Paul Stansifer (paul_stansifer) wrote,
Paul Stansifer

I won't title this post "HUMAN SACRIFICE", because that would be unsettling.

After Germany, I made a brief stopover in a little town in Massachusetts, and saw some good friends there, and the house in which I theoretically live.

I know some pretty sane-seeming people who claim to be from California1, so I tended to believe it existed. But, then again, unless you paid careful attention, you might get the impression, just from people talking about it, that "nowhere" was a specific (and also very strange) place. So I wasn't totally sure.

But I had enough faith in California to pack up four month's worth of stuff into baggage and (finally) get my room nice and clean for its new occupant. Packing for leaving the next day was going pretty well until I got a phone call from a number I didn't recognize. It turned out to be the driver, sent by the relocation company, calling from the airport, wondering where I was. Well, it wasn't California. But then again, what is California?

It was a question I pondered that night. Never does California seem more unreal than when it's the place you forgot to go to. Imagine being part of some kind of UFO cult and oversleeping the date and time of the projected arrival of the aliens. You immediately try to call your fellow cult members, but they're not picking up. You assume that it's because they're now on another plane of existence without you, but a tiny part of the back of your mind is telling you that they're actually just sitting at home, with an immense burning desire to not talk about the UFO that didn't show up.

Anyways, the UFO came back for another pass the next day, and took me to San Jose Airport. In the terminal, there was totally some dude busking with a guitar, inside the terminal area. Questions this raises: Is he, like, some kind of official vendor? Or, if not, wouldn't he have to have a boarding pass to enter the secured area? Was he, like, traveling with his guitar, and he thought "Well, I've got some time to kill, why don't I busk for a spell?"? Our flight seemed to be the only one arriving around that time. I was expecting the airport to be busier, but maybe California only exists in a sort of casual way, as a hobby or something.

From What is California?

While I was waiting for the bus to take the train to Mountain View, the flight attendants from our flight walked past us. A plane flew overhead, and one of them must have stopped to look at it, because I heard one of them say "It's just an airplane, George.". Clearly George got into the flight attendanting business for the right reason.

A warning sign on the bus read "Do not stand in designated area", but judging by the posture of faceless warning sign person, the illustrator clearly had interpreted that as "Do not chill in the designated area".

And then I took the Caltrain to Mountain View, which involved being on a train! That was great.

And then I started to write an LJ entry, but it got kind of bogged down in the middle, so I waited until I forgot about its existence.

And then I finished writing a story to submit to the second Machine of Death anthology, well over an hour before the deadline. 

If you're not familiar with the Machine of Death, you should go become familiar with the Machine of Death. I would provide a link, but that would be difficult for me to do for reasons that would probably take too long to explain. So search for it, and maybe read the PDF of the first book.

Each story is about a world in which a machine that predicts how people will die has been invented. By convention, the machine's output is always in capital letters. The title of a story has to be a way to die. Got that? Okay, now go and read the first book. TORN APART AND DEVOURED BY LIONS is funny, and ALMOND is really good, and so is KILLED BY DANIEL and also COCAINE AND PAINKILLERS. Yeah, you should totally read it.

Anyways, (I recently discovered, for the same reasons that would take too long to explain, that "anyways" is not a real word. But I like it, so I'm going to keep using it.) the story I submitted to the upcoming second anthology is below. I'll find out whether it was accepted at the end of October. My roommate Christine and Mom provided invaluable editing, though they also advised me not to make a whole bunch of last-minute edits on the day of submission, which I totally did. So don't blame them for anything in particular wrong with the story.

I was also planning on putting a draft on LJ and asking for you guys's help but didn't have time because of The Reason That Must Not Be Described Because It Would Take Too Long, although to be fair, if you added up all the times I've mentioned it, you'd probably get enough time to get in a passable explanation, albeit one not delivered in my accustomed verbosity.

Okay, that was a goofy entry, even by my standards. Although it may seem astonishing, I wrote 4000 words below that are not intended to be funny (mostly). Maybe you should go back and read one of the shorter stories from the book, like DESPAIR, or MISCARRIAGE, as, like, a palate cleanser.


Even in the outskirts of the ruins, the streets were nearly impassable from rubble and wreckage. The old river was the only path to the center. It had been dry land since prehistory, an intrusion of grassland into the thicket of broken gray angular forms and occasional glinting glass. Two archaeologists with a small wooden cart made their way along it, clad in long tunics better-suited for sitting and thinking than for traveling.

Vine, who led the way, was concealing her anxiety well. Her new apprentice was enthusiastic and somewhat bright, and therefore appeared not to take her work seriously. Her first apprentice, who had been bright and somewhat enthusiastic, had simply walked out of the ruins one day. This was not permitted, but there was nothing that could be done to retain an apprentice who wanted to go.

