We were both beckoned to the office, but I had nothing to do with it. I would explain this to Sávio, I decided, as I followed him inside. For once, I would be honest. Sinclair left the door open behind us. We sat in the hard chairs Sávio indicated with a soft wave. I did not look at Sinclair as he crossed his legs beside me. I watched Sávio roost in his big swivel chair. I took out words like stones and turned them over. But before I could arrange them, Sávio turned his monitor to face use, and there I was in the centre of the frame.
Sinclair did not move.
I had time, while Sávio clicked through the next dozen or so images, to consider my defence. Shot after shot of Sinclair’s goofball expression, made doubly clownish by the blank comparison of a comatose resident. It was an accident, a coincidence, I’d argue; in most of the photos I was in the background; anyone could see that I was working.
None of this would help Sinclair.
Nor was it entirely true. Now and then I was centred, the only clear thing in a blur. I’m sure it was auto-focus, an accident of angles and light. On one such image, Sávio stopped clicking and sat back in his chair, which tilted very slightly. I looked carefully at my work face, the regulation expression of good humour and tolerance I had learned to wear on the ward rendered monstrous by the oversize desktop screen. I’d thought that little half-kind smile made me look professional. In context, maybe it did.
I could see how it might look to Sávio.
After a pause that left me wondering if he had rehearsed this, Sávio clicked one more frame. In the final photo, the resident was wearing Sinclair’s sunglasses. Sinclair had tucked the arms of the glasses in between the electrodes; they didn’t sit straight. His own face was blurry in the foreground, the lips askew. He could have been pretending to drool. Behind them, I was relatively well defined but also bug-eyed, listing. To someone who didn’t know that I was suffering from chronic sleep deprivation, I might look drunk.
To keep from looking at Sinclair, I looked at the framed Matrix poster Sávio had hanging behind his desk. It wasn’t clear if he was being ironic or if he was just a fan. He was the right age for the latter, and to be honest I wasn’t sure he had a sense of humour. He was a soft man, our supervisor, with the residual kindness of his nursing years, but he never laughed; our antics pained him. Now his lips were pursed in matronly disappointment.
For a while, none of us said anything.
When I glanced over, Sinclair was staring at the wall beside him. He might have been blushing, or thinking about food. It was never easy to tell. I waited a few seconds more, but he still wasn’t talking.
‘What do you two have to say for yourselves,’ Sávio asked, his mournful eyes directed at me.
‘We were just letting off steam,’ I said. I felt Sinclair’s body loose its tension. ‘A bit of a laugh, you know. Good for morale.’ I showed Sávio my teeth, but just the tips. I didn’t want to frighten him.
I hoped our supervisor remembered he had encouraged this in a team meeting. I should point out that, although Sinclair made me look serious, I am not a humourless person. The previous week I had taken Sinclair’s sandwich, stuffed it into a rubber glove, and put it back in the paper bag in the fridge. The glove showed up in my locker later, giving me the finger. We pulled innocent pranks like that all the time. It was good for morale. The job was dull, it got depressing if you thought about what you were doing. Unlike regular aged care, the residents gave no feedback save the graphs and numbers on their individual displays. We had to cheer each other along, and that was, I believed, part of why Sávio kept Sinclair on the roster.
Maybe he just felt sorry for him.
‘Are we fired?’
Sinclair sounded almost cheerful. He hated this job, or so he was always saying. I didn’t love it any more than he did, but I was in a lot more debt, and also more realistic about the availability of other opportunities. Sávio did one of his trademark big sighs that meant we were going to get a lecture. I sat back and folded my hands in my lap, put on my penitent expression.
‘As you well know,’ he began, ‘the research shows that no matter how unresponsive they seem, our residents can pick up on what’s happening around them.’
This was bullshit. The residents were out of it, deep in their dream-states; they were as good as dead already. If they had reacted to anything we did, it would have showed up on the monitors, and Sávio would have known about it hours ago. Instead, he’d caught Sinclair deviating from procedure on his 11 am review of the CCTV, and confiscated his phone.
I pretended to listen, nodding occasionally. I wasn’t worried. You don’t lecture employees unless you mean to keep them, just like you don’t train animals you’re about to eat. I focused on Keanu’s one firm pectoral until it appeared to jiggle. I had not slept well in months and was used to seeing things move that weren’t supposed to. Maybe that had something to do with the lapse of judgement regarding the photos. I mean, I had nothing to do with it, but I should have been keeping an eye on Sinclair.
