The Glasken Chronicles
This story is closely related to both "The Eyes of the Green
Lancer" and "Destroyer of Illusions", which appear
in Sean McMullen's new collection Call to the Edge, from
Aphelion Publications, and "Souls in the Great Machine"
from Universe 2 (eds. Silverberg and Haber, 1992). Sean's
"Alone in His Chariot", first published in Eidolon
Issue 4 and also appearing in Call to the Edge, was recently
awarded the 1992 "Best Short Fiction" Australian National
Science Fiction ("Ditmar") Award.
Whenever I lead a camel train to the edges of the known world,
Master, I take particular care to work closely with my drivers
and strappers. Knowing their moods, fears and needs can be the
difference between harmony and mutiny.
We were encamped at the Fostoria Oasis after crossing the great
desert of pebbles when I came upon a strange character named John
Glasken. This man was nineteen metric tall, with a thick black
beard and uncommon broad shoulders. He spoke the Alspring tongue
clumsily, and hung about the campsite selling proscribed spirits
On the second night of our stay Glasken became most disgustingly
drunk with some of my infidel drivers. As I sat at their campfire
carousings, ensuring that none of the talk became mutinous, Glasken
began to relate such a strange tale that I soon sent for a clerk
to copy it down in dashscript. Read Glasken's tale now, Master.
Read to understand why I am returning to Glenellen with all possible
There is nothing quite so disgusting as a spell in the public
stocks. Locked into the wooden frame and a target for rotten
fruit and slops by day, then chained up and not able to scrape
off the muck by night, it was no wonder that I longed for a bath
as I returned to Villiers College, even though I'd already had
one that month.
I found my room ransacked! Money, weapons, border pass, riding
gear, my newly awarded degree, all gone. Even my knocking-socks
had been vandalised. I sat down on the bed, utterly despondent.
Reeking like a gutter, and now robbed; what worse blows could
fate have in store for me? Then I saw it, the Mark of Libris
on my pillow! The world stopped as I stared at the red stamp
of a book closed over a dagger. The Mark was there to warn me
of impending doom. They were going to kill me! Why? My drunken
brawling and petty theft was of no interest to heads of state
. . . and then I remembered Lemoral.
That was it. Lem normally testified in my favour whenever I was
hauled before the magistrate, but had ignored my notes this time.
She must have found out about, well, Joan Jiglesar, Carole Mhoreg,
that wench from the refectory or perhaps even some girl from the
previous week. That was the trouble with having powerful mistresses.
Their patronage was wonderful, yet their revenge could be as
devastating as a thunderbolt. All my travel gear was gone, so
I quickly changed into my most sturdy clothes, bundled some loose
gear into an improvised wayfarer's bedroll and left it by the
Money was the key to everything, and money was there for the bold
to take. Snapwire in hand, I made my way down to the College
Purser's office. The dinner bell was ringing, and I knocked smartly
to make sure that he was already gone. It took only moments to
get past his cheap, two-tumbler lock. Leaving the door slightly
ajar behind me, I crept across the darkened room to the strongbox.
The lock was difficult, even for me, but presently the tumblers
yielded. I lifted a bag from the box and hefted it. About fifty
coins, more than enough to get me . . . where? Perhaps I could
hire an unwitting decoy to journey south while I took a wind train
west into lands beyond the reach of Libris. Suddenly the door
was pushed open and light flooded into the room.
"I say, Stoneford, are you there? Hey, who - ?"
I clubbed him over the head with the bag of coins. Pulling the
door behind me I dashed out into the corridor and crashed blindly
into the evening procession of edutors to the refectory high table.
The bag slipped from my hand, sending gold and silver coins spilling
before me in a jingling cascade.
By the tenth hour I was sitting in a cell in the Constable's watch-house.
The edutors of Villiers College turned me over to the University
Warden, accusing me of breaking into the Purser's office, stealing
fifty one silver nobles and six gold royals, and striking the
Rector unconscious. I was then handed over to the Constable's
Runners, who took me before a magistrate and had me charged formally.
Due to my skill with locks I was shackled to a ball and chain
by a heavy rivet after being stripped naked and clothed in striped
trews and a blanket.
Some days later I awoke to a click at the door, and I looked up
to see Lemoral being shown in. I stood up at once. She was not
smiling. A bad sign.
"Ah, Lem, dearest, I have been unjustly - "
"They say that virtue is its own reward," she cut me
short. "I see that the rewards of vice are more appropriate."
Disaster. Contempt dripped from her words like poisoned honey.
"What do you mean?" I asked nervously.
"I am not without influence, Fras graduate, and there is
much that I can do to make your life unpleasant. I can even arrange
that the last five seconds of it are spent falling down the centre
of a beamflash tower. The idea of having been your dupe revolts
me, the idea that a sketch of my nude body was pinned above your
bed while you were in it with Joan Jiglesar makes me want to retch.
I have been promoted to Dragon Silver Librarian, Glasken, and
I don't want rumours of our liaison hanging over my career."
Interesting. I'd rogered Jiggle in many places, and many other
girls in my college bed, but never that girl in that
bed. Whatever Lem's source of information, it was fallible.
"Lem, please, I need your good testimony just once more.
