The Dreadful Machine
by Martin James Hunter
The moment I laid eyes on the new start I knew he wasn’t going to last. Half of it was the look on his eyes, the other half was the look on everyone else’s eyes when they watched him.
A lot of people don’t make it in this line of work. Not many minds can cope with being planted this deep into the ground for long. The average new start does five days a week and the average worker does seven. I have been doing entire weeks devoid of fresh air and sunlight for longer than I remember. It has been a long time since I have seen my reflection. I imagine I am not a pretty sight.
The horrid gloom we work within helps noone. Even in my apathy I can taste it: the darkness that nestles within the oily depths of the shadows, the dull throb that resonates through the caverns, and the dreadful machine, always rumbling in the distance like an empty stomach. The heat too, emitted from its insides, made worse after twelve hours of working in the same suit collecting sweat and oil and dirt and sometimes piss. Then wearing it again the next day. Then for another year.
My suit smells terrible. Everyone’s does. The tough leather is falling apart and the shoulder is torn. But we are used to it. Used to recycled uniforms and moribund tools. Used to safety equipment that is a hazard in itself. Used to the smell of ancient piss and shit. Hardly even notice it really. Only made aware of it when a new start comes down the cargo elevator twitching his nose and pretending the reek doesn’t bother them. They all do that, then they either get used to it or lose their job. Back up the cargo elevator, or worse.
Workers with strong morals never last. Eventually they find out what the job really entails – the reason we are all sweating and bleeding and sometimes dying down here – and they can’t take it. Through desperation they skip the part in their contract that warns them they won’t like what they see, and often find they have made the wrong choice. Some of them are forced to remain in the caverns, they never last. Others have successful appeals and make it back onto the surface, but never really leave the machine behind.
It feels like aeons since I signed that contract. I used to work five days a week like all the other new starts. Every Friday night I would board the cargo elevator for fresh air, but nobody goes on like that. You can’t look anyone in the face anymore knowing what you do down here. You find yourself paying for goods in shops with your eyes on your feet, ignoring your apartment door, drifting away from anyone you were ever close to. Then you take a little overtime. You work a few weekends. A few more. The next thing you know you join the hive. The beds are filthy but cheap and there is nothing special about the food, but they are free and you don’t have to communicate with anyone to get it.
The caverns were not always like this. The conditions used to be good, the equipment worked, and the workers were fairly normal. The machine infected us from the top down; we never see the management anymore, we just seem to know what to do.
It is the end of my shift and I have just entered the sleeping quarters I share with twenty other workers. I tug at the leathers that encase me until they finally give. The flesh on my legs is bone white. No one notices my nudity.
A locker slams shut beside me. The sound of painkillers clinking together. Peter sits on the edge of his bed holding a novel. He has been on the same page for fifteen minutes now. The colour in his eyes has begun to go.
Last night I watched him shoot awake glistening and fighting for breath, scanning the beds around him until he came to me. We remained like that for a moment. His eyes hinting at the ineffable images of his dreams. I offered no help, just watched.
Today his eyes are pink and he seems a little dazed. He shares his dinner table with five empty seats. Above him a single bulb trembles from distant machinery. Other workers gather in groups and watch him poke at his breakfast.
The whole thing seems familiar. In fact I remember the same thing happening to me. The loss of appetite and the insomnia and the nightmares and the ceaseless glaring. It crossed my mind in the past that maybe everyone encounters these symptoms in their first few weeks. It is, however, what happens to you afterwards that counts. The change that takes place. You either pledge your loyalty to the machine, or become an opponent.
The penalty for speaking of the dreadful machine on the surface is either immediate conscription, or being hung in your home town. It’s in the contract we all signed. When we were starving its words meant less than they do now. It’s almost worth staying away from the surface just in case the wrong words roll from your tongue by mistake, and alcohol is best avoided.
These tunnels may be dark and cruel but it is not as though the surface of the Earth is without its problems. The world of love and charity and children and trust is also the world of disease and rape and murder and corruption and deceit. At least down here the unbearable truth is not kept from us.
Once on the surface an officer realised I had forgotten my ID card before I did. This is classed as having no official identity and I was almost conscripted to fight against Eastasia there and then. Somehow I managed to persuade the officer to come to my flat to rectify the mistake and offer compensation for the misunderstanding. After a thorough examination of my genuine identity card and the confiscating of a twenty year-old bottle of whisky, he left me alone.
The cargo elevator is only open to employees twice a week. Once on Friday night on its way to the surface, and once on Monday morning on its way back down. The first time I left the caverns I stayed in my apartment for most of the weekend dying to be lowered into the ground again like a corpse, and to stay put like one.
