The lighting in The Denman House was dim, according to the preference of its members. A few oil lamps on just some of the tables. Absinthe in every glass. Of all the ironies in the world, it was absinthe that struck Sir Dylan the hardest. He squeezed the newspaper in his left hand with enough force to smudge the words on the page.
“Incompetence,” he muttered.
“What was that?” asked Neville, though Sir Dylan had spoken clearly enough. But Andrew Neville never seemed to hear a word that came out of his mouth.
“Incompetence,” Sir Dylan repeated. “On the part of policemen, I mean. And on the part of the government, and the administration of universities. Incompetence and idiocy.”
“How – how do you mean?” Neville stuttered, sipping at his absinthe with all the trepidation of a young man stealing from his father’s cache.
“Consider Burke and Hare, by way of example. The anatomy professors asked no questions when those nefarious devils began delivering cadavers to their doors. No ‘where did you acquire that body’, no ‘this one appears to have been strangled to death,’ not even an ‘I know this man; he was alive and well when last I saw him.’ The police force was barely even established at the time. That’s when the government stepped in, of course. I suppose they finally recognised the need for better policing. Hence the Inquisition.”
Neville nodded slowly, daring to sip just a bit more from his glass, before he ventured to provoke Sir Dylan again with another question. But Dylan was replying even before the words escaped Neville’s lips.
“The Inquisition was formed as a counter to incompetence. If the police had simply done their job in the first place, if the government had fulfilled its obligations, the Inquisition would never have been formed.”
A hush settled over the room. The other gentlemen bit their lips. Only Neville seemed to want to reply. But he held his tongue. The Inquisition was, of course, that government body that was sanctioned not only to form new policies, but also to enforce laws, to make arrests, to conduct trials, to give sentences, and even to carry out those sentences. In short, judge, jury, executioner. And more.
Naturally, human bias would have made the Inquisition unjust, unfair, dangerous, and unethical. Which is why the Inquisition’s decisions were not made by its human members. Instead, mankind placed their faith in the machines, and the machines relied on statistical analysis and an enormous database on the subject of human psychology, population distribution, demographics, and so on, to make their decisions. The machines would whir, their engines would rumble, and then they would print out little tickets with fine-printed text. One machine would act as policy-maker; the next, as policeman, able to detect crime solely by consulting its databases; another machine would conduct trials and proclaim sentences. And the Inquisition’s human members would scurry around their offices, reading the machines’ little tickets and acting on them.
“Chocolate,” said Sir Dylan, his voice echoing in the silence. “Of all the things in the world.”
“Well, now,” said Colonel Hitchcroft, one of the Denman House’s few military gentlemen. “I can certainly understand the machines’ mistrust of chocolate. It is, after all, considered highly addictive, is it not? Furthermore, I have heard, and I am sure it cannot be considered part of Queen Victoria’s vision of a moral England, that chocolate is a natural aphrodisiac.”
“Bollocks,” said Sir Dylan, causing gasps from the other gentlemen. “Chocolate has hardly any more to do with sex than the legs of a grand piano.”
Neville, his face suddenly red, grasped nervously for his glass, and drank the rest of it in three thirsty gulps.
Sir Dylan gave a bitter laugh. “The machines don’t understand a thing about human psychology, for all the data they may have. Think about it. We’re sitting here, perfectly legally drinking absinthe. Absinthe,” he laughed. “And yet a morsel of chocolate larger than a single gram, is strictly prohibited? It makes no sense.”
“None at all,” Neville finally agreed.
“What do you say, gentlemen, to a wee bit of naughtiness?”
Dylan, Neville, and Hitchcroft turned their attention to the darkest corner of the room. They’d forgotten he was there. They often did, he was so quiet. A hint of an Irish accent and a talent for slipping in and out of a room without making a sound made him a constant source of mystery. Robert Edge stepped into the wavering light of the oil lamp on the table nearest to him, and opened a leather bag.
The three gentlemen, looking inside, exchanged glances. Slowly, Edge withdrew a package, wrapped in wax paper, and grinned conspiratorially.
“Let the machines make their policies,” he said. “Let the Inquisition knock at our doors,” he said, unwrapping the package. “But do not expect me to sit idly by and do nothing while they take away our liberties. Gentlemen. Friends. I intend to fight back. Will you fight with me?”
“What is that?” asked Sir Dylan. He’d been expecting Mr. Edge to unveil a chocolate bar, but instead…
“It’s a bomb,” said Robert Edge. “Small, I know, but this wee baby packs a punch.”