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Learning to Walk in the Age of Machines
by Michael Athey
Although the view from the bedroom window was pleasant that afternoon, it did nothing to brighten Bob's mood.
The morning storms had finally cleared off, leaving a misty haze over the tiny plots of grass lining their sleepy neighborhood street, the afternoon sun winking through the red and gold highlights of the autumn trees. Youngsters, finding redemption from the waning Saturday clouds, sought newfound adventure along the streets, zipping and zigging and zagging on blurs of blue steel and silvery chrome, their bicycles thirsty for the next puddle to splash or the next curb to jump. The neighbor's psy-dog, Freeway (so named for where Pete and Alice Walker had discovered the smelly, ragged seer), sniffed in consternation around and around the plastichrome trash bin in Bob's driveway, most likely seeking a morsel of raw synthetic steak that had been, or would be, or never was discarded. An automower chugged methodically along a lawn across the street, while next door a young couple beat a glowing blue holographic ball -- holo-ball, Bob believed the game to be called -- back and forth between them with electronic paddles.
It should have been relaxing, looking on a throwback to the Saturdays Bob had once savored in his long-past childhood.
But he soaked it all in passively from his bedroom perch -- where he'd confined himself for the past, oh, he'd lost count how many days -- his form laying immobile, his face unable to crack a smile at anything he regarded, every image merely a momentary distraction from the discussion that would inevitably occur once Mary returned from her chores.
It had remained relatively quiet upstairs, save for the occasional intrusion of service droids skittering in and out of the bedroom doorway, chirping offers in high-pitched droning voices: "Care for the paper, Mr. Atwood?" "May we adjust the lighting for you, Mr. Atwood?" "May we drive you totally buggy with insipid requests, Mr. Atwood?" -- gibbering on and on, a mandatory accouterment proffered by the State to aid Bob in his debilitated condition. Eventually, well beyond the point when they had grown tiresome, he had deferred them to the downstairs, instructing them to assist Mrs. Atwood at whatever task she was most assuredly having difficulty with in the living room, so that he could at least have the afternoon to ponder the discussion that had to come a bit further.
It would hardly be a discussion, though, Bob had decided. There were no negotiations to make, no angles to work out, no details to nail down; the decision had already been made, but it was not one for which he felt any verve or positive conviction. Hence he felt no joy, laying there, the aftershock of the solution he'd fashioned boring into him, as he regarded the clear day that had emerged from the angry gale earlier that day. The storm was still swirling in his mind.
He cursed out loud, scolding himself for his inability to release the memories: the maelstrom of hypnagogic images superimposed upon all that he saw, the recollections of the accident tearing apart and blending back together again in a blurry mixture of lucid truth and deceptive mirage, the deafening blare of the horns in helpless warning, the walls of the chambers flashing in a fluctuating rhythm to the horns, between glowing red and pitch black, the faces burning and falling off everyone as the radiation surge hit, the crumbling support beams collapsing all about them, his own flesh melting, the blackness closing in.
A loud clatter from beyond the bedroom doorway shook Bob's attention, the sound of metal tools ricocheting against the polyurethane floor of the living room, followed by Mary's distinct curses. Bob used to feel a surge of warmth upon hearing his wife's frustrated attempts at maintenance about the household, waiting for the breaking point that would most assuredly arrive when she would crawl to him and plead him to fix whatever larger problem it had become. "Oh, pleeease, honey, you're an engineeeeeer, you could fix this in a jiiiiiiffy!" she would say, or something similar, and he would undoubtedly fold, after he'd allowed her to squirm for a few playful moments. And he'd fix it, sure enough, because he was good at fixing things.
But, then again, that had been when he was still able to walk.
Now, he'd do anything to keep her from asking him about whatever she was screwing up down there. He still needed more time to think....
"Honey?" Mary's voice purred.
Bob looked at her, startled by her sudden appearance in the bedroom doorway -- h somehow hadn't even heard her ride the lift up.
"You sleeping?" she asked, probing.
"Hmm?" Bob mumbled in mock fatigue. "Oh, no, just looking outside. What's up?"
"I'm giving up!" she declared.
