It was a small room filled with a mild aroma of lavender. At the center of the room, eight people sat on the floor in a perfect circle. With their backs straight, eyes closed and hands locked together, they sat in silence. A board suspended midway on the door read ‘In session’. The brightness of the letters on the board adjusted to match its surrounding light.
Through the closed windows, distant bells chimed gently into the room. A girl in a denim dress, with her hair braided in a plait, opened her eyes and said, “Let’s begin. I want to remind everyone that this is a safe space. Everybody’s story will be heard here. I also want to say that I am grateful to be your facilitator.”
Josh sat right across from her. He noticed how her eyes had a distinct shade of green. He thought that she was probably about the same age as him.
“Josh, it’s your turn today. Do you feel that you are ready?” he was suddenly aware that everybody’s attention had turned to him.
“Yes Miya, I am ready. My name is Josh. Well, err, you already know that.” There was a muffled laughter. Josh couldn’t help but join them in their laugh. He took a deep breath and said, “It was my mother. She had just turned thirty when her routine quarterly test showed a Level 9 genetic disposition to rheumatoid arthritis II. The test predicted an onset in the next three years. She was of course immediately sent for the advanced testing. It indicated that the primary, early zones would be her wrists and fingers.”
Several candles stayed suspended in the room at different heights. Josh watched the candle light flicker in Miya’s eyes. He decided to continue. “My mum, she was a piano player, one of the finest that New York City had seen. Piano was her passion. Piano was her identity. She decided to go bionics so she could continue to play and play even better. One year after her hand replacement, I was born.” Josh paused. He signaled that he didn’t have anything further to say.
Miya nodded. “Thank you for sharing that, Josh. We are nearing the end of today’s session. You all know this but I just wanted to iterate. It was 2018, when for the first time, a woman who had lost her original hand in an accident, received a bionic that had a sense of touch. That was a huge advancement in neuroprosthetics back then. It took folks almost another decade to perfect both the sense of touch and fine motor movements of bionics. The decade of 2030, when most of you…when most of us were born, was the decade that saw the highest number of VRs – Voluntary Replacements. It all started when the Academy changed the policy and made it much more open. The replacements were not restricted to those who had lost their limbs in accidents or wars. Anyone could voluntarily ask for a replacement if they believed that it would better their quality of life.”
Josh was listening carefully. All of this was common knowledge anyway. “Miya, do you want to tell us that the Academy never funded a complete research on the long-term impact of this policy change?” His voice was now stable and sharp.
He continued. “Do you also want to tell us that the Academy’s managing director was a close friend of the CEO of Retouch Bionics? Or how about that the parents never realized what would happen when their babies were denied the human touch? That as they grew up, they would face a steady depression that would slowly rip their life apart?”
Miya’s eyes were now glistening. “Yes Josh, all those are valid statements. If you had given me a few uninterrupted seconds, I would have liked to share that.”
“Sorry.” Josh mumbled. He could not meet her calm gaze anymore. He pushed his long hair back and stared at the candles.
“As Josh said, it is true that folks did not realize how this would impact the babies. The last two decades have been very tough on many who were deprived of the human touch. We are in 2050 and finally there is more research on this subject now. We are also noticing a growing number of human touch therapy groups and meetups, just like this one.”
Miya looked around. “I would like to end today’s session with one last note. Remember that your parents had the best intentions and they did not see this coming. This ability to go bionics voluntarily was seen as something truly revolutionary. It was considered highest freedom at the personal level, just like when active euthanasia first became legal back in the days.” Josh quivered a little.
Everyone extended their hands towards their neighbors. The aroma of lavender was soothing and so was the touch of the hands as they sat in a tight circle. When the bells chimed again, everyone slowly got up to leave the room.
“Miya, I want to apologize for earlier.” Josh had caught her right at the door.
“Josh, there is absolutely no need for that!” Miya touched his shoulder lightly.
“Well, alright, but right now there is absolutely a need to, err, smell some coffee. You know, especially after that much lavender. You want to go get a classic cappuccino?”
“Are you making fun of my lavender or are you asking me out for a date?” Miya was quite amused.
“Both. I am very efficient like that!” Josh held her by the arm as they made their way out to the brightly lit streets of the city.
Three months later, sitting in a cozy café inside the battery park, Josh and Miya were sipping cappuccino from large wooden mugs. The café had gotten rid of the tables years ago and created a more natural surrounding. Two big chocolate scones were placed in a plate that suspended in front of them. The light in the café adjusted automatically based on the natural light, giving it a faint dusk like feel.
“How is your grandpa doing?” Miya spoke after a long pause.
“Oh, he is okay. He says it is just old age. He is the one who took care of me all these years after my mum was gone. Now he is refusing any replacements. Says he never had them and never would. Hey, did you know that back when he was younger, they didn’t have a way to request lifespan predictions as part of their annual physical?”
“Did your mum request a lifespan prediction, Josh?” Miya asked gently.
Josh put his coffee mug down. “Yep. You guessed that right. That was a turning point of sorts for her. Those predictions plus the malfunctioning of her bionic hand, and she had a good case to present to the medical council. With the malfunctioning, she suffered from both physical and emotional pain.”
“And her case was…?” Miya hesitated.
“Yep, her case was approved. She got the blue envelope once all the paperwork wrapped up. I think she was brave to make that final decision of her life. Of course my grandpa would never think like that. He is a true Gen-Xer you know. Things were different back then.”
“Of course things were different back then. But they say some things are cyclical too. How about that?”
“Yep, like the denim dresses you girls wore during the Human Touch sessions? Fashion is so cyclical, I tell you!” Josh pushed the locks of his hair away from his forehead and winked. He always had a knack to take any conversation to a lighter side. It always took Miya by surprise and made her laugh.
“So you were busy noticing the denim dresses during those sessions? Did you pay any attention at all in the class? Did it even help you?” Miya asked with a mock sternness in her voice.
“Well, erm, I don’t think the session helped me but hey, I did pay attention. I used to pay attention to your eyes. I didn’t ask you earlier but they are adjusted, right?” Josh asked in his usual direct style. Miya lowered her eyelashes and did not say anything.
“Look Miya, I think they are very pretty whether they are your original color or not. I love my grandpa but I am not at all like him. I am not refusing every bionic advancement that technology has to offer. But I believe there is a balance to be sought and I think there is much research that needs to happen to understand the social impact.”
“Josh, I agree. You know what I think? I think you talk too much and leave me with nothing to do but nod! Here!” and she stuffed the chocolate scone in his mouth. It was now Josh’s turn to laugh as he tried to chew down the scone fast.
Six months later, there was a small gathering in a large porch outside Josh’s house. Miya had worn stone blue lace-up jeans and a pearl white top. Standing close to her, in a simple white shirt and khaki pants, Josh was holding her hand. A light beard that he had grown recently gave him a mature look. A soft oriental fusion music played in the background.
“Alright, alright folks!” It was Josh’s friend, Ron, who had now raised a glass. “As Josh’s best friend and his only best friend, I would like to make a toast. A very happy 21st birthday to Josh! May he continue to charm those around him including all the gorgeous ones among us. I have many of his stories that I could share but how about I save those for the day when I might be his best man?!”
“Oh yeh!” everyone shouted in unison and raised their glasses. All the eyes were on Miya now. Her face was flushed and her eyes sparkled as she gave a sideways glance. Josh was looking at her intently.
Most others had left and it was only Josh, Ron and Miya sitting in a corner on the porch. Ron was Josh’s childhood friend and they shared a common trait. Both could go on talking on pretty much any subject and joke around.
Today, however, Josh was silent for the most part. So Miya decided to do the talking. “How is work, Ron? Any interesting research papers you are publishing this year?” She asked.
“Well, I thought I was ready to wrap up a project and publish a paper. But some of the recent findings from the lab are a bit baffling. We are noticing that the Golden-Z drug is not effective in some cases. These are very rare instances but they are being confirmed from a few labs around the world.”
“Oh that is strange. Golden-Z has been the de facto for all, umm, euthanasia requests right?” Miya asked.
As the two of them chatted away, Josh looked a little tired. “Alright my favorite peeps. It’s time for me to call it a day!” he extended his hand to bid goodbye.
After Ron and Miya left, the porch was quiet except for the faint whirring of a couple bots that were cleaning the area. As Josh entered his bedroom, the lights dimmed down and the assistant unit on his desk started blinking to indicate that he had a message waiting for him. Josh looked down at the unit. With a quick scan of his eye, the unit had verified his identity and opened a mail delivery unit. Lying inside the unit was a blue envelope with one sentence neatly printed on the cover. It said “Approved. Appointment: Sunday April 2nd, 2051 08:00 AM local”.
“Miya, it’s Ron. I am calling from the city’s main healthcare center. Are you there?” the bracelet phone on Miya’s wrist was buzzing and rolling the transcript from Ron’s voice call.
Miya waved her hand to answer the call and said, “What happened Ron? You are calling this early on a Sunday morning?”
“Miya, it’s about Josh. I am calling from the Golden-Z wing. You need to be here. Also listen, Josh’s grandpa’s housing is on your way. Can you bring him as well?” The bracelet on her hand suddenly felt heavier now. Her knees were wobbling as she stood up but she straightened herself up and ran outside the door.
When Miya reached the center, Ron was standing at the entrance. He led her inside a room in the Golden-Z wing. Resting on the bed was Josh, with his long hair casually sprawled on the pillow. He gave a faint smile as he saw them. Without a single word, Miya ran into his arms.
“What is going on? Is someone going to explain to me?” Miya did not bother holding her tears back.
“Miya, Josh became eligible after he turned 21. The council approved his request on the basis of his struggle with depression as well as his other predictive tests. He was administered the Golden-Z this morning but guess what, it did not work on him.” Josh was now sitting up and holding her hands.
Ron continued. “Remember I was telling you all about the abnormalities the labs were reporting? We have more and more incidences of those. It seems some sort of gene mutation may be triggering this and making the body refuse the drug. It’s as if the nature’s core survival instinct figured out a way to express itself.”
“I see, and..and now what?” Miya was looking at Josh with her eyes still filled with tears. Josh did not say anyhing and continued to hold her hands.
“Now what? You are asking now what?” it was Ron who spoke. “Miya, do you understand the gravity of the situation? I have a great opportunity right here to use my best buddy as a case study and finish up my research on these abnormal findings. I am going to be famous!” He said with a mock excitement. Both Ron and Josh burst out laughing. “We are keeping Josh here for a few days and then he is all yours.” Miya shook her head and smiled.
Finally Josh spoke. “Miya, I, actually, I feel good right now. Does that help a little bit? I feel especially great when my hand is locked with yours. Does that help? I know this is not easy for anyone but I promise you and I will figure it out.” Miya nodded. “Listen, would you bring my grandpa in? He is waiting at the reception, right? I have a hunch he has a few things to say. And you know what, I am in a listening mood today.”
Miya got up. Her legs had stopped shaking now. As she left the room, she could hear Josh talking excitedly about something. Things seemed so different and yet she felt comfort in that voice she knew too well. As she stepped out, she could hear his laughter that echoed and mixed in the sound of the wind chimes that were ringing in the distance.
[Author’s note: this is an attempt at Science Fiction Prototyping. My hope is to explore near-futuristic technologies and their social impact via short SciFi stories. Hope it sparks a few questions, ideas and thoughts for you!]