Narrated by Bob Eccles
The machine wanted all things. Not everything. Simply one of each. No matter how minute the difference, how slight the variation, if it was distinct, the machine called for it.
It was assumed to be alien. It came from the sky, after all. Wide as a city, higher than the tallest skyscraper, it descended from the clouds, came to rest in the most desolate of places. The high desert in Asia. After being surrounded, bombed, burned, shot, drilled, carved, all to no effect, the peoples of the world tried talking to it.
It responded quickly, as if awaiting humanity’s exhaustion with sticks and stones. It broadcast its message of want. To sample all that the world had to offer. Promised unimaginable rewards to each and all who brought it something unique.
It was here Clark waited. In one of the lines stretching for miles from the great machine. His own pilgrimage seeking salvation before the great dome of the visitor. The camps around it had sprung up haphazard to accommodate those who came. Ramshackle, they swelled with the legions of those refused, those who’d made the long journey to the desert only to be spurned by the machine. Cheaper to feed than evacuate, they stared hollow-eyed as Clark’s queue wended its way through their dusty lanes.
It had been easy at first, the machine’s appetite insatiable for all things Earthly. The adventurous with means dunebuggied and parachuted in to present their offerings. Anything and everything brought in those first years was accepted, the pilgrims whisked away by the machine to some better place, scattered messages from those taken the only proof of reward. Random e-mails and phone messages to those on Earth. They spoke of places among the stars, full of light and wonder. Each message bade a hurried farewell to loved ones as the cosmos opened before them.
Now, with the majority of offerings having been given up, it was more common for one in ten thousand to be accepted. The rest marched back, home if they had the means, to the camps if they’d spent everything to get here. Clark watched them pass, those returning from the machine. Furious scowls, knowing in their hatred of those still waiting in line. In each miserable reject was the knowledge that somewhere in the great lines were those who carried some unknown trinket that the machine had not yet tasted. Some obscure item or mixture or material that would lift them from the hot, crowded Earth to the stars.
“I can’t say. But I’ve got a sure thing. I guarantee no one’s got what I do. Don’t want to give up my secret,” the man in front of Clark said. “It’s from my grandmother. She had cancer. The most rare cancer in the world. Like, one in a million get this. I’m leaving for sure.”
“You probably shouldn’t tell anyone,” was the best Clark could offer in reply.
The man spoke English fluently, but Clark was unable to place his nationality. Mostly, the line was silent. People didn’t give away what small secret they carried for fear it might truly carry value.
There were guards of a sort, to keep order. Some from the government, soldiers. Others, volunteers from those who’d been rejected. It still didn’t do to talk about what you might be carrying. There remained those desperate enough to try and take it, in hopes you had the answer, the one thing left on Earth the machine sought.
It loomed over all in the distance. Rising more than a kilometer into the cloudless sky. Black, corroded, there didn’t appear to be a smooth point on its surface. Spires and towers jutted forth with no discernible pattern or reason.
Clark suspected he was only a few hours out from it now. Truth be told, he didn’t anticipate acceptance. Surely some other had offered what it was Clark carried. There was little order to the process. You simply approached the machine, offered what you had into one of the thousands of small openings, and were either rejected or swept away.
There existed lists, websites, vast searchable databases compiled from the detritus of items left behind by those rejected. A guide to prospective pilgrims. Yet still the throngs assembled. Recklessly abandoning everything in the hope they carried the key. Indifferent to the exhortations of those who’d gone prior. Rejection by the machine preferable to their everyday lives. Clark had avoided these sites altogether.
A women behind him kept tearing open disposable heat packets and dropping them inside a tupperware container, cracking the seal only long enough to slide them inside. She darted a suspicious glare at Clark anytime he observed her. She remained silent.
The machine had been a thing of wonder upon its arrival. So many answers to be had, questions to be offered. As the years swept by, and fewer people vanished alongside it, the machine simply became one more item for everyday gossip. A blurb with which to fill a portion of newscrawl. For Clark, it had offered direction.
By any measure of a man, it could be reasonably assumed that Clark would fall slightly beneath the median. A bell curve of every aspect of his life would show Clark drifting leftward. He’d puzzled for years about what to bring the machine. For the briefest moment in his life, Clark felt inspiration. He’d come up with a proper offering. A scheme that he hoped would lift him from the world on the machine’s promise. It mattered little if his plan failed, for what he would bring could only be given once. His only worry was that someone had beaten him to it.
A mood not unlike pleasant anticipation had settled over the group just before the woman was killed. The line had bedded down as the gates ahead were closed for the night. Clark hadn’t quite drifted off when the screaming started. He supposed it to be Spanish, though he was unsure.
Some people in line broke it up, pulling the man off her. It was too late. He’d had a knife, the man with the answer. The woman writhed briefly, her blood vanishing rapidly on the dry, cracked ground beneath. After the soldiers took them both away, there was little evidence anything had transpired.
Everyone went back to bed soon after. The woman’s tupper had fallen open, its contents steaming lightly in the chill night air. It smelled wonderful, but Clark resisted the urge to taste it. Maybe grandma’s tumor hadn’t seemed enough to the man. Perhaps he’d needed something else to bring.
That would be the last night for Clark. He’d reach the gate to the machine in the morning. He fell asleep quickly despite having just witnessed murder. The next morning, the line started moving promptly as the guards reopened the gates.
