Inquisitor

by Frederick J. Ross

May 17, 2012

Yakob Ascher stepped stiffly off the train in Hakem, waved his battered hat in a vague farewell at the conductor, and looked around the platform, mopping his brow. In the scrap of shade afforded by the train station was a group that could be none other than the local notables come to meet him. Two were whispering to each other and glancing at him now. Expecting something grander than a wrinkled old man with a battered suitcase, were you? Behind him the train whistled and pulled away. He was the only passenger to get off. He put his case down on the platform beside him and fanned himself with his hat while he waited for the locals to come to some kind of decision. He almost hoped they would scurry off so he could find the Talbot Hotel, wash, and lie down after jouncing along on the train for the past day and a half.

Unfortunately, they decided to greet him. One man, sweating profusely in a high, stiff collar and a formal coat, led the others forward into the blistering sun and along the platform. “Inquisitor Ascher?” he inquired, offering his hand. “Robert Urqhardt, mayor of Hakem. Welcome to our town. Allow me to introduce—”

Yakob kept his smile fixed on his face and shook each offered hand as Urqhardt introduced them: Edmond Carstairs, the local minister, who murmured some platitude about doing god’s work; Jane Morris, head of the local chapter of the Utah Territories Women’s League, with a build and expression that made Yakob think she probably resented that all the Mormons had been killed before she was born; Judge Jay Morris, who had come “to lend a hand” from some nearby town large enough to have a judge; Abraham Talbot, the owner of the machine works; and slouched in the back, the heavy, uniformed figure of the sheriff, Rod Talbot, who touched a finger to his hat, and kept glancing at the shade, obviously wishing to get back in it.

“We locked up the computer until you arrived,” the mayor was assuring him.

“We don’t know that it’s a computer yet,” Yakob cautioned him. You certainly don’t, he added to himself.

“Well, I’m sure you’ll set it all to rights,” was the answer. “Come, we’ll take you there at once.”

So much for my wash and nap. He pulled his hat low over his eyes. They led him out onto the dusty streets of the town where curious faced glanced at him from darkened windows while the sun leeched the color from the outside world. The mayor was going on about Hakem being a proper town, not accustomed to problems; never been a hint of computing here before, and the young man such a promising engineer. Trained at the college down in Lafayette!

It was a relief to step into the cool dark of the cavernous machine works. Yakob took off his hat and wiped his brow. The mayor nudged Abraham Talbot, who ran forward to unlock a ludicrously large padlock on a store room, then stood aside and gestured Yakob in. With a sigh, the inquisitor put his hat down on his case and stepped up to the doorway.

In the center of the room was a trio of cylindrical frames, heavily hung with wire and gears. It could have a sophisticated a telegraph controller.

“Who thought it might be a computer?” he asked over his shoulder.

“I did,” Abraham Talbot said, clasping his hands apologetically across his belly. “Ned said it was only a machine tool controller, but that’s too complicated to be just a controller.”

Yakob sighed. “Mr. Talbot, the complexity has nothing to do it.”

“You mean it’s not a computer?”

“I have no idea.”

“But you’re an inquisitor—” The machine works’ owner trailed off as Yakob stepped into the room, and slowly circled the device.

He rather thought the device was purely mechanical from the metal arms spreading grotesquely from the top of each frame and the absence of any obvious electrical connections. It was certainly complicated, nothing he wanted to unravel without the help of its designer. He walked back out of the room. “Where is its designer?”

“Is it a computer?” the mayor asked. “Are we going to have to execute Ned Saunders?”

“I don’t know, and I won’t until I’ve studied it in detail, preferably with the help of its designer.”

“Sheriff, go get—” the mayor began, but Yakob interrupted him. This had gone on long enough.

“No! This won’t be finished this afternoon, and I’m certainly not doing anything until I’ve had a chance to wash and lie down. Mr. Mayor, would you please show me to the Talbot Hotel? We will discuss the arrangements for my investigation on the way.”

“I—” Robert Urqhardt swallowed visibly.

