The engine’s gears rattled around me, spindles turning and ratchets clattering. The finest calculating machine in the capital, it should have been an honour to examine it. But this was the creation of Miss Honoria Venk, a source of deep frustration.
By the light of a narrow beamed lantern, I reached through the equation racks, three tiny wedges of magnetised metal between my fingers. I attached them to the third gearwheel down, filling spaces between its teeth. That would throw out the digits and accelerate the calculations, along with hundreds of other minute changes I had made over the past hour. The coins glued to axle seventeen would stop the machine at my chosen point. One adjustment remained.
I crept towards the central hub, contemplating the decade of bitter professional rivalry that had led to this. It was indignity enough that I had not been chosen the construct the City Exchange’s difference engine. But that the job should be given to Miss Venk…
My feelings had reached the point of vexatious. This had to end.
A row of balance levers sat atop the brass machinery of the hub, the baseline for all of its calculations. From inside my tailcoat I drew one of the short, sharp-teethed hacksaws from which difference engine saboteurs took their name. Balancing on a steaming pipe, I reached out towards one of the levers.
I was halfway through cutting when the heat from the pipe became unbearable. On instinct I yanked my foot away. The hacksaw tumbled from my hand into the depths of the machine, and my cuff caught on one of the great gears. My other foot, now bearing all my weight and all the heat, began to burn with pain.
Heart hammering like a steam train, I reached through the gap, desperately trying to grasp the hacksaw. My fingers merely brushed against its teeth, blood running from the tips. I ground my jaw, trying to ignore the pain in my foot and the gears dragging my arm around. Grabbing the end of the half cut lever, I finally gave in and jumped off the pipe.
There was a groan and then a snap. The cuff of my coat gave way with a loud rip, and three pearl buttons disappeared into the depths of the machine. As I crashed to the floor, half a lever in my hand, my lantern smashed, split oil bursting into flames.
Wrenching off my coat, I frantically beat out the fire. If I burnt this place down then Miss Venk’s would never see the results of my cunning.
Plunged into darkness, I slid back into my coat and fumbled around until I found the handle of the main door. The tone of the engine was changing around me.
Favouring my unburned foot, I entered the service corridor and closed the door behind me. A minute later I was walking out of the Exchange’s main hall. Even with my bleeding fingers hidden in my pocket, I drew several curious stares with my torn sleeve, my limp and the smell of smoke. I tried to avoid catching anyone’s eye, fearful of bursting into excited laughter at it all.
At last I reached the main doors. It was almost noon and, as always, Miss Venk stood in the middle of the square outside. Today she wore a green dress that complemented the blonde of her hair. In one lace gloved hand she held a pocket watch.
“Mr Chandler.” Her lip curled as I approached. “Never a pleasure.”
“Miss Venk.” I gave the smallest of bows, still trying to stifle my excitement. “Come to check on your machine?”
We both glanced up at the clock on the front of the hall, comparing the time as calculated by the difference engine with that showing on her watch. The two were in perfect accord.
“A craftswoman never neglects her-” She froze as the clock’s minute hand took a step back, and then another. It accelerated in its backwards sweep, taking the hour hand with it, and then the date shown on shutters beneath the clock. Days rolled back faster and faster, then weeks, months, years. Soon nearly a decade had been erased from the clock’s count, and suddenly its hands froze in place.
“You did this!” Miss Venk turned a look of absolute hatred upon me. But my course was now set upon a track as unalterable as that of an express train. “I shall have you arrested. Police! Police!”
“Miss Venk.” I held up my hand and she stared in bewilderment at the blood upon it. “Do you not recognise the hour struck?”
She looked up at the clock, then back at me. Her eyes flickered, as they always did when she was calculating.
“Was that when we met?” she asked.
“Miss Venk, you are the most exasperating woman I have ever known,” I said. “And the most extraordinary. I have long wished that I could turn back the years to our first encounter, so that I might have the time over again from a more favourable beginning. This was as close as I could get.”
“You colossal ass,” she said. “You ruined my finest work for what – some mad love note?”
I shrugged. “I am not good with words. Machines are my only medium.”
A policeman approached.
“Do you need help, ma’am?” he asked, looking at my dishevelled appearance with deepest suspicion.
Miss Venk hesitated, then shook her head.
“No, officer, and I am afraid I must be going. I have a machine to mend.” As she strode away she turned back once to point at me. “Next time just bring flowers. If you touch my machine again I will end you.”
“She said next time.” I scratched my head and turned to look at the baffled policeman. “Does that mean it worked?”
* * *
The idea for this story came from Dan Aitken, who suggested the idea of a difference engine hacker, and how that might work. Thanks Dan! If anyone else has a story idea then leave it in the comments.
I have finally collected together my flash stories up to the end of 2015 in a Kindle e-book. A Mosaic of Stars is available now for pre-order and will be out next Thursday, 3 March. If you enjoyed this story and want more like it, or fancy having a bunch of these stories together in a single handy collection, then why not order a copy? It’s only 99c for the first week – not bad for 59 stories, even if I do say so myself.