Before I Live Forever

by Jordan Felker

Chapter 1

        Dr. Roman Winters touched the blade to the polypropylene and titanium of what would become an arm, and the saw screamed as it bit in, spitting orange and white sparks against his fiberglass face shield. His newest development in biomechatronic prosthetics, and General Hopping of US Special Operations Command was breathing down his neck about it. 
        Where was his grad student? Roman had called him three times before beginning the day’s work himself. It would be so much easier to cut this if his assistant held the torso of the bot still. And teaching Michael as they went made it easier not to dwell on whether military funding for his research might have come at too high a price.
        The saw whined with one last slice, then Roman swapped out the rotary blade for a sander and ran it over the rough edge. Soon, he’d cover this with a corrugated rubber sleeve to protect the elbow joint with its eighteen-point rotation feature. But that could wait for tomorrow. Tonight--dinner with his wife to celebrate her last reconnaissance mission over the southern border tomorrow. 
        It made him nervous as hell that she would be in her jet at all. He wished she would have quit flying three months earlier, when she’d first told her Commanding Officer that she was pregnant. It was safe, she said, until seven months. There was no talking her out of it.
        There was a knock on the lab door.
        “Come in!” he yelled without turning away from the steel table and the half-finished prosthetic body.
        “Winters--I’ve brought you a new grad student.”
        Roman clicked off the sanding tool and lifted his visor.
        He turned to see the Science and Technologies Dean with his hand on the shoulder of a grinning blond man somewhere in his late twenties. 
        “What happened to Michael?” Roman asked.
        “My office got a call about his withdrawal from the program this morning.” 
        Why hadn’t Michael called the lab? Or told him when he was here yesterday? Or answered Roman’s calls this morning? 
        Roman clutched at the hems of his sleeves, picking at the fabric like it would bring out the answers he wasn’t getting. 
        With a conspiratorial lean, the Dean stage-whispered to younger man, “For the best, I’d say, with how little he’s been helping on this project.”
        That wasn’t true. They’d been progressing steadily through the development of the prosthetic, but it involved internal systems of which Roman possessed only academic knowledge so they were learning as they went. Had someone decided that Michael’s performance was unsatisfactory and...gotten rid of him? Gaia had told him stories of the military making people disappear.
        The Dean surveyed the lab.
        Roman was aware of his messy workspace, spare cables and actuator gears strewn across his various desks and counters. The floors were clear, but Michael’s stacks of paper and 3-D research results eclipsed both of their chairs.
        “How are the latest developments coming, Roman? You’ll have them for the General by next week, I hope? Like you promised.” The Dean raised a gray eyebrow but maintained a friendly smile. 
        Roman’s heart rate accelerated. His easy nod belied his instinct to run.
        “If we don’t get that funding, I’ll move your lab to a janitorial closet next fall,” the Dean said congenially.
        Roman forced a laugh. 
        Without another set of hands and another capable brain to help him, it would be difficult to meet the deadline. They’d worked four months on the prosthetic body, possibly the biggest advancement in history--one that would re-capacitate those who suffered from crippling diseases and paralysis. 
        Michael was prone to bouts of silent concentration, but they had a rhythm, and many a successful brainstorming session, borne out of mutual respect. Dropping out now didn’t make sense.
        Roman gripped the edges of his sleeves tighter.
        “In any case,” the Dean went on, obviously impatient with Roman’s silence. “I know you have a deadline, and we don’t want to keep the government waiting. So I brought you a rising star. This is Sergei Bajek.” He clapped the still-smiling young man on the shoulder before releasing him into the lab.
        “Of course, thank you. Welcome.” Roman tried to smile, pushing thoughts of Michael and the sense that something was wrong out of his mind.
        Sergei reached out a hand to shake his.
        Roman was surprised he hadn’t noticed it before, the black rubber material of Sergei’s prosthetic. The palm and fingers were dark compared with the back of the hand, possibly a textured neoprene for grip. Below that, a silver glint of titanium, or maybe aluminum, inside his sleeve.
        “Bajek,” Roman said, rubbing the bridge of his nose. “That name sounds familiar. Which program are you in?” 
        “Doctoral studies in biomechatronics,” Sergei said. 
        Roman’s own department, but he’d never seen the man. He would have remembered those blue eyes. And incredible prosthetic hands.
        “I haven’t had you in class,” Roman said. Why would they bring him a student for a highly sensitive who had barely started at the university?
        “I’ve been focused on engineering research,” Sergei said, his voice strong and vaguely accented. “I’d like to develop a self-sustaining charge for biologically implanted mechanics. I also want to delve into neurobiology and augment sensory perception through prosthetic receptors.” 
        In parallel motion, Sergei touched each of his fingertips to each respective thumb. All prosthetic. All sleek and agile. Impressive.
        So that was why they’d brought him. His expertise could definitely benefit the project. Maybe even add another layer of humanity to it.
        “He developed tactile sensors as an undergrad at MIT,” the Dean said from the doorway. The two of them smiled like they were happy to show one another off. 
