(This work, The Machine, was originally published in serial form between February and March, 2003)
how long is it now?
people live in the bowls of the machine. they scamper and scurry, a society of rat reflexes. they exist at the mercy of the machine. they exist in fear of it, of its fickle nature.
if you peel back the edges of the machine, get underneath it’s alloyed skin, there is a human heartbeat, visceral and wet.
the machine grows. it grows without design. it grows with only one purpose, one goal: to continue to grow. a mechanical virus, infecting,
grime covers every surface of the machine. the sharp stink of processed petroleum permeates the air, choking away memories of a sun long dead.
the sun is gone, you see. they killed it. we must take refuge here, in the machine, our protector, our armor.
yes, there are windows – but where they are, no one knows – at least, no one who will speak of this openly.
people have left in search of them.
they have not returned.
the machine killed them, maybe, as it kills so many of us: accidentally, always accidentally. it is blind, you see. it knows only growth.
the elders say that one day the machine will cause the sun to shine again.
in the end the rats tore him apart.
they came, soiled and stinking waves of manged and flea-infested fur, chittering,
fearless in their hunger.
they came from the deep places of the machine – it’s black and oily piston-driven hearts, moist pockets of secret hate.
the machine bred them there.
we know the rats got him because we found his skeleton. it had been picked clean and gnawed to the marrow in places.
we know it was the rats because men do not do these things – at least, not human men.
the young people said that we should have gone deep into the machine to find and kill the pack. they said – i said, i was young then – they said that it was only a matter of time before the rats grow bold and sleek, fat from their victories. soon they would brave to hunt in the lit areas of the machine.
the elders disagreed. his death was a message, they said. a message from the machine: do not seek the sun. his quest had angered it, they said – and it had punished him as surely as it would vent its wrath upon anyone else foolish enough to stray from our habitat.
obey, they said.
breed, they said.
do not question the will of the machine.
you must tell them that you remember the stars, my son. you must lie to them.
i tell you this because i am dying. the thrumming of the machine causes my brittle bones to ache. i am tired, always tired,
tired of the constant clanging and the deep rumbling. it brings madness.
i have never seen the stars. i heard of them only from our storyteller. we sat in a circle at night and listened to the tales for hours upon hours, soaking up every word: stories of mythical forces called ‘wind’ and ‘rain’, of lost gardens and forests, and of the long dead creatures: dogs, cats, bears, birds.
i swore that one day i would see these things for myself.
we had already lost the use of the machine’s eyes and image screens. they were fragile things and slowly the grime crept into their casings, freezing them with accumulated dirt and soot.
we, too, had only the oral tradition and the picture wall.
the sun was a dim, cloud-shrouded memory to even the eldest of the old. i wonder now, as i did then, if any of them truly had seen the blues of the sky. i wonder if they had not simply passed down the stories they themselves had heard – descriptions of trees and grass and birds and forests – and repeated the stories over and over again,
until they believe that it was they, themselves, who had walked the surface, and not some dead, forgotten ancestor.
this is the power of the storyteller, my son: hope. as i pass on, it is you who must keep the memory of these things alive in our children’s children. you must make them believe that these things exist, that they are waiting for them. most important, you must make them believe that one day they will walk under the sky.
it is this hope that allows us to survive during the cold periods when the machine is fickle with it’s heat. it is this hope that allows them to continue to harvest the mushrooms each day. it is this hope that gives the infirm the will to continue.
the hope that some day will be a better day.
you must tell them the stories until they, too, drink deep of your words and promise themselves and their children to find the way out.
it is there, you know. the outside exists.
i saw it once, long ago, when i was adventurous.
but that is a story for another day.
they will ask you “why,” my son.
the young children are made of the hard questions. it is suffused in their blood, a sugar of difficulty.
you must recognize this and learn to direct the questioning sweet tooth into one that favors salt.
they will ask you why, and you can only give them the answer that you were given when you sat in front of the fire:
because it was no longer safe outside of the machine.
