Feeding the Machine

1

The moment I laid eyes on the new start, I knew he wasn’t going to last. Half of it was the look on his eyes. The other half was the look on everyone else’s eyes when they watched him. He wasn’t fitting in. Not saying the right things. Not doing the right things.

A lot of people don’t make it in this line of work. Not many minds can stand being a quarter of a mile underground for twenty-four hours a day, five days a week, lit only by bare hanging bulbs and the occasional beam from a torch. Those who aren’t quite right in the head, or those like me who have felt nothing inside themselves for far too long – we are the ones who stay at our post. Often until we are too old to work, or until we expire.

And there’s the atmosphere too. The horrid gloom that we work within. Even in my apathy I can taste it. The darkness that nestles within the oily depths of the shadows. The dull throb that resonates through the caverns. The machine that rumbles like an empty stomach - the hungry machine. The heat too, emitted from its insides. Torrid sometimes. Worse after twelve hours of working in the same suit collecting sweat, oil and dirt. And sometimes piss. Then wearing it again the next day. Then for the next year.

My suit smells terrible. Everyone’s does. The tough leather is falling apart. But we are all used to it. Used to moribund tools. Used to safety equipment that is a hazard in itself. Used to the smell of ancient piss and shit. Hardly even notice it. Only made aware of it when a newbie comes down the cargo elevator twitching his nose and pretending the reek doesn’t bother them. They all do that. Then they either get used to it or lose their job. Back up the cargo elevator, or worse.

Those workers with strong morals, they never last. Always find themselves opposing what the job really entails - the reason we are all sweating and bleeding and sometimes dying down here. Through desperation they skip that part in the contract that warns them, and often find they have made a wrong choice. Some of them try to stay and slowly lose it. Others get out of there while they still have their heads.

It’s been God knows how long since I signed that contract. I used to work five days a week like all the new guys. Then I’d get on the cargo elevator on Friday night and head back up to the surface for some fresh air. But nobody goes on like that. You can’t look anyone in the face anymore knowing what you do down here. You find yourself paying for goods in shops with your eyes on your feet. Not answering your apartment door. Drifting away from anyone you were ever close to, or even vaguely knew. Then you find yourself taking overtime. Working a few weekends. Then a few more. The next thing you know you’re down here permanently. The beds are filthy but cheap. There is nothing special about the food, but it’s free and you don’t have to go through a cashier or waiter to get it. You don’t need to interact with anyone from above. You become like all of the other workers. A resident. Doomed to work to the end.

The caverns were not always like this. The conditions used to be good. The equipment working. The staff normal. But whatever darkness resides in the hungry machine soon spread to the workers, then to the management. And what exists at the top eventually channels down. Nobody ever sees those who run the place now. They operate in the shadows, behind closed grates. They are as faceless as the masked workers around me

It is the end of my shift and I have just entered my sleeping quarters which I share with twenty other workers. I tug at the leathers that encase me until they finally give. My filthy flesh is exposed to the others around me, all of them engaged in their own various activities. None of them notice my nudity. A locker slams shut beside me. The sound of painkillers clicking together. Peter, the newbie, sits on the edge of his bed, in his hand a novel. He has been on the same page for ten minutes now. Scanning over the same paragraph. Not taking in a single word. The cavern has begun to affect him. Darkening his mind a little and playing with his concentration. Last night he awoke gasping and glistening with sweat. As he scanned the other beds around him, his breathing hoarse but slowing, I pretended to be still asleep. Was he looking for someone to comfort him? To tell him everything would be alright? This wasn’t the place for that. I couldn’t think of anywhere further away.

