Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Czar's Spy

The Czar's Spy by William Le Queux is a novel of personal cussedness versus political intrigue. It begins with the putative owners of a luxury yacht getting into a fix in Leghorn, Italy. (A foghorn was not involved, nor were any chickens harmed.) They are so grateful for the locals' help that they ask Our Hero and Narrator, writer Gordon Gregg, famous for writing novels in shorthand for speed-readers, to help them write a thank-you note in Italian. Gregg is filling in for the real British Vice-Consul of Leghorn, so while he is being entertained aboard the yacht, someone decides to raid the consular office. Hard luck: he has already drunk the good booze and smoked the best cigars. Still, they ransack the place.

Gregg, meanwhile, has encountered aboard the yacht the hastily shredded photo of a Mysterious and Beautiful Woman, whose visage (when he reassembles the picture) immediately burns itself on his brain for keeps. This proves handy later on.

Mystery follows mystery in a frankly infuriating fashion. Gordon becomes more or less used to two phenomena: people trying to kill him and people telling him that he is at the edge of an Amazing Mystery, and they could sure give him an earful if only they dared. The killers are more fun. I found myself fantasizing about a more satisfying response to one of these mystery-mongers:

Mystery-Monger: If you could only penetrate the mystery of this matter, you would find that you had uncovered a plot beyond the dreams of the National Enquirer! Of course, I have Important Secret Information that I'm not about to divulge, though I'll sure rabbit on about how much I know.

Gordon Gregg: Fair enough. Then I shall thrash you until you tell me whatever you do know. That shouldn't take long.

MM: But I'm a lady!

GG: Righto! The thrashing shouldn't take long, either, then.

It's pretty much a cheat anyway: most of them don't really know that much, and the only one who knows it all, a lady with an unforgettable face, has been the subject of a fiendish experiment to transform her into a mime. Gordon Gregg gallivants all over in search of the truth, or failing that, a hot date: England, Scotland, Finland, Russia--in palaces and dungeons, meeting the Arch Anarchist, the Strangler of Finland (not to be confused with the Wedgie King of France), and The Face.

Anyway--self-importance aside, it's not a bad yarn, though I found it odd that a couple of lethal devices seemed like practical jokes gone wrong. Still, the suspense and mystery aren't bad, especially when a dead man turns up alive and the narrator gets to fight his way out of a Finnish Bastille and bluff his way out of certain death.

The Czar's Spy is available as a free e-book and as a free audiobook.

The Mystery of the Four Fingers

The Mystery of the Four Fingers by Fred M. White is... Okay, I'll say it: it's about a bad guy getting the finger four times. His own fingers. Mummified. Mysteriously delivered. Oh, and he'll die after the fourth one.

If that doesn't say "quality literature," I don't know what does.

Set in the early 20th century, the story features a number of characters in extraordinary circumstances who act according to a strict personal code of honor (except the villains, who for some reason don't care so much about honor).

A man gets married--it could happen to nearly anyone--and thirty minutes in, his wife leaves him a note saying to forget about her, because she's off for an extended period, but she hopes there are no hard feelings. Of course not. She probably left the oven on, and now she feels honor-bound to rebuild the house brick by brick herself. Or maybe she was drafted by the French Foreign Legion. It could happen to anybody. And since her husband is such a noble sort, when he runs across her three years(!) later--under mysterious circumstances, of course--he plays along when she says she still loves him but has Mysterious Business which involves posing as the daughter of a Bounder and a Cad who is, coincidentally, old enough to be her father.

Did I mention he has no fingers on his left hand? But not to worry: he's getting them back, one at a time. It has to do with the Four Finger Mine, the secret possession of Indians in Mexico. Whenever someone messes with their mine, he loses four fingers, gets them back piecemeal, and dies, usually insane. It could happen to anybody.

But wait! There's more! Counterfeiters who hit on the perfect crime of producing perfect copies of gold sovereigns in real gold--a point where the shoddier counterfeiters tend to skimp. A handsome cripple who threatens to kill people who--it could happen to anyone--fall through a grating into his cellar. A beautiful girl who thinks she's Ophelia or some such because her fiancé is supposedly dead except she knows he isn't.

Practically everyone is related one way or another, but inbreeding is not the proffered explanation. It does lead to some odd bits near the end, where the highly principled characters decide that blood is even thicker than their heads, causing the story to run an extra couple of chapters.

Strangely enough, I actually liked the story. It has good pacing, a lot of twists and turns, and reasonable suspense. It is not a Christian story, but the code of honor is generally good: villains aside, these are fairly decent, honorable people who eventually confront the problem of vengeance and reach a reasonable if not quite problem-free solution.

The Mystery of the Four Fingers is available as a free e-book at Gutenberg and as a free audiobook at LibriVox.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Dark World: On the Road Again

(The story begins here.)

