Breaking the Machine by Aaron Emmel

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Breaking the Machine by Aaron Emmel
Illustrated by Sue Babcock

The fugitive stumbled once as the World Walkers closed in from behind. Even then he didn’t loosen his grip on the worn leather satchel he clutched under his left arm. He shifted his weight and drove himself forward over the broken ground.

Ethan left the protective arch of the Eastern Gate and strode out toward the runner and his pursuers. Beyond the escarpment, past the hills that curtained off the horizon, mountains that had once had names weighed down the darkening sky.

Out here in the open Ethan was going by the book. Full armored biodefense gear, helmet and gloves and articulated steelshell boots. Clipped to his belt was an impression grenade, a fist-sized carrier of death. He was almost as afraid of the grenade as of the World Walker soldiers it was meant to protect against.

Behind him he heard the Continuous Defense 2.0 turrets whir as their guns tracked the approaching World Walkers. Enclave’s authority ended with the CD-2 units’ firing radii. Outside their range the World Walkers and the Empire they served ruled with impunity.

Ethan felt the curved steel of a safety lever through his glove and realized that his hand had settled on the grenade. He jerked his fingers away. Maybe Cindy’s right, he thought. Maybe we’re lucky to have an Overseer who isn’t tempted to start a war we can’t win just for the pleasure of blowing a pair of World Walkers to hell.

Now the fugitive was close enough that Ethan could see his strained features and his open mouth gulping air. The World Walkers narrowed the gap, each of them two meters tall, loping with an aggressive, leonine grace that devoured the ground between them and their quarry. Were they still human? Or something more? Assassin drones zipped through the air behind them and fired. The CD-2 units spun into action, blasting the missiles out of the air.

Ethan’s helmet scanned the fugitive’s face and supplied the information he already knew: James Diennes, native subject of the Perpetual Empire, 32.

They met ten meters from the gate. James stumbled again, and this time his legs started to buckle. Ethan caught his arm and pulled him back onto his feet. The eyes that James fixed on him were exhausted and wide with fear. But he kept running, and Ethan pivoted to follow.

As he turned he saw one of the World Walkers slow and raise his gun. A sleek black Pehluvan Decision-Maker.

Ethan interposed his body between James and the Walkers and willed the fugitive faster. He resisted the urge to look back, and the stronger urge to dive for cover.

They reached the walls. The gun didn’t fire. Ethan half-dragged and half-guided James over the threshold.

“You’re safe,” Ethan assured him through his helmet as the massive doors swung shut behind them.

James’ face was streaked with dirt and sweat. Ethan glanced back and saw that the World Walkers had halted outside, respecting, for one more day at least, Enclave’s sovereignty. Then the doors closed entirely with a heavy, scraping boom and the enemy soldiers vanished from their view.

James’ eyes were still terrified as they swept the illuminated ceiling and bare concrete walls. The six border guards just inside the gate kept their distance, waiting for Ethan’s instructions. Commander Collins was there as well; she had wanted to be the one to bring James in, and Ethan knew that’s exactly how he would have felt back when he was a commander.

“This is the place referred to as Enclave?” James asked.

Ethan nodded and pulled off his helmet. Immediately he smelled the reek of James’ ragged clothes and unwashed body. He kept his face impassive. His own gaze lingered for a moment on the leather bag. But there would be plenty of time for that later. “Yes. We were told to expect you, James Diennes.” Meeting James’ eyes he repeated, “You’re safe.”

James shook his head emphatically. “The World Walkers are not stopped by walls.”

“I’m the Administrator of this precinct. I can assure you, the World Walkers can’t reach you here.”

Ethan started walking away from the gate, and after a moment James followed. Collins and another officer fell into step behind them. They all stopped in front of a pair of steelshell-reinforced double doors bordered with a bright yellow band. “This is Quarantine,” Ethan explained. “We’ll need to run some tests on you and ask you some questions before you can be released into the civilian population.”

James stared at him, his face still tense with fear.

Ethan said, more gently, “You’re among friends now. Past this door you’ll be given a private room where you can rest and shower and eat, and some of my aides will inventory your belongings for our records and launder your clothes. Everything will be returned to you as soon as possible, and you can begin the tests and interview whenever you’re ready.” There was no reason to mention that the first test had already been administered; the diagnostic scanners at the gate had automatically checked him for Circe’s virus and other airborne pathogens.

