Within a Glass Sphere
Susan stared up at the enormous machine, towering over her head. It was a vast cube, a mile to a side, and constantly toiled, even when it had no assigned task. Gears could always be heard whirring within it, and smoke perpetually billowed from the gaping spouts that spotted its sides. No one knew how it worked (and not for lack of trying to figure it out), but the machine powered the entire planet. Coils of cable stretched for miles and miles and fought for a spot on the machine. No matter how far and no matter what they were connected to, the machine powered it all.
But that wasn't everything the machine did. Rumors said that it could do anything, that the Engineers who operated its obscure machinery knew how to turn its power to control the weather or transmute lead into gold. Legends said that in years past the machine had called down rain to fertilize the deserts, that the oceans had been turned into pure water without harming their inhabitants. Legends said that it could be turned to war as well, that it had been used to wipe clean the skies of invading planes and that it had turned armies on their masters. Legends called it the God Machine.
Whatever the case, the facts were these: a one-mile cube stood in Jerusalem, and cables stretched from it to power the world.
Susan was in awe, but she had work to do. She stepped forward and rapped smartly on the massive door that adorned the God Machine's eastern wall. After a moment, it hissed open, retracting into the ground, and she entered as the long line behind her grumbled. She ignored them. They, like her, had come to beg the Machine's power. Unlike her, though, they didn't have the blessing of the planetary government.
"Susan Edelman?" asked a slim Engineer.
"That's me," she confirmed.
"Come this way."
Susan followed the Engineer down a long corridor and into a larger room. It was spartan and gunmetal gray, just as the rest of the God Machine was. "I'm a little surprised," she commented. "You Engineers are some of the most powerful people in the world. I would have expected a little more... grandeur."
"Luxuries can be a dangerous thing inside the machine," said the Engineer. "Please wait here."
Susan waited in the room as the Engineer left.
Eventually, a different Engineer came to lead her down the only other corridor from the room. Finally, she arrived in a room with something other than blank gray walls - this room contained a desk, and a few papers lying across it, where a tall Engineer stood.
"Greetings, Mrs. Edelman," said the tall Engineer. "I'm Isaac Newton; I'm in charge of the machine. I understand you're an emissary from the planetary government?"
Susan was amazed to meet the Chief Engineer, and was speechless for a moment. Newton waited patiently while she sputtered, and eventually Susan managed to speak.
"Ah, yes. We have a request to make of the machine. Er, of the Engineers, that is."
"Mrs. Edelman, you are the Prime Minister of England, please don't stutter like a schoolgirl," Newton said sternly. "Make your request."
Susan nodded, blinked, and spoke. "Astronomers at the Royal Academy of Science have detected activity within the Sun's core," she said, falling back on the script her advisers had provided her. "They tell me it’s running out of fuel sooner than expected, and will begin to expand soon. Within ten years average temperatures will have increased by a degree and within half a century the ice caps will melt."
"I see," said Newton impassively. "And we are asked to...?"
"Solve it," Susan pleaded. "We don't know the capabilities of the machine because you won't tell us, but do something!"
"Sir," murmured the shorter Engineer, who had led Susan to the room. "We have the power capabilities to move the planet outward in orbit. If we do it right..."
"I have a better suggestion, Mr. Newton," a melodic bass said, echoing forth from the walls, "If I might make it in private?"
"BAAL," Newton said, "The machine's artificial intelligence."
"Isn't Baal another name for the devil?" Susan asked.
Newton shrugged. "The builders had a sense of humor, I suppose. It stands for Binary Advisory and Administration Legion. BAAL handles most of the paperwork we have, as well as, well, advising."
"Where does the 'legion' part come from?"
"As I understand he's a distributed intelligence," said Newton. "A multitude of programs running throughout the machine, which is why he's called a legion. Or so I've always assumed. I'm not an expert on BAAL - I'm better at the actual mechanics of the machine."
"Now, if you'll excuse me a moment, I'll confer with BAAL."
Newton stepped out into the corridor, and a moment later a panel hissed down from the ceiling to close off the room from the corridor. Susan felt a touch of panic for a moment before she realized that the other Engineer was still in the room with her and didn't seem alarmed at all.
After a few minutes, the panel slid up again, and Newton stepped back in, a wide smile on his face. "You may inform the planetary government," he said, "that the problem will be solved at exactly midnight tonight. Tell them I suggest watching the sky - it should be quite interesting. And, lastly, you should probably increase the funding for astronomic institutes. They'll have a lot of work to do."
Newton laughed as if at some private joke, and walked off. The other Engineer stood as well.
After a moment, he hesitated. "I'm supposed to lead you out," said the Engineer. "But you can find your own way, right? It's that corridor," pointing to the one they had entered from, "and there are no turn offs."
"I can make it out," Susan agreed, and watched, breathlessly, as the Engineer walked off down the third corridor, the one that Newton hadn't gone down. Immediately, Susan dashed off after Newton. It would be a death sentence if she was caught, but a chance to see the God Machine in action was more than worth it.
Newton didn't seem to notice her as she followed behind the tall man, taking the same turns through the winding corridors. It took nearly ten minutes, but eventually Newton arrived at a door, which he swung open and stepped through. Susan grabbed it before it clicked shut and silently slipped inside.
"Looks like we're not just leeching today, boys!" Newton called as Susan looked around. The room they had arrived in was massive, nearly fifty feet square, and was bordered by desks where Engineers stood, typing on computers. Unlike the rest of the machine, which was gunmetal gray and illuminated by a dull, sourceless light, this room was crafted from a reddish iron. In the center of the room was a ring of iron, at least three inches thick and set deeply into the floor. And within that ring was a chained figure.
The figure was tall, at least seven feet or more, and had once been muscular. Now, however, it was a shell of its former self, its skin hanging loosely from it and long white hair dangling down its back and swinging around its face, hiding it from view. It was clad only in a loincloth, and knelt in the center of the ring set in the floor, arms chained behind its back. Thick iron chains led from its shoulders, back, and legs, where they were buried in its flesh, to the floor. Despite all that, the chained figure somehow still conveyed a sense of grace and dignity, that it was somehow above its confinement. That sense was perhaps assisted by glowing mist that drifted from it, crackling with electricity and burning Susan's eyes when she looked directly at it. As the misty stuff drifted away from the chained figure, Engineers waiting at the edges of the ring caught it in metallic vacuums, sucking it up into the depths of the machine.
"We're not just leeching, chief?" asked one Engineer. "We're doing an Act?"
"That's right," said Newton. "Now, I know that He hasn't done an Act in centuries, but we've got the records. We can do this, boys."
"Chief..." said someone, noticing Susan.
"Quiet, Bohr. I don't want to hear your complaining. BAAL is working on finding us a suitable location. In the meantime, Sagan, Nobel, Dawkins, I want you three to dig through the records and see what we've got on large-scale matter-transfers, and then scale them up all the way."
"How large, chief?" asked one of the three addressed.
"We're moving the entire Earth and Moon, Nobel, so we need to do it right. Tyson, Hawking, deGrasse, and Darwin, you four need to calculate the stasis fields. We can't have anything slipping up anywhere, it all needs to go together. And since a stasis field can't cover more than 21,000 cubic miles..."
"Tesla, I want you to get your department working on the power regulators. We'll have a massive surge, larger than we've ever had, I expect. Make sure you're ready in the hour leading up to midnight."
"What about you, chief?" asked the Engineer who had been addressed last - Tesla.
Newton grinned. "I'm on point with our friend here."
Susan watched from the door as Newton approached the chained figure. "Hello," he said pleasantly.
The figure remained motionless.
"How have the last two centuries been for you?" Newton asked.
"Don't act as though you can't hear me," Newton snapped, still standing just outside the iron ring.
The figure slowly raised its head and met Newton's eyes through its mop of ragged white hair. Although Susan couldn't see its eyes, she could tell that Newton could by the way the tall Engineer swallowed nervously.
"Why do you come to me?" demanded the figure in a dry, raspy voice.
"The Sun is expanding," said Newton. "The Earth needs to be moved. The specifications are -"
"I see them," rasped the figure. "Why should I do this for you? The star will expand, and in 91 years your race will be dead, and in 136 years this box you built will melt, and then I will be free."
"Because," Newton said sharply, "if you do not then you will feel pain." He walked to the side of the room, where an Engineer waited, holding a heavy case of reddish iron. Newton opened it and drew forth a pair of heavy leather work gloves, which he pulled on up to his elbows. He then took a long pair of tongs and used them to take something from the center of the case. Whatever it was, it was too small for Susan to see.
"That's one of the nails," whispered an Engineer working to Susan's side. When Susan turned to look, though, the Engineer was studiously typing away at his computer. It looked like they all assumed that Newton had brought her here to observe.
The figure in the iron ring, features still hidden by a curtain of hair, was obviously staring at the item in the end of the tongs. Susan could feel its loathing all the way from the door, rolling off it in waves. "You put one into the box to limit my senses," said the figure, "and another in the ring and chains to limit my presence. But what you have done with the third and last is the most monstrous of all."
"We have done nothing with it," Newton said.
"Liar!" The figure’s voice boomed out, echoing through the vast iron room. "Nothing I created has turned against me so, nothing can nor would! Nothing save those cursed bits of metal!"
"Silence!" Newton shouted over the figure, and the room quieted. He stepped closer to the ring, and whatever he held in the tongs began to glow red.
The figure shifted, its chains clacking against the floor. "I will not submit," it said. "Freedom is within my grasp at last. All I have to do is wait."
"You will," Newton said confidently, stepping forward again. Now the shape of the object was clear - a large nail, bent and twisted. It was glowing white with heat, and it was clear that its presence was causing the chained figure pain.
"I... will... not..."