No one spoke until Dvorak Manor was well out of sight. Lassiter grunted slightly as another car turned away from them, heading south. “There goes Antonin. He still gives me the creeps.”

Darren had also been watching the other vehicle. “Dvorak was unwise to isolate himself. And Antonin probably wouldn’t have done anything so dramatic if Dvorak had just listened to him. Combining their interests—organics for control and inorganics for power and precision—might have been the perfect blend, though it probably would have yielded the ultimate horror.”

“Speaking of horrors,” Dr. Fleming said, “we seem to have escaped our weird friends. Nothing truly strange has happened for a full day, and I’m beginning to hope they’ve lost our trail.”

“I do hate to disappoint you,” Darren replied, “but I had an odd experience this morning after you threw me out and before I fetched Lassiter.”

“Great,” Lassiter muttered. “Are we werewolves together, or are you above such things?”

“I believe I’m protected. But this was a more positive encounter: I think I’ve met the priest you mentioned in our first interview.”

“I’d take my chances with the werewolves.”

“Having interacted with both, I disagree. He provided some useful information, though I’m still sorting it out. Basically, there’s a kind of doorway between worlds, and once it opens for you, it never really closes—unless you go through, in which case it shuts you in forever. It tends to draw evil to that other world, though I think it’s letting some out here as well.”

Lassiter merely snorted in response, but Dr. Fleming smiled. “I’m sure Dr. Newman will want to hear all about it; he’s always interested in the duality of good and evil in human nature. He even uses Christian terminology, though I’m sure you would disagree with precisely how he uses it.”

Darren glanced back; Lassiter was either very quick at falling asleep or very determined to ignore and be ignored. “So if neither of us is likely to agree with this Dr. Newman, why bother with him?”

“He has relevant knowledge. Dr. Adam Newman—yes, go ahead and chuckle; I am well aware it’s an alias—Dr. Newman pursues unorthodox means, but he sometimes succeeds where others fail. He specializes in rehabilitating criminals, and his work there is quite impressive. It’s rumored that a certain well-known doctor—more of a modern Renaissance man, really—has funded his establishment in upstate New York where he reforms criminals and helps them become useful citizens. But he also believes in some kind of transformative power. I never actually listened, but he seems to think a strong enough psychological change or disturbance can produce physiological changes. He probably would accept the possibility of lycanthropy.”

“So would I,” Darren retorted. “So would you—now. Why go to someone we both consider questionable? Are you really so determined to find even a pseudo-scientific explanation and cure?”

“It may not be so much a false science as a real science sloppily pursued and documented, much like mesmerism. Perhaps I have been too quick to dismiss him and his views, just as I initially rejected the idea of lycanthropy. But in any case, we shall soon see for ourselves whether Dr. Newman’s ‘Better Angel Foundation’ is genuine or fraudulent.”

Next: How Firm a Foundation?

[I really am behind in my book reviews, so I'll pause the story for a few days.]

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Dark World: Aftermath

(The story begins here.)

“My workroom!” Dvorak screamed.

Dr. Fleming opened the door, but it was Darren who pulled it wide—until he too saw the interior and froze.

Metal fragments protruded from the walls and lay on the floor. The mechanical arms showed varying levels of damage, and Darren concluded that they would not be playing the piano anytime soon. A shriek of dismay and rage told him that Dvorak had shaken off his assistant and wheeled himself forward for a look.

Darren ignored the man. “Victor, was there a radio in that thing?”

Dr. Fleming shook his head. “I doubt it. No, it was designed to play a recorded message and self-destruct when someone probed the less innocent parts of the machine. If there had been a radio, the remote killer would have detonated the bomb when we were gathered around Karel this morning: it should have been obvious that he was going to survive, and the blast would’ve eliminated all witnesses.”

“Why didn’t he use a bomb to begin with?” Antonin asked.

“The same reason he used the knife,” Darren said. “Misdirection and intimidation: a phantom German assassin who can enter locked rooms would keep the police occupied for some time. Victor’s right: the bomb meant that the ruse had failed and the killer had to destroy the evidence and an investigator.”

“I don’t care about any of that,” Dvorak snapped. “He practically did kill me—though it looks like some of the manipulators can be salvaged. If I can get a proper version of the new machine, I can rebuild it all.”

“Avoid the ornaments this time,” Dr. Fleming said. “I suspect that their real purpose was just to distract you from other oddities in the construction. You should investigate the man who insisted on producing them.”

“A waste of time. If they were innocent pawns, they’ve been killed; if not innocent, they have fled. I know these people.” Turning to Antonin, he added, “I should have known you, too. It is pointless to have an assistant who disagrees with my goals. You are dismissed. I’m sure Victor can find a place for you in his vehicle; I would let him stay—perhaps even Mr. Christopher—but I haven’t the energy or patience for their ‘transforming’ friend. I see now that I am better off alone here with my machines, which at least are rigidly ethical—they are essentially decent.”

