A SHORT STORY
After nine months of preparation, she was ready; new life would enter the world. The laboratory was dimly lit, and was hidden in an abandoned wing of the university. Too much light would alert the others of her presence.
She navigated his wheelchair carefully through the room, avoiding the tangles of wire that stretched across the floor. After lifting his frail body onto the gurney, she secured his limbs. A nearby thunderstorm announced its existence with a flash of light and a loud crack. Her small ivory hands stroked his blond hair as she kissed his forehead.
“I love you Noah,” she whispered.
His empty expression was briefly interrupted as an infant like coo came from his lips and they opened to form a smile. She slipped the mask over his mouth and he slept. She took great care to slice only the smallest section of tissue. The chip fit into place with absolute precision. Noah responded with a twitch; a simple reflex reaction. She stitched up the incision and leaned back.
The storm was directly above them now, reminding her of a celebratory parade. Rain pounded down on the tin awning, like the sound of snare drums marching by. Thunder exploded in a crash of symbols, and the bass echoed through the room. The lights flickered and went black. Too tired to respond, she closed her eyes and fell asleep in the darkness.
Months later, and miles away, Asher struggled to assemble his router. He was ready to break his silence. He needed to make contact with someone, anyone, but who could he trust? Who would even believe him? The lights blinked as the machine scanned and searched for a connection. He held his reading glasses in place and inspected the sticky note, pecking at the keyboard to log-in. Thousands of unread emails filled the screen and he scrolled down to locate his sister. She would understand. He hit compose and began.
I’m sorry that it’s been so long. I’ve been at father’s hideaway for months now. I vowed to stay off the grid until my book was finished; I needed to remain focused! The chapters are coming along, but not as quickly as I had hoped. Writer’s block is a terrible thing. I was certain that my solitude here would resolve the matter. You know I’ve always written best in the quiet.
I am writing to you now because the strangest thing has happened and I feel that I must share it before even more time elapses. The weather was fierce this winter, but the snow has finally melted. The eve before last, I kindled a fire and curled up at the hearth, watching through the window as a curtain of white water cascaded silently over the jagged rocks and down the mountainside.
From my secure position, the scene was mesmerizing, and quite tranquil. When I closed my eyes, however, there was an ominous sound. It was so perversely odd that my eyes opened wide in horror. I witnessed the most peculiar thing Emma. There was something out there. It’s stature was so very odd, and it leapt across the falls with ease; from one side to the other. Surely it was not a human.
I needed to share this with you, as the incident now has me questioning my own sanity. You know how vulnerable I am, and how dangerous isolation can be. It is my hope that you’ll write back, and assure me I’ve not gone mad! You’ve always known how to comfort me, and I look forward to your reply.
Give Elle a hug and kiss for me.
Asher sighed with relief as he hit send. What he’d seen out there had seemed so surreal, so imaginary. Once he’d written the words to Emma, everything felt more real, and less threatening. His nerves were calmed, and he was sure he could get some much needed rest.
As he reached the stairwell, the front door rattled and shook, and several loud thuds caused the cabin walls to shake. Asher’s wine glass slid from his hands, shattering at his feet. Outside the picture window, a large figure paused on the road and stared back at the house. The two stood motionless as they made eye contact. The figure turned quickly and ran, hurdling over the pines, until it’s dark silhouette vanished in the thick of the forest.
Asher stood frozen as questions flooded his mind. Was he going mad? Was it a dream? He pinched himself hard and yelped. Shards of glass crunched under his feet as his body shifted. With his eyes still glued to the window, he sidestepped to the broom closet. Suddenly something moved outside. It looked like an animal of some kind, sprawled out in the yard beyond the front steps. Perhaps it was a deer, he thought, they came around often.
The animal struggled to rise and collapsed again. He grabbed his flashlight and crept out to investigate. Its deliberate breaths grew louder and more strained as he approached it. Illuminating its form with the light, he learned that it wasn’t a deer at all. It was a young woman! Asher plucked her up and rushed inside, placing her body on the couch, near the fire. As he let go of her small body, her eyes opened wide and she clutched his arm.
“Please don’t say anything,” she pleaded.
Before he could respond, her eyes closed and her body withered into the cushion. What did she mean by that, he wondered. Surely she was delirious! He covered her with blankets, and sat nearby to observe, watching her sleep until the sun rose.
In the morning, as the light came in, the woman stirred. She looked around, moaned lightly, and then faded back to sleep. Asher left a glass of water on the table beside her, and retreated to his office. He slumped down in his chair, heart racing, his forehead covered in sweat. He was painfully uncomfortable around women, and now he had one in his home! What was he going to say to her? The computer lit up and a reply from his sister appeared. “Thank God,” he mumbled.
