Friday, 31 August 2012

Machine of Death: Harpooned

So there's this competition where people submit stories in order that they hopefully get chosen to be published in a book called Machine of Death. The only requirement was that it feature a machine that could predict someone's death via a blood sample. Unfortunately my submission didn't make it into the book, but having reread it, I'm so proud of it that I'm going to post it here. The story itself is a little shaky, but I really enjoyed writing this character :)

Isaac had been manning the machine for three years. As he showed the next patient to the chair and positioned the probe over and around their arm, he wondered what decision he’d made that had led him down this path. He’d never planned on working in a hospital, yet here he was wearing the lab coat, reassuring the various patients as they came through his doors, although this one seemed a little cocky.
“Ha, isn’t this just a total ride?” the nasal Australian looked across at Isaac with a lopsided grin on his face.
“It helps if you don’t talk” Isaac lied as he plastered the reassuring professional smile to his face. It didn’t really matter if the guy talked or not but something about his cheerfulness irked Isaac, got under his normally thick skin.
“Oh yeah, alright mate, sure thing.” The man leant back in the seat and his forehead furrowed in concentration. Funny that, the way this guy had to try so hard not to talk. It seemed to Isaac that he’d spent his whole life not talking. Not talking, not reacting, not engaging. He hadn’t spoken in class, just coasted through, ignoring the teachers that tried to make an effort with him until they gave up as he had. Perhaps that was why he was here now. God, he hated his job. No, that was wrong, he liked his job, but he hated the patients. He hated people in general; they were messy, emotionally and physically. Yakkity yak yak, there was a constant buzz of people, coughing, wheezing, chatting, sniffing. Most of them had no idea what the consequences were of finding out how they were going to die. Occasionally you’d get the rare person with some sense who didn’t really want to be there. They usually had to be pinned down by some of the burly guys from the mental health wing. It was awkward, but Isaac could see where they were coming from. Who would seriously want to live with the paranoia of knowing how they were going to die, but not when, or where or who’d be with them? No, it certainly didn’t appeal to him, but of course it was procedure now. Anyone who came into the hospital had the test. Isaac wasn’t really sure why, he gathered it was something to do with expenses. I mean if someone has cancer, you aren’t going to waste money on expensive surgery or chemotherapy if their slip of paper comes out “CANCER”, that’s just fighting a losing battle and wasting resources in the mean time. 
Not that there weren’t perks to the job. Aside from having to deal with the occasional hysterical patient, it was a pretty sweet deal. Isaac drew satisfaction from how much he pissed off the other hospital staff. The medical professionals, the ones that had paid good money to put themselves through years of intensive schooling despised him. Isaac, with only his basic technical degree, practically stole the prestige and respect they had earned, just because he also wore a lab coat to work. There’d been a campaign a while ago to force the machine technicians into different coloured coats, or out of lab coats all together, but administration had bigger things to worry about than issues of petty pride.
Isaac’s attention drifted back to the man in the chair as his mind tuned itself to the familiar hum of the machine, his machine. He operated the expansive keypad with a pianist’s dexterity, nimble fingers flying across the keys, inputting the Australian’s medical history and information into the programme. This wasn’t one of the cheap knock-off amusements you could find in shopping malls across the country; his machine was the best around, the latest model with some of the most precise results so far. This level of advancement required a larger blood sample than most however, so blood was drawn from the inner elbow, whereas previously a simple finger-prick would do. The programme, once it had the required information, would calculate the maximum amount of blood that could be taken without severely adverse affects to the patient. It appeared the current patient could withstand a fairly large sample being taken. Good. Isaac didn’t need to fake the smile as he turned towards the man once more.
“This won’t take a moment. The machine will make some noise, but that’s nothing to worry about. Next you’ll feel a pressure building and then a small sting in your arm. After a few moments, the pressure will be released, then the probe will automatically move away from your arm and deposit the blood sample in the main body of the machine. Any questions?” The Australian blanched a bit, but kept schtum and shook his head. No, no questions. Isaac managed to hide his snigger.
“Good, here we go.”
He turned away from the patient on his left and looked at the wide expanses of metal spread out in front and too his right. He let his eyes wander across the gleaming sterile surface, imagining the electrics and mechanics inside synchronised to the whirring and beeps that tumbled out in orchestral majesty. How amazing the life of a machine would be if it was sentient. Living life day after day with such purpose, being relied upon, being cared for, what power, what rapture!
