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Automaton

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“I remember the first time I went out into the snow after the transfer—waiting for that first delicious shiver to roll down my spine, cold coming in waves, a tsunami sweeping over a tiny island. I loved winter and snow, especially on a clear night when the moon would shine down and reflect off the white landscape, like swimming in moonlight. And the air would be so crisp, so perfect. But there was none of that. I could feel the cold, but I wasn’t really feeling; rather, it was more like acknowledging the drop in temperature. That’s when I first realized what a tremendous mistake I had made.”
“I don’t understand,” he replied. Jack towered over me. When I first met him I thought it was comforting, knowing I would always have someone to lean on. When I was in his arms the world seemed to disappear, all my problems and the chaotic issues in the world becoming irrelevant, life itself boiling down to one moment, one fact: us.
“Never mind.” I shook my head slowly and turned away as I realized how pointless it would be to try to explain. “I need to get back to work.”
“How is she anyways?” he asked, nodding solemnly to where the body of a woman was being held in suspended animation. For a moment I almost thought I saw a glisten in his eye, like a tear ready to fall. Then he blinked it away, always the soldier, always strong. He had only known about her condition for a few days.
“Megan?” Even after five years, the name still felt foreign on my tongue. “No change.”
“I’ll get someone to help you. It’ll go faster that way.” I wouldn’t meet his eye.
He still didn’t understand the severity of what had happened, nor could I bring myself to tell him. Jack was always so strong, so decisive, always the one holding me up. I was supposed to be the weak one, so why did I feel that I needed to protect him? “Did you love her, Jack?”
He looked down, a frown creasing his forehead and making him look much older than he was. “She thought I hated her. We had a fight. Which is why you’ve got to help her. I never had a chance to apologize.”
“She forgave you a long time ago.”
We didn’t say anything for a while, the silence like a wall between us. Then, “I’ll see about that help, then.” He turned to leave, shoulders hunched in weary resignation. For a moment my mind flashed back to eight years ago, the last time that I saw him and he left me.
“Jack, wait.” He stopped. “There’s no one who can help me.” I didn’t say anymore, thinking perhaps that I’d already said too much.
“All you need is a fresh pair of eyes, Ep. You’ve been looking at this for too long.” He made no other move to leave, as if waiting for my permission. Finally looking back at me, he asked, “If I talk to her, do you think she could hear me?”
“Maybe. There are stories I’ve heard of people who’ve woken from suspended animation and remembered hearing the voices of their families.” I paused, not knowing whether I should continue. “What would you tell her?”
He didn’t answer, wouldn’t meet my eyes. Instead he demanded, “How did she get like this? What’s wrong with her?”
“She’s sick. It’s a parasite called a Sidellian Slug from the planet Sidel in the Epsilon Sector. There was an Extermination almost a thousand years ago, but a few of them survived. They wrap themselves around the cerebral cortex of a host and slowly take control of the body.”
“There has to be some sort of treatment.” He looked back at the body suspended in time. Her hair floating around her pale face made her seem small, frail, dead. “Is there any sentient life on Sidel?”
“They didn’t have a treatment. That’s why they Exterminated them.” He tapped his finger absentmindedly against his thigh. “She loved you, you know.”
He turned abruptly toward the door. “I’ll pull some strings and get someone down here to help you.”
“There’s no point, Jack,” I said, suddenly angry as I myself realized that there really was no point. “You could get a hundred people to help me and it wouldn’t do any good. There’s no point.” I took my fingers off the keyboard and put my head in my hands, eyes sore from staring too long at a computer screen.
“Why? Why do you care?” he demanded. “Why do you care what I do? Why do you care about her? What is she to you? A project? An interesting case? Who are you?! Why do you care?!”
I looked back at the screen, filled with so much useless information. “I’m a friend,” I simply said.
“You’ve said that before, but if you are then why aren’t you helping her?” His glare drilled into me and I couldn’t bring myself to meet his eyes.
Because he was right; I wasn’t trying. There was no point anymore. “Jack, I—” I was going to say that I was trying, but I shook my head. “There’s no point in trying.”