I'm charged with violence to a Gentleman. Do you know what the
magistrate will say to that? Death, either by hanging or musket
fire, according to his mood. If it's been a bad week for assaults,
I might also get a spell of public torture first."
It was true. I could practically feel the straps on my wrists
and hear the ratchets clicking. Her eyes narrowed, and she smiled.
"Tell anyone that we were ever more than vague acquaintances
and I'll kill you myself. Keep silent, and I'll see that you're
not killed or tortured excessively - for these offences, at least."
I agreed, of course. Next morning I was tried, found guilty,
and sentenced to death. That was a nasty moment, but after a
long, gloating pause the sadistic wretch of a magistrate added
that I had been granted the Mayor's clemency. He then changed
my sentence to one year in the blazing deserts of Baffin Land
for every coin in the bag with which I had struck the Rector.
Fifty seven years! After the trial I was chained inside an armoured
wagon and driven to the wind train terminus. There I was marched,
chain, ball and all, to the office of the Inspector of Customs.
He signed for me, and I was held under guard until I was handed
over to the train's warden.
A man that I took to be from the train entered, with scroll in
his hand. He sent the guards out of the office, and two other
armed, uniformed men replaced them.
"Now, Prisoner Glasken, I have a few details to check,"
he said genially. "You have a degree, I see here."
"I'll be the best educated prisoner in Baffin Land,"
"Perhaps not. You have a technical degree, including articles
in arithmetic with a good pass."
"Yes, but chemistric is -"
"Splendid," he said, smiling more broadly and rolling
the scroll up again. He turned to the guards. "Gag and
bind him, then back the wagon up to the door."
Blindfolded, bound and gagged, I was driven through the streets
of Rochester for perhaps an hour. From the street cries, sounds
of working artisans and challenges from guards, I could tell that
I was being taken to the area of the Palace and Libris, then inside.
The air around me became cold as the doors rumbled shut behind
the wagon, and I was lifted from the tray by someone of monstrous
strength and held upright. My shackle was struck off with a chisel,
then I was carried for some distance, through doors and past the
challenges of several guards. We ascended two flights of stairs
before I was put down on a hard bench.
My hands and feet were untied, and my gag and blindfold came off
last of all. Before me was a burly Dragon Red librarian, armed
only with a heavy truncheon. He was obviously what I was meant
to see, an incentive to behave. The room was small, with a barred
skylight in the ceiling. On one wall was a blackboard and box
of chalk. A door on my right opened and a thin, middle-aged Dragon
Red came in, a striped uniform over his arm.
"I am your instructor," he said, throwing the uniform
on the bench, then standing back with his arms folded. "Put
those on." I had only the watch-house britches to remove,
and the new uniform was clean and comfortable.
"Prisoner John Glasken, you have been re-directed from a
long term on a chain gang in the Baffin Land deserts because of
your training in arithmetic," the librarian told me. He
took a piece of chalk from the box. "You will be well fed
and clothed, and there will be no chain gangs or heavy work.
You will work hard, however. The Mayor needs calculation and
arithmetic as much as he needs the work of chain gangs."
He turned to the board and drew five small circles in a row, then
another just above them.
"This top circle is myself," he said, pointing with
the chalk. "These down here are people like you. Now, I
have been given a long calculation, one that would take me ten
days of tedious arithmetic to complete. Instead I take half a
day breaking the task into five parts then share them out among
my five assistants. They work for two days. I spend a half day
putting the results together, and I have the task done more than
three times faster. Do you follow?"
"Ah, yes, Fras Dragon Red."
"Good. Now, I could work for only, say, twelve hours a day,
and so could you. If I have ten people available, I could have
another shift working while you sleep, and the solution would
take only two days. What would you do to get the solution even
"Get twenty people?"
"Fool!" he spat, flinging his chalk in my face. "It
still takes me time to split the task up. What I must do is have
the task split up by another team of calculators, and then
I can get better speed. If I get two people to split up the task
into twenty parts, then I can increase the speed. What good would
it be if I had the task calculated in a few minutes if it takes
me a day to prepare it?"
Something more agreeable than six decades in the desert was on
offer here. "What sort of problems are calculated?"
I asked, hoping to sound intelligent.
"Does a rower ask what a battle galley on the river is being
used for? Would the knowledge help him row better? What we have
here is indeed very like a galley, Fras Glasken. There is a machine
of a thousand people, and three shifts to spread the work. This
machine has hundreds of times more calculating power than an individual
like you, and it never sleeps, gets sick or dies."
"But what if someone make a mistake in the middle of one
of the big team calculations? How would you know the answer is
"The machine is divided into two identical halves, and these
run in parallel. If the answers are different then they repeat
the calculation until both halves agree. I am now going to train
you to be the most basic member of the team, an adder. You will
now also cease to be John Glasken. You are ADDER 3084-T, and
will find that number on badges on your tunic's breast and back."
And so it went, seemingly for hours. I was told the punishments
for mistakes and misbehaviour, taught the daily routines, taught
the ranks of guards and Dragon Librarians, and had the tasks of
my fellow prisoners outlined to me. Us prisoners were called
I was given trials at a desk with a large frame abacus and three
rows of levers, and taught to recognise a number from a row of
metal flags in various combinations of up and down. I had to
take the numbers specified by the top row and put it onto the
abacus. I would then press a pedal and another number would appear
on the row, and I would add this to the first on the abacus.
