SELF-RECOMMENDING!

The Proverbial Murder Mystery

I.

Chefs. Hundreds of them. Tall chefs, short chefs, black chefs, white chefs. I pushed forward through them, like an explorer hacking away at undergrowth. They muttered curses at me, but I was stronger than they were. I came to a door. I opened it. Sweet empty space. I shut the door behind me, sat down in the chair.

“Hello,” I said. “Detective Paul Eastman, pleased to make your acquaintance.”

“Doctor Zachary LaShay,” said the man behind the desk. His little remaining hair was greying; his eyes showed hints of the intellect that had been buried beneath the dullness of an administrative career. “I hope you didn’t have any trouble getting here. Did my secretary warn you about the chefs?”

“She did not,” I said.

“Well, forewarned is forearmed,” he answered, inanely and incongruously. “But I trust you got my message about the federal investigators?”

“Once a federal investigation has started, we’ll retreat and let them take over. But two women died here. We can’t just not investigate because you tell us you’re trying to get the Feds involved.”

“Yes, ah, of course. It’s just that we’re a sort of, ah, defense contractor. None of our projects are officially classified, yet, but we were hoping to get someone with a security clearance, in case this touched on sensitive areas.”

“I won’t pry further than I have to, but until someone from the government says something official, this is a matter for city police. Maybe you could start by telling me more about exactly what you do here.”

“We’re the United States’ only proverb laboratory. Our mission is to stress-test the nation’s proverbs. To provide rigorous backing for the good ones, and weed out the bad ones.”

“I’d never even heard of your organization before today, I have to admit. And now that I’m here…it’s huge! Who pays for all of this?”

“Everybody who uses proverbs,” said the Doctor, “which is to say, everybody. Consider: he who hesitates is lost. But also: look before you leap. Suppose you’re a business executive who spots a time-limited opportunity. What do you do? Hesitate? Or leap without looking? Eggheads devise all sorts of fancy rules about timing the market and relying on studies, but when push comes to shove most people are going to rely on the simple sayings they learned as a child. If you can keep your stock of proverbs more up-to-date than your competitor’s, that gives you a big business advantage.”

A smartly-dressed woman came in, handed Dr. LaShay a cup of boiling liquid. He put it to his lips, then spat. “This is terrible!” he said. “Try it!”

I had been expecting it to be tea, but it wasn’t. I didn’t know what it was. But it was terrible. Somehow too plain, too salty, and too bitter all at once. I gagged.

“That settles it!” said the Doctor. “Too many cooks really do spoil the broth. Tricia, tell the chefs they can all go home now.”

“So that’s what you were doing!” I said.

“Yes. Until now, too many cooks spoiling the broth had been at best an anecdote! A folk hypothesis! This month we’ve been working on broth with varying numbers of cooks. One, two, five, ten, a hundred. We’ve got a team of blinded taste testers in the basement who’ve been rating the results, and I personally check each sample to make sure I agree. This morning we hired every cook in the city – that’s over five hundred cooks – to come here and make broth for us, just to make sure there isn’t some kind of island of stability where broth starts getting better again once the number of cooks is high enough. Later this week we’ll give the data over to our analysts, who’ll develop a model that can use cook number to predict broth quality over a wide range of possible situations.”

“And the military wants this sort of thing?”

“The military loves it! The average grunt is a high-school educated young man in his late teens or early twenties. You’re not going to be teaching these people Clausewitz and von Moltke; it would be casting pearls before swine. When he’s under fire and has to make a split-second decision, he’s going to rely on the heuristics he learned on his grandmother’s knee. On proverbs. America’s proverbs are a vital strategic asset, and the Pentagon appreciates that.”

“I get how too many cooks spoil the broth might apply to something like an officer trying to figure out how many people to consult about a new strategy. But surely you can’t test that heuristic just by experimenting with literal cooks making literal broth!”

“Mmmmmmm. Yes, you’re referring to what we call Pragmatics. We certainly have a pragmatics team here, and they do good work. But the thing is, Officer, we’re essentially a consulting firm. Consulting firms are there to give people justification for the things they want to do anyway. When some general is testifying before Congress, and he says he didn’t consult someone-or-other because too many cooks spoil the broth, then Congress is going to want evidence that relying on sayings like this is best practice. If he just says “That’s our heuristic, and we know it works”, he’ll look like a loose cannon. But if he can hold up a glossy five hundred page report we gave him, proving that broth really does get spoiled by too many cooks, he’ll look like a responsible technocrat who did his due diligence. And yes, part of that report is a long philosophical discussion on pragmatics. But part of it is proving, once and for all, that too many cooks really do spoil the broth.”

“I see,” I said. “The two dead women. Were they involved in the broth project?”

“No. The first victim, Lisa Bird, she was our sysadmin. The second victim, Catherine Lee, took care of the animals.”

“Animals?”

“We have several projects that require animals. You can obviously lead a horse to water, but can you make him drink? At first we would rent out horses from equestrian organizations for this kind of thing. But then the next month we would need another horse to see if you should shut the stable door after the horse has bolted. Then we’d need two more horses to see if you should change horses midstream. Finally the costs started adding up and we just got a couple of horses that we keep here at the Institute. They were actually a gift from a sister of one of our employees who used to have a farm. One of them we looked in the mouth; the other we didn’t. We’re still trying to figure out which way worked better.”

“I see. The report I got said that the motive was romantic jealousy.”

“Yes. Ms. Lee believed Ms. Bird was having an affair with her husband. Ms. Bird was known to come to work early on Fridays to do some extra work and prepare for the weekend off. Ms. Lee entered the office where Ms. Bird was working alone, murdered her, then committed suicide. I’m getting this from the emergency team that was here before you.”

“All right. I’ll need to see the crime scene.”

“Certainly.”

LaShay led me out of his office to an elevator, then hit the button for the tenth floor. We walked out into a clinically-clean hallway. I heard a commotion. “FUCK YOU!” someone was shouting. “DAMN YOU TO HELL, YOU INKY TENEBROUS MOTHERFUCKER!” I stepped forward to open the door and investigate, but the Doctor held me back.

“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “That’s Room 27A. We’re testing whether it’s better to light a candle or curse the darkness. The candle is in Room 27B.”

“You must have a lot of projects going on here.”

“Oh yes. Over there is our insect unit. Can you catch more flies with honey or vinegar, can ants really move plants, that kind of thing. Our kitchen is to the right – the chefs were using it today, but it comes in handy all the time. Just don’t go in there if you can’t stand the heat. And down that corridor are our weather unit, our fire unit, and our water unit. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg – ” He pointed to a large room with a spike of ice poking through the floor. We continued on. “And over there is our forge. There are so many proverbs about metal that we hired our own team of blacksmiths. It was going great until they unionized, but now they always strike when the iron is hot.”

The corridor opened into a vast auditorium. All around me, I saw knee-high marble buildings, gleaming palaces, and – was that the Colosseum? A man dressed in a gladiator costume was sitting behind a desk doubling as a terraced hill, frowning at a computer and occasionally typing something. “Our 1:100 scale model of Rome,” said LaShay. “We figured if we couldn’t build it in 0.24 hours or less, then Rome couldn’t be built in a day. For some reason I always get lost and end up here. It’s quite annoying.”

We passed out of Rome into another corridor, where we finally came to a door marked “Information Technology”.

“Ms. Bird’s office,” said LaShay, and I walked in.

I’m a homicide detective; I’m used to grisly murder scenes. This one still made me gasp. One victim – Ms. Bird, I supposed – was lying on the ground by the desk. It looked like her head had been bashed in by a blunt object. But there was more. Her mouth area was covered with blood, and I soon found her tongue had been cut out. And there was another bloody hole in her chest. The stomach and heart had been cut out too.

A few feet away, a second body dangled from a noose that had been tied to one of the rafters. Ms. Lee, I supposed. No mutilation on this one. Just a clean suicide, or at least that was what somebody had gone through a lot of trouble to make it look like.

Lying on the ground approximately between the two of them was a bloody knife. I knew from the previous report that the blood was Ms. Bird’s, and the fingerprints on the handle were Ms. Lee’s.

This did not seem like a Sherlock Holmes level mystery. Except: where were Bird’s heart and tongue?

“I’m not sure,” said LaShay, when I went outside and asked him the question. “I…haven’t been in there since in happened. Not sure I could deal with the blood. One of Ms. Bird’s coworkers had a question about the network, so she went in and saw…what you just saw. We called 911 in case either of them was still alive. The paramedics called the police who did a preliminary investigation of the scene. And then you showed up.”

“I’ll need to search the premises,” I said. “What time did Bird come to work?”

“I understand she usually arrives around seven.”

“And when does the office open?”

“Nine.”

