Flowers for the Machine Man


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The engines whirred in the darkness. Jones could see their scarlet glow, dimming and brightening in time to the thrum, which meant the gears inside were still turning. Still alive. Almost like the ebb and flow of the tide.

Jones missed the ocean.

Not like he’d been much of a seaman though, even before. He was a machine man, an engine man, more comfortable with the methodical ticking of steel than the uncontrollable wildness of everything else. The most Jones had seen of sailors was on the television—bawdy, reckless boys who couldn’t even hold a tune. No thank you, said seven-year-old Jones. Even then he’d been the opposite.

Jones leaned as far back against the pulsing generator as he could without getting himself burned, and listened to the ruckus happening above-deck. The daily call always heralded a stampede—the entire ship pouring out. Heavy clomping boots from the guys who still worked down here. Civilian shoes, a whole bunch of them tapping on the rigged steel. And little sock feet pitter-pattering—they were always the first to race up, eager to see what they’d been promised. Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Is that it?

Jones ached for them. Maybe he should’ve gone up, just to tell them about the ocean. But wouldn’t that be cruel.

Besides, Jones never went up at the call anymore. He knew it inside and out. He was a machine man, and the reports were about as mechanical as you got. 

What news, Captain? 

Just a little longer now. 

But how much longer? How far are we from Earth? 

You know we had to evacuate as far as possible. It was always going to take a while. 

But it’s been years, Captain! Generations! 

It’s been safe out here, that’s all we wanted. If the engines hold out just a little longer, we’ll make it home. Just hang on—don’t lose hope now.

If the engines held out. Heh.

The guys down here believed it, or at least were too afraid not to. Every day, they’d check and recheck the systems, fix what they could, pray over what they couldn’t. When the call came blaring over the intercom, they’d be off like a shot, running across the whole ship for promises going on as empty as their fuel tanks.

Jones had been one of them, once. 

But to be a good machine man, you had to be pragmatic. You had to know which pieces you had and which you didn’t; which bits to repair and which ones to excise; when a system had become obsolete. Jones was only fair, in his estimation—he would’ve stuck around just for the engines—but he knew when to cut loose.

There was no holding out. They were lost.

Recently Jones had taken up diary-keeping. It kept his hands occupied and felt better, less confining, than that engine room full of blind, needy faith. Like quiet clockwork, he marked down the daily goings-on and the new gossip and the old stories. Maybe someday, one of those scientists would find it. Put it in a museum. But right now it was to keep him sane.

He wasn’t built for diary-keeping, though, any more than he was built for sailing. He missed the engines. So, pragmatically, Jones made a compromise with himself: when the call came, and everyone cleared out, he could sneak a few minutes with his machines.

A few minutes.

How much time did he have left? Jones was precise, but lately he’d been slipping—and suddenly the engines groaned, a distinctly off-book sound. Maybe the ship was slipping, too. 

Jones stood up, slowly. He could feel the hurt in his knees and back, but it had been there for a while. Just how you aged; nothing to be done. He picked his way to the source of the noise. With a rising well of bitter humor, he felt like a young version of himself, his shirt pulling over his hunched spine like he was still in uniform.

He knew the engine room like he was a young man, too, and quickly found the problem. Engine 42. Something was jamming it. Jones crept closer and peered into the dim glow, as though staring into the sun, except the heat didn’t billow out into his eye like it should have. This boy was cold. Clogged, maybe. 

And there it was.

A growing thing, inside the engine. It was a vine, perhaps, or the long, twisting stem of a flower. Jones had never caught on to the names of growing things, but he did like them. They’d had a little planter on the sill, painted ladybug red. In any case, Jones had been much more impressed by the sprouts than by the sailors on TV. Every now and then, his mama would come in from the kitchen just to take a look. Fragile things, she said. Don’t touch. 

Jones reached into the stuttering, cooling engine. The stem was long and thick and dark green, with bloom spikes studding it. He could see the start of buds; in the unreliable light, they looked blue.

Blue like the ocean. Jones hummed a little tune to himself. Blue like the ocean, he liked that.

There was a tinny rattle of words from up above, like a record scratch, and then the playing of the anthem. Jones could barely remember, but he was certain it wasn’t the real anthem—just a recording of a song they were lucky enough to save.

The guys would be coming down now.

Jones turned his attention to the growing thing. It would break this engine, he knew, and soon—and then it would break every other engine, too. There’d be no chance of stopping it. These buggers keep growing, his mama had said, unless you take ‘em out at the root.

He could take this one out at the root. Just a tug and it would break loose, its budding spikes flying free and withering on the steel floor. The engine would flame up again and purr along, scarlet glow in the darkness, thrumming in time to the ebb and flow.

Like the ocean. Alive.

Jones brushed his fingers against the growing thing. It was cool and yielding, and the bud spike wasn’t painful at all, just soft. It did look blue. He couldn’t bring himself to break off a single piece—test how the color looked in the light.

Jones let go.

One of the guys finally entered the room: grubby-faced and beaming, like he’d just looked on the face of a god. Jones might have worked with him, but he couldn’t remember.

“Did ya hear? Did ya hear what the Captain said?” He didn’t even seem ill-tempered that someone unauthorized was down with the engines. He just kept grinning, silly and electrified. “We’re closer than we’ve ever been now! Tomorrow we’ll be able to see Earth out the window!” 

“Right,” said Jones, who was thinking about tomorrow—tomorrow, sneaking down to the whirring engines again with his diary; tomorrow, leaning up against the rumbling steel like it was the back of a patchwork couch; tomorrow, listening to the clatter above him like it was the clatter of his mama in the kitchen or the talk of the strange, noisy boys on television...“Tomorrow.”

Tomorrow, if all the machines tore apart in the pitch black of space, the blue of blooming flowers.

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