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The Holy Machine

an extract from the novel

by Chris Beckett

Not so very far in the future, a wave of religious fundamentalism called simply the Reaction has swept the world, overthrowing the The Holy Machine by Chris Beckettestablished order and sweeping away secularism, humanism and also science. Scientists fleeing persecution in their own countries have managed to establish their own city state on the coast between Greece and Albania as a place of refuge. It is called Illyria. Technologically far advanced of their fundamentalist neighbour in, the so-called Outlands, and therefore strong and powerful, the Illyrians remain very afraid of the kind of passionate, irrational uprisings of ordinary people that occurred in their own countries.

They are therefore engaged in trying to replace their own human workforce with a less unpredictable workforce of robots. There are robot waiters, robot janitors, robot security guards--even robot prostitutes. But Illyria still has a large population of human guestworkers from the neighbouring outland states. And the robots themselves are not entirely predictable. They have been known to act strangely, and even to wander off, for no apparent reason.

George, the narrator, is a young Illyrian, the son of refugees from America, who works as a translator for a company called Word for Word.

In the ferment of the Reaction, Greece has broken up into a number of states, and in this extract George is on a business trip to the state of Epiros, which borders Illyria itself.


'Yet another from the City,' the taxidriver observed as we lurched and bumped along the potholed road from the air-strip into the mountain town of Ioannina. Throughout the Eastern Mediterranean, Illyria was known then as 'the City', just as imperial Byzantium had been known in times past.

The driver introduced himself as Manolis. He stuck a fat roll-up into his mouth and lit it. It crackled like a bonfire.

'I have had many people from the City in my car. Some come to stare, some to escape, some to buy things that the City can't sell them...'

He glanced knowingly at me in his mirror, 'Whatever it is they want, I always do my best to oblige.'

'I'm here on business,' I told him, and gave him the name of the hotel by the lakeside where I would be staying.

'Ah yes,' he said, 'on business. You're all coming here on business now. But perhaps you'll have time for a look around? I can show you around. A whole day, however many kilometres you want: four hundred drachmai.'

Illyrian diplomacy about that time was trying to develop a ring of comparatively moderate client states around Illyria itself, by strengthening the hands of various more pragmatic factions through trade and the judicious supply of arms. One of these client states was Epiros, the fiefdom at that time of one Archbishop Theodosios who had his capital at Ionnina. An Illyrian government delegation was here to talk trade with him, but the translator had become ill, and I'd been hired from Word for Word as a last minute replacement.

'Three hundred drachmai then,' said Manolis, mistaking my lack of response for a bargaining ploy.

There were shrines beside the road. Murals of bleeding Christs. Even from Manolis' mirror there dangled a Virgin Mary.

Everything looked dirty and run-down.

The women wore headscarves and long dresses.

Animals ran around in the road.

There was no mistaking it: I was in the Outlands.

We arrived in the town. There was a lake with an island on it. Beyond that a great bleak wall of mountains.

And all around seethed human life: old and young, rich and poor, shouting, laughing, haggling, talking, wailing. For a while we nudged slowly through this mass of humanity. Faces peered in through the windows. Mouths opened, treating me to views of bad teeth and antique dental work done with gold. Then the crowd grew denser and finally the taxi came to a halt at an intersection with a main road, immobilised by the sheer density of people.

'A saint's day,' Manolis explained.

We got out. Along the road in front of us, through a narrow gap in the crowd created by baton-wielding policemen and thuggish-looking monks, a procession was moving. Two priests in elaborate robes and long beards came in front swinging censers and after them, four more holding aloft a gilded case. People were running forward to touch the case, in spite of the policemen shouting and hitting out at them with their sticks. All around me people were crossing themselves and muttering incantations.

Encouraged by the taxi-driver I pushed nearer to the front.

The gilded case was just drawing level with me when I realised for the first time what it contained. Through a glass window at the front of it looked out the face of a desiccated corpse. Not only was this a saint's day but here was the saint himself in person.

I looked round at the driver, seeking an explanation, but he was crossing himself and muttering just like the rest.

On our side in the negotiations there were two not very senior officials from the Department of Trade, on theirs, three extraordinary-looking priests, utterly alien to my Illyrian eyes, with long hair and long beards and strange flowing robes. I was the translator for our side, using a small lap-top translating machine as a crib (such machines can talk quite competently for themselves, incidentally, but Outland sensibilities are offended by talking to machines). On the Greek side the translator was another priest, younger than the others, and in fact not much older than myself, but equally medieval in appearance.

