Week Eleven: Tovarishch O’Sullivan

The cold winter wind whipped through Grigory O’Sullivan’s thick red beard as he darted from the tramway. He wouldn’t be out at this hour or in this weather on a normal evening. But duty called; the Party came first.

The city center was mostly dark; a café ahead on the right was still inhabited, casting a pale warm wedge of light in futile resistance to the bitter night. A man behind the counter stared back at Grigory as he passed; his eyes were black and dull.

Grigory pulled his fur-lined collar closer about his neck as he turned the corner onto Tenth Avenue, no—onto Brezhnev Avenue—and the wind caught him square in the face. If only it had been snowing, he might have been able to call someone at the Committee and beg the evening off. But he was expected to show that he was made of tougher stuff.

He cut the corner at Holliday Avenue; if there had been traffic—or even passersby—he might not have been so brave. The rules were closely followed in Lewellingrad. And besides, he loved seeing the People’s House from this angle; the limestone columns and sharp rooflines tugged at each other like dancers.

He let himself in through a ground-floor entrance; and up to his office through the back stairs. He sat at his desk, in the dark, for just a moment. He loved this view. His office was in the attic, and he knew that was the second-worst place to have been assigned (besides the basement), but it didn’t feel like it; not with that view. Across the street, the Justice Center rose from the center of the People’s Plaza, a strong Brutalist structure that unintentionally presaged the arrival of the Party. The narrow pillars of its façade seemed too small to carry the weight of its cantilevered floors, much as the proletariat once seemed too small to carry the weight of the capitalist’s yoke. But the building endured; and the proletariat triumphed.

Grigory turned on his small desk lamp and got to work.

 

Morning found him still hunched over his small desk in his small office. The plaza was beginning to fill with workers, dressed in long coats and thick hats, on their way to work before the sun rose above the housing blocs on the east side of the city center. Grigory watched them, a dull ache having settled in the middle of his back, half asleep.

A knock on his door woke him. “Come.”

The door opened with a creak. “Comrade O’Sullivan, come to breakfast.” His friend Pyotr stood in the doorway, his cheeks red from the walk to work. “There are duck eggs.” Pyotr knew Grigory loved duck eggs.

“Yes, alright, Comrade. I could use some coffee, too.”

“Burning the midnight oil again?”

“It’s just the farm bill.” Grigory tried to stretch out his back as he stood.

“They need something to debate today, then.” Pyotr gave him a knowing grin.

Grigory sighed as he raised his arm to show Pyotr out of his office. There was always something for the Party members to debate; there just wasn’t always a bill to ground their debate in reality. As a legislative draftsman, it was Grigory’s job to make sure that didn’t happen very often.

“Yes, Comrade. Today and every day.” Grigory closed his office door behind him. He didn’t bother to lock it.

 

Breakfast was pleasant enough. Many of the Konza Oblast Party Committee members were in attendance, making a show of greeting each other and the Committee staffers. Grigory tried not to be disdainful of their fine suits and clear eyes.

Pyotr regaled him with the latest rumors on each one as he walked by. This one had a new mistress; that one’s youngest son received permission to go to university abroad; this other one was mounting a campaign to run for the Central Committee; that other one had secretly celebrated Christmas (can’t you see his new pocketwatch?, Pyotr asked, pointing at the man’s waistcoat.)

But for all the pomp, the Party-sponsored breakfast was a little meager. There had been duck eggs, as Pyotr had promised, and bacon, and griddle-cakes, and some strawberries that must have come from Mexico or somewhere. But the thin and gray-skinned kitchen staff ensured no one—not even the Oblast Secretary who came downstairs for a few minutes towards the end—received more than a modestly-sized portion.

Pyotr ate quickly and excused himself; as a Liaison Officer for the Security Committee, he had several things to finish up before the Party Committee began its first meeting. “Just reports and things,” he said with a wry smile.

Grigory walked back to his office alone. The People’s House was over a hundred years old, but the former occupants had obscured its mural-covered hallways and built offices out into the open spaces. The Party had been restoring the building almost since taking up residence; but there was still a lot of work to be done, and not a lot of room in the Oblast budget to complete the work. A carpenter avoided Grigory’s glance as he walked by.

The sun had risen high enough to cast Grigory’s office in a bath of orange light. He was about to step into that pool of sunbeams, though it promised no warmth, when he realized the draft bill was missing from his desk.

