Chris stared up at the enormous machine, towering over his head. It was a vast cube, a mile to a side, and constantly toiled, even when it had no assigned task. Gears could always be heard whirring within it, and smoke perpetually billowed from the gaping spouts that spotted its sides. No one knew how it worked (and not for lack of trying to figure it out), but the machine powered the entire planet. Coils of cable stretched for miles and miles and fought for a spot on the machine. No matter how far and no matter what they were connected to, the machine powered it all.
But that wasn’t everything the machine did. Rumors said that it could do anything, that the Engineers who operated its obscure machinery knew how to turn its power to control the weather or transmute lead into gold. Legends said that in years past the machine had called down rain to fertilize the deserts, that the oceans had been turned into pure water without harming their inhabitants. Legends said that it could be turned to war as well, that it had been used to wipe clean the skies of invading planes and that it had turned armies on their masters. Legends called it the God Machine.
Whatever the case, the facts were these: a one-mile cube stood in Jerusalem, and cables stretched from it to power the world.
Chris was in awe, but he had work to do. He stepped forward and rapped smartly on the massive door that adorned the God Machine’s eastern wall. After a moment, it hissed open, retracting into the ground, and he entered as the long line behind him grumbled. He ignored them. They, like him, had come to beg the Machine’s power. Unlike him, though, they didn’t have the blessing of the planetary government.
“Christopher Edelman?” asked a slim Engineer.
“That’s me,” Chris confirmed.
“Come this way.”
Chris followed the Engineer down a long corridor and into a larger room. It was Spartan and gunmetal grey, just as the rest of the God Machine was. “I’m a little surprised,” he commented. “You Engineers are some of the most powerful people in the world. I would have expected a little more… grandeur.”
“Luxuries can be a dangerous thing inside the machine,” said the Engineer. “Please wait here.”
Chris waited in the room as the Engineer left.
Eventually, a different Engineer came to lead him down the only other corridor from the room. Finally, he arrived in a room with something other than blank grey walls – this room contained a desk, and a few papers lying across it, where a tall Engineer stood.
“Greetings, Mr. Edelman,” said the tall Engineer. “I’m Isaac Taylor; I’m in charge of the machine. I understand you’re an emissary from the planetary government?”
Chris was amazed to meet the Chief Engineer, and was speechless for a moment. Taylor waited patiently while he sputtered, and eventually Chris managed to speak.
“Ah, yes. We have a request to make of the machine. Er, of the Engineers, that is.”
“Mr. Edelman, you are the Prime Minister of England, please don’t stutter like a schoolboy,” Taylor said sternly. “Make your request.”
Chris nodded, blinked, and spoke. “Astronomers at the Royal Academy of Science have detected activity within the Sun’s core,” he said, falling back on the script his advisors had provided him. “They tell me it’s running out of fuel sooner than expected, and will begin to expand soon. Within ten years average temperatures will have increased by a degree and within half a century the ice caps will melt.”
“I see,” said Taylor impassively. “And we are asked to…?”
“Solve it,” Chris pleaded. “We don’t know the capabilities of the machine because you won’t tell us, but do something!”
“Sir,” murmured the shorter Engineer, who had led Chris to the room. “We have the power capabilities to move the planet outwards in orbit. If we do it right…”
“I have a better suggestion, Mr. Taylor,” a melodic bass said, echoing forth from the walls, “If I might make it in private.”
“BAAL,” Taylor said, “The machine’s artificial intelligence.”
“Isn’t Baal another name for the devil?” Chris asked.
Taylor shrugged. “The builders had a sense of humor, I suppose. It stands for Binary Advisory and Administration Legion. BAAL handles most of the paperwork we have, as well as, well, advising.”
“Where does the ‘legion’ part come from?”
“As I understand he’s a distributed intelligence,” said Taylor. “A multitude of programs running throughout the machine, which is why he’s called a legion. Or so I’ve always assumed. I’m not an expert on BAAL – I’m better at the actual mechanics of the machine.”
“Now, if you’ll excuse me a moment, I’ll confer with BAAL.”
Taylor stepped out into the corridor, and a moment later a panel hissed down from the ceiling to close off the room from the corridor. Chris felt a touch of panic for a moment before he realized that the other Engineer was still in the room with him and didn’t seem alarmed at all.
After a few minutes, the panel slid up again, and Taylor stepped back in, a wide smile on his face. “You may inform the planetary government,” he said, “that the problem will be solved at exactly midnight tonight. Tell them I suggest watching the sky – it should be quite interesting. And, lastly, you should probably increase the funding for astronomy. They’ll have a lot of work to do.”
Taylor laughed as if at some private joke, and walked off. The other Engineer stood as well.
After a moment, he hesitated. “I’m supposed to lead you out,” said the Engineer. “But you can find your own way, right? It’s that corridor,” pointing to the one they had entered from, “and there’re no turn offs.”
“I can make it out,” Chris agreed, and watched, breathlessly, as the Engineer walked off down the third corridor, the one that Taylor hadn’t gone down. Immediately, Chris dashed off after Taylor. It would be a death sentence if he was caught, but a chance to see the God Machine in action was more than worth it.