During interludes when the delegations withdrew to confer, I was left in the negotiating room with this man, and we were served tiny cups of coffee, accompanied by sweet cakes and glasses of water. At first we didn't speak at all in these breaks . I would just sit and brood--mostly about Lucy. I now visited her twice a week, and I was already longing for my next visit. I tried to picture her face, her voice, her limbs, her breasts. I longed for her caresses, as if she were really human and I was really her lover.

And then, the fourth or fifth time we were left alone like that, the Greek suddenly spoke.

'You will burn in hell, my friend,' he growled softly in English, leaning over the negotiating table.

For a moment I was really scared. It was as if he had been looking straight into my mind.

'I... I beg your pardon?'

'If you do not acknowledge Christ,' the Greek said, 'you will burn in hell...'

It was what my mother had been told on that bleak afternoon by Lake Michigan all those years ago. I laughed uncomfortably.

'Don't you have anything to say in reply?' he demanded.

He had very deep and powerful eyes that seemed to bore straight through the thin veneer of my face.

I shrugged and blushed. 'We Illyrians need things to be properly proved to us if we are to accept them as true. We can't believe in things just because someone says we'll burn in hell if we don't.'

He laughed, angrily and without humour. 'Well, if you want proof look at that City of yours where you live without God, and compare it with our Holy Epiros!'

I gaped at him in astonishment. Then I almost burst out laughing! How could anyone unfavourably compare our gleaming, prosperous, dynamic city, with this sordid pit of poverty and ignorance and disease?

'My God,' said my fellow translator, lapsing now into Greek, 'I've even heard you have machines there that resemble women for men to fornicate with. You shut yourselves away from God and now you make a mockery even of love! Where else but in the lowest depths of hell could such perversions be tolerated?'

But the delegations were returning to the room.

I remember that night in the hotel I lay awake for a long time. It was a hot night, there was no air-conditioning and my window was open. Smells and sounds came in from the street: roasted meat, shouting, crudely amplified Greek music, church-bells (even then, in the middle of the night!)...

Usually I would have comforted myself by thinking about Lucy, but the priest's disgust and contempt were still fresh in my mind, and made it impossible for me to find any solace in that way. In fact I couldn't even picture her in my mind as she seemed when I was with her. I could only think of what she really was, of what she was when I wasn't there to see her.

I imagined her with all the other syntecs, the other Advanced Sensual Pleasure Units, sitting together in the darkness in that big red room after the House shut down at 3 a.m. Their blank wide-open eyes were staring straight ahead, reflecting the neon lights of the nightclub across the street -- red, blue, pink, red, blue, pink--as the eyes of dolls and teddy-bears catch the light, but are otherwise without a flicker of life. And they were silent, silent at any rate to human ears, like statues in a mausoleum.

But far above the range of human hearing, the ASPUs were communicating after their fashion. In tiny ultrasound batsqueaks, one after another, they were downloading the day's data to House Control.

I had my tour with Manolis the next day. He showed me all the tourist sites of Ioannina: the ruined castle of the Ottoman despot Ali Pasha, the churches, the dilapidated archaeological museum, the chapels and shrines on the little island in the lake.

I remember that the interior of one of the chapels was completely covered with murals from floor to ceiling, most of them depicting hideous scenes of saints being skinned alive, saints roasting over fires, saints being beheaded ...

'Look at the courage of our holy martyrs,' said Manolis proudly, gesturing to a saint gazing steadfastly up to heaven while his tormentors disembowelled him. 'It is faith in our Lord that gives them strength. You don't understand that in that City of yours!'

And for a moment this idea humbled me, just as the fierce Greek translator had humbled me. I had a glimpse of what faith might mean: something strong for a person to hold onto beyond his own immediate needs and feelings...

But later, when we were back in Manolis' taxi it struck me that it wasn't that simple. Scientific rationalism had steadfast martyrs of its own, after all, from Galileo to Mrs Ullman, who had suffered or died for refusing to pretend to believe in things.

Manolis showed me other things too, less exalted things, which he thought might tempt me. He showed me the town's brothel, were several fat, bored-looking human whores were sitting outside in the sun. ('I thought you might like a girl,' he said, and I laughed coldly to myself at the very idea of being tempted by these wretched creatures, when I had Lucy waiting for me back home.) He took me on a tour of the town's artisanal area. There was a street of tanners (with piles of discarded animal hooves outside each workshop), a street of potters, a street of mechanics...

He insisted on having me get out and look at a street where they repaired and sold firearms. There were not only shotguns and hunting rifles but automatics, machine guns and even improvised grenade launchers made by sawing the barrel off a rifle and welding on to it a cup made out of old olive oil cans.

'They are used for fishing,' he said. 'You fire a grenade into the middle of a shoal and--bang!--thirty fat fishes in one go!'

