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The Indestructible Man

by Adam Parker




“Hey dad,” his son asked again, “What do you call a cross between an elephant and a rhino?” He knew the answer. But, once more, gave a fatherly shrug and a searching look, and the boy answered himself, giggling, “Ell-if-I-know!” His wife appeared and, with a playful scowl to the boy, began serving their Sunday morning pancakes.

He allowed himself a laugh and told the twelve-year-old, “You’re corny.”

“Reminds me of that client you had last year,” she said, sitting, and flashed him a wink.

“I was thinking the same thing.” He cut into the stack and took a bite of the pancakes, taking the time to really enjoy the taste and texture, then asked, “Any plans for the day, son?”

“I dunno. Probably just go skating.” Resting his head on his hand, elbow on the table, the boy chewed, staring out the window--another sunny day.

“What do you say we go catch a movie?” he asked, like the idea had just come to him.

“Naw,” the boy answered. “Let’s see something tomorrow.”

“I,” he started, but struck by frustration, responded with, “just don’t want you going skateboarding today. Okay?”

“How is that fair? Mom!”

She gave her husband a searching look. He furrowed his brow. Then the boy put on his best pout, and she shook her head and said, “Just be careful. It costs your father a small fortune every time you have an accident.”

The boy told them, with nasal self-assurance, “I am careful.”

Just then, he felt a hand shaking him by the shoulder. He brushed it away reflexively.

“What was that? A spider?” His wife smiled at him with amused confusion.

The phantom hand shook his shoulder again, this time more urgent. He sighed and, slumping forward in his chair, reached behind his head for the unseen cable at the base of his skull, and pulled it free. The world cut to black.

******

In an instant, Doctor Harrow was back in his office--all the familiar sounds and smells. His eyes focused on the large man in front of him, already feeling the disapproval.

“You said you’d stopped plugging it at work, Harrow.” The shape loomed over him.

Blinking, the world became clearer. His colleague, Doctor Javelin, came around the table and faced him and he managed a feeble reply. “I know, Javelin. I’m sorry.” He wrapped the cable around the device and locked it all in his desk’s top right drawer.

“Clients are waiting.” Javelin motioned down the corridor.

“Who?”

“The Willabys. They asked for you personally.”

“Right.” Harrow said and stood; his eyes locked onto the framed photo on his desk. Clarissa’s unruly auburn hair struck him, a detail he cherished as much as the missing tooth Marty was grinning through. He broke the pull of memory, turned to Javelin. “Prognosis?”

“Her treatments took fine. He wants the standard skin-job. Couldn’t sell him on any extra antiforg units though, just the usual heart and lungs.”

“He’ll come back for liver and kidneys.” Harrow said, sharing a smile. “They always do.” Harrow smoothed down his hair with wet palms as he followed Javelin out the door.

******

The thin gold bracelet on Lorraine Willaby’s wrist projected a long series of still pictures on the clinic’s wall. “And here’s me and Joey in front of our hotel. Here’s us at the casino.”

All the pictures looked the same; Lorraine with an exuberant grin, her new youthful skin, neon pink and freckled with purple polka-dots, standing arm-in-arm with her husband Joey, a polo shirted bald man sagging well past middle aged, wearing an uncontrollable cocky smirk.

Harrow said, “Wonderful!” He gave a professionally warm, and sincere, smile to the couple pictured sitting before him. “Now, I see here, Mr Willaby, that the procedure you’ll be undergoing is getting a little outdated, but today’s standards. Have you thought about upgrading to our premium assistance package? The predictive algorithms we use have a ninety-six percent precision rate. To the degree of knowing the exact hour of the exact day.”

Another picture beamed on the wall. It had been taken before her surgery, when Lorraine Willaby still looked every one of her seventy-five years. She turned the projector off and said, “Yes, but we figure this’ll save us a bundle--which we’ll need if we’re going to stay retired.”

“That’s fine. Did Doctor Javelin set up an exit strategy with you?”

“Yeah. Joey thinks he can manage it within six months.” Lorraine leaned in a little closer. “Drinks like a fish, even more so, now and eats absolutely everything in sight.”

Harrow tapped the keyboard on his desk. The holographic display appeared over the keys, and he updated the appointments. Harrow said, “Remember to keep a close eye on him until then. And please call if you have concerns about the current legalities. You read the pamphlet?”

“Some,” she shrugged.

Harrow took out two samples, in small plastic baggies, from the bottom desk drawer. “Here’s some dead-switch buttons you can sew into his shirts. Free of charge. Make sure you get them tested every eight weeks. When he goes, either you or, preferably, one of our technicians has to get to him within ten minutes of the time of brain death. Study all the instructions regarding the neural stasis unit, okay?”

Mrs Willaby said, “I’ll read it,” then turned to her husband. “You too, honey."

Mr Willaby said, “Yeah yeah. Sure sure.”

