Monsters and Machines

NOMMED FOR MOVELLA OF THE YEAR 2017

Nabdale is the most boring town in England. It’s muddy, it’s rainy, it’s full of cabbages, and all its residents can talk about is the lights in the sky.

On Sunday night, the lights come down, and barely anyone notices. The few who take notice have three days before they’re silenced. First comes the headache. Then, the nightmares begin. And after that, there’s no waking up.

As a very crazy, very real conspiracy theory takes Nabdale by storm, the residents are forced to push the boundaries of what they believe, and what they’ll do to survive. They’ll have to watch their loved ones suffer; they’ll have to abandon their normal lives, and everything they thought they knew about humanity. They’ll have to die. They’ll have to kill. Sickness and hysteria spread like wildfire, and the plot only gets stupider. It’s the end of the world, and they’re either too early, or too late, to stop it. But that doesn’t mean they’re not going to try.

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7. Ward Five

George Angel had always been careful, by-the-book, and calm to the point of robotism. But the moment the consulting-room door swung shut behind Harriet Hyde, he had to bite his lip to stop himself from screaming. And grind his heels into the floor to stop himself from running after her.

It was bullshit. Every last word of it was bullshit. The flu, indeed. Bullshit. But if he’d told her the truth, she would have told him he was mad.

Maybe he was.

He checked the clock. It was two-thirty, the end of his shift. He pulled himself out of his chair, making sure he’d given that poor woman enough time to leave the building, and then left the consulting-room to hurry up the stairs. As he ran, he listened to the words yelling for attention inside his head. She knew about the green lights. She had a killer headache, heartburn, fleeting amnesia, faintness, vomiting, dizziness. Sky-high blood pressure and sluggish breathing. It was all so, so painfully familiar. And as she’d left, he’d had to bite his lip to stop himself from running after her. It was against protocol. Protocol. Always about the bloody protocol.

“Hi, George.” Jamie met him at the top of the stairs. “How was the shift?”

 “Jamie, there’s something I need to tell you.” George was more than conscious that his eyes were open too wide.

The grin vanished from Jamie’s face. “What?”

George paused. “Not here.”

“George, what happened?” Jamie pressed. He was George’s youngest trainee, and his smartest, and his best. But damn, if he wasn’t irritatingly persistent.

“Give me a minute.” George buried his head in his hands. My God, he’d just let her leave. He’d let her leave and it was the worst mistake his job had ever forced him to make. “I’ll explain in a minute.”

Jamie looked shell-shocked, but he nodded. “Right. Okay.”

“How, uh…” George breathed out and tried to force the bubbling madness in his head to calm down. “How’s Robert?”

“He’s, um, worse. I’m afraid.” Jamie ran his hand through his electric-orange hair and looked up. “Blood pressure’s skyrocketing. Fever’s going nuts.”

“What?” George sighed in frustration. “Why’d nobody come to get me?”

“You were downstairs working.”

“But-”

“Don’t worry. Nora handled it.”

“I don’t care. If my patient gets worse, I want to be told!” George growled. He never growled. He started off down the corridor towards the door of ward five, Jamie snapping at his heels.

“There’s something- George, wait a second.” Jamie said. “Robert. He, uh…”

“What?”

“He’s worse.”

“Yeah. You said that.”

“Like, a lot worse.”

“Jamie, I’m a god-damned doctor! I can handle-” George pushed open the door of the ward and paused for a second before ironing his shocked expression flat.

The pale grey veins that’d started appearing on Robert Walker’s face that morning had spread from his jawline down his neck. They’d darkened, too, looking like they’d been painted on under his jaundiced skin. He was lying so rigidly still on his mattress that George felt his heart leaping into his mouth, till he spotted the heart monitor, still going mad no matter how hard they’d tried to calm his fever God, he was worse. A lot worse, and they had no idea what the fuck was happening to him.

It’d only been three days since Robert was brought in, and in those three days, he’d deteriorated so quickly even George had been fighting to keep up. He hadn’t come back home after going out on Sunday night, and he’d been found by his parents the next morning, face-down at the bottom of the ravine running down the centre of the valley. They’d assumed when they’d called the ambulance that he was unconscious from the fall, but when the medics had arrived, they’d found out he was just asleep. So deeply asleep they hadn’t been able to wake him up, but not in a coma. George had decided to keep him in overnight just to make sure the fall hadn’t caused any invisible damage, but he and his team of trainees and nurses had gradually started to notice that something else was happening to him. The headache had been the first warning, obviously. Then the high heart rate. Then the fever and the blood pressure. Robert had woken up late on Monday morning, and he’d been perfectly alert, but now, he could barely string a sentence together.