When the list was complete all the levers on the flag row clicked
to the top position, and I keyed my answer into the bottom row
of levers and pressed a pedal. When the next list was due all
the levers on the top row fell to the bottom position, and when
I pressed the pedal, the first number appeared. I learned about
the other levers later.
Although the skylights showed day and night, I began to lose track
of time with the training that the Dragon Red gave me. The machine
was called a calculor. The guards who patrolled the aisles were
called regulators, and they punished, kept order, and sorted out
problems with equipment and components. During my training I
saw nobody except my instructor and some silent prisoners who
brought meals. The meals were constipating and the drinks infrequent,
except after training was over. Privy breaks were not encouraged
during training, and each session was four hours long. At the
end of each day I was locked in a small room with four bedcells,
and I collapsed into mine as exhausted as if I'd been breaking
One day, without warning, I was sent down a new corridor and into
a vast, brightly lit hall. It was the calculor, and I was awed
by the aisles that stretched down dozens of rows of desks, with
wires crossing, and some carrying little message boxes from point
to point. There was no conversation, only a continuous swishing
of beads on wires and a clacking of levers like a field of muted
crickets in the evening. A partition curtain ran down the centre
of the hall, and I realised that I was only seeing one of the
huge machine's processors.
I was shown to a seat at the rear of the calculor, and was shackled
to a bench - though the irons were padded with leather, and the
chain was light. The instructor Red stood behind me and pulled
a lever from the 'Neutral' position to 'Stand Ready'.
"You will be on light work for the first two hours, while
you adjust to the routine," he said. "If you perform
up to your training standard, you will then be put on the full
work rate until the half shift break. While you have your coffee
we will assess your work, and after that you may be classed as
an installed component."
"What happens if I don't perform well enough?" I asked.
"You will be given another week of training. If that does
not do any good, you will be discarded."
"Does that mean I go to Baffin Land?"
"I'm afraid not," he said gravely, shaking his head.
A shiver went down my back. He moved the lever to 'Active'.
The sweat dripped from my armpits and ran down my ribcage as I
began to work, but after a while I realised that the work was
very like what I had been doing at the training desk, and was
a lot slower. When the rate went up, I was able to cope with
no trouble at all. At the half time break three Dragon Reds came
over, smiling and nodding, and unpinned the 'T' on my badge.
By the end of the shift I was weary, hungry, and bursting for
a piss, but sure that I would not be discarded. I was put in
a cell with three other men, all from my shift.
Two of them were about ten years older than me, and the other
old enough to be quite grey. Meals were handed to us in tin bowls.
"So you're new, then?" asked MULTIPLIER 901.
"My first shift today," I said between mouthfuls of
"Congratulations," said the old man, CONVERTER 15.
"Some new components don't get through the tests the first
time. A few never get through."
"Does being discarded mean what I think it does?" I
asked. He nodded.
"Have you ever heard of the calculor outside, ADD?"
asked PORT 72. "Thought not. None of the newcomers ever
have. That means that none leave here alive, or there would at
least be rumours."
"I suppose that means we're in here for life," I said.
"Nay, in here until you cannot perform at least as a basic
component," said CONVERTER. "But don't worry, lad.
They give you reasonable repair time when you get sick, and there's
a pool of spare components to relieve us on fortnightly rest days,
or when we are sick. Watch your health and you could live to
a ripe old age and die in bed before your quota of repair days
is used up."
I was unsure of whether or not to feel relieved. CONVERTER went
to a corner and began to use the piss-jar.
"Has anyone ever tried to escape?" I asked MULTIPLIER.
"Oh yes. Every so often someone thumps a guard and runs
down the corridor, but they get clubbed down soon enough. Get
past the clubs, and there are guns. Ever hear of anyone getting
to the guns, CON?"
"Last one was in '97, not long after the calculor was set
up," he said over his shoulder. "Before my time, mind.
I'd say, oh, twenty or more have been discarded for becoming
"Trying to escape twice, ADD. Any component doing that gets
discarded automatically." That was a worry.
"Just one more question," I said as I scraped up the
last of my stew. "Who are you all - you for example, PORT?"
"I used to be a money changer," said PORT. "Then
I was caught for short-changing. Been here five years. We're
all petty felons, ADD, just like you. Nobody misses us."
Ah, that hurt, but I must admit that it was true.
As the weeks passed I became a model component and was presently
uprated to MULTIPLIER after a conversion course. I was told that
I had to study to be a FUNCTION, a component with a number of
special mathematical skills that could not be easily shared through
a team. We had two hours of free time after the extra work of
cleaning the cells and passages, cooking, repairing damaged calculor
equipment and exercise each day. I used that time to study equations
in probability and the theory of charts: My instructor had ordered
me to study these as there was soon to be expansion in these areas.
