The Indifference Engine

(Foreword: No, I’m not dead! I’ve just been very busy. A lot of that has been cleaning, both of physical objects and of data. In doing so, I found this story which I never published. I release it here under Creative Commons NonCommercial ShareAlike.)

“Herr McClellan.” The Dutchman grasped the knob of his walking stick and flicked it out before him as he paced the breadth of my assistant’s lecture hall, bootheels clicking on the dark wooden floor. “Kindly do not treat me as if I were one of your undergraduates. I know the Analytical Society — if you but look, you will find my name on its rolls these thirty years past — and I give you my word before God Himself that it is no trivial task for which I seek its help now.”

McClellan did not rise from the carved, high-backed chair at the front of the empty auditorium. With one hand he gripped the end of the armrest; with the other he rubbed his temples, then slid his tiny gold glasses to the tip of his nose. “We are mathematicians, Doctor Van Helsing. I know your reputation — you’re a physician, a philosopher. I don’t see what aid the Society can afford you.”

But I did. For almost fifteen years I had been the only vampire residing within the Learned Triangle, but if the reports in the newspapers McClellan culled for me were true, that was no longer the case. Thanks to McClellan’s single-handed care, I had not left Cambridge’s walls in almost two decades; Van Helsing’s reputation as a dabbler in all matters parapsychological had begun here.  His return now could not be mere coincidence.  Indeed, had he not turned up of his own accord, I might have sought him out myself.

Van Helsing brought the stick down onto the desk with a crash that echoed in the hall outside. McClellan winced, squinting.  The nearest chandelier swayed faintly on its chain overhead. “That for the parsimony of Scotsmen!  Does the whole of the Society meet this treatment at your hands, or only those who have been away for a time? You are in the business of sifting through great amounts of data quickly; I possess such data, and time grows short. What is not to see?”

“Sir, you must understand, matters aren’t quite as –” McClellan gulped and looked away. A clicking sound came from somewhere beyond the wainscoting; he strained to peer into the dim recesses of the hall where I watched, allowing neither of them to see me, as was my usual wont. On the whole I felt McClellan was holding up decently, but I knew Van Helsing well enough to be sure the Dutchman would wear him down eventually.

“Quite as what?” Van Helsing leaned low over the desk, his broad hands shifting exam papers this way and that. “As honourable? As civil? As respectful of tradition as they were a mere thirty –”

“As simple, Doctor,” I cut in, and let the shadows part around me. McClellan’s face went white. A faint, keening moan, one that could have been mistaken for the creaking of a window, escaped his throat as the Dutchman turned around. Van Helsing stared blankly for a second, and then his eyes widened.

“Professor Babbage!” He strode up the centre aisle, hand extended, stick trailing behind him. “Great heavens, Charles, you still call Cambridge home?” The bushy eyebrows narrowed. “News travels slowly to Amsterdam, but in twenty years, no new work of yours have I seen. Can you still be toiling at your Engines?”

I folded my arms over my chest, further rumpling my waistcoat; on the rare occasions that I showed myself, it often served me well to appear the frail old man. “McClellan. You may go.” He scrambled to his feet, collected his papers, affected a quick bow, and left. When the door shut, I turned back to Van Helsing. “You might say I’ve retired from the public eye,” I admitted. “But I’m always interested in a challenging problem.  Come, walk with me, and tell me about these data of yours.”

He followed me along the wood-panelled wall to the far corner, where dust and built-up floor wax betrayed footprints: mine. I ran my fingers along the wall moulding until they reached an impression in the wood, then pushed down. A section of the wall swung inward on silent hinges.

“Fascinating!” Van Helsing stepped into the narrow, branching corridor beyond. “Secret passages for the professors?” His voice rang tinny from the echo.

“Some,” I said, and followed him inside, pushing the wall shut behind me. From around the corner to the left came a scuttling noise; a moment later, a small conical shape, glinting brassy in the sputtering light from the gas-lamps that studded the walls, poked around the corner. Van Helsing gasped as the rest of it emerged: a skeletal, metallic rat, the size of a kitten, scurrying along the baseboard. It made to pass us, unaware of our presence. I caught it by its serpentine tail and let it dangle, legs still moving.

“What on earth?” Van Helsing cupped a hand under the creature’s rowing paws, stooped to examine it.

