The Oracle Engine

By M.T. ANDERSON  |  July 20, 2011

oracle engine -- book

At the time of this fire, the great Crassus, soon to be one of the most powerful and most avaricious men in Rome, was still gathering his wealth.

One of the means by which he made this fortune was by speculating in properties that were aflame.

No sooner had the smoke of the fire risen above the city than it was sighted by Crassus's slaves, who were posted hovering above the Palatine Hill to spy out such opportunities. They sounded a klaxon, and having warned Crassus below of the conflagration, they rowed toward the house in their galley, which was outfitted with water tanks and with spouts and funnels and taps for discharge.

By the time the young Marcus reached the street, the galley was above the house, drifting to a halt at a safe distance, its keel ruddy with reflected flame. The boy's father was in angry negotiation with wealthy Crassus, who had already arrived and was haggling over a price for which he would agree to squelch the flames. Crassus demanded two hundred thousand denarii before he would allow his slaves to open even the first spout.

Marcus Furius's father, seeing his house burning with all his possessions in it, pleaded that he could not pay such an amount, that such a fee would ruin him utterly, and that they lost time in arguing. Crassus informed him that it would be a further hundred denarii for each spigot used in dousing the fire.

Marcus Furius's father, who had seen the waxen death masks of his family, precious to their remembrance, melting as he fled, and knew that all of his books and his furniture were likely char, now was in a rage at Crassus's delay, and he said he would not pay a copper coin above one hundred thousand denarii.

It was at this point that Marcus realized that his sister was not with them.

A shriek went up among the servants, and inquiries were made. It was determined that Marcus's young sister, six years of age, was likely trapped in the women's quarters on the second floor. She had not been brought out of the house when the others fled. The house was now a mass of flame.

The girl's father pleaded with Crassus, and her mother screamed for help. Crassus stood with his arms folded and concluded, upon consideration, that two hundred and fifty thousand denarii would not be an unfair price for the dousing of the fire and the saving of the moppet, if she had not already been consumed, howling.

Making noises of fear and rage and grief that were not human sounds, but animal, Marcus's father and mother ran into the burning house to save their child.

Through his megaphone, Crassus cautioned his slaves to wait.

The fire had now devoured all of the roof. It had spread even to the trees in the peristyle. Their tufts could be seen to burn above the wall, as if there were some new, cataclysmic season with its own foliage and fruit.

While Marcus watched, the house collapsed, the roofs hurled down into the atrium. The destruction was prodigious. A wall toppled in, and there was a powerful wind as the fire devoured even the air. His mother, his father, and his sister were gone.

Crassus addressed himself to the boy: "Your father was a fool not to accept my terms. What is a thousand fewer denarii, or ten thousand, or a hundred thousand, when weighed against life itself? What does wealth matter?"

Having said this, he watched the fire take its course. He was delighted to see that the next house had caught alight, and he called out to the neighbor an offer like the one he had just presented to Marcus's father, adding that the cost of hesitation was clearly great, as the example of the family Furius had just shown. The neighbor having agreed to his terms, to be repaid in a lifetime of debt and servitude, Crassus cried up to his galley, and they opened their nozzles, and at last the cooling, sweet water rained down upon those who watched and upon their habitations.

Before he left, Crassus saw that the boy remained, unmoving, before the ruins of his burning house. It is said that Crassus reached out and closed a silver coin in the boy's right hand, saying slyly, "I will buy the ruins of your house and the land it sits upon for a single denarius. Keep this coin, child. When you look upon it, think upon your father, and let it be a reminder to you of the value of money."

With that, he quit the scene.

This is the earliest tale we hear of Marcus Furius Medullinus and of his history.

"The Oracle Engine" from Steampunk! An Anthology of Fantastically Rich and Strange Stories. Copyright © 2011 by M.T. Anderson. Reproduced by permission of Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

For more information on "The Oracle Engine," visit

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