As a FUNCTION one had a status only just below that of a Dragon
Librarian, but was still a prisoner. I heard rumours that there
were dalliances between the Dragon Librarians and the higher FUNCTIONS,
which would make the time easier to bear. The weeks became months,
and I studied hard - for what else was there to do? I was made
a trainee FUNCTION, which meant that I was apprenticed to a senior
My master was a vague, dreamy youth of about my age, FUNCTION
3073 who was called Nikalan before he vanished into the calculor.
I shared a cell with him, and he was agreeable but bland company.
He didn't even understand the one about the two nuns going to
matins! Still, he was brilliant at maths. The others told me
that he was nursing some great hurt: His sweetheart had been murdered.
"Eight-Four, there's something strange happening," he
told me one evening.
"Strange? It's bloody horrible. Five system generations
in a week, then all those simulations for the sub-calculor group.
You'd think they had better use for a marvel like this."
"They're experimenting with a smaller machine. Each system
generation was for a different size, and it was followed by tests
to determine performance peaks. There was something else, too.
The equipment was confined to small desks, and runners took the
results from calpoint to calnode."
"I know, Seven-Three, I know. Nearly all the components
in the last generation were FUNCTIONS, so we had to do all our
own menial addition and multiplication. No justice, I say. We
slave away to become FUNCTIONS but when we're promoted they take
our lackeys away."
"You're missing the point," he said patiently.
"Well, what's your idea?"
"They are designing a mobile calculor."
I sat back and thought about this. A mobile calculor meant they
might take it outside Libris.
"They're using me a lot in the tests. That might mean that
I'm being considered for it," I said hopefully. "That's
good. There are aspects of Libris that I really hate."
The aspect that I hated most was that of sex - or at least the
fact that others seemed to be able to indulge while I could not.
With a few thousand people of mixed sexes it was no surprise
that opportunities were said to arise, yet they never did so for
me. There was always a guard in the wrong place; there were women
who looked willing, yet assignations always went wrong. Getting
a female component pregnant was a serious offence, and I met with
one poor clown who had been dealt with most unkindly for doing
just that. Still, there were devices available to prevent such
accidents, so why did no wench smile upon such an excellent find
as John Glasken?
I thought a great deal on past lovers. Fat, raunchy wenches like
Jiggle, and the slight, romantic girl, Lemoral. The latter I
had met at the University, just at a time when I had been growing
tired of shallow affairs and wanted something with more passion.
For sheer lust Lemoral was a disappointment. She had none of
the background of the average tavern wench and needed to be taught
and coaxed every step of the way. Naturally I had to keep the
more debauched of my exploits secret from her, yet on the occasions
that I found myself before a magistrate she would come along and
give testimony on my good character. The trouble was that she
was a Dragon Librarian of middling rank, and their Highliber has
spies everywhere. Someone who knew her must have reported me
bundling into some wench and passed the news on. Love turned
to hate in very short order.
The Dragon Reds who were our regulators were mostly men, but some
women were sprinkled among them. One in particular caught my
eye; a fine figure of a wench named Dolorian. She had style,
unlike the uniformed icicle Lemoral or the fat, fierce brawlers
from the taverns and bawdy houses. Tunic and blouse tailored
to show her figure to effect, knee-length boots with high heels,
and tight black fencing britches, I had never met anyone like
her, and was desperate to impress.
I did pushups and situps by the hundred to shape up, sewed my
uniform tight in selected places to bulge impressively, sang my
heart out whenever I could borrow a communal lutina, and sketched
her many times from a distance. Of course I did this for a good
number of other women as well, but Dolorian remained my fondest
The day after I was finally upgraded to FUNCTION I was sitting
in my cell when I heard a tap at the bars.
"Shift check," said a husky voice. I looked up.
"Check," I replied to Dolorian, who had never been on
cell duty before, then hastily added "Are you permanent on
this shift now?"
"No, just relieving," she said, folding her arms under
her breasts, and not without some difficulty.
"Such a pity," I sighed. "The sight of you is
all that makes this drab place bearable."
She smiled, a soft, open smile which told me that I had a chance.
Her tunic was of crushed red velvet, showing a great area of
cleavage and fastened by one clasp above a row of buttons. I
moved my hand, and the shadows of my fingers fondled her white
skin as we continued to talk.
"You're a handsome, clever beast, Eight-Four," she observed,
looking down at the shadows. Instead of swirling the honey-brown
cloak to cover herself, she merely put a hand up to the clasp.
I brought the shadow of my hand down to cover hers. As I moved
the shadows, her fingers followed. On impulse, I moved them back
to the clasp, then motioned them to tug. The clasp popped open,
and each of the buttons below seemed in turn to depend on the
clasp. Two mighty breasts with small, pink nipples surged out
with such force that I stepped back from the bars in alarm.
"Now you will have to put them back," she purred.
"My - my shadow hands are so clumsy, Frelle Dolorian. Perhaps
. . . if you stepped closer?"
She did. The pleasure of touching her made my blood race so hard
that I could feel a headache approaching.
"For all your cleverness you cannot work a simple tunic,
Fras Glasken," she said, folding her arms behind her back.
"It's the bars, lovely Frelle. Come inside and I shall show
such skill with your clothing as you have never seen."
"But you may take my keys and escape."
"I would never try to escape from wherever you are."
