The Courage To Navigate Controversy
This week, I continue to showcase writer perseverance, focussing on how they translate and navigate the continually shifting landscape of our communities and societies through creative expression.
Information has always been important; however, the evolution into its digital form (data), presents us with different challenges. During the pandemic, our rapid shift online, has heightened this. Globally, data is at the centre of many of the decisions being made to remove the restrictions of lockdown. Closer to home, though, a particular challenge the UK is facing, relates to the privacy surrounding the NHS patient data transfer. Write On!’s Deputy Editor, Claire Buss, presents us with what might be considered a controversial perspective; wowing us with a fantastic sci-fi translation of what else data can be.
Jarred watched the machine with distrust. It was too strange, too metallic to be comforting, and it didn’t smell of anything. How could that provide care for his mum? She needed a fat, jolly nurse who would stroke her brow and then give him sweets and a hug when it all got too much. That’s what happened in the movies. Not this silver hunk of cold metal. It stood tall, like a long oval but with a flat base, no arms or legs. It didn’t even have a face.
The machine whirred into life. Observation time. It rolled closer to the bed and, from its featureless front, swept a scan over his mother, but didn’t share its findings. Those details were recorded internally and sent to a central mainframe to be processed so that the best possible care could be provided. At least, that’s what the advertising man had said. He’d promised Jarred’s mum that this machine would keep her healthy for as long as possible, but the sickness had progressed so fast, faster than anyone expected and the doctor wouldn’t visit anymore. He’d told Jarred that now they had an N3000 there was nothing he could do that it couldn’t.
The thing that bothered Jarred the most, was that these N-whatevers were expensive-looking machines. The technology inside that thing was way ahead of anything else that existed in their small flat, let alone in their entire neighbourhood. But the salesman had arrived at the best possible time. Jarred had been out, trying to earn enough money to buy some food for his mum. They had their assigned rations, but it was powdered substitutes and he was hoping to get something fresh for her. Just this one time. She was having a good day, even sitting up in her chair, a little colour in her cheeks. When he got back the silver machine had been delivered. Mum called it her angel.
It didn’t look like an angel to Jarred. Although it didn’t have eyes, it always seemed to be watching him, measuring him, weighing him up as if deciding whether it was going to kill Jarred as well. Because he knew that machine was killing his mum. He couldn’t prove it but he knew. In the beginning he’d asked it about it’s purpose. It had said: “To service the needs of the infirm”.
What did that even mean? Surely, its purpose should have been to heal his mum or to care for her medical requirements. Service her needs – it sounded like it didn’t care whether she lived or died. And, ever since it had arrived, his mum had gotten sicker and sicker.
Checking internal programming – checking base parameters of life – checking patient data:
homoeostasis – unbalanced
cellular regeneration – consistently mutating and replicating
growth – general shape is negative, internal tumours are positive
environmental adaptation – negative
stimulus response – reduced
reproduction capacity – negative
Data analysis sent to mainframe. Awaiting further instructions. Patient meets 2/5 criteria. Instruction received. Patient termination initialised.
It all happened so fast. One minute the silver machine was stood in the corner of his mum’s bedroom, away from her bed and humming quietly, lulling Jarred into a false sense of security. Then, suddenly, it had rolled forward, injected his mum with something via a retractable needle and glided out of the room without any explanation. Jarred sprang up – he didn’t know whether to follow the machine or see to his mum. She took a deep breath in and her face relaxed so that she looked young and pretty and at peace again.
“Mum?” Jarred’s voice quavered as he stepped closer to her bed. His eyes were full of tears as he groped for her hand but she didn’t squeeze it back like she always did. She never breathed out at all. She just lay there. Still. At peace. Gone.
“We’ve had another one.”
“What, a termination? Whereabouts?” Eddie Crichton pushed his glasses back onto his face and peered over the shoulder of the young technician. A red light was flashing in the Waterton District, one of the poorest in the city. They’d been ordered to send out several medical drones as a test run in there. Whilst they’d had no complaints, every single patient had died. Crichton wondered whether the families who had the drones even knew where they’d come from. Sales Department consisted of Bob Tevitt, a shark in man form. He’d do anything to get a signature on the dotted line. After all, he was informed that when he got all the drones deployed, he’d get a big financial reward. And Bob Tevitt always got his commission.
