The last Great Machine is dying. We don’t know how to fix it. We don’t even know what it does. We only know that when it dies, we too will die.
We are—we were—a mighty kingdom. A vast kingdom that once spanned almost the entire curve of the world. And we its people are called Pioneers, for we were first to settle this world. As far back as written memory goes, we have relied on the Great Machines. Once there were thousands upon thousands of them. Machines of such complexity and beauty as to rival Nature itself. Machines that towered above mountains. Machines crafted from metals both familiar and strange, containing the commonest gear beside the eeriest circuit. As far back as written memory goes no one in the kingdom has understood how the Machines work or what they do. There are hints and rumors in our writings. Only one detail seems to be true. Glittering angular plates on the outer surface channel heat and light from the sun itself into the inner workings. The sun, then, is the fuel. From there, we do not know. The Machines make a distinct sound, an unobtrusive hum that one only notices once the Machine stops making the sound, as the first one to fail did generations ago.
The Machines have abided for thousands upon ten thousands of years. The people in the smaller sister kingdom to our own understood the Machines, though they did not build them. So in the beginning, if something went wrong with a Machine, these people, called Engineers, would come and fix it.
It is said that our two peoples are descended from sky gods, and that it was the sky gods who built the Great Machines. If the old writings are to be believed, it took a thousand years to build the Machines. So some say the Machines were meant to be our wardens. Some say that life could not abide without the Machines. Some say they were left as places of worship for it was from the Great Machines that our ancestors once spoke with the sky gods.
The sky gods then sent a group of Pioneers to settle the kingdom when it was raw and wild. The sky gods instructed the Pioneers how to settle the land, which beasts to tame, which plants to eat, how to govern, how to live in peace. The kingdom was to be as our own bodies are, one whole made of many parts each with its own purpose and its own place of honor. The Engineers followed thereafter. And the sky gods instructed them in how to maintain the Great Machines.
We have few writings left from those times. But it would seem a few thousand years passed as the kingdom grew and thrived. The Pioneers and the Engineers lived as allies in peace, the Pioneers exploring and settling, and the Engineers building and studying.
The sky gods must have been pleased. And yet…they gave no warning.
Sometime between the founding of the kingdom and the present age, a great Catastrophe happened. Rare are the writings from that time. They speak of celestial storms that rained molten metal from the sky. By all rights, all life in the world should have ended. It seemed that somehow we had angered our gods and they had deigned to destroy what they had created. Perhaps they left in disgust, the work of destruction half-finished. Perhaps they always intended to leave some alive. Perhaps they felt mercy in the midst of their devastation. Or perhaps their power was spent and they were forced to stop. The writings do not say. They only say that some survived.
Among Pioneer and Engineer alike, some survived. Among plant and animal alike, some survived. And with much time and much endurance, both peoples recovered, though they did so separately. And with even more time, both peoples thrived again. Both peoples found each other again.
Among the Great Machines, almost all survived. What did not survive was much of the knowledge and history of both peoples before the Catastrophe. What did not survive was much of the knowledge of how the Great Machines were maintained. What did not survive was the knowledge of the common language shared between Pioneer and Engineer, for there had been no need for it in the lean and desperate years when the minds of both peoples were filled only by the needs of survival—shelter, food, and protection from beasts and weather.
Though the Pioneers and the Engineers no longer shared a language, they still shared an ancient understanding. The Engineers, having lost much of their knowledge of the Great Machines, fell to studying them. The first generation of Engineers after the Catastrophe studied their entire lifetimes, pooled their knowledge and still recovered only a fraction of what they had once known of the Great Machines. And so some Great Machines fell into such disrepair that they failed. It was sorrowful to see such an elegant machine die. And for the leaders of both peoples, it was worrisome what would happen to the kingdoms. Each time a Machine failed, each time one died, the Engineers noted subtle changes in the air, water, and earth. If a few Machines within the same area failed, the parts of the land just around the dead Machines would soon become unlivable. Some would risk it, the poor and the desperate. But soon enough the land would become such a poisonous waste that borders had to retreat and maps revised and walls built to warn people away. But most of the Machines still remained and the Engineers continued to regain their knowledge, and all was still well.
Then the plague arrived.
