Feature J. Titus Stupfel

Empathy in the Machine by J. Titus Stupfel 0

Nurse Conoway breathed in deep. It was that time again. Her whole body tingling with anticipation as she rounded the last corner. This was her third time this week. Already, she could sense how it would feel. She savored the sensation of the cool metal against her skin as she pushed open the door to Ward 5.  She had worked in there for almost two years now, but she didn’t think that she would ever really get used to the sensation. That was okay with her. It made you feel… alive.

The priest was there, just as with the last time. He tilted his head to her in a gesture of respect. The patient’s entire family was gathered around him. They knew it was time. Smiling, the old, white-haired man on the bed looked up at her. There was none of the regret in his eyes that she had feared constantly in the early days. He was ready. With a smile to the man on the bed, she glanced around the room to see if there was anyone else there willing to undergo the procedure with her. But as her gaze fell over the small gathering, they all averted their eyes, one by one, each one now madly fixating on something else, anything other than her or the old man in the bed.

No matter, she had flown solo before. Not since her early days of diagnosing minor aches and pains by hard-linking with patient’s central nervous systems, feeling what they felt, but she was confident that she could handle it on her own. And it was, after all, still a fairly new procedure. It was just a shame that none of the family members wanted to participate. But it seemed that the old man had made peace with that.

Really, she shouldn’t have cared either way. She was just there to oversee the smooth operation of the now common-place procedure by linking up with the patient to ensure that their passage was as painless and euphoric as possible. If anything went wrong, or the patient were to suddenly change their mind before the PONR (point of no return), she was to terminate the procedure.

She lay down on the cold-metal surface of the bio-bed adjacent the the old man. She adjusted her head-set so that it was most comfortable and with a thought attuned her cranial receiver to the appropriate frequency. A softly-increasing hum. A light clicked on in the machine mounted over their heads as wires began to spool and the priest’s voice echoed across the room as he began to read the man his last rights.

How sterile this room, she thought. How cavernous and empty it must seem to the unaccustomed observer. But then, that’s not how he (or she, for that matter) would soon experience it, not at all. This was, after all, all for his benefit, was it not? Well, that and the family’s, yes, always the family’s. Indeed, while he may, by definition, only experience it once, if a success, his death would likely be experienced by various close relatives at least a dozen times over at his funeral or, barring that, many years from now while one of them were on their own death bed. Or at least, that’s how it was marketed.

At any rate, she couldn’t loose her concentration, even at the climax- if she did, and if he experienced the least bit of pain in his final moments and she didn’t abort to make sure it could be redone right, or, worse yet, if he actually went ahead and died in pain (or in anything less than complete euphoria), the family would find out, and she’d be out of more than just a job.

She knew she had to focus, guide the process, but it became more difficult as they progressed. The room began to fade from her awareness. She could feel everything he felt, the joy, the elation of the drugs and neuro-stimulators affecting the pleasure centers of the brain as they worked their way up in intensity. She recalled the same vivid memories of the man’s childhood that he did as flashes of people that she’d never known cascaded through her mind, each with a unique set of emotions associated with them. It went on for what seemed like hours, though surely it was far less. Throughout it all she was dimly aware of  the priest quietly quoting scripture in the background.

Finally, the endorphin levels increased as the priest neared the end of his monologue, his droning, monotonous voice seeming to increase in volume and intensity as he spoke the final words that ushered the old man into oblivion. Her awareness heightened, she could feel every syllable uttered rebound off the inner recesses of her skull. It was almost unbearable, nearly too much.  She could hear music in the background, smell roses that didn’t exist, and feel the strength of her… of HIS daughter’s grip on her, no, – on the old man’s- left hand. He then suddenly reached out, grasped her hand as well. She squeezed back tight, not wanting to let go, not wanting to let him go, but she knew that it was time. A solitary tear ran down her cheek. She let his hand gently slip out of hers, falling gracefully beside the bed. The machine’s whirring stopped.

Just as suddenly as it they had begun, the sensations began to fade. She stopped receiving any transmissions  from where the old man now lay, motionless. She took a moment to gather her thoughts. She got up, brushed her shoulders off, and hopped down off the bed. With as much composure as she could muster, she assured the family that “Everything was okay.” She stood with them for a few moments in silence, then walked over to the synaptic recorder and retrieved the jump-drive. She stood there for another moment, looking them over. They still wouldn’t meet her eyes. Without a word, she turned and walked toward the door, casually placing the drive on the night-stand on her way out.

She took the rest of the day off. It was always a melancholy experience for her, but one that she had grown accustomed to. That said, some of it still didn’t add up for her. It was said that the Patient should not experience the least discomfort or uncertainty throughout the Procedure. Far from it, in fact; for the Patient, this was supposed to be a high-point, nay, the high-point, of their lives. Even so, she’d heard stories of suicides. Of people who’d wanted not to die tied to a hospital bed, pumped full of dope. Death connoisseurs who thought that there were right and a wrong ways to die, and that they were doing it wrong, distracting from… god knew what that awaited them there at the end. It was ridiculous.

But sometimes, she wondered. She thought about how grateful she was to be alive as she drove home. Her eyes began to water as she got behind the wheel, recalling from one of the old man’s memories the day that he’d sat in his dad’s lap behind the wheel for the first time. She didn’t fear death she told herself as she began to cry, feeling for all the world like a ten-year old boy suddenly unsure of his surroundings. But she was still grateful.