November 27, 1889, 4:45 PM


"Yeah, got to watch your head down here."

James glared at the pipe that ambushed him and followed Mork down a creaking staircase. The air was humming with noise, which agitated the dust and made it even more likely some motes would go up the nose of a trespasser. Mork gestured to a door with a large sign declaring "NO MAGICKAL ARTIFACTS BEYOND THIS POINT" and beneath it, "PLACE ENCHANTED ITEMS POTIONS OR SCROLLS IN STORAGE ALCOVES".

"Yeah, the magick versus technology everybody remembers, so the sign isn't really necessary. What most people don't realize is it's not good to let dust get inside it. Throws off the timing, and some parts run hot enough the dust might cause an explosion."

"Wait, is it safe for me to go in there? I know a few spells."

"You said you knew some electricity, though, right? Just think science. And don't get too close to anything with moving parts."

Inside the door were fans behind protective grating, ferrying the dust from the room to some far distant place. At the other end of the air cleaning room, Mork opened another door, and James hesitated as the wall of sound came at him. Mork handed over what looked like a helmet.

"Cork and wool! Muffles the engine noise!"

Helmets in place, Mork gestured onward, and James followed into the wonderful world of mechanical mathematics. Well, Mork certainly found it wonderful.

"The big spinning drum uses magnetic coils! All the information is stored in different combinations of coil states! The armatures carry the coil states to a set of secondary coils and relays, and they link to the mechanical gear-racks!"

"I thought these things used punched cards and paper tapes!"

Mork laughed and made his way to a desk with an elaborate typewriter attached to the surface. "Punch cards are for the 80s! We're about the start the 90s! All these information storage systems and calculators route into this typewriter terminal, so now we just need to know what to look for! Tapes are just for backups!"

James picked up a section of a long ream of paper. "How will we know it when we find it?"

"That's just the Master Spool! See those number strings next to different lines? It means the Engine is handling about half a dozen different operations through the teletype lines! It's called time sharing, the University makes a lot of money that way! Nobody will notice if we slip a search request in the queue!"

"I'll take your word for it!"

Mork sat down at the typewriter and began typing. "Okay, I was a bit overconfident there! Turns out somebody else is already using the library unit we need!"

"This does not surprise me as much as it should."

"According to the address and the listing in the directory, it's just some mining company! We can just suspend their work for a few minutes while we check that unit! They'll probably chalk it up to a squirrel on the line!"

November 27, 1889, 5:02 PM

"Excuse me General, we have a problem."

General Winters looked up from his reports. "Oh, really? Which one?"


General Winters grabbed the folders on his desk and threw them into the air. "Are you speaking of the intel from inside the Maritime Control Center about Lionheart's secret project we still don't know anything about? Or how about Doctor Ross just vanishing off the face of the earth after we sunk two thousand dollars into his crackpot research? Or the scout patrol that came back from Mt. Wolfcastle without their heads? Or is this something completely new getting thrown in our way?"

The aide looked nervously at the General. "Er... something new, sir."

Winters pinched the bridge of his nose. "Sorry. Shouldn't fly off the handle like that, but it's bizarre. A year and a half of planning and preparation go off without a hitch, and in the last month there's been obstacle after obstacle. Uncanny. Go ahead, let's hear it."

The aide took a deep breath. "The simulations we were running on the ECU Analytical Engine just went down."

"What do you mean, down? Did somebody turn the system off? I was told they keep it running constantly."

"Constantly except for scheduled maintenance. And if there was a fire or a breakdown alarms would be going off all over campus. It's a very expensive machine."

"So the machine is still running, it's just not doing whatever it is we want it to be doing."

"Yes sir. Our time share access was suspended. Here's the last sheet we got out of the teletypewriter."

The aide handed a section of paper with perforated edges, which the General waved away. "I wouldn't understand what half of that means, and I'd misinterpret what I did understand. You tell me. What happened?"

"Our use of the engine's time share was interrupted. It gives date and time, and the Admin credentials to suspend both calculation and library access operations. We don't know who has what code specifically but it would have to be somebody very high in the mathematics department or faculty."

General Winters looked at his other reports. "Alright... first things first. How much of the simulation is left to run?"

"It's about three quarters done. If they'd waited another two hours we wouldn't even be having this conversation."