“George,” Jamie said. “He was still talking about green lights at lunch.”

“Oh.” George tried to hide the nerves in his voice. “Nothing else, though?”

“No.” Jamie was terrified of the things Robert had been saying. About green lights in the sky, and dreadful nightmares, and the pain he was in. “George, if he-”

“No more on the lights, please, Jamie.” George rubbed his face. “I’m tired, and it’s too much.”

“But he said-”

“It was a dream.”

“But-”

“A dream, Jamie! Damn, I know you love your UFOs, but not in front of the patients, please.”

Jamie sighed and gestured with his hand. “They’re all asleep.”

“I don’t care.” George sighed.

Jamie looked at him quizzically, and George felt frustration starting to curl his fists.

“What happened, George?”

“What?”

“What happened?”

“What happened when?”

“On your shift.” Jamie’s voice wavered, but he kept pressing, and George decided to tell the truth. He was used to sharing his worst experiences- damn, as a doctor he got his fair share- with his colleagues. He hated talking to Jamie, but he had nobody else, and he felt as though he’d explode if he tried to suppress the truth anymore.

 “Jamie, there was…” He sighed. “This woman came in. Harriet, her name was.”

Jamie nodded sympathetically. He probably thought he knew where this was leading.

“And, uh, she had a fever. Too. Without the temperature. And high blood pressure and all that.”

“Flu?”

George blinked. “No. Uh… I guess. M-maybe. But… Jamie, she was, um. She was like Robert.”

Jamie’s eyes shot open. “Like Robert?”

“Ssh!” George looked over at Robert’s bed, then pulled Jamie out into the corridor and shut the door behind them. “Look, it might have been nothing.”

“What happened?”

“She had, just a little…” George ran his finger from the corner of his mouth down to his neck, shuddering as he remembered how his blood had plummeted from his head at the sight of it. “A little grey vein. Just one.”

“On her chin?”

George nodded, closing his eyes. What had he done?

Jamie’s eyes widened. “That’s where Robert’s started too.”

“I- I know.”

“Was she saying about lights too?”

“What?” George blinked heavily. God, he was tired. And if Jamie didn’t shut up about aliens and UFOs soon, he was going to scream. That boy was a genius, and the best trainee he’d ever had, but he was a nutcase.

“The- the lights.

“As a matter of fact…” George sighed. “Yeah.”

Jamie’s eyes widened. “Well, where did you put her?”

“What do you mean?”

“Where did you put her, George?”

George sighed, trying not to let the weight of his own decision crush him flat. “I didn’t.”

“What?”

“I- I had to send her away.”

“Are you insane?” Jamie realised what he’d said. “But- but, George, she was-”

“I know, Jamie. But nobody can know.” He sighed and glanced over his shoulder to make sure they were alone. “Look, I’m meant to sugar-coat for you trainees, alright? I know I said on the first day this is all brutal realism, but the truth is, they needed more doctors and they’ve been telling us to make it seem sweeter than it all is. Lie about how admission works and all that.”

Jamie didn’t look surprised. “Yeah, I know,” he said.

“I- I’m not going to do that today. The fact is, we have no idea what’s happening to Robert. It doesn’t make scientific sense and nobody we’ve reached out to has ever seen anything like it before. So that has to mean it’s nothing, okay?”

“But…” Jamie said. “What the hell are you on about? Are you saying we’re running some kind of cover-up?”

“What?” George blinked in surprise, then sighed. “Jesus, Jamie! No, that’s not what I’m saying.”

“But you’re lying about what’s happening to him to- to-”

“That doesn’t mean we’re not trying to help him! We’ve done everything we can and then some. I’ve done things I could get fired for for that poor boy, alright? But it’s all useless.”

Jamie didn’t object, or even speak. He just nodded, pressing his lips together in his way that meant he was worried.

George blinked back tears. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d cried over a patient.

“That poor woman- Harriet.” He said. “I told her she just had the flu. I told her to go home and rest. Because that’s all I could do for her. I could have admitted her if I’d wanted, but they would have asked for grounds and then discharged her. It wouldn’t have done anything.”

“We had grounds for Robert!”

“Yeah, Jamie- we thought he’d injured himself from the fall, didn’t we?”

“No…” Jamie paused for a second, looking up at the ceiling. “Oh. Wait. Yeah.”

“Hell, Jamie. You’ve got an IQ of a hundred and seventy-something; why the hell don’t you use it?”

Jamie looked pleased. “A hundred and sixty-one.”

