Empty Vessels by David O’Donoghue

by


EMPTY VESSELS

David O’Donoghue

Gary listened to the orchestra of the checkout line- the steady beep of the scanner, the insect chatter of unfurling bags, the percussion of wine bottles thudding down on the conveyor belt- and he had a decision to make. It wasn’t quite the life-or-death choice he had faced a few minutes prior- ordinary or gluten-free barbecue sauce- but it was still a difficult one. As he shuffled forward in the line, which stretched ten or fifteen people deep, he thumbed at the smartphone in his pocket and after a few exploratory prods he decided to go with the alternative. The line seemed to stretch on forever, a knotted cord of frustrated murmurs. Past the old lady in front of him who counted out change like a leprechaun sorting through his crock of gold, Gary noticed a man standing with a single reusable bag staring straight ahead. The man shuffled forward with the same zombie-motion as everyone else but, unlike the rest of the purgatoried denizens of the line, he wasn’t fiddling with a phone or making idle conversation with himself or anyone else, he was staring straight ahead, completely lost in the dull process of waiting. Gary noticed the little raised bump of flesh behind the man’s right ear, which emitted a soft blip of light every 30 seconds or so. Gary raised his index finger up behind his ear and tapped at the little nodule there. Then there was darkness and quiet.

“Cash or card?”

It was always like waking up from a dream. Gary’s mind would flail around for a moment, the time he had been away seemed both endless and instantaneous, and it always took him a moment to drink in the world and let it become warm and familiar to him. Gary said nothing but counted out the cash and swiftly bagged his groceries. As he strolled out of the shop he cast a little glance back at the girl working the till. Her eyes had a glazed-over look and her voice (“Hello” “Cash or card” “Have a nice day”) always held the same level, clipped tone each time she glanced at a new customer. Gary wasn’t sure, but he would have bet that there was a little blinking light just behind her ear. Her name tag read “Hi! I’m Sophie, how can I help you?” but Gary knew that ‘Sophie’ wasn’t sitting there. Sophie was somewhere else.

SciPhiSeperator

Gary’s left hand hovered over the screen of his phone, guarding it from the rain. He tapped at the little rectangle of light and colour and eventually he was successful in hailing himself a taxi. He would be waiting in the rain for three or so minutes, feeling it gurgle down drains and sluice around the stones of the street, and for a moment he debated outsourcing the job to Phil, but decided against it. Instead he shot Lisa a quick text message.

“Got the groceries. Be home soon”.

The words floated there on the screen like algae lying atop a pond for a moment. Two fat raindrops splashed onto the screen. Gary rubbed the water off and then added “Love you” to the end of the text before sending it. He thumbed through the news for a moment, repulsed by the words “crisis”, “terror” and “debt”, before settling in to the cosy conflicts of showbiz headlines. Gary amused himself for a moment with the sound and fury of celebrity showdowns before he noticed a navy blue beast roll up beside him on the footpath. He looked up from his phone to find his taxi waiting there, tinted windows straight out of a spy movie. Gary clutched his bag of groceries (“Made from 100% recyclable material”) to his side like a dossier of classified documents and slipped into the back of the taxi. The car was open and spacious, only containing a set of leather seats in the back. There was no steering wheel or pedals, and Gary’s only company was the little touchscreen embedded in a raised plastic pedestal just in front of the middle seat. Gary shifted himself to one end of the taxi and threw the bag of groceries on the other. He leaned in to the touchscreen and confirmed his destination as well as the approximation of his fare. He ran his credit card through the scanner below the touchscreen and quickly tapped his PIN in. The screen bleeped as it chirped out a little “Enjoy your journey” followed by a series of pre-recorded advertisements for local businesses. Gary listened to an elderly man tell him that Hardy’s Joinery was the place to be for fitted kitchens and then, with a flick of his finger, Phil was mutely taking in all that rambling and Gary was resting in the dark, quiet hollow behind his own ear.