"Like I said, it's uncanny. Can we make do with the part that is done?"

"No sir, it's worse than useless. Until the Analytical Engine finishes processing the whole simulation, we won't have the whole picture."

"Alright... assuming we do get the Engine working for us again, can we continue the simulation where it left off?"

"Yes sir, the operation was just suspended. If we do get access again, we can start it right where it was stopped."

"If being the important word. Damn... who else uses the Engine?"

"Just about every business in Engine City. It's not practical to run a time share teletype line outside the city limits, but some people with deep pockets do anyway. There's the Army and the Navy, and various organizations across Silverhead bring in problems for batch processing on site."

"Hmmm. If the Navy uses it, could they have been watching the Engine somehow? Seeing what we're doing and stopping it?"

"They'd have to be at the monitoring station the last few hours. Meaning they'd need to have a mole inside the University staff in the upper echelon of the faculty. Otherwise the information is just sent back to our terminal here. And the simulation terms are not explicit. Just arbitrary symbol strings meaningless to anyone who doesn't have the key, and that's here."

"What about the line itself? Could somebody have traced the line here?"

"That's certainly possible. Anyone who knows a little bit about electricity could determine what line was active at any given time. Tracing a physical line, even through several switching stations, is easy."

"So somebody might be suspicious."

"Well, an Army facility using the Engine isn't out of the ordinary, sir. If they know the physical line goes to an Army facility but the time share slot was paid for by a mining company, then they might start to wonder what's going on. The rest of the military pay for their timeshare up front. Mostly so they don't have access cut off at a critical time."

General Winters stood up from his desk. "And so we come full circle. If we didn't need secrecy, we wouldn't have lost access. If we didn't use secrecy, we'd never get away with access. And if this is just some undergraduate from the math department trying to check his thesis for errors or something when he thinks nobody's watching, I'm not going to overreact and show my hand. Still... send the word out and activate our sleeper agent in ECU. Have him watch the math department for a while."

"Yes sir. Anything else, sir?"

Winters sat back down and picked up a newspaper. "Just let me know if you see a half-elf running around solving problems. Lone Wanderer returns... gods help us if that turns out to be true."

"Yes sir."

November 27, 1889, 5:35 PM

"Wow. My ears are still ringing."

"You get used to it eventually. Speaking of which, you're talking too loud."

"Sorry." James looked through the printout, papers full of more information about his dad than he managed to learn about the man in his entire life. "This isn't going to get you in trouble, is it?"

"Nah. That override code belongs to one of the more absent minded math professors. So absent minded he has no idea how to hide things that he should keep hidden. I'm not saying I ever stole the answers to a final exam or anything like that, but I can assure you, it would not be difficult to pull off."

"But if they compare the code used and the time it was used with the professor's alibi-"

"Absent minded professor. Once he came to class without any trousers on and it took him half an hour before he thought to ask why it was so cold. Men like that have no alibi, ever. And because he has tenure, nobody will raise a fuss. The University will blame it all on the weather or an elf trader walking past the switching station." Mork twirled the end of am imaginary mustache. "The perfect crime, if you can call it a crime at all."

"All this time and I didn't know half of this stuff. And still wouldn't if not for you. Looks like I owe you."

"Not really. And even if you did we wouldn't know for sure until you dig through all that and find something useful. It's that kind of information explosion that prompted storing all the information in analytical engine reading formats."

"How does anyone get to that information if the machine's always busy?"

"For the last month or so, they don't. There was a limited-access terminal in library at one point but somebody managed to completely wreck it. By accident, they think. That machinery doesn't like being handled in certain ways. It was taken in for repairs in the engineering department and it still isn't back yet. That's higher education for you."

"Still probably beats the one room schoolhouse, filled with other children who hated me and a teacher that looked the other way."

"Actually, that's fairly common here as well. The building is bigger, and there are more of them, and there are more people who give consent implicitly by not voicing opposition. On the other hand, there are more places to hide. And the equipment and reference library is much larger."

"So I saw. The library would make it all worth it. I've been having to limp along with my dad's old textbooks and a general magickal almanac of sorts that used to belong to my mom."

Mork stopped in his tracks for a second. "Oh. Good thing you said something. I need to get home. My mother tends to worry if I'm not home before six of the evening. Say, would you care to come over and meet her?"

