Souls in the
Great Machine

Sean McMullen

2000 years in future, there is no electricity. Nevertheless, a brilliant engineer-librarian named Zarvora manages to build a crude computer called the Calculor. Among other things, it can play board games.

Fergen had not noticed a suspicious pattern in the pieces on the board by the seventh move. Champions was his best game and he had even its most exotic strategies and scenarios memorised. The Highliber advanced a pawn to threaten his archer. The move was pure impudence, a lame ploy to tempt him to waste the archer's shot. He moved the archer to one side, so that his knight's flank was covered.
The Highliber sat back and tapped at the silent keys of an old harpsichord that had been cut in half and bolted to the wall of her office. Fergen rubbed plaster dust from his fingers. All the pieces were covered in dust, as was the board, the furniture and floor. The place was a shambles. Wires hung from holes in the ceiling, partly completed systems of rods, pulleys, levers, pawls, gears, and shafts were visible through gaps in the panelling, and other brass and steel mechanisms protruded from holes in the floor. Occasionally a mechanism would move.
Fergen gave the game his full attention, but Highliber Zarvora tapped idly at the harpsichord keys and seldom glanced at the board. A rack of several dozen marked gearwheels rearranged their alignment with a soft rattle. The mechanisms were part of a signal system, the Highliber had explained. Libris, the mayoral library, had grown so big that it was no longer possible to administer it using clerks and messengers alone.
The Highliber leaned over and picked up a knight. With its base she tipped over one of her own pawns, then another. Fergen had never realised that she had such small, pale hands. Her knight toppled yet another of her pawns, then turned as it finally claimed an enemy piece. Such a tall, commanding woman, yet such small hands, thought Fergen, mesmerised. The knight knocked another of its own pawns aside, then his king fell.
For some moments he stared at the carnage on the board, the shock of his defeat taking time to register. Anger, astonishment, suspicion, incomprehension and fear tore at him in turn. At last he looked up at the Highliber.
"I must apologise for the surroundings again," she said in the remote yet casual manner that she used even with the Mayor. "Did the mayhem in here disturb your concentration?"
"Not at all," replied Fergen, rubbing his eye. Behind it the early symptoms of a migraine headache were building. "I could play in a cowshed and still beat anyone in the known world in less than fifty moves. Do you know when I was last beaten in at champions?"
The question had been rhetorical, but the Highliber knew the answer.
"1671 GW."
She tapped again at the silent keyboard. The little gears marked with white dots clicked and rattled in their polished wooden frame.
"And now it's 1696," he said ruefully. "I've played you before, but you never, never made moves like these."
"I have been practising," she volunteered.
"You take a long time between moves, but oh, what moves. I have learned more from this game than my previous hundred. You could take my title from me, Highliber Zarvora, I know mastery when I see it."
The Highliber continued to tap the silent keys and glance at the row of gears. The same slim, confident fingers that had harvested his king so easily now flickered over the softly clacking keys in patterns that were meaningless to Fergen.
"I am already the Highliber, the Mayor's Librarian," she said without turning to him. "My library is Libris, the biggest in the world and the hub of a network of libraries stretching over many mayorates. My staff is more than half that of the Mayoral palace. Why should your position interest me?"
"But, but a Master of the Mayor ranks above a mere librarian," spluttered Fergen.
"Only in heraldic convention, Fras Gamesmaster. I enjoy a game of champions, but my library means more to me. I shall tell nobody about your defeat."
Fergen's face was burning hot. She could take his position, but she did not want it! Was an insult intended? Were there grounds for a duel? The Highliber was known to be a deadly shot with a flintlock, and had killed several of her own staff in duels over her modernisations in the huge library.
"Would you like another game?" asked the Highliber, facing him but still striking at the keys.
"My head . . . feels like it's been used as an anvil, Frelle Highliber."
"Well then return later," she said, typing her own symbols for / CHAMPIONS :ELAPSED TIME? / then pressing a lever with her foot. Fergen heard the hum of tensed wires, and the clatter of levers and gears from within the wall.
"I could teach you nothing," he said in despair.
"You are the finest opponent that I have," replied the Highliber. "I think it--"
She stopped in mid-sentence, staring at the row of gears.
"You will excuse me, please, there is something I must attend to," she said, her voice suddenly tense.
"The gears and their dots have a message?"
"Yes, yes, a simple code," she said, standing quickly and taking him by the arm. "Afternoon's compliments, Fras Gamesmaster, may your headache pass quickly."
Fergen rubbed his arm as the Highliber's lackey showed him out. The woman had all but lifted him from the ground! Amazing strength, but to Fergen no more amazing than her victory at the champions board.
Zarvora slammed a small wooden panel in the wall aside and pulled at one of the wires dangling from the roof. After a moment a metallic twittering and clatter arose from the brass plate set in the recess.
"System Control here, Highliber," declared a faint, hollow voice.
"What is the Calculor's status?" she snapped.
"Status HALTMODE," replied the distant speaker.
"What is in the request register at present?"
"And the response register?"
"46:30. 4, Highliber."
"Forty six hours for a twenty minute game of champions, Fras Controller?" shouted Zarvora, her self-control slipping for a rare moment. "Explain."
There was a pause, punctuated by the rattle of gears. Zarvora drummed her fingers against the wall and stared at a slate where she had written 46:30. 4.
"System Controller, Highliber. Both Dexter and Sinister Registers confirm the figure."
"How could both processors come up with the same ludicrous time?"
"Why . . . yes, it is odd, but it's the sort of error that even skilled clerks make sometimes."
"The Calculor is not a skilled clerk, Fras Lewrick. It is a hundred times more powerful at arithmetic, and with its built-in verifications it should be absolutely free of errors. I want it frozen exactly as it was during that last calculation."
"That's not possible, Highliber. Many of the components from the correlator were exhausted by the end of the game. They were relieved by components from the spares pool."
Too late, thought Zarvora. "We shall run a set of diagnostic calculations for the next hour," she said. "Do not change any tired components. If some fall over at their desks, mark them before they are replaced."
"Highliber, the Calculor is tired. It's not wise."
"The Calculor is made of people, Fras Lewrick. People get tired, but the Calculor merely slows down."
"I'm down inside it all the time. It has moods, it feels--"
"I designed the Calculor, Lewrick! I know its workings better than anyone."
"As you will, Highliber."
Zarvora rubbed at her temples. She too had a headache now, but thanks to the long vibrating wire beneath the brass plate her discomfort remained unseen.
"You are trying to tell me something, Fras Lewrick. What is it-and please be honest."
"The Calculor is like a river galley or an army, Frelle Highliber. There is a certain . . . spirit or soul about it. I mean, ah, that just as a river galley is more than a pile of planks, oars and sailors, so too is the Calculor more than just a mighty engine for arithmetic. When it is tired, perhaps it sometimes lets a bad calculation through rather than bothering to repeat it."
"It is not alive," she replied emphatically. "It is just a simple, powerful machine. The problem is human in origin."
"Very good, Highliber," Lewrick said stiffly. "Shall I have the correlator components flogged?"
"No! Do nothing out of the ordinary . . ."

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