Tony sat in his pod. He was warm and snug, listening to the horse racing. He had no idea if it was live, or even if it took place in the real world anymore, but the sound of the horse’s hooves thundering down the furlong was reassuring.
He shifted in his chair; it rippled beneath him, altering its pressure every few minutes. A mug of sweet tea appeared from a dispenser close to his right hand, accompanied by a digestive biscuit. In his little capsule all of Tony’s needs were taken care of. He hadn’t seen another living soul for years. That was despite Tony knowing he was surrounded by at least fifty other ageing men, meandering towards death in NewWay Care Facility.
A screen on Tony’s left hand side started to beep frantically. He ignored it. He played this game with the machine every day; exerting a little bit of curmudgeonly independence. It used to madden Jennifer, his late wife, this cunning ability to ignore her calls and continue with whatever he was doing. It became one of their jokes. Ignoring this incessant computer carer, if only for a few minutes, made him feel like she was there nagging him again. He’d give anything for that.
After a few minutes Tony finally gave in and placed his arm in the cuff. Blood pressure, heart rate and oxygenation stats appeared on the screen, accompanied by a smiley face. Then his pills were dispensed. The machine waited eagerly for him to take them and swallow them, before clicking on to standby once again.
When Tony had first seen the pods he’d been amazed by their ingenuity. Gone were concerns about overcrowded residential homes, and a shortage of carers. Instead, these one man spaceships were able to cater for his every need. Food and medication, carefully prepared to avoid allergens and meet nutritional needs, was conveyor belted into the site and delivered to each pod. Exercise was carried out through mini electric shocks to his muscles, ensuring he remained toned and fit, probably more so than when he came here. A touch screen computer gave him access to Ebooks, TV, music, the internet and social networking sites. Temperature regulation did away with the need for clothes and bedding, medication meant his hair and nails no longer grew, and twice daily he was sprayed with disinfectant to keep him clean. A button on his chair opened a hole, into which he could excrete; the waste carried away to a processing site. Even medical emergencies could be responded to electronically. Defibrillators were fitted as standard to every pod.
Yes, there were times when Tony was lonely. He missed the sound of another human voice; especially Jennifer’s. But he’d been just as lonely in his flat. The only care he’d received there was 15 minute domiciliary visits morning and evening; the ever changing carers man-handling him in and out of bed, then setting him up in front of the TV. One time they’d forgotten to come and he’d laid there stranded having morbid thoughts involving Mr Tibbles, his moth eaten cat, finding an alternative food source.
It was when Mr Tibbles shuffled off this mortal coil that Tony decided he couldn’t stand it anymore. The benefits of having his own space and independence were quickly starting to weigh much less in the balance than having all of his needs met. So he’d sold all his possessions, now useless, and cashed in everything to move into his little pod, nicknamed sputnik in his head.
When the horse racing finished, the lights dimmed for his afternoon nap. The chair reclined backwards and the pod gently rocked as if trying to get a baby to sleep. Initially this had made him feel sea sick. He’d flipped urgently through the electronic pages of the manual in a bid to turn it off. However after several attempts at pressing buttons and issuing voice commands, he’d achieved nothing. Eventually he gave up. Over time he had become used to it, and now, lying there, it didn’t take him long to nod off. He no longer had worries bombarding his sleep or a busy brain from a hectic day. Instead, he lay in his darkened shell dreaming of his previous life.
When Tony woke up his pod was still dark. He felt disorientated. Generally, he woke up when the lights came on and his chair returned to a seated position, like in an aeroplane. But here he was still lying down, eyes blinking in the bottom of the capsule. He wondered if it was still nap time and lay there hopefully, but slowly it dawned on him that something was wrong. For one thing the pod wasn’t rocking and he was getting colder and colder.
He started pressing buttons, then jabbing them more frantically. The pod remained stubbornly unresponsive. He was getting close to kicking the thing when eventually the computer lit up. It started whirring as if rebooting. He relaxed and began contemplating what he was going to watch next, a quiz show that was bound to have him yelling at the TV, or a crime drama.
His relief was short lived. The whirring was soon replaced by a message on the screen:
Insufficient funds – payment required immediately.
