Short story: The Machine – by Ned Alexander
©2016, Ned Alexander, all rights reserved
1 – The Awakening
William sat up in bed suddenly aware of the light oozing across the bedroom ceiling. The gentle hum of an approaching vehicle quietened then there was a pause as the vehicle lowered itself down and “crunched” as it gently bedded itself into the gravel driveway. William turned to alert his wife but now realised that she had clearly already awoken and made her way downstairs. The door to the bedroom slid quickly to one side as she appeared, looking agitated.
“William get up. Officers from the ministry are here. They state they’re here about ‘the experiments’?”
Understandably nervous, William said nothing but quickly stood and pushed past her as he rushed to mitigate the problem. As he turned to descend the stairs he saw two armed sentries looking up at him, weapons drawn.
“Professor Xander, we have instructions to escort you to the ministry. Will you comply?”
William barely glanced down at the drawn weapons. “But it’s the middle of the night officer, what’s this all about?”
The lead sentry calmly raised its weapon and aimed it directly at him. “Do you comply?!”
“Yes. I comply…I comply!” snapped William.
Professor Slezinga appeared at the bottom of the stairs accompanied by a ministry official who addressed the sentries. “That’s quite alright officers. I’m sure Professor Xander has more sense than to run. You may return to the transporter and wait for us there.”
Without hesitation, both officers obediently re-holstered their weapons, turned and moved back toward the front door.
“Thank you officers. We appreciate your intervention in this matter and will be out shortly.” The official turned to William again. I’m sorry Professor but your immediate presence has been requested at the Ministry.
William shot a glance at Professor Slezinga but, seeing his expression, he quickly looked back at the official so as not to cause himself to panic. “Sir, it is the middle of the night. The Ministry systems will not be activated until next-cycle. What point is there in going there now?”
The official paused, almost troubled at having to carry out his instructions. “The council has called an emergency session. Chancellor Grayze is en-route there now to personally preside over the proceedings.”
William looked down at the floor. “Oh God…they know.” After a short pause, he turned to his wife again who was still standing, still not fully alert, in the doorway to the bedroom. Her face silently asked questions and William knew the painful answers that would have to be revealed. “Mar-yu, I’m sorry. I need to go.”
“What should I do? What’s happening? Are you in some sort of trouble?”
William did not speak but nodded apologetically.
As the now-full transporter lifted just above the ground and settled into hover mode, it spun and turned towards the driveway. Beams of deep red spewed from the rear lights causing the outlines of Mar-yu and her accompanying sentries to glow against the night sky.
Inside the rear passenger compartment, Professor Slezinga rocked gently backwards and forth for a few seconds before turning to William. “They know. William, this is really bad. We could be in serious trouble here. I told you this venture would lead us to…”
William snapped a stern look towards his crumbing colleague. “That’s enough Lars. Say nothing more.” Though outwardly he appeared reasonably calm, inside William was frantically attempting to calculate how their work had been discovered and was also considering the many other unprepared-for variables that may have led them to their present predicament. One thing William did know however was that if Lars had lapsed their security protocols then at least it was not deliberate as he too was now being treated as an adversary of the state.
The transporter continued to hum gently as it slid along the dark country roads heading inevitably towards the city. By the rear doors, the Ministry official sat silently without expression as he stared unblinkingly in the dim light.
2 – The Charge
As William was escorted through the short tunnel and out into the huge circular courtroom he automatically stopped for a moment, unsettled by its uncharacteristic emptiness. One of the sentries responded by pushing its weapon into his back and he quickly shuffled forwards toward the witness stand. He turned to look around the room, most of which was in darkness, and saw only two judges, the Chancellor, himself, Professor Slezinga and the public prosecutor who was standing quietly to one side almost as if staying respectfully and obediently out of the way.
Between the witness stand and the judges’ bench a circle of lower flooring, where bombastic Lawyers and verbose Barristers were able to strut during normal proceedings, was also dimly lit.
The Chancellor looked over the edge of the bench down toward William who was still none the wiser as to his need to attend the court at such a late hour and in such unusual circumstances. The Chancellor then slowly leaned backwards again and paused, almost as if trying to think of a way to avoid the need for the inevitable conversation that was about to take place. After a short while his stoic expression appeared again over the bench and he stared quite deliberately down toward the witness stand.
The Chancellor’s age was beginning to show as he addressed William with a voice that was deep and gravelly. “Professor Xander, are you aware of the reasons for which you have been summoned here in this late hour?”
“No Sir, I am not.”
The Chancellor glanced at the sentries with silent reproach. “Professor, you have been brought before this council this evening to answer to the charges of being an apostate.”
William flinched but quickly controlled himself. He looked sideways at Professor Slazinga who was waiting to one side now bookended by sentries. Williams’ thought processes slowed as the realisation that their work must have been somehow compromised or discovered began to quickly sink in. After a short pause to collect his thoughts he looked back up at the Chancellor. “What exactly is it that I am accused of, Sir?”
