Manna for the Great Machine

by Joe Prosit

 

I stood before the face of God, under His towering monolith of earthly presence, and uttered blasphemy.

“Fuck you.”

God didn’t hear, at least He showed no signs of taking offense. He churned on, a million pistons, cogs, sprockets, bellows, and pressure tanks all working in perfect synchronization. God, the Great Machine, was here before us humans and would be here after. He had spawned the millions of lesser machines all around, and surely thought of me as insignificant.

Father Michael did his best to nurture our faith, mine needing more nurturing than most. He reminded us that the Great Machine worked at His own accord with His own purpose. We soft, flesh-made, imperfect humans were blessed to live near His presence. He gave us manna to eat, rods for warmth, and lesser machines to study His holy ways and provide for us.

I held a small chunk of a shattered plutonium-239 fuel rod in my gloved hand. It pulsed a glowing green iridescence. The hood of the radiation suit hung down my upper back. I wanted God to hear me when I told Him off. Besides, now that I was out of the reactor, the radiation was nominal. After all, I’d soon put the rod in a potbelly stove to heat our home and cook our food.

The Decommissioning Pit wasn’t far from where I stood, just a few steps forward, just below the face of God. A dozen metal-shredding rollers and cones covered in claws and spikes churned deep inside the pit. The Great Machine gave us life but made us pay for it with death. There was a balance to His actions. An output equal to the input.

I put the plutonium in a small case and turned my back on God. As I walked away, I dragged behind a hoisted fist and a raised finger. He took his. I’d take mine.

***

As bold and brash as I felt at the pinnacle of the Great Machine, staring into the face of God and defying His rule, I felt like a little girl and a coward on the way back home. No human eyes had seen me on top of the Great Machine. Not Father Michael. Not my husband Howard. If they had seen me, they’d chastise me endlessly. They’d shame me. Let me know just how stupid of a woman I was. Urge me to recant and prostrate myself to earn back God’s favor. And worse than that, they’d fear for my soul.

They were true believers. God had never spoken to them, never strayed from His divine rhythm and purpose, never hesitated in His perfect eternal course of cause and effect. His cams would move the valves. The valves fed the combustion chambers which pressurized the tanks. His release valves would maintain the precise pressure to stabilize the tanks. He would generate output regardless of our praise to Him or my secret blasphemy. But they believed all the same.

After all, the Great Machine gave us the lesser machines. And besides us sparse humans in this eternal metropolis, there were only machines. It had always been this way. Sure, there were rumors of accident times, of men ruling over machines, but these were no doubt made-up fantasies.

I wish it was that easy for me. I would have prayed for faith to come to me as easy as it seemed to embrace others; if only I believed in prayer.

On my walk back home, I was careful to not step on the metallic bugs that skittered across the alleyway. A steel snake chased some of the larger bugs down an open pipe. Above, a sparrow clinked its wings against a girder that stretched across the alleyway. It sang a perfect one thousand hertz tone. When another human crossed a perpendicular alley ahead of me, our eyes met for only a moment before the man went his own way.

I came to the steel bridge that crossed the city’s diesel canal. A gigantic spiral cog rolled upstream along its submerged track. When the cog was gone, the bridge began lowering down from its gantries high above. When the bridge rested level with the alley, I walked across and noticed the streams of oil floating on top of the river of diesel. There was a leak somewhere upstream. No doubt the priests would find it, and patch it, thinking nothing of a flawed deity.

I thought of it, even if they didn’t.

***

Home was the old housing of a lesser machine, long forfeited by the Great Machine and gifted to Howard and me. I spun the dog lever and unlocked the hatch. The heavy door fell inward on rusted hinges. It was dark and cold inside. The dim light of a clouded night sky did little to penetrate the dark. I stepped inside and pulled out the broken bit of plutonium rod.

