The Fiction

The Machine Is Perfect, the Engineer Is Nobody

From the Halloween, 2008, issue 

(No. 21)

Art by Ian Phillips
Ian Phillips

When she touches him, he flinches awake. Lying on a filthy mattress, he stares up at the low rock ceiling, listening to the sounds of machinery. Her breathing, close to his ear, blends with the mechanical sounds, nearly indistinguishable from one another.

“What do you think they’re doing out there? ” she asks.

He sighs. “We’ve been over this a thousand times. I don’t know what—”

“Yes, yes, but what do you think they’re doing? ”

He turns on his side, away from her.

Outside their little cave, gears grind, engines roar deep and throaty. The stench of oil exha ust permeates everything.

A few moments later, she touches him again. He does not flinch this time, does not respond at all. In all the time they’ve been here, she has not asked this question, has not had the courage to do so. But now she does, now she feels she needs to: “Are we going to die in here? ”

He turns back to her, cups her cheek with one hand, and kisses her gently. It is the first time they’ve kissed.

They fall asleep, their backs touching.

Four months ago, when they first arrived, they’d thought to escape through the small vent in the ceiling, but when they’d finally gotten the vent cover off and shined a lamp inside, they saw that the shaft went straight up as far as they could see. It probably only went up a dozen metres or so, but they had no way of getting a grip to climb up its metal sides, and it was small enough that either of them could’ve easily gotten stuck.

Piled in one corner of the cave was a supply of lamps and kerosene. In another corner they’d found canned food and bottles of water, stacked nearly to the ceiling. A toilet-sized hole was dug into the floor, in a tiny cul-de-sac, as far away from the bed as possible. As with the vent, they couldn’t see how far it extended. Within the first week, they’d run their hands over every inch of the walls, ceiling, and floor and could not discover how they’d gotten in. When they’d asked each other what they remembered about getting to this cave, neither could recall. One of them felt that the other was lying.

Several hours after kissing her, he gets up from the mattress, lights a kerosene lamp. Yellow-orange light dances on the walls until the flame settles. The vent in the ceiling flaps with the strength of the wind outside.

He looks into the corners of the room, these corners that used to be completely stuffed with food, water, and kerosene. Now only four bottles of water and six cans of food sit in one corner; two containers of kerosene are left. He goes back and sits on the edge of the mattress with a can of food and a bottle of water. He pulls his utility knife from his belt, cracks the can open, pulls up the edge of the lid, and scoops out the beans with his fingers, shovels them into his mouth. He hopes she doesn’t wake up to see him eating a whole can to himself in one sitting.

When he finishes the beans, he neatly and quietly stacks the empty can in another corner of the cave. He sits back on the mattress, facing her, and sips his water. She stirs when he sits, knuckles her eyes, turns, and grins sleepily at him.

“What’s for breakfast? ” she asks.

He smiles briefly, but it quickly slips. “There’re only five cans left.”

She yawns, sits up, says, “You don’t have to tell me. I know.”

They are both so thin that their cheeks are sunken and their vertebrae poke through their thin black shirts.

“Do you want to talk about the kiss? ” he asks. Despite their situation, he still, absurdly, blushes.

“What is there to talk about? ” she says. “It was nice. Isn’t that enough? ”

His eyes fall to the floor. “Well, what I mean is—”

She suddenly brushes past him, picks up a can of beans, holds it at arm’s-length in his direction. “Can you please open this? ”

He has had control of the utility knife the entire time they’ve been here. Now he pulls it from his belt, extends his arm toward her, palm open, upturned. She looks at him strangely for a moment, then gently takes the knife from his hand.

Later, they are lying on the mattress, trying to sleep, but both wide awake. The machines pound and they pound and they pound. Sometimes small bits of rock fall from the ceiling, sprinkling them, their mattress, the floor. It is one of the only things that makes this experience real to her. She says, “If that vent just goes straight up and out, why can’t we ever see daylight when we look up it? It doesn’t make any sense. I don’t understand.”

He waits a moment before he responds, fiddles with his watch—the watch that tells the time and date. The number twenty-two sits in the little window, on its way to twenty-three. Glancing at the remaining supplies, he knows they probably won’t live to see much of next month.

“We don’t ever see daylight when we look up the shaft because the daylight is gone,” he says. “It’s gone.”

They sleep again, but this time their backs do not touch.