“Then why are you still here? If you can’t help her, then why stay? Why don’t you just kill her and move on?”
“She’s already dead; she has been for five years, only she just didn’t know it.” I continue to stare at the screen, the words I had typed boring into my brain: There has been no change in her condition since the transfer, nor has anything significant been discovered which might help. I have lost hope that anything will ever be the same again. Then the screen saver came on, flashing up pictures of my old life, my parents, my sister and her children, me and Jack happy, before all this.
“What right do you have to give up on her? As long as her heart’s still beating, there’s still hope. She will get better! She has to.”
“A heartbeat doesn’t make a life, Jack; she is dead! There is no cure and there never will be! The Sidellians wiped out an entire species because they couldn’t find a cure, and they had centuries! If a cure is ever found, everyone she ever knew will be dead and there will be no point in waking her up.”
“No, there’s—”
“Oh, shut up!” Suddenly I wanted nothing more than to hurt him like he had hurt me all those years ago. “Why do you care, Jack? You didn’t care when you walked out on her eight years ago. You didn’t care when you broke her heart; you didn’t turn around when she called your name. You left when she needed you most. Why are you back now, Jack? Why?! What right do you have to weasel yourself back into her life, to make decisions for her? You never cared before, so why care now?” I looked sharply away then and back to the computer screen, another picture of me and Jack popping up. I moved the mouse and it disappeared, replaced once more my the report I was writing. I have lost hope…
“I thought you said she forgave me.” He was looking back at her now, blinking as though he could blink everything away.
“She did: I didn’t. I had to pick up the pieces when you left.” There has been no change in her condition… I rubbed my eyes against the computer’s accusing glare.
“She never mentioned you.” We seemed to agree then not to be angry. “Why wouldn’t she tell me about you, if she’d known you all her life?”
“She kept a lot of secrets. From everyone.” He looked so lost then that I almost told him the biggest secret of all. But I didn’t. “Look, Jack, she kept a lot of secrets, but the one that she didn’t was her feelings for you. She loved you and she did forgive you. I didn’t mean what I said before.”
“Yes, you did.” He squared his jaw determinedly. “And you were right. Maybe—if I’d stayed—maybe none of it would have happened.”
“There was nothing you could have done.” I traced the contours of her face with my eyes, so familiar and so far away. “She was already infected then, but she didn’t know.”
He hung his head, as if the burden of those words in his ears were too much for his neck to bear. “I’ll go.”
It hung between us, the moment stretching to infinity as he took a last look at the body that used to contain her.
“There might be a way, Jack.” I hated myself for saying it, for giving him hope on so small a chance. He didn’t reply, didn’t move, as if the slightest vibration in the air between us could make my words disappear forever. “But it could kill her.” He looked up expectantly. “There is no cure, but there might be a way to take it out. I’ve been working with the lab’s transport systems and I think I’ve found a way to use them to remove it, but it’s wrapped so closely around her cerebral cortex that it’ll probably kill her.”
“What are the chances?”
I gritted my teeth. “Less than five percent.”
“There no way to increase them?”
“The transport itself is purely experimental. We’re centuries away from being able to use it medically with any amount of success. So in a word, no.”
“You have no choice; you have to do it. By the time an effective treatment is developed, she won’t want to wake up.” He crossed the room, weaving his way through the tables cluttered with useless information until he was directly in front of her. He pressed his hand against the glass, just inches in front of her skin, and I remembered when he used to touch me like that. But of course, he never did touch me, only her. “What do you have to do?” He almost whispered it.
“Everything’s already in place.” I had been considering it for so long, trying to improve the chances. “It’s just the push of a button.” I have lost hope…
“Do it.”
I brought up the page and then glanced uncertainly at him, but he could not reassure me. With one press I could be human again, or I could die. I had made this body so I could work without constantly having to fight the parasite, so I could live. But I had no pulse, no heart, no emotions save the ones and zeroes in my programming. One button and I would download back into my own body and the parasite would be gone, or I would be gone. Gingerly I pushed Enter.



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