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In the Country of the Blind

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In the Country of the Blind

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Author: Michael Flynn
Publisher: Tor, 2001

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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: Mundane SF
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(21 reads / 12 ratings)


In the nineteenth century, a small group of American idealists managed to actually build Charles Babbage's Analytical Engine and use it to develop Cliology, mathematical models that could chart the likely course of the future. Soon they were working to alter history's course as they thought best. 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's just the first step into a baffling and deadly maze of conspiracies.




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 late getting 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.

Copyright © 2001 by Michael Flynn


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