“An automaton,” I explained. “The first of a number I built, truth be told — no great function other than a curiosity, this one, but I keep him around for nostalgia’s sake. I call him Gerald.” So saying, I passed Van Helsing and continued down the passage. Some twenty feet down, a short metal stud, slotted like a skeleton key, projected from the wall just above the ground. I bent down and placed the mechanical rat on the floor, then slid it against the stud so that it socketed into a hole in the automaton’s shoulder. There was a click; the rat’s legs stopped, metal hissed against metal, and then another click. I pulled it away from the stud, and a few seconds later, it scampered along the tunnel before us and disappeared into shadow.

“But enough of my play-toys,” I said, rising to my feet. “Tell me of the conundrum troubling you.” The Dutchman fell in a half-step behind me, as if he were once more one of my students, and began his story while I led him through the maze, keeping an eye on him with the occasional backward glance.

“Easiest, perhaps it is, to characterise the matter at hand as one of aberrant psychology.” Van Helsing placed one hand behind his back, as if lecturing. “Criminal psychology, one might even say. An old student of mine did recently contact me; a dear friend of his, and more to the point, that friend’s fiancee, found themselves threatened by a most subtle and cunning individual who yet persists in his menace.”

“Have you informed Scotland Yard?” The corridor sloped downward, and we passed through a pointed stone archway into a deeper section of the labyrinth.

He shook his head. “Not yet.  It is only the deepest respect I have for the criminological minds of your country, but I fear they will fail to understand the — urgency, yes, that is best — of the situation or the nature of the threat. Nor, I think, will they the means to locate him possess. He has established for himself many hiding places throughout London, perhaps dozens of them; his quickest modes and routes of travel between them, what it would take many detectives to discover, I propose to calculate mathematically, then around him close the net, as it were.”

I nodded. “Indeed, my Engine can assist you in this. But what will you do once you have him?” By now it was easy to hear myriad clickings and scratchings ahead; my workshop wasn’t far. “By whose authority will you bring his depredations to an end?”

Van Helsing raised his eyes to the uneven rock ceiling above us. “The Lord God Himself.”

I couldn’t keep the sarcasm from creeping into my voice. “‘Thou shalt do no murder,’ Abraham.”

The barest shrug twitched across his shoulders. “There are many creatures, Herr Babbage, whom it is no murder to kill.”

At last we reached a heavy oak door set into a low brick archway. I took a key from my waistcoat pocket and unlocked it; a flap at the bottom rose just before I opened the door, and a rather larger rat set out on its rounds. “Mind your head,” I advised him, and led him past the staggered brick protrusions of the walls, into my workshop.

“Do they do anything besides following the walls?” he asked, stepping over the threshold and watching the rat disappear.

I shut the door behind us and turned all four locks. “Indeed. You saw the glass where the eyes would be?” He nodded. “Magnifying lenses. There’s a spiral canister in his back; every few steps as the mainspring unwinds, the canister advances and the light focuses on a strip of celluloid photographic film inside the cylinder. When he returns, I develop the film and view it through a projector, and know whether anyone has trespassed while I’m here.”

Van Helsing shook his head slowly. “You have developed some singular wonders, Charles. What else — Oh my.” His cane clattered to the flagstones. He’d seen the Analytical Engine.

Fifteen feet high it rose, in the centre of a vaulted chamber deep beneath the green fields and bustling halls of Cambridge — an intricate framework of gleaming levers, cams, pistons and gears, like the metal skeleton of some great prehistoric beast. Its “mouth” — a waist-high slot for the punched cards that made up the Engine’s diet — rested nearest us, and on the far end, some twenty feet away, it expelled its typewritten results on a roll of paper.

“I don’t like to consider which of my children I love best,” I remarked as he paced slack-jawed around the Engine, “but if I were forced to choose, I might well pick this one. Any arithmetical construction the human mind can devise, the Analytical Engine can solve. Summing the infinite series, permutations, combinations, powers, trigonometric functions, approximating the integral, alone or as an iterative sequence, in any order you prefer. There’s plenty of room for improvement, particularly in terms of speed, not to mention ease of input, but for the moment, it’s unequalled.”

Van Helsing stopped to observe the typewriting apparatus, lifted his head and squinted at me for a moment, then turned back to inspecting the machine.

“And I have discovered,” I continued, “that while there exist many problems whose solutions can be obtained swiftly through a certain degree of mathematical cleverness on the part of whoever constructs the procedure the Engine will follow, there are a particular set which cannot. They’re entirely non-optimisable; one has to generate possible solutions, usually by recursion, then test them by trial and error. The Engine can brute-force its way through much faster than a human, of course, but it’s as if these lemmata are utterly indifferent to our efforts to reduce them to a more intuitive form. That’s what I’ve termed them–indifferent problems.”

