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Brian Hopkins is an electronics engineer who lives near Oklahoma City. His stories have appeared in Aboriginal SF, Dragon Magazine, Adventures of Sword and Sorcery, and many other publications. This story originally appeared in Dark Matter Chronicles.

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Reflections on a Classic Machine

by Brian A. Hopkins


machine (me-sh_n') n 1. Any system formed to direct applied forces to accomplish a specific objective . . . 5. A person who acts in a rigid, mechanical, or unconscious manner. 6. An organized group of persons whose members appear to be under the control of one or more leaders.
(Abridged from The American Heritage Dictionary, (c)1978 Houghton Mifflin Company.)


     The machine sat in our yard, chock-blocked at the top of the hill (though I doubt that it could roll, given that its tires had long since rotted to snake-skin thin shreds). It was overgrown with weeds and streaked in rust, a massive assemblage of metal and plastic and materials for which I had no name. Daddy would sit in the front seat and stare out through the cracked and dusty windshield. His hands would lay lifeless in his lap as if he'd forgotten where they were supposed to go, as if he'd lost more than just muscle tone, as if he'd lost the very capacity for directed movement. He would drool. He would twitch. He would forget to close the door, sitting out there in all kinds of weather. By my eighth year, three years after they'd brought him home, the machine had rusted to the point where its door would never close again, no matter how hard I pushed.
     "Acid rain," Mama said, as if that were some sort of explanation.
     When I asked her to explain, she merely went in the house and picked up her needlework. Like Daddy, she never looked at me. It was as if she was always talking or looking at someone three feet behind me.
     On one of her rare talkative days, Mama said the machine was an ancient automobile, much like the dropships which brought the Blackboots to our home every Sunday, only the automobile traveled on the ground instead of in the air. Mama said that in the years before the war, before they'd taken Daddy away, the machine had been a valuable collector's item, a carefully preserved relic from a century ago. It had been Daddy's most prized possession. I tried to get him to talk about the machine, but Daddy never said anything. He sat. And he stared. Sometimes in the night he'd cry out.
     But he never spoke to me.
     Until the Blackboots stopped coming.
     I remember the Sunday they didn't show up, first Sunday without them since that Sunday they'd brought Daddy back to us. Mama put up her needlework and stood on the porch, watching the darkening sky. Daddy was up in his machine, there on the hill overlooking the bluffs where my world ended. Poised there against the setting sun, aimed at that deadman's drop, the machine almost seemed to have some purpose, as if Daddy were merely waiting the right moment to start it up and charge into the valley below.
     Normally, we'd have brought Daddy down by now. We'd left him there past supper because on Sundays it was always the Blackboots who brought him down to the house for us.
     "What's wrong, Mama?"
     "Go in the house, child."
     "But someone's gotta bring Daddy down." This was generally my responsibility, as Mama hated leading him by the hand like that.
     "Leave him," she said.
     She turned, and I saw anger in her eyes. The last time I had seen her angry was when the Blackboots had brought Daddy home and left him sitting on our front porch in the rocker. Since that day, except for those times when she cried and didn't know I heard, she'd been ... well, emotionless. But now she was mad. I thought she was going to hit me, and a part of me actually welcomed the blow because I couldn't remember the last time that she had hit me. Then something lit the sky behind her, reflecting off our front windows to dance in her eyes. In an instant, I saw the reflected fire bleed the emotion from her. Her lips parted and her shoulders sank and it just seeped out her mouth, insubstantial. Her anger was gone even before the mysterious flash brought a light breeze and a rumble up over the hill. Before I could open my mouth to ask what was happening, the first flash was followed by another staccato burst that made the clouds glow like they were laced with sheet lightning. There were suddenly streaks of crimson in the sky. Blue welts leaped from the ground to the clouds and back again, leaving their image in my eyes for long seconds after they'd gone. The earth shook.
     "Mama? What is it?"
     She shuddered. "It's the end of the world."
     "Go get your father."
     "But what about --"
     "Go get your father!"
     From the top of the hill, where I used to see stars below as well as above (Lights, Mama had explained, the stars on the ground are distant lights), I could see that the world was on fire. If the lights meant houses, and the houses meant people (something Mama had never confirmed for me), then there must have been more people out there in the distance than there were blades of grass in our fields. But now the lights were disappearing in conflagrations of amber and blue, a firestorm that was mirrored in the sky above.
     Bright blossoms exploded across the machine's windshield. The dust on the glass looked like blood. The jagged, spider-web cracks pulsed like arteries. Behind the glass I could see Daddy's eyes, wide and wild. His hands were clenched on the wheel of the machine and his knuckles were white.
     "I knew they hadn't forgotten," he whispered. "I knew they'd start again."
     And he would say nothing more. Nor would he go back down the hill with me. He sat there all night, watching the world burn, rubbing his arm where every Sunday the Blackboots had stuck him with a needle. Every Sunday, but this one.