Vine had hoped to cultivate a whole team of decoders, working to understand Cordek Script as legitimate archaeologists. But it seemed that superstition against the old language was getting worse, not better. Now she merely hoped that someone would carry her work into the next generation. It looked like that someone would have to be Gale.

Gale, who was shorter but more overtly energetic than Vine, pulled the cart of onions and turnips without complaint. Vine supposed that if Gale found the apprenticeship to be less difficult and tiresome than expected, she would be more likely to stay. Now was the time for setting expectations. Accordingly, she didn’t offer to help. She was terribly uncertain of the strategy, but it was too late to change her mind.

A small dramatic building overlooking the river had been particularly badly damaged. Though it was made of a seamless stone-like substance, a good quarter of it had been smashed by some unimaginable force. “There are a number of buildings like this,” Vine explained. “This one is in better condition than most.”

“What were they for?” Gale was intrigued.

“They held machines. One particular kind of machine. The electrologists had a hard time finding an intact one.”

“What did it do?”

“It was supposed to draw blood. The graffiti in the city features this in many creative ways.”

Gale remembered seeing drawings like this when she visited the outskirts of the city, collecting Old Script writing, first out of curiosity and then later for Vine. “So they thought about it a lot, then?”

“It was at the center of some kind of unhappiness; maybe it was even somehow involved in Cordek’s downfall. People are calling it the Machine of Death.”

Gale could tell that they were reaching the center of the city. The buildings were orderly and immense and scarred with shattered windows; in the red evening light, they looked like stubborn and pugnacious gods reluctantly obeying an old truce. She’d always heard the word “humility” used to explain why the Council trekked so far to meet in the center of the ruins. She had to stop pulling the cart for a moment to look up and catch her breath.

Vine pointed out a particularly tall building. “That one has enough space that everyone alive could fit inside.”

They approached a relatively intact building, the first few floors of which housed the archaeologists and their apprentices, the sole inhabitants of the ruins. The bottom floor glowed with firelight.

On the riverbed beneath it was a fenced-off pasture, with a few horses grazing. Gale let go of the cart and ran towards the fence to stare at a horse. It looked briefly at her, but it wasn’t as excited about horses as she was.

Vine muttered, “Well, you wouldn’t know where the root cellar is, anyway,” and took the cart.

A lanky, long-haired apprentice crossed the pasture and met Gale at the fence. She saw the look on Gale’s face and said, “I know how you feel. I hardly ever got to see animals until I came out here. Then I apprentice to an electrologist, and suddenly I’m taking care of horses.”

“Is it hard?”

“Nah, our horses are wonderful creatures.” She scratched behind the horse’s ears. It turned towards them, suddenly included in the conversation. “My name is Sunset, by the way.”

“I’m Gale. I—” The things that Vine had said about the others made her cautious about admitting to studying Cordek Script. “I’m new here. What do horses have to do with archeology?”

“Let me show you.” Sunset led Gale towards a building that once stood on the edge of river. Ropes on pulleys came out of one of the missing windows and connected to harnesses that lay neatly on the ground. “Some people say that we live like the Cordek in their own ruins. But for every tool that we use, there are five that require electricity. Until recently, we could only speculate what most of them did.”

“You can make electricity with horses?” They entered the building, and Gale gaped at all the strange Cordek devices. Though weathered by the ages, and sometimes crudely repaired and modified, their sharp lines and strange shapes made them as mysterious as Cordek Script itself.

“Sort of. They left behind a few devices that generated electricity from some kind of fuel. We have no idea how they made fuel. Fortunately they’re quite simple in principle. With this set of gears, the horses can provide power. From there, the Cordek machines hook together with pronged connectors. This is the one that makes the power, and this one stores it. I think we have a little bit left.” She picked up an electric lamp, hooked it up, and handed it to Gale. “Why don’t you turn it on? This is the control.”

Gale examined the switch, and she carefully pushed it. The light was instantly blinding. She shielded her eyes and put it down. The light shone as steady as the Sun, but it gave everything an unearthly cool hue. It cast its light all the way across the room, onto shelves full of machines; an inert, totally artificial ecosystem, organized by size and labeled with notes.

“Impressive, right? Of course, we’ll never be able to use most of these. Of the ones whose purpose we can identify, most are disappointingly trivial.”

Gale’s curiosity got the better of her and she asked, “Is the Machine of Death here?”