James gripped the satchel tightly to his chest and gave another shake of his head. “This creature will not surrender the objects in its possession.”

Ethan looked at the package and hesitated. Those were the Overseer’s rules. It was for the safety of Enclave. Someone could smuggle in explosives, or spying equipment, or viruses, or spores. They could be brought in without the knowledge of their carriers, or intentionally.

But what was in this satchel? What could James be guarding so closely? Probably not viruses.

Artifacts. Objects that had survived the Sundering.

Ethan realized that he was leaning forward, his mouth dry, still staring at the bag.

He drew himself up and nodded briskly. “Of course.” He looked at Collins, but continued to address James. “The satchel will be opened in front of you and you can be present when it’s inspected. It won’t be out of your sight and it will be returned to you immediately afterward.”

For the first time since Ethan had seen him, James visibly relaxed.

Back in his office Ethan watched the live stream from Quarantine. He couldn’t remember the last time he had done that, but he didn’t want to wait a moment longer than necessary to see what James had smuggled out. He felt that he had already been waiting for most of his life.

But Ethan’s promise that the satchel would be opened with James present delayed the process. First James ate, and then he showered, and that was followed by the military lawyers’ interview. About five minutes into the interview Ethan realized he was clenching his fists. He got to his feet and paced. James spoke like an Artificer. Like the enemy.

He never used the past tense. He referred to himself in the third person, as “creature” or “slave.” And beneath all of his words was the most insidious of the Artificers’ memes, the underlying assumption that nothing could ever be known, nothing was objectively true, except for the inevitability of the Artificers’ own continued rule.

No, not inevitability, because strictly speaking the Artificers didn’t think the consolidation of their rule was going to happen; they thought that in the future it already had. To them the future was just as final and irrevocable as any event which had already taken place, and it was only due to their limited vantage point that people couldn’t yet perceive it. They spoke of the future the way Ethan might speak of the abandoned cities to the north: he knew they were there, even when the intervening mountains concealed them.

But James isn’t an Artificer, he reminded himself. The reason he sounds like them is that he was born under their Empire and it’s all he’s ever known. And despite that, he escaped.

He stopped pacing. The lawyers had finished their questioning and now opened James’ satchel of contraband. Ethan stood completely still, his face almost touching the screen, as he watched the lawyers remove objects one by one.

A data square. When the lawyers accessed it the room’s speakers produced a burst of music, a waterfall of notes. Ethan recognized the instrument as a violin. What was it? Brahms? Mozart? Vivaldi? One of those or some other ancient name, now almost lost to history? It was so beautiful his body almost ached. Then the swift rush of music ended.

A tube of canvas. They unrolled it and he caught a glimpse of a painting: vivid splashes of color that coalesced into an image of a woman at a window in a dark room looking out at a sun-drenched, grass-mantled hillside, a scene that looked so delicate and ephemeral that Ethan felt that if he blinked or looked away it would dissolve back into constituent blooms of pigment and acrylic.

A clear plastic square clouded with an engraving at its center. The lawyers conferred for a moment, and then they shone a light at the object, which cast a tableau of shadows upon the wall: a crumbling, fortified building half-hidden by trees. The shadows had so many shades that the picture looked three-dimensional. When Lieutenant Fritz rotated the cube in her fingers the shadows shifted in turn, revealing an adjacent wall of the fort as the trees slid away. Then Martinez clicked off the light and the shadows vanished.

An album of still holographic images, each depicting a different building that must have existed before the Empire. Some Ethan recognized, from his early childhood or from stories: the Egyptian pyramids, the Eiffel Tower. Others he didn’t know: a beautiful domed white building with arches framing its entrance and windows, set between four tapering towers; the ruins of a circular building that looked like four stacked rings; a statue of a robed woman holding a tablet and a torch.

The Statue of Liberty, he thought after a moment. But he couldn’t remember where the statue might have been located or in what era it might have been erected.

In Quarantine the lawyers had stepped back and James was sliding his artifacts back into the satchel. At first he worked quickly, as if afraid the soldiers would change their minds and take them back, but he slowed as he carefully fit each object into its spot.

