Tonight we have a terrific story from Wisconsin writer, Charles Payseur. Charles’ story wrestles with several classic science fiction themes: Life finds a way to survive. The relationship of zoe and gnosis. What makes a person a person? And of course, the feeling that one doesn’t quite fit in – the epitome of lonliness. This is a stark and lovely story. We hope you enjoy it as much as we did.
The electric claxon sounded, reminded Vernon that there was little enough time, that his hands, shaking with age and excitement, had to work faster still, had to rush to force life into the thing before him, the unwanted toy that he would make new again, make whole again. There were thoughts, secret thoughts, that flashed through his mind as he completed circuits, acutely aware that in two minutes the Storm would be at its fullest, that mathematical probability stated then would be the time to activate, to throw loose the doors of possibility, of mortality, of human understanding. We can be whole again, those thoughts told him, we can live again.
The apparatus on his head shifted as he bent over the frame, metal and plastics, artificial flesh and his own idea of form, and he cursed to himself and pushed it back into place, took the vital second to secure the chin strap tighter, hoping he had time. Outside the Storm was raging, the Storm because somewhere in the pit of his stomach Vernon knew it was the last. No second chances on this, no retries; everything had to be perfect. Fifty years of warnings and missives, all ignored, all laughed at, and now here, over seventy years old and doing the work the younger generations would never have the chance to refine.
There were others, he knew, other men and women who had read the articles in the least of publications, had sent him letters expressing interest. Without Mila, sweetest Mila, he would never have made the arms work, and without Professor Santiago the eyes would still be basic sensors and not the sophisticated array they were now. Each had their own chance to survive, their own stations like his own where they would also be working furiously, trying to adapt, trying to prove that science and reason could overcome where even biology failed.
Theirs was a biology of circuits, electricity, will. There was nothing else now; it had all been stripped away to make room for the essential, for the most vital. Survival mocked him as the next siren sounded a minute left. His hands fumbled with the last component, the processor that Dr Patel, Pagrati, the best of them, had made, had shipped to each of them in the Trust before fate had taken her life and most of her continent. The thought of the asteroid striking India first, obliterating that mind, that imagination, was almost hardest to bare, hardest to forgive among the billions that were dead.
They would meet somewhere in South America, someplace that at the least wouldn’t completely freeze their new bodies, that would allow them the facilities perhaps to continue on in some fashion, to try and unlock the last of the secrets, the last of the surprises hidden away in their beings. Ageless, Vernon worried that they would be unable to create new life, new anything capable of surviving the new status quo. Ageless, he worried that they wouldn’t care to, that in the end it was mortality, the constant threat, that was truly mother of invention.
No time, though, no time for the moral questions that less scientific minds would preoccupy themselves with. Vernon made the last connection and hit the controls, activated just as the last signal sounded, and he saw the readings all around: time, temperature and energy spiraling down as everything was drawn into the apparatus, into his own mind and then into the shell he had made for himself, ageless, beautiful. For a moment it was as if he was in two places, as if he could see the blood trickling down his human nose as he could see the machinations of his artificial body come online. He looked into his own eyes, into his own sensor array, then died, lived.
A moment only his limbs remained passive on the table before they moved, almost ponderously, to support weight, swing legs to the floor, stand cleanly. There was no questioning that, no worrying that he would fall, that specifications would fail and he would break, helpless, alone. He walked to the controls, sensors taking in the data as one, saw the massive drain in power the process had taken, calculated the damage, the remaining capabilities of the facility, decided to venture up. Months, years he had spent down in the dark, wrapping the layers of technology around himself, building the cocoon from which he had emerged fundamentally changed.
Elevators were down, lacked the energy to reach the surface, but there was a service ladder, incredibly high, a bargain with his old self, that if something went wrong, if he was unable to transition, that there would be no leaving, no way for the aged body to climb the five hundred feet into the Storm. He grasped the rungs of the ladder, began pulling himself, step by step, his body immediately suited for the task, for any task. His mind communicated with his limbs, instructed, while the rest followed, the body like the Trust, like all of them, an aggregate of parts and knowledge brought now to perfect harmony.
Stepping into the outside was like walking into the sea, everything churning, everything alive with movement, waves of strange green material swarming around him. It was the Storm, it was extinction, a gift from the asteroid, not content to decimate but bent on taking it all, biological stowaways like algae that awakened on impact, which multiplied, fed on nearly everything organic. Warnings unheeded. Somewhere there might have been a few in the installations under the waves, but he was beyond caring for them now, beyond almost everything except the strange absence in him, a loneliness, a need to connect.
South America was a long walk, but as the Storm buffeted him he knew that he was safe, that the frame would hold, that in two weeks when the Storm died away and everything was dead or dying he would still be walking south, alive, alone.
Charles Payseur currently resides in Eau Claire, WI, with his wife and cat. When not cooking or ravenous consuming books, he can normally be found in front of the computer writing, and his work has appeared in _NOTA_ and as a semifinalist in the 2012 Wisconsin Public Radio Ghost Story Flash Fiction Contest.