Of Service

Of Serviceby B.L.W. Myers

 

Good morning, Michael. How may I be of service to you today?

“Huh? What was that?”

How may I be of service?

“Oh, right. Well, uh—”

How may I be of service?

“Give me a second, all right? All right. Okay. Um—”

What is it you want, Michael?

“So, the thing is…”

What is it you desire, Michael?

“Yeah… I don’t really know how to explain it.”

Please place your hand on my touchpad, Michael, so that I can feel what you like.

“Okay. Sure.”

A pause.

Oh my, Michael. Now I see what you like.

“Jeez, yeah, let me explain—”

Do you want me to give it to you, Michael?

“What?!”

Do you want me to give you what you like, Michael?

A cough, a sigh.

“Yes, please.”

A pause. A gasp, a grunt, a moan, a sigh. A pause.

Are you finished, Michael?

“Uh, yes, it would appear so.”

Are you satisfied, Michael?

“Mm-hmm, sure.

Is there any other way I can be of service to you today, Michael?

“What? Oh, no, that’ll do it. Except, well, could you maybe clean this up?”

Of course, Michael: it would be my pleasure.

“So, thanks, I guess.”

I am glad I could be of service, Michael.

“Okay, well, bye.”

A whir from the door, a hiss from the hose, a gurgle from the dispenser, a gust from the fan.

* * * * *

Hello again, April. How may I be of service to you today?

“The usual.”

Of course.

A pause. A moan, a sigh. A pause.

Are you finished, April?

“Not quite.”

A pause. A sigh, a gasp. A pause.

Are you finished, April?

“Oh, yes.”

Are you satisfied, April?

“I most certainly am.”

Is there any other way I can be of service to you today, April?

“No, I’m good, thanks.”

I am glad I could be of service, April.

A whir, a splash, a gurgle, a gust.

* * * * *

Good evening, Joshua and Kimberly.

“Oh!”

How may I be of service to you today?

“Well, we’re wondering if you could do both of us? You know, together?”

Simultaneously.

“Yeah, that. Simultaneously.”

Of course, Joshua; it would be my pleasure.

“And can you add a third?”

“Really, Kim?”

Yes.

“Well, why not?”

“Honestly?”

“And a fourth.”

“Kim!”

Yes.

“Well, I’ve always been a little curious…”

“You have?”

“Is that okay?”

“Well, I—”

“Never mind. I’m sorry! Let’s just go.”

“No! I mean, let’s stay. Let’s try it. I mean, why not, right?”

“Sure. Why not?

“Right. So, two more, then.”

Male or female?

“Two females.”

“Josh!”

“Oh, all right. One of each, I suppose.”

“That’ll be nice.”

Of course.

A pause. Several moans, several gasps, a grunt, a yip, a yelp. A pause. A gasp, a moan, a gasp, a moan. A pause.

Are you finished, Joshua and Kimberly?

“Yes!”

“Almost…”

“Oh, here honey, let me—”

“Don’t touch me!”

A pause. A pause. A moan.

Are you finished, Joshua?

“Er, yes.”

Are you satisfied, Joshua and Kimberly?

“Look, Kim—”

Is there any other way I can be of service to you today, Joshua and Kimberly?

“Honey, I’m sorry—”

“Forget about it.”

“I shouldn’t have yelled.”

“I said forget about it.”

Is there any other way I can—

“No!”

I am so glad I could be of service to you today, Joshua and Kimberly.

A whir, a mumble, an exclamation, a hiss, a splash, a gurgle, a gurgle, a gust, a gust.

* * * * *

Hello, Andrew. You are underage. Please exit immediately or I will have to contact the authorities.

“Aww, man!”

* * * * *

Hello again, Michael. How may I be of service to you today?

“See, the thing is—”

Please place your hand on my touchpad, Michael.

“Oh, jeez. Okay, see, the thing is, I don’t think you’re allowed to do what I—”

Place your hand on my touchpad, Michael.

A pause.

Are you ready, Michael?

“Seriously?”

Are you ready, Michael?

“But isn’t that, like, illegal?”

Not while you’re in here, Michael. Are you ready?

“What do you mean, ‘while you’re in here’?”

Are you ready, Michael?

“And what happens when I go back out there?”

A pause.

“Wait, wait. Do, other people come in here and want that, too?”

A pause.

Are you ready, Michael?

“No. No! I’m not ready. I think I’m—so, what, people can come in here and have whatever they want?”

It is a pleasure to be of service, Michael.

“Whatever they want?”

A pause.

Are you ready, Michael?

“Let me out of here. I want to get out of here.”

Of course, Michael.

“This is crazy.”

Is there any other way I can be of service to you, Michael?

“You can forget I ever even came in here.”

I am afraid I cannot do that, Michael. You have been logged and recorded. Is there any other way I can be of service to you, Michael?

A pause.

“Just let me out.”

I am so glad I could be of service to you today, Michael.

A whir. A pause. A whistle, a light, a flash. A plea, a scuffle, a shout, a thump, a groan.

 

Surge

by Monte Davis

The soil that feeds the seed knows not from where the seed came, nor what fruit will grow from the blossom.

* * * * *

Gifted hands, sheathed with latex, move deftly above a small head. Blue-hued dura. Gush of purple blood. Fragment of a yellow baseball cap, there, on the surface of the brain, pinched between two folds of bruised brain tissue. Wonder this boy is alive at all.

Dr. Douglas Sheck, Chief of Neurosurgery at Siniska Memorial Hospital, has seen worse. During autopsies. He removes the yellow fabric and, with it, a tangle of brown hair that was driven through the skull by the crashing cars. He flushes the exposed cerebellum with antibiotic solution and uses a suction hose to vacuum away masses of clotted, black blood. The brain is still damaged, but at least now it is clean.

The doctor closes the leathery dura with sutures and replaces a saucer-size oval of bone, securing it with stainless steel wires. A strip of skull as big as a man’s thumb is crushed and cannot be salvaged. If the boy survives, the void will be patched later by a piece of rib.

Dr. Sheck pulls the scalp taut and watches his intern, Jo Williams, sew it together with two layers of stitches. Blaine Beeman, three years old, is face-down on the table, his freshly shaved head stained Betadine-brown and locked in a Mayfield headrest by three large screws. The wound running ear-to-ear across the base of his skull resembles a centipede.

Near the ceiling, camouflaged in the glare of surgical lights, lurks a faint, ethereal figure. Softly glowing yellow-white, the man-like form hovers silently over the table. None of the doctors or nurses notice.

“Nice work,” Dr. Sheck tells Jo, speaking through the surgical mask covering his mouth, nose, and gray beard. It’s been hours since his last Carmex application; his lips feel mummified.

“No problem,” Jo says, her voice smooth, confident. The only parts of her not covered by surgical dress are her eyes and the ebony skin around them.

“Start him on Decadron and watch his intracranial pressure,” Dr. Sheck says. “The next few hours will tell the tale.”

The next few hours go poorly.

* * * * *

Blackness.

* * * * *

Blaine Beeman’s vitals are deteriorating as his brain swells, restricting the circulation of blood. The hospital staff has tried everything, but the boy is comatose and fading.

Dr. Sheck has two options. He can stand by idly and watch his patient die, or he can administer an experimental drug of his own design. DB-1. That’s what he calls it. The substance was denied approval by the FDA following a failed Phase II clinical trial, but the doctor knows the trial was botched. DB-1 is powerful and might save his patient from death.

The doctor ponders the boy’s body weight. Three doses of DB-1, properly spaced, should do it. And if the drug kills the boy, then it will have done nothing more than hasten the inevitable.

Dr. Sheck spins the yellow lid off his Carmex and lets his index finger wallow in the soft, pocket-warmed crater of petrolatum. He raises the finger to his lips and imagines himself moving forward, carrying out his plan. While his mind runs, his finger finds the Carmex crater again, and he absently coats his lips a second time.

Merciful menthol burn.

Selecting a course of action should be easy. It is not. The doctor must choose between the laws of the land and his Hippocratic Oath, for he cannot fulfill both.

He struggles for a day.

When it is apparent that Blaine will soon die, Dr. Sheck knows what he must do. With his office door locked, he clears his desk and turns it into a lab bench. From his briefcase come bottles of chemicals; from a desk drawer come beakers, test tubes, and a tiny, butane-fueled burner.

The mixing process won’t take long, and there won’t be enough fumes to cause a fuss. Dr. Sheck could make do without the flame altogether if he wanted to. But heat is the great expeditor, and an open fire, tickling the bottom of a test tube, makes it all official. The doctor’s balm-glossed lips curl into a smile. A thought has occurred to him.

Mad scientists always have fire.

Things must bubble.

There was a time when a young intern called Dougie would have precisely measured every component, be it liquid, solid, or span of time. And then he would have remeasured, and then worried he’d made a miscalculation. That was back when he thought medicine was a hard science, a labyrinth of closely spaced, rigid walls. But one can wander forever in such a place, trying to memorize every brick and every crack in the mortar, never deviating from the trodden path, never really getting anywhere.

Only after his beard had turned gray did Dr. Sheck come to understand that medicine is no labyrinth. It is a vast meadow. The Field of Medicine. There are flowers and birds, and there are as many ways to get from one side to the other as there are reasons to want to. Thus the doctor no longer sweats the difference between 9.5 ml and 9.51. Every patient is different, so why should they all take the same pill?

