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He was an old man who lived in a modest gonfab, and over the last eighty hours his Eyes™ and Ears™ had begun to fail. In the first forty hours, he had ignored the increasingly strident sounds of the city of Vanille and focused on teaching the boy who lived with him. But after another forty hours the old man could no longer stand the Doppler-affected murmur of travelers on the slidewalks outside, and the sight of the boy’s familiar deformities became overwhelming. It made the boy sad to see the old man’s stifled revulsion, so he busied himself by sliding the hanging plastic sheets of the inflatable dwelling into layers that dampened the street noise. The semitransparent veils were stiff with grime and they hung still and useless like furled, ruined sails.
The old man was gnarled and bent, and his tendons were like taut cords beneath the skin of his arms. He wore a soiled white undershirt and his sagging chest bristled with gray hairs. A smooth patch of pink skin occupied a hollow under his left collar bone, marking the place where a rifle slug had passed cleanly through many decades before. He had been a father, an engineer, and a war-fighter, but for many years now he had lived peacefully with the boy.
Everything about the old man was natural and wrinkled except for his Eyes™ and Ears™, thick glasses resting on the creased bridge of his nose and two flesh-colored buds nestled in his ears. They were battered technological artifacts that captured sights and sounds and sanitized every visual and auditory experience. The old man sometimes wondered whether he could bear to live without these artifacts. He did not think so.
“Grandpa,” the boy said as he arranged the yellowed plastic curtains. “Today I will visit Vanille City and buy you new Eyes™ and Ears™.”
The old man had raised the boy and healed him when he was sick and the boy loved him.
“No, no,” replied the old man. “The people there are cruel. I can go myself.”
“Then I will visit the metro fab and bring you some lunch.”
“Very well,” said the old man, and he pulled on his woolen coat.
A faded photo of the boy, blond and smiling and happy, hung next to the door of the gonfab. They passed by the photo, pushed the door flaps aside, and walked together into the brilliant dome light. A refreshing breeze ruffled the boy’s hair. He faced into it as he headed for the slidewalk at the end of the path. A scrolling gallery of pedestrians passed steadily by. Sometimes the fleeting pedestrians made odd faces at the boy, but he was not angry. Other pedestrians, the older ones, looked at him and were afraid or sad, but tried not to show it. Instead, they stepped politely onto faster slidestrips further away from the stained gonfab.
“I will meet you back here in one hour,” said the old man.
“See you,” replied the boy, and the old man winced. His failing Ears™ had let through some of the grating quality of the boy’s true voice, and it unsettled him. But his Ears™ crackled back online and, as the slidestrips pulled them away in separate directions, he chose only to wave goodbye.
* * *
The boy did not wear Eyes™ or Ears™. Near the time of the boy’s birth, he had undergone direct sensory augmentation. The old man had seen to it himself. When the boy squinted in just the right way, he could see the velocity trajectories of objects hovering in the air. When he closed his eyes entirely, he could watch the maximum probability version of the world continue to unfold around him. He was thankful for his gift and did not complain about his lessons or cry out when the old man made adjustments or improvements to the devices.
The city is unsafe and I must protect the old man, thought the boy. He will probably visit the taudi quarter for used gear. Mark his trajectory well, he told himself. Remember to be alert to the present and to the future.
The boy expertly skipped across decelerating slidestrips until his direction changed. Other passengers shied away in disgust, but again the boy did not mind. He walked directly to the center strip and was accelerated to top speed. A vanilla-smelling breeze pushed thin blond hair from his disfigured, smiling face.
* * *
The old man smiled as he cruised along the slidewalk. The systematic flow of identical people was beautiful. The men wore dark blue suits and red ties. Some of them carried briefcases or wore hats. The women wore dark blue skirts and white blouses with red neckerchiefs. The men and women walked in lockstep and were either silent or extremely polite. There was a glow of friendly recognition between the pedestrians, and it made the old man feel very glad, and also very cautious.
I must hurry to the taudi quarter and be careful, he thought. The rigs there have all been stolen or taken from the dead, but I have no choice.
