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Speculative Sad

I sat atop the tower and watched wearily as stars appeared one by one, then in growing numbers until the dark sky above me was illuminated by a broad ribbon of bright pinpoints from horizon to horizon.

It was beautiful. There was no doubt of that. The universe was a wonderful sight. The sky was a clear, cloudless, seemingly limitless expanse of darkness pierced only by those distant lights. Small lights, large lights, red and blue and achingly white lights, impossibly sharp and clear in the unpolluted air. I let my gaze wander across the roof tops of the city below and wondered where it had all gone so very wrong.

Ten months ago I was just your average twenty something nerd. Living at home with my parents, occasionally going for a beer with a couple of mates, working most nights at a slightly more than minimum wage, mundane, soulless, mindlessly brain deadening job in a warehouse which frankly any above average chimpanzee would find beneath their mental and dexterous capabilities.

I sat and performed a repetitive set of tasks every thirty minutes, monitoring the robots which did the actual work among the racked shelves of boxes and pallets. Which gave me more than ample time to daydream my life away in between checking that robot A had picked item B and safely carried it to place C and then gone back to do it all again.

So every night I sat and watched the screens and ran the automated check lists. Even that task was automated so that a below average chimpanzee probably could have learnt which buttons to press between munching on bananas. Truthfully I was surprised ‘Management’ hadn’t already introduced that as a solution it would have been cheaper to buy bananas than pay me to sit on a chair for ten hours at a stretch.

No matter how comfortable the chair sitting in it was an implementation, an exercise, a performance of the tedious, boredom and ennui personified. That all changed the night of the accident.

It wasn’t widely reported, the accident I was involved in. ‘Management’ took great pains to keep it out of the news.

What happened was this. About two in the morning one of the big robots, the ones designed to handle pallet loads of boxes not individual ones, decided that it had enough trundling back and forward on the same path and turned left when it was meant to turn right.

The resulting ‘interaction of a moving machine with a stationary obstacle at odds with the machine’s instruction set’, that was how ‘Management’ put it -I kid you not- caused a stack of drums to topple from the racking and ‘lose structural integrity following impact with hard surfaces, resulting in unanticipated and unacceptable cross contamination’.

That was ‘Management’ speak for a shit load of plastic and metal containers falling from various heights and breaking open or losing lids when they hit the deck and their contents becoming a god awful mix of multi coloured fluids.

When this fortunately rare occurrence -catastrophe for those who had to clean it up, namely me- took place, the quarter of the warehouse that I monitored came to a grinding halt and the other sectors slowed down but didn’t stop. That was a big no no. Only the end of the world stopped the warehouse from operating. A simple collision between a robot and racking didn’t count.

So when the alarm sounded and the red light began flashing on the wall of my section’s control room I knew it was going to take more than me just going down onto the warehouse floor and goosing a reluctant robot into activity. That you see was my skill, ability you might say, the reason I got the job in the first place.

I could spot a fault in the software and the hardware without even using the diagnostics. I just ‘knew’ or ‘felt’ where the problem was and could swiftly fix it. Well usually. The hardware often just needed a quick kick in the right spot, but sometimes the sub routines would get their knickers in a twist or have a logic fault which didn’t show in testing and manifested in the real world -the warehouse- causing problems, usually small and easily fixed.

That night was different. When I got down to where the robot sat, covered in debris and liquids of every imaginable hue and colour in the light of my torch I knew that this wasn’t going to be a quick fix. The warehouse was not usually brightly lit, the robots didn’t need much light to operate, just enough for them to validate their position and the rack numbers and they could use infra red for that. When I and one of the other system monitors had to go down to the floor we used powerful hand held torches with large -huge and heavy- battery packs.

I stared at the mess and in my head ran through the operational procedures for accidental spills, damaged goods and clean up processes. There was nothing in them that equated to anything of this size happening. It just wasn’t expected or anticipated or catered for in the procedures. The nearest thing to it they contained was a fire but even that had automated suppression systems that kicked in. They had to have that by law to get their fire safety certificates.

So I stood and stared at the mess and didn’t really notice the blue green vapour hanging no more than an inch or so above the floor slowly spreading outwards from the centre of the spill, which wasn’t eating its way into the floor or the robot, anything obvious like that, it was just innocuously, quietly and slowly without fanfare spreading outwards above the fluids.

