In the Country of the Blindby Michael Flynn
Set primarily in the present, with tantalizing flashbacks to the 1800s, In the Country of the Blind concerns a small group of American idealists who managed to actually build the Analytical Engine designed by Charles Babbage and then used it to develop cliology: mathemathical models that could chart the likely course of the future. When their calculations predicted a… See more details below
Set primarily in the present, with tantalizing flashbacks to the 1800s, In the Country of the Blind concerns a small group of American idealists who managed to actually build the Analytical Engine designed by Charles Babbage and then used it to develop cliology: mathemathical models that could chart the likely course of the future. When their calculations predicted a united Germany armed with unimaginably powerful bombs by 1939, the Charles Babbage Society kept it from ever happening. Soon they were working to alter history's course to their own liking in other ways. By our own time, the Society has become the secret master of the world. But no secret can be kept forever, at least not without drastic measures. When her plans for some historic real estate lead developer and ex-reporter Sarah Beaumont to stumble across the Society's existence, it is just the first step into a baffling and deadly maze of conspiracies.
"Fine speculative science fiction and a suspenseful thriller. It will pull you in, and , more importantly, it will make you think."Aboriginal SF
- Tom Doherty Associates
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In the Country of the Blind
By Flynn, Michael
Tor Science FictionCopyright © 2003 Flynn, Michael
All right reserved.
The window was too damned dirty to look through. Sarah Beaumont glanced around the empty room and saw a rag in a corner. It was probably just as filthy as everything else in the old house. There were mouse droppings scattered about, cobwebs, fragments of plaster. In places, the ribs of the walls showed through the broken plaster. With a sigh of disgust, she walked over and picked up the rag and shook it. A spider crawled out, and she watched it go its way.
"How long has this house been vacant?" she asked.
"Five, six years." That was Dennis French, her architect. He was rapping on the walls, looking for the supporting beams. He paused and studied the door frame; ran his fingers over the miter joints and nodded in approval. "Good, solid work, though. They sure knew how to build back then."
"The good old days," said Sarah absently. "When women knew their place."
Dennis looked at her. "They still do," he said. "Just more places, is all."
She laughed. Returning to the window, she ran the rag over it. The grime was stubborn. It had had years in which to settle in. She managed to clear a circle in the middle of the pane and peered out at Emerson Street. "Can we refurbish the place? Bring it up to Code and all. That's what I need to know. This neighborhood's going to be the next to boom, and I want to be here first." She had been lategetting in on Larimer and Auraria. She was going to be first here, by God. Let the other developers follow her for a change.
She could look straight across the street at the second-floor windows there. Those houses had been built on the same basic plan as this one. Onetime mansions turned rental apartments. A man stood in one of the windows, stripped to the waist, drinking something out of a can. He saw her looking and waved an invitation.
She ignored him and craned her neck to the left, pressing her cheek against the glass. She could just make out the dome of the state capitol, gleaming gold in the afternoon sun. The downtown skyscrapers, though, blocked her view of the mountains. She watched the traffic at the corner, counting cars-per-minute.
When she stood away from the window and clapped the dust from her hands, Dennis had already left the room. She could hear him tapping away down the hall.
"How does it look?" she called. She found her clipboard and jotted a few notes.
"Utilities look good," she heard him answer. "No computer ports, naturally; but we can put those in when we upgrade the rest of the wiring. Sixty-four-kilobyte ISDN channels."
She followed his voice down the hall and found him in one of the other bedrooms. He was poking at a hole in the wall. "There's still piping in the walls for the old gas mantles." He looked at her and shook his head. "This must have been a swank place a hundred years ago, before they messed it up. There's a servants' stairwell down the end of the hall." He pointed vaguely.
"I've got a list of previous owners at home," she told him. "One of the old-time silver barons built the place, but the Panic came along a few years later and he had to sell out."
"Easy come, easy go."
"You're right about the workmanship. If I could find the sonofabitch who painted over the parquet flooring on the main staircase..." She loved good workmanship, and that staircase had been the handiwork of a master joiner.
Dennis nodded. "I know what you mean. When they made this place into a boardinghouse and subdivided the rooms, they paneled right over the original walls. Can you imagine that? You should see the wainscoting! Here."
He pulled on a section of drywall and it came away. Bits of plaster and gypsum fell to the floor, along with some nails and loose scraps of paper. The original wall behind it was in bad shape. The wainscoting was partially destroyed and there were holes in the plaster, but Sarah could imagine what it must have looked like when it had been new.