“Oh, go and stuff it.” George rubbed his face. He was worried about Harriet, deathly worried. But there was nothing he could do. She was just the same as Robert, and she hadn’t even fallen a yard. Still, as long as he kept an eye on Robert, he could reassure himself Harriet would be okay.

“Look, you’d better go home, Jamie. I’ll take care of this, okay?”

“Okay.” Jamie checked his watch. “Shit, I’ve missed my bus.”

“Language.”

“Oh, go and stuff it.” Jamie grinned at him and hurried off down the corridor. God, George wished he could bring himself to hate Jamie. He was his boss. His trainees were supposed to look up to him, but Jamie batted away authority with such carelessness it was endearing. George watched him vanishing into the break room to fetch his things, pushing his worries for Harriet down and down and down. God, he was a doctor. Why was he suddenly so upset over one patient? Well, two. If he counted Robert. But if the records were to be believed, Robert had been well and truly discounted.

“You still here, George?” Nora bustled past on her rounds.

“Y-yeah.” George made a snap decision. “I’m staying late again.”

She looked at him, one eyebrow raised. “Again? You’ve been here since seven.”

“I know. But I don’t…” He waved his hand at the door to ward five. “I don’t want to leave…”

“Robert.” Nora looked at him drily. “Right.”

She bustled past him and carried on down the corridor, deliberately missing the door to ward five. Everyone at this hospital had been desperately trying to ignore Robert since the day he’d arrived. Those precious few who knew the truth about his condition- with the exceptions of George and Jamie- tried even harder to stay out of his way. They were all acting like… Like he was already dead.

They’d finally managed to get Robert to eat that morning. He’d refused-politely, mind you- to swallow a bite they gave him, saying he wasn’t hungry. Then, that afternoon, ten minutes before Harriet had walked into George’s consulting-room, he’d thrown it back up, started softly moaning as his heartbeat shot up another notch and then spat this black bubbling liquid onto the polished white floor. George hadn’t been able to believe his eyes. The smell had been worse than nauseating- it was tangy, dizzying, chemical, like the smell of burnt flesh. George knew what that smelt like, and this was worse. After the orderlies had finished cleaning up, George had leaned over him to take his blood pressure, and that had been the first time Robert had looked at him with anything other than politeness. In that moment, as George constricted the cuff around his arm, Robert had shot his hand up to grab George’s, gripping his wrist so tightly his nails had drawn blood. The look in his eyes had been viciously terrified, like a trapped animal’s, and he’d hissed, through his grey-stained teeth,

“You have no idea what’s happening to me. Do you?”

And that had been the first time he’d buckled. George never, ever lied to his patients. Never, until Harriet. So he’d replied.

“No, Robert. Do you?”

Then, Robert had allowed another thin line of diluted black to run down his chin before letting go of George’s wrist to wipe it away. When George had left the ward, he’d heard crying coming from the bed, but he’d had a job to do.

Now, he had another.

George pushed open the door to ward five and paused for a second in the doorway. The smell. The smell was back, and it made him clamp his lips together and sway on his feet as his head gave another lurch of pain. He had another stress headacheHe walked across to the bed, expecting to find out Robert had vomited again, but realised he was wrong. The smell wasn’t coming from the ground. It was coming from him.

“Evening,” Robert said, making him jump. God, for someone who dealt with death and destruction every day, George was a jittery little bitch. He looked over at the pillow and tried not to choke. Robert’s face was so striped with those black veins they scribbled out his features, and they’d spread along his arms, too, running up every finger and tightening their grip like ropes. When he looked into Robert’s eyes, he was silently horrified to see their whites had turned grey and the brown irises black.

“Hi, Robert.” George said. That everything’s-going-to-be-fine voice was shockingly easy to hide behind. “How are you feeling?”

Robert smiled tiredly. George struggled to see straight past those veins, but he tried his best. He was expecting a sarcastic response. Robert looked like the sarcastic and cynical type- Like shit or like death warmed up or maybe even terrible, actually would have been manageable.

Instead, Robert breathed out and said weakly, “A little better, thanks.”

“Oh, really?” George checked the heart rate monitor, which they’d faced away from the bed, and tried not to breathe in too sharply. “That’s good.”

“Yeah. I- I think my fever’s calmed down a bit.”

“You feeling a bit cooler?”

“Y- yeah. A bit t- too c-cold, actually.”

George looked at him. His teeth were chattering. Two hours ago, he’d been so soaked with sweat his hair was plastered to his forehead.

“Okay. I’d better take your stats again, if that’s okay.”

“That’s fine. G-go ahead.”

