The whole of the town throngs the cobbles around the stage. Yesterday the carpenters’ hammers pounded and saws chewed, so the smell of fresh-cut wood lingers behind the fairground scents of foods cooked up for the occasion. Under dark of night, masked laborers hefted parts of the Great Machine onto the stage, and behind silk curtains mysterious artisans constructed and fiddled, working up until this last breathless moment before the curtains’ fall.

And then lo, the Great Machine stands revealed. But what is it? It looks like the offspring of a dining room and a guillotine. Two thick pillars straddle a table, not holding a blade between them, but a screw attached to a board. With a flourish, the master of ceremonies holds up a white rectangle of parchment and lays it over the table. At his nod, an assistant pulls a lever, which through miraculous mechanics drives the spring to press down the board. The lever rises, and the master of ceremonies picks up the parchment to reveal a page printed with words—a hundred, a thousand—in an instant!

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