The sheriff had pushed himself up off the wall where he been leaning and was looking at Yakob with real interest now. “If the inquisitor don’t mind, I’ll show him the way,” he offered.

“That will do very well.” Yakob picked up his case and gestured to the sheriff to precede him from the building, not looking back at the rest of the group.

The sun hit Yakob like a blow, and he squinted his eyes. “I’d forgotten how the whole world goes sepia toned in these hills during high summer.”

“So what shall I arrange for you and the prisoner?” the sheriff offered. “Esme Talbot’s hotel is just on the far side of the train station.”

“Would a public hearing be a good idea in this town?”

The sheriff reflected. “That depends.”

“On what?”

“On whether you’re here to find out what’s true or to condemn Ned. Y’see, Ned’s well liked, and folks’ll want to see that he’s treated fair.”

“Computing is a question of mathematics, sheriff. He built a computer or he didn’t. I have to have a mathematical proof either way. If I can’t manage it, then more inquisitors have to come and try to crack the problem.”

Sheriff Talbot scratched the back of his head. “You could use the courtroom, but wait until after supper to let the heat break.”

“Eight o’clock?”

“Usually cool enough by then.”

They walked in silence for a moment, Yakob acutely aware of the curtains pulled aside to watch them pass. “Is Ned Saunders going to help me understand his machine?”

“Him? Oh sure. He’s sure he didn’t build a computer.” The sheriff came to a halt. “Here’s Esme’s. Come on over to the courthouse around seven thirty. The judge and I will have things set up.”


As in all towns in all sunburned places in the world, its people came alive when the heat of the day broke in the gloaming, and this evening the whole town, it seemed, had packed into the courtroom of the old, plaster ceilinged courthouse to hear Ned Saunders’s fate. It was a social occasion, everyone full of speculation, and the few tidbits of gossip so far in circulation about the inquisitor—a wrinkled old prune of a man in a disreputable hat; not at all what was expected in a grandee from Wichita; had been very polite to Esme Talbot when he checked in—caused a hum of conversation that died abruptly when Yakob preceded Judge Morris into the room. It held as he sat down at the high bench, the judge next to him.

“That’s Ned there, sitting next to the sheriff,” the judge muttered, pointing out a brown haired man unremarkable except for managing to seem ‘boyish’ while clearly being in his thirties. “That’s his wife and their three kids in the first row behind him.”

“What a lovely woman,” Yakob remarked: long blond curls, high cheekbones, long, finely formed hands clasped convulsively in her lap. “Apparently much attached to her husband.”

“Been in to visit him in the jail every day,” confirmed Judge Morris.

Yakob nodded soberly, then addressed the silent room. “My name is Yakob Ascher. I am a grand inquisitor of the Institute of Computation in Wichita.” He relaxed slightly. “As I’m sure all of you know, I was called here because a man named Ned Saunders built a device which his employer, Abraham Talbot, thought was a computer.”

He paused, and surveyed them severely. “It may be a computer. It may not be a computer. I cannot know until I have thoroughly understood the machine and then established a mathematical proof one way or the other.”

“I am not here to render summary judgement on Ned Saunders. I am here to study a machine and produce a fact as certain as one plus one equals two. However, before I can do so, I must understand the machine in question. Mr. Saunders,” he continued, looking down at the accused. “That will be much easier if you will help me. Will you?”

“Yes, sir!” was the immediate response.

“Excellent, Mr. Saunders. We will begin work at eight o’clock tomorrow morning at the workshop. Sheriff, will you bring him there?”

“Yes, sir. Eight o’clock,” Sheriff Talbot confirmed.

“Thank you, sheriff. Now, I believe Hakem has never had a brush with computation before. Do you have questions for me?”

They did indeed, and he cringed from the sudden shouting until the minister got up in front and waved for silence. “Inquisitor Ascher, I’ve tried to tell them what I could, but I’m a man of god, not of mathematics. I think I speak for all of us in wanting to know if we’re in danger from that thing.”

Yakob looked around. Most of the audience was nodding. “Mr. Saunders, does it have any other outputs than those levers on the top?”