"Well... I don't want to impose."

"No imposition. She likes meeting new people."

"Then... I guess I could come over and say hello and such."

"Great! I'll lead the way."

James scratched his head as he followed. "I should warn you, I have essentially no experience at the whole 'bringing friends home from school' business."

"Nor do I." Mork tapped an elongated incisor.

November 27, 1889, 6:12 PM

James found himself staring uncomfortably at the tenement's interior. Years of baseline assumptions developed from rural small town experience had to be suspended and revised in the face of the industrialized city, but that wasn't all. Every coughing fit, every dim filament bulb flickering in the corridor, struck him as an affront somehow.

Effrontery or not, most of the inhabitants of the building seemed to be busy and social. Fragments of conversations reached James' ears, but never enough of any one exchange to grasp what was being discussed by anybody. Mork made his way through the throng with practiced ease until reaching a door. After a few knocks the door was opened a crack.

"Hello mom, it's me."

The door closed again, prompting James to wonder if Mork had accidentally found the wrong door, until the door opened again. An older woman, with hair as fair as it was frazzled, embraced Mork, and James leaned back slightly as he saw a pistol in one hand.

"Good to see you Mark. Been studying hard?"

"More like hardly studying, but I have a legitimate excuse for that." The student pried himself from the embrace and motioned to James. "This is James. I met him while he was looking for information on his father at ECU."

The old woman held out a hand in a gesture of greeting, or at least what would have been one if it hadn't held a derringer. It took quite a lot of willpower not to dive out of the way or form a protective Shield, but somehow James managed it.

"Oh, dear. I forgot. Sorry, there's been a spate of burglaries and I refuse to take any chances." The derringer disappeared into the folds of some sort of sewing apron and the hand returned, which James shook. "Julia O'Connor, and I am most pleased to meet you."

"James Cross, at your service."

"Won't you come inside? I believe I have some tea brewing."

"Thank you, Mrs. O'Connor."

The transition to the inside of the apartment was astounding; whereas the rest of the building James had seen was in various states of disrepair and rather grimy at their cleanest, the inside of the apartment was clean, tidy, and well lit. A form of knitted artwork declared in stitched letters, "COME IN, SIT DOWN, RELAX, CONVERSE, IT'S NOT ALWAYS LIKE THIS, SOMETIMES IT'S WORSE" in between some flowers and vines, hung above a small fireplace that had been refitted with a steam radiator at some point.

"Admiring Mark's handiwork? He constructed it."

Mork shrugged. "Well, I designed it. The math was easy. Finding parts fitting the needed specifications took longer."

"Very nice." James held a hand near the radiator, feeling the heat. "More of an electrical engineer myself, so I'm afraid I can't appreciate all the technical nuances."

"In that case you should see Mark's generator."

Mark rolled his eyes. "Mom, I didn't bring James here just to brag about what I can scrounge from factory discards."

"Oh, sorry, didn't mean to embarrass you in front of your friend."

"I'm NOT embarrassed, it's just... never mind."

November 27, 1889, 7:54 PM

"And what about healing? Do you know any healing spells?"

James shook his head. "Considering some of the hazards I've run across, it seems like a serious oversight in my magickal education."

Mork put down a cup half filled with tea. "Alright then, the big one. Flight. Do you know how to fly?"

"Well, I don't know how to fly, but I do know how spells can be used for flight." James pulled a reference book out of his satchel and flipped through several pages. "There's two key colleges for that. Elemental Air, obviously, and also Conveyance. Air is fairly straightforward. If you wear the right clothes and you Call the Winds, you can direct them to lift you up like a kite. There's also Body of Air. Essentially gives you all the powers of an Air Elemental. And the weaknesses."

"Alright, what about Conveyance?"

"Unseen Force. If you've ever seen mages floating in mid air, that's what they're doing, using the force to hold themselves up. It says here it's a form of advanced meditation, teaching students to ignore all distractions." James skipped several pages ahead. "There's also, for those who have mastered metamorphosis, polymorphing themselves into a flying creature. There may be other ways, but I haven't found much mention of them in most of the books I was able to study, and I don't feel inclined to experiment."

"Right, because science and magick tend to be an explosive mix."