We still do not know from whence the Machine plague came. From the outside, the infected Machines would seem well, but within they would be disintegrating. An infected Machine would fail within days. The Engineers studied and tested the broken Machines for as long as it was safe to do so. They could not resurrect the Machines that had died. They could find neither cause nor cure for the plague. But they found ways to keep the sick Machines running for a while, for years most times, and the kingdom endured. Moreso, the Engineers found that the plague seemed to have started in only one place and spread in only one direction. It was a small comfort, for if Machines failed all over the kingdom, it might have isolated the people by making patches of poisoned land surrounded by patches of safe lands. The Engineers used all their skill and efforts, but still the Great Machines continued to fail. And both kingdoms continued to shrink.
When times grow lean, people grow mean. We wondered if the Engineers were in truth a cunning folk. If they were responsible for the fall of the Great Machines. If their great secret was that they knew how to repair the Machines and were using the failed Machines to drive us away. Why would such a people use force and might to conquer, when they could use thought and wit? Perhaps after we left, they would repair the Machines. Perhaps the lands then would grow green and the waters clear and sweet. Perhaps the Engineers would then populate the lands themselves. And perhaps they would do this until only they remained in all the kingdom. Spies reported that the Engineers struggled with the Machines in their own lands.
Still, many whispered about the Engineers. But they whispered too about the failure of their monarch to do anything while all remained at the mercy of the Engineers’ knowledge and skill. It was said we do not have minds powerful enough to understand the Machines. But we were descended from explorers, gods who roamed the stars in the name of discovery and wonder. The monarch chose exploration over treachery for times were still mild enough for the people to be moved by prideful speeches that invoked the names of magnificent ancestors. We left the safe borders of the kingdom, wandering just a bit into the wastes around the fallen Machines. We studied the wastes to see if we could build protections for ourselves so that we could wander farther and farther, and see for ourselves if the Engineers were truly our allies.
Protections were built and for once we were the engineers. Expeditions were sent to several locations deep within the wastes. None returned.
The monarch feared that the people, helpless and embittered, would turn against the Engineers, whose help they needed still. Knights and soldiers were assigned to protect those Engineers who crossed into their kingdom to repair the Machines. The Engineers, though their minds were made for understanding mechanical things and logical things, seemed to sense the change. One day, they did an unexpected thing. Their leader, the Master Engineer, came to our kingdom and presented our monarch with a book. And in this book was written their language, and some words of ours that they knew, and many a blank line and page. It seems odd to us now that it should have taken so long for our two peoples to find a common tongue again. But tradition and suspicion had overcome common sense until desperation overcame all.
So it came to be that out of necessity, our two peoples began to speak the same language.
In the last few generations of both our peoples the Machines have failed faster than we can fix them. The Engineers taught our people all they knew of the Machines so that we too could aid in keeping alive the Machines that keep us alive. The Engineers were, we learned, as suspicious of us as were of them. They too, we learned, sent spies into our lands to observe if we were sabotaging the Great Machines to do to them what we thought they were doing to us. They wondered if we had through study or through the discovery of lost knowledge found a way to repair the Machines and made the decision that our long-time allies were no longer needed. The Machines were failing too fast. No sensible or measured plan would have them fail so fast. But leaders did not always make sensible plans. So we continued to fear and suspect each other. But the Machines were failing too fast. And as they failed, so failed the lands and skies and waters around them.
Pioneer and Engineer alike were fleeing every day, fleeing to lands where the Machines still hummed. Even without walls and fortifications to aid them, the living Machines held back the poisons that infected the lands without and protected us all. Still, some could not escape in time. Pioneer and Engineer alike died in great numbers. And it was declared that this was a Second Catastrophe.
The sky gods did not answer our prayers. If we were to be saved, we had to save ourselves. Perhaps that is what they intended. Perhaps if we prevailed, then and only then would they descend and resurrect all the Great Machines.
So little land was left. Two kingdoms collapsed into one. No longer were we Pioneers and Engineers. We were one people now, and if we could not find a way or make a way to save ourselves, all that we were and are and might have been would be lost.
Together, we forged a plan.
When there were a few hundred Great Machines left, we began to measure and sketch and dig. We dug tunnels downward into the earth, and opened large vast spaces that we fortified with wood and metal and filled with homes and halls. Great underground cities were our hope and our last resort. Soon there would be no clean air or water above. So we built sieves so fine and traps so clever that we could pass tainted water and air through our special constructs and the air and water would be clean and fresh enough to sustain us. All the while we asked ourselves how long we need stay beneath and how long could we last.
Few volunteered to go below when there was still fresh air and open sky above. And so the Monarch and the Master Engineer ordered the people to begin moving into the cities. As more and more Machines failed, those who fled from the affected lands had no choice but to go below.
A generation passed and the Machines kept dying. But the people lived. Sheltered underground, we lived. We went about our trades. We met with friends. We started and raised families. Above our heads in each of seven great cities was a vault of steel and iron. The builders had tried to paint skies into the supports. Grown wise at last, the people praised the metal skies and those who had built it. We gave thanks for our lives. And we gave thanks that we could still visit the shrinking land above to glimpse the open sky. Not yet were we all driven below. But the fear was a constant in our minds that we would be trapped forever underground, that we would do naught but survive, that we would never again be a great and worthy people, never again be Pioneers and Engineers.
We told ourselves we would hold in our hearts our longing for the open sky and celestial stars and the vast waters and vaster lands above. We told ourselves we would watch for the poisons to clear as one day they must. And if they did not clear, we would find a way or make a way to clear them, as we had found a way and made a way to survive. Only those who studied the Machines were allowed to remain above ground in the few lands that remained unspoiled. Even the Monarch and the Master Engineer went below ground.
Another generation passed. When only a few dozen Machines remained, we found that the poisons covering all the rest of the lands had begun seeping into our underground cities despite all our efforts to stop them. We have been ever vigilant. A few died and many were sickened, but we have held back the poisons. The people, who had grown wise and resolute when the underground cities were built, now grew restless and desperate again. They clamored to see their leaders and plead to come above, to abandon the underground cities that would soon be as poisoned as the Machine-failed lands, and to witness the end of their world with their faces turned to the skies from which their sires descended.
The people were granted their desire by leaders who had lost hope. And then, as will happen in such times, hope was rekindled and it was rekindled by the young.
Born of both Pioneers and Engineers they were. They grew up speaking the common tongue and thinking as the generations before them did not think. Their aims are high, too high some say. Their plans ambitious. Their dreams are the dreams of those who are as young and raw as the world once was when first their ancestors descended from the celestial skies. And yet, their dreams were no mere wisps of cloud, but plans of intricate detail, plans with gears, circuits, bolts, and newly invented materials. There were a few dozen of them—the people now call them the Architects—and they approached the Monarch, the Master Engineer, and the counselors and leaders of the people when there were but seven Great Machines operating. No leader could fully fathom what the Architects planned to fashion. But almost all agreed that if it were to be the last days of their peoples, it were fitting they died still fighting, still hoping, still building in defiance of the forces that would dismantle and destroy them.
And when those last seven Machines began to die, the work of the Architects began. They salvaged metal and wire and lever and switch from that Machine and three more that failed. They salvaged entire sections of workings. And their leaders trusted them and gave them people to help in their work.
Not knowing which of the remaining Machines would fail, the Architects built in pieces small enough to be carried away if and when they should need to retreat. And when only two Machines were left, they chose a wide valley near one of the two and they began to assemble.
Dreamers they may have been, but the Architects were also rational. They warned that their efforts might fail because there was little time left and because they sought to build what only gods had built before. They sought to build a new machine. They, who could no longer repair the Great Machines, sought to build a new machine from the bones of the old ones and from the knowledge they had gathered over generations since the First Catastrophe.
The Architects have told us what their Machine will do. It will draw the poisons from the earth and sky and water and change them so that some are harmless, others become solid enough to be carted away, and still others become useful. They had built and tested many smaller machines before they approached their leaders, and they had succeeded in purifying the land, water, and sky in small areas.
They designed their machine so it could move. If it worked, we could move it toward all the Great Machines. If it worked, and if we had grown clever enough, we could still repair the Great Machines. We could be Pioneers and Engineers once again.
The second to last Machine failed a fortnight ago. And so we are left with one Great Machine. It sits near a wide valley. People pour into that valley each day. They bring food and drink and tools and hands and arms and their will to work.
That last Great Machine is dying. But we need not die with it.
Copyright © 2014 by Nila L. Patel.
3 thoughts on “The Great Machines”
Nice! A really unique narrative style.
Thanks for the feedback! I occasionally try something different from my usual. And when I do, I typically think, “Guess I’ll see what happens.” I’m glad you enjoyed the story.