        “Ah, yes,” Roman said. “Bajek.” That was it. A pressure sensor on the prosthetic fingers for the pianist. This was not just some graduate student. In many ways, Roman could be studying under him.
        Roman smiled as warmly as he could. “I’ve applied your technology to some of my work. Happy to have you.” 
        He should perhaps be happier than he was, but his eyes ached with visions of his project floating away from him into the capable prosthetic hands of a prodigy. Not to mention Michael’s sudden departure had him shaken. 
        “We’re happy you chose Berkeley, Bajek,” the Dean said and slapped the doorframe. “Sorry to pull you off your research, but I think you will find Dr. Winters’ tutelage just what you need to polish your skills. And this project! Well it should be a great platform for your work.”
        “I’m sure it will be,” Sergei said. If Roman wasn’t mistaken, Sergei’s bright eyes hardened, but his big smile still plastered his face. Maybe he’d imagined it.
        Sudden changes were General Hopping’s style. Add eight motor functions to the bot one week, then upward thrust for superhuman jumps due tested and approved in four days. All with the threat of withholding funding for the university labs. They never moved fast enough for him. And what if Michael was the casualty for their unsatisfactory pace? Roman needed to go check on him.
        Neither the Dean nor Sergei had moved. If they were waiting for Roman to invite them to see the prosthetic, they would have to wait until tomorrow. He wanted to get home to Gaia more than ever now. She had a good sense for things that felt suspicious, call it woman’s intuition or military training. If they’d done something to Michael, would she know about it?
        His coat sleeves were damp and crumpled in his fists now and he didn’t think he could maintain his composure much longer.
        Roman removed the lifted face shield and laid it on the rolling tray next to the steel cot. “I was heading home. Can you be here tomorrow?” 
        “Whenever you need me.” Sergei bowed his head slightly but made no move to leave.
        “This tight of a deadline and you’re leaving early?” The Dean’s pleasant expression vanished, replaced by a snarl that curled his fat pink lips up toward his nose.
        “The prosthetic will be months to completion, maybe longer with training a new assistant,” Roman said, his fear turning to anger. “Six o’clock is not early, and my pregnant wife is waiting for me at home. Now if you will excuse me,” Roman gestured toward the door and swept both the men out. 
        In the hallway, he locked the lab firmly behind them. 
        Free of the Dean and the new grad student, Roman pulled on his jacket and hurried down the concrete steps of the West Building. A salty wind whipped in from the shore. In his childhood, the shore had been merely the bay. That was before the final surge of 2042, when the icecaps gave up their tenuous hold on Greenland and the North Pole, and the swirling furies of Hurricanes Malcolm and Orion drowned coastal cities across the globe. 
        That was thirty-five years ago. A lifetime. Roman hardly remembered the bay. He turned off of the campus and onto the city street. The smell of salt hung heavy in the air. 
        Why did Michael leave?
        Roman frowned at the sides of the crumbling buildings and their steel supports bolted with star-shaped joiners. Waves lapped at the gutters of Amherst Street, deposited seaweed puffs and debris against the corners of abandoned storefronts, and pulled back through the drowned western half of the city. Starfish burned against the asphalt. 
        Despite the fact that his research was supposed to benefit the severely disabled, with near daily calls from SOCOM’s General with more and more requirements in return for the promised funds, more and more prying questions, he was beginning to suspect that the military had other plans for it. 
        He opened a com line to Michael again. It didn’t even beep. No click, no answer, no operator, nothing.
        Roman’s route home coursed the edge of the city toward the south, and the evening sun beat against the blacktop. His sport coat hung heavy from his shoulders, but he left it on, squinting back at the orange rays. Face things head on, Gaia always said. He just didn’t have her same fearlessness.
        Where was Michael? Should he go looking for him? Would Gaia come with him? Roman ran a hand through his hair, trying to calm himself before he got home. He would not put Gaia and the baby in a dangerous situation if he could help it, even if the military would.
        Out of the corner of his eye, he glimpsed a wilting gray fish that floundered in a storm drain, tucked in against a slice of seaweed. Roman extracted a jar from the satchel slung over his shoulder and scooped it up. It was just a few hundred feet out to the water, so it took only moments to carry the fish to safety. 
        California had begun to prohibit fishing, even for families without molecular printers. But there was only so much the government could do to counteract the effects of the weather.  
        The last block before home, he spotted another fish against the side of the crumbling redstone. One of its fins caught in debris, its gills flared in a last grope for water. Its mouth gaped and Roman couldn’t help thinking it looked like he felt, terrified.
        It was unlikely to survive even a few more agonized minutes. 
        Roman extricated the jar from his bag, slammed it quickly and precisely above the fish’s eye to put it out of its misery. California couldn’t fault him for taking this one, but he shivered in the heat, hoping no one saw him steal it. 
        Then he ran the last block home to his wife.

© 2019 by JORDAN FELKER. All Rights Reserved.