A Game of Keys, Stage 3 – ch. VIII

Zero options. That was his answer. Zero options and that we wait. It was such a disappointing slap in my face, that I felt the little control which I had just regained slipping from me again.

“We wait,” I echoed. “Wait. What do you mean ‘we wait’? We have less than an hour left!” I was trying to keep my cool, but I knew that some of my frustration and desperation must have been visible on my features, because the moment my eyes met Cuán’s, he quickly averted his gaze from me and stiffened.

I bit my own tongue hard to reign in my feelings. The throbbing pain brought me back to my senses. I was supposed to be the older and more responsible one of us, so it was unacceptable for me to break down in front of my brother like this. Panicking would do us no good at all. Taking a deep breath to calm myself, I let out a heavy sigh. “But Cuán,” I said, ignoring the sting in my tongue, in favor of arguing my case, “We can’t just sit around and wait. We can’t give up just like that. It’s not right.”

“I understand,” said Cuán. He hesitantly reached out and lightly placed the fingertips of his left hand on my right elbow. “But I don’t know what we can do in this situation. Our exit is barred by what seems to be extremely advanced technology from dad– I mean, from Dowers Inc. C2 coded these security devices, so he is the only one who knows the way to get out of here. But he’s dead now, so…”

The skin on my elbow tingled at the touch, but I decided not to say anything about it. The touch was distracting, but it was pleasant as well. I wondered if my brother was conscious of its effect on me. Frowning, I realized that he probably was – after all, he was already aware of my feelings for him. Why would he do this?

“We could talk,” I said. Raising and eyebrow, Cuán urged me to explain myself. “We’ll go over what happened so far,” I said. “If we do that, we might be able to extract some clues that we missed in the heat of the moment. It may help us.”

Cuán nodded in agreement. “Yes, you’re right. We could do that.”

When he retracted his hand, I became aware of why he had put it there in the first place. He had been trying to comfort me, to placate my wayward emotions. My skin suddenly felt cold at the loss of contact, and I idly rubbed my elbow with my hand.

Glancing over, I noticed my brother trying hard to pretend that nothing had happened, yet the hand that had previously touched my elbow, was now diligently plucking at a loose thread of the sheet wrapped around him. He was definitely conscious of me.

“Okay, should I start, or do you want first?”

“I’ll go,” Cuán said. He pulled his sheet tighter to himself. “I was in my room, talking on the phone with Eva about our homework.” I suppressed the beginnings of irritation boiling in the depths of my stomach. Now was not the time to become jealous of the President’s daughter. “After that, I don’t remember much, it’s all very hazy in my mind, but when I woke up, I was tied up on that bed, looking at you dealing with C2 on the big screen.” He motioned with his head towards the room that had been hidden by the mirrors. The bed still stood there, now with a stripped mattress, and above it a big translucent screen and an old-fashioned security camera were fixed to the ceiling. “That’s it.”

“Hmmm… that’s not really helpful,” I muttered. “I don’t have much to add to that either. I was in my apartment, fixing dinner, then everything just became a blur and I ended up here with C2, and he started talking about playing this damn game.”

“You too?” Cuán stopped picking at the loose thread. “Suddenly everything is just blurry and vague in your memories?”

I narrowed my eyes and focused my attention on him. “Yes. You’ve got something?”

Cuán shook his head. “No. But I’m guessing we’ve been drugged somehow by C2, before being dragged here. It makes for pliant victims.”

“Little bastard,” I hissed under my breath. Cuán shifted a bit, edging to sit closer beside me, but I pretended not to notice.

“What about the things C2 said?” my brother continued. “I know he spouted a lot of nonsense, but many of the things he said turned out to be important clues.”

Cuán was right. Many of the things C2 said, did turn out to be relevant in the end. “He said I had to play a game,” I recounted, “ He said he’d… do things to me every time I dropped a key. He threatened to rape me when I hadn’t solved the game and freed myself the moment the hour was over. He also hid his scent and voice.”

“No doubt in an effort to hide that he looked exactly like me,” Cuán commented, “but you figured it out anyway.”

“Yes,” I agreed. “It wasn’t so difficult to figure out once he raised his voice to shout at you.”

“I remember that.” There was a deep contemplative frown on Cuán’s face. “That was a conscious move of him. He chose to forgo his hidden identity in order to provoke you. He liked provoking you, it seemed to be some sort of method for him to control you.”

