Cathedral

 

Tamara Wilhite

 

  Loud music thundered on over the murmurs of conversations. The off-duty crowd flowed past the bar on the sidewalk outside. The drink in my hand was refilled every time the waiter came near. Last week, I would have been careful not to have too much caffeine. The buzz it created for my kind was almost a great a high as normal people got off alcohol. Not long ago, I would not have risked the image of a caffeine addict. Now I did not care about the image. Nor did I care about the expense of such luxuries as real cola nut drinks and genuine sugar. My generous stipend would last about ten years, far longer than I would.

The flow of humanity had once been a comforting sight to me. It had been a comforting sight for all of us. Here was what we had been working for. Here was our reason for existing. Here were the people we were to help. A human technician pulled out of the crowd, one of the ones from the lab I used to work at. He glided up to me and said, "I heard about the diagnosis ... Ms. Lee-Delanoirre."

"It was inevitable. I've always known this would happen." Memory of the social habits of these people came back. I needed to be friendlier. Too cold, and my superiors might terminate my genome. "And it's Katarina - Kat, now."

He smiled uneasily at me. Was it possible this was a real social event, not some encounter for which he was paid to check up on me?

"Enjoy the vacation."

A lifetime of emotional control kept me from showing any reaction. Vacation? I'd never had one. And my last days were not a time to be wasted trying to fit mundane ideas of how to waste time. However, it wasn't best to voice those opinions. "Thank you."

He disappeared back into the crowd.

"Anything else, miss?" It was a different waiter. The previous waiter had disappeared. He was likely looking for more normal customers.

"Hot tea, please."

"Your credit chit, miss?" He glanced at it before blanching for a moment. The man composed himself and left. He brought back a full pitcher. "I hope this will suffice for the rest of your stay here?" I nodded. He then went on in his rounds. He was glad to no longer have to deal with me.

The music suddenly grew louder. The world swam before my eyes for a split second. My left hand tensed into a fist. Would it begin trembling? Would the memory flashes begin, symptom of the nervous system failure that would eventually kill me? How long after the memory flashes would the dreams and hallucinations drown out reality? How long after that would it be before the coma claimed me? Thoughts flashed through my mind as fast as they ever would.

Just as abruptly, it was over.

We're supposed to be smart. Genetically engineered geniuses, designed to solve all of the world's problems so average people don't have to bother with such concerns as curing cancer and preventing plagues. The first of my kind were found to have minds that ran so fast that a few years after adulthood, the neurochemistry began producing toxic byproduct faster than the liver could handle it. The enhanced livers and kidneys of the next generation increased our lifespan by a few years. Then the central nervous system simply broke down under the load.

Most of us lived to age twenty-five. All were dead by thirty. Our creators didn't care anymore about the short life span. We were freaks to them, and if we died early in exchange for the brilliance, then it was considered a fair price.

Raised for a few years by sheltered foster parents, then educated in a controlled environment, and then put to work in a stimulating environment -- by the time we began wondering about the world outside and might consider rebelling, we were no longer of use to our superiors.

The short life expectancy kept us focused, for those of us who realized we weren't immortal at a young enough age to realize. And if the mundane satisfactions in life were out of reach, all we had was to make the scientific breakthroughs that we were made to make.

Only a few seconds had elapsed as all of this ran through my mind. Then the world slowed down to the pace it should be. No one had noticed my lapse. In that brief time, I had been unreachable to the outside world.

I don't belong here, not with them. But where? Yeren and Seru-che were dead. Berisca was comatose as of yesterday. Lana would not be close enough to death to be released to live a little for another two months. Dannon? He had been discharged only a month ago. I checked my reference files on my wrist computer. According to the map, he lived nearby ...

People were beginning to notice the computer; most of those here did not have the clearance for one. They only had access to a bulky terminal at home or work. Social controls at work again. Every day I saw how much I had that they did not. And how much they had that I would never have.