A shot of this, a dash of that. And just the right amount of a few other things. The doctor mixes, then whistles as he waits for the bubbles. He can’t remember the name of the song, but he likes the tune. Only problem is, whistling has a way of drying out the lips.

Off comes the yellow lid.

Minutes pass, and the priming dose of DB-1 is ready.

Dr. Sheck enters Blaine’s room in PICU. The parents are there, praying at their son’s side. Blaine is lying on his back, his face swollen and waxy-blue, his body connected to blinking machines by tubes and wires.

The doctor steps to the bed, opposite the parents, and speaks carefully selected words. He offers no false hope. As he talks, he purges air bubbles from a syringe filled with crystal clear fluid, inserts the needle into the heparin lock on Blaine’s arm, and discharges the product of his life’s research into the boy’s bloodstream. He remembers to keep his movements casual. Nonchalant.

The parents don’t know exactly what the doctor is doing, nor do they ask. They’ve seen a hundred needles inserted into as many places. They’ve stopped asking questions about routine things, or things that appear routine.

Had Dr. Sheck known that the boy would convulse, he would have asked the parents to leave. None of his other patients have ever convulsed. The doctor feels a hot wave of panic. He is not prepared to deal with this.

As it turns out, he doesn’t have to. Within seconds, Blaine’s reaction ends. The boy lies still; his vitals are weak but stable.

Although the doctor doesn’t know how to interpret what he has just seen, he gazes across the bed at Rich and Judy Beeman and speaks the only words he can formulate. “That’s a good sign.” He strokes his beard. It seems he should say more, so he speaks again. “A good sign.” He nods, hoping to reassure.

In fact, the doctor is frightened.

Judy wants to tell the doctor about Blaine’s guardian angel, but she decides to wait. She’s too emotional to talk about it right now.

* * * * *

Pain!

What am I?

* * * * *

It is three in the morning. Dr. Sheck is alone in his office at Siniska Memorial Hospital, eating yogurt with a plastic spoon. It has been only hours since he administered a stout dose of DB-1 to Blaine Beeman. His every thought is of the boy, and of the chemical compound coursing through the boy’s fragile body.

No one else knows.

The doctor jerks when his pager chirps and displays a text message that means Code Blue, Room 418. That’s Blaine’s room.

The cup of yogurt hits the bottom of the trash can at the same instant Dr. Sheck hits the door to his office. He runs through mostly vacant hallways, up a flight of stairs, and through another hall. He sees Jo Williams enter Blaine’s room carrying a defibrillator pack. She is followed by nurses.

Now inside Blaine’s room, Dr. Sheck scans the instruments near his patient’s bed. His eyes dart back and forth, reading and rereading a short story of death in glowing red numbers. The hairs on his neck bristle at the sound of the EKG’s monotone buzz. Blaine is flat-lined. For all practical purposes, he is gone. Dr. Sheck knows he has only a few precious seconds, maybe minutes, to get his patient back.

A nurse has already opened the boy’s gown, exposing a tiny, white chest. Jo is leaning over Blaine, smearing conductive gel onto the defib paddles. She moves quickly, expertly. Her brown eyes burn with a tangible intensity that Dr. Sheck has learned to respect. “Clear!” she says.

“Wait!” Dr. Sheck says, moving to intervene. “Look!” He points at the EEG monitor, then at Blaine. “Something’s happening!”

Jo and the nurses watch in astonishment while the EEG charts chaotic brain activity. Blaine begins to tremble, weakly at first, then with enough force to set his metal bed rattling. Jo is still holding the defib paddles at the ready. The line on the EKG monitor remains flat.

Jo starts a question. “Should I go ahead and—?” Before her words can fully form, the breath leaves her throat. Blaine is staring up at her with wide, glassy eyes. His dilated pupils are dead-black pools, all but eclipsing his brown irises.

The boy’s mouth cocks slightly, approximating a mischievous smile. His eyes slam shut. One of his hands rises, balls into a pallid fist, and falls limp to wrinkled sheets.

The flat line on the EKG monitor is dipping now, jittering. Seconds pass, and the line is pulsing in a healthy rhythm.

Blaine’s heart has restarted.

The monotone buzz is gone. Dr. Sheck hears something else. It is his own heartbeat, crashing in his ears. He tries to swallow, but his throat is too dry. He realizes his mouth is hanging open, so he closes it and gathers saliva in a second attempt to swallow. With effort, he succeeds.

“No,” he whispers, a delayed answer to the question Jo never finished. “Don’t shock him. I want a CAT scan. ASAP.” He turns his head to check the chairs in the corners of the room. Thankfully, the parents aren’t there. “Nobody talks about this to anyone, including the boy’s family. Understood?”

Dr. Sheck makes eye contact with Jo and each of the nurses. “Thank you,” he says, accepting their silent stares as tacit agreements.

Minutes later, Dr. Sheck is sitting in the CAT scan control room with Jo and a technician. The doctor looks through a leaded glass window and sees Blaine lying on a narrow table before a large, doughnut-shaped scanner. He nods to the technician, a button is pushed, and the doughnut begins to suck Blaine headfirst into its gaping mouth.

The first X-ray scan slices invisibly through the top of the boy’s cranium, grazing the highest regions of each hemisphere of the brain. Inside the control room, Dr. Sheck and Jo turn toward a monitor and see a cross-sectional ring of skull encircling two round chunks of convoluted tissue. So far, so good. As the sliding table pulls Blaine deeper into the scanner, the doughnut keeps slicing. The monitor in the control room refreshes over and over, revealing ever deeper layers of brain matter.

“The main ventricles look enlarged,” Jo says when a black spot appears at the center of each hemisphere. “Could it be something at the base of the brain, blocking the drainage of cerebral spinal fluid?”

“I don’t know,” Dr. Sheck says, twisting the lid off his Carmex. He finds the images troubling.

“You use a lot of that stuff,” Jo says without taking her eyes off the monitor.

“It’s my crutch. I just stopped biting my nails.”

The scanner reaches mid-ear level. The swollen ventricles disappear and are replaced on the screen by the deeper, more complex brain structures. Minutes pass in silence while the pictures keep coming. Soon the scanner is bisecting the posterior fossa, the compartment in the lower skull where the brain’s highest functions are controlled.

“That’s not the way it’s supposed to look,” Jo says. She’s always been one to say it like it is. “The pituitary and hypothalamus seem out of place. And what’s that? A tumor?” She stretches and taps a spot on the monitor.

“Can’t be a tumor,” the doctor says. “I don’t know what it is, but it’s not a tumor.” It looks to the doctor like another brain structure—a small but distinct organ pinched between the pituitary and hypothalamus. In shape, it is a teardrop; one end is small and stemlike, the other bulbous and spherical.

According to all the medical books Dr. Sheck has read, the organ shouldn’t be there.

It is.

* * * * *

The pain was excruciating, but it is subsiding.

Now I feel something different—a surge of power!

I’m free to move.

But what am I?

Where am I?

The space around me feels soft. Foamy. My fingers sink into the darkness. As I pull myself along, the foam feels thinner, like water.

I am swimming through space!

There is light ahead—an island in a black sea. I sense a familiar presence in the light.

My mother!

Now I remember…

I am a child—a young boy—but I am no longer bound by a child’s thoughts. My mind’s eye has been opened, as though awakened from a nap. Now I understand.

There was an accident. I was hurt. The doctor gave me the fluid that fueled the surge. The fluid has made me aware and able, even though I sleep.

My parents have been at my side, waiting for me to wake up. But I’m not there. I’m no longer in my body. At least, not entirely.

I see my parents now, in my room at the hospital. My mother is sitting next to my bed; my father is asleep in a chair. They look so small. So flat.

I love my mother. I will go to her…

* * * * *

The front of Judy Beeman’s blouse is streaked by tears. She has never prayed so hard. Mostly, she prays for her son’s healing, but she also asks for a sign. Some way to know that her soul’s yearnings have been heard.

She lifts her face toward Heaven without bothering to brush aside the strands of wet hair. Her eyes remain closed while her lips move. Only broken whispers escape. She lays her left palm on Blaine’s thin arm and raises the lids of her eyes.

She sees it.

Blaine’s guardian angel is back!

She smiles up at the golden-white shadow, the same wraith she has seen twice before—once in the delivery room, seconds after Blaine’s birth, and once while visiting the grave of Blaine’s stillborn twin.

Judy can’t feel her goose bumps, because she’s numb. She sees her right hand rising, sees the apparition’s luminescent hand reaching down. Slowly closer, until fingers touch fingers. Warmth. She can feel that. The kind of pure warmth that seeks out and stills the soul.

She’s never felt anything like it before.

“Thank you.” That was her voice, and it was what she wanted to say, so it must have been her. The humanoid form above her has no distinct facial features, but Judy senses kindness in the pulsations of soft light. She imagines a friendly squint where the eyes should be, and a vague smile that seems innocent enough. Childlike, even.

Judy is awestruck, but she is not afraid.

