(First published within the anthology “Infinite Dysmorphia” from Kristell Ink)
Nathaniel remembered his birth. It is said that people don’t, and that anyone who says differently has pieced together a false memory from dream and story… but Nathaniel remembered his. He remembered it because he was forty-six at the time, and had just woken up after a serious car accident. After the chaos and agony of his death he found himself in what he would later describe as a vast expanse of bugger-all, wondering where the hell he was and what was coming next. Adrift, afraid, completely alone, he could do nothing but linger, suspended in the nothing for long enough to fear he would never leave. To fear that an eternity of lonely existence was to be his fate. There had been no way to tell exactly how long that was, but had someone later insisted that it had been an instant, or a decade, he would have believed either without question.
As he was to learn later, time was an entirely different concept for one who was brought back. The same could be said for memory.
Though his recall of his life and all events since his rebirth were essentially perfect, there were gaps. Gaps made all the more apparent for how well he remembered everything else. He knew that his death had been painful. He remembered shrieking as the sinewy limb of a tree punched through his windscreen and then his chest, pinning him to his chair. He remembered watching in stunned fascination as blood spurted from the tears in his body, and he remembered another pain, deeper and more personal, as his head rolled to the side and he looked into the passenger seat. And yet, whenever he tried to recall why, whenever he demanded that the systems which granted him such clarity showed him what he had seen, he immediately found himself thinking of something else.
That was where the memory ended. The next thing he recalled was when the paramedics wheeled him away and he caught a glimpse of the wreckage. It was no surprise that the crash had ended his life. His car looked like the Kraken had used it as a Fleshlight.
He later found out that a tree branch had fallen into the road, too fast and too close to be avoided. His car had hit it at seventy miles per hour and driven it, tumbling, into a ditch at the side of the road until a granite wall brought it to a stop.
Fate had afforded him a modicum of vengeance though. The branch also pierced the fuel tank, and the entire tree had burned right along with him.
To find such a gap in his memory was perplexing, as he knew that what he referred to as his memory was nothing of the sort. Rather, everything he knew was stored in a series of drives that housed a vast amount of information, with more than enough spare capacity to file away everything he was ever likely to learn. As far as he understood, a gap should have been all but impossible, but in truth it was a minor annoyance. There was something else missing from his life which was of far greater concern.
As Nathaniel stood and pondered the aching gap in his world, the single door at the far end of his room slid open. A softly humming servo in his neck purred into life as he turned to face his visitor, every detail of her face picked out in glorious HD. He was torn from his examination by a polite, but pointed cough. By his count, which was impeccable, he had been staring at her for a full twelve seconds. Now that he came to look, taking her in as a whole, it became clear that she had something pressing to discuss. She was nervous, struggling to look directly at him, fiddling with something in her pocket that he couldn’t see, but which looked the approximate size and shape of a mobile phone. Not the time to tell her he had been ignoring her, fascinated by the gyrations of a demodex colony in the lashes of her left eyelid.
“Good morning, Nathaniel,” she said, unable to hide the nerves from her voice. “How are you doing today?”
She was agitated. Heart rate elevated, perspiration gathering, all signs pointing to the fact she was there to do a job she’d rather not be doing. He sympathised in his way, being both an individual and someone’s property himself. He knew what it was to feel like the meat in an asshole sandwich. Under ordinary circumstances he would have had more time for her concerns, but today he had problems of his own.
“I’ve been better,” he said, turning away and striding across the room. His feet, three-toed and over a foot long each, clacked across the tiles as he moved, carrying him rapidly to the table beside his charging station. Knick-knacks clattered over to the table top as he rooted through them, searching for the source of his discontent. He swore quietly to himself when what he was looking for failed to present itself. Irritated and oblivious to his visitor’s growing discomfort, his elongated head swept on its axis until it was facing backwards, like that of some mechanical hybrid of crane and owl. The speaker set into his throat clicked his annoyance as he spotted his prize on a shelf on the other side of the room. Not where he remembered putting it.
