Dissection Of The Cockroach
In Steven Sheil’s disturbing dystopian tale, ‘Dissection Of The Cockroach’, the reader is taken on a disturbing and mesmeric journey, seen – literally – through the eyes of the main protagonist...
Becca paused the video of the burning baby while she flagged it for removal (Marker: graphic violence) then added it to the folder she shared with her Team Leader for Audit and Enaction. She hesitated for a moment before closing the window, wondering if she’d made the right decision. For the fifth time that morning, she clicked on the tab on the bottom left of her screen, the one that read TEAR.
TOTALIZED EMPLOYEE ACCURACY RATING: 95.87%
Her cursor hovered over the number, as though circling it with a pen. The minimum required by Supraliminal, her employer, was 95% – any dip below that score would result in a visit from a Quality Manager, directly employed by The Platform itself. Bringing a QuaM to a Supraliminal Hubspace was grounds for an IPR (Immediate Performance Review) and she couldn’t afford that, not now. Couldn’t afford to have her hours cut or her wage recalibrated. She was already living too close to the wire. She unpaused the video, watched a few seconds more, heard the giggle from behind the camera as the small figure on the ground bucked and spasmed, then clicked it closed. No, she’d made the right call. She had to stop second-guessing herself.
She checked the widget marked ANST which told her how much Authorized Non-Screen Time she had remaining for her shift and saw that there were still 34 minutes outstanding. Lunch would be 20, she wanted to save ten for this evening when she knew she’d need it, so that left four for now. She clicked on the timer, saw it start to count down and took her headphones off. She leaned back on her chair, arched her spine and felt the muscles in her chest tighten. The cubicles either side of her – Greg Two and LeAnne – were both still working, screens showing a dark-clad figure swinging a sword to behead a man on his knees (Greg Two) and a close-up of a ranting, bearded face in front of a crudely annotated world map (LeAnne). Becca stood up, walked to the end of the row and headed for the far end of the workspace, where the window was.
The constant tick-tack of fingers on keyboards kept pace with her as she walked. There were twenty rows of seven on this particular floor, the same on the two floors below and a slightly smaller number on the floor above, where the main cafeteria space was. 418 operatives in all, which made up the entirety of this Hubspace. Four hundred-odd screens showing every dark dream the internet could summon.
Becca reached the window and looked out. Below her sat the car park, each space filled, and beyond that, a uniform row of trees planted 20 feet apart to mark the edge of the perimeter. Beyond that, the ceilings of other buildings – call centres mostly, she’d learned – and the access roads to the industrial estate. Far off, behind a haze of cloud which rendered them almost phantasmal, sat a low row of green hills. Becca peered at the view, tried to find a human moving amongst it, and found a single security guard pacing outside the hut which guarded the entrance to the car park. She saw him step forward, arch his back – the same way she had just done when getting up – then give a kind of shudder, as though shaking something loose. The image made her laugh involuntarily, as though she’d seen something she wasn’t supposed to see, something private, intimate. With her laugh came the flash of another image inside her mind – the baby burning on the concrete, its skin darkening, popping, peeling…
Becca closed her eyes and activated her Wipe. The Wipe – as she’d been taught in her induction – was a process through which disturbing thoughts and images could be swept from the forefront of the mind, allowing moderators to continue working in safety without unwarranted intrusion. Each moderator was encouraged to create their own personal Wipe. Becca’s was the image of a large, gleaming, stainless steel cleaver coming down and sweeping across from right to left, as though scraping chopped meat into a pan of boiling oil. She arced the cleaver down, made herself hear the thud as it landed, then watched as it swept the baby from her view, leaving behind a wiped-clean slate. She opened her eyes, took a breath, saw that the security guard was gone.
The internal clock which she’d developed since working at the Hubspace told her that her four minutes were up, and she strode quickly back towards her cubicle and sat down.
As she clicked stop on the ANST, freezing it at 39.28, her playlist automatically reactivated and the next clip moved from the top of the queue to the main window. The listing carried the title – Dissection Of The Cockroach, duration – 16.09, name of the uploader – fargasee77 and the Report Log – 4th Jan, 3.26 am, user HelBakerBoo; complaint: offensive or disturbing content.
