Upgrade to a better browser, please.

Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Books

Souls in the Great Machine

Added By: valashain
Last Updated: Engelbrecht

Souls in the Great Machine

Purchase this book through Purchase this book from Purchase this book from
Author: Sean McMullen
Publisher: Tor, 1999
Series: Greatwinter: Book 1
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags:
Avg Member Rating:
(3 reads / 1 ratings)



The great Calculor of Libris was forced to watch as Overmayor Zarvora had four of its components lined up against a wall and shot for negligence. Thereafter, its calculations were free from errors, and that was just as well-for only this strangest of calculating machines and its two thousand enslaved components could save the world from a new ice age.

And all the while a faint mirrorsun hangs in the night sky, warning of the cold to come.

In Sean McMullen's glittering, dynamic, and exotic world two millennia from now, there is no more electricity, wind engines are leading-edge technology, librarians fight duels to settle disputes, steam power is banned by every major religion, and a mysterious siren "Call" lures people to their death. Nevertheless, the brilliant and ruthless Zarvora intends to start a war in space against inconceivably ancient nuclear battle stations.

Unbeknownst to Zarvora, however, the greatest threat to humanity is neither a machine nor a force but her demented and implacable enemy Lemorel, who has resurrected an obscene and evil concept from the distant past: Total War.

Souls in the Great Machine is an omnibus of greatly-revised versions of Voices in the Light and Mirrorsun Rising, and is the first volume of Sean McMullen's brilliant future history of the world of Greatwinter





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 memorized. 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 were the board, the furniture, and the 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 paneling, 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 realized 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, mesmerized. 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 apologize 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 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 practicing," 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 modernizations 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 midsentence, 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. Just check each of the function registers on both sides of the machine as you run the diagnostic calculations. We must make it repeat its error, then isolate the section at fault. Oh, and send a jar of tourney beer to each cell when the components are dismissed. The Calculor played well before that error."

"That would encourage the culprit, Highliber."

"Perhaps, but it is also important to reward hard work. The problem is a hole in my design, Fras Lewrick, not the component who causes problems through it. We could take all the components out into the courtyard and shoot them, but the hole would remain for some newly trained component to crawl through."

Libris was Rochester's mayoral library. Its stone beamflash communications tower was over 600 feet high and dominated the skyline of the city. Unofficially, 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 discreet 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. Neighboring 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 eighty years her senior. She had become a Dragon Silver at twenty-four, and after two years had jumpedthe 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 signaling 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 favor candidates with mathematical and mechanical backgrounds, rather than just knowledge of library theory and the classics. No recruit was older than thirty-five, and several accepted options to study further at Rochester's University. The changes did not go uncriticized, 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 labor. 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.

The Call moved across the land at a walking pace, visible only by the creatures that were swept along by its allure. It moved southeast, and within its six-mile depth were dogs, sheep, an occasional horse, and even a scattering of humans. Although it had begun far away in the Willandra Drylands, none of the animals it had first gathered were still walking within its influence, or even alive. Few creatures drawn away by the Call ever reached its source.

Ettenbar was a Southmoor shepherd, living a precarious existence near theborder river between his Emir's lands and the Rutherglen Mayorate. His sheep grazed placidly in a ragged circle, all tied to the central stake that he had knocked in that morning, while his emus walked free among the sheep with great mincing steps, all neck, legs, and shaggy feathers. Striped chicks ran about at their feet.

A movement in the distance caught Ettenbar's attention: a stray ram wandering without a tether. Untethered sheep carried rewards, and unbranded strays were the property of those who caught them. Releasing himself from the tether-stake, he began stalking the spiral-horned merino.

It was wary. It trotted away to a comfortable distance as Ettenbar approached. He circled off to one side, untying his bolas and shaking them loose. The stray still kept its distance. Ettenbar crept closer, driving it to where there were clumps of bushes to cover his approach. The ploy worked. Within fifty yards he began whirling the bolas, he cast--and tangled the stray by the hind legs. As he strode forward to collect his struggling, bleating prize, the Call rolled over him.

For the most fleeting of moments Ettenbar had a choice, yet it was a choice with only one possible outcome. He betrayed himself, he accepted his weakness and wallowed in it, all within a single thought. His discipline and control collapsed, his steps slowed, and he turned to walk southeast. The stray ram also struggled to follow the beckoning, but could not move as fast as the Call with its hind legs entangled in the bolas. Ettenbar's sheep were also drawn by the Call, but got only as far as the length of their tethers. His emus studied them quizzically, cocking their heads with avian curiosity. In spite of being so much larger than a sheep, they were birds and so were immune to the Call. All mammals larger than a big cat were drawn away, but never birds or reptiles.