That’s when Ethan heard the chime above his head. “You have instructions from the Overseer,” the familiar, disembodied voice intoned with calm authority.

After he had heard the command Ethan asked for it to be repeated. But it made no more sense the second time. “Clarify.”

“Your instructions are explicit,” the Overseer’s AI agent said. “Would you like to hear them again?”

Ethan walked out of his office. He didn’t know where he was going until he stopped outside his supervisor’s door. He knocked once and entered before he heard an answer. “The Overseer just gave me an order that doesn’t make sense.”

Daniel had been reviewing the city’s energy and food supplies, areas that along with security received frequent Overseer intervention. When he saw Ethan he started to protest the interruption, took another look at his face, and swept his hand to turn the wallscreen blank. “What did she say?” Daniel was an uninspiring leader, a plodding bureaucrat who clung to rituals and rules, but he had been clever enough to navigate those rules to the highest post in government.

And yet he still has to follow the orders of a program, Ethan thought.

“It told me to destroy the contents of the parcel immediately, arrest James and surrender him to the Artificers.”

Daniel looked at him, waiting for a question.

“He has antiques from before the Sundering,” Ethan said. “Aren’t we here to provide a sanctuary and preserve as much of the past as we can?”

Daniel’s lips turned down in a slight frown, but that was the only part of his expression that changed. “We follow the Overseer’s guidance.”

“Yes, but this is wrong.” When Daniel’s frown deepened Ethan added, “You know it’s wrong.”

“Her algorithms analyze every bit of data that affects our city. She’s what’s kept us independent and secure.”

“But if it were hacked—“

Daniel’s voice grew impatient. “How long has it been since any command software was compromised, let alone the Overseer? Who would risk the death penalty?”

Ethan didn’t want to argue. He knew how fine the lines were, in this office, on this issue, between disagreement and insubordination, and between insubordination and treason. But the order was wrong. Daniel was wrong. Why couldn’t Daniel see that? “It’s a program. Programs can fail.”

Daniel’s eyes narrowed and he drew back in his chair.

Ethan heard the intake of his boss’ breath and knew that whatever Daniel said next would, at the absolute least, result in the end of Ethan’s career. With no additional time to think or act, Ethan cut him off, his tone steady, as if he hadn’t realized that Daniel was about to speak, as if he were merely continuing his last sentence. Steady and innocuous. The difference between disagreement and subordination. “If it doesn’t have enough information, even if it evaluates it flawlessly. If circumstances have changed.”

Daniel let out his breath as a low hiss, but when he spoke his voice was patient. Deliberately, exaggeratedly patient, but patient nonetheless. “All reason is imperfect. That is why the Overseer is necessary. She’s how we’ve maintained our independence and why we still have trade with the Allied Republics.”

Ethan paused before responding. Some statements were so obvious that to make them was to admit defeat. “This fugitive, James Diennes, he’s brought us things we don’t even have the names for anymore. Whatever he has of our past, we have to save it from the Artificers. That’s why we’re here.”

Daniel stared at him. Ethan tried to steel himself for the words that were sure to come next. But all his leader said was, “Talk to Cindy. Think about it. Then make your decision.”

Ethan stared back at him, suddenly disoriented. Daniel never mentioned Cindy. Hadn’t for the past eight years. He grimaced and looked away whenever Ethan mentioned her. But both of them knew what she would say.

Daniel’s mind was made up. For Daniel there was no decision to make, because the Overseer had already made it. Ethan nodded and walked out.

At his office he accessed the perimeter cameras. The two World Walkers still stood where he had last seen them, well within the range of the turret guns, watching the Eastern Gate. Waiting.

Waiting for what? Ethan wondered as he headed down to his apartment. He put in a call to Collins and told her to muster the fourth platoon, just in case. In case of what, he didn’t yet know.

Cindy was waiting for him, as always. She smiled exactly the same smile she always gave him. He wanted this time, more than ever, to touch her. He reached out to her and then pulled his hand back. He knew what she was, what she had become since the accident eight years ago, but if his fingers passed through the light-web of her arm the illusion would be shattered. “What’s wrong?” she asked him.

