This piece was shortlisted for the people’s choice award in AUTOMATED: The 2017 Honi Soit Writing Competition. To vote, head to our Facebook page.
Never regret thy fall,
O Icarus of the fearless flight
For the greatest tragedy of them all
Is never to feel the burning light.
– Oscar Wilde
At first, Simon was the outlier.
Saucer eyes followed him across the playground. Miss Potts flinched when he put up his hand. After three days, Benny Chills, the bravest in their year ever since he’d swallowed a snail, asked to see the scar.
The whole playground gathered around. He would have happily shown them all, but the sight of his shaved head beneath the beanie was too much for most; they scattered like seeds in the wind. Only the bravest remained. Benny, three older girls, and her.
Simon tilted forward, so they could see it – the angry red half-moon under the crown, where they’d peeled off his scalp, drilled through his skull and unravelled his brain.
“What did they do?” Benny’s voice wobbled.
He tried to explain, to remember what his mum had said when she’d first told him about the surgery. He’d been born with a disease, eating away his brain. But his mum was a scientist – a game-changer, the best-of-her-generation, said the magazine cover framed on the bathroom wall – and she could fix him. She could take his broken parts and replace them with shiny new pieces.
But they looked confused, so Simon said, “Cybernetic neurosurgery.”
Benny, a bit green, backed away. The older girls gawked and squawked and then vanished in a flap.
But she stayed. “Does it hurt?”
“No,” Simon said, and he wasn’t even lying, like he sometimes did when his mum asked, because he wanted to see her smile. “It’s all better.”
It was all better, for the most part. No more screaming in the night headaches. No more pills and scans and needles. He could jump and run without worrying that one bump would make his brain leak like minestrone out his ears.
The worst part was not swimming. Everyone got changed into their bathers and splashed eagerly up and down the lanes. Simon tried to behave and stay on the bleachers, outside the splatter radius, but it was irresistible. He wriggled closer, tugging his beanie snug against the eggshell skin of his scalp. No immersion for six weeks, his mum said. The circuit is at its most delicate in the initial stages. His finger moved of its own accord, hovering so close to the chemical-blue surface he could feel the water’s breath. A lazy squiggle – and then a rough forearm around his midriff, wrenching him backwards. The teacher was squealing – a cacophony about being losing her job, lawsuits – but everyone else was frozen still, peeking like meerkats out of the water, at the boy who couldn’t swim.
Time, his mum said, was the greatest doctor of all. Weeks passed; the placard-wavers outside dwindled. Eyes skimmed past him. The furious red scar faded to a saccharine pink. At last, holding his mum’s hand, he bobbed under the surface of the bath.
He was normal. At last.
The second time she smiled at him, it was Maths class. A pencil rolled off her desk and bounced beneath his seat. He dived to grab it with all the enthusiasm of a goldminer. When he emerged, prize in hand, she was smiling.
That smile swallowed up the whole room. Miss Potts had to say his name three times before he finally turned to the whiteboard.
She tapped the equation impatiently. “The answer, Simon. If you’re not too busy.”
He told her.
Red lips popped free of their pout. She pointed at the next one down. “This?”
He told her again. She scrawled something else; reversing some numbers, adding another symbol. “This?”
It was easy. He didn’t even have to think about it. One blink – the question. Two blinks – the answer.
Now there was a deep furrow between Miss Potts’ eyes. “Stay after class.”
Everyone stared as they left. Their eyes were heavy – but not with sympathy. Miss Potts was scrawling on the whiteboard, more numbers and symbols together than he’d ever seen before. She whirled around. “Well?”
Simon blinked, eyes like camera shutters, recording, capturing, analysing. He could almost hear the tick, whir, whisk of his brain.
“There is no solution.”
Miss Potts’ lips curved upwards. Triumphant.
“The question is wrong.” His teacher was standing paralysed, so he stepped up to the board. He rubbed out two numbers, added two different ones. “See?”
On her desk, a tablet winked the question at them. With his corrections.
Miss Potts was bone-white when she looked away from the tablet. “You cannot know this. This is far beyond your level. You should never have even seen this math before.”
“I have.” He tapped his temple. “In here.”
Tick. Whir. Whisk.
As though she could hear it too, Miss Potts’ eyes focused like laser beams on his forehead, his skull, the metal brain behind. And her lip curled at what she saw.
Simon sat outside the principal’s office. Raised voices rattled the windowpanes; his mum, the principal, others he hadn’t heard before. The receptionist eyed him suspiciously from behind the sealed biscuit tin.
Outside, first-years frolicked in the sandpit. They heaped mounds of sand into skyscrapers, higher and higher until it came cascading down. He imagined he saw that very first grain of sand fall, toppling from the heap like a shooting star. At first, all alone.
But then –
They came like an avalanche, rushing desperately to the bottom, until where the mountain once stood was nothing but scattered sand.
The door opened, so violently it near-ricocheted off its hinges. The principal was scowling; another man was purple-faced, saliva-spraying, mid-shout: “You said he would be normal! You said he would be human!”
