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Posted on 12/05/2012

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Like everything I have created, it was perfect. I flex my fingers, and the machine flexes with it, motions transcribed perfectly via the neural headset I’m wearing. “Wonderful. This will do nicely,” I say to the gaggle of assorted lab technicians.

The machine in question is an arm.

Not just any arm: next generation metallic prosthesis controlled by the human brain. With successful human testing, it would revolutionize the world, improving the lives of millions. This arm is perfection in metal on an already perfect concept. It hangs in a cage of wires, the hand clenching and unclenching, mirroring my actions. At first glance, it would be indistinguishable from a normal human arm, if you ignored the silvery metal skin, traced with copper circuitry.

The lab techs burst out into a smattering of polite applause, and I see that a group at the back is dangerously close to champagne. I get the image, just briefly, of me ruling over them with a literal iron fist. It’s not a bad image.

I strip the headset off and replace it on its pedestal. The arm convulses briefly with the severing of the neural link and falls limp. “How long until this will be ready for larger-scale testing?” I ask the nearest tech.

He gulps and stammers out, “Uh, I think that it will be about six months until we can start human testing. Of course, there’re a lot of contingencies that we need to work out, and there’s no telling what would happen once we have the prototype brain implant working with the arm. We’ve only tested it with the headset, so that throws in some extra variables that we haven’t quite tested yet.” His arms are gesturing wildly as he’s talking in a vain attempt at trying to cover up his fevered nervousness.

“Can we speed that up to… say, two weeks from now?” I ask. Silence falls on the assembled technicians as they try to come up with a decent answer. The tech I had singled out shoots an angry look at his colleagues and says, “I guess that you could have it working in two weeks, but it’s really risky to go straight to human testing at this point.”

“I am aware of the risks. I designed the thing,” I say. “Call the surgery team, and tell them to get the operating room ready. Schedule it for the Wednesday after next.” The tech’s eyes widen and he starts quivering.

“But who are you planning on attaching the arm to?” he says. I can see that he already knows the answer.

I smile an empty smile and say, “Sometimes we have to make sacrifices for our work.” The phone rings. The tech takes advantage of this and scampers off, and the rest of the group dissipates to their own projects.

I pick up the phone and listen intently. It’s the security guard at the entrance, letting me know that there’s a visitor in my office waiting for me. He wouldn’t have let him in, but the stranger insisted that he knew me.

Undoubtedly it was another bureaucrat, trying to work through more legal red tape. The project was, as innovative projects generally are, a wholly controversial one. Naturally the government waited until the innovation was right in their laps before working out the legal fineries.

The intruder is not, as I suspected, a bureaucrat. The intruder is someone equally as unwelcome.

“Hello,” he says. That one simple word hangs in the air, unwanted. Already I’m regretting answering that phone; this is merely one more distraction to deal with. I shut the door behind me with a click and cross to my chair. I could feel his eyes boring into me, but I ignore them. I ignore him.

His voice hasn’t changed, of course. It has the same musical cadence, the same cheerfulness that grates on my nerves every time he opens his lips. He’s sprawled on one of the visitor chairs. What pisses me off most of all is the awful casualness: his legs crossed with a cup of coffee in one hand. Peace in blue jeans. I’m not sure who even let him into the building, but someone was getting written up for this.

“What do you want, Elias?” I ask, finally. I don’t look at him. His face brings back memories, and memories are the last thing that I want to deal with at this point.

He coughs, testing the waters before he dives in, and says, “I wanted to see how you were doing, Matthew. It’s been a while.” My hands clench on the polished wood of the chair’s armrests.

I turn in my chair abruptly, and stare hard at him. “A while? You’d consider six years to be just ‘a while’?” I let the steel bleed through my voice, and I can almost hear him wince. He shuffles around in his chair, leaning forward.

“The church has been keeping me busy. Plus, every time I do call you, you don’t pick up. I needed to come down and see you in person,” he says. The armrests are about to splinter. I say nothing. I say nothing.

He squirms a bit, the words suddenly broken. “I see you on the news, M. Almost every day. You’ve been making headlines everywhere,” he says. He keeps his voice low, and doesn’t look at me. His face relaxes, the worry wrinkles smoothed into invisibility, and he lets out a dry chuckle. “Just think, my brother, the super-scientist. Writing papers and changing the world.” Our eyes lock.

I’m elsewhere, far away and long ago. This particular memory was always sharper than the reality. My father liked to take us out to here, when the bustle of city life got too much for him. We’d pack up the car and drive to the place where chaos and calm collided. Elias would yell, and the two of them would rush off into the water, screaming with joy. My time was spent looking at the waterfall.

