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Torch of Freedom: Chapter Twenty

       Last updated: Monday, October 26, 2009 18:24 EDT



    Several hours later, as Jack let himself into his own apartment, his thoughts drifted back to what his parents had said.

    The truth was, he thought, that even though they might have a point about the importance of a sympathetic ear, Herlander Simões desperately needed more than Jack McBryde — or anyone else — would ever be able to give him. And despite his own training, and despite how hard he tried, Jack’s professional detachment wasn’t enough to protect him from the fallout of Simões’ despair.

    He checked for any personal com messages without finding any and walked through the apartment’s sitting area towards his bedroom. At the moment, it was a rather lonely bedroom, without female companionship, and he suspected his own reaction to Simões had a lot to do with that. His last relationship had been working its way towards an amicable parting for several months even before Bardasano had called him in, but he had no doubt his absorption with Simões had hastened its end. And he had even less doubt that it had a lot to do with why he’d found himself unable to work up much enthusiasm for finding a new one.

    Which is pretty stupid of me, when you come down to it, he reflected wryly. It’s not like turning myself into a monk is going to help Herlander any, now is it?

    Maybe not, another corner of his brain replied. In fact, definitely not. But it’s a little hard to go leaping gaily through life when you’re watching someone come gradually apart before your very eyes.

    He undressed, stepped into the shower, and keyed the water. Zachariah, he knew, preferred the quickness and convenience of a sonic shower, but Jack had always been addicted to the sheer, sensual pleasure of hot water. He stood under the drumming needle spray, absorbing its caress, yet this time he couldn’t fully abandon himself to it the way he usually could. His brain was too busy with Herlander Simões.

    It was the contrast between the barren unhappiness of Simões’ current existence and his own family’s closeness, he realized yet again. That comforting, always welcoming, nurturing love. Looking at his parents, seeing how after all these years their children were still their children. Adults, yes, and to be treated as such, but still their beloved sons and daughters, to be worried about and treasured. To be (although he suspected his mother would be more comfortable with the verb than his father) celebrated for who and what they were.

    For who and what had been taken away from Simões.

    He’d tried — and failed, he knew — to imagine what that had truly felt like. The pain of that loss . . . .

    He shook his head under the pounding water, eyes closed. Just from the purely selfish perspective of what had been stolen from Simões’ own life, the anguish must be incredible. But he’d spoken with Simões several times now. He knew that part of the hyper-physicist’s anger, his rage, really was the product of his sense that he’d been betrayed. That something unspeakably precious had been ripped away from him.

    Yet those same conversations had made it clear to Jack that far more than his own loss, it was the entire lifetime which had been stolen from his daughter that was truly tearing the man apart. He’d seen the promise in his Francesca which Thomas and Christina McBryde had seen realized in their JoAnne, their Jack and Zachariah and Arianne. He’d known what that child could have grown up to be and become, all of the living and loving and accomplishments which could have been hers in the four or five centuries which the combination of prolong and her genome would have given her. And he knew every one of those loves, every one of those accomplishments, had died stillborn when the Long-Range Planning Board administered the lethal injection to his daughter.

    That’s what it really comes down to, isn’t it, Jack? he admitted to the shower spray and the privacy of his own mind. To the LRPB, Francesca Simões, ultimately, was just one more project. One more strand in the master plan. And what does a weaver do when he comes across a defective thread? He snips it, that’s what he does. He snips it, he discards it, and he goes on with the work.

    But she wasn’t a thread. Not to Herlander. She was his daughter. His little girl. The child who learned to walk holding onto his hand. Who learned to read, listening to him read her bedtime stories. Who learned to laugh listening to his jokes. The person he loved more than he could ever have loved himself. And he couldn’t even fight for her life, because the Board wouldn’t let him. It wasn’t his decision — it was the Board’s decision, and it made it.

    He drew a deep, shuddering breath, and shook himself.

    You’re letting your sympathy take you places you shouldn’t go, Jack, he told himself. Of course you feel sorry for him — my God, how could you not feel sorry for him? — but there’s a reason the system is set up the way it’s set up. Someone has to make the hard decisions, and would it really be kinder to leave them up to someone whose love is going to make them even harder? Who’s going to have to live with the consequences of his own actions and decisions — not someone else’s — for the rest of his life?

    He grimaced as he recalled the memo from Martina Fabre which had been part of Simões’ master file. The one which had denied Simões’ offer — his plea — to be allowed to assume responsibility for Francesca. To provide the care needed to keep her alive, to keep private physicians working with her, out of his own pocket. He’d been fully aware of the kinds of expenses he was talking about — the LRPB had made them abundantly clear to him when it enumerated all of the resources which would be “unprofitably invested” in her long-term care and treatment — and he hadn’t cared. Not only that, he’d demonstrated, with all the precision he brought to his scientific work, that he could have satisfied those expenses. It wouldn’t have been easy, and it would have consumed his life, but he could have done it.

    Except for the fact that the decision wasn’t his, and, as Dr. Fabre had put it, the Board was “unwilling to allow Dr. Simões to destroy his own life in the futile pursuit of a chimerical cure for a child who was recognized as a high-risk project from the very beginning. It would be the height of irresponsibility for us to permit him to invest so much of the remainder of his own life in a tragedy the Board created when it asked the Simões to assist us in this effort.”