“So potentially Lee could have had two hours to hide the heart and tongue somewhere in this building before going back and hanging herself.”

“Why would she have done that?”

“I don’t know. Do you have a better idea for what happened to them?”

He shook his head.

“Good. Then I’ll need to search the whole building. Is there anywhere I’ll need any special keys or codes to enter?”

He gave me a golden key. “This opens any door,” he said. “But don’t go in the Red Zone. That’s off-limits to everybody.”

I shrugged. “Then it’s exactly the sort of place somebody would hide something, isn’t it? Why isn’t anyone allowed in the Red Zone?”

“Radioactivity,” he answered immediately. “We have a giant machine for testing all machine-related proverbs. It’s…very impressive. Powers the whole building, runs the water and gas systems, even gives us satellite internet. We wanted it to be just a generic Machine, capital m, so it does a little of everything. But it’s radioactive…not traditionally, the way you can detect with a Geiger counter. I don’t understand the physics. But people tend to get very sick if they get too close to it.”

Part of LaShay’s description had stuck with me. “It provides the building with Internet? Lisa’s a sysadmin. Did she ever have to work with the Machine?”

“No, that was all connected when the Machine was installed. She interfaces with it remotely, through her computer.”

“And Catherine? Did her work with the animals ever bring her near the Machine?”

“Her office was very close to the Red Zone. Closer than any other office in the building, actually. But she never had any reason to enter the danger area.”

“I’m going to need to see the Machine. Is there any way I can do so safely?”

“We have an observation deck. It’s just above the Machine, on this floor. You can stare down at the Machine from the top.”

“I’ll need to go there.” It was just a hunch, but I wasn’t liking the sound of this Machine. And if you were going to hide body parts for some reason, why not hide them in a restricted area where nobody ever went?”

LaShay took me down a series of turns and hallways. After a minute or two of walking…we were in the scale model of Rome again.

“Dammit!” said LaShay. “Every time!”

Another few turns and hallways, and we finally came to a steel-reinforced door. “DANGER” it said. “OBSERVATION AREA. CHILDREN AND PREGNANT WOMEN NOT ALLOWED. PLEASE DO NOT SPEND MORE THAN FIVE MINUTES IN THE OBSERVATION AREA OVER A ONE WEEK PERIOD.”

I used my golden key to unlock the door. We went in.

We were on iron scaffolding. Below us whirred something amazing. It was like every children’s-book description of a machine put together and brought to life, a huge assembly of gears and pistons and bubbling glowing bright-colored chemicals coursing through glass pipes. Beside me was a control panel, currently set at “NORMAL”. The other options ranged from “OFF” to “MAXIMUM” to “ULTRAMAXIMUM” to “SUPRAULTRAMAXIMUM”.

“It’s beautiful,” I told the Doctor.

“Don’t touch that,” he told me, glancing nervously at the control panel.

The machine was nine stories high, filling the entire center of the laboratory. In the center, an enormous agglomeration of steampunk-looking gadgetry formed a hollow cylinder, spinning faster than I could follow. I leaned out over the edge of the scaffold, over the pit formed by the cylinder’s center.

“You really don’t want to do that,” LaShay told me. I could see what he meant. It was easy to imagine falling right through the hole in the spinning cylinder, down to the ground ten stories below. I had a strange feeling that gravity would be the least of my problems if that happened, that anything that went through that spinning apparatus would have a very bad time long before it hit the ground. And…

“What’s that?” I asked.

At the bottom of the spinning cylinder, incongruously, was a building I could only describe as a small shrine. It had a little golden dome on the top, and…actually, it was exactly a shrine. There was a Star of David atop the dome.

“That,” said LaShay. His voice changed, became heavier. “I started this laboratory with my colleague, Dr. Rissum. He…he committed suicide nine years ago by jumping into the Machine from this very spot. That’s his memorial.”

“My God! You’re telling me there was another suicide in this lab?”

“Nine years ago. The police investigated. There was nothing suspicious. His wife had just left him and taken the children. It was very tragic, but no foul play was suspected.”

“Still. Another suicide.”

“We need to get out of here,” said LaShay. “Being this close to the Machine really isn’t good for you.”

I looked around the observation deck and at the floor ten stories below. There were no signs of blood, a tongue, or a heart. “All right,” I said, because the Machine was starting make me nervous too.

I spent the rest of the morning searching the rest of the laboratory, free of LaShay’s discomfiting presence. It was an exhausting task, not least because I always ended up in the Rome model even when I thought I was in a totally different part of the building. But eventually I found two things that caught my interest.

First, Lisa Bird’s chair. I had gone back into the room with the bodies to look for other clues. The desk was normal enough. The computer was a normal Apple MacBook. But I noticed Lisa’s chair was made out of human hands. This was confusing enough that I called the Doctor back, who of course had an explanation.

“They’re not real hands,” he said. “Most of the staff have chairs like that. We were testing whether many hands make light work, so we had everyone working for the lab sit on those.”

“It’s pretty gruesome,” I said.

“We originally tried putting those statues of the Buddhist god with the thousands of hands all around the office,” LaShay admitted. “But people complained that the hands were whispering demonic messages to them. Finally someone in the Religion Department reminded me that idol hands are the Devil’s plaything.”

“Okay,” I said, and dismissed LaShay again, with some relief. He told me he would be working over the weekend, and said I could call him if anything came up. I hoped I wouldn’t have to. Something was weird about that guy, no doubt.

The second thing I found was Lisa Bird’s tongue and stomach. It was in the third drawer of Catherine Lee’s desk. The woman had murdered her coworker, cut out her tongue and stomach, put it in the third drawer of her desk, gone back up to the murder scene, and committed suicide.

Or, more accurately, this was a subset of what she had done, because I still couldn’t find Lisa’s heart. I searched Catherine’s desk inside and out. All I could find were a couple of paperweights made of various gemstones. I noticed they were about the right size and shape to have made the dent in Lisa Bird’s head, but none of them had any bloodstains on them or anything else suspicious. There were no severed organs.

I was missing something. But what?

II.

“You’re the detective on the Bird case?”

“Mmmrrrgyeah,” I answered groggily.

“Come to the station,” said Officer Karp. “The murderer’s body is missing.”

It was 8 AM on Saturday. I had visited the Proverb Laboratory Friday, told the station that the scene had been fully examined and they could take the bodies away, then gone home and slept. The station had sent a team to recover the bodies and bring them to the morgue. The next morning, one of the morgue staff had noticed that although Lisa Bird was still there, Lee’s body was missing.

Still only half-awake, I went to the morgue and examined the scene. The body bag was still in place. It had been expertly opened up and the body had been removed. There were no fingerprints. Karp was seething that a theft had been committed in the police station itself. He demanded we do something. I suggested we go to Catherine Lee’s house, interview her husband, see what he could tell us. That was how I ended up spending my Saturday morning at the weirdest house I had ever seen.

It was some kind of modernist experimental dwelling or something. The whole place was made out of windows. Not one-way windows either. You could see everything that happened in it. Not (I thought to myself) the sort of place a criminal would find very convenient.

“It was Cat’s idea,” her husband told us, when we knocked on the door and introduced ourselves. “She was always so paranoid that I was having an affair. Well, some weird architect made this house and then put it on the market – obviously nobody wanted it, so the price was right. Cat thought it was perfect. I couldn’t hide anything here. You’ve got to believe me, officers. I never had an affair with anybody. She was paranoid. But not violent. I know they say she killed that woman. But she would never do something like that. She was framed. I’m sure of it.”

“Who would do such a thing?”

“She talked about office politics all the time. I know things I’m not supposed to know. The Proverb Laboratory, they talk about selling their work to corporations, but the US military is the big sponsor. A lot of their best work is hush-hush.”

“I’m aware,” I said.

“Well, she would tell me all these rumors. Apparently the British hate the Proverb Laboratory. Before LaShay and Rissum started it ten years ago, the British had a monopoly on English-language proverbs. You’d have all these proverbs about kings and queens and tea and castles. It was a way for them to maintain their cultural hegemony over us. That’s what Cat would say.”

“Was Catherine by any chance paranoid and delusional about British people?”

“She was paranoid and delusional about a lot of things, but I tell you, she wasn’t a killer.”

“Were there any specific British people? Or anyone else who didn’t like what the Proverb Laboratory was doing?”

“There was the English Defense League. Have you ever heard of them?”

“They’re some kind of white supremacist group, right?”

“You must be thinking of the White Defense League. The English Defense League are an English supremacist group. As in, the English language. They believe English is superior to all other languages. They want to stop foreign language education in school, kick foreign speakers out of the country, make English the official national language, that kind of thing.”

“And they’re against the Proverb Laboratory?”

