by F. Alexander Brejcha
"Tina! My control!" Panic threatened to overwhelm me as my mouth searched for the joy-stick to my wheelchair. My arms were useless weights lying limply in my lap. The small furry shape of the Capuchin monkey that had been prowling around on the bookshelf stopped at the sound of my voice, cocking its head to study me with a puzzled look.
I tried again. "Come to daddy, bring me my control!" My mouth changed targets and fished for the light-wand that I used to guide Tina. As my lips closed on the thin rod, I pulled it out of its socket and aimed it at the control-box. An uncontrolled neck spasm had knocked the small joystick out of my reach. Then I clamped down with my teeth to trigger a thin red beam of light to hit the control.
Tina, my "helping hand", leaped off the shelf and came scurrying across the floor. She scrabbled her way up one of my numb legs as she reached me. Tiny hands tugged on her little beard as her gaze swung back and forth from my face to the small metal box on its goose-neck. The small red spot wavered as I fought to keep the beam centered. Then with a low clicking gurgle, Tina jumped up on my shoulder and reached out to pull the control in next to my face where I could reach it.
The surging panic that dried my mouth and churned my stomach gradually ebbed. I lived in mortal fear of what would happen if Tina was gone and I should be stuck, unable to move and there should be a fire or... I fought the panic that threatened to overwhelm me again.
Tina stayed on my shoulder, tiny fingers picking through my hair, trying to find some lice or any other interesting pests. Alternately, she peeked over at me expectantly with rapid darting movements of her head.
I smiled. She was so polite, and never greedy.
I reached over and triggered the reward chamber with my chin, hearing the thin rattle as a small biscuit rolled into a cup on the side of my chair. Tina dove for it and nimble fingers pried it out to pop it into her mouth as she balanced on my knee, chewing happily.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the glowing computer monitor sitting patiently on my desk, the cursor halfway down the right half of the two-page screen, crisp black letters waiting expectantly on a bright field of white.
Grabbing for the joy-stick with my lips, I guided my chair towards the computer and ran my knee lightly into one of the padded sections along the front of the counter. In response, the keyboard lifted up from the desk, a stylus sticking up from it. The stylus was attached by a thin cord, in case I should drop it. A small directional microphone mounted on a stalk aimed out like a snake poised to strike, waiting for my voice, now that it had been activated. Moving forward carefully, I positioned myself and leaned forward to grab the stylus so that I could set the computer into control mode. Then I leaned back.
"Save file under same name. Clear screen. Load letter format. Address to code one zero three." I had to think a minute to remember Paul Atkins' code in the address file. "Date equals January 31, 2003." Then I leaned forward and shifted into edit mode. Meanwhile, the screen obligingly cleared and painted with my letterhead and Paul's address neatly placed as the intended recipient of the letter, complete with a "Dear Paul:" followed by a blank line.
I closed my eyes a moment as I phrased my letter mentally. Then I began, speaking as clearly as possible into the microphone.
"Greetings, Paul (a double bite on the joystick for a period). Just a note to ask you to please come over and add a speech-command unit to my chair. I spazzed (the cursor stopped and flashed a question mark until I spelled the word and added it to the dictionary) and knocked the control out of my reach today. Tina put it back in line for me, but it made me think about adding voice control to the chair. It may not be as good as the joy-stick, but at least it's something if I get stuck again and Tina can't help me." I felt a brief cynical smile creep onto my face. "I should be home all day." Then I switched to control. "End paragraph, linefeed, new paragraph." Back to edit again. "Thanks for your help and I look forward to seeing you." Back to control. "Standard closing. Fax to code one zero three now. Reload last saved file."
On a small box next to my computer, several green LED's lit briefly, and the letter on the screen vanished, replaced with the title page of the draft of my latest novel manuscript. I had promised my publisher I would have it done by the end of the year. My agent had managed to sell one of my earlier novelettes to a movie company, and my publisher had sent me the preliminary shooting script so I could write a novelization of the movie for simultaneous release. I knew I had better get my ass in gear if I was going to have it finished in time for it to get into print by the movie's release date. 2004 would be here all too soon.
But as I sat there staring at the screen, the letters blurred as I thought about my writing.
