Souls in the
Great Machine

Sean McMullen

*

<In spite of extensive tests and experiments, the bugs in the Calculor continue to cause trouble and to avoid Zarvora. Her temper frays severely, as her political credibility rests heavily on the accuracy of the crude computer's calculations. >

*

FUNCTION 9 recognised the sequence of numbers as they appeared on the wheels of his reception register. The Calculor had been through the same sequence a dozen times already, but now there was a slight rounding error. A lot of testing was being conducted, the Calculor's masters were very agitated about something, and other components had been flogged for both oversights and initiatives. FUNCTION 9 was too skilled for oversights, and he preferred his initiatives to be invisible.
He performed his operations on the numbers, then sent the results to the Dragon Green who was in charge of the Correlator Components by setting a register of levers to represent his answer and pressing the transmission pedal below the desk. The Calculor was designed so that the independent Dexter and Sinister sides checked each other's work. Their Correlation sub-sections passed results to Central Verification Unit, and if the results differed that particular calculation would be repeated. FUNCTION 9 had a good memory and he knew that some of the tests being performed on the machine were invalid because of rounding errors and such, yet they did not come back for re-processing. He knew it was odd, but he did nothing about the errors. He did not want a flogging.
The Correlator sat behind a screen several feet away from FUNCTION 9's desk, and the component could hear the clacking as he fed the data into his register for transmission to the Verification Unit-then there was a faint thump and hum of tensed wires. A moment later he heard a thump from the correlator on the other side, but the accompanying chord was not quite the same. Another thump, and this time the chord matched his own side's. FUNCTION 9 smiled as much as his gag would allow.
From the Verification Unit the results went to the System Control Room, where Lewrick and a team of Dragon Greens and Blues analysed them. The librarians in the Calculor were carefully isolated from those who were checking the output, and of course none of them knew why the tests were being performed.
Lemorel's initial work in Libris was part of this massive check of the system. Tables of figures were fed in and processed, with both Dexter and Sinister processors alternately disabled. The results came out roughly as expected: the two processors made randomly different mistakes. Teams of Dragon Librarians were used as components, and they could find no way to break the system after getting an insider's view. The Calculor was returned to normal operation, but after a week the errors began to reappear. The backlog of important work continued to pile up.

*

< Zarvora has been disrupting the work of her huge library, Libris, by pouring resources into the development and debugging of the Calculor. After several librarians die in legal duels with her, some of the senior staff finally resort to actions outside the law. >