“And one day,” Antonin muttered, “you will punch a card incorrectly, and they will kill you for it—without even knowing they have done so. I have a vehicle of my own, sir; I shall not burden Dr. Fleming and his party.”

Lassiter grunted. “At least I’m getting used to wearing out my welcome. May I hitch a ride with you two?”

“Of course,” Dr. Fleming replied, not even looking in Dvorak’s direction. “We aren’t done with you yet. I suppose I shall see what Dr. Newman thinks of you. For now, you can help Darren and me remove our effects to the car.”

Next: On the Road Again

Friday, January 22, 2010

Dark World: The Master's Voice

(The story begins here.)

“As I investigated,” Dr. Fleming continued, “I came to a curious conclusion: none of the manipulator arms was in quite the right place for the attack. They can move, of course, but the angle wasn’t quite right: they aren’t made for stabbing downward. They didn’t have the proper bloodstains, though the dagger was bloody and would have been worse had it struck its intended target.
“Then I noticed this section of the machine—there’s a nearly invisible seam, and I thought it was a door. But it’s welded shut.”

“That’s a support,” Dvorak said. “It can’t be hollow and bear the weight and torque of the mechanism.”

“I doubt the mechanism would’ve seen much use after your death, but I agree that it is no longer hollow. For it was also quite warm to the touch—it must have been very hot at first. So this is what I think happened: the arm and dagger emerged from this niche and made the attack. Then the arm dropped the dagger and returned to the niche, probably triggering a thermite charge or something similar. The arm had been nestled among metal blocks that the thermite melted, thus covering the arm in molten metal that later solidified.”

“But the cards—”

“There were no cards. When you activated the machine, your position was predictable; all the killer needed was for an arm to shoot out and down with a knife. The blow knocked the knife loose, the arm retracted, and the thermite fired and encased the arm in molten metal. The device had no more need for a punched card than a mousetrap does.”

“You are asserting nonsense,” Dvorak shot back. “There’s no proof—”

Dr. Fleming had opened the cabinet-like machine and began probing the interior. “I think there is. The circuit formed when the cards were loaded included a branch to the trap. So there should be a line about here… Yes! See this wire?”

“Very clever,” a metallic voice called from the machine. “But you have only forced me to trade subtlety for ruthless efficiency.”

Darren had one of those flashes of insight that had kept him alive many times in his brief existence. He seized Dr. Fleming’s arm and ran for the door. Lassiter, warned either by a similar revelation or Darren’s actions, was already through the door, and Antonin’s guardian instincts led him to haul Dvorak through backwards in the wheelchair. Darren and his friend were just past the threshold.

“Goodbye, my friend,” came the voice. As the two men pushed on the door, a blast shook them.

Next: Aftermath

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Dark World: The Assassin Unmasked

(The story begins here.)

“It’s really quite simple once you realize it’s complicated,” Dr. Fleming mused.

“I should know better,” Dvorak muttered from his wheelchair, “but that still sounds like gibberish.”

Dr. Fleming smiled with satisfaction as he surveyed the group. “You still don’t remember what happened?”


“A result of the shock, no doubt. However, the facts are clear: you were stabbed from behind in an unprofessional fashion, your assailant is not obvious, and the weapon was left behind—no doubt deliberately, given the blatantly obvious clue of the crest. Also, though the attack was stealthy, it still failed remarkably: the strong thrust of the knife became a glancing blow, and no coup de grace followed. Why?

“The answer is clear: the assassin did not know the attack had failed—because the attacker was a machine.” He paused while Darren restrained Antonin. “Ignorant of the failure, the machine completed its predetermined mission with a concealment phase.”

“Where were the instructions for the machine?” Dvorak asked.

“You said Antonin wouldn’t harm Dvorak,” Darren commented, “so I suppose that’s out.”

“Correct,” Dr. Fleming said. “At least for the most part. Actually, Antonin helped save Dvorak’s life—and so did we.” He paused for reaction, but Dvorak evidently wanted him to get it over with, as did Lassiter, and Antonin was brooding silently. “Remember what you said about the problem of not knowing what a machine would encounter? An unknown can destroy any pre-arranged plan, and the murderer did not allow for two unknowns: first, our arrival with Lassiter, which delayed Karel enough that he put off the trial run until morning. Ordinarily he would have run the tests alone in the evening after dismissing Antonin: he wouldn’t want a disapproving critic on hand until he was sure of the device. So he would have lain there for several hours, quite possibly until morning, by which time loss of blood would have killed him, if not the severity of the wounds.

“Second, the distant killer did not foresee what Antonin decided to do—I suspect it was a last-minute inspiration anyway. Antonin was up during the night, which wasn’t unusual, and he had access to the workroom. It wouldn’t have been difficult to add a few cards to the waiting stack.”

