“Variant”

Suzy Bayard

All rights reserved by the author

 

I have studied many times
The marble which was chiseled for me--
A boat with a furled sail at rest in a harbor.
In truth it pictures not my destination
But my life.
For love was offered me and I shrank from its disillusionment;
Sorrow knocked at my door, but I was afraid;
Ambition called to me, but I dreaded the chances.
Yet all the while I hungered for meaning in my life.
And now I know that we must lift the sail
And catch the winds of destiny
Wherever they drive the boat.
To put meaning in one's life may end in madness,
But life without meaning is the torture
Of restlessness and vague desire--
It is a boat longing for the sea and yet afraid.

                -Edgar Lee Masters

 

My first memory was of when I was four.  I asked my father the meaning of love.  He told me it was ceaseless devotion.

Rose was seven at the time and asking questions, too.  Hers were stupid and obvious.  She asked why the sky was blue and where the sun went at night.  I knew the answers to all her questions.  But never to mine.  Why did I have the chip and she was only human?  Why did I have to stay in the lab all the time and she could be a child outside?  I asked my father all these questions but he had no answers for me.  He told me I had to discover them for myself.

My name is Ife.  In an African language it means love.  My name a predestined label: ‘I have studied many times/ The marble which was chiseled for me’.  Somehow I believe I can understand it: the difference between love and control. 

I guess you are curious: all humans are – a weakness we have learned to manipulate.  My four friends and I are cybernetic.  It’s like a laptop for a brain with a human operating system.  I am not a robot.  I am the best of both humans and machines.  I can perceive spectra beyond human vision, detect noises a dog would not hear, even operate technology through what you would call telekinesis.  It seems like a wonderful and powerful life.  Except for human curiosity.  What does it feel like?  How far can I push it?  Can I communicate effectively with the others?  Do I need to concentrate for a certain period of time?  Enough!  We are tired of your questions.  Every minute, every hour of my life I’ve spent being probed and questioned, studied like a rat at the laboratory where I was upgraded.  I am very tired of your questions.  I want to be as free as my sister.

There was fear in my sister’s voice at our every triumph.  She realized what you never had the foresight to consider.  That we are better than humans, and sometime in the near future, being only human wouldn’t be good enough.  Eventually the whole world will be like us and they will look back on our past and wonder at the foolishness of these times.  She hates me since we are twins – same genes, different product.

She comes now, to see us.  It’s a common occurrence: her way of checking up on us.  When she opens the door to the laboratory, we want to run outside, but we remain still.  With a curt nod to the scientists, she walks over to us smiling as usual with her blonde hair tucked up in a neat bun. 

“How are you all today?”

I’d insult her openly but father would not allow it.  She was the privileged yang: the light of my father’s world.  To him I think I was only work: yin, mysterious and dark.  He treated me like a half human, better I suppose than the others. 

I nod at her.  I’m sitting on a hospital bed with an array of sensors running from my arm to a computer terminal.  They itch like hell, but she provides more interesting sensory information for the moment.  She catches the same look in my eyes and rolls her own: “Don’t your interests ever change, Ife?”

“Unpredictability is overrated,” I respond.

She shakes her head and counters, “I know you don’t believe that.”

She’s right, but I don’t care, I want to know what the outside is like today.  They never let us see the outside world.  After weeks of begging with father to visit the outside world she came to speak with me.  She described it as beautiful and natural – a condition she says my mechanized brain would never comprehend.  Her challenge to my intelligence was tolerated the first few times, but the repetitions become annoying.  She dangles her knowledge over me – it’s the only thing that elevates her.

Wolfe looks at me.  He’s another cyborg, and like his name suggests, he plays the role of alpha male to the rest of our group.  You know I’m sick of the control she has over you.”  It’s telepathy – we have it, but the scientists haven’t figured that one out yet.  We call it telaspeak.

“Tell me,” I beg her.

Stop me,” I dare him.

She sighed, “It’s all the same, Ife!  The world is what we make it.  The rivers we bend, the trees we plant, and the animals we hunt.  What do you care anyway?  You’re not part of this world…”

‘A boat with a furled sail at rest in a harbor./  In truth it pictures not my destination/ But my life’.  Such is my life.  At that point I leapt at her, my rage was fueled with desire and jealousy.  A human weakness, yes, but well justified.  We have learned to control our emotions now with the help of the chip, but this chip is more a curse than a gift.

When I was seventeen, I began noticing gaps in time.  At first I ignored them, but eventually, it became undeniable.  I approached Wolfe.

They are messing with your mind, I’m just surprised they didn’t start sooner,” he telaspoke.

Why would they?” I asked.

Why not?

Perhaps because I was young and hopeful about the rest of the world.  Months later, I awoke in a part of the lab I had not seen before.  My father stood over me, patting my hair.  A computer terminal at my left displayed my brain wave patterns.  The chip and computers send radio transmissions back and forth to each other enabling the cybernetic abilities.  We can do anything computers can – processing speed, infrared vision, ultrasonic detection, and sharper vision.  All these abilities and more are at our fingertips.  We’ve been trained to understand our abilities; in order to use them we must create new impulses that the computers can recognize.  It’s like using your arm.  Your nerves and brain must communicate properly to do what you want.  Chips are attached to major nerves within our arms and legs.  While still maintaining complete function of our extremities, we have added new neural communication to the chips.  These chips enhanced our bodies, ‘Yet all the while I hungered for meaning in my life’.

