by Alex Douglas
While on holiday in Nagano in April, I visited a temple where travellers can find the key to heaven by descending into a pitch black tunnel and trailing their fingertips across the smooth surface of the wood as they walk around the loop. Luckily I’m not claustrophobic or scared of the dark but it was still a cramped and stuffy place, and the line was slow-moving as people shuffled onwards towards the exit. For a fleeting moment I wondered what it would be like never to have seen the sun or the sky, and then a few days later I sat down and wrote this story.
The inspiration for the machine itself came from a visit to a cave. There was a metal walkway and the handrail was a piece of metal tubing. The rusty man made metals, all bent to fit the interior, made an interesting contrast with the ice cream coloured stalactites and stalagmites which actually looked like fairy cities in the shadows. I was discussing with my friend how good a place would it be to hide in a zombie apocalypse, since the temperature seemed pretty constant and there was an amazing lake at the bottom where rainwater and floodwater gathered in bad weather. There was no such event in James’ world, but I guess his ancestors had the same idea.
I’m a huge fan of dystopian futures, short stories and erotica so to combine the three was a triple challenge in a way – to build a convincing world in few words, with a love story at the heart of it. The machine is the system that controls people’s lives, which we don’t understand but accept without question, and may fight or die to protect even though it’s not even necessary. I particularly enjoyed describing it even though I had no idea how it’s supposed to work—just like James. And all that darkness and steam… anything can happen in surroundings like that!
Anthologies which include this story: