Automatic Soul Machine

This was a challenge from a friend – the story had to include an ATM, birds, mist, and a scythe. It was a lot of fun, but it seems I have channeled Terry Pratchett!

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Automatic Soul Machine

A figure appeared in the thick mist that straddled the harbor like a cold, wet cloak. The figure was impossible to see when a person looked straight at it; it merely appeared fleetingly in the corner of the eye. A sudden flash of black cloth through a doorway, the imagined hooded, slumped figure seen through a dirty window. Always to the far edges of vision.

It took him years to perfect his invisibility.

But then again, he had millions of years to practice it.

Not that he thought he might need it; humans only appeared on the scene a few tens of thousands of years ago. The first few million years was spent accompanying grasshoppers and various other insects to their respective hereafters.

He found, however, that standing around waiting for a baby pterodactyl to rip a giant precambrian grasshopper’s head off in full sight only prolonged the process. Both the pterodactyl and its prey became more interested in his dark and chilly presence and forgot the serious business of gastronomic homicide they were partaking in. And it was a tedious business. Boring, to say the least. One can witness only so many anonymous murders, committed with impunity, before you want to say ‘get on with it, already, I’ve got things to do’.

So, in order to expedite the process, he became invisible. Not literally; that would involve breaking several Laws of Nature. No – he merely stuck to the edges of visibility. A tricky business, but after millions of years, it came naturally to him.

When humans finally appeared on the scene, he found that his talent for disappearing in the background came in very handy, indeed. As an eternal student of the sciences, he was keen to find out more of this new species, at first. But then he found that upon their deathbeds, or death-rocks (it was a very long time ago), humans were not so different from other animals. As a matter of fact, they were worse. Having laid eyes on him caused quite a few terminal cases to physically rise from their stony deathbeds and live for a few days more, fired with some sort of zeal that he’s never seen in the animal world; a consuming urge to warn their fellow-humans of the cloaked black figure that appeared from nowhere, beckoning them to their deaths.

It was such a drag.

It wasted so much time.

And he had appointments, millions every day. He couldn’t be bothered waiting around for a couple of days for a single case to burn itself out.

So he perfected his invisibility, and was able to clear his schedule to facilitate a few extra daily deaths.

And death is an important business. He once wasn’t able to perform his duties for a full week. That was the only time ever that he didn’t show up for work. He broke his coccyx after tripping over Cerberus’s food bowl, and landing with his bum on a piece of rock. Cerberus was his dog, and sometimes accompanied him on his outings to collect souls. He came in quite handy for his tracking abilities. But be that as it may, he broke his coccyx, and couldn’t move for an entire week. Chaos reigned amongst the living. People had heart attacks and had their hearts stopped, but they refused to die. They were very confused when he finally appeared for their appointments, a week late. Not to mention the confusion in the medical fraternity, as well as the clerical. And lots of predator animals choked on their prey who, regardless of however fearsomely they were chewed and swallowed, refused to stop kicking. The predator animals didn’t choke to death, though. They merely choked.

He looked over the boardwalk, towards the harbor. From the harbor, invisible behind the thick fog, came the mournful sound of cracked and rusted bells of the harbor buoys; the waves slapping them around sounded low and lazy, as if the mist pressed down on the ocean, flattening it. He felt a chill running up and down his considerable spine.

He pulled his cloak tight around his rib cage, and proceeded towards the bridge leading from this side of the harbor into the mist, over the canal leading to the small-craft harbor. Even though he was immortal, it would not do to let the damp enter his exposed joints. Gout is a terrible thing. And he can’t take any medication for it. Any pill he swallowed would just end up on the floor, in any case. His wasn’t a case of prevention being the best cure; no – in his situation, prevention was the only cure.

He walked over the bridge, the noise of stones and gravel being dragged along by his cloak and the tock, tock of his scythe’s handle on the cobbled bridge the only noise in the deadening mist, accompanied every now and then by the buoy-bells.

It was a perfect day for killing. It was all so… fitting.

But, he knew, it was a waste. There was no killing to be done today. The human population exploded from just over two billion a hundred years ago, to more than seven billion, today. And that, inevitably, makes for a lot of deaths, per day. He simply couldn’t handle it all by himself. So the technical guys upstairs came up with a system to streamline the process. He got a few days for killing, where the souls of the living were to be extracted from their human forms, and then one whole day for processing them. A temporary, interim form is required to house an individual soul for the few days between death and processing. And, to be honest, the system worked. His production figures went through the roof.

He did not particularly like the new system. It took away a lot of his job satisfaction. Accompanying a soul to the hereafter was an intimate affair, and even though it took a while per unit and was rather impractical, it did give him some time to converse and even make a few friends over the years, however short-lived any particular friendship might be. Communication is important, a psychiatrist he took to the gates of hell once told him.

But it’s progress. A sign of the times. And he must adapt.

On the other side of the bridge, he was met by a large flock of seagulls. They sat on the guard railing on the edge of the boardwalk, on the mouldy wooden deck of an ancient yacht moored right next to the cobbled walkway, on the cobblestones, and on the outside tables and chairs of a small dockside restaurant.

Upon seeing him, they started squawking and chirping, some hopeful, others not.

He largely ignored them and carefully stepped through the feathery throng towards the automatic teller machine installed in the old brickwork next to the restaurant.

A big, national bank’s colourful logo appeared on the machine.

He patted the top pocket of his cloak and hauled out a pitch-black plastic card. He carefully made sure that he had the card the right way around, and inserted it into the slot.