     The distant explosions continued off and on for the next three days. The Blackboots finally showed up on Wednesday, in a dropship spewing fluids from three black-rimmed holes in its side. They looked tired. I couldn't remember ever having seen their uniforms torn and dirty before.
     Mama stood on the porch, wringing a dish towel in her hands. "Leave him alone," she whispered so low even I wasn't intended to hear. There were three of them -- one more than usual. I tried to follow them when they climbed the hill, but the tallest, whose eyes were as grey and grim as the uniform he wore, fixed me with a stare that froze me in place. So I waited on the porch with Mama, watching her murder that towel, afraid to ask what it meant that they should show up in the middle of the week, with an extra man whose uniform bore more patches and medals than any I'd ever seen, without the black suitcase in which they'd always brought Daddy's medicine. And even though I'd gone without dinner the night before because there was nothing in the house to eat, I didn't ask Mama why the Blackboots hadn't brought us our weekly ration of food.
     They stayed up on the hill for more than an hour, while the shadows stretched into twilight and then slipped on to night. Mama sent me to bed, but I was too worried about Daddy to sleep. I slipped out my window and crept into the darkness by the ship. I had it in my mind that they were here to take Daddy and, being only eight, had some wild idea that I could somehow stop them. Daddy hadn't been much of a father to me the last three years, but I remembered the man he had been before they had taken him away the first time. At least I thought I remembered. Now, years later, it's hard to say what is real and what is the inventions of an eight-year-old mind desperately wanting some semblance of normalcy.
     When they finally returned to their ship, their black boots crunching on the brittle grass like the sound of the insects that had devoured Mama's garden the year before, I was relieved to see that they had left Daddy on the hill. But I felt something else too. I was disappointed. Disappointed that my Daddy hadn't turned out to be of some value after all. Their conversation, as I hid in the shadows and listened, confirmed my fear. Though I've forgotten much of what was said, and what I did hear was often lost in the muted rumblings of the distant explosions, one thing was clear.
     They had judged my father and found him unworthy.
     The clearest part of their conversation came as they were boarding the dropship. At the time I didn't understand some of the words, but I made myself remember them so that years later I could search for answers to the machinations that had changed my family forever.
     "I'm sorry, Commander," said the one who usually gave Daddy his medicine, "we didn't know the drugs would rob him of so much."
     "When he was made," said the tallest, "we had no idea we'd want to mothball him. If we'd known, we would have built in more of a physical tolerance to the medications that have kept him quiescent."
     "Forget about physical tolerance," replied the Blackboot I'd never seen before that night, the one they'd called Commander. "We could live with atrophied muscles and motor disfunction, if only he was mentally fit. If his mind was still sharp, we might be saved through his leadership."
     "We could still take him back," offered the first Blackboot. "He's only been off the medication for a few days. Maybe if we worked on him, gave him more time --"
     "No," said the Commander, looking up at the dark shape of the machine on the hill. There was a sudden explosion, closer than any of the others, and something plunged from the sky to bloom a brilliant orange in the valley below. In the brilliant flash that followed, my hiding place was revealed, but only he saw me crouched there. For a moment his eyes held mine, as the orange fireball rose in the sky and then collapsed to spread across the ground like iridescent honey.
     The Commander looked at me and in his eyes I saw what he saw: a scrawny, filthy, little girl, all rags and tangles and bones. "Leave him be," said the Commander, and then he stepped back into the dropship.
     I never saw any of them again.