“No, sir!” said the engineer earnestly.

Yakob turned back to the minister. “You would be perfectly safe sleeping with it in your bedroom.”

The hall burst into conversation. “But it’s a computer!” the minister cried. “One of the devices that spread plague and laid waste to countries!”

Yakob sighed. “Mr. Carstairs, have you ever seen a cicada?”

“Of course.”

“I thought you might. Ever been afraid of a cicada? No? How about the prospect of ten or a hundred cicadas hopping around Hakem? I think we could all put up with that.” There were a few chuckles in the audience. “How about a swarm of locusts?” There was an uncomfortable shifting in the crowd. “Yes, that’s a different thing entirely, isn’t it? But it’s still only cicadas, just unimaginably many of them.

“It’s like that with computers. You could have a hundred computers in this town, and get useful work from them and the worst you might do is stub your toe on one of them. It’s the locust swarm that’s the problem.

“If this machine is a cicada, I’m here to destroy it, because we long ago decided that we wanted no more swarms of locusts. On the other hand, it might be a grasshopper, and nothing to worry about.”

“But what if it escapes?” a woman shouted from the back.

“It hasn’t got wheels, Helen!” Ned shouted back, leaping to his feet. “How would it move?”

“Locusts don’t have wheels either, but they move just fine!” shouted another man. The minister tried to tell him that the locusts were a metaphor. Someone added, “Yeah, idgit!” and the room erupted into noise.

Yakob caught the sheriff’s eye, and jerked his head. The sheriff nodded, and hauled Ned Saunders off by the side door. Yakob followed Judge Morris out of the room.

“Did I make my point, or will they form a lynch mob to go burn the thing?” Yakob asked the judge when they were in the out on the street again.

The judge shrugged. “Not my town, but it’s probably safe enough. Hakem’s big on talk, short on doing.” They turned and started back down the street to the hotel. “Rod Talbot would have a better view. Not exactly a couth individual, but he’s got a good nose for what people are up to.”

Yakob stopped short. “Why are you here, judge? There’s been no crime committed that the civil authorities have jurisdiction over.”

“Come now, inquisitor. The season at Lake Tahoe doesn’t start for another month. What was I supposed to do with myself until then? Lock myself in my study and read? I’ll escape these hills for Ute and some civilization soon enough, but this is the best show around.”

Yakob snorted. “It’s about to get very boring. Tomorrow and the next day, and maybe the day after, Ned Saunders and I are going to pore over that machine of his until I understand it as well as he does. Then I’m going to lock myself in my room and order up room service until I prove that it is or is not a computer.”

“How long will that take?”

“No idea. A day? A week?”

“A month?”

Yakob shrugged and resumed walking. “If I spent two weeks and made no head way, I’d telegraph for help. I’ve only had to once, though, and that time I had to figure out the machine on my own.”

They went up the steps and got their own keys from behind the desk. “What a time for a thief,” the judge commented. “The whole town’s in that courtroom, I think, and not even a soul to man the desk. Night cap?” he offered.

“No, thank you.” Yakob returned the judge’s nod, then picked his way through the darkened dining room and to the far stairwell that led to his room in the old part of the rambling building.


Over the course of the next two days, as Yakob worked with Ned Saunders to understand the machine, he decided that the young man had truly tried to build a flexible controller without it being a computer. He might even have succeded. Yakob, to his annoyance, also decided that he liked the young man.

“I understand the machine,” he said in the late afternoon on the second day. “Now it’s all mathematics.”

“But you see that I didn’t build a computer!” Ned exclaimed, jumping up from the floor.

“It’s not a question of intent, Mr. Saunders. It’s a question of mathematical fact. You learned a little about computing at school, and you avoided the routes you know, but the machine may still be a computer, whether you meant it to be or no.”

Ned’s shoulders slumped. “Yes, sir. I suppose I’ll go back to the sheriff’s cell while you do your math?”

“For now. Sheriff!” Yakob called out the door to the storeroom. “We’re done for today.”