James scratched his chin. "Actually, it's because they're the type of experiments you have to be in the middle of to make work, so you'd want to get them right on the very first try. Like trying to use the explosive power of Fireflash to propel yourself up. Riding a series of explosions, or even one steady explosion of heat and fire. Get it wrong and they'll have to go on a scavenger hunt before they can give you a proper burial."

"Ugh. I see your point."

"My turn. I found one of these handbills at the University. Something about a correspondence course. Do you know why it's going on and on about different technological devices? My electrical engineering books focus mostly on the theoretical principles, not the practical end results. Are they out of date? They were my dad's after all."

James held up a textbook and Mork took it, turning from chapter to chapter. "Well... it is a bit out to date in regards to some electrical refinements that have been made in the last... wait, who wrote all these notes in the margins?"

"My dad. He said he had to keep it up to date with his work."

"Well, in that case it's not nearly as out of date as the printer's labels would indicate." Mork handed the book back. "Actually the correspondence course format differs from the classroom study format mostly because of advertising. They emphasize the possibility of making useful objects or concoctions to give the undecided customer, for lack of a better word, something to look forward to. By the end of the same course of study, you learn the same information, but whereas people like myself are thinking, 'oh no, final exams!' the people taking the correspondence course are thinking, 'oh happy day, I can finally build that mechanical spider and have somebody to talk to!' And that's not an exaggeration, if you're wondering. I actually heard somebody say that at the post office once."

"So it's just advertising?"

"Yes. Honestly, I think it was mostly written to appeal to the adventurers who aren't magickally inclined and have a lot of disposable income after selling off valuable gems or historical artifacts. But not all the people taking the courses are rich adventurers. So it could also be just a carryover from the University of Tarant. Some of the faculty are transplants."

The noises of a clock announcing the hour disrupted the chain of the conversation, and James looked at the machine with surprise. "Wait, is that clock accurate?"

"I hope so, or I've been late to all my morning classes for quite some time."

"I hate to meet and run like this but the last few times I was out this late I had some run ins with a few people who were looking for handouts and they weren't taking no for an answer. And I can't keep Jolting everyone who grabs me, sooner or later I'm going to hurt somebody who bumped into me in a crowd."

"I can see how that would be a problem. I'll see you out to the street. Sometimes those, ah, aggressive panhandlers take up residence inside poorly lit hallways instead of poorly lit alleyways."

November 27, 1889, 9:52 PM

Tables of numbers and lists of meaningless words scrolled by James eyes without really being seen. The large number of printed out sheets, back in the university, seemed like a spectacular turn of fortune. By the light of the dim candles by the window, the stack of papers seemed more like a haystack, with nary a glint of reflected light to hint at the location of the needle he hoped was somewhere inside. He had expected summaries and timelines, matching his experience with historical records and textbooks; this was raw data, unprocessed, unfiltered and almost completely unorganized.

James rubbed his eyes. "When Mork said there was an information explosion, he wasn't kidding."

The papers were quickly stacked and set off to the side of the desk, and James briefly pondered the next day's plan, inasmuch as his exhausted state of mind would allow. The railroad switch yard was one of his promised destinations for Doc Brown's writing, so he had to figure out where that was, get in without being accosted by linemen for not having a ticket and possibly for making their railroad watches run backwards, and actually talk to the engineers who handled the stuff that Brown cared about. That being the nitty-gritty details of engines and the transmission of power. Maintenance schedules and procedures, maybe. Efficiency ratings? Tips and tricks of the modern railroader? All of the above, or just one part, it was going to be impossible to remember all of it. It'd need writing down. And since telegrams charged by the word, it'd be beyond his means even using her massive contributions to his Find My Father Fund to just telegraph it back to Toone Town. It'd have to be packed up and sent by postal or courier service. Fortunately there seemed to be a few places in the city that could handle such jobs, maybe more if he asked around-

James' eyes, previously closed as he mused on the events of the coming day, snapped open. An unexpected variation on an old familiar feeling was making itself known. In the past, the moment of enlightenment as the next piece of a puzzle fell into place was a positive feeling, a bit like the rush of warmth he got from stoking the Inner Fire. This time, it was more like the bottom fell out of his stomach.