All too soon the noises stopped. Isaac turned towards his patient to watch him shut his eyes at the pain, grit his teeth as the cold steely needle wormed its way into warm flesh. He studied the man for a moment. He couldn’t have been more than twenty-five, dressed for summer in the middle of winter, blonde dreads hanging just past his shoulders. He watched as the strained tendons in his neck eased and his jaw unclenched. The probe unfurled from around the guy’s arm and twisted back towards the body. He again turned towards the machine, this time watching the diagnostics that ran across the screen. For someone with that many piercings the guy was surprisingly twitchy about needles.
“Won’t be a moment sir.” As he uttered the words, the small piece of paper was dispensed into the tray on the right hand side of the keyboard. He picked up the greenish sheet with the perforated edges and looked at the neatly printed font. “HARPOONED”. He recorded the information in the hospital database, made a note in his logbook then handed over the sheet to the guy, still sitting in the chair. The man took it then nodded once to himself. He stood up, folded the paper and put it in his back pocket, rubbed his punctured arm contemplatively for a moment, then affixed the same irritating grin to his face as before.
“Well, er thanks I guess. See ya around mate.” With that he saluted Isaac, then loped off towards the exit. The door had barely shut behind him when Isaac let the giggles escape. Rather than call in the next patient, he revelled in the mirth for a minute. How beautifully ironic! What a doozey! But eventually the schoolboy guffaws subsided, and the rest of the day motored on in the usual fashion.

At clocking-off time Isaac removed his lab coat and replaced it with his duffle. Before he left his room, he ran an affectionate hand over the machine, happy with its constancy in his life. He flicked off the light and shut the door, then with the other technicians he barrelled down the corridor. Head down, he muscled his way through the crowds of protestors at the door. Not such a bustle as usual, there were fewer angry faces at this time in the evening. But of course the die-hards knew Isaac was a technician and the usual barrage of insults flew at him. As if he didn’t know what the signs read off by heart; “Stop the machine madness!” and “Mothers against machines” were his favourites. Why was misguided anger always to do with motherhood?
He stomped down the street towards the station. He didn’t particularly like his journey home. More people, this time packed against you so hard in the train carriage that even breathing was a task. Sometimes he’d try to read the latest book, but then people would try and engage him in conversation, and that never ended well. The only thing worse than people was angry people, as they sometimes became when Isaac attempted a polite brush off.
He reached his door just as his watch beeped eight o’clock. Slipping the key into the lock, he pushed open the door and once inside leant back against it, breathing in the silent darkness. Sanctuary. He lent down and retrieved the day’s mail from the perfectly placed mat, tossing aside the junk and the obvious death threats. Then he removed his coat, hanging it as usual on the banister, and moved towards the kitchen to put the kettle on for tea. He got out one of several identical plain white mugs from the sleek white cupboard next to the sleek white fridge and placed it on the formica table. Then he filled the teapot he kept next to the kettle and left the tea to brew.
Sitting at the table, he completed his evening routine by returning to the day’s mail. He opened one he recognised as being from his sister, Chloe, by the handwriting. Scanning the overly-frenchified cursive he learnt that his nephew Danny had won first place in the science fair, the chickens had been spooked by the neighbour’s dog, Lula wanted ballet lessons, the car was on the blink again and oh yes, she was going to the hospital on Tuesday. That was tomorrow. Something inside Isaac twisted painfully, his reserve broke and a single tear slipped down his cheek. His sister was going to find out how she died tomorrow and there was nothing he could do about it. Maybe if he’d had some warning he could have organised something with one of the private clinics, the ones that actually treated their patients, but that was unlikely now.
He’d been looking forward to sharing with her the joke from earlier in the day, but now he couldn’t, probably wouldn’t ever. She wasn’t strong like most people, the paranoia would get to her. She’d be taken away by the burly men and locked up. He’d have to look after Danny and Lula, but he couldn’t deal with kids. Hell. This was not part of the routine.
He spread the letter flat against the table, smoothing the thin sheets in the same way he had once stroked his sister’s hair. He pushed his chair back from the table somewhat awkwardly, the legs scraping on the floor set his teeth on edge even more than they already were. He opened the sleek whiteness of the fridge. He liked his fridge, it reminded him of his machine. The quiet hum of the light, the acres of sterile surfaces, the purpose. He reached for the milk on the bottom shelf and felt the calming wash of cold drift over him like a pleasant dream. He shut his eyes for a few seconds and leant his head against the top edge of the opening. He wondered vaguely if the Australian had felt this same sensation, standing in his cropped trousers and short-sleeved Hawaiian shirt outside in the bitter winter cold. It was surprisingly refreshing.
He shut the door on the cold when he felt goose-pimples prickle the hair on his arms. At the same time he shut down his thoughts, strapped them tightly and assumed auto-pilot. This was why he found himself on his third cup of tea an hour and a half later, staring blankly at the white expanse of the kitchen wall, undisrupted apart from the perfect circle of the chrome clock. Time did seem to pass oddly these days. He was sure he remembered a time when time didn’t jump forward so erratically, but couldn’t quite put a finger on it, or when it had started to change.
