Love in the Isle of the Combinators

Linimer’s fingers caressed the brass dial. Six plus four minus one choose four. The engine rang out its answer, one note in a mechanical symphony. Sixty combinators danced along the face of the machine, up and down the Hall of Computation.

Nine choose four and nine choose five is ten choose five. Six hundred fingers flew over the cogs and stops. Slanting sunbeams streamed through the high windows, making gnomons of the workers and gold dust of the whirling motes. It was evening.

The twenty-four-minute whistle blew and Linimer gave way to his four-six replacement. He was trembling. This was the night he had chosen to reveal his secret double life.

Gerson, his supervisor, was waiting at the exit. “There you are,” he said, glancing at his watch. “Ready?”

“Y-yes,” said Linimer, staring hard at the floor and trying on several expressions in turn. “I west-end the north living quarter,” he said.

“You wha-a-a-at?” Gerson bleated.

“The northwestern quarter. Where I live.”

“Oh, oh. Right, then. Lead the way.”

They went out into the street. The old towers that overshadowed it were corroded like the hulls of battered ironsides. The air smelled of the sea.

The island under their feet had once been called Talus, the Holy Isle, for the ancients had held it unlawful for any dead thing to touch its barren soil; in those days even women in childbirth were compelled to take to the sea. But the taboos had been forgotten with the inception of the Pleiach, the semi-divine headless democratic social machine by which all Enoch was governed. The island had become a center for accounting and computing, and boasted the greatest analytical engines in the world-city. And so it was known as the Isle of the Combinators.

Linimer was muttering under his breath while they walked, repeating the last thing he had said over and over again like a recording. Gerson glanced at him and cleared his throat. “So,” he said, “you live alone, eh?”

“Oh, ah, not exactly.”

“Oh! You room with one of the boys then. I hadn’t realized that.”

“No, nothing like that. A woman. I live with a woman. Picked her up off the street. Ha ha! Strangest thing, really.”

“Oh!” said Gerson. He waited, wincing, for his underling to go on. But Linimer had fallen into a reverie and was silently moving his lips again. He was reciting the speech he had practiced, running through it one last time before using it on his supervisor. It was the story of how he had found his woman.

It all began on a rainy night. He was out wandering the streets, alone as usual. He never had any friends, for he was an eccentric; or rather, he was the wrong kind of eccentric. He knew one combinator who would distractedly pluck out his own beard hairs and eat them, another who always went about wearing the same three pairs of pants all at once in layers. But these were acceptable abnormalities, marks of the chosen tribes. He was a misfit. Although the combinatorial office was open to all whom the Pleiach selected, only certain phylla prospered in it. These invisible forces kept him locked in a glass cell. Things had begun to go awry in his brain. He had learned to keep to himself.

He came upon the ghul-woman in a dark alley. She was lost and naked and her red-gold hair was streaming. She was young, and would have been quite beautiful if she’d had a soul. Her innocent beast-eyes were white-rimmed with fear.

Linimer had always had a soft spot for wounded animals. He knew that she must belong to someone, but also knew that she had most likely been mistreated. So he calmed her down, won her trust with some food, and led her back to his apartment.

For days he took care of her as he did any of his other pets. He procured her a ghulic habit and gave her the run of his flat. She was well-trained and responded quickly to his kindness. He began to look forward to seeing her when he got off work. He even stopped going on his nocturnal walks. That was when it happened.

Without letting one side of his mind know what the other was doing, he went out one day and bought a dress and some underthings and took them home. She struggled against him while he dressed her. When he was finished she ran and hid in a corner.

Her apparent shame — which was in truth mere animal bewilderment — forced him to face what he was doing. Even under the Pleiach the prohibition against relations with ghulim was ingrained in every soul.

Sick at heart, he unhooked the dress with shaking hands and pulled it off. He was tempted to drown her, but hadn’t the stomach for it. Instead he fell at her feet. “Eternal spirits of flame,” he groaned, “have pity on me, a miserable wretch.” With that he fled.

All night he wandered the steaming, rust-black labyrinths, hardly knowing where he went. At one point he found himself threading the byways of the under-city, making for the abandoned temple district. It was all gated off.

Later on he walked far out along one of the viaducts that connected the isle to the sea-girding city. The surging water called to him. But exhaustion came with dawn, and he returned home.

