Manufactured Immortality

Kato approached the window and laid his hand upon the cool, hard, glass. On the other side of it lie his trusted advisor, and surrogate big brother, unconscious. It had been exactly thirteen hours since the craft crashed, nearly taking Hays’ life. What was left of it, flesh and bone, was practically unsalvageable. As he watched the galaxy’s most renowned doctors busy about Hays’ crushed, inoperative, body – Kato couldn’t help but wonder if making him cyborg was the right choice. Hays had told him once, before he even became King, that the biggest obstacle humans have ever faced is mortality, and that banning cyborgism was the only way to make us face it. Cyborgism, he explained, was not a solution, but a pacifier. All the same, he added that if he were ever on the brink of death, that he’d take all the metal he could get, legally or otherwise. He had chuckled heartily at his own irony, and Kato had smiled along. But he never forgot those words, “a pacifier.” He recalled them in a public speech the day he signed the bill. Now he wondered if it was a pacifier for the patient, or their loved ones who simply won’t let go. Tomorrow, he’d have to publicly retract those words. Tomorrow.

© Shyla Fairfax-Owen

V Positive

The sun dominated the sky that day. Clouds cowered under its gleaming oppression. Even the birds seemed to fly low. Derek squinted, knowing immediately that he should have stayed home. And he should have. That was the day Derek’s life fell to shit.

He fought the heavy doors of the testing facility open. Their weight surprised him as much as his own weakness did. He told himself it was just early and he was tired, but honestly, lying to himself was getting old. There was nothing salubrious about it.

Inside, Derek was greeted by an older woman dressed in disdain. It was obvious that she hated being there, which struck Derek as odd considering most such facilities ran on volunteers. He’d never been in one, but many anecdotes attested that volunteers were generally people who had lost someone to the merciless disease. People whose grief drove them. Derek supposed it was likely that one day, the grievers might wake up to realize their services hadn’t done a thing to change circumstances. In fact, the numbers grew each week. That could make a person grow bitter – like the woman leading him down the hall.

“You’re running on borrowed time, Mr. Alvarez,” she announced with a tone that denoted lack of surprise.

Positive. He thought the word, but could not get his tongue to pronounce it.

“Positive,” she said for him, avoiding eye contact as she skimmed the test results. “And the gene,” she added without emphasis. Derek could have sworn he saw her shoulders drop an inch or two, though.

Derek watched her silently, choking back anger or hysteric sadness, whichever was threatening to push to the forefront. The bitter lady was now visibly smothering her tired loathing and reaching deep down for something that might mimic patience.

“The gene, as you must know, is a birth defect.” Spiel time. Standard, he imagined. “About 40% of people are born with it these days, and it lies dormant until it comes in contact with the virus. Now that that’s happened, you are V-Positive, and the gene will begin to mutate.”

She handed him two bottles of pills, placing the first in his left hand and the second in his right. Pointing, she continued.

“These ones will suppress the symptoms, and these will slow the change.”

Slow. Not stop. Derek winced. The med-cocktail would only slow the inevitable. Sooner or later, he was going to turn into a monster.

“The virus can be transmitted through any bodily fluid. We ask that you respect the right of others to not be infected by malicious intent.”

She looked away again – seemed to drift off to a place only she could see. When she returned mere seconds later, her eyes had softened.

“Even with the medication, certain circumstances can cause a flare up of symptoms. Among them is increased heart rate and body temperature. The sun and sexual activity are the two leading causes of outbreak. You’d do best to avoid these.”

She reached into her pocket and drew a small syringe, thick enough to insert the microchip.

Without warning she stuck the tip in Derek’s arm and injected.

“This chip will measure body temperature and other symptom levels. It also has GPS tracking. We will receive urgent notification the moment you become at risk.”

“And then what?” It was the only question Derek asked that day, but he already knew the answer.

She sighed and then looked him square in the eyes. Without quiver or hesitation, she said, “And then we put you down.”

