Aphelion Issue 232, Volume 22
September 2018
 
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Mechanical Garden

by Claire Fitzpatrick




There is no life inside the void. No air, no water, no vegetation. But I’d been exhaustively prepared and equipped to survive. Had I not been, my mind would already be fragmenting, my bones incinerated to ash, and my very DNA shredded past the point that nobody and nothing could put me back together again. Even optimal preparation offers no sure protection to the psyche because the seductive alien reality of the void assaults the mind itself.

When I first enter, I see home. I don’t know what the supervising camera mounted on my helmet shows, but dismal autumn leaves swirl erratically in wind I can't feel, like a puppet jerking spastically. The slope of the forest ridge looms over all; the dark, crumbly brush behind the utility shed hides a huge nest of vicious hornets; a dead olive tree in the front yard cradles contemplative ravens in its skeletal arms which watch with patient hunger.

And the house sits like a spider in the centre of it all. The house in which I was born, and where I’d always imagine I’d die. The house which bespeaks ‘home’ in every crooked board and broken shutter.

Inside the void is a garden built for bones. A man-made garden, a Zen garden; however, the moss and the pruned trees and gravel are all made from clay, the flowers made from particularly designed pieces of flesh, the stems formed from gristle. This was a garden not for growing, but decay. Beside the garden is a small portable radio. On the ZF4 TM, they are playing a sonata by a musically gifted monk for violin and cello which sounds like claps of thunder. I am unsure of how to move my limbs. I feel listening to it should bring me pleasure, but all I feel is emptiness and claustrophobia.

It takes real discipline to close my eyes. However, I crossed my legs and sat beside the garden anyway, feeling my face relax, my muscles loosen, my heart beating at a steady pace. One, two, three, four… One, two, three, four… One, two, three, four… One, two, three, four.

There may be no ocean inside the void, but I see it nonetheless. I see the veil of mist over the gully, the pink sky, the shaly yellow damn wall, and over the hills. The sea. The great, beautiful, terrifying mass of sea. There had been creatures back then. Night-seeing birds comfortably blind to my anxiety to escape. No moon, no stars; just the totality of darkness mingled with pink and my prickled skin, its elasticity evaporated, left unable to warn me of dangers. And fish, hordes of fish. Before, I’d travel with my father to catch the lamprey, the river monster able to swim upstream, away from its school, alone. The riverbed had been strewn with slippery boulders. If I slipped, I could have been forced down and pinned under the thundering water and quickly swept away. I wouldn’t have been the first person to drown there. Dad had told me the only way to pick them off was to grab them by their mouths. But they congregated in a very deep crevice, and I wasn’t too keen on losing my hand. The lamprey was a fish that couldn’t be caught on a base, with a rod, on a line. But now, there are no more fish. And I don’t think they’ll ever come back.

I stood up and began to pace the garden, fingers tapping against my sides. I think, in a few years, after I die, everything else will die, and it will all become mechanical. A mechanical garden. No flowers, no weeds, but derelict clusters of botanical imaginings. A toxic cave filled with dank air. I often wonder: what is a mechanism? Unlike the green idylls of neatly pruned rosebushes and the leafy plumes of dead branches, the mechanical garden will become an accumulation of waste, with a stale body of water weaving through rusted pipes, growing nothing.

I thought of my mind. After my diagnoses, mother had told me our minds were machines. She had read about it, as she had never known anyone with Epilepsy. “Our minds are essentially subject to the same laws of physics as any other machine,” she’d said. “As soon as we understand those laws more fully and have a better idea of the micro-functional structure of the brain, we should be able to build machines which can equal or even exceed the human capacity for thinking.” She’d smiled and ran her fingers through my hair as I leaned against her chest, wrapping my arms around her waist. “Maybe one day your Epilepsy will be cured. Maybe one day no one will have Epilepsy at all.”

I dropped to my haunches and tapped my fingers on my helmet, and for a moment, I missed mother. I missed her perfume. Her face floated in my mind like driftwood, and I heard her thin laughter echoing in my ears.

