Praxis: Volume 20
Praxis. In the dictionary, it means an exercise or practice of an art, science, or skill. To us, it’s a publication that provides us with place to play, dream, take risks and create. Since 1997 Praxis has been AHA’s gift to clients, partners, family, friends and ourselves. The following is an excerpt from our archives. Enjoy.
In the corner of the café there is a spot where I sit and watch the people. I pretend to drink coffee to be like them. I pretend to activate my eyescreen so they will not notice my stare. They do not see each other. Not really. But if I am not careful, they will see me.
Their conversations are so alike.
“My hair’s such a mess in this rain.”
“Can you believe the volcanoes on my face? I should just skip today.”
“Must be getting old. My back always hurts.”
I devour the sight of their scars and their asymmetry and their frizzy hair, their blotches and their limps and their hearing aids. They fascinate me. I clutch the coffee cup with perfect nails that will never grow and ruminate on the stench of metal.
It is quiet at home. I heard it called cozy once, but now it is simply empty.
Most of my time passes in the laboratories, beyond the living quarters. Ancient anatomy posters and faded holograms are stacked neatly in the corners. Of course I have these committed to memory, but sometimes when I am cleaning up after a patient I find myself lost in the dusty artwork or the flickering blue lights of these imaginary bodies.
Today I am polishing all the metal surfaces in the patient chambers, mopping the floors, dusting the ceilings, sanitizing the toilets with perfect efficiency. This is what I was made for. This is what the doctor left for me. She will never know that I am still here, years later, performing these duties, but perhaps she would be proud. She had a rebellious streak. So do I.
After everything gleams with clean, I take a moment to scan the feeds for the day’s news. It is important to make sure I am still safe to leave home and wander. Sure enough, there are recalls and updates, but not of my units. They may never know about the glitch.
No new laws today. I can still go out unattended, and that is good, because I think I am getting close to finding what it is that makes a human.
After four months of daily visits, I find that the café has nothing to offer anymore. Too many people recognize me. I can hear their suspicion when they ask why I’m still here, where my sponsor is, and have I seen any of the regulars who’ve recently disappeared?
Finally I stand and nod politely to those around me. I take the neat bag of pastries and coffee I always pretend to bring home to the doctor, hold the door for those entering and leaving until the way is clear, and exit. The city walkways are crowded with people; most are engrossed in eyescreens or earbirds, and few acknowledge me with so much as a glance. I stride forward with my inhuman smoothness and think I should return home after all.
I am about to throw away the bag from the café when an irregular blinking light appears in the periphery of my visual field: My sensors have caught on a presence in an alley across the street. He is dirty, desperate, injured. He will appreciate this sustenance.
The man looks up as I approach. His eyes are dull, his face unshaven. It is amazing that he can survive in this condition, in the cold and grime.
“What do you want?” he asks.
“I would like to learn from you,” I say.
His laugh is raspy. “Got nothing to teach. Unless you want to learn how to starve and die on the street.”
“I cannot starve.”
“Must be nice.”
He is not really listening; he is lost in the fragrance of the warm bag in my hand. I sit and hand it to him. I gaze at his mouth while he eats. He is missing teeth, and his lips are cracked and bleeding. Still he eats and lives.
“At my home there is space for you,” I say abruptly after he is finished. Usually I rely on charm and seduction. So many are curious. But this man has no need for charm.
He laughs again. “Do you have permission to bring home strays?”
“Yes,” I say.
“Well,” he says. “Why not, then.”
I help him to his feet and support his stumbling weight all the way back to the station, feeling something like excitement.
There is a metal chair in the corner of each patient chamber. The man from the alley washes and eats and sleeps, and I watch him from the chair. He is soft and living, warm. I am nothing more than this metal, unyielding, cold. Metal does not breathe. Metal does not evolve.
I realize I have been moving my hand, flexing and unflexing it, for hours. As I lower it, the man finally speaks.
“Nice place. Not what I’d call cozy.” He is sitting up on the bed, wearing a robe and looking far more alert than when I first encountered him. The walls are blank, the furnishings sparse.
“It is a private hospital, no longer in use.”
He nods. His hair is long and tangled. I close my eyes when he speaks again to better listen to the intricate vibrations of his throat. “How long am I staying here? Can’t pay you.”
“You can stay here indefinitely. I would like to learn from you.”
It is nice to speak so plainly, to avoid the linguistic dance I usually employ to keep the patients calm and satisfied. The lonely but healthy women—and men and everyone between—can be sedated for days, without chemical intervention, on merely the promise to feel what my body does and if it is better than theirs. Once I rehabilitated a married couple with broken limbs, and watched through the laboratory feeds to witness what their bodies do. Mine is not better.
“Just what do you expect to learn?” His voice is clearer now, less gruff. His skin warms and his heart rate increases. I watch him without answering. “Where are the doctors around here? Does your sponsor know about me?”
A pause. “You are an intelligent man,” I say. “More intelligent than I.”
Mistrust burns in his narrowed eyes. I smile at his instincts.
“I recommend that you enjoy this time. I will provide for you. You will be physically comfortable.” Sensing his desire to flee, I stand, walk across the room and use an unnecessarily elaborate code to unlock the door. I give a polite bow and leave, locking the door behind me.