Sunset took the light and led her past the shelves into another room, snaking a long connector cord behind them. Even more machines loomed over them. They came to a small, boxy, machine, which sat on the shelf with a little extra room on each side, as if the other machines were giving it space. “It’s built to draw blood from your finger. But not very much. No one knows why.” Gale hunched down to peer at it. Her eyes were drawn to text.

“It really is a machine of death!” she said.


“It has the word ‘die’, right here, in these instructions. Future tense, ‘will die’.”

Sunset frowned. “What?”

“Oh. I’m working on decoding Cordek Script. With Vine. I didn’t want to— I heard that decoders were sort of looked down on.”

Sunset looked a little shocked, but she didn’t move away. “That’s not really it.” She carefully released a latch and swung open the front panel, revealing a component fed by a stack of blank, slightly yellowed cards. “The Machine of Death wrote in Cordek Script. That’s all it can do. It wrote something on those cards, something that killed them all. What can their language express that’s so terrible?”

Sunset sat down in front of it; Gale sat next to her, scanning the text for other words she might recognize. “There’s a rational explanation... There has to be.”

Sunset’s voice lost its edge. Language seemed to be a more rational, sensible thing, now that there was a linguist in the room. “We have some ideas. Maybe blood was some kind of symbolic currency, or it played a role in their government somehow? But ‘death’? How does death fit into it?”

“There’s just not all that much to say about death. Certainly nothing informative.”

Sunset considered this for a moment. “The buildings some of the machines were in seem almost ceremonial in design.”

An answer occurred to Gale. “They must have held human sacrifices.” She shook her head, trying to not imagine the scene. “They’d test you when you came of age, or as punishment for a crime, or maybe a sense of duty brought people in, because it seemed perfectly normal, because they’d always done it that way. And then the machine would tell them who to kill.”

They stared at the machine for a moment in the cold light, and then for a moment longer.

Eventually, Sunset spoke. “Let’s go. You need to get to bed. We both need to get to bed.”

Gale, when she had been collecting examples of Cordek Script for Vine, had not thought about how they needed to be stored and organized somewhere. Vine’s archives were shelved along the walls of an inner room on the second floor. It was lit only by what sunlight filtered in through the open door.

Looking up from her work, she saw a familiar shape pass by. “Sunset!” she said.

Sunset came back into view and poked her head in. “Hey, Gale. It’s kind of dark in here.”

“I keep fantasizing about putting holes in the walls, and letting in a bit more light.”

“You should talk to Timber. You might be able to get him to do that.”

Gale blinked. “It’s not all women here? I thought you were doing men’s work because there was no one else to do it.”

“Well, originally I was.” Sunset considered her words. “They brought Timber here for that reason. But it didn’t work out that way; he liked electrology better.”

Gale found this confusing and a little unsettling. She said nothing.

“It works out,” Sunset said, a little defensively. “He’s almost as good as a woman at archaeology, and I don’t mind getting some sunshine every day.” She shrugged. “Anyway, how are you liking decoding?”

“It’s daunting. Look at all this material. Almost none of it makes any kind of sense. It’s just Vine and me against all of Cordek.”

The grand foyer of the building had a single large desk built into it. Presumably, the ruler of the building once watched over all the comings and the goings here. Now, the foyer was a dining room, and the desk held basins of water clattering with dishes. Sunset didn’t have to be helping with the dishes that night, but neither Gale nor anyone else noticed.

“How’s it going?” Sunset asked.

“What?” Gale had been lost in thought. “Oh, pretty well. Vine’s still got me tabulating syntax patterns. I like it, but it feels like I’m working on small things. I guess that’s normal. I’ve only been here for … six days?”

“Well, that feeling never entirely goes away. Archaeology is all about small things.” Sunset smiled. “Listen, it’s really easy to do nothing but work here, because we don’t have the city to distract us from it. The electrologists make a point of getting together for a few hours and accomplishing nothing once every few days. The next time is tomorrow night... which is actually off our normal schedule, because Delta and Timber and I are leaving for a couple days to follow the electrical lines that run along the riverbed. We think they might lead to some interesting machinery outside of the ruins.” She paused for a moment, to figure out what she had been talking about. “Anyway, we’ll be meeting in the old conference room on the second floor.”

“Oh, that’s nice,” Gale said uncertainly.

“Right! Therefore, you should come.”

The room hadn’t changed a great deal since it was first furnished centuries ago. It was dominated by a large table surrounded by beat-up black chairs with bug-like undercarriages. Gale sat down on one crosslegged, and then scrambled to grab hold of the table as she rolled away from it. She planted her feet on the ground, and one of the electrologists began passing glasses down the table. They were Cordek glasses, clear and shining in the evening light. When she was done admiring her artifact, it occurred to her to ask, “What are these for?”