“Someone has been in here,” he said, bearing down on it, body rotating in sections as he moved until he was facing entirely the right direction. His right hand, an exaggerated appendage of woven carbon fibre and smooth hydraulics, snatched up a picture frame and brandished it accusingly, tapping the surface with the pad of his index finger. “If people are going to tidy my things I want them put back where I left them! Do you know how unsettling it is when your things keep popping up in any old place?”
“I can’t imagine,” she said, noticeably flinching as he took a step towards her. “I’ll bring it up with the cleaners if you like.”
Nathaniel glared, the feather-like sections of his irises slicing together. His visitor swallowed drily as he looked at her, and he knew he had gone too far. Though he had every right to be upset, he knew better than to take it out on someone else, and he told her so.
“I’m sorry Suzanne,” he said, shaking his head and tipping it downwards, allowing the pistons that formed his avian legs to sag under his weight. He softened his voice, choosing one from his database that he had always found soothing in difficult times. “Sure hope you can forgive me.”
His voice was soft but deep. Purest auditory velvet. Her tired smile let him know that it had helped defuse the tension. She loved it when he did impressions.
“I know that one… Frank something? Sinatra?”
He attempted a smile of his own but his form, while advanced, had its limitations. The chassis that housed his mind had been designed to explore the bottom of the ocean, where no human would see it and the fish were so ugly they had no right to criticise. Its face was rudimentary and barely human, making its expressions quite alarming.
“Close… It’s Dean Martin. Listen.”
Her smile widened as he sang a few lines of ‘Little ole wine drinker, me.’ His rendition was perfect, and it should have been. It was exactly as the man had sung it in London in nineteen eighty three, only filtered and warmed up to make up for the limitations of the original recording. It sounded exactly as it would have had Dino been stood right in front of her, had he ever performed in a room as white as a doctor’s surgery.
“That was beautiful,” she said, genuine regret in her tone as she interrupted. “But I am here for a reason.”
“Of course,” Dino said, his tone fading into the less interesting nuances of Nathaniel’s own voice – a bland, native English with a vague twist of West Country. “So who’s trying to have me turned off this time? It’s not those Westborough tossers; they’re pretending I don’t exist again.”
That earned a real smile and a barely contained laugh that erupted as a snort. Nathaniel, a gay man as well as one of the implanted, had been the subject of many a placard at their rallies. It had been a combination of policy and best practice that the newly transferred were kept at the facility for several months after arrival, and it had taken less than a week for the first lurid signs to appear outside their American offices. Just long enough for them to sharpen their crayons.
“No it’s definitely not them, there’s just somebody I would like you to meet, if you feel up to it. Her name is Doctor Scheving. She would like to talk about Eric.”
The change that came over Nathaniel was immediate. His irises slashed open and he rose up to his full height, well over three metres, poised and tense as he nodded. His grip on the framed photograph tightened, eliciting a squeaking whine from its Perspex glazing.
As she went to open the door he hurried himself about the room, striding to a filing cabinet he’d been using in preparation for this very moment. By the time Suzanne returned he had an armful of files, carefully collated, tabbed with delicately placed slips of coloured tape.
The woman who accompanied Suzanne back into the room was many years her senior, carrying herself with the quiet assurance of one who had every confidence in her abilities. While Suzanne was in her early thirties, with auburn hair scraped into an Essex facelift, Doctor Scheving was pushing sixty, her once-blonde hair giving way to streaks of ethereal silver.
As he reached out to shake the doctor’s hand, Nathaniel lost his grip on his files and one of them fell to the floor, spilling its contents. Cursing to himself, he gifted his visitor the sight of a powerful cybernetic organism, stooping to the ground and hurriedly gathering up the scattered documents, annoyed with himself and desperate that none of them were presented out of place. He had put a lot of effort into them after all, and disorder would not do.
“There we are,” he said, rising to his feet with the files more carefully gripped, buckling in fact under the pressure from his fingertips. “Sorry about that, doctor. I blame it on my age.”
Doctor Scheving’s expression was warm, lined by her years and a lifetime of smiling. “You have my sympathies there, Mr Harrison. Time is a fickle friend.”
“Please, call me Nathaniel.” He shook her hand carefully and gestured towards a small sitting area with a round, steel table. “Would you like to sit with me?”
