Souls in the
Great Machine

Sean McMullen


Libris was Rochester's mayoral library. Its stone beamflash communications tower was over 600 feet high and dominated the skyline of the city. The Highliber of Libris was second only to the Mayor in power, and she controlled a network of libraries and librarians scattered over dozens of mayorates and thousands of miles. In many ways the Highliber was even more powerful than the Mayor. There was no dominant religion across the mayorates of the Southeast, so the library system performed many functions of a powerful clergy. The education, communication, and transport of every mayorate in the Southeast Alliance was under the discrete but firm coordination of the Highliber of Rochester.
Rochester itself was not a powerful state, in fact the other mayorates of the Southeast Alliance deliberately kept it as no more than a rallying point, a political convenience. Neighbouring mayorates such as Tandara, Deniliquin and Wangaratta held the real power, and wielded it shamelessly in the Councilium Chambers at Rochester. Mayor Jefton of Rochester was the constitutional Overmayor of the Councilium, but in practice he was of little more consequence to his peers than the servants who scrubbed the floor, dusted the tapestries and polished the broad red rivergum table at which the meetings were held.
Libris was the very reason that Rochester was kept weak. A powerful mayorate controlling the vast and influential library network would quickly become strong enough to rule the entire Alliance. The Councilium was wary of that. Zarvora had been appointed recently, replacing a man 80 years her senior. She had become a Dragon Silver at 24, and after two years had jumped the Dragon Gold level to be appointed Dragon Black-the Highliber's rank. There had been some luck involved: Mayor Jefton also happened to be young and ambitious, and was weary of elderly men and women telling him what he could or could not do. Zarvora offered him the chance to make Rochester powerful, and outlined some radical but plausible ways of doing it. He proposed her name to the Councilium, giving her the chance to address the Mayors in person. She promised to make both Libris and the beamflash network pay for themselves within three years or resign. The Mayors were impressed and appointed her.
Zarvora became Highliber in 1696 GW and massive changes followed. The Tiger Dragons, Libris' internal guard, were tripled and a branch of them was turned into the Black Runners, a secret constabulary. Parts of Libris were rebuilt and extended, and staff and books were moved into other areas. In the workshops of the expanded library artisans toiled through twelve hour shifts, day after day, month after month, making strange machinery and furniture. Carpenters, blacksmiths, and clockmakers were recruited from far afield, and the edutors at the University were contracted to solve odd problems in symbolic logic. Large areas of Libris were sealed from outside scrutiny.
Zarvora explained that Libris had become too big to govern manually, and that a vast signalling and coordinating division of clerks, lackeys, and librarians had been set up to manage its books and coordinate its activities. Indeed the efficiency of Libris' activities improved dramatically in only a few months, and by the end of 1696 GW the Mayor could see real savings set against the Highliber's expenses.
There were also drastic changes in the staffing of Libris. Examinations for Dragon Red and Green were changed to favour candidates with mathematical and mechanical backgrounds, rather than just knowledge of library theory and the classics. No recruit was older than 35, and several accepted options to study further at Rochester's University. The changes did not go uncriticised, but the Highliber was dedicated and ruthless. She lobbied, fought duels, had officials assassinated . . . and even had the more numerate of her opponents abducted for a new and novel form of forced labour. When those obstructing her had been outside Libris, it had been necessary to arrange other means to push them aside. In the case of Fertokli Fergen, Master of Mayoral Boardgames, she had used humiliation.


