “I let myself become obsessed by the art of the possible and lost sight of the dangers. Some ideas are better left unexplored.” He reached out and put a hand on my shoulder. “I am sorry too if I have neglected my duties as teacher, though I think you have learnt more than you realize. But to put you in such danger was unforgivable.”

“What danger? What are you talking about?”

He blinked, turning his attention back to the tiny screwdriver he was inserting deep into the workings. I swear I saw the glitter of tears in his eyes before he turned away. I had witnessed his many moods over the years: stubbornness, irascibility, child-like delight at some piece of cleverness in one of his designs–but never had I seen this kind of emotion laid so bare.

“Johannes, I will make it up to you. We will make a journeyman of you yet.”

“But what are you doing?” I persisted.

“I am dismantling the mechanism,” he said, without turning round.

I tried to distract him: irrelevant questions about commissions yet to be fulfilled, supplies to be ordered, even what meals I should prepare. He brushed all these aside. If anything, he worked with even greater application than before, teasing apart the mechanism, neatly stacking components back in their drawers and trays. Were it not for the mechanism’s sheer size and complexity, the task might have been completed quickly, but it was clear to me it would take days to carry out this slow dismembering.

While M. Guilbert napped, I spent every moment poring over the new sections that he had exposed, trying to see how the pieces fit together. In my head, I kept a plan as best I could, wondering if I would ever have the skill to somehow rebuild what was slowly being lost.

Then with no warning M. Guilbert fell ill, complaining of stomach pains and a headache. He struggled on until the discomfiture grew so strong he was forced to climb the stairs with heavy steps and retire to his bedchamber. I brought him hot broth at regular intervals, though he was able to keep little enough down. I cared for him as best I could and made him comfortable.

Here, at last, was my chance.

Several days passed and M. Guilbert grew a little worse, not better. I began to worry that the tincture I had carefully measured and stirred into M. Guilbert’s meals–paints and dyes I used on my model ships–had been more strongly acting than I realized. He slept for all but a few hours of the day, and his skin grew pallid and grey. I supposed I should send for a doctor, but I was afraid the cause of his sickness might be discovered. I did not mean for M. Guilbert to die, and yet…

And yet it afforded me the time and space to work on the mechanism unfettered. I kept the shop door barred and shuttered. I worked from first light until late into the night when my eyes became too gritty and unfocused to allow me to continue my work. It was clear I did not have M. Guilbert’s finesse nor his understanding. Despite my careful observations, not all the pieces seemed to fit as I would wish, so I fashioned new ones, adapting the design to one of my own. It took me days to repair the damage done but I thought I understood enough. And who was there to stop me?

M. Guilbert clung to life, barely. His breathing was so shallow as to be imperceptible. Sometimes I stood by his bed, convinced he had slipped away, only to see a twitch of muscle or hear a murmur escape his lips. Once, I thought he might be trying to say something and leant closer. “An observer–” he said, his voice barely more than a whisper, “changes the outcome. Remember that.” A hand grasped my arm with shocking suddenness, those long, delicate fingers still powerful enough to leave bruises in my flesh. “Don’t… look!”

I had no idea what he meant. There were a dozen questions on my tongue but the effort of speaking had exhausted him and he slipped into unconsciousness once more.

I felt the call of the mechanism stronger than ever. The work was nearly done; the end of the matter so close. I could sense the physical bulk of it in the room below, a latent presence like a living thing about to be born. I obeyed its call because to do anything else would be inconceivable.

It had grown late by the time I laid aside the last of my tools. My head pounded and fatigue had settled over me, dulling my thoughts. Yet it was done. I hefted the little brass key, no bigger than my index finger, and wondered if I should wait for the morning and a clear head. But how could I sleep knowing that the mechanism sat ready, needing only to be wound? The mechanism would never let me rest.

I slipped the key onto the spindle and gave it a half twist.

It pleased me beyond words to think that I shared some small measure of credit for this mechanism. To be sure, M. Guilbert’s genius had conceived it, but my labors had rebuilt those parts that had been disassembled. No hand had guided mine, only my instinctive grasp of its form and function. My efforts were crude and rough-edged compared to the elegant precision of my master’s handiwork, but good enough, I believed. And far beyond the work of a mere apprentice.

I twisted the key again, a touch more savagely this time.

Was it too much to hope that my name might one day be spoken of in exalted circles? Or would it still be M. Guilbert who got all the credit?

Another full turn. I could feel how tight the spring was becoming, ready to release its energy the moment I let go of the key.

The blame for this was M. Guilbert’s. He should have instructed me more diligently in his craft. Trusted me. Had I not been a willing pupil? Instead, when he had deigned to notice me, all I received were his patronizing words. Johannes. You do not understand the lessons you have already learned.

The key was becoming harder to turn now, quivering in my grip as I fought the spring’s tension. I let my hand drop and took a step back.

For a moment the mechanism was utterly still. I wondered if my repairs had failed after all. Then I became aware of a change, like a gentle ripple spreading through the clockwork. I recalled that some of M. Guilbert’s finer pocket watches had movements so smooth they could not be said to tick; rather they hummed. If so, then this device sang. It was surely a song no human ears had ever heard before.

I looked closer, seeing tiny wheels deep inside the mechanism turning so fast as to blur. Accumulators shunted against their ratchets. Everywhere I looked, brass glinted in the candlelight as gearwheels spun, clicked and oscillated like some creature come to life. Flawed though it might be by my crude craftsmanship, I had breathed life into this clockwork.

I had a sudden fear then: of powers within the universe I did not understand, of time itself as some unfathomable quantity. What was it that M. Guilbert had read in those notebooks of his that had scared him so badly he had begun to dismantle his life’s work?

The mechanism whirred, trapping and meting out time in quantum intervals for purposes I would never understand. The least possible amount that would suffice. And even so…

The world did not end.

Time did not stand still.

My heart continued to beat. I watched my chest move with each breath. Dust stirred on currents of air.

Life continued.

Suddenly heady with elation I threw open the door of the watchmaker’s shop to draw a breath of fresh air and feel the morning sun on my skin.

I looked outside.

But outside was nothing, just a vast, blank grayness.

Time and place. Place and time. Did it follow with some kind of relentless logic that to measure one with absolute precision was to banish the other completely? Then I remembered M. Guilbert’s words. The outcome is changed by the observer.

I had set the mechanism going and it had measured a quantum of time, laid bare the detail of its warp and weft, the very threads from which it was stitched.

And now we were nowhere, nowhere at all.


One Response

  1. Jamie D. Munro 

    My favourite story in that issue!

Leave a Reply