When I held the rod above my head, it shone its sickly green light about a meter past my nose. It was enough. I moved under the green light through our humble abode to the stove, opened the lead door, and tossed the plutonium inside. It warmed the stove almost immediately and heated the filaments inside the stove even faster. The filaments conducted the heat away from the stove to a few bulbs hung from the ceiling. The bulbs slowly grew amber and bright.

“Welcome home,” Howard said.

I turned and saw him bundled up in a blanket in the corner of our home. He looked pale. It was cold inside that old iron housing.

“You scared me.”

“I put a pot of manna on the stove,” he said. “I threw our old rod out. It wasn’t even glowing anymore. If you hadn’t brought that new rod home, our dinner would have been cold.”

“Shouldn’t be long now.”

I looked at the pot on the stove. The manna was a beige paste, excreted from a lesser machine close to the Great Machine. Maybe it was from the Great Machine. Hard to tell where one mechanism ended and the next began.

“How was your trip to the pinnacle?” Howard asked. “You saw the face of the Great Machine.” His voice was monotone, an effect the priests encouraged as a means to mimic the machines. It was a creation of their imagination. An idea of what God might sound like if He ever spoke. We should all aspire to be more like the machines as a way to show our reverence to God, our divine example of engineered perfection.

I tried to talk like them. I was never any good at it.

“Fine. There were plenty of rods, still glowing hot. I just had to pick one about the right size for our stove. I saw a man on the way back. I think some oil might be leaking into the diesel river.”

“The Great Machine provides,” Howard said. Flat. Emotionless. Contrite for his humanness. “If there is a leak, I’ll let Father Michael know. We will do our best to be worthy supplicants and worship God through our labor. It is good that He provides us with repairs to glorify Him.”

“All hail the Great Machine,” I said by rote. Howard said the name. To not hail when the name was mentioned was blaspheme, and that was best done in private.

We ate our manna, warm and electric in our mouths and stomachs. Then we slept. The jade glow of the rod shone through the dampers on the stove. We lay spooned together on the small cot in the corner. In the dark, I was isolated with my doubt and guilt.

There was no need for the sin I’d committed that day. There was no product of it or output gained by it. It was a stupid and childish act. The Great Machine had provided. I had warmth in my belly to prove it.

It was just that God was so muted and silent. The Great Machine provided, but in the long laborious days and the restless rumbling nights, He brought no comfort or intervention to make the next day any more satisfying than the last. We had nothing to look forward to than this, and beyond this, only the inevitable decay of our imperfect bodies.

During Decommissioning Ceremonies, we’d gather on top of the pinnacle, just below the face of God, and Father Michael would preach. He’d bolt on his holy metal vestments so as to be closer to God, and he’d tell us how we were inferior to the machines. We were flawed where they were precise but similar in design. The machines had bellows. We had lungs. The machines had steel scaffolds. We had our brittle bones. The machines had pumps and tanks. We had hearts and vessels. God had fuel and oil. We had manna and blood.

When we succumbed to our human flaws, we’d feed the Great Machine, and He would output in greater ways for having consumed our soft biological fuel.

I could feel my weakness. Daily, I observed God’s strength. It was undeniable. The evidence of His divinity was constant.

Still, there was a part of me that wanted to see what it would take to halt His functions. To kill Him. If I shoved something larger and hard enough inside the shredders down in the depths of the Decommissioning Pit…

I hid the thought as soon as it was conscious. God saw our thoughts. Why were these moments of weakness so ready-made for my mind? My boldness turned to shame.

Tomorrow would be another day. I’d face it in a positive light. Howard and Father Michael found joy in their commitment to the Great Machine. They were serene. Happy. If I killed these sinful and flawed ramblings, perhaps I could achieve the nirvana they’d so easily found. I had to be better, if not for myself then for Howard. I loved him.

I closed my eyes.

***

Sleep came easily with the plutonium. Arousal was more difficult. It came with moans and slobbers. Perfect examples of our human frailties.

The plutonium rod still burned inside the stove and had turned the house into a sweat box. The glowing filaments of the light bulbs still burned, but daylight seeped through the cracks in the hatch door. An oval shine pierced into the dark housing.