There was a slight jingle behind her back. Keys! She was going
to come in! There was at least a full half hour before the morning
shift began. I nearly passed out with sheer anticipation. After
all those months of deprivation I was about to plunder the greatest
prize of all. The assembly bell began to ring.
In a silent, dancing swirl she drew back out of my reach, swept
the cloak around to cover herself, whispered "Later,"
then melted into the shadows. Perhaps two minutes later I was
still frozen in mid-grasp when another regulator came by.
"Reaching for something, FUNCTION?" he asked, stopping
to stare with his hands on his hips. Only then did I let my arms
flop. "Come on, get your act together. The Highliber's
making an announcement."
All of us off-duty FUNCTIONS were herded into the back of the
calculor hall. The System Herald rang twice on the bell and cried
"System hold!" At once the whispering of men, women
and beads on wires tapered away in an orderly shutdown. The Highliber
entered and climbed the stairs to the System Controller's rostrum;
a tall, strong yet finely featured woman with rather small hands.
Several Dragon Reds, Blues and Silvers were lined up either side
of her. Lemoral was there, and over near the edge was the rebuttoned
Dolorian. A double squad of Tiger Dragons flanked us, matchlocks
"Components of the Libris Calculor," Zarvora began in
a sharp, clear voice, "I am the Highliber. I designed and
built the calculor."
She paused for a moment to let us assimilate this. "Some
of you are to be given a change of scenery. We are building a
new, mobile calculor to assist the Mayor's army in battle. It
will consist of only a hundred components. Those selected for
the Battle Calculor will step aside and be mustered for immediate
The System Herald began to read out a list. Nikalan was first.
There were no women selected, or any component with less than
two years experience as a FUNCTION. I was not disappointed.
After the morning shift Dolorian would return -
"The Inspector of Examiners also has a list of less experienced
FUNCTIONS who are nonetheless strong, fit and suited to life on
the battlefield." Lemoral gave the Herald a list. "FUNCTION
3084 . . ."
Me! Lemoral smiled: This was her doing. Dolorian looked down
with a grin. Conspiracy! Lemoral had asked Dolorian to fling
open the gates of paradise before me, then slam them shut in my
face. There were only nine more names on Lemoral's list, and
minutes later we were marched out and chained inside covered wagons.
Our basic training took only a fortnight, as we were just being
taught to keep up with the regulars and to defend ourselves as
a last resort. We ran many miles in helmets and light ringmail,
with forage pack, weapons and portable calculor desk strapped
on for good measure. I excelled in sabre and musket training,
but found the use of the buckle shield quite awkward. Interestingly,
we were no longer known as component numbers, but by our names:
On a battlefield it is much easier to respond to a name than to
a number. My former master was now named Nikalan, and I had become
his sabre tutor.
After the daily training there was no more entertainment than
I'd had inside Libris - or conversely, the others were now subject
to the same celibacy as had been forced upon me. The camp was
on a cleared field not ten miles from the walls of Rochester,
and was known to be used by the Mayoral army as a shooting range
and skirmish ground. The perimeter was well guarded, but there
was little point in trying to escape. I was safe, well fed and
clothed, and in a part of the army that would be as far from the
front line as any slacker could wish.
The Battle Calculor was quite different from that thousand component
monster in Libris. Each component had fairly complex functions
to perform, and there were runners to go between them as they
worked, with problems and answers written on slates. It was of
most use when applied to a set-piece battle, where enemy forces
could be easily assessed. Clerks drew a quick map on tentcloth
and set it on the ground. Coloured blocks represented groups
and types of fighters, and were moved according to orders from
the Battle Calculor, or reports from our scouts. The machine's
advantage was that it treated the business as a game, like champions
or chess, and was quick, accurate and flexible. Unlike human
commanders, it had no emotions or expectations as it gave orders
about when to move, where to stand firm, and what to shoot at.
Signals were sent to the battlefield by coded trumpet calls,
whistles, heliostats and signal flags. We had observers on mobile
observation poles to provide a good overview of the real scene.
As these would be a favoured target with enemy marksmen, they
had to wear full plate armour.
Finally we were put into the field with two groups of a hundred
soldiers and officers of roughly equal skill. At first the practice
team led by officers alone outflanked the calculor's team every
time, and our men jeered us components. Soon the officers began
to get a feeling for the machine's power to make quick and accurate
decisions, in spite of the unfamiliar form that the instructions
took. Our team was winning one mock engagement for every one
that the others did by the end of the second day, and during the
third we won them all. The odds were doubled, then tripled, and
in a week the Battle Calculor's team could beat odds of five to
one in set-piece engagements.
There were other tests, such as when a party of 'enemy' soldiers
was allowed to break into the Battle Calculor and we repelled
them with the aid of the calculor guard, compensated for 'dead'
components and resumed operations again. Once we were even required
to solve problems while all the components were drunk, and again
when we were hung over, and there were still more tests on how
fast we could pack the calculor desks onto our backs, move a few
hundred yards, then unpack and become operational again.
For all the training in tactical methodology that I had been given,
I was quite unaware of the strategic value of the Battle Calculor.
