An essay by Riley, as provided by Eddie Newton
Art by Amanda Jones
Waiting. Always something difficult for me. I am more of an instant gratification kind of personality. But I learned a long time ago that there are some things worth waiting for.
All sorts of people waited. A septuagenarian with a deviated septum sniffed as she sat in a seedy settee. A garrulous gentleman going on and on about the impending elections offered her a crimson kerchief. Three little sisters that may have been separated by only a year sat in a neat row, blonde, blonder, and blondest in order of age, still and silent as they waited for a name to be called. The mother was pale as paste, hair sculpted from gray clay, attire a collage of contrasting colors like some demented diorama: chartreuse shirt, cerulean scarf, scarlet satchel, indigo earrings.
There were looks. Always looks. From the first time that I stepped out the door on Winston’s arm, we garnered looks. Sidelong glances, muttered opinions, insinuated insults, even overt invectives. We weathered withering vilification because at the end of every day, love wins.
Until it doesn’t.
A nurse came into the waiting room and called a name. A thin middle-aged man with a massive mustache and silver sideburns and only thin strands on his skull answered, stood. As he passed us, he made a face of disgust. We were a progressive couple, and the balding man was traditional from his khaki trousers to his brown bowtie. Winston shrugged off the sanctimonious sneer, but as always, it made me fidget and wane.
“We’re next, Riley,” Winston observed, taking my hand.
Colors collided. His skin was light and bright against my dark complexion, like the interior of a peach holding the brown pit at its center. Winston was beautiful: every freckle one I knew by heart, each imperfection evidence of an ever-changing appearance, new scars simply accentuation of experience.
“Are you sure about this?” I asked.
Winston nodded without hesitation. “They say it is the only way we can be together. I would do anything to make that happen, Riley.”
“I know,” I said.
The world was not ready for couples like Winston and me. Shunned, shamed, accused of immorality, our love was a precarious predicament, something natural that had become a trial. We were judged injuriously, accused unjustly, and suffered unsolicited scorn. Just because we did not fit the mold. Ever something different, the world always searched out new subjects for subjugation. Once upon a time, the public would have declared deliberated disdain due to differences in race. As America moved on, mixed marriages became commonplace and society looked for someone else to eschew.
Antipathy was a seed that blew in the wind, finding purchase in new fertile grounds, growing into something strong and shady until society chopped it off once again. Then the seeds moved on, to virgin grounds, growing again, fresh shadows cast by reaching branches and myriad limbs.
“Your hair is pretty,” said a little girl no higher than my knee.
“Thank you,” I said.
It was brilliant blue, a punchy primary that recalled bright paints from an age before brushes. This toddler was surely acquainted with the tone. She probably thought my coif was art that belonged pinned to a refrigerator. Against my cocoa complexion, it appeared as blueberry topping on molten chocolate.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“Tennyson,” she said. “Like the number ten, but spelled with letters.”
I nodded. Most of the kids her age might have been 10yson. I have seen kids named 1der and N8 and S-6 and 2d. Progress can sometimes look like nonsense.
“Tennyson,” her mother snapped, as she looked up from her electronic device. “Get over here.”
“I am just talking to this nice man,” Tennyson whined.
“We don’t talk to strangers,” the mother scolded. “No offense.”
No offense. The great American lie. Two words uttered only when someone intentionally offends. The mother meant strangers as “strange” rather than “unacquainted”. I was stranger in appearance than anyone else in the waiting room. My skin was dark as night yet bright with an incandescent glow and my hair an unnatural azure, like a bright clear midday sky over darkest night. With eyes uncharacteristically un-brown, instead a soft gray like winter ice, I looked more alien than indigenous. There was strange, like the teen with tattoos of tarantulas crawling across her exposed torso, or the elderly woman who shaved off her eyebrows and redrew them in crooked rainbows that made her appear perpetually surprised, or the young man who inexplicably waited wearing only a towel. That was all strange; I was stranger.
Tennyson toddled away without another word. Her mother gave her a second device, and the parent and child sat side by side sucked into a digital trance. The real world could be as weird as it wanted as long as they could retreat into their virtual refuge.
“Things are going to change,” Winston promised.
“I know,” I agreed. I just did not know when.
Indeed, the seed of antipathy blew on winds of change, but direction was indecisive, and sometimes a preternatural calm descended as the world held its breath. Bluster or dead calm, the momentum of any movement could be arrested for eons or gust forth in a tornado of transformation. Were we in a moment stuck in the muck or at the precipice of whirlwind revolution?
