Friday, June 7, 2019

The Spring Drive Papers

a short story by Bill Adler

“Welcome aboard, Saito san.” Nakamura rubbed his fingertips over his watch. Touching the smooth crystal calmed him more than inhaling Japan' mountain air.

“Thank you, sir. I’m delighted to be of assistance.” Saito removed her wool cap and looked at it awkwardly, unsure of what she should do about the snow that remained on top. She flipped the cap inside out so the snow wouldn’t fall on the hardwood floor. Saito sensed snow on her long, black hair as well, and tried her best to ignore it, hoping it would just evaporate.

“It does get snowy in Shiojiri,” Nakamura said. “But in the summer you'll appreciate the climate more.” He scanned the paper inside the file folder in front of him. “I see you're from Kyushu. Hot there?”

"Yes, sir. In the summer everything and everybody melts." Saito didn’t want to admit she was affected by the heat, because PSIA agents are supposed to be immune from all manner of adversity, even torture. Saito pursed her lips. But just thinking about the long summer in Japan’s south ignited a fire in her core. She feared that was melting the snow on her hair, causing it to ruin Nakamura’s floor.

Nakamura closed the folder. “You're probably wondering why Seiko is hiring a former officer in the Public Security Intelligence Agency.” Nakamura motioned to the Eames chair in front of his desk. “Please, sit. Everyone at Seiko should be comfortable.”

Saito glanced at her coat’s sleeves. There were still a few white snow spots. “Just drape your coat over the chair. It will be fine,” Nakamura said.

“Okay, thank you, sir.” Saito softened her spine and sat.

Nakamura leaned forward, propping his chin on his clasped hands. “It’s because of the Swiss.”

Saito nodded.

“They’ve hated us ever since the Quartz Revolution, as you know.”

The Quartz Revolution is what Japan called it. The Quartz Crisis is the term the Swiss used to describe the proliferation of inexpensive, quartz watches in the 1970s. Like a relentless, deadly virus wiping out entire cities as it marched across the planet, Japan, and in particular Seiko’s quartz watches, nearly annihilated the Swiss watch industry. Quartz watches were not only cheaper than Switzerland's mechanical timepieces, they were far more accurate. Quartz watches didn’t need winding, which made them grab-and-go items for people for whom seconds in the morning were as scarce as water in a desert. In 1970 Switzerland had 1,600 watchmakers, many of whom had been in business for generations, but by 1983, only 600 were left. Switzerland’s essence, its purpose, its entire identity — and livelihood — nearly ceased to exist.

The Swiss were sad and distraught, but most of all they were worried. They vowed never to let this happen again, never to be caught by surprise by Japan’s technological prowess. The Japanese knew that, too. But the Japanese also knew the Swiss were angry, bubbling lava every time there was a mention of Japanese watches, whether quartz or otherwise.

Japan had made an enemy.

“They infiltrated Seiko in the 1970s. The Swiss were on an existential mission to prevent annihilation, so they sent in spies. Well, not spies from Switzerland, but they bribed and blackmailed Seiko employees to spy for them. We caught them, of course.”

Saito knew all this. She also knew — or rather surmised — that Seiko hadn’t sniffed out all of Switzerland’s spies. A company, no matter how skilled, experienced and clever, was no match for a nation’s spy agencies. Switzerland’s Service de renseignement de la Confédération was as good as any gets. Saito also suspected Nakamura knew Seiko’s internal security alone couldn’t thwart Switzerland, which is why he had recruited a professional, offering a salary nearly double what she was making as a Japanese intelligence officer.

The first Spring Drive, SBGW001
Saito had been looking forward to a long, perhaps even historic career as a spy, serving her country to her fullest ability. It was her honor-bound duty. Her last mission, though, had been precarious, nearly life-ending. Chosen for her computer skills and perennial, youthful appearance, Saito had been posing as a hacker in Shanghai. Her mission had been to ferret out North Korean spies who were attempting to seal the codes to Japan’s earthquake warning system. In the wrong hands, such knowledge could give the North Koreans the ability to initiate fake earthquake alerts, which would desensitize the Japanese population to life saving warnings. Or worse: They could block earthquake alerts, resulting in tens of thousands of deaths.