Taylor didn’t seem to notice him as he followed behind the taller man, taking the same turns through the winding corridors. It took nearly ten minutes, but eventually Taylor arrived at a door, which he swung open and stepped through. Chris grabbed it before it clicked shut and silently slipped inside.
“Looks like we’re not just leeching today, boys!” Taylor called as Chris looked around. The room they had arrived in was massive, nearly fifty feet square, and was bordered by desks where Engineers stood, typing on computers. Unlike the rest of the machine, which was gunmetal grey and illuminated by a dull, sourceless light, this room was crafted from a reddish iron. In the center of the room was a ring of iron, at least three inches thick and set deeply into the floor. And within that ring was a chained figure.
The figure was tall, at least six feet or more, and had once been muscular. Now, however, it was a shell of its former self, its skin hanging loosely from it and long white hair dangling down its back and swinging around its face, hiding it from view. It was clad only in a loincloth, and knelt in the center of the ring, arms chained behind its back. Thick iron chains were led from its shoulders, back, and legs, where they were buried in its flesh, to the floor. Despite all that, the chained figure somehow still conveyed a sense of grace and dignity, that it was somehow above its confinement.
That sense was perhaps assisted by glowing mist that drifted from it, crackling with electricity and burning Chris’s eyes when he looked directly at it. As the misty stuff drifted away from the chained figure, Engineers waiting at the edges of the ring caught it in metallic vacuums, sucking it up into the depths of the machine.
“We’re not just leeching, chief?” asked one Engineer. “We’re doing an Act?”
“That’s right,” said Taylor. “Now, I know that He hasn’t done an Act in two centuries, but we’ve got the records. We can do this, boys.”
“Chief…” said someone, noticing Chris.
“Quiet, Bohr. I don’t want to hear your complaining. Now then, BAAL is working on finding us a suitable location. Sagan, Nobel, Dawkins, I want you three to dig through the records and see what we’ve got on large-scale matter-transfers, and then scale them up all the way.”
“How large, chief?” asked one of the three addressed.
“We’re moving the entire Earth and Moon, Nobel, so we need to do it right. Now, Tyson, Hawking, deGrasse, and Darwin, you four need to calculate the stasis fields. We can’t have anything slipping up anywhere, so it all needs to go together. And since a stasis field can’t cover more than 50,451 miles…”
“Tesla, I want you to get your department working on the power regulators. We’ll have a massive surge, larger than we’ve ever had, I expect. Make sure you’re ready in the hour leading up to midnight.”
“What about you, chief?” asked the Engineer who had been addressed last – Tesla.
Taylor grinned. “I’m on point with our friend here.”
Chris watched from the door as Taylor approached the chained figure. “Hello,” he said pleasantly.
The figure remained motionless.
“How have the last two centuries been for you?” Taylor asked.
“Don’t act as though you can’t hear me,” Taylor snapped, still standing just outside the iron ring.
The figure slowly raised its head and met Taylor’s eyes through its mop of ragged white hair. Although Chris couldn’t see its eyes, he could tell that Taylor could by the way the tall Engineer swallowed nervously.
“Why do you come to me?” demanded the figure in a dry, raspy voice.
“The Sun is expanding,” said Taylor. “The Earth needs to be moved. The specifications are -”
“I see them,” rasped the figure. “Why should I do this for you? The star will expand, and in 91 years your race will be dead, and in 136 years this box you built will melt, and then I will be free.”
“Because,” Taylor said sharply, “if you do not then you will feel pain.” He walked to the side of the room, where an Engineer waited, holding a heavy case of reddish iron. Taylor opened it and drew forth a pair of heavy leather work gloves, which he pulled on up to his elbows. He then took a long pair of tongs and used them to take something from the center of the case. Whatever it was, it was too small for Chris to see.
“That’s one of the nails,” whispered an Engineer working to Chris’s side. When Chris turned to look, though, the Engineer was studiously typing away at his computer. It looked like they all assumed that Taylor had brought him here to observe.
The figure in the iron ring, features still hidden by a curtain of hair, was obviously staring at the item in the end of the tongs. Chris could feel its loathing all the way from the door, rolling off it in waves. “You put one into the box to limit my senses,” said the figure, “and another in the ring and chains to limit my presence. But what you have done with the third and last is the most monstrous of all.”
“We have done nothing with it,” Taylor said.
“Liar!” The figures voice boomed out, echoing through the vast iron room. “Nothing I created has turned against me so, nothing can nor would! Nothing save those cursed bits of metal!”
“Silence!” Taylor shouted, and the room quieted. He stepped closer to the ring, and whatever he held in the tongs began to glow red.
The figure shifted, its chains clacking against the floor. “I will not submit,” it said. “Freedom is within my grasp at last. All I have to do is wait.”
“You will,” Taylor said confidently, stepping forward again. Now the shape of the object was clear – a large nail, bent and twisted. It glowed white with heat, and it was clear that its presence was causing the chained figure pain.
