by M.T. Verma
“Do you agree with them Father?” The cabbie asked. “I mean do you think those guys are gonna go to hell? Even your sister?”
“The Lord is full of forgiveness, for those that repent,” Terry said. He knew it was a cliché, but he was not in the mood for theological debate. The driver took a rag and released a long phlegmy howl into the cloth.
“I heard the Pope was going to declare the ACC an abomination.” The sickly driver looked at Terry in the rearview mirror now, a smirk threatening to form at the corner of his lips. Terry fingered his collar, which had suddenly become two sizes too tight.
They pulled to a stop near the entrance to the university’s science building and were immediately surrounded. The cabby leaned over the front seat, his lips fully curved now, and exposed jagged yellow teeth. He met Terry’s eyes. The Jesuit knew exactly what was about to come. He was about to hear a sob story about a niece, a nephew, a cousin, a friend of a friend; someone that could benefit from a little microcircuitry in the brain. Someone, who could hold down a job, and be a productive tithe paying citizen if only the church would let the program go forward. However, the man surprised him.
“It doesn’t matter one way or the other to me Father. See, I can leave the most Holy and Apostolic Americas whenever I please and get whatever I want in Thailand, at half the cost.”
“How much for your eternal soul?” The cabbie laughed, a wheezy mucus-filled laugh that made the priest unconsciously slide closer to the door.
“Maybe your lil’ sis will find a good spot in hell for me. I want to be as close as possible to Beelzebub.”
The driver burst out into more coughs of laughter, spittle shooting from his mouth. Terry felt his cheeks become hot, he resisted the urge to fling the door open and run. Instead, he inhaled deeply and forced calm into his voice.
“I have to go now. You know what to do, right?” Terry asked as he fingered the door handle.
“Yep. I’ll meet ya around back in twenty minutes Padre.”
Father Lessor stepped out of the car and pushed through the celebrating protesters. Most were playing up to the news cameras. They waved signs and chanted accusations; the researchers were playing God, Dana Lessor was Doctor Frankenstein incarnate and worse. A few turned from the cameras and, not knowing who he was, exhorted him to join in the revelry. He ignored them now.
Although microchips containing medical and identification information were sanctioned by the church and had become popular, the people and, more importantly His Holiness, could not accept this new device. Unlike others, the Alternative Cognition Chip did not just send and receive information. It processed. It thought and made decisions based on thousands of routines and protocols. It reached out to different areas of the brain, imprinted neurons, and forced synaptic connections that would not otherwise occur.
Mind control was what most said. Too much potential for misuse the Council of Bishops decided. “It is God’s providence alone to shape the mind and heart.” The project was to be shut down immediately.
Once inside the basement offices of Alternative Cognition Science, Terry’s mind shifted to Dana. He thought of what this was doing to her. She had just begun her career. She could have gone so many places. Whatever suited her whim. She had already turned into quite the painter.
He found Dana in the Primate Lab. She turned when he entered. Her elegant designer frames were perched halfway down her broad nose, her lips slightly wet. Dana’s lab coat was just a little too long for her short legs, it always made Terry think of a child playing dress-up. No matter how good the costume, the person underneath is still the same. She self-consciously dabbed at her lips, and smiled at him.
How could you ever be an abomination? Behind her was a glass enclosure, holding three gorillas. Zeus, the oldest of the three, and the first beneficiary of an AC chip, was steadfastly grooming himself. The other two slept in different corners. The rest of the primate lab now consisted mainly of boxes. Computers, lab books, and other office paraphernalia were all packed. Terry looked at the clipboard in Dana’s hand and raised an eyebrow.
“I was just making some final observations before they go,” she said.
“No. In fact, they seem to have forgotten some of the signs we taught them before the chips were implanted.” She paused putting her clipboard and pen down. “Zeus doesn’t even sign my name anymore.”
“Oh. So, the effects aren’t permanent.”
“That might be swelling from the surgery. The neural stimulation from the chip created so many new synaptic connections. They just need time to heal,” she said, trying to sound confident. Terry nodded without looking at her. “Athena appears to have a small infection at the surgery site. So, it’s hard to say,” she added.
“The doctors will give her antibiotics, and clear it right up.”
“You mean the zookeepers,” she snorted.
Terry motioned to a box by her feet. He rescued a large watercolor from the over-packed box. It was a seascape with a man and woman holding hands walking into rough waters. An ephemeral sun in the upper left corner. Clouds were puffs of cream that seemed to be moving ever so gently on the horizon. The sand on the beach was so precise he felt he could make out each grain if he looked long enough. As we once walked into this terrible sea, he mused.
“If you want you can keep it. I did paint it for you Terry.” Terry met Dana’s perpetually innocent blue eyes, set just a little too wide to be perfect. He pushed her glasses up.
“Are you sure? You should have as many reminders as possible.”
Dana nodded but her gaze fell to the floor. Uncomfortable now, he turned to put the painting back when something else caught his eye.
“The Feynmen Lectures?” he said, smiling.
“What? They’re mine. You never know when you might need some good physics books.” Dana grabbed the painting and placed it back in the box, covering the books.
“I wish someone would take me to Hawaii, like Zeus and Athena, instead of Connecticut,” she said playfully.
“You don’t know. I might have found you something in Hawaii.”
“Yeah, with a bunch of slack jaws, not with them.” Her eyes flickered towards the apes.
