Premier Short Stories Competition Winner 2013
Nexus by Ken McGrath
12:45 pm. Wednesday.
Alex saved the files he was working on to the cloud. His fingers hovered over the touchpad for a heartbeat longer than necessary. The cursor flashed patiently waiting for him to decide, shut it down or keep working.
He moved it over to the log-off button and clicked. The machine emitted a tiny whine and the twin screens went black.
Pushing his seat back he bent over and carefully slid a long, slender box out from beneath the workstation. He placed it on the desk then stood up and shrugged on his jacket.
“See you tomorrow guys,” he said to the colleagues he shared the work area with.
“Enjoy your afternoon off buddy,” Gerard replied with a cheeky wink. “Whatever it is you’re up to.”
Robert just gave a silent salute. He’d barely raised his head from the depths of spreadsheet hell since 7.30 that morning when Alex had arrived in.
Lately it seemed like the workload flowing into their neck of the Research & Records Department was increasing everyday. Some outdated computer systems had been dug up from someplace and all those files needed to be catalogued.
“Later,” Alex called as he exited the room, purposefully ignoring Gerard’s jibe. The guys knew he was having some issues at home with Jesse so he just left it at that.
As the door slid shut behind him Alex tried to pretend that the heavy work-load was the reason he’d hesitated about taking the half-day, but it didn’t stick. He knew it came down to nerves. Head down he made his way through the glass-walled halls to the elevator dock at the centre of the building, the Spine as it was known.
Shifting the package to a more comfortable position under the crook of his arm he jabbed the button for Sub-Level 2, the U-Train Platform. The letter ‘E’ flashed up and Alex stepped over to that door, rocking forward onto the balls of his feet as he waited for the elevator to arrive.
After a minute that felt like five there was a DING, the doors parted and he stepped inside. He recognised one of the other passengers as a Ricky or Richie from one of the I.T. departments and gave a nod, hoping that it wouldn’t lead to conversation. The other man just nodded in greeting and as was the tradition in elevators tilted his head away so they could stand in uncomfortable silence.
After stopping at what must have been floor the lift finally arrived at minus two where the doors opened, granting Alex his freedom.
The Security Guard at the turnstiles cast only the slightest glance in his direction as Alex swiped his staff card to exit and stepped out onto the platform.
13.03. Two minutes until the next train.
Alex rearranged the long-rectangular package, shifting it beneath his other arm. He looked around. The platform was almost empty. Traffic on the U was normally quiet during working hours.
As he waited a stray energy bar wrapped down amongst the rails caught his attention. The only piece of litter he could see in the otherwise pristine station he wondered that it hadn’t been picked up yet. As he watched the corner began to lift, like it was waving, slowly at first then faster and faster and faster as the gushing noise of an oncoming train filled the subterranean station and it was hidden from view.
He boarded and without any difficulty found two empty seats side-by-side. Making sure he was facing the direction the train was travelling Alex sat down. He took the aisle seat and placed the box on the one beside him where he rested a hand on it protectively, never even considering the option of putting it in the overhead storage rack.
He watched his reflection in the glass, marvelling silently at how beneath such a calm exterior so much was happening. All that blood and muscle and tissue and bone and thoughts and everything that zipped around inside him like electricity.
Sometimes he played a game to himself while commuting where he tried to see beyond the other traveller’s facades, to imagine their thoughts. But not today, today was no day for games. Today was not just any other day and as he rode the U Alex toyed with the box, absentmindedly worrying the edges.
As the train sliced through the darkness he occasionally spied the reflections of his fellow passengers. All the men on the way to jobs with their neat beards and trim jackets, dirty overalls or freshly wrinkled suits easily denoting whether they worked in labour or in office.
Alex himself was wearing a new suit. For the day that was in it, it had seemed appropriate. Though he knew it didn’t really matter he still wanted to look his best. As his thoughts drifted his fingers beat out a simple rhythm on the box lid.
