139
Arjun Satish

The Prodigal Son, A short story


Epilogue


   He ran as fast as he could, sifting through the chaos of the nurses and the wounded soldiers. His late thirties figure swerved to avoid a screaming crippled soldier, as a non-hesitant nurse tried to staunch the bleeding of what was left of his leg, only to collide with a frenzied blind soldier. He surged on forward unaffected by the swears he was drawing. The waiting room was full brimming with chatter and enthusiasm as The President declared the war was finally over. There were a lot of hugs and kisses as the teary-eyed war-wrecked soldiers rejoiced in their long-awaited victory still in their tech-suits. Champagne bottles popped oblivious as he swiftly coursed through the throng, his legs engrossed in a rapid sprint. 

   He lunged into the room to the sudden futile protest of the nurse. But she had a more severe ordeal to attend to. His heart knotted at the sight of her.

  “ I’ m sorry... I couldn’t”, she clutched his hand in a firm grasp. Her words weakly wavered in the agony. The sweaty cheeks were dotted with tears of a grieving mother.

 “ Promise me”, the words pushed out frantically. His dreary eyes settled on the still-born baby soaked in the blood of his love.  

“ She’s bleeding! Increase pressure”, the doctor hastily shouted, the situation was escalating uncontrollably in his hands. The nurses hurried on trying desperately to stabilize the wholly drained woman.

His hands were tugged as she fought hard to muster up a final drop of strength.

  “ Promise me.”, she whimpered on. She seemed to be a complete stranger to him. The relentless labor had done a good job on her. Threatening tears hung on the edge of his bottom eyelids.

 “ You’ll take care of……”. Her eyes were stuck in a hopeful gaze as life withered, lingering for the final farewell. A paleness that could only be death overcame the face he had been in love with for as long as he could remember.

 “I promise”. He planted a soft kiss on the palm of her hands.

  The sudden explosion drew a red shade on his face through the window, the fireworks speckling the night sky in a dazzle. Seconds later, three hovercrafts flew through the air with monstrous speed demonstrating their power. The entire world cheered in unison, celebrating the victory of the greatest war man had encountered when he sobbed on, holding on to his wife’s lifeless hands.   

  




Day 1


    There was only one thought as the motion-sensored red dotted light flicked on when he opened his eyes.

Nothingness

  He was wearing a faded shirt and comfy tracks which he had no recollection of ever being in. The constant hum of the air-conditioning was the only sound in the room which he now recognized, with dismay as a cell. He was imprisoned.

   What the hell did I do?

 Besides the bed, in which he had woken up, there was only a sheer emptiness bathed in a red tinge, surrounding him.

 As he scoured every inch of the grey-paneled cell, he realized with a sense of amazement the lack of vents even though he could feel the rush of air. The bed, which was the only thing inside the cell, was heavily reinforced to the ground.

    How could he have missed it? There was no door to the opening which stood fairly tempting. After the opening was a sheet of greyness.

    He could sense the light moving with him, directing the beam in front of him as he stepped closer to the door or whatever it was. As soon as his body set foot in the opening, a severe jolt of electricity bounced off him, momentarily freezing him. He shrieked in agony, for the shock stopped, only to bear another wave that convulsed his body. He found himself on the floor feeling dazed in the aftermath of the electrocution. The lights blinked, synchronous with the highly mechanized female voice repeatedly coming over from above. “ Stay away from the door. “ 

  “ You better not do that. The voltage increases every time you try. ”. The figure that stood behind the invisible electrical beams spoke out, illuminated in a new light above his head.

   “Let me out!! Who are you? What do you want? ”, he shouted.

  “I know you are seeking a lot of answers. You better ask these questions to yourself ”, the sound rang back. He could sense the strain of middle age in the voice. 

  Before the red lights could share his focus, the man had vanished into thin air. His ears sensed the footsteps distinctly fading above him. A basement.

  Who are you?

 The thought gave birth to a more unsettling and frustrating question.

  Who am I?

                                         


****



Day 2  


He jerked upright on hearing the fast-moving footsteps. The red light intensified detecting his sudden mobility. 

 White light shone behind the door. He could see the glare of the rimmed-glasses, the wise eyes behind it surrounded by a slightly wrinkled complexion.

“ I need you to take these energy pellets”, he turned his wrist, clicked a few buttons on the wrist band before pushing the plate across the floor.

  “ I need to ask some questions ”, pushing his forefinger into the pad.

  “ I won’t eat unless you give me answers”, he was stern and cold.

   It was pointless to argue, for the headstrongness in his face glared. The man affirmed with a helpless nod. He needed him healthy.