I paid little attention to the number of musketeers from the
Inglewood Prefecture training with the Rochestrian troops, and
it was fortunate for the Mayor that none of the neighbouring monarchs
were any more observant than me. Inglewood was, like Rochester,
a small sliver of territory dominated by the Tandaran Mayorate
which separated the two states and maintained a strict arms embargo
between them. Rochester and Inglewood had once been part of a
much larger and very powerful Mayorate; one with proud military
traditions. Those traditions were, in miniature, still very much
With no warning at all we were marched out of the camp one afternoon,
stripped naked, and made to dress in striped prison tunics. Next
we were taken to a railside and put aboard a wind train with a
consignment of felons being sent to work on the Morkalla paraline
extension. The train rumbled away with a great clashing of gears
and whirring of rotors, and at the Elmore railside the Tandara
customs guards came aboard. The train was searched for weapons,
and our guards were changed for leased Tandara regulars.
The train rumbled through the ghostly Bendigo Abandon, then west
across the Inglewood border where the guards were changed again.
All at once we were given fresh uniforms and calculor desks,
and set free from our shackles - those of us who were not genuinely
destined to break rocks and lay rails at Morkalla, that is. Now
I understood the Highliber's plan. Inglewood was limited by treaty
to a tiny army of a thousand musketeers, fifteen mobile bombards,
and sixty lancers. Nine mounted kavelars led the show. The Battle
Calculor could boost the power of that small force many times
over, but that also implied that there was about to be real fighting.
I was summoned to the tent of the Field Overhand of the Inglewood
forces. There was another in the tent with Overhand Gratian;
FUNCTION Nikalan Vittasner.
"Vittasner, Glasken, we are about to put the Battle Calculor
to its first real test. Inglewood has declared war on Tandara."
I felt my bowels go to ice. That was about as mismatched as putting
me against the calculor in a maths contest.
"Vittasner, you are to be the Chief of Components during
this battle. All will obey your orders with regard to the working
of the Battle Calculor. Your title will be Chief."
"Yes sir," he mumbled.
"Glasken, you are to head the Component's Militia, and will
have the title of Captain. You will be subject to the Chief's
orders until such time as the Battle Calculor comes under direct
attack, in which case everyone will obey you. Is that clear?"
"Sir! Yes sir!"
"Both of you have already been trialed in these duties, and
have been found to be the best out of the hundred components.
Now, return to your men and prepare them. Dismissed."
"Sir!" we chorused.
Badges of rank were pinned to our arms; a black 'CC' on a silver
background for Nikalan and the same with a 'CM' for me. That
was the equivalent of Dragon Silver rank. I wished that Lemoral
could be there to see me, but I knew that she would find out eventually
and smiled at the thought.
We called the components together and Nikalan gave a vague talk
about this being no different from the training runs that we had
been doing. Then it was my turn.
"Okay folks, who can tell me what happens to a component
who loses sleep or gets drunk and can't perform up to benchmark?"
"Firing squad!" came the ragged chorus.
"That's it. Anyone planning to drink a concealed jar of
wine better bear that in mind. All those out there in the firing
line tomorrow will be depending on us. Also, if our side gets
minced, the enemy isn't going to believe that we aren't regular
soldiers. We may be just prisoners, but tomorrow we'll have the
powers of an Overhand. We have the most to lose if the attack
fouls up tomorrow; everyone will want a piece out of us. Remember
My first speech in public! A rambling, disjointed little farrago
but brief and to the point. They had to be frightened into being
absolutely trustworthy. Unlike the Libris calculor, this one
had only one processor, so that there was no parallel processor
to verify each calculation. The work had to be fast and accurate
on one pass.
We began marching well before dawn the next morning, and came
within sight of Castle Woodvale in the first hour of light. The
weather was dry and sunny as we passed the boundary stone for
the Tandara Mayorate. The castle stood among low, rolling hills
and sparse woodland. A light wind was blowing from the north.
Our fifteen bombards were excellent engines with brass alloy barrels.
They had a good range and fired cast iron balls with lead cores
instead of stone. Thus they could do great damage from just outside
the range of the cheaper bombards that were standard in Tandara's
castles. They cost twenty times as much to build as a normal
bombard, and must have come close to bankrupting the treasury
At the border eight hundred Inglewood musketeers and bombardiers
joined us, and after no more than a single hour we were set up
on a low hill as the troops split up to block the paraline either
side of the castle. I could already see a message pulsing from
its beamflash tower, and the capital was only four hours march
away - less by wind train or horse.
Scenario slates were given to us, and most of these had probably
been worked out in advance back at the Libris calculor. They
included the wind strength and direction, and estimated train
speeds. Extra squads of peasants were marching with us carrying
spades, axes and bundles of pikes.
The attack began while we were setting up the Battle Calculor
and observation masts on a scrubby hill some distance from the
castle. New scenario slates revealed that the Inglewood bombards
had been brought to bear on the castle's walls and beamflash tower
while the rest of the army frantically set about digging trenches,
erecting stake walls and spreading caltraps.
An early bombard hit smashed the gallery of the beamflash tower,
but news of the attack would have been flashed north to the capital
before the first shot had been fired. Relief forces would be
in the mustering grounds already, or being bundled onto wind trains.
There was a massive explosion some miles to the north, then another
to the south. Scenario slates informed us that the paralines
had been blown up with wagonloads of gunpowder.