SciPhiSeperator

Gary stepped out of the driverless taxi and closed the door with the hand that was free of grocery bags. The empty car sped through the suburban streets that shimmered with the sun-baked remains of the rainfall. As he keyed the code into the number pad by the electric gates Gary surveyed the squat little house at the top of the short gravel driveway. He felt like a burglar as he cased his own home, scanning his eyes along the windows. No lights. The gates swung open with their automated staccato rhythm and internally Gary cheered a bit. Lisa wouldn’t be home for a while. She hadn’t responded to his message yet and Gary breathed a sigh of relief as he hustled through the doorway into his mercifully empty, quiet home.

He set the grocery bags down in the hallway and bent down to pull the slender bottle of wine from one of them. He waltzed into the kitchen, humming a combination of any number of half-remembered songs to himself, twisted the top off the wine bottle and poured himself a small glass. He worked haltingly, pouring out little crimson dribs and drabs like an alchemist mixing a volatile potion. How much could he enjoy before Lisa would realise that his ‘surprise Friday wine’ wasn’t entirely untouched? After pouring a little back into the bottle Gary was satisfied and he licked some of the dribbling droplets that ran down the outside of the green glass. Gary drained the small glass in one go and savoured the dry feeling of the wine on his tongue before it was transmuted into a warm glow in his belly. He exhaled into the silence of the house and steadied himself at the kitchen island as he wondered if it had come.

But he knew, with warm wine-confidence, that it would have.

He strolled outside and popped open the little black mail box to find it sitting there. It lay at the bottom covered in plastic that was dotted with little raindrops. He brought it inside, ripped the plastic off and flipped through the catalogue as he figured he could chance a few more drops of wine. The world in his peripheral vision was warm and inviting but Gary kept his head buried in the exciting dreams the pages had to offer him.

The new ‘Casanova AutoMate TM’ will guarantee a smooth relationship inside the bedroom and out- unlock your sensual potential for 10 easy payments today!”

“The Worker Bee AutoMate will keep your boss happy so you can enjoy the good things in life- clock in, then clock OUT until closing time!”

They all looked the same of course. The aesthetic variety in the little metallic nodes dotted around the pages of the catalogue was negligible, but Gary enjoyed slipping in and out of the various fantasies that the pages of the catalogue had to offer. He perused the pages and imagined Phil winning promotion after promotion through drudgery, navigating through a visit to the in-laws with a robotic smile and programmed concern, all the while Gary snoozed happily behind his own ear.

He was almost actually dozing off into pleasant dreams when he heard the door open. He stuffed the catalogue into one of the kitchen drawers as he heard the clacking of footsteps in the hall. Lisa came in, looking haggard, her chestnut hair like a gnarled thicket of outback bushes. There was no greeting from her, only a sigh. In response Gary held the bottle of wine up as though he were showing off a lovely piece of jewellery on a TV shopping network. Lisa just responded with an emphatic “Oh God yes!”

SciPhiSeperator

The sunset’s rich, dying reds were peeking through the spaces in the blinds as Lisa and Gary idly chatted and gossiped the evening away, draining the bottle of wine like vampires feeding on an infant.

“So” Lisa slurred and looked across the length of the couch at him “You hear about that pilot? I think he was…”

“You mean the French guy?” Gary interrupted after a swallow of wine. It would have been a micro-expression without the wine but her drunkenness froze Lisa’s bared teeth and flared nostrils like a safari snapshot. She hated when he cut across her like that. But her face quickly went back to a playful smile and a nod of confirmation as if nothing had happened.

“Yeah” she confirmed.

Gary had spotted it among the headlines; pictures of smoking wreckage next to a man’s smiling headshot. Gary knew what would replace the headlines the following day; the thinkpieces and the attack pieces (HAVE WE AUTOMATED OURSELVES INTO OBLIVION?) and other scare stories by self-appointed moral guardians of society. And the next day those same journalists would switch on their Executive AutoMates and spend their day robotically recording the exact details of court room proceedings without ever really gracing the trial at all.

“It’s ridiculous” said Gary and his frustration was so emphatic that his out thrust arm almost knocked over his wine glass.

“Pilots have been using autopilot for decades. How much flying do they actually do anyway? I don’t see why using an AutoMate should be that much different”.

