If You Require Assistance

 In Short Fiction, Stories

Haley placed her index finger into the cold metal tube and waited. A strap tightened near the knuckle, trapping her finger. A computer-generated voice counted down.

“Please hold for three, two, one.”

No one she knew made it through the donation process. Getting any part of her off-world seemed like a myth. If she succeeded in getting her cells into the off-world mix, there would be lineages of people smuggled along with her. As the bridge between, she could stand on Panterrica soil and touch the stars.

The jab was quick.

“You may now remove your finger. Thank you for your preliminary donation.”

The weight of the security band around her ankle kept her off kilter. A twinge of pain registered a warning as she moved. If she failed, if they found her carrying additional untested genetic material, they would put her down without hesitation or remorse using the ankle band needle that pierced her skin.

The light overhead dimmed. The door ahead opened to a bright hallway.

Wait. Don’t get weird cause you’re nervous, Haley.

“Please proceed to room… one thousand forty-three.”

The swish of her paper pajamas echoed in the hollow space. She balanced, one foot in front of the other, down the blue centerline of the hallway. The corresponding overhead bank of lights clicked off while one further down the row clicked on.

She stopped. The hallway hummed with anticipation. Squinting at the ceiling she took a step back, but the previous bank of lights remained off. She took another step back. Still, the lights progressed only forward. A pre-recorded mechanical voice said, “Please proceed down the blue line to room… one-thousand-forty-three,  to complete your examination.”

No escorts needed. Every five-feet a polished obsidian eye protruded from the wall. Haley walked three steps forward and halted under the current array of illuminated light fixtures.

“If you require assistance please state, ‘I require assistance,’ and assistance will be sent to help you locate room… one-thousand-forty-three.”

Haley responded by walking three steps forward followed by two steps back in a cha-cha down the line.

“If you require assistance please state, ‘I require assistance,’ and assistance will be sent to help you locate room… one-thousand-forty-three.”

“Naw, I’m just fuckin’ with you,” Haley said. She scratched absentmindedly at the skin grafts where her Genetic Liberation Front tats had been removed. The room number to her left read 1028. At the end of the hall, an arrow directed traffic toward the right.

Haley picked up the pace until she was in a full run. The lights clicked on and off in rapid succession. Attempting to stop, she slid, shoulder-checking the wall at the end of the corridor.

Try not to let your nerves get the better of you Haley. Wait. Release the material right before the collection. Wait, until the doctor enters. Wait. Tell them about the baby you lost. Wait… She thought back on what Devana had said.

***

Haley bit her lower lip and gave Devana a forced smile. “Doctors make me uneasy.”

“I understand.” The weight of Devana’s palm, where it rested on her knee, felt oddly reassuring.

“What makes a doctor like you leave the colonies for this?”

“Geneticist,” Devana corrected.

The swab felt cold on her shoulder, then hot. “Will I survive the change?” she asked.

“No, I don’t think so.”

“Well that’s reassuring. How long after will I last?”

“I’m not sure.” The smoke from the acid, burning her family sigil off her shoulder, formed a curtain between them. “It’s a sacrifice you’re making, but it is a sacrifice worth making.”

“Sure,” Haley said.

“Listen, I have people up there. If you succeed, they will always think of me as a traitor. And I need you to succeed,” Devana said, “because I love them.” With metal tongs, she dipped gauze into the chemical bath and dabbed the flesh of Haley’s shoulder. “They’re just going to keep selectively engineering themselves into a dead end,” Devana said, “they’re dying too. You’ll save many futures, maybe all of them.”

Haley locked onto Devana’s sky-blue eyes. She thought about telling her the truth; I’m a coward set on revenge, not an ideologue. Instead, she said, “I don’t really give a shit about them.”

Devana threw the gauze and her gloves into the dirty metal bin behind her and sighed. “There’s that old saying, ‘Not my monkeys, not my circus. I liked the old history vids. You know what a circus is?”

“Down here we just call it a shit show.”

“Your monkeys, my monkeys, they are all part of the same circus.”   

“What if you gave it all up for nothing?” Haley looked up into the light of the bare bulb overhead, and inhaled the heavy sweat and decaying cotton odor of the room. “I’m scared of succeeding. I’m scared of not making it out. I get weird when I’m nervous.”