Only dimly perceiving obstacles, Ettenbar walked on. He waded streams, tumbled down steep hillsides, climbed walls, and stumbled through ploughed fields. He passed a farmer who was straining to walk southeast with the Call. The man was held by a body anchor that had been released by a rawhide timer ten minutes after the Call had caught him. The farmer would live, but Ettenbar was already lost to the world, dead because he was walking freely. Ahead was the broad, brown river that marked the border. Ettenbar waded in and began to swim. Not one-quarter of the creatures drawn along by the Call survived the crossing, but Ettenbar reached the south bank and staggered on.

Three miles into the Christian mayorate of Rutherglen he crashed blindly into a dense thicket of blackberries. The heavy shepherd's leathers and boots that had nearly caused him to drown in the river now protected him from the worst that the thorns could do, but he could not maintain even the slow walking pace of the Call. It continued to beckon to him and he struggled to follow it as thorns tore at his face and hands. Finally his legs became so entangled in thorny branches that he could not move. After three hours the Call finally passed, releasing him.

Ettenbar awoke. He was cold, wet, bleeding, and exhausted. The sun waslow, almost smothered behind gathering clouds. One moment he had been striding to collect the ram that he had snared, and now ... The Call had spared him! With bleeding fingers he drew his knife and cut his legs free from the thorny branches. He stumbled back out of the grove of grasping thorns, prostrated himself, and gave thanks to Allah for the return of his life.

From the setting sun he took a bearing for northeast and began the journey home. He felt ashamed for being caught without his tether, but otherwise walked along proudly. The Call had released him, he was blessed in the eyes of Allah. It was only when he reached the river that he realized where he was.

"Hei, Callshewt!" shouted someone behind him. He hesitated, then bolted for the riverbank. A gunshot barked out and soil sprayed up in front of him. Ettenbar stopped and turned, his hands high.

Three bearded, gore-encrusted spectres approached. They were not border guards but river gleaners--scavengers looking for livestock drowned in the river while trying to follow the Call. Ettenbar saw that only one of them had a gun, and realized too late that he could have run on before the musket was reloaded. They wore stained oilcloths and swenskin breeches, and stank of mutton fat and blood. Three pairs of scabby, dirty knees showed through ragged holes. They had been dragging freshly drowned sheep from the water and butchering them for the Rutherglen markets when Ettenbar had appeared.

Prakdor reloaded his gun while Mikmis and Allendean examined their prize. Although their leader, Prakdor, let Mikmis do most of the talking. He had been in his mayor's army once, and knew the fate of the loud and vocal.

"Southmoor sheepshagger," Mikmis observed as they bound Ettenbar's wrists and hobbled his ankles.

"Hold 'im? Ransom?" Allendean asked.

"Ransom? A sheepshagger? We'd not get the price of the rope. Better march him to Wahgunyah and sell him to a bargemaster as a rower."

"Wahgunyah. Long trek," Allendean grumbled.

"He's strong. He'll fetch twenty-five silver nobles if he gets one."

While they argued Ettenbar looked across the river to the fields that were home. Until this day he had never traveled more than twenty miles from where he had been born, but now he was unlikely to ever see those fields again.

"Jorah," he murmured.

"What say?" snapped Allendean.

"Jorah, it's Southmoor for the Call," said Prakdor. "It means Changer of Lives."

"Shewt, he got that right," chorkled Mikmis. "Kiss your sheep goodbye, sheepshagger." The three river gleaners burst into hoarse, raucous laughter.

"I--hey, can he count?" Mikmis suddenly exclaimed.

"Southmoor sheepshagger? Give break!"

"Can you count? Er ... Prakdor, do you know how they say--"

"Vu numerak, isk vu mathemator?" Prakdor asked in the dialect of the neighboring Southmoors.

Ettenbar nodded proudly. The local mosque had a fine school.

"So, he can count! I've heard the Warren pays one gold royal for Southmoors who can count--two if they speak Austaric."

"Sheepshagger nayn't," Allendean grumbled.

"Shewt pighead, it's still four times what he'd fetch as a rower."

They turned to Prakdor who considered, then nodded. "We'll take him to the camp and clean him up. Mikmis, go to Wahgunyah, see the Warrenmaster."

Nothing symbolized the power and authority of Libris better than the tall beamflash towers that stood in every town. In Rutherglen the tower was within the grounds of the Unitech, but some distance from its library. Lemorel had been walking purposefully down the cobbled streets of the Unitech, yet something made her pause to gaze at the tower.

It was wooden and whitewashed, gleaming starkly against the clouds of the late-winter afternoon. White fumes poured from the outlets at the summit as magnesium flares powered the beamflash equipment in the absence of direct sunlight. A signal was going west, to Numurkah, from where it would be relayed southwest to Rochester. The distance that a message could travel in moments might take Lemorel months, or even years ... . but no matter. Today she would take another step on her journey to the capital.