Strange music greeted him as he went down the corridor to his flat. He recognized the notes of his own steam-organ. For a moment he listened with his ear to the door. The euphony had a weird, arrhythmic beauty, sounding at one moment like bubbles rising from the abyssal plain, at the next like sunbeams drifting through clouds of dawn. He pushed his way inside.

The ghul was seated at the organ. She was wearing the dress; her red-gold hair was piled in a lovely heap on her head. She stopped playing and looked at him with grave eyes. “Hello,” she said, and smiled.

“What brought bipartite graphs to my mind,” drawled Gerson, “was the Urath account.”

“Er, ah, yes?” squeaked Linimer. He realized with horror that his supervisor had been talking for some while. But the context was all wrong. The words slipped neatly through his brain without leaving a mark. It would take him hours to reconstruct the conversation. That was one reason why he avoided getting together with coworkers.

Gerson was still talking when they reached his building. They passed through bronze doors into a gloomy foyer. The black-and-white tiled floor had buckled with age; cobwebs festooned the gas chandelier. The neglect everywhere evident — extreme even for latter-day Enoch — stilled the combinator’s tongue.

The once-grand lobby was worse. Water poured quietly down its marble wall and lost itself in a crack. A trail through the dust showed that the building wasn’t entirely derelict, but the footprints were all Linimer’s.

They boarded the elevator car and rode it up the shaft. Linimer lived on the top story. Now that he was committed, he began to fret. He was afraid of the ghul’s prohibition.

“Your prayers have been answered,” she had said. “Your kindness has not gone unnoticed. I am a princess of the powers of the air come to dwell in this house of flesh. I will live with you and love you all the days of your life, so long as you care for me and share me with no man. Do you agree?”

“I agree,” he panted, hardly knowing what he said. She wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him. It was the first time he had kissed a woman.

That was the beginning of their strange conjugal life. Every day he would come home to find his “wife” playing the organ. She cooked for him and sang strange songs to him and made love to him. Sometimes he would go searching all over the city for beautiful things to present to her, filling the flat with bizarre bric-a-brac. Under her inspiration he began to devise a new axiomatic system.

They rarely spoke; it didn’t seem necessary. When they did talk she said things that he didn’t understand but that became lodged in the back of his mind like darkly glimmering gems. He didn’t know her name and wasn’t sure that she had one. But he was happy.

In time, though, he grew discontented. He viewed his peculiar but rich private life as offsetting his professional difficulties, and started to feel unappreciated at work. He began daydreaming about a visit from a colleague. His wife would entertain them, the rumor of his enviable circumstances would spread, and he would grow in everyone’s estimation.

His daydream sprouted into a plan without his being aware of it. He dropped all sorts of hints at work, left little things unsaid or undone. Nothing had any effect. Growing desperate, he finally invited Gerson over for a drink. To his surprise and utter horror, Gerson accepted. After that nothing could get him out of his predicament.

They stepped into the corridor. The window at its western end gilt the white walls with dying sunbeams. Organ notes drifted through the air. Linimer kept casting sidelong glances at his supervisor, but Gerson seemed oblivious to the music. Together they went into the apartment.

The guttering sun was about to go out. The room was full of golden light. Linimer’s wife was at the instrument. Her shapely form filled a dress of golden sea-silk that had cost him a month’s salary. She broke off mid-note and rose to her feet.

“H-hello, my love,” stammered Linimer. “I’ve brought a, ah, colleague…”

“How do you do?” said Gerson, glancing around at the clutter.

The woman’s eyes were accusing, but she didn’t open her lips. Suddenly her face got a faraway look.

Linimer was mumbling an explanation when a dribbling noise brought him up short. A puddle was forming on the floor at his wife’s feet. Her mouth had grown slack and her eyes were blank.

“Perhaps I’d better come back some other time,” said Gerson.

“No, nonsense,” said Linimer, putting on what he hoped was a bright smile while watching his wife out of the corner of his eye. “We shall be most pleased if, ah, if…”

He was edging toward her as he spoke. She suddenly went wild, tearing at her clothes and shrieking. The grin he wore while he tried to restrain her was something terrible. At last he succeeded in maneuvering her into his bedroom and locking the door.

“It’s the strangest thing, really,” he said with a desperate chuckle.