The papers on the floor caught her eye. A yellowed newspaper clipping. She picked it up and found a torn sheet of foolscap held to it by a rusty staple.
"What are those?" asked Dennis, brushing his hands and standing up.
"A list of dates. Looks like someone's crib notes for a history test and..." She read the headline on the clipping. "An 1892 story from the old Denver Express." She handed the foolscap to Dennis and read through the rest of the news story. "A gunfight," she told him. "Two cowboys on Larimer Street. Neither one was scratched, but a bystander was killed. An old man named Brady Quinn."
She frowned. Quinn? She had seen that name recently. But where? It nibbled at the edge of her memory. Well, never mind. It would come back to her eventually.
"Odd sort of crib notes."
"Hmm?" She glanced at Dennis, who was scowling over the foolscap. "What do you mean?"
"Well, the entries here are in two different handwritings, for one thing. The earlier items are in the old Spencerian style."
"Someone started the list," said Sarah. "Then someone else continued it."
"And this, up at the top. What does it say? Biological? Diological?"
She glanced where he pointed. "Cliological. Cliological something. It's smudged. I can't make it out."
"That's a big help. What's 'cliological'?"
She shrugged. "Beats me. I never heard the word before."
"And the mixtuer of entries is odd, too. Famous events and obscure events all jumbled together. How does the nomination of Franklin Pierce, or the election of Rutherford Hayes, or Winfield Scott's military appointments belong on the same list as the election of Abraham Lincoln or his assassination, or the sinking of the Lusitania? Or...Hello!"
"What?" She moved behind him and read over his shoulder. He pointed. "'Brady Quinn murdered,'" she read.
"Yep, your friend Quinn is right in there with Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt. And with von Kluck's Turn, whatever that was. Nineteen-fourteen. Must have been World War One."
"No kidding. And 'Frederick W. Taylor, fl. ca. 1900.' Who was he?"
Dennis shook his head. "There are a half dozen entries here that I never heard of."
"Well, that's modern education for you. They don't teach things anymore that our great-great-grandparents took for granted." She tapped Dewey's name on the list with her fingernail. "I think it started with Thomas Dewey's whole-word method of reading. English isn't Chinese and you can't teach it that way. No wonder half the kids in this country grow up functionally illiterate. Some of my own teachers were damn near illiterate themselves."
"I'll bet they all had education degrees, though."
"Which meant they knew all there was to know about teaching, except the subject."
"When I was in graduate school," Dennis remembered, "the education prof across the hall from us told me that that wasn't important." She looked at him and he shrugged. "True story."
"That's the way folks are. 'If'n I don't know about it, it ain't important.' Ask any engineer about writing sonnets, or ask any poet about stress and shear."
Dennis chuckled and pointed to the list. "Or ask any architect about factor analysis. There's a note at the bottom, where it's torn. 'Try orthogonal factor analysis...'"
"Orthogonal factor analysis? It's a statistical method they use to define socioeconomic groups. Each group is defined by a cluster of mutually correlated traits. I think they use it in physical anthropology, too."
Dennis raised one eyebrow and looked at her. "How'd you get to be so smart?"
She stopped and looked at him. "Because I wouldn't let them cheat me!" she snapped. "I've had to fight for everything I've ever had. Because of my sex. Because of my color. I wouldn't accept a second-rate education!"
The architect held his hands up. "I didn't mean to sound patronizing," he said. "Christ, you know me, Sarah. I had...Well, not the same problems, obviously; but at prep school, they didn't expect the idle rich to want to tackle anything 'hard.'"
"Yeah, I know," she answered. "It ain't yo' fault yo' was bo'n white 'n' rich."
"Hey, I said I was sorry. It's just that you seem to know more things about more things than anybody else I've ever met."
"Jack-of-all-trades, master of none," she grunted. "You're right. I'm sorry I took it the wrong way, but I decided a long time ago I would never apologize for knowing something." She turned away from him. "I guess I just have a bump for curiosity."
But it hadn't always been that way, she remembered as they climbed down the stairs to the entry hall. Once, she had been as content as her playmates to coast through school, and life. Putting in the time, because the Law and her parents said she had to. "It was in the fifth grade, I suppose." She ran a finger along the dirty drywall. "Our class took a field trip to the Museum of Science and Industry. That was...oh, more years ago than I care to remember." Oh Lord, the South Side of Chicago. She could see herself careening wideeyed from exhibit to exhibit, a little girl in cornrows who could barely read. There had been an exhibit of calculating machines, ranging from the old key-set mechanisms all they way up to the latest in mini-desktops. There had been a walk-through model of a human heart. There had been a rock that had been brought back from another world!
