The Machine Below
by Christian J. Simpson
Part 1 appears
in this issue.
Now he saw a stray dog trotting through the park he had stopped by. It looked to be in a poor state, unwell, its fur sparse, its eyes dulled and sad. Paul was sure there was not much life left in the creature; it was reducing to nothing and was ready to give up. It moved laboriously, always stooped, looking down at the floor, never at anything, as though there was no longer anything in the world that could possibly be of interest to him now that he knew food was fiction, a myth, a construct of his starved and malicious mind.
Paul understood that animals should be treated with kindness and that their lives were as precious as any others’; this was a theory that society in general supported. He knew there was something of a moral dilemma in feeding a living dog to a mechanical device. But the dog was ill; it had been mistreated and ignored, brought into this world by a humanity that had left it to die in this terrible way. The last kindness it deserved was to put out of its misery; and to this end Paul could assist.
From red to amber to green and with Paul’s deliberation concluded, he parked his car and, after removing a steak from a bag in the boot, he jogged through the park gates, called to the dog and waved the meat above his head once the animal had come into sight.
The dog’s attention returned from abstraction to reality. Its focus lifted, it moved forward, cautiously sniffing the air, eyeing Paul distrustfully. But the dog awoke from his delirium quickly once the scent of the meat had threaded through his sensitive sinuses and, in a frenzy, it ran bounding at the man, who turned and ran from the big, hungry dog.
Following the park pathways, over wetted leaves and through a fine mist of rain they ran, down a slippery ancient path, out through the gates, and on down the road to his home, with the dog bounding up at the hand holding the steak with nipping jaws all the way.
Inside his house, Paul held the steak above his head as the dog leapt up, his paws hitting Paul in the chest. He asked the dog if it wanted the steak, and it jumped and yapped as if to say, ‘Yes, yes, yes!’ Paul threw the steak down the chute, and the dog hopped inside.
The chute door slammed shut violently. The machine below had already woken. The dog whined and scampered, its claws scraping rapidly inside the machine, until thankfully it slid down into the silence of the belly of the beast.
* * *
Weeks passed before the machine began to cause Paul trouble again and, as before, the machine began to play on his mind. It became the first thing he thought about when he woke up and the last thing that, persistent and irritating, kept him awake. And when he finally did drift off late in the night, it crept into his dreams, tainting them nightmarish and surreal. He became like a mindless simulacrum, walking through life, nodding and yessing when required. As the bags below his eyes grew darker, the bags below the chute in his kitchen grew more numerous.
Whilst Paul was stumbling through this foggy world, the doorbell rang one morning. He admitted the smartly dressed fellow who stood at his door: gangly, tall, clean-shaven, a serious expression frozen on his face and his eyes squeezed into a piercing glare.
Paul asked who he was, but Paul only heard the first word uttered by the stranger: ‘Inspector.’ A policeman!
The Inspector read out the charges distractedly, his eyes tick-tocking from room to room, wall to wall. Paul gripped his stomach, wobbled on his heels, and bit his lip. The Inspector walked through the rooms of Paul’s new house, commenting as he went about the interesting things he saw.
But Paul heard no more and could only wonder how they knew. He’d been so sure he had committed the perfect crime, how could a company worth billions miss a couple of million stolen bit by bit over the course of months?
Why hadn’t the Inspector slapped on the cuffs already? He held them so loosely in his hand as though they were only for show — a gesture, a prop — but, when he stopped his internal whimpers and listened to the man, Paul discovered that the Inspector was not talking about him or his crimes. He was gesticulating with his long spidery arms hither and thither, pointing at this, slapping down hard on that. He was declaring his love of gadgets, confessing his love of the new, and explaining his unfulfilled desire to own an expensive home.
The two men walked into the main lounge. The Inspector asked Paul how he’d like to see all his troubles go away. ‘For a small fee, I’ll go away and you might never see me again,’ he said, before intoning how the artwork was an amazing example of Cubism, whilst Paul, beyond bewildered, could only twitch and hold on to the back of his long grey sofa for support.
They then moved through the hallway, into the wide-open expanse of kitchen, where the Inspector said, ‘I’ve never seen a cooker like it. Do you use it? It doesn’t look like you have,’ before he stooped and twisted knobs and swung open oven doors one after the other.
‘So what do you say, do we have a deal?’ he asked as he turned left, then right, and moved to the chute of the terrible machine.