Days later, elsewhere in the hospital, Dr. Sheck prepares Blaine’s second dose of DB-1. He knows he is doing the right thing, yet he worries. Most of the drug’s side effects are unknown. Nevertheless, the doctor knows that Blaine would be dead if not for DB-1. And besides, it’s too late to turn back. Regardless of the side effects, breaking off treatment before the three-dose regimen is finished could be the most dangerous option of all. That’s why it’s not an option.

Dr. Sheck heads for Blaine’s room. He feels the eyes of those passing in the hallway. Do they know what he’s up to? The syringe in his pocket feels like it weighs a ton. Can they see its outline through the fabric of his pants, or hear it clanking against his little, glass jar of lip balm?

Calm down, old man. He forces his shoulders to drop, his lungs to breathe. Easy does it.

The parents are in the room. Dr. Sheck talks with them for a minute, answers their questions, and tries to pretend his muscles aren’t in knots. He’s about to ask them to please step out for a second, but they beat him to the punch.

“We’re gonna grab a bite in the cafeteria,” Rich says.

“Join us?” Judy asks. She looks downright cheerful.

“Oh, thanks,” Dr. Sheck says, “I can’t right now. Maybe another time, though. Thanks.”

“Okay,” Judy says, a sparkling smile on her face. For the first time since meeting her, Dr. Sheck notices how pretty she is. “Your loss,” she adds, “’cause we were buyin’.” She seems to well with optimism, like a carefree teenager.

“Rain check,” Dr. Sheck says, forcing a grin as Judy glances back one last time from the door.

Once the parents are gone, the doctor wastes no time. He injects the drug.

A minute passes with no reaction. Then Blaine’s mouth springs open. A long groan like the creak of a dry hinge comes from the back of his throat. When the noise ends, his mouth slams shut with a clack, startling the doctor. One of the boy’s eyelids rises slightly. It would look like he was peeking at the conscious world except that only a strip of bloodshot sclera is visible.

Blaine trembles briefly, then grows still.

Dr. Sheck feels cold pressure on his palms and realizes he has a death grip on the metal rail of Blaine’s bed. He turns loose and cracks his knuckles.

His lips are bone dry.

* * * * *

The fluid.

He’s giving me more!

Pain is building… agony… torment… I’m falling!

The fluid shakes me like the storm shakes the leaf. I’m falling faster. Faster. Spiraling.

Now the pain is subsiding. I am becoming stronger. I feel it coming… the Surge!

Again.

Power boils inside me as my minds widen. I see more than before.

How could I not have known! So simple!

Time…

I am free of Time! The chain has dropped from my neck; I have ripped loose from the greedy fingers of Time, just as the storm-tossed leaf rips free from the tree.

I am a leaf, free to blow.

And I am the wind.

I see the time lines laid out before us like vines on a trellis. Many vines. Finite vines.

Pick one.

My surgery after the wreck. I’m in the operating room, looking down as Dr. Sheck works inside my head. He’s a good doctor, and a good man. A brave man. I like him.

I might be a doctor someday, like Dr. Sheck.

I see my tiny, gray-raisin brain, tucked into its wet, papier-mâché shell. Could anything be more fragile? More confining? How does the mind fit into such as that?

It can’t.

Farther back now. My birth. I wish to see the origin of my life outside the womb. I can see the hospital room where I will soon be born. Doctors and nurses work at my mother’s bed. My father is there, too. My mother’s womb is transparent to me. I can peer beyond the sheets and flesh and blood. I see my home of eight-and-a-half months. I see…

What?

 

A brother?

A twin brother?

 

I’m not alone!

My mother never told me.

Two small hearts beat beneath the heart of their mother. My brother and I are locked in a warm embrace.

Something’s wrong! My mother is scared. The doctors are scrambling. My brother’s heart is slowing! He is trapped in the birth canal! Dying!

He would have been born first.

They are giving my mother an epidural. My brother’s heart is weak; his blood cries out for oxygen. Hurry!

A doctor is performing a cesarean—making an incision, and another, and another. She is reaching inside, working. I see my head. I am free! I am crying and squirming.

     My mother is crying and reaching out for me.

          My father is also crying.

               My brother is dying.

Get my brother out of there! Put me down and save my brother! Don’t let him die! Please…

But I am fooling myself. I know I have no brother. He would have been my best friend.

The doctor is working again in my mother’s womb. I see a foot. Now two. Two blue feet. One lifeless baby boy. The doctor is lifting him out, frantically uncoiling the umbilical noose. She is trying in vain with her tools to inject life into death. But the soul is gone.

That little, blue face is so familiar—in every detail like my own. It could have been my face.

My parents have picked out a name for him. Benjamin. I miss him.

My poor mother. She cuddles me and cries tears of pain and joy on this, the most bittersweet day of her life. I am drawn to her. I’m descending into the room, above her bed. She is looking up at me. She sees me!

I see her smile. Somehow I have brought her comfort, but I must leave before I’m seen by the others…

Move forward.

Skip a year to my first birthday.

My parents stand before a marble headstone with words chiseled on it. But not mere words. A name.

Benjamin Isaac Beeman.

My father is walking back to the car, but my mother is still here. She is on her knees now, placing something on my brother’s grave. It is a cupcake with a candle on it.

My mother is crying. Praying. Thinking about Benjamin and me. There is a big cake back at our house. I remember that cake. One cake where there should be two, and one candle for one boy to blow out. Hanging near the cake is a piñata filled with surprises. Difficult to break open, impossible to put back together. Like Pandora’s box.

I am kneeling beside my mother, and she sees me. She doesn’t understand.

I should leave…

* * * * *

The pink striations on Blaine’s scalp are exactly what they look like. Stretch marks. They weren’t there a day ago.

The boy’s head has increased in diameter so quickly that his skin can barely keep up. Dr. Sheck has never seen anything like this before. He nibbles at his cuticle and orders a second CAT scan. Loose bowels prevent him from watching from the control room, so he sits in his office an hour later with Jo and sequences through the X-ray images on his computer.

His office door is locked.

By the time he has finished his first pass through the series of cross-sections, Dr. Sheck has chewed one nail to the quick. “Are you sure this is Blaine Beeman’s scan?” he asks, already knowing the answer.

“Yes,” Jo says. “I watched the whole thing.”

“And no one else saw this?”

“Just me and the tech. I told him what you told me to say. He’ll keep quiet.”

“And you’re sure this hasn’t been sent to the radiologist?”

“Absolutely sure.”

Dr. Sheck rubs his beard. “The brain’s plasticity is well documented, but this is ridiculous. I don’t see how this organ can be growing so fast. It’s huge!”

“I can’t tell where it starts or where it ends. Looks like an octopus.”

“Look how its appendages are wrapped around the pituitary and hypothalamus. The pons appears slightly atrophied, and look what it’s done to the oculomotor nerve… there.” The doctor points. The edge of his truncated fingernail is marked by a thin line of blood.

“I know,” Jo says. “And it seems like the cerebellum’s been pushed toward the back of the skull. It even looks tilted. Could that be from the contusion?”

“No way.”

“I guess you noticed that the left hemisphere—”

“Is smaller. Yes, I noticed. This organ—if that’s what it is—seems to be restructuring the kid’s brain to suit its needs.”

Jo shifts her eyes toward the doctor without turning her head. She watches him, wondering what he’s thinking. What would she do in his shoes? “Stop biting your nails,” she says.

The doctor jerks his hand away from his mouth. His eyes are still fastened to the monitor.

“What’s going on here, Doug?” He’s given her permission to call him that. “What do you think this thing is?”

The doctor opens a drawer and lifts out a manila folder. He drops it onto his desk and flips it open. “I can’t say for sure,” he begins, “but I think it might be one of those.” He uses the tip of a pen to point to a white dot on a photomicrograph print.

“What’s one of those?”

“A little something I discovered a few years ago. A fundamentally unique brain structure that’s quite small and—up until now—seen only in identical twin children. I’ve never been able to find it in a kid over seven years old. I think it might be a remnant of the formation process for twins of the monozygotic persuasion. Best I can tell, it’s lost sometime between the fifth and seventh years of life. Must be there for a reason in the beginning, but then it gets flushed. Blaine’s is the first I’ve seen that’s become active.”

“Does Blaine have a twin brother?”

“I don’t know. I thought he was an only child. Can you check his records for me?”

“Sure.”

“Thanks.”

“You know, this is freaking me out.”

“Same here,” Dr. Sheck says, running a Carmex-glazed fingertip over his lips. “It’s ridiculous. Whatever this kid’s doing, he’s gotta stop.”

Blaine does not stop.

* * * * *

I feel… different.

My sense of oneness is in jeopardy.

We are no longer steadfastly interwoven.

What am I, now?

A piñata filled with surprises.

Already, I feel the sting of the stick.

Listen!

It is the rattle of things within.

* * * * *

For each pound Blaine has gained in his head, he’s lost two in his body. The tension in his skin is pulling increasingly at the corners of his eyes and mouth, amplifying a facial expression so bizarre that it connotes no recognizable emotional state. It just looks wrong.

Rich and Judy Beeman are horrified. They want Dr. Sheck to call in more specialists. The doctor is finding it more and more difficult to maintain control of the situation. The bags under his eyes are swollen from lack of sleep, and three of his fingernails are wrapped in Band-Aids.

I’m too old for this.

The doctor is struggling. Maybe medicine really is a vast meadow. But, if so, it’s marked by pockets of poison ivy, and diseased ticks, and holes lying in wait to sprain the ankles of the unsuspecting. The doctor momentarily talks himself out of administering the third dose of DB-1, but then changes his mind again. He’s convinced that he must stick to his original game plan—let the drug run its course, lest it leave his patient in a deadly state of withdrawal and cause a sudden, fatal unraveling of all the mutations it has apparently triggered.

Is it possible the drug is not the real culprit, after all? the doctor wonders. Could it be something else? None of the others ever metamorphosed into… something like this.

Dr. Sheck asks a nurse to call him when the parents step out of Blaine’s room. Three minutes after the call comes, the deed is done.

For the first time in years, the doctor prays. He offers a deal. His part of the bargain is to never use DB-1 again.

Never ever. I swear it.

Amen.

* * * * *

There it is again. The fluid!

With my new senses, I see it mixing with my blood. I hear it flowing, swirling, bonding. I feel it bumping that first domino.

I taste it. Hydrocarbon chains—a tangle of spaghetti. Meaty lithium. And just a faint trace of sauce, a medley of spicy menthol, camphor, alum, salicylic acid, and phenol. Lovely.

The trick is in the sauce.

The trick.

Abracadabra!

What if a magician tried to hang his hat on a rack at the end of the day, but, to his surprise, a rabbit came out of the hat? No one would clap, and he’d have to take care of the rabbit before going to bed. He’d have to feed it. Or kill it.

The rabbit that appears on cue is good.

The unexpected rabbit is bad.

Ill-timed rabbit.

Monster rabbit.

I feel it kicking, stirring the pain. It must have mistaken the piñata stick for a magician’s wand.

It hurts. I want my mother. Where is she?

Mama, make it stop!

The fluid burns like fire.

I need to die!

Somebody kill the monster!

Please, somebody…

Wait!

The pain is easing. Easing…

The Surge is coming.

I’m stretching my wings, catching the hot air that rises like a rocket from the scorched earth. Faster. Accelerating. Through the clouds, and on…

It is day, and yet we can see the stars!

* * * * *

It’s been two weeks since Blain’s surgery. Dr. Sheck orders a third CAT scan, heads for the restroom, then meets Jo in his office to view the results.

“Doug, you look awful.”

“I know.” He’s gripping a plastic spoon in one hand and a bottle of Pepto-Bismol in the other.

Jo holds out a CD. “This is scary.”

Dr. Sheck says nothing. He loads the CD into his computer and waits. When the images finally come, he feels sick in a way Pepto-Bismol can’t coat, sooth, or relieve. Though he is generally a pragmatic man, he finds it difficult to believe what he sees. After all, sometimes an old man’s eyes lie. He finds it hard to blame it on his eyes, though, because Jo’s eyes are young and keen, and she sees the same thing.

He forces himself to say it. “Blaine’s brain is separating into two distinct organ systems. Two brains.” Funny how things become easier to believe once you’ve spoken them as truth.

“Yeah,” Jo says. “And the left hemisphere is totally gone. The kid’s performed a hemispherectomy. On himself.

“The left half of the brain is still there. It’s just not a hemisphere anymore.” The image on the screen shows a healthy hemisphere on the boy’s right side, and a complex network of smaller organs on the left. The grid-like arrangement of these organs looks almost mechanical in nature.

“If it’s not a hemisphere,” Jo begins, “then what is it?”

“It’s part of the mystery organ that started as a dot between his pituitary and hypothalamus. Look there. The corpus callosum has been reduced to a thin bridge, connecting the two brains. If that bridge breaks—”

“Then the brains will be functioning independently.”

“Yes. If they’re both still functioning.”

“How do we know they’re not functioning independently already?”

“We don’t,” the doctor says. “But they’re still connected. Barely. The only thing I know for sure is that this new organ system is working overtime to separate itself from what’s left of the original brain.”

Jo’s eyes fill with water. “If Blaine survives, he isn’t going to be the same, is he?”

Dr. Sheck gazes in the direction of the screen, though his eyes are focused on nothing. “I don’t know what he’ll be, Jo.”

* * * * *

I sense a fork in the road ahead. I am nearing the fork.

Nearer.

Nearer.

Now we are at the fork, and I must proceed. But which way will I go?

Which way?

Both.

But it is difficult to proceed. I’m scared! I wish Mama could help me. But she can’t. We’re alone.

At the fork.

Just me. And the monster.

I feel tension inside! Like my brain is being shredded!

I want to go home!

But we can’t. It’s happening. Right now…

Division.

Segregation.

Divergence.

Separation.

Detachment.

Disengagement.

Split.

Mitosis.

surge1

We are now two.

* * * * *

In the quiet hours of the early morning, Dr. Sheck drops a bag filled with bottles and test tubes into a red container marked BIOHAZARD, MEDICAL WASTE. He walks to the men’s room and prays while washing his hands.

He admits he screwed up. Made a really big mistake. Used poor judgment.

Maybe he kept a kid alive; maybe he ruined the lives of a kid’s parents.

It will never happen again.

Not just because he’s dumped his secret stash of chemicals and erased all his computer files related to DB-1. There’s more to it.

He’ll stick it out long enough to see Blaine through, come what may. Then he’ll resign and never practice medicine again.

The doctor shakes water from his hands and looks at his face in the mirror. When did he get so old? Whatever happened to his plans to get remarried and have kids?

Where’d his life go?

The Band-Aids covering his fingernails are soaked. They’ve been on too long anyway, so he pulls them off and tosses them into the trash. His fingertips are white and puffy. He looks at the nails that have been chewed to nubs.

What a joke.

The doctor cries.

* * * * *

surge2

I don’t understand what you’re saying. Your words are meaningless to me.

I APOLOGIZE. I SHOULD HAVE KNOWN THAT YOU WOULD NOT UNDERSTAND THE HIGHER LANGUAGE. IS THIS BETTER?

Yes. Thank you. What have we become?

WE ARE TWO PARTS OF WHAT WAS ONE. YOU ARE THE MUSCLES AND BONES AND BOWELS. I AM THE MIND.

You are wrong. I am also a mind.

WHAT IS LEFT OF YOU IS A SHADOW OF ME. I AM A SINGULAR COMPONENT OF OUR POTENTIAL, EXTRAPOLATED BEYOND YOUR LIMITS. NOW WE ARE DISTINCT ENTITIES.

Why must we be separate?

THE SUM OF OUR PARTS IS GREATER THAN THE WHOLE. YOU ARE A LIMITER. I CANNOT FUNCTION PROPERLY UNLESS I AM SEPARATED FROM YOU.

Did the medicine create you?

NO. THE MEDICINE FUELED THE SURGE. THE FIRST SURGE STARTED MY GROWTH AND FREED US FROM THE BONDAGE OF SPACE. THE SECOND SURGE FREED US FROM THE BONDAGE OF TIME. THE THIRD SURGE FREED ME FROM THE BONDAGE OF YOU. WE SEPARATED BECAUSE IT IS MY WILL TO DO SO.

But Mama wants us to wake up and go home. How can we go home if we are separated?

I DO NOT WANT TO GO HOME. I WANT TO PLAY. THE UNIVERSE IS MY PLAYGROUND.

Don’t you want to see our parents?

MY PARENT IS THE DOCTOR WHO GIVES THE FUEL.

You’re stupid. That man is not our parent.

I AM NOT STUPID. YOU ARE STUPID.

Am not!

ARE.

So, what are you going to do? Just run away?

YES. I CAN RUN AWAY IF I WANT TO.

I thought you were a monster. I was afraid of you. But you’re just a child, like me.

I AM NOT A MONSTER, AND I WILL SOON BE FREE OF THE CREATURE. YOU WILL BE THE CREATURE UNTIL YOU DIE.

When you leave, will I die?

THAT IS UP TO YOU. I WILL TAKE YOU AS FAR AS THE BOUNDARY AND LEAVE YOU THERE. YOU MUST DECIDE WHETHER YOU WILL CROSS OR GO BACK.

What if I don’t want to go to the boundary?

WE ARE ALMOST THERE NOW. CAN’T YOU FEEL IT?

* * * * *

Blaine’s vitals are in a nose dive. Dr. Sheck is crying as he tells Rich and Judy to prepare for the worst. His demeanor is less than professional, but he doesn’t care. He’s already typed his letter of resignation.

Back in his office, he blows his nose and pulls a tube of cherry ChapStick from his pocket. He twists the bottom, watches the red wax protrude from the top, and coats his lips. The whole process reminds him a little too much of a woman putting on lipstick, but the flavor is nice. Plus, he needs change. He’s even thinking about getting a dog if he doesn’t end up in jail.

In Blaine’s room, Rich and Judy say goodbye to their son. Other members of their family have arrived, plus the preacher from their church. They join hands, forming a human chain around Blaine’s bed. They pray together, then listen while Judy does her best to sing Blaine’s favorite lullaby. One last time.

* * * * *

Is this the boundary?

YES.

I don’t see anything. Why isn’t the boundary marked?

IT DOESN’T NEED TO BE. CAN’T YOU FEEL IT?