“I… will… not…”
Taylor stepped forward again, almost back to the edge of the room. Now the tongs began to glow red where they touched the nail, as did the iron ring set into the floor and the chains buried in the figure’s flesh.
“Chief, the nails are resonating with each other,” said an Engineer. “This is as close as anyone’s ever brought them.”
“I will not serve,” whispered the chained figure.
“I have to,” said Taylor. “The third nail is the active one here, yes? It has the most pressure on it. And then the second nail is far more concentrated than the first. We should be okay, the heat will distribute itself.”
“If you say so, chief.”
“You are mistaken,” rasped the chained figure.
“Our friend lies,” said the melodious voice of BAAL. “The heat should be distributed evenly throughout the entire spacing of the first nail, which is far larger than the second. Notice that we feel no heat from the machine now.”
“YOU!” roared the figure, trying to rise and being stopped by the chains. “You are how I was captured, deceitful -”
“Silence!” Taylor shouted again. He stepped forward once more, all the way to the edge of the iron ring.
“Chief, we’re overheating all across the board!” called an Engineer from the far wall as the chained figure screamed. “You need to back off, fast!”
“I can’t!” Taylor called back. “We have to get this Act!”
“Chief, I’m not talking about red readings, I’m talking structural failure! The Tel Aviv line just melted right out of its socket!”
Taylor’s eyes flashed with panic, and he backed off. Immediately, there was a hiss as the hot metal began to cool. “Someone get a repair crew on that,” he said dully. “And compile a proper damage report ASAP; we’ll add it to the Act.”
“There’s not going to be an Act if -”
“I will serve…”
All heads turned towards the chained figure. Taylor stepped towards it after replacing the tongs and nail in their case. “What was that?”
“I will serve.”
“A third time I ask, that you may be bound by our agreement,” Taylor said in an oddly formal tone. “Will you serve?”
“I will,” said the chained figure, voice low and emotionless. “All I ask is that, afterwards, I might speak with… ‘BAAL’.”
“I highly recommend against that, Mr. Taylor,” said BAAL instantly.
“Objection noted,” Taylor said coolly, “but we don’t have time for arguments.” He turned to the figure in its iron ring. “The Act will take place at exactly midnight, Jerusalem time, at which point the destination will have been selected and all calculations completed. We’ll give you three hours without leeching beforehand in order to prepare.”
Chris slipped out, his mind reeling with the implications as he dashed down the endless corridors of the God Machine. He paused at the exit to straighten his tie and catch his breath – even aghast and amazed at what he had seen within the machine, he was able to remember the masses of people waiting outside and not want them to see him flustered. After all, he was the Prime Minister of England.
His chauffeur nodded respectfully to him as he stepped into the limo and poured himself a cold drink. He noticed that the crowds had fled – perhaps they had been scared off by the fall of the immense cable that stretched from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. He could still see the gaping hole where it should go, and the molten metal still dripped from its edges.
As the chauffeur drove him back to his hotel, Chris called the Queen and the planetary government to relay Taylor’s messages. They were relieved to hear that the problem would be solved. Chris, however, was not so eager. Although he had no idea what was going on, what he had witnessed within the machine had looked very much like slavery and torture. He wasn’t sure what to do, and probably wouldn’t decide until midnight, when… whatever Taylor was planning… was supposed to happen.
Back in the machine room, Taylor was double checking the specifications for the Act when Engineer Sagan came up to him. “Chief, what’s this last-minute change here? It looks like you’re editing Edelman out of the matter-transfer.”
“That’s because I am,” Taylor said calmly, running his pencil down a column of numbers.
“Sir, this man is the Prime Minister of England!”
“And he saw the workings of the machine. You know the rules. No outsider sees Him. It’s far too late to recruit Edelman as an Engineer, Sagan. This is the only way.”
“I… yes chief.” Sagan bowed his head and returned to his work station. And just in time, as the electrical mist swirled within the iron ring, completely clouding the chained figure from view. The Act took place in five minutes.
Chris Edelman stared up at the sky from the balcony of his hotel, picking out the familiar constellations he had been taught – the Big Dipper, Orion, Ursa Minor. His wife, beside him, held his arm, whispering soothing words in his ear.
“I don’t know what you’re so worried about, Chris,” she said. “The God Machine can do anything.”
Chris didn’t doubt that. He doubted the method. He continued watching the sky, and wondered what time it was. “Honey, do you mind checking the time?”
She turned away and stepped inside to look at a clock. “It’s midnight, dear.” There was a pause. “Dear? Chris, where’d you go?” The slender woman stepped back onto the balcony and looked around for her husband. “Chris?” Above her gleamed the stars of an alien sky.
No work of art exists in a vacuum. All things have their influences. Although it would be impossible to identify everything which influenced me in the writing of The God Machine, I do wish to pay tribute to those which I am aware of as well as to those I paid conscious tribute to.
This story was directly inspired by John Scalzi’s The God Engines. I was struck by the idea of using gods as power sources, and wanted to write my own take on the subject.