“Please key in your PIN,” said the wording on the display screen.

He slowly punched in a sequence of numbers, hearing the bony clacking of his fingers on the metal keypad.

“Would you like to

  • 1) Make a withdrawal
  • 2) Make a deposit
  • 3) Enquire about our cardless services?”

He pressed “2”.

After a minute a tiny door opened on the side of the machine. With a whooshing noise the end of a circular tube appeared, and he pulled it out by its tiny handle.

He turned around, and saw the mass of seagulls busy forming a long line in front of him. In the distance, the disorderly queue disappeared in the mist, and here and there a few seagulls were fighting for their places in the line.

He unscrewed the top of the tube, and looked inside. If he could frown, he would have. It doesn’t seem that the technical guys upstairs have any common sense or decency. He lifted his bony heel, and tapped the tube against it. A few feathers fell out and drifted away in the slight breeze. It wouldn’t do to have an occupant go on his or her final journey with bits and pieces of the last passenger still lying around. It would just be wrong.

“Right,” he said to the first seagull in line. “Come on, then.”

He held out his right index finger and with a flurry and a beating of wings the gull landed on his fleshless finger bone. The gull gripped his knuckle tightly, and drove its claw into the cartilage of his knuckle. He winced, but decided against making a fuss over it. It’s not as if he would die from infection, after all. Keeping it dignified is what its all about.

“You’re…” he said, invitingly.

“George Bannister,” cooed the seagull.

“Of course,” he said. He didn’t want to let on that he couldn’t identify them; it was a point of pride that he could remember every soul he ever took by first name, but since they installed this machine, and employed gulls as the temporary hosts for their souls, he lost track. They all looked alike.

He turned around, and punched the gull’s name into the machine.

He lifted the empty, open tube in his left hand, and brought his right hand closer. The seagull turned around on his finger and reversed into the opening in the tube.

“Will it hurt?” cooed George Bannister, and looked at him with expressionless, beady black eyes.

“Not at all,” he answered, but shrugged involuntarily. He wouldn’t know if it hurt or not, the system has only been in place for a few weeks, now. And its not as if he would get any complaints, in any case. “Enjoy your ride,” he said, and felt pretty stupid right after saying it. He screwed the lid back onto the tube, and inserted it into the circular opening in the cash machine.

He pressed a button, and waited.

George Bannister was an accountant, and died a week ago from a heart attack. He was in his early fifties, overweight, and a heavy smoker. Nice enough guy, though. But whatever his final destination would be, would be decided somewhere between here and wherever the machine controllers are.

With another whoosh, the tube disappeared behind the clear plastic door. A few clanks and rattles as the tube got sucked away, and then silence fell over the misty harbour once more. The distant, invisible buoys clanged again.

He turned around, and the next seagull in line promptly flew up and landed on his extended index finger, without so much as an invite.

“Kelly Parsons, mate,” the gull introduced himself. Its head cocked to the left and right, as if it was readying for a fight. “What’s with the holdup, then?”

“Oh, yes,” he said. “Mister Parsons. Of course.”

He inspected the bird on his finger. Kelly Parsons was a rough-and-tumble dockyard worker and small-time crook. He spent quite a bit of his formative years in juvenile detention centres, following it up with a few stints in Granbury prison. He died five days ago in a knife fight, the final stab wound in his chest merely crisscrossing the myriad of older scars on his battered skin. Not a nice chap, at all. But it’s not his job to judge. He did notice that Parsons’ feathers were considerably ruffled; it seems as if he stuck to his aggressive ways, even in death. A small drop of blood stuck to Parsons’ chest feathers. It was impossible to tell if it was his.

He pressed the ‘deposit’ button again, and in a few seconds, the tube appeared. He extracted the tube from the machine, and opened the lid. A faint whiff of incense filled his nasal cavity. He tapped the tube against his heel once again, and a single feather fell out.

“Get a move on, then,” said Kelly Parsons impatiently, and dove straight for the open tube. It never ceased to amaze him how cooperative humans can be when trapped in unfamiliar forms. They just want to get it over and done with, so that they can carry on with whatever awaits them in the afterlife.

“All right,” he said, and snapped the lid back on to the tube. Kelly Parsons really wasn’t a very pleasant sort. The less time in his company, the better.

He inserted the tube in the machine, and typed Parsons’ name on the keypad. He pressed ‘Enter’, and after a few more seconds, the whooshing built up in the machine’s innards. But there was a clanking noise, the tubes being redirected. He somehow expected it.

He didn’t turn back to the seagulls this time. He just waited with the infinite patience you learn after dealing with death for literally an eternity. He rested his hands on the keypad of the teller machine, his neck and spine sagging between his shoulder blades.

With a clunk the tube appeared again, and he opened the plastic door. Pulling the tube out, he could feel the heat emanating off it. The tube had a faint reddish glow to it. A few tendrils of smoke rose from the singed cylindrical form. He could never understand why the technical staff didn’t insert a fresh tube every time the thing returned from below. Coming from upstairs didn’t matter, the incense smell was rather pleasant. But this smell of sulphur and brimstone would put anybody off, scatter the seagulls, and thereby nullify any advances they made in time management.

He quickly opened his robe and stuck the tube in the hollow of his chest cavity. He had a spare tube stuck in there, for just such a case. He pulled the spare out, and turned towards the seagulls.

“Who’s next?” he said, and looked at the seagull at his feet.

He might be dealing in death, but let it never be said he lacked compassion.

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