Short Story: “The Device”

After a particularly annoying series of trans-Tasman flights, I wrote the following. Consider it my entry for a Black Mirror episode.

******************************************

The device had been invented just five years ago. Like everybody else, Ricky had no idea how it worked. That was a closely guarded secret. He only knew the public byline: FOR YOUR COMFORT AND SAFETY THE FLAWLESS AND FOOLPROOF AIRPORT SECURITY DEVICE IS NOW BEING DEPLOYED.

He had been through it twice before. The first time he’d been nervous. He’d read the online instructions thoroughly. One submitted oneself to a little waiting time, and was guaranteed of not remembering it. All passengers were diverted to large waiting rooms where squads of beaming, reassuring, highly trained nurses would administer a quick, painless, very small shot in the forearm. This is when the device, microscopic, is inserted. One then became fuzzy, halfway-losing consciousness, waking up thirty minutes later in an extremely comfortable chair, ready to immediately board the aircraft. Somehow in those thirty minutes the security of everybody had been assured. The process had been completely smooth for him, and apparently every other passenger in the country, and the second time he had actually looked forward to it, especially the free snacks.

He dimly remembered a time when the worldwide air security apparatus had swelled into an ugly and intimidating thing that subjected one to agonising waiting in unmoving lines to scan baggage, while being scrutinised by a thousand cameras and nervous officers with firearms, tasers, and batons at their hip. Panicking quietly while being scanned, terrified of looking guilty of crimes you hadn’t committed, being asked presumptive and confusing questions about your intentions, X-rays, invasive pat downs, more waiting in departure lounges. The waiting – god what was that song? The way-yay-ting is the hardest part! It was impossible to deny that the use of the new device these days was a much smoother and more pleasant system. Just show up half an hour ahead of time, get your harmless and temporary device injected and have a pleasant, restful sit down before boarding your flight. Easy! Comfortable! All the airport security staff treated you with dignity! While the public was not permitted to know the method of the ubiquitous and apparently magical device, many believed it was merely a sedative; just a ruse to have you knocked out cold while they stripped searched your body and your baggage. Governments promised in the most serious terms that this was not the case and there was absolutely no bodily invasion at all, and allowed panels of third party experts and advocates to independently verify that to their satisfaction, but for worldwide security the workings of the device had to remain a total mystery.

On his third trip, Ricky was going to learn all about it.

He hopped off the commuter train with hundreds of others. He had only carry-on luggage, a small backpack. He was only flying to visit his parents for the long weekend. Painted lines on the concrete guided everybody to the domestic departure terminal. They shuffled through quickly while beaming airport staff handed out information brochures that contained the same information about the implementation of the device that Ricky had read online. Some first-timers stopped to ask questions. Really though, it was absurdly and gratifyingly simple.

Ricky sat with the 170 others on his flight in very comfortable departure lounge chairs and enjoyed an orange juice with chocolate biscuits while the nurse delivered the device painlessly into his left arm with the tiniest of needles. “All done!” she smiled at him, as she swabbed and then moved on down the row. Ricky closed his eyes and prepared to drift off briefly into the fuzzy state he knew was coming.

The device began to work.

He arose refreshed with the 170 others and shuffled along the hall. More pleasant airport staff took ID tags and welcomed them onto the flight, and allowed them to board the aircraft. Ricky walked nonchalantly down the ramp, into the Boeing 737-800, and to his seat near the front. He placed his bag in the overhead locker and sat. He fingered the remote under his jacket in one hand, his large knife in the other. Once boarding was nearly complete, he leapt out of his seat with a power that surprised himself, brutally and efficiently stabbed the two flight attendants once each in the thorax, puncturing lungs and ensuring they would presently die in the utmost of suffering, and took off back up the ramp to the sound of panicked screams.

He didn’t get very far before he stopped to vomit in the corner of the empty tunnel. His world was swirling, and his pulse was extremely heavy in his ears and neck. The screams burned into him, accusing. He tried to breathe in stillness for a second, then thought better of it and kept jogging up the ramp.