Becca clicked play and began to watch. A point of view shot, holding steady, looking down at a white backdrop, some kind of sheet or table covering. In the centre of the frame a large cockroach, lying on its back, pinned down by its legs and head. Hands come into frame from either side. Both are wearing thin, near translucent medical gloves, the pink skin showing through beneath. In the right hand, the fingers hold a metal scalpel. The scalpel moves down towards the cockroach, the sharp tip pressing into the abdomen, penetrating, slicing the insect open from head to tail. The scalpel peels back the skin and the left hand uses more pins to hold it in place, exposing the cockroach’s internal organs, wetly glistening.
Becca paused the video and checked the running time again. 16.09. She scrubbed through the timeline to see if the view changed at any point and saw the hands move at high speed through a systematic dissection of the insect, cutting, lifting, removing parts and placing them on the sheet beside the body. There was no change of angle, no altering of perspective, just the same point of view throughout.
By all appearances, it seemed to be harmless. Some piece of educational content aimed at middle-school biology pupils most likely. Nothing in there to offend or disturb unless perhaps you were at the far end of the animal rights spectrum, which perhaps user HelBakerBoo was. Still, there had to be some reason for the report and regulations demanded a full viewing of every piece of submitted material, first frame to last. Becca pressed play and resumed watching.
After hours of beatings, beheadings, rapes and abuses, racist screeds and mass-shooter manifestos, there was something calming, almost hypnotic about Dissection Of The Cockroach. The slow, methodical movement of the gloved hands, the unadorned soundtrack (made more intimate by noise-cancelling headphones) of movement sounds – fingers against fingers, the parting of insect flesh, the soft tink of the scalpel’s tip brushing against the bulbous head of a pin – all contributed towards making the viewing of the video feel like a meditative act. When the hands finally left the frame and the screen faded to black, Becca was surprised to find that she was sunk low in her chair, her hands resting in her lap, not perched above the keyboard in readiness. There was a wetness in the corner of the mouth and when she wiped it with the back of her hand she was shocked to find that she’d been drooling.
She pulled herself up, glanced from side to side to see if she had been observed, but Greg Two was still engrossed in his own playlist and LeAnne had, at some point in the past quarter of an hour, left her seat. Becca felt a flush of embarrassment nonetheless, as though she’d been caught doing something illicit. She glanced up at the security camera which hung from the ceiling two rows further along from her and hoped that her moment of relaxation hadn’t been noted. As though to compensate, she started to move quickly now, pulling up the checklist and quickly running through its multiple questions and options before ticking the box which said no action required, and moving the video to the A&E folder. There was a ping to register its transference, and then the next video moved across from the playlist and opened up in front of her. A grainy, night-vision shot of a woman, eyes wide and frightened, someone else’s hand on her shoulder. Becca stretched and curled her fingers, placed them once more on the keyboard and pressed PLAY.
Gabby’s boyfriend was over when Becca got back to the flat, so she went straight to her room. It wasn’t that she didn’t like Rob, but he was a talker – had to know how you were, what you’d been up to, how your day had been – and some days she just couldn’t muster up the energy for him. Instead, as she passed through the small shared space that was kitchen and living room in one, she held up a hand to say hi, while busying her other hand with typing a text message to her sister – Back now. Too tired. Talk soon. Once inside her room, she dropped her bag and coat on the single plastic chair which served as a kind of staging point between her wardrobe and her floor and flopped onto her bed.
It was nearly eleven and her next shift was at 8 the next morning, which meant getting up before 6 to make sure she would get time in the bathroom, and she was already regretting not just coming straight home. When Lana and Greg One had said they were walking to the McDonald’s in the Business Park just over from the industrial estate and asked her if she wanted to join, she should have said no, but the thought of hot food, delivered straight to her, no waiting, beat out any other thought at that moment. Plus, she needed to decompress, get the day out of her system, and it was easier to do that with people who knew what the job was like.
Lana had been at Supraliminal for two years, longer than anyone Becca knew. She was a Deputy Sub-Team Leader on Becca’s floor of the Hubspace, which gave her certain privileges including Preferred Parking and Assisted Lunch. She had shown Becca the ropes during her first weeks at the job, teaching her how to interpret The Platform’s Community Guidelines in order to maximize her TEAR. It’s not about what you think, she’d told Becca, it’s about what you think they’d think. She was known for her resilience, her ability to watch the worst of what came before them and let it wash over her. Becca often wondered what Lana’s Wipe was, but it was a question that somehow seemed too personal to ask.
Greg One had been at Supraliminal for a little over a year – not much longer than Becca – and was known for being the office gossip. If you wanted to know anything that had happened on the floor, you asked Greg. He had a way of coaxing out information from even the most reticent of sources – usually by offering up information about others in return – and Becca was always a little on edge when she was around him. Though they were friends, she knew that anything she told him could and would be used as currency at some later point.
That evening, in the McDonald’s in the Business Park, Greg’s latest news was about Vrilla and Max having sex in Stairwell B during the night shift two days ago, the whole thing confirmed by Hollow Hal, who was vaping in the sub-mezzanine and overheard their fucking sounds. Vrilla – whose real name was Lissa – was already estranged from her husband – a Client Satisfaction Webline Operator for a mobile phone company, whom no one from Supraliminal had ever met – due to her recent growing involvement with an occult science-fiction folk religion, whose videos she had become obsessed by after moderating a 90-minute long home-made documentary on the subject.
She needs to be careful, Lana had said.
I think she’s on the pill, Greg had replied.
I mean with the Nazi stuff. Fair enough if she wants to get into that on her own time – knock yourself out love – but if it starts to colour her assessments too much she’ll be in trouble.
I thought they gave a lot of leeway to political views, Becca had said, The Platform, I mean. Isn’t that an Ethos?
Yeah, Lana had said, and Becca had seen a little shift in the way she held herself, as though the element of her that was Deputy Sub-Team Leader was moving to the fore. It is. But when you’re moderating you need to be the guidelines, not just apply them. And it’s hard to fake that once your mind gets too skewed.
I don’t think it was her mind getting skewed in that stairwell, Greg had said and they’d all laughed.
Becca rolled onto her back and looked up at the chipped paint on the ceiling, where the previous tenant had stuck luminous stars which Becca had scraped away on moving in. She knew she should get up and brush her teeth before bed but the thought of walking past Gabby and Rob – having to gee herself up to some kind of interaction – was exhausting. Instead, she took off her clothes, dropped them on the floor, pulled on a t-shirt and turned off the light. The room was dark, and even with the murmur of voices from the room outside, she was asleep within minutes, her sleeping mind drifting – as though pulled by tiny invisible limbs – into a vivid and disquieting dream.
It was on a Sunday two weeks later, with the late afternoon sun sinking low behind the hazy green hills creating a reddish glow which coloured the window at the far end of the office where she now sat, that Becca saw Dissection Of The Cockroach again. It was a different uploader – grubstarr88 – but unmistakably the same video. The same white backdrop, same hands, same careful, deliberate movement of the scalpel, same duration – 16.09. It was even the same complaint, offensive or disturbing content – though from a different user this time, MikeyBands019778. It was rare for Becca to ever see the same video twice – the algorithm which decided the individual playlists for each moderator was supposed to eliminate this – but it had happened two or three times before, often when multiple uploads were made of the same source material, such as when a school shooting happened or with a celebrity sex tape, any instance where the audience was hungry to see what everyone was talking about, and even a fourth or fifth-hand upload could gain huge numbers.
It was hard to imagine this was the case with Dissection Of The Cockroach. Since its upload a week earlier, it had garnered a total of 113 views, with a rating of 1.5 out of 5 stars, and only one comment, from a user named aenearoea, who had written two days ago:
the gathering of the pieces is just the beginning the end is faster than you imagine look to your hands your hands your hands and hope that you will be spared
She guessed it was some song lyric or quote from a movie, but it could equally well be that aenearoea was some religious nut, badly translating some supposed holy text. She saw comments sections as endless blank toilet walls where arguments, obsessions, confessions could be scrawled by any passing visitor. The mistake was to think that any wisdom or even coherence could be found there.
The requirement was for her to watch through the whole video again, first frame to last. And so she sat up straight – remembering the video’s near-narcotic effect on her previously – and pressed play.