Rod Talbot had his feet up and his hat over his eyes. “Alright, inquisitor,” he answered, not moving. “What next?”

“Another public hearing this evening,” Yakob told him. “Eight o’clock again. I’ll see you there at seven thirty.” He turned back to Ned Saunders, who was standing forlornly by his machine. “Go with the sheriff now, Mr. Saunders. I’ll see you this evening.”

Yakob spent the intervening hours calculating in the twilight of his room at the hotel, with the heavy curtains drawn and a little of the previous night’s coolness still remaining. Converting the machine’s workings into a formal grammar was the work of half an hour, then he had lost himself in the first stages of proof—examining where the normal embeddings of a lambda calculus failed; a brief digression into Turing’s machine; then trying a different encoding of terms onto the machine’s state—until a sharp knock at his door had made him spasm in his seat. His pencil clattered to the floor.

“What?” he called irritably, retrieving it.

“You said to call you for supper at six thirty, sir,” came the voice beyond the door.

“Thank you. I’ll be down directly.”

After eating whatever was put in front of him in Esme Talbot’s dining room, he went over to the court house. The sheriff and Ned Saunders were waiting for him in the judge’s chambers.

Yakob sat down across from them. “Sheriff, if I let Ned Saunders go home, will he run away?”

The sheriff rubbed the back of his head, glancing aside at Ned. “No, I don’t think so.” Ned shook his head vigorously.

“Perhaps we can use his wife as surety.”

“Laura?” Ned shouted. “What’s she done?”

“Nothing that I know of. However, I am perfectly in my powers, Mr. Saunders, to declare that if you run, she will be imprisoned for it. Would he run in that case?” he asked the sheriff. Rod Talbot looked down at his boots in consternation, muttering something about a cold day in hell first. “That will do, then.”

“I won’t have Laura hurt because of this,” Ned insisted.

“Your wife has already been hurt because of his,” Yakob told him coldly, looking him in the eyes. “If you don’t want her hurt more, don’t run.”

Ned’s eyes dropped, and he slumped in his seat. Yakob smiled thinly. “I’m going in the other room to continue working. Call me at eight.”

The judge arrived at ten minutes before eight, and Yakob once more preceded him into the courtroom. Once more the hum of talk stopped short as they entered. The sheriff had Ned Saunders seated in the same place, his wife and children were again in the row just behind him. Yakob and Judge Morris sat.

“I have finished examining the machine. Now my real work begins,” he told them. “In the mean time…” He looked straight at Laura Saunders. “Mrs. Saunders, will you be surety for your husband’s release?”

“No, Laura—” Ned interjected.

“Sheriff, remove the prisoner from the courtroom.” Yakob ordered. The sheriff sighed and bodily hauled a protesting Ned Saunders from the room. “Laura Saunders, I am willing to release your husband until I have finished with my investigation, provided that he remains in or near your home at all times, and does no engineering, nothing more sophisticated than repairing a fence. If he breaks these conditions I will imprison you. Is that acceptable to you?”

She took a deep breath and sat up taller. “Yes, sir, it is.” It was the first time he had heard her speak. Her accent wasn’t the local drawl, but cultured and clear. He cocked his head, looking at her with new interest.

“Very well. In that case, you may take your husband home with you tonight. Judge, please ask the sheriff to bring Mr. Saunders back in.” When the prisoner was seated before him again, he continued. “Mr. Saunders, your wife has agreed to act as surety for you. If she is not to be imprisoned, you must remain in or near your home and do no engineering until I say otherwise.”

“Sir, leave Laura out—”

“It is done,” Yakob cut him off. “Sheriff, release the prisoner. I have a great deal of work to do. Good night.” He stood and walked from the room, not waiting to see what followed.


The sun was sinking in the west three days later when he finished his proof. He pushed back from the desk and and rubbed his eyes. He drank a glass of water, picked up his hat, and went down the creaky stairs from his room.

“Where is Ned Saunders’s home?” he asked Esme Talbot at the front desk.

“Oh, you’ll want a ride, sir,” she said, looking at him worriedly. He hadn’t come out of his room for three days, ordering his meals in. “It’s over two miles.”

