The Machinery of God

I went to a huge university with tens of thousands of students. Although it was crowded and impersonal, it was a generally happy place. But I had my eye on transferring to the Seminary of Engineering, a specialized college that studied the intersection of faith and physics. Being accepted to that college was like being admitted into a school of magic. Finals at the Seminary of Engineering weren’t the kind where you sat in a room with a pencil and paper and answered written questions and worked problems. They were practicals where you showed off something you had built.

One of the about-to-graduate seniors, a student from Senegal, had brought with him a kind of small plane made of light wood. It had no skin – just a chair bolted to a wood frame, and metal grommets going through the wood to guide the cables that made up the steering mechanism. There was no visible motor or engine of any kind. This plane ran on faith.

The pilot climbed aboard and took the controls, which consisted of two joysticks – one for the front, and one for the back. Because the plane was driven by faith, it operated very differently from a plane driven by motors. The front and back moved independently, so one could perform amazing aerial maneuvers, or simply hover above the ground. But in order to stay aloft, one’s faith had to be pure and strong.

The plane was a bit shaky at its vertical takeoff, but it was hard to tell whether it was the pilot’s spiritual uncertainty, or his unfamiliarity with the controls. Once the plane was in the air, it climbed, swooped, raced back and forth, described pirouettes in the air. Those of us on the ground were initially astonished, then enthralled at both the spectacle and the engineering.

Such was the pilot’s faith that we were able to see his flight from his own eyes, entering his soul and seeing what he saw, feeling what he felt. He was filled with a love and certainty that was so strong that everyone who entered him was filled as well, and by the time his plane touched down as lightly as an angel landing on the head of a pin, any one of us could have flown it.

Many years later, my family and I are living in a tiny apartment in a crowded, dirty city. I am one of a very few people in the world who designs and builds the machinery of God – machines powered only by faith. It’s a complicated process that relies on a person being able to hold vast amounts of information and many competing goals in mind as one works out the physics of the machine. It can’t be done by computers, because one must design with faith, instilling one’s faith into the formula itself. Impossible for a computer.

I was heading downstairs when I looked out the lobby doors of our apartment and saw one of my kid’s teachers approaching the building. I knew she was going to lecture me about a recent project my kid had turned in about my work and research that she had given an F, despite the fact that it was not only factual, but fairly well-written for a 12 year old. I didn’t want to talk to her, so I ducked out the side door that led to the alley, but she followed me.

I turned into the alley where, above the dumpsters, there was a thing that looked like a mosaic of a building scene.

“What do you see?” I asked the teacher.

“I don’t know.”

We stepped back a few paces, and she realized it was a picture of the building that housed the Seminary of Engineering. She expressed admiration, and I took her arm and led her up close to it, so that she could see that each pixel of the mosaic was actually a bit of mathematical calculation.

“This is my work. This is the plans for a faith-powered passenger aircraft.”

She stood there with her mouth hanging open, not knowing what to say.

“Do you know what it takes to create one of these?”

Her mouth was still hanging open as she shook her head, her eyes traveling over the entire mural.

“I don’t even know how you would make a regular airplane,” she said.

“Exactly! But it’s not enough to just know the math involved in figuring out how to get a 2,000-ton aircraft into the air. You have to express all the drag coefficient calculations and weight distribution formulas as an actual depiction of a physical object. That’s a picture of where I went to school.”

“How does doing that make the thing work?”

“Seriously? You want me to take five minutes and tell you the thing that I’ve spent my entire adult life learning and perfecting? Okay, let me just say that it’s all about the intersection of science and art, imbued with the faith of its creator.”

“This stuff is real?”

“Have you ever used a microwave? Newsflash. There’s no such thing as ‘microwaves.’ They don’t exist. The microwave works because you know it’s going to work. You have faith.”

Her mouth snapped shut and she stared at me in disbelief.

“That drawing looks like a close-up of a rose. I’ve seen it,” I said as she started shaking her head. “Now let’s talk about your giving my kid an F on a paper about a subject you don’t understand.”