“Do you know how to protect yourself?” she’d asked. We’d been preparing for the evacuation, memorising our numbers, the times we had to be at our locations to be transported away. “I cannot believe we are leaving,” she’d said, gesturing to the broken windows, the burning rubble, the overturned carts. “Where will we go? How could they be so reckless?”

I’d followed mother’s gaze but could not imagine the town as it had once been. The destruction had been beautiful in a macabre sort of way. Once bustling with life, now empty, with rubbish and abandoned belongings littering the streets.

“Theft and starvation,” she’d said while teaching me how to load a shotgun, “anarchy. You mark my words. All hell will break loose. We must remain vigilant. Are you prepared, love?”

I’d nodded mutely. But it was a lie.


I sighed, my thoughts turning back to reality. I didn’t know if I would ever see mother again. The siren buzzed and the sky window opened slowly. The drone looked little more than propellers and plastic, but its ability to self-stabilise, to hold a GPS-based position, and respond to questions with juvenile, but efficient, answers proved it had reached the level of autonomy that made it an intelligent machine. I didn’t know who controlled the drone; all I knew what that my weekly food provisions and anticonvulsants arrived at the same time on the same day every week. It gave me a sense of routine, and something to look forward to.

“Hello Chippy,” I said, pulling the food package from the drone. “How are you today?”

Chippy hummed, hovering in the air in front of my face. I was both scared and impressed by its accuracy, as though it could see me sitting in the garden, waiting for it to arrive. Its chip told the drone to maintain its height, and its GPS corrected its course when it flew out of range.

“Not in a talkative mood today, I see.” I pulled the package from Chippy and placed it beside me. “I’m not feeling too loquacious myself. It hasn’t been a very eventful day. Mrs Alexander keeps yelling at her husband for not hanging the washing.” I smirked. “And Old Tom keeps mowing the lawn at five in the morning. Has he not a shred of care for anyone else? He’s a crumbling, fumbling old fool.”

Chippy said nothing.

“Fine, then. Be that way. See if I care.”

I sighed. Time did not exist inside the void. My imagined neighbours could not hear my cries for help.

I turned to the drone. It had been many weeks since I had asked it specific questions, and answers needed updating.

“Why didn’t anyone stop the power surge? Why didn’t the UNSC-5 do anything to help?”

“The UNSC-5 erected a ten-kilometre exclusion zone. The UNSC-5 advised residents to leave the fallout hotspots. The UNSC-5 could not prevent Reactor Number 16539-1’s power surge. The reactor was not encased in a containment vessel. The experimental procedure failed.”

I rolled my eyes. “You told me this before. Word for word. But I’m trapped here, alone. I need real answers. You don’t understand the concept of being alone because you’re not human. To be alone is…” I inhaled deeply, holding back tears. “Before all this happened I already felt alone. Epilepsy is a solitary condition. You withdraw from the world around you, afraid you’ll embarrass yourself in front of people. To be alone because you are different is the ultimate punishment. And now…. I am here, alone.” I sniffled and wiped away my tears, straightening my back. “You can’t concoct ideas of being alone, feeling like you’ve already spent an eternity invisible within a room full of people, and being left to die because you’re not human.” I wrapped my arms around my wait. “What happens when someone comes to collect me? I need to be informed.”

“No one is coming to collect you for a very long time.”

I frowned and looked over at the package. My hunger viciously clawed at my stomach, but I couldn’t abate. I needed to keep the food as long as possible. There was no telling when more packages would enter the void, and I had to keep up my strength. I took out the anticonvulsants and quickly swallowed two.

I sighed and crossed my arms. “What happened to the emergency cooling system?”

“The cooling system was shut down following another power surge. It was deemed unnecessary to remain in operation, as it needed to stay heated to test the new voltage regulating system.”

“What did it release?”

“There are multiple hypotheses,” the drone replied. “Hydrogen, either produced by the overheated steam-zirconium reaction or by the reaction of red-hot graphite with steam which, together, produced hydrogen and carbon monoxide. Also, a thermal explosion of the reactor deemed a result of the uncontrollable escape of neutrons caused by the complete water loss in the reactor core.”

I nodded. This was not news to me. However, I had hoped the drone had been remotely updated by those able to offer more information, to shed more light on my situation within the void. While at first, I had felt comfort and safety within the void, I now felt a sense of discomfort and confinement. The nuclear explosion. I had no idea of knowing what would be next, or if I’d survive. And, if I did, what kind of world I would be left with. Faces flashed before my eyes. And your face, smiling sadly at me, yet alight with hope. Everyone had gone about their business, oblivious to the terror they were about to face. And then, one by one, people began coughing up buckets of blood and viscera, along with their lungs. Officials turned to the streets, shouting into megaphones, urging the citizens to leave.

“Attention! Attention all residents. Due to high levels of radiation exposure, the High Council has ordered your immediate evacuation.

For the attention of the residents of Gwayorm! Following the accident at the Halina Power Station in the city of Gwayorm, The Bluecoat Alliance, their officials, and all military forces are ordering residents to temporarily evacuate residents. This is not a drill. All citizens will be taken to the Tampa Research Facility Station in preparation for immediate evacuation. Please take all government and personal documents with you, as well as identification. If you have a medical condition, please report it to the supervising officer. I repeat: this is not a drill.

All homes will be guarded by officials during and after the evacuation period. Residents, be sure to turn off all electrical appliances within your homes before evacuation. Please remain calm and follow directions in an orderly manner in the process of this evacuation. Repeat: this is not a drill.”


Sighing, I picked up the package. Freeze-dried meat and vegetables and dehydrates drinks. A small medical kit. And a variety of condiments: tomato sauce, mustard, salt, pepper, and a round container of mixed herbs. I stared at the package, my stomach now feeling empty.

“Do you remember the plan?” Mother had asked two hours into the evacuation. Authorities had planned for compulsory resettlement should the need arise. But there had been stories of defectors seeking refuge in the Exclusion Zone, thirty kilometres from the town. The EZ was built to restrict access to hazardous areas, inside the town itself, but older people did not want to leave their homes. I imagined them comforted by wild dogs, wandering around the abandoned train tracks, the abandoned houses, living as comfortably as they could before their inevitable death.

“I’m scared,” I’d murmured, stuffing clothing and important documents into a sports bag. “Why can’t I come with you? Why do I have to go somewhere else?”

“Don’t worry, pet,” mother had said, placing her hand on the small of my back. “We’ll be together soon. They’re probably just making sure everyone who needs medication has access to it. Besides, they said we’ll be back in a week or so. Don’t take anything you don’t need. Just your papers, the medication you have left, and other important documents.” You smiled and tapped my forehead, running your soft hand down my skin, pausing to cup my face. “I love you.”


“Stop thinking.”

“Excuse me?” I turn to the machine and raised a dubious brow. “Stop thinking?”

“How else am I supposed to monitor you if you think so loudly?”

“Monitor you?”

“Yes. You didn’t think you were really alone down here, did you?”

I felt the colour drain from my cheeks, and I turned away, puzzled, retreating once again into my thoughts. Not alone? Who else is here? Stomach churning, I wondered if perhaps I was not as alone as I thought.

I’d filled a glass of rust-tasting water and drank deeply, choking down the foul taste until I had emptied the cup. I’d placed the cup on the side of the sink, and it sat precariously, leaning towards the dirty kitchen linoleum. Before the evacuation, after my birthday, Mother had looked at me as I pushed the cup over, watching as it smashed against the ground. Then I’d walked outside to the veranda and sat down on the old cane chair, leaning back as far as it would allow. I’d closed my eyes, imagining a world where Epilepsy did not exist, where my body didn’t betray me.