I have no idea what day it is. Weekdays and weekends are all the same now. There is no rush hour traffic or quiet nights anymore. There is no rain on glass or bar of sunlight as I pull myself from my bed. Nothing to suggest there is a natural world up there. Just the feeling of grubby leather as I drag my suit over my skin. Lockers slam shut and lungs are noisily cleared. Masks are pulled over expressionless faces. Together we start the march through the caverns to our designated working environment. Our feet move in unison. No one speaks.
We are all trained in most areas but assigned to only one. I operate the dreadful machine from a small cavern, thankfully nowhere near it. Every day I see a vile portion of the thing, a twisting and splicing knot of machinery through a panel on the floor. One of its main organs we call the heart. My job is to make sure the metal keeps screaming and splicing and battering and does not fail.
Today I am training Peter on how to work the heart. I did not hear him awaken last night, and he seems a little less disorientated than usual this morning. Perhaps there is hope for him yet. As I show him how to operate the control panel he is like a dog watching its master.
When I step aside he struggles to emulate me. I show him a second time but he still manages to almost break the thing. Three of the other workers watch him motionlessly from behind. Their silhouettes flicker and jerk under the torchlight like shapes tossed from a dying projector.
Concentrate. Clear your head and try again.
Not hard enough. You’re distracted.
I’m sorry. I don’t mean to…
Clear your head and watch me again. Closer this time.
I go through the procedure a third time. He watches closely before giving it another attempt. He struggles. Pulls at the lever, tugs at the valve, bashes the dial. There is a great moan of old metal as oil dribbles from above and quenches the machine’s thirst. I nod and tell him to do it again.
Later he is trying to tell me about his wife and children but I pay no attention. He will soon learn small talk has no place in these tunnels. I also revoke my opinion on his progress. A man with so many connections to the surface has no place here. He does not belong amongst our dark ranks. I feel it will not be long until his replacement is standing in the same spot he is.
He asks me when I think the cargo elevator will be fixed since he has not seen the surface in over a week. I do not answer. He asks me about myself, my family, my life. I do not answer. My silence finally spreads to him. We continue working only in the company of our own thoughts.
I do not remember ever having anything to live for. My family were never there for me as I grew up, but I preferred it that way. My father was in the military and died before I reached fourteen. My mother was never the same. She would drink and ask me why I was nothing like my father. I never answered her. She eventually threw me out one Summer and it was the last I ever saw of her. I felt as though I had just walked from a terrible job.
I have never had a lover. Never held a woman in my arms except one geriatric who collapsed on the train one morning. Never kissed or groped or made love to anyone. At first all I wanted was to meet someone, but never had the confidence to initiate conversation. My looks have never been on my side either. I eventually got used to the loneliness. Started to accept it. My libido drained from me and my emotions followed. I knew I was going to wind up dying alone and I realised I didn’t mind. Then I found myself here.
I am torn from my thoughts by the wretched howling of a co-worker. I spin in time to see someone being dragged into the pneumatics as though they were a napkin. Oil spatters over the offending steel arms – the worker’s last command – coating them in black as though covering up the murder. The others do not rush to help, nor do they deactivate the machine. They just watch for a moment in silence as the machine screams and clatters. The sound of knives being drawn across another. Then they resume their duties.
I turn back to the control panel. There is nothing I can do for the man now. Nothing anyone can do when someone serves the machine a final time. I grip a valve and turn to the rigid man glaring at the heart. I tell him to watch as I show him again.
It comes as a surprise to me when I find out the worker claimed by the heart was in fact a woman. Everyone looks the same in their overalls and masks. Even without protective clothing I hardly bat an eyelid at the opposite sex. They are always walking naked in their sleeping quarters, unnoticed and unappreciated.
Occasionally two workers will fuck between shifts but no one ever pays any attention. It is only ever new workers that watch their female colleagues as the leather is peeled from their bodies. Another way to distinguish the new starts from the experienced.
I am woken by the approaching footsteps of a fellow worker. Soundlessly, he hands everyone a sheet of paper. My eyes are still aching as I scan over mine. It takes a moment for the words to make sense, and a few reads to fully process them.
I have been reassigned to feed the dreadful machine. For the first time in years I feel my heart jump. I feel the gastric juice in my stomach go cold and splash up its fleshy prison. I feel my spine jerk and tremble as though it is going to fall apart and leave me trembling and broken and helpless in this horrible place. The messenger holds out another sheet to Peter, daring him to take it.
Peter has been reassigned with me. He does not react to this news since he has not seen the machine yet. Does not realise what these words mean. Even I fear what awaits us in the great cavern, despite having already experienced it for a short period some time ago. This is coming from a man who has felt close to nothing in at least ten years. Distantly, I begin pulling my overalls over my body.
