Science Fiction & Fantasy

Beren & Luthien by J.R.R. Tolkien

Advertisement

Fiction

Emergency Repair

Emergency Repair

1. Allow system to cool before servicing.

I work the tip of a flathead screwdriver into the barely visible notch along the sternum and pry up the aluminum polymer casing covering the android’s chest. My fingers burn when they make contact with the exposed skeletal components — no time to let it cool down. If I were back in the R&D lab at Hess Industrial, I’d spray the unit with a liquid nitrogen compound to get it down to temperature quickly and use therma flec gloves to handle the carbon-nanotube motors. But the Hess compound, with my lab and its specialized equipment, is all the way across the bay. It might as well be across the Pacific.

The inside of the casing is printed with instructions, complete with diagrams, but I shouldn’t even need to look. I wrote them. I wouldn’t be able to see them anyway, not in the dim light of the basement, not with my vision blurred by tears. I recite them step by step by memory, an anchor against spiraling despair.

The instructions tell me one certainty: This is one of the originals. One of mine. I wish it wasn’t. I won’t be able to forgive myself now.

If this works, you will forgive me. You’ve forgiven me for much worse.

2. Drain and flush the ferrofluid circulation system.

Along the clavicular ridge, I find the port to the circulation. Every system in my original design corresponds to human anatomy, a complex advertisement of the medical applications the technology could have. It’s designed to be drained, and even with my improvised IV drip system the silver ferrofluid rushes out when the pressure is released.

What comes next isn’t half as easy. It takes all my courage just to turn around, to face your still body on the bloody gurney in the corner. There’s an IV line, a real one, running into a vein in your neck, the bag of saline suspended from the exposed PVC plumbing above. Dark deoxygenated blood fills the tubing and seeps into the clear liquid in the bag; without the beating of your heart to pull the saline into your veins, the blood seeps out.

Panic I can’t afford surges in me, making my hands tremble and my stomach turn. How long is it since your heart stopped beating? Three minutes? Five? One is a minute too long. Every second I waste on grief, the odds of my success halve. I tear the saline bag from the tubing, replacing it with the silver liquid. Burgundy mixes with silver in the line. I twist a knot in the tubing, sealing it until I need it.

3. Remove the outlet housing and take out the core.

I go back to the android — back in my element — and lift the hatch covering the core. The core is revolutionary, the pinnacle of human technological achievement, the world’s most complex chemical computer. It’s the unit’s brain and heart, all in a cylindrical cartridge that slides out of the center of its chest. It’s my life’s work. It operates on the same principals as a single massive cell: terrabytes of data are stored in artificial DNA within a nucleus while RNA carries operating commands. Just like a human heart, chemical interactions produce the electricity it needs. In the long term, the technology in my design could have replaced organs, revolutionized renewable energy, mined asteroids for precious resources, terraformed Mars. Instead, it self-replicates like a cancer, consuming whatever it can convert to energy.

The glowing eyes of the unit dim with the core gone. I can’t help but savor it. It’s meaningless — the androids don’t have lives to end — but ripping its heart out feels good after what it did to mine.

I’ve been trying to avoid thinking about what I have to do next. My doctorates aren’t worth half a damn here — I’m not the surgeon, you are. But I can’t quit. I can’t give up on you. You didn’t, not even after everything went wrong and the whole world turned on me.

I run my fingers along your chest. I know every inch of you by touch, and the topography under my hands is all wrong. I can feel where your ribs caved in along the sternum from my failed attempt at CPR. That’s where I have to cut. I press my lips against your collarbone, right where I will start the first incision of the Y-cut that will open you up to me. Your skin is still warm against my lips. I wrestle down a sob; you don’t have time for sentimentality. I’m armed only with scraps of 201-level anatomy I retained from college and whatever vicarious knowledge you managed to pass to me, but it’s not as if I can do any more damage than what’s been done. I pick up your scalpel and press the blade to your flesh.

It cuts easily. The blood pools but doesn’t surge. I have to remember that the flesh and bone, that’s not you. You’re in the wetware, in the brain, a chemical computer of such complexity that I couldn’t dream of replicating it. The longer I wait, the more of you goes dark. It’s all just mechanics at this point, and that’s what I’m good at. I pick up the circular bone saw, tearing through the muscle and cartilage to get at the broken component.

It’s too messy. The viscera starts to overwhelm me. I’m sawing through meat with no idea what I’m doing, or even what it will look like when I find what I’m looking for. The ribs are keeping me out, caging the vital parts of you that power the part of you I love the most. How is your body this resilient, this strong, but so easily broken?