She was saved from abduction by being a librarian. Five men in shabby oilcloths loitered near the gates of the Unitech, staring at a sheet of poorpaper that might have been a map. They seemed to be itinerant farmworkers trying to find their way around an unfamiliar town.

"Lemorel Milderellen, Dragon Yellow Librarian," one of them muttered as Lemorel walked through the gates.

Another shook his head. "Let her go."

"She won the Unitech prize for mathematics," insisted the first.

"Abducting even a Dragon White Librarian is a good way to get us shot. Who is this next one?"

"Joakim Skinner. Assistant edutor in Accounting."

"That's more like it. Mark him down."

"Five. He makes five."

"Five is enough. Two gold royals for each of us."

"That Constable's Runner is staring at us again," their tall, gaunt lookout reported.

"Then let's find a coffeehouse and bide."

They had not noticed the color of the armband that the librarian had beenwearing. Lemorel had been promoted to Dragon Orange rank only that afternoon. The rise in rank could not have come at a better time, as there was a Regional Inspector visiting the town. Libris recruited librarians from outside Rochester at the level of Dragon Red and above. She had a minimum of two years more before she became eligible for the exams, yet there were now ways of hastening promotions with Highliber Zarvora in charge.

Rutherglen had been the vineyard heartland since the earliest records began, and the rhythm of life was closely tied to the grape harvest and its cycles. This was late winter, a time for repairs and barrel building, for hunting wild emus in the open woodlands to the south, and for long philosophical discussions in the evenings over old vintages beside fires. Bright flags, ribbons, and bunches of evergreens hung from the lintels of most houses and shops in celebration of the Drinkfest. Out of sight on some roof a band was practicing. Lemorel noted that the cornetton was slightly out of tune and the two snailhorn players were probably drunk. Smoke from cooking fires hung over the streets, mingling with genuine fog and hinting at stews and baking. Overloaded lever-pedal tricycles on unsprung wooden wheels creaked and rumbled along the Callside of the road.

There had not been a Call for over three weeks, Lemorel reminded herself as her clockwork Call timer clattered its warning of a minute's grace. She reached down to her waist, twisted the reset dial to a half hour, and wound the mainspring. A Call was due soon, and she hoped that it would not interrupt her interview. The houses on the north side of the street were all blank walls of abandonstone, tarbrick, and red shingle: no street had two sides. If a Call came, those inside houses would walk to the blank wall at the back and wander there mindlessly, but in safety. No windows or doors ever faced in the direction of the Call. Just like the people themselves, open and welcoming on one side but blank and unassailable on the other, Lemorel mused. Those who recognized her quickly looked away and found something to be busy with. She fantasized about being the source of the Call itself, a godling that people protected themselves against with their blank sides. Even though it was an old and tired fancy, it was her only armor against the townsfolk who shunned her.

In the distance she could see the Wayfarer's Rest, a hostelry for the better class of traveler. The Regional Inspector was waiting there. Her appointment was for 4 P.M. The single arm of the clock on the Mayor's palace was touching the numeral but the chimes had not yet begun. She slowed her pace. Whether it was passing exams, arriving for appointments, or shooting in duels, timing was all important.

For Lemorel this was a chance to escape with dignity. Being a librarian with a reputation for shooting straight meant that she might bypass the lengthy rounds of protocol maze-running to get into Libris. The new Highliber was as refreshingly young as her predecessor had been stultifyingly old. Traditions that datedback centuries were being uprooted and opportunities were being made for the young and competent.

Lemorel was with the Rutherglen Unitech library, and like all libraries in the Southeast Alliance it was affiliated to Libris. When Lemorel had been appointed as a Dragon White, the lowest librarian ranking, the Highliber of Libris had been in office forty-one years and was 106 years old. He had died within a year and was followed by Zarvora Cybeline.

Zarvora was dynamic and dedicated, had an edutorate in applied algebra from Rochester University ... and was twenty-six. She had killed the Deputy Highliber's champion in a duel a day after gaining office and within a month had sent three-quarters of the executive staff into exile. All at once Lemorel's temporary job within a hidebound profession became a marvelous opportunity to get ahead.

Lemorel glanced at the clocktower and shivered in the still, cold air. The arm was right over the numeral four. The trip rod on the hour gearwheel would be pressing against the release lever of the horlogue barrel by now. Weights on a pulley would soon rotate the barrel, and studs on its surface would move another set of levers that would trip spring-loaded hammers to strike a tune on brass bells. Lemorel's father had maintained the mechanism for years, and some of her earliest memories were of the inside of the mayoral clock. Now there was a proscription on him working there and the mechanism was slowly going out of adjustment. There was a distant, muffled clack, and the chimes of the horlogue began. Heart racing, Lemorel entered the hostelry taproom and caught sight of a portly man in casual maroon robes wearing the silver badge of the Inspectorate Service. He was twirling the waxed beardspike on his chin and frowning. The last chime sounded as she crossed the room.