I shook my head, staring at the package in my hand. The food was tasteless, yet I ate it anyway. My own exclusion zone was the void. A beautiful punishment. This beautiful garden reminding me of the ugliness within me. Left within the confines of my own imagination with Chippy as my confidant, whom I know was only here so talking to myself didn’t make me feel so crazy. I close my eyes. In my mind I can see the little bench under the olive tree, the pine and cypress trees, I can smell the sweetness of the air, and an unexpected rush of affection for my mother coursed through my bones so suddenly I looked up at the drone and huffed out a sigh.

“Oh, Chippy. What would I do without you?”

“You would die.”

I smirked. “You’re only saying that, pal.”

“Incorrect. I disperse your medication. You would die.”

I imagined taking Chippy home with me, back to my real home, outside the void. “We could sit outside, overpowered by the night odours, but unmoving, as though we belonged to the land around us,” I said. “It would not be shameful to be afraid. We would listen to the loud croaking of frogs; we would feel the uncomfortable intimacy of the cold as it weaved its way around our bones, stiffening our joints; we would sit together, wrapped up in the thick air, once suffocating, now a comfort. A comfort of being outside. A comfort of being amongst life.”

“I have no capacity for intimacy, and you would not be alive.”

“We’d go outside the house and breathe the fresh, cool air,” I continued, now pacing around the garden. “I just want to breath cool air again.” I sighed. “And the darkness would be so black, but it wouldn’t be oppressive, it would be liberating. We’d smell eucalyptus and smoke. We’d sit together and reminisce about the past, about how we thought we’d not survive and how all our fears almost crushed us down into little pieces. And my family would be there, laughing as we enjoyed a meal together.”

“You would be crushed down into little pieces.”

“And then we’d laugh about it, laugh how crazy it was to assume one person could survive outside the void. How it was unfair for others to be plucked out of the world and thrown into the void without anyone asking if that’s what they wanted,” I said, gesticulating wildly into the air. “We’d watch as they’d slowly destroy each other, but then….it would be me who would be destroyed more than you, since you are mechanical, a machine inside a garden, a mechanical garden.” I sighed. “Oh, you will never understand. You don’t even know what social isolation feels like. The fear, the horror. Worrying whether a seizure would strike me down like lightning and I would die.”

“On the contrary, I understand more than you think. I understand you are trapped here. I understand you were left here to die. People like you are useless. People like you cannot be put to work. People like you cannot be released back into the population because you are a hindrance. You do not exist.”

“You don’t understand anything, you stupid robot!” I exclaimed, stamping my feet. “I am not some kind of genetic mutation. I’m just…different. I never asked for this!”

“You have Epilepsy; therefore, you are expendable.”

I threw my hands up in the air in agitation and I looked over at the door in which I’d come through, then down at the Zen garden, filled with compartments of rocks and sand and plants which had never grown naturally, had never felt sunlight or rain. They were not real rocks or sand or plants, but blood and bone and remnants of humans left behind. Who had made this miniature horror show? Who left this here to prolong my agony? Sighing, I sit on the ground, my body hunched over as I tap my fingers against my helmet. What was I waiting for?

Before The UNSC-5 had taken over, I’d lived an ordinary, somewhat dull, life, limiting my social interaction with others in case I had a seizure and embarrassed myself. I was terrified of my parents dying, as they would naturally do. I’d sit in my loungeroom with the blanket around me and think of all the adventures I’d miss out on after I died, and how unfair that was. I had not been raised in a religious family, had not participated in the rituals of religion. However sometimes, alone at night in my bed, I’d think about God, and I’d wonder if He was real and if he was, why he’d cursed me with seizures.

I’d been worried the evacuation would bring on a seizure, and I would be left behind. Mother had packed my medication, my scripts, and had reminded me to wear my medical bracelet. She had kissed my forehead, telling me everything would be alright. But I worried I’d collapse on the side of the street and people would walk over me, trample me to death, too scared, too panicked to realise I was underneath them. Who would stop to help someone when the reactor dispersed unimaginable quantities of radioactive isotopes into the atmosphere? To stop and help was to forfeit your own life.

The seizure would start with a tingling in my hands, and it’d move down to my legs. My knees would jerk, and I would begin rubbing my hands over my arms, plunging my fingernails into my skin. Sometimes, I even drew blood. And it would feel as though I was looking through a glass, darkly. As though the world had erected a thin, opaque wall around me, sealing me inside a coffin-like structure. I would remain that way, seeing and hearing, but unable to coherently communicate.

A thunderous boom interrupted my thoughts. My brows shot up, and I looked around the room. It was just Chippy and me as it had always been. Then, the cacophonous sound of bending steel, a blast of drumfire bombarding the void. I jumped as the floor began to shake, as though some creature pounded it with enormous fists from below.

I turned to Chippy, hands clenching the sides of the little kitchen bench. “What the hell is that?”

“Unsure. It seems to have come from outside the void.”

“No shit, Sherlock.”

“There’s no need to be rude.”

I twisted my fingers together and stared at the robot. “Rude? You don’t even know what rude means.”

“On the contrary, I understand more than you think.”

My brows furrowed as I paused, glancing around the room, listening. “Shhh.”

“There is nothing out there,” the robot chipped. “Only radiation. Death. Especially death.”

“Would you just shut up for a moment? Let me think!”

“I cannot do that. I am programmed to be your companion until you die. I must voice my opinions, tell you the truth. Right now, you need to calm down.”

“Why?” I scoffed. “Why bother? Why bother sending me here at all if I’m just going to die? Why bother giving me medication?”

Chippy’s red lights flashed quickly. I shielded my eyes. “You are a project. I am programmed to monitor you. You are an undesirable. They want to know how long you can survive without medication. They want to induce seizures.”

My stomach dropped, and I felt a rush of bile claw its way up my throat.

“Are you fucking kidding me? Who would be so inhumane? So, I’m some sort of lab rat? Why?”

“I cannot answer that.”

“Why not?” I exclaimed.

“I am not programmed to.”

I balled my hands into fists and stared at the door. The knocking continued.

“Someone knocked on the flippin’ door, if you haven’t noticed.”

“You might have a seizure. I might not help you.”

I raised a dubious brow. “You mean you might not be able to?”

“I might not help you.”

Chippy was programmed to provide medical aid, but the robot did not understand the neurological issues of humans. He didn’t understand how helpless, how inhuman – how mechanical – epilepsy made feel. Perhaps that’s why I felt a strange kinship with the drone? It, too, was a machine. It had faults of its own.

“I can form my own opinions.”

“Will you just shut up? No, you can’t.”

“But that’s where you’re wrong.”

The drone advanced towards me, its little propeller spinning faster than I had ever seen it spin before. The front panel, what I’d come to think of as Chippy’s face, abruptly blazed with red, blue, and yellow lights, whirling and flashing with such a penetrative force my head began to spin. I pressed my hand to my temple squinted my eyes.

“What the hell are you doing?”

The drone began humming, the sound akin to that of a bee. It paused in front of me, its lights dimming. “You didn’t think you were put here for no reason, did you? If you’re so safe here, why did they request you keep your helmet on?”

I stumbled backwards, hands shaking. “They’re coming to collect me,” I stammered. “They are.”

“Your helmet is a long-term video-electroencephalography monitor. My chip was installed to ensure you did not take it off. Your neurological deficit is a liability. It would take too long for you to die outside. While others died quickly from the accident at the Halina Power Station, most were evacuated safely, and will die in in old age, of the long-term impact of radiation exposure. But those like you, those who would be resettled, but did not really have a life worthy of living, were taken elsewhere. They sent you here to die.”

The loud thud hammered on the door once more, this time more insistent. Whoever, or whatever, was on the other side had no intention of going away.

“What’s on the other side of that door?” I whispered, my breath hard in my chest.

“Why don’t you open it?”

“What?”

“Open it.”

“Umm…I don’t think I will.”

“Do it.”

“No!”

“Open it!”

“Why don’t you?”

The drone turned to face me, its buttons flashing slowly. “I have no hands, if you haven’t noticed.”