Telegrams conveyed information based on different combinations of electrical signals over wires, signals that varied in length. Telegram repeaters and teletypewriters could reproduce those signals by running a punched tape, or record a message being sent out by punching the tape as the message was being composed, then send it automatically once it was complete. But the punch tape patterns were not the same as the duration of electrical pulses over the wires - there were two codes, each made for a specific system. The telegraph codes were made for the ears of living creatures while the punch patterns were developed for mechanical cams and later electrical contacts used by machinery. A message in one medium literally could not be sent over another because the technology involved was completely different; thus, teletypewriters came with translators right from the factory, collections of shaped cam wheels that worked like the code wheels of ancient dwarven generals (and later, human conquerors).

But it wasn't as simple as just overlapping sets of characters or symbols. For the automated machinery, each symbol had to be represented by a unique combination of perforations in the tape, just as each symbol on the telegraph lines was a different combination of sounds in the right order. If each letter in a word took several times as many pieces of information to store it on a paper tape, then each word was proportionately larger as well. And the information on the elusive Dr. Cross hadn't come from a paper tape, but rather from a massive rotating drum using magnetic polarities stored on the surface... but it was ultimately typed out by the same teletypewriter device. It had to, the whole point of the time share system was to allow many different problems to be addressed by the same calculating engine at the same time, over considerable distances. Which meant that the massive magnetic information storage drum had to have stored the information in a code not unlike the patterns of punched and un-punched paper in a tape or set of instruction cards.

The old electrical engineering textbook was retrieved from its place in the satchel, and James turned to the last few pages. The textbook had several blank pages between the last printed word and the back cover, parts of the building block of modern printing called a signature that were left over after the original authors had run out of things to say. Dr. Cross had taken advantage of the blank pages to add his own contributions beyond the marginalia in the main text; those side notes just covered new developments in long standing fields, but these last page scribbles and sketches covered technology that had only been speculated about when the book was first printed. Electrically charged vibrations in the aether, unusual properties of resonance, and yes, the encoding and retrieval of information in the form of magnetic polarities.

Several tables were provided and James copied out some lines on a sheet of scratch paper. His father had included several different possible ways to measure polarity and charge, ranging from a base-2 on-and-off system all the way to a base-16 system using eight stages in either direction and a neutral blank state as a buffer. But the sketch for the read/write relay in the book looked nothing like the ones on the drum in the university basement, and it occurred to James that it would be easiest to just measure the presence or lack of a magnetic field at a specific area; trying the measure different field strengths and polarities would be subject to problems if the reading armature wasn't set up to detect fields of sufficient intensity - or if there was an under or over-voltage. In fact, the more information was encoded in a single spot the more likely it was to get lost. That didn't sound like a winning business strategy if the engine's calculations were rented out to organizations that couldn't afford their own analytical machinery.

While he hadn't been able to precisely measure the dimensions of the magnetic drum - hadn't needed to until just this moment - it was a comparatively simple operation to guess its length and circumference, and by extension its surface area. Divide that by the possible sizes of the read/write machinery, based on the size of the armatures proportional to the size of the drum, and adjust upwards by a few factors to account for redundancy - and downwards by the same number to account for technical advancements that engineers and scientists would have developed to get the most use out of the machinery. Crude and imprecise guesswork, but James scribbled it all down. Then he took the first page and started counting characters across the width of the sheet - the size of each letter, including the blank spaces, was uniform. Multiplying the number of characters per row by the number of rows, then multiplying that product by the number of pages printed out...

The math checked out. There was more than enough room for all of this information in the magnetic drum, ten times over. But all of this information could just as easily have been stored in a printed form; after all, it had been printed out. So why exactly had Mork mentioned having to put so much information into the engine in the first place? Even if all of the information for everyone in ECU's records couldn't be stored on physical paper, on physical shelves, there simply wasn't enough room on the magnetic drum for all of the alumni and faculty. At the upper end of the range James had calculated, the drum could store the same amount of information for nine more people, with a little left over. There were other storage drums, of course, and massive reels of paper tape he had seen that Mork had dismissed as old and out of date, but even so, that was an astounding amount of resources to devote to information for a single person.