He quickly closed his door and took stock of his office. Everything was where it was supposed to be; everything except the bill.

Not that bill. Not that one. Not today.

It was a joke. He hadn’t meant anything by it. He still had plenty of time to fix it. It was just that in the early hours of the morning, when the bill was close enough to completion that his sleepless-ly fuzzy brain couldn’t choose between orneriness and celebration, he’d changed some of the words. A lot of the words.

It hadn’t been a bill sitting in his typewriter when he left for breakfast. It had been a manifesto. An indictment. A rumination and a prescription. A scathing review and a heartfelt sermon. It was everything he knew he shouldn’t say, most of the things he knew he couldn’t say, and quite a few of the things he knew wouldn’t have said if he hadn’t been called in so late on such a cold night.

It wasn’t a bill. It was a confession.

Changing his name had been easy; Pyotr had done it, too. Changing his beliefs had been harder.

He wasn’t a communist. He wasn’t a socialist. He had never cared for the populists who once controlled the state, either—although they’d been smart to invoke the battle cries of Mary Elizabeth Lease and her contemporaries when they came in with their new “People’s Party.” In truth, he hadn’t ever been much of anything. He’d always simply voted for the person who made the most sense.

But now they would know. They would know that he was not reformed. That he was not truly loyal. That he didn’t care for the Party Committee members or their hypocritical fancy suits. That he didn’t care what crops made the approval list for spring planting. That he thought the whole system was a sham.

He doubted they would find his cleverness very clever, but there was a great section in there building up a three-pages-long metaphor comparing the Central Committee to a certain local wizard.

Whoever had that sheaf of papers, whatever they intended to do with it, Grigory’s career was likely over. He turned for the door—running wasn’t much of a plan, but it was a plan.

But the glazed window had the figure of a man behind it. A man reaching his hand back to rap on the glass in a rude knock.

Grigory saved him the effort and opened the door.

 

Grigory couldn’t remember if he’d ever been in the Secretary’s office before. He’d worked in the People’s House long enough he surely must have entered the room for something or other at some point. But its smallness surprised him. Maybe he hadn’t been in there before.

The Secretary sat cross-legged behind his desk, leafing through the papers that had been left in an office that should have been locked. Now that he was only a few feet from the man, Grigory could see that his suit was well-made but not new; his glasses were chipped in a few places along the rim; his eyes were puffy with redness and lack of sleep. He looked around the office again; the bookcases were plain, the carpet a little worn, the paintings on the wall were poster prints. He briefly entertained the thought that this man, the most powerful in the Konza Oblast, was a true believer. He wasn’t sure if that should worry him.

The Secretary finished reading, put the papers on his desk and worked a phlegmy cough as politely as possible. He took off his glasses with his left hand and rubbed his temples with his right. He put his glasses back on and stared at Grigory. His tired eyes were blue and sharp.

“Tell me Tovarishch O’Sullivan,” he started, using the formal Russian term as if to remind Grigory that although he had lost most of his accent he had not lost his ties to the Motherland, “why does the Party Committee debate a farm bill every spring?”

Grigory contemplated his response. Giving the Secretary the same answer he’d just read in the stolen papers was obviously not an option, but he was hard pressed to come up with a better one.

“Do you think it is to make a show? To fill the radio waves with sound bites and catchphrases? To quell the people, to convince them the merits of growing crops that receive almost no subsidy from the Central Committee? To trick them? Into mere obedience?”

Grigory chose not to answer.

The Secretary grew tired of waiting.

“It’s because we have quotas. Our Republic stands in unity with other soviet republics across the globe. There are radicals who would shatter the bonds that tie us together with so-called ‘decentralization’ efforts. The only way to stop them is to protect the system of mutual cooperation we have so carefully established.

“And so we must choose. Maize, or wheat? Beans, or barley? Sorghum, or rye? Do we stay at five million cattle, or should we replace some with sheep or goats? And on top of it all, we must choose where these things will go. Do we plow more fields in the east, or do we let fields lay fallow for a season? Do we build more pumps in the west, or do we turn fields over to ranching?

“These are the questions the Party Committee was supposed to debate today. We must have a proposal for the Central Committee to review, as must the other Oblasts. We must play our part. Do you understand?”

