I’m not sure what attracted me to Stephanie. Was it her hazel eyes, which changed colors and had a circle of orange around the iris? Or was it how calm I felt around her, like I could be myself and not worry about ridicule?
I lay with her in bed on a Saturday night. She ran her fingers down my chest as we talked, and I could feel goosebumps shoot all over my body.
“What are you thinking about?” she asked, breaking the cool and calm silence.
“I’m still thinking about the talk at the university, to be honest. It was interesting. I always wondered what it’d be like to be a cyborg.”
“It’s dangerous. Nowadays, at least.”
It didn’t always used to be that way. When labs first began implanting brain-computer interfaces in humans, people were excited. The potential to increase human capabilities seemed endless, and a new wave of techno-liberals detailed the ways in which becoming a cyborg could help cure many of society’s ills.
“Do you get scared?” I asked her.
“I didn’t at first, but I do now. I regret having it done. It’s helped my life so much, but now I guess it’s put me in danger.”
I had never dated a cyborg before, not that I was opposed to it in the past. You couldn’t really tell the difference from first looking at one; it was once you started interacting with one you noticed small tics and idiosyncrasies.
When I asked Stephanie a question, for instance, she’d do this weird thing where she paused for about three to five seconds and stared off into space, as if she was downloading an answer from a mainframe. She explained that it happened automatically, and I found it cute.
It was a dead giveaway to the purists who hated “cyber-heads.”
The windows were open, and the cool, late summer air blew into my bedroom. The political winds were shifting, too – a populist uprising against the techno-liberals had us on edge.
“Will I ever get to meet your parents?” she asked me.
“I’d rather not put you through that. They voted for that guy in Washington. They don’t like whoever doesn’t think like them. And they especially don’t care for my political persuasions.”
“Maybe I can convince them otherwise. They’ll meet me and see I’m not so bad.”
“I wish it were that simple.”
She pulled the covers over us and lay her head on my chest. I wondered what our next move was; our time seemed to be running up in this run-down Ohio town, my birthplace. Soon, I had a feeling we’d be on the move, heading to a safer place where I didn’t have to hide the fact my girlfriend had a computer chip implanted in her brain.
My father’s pride took a severe beating when he lost his job at the steel mill. He’d worked in the plant for twenty-five years, raising me and supporting our family on the wages he earned while running machines and getting his hands dirty.
After the mill closed, it was like they would’ve been better off throwing him from the city’s only bridge into the icy water. He did find employment eventually as a driver for an airport shuttle bus, but he was never the same.
“How’s work?” he asked me over dinner. My mother sat there silently, like she always did, but maybe more so recently since my father’s rage had shown its ugly head.
“It’s okay. There’s a lot of exciting stuff going on at the university.”
“Huh,” he snorted. “Exciting to you, maybe. It’s a damn shame that the university is this city’s largest employer now. This country is too damn intellectual. No one wants to go out and do something to make a living. Let’s just sit around and think. It’s bullshit.”
I’d gotten used to his rants by now and his disapproval of my university job. I was working towards becoming an English professor, something he saw as the most useless of professions. I wondered why I came to these weekly dinners at my parent’s house to hear this kind of talk, but then I remembered I wanted at least some contact with them.
“Not everyone thinks that way, dad.”
He had nothing to say to this, ignoring me and shoveling mom’s meatloaf into his mouth. The small TV was on in the kitchen and tuned to, like usual, the cable news channel.
“How’s work for … “
“Quiet,” my dad interrupted. “I want to hear this.”
“Breaking news from Washington,” the broadcast said. “Congress has passed the Cyborg Transplant Restriction Act, which effectively bans brain-computer interface transplants in the U.S. After a long and nasty campaign to end the transplants, the new law is expected to take effect in 60 days … “
I’d known something like this was coming ever since the conservatives won the election. Still, when I heard the broadcast, I felt my stomach sink. I thought about Stephanie and the daily harassment she suffered from the people in this small town.
“About damn time,” my father said. “They should round up all of those cyber-heads and lock them away. Let God sort them out.”
“Why not is the better question. It’s unfair; they’re taking jobs from hard-working people. If it wasn’t for the techno-liberals, I’d still be working at the plant. Don’t forget I raised your ass on the money I made at that place.”