“You’d better send a clean-up crew for the family, with their payment for being part of the test operation. Only make sure you send someone who is at least a bit sympathetic, we don’t want a repeat of last time.”
Both men reflected on the debacle that had occurred when Finkman had been sent out to a distraught family. Somehow, he bodged it up so badly, he’d ended up getting shot by the deceased patient’s family. It wasn’t fatal but, clearly, he needed to take the interpersonal skills course again.
“Get the machine processed as soon as it arrives. We should have enough data to go to the Board now. How many is it now?”
“Er, 11, Sir.”
“Eleven deaths.” Crichton wasn’t sure whether that made this experiment a success or not. Every drone readout that had come back had an exemplary care report history. The drones took regular observations, administered medication, cross-referenced the huge medical database they had access to and, of course, consistently cross-checked their basic programming; the six requirements for life. Those six requirements were the basis upon which the rest of the software had been built upon. The drones had instantaneous access to all medical knowledge and training and could deal with any scenario. It was a shame not a single patient had recovered. Perhaps Tevitt had been too efficient in choosing clients that were terminal. It would have been good to have a case study that involved a human getting better – but you couldn’t fudge the data, it was what it was. Besides, no client complaints. The Board would most likely vote for stage two implementation. A rollout to all medical centres. They’d get some positive data from there surely.
“Good morning Sir, how may I assist you today?”
A smartly dressed businessman eyed the silver machine suspiciously.
“I’m here to see the doc – where’s the doc?”
“I will be servicing your medical needs today Sir. I am the N3000 healthcare for the community drone.”
“That’s all very well but what are your credentials? How do I know you know what you’re talking about?”
“I have an extensive medical database installed as well as instant access to all doctor and hospital patient notes. You were born in 1967 at the Edith Cavell Hospital, in Johnston to Paul & Mary Lackley – there were no complications. You broke your arm age 10, successfully healed. You …”
“Yes, yes alright. I don’t need to hear all that.” The man smoothed down his hair. “It’s a bit delicate you see, that why I was hoping to speak to the doc.”
“That will not be possible.” The N3000 began its medical scan.
Checking internal programming – checking parameters of life – checking patient data:
homoeostasis – unbalanced
cellular regeneration – slowed but within parameters
growth – general shape is negative
environmental adaptation – negative
stimulus response – at reduced capacity
reproduction capacity – negative due to impotence
Data analysis sent to mainframe. Awaiting further instructions. Patient meets 1/5 criteria. Instruction received. Patient termination initialised.
“Hey, what you doing with that needle? I don’t need a shot. I…”
The N3000 delivered its lethal dose and deftly caught the patient with its retractable arms, placing him upon a trolley. The drone hummed slightly as it pushed the dead man out of the room into the corridor. There were four other trolleys awaiting collection by the city morgue. It had been a very efficient morning.
Crichton tried to focus on the screen but his eyes were so tired and bleary the words looked like squashed ants. The alarm went off on the console and amber warning lights flashed.
“What have we got?”
The technician yawned noisily, his jaw cracking as he tried to make sense of the data in front of him.
“The N3000 sent to the inner-city medical centre has just terminated a fourth patient.”
“Goddamn it! We’ve got to pull them out of there. It’s not safe.”
“Yeah, but we need Board approval to pull the plug, don’t we, Boss?”
“I don’t care. Pull it. This has to stop.”
The tech entered the kill code into the console and the two men watched as seventeen blue flashing lights began to converge on their building, returning to the underground warehouse.
“What happened to the other three?”
“Er not sure, Boss. They’re not responding to the code. I think they’ve gone offline.”
“What, as in shut down?”
“No, Boss, as in rogue.”
Crichton stared white-faced at the three flashing dots in front of him. One was stationed at the prison hospital, one was servicing the walk-in centre on the edge of Waterton and the last one, the last one was at the children’s hospital. So far it had registered twenty-four terminations.