Of course he did. Grigory was from a farm town. Surely the Secretary knew that; he could see his personnel file there on the corner of his desk. “I didn’t sleep last night,” he offered.

“Neither did I.” The Secretary’s response was almost kind.

“I only meant—”

“I know exactly what you meant, Comrade. You were frustrated. You had every right to be. But your work is serious. You must be serious about it. Do you understand?”

“Yes.”

“Very well then.” The Secretary pushed the papers back across the desk. “I’ll need a finished draft before noon. You did good work on the bridges bill last fall. Let’s get a little mor of that out of you, shall we?” He smiled in a way that told Grigory the discussion of his transgression had come to an end.

Was that it? A half-lecture and a pat on the back? He stood, and offered a feeble smile in return. An aide showed him out.

He had to admit, he had done good work on the bridges bill last fall.

Wait—was that all it took? A pat on the back? To put him in his place, to turn him back into a good little soldier?

Of course the bill debate was just a show. Of course it was designed as a source of sound bites to distract the dirt-poor farmers whose standard of living had actually decreased since the so-called “People’s Party” had swept them up in its fervor. The Central Committee had already decided who would grow what, and where.

But maybe there was another truth buried in what the Secretary had told him. Maybe the system was fragile enough they needed him—yes, him—to write another bridges bill, the kind with lofty language that would inspire the kind of debate that would get endless replay on the evening news. Maybe the Party would crumble under the weight of its central planning, or maybe it was more likely that it would crumble without it.

Either way, Grigory feared what would happen if there wasn’t at least a debate before the Central Committee issued its planting maps. He felt sick to his stomach.

He knew he would feel better when he fixed his draft.

Duty called; the Party came first.

Week One: “Adam”

I should have counted how long his body took to hit the ground. I’ve done it before.

The counting, I mean.

The other thing, that was a first.

I bet it took almost three seconds. That doesn’t sound like much? Look down at your feet, and pretend there’s nothing under them, that you’re hanging over a street, dangling from the roof of a nondescript office building in that never-recovered-from-the-last-recession part of the city people only ever seem to drive through, never stopping.

Now fall. All you can see is the ground getting bigger. All you can feel is the weightless terror of free-fall. Now count to three, slowly.

That’s a fucking eternity.

I hadn’t meant to do it. I think it was like when you want to pick away the rough edges of a scab, but there’s no real place to stop, and the next thing you know the whole wound is exposed.

Don’t we all sometimes have strange thoughts, completely unbidden? This one was mine: I had wanted to watch him fall from a great height almost the entire time I knew him.

It wasn’t his fault, and he’d never done much to provoke me. He was just so frail, and the exoskeleton he wore somehow made him look even smaller as his tiny legs showed through the spaces between the plates and struts. I couldn’t help but want to see him break.

But even after, when he was crumpled on the sidewalk, he looked stronger out of the suit. Normal. It was perverse to see him so exposed.

I went to his body. His chest was still rising and falling, quick but shallow. There was no blood. That surprised me, considering the fall.

His eyes were closed; his jaw was slack. His arms were splayed; one leg was twisted back awkwardly. He looked exactly like a man who had fallen to his death.

I straightened his legs out, pulled his arms down and folded them on his chest. I turned his head, and tugged the wrinkles out of his pant legs.

With his head facing up, his breathing became labored. I turned his head back to the side, to make his last few minutes as easy for him as I could.

Have you ever watched someone die? It’s not like in the movies. There’s no single final moment, no gasp-and-collapse that broadcasts this is the end. Just a slowness, a fading, as each breath gets a little more shallow and takes a little bit longer to be drawn.

His last breath was completely indistinguishable from the one that preceded it. Have you ever pushed hard on a leaky faucet handle to get a drip to stop? And there’s that one last half-drop quivering on the edge of the faucet, balanced between the competing forces of water tension and gravity?

Every breath was like that, until the last one became the last one.

And then he just lay there, on the sidewalk, and I turned his head back up to give him some dignity. And I stared at him like that for a long time. And I felt nothing.

 

I left him there. Someone would find him in the morning, probably.

Did he deserve more than that? I couldn’t decide.

I walked through the deserted streets of the sleeping city, not towards any place in particular but just away from the scene of my crime.