"On the projectors in the living room, remember? I was going to fix the display so we could-"
"Oh, yeah," said Bob, intentionally cutting her off. "I remember. Fuzzy display, right?"
"Uh-huh. So I tried adjusting it, but it's still fuzzy!"
"Mm," Bob grunted, looking out the window again.
"Well?" asked Mary with a twinge of annoyance. "What should I do?"
"You could double-check the image vectors-"
"I did that already!"
"And you're sure they're set correctly?"
"YES!" she wailed, throwing up her arms, then dropping them again as quickly, her face drooping to a pensive scowl. "Well, maybe they are, I dunno."
"You should check 'em again, honey," Bob offered distractedly, his eyes still fixed out the bedroom window.
"Oh, OK," Mary mumbled, turning to leave, then stopping, her hands clasped nervously. "Could you do it, dear?"
"Just come downstairs with me real quick and I'll show you-"
"I don't think so, hon," Bob spat quickly.
"It'll just take a second, sweetie-"
"I really don't feel like it right now."
"I know, I know, but you know more about this stuff than I do, and it would really help me out, if we could just get you in your chair and-"
"I said no, Mary," Bob replied with finality, glaring more intensely out the window, his view fixated on a senseless point on the house across the street. "Besides, you'd just hurt yourself trying to move me again."
"But with the droids I could-"
"They'd just break again."
Mary regarded her husband quizzically, then hardened her gaze beneath a weathered frown.
"Fine," she said, turning briskly in place. "Just keep laying there and rot, if that's what you want. I'll figure it out myself!" She stormed quickly to the lift, mumbling a parting remark: "I swear, I just don't understand you anymore."
"Wait," said Bob.
"What, dear?" she asked, turning with a look of severity as she mounted the lift.
Bob momentarily lost his voice as he regarded his wife, looking longingly at her face. It was still beautiful. Youth still burned in her eyes, but the lines that had etched themselves into the once-smooth surfaces of her forehead -- having creased and settled permanently into the flesh over merely the last few years -- told a different story, an older tale. It was a tale equally woven into her hair -- the stark gray streaks threatening to overthrow the auburn locks cropped to her shoulder, her body forced to age the equivalent of decades in a scant few years.
"I-I'm sorry, Mary," Bob finally managed to say. "I didn't mean to snap at you."
Mary sighed. "Mm-hm. Fine, dear. I'll be downstairs if you need me." She turned to get on the lift again.
"Can you just wait?" Bob pleaded, gathering his resolve. "You can work on the vid-screens later, OK?"
Her face softened. "Sure, sweetie. I'm sorry, too, by the way."
"No reason to be," Bob remarked, chuckling dryly.
"Still, we shouldn't fight so much," she said, smiling as she sat down beside Bob on the bed. "I'd love to talk, though, if you're up to it."
"Yes," Bob remarked firmly. "We should talk."
"Oh!" said Mary, jolting upright. "You should hear what happened to me at work the other day."
Mary nudged a fraction closer, her hand beside Bob's face, and she began recalling the fairly interesting goings-on at the synthetic pets plant -- most likely Freeway's true origin, Bob figured, judging by its marks -- which was a good half-hour commute by lightrail, double that by floater. Bob had insisted on her taking the job in the city when it had been offered. It was good for her, he'd surmised. It kept her busy, kept her in contact with her associates, kept her occupied with other concerns rather than having to take care of him (they couldn't afford even a part-time nurse, real OR synthetic, on Bob's meager severance and Mary's passing salary), and Bob had assured her at the outset of her new employment that he would be able to take care of himself just fine. It wasn't as though he was going to fall down the escalator lift or anything, he used to joke.
"But then," Mary continued, bumping Bob slightly, "they didn't even consider my proposal for inter-breed anomaly research!"
"Oh," said Bob, seemingly attentive.
"And I know why, I tell you!" Mary said with her finger pointing mischievously into Bob's face. "It's that new young academy spawn, Gleason! Always spouting on about 'Huh, We weren't taught to do it that way in the Academy'."
So animated, she was, as she talked. Like the children outside, electric, her body more alive than ever, her arms gesturing this way and that in mock frustration as she unfolded the corporate soap opera for him. He remembered sharing that energy, how it bounced back and forth between them when they had first met, that creeping, dropping feeling that had filled his stomach as they'd first locked gazes at the hyperball arena on Luna three years ago and knew, just somehow knew, they would end up together.