Vellum Drusas had a round of vineyard towns that he went to some trouble to visit in the winter. It was a good season, as people had time to spare and were glad of company from outside the mayorate. There was, of course, the matter of the business that justified his travel in the first place, but while Drusas might have been indolent, he was not stupid enough to abuse his travel allowance. If he worked minimally to justify trips to his favorite vineyards, at least he worked.

The taproom was full of growers and artisans from outlying areas, gathered together for the Winter Drinkfest. This was also the reason that Drusas was in town. Smoke from the sunflower-oil lamps and numerous pipes hung on the warm air, and the talk was loud and strident. The speakers were not so much drunk as used to bellowing to each other across open fields. The farmers squirmed and scratched, unaccustomed to the feel of starched tunics and brushed cotton stove-trews. Some suspiciously eyed the reciprocating clock that had replaced the sun, moon, and stars to mark the passage of time. Drusas watched the clock too, shaking his head. If the librarian arrived late he would have no time to mix with the grapegrowers and wheedle an invitation to the wine-tasting competition thatnight. "To 1681!" someone shouted, and most goblets were raised. That had been a fine year; in fact, Drusas had nine bottles of the famous Barioch '81 Shiraleng in his cellar--the tenth had been uncorked the day that he became a Deputy Overliber. Their value had increased fifteen times since he bought them.

Outside, the horlogue began striking, and on the fourth stroke of the hour a girl seemed to materialize before Drusas. He saw large, dark, intense eyes in a pleasantly round face framed by severely pinned and braided black hair. Her tunic was the rather pale shade of violet prescribed by the Regional Overliber and her oilcloth raincape had seen a lot of use. She bowed with a brisk, birdlike movement and presented her papers. Drusas accepted them, noting that she wore no jewelry aside from her hairclasps, and that her gunbelt was severely functional. Typical new-blade career librarian, he decided.

"Frelle Milderellen?" he asked.

"Yes, Fras Inspector."

"You know me by sight?"

"You conferred my Dragon Yellow rank last year in a ceremony at Wangaratta."

"Ah yes, but there were many presentations and only one presenter. Or perhaps I was especially memorable, eh?" He gave a wink and a coy leer. Lemorel did not react, not even to blush. Drusas hastily looked down at her papers. A diploma from the local Unitech, a weapons license ...

"Dragon Orange," he said, eagerly picking on an obvious mistake to show that he was alert. "Your petition of this morning stated that you were Dragon Yellow."

"I was regraded today, Fras Inspector."

"With no ceremony?"

"No, Fras Inspector. I petitioned for the grading tests against my Overliber's wishes. Because I passed I was entitled to regrading, but--"

"But because you were regraded by petition you automatically renounced the increase in salary and the right to have a conferral ceremony. Ah, congratulations anyway." He settled back and took a sip of frostwine from a blue crystal thimblet. He read further, and felt his stomach sink as he reached the magistrate's report. She was noted to have survived trial by combat. They had warned him that there was a strange one in Rutherglen, and this had to be her. Lemorel noticed the color drain from his face. She took a deep breath and clasped her shaking hands behind her back.

"Frelle Milderellen, you have an exceptional record," he said slowly. "Top marks in your year at the Unitech, small-arms champion at the regional fair--twice--and Dragon Orange at nineteen. Your petition is to transfer to Libris at your present rank, but to remain on the staff of the Unitech. That is not possible."

Even the raucous banter of the other drinkers could not fill the chilled silence of the moments that followed.

"The Unitech Overliber assured me that it can be done."

"Oh it can be done, but only if he permanently transfers your position as Dragon Orange to Libris as well as your person. Libris has been swallowing a lot of librarians from the regions lately. Your Overliber might be willing to let you, Lemorel Milderellen, go, but I doubt that he would give up the right to replace you."

"Does that mean that my petition is rejected?"

She was polite and deferential, but something about her rattled the rotund and comfortable Drusas. It was not so much the threat that she might shoot him from some dark alleyway so much as her remembering him in two decades when she was a Dragon Gold in Libris.

"Rejected? No, heavens no," he laughed. "We just need to discuss your case in more detail. There are many paths to follow, and you must take the right one. If you don't, I will be to blame as your adviser. Here, sit down. Frostwine? Honeycakes?" Lemorel sat down beside him, as wary and sinuous as a cat with a stranger who smelled of dog. She selected a honeycake. "Now, what we need to do is to get down to basics, Frelle. Just why do you want to go to Libris? To follow a lover, to escape nagging parents, or perhaps even to genuinely further your career?"

"Does it really matter, Fras Inspector?"