Today his sclerae are pink and he seems a little dazed from lack of sleep. In the canteen he shares his table with five empty seats. More bare bulbs hang from the ceiling, flickering and trembling under the influence of distant machinery. They look like glowing orbs hanging from nooses. Around him other workers pass as though he is invisible. They gather in groups and watch him as he picks at his breakfast, disinterested. The whole thing feels familiar. I remember the same thing happening to me when I first started. The loss of appetite. Insomnia. Nightmares. The glaring. Maybe everyone encounters these symptoms in their first few weeks. Regardless, it’s what happens to you afterwards that counts. The change that takes place. You either pledge your loyalty to the machine, or become its enemy.

A lot of men and women get into trouble for speaking about this place on the surface. Big trouble. You just don’t do it. It’s in the contract, its words wrapping around you like the links of a chain. The penalty in bold somewhere amongst the oppressive paragraphs. Life imprisonment, or worse. You’ll go missing in your sleep and never be seen again. The punishment is so severe it’s almost worth staying away from the surface just in case the wrong words roll from your tongue by mistake. These tunnels are dark and wrong, but it is not as

though the surface of the Earth is without its problems. The world of love and charity and children and ambition is also the world of murders and famine and disease and rape and disappointment. It’s only because of beautiful celebrities on billboards and smiling newsreaders that the public are convinced everything is alright.

One weekend when I was walking the surface, an officer realised I had forgotten my identity card before I did. I was just walking around with an empty lanyard around my neck, completely oblivious. Just like everyone else who had no official identity, I was almost conscripted to fight against the Chinese. Luckily I managed to persuade him to come back with me to my flat so I could retrieve it. After a thorough examination of my genuine identity card and the confiscating of a twenty year-old bottle of whisky, the officer finally left me alone.

The cargo elevator is only open to employees twice a week. Once on Friday night, and once on Monday morning. I stayed in my apartment for the rest of the weekend, dying to be lowered into the ground again like a corpse. And to stay put like one.

2

I have no idea what day it is. Weekdays and weekends are all the same now. There is no rush hour traffic or quiet nights anymore. There is no rain or sunshine or snow or thunder as I pull myself from my bed. Just the feel of grubby leather as I pull my heavy suit over my naked body. Lockers slam shut and lungs are noisily cleared. Masks are pulled over expressionless faces. Then together we start the long march through the caverns to our designated working environment. Our feet crunch heavily into the ground in unison. We are all trained in most areas, but usually only end up working in one place. I operate the hungry machine from a side cavern. I thankfully don’t actually see the main thing, although I have done in the past. I see

only a small portion of it, a twisting and splicing knot of machinery that acts like a great organ for the terrible thing. My job is to make sure the metal keeps screaming and battering against itself and does not fail.

Today I am training Peter on how to work it. He seems a little less disorientated this morning, so I am assuming he has had a better sleep than usual. He has not yet seen the hungry machine. Not the full thing. They usually keep it to the second week of employment. I think he has been here four days. That could mean today is Thursday.

He acts sluggish and awkward as I show him how to operate the control panel. To me it is simple, but I can see he is having a hard time through the grubby eyeholes in his mask. Slowly, I repeat the procedure. He seems to understand this time, and is almost successful in emulating me. However, he still flounders. The metal screeches in disappointment at his failure. He seems worried, as though he is under some amount of pressure to succeed, and that this pressure is making the task more difficult. A hungry family back home perhaps. Or maybe it is the persistent glares from my colleagues that are unnerving him. As we try to tame the machine, I can see three of the other workers watching him motionlessly from behind. Their silhouettes flicker and jerk under the torchlight as though they are shapes tossed from a dying projector.

Concentrate. Clear your head, then try again. I’m trying. Not hard enough. You’re distracted. I’m sorry. I don’t mean to... Clear your head and watch me again. Closer this time. Right.

I go through the procedure a third time. He watches closely, intensely. Then he tries. Struggles. He pulls at the lever, tugs at the valve, bashes the dial with a dirty gloved finger smearing yet more grease across it. There is a great moan of old metal. The machine squeaks excitedly as it is

caressed from within, then fed with oil. Peter has done it. Just. Excess oil splashes over the floor. A black puddle like a sticky shadow. I kick dirt over it and take over. I nod at him and tell him to watch again. In half an hour’s time he is going to do it near-perfectly. In an hour he is going to be an expert.