“True, C2 did say that ‘being in control of the youngest son of the powerful Dowers family is the most arousing thing in the world’,” I concurred, choosing to use the exact same words that C2 had used. “Youngest son being me.”

“Have you noticed that C1 and C2 are like opposites?” Cuán suddenly said to me.

I raised an eyebrow. “What do you mean?”

“Well,” Cuán licked his lips thoughtfully and idly rubbed at his navel. “C2 was very controlling and provocative – he had a domineering personality, but C1 on the other hand seems to be very submissive.”

That made me think for a moment. It was true that C1 gave into me the moment I raised my voice to demand something. He also seemed to listen to father’s every word. “He appears to be sensitive to authority,” I supplied.

“C1 is also very affectionate and childish, whereas C2 was a cold and calculating creature,” Cuán continued. “Do you remember what C1 said about himself and C2? He said that he was the better one of them two.”

I nodded. “I remember that. He said that he learned better to be you.” Shaking my head in anger, I growled, “But he’s nothing like you, Cuán. He’s a fake!”

“I know he’s a fake, Connor.” Cuán sighed. “But do you remember what dad– eh, yeah, dad… right.” Cuán raked his hand through his hair in frustration. I noted that it was difficult for him to suddenly change his wordings. I smiled, ignoring his small slip up, and wordlessly urged him to continue, which he did. “Remember what he said to me? One day he’ll replace me. Which means that C1 was the better replacement compared to C2. Not necessarily perfect, but better.”

“But you’re not a subservient person at all, Cuán,” I pointed out to him. “If you were, then you and I wouldn’t have been butting heads all these years. That’s why C1 is nothing like you.”

“Which is exactly why C1 is the better one.” Cuán turned to look me straight in the eyes. “Note that dad wants to replace me. For what reason would someone normally want to replace something? Normally, it would be, because that something is incompetent at its task. So too am I incompetent in dad’s eyes.”

“You’re not incompetent, Cuán,” I argued, but Cuán held up a hand to silence me.

“You’re looking at this from your own perspective, Connor,” he gently chided, “You have to look at this from dad’s point of view. What am I to him?”

I gruffly crossed my arms, but I knew that Cuán had a valid point there. Pushing my thoughts aside, I tried to step into my father’s mind. “You’re the son of the man who raped his wife.” I swallowed thickly. “He hates your blood, because it’s that man’s blood.”

“That’s not all, Connor,” Cuán said. “What about my relation to you? How would dad interpret that?”

Taking a deep breath, I forced myself to continue. “He knows my feelings for you – yet he sees us constantly fighting. He thinks you’re a source of pain to me.”

Cuán nodded. “Yes, I am a source of pain to you. A source that must be eliminated. Connor, like I said to you before, dad loves you very much. Remember what he said? That he promised your mother that he would give you all the happiness in the world? How can you be happy when I am constantly fighting you?”

“And so that’s why you have to be replaced?” I growled indignantly.

Cuán gave me a sad smile. “He would’ve just killed me and be done with it, if it weren’t for the fact that that would hurt you even more.”

“Because I –”

Because I loved Cuán.

I love him.

***

“I… see your point.”

I sighed. This was ridiculous. The cause of all this pain, of all this madness was me. Father created those little monsters for me. Because he loved me and wanted me to be happy. I was the one who had unknowingly started all this.

“So,” I said, “Father created these things to replace you so that I could be happy. Does he honestly think I could ever be happy with such replacements?”

Cuán shook his head. “I don’t think you were supposed to know that I was going to be substituted. And both C1 and C2 were still in an experimental phase, I don’t think either of them were expected to be the final product that would replace me. If I am going to be replaced, then surely the alternative will have to be absolutely perfect. You know how dad is, everything he makes must be faultless.”

I gave a joyless chuckle. “Yeah, his security systems are so perfect that even the secret back doors which he installed into the programs are a disaster to enter. And C2 is so damned perfect that it actually managed to hack into these very security systems. What a nightmare!”

“But I said that my clones are not perfect, Connor.” Cuán reached out to squeeze my shoulder lightly, bringing my attention back to him. “Especially C2 is not faultless. In fact, judging by what transpired, I’d say that he was a mistake. Why else would he so carelessly be blown up?”

I frowned, recalling the incident. “He was trying to say something before he was blown up. You said yourself that it seemed like he was being silenced.”

