Monday, March 27, 2017

The Brass Mechanism, episode 4

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Difference engine
Image source: Wikimedia Commons
Chakan began to object, but stopped. Two years living in the Matriarchy, and he still found himself having to shake old attitudes. But deferring to his wife was a small price to pay for… for everything. Not only for their land, but for Liana. Her letters had raised his hopes, and getting to know her had proven reality greater than his hope. She was headstrong, aye, but better that than a woman who waited to be told what to think. Besides, she listened to his advice about farming, and mostly let him make the decisions for the farm work. If ever a man had found his ideal… “Aye. Fair enough,” he said.

“We’ll have a care,” Liana assured him. “What should we ask about first?”

“Eh. What crops will be worthwhile to plant. ‘Twould save us a mickle of work if we’re gonna face drought or blight this season.”

“So we plant nothing if the mechanism predicts a bad growing season?”

“Ah, nay.” Chakan embraced his wife. “We’ll plant crops that won’t need as much water. They won’t fetch a high price at market, but they’ll beat a failed corn crop.”

“Sensible. But we’ll need to get all these numbers and their phrases written down to make sense of it anyway. Let’s get to work.”

Working by the light of their lamps, they kept on through the night. By the time they looked up, the first light of day was struggling through the windows. Some of the pages in the old book had torn, but they had faithfully transcribed the entire thing.

“Ah,” Chakan grumbled, dropping the quill and shaking his hand. “I’m cramping from elbow to fingertip here.”

“I’d like to see a scribe do better,” Liana soothed, rubbing his arm. “A sweet potato will help with the cramping. We got one left. I’ll cook it up with some sausage for ya, then we’ll get some sleep.”

Afternoon sun streaming into the bedroom window had Chakan sitting up quickly. “Ah, the day’s more’n half-gone,” he muttered, throwing back the covers.

“Soft, soft,” said Liana, putting a hand on his shoulder. “If we don’t get the planting started today, we’ll start tomorrow. One day more or less won’t hurt matters. And we’re going to consult our mechanical Oracle first, remember?”

“Oh, aye.” He yielded to Liana’s gentle pressure, lying down once again.

“How’s your hand?” she asked.

“Better. It might actually grip something.” He reached and gave Liana a gentle squeeze.

“Mmmm. I think my husband is awake.” She reached down. “Indeed he is.”

Some time later, they sat at the table, eating their lunch—strips of marinated meat with a bland local cheese, wrapped with salad greens in flatbread—eyeing the strange mechanism they had wrested from the middle of their field.

“So the book says you grip the knobs atop the thing and twist ‘em, while you ask your question,” said Chakan. “Then you turn the crank clockwise until it no longer resists.”

“And you interpret its answer from the numbers it shows,” Liana added. “Seems simple enough. So you ask the question, I’ll spin the crank, eh?”

Chakan grasped the knobs atop the mechanism. “Should we plant corn this year?” he asked, twisting the knobs as he spoke.

Liana turned the crank, watching the numbers spin across the upper display. One by one, the numbers stopped spinning. Finally, the last number fell into place and the crank spun freely. “It’s done,” she said.

“Aye. Four one one, eight zero nine, two four seven.” Chakan turned to his transcript, and thumbed through the pages.

A plan is well laid
Sun and rain come in their time
Work is rewarded.

“It sounds like we should just plant our corn like we planned.”

“That’s a relief.” Liana grimaced. “Necessity. We can start planting afterwards.”

Chakan watched her rush for the privy, then started for the barn. But before he left the house, he turned around and went back to the brass mechanism. His sketch was in the sheaf of paper that made up his transcription, and he took it out to have a look. “One zero four, zero seven two, two nine eight,” he muttered. He thumbed through the tables, jotting down the meaning on a piece of scrap, then checked it again.

An ill wind blows strong
All empires fall in their time
The hidden prosper.

“Gods. If this thing were buried on the eve of The Madness… gods.” He tucked the scrap into the sheaf, then slipped outside and trotted to the barn. Maybe work would help him forget the dark prophecy.

continued

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