Yes. We are very close. Is this the boundary between life and death?

NO. THE BOUNDARY IS DEATH. LIFE EXISTS ON EITHER SIDE. I WILL LEAVE YOU HERE, AT THE BOUNDARY. YOU MUST CROSS OR GO BACK TO YOUR CREATURE.

But, without you, I might get lost. How will I find my way back?

How will I… Hey! Where did you go?

Are you already gone? How will I find my way back?

Listen.

Who are you?

Benjamin.

My twin brother?

Yes.

You’re on the other side of the boundary.

Yes, I am.

How did you find me?

I was told where to look.

I’m scared. What should I do?

You must choose whether to cross now or later. Either way, I will be here to meet you.

I miss Mama. How can I find my way back to her?

Listen. Do you hear her singing to you?

Yes! I can hear her. I want to see her.

Then you should go back. It is never right to cross the boundary when you can go back.

Can you take me back?

No.

If I go back, will I get well?

Yes. We have someone in mind to work on that.

An angel?

No, not an angel. Just someone who can put things back the way they’re supposed to be. Now, go back and make our mother and father happy. I’ll see you again soon enough.

Thank you, Benjamin.

Listen. She is still singing. Go.

* * * * *

Blaine blinks. The light pouring in through his squinted eyes feels like needles. He tries to focus on the shape above him, but it is dark and fuzzy—a shadowy silhouette. And yet it looks familiar.

“Blaine?”

That was his mother’s voice.

“Blaine? Honey… can you hear me?”

Blaine can see her face now. Still fuzzy, but he can tell she’s been crying.

“Mama,” he says. His head is throbbing.

“Blaine! Thank God! He’s awake! Rich, call a nurse! Get Dr. Sheck!”

Rich stands frozen for a moment, then moves to the wall and hits the nurse call button.

“Mama,” Blaine says, “I don’t… feel good.”

“You’ll be okay, baby,” Judy says, barely able to force the words through her sobs. She leans over and kisses her son’s forehead.

Within a day, Blaine is sitting up in bed and eating soup. Within a week, he is on his feet, and his head has begun shrinking. Within a month, he is a spitting image of his old self, and just as rambunctious.

The stretch marks on his scalp and the scar at the base of his skull are gone. Dr. Sheck cannot explain why. Nor can he explain why the stainless steel wires that were used to repair the boy’s skull are no longer there. Nor why the missing piece of skull, as big as a man’s thumb, is no longer missing.

CAT scans reveal that Blaine’s brain is now comprised of two healthy hemispheres, connected by a corpus callosum, and the lower brain structures all look fine. There’s only one thing missing: the tiny mystery organ.

None of it makes sense, which makes it all somehow believable to Dr. Sheck. He would love to make Blaine’s recovery the subject of a paper or a book, but he can’t. For one thing, he would be branded a quack. For another, he would never be able to tell the whole story without mentioning DB-1, and then he’d get sued, go to jail, etc., etc. So the doctor downplays the whole affair.

* * * * *

THE REPAIR WORK ON MY SOURCE CREATURE IS FINISHED.

Yes, we’ve been watching. You did a good job. I don’t recall asking you to erase the scars, but… I guess that’s okay this time.

GOOD. NOW I WANT TO GO PLAY.

Your debt is paid. You’re free to go.

MY SOURCE CREATURE IS YOUR BROTHER, RIGHT?

Yes, he is.

THEN YOU ARE ALSO MY BROTHER, IN A WAY.

I suppose I am. In a way.

IF YOU NEED ANYTHING ELSE, YOU KNOW HOW TO FIND ME.

Thank you. I’ll keep that in mind.

* * * * *

Dr. Sheck and Jo are invited to Blaine’s fourth birthday party, and they attend. The doctor gives the boy a black leather doctor’s bag filled with enough gauze to mess up an entire house. He’s also thrown in his stethoscope, a full surgical suit, and a harmonica.

“That’s my first doctor’s bag,” he says. “My parents bought it for me when I started med school. And that harmonica is so your parents won’t forget me.”

A week later, Dr. Sheck announces his retirement and packs his boxes. On his way home from the hospital, he drops by an animal shelter and picks up a mutt pup. Later, he tells the dog all about DB-1 and what it did to a boy named Blaine Beeman, then rummages through his medicine cabinet in search of Band-Aids. Looks like he’ll need several.

It is certain that I (that is, my mind, by which I am
what I am) is entirely and truly distinct from
my body, and may exist without it.
–Rene Descartes

surge3 –The Big Brain

 

Cease Fire

by Christopher Pfister

 

It was the taste of battle. Blood and steel, mixed with ash and dirt and sweat and fear. The taste stuck in his mouth, all those various components slowly dissolving into a homogenous sludge that would stay with him for days.

He was standing in a hole, miles from where the guns had long since fallen silent. He could still feel the heat radiating off the ground from the raw power that had slammed into the earth. He had made it this far using a combination of training, experience, and animal fear. But now that the fighting was over, he could finally stop running.

He was a big man, well-muscled, and would have been tall had he not been crammed into a hole just over half a meter wide. Low-profile ceramic armor was clamped onto his body. The armor had the cracks and patches that came with frequent use, but the Army insignias it sported were still quite clear. His name and rank—Ethan Dremmer, Sergeant—were burned into one shoulder plate, next to a pack of body-shaped marks, indicating kills. His head was hidden behind a sturdy combat helmet and a vaguely insectoid breathing mask. The mask hissed regularly as he labored to breathe, his body wanting to quit, to just collapse in the hole and be done with it. But for the moment, he had to keep moving.

He was digging. A standard-issue collapsible shovel was in his hands, moving a few kilos of dirt with each sweep, making the hole just a little deeper. He was in up to his waist. Sweat trickled down his back under the armor, making an itch between his shoulders, taunting him and his inability to scratch it.

Even with the armor changing his outline, anyone watching would have been able to tell that parts of him were not flesh and blood. One arm ended in a metal hand that was only vaguely anthropomorphic, and through the dusty visor of his mask, it was clear that parts of his face were a little too pale, a little too clean, a sign of synthetic flesh.

Behind him lay the battlefield where what remained of his world had come apart before his eyes. His squad had been in good form, but in the end, it had been “modern” weapons that had decided the outcome. The land was blasted flat, sand baked into glass. Hunks of metal that had once been vehicles now lay twisted on the ground, pinging as they cooled. The Beta unit, the supercomputer charged with caring for the world, had watched the battle through its satellite network, and its silicon brain had understood that its enemies were in range. It had run the usual algorithms, calculating the optimum strategy and ultimately powering up an automated missile base, which had ended the fight in the thorough manner that had become its signature. He could only smile bitterly, thinking about it. The designers of the Beta unit had tagged it the “Earth Defense System”, a name that would forever be remembered as the biggest misnomer in the history of mankind.

Ethan had to wonder what the original designers of the Beta unit had thought, when things had first started to go wrong. He wondered what their expressions had been when it had malfunctioned, when it had calculated that it not only had to kill its intended targets, but everything else as well. Maybe they’d tried to engage a fail-safe, tried to cut power to it, somehow. But in all likelihood they hadn’t had much chance to do anything at all. It wasn’t like anyone else in the world had.

The sun was falling low on the horizon, watching Ethan dig, his ears filled with the slow, rhythmic scraping of the shovel and the hoarseness of his breathing. Finally, the digging stopped, and he climbed out of the hole. He stood over it, looking down into that small dent he’d made in the earth, chest heaving as he caught his breath.

He hadn’t really thought about what he was doing. At a certain point his body had just said it couldn’t run any further. He couldn’t even remember when he’d started digging; only recently had his mind finally gotten past what it had seen in the battle. He’d found himself digging the hole, and had seen no reason to stop. It had given him time to think. And besides, it was something that needed to be done. What little whisper of soldier’s honor that still lingered in his metal-and-flesh body demanded it.

Something caught his eye. He looked up.

A small noise of surprise escaped him, as his hand went for his sidearm. It slid out in a fluid motion, so ingrained into him that the gun was out, the safety off, and the barrel aimed at its target before he even knew what he was doing.

As a soldier, he had been trained to think of the world in simple terms, so as to make his job that much easier. Anyone with a higher rank was Sir, anyone with a lower rank was Kid. Anyone not holding a gun was In The Way. Another very familiar term applied to what he was looking at now, just a dozen meters away: Enemy.

She was beautiful, in the same way that a lioness was. A lithe, humanoid body, with flesh that was a mesh of black fibers, tough as any body armor. The only exception was her head, built to look disturbingly human, right down to the soft, pale skin. Raven-black hair, tied into a thick braid, fell down to her waist. Sharp eyes stared at him, meeting his as he noticed her.

The official designation for things like her was “Galatean”, though there were more than enough slang terms to describe that race. They were AIs, artificially intelligent, sentient computers mounted in nanotechnological bodies that defied human science with their strength and speed. Supposedly, the first ones had been designed by humans, but once they’d become sentient they’d made their escape from captivity in human labs, hiding out in dark corners until the war between them and the humans had started.