*

"The Calculor really is alive," insisted Lewrick as Zarvora paced the floor in front of him.
"I designed it, right down to the last bead on the lowest component's abacus," she replied listlessly. "It cannot be alive."
One hundred and thirty yards away a marksman squinted down the tunnel sight of a flintlock musket as he crouched beside a gargoyle on the Libris roof. His target was pacing constantly, so he could not aim well enough to be sure of a kill.
"Highliber, you used fragments of the old science, and we know that before Greatwinter some machines really were alive. Perhaps the patterns of the machines were alive, rather than the beads and wires. By using the old patterns you may have accidentally recreated some sort of life. Perhaps the data that you play into the Calculor's keyboard is educating it. Some of it is astrological, remember."
"No, no, no!" insisted Zarvora, sitting down before the champions table and pounding the edge. "Only astronomical data has been fed into the Calculor: positions of the planets relative to each other, motions of the moon, motions of lesser bodies. The equations to describe their movements are modern Southmooric, and are based on all orbits being elliptical. It is exact, measurable science."
"Astrological influences may--"
"No! This is astronomy, not witchcraft."
The marksman aimed slightly above the seated Zarvora's head and waited for a slight puff of wind to disperse. Counting slowly, he squeezed the trigger. There was a sharp click as the flint hit the fizzen, but the flashpan cover did not lift and the gun did not discharge. Zarvora stood up and began pacing again. With a soft but eloquent curse the marksman took a small screwdriver from a ring on his belt and loosened the bolt in the pancover's bearing.
"I have a theory about Greatwinter, that its return can be predicted from planetary motions," Zarvora explained as she resumed her pacing. "Using the Calculor I worked out when a second Greatwinter will come."
Lewrick stared at her, aghast. "But it can't!" he exclaimed. "It was caused by ancient weapons, bombs that caused 'nuclear' winters around their victims. The bombs were used too often, so that the whole world froze for decades."
"Wrong, Fras Lewrick. It can and will happen again, and soon. We are very lucky."
"Lucky! How can annihilation be lucky?"
"Being forewarned about a great disaster is worth more than waggon loads of gold, and brings more power than the mightiest army. I need a more exact date for Greatwinter's return, but even the Calculor will take years to provide it. For such long and complex calculations, even one error per month is intolerable. The Calculor's administrative work slows my research even further, but it pays for its own running."
"Perhaps if you talk to the Calculor, Highliber, request that it be more careful."
"If I thought that it was alive I would threaten it, not plead . Still, it is just a glorified abacus."
"Highliber, how can I convince you? You sit up here and play in your instructions, yet down in the Calculor hall one can see rhythms in the patterns of beads on the large abacus frames above the rows of desks. The whispering of the moving beads often seems to form real words, yet I cannot quite catch their meaning. There are harmonious chords in the wires when the two processors of the Calculor are in agreement, yet discords when they arrive at different answers and have to repeat everything. One can hear life pulsing all around the hall."
"Chords, Fras Lewrick?" cried Zarvora, whirling to face him so abruptly that he sat back with a start. The distant marksman took aim at Zarvora's chest, because a crossbeam obscured her head. "Come down now, and show me where I might hear--"
The bullet smashed through a pane of leadlight glass and struck the back of Lewrick's skull just as he stood up. A moment later the assassin saw the window explode outwards through the cloud of smoke from his shot. He gasped with surprise, unable to guess what had happened. Instead of scurrying down his escape rope he stood up beside the gargoyle for abetter view. What he saw was the Highliber kneeling on the roof amid shattered glass and lead strip, and the flash from the muzzle of her flintlock.
Six hours later Zarvora was still shaking as she stood between the two processors in the Calculor hall. Lewrick's killer had not been a member of the Libris staff, and nobody could identify the corpse. There was, however, not the slightest doubt that the System Controller had stopped a bullet meant for her. The forces of tradition in Libris were going beyond petitions, resolutions, and even duels to halt her modernisations.
Behind the screens on either side of her the components of the two processors worked hard at a diagnostic problem. As Lewrick had said, the Calculor made a whirring, bustling mixture of sounds when working at full capacity, and there was nothing else in the world that was even remotely like it. The hiss and click of tens of thousands of abacus beads underlaid the soft rattle and clatter of gears and register levers, while the many banks of transfer wires hummed in weird chords that were sometimes strung into unsettling melodies.
Zarvora stood absolutely still, breathing shallowly. A deep chord sounded close by as the output wires from Dexter processor strained against the gate of the Verification Unit. A gear whirred for a moment, then a rack of levers was released for the wires to pull them into 'yes' or 'no' positions. While the levers were clacking into place an identical chord sounded from the output wires of Sinister. Both processors had arrived at the same answer to some part of the diagnostic calculation.
Those in charge of the output registers were Dragon Green Librarians, not prisoners. Zarvora had earlier decided that this work was too important to entrust to components, but perhaps she had been mistaken. Dragon Colours were free to conspire in secret-over dinner, in taverns, in bed. Dragon Colours did not live in the same fear of punishment as the components. They could get lazy.
Again the chord sounded from Dexter processor's bank of output wires, but this time there was a slight mismatch in the sound from Sinister! Zarvora's lips parted slightly in anticipation. Before the gear on Sinister had released its bank of levers the left's wires slackened again, and from behind the left screen there was the clicking of a register being reset. Again the wires from Sinister were tensed, but this time the chord from it matched that from Dexter. The Dragon Green on Sinister was matching his output to that from Dexter by tuning the sound of the transfer wires while they were under tension.

*

<Understandably annoyed at the attempt on her life, but unable to learn who was behind it, Zarvora turns her fury upon who have been causing the bugs in the Calculor. >