My mother got up from the table and began putting our plates in the sink. I could hear her quietly putting on coffee and getting cake from the fridge.
“Stop, you two,” she said.
“And why should I?” my father asked. “He needs to learn sooner or later the way things work in the real world. Get out of that ivory tower every once in a while.”
His words stung, but I had learned to let them go. My mother brought the carrot cake to the table and tried to change the subject.
“Are you seeing anyone, hun?”
It seemed like a trick question. I’d never bring Stephanie to this place; it was a lion’s den for her. I could only imagine what my father would say in front of her.
“No,” I lied. “I still haven’t met the right girl.”
“That’s too bad. You’ll find someone eventually.”
Stephanie and I were glued to the TV later that night, watching the news reports reel in of violent populist rallies against the techno-liberals. Cars burned like funeral pyres, angry people gathered in the streets and cyborgs fled for their lives.
We watched in disbelief, as I could feel her shaking in my arms. Her migraine headaches set in – it was a common side effect of BCI implants when you’re stressed. Her nose also began to bleed, and she pressed a tissue against it.
“We have to leave,” I said. “We have to get out of here.”
“Where will we go?”
“New York, maybe. It’s a sanctuary city, and we’ll be safe there. Or Philadelphia. Anywhere but here. We’re not safe here.”
“You’re safe here,” she pointed out. “I’m the one that’s in danger.”
“But I care about you. You know that.”
She didn’t respond. We’d only been together for six months, but it was long enough for me to want to care and protect her. She looked at me with a hint of resentment and rebelliousness in her hazel eyes, like she didn’t want me to fight for her.
“What about your job? And you’re family? You can’t just pick up and leave.”
“Sure, I can,” I said. “We could do it an instant.”
The news reports came in of a local rally, as populist protesters gathered in our city’s downtown square and marched to the university. Despite its economic significance, the university was reviled in the town as a bastion of techno-liberalism.
“We don’t have much time,” I continued. “We need to hurry.”
Some of the national protests were more violent than others. In Midwestern cities, it was reported that the homes of cyborgs were vandalized. In the South, populists hunted down some cyborgs and beat them.
“It’s all happening so fast,” Stephanie said.
“It usually does.”
She moved away from me and wiped tears from her mascara-stained eyes. “I should’ve never had a transplant,” she said. Then she walked into the bedroom and began packing a bag, slowly and methodically, like she was about to take the last trip of her life.
“You’re right,” she said. “Let’s go.”
We waited out the night’s protest and left the town first thing in the morning.
My hometown was situated in what was once known as the “Steel Valley,” but that was more than 150 years ago. As we drove through the city’s streets, I looked at the old, flaking steel mills that still stood and rotted along the riverside.
The rusted buildings dotted the landscape like a post-industrial graveyard. The sadness that hung over the city was palpable, embodied most eloquently in a sign we saw along the road that simply said in big black letters, “I Want To Work.”
We drove that day for three hours straight before stopping, heading for our ultimate destination of New York, which was just under 700 miles away.
Feeling hungry, we stopped at a roadside diner in the middle of Pennsylvania. Stephanie was quiet and pensive, staring out the window for long stretches during the drive. I felt distant from her.
“Is it safe to stop here?” she asked.
“It should be. We’re in the middle of nowhere, and I only see a few cars parked in the lot, anyway.”
I wasn’t totally sure, but I tried to assure her. If anything, we were again stuck in prime territory for hatred against cyborgs and people who looked like me, a late 20s-something techno-liberal with thick-framed glasses and a collared shirt.
Immediately as we walked in, eyes turned to judge us, look us over and categorize us. We took a seat at the counter, the truck drivers around us falling silent, while also checking out Stephanie.
“Anything to drink?” the waitress asked.
“I’ll take a coffee.”
Then the moment came that unnerved me. Stephanie stared off into space for three seconds, her BCI transplant analyzing the question, while the older waitress looked at her.
The waitress’s face turned to a scowl, as she realized who she was dealing with.
“I’ll take a coffee, too,” Stephanie finally said.
The customers murmured, looking and pointing at her. Stephanie looked down, embarrassed and frightened, as the waitress silently brought the coffees and a menu.
