“No!” I jumped up from the bed and started pacing around like a caged beast. Which I was – at this moment.
Cuán gave me a pitiful smile. “You know we have to,” he said. “If only one of us can get out of here, Connor–”
“I said no!” He started at my aggressive display, but I did not care. I was beyond caring at this point, he was suggesting something that went against everything that I stood for! “You’re telling me to cut you open like a butcher and then take the key out of you, right? Well guess what? It’s not going to happen!”
“There’s no other key–”
“I will not cut you open!” I shouted.
He promptly turned around, treating me to his backside. “Then I guess we’ll both have to die,” he said, flatly. His answer was plain and simple, and it angered me.
“I will not let you die, Cuán,” I growled. I stopped my pacing. “I promised you that I wouldn’t let you die and I intend to keep to it like a man. Mark my words.”
Abruptly, Cuán pushed himself back up onto his arms. “Obstinate headstrong fool!” he shouted. He was livid – as much at his limit as I was, if not more. Sitting up, he turned to face me. His eyes burned like two hot coals of fury. “There is no other way out, you idiot!”
I ignored his insult, and yelled back, “I don’t care! You will live!”
“Don’t be such a pig-head, Connor!” Cuán cried. “You know this is the only way you can escape, so stop being so immature about it!” He flung his legs around the edge of the bed and stood up. “You can’t bend reality!”
“So?” I stubbornly challenged.
“So– ?” Cuan echoed indignantly. He shook his head in frustration, then stomped towards me. “Either way, I will die,” he yelled into my face, “There is nothing you can do about it, so just accept it!”
I resolutely turned away from him and put my index fingers in my ears. “I am not hearing this!” I repeated. I didn’t care how childish I looked, I was not going to consent to killing my own brother!
Cuán, however, grabbed my arms and forcefully pulled them back down. “Just because you don’t acknowledge reality, doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen!” he cried, but he was facing my back.
“It’s not going to happen, Cuán!” I said again, “I won’t allow it to happen!”
“You’re not God, Connor!” Cuán pointed out, “If God wants me dead, then do you really think you can stop it!”
“Fuck God!” I cried out. Then, my breathe hitched in my throat. I stopped. Suddenly, I realized what I had just said. I had– no, I couldn’t have!
Cuán gave me a wide-eyed look, staring at me as if he’d never seen me like this before. He hadn’t. I had never in my life said such unthinkable things before. “C-connor?” he asked me uncertainly.
“I refuse to let you die, Cuán,” I murmured. Though I could not relent on this point, my previous anger had all but disappeared, and all I felt now was shame for my behavior.
“But you can’t– ”
“I don’t care about reality,” I interrupted him, “I will have it bend for you. And if God wants you dead…” I quickly shook my head and rejected this option. “Well, that’s impossible,” I said, “because God is good, so He would never want you to die like this.”
“Connor?” He sounded uncertain.
“I love you, Cuán,” I said.
He stared at me, speechless. Slowly, I bent down and then I pressed my lips against his cheek. Softly. Carefully. My heart thumped painfully against my chest, but I dared not go further. That would be wrong – immoral.
Quickly, I straightened myself and looked away. “So…” I said awkwardly. I received no reaction, so I dared to sneak a look at him. “Cuán?”
He was blushing, and looking as ill at ease around me as I felt around him. Maybe that kiss had been too much, I thought. It was too late to take it back now, though.
Reaching his left hand up, he rubbed at his cheek as if to chase away a ghost. “You– ” he hesitated. “You really love me?”
“I wouldn’t be saying all this shit if I didn’t,” I said to him. There was a certain confidence in my heart as I said this. No matter what other feelings I may hold for Cuán, and whether these feelings were appropriate or not, my love for him would not diminish. That, at least, would never change.
Cuán smiled. Then, he tiptoed and reached up to capture my lips with his. A flash of a second later, he was at the other side of the basement, checking out the See Ex – or whatever it was that pimped out control panel was called.
“C-Cuán?” I stuttered, slightly stunned.
“Hmm… it seems that you only damaged the projector,” he said, utterly ignoring the kiss that we had just shared, and pretending that absolutely nothing had happened between us. Well, it probably wasn’t a big deal to him, as it wasn’t the first time we had done this, I reasoned with myself. Tilting my head thoughtfully, I wondered whether it could be counted as a real kiss, it had seemed more like a quick peck.
“I suppose you turned it off while thrashing the projector. You must’ve accidentally come into contact with the off-button. Well– I think it’s possible for me to connect the Generator CX with the flat screen.”
I carefully licked my lips. The last time we’d shared one of those had been about fifteen years ago. I had been eleven and Cuán had been a baby. I had enjoyed giving him those little pecks back then, as he had been utterly adorable in his earliest years. A teenager kissing an adult, however, was very much of a different league compared to a child kissing a baby.
“Connor, are you listening to me?”
I turned to look at my brother, all grown up now. “Of course I am,” I said. “So how are you going to do it?”
He shrugged. “Just plug and unplug. Very easy. Can you reach the flat screen, though? We’ll have to take it off the ceiling.”
I nodded. “Yeah, I think I’ll manage if I stand on the bed,” I told him.