When I tuned back in, Sávio was trying to explain the bystander effect. It wasn’t his fault if he thought we were idiots; he was working from the available data, and I had left my sociology degree off my CV because I didn’t want to seem overqualified. Sinclair … Sinclair didn’t have a problem with overqualification. We’d finished our aged care certificates at the same time, but he’d started two years before I did. He was smart and everything, but I was the adult in the relationship.
The course we did was marketed as a career pathway, and the industry was growing, but it was surprisingly hard to find work. The system was increasingly divided between Facilities like ours and fancy resort-style places that were called Institutes or Centres of Excellence. The latter were much stricter about vetting prospective employees. They would have approved of the sociology degree, but not the debts I accrued while acquiring it. That’s before they even got to my unstable work history, my family background. Look, I probably could have talked my way into an entry-level position without Sinclair. That doesn’t matter. I didn’t want to have to move again just to watch a bunch of old people die, even if it was somewhere tropical.
‘Don’t underestimate the privilege of being in service here,’ Sávio was saying. His eyes were moist little beads; he reached for the gold cross I knew was hidden under his shirt. ‘It’s an extraordinary opportunity, a gift, to protect and nurture these people through their final weeks of life. You owe them some dignity.’ He looked down at his hands, spread them palm-down. I looked at Sinclair.
Sinclair was not quite controlling an impulse to roll his eyes. A little smirk had begun to make an appearance, the kind that might prove to be infectious. I looked away.
Sávio didn’t notice the smirk. Sávio was engrossed in his TED talk. He was up to the part where he listed abstract nouns: dignity, respect, etcetera. Whatever those words meant, they didn’t describe what we were doing all day.
What we were doing was data maintenance. We managed the links, protected the uploads, kept the generators alive. In the resorts, people might have been nurtured—pampered, from what I heard—but this was not a place that prioritised end-user benefits. We worked for the abattoir, not the pigs.
Sávio let out what I hoped would be his concluding sigh. ‘Will you try to remember they are people,’ he said, clasping his hands together. I nodded, clasped mine too, and echoed his exhale. If you were careful, gestural mimicry could help develop a collaborative mindset.
‘Before you leave today, sweep out the storeroom?’
Sávio had a habit of making questions sound like statements and vice versa. I nodded, even if Sinclair didn’t. Maybe we’d mock this tendency later, but for now Sinclair simply reached out one pale hand, slid his phone across the desk towards him, wiped it against the leg of his uniform, and deleted the images.
‘He fell for it,’ Sinclair said, when we returned to duty. I looked down the row of flashing red lights. We had missed lunch and the hour of eliminations that came after it, popular even among the unconscious. I headed for the closest steel caddy and yanked out fresh gloves for both of us.
‘Fell for what?’ I asked, only vaguely interested.
Sinclair dropped his voice to a whisper, narrowed his eyes. ‘Tell you later,’ he said, and went to unhook the next bag. It was impossible to tell if he was joking.
There are some things you should know about Sinclair. First, do not drink with him. Second, Sinclair believes that the Facility is run by aliens. While I admit this is a possibility, I am not convinced it’s likely, or even necessary. It has always seemed like a human thing to me: the harvesting, the finicky contractual agree-ments, the insincerity. The shitty tech. An alien civilisation capable of colonising Earth would almost certainly have better equipment. Even if they were here, I argued, they’d be running an Institute or a Centre of Excellence, possibly in the Whitsundays. I have tried to explain Occam’s razor to Sinclair numerous times, but he’s like a dementia patient; if you want to get him to do something, you have to go along with whatever reality he’s using that day.
I ignored his conspiratorial looks as we checked electrodes and changed catheter bags. I avoided standing too close in case he tried to whisper things. Jokes or not, I didn’t have time. When we finished the round, we went back to the top of the row and started to roll the residents. They got turned once every three days, and today was Row B’s turn. We had a system worked out between the two of us, so we got through it quickly. I lifted shoulders, caught hips, glanced at their charts. It was easier here than in a real ward; the layout was open-plan, so there weren’t many obstacles. Plus, no-one was in a position to complain.
We were rolling our last old lady when the shift buzzer went. I paused, one hipbone trembling in my hand. She felt no heavier than a bag of flour. The trembling was mine, I guess. As we straightened her out, I looked across at her monitor. Everything was well within normal, but her graph seemed odd to me, its calm too calm, its lines too average to be human. I might have mentioned this kind of thing to Sinclair, but he was already halfway to the staff room. I pulled off my gloves and followed him.