By this time he had rounded the bulk of the Engine and come to a stop a few feet behind me. For a moment there was silence–then I caught a flash of motion reflected off the metal. I spun, and Van Helsing dropped into a ready stance. One hand held his coat open; in the other was a sharpened wooden stake.

“You can’t possibly have meant that for me,” I said. There was no point trying to run; he was far younger and easily faster than I was, and I wouldn’t be able to open the locks before he pinned me down at the door. Every defence I had established relied on me being inside, and an intruder still out.

“No,” he said, “but it will do just as well for you as its intended target. Only one sort of creature fails to reflect in polished metal.” I glanced over my shoulder at the Engine; he was right. Accursed details.

I sighed and let my hands drop to my sides. “If it’s any consolation, I’ve already guessed who you’re looking for. I’m only too happy to help you track him down.”

“So then –” Apparently his mind hadn’t quite caught up with me yet. “You did die in 1871, as I thought. Only no true death was it — you joined the UnDead.”

“Against my will, I assure you,” I cut in. “As I’m sure must have been the case with your former patient, Miss Westenra. And whoever it is you’re trying to protect now.”

That caught him off guard; the tip of the stake wavered, and he took a step back.

“Pure logic, Doctor.” I strolled over to the Engine and busied myself brushing traces of dust off its brass cylinders. “I was as curious about the ‘bloofer lady’ as any red-blooded, newspaper-reading Englishman. I knew she could not have been made by the same vampire who turned me, as that one is long gone. Thus, there must be some other vampire in London–one with no compunctions about preying on the human population. And that must be the one you mean to hunt down and destroy.”

He reoriented himself to face me. “You have rebuilt your powers of reason to an admirable degree in the last twenty years, Dr. Babbage,” he remarked. “It had been my experience that when creatures such as yourself reawakened, they did so with a child’s faculties.”

I edged back, deeper into the layers of shadow that the lights behind the Engine cast through its mechanisms. “That is indeed the case for those UnDead who choose to embrace their unnatural powers. They become far more formidable, but far more animalistic at the same time. Every ability they acquire, they gain at the price of some of their reason.” Alas, the damned Dutchman kept alongside me, refusing to let me slip out of sight and into tenebrous safety.

“And how much logic have you given up, Charles?” His voice rang with both understanding and disapproval.

He had me, just as I’d suspected. I’d told him I’d help him, so I couldn’t barter my life for my assistance; the only bargaining chip I had left was the one he wanted anyway.

“Enough to safeguard my own security,” I admitted. “But not so much as to hamper my work with the Engine. I can certainly tutor you in its usage.” I paused to let him consider that, then added, “In fact, I’m the only one who can.”

Van Helsing thrust the stake back into his coat, took up his stick, and advanced on the Analytical Engine, grasping the cane like a tool. Although my heart no longer beat, I still felt my chest tighten as he inspected the workings of the machine. I had always been the master and still counted myself so, but he had been one of my brightest students. Everything hinged, now, on whether he had caught up in the intervening years, or whether the gap between us remained broad enough for him to still need me.

“Did you incorporate the input mechanism that Miss Lovelace devised?” he enquired, in a voice so bland I had to wonder whether it was deliberate cruelty. It was all I could do to nod. He touched the tip of the stick to the floor and rested both hands atop it. “I am sorry, Professor. I had heard of her passing.  I did not know the memory of it yet pained.”

Again I nodded, still mute. He couldn’t have known how much, or why.

He cocked his head to the left; one caterpillar-like eyebrow rose. “Quite a puzzle.  I had thought your kind as bereft of emotion as you are of our Lord’s grace.”

I couldn’t suppress the disgusted growl that welled up from my throat. “Not that I ever wanted the latter to begin with,” I muttered. “And let’s not have that argument again.”  I crossed my arms once more, lowered my head, and glared at him. “I’ve said I’ll help you with the Engine, Professor Van Helsing. Shall we set to work, or must we continue to bandy words?”

A cunning smile crept onto his face. “There is more yet you can do for me,” he said.  “I want you to observe my patient.”

“I’m no doctor.”

“But you are a vampire, and thus better equipped to gauge his condition — determine how advanced his subjugation to his dark lord.”  He brushed his fingertips over the pocket that hid the stake.

My hunched shoulders dropped.  “You want me to leave here?”