There was a clamor of voices: “Beer!” A barrel was pulled from under the table, and glasses were filled to the sound of scattered laughter and conversation.

It was only after half an hour that Sunset remembered to check on Gale. She was nodding vaguely to an utterly unstructured explanation of alternating current. Sunset asked, a little louder than she intended, “So, Gale, is it possible to tell anything about the Cordek culture from what they wrote?”

Gale swallowed as she tried to gauge the balance of shock and fascination in the sudden silence. People always said that drinking brought out the unhealthy desire to know all things. “Well, we are still putting the pieces together. We still only understand a small portion of the words they used.”

“What kinds of things did they write about?” asked Timber. Gale started at the sound of his voice; she hadn’t noticed him yet.

“Danger.” She had fallen into the terrible habit of dramatic generalization, but now she had to press on and explain herself. “Danger and control. They put signs up everywhere about things that could hurt them, even if the danger was remote.”

The electrologists laughed briefly. “Gee, I hope it helped,” said Timber.

“Oh, you can bet that the rioting was perfectly safe.” Gale was starting to have fun, relieved from the burden of taking the ruins seriously. “After they were done, they packed up and headed downriver, never to be seen again.”

Sunset played along. “Where did we come from, then?”

Gale thought about this for a moment. “A few very deep sleepers. They woke up, looked around... everybody was gone. Decided they didn’t really like the old language, so they made up a new one. Didn’t leave any hints about the old one, though. I’m still bitter about that.”

Gale said, “Language and culture are intertwined, right? The more we know about one, the more we know about the other. We should be trying to learn what happened to them.”

Vine paused to consider her response. “You’re doing more than you realize for the state of the art by collating syntax pattern evidence. And I know you love working with syntax. Don’t be anxious about working as fast as possible, or you won’t get anything done.”

“But I think we’re really close to learning something about the fall of Cordek!” Gale had been working long and odd hours at decipherment. But it wasn’t just out of a misguided sense of diligence, it was also a way to avoid running into the electrologists and finding out how they felt about her work while they were sober.

“Research is a long game, Gale. Cordek Script is not going away.” Then her tone softened. “Okay, you obviously have some expectation of what we’re going to learn about the end of Cordek. You might as well tell me.”

Gale told the story as she saw it: a society so populous that the value of human life was acknowledged primarily through its destruction, a fascination with blood and an immense desire to find safety under the direction of its machines. “The Machine of Death was the crowning achievement of Cordek civilization. It was a machine to control life itself! Who knows how long it ruled them? Eventually the people rebelled against it – some of them, anyhow. The rebellion turned into a war, and no one won the war.”

Vine thought for a moment. “That’s an interesting theory. But I think it overstates the power of political upheaval. For the Cordek civilization to be totally destroyed, the fighting would have to have continued long after the machines were smashed. The machines would have needed to somehow keep feeding the fear even after they were gone.”

“Can we find out how long the fighting lasted?”

“Let me show you how to read Cordek dates.” Vine wrote some symbols on a piece of scratch paper.

“How long ago was that?”

“I don’t know.” Vine paused. “But this date is special; it’s the last date that I’ve found that they wrote about in the present tense.”

In a small community, it would’ve been hard for Gale to hide, even if it weren’t Sunset she was hiding from.

“Hey; I’ve been thinking about what you said about the Machine of Death.”

Gale frowned and nodded. “How was the trip? Did you find anything?”

“Way upstream, there’s a vast artificial embankment, where the dry river diverges from another one.” Gale had already noticed that Sunset’s voice tended to spontaneously shift into a didactic register. “Perhaps the other river leads to another ruined city, just like our ruins. Built into it are a set of gates and tunnels that they could use to control the flow of both rivers.”

“Why did they need to control it?”

“Nobody knows. These people lived downstream of a machine that could flood one river and staunch another.”

Gale pondered this. “There’s probably some text in our archives that explains why they did it, if only we could decipher it.”

Sunset’s face darkened. “Yes! And there’s also probably some text that explains why it was perfectly reasonable to build a machine that told them who should live and who should die.” Gale nodded, impassive. “Maybe they were right. Maybe there’s a perfectly rational reason. I just don’t want to read what they wrote if it’s going to make me believe it was right to live that way.”

“I don’t think they could convince us.”

“Whatever that machine did, it’s Cordek’s way of communicating with us. We’re here to scavenge trinkets and tools, not to live like them. We do that, and we’ll die like them.”

“I only want to see what kinds of things it wrote on those cards.”

“I know. That’s why I’m here. You’re not very good at hiding your fascination.”