Derek held her stare, and as he did so, his heart rate increased.

The Difficult Question

Story #3: The Fixers Series

“What are you doing in here?”

I perk up at the sound of the voice. I don’t recognize it, but I assume it must be a doctor or nurse assigned to June, the woman I’ve come back in time to… right a wrong for. I’m still dazed from the Time Mover, and I’ve decided my best bet for now is to steal the chip technology before it can be implanted in her. Without it, there will be no reason to make her cyborg either; she’ll be considered useless and let alone. She probably won’t survive the injuries otherwise, but I’m trying not to think about that part. June asked me for a favor, she asked me not to let them turn her into a machine; a false version of herself. I don’t know where my moral compass aims on chip technology, but I know when I saw the sparks fly from her tearing eyes, I owed her something.

I spin around and face a plump middle-aged woman in scrubs. She’s holding a syringe and staring at me dubiously. A fixer should never be seen. We never go so far back that physicians would not be aware of us and our intents – but it’s still best to avoid the conversation. The fewer details divulged, the less harm done to the collective consciousness. Particularly, who gets fixed and who doesn’t is a topic we like to obviate. The missions are always cloaked in mystery.

“Dr. Sasha Green. I need a moment with the patient.” I dart my eyes at the nurse, hoping she understands who I am, and leaves. But she returns no such indication.

“You can’t be in here. This is Dr. Allister’s patient.”

Gus. He’s already here, and revealing himself. Odd, but okay; I can work with that.

“Yes, I work for Dr. Allister. You can check with him. Send him in.” I turn back to face June, unconscious and bloody on the table. Plane crash – the kind from which you don’t come back.

The nurse scoots out of the room in a hurry. She doesn’t trust me, at all. When Gus arrives his face falls but it’s a face much younger than the one I’m acquainted with. Startled, I look down at June’s file. The information hits me like a truck and I realize that in my hastiness, and fear, and confusion, I punched in the date so robotically that I hadn’t fully processed it.

I’ve gone back not to September 1st of this year, but of twelve years ago.

It explains the lassitude that has taken me over. I’ve never gone back further than a few months. Some of the more experienced fixers have gone back a year or two; but twelve? This was altogether unbelievable. I was unaware the Time Mover could even pull off something of this magnitude.

Gus sees me. Really sees me. He knows exactly who I am, even though I won’t meet him for another four years.

“Are you scouting me?” I ask, immediately threatened by the idea that this man whom I have looked up to has been lying to me from the start.

He nods, hesitantly, and approaches me. In a low and frantic whisper, he asks: “did I do it? The Time Mover? It works?”

“Yes,” I answer, stepping back from his intensity. “I’m here to stop this,” I add, pointing to June.

“No. No. No, you don’t understand.” He’s flustered now.

“Understand what? You broke the oath, took bribes, exchanged money and research for a poor woman’s life.” I’m almost yelling, but I’m still short of breath, and trying to keep my calm.

Gus cuts his eyes at me and the glare sends shivers up my spine.

“I’ll have you know, Ms. Green, that it is with this donation that our precious Time Mover can be realized. Our entire operation, all the lives we’ll save. You’d compromise one for all?”

I stare at him blankly, trying to process the information. Moments pass, and I still don’t have an answer. I feel as though we’ll stare at each other, locked into this principled stand-off, forever.

Shyla Fairfax-Owen ©

Read Story #1 or Story #2

Unwind (Neil Shusterman): Book Review

Dystopia; Young Adult ♠♠♠♠

Author: Neil Shusterman.

This book was published in June 2009, the first of the Unwind dystology. It holds a 4.19 rating on Goodreads.

Connor, Risa, and Lev are running for their lives.
The Second Civil War was fought over reproductive rights. The chilling resolution: Life is inviolable from the moment of conception until age thirteen. Between the ages of thirteen and eighteen, however, parents can have their child “unwound,” whereby all of the child’s organs are transplanted into different donors, so life doesn’t technically end. Connor is too difficult for his parents to control. Risa, a ward of the state is not enough to be kept alive. And Lev is a tithe, a child conceived and raised to be unwound. Together, they may have a chance to escape and to survive.

