Where He Belongs

There was a time when the ruin had an air of desolation and respect to it. It had been left well enough alone for thousands of years; its silent, extraordinary mechanisms dormant, though operational and waiting to launch themselves upon whatever hapless or unworthy trespasser decided to try to penetrate to the treasure within. There had been spinning blades, and bottomless pits disguised with optical illusions and riddles.

All that was excavated long ago, and now, there is the production line. A mechanical system of rails and single-occupant cars. The occupants lie down; many of them are unable to stand. An army of nurses and medical assistants prep them, affixing a funnel-like attachment in one corner of the mouth and attaching the tube to a port on the little vehicle's exterior. There are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of the cars, scooting around and around the complex circular route, hundreds of bays where people are loaded, sidings where cars are removed for repair or cleaning, and hundreds more bays where people are unloaded.

There's a temptation to sit up, try to see the sights, the ancient architecture and sculpture. It's a sacred and venerable sight, of tremendous historical significance. But the medical infrastructure which dominates the interior of the ruin, now the traps are removed, blocks the sights out. There's a tube down which you travel, and the wall of the tube is intentionally clouded.

You have to be able to get there. Nobody will arrange transportation, there or back. And you have to have something which won't kill you before you do. There are armed U.N. peacekeepers. There is a processing and prioritisation system. There are lanes. If you're at death's door, you'll get to the front very fast. If not... you may have to wait a significant amount of time.

The effect doesn't work outside of the ruin complex. The effect doesn't work if the water is transported in any other container. The water is just water and nobody knows what the truth is.

The real truth is, there is a machine at the centre of the ruin complex, in the central room. The Grail is mounted on a hydraulic arm. When a capsule arrives in the room, it decelerates to a halt, turns slowly, and the hydraulic arm scoops a few CCs of the water into the funnel. It flows down the short tube into the patient's mouth. And the capsule accelerates out of there. The exchange takes several seconds, during which more capsules are arriving and braking. It's a pleasing ballet of technology to observe. There are five or six capsules in the central room at any given instant. The rail system runs twenty-four hours a day, every day.

And by the time the patient reaches the disembarkation bays, they are fully healed.

"Clothes," Indy says to the knight, whose name, as he learned decades ago, is Thomas. "No matter how many times you tell them, they don't figure it out. Your body's going to change shape. Your weight's gonna change, you're gonna be able to stand up again, you'll have your arm back. You need to bring new clothes. Another shoe, for G... for Pete's sake."

The knight nods, sagely. He has guarded the Grail for unsleeping centuries and believes it will likely continue to be his duty for centuries more. In that time, he has never left the innermost sanctum where the Grail resides, and not seen with his own eyes the main part of the vast human processing machine. He only knows the archaeologist's descriptions.

"It has always sounded to me," the knight says, "like a kind of chaos out there."

"It's not my field," Indy says. "I like an adventure. A journey. I like to see the world, explore new cultures. A grand fistfight, big personalities and clear-cut morals. Or, these days, I like a quiet classroom. Humanitarian aid at this scale? There's a country's worth of people in line out there."

"Things could have gone another way," the knight says. "A more regrettable way."

"I know. I replay the scenes over and over. I can never stop thinking... there could have been a way to do all this, and save Dad too."

"It was a difficult judgement, made under intense conditions," the knight says, as he has many times. "Ah! Behold this child."

A smaller capsule has arrived. There is a very, very small infant in the capsule, baby-sized funnel in its mouth, held tightly by a frightened young father. The infant has its eyes closed, and it's not obvious to either the knight or the retired archaeologist that it was born very prematurely, in line, with a rare blood condition, to a woman who is close behind it in the line and carrying the same condition.

The knight raises a hand and says a word of blessing. He had a child of a similar age, once.

One sip, and the capsule is folding away, and the procession continues. The child will be fine. If humans were on foot through here, the rate at which people could be processed would be reduced to a tenth or a twentieth of this. On foot, people would insist on slowing down, hailing or praying to the knight, attempting conversation or sightseeing. Some are simply struck down by the miracle.