They both looked at the floor for a moment.

Sunset brushed her hair away from her face. “Just be careful, okay?”

It took ten days before Gale was satisfied that she had picked up the necessary bits of Cordek Script. She had needed to proceed slowly to avoid barraging Vine with questions about things like the grammar of direct quotations. Sunset’s warning troubled her a little, but she’d never mentioned it again.

Vine’s archives of preserved Cordek Script texts were loosely organized by theme, and Gale had been disappointed to discover that “Machine of Death” was not one of those themes. Now, she was methodically examining the archives, shelf by shelf.

She found a poster with a picture of the machine on it, and some empathic-looking text, and added it to a growing arc of books, pamphlets, and letters on the floor. Most ancient paper had crumbled into dust, but the Cordek people were astonishingly prolific writers, and even the most ephemeral things occasionally got printed on paper that didn’t yellow and crumble over time. And they wrote about the Machine of Death a lot.

Eventually, Gale sat down and paged through the materials, back and forth, too impatient to spend long with any one thing. Judging by the dates that appeared in texts about it, the Machine had been invented about six months before the end of their civilization.

She had hoped to find mention of the output of the machine, but she had only found a couple possible quotations, both written, oddly, in all capital letters. One was a single, short word that she didn’t know, and the other was a noun phrase. She could translate the last word: “PANIC”.

She frowned, and kept leafing through the papers.

There was a single horse awake in the moonlit pasture when Gale returned to visit the Machine of Death. The temptation that struck her was so strong that even after she arrived in front of it, she had to stop, breathe deeply, and think through the risks once more. But no one would ever need to know. A piece of paper with Cordek writing was the easiest possible thing to lose in the ruins.

Her pause was a chance for other kinds of doubts to creep into her mind. She felt like she wasn’t a good enough friend to Sunset, and she couldn’t tell if Vine was getting fed up with her lack of focus, and it seemed like the archaeologists were never too far from making a bonfire out of Vine’s archives and ending decoding for good.

None of that mattered here. Learning one new thing wouldn’t change the way that anyone felt about her. She went back to the power source and flipped the switch.

Nothing happened. Gale tried the switch a few more times, but the power was gone.

She thought of the horse in the field, and then about the guilt she felt for defying Sunset. She turned and left.

As she walked through the pasture, she noticed a person leaning on the outside of the fence, looking in. It was Sunset, staring off into space.

Gale had planned on waiting a couple of days before talking to her. In any event, it would be embarrassing to be seen to have been lurking in a place that wasn’t hers to lurk in. But her feet took her straight to her friend.

“Sunset; I was just thinking about you. I need your help.”

“Oh.” Sunset shook her head vaguely to clear it. “Sure.”

“I’ve been looking at Cordek records about the Machine of Death. I can’t say that I know what happened, but I think I know how it happened.”

“Go on.”

“They said hardly anything about its social function. Maybe it didn’t even have any cultural or ritual purpose. But it was supposed to relieve anxiety somehow. I can tell, because it failed. It made things much worse.”

“What were they afraid of?”

“Dying. Death.” Gale saw Sunset’s baffled look. “I know! It makes no sense! They couldn’t understand inevitability, so they built a machine to protect themselves from it!”

“What did it do?”

“If I can try the machine out, maybe we’ll be able to figure it out. There was something deeply wrong with the Cordek people. Maybe there’s something different wrong with us. Who can tell?”

Sunset was silent.

“It was really lucky I ran into you here.” Gale suddenly realized that something was on Sunset’s mind. “What brought you out here?”

“I don’t think I want to be an archaeologist.”

“You mean you’re leaving the ruins?”

“I thought about what I said to you. About how we’re here to scavenge Cordek trinkets. I don’t have any interest in that!” Sunset climbed over the fence, and sat down, leaning against it. Gale sat beside her. “I convinced Timber to become an archaeologist so that I could have the best part of my job back. But this still isn’t the life I want to live.” Sunset’s voice brightened. “If I go back to the city, I could find a way to work with horses without having to pretend to be something else. It doesn’t have to please everyone.”

Gale didn’t know what to say. “I don’t know what to say,” she said. “I’m going to miss you.”

Sunset smiled. “I’ll miss you. And... I think I haven’t been fair to archaeology. It’s not all collecting trinkets. If you really think that the Machine of Death is safe, I’d be happy to help you use it.”

Gale turned toward her. “Really?”

“As long as you let me try it, too.”

“It’s still your lab.”

They walked back across the pasture that had once been a river.

1There was originally a digression about tense and English here, but all that's left is a vestigial link to a completely irrelevant but awesome Dinosaur Comic.

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