Beneath the opaque clouds, surging through the night, a breeze picked up speed in the late autumn air and swirled through the clearing ahead in the forest.
Droplets of water from the bare branches overhead dripped onto the guard as he completed his round, clutching the weapon across his chest.
The wind picked up, carrying away the rainclouds to allow an opening for the starry canvas; below, humble beams of moonlight danced through the branches, sparkling onto the wet forest floor.
The guard could now make out his two partners along the perimeter of the square clearing, silhouettes against the eerie mist that was glowing over the ground.
Five stories below their patrol, a government military facility operated in obscurity.
* * *
Twenty-four hours ago, the director of the program called the Wilson family to inform them that the revision of the technology had passed inspection just minutes before: the implant awaited, ready. At a quarter to six the previous morning, the family from Illinois and a close friend caught the next flight, flew into Albany, New York, and were driven north by a fleet of black SUVs.
Now, four cinder-block walls surrounded Colonel Adam Wilson and his wife, Grace, who sat in a drowsy slouch to his side. The two of them had been sitting for hours in the warm refuge their bodies pressed on the cold aluminum bench.
Adam’s elbows rested propped on the frigid tabletop while his chin rested on his clenched fist, which was wrapped by his other hand, a few desperate thoughts away from begging.
He stared, apprehensive, over the table and across the gray floor to the window whose blinds were drawn from the inside. The glass reflected his own emerald green eyes and trim sandy brown hair, molded onto a face whose muscles hadn’t moved in ages, his gaze fixed.
Was I right in doing this? he wondered, imagining his one-year-old son behind that window, lying on the operating table with two men standing over him — one, the man Adam knew merely as the Doctor; and the other, his friend, George Anderson, without whom Adam would never have allowed the Doctor to operate. Any time now…
Forcing a release of tension, he let his left arm fall to the table and did a double-take upon glimpsing the time on his watch: the minute just changed to fifteen after six—
Grace jumped to her feet, her coppery hair falling back to her shoulders as she looked behind Adam. He followed her gaze, then stood up also — he hadn’t noticed the Doctor walk into the room, the double doors still swinging behind him in silence.
Adam put his arm around Grace. Together they stared at the motionless, pale face, the skin carved with more lines than age alone would usually offer, the still eyes revealing neither good news nor bad. Adam yearned to hug George for not leaving his son alone with this man.
“Colonel Wilson, Mrs. Wilson, the operation succeeded perfectly.” Grace sighed and Adam chuckled inward at his racing heart. A smirking satisfaction crept through the creases on the Doctor’s face.
“Can we see our son?” Grace asked, impatient.
“In a few minutes. Officer Anderson is cleaning up.” The Doctor gazed over at the window and Adam’s eyes followed: the blinds were raised. Behind the glass George pushed aside a large, sophisticated piece of machinery hovering outward from the corner of the room, attached by a bulky metal arm; the device was made of fused, dull metal parts and some shiny black material that Adam couldn’t identify.
Grace walked to the window, Adam right behind her. Together they peered down at their son, lying safe and peaceful in the sterile covers of a hospital bed against the opposite wall. Grace tapped the glass, but he was still sedated from the operation.
The Doctor watched, the couple’s backs blocking his view of the boy. The father shifted closer to his wife, and this allowed the Doctor to catch a glimpse of the child lying in the room he had just vacated.
Marvel of engineering, the Doctor acknowledged, nodding to himself. Something ‘unique’, which Earth has never seen. And something that should never have existed. He scoffed.
That boy is unfortunate to be who he is.
The Doctor pulled his gaze away from the two parents, blissful in their ignorance, and marched back through the swinging doors.
Adam smiled down at his son. Graced wiped tears from her eyes. The Eagle has landed, Adam thought to himself—
A deafening bang rocked the waiting room. Adam jolted around to look at the double doors, both of which swung into the room from a disturbance elsewhere in the complex and now let no light shine from behind.
Ear-splitting sirens cut through the air. Smoke and dust whisped in between the doors. Adam turned to his frightened wife; he then turned to George, and his friend looked back at him curiously, an eyebrow raised—
Another, nearer bang rocked the ground; the ceiling over the two doors caved in.
Adam sprinted to the far end of the room to a single, lifeless steel door, now the only viable exit, but backed away upon touching the warm metal knob. He stared at it, feeling the heat permeating the air from the gap beneath the door. A black, acrid smoke seeped its way through the cracks. Adam turned to Grace, whose mouth was covered with her hands; behind the window, George stared back in confusion and concern.
