That’s what she said. His mother, Doctor Chin. Boys don’t cry.
Alistair looks at the mask. AEGIS did an acceptable job fabricating a new suit for him. It’s not quite to his specifications. Perfection is Alistair’s pose, his trademark. He never gets anything wrong. If something happened on a raid, it was the fault of a subordinate. His mother would subsequently punish that individual in public, and Alistair in private. “Their blood is on your hands,” she would hiss in his ear, and he would feel their weight adding to the mountain on his shoulders.
Alistair knew that he must find strength somehow, somewhere. The alternative was to look weak in front of the men Dr. Chin had put under his command. Weakness was imperfection, and only so many mercenaries could be killed before Dr. Chin would find adoption an acceptable manner in which to continue the family work. But his feelings held him back. He knew it. And everything he knew, his mother soon learned.
The treatments began before long. The odd taste in the water canteen. The before-dinner aperitif that was supposed to be non-alcoholic, but still left his head fuzzy for other reasons. The injections, said to be antibiotics or vaccinations, the sort of thing you’d get when your anti-capitalist strike team had to travel around the world and cope with local diseases. Only they continued long after the team was back home.
In one sense, it was easier that way. It was … comforting to not have to feel. Not to grieve, worry, regret. “This is what a man is like,” the world said, in the hundreds of voices and faces that surrounded him. “Don’t show emotion. Don’t have feelings. Be strong and silent.”
There was one time, after a particularly big bomb had been dropped on a particularly recalcitrant village, that Alistair had toured the site for his mother. The goal was to collect samples, gather taggants left behind by the explosion, confirm that a forensic examination of the site would lead NATO to the conclusions Dr. Chin preferred they draw about the bombers. The specialists were responsible for this work. All Alistair had to do was to lead a small detail, guard the perimeter, catch anyone who’d been outside the village at the time and was returning, and eliminate them. Witnesses were a liability the program could not afford. None such appeared.
But the bombing itself was witness, wasn’t it? There were blast marks, scorched silhouettes where fragments had occluded the nearby trees and rocks from the heat and light of the bomb. There was a hole in the ground. There was a gap here, a place where there ought to be something, and instead only emptiness had taken residence.
The bomb site stayed with him, even after the numbness had become routine.
Alistair turns the mask over and over in his hands, admiring its perfection. It won’t show doubt, pain, or fear. It won’t reveal hesitation or anguish or concern. It won’t betray his sadness or joy. It is worn over his face, but what it conceals is his heart.
He is still practiced enough, even after going under that infernal machine with Medea Quill, to guard his expression. He taxed himself to his limit doing so, in that offensively capitalist little coffee shop with the demeaning name of ‘Blintzkrieg’. There he’d faced the enemy robot, that ‘Sunny’ fellow. The ‘brother’ of Flamma, the robot who accompanies that alarmingly blunt girl Leah Snow. The one who’d attracted Medea’s interest.
Why? How did he ensnare her? Is it that he is so free to feel, and I am not? I won’t sacrifice my strength - I can’t. It’s all I have.
How can a boy be so strong, and yet so emotional? The answer is clear. It must be. It’s not a boy - it’s a robot - it’s a machine - it’s not real. Its feelings are simulated.
How lucky he is.
In that bomb crater, seeds have fallen. Flowers are growing, and blooming, in the sunlight. Why must it be so? Why must that gap fill now? And what awful jailer passed sentence by appointing me its gardener?
Alistair puts on the mask.
author: Bill G.