“I struggle with the inherent lack of importance in everything that I do. Though I recognize that, in context, my actions have meaning, I also recognize that on a grand scale, it’ll all add up to nothing. And nothing will be left of the sliver of life I lived once I die.”
Rainer’s words filled the elevator, and Cain tried to empathize, but mostly thought the last thing their situation needed was an additional dose of somberness, considering where they were going, who they would see there, and the state of mind in which he knew the doctor would be, unless something had changed between him and his benefactor.
As we crawled our way down toward the sub-basement where Dr. Steinberg’s lab was tucked away, I wondered how much longer the elevator would operate. Funding for the doctor’s activities had been cut off long enough that he was on what he was calling a ‘med student diet.’ One by one, the machines in his lab were dimming, their lights turned off, presumably in an effort to consume less electricity.
I said to Rainer, “That’s pretty morose, man. I mean, probably true, but also quite dark.”
“Well, it’s a dark time. Quite literally, in some senses.” He gestured at the lifeless light fixtures. “But also in other, more philosophical and social senses. Did you know, for example, that Francis knocked off a serial killer the other day?”
The traditional definition of ‘serial killer’ requires a murderer to have killed three or more victims, but allowing for down time between kills. The FBI, however, defines the term more loosely, applying the term to anyone who kills two or more people, and allowing for variation in how the kills are achieved, including the addition of accomplices.
“What? No. How did she…I mean, how did she get close enough to…”
“He worked at her bank, so she saw him all the time. Didn’t realize who or what he was until he was taken in by the cops, but they couldn’t make anything stick because of how they handled the arrest, apparently. The dude ended up suing the city, even though they had evidence linking him to something like seven murders. Seven!”
“That’s a lot of murders.”
“It is! And she knocked him off, easy as confetti cake…”
“…And all I could think when I heard about this was that all this cool stuff I’ve gotten involved with isn’t actually that cool. I mean, it’s cool, it’s just not world-alteringly cool. It’s not knocking off serial killers and mobsters and cartel leaders cool.”
“I think the word you’re looking for is, ‘important,’” I said.
“Yeah, exactly. Well, like I said. All this stuff we’re neck-deep in, I mean, it’s more than most people deal with. It’s not worrying over what’s on TV tonight, or some kind of at-work scuffle with the dude in the next cubicle. But it’s also not super-massively vital.” He folded his arms across his chest. “It would be amazing if we could somehow get all these people — the doctor and Plato and The Commons and even the government, maybe, possibly — working together. Taking all this talent and know-how and really improving humanity somehow. Or improving the world. Improving how we live? Something.”
Rainer sighed. “But it kind of just seems like we’re destined to sit here while everyone bumps their heads together, over and over. Like human bumper cars.”
Bumper cars, which are commonly called ‘dodgems’ in England, were invented by Victor Levand, who worked for General Electric.
“I like bumper cars, and therefore oppose their usage as a negative,” I said. “But I get your point.”
“I do. I mean, I think I do. I’m just surprised to hear you say it. I thought you were jazzed about becoming a cyborg. Living forever and all that.”
“Well I’m not a cyborg yet, am I?” Rainer asked. “And if these clowns don’t get their act together, what do you think the chances of my becoming one might be?”
“Slim to none.”
“And don’t get me started on immortality,” Rainer said. “They’ve got so many technologies that can increase a human lifespan, and we’re puttering around, not making use of them, because of some bruised egos?” He shook his head, a look of disbelief carved into his face. “I don’t know man. I’m optimistic on a broad scale, but this little slice of innovation that we’ve fallen into has got me a little down. It’s too little innovation and too much slice for my taste.”
The elevator doors opened. “I hear you there. Though don’t discount them yet.” We walked down the hall toward Steinberg’s lab, the sensors that usually glowed around us during the journey failed to light the way even a photon’s worth. “Call me an optimist, but I think there may be a breakthrough of some sort just over the horizon.” We walked into the lab, which felt much bigger than it ever had before.
I realized why: all the equipment was gone. Dr. Steinberg looked much smaller than usual — an older man, looking his age — sitting cross-legged in the center of the space. He looked up a few moments after we entered, and said, “Oh, hello boys. Cain. Hello, Rainer.”
Steinberg smiled, but the look was an apology, not a sign of happiness. “They, well…” he cleared his throat. “Plato’s men came for the equipment last night. Walked right past me, started carting things out. Told me that if I tried anything, they’d bring me in for questioning about my ‘off the books’ activities.”
He looked away and stared at a black, metal wall. “I don’t think they even knew what that meant, but it was clearly a threat from Plato. He’s got his authority, his upgrades, and the temporary blessing of the state of California behind his efforts. All I’ve got is what I could salvage to my remote backup before they pulled the plug, and a few scraps they left me in the workshop.”
My eyes darted toward the infirmary. “Did they…?”
“No, no, they weren’t complete brutes. They left the basic equipment we need to keep Ink and Sand alive until we can bring them back. Everything else, though…gone. I don’t know where they took it, but I suspect Plato must be setting up a new laboratory, maybe officially sanctioned. Maybe not.”
Steinberg’s shoulders slumped, and he looked back at me and Rainer. “Very nice of you to stop by, though. Good to see a few youthful faces, in a moment of dark brooding.”
I forced a smile onto my face, and noticed Rainer had done the same. Rainer said, “Yeah, you know, we were just talking about how things were bound to look up. Lots of momentary downswings, but at the end of the day, the work done here is important. We’ll figure out a way to keep it going.”
“Yes, yes. Of course.” Steinberg pushed himself up to his feet and dusted imagined filth from his lab coat sleeves. “Well, then. What shall we do?”
“I think, actually,” I looked at Rainer, “we actually just stopped by to make sure you were alright. To check on Ink and Sand. You know.”
“Yeah,” Rainer said. “We actually have a thing.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Kind of a get together with friends.”
The thing Cain was referring to did, in fact, exist, but it wasn’t scheduled for several hours. All the same, he was glad that Rainer was on the same page as he was, not wanting to spend a single moment more than necessary in that empty lab, vacant of purpose and inspiration, despite still being occupied by the man who had made it such an interesting place to begin with.
“I see,” said Steinberg, deflating a little, but trying not to let it show. “Well, it was good of you boys to stop by.” He paused. “And you know, things will be back to normal here, soon. Just wait. This row with Strauss won’t last much longer — I’m certain he’ll realize what an asset Ichabod is to the cause, even if we have to find another position for him that’s more out of the way — and Plato’s newfound love for public attention will be his undoing. Just wait and see.”
“I don’t doubt it,” I said, doubting it.
“We’ll see you soon, doc,” said Rainer, as we turned back toward the door we’d just entered, walking down the hallway to the elevator.
“Jeeeeeeee-sus,” Rainer whispered, reflexively eyeballing the dark recesses where he knew sensors lay dormant. “Well that was depressing. Like a dog kicked in the ribs and left with a few scraps after a lifetime of eating at the table.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Though I wouldn’t put it past him to turn those scraps into a new table. Or new food around which a table is built. Or whatever metaphor makes the most sense in this circumstance.”
The elevator doors opened as soon as we stepped in front of them, and we walked inside.
“I’m going to pretend you said something deeper just now,” Rainer said, tapping the button for the main floor lobby. “Coffee until the big meeting, which will probably be a party?”
Coffee was banned by the Ottoman Turks in the seventeenth century, for political reasons.
“Coffee,” I said. “And hopefully it’s at least as much party as meeting. I could use a pick-me-up after this little visit.”