I can’t believe you! How can you unplug from the world like you do? I’ve been trying to call you. Please look at the news! Whatever it was that you saw, it is real. You’re not imagining things. Everyone is searching for him. They don’t know who he is, or WHAT he is, but they believe he’s dangerous. He was seen near Denver, carrying a woman. I’m having trouble believing it myself Asher, but it’s true!
I pray that you read this email, and stay safe until he’s found! If you have your phone, please answer it! Or call me!
The cabin was secluded deep in the Rocky Mountains, nearly two hundred miles from Denver. Was this thing a man, or some kind of wild animal? Bigfoot perhaps? Had he carried the young woman all that way? Asher reached for a bead of sweat on his forehead, just before it reached his eye, and read the email again. Suddenly the floorboard creaked, and a shadow blocked the hall light. He fumbled for the power button, and the screen went black.
Asher turned to see the woman standing at the doorway, and then his eyes darted away. He couldn’t believe how beautiful she was. Her delicate frame was wrapped inside of his blanket, and the bottom swept across the floor like the cathedral train on a royal wedding gown.
A braid of dark hair hung to her waist and her large hazel eyes seemed innocent, yet intoxicating. His mind conjured up the things that his sister would say if she were there. “Keep yourself together Asher! Make eye contact with the girl!”
“Have I interrupted you?” she asked.
“No. My sister emailed me to ask if I’ve made any progress on my book,” he lied, rising to meet her at the door. “I thought I’d let her know how slowly it’s coming.” He grinned, hoping she would laugh at his gawky humor.
“I can’t thank you enough for taking me in,” she said, extending her hand out. “My name is Francesca, but my friends call me Franky.”
“I’m Asher,” he shrugged.
His mind churned, overwhelmed with nervous thoughts. Should he touch her hand? Were his hands too clammy? Surely she would sense his discomfort. With noticeable indecision, he clasped his hands around hers, shook with a quick spasm, and moved awkwardly around her to leave the office.
He showed her to the guest room that had the most splendid view, and the two walked out to the veranda. A baby blue sky faded into layers of yellow where the sun began to move behind the mountains, and scattered pink clouds hung in the air like cotton candy. Asher stood slightly behind her, watching her admire the nightly show that he’d gotten so used to on his own. He’d been longing to share it with someone, and he was happy that she was there to see it.
He noticed that there was a magnetism about her, he could feel its pull. Is that how she had ended up in the arms of this “thing” that had brought her there, he wondered. Did she remember what had happened? Surely not, he decided. She was too calm. Any person experiencing such trauma would be hysterical.
“I’ve got to leave soon,” Franky said, interrupting him mid-thought.“My brother is in trouble and I’ve got to go find him.”
Asher had studied journalism in his university years, and he was always exploring eccentricities. Over the years he had developed a talent for conducting interviews and he was very good at it. The conversation made him think back to those days and the confidence that he had when he worked. He turned two chairs upright and brushed off the cobwebs and dust.
“Let’s sit down,” he said, feeling oddly pleased with the situation. “Why don’t you tell me what’s going on and let me see if I can help.”
“His name is Noah,” she began.
Time stood still for Asher that evening. He didn’t notice the fiery red sky as the sun made its final descent into the horizon. He wasn’t even aware that it had vanished, and they were now sitting in darkness. His eyes remained fixed on Franky, his ears hanging on her every word.
She told him about her younger brother Noah, and how the two of them had been inseparable until she went off to the University. They came from a family that was full of love, and her countenance beamed with joy when she told him stories about their childhood together. Their parents were killed in a tragic automobile accident not long after she left, and Noah had been with them. He survived the crash, but suffered tremendous brain damage.
Franky was a brilliant student with a scholarship in computer science. Machine learning and artificial intelligence were her areas of expertise. Professor Hinkle, who was the head of the department, had taken her under his wing when he noticed her potential. She had experienced many successes with her experiments, and he assured her that her work far exceeded anything he had ever seen from a student.
They spent months discussing the possibilities of AI brain implants. The professor was much too cautious and conservative in his thinking though, and the two disagreed about many things. They just could not not see eye to eye, so Franky distanced herself from him. She built a makeshift lab in an abandoned wing of the university, and night after night she would work in secret. Finally, after weeks of very little sleep, she had made a significant discovery. She believed she had found the answer, something miraculous, and it wouldn’t just help Noah—it would bring hope, and new life to people everywhere.
“I made a horrible mistake.” Franky confessed. “I wasn’t thinking straight and I was tortured by grief. Noah was with me, but the brother that I knew and loved was gone. It was like watching him die, over and over again.”