“Why don’t you want me to open the door?” I asked suspiciously. “Isn’t this my prison?”

“It is up to you.”

I rolled my eyes. “I wish I had a gun. Something to leverage. Anything.”

“But guns are fired. What if no one had knocked on the door?”

“What does that have to do with anything?”

The drone beeped. “Guns are fired.”

“So?”

“It would be you and your gun, alone.”

I shrugged. “But you’re here. You’ll protect me.”

“You said I can’t formulate my own opinions. Why should I protect you?”

The door rattled as the knocking recommenced. I crossed the room and pressed the side of my helmet against it, trying to hear more clearly. The surface was flat and shiny, like the outside of a stainless-steel refrigerator. It had been many months since I’d been outside the void. I’d almost forgotten the door, imagined it had no handle, no lock, no hinges, nothing to get a grip on. To reach the void, one had to navigate a system of underground tunnels, each with various checkpoints and key codes. I sighed. Where was my family? I wondered. Were they housed with the desirables? The one without defects. My little brother Cain – only five years old – had been born with a heart defect, though it was repaired itself over time. A selfish part of me wished it hadn’t been.

“It’ll be alright,” you’d said, your chin on my head as I wrapped my arms around your waist and nuzzled into your chest. “Once we wade through all this bureaucracy we’ll be free to build a new home, together.”

“You promise?” I’d whispered. “You promise we’ll find each other?”

“I promise.”


The knocking stopped. I strained my neck as I pressed the side of my helmet against the door as hard as I could, struggling to discern the noise. It sounded like muffled voices spoken through an old candlestick telephone, voices auditory but incomprehensible. Almost like a whisper.

“Hello? Is anybody in there?”

The lights flickered off, on, and then off. I shivered, as the totality of darkness enveloped me, touching me with the unpleasant feeling intimacy I experienced as a child, frightened, cold, alone. I inhaled a deep breath, outstretching my hands, shaking as my skin lost its natural ability to report to me the whereabouts and nature of my surroundings. The air itself was thick, cold, motionless. It slammed into me with a force so strong it clenched my bones, holding me still. My hands shook as the familiar tingle worked its way from my fingertips over my hands, around my wrists and up my arms, weaving around my elbows and shoulders, only resting as it coiled its way around my neck.

“Help!”

Chippy’s mechanical arm stretched out to grab my helmet, crushing it with its mechanical hands, ripping my flesh within its metal fingers. But you said you had no hands! I thought. You lied. Blood spurted through the cracks in my teeth like a fountain as my screams echoed through the blood and glass in my mouth, and a rush of hot chemical poured from Chippy and slammed into my face, burning me with the savagery of a thousand fires.

“The defective has been eliminated,” Chippy said. “I am ready to accept your other test subjects for experimentation.”

“It’s about time. We can’t have people like her using all our resources. We’ve got more undesirables in the van outside. Cancer. We’ll give them a little longer than her and leave them a gun this time.” The man said darkly. “The beauty in this place gives them hope. But gosh, I like taking that away from them. Let’s see who snaps first.”

I closed my eyes, screaming as the gel-like chemicals began to melt my skin, my eyes sliding from my face. Voices echoed around me, though they seemed far, far away.

“Attention! Attention resident. Due to high levels of neurological deficiency, the High Council has ordered your immediate execution. This is not a drill.”



THE END


2017 Claire Fitzpatrick

Bio: Claire Fitzpatrick is an author and poet of speculative fiction and non-fiction. She has been a panellist at Conflux in Canberra and Continuum in Melbourne. Called 'Australia's body horror specialist' by Bartholemew Ford, editor of Breach magazine, she enjoys writing about the human body and the darker sides of humanity. Her short story 'Madeline' - first published in Midnight Echo 11 - was republished in Dead Of Night: The Best Of Midnight Echo. Several of her short stories have won minor university-level writing awards. She lives in Brisbane. Visit her at www.clairefitzpatrick.net

Website: Claire Fitzpatrick

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