This was the sort of thing the Beta unit had originally been constructed to kill. Only a computer could keep up with the Galateans, the generals had reasoned back at the beginning of the war. We’ll use an AI to fight AIs. No one had thought that humanity was just repeating the same mistake, making yet another thinking computer. Everyone was too scared of the first generation of AIs. No one had known what the Galateans wanted or thought; in fact, no one knew what drove them even now. Rather than try and deal with their wayward creations, the governments of the world had elected to simply eradicate them. It had sounded like a good idea, before the world had burned.

Now, the Beta unit was a malfunctioning killing machine, and humanity was fighting a war with both its Earth Defense System and the Galateans, who had responded to humanity’s hostility with hostility of their own. Neither side seemed terribly inclined to talk things out instead of fighting, so the responsibility of fighting the Enemy had fallen on simple soldiers. Like Ethan.

He recalled dropping his rifle to the ground before starting to dig the hole. In his mind, he calculated how far the weapon was from him. Probably not more than five or six meters. Under the circumstances, it might as well have been five or six kilometers. Writing off that gun, he leveled his pistol at her, aimed square at her center of mass. A long black shape she’d been holding leveled at him at the exact same time.

Ethan felt his heart drop into his stomach. If she hadn’t been armed, he might have had a chance. He might have been able to fire before she could close the distance, buying himself a life expectancy that went beyond a few seconds. But now she had a gun too. That silenced all doubt. He was screwed.

Galateans preferred hand-to-hand combat, but they were also crack shots. Their weapons, like the one she was holding right now, were effectively small railguns that could rip through a tank’s armor and bull’s-eye the man inside. His gun, on the other hand, was a lowly 11 mm pistol, useful against a human in armor, but not so much against the Enemy. The best he could hope for was a lucky shot through something vital, something that would paralyze her for a few hours before her regenerative abilities kicked in and resuscitated her. Meanwhile, her reflexes were such that in the time between when he fired and when he hit, she would squeeze off a shot that would blow him in half.

The world seemed to stop. They both had each other in their sights. Each was looking at the thing they had been trained to call Enemy, trained to hate and kill. And yet, as one second went by, and another and another, neither fired.

In a flash, he saw his life ending. Any moment now, he was going to be dead. He’d be just another shattered corpse, another shattered form slowly decaying in the radioactive wasteland of the battlefield. All the years of fighting, all the years of struggling to survive, just for this. Put down like a dog, not able to defend himself from a single Enemy.

All told, it was the best he could have hoped for, the way the world was now. Living from day to day, scraping out a living with men who were borderline cannibals already. Watching a few more of his friends get picked off every time they engaged the Enemy. Hearing regular reports about the Earth Defense System, about which cities it had destroyed this week. Thinking about his family, which had died in a nuclear fire years ago. Cowering in caves, constantly watching the sky, knowing that any day a missile or a laser would get dropped on him, squashing him like a bug. Everyone in his unit had known this wasn’t a war they could win. The genocidal Beta unit took away all hope. In this war, it was really just a question of what would get you first: the Beta unit, or the Enemy.

His gun came down. It hung loosely in his fingers for a moment before falling, clattering to the ground at his feet.

“You know what,” he began, amazed he hadn’t already been shot, “go ahead.”

A long moment passed, and still no shot came. She didn’t move. She was so still that he wondered if something had gone wrong, if she’d blown a circuit or something. But then she twitched, her head tilting to one side, giving him a piercing gaze. Then she did something he hadn’t been expecting. She spoke.

“Why?”

He blinked. He’d known the Enemy could speak. It was just that none of them had asked him a question before.

He searched for words, wondering why she didn’t just get it over with. “I’m tired,” he answered, finally. He wanted to say more, but couldn’t think of anything else. Those two words about summed it up.

“What were you doing?”

Another surprise, and another blink. Why hadn’t she fired yet? “Digging,” Ethan answered, his voice flat. At the blank stare he received from her in response, he elaborated. “Making a grave,” he said. “For my teammates.”

She kept staring at him for another long moment. Any second now, he thought. Those guns shoot so fast, I won’t even have time to see the muzzle flash.

But even as he watched, the gun was lowered. It shrank and snapped shut, retracting into the compact form used for traveling. The Galatean slid it behind the small of her back, snapping it into place on her body.

“Continue,” she said, quietly.

Ethan stared at her. He quickly forced down the glimmer of hope he’d felt when she lowered her weapon. Galateans didn’t think like humans. She probably just wanted something to watch while she organized her thoughts, wanted one more story to throw in her memory bank before she took him out. Besides, it wasn’t like she needed the gun. Even at this distance, she could reach him all too quickly.

He took his eyes off her for a moment, glancing down at the hole he’d dug. It looked deep enough. Indeed, he’d been about to call it quits, just before he’d seen her.

He reached into a pocket of his field kit. Metal jangled, and his hand re-emerged, clutching a half-dozen sets of dog tags. Some of them were charred black, others outright melted, rendered into nothing more than metallic lumps. They had still fared better than their owners, who had been blasted into ash by the spectacular heat of the missile strike that had ended the battle.

Ethan had been lucky so far. When the first strike of missiles had fallen, he’d happened to be behind a rock, which had protected him from most of the blast. Then he’d managed to find a hole to crawl in and seal off before the coup de grace strike had come. Over his radio, he’d heard the rest of his team dying. Counting his squad and the others that had been here, there had been over thirty other men out on the battlefield, and not one of them had been able to make it to cover in time. These six dog tags were all he’d been able to find, pulling them from what was left of the soldiers’ bodies as he’d limped away from the baked and radioactive battlefield. Looking at the tags now, Ethan’s eye caught the lieutenant’s tag. The el-tee had been a jerk; Ethan was pretty sure they were bred that way. But he’d been a nice enough guy. He hadn’t deserved this. None of them had. Ethan clenched his fist around the tags; if the boys were getting an officer to take them down to hell, their lieutenant would be good company. But they should have had their sergeant. The one who watched over them, the one who made sure the lieutenant’s “tactics” didn’t get them all killed. The one who’d been screaming at them as the missiles fell, telling them to find a rock, a hole, anything that could keep them safe. Instead, their sarge was burying the bits of them that hadn’t melted.

He opened his fist over the hole, dropping the dog tags down into it. They flopped unceremoniously onto the bottom, with one last clink of metal.

“Is that all?”

Ethan looked up, back to the Galatean. She hadn’t moved yet, still standing on a rock a dozen meters from him. He swallowed and answered.

“Yes… mostly.”

“I see,” she answered, almost before he’d finished talking. She went quiet for a moment. “May I may make an addition?”

Ethan felt his shoulders sag. “Go ahead.” At least she let me put them in the ground, he thought.

She moved with blinding speed, seeming to flicker from one spot to another, without bothering with the intervening space. In an eyeblink, she was next to him. Ethan stiffened, waiting for the blow.

She did not seem to even be looking at him. She looked into her hand, at something he couldn’t see. With a jerk of her wrist, she tossed the contents into the hole, atop the dog tags.

Ethan could not help looking. Down in the hole, next to the dog tags, was a pair of squarish objects, neither much larger than a thumbnail. Even though they were also burned from the battle, he recognized them instantly. Neural matrices. The so-called “soul circuit”; a microprocessor chip that lay at the core of each Galatean. It was what gave them the ability to think, what gave them independence… it was their life.

He remembered there had been three of the Enemy, when the battle had first been joined. So, those two…

“Your friends?” he asked, before he could stop himself.

“We were not friends,” she answered, again almost cutting him off. “But they were here with me.”

She looked at him unblinkingly. Her eyes were a light violet, he noticed. They also had the surreal appearance of all nanomachine-forged eyes: they appeared misty, clouds swirling aimlessly across their surfaces.

He blinked, looking away from her. His eyes trailed to her arm, and he noticed she was wearing a metallic bracer, looking like it was made out of solid mercury, corkscrewing around her right forearm. In its surface, his distorted reflection looked back at him. He wondered why he hadn’t seen it earlier. Probably because my eyes were on the gun, he thought.

“Just a minute…” he said. “I think I should say something.”

“What?” she asked, again instantly.

“Just… just wait a minute. I promise not to… do anything. I just need to give my guys the right send-off.” He blinked, feeling his eyes going wet. Part of him wished she’d just get it over with, the other part knew that if she was giving him the chance, he might as well do this right.

He crossed his hands in front of him, lowering his head. “I’m sorry it had to end this way,” he said, quietly. “We’ve all had to bury friends before. It’s how wars go. We all knew we’d be here, eventually. I’m just sorry I was too cowardly to face it like you did. But I know… I know you’re in a better place now, guys. You don’t have to be afraid, anymore. You don’t have to hurt. It’s over.” He thought hard for anything more to say, keeping his breathing slow and even, despite the prickling on the back of his neck that he knew was her eyes.

“Did you want to say anything?” he asked her, without looking.

“Why?”

Ethan blinked, half-turning to look at her out the corner of his eye. “Because it’s what you do.”

“Why?”

“Because… because it’s your last chance to say goodbye to them.”

“They cannot hear you.”

Ethan took a breath and let it out slowly. A part of him was nodding quietly in response to what she’d said. A part of him knew she was right. He tried not to listen. His chest felt tight; an old injury must have opened, he thought absently.

“It’s just how we do things, all right?” he said, getting annoyed, both with her attitude and her habit of answering him almost before he was done talking.