"There is a lack of art to this machinery," the knight says. He and Jones both know they can be overheard by the passing patients, so they speak in low tones. And, for the knight's part, in Latin. "I will admit it. There is no myth or sanctity to it. Its endless rattling. And yet, the outpouring of blessings it produces. And the great variety of people! The great cross-section! I considered myself well-travelled! Consider this exchange, archaeologist. To put an end to your adventures. To subtract out from your life the journey, the ancient mystery, the poison and the fire and the endless chase across the globe, in exchange for this unlimited boon!"

"There's nothing left out there to discover," Indy says. "The world's shrinking to a point. Wilderness and ancient culture are off the plate, everybody got sick of it. I ever tell you about this new thing called a computer?"

The word does not translate well. "A new kind of mathematician?" the knight asks.

"A machine. A machine which does math. A box with lights on it. Near as I can figure out, having a machine which does math just means everybody suddenly wants to do math. I'm ninety years old. I've never needed to do more math than... figuring out how much... gas to put in a biplane's tank."

The knight turns to Indy, examining him closely. Indy is barely able to sit up straight. "Archaeologist, should you, too, be in the great line?"

"There's no point," Indy says, closing his eyes. "Another two years and I'd be back in line again. And then, again. Round and round."

"The machine must be stopped," the knight says, rising to his feet and striding towards the Grail. But he hesitates. There is an emergency stop button, but in truth, a continual stream of emergencies passes through the sanctum. Nothing can justify stopping it.

"Embalm me," Indy says. "Stuff me and put me in a museum."

Discussion (20)

2020-11-30 23:47:45 by qntm:

1,303 words. Final total is 55,335 words. This is obviously a longer elaboration on something touched upon in Ra, chapter "The Jesus Machine". I guess I went too hard on fan fiction this month but I was really short of ideas. Thanks for reading!

2020-12-01 00:10:26 by kazanir:

great choice of closer imo.

2020-12-01 00:47:05 by Emmett Brown:

See you all in another ten years?

2020-12-01 02:08:40 by ian:

So, last time there were 30 first drafts, we had an amazing series, Ra, that seemed to come out of it. There's elements of ideas in Thaumic, Solaris, Magic NASA, Placebo Engineering, Laura Ferno and the bomb, and The self-reliant heroine that ended up as Ra. My theory is this may have been less intentional (that Sam didn't already intend on writing ra before Nanowrimo), but when forced to write 30 first drafts, those topics were promising and on his mind, so that's what his next series ended up being about. So, what are the 6 stories Sam might pull together to make his next series? We can take the motif of robots and AI and perhaps the fun twist is the AI actually originally human-based if we use Kill While One, Lena, A Robot Must Conceal..., Frame by Frame, and Urbane in Urbana. That's 5, but how could I know what the "Solaris"-like twist was. So, his next long work of fiction may concern AI, specifically the rules that Natural Intelligence programmed the AI to behave in. There's also multi-levels of Earth and the levels interacting in A Powerful Culture and Elevate. I loved the promise of these and it would be fun to see that, though this has been visited in Fine Structure already.

2020-12-01 02:43:45 by Jumble:

I, for one, would like to see how he improves on "Opinions in the year 10^500 CE"

2020-12-01 03:58:31 by Spwack:

Something very similar to this might have happened at the end of the Methods of Rationality. In order to improve this system you would have to stop the system, and that would kill people. But if you don't improve this system, even more people will die in the long-run... A trolley problem. In the most literal sense.

2020-12-01 04:27:05 by Dystopianist:

@ian, I’m actually hoping for a continuation to A Powerful Culture. Kill While One was good but it felt a bit uncinematic, while Lena and A Robot Must Conceal seem like closed stories. Frame by Frame and Urbane in Urbana were decent enough, but not really my flavor. Dunno, they might be stringed together yet.

2020-12-01 04:29:59 by Jernik:

@ian Sam has said he doesn't have too much interest in writing long serial stuff again, but who knows what will happen in the future

2020-12-01 09:22:11 by ArchitectureLady:

Thanks for the ride, Sam :) even when your writing is just a rough draft, reading it makes me happy.

