Pod

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

What happens when outright seclusion becomes more captivating than reality?

The intention here is to express a perspective not often considered when thinking about restoring normality; that a hermit-like existence may suit some of us just a little too well. In our current world, constrained as much by technology and physical space as we are liberated by them, a cocooning can morph into something more sinister. One cannot rely entirely on shutting oneself away from a world that thunders on, uncaring of the individual’s strife. To wilfully prolong seclusion is to lose a part of oneself, to experience a form of ‘Little Death’. To deny access to both the dangers and benefits of the exterior ultimately becomes a form of self-sabotage, of destruction. Although the pressure to return to life, warped and terrifying as that world is, can be overwhelming for a good many souls, the alternative is a life shortened and devalued by living every waking moment in fear.

‘If you believe in any of that, Jules, you’re going to die. It kills you.’

That’s what he’d told her. Wrong, as ever. So many were wrong in those days, as if listening to reason was a mortal sin. But wherever he is now, she has to admit she’s envious of his choice. He’s not the one stuck in a Pod.

‘Pod’. That isn’t her name for it, rather what the Company had plastered on the side of the thing.

P

O

D

Like that.

Not that she’s ever seen this decal more than once, that first and only time she glimpsed the outer shell before the hatch opened up and swallowed the rest of her allotted time. She calls it her ‘Little Death’.

The Pod monitor designates her as ‘0000309’. By now, if her calendar is correct, she’s been called this longer than her previous name.

 The job is like any other. In fact, almost exactly like the old warehouse gig she had just out of high school. Show up, sit down, set the commands for the machinery, observe, and make sure nothing explodes as it does the heavy lifting. In that first job she had, for the most part, overseen the packing of stuffed toys. What she handles now, she can’t say. Nothing hints at anything on the walls of those sleek polygonal capsules she passes over.

When the work is done, she returns home. In the warehouse days, back when warehouses were still a thing, this took her an hour by cable car, back to the warmth of her claustrophobic basement flat. Now it takes her about a second, as she spins the chair around to face the back of the Pod where claustrophobia is an altogether forgotten word.

The desk, the bed, the shower, the toilet with the sink; all curved to fit the slanted wall. The exercise bike stands apart, bolted to the floor (it does not curve). The chair isn’t bolted down, and is the only furniture, other than the human occupant, given free reign.

Above the desk, a shelf with exactly eight books on it (no more, no less at any given time, unless deemed essential). She can cycle volumes out as she’s done with them. At first glance a fine deal, except she has no say in what’s sent along next. Never know if you’ll get a favourite read back.

There are two she holds onto dearly, lest some other worker taint them with their undeserving claws. The Life Cycle of Planet Earth is one. The other, a faded, crumbling ream of papers, is a travel guide for North Wales. It was the place for her, she’d decided, with its dated snapshots of craggy coastline, rolling green, and charming accents. The fact she will never visit is a thought she keeps far from her mind.

The monitor is on the desk. More in the worktop than on; sunken in, blocky, barely functional. Limited online capabilities, obviously, but there are several of the old movies, shows, sports and so on. You also get to choose your meals here.

The window springs open as a hidden sensor captures her face. Tonight’s options are MEAT BRICK or SYRUP CAKE. She’s in a savoury mood, jabs for brick. A hiss, a thunk, and the pneumatic tube spits it steaming onto its tray. She wishes they wouldn’t use this same tube for books. The recycled biofilm often splits, leaving crumbs and gristle that she has to pick from between pages. The manufacturers never anticipated forceful propulsion when designing their packets. Complaining about it doesn’t change a thing, nor garner the slightest response from the Company, but it makes her feel better to send the hate mail. Almost like talking to someone.

Meat brick dissolving to paste in her palm, she coories into the chair for the evening. The bike hums expectantly. No spinning tonight, she hasn’t the puff. The lights dim but there’s enough power left for the monitor. Enough for an episode or two of that show with the jokers in the American hospital. Enough to let her pretend hospitals are still out there.

The jaunty screen-people fade and fuzz, her focus drawn instead to the polaroid gummed to the corner of the screen. The last shot of him and her together. Close and alive, out there before.