I wondered what else they were used for, and why Manolis thought they might be of interest to a visitor from Illyria.

As we returned to the car an elderly woman accosted us. She was a Vlach, as Manolis told me afterwards disdainfully, an Aromune, one of a dwindling mountain tribe who speak a Latin language and are said to be the descendants of Roman soldiers. She wore colourful clothes, but her hands had been reduced by leprosy to blackened stumps.

'Help me, please, in the name of mother Mary,' she intoned in a kind of stylised whine which seemed to be common to Ioannina's many beggars.

Manolis snorted.

'No good talking about Mary, old woman. He's from the City.'

'In the name of the City, then!' wailed the old woman. 'In the name of the big silver tower in the sea!'

Manolis laughed, climbing back into the car and turning the key in the ignition. But I was touched by her invocation of the silvery Beacon. I gave her a twenty-drachma note as I got into my own seat.

As we roared off in a thick cloud of exhaust smoke, the taxi-driver gestured towards a small side street.

'Down there are experts in documents. If you ever need a passport or an ID card... I've taken more than one of your compatriots down there who wanted to start another life.'

Why would any Illyrian want to start another life out here, I wondered? I'd never heard of such a thing. Illyria was entirely populated after all by refugees from this outer world. But it seemed that the Outlanders were privy to aspects of my homeland that were unknown to me.

Manolis seemed to sense my bewilderment.

'I've been to your Illyria my friend,' he said, 'I worked there for a time. I know what it's like. Clean streets, nice homes, no one goes hungry, no one has to be in pain... But in the end it will drive you crazy. Nobody can live like that forever.'

I shrugged. 'Well, I suppose most of the rest of the world has come to the same conclusion,' I began to say, then broke off with a gasp of pure horror.

We had come to a dusty square in the centre of which there was a kind of gibbet. It was festooned with dismembered bodies, severed limbs, heads...

Manolis laughed.

'You see, even your demons can't stand it there! Look how many of them we have caught!'

Only then did it dawn on me that the limbs and heads were not human, but parts of robots.

I made him stop so I could get out and look. There were the remains there of half-a-dozen machines. The sad silver heads of two big security machines were impaled on poles. Nailed below them were the pink bodies of a couple of smaller plastecs: the type used as shop assistants and janitors and waiters. One of them, deprived of all its limbs, was hanging precariously upside down, perhaps dislodged by stone-throwing children of which several were even then enjoying some target practice. Its head, with its mild pink face dangled by a couple of wires from the rest of the frame.

It was Shirley!

Or if it wasn't the robot janitor from our apartment block it was certainly an identical model.

Manolis was rolling another cigarette, watching my reaction with amusement.

'How did they get here?' I asked him.

He shrugged. 'You City people should take more care of your demons, my friend. They just wander over the border. I don't know what they are looking for, but of course we destroy them.'


He snorted.

'Because they are blasphemies, mockeries of God's creation.'

Epiros was a Greek Orthodox state, but the reason he had given me was precisely the same one that had been given, all those years ago, by the Protestant mobs in Chicago when they broke to pieces my mother's beloved Joe.

Oily flames pouring upwards from a laboratory window...

A preacher with a megaphone in a white suit...

The poor, the marginal, the surplus to requirements, streaming in their thousands through the campus, seething with energy and rage...

'God is not mocked, God is not mocked!'

There, there, Ruth, there, there...

The trade talks were supposed to resume at three, but when Manolis brought me to the Archbishop's headquarters at 2.30, the two Illyrian negotiators were waiting anxiously outside. And to my surprise both men piled hastily into the back seat of the taxi.

'Thank God you've finally got here,' they said. (For Illyrians did still say 'Thank God'). 'We need to go straight to the airfield. The helicopter is on its way.'

Both of them were experienced middle-aged men (one a Japanese-Illyrian, the other of French origin), who up to now had seemed to be dealing quite calmly and competently with a slow and frustrating task. But both were now in a fever of agitation.

'What's happened?' I asked.

The French-Illyrian, Claude, made frantic hand signals, pointing at Manolis.

I reassured him that the driver spoke no English at all.

'There's been trouble back home,' said the Frenchman. 'There'll be a reaction here. It won't be safe until we're back in the City.'

Frowning, Manolis looked at me, glanced back at the negotiators and then frowned at me again. He was suspicious. He could sense the tension and he was wondering what he'd been excluded from.

'Tell him to turn off his radio!' said the other negotiator, Tojo. (Manolis had been listening to some crackly bouzouki music). 'The news may come through any time now and then he won't want to drive us.

'Tell him my colleague here has had a heart attack and we have to get home urgently,' the Frenchman said.

I told the taxi-driver that the Japanese-Illyrian was very ill and needed quiet.

