The following day, I take my day off from school to go to Paul’s house. When I knock on the door, it takes several minutes before the door creaks open. I see Paul’s mom’s red-rimmed eyes in the crevice. I begin to think I’ve made a horrible mistake by coming when she opens the door a little wider.
She looks pale and thin….gaunt, even. “Loren, it’s so good to see you. Come in.”
I follow her into the home I’ve been in and out of since I was five, and I feel like a stranger. Paul’s Dad and sisters are not home, so Lisa takes me to the kitchen and sits me down at the bar.
“Would you like something to eat?” she says, sounding like she has the urgent need to blow her nose.
“I would love something, if you have it.”
“How about some macaroni? It’s a bit old, but still good, I think.”
“That sounds amazing,” I say honestly.
She heats the macaroni in the microwave, pours me a glass of water, and sets it all down in front of me.
“How’s school?” she asks. I think to myself this is probably deliberate. She knows why I’m here, without a doubt. I play along, regardless.
“Oh, you know. We’re going through a history unit in almost every room, so that’s kind of unfortunate. But, I hear we’re going to get some technology and cyber development units in pretty soon, so we’re all pretty excited about that.”
“I can imagine!” She leans on the counter, pulling a used tissue from her pocket and sliding it under her nose.
“Lisa…” I say, putting my fork down on the counter. “Are you all right?”
I watch in anguish as the woman who has cheerfully acted as my second mother lowers her head, her lip trembling uncontrollably, fresh tears sliding down her face.
I leave my seat immediately and go around to her, hugging her. Even as she cries, I look over her shoulder at their upload unit, tucked away in the corner of the entertainment room.
She guesses where I am looking and says, “I never guessed, Loren. I never even thought to make sure he was doing it.”
“Then…it’s real. He really didn’t upload?”
She nods, her chin sliding down again, her arms hugging herself. I feel a bit like I’m sliding, sliding into a chasm of despair. Never seeing Paul again…that was…it was too much.
I sit mechanically at the counter and begin to put the cold macaroni in my mouth, not tasting or enjoying.
“Isn’t there a way we can fix this?” I ask her, feeling the morbid permanence of my friend’s absence with a sudden force.
The woman smiles sweetly at me as she tosses another crumpled tissue into the trash bin. “If only there were. Thanks for coming, Loren. I’m sorry I don’t have better news for you.”
I shake my head and get up from my chair, forgetting the macaroni. “Let me know if you need anything, Lisa.”
She kisses me on the forehead and lets me out of the front door. I see Red’s car pull in with the girls in the backseat, but with my earbuds tucked in, I ignore them and move on. I don’t have room for anyone else’s sorrow. I am brewing a plan fit to put all of this grief behind us. I will only face them when it is accomplished.
I make a visit to the only morgue in town. Presumably Paul would still be present before they passed his body into the hands of the morticians. When I enter, the woman at the counter looks at me with bland, bored eyes.
“Can I help you?”
“Yes, I’m here to see Paul Brennan.”
“What for?” She didn’t remove her eyes from his face, nor did she change her expression. “He’s dead, you know.”
I try to stifle the rage, and, shaking, I close my eyes to take a breath. “Can I see him or not?”
“I guess. Wouldn’t do any harm.” She pushes a clipboard toward me which I sign before passing through the double doors marked “Authorized Entry Only.”
The only autopsy technician in town is a renowned AI called “Frank.” The thought was probably that such a hilariously commonplace name would make people feel easier about a robot programmed to do such a gruesome job, but of course, it only made things more uncomfortable for the humans whose loved ones went under the robot’s knife.
As I enter, I can see that Frank is busy sterilizing his tools at the sink.
“Excuse me?” I approach carefully, seeing that many of the things in his grip are quite sharp. “I was hoping I’d be able to see Paul Brennan?” I say it as a question, trying to seem as harmless as possible to the calculating brain of the AI.
He turns to look at me, the laser red pupil of his eye wiggling as it searches me from head to toe. “Why do you come to see a dead man?”
“I wanted to see for myself…that he’s’ really dead,” I say with some honesty. After some staring and bobbing in space, Frank turns and leads me into the room with the refrigerated slabs. I feel a rush of uneasiness as I follow the robot into the filing cabinet for corpses. I’ve heard stories of Frank, and I’ve imagined what the inside of a morgue looks like, but the experience itself is altogether more unnatural than I’d imagined.
Frank hovers to the slab marked 3B and pulls it open. Chill, rotting air pushes out of the tomb and into my nose, and I gag twice.
“He was a handsome boy,” Frank says as observation.
I nod, and approach the body, relieved that, aside from the paleness, the blue lips, the zig zag scars on his chest, he looks very much the same as he did in life. He did not look as broken as I imagined him to be.
As if sensing what I might be thinking, Frank says, “The trolley did not damage his body overmuch. It was the brain that suffered the mortal blow.”
“His brain?” I feel a rock plunge into my stomach, more nausea clinging to me as I contemplate what this means. “What? I mean, is it even salvageable?”
The AI ran his spinning pupil over me, calculating, reading, analyzing. “His occipital lobe was like hammered meat, but the rest was intact. Some bruising on the frontal lobe from the rebound into the front of the skull.”
“God,” I feel the bile in my throat.
“We were able to collect several preserved slides for AI personality integration research. This is common procedure for human deaths.”
“Yeah,” I close my eyes and steady myself on the handle of another slab. “I know. You gotta get your quirky personalities from somewhere.”
Frank, for a moment, does not look at me, at Paul, or anywhere really. He clicks his dexterous fingers on the metal of the slab while seeming to descend into his strange, coded thoughts. After several moments, during which I am beginning to notice the careful stitch-work around Paul’s scalp that sealed up the brainless skull, Frank speaks again.
“I, fortunately, am not a mind reader. I am very good at sensing human motivation, however, and I can see that you have some cause for coming here and talking of the boy’s scrambled brains.”
I ignore the probe for information as a thought strikes me. “You…did you do a neuronal-electro-activity scan?”
If it is possible for a robot to show surprise, I think Frank does it as he tilts his strange head at me in confusion.
“Come on, Frank. School is making a genius of all of us, these days. Now, did you?”
Frank nodded slowly.
“What were the results?”
“Nothing substantial. We did see imprints of his last emotions, predominantly fear, and there is evidence of frequently-traveled neural networks so that we could draw up a personality profile for our research.”
“Do you have the data for that? Can I have a copy of it?”
Frank, then, does something I don’t expect. Renewed horror creeps down my spine as his mouth turns up in a wicked smile.