The door back into the departure lounge was not yet sealed. He burst upon the two stunned airline staff with his knife again, killing one instantly with a deep and gushing thrust through the heart, and because he seemed to be alone and in plenty of time, took a little effort to half-way decapitate the other while keeping himself as clean as possible, given the circumstances. Then it seemed he was far enough away to set off the bomb, so he pressed at the buttons on his remote, and all of the people he had shared the past half hour with disappeared in a fireball as his backpack left in the overhead locker combusted extremely quickly, and the wings full of aviation jet fuel added to the blast.

Ricky fell to his knees and vomited a second time. The world had taken an omnipresent purple and black hue. His ears were ringing full of screams, alarms, chaos, and his brain was trying to overwhelm him with signals. It was all so awful that he couldn’t pay attention to it. He felt himself compelled onwards.

Four blue-suited security guards appeared around a corner. They weren’t expecting him though, and somehow Ricky overcame all of them. He saw a red fire axe in a glass case on the wall. Poorly placed, it seemed, and incongruous with the concept of security. But that, he supposed, was the result of having this flawless security device that meant security was assured, fire axe or no fire axe. The first guard went down from a neck slash. The second checked his advance and didn’t try to react as Ricky swung hard into his side, exposing ribs in a sickening white. The third guard tried to hastily draw his gun and accidentally shot himself in the femoral artery doing so, and Ricky seized it as he fell, to shoot the fourth in the face repeatedly until the gun was empty and he could no longer distinguish a feature.

Ricky fell over, weak in the knees from fright, disgusted and unbelieving of his actions. The human carnage raged through his mind. He correctly predicted that he would never be able to forget what he had seen his hands do, or alleviate the guilt for the rest of his life. But his mission must continue. Up. Onwards.

He walked out of a convenient fire exit onto a stretch of tarmac. A fuel truck invited him to take a drive, so he found first and then second and circled a little before spotting a crowd of aircraft mechanics in a small nearby shed. Rather than drive into them, he hurled the mass of the truck through the wall, causing a deafening collapse that buried the men in plaster and twisted metal. Without knowing why, he stepped out of the truck and used his knife to sever an arm from one mechanic to take with him. His knife seemed to have magical properties of sharpness and cut through bone like butter. The purple and black closed in tighter. His shirt was wringing wet with perspiration and blood. It was time to continue driving.

He reversed his truck out of the wreckage, and drove it a few minutes until it stopped on the tracks of the commuter train. He disembarked amidst screams, screams he would hear every time he ever tried to sleep again. In a dream he beat a man and his small daughter with the mechanic’s severed arm. As if in the movies he threw his knife at an onlooker, but disappointingly the handle merely thudded instead of the blade burying into her body as he had imagined. A man from the crowd attempted to tackle him to the ground, but in this bizarre state Ricky was invincible, and he used his fists to ferociously attack the man’s exposed neck until he went to the ground. Then he ripped a handbag from a terrified young woman that ran slower than the others and swung it into the large glass airport doors, drawing deep and terrible gashes into his hands as he picked up a long jagged shard. He whirled upon the world and prepared to use it. He found himself all but cornered as more guards arrived, but as they drew their weapons to take him out, a terrible sound flooded the forecourt that made them change their minds: the train. Disaster might have been averted, but unfortunately there was a bend just before the airport station. The driver did not appear to see the truck or try to stop the train. Ricky’s world, and everybody else’s nearby in the running crowd, exploded into orange flames, screaming metal, deafening agony, and finally the purple and the black won and closed all the way in on him.

************

“Sir, take a breath.” A voice from the dark.

“Sir, you’re in the nurses’ station in the airport. You’ve had bad reaction to the device.”

Ricky awoke. His shirt was still drenched in his sweat and vomit, but there was no blood or carnage, aside from some deep scratches on his forearm. He made an “uhg” noise to indicate consciousness, and the kindly voice of the nurse was replaced by another.

“Sir,” the man in the suit began, “I’m afraid the device has caused you a bit of a problem today.”