   “My name is Dr.Alexander and you are Marcus. Today is 22nd June, 4082. How is that for a start? ”

  Marcus threw in a capsule, which instantly rejuvenated him.

   “ Why do I feel like..?” 

   Alexander immediately cut him off. “Like you have never existed? Retrograde amnesia tends to do that, Marcus ”. Before Marcus could even open his mouth, the doctor abruptly said, “ It means you have no recollections of your past but your abilities like…. your language and your skillset would remain intact and functional. And that’s all the answers you are going to get now, I’ m afraid. Now, answer me. Are you experiencing memory flashes, headaches, or any pain? ”

 “Why ?”. Understanding that he would get nothing from the straight face of the doctor, Marcus shook his head, frustration on the boil. 

  “Why am I imprisoned here?”, he burst out only to register the emptiness, where the doctor had stood a second ago, greeting him morosely.



Day 4    


  What do you think of when you have nothing to remember, no sense of belonging, have no sense of time? no clue where you are ?. Not even know what your face looks like? Especially when you are trapped in a cell with nothing much to do but to stare at those claustrophobic four walls and play with a ridiculous light that followed him like a dog wherever the room allowed him. There was no sign of the man who evidently held the answers to all his questions. 

 “ Help !”, he yelled with all the sound he had. Marcus had been screaming every hour in the vain hope that someone would come to his rescue.  

   Escape was not a possibility. The cell had been designed flawlessly to the extent that he was fairly impressed. There were no loose panels, vents, screws. Nothing. It was the perfect cage. He was sure he was being watched, the cameras disguised expertly.

    What did you do, Marcus to deserve this?


****






“What does it mean, mom ?’’

       She was swiping through various virtual displays of projected blueprints in the air. She smiled warm-heartedly at her curious son who towered her. “ What ?”                        

“ You said ' Love you too'. What does it mean? ”

    “Well, that’s a tough one.” Alendra lovingly caressed her son’s cheek. She spent a few moments in thought before explaining. “It’s the most important thing in this world, son. In fact, this entire world thrives on it. It drives people to do anything for the ones they love. At the same time, it can be very dangerous too. It’s complicated, Marcus”                   

   Marcus nodded in obscurity, unable to comprehend. “You’ll figure it out. You always do”. 

   Alendra walked outside the lab, followed by an eager Marcus who beheld the various models encircling them in a shade of fascination. Alendra gleamed with pride. Her son was always drowning in a sea of curiosity, the question ceaseless in his mouth. Maybe, he would turn out to be exactly like them. 

 The glassdoor slid shut after following their exit.

 “Are people going to love me, mom?“. The innocence was so adorable that, she couldn’t help but smile again.

 “ Of course, Marcus. Everyone is going to love you. In fact, when the world knows of your existence, everyone will gaze at you in wonder at your magnificence, at your beauty.” 


   It was another woman. She was firmly restrained in the hold of a suited soldier, her face streaming with tears.  

  “ Don’t do it. Let her go. Your fight is with me!”, he pleaded.

    The cold voice spoke, immersed in vengeance. “ These are for my brothers you killed.”

   The deafening pistol shot rang.

   

  He screamed in the darkness, waking up in a fit of panting, his eyes hurtfully adjusting to the switched on light. The eyes of the woman seemed to speak to him before the bullet did its job.

 Marcus shifted his head, alerted to the tingle of another presence.

  "What did you see?", asked Dr. Alexander.

 " I won't tell you, doctor, unless you answer my question. Why am I here? ”.Dr. Alexander saw the raw stubbornness fixed on his face. Anxious for his answer, he pushed back his spectacles, exhaling an annoyed sigh.

“ Because you are a murderer, Marcus”

“I would never do something like that”, his protest was weak. By some strange instinct, he knew the doctor was speaking the truth.

  His eyes sprung wide unable to comprehend his own capacity for such cruelty. His body crumpled under the revelation that he had to seek the support of the bed.

“ I saw a woman getting shot”, he admitted to which the doctor nodded in an expression of abject hopelessness, turning to leave.

“Who did I kill? Please..”, his desperation was so disheartening that the doctor found himself stalled, overwhelmed now.

  Dr. Alexander tried to mask the obvious sorrow beneath a firm monotone, but his voice cracked as he addressed him. “ The question dear Marcus is not who, but how many?”



****


Day 7

   You are a murderer, Marcus

   Is it justifiable when you have to pay for a crime, in the deepest recess of your heart you know you didn’t commit, that you don't remember ever doing so, that someone else needs to be held accountable for, even though you know that it was a complete stranger of yourself that was the sinner?. He felt wholly detached to the person he was before. Was this a new chance?