That’s the last thing I remember about the accident. I woke up in hospital three days later. I wasn’t in ICU which was something but I was on fairly regular observations and when I woke my Mum was dozing in a chair by my bed. I went home two days after that and the next morning I had a visit from ‘Management’. He introduced himself as Andrew St John-Baker and his suit cost more than I earnt in a year.

I wasn’t sure what to expect but it wasn’t being told that I was being dismissed forthwith for ‘negligence resulting in company property being destroyed, along with customer’s stock, severe and irreparable damage to the company’s reputation, loss of business current and future’ and every other one of the world’s woes short of inciting a world war. I wouldn’t have been surprised by then of them trying to add that to my list of alleged accomplishments, only a war hadn’t started.

My mum was there when he delivered all this to me and her mouth dropped open further and further as he reeled off the list of my calumnies. I sat there nonplussed, not quite sure how I was supposed to respond to this. The accident hadn’t been my fault I was sure of that. The robot had passed the diagnostic checks only ten minutes before it lost its way and the records would show it. The only thing I could possibly be ‘negligent’ of was not clearing the mess up.

I waited for him to finish and felt an anger building inside with an intensity I’d never felt before. I stared at him; a typical English upper class ‘twit’ was what my dad would call him. Eton or Harrow, Oxbridge, etc. His face was slightly florid and he was beginning to be a little jowly, no doubt from all the ‘good living’ he consumed regularly. I eyed him and I suddenly knew with certainty that he would be dead within the next few days. A heart attack, massive, non survivable. He caught the intensity of my stare and halted his recitation of my misdeeds.

“Is there something you wish to ask?” his voice carried a note of condescension and superciliousness which struck a nerve and I decided I would inform my visitor of my prognosis for his continuing health or lack of it.

“Are you threatening me?” he demanded. “I would strongly advise you…”

I interrupted him and simply said that I was trying to help him, that if he got off of his fat arse or high horse and went straight to a doctor or hospital he might well survive. If not he’d be dead in a few days. He didn’t believe me. That was clear from his expression and I was a little alarmed to see his face growing puce as he angrily gathered together the papers he had been reading from. He pulled a final set from his briefcase and threw them down on the table then marched from the room my mother hurrying to see him out.

She came back in a state of indignation at what she called their high handed treatment of her one and only, a card from him in her hand.

“How on earth is St John-Baker pronounced Sinjun-Baker?” she demanded of me. Yes he had said his name was Sinjun-Baker. Yet more evidence of ‘upper class twittedness’ my father would say.

I didn’t answer her at first; I was too busy reading the papers he had left behind. The ones that stated ‘Management’ would pay me two hundred and fifty thousand pounds in ‘lieu of notice’ -providing I kept my mouth shut about the accident- that was. Talk to anyone about what I’d seen or what had happened to me and I’d find myself being sued for negligence instead.

I showed the papers to Mum and she sat down limply on the sofa as she read them then looked at me her eyes wide. She read through the paperwork again and took in a shaky breath.

“This is… incredible, unbelievable, just…” my Mum trailed off, lost for words. I struggled to think when I had ever seen my Mum in that state and nothing came to mind. Mum was ‘voluble’. Chatty, conversational, garrulous, loquacious, talkative, according to the dictionary. Gabby, was the word Dad used which means the same I guess.

“Why did you say he was going to die? What on earth made you say such a thing?” she suddenly asked.

I told her that I could see it in his face, as clear as if I was looking at an ECG or monitor. Mum looked at me strangely but let it drop. When Dad got home from work he read the paperwork and immediately said that I should ask for more. If they were willing to pay this much to keep me quiet, they knew they were at fault and would pay a lot more.

I thought about it and could see the logic of what he was saying. I just wasn’t sure I wanted the hassle. I told him I’d consider it. After dinner I went to my room, played my favourite FSP of the moment- Zombie Days Vampire Nights- and lost myself in an orgy of digital death.

Four days later another ‘company man’ arrived on our doorstep and asked if I had signed the agreement. Before I answered I asked where Sinjun-Baker was. He was reluctant to answer me but after a few minutes of wheedling and pressuring him he finally admitted that the man had dropped dead of a heart attack. I glanced at my Mum who looked back at me her eyes stricken at the news.

When I told him that no I hadn’t signed the papers he started getting antsy and demanding that I do so now, immediately, forthwith and without further delay. His attitude started to get my back up as he harangued me for not signing the papers and my own temper started growing and I glared at him tight lipped. Then it happened again, just like before. Written clear on his face, was his death.