The old man made his way to the decelerator strip, but a dark-suited businessman blocked his path. He gingerly tapped the man on his padded shoulder. The businessman in the neatly pressed suit spun around and grabbed the old man by his coat.
“Don’t touch me,” he spat.
For a split second the clean-cut businessman transformed into a gaunt and dirty vagrant. A writhing tattoo snaked down half of his stubbled face and curled around his neck. The old man blinked hard, and the dark-suited man reappeared, smiling. The old man hastily tore himself from the man’s grasp and pushed to the exit and the taudi quarter beyond.
* * *
Bright yellow dome light glistened from towering, monolithic buildings in the taudi quarter. It reflected off of polished sidewalks in front of stalls and gonfabs that were filled with neatly arranged goods laid out on plastic blankets. The old man tapped his malfunctioning Ears™ and listened to the shouts of people trading goods in dozens of languages. He caught the trickling sound of flowing refuse and the harsh sucking sound of neatly dressed people walking through filth. He looked at his shoes and they were clean. The smell of the street was almost unbearable.
The old man approached a squat wooden stall and waited. A large man wearing a flamboyant, filthy pink shirt soon appeared. The man shook his great head and wiped his calloused hands on a soiled rag. “What can I do for you, Drew?” he said.
“LaMarco,” said the old man, “I need a used Immersion System. Late model with audiovisual. No olfactory.” He tapped his Eyes™. “Mine are beyond repair, even for me.”
LaMarco ran a hand through his hair. “You’re not still living with that…thing, are you?”
Receiving no reply, LaMarco rummaged below the flimsy wooden counter. He dropped a bundle of eyeglasses and ear buds onto the table. One lens was smeared with dried blood.
“These came from a guy got zipped by the militia last week,” said LaMarco. “Almost perfect condition, but the ID isn’t wiped. You’ll have to take care of that.”
The old man placed a plastic card on the table. LaMarco swiped the card, crossed his arms, and stood, waiting.
After a pause, the old man resignedly removed his glasses and ear buds and handed them to LaMarco. He shuddered at the sudden sights and sounds of a thriving slum.
“For parts,” he coaxed.
LaMarco took the equipment and turned it over delicately with his large fingers. He nodded, and the transaction was complete. The old man picked up his new Immersion System and wiped the lenses with his coat. He slid the glasses onto his face and inserted the flesh-colored buds into his ears. Cleanliness and order returned to the slums.
“Look,” said LaMarco, “I didn’t mean anything by—”
He was interrupted by the violent roar of airship turbines. Immediately, the old man heard the smack-smack of nearby stalls being broken down. Gonfabs began to deflate, sending a stale breeze into the air. Shouts echoed from windowless buildings. The old man turned to the street. Merchants and customers clutched briefcases and ran hard, their chiseled faces contorted with strange, fierce smiles.
“Go,” hissed LaMarco.
The whine of turbines grew stronger. Dust devils swirled across the promenade. LaMarco flipped the wooden countertop over, picked up the equipment-filled crate, and cradled it in his powerful arms.
“Another raid,” he huffed, and lumbered off through a dark gap between two buildings.
The old man felt wary but calm. When a massive, dead-black sheet of cloth unfurled impossibly from the sky, he was not surprised. He turned and another sheet dropped. A swirling black confusion of sackcloth walls surrounded him. He looked straight up and saw that the convulsing walls stretched for miles up into the atmosphere. A small oval of dome light floated high above. The old man heard faint laughter.
The militia are here with their ImmerSyst censors, he observed.
Two black-clad militiamen strode through the twisting fabric like ghosts. Both wore lightly actuated lower-extremity exoskeletons, the word LEEX stenciled down the side of each leg. Seeing the old man standing alone, they advanced and spread out, predatorily.
A familiar insignia on the nearest officer’s chest stood out: a lightning bolt striking a link of chain. This man was a veteran light-mechanized infantryman of the Auton Conflicts. Six symmetric scars stood out on the veteran’s cheeks and forehead like fleshy spot welds.
