The Potential Man
by Carl Ross Beideman
Table of Contents|
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7
The roboticist had sealed himself in the lab for days, the floor hidden under food-delivery boxes and robot parts. He slogged through. His window was black, but he hadn’t noticed the waning light due to goggles. His black goggles featured magnification and computer-assisted ident, allowing him to manage specs, laser/solder and make fine adjustments.
The laser reddened his olive sallow skin. He imbibed the metallic smoke, reaching into the robot’s chest with a power glove that saved the trouble of picking up tools since they were integrated into the glove: the index finger an electric screwdriver, the middle finger a drill. He never took it off anymore. His forearm smelled like a used cast.
The robot’s chest spurted black liquid on his stained lab coat, dripping onto dirty sneakers. His smudged fingers wiped forehead sweat into hair that would have made Einstein or Douglas envious. A ringing. He sniffed the air, so engrossed in his work that he mistook a sound for a smell.
He tapped the comm with his wet, smudged, ungloved hand and knew he didn’t have to speak.
“Geppetto? Greer. Guess what? I’m going home and I look back and your light’s on. The only light in the building. Do you sleep? Your wife and kids, man!”
The roboticist pinched his nose bridge. If he had any concept of time, he would have looked at his watch. He’d given up tracking the passage of time a long time ago. It wasted time. “I somewhat recall what they look like.”
“The work’s done, Joe. Has been. Other top, elite, expensive scientists and engineers are only making appearances at this point. Senioritis.”
“When we reach Abstergo, I’ll be a family man then.”
“We all are. There’s not a damn thing left to do.”
“When’s the last time we parleyed?”
Josef didn’t recall.
“Power’s off.” Greer clicked a key chain button and Josef’s light went out. “Let’s get a drink. You don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here.”
Josef thought at first that his soldering tint was engaged. He took off his goggles and saw only the indicator lights of his creations blinking, indicating. He walked to the window and glanced at the vast empty lot. Greer was a desert cactus. Josef disconnected. Trading his lab coat for a trench and putting on his hat, he left.
They strolled together in the night shadow of a rocket ship. Its white paint reflected moonlight and was streaked like cried mascara from acid rain. They smoked, Josef lighting his by flicking the thumb of his glove.
Unrelenting island wind funneled smoke, swirling it upward. Surge barriers gave a sunken perspective to Havana, trapped in a well. Recently planted, recently wilted palms whipped. Yellow light smeared over the harbor surface. The air smelled like tobacco and salt, then rice as they neared their haunt.
“Wearing that gizmo?”
“Connects me to him.”
Greer coughed. “And that hat.”
The coat, the hat: they were things he could hide under.
“They were on the coat rack.”
They walked and smoked, their footfall carried off on the wind. Greer wore a Hawaiian shirt and loafers. Josef was overdressed for Cuba, for anywhere but the extreme poles.
“Stopped by your office last week.”
“Whatever for?” said the old man with youthful angst.
“Problem I had with the evocational software. I’m past it now. You were asleep at your desk.”
“We learn to relax.”
“Easy if you’re getting a second start. How was your nap?”
“Boring,” replied Greer.
They stepped off launchpad concrete onto Old Havana cobblestone.
“Rum.” Greer pointed their destination. “La Bodeguita del Medio.”
They kept a competitive gait, as if either could at any moment dash ahead to win.
Josef held the door for Greer, who ordered two drinks for himself. They sat out on a raised deck where they could hear blended the lap of the harbor on the beach and the thunder of the sea on the outer bulkheads.
They knew many of the patrons. Humanity’s last fraction was gathered on the island. Teens ran restaurants and bars and whatever else, to keep busy. The routine helped.
“Think we’ll make it?” asked Greer again.
“Not a chance,” Josef ruminated over his Cuba Libre. “We get to those worlds, we’ll evolve differently: radiation, gravity, isolation, sure. But the danger is we’ll leap beyond ourselves and lose what we had, and we’ll be too far gone to notice or regret. With the B-series, we saw a heartless future and they were damn good sports about shipping off.” The alcohol caused Josef to gesticulate.
Greer put two fingers in the air.
Josef fingered the glass’s condensation. “No, humanity will have sacrificed itself for the stars.”
Josef felt Greer felt saving humanity was the equivalent of beating a video game.
“Poetry.” Greer waved his hand as if clearing a smell. He ogled a waitress.
Josef leaned in, eyes shiny under salt and pepper eyebrows. “I have a boon to ask.” Josef’s tone was sober.
Greer scanned desperately for his third and forth drink. “After we’re gone. Talk to Bix.”
