The Machine

By Joey Comeau

A scientist (me) and a priest (David) walk into a bar, ten years before either of us are born, looking for a miracle. That's not really accurate. This is more of an airport lounge. There are booths and waitresses and food and an air hockey table. Children can eat here, as long as they're with their parents, as long as it's earlier than eight p.m. Ugly little hologram children, either old or dead now, remembered forever in the machine.

I'm not telling this joke very well.

Okay, a scientist and a priest walk into a bar, looking for a miracle. They have a stack of reports listing every possible miracle ever reported, and this is possible miracle number something something something. There's a young girl standing up beside the table. She's maybe eight years old, wearing a little pink school uniform, with her hands in the air, screaming in what sounds like ancient Greek. Her hair is on fire. At first glance, it's pretty convincing. Her mother is looking up, a square of waffle still stuck on the end of her fork, halfway to her mouth.

The scientist turns to the priest and says, "This is what I imagine my ex-wife's childhood looked like." Which is funny enough, I guess, except my ex-wife really did have an unfortunate childhood, and I feel guilty as soon as I say it.

"From what I hear, this is what it must have been like to be married to you," he says. I want to say something about the unlikelihood of his knowing anything about marriage at all, but I don't.

Even while it's playing back this chunk of the past, flaming little girl and horrified parents and all, the machine is recording everything we do and say inside. Sheryl, my ex-wife, will probably go through the machine's records of my activities one night, sitting around in her fake faded jeans and searching through the lives of her friends for mention of herself. I've seen her do it, once, when I was looking through her weekends.

She has access to the machine's database, as a government employee. She verifies tax claims, one of the many uses of the thing. It's recording everything everyone on Earth says and does, down to some ridiculous molecular level, pinpoint accuracy. The machine is my primary tool as an investigator of the veracity of miracles.

The story of the machine is pretty simple. For years skeptics have said, "There's no way that history books can give a true and complete account of what has happened. In order to condense history to fit in a book, you have to decide what is important, and so the historian has to write from his personal perspective. It's unavoidable. No history can ever be true and complete."

But an historian wondered, "Well, why does there have to be a selection at all? Isn't it theoretically possible to record the position of every single atom (or whatever) on Earth as each moves through time?" and I guess he had some friends who were pretty good with machines, because inside of a decade he had built the first prototype of his response to the skeptic.

There's no real way to tell if the story's true, of course, as it happened before the machine was first switched on.

The machine's record of history only goes back to a dozen years before I was born. Still, that's a lot of ground to cover, and there are more miracle reports every day. After this flaming-head girl, David and I have a levitating boy and a talking donkey to check out. Talking animals always turn out to be unreliable witnesses, but they're the cases that I always get my hopes up for. The little girl is still waving her hands around and screaming, like that's going to help. Stop, drop, and roll, is what I want to tell her.

The father of the girl jumps up and throws his jacket over her head, putting the fire out. The mother still hasn't eaten her chunk of waffle. So, this is case file number something something something, and we're here to determine who gets the little notch on the tally board, scientific explanation or miracle.

The score was six thousand and something to none for science, this morning. The book of matches on the table is a dead giveaway that this is another win for me. Too much hair spray. We've seen three almost exactly like this one so far. I open my mouth to say something, but David's already pointing at the matches.

"Hair spray," he says, and I nod. "Another casualty of the beauty myth." We pause the re-creation and I select the cubic foot that encompasses the little girl's smoldering head and have the machine feed the data into a chemical analysis program. The official file's going to need hard data. While the program runs I take a walk around the frozen simulation. There's a woman in the bathroom, seated on the toilet, just my type. Crazy eyes and a big bottom. I run my fingers over the skin of her lips. Beautiful and soft.

I pull my handheld out and point it at her. There's a little flash as I copy her info and address, and I title the bookmark "ethics of complete history footnote 16g," which I hope is innocuous and boring enough that nobody snoops through it. Then I head back out to wait with David for the analysis to finish.

After it's finished we run the re-creation back just for fun, to where the girl's sitting beside her father, eating her cereal. The dad flicks a match to light a cigarette, but it flies off and hits her in the head. David gives a little snort, and I can see that's he's recording the time and place on his handheld. We rewind further, to the little girl at her mother's vanity table, spraying her hair with hair spray, looking at herself in the mirror, spraying, checking her hair, spraying, until the can is empty.

I know that David submits little moments like this to a television show that broadcasts "hilarious accidents from history," but I don't know if he does it with the permission of his church or not. I could ask him, but I haven't yet. To tell you the truth, it's nice not knowing. He's never asked what I do with the girls with dark eyes. I don't think I could explain it if he asked.

Standing in the dark, as we wait for the machine to load up the next case, I say, "It doesn't bother you that every single time it comes up science?" and David doesn't say anything. "Not once have we investigated and found that it was actually a miracle," I say. "That doesn't make you question your vocation?"