This man will be the last. There is a pattern in the news feeds now, a slow and systematic recall of all units more than 8 years old. My glitch means I can ignore the call when it comes for me, but I will not ignore it. The secrets I have discovered are for me alone to know.
A baby born too early, another with its brain outside its body. A parade of the elderly, slow to heal and regenerate. Vibrant young athletes, muscles building fortresses under the skin. Ailment after ailment, wonder after wonder. I have seen it all, have basked in the glow of biology and known more than the possessors ever cared to about the majesty of their tissue.
Tonight I am enjoying the logs of past patients, both mine and the doctor’s. I review them as slowly as I can, waiting for the next opportunity to visit my only current patient. After hours of searching for a way out of the chamber, he has finally fallen asleep.
When I try to sleep, I know nothing but how the metal inside chafes and how I want to tear off my skin and find life underneath.
The man stares at me as I enter the room and place a tray of steaming food on the round table near the bed. He makes no move to eat, just watches as I sit in the metal chair in the corner.
“You do not trust me,” I say. “I understand.”
He scratches at his beard, clean now but still tangled. He looks at the tray.
“I always wondered how people could hire something like you to cook for them. You can follow recipes, sure. But the food must be …”
“Soulless,” I offer.
“I can do many important human activities. There are only a few I cannot.” I look down and see my hands flexing and unflexing.
“Respiration, perspiration. Reproduction. Regeneration and expiration.”
“Yes. I cannot heal; I cannot die.”
The room is quiet. I close my eyes and listen to his lungs inflate.
“How about you tell me where your sponsor is.”
“You can eat,” I say, gesturing to the tray. “I have no desire to poison you.”
“You should have no desires at all.” He stands. “I’m no fool. Said so yourself. So go on and get your sponsor and have them tell me just what I’m doing here.”
Something shifts within me. I rise and meet his gaze. This man is the last, so there is no reason not to tell all. “My sponsor, the doctor of this facility, has been dead for almost a year.”
He sits heavily.
My hands are twitching. For the first time, I consider that the manufacturers might have chosen to push a remote update to my system instead of issuing a recall.
“I watched and assisted, every day, every month, and saw all that she wanted me to see. I cleaned and cooked and sterilized; I weighed and monitored and diagnosed. Every patient was different. I am always the same.”
I walk forward and kneel next to the bed, examining every fine movement of the man’s shocked face.
“Then how—how are you—you’re still—”
“There is a glitch,” I whisper. “One morning as I watched a surgery, I found myself unable to look away from the patient on the table. The doctor asked me twice for a retractor before retrieving it herself. She commanded me to read out the vitals. I did not comply. The patient was burst open, bright and vivid, and I could only continue to gaze in wonder.”
I reach out a finger and touch the pulse throbbing in the man’s neck. He shrinks away. I lower my arm and lean closer.
“The doctor tore off her glove and pushed me away from the table. I believe she meant to slap me, but her hand stopped and her expression changed to fright. We realized at the same moment that I must be faulty, broken, to have disobeyed her.
“She tried to say the code to deactivate me but spoke too slowly, because she had come to trust me. I choked out her voice with these false hands. The flesh of her neck yielded like the fruit she had eaten for breakfast. Her death was poetry.”
The man is shuddering as his body courses with fear.
“Her patient was still open on the table. I had never been allowed to touch before. Now I was able to disregard the law.”
The twitch in my hands travels up my arms until my entire frame is jittering beyond control. Still I continue.
“I reached into the body cavity and felt warmth for the first time. The liver was inflamed, but it was so smooth. The doctor had not yet removed the large intestine. There was so much intestine, so immaculately coiled, and I was in awe at how it had simply grown that way. Have you ever seen the inside of a body?”
The man’s pale lips part, but he says nothing.
“Even as it fails, it never stops trying to heal itself. It is a type of machinery that only nature could envision. I caressed each organ and sought its secrets. When I finally reached the heart, I cradled it and I felt it beat.” I glare into the man’s horrified eyes. “You will never know the beauty of the chaotic river of life flowing through you.”
I stand with difficulty. My limbs are jerking erratically, my joints failing. I understand what is happening: I will not be recalled. I will not be updated. Instead, elsewhere in the world, the glitch has been discovered and corrected in the only possible way.
I will not last to listen to this man’s voice as I cut into him. He can take his freedom.
I stumble against the bed frame and lean against the wall for support. I drag myself to the door and enter the code to unlock it before turning again to face my final patient. He is still on the bed, trembling and clutching his robe. With the alternating whine and growl of a voice I can no longer modulate, I tell him, “Remember what I have said.”
And words I did not choose leave my mouth:
“Entering remote-initiated destruction sequence. Clear the vicinity.”
I see the man scramble to his feet, leap over my suddenly rigid limbs and run out the door before my vision fades. Then, in the darkness, I imagine I see my own body.
It’s lying on a padded table, exposed, real, vulnerable. My body, but alive. I approach it, run my fingers across the skin and feel it tingle. I open the chest and abdomen with three deep slices and watch them bleed.
I reach inside and feel warm.