Chapter 1

The Watchmaker

The police officer glanced down at the gutter and sighed with frustration. A pair of meeks were running around puddles and making their way purposefully towards an alley. The police officer put her watch away and began following the meeks, already suspecting where they were going. The tiny meek feet pattered over a metal grate. Their small mouselike bodies clambered over pipes and steps. The police officer could try to catch them, but that was not her job, and it would probably not serve her purpose. The neat crisp material of her uniform made a smooth zip zip noise as she followed them down the alleyway.

The spring weather made the alley cool. Even the bold spring sunshine did not illuminate much of the narrow space between the buildings. Pipes vented steam, which rapidly cooled and condensed on the stone and metal surfaces. Drips of water ran down the walls and puddled around copper pipes. 

The police officer followed the meeks until they ran, oh-so-predictably, into the side entrance of the watchmaker’s shop. She allowed herself a brief sigh of exasperation, then rounded the corner onto the street and stepped into the watchmaker’s front entrance.

After her eyes adjusted to the dim indoor light, she saw the watchmaker with his back to the door, bent over his desk. She was preparing to clear her throat to politely announce her entrance when the watchmaker turned around and acknowledged her with a small bow.

“Good morning!” he said. He set his tools down and came to the front counter as if he had no idea what the police officer might say.

“Good morning,” the police officer said. The slight lack of enthusiasm in her voice conveyed the fact that this was an official visit and would include a scolding.

The watchmaker ignored the tone of voice and said, “It is a pleasure to receive this guest.”

The police officer continued with her official tone, hoping to make her point with a minimum of nonsense. She said, “It is my pleasure to visit,” but she spoke without the usual indications of polite pleasure. She continued, “As part of my visit, I hope to mention the city’s recommendations regarding combustible hygiene.” 

The watchmaker replied, “Thank you so much for taking the time to remind citizens of the combustible hygiene recommendations!”

The police officer continued, “With regard to the presence of meeks, it is of great importance that citizens remember the rules.”

The watchmaker replied, “Of course, of course! Small combustible materials are easily available to meeks, and such would certainly result in more meeks in the future.”

The police officer continued, “Inspections, of course, should not be necessary,” she paused, then continued, “though a continued presence of meeks may, in some cases, indicate that an inspection may be called for.”

The watchmaker nodded. “Mentioning the importance of combustible hygiene inspections is greatly appreciated,” he said.

The police officer nodded briefly and bowed. “Okay!” she said, then chirped, “a good morning to you!” With that, she exited the shop.

The watchmaker waited until she was gone. He turned around to his work desk. A nubot was sitting on his desk playing with the finely crafted metal case of a pocket watch.

The watchmaker looked at the nubot. The nubot looked back at him, its large black eyes peering into his, its white plastic shield of a face tilted slightly.

The watchmaker said to the nubot, “Nubots always seem so curious. Is it because you can never remember anything from before the last time that you have recharged?”

Another nubot emerged from the supply closet. It hopped up onto the work desk. The first nubot shoved it back, trying to keep space on the work desk all to itself.

The watchmaker said to them, “Okay, okay. There is space for everyone here.” He reached into his apron pocket and pulled out a meek. “Here,” he said, “you may find this interesting.” He set the meek on the desk between the two nubots. The meek was chewing on a tiny scrap of cloth.

The watchmaker laughed and poked his finger through a hole in his apron pocket. He said, “It must have gotten that while I was talking to the officer.”

One nubot picked up the meek and held it in its hand. The other nubot looked up at the watchmaker. 

The watchmaker said, “The meeks are very mysterious. We do not know who makes them and we do not know why. They have technology that is beyond anything we can produce. How can something so small and plastic run on the power of steam? When we try to create parts that small, we must use batteries, like yours, that must recharge. The meeks, though, they are free from recharging and they are free from the power grid. They scavenge bits of combustibles and burn them in their tiny internal engines.”

The nubot looked down at the meek and poked it with one short plastic finger. The watchmaker reached into his apron and handed the nubot a small handful of sawdust. The watchmaker said, “You can feed it this.”

The nubot put the sawdust onto the desktop. The meek ran to the small pile of combustibles and began to vigorously consume it. 

The watchmaker looked thoughtfully at the bright sunshine framed by the front doorway of his shop. He said to the nubots, “I should not tell you any of this, of course. But, you will forget it all when you next recharge.” He looked back at the meek. As it ate, small puffs of steam emerged from behind its ears.