Some time later the castle bombards were silenced, yet no final
attack was made. Our troops withdrew, leaving only a token squad
to guard the gate. We calculated the odds and movement times.
It was already an hour and a half from the first alert, and the
cavalry from the capital were visible to the lookout on our observation
mast. Wind trains with foot soldiers would be following.
The lookouts reported that 1800 heavy lancers were riding hard
down the highway from the north. They formed into one broad block
to overwhelm our northern line, I noted from the coloured blocks
on our cloth map. Scout lancers with hand heliostats warned our
lookouts that two thousand musketeers were marching up the road
from wind trains halted by the shattered rails to the south.
The Tandarans had timed them to arrive with the lancers but now
they would be a little late. Our musketeers were outnumbered
five to one. We calculated odds, times, numbers and possible
tactics based on which commanders' pennons had been reported by
our scouts. The Battle Calculor ordered six hundred musketeers
into the southern trenches, while only bombard crews, lancers
and peasants armed with pikes faced the horde to the north.
I began to contemplate life as a Tandaran prisoner of war as the
lancers formed up. There were weak points in the stake wall;
even I could see that. They charged in a line, ignoring the obvious
traps at the weak points. The moment that they charged, the calculor
ordered firepots to be cast into the grass before the southern
trenches, then sent our musketeers running north. The bombards
poured grapeshot north at the lancers, shredding those who broke
through and ignoring those floundering against the more heavily
Soon the main body of lancers broke through, but instead of standing
to fight the calculor ordered our bombardiers into full retreat.
They ran before the lancers, met with the musketeers from the
south, and turned to present a triple line of eight hundred muskets
to the lancers. Orderly volleys slashed through the lancers as
they reached the bombards and tried to move them - but they were
chained to rocks, and the calculor had ordered the excess powder
drenched so that they could not be spiked. The lancers faltered,
unable to do anything with the bombards that they had just taken.
Musket fire still shredded their ranks.
On the groundsheet we could see the Tandaran musketeers charging
through the fires at the now empty southern trenches, but the
lancers could see nothing but smoke. With perhaps five hundred
dead or disabled littering the field, they broke and retreated.
Now the musketeers broke through the flames and dropped into
our shallow trenches, but they were dug sheer on one side and
sloping on the other. The triple line of Inglewood musketeers
turned, and had a clear line of fire at an enemy backed against
walls and outlined by flames. Not a single Inglewood death was
yet registered on the scoreslate.
For twenty minutes the withering volleys went on, with one Inglewood
musketeer dropping for every ten of the Tandarans. The bombard
crews had been ordered back, carrying dry powder, and as the lancers
tried to rally they were fired on again. The calculor ordered
our peasant irregulars out to strip weapons from the fallen as
the Tandaran musketeers retreated over the smoking grass stubble.
At last someone on the castle's walls thought of coordinating
their two groups using handheld heliostats, and at this the calculor
ordered our remaining musketeers into a triangle, with one side
formed by the line of bombards. It need not have bothered: The
signals were ignored.
The most desperate part of the battle came when those left in
the castle charged out, adding another five hundred to the odds
against us. The calculor processed, I calculated, relayed, determined
odds and scribbled on slates. The calculor ordered its own guard
of two hundred men into the fighting. There we were, one hundred
unarmed components and ten armed regulators, yet we did not rebel.
We were the Overhand, and these were our troops
fighting impossible odds.
The calculor guard caught the garrison troops between the gate
and one side of the triangle. Fired on from both sides and unable
to retreat they broke and ran south, only to be fired upon by
their own people. The Battle Calculor made its assessment from
the reports of the lookouts and heliostat signals from the field,
then calculated from the disposition of troops that the enemy
would not be able to rally within at least an hour. Secure with
these parameters, it ordered our bombards unchained and brought
to bear on the castle. A dozen or so shots had the main gate
reduced to a pile of splinters, and the few left inside surrendered
at once. Until now I had seen no action directly, apart from
the shot that disabled the beamflash tower. Such a strange, detached
way to fight a war.
Messages poured in about casualties, approaching Tandaran reinforcements,
and the exhaustion quotients of our own fighters. The calculor
ordered itself moved into the castle along with all the Inglewood
bombards and musketeers, then the gate was blocked solid with
stone rubble. Once it was operating again, it ordered ten of
its most expendable FUNCTIONS, including me, into the decapitated
beamflash tower to rig up a communications link with Inglewood
- and hence to the great calculor at Rochester. Wind trains began
arriving from Tandara, and this time they really meant business.
Our lookouts estimated eleven thousand enemy outside by late
During all this I laboured among the flies, dust and occasional
musket balls to nail a wooden beamflash gallery together at the
top of the tower while three Dragon Red librarians set up a mobile
beamflash machine and telescope. With a link established to the
Derby tower, and hence the rest of the beamflash network, tactical
data poured in. Rochestrian troops had attacked over the border
and taken Elmore, then gone on special wind trains to secure the
main line all the way to the Bendigo Abandon and the junction
railside at Eaglehawk. They might have been stopped by Tandaran
reinforcements from the north, except that they were not able
to pass the broken track and hostile bombards at Woodvale Castle.
