My associate Jake would not have called himself an evil man. He just didn’t like to lose.
It was unfortunate that our other companions had died in the cave-in, and that we’d found the gold mine just before then, and that Jake wouldn’t want anyone else to share in the bounties of the discovery with him. But there it was. And only one of us was going to leave the mountain.
Jake was wearing a battered lump of leather on his head that might at one time have been a hat. His face, I am sorry to say, did not recommend him much more than his character. Fortunately it was concealed in generous portions by a bush of startled beard. He wore leather pants, a dirty brown shirt and what had been, in a former incarnation, boots. Most importantly, he had a Colt revolver aimed at my forehead.
“Frederick,” he growled, slow and certain, “yer gonna die.”
Back in New York I learned how to build machines. Jake grew up learning how to shoot at rattlers, and at the moment his seemed a more useful skill. But it’s no use complaining once the coffee’s been burnt. He’s quicker, and even though I knew in advance that he was going to draw and I had to be ready, I felt about as fast as a dead bobcat and half as smart. And now I was facing the last barrel I might ever see.
“I don’t want that gold,” I said, and he pulled the trigger.
There was a click as the hammer snapped down on an empty chamber. I already had a rock in my hand when I lunged. I knocked him to the ground and slammed the rock down at his head. He rolled away and the rock struck the stone floor. Like I said, he’s quicker.
He squeezed the trigger a second time. Again the hollow click. By the time I heard it I was already running. I knew the next chamber was loaded.
Jake’s footsteps pounded the ground behind me. In a minute I would be a target silhouetted against the entrance daylight. But earlier I had spied a cleft hidden by rocks, so I veered toward it and squeezed myself in. It ended in a tiny chamber that had just enough room for me to sit upright. It was black as a well-bottom and completely still, but I could hear Jake as if he were beside me, grunting and growling like a mad animal.
And that is where I wait.
Out in the tunnel Jake is pacing. He knows I’m here, somewhere. He knows sooner or later he’ll find me.
Maybe I can make a break for it.
Maybe I can ambush him.
We met in Santa Fe. We drank a bit, and talked a little, and drank some more, and then we talked a lot. That’s the night I told him about the Analytical Engine. Its inventor, Charles Babbage, he didn’t have enough funding to build one himself, but I made my own prototype in New York, with some improvements. Machines do many impressive things, but this one was different. It solved problems. Feed it the right information and turn the crank hard and long enough, and it would tell you anything you wanted to know: the past, for example, or the future.
“I already know about the past,” Jake had told me. “It’s the future I’m after.”
So he gave me money and I was always careful not to ask him where it came from. I replaced the crank system with steam, and it was a sight to see. The steam drove columns of gear wheels, every gear representing a different digit for the machine’s calculations.
I got results accurate to twenty decimal places, spit out on punch cards. It’s how we decided how to fill out Jake’s crew. It’s how I discovered that, should a specific series of steps be meticulously followed, on a particular day in a particular range, we would come upon an abandoned mine.
When we actually found the mine I was as happy as a pig in mud. Then my candle went out.
“Oh, shit,” I thought. “The air’s bad.” But then I saw that Jake’s candle was still lit.
That’s when I realized. Everything dies. It blows out. Its warmth leaves. In my Analytical Engine, some heat would leak out before it could be converted to mechanical energy. Information would get lost.
In other words, the machine’s long-term solutions were wrong.
I lit a new candle from Jake’s light and stopped to shuffle through my papers. It was simple enough to see, once I made the corrections. First our companions would die in a cave-in, and then, three hours later, Jake would shoot me dead.
But I still thought I could escape my fate. When Jake dropped his gear to explore a tight side tunnel, I ran to his Peacemaker and shook out two .44 caliber cartridges. Before I could turn the cylinder again I heard Jake heading back and I returned the gun to its holster.
That’s when I heard the cave-in start.
Why didn’t I just take the gun myself? I didn’t want to make him suspicious. That’s what I thought then. Now, I’m not so sure. Now I wonder if my hesitation was fate.
Sitting here in the dark I feel a chill that’s not from the stone. Three hours. After the cave-in I had three hours to live. It’s been almost two.
There’s a new sound out in the tunnel. It’s chuckling, I realize. Jake’s discovered my hiding place.
I feel around on the ground and grab another rock. It’s time to find out if the future can be changed.
Aaron Emmel’s short stories have appeared in The Chicago Reader, Neverworlds, Spaceways Weekly, Shadowkeep, Nuketown, Alternate Realities, Wanton Words, The Martian Wave, and other publications.
This story is sponsored by
Clarion West Writers Workshop — Apply now through March 1 for 2014’s six-week workshop with Paul Park, Kij Johnson, Ian McDonald, Hiromi Goto, Charlie Jane Anders, and John Crowley, June 22 – August 1 in Seattle.