A Traveler Returns
by Ian Cordingley
Bubble head. Diseased, damaged, floating in a jar. Half of his daughter's brain rigged with fine nerves into every synaptic gap. If even the smallest shred of brain capable of forming an independent personality survived, the Benefactors saved it.
Michael St. Thomas was never mad at the Benefactors: they had rescued his daughter from the near constant storm of seizures that nearly robbed her of her childhood. Separating the two halves of the brain seemed impossible; removing half seemed unthinkable. Granted she experienced some difficulties growing up but the Benefactors found ways to counteract the limitations of having only half a brain.
Somewhere his daughter was alive -- still alive. Her soul was still anchored to this world.
Waiting in a small white room, waiting for an audience with a mediator of the Benefactors. Trying to penetrate the layers of bureaucracy to see his little girl again. Nobody else in the room but him: no receptionist, no attempt to provide a human fašade to the artificial but not inhuman Benefactors.
He took out his e-reader. He sorted through the various texts. Holy texts: combined scientific and philosophical works about the nature of the self. Some religious works. Mysticism mingling with materialism.
"Mr. St. Thomas?"
He rose, walking into the meeting room. A woman met him: they shook hands and he was seated.
"Mr. St. Thomas," Jane Gibson, representative of the Benefactors, said, "You should know that your request is difficult to grant. We're not talking about chasing down a long lost child here."
Gibson nodded but was not persuaded. "The Benefactors have a system in place for Fragmentary Consciousnesses."
"Yes," he said, "but I want to see my daughter again."
"The Benefactors would argue that your daughter is dead."
His daughter: dead and so young. Madison had grown into an active and indomitable young woman. She had looked so graceful at her funeral, pale but her face still full of youth and life. Rock climbing accident while on holiday in Central America.
"Well," he said, "it's half of her brain...her mind still exists."
"Removed when she was a child," Gibbon explained. "We made a difference last the majority of her lifetime."
St. Thomas was forced to accept the possibility. Half of his daughter was in a jar, the other half in her body. Of course the former did not impact her life. Why, then, should he be so arrogant to assume the opposite happened?
Gibson elaborated: "The Benefactors are concerned about the independent identities of the Fragmentary Consciousness. They do not want any expectations placed on them. Cultural or personal."
The Benefactors controlled humanity's new medical technology, among other things. One day the world woke up and it was so. The machines had taken over and it was for the best. Impersonal and absolute, but merciful. They stated they were pro-life, and meant it. Unwanted foetuses were carefully extracted from their mother's wombs and placed in storage until an infertile woman requested one, for one example.
Not everyone for reasons philosophical, political or religious, would trust the fields of banks of computer. Reassurances that they were demonstrably unbiased still failed to convince. Guarantees were demanded or requested about the benevolence, indeed the humanity of the Benefactors. Questioning this gift seemed ungrateful to St. Thomas, and the general population at large.
Madison was, naturally, changed. Rehabilitation was difficult: forcing portions of the brain into new roles they were never intended to perform. In addition to a zest for life she began to develop interests in spirituality. Interests her father perused hesitantly: he was never a churchgoing man. Any of the doctors would have explained it as a glitch, a by-product of cognitive adaptation.
"Well," he said, "I like to think that part of us is eternal, shared within our brain."
"That is disputed."
St. Thomas knew he would make a pathetic apologist.
"My daughter and I shared this belief. As long as part of her remained on this world, she was never truly dead."
Gibson nodded. "Her soul?"
"I think...believe that it has been shared between the two halves. Like two faces of the same coin."
Gibson was familiar with the argument. Theologians and philosophers had attempted to rationalize how the Benefactors could or could not possess souls. Given a new emphasis given some of the more extreme therapies now implemented. New neurological procedures cut through assumptions of human identity as easily as diseased tissue. Less said about computers the better.
She studied St. Thomas. He appeared serious. A simple background check would reveal if he was a potential problem.
"The alternative consciousness," Gibson said, making the point to emphasize alternative, "would have been sequestered. Standard procedure."
"Where are they?" St. Thomas asked.
"Safe," Gibson said. "To specify: certain locations where they are integrated into their own community. Like the Benefactors."
"I would like to request the opportunity to meet my daughter's remaining corporeal form."
She appeared to mull the matter. St. Thomas had to act before she dismissed the idea. Before he understood what had happened words flew out of his mouth.
Hopefully he was not seen as a desperate or childish man.
"I will try," she said. "Everything else is the responsibility of the conscious entity."
He got up, giving her a sincere smile. The question was now whether to grant his wish or to leave him to mourn in spite of the life that Madison had been able to live.