Paul’s twitch became a full shaking fit when the policeman exclaimed he knew exactly what it was and how it worked. Paul tried to forget the idea that formed then, but he couldn’t, it was insistent, was over powering — if the policeman looked inside then Paul would have to do it. Why couldn’t he just lose interest and arrest him?
Miraculously, the policeman opened the chute and asked Paul, ‘Do you mind if I take a look inside?’ He ducked inside without waiting for an answer, exclaiming, ‘Wow; see that bit there? That’s the cutting-edge intelligence unit...’
Paul grabbed the inspector’s ankles and lifted him up — finding him surprisingly light — and, without any resistance, without uttering a word, the man slid into the machine, and the chute slammed shut. Paul fell to the floor then, not daring to breathe as he listened, waiting for the machine to start again.
* * *
Within his ample closet sanctuary — or perhaps purgatory — Paul sat for hours after the machine started up. The sound of its terrible, raucous greed travelled to him through various routes so that even when he had his ears covered tightly, the horror kept out by the pressure of his palms, the vibrations of its masticating travelled up from below, through his seat and into his bones, which shook him so that he feared he was going mad.
But it had been far worse when the Inspector had screamed and banged and begged, which seemed to go on for hours, though it could have lasted only for minutes. Each desperate entreaty of the Inspector’s knotted Paul’s stomach, caused him to breathe so deeply that he feared his lungs might rupture, and when Paul felt as though he could not take any more, that he was sinking deeper and deeper into opaque brown seas, the screaming stopped and the machine began.
It had continued for hours. Now Paul had absorbed the facts he was unsure what exactly he feared most: was it his impending capture, eternal imprisonment, or was it the thing that shook his hands, caused him to shake brandy up into his nose every time he raised the glass bottle to take a drink?
He reassured himself that the policeman had been corrupt, had been the only one who knew of Paul’s guilt. Perhaps he deserved to die? Certainly he hadn’t been suitable to hold the official position he had held. Oh, but he felt no better thinking like this; these ramshackle conclusions did nothing to assuage the feeling that he had. The feeling, he realised, was guilt.
So he wasn’t such a bad person after all; he did have a conscience. It was just a pity he hadn’t realised sooner how bad it could feel, perhaps just after he had stolen money for the first time. Had the guilt manifested itself then, he might have known how terrible it could be to feel this way, how it never relented, without a second’s reprieve. Had he had a taste of guilt before, then who was to say, the dog might still be alive; so, too, the Inspector.
But through the consideration there was a small doubt that it wasn’t just guilt or fear alone. Was he tied to some terrible nightmare’s child, who, dependent on him forever, would need to be fed again and again?
* * *
A great banging reached Paul’s ear, pulling him out of himself and his torturous contemplations. The sound of tearing and splintering of wood followed, and Paul’s reaction was to jump from his spot on the floor and grab the door handle. He felt sure it was the machine coming for him. He waited with his ear pressed against the wooden door, unable to hear over the rasping of his lungs and the hammering blood pulsing trough his ears.
Could it be? he asked himself over and over, but he heard a familiar voice and the relief he felt was pathetic, he slid to the floor and began to weep. The machine had a safety hatch; he recalled it clearly swinging above his head the day the engineer had lost his hand.
The Inspector was alive, he’d fallen through the hatch and had now broken down his front door to arrest him. That must be the voice calling him: ‘Paul, I know you’re hiding. You’re under arrest for attempted murder.’ And though he was in trouble, he was more than happy to accept the handcuffs now; no one had died, the Inspector and the dog had not been eaten by the machine.
He stood slowly, laughing weakly at his own stupidity, shakily finding his feet and turned the handle of the closet door, calling out, telling the Inspector that he was sorry, that he’d be no more trouble, but what he saw then in what was left of the kitchen caused him to retreat to the dark corner of the closet again.
His kitchen had been destroyed, its floor torn up, shards and splinters of joists and flooring pointing up to the ceiling like stalagmites. The machine had adapted, had climbed through from the garage below and now stood on improvised legs, waiting, the head of the Inspector hanging from its poorly fabricated arm, tubes and wires hanging from the severed Inspector’s throat.
The Inspector’s jaw trembled before it dropped open. His voice clearly spoke again: ‘Paul, I need you. Bring more of them to me.’
Copyright © 2014 by Christian J. Simpson