The Oracle Engine

Excerpted from the short story by M.T. Anderson
By M.T. ANDERSON  |  July 20, 2011

Oracle Engine

[Translated from Mendacius's True Histories of the Roman Inventors]

The lizard of the wasteland, so dazzling to the eye, so rapid to flee or to strike, may grow to its full maturity only in the most brutal of deserts, where no dew falls to drink and where the sun is unrelenting. So, some say, was Marcus Furius Medullinus Machinator, he who first invented the oracle engines; had he not been raised in conditions of tragedy and deprivation, it may be that he never would have built his stochastikon, which has brought upon Rome both triumph and woe.

Marcus Furius was not born into such hardship, being the descendant of a respectable branch of the Furii clan that had several times served as tribunes of the people. It is said that his father's home was of a good size, and that had circumstances not intervened, Marcus Furius might some day have aspired to high office. Some claim that his birth was attended by many prodigies: shields of fire were seen in the air over Bruttium. The Pythian oracle moaned throughout the day of Marcus Furius's birth and would not prophesy, but when she was approached, screeched and hunkered on the navel of Jove like an ape on an urn. One of the decemvirs of Rome discovered that the Sybilline Books, in which all the civic rituals and laws of sacrifice are set out, had, in the night, grown warts. The leaves were shingled, as if taken with a rash. We need not believe such stories, which are always told by the credulous, once they know of the success of one person or another.

We do know that Marcus Furius grew to the age of 10 without either mishap or sign of genius. (None, at least, has been recorded.) His mother was delivered of a girl four years after his birth, a sister whose name does not survive, though the testaments of his love for her are many. We have no reason to believe that there was disharmony in the household, though outside the walls, tyrants clashed and marched on Rome, and many citizens were slain by the executioner's sword. Within the walls of Marcus Furius's house, we might imagine, the only tempests that blew were those that trouble the child and are forgotten by the man: the tedium of tutors; a ball rolls beneath the dining couch and cannot be retrieved; an infant sister steals sweet fruits from the altar, for which one is wrongly smacked. Marcus Furius later said he loved his lessons, especially those that described mathematics, where there were laws, said he, that comforted him, and axioms, things that could be known and trusted, as his mother's affection for him was a given, and his father's benign rule over the household was pleasant, just, and absolute.

When Marcus Furius was about 10, his father's house caught fire. In those days, the wiring that ran to the better houses of the Esquiliae was newly strung and hung upon the poles, exposed to the night and the gnawing of pests, and the lines often sparked and encouraged flame. Marcus awoke to find the roof of the house alight and the servants calling for water. As the season had been dry, there was little water in the cisterns and none in the impluvium. Everyone in the house ran through the chambers in confusion. The boy, standing in the atrium, quickly saw that the best course for all was to flee before the roofs collapsed in general ruin. He caught up his mother's hand and pulled her out of the house into the street.

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