It was halfway through the video, at around the nine-minute mark, that she noticed something she’d never seen before. At the point where the gloved right hand used the scalpel to pull away the translucent membrane which ran the length of the insect’s body, the whole surface beneath the cockroach seemed to shift a little, the pins which held the legs and head in place moving with the motion, as though something had travelled beneath them. It was only a momentary shift, just a handful of frames and initially Becca thought that maybe the camera had shifted or there’d be some kind of glitch in the recording. But when she scrubbed the playhead back and watched again, it was clear – the surface beneath the cockroach had moved, almost as though it had given a shudder.
From this point on, Becca watched the video more intently, focusing her gaze on the bulbous pinheads, looking for any further movement. At 13.25 she thought she saw the same thing happen again – another shift, another shudder – but it was hard to make out, as the gloved right hand was moving across the body of the cockroach at the time and because of the angle, Becca couldn’t be sure that it hadn’t brushed the pins itself. She replayed the moment over and over, zoomed in to check, but still couldn’t be sure. Her face was close to the screen now, staring at the blown-up pixels playing at 0.25 speed, the window consisting wholly of the blur of the dissected insect body in brown and the grey line and white circle of the pin so that when the automated message flashed in front of her, blocking out the rest of the image, it made her start in her chair and let out a breath.
The maximum allowable average time for moderation – whatever the duration of the content – was 6 minutes. The automated message – flashing in neon green, accompanied by a two-minute countdown – was a warning that Becca had already exceeded this, and she knew that failure to create a moderation report before the allotted deadline would result in the generation of an EffDeff (Efficiency Deficit Report), which would go straight to her Team Leader, Zandra, for investigation. Investigation meant a full IPR – Personal Audit, Wellness Check, Status Optimization – and potentially a Retraining Workshop and Re-Induction, both unpaid. Becca cursed herself for letting it get to this stage – she hadn’t noticed the time, had let herself get pulled into the video again – and immediately went to work on the checklist. She hesitated over the line marked offensive or disturbing. Two people had reported the video, both for the same reason, and even though there was nothing on screen which she could point to which could either offend or disturb, there was something there, something which felt wrong.
The countdown was on 0.36. She didn’t have time to think. Again, she ticked the box marked no action required, moved the video to the A&E folder and watched as the next video leapt from playlist to window.
She took an Uber home that night, though she’d told herself at the start of the month that it was going to have to be buses only if she was going to be able to cover the rent, plus pay something back of what she owed her sister – Kelly was being relentless about it at the moment, threatening to go to their dad and get him involved which was something Becca couldn’t handle, not right now – but she was so tired the thought of waiting at the bus stop, then doing the walk from the shops back to her flat – spiking with adrenalin the whole way because she was on her own – that she caved, rationalising that she could save something on lunches next week if she brought some of those cheap ramen from home.
In the back of the car, with the radio on and tuned to some talk station, but turned low so it was just a background whisper, Becca pulled out her phone and opened up The Platform. The screen was still broken from the day before Christmas when she’d spilled it from the corner of the bath onto the tiled floor, sending a crack from one corner to arc its way across the glass to nearly the other side, but it still worked, mostly, and as the homepage came up, she poked at the search bar and used both thumbs to type DISSECTION COCKROACH.
A list came up – some stuff shot in a school, some shaky mobile phone footage too blurred to make out, a song by some metal band – but it wasn’t till she’d swiped twice that she found what she was looking for, her video, 16.09. She pressed play and watched it again, scrubbing through to nine minutes and seeing the shudder. It seemed oddly more pronounced on her tiny, cracked screen, and she wondered how she’d ever missed it before. She’d moved on to 13.25, and was holding the phone close to her face, watching carefully for the other shudder she’d suspected when the driver’s voice came through to her and she realised he’d repeated what he’d said for the third time.
She looked up, saw that she was outside the flat, felt a flush of embarrassment at not having noticed, said thanks and got out. As the car pulled away, she realised that the video was still playing in her hand. She thumbed it off and went inside.
The living room was empty, but she could hear Gabby and Rob arguing in the other bedroom, her calling him a creep, him calling her paranoid and fucking deluded. Becca went to the kitchen cupboard, found the pack of biscuits she’d hidden inside the muesli box – as well as being a talker, Rob was also a grazer, most usually of Becca’s food – shoved one in her mouth and took the rest to her room. Once inside, she grabbed her laptop, sat on her bed and went straight to The Platform.