“Damn it! I’m being marooned — happily, yes — and you give me a chore?”
“An easy one. Talk to him. Then get to your reading.”
Greer gulped his just arrived left-hand drink and met Josef’s bloodshot eyes. “He’s going to be the monster you’re afraid of becoming.”
“You’ll do it?”
“Hell really is other people.”
“That’s a yes.”
Josef tried but could not out-imbibe Greer. When the bill arrived, it said six billion dollars and was brought by a skateboarder.
“Let’s get you home to your family.”
Josef detected judgment. They stumbled, arms on each other’s shoulders, in a three-legged race.
“Say hi to the missus for me,” Greer said, sliding Josef an unwelcome wink. Greer laughed at Josef and slapped him on the back as he walked off toward the docks, yelling about the end of the world.
At his door, Josef felt his wife and children’s presence within, emotion swelling with proximity. Safe asleep inside a quarter of a once ornate governor’s mansion. His eldest daughter had cried when their mother described snoozing for centuries, like Sleeping Beauty but waking to a better sun and a swift planet. His youngest daughter’s eyes had orbed and lit. She asked daily how much longer until they could all go to sleep. “Not long at all, now,” he’d say.
Josef stood in teal moonglow. It hit the street in shafts like muted daylight. He pressed his hand to the door, heard it unlatch, felt the vibration of the interior conditioners. Jane was sleeping diagonally, he imagined. He smelled her florid hair and humid breath. It enticed him.
Seconds later the door latched again. Taking off his glove, he realized Greer was alone, without family, dying abandoned. He could make sure Greer got home. A gesture.
He could feel the Earth, feel gravity pin him to it, pressing his organs together, pulling sweat from his pores. Josef squinted at the stars. The last seedship, Josef’s, was slated to cultivate, proliferate and, one day, turn back.
Josef swerved on the cobble like a bug. The wind blew hot, salt air working in concert with alcohol to dry his skin and mouth. He stopped, spit and heard groans from an alley. Greer was on the stone ground. Josef saw his sandals and white-haired legs cut off at the knee by a clay wall’s shadow.
Josef examined Greer with a pinky flashlight. Pupils ignored the bright light.
“Borracho, Josef said.”
“Don’t point that unlicensed contraption at me, dufus.”
“What the hell? A siesta?”
“Henchmen.” Greer coughed and looked for his pipe. Broken. “Rats.”
“From a sinking ship.” Josef shed his drunkenness as easily as his coat and hat, which he folded and placed behind Greer’s head.
“You don’t mean to chase after them? Go cultivate your family!”
“In ten days, my family and I will be zonked, decisionless machines.” Greer’s high-eyebrowed gaze suggested the alcohol was talking for Josef.
Josef ran. Adrenaline surged and blood flowed into the muscles of his stretched legs. He pictured a schematic, watched the swelled tissue reach peak performance. He decided that a nerd focuses on running, the hero on his objective. He flagged. Just as well.
Josef intuited why they had assailed Greer. Stopping to rest allowed the knowledge to catch him. Cancer demanded treatment. Greer had good genes. If he refused treatment, humanity missed out. That would amount to treason. There were ways around it. Litigation. He’d be allowed to die in exchange for the odd organ or tissue. No time for litigation now. If Greer hadn’t kept his illness secret, they’d have cured him before launch. Josef kicked the wall for his stubborn friend.
Storms pillaged. The sea surged. The earth shook. Greer had cheered. Greer wore his cancer in the same ironic way he wore his Hawaiian shirt: he protested for destiny. Josef asked himself if he could bear to leave Greer behind.
Josef found Greer singing in the alley. Drunkenly singing Spanish poetry was the closest Greer had come to sulking in front of Josef.
“I don’t suppose you caught them? Never pegged you for a sprinter.” Greer coughed a bloody laugh and caressed the stapled lump in his side. “High jump, maybe.”
“Get up, borracho. They got a kidney.”
“I’m serenading,” Greer slurred.
Josef reached for Greer’s arm, but felt a stab in his spine and collapsed onto Greer instead. Josef was being dragged. He felt smeared on the cobble. He heard Greer curse in Spanish, rolled onto his back. Blinded by a transport’s lights, he placed his pneumatic glove in a grate and pulled in his legs.
The assailant fell. Greer’s profanity swelled in Josef’s ears. The man’s weight suffocated. Josef acted instinctively, primally. His paralyzed higher brain functions watched in horror as he pressed his gloved hand into the man’s gut, raised the middle finger, engaged the rotor. He hoped for purchase, wasn’t sure. He pressed harder. He was sure.
Copyright © 2016 by Carl Ross Beideman