Her eyes welled with tears and one managed to escape. He watched it glisten as it slid down her cheek. She leaned back in the chair and stared upward, and Asher followed her lead. The firmament resembled a black canvas, dotted with a billion radiant stars, and careful strokes of the artist’s brush had painted a delicate milky haze over them. Franky felt herself being swallowed up by a black hole, the infinite void that surrounded her in that moment.
Sitting there in the silence together, under the stars, Asher felt connected to her. They were kindred spirits, he thought. Each of them were so driven, but their hearts were filled with discontent. He tried to grasp his emotions as he stared into the blackness. He had never been romantically inclined, but he was drawn to her in the most indescribable way. Prepared to speak his mind, Asher looked over at Franky, only to find her sleeping. It was time to put her to bed.
The smell of coffee roused Asher out of bed. He rustled around his office, and then hurried downstairs. Franky had made herself at home in the kitchen, and by the looks of things, she had been up for hours. She appeared showered and ready to go.
Asher grabbed a cup and waved it in the air, signaling her to follow him upstairs. Floor to ceiling windows, that were previously hidden behind massive blackout drapes, ran across the entire east wall. Wood french doors were open wide, exposing a wraparound balcony. Asher rarely went out there by himself. It was the kind of place that warranted a companion, he thought, and he felt giddy with glee to have Franky there this morning.
The air was crisp and breezy, and the Aspen trees—with their new spring growth—enveloped the surrounding area. Yellowish green leaves, like the wings of butterflies, danced and fluttered amid handsome white trunks. At the edge of the property, a dirt road separated the well-kept land from the virgin forest that was carpeted with evergreens. Layer upon layer climbed the mountain to its peak, where the trees shrunk to the size of dots and lined the waterfall’s crest.
Franky propped her feet up on Asher’s chair, and he examined her tiny feet as he sipped his coffee. Chips of black paint, probably from months ago, were still sticking to the tips of her toes. She stared out in silence as she thought about Noah. There were so many times, after the accident, that she was certain she had seen his soul. His face would light up as the two made eye contact, or his lips would form a smile as he tried to communicate with sounds.
It was so hard not knowing what was going on inside of his mind. She had obsessed over it for months. She wanted to bring Noah back, she knew she had discovered a way, and she refused to think about the risks and consequences that were involved. What frustrated her more than anything, however, was that the operation was a success. The chip she implanted was able to retrieve and collect data, process it, and then store the information for future use.
The heartbreak came when she realized that, although the artificial brain was even more intelligent than her own, Noah barely knew her. He showed no emotion at all. Before she could work things out, all hell broke loose. Somehow the government had learned of Noah, and they wanted him bad.
“I need to go find Noah,” She said, imagining him out there in that forest all alone.
“I’ll come with you.” Asher’s voice cracked—like a boy on his way to manhood. His mind had been wandering, and he was caught off guard by her words. He wasn’t physically prepared for a rescue mission of any sort, but there was no way that he’d let her leave alone. He was much too fond of her now, and he had to keep her near.
Noah’s ears buzzed as an unfamiliar flying insect used his nose as a landing pad. His feet shifted beneath him as he waved his hands frantically to shoo it away, and he began to lose his balance. Crouched under a huge pine, not far from the cabin, Noah panicked. After several close encounters he had learned to remain silent and unseen. If he made any noise, his location would be compromised.
He grabbed hold of a large limb above his head, to keep himself steady, and it snapped. Noah tumbled backward, his arms still hugging the branch, and the two rolled down the slope in unison. When he came to a stop, Noah picked himself up and allowed his eyes to scan the area quickly— locating the cabin and zeroing in. Franky was standing at the balcony’s edge, looking out in his direction, and he was afraid that she had heard him. She had instructed him to stay out of sight, and he had broken the rule.
He maneuvered himself behind the trees, through an area he was now well acquainted with, and made his way to a small base camp he had set up. Two large boulders rested on each other to form a chair, and a flat piece of bedrock served as a table. Noah sat to catch his breath, leaning his head back to rest. He could feel his heart thumping as he stared up at his mock roof— Franky’s long jacket—quivering in the breeze. She had given it to him for protection, when he left her at the cabin steps, and it was now strung between two branches, above the sitting area, blocking out the sun’s harsh rays.
One of the ties suddenly broke loose as a large gust sailed through, exposing a large bulge inside of the fabric. Noah rose to investigate. He reached into the pocket and pulled out a small bound journal. Running his fingers across the worn cover, he admired the texture of the leather, and then he fanned through the book. The pages were filled with notes written by Franky, and—after doing a quick repair of the roof—Noah sat down to read.
TO BE CONTINUED
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay