“The Machine” is a thought-provoking dystopian short story set in a world where a powerful governing body, the World Initiative Government (WIG), controls every aspect of citizens’ lives. In this society, people’s futures are determined by a machine that evaluates their potential based on their thoughts and experiences. The protagonist, Sam, finds himself questioning the system and its impact on humanity. As Sam’s story unfolds, he challenges the very foundations of this controlling regime, leading to a surprising outcome. This narrative explores themes of individuality, power, resistance, and the importance of personal agency in a world where freedom is an elusive concept.
The Machine Theme Music by D. H. Phoenix
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The Machine by D. H. Phoenix
Sam was waiting in the long single file for his turn at The Ma- chine. He had been waiting for over three hours, but he had to come on that day, or he would miss the opportunity to get a better future. The people in line could not talk to each other, so there was only the sheer sound of joints moving, legs hit- ting the uniform pants’ cloth worn by everyone, and the unified well-hidden faint stomp every three hundred and sixty-five seconds. It took The Machine one second to analyze every day in a human’s life over the past year.
Sam thought to himself as he did the year before, and for some years before he would care to remember how many, “What the hell am I doing here? Coming here every year for a chance at a better life when I know this will not happen.” But he kept on showing up every year, anyway.
The Machine was the genius design of the World Initiative Government or the WIG. They passed new laws after the Last Great War to prevent any future conflict. Humanity was on the brink of extinction after nuclear bombs were a common means of retaliation, and sometimes, it was the most predictable response. Back then, there was always one country teaching another country a lesson, and yes, we got it. We have understood all their teachings. The WIG came in after the Last Great War as they call it and unified the remaining humans from around the world and brought them to one of the few fertile places left on the planet which was outside Nineveh in old Iraq.
Fifty brothers were ranking up all the way from Brother Fifty to Brother One. They ran the whole show as members of the WIG. Elections were illegal after it was the fault of one referendum that allowed the first nuclear missile launch which started the war about eighty years ago. The whole government was like one big flight of stairs, on top of which there was Brother One, at the bottom, there was Brother Fifty, and below that, there was everybody else. Whenever one brother stepped down or died, the one below would step up to fill the new emp- ty spot in a counter-domino effect until the 50th spot was empty, and The Machine would pick one from the rest of the people to fill it. So, the machine did choose all the brothers.
It was the first Brother One who designed The Machine. The Machine is a simple neurotransmission reader that can read all thoughts and ideas a person has had all his life, and based on that reading, The Machine decides the level of potential each citizen has, which will affect the future of that individual for the next year. The first Brother One thought he would have everybody examined by The Machine once a year hoping to change their potential and their fate. So that’s why everyone showed up at their scheduled annual appraisal by The Machine. Everybody dreams of being a brother for everything multiplies when you are a brother, women, money, land, and power; not only once but fifty times from Brother Fifty to Brother One. It was a modern version of the communo-capitalist system.
Sam had the same potential for years. Every year, he would come fearing that he might violate the free right to be assessed once a year by The Machine. However, his potential had never been enough for anything better than a blue-collar job. He might have been luckier than some others who had the dirtiest and hardest of jobs in the mines and at the Great Sewers Processing Plant; even processing shit bore a fancy name.
Sam had been standing in line for almost an entire day waiting for his turn and having to hear the silent rumble of thousands of people moving about every six minutes. He had already counted the fifty-four people ahead of him in the line twice. He still had about seven hours to wait, “plenty of time to come up with a rebellion,” Sam thought with a faint smile on his face, but soon his smile disappeared, as he looked at one guard who was staring at him.
“How many times have people been coming to this stupid machine to tell them about their destinies as if it were a god? I hate to believe a programmable machine gets to decide my fate.” Sam thought as he remembered the machine he read about in the only book he had hidden in his mattress as reading was illegal after it was the reason that brought the very idea of the nuclear bomb to life in the first place; that was what the WIG thought anyway when they confiscated all pre-war books collected by people over the years. Sam had only one book left; it was about a story that happened in England and France during the time of the French Revolution, and a stupid man sacrificed his life for another man at the end of the story, but Sam found a picture stuck on the back cover of a man he knew nothing about. The letters that referred to the man’s name washed off and half-burned as did the rest of the book. What Sam liked about that picture and that man was the way he looked up in his black beret and the gold star in the middle. The red color that filled the background of the picture was so vivid that Sam felt it almost filled his heart with real blood as he kept looking at it more than reading the book itself, especially with the missing pages and the half-burnt ones. The story as far as he understood was not that interesting to Sam. He once talked to his friend about that man in the picture, but he never mentioned to anyone that he still had the book; he claimed to have turned in the book to the Nuclear Thought Purification Organization that started about ten years ago when the WIG passed laws for the third phase of the book ban.