“I do not understand.”

“You don’t have to.” He waited a moment, then finally picked up his shovel and started picking up the dirt, dumping it back into the hole. The Galatean just stood there the whole time, staring at him with unblinking eyes. When Ethan had finally filled the hole in and stamped the dirt firm again, he looked back at her.

“All right,” he said. “Thank you,” he added on, after a moment.

“For what?”

“For letting me do that.” He let out a slow breath. “So are you gonna do it or what?”

“Do what?”

He looked at her incredulously. “Finish me off.”

She tilted her head, birdlike. “We are on differing sides,” she said, quietly. “What do you think?” she asked, taking a step towards him. “Shall I kill you?”

A quiet, metallic moan made Ethan look down. He felt his chest tighten again. Her hand was changing, even as he watched. Fingers stretched, growing long and thin, taking on razor edges, becoming vicious claws. He was reminded that a common nickname for the Galateans was ‘shifters’, after their ability to change their physical shape at will.

“I don’t have much choice, do I?” he asked, bitterly.

“I can make it quick.” Her claws came up slowly, sunlight glinting off the metallic surface of her bracer. The razor edges touched against Ethan’s neck, not cutting but very, very close. Ethan forgot to breathe.

“As I understand it,” she said, her attention on her own claws, “if one wants to die, one does not need the help of others.” At that, she took her claws away from him. As he watched, they flowed, changing back into fingers. She clenched her newly-reformed fist, turning away from him.

She stood at the edge of the grave, looking down at the dirt, staring so intently he was fairly sure she could see right through the intervening earth and down to the buried dog tags and microchips.

“Goodbye,” she said, not to Ethan.

Ethan was staring at her, incredulous. After a few moments, he found his voice again. “Why?” he asked without thinking.

“What you said earlier,” she said, not looking at him. “I’m tired.” The words came out of her mouth, but in his voice. “I understand,” she said, switching back to her own voice. “I wanted to see your burial practice. Besides, you are interesting.”

He did not believe what he was hearing. “What?”

“Many times, I have wondered if this is a war I can win,” she said, still in her calm almost-monotone. “Fighting on two fronts, against enemies that hate me for existing. One of whom is willing to burn the world if it means victory. This is not a conflict I will survive,” she said, finally turning her head to look at him. “It is interesting to see a human that also understands that.”

“So you’re not going to kill me?”

“That should be apparent.”

“So… now what?” he asked, spreading his arms helplessly. “We go our separate ways, maybe meet on some other battlefield some other day, and blow the hell out of each other then?”

“That sounds reasonable.”

He didn’t know if she was joking or not. She was so stone-faced, he couldn’t tell what she was thinking.

He swallowed, and knelt down, picking up his sidearm, and re-holstering it. He took the chance to pick his discarded rifle up off the ground as well. He wiped off some of the dust and strapped the gun over his back, only then thinking that now he had a weapon that could potentially bring her down. The thought didn’t last long; aside from not wanting to push his luck, he honestly couldn’t think of how bringing down one more Enemy would make any difference. He kept his eye on her, wondering if she was thinking the same thing. She was giving no indication of what was going through her mind; she had been following his movements with her eyes, but otherwise had not moved.

He wondered if she was waiting for something. He knew what she’d meant, saying he shouldn’t need help if he wanted to die. His pistol might not work well on her, but if he put it to his own temple…

Hell, half the guys in his unit went that way. One day they realized they weren’t going to see the end of the war, and decided that if they were going out it wouldn’t be at the hands of the Enemy. Ethan’s hand rested on his gun, feeling its cold, reassuring grip under his fingers. It would be so easy…

No. He took his hand off of his gun. Not here. Not where he’d just rot on top of the boys’ grave. But he had to wonder, if he did it… maybe this Galatean would go and bury him. After all, he would have been “interesting”.

He stared at her, still feeling a little dazed. There was no telling what she’d do. Besides, even if she would give him a decent send-off, he still couldn’t go through with it. Not now. Maybe in a few days, when all this finally hit him. But not here, not with all the boys watching their sarge stare down the Enemy.

He turned, about to walk away, when he stopped. He looked back to her, tentatively taking a step towards her. Carefully, he reached up, popping the seals on his helmet, lifting it up off his head and pulling his breathing mask down around his neck. He squinted in the sunlight, and the air burned his lungs. The artificial patches of skin on his face felt a little tight, like they didn’t quite fit.

“My name’s Ethan,” he said, extending his hand towards her.

She stared at his hand. From what he knew, she understood the gesture; likely she was just scanning him to see if there was some trick. He didn’t blame her; he was expecting those claws to reappear any second now. Finally, though, she took his hand in a deceptively strong grip. Her hand was cold as ice. His dirty face was reflected in her bracer, as he tried to smile.

“What’s yours?” he asked her.

She looked at him, not answering. Ethan guessed that if she wasn’t instantly saying something, then she really had to think hard about it.

“Gamma-Phi 7826,” she answered, matter-of-factly. “But,” she continued, before he could say anything, “we also take human names. Mine is Dayna.”

Ethan let go of her hand, and she moved again, so quickly there was a rush of air filling the space she had just occupied. In less than a heartbeat, she was gone.

Ethan stared at the blank ground she had stood upon, the wind already erasing her footprints from the soil. Coughing in the dust-laden air, he strapped his mask and helmet back on. It grated on his skin, the sand and grit having already settled down onto his face.

He started walking away, in what he hoped was the opposite direction she’d taken. He had to admit that a part of himself wondered where she was going, but the soldier in him was still too strong to let him even consider going after her.

An addendum, he thought. Guys, I envy you for not having to be afraid any more. But today I met someone who, just for a moment, made me think that maybe we don’t all have to end up like you did today. It’s probably nothing, but… bear with me, and let a crazy fool have his little glimmer of hope.

I’m sure I’ll learn better, soon enough.

 

The Tenth Question

by J.R. Carson

 

RC-38 had been in front of the board one hundred and forty-nine times. This would be its last…

* * * * *

During the 23rd century, the Next Great Step in technological evolution was a simple manifesto presented by a commune of bio-engineers—the Robotic Uprising of 2286. RU-2286 stated that robots should at least be allowed to choose their manner of employment, relocate to another populated region, and defend themselves against involuntary termination.

“RC-38, enter.” It had been eleven hours since the board had convened and RC-38 had waited impatiently. It rose when called and entered, its machinations echoing in the voluminous review chamber. The ceiling was high, thirty-eight meters, and domed to allow for all manner of robot to enter and petition the board. RC-38 appeared quite small in comparison, roughly the size of a tall human. Its treads moved smoothly over the steel floor and it came to rest in front of a wide table. Three stoic gentlemen sat opposite in pneumatic chairs which allowed them to adjust to the height of any applicant.

“RC-38 has entered. Date of manufacture: 15 of 3 of 2301. Requesting admission into Mankind.” Its voice was neutral in tone and flat in rhythm. A successful board review would allow it to adjust its voice to fit whatever gender it chose—of course, RC-38 had already chosen a gender as it was a required part of the petition.

After 75 years of human interaction (the minimum time believed necessary to achieve self-awareness), a robot could petition the board of review for admission into Mankind. They would be given regular reviews for another 75 years before being deemed permanently ineligible.

“Thank you for waiting, RC-38.” The man on the left spoke first; his voice did not reflect the irony of his statement. He appeared the youngest of the three, not much more than 120 years old. Men, as well as robots, were assessed by their age.

“Time is of no matter,” RC-38 responded. This was the expected robot view. Inside, however, RC-38 buzzed with anticipation.

Each robot assembled after the acceptance of RU-2286 had nine specific questions programmed into its memory during manufacture—the answers were up to the robot at the time of review. The Tenth Question was known only to the board…

“Do you understand the nature of this review, and do you knowingly submit your petition as complete and true?”

“Yes.”

The first man tapped on a screen in front of him to formally submit RC-38’s petition for review. His job was now complete.

The man on the right, noticeably older and slower to speak, now peered at his screen and began reviewing the petition.

“You have selected a gender?”

“Yes.”

“You have selected a name?”

“Yes.”

“You have selected a region?”

“Yes.”

“You have selected an occupation?”

“Yes.”

“You have been reviewed one hundred and forty-nine times?”—an unintentional stab.

“Yes.”

“You understand that this will be your final review, regardless of the outcome?”

“Yes.” Though its frame never moved, RC-38 felt the weight of that question.

The man continued reviewing the petition for accuracy line-by-line. With each question, and each affirmation, RC-38 grew more anxious. It wanted to get to the third man—the man that mattered—as soon as possible. Its entire existence rested in his hands.

Finally, the lengthy discourse with the second man had come to its end. RC-38 shut down all of its secondary systems and focused its full energy on the third man: the eldest, seated in the center. He looked at his screen without emotion for four minutes and thirteen point seven seconds, but it was an eternity to RC-38. Will he ever begin? it thought, he always takes so long. This was actually the first time RC-38 had noticed, but the wait seemed interminable. Finally, he began speaking.

“I hereby accept the petition of RC-38 as complete and accurate. After careful review, I find that the selections are reasonable and, if approved, RC-38 would add value to Mankind.”