Mr. Lee laughed. “Or else they are the Proverb Laboratory. You know LaShay used to be one of them? No, from the look on your face you didn’t. He was part of their cult for a while, then deconverted and went mainstream, spoke out against them for the press. But some people say that’s all a ruse, and he’s continuing their work. They always thought that with enough study, they could use create some kind of super-proverb that would encapsulate all wisdom and make them unstoppable, something like that. LaShay says he’s beyond all that, but who knows? And if he is, well, maybe the cult that he left isn’t so happy to have the US military meddling in their pet project?”

“That’s so weird. I never heard about them before.”

“Well, Cat heard a lot of things, working at the Proverb Lab for five years.”

“Did she like it there?”

“Oh no. She hated it. She loves animals, you know. But the Proverb people thought they were just means to an end. She was in a big fight with LaShay just before she died. He wanted to test the proverb ‘Every dog has its day’. He was going to lock up forty, fifty dogs in a dark room, to simulate night, and just leave them there. Wanted to “falsify the hypothesis”. Cat said absolutely not, that was animal cruelty. So he did it anyway without telling her. She was enraged.”

“Did she ever make any threats? Say she was going to blow the whistle on the lab or anything?”

“No, nothing like that. She said she was going to let sleeping dogs lie. Sorry. I don’t think she had any enemies. She could be paranoid, she could be strange, but she was a good person, deep down. She wouldn’t have done this.”

“What’s that?” Officer Karp interrupted.

He was pointing to a corner of the kitchen. At first I didn’t see it. Then I did. There was a little drop of blood on the floor.

“Mr. Lee, do we have your full permission to search this house?” I asked. Officer Karp was already calling the station, letting them know they were going to need to send out an evidence collection team.

“Of course,” said Mr. Lee. “I have nothing to hide.”

Officer Karp went to the cabinet just next to the bloodstain, reached in, and pulled out a human heart.

“I…I swear I have no idea how that got there,” said Mr. Lee.

“How late did you sleep yesterday morning, when the murder happened?” I asked.

“I…it was my day off. I slept until ten.”

“And your house is about a fifteen minute drive from the lab. So in theory, your wife could have killed Ms. Bird, left the Proverb Laboratory, come back home, hid the heart in your cupboard, then gone back to the Proverb Laboratory and hung herself, all before anyone else showed up for work at nine.”

“Why…why would Cat have done that?” pled Mr. Lee.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Did she have any motive for disliking Ms. Bird other than the affair issue? Anything at all?”

“Nothing,” said her husband. “She spoke very highly of Ms. Lee. Apparently her computer had a virus once, and Ms. Bird solved it. She’d gotten a degree in cybersecurity from MIT before ending up in this job, and she was always working hard to keep the servers safe.”

“One more question. Do you know who stole your wife’s body from the morgue?”

“What?” asked Mr. Lee. “Someone stole…”

“This guy’s as surprised as we are,” said Officer Karp. “I say he’s not a suspect.”

We drove back to the station in silence. Either Catherine Lee had murdered her coworker, driven home to hide her heart in a cabinet, and then gone back to work before killing herself – or somebody had put a lot of work into making it look that way. And somebody had stolen her body from the morgue. And there was some sort of web of international intrigue surrounding Doctor LaShay.

I decided I was going to go home, catch up on my sleep, and then think this over really hard.

III.

Sunday morning I walked back into the Proverb Laboratory. I was trying to get to Dr. LaShay’s office, but I had ended up in the scale model of Rome again. I hadn’t even taken an elevator, and it was on the tenth floor. That no longer confused me. I had finally figured out what I should have realized days earlier.

“Dammit!” said LaShay, almost bumping into me. “Rome again!”

“Doctor Zachary LaShay,” I said, “You are under arrest, for the murders of Ms. Lisa Bird and Catherine Lee. You have…”

“You can’t arrest me!” he said.

“…the right to remain silent,” I continued. “Anything you say can and…”

Two men in black uniforms and sunglasses stumbled into the Rome set just behind him.

“No,” said LaShay. “I mean you can’t arrest me. The federal government has taken over the investigation, as of today. The entire affair has been classified as top secret. You’re not even allowed to be here anymore.”

I sighed. “Then I’ll just take a moment to talk with one of these agents…”

The agents didn’t move.

“You have one minute to get off this property,” said Dr. LaShay, “or you will be in violation of federal law.”

“All right,” I told the agents. “Listen up.” Then I explained everything.

The Proverb Laboratory didn’t exist to test proverbs at all. Or they did, but not in the way they claimed. The Proverb Laboratory existed to test the Machine. A device that makes proverbs real. The Machine exerted some kind of invisible force. The closer you got, the more the English language warped reality in order to make proverbs come true.

Why had Lisa Bird’s tongue and heart been missing? Because the proverb goes “Cat got your tongue”. The Machine’s power had forced Cat to take Lisa’s tongue and bring it somewhere that would qualify as her “having” it. And the same force had made her bring the heart home, because “Home is where the heart is”. She hadn’t meant to take the stomach too, but had removed it for better access, since “The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach”. Then her corpse, which had spent years absorbing the Machine’s malevolent radiation, had vanished from the body bag where it was kept – “Cat’s out of the bag”.

What had Catherine used to bash Lisa’s head in? The obvious candidate was one of the gemstone paperweights hidden in her desk, which she had brought back at the same time as she brought the tongue. I hadn’t been able to find bloodstains on any of the paperweights, but that was unsurprising; “You can’t get blood from a stone”. She lived in a glass house, and had broken the rule about throwing stones, and so ended up dead and a murderer. The saying goes: “Kill two birds with one stone”. Catherine had killed Lisa Bird; where was the other? Simple. Lisa sat on a chair made of hands, and a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. She was worth two birds all on her own.

But it was too perfect. How had it all come together? A paranoid lady who thought everyone was having an affair with her husband. Who lived in a glass house and owned gemstone paperweights. Sharing a building with a woman named Bird. Who was sitting on a chair made of hands. In the closest office to the machine that made proverbs true. This wasn’t a coincidence. This was planned. Someone must have arranged for a paranoid woman who lived in a glass house to be on the spot, given her the stone paperweights as presents, placed Bird on the hand-chair, then relied on the Machine to twist reality into committing the crime for him. They must have guessed that after it was all over, Lee would recover her senses, feel terrible guilt, and kill herself. Who could have done that? LaShay was the only person powerful enough to make it all happen.

LaShay was lying about the memorial to Rissum. They hadn’t built a temple on the spot where Rissum died. That temple was Rissum himself. He had fallen into the very center of the Machine, where the reality-bending force approached infinity and proverbs would come true no matter how unlikely. “My body is a temple”. Rissum’s body was transformed into a temple in mid-air, then fell onto the ground below. Why would LaShay hide this? Could it be because he had pushed Rissum into the machine himself to seize complete control over the operation?

But why? The rumor Mr. Lee had told me tied everything together. Dr. LaShay was still with the English Defense League. They had designed the Machine. He had pretended to go mainstream, pretended to partner with Dr. Rissum, in order to get enough money and status to build their invention. Now he was slowly testing its capacities, secretly funneling the results to his secretive language-cult. Rissum had been a convenient co-founder, but had to go in order to give LaShay full control. He had pushed him into the Machine, disguised it as a suicide, and was funneling the information – how?

Through a worm in the computer system. After all, the workers here all had Apple computers, and every apple has its worm. But LaShay hadn’t realized that along with her sysadmin work, Lisa was an expert in cybersecurity, nor that she would come in two hours early every Friday. “The early Bird catches the worm.” Lisa had found the infection and destroyed it. She hadn’t realized it was important, but LaShay realized he couldn’t reinfect the system without her finding it again and getting suspicious, and he couldn’t fire her without raising eyebrows. So instead, he had arranged matters perfectly to guarantee she would get killed.

“Wow,” said Dr. LaShay after a second. “You’re actually right about everything. Except for one thing. The most important thing.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Not real federal agents,” he said, gesturing at the men in black. “They’re with me.” He turned to them. “Throw him in the Machine.”

I reached for my gun, but the agents were faster than I was, wrestled it away from me. Then one of them held each of my arms and started dragging me to the observation deck. A slight delay as we ended up back in Rome. Then we were there, and I was standing over the great rotating cylinder, staring at the shrine of Dr. Rissum below.

“Please don’t let me die,” I said. “I’m begging you. Please spare my life.”

“You really think we care about that?” asked the first agent.

They pushed me to the edge of the scaffold.

“You really think I was begging because I thought you’d listen?” I said, but before I finished he had thrown me over. There was a gust of wind and a feeling of terrible wrongness.

When I had fallen five stories, into the very center of the Machine, I wished.

