Concerning the Fire

From Edward Mercer, PhD, to his contact James Wood in the colonies, to be sent by steamship the 26th of October

My good overseas correspondent,

I am writing to you concerning the fire that engulfed our city to such destructive effect over the days from the 9th to the 19th of October. I am happy to report to you that neither I nor my family has come to any physical harm in the course of this disaster, and I am currently writing from my house in the country with my wife safely by my side. The purpose of this letter shall be to relate to you the strange events to which I have been witness these past few days, and to lift from my soul some of the heavy burden of having seen these disturbing things which I am perhaps in the unique position to fully appreciate (and I must admit a part of me dearly hopes that it is so). Accordingly, since there is so much to relate, I will try to be as brief on each point as my conscience permits.

By the time you read this you will doubtless already know where the fire began, in the afternoon of the 9th, at a tavern in the south of the city. Whether by a criminal arsonist's hand or by an unfortunate accident this world may never know. Once started, however, it spread rapidly, as this neighborhood was composed in a great part of wooden buildings of two or three storeys each, situated in such proximity to one another that in many places a man could barely have fit himself between them. The dry weather which had prevailed already for weeks meant that the wooden boards and tiles of these structures were ripe as kindling, and I fear that many a poor family perished within them, cut off from escape by the flames. By the time our fire crews had begun to arrive in large numbers from their stations, the wind had already broken the fire into two main parts: The first traveled slowly eastward, across streets lined with wooden buildings characteristic of that area, while the second moved to the west and north more quickly, threatening the smaller factories and storehouses to the southwest of the river.

The dry weather also meant a shortage of water in those parts of the city more distant from the river, and our brave firefighting men had barely enough to provide the steam in their engines, with only a little left over with which to fight the conflagration. Thus hampered, their efforts at this time succeeded only in slowing the spread of the flames, and this only at the cost of considerable risk to life and limb. This state of affairs persisted over the next two days, as the eastern part of the fire continued to spread among the easily ignited wooden buildings while the western part became entrenched in the factories, where the supply of coal and oil and the labyrinthine nature of the streets and alleyways made it particularly dangerous. Over this period however the fire crews did succeed in preventing the fire from reaching the river.

This changed on the fourth day, when around the hour of noon a powerful but intermittent wind began to blow across the city from the south. By this point the dense, black smoke of the fire had begun to build up, casting a dismal darkness over the city. During this time, from my office in the north part of the city, I could glimpse on occasion some of the tallest flames licking up from the factories they consumed below. Ash and red sparks drifted through the air, which smelt heavily of coal and wood smoke, and their presence prompted the city authorities to forbid all travel by airship over the city for fear that a wayward spark could set alight the hydrogen gas in the envelopes of these vessels.

But I digress. No doubt that by the time this letter is in your hands, you will already know the details of how the fire crossed two of the five main bridges spanning the river on the western side, how the city authorities ordered an evacuation of the workers in those factories to the north of the bridges, and how the fire slowly spread out across the northern part of the city. Our brave fire crews fought valiantly for every square foot of the city, but with the dry weather and the convoluted layout of those parts devoted to industry, they could only stave off the inevitable. The men soon began to tire, and their exhaustion was evident as the flames pushed forth across those factories. Their firefighting engines however continued to work well so long as the supply of fuel and water did not run dry, a testament to the designs of these machines and the men like you and I whose vocation it is to engineer such things. Standing on the shoulders of the great men through the centuries who worked to derive those components that shone forth most efficiency and reliability, we built them well. Sometimes, I think, perhaps too well.

This brings me to my own part in this event. As the fire approached the older industrial center near the middle of the city, situated on the northern side of the river, my experience in designing those factories and machines caused the city authorities to ask for my assistance in the manner of plans to slow the conflagration. I was brought down on the seventh day by means of one of our military forces' armored carriages, hardened against fire and debris with bolted steel plates and driven by an oil-fired steam turbine. Thus protected in this machine, we were able to approach quite close to the fire itself, to best serve in determining its pattern and our course of action. The greater part of the factories had been evacuated without any effort to remove the many tons of coal and oil, which now fed the ever-advancing fire. I could see the dark metal hulks of the buildings, still standing within the orange blaze and the black smoke, their skeletons of tarnished steel and brick immune to the heat that swept around them with such ferocity.

