Dann Lewis, Deakin University |
The Mechanist inserted the needle, injecting a coppery liquid into Dirk’s vein. Dirk’s fingers had been blown off, his thigh pierced by the razor wire hooked on a piece of hanging sheet metal. The incendiary shell, cobbled together with scrap, flint and oil, had almost decimated Dirk— he should have known better, he is a Sanitation Man and his eyes should have been keen enough to spot a cheaply designed mine.
A curious assortment of “surgeons”, the Mechanists are a crew of dapper geniuses hailing from beyond the borderlands; adorning brazen helms with slender feelers; octopoid tendrils, waving in eerily.
Their tools, a variety of piercing artillery, would have sent shivers up the spines of those not familiar with the Mechanist way— drug first, experiment thereafter. Dirk was used to this, having been through the procedure more than a hundred times. These were, of course, dark times for the borderlands.
‘Dirk,’ the Mechanist whispers, his voice sounding slightly artificial through his helm, ‘another mine? Unsure what to do with such stupidity. I should put you down. It would be cheaper.’
‘A graft,’ Dirk chokes.
‘It’ll be expensive. Do you have the ore?’
Ore is hard to come by in the borderlands, especially for a Sanitation Man. It can take up to a year for Dirk to scavenge a measly few ounces of copper ore, let alone silver or gold. But it wasn’t entirely his fault, it was the raiders; thuggish and horrible brutes, always on the lookout for prey, and Sanitation Men like himself are easy targets with their bindles of junk weighing them down.
‘I got a bit of copper. That be enough?’ Dirk grits his teeth. He can feel the liquid flowing through his veins, the pain melting slightly, only to then spike as he tries to clench a fist with no fingers.
‘What do you mean no?’
‘Copper’s not enough, Dirk,’ the Mechanist’s tendrils quiver. ‘I’ve been generous with you in the past, but—’
‘But, no? C’mon, we Sanitation Men have rights. Medical rights!’
‘Yes, and no. You understand as well as I do that these are tough times. You had rights, but that was before. We Mechanists now are just rogue medical officers. Some of the theorists still cling to their old ways, but I’m trying to make a living. Spare bone, NuBone and living metals are hard to come by. I can’t just graft them for copper. Are you sure you don’t have any silver? Or even a bronze bar?’
Dirk shies away from the Mechanist. Whilst his forge functions perfectly, bronze bars are surprisingly complex to forge— a lack of tin and copper doesn’t help either.
With his working hand, Dirk buries his fingers within a deep pocket; caked with dirt and full of rubbish, bits of springs, rusty nails and other relics from the gilded age of forge spill onto the floor. There was no bronze.
‘I’m sorry, Dirk, but I can’t accept this.’
‘Please,’ Dirk begs, trying to hold back tears.
The Mechanist turns away, fiddling with a few out of place baubles. He straightens a steel shard, only to then take a small, plastic shaving from the bowels of a corroded chest. A tendril kisses the shaving— a zap, the shaving, livid; a worm-like creature, its teeth gnashing away at the air like pest torn from its prey.
‘Perhaps I can help,’ says the Mechanist with an air of slyness, as the plastic sliver shivering in maggot precision. ‘Before living metals, we used something quite…extraordinary.
‘Arch-Mechanist Maeg called it, the Polymer Forest, or, the forest of living plastic— a peculiar forest in the east, in which she had come to the conclusion was created by our forerunners.
‘By experimenting on a few of her injured specifics, she discovered that the sap of these plastic trees could bond to human meat, thereby creating an almost symbiotic relationship between the organic and inorganic. Quite marvellous, really, don’t you think?
‘That was rhetorical, it is marvellous. Maeg’s brilliance was, however, short sighted, as these living plastics seemed to…ingest their hosts after a short while. It is not symbiotic after all, but parasitic.’
A quick and painless death, or an eventual infestation of the body. Limited, but Dirk has no other choice.
The bench is coated in a thick film of sticky bile, the Mechanist’s hospice nothing but a small garage of malaise.
There are others here, but they make no sound; comatose in either daydream or eerie reverie. Dirk lies upon the cool, chunk of iron, the bile seeping into his flesh, causing his eyelids to wilt; groggy, he falls, his hand and thigh twitching as the Mechanist injects yet another dose of coppery serum.
He feels the slicing, he feels the gnawing, but it doesn’t ache. An unusual sensation, warm, but also quite exhilarating; a feeling of renewal and rebirth. His brain doses him with a full prescription of endorphins as the Mechanist carves a new home for the parasite.
‘Mmm, what am I gonna call him?’ Dirk mumbles.
‘Excuse me,’ the Mechanist says, delving a little deeper into Dirk’s thigh muscle.
‘The bug you gonna put in me, he needs a—’
‘His name is Bud.’
‘Bud? What kind of shitty name is that?’
‘It was my brother’s name,’ the Mechanist exchanges his scalpel for a cheap, mouldy bone saw, ‘and my father’s.’
The hacking away of bone was one thing, but witnessing said bone being removed was another; the table now a gory mess as the Mechanist now drills the parasite in place.
The parasite did not enjoy being drilled into position, Dirk feeling its teeth nibbling into sinew and muscle.
‘I can feel…Bud wriggle like crazy. It is supposed to feel this way?’
‘Perhaps, I haven’t undergone such an operation before.’
‘You know what I mean smartass— ouch, what the Hell?’
The Mechanist’s tendrils erect, a small flame cleansing the wound; bathing Dirk in a manner of seconds, cauterising the flesh; fusing with the parasite. ‘All I have is a series of reports explaining how it’s supposed to feel.’
‘You said you had a brother…Bud.’
‘Aye, I did.’
‘What happened to him?’
‘Ahh! Goddamn that hurt.’
‘The anaesthesia must be wearing off,’ the Mechanist says without mercy, cradling Dirk’s fingerless paw in his steel mitts. ‘You’ll have to deal with it, I’ve already used too much on you.’
‘But this— ahh! Fine, whatever, just get it done.’
It happened only hours ago, but Dirk cannot remember any of it.
He can only see fragments. It was hot. It was muggy. It was painful. The debris. The shrapnel. His fingers flying amid the dust and sand.
One had to know the local Mechanist as a Sanitation Man, it was only logical as these accidents occur on a regular basis. Dirk has lost both of his feet, some chunks of meat and even a kidney to some rather unhospitable merchants and thugs. Sometimes people don’t take kindly to those relieving them of their junk.
‘The plastic is stable. I’ve connected it to several major arteries. It’ll heal in a day or two, but it’ll likely be raw for the next three months. Try not to loot so much, okay?’
‘I’m no looter!’ Dirk roars, bashing his fingerless hand into the bench; the stubs still bleeding. ‘It’s junk, nobody needs junk.’
‘You could never be more wrong, my friend,’ the Mechanist takes Dirk’s hand. ‘I think you may need a little junk stitched here.’
‘Huh? You can’t put more of those things on my hand?’
‘It doesn’t work that way. The parasites can heal, but they cannot regrow fingers. That’s why we use living metals, they retain—’
‘You can’t spare some—’
‘No,’ the Mechanist interrupts, ‘but, I can…craft something for you…give me all the junk you have in your pockets.’
There isn’t much, but a bunch of springs, sprockets, nails and other rusted fragments. With a newly found glove the Mechanist finds within another grimy chest, he begins to forge fingers; oddly shaped and malformed with his flame.
The fingers are vulture-like, menacing and crude; it takes only a few minutes for the Mechanist to hammer the glove, glazing it again with his fiery breath and fitting it onto Dirk’s mutilated hand.
‘A prosthesis fit for a Sanitation Man.’
‘Are you bloody kidding— errr, ahh! I can’t work with this mangled claw.’
‘Patience,’ the Mechanist plucks a needle and thread from his coat, ‘a bit of sewing.’
The Mechanist rinses the needle in a jar of antiseptic, only to further cleanse it with another dose of fire. He dips the point into a small ointment canister full of liquid plastic.
‘You asked about my brother,’ the Mechanist begins sewing, Dirk cringing; his teeth sounding like the grinding of gears. ‘I couldn’t save him. I tried my hardest, but alas, I failed. Living metals didn’t help; I even went so far as to use cobalt and platinum ore to mend his wounds. He died in my arms, a distorted corpse in my hands.
‘My father was furious, of course. Bud was his favourite. He never said it aloud. He was a murderer…well soldier. I did try my hardest, but perhaps there was something inside me that wanted to falter; something inside that wanted me to kill my brother. I guess I’ll never know now. What do you think, Bu— Dirk?’
Dirk doesn’t answer, teeth still clenched tightly with each prick and stitch. Did he say—
‘I couldn’t bear to give up. I attempted living plastics, the very same shard in fact.’ The Mechanist finishes a few minutes later, the glove twitching with what appears to be excitement. ‘I forgot to mention, that unlike living metals, plastics retain memory; both muscle and cognitive memory. Thoughts, emotions, anger, distress— try to move your fingers.’
A few irritable movements, but nothing major. ‘It’s hard. It feels— did you say memory? Will that mean I’ll remember someone else’s thoughts?’
‘You can, just try harder,’ the Mechanist takes off his helm, revealing a pallid mass of flesh; bulbous and gut-churning— the price one pays for the powers of mechanism.
Another few irritable movements.
‘You need practice. Stay here the night and continue, okay?’
Dirk nods. ‘You didn’t answer my question. I don’t want to remember, or think, or feel like anyone else. I like me!’
‘Dirk, I’m sorry, truly,’ the Mechanist sighs, clasping Dirk’s fleshy hand while sipping whiskey with the other, ‘you wanted to live, yes?’
Dirk nods once more.
‘Your meat will continue to exist, but your consciousness will…shift. Maeg discovered that those of weaker constitution often sink into dream; the stronger consciousness flourishing through the host body. It’ll be like watching yourself move, speak and feel.
‘It was serendipitous that you— my father will finally be proud of my work…of me.’
‘But, but—’ Dirk grapples the Mechanist’s gauntlet, only to be swayed by the Mechanist’s pawing.
‘Come back soon, brother.’
About The Mechanists Infirmary
I am concerned with the notion of the organic and inorganic; the fusion and symbiosis of meat and the metal in most, if not all, my work. The first Dalek serial, ‘The Daleks’ (1963-1964) is Doctor Who’s the first attempt at utilising similar themes and I have always been fascinated with the Whovian cyber-theory and the dehumanisation of the Dalek, reducing their Nazi ethos as something inorganic. Infirmary involves a wholly mechanical deviation, and it presents a culture bordering on revolution and regression, caught between synthetic saviours and scrapyards and a populous requiring grisly, almost macabre technologies to survive.
It was the portrayal of the ‘Dalek’ that stimulated further ideas about ‘organic failure’, and the organic requiring the synthetic to sustain itself. This idea took shape in Infirmary, where I allude to the inhabitants of a dying world, the final remnants of a distant Earth losing their meaty materiality and instincts. The Daleks would find no resistance in Infirmary, only acceptance of the machine and the loss of the human.
A PhD candidate, Dann Lewis writes poetry, prose and fiction specialising in blending speculative/science fiction and the Gothic genre. His thesis is currently titled Neon Pynk and it examines the culture of the cyberpunk genre as both a product of science fiction and Gothic anxieties.