 

#

 

Morning and the Pod is inert. Needs juice.

The monitor flashes red warnings. Interrupts with alarms; tortured squalls. She is already awake, trying not to show it. Trying for who? The alarm persists, indifferent. The monitor whirs.

‘Yeah, I know. I get it.’

To the bike she goes. Sweat-rusted and overused, the machine long overdue for a service. It’s not the only thing. She mounts, still coated in yesterday’s jumpsuit and grime. Starts sluggish, winding herself to life as does the cubicle, the lamps, the tube, internal Pod machinery. She grunts as she toils. Hands slip on the worn handlebars as they’re coated in her muck. A ding. Red lights blink no more and solidify to reassuring blue. Outside the Pod, metal squeals into position.

She dismounts, wiping drips with a towel. Another ding. The monitor flashes:

GREETINGS, 0000309(!)

IT IS DAY 7971(!)

ABROTOS CHAMBERS 25235-25309 ARE PRIMED FOR HARVEST(!) (ERR. SUBJ.(S) UNRESPONSIVE – A.C.(S) 25281, 25296, 25299)

‘Fucking glitches.’

The ding is repeated. Flinging the towel at the monitor, she wrenches herself free of her bogging jumpsuit. Confronts the shower head, bare and clammy. From under the towel, a final monitor encouragement:

HAVE A FRUITFUL YIELD(!)

 

#

 

Steam is sucked through the pneumatic, clearing the cubicle. The fans must be needing cleaned. But then they’ve needed cleaning for a year. A stale mist still clings to the air, smells like last night’s meat. She’s noticed her travel guide cultivating mould. Feels another complaint mingling at her fingertips. But work comes first.

Rolling her used towels and clothes together, slotting them up the pneumatic, she pulls herself into the fresh jumpsuit just arrived (high-speed food streak smeared on a sleeve). She swivels the chair to face the forward controls and the unending grey beyond.

Pipes, tubes, rails lattice the facility, hidden products waiting in the shadows. She activates with the swipe of a screen, push of a button. She angles a joystick and the Pod responds, inching forwards, tilting down. A quick glance through the sloping window to confirm the current rail is secure and unobstructed. Attached for another day then. She swipes her controls and a tally appears on the monitor behind her. One of thousands.

Release lever is on the underside of the desk. Right there, all this time. One quick pull.

So, to the first chamber of the day. A flick of the wrist and gears begin to spin, the Pod clunking onwards. Work is a go.

One quick pull and end it.

Wondering what the midday meal options will be, as she angles left and up, slaloming around a ragged missing section of rail. She imagines there won’t be meat for a few days at least, given the rare brick on offer last night.

Unhinge this Little Death.

She quite fancies some fruit gel. Or nectar cake. Been a good while since nectar cake.

 

#

 

‘Look around you, Jules. Life goes on. It’s only panic like yours that’s doing the harm. It’s the worry that gets you in the end.’

She tries to remember more than that conversation when thinking about him, but it’s hard to dwell on anything else. It came suddenly to her, this realisation, that he was hopeless, not worth convincing. People like that, they don’t believe in caution. Warning labels, cliffside railings, flu shots don’t mean a thing. Seatbelts. Even those. Even as one completes the flight through the windshield, is buckling from the impact, their knees collapsing into their ribcage, they refuse to be lectured on the obvious. They’re kaput, sure, but what does that matter when they’ve proven their tightest hold on the most stubborn belief?

That conversation was the exact moment she’d stopped trusting him.

She hums to the tune of the hydraulic arm going through its motions, tilting each capsule, scanning, attaching the suction cable, then lifting the subject back to a starting position.

‘GERMINATION PHASE’ the monitor tells her. She’d never any idea what that meant. Typing in the monitor’s help program to ask had provided nothing. Doesn’t bother her now. Over the days, she’s come to learn that speculation is a hollow pastime when staffing the Pod.

A final twist of the arm’s claw and the capsule snaps onto its clear starting tube. She releases the controls, leaning forward, ever curious despite herself.