As he answered he weighed his options in his mind. Betray the city or risk his job and his citizenship, and put their son’s future at risk. By the time the simulacrum of his wife responded he knew that he had no choice. He would do what the Overseer wanted.

“We need the Overseer, however hard it is to admit,” Cindy told him gently. “She’s not susceptible to manipulation like human minds. She suffers no self-delusion about Enclave’s vulnerabilities, or what we might have to do to survive.”

No self-delusion. He looked at her ageless holographic features and tried to remember whether she had been so certain before her physical death and her personality recovery. Before the Overseer had granted permission for the enormous energy allocation required to sustain her. But he couldn’t be sure what was the natural progression of her artificial consciousness and what had been there all along, and that fact was far more jarring than passing a hand through her blemishless skin.

“All I can think about is who I should be training Kevin to be,” Ethan said.

“What do you mean?”

“The person I want him to be, or the man I think he’ll need to be to survive?”

She gave him a confused look.

“I’m going to talk to James myself,” Ethan said.

Her blue eyes clouded. “Why don’t you go to Daniel first?” she suggested. “Before you make a final decision.”

Ethan stared at her, suddenly cold. Her words were an echo of what Daniel had said in his office. He opened his mouth to argue, but he wasn’t sure what to say, or—for the very first time—how much he could trust her.

The door opened. Kevin was coming home. Ethan did something he had never done before. He switched Cindy off. Her image flickered and vanished.

Just for a few hours. Just until I’ve spoken to James and decided what I’m going to do.

“Stay here,” he told his son.

“Where’s mom?” Kevin asked.

“You’ll see her again tonight. Or tomorrow morning. Just stay inside until I get back.” Without waiting for an answer he headed back down to Quarantine.

Collins was standing with two guards outside of the airlock doors. “The Overseer has directed that that the fugitive is to be held in isolation until he’s returned to the Empire,” she informed Ethan.

Ethan barely hesitated. “Get everyone out.” He waited until the squad had vacated Quarantine and then pushed through the double doors. He physically disabled the sensors, shut down the communications net and strode forward down the hall. He didn’t know what he expected to find, but he was about to cross a line that couldn’t be uncrossed. If he carried through with this he was likely to lose everything he valued. Even Cindy.

That thought made him stop. When he let his fingers linger in the air above her skin he could almost imagine that her flesh was warm, that it would resist the pressure of his touch. When he closed his eyes and listened to her voice he heard the woman he had known and loved for more than a decade, and if he was tired enough and she was near him he could almost imagine he felt her breath. But it was her mind he had preserved, or at least an archive of her thoughts, and he hadn’t maintained her avatar merely so that he wouldn’t be alone. He had kept the remnant of her alive so that she could witness, with him, the recovery of the past that humanity was coming so close to losing. And if he let that past go, what would there be left for her to hope for?

Ethan activated the exterior blast door. Once it was sealed he changed the code. Then he made his way to James’ chamber.

He had expected James to be grateful for the protection Ethan had provided. Instead the fugitive glared at him with his arms crossed over his chest. “This creature perceives it is being held as a prisoner.”

“I want to help you.”

“Then help. Let this creature leave. Open the doors.”

James stood against the far wall. Ethan paced slowly in front of him. “How did you escape from the Empire?”

James’ eyes burned as they stared at him. “The Artificers’ reach is long. No creature gives up that information.”

“You’re not in the Empire anymore. You can trust me.” Even as he said the words Ethan felt himself recoil from them. He would likely have no choice but to give James up. Even if he didn’t, Daniel would be sending troops soon to force their way into Quarantine. James was right to be suspicious of him.

What was so important about this particular man? What had the Empire threatened to get the Overseer to accede to its demands? Ethan tried a different tack. “Where are you from?”

James shook his head as if unwilling to answer. But just before Ethan could ask something else he twisted up his face and said, “This creature understands itself to be registered in what is known as the fourteenth sector.”

Ethan frowned. He hadn’t expected to spot a hole in James’ story so quickly. “Then why come all this way? Why not just cross over to the Allied Republics?”