“No, that’s quite alright. Just tell me how to find it.”

As he walked west on the dirt road out of town, the sky glowed, as if all the colors forced out of the day by the glare had been saved up for sunset. The sun was almost below the horizon by the time he found the house, a well built, three storied building on rolling piece of land.

He stopped on the road, listening, as the sound of a violin floated to him from the house. No casual fiddling, but someone truly in control of their instrument and their music.

As he approached the front porch, the house seemed deserted, but for the music floating down from above him. He stepped up on the porch and peered through the screen door. No sign of life. He knocked. No answer, and the music did not stop. He sighed and opened the door, and followed the music up the stairs to a small room under the very ridge of the roof. In its doorway he paused.

The room was painted sky blue, floor, ceiling, and walls, with a single large window looking east. The light was fading, and Laura Saunders stood alone in the center of the room, facing away from him, the violin held beneath her chin.

Yakob didn’t know how long he stood listening to her play. At last, she took her bow from the strings and sighed.

“Where is Ned Saunders?” Yakob asked.

She whirled, backing towards the window.

“Are you—is it—?” she stammered.

Yakob nodded gravely. “It’s a computer.” Her shoulders slumped. “Where is your husband, Mrs. Saunders?”

She looked at his feet, standing beyond the edge of the blue of her room, but he made no move to step across that line. “He’s a good man—”

“I know. Where is he?”

“By the creek with the children. He’s done as you said.”

“Then I shall wait for him on the porch.” Yakob turned away. As he passed the first landing, the violin wailed behind him. It sang on, weeping, as he sat on the front steps, and the sun set.

He didn’t have to wait long. Ned Saunders and three children came up from the fields in the gloaming. Ned’s face was tight. “Go on inside, kids,” he said, and they edged past Yakob, glancing in fear now at him, now up at the top of the house where their mother’s instrument screamed. Then he stood alone with Yakob in the darkness.

“Well?” he asked.

“It’s a computer.” Yakob heard him grunt, as if someone had punched him in the gut. A moment passed in silence.

“How?”

“I found an embedding of a Turing complete automaton. It’s not simple, not simple at all, but it is a computer.” In the darkness he walked Ned through the details: the embedding of Turing’s machine in the automaton, the embedding of the automaton’s units in a pattern distributed across Ned’s machine. At the end Ned was silent. “Do you understand.”

“Yes.” Then, in anguish, “I tried so hard.”

“Yes, you did. You’re not the first.”

Once more silence fell.

“What happens now?” Ned asked at last.

“I cannot give you a happy ending. You will come back to Wichita and be imprisoned. However, I’m willing to recommend you for training as an inquisitor when we get there.”

“And my family?”

“They are not my concern. Do you have relatives here?”

“I do, but she doesn’t. I’m all she has.”

Yakob shrugged.

“If they came to Wichita, could I see them?”

“Yes, between two and six in the afternoon. If you are accepted for training and do well, you might be paroled in a few years and you could live with them.”

“But if prisoners can become inquisitors—did you build a computer?” Ned asked him.

“No, just a calculator. I was an accountant’s son and too lazy to do the calculations myself. My father shoved me into the institute as fast as he could. Many of us did, though.”

They fell silent again. The violin had stopped, and the house was silent and dark.

“What if I were to run, and take Laura and the kids with me?” Ned asked.

“You would all be proscribed. The sheriff of the next town you entered would pick you up, and you would all be imprisoned.”

“Even the children?”

“Yes.” Yakob turned and looked up at the stars. “You have tonight and tomorrow morning. Be in town at three o’clock for your sentencing. Our train leaves at six.”

“I guess I don’t have a choice.”

“You always have a choice,” Yakob told him harshly. “What you don’t have are good options.” A pause. “Go in to your family. Pack. Say goodbye. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Yakob turned away and left him there in the dark. It’s never good, he thought, this part of the business. He clasped his hands behind his back, and followed the dim outline of the road toward the lights of Hakem, away from the silent house behind him.


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