    He turned off the shower, stepped out of the stall, and began drying himself with the warm, deep-pile towels, but his brain wouldn’t turn off as easily as the water had. He pulled on a pair of pajama bottoms — he hadn’t worn the tops since he was fifteen — and found himself drifting in an unaccustomed direction for this late at night.

    He opened the liquor cabinet, dropped a couple of ice cubes into a glass, poured a hefty shot of blended whiskey over the ice, and swirled it gently for a second. Then he raised the glass and closed his eyes as the thick, rich fire burned down his throat.

    It didn’t help. Two faces floated stubbornly before him — a sandy-haired, hazel-eyed man’s, and a far smaller one with brown hair, brown eyes, and a huge smile.



    This is stupid, he thought. I can’t change any of it, and neither can Herlander. Not only that, I know perfectly well that all that pain is just eating away at him, adding itself to the anger. The man’s turning into some kind of time bomb, and there’s not a damned thing I can do about it. He’s going to snap — it’s only a matter of time — and I was wrong when I downplayed his probable reactions to Bardasano. The break is coming, and when it gets here, he’s going to be so damned angry — and so unconcerned about whatever else might happen to him — that he’s going to do something really, really foolish. I don’t know what, but I’ve come to know him well enough to know that much. And it’s my job to keep him from doing that.

    It was bizarre. He was the man charged with keeping Simões together, keeping him working — effectively working — on his critical research projects. And with seeing to it that if the time ever came that Simões self-destructed, he didn’t damage those projects. And yet, despite that, what he felt was not the urgent need to protect the Alignment’s crucial interests, but to somehow help the man he was supposed to be protecting them from. To find some way to prevent him from destroying himself.

    To find some way to heal at least some of the hurt which had been inflicted upon him.

    Jack McBryde raised his glass to take another sip of whiskey, then froze as that last thought went through his mind.

    Inflicted, he thought. Inflicted on him. That’s what you’re really thinking, isn’t it, Jack? Not that it’s just one of those terrible things that sometimes happens, but that it didn’t have to happen.

    Something icy seemed to trickle through his veins as he realized what he’d just allowed himself to admit to himself. The trained security professional in him recognized the danger of allowing himself to think anything of the sort, but the human being in him — the part of him that was Christina and Thomas McBryde’s son — couldn’t stop thinking it.

    It wasn’t the first time his thoughts had strayed in that direction, he realized slowly as he recalled past doubts about the wisdom of the Long-Range Planning Board’s master plan, its drive to master the intricacies, shape the best instruments for the attainment of humanity’s destiny.

    Where did we change course? he wondered. When did we shift from the maximizing of every individual into producing neat little bricks for a carefully designed edifice? What would Leonard Detweiler think if he were here today, looking at the Board’s decisions? Would he have thrown away a little girl whose father loved her so desperately? Would he have rejected Herlander’s offer to shoulder the full financial burden of caring for her? And, if he would have, what does that say about where we’ve been from the very beginning?

    He thought about Fabre’s memo again, about the thoughts and attitudes behind it. He never doubted that Fabre had been completely sincere, that she’d truly been attempting to protect Simões from the consequences of his own mad, quixotic effort to reverse the irreversible. But hadn’t that been Simões’ decision? Hadn’t he had the right to at least fight for his daughter’s life? To choose to destroy himself, if that was what it came to, in an effort to save someone he loved that much?

    Is this really what we’re all about? About having the Board make those decisions for all of us in its infinite wisdom? What happens if it decides it doesn’t need any random variations any more? What happens if the only children it permits are the ones which have been specifically designed for its star genomes?

    He took another, deeper sip of whiskey, and his fingers tightened around the glass.

    Hypocrite, he thought. You’re a fucking hypocrite, Jack. You’ve known — known for forty years — that that’s exactly what the Board has in mind for all those “normals” out there. Of course, you didn’t think about it that way, did you? No, you thought about how much good it was going to do. How their children, and their grandchildren and their great-grandchildren would thank you for allowing them to share in the benefits of the systematic improvement of the species. Sure, you knew a lot of people would be unhappy, that they wouldn’t voluntarily surrender their children’s futures to someone else, but that was stupid of them, wasn’t it? It was only because they’d been brainwashed by those bastards on Beowulf. Because they were automatically prejudiced against anything carrying the “genie” stigma. Because they were ignorant, unthinking normals, not an alpha line like you.

    But now — now that you see it happening to someone else who’s also an alpha line. When you see it happening to Herlander, and you realize it could have happened to your parents, or to your brother, or your sisters . . . or some day to you. Now you suddenly discover you have doubts.

    He dragged in a deep, shuddering breath and wondered how the warmth and love and caring of his family could have crystallized this dark, barren night of the soul for him.

    It’s only fatigue — emotional and physical fatigue, he told himself, but he didn’t believe it. He knew it went deeper and farther than that. Just as he knew that anyone who found himself suddenly experiencing the doubts he was experiencing, asking the questions he found himself asking, should immediately seek counseling.

    And just as he knew he wasn’t going to do anything of the sort.

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