Adam walked to the table, lifting the aluminum bench off the floor, and drove it clumsily into the window — a muted reverberation rippled through the metal.
Through the silent, serene air in the operating room George’s ears caught the dull thump made by the impact. What’s he doing! He watched Adam let the long bench fall and clang inaudibly on the concrete floor—
The back door caught George’s eye. Fire? An ominous orange light played through the glass panes in the swinging doors.
George took in Adam’s helplessness, Grace’s fear. He took a step toward the window, stumbling into a metal stool.
He picked it up and swung it into the window.
The stool buckled. No!
His heart pounded in his chest. He searched the small, bright, calm operating room for anything he could pick up.
His eyes dashed over the metal cabinets and the laminate countertop and the hospital bed on which the small boy still rested and . . . the giant piece of machinery the Doctor had used, resting idly beside the bed. George ran to it and reached his fingers forward to grasp it—
His hand jerked away on its own; he clutched his wrist, as if he could keep the pain of the searing heat from climbing his arm.
Ear-piercing sirens blared through the operating room, throwing savage red flashes across the white walls.
George looked at the device in dumb shock as a thin wire melted away, dripping over a portion of the shiny black surface to a pool of liquified metal on the floor.
George turned back to the window. The two people caged behind it were framed by the gray walls and backlit by the blazing door at the other end of the concrete room, which was spewing a rolling black smoke, thickening lower and lower under the ceiling. George pressed his unharmed hand against the glass. No…
George observed Adam look up from his crying wife, and, in all the years he had known the command of this man, he had never seen such hopelessness stare back from those eyes. Adam put his right arm around Grace and placed his left on the window, flush with George’s own. ‘Take him and get out of here!’ he watched Adam yell from the other side. George stared at the man, and began shaking his head. I can’t—
A muffled bang roared from around the corner of the hall that the Doctor had left through earlier, causing George to throw his arms over his head. His eyes tried and failed to scan the black, lightless hall, unable to comprehend the offending noise despite the millions of ominous sounds he had heard during his time in the military. A delicate thump sounded to his side; George turned his attention back to the window, now with Adam’s fist against it.
‘That’s an order!’ Adam mouthed, glancing sternly at George before turning to Grace.
George stared blankly through the glass; Adam looked back up, authority coursing through his eyes, defeat across his face.
George stumbled around the operating bed and disconnected the young boy from the monitors, then nudged the bed on its wheels to line it up with the emergency door, opposite the hall the Doctor had left through.
George turned back to the window — Grace crying, Adam holding her, with tears in his own eyes but muscles locked stern. George tried to control the emotion that gushed up his chest to his throat as he regarded his friend—
The room went dark. George stumbled backward into the bed, blinking in dread at the silhouettes, stark against the orange light. The red sirens slashed their own light upon Adam and Grace’s faces.
George turned away in sick shame at his uselessness in their situation. He grasped the bed’s railing, trying to control his breathing as his heart pounded in his ears. He took one last, deep breath, then pushed the bed through the door of the emergency exit—
The glint of a white light from the counter to his left him stopped him short. Turning around, he faced the dark, lifeless instrument at the end of the operating room opposite from where the light came, but the light was gone now, and he wasn’t sure it had ever actually been there.
He took another glance at the faces of the two people who had become his family, which were intermittently strobed red, and attempted one last smile. They returned the farewell.
Then George turned, forcing his back to them. He looked down at the counter, where three shiny, black 3x3–inch cubes sat — he’d almost forgotten them. Where’s the fourth?—
Another muffled, disastrous sound emanated from the hall behind him; this time he dared not turn back to look. He snatched the three cold, firm cubes and dropped them on the bed where they bocked against each other as if they were hollow. A short-circuited shriek suspended the yell of the sirens; a deep rumble from the Earth shuddered up George’s legs.
He shoved through the thick emergency door. It swung heavily back into place behind him, allowing him just one short moment to glance back at the walls splashed in a devil’s dance of orange.
He turned away and pushed the bed onward, glancing down at the still-sedated, undisturbed boy whose parents he had just abandoned forever.
I’m sorry, Oswin.
2009 © 2016
Seventeen years after a covert medical operation, turmoil takes over the life of Oswin, an everyday teen with a pet cube.
The new superpower is the least of his worries — his best friend thinks him a fraud, a surgeon blackmails his life, and his adoptive family cannot accept him.
With the alien cube whispering in his head, Oswin struggles between a decision to cling to the safe life crumbling from beneath him, or stand up for the truth of who he really is.