Ricky reeled at the images flying through his head. Nausea overcame him and the nurse and the man both patiently let him vomit. “What the fuck is going on?” he asked when he finally could.

“Sir, what I am going to tell you is classified. The device we deploy in this airport and at every airport in the country is designed to knock you out and administer a security test.”

Distress. “Test?”

“Yes, sir. Very shortly when you’re able to get up I have some paperwork for you to go through and sign, but for now I can explain a little of what has happened.”

The nurse continued gently cleaning his perspiration and vomit. Ricky made another “unnnhg” sound that bade the man proceed.

“A test, sir, that is effective and harmless in all but zero point zero zero zero zero zero one percent of cases. Normally, while passengers are in a semi-conscious state in the waiting lounge, it is not necessary for us to search their bags or their person. What we really need to do is search their mind. The device creates a sort of dream, a role play or a film in their brain, consisting of extreme violence towards other humans.” Ricky was too numb to feel relief. “While this scenario is being subconsciously enacted in the brain, we monitor an array of physiological reactions in the body to determine whether or not the individual is experiencing the proper aversion. It’s like a way of probing for a guilty conscience.”

Dawning. “It’s like a lie detector? A polygraph? You’re asking me… you’re asking my brain if I’m a psychopath who wants to destroy a plane?”

The man coughed. “Yes, that’s one way of thinking of it, sir. The device is extremely effective and accurate in detecting contraband. The developers have even been able to match different bioprofiles with specific types of contraband. So, for example, the computer can tell the difference between you feeling only a little guilty about carrying excess liquids in your cabin baggage, or you anticipating an explosion at some point over the mid-Atlantic.” Ricky detected boasting.

“I’m not a terrorist.”

“No, sir, nobody is accusing you of anything.”

“So why did I have this…um… dream about being one?”

“Sir, we feed everybody the same dream. Every time somebody flies, they go through what you have gone through. It is played in your brain by the device and you can’t stop it. It is a test, and only a test. But the crucial point is that it is supposed to be subconscious and completely forgotten before you even wake up. You weren’t meant to be… awake or seeing any of it. Usually, it’s foolproof. But unfortunately there remains a very small element of uncertainty, even if the individual has not had a reaction before.” The man cleared his throat again. “In certain individuals, it doesn’t seem to take quite right. You’ve heard of people who are awake through surgery, perhaps. It happens. That’s why I am stationed here, and there are officers like me stationed in every other airport in the world.”

“It was real to me.”

Ricky felt tears on his cheeks. He had never thought himself capable of inflicting suffering like that before. A great deal of his peace of mind had come from having the certainty that he was not an inhuman monster. Now, he wasn’t so sure.

“Sir, I am authorised in this situation to offer you a full compensatory package, which we can discuss after you’ve signed a few papers regarding confidentiality in the interest of security. Do you feel well enough to stand now?” The nurse nodded Ricky’s assent for him.

But Ricky remained sitting, eyeing his shirt thrice-covered in vomit, and the gouges on his forearm. “My vomiting was real. Why do I have these marks on my arm? You say it was just a dream. This looks pretty real, too.”

The man sighed. “The subconscious mind is pretty powerful. When individuals resist the device, they sometimes try to rip it out in their semi-conscious state. Rather than go through with the scenario, you sensed the device was there, and tried to make it stop.”

Sadness. Sadness that would last long after he signed the man’s papers and flew to his parents’ house.

“I slashed my own wrists to escape your test.”

The man’s chuckle was an insult.

“Guess that means you passed.”

2 Responses to Short Story: “The Device”

  1. I was thoroughly engrossed in this story from beginning to end. It seems like a scarily real possibility in the future. Richard is expecting one day we will have to take off all our clothes in case they are covered in chemical weapons or something. He went through the X-ray machine last week and they made him take his HANDKERCHIEF out of his pocket.
    So, in conclusion, I loved this story. It is written vividly and evocatively.

  2. Andrew says:

    Absolutely. While this is speculative fiction, the basis of it is here with us now: they presume everybody is a maniac to catch the one in a billion who may be. It’s insulting.
    Thanks Michelle!

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