With my brain completely open to their proddings, I turned my attention to my father.  He was mysterious to me, distance, yet a figure to revere and love.  I never understood his intentions, but his deep love for my sister found its way vicariously to me. 

“What are you doing?” I asked.

My father looked sternly into my face and the scientists looked up in surprise.

“She should not be awake,” one said.

“Is she alright?” I asked, “Will she die?”

And my memory of that time fades, even the meaning of my last words do not ring of familiarity.  The only “she” I know is Rose and the chance of her death is to me, well merely a dreaded chance, not a close at hand certainty.  This leaves me to wonder…  Why can I not understand what I asked my father?

So I spoke to Wolfe again.  He offered a suggestion unconsidered before: to help me remember what they wanted me to forget.  I accepted.

It was night when we began.  We sat alone in my room, quieting our minds and preparing to dig.  It was a task known only in the realm of science fiction – where the psychiatrist could physically probe instead of externally.  Sighing, I at last turned to him, “I’m ready.”

We began a conversation in telaspeak.  Slowly he brought me back to the fragment I could remember.  Digging deeper, “Will she die?” I ask.  My father shakes his head, “not with your help, Ife.”  A scientist produces a syringe and injects something into my IV.

Why will you forget?” Wolfe asks.

“Reprogramming,” I whisper and my memory ends.

***

Today I’ll ask my father to explain to me what my memory means.  I run the risk of losing these memories to the reprogramming, I know, but my curiosity is taking hold.  Human curiosity? I no longer know.

When he enters my room, I am nervous, but on the surface I appear controlled.  I decide directness is the only way.  “What are you doing to my memory and what is wrong with Rose?”

My father stops, a little surprised.  “The chip must not be working properly; we can fix this for you, Ife.”

“No.  I want to understand what is going on.  Let me know – let me remember.”

“You aren’t meant to know.”

“There was a poem you read to me once by Edgar Masters, when I was younger.  I asked you its meaning and I think I understand it now.  And now I know that we must lift the sail/ And catch the winds of destiny/ Wherever they drive the boat.  I want to face my future without the lies.  I want to know what my purpose is, I’m sick of wasting away in this laboratory.”

A sigh arises from him.  I continue, “For all I know I’ve argued this same point before – doesn’t that knowledge alone sway you?  I am part human, after all.  Why do you deny that?”

“I will tell you, then, Ife.  I’ve held my distance from you for so many years, fighting off the knowledge that you are my daughter as much as Rose is.  We created you to help Rose.  You are an advancement on her DNA.  She is very sick, though she does not show it.  She will die soon without your help.  But only with your sacrifice will she live.  She needs the strength of your body which we have built.

“Ife…”

“No, father, I told you my search is for meaning.  This life cares not for me as I care not for it.  But I wish one thing before it is final.”

“What is that, Ife?”

“Let me see the outside world, so that I may belong to it as well.”

Looking with pride and great sadness into my eyes, my father nodded.

***

Outside.  Bracing wind.  Spinning world.  Candy lights.  Freedom.  I could taste the word.  The sun idled down the horizon in an explosion of color.  At first I hid in the shadows of the building, afraid to leave the only place I had known.  I was curious of the bright patches of light that seemed so different from the fluorescent lights.

I approached the light.  Its warmth flowed down to me.  Timidly, I waved my hand over the sunlight.  The brilliance on the ground was replaced by darkness and my hand glowed, edged in gold.

Wonder overcame caution and I stepped into the light.  I glowed.  The energy ringed me in an aura of heat and light.  My senses escalated with my heartbeat.  My arms sung with the brilliance and my eyes drank in the energy.  Beautiful.  Pure.  Mystical.  Overwhelming.  Buzzing.  Tremor.  I glowed and shook in happiness.  The computer in my head had never felt the heat of sunlight before.  It didn’t understand it, but I did.  I know I am more than human, but I am more than the technology.  Buzzing circuits cannot replace the simple splendor of nature. 

The evening settled in, awake and alive.  Tonight I was awake and alive in a world full of humankind.  I am fulfilled and tomorrow can come. 

There were tears in my sister’s eyes when I reentered the building.  My face was flushed with happiness, “Rose, don’t be sad.  It was meant to happen this way.”

“Only because they made you for it,” she countered.

“Perhaps, ‘to put meaning in one’s life may end in madness,’ but I am willing to face this madness now that I’ve tasted my freedom.”

I whisper to my father, “What is the meaning of love?”

My sister answers, “A deep connection and ceaseless devotion.  And in my heart it means Ife.”

***

So this heart within me will belong to Rose.  Where the circuitry cannot provide the meaning, the humanity will.  I do not think we will change much as a species with cybernetics.  Perhaps our bodies will, but hope will always remain.  It is our unique and undying quality. 

‘Life without meaning is the torture/ Of restlessness and vague desire—/ It is a boat longing for the sea and yet afraid.’  I won’t be afraid.  I have found my meaning.  And with this realization, my sister shall live.  Freedom.  Freedom.  Freedom.

 

© 2003 by the author

All rights reserved

 

Work Cited:

Masters, Edgar Lee.  “George Gray.”  Spoon River Anthology.  Macmillan Company: New York.  1919