She watched Dissection Of The Cockroach through from start to finish, holding off from pausing, or replaying or zooming in. She wanted to see it again as though for the first time, this time not with the moderator’s checklist on her mind, but as a normal viewer, taking it in as a whole. Again, she felt the near-hypnotic pull of the video. The movement of the hands – slow, methodical – as they cut up the insect and moved its constituent parts to the side of the body combined with the delicate sounds of the latex fingers brushing against each other – captivated her attention. She wondered if the piece had been made deliberately this way, as some kind of ASMR video. Whatever it was, the video definitely held some kind of compulsive power. As soon as it was over she wanted to watch it again.
It was on her fourth watch-through, sometime after midnight, that Becca began to realise what it was about the video that made it so compelling. Though the action of the video was clear and unambiguous – the insect pinned to the surface, the hands coolly and calmly wielding the scalpel to expose, cut away and separate each organ – there was something off about each constituent part. The shudder in the plain white surface was now so clear to her that she was astounded that she hadn’t seen it immediately. It suggested that what she thought was a plain white cloth covering some kind of board was in fact a sheet constraining something living – some kind of animal, perhaps. And then there was the cockroach itself. The harder she looked, the less like an insect it seemed. The size and shape of it – and she’d checked this with other dissection videos – was unnatural. It was too thick at the head, too long in the body. The parts inside were different from the parts that were found in other cockroaches, different in colour and texture and proportion. Whatever the thing was that was being dissected, it wasn’t a cockroach.
The hands were the most disturbing part. When she’d first watched the video, she’d paid little attention to the hands themselves, concentrating more on the actions they were carrying out. All that she’d noted was the thinness of the latex which covered them, the way it allowed the pinkness of the skin beneath to show through. Now though, she saw that the hands themselves were unnaturally smooth. No veins or tendons showed through the thin latex, nor even any nail beds. They were the shape of hands, working as hands do, but they weren’t hands. Not human hands, at least.
She pressed pause on the video, then, feeling a wave of self-hatred that was almost overwhelming, slammed the laptop shut and threw it to the other end of the bed. What was she doing? Where was she going? Inhuman hands dissecting fake insects on a bed of writhing flesh? She was losing her mind. She lay back on the bed, closed her eyes, brought up her Wipe. She took a breath, readying herself, then sent the cleaver slashing down towards the board. But her aim was skewed, and instead of hitting wood and wiping the image from her thoughts, the cleaver hit hand and insect full-on, bisecting the hand across the knuckles and sending the fingers falling into the mush of the cockroach’s body, the severed stumps pulsing black blood across the white surface, where beneath the cloth, pink and mottled human skin, cleft open by the blade, showed through.
For three days after, she didn’t open her laptop again. She deleted The Platform’s app from her phone – technically a violation of her Work Agreement, though spot checks were rare – and concentrated on viewing only what was sent to her by the algorithm. She tried to put Dissection Of The Cockroach completely out of her mind, to immerse herself in her work, but images from the video would press to the forefront of her mind with metronomic regularity. She had given up attempting to use her Wipe, instead preferring to let the image bloom, flower and fade, unresisted. There could be no dispelling it, she knew that now, but she clung to the hope that by not fighting it, it would in time lose whatever potency it had.
Her TEAR was now down to 95.06, perilously close to the minimum, and she had noticed that Zandra had begun to check in with her with more frequency. A QuaM visit would reflect badly not just on Becca, but the team as a whole and Zandra’s job was to protect herself and the others over and above anything else and if that meant sacrificing Becca, that was a necessary price to pay. Becca was the infected tooth, the withered limb, the ripening wound which would need to be cut away to save the rest of the body.
It wasn’t as though Becca wasn’t trying. She concentrated hard on her job, tried to apply her judgement according to the guidelines, tried to think like The Platform needed her to think. But however much she internalised the rules, she couldn’t help but question what they really meant. Things that seemed clearly offensive and disturbing before – cruelty to animals, the tormenting of children, the demeaning of the sick, the vulnerable, the dispossessed and marginalized – now appeared to her as mundane, little more than the practised playing-out of preordained roles: persecutor and victim, dominator and submissive, subject and object. Conversely, the most apparently innocuous of videos – those showing children laughing, lovers dancing, pets playing – now seemed to her to be suffused with a palpable unveracity, as though they were just pantomimes intently designed to obscure the reality of a pitiless world.