The smile broadened.  “Not at all, Charles.  I insist you do.”

I shook my head, and let my hands fall to my sides.  “All right.  I’ll need you to turn away for a moment, though.”

He pursed his lips, suspicious.  “And have you disappear?”

“Well, yes,” I admitted.  “But only to accompany you.  It’s not as if I can hide from you — you know where I live.” At that, he nodded and turned on one heel. I closed my eyes and melted back into the shadows; when he faced the Engine again, I flitted through its shadow, a deeper shade within the gloom, and merged with the silhouette he himself cast. He startled back and whipped around, brandishing the cane.

“Calm down,” I whispered; he paused, glancing back and forth. “Now I can travel with you, and your patient needn’t know I’m about. I’ll talk you through the tunnels; you know your way from there?”

He turned back toward the door; now I could see his face, which bore a diminishing trace of disbelief. “I have a return ticket for the train to London. We should arrive early this evening, and can observe the patient tonight.”

If shadows could sigh, I would have. “Then I’ll be trapped next to you until we return. Or sundown, whichever comes first.”

His low chuckle echoed from the dusty corners of my workshop. “As the saying goes, Professor Babbage — keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.”

A few hours later, Van Helsing and I arrived in London. At the station, he was met by a gentleman who, over the course of their conversation, I determined must have been another doctor, the keeper of a lunatic asylum; and a woman, delicately built, but with bright, inquisitive eyes. The doctor conducted us all to a coach. As they drove along, they fell to discussing one Mr. Renfield, who I concluded was an inmate at Dr. Seward’s institution and the patient Van Helsing wanted me to observe. The woman, one Mrs. Harker, spoke frankly and incisively; she described details of the patient’s behaviour with the sort of precision I would have expected from a naturalist thrice her age. I found myself delighted simply to listen to her clear enthusiasm for the analysis of the problem.

Just before we reached our destination, Mrs. Harker provided Van Helsing with a document which, she explained, described more fully her interactions that day with Renfield. I shifted myself into the shadow he cast on the paper, and read along with him. As he finished, he said, “It need not go into the record if you do not wish it, but I pray that it may. It can but make your husband love you the more, and all us, your friends, more honour you, as well as more esteem and love.”

We all disembarked at Dr. Seward’s residence, and Van Helsing betook himself to a small but cosy room which had been prepared for him. He shrugged off his coat and draped it over an armchair next to a grate, which already had a fire going. A white porcelain teapot, trickling steam, rested on a tray atop an embroidered ottoman nearby. Van Helsing returned to the door, peered out for a moment, and proffered a smile to a housemaid who walked by, bearing a similar tray, no doubt to another one of Seward’s houseguests.

When he shut the door behind him, I spoke again. “There’s no call for you to patronise her so.”

He glared down at the darker patch in his shadow that I occupied. “Whatever do you mean?”

I extended a pair of dim tendrils, the better to gesture with.  “The way you spoke right in front of her — all that ‘fortune has made that woman of help to us’ business.  Fortune hasn’t a thing to do with it.  I’ve known renowned professors who can’t write that clearly or analytically. If she’s kept records since the beginning of Miss Westenra’s troubles, then your men are fools who don’t deserve her. You should get on your knees and beg for her continued assistance, not prate about esteem and love.”

Van Helsing snorted, stomped across the room, and set down the bag he had brought from the carriage. “She has perhaps the intellect, but never the courage. No woman could.”

“Progressive of you to notice the one, but why ignore the other? Besides, your conjecture fails by counterexample,” I snapped, lashing furiously and wishing only to exist in more than two dimensions at that moment. “Ada did. And her case gives all the more reason to employ Mrs. Harker’s aid.”

He removed from his bag the sheaf of papers Dr. Seward had provided him and stalked over to sit in the armchair. “Your logic escapes me, Babbage.”

I twined the tendrils I’d made together, drawing his attention to the motion. “Miss Lovelace succumbed to a mysterious wasting illness almost thirty-nine years ago. No doctors could aid her; she weakened daily before my eyes, and when she expired I thought her suffering had ended. A few weeks after that, she came back.”

I confess no small bit of schadenfreude at Van Helsing’s gasp.

“And thus you may deduce how I came to be this way,” I continued. “I saw Ada Lovelace die, I saw her return, I saw her draw the blood from my veins and pull me back from the brink of the grave into the death which lingers on, and I watched her shining intellect descend into the animal state of mind even as her eldritch powers grew. I outmaneuvered her, I destroyed her, and I should not like to see that happen to another human being, even if it were too late for myself.”