As Suzanne and the doctor took their seats, Nathaniel set about laying out his case. Each of his three files were stamped with the dates covered by their contents, all full to the brim with photographs and printed sheets of A4, meticulously organised. From the third he slipped a sheaf of papers that he had stapled together and placed it in front of Doctor Scheving, turning it when he realised he had placed it upside-down.
“I’m afraid you’ll have to share,” he said, turning to Suzanne. “I only have the one copy.”
Doctor Scheving nodded and picked up the document, briefly flicking through the top few sheets, pausing to scan-read one before placing it back on the table.
“Thank you, Nathaniel. Could you explain to me what this is?”
“Of course,” he said, flashing a Jack-O’-Lantern smile. “This is a brief summary of my findings. You see I last saw Eric the morning of my accident, but not since. He hasn’t been to visit me and it’s just not like him. It’s been almost a month.”
Suzanne turned to the doctor and was about to speak when Scheving briefly shook her head, silencing her.
“We have discussed this – Miss Cartwright tells me that nothing new has come to light,. By the size of your files I can assume that you have been more successful?”
Nathaniel nodded, flicking open the top sheet. “My resources are almost unlimited, but it has still been very difficult. This is a summary of my findings, starting with a possible sighting on the London underground. I…” he paused for a moment, attempting perhaps to look a little sheepish. “I shouldn’t really have been able to look through their CCTV feeds, but you have to understand, I’ve been so worried… Following information for me is like you peeking in a window, only I don’t forget what I see. My memory is a series of enormous solid-state drives you see, so I couldn’t really help making a copy.”
“He really can’t,” Miss Cartwright added. “And nobody can make him. Legally nobody can tamper with his memory unless he gave permission, which I believe Nathaniel never would.”
“Would you?” Nathaniel’s interruption was emphatic, close to rude in its sharpness. “I mean, what are we if not our memories? If someone else got to decide what I was and was not allowed to remember… I’m sure you understand.”
Scheving’s smile was a reassuring thing, worn comfortably. “I understand that perfectly. In fact, before your creation I sat on an ethical panel that helped clarify the legal situation of the implanted. And don’t look like you’re going to apologise for not knowing that, Miss Cartwright. It was before your creation too. Now, Nathaniel. Why don’t you show me what you’ve found?”
Miss Cartwright and the doctor sat in interested silence as Nathaniel detailed the summary for them, reaching into files every now and then to show his supporting evidence, calling up vignettes taken from video feeds around the world and displaying them on his monitors. Here a photograph from a bus station, there a transcript of an eavesdropped conversation where a man by the name of Eric was mentioned as having left the country. Piece by piece he made his case, seemingly oblivious to how many laws he had broken in the gathering of information he quite clearly had not obtained by legitimate means. Once done with the photographic evidence of men who, Miss Cartwright had to admit, did closely resemble Eric, Nathaniel moved into more tangential territory.
“I’m sorry,” Doctor Scheving said, passing a piece of paper to Miss Cartwright and getting a raised eyebrow in return. “What exactly are we looking at here?”
“That is… Ah. I’m sorry, it’s a bit out there I admit, but it’s… Look, it occurred to me that people have habits, so I collated everything I know about Eric, from his taste in food, places he shopped … If you put them all together-”
“You get a profile.”
He nodded enthusiastically at the doctor, but Miss Cartwright was quick to cut them off.
“And this next sheet is a list of credit card transactions lifted from the systems of a major bank. Nathaniel… Do you know how much trouble you could get into for that?”
“I had to know.”
Both women threw their hands over their ears as he bellowed, speakers hidden around the room howling with feedback. Oblivious to their pain, he stamped over to the table, all considerations of order forgotten as he tore open the files and grabbed at pieces of paper, brandishing them before their eyes. Miss Cartwright flinched backwards and her hand shot back into her pocket, but Doctor Scheving remained calm, shaking her head at her companion.
“It’s all here,” he said, shaking the papers until they began to tear around his fingertips. “Why won’t any of you listen?”
Miss Cartwright was in awe of the doctor as she held up her hands and stood, slowly rising to her feet beneath the cyborg’s unflinching glare.
