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.”
“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?”
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?”
“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.”
“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.”
“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?”
“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.”
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?”
The technician looked back up at Adam, frustrated. “Adam, surely something happened.”
“No. Not there, at least.”
“On Seventh. Where you found me.”
“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.”