As they passed through them he counted down the stops to his destination. Each station was a burst of synthetic orange and electric blue before the U’s doors hissed closed again and the train dove forward, plummeting back into darkness.
When the U was the next stop but one away from his destination Alex began to gather himself. He stood up, straightened his suit, carefully tucked the box back into its uncomfortable spot under his arm and walked to the door. The sensor above it registered him, flashing green to indicate the doors would open once the U had pulled to a halt.
While he waited for the station to come into view his thoughts drifted back to that room full of old computer equipment in work and how strange it was that he’d ended up here because of it.
“Learn from the mistakes of the past” read the legend over each of their desks in the work pod. It was something Robert was fond of saying and he’d gotten the seven little plaques made up, one for each of them in the Department, back before the budget cuts.
Alex hadn’t been too sure about learning from the past, he’d always been more interested in the randomness of what you’d find when you cracked files open, never knowing where any particular rabbit hole would take you.
On that day it had been information on holiday traditions they were digging through. Gerard had found some stuff about celebrating a day of the dead that everyone was crowded around, but Alex was intrigued by something else, by a date in March. It was normal for people working on these projects to get a little obsessed with the topic at hand, especially when you were so immersed in it, but normally it passed when the next topic came along.
For Alex though something about that date stuck. He didn’t talk to anyone about it though, it wasn’t an interest he wore publicly. He hadn’t even told Jesse. Yet now here he was.
There was a whoosh of escaping air and the doors of the U pulled open whisking Alex back from that day six months ago to reality.
The train disgorged its passengers onto the platform. Green exit signs lit up away to Alex’s left and he headed towards them.
As he exited the underground station that sun was a welcome warmth on the back of his neck. Self-consciously he adjusted the cumbersome package, checking as he did that it hadn’t been bent or damaged in any way during the journey. Apart from some fraying around the edge sit was fine and he chided himself for picking so much and having ruined the perfect symmetry.
He joined the light flow of people going over the foot-bridge and made his way to the Generation Building. Every now and then on the news updates you’d see footage of protestors outside it, waving placards but it was quiet today.
The sudden blast of cool air from the air-conditioner when he entered the building caused Alex to break out in a light sweat and he instantly regretted wearing a light blue shirt.
At the receptions desk two bored looking security guards eye-balled him as he approached.
“Please place that package, the contents of your pockets, any tablet devices, adornments, jewellery, etcetera on the counter in front of you and step over to my colleague there.” The words were rattled off in a flat automatic tone, the man’s lips hardly visible beneath a heavy moustache which seemed to pull his face down into a constantly dour expression.
Gingerly Alex placed the package on the counter top and emptied out his pockets, while Mr Moustache donned a pair of gloves.
“Ahem,” Alex felt his tongue sticking to the roof of his mouth, the words failing. He coughed and started again. “Please be careful with this, it’s very fragile.”
Mr Moustache gave him a look of disdain and poked at the box with the tip of a latex covered finger.
“Step over to my colleague.”
Alex bottled up the panic that was gathering like storm clouds inside him and did so, his heart sinking when he saw the man disappearing around the other side of the counter, the box in his meaty hands.
The second security guard was a few years younger than Alex, with a slender, attractive face which, unlike that of his colleague had clearly never been on the receiving end of a fist raised in anger. It didn’t make him look any friendlier though. Without a word the man slid a scanner across the counter and Alex placed a hand inside it, feeling the soft rubbery lining moulding around his fingers, forming a seal. He lifted it up to his face so that a red circle on the palm was in line with his right eye.
Nothing happened. For a sickening moment Alex thought something had gone wrong, then the light flashed green verifying a fingerprint and retina match. He breathed a quiet sigh to release the tension and handed back the scanner
“Please step through here,” the guard said indicating the metal detector, which Alex did without incident. “Okay continue on through. Take a seat in the waiting area. The tour will start shortly. You can collect your belongings from my colleague on the far side.”
