Chapter 1 of The Machine Society

Dean Rogers snapped awake, his heart beating hard, a stabbing pain in his stomach. With his eyes wide, he listened, dreading he’d missed the siren.

There was only silence.

Sighing, he pulled up the thin sheet and fidgeted, trying to relax his aching body on the hard mattress. Brilliant sunshine streamed in through the uncovered window. He lay on his back, arm across his eyes, and slipped back into his dream, the recurring dream, the one at his grandma’s house, in the back garden, childhood days when the sunshine was softer…

Then came the siren, wailing like a banshee. He shot out of bed. With two quick strides he was at the sink in the corner, checking both taps were fully turned on, then grabbing two plastic cups from the glass shelf. A cup in each hand, he stood, tense, waiting; aware of a sharp dryness in his mouth, the stultifying heat in the room, and the sweat on his naked body. He avoided looking in the mirror. He hated the dark rings under his eyes: he used to try and cover them using a cosmetic stick – male grooming – back when such things could be bought. Looking down at his thin body, he saw his stomach was flat; funny to think he’d once tried to get this effect through tortuous hours at the gym; now he’d achieved the same thing through involuntary adherence to the government’s ‘Watch your Health’ campaign, which roughly translated as almost bare supermarket shelves.

A grinding, metallic clunk came from somewhere in the pipes behind the walls, winning back his full attention. The left tap spluttered. Water fizzed and spat out: a good clarity today. He waited for the first cup to almost fill up then, without missing a drop, switched cups. While the second cup filled, he emptied the contents of the first into a bucket underneath the sink. The water kept flowing. He jiggled his feet, suddenly desperate for a piss. When the second cup filled up, he switched again. Three, four, five cups… half-way through the eleventh, the water stopped abruptly with an airy splurt. He continued watching the tap, willing it to come back to life, but no more came. Not a bad day – nearly two litres.

At some point the siren had stopped. After emptying the last half-filled cup into the bucket, he stood in the silence, trying to ignore the sharp pain in his bladder. Then, with one last look at the taps, he dashed over to the toilet in the opposite corner of the room. He sat down to piss, something he’d started doing recently, he didn’t know why, maybe because sitting down felt like resting. He looked around his tiny flat – bed, chair, sink, toilet. It was small, but he had his own space. At least his job covered the rent so he didn’t have to doss down in those dormitories on the outskirts of the city, close to the Security Wall. If you were in one of those dormitories and you lost your job, there would be nowhere else to go, just over the Wall, never to be seen again. He felt the dryness in his mouth and tried to ignore it; he would save his own water for later. Best to wait until he got to work, then he could drink their water. Even so, maybe a little sip wouldn’t hurt? But that would be giving in: without self-control what have you got?

He ought to get going soon, he realised. Work didn’t start for over an hour, and most days the journey took only twenty minutes, but the bus route was always changing, and if he was late it would be instant dismissal. He grabbed his overalls off the chair and put them on, sniffing quickly under each arm and grimacing. Snorting, he quoted out loud: ‘We must rid ourselves of the notion that humanity is an error. It is not. Even so, it is for each of us to work out what his life is for.’ He loved that book, The Machine Society by Erich Vinty. He’d read it maybe fifteen years ago – before the Security Wall went up. The militant atheists had accused Vinty of being a ‘religionist’ and called for the death penalty. The last he’d heard, Vinty had been held in detention for his own safety and then he’d suffered a mental collapse.

He sighed. Always alone: at home, at work. He thought about her again. Kneeling down, he reached under his bed and found the picture frame. Sitting on the floor with his back to the wall, he looked at the happy couple in the photograph. With his finger he traced around her face. They would have gone mad sharing a room like this. Why did he torture himself? Why didn’t he throw the picture away? Their final conversation still haunted him.

‘Working for who?’ he’d yelled. ‘I don’t believe this. Last week you were agreeing with me that Krane Media are peddlers of lies and propaganda. Why are you being so two-faced?’

‘Forget it,’ Jane shouted, her eyes wet. ‘You’re right. I have sold out. But we need money, don’t we? Your job hardly keeps us in the lap of luxury.’

That hurt. He’d spoken out on behalf of a bullied colleague at the school where he taught and got sacked for his trouble, along with his colleague. A job as a shop storeroom attendant in the Better Life Complex was the only work he could find. So what if it didn’t pay well, at least it was a job. He’d started thinking about having a family and he didn’t want Jane to work – then she’d announced she’d taken a job as a deputy assistant producer with Krane.

‘What happened to your principles?’ he said. ‘And what happened to talking these things through? Isn’t that what a marriage is about?’

‘Oh, like the discussion we had before you got yourself sacked?’ Jane pointed at her husband. ‘You know, you talk about equal rights and all that, but deep down you’re no different to other men. You’re jealous because I’ll be earning more than you.’ Her gaze swept across the lounge as though she didn’t recognise it. ‘All your socialist beliefs aren’t going to pay the bills. I’d rather be with a regular bloke who treats me like an equal than a right-on liberal who treats me like a shiz.’

‘Frack you!’ He’d spat out the words, shocked by the sound of his own venom. He’d never spoken to her like that before. She stared at him in disbelief, grabbed her bag and ran out of the house. That was the last time he saw her.

Dean put the photo back under the bed.

‘Fracking work!’ he said. Standing up, he checked in his pocket for his ID-card, then hurried out the door.

Order The Machine Society at Amazon or Waterstones.