“I hear you Nathaniel and I want to help, but I am feeling intimidated and I am going to have to ask you to take a moment to calm yourself.”
Nathaniel paused for a long while, freezing as only a mechanical person could.
“I’m sorry,” he said, lowering the papers and placing them back on the table. Right before their eyes he seemed to sag, folding in on himself to the limits his mechanical frame would allow. His eyes, so recently fixed and certain, began to wander, darting from place to place. Gradually they found their way to the folder in his hands, crumpled and careworn, looking at it as though he had never seen it before.
“I want him back,” he whispered, head twitching gently. “I’m… I’m so alone.”
He froze again, only this time his pause was accompanied by the whirring of fans set deep inside his torso – fans that served to cool his processors when they were under heavy strain. On the surface nothing was happening, but inside, behind the high definition cameras that had replaced his eyes, deep in the darkness that housed whatever it was that was still Nathaniel, a memory began to surface. The pain was there again, the physical kind, dragged from the depths as his final moments were played out for him once more. He recalled the pain and he remembered fear – not the fear for one’s self, but for something far more important. The fear for someone he loved.
This time, when he turned his head, the memory did not fade. This time, for the first time he could remember, Nathaniel saw.
“He’s… He’s gone. Isn’t he?”
Miss Cartwright kept her own counsel. She had agreed that her guest would take the lead in their meeting while she observed. Observed, and kept one hand close to the device in her pocket.
“Yes,” Scheving said, taking Nathaniel’s hand in her own, gently stroking it with her fingertips. “I’m afraid so. Are you starting to remember?”
Nathaniel nodded, eyes flickering. The memory was painful, the worst memory of all, but he forced himself to look. There he found the truth, but little comfort, save the concern he saw looking back at him through eyes blue as sapphire. “He was in the car with me… Wasn’t he? He was hurt.”
Unbidden, a small hatch slid open on his chest and he reached inside, extracting a tattered piece of paper that was yellowing with age. As Nathaniel held it up, the dull outline of a signature could be seen. He stared at it for over a minute, unable to reconcile what he was seeing with what he remembered. Different versions of events collided within him, impossible to reconcile with the infallibility of his new form. Only it wasn’t new… He knew that now. One glance at the paper in his hand told him it could not have been mere weeks, or even months since his arrival. He stopped himself from making an estimate. His systems were sophisticated enough to feel, and his head was beginning to ache.
“This was the last thing he ever wrote…”
His voice was soft now – the whisper of a gentle breeze, barely audible, even in a quiet room. As he read the signature over and over, caressing every line and loop with his eyes, his mouth began to tremble, heralding tears that would never come.
“The records tell me that he passed away minutes after signing that form,” Scheving said. ”He used the last moments of his life to make sure you would have a fighting chance.”
Nathaniel nodded, stashing the slip of paper back into his chest and flicking the door closed. Memories were flooding back now, taunting him with their sudden clarity. As relieving as it was to find the truth, he already missed the bliss of ignorance. Now he remembered the moment he had found out that Eric had passed away, feeling the burn of its injustice all over again. Nathaniel had been driving and he had turned the car away as well as he could, taking the brunt of the collision on his own side, instinctively protecting his passenger. It had almost worked, and while the driver’s side had crumpled, trapping Nathaniel’s legs, Eric had received nothing more than a crack to the skull. It was Eric who had fought his way through the heat to reach him. It was Eric whose strong hands had bend the wreckage out of the way, hauling his husband, or what was left of him, out of harm’s way. Sure, Eric had been burned, but by comparison he had emerged unscathed. Were it not for a congenital weakness, a thinning of blood vessel walls, he would still be alive.
“I survived all that,” Nathaniel whispered, looking down at his hands, his memory laying scorched flesh over them. “He died of a bump. A fucking bump. How is any of that fair?”
Scheving shook her head, blinking away a sympathetic tear. “It isn’t, but as legacies go, saving the person you love is one of the better ones. I know that can’t be much comfort but it shows how he loved you.”