Terry shoved his hands in his pockets. They both watched Zeus in silence.
“What about your job search?” she asked.
“Uppsala University has offered me a position in their Theology department.”
“Uppsala. Good. So you won’t be coming back.”
“As per your request,” Terry said.
“I have made your life difficult enough.”
“In time people will forget.”
“The Pope won’t forget.”
“He’s old. Eventually…”
“And on that day they will give the credit to someone else,” she said. “And I will be officially forgiven, and probably long dead. Are you ready to go?”
“Yes,” he said. Dana put her hand on Terry’s arm.
“I don’t want you to dwell on this anymore big brother. It is best we just end this now.”
“The reporters are out in front, expecting a statement, which I don’t want to give them. There is a car waiting in the back.” Dana nodded, took off her lab coat, and dabbed at her wet lips.
“You’re going to keep your promise right? No coming to visit me when I’m unawares?” She said walking up to the glass protecting the apes. Immediately Zeus looked up at her. Dana twisted her fingers signing goodbye. Zeus stared for a moment, then turned back to grooming his leg.
“Yes.” Terry held out his hand for Dana to grasp. “I promise,” he said. Together they walked out. To the closed door, Zeus signed “Goodbye Dana.”
* * *
Six months later, Terry pulled in to the Greenwood parking lot. It was a large cream Victorian. Palm trees circled the property in two rings. The outer perimeter included the parking lot and some walking paths. The inner ring surrounded the house and the backyard. Broad-leafed plants, perhaps ten feet high, also circled the backyard, hiding the fence.
Sweat pooled on the small hairs at the back of his neck, and ran in two rivulets down his back. Sweet Lamb, have mercy on me, but I must do this.
Terry stared at the structure. A passerby might have assumed he was studying the gingerbread of the house. He was not; rather, he was waiting for some internal voice to tell him to stop, to be rational. No voice came.
He opened the rental’s glove box, pulled out the tickets, stuffed them into his jacket pocket, and got out of the car. Terry opened the front door. A young nun with a face that looked like it had never smiled stood at the door. She consulted her watch.
“Mister Lessor?” she said, her eyes scanned him from head to toe. Terry looked at her in surprise, then remembered he did not have his collar on.
“Yes. How do I get to room two-thirty-four?”
“The playroom is through that door,” she said. Terry opened his mouth, but she cut him off with a look. “This is housekeeping time. They’re not in their rooms.”
Terry went through the door and down a short hallway to the playroom. There was laughter. The playroom was huge. The residents gathered around a big screen television in one corner. At the opposite corner, Ping-Pong tables. In the center, a group was sitting on the floor doing jigsaw puzzles. Various attendants stood by, some just supervising, some actually playing with the denizens.
A hand touched his shoulder from behind. Startled, Terry turned. The hand belonged to an adolescent boy. His mouth hung slightly open, lips wet, in his other hand was a checkers set. The boy brought it closer to Terry’s face and spoke with a saliva-filled slur.
“You like this game?”
“Oh, that is a nice game,” Terry said stepping back slightly.
A middle-aged woman with a wide smile stepped up, gently put a hand on the game, and looked directly into the boy’s eyes. “Oliver, why don’t you ask Benjamin or someone from your floor if they want to play that game with you?”
“Okay,” he said turning away. The woman turned to Terry, smile even wider.
“Who are you looking for?” she asked sweetly.
“Dana. Dana Lessor.”
“Ah, Dana. You must be Terry,” she said, and extended her hand. “She’s painting. She spends most of her time painting.” She turned and pointed to the far corner of the room where several tables were set up in a ring. “Your sister is lovely. Her hair has really grown back, you can barely tell she had any surgery at all.” A moment passed between them. “Are you going to be here long? In Hawaii I mean?” For a moment Terry froze, sure the nun knew his intentions.
“No… Um… Yes. Yes, I just found a job here,” Terry said. “And you are?”
“Oh. I’m sorry. I’m Sister Judy.” She held out her hand. “I’m Dana’s primary care giver. My specialty is Down Syndrome.”
“Has she shown signs of remembering anything from before the surgery?” Judy looked down for a moment before meeting his gaze; her voice was full of disappointment.
“No, I’m afraid not.”
Terry thanked her and walked towards Dana. She sat with several small jars of paint in front of her. A shade of bluish-green paint covered her hands.
“Hi Dana. How are you doing?” he asked.
“Mmm…” she said, not raising her head as he sat across from her. Terry leaned back in the chair content just to watch her for a few moments. Generic, thick plastic glasses, held on her head with an elastic fabric, replaced her elegant frames.
“Here,” she said, pushing the painting forward.
On the paper were two stick figures in a background the same shade as her fingers. One stick arm from each figure reached out to the other. Yet, they did not touch. A yellow spot in the upper left corner mocked the beautiful sun she painted once before. No sand, or clouds. Terry’s heart started to race. Yes, this is right.
“Is that you and me?” Terry asked. Dana nodded. Terry swallowed hard. “Where did you get this idea?” She shrugged.
“Dana would you like to go on a little trip with me?”
“It’s a place far away, called Thailand.” She looked at him, then the picture. She took the painting from his hand and ripped it twice, then reached for a blank sheet of paper. “That’s not good. Make another,” she said, twirling a brush in her hand. “Will you help me?”
“I’d love to sweetie.” Terry said taking another brush. “I’m going to help you everyday.”