     I found Daddy on the hood of the machine, reclining against the shattered windshield, watching the explosions on the horizon. He looked back at me as I approached and there was a clarity in his eyes that I'd never seen before.
     "They're gone," I said, only thinking afterward how stupid it was for more to point out the obvious. Of course, he'd seen them leave. From the hilltop, he could see everything. Was that why he'd spent all those years there?
     "What did they want?" I asked.
     He frowned and turned away, mumbling something that was lost in the bass complaint of a distant explosion. I watched as he pried loose a chip of paint from the crumbling hood of the machine. He held it up and studied it in the next flash of light.
     "I used to sit up here in the summer and polish this old T-Bird. She was candy-apple red with seven fucking coats of lacquer. A little wax and she'd shine clear as a mirror. You could look into that deep well of paint on the hood and pick out distant palm trees in the reflection from the valley." He looked down at me. "You don't even know what a palm tree is, do you?"
     I shook my head, afraid to speak for fear it would shatter the moment and return him to silence.
     He held up the chip and inspected it one last time, finally flicking it away into the night. "Look at it now. Look at my car." He swallowed. "Look at me."
     It was more than I'd ever heard Daddy say before. I stood there, wanting to ask him so many things. What had the Blackboots wanted? What was going on in the valley?
     "Daddy, what's going to happen to us?"
     He winced and turned away. "I'm not your daddy, child."
     "But Mama said --"
     "And she's not your mama."
     I stood there, not knowing what to say. My legs trembled and I was about to run when he hopped down off the machine.
     "Give me a hand," he said.
     Unmoving, I watched as he kicked the blocks out from under the front wheels. He walked around behind the machine and leaned his shoulder into it. As he strained against it, his faded shirt ripped at the shoulder and the sleeve fell to his elbow, revealing ancient muscles that had hidden beneath the fat. He groaned and he pushed, and it seemed impossible to tell which sounds came from the shifting machine and which came from his creaking joints. The car rocked on its ravaged tires.
     "You going to help or not?"
     So I went around back and added my fifty pounds to his two hundred.
     "They made me," he hissed around the strain on his face. "Just like this machine ... they made me ... and when they were through with me ..." The machine screeched and rolled forward. "... they left me here to rot ..." The machine started down the hill, picking up speed. " ... just like this car."
     My legs got tangled and I stumbled. The car slipped away from me. Without it to lean against, I fell.
     "You can't stay here," Daddy yelled back over his shoulder.
     By this time he was running beside the car. I watched as he caught the open door and pulled himself inside. There was a great metallic screech as he wrestled the rusted door closed, and then I couldn't see much as the night and a turmoil of dust swirled up around the plummeting vehicle. I sat there, staring at the red stains on my hands, listening until the rattle of the runaway vehicle was replaced by the sigh of the wind coming up over the bluffs and a final, brutal crash as it struck somewhere far below.

     Mama was waiting on the porch. I stopped in the yard and looked up at her, trying to really see her for the first time.
     "He said they made him."
     She nodded. "Made you, too, child."
     I swallowed and tried to ask the question that most terrified me. It wouldn't come.
     Mama turned to go back in the house. "Best come inside now."
     "It's late."
     "Why . . . did they make us?"
     There came a rumble in the distance. The ground trembled beneath my bare feet.
     Mama looked out at the horizon and then down at me. "For that, child." She looked directly at me then, maybe the first time I'd ever seen her do so. "You were a failure. Ordinary in every sense of the word. So they brought you to me."
     "Why'd you take me?"
     "They brought food," she said. Her voice was flat, toneless, empty. "Once a week. Every week. They brought food."
     "Well they won't be bringing any more," Daddy said.
     I hadn't heard him come down the hill. Somehow he'd moved as quiet as a mouse through that tall, dead grass. His shirt was torn worse than before, so that it hung off his chest and down around his waist. He was big, but it wasn't all fat. His stomach was in and his chest was out. There was that sharpness to his eyes that I'd noticed earlier. Before I knew what I was doing I ran to him and pressed my face against the hair and the dirt on his chest. He smelled like rust from the machine. He smelled like the dirt he'd rolled in when he jumped from the car. He smelled like muscle and sweat and ... Daddy. When his strong arms wrapped around me and pulled me in tight, I could hear his heart beating somewhere deep inside.
     "Pack whatever you can," he told Mama.

     We live high in the mountains now, with others who escaped from the cities. The soldiers seldom come this high, but when they do Daddy leads men out to take care of them. Sometimes they're outnumbered. Sometimes it seems hopeless. But Daddy knows things. Daddy plans and Daddy gives orders, and our men always come home.
     Daddy's taught the people other things -- important things, he says. How to read and write. How to build houses that won't collapse under the weight of the winter snow. Last year they built an irrigation system to bring more water to Mama's vegetables. They're working on a school now. A school where my own two children will go.
     Daddy says we can outlast them. Daddy says they'll forget about their classic machine.
     I hope he's right.
     I know he's right.
     Daddy knows everything.


It takes twenty years or more of peace to make a man; it takes only twenty seconds of war to destroy him.
     -- Baudouin I, King of Belgium