An aperture yawns open, smoky light filtering through. The light grows, blocking the view. All on show yet obscured by its brilliance.

The capsule shudders, stops. A puff of steam. Its edges glow blue.

Germination complete.

Every time is the same. She doesn’t know what happens exactly. There is one thing about the process she is sure of – whatever enters the capsule through the bright opening, it has started life outside the facility.

 

The hours and minutes are marked by capsules harvested. The end results are essential to the survival of mankind. She has never seen any evidence of this claim. Never will. The chance trickles away to the far corners of this cornerless, endless empty, the stretch of routine vast and aching yet, somehow, rushing the end all too fast, marked by flaking of her control console’s paint, marked by the lines cutting through her once smooth hands, never to know the warmth of sun or remote touch again.

 

Midday break. Seed biscuit bar. Romance novel. Both sickly sweet. Forgetting, remembering.

 

Tilt, scan, tube, hiss of steam, drift the Pod along, repeat.

She expends minimal effort in performing the motions, but the process is an extended one. The hydraulics have one speed and that speed is grass growing. Perhaps that’s what is housed in some of the chambers – grass. She aches to know. Wary enough never to investigate.

He would have been the first to abandon the rules. He would have worked out how to manipulate the hardware and steer the Pod to all manner of improper use violations. All to fuel his curiosity, which far outweighed his sense of peril.

She thinks maybe he had something wrong with his brain, something inherent to hers, to most humans, that was missing for him. Self-preservation and the preservation of all, that was what she strived for, what she still strives for. Reckons he wouldn’t even begin to understand. Not the how, not the why. If it wasn’t made of working parts, or beer, or her body, it was beyond his capacity entirely.

She moves on, task to task, to the next chamber. It is dull, soul-crushing repetition, but it is purpose. If she has nothing else, she has that.

 

#

 

Morning and the Pod is inert. Needs juice.

Flashing red warnings. Morning alarms. Rising, spinning, life returning. Sweat flowing. It is a bright new day.

The monitor flashes:

GREETINGS, 0000309(!)

IT IS DAY 7972(!)

ABROTOS CHAMBERS 25310-25430 ARE PRIMED FOR HARVEST(!) (ERR. SUBJ.(S) UNRESPONSIVE – A.C.(S) 25361, 25385, 25409, 25410, 25411, 25412, 25413, 25414, 25415, 25416)

She frowns, slaps the screen. The picture warps, but the readout remains the same. Ten unresponsive capsules. Must be faulty sensors.

‘Fucking sensors.’

HAVE A FRUITFUL YIELD(!)

 

Life along the sliding rails, tending to the hanging chambers. Arm hums, tilts, scans. Attach the cable, lift the chamber, sit and wonder. Repeat, repeat, repeat.

 

She senses the threat in the 25400s, craning ahead towards the ‘410s. Where should be her Pod lights reflecting in shining, polished chambers along the line is instead a matt black nothing.

‘Where is the fire, hm? Where is the commotion? Nothing means no trouble.’ That’s how he would have put it. But he, as she knows, has known for thousands of days, was wrong about most things. Nothing is bad news.

This isn’t an error in the code, a glitch in the facility sensors. She is seeing the space where these capsules should be. One or two dropped or misplaced is excusable, inevitable even, but this is a serious chunk of space.

She edges the Pod closer, abandoning the germination of the normal chambers, the good kind. Feels for a protruding switch to the right of the window, flickering on the headlamps.  

The light steady, she swivels all around, Pod and chair, to peer into the emptiness. But it is not empty.

Beams pick up not the smooth sheen of a functional capsule hanging from the tubes, but a matted, damp cluster in the shape of one. Growth and rot.

 

She fishes under the desk, hooking her hand into a shrouded compartment, avoiding anything she shouldn’t touch. There is a ninth book permitted, mandatory to own even, never allowed to be cycled out. Not that you could; it would never fit it up the pneumatic.