Mr Moustache absently scratched at the inside of his nostrils with a thumb while Alex gathered up his belongings. A quick look revealed the contents of the package to be undamaged. With something resembling relief he moved away to find a seat.
There were already a dozen or so others in the waiting area, none of whom Alex recognised. Without a word he took a seat as far away from them as possible.
A man in his fifties entered. Hair cut tight, long white coat, glasses poking out of one breast pocket, name tag clipped to the other he looked every inch the part, no doubt done on purpose to play up to people’s expectations.
“Good afternoon gentlemen. My name is Doctor Darren Young and I’ll be your guide for this tour.”
He rattled off the safety procedures then invited them to follow him into the building. Alex joined at the tail-end of the group, hugging the package close to his chest.
As they moved through rooms filled with displays and models showing the inner workings of male and female physiology Alex paid only slight attention, half-listening to what was being said.
Dr Young’s delivery was punctuated by old news footage, showing the initial reactions to the virus, the spread of fear as people began to realise just how specific and unstoppable it was. Figures flashed up showing details of the dwindling female population. The panic. The riots. The reactions of people who were powerless to stop the death of those they loved. The outcry from religious quarters saying it was God’s final punishment. The outpouring from those who maintained Mother Earth had finally found a way to rid herself of the parasite that was humanity, by eradicating the female of the species. The steps that governments around the world began to take to ensure that life continued until a solution could be found, until it could be reversed.
“And that brings us to the highlight of our tour gentlemen,” Dr Young said, pausing outside a pair of double-doors. “This is what we affectionately call The Womb Room.”
Alex held his breath, shifting his grip on the package. This was it.
The doors swung open and Dr Young led the group into a wide, high-ceilinged room tastefully decked out in low, red clinical lighting. Running the length of the room, in two parallel lines were large, cylindrical tanks. Inside each collections of cells and tissues floated, expanding and contracting continuously, breathing in and out, inhaling and exhaling.
There was a collective gasp from the group as they took in the mass of wires and tubes, at the flesh that pulsated behind glass, at the solution which had been reached to preserve human life and the experiment of which they were all the result of.
Alex had seen pictures of this already but in real life it was so much more powerful. To be actually standing here in this place, in this factory for making babies. There was a horror to it, all the red and pink, all the stripped flesh and meat pulsing, blood pumping through dark tubes, but it wasn’t like something off of a butcher’s counter, there was a tastefulness to it. And despite that sense of horror there was a beauty too, at how the organs were clearly treated with respect. After all they were the source of life.
As the men inspected the shapes floating in the tanks Dr Young continued speaking. “Eventually we hope to be able to engineer and reintroduce female humans but at the moment this is still not possible. There is still so much more we need to learn about the virus.”
“It’s actually quite interesting that you’re here today,” he said, his tone suddenly becoming much lighter. “There are many traditions which in the past people celebrated that have, for whatever reason, now become either forgotten or redundant. Today you see is not just any other day. It is a day that in the past held a very special significance. Does anyone here know what we would have been celebrating today?”
As he spoke Alex placed the package on the floor and removed the lid. The men around him stepped back, forming a loose circle, watching him and mumbling among themselves to see if anyone knew the answer. Dr Young craned his neck to look at where Alex was crouched and a smile spread across his face, revealing a wealth of contour lines on his forehead.
“Oh good, good, it seems someone today was prepared.”
From the package Alex removed a single lily.
Nervously he stepped over to the nearest tank. For a moment he stood, staring at the dark mass that pulsed behind the glass, watching it. Then, a chill running up his spine, he knelt and placed the flower at the base of the tank.
Alex kissed the tips of the first two fingers on his right hand then placed them on the cool glass. A tear ran down his cheek as he whispered, “Happy Mother’s Day.”
Many thanks to North Tipperary County Council Arts Office for sponsoring the prize money for the Premier Short Stories competition and also to Fitzpatrick Design and Print.