we do not remember the nature of our peril. we do not know the authority of our doom. we know only that there is solace within the grinding gears of the machine’s bosom.
the more imaginative of the elders would tell you that we sought refuge from the terrible, radioactive results of war, or that we had poisoned our world, or that a new ice age had crept upon us after a comet’s devastation.
i believe none of those things.
i think we are here simply because of fear and laziness.
fear is what brought us to the state where we would accept such a solution and laziness is what prevents us from seeking better ones.
in the eyes of my imagination, i see a statesman say, the machine will make you safe.
it is for your safety that we must do these things.
if we do not, if you do not accept this solution, then deaths will occur. our entire way of life will end.
but our way of life did end, and that is what they could not foresee.
we have become weak and lazy. we are no better than the vermin who scurry behind the panels in the corridors – meek, scared – terrified of the wrath of the machine.
i am sad to say that i have spent too many years of my life in that same mindset. i could not truly comprehend the meaning of the things i found in my youth and so i assumed they were beyond the grasp of my feeble intellect.
so i gave up.
i tell you know, though, as i prepare my last breath, that i know it would be preferable to die out there, in search of the truth, than lying here on this tattered mattress, choking from the sulfuric egg stench of our recycled air.
you must not let them fear. you must teach them not to give up – keep their hope alive so that they believe that they can change things. it may be that you, too, will die without seeing the results of this.
but you must carry on.
there is a great inheritance out there, beyond these humming walls and clanging ducts.
teach them to seek it.
i have one more secret to tell you before i leave forever, my son. it is perhaps the most dread truth that i am witness to, and one that i am only now, as the fluid of my life ebbs and my gears grind to a halt, am i able to understand what it represents – to me, to you, to us
the people of the machine.
i spoke to you before of a time when i was younger and given to adventure and exploration, and how i had seen the outside.
i tell you now this terrible thing: the outside exists and it is a great and terrible thing,
a smoking, churning hell,
and it is of our making.
i was perhaps only twenty years old when we found the endless stair. those were dark times for us. the rats and other, darker creatures from the machine’s depths had been prowling along the edges of our society. from time to time they would attack us, out of hunger, perhaps out of fear, lightning raids to kill children and the infirm.
after many weeks of pointless bickering, the elders came to the conclusion that i and my cohorts had almost immediately: we must fight back. we must hunt down these menaces and destroy them or be destroyed ourselves. in this manner was every able-bodied male conscripted into a makeshift army.
we would become packs of hunters ourselves.
there were grand ceremonies made of this. we each stood before the story wall and were given praises by the elders and in a private and solemn session with the storyteller we received the last story, the one told to the dying.
because that’s what we were, you see: dying. they did not expect us to return in the same numbers.
we were given weapons with which to kill: stabbing spears, slashing swords, mechanical contraptions that sprayed liquid fire. the smiths worked day and night, coaxing the machine to deliver the essentials for our survival.
we were sent into the deep warrens. i remember there being much discussion about what to do when we had passed beyond the edge of darkness, to those cobwebbed corridors where the walklamps were broken and dead.
they gave us torches and antique contraptions called “lamps.”
the days i spent in the warrens are merely a smear in the dust that is my memory. i know we fought and many of our people were written out of the stories there; too many. i remember endless night, and camping in the darkness, sleeping back to back, or facing out from the fires we would make, praying that our feeble lights did not attract the curious and feral.
what i remember most is the grime. it was everywhere, the sooty leavings of the machine. soot and rust and oil – we wore it as a second skin after a time.
there are creatures of clockwork in the deep warrens, you know. magnificent and terrible things in all manner of shapes and sizes. the warrens are a mechanical garden of eden: the machine has been busy there. they clattered and rolled through the hallways and the ducts with no discernable purpose, never hostile, smelling of oils and smoke.
they ignored us just as they ignored the rats.