Manolis frowned, looked dubiously back at Tojo, and very reluctantly turned off the radio.

'A thousand drachmai, to the airport,' he said coldly.

We agreed without further argument.

'There's been a big squippy demonstration back home,' Claude explained to me tersely ('squippy' was a derogatory term in those days for guestworkers, many of whom were Albanians, or shquips). 'Some people have died, most of them Greeks. We need to get out of Epiros before the news spreads.'

But the news was already spreading. We could actually see it, like a weather front moving across a landscape. For a little while the people in the streets were still just as they'd been all morning and over the last two days. Then there were more signs of agitation, more groups conferring, more glances towards our taxi and the three of us inside looking very Illyrian with our clean-shaven faces and our white, collarless suits.

Then someone threw a stone at us.

Then someone else shouted.

Then the car started to be jostled: fists were banged on the roof, doors were kicked, faces glared through windows.

Someone delivered a hard kick to Manolis' door. He wound down his window and roared out abuse.

'About thirty died,' said Claude (he was listening to the news through an ear-set as he spoke), 'Epirote Greeks, almost all of them.'

'Atheists! Murderers!' people were beginning to shout at us. A group of youths made to block our way.

Manolis put his foot down, scaring them out of his way by sheer ruthless speed.

He turned a corner and pulled up abruptly.

'Right, get out now,' he said.

Claude produced a wad of banknotes.

'Ten thousand if you get us to the airstrip!'

Tojo produced a handgun and pointed it at Manolis' head.

The driver grinned mirthlessly.

'You don't seem very ill to me!' Then he shrugged. 'Okay, ten thousand drachmai. But make sure everyone can see you pointing that gun at me.'

A lump of brick smashed a hole in the windscreen and sprinkled my suit with glass.

'And keep the safety catch on,' Manolis added through gritted teeth. 'I won't get you to the airport if you've blown my head off.'

He was sweating profusely. The Illyrian civil servants were sweating too. All three men were muttering a steam of obscenities in their respective native languages.

But as for me, oddly enough, for one so frightened of so many things, I felt completely unafraid. More than that, I actually felt elated. There was, I could see, a real possibility that the car would be stopped and we three Illyrians dragged out and beaten to death. But I was thrilled. I was enjoying the unfamiliar feeling of really being alive.

Somehow we got through the town in one piece, and on to the airstrip where the Illyrian Air Force helicopter was waiting with its rotor spinning, the unblinking, black-and-white Eye of Illyria painted on its side. Another helicopter, this one a ferocious gunship, was hovering overhead to ensure that no one interfered with our departure.

Soon we were safely on our way home above the Zagorian mountains. The helicopter crew filled us in on the day's events:

More than twenty thousand guestworkers had come out onto the streets. They had demanded the usual things: religious freedom and full citizenship of Illyria, where they formed the majority of the population but continued to be treated as foreigners.

The police had formally ordered the demonstration to disperse under the Prevention of Bigotry Act. The crowd had refused and a riot had ensued in which shops were looted, vehicles burnt and several robots damaged. This was when a group of demonstrators belonging to some Epirote organisation had run amok and been shot by police machines.

Tojo snorted: 'These demands are ridiculous. Illyria has always made clear that it is a state for scientists and intellectuals, and that full citizenship will only be given to those who are properly qualified...'

He went on, his voice becoming louder and shriller.

'Squippies came to Illyria out of choice! They know the rules! They've got no business trying to change them.'

He gave an angry snort. His face was all blotchy with emotion and his lip was trembling.

'But what's the point? They'll never listen to reason. The sooner the entire guestworker population is replaced by robots, the better.'

'Very pricey though,' observed Claude with a shrug.

'A price worth paying!' snapped Tojo, 'Really Claude, it is just absurd to talk about price!'

We were near the frontier. I looked down at the mountains and fancied for a moment that I saw a tiny single figure far below, struggling southward into Epiros across a snowfield. Oddly jerky movements it seemed to me. Was the figure human, or could it be...?

But I was distracted from taking a second look, by Tojo breaking down into convulsive sobs.

A young paramedic had come in the helicopter and he administered sedation.

We crossed into Illyrian airspace in silence, but for the gradually subsiding sobbing of Tojo as he settled into sleep, and the thrub-thrub-thrub of the helicopter blades.

Claude glanced at me.

'The Reaction was bad in Japan,' he said gruffly, by way of explanation. 'Public beheadings, torture... you know. It reminds him.'


© Chris Beckett 2004.
The Holy Machine by Chris Beckett

The Holy Machine is published by Wildside Press (hardcover, April 2004, ISBN: 1592242081; paperback, October 2004, ISBN: 1592242103).

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