“It’s inoperable, Adam.”
Adam Volk fights to digest the news, pushing his thick glasses up off the end of his nose.
“I can make you comfortable, but that’s about it,” Dr. Karl Ambros says, his furrowed brow registering his concern.
The fifty-seven-year-old doctor has been treating his close friend for the past two years. During that time, he’s watched fifty-two-year-old Adam disintegrate from a robust 220 pounds to a scant 160 and seen his friend’s dark hair turn silver from worry. Experiencing sympathy pains, Karl has developed ulcers and insomnia while working on a miracle cure.
“The radiation treatments slowed it down twice before,” Adam says.
“And both times it’s come back with a vengeance. The headaches and blurred vision are all part of it.”
“How long?” Adam asks.
“Two, maybe three months.”
“Can’t you try to cut it out?”
“It’s spread deep inside your brain.”
“I can’t just wait to die, Karl. I won’t.”
“There may be a way to cure you, something I’ve been working on. But it’s so very risky, a one in a million shot.”
“That’s still better than the odds I’m facing now.”
King Constanin Federov leans forward, nearly falling off his throne, his rat-like features pulling together into a disbelieving frown.
“You want to do what?”
“Transfer the brains of terminally ill patients, our greatest scientists, artists, and politicians, into synthetic bodies that will allow them to live virtually forever.”
King Constanin rubs his Van Dyke beard, his dead black eyes narrowing as he considers Dr. Ambros’ proposal. He glances at Cedric Mountcastle. His normally expressionless, pencil-thin chief advisor bursts into laughter.
“He thinks he’s the Great Maker.”
“Only I can play the role of God, Ambros.”
“Yes, your majesty, but think about it. The great minds of our culture, preserved for all time, still able to contribute to our history, still able to help us discover new cures, innovative technologies, new worlds…”
“And help us conquer them,” Mountcastle interjects, his hawkish features forming a sly smile.
King Constanin strokes his beard. “I could live forever with a body that’s impervious to death and disease! Are you sure your idea will work, Ambros?”
“The tests we’ve conducted so far indicate it will, sire. I’ve already found a perfect candidate.”
“Adam Volk. He lives near me in St. Leone on the planet Erebus.”
“Isn’t he the one who wrote the history of the Capaldi dynasty? He should have written about our family instead. He’s old and out of shape. Do you think that bookworm can handle the physical strain?”
“His will to live is extraordinary.”
“When can you begin, Ambros?”
“I already have, your majesty.”
“I’m doing it. That’s final,” Adam says.
Disgust distorts the elegant features of his wife, Ava. “How long have we been married, Adam?”
“Thirty-two. They said a match between a realist and a dreamer, a historian, and a poet, would never work, but it has. And do you know why? Because we promised each other we’d never make a major decision without discussing it.”
“Do you want me to die?”
She puts her delicate hands on his shoulders, looking at him with her caring grey eyes. “What a silly question. You know why I don’t want you to do this.”
“…It goes against our religious beliefs…” he mutters.
“We’re Hebrons, followers of fate. Our lives are predestined by the Great Maker. To attempt to change the path we’re destined to walk is sacrilege. Leave spitting in the face of the Great Maker to the Gypsums, or those without a conscience or soul, like our beloved power-hungry king,”
Knowing he can’t win the argument, Adam adjusts his glasses, looking at the wall of framed family photos.
He points at a photo of the two of them holding up drinks at a luau.
“Remember that night?”
“The Festival of the Comets.”
“It was also our tenth anniversary,” he reminds her.
He points at a photo of two young boys.
“It isn’t fair that I’ll never see our grandsons graduate, marry, have children of their own, or share another festival with you.”
“There has to be a better way,” Ava says, holding him.
“When you figure out what it is, let me know. But make it soon.”
“Medical School didn’t prepare me for this,” Lara Gorman, Dr. Ambros’ assistant, says to herself. Lara’s cherubic cheeks, closely cropped hair and big brown eyes often mark her as an innocent, mousy woman, a label she hopes to lose by working with Dr. Ambros.
She looks down at the seven-foot robot’s boxy body with wonderment. Although it appears to be heavy and unwieldy, the robot’s steel alloy body is not only lightweight but also flexible and nearly impenetrable. The robot’s transparent, dome-like head is made from a combination of Polycarbonate glass and steel that can withstand most bullets and bombs. The prototype has long, sharp claws in place of fingers, and thick, piston-driven legs. The hardest feature for Lara to digest is the platform inside the head where the subject’s brain will sit. Wires sprout from the brain to slits carved in the mask-like face for its eyes and mouth.
“Whose brain are we using for the test?”
