Caleb Gets an Upgrade while George Burns
It’s not always just Mr. Thorne and I in his tight sterile room at the nursing home. Sometimes I roll him outside in his wheelchair to get some fresh air. There’s a huge oak tree he likes to sit under.
“I can’t shit inside,” he says to me, grunting.
“Did you just–?”
“They’ll clean it up later. Plus it’ll get me a free bath,” he chuckles evilly.
“I bet George Burns was allowed to shit himself as he pleased without fear of admonishment.”
It’s a Texas Summer and the specter of West Nile virus hangs in tight swarms of mosquitoes. The grass is green only under the shade of the oak tree, and beyond it the world is burnt and yellow. A light breeze whips around the faded white brick of the home as the sound of rusty chains announces another of the home’s residents is rocking on the porch swing.
“How did my android piece do?”
“You mean the one where the robot murders the little children in the pond?” I ask, not looking forward to sharing the news with him.
“That’s the one.”
“It’s been rejected again,” I say, short and sweet. “You know some people might see it as an attack on Christianity.”
He visibly fumes for a minute. I catch a whiff of his feces. For a moment, I regret embarking on this project – the man is not worth this.
“What kind of amateur dumb shit magazines are you pitching me to? Did they say why they didn’t take it or are you just speculating?”
“I have a list. It’s a short list. I submit your stories, one by one, to each mag. And no, you get a form letter: Thanks, but no thanks.”
“Well, what did you think of it?
“It’s just a story,” I lie. It’s way better than anything I’ve written.
“I never said those children died. And I portrayed the Christian element in the very same light they wish to be seen in. The whole piece is to prove that people are inherently possessed of the propensity for evil thoughts.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” Honest. I don’t know where he’s going. His story was straightforward.
“You didn’t think when you read it. You didn’t mine it for details. And it’s just as well, no one really reads anymore.” Grabbing a wheel, he starts to roll himself away.
My darting hand stops him.
“The robot dies,” he says. “That’s the fucking tragedy. And he didn’t kill himself.”
“So who killed him?” I query, now interested beyond my first perusal of his story.
“Only the reader can answer that question, and the answer reveals the evil in men – the evil in the reader.”
Jerking free of my grasp, Thorne rolls down the rough sidewalk back to the Nursing Home entrance.
“Nobody wants a piece like that,” I say, and I believe it. “You don’t give people recipes and leave out important ingredients.”
“People who follow recipes have no imagination of their own. They’re not cooking, they’re copying,” he barks. At the ramp, he waits for me. “People like that deserve a bad taste in their mouth.”
Pushing him with agitated force, I roll him back into the formaldehyde stench of his home.
“You make the decision,” he says hiking up his gown as we pass the nurse’s station. “Had an accident, ladies. See you in a few, eh?
“You decide whether you write to hold people’s hands and guide them down the path of your story and turn their heads when you want them to look at something important, or whether you set them down the path at midnight under a moonless sky without a flashlight,” he finishes.
With effort, and some assistance from me, Thorne collapses into his sitting chair with a quiet squish.
“I guess I’ll have to read it again,” I admit. I feel guilty for not remembering that much of it beyond the dead children who aren’t really there.
“Stay with me while they bathe me, I’ve got another story for you.”
“I’d rather not,” I reply.
“It’s a straight story – no hidden meanings,” he said, letting his gown flutter to the floor as he stood. “Everything bare.”
Caleb smiled as he gathered his meager assortment of belongings and transferred them from his small locker to his travelling case. For twenty years, he had stored his most precious memorabilia in the small metal box, and for twenty years he himself had been kept in his own locked box – the Justiciary Academy in the City of Light.
Before coming to the Academy, Caleb had been interested in sports. He enjoyed being the captain of a team, using leadership to increase morale enough that, even when outmatched, his team would always come out on top by sheer willpower alone. A good number of boys with his talent were asked to participate on the Regional Sporting Teams and could make a good living doing so.
He had never even considered giving up twenty-five years of his life to the Academy on a path to a Council position. A Council position would leave him set for life financially. He would become one of the City of Light’s elite citizens, most likely opening doors that he would never even have known existed otherwise. Finding a pleasing companion to spend his life with would not be an issue, as they would be lined up in front of him for him to choose.
All Caleb had to do was sacrifice twenty-five years of his life – five to a preparatory curriculum, and twenty to the Justiciary Academy. Even then, only a handful of people were chosen to Council seats that meant anything. The majority of Academy graduates were assigned to regional positions that were more “comfort” positions than ones that had a connection to the political workings of the City of Light. Roughly, one percent of each graduating class was selected for a position on the Century Council, and then only when one of its hundred-seat membership died. Rarer still, one Academy graduate might be selected to the highest position in the City of Light: the Council of Six.
The Council of Six was the highest position in the Justiciary of the City of Light. The six members were the only Lighters allowed to contact and negotiate with the Sextant from the City of Darkness, their political equals across the Zerolands. This relationship between the two elite groups is what allowed both megalopolises to co-exist – The Lighters providing the Darkers with art, culture, and entertainment; the Darkers providing the Lighters with technology, energy, and raw materials.
Caleb carefully wrapped his bagpipe in its protective canvas and placed it lovingly into his travelling case. Musical instruments were the right of every citizen of the City of Light. Even the rigid restrictions of the Academy would not go against the principles governing the artistic society of Lighters. It had been weeks since he had played his bagpipe in his soundproof lodgings, but he always heard the music in his head and felt his instrument’s vibrations in his soul even in the absence of the respiratory intercourse they often shared. Such is the occupational hazard of soulmates ; when the inventive, creative and interesting is not new, but simply eternal – a connection that just exists and cannot not exist.
“Remember to keep perspective, Caleb,” came a voice from the doorway behind him.
Caleb jumped slightly and then grinned, having recognized the voice.
“It should be much easier now, without your hair obscuring my view of everything.”
Caleb could actually feel the heated fuming of his professor behind him. He straightened up and turned to greet his favorite teacher, but there was no one there. Confused, Caleb moved to the door and caught a glimpse of a wiry gentleman, with an unkempt puff of white hair in a controlled explosion around his head, turning a corner.
“Professor Giles, wait!” Caleb shouted as he trotted after him.
It took only a few seconds to catch up with the older man, who did not cease his quick pace.
“Don’t bother apologizing. If I spent even a second of time on my hair, I’d lose concentration on the important things, which is exactly why I wanted to give you that one piece of advice before you left.” Giles suddenly stopped and pressed his hand roughly against the young man’s chest. “Perspective, Caleb. You are my best student. You could have been on the Council of Six if times were different, but the Century Council is just as prestigious, and you cannot let you humanity be sacrificed to the machinations of the invisible sects that rule that level of the city. You must be your own person. Is that clear? Do this one thing for me.”
Caleb stood and stared blankly at Giles. Surely someone had told him. Why hadn’t anyone told him? How could Giles not have known what was about to happen?
Giles turned without Caleb’s response and continued his quick trek back to the Faculty quarters.
“I’m on the Council of Six,” Caleb called out to him. This had only been made possible by the recent assassination of one of the Six – a matter Caleb had been told was Top Secret. However, Caleb trusted and loved the old professor so much that he had to tell him.
Giles froze and did not move. He resembled a cotton swab standing in the long hallway. Seconds passed before he quickly looked up and down the hallway for people. He then grabbed Caleb roughly and pushed him through a side door into a small storage room. Caleb started to protest in the unlit room, but Giles pressed his hand against his mouth. A few more seconds passed and Giles turned on the light.
“When did they tell you?” snapped Giles.
“About an hour ago,” replied Caleb. “I go to JAPAN this evening for the final bridge.”
Justiciary Automation, Positronics, and Neuroprosthesis, or JAPAN, was the organization in charge of fitting members of the Century Council and the Council of Six with the Neural Networking that allowed humans to interface directly with the vast Central Network. Century Council members received a basic upgrade, linking video and audio to their respective human sensory organs, and intuitive control, allowing humans to control the interface via thought. The Council of Six, however, received full neurointegration. This procedure allowed them to become immortal, linking them directly with the Central Network so completely that the Central Processing Unit at the core of the network could keep them alive and download their entire personality if something happened to them.
“Don’t do it. Get out of the city. Flee to the Zerolands, I don’t care. Just don’t let them make that final bridge.”
Caleb was shocked. Giles had only praise to give when it came to his classroom discussions about the Council of Six. Now he was telling Caleb to reject the highest position in the entire city?
“Let me go,” Caleb grunted as he pushed against his old professor.
“Listen to me!” Giles screamed at him. “You’ll die! There is nothing past that bridge but darkness! The soul does not transfer!”
Caleb considered screaming for help and had begun in inhale to do so when Giles anticipated his outburst. The Professor’s hands were suddenly around the young man’s throat and the scream was halted. Giles strength was impossibly formidable and Caleb could only assume the man’s adrenaline had kicked in. In the few seconds he had to consider, he wondered what could make Giles so desperately upset.
“I won’t let them do this to you.”
Caleb saw stars exploding before his eyes and struggled from his awkward position against the shelving in the small room. With as much force as he could muster, he kicked out with his foot and connected with the professor’s knee. There was a crack as the knee bent the wrong way. For a second, Giles’s grip lessened and Caleb was able to break away. He burst out of the closet and ran back to his room. In a few minutes, security drones would descend on the area from the telepathic emergency call Caleb had initiated using his basic neurointegration. Caleb hoped to be on his way to JAPAN before they figured out what had happened.
“The procedure is much like the minor operations you’ve had in the past. It won’t hurt as much as the bridge to your visual nets did,” explained the nurse standing over him.
She attached the bag to his intravenous tubing and adjusted the flow of the anesthesia into his veins.
“You’ll slowly fall asleep as each section of your brain is shut down separately,” she continued. “After about ten minutes, you will be completely unconscious and ready for the procedure.”
Caleb nodded his understanding.
“Do you have any questions before we continue?”
Caleb lay there silently, remembering the ordeal with Giles. Mostly, he was focusing on Giles assertion that Caleb would die as a result of the procedure. This was made worse by the simple fact that for most of Caleb’s life he had heard the urban legend that no one survived the full integration – that an artificial intelligence controlled the bodies of the Council of Six and that the end times were coming, an apocalypse of human genocide and robot conquest of the planet.
“What if I die?” Caleb asked. He could no longer feel his legs.
The nurse laughed and said, “No one has ever died in the procedure.”
Caleb laughed nervously back at her. The minutes slipped by and less of his body felt like it belonged to him.
In the moments before he lost consciousness he thought about his bagpipe and the music that channeled through him and the instrument into the air. If he died, those melodies would die with him. If he died, his memories would die with him. In twenty-five years he had done nothing worth remembering except prepare for a life worth remembering. Caleb panicked and tried to call out, but his mouth had ceased to work. The nurse over him turned to a blur. The lights faded to black.
And then, just as Giles had feared, Caleb died.