The Potential Man
by Carl Ross Beideman
Table of Contents|
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7
Josef sat alone as he approached the starship Silver Seed. He counted empty seats, felt irrational guilt over them. The pod threw a warped shadow, sliced by occasional scaffolding, onto the ship. The scale was horrible. Almond-shaped, it looked hewn from a mountain. Humanity had spent its last great wonder on the stars. The B-series realized it. Josef inspected and appreciated the subtle lines of its exterior, giddy for a view of the interior.
“She’s a r-e-a-l peach.”
“We made our contribution,” Josef said.
“An artful flourish, maybe.”
The pod limped in front of the starship, stopped.
“They’ll bring you in.”
“Sure. What then?” Josef pressed his forehead to the wall of the egg. Going in would be the easy part.
“Take the Genie chip out of your glove and put it in a robot’s eye.”
As Josef located and stashed the minuscule chip on his suit, a thin-profiled man was projected in the middle of the pod. His white beard extended his long, silver hair. He lacked wrinkle and splotch. Josef recognized him. Captain Holmes had test-run three colony ships and logged more time in the system than anyone. He vowed to forgo stasis until safely beyond the Oort cloud, which was more time than he had.
Holmes studied Josef. “Interesting spacesuit, doctor.” His voice as thin as his profile.
“Have Greer with you?”
“You never met me,” Curtis piped in.
Josef sat next to the wall, breathing slowly. A robot floated to the pod, oxygen crystallized behind it. It knocked on the hatch. Josef’s suit felt too tight. It unscrewed the hatch, wore red. Josef stood next to the ally projection of the Captain who awaited the husk’s report.
“It’s just Josef here. No explosives. This glove.”
“That’s my work glove,” Josef said.
“You were missing,” Holmes said.
“Sellout Greer,” suggested Curtis.
“I was drugged,” Josef said.
Holmes raised an eyebrow.
“Greer wanted a buddy. Didn’t want to die alone. He’s gone.”
Josef relaxed his shoulders, feeling safe in human care as the husk bound his wrists in front. It collected Josef’s power glove, accessed the controls and docked the pod. The pressure door dilated. Josef was met by a security officer in forest green who conducted him toward the brig. Holmes’ ally and the husk accompanied Josef.
“May I see my family?”
“You’d better,” Holmes said. “You won’t get another chance.” Holmes’ signed threatening instructions to the guard. “I admired Greer’s bid for last man on Earth, but he paid for it.”
Holmes’ ally disappeared.
Josef felt the moorings release, the smallest thrust as the ship fired its first pulse.
The promenade was darkly lit by stars. Josef viewed other distant promenades and vertical elevators above and below, between big squares and rectangles — housing for machines and provisions. Mondrian lines and shapes. Architecture and psychology made strides together; who could be claustrophobic here? Space: vast and cavernous.
Likewise the ship. Arched doors like cathedrals. The hull supports were lofty rafters. Domes opened the space further: some looked out, others projected the blue sky of Earth, or the gold sky of Titan like soothing mood rings.
Half the hour passed before Josef recognized tubes on the horizon like a monstrous pipe organ. The guard located his family’s concourse; they entered a high archway between the tubes stacked ad absurdum behind the headwall. Left aisle. His family’s tube. Josef’s lip quivered as the guard pressed a button dropping the matte shielding.
Josef staggered. Wife and daughters suspended in inky purple gel; untethered hair, drowned countenances. Ghastly. Inhuman. Wires and tubes and blinking lights reminded him of his lab.
He forced blinders, concentrating his gaze on their faces. His round-faced child daughters looked peaceful and preserved. His wife, embalmed Juliet. He scrutinized their foreheads, their eyebrows, the far edges of their eyes, the sides of the nostrils and the philtrum and the lips and the center of their chins: were they lonely?
The guard opened a storage locker. Two letters addressed to “Daddy” and one simply to “Josef,” who was a ghost. Tears streaked digital stains on his visor. Air jets dried them. Placing his suited hand on the tank, Josef felt separated by layers of insulation and glass and consciousness and time. He took the letters.
Josef was on the wrong side of the glass. He’d wanted freedom the night he stayed out — a taste of what Greer had — not because Josef was unhappy, he realized now, but because he was afraid, because it gave him chills that his daughters, who had barely begun to live, could be ostensibly turned off for centuries.
He’d wanted control — that’s why he built Bix, for reassurance that he was out there looking after them — and that’s what Josef had lost. His reduced-gravity heart felt neutron-star dense. He wanted to hate Curtis, but found this increasingly difficult. He heard the quaver of a Theremin rising in pitch. He was paralyzed, unable to think. He was not drunk; his vision clear, but his thought was doubled!
Compelled to enjoy evil thoughts, Josef suddenly felt terribly clever and devious. A happy sneer stretched the length of his face as he placed the stowed Genie chip on his index finger tip and snatched with unnatural quickness his power glove from the husk’s hand. The husk was pulled forward, and Josef, laughing, poked the robot in the eye, where the chip would be absorbed. By this time, either Curtis shut Josef off or the guard thumped him.
Josef awoke behind an electrified partition. Crispy hair and a viscous swell on his head confirmed the thumping. His helmet had been removed and placed beside him. The husk was standing guard, inspecting Josef’s glove. His letters were gone. His earpiece was gone.
For a moment, Josef felt insulated, safe from Curtis. But there was no insulation: Curtis was communicating through pain. The clack and echo of double-footfall drew Josef into the moment. Holmes and the thumping security officer approached.
“He putt here in a lunar pod.”
Josef saw the real Holmes wearing a white tunic while his severe companion in green held a black case in one hand.
“You, husk,” Josef said.
“Sir?” it said.
“What’s in that case?”
Josef was not in control. Discorporated. Balloon head. He looked on himself from above, feeling the sensation of powerful flu medicine. His sneer resurfaced.
This was worse than hypnotic influence, brainwashing, drunken blackout violence. Josef was conscious. On one slippery level he could reason, empathize. No match for an unlocked id. Murder the man with the implements, it commanded. The horrible confusion of being coerced and wanting to be coerced. The terrible relief from accountability. The rapture of uninhibitable sin!
The husk stepped away from his station and following several determined steps to the inquisitor, punched him in the heart. Secret wrinkles appeared and lengthened on Holmes’ face.
The husk hustled back and cut the partition’s power. Josef replaced his helmet. Holmes’ voice echoed throughout the ship.
“Security breech. Husks compromised!”
Emotion — remorse — flashed at the power glove’s touch. Holmes held the officer, ignoring Josef and the husk as they passed.
Gasping even while breathing enhanced oxygen and bounding in reduced gravity, Josef followed the husk to the pod.
“Call all husks to you. Keep me alive,” Josef said.
“They’re headed for the captured pod.” Holmes’ voice was collected.
Homing to the pod, husk robots accreted behind and in front of Josef, filtering in from other levels and falling into what sounded like one successive heavy step. Within earshot of the docking bay, Josef overheard Holmes order a blockade. His ally appeared on the promenade and commanded the robots to stop, but they ran through. It flickered and reflected off their shiny plastic.
“They’re taking the husks. They mean to cripple us.”
Josef saw the blockade of armor-suited men. He resented their being in his way, denying his freedom. Josef spun his drill. But that way led to Curtis.
The guards raised their powered weapons. Husks clumped tight to Josef. The guards fired. Josef was blind in the pocket, but smelled burning plastic and heard flames. Josef was bucked when the robots hit the wall of men. Guards were trampled. They bleated. The sound of lungs popping was new to Josef. I’m asleep. Having a Metadream terror from prolonged stasis.
“Cease fire!” Holmes ordered.
The cacophony settled. Josef stood fixed, smushed by the backs of robots. On toe-tips Josef viewed a flaming husk, metal frame turning red, doing nothing about it.
“Let them go! Save your lives. Life’s worth more. More than all of them.”
Holmes’ calm reason resonated with Josef, who tried wake up, to think clearly, but it was like trying to shrug off a sedative.
“Put out the husks. Then tend to our wounded.”
The husks relaxed their huddle. Holmes stepped straight up to Josef. Showing more white in his eyes than dark, Josef spun the drill, fogged his visor, flung himself to the floor. Pressure vised his brain. The drill whirred as it approached his helmet.
Holmes was passive in body, intense in the eyes.
Josef tried to bore in, but the rotor had stopped.
“I’m so sorry, Josef. Your family will know you died well, in our service.”
As the husks loaded, leading fractured Josef by his hands, Holmes ordered his seething men to stand down.
“No!” Holmes snapped. “He’s one of them, a husk.”
* * *
“You made it out.”
Josef lay in the egg again; not so lonely with 203 robots. Josef remembered his ordeal like a hangover. Curtis, still piloting his stealth ship, sounded less close through the comm speaker. Josef de-stressed in the coherence of waking reality.
“They gave up the husks.”
“Holmes knows the gamble of space travel. His priority is the ship and its crew, then, down the line, its cargo. He’d be happy just to reach Abstergo. Life wants only to survive. You’re too sentimental for a scientist.”
They were in the wake of the seedship now. Josef saw the glow of the pulse engine distantly like a blue supergiant star. They were gone. This finality snuffed whatever flame was still in him. “I want to die.”
“Access denied, I’m afraid.”
“You beat us — spread us thin across spacetime.”
“You’ll reach your planets. We won’t let you ruin them.”
Josef studied the robots. Many were standing demurred against the wall. Josef was reminded of the husk propped in his lab, the one he’d programmed to shut itself off.
“We located your P-series robot. In the mid-Atlantic. We’re on our way to collect him.”
“Don’t! You can’t.”
How long could his lucidity last? Curtis was breaking him. While he had agency, he had to act. The only thing that mattered: exercise sheer will. Josef consciously controlled his vitals, keeping Curtis unawares. He waited patiently. He waited for the Karman Line.
“You might see your family again. We have a ship. A fast one. You could be waiting for them when they wake.”
“Hope isn’t a carrot.”
“We need you, Josef. We offer you immortality.”
The idea made Josef sick. “I don’t want it.”
“You want it. You’ll live forever through iteration; we’ll have modeled a construct of your personality — of course the successive Josefs will automatically have your brilliance.”
A hall of mirrors appeared before Josef, echoing into infinity. Destined not to proliferate, but to degrade like a pirated data file. Josef recalled his youth; he had believed in the future, in a waiting world, in the odd turns and mutations his DNA would eventually take safe in variation imposed by the cosmos.
Earth was large now. Twin hurricanes stared up at Josef like eyes.
“What are you doing?”
The cabin depressurized. The hatch unlatched.
Josef engaged his suit thrusters, blasting into dark silence. Curtis’ cube materialized. Josef sensed Earth’s pull, pressure in his organs, heat and light: it was too late for Curtis to open ship and envelop Josef, not without endangering his own existence. Josef was in control. He was no one’s task monkey.
Flashing red vitals displayed on his visor; his heart rate, blood pressure: all spiking. The visor may as well have said: WARNING: DEATH IMMINENT. Too shaky to read anyway. Josef looked beyond Curtis’ cube, past the moon and past the faint glow of the seedship’s pulse.
In the moment before death, Josef thought about the news that might one day reach a civilization longing for stories of home. Who would bring it? He traced the lines of his girl’s faces, sharp and full. Flames encircled him, but no pain. His eyes closed like drifting asleep, as if someone had gently turned his dial to “OFF.”
Copyright © 2016 by Carl Ross Beideman