*

The components were assembled into cell groups at the back of the Calculor hall. The area occupied by the desks of the Calculor was no more than the first quarter of the other end. They were in two separate groups, to the left and right of the centre. The Highliber paced impatiently between the two rows.
"Bet it's a talk on some damn new configuration," muttered MULTIPLIER 8, and PORT 3A nodded wearily.
Suddenly a side door opened, and two dozen Dragon Blues filed carrying matchlock muskets. The fuses in the strikers were already alight and smoking. Even as the components were exchanging puzzled glances the four Dragon Green Librarians who took turns to operate the output registers were marched in. Their hands were bound and they were gagged. They showed signs of recent torture.
"They be Dragon Colours," hissed ADDER 17.
"They're senior Dragon Colours," observed MULTIPLIER 8.
"They're tying them to the retaining rail," gasped PORT 3A.
"They're going to shoot them," whispered FUNCTION 9.
The Highliber gave another order, and the musketeer Dragon Colours formed into two rows of twelve, the front row kneeling.
"Attend the Highliber!" shouted the System Herald.
"System Officers, Dragon Colours, processing components, all souls who comprise the Calculor," Zarvora began, her words echoing from the stone walls. "You have been gathered to witness punishment on four Dragon Colours. These librarians, all trained and skilled, did conspire to degrade the performance of the Calculor. Their motives were based in neither greed, nor treason, but in pure sloth. When errors appeared at the end of long processing sessions, they contrived to falsely verify mismatched results, so that calculations would not have to be repeated.
"You!" she barked, pointing straight at MULTIPLIER 8. "If you were a soldier and were found asleep on sentry duty what would the sentence be?"
MULTIPLIER 8 glanced hopefully around, but there was nobody behind him. "I, ah, very severe," he spluttered.
"Service in the Mayor's Calculor is no different from service in the Mayor's Army," continued Zarvora. "The sentence for dereliction of duty is the same, too," she turned to the musketeers. "Form to! Present arms!"
The two lines of musketeers held their weapons out for the Highliber to inspect. "Release guards!" The terrified prisoners struggled against their bonds as two dozen trigger bars clicked free.
"Take aim!" shouted Zarvora, and the matchlocks came up in a silent swirl of blue fuse-smoke.
Although two of the matchlocks misfired in the volley that followed, four bodies hung from the retaining rail by their bindings as the smoke cleared. A Dragon Blue cut the ropes that held them, then two elderly, terrified attendants loaded them onto a book trolley and trundled them out through the side door. Zarvora addressed the gathering again.
"I can tolerate a great deal from both Dragon Colours and components-amorous dalliances, the black market in luxuries, all that is officially forbidden in prisons but tacitly allowed. You are worked hard here, and I am not above rewarding good work. What I shall never tolerate, however, is meddling with the Calculor."
She paced between the two groups with her hands clasped beneath her cloak. But for as light swishing of cloth, there was silence.
"Those Dragon Colours tampered with the system to make their work, and yours, easier," she said, pointing to the pockmarked wall and smears of blood. "For some months they made my own life a lot harder, however, and they have paid for it. Do not follow their example. You are dismissed, return to your cells."
The components streamed out of the hall while Zarvora conferred with Lewrick's successor. FUNCTION 9 felt a nudge in his back.
"Yes, MULT, what is it?"
"The name's Dolorian," murmured a pretty Dragon Yellow. "Would you care for some voluntary duties with me, Fras FUNCTION? The Highliber tolerates it, you know."
There was a separate assembly of Dragon Greens and Blues once the components had been herded out of the Calculor Hall. Lemorel stayed with the Dragon Blues as they waited for the Highliber in the ante-room. Many were clearly distressed, as it was the first time that they had fired a shot in anger-or killed. When Zarvora returned she was much calmer.
"As you may have gathered, we have just made an important breakthrough with the Calculor's reliability," Zarvora explained. "The Calculor is the most secure secret in all of the Mayorate. Even courtiers who could tell you how many times the Mayor mounted his mistress last night could not give you more than a vague account of the nature and purpose of the Calculor. The Calculor is a strategic engine of immense power, it can multiply the wealth and power of Rochester a hundredfold and for that reason it must be kept the closest of secrets.
"My machine is destined to become indispensable to the prosperity and security of Rochester. In a few days, after more testing, it will be declared operational and will be run continuously with three shifts of eight hours each. This will require both components and Dragon Colours to supervise them. All of you will be expected to work in shifts, but duty on the unpopular shifts will be rotated.
"All of you are vital to the reliable working of the Calculor. That is why you have jumped decades of seniority in a few years. You have mathematical ability, and the Calculor will boost that ability in the same way that a bombard can allow one artillery crew to smash down a castle wall. You will have more to do with running the Mayorate than the Mayor himself, but breathe so much as an afterthought about it to any but your colleagues here and you will find yourself looking down twenty four barrels instead of squinting down the sights."

*

< Zarvora has been observing the courtship activities of several of her staff, and is feeling a little left out. Disguising herself as a security officer, she goes in search of a lover among the slaves who are senior components of her own Calculor. >

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