Saito had almost been caught in Shanghai. Although her superiors rewarded her with a vacation in Hawaii, Saito remained unnerved by how close she came to spending the rest of her life in a Chinese or North Korean prison. Still, she would have continued to work for the PSIA until retirement, or was caught or killed, but Seiko’s offer quieted her anxious soul. It was the right elixir at the right time. Besides, by helping Seiko, she was helping Japan.

Nakamura’s chair squeaked as he leaned back. He clasped his hands behind his head, leaning back even more to the edge of abyss, where any further tilting would cause him to tumble over. His chair popped as he abruptly returned to a vertical position. Nakamura stood up and walked over to the wall to the painting of the first Grand Seiko, made six decades ago. He pulled the painting back to reveal a wall safe.

“How cliche,” Saito thought. But she sat motionless and silent as Nakamura spun the combination wheel. This was Nakamura san’s show.

Nakamura handed Saito a folder. “You have to read this here. This file doesn’t leave this room.”

“Of course, sir.” Saito looked at the folder entitled, “Spring Drive Report Reference 7R67.” Saito looked up at Nakamura.

“You’re wondering what 7R67 is. You know 7R68, the reference number for the first Spring Drive movement. But what’s 7R67? It is actually the first Spring Drive movement, though it was never used in a watch. It’s also the movement that Swiss spies stole from us in 1984. First conceived in 1977 by Yoshikazu Akahane —” Nakamura smiled at Saito and bowed slightly, even though as her superior no spontaneous bow was ever necessary. He took a long breath. “Forgive me. I’m sure you know just about everything there is to know about Spring Drive’s history, but I love talking about Spring Drive.” Nakamura’s shoulders rolled like an ocean wave as he shrugged. “And my family is a little bored hearing about watches.

“But I promise that in a moment or two, you’ll learn something about Spring Drive you didn’t know, and may find hard to believe.” Nakamaru unclasped his watch, rubbed his wrist, and buckled his watch back on.

“In 1982, we couldn’t keep Spring Drive a secret any longer. That’s the year we filed for a patent, the first of 230 patents for Spring Drive. I’m actually surprised it took Switzerland two full years to steal the prototype Spring Drive watch, the 7R67. But they did. They were understandably worried that Seiko’s Spring Drive would be the start of another Quartz Revolution. After all, Spring Drive, which is essentially a mechanical movement, is accurate to within a second a day. Can you imagine that, and can you imagine how that must have deeply disturbed Switzerland’s remaining watchmakers? Spring Drive is even more revolutionary a watch movement than quartz, and because it’s a mechanical movement it has none of the gloom that some people ascribe to quartz. Spring Drive has a soul to borrow from the language used by many watch reviewers. The brilliance of Spring Drive is that it uses a quartz crystal as a time reference. There’s no battery or capacitor, however; it must be wound like a mechanical watch. It has a mainspring. The watch’s brain, a computer, scans the quartz crystal eight times a second to ensure that the watch is keeping precise time.

“Most significantly, in my opinion, the second hand doesn’t tick; it glides. It’s the world’s most beautiful movement.

“Seiko’s Yoshikazu Akahane, the man who invented the Spring Drive, was a revolutionary genius. Amazing, isn’t it? How is such a feat even possible?”

Saito wasn’t sure if Nakamura was waiting for her to answer. This seemed to be more of a lecture than a quiz. She slid her finger inside the folder in case Nakamura had finished talking, and she was supposed to start reading the file.

“It shouldn’t be possible. Here’s the thing about Spring Drive. Every review of a Spring Drive watch makes the same observation: ‘Spring Drive’s second hand flows around the watch’s dial. All other watches’ second hands tick in awkward steps, like a young teenage boy learning to waltz. But Spring Drive’s second hand glides forward, indivisible like time itself.’