Tony stared at the flashing words. Money was a distant memory. He had never been a rich man, but he’d thought his savings would see him out. Clearly his calculations were wrong. Lying on the still and flaccid chair he tried not to panic but he was already gasping for breath and he desperately needed to pee. He had spent years in this pod, yet he had no idea how to contact anyone if he needed them, or even how to get out of it.
Hoping there’d be an emergency button like they used to have in lifts, he looked all around him. He longed for a friendly human voice to give him reassurance and tell him they’d “get him out of there in a jiffy”, but there was nothing and tapping the screen just made the message flash faster. Giving up on dignity he started to shout and bang on the pod. He waited, but there was no response. He tried again and was met with silence . His heart pounded. When the time came he’d signed up to a nice morphine fuelled death, not one from lack of food and oxygen, or one that involved him lying in his own faeces. He kicked the computer screen. Apart from hurting his bunion nothing happened.
Just as he was about to give up, Tony noticed a little button next to the door hatch. In the gloom of the pod he’d missed it. He almost giggled at its absurdity. He leant over and pressed it. Slowly the door slid open.
Tony climbed unsteadily up on to his hands and knees and peered out of the hatch. When he’d moved into the pod, everything had looked shiny and new. The place had smelled fresh and airy. Now it looked like an abandoned warehouse. Rust covered the conveyor belts leading to each capsule. The pods themselves were covered with grime and dust. The whole place smelt foul.
At 87, Tony was no longer a nimble man and despite increased muscle tone due to the ministrations of the electro-exerciser, it took him some time to haul himself out. Suddenly he was very aware of his nakedness. He inched passed the pods. There were no signs of life, despite the grinding of the conveyor belts surrounding him. Yet, he was sure that in each capsule there was another man, with money still left, enjoying reruns of the Chase or Midsummer Murder just as he had planned.
Tony focussed on his immediate needs. The first was to have a pee. One of the joys of the pods was that he hadn’t had to hobble to the bathroom every time his shrunken bladder decided it was time. That single press of a button had been a joy. He walked unsteadily, passing row upon row of capsules, until he reached the door, cautiously opened it and looked out. He was met by a long empty corridor, a buzzing florescent light flashing incessantly, and no sign of a toilet.
Close to wetting himself, Tony considered peeing against the wall, but the idea of his ammonia stink adding to the musty smell of the room felt wrong and disrespectful to the other men dozing in front of their televisions. He shuffled further out into the corridor in the hopes of seeing something useful, but there was nothing, not even a pot to piss in. The only thing he could think to do was to ask one of his roommates if he could use their waste disposal system – just for a second.
He retraced his steps and stumbled back into the vast room. He couldn’t get over how deserted it looked. When he’d been lying in his pod he’d pictured a small army of service bots maintaining everything, overseen by a team of doctors and nurses. Maybe everything was done remotely now?
Tony staggered over to the first pod. Things were getting desperate. His bladder felt like it was about to explode. Feeling faintly ridiculous, he knocked on the hatch; quietly at first and then more vigorously. He was met by stony silence. He wondered if the person inside could hear him, or whether like him they had no idea how to open the capsule. After counting to 30 in his head, he tried again, but there was still nothing.
The last thing he wanted to do was barge in on another old guy. It might give him a heart attack. However, he could see no other option. Being found wandering around naked was one thing. Doing it with urine trickling down his leg was quite another. Tony pressed the hatch open button.
With a grinding sound, the door slowly opened on its rusty hydraulics. Before he could look inside, the stench hit him; the sweet smell of rot and decay. He stumbled backwards and began to gag violently. As he reeled, he nearly tripped over the next pod in line. He didn’t have to look to know what was inside the capsule.
Filled with fear, Tony lurched between pods.
With the same grinding sound, the hatches slowly opened.
The smell filled the room.
He was completely alone.
CLARE READ is reasonably new to writing. Two years ago she joined Marvellous Writers, a community writing group, and hasn’t looked back. She particularly enjoys writing about people that others might consider as underdogs and really likes to explore the internal world of her characters. In the non fictional world, Clare works in the NHS with people with a Learning Disability.