But she didn’t say anything.



Having a Ball

This is the dream I had on the night of 10/14. No, I don’t know what it means.

There were eight of us that first day. We’d wanted to form a softball team, but we couldn’t get anyone else, so used to just hang out and play Frisbee and then go for a drink. That day it’d been hot and nobody really felt like standing on the asphalt and sweating. We were on our way to our cars when Gary called us back in and said “You’ve got to see this!”

“This” was a little steel marble.

“Okay, we’ve seen it. Can we go get a drink?” Phil said, clearly pissed at being dragged back inside for something that didn’t involve naked women or beer.

“No, check it out,” Gary said, and picked it up. He let go, and the thing bounced, once, twice, gaining momentum as it bounced.

“Whoa!” Bert said, as we all had the same realization.

It wasn’t just bouncing and gaining momentum. Each time it bounced, instead of describing an arc from one bounce to the next, it would loop, zigzag, double back on its path and bounce again in an unexpected place. Gary was starting to look a little freaked out, because it was also going faster.

“How do you catch it?” Jill asked, dodging as it went flying past her shoulder.

Gary had gone white. The proud, smug smile that had been on his face a second ago was gone, replaced with a bloodless grimace.

“I don’t know. It was…smaller when I caught it the first time.”

“What do you mean, smaller?” Phil asked.

“Like the size of a beebee.”

The thing was zipping around the office now, knocking things off desks, denting the wallboard. Pam and Jill ran into the break room to get away from it, and, after it hit her in the shoulder, Evie locked herself in the ladies’ room. The boys all stayed around trying to catch the thing, but it wasn’t like they could just put their hands out and catch it. It was the size of an egg and going so fast that it had broken the window of one of the offices.

Jill and Pam came back with a large metal bowl that still had the remains of jello salad in it. You know, the kind that looks like vomit. Pam took the plastic lid off the bowl, and Jill leapt around trying to catch it. She finally cornered it and it bounced into the bowl, and Pam shoved the lid on. She handed it to Gary, and he took the bowl in one hand and held the lid on with the other.

We looked around the office at the devastation. In five minutes, it had broken a window, put at least a hundred dents in the walls, knocked out one light fixture, and left not a single desk untouched. Before we could even talk about how we were going to explain it, Gary started to look panicked. He had one hand over the top of the bowl, but the ball inside was distorting the lid, stretching the plastic up toward Gary’s hand. The plastic was cracking, turning white even as Gary was trying to push the ball back down into the bowl.

Evie came out of the ladies’ room, looking around to make sure it was safe.

“Did you catch it?”

“Sort of,” Phil said.


I don’t know why we didn’t think of it before. Well, I mean, I know why, but, you know. We found a digital recorder, and Phil and Jill and Bert decided to make a funny car commercial. They had raggedy-looking steering wheels around their necks, and they did a silly little dance and talked about how we should all “Come on down to Bert’s Car Locker where you can still find a car that runs! Get ’em now before they’re all gone! HeeHEE!”

They did a stupid dance, and Pam and I laughed.

I looked out the window, but we were clear. Now that most of the buildings had been pummeled flat, it was easy to see it coming. There was nothing to hide the sight of a steel sphere the size of a van rocketing toward one. At first, we tried to avoid doing things to get its attention, thinking that if we wore the wrong colors or moved in the wrong way or exuded the wrong odors, it would be attracted to us and crush us flat. Some of us made effigies of it and made sacrifices and obeisance to it.

There was no way to stop it, save being encased in a similar sphere of your own. We tried making one, but it’s harder than it looks. Especially with plywood. Weapons didn’t affect it. Anything that didn’t hit it dead-on was deflected by its round surface. Anything that did hit it head-on made no impression whatever. Nuclear blasts had been aimed at it, and, other than making one side of it glow white hot for a while, no change was apparent to either its form or its movement. But I think the blasts made it hate us more.