The toxins were still flowing through my bloodstream. I could lapse again at any moment. They were not going to see frailty or weakness in me. I swore silently while leaving the room, moving with a grace acquired from years of intense physical training. They were not going to get the pleasure of seeing us for what they made us to be.

 

Thrust, parry, block. Dodge and begin again. We were moving with a speed humans could not achieve, striving for a perfection in action as our bodies failed. "How long. Have you. Been out?" Dannon got out between breaths.

"A week."

"Am I slowing?"

"A little." Honesty was programmed in to us, perhaps as much genetic as social engineering. However, he shouldn't be told how noticeable the effects were. If there were such a thing as mercy, his judgment would be as affected as his coordination; hence, he wouldn't know.

Dannon stopped suddenly, bowed, and began toweling off. "I want you to see something." He sat down heavily into a chair and called up a file on a palm-sized unit. The authorities would reclaim it the moment he was declared dead. But those who supervised us knew we went crazy without immediate access to information, so we had the computers. And those still working would cease being productive if they had to see and sense the decline of those near death. Release into the outside world was meant to be a mercy. It gave us a few weeks or months to taste the life everyone else enjoyed.

In my week outside, I'd realized it was another social control. We were myths to the average people. They saw us near the end. They saw the great geniuses and artificially engineered as sick and weak and problem-prone for dying at such a young age in such a difficult manner. Seeing us this way and only this way made us pitiful to the mundane. The pity countered the instinctive fear about the engineered biological advantages we had. It allowed the authorities to continue making us without the mundane revolting

"What is it?"

"A list of songs I've been listening to lately. If you want anything ..." He noticed that his left hand was trembling. "Smarter, faster, programmed in to be loyal and dutiful, and then - this!" Dannon grimaced, realizing his emotional outburst. "We never let emotions or sleep or relaxation get in the way of work. Just get as much done as possible in your life ... How old are you, Kat?"

"Twenty-five. And a half."

"I'm twenty-six. Getting old."

"Kihemek saw thirty."

"And he suffered from those injections he'd concocted to extend his lifespan. You know our genetic code mutates radically if exposed to any effort to change it. That was a programmed in control to prevent tampering. He was a geneticist, Kat; he knew better."

"He had over fifteen years of experience when he tried to save his own life. He had a better chance at succeeding than the rest of us."

"He would have started sooner if he'd known he'd been born with a death sentence."

"We all learned at an early age we weren't... normal."

"Not that it would kill us at an early age."

"We're brilliant, remember? We're supposed to have figured it out."

"A convenient excuse."

"Were you told what you were by your foster parents that you were different? Or did they leave that to the Proctors?"

"Parents."

"How did they handle having you taken away by the proctors?"

"They knew what to expect and prepared me for it. I was the fourth one they taken care of."

"My foster parents treated me like a human child. I was four years old when taken away, like we all are, but I had no idea why it was happening." Dannon went white for a moment, eyes glazed and seeing through and beyond me. Then he was back. "Sorry. Memories." A flush was creeping into his cheeks at embarrassment that he'd drifted away from reality.

It was an alien reaction by one of our kind. We were designed with the emotional centers to be less active. Turning them completely off resulted in monsters that couldn't function in groups. The storms that wracked the mundane were mere breezes for us.

Until the breakdown started, until we were staring death in the face. It was an irony that our creators never bothered to solve. Fear wasn't really possible until the time we were most likely to experience it. It was another reason to get us out of the research centers; it wouldn't do to have those about to break down doing so in front of their still healthy peers.

Obeying some foreign impulse, I moved to his side. He tensed at my hand on his arm. Hours together on the gym floor, being stationed together on the same projects over the years, and the rare personal talks none of us ever seemed to have time for ... "Are we friends, Dannon?"

"I suppose."

