A short story by Elisabetta Vernier
My translation could use some editing, though – volunteers are welcome 🙂
Tonight, the lament of my machines woke me up once again.
It happens every time I dream of the war, but this time their weeping tore my heart to pieces. So I rose from my bed of rugs, with chilled hands and nose, and walked into the lab, in the dark. They’re all there, my poor machines. Piled up gracelessly upon each other, they await a better future that may never come.
Rechargeable batteries are slowly wearing up, tired by a million endless recharge cycles. Microchips are aging, their circuits eaten alive by oxides and rust, and the LED lights – tiny eyes now dim and veiled – burn up and die on the display-wall above my workbench. It’s been too long since the last shipment of spare parts arrived here on Orah. However, everybody knows our President will never bend to the embargo, and this gives us citizens the strength to go on living in such a disgraced condition.
But the machines, they don’t know. They can’t hear the people talking about the war, out in the market square, just like the people can’t hear their weeping in the night: their sorrowful sighs, the whispers, the squeaks and painful vibrations, the sobs and endless coughing.
I feel like I’m living in a leprosarium, in a clinic for terminal patients.
The Presidential Palace shines in the dark like a bolt of lightning, illuminating this side of the city with its reflections. Through the stained glass of my lab window, I can still recognize its uneven and lumpy profile.
At dawn, I’m expected at the main laboratory to carry out a scheduled maintenance cycle on the Palace machinery. Every time I walk into that building, my heart is filled with contrasting feelings: a sense of wonder at the efficiency of all those machines, and a little envy mixed with bitterness for all I see there that only the President can afford.
The President’s machines, you see, they never weep.
* * *
I only had to take one step into the Public Hearing Room and I felt it, that horrible cry of anguish. The environmental harmonizer was out of phase and saturated the Palace air with tensiogenic vibrations, undetectable by human ears but instantly perceivable for people like me, who know what to listen for. The delicate filament that is the core of the machine was completely worn out and my solar plexus, after only a few seconds of exposition, screamed in rage.
How could they go on working for months in such conditions?
After sixteen fights and three attempted murders, they should have figured it out by themselves, without my help.
However, if they didn’t need my help I would be unemployed and there would be a lot more miserable machines in our city. Now, thanks to me and to the new filament – most certainly bought for a king’s ransom by the Importers Guild on the extra-planetary black market – the warm and restoring notes of the harmonizer echo again throughout the Palace halls, making everything easier, even ruling the planet.
Thinking about this makes me very proud of my work. While I walk the endless corridors of the Palace, I think back to all the machines I’ve fixed in all my life. How many were there? A thousand? Ten thousand, maybe? Every chip I soldered, every burnt resistor I changed, every battery I recharged delayed the end of our world of a few minutes.
The embargo won’t last forever: even if it means fixing the last nuclear power generator with my bare hands, we will keep going.
* * *
At noon, I had to return to my lab, to pick up some instruments I didn’t plan to use at first. Walking across the city was harder than I thought, wading my way through the angry mob that filled the market square. I crawled slowly along the walls, trying to go unnoticed with my bagful of instruments and recycled spare parts, and the policemen seemed busy enough not to worry about me.
I wouldn’t be in their shoes for anything. Since the new food rationing decree became law, assaults on public food dispensers have become ordinary news.
When the police line eventually collapsed under the strength of the crowd, I slipped hastily in a small alley, frightened and terrified, unable to tear my gaze away from the people ripping away dispenser windows, smashing displays and burning plastic control keyboards. There’s no more food left: everybody knows that. Then why do they do it?
Why do they turn their anger against the machines?
* * *
Wandering in astonishment through the Palace in a moment of rest, I suddenly ended up into the Government Hall, a place so full of light and alive with energy that it has no equals in the city. While I admired those walls, those shimmering columns and all that perfect machinery, I felt like I was pulled back in time and given the chance to observe in awe what our life was like before the war came and the embargo stole our future.
The absolute efficiency laid before my eyes, the pure magnificence of the whole place moved me deeply: I beheld perfection and struggled to hold back the tears, while a single sad thought went back to the grim fate of the food dispensers in the market square.
In the middle of the deserted hall sat the President himself, a bone-thin old man on a gleaming titanium throne: he stared at me with opaque and thoughtful eyes, trying in vain to remember my face. But he couldn’t, of course, as we were meeting for the first time.
“Come closer, master Technician,” he said with a thin and hoarse voice, recognizing the colors on my tattered uniform. “Come closer, will you?”
He kept his hands on his lap and I could clearly see thick bluish veins running under his threadbare skin. In one bony hand he held something, small enough to disappear inside his small clenched fist.
“Do you have a malfunction to report, mister President?” I asked him, using the traditional phrase of the Technicians Guild.
The old President stiffened for a moment, as in a fit of pain, then started to laugh. A horrible, piercing, hysterical laugh.
“A malfunction?” he breathed, with a broken voice. “Just A malfunction? Open your eyes and take a good look around, master Technician! Can’t you see this whole place is falling apart? EVERYTHING is malfunctioning!”
Another hysterical fit of laughter echoed among the alabaster columns of the hall, setting the thin self-polarizing glass panes of the windows into vibration.
Shocked by his words, I gathered up all the courage I managed to find in my racing heart and answered:
“But mister President, how can you say so? The Palace machines still work at maximum yield, singing in perfect harmony with each other. Their energy flows behind the walls and under the floor, bringing light to corridors and halls. Can’t you feel it? This place is a miracle!”
The old man stared at me with stern eyes, like I was a madman.
“A miracle? A miracle of inefficiency, you mean!” he blurted out. Then, opening his fist to reveal a small shiny object, he shouted: “Do you see this? It’s the last quantum sintho-transceiver. The very last one. Do you understand? Without this little insignificant scrap of metal we won’t be able to contact the Union representatives anymore. We’ll be blind, deaf and mute forever. And you know what the good news is? This goddamn thing doesn’t work! IT DOESN’T WORK!”
Still shouting at the top of his voice, he smashed the small transceiver onto the polished marble floor and without leaving me enough time to pick it up, to rescue it, he stomped it violently with his boot, causing a shower of invisible fragments of plastic, silicon and metal to explode all around us. The painful shriek of that minuscule machine tore me inside out.
With that horrible sound still echoing in my ears, I knelt on the floor to pick up with trembling hands the sad remains of the quantum transceiver, bit by bit, in religious silence.
When my pious duty was completed, the old man looked at me in the eye for a long, painstaking moment then, with sheer terror dawning on his face, he mouthed a single word, with a choked voice:
* * *
Tonight, under the glaring halogen lights of assault flyers, I watch the crooked profile of the Presidential Palace. Yesterday, without the support of the old man’s iron will, Orah surrendered to the Confederate troops.
Their soldiers, all young and smiling in their gray and black camouflage combat gear, have landed in the city bringing us food, medicines, clothing and spare parts. They used to be our enemies, now they have become our saviors. Soon they’ll set all prisoners free, or so I’ve heard.
Behind the opaque window of my cell, through darkness and random moving lights, I squint hard in search of the squat profile of my laboratory, where all my machines await my return sighing in silence. When I finally spot it, I can hardly hold back a tear of joy.
The embargo is finally over. Soon my machines will sing again.