"Just because we haven't found one yet," David says, as the air around us begins to glow faintly, "doesn't mean they don't exist. It's possible that this machine can't record them." I can make out a stone building in the middle of a clearing. We're in the woods, and David's sitting on a rock beside me. "Or maybe this is how miracles have always been," he says. "Maybe there has always been a scientific explanation for them. God created the physical world and its laws, so why wouldn't He use them Himself?"

The report we have for the levitating boy states that he's on the third or fourth floor of an abandoned school, fifteen years ago. That's this stone building, I guess. Once we're inside, it's pretty short work to determine that the building's empty. We run the re-creation forward a year and then back. Animals and insects and one elderly woman, who looks sedated. We play it regular speed while the woman explores the building.

The report we have to work with is anonymous, so it's possible that this woman filed it. But if she hallucinates a levitating boy, she gives no indication while we're watching her. She putters around a bit with her cane, turning over stones as though she's looking for something, while I tease David some more.

"So, do you think that miracles weren't meant to be scientifically recorded?" I say.

"I don't know," David says. "I know that every time it has felt like we were almost there, every time the answer wasn't obvious right away, I've felt sick in my stomach. What if the machine had been working around the birth of Christ? What would our religion be like if it weren't based on faith, but instead on knowledge?" he says, and the old woman turns and looks our way as though she could see us.

"Then what are you doing here?" I say. "If you don't think that miracles should be studied, then why agree to this assignment? I'm sure the Vatican could have sent someone else."

"Because there's a part of me that wants to know, even though most of me doesn't. There's a part of me that wants God to reach down and say, 'Here I am,' and prove that I haven't been wasting my life."

The woman is still staring at us, and I look over my shoulder to see what it is beyond us that she could be looking at. There's nothing there. When I turn back she has her hand up, in a sort of wave. "Here I am," she says, and David chokes on whatever it is he has started to say.

"Run that back," he says, and we rewind the re-creation. She lifts her hand again and again she says "Here I am." It's a coincidence. It has to be. We walk toward her, but she's already looking down at her feet again. She turns over another rock, and there's nothing underneath.

"Let's run back the data for our conversation there," I say, and we stand in the dark as the machine loads up the room from only minutes in our past. The air shimmers, but remains black, and then I hear my own voice in the dark. "It doesn't bother you that every single time it comes up science?" it says.

"Jesus," David says, startled. But the re-creation version of David doesn't say anything. Or was that him? In the blackness it's impossible to tell.

"Was that you?" I say, but my own voice cuts me off: "Not once have we investigated and found that it was actually a miracle. That doesn't make you question your vocation?"

The air begins to shimmer again, but it's a re-created shimmer, and seems less magical somehow. "Just because we haven't found one yet doesn't mean they don't exist," David says. "It's possible that this machine can't record them." We're in the woods, and David's sitting on a rock beside me. The real David is standing beside him, looking at me directly. My own double is watching the David double. I'm feeling disoriented. "Or maybe this is how miracles have always been," the sitting David says. "Maybe there has always been a scientific explanation for them. God created the physical world and its laws, so why wouldn't He use them Himself?"

Their conversation continues the way I remember it, and David and I follow them into the building. We watch as they fast forward through the year and as they follow the little old lady around the building. The re-created David gives his little speech about wanting God to reach down and say, "Here I am," and then the woman looks up and says it. But what does that mean?

"What can we do?" I say.

"We make a report," David says, and I shake my head at him. "We have to make a report," David says. "They'll have another team investigate, to verify. This could be what we've been looking for."

"This could be anything," I say. The room has gone dark around us as the re-creation versions of David and I prepare to load up a re-creation of themselves. I stop the program. There's no way I'm getting all wrapped up in that cycle. "There's no proof that it was anything more than a bizarre coincidence. And this would have been so easy for us to fake, to get the timing down. They'll suspect that right away. There's no proof here. It's just a crazy old woman talking to herself in the woods."

"We can't just ignore it," he says, and he's right.

"Well," I say. "It can't hurt to fill out the paperwork."

On the subway home, I read from a collection of erotic short stories. The cover says something innocuous. I like the feeling of inhabiting two worlds at once, each completely alien to the other.

Half of me is in this fictional world of slight plots and even slighter clothing, of uninhibited sexuality and repetitive descriptions of physical acts, while the other half sits quietly on a crowded subway, surrounded by people on their way home.

I pick a woman in a dark business suit and casually point my handheld in her direction and record her information. The flash startles the people nearest me, but I act startled as well, and the handheld is already back in my pocket. At home I eat a meal bar and then head to my home office. I have access from here to the machine and I load the subway, pinpointed on the girl in the dark suit. I watch myself get off at my stop, and she doesn't even glance at the replicated me.

