THE MACHINE • by P. Djeli Clark

“What is it?” I asked.

“A machine,” my guide said.

I looked at him dryly. That much was obvious. The thing loomed high above me — a great metal contraption of intersecting pipes, shifting gears and spinning cogs, like something Jules Verne might have dreamt up.

I tried again.

“I mean what does it do?”

My guide scratched at a thick unkempt beard before answering.

“It keeps the world going,” he replied.

I looked to him in surprise. That was unexpected. A machine that kept the world going, sitting in an abandoned warehouse in nowhere Bushwick — who knew? The contraption groaned and shuddered, emitting a steady jet of steam. I backed away in alarm, only then noticing the people that swarmed about it. One group clad in black banged at its many pipes with metal tools, trying to rip them away.

“Who are they?” I asked.

My guide now sat on the floor, removing his worn boots.

“Nihilists,” he grunted. “Want to destroy the machine. Think it’ll stop the world.” Using his teeth he ripped open the packet of socks I’d bought him — my ticket to this place.

“Would it?” I asked with just a little apprehension.

“Not if they have anything to say about it.” He nodded to a group of figures on a raised platform. Dressed in dark suits they stared down at the Nihilists, watching their every move. Some had medals on their chests like generals.

“And they are…?”

“Authoritarians,” my guide said, wriggling his freshly covered toes in satisfaction. “They want to make sure the machine keeps going. Have it in their heads that they control it.”

“Do they?” I asked. My guide only gave a sharp bark like a laugh.

Another group caught my eyes. Covered in white robes they knelt before the machine, staring up at it reverently.

“What are they doing?” I asked, puzzled.

My guide bothered to look up before returning to his socks.

“Holiers,” he said in annoyance. “Just sit there worshipping the machine. Waiting on it to tell them how to live their lives.” One of the figures in white got up suddenly. He turned his robes inside-out to reveal a black cloak. Walking over to the Nihilists he picked up a metal pipe, and began attacking the machine. I looked to my guide curiously.

“Lost his faith,” he chuckled, flashing a dull yellow smile.

I shook my head, and found myself staring at a last group. This one was dressed in blue. Some of them gestured at each other in debate. A few held instruments to the machine, stopping to record the results. Others merely stood listening, or lost in their own thoughts.

“And them?” I asked.

“Thinkers,” my guide said, now on his feet again. “Scientists, social engineers, philosophers, dreamers — think if they can figure out how the machine works, they can fix it, maybe even build a better one.”

“Does it — the machine — need fixing?” I asked.

My bedraggled guide eyed me levelly. “Have you seen the world?”

“Good point,” I muttered.

“So, that’s it then,” he said. “Time to take you back.” He walked off, motioning me to follow.

“Wait!” I ran to catch up with him. “I still have questions. Where did the machine come from? How did it get here?”

My guide turned to me, with a raised eyebrow.

“You want to know if there was some intelligent designer behind the machine, or whether it just came together through random chance? Maybe want to know what was here before the machine, eh?”

I swallowed and nodded deeply.

“Okay,” he shrugged. “But it’ll cost you another pair of socks.”

P. Djeli Clark is a Brooklyn based writer of speculative fiction.

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