They sipped and Lisa looked off into the middle distance of the hallway beyond the sitting room.

“All those people…” she half whispered to herself.

They paused for a while in the wine-warm gravity of the moment. Then Gary broke the silence.

“Jack is being a complete ass again.”

He went on for a moment about his boss and Lisa nodded and murmured in agreement. Then the ball was in her court and it was her turn to moan and complain. Ever since Gary was knocked from 4 days to 3 days a week Lisa had owned most of the valuable ‘job complaint’ space in the evening. Gary’s stomach roiled and turned in jealousy every time she rattled off a list of nurses and orderlies who had been annoying her this week. Gary listened in silence and tried to keep track of the tangled web of love and hate and endless, endless names. He watched her mouth move and his eyelids began to droop. He supported his face with his left hand to keep from nodding off and then, seeing an opportunity, his finger snaked up behind his ear. Then it was Phil listening to Lisa.

SciPhiSeperator

Gary came back from the little holiday in the nodule behind his ear expecting Lisa to be snoozing happily beside him. Instead he awoke in a makeshift nest on the couch, a thin blanket over him and his own raincoat balled behind his head as a pillow. And a scream ringing in his ears.

It took a moment for his head to clear but the feminine scream broke through the fog and Gary exploded off the couch and bounded up the stairs, taking them two at a time. He rushed into their room and found Lisa quivering in the corner, breathing hard. He rushed over to her and put out his arms to hold her but she flailed at him, leaving a light scratch on his left cheek where he could feel little petals of blood blooming.

“Get away from me” she hissed.

“Lisa what are you…I’m trying to…”

But Gary stopped as he caught her terrified gaze. Her blue eyes were focused in intensity but there was also a vacant look to her irises. He wasn’t speaking to Lisa at all. Then she lounged at him, balled fists pounding uselessly on his chest. He stood there on the blue flowers of dawn light that dripped in through the thin curtains. He held the person that was not his wife at arm’s length, cradling and resisting her at the same time.

“Get out” she said, tears squeezing out at the edges of her empty eyes.

Gary checked his watch and did as he was told.

SciPhiSeperator

Gary was only half focused on the assembly line where the robot arms fitted the drones together. SMART bombs, water and weatherproof optics, graphene shell. On to the next part of the line, then on to another drone. He cast his eyes down at the screen in from of him where the numbers and little graphics danced, summing up to “Nothing to worry about here”. He tapped on the screen, logged the time (10:50am) and reported “operations as normal”. He stepped away from the screen and the balcony where he watched the robots working from above. He hoped the break room would be empty. He longed for some time alone to process the morning’s events.

He walked into the little white break room, really a white-walled closet with a hot beverage dispenser, and sighed as he noticed Jack’s tall, scarecrow form watching his coffee, black as bile, being spit out into a Styrofoam cup.

“Hey” Jack said with his too big smile, grabbing the coffee cup and taking a few steps toward Gary all in one fluid motion. Jack was the kind of guy that wanted to be the “tough but fair” boss, but was really just a drill sergeant that smiled a lot.

“Hiya” Gary responded and stepped up to the dispenser. He pressed the glowing coffee icon on the touch screen and caught the resulting steaming bile in a little cup.

“You ever miss buttons?” Jack asked.

Gary looked over and raised an eyebrow.

“You know” Jack said, trying to affect a relaxed posture but still rigid. He looked like a limp puppet, a little crumpled but he still undoubtedly had a stick up his ass.

“You ever miss that feeling of really pressing something and listening to the clunk of the machine. Now it’s all just shining lights and coffee just sloshes out without a sound”.

Gary took the coffee cup and walked out of the breakroom calling out “Progress marches on” as he stepped back to the gang walk to observe the assembly line. Hellfire missiles. Guidance system. Remote control override. On to the next one. “Operations as normal”. The metal blurred before Gary’s eyes as he sipped at the watery coffee.