Dust spews as she wrenches the book out from its slot, its weight dragging her arm to the floor. Never in all her thousands of days has she had to turn to this, the Manual for the Operation of Pod/Chamber, Maintenance and Procedure. Or ‘M.O.P.M.A.P.’ as her instructor had referred to it. She recalls that, recalls her instructor as well, for the first time – a pudgy, moustached snout peering over a clipboard. That’s how little she’d had to think about the manual, this last resort for out of the ordinary happenings.

Why her? Why now? Just as misery was growing comfortable. She regrets lamenting the drudgery, the routine. It was safe. Can we just go back to being safe? And ordinary? There have been no memos about the problem with the chambers, no change in protocol, nothing in her training. So why is it up to her? She’s already fixing the future, preserving it for thankful, yet ethereal others.

Just hiding now, she wants. Nothing beyond that. To hide and carry out her task, and to know no fear, no rot or decay, other than her own gradual stagnation.

 

The seeping mass is the same shape and size, roughly speaking, of the Abrotos Chamber it smothers. Every orifice is clogged, every surface disguised by this soft new tissue. A nuisance as much as a danger. How is she to germinate, to carry out her one purpose?

Her lifeline is on paper. M.O.P.M.A.P. is flung open at her console:

 

TAKING COMMAND

Becoming skipper of a bright, new POD is a real thrill! From the first moment you are underway you can look forward to years of enjoyment and pride at the helm, knowing that you are in command of a sure, safe craft that represents the finest in engineering and craftmanship.

 

Skip this shite. Thick sheafs riffle to midway.

 

CLEANING

To keep your POD looking its best, give it a rinse-

 

Slams the front down. Opens the index.

 

cartography...................................628-751

charts..........................672,685,689

navigation................................628

training....................................646

chair..............................................144-150

maintenance............................144

replacement.............................149

chamber .......................................321-566

maintenance............................341

cleaning...................................335

contracts......458,462,499,510,567

germinating.............................464

harvesting..................469,492,520

lowering/raising......................377

malfunction.............................321

 

Three hundred and twenty-one. She finds the page near the beginning of the colossal tome, to breathless relief. Scores of trailing diagrams, neat and ordered little details running an inch thick through the manual. There is order in those lines. Order that brings calm.

She leans over, absently hammering at the keys and switches on her control board as she pours over their corresponding instructions in print. The threat is dulled in her mind, comforted even, squashed. It mutates into another thoughtless task, like any other. Might be prudent to adapt to this new mould thing, if, from now on, it’s something to be expected. Unwanted chaos it may be, but chaos she can learn to keep at arm’s length, as part of the routine.

Extend the probe. Click, push, done.

Scan for damage. Damage? Hard to miss it – what are we scanning for? Click, push, swipe, done anyway.

Allow for processing. Hands off the controls, looking over her shoulder at the monitor. Cooling fans stirring, jabbering code shooting onscreen.

Allow for calm. Take a moment to unwind. This is a blip in your glorious command, outside of your control. You are the skipper of your own existence. You were chosen for excellence.

 ‘Thank you M.O.P.M.A.P.’

She tilts her head back, breathes the musty Pod air.

Red light blinking on the domed ceiling. She snaps back to the task, shuffling over to the monitor. It has arrived at a conclusion:

PREPARE FOR SAMPLE INTAKE. DO NOT INTERFERE.

What?

COMMENCING.

The familiar buzz of the Pod arm’s hydraulics outside. But she hasn’t initiated any process.

‘No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no.’

Skiting back to the control panel, leaping at the joystick. It waggles in her grasp, unconnected. Jamming at the arm’s command. Nothing.

She is thrown forwards, the entire vessel shifting of its own accord, leaning over the blackened, sticky mass that dangles from the rail. She steadies herself on the panel, keeping balance as the Pod moves, unpredictable jerks twitching it around the diseased chamber.

The arm is fully extended, not by her. An aperture in its side widens, one she has never noticed, not ever, in the trusty machinery she has been staring at all these thousands of days. Is that component listed in the manual? If her Pod could do all this by itself, move without an operator, what was the point of a pilot? What was the point in giving herself to the Program for all these thousands of days? What is the point in her at all?