Sam was paddling through these thoughts when he stopped to calculate again, and he figured he had about one hour left to wait. He had less than half an hour to have the Machine assess him before he would get rid of it for yet another year.
Sam was close now to the outer casing of The Machine which was clean and shiny as a mirror. Sam looked at his re- flection and felt happy with the way he looked. He had inherited the looks of his father or mother, but he wouldn’t know, for making a family or staying with any family was illegal after the famous incident when a father killed a guard when he came to take his son on the one-way journey to work on one of the many secret projects for the WIG. They passed the law right after they executed the father, and it had been over forty years with no families at all. Reproduction, as the WIG called it, took place in specialized labs and during Dark Sexual Congregations, which the WIG announced whenever they saw fit. They announced one or two a month, at least, but these were only the official DSCs announced to the public.
There was only one man in front of Sam, and he came to see more features of his reflection in the shiny casing of The Machine. His eyes widened in disbelief as he looked closer. Sam was wearing a black beret and had the same beard. When he lifted his head up, it was as if this picture on the forgotten book was his own. It suddenly felt as if he was a part of a stolen history, an ambiguous present, and an uncertain future. The man in front of Sam just got in The Machine. Sam had a strange feeling. It felt as if these six minutes were like an age, but a young fleeting one Sam had to decide what to do with before it was too late.
The one-minute-left beep marked the longest wait Sam ever had in his life. His heart was beating a hundred times a second. Now the 10-second countdown began. All the memories flashed in his mind, that torn and burnt book with the man at the back, his fantasies about his random father and unknown mother, and his long wait like an animal in line to get into the slaughterhouse. Everything flashed in Sam’s mind when the final beep announced the five seconds window he had to get into The Machine. The entire process went like clockwork and it always ran according to schedule. Only this time, second six ticked and Sam was still outside The Machine. The guards looked amazed at the first couple of seconds then they moved towards The Machine’s door, but Sam was at an advantage there, because the door stood higher than the heads of the guards, and the only way the guards would reach Sam’s stand was through the one-man-wide stairs all the way to the top. They ordered the other men behind Sam in line to move away, and that bought Sam some precious time to take up what he thought would be his last stand. He did not know what he was up to, or why he was doing what he was doing. There was a strange feeling he might be the fool man at the guillotine at the end of his book, only he had no one to sacrifice for, or that man on the back cover.
The guards moved the other men away and were ready to stop Sam. Sam was lucky that all lethal weapons were illegal, so he was not in the range of anybody’s bullets, only their clubs. Sam was a well-built man with a height advantage, so he could take down four guards before they got a hold of him. By the time they cuffed him, one brother had come to the scene of that bizarre incident.
Sam didn’t care what might happen to him anymore. He was not planning to be in this situation, but he saw his friend on the book cover smiling at him, so Sam smiled back.
“You must have a good reason to smile in this situation.
Please tell me what is funny?” The brother asked Sam.
“I have nothing to lose now. I am who I am. I have been afraid all my life, and I failed in your stupid machine’s tests year after year, and for what, a stupid promotion for a couple of more meals a week, or a chance to get an invitation to one of your DSCs? I don’t care about that anymore. I know who I want to be, and that’s me, only me. Like it or not, I look like that man in the book I hid from you and read again and again and again. You look down on us from your lavish palaces and see us as small as cockroaches you could crush any day, and you get to decide who we should be as if you were gods. To legitimize that for the stupid, you made that stupid machine of yours, and we have been your slaves ever since; not anymore brother, not anymore.” Sam felt shocked at hearing his own words coming out of his own mouth. He was even more amazed than when he refused to get into The Machine. He knew it was him all along, but he liked to think his book friend was smiling at his bold move.
From the shadows of the room they were holding Sam in, an older man appeared. The man was wearing the same brothers’ robe, but he seemed to have been of a higher rank because the first brother bowed to him and moved away.
“You will pass in The Machine no matter what you do or say. We are not dictators as you claim; we would have killed you or locked you away if we were. We will give you another chance to pass into The Machine and see your destiny.” The elder brother added no more words but gave a sign to the guards to take him back to The Machine, and Sam said nothing.