******

Harrow went to his desk, sat and took the device out of the top drawer. When he began to unwrap the cord, there was a knock at the door, as it swung open, and Javelin entered.

“Protesters are back today.”

“What for, this time?” Harrow crammed the device back in the drawer.

“Once again: The Infamous Crescent City Octopus Boy.” Javelin chuckled.

“Sure.” Harrow’s voice cracked. “Laugh it up! He passed all the standard psychological tests. Would have been your mess if you’d sold him on your shoddy ‘adamantine’ implants.”

Javelin’s voice went soft, sounding lower than ever. Quietly, he said, “But, I didn’t. And we’re still sharing the blame for that freak groping swimmers all up and down the west coast.”

“Culminating in the largest manhunt in the history of North America.” Harrow stood, got his coat from the rack and put it on. “I’m leaving the back way today.”

“I’ll join you. No way I’m going out the front.” Javelin hovered by the door, nonchalant, as Harrow checked his pockets, glancing at the desk’s top right drawer.

Javelin asked, “What game have you playing that’s so addictive?”

“Actually,” Harrow put a hand down on the desktop and rested it there for a long second, “I’ve been visiting my family in there.”

“What? You know it’s not really them in that thing.” Javelin held up his hands. “We’ve proven it.” He began rubbing the temples of his head, trying to massage the thought away.

Harrow pounded on his desk. “The tests were inconclusive.” He opened the drawer.

“Leave it. “Javelin boomed. Harrow reached for the device. Javelin softened his voice again, “Just for tonight... It’ll do you some good.” Harrow shut the drawer, finally, and locked it.

******

The elevator brought them down to the sub level three and they took a long corridor to the parking lot. As they neared the end of the corridor, a man turned the corner and began walking towards them. He shook as he stepped, like reality had him out of sync. The broken contraption, with all his effort, struggled and pulled something out of his jacket’s inside pocket. He called out to Javelin with hoarse vitriol, “Hey. Remember me?”

The doctors stopped about ten feet away from the man.

Javelin nodded. “Yes, Donald. I remember you.”

Donald held some kind of homemade grenade up and pulled the pin. Javelin, keeping calm, pressed the dead-switch button sewn into the cuff of his shirt sleeve.

Donald took two miscalibrated steps toward them and said “You gotta help me, Doc!”

Javelin, still cool, took a step forward towards Donald and spoke in his soft voice. “I told you before: if your insurance is overdue, I’m not allowed to help you.” Harrow watched, frozen.

Donald took another step, closer still. “But I’m out of a job. No one will hire me like this! Please I’ll pay you anything! I just need time. You can understand.”

“Yes, but I’m under strict guidelines. I’ll lose my license. I simply can’t do anything for you right now.” Javelin put his hands up in surrender.

Donald held the grenade out in front of him. “Then DIE!” Donald dropped the grenade. Javelin tried, out of some instinct, tried to catch it, missed, then turned to run. The ice over Harrow’s mind shattered. He bolted. The grenade bounced once and the world cut away again--this time not a quick quiet drop to black, but a screaming white void that felt like a million years.

******

Flowers sat in vases on the bedside table with get-well cards from Harrow’s business associates and existing family members. Harrow, himself, lay in bed, now missing both legs and his right arm below the elbow. Bandages covered the third degree burns from head to toe. A tube dripped him the pain relief, nourishment and hydration he needed, into his remaining arm.

The nurse entered, pushing a cart to the foot of the bed. On top of the cart sat a gumball machine shaped glass jar. At the side of the jar’s steel base, a camera and projector lens were installed above a small slitted speaker; certainly meant to give the impression of a grinning skull's face by design. Javelin’s brain bobbed and swayed in the jar’s clear, bubbling, oxygen-enriched cerebrospinal fluid. The nurse flipped on a switch at the jar’s base and left them.

Harrow asked the gumball machine, “Did you bring everything?”

Javelin’s familiar voice came tinnily through the speaker. “I got it.” The projector lit up and Javelin’s face appeared, double sized, on the wall. “Hey,” the face of Javelin smiled. It seemed to make real eye contact. “You know you don’t have to go through with this, right now.”

Harrow replied, “I’ve given it enough thought.”

The face switched to a frown. “But they’re only a facsimile, Harrow. That’s all you’ll be too.” Javelin looked about a decade younger, now, than he remembered that last day at the clinic.

Harrow managed to sit himself halfway up. “The results were inconclusive! We had her whole mind mapped. Reflexes calibrated. DNA sequenced. Every detail. We could have rebuilt her.” The jar bubbled. Harrow sank back into the bed. “You remember how reckless Marty was. We brought him back to life so many times, the rascal. I knew Clarissa blew her brains out just so I could never revive her. But, of course, we already had their minds on backup.”

“We did that for all our families,” the face said, “before we had to stop the program.”