“And I’ll never forget him…”
He drifted then, seemingly lost in his thoughts as he stalked away. Scheving and Cartwright watched him for a while. When they tried to talk to him again he didn’t seem to hear, even when he returned to the table to retrieve his files. They watched as his nimble fingers sorted through them, returning everything to its proper place and glancing hurriedly at the summary he had written. When it became clear that he had said all that he would for the moment they said their goodbyes to his back and quietly left the room, leaving him to his work. He had turned away, leaving the files on the table. Without a word, Miss Cartwright swept them up and took them with her.
Nothing was said as they made for Miss Cartwright’s office. They were each deep in their own thoughts. Once they were seated on opposite sides of a desk, door closed, a fresh cup of coffee in their hands, Miss Cartwright let out a sigh and turned on her computer. With the press of a few buttons the room’s only door rippled with light distortion and let out a low whine. The same void shielding was used on Earth’s fleet of starships, Doctor Scheving knew, forming a sound-proof barrier around the reactor rooms. While the shield was activated there would be no interruptions, and there was not a device anywhere in the world or beyond that could transmit what was said.
“Before we begin, a question,” Scheving said, taking a much-needed sip of hot caffeine. “Suzanne?”
Having pre-empted the question, Miss Cartwright turned her desk monitor to the case file she had opened. “Nathaniel’s original attendant, back when we still carried out the implantation procedures here. This facility was chosen because of its familiarity to our service users. As it happens, this is where Nathaniel was brought after his accident.”
“I see. She looks-”
“Like me, I know. My grandmother. When Nathaniel’s reversion began it was felt that my appearance might calm him, make it easier to study what was happening.”
“I see. Did it work? The file I was sent didn’t give such details.”
Miss Cartwright sighed. “Not like we hoped. He seems calmer around me, perhaps because I’m familiar, but in the end all we gained was a time loop a little larger than average. How long it will persist is anyone’s guess. At the moment he has around twenty-four hours left to his own devices, less if he’s confronted with the truth. When that happens he loops back around and it starts again. Fighting his memories, searching for Eric, passing over information that doesn’t fit where and when he thinks he is. He has the entire internet at his disposal but he simply can’t see anything that contradicts his window on the world. We’re lucky he has a predictable reset time or we’d never be able to clear the room. If we forget anything, well… I’m afraid you know how that goes.”
This time it was Scheving who sighed, reaching into her pocket for a personal communication device. She swiped through the file containing her orders, scan reading.
“I’m afraid so. Three people dead, Miss Cartwright. You have my condolences.”
The silence between them spread out over almost a minute as Miss Cartwright pinched her nose, screwing her eyes shut to fight back the tears. The facility was large but sparsely populated, with many systems automated and the rest maintained by a small team of specialists. Their charges did not eat, did not sleep and took all they needed from the facility’s integrated systems. Void shields made even guards unnecessary, so all those who worked there were passing acquaintances at the very least. Miss Cartwright had shared a meal with all three of the deceased on more than one occasion. The pain of their loss was personal.
“Nobody here blames him,” she said, sitting back in her chair. “Nathaniel is a sweet, devoted man, everyone can see that. He wasn’t trying to hurt anybody and when he realised he had he fell apart and we had to sedate him with an EMP. I always hated that they kitted every room out with one, but if they hadn’t…”
She took the hated control device from her pocket and tossed it onto her desk.
“When we brought him here we hoped we’d be able to help, but all we can do for now is contain him, pending your recommendation.”
Doctor Scheving nodded, deferring once again to her orders. Hers was a fact-finding mission, brought about by the incident. Implantation technology was not new and had been an important part of mankind’s progression beyond the confines of its native solar system, and an inspection of this sort had not been ordered lightly.
“Show me the others.”
The room was not large and was almost completely undecorated, save for a wall hanging displaying the white silhouette of a kestrel on a field of black, dotted with silver stars – the crest of Cartwright’s alma mater. The rest of the wall space was a mosaic of view screens which flickered into life, each displaying a room identical to the one which Nathaniel called home, each containing a single occupant. Most of the others were of basically normal human proportions, each caught in their own loop in time, reliving the same moments over and over.
Scheving’s attention was drawn to only two – those for whom those loops had closed to little more than an instant. One was sitting down, twitching momentarily as though about to stand up, then relaxing as the thought slipped away from them. The other was stood in the corner of the room, a knitted scarf looped around their neck, convulsing as though crying, their face pressed into the palms of their hands.