“I would not kill the master!” Antonin roared, shaken from his sullen stupor.

“Of course not; we’ve settled that. But you might decide to give him a scare. What would he say if his great achievement attacked him? It wouldn’t actually harm him, though it might shove him or bruise him. You could rush in and fire on the machine, partly destroying the evidence—and if Karel were sufficiently dazed, you might be able to remove the incriminating cards as well. But you saved his life: your attack must have come just before the attempted murder, and it knocked Karel out of position. I’ve checked, and I’m virtually positive that if he had been normally positioned when the dagger struck, it would have penetrated his heart. But he was shoved less than a second before, so he received only a flesh wound. It was really man versus man, but the machine both threatened and saved him.”

“This is all very clever,” Dvorak said, staring suspiciously at his assistant, “perhaps even true. But you still haven’t explained how the machine got the homicidal instructions—or why there were no bloodstains on the manipulator arms.”

“That’s the most ingenious part,” Dr. Fleming replied.

Next: The Master's Voice

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Dark World: Mysteriouser and mysteriouser

(The story begins here.)

“You recognize the dagger?” Darren asked.

“The crest,” Lassiter replied. “It was on some of the stuff that belonged to Althaus and his friends. Some society or other.”

“That figures,” Dr. Fleming muttered. “A pointer to an obvious enemy.”

“You don’t believe it?” Darren asked.

“I’m undecided. It’s both credible and convenient.”

“It’s not that credible,” Darren stated. “A real assassin wouldn’t attack that way.” Seeing the doctor’s look, he said, “Go ahead and strike at me the way the attacker did.”

Dr. Fleming complied, miming a downward arc that Darren easily blocked; then Darren sent a right hook less than an inch from the doctor’s chin. “I could have put a knife anywhere I wanted in your chest, stomach, or throat,” he added helpfully.

“Karel was attacked from behind.”

“It doesn’t matter; anyone used to a knife would attack like this.” And Darren poked his fist horizontally toward the doctor. “See how much harder that is to block? And it’s faster: while you’re drawing back for that dramatic downward sweep, I can launch a lethal attack of my own. No, this was an amateur job—or meant to look like one.”

Lassiter had resumed work on his sandwich. “He’s right—I’ve seen some real knife fights, and they keep it horizontal, with thrusts, not downward sweeps.” He popped the last mouthful in just as a chime sounded.

“Dvorak’s amazing machine has finally decided that he’s out of danger,” Dr. Fleming muttered. “A real doctor would’ve figured that out some time ago, but it’s not bad for an automaton.”

Lassiter frowned. “I hope Antonin doesn’t double-check it. He wasn’t happy playing cook while his boss was in that traveling coffin.”

“It’s not that easy to trust an important job to a machine,” the doctor murmured as he absently ran his hand over the ornate surface of the automaton.

“Maybe that’s because we know it’s a blind, inferior version of its creator,” Darren suggested.

“What do you mean?” Dr. Fleming asked as he began to explore the cabinet-like structure more carefully.

“These things of Dvorak’s try to incorporate his knowledge and skill into a machine that acts in circumstances he couldn’t completely foresee. It’s like trying to guide someone with no medical knowledge through surgery—and doing it over the telephone. It’s worse, really, because at least the novice surgeon can ask questions. Dvorak had to guess at all the possible situations, which is humanly impossible.”

“Brilliant,” Dr. Fleming cried as he continued his probe now of the machine’s interior.

“Thank you,” Darren said, abashed.

“Not you, the scheme—though you can be assistant genius for the day if it pleases you. I think I know what happened.”

Next: The Assassin Unmasked

Monday, January 18, 2010

Dark World: Dr. Fleming Investigates

(The story begins here.)

Lassiter was hungry as usual when Darren released him from the infirmary, and he was very quick to commandeer Antonin for chef duty, which left Darren and Dr. Fleming alone in the workroom to the doctor’s undisguised relief.

“Your timing is excellent; another ten minutes and there would’ve been a successful murder here.”

“Yours or Antonin’s? He’s the more imposing figure.”

“But I am far more motivated. He was driving me insane with all his assertions, questions, and pacing. He claims that the machine attempted to kill Dvorak, which is credible on one level and nonsense on a few others.”

“Tell me about it,” Darren said. He knew that his friend needed a reasonably quiet sounding board at such moments, so he resolved to be the opposite of Antonin and see what happened.

“To begin with, there was no one else in the room. We had a clear view of Antonin, and he did nothing more troubling than commit mechanicide—if he did even that. The damage to the card reader should be minor, but the cards are probably lost. I can’t help wondering whether that was intentional.”

Darren merely gave him an encouraging look, so he continued, “I sometimes think Antonin’s real reason for working with Karel is to thwart him: Antonin despises machines; he truly believes the true path is organic. As near as I can tell, he thinks Dvorak’s machines may unleash a terrible disaster on the world. So if he spent the night making up cards for an attack—”

“You think he might have tried to kill Dvorak?”