He finally caught sight of the perimeter fence ringing the machine. Here, the presence of soldiers was high. Men and women with bored faces checking for weapons and guiding the pilgrims through the gates to the machine. Once through, people were free to approach the machine’s innumerable appertures. Some rushed forward, most simply trudged along at their previous pace.
The areas closest to the gates were crowded. Clark broke free from his group and began traversing the machine away from them. Others had the same idea, and he saw it would be hours before he could be alone with the machine. It soared to his left, blocking a full half of the semicircle of sky.
The closer he got to it, the deeper the corrosion appeared, as if the finest particulates had accumulated upon it over aeons. Against this were the openings, a deeper, more profound black than the dull color of the rest of the machine. From the size of a hand to a cottage, these orifices pockmarked its skin. It was into these the world had fed its offerings great and small. They shined as obsidian, with a black so deep it approached indigo, or so the accounts went. He continued forward, the crowd thinning around him as the hours passed. Clark wanted to be alone with one when he made his offering.
The machine didn’t speak to those who approached it. It had broadcast its desires only once, in many of the world’s languages. Then it went silent. You were either accepted and vanished or your offering was spat back at your feet.
The mystery of it had undone thousand year religions and doctrines, spawned a hundred more. Away from the gates, Clark saw some of their camps. Those who came to the machine in worship, paying their homage. Clark had read of some of the prominent ones. Some were rejects, some hoarded rare treasures, fighting the temptation to offer them up.
Clark wasn’t after religious experience, wasn’t even sure he sought the machine’s salvation. The machine offered mystery. It didn’t give answers. Didn’t offer commentary or justification. In a world of endless information, of instant explanation, perhaps the machine’s mystery, its silence, was all the answer Clark required.
He carried his offering, but somehow knew that even acceptance wouldn’t bring answers. The mystery would endure, forever, or so Clark rationalized the whole journey to himself. In truth, he had seen all the world had to offer. Had pursued the course a diligent world citizen should. School, work, savings. And it was all empty. Humanity’s fairy tale in the absence of any true reason for existence. The machine offered something tangible. Acceptance or rejection demonstrated completely and without room for interpretation.
The world had wondered if the machine would leave. After having its fill, would it ascend back into the unknown? Was it to remain on Earth for all time? Clark wondered if he would be the last, or the one ahead of him, or the person after. One of them might present the key that allowed the machine to move on. He shook his thoughts away and saw he was alone. Nothing between himself and the machine.
He found an aperture on a level with his chest. Square-shaped, the size of a computer monitor. The inside smooth as quicksilver, black like water on a clouded night. He pulled part of his offering from the inside of his coat. The small vial and its contents were but a component of what he intended to give. Before this, however, he wanted to see the machine at work. To see what a traditional offering entailed.
He uncorked the tiny vial and leaked several drops into the opening. The milky white liquid sat unmoving on the black surface. Clark’s heart pounded as the moments dragged on, the dusty breeze the only sound.
It happened fast. The drops of liquid were simply thrown off, vanishing quickly on the dry ground. Not a sound, and not a mark on the surface of the opening to indicate something had just resided there.
Clark was ecstatic. The machine operated, it existed. It wasn’t just tales. His offering had been rejected by the behemoth from the sky. An electric feeling suffused him. He looked around but saw no one. He wondered if this were a religious experience.
He set in motion now his true offering. It didn’t matter if it rejected him again. He’d seen it move. Cast away the drops of liquid. Mystery remained in the universe and for this Clark felt at peace. He upended the vial and swallowed its contents, which were sweet going down.
Perhaps he ought to have considered the moment further. Enjoy what might be his last moments on Earth. But he needed to get on with it. In a world that had long since revealed all it had to offer, Clark was ready to depart with as much haste as possible. Only a few minutes passed before the liquid made its effects known.
It started in his throat, which began to tighten. Despite the excitement, Clark kept his breaths slow, shallow, just as he’d practiced. Before it was done he’d need his voice. He looked at his watch, counted the seconds. His chest burned, each breath like fire in his lungs. Only a few more seconds. He’d make it. The machine sat silent.
He staggered as he pushed his head towards the opening. It was hard to focus on anything but the deep black of the surface. He felt the first convulsions. They would soon be uncontrollable. He was out of time. He had to begin.
He began whispering, all his remaining strength focused on getting out these last words. A small but troubling series of events that he’d shared with no one. His secrets poured forth on the mist of his ghost freely given up. He couldn’t take back this offering, filling the aperture like invisible smoke. It was for the machine to accept or reject.
The black from the opening pooled with the darkness creeping over his vision. It seemed he’d be unconscious for the worst of the convulsions. Clark’s last trickling thoughts were over his lack of concern. Shouldn’t such a situation be more alarming? It didn’t seem to matter.
The darkness gave way. Light erupted. Clark’s thoughts remained faded. Acceptance? The end? How could one know. Whatever happened next, he felt sure the machine would remain silent. The thought was not displeasing.
AUTHOR BIO: Clint Spivey is a junior and senior high school English teacher in Japan. He is finishing his graduate work in TESOL in Tokyo. When not crammed in trains, buried in coursework, or grading papers he enjoys writing science fiction.
ILLUSTRATOR BIO: Eleanor Leonne Bennett is an internationally award winning artist. Her photography has been published in the Telegraph , The Guardian, BBC News Website and on the cover of books and magazines in the United states and Canada. See more of her photography at www.eleanorleonnebennett.zenfolio.com