"Yes indeed. Going all the way to Libris is a drastic step. What exactly are your circumstances?"

Lemorel took a moment to gather her words together, words that could not be softened unless she lied. She had already decided not to lie.

"I've shot nine men and one woman during the course of two duels and one vendetta. I was also mentioned in my lover's suicide note. I'm under the protection of the magistrate, but my family has been proscribed in five mayorates by the families of the dead. My father's business is suffering, Fras Inspector, but if I go into exile and go sufficiently far, the proscription will be lifted."

Drusas shivered, then gulped down the remains of his frostwine. It suddenly seemed no stronger than sweetened water, so he called for a shot of black barrel brandy.

"These, ah, shootings ... I presume that they were all done within the rules of the Disputes and Reconciliations Act of 1462 GW?"

"Yes, Fras Inspector."

The Disputes and Reconciliations Act was a legacy of the old Riverina Empire, and had been meant to reduce the incidence of violence by channeling it and swathing it in rituals and regulations. The carrying of guns was not so much confined to the educated, administrative classes, it was required of them. Guns were the symbols of judgment and power, so that those who were expected to exercise power and judgment had to wear them and be proficient in their use. The ultimate appeal against a judgment was trial by combat, where either thedisputants or their nominated champions would engage in a legal duel. The death penalty was automatic for anyone going outside the system of mediated duels, and there was a ruinous system of follow-up fines for their families. It was not often that disputes got to the dueling stage, but it was known to happen.

"Ah, well now, why Libris?" Drusas ventured. "Why not some library in a closer mayorate, one that does not proscribe your family?"

"I'm well known in the nearby mayorates. Libris is big enough and sufficiently distant for me to lose myself."

That made a lot of sense to Drusas. "Dragon Orange," he said, then paused and stared intently at his brandy. "That makes a difference."

Lemorel leaned forward, eager, ravenous. She would be like this if she were dueling with me, thought Drusas, flinching back. In a way that was precisely what she was doing.

"I can't change the rules, but I can recommend candidates for the grading exams at Libris. You are a Dragon Orange, so you are in theory eligible to sit for Dragon Red at any time. Your Overliber would probably not approve, but if you get into Libris that hardly matters, does it?"

"The minimum wait is two years, according to the regulations."

"No, the recommended minimum is two years. There was a case in, ah, 1623 where a candidate had been unfairly kept as Dragon Yellow for forty-seven years. When the case was finally brought to the attention of the Regional Inspector, he was promoted to Dragon Red after only a few minutes as Dragon Orange. Your case is different, of course, but it would be possible for you to depart for a Dragon Red test at Libris as soon as you could pack your bags. Pass that test, and you would be promoted. Your former Overliber would still have your Dragon Yellow position to fill again, so everyone would be happy."

He sat back and smiled magnanimously. Lemorel took an instant to comprehend that he was going to help her.

"Fras Inspector, thank you--"

"No thanks yet, please. I have to be convinced that you have at least a ghost of a chance of passing the tests. Now, how is your weaponcraft--ah no, that could hardly be in question. Your subjects at the Unitech include mathematics, good, the Highliber likes that. Just a credit in Library History, and only a pass in Heraldry ... but that may not matter. Lackey!"

A gangling youth in his mid-twenties with thick, wire-frame spectacles clinging to his nose hurried up from behind Lemorel carrying a writing kit. He snapped the legs down, uncorked the ink jar, and presented Drusas with a selection of newly trimmed goose quills. The inspector chose one with a great deal of show and flourish, then began writing.

"Do you have valid border papers?" he asked.

"Yes, Fras Inspector, I can leave tonight."

"Tonight? Well, so be it." He scribbled out notes as his lackey lit a taperin the fire and melted some wax for his seal. "Lackey, take this to the beamflash tower at the Unitech and have it transmitted tonight. Lemorel, this is for you."

Only nine minutes after leaving the hostelry tavern Lemorel was packing in an upstairs room of Milderellen Fine Lenses and Clockwork. Petari Milderellen hovered anxiously at the door.

"But the train leaves at five, Lem. You'll never have time to buy a ticket."

"I met Jemli on the way home and sent her to the railside to pay for a cell."

"All this haste, you're sure to have forgotten something."

"The next train leaves in a week, Dada, and I can't wait."

She buckled the pack's straps and hefted it. Suddenly Petari caught her excitement.

"Well hurry then, run for the railside. I'll come after you in a minute." Lemorel clattered down the stairs with her heavy pack, barked her fingers on the doorframe, then jogged awkwardly down the street while struggling to get her arms through the pack straps. Petari rummaged in his shop, then bolted the door and ran after his daughter.

"Lem, this is for you," he called as he caught up with her.

It was a Morelac twin long-barrel 34 bore. Lemorel stopped, eyes wide with surprise.