“That’s where it falls apart. No. Antonin Čapek is a very loyal man—and something of a pacifist. He carries a gun, but he does not shoot to kill. He might have programmed some kind of ‘accident,’ but nothing truly dangerous. And he was clearly surprised by the dagger. For that matter, the mechanical arms don’t show blood in the right places: there wasn’t much blood shed, but the hand that wielded the knife would have picked up some blood. And again, Antonin could not have carried out the attack himself, because the dagger swept down in an arc that would have been unmistakable to even a casual observer, and the attack came while Karel was standing.”

“The machine couldn’t have aimed the blows anyway.”

Dr. Fleming considered the matter for a moment. “Actually, that wouldn’t have been hard to manage. Loading the cards activates the unit, and the operator’s position at that moment would be very easy to guess. But the cards Karel loaded were his own, and only he or Antonin could have arranged a mechanized attack. I technically could have, but it would have taken longer, since I’m not as familiar with the machine, and you know I wasn’t punching cards all night.”

Just then Lassiter returned, armed with a half-eaten ham sandwich. “Antonin is getting a proper breakfast together, and he wanted me to warn you so I wouldn’t eat it all myself. He’s smarter than he looks.” With that he resumed his breakfast.

“We’ll join you in a moment,” Darren said absently, still looking at Dr. Fleming. “Are there any other clues?”

“The dagger itself: see the crest on it? I don’t recognize it myself, but it’s evidently German—the assassin’s calling card, something to ensure that Karel’s enemies get credit for the attack.”

Lassiter gasped and almost dropped his sandwich. He swallowed a mouthful and stammered, “I’ve seen that before!”

Next: Mysteriouser and mysteriouser

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Dark World: Un Nove Sperantia

(The story begins here./Le conto comencia hic.) As an added feature, mouse over anything you want translated below.

“What do you mean, ‘A new hope’?” Darren asked. “Haven’t you encountered Christians before? Where did you come from otherwise?” He had to re-phrase this a time or so, but finally the man in the robe smiled understanding.

Christianos certo ha venite a iste mundo, sed de voluntate: pro salvar o adjutar alcun altere. Sed tu es sol, sin amico o companion. Tu pote venir con me o none io te consilia de remaner. Haber un ponte al mundo normal forsan nos adjutara. Normalmente le via se aperi solo pro admitter malo additional.”

“It lets some out, too,” Darren muttered. He continued aloud, “Why me? Why now?”

Io non sape. Io suppone que tu ha experientia de iste mundo?

“Yes, and the last time was with friends. We drove off the invaders, though.”

Le porta numquam se claude vermenteal minus, non de tu latere. Quando uno veni a iste mundo, le porta vermente se claude. Ergo non veni si tu pote evitar lo, o tu anque sera prisionero hic.”

A fog began to gather, obscuring the scene and muffling the voice, which called, “Illo nos separa actualmente, sed le porte se aperira de nove…

Darren was alone on grounds without a trace of forest.

“I’m not sure whether I gained more answers than questions, but that helps a little.” He paused briefly and decided to collect Lassiter and see how Dr. Fleming’s investigation was proceeding. As he turned, he thought he sensed something—a faint stench, a coldness, something that would never show up on Dr. Fleming’s instruments and thus did not exist. He glanced back, but it was gone, and the shadow he thought he briefly saw—and saw move—was surely nothing but a trick of eye or mind.

Next: Dr. Fleming Investigates

Friday, January 15, 2010

Dark World: Light in the Darkness

(The story begins here./Le conto comencia hic.) As an added feature, mouse over anything you want translated below.

Antonin did something to shut off the security system; then he ran, not to Dvorak but to the desk-like controls, leveled his pistol, and emptied it into area where the cards were held and read. “Murdering machine!” He turned to the others. “I told the master not to trust these things! Organism and inorganism must always be at war. Only organic tools and slaves can be trusted.”

Dr. Fleming was already at his friend’s side. “He’ll live. The wounds are relatively superficial, but that’s a nasty-looking dagger on the floor.”

“Dagger?” Antonin asked.

“Yes, the kind organisms use to kill each other. I wonder where it came from? Karel never carries a knife.” He paused and glanced at Darren. “Attempted murder in a locked, windowless room. I suppose you’ll say this is the work of demons.”

Darren thought very briefly—even prayed—and replied, “No, I don’t sense anything here beyond human evil.”

“Excellent. Then this is a job for physics.”

“So you admit there’s more than physics?”

“Everything is physics; it’s just that some things are more obviously physics than others. Step outside and commune with your God; Antonin and I will take care of Karel. He wouldn’t want you standing around here praying for him.”

Darren bowed stiffly and departed.