She's staring at a spot in midair. When we get to her stop, she stands without holding onto the rail, and makes her way out the door. I follow her through the crowd and up to the street. How long has it been since I've spent a night reading, or exercising? It seems like I'm doing this every night.

I think about shutting down the re-creation, but in front of me she drops her keys, and kneels down to pick them up in the way that modest women do. She crosses the street, and I follow her into an apartment building, past the doorman, who smiles at her and ignores me. I am half used to the way nobody sees you when you're inside the machine. When someone in real life ignores me, now, I still notice, but it doesn't bother me either. I know they're real, and that they're really ignoring me, but my emotions just don't register it anymore.

I follow the woman into her apartment, and she walks right to the bathroom and starts the water running in the tub. This is the best part of my day. Forget about little girls with their heads on fire, and forget about donkeys that choke on their food so that their braying sounds vaguely human. This is the real purpose of the machine. This is the real beauty, watching this woman reach up and undo the first button on her blouse.

It's partly her body that interests me, as she begins to undress. Her breasts are high and proud, and she is unexpectedly pierced, twice. The shiny bits of metal are secrets that I wasn't meant to see, because this isn't a strip show. There's no expression on her face, except maybe mild concentration as she struggles to get the sock over the heel. She's not performing for anyone, and she's unaware of being watched. She's not what I expected, and maybe nobody is. I wonder, could I write a report on this. Could I submit this as a miracle. It happens every day.

She slides into the bathtub and turns to look right at me. "If it's okay with you," she says, "I'd like a little privacy." Her face still has the blank expression that comes when they're alone, but her eyes are staring right at me. My throat closes, and without thinking I move to the other side of the room. Her eyes stay focused on the spot by the door.

Now I can see the man standing there. Her husband or boyfriend. He shrugs his shoulders and turns, closing the door behind himself, and she sinks lower into the bath water. I want to stay and watch, but I suddenly feel uncomfortable, as though I'm being watched myself.

I end the program, and I stand in the dark for a long time. This is something I should have realized. The team investigating the old lady's statement, "Here I am," will be starting their investigation tomorrow. They will be trying to determine whether we had arranged to fake it. They'll look forward and backward from the incident, at David and me. They'll see me watching women from home at night. They'll see David sending off people's private embarrassments to a national show. Someone is watching me, right now.

Or rather, someone will be watching my "right now" at some point tomorrow. I step out into the office, and sit at the computer. The room's small, and if there's someone here, standing and watching, they're in the corner, there.

I swivel the chair and I look where their eyes would be, average height. I want to say something, but I don't know what to say. The investigators will be people, as flawed as David and I. They may have their own private misuses for the machine, and they might be hesitant about calling attention to ours. I hope so.

The empty spot in the corner stays empty, and eventually I look away.

The next morning, we begin work as usual. Our first case takes place in a saloon-style bar, somewhere in the desert. A scientist and a priest walk into a bar filled with cowboys. They're looking for a miracle. The priest takes one look at the spilled beer that everyone has crowded around, at the vaguely human face that the fizzing beer has formed, and he sighs. "It looks sort of human," he says to me, "if you squint. But it certainly doesn't look anything like any painting of Jesus that I've ever seen. Why do they always say it's Jesus, or Mary?"

"They want to believe," I say. There's a girl sitting at the counter, with her hair shaved down to bristle. I point my handheld at her, and record what I need. "Let's just get the readings for our report and move on." I say. David shakes his head.

"I'm filling this one out as a miracle," he says. "There's nothing here to say that it isn't. Maybe God has a purpose in showing these men his visage at this moment in their lives. If even one of these men changes something about how they live after having seen this face, if their lives improve because of that, then it's a miracle, isn't it? I'm going to follow them forward and backward, one by one, and investigate further." I'm looking at the girl with the shaved head. She looks so bored, sitting there, so aloof. When she stands up and begins to head for the bathroom, I nod my head at David.

"I'll help," I say.

I'm not telling this joke very well. Okay. A priest and a scientist walk into a bar, looking for a miracle. The priest sees a puddle of beer on the ground, shaped like the face of the son of God, and he sees it through the eyes of the superstitious cowboys in the bar. He sees the changes that the face will instigate in their lives, and in those changes he perceives the will of God. The scientist sees a puddle of beer and an attractive woman. He knows that underneath her clothing she is naked and unexpected and that when she goes home she will read something or talk to friends, and she will say something he could never have predicted. In those moments of surprise, he perceives the will of God.

Later on, when they fill out their report, they both put down "miracle," and when the report is passed on to a secondary team of investigators, the event is rejected as being a natural occurrence. The secondary team reports that it was a puddle of beer that just kind of looked like a human face. The official record shows that there was no miracle involved.

You should have seen her panties, though.

Joey Comeau studies linguistics in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and writes the weekly webcomic A Softer World. To contact him, send him email at