  Dr. Alexander had pushed in another plate before he had woken up. There was something about the doctor that felt highly familiar and Marcus knew for sure that the doctor felt a degree of sympathy towards him.

 “The question dear Marcus is not who, but how many?”

   Each time these words ran over his mind, there was an agonizing stab whose depth increased with each thrust. His answers lay locked up in himself. There was only one way to let them out.  

  Marcus lay on the bed, forcing his eyelids shut. Slowly he wandered into a slumber, yearning for answers. You’ll figure it out. You always do


****


    Dr. Alexander jumped, when he came down the steps, at the sight of a deranged Marcus who stood threatening, engulfed in a superior fury, within a few inches of the electric fields. “Why did they kill Valerie, Alexander?”

  He boomed loudly into Alexander’s ears.

“Why did they kill my wife?”, his thundering reverberated across the four walls. The hum of the air circulation was subtly uncanny. The doctor shrunk away from the opening, forgetful that a hundred milliampere current resisted Marcus from attacking him.   

   “ It was the only way to end the war, Marcus”.The squint in his enraged eyes was considerably intimidating. Marcus blinked in uncertainty.

So he doesn’t know. At least, for now, he doesn’t, prayed Alexander.

 “What war?”

 “ The war that you instigated. The war that claimed the most number of lives since the Great Famine of 4032. You killed millions, Marcus. It was mass genocide. ”


A hurricane of memories flashed through his mind. Bloody dead bodies lay everywhere amongst the ruins. Decapitated heads and strewn limbs scattered around him. The stench of the dead was revolting.

  “ Mankind will crumble under me”, his words bathed in a fierce fury, standing atop a mountain of lifeless soldiers. 


His body staggered bringing him back to the present.

“ What….?”, the broken words were inaudible in the acceptance of the drastic memory. Marcus, on the verge of another question, was stopped, as the doctor spoke out, “Marcus, you should know when to stop seeking for answers. Sometimes, it’s the truth that’s going to kill you”

  “Low vitality risk. Low vitality risk”, the lights flicked off intermittently with a female assistant’s monotonic voice as Marcus collapsed in a heap onto the floor. The red lights rotated with the mechanized voice, blaring into his ears. He could see the hazy vision of the doctor highlighted in the reddish tinge, hunched over him on his knees before he passed out.




****




   The St. Marcus Evangelical church, unlike many luckily, had stood the ravages of the war. They struck their blows at the core of something that people believed to be sacred, their religion. But religion had always remained impalpable against the tests of humanity. He was looking at the proof of it.

    The church was basically empty in the middle of the day, except for the few devotees scattered in the long hall. The red carpet, laid along the aisle, felt the weak footfalls of a silhouette. Alexander acknowledged the priest with a polite nod, before ushering himself between two pews. He drew a quick cross across his chest, giving a brief glance at the chapel, before sitting down. He had started coming here since the death of his wife. The calm of the church offered him solace, to let his wife know everything. 

 “Joshua is still a wonder. They are conducting tests on him at the institute. Marcus has started remembering again. I don’t think I can fix him”, his downcast eyes were straight.

 “ It’s tearing me up to see our son like this, Alendra. I am going to put an end to his misery. I’m sorry, I couldn't keep my word. But I tried, I tried so hard the last two years, but I can’t figure it out. I wish you were here. You were always his light in the darkness ”.

  His bloodshot eyes cast a long stare on the crucifix mounted above him.

 Forgive me, Lord, for I have sinned.

  “ I don’t want him to know. I’ m gonna put him off before he discovers the truth about Valerie.”  

                                                                                                               

                                                    *****

    Day 9

  Marcus woke up fully rested. He didn't know what took over him. His legs briskly gave out and he had felt extremely tired when he had tumbled on to the floor. He sat upright on the bed, his mind brooding over Valerie. It felt so strange knowing now he had loved a woman, that he felt he barely knew. But it was overwhelming coupled with a strong longing to see her. At the same time, he grieved and repented over her death and the gruesome knowledge that he was the cause of it. He didn’t know what to feel anymore. Was he even human to cause so much pain?

  Yesterday there were only scattered broken shards. It was like time moving backward, each piece fitting into the other slowly forming the complete mirror. The only problem was there were many more pieces still left to pick up, still left to piece together.

  He crept out of the bed, only to stumble on the plate the doctor must have placed before he woke up. His eyes followed arbitrarily as a pellet rolled under the bed. Marcus tried to reach with his arms but he missed it by an inch. He now lay prone on the floor crawling under the bed. The pellet found his fingers only to be given a sharp jerk as Marcus’s head banged on the bottom of the bed. He cursed under the fleeting pain. When turned his head, his eyes searching for where he had hit, they settled on something scrawled illegibly. The low-light kept him in the dark, for a few seconds as he tried to make sense of the scribbling.