“Howard. Howard, it’s morning.”

He was slower to wake up than I was. Our fleshy indecisive brains were lacking lubrication. Our bodies resisted action.

“Come on. Get up. You were going to meet Father Michael and tell him about the leak.”

“He grumbled, “There’s no leak. God is perfection.”

“God makes room in His perfection for our labor,” I quoted the texts as I checked to see what was left on the stove of the manna. It had been cooked into flakes. I chipped some away from the pot and set them aside. Breakfast. “The Great Machine has made room in His perfection for me today. There were some belts in the timing system that were squealing when I visited yesterday. I thought I’d grease them.”

“His output is our opportunity,” Howard quoted another verse. “And we are humbled by His glory.”

I slipped on a set of threadbare coveralls. I wouldn’t need the radiation suit today. The plutonium rod should last for a month.

“Will you get more manna on the way home?”

“Yes,” he said. “If the leak is upstream, I’ll walk right by the dispensary.”

All hail the Glorious Spigot of Gruel, I thought but didn’t say. Why should I? I was going to be a good girl today.

***

My day of labor searching for zerks and pumping the small hand-held grease gun brought me into a narrow crawl space, somewhere in the foundations of the Great Machine. There, I found a rat.

It was broken, and I never saw a broken rat before. Its back leg had come loose and couldn’t paw forward. So it lay lopsided on the steel grate, scraping but not moving forward. I picked up the tiny creature. Its thin sharp claws cut into my fingers as it tried to get away, but it was my penance for my behavior yesterday.

“God makes room for our labor in his Perf—”

The rat sank its steel fangs into my finger. I squealed and dropped the creature. Blood leaked from four dots in my finger. My teeth ground together and before I could stop myself, I raised up my heavy boot and slammed it down on the maimed rat. It crunched under the rubber sole.

“Oh God, what have I done?”

I slid my boot to the side, and the output of my actions was clear.

***

The wind blew across the pinnacle and I shivered under the thin layer of coveralls. The face of God had something like eyes glowing with the same green energy as the plutonium rods. A long lateral vent running along the bottom of the visage looked like a solemn mouth but never spoke a word. Below the face of God was the Decommissioning Pit.

I looked down into His churning maw and my thoughts were fixed on my sin. Last night’s blasphemy and this morning’s assault. Could I be saved now? How much more could the Great Machine tolerate before his judgment came down on me?

The rat was in my hand, busted and lifeless. Such a small action, yet with permanent results. If I could do that with just my boot, what would it take to bring God’s eternal machinations to a halt? How big was the chunk of cast iron that would be able to crush back against the threshers inside the pit?

How many pilgrims came here to feed Him? How much would He eat before He was satisfied? Fuel rods. Vats of diesel and gasoline. The husks of innards of lesser machines. Our human dead. God ate everything. Greedily. He waited in constant motion for the next Decommissioning Ceremony. Who were we to deny Him?

I threw in the rat. It bounced off the sides of the chute, a delay before the inevitable unchangeable destiny. The shredders devoured the rat in a half-second. A flash of torn aluminum and airborne sparks. Then the thing was below the shredders and in the bowels of the rumbling towering God. A glorious end for a worthy machine we humans could only hope to emulate.

I turned to leave God to his functions. And as if He was waiting for me to break away, He dislodged an entire section of the city off its tracks.

From the mechanical peak, I saw the entire city. Several buildings not far from the diesel canal issued up dust and debris into the choked sky. Rooftops sunk as if there was suddenly no foundation underneath them. Various tanks and reservoirs ruptured and gushed fire. A huge spindle dislodged and toppled sideways. The foundations quaked under the Great Machine and by default, me.

“Howard.”

It was a long way from the pinnacle. I shuffled as fast as I could. Spiral stairs poured me out onto ramps and then a counter-balanced dumb waiter lowered me down to alley-level.