it was in the warrens that we came across the endless stair. we weren’t even certain that it was a stair at first; the first steps were covered in what could be centuries of oily dust and rusted leavings.
once we had determined it’s purpose, though, we had no choice but to ascend and see where it led.
we climbed and climbed. we called it the ‘endless stair’ for a reason; it spiraled forever and ever. we would climb for a time and then rest for hours and then begin our climb again, our feet leaving thunderous echoes through the iron in our wake. further and further we climbed, choking on kicked up rust, hacking at inhaled cobwebs. many times we thought of turning back but we would tell ourselves: it can only be just a little further.
each time we said this, we were wrong.
it was perhaps days of climbing, but eventually we came to the apex. we knew we were approaching the top because there was light there – light, in the depths of the abyss, floating dimly from above, sheathed in a fog of dust.
with renewed vigor we tackled the remainder of the staircase and emerged into the brightness, our light-starved eyes blinking, stinging, tearing.
we had expected to find several walklamps but we were unprepared for what was really there:
windows, my son. walls that you can see through, made of the same material that covers the walklamps and cracked screens.
and through the windows, we saw the sun.
it was too bright to look at. i fell to my knees and wept, exhausted. we all did. i am not ashamed to tell you this.
looking around, we found that we were inside of a rather large circular room, a room whose walls were made of glass. the room contained several pieces of furniture that had been covered in tarps; when we pulled the coverings away the room darkened from the dust we stirred up.
under the tarps were chairs, desks and many, many screens – screens of a type i had never seen before, but screens nonetheless. there were small artifacts of an impenetrable and complex nature made of plastic. they were soft to the touch, rotten from age.
staring at all of it i was filled with deep sense of horror: men had been in this place once and they had abandoned it, finding it unsuitable for some reason. but more: they had left it in such a way that led me to believe that they expected to return.
it filled me with a great sadness, my son. these men and their ideas, thier secret knowledge – all of it was now dust, lost to us.
it was then that i heard someone crying. i looked up and saw our leader standing at the room’s edge, staring out the window. none of us had been able to do so – the light was too bright. he was full of despair.
in a dream, i remember standing and walking to the window’s edge. i remember staring out the window and i remember my the muscles of my legs turning to jelly as i sank to the iron floor.
we were very high up. the stair had led to the heights of a grand tower from which we could see for miles and miles – until the horizon was a blur.
what we saw was the machine.
there was nothing there but the machine.
it stretched until it melted into the smog of the it’s own breath. acres of nothing but rust-colored smokestacks belching fire and impossibly giant gears, turning slowly, oh so slowly.
a hades of iron and rust and grease.
there was a dread poetry visible in the machine from this vantage point. closer to the base of the tower the machine was orderly; obviously designed. however, as one’s eyes moved further from the tower the less the world had to do with the concept of ‘order’ until eventually it was nothing but chaos – chaos bred by the machine.
the machine is designing itself, my son.
and it is truly mad.
as we left that accursed chamber and made our way down the stair, we made blood oathes to one another to never reveal this truth.
we returned to the low warrens and stood before the story wall and we lied to the elders. we wept for our dead and celebrated our victories.
of the men who climbed the stair, all are now dead. i am the last, and soon i, too, shall be written out of the story.
i tell you this secret because it must survive.
listen: you must move our people. you must spur them to action; they must migrate. the machine is insane and directionless. i have watched for many years, waiting for the signs that the low warrens will cease to be habitable. that time is soon: over the years the elements of the machine vital to our survival have decayed and died, never to be replaced.
the smiths are no longer able to summon all the elements they require. the screens are dark or speak only gibberish. the walklamps are dying, slowly. you yourself have noticed these changes.
our people will die if they remain here.
you must take them out from here. you must take them as far as possible.
you must seek an edge to the machine. i believe it exists – it has not covered all the earth yet.
find the edge, and you find the sun.
and if possible, my son -
you must kill the machine.