This book is a haunting, disturbing, and thought-provoking. When I first began it, I was skeptical. Young Adult fiction doesn’t always do it for me, and I was opposed to the lack of backstory it seemed to offer. The reader is told that a war has taken place and as a result abortion is illegal – but unwinding teenagers is commonplace. My immediate thought was that a pro-life society could not devalue the life of teens so readily. Not laying out the course of events that would lead to such a society seemed like a misstep on Shusterman’s part. But once I finished the book I realized something crucial that I wish had been made clearer by the author; the unspoken beauty of this work is that it is not simply another dystopian world, but one of utilitarianism: the ethic that the best moral action is the one that has the greatest ability to maximize the well-being of the many as opposed to the one. This social approach removes emotion and personal attachment from the equation all-together. As a result, it’s cold and terrifying.

Social Values and Reproductive Rights

The key to understanding this world is to acknowledge that it’s less pro-life than it is pro-optimal-functioning-society. And everyone has to earn their right to life within it. That means, by the time you’re a teenager, you have to have given society a reason to deem you valuable. The parents who choose to unwind their kids are not considered bad people, but good people for understanding the value of a strong, thriving society made up of only strong, thriving people. Yes, it’s a little master-race-y, isn’t it? So obviously, as an ideology it’s problematic and it inherently devalues anyone who is different.

Learning the stories of the unwinds forces the reader to think about what, in this society, is valued, what is not, and how those ideals can be manipulated. And while aborting babies is now illegal, storking is perfectly accepted. This is the act of leaving your newborn on a doorstep, which will make the homeowners legally responsible for it. If that sounds crazy, it’s because it is; and it begs us to consider the issue of reproductive rights and what happens when they are eradicated.

Race

The portrayal of the Other is quite unique in Unwind. In one of my favorite passages, the character Cyfi is described as “umber.” He explains that the term “black” was once used, but was switched to umber, in honor of a mixed-race artist who always used the color umber to paint images of people from African ancestry. Soon after, white people began being referred to as sienna. Cyfi says these are “Better words. Didn’t have no value judgment to them. Of course, it’s not like racism is gone completely, but as my dads say, the veneer of civilization got itself a second coat.”

It should be noted that this reference to his “dads” is the readers first indication that Cyfi is being raised by a gay male couple. In the casualty of very few words, a lot is said; but not much about sexualities is mentioned otherwise.

Religion

The afterlife is obviously  huge aspect of this book, but so it the concept of the Tithe plays a huge role in this book. According to Christianity, members of the religion are supposed to practice tithing: giving one tenth of what you have back to the community, and God. In a world of unwinding, some religious families allow this to apply to their children as well.

A main character, Lev, is a Tithe. He was born, the tenth child, specifically to be so. On his 13th birthday, he will be unwound, considered in this circumstance a great honour for his family and to his God. Lev has been raised with this belief and feels strongly that it makes him special. But when his pastor expressed his own doubts about the world and God, Lev is forced to question everything he knows. As he struggles to find a new version of himself in a world that looks quite different than it did mere hours earlier, Lev finds himself trotting a new path – and it’s one that is both righteous and dangerous.

Final Thoughts

The subtly with which the story unfolds is actually its genius. What I disliked about the book at first, became what made it so powerful by the end. Slowly but surely, all of the issues caused by a purely Utilitarian society come to light: the value of life, the definition of consciousness, medical science, race, religion, and terrorism.

The issues explored throughout the book, however passingly, are jarring enough to make you stop and think. More discussion would have been welcomed, but ultimately it’s still a strong narrative structure featuring well developed characters.