With the numbness wearing off, Haley looked to the pain in her shoulder. “What if I fail or what if I make it right to the end and chicken out?”

“Then you’re a shit monkey,” Devana said and laughed. She grabbed some ice, wrapping it in a worn towel. Holding it against the full bite of the pain, she pressed her lips to Haley’s forehead.

***

Haley rubbed at the ache in her shoulder. The pain of hitting the wall sobered her. She plodded the rest of the way to Room 1043.

“ID, please,” the computer-generated voice chimed.

Haley held her inner left wrist up for the sensor to read the RFID tag embedded there. The door slid open on a windowless exam room. Wait. After a deep breath, she stepped inside.  

The mechanical voice ran her through a series of tests placed along the right wall; blood pressure, heart rate, weight. Last, the voice asked for a urine sample.

“You’re very forward, you know that?” Haley asked.

“If you require assistance, please state ‘I require assistance,’ and personnel will be here to help you shortly.”

In starts and stops, she managed to pee in the cup provided, placing it behind the designated small metal door. She had a narrow window where the genetic material she carried would go undetected. If they found any cells other than her own, she would never leave this facility. Whole peoples would die with her, inside her, like the vanishing light of unknown universes.

The voice directed her to sit on a metal stool in front of a screen. Here, to the best of her ability, she recorded the family medical history she had memorized. She didn’t mention her brother’s wasting condition. The monetary payment she earned today would help ease his discomfort. It would keep him alive while the material she carried cannibalized her cells.

“Thank you, personnel will be with you shortly.”

“You’re welcome, Fred. I know we’ve only known each other a short amount of time, but I think I’ll call you Fred.”

“Your current wait time is four minutes. We appreciate your patience.”

“You know so much about me, tell me something about you. Anything. Like, what color are your circuits? Did you always want to be a mechanical voice, or was it something that your family expected you to do?”

“If you require assistance, please state ‘I require assistance.’ Your current wait time is four minutes. We appreciate your patience.”

Haley walked to the compartment where she stashed her urine sample and opened the door. The sample was gone.

“That’s a neat parlor trick there, Fred. Can you make it reappear?”

While the voice repeated its instructions on how to receive assistance, she opened and closed the metal door several more times. Like everything here, it was empty.

Lying on the exam table, she covered her eyes with her hands to shield them from the overhead lights. She listened to her singular heartbeat, lost in the possible outcomes of her actions here today.

The examiner cleared his throat to let her know he’d arrived. Evidently, she hadn’t heard the sterile whoosh of the door behind her. Sliding open her fingers a bit she peered through the cracks.

“Hello, I’m Doctor Pastor,” he said, tapping his palm to his chest. He pitched his voice higher as though he were addressing a child.

“Oh, hey Dr. Pastor,” she responded. She slid her body into a sitting position. “Fred didn’t tell me you were coming, sorry.”

“Fred?” he asked. Dr. Pastor frowned. The effect seemed unnatural as though he had never had cause to frown before Haley arrived.

“The soundtrack to my day. Fred’s so very helpful, always wanting to send me some assistance. No one’s ever offered to do that.”

The young-looking doctor shrugged his shoulders and shook his head. He made a notation on the device to his left, probably something about potential for mental unstableness.

“Here,” Haley said, in an attempt to explain her nervous sense of humor. Jumping down from the exam table, she walked over to the metal door in the wall. She opened and closed it several times.

“If you require assistance, please state ‘I require assistance.’”

Haley pointed toward the ceiling and said, “See? Fred. Very helpful, into protocol, but I’m beginning to suspect that Fred just went into this line of work because it was the family business and he really wanted to be a dog trainer for the circus.”

“I see,” said Dr. Pastor.

“You oughta not frown like that, it’ll mar the perfection,” she said. A moment of unprofessional displeasure flashed across his face. Knock it off Haley, you stupid anxious monkey.

“Well, I’m going to take some tissue samples, and we’ll see if you’re a good enough match to donate to the program. Before I do, have you been approached by any outside sources? Anyone ask you to ingest or carry anything in here today? Any new tattoos or skin graphs?”