“We have to cut the power to the mainframe.”
“We can’t – we’ll kill power to the whole city!”
“Don’t you get it? The machines are killing us – they’re killing children. We don’t meet their internal coding for life so they’re switching us off.”
“But, but, but, surely they can see we’re alive, they’re alive; I mean kids are alive right?”
“It’s the baseline programming, it’s taken over. Somehow the nuances of life have been lost. It’s not enough to meet the criteria, there are other factors to take into consideration. Where the hell is the goddamn kill switch?”
The door swooshed open and, silently, an N3000 entered. Then another. Their internal scans began to whirr.
Checking internal programming – checking parameters of life – checking patient data.
(c) Claire Buss, 2017
Originally published in The Quantum Soul: A Sci-Fi Roundtable Anthology amazon.co.uk/Quantum-Soul-Sci-Roundtable-Anthology-ebook/dp/B0763KCC6D
Writing anything presents the potential of judgement from others. Many writers regularly admit to constantly questioning the quality of their work. In my opinion, continuing to write, is an act of creative perseverance.
Next, in a lovely sample of the good things that happen if you do persevere, Pen to Print regular, Patsy Middleton, moves us from sci-fi to the romantic. Her piece of flash fiction shares a very different perspective of the NHS.
Although attractive, at thirty-five, Olivia had given up thinking of marriage.
Her mother had died. Now, she lived in the house on her own, rarely socialising.
To save battling crowds in the evening, Olivia decided to go shopping on the way to work.
All went well until she left the shop with a bag of shopping full to the brim. As she stepped onto the pavement, a skateboarding teenager came hurtling towards her.
Olivia tried to move out of his way but as he passed, his hand caught her. The force spun her around. Attempting to save her bag from falling on the ground she lost her balance and landed hard on the pavement.
Winded, tears came to her eyes. Her breathing juddered as she tried not to cry.
A shadow fell over her.
“Can I help you?” a deep voice asked.
“I can manage, thank you,” Olivia said, gruffly. She couldn’t bear anyone seeing her cry.
“I can see you can’t manage,” he said. Bending down, he began putting her spilt shopping in her bag.
“You don’t have to do that. Honestly, I’m fine,” she said.
“You’re not. Look at your wrist.”
Olivia could feel her left wrist stinging. When she looked, she saw it was bleeding; the blood dripping onto the pavement. A jar had fallen from her bag and had broken. She’d fallen on it, the glass cutting her.
She drew a shuddering breath. “Oh dear,” she said, unable to stop the tears.
He caught her elbows and drew her up from the ground. Then he picked up the rest of the shopping.
“I’m taking you to hospital,” he said, leading her across the road to a large black Toyota.
“Really, I can’t put you to so much trouble. Just call an ambulance.” Olivia said.
‘The hospital isn’t far, Please, get in,” he replied, opening the passenger door. He put her shopping in the boot and came back with a sizeable first aid box.
He crouched beside the car, opened the box and produced a large dressing. With gentle hands, he placed it over her wounded wrist and secured it with sticking plaster. He put the first-aid box on the back seat, closed her door got into the driver’s seat.
Thinking of all the horror stories about women abducted and their dead bodies found weeks later, she wondered if she would become another statistic. Don’t be silly, she thought.
At the hospital, he led her past triage through the waiting room, down a corridor and into a treatment room.
“Let me help you off with your coat,” he said and gently did so.
A nurse came into the room.
“Oh, Doctor Beaumont. I didn’t know you were here,” she said.
“I’ve only just arrived, Nurse Carter. And I’ve brought my patent with me. Will you please see to her wound while I fetch her a cup of tea?” he said and left.
And that was how Olivia met her gentle Doctor husband.
(c) Patsy Middleton, 2021
What a wonderful ending to a grim beginning. Remember, though, that apart from falling over there are many other ways to find potential partners! Online dating looks much safer, as long as that data behaves itself.
Don’t forget issue 9 of Write On! magazine is out now! Read your copy here.
If you’d like to see your writing appear in the Write On! ‘Showcase’, please send your short stories, poetry or novel extracts to: firstname.lastname@example.org.