Within two weeks he would be dead. From the looks of it he died as a result of a car crash. His face was badly cut and had pieces of glass embedded in it and his neck was at a funny angle. I opened my mouth to tell him to be careful then decided against it and instead told him I felt the company could come up with a better offer for my silence and he should go and tell them that.

He left not long after without a signature and my temper cooled with his departure. When my Mum came back into the room she looked at me oddly for a moment. She knew me too well; she knew that I had changed what I was going to say.

So I told her what I had seen in his face and she sat down heavily in an armchair and looked at me fearfully.

“What do you see when you look at me and your Dad?” she asked quietly and I could see that tears were welling in her eyes.

I explained that it only seemed to happen with strangers and when I started to get angry. I didn’t want her and Dad to be afraid of me, no more than I wanted to ‘see’ their deaths. I calmed Mum down then rang a mate and arranged to meet for a drink down the pub later, before I went up to my room to think.

A month later I signed the papers for a million and a half. My Mum nearly fainted when the cheque actually arrived and I took her and Dad out for a meal in a restaurant not down the pub for pie and chips like on her birthday.

The cheque was delivered by the fifth ‘company man’ to visit us. The second had indeed died in a car crash, the third drowned in a flash flood and the fourth was killed by collapsing scaffolding. I’d somehow foreseen all of their deaths and the manner in which they died. What was confusing me was that I saw it on their faces without getting more than mildly irritated by them.

Mum winced every time a new man arrived from the company and she was uneasy around me now, wondering if I saw her death when I looked at her. I wondered why so many of the company’s men were dying after visiting me. Was it just that I was able to see the future, their future that is or was I somehow responsible in some way for them dying? Was I projecting my anger onto them and causing their deaths? I spent a lot of time in my room. Thinking, not playing games. Thinking long and hard and feeling a bit scared myself.

With the cheque banked and no immediate need to work or find work I persuaded Dad to at least semi-retire and took the pair of them around the estate agents looking for a new house for us. Not there was anything wrong with where we lived, apart from the noise, no place to park in the street and the noise. Did I mention the noise?

We found a nice four bedroom bungalow with a good sized garden, workshop for Dad, a big country kitchen for Mum to potter around in on the edge of the city and five months ago we moved into it. Dad retired fully and spent most of his day in the workshop. Mum was in seventh heaven with a double oven and gadgets and gizmos of every stripe.

We turned the fourth bedroom into a Home Cinema room with huge wide screen TV on the wall, an ultra fast gaming PC and various consoles for me. I was sat there one afternoon flipping through the hundred odd channels -crap at the best of times and even worse during daytime- when it happened again.

I was looking at a Euronews report on an international summit of world leaders. There must have been around a hundred of them stood in a half circle having a ‘photo opportunity’ Everyone of them was going to die and soon. I stared at the TV transfixed, mind numb as the scene switched to the United Nations and another large gathering of ‘notables’. The same thing, death written on every face.

As news item followed news item on CNN, Sky, the BBC and others, I saw the same thing on face after face. My own face was streaked with tears when my Mum came in with a cup of tea and a slice of carrot cake for me. She almost dropped them when she saw the state I was in. I looked up at her, and saw death close at hand.

That was six weeks ago. A day or so before things fell apart. The virus that ended the world moved so fast it spread around the world in forty eight hours and killed everyone who contracted it in seventy two. It spread so fast, there was no time for vaccines or treatments and it shrugged off everything thrown at it. Quarantine didn’t work, antibiotics and vaccines didn’t work. Nothing did. I stopped going out, not because I worried about catching it that was just a matter of time. I couldn’t stand seeing every face I saw overlaid with death.

I sat and nursed Dad and then Mum through their last hours and waited to join them. When it didn’t happen I sat and cried. For myself, for my parents, for the world. I stared at my reflection in the mirror searching for… death but it wasn’t there.

So now I’m sat on the tallest tower block I could find and stare at the clearest sky I have ever seen. There are no lights so no light pollution and the stars are bright and beautiful tonight, cold, hard, just like the ground will be when I step off.

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August 11, 2021 06:46

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2 comments

Imogen Bird
23:35 Aug 14, 2021

Woah. That was gripping. And very creepy. I loved the mystery behind the deaths. Did the protagonist cause them or was he just able to see them!? This also flows very nicely. A joy to read!

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Edward Savage
10:37 Aug 19, 2021

Thanks Imogen, glad you liked it. The mystery is the thing, leaving it to the reader to decide.

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