A voice boomed through the hall. James started. It was the Overseer’s agent. Ethan had thought he had shut down all communications, but obviously the Overseer had networks he wasn’t aware of. “Administrator Ethan Kene, you are directed to unseal the entrance to Quarantine and surrender yourself immediately to Commander Collins.”

James’ eyes widened. “The creature in front of this creature is itself a fugitive?”

Ethan released his breath slowly and forced himself to remain where he was. “Why didn’t you go to the Allied Republics?”


“This creature perceives that the Empire destroys the Republics.”

“The Republics are being attacked? We haven’t received that information.”

Down the hall Ethan could hear pounding against the Quarantine doors. Part of him wanted to return to the entrance and explain himself. Another part wanted to run in the opposite direction. He remained where he was. He was close, very close, to fitting something into place.

James doesn’t use the past tense, Ethan thought, but he’s obviously telling me about something that he thinks has already happened. “That is impossible,” Ethan stated firmly. “Our trade with the Republics is as strong as it’s ever been.”

“This creature perceives the invasion without intermediaries. That is how it obtains its artifacts.”

James had seen it with his own eyes. The Allied Republics had fallen.

At the entrance there was a whirring, screeching whine as Collins’ squad started to cut through the doors.

“I think you should run now,” Ethan told James. James stared back at him. Ethan turned and ran.

When he reached the first split he slowed for a moment, swinging his head to the left and right. To the right were the interrogation rooms, where he could barricade himself in and perhaps make a stand, long enough at least to make his case and plead for leniency. To the left was the customs warehouse. He ran left.

He didn’t know he was looking for something until he reached the dim, cavernous room and started to slow, his eyes scanning row after row of labelled boxes. Now he heard the pounding of boots behind him. The soldiers were in Quarantine. He kept his attention on the labels until finally he found what he was looking for, and stopped. It was an organimetal crate, marked “Oranges,” one meter tall and two meters wide. The label identified its origin as one of the Allied Republics. Ethan knelt and peeled off the label. The adhesive was strong and resisted his efforts, but he finally managed to tear some of the sticker away. Enough was removed to allow him to see the beginning of the number of the code that was printed beneath. Only a handful of Enclave’s citizens would have been able to decipher it, but Ethan was one of them. Whether it had originated there or merely transited through, this box had come to Enclave from the Empire.

As soldiers filled the room Ethan wondered how that could be, and once he was willing to allow himself to consider the facts, it wasn’t hard to come up with an answer.

Daniel burst into the warehouse flanked by guards. There was a hardness to his face that Ethan had never seen before. He slowed when he saw Ethan and strode up to him, shaking his head. “Whatever you’re trying, it’s over. Commander, place him under arrest.”

“I want to talk to you,” Ethan said.

Daniel’s lips curled up and he started to shake his head again. Then he glanced down at the crate at Ethan’s feet and its torn label. All at once his expression became calculating.

He knows, Ethan thought, somehow not surprised. He’s been part of it.

“Give us some room,” Daniel snapped at the soldiers.

Collins looked at him, and Daniel waved her away. The soldiers withdrew, taking positions along the wall and in front of the door.

Ethan’s fingers moved toward the impression grenade at his belt. For a fierce and heady moment he wondered whether it would be worth it to sacrifice himself to take out his boss.

But no, that would solve nothing. For all his seeming power Daniel was only a pawn, like all of the rest of them. The Overseer. That was the true enemy. That was what he had to bring down.

“You have thirty seconds,” Daniel said.

Ethan looked into his eyes. “The Artificers want us here, thinking we’re free,” he said, somehow surprised again by the idea as he voiced it. He almost stopped as his stomach clenched—the feeling of betrayal like a punch in the gut—but he forced himself to continue. To speak the truth. “They let their enemies escape to us so they won’t stay to try to reform or destroy the Empire from within. The Empire’s would-be rebels self-identify, and then we hand them back.”

Daniel regarded him and said nothing. There was no shock, no uncertainty in his eyes. It was true. Ethan wanted to retch.

Daniel raised his hand to call back the soldiers.

“I have five seconds left,” Ethan said. He wasn’t sure if that was correct, but Daniel paused, hearing him out. “Take me to the Overseer. Let me explain myself to it.” He forced his fingers to remain still and not betray him by moving toward the grenade.