"Lunar Legacy" was not destined for the critic's corner, but for my bank account. My first four horror books -- two written since the accident -- had grossed a tidy sum for me. But my next one had bombed; barely earning out. So this one had to be good so I could start a come-back.
The idea was a basic enough ghost story about a remote research station on the Moon, haunted by the ghosts of a team of scientists who had killed each other when a malfunction in the atmosphere plant had them in the throes of hypoxia. Even though my original story had been Hollywoodized, the novelization had been coming along fine, flowing out effortlessly, only occasionally stalled as the computer had to pop a window up with a list of homonyms when it was unable to distinguish the proper one from context.
But suddenly I was stuck.
The reason was a surprise phone-call from my doctor who had just called, and with a big grin had said: "You're approved as a test subject! In two weeks we'll have you in here for analysis, and after the nano-rooters are tailored to you and set to work, you may be ready for physical therapy before too long and on your way back to normal!"
I remembered forcing a smile onto my face as I had stared into the small color phone-screen to give him the expected happy response. Then I pleaded a backlog of work and hung up. For a long time, I just sat there, feeling suddenly afraid, but unsure of why.
Tina felt it too and ran around in rapid circles, chattering endlessly and ignoring my calls for her to shut up and get me a drink. Finally I calmed myself down as my aide, Maria came in to check on the noise, the breeze from the door making me realize I had been sweating as I felt the cool dampness around my neck.
I chased Maria away as soon as she had wiped me off and changed my shirt. And as I finally relaxed, so did Tina, allowing herself to be petted with my chin as she sat on my shoulder munching one of several treats.
Just like she was doing now.
She jumped up on my shoulder again and I sat stroking her soft, warm fur with my chin as I tried to figure out why the thought of being cured should scare me so.
Cured by nanotechnology.
Long before my accident, I had read the various articles and books on the new science that had started appearing in the late Eighties, marveling over the idea of microscopic machines built up atom by atom until they were only the size of a molecule. Machines that eventually would analyze, break down and reassemble matter on an atomic level, and also replicate themselves. They would be virtually living organisms! At first I had incorporated nanotechnology's fascinating promises of a brighter future into many of the stories that I wrote for science fiction magazines when I wasn't working on a horror novel -- that genre paid better for me. Fantastic and hopeful tales of armies of nanomachines spreading to clean up a tortured environment, replenishing exhausted resources, and providing a safe means of disposing of hazardous wastes of all types except nuclear.
But then it had grown from a theoretical concept into reality.
The Nineties had seen theory stumble slowly into practical research and as the new millennium got underway, prototype nanomachines were developed. Two main directions were being explored: electronics manufacturing and medical research. In the latter field, carefully designed units dubbed nanorooters were sent into the bodies of injured test animals to do repair -- including repair of spinal cord injuries that was combined with new regenerative techniques! This was done by replacing nerve fibers with synthetic materials, and literally rebuilding damaged sections of spinal cord on a molecular level.
I realized belatedly that I had mentally blocked out what it might mean for me if this method should progress beyond animal trials and eventually carefully selected test patients. Instead, I had focused on what had increasingly started to captivate me: the mind-numbing terrors that were lurking if the new technology should get out of control despite the rigid safeguards that a joint international commission had placed on all nanotech research. I had had visions of killer machines mutating and replicating out of control to destroy the environment instead of cleaning it up. And of miniature assassins searching out and destroying anyone encountered instead of specific targets.
That fascination with the dark side of the new science had spawned my failure.
Chastened, I had realized I would have to accept that people were not willing to read this kind of horror. They wanted terror that could be dismissed even as it tickled the spine and teased the adrenaline, not something that was potentially all too real. My agent and publisher had tried to warn me, but had relented, hoping my reputation might win the readers over.
Or maybe, an insidious inner voice whispered, it had just been an inferior book because I didn't want to face the possible failure of nanotechnology to cure me soon enough? Maybe I had just not been focused in my writing?
But who wants to face the worst critic of all -- the subconscious?
So I had returned to ghosts and things that go bump in the night. First in stories to recapture my readers, and then my agent had sold "Lunar Legacy" to CineOmnia, blocking all aspects of the new science out of my mind. Until that call from Dr. Renkvist.
Cured. As I sat there, I fearfully considered the word. No more wheelchair. No more embarrassing bowel accidents, no more catheter and leg-bag. No more humiliating manipulations and... no more hiding from the world, no more comfortable isolation.
I would be forced to go into the world again, meet people again, meet women again... Jenny! In my mind, a low wail as I felt myself pinned in a crumpled car, my wife's dying body within inches, staring at me in agony, begging for release, for freedom, anything to end the pain of her broken body.
Helpless to stem or dry the flowing tears I sat staring at a screen that was suddenly blurred, unsure of what was worse: my continuing guilty pain over having lost Jenny or the fear of starting fresh and facing the world without the shield of my handicap.
A small warm form suddenly pushed itself under my chin. Silky fur tickled my throat as Tina pressed against me, a low throaty chatter of concern coming from her as she butted her head against my chin and picked at my ears and face with her tiny hands. Her fingers touched my tears, tasting the salt as she brought them to her mouth curiously. I couldn't help laughing softly. "Got a handkerchief baby?" She started at my voice and backed up, eyes wide, and then as she realized I wasn't mad, came back and continued picking at me and preening.
Feeling a little better, I pulled out my control wand and aimed at a sensitive spot on one wall and triggered it to call Maria to clean my face up.
I forced myself to remember.
Rain... tired relief at going home after a long dinner party at a potential client of Jenny's... the sharp turn where the expressway curves on the way into Philly to follow the meanderings of the Schuylkill River... the Jeep -- red, with white striping on the hood -- that is in the next lane spins out of control right into our path... Jenny's screams -- and my own -- as we realize we are going to hit it despite the auto-braking... the incredibly minimal sound of the impact, and the dizzying tumble as we bounce and roll, our little Toyota crumpling around us as cutting edges of metal, plastic and glass appear from nowhere to gouge and stab and compress... then gathering blackness as Jenny's face bleeds, inches from my eyes, a silent -- or is it? -- scream coming from her mouth as the world fades...
I shivered, feeling Tina jump off my shoulder and back away, chattering angrily. The noise alerted Maria as she came reluctantly into the room, but as soon as she saw me, concern covered her face and she turned to get a towel to wipe my face. I couldn't blame her for not exactly liking me, since I had not been the most cooperative or congenial patient.
"Remembering again?" she asked, having seen me like this before. I nodded. "Why do you keep torturing yourself? It wasn't anybody's fault that the other car went out of control. There wasn't anything you could have done!"
"I know that," I snapped at the familiar words. "I'm sorry!" Her eyes widened at the apology, and I was silent for a moment, the words echoing in my ears. I looked straight at her after a moment. "I am sorry. I've been treating you like shit and hiding in here by myself. Hell," I shook my head, "I've even been forcing you to stay at the other end of the house except when I call and I don't think I've even said thank you for anything in the three years you've been with me." Suddenly I was realizing how I had been treating her.
She was silent, eyes agreeing, but not convinced that I was sorry.
"Well, I am sorry," I repeated again, looking down and chewing on my lower lip. My eyes flicked briefly to my computer as I changed the subject.
"Remember what I told you about nanotechnology?" A couple of years earlier, in a rare fit of near-human behavior, I had taken time to explain the new science to her when she had asked me about my latest book. I had been gratified by her intelligent curiosity. She nodded. "Well, they've progressed to human trials and my doctor has been trying to get me into the program -- and it seems that he's succeeded."
"That's fantastic!" Her face lit up for a moment, and then sobered as she saw my expression. "You don't seem to think so."
I was silent.
"What's wrong?" she asked.
I moved my head towards the control-box and she reached out and intentionally moved it away. "Uh uh. You're going to talk to me. Call it a payback for three years of watching you vegetate in here and ignoring me --"
"-- and treating you--"
"-- like shit. You're right." She was leaning over me, one hand on each arm-rest and a fierce expression on her face. "For three years now, five days a week, I've cleaned up your shit and piss, bathed you, dressed you, fed you and done everything but clean house for you and you've ignored me. Other than keeping me at a distance and insisting on privacy, you haven't been mean to me as much as you've just ignored me! And the same with your other nurses. Seven of them have quit because they couldn't take it. As far as you're concerned, we're just mechanical aids like that damn computer!" I tried to turn my face away, cheeks reddening under the verbal assault, but a hand went up to grab my chin and kept me from avoiding her.