"So I told Gene, 'Listen, I don't give a hopping duck fart whether or not he's from the academy'."
How she had looked that morning, as he'd prepared to catch the seven o'clock lightrail to the plant, zipping up his blue coveralls as she stirred awake, her blue eyes shimmering beneath the soft early sunlight as they spoke softly to one another in that small, dingy inner-city loft, those last words he'd spoken before kissing her lightly on the lips and then rushing out the door with his rucksack in tow, the promise he'd made.
"But Gene said 'I don't care where he came from, Mary, his input is just as valid as anyone else's!'."
How she cried, endlessly, the tears a flood from her eyes as she hovered near him, one of the few discernable forms amidst the blinding pristine walls of the hospital, her hand, its knuckles white, clutching his, squeezing the burnt, bandaged, unrecognizable excuse for a paw that remained... feeling nothing, not even a tingle, wanting to move, to wiggle a toe, to bend a knee, to do the impossibly simple as his wife cried on and the ghost-like surgeons all around him shook their heads to each other -- his charred, broken body hopelessly pressed into the casket as he began to sink away, deeper and deeper, into an all-enveloping darkness.
"And you know what he said next? He said-"
"Honey," Bob cut in. "I know you like talking about work and all, but can we just, I dunno, hold off for now?"
Mary's mouth hung partially open as she regarded him for a moment.
"Sure, Bobby," she said, nudging a fraction closer. "I'm sorry. I guess I just get caught up in all that stupid gossip that goes around."
"I understand," Bob said reassuringly. "Look, uh." His mind tensed, the storm brewing, threatening to strike. "I need to, that is, I have to tell you."
"What, sweetie? What's wrong?"
"OK," he began again, contemplating her nervous hands, wringing in slow, vicious circles, over and under, over and under, wanting to reach out and still them, warm them with his own, reassure them, an overwhelming urge as the synapses fired, demanding a response, as though his hands would still comply, only to have nothing happen. He swore involuntarily.
"Jesus, Bobby!" Mary cried, taken aback. "What's gotten into you lately?"
"I'm sorry," replied Bob, trying to regain his composure. "I've had quite a lot on my mind, thinking about lots of things-"
"Well, that's no surprise," Mary quipped solemnly, brushing aside the statement with a wave of her hand. "Considering how much time you've been spending up here lately."
"I know. I know I've been distancing myself-"
"Talk about an understatement!" Mary said in disgust, rising quickly from his side, pacing in a slow methodical circle about the bedroom. "I remember when you wanted anything but to be stuck in that bed! You used to plead with me to take you outside, to get in the sunlight, to go and talk with the neighbors, anything but be inside, but now, now you refuse to do anything!"
"As if there's anything I can do," Bob remarked with a touch of bitterness. "Anything a corpse could do, I suppose, but little else."
Mary stopped in mid-circle, her eyes probing.
"Listen to you," she began, "I thought we had worked through all this. I thought things were starting to get better. I thought we were going to try to make things better. I thought things were improving, but you, just then, you sounded exactly like you did two years ago-"
"Everything's the SAME as two years ago!" Bob shouted, unable to stave off the storm any longer. "Not just the same, though, no, it's worse. And every goddamn day gets worse and worse than the last! Every morning I wake up and try to move, try to get up out of the bed, try to scratch my nose, or stretch my arms, and every morning I fail. Every goddamn morning I'm reminded of what happened, and of what my body once was but no longer is -- nothing but a tomb, nothing but a goddamn prison that I can't escape from."
Mary let out a low moan, crossing her arms. "I can't believe you. I can't understand why you're being like this." Her right hand went to her face, thumb and forefinger rubbing the ridge between her eyes. "It's all the same, all the same stuff we went over with Dr. Morgan after you were released. You sound like, Jesus, Bobby, I can't stand this! I can't relive all this with you again! I just can't!"
Bob gazed evenly at Mary as she turned away, her nose sucking back moist sniffles, her eyes noticeably red.
"We have to talk about this, Mary-" he began.