Van Helsing rested his elbows on the armrests, folded his hands, and harrumphed. “You speak as if Mrs. Mina is the target of this beast even now.”

My shadow-form drifted back and forth in the flickering firelight. “I would keep a close eye on Mrs. Harker — very close indeed. If she’s met your patient, then I’ll wager the monster at his throat has a good idea of her intellect — and he will not dismiss her so lightly.”

He paged through the papers, staring pointedly at them alone. “And precisely that is why I wish to insulate her from the hunt which is to come. My companions and I are to meet shortly, though, and I must prepare.”

I twined my way through the wavering shadows that played upon the floor, then up the wall, where I resumed a man’s silhouette. “Work out the procedure by which you mean to predict your vampire’s steps, and come to Cambridge when you’re ready. I’ll be there.”

He slapped the papers down against his knee. “And where do you think you go?”

I flitted into the dim corner of the ceiling, then over to the window. “Cambridge. It’s dark enough now, and where the streetlamps fail, the moon will suffice.”

He stood up so quickly that he knocked the chair backwards. “And what of Renfield?”

I forced a gap into my silhouette to approximate a crooked grin. “Look to those you can help, Abraham. You believe me beyond salvation, not least because I do not want it.  Judging from Mrs. Harker’s account, Mr. Renfield desires it even less than I do.” With that, I slipped through the crevice of the windowpane, and began the long road of darting from one shadow to another, all the way back to Cambridge.

Two nights later, I found myself struggling with a particularly thorny proof, and decided it best to go for a walk alongside Gerald. We paced for nearly an hour through the dim coolness of the tunnels, the only sounds the dripping of water and the click of his claws on stone. As we approached the lecture halls, though, there came a muffled shouting. One of the voices was indistinct, but the other was quite clearly that of Van Helsing. I touched the hidden switch to spring open the wall panel; it swivelled toward me to reveal Van Helsing and McClellan in the midst of a scuffle.

“James!” I stepped forward just as Van Helsing managed to thrust McClellan away. “Explain yourself.”

McClellan let out an indignant gasp and staggered forward, arms waving for balance. He straightened, tugged at the cuffs of his jacket, and coughed. “I’m sorry, sir. He rushed in ranting about the Engine, and started poking round the wainscoting. I told him the department was closed –”

I cut him off with a wave. “I’ve shown him how to get in. Really, James, I thought you knew how to treat guests.”

McClellan reached forward, as if to draw the panel shut. “I do apologise, sir. It is quite late, though, and I thought…” I glared at his furtive movement and cleared my throat; he froze.

“And we may be up later still.” I motioned the Dutchman forward. “Step aside, James; we have work to do.”

“Do as your master says,” Van Helsing put in as he moved past McClellan. A brief, perplexed look crossed McClellan’s face, and he ducked away even before I could close the panel.

I turned to Van Helsing, about to ask him what had brought him out at this hour, but he took me by the shoulders and shook his head vigorously. “Not here,” he whispered. “Too many ears.” With that, he took off down the tunnel, with me at his heels. I expected to have to guide him, but he remembered every twist and turn of the passages, even in the treacherous half-light. Even at the workshop door he did not stop; he paced back and forth as I undid the locks, and dashed inside the moment the door was ajar.

The thud when it swung shut unlocked his lips, releasing something I had hardly expected to hear: “You were right.” He strode over to the Engine’s input tray, head down like a bull about to charge. “I must know how to instruct it, now. Right now!” A stack of cards, blank and ready to be punched, sat next to the tray; he picked them up and riffled through them, as if he expected to derive the Engine’s language from their size and shape alone. “Quickly, quickly, how does it work?”

I caught the other end of the cards in his hand as he gesticulated with them. “First things first. What’s happened?”

He tugged them away and waved off to the southeast. “Miss Mina! The vampire — he has found her, made to call her to him. You were right, and our time, now she is that much shorter. I must track down the Count and make the move before she is gone entirely.”

The chance to gloat was there, but the timing was far from opportune. Inwardly I cursed myself for not having already lent thought to Van Helsing’s challenge; if UnDeath claimed yet another brilliant light, it was now my fault as well. “You’re trying to jump straight to the goal, and we must progress one step at a time,” I explained, endeavouring to appeal to logic over panic. “Next:  Define the problem.”

He took a deep breath. “I have a list of locations and a London map. The vampire, he keeps sanctuary at each place. To drive him into the open, we must destroy his havens with all speed — we must find the shortest path from one to another, to destroy them before he find us.”

I put up a hand when he tried to continue. “That will do. Next we define the procedure. At the desk are paper and pencil; you will sit and determine the steps to calculate this route. I suggest you create a Cartesian graph, with each intersection and location a point, then devise a process to test routes going through your set of locations. You might begin with a recursive procedure, and determine how to pare it down before we start the computation.”

He opened his mouth and started to raise his hands to gesture again, but I stopped him once more. “In the meantime, I shall prepare the Engine and analyse the problem myself — and then we shall find your answer. That’s the procedure. Are you ready?”

He pursed his lips, nodded, and we set to work.

By my reckoning it was near midnight when a cry escaped Van Helsing’s lips. He split the pencil in two and cast the halves clattering away, shouting, “He taunts us with the impossible!”

I had taken up repose in one of the dimmer corners, where those rats not traversing the corridors waited after being rewound. “Talk it out, then,” I called. “What thwarts you?”

“This problem — he could take years to solve by this method, yet I see nothing else. Every time I set up a linear method or a loop-method, I can construct a counterexample where the recursion finds a shorter path — and for any number of locations, there must be two to the power of that many recursions to attempt.” He slid down from the chair and sent the scrawled-upon papers flying off the desk with a great sweep of his arm. With one hand he clutched his hair and pressed his wrist to his forehead; the other beat the still air as he cursed and wailed. “There will not be enough time. She is damned, Charles, damned as you are, and I am damned too, for I cannot save her.” He grasped one of the Engine’s supports and shook it, rattling the whole structure. “Why? Why does the God above give men wonders like these, then render them useless?”

I had listened to his outburst as patiently as I could, but that was enough. I picked up Gerald, pressed his socket to a stud which would set him trundling back and forth across the floor, and stalked over to Van Helsing with the mechanical rat just behind. “There is no God, Abraham. Or if there is, He is the greatest deceiver of all, and His greatest deceit the myth that we were made in His image. Nothing like us could ever have been made by a thing like us. Our creations cannot grow beyond what they already are — like poor Gerald here, perfect in what he is, doomed never to be more than that. We’ll never be perfect, Abraham. We’ll always improve, even knowing no optimal solution exists.

“It’s an indifferent problem. Resign yourself to it. So are you.”

Gerald reached the other wall, bumped into it, tottered out a half-circle, and began the trek to the other side of the room.

Van Helsing folded his arms and stood rock-still. “You’ve become quite the blasphemer since you died, Charles.”

“But a blasphemer who finds answers. Give me that algorithm and your list. As long as — as long as Mina lives, this wonder has time to do its work.” He sorted through the scattered pages, and I snatched the important ones before his hands had time to warm them. I rushed to the Engine, took up a stylus, and began furiously punching cards, refusing to look Van Helsing in the face.

I had almost blurted out “Ada.”

As the hour wore on, Van Helsing compared every new route to the best of the previous solutions. At six he resolved to accept the victor thus far, and nothing I said could dissuade him.

“There is time for thought, Charles, and time for action,” he declaimed, holding the workshop door half-open. “Some are men of one or the other, but I am both, and now I act with shrewd thought behind me.”

I couldn’t keep a smirk from my face, but I managed to half-conceal it behind my side of the door. “Not to belittle you, but if I had to act at a time like this, I’d much rather do it with men of action behind me.”

He frowned and glanced down, shaking his head. “Not if I can help it. Miss Mina has valiant friends on her side, but the less danger for all of them, the better.”

That brought out a half-chuckle, half-snort. “I can’t say I understand you. But Abraham –” I clasped his forearm with one cold hand, startling him into looking up. “If she’s anything at all like what I’ve seen, then go and save her for my sake. And for Ada’s.”

He straightened and struck the doorframe a blow with the palm of one hand. “Indeed. I must be off, Charles. God’s blessing on you — and if you will not take His, take mine.” I opened my mouth, hoping a rebuke would spring to my lips, but before one presented itself, he was gone, the Engine’s typewriter still chattering away.

I held the door open for some time afterward, contemplating whether to follow him. All his odious proselytising aside, I had forgotten how much I enjoyed the companionship of another keen mind. Seward, too, had quite the acute wit, not to mention the incomparable Mina, and no doubt Van Helsing’s other comrades kept to the same standard. For a moment, I imagined myself amid them, sharing in their familiarity and intellectual camaraderie; and then the fantasy faded. Van Helsing had what he had come for. Pressing the association further would only tempt fate. Mina would live, and I would go on, content in the knowledge that I had done right.