"Send me messages, if you want." He did not answer. I stepped away from him. The apartment he was renting was large and mostly empty. We had all been raised with the luxury of wide-open space around us. In a world of nine billion people, it was a luxury most would have screamed about if they knew we had it. For us, it was an aesthetic, but not a necessity. Empty space was reminiscent of the real condition of the universe.

This apartment was a single man's universe. A desk and a shelf stacked with memory crystals, a bare kitchen, a futon, and the practice mat. No mementos, no precious personal belongings, except perhaps for the music collection and the computer. Everything here could be cleared out within moments when Dannon died, leaving no trace he had ever been here. The implant put in all of us within minutes of birth would send out the signal that our bodies were to be retrieved.

If the data of our last days was interesting, we might be dissected. If not, it would be the typical cremation. I shivered at the thought of what lay ahead; my own decline had barely begun. I didn't want to think about what we all knew, logically, would happen.

It shouldn't have to be this way. Yet, it could not be changed. "Dannon, goodbye." He didn't respond to my leaving. He was caught up in another mental lapse.

A chill hit me as I stared at Dannon. There was nothing I could do to help. Then, suddenly I remembered Kihemek's work shortly before he'd focused on his own survival. His request to me. I was a biochemist. He had told me how to do what he wanted done. He had learned a different truth than what we had all been told. He talked about life and options. He couldn't say more. Censors would have picked up on it. Here and now, I could still act. A year ago, acting this way would have been unthinkable. Now it was impossible not to think of trying.

Following Kihemek's queues took a few days. Then I found it. The basement lab's original had been an illegal drug factory. Kihemek had reported them to authorities after discovering the facility shortly after his release. Then he took over the remaining equipment and stock and moved it to a new location. Now it was mine. In some ways, the return to work was comforting. It was a distraction to the mental chaos that seemed to hover in the shadows, waiting for me.

I had no desire to try to contact those still living out the life I'd once had, as Kihemek had felt the need to do. The communications he'd sent to a few of us inside that he thought would agree with him would have gotten us in trouble if discovered. We were unable to reply. But we knew the facility was here. All we had to do was reach it.

He had left his notes here. He'd done all he could so we could continue the reseach he'd been working on. He'd promised an extended life span -- "interminable" had been his term. That was the promise that had brought me here. The hypospray hissed softly as the engineered enzymes entered my bloodstream. When awake, I was almost in peak condition. But when it came time to use the counter-agent to sleep, the symptoms caught up with a vengeance.

I nearly screamed after reading his notes. Interminable had been his word for us when he'd meant "eternal." He'd managed to improve his quality of life in the final weeks, but not its length. He had not managed to extend it for the rest of us. Kihemek had been an anomaly. If he'd been mundane, he would have lived one hundred and twenty years. His promise of long life had been false.

No, it was worse than fake promises. He'd found religion out here. He meant eternal as in an afterlife. It was sheer insanity. When I first read his work, I decided he'd simply gone insane in one fell swoop, rather than a slow deterioration.

Not all of it was craziness. In some ways, he was right. Morality for us had always been finding the Truth, Kihemek wrote on one of his scrap pieces of paper. Truth for us had always involved solving the problems placed in front of us. Out here, he'd discovered that we'd been creating more problems for the outside world than we'd been solving. It had taken days to come to that conclusion, but I could agree with him on that.

 

Cultures were turning out my prize-winning work. Prize winning if the rest of the world ever found out... and it was likely no one ever would learn of it. The machines required minimal supervision, but it was so slow ... and it was time to go somewhere else. I could not stay too long and risk drawing undue attention to this location.

Spires reaching for the sky rivaled the city skyline from this angle. I stepped over and around the addicts on the concrete as I walked toward the spires ahead. Kihemek had found a way to turn off the implants. I went to the cathedral beckoned in the morning, turned off the implant, and then went to work. I went back in the evening to turn the implant back on.