The halogen lights cast his mum in white-gold, so bright she could have been an angel. “I said,” she replied, her voice cutting like ice through that damp diatribe, “he would be better.”
They were angry at him. The whole world was angry at him, but, his mum said, this was no reason not to go to school. Even though she was the angriest of all. Not at Simon – at the hordes of protesters crowded outside, the endlessly ringing telephone, the camera flashes every time he twitched a curtain.
But he still had to go to school.
He arrived in class to find angry black graffiti on his desk. MACHINE. FREAK.
He stared at the second word for a long time. Tick, tick, whir. Not even the bottomless well of his mechanic brain could summon a definition.
Miss Potts was there, looking down at the vandalism. Sniggers went silent as she stared.
“It’s C-Y,” she said. “C-Y-B-O-R-G. Cyborg. A human being so extensively modified by machinery that they are no longer human at all.”
The thump of his heart was louder than the whir of his brain.
Simon spent the rest of the day trying to rub those words away. Two hours later, when the bell rang and everyone filed out, his palms were stained black but SIBORG was as vivid as ever.
A film of tears made his vision gauze-like, but he could still make her out, standing in front of him. Not smiling this time, but holding his gaze just the same. “You should use vinegar,” she repeated. “It will rub the stain away.”
That night, he plunged his hands in vinegar. It burned – bit right through his skin to the blood and bones beneath – but he thought of how Miss Potts had said he was no longer human at all, and told himself that steel did not cry.
Benny Chills started the avalanche.
It was Student Interview night – a progressive new initiative at their progressive new school all about opening barriers between parent-teacher-child and extending learning into all folds of life. He had read that on his mum’s email, and the words were now catalogued forever in his mind, locked in the little steel vault that had replaced his hippocampus. Filed there alongside every other memory he could never forget.
His mum was flicking through brain scans on her tablet. “Look.” She pointed at a bundle of cobwebs. “The merging of organic and inorganic – it’s seamless.”
Simon didn’t look.
The classroom door banged open; raised voices echoed into the hallway. “This is a disgrace –”
“It’s unfortunate, Senator, but he just isn’t good enough,” said Miss Potts. “Without significant improvement, he’ll be repeating.”
A barrel-chested man with a face familiar from TV was glowering at Miss Potts. Benny was cowering behind his tree-trunk legs. They noticed each other at the same time.
Benny flung out a finger in Simon’s direction. “It’s not fair,” he wailed. “Why can’t I be upgraded?”
Miss Potts started squawking, but Benny’s dad was no longer looking at her. He was staring right at his mum, at the brain scans in her lap – and when she met his gaze, she grinned.
“But I thought it was just me.” That didn’t sound right – that wasn’t what he meant. “I was broken. I had to be fixed.”
“No one is perfect. We can all be improved.”
“You will always be my special boy, Simon. This, the future – it owes everything to you. The first to take the next step in human evolution.” His mother fitted her hands in a cradle around his skull, as she had done a hundred times before. “I am so proud of you.”
Proud of him, he wondered, or the machine she had put within?
Benny returned to school on the very last day. Everyone crowded around; they wanted to touch his clean scalp, to trace the ridge of his scar. Even Miss Potts asked him how he felt.
Simon didn’t go over, but Benny spotted him anyway, near the sandpit. “Not the best anymore, are you?”
Not once, not ever, had he felt like the best.
A shoe scuffed the sand beside him. Her. He remembered when she’d smiled at his scar. She was not smiling now. Instead, she stood awkwardly before him, fiddling with the front of her shirt.
“I thought,” he said quickly, before the computer in his head could shut down his tongue, “in the holidays, we could play? Together? If you want?”
Her eyes filled with tears. “I’m sorry.” She stopped fiddling – an acrylic P emblazoned the front of her shirt. “I can’t.”
Her father appeared then, thankfully, because Simon could not find any words to say. A narrow man, he swooped over his daughter like a vulture. “Get away,” he snapped, slinging her behind him. “Don’t you go near her.”
Simon blinked. “I – I’m sorry –”
The man loomed, blotting out the sun. “You’re an abomination.”
“What did you just call my son?” He felt the heat of his mum’s fury on his shoulders. An inferno all her own.
The man scowled. Scrawled on his chest was that same cursive P. “He is unnatural. Inhuman –”
“He is more than human,” his mother shot back. “You fucking Purists. Preaching about protecting the way of human life, when you’re the only thing standing in our way.”
The man made a bloated sound of rage, then hustled them both away. Simon had hoped to store her smile forever in his memory vault, but instead, the last image he had of her was that violent P, like a bloodstain on her shirt.
Unnatural. Inhuman. Abomination.
His mother gripped his hand. “Purists are fools. Jealous, small-minded fools who fear what they cannot understand.”
But he did not understand, and he was scared, too. He lifted a tentative hand to his skull – he had seen, in images, his new brain, a symphony of wires and nerves. But now, all he could imagine was a fat steel crab, dead-grey eyes staring out through his own.
“What am I?”
“You are the future.”
Simon looked at his mother, genius, game-changer, best-of-her-generation, and realised that she, too, did not understand.
“But I don’t want that,” he said. “I just want to be a boy.”