Machinery

Another old piece, this one written about eight years or so. I can’t even call it a story – an exercise in description, I guess? Pure prose? Weird bullshit? You be the judge.

The doctor moved stiffly from bench to bench. Disinfectant hung heavy in the air, flavoring it with the slight aftertaste of a foreign, chemical burning. The girls watched the projector intently, strapped to their seats, their eyes unwavering on the film being played there. He took the opportunity to test the dilation of their pupils, the color of their gums, and adjust their medication. The half-light of the projector cast a dim, brakish quality to the room. Like looking through the porthole of a ship at night, its glass gone nearly opaque from the decades-old patina of scratches across its salt-worn surface. He still had dozens of girls to see, and the film was quickly spooling downward.

She felt the pull of the pistons on her lungs as they filled with incendiary smoke. The shafts descended, drawing the worn leather of her lungs with them, filling her with the churning fog. There was a dark rumble, a hold, and a muted clap as the motors within her reversed. The pistons pushed, and as her airways ballooned with the pressure, she spewed the wavering gasses from her chattering, wrought iron teeth. She used the energy to set a few rods into motion, the ones that pulled her eyes from side to side. The gearwork that controlled their vertical axis ground into life, groaning its protest faintly. She looked around her, drew another long breath through her baroque intake system, and vented her exhaust in exasperation.

The bulk of her, all that which you could see anyway, lay twisted in a small room full of little girls. The girls sat patiently at individual stations, so infinitesimally small as to be virtually unseen. Her joints, long since rusted, slipped and caught, slipped and caught again as she struggled into life. The massive grills on her head wobbled momentarily, before obligingly shifting direction. She expelled another vast cloud of spent, burning fuel across the room, trying to avoid striking the girls directly. They seemed oblivious to her ruinous presence. They were enraptured by something at the front of the room. Her eye gear lumbered to a halt, wavered, then adjusted force to the forward rods. The massive bulbs of her eyeballs, clouded with dust and the burn-off of old filaments swiveled to the follow the girls’ gaze. Her sight-line caught a figure moving amongst them, and the intricate mesh of cathode tubes that composed her brain began to fire.

Gargantuan lengths of chain were called up from the stores beneath her, each link a toggle that could be switched from vertical to horizontal, from yes to no, from nothing to something. Several thousand of these lengths began to rattle and vibrate as they were spun at faster and faster revolutions through the millions of switching centers scattered about her head. Eventually a tally of all switches was made, imprinted on another chain, and sent to the image recognition stations in the sockets that housed her eyes.

An older man stood among the girls. He was dressed formally, the only one there not in uniform. The girls, all young and identically clothed, waited patiently, bolted into their stations. As the man moved about the room, he would pause, periodically, to exam one of the girls more closely. The girl would then activate, culling a response from what little thought those tiny heads could hold, and the man, seemingly satisfied, would continue his patrol about the room. The crude metalwork of her chains sizzled and snapped as they were spooled and unspooled, run and re-run, switched directions a hundred times a minute. Some glowed white from the friction, others had yet to move an inch, their nigh infinite length inert, running solemnly away into the darkness below.

Perhaps this interaction, crude though it was, operated as a facsimile of a switching station. Perhaps there were a million rooms identical to this one, joined end to end in a vast labyrinth of halls filled with tiny, tiny girls. Perhaps the man was the switching station, the girls the toggles. He modified them, one by one, and they responded. They moved from yes to no, from nothing to something, from one to zero, and he took their tally. He would, once this operation finished, send their collective response to another room, and another man would modify his set of little girls into a different arrangement, and send his response again. The labyrinth would hum with motion, information congealing in the air like a tumultuous mist until a set pattern of all the rooms was determined. There to be sent to an even bigger switching station, one which would run the infinitely dense program written by the girls and come to some grand, cosmic conclusion.

So what, then, was her part? She was aware of herself, as a mass of hard iron and burnt steel in a net of soft, vulnerable flesh. What was her function here? She sent her now insignificant seeming toggle system into motion, and awaited a response. The radiant heat of her switching stations flexed and bent her struts, the million different metal strikes inside of her joining and rejoining until they were only one pure note of activity, until there was an abrupt stop.

Ah, of course. She knew now what she was; she was the relay. She was to send the patterns of the girls from room to room, each with their own version of her, and all in communication. What was information without a system with which to send it? What good were these massive algorithms of girls and quaint, formal men without her billion chains to send their calculations onward? Purpose was found, purpose was necessary. She was validated, was a valuable cog in the machinery of the grand decision. Ten million toggles switched and switched back; they sent a feeling of contentment to her. The man had completed his tally, made his adjustments, and strode amiably towards her great and complex façade. Her sight-bulbs flickered into light, rotated, and caught his signal.

He was asking her a question, but something was wrong. She had no method to accept his input. He used no gears, no toggles or chains, no punch-cards or switches. He made a sound at her, again and again. Just sound, like that of clockwork and bells, and she had no way to respond. Seventeen thousand miles of chain whipped into action, they rotated and whirled about her data centers, their message was a state of being she was forced to assume. It was that of fear, and she received it. She coordinated a desperate chain of information, and when the message was impressed upon it, licked out onto tons of forged steel, she spewed it outwards at him.

She hoped desperately that he had the necessary tools to read it.

The massive glass globes of her eyes rolled frantically around in their housing. Her clumsy, rusted digits tapped in useless agitation. The steamwork boilers that ran her chains chugged desperately in the abyssal depths of her gut. The steel-ribbed bags of her lungs pulled in shallow, hurried draws of the burning smoke that fueled her engines. She waited apprehensively, conflicting acres of chain running fear, hope, desperation, and anticipation through her switching stations at random. She retracted the message chain halfway, and hurled it at the man again. It is a message, she wanted him to know. She needed him to haul one of its great links into his mouth, run it through some unseen network of gears, and understand.

“She threw up on me,” the doctor said, dripping unpleasantly in the middle of the auditorium “twice.”

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