I stumbled and almost fell under my impatient and imperfect legs. Howard had most certainly gone to investigate the oil leak that tainted the diesel supply. If he was there when the superstructure had collapsed…

As I ran to the site, the dust of mortar filled the air and plumed along the alley-level like the breath of God Himself. I ran through it, coughing and blind as I went. When my foot hit the first brick, I fell onto the piles of rubble.

“Howard! Howard!”

Other humans were converging on this wreckage, struggling to figure out how and why our God had brought this upon us. They couldn’t make sense of what had motivated the Great Machine to do this, but I knew. Even before I found Howard, I knew God had done this to equal the output of my sin.

Howard wasn’t far into the rubble. Others had found him too. Father Michael was there, leering over his exposed torso protruding from the mass of twisted metal and cinder block. The priest, not yet in his metallic holy vestments, was reciting verses from the text.

Howard was leaking the frailest of our human components: blood.

“We have been engineered in the same design as the Holy One. Our creation is an ode to divinity. Our design a tribute to His great glory. We live to serve. We die to fuel,” Father Michael was saying, not in a holy monotone pace, but so rushed the words almost sounded like nonsense.

It was another sin; I knew it, but I couldn’t listen to the old lessons anymore. I grabbed the father by his shoulders and ripped him away from my Howard.

He was out of his senses, broken in a way that no lesser machine ever could be. Permanently on that all-too-human edge between awake and asleep. Unintelligent. Without purpose or design. Babbling. Overwhelmed with that wholly imperfect and human experience that was pain.

“Howard, don’t be like this. It should have been me. It should have been me. I… I blasphemed. I murdered.”

His eyes rolled about. His words were just consonants and ragged inhalations. His eyes rolled in every direction except anywhere near mine.

“No, no, no. You have been faithful. You have been pious. You…”

…are dead, I thought but didn’t say. I just knew it when his eyes stopped rolling and his lungs stopped bellowing out those moans and convulsions. The green glow from down his throat dimmed, and the Great Machine took him from me.

Father Michael did what he could to comfort me. He really tried. I wasn’t listening. Not to him. Not to the constant white noise of the millions of lesser machines grinding on all around us. Not to the perfectly pitched sparrows singing their tone around us. I alone was a machine whose cams had slipped on the shaft. I alone was malfunctioning.

“Enough of that now, my child,” Father Michael whispered behind my ear. He hooked me under the armpits and lifted me away from my Howard. “It is time he is decommissioned.”

Other men who had been searching through the rubble now came around either side of us. They cleared away the broken bricks and metal scraps until he was unburied. When they hoisted him up, I saw his head loll back, eyes open and skyward, parts of his clothes wet with leaked fluid. I couldn’t see the details of his injuries, couldn’t see exactly how he died. My eyes leaked and blurred my vision. I was crying out, loud and raw. So non-machine-like of me. This was the manifestation of my sin. My imperfection. My unbalance. My sin. I was impious in my passion. I was irredeemable.

Father Michael led the men carrying Howard towards the Great Machine. As they went, they chanted, “We live to serve. We die to fuel.” The Decommissioning Ceremony would begin immediately.

***

Up there on the pinnacle, the countenance of God was unchanged. The Great Machine looked down, stoic and stern, as responsive as cold cast iron on an anvil. Below Him and before me was the Decommissioning Pit. The pit spoke, but only in waves of carbon-on-steel screeching, a system lacking lubrication.

The men laid Howard at the foot of God, at the brink of the pit. I crumbled to my knees at his side, a thick screen of lubricants pouring from my eyes and clouding my sight. The pallbearers averted their faces from me and God alike as they backed away. Somewhere behind me, Father Michael was preparing himself for the service, donning his holy vestments, piece by cast iron piece. Flesh was imperfect, but by bolting on the chassis of a machine, he could do his humanly best to mimic the Great Machine’s perfect design. I didn’t watch him assemble the vestments. My face was pressed against the deck of the pinnacle, but I heard him bolt on the last pieces. Then, heavy boot after heavy iron boot, I heard him approach through the mourners and towards me and Howard.