Don’t me wrong, I didn’t push him. Not directly, at least. But I understand if you don’t believe me. Giving me an Oedipus complex would make this all simpler.

My crime was not killing Dr. Thayer; it was failing him.

I was supposed to be his greatest achievement. He rescued me, cared for me, built a body for me so I could go out into the world. And what a body he gave me! Synthetic muscles made of laminated polymers, titanalloy bones, and artificial skin imbued with thousands of molecular sensors per square inch, all linked together through synaptic processors modeled on the human brain.

More than once I realized what a sacrifice he made in creating this body for me instead of for himself.

But he wasted his gift on me. I do not inhabit this body; I merely possess it, like a ghost.

I knew the night was cold, but only because I could feel that it was 42 degrees, which I knew was well below average for early June. I did not actually feel the cold.

I’ve never felt anything.

Memories came rushing back: learning to walk by focusing on the feedback from the pressure mats in my heels and toes, learning to write by focusing on the feedback from the pressure regulators in my finger joints, learning facial expressions by practicing in a mirror. These things should come naturally; they shouldn’t be driven by differential equations.

This body is wasted on me.

I hadn’t realized my fists were clenched so tightly my fingernails dug into my palms, but the input spikes from the distressed sensors overwhelmed my processors and my walking pace slowed. I noticed that.

So I stopped. I looked down at my hands, relaxed them. As my fingers pulled away, red crescents were left behind. The long-chain molecules suspended in the layers of silicone film that I called “skin” would eventually untangle themselves and the redness would go away. It was such a perfect imitation of life.

But it was only an imitation.

Without fully understanding why, I pressed my right thumb into my left palm. Hard. And then again, and again, making a triangle of red lines in the flesh. Then I did it again. And again. The red lines became purple. The flesh was tearing. I pressed deeper, harder. The flesh in the middle turned white, losing its digital connection to the rest of my body. My synaptic chips were struggling to process the feedback from the damaged flesh, but I soon discovered that going faster made the sensation less of a distraction.

I pinched the triangle of flesh with my thumb and forefinger and pulled. The sensation was crippling. I pulled harder.

The sound the material made as it separated from the sub-dermal mat of pressure nerves beneath my skin was like tearing paper and pulling your foot out of mud at the same time. I heard it and felt it at the same time.

But I didn’t really hear it. Or feel it. I was simply aware of it.

I flicked the wedge of material out into the street. One-one-thousand-tw–.

I put my finger into the hole in my palm. Scraped my fingernail against the subdermal mat. And started tearing the flesh from my body.

And still I felt nothing.

 

“What happened next?”

“You found me.”

“Where?”

“I don’t remember the cross-street. Somewhere on Seventh?”

The technician sat across the table from Adam, taking longhand notes on a pad of yellow paper. He looked up, considering Adam’s last answer.

“You don’t remember where we found you?”

“Not exactly. Somewhere on Seventh, I think.” Adam’s voice was smooth, unwavering.

“Please try to remember.”

Adam sat motionless. Through the glass-walled conference room, the technician could see other members of the laboratory’s staff peering around corners and peeping over cubicle walls. Word had quickly spread among their ranks, and those who hadn’t already been on their way to work would be soon. He tried to wave them off, but more kept coming. Adam didn’t seem to notice.

The technician clicked his pen closed, rested it on the pad of paper. “Adam, I need you to know that you’re not in trouble.”

Adam put his hands on the conference room table, palms up. A sensory interface lattice glinted against the graphite-grey of his pressure-mat underskin like copper-colored spiderwebs. He looked down at the fruits of his destructive impulse. “I’m sorry.”

“Did you do that to yourself?”

“Yes.”

The technician prodded, gently. “Why did you pull your skin off?”

Adam sat silently for a long moment, staring at his hands. “I don’t know why. I didn’t want it anymore.”

“Did it hurt?”

“I don’t know. I was aware of… the…” Adam looked around the room, as if the word he was looking for was written on the walls. “The sensation.” His gaze settled on the ceiling at the far side of the room. “I knew I was damaging myself. The feedback was overwhelming. It affected my ability to concentrate. But is that pain? I don’t know.” He looked down, meeting eyes with the technician. “What is pain?”

“Clinically, Adam, that is the very definition of pain, which is just a label we apply to unpleasant stimuli characteristic of physical damage.” He searched Adam’s face for recognition, but found none. “Does that make sense?”