"It was like being doused with ice water," she told him. That trip had awakened her with a shock; and even now, through the telescope of years, she could feel the shiver of excitement she had felt then. "There was an enormous and fascinating world out there, and my teachers were not telling me about it! So..." She shrugged self-consciously. "...I explored it on my own. I cut classes, snuck off to the public library; later, to the University of Chicago library." She'd had to con her way in there: no one would believe a little black girl had come there to read.
And she had devoured everything. African music, physics, law, medicine, Chinese history, statistics, German philosophy, computers. Everything. Some of her friends who knew what she was doing had asked her what she would ever use it for. She had treated the question with the same scorn she felt for the apathy behind it.
Use it? She wasn't looking for training; she was looking for an education.
She had passed all her school classes, of course. She made certain she took all the tests. Most of her teachers, she was convinced, had deeply resented her success, because she had achieved it in spite of them. But there had been some...Ah, those had been teachers!
"Habits are hard to break, I suppose," Dennis' voice broke into her memories.
"Hmm? What do you mean?" They had reached the ground floor and paused at the base of the stairs.
"How many seminars and classes have you taken in the few years we've known each other?"
"Realty law. Wilderness survival. A dozen programming classes. I think the hacking was the most fun. I don't know. I've lost count."
"See what I mean?" he said. "I admire you. You haven't stopped stretching yourself. Sometimes I wish I had your curiosity about things. I must have a score of books at home that I've always meant to read. I bought them all with good intentions; but, I never seem to find the time for them. My journals and technical reading take up all my spare time."
"You can always make the time. It's a matter of setting your priorities."
Dennis ran his hand across his shirt pocket. "Yes. I suppose curiosity is like everything else. It comes with practice. Each entry on that list was marked with a one, two, or three. Maybe those are three 'orthogonal factors.'" He folded the list and tucked it in his shirt pocket. "Well, maybe I'll check some of this out. Find out what it means."
* * *
On the sidewalk outside the building Dennis sketched some ideas on his pad. She knew better than to try to peek. He'd throw away a dozen good concepts before he kept a single great one to show her. Over the years she had learned to trust his judgment.
Sarah brushed at the dirt on her clothing. Cars lined the entire block, both sides. She would have to do something about parking when she developed the area.
Dennis tossed the sketchpad into the backseat of his Datsun. "Friday for lunch?"
She nodded absently. She was wondering how much of the block she could buy up before anyone else noticed what was happening and the prices jumped. Maybe she could run it through a couple of dummy corporations.
"Got a name for it."
"Hmm? For what?"
"The project. Brady Quinn Place. We can tie in the historical aspect. The turn of the century with the turn of the century. The eighteen-nineties meet the nineteen-nineties. Solidness and elegance combined with efficiency and technology."
She thought it over. "Not bad," she admitted.
"Not bad? It's a natural. There's a real nostalgia in this town for that era. Cowboys. Baby Doe Tabor. Mattie Silks. Sheriff Dave Cook."
"I'll think about it," she said. "Find out who this Brady Quinn character was. We wouldn't want to use his name if he was only some two-bit tinhorn."
"Why not? Mattie Silks was a madam."
"Ah, but in a woman, sleaze is respectable."
* * *
She drove her Volvo through the diagonal streets of downtown Denver, past the steel-and-glass towers of the energy and telecommunications companies. She wondered what would happen to such complexes when telecommuting became common. Her projected renovation included accessing each unit to the Internet as well as to a community satellite dish.
She had planned to take Colfax Avenue home because she liked to watch for commercial property possibilities, but at the last minute she changed her mind and cut down Speer to the Sixth Avenue Expressway. That was a straight run west, nonstop practically to the Hogback, with the Front Range dead ahead the whole way. It was a sight she never tired of.
A few years ago she had taken one of those executive survival courses. Rock climbing. Shooting rapids. Living in the wilderness. How to handle knives and bows. For graduation, they had dropped her off somewhere in the High Country with nothing but the clothes on her back. She had learned a lot about who she was during those two grueling days. And she had grown to love the mountains. They were her refuge when the stress of business grew too great. She promised herself a few days in the High Country after the Emerson Street project was finished.
The afternoon clouds were rolling over the mountains, so close she felt she could touch them. She gauged the sky thoughtfully, estimating the chance of rain; then she opened the sunroof anyway. What the hell. She liked the feel of the breeze and, if it did rain, she could close it up fast enough. She was a risk taker from way back.