A flying horse was somewhat outside the scope of the relevant proverb, but there was no other way I was going to “ride” while in midair, so I got one. It made landfall right on the observation scaffold, then rushed for the door. The two agents rushed after it. Somewhere in the corridor, the horse dissolved, its Machine-powered existence apparently expending itself this far from the source.

I ran frantically through the corridor. “After him, you fools!” I heard LaShay shout. I reached the point where I thought the elevator should be, but of course I was in fricking Rome again.

One of the agents ran in, reached for his gun.

I ducked behind the terraced hill. There beside the desk was the gladiator costume, complete with weapons. I picked up a trident. “Ave Imperator!” I said. “Morituri te salutant!” Like a miracle, it worked. The agent aimed at me and pulled the trigger, but the gun blew up in his face. This close to the Machine, he should have known: “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”

The agent was still on his feet. I had made the mistake of getting far enough from the hill-desk that the agent could pick up the abandoned sword. He rushed at me. I didn’t know how to swordfight, so after a second of thought I took a pen out of my pocket, parried with it. The sword shattered, and ink squirted out into the agent’s face.

While he was trying to wipe off the ink and get his vision back, I ran out of Rome into one of the nearby corridors, then ducked into a randomly chosen door. Everything was pitch black.

“Come out, come out, wherever you are,” the agent shouted. “You can run, but you can’t hide!” Frick. I had forgotten that. In this place, the saying itself probably made that literally true. I heard the two agents opening and closing all the other doors in the corridor, getting inevitably closer to me.

Then I felt something cold and wet press against my hand. I almost screamed, giving away my location, but after a second it…licked me. I remembered what Mr. Lee had told me. Dr. LaShay had stuck fifty dogs in a completely dark room to test a proverb. I felt around. More and more dogs started to trot up to me, mouths panting, tails wagging. I had one chance.

I flung the door open as hard as I could “Run away, doggos!” I shouted. “Run like the wind! This is it! THIS IS YOUR DAY!”

The dogs didn’t need to be told twice. They rushed out of the room, a yapping growling barking mass of teeth and fur. Big dogs, little dogs, old dogs, young dogs, the whole mass of dogs ran right into the agents, knocked them over.

“Call off your dogs!” one of the agents shouted, but I didn’t. Instead, I cried “Havoc!”, and let loose the dogs of war. I figured their bark would be worse than their bite; on the other hand, once bitten, twice shy. It probably balanced out. Hopefully I wouldn’t have to worry about the agents for a few minutes.

I ran to where I thought the elevator would be, and of fricking course landed in Rome again. And worse, there was the Doctor, who was holding the trident I had abandoned. The sword was nowhere to be seen. I knew I wouldn’t be able to fool him. He had probably forgotten more proverbs than I had ever learned.

Ave Imperator!,” said Dr. LaShay, approaching unarmed-me with his trident. “Morituri te salutant.” Even his Latin was better than mine. I wished I was first in a village. But hope beyond hope, I realized that the computer at the terraced-hill desk was an Apple. I grabbed it, pulled out the plug, brandished it before me. The Doctor staggered back, as if kept away by an invisible wall.

But it didn’t hold him for long. He stretched out his arm as far as it could go, lunged at the computer with the deadly trident. The screen shattered and went black, its power lost.

I ran through the maze of corridors, and LaShay followed, trident in hand. After several turns, I reached where I thought the elevator would be, but Rome was everywhere at once, and I had lost my bearings. I ended up in the Observation Room, standing on the iron scaffold above the machine, as LaShay and his trident came towards me.

“So,” he said, “you figured out a way around being thrown into the Machine. ‘If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.’ Clever. You could have been a great proverb researcher. But instead you had to meddle where you didn’t belong.”

“If you throw me into the pit, I’ll just get another flying horse,” I told him.

“Of course you will. So I’ll have to kill you with the trident.” I was backed up against the wall of the observation chamber. LaShay approached me confidently, knowing I was cornered.

“You really think you’re going to win this?” I asked. It wasn’t just to buy time. I really did have a plan, crazy as it was, but the more I could get him gloating, the better it would work.

“Of course,” said LaShay. “I killed Bird and Lee, and now I’m going to kill you. Your death here will actually be quite convenient. I’ll announce that the Machine is too dangerous and needs to be taken apart. Then the version the English Defense League is building in secret will be the only one in the world. With the data we’ve gathered here, they’ll be able to direct its power anywhere on the planet. Imagine what we’ll be able to do. Enlist old soldiers who are impossible to kill. Build fortresses on demand by turning arbitrary Englishmen’s homes into castles. Control the seas using loose lips. Soon English-speakers will rule the world. And nothing – absolutely nothing – can stop us!”

Perfect.

“You’ve forgotten three things,” I said. “First, that the lever is right here.”

I grabbed the lever on the control panel and jerked it to SUPRAULTRAMAXIMUM. The air started to shimmer, and the walls started to shake.

“Second, that pride cometh before a fall.”

The iron scaffolding started to tilt. LaShay stumbled, dropped his trident, almost tumbled over the edge, hung on just by the tips of his fingers.

“And third, that crime doesn’t pay!

I grabbed the pointy end of the trident, and smashed it into LaShay’s fingers. With a scream, he fell into the belly of the Machine.

“Ibegyounottodothis,” he said, and just like that he was on a winged horse. It flew up, towards the door and freedom.

I looked it in the mouth. I stared it straight in the mouth, looked as hard as I could, like my eyes were drilling into it. It started flickering, flying more slowly and hesitantly. “I beg, I beg, I beg,” said LaShay. We stood there like that for a few seconds, him trying to wish harder, me trying to look the gift horse in the mouth harder, until finally the horse vanished, and LaShay fell back into the machine.

“I beg, I beg, I beg!” he said again, there appeared another horse, a horse of a different color. I looked it in the mouth again. It rose more slowly and hesitantly. But LaShay leaned forward, finally covered its mouth with his hand so I couldn’t see it. “Your looking has no power anymore!” LaShay said triumphantly, and I believed him, since it came straight from the horse’s mouth. The impediment removed, the horse shot upwards, right up to the ceiling of the chamber.

“Get off your high horse,” I said, and the horse vanished a second time. A third time LaShay fell into the Machine, a third time he begged, and a third time a horse appeared beneath him. Again I started looking it in the mouth. Again he covered it with his hand, this time guiding the horse more slowly, trying not to let it overshoot and become higher than I was.

With a whinny of victory, the horse’s hoof landed on solid scaffold. And that was when I struck the hoof with my trident.

For the want of a nail, the horseshoe was lost. For the want of a shoe, the horse was lost. For the want of a horse, LaShay lost his footing and tumbled back into the pit. He tried begging again, but it didn’t work; that wasn’t the proverb. For want of the horse, the rider had to be lost, for want of the rider, the battle, and finally the war and kingdom with it. He fell through the Machine, all the way down. By the time he hit the ground, he had turned into another temple, standing silently beside the temple of his co-founder.

I moved the lever to OFF. Then, avoiding the sound of barking and screaming – and only getting stuck in Rome twice – I finally made it back to the elevator and left the building.

IV.

My department was able to make contact with the real military. They completed their investigation, and chose to shut down the Proverb Laboratory and destroy the Machine.

The two agents were found to be cultists with the English Defense League. On questioning, they led the government to their headquarters. The second Machine, the one that threatened to take over the world, was also found and destroyed.

I asked the prosecutor’s office to submit a statement officially declaring that Catherine Lee was not responsible for Lisa Bird’s murder, based on a sort of complicated insanity defense where she had been compelled to act by the Machine’s influence. I don’t think the prosecutor really bought it, but I think he figured she was dead anyway, so what was the harm?

Catherine’s body was never found, which didn’t surprise me. She really had absorbed a lot of radiation, working for the Laboratory for five years, and “the cat is out of the bag”, while true, didn’t suffice to explain how she had disappeared or where she was. I only figured it out later, after the whole battle with LaShay.

This life hadn’t treated Cat too kindly. I hope things go better during her next eight.

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120 Responses to The Proverbial Murder Mystery

  1. gwern says:

    It’s unfortunate for Lisa that she poked into the nature of the infection too closely. After all, surely the most famous feline proverb of all is… “curiosity killed the cat”.

    • 75th says:

      Yeah, I have a feeling we’d need a tosafot to extract all the hidden proverbs from this

    • DanielH says:

      I recently learned there’s a variant of that saying, “curiosity killed the cat, but satisfaction brought it back“.

      That explains why it was only when the police were doing their investigation that she game back for her next life.

      • Peffern says:

        Alright, gonna head this off at the pass.

        This, “blood of the covenant,” and “better than a master of one” are all later additions specifically to counter the original aphorisms – an aphorisms, we could say.