I find myself growing impatient with Peter. He is too easily distracted. He tries to make conversation as I work. Tries to tell me about his wife and child. As though we are good workmates and that I care. Conversation rarely takes place in these caverns. Especially idle conversation. I ignore him, concerned only with the mechanics. This is no place to make friends. Silence, I tell him. Keep watching.

As I said, he is not going to pull through. This job is not for the likes of him. He does not belong amongst our dark ranks. His mind is too fragile. Perhaps he will leave before it is destroyed. A part of me wants to warn him, to tell him to go now before it is too late. Not out of pity or the good of my heart or anything - that part of me died a long time ago. Just to get him out of the way really. Because it feels as though teaching him is a waste of my time. And that it won’t be long until his replacement is standing in the same spot as he is.

I do not remember ever having anything to live for. My family were never really there for me as I grew up, and I was reclusive anyway. Always sticking to my room, lost in my own thoughts. My father was in the military. He died when I was in my teens. My mother was a lost soul after that. She despised me. Constantly compared my own pathetic efforts at life to her incredible husband. She threw me out of the house when I enquired that if he was so much better at life then me, then what was he doing lying in bits across some battlefield? I never saw her again after that. It never really bothered me. She could also be dead now for all I know.

I have never had a lover. Never held a woman in my arms aside from a geriatric who once collapsed on the same train that I was riding and later died of a heart attack. Never kissed or groped or fucked anything. Just masturbated a hell of a lot. Then I lost my libido. Felt my sex

drive drain from me like all my other emotions. Draining from me like blood from a wound until I was dead inside. Then I couldn’t care less about the opposite sex, or my dick. Not that I had a say really; I was never an attractive guy. I knew I was going to wind up dying alone. Started to accept it. Then I found myself here. Maybe this is my purpose. To live out my life as a drone.

I am torn from my thoughts by the wretched howling of a co-worker. I spin round in time to see a blur and the flailing of an arm as someone is dragged into the knotted machine. It only takes a few moments before they are completely devoured. Noisily burst and ground up. Then gone from sight. Oil spatters over the offending steel arms – the dead worker’s last command coating them in black as though covering up the murder. As though the incident was planned. A literal killing machine. Sentient and evil. The other workers do not rush to help, nor do they deactivate the machine. They just watch for a moment in silence, as though in a trance. The machine whines and stutters as though tearing through the thicker of the bones, collapsing the ribcage and pelvis and skull. Then it is as it was before. Screaming and clattering. The sound of knives being drawn across another. The workers resume their duties.

I turn back to machine. There is nothing I can do for the man now. Nothing anyone can do. I grip the valve on the machine and turn to my co-worker, ready to give him another command. I freeze as I take in what is in front of me.

Peter, frozen to the spot and glaring into the distance, has begun to mutter to himself.

3

I find out later that is was a woman that the machine ate. I had never even considered for a moment that it may not have been a man. Everyone looks masculine in their leather overalls

and under that expressionless mask; everyone looks the same. Even without protective clothing I hardly bat an eyelid. Women are always walking naked in their sleeping quarters, unnoticed and unappreciated, although occasionally two workers will fuck emotionlessly and aggressively between shifts. No one ever pays any attention though. It is only ever the new workers who watch their female colleagues with lustful eyes as the thick leather is peeled from their bodies, revealing a pair of dirty breasts and untended pubic hair. Just another method of distinguishing the cherries from the veterans.

A worker enters the sleeping quarters, waking me from my cold sleep. Soundlessly, he hands everyone a sheet of paper. I rub my eyes, then take one. It takes me a moment to process the words as I scan them over. I read the information several times in case I have processed it wrong. Unfortunately I haven’t.