"Keep going, move," he panted, unconsciously holding the gun in front of her like a carrot before a donkey. "From the style of the filigree on the grip I'd say it dated from the late fifteen hundreds. It's a gift ... gunsmith owed me a favor ... made that tournament scope for the Mayor of Tocumwal. The barrels ... finely wrought. He's replaced the original ramlock strikers with modern flintlocks."

The gun was old yet stylish, and had a good name with librarians and administrators. It was much heavier than the 25-bore pistol that she had shot her way to infamy with, and while not as expensive as the guns of the elite, it would suggest that she had gone to some trouble to find and refurbish a rare pistol with a name for accuracy.

"Thank you for everything, Dada," Lemorel gasped. "You've really been good to me. I brought you just ... trouble and pain. Will you please--"

"Flowers for the graves of your mother and Jimkree ... I'll do it," he wheezed, his breath beginning to fail. "If the Highliber ... has any contract work in lenses and clockwork ... mention my name. Oi, they're starting to pedal. Hurry now, goodbye Lem."

The galley train was about the height of an average man and built of waxcloth over a wooden frame. It was shaped like a streamlined, articulated worm on wheels, and had a walkway with a light railing along the roof. Being human-powered, it accelerated slowly. Lemorel scrambled over the stone wall of theplatform with Petari pushing at both her and the pack. She turned to give him a brief spasm of a hug, then turned and ran beside the accelerating train to where Jemli was waiting. Jemli gave her the boarding ticket and a small cloth pouch, and the sisters said goodbye as Lemorel stepped onto the train's roof. Jemli ran along beside the train, wishing her good luck until the platform came to an end. Lemorel dropped to one knee, gasping for breath and waving back. As the train rolled out among the houses of Rutherglen, the conductor showed her to a cell and she entered through the hatch in the roof. She settled into the seat and he zeroed the counter beside her pedals with a key.

"Know the rules?" he asked through the hatch.

"Two hours pushing and an hour to rest, for as long as the train is moving."

"And any extra will be credited. Likewise you will be debited if you decide not to pedal. First stop in five hours."

The train rumbled on through the town and Lemorel looked through her cell's shutter for her father's shop and the buildings of the Unitech. Easily visible was the lifeline of her hopes and ambitions, the beamflash tower.

"Failed again," muttered Lemorel as she sat perspiring. "Didn't say goodbye to Dada, didn't kiss Jemli."

They passed through the outer wall and into the countryside, rolling through vineyards and fields of tethered sheep and free-range emus. She knew the country well, but not from the angle of the paraline track. For some moments she stared at a large whitewashed barn with a bark and shingle roof. Such a large building, surely all the buildings in Rochester would be at least as big, she thought, even while a faint alarm began to clang at the back of her mind.

Why was the barn familiar? Off to one side was a much smaller shed, where a farmer was pitchforking hay into a loft from his cart. It was close enough so Lemorel could see that his horse was tethered to a fence while the farmer had his own timer and anchor. That was foolish. If a Call came he would step straight off the cart, risking damage to his timer. If that happened, only a broken leg would save him. The shed was familiar too--she had seen it before, at night, by distant torchlight!

With a sudden shudder of revulsion Lemorel slammed the shutter closed and gritted her teeth as she fought back a wave of nausea. She doubled over. Horror seemed to crawl over her with myriad spiders' feet as the galley train swayed and clacked along the paraline. Click, click, click, click, the counter unit between her legs reminded her that she was not pedaling. How long had she been like that, she wondered amid the flood of unwanted images. The more she pedaled, the faster the train moved, she told herself as she lay back in her seat and pushed hard against the pedals. Gears whined somewhere beneath her.

"It must be Libris. It must be Libris. It must be Libris," she chanted softly to the clacking of wheels on rails.

It was dark inside her cabin with the shutters closed, as dark as it had been that night in--"No! Think of something else, anything!" She felt for the little cloth pouch that Jemli had given her. Inside was a silver star with eight points on a fine, clamp-link chain, the sort of slightly tasteless jewelry that an unsophisticated teenage sister might be expected to give. Lemorel fingered the little star with a rush of nostalgia and regret. She was indeed trying to escape from two very bad years and regain lost innocence. She leaned forward for a moment and clipped the chain around her neck. As she settled back to pedal, the star sat cool and fresh against her skin.

The Call that had torn Ettenbar, the Southmoor shepherd, out of his life and flung him into a new destiny bore down on Rutherglen about ten minutes after the pedal train had left.

Vellum Drusas had been staring after Lemorel in the hostelry taproom when the Archbishop of Numurkah joined him.

"Combining pleasure with business, Vellum?" said the Archbishop stridently as he laid a hand on his shoulder.

Drusas gave a start, but did not spill his drink.

"Ah James, the day's fortune to you," he said, half rising and kissing the ring on his finger. "It's been ... two years!"