The ward was always quiet when we stopped moving, especially after the eight pm dose. I often had the sense at the end of the day that all the bodies in the room were joined together by more than the network that extracted their deepest preferences. That they were one big organism, breathing in and out together, having the same dream. This idea usually soothed me, made me feel quiet inside. But after our trouble, the ward’s calm didn’t feel right. The links felt tenuous, vulnerable to any slight disturbance, like my own shitty version of sleep.
In the tiny staff room, Sinclair swiped the speakers with his phone. The sterile linoleum space filled with some French woman’s feelings. He had surprisingly eclectic tastes. While she complained of peine d’amour, I went to my locker to change. When I reappeared in my street clothes, Sinclair was still standing there, his eyes moist. The phone in his hand looked different.
‘Coming?’ I lifted my car keys.
‘It’s Thursday,’ Sinclair said, shutting down the music. ‘We can’t talk here anyway.’
On Thursdays Sinclair caught the train across town to see a psychologist. I think his parents must have paid for it. We didn’t get much medical in our package.
‘What do you mean?’ I asked, with studied inflection.
He didn’t even crack a smile. I followed him out, lifting a hand to greet the night shift, Joy, on her way in. Sinclair paused near my car and, when I unlocked it, he climbed into the passenger seat beside me.
‘Aren’t you going to Kensington?’ I asked.
He turned the radio on, hitting the tuner until he found static. And then he passed me his second phone.
These photos were all in perfect focus. I wasn’t in any of them, and neither was Sinclair. They were pictures of the Facility: of the rows of grim beds, the monitors, the huge servers with their corporate logo. There were images of the residents lying expressionless, hooked up to the network, their thoughts and dreams streaming into vast vats of data somewhere, all of it distilled to calibrate system levels of calm equanimity. The uniformity, the flatness, the anonymised forms, all glimmered into horrifying clarity. Of course they were not at peace.
The first set had been a decoy for the CCTV, he explained. He was going to post these online. Blow the whistle. The families would find out. There would be an outcry. The labs would be shut down. The company would have to admit it. His voice was low and fast and earnest.
‘Admit what?’ I asked, remembering to play along.
‘You know,’ he said, and tinkered with the radio.
‘But Sinclair,’ I said, smiling patiently, ‘we’d lose our jobs.’
I heard myself in that collective pronoun, and I saw at once what lay behind it: the assumption that I would involve myself, corroborate his story, be his witness. Even Sinclair knew that no-one would believe a guy like Sinclair.
I could have just said no. It would have taken time to explain. I might have talked him out of it. It would have taken energy I didn’t have. My body ached for sleep. All I wanted was to be at home, in my own bed, finally at rest.
‘You’ll miss your appointment,’ I said. ‘Let’s talk about this tomorrow.’
I started the engine. He gave me his best Sinclair grin and got out of my car.
I pretended I didn’t see him wave goodbye in the rear-view mirror. My stuff was all over the back seat in a mess of boxes, so there was plenty to hide behind. I watched him walk towards the station, disappear behind a corner, with a nagging feeling in my chest. I was reversing when I realised what it was. We were supposed to clean out the storeroom. I got out my phone to text him, but then I thought of his two screens lying side by side in his pocket and let my thumb go soft. I went back inside alone.
‘Forget something?’ Joy looked up from her row of monitors. I saw a second-hand paperback propped against the keyboard, shook my head.
‘Sávio’s making me clean out the storeroom,’ I said, erasing Sinclair.
‘Arsehole,’ said Joy, glancing at the corridor.
Night shift was solo; not much happened. Given that I didn’t sleep anyway, I’d asked Joy if she wanted to switch, but she had another job in a hardware store during the day. It wouldn’t have worked, anyway. I had to keep an eye on Sinclair.
I shrugged, got in behind her, took a dustpan and some fresh gloves from the cupboard, and walked silently between the residents to the other end. In the dimness—circadian cycles helped with their brainwaves—I navigated my way by the monitors which observed the eternal daytime of data aggregation. I couldn’t unsee Sinclair’s photos. It wasn’t just this place, either. It was all the Facilities, all the Institutes and Centres of Excellence, joined together into one vast operation. When I made it to the storeroom, I was breathing fast. My eyes were blurring. I closed the door behind me, placed the dustpan and gloves on a high shelf, and lay down on the floor.
I woke up in the dark. The app that monitored my sleep popped up and showed me how I’d done. Eight hours solid. I wondered at the graph’s neat curves of light and deep. I have never felt more sane than I did at that moment. It was only four am but I switched the light on. The storeroom was still a mess, but I didn’t care. It was Sinclair’s fault, really. Sávio would understand.
