The Tally by Yiyu Xiang

‘It’s a fairly simple idea, and you’d be surprised how well it works. You see, there are three tickers on the wall. They’re fairly large things, they span the entire length of the wall, above the big LCD screen, right at the top. They work through LEDs, red ones of course, for the danger. Still it’s effective, big red numbers ticking upwards.

Last time I checked they were something about the figure of, 165, 6,000,000 and 7490, or thereabouts.

The first figure is the number of hours we’ve been working, it’s hard to keep track in this place. After all, we’re locked up in here, at least until it’s safe for us to go back out, usually when we finish working, which is always a nice incentive to get us going.

The second figure is the total dead from, well, whatever it happens to be this time, it’s pretty hard to remember it’s name when you’ve seen so many, it’s usually some jumble of letters and numbers.’

She speaks back, ‘It’s SAINTS, Sever Acute Inflammatory Necrotic Tissue Syndrome, would you like a reminder?’

I settle back into my chair, annoyed at the interruption.

‘Yes, yes, well, I know all about it, been studying for days, it’s remarkable really, the way it infects the host. I’ve never seen a virus that splits itself apart to infect multiple host cells, increases the speed by three-fold.’

I am interrupted again, ‘We are aware of the data you have submitted, and we thank you for your good work.’

I sigh and slump further, she pauses before speaking again,

‘I detect a lack of motivation, would you like a reminder?’

I instinctively look away from the screen, ‘No thanks, please, I know what I need to do…’

Another pause, and then, ‘Your motivation is satisfactory, please continue, your well being, physical and mental, is of the utmost importance to this program.’

This time it’s a sigh of relief. I had seen enough of the dead.

‘Yeah, I’m sure it is,’ my left hand is rubbing my temple now, ‘Anyway, they get the second number from the hospitals and charities, they list the dead, submit it to the office upstairs, who log it down and put it up. It’s pretty accurate actually, usually gets it within the nearest thousand which considering all the hospitals and people in the world is not bad at all.

The third is a bit off, but it’s still a decent estimate. It’s the number of hours left before the disease is estimated to wipe out the population of the earth. It changes quite a bit actually, since it’s only off current data.

Last time, during CETS or GONS or something it went from around seven thousand down to four thousand, and then back up to ten thousand, it depends on what the governments do really, restricting air travel and checking trains really helps prevent the spread, big quarantine facilities also help a lot.’

‘Our estimates have come to the conclusion that 64% of the effectiveness of government action was down the CEI program, the Compulsive Euthanisation of the Infec…’

‘Yes, yes, I know,’ I continue before she can reply ‘They need to find out where they’re coming from though! They’re getting better, we won’t be able to cure every single one, these things take time!’

‘We are aware of the data, and we thank you for your work.’

My hand slaps the monitor and it goes flying, a garbled voice recites a pre-coded message.

‘Please be aware that your government does not tolerate abuse of property. SETI is a program designed to enhance and improve cognition, as well as reduce stress, unfortunately due to the nature of the program, we cannot offer physical therapy, please see a expert once the program is completed.

We understand the constraints of such a…’

I’m out the room and halfway down the corridor before it can finish. I briefly glance at the phone on the wall, it’s enough time to let it recognise my eyes.

‘I’m sorry, you have, 0, minutes remaining. Please complete the current project to make another call, you may listen to your previous conversations, for other servi…’

I continue walking down the hall, making a beeline towards the coffee machine.

It’s an old one, still made of plastic and metal. The defunct Nescafe branding is a comforting sight. I recall the previous one, a dull translucent rubber, though I feel guilty for doing so, I’m grateful for whatever caused Les to breakdown and smash it to pieces.

As I wonder about his situation, I punch the Latte button and place a paper cup in the tray. I quickly ponder whether to call him when I next have minutes but the thought of my family quickly pushes it away. Half an hour is too short to be wasting on anybody else.

The coffee flows into the mug in a trickle, white milky lines tracing the outside. For a moment, I’m mesmerized in the sight. It’s a comforting colour, a chocolaty brown, streaked with cream. The aroma is arousing, and my sinus’ tingle with excitement.

Once the coffee is finished I take it over to the corner and sit down on the floor, massaging my head. The smell dulls the headache a little, and I try to guess the number of seconds I’ll have before the intercom decides to blare my name, there’s still a few minutes though, I hadn’t signed out of therapy after all.

I bring the cup to my lips and take a deep gulp. The bitter taste crawls its way down my throat and I wince.

I hate the taste of coffee.