“Yes.”

“We were originally afraid that someone did this to you.”

“No. I did it to myself.” Adam looked back down at his hands. “Does that make me bad?”

“I don’t know, Adam. But I do have to ask you about what happened next.”

“Okay.”

“When we found you, there was a rock in your hand.”

Adam moved his left hand under the table, his gaze drifting upward over his left arm as he rotated it inward, rolling his shoulder, pulling his tricep forward. The technician could see deep gashes in the subdermal mat on the back of Adam’s arm, purple fluid oozing at the wound site and lime green plastic muscles showing through. “I did this with the rock.”

“Why?”

“To see what was underneath.”

“Did that hurt?”

“Not as much. But it didn’t interest me.”

“When did you do that?”

“On Eighth, maybe, or Ninth. Most of my skin was gone by then.”

“And you kept walking?”

“Yes.” Adam looked back up at the technician and placed both hands in his lap.

“Where were you going?”

Adam shook his head. “I wasn’t going anywhere. I was just walking.”

“Why did you leave the lab?”

“I wanted to see what it would feel like. To be alone, in the city, at night.”

“What did it feel like?”

“Like… I don’t know. Like I was alone in the city at night. It was cold. I turned back, and I saw Dr. Thayer on the roof. He was out on the ledge, and then he fell.”

The technician leaned forward, intent. “You saw Dr. Thayer fall?”

“Yes.”

“Was he alone? Did someone push him?”

Adam fell silent.

“Adam, you’re going to have to answer that question. If not to me, than to the police.”

“I understand.”

The technician leaned back into his chair, a sour look on his face. “Okay, we can move on.” He picked up his pen, clicked it open, and started taking notes again. “What happened between either Ninth or Eighth, where you scraped your arm, and Seventh, where we found you?”

“Nothing.”

The technician looked back up at Adam, frustrated. “Adam, surely something happened.”

“No. Not there, at least.”

“Okay, where?”

“On Seventh. Where you found me.”

“What happened?”

“I found a man. He was sleeping against a stairwell. I stood and watched him, and I lost track of time. It could have been three minutes, it could have been thirty. His breathing was uneven, he dipped in and out of REM sleep. I stepped closer, and closer. I crouched down and watched him sleeping. Suddenly I was aware of the rock still in my hand. I stared at him, clutching the rock. I couldn’t help but wonder what he looked like on the inside.”

“Did you hurt him? Adam?”

“No. Almost, though. I stood up. I stared at him some more. I lifted the rock over my head, tempting gravity. I was ready to throw it at him, to break his head open, but my hands caught the streetlight and the shadow playing over his face woke him up. He stared at me, in abject terror, for the longest time. He must have realized I wasn’t going to do anything; he scrambled up and ran.”

“Adam, I don’t mean to sound indelicate, and I don’t want you to think I’m making any assumptions about you by asking this, but why didn’t you throw the rock at him?”

“Because it would have been bad.”

The technician wrote a single additional line on his pad of paper and clicked his pen shut.

“Adam I can’t pretend that I have any idea what you went through last night.” The technician paused, considering his words. “I want you to know that it’s that way for all of us. We see others in pain, and we compare it to our own, and so we feel bad for them. I see you in pain, and I feel bad for–”

“How do you know I was in pain?”

“Because of what you said. The way you expressed what you felt. I know you don’t trust your own feelings, but they are so human, so classically human, that we have pop-culture references for them. Adam, you experienced grief last night. And it was wrapped up in all your self-doubt, and fueled by the last few weeks of tension with Dr. Thayer, and ignited by watching him die. You are trying so hard to prove to yourself that you let him down; but you’re demonstrating exactly the opposite.”

Adam looked queasy. “What does this mean?”

“It means you have a full life ahead of you. One hell of a start, by the way. And I’m going to make sure the company gets you the best goddamned therapist in the country. And we’ll replace your skin, if you want it. But it means you get to decide what happens next. You get to go out into the world and fight for happiness just like the rest of us, to avoid pain when you can and overcome it when you can’t, to live your life the way we all do.”

There was a knock at the door. Suits. They looked upset. The technician technician had one final question as he stood up.

“Adam, how does that make you feel?”

“I don’t know the word for it yet.”