I give this read 4 Spades: ♠♠♠♠*

*My rating is based on a five-spade system. The rating is decided based upon how well/uniquely the book: 1) develops story and plot; 2) develops characters; 3) accomplishes or deconstructs the conceits of its genre; 4) raises thought-provoking issues; 5) discusses important issues. This system has been developed according to my own understanding of what makes a book "good." It is therefore subjective.

Corrected

“Mrs. Wright, there’s someone here to see you.”

Kimberly sighed at the voice on the intercom. It was nearly time for lunch and she had been looking forward to the break before her afternoon appointments, which she knew would be excruciating. But Chase had let the visitor know she was in; he always did, no matter how many times she asked him to be more discrete. She would have to let him go – next week, when her busy season lulled.

“Send them in,” she replied, trying not to sound bothered by the circumstances.

Benny strode through the doorway, confident in a way that bordered on arrogance. He wore a deep blue suit better suited to the 1960s, but somehow, he was pulling it off. Kimberly forced herself to look into his eyes, straighten her spine, and hold a steady voice despite the quiver intent on taking over.

“Make it quick. I have a Nyctophobic at one, and a patient who believes he has found a portal to Jotunheim at three. And I’d like to eat at some point, if that’s not too much to ask for.”

“Why Ms. Wright, such a busy bee.”

“Mrs. It’s Mrs. Now.”

Benny let one side of his upper lip curl, forming a malevolent smirk that made Kimberly even more uncomfortable. He pulled out the chair at her desk and sat facing her, never letting his glare waiver. After a moment of vexatious silence, Kimberly cleared her throat, racking her brain for something clever to say. Before she could speak, Benny interrupted.

“We have another one for you.”

Kimberly’s heart fell into her stomach, nestled itself between her organs, and tugged at her intestines. She averted eye contact, unable to falsify her bravery any longer.

“His name is Avery, Avery Johnson. Thirty-two years old, lives in –“

“No. Please. I’ve been cooperative for longer than necessary and I believe –“

Lives in New Haven.” He bared his teeth, a reminder that his charm was a mere cover for the depths of his evil.

Her breathing became laborious now as she tried to stop herself short of begging.

The Correctional Program had been such a naïve dream. Back when she first met Benny and the others, they had all been youthful idealists, too intellectually inclined for their own good. The notion was simple, stop cramming people into the violent and deprecating environment of prison, and start addressing the real issues.

The mind was such a finicky thing; it could be manipulated by nature, or by science. The latter, they presumed, could do some real good. So they set out on a mission, one messed-up brain at a time. But over the years, and through the failures, Kimberly grew. And with that growth came the realization that just because a theory is beautiful and beloved by a group of like-minded peers, does not mean it’s worth pursuing. The ramifications had startled Kimberly into a new person. Well, as new as a person could become of their own free will.

“I’ll be sending him in on Monday afternoon. If you don’t want the details, I’ll spare you.” He spat, “so sensitive you’ve become.”

“Please,” Kimberly whispered desperately but it was too late. Benny had risen, and crossed the room towards the door.

Yes, she would indeed have to fire Chase.

Bargaining

Story #2: The Fixers Series

I look over at Gus. He’s a mess. His hair, the little bit of it that he has, is dishevelled and his eyes are red and swollen. His tie hangs loose around his neck, and his white lab coat is on inside out.

“What time did you leave last night?” I ask him, trying not to sound judgemental.

“Huh?” I startle him out of his disorganized thoughts and he jumps a little. “Oh, uh, I’m not sure. Two or so, I guess.”

I nod slowly calculating my next move. He should go home, but the suggestion will offend him.

“Do you want me to take over the Dylan file? I’m done with mine.” It’s the least I can do; I had created the back log by wiping the history from our time mover – a secret I am still keeping.

Gus looks up from the his computer screen and eyes me suspiciously. But then a relief showers over him and I smile gently as he steps away from the desk.

“Coffee?” He offers.

I smile and nod. I consider telling him to fix his coat, but I let it be. By 8:30, Gus is passed out in the lounge – I never did get my coffee.

At 9:05 the front doors swing open, violently thrashing through the air. A woman storms up to the desk, waving a gun. Behind her, I can see Ed, our security guard, lying flat on the pavement outside. I try to decide what the smart move is, but then I realize I’m only telling myself to think; I’m not thinking. I’m panicking.

“You! You in charge?”

I try to tell her that I’m not but no sound is released when I open my mouth. I’m still staring at Ed.

“Hey! You!” she hollers again, this time the gun is pointed right at me. “Are you a fixer?”

“Yes,” I manage, forcing myself to look into her eyes now.

She’s tall and lean, with long brown hair, some of which is tucked into a wide brimmed black hat. She’s hiding behind dark sunglasses, leather gloves, a trench coat and high heels. I try to take a mental photo of her, for Ed.

“What’s your name?” she asks, leaning in to intimidate me further. It’s unnecessary; I’m terrified.

“S-Sasha. Sasha Green.” My voice is barely more than a whimper, and my heart is speeding up. In her glasses I see my own reflection, and I’m humiliated by the small warped image of myself I see.

“Well, Sasha Green. I have a job for you. An urgent one.”

She slams a medical ID bracelet down on my desk. “Fix it.”

“I can’t do that. It’s – we – there’s a system and laws and -”

“Fix it.”

Realizing there’s nothing I can do to reason with this woman, I pick up the bracelet and scan the barcode into my computer. June O’Donnell: 37 years old, Chief Financial Officer at Cane Inc., Recovered: Extensive brain damage (chipped).

Recovered? Fixers have already taken care of this. I scroll down to see the photo. It’s the woman in front of me, holding me at gun point.

I look up at her, unsure of what to say. She must read my confusion immediately, and removes her sunglasses. Her eyes are watering, welling up with tears, and sparking. A mechanical reaction to water. She’s been chipped alright, made cyborg too. It’s a relatively new technology: to recover lost or irreversible bodily damage metal parts are melded into the patient’s fibres. For damage to the brain that extensive, a chip can be used to replace any of the broken functions. Most often, it’s memory loss. The chip will store new memories for you, and false old memories can be implanted at the patient’s request. It changes who you are, but at least it fills the holes. The holes can drive some people mad. But this woman, June, seems to have gone mad just the same.

I’m watching her, trying to assess her state of mind, and what it is she wants from me, when she lashes out. She slams her hand down on my desk with as much force as she can, and it’s a lot. The gloved hand must be cyborg too. I leap back, and a scramble comes from down the hall.

No. Gus.

“Who’s here?!” She hollers out towards the noise, and Gus exposes himself. June cries out and shoots a bullet in the wall behind me. For a second, I think it hits me, and I’m paralyzed. But when the sting doesn’t come, I exhale.

“I’ve called for help so you’d better get moving!” he yells out confidently. I admire it, but it also worries me. I have no idea what she is capable of when threatened. And cyborg’s are not exactly frangible.

“Help?! You want help? I want help.” She doubles over, and more sparks fly from her face. “Fix me, please.”

“You’ve been recovered, it says so right here,” I say, still completely confused.

“You call this fixed?” she tears off a glove to reveal a cold metal hand. “This is not fixed. It’s broken. I was meant to die on that table and Cane Inc. paid you to bring me back! Against my will!”

My heart stops. I look over at Gus and a veil of embarrassment washes over him. Could he have really cut a deal like that? His expression tells me yes. I’m mortified. I guess I’m not the only one who makes mistakes around here.

“The chip,” he whispers finally, “it’s a new technology. It needed to be tested and”

“And,” she moans, imploring him to admit his mistake.

“And we were told…” he stops, drops his head.

June looks back at me, more sympathetic than violent now.

“Fix it,” she whispers.

I nod slowly, and glance at Gus. He’s on the floor now, crumbled by guilt.

I grab her file, and walk over to the machine.

“September 1st,” she says.

I nod again, and set the date. I don’t know exactly how I plan to stop this from happening, but I will. I’m a fixer, and I fix things.

Shyla Fairfax-Owen ©

Click here to read Story #1: An Easy Fix

The Antidote

Johnny entered the pub through the side door and looked around. The atmosphere was exactly what he had been expecting. The room was dimly lit by low hanging chandeliers that were caked with dust, most of the stools at the bar were occupied by middle-aged men sitting in silence and sipping aggressively, and in the back corner a booth was enlivened by two drunkards carrying on a desultory conversation. Johnny took a deep breath and strode over to an empty booth near the back door. He was close enough to the drunkards now to see their spit flying back and forth and wished he could settle in elsewhere. It was too risky though; the instructions for this meeting had specified this booth, and he did not want to get it off to a rough start.

“What’ll it be?” the waitress asked. She was the type of woman who Johnny guessed was much younger than she appeared. Chronic exhaustion seemed to be taking its toll.

“Um, just a water please.” The waitress sighed, dropping her hands to her side, still lazily gripping the pen and pad.

Johnny tried to smile politely but she took off without a glance back. Only a little scathed by her rudeness, Johnny slumped down in his booth and began tapping his fingers impatiently on the poorly wiped down table.

It was nearly an hour after their agreed upon meeting time when Oliver finally entered. Johnny perked up at the sight of him and gulped the remainder of his second coffee. It was tepid and strong; too strong in Johnny’s opinion but he kept ordering them to keep from further upsetting his waitress.

Oliver gracefully took the chair opposite Johnny, and it was not until they were eye level with one another that Johnny saw how much the other man was sweating.

“I’m sorry I’m late,” Oliver whispered. “It’s been a difficult morning.”

Johnny nodded sympathetically, but said nothing.

“Look doc,” Oliver continued, leaning in now, eyes wide. “This needs to happen, and it needs to happen now.”

Stunned, Johnny began to stammer in opposition but was abruptly cut off by more of Oliver’s urgent whispers. Johnny shifted in his seat, discomforted by the intensity.

“I’m not messing around here. It’s serious. You gotta help me.”

Johnny nodded. Panic was obviously taking Oliver over. Johnny had hoped he would be able to convince him to come back to the lab with him for a proper assessment; a night of observation, even. But Oliver was intent on meeting in this very spot, which should have been a red flag that no amount of common sense was going to change his mind.

“I want the cure. I want it now.”

“It’s not like that Oliver. Like I said, we need to evaluate the circumstance surrounding the -”

“Doc!”

He raised his voice nearly, leaping out of his seat. Immediately afterwards, he became aware of the attention he had drawn, slunk back down, and glanced around nervously. Lycanthropy in such early stages had many possible symptoms which depended upon the infected person’s own genetic makeup. But no matter how you analyzed the data, aggression and the inability to control oneself were always at the top of the list.

Johnny tensed, trying not to let Oliver sense his building fear. The scent, as far as Johnny’s own studies showed, could enhance the potential for sudden onset rage in the infected.

“Okay,” Johnny whispered. “Order a drink.”

Relief overcame Oliver. It was visible, especially in his demeanor which lightened significantly. Oliver hailed over the waitress and had her bring him a tequila. No salt, no lemon. After a deep breath, and a slight smile, Oliver shot the liquor back and rubbed his eyes as if just waking up. Johnny could see how happy he was in that moment; it was a moment he had dreamt of for weeks on end now. The stress of the change had been an unbearable burden, but it would be over now. Johnny discretely passed him the vial under the table, and as it exchanged hands he felt a thankful squeeze of his own.

With that, Johnny rose from the table and nodded a friendly goodbye. As he made his way back to the side door he could hear Oliver order a second tequila; the one he’d poor the vial contents into. It ached Johnny to know he would not get the chance to study this one. All the same, the fallacy of the so-called antidote would be taken willingly, which was to Johnny’s benefit. Yes, they needed to die; but he always preferred it not be directly by his hand. He slept better that way.

Shyla Fairfax-Owen ©