He did in fact step outside. Dr. Fleming’s brusqueness was no doubt the result of stress, but Darren hoped for some uninterrupted prayer. He also wasn’t sure that Lassiter would be any help; let him stew a few minutes longer.

Darren hadn’t gone very far when a shadow and breeze came on him, and he found himself facing the edge of a forest that was new to the area. It took him less than a second to assess the situation: he was not carrying a gun, not even one with normal bullets, but he didn’t sense the previous effluvium of evil, either.

A voice hailed him from the trees. “Veni a me, filio. Io te monstrara le via a…” The voice broke off, and the speaker, a robed figure, looked around as if puzzled. “Io senti necun periculo…necun malo.

“I don’t sense any danger or evil either,” Darren said. “Do you understand English? Or—”

Io pote comprender English—anglese—mi filio, sed io non pote parlar lo. Un dictionario nos adjutarea, sed apparentemente nos comprende le un le altere sin illo.

“It would probably be a few decades before such a dictionary could be produced anyway. But why is there no evil here—no wolves or enchantress? I thought these phenomena were basically evil with a little good sometimes mixed in by the grace of God.”

Generalmente, si. Sed le gratia de Dio importa multo: le malo appella al malo, e le bono al bono. Evidentemente un grande bono se trova in te, e solo le bono appare.”

“There is no good in me, Sir; I am a sinner.”

Sed claro tu ha acceptate le Bonle Filio de Dio—in tu cordie. Su bonitate supera cata malo in te e in iste mundo tenebrose. Isto es un nove sperantia.”

Next: Un Nove Sperantia

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Dark World: Riddle of the Locked Room

(The story begins here.)

“Victor!” Darren called softly. “Someone’s walking around downstairs!”

Dr. Fleming exercised his great self-control and merely grunted, “Our door’s locked, so I don’t care. Put a chair against it if you like.”

“It’s three in the morning.”

“The acute senses of a jungle savage and the ability to comprehend the crucial ‘big hand-little hand’ distinction! Excellent, Darren; by breakfast you may have evolved past needing a tail.”

“There is someone—”

“It’s Antonin. I don’t know whether he’s really a sleepwalker or an insomniac out for exercise, but he does that sometimes. It can’t be Lassiter, because he’d make a din like an exploding boiler factory getting out of the infirmary. And it can’t be his ghoulish friends, or your hackles would be up and your tail bushy. Go back to sleep—or at least let me do so.”


The next morning found everyone up bright and early. Dvorak, armed with enthusiasm and a continental breakfast, invited his guests to experience Antonin’s culinary skills while he had some time alone with his new tool. He let himself into his workroom and locked the door behind him. Darren decided to fetch Lassiter from the infirmary, and Dr. Fleming and Antonin paused by the workroom to examine an intricate gadget that Dvorak would soon seek to replicate purely by punch cards.

That was when they heard the shout, which was abruptly cut off.

Antonin was the first inside since he had a key and the security system’s permission to enter unmolested. But the moment the door was open, the scene was both clear and inconceivable: Dvorak, spattered with blood, lay crumpled on the floor with some small object beside him.

The mechanical artisan continued swiftly and silently fashioning its artifact, oblivious to the horror and outcry.

Next: Light in the Darkness

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Dark World: Points of View

(The story begins here.)

Darren wondered again at Dr. Fleming’s determination to bring Lassiter to such an embattled stronghold. Was it purely that he hoped human means could triumph over the dark forces they had encountered? Or was there some other factor involved?

Dvorak interrupted these thoughts. “So, Mr. Lassiter, I wonder which side you are on. Mr. Christopher is an avowed supernaturalist; Victor had been a thorough secular materialist like me, though this talk of ‘transformations’ may mean he has wandered. And dear Antonin actually favors medieval alchemy to—”

“I do not, Master,” Antonin stated quietly yet firmly. “You believe that evolution has switched from organic back to inorganic. Yet the greatest triumphs of evolution, including consciousness itself, have come through organic matter. If we are to use the flow of evolution to our advantage, we must use organisms—even synthetic or modified ones.”

Dvorak chuckled dismissively. “Medieval homunculi, yes. Or golems? No, they aren’t organic enough. It is our tools that change now. Isn’t that true, Victor?”

“Human evolution is finished,” Dr. Fleming said. “We change our tools, not ourselves. It is quicker and easier to build an airplane than to develop wings, to wear a coat than to grow fur. But I would agree with Antonin that machines augment our bodies, not our minds. Intellectual inventions are not mechanical—language and mathematics are true tools of thought, not machines or organisms.”

Lassiter stirred uneasily. “I don’t usually believe in things I can’t see or test, but I’ve encountered some things lately I can’t explain. These clever ideas may not be as clever as you think when you run into realities like that.”

Darren smiled. “That is the problem. We are constantly confronted with things our technology and intellects can't truly fathom. What we need is not technological or organic progress, but spiritual progress. And we can only get that from God.”