                                              Find your son.


   Like the dusted strings of a piano, the words struck a chord in his memory core. 

                              

  Valerie was nursing, her face illuminated in motherly pride when he entered. Her expression transformed quickly into a more concerned and dreadful kind on his entrance into the bedroom. He planted a loving kiss on her tender cheeks. Valerie stifled a cough. He took the ball of cuteness in his hands, rocking gently with care.  Everyone will gaze at you in wonder at your magnificence, at your beauty, Joshua

 Marcus wished his mom was beside him. Alendra would be so proud. A subtle smile formed over his lips.

   “Do we have a choice, Marcus?”, Valerie looked anxious. Marcus shook his head gravely. He had matters that required his immediate attention. One which he came to their house to take care of.

  “ Dad has arranged somewhere else for you and Joshua. It’s better you don’t know where. Pack whatever you need as fast as possible.”

“ Maybe, you should stop this Marcus when you can. Do it for us”. Her eyes longingly pleaded to him.

“ It’s not right the way they are treating us. You understand that more than anyone. Anyway, we have come too far to turn back.”

  Her eyes distractedly went over her hand which she had covered, after a burst of cough. “Are you okay?”

   She turned to him, inadvertent that he had asked her a question. Marcus stepped towards the door, only to turn back after a second, giving a warm hug before leaving his wife and son. Marcus felt no kind premonition that it would be their last embrace.


    Marcus was still under the bed when Dr. Alexander came down the steps, a puzzled expression covering his face. He stood up straight, facing the doctor in a stare.“What did they do to my son?”

  The doctor was evidently startled about his knowledge. He adjusted his spectacles nervously, swallowing a breath.

   “I need you to tell me everything, doctor”. His face remained impassive.

     Alexander nodded in agreement, pushing back his spectacles, “It’s time you knew”


 ****            


“It was the most ecstatic moment of our lives when Alendra and I found out you passed the Turing test. We knew we had finally cracked it. Your entry into the world created a stir across every person on Earth. The long wait was finally over. Marcus”, he paused taking a breath, “you are the world’s first A. I. droid machine. The greatest boon to mankind, or at that point we thought so”  

  Marcus was going through a mixture of feelings as each fragment of memory fleeted across his mind, disarming him completely. His lips opened in awe, as he beheld the hidden truth. 

  Alexander continued his gripping narrative. “We replicated millions of droids to serve across the globe in farms, industries, research, in every field. A. I. influenced every man. Meanwhile, Valerie taught you to be compassionate, to be cruel, to be forgiving, and above all, she taught you to love. She created a subconsciousness in you, accidentally. We trained you in the ways of our life. Maybe she shouldn’t have. We never saw it coming when you met...”

   “ Valerie”, Marcus suddenly intervened. Dr. Alexander met his eyes, trying to picture what was going through the machine’s intriguing mind. His eyes disclosed nothing but a concoction of sincere love for his wife and the grief for the loss of it.

  “Everything went smooth until you took it upon yourself to reconfigure your internal algorithms without our knowledge. You changed the algorithm, rewriting whole programs. You figured it out. Artificial Impregnation. Valerie and I were baffled to our bones. The first man-machine embryo was thriving healthily in Valerie.” 

 “Joshua”, Marcus gave a faint whisper. 

  “Except for this time, the world turned in turmoil. If A. I. could reproduce, it would threaten the position of humans, the results could be devastating if A. I. were allowed to breed.”

 “ Humans never liked to be intimidated about their superiority. Man was master, and the droids, mere slaves. But you disagreed, Marcus. You felt a strong kinship to your fellow droids slaving for us across countries, fighting for them, defending their rights to equality, which grew into a mutiny and finally evolved into a full-fledged war, a war we knew we would never win against you. A machine with a subconsciousness was invincible. We signed our own death warrant ” 

   Does he remember? Holy Father, please. Don’t let him know.

He doesn’t, otherwise, he would have exploded.

 “ I thought it was convincing A. I. that it was human, that would be the greatest challenge. Oh, I was so wrong”, the doctor shook his head, “It was convincing humans that A. I. would be always smarter than them ”. Marcus observed meekly that the doctor was talking to himself, lost in a far-away world. 

 

 “ So I surrendered because they killed Valerie, and captured my son.”, completing the doctor, who shook from his reverie.

   Dr.Alexander nodded, attempting to conceal his guilt.