The great cavern is fervent and humid and foul-smelling and the noise is deafening, a thousand iron cogs and arms screaming in unison as they twist and turn and scrape and smash together, locked in eternal combat. I peer over the balcony and gasp as I behold the dreadful machine, a skirmish of metal and flesh, an orgy of machinery, a million scythes being sharpened at once. The dreadful sensation that any moment a spear may shoot out and pierce a worker and drag him back to its glimmering stomach. Amongst this, an even greater knot of metal and thick coral tissue and the occasional glimpse of ivory. Organic matter, nestled within the steel and iron. Fleshy orifices pulsating. Emanating heat and stench. Forever hungry.
And now it is time to feed it. I take one of the four valves at either side of the large gate. Ten others pull its chains like primitives restraining a behemoth. The gate comes down heavily, spilling bodies into the shimmering mouth. Mothers, children, infants. Hundreds of them fall like ragdolls poured from a toybox. Soundless figures toppling through the air to be crushed and devoured as they meet the machine. Torsos and skulls bursting and sinking amongst steel teeth, yanked into its depths, fed into its fleshy components. Limbs dance and jerk like obscure sock puppets before sinking into the steel.
Peter is staring over the chasm at the madness, his reaction invisible beneath the leathers. Now that I have seen the first batch of bodies being fed to the machine I feel better. The horror has passed and I am on my way to feeling nothing again. Obediently we continue.
Another bay is loaded up with the dead then spilled onto the pneumatics where they are burst and swallowed and rended. We repeat this a further four times until it is as easy as taking out the trash. So many bodies, dead from natural causes, disease, murder, hunger, thirst, lethargy. All taken from their coffins and shipped down here along with scraps from battlefields. Splayed soldiers, hunks of torso, tattered limbs. Crammed in a container like pet food.
The worst has yet to come. I shake my head when I hear them in the next batch, trying to reject my surfacing anxiety. I start twisting my valve again and the other workers heave at their chains. The gate falls heavily like an iron flap and I can hear their panic as they are tipped towards the edge. Worried murmuring. Then screaming. A hundred Eastasians flailing helplessly as they fall towards the mechanics like birds too young to fly. Some of them still wearing their uniforms, some of them naked, some a mixture of both. Prisoners of war being torn up and spread across cogs and gears and pneumatics like machine grease. Their cries drowned out as they are drawn in. Open mouthed, they are swallowed, draining through the grille until there is nothing left. Relief returns as the last of their voices is silenced.
I don’t know why we feed the machine, or what the fleshy thing is that huddles beneath the pneumatics. But I do know that it must be fed to keep the city alive. Without flesh it will starve. The machines and electricity and water will cease, and the population will begin to suffer.
Many years before I was born only animals were fed to the machine. However they say that one day an employee slipped and fell to his death, and that as he was crushed and split amongst the machinery the lightbulbs glowed a little brighter for a moment. A throb of excitement. An idea.
Peter is muttering to himself, attracting the attention of one of the older workers. He stares at Peter through his mask, his body impossibly still. A predator watching his prey. As he slowly approaches I lower my head. It is all I can do now.
Peter has lost it. He jerks into motion, taking off in the direction of the tunnels. Quickly and without effort the older worker has him in a headlock. The mannequins struggle with another but it is clear who has the upper hand. I can hear the panic in Peter’s voice now that the physical boundaries have been broken. He now realises that a different system of justice operates down here.
You seem a little off, cherry!
Let me go!
Where were you heading?
Nowhere! Get off me!
Yeah? I don’t think that at all. I think you were running off to squeal.
No! I wouldn’t do anything like that, I swear!
Convince me I’m wrong then. Go on.
Where would I go? I swear to you on my mother’s life! I swear to God!
God? I’ll show you a real God, cherry!
Others rush to help, but not to help Peter. They grab at him and haul his body into the air. They tear at the leathers and his mask until he is a wriggling knot of limbs. I watch as he is brought to the edge of the platform screaming and wide-eyed. His eyes meet mine and he pleads for me to make them stop. I continue watching in silence.
He is pleading with his assailants now, begging them to spare him. Promising to never speak of the great machine. But he is not amongst normal men. Not dealing with those who are familiar with reason. I cannot see their faces as they haul him over the balcony, however I imagine their expressions are blank.
Peter leaves the world the way he came in, naked and screaming for his mother. The pneumatics assimilate his body as he meets them, silencing him in seconds. Having served the machine a final time, Peter is no more.
The gears and cogs groan for more meat. In silence, the workers resume their posts. Chains are pulled and valves are twisted. Then come the howls of anguish from yet more Chinese as the gate swings open and they are tipped towards the edge. As they spill like garbage across a landfill site their voices rise together in a dreadful chorus.