But was not all that I saw. Many of the machines in these structures had been abandoned with water still in their boilers, and as the fire advanced, it heated this water to steam and caused these engines to run once again. Many times, through the haze of the inferno my eyes caught the image of the white spray of steam hissing through vents, wheels spinning, pistons and rods swinging to and fro, and behind the roar and crackle of the fire the regular ring of metal upon metal served to confirm everything my eyes reported to me. Did I say that perhaps we built too well? Dozens of machines, their iron parts too resistant to the heat to melt in a fire of this kind, far out of the reach now of human hands, and yet still running, running, running until their boilers ran dry or until the forces became too great and they flew apart in a metal storm of bolts and cogs and steel springs that even in their chaos seemed to twist and turn in unison as if trying to accomplish some dark mechanical goal. I had never been witness to sights like these before, and it awoke even deeper fears in my heart than the fire itself.

This was on the seventh day, and our plan at that time lay in making a firebreak of the main road north of the factories, which ran from east to west and was wide enough, perhaps, that our men would be able to hold the fire at bay there. To the east were situated the junk pits, huge piles of metal parts and machinery lying discarded and abandoned in the dark, oily mud saturated with the foul water pumped from the bowels of the factories. The lack there of tall structures and hollow buildings where air could flow meant that it formed a natural barrier to the flames, and our hope was to let the pits slow the fire's advance. This left only a small gap between the pits and the main road, where the highest concentration of men and machinery would be stationed to keep the fire from passing at all costs.

How I regret, now, that I was ever involved in coming to that decision. Yes, it worked, ultimately...but at a terrible cost.

While our defense along the main road held, at the junk pits I fear we greatly misunderstood the nature of the area. There were no tall buildings and the terrain was lower, it was true. But countless empty pipes and tunnels still lay under the city, running into the pits, providing a limited but steady supply of oxygen. The oil dripping from lubrication in the countless axles and pistons buried in those pits, the remaining coal left lying in the fireboxes cast away upon the heap, and the oil drained from the factories through the water, floating on the water, forming pools and pockets throughout the morass, building up over the decades, still potent and ready to burn. Not with the same speed and heat, perhaps, as it had in the structures to the west of the pit, but the fire here had all of the same power and energy and proved just as difficult to extinguish. Once burning debris had landed upon the junk heap and ignited the fuel, small but persistent fires began to burn, reappearing as often as we fought them back, sending columns of black smoke into the air and across the city towards the north. This continued all that night and all the next day, and our hope was that all the easily accessible fuel in the pit would be burned in this relatively safe manner, halting the spread of the fire.

How naive we were! On the contrary, towards the evening of the eighth day, the fires in the pit began to increase in speed and intensity, spreading faster than we could fight them, igniting more pockets of oil and burning away more space in the tunnels for the air to flow through from outside. The flames spread wider and higher, and our crews were forced to turn back and begin fighting the fire from the higher ground near the edge of the pit. Several of the factories to the north and east of the pit had been systematically demolished earlier in the day, to make room for our firefighting men to maneuver their engines and their hoses and to reduce the risk of possible ignition or collapse of any of these buildings. By the time the Sun set on the eighth day, it was clear that without these measures we would likely have been forced back even further and lost a great deal more of the city in the eastern direction. The blaze burned bigger and hotter, feeding off the coal and oil hidden deep within the pit, and none of us knew how much fuel still lay in that abyss; only that it was considerably more than anyone had estimated.

But it soon became apparent that the fire itself wasn't all that we were fighting. Did I say that perhaps we built too well? So much metal and glass and lubricating oil, so many components, all designed and built with precision, all ready to be fit one onto another, so quickly, so easily. We thought that the guiding hand of man was a necessity, but we were mistaken. Only energy is a necessity, if enough is supplied. Bursts of flame welling up through the tangled metal, pushing components one against another, a clang of steel as one fits onto another, and another. At first they were small: A flaming wheel rolling out of the fire here, an axle attached to a pair of cogs there, all easily avoided by our firefighting men and all coming to a stop as soon as they had lost whatever momentum they had gained from rolling down the heap. But they got bigger. Metal frames with three, four or even more wheels trundled out of the fire, many of them still burning as they came. The moment I thought that momentum was all that moved these devices, a tricycular framework driven by falling iron weights emerged from the conflagration, followed by a sort of burning cart with a boiler that spat fire and steam as it accelerated towards us before being overcome by its own forces and collapsing into pieces. Within the fire, my eyes were able to perceive metal chains and rods turning, rising and falling with the power of the fire, shifting metal components that continued to fall together, the force of each part moving other parts until they reached the place where they fit best, as often as not where the old component could begin to drive the new. What should have been fundamentally chaotic showed increasing order and complexity, and the strange apparatuses that rolled or slid or flew out of the inferno continued to grow in number, size and variety. And that was when I saw it. In the very center of the fire, a slender, skeletal chain of hinges and shafts, connected together one after another, rose skyward, flailing in the air as pieces flew off it, and collapsing again into the blaze.

