Elizabeth Markham

Recording 127

Testament of Sara Moipet

I can hear the camera zooming in and out. It makes a soft whirring noise as it tries to auto-frame my face. I'm sitting still like they told me to. Sitting up in bed like this, all I can see is my reflection in the dark glass of the viewing screen and I don't recognise myself.

Maybe I should have recorded a testament earlier, before the tumours sucked me dry and turned me into the gaunt, shadow-eyed person the camera will capture for posterity. But I wasn't ready then.

It would have been bad enough if they'd only wanted audio-visual, but to let them stick this recorder inside my head? To have my thoughts written to a shiny little disk seemed so much worse than dying in anonymity -- I mean would you want someone to edit your thoughts?

Then yesterday I changed my mind.

Watching a meccy-carer 'die' made me see that I'm not afraid of anything now. It amused me that the Burn had killed the meccy just like it is killing me. And when the radiation finally fried its circuits, the meccy was sent to the same crematorium as I'll go to.

If I can find that funny, then I guess I've moved passed my fear.

The view screen has started to flicker at me so they must be ready for the audio-visual. The picture sharpens, replacing my dark reflection with a gleaming image of my sterile little world. The white of the blankets blending into the white of the floor. My head and arms the only real colour, because they've excluded the medical equipment from the frame. As I look at myself, I have the urge to smooth the covers; some vestige of vanity.

I take a deep breath. The little green 'go' circle appears.

"My name is Sara Moipet and I'm 25 years old." My voice sounds reedy and nervous. "I'm recording this because ... well ... I guess because I'm going to die soon, and I thought maybe I should leave something of me for the future."

I notice I'm frowning. "Of course this isn't just my story; it's the story of everyone affected by Burn ... even down to the meccies that work here at Chet. They die their own kind of death because Chet was built on the edge of the Burnt Zone itself." Would that make sense to people in the future? "'Chet' is what we call the C.H.:T. which stands for Contamination Hospital: Terminal." Was that patronising? I try to smile. "I was an initial Burn victim so that's why I'm here. That's why they stick us right on the Burnt Zone too ... the radiation isn't going to do us any further harm."

I glance toward the window before I remember they've pulled the blind down. Shut off my one patch of colour. "I have a great view though. Lots of those regal stone buildings that made up the commerce area." A fifth of the city business district. Three hundred years of being the heart of the city and now it's a desolate wasteland. "Of course no one enters the Zone these days because the background radiation is over ten times the normal level. Which won't kill you in a day, but it sure won't do you any good." Even after they tried to scrub them clean. "The enforced neglect means some of the buildings aren't looking so good now, but it's very peaceful." A decade of neglect. A decade. A lifetime. A minute.

"I remember how the city was ten years ago; full of people and you could move so freely from place to place. It wasn't perfect -- there were economic problems and even at fifteen I was worried about the future. Still, my friends and I were optimistic things would work themselves out before the down-turn affected us.

"We'd been here in the city on a school trip, earlier that day, and decided to go shopping afterwards." Bright glorious sunshine and lots of laughter. "We were really close to where the van was parked when the bomb went off, just two blocks downwind." People running, crying, frantically calling emergency services. "The blast was so strong -- it felt like an earthquake and I remember thinking 'An earthquake?'" Thick smoke overhead. Tiny specks of death floating down over everything.

"It took them almost two full days before they confirmed it was a 'dirty bomb'. They must have known faster than that, but I guess they didn't want people to panic." Did people panic? I don't remember. I was so terrified; those first days are blurry and confused. "They called on everyone who'd been within 5km of the plume to go to the mobile testing vans. I can still picture the queues and the anger." A man in expensive suit yelling about the wait, like it made a difference. "People were angry about waiting and then about the indignity of being scrubbed down like that." Rough hands. Stinging liquid.

"It was a strange thing being told you'd been 'severely' exposed. I remember understanding that it would mean I'd die young, but at first I didn't know how to react. Some people went completely off the rails, though maybe it's unfair to say that. I mean why not do drugs, climb mountains, rob banks and jump out of planes when you've been told your life expectancy just halved?" Such a waste.

"I don't think words can capture that feeling. But can words capture the fear and chaos of the months that followed? Sure you might look at the statistics and the documentaries, or that film they made, but I don't think they capture it -- not really.

"Only a few thousand people were directly exposed that day, but for a long time it generated a madness. People couldn't stand the uncertainty. Everyone who'd lived and worked in that great teardrop on the map were left worrying over how real the threat to their health was. The evacuees didn't know if they'd ever be allowed to go home. The whole country feared a new Depression. And everyone looked at everyone else like they were the enemy." Back then I didn't understand the violence. I won't cry over it now.

"People lashed out at everything, because they didn't know who to blame. Maybe that was the worst thing ... that no one claimed responsibility. No crazy ideologues, no anarchists, no oppressed minority and no 'lone gunman'. No one. And that meant no explanation, no reasons, no understanding. People went crazy searching for reasons, looking for anything that made sense when nothing did." People still do. Obsessed by the conspiracy theories and endless academic debate.

"We were afraid that the city would tear itself apart as people looted the abandoned houses, and rioted in the stadium they'd made into a relocation camp." I feel one lousy tear escaping, but I can still choke out the words. "The police had to shoot people."