"Don't even try it," she threatened. "I've been storing this up, and I'm not holding back now when you finally seem to be ready to listen." She let go and dropped to her knees next to me, concern replacing the annoyance. "I haven't pushed because I know that the accident must have been awful! I can't even try to imagine what it must have been like both to lose your wife and to wind up paralyzed like this. But it's been tearing me apart to see you hiding away. Other paras and quads get around and keep active outside the home, but you just stay buried in here and write, refusing to leave the house. Hell, you haven't even gone out since I've been here. Don't you think --"
"-- it's time to face the world?" I interrupted. "Get out and meet people and stop hiding behind my handicap, feeling guilty and self-pitying? Maria, I know that. All of it." And I did finally realize it. "But..." It was difficult to explain. "I'm scared. The thought of microscopic machines running around inside my body terrifies me!" My mind flashed back to my last two books.
In front of me, Maria shook her head. "Uh uh. Why does it really scare you?"
For a long time I sat silent, considering her words. I thought about my hiding -- that was the only word for it -- and the reasons for it. Then I looked down at her, teeth chewing the inside of my cheek lightly as I finally answered.
"I'm afraid because it means no more excuses. No more convenient reason not to mingle and take chances --"
"-- of any kind," she finished. "I know... I guess that would be scary. But damn it! You're smart, witty, sensitive... in your rare moments of humanity." She smiled to take the edge off the words. "And I've read your books, all of them, and God knows you're creative. There's no need to be afraid." She leaned close, voice low and intense, and apparently startled by the strength of her feelings.
I looked down at her in surprise. It was as if I was seeing her for the first time and all at once I felt somehow naked and embarrassed. I wanted to turn away but couldn't, and at the same time I wanted to reach out and touch her. But I couldn't do that either. Suddenly a wave of angry frustration swept over me -- anger that I couldn't move, react. For the first time in years I felt truly trapped; felt that I wanted to react. And not just from the neck up!
I had never imagined that this would happen.
I looked down at the face below me and realized to my surprise that she was pretty. Not beautiful. Her nose was a bit big and the jaw too square, but her soft blue eyes were wonderfully expressive and her mouth was curled in a little twist of concern that touched me. And the whole face was framed by a soft mass of lightly curled chestnut hair that called out to be stroked.
My eyes closed for a moment, burning and suddenly I felt a light touch on my face as Maria dabbed at tears that had materialized, unbidden. Then the touch vanished and I opened my eyes to see her disappear down the stairs hurriedly.
I started to call out to her but changed my mind as I considered my feelings.
Emotions I had repressed for a long time started creeping out from hiding and nudging me; none too gently. And I considered again, really considered this time, what she and others had said.
The accident was not my fault. Jenny's death was not my fault, nor even that of the other driver. But I had conveniently forgotten about that. I had been hiding. I thought back again over four years of never leaving the house, of just sitting up, watching TV, reading and writing; never seeing anyone and communicating only by fax or mail, except for the rare call that was made to me. Not many of those lately, though. Even sales-people stayed away. I had only tolerated the presence of Maria and the others for the unavoidable personal care I needed. And she had been right: I had relegated them all to the role of just more of my adaptive tools.
I felt ashamed.
Suddenly I heard light footsteps on the stairs and looked up to see Maria reappear, eyes reddened and makeup slightly smeared. "I forgot," she explained as she reached me and moved my control back next to my face so I could reach. "I'm sorry." She started to turn away and then turned back. "Oh, I hate to do this on such short notice, but I got a call today from my sister. An emergency has come up at home and I have to leave. The agency is sending over another nurse and I made sure it was a good one. I don't know when, or if I'll be back. It all depends on --"
"You're lying." It was written all over her face and I was confused. Here I was, suddenly realizing how much I owed her and trying to accept strange feelings that I had not felt for years, and she was leaving -- with a lie. "There haven't been any calls today. What's going on?"
"It's... it's personal... I can't explain." She spun and started for the door but I beat her and blocked it with my wheelchair.
"Oh no you don't! My turn. You're not leaving until I find out what's going on." Her eyes flashed around, desperately looking for another way out, but there was none. "Forget it Maria," I warned. "I have to know. I don't know why, but I do."
She stood stiffly, her hands clenched tightly into fists that hung down at her side. She seemed to want to turn away but I held her locked with my eyes. Finally she answered, the words exploding out. "Because I was driving that jeep that ran you off the road." Having said it, she stared at me defiantly, daring me to react.
I backed away from the door, feeling light-headed as I considered her admission. I rolled over to the window and stared out over the bare winter trees and brown lawn below. The cold outside seemed to reach in and wrap me in a clammy embrace. Maria didn't move behind me. I could hear her breathing; short, gasping little breaths, almost like she was crying.
"I didn't want to hurt you," she said after a minute. "I took this job because I wanted to help you... I wanted to do something to make up for --"
"-- killing Jenny and destroying my life?" I snapped.
"No! It wasn't my... well, I..."
She stopped, confused, as I turned to face her. My face hurt from trying to keep it under control. For a minute, I couldn't say anything, and I realized what the truth was.
"It wasn't your fault." It was the most difficult thing I had ever said or had to admit, but it was true. "And I'm sorry."
"For what?" Suddenly she looked confused.
"Known what?" Then her eyes widened. "You knew I was the driver?" She stepped towards me, her mouth a tight slash. "You've known all the time?" I nodded and suddenly her hand flashed towards me and my head rocked back from the force of her slap.
"Well, I had that coming." My face burned and I tasted blood from where I had bitten myself. I worked my jaw to try to loosen it up.
Her face was flushed as she glared at me. "So you've been working my ass off to make me pay for it since you... how long have you known?"
"From the beginning," I admitted. "At first, I wanted to make your life miserable. I knew it wasn't really your fault, intellectually, but it didn't matter. I wanted to see you suffer --"
"Did you?" She looked thoughtful, all at once. "No, you did. But I know how much you also blame yourself. Were you punishing yourself, looking for a witness to your suffering?" Maria had calmed down and she had perched herself on a chair in the corner. "I'm sorry I slapped you. Why did you hire me, if you knew I was the driver?"
Suddenly I wasn't sure.
"We share a bond, you know." Her eyes were suddenly gleaming, wet. "You lost your wife, and I lost my life."
I rolled close, a voice inside screaming. She was hurting. I had never thought about how she must have felt all this time. I had been so focused on what I had lost that I had not thought about what she had been going through. I rolled as close as I could, my knee touching hers. I could feel it, a little.
"Maria. Please, don't cry. I don't want to hurt you." I felt my own eyes burn. I wasn't sure what I wanted to say at first, but I had to try. "You're not at fault. Not you, and not me. It was an accident." It was difficult. But I had to admit it. "Please! We both have to stop punishing ourselves. You talk about my feeling guilty and wallowing in self-pity, but what do you call what you've been doing, staying here and getting abused by me?" I took a deep breath. "I need your help with something. I'm going to call Renkvist and schedule an appointment. Would you come with me? I could really use your support. With his help, I may be able to start a new life. I think you need to do the same. Would you come with me? Please?"
She stared, and then after a moment, smiled hesitantly. "Okay, but you better start using my name and --"
"-- saying 'thank you', and 'please' and such." I smiled back tentatively. "I'll start now by saying thank you. I can't make up for the years of neglect overnight, but if you'll give me a --"
"I'll give you a chance," she promised. "But don't blow it, or I'm gone." She meant it. "No more excuses."
"Fair enough." I turned and rolled over to the computer, seeing that it was still in the control mode as I raised up the keyboard. "Phone to code two two one, video on." I spun to face the phone, a nervous bubbling in my stomach spreading upwards as I got ready to take my first step...
Story © 1998-99 by F. Alexander Brejcha <email@example.com>
Artwork "Anguished Flashbacks" © 1998-1999 by Romeo Esparrago <firstname.lastname@example.org>