Six minutes inside The Machine and Sam could not believe he was still alive and did not know what to think now after what the elder brother said. He never had enough time to think about his destiny; that’s why his destiny rushed to him when he followed his heart.
Sam did not believe his eyes when he got out of The Machine. His assessment was better than last year. It was way better than anything he had ever dreamed of. He was to become the newest member of the WIG, Brother Fifty, and one of the older brothers is about to step down and give room for Sam’s inclusion in the WIG.
People on the other side of The Machine cheered, and Sam could not believe what was happening. He had an official brothers’ robe to wear and on his way inside the official building, he saw the same elderly brother, only this time without his robe, making his way out of the official facility.
Sam rushed to the man and shook his hand, “How did you know sir? How did you decide, or The Machine’s?”
“I didn’t, my son; you did.” The elderly brother said no more and went on his way out.
- Sam: The protagonist, who challenges the status quo of the totalitarian society he lives in. He is a working-class citizen who has never had a high potential assessment by The Machine.
- World Initiative Government (WIG): A totalitarian regime that has consolidated power after the Last Great War. The WIG is composed of fifty brothers who hold various ranks and privileges.
- The Machine: A device designed by the first Brother One that reads people’s thoughts and ideas to determine their potential for the following year.
- The Elderly Brother: A high-ranking member of the WIG who gives Sam a chance to retake the assessment after Sam rebels against the system.
- Power and Control: The WIG exercises complete control over the population, from determining people’s potential to dictating their personal lives. They maintain this power through the use of The Machine, a tool that reinforces the idea that the WIG decides each individual’s fate.
- Rebellion and Individuality: Sam’s rebellion against the system and his refusal to conform to the expectations of the WIG demonstrates the importance of individuality and self-discovery. By choosing not to enter The Machine initially, Sam asserts his autonomy and challenges the established system.
- Change and Self-Realization: Sam’s journey of self-discovery ultimately leads to his inclusion in the WIG. This unexpected twist illustrates the power of individual action in the face of a seemingly insurmountable system.
- The Machine: Represents the oppressive and controlling nature of the WIG, as well as the belief that an individual’s potential is predetermined.
- The Book: Symbolizes the power of knowledge and ideas, as well as the importance of individuality and resistance against conformity. The man on the back cover of the book serves as an inspiration to Sam, encouraging him to rebel against the system and assert his own identity.
- The Brothers’ Robes: Symbolize power, authority, and the hierarchy of the WIG. Sam’s eventual acquisition of a robe represents his newfound power and influence within the system.
- Setting: The story takes place in a dystopian society located outside Nineveh in old Iraq, where the WIG maintains strict control over the lives of its citizens.
- Imagery: The story uses vivid imagery to depict the oppressive nature of the WIG and the bleak existence of the working class. For example, the description of the long line of people waiting to be assessed by The Machine creates a sense of despair and monotony.
- Irony: The ironic twist at the end of the story, when Sam becomes a member of the WIG despite his rebellion, highlights the complex nature of power dynamics and the potential for change within oppressive systems.
You can discuss the following questions in the comment section below
- Discuss the role of The Machine in the story. How does it function as both a symbol of control and as a catalyst for Sam’s rebellion?
- Analyze the portrayal of the World Initiative Government (WIG) and the Brothers. What are their motivations, and how do they maintain power over the citizens?
- How does the setting of the story, in a post-apocalyptic world, contribute to the overall atmosphere and themes of the narrative?
- Examine the themes of individuality and personal agency in the story. How do these themes emerge through Sam’s journey and his relationship with the man in the hidden book?
- Explore the role of fear in maintaining the status quo within the society. How does Sam’s decision to break free from this fear lead to unexpected consequences?
- Discuss the significance of the hidden book, particularly the man with the black beret and gold star, in Sam’s life. How does this book inspire and empower Sam to challenge the system?
- Consider the ending of the story, where Sam becomes Brother Fifty. What are the implications of this outcome for Sam and the society as a whole? Does it signal a potential change within the WIG or a perpetuation of the existing system?
- How does the story comment on the dangers of an overly centralized and authoritarian government? Can you draw any parallels to real-world historical events or contemporary issues?
- Explore the concept of destiny in the story. How does Sam’s understanding of his destiny change throughout the narrative, and what does this transformation reveal about the importance of individual choice?
- In what ways does “The Machine” challenge and subvert the reader’s expectations? Discuss the impact of these narrative choices on the story’s overall message and themes.