He registered how late it had suddenly become, so he washed up the mug and teapot and climbed the stairs to bed. He undressed in the usual order: shoes, socks, jumper, shirt, trousers, underwear. Each was item was neatly folded and then put away or disposed of in the laundry basket. Then he retrieved the flannel pyjamas from the shelf in the wardrobe marked ‘Monday’ and pulled them on. He strolled from his room to the bathroom down the hall, wondering as he did so why he never used the room between them. For a moment he paused beside the ‘inbetween’ door, ran a hand over the white woodwork that was glossy with paint. He stretched his fingers so his palm lay flat, but then whipped it away as if he’d been scorched. Eventually, he turned away, leaving the door behind him as he did every night.  He strained to remember the last time he’d gone into the mystery room, if he’d ever gone in. He couldn’t even remember what it was like inside, how big it was, what colour the walls were. How odd.
He brushed his teeth methodically and washed his face with the pink soap he kept next to the sink. That was strange too. He couldn’t remember when he’d started buying that soap, but he liked the smell, it was soft and familiar. Homely. He felt a pressure building behind his eyes and frowned, rubbing his temples as he loped back down the corridor to his room. He climbed into bed, set the alarm on his bedside table and switched the lamp off. Despite the headache, he was instantly asleep.

Isaac’s morning routine was almost the exact reverse of his evening one, only this time a brief shower was thrown into the mix. After a cramped ride to work and the usual hustle to get through the protestors, Isaac made it to his office at exactly 8.50am. He switched his duffle for his labcoat. As he buttoned it (as always, from the bottom up) he noticed with concern how his fingers seemed to shake, and the simple action became an effort for his usually dextrous hands. Once suited up, he pressed the button to awaken the machine and his small panic was forgotten next to the familiar thrum.
“Hey girl.” His hand instinctively made an affectionate sweep over the casing, an action he recognised as belonging to another time. He shut his eyes and shuddered. The familiar image of stroking his sister’s hair faded into another memory, another woman’s face. She had red hair, not a brown bob like Chloe’s. She laughed and it made him want to cry. She twisted away from his hands and skipped forward. As she did so, she turned towards him. Isaac was struck by two things, the smell of soap and the brilliant blue of her eyes. Upon seeing hers, he immediately opened his own. Shuddering again, he found himself leant forward, both hands braced against his machine. What was that?
The headache from the night before returned with a vicious impatience, digging at his temples and behind his eyes as if trying to find something buried deep inside his brain. Gasping, he stumbled over to the small sink in the corner of the room and filled a beaker from the tap. Taking alternate gulps of air and water, Isaac managed to stave off whatever the heck it was. The pain in his head eased and he stumbled the few steps over to his workstation. Staring numbly at the screen for a few minutes he got his eyes accustomed to the light, blinking in the LCD glow. Eventually he keyed in his password and the machine made its chirpy start-up noise.
After what seemed like a millennium, but was in actual fact only 10 minutes, Isaac opened his door to his first patient, a greasy-looking invalid of a pensioner. The man hobbled into the chair and his expression didn’t change for the whole procedure. Short, doughy and covered with the kind of grime that made you want to take a hundred showers, it was no wonder the man’s paper came out “HEART ATTACK”. With his professional smile pinned to his face, Isaac shooed the grumbling man from his office. Before ushering in the next patient, he ran alcohol wipes over the chair, sprayed disinfectant where the man had coughed over the pristine machine surface, and changed the needle in the probe. Although the new needles were self-sterilising and supposedly infinitely reusable, Isaac thought this was one of the circumstances that warranted a replacement. Although sanitation was an essential part of Isaac’s job, cleanliness was a personal point of pride.
A mother and son were the next to pass through the door. Something about them made his eye twitch. The boy, so innocent and cherubic, sat on his mother’s lap in the chair and held his pudgy arm forward as Isaac enclosed it in the probe. This was going to be a toughie, the kid looked like he couldn’t even spell his own name, how could he possibly reveal his death to the mother, when the boy’s life hadn’t even begun.
The headache re-emerged then, as Isaac returned to his workstation. He looked over at the duo sat snuggled together and the scene before him morphed in his head. The skinny blonde woman with the slightly pinched face of poverty morphed into the same redhead as before. She was long-limbed and her eyes twinkled. She smiled up at Isaac, then looked down with pride at the boy in her lap. He had a muted version of her flaming locks, curling gently above his forehead. In one hand he held a small blue toy car and he seemed to like waving it about madly in the air. The woman pointed towards Isaac, turned back to smile at him again. The boy looked up too and Isaac saw not blue eyes, but green. His own eyes staring straight back at him. He ran forward and snatched the boy up into his arms, cuddling him fiercely against his chest, hoping it would somehow stop the pain that had spread from his head to his heart. He felt feeble hands grabbing at his arms, nails biting into his flesh.