From Grand Seiko's "Flow of Time" exhibit.
“Einstein would have been excited by Spring Drive. Only Einstein’s view of time has nothing to do with Spring Drive. Einstein wouldn’t have been able to decipher our Spring Drive’s science, because it incorporates more than science, or less than, depending on how you view the universe.”

Saito opened the folder a few millimeters, anxious to read the report, because she wasn’t following Nakamura. But he continued talking.

“The Swiss not only stole the prototype, but they pilfered our engineering specs for the Spring Drive. In other words, they had everything they needed to make a Spring Drive clone. Sure that would have violated our patents, but the Swiss are clever and could have made a modification here, a tweak there, and have produced a similar watch on their own. At the very least, a made in Switzerland Spring Drive would have taken the wind out of our proverbial sail. They could have done us grave damage in the 1980s, especially because we were still over a decade away from launching a Spring Drive watch. The first Spring Drive didn’t come out until 1999.”

Nakamura walked over to Saito. He took the file out of her hand, returned it to the safe, and shook his head. “I’m telling you everything in that file, so there’s no need for you to read it.” Then Nakamura said something that Saito was completely unprepared for. “Would you like a sake?”

It was 10:10 a.m. But if the boss offers you a drink, you accept that drink, no matter what time of the day — or morning — it is.

After Seito downed her sake, Nakamura continued. “You see, it wasn’t technology that was involved. Yoshikazu Akahane conceived of Spring Drive in 1977, but the first Spring Drive didn’t come out until twenty-two years later. That’s a long time to develop a watch. It’s longer than airplanes take from nuts to bolts, and it’s longer than America took from when President Kennedy announced a plan to land a person on the moon, and when Neil Armstrong planted his foot on the lunar surface. What took so long? What was Yoshikazu Akahane doing?”

Nakamura leaned forward in his chair again. He lowered his voice. “The answer lies with why the Swiss couldn’t make their own Spring Drive movement work. The Swiss had all the knowledge and engineering skills they needed to replicate a Spring Drive and bring it to market. But do you know what they lacked?”

Saito didn’t know. She shook her head and said simply, “No.”

“They lacked Yoshikazu Akahane.”

“I’m sorry. I don’t follow.”

“Yoshikazu Akahane was a brilliant engineer. His skills were indeed the watchmaker’s equivalent of Albert Einstein. But even he couldn’t complete his dream, just as Einstein couldn’t prove his theory that gravity bends space-time, during his lifetime.” Nakamura poured himself another sake. “Another drink?”

“Yes.” Saying “no” was not an option. Saito also thought she needed another drink.

“Yoshikazu Akahane was deeply spiritual. Before becoming an engineer he had considered becoming a priest. He remained rooted in the occult community in Japan throughout his tenure at Seiko. He participated in many mystic activities, including talking to animal spirits, exorcisms, and seeking out ghosts who live in deep, dark forests, and mountains. There are rumors that he was even a member of a secretive priesthood.

“Akahane died in 1998, the year before his Spring Drive made it first appearance.” Nakamura locked eyes with Saito. “Do you understand?”

Saito was ashamed to say, “No, I don’t.” She looked into her empty sake glass.

“That’s okay. Few people do. It wasn’t until Akahane died that Spring Drive was possible. You see, despite his theories and skills, Spring Drive shouldn’t be possible at all, at least not in the fashion it is. The second hand should tick, just like with an ordinary watch. That’s the immutable nature of wristwatches. People who review Spring Drives just accept as a fact that Spring Drive technology is so advanced the watch’s second hand glides just like time itself. And it does. Its second hand flows continuously not because of engineering, but because Akahane’s spirit — his ghost, if you want — is in each Spring Drive.”

“And that’s why—”

“Yes. And that’s why the Swiss couldn’t make their own Spring Drive watches. They can only be made in Japan, where Yoshikazu Akahane’s ghost resides.”

Saito tapped the side of her glass. Nakamura poured her another sake.

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