The nurse entered the room with his waiver form on a clipboard. She placed the waiver on the bedside table and began her routine check of the life supporting equipment. She noted the pulse rate and the frequency band of his brain waves. As she strolled through his projection, Javelin asked Harrow, “Explain to me again, how you plan to make the transition?”

Harrow explained. “I’ll use binaural tones to induce cohesion between my mind and the memory banks of the unit.”

“Ah,” the face of Javelin nodded, the ‘Frequency Follow’ response."

“Exactly. I’ve explained to Nurse Silvia here as to how the procedure will go.” The nurse ignored them, continued going about her work, and Harrow continued “I guess you’ll keep your brain in safe holding now and go remote?”

“Are you kidding? And get the lag like poor Donald? I’d’ve probly ended up with them pulling my wires too, but I know better than that. I’m getting a steel skull--virtually indestructible. The protective eye sockets snap shut in two fifth of a second.” As Javelin spoke, his projection grew to fill half the wall. “The spinal network can be severed at any point without doing any damage to the organic tissue.” The nurse paused to glance furtively at the ranting visage. She exited and Javelin’s face shrunk back down to regular double size.

“Sounds like something we were developing for our ‘friends,’ no doubt.” Harrow smiled.

“Don’t you know it. They said I can get my new skull installed into a five-hundred-foot robot body, if I want; get flown into hostile systems to rain hell-fire on the local dissidents.”

“You’re serious?”

“Why don’t you come along? It’ll be so ultimate.”

Harrow eye the waiver there, left for him. “Maybe, I can stay for a bit longer.” Harrow closed his eyes, lost in thought. In his mind’s eye, Harrow could see Javelin in his body again. Javelin said, “The church my ex used to drag me to thought that at the end of time and space, everyone you have ever known and loved waits for you in the holographic afterlife. Maybe that’s true, who am I to say?”

“Interesting.” Harold asked, “What are you still doing in that tank anyways?”

“I’m taking a vacation.”

“A vacation?”

“I’ve been plugging away at some World War Two dogfight missions, doing the battle of Thermopylae next, oh, and prohibition era Chicago too, if there’s time.”

Harrow opened his eyes. Javelin was back in his gumball jar, bubbling. Harold snorted. “You play those Sim games, and you give me a hard time about visiting my wife and kid?”

The voice on the speaker softened, but came through just as tinnily, devoid of comfort. “It’s not the same thing. You were shrinking back from reality.”

“Reality?” Harrow laughed back. “If there’s more computer-generated universes than real ones, which there is, then, just by the numbers, this place probably isn’t real then either.”

“What do you mean?” Javelin wished, for a moment, that he had his hands to raise.

Harrow broke his eye contact with the face, then looked Javelin straight into the eye of his camera. “They built that same device in my simulation, you know. And in that one: another. And in that one.” The speaker buzzed metallically, what must have been the equivalent of a gasp.

“What are you saying?” The jar bubbled audibly.

Harrow told him “It’s turtles all the way down.”

The speaker screeched with feedback, then asked, “What?” Then the nurse entered, picked up the clipboard and stood between Harrow and the cart with Javelin’s cart.

“Ready?” The nurse asked.

Harrow answered, “Yes.”

“Wait.” The bubbling in the tank calmed down. Javelin asked, “Are you sure about this?”

Harrow thought about it, one more time, and said, “No, but I’m doing it anyway.”

Javelin scoffed. “You know, you can live for a long time. You’ll get over them.”

Harrow gave Javelin a look of disbelief. He reached for the clipboard, hoping to sign his name quickly. The nurse helped him with the pen.

She said, “An X is fine.”

Harrow signed with an X. The nurse went to Javelin’s cart and pressed a button below the grinning skull, the dimple in his chin--a compartment in the jar’s base popped open. The nurse took the device and attached an adapter. She turned the device on and attached the adapted cable into input at the base of Harrow’s skull. She smiled gently down at Harrow and asked “Time?” Harrow nodded, yes. The nurse injected a solution into the tube in his left arm.

The face of Javelin smiled, “Hey, when you see that other me in there, you tell him he’s a quack and bad publicity ain’t always good publicity. Okay? Tell him you’ve always been a good friend to me.”

Harrow mumbled something and, as his eyes slowly shut, and he let out his last breath. The nurse detached the cable from the input in the base of Harrow’s skull, pulled it free and wrapped the cable around the device.

******

“Hey dad,” his son asked again, “What do you call a cross between an elephant and a rhino?” He knew the answer. But, once more, gave a fatherly shrug and a searching look, and the boy answered himself, giggling, “Ell-if-I-know!”


THE END


2024 Adam Parker

Bio: Adam Parker is a writer and filmmaker from Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada. Before graduating from the Film Production Program at Vancouver Film School, he attended the Creative Writing Program at Vancouver Island University. After graduation, he worked a variety of jobs in the Vancouver film industry, in on-set production, post-production and development. In his spare time, he likes listening to music, watching movies, and hiking.

E-mail: Adam Parker

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