As far as any tracker was concerned, I'd been there all day. No witnesses would ever say I had or had not been there. They would have to admit that they'd been there as well, and no one wanted to admit to a government official that they'd been associated with religion in any way. It wasn't illegal yet, but it could make one's life more difficult than it already was.

No one paid attention to me sitting in the back row. Those here were mostly old or infirm, those individuals society had written off and thus paid no heed to. In that regard, I was like them.

The daily choir music and the stained glass patterns had been new at first to me. They were still a delight to the eye. If I lapsed while staring at them, no one thought to interrupt me. If I was conscious, it didn't matter if my vision blurred. I could appreciate the music and the delicate shades of lighting behind the kaleidoscope.

"Not many people your age come here these days." I turned to see - a deacon? - standing beside me. My age? Well, I would have looked like I was in my fourth decade of life to someone like him. "You've been here every service for three weeks." He held out a hand to me. "Father Daniels."

"Katarina Lee-Delanoirre." He was dark skinned but without clear racial definition. An average-looking man in an unusual profession. He seemed ... compassionate? Caring? The words had never been part of my vocabulary before. He was very different from anyone else I had ever known.

"What do you do?"

Would it hurt to be honest with him? "I was a biochemist with a pharmaceutical company."

"Were you laid-off?"

"No." His concerned expression begged for more of an answer. "I'm retired."

Confusion flitted across his face for a moment before the realization came. He recognized my genotype now. The geneticists threw in a little variety so we didn't all look alike; they were only partially successful. He knew what I was now. At least there was no revulsion like those at the other churches had shown toward me when they realized what I was. "They prefer pure technology, the museums or libraries, not churches," he murmured to himself. Then he asked,

"What did you do?"

"Research and development."

"Did you know you were creating new addicts?"

He'd come so close to me that I stood up to retain a little personal space.

"Does that matter?"

"That was not an answer to my question."

"I was told it was for medical purposes."

"Keeping people calm and complacent in the face of such an dehumanizing life by taking away their souls with the latest and greatest addiction... if it keeps their bodies alive while killing their spirits, I suppose you could call it that."

We were slowly walking toward the outside doors. Father Daniels was escorting me out. Politely, but out. "My purpose is to work toward the benefit of the majority." Pure rhetoric, but I thought it had been true at the time. At least it was true now.

"Can you swear to it?"

I knew what he was asking me to say. "I wish that were possible."

"It's too late to do anything about how your work was used."

No, it wasn't too late, but I couldn't tell him. I merely nodded and left.

 

Dannon had let me move in and take care of him before the end. He didn't notice my absences. He scarcely noticed my presence. Picking up the few items he needed but could no longer get had seemed the right thing to do for some strange reason. But now he was gone. And he wasn't coming back.

I wanted to curse the tracking implant imbedded at the base of my skull. If I tried to remove it, it would kill me. At best, it could be turned off to allow a little privacy. I hated it, just as I hated the inevitable.

And I hated Dannon's loss. Seeing Dannon gone, I'd fallen to the floor and cried. Irrational, but I could no longer control the emotions. Was it better that he wasn't here? Then he would never would have seen me this way.

The weight of the emotional overload was pulling me down. I wanted to sleep, to dream, to let the memories come. The emptiness of the huge space around me was too much to bear alone. Images jumbled and tumbled through my mind --

- Kihemek smiling at me from across a room at a complex word play that the Proctors didn't catch. They never approved of jokes, much less jokes about them. I dared not smile back, for concern of having to explain myself --

- Jumping on the bed, the quilts in a pile on the floor, my two stuffed animals watching from the dresser, as I tried to get higher, after being sent to my room for looking through the photo album filled with pictures of me as a baby and the boys and the other girl they had raised. Jared came in, home early from work, still wearing his doctor's outfit, "You should be studying, Kat," and he caught me in mid-air. "You know better than to waste your time at play --

- "Katarina, you won't ever see us again," Argentine said, as the Proctors came to take me away from her and Jared, to take me back to where I belonged --

