the machine

It is your first day at the Machine.

Your new machinemate, a Machinist who has been stationed here for a long time and designed and constructed much of the Machine themselves, brings you towards it.

The Machine mostly looks like the others you’ve worked on: a large wall, full of buttons and dials and knobs and readouts and flashing indicators. This one must be five stories tall. There’s about a sports field’s worth of it to your left and right, and no guessing its depth.

This is the biggest and most active Machine that you’ve seen before. You were fairly adept at your prior Machine, but this is next level. You breathe deep and remind yourself that a new Machine always looks and feels daunting, and you have mastered many Machines before.

“We recommend that you read this before touching anything”, your machinemate says as they hand you a pamphlet. It reads Welcome to Our Machine! in round shaded letters on the cover. The pamphlet is thin – you can tell that it’s a courtesy read, no mastery to be found within its pages. But it’s a start.

You open it up and start reading about Section C93. It sounds similar to Section B45 from your last station, and you’re glad to see something familiar. You hear a noise, look up, and a chunk of the Machine is being forklifted out, a fresh section on standby to replace it. You glimpse “C93” on paneling of the ripped out section. “We move fairly fast around here”, your machinemate says as they lead you towards a panel away from the activity.

“Start here once you’ve read the pamphlet! Twirling this will adjust the levels over there - this might be obvious to you, try it out anyway. Don’t spin this counterclockwise from 2 to 4pm GDT. It should all be in the pamphlet. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask! I have to run”. That makes sense - their pager has been flashing different Section letters and numbers with increasing urgency since they met you.

Working Machines, it’s easy to forget to zoom out. You mostly bounce around the micro and minor issues, because those demand enough mental resources alone. Most of the time spent considering the macro is when you’re selecting your next Machine to work on. While you’re working a Machine, there’s rarely the time or energy to soak in bigger questions.

This Machine, you suspect, has important ramifications for your planet, and you’re hopeful that you can one day extend its function as you have other Machines.

First, the pamphlet.

The pamphlet is read, and half of your first day has gone by. You eat a sandwich near the Machine with your machinemates. They are discussing a subsection of the Machine’s design. Once in a while (not too much), you interject with queries that don’t sound too silly (you hope). Since there is no pamphlet that could possibly contain the full workings of the machine, you must combine what literature there is with your own experiments, explorations, and tasteful question-asking.

From experience answering Machine-related questions, you know that they are best asked by people who have first tried to find the answer themselves. You make sure that each of your questions to your machinemates enumerates your attempts to find answers. You try to batch multiple questions together to minimize instances of distraction for your machinemates. They are patient with you despite the constant demands of Machine development. Sometimes, they tell you the answer directly. Other times, they give you a pamphlet that has the answer. You feel silly if you’ve already been given this pamphlet before! They say not to worry.

After some more Moons, you are tasked with extending the functionality of the Machine in a small way. Your first chance to leave a mark! After what feels like a lot of effort, you propose a redesigned subsection that will implement the functionality efficiently. On review, your design is overcomplicated, and you have missed and misunderstood some core patterns that will achieve the goal. Your machinemates are very good at what they do! It all seems incredibly obvious in retrospect.

Your mental map of the Machine steadily expands. There are still many sections which you have never touched or explored, but it feels like the important dots are connecting. Not only are you familiar with many sections and subsections, but you know which of your machinemates specializes where, how they approach the machine and their distinctive marks on the installation style and functionality. Most of them have been kind and collaborative, and you feel validated that some of your opinions about parts of the Machine’s workings are worthy of consideration.

For a few dozen Moons, the new Section G12 is your baby. It will reference readings from 14 other sections and even more subsections and provide important readouts. The Machine’s Owners and Users need these readouts soon, and you’re going to be able to deliver them on time. People are happy, and you are proud.

A large portion of the machine malfunctions. A lever-based configuration was read upside-down by a technician, and all levers were backwards from what they should be. Your heart sinks as you recall that it was your job to stamp the configuration pamphlet with THIS SIDE UP, but you dropped the ball. The team briefly convenes, the pamphlet is stamped, and you all proceed onwards.

The Machine feels familiar. You have access to all five floors, and know which buttons are the most important ones. New machinemates arrive, and you would write more pamphlets with and for them if you had more time. You try to demonstrate patience and empathy towards them anyway, as you know what it’s like to be new to this Machine.

A master Machinist departs permanently to spend more time with their personal unit. You are sure that things will fall apart without them there. Some things do, but a surprising amount does not. You step up alongside your other machinemates and the buzzing and whirring continues.

Over time, you find that you’re pushing more buttons, turning more knobs, and transferring more readouts than ever before, but your overall cognitive expenditure is actually going down. You trust your machinemates and they trust you. Your input is requested on many designs. You help to decide which extensions are required next, and which existing sections need attention.

Even so, there is always additional challenge, more daunting unexplored territory to brave into. That is what makes the work of a Machinist satisfying, after all.