* * *
Later, in her home, as she sipped a brandy in front of the fire, Quinn's name finally clicked. She set her snifter to the side and pushed herself out of the sofa. A log in the fire snapped, sending a wave of pine scent through the room. Feline P. Cat, her Manx, followed her to the terminal desk and watched intently as she called up the Emerson Street file and scrolled through it. When she finally found the entry she sought, she nodded in self-satisfaction.
Once, a very long time ago, Brady Quinn had owned the house on Emerson Street. He had bought it from the silver baron in 1867 and sold it in 1876 to a man named Randall Carson. From there, through several intermediate owners, it had come to her.
"That makes him some sort of an 'ancestor' of mine," she told the cat. "Maybe Dennis is right and we can use him as a hook for the project. If he was anything more than some poor jerk who got caught in the crossfire of someone else's argument."
Feline blinked his agreement.
"Maybe the files at the News or the Post can help me. She logged onto the Internet and sent a commercial search engine to look for "Brady Quinn." It came back dry, except for a half-dozen sites dedicated to the Brady Bunch television show and another handful to the actor Anthony Quinn. She grimaced. Syntax, she scolded herself. Gotta watch your syntax.
"What do you think, Fee?"
The cat yawned.
"You're right. We'll have to go downtown and look at old hard copy. The Express and the Times aren't even around anymore. Maybe the Western History Room at the DPL has something on microfilm. And the tax records at the City and County Building." She jotted some notes to herself. She'd always hated doing research during her reporter days. Now she was actually looking forward to it. It was a break in the routine. When it's your job, she thought, it's never fun.
* * *
When Sarah walked into the city room of the Rocky Mountain News the next morning she found Morgan Grimes hunched over his desk. She stepped off the elevator and walked around the pillars past the reception desk, and there he was. The city room was a study in mauve, burgundy, and gray, with the reporters' desks arranged in "pods" of six. There was no one else in the room except the copy editor, who glanced up briefly from her station at the head of the DU of copydesks before bending back to her work.
Morgan was talking on the phone, his face twisted in concentration, holding the earpiece with his left shoulder while he tapped notes into his terminal. When he saw her coming he said something into the phone, then covered the mouthpiece with his hand.
"Yes, young lady, may I help you?"
"Stuff it, Morgan. I came to use the library for a while. Is that all right with you?"
"It's a morgue," he groused. "I don't care who says different." He looked her over. "So that's all? Just using our morgue? Not looking for your old job back?"
She laughed. "Not even on a bet. Give up the office suite, the Volvo, the tailored dresses, the condo in Aspen? For what?"
"For the thrill," he answered. "For the glamour. The Front Page. All the President's Men. That sort of thing."
"Glamour. Sure, I remember. Obituaries. Press conferences. Media 'opportunities.' Staged demonstrations. Not to mention coolie wages, unpredictable work hours, and last-minute assignments out of town. No, thanks." She tried to peek at his monitor, but he hit a button and it went blank. "What're you working on, Morg'?"
"The Pulitzer, of course."
Morgan Grimes had the straightest face in the business and could fake sincerity with the best of them. During the days when they had teamed up together, she had never been able to tell whether he was putting her on or not--a fact that he used against her mercilessly. She thought about tapping into his files through the Net. Leave him a sarcastic message. Teach him not to play cute. She thought she could hack it, even though the reporters' terminals were not always connected to the Net. There were ways to mouse into any system. I wonder if he's still using the same access code. She had cracked it years ago, just for practice; but she had never actually used it.
She looked around the city room. "Everybody out on assignment?"
"Uh-huh. Except Kevin. He's on another book promotion tour. Should be back next week. I suppose you heard about his latest best-seller."
"Yeah. Follow-up to The Silent Brotherhood, isn't it? Easy life. Well, tell everyone I stopped by and said hello."
"They will be thrilled beyond words. Actually, it has been good seeing you again. You always were a pretty good--"
"Don't say it, Morgan!"
"--news hen. The morgue's still where it always was, but they scanned everything onto discs. No more microfilm. That shouldn't bother you, though, would it?"
"Nope," she said swingng her body with mock sassiness. "I was born with a microchip on my shoulder."
Copyright 2001 by Michael Flynn
Excerpted from In the Country of the Blind by Flynn, Michael Copyright © 2003 by Flynn, Michael. Excerpted by permission.
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