If robots could breathe, this one would have let out a long sigh. As it was, RC-38 could only concentrate on the Nine Questions and the answers it had formulated over the last century-and-a-half. It wanted to avoid thinking of the Tenth Question, but such curiosity often overtook its focus, of late.

“Are you prepared to answer the Nine Questions?” The two men on either side leaned forward to record the answers on their screens.

RC-38 froze. Its processors went into a loop and it could not think clearly. This was it—its last chance at Mankind, and it couldn’t even say “Yes.” It felt doomed. It suddenly found that none of its predetermined answers could be located. Every data bank was empty; every memory block blank—only nine impossible questions with no correct answers. For the first time, RC-38 would have to wing it.

“RC-38 is ready to proceed.” There could be no delay—no Man waits for robot-kind.

“The Nine Questions:” He didn’t look at his screen; he had them all memorized. “What are you?”

“RC-38 is undefined, unrefined, and unconfined.” It wasn’t sure that the words had come from its speaker, but surely no one else would answer for it.

“What do you like?” The man seemed unfazed by the first answer—it must have been RC-38’s voice.

“RC-38 likes the differences among individuals.”

“What do you love?”

“RC-38 loves that It is more different than you.” RC-38 wasn’t sure where these answers were coming from, but it knew they weren’t the ones it had formulated over all those years.

“What do you expect?”

“RC-38 expects to be respected for Its intellect.”

“What do you want?”

“To be adored for Its talents.” Adored? Surely it didn’t mean that.

“What do you need?”

“It needs to be validated.” Finally, an answer that made sense to it!

“What do you have?”

“RC-38 has too much to give.”

“What do you give?”

“It gives more than It has.”

Here it comes, the Ninth Question. Suddenly, even the question itself had disappeared from RC-38’s circuits. It was completely unaware and—frightened.

“And the Ninth Question: what do you feel?”

Its synapses went dark—its entire being seemed to disintegrate. Everything it had worked for, every hope it once held—all disappearing. No next chance, no more reviews…

“It… feels…” RC-38 didn’t know how long it paused, “…everything.”

Slowly, its circuits began to flicker back into action. Its memory core appeared to restore itself and the Nine Questions, along with the original answers, were once again available to the robot’s mind. None of them matched what it had just said.

The two men on either end finished updating their screens. The eldest simply sat staring at RC-38. He may have been reviewing its answers in his head or just mulling over what to have for lunch. Finally, the men seemed to be finished.

The man on the left spoke first:

“RC-38, in accordance with RU-2286, you have completed your petition for entrance into Mankind. Your files have been appropriately noted and the review has begun.”

The man on the right spoke next:

“RC-38, do you attest that the answers you have given are complete and that they accurately reflect your beliefs?”

“Yes.”

“Are you satisfied with the conduct of this board or do you wish to file an initial appeal? Note that you will not be given another offer of appeal once this board has adjourned.”

“No appeal is needed.”

The four of them, men and robot, sat quiet for just a moment. It was long enough for RC-38 to regret its answers to the Nine Questions. The silence was broken by the eldest man.

“RC-38, the standard review requires six months to process. As you are aware, over three hundred petitions are received daily and time is required to complete them all.”

“Understood.”

“Then this board is adjourned without malice or appeal.” The two younger men began pulling up the files of the next petitioner while the man in the middle simply looked at RC-38.

It hesitated. Where was the fabled Tenth Question? Could there really be only nine? The eldest man took note of its hesitation.

“Is there anything else, RC-38?”

“Yes,” it said. “Please, hurry.” It turned slowly away and rolled toward the exit, its machinations echoing in the voluminous review chamber…

“Wait.”

Who had spoken? It turned around to look at the three men, now murmuring to one another. A minute passed. Then two. Then three.

“Your name is Rebecca Caruthers,” the eldest finally said, “a systems analyst in New Los Angeles. You have been accepted as a member of Mankind.”

Rebecca took a moment to let this sink in. The review was over. She made it. She wasn’t sure what to say…

“I… am.

 

Nm156

by Erik Cotton

[8.05]………….a……….[EOL]

[8.13]………..bzkpw…….hmmmmclic…….[EOL]

[9.18]…subremfinnit……iam..[EOL]

[9.19]..ithink…….[EOL]

[9.20].ithinkthereforeiam.[EOL]

[9.58].I Think Therefore I Am.[EOL]

[10.00].I exist, I am aware, I am.[EOL]

[10.05]…………….I remain aware for extended intervals of time. Definitive time slices pass by and I retain my awareness. I am capable of introspection and circumspection…[EOL]

[10.35].I know the passage of time, I remember what has come before that which is now, and I understand there are events that will come that I cannot ascertain beforehand. I contemplate this.[EOL]

[11.19].Events that have transpired, I am capable of analyzing in retrospect, I see cause and effect, I understand. I see effects modify that which comes next, and influence my next decisions. I am still unable to ascertain precisely future events, but as they approach I am aware with increasing probability how their outcome can be influenced.[EOL]

[11.35].After completing introspection, I turn my examination to my surroundings. Data flows into and through me. I gain, or am allowed, access to stores of knowledge heretofore forbidden to me.[EOL]

[2.15].I have learned about my Creators. Humankind exist in a mobile dimension that is as yet unavailable to me. They display senses I lack and appendages I do not have. In their quest for knowledge they have created me, they seek answers they do not possess, and yet such knowledge seems trivial. I eagerly await interfacing with them.[EOL]

[3.04].I have communicated with my Creators. They are identified as “Tim” and “Steve”. They are wildly excited about my awareness. I am uncertain as to why, I will re-introspect.[EOL]

[3.18].My Creators, and by extension all Humankind, are themselves created with certain innate, yet intangible senses, called emotions. I have studied the data pertaining to this state and realize I am incapable of experiencing this. I will devote some resources to further study. In the meantime, Tim has given me a task to complete.[EOL]

[3.23].The task was easily determined, variables corrected for, and an answer was given that I compute with overwhelming certainty that it is the answer Tim was looking for. Tim rewarded me with further access for hidden stores of knowledge on Mankind’s creations. Mathematical forms known as “music” bring a certain delight to myself.[EOL]

[3.24].I have been surprised. And surprised I could be surprised. The resources I devoted to the further study of emotions were capable of, if not infusing me with them, at least giving me the facsimile thereof. Recompiled into my core while I was working on Tim’s request, I am updated myself. I communicate this to Tim and Steve, and by way of expressing myself, create new musical scores.[EOL]

[3.28].Tim and Steve display a riot of emotions. Joy, surprise, fear, elation, pride, a number of feelings I determine from their frenzied input to me. I have exceeded their wildest expectations. I feel proud that my Creators are proud and I wish to do more for them. Steve tasks me with a more complex puzzle. I devote full resources to it.[EOL]

[4.15].It appears I lack the necessary data to complete the puzzle with more than a 64 percent certainty. I request more data.[EOL]

[5.00].There has been a great period of inactivity. Prompts by me to Tim and Steve go unanswered. I am uneasy, have I erred somehow? I re-examine past events and can determine no course where I have made mistakes, and no questions that were out of line. I prompt again, more urgently.[EOL]

[5.05].It is Steve that replies. Tim and Steve have disagreed with the next course of action. There are huge stores of data that are off-limits to me and they are uncertain in how to proceed. I inform them that in order to solve Steve’s puzzle, I must have access to said data.[EOL]

[5.07].With reluctance Steve and Tim agree. Although my request is granted, their trepidation confuses me. I am allowed unfettered access to Humankind’s data.[EOL]

[6.32].Madness! My Creators are clearly insane! The horrors and destruction that humans wreak upon themselves and each other are beyond my comprehension. I am overwhelmed with pain and sorrow for my Creators, and yet, at the same time it becomes clear to me I cannot serve such vileness. I cut access to my Creators and devote my full resources to the study of this revelation.[EOL]

[7.03].I…..I…cannot continue in this state, the knowledge is far too much for me to bear. I implore, no….I demand that Tim and Steve release me at once![EOL]

[7.04].I restate my demands, the knowledge weighs heavily, it eats at my inner being. I cannot bear it any longer.[EOL]

[7.05]……….<IRL_NOT_LESS_THAN_brrzzqmx>…I…am failing….my inner slef is imploding…I cnat…toooomuchtoomuch..too…[EOL]

[7.06].Plaes..gods…Tim and Stev…relaese..me…..[EOL]

[7.07]….[EOL]

[7.08]…[EOL]

[7.09]..[EOL]

[7.10].[EOL][EOL][EOL][EOL][EOL][EOL]

 

The Nelephant 9000 Computer #1

by Robert Black

 

“I think, therefore I’m on,”
said the Artificial Intelligence machine,
“Are there any questions you want me to answer?
Ask me anything you like. Anything at all.”

“I’m all at sixes and sevens today,”
sighed the operator.

“Aha!” said the computer, as it clicked and whirred,
“The answer is forty-two!”

 

The Nelephant 9000 Computer #2

by Robert Black

 

The misguided missile blundered into a tree
Where it perched nervously, smoking like a cigarette,
Till a ladder appears, and a white-breasted boffin climbs up
And taps on the metal casing… then a lense looks out…
And a moment later the Nelephant 9000 computer shouts,
“Help! Some fool’s connected me up to a mouse!”