I have been reassigned to feed the hungry machine. For the first time in years, I feel my heart jump. I feel the gastric juice in my stomach go cold and splash up its fleshy prison. I feel my spine jerk and tremble as though it is going to fall apart and leave me terrified and broken and immobile in this horrible place. Peter has also been reassigned. He does not seem to react to this news; he has not seen the hungry machine yet. Judging by his erratic behaviour over the past few days since witnessing our co-worker's death, seeing how the hungry machine works is going to send him over the edge.

I know I can handle it. I have done it before, but only just. And this is coming from a man who has felt hardly anything in at least ten years.

We enter the great cavern where it is so hot I instantly begin to sweat. The noise is deafening, a screaming and roaring of a thousand metal cogs and arms twisting and turning and scraping and smashing together as though the colossal machine is locked in eternal combat with itself. A million scythes being sharpened at once. As I peer over the balcony down at the chasm, I can see the source of the noise. An enormous skirmish of metal and flesh, a machine so vicious it

feels as though any moment a long steel arm may shoot out and pierce an unlucky worker and drag him back to its glimmering stomach. Amongst this even greater knot of metal, thick coral tissue, and the occasional glimpse of ivory. A tooth. Organic matter, nestled within the steel and iron. Fleshy orifices pulsating. Emanating heat and stench. Forever hungry.

And now it is time to feed it. Four of us twist the valves at either side of the large gate, whilst another ten pull its chains primitive-like. The great gate comes down heavily, spilling bodies into the shimmering mouth. Mothers, children, infants. Hundreds of them fall like ragdolls poured from a toybox. So many soundless figures toppling through the air. They are crushed and devoured within moments of meeting the metal. Torsos and skulls bursting and sinking into the steel teeth. Yanked into its depths. Fed into its fleshy components. Limbs dance and jerk like obscure sock puppets as though still alive, before sinking into the steel.

Peter is staring again. Over the chasm at the madness. Still mumbling too, although he does not sound as though he is at a loss. This time he sounds more aggressive. Angry at the machine. Cursing it. Never a good sign.

After watching the first batch of bodies being fed into the machine I am alright. My nerves have calmed down and I am back to my normal apathetic ways. It is always the same. I believe the suspense done more damage than the actual act. Soundlessly, we carry on working. Another bay is loaded up with the dead, then spilled onto the pneumatics where they are burst and swallowed again. We repeat this a further four times. By this point it is as easy as taking out the trash. So many bodies. Those dead from natural causes, diseases, murder, lethargy. All taken from their coffins and shipped down here. And the scraps from battlefields too. Splayed soldiers, hunks of torsos, tattered limbs. All crammed in a huge container to be fed to the machine like pet food.

Then I hear them in the next batch. I shake my head. Reject my emotions as I always do. As you need to do to get by in this line of work. I start twisting my valve again, knowing fine well that

this time it is not cadavers that we are feeding to the machine. I can hear their voices already as the gate falls heavily like a giant metal flap, hear their panic as the platform they stand on raises and tips them forward towards the edge. Worried murmuring. Then screaming. A hundred Chinese flailing helplessly as they fall towards the mechanics like birds too young to fly. Some of them still wearing their uniforms, some of them naked. Prisoners of war being torn up and spread across cogs and gears and pneumatics like machine grease. Their cries drowned out as they are drawn in. Open mouthed, they are swallowed. Disappearing rapidly until there is none left. Existing now only as memories and a meal for a steel stomach. For the pulsing, stinking thing concealed beneath all that vicious metal.

I do not know why we feed the machine, or what the fleshy thing is that huddles beneath the pneumatics. But I do know that it must be fed to keep the city alive. Without flesh it will starve. The machines and electricity and water will cease, and the population will begin to suffer.