SciPhiSeperator

Gary wondered every now and then, on the ride home, if Jack was right. The world had changed so quickly into a blur of lights and sound and intangible things. Cyber currency. Cyber communication. Cyber love. A world of buzzing, beeping ghosts. But looking ahead to the empty car that steered itself through the streets, Gary decided it was all worth it if it meant that he never had to interact with another taxi driver ever again. His journey home was mercifully free of that script: “Where are you heading?” “Are you busy tonight?” “Are you going out at the weekend?”. Just blissful silence.

He stepped out of the taxi outside his house and the car sped off. He breathed in and out slowly for a while, scanning the windows. In many of them a dim light glowed. He opened the electric gates.

She was standing there preparing dinner but she looked like she was ready for battle. Her stance was rigid and martial. She leaned into each chop of the red pepper, pressing down on the knife’s blade until it thumped against the wooden chopping board with a satisfying “THWACK!”. She worked rhythmically and she hadn’t responded at all to his opening the door, but the little raised bump behind her ear didn’t emit any glow, so it was definitely Lisa standing in the kitchen.

“How was work…sweetie?”

Gary ventured the words out into the air, tacking on the last one as an afterthought.

The rhythmic explosions of chopping noises paused for a moment.

“I didn’t go to work,” Lisa growled

THWACK. THWACK. THWACK.

“How come?” Gary asked.

The chopping paused again and she swivelled around, holding the knife as if in self-defence.

“Oh now you’re interested? Well I would tell you if I didn’t think you’d just zone out and I’d be talking to a nodding, mumbling zombie!”

Gary bared his teeth. His hackles rose. He clenched his fists and spat and turned feral.

“You don’t think I get a little sick of listening to you bang on about how boring and unfulfilling it is to save lives all day?”

“Oh I’m sorry that my six figure income and your three day week are adding up to a mid-life crisis because all you do all day is look at a screen and watch machines build other machines to bomb countries whose name you can’t even spell!”.

They both breathed warm and quick in the cool air of the kitchen. The evening crouched outside the house like a predator, extending a red tooth and claw through the window every now and then, encroaching on their argument.

“And… and you wonder why I’d prefer to let Phil deal with you. Especially when you pull stuff like this morning…” He thrust the words out knifelike and sharp, directing them like a bayonet toward her.

But they had no impact. Lisa merely blinked and her face transformed from creased rage to smooth confusion.

“I… what are you talking about?”

Gary paused for a moment. His sabre was drawn and he had been ready to charge into battle, ready for the familiar rhythm of blows and bobbing and weaving that was a part of any argument with Lisa, and then his opponent had thrown up the white flag.

“You attacked me”.

The event probably required a more elaborate explanation but the shock ensured that the curt statement was all that tumbled out of Gary’s mouth and into the cool air of the kitchen, which had lost some of its charge to a fog of confusion.

Like tectonic plates shifting, momentous yet almost imperceptible, Lisa’s expression changed from confusion, to recognition, to horror. With her hand over her mouth she strolled to the fridge and withdrew a bottle of wine. She didn’t look like Gary had the previous evening, like an advertisement. She looked like the doctor she was, presenting a blunt instrument necessary for a difficult surgery.

SciPhiSeperator

“It was that night, just after our anniversary. That night I stayed at Vera’s. I came home… kind of shook…”

Gary sipped at the wine and remembered Lisa’s form pale as printer paper, in the doorway full of dawn light. Her makeup had been like a mess, like a sabotaged facial fresco. She had stumbled inside, swallowed down some Alka Seltzer and gone to sleep. Gary had figured it was just a hangover.

“That night I got…separated from the rest of the girls…”.

The words were slipping slowly from behind her lips and between her teeth, churning out slowly from the meat grinder of her mouth.

“Then there was a guy” she said, and closed her eyes. Her larynx moved in a gentle undulation, bobbing up and down. Gary’s stomach dropped.

“And there was a knife. And then there was Nancy”.

Gary gulped. He hadn’t seen Nancy in months. He hadn’t looked in those vacant eyes or spotted that softly blinking nodule. That was why the morning had been such a surprise.

“Nothing really happened to me. I had some bruises when I came out. A couple of scrapes. But those were her injuries. I was just sleeping.”