The waterfall seemed to overpower everything else in the clearing. The large pool at the base, ringed with trees, paled in comparison to the waterfall’s presence. I always sat in the trees, staring up at the water as it bounded downwards toward earth. There was something that captured my imagination in those drops. It was almost as if the very seeds of change were contained within the water. No two drops were the same, no two drops were repeated.

Elias shouts for me. “Come on, M! You’re missing out!” He’s hoisted on my father’s shoulders, laughing his head off, his fingers tangled in my father’s curly black hair. My father drops him and he plunges flailing into the water with a splash of laughter. I shimmy down the tree, my bare feet hitting bare earth, and I’m off, colliding into them in a tangle of dirt, limbs and water.

I’ve been back to the waterfall since then, when I needed to clear my head. It hasn’t changed, and yet something is missing.

He’s staring at me now. The memory fades into nothingness. Neither of us is really willing to say anything to the other. I busied myself by staring at anything at all: the lines of books on the shelves, the degrees and certificates on the walls, anything but him. My brother.

“Did the church put you up to this?” The worlds leave my mouth before I can stop them. Damn. The old paranoia rears its ugly head once again. I attempt to look apologetic, but I can tell that it doesn’t help at all.

He’s hurt by that question. He has every right to be. Pain shines in his eyes; the first victim of my steel. “The church…” he takes a deep breath. “They had nothing to do with this. Sure, they’ve had heated discussions about the… ethics of your augmentation projects, but I’ve stayed out of that. Coming here today was all on me. My decision.” His hands thread and unthread themselves on his lap.

“I wish I could say that you made the right choice,” I said. “Coming here after—what, ten years of being gone?—and expecting me to pick up a conversation with you as if it never happened? What were you thinking?” Gunshots strike plywood, one question after another.

He didn’t back down, of course. Submission was not in his nature. The pain that lurked only seconds ago was replaced by anger, pure and clean. “I couldn’t stay, M. There were things that I needed to do to take care of myself. Things that you, that Dad, couldn’t provide. I had to find myself, and I apparently did that a little bit differently than you.” He reaches over the desk and jabs a finger into my lab coat. “You couldn’t find yourself if you tried.”

That stung. My mouth works and my brain desperately tries to find some form of a response. “I have found myself! Here…” I gesture vaguely around at the office, with all of its fineries. He’s not impressed.

“I wanted to believe that you were different, M. That you weren’t the same as you were on the TV, giving interviews and making speeches.” He sighs and shakes his head. “You’re not the same kid I remember. You’ve changed.” He stands and gives me one last long piercing look.

“This wouldn’t have happened if you hadn’t had left!” I blurt out. All semblance of cool detachment flies out the window with that, but the needling was too much. I’m standing now, and we’re locked eye to eye. He’s taller, he has the advantage, but I refuse to give him any ground.

He laughs. The derision in that laugh has an oily feeling that makes my skin crawl. “You think this is my fault? Is that what you tell yourself to make your life bearable?” His voice took on a mocking edge. “Oh man, my lonely existence would be so much better if my brother hadn’t left! Grow up, Matthew. I was seventeen. You can’t have expected me to stick around forever. Besides, you had Cate, and you had Dad.”

I didn’t have Cate, not anymore. Her photograph was in the bottom drawer of my desk. I take it out every once in a while to look at it, but nothing more. I didn’t feel like mentioning that to him. It would be one more rock of truth to add to his mountain.

“That’s the difference between you and me,” he says. He’s quivering with anger, his brown eyes fierce. “I just wanted to find God; you want to be God. You want to change the world, no matter the cost. How can you do that when you can’t even help yourself? I hope you’re pleased with what you’ve become.”

He turns and puts one hand on the door. I scream inwardly at myself to say something, anything to make him stop. I just needed to say anything to justify myself, anything to prevent him from walking out that door. “Goodbye, Matthew. God be with you.” I say nothing, and he was gone.

The anger that kept me upright disappears and I collapse in my chair. In its absence, I feel nothing but weariness. My thoughts return to my old place of solace, the waterfall, once again. I used to have a fantasy that the three of us, Dad, Elias and I, would go to that waterfall and never leave. It was comforting, as fantasies usually are, but even as a child I knew it was unrealistic. I grew up, and the fantasy faded. Elias found peace, and I found silence.

The office suddenly felt claustrophobic with his absence, and I struggled to breathe. Elias’s words didn’t hurt me; what did was their inherent truth. I couldn’t deny that. For the first time in years, I had to admit that I was utterly terrified. Of him, of what I was about to do, and most of all, of me.  I pick up the phone and dialed the operating team.

“Call it off. The future can wait.” I stood. Without another word, I chased after my brother. There were more important risks to take.

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Posted in: Short Fiction