Cuán nodded grimly. “Yes. Remember his last words? ‘Your father. He is responsible for me. He wants me to…’ And there he was cut off and blown up. And just before that he said, ‘I want money. I need it to buy the things that will make you happy.’ In a twisted way, C2’s wishes are in line with what dad wanted.”

“I do recall his motive of wanting money,” I scoffed. “He thinks that buying expensive things will make me happy? That’s ludicrous!”

“Perhaps to you and me, but not to a person raised in a tube.” Cuán let his hand travel from my shoulder to my hand, and then he took hold of it and interlaced his dainty fingers with mine. I noticed distinctly how much bigger my hand was compared to his, and the warmth I felt tingling through my skin comforted me in an unexpected way. “You are loved by many people, Connor. And I at least have mom, whom I know loves me very dearly. But C2 must have grown up all alone in a lab, with no one to turn to when he needed someone to comfort him.”

It was strange to hear Cuán talk about C2. I suddenly noticed that whenever I referred to the cyborg, I simply spoke of it as a thing, an object, a monster even. But hearing my brother speak of him, C2 almost sounded like a human child with human qualities and human needs. I shifted uncomfortably.

“The only example of a loving person that C2 knows is dad, Connor,” Cuán continued. He tightened his grip on my hand. “And despite that dad loves you, he is still quite an authoritative person, even –or perhaps especially– to you. Before you moved out, dad was the one to tell you how you were to dress, walk and talk. He was the one dictating what people you should and shouldn’t know. And even to this day, you still rely on him whenever you are in trouble. Compared to that, dad paid no attention to my daily life at all. I know you must have noticed this throughout the years we’ve lived together.”

I gave Cuán’s hand a light squeeze in confirmation, and sighed. “I know,” I said. “I noticed, but I pretended not to see it.” I tried to keep the dejection from my voice, but I wasn’t sure whether I succeeded or not.

Smiling slightly, Cuán pulled me a little closer towards him. “It’s okay, Connor,” he said. “Dad may not really love me, but he did buy me many things to show his affection to me.”

“His fake affection,” I countered bitterly.

“And that’s also something C2 learned from dad,” said Cuán.

I started. “What?”

“C2 knew that dad’s affection for me was pretended, but the gestures are still real in their act,” Cuán explained. His free hand traveled upwards to play with the diamond piercing in his ear. “Besides, were you not the one to explain to me that, when you love someone, you should give them a present on Valentine’s day?”

“I…”

I felt a phantom kiss press against my cheek, and I knew then that I must be blushing. I could only be grateful for the darkness in the room that covered my face, and I silently hoped that the redness in my face wouldn’t be too noticeable.

Releasing his piercing, Cuán dropped his hand to place it on top of our interlaced fingers. “Connor,” he said to me, “what C2 did to you is reprehensible, but you should know that he acted upon what he believed to be love.”

I instantly jerked backwards. “That’s not love!” I cried out, disgusted at my brother’s implications. How could he suggest such a thing!

“I know it’s not,” Cuán said, “But does C2 know that?”

I swallowed hard. “You’re suggesting that C2 did what he did out of love for me?” I asked hoarsely.

“Out of what he thought was love for you,” Cuán corrected, “Like you said, it’s not real love, and it’s repulsive. I’m not sure that he even knew what real love was, which is where he and C1 differ radically.”

“You are not telling me that what C1 feels for me is real love!” I warned Cuán. “I will not accept that!”

Cuán scoffed. “Of course not,” he said. He pulled at my hand in an attempt to close the distance that my jerking backwards had created between us. “C1 loves dad, not you.”

“… What?”

 ***

“C1 loves dad,” Cuán repeated patiently. “He’s obedient in character and likes to please the one he loves. Dad made him with the intention of replacing me, so the purpose of his creation is to love you. I think C1 is so set on fulfilling this purpose in order to please dad that he’s feigning affection for you. That’s most likely why he calls you his ‘dearest’, because it is a term of endearment.”

“No.” I slowly shook my head. “I can’t believe that. That just isn’t possible.” It  just couldn’t be.

“Why not?” Cuán asked me.

“Because, Cuán – he’s a robot,” I argued. “It’s unnatural!” It defied the laws of the universe!

“But Connor, both C2 and C1 are man made. How natural could they possibly be?” Cuán pointed out.

“Exactly. That’s what I mean!” I exclaimed, feeling myself getting upset. “Neither of them are natural, therefore neither of them could ever know love.” They were not real. They could not possibly feel anything.