George tweaked the dial on the radiator up as he walked over to the side of the bed. He picked up the blood pressure cuff and tried desperately hard, harder than he’d ever tried before, to suppress the wince as his fingers brushed along a ridge of skin. He wrapped the cuff around Robert’s arm and started to constrict it, and those black veins bulged closer to the surface.

“These, uh…” Robert lifted his other arm, turning it to examine the damage. “These don’t look too good, though.”

George sighed and tried to keep his voice bouncy. “No. Don’t worry.”

“Don’t worry? You don’t have to lie to me.” Robert smiled softly, curling his lips back. His teeth were still grey. “But you can if you want to.”

George said nothing. He read Robert’s blood pressure, and tried not to scream. He started to loosen the cuff again.

“How’s it doing?”

“Oh.” George looked at Robert. “It’s a little higher.”

“It is?” Robert sounded surprised. “Oh.”

“Don’t worry.”

“Okay. At least the fever’s gone.”

“Yeah.” George wondered if he even dared to check the heart monitor. “At least the fever’s gone.”

Robert’s breathing was normal- maybe even a little slow. How was that possible? His heart was going ballistic, but he wasn’t taking in nearly enough oxygen to sustain it. Screw it- they’d decided to bugger logic at an earlier stage. Robert himself had been a part of that decision.

“Okay, I need to take some b-blood again.” George swallowed sickness. “You ready for the needle?”

“Uh-huh.”

George slid the needle into Robert’s skin and, inside his head, swore every colour of the rainbow as he pulled the plunger out. The blood filling the tube was… black. Fucking black.

George’s heart started throbbing in his throat.

“I…” Robert lolled his head to the side and sighed loudly. His chest didn’t rise again for ten, twenty seconds, and George caught his breath, still staring down at the syringe. “I think I… They…. They they… Never m-mind.”

“What’s wrong?” George bolted to his feet at the sound of the slur in Robert’s speech. “Mr Walker? What’s wrong? Talk to me.”

No answer. George bit his lip as he ran to the other side of the bed to grab the emergency button, expecting at any moment to hear the solid beeeeeeep of the heart monitor dying in its tracks. But it never did. It was still going ballistic.

“Mr Walker?” George repeated, placing the syringe down on the trolley. Robert had closed his eyes. “Talk to me. Please. Please. Come on!”

Still nothing. Nothing at all but the maddened sound of the heart monitor.

Beep-beep-beep-beep-beep-beep. It ate into his head.

And then, that packed in too.

Beeeeeeeeeeep.

“I need HELP in here!” George yelled, knotting his hands together and starting to pound on Robert’s chest as his eyes refused to tear themselves away from his face. The door burst open and Nora, along with two or three of his trainees, ran in. They all widened their eyes at the sight of Robert; not one of them had seen him since the first day.

“I… need…” George had started panting, even though he’d administered hopeless CPR a million times before. “Don’t just stand there!”

“Cardiac arrest?” Nora snapped out of her daze, then turned to shout down the corridor as George nodded. “We need a defibrillator! Right NOW!”

George continued with the chest compressions as the defibrillator was brought in; why was he already sure it was too late? Maybe it was the looks on the faces of those two trainees; frozen in shock, even as they shook their heads and started getting ready to help with the machine.

“Nora. Take over.” George said to his shell-shocked colleague. “Hand me the electrodes.”

The trainee holding the electrodes was still fumbling.

NOW, damn you!” Why was he yelling? George never yelled. He was always calm and collected and boring. Maybe it was because he knew that no matter how hard he tried, Robert wasn’t going to wake up again, and he blamed himself. Yeah. Yeah, that’d be it. He was snatching the electrodes out of his trainee’s hand, and Nora was still dutifully performing CPR, and that heart monitor was still whining, whining, whining, and every second that passed was another second wasted.

“Stand clear.” George gripped the electrodes and rubbed them together, curling his lip back at the ugly squealing sound that sliced through his head. He should’ve been letting the others help him. But damnit, he wanted it done right, just like always. And that meant he had to do it himself.

“Nora.” He said. Nora stepped back.

“Clear!” George looked over his shoulder as he pressed the electrodes to Robert’s chest. There was a jolting THUNK, the electric shock arched his back, and still the heart monitor kept on whining.

“Charging.”

George turned to glare angrily in the direction of the door as he waited for the machine to recharge. “Get out of here!” He yelled to the small crowd that’d gathered outside.

“Clear!”

THUNK.

Nothing.

Of course.

“Charging.”

Time passed. Seconds and minutes and maybe even hours- like it fucking mattered- of Charging-Clear-THUNK-nothing, strung together by the whining of the heart monitor. George didn’t realise it, but he’d been sweating.

God, he hated this part.

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