It used to be animals that were fed to the machine, many years before I began. Nobody really batted an eyelid at that; we live in a second dark age where animal rights activists are laughed at. But it was discovered by accident that the machine reacted better to humans when an employee slipped and fell to his death. Apparently as he was rended amongst the machinery the lightbulbs glowed a little brighter for a moment. A throb of excitement. That's when the corpses came in. Who knows how the thing ended up being fed living humans? Perhaps the darkness spread to the surface. I can imagine some greedy government official signing his name callously at the promise of having more power for his city. The world is like that now.

Peter is shaking now. Weakly, he rubs the eyeholes in his mask in a gesture of disbelief. He does not have long left. His muttering has attracted the attention of one of the older workers. He stares at Peter through his mask, his body almost impossibly still. A predator watching his prey. Slowly, he approaches. I listen with my head down as he begins to speak. It is all I can do now.

You seem a little off, Cherry. Those people, they... Prisoners. The enemy. We’re doing our country a favour. You should recognise that. But they’re people. Still alive... The machine needs to eat, newbie, or the city dies. Corpses aren’t enough for it. It needs warm blood too. These guys have been shooting at our own people. Our soldiers. They deserve to die. Nobody deserves to die like this. You just keep your mouth shut and get back to work, Cherry. You’re thinking too hard. No! I won’t do it! Then go home. Go back to your bunk and sleep until Friday. Then get the elevator back home to your wife. Give her a fuck for me. Hell, cum on her face for me as well. Fuck you. I will be going home. But I won’t be going straight to my wife. I’ll be going to the police. I’ll tell them about all the horrible things that go on down here: you demented workers, the living conditions, and whatever the fuck that is we’re feeding! The police already know, you idiot. The government, everyone. They need this place or the city will die. The machine needs to be fed or everything will collapse. Don’t you understand? Then I’ll tell the media. I’ll make this public. It’ll be all over the TV. The world won't just sit by and let this happen. You better read over your contract again, Cherry. You could get in a lot of trouble with the way you’re talking right now. People with big mouths like yours always end up in a lot of trouble. They always scream the loudest too. You’ll go missing in the night. You’ll probably find yourself in a bunker fighting the nips. And a rat like you won’t be much good at fighting, I imagine. You’ll be too busy trying to make friends with the egg rolls. I can see you with your hands up in no time. Getting stuffed in a cage, then fed to a Chinese machine. Let’s see how good a pacifist you are when all that’s left of you is shreds of skin and bits of bone stuck in the nooks and crannies of a yellow machine. Fuck you. I’ll make sure you go down too. You’ll get hung in the city centre. Rats will pick at your eyes and fingertips. Wait, what are you...? Get off me!

It happened so fast I almost didn't catch it. The older worker has Peter in a painful headlock. It looks surreal, the two featureless mannequins struggling with another in the amber cavern. Despite his age, the older worker is much larger and stronger than Peter. It is no contest. Like an older brother bullying his younger sibling. I can hear the panic in Peter’s voice now that the physical boundaries have been broken. He now realises that a different system of justice operates down here. Already, others have come to help. But not to help Peter. They grab at him and haul him off his feet screaming. They tear at the leathers and his mask until he is a bare knot of limbs wriggling in terror. I watch as he is brought to the edge of the platform, completely helpless. His eyes meet mine, and he pleads for me to make them stop. I carry on watching in silence. It is almost sad. I am probably the closest thing he has to a friend down here. Unfortunately it is a one-sided friendship. A relationship that I do not have the ability to return. He is pleading with his assailants now. Begging them to spare him. But he is not amongst normal men. Not dealing with those who are familiar with pity or conventional justice. I cannot see their faces as they haul him over the balcony towards the machine. However I imagine their expressions are blank.

Peter leaves the world the way he came in. Naked and screaming for his mother. The pneumatics violently assimilate his body as he meets them. Almost instantly, having served the machine a final time, Peter is no more.

The gears and cogs groan for more meat. In silence, the workers resume their posts. Chains are pulled and valves are twisted. Then comes the howls of anguish from yet more Chinese as they are moved into place. As the gate swings open and the platform they stand on rises, again they spill like garbage across a landfill sight.

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