Unexpectedly, Cuán released my hand and stood up from his sitting position. He turned his back on me and left my side to sit on the bare mattress of the bed inside the room that had previously been hidden behind a mirror wall. I flexed my hand. The sudden absence of his presence made me feel strangely cold.

“They may not have been naturally born like us, Connor, but C2 was a living being just like you and I. C1 too had once been alive, before his body died in surgery. His soul is still alive inside that robotic body. They must have feelings just as you and I do.”

I felt myself getting irked by Cuán’s determination to convince me. “I doubt they have souls,” I contended, crossing my arms tightly across my chest. “God created us and gave us souls. These things were man made, they were not from God.”

“Their DNA came from me,” Cuán argued vehemently. “If I am from God, then are they not indirectly from God as well?”

I shook my head fiercely. “No,” I said, standing up. “They don’t feel, that’s why they don’t have souls.”

Cuán would have none of it. “And how could you possibly know if they don’t feel!” he yelled back.

“I know, because they’re not even alive!”

I breathed heavily. Why couldn’t Cuán understand this? What kind of rubbish had been implanted in his head that he could not even see this kind of logic?

“They’re not alive,” I repeated. I had to get this through my brother’s thick head. “You heard what C2 said, didn’t you? He can’t sin. And why do people sin? They sin because they choose evil over good. And they know evil from good, because they have souls.”

“People learn what’s good and evil,” said Cuán. “C2 never had that chance to learn it. He never had the opportunity to. That C2 said that he cannot sin, is simply a demonstration of his ignorance.”

“He’s still not alive,” I maintained.

“C2 was perfectly alive before he was killed off.” Cuan pulled his legs up to sit cross-legged on the bed. “Clones are living beings, Connor.”

“But robots are not,” I argued. “So even if I do admit that C2 has a soul, C1 still does not. C1 is simply made up from a lot of complicated data. He’s software. He’s not real.”

“C1 was once alive!” Cuán countered heatedly. “You said it yourself, the C1 you know is the preserved soul from the dead clone which dad transferred to that android body.”

“Well, then I guess I said wrong!” I crossed my arms in finality. “Robots can’t have souls. C1 has no soul. It’s ridiculous to think that he has one, and it’s certainly ridiculous to think that he knows love.”

“You will stand by your point?” Cuán asked me.

I nodded my head. “Yes,” I said.

“You are certain that a soul cannot be saved through technology?”

“Only God can save a soul,” I responded resolutely. “Humans who think they can do what God does are foolish and arrogant.”

“I see. Then I guess I can’t be saved either.”

***

Can’t be saved?

Perplexed, I uncrossed my arms. “Wha– what’s that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing.” Cuán brusquely turned around and dropped himself flat on his back to lie on the bed, placing his left hand on his abdomen to idly scratch at his bellybutton. “I just… I wish you were less– limited… in your views.”

I scoffed in indignation. “Limited?” I said. “And pray tell me – in what way am I limited?” I marched over towards the bed and sat on the edge of it, not caring that Cuán was carefully shuffling away from me as soon as I sat down. “Look, just because you accept robots as human beings and think cloning is okay, that doesn’t mean that you’re morally better than I am. You’re not. Having liberal ideas does not equate to having moral superiority. Got that?”

“I wasn’t talking about moral superiority,” Cuán said.

“Sure you weren’t,” I sneered. I made sure that the sarcasm dripped from my voice. “You just have a much broader view on what’s right and what’s wrong. You just know everything so much better.”

“This isn’t about right and wrong.”

“Oh? Then what is it about, huh?” I cajoled, “Would you please enlighten me? Since you have such a broad perspective on things.”

“Your hand is still bleeding.”

He was trying to change the subject. Apparently he wasn’t ready to confront me on this matter. I huffed and reached out to tear a piece of cloth from the sheet that was still partly wrapped around him. I clumsily attempted to wrap the cloth around my bleeding hand, but was stopped by him.

“I’ll help you bandage it,” he offered and proceeded to do as he had said.

“What did you mean, you can’t be saved?” I was not going to beat around the bushes. This was serious, and I would not let my brother deter me from the subject.

“I just have a feeling,” he replied vaguely. He patted my hand. “Done!” he said.

I suppressed the urge to become mad again. He was still trying to avoid the topic, but this was too important, and I could not lose my temper at this crucial point, otherwise Cuán would use it in his attempts to divert my attention again. I had to stay focused.

