Monday, March 20, 2017

The Brass Mechanism, episode 3

Part 1 | Part 2

Difference engine
Image source: Wikimedia Commons
Liana set their prize on the table, and they stepped back to take a look. It was a strange-looking device, but even folk with a basic education could see it was some kind of machine. All brass gears, spindles, and fittings it was, with a few flecks of the wood that had once covered it still clinging to the supports. It sported a crank on the right side, the wooden handgrip long gone. A row of numbers dominated the front of the device: 104 072 298. Below was a smaller set of numbers: 98 1812. It had a faint odor of oil and decay.

“So what do those mean?” Chakan asked, pointing at the numbers.

“Maybe the answer is in here.” Liana opened the book, watching to see if the pages would crumble at a touch. “Have a care with this, but it might survive our perusals.” She turned up the title page; it felt brittle but did not fall to pieces. “Using the Prediction Calculator,” she read. “What in the Fourth Hell?”

“This hunk of metal tells the future?” Chakan gave the device an incredulous look. “Ha, the Queen would want to get her hands on this, then.”

“This text is hard to make out. They must not have written the same way we do. ‘Accurate predictions… to ensure, against the stars shall you calibrate.’ What?”

“Sounds like Low Speech. Outside of Phylok you get, so the farmers talk.”

Liana took a moment to parse her husband’s explanation. “Ah. So the ancients all talked the same way? I see. This is saying you calibrate this thing against the stars to get accurate predictions.”

“It uses the stars to make predictions? Outlandish. Shipmasters use the stars to tell where they are on the sea, but I’ve never heard of anyone using them to predict the future.”

“Eh. I never heard Low Speech until you used it just now.”

“If the ancients used the stars to predict the future,” Chakan mused, “the sages would find this thing useful indeed.”

“Ah!” Liana cursed as the page tore. “Bring some paper, love. If these gods-forsaken pages come apart on us, we can preserve what they say for the sages.”

“The sages won’t be pleased with our destroying the originals. But if we’re going to puzzle this thing out, it’s the best we can do.” He paused. “Liana… perhaps we should give this over. Let the sages ruin the book. Knowin’ the future could be a fearful business.”

“Could be some profit in it, love. Besides, we found it. We pulled it out of our field. You got the box open. We’ll do the best we can, and that will have to be good enough. Here, write down the numbers it’s showing. Maybe we can puzzle out their meaning later.”

“Aye. Then we’ll sow tomorrow?”

“If the Creator brings us another day of dry weather, indeed. Don’t you have those numbers written down yet?”

“I’m sketching the whole works.” Chakan slid the paper to his wife.

“How do you do that so well, and so quickly?” she asked. In less time than it takes to drink a cup of tea, Chakan had sketched a fair likeness of the mechanism, with Liana looking on. He had drawn a look of wisdom and revealed knowledge on her face.

“A knack. I don’t get to exercise it often.”

“I like this. We should put it in a frame. Then we’ll wait for dark, and calibrate this… this thing. But let’s copy the instructions while we’re waiting.”

“If we don’t destroy the pages along the way.”

“Hoy, I got an idea.” Liana took another sheet of paper and slid it in between the next two pages in the book. “Maybe this will help.” She gently turned the page. “Ha, it worked! Now here’s what it says…”


The night was clear enough to see the stars, and they followed the instructions to calibrate the device. They twisted knobs and pointers on the top of the mechanism as directed, then held their breath as Chakan turned the crank counter-clockwise. One turn, two turns… then the odd clicking noises inside the mechanism ceased and the crank spun freely as the instructions said it would.

They took their prize back inside and looked it over. “Hoy,” said Chakan, “the numbers along the bottom are different, now. Now it’s 84 4269.

“Eh. I think it’s forty-two something by the old Camac calendar,” Liana mused. “And it’s pretty close to the eighty-fourth day of the year. Maybe that’s today’s date.”

“Then this thing has been in the ground a long time, waitin’ for us to dig it up.” Chakan looked at his sketch. Eighteen-twelve. Gods… that mighta been the year of The Madness.”

“Wouldn’t that be something?”

“Liana… let’s give this over to the sages. We’re messin’ with somethin’ that got buried at the worst time ever. Or just before. What was that first set of numbers? One oh-four?” Chakan consulted his transcripts. “First and third groups use the same numbers. An ill wind blows strong. Makes me wonder what the rest of it means.”

“It won’t bring back The Madness, love. That was a good twenty-four centuries ago. We’ve reset it for modern times, and we’ll make some use of it. Then we’ll give it over. Fair enough?”

to be continued…

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