< Zarvora's Calculor is made up of several hundred slaves chained to benches and using abacus beads. >


As the door of the cell thudded shut behind them the four men collapsed, two onto the lower bunks and two onto the straw that covered the flagstones.
"Told you this would be a bad day," said ADDER 17. "Whenever the whole nine dozen of us are assembled in the late afternoon, you can be sure that the Correlator Components will be worked like a harlot's doorknocker."
MULTIPLIER 8 lay on the floor with his eyes closed and his fingers twitching. "We need more multipliers," he said. "When the load is on it all comes to us for verification and we can't keep that sort of pace up for long."
They lay there in silence for some minutes, then ADDER 17 sat up on the edge of his bunk. He reeled slightly from the movement, then shook his head and stood up.
"Anyone interested in a meal?" he asked, but received only groans and mutters by way of reply. He shuffled through the straw and pulled the slatted pantry door open.
"A pot of hot stew!" he said in surprise. "With fresh bread and a jar of beer."
"Mayoral Standard?" asked PORT 3A.
"No, just tourney beer."
"It's always tourney beer. Why can't we have something strong?"
"For the same reason that kavelars in a tournament have to drink it," said FUNCTION9. "We need to be refreshed, not drunk. Could you pass me a bowl of stew, ADD?"
As the lowest ranking component in the cell ADDER 17 was servant and housekeeper to the rest. He began to ladle out the meal.
"Clean straw, clean blankets, and sulphur's been burned to kill the vermin," he remarked. "They're rewarding us."
"I expected a beating," said MULTIPLIER 8, rubbing his hands together to steady them. "The way they questioned us in the training hall after leaving the Calculor had me thinking the machine had failed."
"Nay, I remember an orderly HALTMODE coming up on my frame," said PORT 3A. "They use FREEZE if something's wrong."
They ate in silence for a while, and a Dragon Red Librarian looked in briefly for the evening inspection. She told them that some repositioning was to be done in the Calculor room before the next working session, and that there would be a training run to accustom them to the new arrangement.
ADDER 17 mopped out his bowl with a crust, then poured a measure of beer into it. The others were still eating, as their hands were too swollen and painful to handle spoons easily.
"I keep wondering what it's all for," he said after his first sip.
MULTIPLIER 8 gave a groan of derision and held out his hand for the jar of beer. "To torture us, what else? A new punishment for felons," he said as he mixed beer with his stew.
"I disagree," said FUNCTION 9. "I was an edutor in Oldenberg University, and I'd never stolen so much as a copper-or made a political statement. There I was, walking in the cloisters after dinner when clout! When the blindfold came off I was here."
"Some rival may have wanted your job."
"There was not that sort of rivalry for the chair of Arithmetic Fundamentals. No, I think I was kidnapped especially to work here. Seven of the ten FUNCTIONS were kidnapped from provincial colleges, and all prisoners who work here used arithmetic in their work. Then again, most of the people here are those with backgrounds that . . . well, nobody would miss them greatly. Felons, the lonely, the friendless, those whose loved ones are too poor to have proper enquiries made, and those wastrels whose loved ones are rich enough to bribe officials not to have proper enquiries made. Anyone who can be easily trained to work the beads, frames and levers of the Calculor has a welcome. For many it's the best home they ever had."
"Surely someone with your background would be missed," said MULTIPLIER 8.
"No so. My wife had a lover, a romantic dandy with no money. With me gone they got the house, my library, and an estate worth thirty five gold royals-as well as each other. No, I would not have been missed. Someone did their homework well on me."
PORT 3A was asleep, his beer untouched, as ADDER 17 began to collect the bowls. He lifted the exhausted man's legs onto the bunk, covered him with a blanket, and then drained his beer. The gong rang for a half hour to lights out.
"Anyone have time for a game of champions?" ADDER 17 asked as he stacked the bowls in the pantry.
"Got plenty," said MULTIPLIER 8. "The magistrate gave me nine years."
"And for manipulating shipping registers, as I recall," added FUNCTION 9. "It was a very clever scheme, as you explained it. The rectifier who caught you out must have been a skilled mathematician."