2020-12-01 14:22:16 by mavant:

The exchange takes several seconds. Let's round that up to 10. Running 24 hours a day at one healing per ten seconds, with one healing per two years required to stave off old age, this machine can keep just over 6.3m people functionally immortal. Even if we halt population growth, it would need to be over a thousand times faster to keep all of humanity alive indefinitely. So, without some engineering breakthroughs, it's more of cancer treatment than a fountain of youth. That gives us a target: one healing per 8 milliseconds. In light of that my first thought would be: How fast can you accelerate these people, if they're about to get everything healed? No, wrong question. Why accelerate at all? Drill another hole, send them all through in a straight line without deceleration. They only need to be in the room long enough to swallow. And this way you have more space, since they don't need room to turn. You could fit several three-foot-wide tubes in the room and run them all in parallel... There certainly should be at least two, so you can take one down for maintenance without stopping everything. Does the Grail have to be separately scooped for each person? Can you scoop one cupful and pour it into several mouths before refilling and still get full effect? How long can the funnels be before the magic stops working? What's the minimum distance the Grail can be moved per cycle? How fast can it be moved without risking damage to it? For that matter, is there wear and tear on the Grail from this or is it magically indestructible? If it's slowly wearing out we should invest heavily in preventing that. Can it be reinforced? Does the water have to touch the Grail directly or could we encase it in titanium? If the Grail DOES eventually break, would the pieces still work? If water has been scooped up with the Grail but not yet left the temple complex, is it still potent? The funnels at least tell us that it doesn't need to go directly from Grail to mouth. If we could separate the water-blessing cycle from the healing cycle we could potentially improve things a great deal - the Grail fills a reservoir, and then some very precise machinery squirts the minimum possible amount of water into the mouth of each person as they are launched past without slowing. Assuming humans are an average of six feet long, then with one lane, minimum velocity is 500 miles per hour to accommodate the whole of humanity (I.e. 500 mph gets each person past the threshold in about eight milliseconds). With ten lanes (we'll pack them in both horizontally and vertically), a mere 50 miles per hour. That feels quite achievable! We travel 50 mph all the time.

2020-12-01 14:39:15 by skztr:

Every time I read "the Jesus machine" or "this was supposed to be a parable..." I always want to explore the alternate universe where they do it anyway

2020-12-01 19:26:21 by John F:

I think that Lena is the strongest of this month's stories, but I don't think it would do well to be expanded on. It is a short story by nature, and the horror comes from the euphemism and clinical tone. We don't know what "red motivation" is... and perhaps it's better that way.

2020-12-01 22:25:37 by Dot:

I really liked how the month turned out to be honest. There were a lot of concepts which were touched upon which may have been hard to expand upon into more, but nevertheless I still enjoyed them as presented. The multiple short story format allowed for that to happen more naturally if you ask me, as opposed to those ideas never really being explored in the first place.

2020-12-07 03:35:51 by JJJS:

@Emmett My God, has it really been a decade? I couldn't believe it. Sam, your stories have been a very meaningful and influential part of my life. Thank you :)

2020-12-09 07:46:06 by hopefulScion:

For what it's worth, I consider Sam one of my favorite authors. I talk about Sam Hughes in the same breath as Douglas Adams & Terry Pratchett.

2020-12-14 01:59:12 by g:

Very strongly reminiscent of a thought experiment due to the computer scientist John McCarthy: http://www-formal.stanford.edu/jmc/docdil.html and http://www-formal.stanford.edu/jmc/docdilsol.html ...

2021-04-09 00:44:28 by D:

HPMOR did this with the Philosopher's Stone.

2021-04-14 22:07:47 by qntm:

Put this on AO3 too: https://archiveofourown.org/works/30683675

2021-06-09 14:13:43 by john:

The grail doesn't scale, so ultimately it needs to be supporting conventional medical science rather than substituting. Lot of important research would probably cross some critical threshold toward being tolerably ethical if the triage flowchart had "shove them into the miraculous-full-recovery-o-mat" as a fallback option.

2021-12-29 09:05:35 by Sinity:

@mavant: It's not an clinical immortality machine > "There's no point," Indy says, closing his eyes. "Another two years and I'd be back in line again. And then, again. Round and round." It doesn't cure aging apparently.

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