Haley swallowed, she could feel her heart race a bit. The moisture evaporated as she opened her mouth to respond.

“No,” she said, “I need the compensation. My brother’s undernourished and I’m unable to find work.” It wasn’t specifically the truth, but it wasn’t metaphorically a lie, which made it easier to say without tripping suspicion.

“Okay then,” he said.

He stepped on a pedal, at the base of the table, and it reclined fully. Haley rolled back, her paper shirt crackling over the hum in her ears.

An assistant entered and pulled a thin blue tube from underneath the table, behind Haley’s head. He looped the tube over the front of her face. It rested across her upper lip, where two cylindrical plugs, tubes themselves, jutted up. It smelled of chemical antiseptic and plastic.

“Wait, I didn’t know you would have to knock me out.” Haley held the tube at bay with her palm. Wait. Is it too early? Wait.

The doctor shot the assistant an impatient look.

“It might be a little uncomfortable at first. It won’t hurt, and in a moment or two you won’t even care,” Dr. Pastor said, nodding for the assistant to continue.

He pulled the plugs up, so they nestled snug inside her nostrils. She flinched at first, expecting them to be rough against her nasal passages, but like the rest of the tube, they were soft and flexible.

“I’m going to turn on the gas now. I need you to count backward from ten,” the assistant said uncomfortably close to her ear.

Wait. The nozzle squeaked as it turned. If they found anything suspect while she was out, she might never be brought out of anesthesia. Her nose filled with vapor as she gripped the sides of the table. She could feel herself falling as though down a dark hole, sinking into another world.

With her back molars, she searched for the hard knot of material encased in her tongue. Wait.

“Fred, I’m scared. Fred?” Haley reached out and grabbed Dr. Pastor’s forearm.

“You will be just fine, I promise,” said Dr. Pastor. He pried her hand off his forearm and dropped it back onto the table.

The overhead lights twinkled like stars. Thick chemical clouds covered the Panterrica sky. Haley couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen stars. No more waiting. That’s our destination.

Haley bit down hard on the capsule embedded in her tongue. A cracking noise made her ears itch. A strange mixture of iron and life filled her mouth. She swallowed, her throat clutching at the decision. And with that, she gave it all up to a black dreamless sleep.

When she woke, she was reciting an endless monologue of her life. She rolled over, pulling free from the vinyl covering of the table. The back of her dry nasal passages tingled.

An assistant sat on Dr. Pastor’s swivel chair watching a heart monitor and employing a blood pressure cuff. Haley moaned at the sensation. It felt as though the cuff was trying to squeeze her arm off at the bicep.

“That’s a heck of a trick, Dr. Pastor,” she said. “This place really is magical, just like they say. I’m so lucky to be a part of the show.”

She studied the face of the woman monitoring her vitals for a hint that she’d said something alarming or incriminating. The assistant was perfect, with pale skin and a healthy flush. The skin was smooth and unmarked. She wore her shiny black hair pulled back into a low bun. Her eyes were a vibrant blue, but the whites were bloodshot, watery, and rimmed in pink.

Observing the telltale signs of unexpected empathy, Haley said, “I take it I’ve been talking in my sleep?”

“It can be a side effect,” she replied. Whatever Haley had said caused an emotional response, but not alarm.

“How long have I been out?” Haley asked.

The assistant tapped the screen in front of her.

“Almost forty minutes,” she replied. An orange glow lit her shirt pocket and something vibrated against her chest.

“Dr. Pastor will return momentarily to finish the exam. He’s waiting for the all clear. After that is complete, your clothes will be returned, and you will be free to go. Excuse me,” she said. She hastened out the back door of the room.

Haley yanked the tube from her nose. She imagined she could feel the genetic material working its way through her cells, multiplying. She sat up. A chemical taste carpeted her tongue and drained down the back of her dry throat. The room shifted. She felt woozy.

“Oh, so that was a bad idea,” she said. The cold settled into her extremities as she slumped back onto the table. Like a blind man finding his way in a new environment, she searched her body for points of tenderness. She counted seven. Those were the reachable ones.

“Fred, you there?” she whispered. “I guess I made it through to the other side. That’s it, right?”

Her stomach clenched.