Three weeks later he got his reply.
Down several levels. Escorted by two men. He shuffled in place, sorting through several competing emotions. Joy and hope to see his daughter again; despair and sadness that she was truly gone.
Notification had been terse: show up here, do not bring these items. Come alone. Keep your expectations modest.
With a small thud the elevator reached the desired level. The door opened and they emerged. One of the men nodded. He and his partner returned to the elevator. Fifteen minutes was the deal.
St. Thomas walked out. Metal casings lined the hall, shielding sensitive equipment. This was where all the bubble heads were housed. Only reason he was here, apparently, was that Madison's other half consented to see him.
Madison consented to see him, he reminded himself. His daughter.
"Number Two Eight Thirty." St. Thomas didn't look back to see which of the men had called that to him.
He walked along the corridor.
Number Two Eight Thirty: a shield protected the sensitive equipment keeping the fraction of a brain alive. A light blinked along the top. It left a soft blue spotlight on the ground. St. Thomas stood in it, looking up towards the source.
"You are my biological father," Madison said. Her voice was raspy and artificial.
"Yes," replied St. Thomas.
"Why have you come?"
St. Thomas swallowed. "I've missed you."
She had been informed that Madison, the girl from which she originated, had died. This was Madison's father and by extension, biological and cultural, hers as well.
"I appreciate the sentiment."
St. Thomas needed a moment to assess, for the first time to finally assess, what his daughter had become. Where her soul now rested. He needed a moment to fathom what she was and where her mind now dwelt. What her responsibilities were now.
"Madison...I mean," he began, remembering the stern warning before he descended about not labeling "the entity" with any personal references.
"It's so good to see you."
"Yes," Number Two Eight Thirty replied, "and it is good to see you too."
"In my prayers..."
"I have evaluated, and discarded, the notion of a supernatural creator. As per..."
She noticed, through unseen intermediaries, her father's look of incredulity. Immediately she adopted a more conciliatory tone.
"Traditional norms," she said. "I hold more esoteric views."
Trying to explain to this man (her father she reminded herself) what it was like to deal with incredible amounts of information -- a normal human would be so overwhelmed as to be left stupefied. Finding the best course of action when confronted with a sea of pain and the indescribable joy that followed.
If any omnipotent God existed this was what He may feel like.
"My responsibilities," she elaborated, "are complex and therefore by necessity I have adopted a complicated outlook on religion."
St. Thomas knew that his daughter, though suddenly devout, had been interested in non-traditional philosophical opinions on the divine. In her new form Madison must have continued the hobby.
"I understand," he said.
Number Two Eight Thirty wondered what they would talk about. Sports, the weather? Could she get away with a quick peek at who Madison was and elaborate on the details of her life? Unlikely: she was an individual unit now. That had been stressed.
She would improvise the rest of St. Thomas' visit.
"How," St. Thomas asked, "have you been?"
"It has been very pleasant. I am not limited by physical concerns of sleep and constantly feel connected. Everywhere and everything."
St. Thomas smiled. "I can believe that."
His daughter had always been plugged in and reading. Absorbing everything she could about everything ongoing in the world. Perhaps her illness had helped fulfill her purpose here on Earth.
"One day," St. Thomas said, "when we'll be together. In another place, not on this Earth. A happy place, forever."
Number Two Eight Thirty wondered what he was talking about.
St. Thomas was struggling himself. His daughter was dead -- but no, here she was. Part of her was dead. Granted, this had not been the experience he anticipated, but what would have been?
Madison was still with him.
"I'm sorry," he said.
St. Thomas struggled to hear his daughter's cheerful voice in the non-human tone. He was the problem here, he reminded himself. Madison was different now -- she wasn't in a tank, she was something new.
Perhaps he should feel proud of what his daughter had ultimately become.
"We should pray."
"Together?" she said.
He bowed his head. Two minutes passed in silence. His lips moved in well rehearsed patterns. Invisible words.
A beep from one of St. Thomas' pockets: time was up.
"Thank you," he said. He turned to leave.
Her father, her biological father, nothing more, left. He looked relieved...or confused. He settled on being happy: a smile crept over his face. The camera winked off. She was alone with her thoughts again but hesitated before she got back to work.
He would be back. She would bring him down here, as infrequently as possible -- dealing with a single human was took as much effort as dealing with torrents of abstract data. But he would come back and she would indulge him, because the Benefactors believed passionately in mercy.
© 2011 Ian Cordingley
Bio: Ian Cordingley's work has appeared in Bewildering Stories and Estronomicon and, of course, Aphelion (most recently, In Their Eyes, April 2011).
E-mail: Ian Cordingley
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