The fire burned higher, and brighter, and hotter, and over and over again, strange burning contraptions emerged and ran and finally broke to pieces. The hiss of steam and rhythmic clang of mechanical parts formed an accompaniment with the roar of the fire as device after device, of ever-increasing size and complexity and efficiency, was formed within the burning pit only to be cast out onto the cold ground beyond. These were machines of no human design, formed from the pure mathematical patterns of weight and inertia and force, and they seemed to move with an alien will, sometimes even their broken pieces continuing to turn and writhe as springs and flywheels and pistons exhausted their energy into the night.

Motion caught my eye, and I turned, to behold once again a twisting framework deep within the fire, rising from the mass of metal below as if it were trying to escape from its earthly chains, its gears turning in unison, meshing into one another to drive the shafts and cams, pushing it higher and higher. And- thank goodness- again it stopped, and fell, and returned to its infernal hole in the depths of the heap. But at this time more and more parts were falling together, forming ever larger machines, some of them coming apart again before ever leaving the fire, others rolling outward across the ruined ground, leaving trails of bolts and springs and blackened soot. One magnificent contraption, larger than any of our firefighting engines, rolled out of the blaze on seven great metal wheels, burning, exploding as the shocks of the uneven ground dislodged its components, and then a second, smaller device falling together from the first, driven by a flywheel that shot off sparks as it trundled away, finally colliding with an unfortunate firefighter and crushing him in its grinding cogs before falling to pieces. The roar of a boiler running at its full capacity could be heard, and a moment later a rocket-driven apparatus covered in whirring gears and hissing pipes flew out of the inferno at the head of a trail of billowing steam, before bursting in a metal cascade that rained down upon the ground with a terrific clatter. By this time it came to my attention that a light rain was starting to fall from the tenebrous clouds above, each drop hissing into steam as it impacted hot metal below; but it was a blessing for our tired fire crews, the promise of a potential conclusion to this nightmarish ordeal. We had all been praying for rain since the fire began, and it seemed that now perhaps the heavens, obscured though they remained by smoke and clouds, had chosen to smile upon us at last. In view that the rain would keep the sparks low to the ground and in hopes of bringing an end to this struggle, I gave word to a messenger to go to the city authorities and order a drop by our water-carrying airships upon the pit.

For a third time that night, yet another tentacle of steel burst up through the heap and towards the smoke-filled night sky. Denser this time than before, with larger wheels and pistons and pipes, and this time with force as it sent metal parts flying away through the flames. It shook itself almost as a symbol of defiance against the rain, before once again descending, but in a more deliberate manner which suggested a machine operating as intended, rather than a machine failing its task. Although it was gone, the burning pile of metal continued to attack us, strange new contraptions that appeared ever more alien, but they worked. The sheer energy was causing these components to come together into better, stronger forms that were able now to resist their own demise. Some of them no longer merely fell to pieces or came to a halt eventually of their own accord, but kept going, turning this way and that across the rubble-strewn ground as our fire crews tried to nullify them using their hoses and machines. This was no longer just the scene of a fire, it was a war zone, a war between humans and the inferno that by its incredible power alone created mechanical devices of its own to extend its fiery grasp. The pits themselves heaved and shuddered with burning energy, disgorging their hadean creations as quickly as they could be destroyed.