“I need a friend, Fred. Friends tell you the best lies. Do you want to be my friend?”

She threw up.

Her vomit made a satisfying splash on the tiled floor. She spat the saliva tendril free from her mouth and wiped it from her chin with the bottom of her paper shirt. It left a dark yellowish stain.

“If you require assistance, please state, ‘I require assistance.’”

A rough uneasy laugh shook her chest. It planted itself in her head and took over until her whole body was shaking, laughing, and crying.

“If you require assistance, please state ‘I require assistance,’” the voice repeated.

“We could run away and train dogs,” she said, “for the circus.” She coughed out a laugh.

“I had a dog once,” she said, “We ate it during the last Panterrica recession. He tasted bitter.”

The back doors opened with an efficient whooshing sound and the assistant from earlier entered. She let out a guttural “ugh” and punched a button on the wall. “Don’t move from the table,” she said.

“Please remain seated while the room is sanitized. You are perfectly safe,” the mechanical voice reassured.

The assistant stood behind a curtain of chemical mist that draped the opening between her world and Haley’s. The smell of burning wires, followed by an antiseptic smell like chlorine, did nothing to ease the nausea.

Haley thought of an ad she saw when she was little. A tall blonde woman walked to the end of a pool. She wore a white bathing suit and an impossibly wide-brimmed hat that shadowed her face. Tossing the hat aside, the woman dove into the pool in one swift gliding motion, the clear water showing the ripples from her arm strokes. A view from over the woman in the pool transferred to a view of the sky overhead, where a similarly shaped airplane moved across the bright blue sky. An opportunity to swim presented itself only twice in her life, and each time she wanted it to be like this, a graceful dive into the sky beyond.

“The room will be fully sanitized in three, two, one,” the mechanical voice said.

The spray curtain, behind which the assistant stood, dissipated and she entered. She sprinkled a packet of something on to the vomit and waited as it turned from an ash-grey to a green. She pulled a hose from the wall and sucked the green pellets away.

Dr. Pastor returned, pulling on a fresh pair of latex gloves from his pocket.

“Well,” Haley asked, “was it worth it?”

Dr. Pastor stiffly patted her arm again. “Your early tests look promising. Do you have any children?”

“You mean all of those tests, and you don’t know?” She propped herself up on one arm. She meant to take the full upright slower this time.

“You can’t have children; we know that.”

“I lost a baby, during the third trimester. I was accidentally sterilized during the induced delivery,” Haley said.

“I see.” He made a notation.

His apparent disinterest in the rest of the story, made her clench her jaw.

“You can double check, Doc. I’ve got no history of mental illness, no chemical imbalances out of the range for a Panterrican. I’ve got the good stuff, and if I could cook it up on my own—I would. And I can’t even tell you, in your sterile plastic perfection, how good it feels to be needed. So now what?”

“There is nothing more we need. To be clear, you can only donate once.” He made eye contact with her this time, his eyebrows raised in a kind of parental threat.

“Yeah. How do I know if my donation is used?”

“You don’t,” he said. “But it looks very promising.” He motioned that she was free to go. “Your clothing and personal items will be returned to you at departure.”

“And this lovely ankle bracelet?”

“Follow the corridor to your right until you reach the elevator. It will take you down to the releasing room. They remove it there. They will give you payment at that time.” He waited.

Haley jumped down off the table. “Yeah, I’m going to need that payment. Fred and I are going to run away and train dogs for the circus.”

Again, he did not look amused.

She turned her back and smiled. “Open sesame.” She thought Fred appreciated the delivery. The door slid open to the hallway beyond.

A blue arrow appeared, on the opposite wall, framing the word “Exit.” As before, the lights followed her down the corridor, but before she stepped onto the elevator, she stopped. Wait.

“If you require assistance, please state, ‘I require assistance.’”

“I’m good,” she said. “You dream about the circus Fred, and someday soon that circus will come to you.”

Chloie Piveral is a writer of whimsical angst whose fiction has appeared in Kazka Press: 713 Flash, Kaleidotrope, and the Flame Tree Publishing anthology Robots & Artificial Intelligence. She is a 2015 graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop. You can find her online at www.cpiveral.com and on Twitter as @C_Piveral

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