The Chancellor subtly shook his head. “Professor Xander, please. It is the middle of the night. I’m a great admirer of your works so please let us not insult each other’s…intelligence and let’s instead skip this obligatory preambling verbal dance and get to the point. Shall we? It is only because you are so highly regarded by the state that we are even able to have this informal discussion. The courts’ initial response to this discovery was to have your termination ordered. However, I believe that your works in quantum technologies and micro-hydraulics has given hope to so many and has vastly improved the lives of…well, millions…and it is for these works that you have this courts’ thanks…and my respect. You are perhaps our finest Professor of engineering. However, I have but a few hours to convince the rest of the court that your contributions to society are important enough to allow us to overlook this lapse in judgement…”
William motioned forward slightly as if to automatically defend his judgements but then thought better of it.
“Professor Xander, your fantastic theories that we somehow evolved from ancient machines were once considered merely eccentric. Now these suggestions have begun to cause disquiet among citizens. Only this past week, high priest Yedza was forced to cut short his annual test of solitude to address heretic whispers that had become loud strong enough to reach as far as his secluded temple.”
William, aware that his works could finally overturn the dictatorial teachings of the Church, but also aware of how closely he had come to termination, remained acquiescently silent.
“And now what is most disturbing of all…is that, despite the teachings, you were, and are…correct. And now we are forced to clean up this malignant mess that has been left strewn behind this public folly of yours.” The Chancellor turned to one of the sentries guarding the Courtroom doors. “Officer, bring in the machine please!”
Williams’ head turned to look toward the door. He had not known whether or not the machine had been discovered but assumed that, had his labs been raided, the machine would have been automatically purged from existence upon its discovery. Unable to think clearly he was suddenly and soberingly aware that, if the machine were to be brought into the courtroom, then there could be no disputing his claims. He was then suddenly all too aware that this meant there might be no way for the court to resolve this situation without losing face which placed him and Professor Slezinga in a more precarious position.
3 – The Machine
As the doors slid softly to one side the sentry stepped forward into the courtroom. The machine that it dragged by ropes into the courtroom slowly leaked age-thinned hydraulic fluid that soaked into the dark wooden flooring. The machine creaked and groaned as what appeared to be its limbs, bent and buckled.
Professor Xander looked up at the Chancellor in silent anticipation of his acceptance of what was clearly now an undeniable truth.
The Chancellor said nothing for what seemed like a very long time. “Where did you and Professor Slezinga find this contraption?”
“Sir, might I say for the record that Professor Slezinga was merely working under my instructions and at no time…”
“Professor Xander there will be no records of this hearing. Just stick to the questions at hand please. Now, I will ask you again, where was it that this contraption was discovered?”
“In an abandoned mining facility just outside of New London Megacity.”
“And how many people are aware of its existence?”
William paused for a moment deciding the likelihood of being able to safely withhold this information. “Myself, Professor Slezinga, one other lab assistant and two civilians who discovered the machine. I assure you however that these two civilians were rewarded very handsomely for their discretion.”
“Regardless, we will in due course need their identities.” The Chancellor, visibly disturbed, stared disapprovingly at the damaged machine. “It looks so much like us.”
“Then you accept the possibility that…”
“This court accepts nothing yet Professor Xander. I have merely stated the fact that this contraption was clearly built to resemble us.”
“But Sir, this machine is over four hundred thousand years old. That has been proven without any possibility of error. Surely this contradicts the whole doctrine of the church! Sorry, but this must prove…”
“PROFESSOR!” The Chancellor pointed down at William struggling to reconcile his anger at such suggestions with the sight of the irrefutable evidence before him. “Take care, Sir. This court is held on borrowed time.”
“But Sir, it looks like us…it even moves like us. Since it was removed from the ice we have repaired and replicated its’ workings as best we can and we even believe it might be able to communicate in some rudimentary form.”
Confounded, the Chancellor seethed in silent turmoil before hissing, “But this abominations’ existence brings into question…that is…the Church teaches us that Hayther the creator came down upon the land and with bolts of lightning gave birth to the first life. This is the truth that binds us, holds us together as a society. Without the teachings there would be no law…no order…no…”
“But sir, we would adapt. We clearly have before.” William pointed down at the machine that was slowly sinking down to the ground having lost too much fluid and was now lacking energy reserves.
“ENOUGH! Enough! This lie cannot be permitted to find its’ way to the ear of the populace! Sentries, remove this abomination, have it destroyed!”
“But sir! Please! Scientific truth, however ugly or uncomfortable to bare, must never be…”
The machine let out one final groan as, having been pulled too hard by one of the sentries, one of its’ limbs broke then tore off. A large pool of deep red hydraulic fluid gushed from tubes ruptured from within its’ workings.
Despite being unable to deny the facts laid quite evidently before him the chancellor had but one choice. “Professor Xander let this be an end to your folly. Let this be…”
“For the safety of your wife…and for the sake of your fellow colleagues…let this be an end to it!”
William deflated slightly and, being aware that his reputation would, and could, only protect him so much, he resigned himself, for the sake of his loved ones, to desist and comply.
With a heavy pump, the chancellor lifted his gavel and slammed it firmly against its block. “It is the decision of this court that Professor Xander be taken for psychiatric reassignment. It is however in appreciation of Professor Xanders’ works and in recognition of the fact that his actions were out of shear folly and was without malice that the court also confirms that only facts pertaining to the existence of this contraption be stripped and his personality and cognitive abilities be left fully intact.”
William barely nodded his appreciation, stood upright and rested his hand against the side of the witness stand rail. He glanced down at his sleek metal hand and thought, for what might be the last time, of the soft fragile fingers of the machine as it disappeared out of the courtroom door.
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