“Listen,” said Gerson, “what a man does in his own home is his own business. Live and let live, that’s what I say. But do you know what would happen if I didn’t report this and word got out some other way? Why did you bring me here?”

“No, you see, you don’t–”

“Please. I think I do. These things have been going on for as long as there’s been men and ghulim. But that’s neither here nor there. I’ll have to report it. Of course I will. You understand that. It won’t do you any good if I lose my place with you.”

“Lose…your place…” trailed Linimer, beginning to comprehend.

“I have to go now,” said Gerson. He paused as he stepped through the door. “It suddenly occurs to me that the Chief Combinator complained a while back about losing an expensive ghul. I’d hate for whoever found it to have to go to prison for a silly mistake. Good evening.” And with that he was gone.

For a long time Linimer stood there in the middle of the room while the shadows gathered. His collection of curiosities mocked him like an army of imps. He went into the kitchenette and lit the tube lamp. Its oblique light draped itself across the furniture like a sickly, bloated cat.

He looked out the windows. Here and there the settling dusk was pricked by a silvery light. From his vantage he could make out even the minutest details of distant offices. He drew the blinds and wandered the room, toying distractedly with his things. It had started raining.

He wanted to abandon his life and identity and go far away. Perhaps he would have done so, would have abandoned the ghul to devour herself in the locked room, if he hadn’t been afraid of an investigation. At last he forced himself to go check on her.

She was naked and crouching in a corner. The room was a mess.

There was only one thing to do. Gerson himself had suggested it. Linimer went through his closet, trying not to look at the gowns and dresses, and dug out the old habit. It took some time to get it on her. Midnight was long past when he finally led her through the foyer. It had stopped raining but the streets were wet and stinking.

He directed her through the dark maze to where the nearest viaduct waded through the fog on massive pylons. They went down to the caged catwalk suspended from the tracks and began to cross over the sea. The entire structure galloped alarmingly whenever a rail car roared by above.

The city fell away behind them like a black crown encrusted with gems. The light slowly increased. The pylons gave way to submerged pontoons, and the jointed bridge undulated with the swells. At last the sun sped over the waves, dispelling the vapors and turning the sea green and gold.

When Linimer judged that they had gotten far enough, he halted. The ghul didn’t struggle as he lifted her and balanced her on the rail. She just looked at the sky.

He thought of the long empty days ahead, of the hopeless nights alone in his flat. A vision flashed through his mind of keeping her and caring for her in the hope that one day the gods would see fit to bless him again.

Suddenly a train thundered by overhead. Its violence was the fury of the Pleiach’s unthinking threshers. He let go of the ghul.

He watched her twist in the air while she dropped. The smack of her splash took an instant to reach him. To his surprise she started struggling in the water. She got out of the habit somehow and began thrashing about.

Impulsively, he climbed over the rail and jumped. He tried to scream as he fell, but the air was forced back in his lungs. The water flew up to meet him and struck him full in the face. When he surfaced he looked wildly about. The woman was nowhere in sight.

Dipping his head underwater, he glimpsed a trail of bubbles and dove after it. Her pale form showed itself against the greenish gloom. It took all his strength to force himself deep enough to reach her. He grasped her hand and pulled her after him.

When he reached the surface he struck out for the nearest pontoon. He dragged her onto the rusty hull and tried to resuscitate her, but it was no good. She was dead. Spread out like that on the slippery metal, her limp form made him think of a drowned lacewing stuck to the side of a glass.

With a leaden heart he began to climb back up.

He didn’t get home until the middle of the afternoon. He had missed his shift, but it didn’t seem to matter. The flat was stuffy and quiet.

After puttering about for a bit, he opened a side door. The lamp turned on automatically, spreading a lurid glow over the closet. A mechanical image reclined on a soft couch at the back. It opened its legs, murmuring invitingly. But its face was nearly obliterated, its voice distorted and tinny. He slammed the door and shivered.

Just then he heard a knock. Trembling, he went and opened the front door. A woman stood in the hallway. She was half a head taller and perhaps ten years older, and had a buxom form that made him think of suckling. She was wearing a tight floral print dress. Her dark red hair was heaped high on her head. Her ripe red lips were painted with savage abandon.

“Hello again,” she said gravely.

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