I find the heart at last, deep in your mangled chest, a smooth muscle between the lungs. It belongs to me, isn’t that what you always say? I wonder if it still does, even though it’s not beating. I pierce it with the diamond tip of your knife, through the thick tissue to the hollow chambers within, carving an X into your heart.

4. Clean the core mounting surfaces.

I crack open the seal on our last gallon of water, pouring every ounce into your open chest cavity. You always tell me to be careful with it, to ration it. It’s what’s left of your disaster kit, the one you kept in the trunk of your car just in case. It’s kept us alive ever since we fled back into the city I destroyed. You used to joke that with me, you had to be ready for anything. I wonder if you ever suspected the disaster you prepared for would be my fault.

The last of the precious liquid runs red onto the floor. I use a fistful of gauze to blot at what remains, but I can’t get everything dry. Five liters, isn’t that what you told me? We’ve all got five liters inside of us, and that’s eighty percent of what we are. If two liters of that drains away, that’s enough to kill us. The last death total I heard — months ago, back before the feds came hunting for me — was sixteen thousand. That’s thirty-two thousand liters of blood spilled, at least. And all of it is on my hands.

Well, metaphorically. It’s only your two liters staining me red from elbow to fingertip right now.

5. Insert core into outlet housing, pushing firmly to properly seal the core in the housing (as shown in the diagram).

The diagram is sterile and cartoonish, all arrows and exclamation points. It’s so incongruous with the nightmarish viscera around us that I can’t stop myself from picturing a grotesque cartoon of my own, a stick figure standing over a body with Xs for eyes, an image showing a cylinder disappearing into a perfectly symmetrical cartoon heart. I could almost laugh. You never liked that sense of humor, the way my mind goes right to the absurdity in tragedy. You’d never laugh at something that hurt another person. I know it bothers you that it doesn’t bother me. But with things like they are, with the entire West Coast a no-man’s-land and my androids advancing to the east, I can’t help myself. What good is empathy against killing machines?

I’ve got the core, still glowing white from the chemical reactions happening constantly inside, in my left hand. With my right, I reach into your heart, pulling it open with my fingers until the core will fit in the gap. It’s exactly the wrong way to do it, at least according to the diagram, which warns with exclamation points and big red slashes not to put my fingers near the housing when I install the core. I wish the diagram had been that emphatic about activating the androids in the first place.

You tried. I know you did. You tried to convince me to take the teaching job at Berkley, to turn down the offer from Hess Industries. You were right — we didn’t need the money. We’ve still got plenty, tucked away in a bank we couldn’t get to even if the feds hadn’t frozen the account. You hated the idea of Hess and their military contract turning my mind into a weapon. But I’m not like you. The work isn’t its own reward, not to me. I wanted the world to see what I could do. I wanted to be the next Einstein, the next Marie Curie. I never thought I’d end up being Oppenheimer instead.

I slide the core into the incision I made. It’s too long and juts out of your heart, but that shouldn’t matter once it’s activated. My masterworks adapt, self-repair, self-replicate. Command codes in their chemistry instruct them to alter their function based on their environment. They could have changed the world. I suppose they did.

If my life’s work is worth anything at all, it will save you.

6. Refill ferrofluid circulation system and seal core housing.

I release the silver liquid into your veins. It’s heavy enough that gravity starts the work, pushing the blood that’s seeped up the tubing back down and chasing after it, but your heart isn’t doing its part to carry it along. I have to squeeze the bag, pushing it into your system, until I see silver ooze out around the core in your heart. Without electricity, it’s just viscous sludge, but once it’s activated, it will move through you on its own. It will mix with your blood and emit electrical signals that will put the rest of your organs back to work like a system-wide pacemaker. In theory, at least.

We never got to perform human trials. That was going to be the next step. Hess’s original grant money was intended to fund a prototype heart, an elaborate proof of concept to dazzle the media and lure investors in. But once they grasped the military applications, they wanted more. I wanted more. I gave them weapons, and when I turned them on, they did exactly what I built them to do. How were they to know the difference between friend and foe? They are essentially single-celled organisms, operating on only the base instincts I gave them. They weren’t ready.

I never told you about the weaponized experiments. I thought you’d hate me for it. That shows how little faith I had in you — when the worst happened, when the androids breached Hess’s attempt at containment and swarmed into the city, you braved the trip on foot from the hospital to the Hess campus to make sure I was safe. You told me what I created didn’t matter, that you loved me for myself and not my work. I never understood how you made the distinction. Even after the evacuation, after the media firestorm and the federal manhunt, you stood by me, you defended me. When I fled back into the city to evade justice, you followed me, even knowing what we’d face. I don’t deserve any of it.

Tens of thousands of humans have been killed by my computers, but none have ever been treated by one. You’ll be the first. I selfishly hope you’ll be proud.

I push your ribs back into place, trying to put your split chest back together the best I can. You keep an aerosol can in your medical bag: a spray-on bandage like shaving cream made of adhesive rubber foam. I spray it along your seam, and tan foam blossoms along your sternum. It’s supposed to be flesh-colored, but it doesn’t match the color of any flesh I’ve ever seen, certainly not yours. Still, it’s your pride and joy, your own invention. It’s a lot like you, in a way — simple and practical, understated but effective. You didn’t even bother to patent it, so we never saw a dime, but you don’t care.

The news channels, when there still were news channels, loved to bring that up. Their hyperbole labeled us the angel and the demon, the hero surgeon and the mad scientist. While my creations darkened the West Coast, your innovations gave hope to my victims. That’s pretty much how it’s always been with us, isn’t it? I make messes, destroy things, hurt people, and you’re always right there behind me, trying to make things right.

After all I’ve put you through, I wonder every day how you still love me.

7. Activate unit with remote electrical impulse.

The AED from your kit is on the floor. There’s a crack in the LCD screen where I flung it against the wall after it failed to revive you, but the display lights up when I turn it on. It still works. I replace the old adhesive defibrillation pads and place one on your left shoulder and the other under your right arm. The display says it still has a charge, enough for one more shock. You’ll need to charge it after this, but that’s why we’re in the hospital basement in the first place, isn’t it? The old propane generator in the corner would have fed our meager electricity needs for weeks — long enough, maybe, for me to develop my kill switch and be the hero again.

It’s just chemicals. All life, even my synthetic facsimile of it, comes down to chemistry. Therein lies the efficacy of my methods, and therein lies the cure. Cells are delicate; it doesn’t take much to kill them. I can think of sixty solutions off the top of my head that might prove fatal to my androids. Of course, I built in countermeasures for most of those. The few that remain are impossible to synthesize without certain specialized equipment. Outside of the lab, genius is just a pretty word.

Thank God you’re not a genius. You’ve got a mind for taking problems and finding simple solutions without a second thought. You knew that my core is almost chemically identical to a simple cell, and that was enough. Your answer? Sugar. Dextrose, in a 50% saline solution, injected into the blood stream could save a diabetic’s life; injected into the tissue, however, it causes a chain reaction of life-threatening necrosis. Better yet, it’s standard issue in any emergency medical kit.

The trial we performed on a salvaged core from the battlefields at Fisherman’s Wharf proved it works. The hospital should have given us a base from which to operate, the computing power to spread the word outside the no-man’s-land, and the supplies to create the kill switch. The public who waits with torches and pitchforks back in society won’t be able to crucify me if I come back a savior. As long as we could restart the generator, our plan gave us a chance. Instead, it gave us this.

My creations are self-sustaining and self-replicating, in theory. They convert solar energy into power the way we convert calories into energy. But growth takes more than light from the sun. Organic or not, they are as dependent on electricity as we are. They’ve probably been on the same goose chase we’ve been on since the blackout. I shouldn’t have been surprised to find the android there, drinking in the power, barring our way.

You should have run. But you never run. You’re too brave. You take risks, you thrive off of adrenaline, you look before you leap. It’s what has carried my heart for these long years; of course it would also be what breaks it. If you were just a little more of a coward, we could have beat a tactical retreat, lived to fight another day. If you had let me face my own demons, I might have gotten the syringe through its casing before it got you, and I wouldn’t have watched you bleed out in my arms. I begged you not to leave me, but did you listen?

It’s okay. I’m not mad. You know I can never be mad at you.

I push the button on the AED and stand clear.

Your back arches, your limbs kick and flail and twitch. The ferrofluid is doing its job, starting an electrical storm in your brain, the same as a seizure. I press my fingers to your carotid artery — I feel it throb under my fingers, and throb, and throb. I’m not Oppenheimer anymore, I’m Frankenstein, I’m Christ raising Lazarus. Your eyes fly open.

Can you see me?

Kate M. Galey

Kate GaleyKate M. Galey is a speculative fiction debutante, with Queers Destroy Science Fiction! being her first publication. She migrated from the Colorado mountains to the Californian central coast, where she works at a beautiful zoo and lives among a wonderful menagerie with her oldest sister and her family.