I opened the door a chink. Joy was asleep at her desk in the grey light. I made a lame effort to tidy a few things, then put the dustpan and brush away. I walked around the ward for a little while, listening to the slow breathing of the residents and the quiet hum of the machines. Was it because I was in here that I had slept so well? It was getting harder and harder to relax out there, but in here, there was no need to be so alert all the time. You were part of something else; you were free.
For once I looked at the residents’ faces, not their monitors. They were not beautiful, even for old people. These were the ones who couldn’t afford to go to the upscale places. These were people like Sinclair. People who didn’t have anything to put away for the future. Pragmatists who signed up because it solved several problems at once. I wasn’t putting anything away for the future, either; when the time came, I would probably scroll through the Terms of Service without reading them and take the cheapest option too.
And maybe it would be nice to sleep through the last few months like this. Not to be alone at the end. To still be of use. The monitors did their little jagged dances, making all those secret signs; the residents didn’t have to interpret them. Computers figured it out, pumped them with their micro-stimuli, extracted information from what was left of their minds, decided, via market mechanisms, what it might all be worth, and sold the packets off. It was neater than living.
Joy was stirring. I took my phone out. Sinclair hadn’t messaged me, but he should be here in an hour. I went into the staff room, closed the door behind me. Changed back into my uniform. Made a pot of coffee. Thought silently about what I had decided.
‘Well, well,’ said Sávio. ‘That storeroom looks great?’ I knew he hadn’t checked. I studied him, seeing him more clearly with my eight-hours-rested eyes. He was not a bad supervisor, really. He had always considered my feelings.
Sávio pulled up a chair. ‘He’s not in yet, I take it,’ he said. He reached out a hand, beckoning the pot of coffee. I pushed it across the table.
‘You know, I really value the work that you do?’ he said, pouring himself a cup.
‘Thanks,’ I said. ‘I like working here.’
He turned his mug. ‘We need people like you in the Facility. People who keep an eye on things. I don’t want you to feel like you don’t have options?’
The phone on the table in front of me lit up with a message. I flipped it over.
‘Options,’ I prompted.
‘Options to progress,’ he said. He leaned back in his chair, glanced at the door and then his watch.
I leaned back in my chair, too.
‘C12 went in the night,’ said Sávio.
‘He did?’ I hadn’t noticed the empty bed. He must have been moved while I was sleeping. Sávio must have been up all night. He pushed a lock of hair from his forehead. His flecks of grey were forming streaks.
‘I’ll be dealing with the disposal this morning. But maybe you could prepare a place?’
I looked up, surprised. Intakes were above my pay grade. Sávio seemed genuine, so I smiled. ‘Sure,’ I said. ‘Love to.’
He sighed, and I saw he wasn’t finished. I thought another speech was coming, but for a long minute he didn’t say anything. As if to fill the advertising space, my brain played back a memory of something the area manager, Meera, had said in the induction. She had said that facilities like ours began with prisons. The data hadn’t scaled to the general population too well; the reactions had been too concentrated in some areas. They’d needed a cross-section of types. She said that it just made sense to cover the shortfall in aged care. And she suggested it wouldn’t be long before they extended it out again. I thought at the time she meant the terminally ill. People who couldn’t pay for palliative care, that sort of thing. I meant to ask. But she’d tapped through her presentation without pause, smiling constantly. Whenever she turned, Sinclair had bounced reflected sunlight off the back of her head with his phone. I hadn’t wanted to draw attention.
Sávio stood, took a folder from a pile, and slid it towards me. ‘It’s the kindest thing to do, in the circumstances,’ he said. ‘For all of us.’ He spread his hands out then, palms up, making a gesture of supplication or surrender or an offering. It made me think of Morpheus with his little gel caps.
I hesitated, that nagging feeling tugging gently at the centre of my chest. He meant all of us: the organisation, the system itself. The whole integrated diffusion of responsibility. I took the file, which had been stamped with Intake. When I opened it, a name was written at the top of the first page. I closed it quickly. Sávio nodded, satisfied, and curled his hands into fists.
‘Thank you for keeping an eye on Sinclair,’ he said.
Jennifer Mills’ latest novel, Dyschronia, is published by Picador. She is also the author of the novels Gone and The Diamond Anchor and the short-story collection The Rest is Weight. In 2014 she received the Barbara Hanrahan Fellowship from the Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature. Mills lives in South Australia.