"Eighteen months. The harvest blessing at Shepparton."

"How could I forget? Redsker decked his barn with gum mistletoe and dressed his field hands as vine sprites."

The Archbishop took the seat beside him after dusting it with the tassels of his sashtrail. If dressed identically they might have been mistaken for twins.

"So who was the Dragon girl?"

"Oh just Lemorel, the local problem child. I've certified her for Dragon Red exams at Libris."

"Lemorel? Lemorel Milderellen?"

Drusas nodded.

"My dear Vellum, she was the one who sent most of the Voyander household to meet the good Lord well before their allotted span ended."

"It was a legal vendetta."

"Oh but still, such an old and noble family and they made such wonderful honeywine--was it wise to send her to Libris?"

"It might be the wisest course of all, dear Archbishop. She will soon get shot by someone's champion. Strange girl, very like the Highliber herself. Perhaps she might shoot the Highliber. I live in hope."

"Come now, Vellum, that's hardly the Christian attitude," laughed the Archbishop, wagging his finger.

"Good Fras, you have no idea what that woman has done to the library service. Libris itself is being torn apart. The most worthy and noble senior Colors have been shot, exiled, or demoted."

"Has anybody noticed their passing?"

"James! How could you? The foundation stones of your cathedral do no more than sit quietly in their places, yet where would the rest of the building be without them?"

"Oh I agree, but there's more to a building than foundations. Good Fras, you are still in your old position, so virtue must still have rewards." He sprawled back along the bench and regarded Drusas through bushy eyebrows. "What are your plans for tonight? Not business, I hope?"

"Well, there is the wine-tasting competition. Were you invited?"

"Oh yes, a matter of course ... but I'm working. Such a cruel life, dear Vellum. I have to ride out to the Broadbank estate to do some private buying for the Episcopal Consensus."

Drusas' eyes widened and his heart pounded with anticipation. "Your dedication leaves me breathless," he said guardedly, aware that he was playing a large fish with a thin line.

"I had hoped to enlist you as a taster, Fras Vellum, but seeing that you have a trophy to win--"

"Fras James, what is a trophy beside friendship? I should be delighted to assist."

"We leave within the hour."

"Splendid. Do you fancy a frostwine to keep the palate charged?"

"Such temptation, you might be the Call itself. Get behind me, Horned One!"

"Since when has the Call been from the Fiend?"

The Archbishop frowned. "Fraenko's heresy has surfaced again. There's to be a Council of Overbishops to pronounce upon it. Of course I am merely an archbishop, but I can tell you that nothing will change."

"So the Call is still meant to come from God?"

"Yes and no. 'Thou shalt not take pleasure from the allure of the Call' and 'Thou shalt not despair at succumbing to the Call' will remain in the catechism. The Call is seen to be like the allure of a bottle of excellent wine: your own bad intentions maketh the sin, yet the bottle and the wine are blameless."

"And what measure of sin is it?"

"From me, oh, five silver nobles in the almsbox and reciting the Miserablia twice a day for a week. Confess to one of the New Fraenkites and you might have to donate two gold royals to their campaign funds and spend a month in a hair shirt."

"That's about the difference between masturbation and adultery."

"So, you've had occasion to atone for both? Shame on you, and congratulations--"

The Call rolled over the taproom. The Archbishop surrendered in a private, well practiced blaze of forbidden pleasure. Drusas was able to assure himself that he could do nothing about what he was feeling before plunging into the same reverie. They slowly stood and mindlessly walked southeast across the taproom. Farmer, Archbishop, librarian, serving wench, cook, and vintner: all crowded against the wall, unable to think to cross the room to the door in the northwest wall, so blind and unreasoning was their desire to walk southeast.

Two blocks away the five strangers who had earlier considered Lemorel as potential quarry were safe in a coffeehouse. Being still during business hours, most people were indoors or safely tethered. A lamplighter was caught in the open, and he mindlessly turned southeast, walking through the streets and lanes, then out through the city gate. Moments after he passed, a Call timer tripped a release and the gate rumbled shut by itself. He walked across open fields, beside a dog that had trotted beside a certain Southmoor shepherd only hours earlier. Blood from the blackberry thorns was congealed in its fur.

Even though he had joined the procession of death, the lamplighter was safe. At his waist a clockwork timer ticked steadily, already forty minutes into its one-hour cycle. He was walking through a vineyard when the time expired and the timer released a grapple on a strap. It snared a training post and he stopped, straining against his tether to walk southeast. The Call lasted three hours. It was after sunset when it finally passed, and the lamplighter shook his head, cursed, then reset his timer and began the trek back to town. In a way he had been lucky. The Call always stopped for part of the night, still holding its victims. He might well have remained in the cold, open fields until it moved on in the morning if it had not passed him by then.