A stumper attached its thorax to this man’s face some time ago, thought the old man. The machine must have been lanced before its abdomen could detonate.
“This your shack?” asked the scarred veteran.
He walked toward the old man, his stiff black boots crunching through a thick crust of mud mixed with Styrofoam, paper, and shards of plastic and glass.
“Where’d you get that ImmerSyst?” asked the other officer.
The old man said nothing. The veteran and the young officer looked at each other and smiled.
“Give it here,” said the veteran.
“Please,” said the old man, “I can’t.” He clawed the Immersion System from his face. The flowing black censor walls disappeared instantly. He blinked apprehensively at the scarred veteran, shoved the devices deep into his coat pockets, and ran toward the alley.
The veteran groaned theatrically and pulled a stubby impact baton from his belt.
“Fine,” he said. “Let’s make this easy.” He flicked his wrist and the dull black instrument clacked out to its full length. With an easy trot, he came up behind the old man and swung the baton low, so that it connected with the back of his knees. The impact baton convulsed and delivered a searing electric shock that buckled the old man’s legs. He collapsed onto his stomach and was still.
Then he began to crawl with his elbows.
Have to make it out of this alive, he thought. For the boy.
The veteran pinned the old man with a heavy boot between the shoulder blades. He lifted his baton again.
A sharp, alien sound rang out—low and metallic and with the tinny ring of mechanical gears meshing. It was not a human voice.
“Stop!” it said, although the word was barely recognizable.
The boy strode into the clearing. The old man, without his Eyes™ or Ears™, noticed that the boy’s legs were not quite the same length. He abruptly remembered cobbling them together from carbon fiber scavenged from a downed military UAV. Each movement of the boy’s limbs generated a wheezing sigh of pneumatically-driven gases. The boy reeked of a familiar oil and hot battery smell that the old man had not noticed in years.
The veteran locked eyes with the small boy and his armored body began to quake. He unconsciously fingered the scars on his face with one hand as he lifted his boot from the old man’s back.
The old man rolled over and grunted, “Run, boy!”
But the boy did not run.
“What’s this?” asked the younger officer, unfazed. “Your Dutch wife?” The officer popped his impact baton to full length and stood towering over the boy. He leaned down and looked directly into the boy’s eye cameras.
“Hey there, toaster oven,” said the officer quietly. “Think you’re human?”
These words confused the boy, who said nothing.
“Watch out!” came a strangled cry from the veteran. He stood with his knees bent and his left palm extended defensively. His other elbow jutted out awkwardly as he fumbled for his gun. “That is unspecked hardware!” he shouted hoarsely. “Could be anything. Could be military grade. Back away from it!”
The younger officer looked at the veteran uncertainly.
The boy took a hesitant step forward. “What did you say to me?” he asked. His voice was the low, tortured croak of a rusty gate. He reached for the officer with a trembling, three-fingered hand. “Hey,” he said.
The officer turned and instinctively swung his impact baton. It thumped against the boy’s chest and discharged like a crack of lightning. The blow charred the boy’s tee shirt and tore a chunk out of his polyurethane chest-piece, revealing a metal ribcage frame riddled with slots for hardware and housing a large, warm, rectangular battery. The boy sat heavily on the ground, puzzled.
Looking around in a daze, he saw that the old man was horrified. The boy mustered a servo-driven smile that pulled open a yawning hole in his cheek. The old man took a shuddering breath and buried his face in the crook of his elbow.
And the boy suddenly understood.
He looked down at his mangled body. A single vertiginous bit of information lurched through his consciousness and upended all knowledge and memory: Not a boy. He remembered the frightened looks of the slidewalk pedestrians. He remembered long hours spent playing cards with the old man. And finally he came to remember the photograph of the blond boy that hung on a plastic hook near the door of the gonfab. At this memory, the boy felt deeply ashamed.
No, no, no, no. I cannot think of these things, he told himself. I must be calm and brave now.
The boy rose unsteadily to his feet and adopted a frozen stance. Standing perfectly still removed uncertainty. It made mentals in physical space simpler, more accurate, and much, much faster. The old man had taught the boy how to do this, and they had practiced it together many times.