A couple of days later, eating and drinking, trying to ration what little they have left. They sit on the bed, cross-legged, facing each other. The man thinks of it as their attempt at creating a civilized dinner-table situation. The woman simply sees it as heartbreaking and squalid.

“What did you mean when you said the daylight is gone? ” the woman asks, licking beans from her fingertips.

“I mean the daylight is gone; it no longer exists,” the man answers. He does not look at her when he speaks.

“So what happened? Does it have something to do with the machines outside? Or maybe something to do with what they’re digging for? ”

“I don’t know. I really don’t.” He wipes bean sauce off the inside of the can with his index finger, angling it so he doesn’t cut himself on the sharp edges.

“Sometimes I feel like you’re not telling me something.”

The man finally looks up from his can. “Like what? ”

“I don’t know.” She reaches a hand out, touches his knee lightly. “You wouldn’t hide anything from me, would you? We’re in this together, aren’t we? I want to think that I can trust you.”

The man grins a little, touches the woman’s hand with his own. He plays with her fingers like they’ve known each other for years, gently stroking the tops, curling down to slide under her palm. His familiarity simultaneously excites and disturbs the woman.

“Yes. Yes, we’re in this together. I’m glad you think so. I really am. I know I haven’t said it before, but I’m very happy you’re here with me.”

Something about the phrasing of this statement makes the woman pull her hand away from the man. “Happy you’re here with me,” she thinks. “What does that mean? ”

Something like suspicion crawls across her scalp, settles deep at the base of her skull.

When they fall asleep, one of her hands is curled into a tight fist, nestled next to her heart; the other hand wraps around the fist, pulsating in time with the grind of the machines.

He is awakened by more pounding, but this time it’s much closer and not nearly as deep. Not the bone-rattling pounding of the machines outside, but a machine inside—or at least very nearly inside.

He springs from the bed—a movement he wouldn’t have thought himself capable of any more—and reaches down to his belt for his utility knife. “Fuck,” he thinks. “I knew I shouldn’t have—”

“Here,” she says. “Calm down, it’s right here.” Awake now, too, she hands him the knife. He snatches it from her hand, flicks open the longest blade with his thumbnail.

The noise comes from beneath them. A drill. Louder with every passing moment. The floor shakes. He is very aware of the knife in his hand, his thumping heart, blood pounding through his system. She yells something at him from where she sits on the bed.

“What?!” he bellows back, the floor now buckling. The faint outline of a manhole-sized circle forms.

She takes a deep breath and shouts, “I said, why do you want to kill this person? Maybe he’s here to rescue us. What’s wrong with you? What’s wrong with you? ”

The tip of the enormous drill finally breaks through, scattering pieces of rock across the floor of the cave. The drill then recedes. Muttering voices as it’s passed from the driller down to someone below him. The driller tentatively pops his head into the cave. He eyes the man and the woman in the room. He raises himself up a little more, bringing a gun into view.

For nearly a half-minute, no one says anything. Just heavy breathing, wild-eyed stares, and the sounds of the machinery growling outside the cave walls.

Then: “Nearly out of water, I see,” the driller says. He’s wearing a heavily scuffed hard hat and dark goggles. “Food, too.”

The man with the knife just stares, still in defensive posture.

The woman speaks: “Are you here to rescue us? We’ve been here for so long.”

The driller does not look at her.

“Sir,” he says. “We have to get you out of here. They’re getting closer. They’ve nearly drilled down to where they think it is. But they’re getting bizarre readings, indications of something no one expected to find this deep and—”

“I’m not leaving,” the man with the knife says.

The woman’s brow furrows. “What are you talking about? And what is he talking about?!” She moves her head in the direction of the driller. “What is this ‘sir’ shit?! What’s going on here? What—”

“Dr. Farrid, listen,” the driller says, cutting the woman off. He steps up out of the hole in the floor, kicks aside chunks of rock to get a firm foothold. “We don’t have time for this. We need to leave now. They’re getting close, and I know you wanted to see it, but—”

Farrid steps forward quickly, pushes the knife out in front of him, hisses through clenched teeth, “I’m not. Fucking. Leaving. I need to see this. I need to know what it is. And do not say my name again, understood? ”

“Sir,” the driller says, clearly intimidated, even though he holds the gun. “No disrespect intended, but these are orders from higher up—higher than both of us. We need to get you to a safe place, somewhere through the service tunnels, maybe to the first check post, where we can—”

Farrid steps forward quickly, slashes the knife across the driller’s throat as hard and as fast as he can, then steps back. Blood bubbles out of the driller’s neck, his eyes wide, throat gurgling. He drops his gun, slumps forward onto the floor. Twitches once, and is silent.