Thickening cloud blotted out the stars, adding to the gloom of evening, and there were no lamps lit to cast even a feeble glow at the street corners. A chill, misty drizzle discouraged people from venturing out of doors, and many retired to bed early. The strangers left the coffeehouse, winding their timers as they went.

"Perfect timing for a Call," chuckled one as he untied their hired pony dray.

"Aye, and such a surprising number of people will have been careless with their tethers," said the tall man.

Jaas was a stores clerk from the railside warehouse. He was unmarried, middle-aged, and lived alone, and had just reached home when the Call had rolled over him. He awoke in his house, cold, hungry, and in darkness. He spent ten minutes finding the tinderbox he had dropped three hours earlier, then lit a pottery thumblamp. By the smoky olive-oil flame he took a mutton and port sausage from the pantry, dragged his favorite chair to the table, and sat with his feet up. Theshadows of his feet made the caricature of a head on the wall as he carved off a slice of sausage. The shadow head had been his silent and faithful companion for years.

"Why be a free man if ye can't dine casual?" he asked the shadow, and it nodded gravely as he rocked his feet. There was a knock at the door.

"Call census!"

"I'm here," he called.

"Call census!" insisted the voice.

"Fagh dummart," Jaas muttered, lowering his feet from the table and walking to the door. "Here I be, th'art satisfied--"

As he flung the door open and stood outlined by his own lamp a fist slammed into his plexus, dropping him quietly and neatly. Within a minute he was gagged, bound, and tied in sack. Mabak left a broken tether strap clipped to an outside rail beside the firewood pile as the others loaded Jaas onto their dray. When the real census clerk came past he would conclude that Jaas was the victim of a faulty tether.

Jemli's edutor was working late in his office to make up time lost to the Call. Expecting only his students, he called "Enter" at the knock on his door, and did not even turn to face his visitors. A tax collector's clerk on the abductors' list went the same way. For the last two there was no stealth. The dray was tied up outside the Constable's Watchhouse and three of the abductors entered. Their papers had the seal of Libris, a book closed over a dagger. The Constable himself was on duty, and his hands shook as he broke the seal and read the order. Two writhing bodies were carried out in sacks as the Constable wrote out "Escaped just prior to a Call without wearing tethers" against both of their names in the Watchhouse register.

As the lamplighter began his rounds the pony dray had already left on the five-mile trek down the flat, fog-shrouded road to the river wharves at Wahgunyah. The real census clerks were busy on their rounds too, checking for missing citizens. They reported a terrible tragedy, five souls lost to the Call, and the Mayor of Rutherglen issued a proclamation about the proper use and maintenance of Call tethers and body anchors. This was shouted about for a half hour by the criers in the foggy streets. Christian, Islamic, and Genthic services were held in memory of the five, and prayers were said that they might be forced out of the Call by some fence, thicket, or mercy wall.

An oarbarge was being held ready at the Wahgunyah wharves, and a bribe had insured that no questions were being asked. When the pony dray arrived, five sacks were unloaded and stored under cover. The abductors pushed the barge away from the wharf and began rowing into the gloom. The tall man wiped condensation from the bowlamp's concave, then turned up the wick. A dim but focused beam swept the river ahead for shoal buoys and snags. Once the bargewas out of sight of the wharves, the sacks were opened and the prisoners were made to help with the oars.

"I'm not built for a life of rowing," said Jaas sullenly. "There's not a bargemaster on the river as would pay good silver for me."

"Rowin's not the value on you," said the tall man.

"What then?"

"You all can count. The Warren pays gold royals for those as can count."

"The Warren!" exclaimed the tax clerk. "Since when has the Warren been across more than stolen drygoods?"

"The price is two gold royals for souls as can count and speak Austaric. We've done well baggin' Southmoor teachers from mosques near the border. Got seventeen over the past five months, an' nine of them spoke Austaric. That's twenty-four gold royals--"

"Mabak!" barked the leader. "Hold your talk or wear a gag."

The tall man snorted and spat into the river, but obeyed.

One hundred miles to the west, in Rochester, the machine that would soon swallow them was being shut down for the night. Having given the Highliber her victory at champions it was dissolving into its exhausted components.

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 FUNCTION 9. "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 inquiries made, and those wastrels whose loved ones are rich enough to bribe officials not to have proper inquiries 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.

"Not 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, 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 Constable's Runners turned up with a couple of dozen sheets of poorpaper 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, turningback 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.

"Damnhell, 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 anymore."

FUNCTION 9 lapsed into thought. MULTIPLIER 8's knights took an enemy keep, but he 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?"

Copyright © 1999 by Sean McMullen


There are currently no reviews for this novel. Be the first to submit one! You must be logged in to submit a review in the BookTrackr section above.


No alternate cover images currently exist for this novel.