Did I say that perhaps we built too well? Man was no longer the creator here. Our components were too good, too well standardized, fitting together too perfectly. They no longer needed us, just enough energy, to combine them together, growing from the mathematical rules that originally defined them in those blueprints so many years ago. No intelligent mind was necessary here now. Just rules, geometric rules that said component A can attach to components B and C, and over and over again, with enough complexity that when one puts this many together, they are able to take on new structures of their own that no man could have predicted. As you know, our logicians have discovered that there exist collections of geometric shapes which, when one is added onto another and so forth where only the pieces that fit next are selected at every step, they are able in their patterns to compute anything that can be computed, accomplish any task that can be accomplished. I think now that unknowingly, we already had granted a physical existence to such theories in the parts of our machines. When we designed those parts, we held them to but one criterion: That they should always work. And I fear that work is precisely what they do. What we forgot was that to keep the machines tame, it must be necessary that they need us, it must be necessary that they fail without us. But that was never a criterion, and the machines no longer fail without us. We built too well.

The rain had increased to a torrent when the great mechanical arm from within the churning pit rose once again. But it was not just one arm this time, but three at least, I soon saw, each with all the mass and power of the one which I had last seen, and with even more complexity of shape and movement, if such a thing were possible. They had something now that they had not before, like the next step in a diabolical evolution; if the first arm had possessed motion, the second form, and the third power, then these had purpose. They thrust themselves upwards, then turned and bent, coming down with a thunderous crash upon the dark burning mass below, sending a shower of metal and flame out from around them. Even as our firefighting men trained their hoses upon the monstrosity, its wheels and pistons seemed to strain against themselves, as if lifting something upwards from below, down in that hot stygian abyss, and I knew then that whatever they dragged on towards the surface must not reach it, for the sake of my own sanity and that of the men around me; for such a mechanical abomination as could give rise to the horrors of that night must not have been meant for the eyes of man!

It was then, through the orange haze and the black rain and the thunder of the flames and the machines, that a horn sounded, and the next moment, the airships that I had called for dropped their payload and drenched the pit in a mighty cataract. Hundreds of tons of dark water contacted thousands of tons of hot metal, and the scene burst into a cloud of steam, gray in the darkness, that obscured my vision of that which was within the fire. I could feel the tremor in the ground and air even through the steel hull of my transport, and saw it throw our strong firefighting men across the ground with its force. But when it cleared I could not help but let loose a sigh of relief and a whispered prayer; for in the darkness, my eyes could perceive now the silhouette of that infernal device, the arms still now and broken, robbed of their heat and power, and between them the crown of some dark sphere, its iron gears and shafts and chains silent in the night.

The rain, I discovered later, was our greatest blessing. With the exception of the occasional breach, our line along the main road north of the fire had held successfully, and with the city now damp and cold, the fire had little upon which to feed. Exhausted yet triumphant, our fire crews worked the next three days to eliminate the remaining pockets of the blaze, until by the afternoon of the 19th the last column of black smoke had drifted away into the somber gray sky. Even yet, I am sure, they are counting the terrible toll in human life, but our efforts were not in vain, for indeed fully half the city remained untouched by the flames. Our men worked well to their last ounces of strength and all of us have for them the most heartfelt gratitude and congratulations. We had won.

And yet, even now, it is not that we won that remains foremost in my mind. The strange things that happened that night at the pits still dominate my thoughts, as I cannot help but dwell on the implications of what I saw. We built those components so that they could be assembled with ease by human hands and human minds. Reliability through simplicity, that was the goal and the principle. Our mathematicians already knew of the complex, unpredictable patterns that could arise from such simplicity, but in our innocence we believed in a distinction between theory and reality. In our innocence we thought, because we conceived of the logical rules by which component A could attach to components B and C, that they belonged to us, that the inventor remains always in control.

Well, if that is the case then I am innocent no longer. That terrible union of fire and machine that existed there was destroyed by water in the end, but until then it did exist. Enough energy, and a universal rule, that's all that is required, and man ceases to be the master. For the first time in our history, enough energy was there, in one place, at one time, the highest concentration our civilization could provide even in its own destruction. Looking out my window now across the bright green gardens and trees and blue sky and remembering what it was like that night, beside the pits, I feel some security, for this planet is not the right kind of planet for such things. In order to exist in perpetuum, I think, these machines would need a darker, hotter world than our own. A world built of iron and oil and coal, forever burning, forever heating the steam to drive the pistons and wheels, a world of fire and hot metal in constant motion. But that is not our world, and I pray it never will be.

And yet, I know what I saw that night. Perhaps only for a moment, before the airship let loose its watery payload and extinguished it once and for all. But even now I believe that for a moment, at least, something lived down there.

Yours sincerely,

Edward Mercer