07 January 2010

The Machine Stops

There were gradations of terror—at times came rumours of hope—the Mending Apparatus was almost mended—the enemies of the Machine had been got under—new “nerve-centres” were evolving which would do the work even more magnificently than before. But there came a day when, without the slightest warning, without any previous hint of feebleness, the entire communication-system broke down, all over the world, and the world, as they understood it, ended.
E. M. Forster

There is no salmon in the stores—rumor has it that the oceans have died and that the bounty it has supplied in the past will no longer be ours for the taking. Corned beef has vanished inexplicably too. I ventured out of my cell today in quest of my new glasses—the ones that will allow me to read again without blocking one eye and squinting with the other—but the stars were against me.

The robotic voice at the municipal conveyance station informed us that the Steel Bridge connection was borked, and delays of up to twenty minutes were to be expected. We would have to find our own way across the Willamette somehow, and God have mercy on our souls. It was not reassuring, far from it, but perhaps only to be expected in these Days of Decline.

The horizontal conveyance was late and crowded, but the signs of ongoing life were reassuring. We sailed past the vats of ruined beer at the Widmer brewery and deadended at the Rose Quarter, where the voice of the system—a person this time, and not the usual robot—suggested that we find whatever alternate transport we could, since he was taking the conveyance back up to the Expo Center. We dismounted at a dead run, making for the sole transport device in sight, which serenely left the platform before we could catch up with it. It was stuffed to the gills with people anyway, and there were a lot of us.

“Sign the medical marijuana petition?” asked a guy on the platform hopelessly. “We just want to get it on the ballot, a yes or no vote, right?”

“Can I read it?” I asked.

“That’s probably wise,” he said, “But I’ll have to unhook the petition from the clipboard. The text’s on the back, you see.” He was clearly hoping I would change my mind.

“I like to read something before I sign it,” I said apologetically. “It’s a quirk. I’ve been taken in before.” I was really wondering if any of these machines would actually take me across the river, or if I was waiting here for nothing.

He gingerly unhooked the document and handed it to me, while heading off in search of another victim. I read a lot of verbiage about setting up marijuana dispensaries while wondering vaguely, don’t we already have medical marijuana? What would this bill actually do? Still, it seemed churlish not to sign the petition after the guy had gone to all the trouble of unhooking it for me to read. I signed it and passed it back to him.

An ancient belching monstrosity ground to a halt on the tracks alongside me, loaded with people, and I ascended the steps and sat cautiously down while it chugged protestingly off in the general direction of downtown. There was mysterious activity going on on the bridge, and men seemed to be indicating structural elements that might be on their last legs. “The bridge was stuck open this morning,” somebody said. Best not to look, I thought, and stared bleakly out down the gray river.

Our transport device creaked and screeched as we rumbled into downtown Portland at approximately the speed that could have been managed a hundred years before by an arthritic donkey pulling a ton of coal. Walking would probably have been faster, but the scene outside was not inviting, featuring artificial chasms and crags. It was a relief to see that the municipal library’s iron gates were still hanging invitingly open, and some flickering lights showed business continuing. I clambered out and walked up the few streets to the place my new glasses supposedly awaited.

There was a badly-scrawled sheet hanging on the glass door; it communicated somewhat incoherently the intelligence that the Vision Center was closed due to the (unexplained) power outage. There were people crawling about in the ruins inside, but I was still as blind as Henry Bemis on the steps of the shattered library in the Twilight Zone episode. It isn’t fair—it isn’t fair at all, damn it.

Sometimes living in the future sucks.


Anonymous said...

Don't worry, i984 is just around the corner -- again-- rfh

Anonymous said...

This is an outstanding post -- great tone, strong sense of things winding down to stasis. Hope you're collecting it with others of like merit--?

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