"Never met the bastard," he said as ADDER 17 set up the board and pieces. "Right out of the blue the Sheriff's Runners turned up with a couple of dozen sheets of poor paper showing how I'd managed to pocket one gold royal for every thousand I handled. The churls I worked with stole from the shipments too, but none of them are here. It's damn unfair!"
"They were of no interest to the Calculor's master. You stole using arithmetic, they just pilfered from the cargoes. You are here because you showed skill with numbers in your crime."
MULTIPLIER 8 turned to the board and drew a straw from a pair in ADDER 17's fist. It was the longer, and he sighed with satisfaction as he shifted a pawn for his opening move.
"At last something went right for me today," he said.
FUNCTION 9 climbed up to his bunk and began leafing through a slim training book.
"Did it ever cross your mind, MULT, that the rectifier who caught you out was actually the Calculor?" he asked casually.
It had not. MULTIPLIER 8 gave such a start that he upset the champions board.
"I-yes, yes, that makes sense," he said in wonder at FUNCTION 9's powers of deduction. "It would not take long for the Calculor to unravel it. But why pick on me?"
"It probably examined the figures from every shipping register from every river port for a couple of months, looking for anomalies. Your scheme was invisible to human checking, because nobody would have the time to look at the registers in such detail. The Calculor, however, has greater patience and power than the mortals who comprise it-us."
"The devil you say!"
"There's more likely to be one very clever edutor or noble behind the Calculor than the devil. Just think of it. If the Mayor can plug the many thousands of holes through which his taxes and shipping levees are diminished, why he could double his income."
"So that's what the Calculor's for," MULTIPLIER 8 said in awe, turning back to help ADDER 17 set up the board again. "You know, it makes me feel proud in a way. It's like serving the Mayor as a soldier."
"Except that you gets shot at in the army," said ADDER 17, extending his forearm to display a well-healed but ugly scar.
"Hah, try to escape and see who gets shot at. You start this time, ADD. It was I who tipped the board."
In seven moves MULTIPLIER 8 moved a knight to crush two pawns and tilt his opponent's bishop. This exposed his own bishop to an opposition archer, who had a 'ready' weighting. ADDER 17 rotated the archer through half a circle, then removed the bishop.
"Damn hell, but I always forget what archers can do," MULTIPLIER 8 grumbled. "What I need is the Calculor to work out the choices for me."
"But then it wouldn't be you playing," said ADDER 17.
"Nonetheless, the idea is sound," said FUNCTION 9, looking up from his book. "In playing champions you are always dealing with patterns and values. Anything that can be reduced to numbers can be handled by the Calculor."
MULTIPLIER 8 checked the status of his own archers but found that none of them had a worthy target. In peevish frustration he reversed one and shot down a pawn.
"I bet the Calculor could give the Mayor's Gamesmaster a run for his money," he muttered.
"It will probably never happen," said FUNCTION 9. "If it can snare felons it can be used to do far more important things than playing champions."
"Such as?"
"I'm trying to work that out at this very moment. Just what can one use a huge capacity for arithmetic to do? One of the few surviving fragments from before Greatwinter mentions that calculating machines were used for everything from guiding ships to toasting bread. Most edutors would tell you that the writer was constructing some sort of allegory, but after spending a year in here I'm not so sure any more."
FUNCTION 9 lapsed into thought. MULTIPLIER 8's knights took an enemy keep, but forgot about an archer that ADDER 17 had used two moves to give a three quarter wind so that it could shoot diagonally. It shot his king across six spaces. MULTIPLIER 8 damned all archers, and the duty Dragon Red arrived to quench the lamp that illuminated their cell through a heavy glass block.
"I have a prediction," said FUNCTION 9, and a questioning grunt floated up from the darkness below. "Before long the Calculor will be made at least three times bigger. What is more, it will run for twenty four hours every day, in shifts."
"What use is that?" muttered MULTIPLIER 8 sleepily.
"What use is a Mayor who never sleeps?"

Part 1 ] Part 2 ] Part 3 ] Part 4 ]

This excerpt from Souls in the Great Machine
appears with the kind permission of the author.
All rights reserved. First published by
Tor Books, June 1999.

©1999 Sean McMullen