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art by Melissa Mead

The Traveling Raven Problem

British author Ian Watson may be best known for his Screen Story for Spielberg's A.I. Artificial Intelligence, based on almost a year's work eyeball to eyeball with Stanley Kubrick. He may be best known, in gaming circles, for his four space operas set in the universe of Warhammer 40,000. Or for his 40-odd SF novels and story collections commencing in 1973 with the award-winning The Embedding, all available as ebooks through watersofdestiny.com. These days he lives in the north of Spain.

"Right, apprentice lad, welcome to Ravenstower! As yer already well aware, or bluddy ought to be, the Thirteen Dukedoms communicates by raven-post, and us 'ere is the central ravenry of this 'ere fine city of Orth, proud capital of Northland. Woz yer name again?"
"Igar, Ser."
"You addresses us as Corvomaester."
"Certainly, Corvomaester."
"Behave yerself, scrape up the raven shit, sweep spilled food, pick up dropped sticks cos them's a fire hazard, see as there's always enough carrion and kitchen waste, not picking out any maggots or gobs of fat fer yerself, don't forget about berries and cereals and pullet eggs, and in twenty or thirty years some young oik might just be addressing yerself as Corvomaester."
All the way up the domed tower were big rough-hewn numbered niches for ravens' deep fur-lined nests of sticks, mud, and bark, tied together with roots, open to the outside air as well as to the inside. Due to all this ventilation, the tower was bloody cool within but less pongy than otherwise might have been. Curving stairways of black iron led up to all levels of the railed interior galleries. Igar imagined a huge library where the ravens were books, their feathers pages. Bright Igar imagined far too much. He'd been taught things by a mythematical maester who went into retirement to meditate but who then took a fancy to this lad so open to learning yet bottom of his class due to woolgathering during dull lessons. When the hundreds of hogs in Dad's flock suddenly died of rampaging purpleskin posteriorparalysis brainrot, necessity compelled that the boy be gainfully indentured, and Igar was lucky indeed that the maester pulled a string within Orth Castle.
Constant bird-noise rattled and echoed.
"Now the brainiest ravens speak our tongue when it suits them; that's about half of the congregation here--"
"Excuse me, Corvomaester, but if fifty percent are brainiest--"
"Shut your gob, boy, when your betters is talking. I was saying: you'll need to know their lingo too, be able to kraaa or prruk-prruk or toc-toc-toc to catch their at-tension. The least brainiest can only be taught to carry wor one-time pads to two or three of the thirteen capital castles and come back 'ere. But the brainiest can tour the whole lot, though it takes weeks and weeks."
"Won't those ravens need thirteen-time pads, Corvomaester?"
"One-time is wot we calls them, boy, no one knows why, but thus it's been for the past three thousand years."
"So the messages aren't actually... en-cry-pted?"
"Wozzat mean? More nonsense, you'll get put in a crypt yerself! If yer so clever, I'll be showing you wor best chart of the Thirteen Dukedoms right away, and you tell me in wot order yon brainiest ravens should best visit all the capital castles in turn."
A falling stick and several twigs bounced off the Corvomaester's bald pate. Swiftly Igar collected them up from beside the much-pecked cadaver of a direwabbit.
"Well let me see, Corvomaester, if we adopt a mythematical approach as regards combinatorial optimization--"
"Yer only optimist in any combat is a fool!"
Kraaa, Prrruk-prrruk, Toc-toc-toc, vociferated scores of ravens in agreement or disagreement.
The Corvomaester jerked his thumb aloft. "Them heavy buggers only needs watch out for high hawks." He became solemn and fingered the black iron links of his necklace of office. "Hawks is the gobspite of forgotten Gods. The spiteful gobspit." He spat accurately at some recent ravenshite on a footworn flagstone of the great circular floor.
"Begging your pardon, Corvomaester, but mightn't grilles such as you can open to tie a one-time pad to a bird's leg be a tidier idea for our side of the roostnests?"
"Imbecile, ye cannot semi-cage a raven or ye'll set it raving, as the sage old saying says."
As if to illustrate this wisdom, half a dozen birds launched themselves into the vast aviary, to flap overhead and then to gyre and to pern as though in parody of buzzards since a strongly sustaining breeze had sprung up and through the tower. This and the deepening gloom suggested that a storm was impending. Indeed lightning began to flicker and flash from afar through the nest apertures, lightening the interior of the tower with swift spasms of illumination.
Inspired by the flashes, Igar said hesitantly, "Corvomaester, instead of using ravens to carry messages that take days and weeks to arrive, might it be a better idea to put mirrors on top of our tower? Then a tower on a hilltop ten leagues away spies our signal and repeats the same to a further tower? And, er, so on? That way a message might travel a hundred leagues or more in an hour. We could call the mirrors hellographs and you'd be, um, famous."
"And that's all mirrorflashes could say, feckwit. Hello hello hello."
"No, you'd have a code--"
"Careful, laddie!"
"Corvomaester pardon me, Corvomaester I forgot your address. With respect, Corvomaester, pre-agreed patterns of short and long flashes would represent different letters, making words--"
"Which any spy as knows his letters can read plain as day! No, scrubboy of flagstones, ravens is the best security, as has served us well for thirty centuries."
"Corvomaester, an arrow... a trained hawk..."
"'tis blasphemy to disable a raven, the slow bonfire awaits you. Flashing mirrors? Yer'll get yerself blinded with such daftness."
"Corvomaester, ciphers could be based upon pages in a book held only by the sender and the intended receiver."
"Would that be The Buke of Knowledge, The Buke of Unknowledge, The Buke of Noble Lineages, or The Buke of Obscene Tails? All handwritten by scribes, I'll remind ye, with all what that implies as regards textual correctness!"
Evidently the Corvomaester was more learned than Igar had begun to suspect incorrectly. During the coming years Igar would need to solve the Traveling Raven Problem....
The End
This story was first published on Thursday, August 8th, 2013

Author Comments

I was moved to write this story by the brilliant HBO TV adaptation of George Martin's Song of Ice & Fire. My wife Cristina Macía's Spanish translations of the books accounted for one in ten of all GRRM titles sold throughout the world in all languages, including English, so my attention was drawn, although I'm not a habitual reader or viewer of fantasy. My usual perspective is science fictional tinted with surrealism. Perhaps surrealism is the art of looking at reality upside-down or inside-out. I like to take a situation and, without planning in advance, explore the implications logically, often with a crazy result. Use ravens as messengers? What does this imply? Aside from the mess due to birds? Immediately the famous Traveling Salesman Problem of mathematics came to mind. Since I’m only semi-literate mathematically, the aim was to have fun. I may produce more adventures of Igar.

- Ian Watson
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