Some people decided that it wasn’t sentient. There was no appeasing it, no angering it, nothing that they could to do alter its course. They developed a fatalistic mindset, going out just like they always did, living their lives as usual. Their ranks were thinning. Some relocated to caves and underground bunkers. They fared better, but we didn’t know much about them. Evie had decamped for New Mexico after Gary was killed when a movie theater they were sheltering in was crushed to rubble. I hope she got there. New Mexico must be a beautiful place, with horses and long, long rows of sausages, as far as the eye can see. And brown cars. I like brown cars the best.


We’re not sure now much longer we have. But that’s been true for as long as there’ve been people, hasn’t it?  It’s still technically in our orbit, but it’s going fast enough that it could escape our orbital plane and establish its own. And yet, people still say that it’s not sentient. I’ve heard it thinking. I can hear its heartbeat. I can feel that it knows me. It’s wreaking havoc with the tides when it comes close, which is to say every month or two, despite the altars and offerings of the last of our frozen foods and hair. Its orbital period can’t be calculated, because it’s flight is as erratic as a bat’s. Nothing about it can be calculated, except its size, which has been increasing steadily. It’s now slightly smaller than the planet Mercury, but bigger than our moon. That’ll change by early next year, and in four years, it’ll be bigger than Mars.

I’ve chosen to call it Sama’el, and to make my offerings, and to accept my fate. In this life, can any of us do more than that?


A Dream Where I Am Both Naked and Flying

Last night, I dreamed that I was corresponding with two different people, both of whom were slightly odd. One was a man I knew who liked to have long, rambling conversations about fantastical, nonsensical things. He would drink bottle after bottle of cheap beer, smoke the occasional cigarette (just to see if he still thought it was gross) and hold forth. His letters, therefore, were long, written with at least four different pens, usually contained at least one beer-bottle-bottom ring and smelled of cigarette ash that I’m sure he flecked in there on purpose.

Each time I received a letter from him, I would read it all the way through and laugh and think and feel privileged that he wrote to me. I would sit down to compose a reply, but I could never reply all in a single sitting, so I carried both letter and reply around with me for days until I had worked my way through the whole thing, then posted it back to him.

The other correspondent was also a man, but his letters were even stranger. They referred to current events, to minor local celebrities, to world politics and arts and literature. They made wild suppositions and fantastical claims and sly jokes. I had only written back once, and the reply asked me to come and visit him.

I came right from visiting the rambling beer drinker, who was in sort of a funk. He was a teacher at a private high school, and now that the school year was over needed a job for the next few months. He’d been doing this kind of work for years, but he always seemed taken by surprise when summer came. I invited him to come with me to meet the other person, but he seemed hurt by the prospect that I was corresponding with someone else, as though letter writing were our love affair and I should never have done it with anyone else. I left wondering if I would ever get another letter from him.

The address was in a small open-air mall in an expensive part of town, making me think that my mystery correspondent was a shop owner. As I came around a corner, I saw about twenty chairs arranged under some potted plants, most occupied by men and women holding sheets of paper that they were reading, writing on and showing each other. As I walked among them, I heard snatches of the contents of the letters I had received, sometimes verbatim, sometimes slightly altered.

It took me a few minutes to realize that what I had taken to be an anonymous, delightful correspondence with a smart, interesting individual was, in fact, a delightful experiment with literature and the magazine form. It was a new kind of magazine, hand-written by its authors and mailed out in letter form. It was like a chatty letter from home. When I wrote back, they decided to ask me to come and write for them. I was intrigued by the idea, and immediately sad that my friend, whom I considered to be a much better letter-writer than myself, had decided not to come.


When I woke up, I thought for a long time about what magazines are, and what we want them to be. We use social media to feel connected with people, but I believe that the reason it doesn’t work is because we know that the person sending out a missive on social messaging took about 30 seconds to do it, and that the same message is available to everyone. The feeling of holding a letter that had taken someone hours to hand-write was so intimate and thoughtful that the revelation that one of my correspondents was actually a magazine felt even more delightful. What are the possibilities of an epistolary periodical? It seems like it would be the most fun thing in the world, both to create and to receive.