        This doesn’t make them less valid, and in fact represents our ability to project our own proverbial power into the future by shaping that of the past.

        If anyone has other anaphorisms, I’d like to hear them.

        • DanielH says:

          Oh, I know it goes against the spirit of the original, and that in many ways it doesn’t matter. I called it a variant because I’ve almost never heard it, and I linked in case people were curious.

          Although from 5 minutes of Googling it looks like some historians think “blood of the covenant” actually was the original version and the more common modern one is a corruption. I would be surprised if that were the case, but I haven’t seen the evidence myself so I’ll reserve judgment.

  2. The Nybbler says:

    Reminds me of Nord&Bert.

    Evidentally our machine is more into popular proverbs than, well, Proverbs. Because it is not pride that goeth (or cometh) before a fall; pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall. (Proverbs 16:18)

    At the end, our hero was lucky that in terms of escapes from the machine, the third time was NOT the charm. (Or at least the charm was limited to reaching the scaffold)

    Clearly this story took place in the dog days of summer.

    • wintermute92 says:

      I was certainly expecting that third time to be a charm. Once it failed though, that was LeShay’s third strike. And depending on the time of day, those English Defense League agents might have been able to trap our hero in the darkened room – because of course only mad dogs and Englishmen go out at noon!

      And the detective did miss another part of the story. LeShay didn’t have to hope for Catherine Lee’s suicide; he probably guaranteed it by giving her enough rope.

      • FeepingCreature says:

        I guess we’re lucky LeShay doesn’t watch Baseball – otherwise, third strike and he’s out.

      • eliokim says:

        May be it was not entirely detective’s fault – the only person who could’ve provided him with the information that LeShay gave Cat a rope was Cat’s husband. But Mr Lee couldn’t mention it, because their conversation happened in his wife’s house.

  3. Nornagest says:

    I’m a third of the way into this, and I’ve got a horrible feeling that it’s all an elaborate setup for a pun.

    • The Nybbler says:

      Big dogs, little dogs, old dogs, young dogs, stray dogs, sleeping dogs, and dogs of war. But no shaggy dogs.

  4. nkurz says:

    Since the typos are fixed (leaving only the pun I was unsure about) I’ll use the remaining edit window to mention that the description of the broth with too many chefs was great: “I had been expecting it to be tea, but it wasn’t. I didn’t know what it was. But it was terrible. Somehow too plain, too salty, and too bitter all at once. I gagged.”

    It reminded me a lot of this recent article extolling Chicago’s finest liqueur “Malört”: https://www.theringer.com/2019/2/6/18211851/malort-chicago-liquor-comes-home-pat-gabelick-carl-jeppson-co-ch-distillery-midwest-expansion. If you prefer video, their “commercials” are fun too: https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=malort+commercial.

    • The Nybbler says:

      “that [idol] hands are the Devil’s plaything”

      That, I’m afraid, really is a pun.

      (which reminds me of Spider Robinson’s terrible hand pun — “Many Hands” was an Indian with a talent for electrical work.)

      • Winja says:

        It’s also not the actual aphorism, which is Idle hands are the Devil’s plaything.

        Though the word play with the use of idol is pretty great.

    • Nancy Lebovitz says:

      Malört is Filboid Studge!

      Why aren’t these people also eating durian?

  5. Eponymous says:

    Hmm. Reminds me of your “Anglophysics” story. What would you call this genre? Worldplay-driven mechanic. Pun fi? Someone better than me should name it.

    • Incurian says:

      Kabbalistic Realism.

    • thevoiceofthevoid says:

      PUNSONG.

    • wintermute92 says:

      Now I’m trying to think of examples Scott didn’t write. They seem pretty scarce, unless we start including “there was a pun as a punchline”.

      Kingdom of Loathing (a browser game) had a climactic pun duel, alongside lots of other wordplay. Its spiritual successor Twilight Heroes had the Bind Mender, a quest built around a psychic villain (the Mindbender) with spoonerism-based powers. There’s a bit of the same sensibility in Discworld, although it’s mostly based on excess literalism and inversions. And I guess there’s that old riddle about escaping a room with a table and a mirror – “you look in the mirror and you see what you saw, saw the table in half and two halves make a whole…”

      Does anyone know other examples that are closer to these?

      • DanielH says:

        I haven’t played it yet, but the game Counterfeit Monkey has a lot of English-based mechanics and the description reminded me a lot of Anglophysics.

      • genocidebunnies says:

        Monkey Island had Insult Sword Fighting.

      • Etoile says:

        The Phantom Tollbooth.

      • klfwip says:

        The Order of the Stick has a similar mechanic, in that you can gain actual power by roleplaying to fit certain tropes. (For instance, there’s a part of the story where they act out a months long “training montage” in the span of a few hours in order to give one of the main characters enough power to fight (And a large part of his eventual fighting prowess comes from using puns to make attacks more powerful))

      • ulucs says:

        The Jet Black Wedding arc from Medaka Box is full of these. Although the puns are all Japanese.

    • moshez says:

      I logged in just to make this comment. I’m so happy someone already made it 🙂

      Other than this, Anglophysics and Unsong, what other examples do we have of this genre?

    • Lambert says:

      The unreasonable effectiveness of English in the natural sciences.

    • Simon the Sage says:

      This reminded me very strongly of Piers Anthony’s Xanth novels whose main draw was seeing how many puns he could pack into each story. He used to take suggestions from the readers as well.

  6. Quintus Fabius Minimus Cunctator says:

    Typo Thread?
    (I have two.)

    Rissum is introduced as Rissom the first time.

    With a scream, he fell into the belly of the Machine.”
    (no start quotes)

    • Accord says:

      I think there’s another typo at the end of the following paragraph:

      “I’ll need to go there.” It was just a hunch, but I wasn’t liking the sound of this Machine. And if you were going to hide body parts for some reason, why not hide them in a restricted area where nobody ever went?

      The final end quote doesn’t have any start quote.

      Enjoyed the story!

    • wintermute92 says:

      Typo: the paragraph beginning

      “I’ll need to go there.” It was just a hunch,

      ends with a second close-quote that’s not needed.

      Anti-typo?: LeShay and Eastman use the exact same Latin, less an exclamation mark, but then we get ‘Even his Latin was better than mine.’ Either it’s another layer of joke I’ve missed, or Eastman’s Latin needs a mistake added.

    • Rachael says:

      ““Nothing,” said her husband. “She spoke very highly of Ms. Lee. Apparently her computer had a virus once, and Ms. Bird solved it.”
      I think “Ms. Lee” should say “Ms. Bird”.
      Or, even if he does mean “she” (Bird) spoke highly of Lee, he’d say “Cat” rather than “Ms. Lee”.

  7. Hoopyfreud says:

    This reminds me a lot of Asimov’s comedy writing. Very good!

  8. DanielH says:

    Very good. I have to wonder if the Machine was actually English-specific, or if foreign-language proverbs would also work if there were people who spoke those languages nearby.

    I had never heard the full version of the quote “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride”, so that part really confused me.

    I was disappointed that by the end neither God nor Dr. Rissum’s ghost was found in the Machine, especially since there was a temple there.

    Slight math point: if it’s a 1:100 scale model of Rome, it’s actually 1/1,000,000 the size (a 1:100 scale model is 100 times smaller in each of 3 dimensions, so the total volume is 1/100^3 that of Rome). They only had a bit less than 100 milliseconds to build their copy.

    • Joseph Greenwood says:

      Unless, as some string theorists suggest, we live in an 11-dimensional universe, in which case they have a lot less time than that.

    • fnord says:

      Well, the Machine definitely doesn’t work on Latin, otherwise the detective would also have been about to die.

  9. wintermute92 says:

    This is delightful. I think it’s the most entertaining piece of your fiction I’ve found, and that’s saying something. From halfway through section one I was trying to guess the punchline, and by section two I was trying to guess what alarming mix of proverbs would drive the whole thing. I caught the “bird in the hand”, but of course I didn’t come anywhere close to sorting out the whole pileup.

    I’d happily read a whole story worth of proverb dueling, since there are so many directions it could go. (But I suppose I’m already spoiled on this exact sort of writing – the Cactus King duel was a delight too.) Eastman might just as well have put a cart in front of the horse, and poor LeShay didn’t even notice that the third time’s the charm!

  10. eyeballfrog says:

    I see Unsong 2 is coming along nicely.

  11. fnord says:

    LeShay should have tried bribery before violence. Sure, the price would be high, but I’m sure the Doctor could have met it, even if it meant robbing Peter to pay Paul.

  12. Joy says:

    A true Deus Ex Machina ending

  13. david stone says:

    We all know crime doesn’t pay, so what should LaShay do now with the machine to make a fortune (and then with that fortune, he can pay the piper and thus call the tune)?

    Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, and wealthy, and wise, but early to rise and early to bed makes a man healthy, and wealthy, and dead, and shrouds have no pockets since you can’t take it with you, so becoming rich from adjusting your sleep schedule is right out.

    A bad penny always turns up, a penny saved is a penny earned, and every little bit helps. That being said, one should not throw good money after bad, and in for a penny, in for a pound makes you penny wise and pound foolish. If we take care of the pence, the pounds will take care of themselves, so we need only to be penny wise, and using American customary units is pound foolish. There is still a long way to go here before we are rich, but the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single foot.

    There is some danger that, in putting our best foot forward, we put our foot in our mouth, so we must be careful not to shoot our mouth off and thereby shoot ourselves in the foot.

    Children should be seen, but not heard, so we should be able to convert that silence to gold. Once we have these good children, we can spare the rod to spoil them, and then as long as we are the victor, we get those spoils. Wherever work is done, victory is attained, and we already have established that we have a foot and a pound, and the product of that is work worth more than any joule (by about 35%). The most expensive jewel is the Moussaieff Red Diamond, which sold for $8 million, so we have about $11 million dollars just from that.

    Time is money. Time is a great healer. Therefore, a great healer is money. I don’t know if Dr. LaShay is a PhD or an MD, and even if he is an MD, I don’t know if he is a great healer or just OK.

    So I believe these are a few ways to make money, and if we follow all of these strategies, we should end up with a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

    It’s no surprise that LaShay seemed to fail at the end when he kept picking his horse, since beggars can’t be choosers and if God had meant for us to fly, he would have given us wings, but I suppose the real problem was that LaShay was counting his chickens before they hatched out of the eggs he had put in that one basket.

    You might think it is too late for LaShay ever since Detective Eastman pulled that lever, but that was actually Eastman’s gravest mistake. Better Nate than lever.

    • Etoile says:

      I like the reverse direction on the “time is money” equivalence; usually it is paired with money is the root of all evil to show how something (e.g. girls, children) that can be defined as a product of time and money is evil.

  14. Rm says:

    And so in the end, we don’t know if “too many cooks spoil the broth” because, despite, or irrespective of the Machine’s effect, even if “too many cooks spoil the broth” might be the most superficial and believable observation here – almost tautologically true.

    Nothing is ever a coincidence.

  15. Bucky says:

    Haha, very good. I got most of the bird and cat proverbs but missed all of the stone ones.

    I felt like there was going to be a reveal or Dr. Rissum’s first name at some point (maybe Apho?) but maybe I missed it? Paul Eastman is relatively clear but is Zachary LaShay something too? I bet I’m missing something obvious!

    • Alejandro says:

      Zach LaShay = It’s a cliche? Dunno, that’s the best I could come up with.

    • wintermute92 says:

      I didn’t get Paul Eastman, help me out?

      As for LeShay, I couldn’t find anything obvious but I did find one stupidly abstruse take. ‘Shay’ as a word is a corruption of ‘chaise’, giving us “the chaise”. He’s a doctor, but he’s not a psych doctor, so “doctor’s couch” is weak. But that’s technically a ‘chaise longue’ anyway, a ‘chaise’ proper is a horse-drawn carriage. Why couldn’t LeShay escape on a flying horse? He rode it instead of following behind, so the cart came before the horse.

      I dunno, it’s a stretch.

      • Bucky says:

        I didn’t get Paul Eastman, help me out?

        Paul Eastman = Policeman

        I particularly like this as Paul Eastman is not an uncommon name (LinkedIn lists 50+ results). I like to think that somewhere out there there’s a Policeman called Paul Eastman.

  16. Rachael says:

    Love it!
    For some reason I particularly enjoyed the cursing of the darkness.

  17. Walkwithout says:

    These stories remind me of a comic I’ve been following for a while Erfworld
    It’s a very silly isekai but the humor and approach to world build are both very similar to Scott’s.

    • greenwoodjw says:

      Erfworld fell apart around the time Charlie destroyed the Thinkamancers. We flipped from a tabletop Medieval RPG parody to some weird Eldritch scene where the different capitals (as in, the mottes themselves and not metaphors) of each side were determining the outcome of the story, with the main cast sitting idle. Worse, the “conversations” between the mottes were all “They didn’t communicate in words, but in deeper meanings so it isn’t possible to understand”.

      • Protagoras says:

        Other works have decline over time, of course, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen another work dive so quickly and dramatically from incredibly entertaining to utterly unreadable.

        • Walkwithout says:

          You’re not wrong. I can’t really blame the creators given what they’ve been going through but the story itself is pretty much unsalvageable at this point.

  18. ASparklingViking says:

    Given that “there’s more than one way to skin a cat” this story had less flaying than I expected!

  19. Anonymous Colin says:

    There’s a terrible, terrible supenatural horror/murder mystery book called Eternity, by Tamara Thorne, in which a serial killer is murdering the residents of a small Californian town in unusual and outlandish ways. The “theme” to the murders is eventually revealed to be proverbs.

    I will say this: your interpretation of “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” is a lot more tasteful than hers.

  20. deciusbrutus says:

    Typo: The scene in which the recently deceased Mars Rover requests entry is omitted.

    • Deiseach says:

      Is there something wrong with me – okay, hold on, back up on that because the answer is “yes, of course there is” – but everyone (well, quite a few people I’ve seen online on various social media) is losing their goddamn mind over this Mars Rover.

      Now, it’s rather a pity that it happened, but it was going to happen eventually and the machine lasted a heck of a lot longer than expected. But people are acting like a living organism died, and they’re treating the ‘last words’ (“My battery is low and it’s getting dark.”) as some great tragic speech by a lost human child left abandoned on an alien world.

      The thing didn’t say that, it sent a message that was ‘translated’ by NASA into maximum “this’ll slay ’em on Twitter” impact, and it’s working.

      I don’t think we have to worry about AI, we’re so blinkin’ stupidly sentimental we’ll treat a toaster as Divine Emperor and let it rule us, as long as it is designed to have a happy smiley face and given a chip so it can chirp out pre-recorded messages that sound human.

      • sharedvi says:

        Nothing to do with the current hype. The missing scene is when the Opportunity presents itself, and Paul, not very well-versed in rovers, arrests it, thinking this is Curiosity that killed the Cat

      • Nornagest says:

        I’d rather have them losing their minds over the Mars rover than over whatever Trump tweeted this morning. At least the rover’s contributing to human knowledge, and fairly unlikely to lead to a partisan slapfight.

        Besides, robots are cute.

      • Peffern says:

        I can only speak for myself, but Spirit & Opportunity were launched when I was about the right age to be a small child who thinks space is cool and therefore were strong metonyms for space exploration, scientific progress, the human endeavor, etc. And learning that Opportunity is finally dying does make me sad, in a nostalgia-for-the-optimism-of-childhood way. Opportunity isn’t the lost child, I am.

        • Deiseach says:

          Well, the scientific part of it is absolutely amazing, and that we have managed to send exploration vehicles to another world of our solar system and get back meaningful data is fantastic, and I’m all for the Triumph of the Human Spirit and so forth.

          But this isn’t even the “I fucking love science!” crowd, this is “uwu” stuff and all this sentiment over “her” and “Oppy” and the rest of it – I don’t get it, presumably because I don’t anthropomorphise machinery (plus my cold stony tiny black heart). You have not had to wade through all the [expletive deleted] tear-jerking stuff on Tumblr about humanised Mars Rovers. I know it’s Valentine’s Day and the usual madness is even worse but good gravy!

          If someone is weeping real tears (as I’ve seen a couple online posts claim) because “Oppy” was so brave as “she” faced death all cold and alone in the gathering darkness on an alien world millions of miles from “home”, permit me to present you with this free swift kick up the transom.

          Maybe I’m the real feckin’ alien stranded on the wrong planet, or something!

          • Nornagest says:

            Not to put too fine a point on it, but if you don’t like cutesiness and anthropomorphization and performative displays of emotion, Tumblr is the wroooooooong site to hang out on.

          • bean says:

            I do anthromorphize machines, and I get it. Everyone who has worked on that rover has every right to shed tears over her. Yes, and most of them probably think of the rover as “her”, and this is also right, although for reasons that are really hard to explain to someone who doesn’t already get it. If I was to learn that Iowa was being scrapped (lack of money or because California decided she was “a symbol of Imperialism” or whatever) it would be a day whose badness would be hard to surpass except by the death of a close family member.

            I can even get behind someone who didn’t work on the rover shedding tears. That thing has been up there over half of my life. I was in middle school during the famous 90-day mission. I didn’t get deeply invested in the rovers, but I (and most of Tumblr, probably) are in the right age bracket to have done so, and that person also has every right to shed tears.