I’ll lose Cindy.

No. I lost her eight years ago. She’s part of the past. I’m part of the past. We’ve had our chance. It’s time for humans to take control of Enclave again, and let Kevin and his generation make their own future.

Daniel summoned the soldiers. “I’m sorry. You’ve served your purpose. The Overseer has no more use for you.”

Ethan’s hands were pulled behind him and his wrists were handcuffed. The soldiers force-marched him out of the room. In the hallway he saw James, similarly handcuffed, his filled satchel hanging from his shoulder. James glanced at him and looked down, defeated.

Ethan was pushed forward, and James was dragged along behind him.

“Where are you taking us?” Ethan demanded, but he was familiar with each of these passages, and in another minute he knew the answer.

They stopped at the inside of the Eastern Gate. There was a huge grinding of gears, and the massive doors slid open. Out there, in the dark, limned by starlight, the two World Walkers stood where Ethan had last seen them. Patient and certain.

Ethan bumped against James. In the same instant he twisted his left wrist to extend his fingers to the latch securing the impression grenade. He released the latch and the grenade fell. James looked down just in time to see the grenade drop into a pocket of his satchel.

Now it’s up to you, Ethan thought.

The soldiers stopped. Franklin, the Sergeant, raised a pistol and held it to James’ head. “Go.”

James looked at the World Walkers and recoiled.

Franklin shoved him with a gloved hand. “Move.”

James started forward. At first he walked with a shuffle, his head down. But after a few steps he started to straighten his shoulders. His stride became longer and more purposeful. He lifted his face to look at the World Walkers. His cuffed hands strayed closer to his satchel.

He’s made his decision.

The World Walker on the right was staring at the bag, his thought-controlled drone hovering in the air behind him. His enhanced vision must have been able to see through the leather, because suddenly he shouted and ripped out his energy gun.

James threw himself sideways and plunged his hands into the swinging satchel. Ethan was hit by an expanding wall of air and saw an inferno erupt in the space that James had just occupied, followed a moment later by a sound like the sky splitting open. Then it was gone and Ethan was on his knees, bleeding somewhere on his face and blinking blindly. He felt a second wind, this one rushing away from him. When his vision returned he saw only smoke and scorched earth and scattered, pulped flesh. James and the World Walkers were gone.

For a very long time no one moved. Finally Ethan climbed back onto his feet, feeling something sore stretch inside of him, and turned to Daniel. “The Overseer’s reign is over,” he said. He realized he was shouting above the ringing in his ears. “It failed. We’re at war with the Empire now. No one’s going to follow the program that let us reach this point.”

Daniel regarded him, his eyes still calculating. He looked at Ethan as if seeing him for the first time. At first Ethan didn’t recognize the new expression on his face. Then he realized it was admiration.

If that was indeed the case, it was misplaced. Ethan hadn’t been the one to kill the World Walkers. He had just made it possible.

Daniel leaned toward him. “There is no Overseer,” he said just loudly enough for Ethan and no one else to hear. “We weren’t strong enough to stand up to the Empire. We needed to come together to survive, and Enclave wasn’t ready to follow me. But they were willing to follow her.”

Ethan stared at him. Why was Daniel telling him this?

“You’re right,” Daniel continued. “After we blame this war on her, her rule will end. It’s time for us to assume control openly.”

Ethan still didn’t respond. Was he really suggesting sharing power? After Ethan had opposed him?

Contradictory thoughts warred in Ethan’s mind. But one in particular persisted: it was Daniel who had perverted Enclave’s mission, but Daniel who had kept Enclave’s citizens alive.

“You helped to bring this war,” Daniel said. “Now help me figure out how to end it.”

Ethan returned his gaze to the blasted ground in front of them. The past was gone. Its statues and its buildings and its artifacts. The Artificers believed they owned the future, but two of their World Walkers were dead. The future was open.

Ethan turned back to Daniel. “Get me out of these cuffs.”


BIO: Aaron’s stories have appeared in sub-Q Magazine, Jitter, Riding Light, and other publications. His interactive science fiction gamebook The Midnight Legion: Operation Deep Sleep, a collaboration with artist C. Aaron Kreader, was published in 2016. Find him online at