My poor workshop had never looked shabbier — a filthy snowstorm of paper smeared with ink and graphite. How could I tell which papers to keep if I were to prove formally the indifference of Van Helsing’s travelling problem, and which to feed the furnace with? I tossed my hands in the air and headed for the door; easier just to start over in my head, and leave the organising for another day.

Had I reached some other conclusion, I might have had the good fortune, seven hours later, to miss Van Helsing tearing into the foyer, sweat-soaked, wild-eyed and crying out for sanctuary.

“The sub-optimal solution indeed, Charles,” he gasped, clutching at the staircase railing just inside the central hallway, while I kept well out of the sunlight. “I found the first two hide-outs as we planned — both locked. One of the creature’s servants called out a warning as I left the second — and when the next I reach, there they wait for me! So I flee, as fast as Lord Godalming’s good carriage-horses will carry me.” He cast a backward glance toward the courtyard. I could have throttled him.

“So you led them here?” I squinted against the sunlight, so bright it made my retinas ache. “Have you no sanctuary in London? What of your oh-so-stout friends there? Why me?”

He stared at me as if I were the madman. “And lead that beast straight to Miss Mina? It is bad enough the vampire know where she take refuge. His servant is at least still mortal, if no more quite human.”

I groaned aloud and took him by the wrist. “That’s enough,” I muttered, and set off, leading him. “Into the tunnels, now, before whatever-it-is sees us blathering here.”

We were almost at the doors to the lecture hall when a crash of splintering wood and shattering glass resounded down the corridor, followed close on by rapid, heavy footsteps. I tightened my grip on Van Helsing’s arm — would he dissolve into another panic? — but he charged ahead, breaking my hold, and found the secret latch on his own this time. We slipped into the tunnel and rolled the panel closed as the footsteps drew closer — two sets, it seemed, so either there were two intruders, or McClellan was on his heels. I put a finger to my lips, eyeing Van Helsing; better to stay silent and not give away our position.

“Where is he?” came a booming bass from the other side of the wall. I watched Van Helsing’s chest rise and fall in quick succession; otherwise, he stood frozen but taut as unseen hands scratched and fidgeted at the panel.

“There’s a latch here somewhere,” answered a Scots-accented voice, and had I still possessed a beating heart, it would have burst from shock then and there.

“Run, you fool!” I gasped, and dashed past him into the darkness while McClellan and some unseen thing shivered the walls with their pounding.

We ran. Oh, yes, we ran, as I never ran while I was alive and never have since. Vampirism whittles away logic, but panic destroys it; had I been at all in command of my faculties, I would have faded into the shadows and left Van Helsing to his fate, but terror had me firmly in its grasp. Another splintering crash echoed through the tunnel, followed by that first voice — “Keep up, or your new master will deal with you!” — and McClellan’s unmistakable wheezing. I bolted like a rabbit and ducked into a blind alcove. Van Helsing raced past and snatched at my sleeve, pulling me along. I dared a quick look over my shoulder, and caught a glimpse of the intruder: a bull-necked brute of a man, some dockworker or steel-driver, serving the Count as McClellan served me. Had served me, once.

“Keep going, Charles!” Van Helsing urged, and so we stumbled together the rest of the way to the workshop. One by one, I fumbled the locks open, trying to force my hands to stop trembling. He shoved me aside, sending me to the floor, slammed the door shut and drove the bolts home.

“How long can it hold?” he demanded. I started to tell him I didn’t know, just as the first impact rattled the oak and iron. Van Helsing sprang into motion, going straight for the pile of metal debris at the rear of the workshop. “Those hinges will go first,” he observed, lifting a discarded brass bar like a cudgel. I took the opportunity where I saw it — a moment’s pause and the defences I already had in place worked wonders for my state of mind — and became a shadow on the wall.

He was right about the hinges. With every blow, the iron nails worked their way a little farther out of the stone wall. Before long, the door was visibly loose. The Count’s henchman let out a triumphant chortle.

Not even McClellan knew of my plans for just such a situation.

With one last blow, the spikes holding the hinges pulled free. The door crashed to the ground, trailing thin wires that I’d threaded through holes drilled in the nails. The low thrum of enormous cogs grinding filled the chamber as those hidden wires in the brickwork tripped the switches of the six spike-studded, Mastiff-sized rats I’d hidden in false walls, all aimed to converge on the entrance.

