(Book I of the Oerth Cycle)
(C) 1999 BY
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A few minutes later, they were out in the courtyard, and Merle could see the back of a small group of mus, and clearly hear the bell ringing. Xaa, W'mefa, O'dmemet, Var, Johm'rouh and Tlahn were all standing in the courtyard, staring at something that was hidden in front of them. "It can't be!" Merle yelped.
Xaa turned, and grinned. "But it is. Come, Merle, take a look."
Merle ran over, and Xaa stepped aside. A few paces in front of them, a metal version of her Time-eater was ringing away loudly, it's little piston hammering the bell as energetically as the original had, if not more so.
"But-but HOW?!" Merle yelped.
"My Lady, I tried to tell you that day, but you were too upset to hear me. The breakage was actually a good thing, not a bad thing. I needed to know the size of the holes and their spacing and many things about it's internal construction that I couldn't know without taking it apart - and it was ceramic, all one piece. If I'd pulled the piston out of the cylinder, it seemed very unlikely it would ever work right again, and I was debating what I would have to do when the Little One destroyed it. He thought to keep the knowledge to himself, and destroy that which you had been able to build after just looking at a working steam engine. Instead, he actually helped me finish this model - which works perfectly, I might add. It doesn't jam like the original did. I've tested it several times, well away from the castle so he wouldn't know," Var said, smiling.
"But-but does it still pop?" Merle asked, frowning.
"Well, if it builds up enough steam it does - and this time, I think it will. Listen - the bell isn't slowing down to a stop, it's going faster and louder!" Var replied, grinning broadly.
"It is a good thing we're all standing over here, then," Tlahn observed, and cackled.
After a few minutes, the plug popped out with a loud BANG, bouncing around on the end of it's rope while the Time-eater sprayed hot water and steam. Merle and Johm'rouh whooped in excitement, clapping, and the other mus grinned and congratulated Var. "Oh, thank you, Var! You fixed it! I can hardly wait for it to cool down so I can take it back to my room! Thank you! I have my friend back!" Merle said, hugging Var.
"Well, my lady, the bell is the same one that was on the original invention you made, but other than that, this is actually an improvement. This one does what you intended it to do, and doesn't jam. In the process of building it and getting it to work and learning what makes the stopper pop out and what doesn't, I learned more about how steam-engines work than I think I would have otherwise, even if the Little One had actually sat down and tried to teach me. I now understand what you meant by a 'safety valve' and have a pretty good idea how to build one, and I have a couple of notions about how I could make a pressure indicator. I also know how this engine can be made to turn a wheel and provide the type of mechanical power you talked about the Little Ones using - especially built larger, and in steel."
"Oh? How?" Merle asked, fascinated.
In reply, Var reached into his pocket and pulled out a small assembly as he walked over to the Time-eater. "See the little hole in the piston, my lady? A small pin with a broad head goes there. This assembly bolts on here, and when the piston moves back and forth, it pushes this lever back and forth with the pin sliding in this slot. The end of the lever attaches to a pushrod, and the pushrod attaches to this little wheel, here. I've tested it, and when you're careful not to heat the water to the point where the pressure builds and blows the stopper, it can provide quite a bit of mechanical energy. I have another, larger version I am working on that will have a safety-valve instead of a stopper, and will turn a wheel instead of ringing a bell. I left this off tonight because I wanted to return to you what you gave to us - your little friend, the Time-eater. The only difference is that this one needs to be wiped dry with a cloth after use, since it's metal, and not ceramic," Var explained, giving the wheel assembly to Merle. Merle bowed very deeply to Var, and he returned the bow with a smile.
Merle then looked at the little wheel as the others gathered round, pushing the lever back and forth with her finger and making the wheel spin. "Now why didn't I think of that?" she wondered aloud.
"Because the Little Ones never taught you metalworking, my lady. This could never be done in the materials you had, and you never would have conceived of it because it simply can't be done in ceramic and wood. They intentionally denied you every bit of technology you would have needed to develop things on your own, only providing you with the end results of a long string of technologies. Like the story about your knife that Lord Xaa told me - you could never have made a knife, even if the Little One had told you how, because you lacked the knowledge of how to find iron, how to mine it, how to build a smelter and smelt the ore, how to refine the ore, how to work it into steel, and a hundred different things that all go into making that knife. Instead, you just have the end result, and having that doesn't help you understand how to make one of your own," Var explained, and Merle nodded.
Xaa gently placed a callused paw on Merle shoulder, and looked into her eyes. "And that was also what they did to us, Merle, and in eight hundred years, we've managed to get as far as we have. Tinker thinks we're all idiots, because we're behind him technologically. He doesn't realize that after the Night of the Long Knives, we climbed up from nothing - we had the swords in our paws, but no idea how to make more. We had the armor on our bodies, but no idea how to repair it. We were an entire race of nothing but warriors and grunt-laborers. We had no advanced technological or artistic skills at all. In eight hundred years, we have advanced and grown both technologically and culturally. In eight hundred years, they have gotten nowhere."
"Yes. But for now, they know things that you do not. And I am going to help you get their greatest accomplishment - the airship. With the ability to attack the cats from the air, your people will be unbeatable, and this war will be over soon," Merle said, drawing herself to her full height.
"We thank you, Lady Merle, but how do you intend to do this?" W'mefa asked.
"I have a plan," Merle
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