Deep breaths.

"The first five years were tough for the whole country I think..." Would the cost of the Burnt push thousands of others out of work? " ... so much changed in that time." People wanted to put us down like sick animals because it would remove our economic burden -- bring the country back from the edge.

"For me it was about getting used to the regular health checks and the intense discrimination. People were so ready to write you off as already dead, and those were the rational ones -- so many people thought they could get sick just from being near you." All those 'friends' who ran away.

"And we all spent time wondering if the people who did this knew that a dirty bomb would do more damage and cause more mayhem through fear than any other kind of bomb? Was fear their goal? Did they deliberately not claim responsibility ... or were they just all dead by then?"

A ghoulish smile spreads over my thin lips. "I find it comforting to think that they must have died from prolonged exposure associated with making the device." Too fast a death.

"People have asked me what I'd want to happen to them if they could be brought to trial ... I wish they could have been sentenced to die alone in a Chet facility, surrounded by meccies." I'm making it sound horrible. It's not that horrible. "Not that we're really alone -- every aspect of my life is being recorded and measured by people in specially protected booths within the Chet complex."

Faceless people watching human guinea pigs. Do I still resent it?

"Someone shot the scientist who first stated publicly that the bomb had opened up huge possibilities in research, but she was right. All the financial wiz-kids of a generation were in the Zone that day, and for years they've poured every spare cent into research on cancer. This Chet, and other facilities, are privately backed laboratories when it comes down to it." With human guinea pigs.

"We -- all the Burnt that is -- know we died that day, but I like to believe something good can come from all that's happened." Do I mean that really? I do. I really do.

"I was lucky you know, because I was so young ... it's hard to miss what you never had. So many others already had family, careers etc. It was simpler for me I think. I gave up school because I personally didn't see the point of continuing -- I wasn't going to university since the government ruled it wasn't discriminatory to deny the Burnt places." Financial pressure. Social hysteria.

I can still see the sadness and pain in dad's face when I told him I was dropping out. "I don't think my dad ever really understood that. In fact, I think the whole thing's been harder on him than has been on me." How long is it now? A year? Probably longer. "We're not in contact now, which I regret in a way, but the strain on me, on dad and on our relationship was too much. Particularly when my friend Casey died." Burned. He burned. Died doesn't seem a big enough word.

"Casey was with me when the bomb went off, but other than that he was the total opposite to me. He'd stayed in school and lived like nothing had happened and I loved that about him. His whole family just went on like before." Until the government stepped in. "That lasted three years. It fell apart when he was denied a university place. He had incredible marks but they still barred him." You can't build a future on the dying so why waste a place on a dead man?

"Of course we were all outraged that the courts had made it legal to discriminate against the Burnt like that ... but Casey went one step further and became an outspoken representative of the Victim's Group; fighting for justice." I was so proud of him. So ashamed of my own inaction.

"He was absolutely certain that he was going to live a long and normal life. He kept that certainty through all the setbacks in court, and the ever worsening discrimination, right up to the point he decided to set himself on fire outside the parliament." I bet everyone's seen that footage.

Damn these tears.

"It was such a shock because I'd always believed him -- always thought he'd live a normal span and then suddenly he was gone." What a terrible way to die. "Dad said it was 'selfish and terrible' but it made an awful sort of sense to me."

Casey's family went to pieces. I couldn't help them grieve because I was a reminder of creeping mortality. That's why I spent these last few years on my own. I was so relieved to finally receive the diagnosis -- I was tired of waiting.

"It took a while before the state imposed health check turned up the first signs of a tumour in my bones, and that has meant that I could come straight to Chet. They look after me and as my body gives up I know I won't suffer ... the research has already developed the most effective pain relief since opiates were discovered." And I won't know anything about anything by then.

"I don't want to upset my dad any more than necessary so I haven't told him I'm here. The debate that's raging about the humanity of Chet is probably distressing him enough. But I'd just like to say that I'd rather my death was useful, and I'm filling my hours here the same way I've filled my time since I left school -- with books." Escaping into the pages. Words describing places I've never been and people I've never met, so that now I've been everywhere and met all kinds.

"Some of the Burnt I've met here think I'm rude for always reading and not talking often, but I found they don't have that much to say." Does anyone this close to death have much to say? "We swap stories about the life we had before the Burn, but every conversation eventually comes back to that day." Acceptance. Fear. Hate. Hope. Love. Wishes. Resentment.

"I don't mind that I'm dying, I don't mind the research they're doing and I don't mind the Chet being so close to the Burnt Zone either ... it seems kind of appropriate that I should die near where I 'died' that day." We've been dead for a decade and our bodies are just catching up with the fact.

I see the little amber circle flashing on the recorder. My time is up.

Recording 127

Academic use only. Withheld from public use by family request.


2005 by Elizabeth Markham

Bio: Elizabeth Markham says "I'm from Australia, I love writing, and I'm mad about science fiction!" (Bloody cheerful, these ANZ types, even though they're standing nearly upside down on the planet ...) Her novella Lamak Dying appeared in the Dec. 2004/Jan. 2005 Aphelion.

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