Their mainsprings twisted, crown-gears spun and extra limbs flailed, flashing bright steel claws that scissored for purchase on the two men trapped in the doorway. The Count’s servitor struck fiercely about himself, but with every punch his hands came back bloodier. Snarling, the man aimed a booted kick at one of the rats, and swept it onto its side, still thrashing. Another rat surged forward and slammed McClellan into him, driving the man forward; he spun, shouting incoherently, and shoved McClellan onto the spiked collar of the rearmost rat.

The Scotsman sucked in a long, gasping breath that trailed off into a weak bubbling. Red froth welled up from his nose and mouth. He fell forward, and the Count’s man yanked him free amid wild slashing. The man turned to meet another charge from a rat, and knocked it askew using McClellan’s lifeless body. He let out another merciless laugh, though he was fairly bathed in blood, and laid about with McClellan as human shield and weapon both.

“Not so fast!” Van Helsing cried, and charged for the rear of the workshop. He seized one of the dormant smaller rats, forced it onto the back-and-forth stud, and sent it into the fray.

Shadows cannot scream. By the time I had shifted back and shouted for him to stop, Van Helsing had dispatched nearly three-quarters of my clockwork menagerie, menials and toys the lot of them. The screech of metal driven against stone filled my ears, and I could only watch, helpless to save any of them, as the Count’s man battered away. A vicious kick cleaved a cleaning-rat through the middle and sent both halves smashing into the wall. He dandled McClellan about like a grotesque infant, smashing delicate mechanisms with his dead weight and leaving twisted scraps of metal behind. The guard rats only added to the carnage; their blind, unthinking blades bit into the fragile bodies of their brethren just as ardently as they did the intruder’s.

At last, though, the deluge proved too much. His body sagged; he let the corpse tumble; the end came not long after. The slicing and clicking went on a while longer, but soon the mainsprings wore down. My knees buckled, and I fell to the floor, numb.

After a few minutes, Van Helsing’s chuckle broke the silence. “You see, Charles,” he remarked in the most insufferable tone I had ever heard. “You see what a wise Creator can do, even with creations that are limited to what they are.”

“Only to see his creations ruined by presumptuous men,” I snapped back, and stumbled forward on hands and knees to sort through the wreckage. Here were splinters of glass from the photographic rat’s eyes; there, long brush whiskers from the rats who dusted the floor; everywhere, hundreds of unidentifiable broken gears and pinions; and crushed beneath the hobnailed boot of the Count’s man, a too-familiar serpentine tail. I shoved the boot away, and the tail came loose. The rest of Gerald’s frame lay unmoving, a twisted ruin.

“Think of it this way,” Van Helsing said, coming up on the heap. “Even the smallest of the small has served his purpose.”

“He was useless,” I growled, refusing to look up at him. “Useless to everyone but me.”

Van Helsing brushed some of the debris aside with one foot. “But now Miss Mina, she is that much closer to safety.”

I lifted my head and glared. “Never say that name to me again. You’ve done your work. Now get out of here. You may not find me so logical if our paths ever cross again.”

He said not a word; just stood there, motionless, for a moment that threatened never to end. It did, though, as time mercifully does, and I did not watch him cross the threshold and disappear into the depths of the maze.

That was the last I saw of Van Helsing. I imagine he defeated the Count at last — in any case, all evidence suggests the Count left England for good — though I wonder sometimes if Abraham ever prevailed over his quaint theistic notions. Nor do I know what happened to Mina, whether she found an opportunity to hone and use that keen mind or merely slipped into domestic obscurity.

I would say it matters not, given that the grave has long since claimed them, but it must matter. If they gave up, then all that I fought for, all that my children died for, means nothing, and I shall not have that. So long as they maintained their brilliance, I cannot believe they are any the less for having come to an end. Indeed, all the ideal processes must halt at some point.

Am I sub-optimal, then, in that I go on and on? So be it. I still believe what I told Van Helsing, and I do not fear imperfection. My perfect children were stagnant and dead long before they went to their graves; I understand that now. So I embrace my indifference; and my last surviving child, the Engine, reflects it, even if it does not reflect me.

About Meredith L. Patterson
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2 Responses to The Indifference Engine

  1. Brian Merta says:

    So glad you’re not dead yet, but maybe you SHOULD be just resting.

    Beautiful plumage, this one…


  2. Brian Merta says:

    PS. Now that you’ve learned Dutch, I recommend the folk-metal band Heidevolk.


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