"NO!" Mary barked, whirling to face him. "I refuse! I absolutely refuse to talk about this anymore! Not until you start helping me!" Tears had begun sneak along the ridges of her eyes. "Things aren't going to get any better unless you help me!"
"And what would help?" Bob shot back. "What exactly do you want me to do, Mary? What, just get over it? Huh? Just keep letting you wheel me around the neighborhood, around the market, around the city quadrants as if everything's all fine and dandy? Just ignore all those stares and mournful looks and patronizing words that everyone shoots at us everywhere we go-"
"What stares?" Mary asked, unbelieving. "Nobody stares at you!"
"Of course they do, Mary!" Bob nearly screamed. "Everywhere we go, they're staring, disgusted, standing there, gawking as we go by, feeling oh so sad for the 'poor young woman' and her 'forsaken' husband."
Mary began shaking her head violently.
"That's what they say, Mary," he continued. "That's all they ever say."
"Nobody says that!"
"All the time, Mary. You just refuse to hear it, because." Bob stopped, trying to hold back the words.
"Because what?" Mary spat through a painful grimace.
Bob let out a long sigh. He hadn't wanted it to come up, but he supposed it had to, it was unavoidable at this point, anyway.
"Well?!" Mary prodded.
"I know about the meds, Mary," Bob said. "I called up the credit logs on the bedroom display while you were at work the other day, all those allocations to Clark's Downtown Drug. You're taking skin-permeable tabs. Don't deny it. You can see the discoloration on your carotid artery."
Mary's left hand rose to her neck, rubbing it nervously as she looked away.
"I noticed it about a week ago," he continued. "You've been filling out your own prescriptions through your business contacts. Anti-depressants. You've been taking them for a while." Bob's voice quivered slightly.
Mary dropped to the bed in a tired gesture, running her hands through her hair. "I just needed something, Bobby. It's been hard, you know? I just needed something to help me get through-"
"I know why you're taking them," Bob remarked. "I know that it's mostly because of me, and I can't stand knowing that, Mary. You can't tell me that that's not one of the reasons."
"I." Mary's voice cut off, choking back the words, making the chasm within Bob widen -- he knew he'd been right. She sat silent, her face buried in her hands. Bob turned his gaze back to the window.
"I'm sorry that I brought it up," he said. "You'd been trying to cover it up, but I couldn't let it stand any longer. I couldn't watch you do this to yourself anymore."
"I'm not abusing them, Bobby," Mary said defensively.
"That's not-" Bob growled in frustration. "That's not what I meant! It's just, well, you shouldn't have had to turn to them in the first place! And it drives me crazy to know that I had something to do with it, and thinking that, well, perhaps, if things had been different -- if I hadn't survived -- if they hadn't saved me-"
"Don't say that!" Mary wailed. "How on earth can you say something like that?!"
"Because it's killing me, Mary," Bob said. "It hurts even more now, more than ever. It killed me to see that look on your face, every time we went over to Pete and Alice's, watching how you looked when you were holding their baby, all the time thinking about the promise I'd made to you, knowing I'd never be able to fulfill it-"
"Is that what this is all about?" Mary asked. "Having a baby? We talked about this before, honey! It's OK, really! I'm over it! I got over it a long time ago!"
"I can tell you're lying," Bob said. "I know how much it meant to you, how much it still means to you."
Mary rose from the bed again, muttering quietly to herself, her arms hugging her body, shaking her head in disbelief. "What's the point, though, Bobby?" she asked. "Why bring it up again? It doesn't do any good! We can't do anything about that now! But we can try to make things better for us, right?"
Bob remained quiet, too despondent to answer.
"Maybe we could take you back to the clinic," Mary offered. "They've made several advancements since the operation after your accident-"
"Impossible," Bob spat. "You know we can't afford it."
"We could take out a loan-"
"We're still paying off the loan we took out when we moved out here, to this house!" Bob pointed out. "We can barely afford to get by as is!"
"Still, we could at least try-"
"No, Mary," Bob said, cutting her off again. "It's pointless. It doesn't matter anyway." He looked out to the driveway, at the floater silently pulling to a stop in their driveway. "Nothing matters now."
Mary regarded her husband curiously, her eyes narrowed.