“At first we thought that the technology was to blame,” Cartwright said. “But no matter what we’ve tried the result seems to be the same. It’s the mind itself.”
“As we can be. One of our researchers was dying of lung cancer and implanted herself into a neural net whose occupant had faded to nothing. The procedure was a complete success and if we didn’t know better you’d think there was never a problem. Whatever it is, it isn’t physical. It’s like… This is pure speculation of course, but it’s as though the mind rejects immortality.”
“That’s how it seems to me.” She fell silent for a moment, gathering her thoughts. She had never put pen to paper on the subject in any official capacity, but for once she was in the presence of someone who just might understand. “Look, the human mind is born in flesh and lives its life that way, knowing that one day it will grow old, or ill, and fail. Knowing there’s an end out there is what people need to make them get up in the morning. I honestly believe that staring down eternity is bad for us. Have time to climb Everest once, and you just might do it. Have so much time to climb it that the numbers become meaningless, well, then you’ll probably never climb it at all. I believe that the trouble we’re having is that the mind knows it’s mortal, and nothing the body says can convince it otherwise.”
Doctor Scheving mulled over the concept. She had been an expert in her field for many years, though her access to subjects such as Nathaniel had been limited by Cartwright’s employers. She had entertained a similar theory but had never been granted access for research. It was only once their own expert had found herself in the firing line that they had called for outside assistance, with a fat pay cheque and iron-clad gagging order into the bargain.
“It’s an intriguing idea, but I’m afraid that will have to wait. Your colleagues understand the situation your charges are in, but I’m afraid their families do not. Hence my being here. I wish I could tell you they were seeking assurances, but my impression is that this is very much a cover your ass situation.”
Cartwright nodded. She could understand the position the families would be in, knowing only what they had to know, but knowing most of all that people they loved would never be coming home. They would want to know how this had been allowed to happen. They would want to know why an implanted human suffering such a break with reality had been permitted to retain its powerful cybernetic body, either not understanding or not able to care that their physical autonomy was still a legally and ethically protected concept. They would not care that no implanted human had ever lashed out at anybody before. They would only care that it had happened now.
“Our next visitors will be lawyers, then,” she said.
Scheving nodded. “For what it’s worth the family isn’t seeking compensation, beyond assurances of pension and that sort of thing. When the public gets wind of the case it will erode the trust between us and them, and especially with the implanted. People will be afraid of them.”
Miss Cartwright snorted her derision.
“Because they’re ignorant. That’s what takes a person who needs help and turns them into some monster. All those fucking movies about schizophrenia and split personalities…”
“Not to mention killer robots. I’ll be honest with you, my report will state that this was an isolated incident and recommend a review of your approaches to treatment and staffing. The situation is unprecedented but there are those who did predict a loss of quote-unquote human life to a cybernetic aggressor. At a minimum, I believe they will be looking for a scapegoat. I doubt the hands on their purse strings will allow anything less.”
Many things had changed in the years since Miss Cartwright’s grandmother had retired, but there were some factors in business that were ever the same. Sooner or later all the recommendations and expert opinions in the world could be swept away by the person who wrote the cheques. Facilities such as this one were hugely expensive and an investor didn’t have to actually demand anything. At the slightest suggestion that their funds might be more secure in another location, a stampede would start. It would be Nathaniel and the others who suffered, but the money would be alright. That was what counted. Apparently.
“So I should make sure my sword is nice and sharp for when I’m asked to fall on it?”
The question was so clearly rhetorical that Scheving didn’t bother to answer it. “If I hear anything I promise to try and let you know. If I can save you from any nasty surprises, I will.”
Miss Cartwright smiled. It was a pained expression, but the gratitude behind it was genuine. “That’s good of you. I’d like a favour though, if you can swing it. If I do go they’ll need a new expert, and I’d like you to make sure that whoever takes over won’t come in here with the wrong idea. You might actually have some say in that, given your background. Most people see machines… Clever and complicated machines, but still machines. We both know they’re still people.”