Dvorak laughed. “You really should meet Dr. Newman; he could at least give you a more scientific-sounding alternative. The only God or Devil greets us from the mirror, and he thinks he has found a way to determine the view. Redemption without a god or cross—the ultimate triumph of Science, if he is right. But I leave such matters to others. Tomorrow I shall do what my puny intellect allows for the betterment of mankind.”

Next: Riddle of the Locked Room

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Dark World: The Werewolf Who Came to Dinner

(The story begins here.)

“I hope Victor doesn’t mind sharing a room with me,” Darren observed as he helped set up an extra bed in the guest room.

“We have few visitors,” Antonin said, “seldom more than one at a time.”

“At least I don’t snore.”

“Dr. Fleming has spent the night here before. He doesn’t snore either.”

“No, I wouldn’t expect him to. It’s too unevolved.”

A chime, clear but not quite shrill, interrupted, and Darren glanced at the other man, who seemed only mildly surprised. “Your other friend has awakened, I think: that alert means an acceptable change in vital activity.” He looked around, annoyed. “We cannot very well fit another bed in here, however; he shall have to remain in the infirmary.” He headed for the door, Darren at his heels.

“I believe Victor and I would both object to sharing a room with him anyway.”

“Does he snore, then?”

“Perhaps slightly. The larger problem is when he howls.”

A moment later they found Dvorak and Fleming examining Lassiter, who claimed complete ignorance of events since leaving Fleming’s lab. He also claimed extreme hunger, which led Dvorak to prescribe dinner for him, the better to observe his condition.

Darren thought Dvorak’s slight glance and smirk in Fleming’s direction suggested another reason, and Antonin confirmed the suspicion sotto voce as they repaired to the dining room. “The master wishes to make a game of this. I have never seen Dr. Fleming so nervous before, and the opportunity is too tempting.”

Sure enough, at the table Darren found his friend glancing now at Lassiter (or rather his hair), now at Darren. He met one such gaze with a confident smile and a slight shake of his head. He certainly did not sense the approach of evil, and there was a further consideration that was reasonable if not absolute: all the previous “irruptions of evil” they had experienced or heard of occurred outdoors. Even Lassiter had admitted that a werewolf was not likely to enter a building it had not recently occupied.

Dvorak, meanwhile, was proving expansive as host. “We seldom entertain on such a scale. I hope, Mr. Lassiter, that you will not mind a night in the infirmary?”

“I’ve had worse nights. I’d rather not be restrained, though. It’s probably not necessary.”

“I’m sure it won’t be. The infirmary, like all the rooms here, is a small fortress. Do you agree, Victor?”

“As he said, it shouldn’t be necessary to restrain him—not for some weeks, anyway.”

Dvorak smiled. “I am used to more substantive threats, especially from the Germans. Their memories are long; fortunately, their minds are weak. Even here they occasionally try to exact vengeance; I doubt the supernatural shall succeed where German ingenuity has so far failed.”

Next: Points of View

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Dark World: Helpers of Hephaestus

(The story begins here.)

Dvorak’s assistant led the way to a kind of workroom. He unlocked the door and made a point of examining the area minutely, gun in hand, to Dvorak’s evident displeasure.

“Antonin! Enough! This is the most secure room in the manor; if anyone but us enters it, he will not repeat the mistake.”

Darren halted immediately, his foot just before the threshold. Dr. Fleming brushed past him into the room. “Don’t worry, Darren; we’re with them. It’s coming alone that would prove disastrous.”

Antonin glanced back. “Yet caution is wise—especially before the unknown.”

Darren entered the room and looked around. “This place calls for caution. All those arms jutting from walls and ceiling as though strange beings were trying to emerge from bondage!”

Dvorak chuckled. “In a way they are. This is Hephaestus’ workroom, you might say, and he built metal workmen to help in his labors. I hope someday to produce freestanding workers, but for now they remain imprisoned in the walls, reaching out only hand and arm to assist their creator.”

“Hephaestus was crippled.”

“Our ignorance cripples us all. Only Science can cure us. These partial beings are part of that cure: they help me not only build new units but conduct experiments. Soon I hope to supervise them in surgery—work too precise for the inexact hand of man. And it’s all done by humble cards.” He pulled out a small drawer to reveal a precise stack of cards. “Would you believe that this stack is really another arm, one with a cutting torch, waiting for me to call it forth? And with this new reader, my assistants shall become even more powerful.” He gestured toward something that looked like a large desk with a wardrobe at one side. “The precision of this instrument shows the true promise of the concept. It can thread a needle quite easily, and with the proper operator, even the most delicate surgery becomes child’s play.”

Dr. Fleming eyed the contraption with mild puzzlement. “It’s rather ornate, isn’t it? All those knobs and excrescences—I didn’t think either of you went in for such things.”