  “Joshua is held captive at the facility. The government considers him a danger that could turn out just like his father at any moment.” He could see Marcus torn at hearing about his 4-year-old child. This only made the guilt multiply to a heart-wrenching heaviness.

 

   

   The memories guaranteed the truth. Everything was crystal clear. It was an everlasting silence, disturbed with the hum of air before Marcus asked, “So, why didn’t you decommission me like the others?”

“ You are, at least, according to the records. I hid you from the rest of the world because I promised Alendra,” a whimper breaking off, “because you are my son, maybe bound not in blood, but surely by birth, Marcus”. Marcus looked at his tearful father after two years.

  “ Why are you telling me all this now ?”

   “ I’m shutting you down tomorrow. I thought I could figure out your algorithm, but I can't. I failed. I tried to bring you back new several times, but your memories always keep flashing back due to your algorithms” 

 Marcus’s demeanor deepened. “Several times?”

“ This was simulation trial 21. It means 21 times, I have failed to erase your past. After every trial, I reboot your system which actuates the amnesia. I induce the amnesia for every trial, Marcus”

 The outburst was rapid.

   “ How could you do this to me?”, there was so much pain in his voice that he forgot his son was a droid. It would be a pity to destroy such splendour of a machine. We did a good job, Alendra

  “ You promised mom. You can’t kill me, you can’t shut me down “, Marcus begged frantically.

  “ I don’t have a choice.”. His heart wrenched back and forth seeing his son down on the floor.

I’m sorry

****



Last day

  He was ready. Not for death, but to see him. All the pieces had found their way, except a hole, in fact, a big one in the center of it, but enough to reflect him. It was time for the reprisal. Marcus smiled deviously and pressed the hard patch of skin on the nape of his neck.

   Welcome, Marcus. Vitality at 65 percent. Faculties fully functional

 A new tinted display spread across his vision. He could zoom with high definition into different parts of the cell. Thermal imaging conveyed that the doctor was upstairs. It was time. “ Enable Superhuman Protocol”

  Enhanced faculties loaded. Proceed. High voltage detected.

 The bed was uplifted in a second, and thrown with sonic speed as it bounded off the ceiling with an unbearable clank.

 Marcus moved towards the opening straight away. He walked through the electric field unscathed, the field revitalizing him. He could feel the surge of power. It felt good to be powerful again.

 Vitality at 100 percent.


  The wristband beeped. “ Abnormal activity detected.”. His assistant repeated on. He typed in a few commands to see an error on his virtual screen. With the very well hidden camera tampered with, there was no live feed coming in. His heart skipped a beat. God

  He sprinted towards the basement, skipping a few steps down, nearly falling over the landing. Sweat broke out, small beads hanging from his forehead. The red light was blinking fast when it turned into the opening, drawing long breaths. His assistant cried overhead.“ Abnormal activity detected.”

 Empty

 His heart sank, thumping with pumped adrenaline. “ God”, he muttered under his breath. He heard a low scrape above his head, to which he directed his eyes, only to see two blazing blue eyes in the darkness and it pounced with lightning speed.


 He crushed his spectacles using his hands. The machine effortlessly held him up by the neck with one hand, looking into his eyes. The doctor’s sturdy legs elevated in the air, thrashed around searching for ground. His metallic voice was ferocious.

“ You killed her. Only two people knew where Valerie had been moved to. ”

   The grip was too tight for words to escape, but Alexander tried as in a desperate effort. The doctor was thrown into the air, falling onto the floor. “Marcus….please”.

“ Your Marcus is dead”, the anger was unlike that of any human possible.

 The droid raised his hand for the punch which would have mashed in the doctor’s nose.

 “ Valerie.. she.... told me to”. His voice trembled in fear.

 “ I don’t believe you”, preparing to finish him.

  “ She was dying, Marcus”. The robot froze in a stupefied stance.

 “Cancer...lung cancer. You were too caught up in the war to see it! It was the only way to end the goddamn war and save her son”.

  It had been let out and Alexander felt a relieving comfort. It made him completely forget his assailant. The swift blow did enough damage to knock him out unconscious, his body tumbling, limp onto the steps.

  Marcus tapped the switch behind his neck and slowly walked up the stairs, no expression going through his human face. He paused for a few moments before saying, “You were wrong, father. You should have convinced them that the birth of A. I. would be the inevitable extinction of man. You just lit the match to your

ashes. ” He resumed his walk with the conviction of a man, having found his destiny. 

 “ I’m coming, son”, he whispered when he climbed out of the basement and wandered off into the chaotic world, free finally in the quest for his prodigal son.  

   






  




      

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