A large syringe erupts from the aperture like some retractable claw. It is plunged into the rot, sucking up the vile matter, storing it somewhere in her vessel. Feels like she’s ingesting it into herself. She can only watch as the unknown particles creep into the joints and corners of her only remaining pride and joy.

 

#

 

‘I mean it. I’ve heard about this scheme; they plan to use as many punters as they can get for cattle, for mindless drones. If you plan on following this, love, you’ll only find tragedy.’

The very last words she heard him speak. She hadn’t given anything in reply, just left him standing in the hallway, packed suitcase trundling behind. What’s that they used to say about stopped clocks and blind pigs?

 

It has been fourteen days since the controls stopped responding. That’s roughly fifteen hundred missed chamber contracts. And twenty-seven processed and packaged meals worth, the only Pod function that remains operational. She sits huddled against the back wall, stale with a fortnight’s sweat, sucking at the corner of a nectar cake (also stale).

Her eight books, along with M.O.P.M.A.P., lie scattered around her. She has reread all of them, the manual more than once. When it refused to offer up any new answers, any remedy to the mess it had already put her in, she had taken to ripping out pages of her North Wales travel guide and plastering them over the manual, hiding detailed mechanics, rail charts, software troubleshooting. The collage of fields and castles make as much sense to her as the diagrams had.

Nothing can be done, and nobody is coming to help. The Company, it seems, has no idea anything is wrong.

She would have sent a distress call from the monitor, if it hadn’t shown a blank screen since its forced sample collection. She’d have continued to flash an S.O.S., if her torch batteries had lasted more than a day, and her headlamps and interior lighting had worked at all. Only the dim ambient glow from the facility through the Pod window gives her enough to see by, just enough to make out the print in her precious books. More than enough to assess the ongoing spread of glistening rot now spreading up the metal arm.

You would almost be able to see it moving, if you concentrated on it for a long time, as she has abundant chance to. Creeping up each scratch, each rivet towards her. She wonders how long it will take to cover the whole Pod. Certainly, more than it took the wee chambers. She wonders if, when it reaches the pneumatic, it will cut off her food supply. When it penetrates the hull itself.

All her life she’d spent avoiding anything remotely connected to ‘outside’, ‘out there’. Yet here, in her long-cultivated bubble of withdrawal, the outside will find her regardless. Little Death has outdone itself. The slowest, most terrifying, most inevitable end she could have conjured up for herself.

And no one to watch her go.

 

#

 

Twenty-nine days. The growth is past the arm’s ‘elbow’ joint, working steadily up to the shoulder and body. She has spent almost every waking hour kneeling in front of the window, watching it happen, trying to picture anything from her life before Pod. A memorable view, her favourite café, food that didn’t come exclusively in cuboid or paste. Every detail is a struggle.

The travel guide and the manual are as one, a thick binding overflowing with extinct scenes. She reads it as it is now, this hybrid source of holiday and operation. She remembers all its components, even the bland coding covered by the Welsh beaches, she’s been over it that many times. She knows it so well that she has forgotten the one component that isn’t documented.

 

In the middle of the thirtieth night (not that one can tell; the facility looks no different) she snaps awake.

Unhinge this Little Death.

It was the last time she’d talked to a living, breathing other soul, someone that wasn’t an actor’s ghost on her monitor. It was during induction, as her instructor had clambered down into the Pod with her, pointed out all the parts. He’d explained her role, what was expected of her, how and where she’d receive her meals, and, as he was about to reach for the exit, as if it was an amusing afterthought, how to perform an emergency release.

Under the desk, behind the manual’s compartment, feel for a protusion.

One quick pull.

Weightless.

 

#

 

‘We’re gone now, for a spell. Gone for the day.’

She opens her eyes, has talked herself back to consciousness. Still under the desk, hand still wrenched tight around the extended lever. Her back aches, forehead throbs, might have a broken toe or two, but otherwise it went down quite smooth. Except that down is now sideways.

She wriggles free of the desk space and down onto the starboard wall of the Pod. Its lights have come back to life, ever so faintly, after so long without. She realises the backup generator has finally kicked in. The manual had a lot to say about the backup generator, none of which can be actioned from within the Pod. The long fall seems to have done the trick.