She spoke less to her colleagues now, forgoing any social interaction even of the mildest sort, such as a conversation in the kitchen while the microwave burred and pinged. She could feel herself becoming detached from the world of Supraliminal, detached even from the world outside. She hadn’t responded to her sister’s last three messages, had ignored her call the night before, and she now spent all of her time in the flat alone in her room, not even bothering to exchange greetings with her flatmate and her boyfriend. She felt as though she was becoming unmoored from the life she had led up until now, and that unseen hooks were tugging her towards something new.
When, late one Friday afternoon, Dissection Of The Cockroach appeared again at the top of her playlist, then jumped across to her viewing window and invited her to PLAY, it felt inevitable, as though preordained. She adjusted her headphones, made sure that they were tightly secured, pulled her chair in close to the screen and focused on the image. She knew that this was the point where she would allow herself to succumb fully to what the video had to offer, this was to be her moment of full immersion, wherever that might lead. She took a deep breath and clicked on the centre of the window.
Though the footage was unmistakably the same, the absolute clarity with which Becca now saw the action was striking. The white backdrop was a human body, a torso, tightly wrapped in a sheet, the bulbous-headed pins stuck, inch-deep, into the skin. The cockroach itself was no insect, was not even a separate entity, but was a tumour growing from the flesh, carved into the shape of a cockroach; its carapace was a thin covering of scab, its legs were nerves lifted from the body, its internal organs just the meaty layers of the tumour itself. With every dissection by the scalpel came a shudder of pain from the body beneath, as the sharp metal dug deep into the growth and sliced it into wet and bloody sections to be placed by the hands onto the sheet beside it.
As for the hands themselves, they were meat gloves, worn by something which wanted to approximate the appearance of being human, but which betrayed its origin in the insectile movement of the fingers and the cold precision of its scalpel strokes. What was taking place on screen was wholly inhuman, callous and unpitying. A dissection designed not to discover, but to torment. And the camera’s eye was hers, looking down at it all with quiet fascination.
When the timer hit 16:09 and the video faded to black, Becca took off her headphones, got up from her seat and began to walk towards the door to the stairwell. She could hear Lana call her name, but it was as though she was a thousand miles away, beyond the green phantasmal hills, somewhere in the burning sunset. She pushed open the door and took the stairs, up past the floor above, where the sound of the cafeteria drifted through the air vents, up past the administrative floor, up past the chained off section which held the sign saying NO ENTRY, up the final set of stairs to the safety door which led to the roof.
Becca put both hands on the security bar and pressed. As the door swung open, she heard an alarm go off inside the building, but she was already out and walking across the bitumen towards the edge. She reached the high wall which ran the perimeter of the roof, and pulled herself up onto it, the rough concrete scraping her hands and forearms as she climbed. When she had dragged herself onto the top she stood up and looked down past the pigeon spikes and safety netting, to the ground beneath.
She was on the rear side of the building, where the overflow car park sat. The space was empty of vehicles and stretched beneath her like a perfect blank canvas. She could hear voices behind her, calling her name from within the stairwell, but she didn’t turn. Instead, she closed her eyes and opened her arms, feeling the breeze flatten her shirt to her body. Invisible spikes penetrated her hands and she gave a gasp. Without making the effort to move she was pitching forward and then falling, the spikes driving her towards the car park beneath. She was a body held taut beneath a sheet, a tumour growing from a torso, a cockroach staked out ready for the knife.
Her face hit the concrete and the final thin needle of pain went through her head, pinning her in place.
More To Explore
Syringes, Crucifixes and (Un)Therapeutic Whirlpools: The Social and Medical Horror of Saint Maud (2019)
Joe Howsin explores the ‘social horror’ of Rose Glass’ excellent British horror debut film, 2019’s Saint Maud…
In the latest entry for his Horror in the Britcom series, writer A.J. Black explores the transition from beloved television comedy to the big screen with 2005’s The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse…