If Roderick Deschiens could have drawn breath at this moment, he would have taken a deep one. He was going beyond what any man had ever done in the history of mankind.
Let’s face it, he told himself, you’ve been breaking barriers for the past fifty years or more. This was just one more.
Except there would be no return from this one. Probably. And if he did return, what then? What was there to come back to? He had no family. Tamsin had died five years ago, what was left of his own body had been switched off long ago. And now Louis Baker-Forbes, his best friend, was nearing the end of his life, leaving his son Frank to continue his work.
It had been Lou’s idea that he start on this trip, a journey that they had both imagined when they were young. They’d lie out on the grass in the evenings, looking up into the night sky, pointing out the constellations, random arrangements of stars that they knew were in no way connected in the real universe.
“When I grow up,” Lou would say, “I’m going to build a rocket to go and look at those stars.”
“When I grow up,” Rod would reply, “I’m going to climb in that rocket and take a look for myself.”
They’d continued like that throughout childhood, Lou planning on building the machine, Rod determined to pilot it. Boyhood ambitions.
As young men, they’d always kept in touch, even as they went their separate ways. Whenever they met, Rod would ask Lou “How’s that machine coming on?”
And Lou would reply “Getting there, getting there.”
Lou pursued his studies, science in general, robotics in particular. Rod, always the daredevil, had joined the RAF. He liked nothing better than to be in the skies, though he yearned for beyond.
Rod met Tamsin when he was on his way to meet up with Lou. She worked in the same scientific institute, in neurological research. A handsome, outgoing man, he’d never had a problem with women, and soon charmed his way into her affections while Lou could only look on.
But rather than being a passing fancy, as all the other women had been, Tamsin got under his skin. He wasn’t sure how it happened. How could he think of one woman when his lifelong ambitions were elsewhere? If they were to create a colony on the moon, or on Mars even, he wanted to be part of that. He didn’t want his focus split between ambition and a wife, a family. And yet…
It was as this paradox crept into his mind during a test flight that the accident happened. A fraction of a second too late to respond, and it was the end. Almost.
Roderick Deschiens should have died that day, but fate kept his heart beating. As well as his family, both Lou and Tamsin spent hours at his bedside. Weeks after the incident, it seemed that there was no hope of his regaining consciousness. His body would certainly not be of much use if he did.
But for Roderick, he knew he was alive. He was aware of the doctors, the nurses as they went about their tasks round his bed. He got annoyed when they discussed him as if he wasn’t there, when they would talk about his prognosis as if he were already dead. Rude, he thought in a calm, detached way. He knew his mind was working. If only his body would respond.
It was a nurse called Beth who observed it first. “His heart rate goes up when his girlfriend’s around,” she said. And it was true. More tests were done, and yes, there were certain things that produced a response besides Tamsin; U2, the smell of coffee. And Lou’s voice sometimes when he talked about their childhood dreams. Gradually with huge effort Rod found he was able to move his eyelids. A method of communication was set up by which they’d interpret what Rod said by the movement of his eyelids, whereby he’d move his eyelids for Yes, but not for No.
“Rod, can you hear us?”
“Rod, are you in pain?”
Nothing. They weren’t sure whether to believe that or not, his body had been so crushed he should be in a ton of pain, but maybe he just wasn’t aware of any other parts of his body any more. Or maybe his eyelid was too tired to twitch more.
Eventually Beth had the bright idea of splitting the alphabet into smaller and smaller parts, so allowing Rod to say words.
“Rod, is the letter between A and M.”
“Rod, is the letter between A and G.”
“Rod, is the letter between H and M.”
After more of this, Rod eventually managed to say HI. It was his first word in over six months. Yet he was still stuck in a body that couldn’t go to the toilet. And he had wanted the moon.
As doctors, nurses and friends continued to work with Rod, it became obvious that there was little hope for improvement in his physical capabilities. Not a good outcome for someone who had been so active. Time, they thought, to ask him what he wanted. And as he had lain there, hearing their distant conversations (they still didn’t think he could hear unless they were right next to his ear), Rod had given the matter some thought himself so was ready with an answer.
A doctor sat with Rod for a while, telling him what had happened to him, how he was broken, how he was burned. Giving him enough information to allow him to choose being switched off if a life trapped within his body was too much to bear. He asked him if he’d understood.
He left him with Beth who would watch for anything Rod had to say through his twitches. Eventually the nurse handed a piece of paper to the doctor.
“What’s that mean?” asked the doctor.
“Louis Baker-Forbes, his friend. Rod wants him to build a machine, but I’m not sure what for. We’ll have to ask Lou.”
Lou knew. Rod was stuck in a useless body. Lou had been going to build him a machine one day, a machine to take him to the stars. Now he just wanted one to take him out of his body. Was that even possible?