Dvorak scowled slightly. “We don’t. Producing this required skill beyond our own. It’s the work of a colleague, though we provided the more important components. Unfortunately the man had an assistant with Victorian tastes who decided to show off his skills by adding all these embellishments. If I hadn’t been in a hurry to test it, I would’ve broken them off and filed them down.”

“What kind of test?” the doctor asked.

Dvorak laughed. “I had suggested that I could at last get a proper haircut. Antonin considered it too risky, but he was not willing to offer his own head in place of mine. So instead I shall use it to craft a delicate component its own builder would find challenging. I already have the card set prepared; all I need do is enter the cards, set the initial position, and watch the finest craftsman never born.”

“You’ll do that tonight?”

“Tomorrow; it’s getting late, and I want to be fresh for the experiment. Besides, there’s the small matter of your patient to be settled. You wanted him restrained?”

“He is capable of great feats of strength and ferocity, and I would like to try provoking such an episode while he is properly restrained and monitored.”

“He has no more than average strength.”

“He can. . .transform,” Dr. Fleming ventured. “In the other state, his strength is superhuman.”

“If he can ‘transform,’ as you call it, perhaps you should take him to Dr. Newman; transformation is his specialty, not mine.”

“Your facilities are better, and I would like to avoid any sensationalism if possible.”

“Very well. We can make arrangements while Antonin helps your friend prepare your quarters.”

Next: The Werewolf Who Came to Dinner

Friday, January 8, 2010

Dark World: Keeper of the Keyboard

[Slight change: I originally meant to make the Dvorak Manor arc short, but I'll lengthen it a bit to accommodate a few worthwhile characters.]
(The story begins here.)

“The fundamental flaw of would-be technocracies,” Dvorak continued, “is the human element. The experts who make the decisions have human shortcomings—prejudices, ambitions, and so forth—that interfere with their judgment. A machine does not; it can follow logic alone.”

“But the problems of human life are too complicated for a machine to solve,” Darren objected. “A machine can follow simple rules, such as those of arithmetic, but it can’t truly create, so it can’t adapt to new situations. It can’t even understand current situations.”

“Understanding is a problem,” Dvorak admitted. “The information must be in a form that the machine can use. Centuries ago, philosophers talked about philosophical languagesthe Real Character, the Ars Signorum, and so on—that would describe things instead of just naming them with arbitrary labels. They didn’t realize how long an adequate description would be, of course. Such a language would be unworkable for human beings, but a machine could conceivably use it.”

“It still wouldn’t understand the situation,” Darren said. “You would merely codify your own understanding and have the machine apply it blindly. That could lead to worse human error than mere prejudice or ambition.”

“But it could be refined. Just as modern breeders can accomplish in a few generations what took evolutionary forces, operating blindly, hundreds of generations to achieve, so the machine and language can be refined. For that matter, some of my colleagues believe that the universe is self-ordering: it may be its nature to generate both complexity and unity, much as a seed does. If so, all I need do is produce the initial machine, and a kind of mechanical evolution will take over.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of. You may think this machine and this language will solve everything, like the genie from Aladdin’s Lamp, but you may open Pandora’s Box instead—and then who will shut it for you?”

“It cannot be shut. Though you fear it, progress is inevitable—but hastening it will save untold misery. If Korsakov’s pioneering work of a century ago had received its due, we would even now have an age of information beyond anything the world has ever known.”


Semyon Korsakov. Where others saw punched cards only as a means of controlling machines, he thought of using them to collect and correlate data. The Imperial Academy of Sciences rejected his idea, but some true intellectuals pursued it—secretly, to avoid official interference. I am their heir. Come, I shall show you something more impressive to the ordinary mind than my keyboard.”

Next: Helpers of Hephaestus

Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Crying Game

Or perhaps I should say the Crying Test. It's familiar to all of us: if you've ever edited manuscripts or acted as a slush editor--I hope if you've ever written a story, poem, or play--you've encountered it. "This must be of God--it made me cry."

Now, there's some truth to that. I tend to respond to the touch of God that way myself. But it's also true, as I bluntly put it not so long ago, that people cry watching Bambi. In fact, I have occasionally read stories that I found extremely moving, and that annoying part of my mind that I have painstakingly trained for such moments (it is not natural) would spoil the moment by informing me that the thing was theologically bad. I need that part of my mind: without it, I could easily be blown back and forth by my emotions.

I have been deeply moved by stories that denied the resurrection, the sinlessness of Christ, and other major doctrines. I have been brought to tears by texts that promoted secularism, pantheism, and other evils. Sometimes you have to shake yourself free of the work's spell--for all art is a kind of enchantment--and force yourself to think. And if you do, you'll always be pilloried by those who can't or won't bother to do the same.

It's still worth it.

You see, it's better to force yourself to be bloody-minded (by the power of the Blood) about art than to find yourself crying more painfully later over something you shouldn't have allowed in to begin with.
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