“I couldn’t agree more. Unfortunately…”
Doctor Scheving had left her suitcase in the office for the meeting with Nathaniel, but she reached for it now. It clicked open as a retinal scanner confirmed her identity and she took out a folded newspaper – an early edition that would be available in stands all over the world and beyond within a few hours. The headline was the sucker-punch that heralded a torrent of lies – lies that would resonate and shift copy. ‘RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINES.’
Original… No. but effective.
Miss Cartwright groaned as she took the paper, flicking through the front page and seeing everything she had hoped would never get out. What was known went far beyond just the deaths of her staff and the information that had been made available to their families. It also referenced Nathaniel’s personal history, from the initial report of his death to allusions to his senility. Papers such as this one had railed against the implantation procedure from the very beginning, and they’d had a field day with any little bit of information they could find. Now, someone from inside the organisation had blabbed. There was no other explanation for the things they knew.
“It says the story continues on pages three to six. Do I want to know?”
“Well page three tells you what Cynthia, nineteen, from Dulwich, thinks. I was impressed to see her talking existentialism while massaging oil into her cleavage. Other than that I wouldn’t upset yourself, but I’ll give you a potted version.” Scheving took the paper back, tossing it into the bin where she felt it belonged. “Some clever bastard decided to itemise a year’s running costs for someone like Nathaniel. They’ve listed it in sterling, Euros and dollars with a helpful breakdown of how many NHS hospitals, nurses, school teachers and bottles of cancer drugs for little kiddies it would buy.”
Cartwright rolled her eyes. “Ouch… That’s low.”
“And effective, proving that you can catch more flies with honey than vinegar and a lot more with bullshit. In PR terms you are, to put it mildly, screwed.”
They stood and shook hands, looking each other straight in the eye as Scheving went on.
“I will do everything I can to make sure they are cared for appropriately. A representative will be in touch. For what it’s worth I am sorry, Miss Cartwright… I’m sorry for us all.”
Scheving saw herself out, pausing only for the void shield to deactivate. Had she wanted to, Miss Cartwright could have tracked her progress from the door to the exit, tracking her with the camera systems and weapons emplacements that rendered formal guard personnel unnecessary. For a moment, a fleeting thing forged in the heat of a defiant heart, her eyes lingered over the manual control system that would allow her to take over the security grid. Losing her job was one thing, but it wasn’t what she feared. With a little careful politicking she would be blamed, shifted sideways, officially held responsible and moved to another facility, but what of Nathaniel? As her charges went, though he may have been the one to raise his hand and do harm, he at least retained much of the person he had been. There were others, nothing more than victims to the passage of time and the nature of the human mind, for whom so much more had been lost. There were those to whom the implanted were affronts to decency – abominations regardless of demeanour. Should they be the ones to win out, was her place here, mounting a defence of those in her care? If not her, was there anyone else who would fight to keep them safe?
She let out a sigh, a slow rasp through her teeth as she abandoned the notion. Whatever the best way forward was, it was not at the end of a gun. It could never be that.
With a wave of her hand she switched the monitors back on, surrounding herself with her charges. Loosening her tie, she reached into her desk drawer and took out a small bottle of whisky – a particularly fine brand from Scotland, gifted to her at the very beginning of her career. The woman who had given it to her was gone now, one whose mind had failed to the point that no neural activity could be detected, in spite of her perfectly functioning circuity. She had been a writer for a prestigious lifestyle magazine and had lived long enough to see the birth of her grandchildren, thanks to Miss Cartwright and her team. She had survived only a few days, with her death being put down to a framework malfunction. Now of course, with the benefit of hindsight, she presumed she had known her end was in sight. All she had wanted to do was live long enough, and she had. What more could anybody ask for?
The room’s lights dimmed at her instruction, leaving her bathed in the glow of the view screens alone. She raised the bottle to her nose, taking a deep breath of its exquisite scent. It promised to be every bit as good as her patient had assured her it would be. She had been saving it for a special occasion, but who knew if an occasion good enough was ever going to come? In the end, a wake would just have to do.
“Your health,” she said, raising the bottle in the air before moving it to her lips, looking to her charges one by one. She lingered on the sight of Nathaniel, sat perfectly still in the corner of his room. “And God help you all.”