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The Rational Apparatus

The greatest and most terrible weapons are formed and forged in the white-hot heat of absolute conviction, but it is a dread of uncertainty that keeps them close at hand.


The last and most lasting work of Italian mathematician and engineer Dr Romola Severina, The Rational Apparatus - and the documentation that detailed the reasoning and justification for its creation - were discovered a few weeks after Severina’s death in 1910. Hidden in a walled-off room in the cellar of her home in Florence, the machine is unassuming; a dense construction of metal and opaque glass, of endlessly whirring gears and unlabelled wiring around an inaccessible core that emits random clicks and weak strobes of lights at irregular intervals. Its purpose not readily apparent, it might have ended up being dismantled or discarded were it not for the fervent, almost urgent warnings with which the surrounding walls were daubed. Steady strokes of black paint on whitewashed stone conveying a stern imperative.

These messages, repeated in French and English as well as Italian, instructed that The Rational Apparatus was not to be touched. Instead they directed whomever uncovered the room to take the documents that Severina had left beside the machine and to deliver it to the University of Florence where, she insisted, it would be properly understood. The manuscript details Severina’s theories about the existence of a growing infinity of realities: A new branching timeline created by every choice and every occurrence of chance. The treatise and proofs for these ideas themselves are, despite containing a few unfalsifiable assumptions, surprisingly concise; a handful of admittedly-cramped pages in which Severina demonstrates - at least to the satisfaction of those who can be convinced purely by the mathematical - the certainty of her conviction.

What follows in this work is more distressing. Having proven that every possible permutation of history was fated, inevitably, to play out, Severina fell into a deep despair: If every path was taken, did any individual action even matter? Morally, at least, every decision was a wash and the future (when considered across all potential timelines) a zero-sum game in which free will was a hollow illusion. It was in the pits of this desperation that a moment of bleak and terrible inspiration struck; if all these alternative histories and possible futures could be collapsed into a single path then real and meaningful choice - and consequence - would be restored. Severina began her work on The Rational Apparatus immediately and, though she maintained a veneer of her previous life, it became an all-consuming endeavour.

The Rational Apparatus was relocated to a secure location, where it continues to frustrate those who try to determine the veracity of Severina’s claims and madden those who have attempt to understand the machine itself. A complete schematic or full accounting of its construction might offer enough information for its intended functions to be verified, or disproven, and her notes its design and creation are purposefully incomplete as a result (though they go into carefully demonstrated details on the cataclysmic result of interrupting its work). Nonetheless, the notes contain enough details to suggest some fragmentary discoveries which have been independently verified and are, in some cases, quite revolutionary). It is certain that The Rational Apparatus does something - even if that something is only perpetuating its own makeshift activity - but without a more invasive investigation its internal mechanisms will remain mysterious.

There is, of course, an alternative narrative: That Severina, famed for what were euphemistically referred to as eccentricities, had - whilst earnest in her beliefs and diligent in her calculations - yielded her prodigious grasp on reason for a final and most fateful mania. The Rational Apparatus being more fanciful than functional, the fevered product of an obsession that was quieted by its completion, some believe that she might have been inspired to desperate, sleepless enterprise by the realisation that the idea of such a machine would not been uniquely hers. Every step of its invention and fabrication would have been dogged by her parallels, every wrong decision, every delay - even every hesitant pang of conscience - would create a new Severina in a new reality who had already stolen a march on her.

If her genius was not assailed by madness during the formulation of her proofs, it was almost certainly a consequence of first conceiving the possibility of The Rational Apparatus’s creation and, thereafter, realising the inevitability of it. To destroy an incalculable amount of life, if not an infinite amount, on the basis of a terrified certainty that someone, somewhere was working to ensure that the meagre billions of inhabitants of their Earth would be the ones to survive? Even in the abstract, even as only a mathematical equation being reduced to a neater sum, committing the most terrible act in the history of all of creation must surely come with a burden of an unimaginable guilt. Assuming the responsibility for such an action would give pause to the coldest and hardest-hearted of us.

How reassuring then the possibility, albeit unfortunately not the likelihood, that Severina had played an elaborate practical joke upon the future (or that her mind had played a crueller joke upon her). If it is a fake, or a mistake, then the fate of the future does not rest on the undisturbed and uninterrupted function of a machine that must nonetheless be treated as though it were definitely the fulcrum on which the fate of the world, of existence entire, were precariously balanced. It is this uncertainty that guarantees the inviolability of The Rational Apparatus and protects its inner workings from even the most careful and gentle interrogation. To damage or dismantle it would be to abandon caution, a gamble on a game in which the stakes could not possibly be higher.

It is assumed and understood (on some level) that one day the machine will cease to function, or will be stopped. Although there are two, diametrically-opposed outcomes, there is a certain macabre irony to the fact that those who are aware of the machine dread both. Each of these fears, though unequal, is existential: Either everything will simply cease, a total and instantaneous annihilation of all that is, was, or ever could be, or there is a more mundane nothingness. In this case, if nothing catastrophic happens, then hundreds of lives - lives devoted to the prevention of a disaster that was never going to come to pass - will have been spent in a failed and fruitless pursuit. Some, stripped of past purpose and future resolve, might find themselves thinking that oblivion would have been preferable.

Interestingly, a third potential outcome has also been posited. Assuming that The Rational Apparatus works exactly as it was built to - having collapsed the exponentially sprawling infinity of timelines (which began to splinter from the first moment of creation) into a single linear path - it is possible that the interruption of its function will allow new timelines to be created. Our single thread would, in an instant of possibilities, probabilities and choices, proliferate into a countless number of new timelines that share our own history until that point: A universe reborn to its true and majestic complexity. Of course, such a thought might one day inspire a successor to walk the same path as Severina and, at its end, find themselves having to decide if they can bear to make the same, impossible decisions that she did.


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