“Put him down you freak! What on earth do you think you’re doing? Who do you think you are?!”
His reverie broke, and he realised that the voice belonged to a very angry mother stood in his office, because he had behaved like a fool and snatched her baby from her. Hell. How was he going to explain this one? He couldn’t. With a polite apology, he handed back the entirely non-plussed little boy and retrieved the sheet of paper from the machine to record the information. “SUICIDE”. He handed the slip over silently. The woman reached her hand out to take it, but having it in her hand few only a split second, she handed it straight back to him.
“We only came in for some cough medicine. He’s not been sleeping well.” The woman rocked the toddler on her hip. “Would you keep the paper please mister? I don’t want the reminder, and I don’t want him finding out. I bet it screws a person up real good knowin’ their own death. I don’t trust them machines too much neither. No, I think we’re fine as we are thanks” and with that she turned on her heel and left.
In all the years he’d been working here, that had never happened before. No one had ignored their reading.
In a state of wonder, he didn’t notice the next patient enter until they spoke.
“Hello Zac! Geez, where were you just then? You looked like you were miles away.” Oh no, not Chloe, not now. How could he do this to his own sister?
“Hey Chloe, what’re you doing here?”
“Didn’t you get my letter?”
“Yes, but that’s not what I meant. What’re you doing here, in my office?”
“I’m getting my test done you moron. I wasn’t gonna let some stranger stick me with pins when I knew it would give you so much satisfaction seeing me squirm.” She beamed at him from the chair, and flicked her hair behind her ear before quelling her restlessness by sitting on her hands. She’d always been a fidget.
“So, what’s up bro?”
“No, Chloe, I can’t. I won’t.”
“No choice, you got to. I thought this might be weird for you, but when I tried to get reassigned to one of your drone buddies they laughed in my face, so it’s gotta be you. Sorry.” She grinned again. He didn’t know how she could do that. She wound him up, still spoke like a teenager, and she looked so young. You wouldn’t believe she was almost thirty and a mother of two. The headache made its presence known again and stabbed at the inside of Isaac’s forehead. He shut his eyes and rubbed it with his hand. He felt off-kilter, the shakes were back again as well, and beads of clammy sweat were prickling his skin. His sister knelt beside him and put an arm around his shoulders.
“I’m so sorry if this brings back bad memories for you Zac. It can’t be easy after the accident. But you’ve got to do this now.”
What accident? What was she talking about?
“She would have wanted you to carry on bro. Suze was like that, she liked living and thought people should enjoy life.”
Suze? Who was Suze? The image of the red-haired lady came into his head. Not just one image this time, but several flashes one after the other. Suze, Susan. She kissed him goodbye in the morning, hummed when she did the dishes, snuggled up to him for hugs when they were on the sofa, or in bed when she had cold feet. She made him marmite on toast when he was ill and could drink him under the table. He remembered how beautiful she had looked on their wedding day, pristine in white, and equally beautiful when she was in labour, all pink-faced and sweaty. They’d had a baby boy. He had a son. Benjamin.
Isaac could feel the tears rolling down his face, could feel his sister’s arms wrapped around him, but he was disconnected from his body and totally absorbed in the cinema of images suddenly unlocked and pouring forth in his head. Benjamin. They’d called him Baby Jam.
The images became less coherent, tainted with fear and pain. A crash, twisted metal, heat. Blood, lots of blood and screaming and then no noise whatsoever. All he could hear was the hiss of the busted radiator and then it was black. The lights behind his eyes flickered, like when a reel of film reaches the end.
“Oh God, oh God Chloe, what did I do?”
“No Zac, the crash wasn’t your fault”
“I could have prevented it. If only I’d made them take the test, we could have avoided it, if only I’d known.”
“You know it doesn’t work like that. Whether you know about it or not, it’s going to end how it ends. Nothing you can do, no machine can stop that.” Her arms tightened around his shaking frame, then she let go and stepped back. “Deep breaths Zac, you can do this.”
“Oh Chloe. It screws you up either way doesn’t it? Whether you know or don’t know. Death really does mess us up.”
Chloe positioned herself in the patient chair and Isaac assumed his seat in front of the machine’s screen. Thinking back to the Australian, he no longer felt like laughing. He was the one that was harpooned now, pinned in place by the hands of fate. Forced to harpoon others too. Flexing his fingers, he began the process of killing his sister.