"What do you mean?" she began to ask as the doorbell chimed downstairs, startling her. "Who could that be?"
"That's what I've been wanting to talk to you about," Bob said with a stern gaze. "I called them via audio link while you were working downstairs this morning."
The doorbell chimed again.
"You better let them in," Bob said.
"Just a second!" Mary snapped. "Let who in? Who did you call?"
Bob simply gazed at her, silent.
"Tell me, Bob!" she exclaimed. "I'm not letting a soul into this house until you tell me who they are!"
"Excuse me, ma'am."
The short, stocky man dressed in white coveralls brushed past Mary, kneeling beside Bob.
"What the Hell?!" Mary yelled.
"We'll just be a sec," the man muttered to her.
"I didn't code you in!" Mary said accusingly.
"Coded ourselves in, ma'am," said another man, dressed in white as well, from the bedroom doorway.
"How dare you-" Mary began to scream.
"Honey, please," Bob said soothingly. "Don't fight them. They're from the hospital. Just let 'em do their job."
"Could you move aside, ma'am?" asked the man in the doorway. "We need to get his chair next to the bed."
"NO!" Mary wailed, pushing ferociously into the man's chest. "I won't let you!"
"Aw, Jesus," the man next to the bed blurted. "Hal, juice her down, will ya?"
Mary continued to scream nonsensically as the man, carefully avoiding her flailing strikes, plunged a needle gun into her neck with a fast, routine motion. The sedative took hold in seconds, Mary's body falling limp in the uniformed man's arms.
"There we go," the man named Hal said, setting her weak form gently beside her husband on the bed. "Just lie down and relax. We'll be out of your hair soon."
Mary lay helplessly on the bed, her head dipped to her side, her eyes dilating slowly amidst a well of tears, watching as the gradually blurring images of the men from the hospital hoisted Bob into his motorized chair with one tremendous heft.
"Bobby." she croaked. "Please."
"Everything will be OK, sweetie," Bob said calmly. "You'll see."
"No." Mary whispered meekly.
"I'll miss you, Mary."
Bob watched her form recede as the men accompanied him to the lift, how she cried, as she had cried before, cursing himself for creating new pain. But she'll be fine now, he thought to himself. She'll find someone else, start a new life.
One of the men rushed out the front door ahead of them as the lift slowly rested onto the living room floor, the pristine floater hovering quietly in the street.
She'd finally have a chance, Bob continued to muse. A chance to have a family. She was still eligible. She wouldn't have been, if this all had gone on too much longer, but she wasn't too old yet, no, she still had a window. She still had a chance now.
* * *
A small furry form came ambling up to their group from a clump of bushes as Bob was led out the front door of the house.
"Hey there, Freeway," said Bob. The shaggy mutt sniffed at them once, then ran off as quickly as it came, wailing a high-pitched cry. Bob watched it disappear down the darkened street. It knows, he thought to himself. It knows what's happening.
One of the men followed Bob into the back of the floater, the other taking the helm at the front. Bob eyed the man named Hal morbidly as he reached into a bulky gray medical kit and pulled out a thin silver tool.
"I'll only ask this once, sir," Hal began as the floater eased away from the house and ambled off down the road. "Are you sure, absolutely sure-"
"Yes," Bob said simply. "Proceed, please."
The man nodded grimly as he carefully inserted the tool into the side of Bob and turned it, slowly, ninety degrees counter-clockwise.
Bob's mind relaxed as the hum of his internal atomic motor gradually lowered in pitch, as his primary processing programs closed and erased themselves, as the intricate wires within the small steel box that housed his psyche fused and became useless. He felt the gradual sinking -- that same sinking as he'd once felt on the hospital casket -- as the view from his unblinking, fiber-optic eyes diminished, growing darker in tandem with the dimming LED displays on his outer housing, until finally, after what seemed an eternity, his entire self sunken away, he opened his own eyes again, felt himself rise and turn -- in whatever direction he was unsure -- and then he walked away, without a known destination, looking forward to the chance that would hopefully come, the chance to walk with Mary once again.
Story copyright 2001 by Michael Athey firstname.lastname@example.org
Illustration copyright 2001 by Jon Eke email@example.com
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