Lisa took a great thirsty swallow of wine and Gary just sat there holding his glass, breathing in and out slowly like he was trying to meditate, staring out into the hallway.

“It all belonged to her. The pain, the terror, the trauma… it was all Nancy’s suffering. I figured it was all locked up safely in the AutoMate. But I’ve been having these dreams…”

It all began to come together. It was like a jigsaw puzzle fitting itself together in a whirlwind. It was why Gary hadn’t seen Nancy in months, why she never came out to peel potatoes or do the ironing with mute compliance. Why he had to hide the pages full of AutoMates lest Lisa, who had that little node behind her ear like everyone, went off about them. Why he’d wake up some nights to find his wife sweating and tossing and turning, pawing at the air helplessly.

Gary couldn’t take it. He wanted to reach across and comfort his wife but see seemed a thousand miles away, marooned on some island that was alien and impossible to understand. Her expression was a hieroglyph that he puzzled over, desperately trying to decipher but getting nowhere.

Then the dam burst and it all spilled out. Tears and yelps and words spilling from Lisa’s mouth, explaining the whole rotten ordeal in choking fits and starts, recollection coming like little shards of broken glass; dirty, jagged and piece by piece.

And eventually it was Phil that was listening to her.

SciPhiSeperator

By the time he had lost his job, time was an alien concept to Gary. How could one measure time between fleeting and bleary moments of consciousness? It was like passing a measuring tape between two snowflakes as they fell. Phil dealt with the world now and he had watched the machines ably for a month or two while Gary slept in the metal. Two stroke engine. Solar panelling. Sarin gas pellets. “Operations as normal”.

But Jack eventually noticed something was wrong. Of course he did. Phil was able to keep up Gary’s language of nods and murmurs but he never quite reached for a sardonic or dismissive reply. Eventually Phil was confronted and fired, which he showed no reaction to. Nor did Gary until he awoke on the couch at 2 in the afternoon, half way through an almond liquor and enjoying reality television.

Lisa never seemed to appear around the house anymore, or at least not while Gary was conscious. Occasionally he would spot Nancy, vacantly preparing a meal, and he would unsuccessfully try to interact with her. Mostly he just pressed down on the nodule more forcefully and Phil the AutoEgo floated through the world for weeks and then months on end, maintaining Gary’s body in the same way he silently watched the assembly of the drones. Eat. Sleep. Repeat. “Operations as normal”.

The divorce lawyer handed Gary the papers and he rubbed his eyes in their sockets as he poured through them. The type was tiny and many of the words were unrecognisable. He rubbed the spot where the ring used to be, where his finger itched like a phantom limb every now and then. He wanted desperately to look over at the dull-eyed figure sitting next to him. But knew that it wouldn’t be his wife. This was another trauma for Nancy to endure.

Gary scrawled his name on the dotted line. Initial here. Initial there. Forename and initial here. “Operations as normal”. Gary itched the space behind his ear and wondered if there might be a way for him to never come out of the warm, metallic nothingness. He thrust the divorce papers over to the lawyer and noticed that the man in the suit had empty eyes.

Food for Thought

 

Automation is advancing across Western society and more and more of economy is automated: how will this change the jobs landscape in the future and thus affect identities and attitudes in relation to work?

How does automation allow for more gruesome wars and atrocities by distancing nation states from their actions overseas? (e.g. drone strikes)

Does the growth in technology e.g. smart phones atomise us and create rifts between us and our fellow human human beings?

Does technology allow for a greater fluidity of identity as we can present ourselves as anything and use alter egos to protect ourselves from moments of trauma and weakness?

To what extent does technology decrease our engagement with the sensual world and direct experience of reality?

About the Author

David O’Donoghue is an Irish journalist, author and activist. His work has appeared in Irish national news outlets such as the Irish Independent and the Irish Catholic as well as a number of web-based outlets. His literary writing has appeared in the journals The Runt, Tales From the Forest and the Singularity. He was shortlisted for the Penguin Ireland National Short Story Award in 2015 as well as the 2016 Aeon Award.

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