By the next day the fighting had died down, so much so that the
Battle Calculor was running at half strength as a local decoder,
and the spare FUNCTIONS were taking turns to work in the beamflash
tower. Nikalan and I were assigned to the early afternoon shift.
I stared through the telescope at the distant tower, copying
out the messages in the distant flashes of light.
"They'll never let us go now," I complained as I mechanically
scribbled on a slate. "The Mayor's gamble on the Highliber's
machine had paid off. He's tripled his territory and will probably
demand client status from the Tandaran mayor. Tandara's allies
will be too frightened of the Battle Calculor to squawk."
"An elegant contest," Nikalan replied as he worked the
beamflash key to send a separate message outwards. "The
Battle Calculor was used to only 65% of its capacity yesterday,
you know. We could have won against even greater odds."
I shuddered. "So, what will the Highliber have us doing
next, I wonder? Declare war on the Southmoors? I hate being
a component, I hate being a part of the brain of a machine, I
hate not even knowing what is in these coded messages that we
Oh, but I know all the codes," said Nikalan dreamily. "These
are simple messages. This one that I'm sending mentions that
no Battle Calculor components died."
"Change it," I said listlessly. "Tell 'em I'm
"But I would be disciplined -"
"So tell 'em you're dead too. Ah, Derby's transmitter relay
is closing down for lunch. Wake me when they start again."
I dozed. I dreamed of the heady pressure of Dolorian's big, firm
breasts pressing against my bare chest instead of being at arms
length. Nikalan shook me awake.
"Wake up, Johnny, you're dead."
"No, it's true, and so am I. Libris has replied to our message.
NEW COMPONENTS BEING SENT TO REPLACE GLASKEN AND VITTASNER.
THE BODIES TO BE RELEASED FOR BURIAL."
I sat up with a gasp that damn near choked me. "What?"
I cried seizing him by the tunic. "You really did
change the message?"
"And the Rochester calculor accepted it?"
"Well, yes. The code was simple, and I only had to adjust
the wording so that the checksums came out the same."
I released him and sat down heavily. "Don't you know a joke
when you hear one? We really are dead now. The Highliber will
spit hellfire when she finds out and . . . did you say released
Mountain ranges of breasts trembled within my grasp, forests of
thighs bid me come exploring.
"Could you change that to just 'RELEASE THEM'?"
"Well . . . no. The reply code is different, based on a
checksum total requiring the same number of letters."
I thought frantically for a moment.
"How about GLASKEN AND VITTASNER TO BE RELEASED?"
"But I don't want to be released. I like working in calculors."
"But I need your name to make up the wordage!"
"I'd really rather stay. My life is calculation."
The urge to fling him over the edge of the tower was almost beyond
my control. He could probably have had us released from the Libris
calculor with much the same trick.
"Well, it was a nice thought while it lasted. One favour,
though, good Nikalan. Could you show me what the message might
have looked like in code?"
I struck him on the head the moment that he had finished, then
cried out that he had fainted and called for a relief team. I'll
say one thing for Libris, when an order comes through, people
jump. Before Nikalan had revived the senior controller came to
see us with releases so fresh that the ink was not dry. I poured
a phial of salts of nightwing down Nikalan's throat to keep him
War is a great time for opportunists, and in spite of the watchful
eyes of the calculor regulators, I had managed to loot two gold
royals, sixteen silver nobles and two border passes in the confusion.
I blew five silver nobles on a captured Tandaran horse.
Eaglehawk and its railside were only five miles south, and between
the chaos caused by the war, my stolen papers, ten silver nobles
for two fares and one gold royal for a bribe, I managed to get
us aboard a freight wind train by nightfall. I'd planned to ride
the Nullarbor paraline to the Western Castelanies, but the damn
thing turned due north to Robinvale while I slept.
After that things got really interesting. I shot the Robinvale
Inspector of Customs when he refused a bribe, then fled with Nikalan
into the Southmoor Emirate. He had some idea of travelling to
the Central Confederation, but alas, the fool got us auctioned
in the slave market at Balranald while trying to buy a camel.
Our owner was a caravan master going north. Oh how we suffered
. . . attacked by freebooters . . . stole camels, fled into the
desert. Nearly died . . .
At this point, master, Glasken fell asleep and began to snore
swinishly. You must agree that his story is far too consistent
and detailed for such a wastrel to have dreamed up, so that there
must indeed be barbarian nations with very advanced sciences beyond
the red deserts. If so, dare we ignore their works?
I had the drunken infidel bound and taken to my tent, then
sent armed strappers to fetch Nikalan from his tent near the counting
house in the marketplace. I am now pleased to report that we
are returning to Glenellen. This scroll precedes us with a courier
Master, were you to gather a hundred souls of moderate ability
with the abacus in some place that cannot be spied upon, we could
use these two components to build our own Battle Calculor, for
the greater glory and prosperity of your royal house. Might I
suggest the fortress at Mount Zeil as an admirable site?
I am your humble and devoted servant, Khal Azik Vildah.
Originally appeared pp. 29-43, Eidolon 8, April 1992.
Copyright © 1992 Sean McMullen.
Reprinted with kind permission of the author.