And the information itself... James flipped through the pages again. Invoices for materials, shipping costs, and wages for labor. Records of telegrams sent and letters posted. Dates and times. Notifications of address changes. Even though James still wasn't sure what he was looking for, he was certainly noticing more this time around. The amount of money being thrown around was a lot more than he had figured his father would have been able to earn at any job he could think of, no matter how badly his skills and scientific knowledge was needed. And what was it all for? Steel rivets. Spools of copper cable. Pallets of bricks and concrete blocks. And those items that described the actual product were in the minority, at a glance well over three quarters of the items listed were just product codes used in the company's inventory system, though the name of the company could provide a few hints.

"It's too damned late for this many questions to be raised." James stacked the print out papers and shoved them into his satchel with the textbook and his notes, then snuffed out the light and felt his way to the bed. After a few hours of tossing, turning, and aimless mental wheel spinning and speculation, sleep finally found him.

November 28, 1889, 11:33 AM

Mork was not entirely surprised to find the letter stuck between two un-mortared bricks in the north wall of the second floor of the University Library. Granted, it didn't happen every day. It seldom happened more than once or twice a month. But each time he opened the envelope, decoded the instructions within, and followed them, there was usually another letter in the same spot within the next two or three days; a code that was valid at the telegram office to redeem a money transfer. Of course, he'd tried to trace them; after the first few times brought up nothing but dead ends - and one dead body which he didn't like to think about - he stopped looking gift money in the mouth. He was a student, after all. Some things are universal constants.

After decoding the instructions in this letter during his next class, though, he found himself wondering exactly what he had stepped in so many months ago, and how long he'd been sinking into it without realizing it.






Mork swallowed, or more accurately, tried and failed. There was some sort of obstruction in his throat which other physical sensations implied might be his heart. For a moment his imagination dragged him back to the dead man who he suspected was made thus so he would tell no tales, and in great detail replaced that dead man with the image of the man he saw in the mirror each day. Followed by that of his mother, at which point sheer bloody-minded orcish stubbornness, blended with the adaptive powers of human intellect, mercifully cut off any further visualizations.

If his mysterious benefactors and potential malefactors suspected him of anything they would have sent somebody to address the problem directly, the problem being him. Obviously by calling on his technical knowledge, they made it clear that they suspected technical issues, related to unauthorized use perhaps but ultimately focusing on the technical side of things. If he had inadvertently done something to draw their ire, they had inadvertently put him in the best possible position to conceal his involvement in it. And it followed logically that the more thorough and helpful he was in assisting them in finding what answers would not implicate him, the more likely they were to accept omissions in his findings as legitimate gaps of knowledge.

Of course, this could also be a test of loyalty set up to see if he'd come clean or attempt to conceal his actions, but if that was the case he was already too far along that path to do anything about it. Misdirection was still the best option. And if worse came to worst, well, his dad had taught him a few tricks... and he had just made a new friend - or at least acquaintance - whom spoke casually of inflicting violent acts on those who dared assault him.

Grinning to himself, Mork began writing out his own coded response.

November 28, 1889, 2:20 PM

"Mission accomplished sir. ECU sleeper agent dead drop instructions confirmed."

"Good." Winters picked up a pen and crossed out a single entry on a long, long list on his desk. "We're already behind, but maybe we can keep this pace just long enough."

"Sir, there's something else."

"Oh, Gods. Shouldn't have spoken so soon. Alright. I can take it."

"It's not another setback this time sir." The clerk handed over a few sheets of paper. "The simulation templates came back earlier today. We fed them back in with the key and got connection lines, action probabilities, high value geographic ranges, everything we could have hoped for. We were even able to run it through the pantographic coder."

"So you duplicated the results. Alright, that'll help us get the information sent out to the scout teams quicker than normal. Good initiative."

"Pardon me sir but we didn't just copy it. The pantographic coder overlays the information on a printed map. It's the last sheet in your summary, sir."

Winters flipped to the last page and sure enough, circles, lines, and symbols had been overlaid on a map of the southernmost half of Silverhead. "Amazing. Information at a glance. Much faster than lists of map coordinates and strings of degrees of separation."

"Thank you sir."

"Send this out to our scouts on the double. We've made up for lost time, but that just means we're back where we started." Winters turned away from the clerk and stared at the ornamental pistols on his wall. "And you can be sure we're not going to be so lucky a second time. If this is going to work, we need to find Dr. Cross, and soon."