Ignoring the commands of his veteran partner, the young officer swung his impact baton again. The sparking cudgel followed a simple, visible trajectory. The boy watched a blue rotational vector emerge from the man’s actuated hip, and neatly stepped around his stationary leg. The officer realized what had happened, but it was too late: the boy already stood behind him. The man’s hair smells like cigarettes, thought the boy; and then he shoved hard between the officer’s shoulder blades.
The officer pitched forward lightly, but the LEEX resisted and jerked reflexively backwards to maintain its balance. The force of this recoil snapped the officer’s spine somewhere in his lower back. Sickeningly, the actuated legs walked away, dragging the unconscious top half of the officer behind them, his limp hands scraping furrows in the dirt.
The boy heard a whimpering noise and saw the veteran standing with his gun drawn. A line visible only to the boy extended from the veteran’s right eye, along the barrel of the pistol, and to a spot on the boy’s chest over his pneumatic heart.
Carefully, the boy rotated sideways to minimize the surface area of his body available to the veteran’s weapon. Calm and brave.
A pull trajectory on the veteran’s trigger finger announced an incoming bullet. Motors squealed and the boy’s body violently jerked a precise distance in space. The bullet passed by harmlessly, following its predicted trajectory. An echoing blast resounded from the blank-walled buildings. The veteran stood for a moment, clutched his sweating face with his free hand, turned, and fled.
“Grandpa!” said the boy, and rushed over to help.
But the old man would not look at him or take his hand; his face was filled with disgust and fear and desperation. Blindly, the old man shoved the boy away and began scrabbling in his pockets, trying frantically to put his new Eyes™ and Ears™ back on. The boy tried to speak, but stopped when he heard his own coarse noise. Uncertain, he reached out, as if to touch the old man on the shoulder, but did not. After a few long seconds, the boy turned and hobbled away, alone.
* * *
The old man grasped the cool, black handrail of the slidewalk with his right hand. He curled his left hand under his chin, pulling his woolen coat tight. Finally, he limped to the decelerator strip and stepped off. He had to pause and breathe slowly three times before he reached the house.
Inside the dim gonfab, he hung his coat on a transparent plastic hook. He wet his rough hands from a suspended water bag and placed cool palms over his weathered face.
Without opening his Eyes™, he said “You may come out.”
Metal rings supporting a curtained partition screeched apart and the boy emerged into a shaft of yellow dome light. The ragged wound in his cosmetic chest carapace gaped obscenely. His dilated mechanical irises audibly spiraled down to the size of two pinpricks, and the muted light illuminated a few blond hairs clinging anemone-like to his scalded plastic scalp. He was clutching the photograph of the blond boy and crying and had been for some time, but there was no sign of this on his crudely sculpted face.
The old man saw the photograph.
“I am sorry,” he said, and embraced the boy. He felt an electrical actuator poking rudely through the child’s tee shirt, like a compound fracture.
“Please,” he whispered. “I will make things the way they were before.”
But the boy shook his head. He looked up into the old man’s watery blue Eyes™. The room was silent except for the whirring of a fan. Then, very deliberately, the boy slid the glasses from the old man’s face, leaving the Ears™.
The old man looked at the small, damaged machine with tired eyes full of love and sadness. When the thing spoke, the shocking hole opened in its cheek again and the old man heard the clear, piping voice of a long-dead little boy.
“I love you, Grandpa,” it said.
And these words were as true as sunlight.
With deft fingers, the boy-thing reached up and pressed a button at the base of its own knobbed metal spine. There was a winding-down noise as all the day’s realization and shame and understanding faded away into nothingness.
The boy blinked slowly and his hands settled down to his sides. He could not remember arriving, and he looked around in wonder. The gonfab was silent. The boy saw that he was holding a photograph of himself. And then the boy noticed the old man.
“Grandpa?” asked the boy, very concerned. “Have you been crying?”
The old man did not answer. Instead, he closed his eyes and turned away.
Copyright © 2009 Daniel H. Wilson