A TV above the counter played the cable news, the endless reporting of the protests seemingly following us everywhere. There was no escape for us. New York would be better, I thought. We’d be safe and peaceful there. We wouldn’t need to be afraid.
“Need a few minutes?” the waitress asked.
Before Stephanie’s automatic delayed response, I jumped in. “Yes, please.”
I couldn’t concentrate on the menu, though. I could tell Stephanie was stressed, but I didn’t want to say anything that would give us away.
Her nose began to bleed, little droplets of red falling on the counter.
“That’s enough now,” a middle-aged customer said, pointing at her. “How you going to serve a cyber-head in this place? With everything that’s going on?”
The customer, obviously a trucker, was staring at us with his table full of buddies. He felt emboldened, he felt powerful. He could smell – and see – blood.
“Give it a rest, Johnny,” the waitress said.
“Hell no, I won’t. Kick her the hell out.”
I didn’t want a fight; I stayed silent. Him and his table-full of truckers would kick my ass, anyway.
“They’re paying customers,” the waitress explained. “Leave them alone.”
“You don’t kick them out, then I’m leavin’ and not coming back to this place,” the man said, his face tight and his fists clenched. “Let them go to the city where people like them gather. But not in this town. Not in my stop.”
“I said leave ’em, Johnny.”
The man stood up now and approached us. He wore a vest over a flannel shirt, military buttons adorning the chest, and cowboy boots that loudly announced his aggressive steps.
“You should be ashamed,” he told Stephanie, pointing in her face. “The day you got that transplant, that’s the day you stopped bein’ human.”
I pushed the man back and grabbed him by his black vest.
“Leave us alone!” I shouted. “We’re not bothering anybody.”
He deftly grabbed my right arm and twisted it behind my back, then tripped me and knocked me to the cold, linoleum floor. He pushed my head against the floor so I could taste the dust.
“Careful who you talk to like that, boy.”
Cooks from the kitchen rushed out and grabbed the man and pulled him off me. Stephanie, her nose bleeding profusely, ran out of the diner to the parking lot.
“Screw you, man!” I shouted, a cook holding me back.
“Get out!” the man yelled back.
I obeyed, quickly heading out into the parking lot to find Stephanie. She stood by the car, the tissue pressed against her nose, crying, looking helpless.
“You didn’t need to do that!” she yelled.
“What was I supposed to do?”
She pushed me away when I tried to hold her, and I stood there by the car feeling helpless and ridiculous. A soft rain began to fall, as Stephanie climbed into the car and slammed the door shut. Dark clouds gathered over the lonely stretch of road, and the sky looked like it was about to open. We were heading toward the end of the world.
We arrived in New York that day around 3 p.m. and settled into a hotel in Brooklyn. Stephanie was silent and sullen for the remainder of the car ride, and I decided to take a nap after I unpacked what little clothes I had brought.
I dreamed of my father, a weird and lucid dream where I was tied up to a stake and he led an angry mob to surround me. He told me how disappointed he was by me, and then he lit the stake ablaze and watched me burn and scream in agony.
When I awoke, Stephanie was gone.
There was a short note left on top of my laptop on the desk. It read: “Please don’t hate me. I have to face this fight myself, and I don’t want to drag you down with me. I am not your responsibility and you can’t save me. Thanks for the ride. Take care.”
I wasn’t sure what to feel as I read it. If anything, I’d helped her get to New York, where she’d probably be safe now. But, despite being with her just six months, I could still feel my heart breaking.
I’d been dumped before – this wasn’t anything new. Maybe I kidded myself when I thought Stephanie and I would work out. Like she said, was I willing to put my neck on the line for her? Would my devotion stand the test of time?
I didn’t cry at first, but I did later. After I read the letter, I looked out the hotel room’s window. I was on the seventh floor and, looking down, I saw a protest on the street; dozens of people marched holding signs and shouting from megaphones.
I considered taking the elevator down and joining them but decided against it. Instead, I ordered room service and then bought a movie from pay-per-view. Maybe I would join the fight, stay in New York and really embrace a new identity as someone who was politically active.
Maybe I would fight back against injustice. For now, it seemed futile and daunting, as I laid back on the bed and read Stephanie’s letter again. There was so much prejudice in the world, enough to break up families, and I felt helpless to stop it.