“Ford Hand, a convict from the penal colony. He’s an accomplished thief who pushed his last victim, an old woman, away from him when he was robbing her home. Unfortunately for Mr. Hand, his assault frightened her so much that she had a heart attack and died. An unsympathetic judge sentenced him to die.”
“If he was a criminal in life, and was still one when he was condemned to death, won’t he still be one when his brain is transferred into a different body?”
“If he attempts to escape, or worse, tries to attack us, he knows he’ll be executed. He also knows if this experiment is successful, his sentence will be commuted. Ready?”
“As much as I ever will be,” Lara replies.
Dr. Ambros leans close to Hand’s dome. “Ford? If you can hear me, I want you to move the fingers on your right hand.”
The two scientists wait for a response. Slowly, Hand wiggles his claw-like fingers.
“Lift your legs.”
“I want you to open your eyes and sit up.”
A pair of expressionless eyes peer through the slits in the robot’s face as Hand pulls himself up.
Dr. Ambros and Lara help Hand to his feet. His body wobbles as he tries to steady himself.
“Can you walk on your own?” Dr. Ambros asks.
From inside his spherical, fabricated skull, a gruff, metallic voice answers, “…Yes…”
Hand begins to shuffle across the floor toward Lara.
He pauses, catching a glimpse of himself in a mirror.
Sparks shoot out from his neck. The dome protecting his brain fogs over. Hand’s powerful shoulders droop and his systems shut down.
“What happened to him, Doctor?”
“The subject rejected his new body.”
Adam coughs. Holding a handkerchief to his mouth he coughs again, noticing flecks of blood in it as he pulls it away.
“…It’s spread to my lungs,” he says to himself. “Not much time left.”
His grandsons, eight-year-old Danny, and six-year-old Woody charge into the room. Adam pulls himself up in the bed, smiling.
“You’ll be better soon, won’t you, pop-pop,” Danny says enthusiastically.
“That’s right. I’m going to have a whole new body.”
Woody holds up the superman doll he’s been carrying. “Are you going to be able to fly too?”
“No, but I’ll be able to run, and play hide and seek with you guys just like we used to.”
“How come Grandma Ava’s unhappy about your getting well?” Woody asks, lisping because of his missing baby teeth.
“The operation goes against our religious beliefs. Do you understand what that means?”
“Grandma said it means the Great Maker’ll be mad at you,” Woody replies. “Maybe at all of us.”
Ava hurriedly walks into the room.
“Right on cue,” Adam jokes.
“You boys go play downstairs. I need to give grandpa his medicine.”
Ava examines the dozens of bottles of pills on the end table.
“Seems like the preparation is as likely to kill you as the operation.”
She hands Adam a series of pills, then pours him a glass of water.
“You’re not concerned that you’re swallowing ridiculous amounts of Norepinephrine bitartrate and Apixaban, or that your heart rate has doubled, and your blood is thick as mud?”
“Bottoms up,” Adam replies, swallowing the pills.
“There’s still time to end this madness, Adam.”
“I didn’t come this far to give up and lose you and our grandkids.”
“Karl told me King Constanin threatened to kill all of us if you changed your mind.”
“This is a small sacrifice to make to be with my family,” Adam says.
“I can’t help but feel that there’s going to be a much higher price to pay,” Ava replies.
“Doctor Ambros, he’s awake!” Lara shouts, doing her best to hold Adam’s twisting metallic body still.
…Adam can feel the hinges in his legs tighten and release as he moves forward. He’s surrounded by thousands of robots holding phaser rifles. They march in unison, unruffled by the armor-piercing bombs exploding around them.
Several robots in front of him are hit and are instantly turned into dismembered junk, their legs still marching in time.
A shell arcs overhead, whistling as it dives downward toward him…
Adam’s brain projects the images around him. He wants to scream, but his new programming won’t allow it.
Adam doesn’t recognize the sound of his own flat, computerized voice.
“…Why does King Constanin want to see us?”
“He wouldn’t have flown us from Erebus to Erde Two if he didn’t want a progress report,” Lara answers.
“He has a right to be curious,” Dr. Ambros adds. “He’s paying for our research and your recovery.”
Inside the massive throne room, King Constanin and Cedric Mountcastle are examining a large map of the Empire. King Constanin is pointing to a particular area on a map, his anger rising with each poke.
“How dare they refuse me!”
“What’s going on?” Lara whispers to Dr. Ambros.
“War is coming. The Hebron and Gypsum governments have refused to yield their territories to the King.”
“They must be brought to heel!” King Constanin shouts.
Noticing the trio’s presence, Mountcastle clears his throat.
“Is that the new and improved Adam Volk?” the King asks.
“…Ready to resume the work of preserving our history, your majesty…”
“I’m happy to hear you say you are willing to serve your King, Volk. Any problems with him, Ambros?”
“We’re still monitoring him, your majesty. It’s quite a shock, physically as well as mentally, for Adam to have left his humanoid body behind for that of a robot.”
“No doubt. But we do not have time to worry about glitches or pampering his mental state. From what your report said, he should be emotionless anyway. We are about to engage in a historic war with the Hebrons and Gypsums that will expand the Empire. Volk will have a prominent role in helping us strike a decisive blow.”
“I’m afraid I don’t understand, sire.”
“We are compiling a list of terminal patients throughout the Empire,” ‘Mountcastle says. “The King wants you to perform the same procedure on them that you did on Volk.”
“I want to build a strong, invincible army.”
“…No…” Doctor Ambros says.
“What was that, Karl?”
“I believe he’s protesting, sire,” Mountcastle says.
“…But I don’t want to be a soldier…,” Adam drones.
“I suggest you readjust your circuits, Volk. You’re a Hebron, but you have been built and programmed to be loyal to me. Tomorrow, when we declare war against Hebrons and Gypsums, you and Doctor Ambros will become enemies of the empire. Your families will be held in a camp for the duration of the war. You will lead my army or robots against your fellow Hebrons or be destroyed.”
Adam’s computer-generated voice is cool and unaffected, but his determination is clear. “…I want to see my family…”
“What? Fly them here from Erebus? You can’t make demands of the King!” Mountcastle shouts.
“There’s only one synthetic being right now, and that’s Adam,” Dr. Ambros notes. “Adam could break down or reject his new body. Adam’s plans also happen to be back in my lab on Erebus. Something could happen to those plans… They could even fall into the hands of your new enemies. ”
“We will arrange for you to see your family,” King Constanin says. “Then they will be sent back to Erebus and herded with the other insurgents. Whether they leave the camp or they are vaporized depends on if you choose to fight for or against the Empire.”
“Are you sure you’re ready for this?” Lara asks.
Adam feels his emotions stirring, but his voice remains expressionless. “…They’re my family. They’re the reason I did this…”
“They haven’t been mistreated.”
“…But many others have,” Adam replies. “I understand why you and Karl want to keep news of the war and the exterminations away from me. I need to know my family is all right before my programming forces me to kill my own countrymen in Constanin’s name.”
Adam follows Lara down the hallway. Lara leads him into the waiting room.
Ava, Danny, and Woody look up at him from their seats, their mouths agape.
Woody bursts into tears.
“That’s not my grandpa!” he lisps.
Woody runs to Ava, crying loudly as he buries his head in her lap.
“Man, pop-pop,” Danny exclaims. “I know you said you’d be different, but you’re a freak!”
“And a collaborator,” Ava says turning away. “You’re an abomination! You’re better off dead!”
Adam looks at his boxy body in the mirror. He squeezes the claws that replaced his hands in frustration, then bangs his claw off his heartless, empty chest.
“…I am an abomination…”
“Think of yourself as being the first of a new breed,” Dr. Ambros says.
“A breed of machines built to exterminate my own people. How many others have you converted to serve the Empire?”
“A dozen so far. I doubt this will make you feel better, but I named the robots Volks, after you.”
“It’s appropriate that the great Imperial Regime’s new weapon is named after a traitor.”
“When the war is over and the Volks are used for what they were originally intended, history may not judge us so harshly.”
“…But how will we judge ourselves. Karl?”
Adam no longer sleeps, but images flash through his circuits as he recharges.
A giant threshing machine moves down the war-torn street. It has a reciprocating cutter bar with a revolving reel and sharp metal teeth that will chew up anything in its path.
A platoon of Volks marches forward, pointing their laser rifles at the giant machine. The machine rumbles forward, its jagged blades decapitating the Volks, whose bodies are crushed under its massive wheels.
Adam has no tear ducts to cry with, but he remembers what it was like to have a conscience. He knows that his obsession with staying alive is responsible for a horrific war that could kill the very people he was hoping to live for.
Cedric Mountcastle opens the door to his room.
“Good news, Volk. You are no longer under house arrest. You’ll be sent to the front on Erebus tomorrow. Maybe you’ll see the ashes of your family.”
Laughing, Mountcastle shuts the door.
Adam stands, looking at himself in the full-length mirror.
Ava, Danny, and Woody’s condemning expressions reflect back at him.
Lowering his dome, he charges the mirror, crashing into it.
Backing up, he runs into it repeatedly until the dome protecting his brain shatters.