We were in the waiting room.
The nurse came back. He scanned the room. Winston started to stand, but the nurse’s eyes skipped over us. Instead, he called the name of a meek myopic matron that looked like she had been around long enough to have suffered some serious animosity herself. She had skin darker than mine, hair as silver as a dime, and wrinkles that revealed experience measured in multitudinous decades. She might have marched for civil rights in her youth. Maybe she campaigned for marriage equality. She had certainly withstood the winds of change, witness to cycles of discrimination. As she passed Winston and me, she looked down on us, a disgusted puff of stale stagnation wafting by like a backdraft. Sometimes the winds of change blew in the wrong direction.
“I guess I was wrong,” Winston said. “Surely, we are next. We have been waiting longer than anyone else.”
Indeed, the list of people that had been called before us was long. A couple that had been discussing religion behind us had argued the entire time they waited, the wife a devout Catholic and the husband an Orthodox Jew. They bantered about their conflicting pious plans for Sunday before they were called, as they were called, after they were called. They were summoned long ago, both of them favoring Winton and me with a glare that suggested we were doomed to damnation. Next the nurse called was an impossibly white woman who surely shunned the sun and her two children, obviously biracial, blessed with more of their father’s brown tone than their mother’s alabaster affliction. She steered the children away from us as she walked by. After the white woman was another couple, one woman Hispanic and hotheaded and the other Asian and preternaturally calm. They had insulted each other in raspy whispers the entire time they waited, something about infidelity and indiscrete infections and endangered matrimony. One of them looked ready to spit on us as they passed, and the other just put her nose in the air.
“Maybe it is a sign?” I asked.
“You don’t believe in ‘signs,’ Riley,” Winston said.
“I believe what is right in front of my face,” I replied. “None of these people are on our side.”
“People are only ever on their own side, Riley.”
A gargantuan mother of a newborn babe sat across from us, nursing and eavesdropping simultaneously. The infant was so small compared to his parent that he looked like one of those parasitic lampreys that latched onto the underside of a large shark. The mother scowled at us, making a face as if we were stink. Her face puckered into an unsightly orifice, like a supercilious sphincter. If she wanted to say something, she wisely kept her asinine assessment to herself.
The nurse returned. “Winston Price?”
We stood and approached the nurse. He looked like we had both showed up for the prize after only one lotto number was called. One of us had to be mistaken.
“Which of you is Winston?”
Winston stepped forward. “I am.”
“Follow me,” the nurse said curtly.
We both followed. The nurse looked at me like I had stepped in dog droppings and proceeded to tramp the residoo-doo down the clinic’s white tile hallway. “He’s with me,” Winston assured, although the nurse did not appear placated. I still followed Winston deeper into the labyrinth of the clinic.
The nurse stopped by a door that looked like every other door, and opened it, standing aside to let us enter. His job as escort was over. Winston entered without comment, but I was less apt to hold my tongue.
The nurse frowned at me like he tried to figure out if I was merely abhorrent or the devil himself.
“You have a problem?” I asked.
“It’s unnatural,” said the nurse, student of medicine and everything homeopathic.
How far had the human race evolved? Once upon a time, people shunned relationships that were interracial, interfaith, intercultural. Then hatred of differences transformed into a loathing of sameness. The public denounced same-sex marriages. Then different and same were both acceptable, and the world agreed that polygamy was the new sin. Was there no line sacred? the remaining zealots cried.
So they found new ways to perpetrate hate.
“Nature goes beyond trees and birds and rivers and intolerant individuals,” I said.
The nurse shook his head and walked away. I entered the room where Winston waited. It was not the antiseptic office I expected. Usually these places were small closets with a bed papered over for prodding and probing, a small desk to deliver bad news, and charts of innards adorning the wall like morbid modern art. But this was an actual office. As big as our living room back home, with a desk more appropriate an executive than an examiner, the room featured fine furniture, plush carpet, windows opening on a stunning view of the river, and actual artwork signed by renowned artists.
“What a jerk,” I fumed, sitting next to Winston in a seat nicer than anything we owned.
“An ignoramus,” Winston opined, “is best ignored.”
“This nation has managed four female Presidents, two of them openly gay. The current Pope is a biracial trans woman. America does not even discuss the color of skin anymore. You can marry a man or a woman or one of each and no one bats an eye,” I ranted. “But we are so ostracized that you might think we were bringing back cancer.”
“There has always been intolerance,” Winston sighed, as if he was resigned to reality.
I wanted to reshape our situation until it conformed to our dreams.
Wasn’t that why we were here?
The doctor entered. She was of indistinct appearance: hair washed-out brown, eyes an undetermined hue, not too heavy or too thin, age somewhere between thirty and sixty, average nose, face, posture, everything. She offered a hand as unremarkable as the rest of her.
“Dr. Merriweather,” she introduced. “I am pleased to finally meet you, Riley.”
Dr. Merriweather took a seat behind her opulent desk. The desktop was immaculately organized, pristine piles of paperwork, pens placed parallel in the corner, files laying flush and flat. Flattering Winston, she said, “You look good, Mr. Price.” Finally, we were done waiting.
Winston was almost thirty, fit for his age and of a complexion that made him look younger than his years. Women especially seemed attracted to his appearance. There had been many a female admirer that barked up that wrong tree. For a moment, I thought that Dr. Merriweather was just another bitch. But the interest in her eyes was not in his physical form. The doctor was interested in something else.
“I feel good about this,” Winston said.
“Are you sure about this?” the doctor asked. “This choice is not an easy one.”
“We want to get married,” Winston said.
“There is time,” Dr. Merriweather cautioned. “The tide will change. It always has before. Surely, it will again.”
“We are on the wrong end of a revolution,” Winston declared. “The headwinds will take decades to change. Unless we can prove that we have just as much right to love who we love as anyone else.”
“The world is not going to accept legal marriage between a human being and a Hard Light Construct anytime soon,” I chimed in. “Unless there is incontrovertible evidence against prohibition.”
“The laws of the land are explicit,” the doctor advised. “A Hard Light Construct is essentially without form, and as such is soulless. The rights and privileges of the United States are precipitated upon the assumption of personhood, the essence of spirit that dogmatists call a soul.”
“The genesis of the argument is that HaLiCons are soulless,” Winston said.
“No one can prove otherwise,” I pointed out.
“No one has proved otherwise,” the doctor corrected. “Yet.”
I looked at Winston. He looked at me. He knew what he signed up for. It sounded like science fiction. But wasn’t science fiction just a truth that hadn’t happened yet? Winston insisted we come here to see if it was possible. I did not want to see him disappointed. This was the moment of truth.
“So you can prove otherwise?” I asked.
“That is why we are here,” Dr. Merriweather explained.
When Exco Shakespeare invented a construct made of vibrating beams of light, it was revolutionary. Solid light, able to do physical work. Machines made of lasers. At first, the Hard Light Constructs were used in place of heavy machinery, or in toxic environments unfit for flesh, or as infantry in the last of the global conflicts. Technology evolves, so HaLiCons became personal assistants and assisted care for the elderly and nannies for America’s toddlers. Then HaLiCons became a part of society. Then something more.
Winston and I were not the only ones who wanted to marry. There were thousands of couples across the nation comprising one human and one HaLiCon. We were a minority, but the originations of innovation ever began with just a brave few.
The government disliked the idea. The Powers That Be argued that marriage could not be sanctioned if one participant was a soulless machine. A Senator last session had famously argued that “man is not meant to marry a rainbow.” But a HaLiCon was more than just an amorphous play of light. The Construct was just a shell that contained personality, emotions, attitude, aspirations.
“All our preparations are complete,” the doctor said. “This is it. The waiting is over.”
“Are you sure this is going to work?” I asked.
The doctor appeared entirely genuine. “There are no guarantees when you explore the unknown, Riley. It is not without risks. We have spent the last two years mapping every aspect of Winston’s personality and functionality. But we are going to do something that has never been done. I have to upload his entire being into a new body. This is an attempt to disprove the government’s argument. How else can we prove the point besides to demonstrate that there is no difference between a human and a HaLiCon? If Winston survives the process unchanged, it will illustrate that a construct is just a construct, whether created from flesh and blood or pure light.”
But what if the Winston that came out of the hospital was not the same man who walked in. I took his hand. He squeezed it reassuringly.
He looked into my eyes and promised, “Everything will be all right.”
Dr. Merriweather discussed final details with Winston while I wondered about the future. If we could prove the government wrong, then everything changed. Would Americans marry money? Would there be matrimony between a man and his meatballs? Could someone have a wife that was a waterfall or a husband that was a rubber band? Did this erase the line?