- "Mr. Kedersin said I'm not human, though genetically speaking, I'm close enough to not be considered a freak," Berisca told me over her lunch tray; the monitor overheard her say it, and the man had to apologize for upsetting the students --

- Maintain your stance! The instructor shouted, karate students obeyed, not minding the discipline and enjoying the exercise; it was a chance to work the body as hard as the mind worked the rest of the day. Discipline, always there was discipline. Freedom was chaos, and chaos was unnatural, so the lecture went -

- "Katarina, with your talents and interests, it would be a good idea if you went into the life sciences," they knew best, so I had no choice --

" - Just finished the analysis, Dr. Dumont. We're three weeks ahead of schedule." He took it from me, not bothering to tell me I had done well, only wordlessly expecting nothing less than pure excellence -

- Seeing an addict for the first time on the street, as I headed to Kihemek's lab for the first time, asking for money to buy a compound I had developed, and learning first hand for certain of the problem I needed to correct -

- Father Daniels saying it was too late to do anything, knowing in silence that I already had, the unaccustomed pain, knowing that he was condemning me for my work, not just for being what I was -

- The unabashed revulsion of locals seeing me on a street corner, as I faded in and out of reality, uncertain if I was an addict like those I had supplied or an unnatural creature that was only tolerated as for the critical role I played in the world. They were all glad they were not I --

- Argentine was tucking me into bed, after telling me a story about Pinocchio. I asked why he wanted to be a real human boy so badly. "Don't worry about that, Kat. You should be glad you are what you are. He suffered so much to become human, and the pain would not have stopped, even then."

I asked, "Do you have to suffer to become human?"

Argentine didn't answer. "And what is suffering?" She looked away from me, choking. "I'm glad you don't know what suffering is," she said as she walked away, unable to make eye contact as she said it -

Wave after wave, the memories growing more intense as my life was relived moment for moment. The enzyme had ceased to help hold back the deterioration, but not longer. I cried tears at memories that I had never realized had been painful. I couldn't change the past. No matter. Soon, the damage I'd caused would undone.

 

"And for the other news, the latest drug to hit the streets, `Cathedral', hit the top of the market because of the rush it gave without any obvious side-effects. Furthermore, those who used it note a blurring of vision into a soft glow of color reminiscent of stain glass windows. However, after several doses of` Cathedral,' it is impossible to experience any pleasant effects from alcohol, marijuana, amphetamines, cocaine or any other intoxicants, including Cathedral. Doctors have determined that the latter side effect is permanent."

"It is not known to authorities who or what group created Cathedral."

The news broadcast was one of the few bits of the outside world that reached me. The rest of the world ceased to matter. There are only the memories now. There is nothing left that I can do. I was meant to make the world a better place. My first life's work didn't do that. My final work did. I did what I was meant to do. It was my purpose. What I had been told I had been created to do.

No one can take me away or take me back. No one knows what I did. No one could punish me more than I was already being punished for merely having been born. What would happen if the Proctors knew? The faces of those cold humans in uniform, coming to take me away to where all the others lived, where we learned what they wanted us to learn and became what they wanted us to become... I did my best, Dr. Dumont.

I kept the promise you wanted me to make, Father Daniels. I can see the colors coming through the cathedral windows in the sunlight. The colors are beautiful this time in the morning. Can't you see it? Can anyone else see it? Dannon, where are you? I'm in your apartment. Dannon, where are you?

Where am I?

I'm falling. I'm falling onto the bed. I'm jumping back up. Jared, Argentine, you don't like me jumping on the bed. I can't go any higher than this. Come and catch me! Jared, Argentine, don't you know Kat's falling? ... And no one's there to catch her ...

 

 

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"Cathedral" Copyright © 2003 Tamara Wilhite. All rights reserved.
Published by permission of the author.

 

This page last updated 07-30-03.

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