            But looking at Tumblr, I can sort of understand your irritation, because most of those people aren’t going to fall into either of those categories, or into the category marked “people who have personal relationships with machines, and get it”. And because of the focus on the “last words”. I’m an aerospace engineer, and I know what telemetry data you’d send when you were low on power.

            I’m also irritated by the wonder over the 90-day mission. That was a con job from the start. First, it cut the initial budget presentation, in the knowledge that if their PR people are doing a decent job, Congress won’t dare force NASA to turn off a working rover. Second, I strongly suspect that it was something like “90 days with 99% confidence of no loss of capability”, which means you’re going to be getting a whole lot more than 90 days in practice. Although that’s just people not understanding engineering, and if I got really irritated every time that happened, it wouldn’t be good for my health.

          • Watchman says:

            You’re part of the silent majority here. The ones who notice all the weird reactions, think ‘what a bunch of idiots’ and then get on with their life.

            They mostly don’t bother expressing this online though.

          • March says:

            I do anthropomorphize things. It’s automatic to a certain extent. Trying to shut it off altogether seems to be a depression trigger for me, so it seems deeply hard-wired. I can live with occasionally getting misty-eyed at the demise of a cool space device. (Got misty-eyed at the Philae/Rosetta landing, at the retirement of the Space Shuttle, and yes, at Opportunity.) Not into performative sentimentality and hours of weeping, but it’s nice to share a nod with like-minded folk.

          • Peffern says:

            Oh, I understand. Speaking as someone with interests (past and present) who has shared interests with both the ‘I fucking love science” crowd and the “uwu” crowd, despite ostensibly belonging to neither, I think I’ve just grown desensitized to the hyperbole. Similarly to how “lol” means “I exhaled sharply through my nose,” I usually interpret “I cried literal tears” to mean “I felt an emotion” and the tear-jerking “bravery” posts are either bandwagoners or trolls trying to get whatever the Tumblr equivalent of karma is.

            I think at some point I learned/acclimated to just see through all of that to the actual point buried somewhere underneath. I would cut the Tumblr folk some credit, they may be naive and bad at communication but they aren’t stupid. I don’t think they literally fail to understand the difference between a Roomba and a cat, they just can’t/won’t express it in a way that makes sense.

            I won’t lie, when I saw the news I did look pensively up at the night sky for a minute or so after hearing the news, and I would highly doubt that the reaction was markedly different from any of the Tumblr teenagers.

  21. Deiseach says:

    When some general is testifying before Congress, and he says he didn’t consult someone-or-other because too many cooks spoil the broth, then Congress is going to want evidence that relying on sayings like this is best practice. If he just says “That’s our heuristic, and we know it works”, he’ll look like a loose cannon. But if he can hold up a glossy five hundred page report we gave him, proving that broth really does get spoiled by too many cooks, he’ll look like a responsible technocrat who did his due diligence.

    Based on my experience with local and national government and public service in Ireland, this part is all too true 🙂

  22. QW says:

    Morituri te salutant!

    Isn’t it a bit dangerous to say that?

    • The Nybbler says:

      Fortunately, the machine only works in English; that has no meaning to it other than “doing as the Romans do”.

    • Galle says:

      It’s not a proverb, so it’s probably safe. Now, “Memento mori”, that would be dangerous.

  23. Loris says:

    Very nice. It’s just a pity that the English Defence League really are a racist far-right group, that takes a bit of the shine off it.

    • Watchman says:

      If say Islamophobic more specifically. They’re rooted in football casuals (hooligans if you prefer) and the English groups have mostly been accepting of the descendents of West Indian immigrants recently…

      Not very pleasant, and probably bvery poor with metaphors though.

  24. kaathewise says:

    I was really expecting a literal God Ex Machina to end it all.

  25. fion says:

    Masterful

  26. KingOfTheHill says:

    Was expecting “Hell hath no Fury like a woman scorned”.

  27. Quixote says:

    Amazing!

  28. niohiki says:

    Small typo: “I…haven’t been in there since in happened”

    Also, of course there’s research involving Machine learning and Proverbs
    https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/0169023X90900093

  29. Conrad Honcho says:

    Very fun.

    Correction:

    “Yes, ah, of course. It’s just that we’re a sort of, ah, defense contractor. None of our projects are officially classified, yet, but we were hoping to get someone with a security clearance, in case this touched on sensitive areas.”

    But then

    “She talked about office politics all the time. I know things I’m not supposed to know. The Proverb Laboratory, they talk about selling their work to corporations, but the US military is the big sponsor. A lot of their best work is classified.”

    Perhaps LaShay was lying or the husband was misinformed.

    Also, I would have enjoyed it more if at the end, after a proverb had done its magic, it hadn’t been immediately explained. Let the audience have the fun of figuring them out themselves. For instance,

    I didn’t know how to swordfight, so after a second of thought I took a pen out of my pocket, parried with it. The sword shattered, and ink squirted out into the agent’s face. “The pen is mightier than the sword.”

    Just eliminate the last sentence so the reader gets the fun of thinking “wait, why did the pen break the swo….oooohhhhhh haha I’m clever.”

    • Basil Elton says:

      You might be right given that the majority of audience here is native English speakers. But some readers are not and being one of them I was immensely grateful to Scott for revealing a proverb used right away and in plain text.

    • DanielH says:

      Even as a native English speaker I didn’t know all of these. And many would be hard to Google; “pen beats sword” tells you the right proverb, but “i’m begging you wish horse” does not even though it identifies all the necessary components.

      There was plenty of delay with several of these (we learn that it’s easy to get lost and end up at Rome long before we hear explicitly that all roads lead there) to present a challenge, but everything plot-relevant is eventually explained.

      • Conrad Honcho says:

        Then let people in the comments section have fun figuring out the proverbs. I knew those ones. Wishes and horses might be a little more obscure, but that one stuck with me because when I was a kid my dad always told it to me as “If wishes were horses, beggars would eat.”

  30. hls2003 says:

    LaShay’s efforts were doomed from the beginning, because “Murder will out.”

  31. jhertzlinger says:

    I was sure the butler did it.

  32. gryffinp says:

    About a third of the way into the text I said to myself “If the detective’s name is revealed to be “Earl” I’m closing this tab immediately.”

  33. Jiro says:

    Never look a gift horse in the mouth.

    Beware of Greeks bearing gifts.

  34. Telminha says:

    I have several things to say about this piece, but there is a reason why I’m a lurker: I’m afraid to sound uncultured. Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt. Silence is gold indeed! Okay, it was very funny (speech is silvern).

  35. geist says:

    You’d think Lisa would have derived some sort of benefit from sitting in the Cat/Bird seat

  36. hnau says:

    Brilliant. I love all your forays into the “goofy short story” genre, though my favorite is still the philosophers’ gunfight.

  37. JJR1221 says:

    Too bad he couldn’t head the fight off at the pass by pointing out that “He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it.” And turning the fake federal agents into real ones.

  38. stronghand14 says:

    It was a dark and stormy night.
    A lone Zombie named Victor walked barefoot in a cemetery.
    The year was 1925.
    He knew not why he had awoken from his grave. Only that it was his romantic rival that put him there.
    He sensed he was dead for some time. By now Dimitri might be fixing to propose. Dimitri always thought the rain was romantic.

    Victor needed to act, and he needed to act fast.

    Unfortunately, the cemetery was so large and expansive that it would take him a pretty long time to make it out of here, much less stop Dimitri in time.
    Fortunately, Victor knew his way around the cemetery. He knew his best bet out would be to steal one of the horses from the stables and ride his way to his woman. But the stables were about a 20 minute walk away under normal conditions but this was a storm and he was barefoot.

    Victor tried to think “I think there’s a groundskeeper who lives here. Maybe I can steel his shoes, if his cabin is close by” he thought.

    As luck would have it the cabin was close by! Victor crept inside. Luckily the door was unlocked. He stole the groundskeeper’s shoes and made his way to the stables.

    When he got there the problem was the stables were locked.

    However, it seemed more to keep the horses from getting out than from people coming in as he found the key lying in a pushcart in front of the stables. He then road the horse to Dimitri’s house. Just as he got close, he noticed Dimitri in a fancy suit walking into a limo parked on his drive way. So, Victor thought, Dimitri is playing it fancy.

    But Victor didn’t attack yet. He waited. He followed behind them with his horse on the road, his face concealed by the storm. When they were stopped by oncoming traffic he quickly slashed their tires and road away.

    Dimitri told his driver to run after them quick! But the driver decided he had better luck demanding Dimitri pay him for the damage than confront a masked rider who was getting away fast.

    After much back and forth with the driver Dimitri finally agreed to pay for the driver’s time and inconvenience and walk the rest of the way to Sally’s house while the driver waited for a repairman.

    But that meant our hero was able to get to Sally’s house first!

    He knocked on her door and she answered expecting Dimitri to be there, ready to propose and was quite shocked to find her ex who died 3 months ago instead.

    He explained that it was Dimitri who had him killed in the first place and that she shouldn’t marry him. Not sure who to believe Sally called her mother to let her know that she wasn’t going to get engaged soon after all. But her mother, who was anticipating her daughter becoming engaged so very eagerly, did not take this news easily. After yelling at her daughter for about half an hour she hung up the phone, still in a fit of rage, took out her husband’s pistol and shot the phone.

    When Dimitri finally arrived at Sally’s house Sally decided she wanted to hear his side of the story. And though he was a liar, he smooth-talked his way into convincing Sally that he was innocent. Then he suggested, Sally call her mother again to tell her the wedding was back on. He reasoned that once Sally told her mom, Sally would be so committed to the engagement that she wouldn’t back out no matter how much she liked Victor

    But of course, with the mother’s phone destroyed they couldn’t reach her. But Dimitri insisted that they drive over to tell her right away.

    They got into Dimitri’s car. Sally insisted that her ex come too. While interacting with Victor in the car ride there she began to recall the things that made him attractive to her in the first place.

    So, when they finally reached her Mom’s house she decided she would stay with Victor after all, maybe even marry him.

    This made Dimitri so furious that he finally confessed to the killing. And asked how it was possible Victor escaped.

    So Victor told them the entire story of his escape and how he managed to get there.

    “But one thing I don’t get” said Dimitri “Even if you somehow came back to life, how did you escape your coffin?”

    “Well” said Victor, “when I came back to life one thing I did notice was that my coffin was not quite nailed shut.”
    And the moral of the story is
    “For want of the final nail in the coffin, the groundskeeper’s shoe was lost. For walking a mile in another man’s shoe, the horse was lost. For the cart of keys being before the horse, Dimitri the limo rider was lost.
    And since his driver, while being perfectly willing to ride with him in the limo, was unwilling to take the bus with him when the limo broke down, the message to Sally’s mother was lost. For want of that message, for which she shot the messenger, the battle for Sally’s heart was lost. And since Dimitri lost the battle, half of which Victor won just by knowing where to go, the war was lost. And to the Victor goes the spolies.”

  39. Basil Elton says:

    Amazing! And a good way to learn English proverbs for someone who doesn’t know them.
    The setting reminded me of NIIChaVo from “Monday Begins on Saturday” by Strugatsky brothers, only done more subtle, modern and not communistic – did anyone here heard of it and what do you think?

    • Said Achmiz says:

      That’s one of my favorite Strugatsky novels!

      And, yeah, I can see the parallels. Of course, NIIChaVo isn’t, you know… evil. (Mostly.) So there’s that… and also, it’s an intentional metaphor for something, rather than just being inherently comedic.

      But, yeah, it is reminiscent…

      • Basil Elton says:

        Yes sure, I’ve thought about it when reading the first part, before it’s clear that the proverb laboratory is evil. Just a research body that takes some pieces of folklore literally, researches them and incorporates them in its day to day life – like farming energy from the Wheel of Fortune or using Maxwell’s demons as doormen there, or Rome and the tip of iceberg here.

    • eliokim says:

      Yes, I wanted to make the same comment!
      I think it’s not so much the main idea or the plot, but mostly the style. I grew up reading Strugatskys and I realize now that I like Scott’s writing so much in part because his clarity and his sense of humor are reminiscent of them.

      (I must admit that i never read English translations and I am worried that a lot of Strugatskys’ humor may be untranslatable…

      (I am sorry for this typical russian smugness “you will never understand my Pushkin!”…))

      By the way, “Tale of the Troika”, a sequel to “Monday Begins on Saturday” that was forbidden in Soviet Union and for many years circulated in samizdat in several versions, is one of my favorite novels and although full of magic and science fiction is may be one of the most faithful descriptions of life in the USSR in 50s and 60s. It is also extremely funny.

      • Basil Elton says:

        I am sorry for this typical russian smugness

        That is totally fine, I’m Russian too (the nickname is from one Lovecraft’s story). So I never read Strugatskys in English either.

        When you say Scott’s writing is reminiscent of them do you mean his fiction?

        • eliokim says:

          When you say Scott’s writing is reminiscent of them do you mean his fiction?

          Yes, his fiction, but also some general features that are present in his non-fiction as well: the scrupulosity, the sense of humor, a distinct type of lightness and clarity, passionate humanism. Like sometimes you learn that two people you know are related, and you think: that makes sense! There is something about the way they talk you could almost guess they were cousins.
          Do you also find that similarity or is it just me?

          • Basil Elton says:

            Actually I haven’t read any of Scott’s fiction except for this one and “Sort By Controversial”. From them I don’t notice any similarity in style though (here as I mentioned it’s setting that seems similar). For one thing, I’d expect Scott to be very meticulous about scientific and technical details, and for Strugatskys it’s not really a thing.

      • Lambert says:

        *sigh* Am I going to have to teach myself Russian?

        I mean, I was probably going to anyway, unless someone does a better translation of Zhivago.

        • Etoile says:

          Some things, esepcially from the Soviet Era, and especially humor, don’t translate too well.
          There are genius translators who took English pieces – E.g. Winnie the Pooh and created fully functional equivalents in Russian, but I don’t think Enlgish writing talent ever devoted itself to translations, and as such English translations of anything are generally worse than Russian translations of the Societ period.

    • aaeiou90 says:

      While we’re discussing Russian-language media, may I recommend “Сказка с подробностями” (A tale with details). Beware though, some parts are pretty un-PC, though not in mean-spirited way, I think.
      The author is the same guy who wrote the screenplay for “38 parrots” cartoons (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iEHyrNX4IR8), which are also deeply logico-philosophical.

      • Etoile says:

        Also Louis Sachar (“Wayside School”) – does similar things to Oster in English. E.g.: “Nobody wanted seconds of potato salad. Some kids went back fro seconds of nothing, but Ms. Mush (the lunch lady) soon ran out of nothing.”

  40. Winja says:

    When the agent was trying to kill him with the pistol, I was surprised that Eastman wasn’t saved due to the agent going off half-cocked.

    Also, was waiting for a “keep your powder dry” reference.

    Also, I think the SCP Foundation would likely be quite interested in the Proverb Machine.

    • DanielH says:

      The Machine isn’t anomalous per se, I don’t think; anything built from the same blueprints would work the same way. All the SCP machines I can think of just don’t work in a way where if you built an exact replica you’d expect the replica to function the same way.

      That said, if it hadn’t been destroyed I bet they would want to secure and contain it.

      • Sonata Green says:

        There’s plenty of SCPs that don’t involve anomalous-per-se objects; to take a completely random example, the Secret Chord consists of a set of five tones which, if played together, would melt the Earth; no anomalous equipment is necessary.

    • Galle says:

      Honestly, if Eastman had been an agent for the Foundation he’d probably have called in a mobile task force the moment he heard the phrase “capital-M Machine”. Those are never good news.

  41. So, I managed to get the ‘cat got your tongue’ part really early in the story (like most people, presumably), but I was puzzled about the stomach and heart. The thing is, I did have a theory about the stomach – that Cat didn’t have the stomach to commit a murder, so she clearly had to acquire one first.

    I first groaned at the “strike when the iron is hot” pun, for the record.

    I can’t help but ponder whether someone dared you to write this, and if so, why no one warned them of the consequences. XD Excellent work! Thanks for writing this and sharing it with the world!

  42. arancaytar says:

    No. The first victim, Lisa Bird, she was our sysadmin.

    Uh-oh. Did she get killed with half a stone?

    LaShay took me down a series of turns and hallways. After a minute or two of walking…we were in the scale model of Rome again.

    “Dammit!” said LaShay. “Every time!”

    Could be worse, at least it’s not Wall Drug.

    “I have nothing to hide.”

    I should think not.

    Hope he also doesn’t have any stones to throw.

  43. arancaytar says:

    Apparently her computer had a virus once, and Ms. Bird solved it.

    Well, she did always come to work very early, and you know what they say.

  44. cakoluchiam says:

    My partner and I really enjoyed Reading UNSONG together, and after reading this I almost told her she’d get a kick out of it but maybe threatening domestic violence isn’t the best way to recommend literature.

  45. jstr says:

    Love this story! 😀

  46. thetitaniumdragon says:

    This was gloriously terrible. I loved it.

    It’s like a reverse feghoot.

  47. Patrick says:

    You really should have given The Machine a name. Something like “Axiomatic” would have worked nicely. 🙂