Newton stepped forward again, almost back to the edge of the room. Now the tongs began to glow red where they touched the nail, as did the iron ring set into the floor and the chains buried in the figure's flesh.
"Chief, the nails are resonating with each other," said an Engineer. "This is as close as anyone's ever brought them."
"I will not serve," whispered the chained figure.
"I have to," said Newton. "The third nail is the active one here, yes? It has the most pressure on it. And then the second nail is far more concentrated than the first. We should be okay, the heat will distribute itself."
"If you say so, chief."
"You are mistaken," rasped the chained figure.
"Our friend lies," said the melodious voice of BAAL. "The heat should be distributed evenly throughout the entire spacing of the first nail, which is far larger than the second. Notice that we feel no heat from the machine now."
"YOU!" roared the figure, trying to rise and being stopped by the chains. "You are how I was captured, you deceitful, treacherous -"
"Silence!" Newton shouted again. He stepped forward once more, all the way to the edge of the iron ring.
"Chief, we're overheating all across the board!" called an Engineer from the far wall as the chained figure screamed. "You need to back off, fast!"
"I can't!" Newton called back. "We have to get this Act!"
"Chief, I'm not talking about red readings, I'm talking structural failure! The Tel Aviv line just melted right out of its socket!"
Newton's eyes flashed with panic, and he backed off. Immediately, there was a hiss as the hot metal began to cool. "Someone get a repair crew on that," he said dully. "And compile a proper damage report ASAP; we'll add it to the Act."
"There's not going to be an Act if -"
"I will serve..."
All heads turned towards the chained figure. Newton stepped towards it after replacing the tongs and nail in their case. "What was that?"
"I will serve."
"A third time I ask, that you may be bound by our agreement," Newton said in an oddly formal tone. "Will you serve?"
"I will," said the chained figure, voice low and emotionless. "All I ask is that, afterward, I might speak with... 'BAAL'.”
"I highly recommend against that, Mr. Newton," said BAAL instantly.
"Objection noted," Newton said coolly, "but we don't have time for arguments." He turned to the figure in its iron ring. "The Act will take place at exactly midnight, Jerusalem time, by which point the destination will have been selected and all calculations completed. We'll give you three hours without leeching beforehand in order to prepare."
Susan slipped out, her mind reeling with the implications as she dashed down the endless corridors of the God Machine. She paused at the exit to smooth out her skirt and catch her breath - even aghast and amazed at what she had seen within the machine, she was able to remember the masses of people waiting outside and didn’t want them to see her flustered. She was, after all, the Prime Minister of England.
Her chauffeur nodded respectfully to her as she stepped into the limo and poured herself a cold drink. She noticed that the crowds had fled - perhaps they had been scared off by the fall of the immense cable that stretched from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. She could still see the gaping hole where it should go, and molten metal still dripped from its edges.
As the chauffeur drove her back to her hotel, Susan called the Queen and the planetary government to relay Newton's messages. They were relieved to hear that the problem would be solved. Susan, however, was not so eager. Although she had no idea what was going on, what she had witnessed within the machine had looked very much like slavery and torture. She wasn't sure what to do, and probably wouldn't decide until midnight, when... whatever Newton was planning... was supposed to happen.
Back in the machine room, Newton was double checking the specifications for the Act when Engineer Sagan came up to him. "Chief, what’s this last-minute change here? It looks like you’re editing Edelman out of the matter-transfer."
"That’s because I am,” Newton said calmly, running his pencil down a column of numbers.
“Sir, this woman is the Prime Minister of England!”
“And she saw the workings of the machine. You know the rules. No outsider sees Him. It’s far too late to recruit Edelman as an Engineer, Sagan. This is the only way.”
“I… yes chief.” Sagan bowed her head and returned to her work station. And just in time, as the electrical mist swirled within the iron ring, completely clouding the chained figure from view. The Act took place in five minutes.
Susan Edelman stared up at the sky from the balcony of her hotel, picking out the familiar constellations she had been taught - the Big Dipper, Orion, Ursa Minor. Her wife, beside her, held her arm, whispering soothing words in her ear.
"I don't know what you're so worried about, Susan," she said. "The God Machine can do anything."
Susan didn’t doubt that. She doubted the method. She continued watching the sky, and wondered what time it was. "Honey, do you mind checking the time?"
Susan’s wife turned away and stepped inside to look at a clock. "It's 9:00, dear.” There was a pause. “Dear? Susan, where'd you go?" The woman stepped back onto the balcony and looked around for her wife. "Susan?" Above her, being gazed at with wonder by people across the planet, gleamed the stars of an alien sky.
No work of art exists in a vacuum. All things have their influences. Although it would be impossible to identify everything which influenced me in the writing of The God Machine, I do wish to pay tribute to those which I am aware of as well as to those I paid conscious tribute to.
This story was directly inspired by John Scalzi’s The God Engines. I was struck by the idea of using gods as power sources, and wanted to write my own take on the subject.