Lou and Tamsin went away, spoke together about the possibilities. First they had to see if they could move his consciousness into somewhere outside his body, somewhere where it might be easier to communicate. Lou already had a bot being developed with a positronic brain, Tamsin had neurological knowledge. Together they worked day and night to see how it might be possible. Eventually they went back to the hospital. They had a plan and they spoke to Rod about it. They told him all the benefits if it worked, but it would be a long shot. They were more likely to fail than succeed, they said. Nothing like this had been done before. Did Rod understand the risks?
Did he realise that failure was likely?
Did he still want to go ahead?
His parents, especially his mother, were against the idea. But his father eventually saw sense, asked Rod directly to send a better message as to what he really wanted, not just a yes/no answer. Beth sat with Rod to get the answers. The message she got was
It was a tearful goodbye for Rod’s mother, as she came to terms that it was wrong to keep her son locked away like he was. Rod was removed to the institute where the work would be done. Both robotics and neurology had eyes on the prize here. Beth, who’d grown to care for Rod while he was in the hospital, transferred to the institute as well. The doctor would visit regularly, Beth would be in charge of his day to day needs.
The day dawned when the procedure was to take place. The bot, which was to be beside Rod’s bed, would be wired into his brain. If it was a success, he’d be able to control the bot with his brain. But it was a big if.
Before they started, Lou asked if there was anything he wished to say.
Beth took up her position, asked her questions. The message that came back was
It was a bittersweet moment for Tamsin. Rod had never got round to telling her he loved her before the accident.
After the operation, they waited by his bedside, questioned the bot, checked the display. Nothing happened until someone thought to reboot the bot. It crackled into life, then…
It had felt good, Rod thought, to be able to see, even though the bot only had one fixed ‘eye’. It felt good to be able to talk without the effort of twitching his eyelids. It took some effort to get proper control of the speech centre, but that was up to his brain to make the effort, not his body. And his brain was in perfect working order. He was still tied to his bed, but he could read, watch TV. And have a proper if slightly stilted conversation. It was a start of an enterprise by the institute that would earn Lou and Tamsin a Nobel prize eventually for building a machine that would aid those that were locked inside their own bodies.
Over the coming weeks and months, further work was carried out to give him two eyes, to allow these to swivel so he could change his own point of view. From this viewpoint he was able to turn and look at Lou and Tamsin. How close they’d become, he thought. And how ironic as it was thinking about Tamsin at a crucial point that had put him in this situation in the first place. God’s way of saying it wasn’t for him, he thought. I need to speak to them both, let them know I’m okay about it. They make a great team.
A satellite bot was built, allowing him to hover and move around. He would float at Lou’s shoulder, walk along the corridors with him. He could communicate both with Lou directly and with whoever happened to be beside his main bot. Later he went outside with Lou, his first trip out since the accident. Strange, he thought, for some reason I thought I’d be able to taste the fresh air, which of course he couldn’t.
One day he was walking out by the lake with Lou when a group of youths gathered.
“What’s that you’ve got there?” they jeered. One came up behind them, snatched Rod out of the air and threw him into the lake before running off laughing.
To Lou it was like losing his best friend all over again. Not knowing what else to do, he eventually went back to the room where Rod lay.
“Rod, is that you?”
“Who the bloody hell did you think it was? What happened? It’s gone dark out here.”
“You’re in the lake. Some kid threw you in there.”
“Wow. So, you’d better come and fish me out then. Don’t think I can move on my own out of here.”
With Beth keeping watch by the bedside, listening to instructions from Rod as to how close the search team was, with Lou on the other end of the phone by the lake, instructing the search team, they eventually located the muddy bot. It would need some work to repair.
“Okay, so I’m going to need a better body,” Rod said. “Better casing, something that can swim as well as fly. And oh, eyes in the back of my head might be an idea.”
A new bot was made. Rod’s machine was a miracle. He could swim, he could fly. He had limbs that could touch or be used to push obstacles out of the way. He could deploy eyes all around his head, though for most things he only used two. He began to get requests. An old bridge, could he go underwater and relay information back to those above as to what state it was in, what repairs might be needed? A wreck under the sea, could he see if there was anything worth diving for, and if so where was it located? A collapsed building, could he go inside and see if there were any signs of life? He became a celebrity, he earned good money. What do I want with money, he thought.
There was only one answer.
He still yearned to leave Earth, to see what was beyond. He needed something that would encase his brain as well, so that all of him could leave, so instead of lying in a bed and using a satellite bot to get around, he’d be the brain that was going out there, with the satellites being the ones on the ground collecting the data he sent back.
Lou and Frank had worked together, and now he was ready. This bot was bigger than any he’d been in before. This bot contained his brain. He was ready to leave. He would fly off, leave Earth. First he’d go into orbit, look at this planet, at the atmosphere he hadn’t breathed in so many years. He’d said he might go to the moon, possibly Mars. But inside he planned so much more than that. He planned to explore the whole solar system, and after that, who knew? He switched on U2 and headed off.