M.O.P.M.A.P. has not taken the journey well. It lies about the compartment, ripped and sticking to surfaces with the pieces of other books. The mattress has impaled itself on the exercise bike. The chair has embedded itself some way into the control panel. Behind them, the view through the window, fogged from her sleep-breath, is darker than ever before. Not a rail or chamber in sight. She rubs away some of the condensation.

Wetness out there. Not like the fog she’s produced, nor the moisture left after using the shower. It’s a sizable pool of water she and the Pod have landed in, a severe leak. Does the Company know? Has anyone flagged this up? Perhaps it’s the cause of her troublesome rot.

She checks again, can’t see the rot on her Pod’s arm. Can’t see the arm whatsoever. Broken free by the fall?

The window grows cloudier. It occurs that the compartment’s circulation won’t be running as usual. Her breaths are thinner, shorter. Lack of oxygen or lack of calm? Inconsequential – she needs air.

She slams her fists against her viewing window. There are already cracks at the edges from the impact of the fall. But the material, more plastic than glass really, bounces back.

Tries again. Fists then feet then her whole body.

Too weak. She hasn’t used the bike in some time, has grown soft from inactivity in some warped logic that she needed to conserve her energy. The bike however, she deduces, is not soft.

She shuffles the impaled mattress clear, fluff choking her. Tries pulling the machine out from the floor, which is even more futile than her efforts at the window. She begins to question how much the Company even bothered, if no one had thought of providing an escape tool in her kit as standard.

She twists off the bike seat, throws that. It bounces, smudging the beads of damp.

Looks to the toilet for removable parts. Doesn’t even have a seat, useless.

The desk is solid, attached, useless.

The monitor is surrounded by metal. Couldn’t pry it out if she spent another thirty days.

Chucks tools, books, pens, empty food wrappers, anything. Nothing even dents.

But the chair.

Solid enough to cave in the control panel. Solid enough for further destruction. She grips it by the central spindle. It pops free of the twisted, sparking metal.

She swings it towards the window once. Twice. Swings it again. It rebounds, the wheels grazing her knee.

Arms sore, knee throbbing but these are pain to add to the whole. She spies a larger crack at the base, behind the panel’s remains.

She aims, flings the whole bloody thing. The window splinters. Dregs and sediment of unknown somethings come flooding in, sloshing and freezing her toes, her ankles, her calves.

 

The facility yawns for miles in all directions. The silence of the place weighs on her. She is out of the Pod. Out. Of the Pod.

She is stood, water up to her thighs, taking it all in. The air, in jumpy gulps, the space. Distant glints of wire above; the rails for Pod and chamber. Something flits along one of them, but could be just a trick of the eye, especially at this distance. She has never come across another Pod before. The shifts were designed that way, contracts distributed to thread past one another unnoticed. If only she could get one of them to see her, if she could somehow manage to find a way to reach management, an instructor. Anyone really, if they were still out there. It would mean a wading trek, wherever she aimed for.

A splash from off to the side. Her attention is brought back low. There are darting shapes in the corners of the gloom.

She falters, falls on her arse, immersed up to her shoulders. The cold knocks the wind from her.

Movement, not far above. She screams, plunges fully.

The water is vinegary, acidic. Pure, concentrated fear floats with her. Panic and murky particles, grabbing at her face and hair. She wants her space back. She wants the Pod. Her only burning desire is to crawl back into her cosy cell.

Her palms find a hard surface below and she pushes upwards.

She emerges to find all is still again. Whatever was there is now not. Just the flat skin of this long, lightless pool, disturbed only by the ripples she makes. If she left her spot, chose a path and kept on it, beelining, she might find help, a chance of an escape. Maybe more, to discover the root of her sudden unemployment, to solve and cure that dreaded rot. Or even to find the end of the facility. So many thousands of days, what has happened to the world in her absence? This is the chance she never thought she’d live to experience. Near-unlimited potential has fallen into her lap. If she chooses to look. If she can bear to.

 

 

 


Submitted: October 29, 2021

© Copyright 2021 M.D. Paget. All rights reserved.

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