“What feeling?” I coaxed him.

Cuán scratched at his navel again. He was doing that whenever he felt uncomfortable. “Connor,“ he said, “I won’t beat around the bushes anymore, but can you tell me one thing first? Tell me honestly.”

I quickly nodded, urging him to continue.

“Are you happy with me?”

I contemplated his question. “Happy – in what sense?” I asked him carefully.

“That I am here with you. Beside you.” He looked at me with hopeful eyes.

I stared back at him, but I did not know how to interpret his words. “Beside me,” I reiterated. Was he asking me whether I was happy that he was beside me because he knew I was in love with him? That I wanted him? “Beside me,” I repeated once more, then added, “As my brother?”

He smiled. “As me,” he said. “As Cuán.”

I gave him another long assessing look, and while I mulled over his words, the way he had phrased them. As Cuán – he had said. As himself – he had meant. Everything that he was and everything that he represented. I smiled back at him. “Yes,” I said.

He nodded, and then his expression turned grave. He was going to speak. Taking a deep breath, he looked me straight in the eyes, and told me – honestly, “I don’t think I will live through this.” This time he did not avert his eyes from me.

Before I knew what I was doing I had taken hold of his arms and pulled him close to me. I refused to believe in his words. “You will live through this,” I said, “I will make sure of it.” I was not going to lose him, I’d be damned before I would let him! I didn’t care how I’d do it or whatever it would take, but my brother would not die here. I would not allow for it.

“But what if I won’t?” He asked me calmly.

“You will! I won’t give you any other options.”

Cuán gave me a grim laugh. “And who are you to decide what options I have? Did you become God when I wasn’t looking?”

I frowned. “I’m serious, Cuán. We’ll make it out of here together.”

Cuán smiled at me, but the smile did not reach his eyes. “Your will has always been strong, Connor, and you’ve accomplished many things by acting on that strength. You constantly butted heads with me because of it. You were able to leave dad’s house because of it, despite the adamant protests of dad, mom and our brothers, and even me. And you also never laid a finger on me because of it.”

I squirmed uneasily at his casual voicing of my feelings for him, but instead of letting him go, I only held on tighter to his bony teen-aged limbs. How could Cuán speak so easily of this? Was he not even the slightest bit appalled by how I felt for him?

Cuán sighed. “I think your will comes from dad. He and you are equally headstrong men when you’ve set yourselves on something.” He wearily continued, “But you still shouldn’t forget that we have less than an hour of air here. No matter how strong your will is, it is still not strong enough to bend reality. We will die, if we don’t get way out of here. And that situation is impossible to avoid, unless we find the right key.”

“And you’re saying that we won’t find a way out of here?” I asked. “That we won’t find this key? You’re quitting just like that?”

Cuán shook his head. “No. In fact, I think I might have a hunch how we can get out of here.”

I felt myself blinking in confusion, and then raising an eyebrow expectantly. “You do? What then? Why didn’t you tell me earlier?” Something uneasy settled in my stomach, but I ignored it.

Cuán shrugged reluctantly. “I didn’t tell you, because I didn’t really want you to know. I guess I… well, but I suppose it’s only fair to tell you the truth.”

I held my breath. What would Cuán say? Were we going to get out of here?

“I think I may be involved in this.”

Come again?

“I’ve been thinking why C2 had trapped me here with you,” Cuán continued, “and this seemed like the only logical explanation. I mean, he wants to replace me right?”

I pulled him closer to me. “What are you trying to tell me?”

“Did you notice that my bellybutton is bleeding?” Cuán suddenly asked me.

I blinked and looked down. I noticed that there was a slight trickling of blood dripping down his navel. “You’ve been scratching that place ever since I released you from this bed.” I said with a disapproving scowl.

“I know. I think someone messed with my bellybutton. It itches.”

What are you rambling about?” He was starting to digress again, the brat! Cuán tried to pull away, but I only dragged him closer to myself. He was not getting away now. Not while we were so close to getting out of here. “Don’t try to change the subject to avoid talking about what‘s important,” I warned him.

He averted his eyes and said, “Connor, I’m not changing the subject. I think there’s something inside me that doesn’t belong there. I think you have to get it out of me in order to escape this place.”

“You don’t mean…?” I was not hearing this. Absolutely not.

“The best way for C2 to replace me is when I’m dead. You know that.”

This was not happening.

Cuán looked up at me and said, “Connor, I think I’m the last key to your freedom.”

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