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The value of a human life

He sat in brown overalls with his back to the machine, nervously thumbing through a manual called Faults and Operations. There had to be a way to fix it, he just had to find it.

He read a passage out loud to himself: “If the connecting tube becomes warm then disconnect it and adjust the left mains drive as illustrated”. Most of what was written didn’t really make any sense and only a few insiders knew what the machine had been designed for. When he first started he was told that it generated ideas and that these were important for the Government.

With great care he lifted up the manual and took a closer look at one of the diagrams. The picture didn’t look like anything he’d seen before but that wasn’t unusual, even when he’d been brave enough to crawl inside the machine most of the components had remained stubbornly out of reach. But he didn’t need to see the parts to believe what was written in the books. The manuals had become his only text and for the past few years it was all he’d ever read. He didn’t see the point of looking at anything else and sometimes, when the machine was running well, he would lose himself in its pages, reading the same passages over and over. But the machine wasn’t running well anymore.  

“Maybe I should reinstate the central pressure line and disconnect the minor functions,” he murmured to himself and as he walked around the machine he let his hand smooth over the outer casing, pausing now and again to tap on its barrel sides, as if percussing a huge iron chest.

In the last few weeks the machine had begun to think very differently. Normally its ideas couldn’t be used in the real world and he would confidently take the little slips of paper and post them off to the relevant department, satisfied that they would never lead to anything. But lately the machines steel levers had trammelled over much more practical ground. It had started to think about cost and in particular it had started to think about the cost of human health.

He didn’t have to wait long before the machine issued another card. He made his way over to the window and after reading it he folded it in half. The machine had stopped and he swallowed hard. Once again it had tried to calculate the value of a human life. He looked out at the yellow-grey sky,  it was one of those dying days where time stretches out and where reason finally runs out of air.

Dr Kevin Hinkley is a GP in Aberdeen