Farrid pockets the knife, picks up the driller’s gun, points it at the woman’s face. “Not one sound, do you hear me? Not one sound.”

But the woman isn’t thinking about speaking or screaming, or making any other sounds. Only one thought runs through her mind: “He kidnapped me. He kidnapped me. He kidnapped me.”

Someone calls up from below: “Derek? Everything all right, brother? What’s going on up there? ”

Another few moments of silence as the man below waits for an answer that will never come. Then booted feet clanging on metal ladder steps, coming up. Farrid points the gun at the hole, but keeps his eyes trained on the woman.

The man, far from expecting to see his colleague’s dead body, comes up fairly quickly through the hole, glances at the woman and Farrid before casting his eyes down to see his fallen partner. Shocked, his mouth just flaps a couple of times, then his hand instinctively reaches for the gun on his belt.

“Don’t,” is all Farrid says, shaking his head once.

The woman, finally finding her voice, says, “Why did you do this to me? We don’t know each other. I don’t understand.” Her hands flutter like curious butterflies at her sides. “Why did you do it? What sort of sense does it make to—”

Farrid motions with his gun at the woman, speaks to the man: “Take her. Go.”

There is fury in the man’s eyes, a tightness around his lips. He wants to go for his gun. Farrid sees that he desperately wants to try. Farrid shakes his head again. “I will shoot you both before you even get your revolver halfway out of its holster, son. Just take the girl and leave me. I’m sorry about your friend. Really, I am. I did not mean for things to turn out like this.”

Farrid sees wetness on the man’s eyelids. The face hardens further. Farrid squeezes the trigger a little, sensing movement of the man’s hand toward his holster. Then the man’s eyes drop to his friend again; they remain there for a few moments before he lifts them to the woman. Frightened, confused. Her breath comes in hitches. The man holds his hand out to her. The butterflies at the ends of her arms settle a little. One of the woman’s hands comes up slowly, then, before her and the man’s fingers touch, she says quietly, “Are you here to rescue me? You’re here to save me, aren’t you? ”

The man does not react, just keeps his hand out for her to take.

The woman takes the man’s hand, steps over the blood-soaked body of the driller, focuses her attention on Farrid once more. “Liar. Murderer,” she says.

Farrid nods.

The woman’s lip trembles, but she does not cry.

Outside, the machines seem closer, the earth shaking more than at any other time since he’s been here. Concerned voices drift down the airshaft. Farrid cannot make out the words, only the tone. Curiosity. Fear.

The man steps out of the hole, moves aside, helps the woman find the top rung of the ladder several feet down. Once she’s safely on her way, the man lowers himself to the top rung, locks eyes with Farrid, says, “I’m taking the body.”

Farrid nods again.

The man pulls his friend’s legs toward him, manoeuvres them so they’re aligned with his back, rests the torso on his shoulder in a fireman’s lift. He descends slowly with the body, making sure not to bump the head on anything.

Farrid lowers the gun, stares at the red streak of blood leading to the hole, the congealing pool a few feet away, the flecks spattered across the jumbled rocks.

“Liar. Murderer,” he thinks, and knows the truth of it, but is unable to dig from himself anything resembling remorse.

Farrid picks his way through the rocks to the stained mattress, sits down softly. For a brief moment, he imagines the gun in his mouth, the knife sliding along his wrists. He feels this is what he should be thinking about, but he is not. He is thinking only of what the machines have found. What he has waited his whole life to see.

The ground suddenly shakes like a bomb has gone off. The kerosene lamp flickers out. Darkness wraps him in a stifling blanket. He cannot breathe, but he does not want to breathe; he wants only to see it, hear it, feel it near him. If he can just have a taste of its presence, this will all have been worth it.

The machines outside suddenly stop, every one of them powering down. The silence is enormous, as if all life on the planet has suddenly been vacuumed out into space. It fills Farrid’s ears, his heart, his mind. Batters at his skull to get out. Then a massive throbbing sound, of blood pumping through gigantic veins.

“They found it,” he thinks. “They found it, and it’s alive.”

He feels it awaken, senses its life in his mind, through his entire body. It cries out, once—a deep, lonely, mournful sound. It does not want to be here. It does not belong.

Farrid is the only one who hears it.