But that line always moved anyway. It had been blurred so many times that different people saw it in different places, like a ghost that haunts. I just wanted to love the man that I love. Consideration of incidental casualties was someone else’s problem. They should not have stood between me and my happily ever after.
“I think we’re ready,” Dr. Merriweather announced, standing and heading for the door.
Winston stood up, looked at me with that look, and that was our last chance. Wait or go? Change our mind and head home and let someone else pioneer this new and scary world? Or step through the doorway that Dr. Merriweather offered, finding either the future we wanted or a fate we deserved? If the doctor succeeded, we dared to insult God. I feared the ramifications of impertinence.
I nodded. I was done waiting.
Dr. Merriweather led us along an empty corridor to a room at the end of the hall. Inside, a dozen technicians worked, surrounded by equipment and instruments and machines of all kinds. I could not help but wonder what may come if we were successful here today. By next summer, could the heart monitor beeping softly beside the single bed be married to the hot nurse checking a chart?
What we do here will change the winds, sowing the seed of something uncertain, erasing antipathy and pollinating unpredictability.
“I’m scared,” I said.
“I will still be me,” Winston promised. “I will just look a little more like you.”
“But no blue hair,” I stated.
“No blue hair,” Winston agreed.
They had mapped his mind over the course of many months. Every night, Winston logged on to an account and answered dozens of questions that determined his reaction to real world circumstances: “What would you do in the event of a natural disaster?” “Plumbs or prunes?” “What one word describes your world?” “What did you get for your tenth birthday?”
Weekly, he was subject to scans of his brainwaves. Powerful algorithms measured his emotional functions as he watched holograms of events to illicit random reactions. He was tired after those sessions, and fell asleep in my arms afterward.
Monthly, they spent an entire weekend in drills, creating real world scenarios in laboratory conditions that gauged his response to anything from being robbed at gunpoint to meeting a new friend to being lost at sea and left for dead. Winston was quiet for days after these monthly sessions. They were hardest. One month, he simply said, “I watched you die.”
We waited two years. The waiting was over.
Winston reclined on the bed in the center of the room. Attendants applied monitors that transmitted vital signs and bioelectric metrics to screens surrounding us on all sides. Across the room was an empty space where Winston Price was going to be remade as something else.
“We’re ready,” Dr. Merriweather announced.
“I love you,” I said, taking his hand.
“I love you,” Winston replied, smiling.
Then it began.
Dr. Merriweather would take Winton out of his flesh and blood body and download my future husband into a Hard Light Construct. We wanted to prove to the lawmakers that banned us from ever marrying that the basis of soullessness was baseless. There is no soul. The essence of who we are is experience, instinct, inherent personality. We are the sparks and synopsis of a complex system. I am just as much a man as anyone made of bone and tissue.
We would prove love is not limited to spirit.
I let go of the hand. It was not Winston anymore. I walked over to the empty space. It started filling up with light and form. A HaLiCon formed before me with Winston’s face, his same features and fashion and all his scars and imperfections. It was the same man, just glowing and ephemeral. His eyes were closed. What would I see when he opened them? Still Winston? Or something else?
Riley has never really fit in. Years spent at university were like lessons on how to be the same as everyone else, how to group-think, how to suppress differences and join the collective. Riley would never be like anyone else. Then Winston came along and the world changed. The things that always kept Riley apart from everyone made no difference to Winston. They fell in love. Now they enjoy midnight walks along the river and sitting along the shores staring up at the stars. But something still keeps them from being truly together.
Eddie Newton was awarded the Robert L. Fish Memorial Award for the Best First American Mystery Short Story of the Year. His short story, “White,” is presented in the anthology Snowpocalypse. He is the author of the political thriller e-novel, American Herstory. He lives in North Dakota with his wife Treina and his four children: Kobe, Gage, Oliver, and Bennett. He has never been called a mad scientist, although he did get really angry at a test tube once. And like most of us, he is still waiting…
Amanda Jones is an illustrator based in Seattle. She likes reading horror stories, binge watching seasons of her favourite sci-fi/fantasy shows, and everything Legend of Zelda. She focuses on digital portrait painting and co-creates the webcomic The Kinsey House. You can find more of her work on Tumblr under ‘thehauntedboy‘.
“Waiting” is © 2017 Eddie Newton
Art accompanying story is © 2017 Amanda Jones