The clanking footfalls reverberated through the deck and into my flawed brain.

The congregation chanted from the texts. “We live to serve. We die to fuel. We pray so one day we may have mechanical worth. Let our human frailties be purged from our chassis and fuel the perfection of God.”

Father Michael clunked forward in his vestments, stopping next to me. He put a dense metal glove on my shoulder. “Rise, my child. Today is a blessing. Only in death may we aspire to become divine. Your Howard can now be greater than any of us here still breathing.”

“We live to serve. We die to fuel,” the supplicants chanted. “Only in death may we aspire.”

I put my weak feet under me and stood on uncertain legs. Father Michael was there to stabilize me. He had the advantage of being covered, neck to toe, in his thick metal chassis. It encased him in a dull dark gray cast iron housing. Bits of plutonium-239 were affixed to his chest. He was more God-like this way, dressed as a machine. He held me up against his metal chest, and I felt the warmth radiating from the plutonium rods. We stood over Howard, the side of my head against Father’s chassis, turned to see the face of the Great Machine looking down on us.

Somewhere across the city, there was another collapse. A massive transmission seized up and slipped. The motor that it fed torqued loose from its mounting bolts and fell to the ground. Distal components broke free and busted apart. There were screams, warbling and panicked and full of erroneous human emotion. More would be coming to this place soon.

Doom was coming to our metropolis, and we ignored it. Or maybe I just hid my lust for it.

“No need for sorrow, my child,” Father Michael said. “We are all like gears set by the Great Machine. We each grind for as long as we can until the day comes when He offers us rest. But you are blessed more than all the rest of us. You’ve been gifted this opportunity to sacrifice to God someone you hold so dearly. Speak, my child. Beseech the Great Machine for his blessings, and on this day He will hear you.”

A flight of birds rose up from behind the face of God. As they swirled up to the heavens, they emitted their thousand-cycle tones, and it was as if the Great Machine was greeting me for the first time.

I lifted my countenance to look Him in the eyes and spoke.

“Fuck you.”

The piecemeal bolted-on holy vestments were heavy. Too heavy for me to move on my own. Even Father Michael strained to walk in them. Thankfully, I had Howard to help me. His body laid just between us and the Decommissioning Pit, a soft and inferior curb, but enough of a curb to topple the giant metal suit and the man with his arms around me inside of it. I twisted, pulled, and fell over Howard, backward and hanging onto Father Michael with every ounce of strength.

The pit was deep. We plummeted together, him in shocked silence, me in vengeful glee. We spiraled while embraced, he being heavier than me. I clung to him. We had nothing else to hold on to but each other. Well, maybe he had his faith. The last rotation brought him underneath me. The metal suit slammed into the threshing drums. The spikes and metal teeth spun inward, digging into the holy vestments and Father Michael’s flesh inside. Metal-carbide blades sparked. Axles groaned. The spindles bound and bucked. Belts snapped. Bearings ground and smoked. Father Michael was screaming but the noises of the shredder were louder. I rode on top of the Father and felt every jolt and buckle as the Great Machine did its best to digest him. I prayed He choked on him.

Sparks popped around us. The walls and spindles and foundations rattled. Smoke filled the pit. Humans wailed. Was one of them me? No. I’d said my peace, and The Great Machine had heard what I had to say.

 


 

About the Author

 

Joe Prosit writes sci-fi, horror, and psycho fiction. He has been previously published in Under the Bed Magazine, Chantwood Magazine, Dead Oaks Podcast, and The No Sleep Podcast. He lives with his wife and kids in the Brainerd Lakes Area of northern Minnesota. If you’re an adept stalker, you can find him on one of the many lakes and rivers or lost deep inside the Great North Woods. Or you can just find him on the internet at JoeProsit.com or follow him on Twitter, @joeprosit.