He gave me his thumbs up. “Let’s do this, Connor!” he said.
I nodded and went to climb onto the bed. In the back of my mind, I once again cursed my little brother for having succeeded in diverting us from the topic that truly mattered. He still wanted me to cut him open for the key.
Taking the flat screen off the ceiling, I carefully lowered it, and climbed off the bed. Then, I carried it back to Cuán and the control panel. “Here– ” I huffed and put it down for him. “It’s heavier than I thought.”
“Oh?” Cuán raised an eyebrow, looking up from his inspection of that See Ex thing. “You’re tired?” he asked.
“As you can see,” I said, letting out another pant. Without another thought, I dropped down to sit on the laminated floor. I was out of breath!
“You look really drained.” Cuán sounded like he was thinking about something.
“I think that should be obvious,” I told him. I touched the laminate floor with my hand and idly began to follow its intricate patterns with my index finger as if drawing a masterwork. What was the point of connecting the flat screen with that See Ex anyway? Did Cuán think he could crack C2’s codes? Hack into the system? What chances were there to succeed if even father couldn’t get in?
“You’re getting irritated, Connor.”
I looked up. “No, I’m not,” I said.
Cuán smiled. “Yes, you are,” he countered. “You’re tired and you’re irritated.”
I shrugged in annoyance. “I just don’t see the point in carrying that stupid load down here,” I grumbled. Sighing, I continued to retrace the patterns on the laminate.
“It has been a while since we were brought here,” Cuán said. He thoughtfully tapped his bottom lip with his finger. “I suppose the hour we were given has almost passed.”
That made me stop what I was doing. “What?” I asked him.
Cuán smiled. “The flat screen isn’t heavy, Connor. We’re simply running out of air.” He shrugged and pulled some wires from behind the screen. “It doesn’t have wireless connection,” he supplied, but I didn’t care about his technological babble.
“We’re out of air?” I made to crawl over to him, but he stopped me.
“The more exercise you use, the faster we’ll run out of oxygen,” he said. “Don’t move around unnecessarily.” He turned on the flat screen and pushed its reset button. “Also,” he continued, almost as an afterthought, “don’t get so excited.”
I growled in the back of my throat. The brat was making light of this whole situation! “Why aren’t you out of breath yet?” I asked him.
He shrugged, as he began to reprogram the flat screen. “I wasn’t the one moving this ancient thing around,” he said, patting the old monitor with mock affection. “Besides, I’m shorter and smaller than you.”
“And what does that have to do with anything?” I asked grumpily.
“Well,” Cuán said, and I instantly regretted asking it. He was going to put on his know-it-all attitude. “Obviously, being smaller means that I need less oxygen than you do. You should know that, Connor.”
“And you should know that I don’t think straight without oxygen,” I shot back at him. Cuán chose not to comment on this, knowing that I was right. I forced myself to remain calm, and asked him, “So, why are we connecting the flat screen to the See Ex?”
“It’s called the Dowers Generation CX, Connor – not See Ex.” Why did I love this insufferable wise guy again? “And we are connecting it to the flat screen, because we need to use the CX to unlock the last key. There is still at least one stage left.”
“About that key– ”
“Yes about that,” Cuán quickly interrupted me. “There must be a knife or some other object hidden in this room and we have to find it. It’s the last stage. The CX will surely point us to the right direc– ”
“Will you shut up and listen to me!” I called out. He silently looked at me, but I could see that he did not want to hear what I had to say. I didn’t care, though. “We’re not going to find this knife or whatever,” I said, “we’re both going to get out of here alive! Okay?”
Cuán lifted an eyebrow, but it was clear to me that he did not agree. “Right,” he jeered, “so we’re just going to magically wish ourselves out of this place.” He scoffed at me. “What did you expect, Connor? A miracle? Or maybe you thought that ripping open my stomach with your bare hands was the better alternative compared to the knife? Because, of course, that would most certainly ensure my chance at survival.”
Frustrated, I reached out and grabbed him. “Do you want to be cut open then!” I yelled at him, not caring for the oxygen that I was wasting. “Well? Do you want to die!”
He looked me straight in the eyes, and said, “I don’t.”
“Then why!” Why was he so willing to kill himself off like this?
Lifting his hands, Cuán moved to place them on my shoulders and I felt his warmth seeping into my skin. “I want to be with you, Connor,” he said. “To be beside you. But only if you’ll allow me to.”
“Allow you?” I blinked at him, not comprehending what he was trying to tell me. “What are you saying? You know how I feel about you.”
Cuán smiled sadly. “I know how you feel about me now, but would you still feel the same for me, if I became something you despise?” I opened my mouth to tell him that I could never despise him, but he cut me off, “What if I became something unnatural?”
And then I understood. “You’re telling me– ”
“I can become like C1,” Cuán said, confirming my thoughts. “Even though the C-project was initially set up with the intention of killing and replacing me, its purpose can be overturned – the C-project can actually save me. But it can only work, if you accept me.”
“If I accept you?” I repeated.
Cuán nodded. “It would be pointless to try it, if you do not accept me.” He let his gaze wander, as he continued, “Why go through all this trouble, if in the end I am not even acknowledged as a being? What purpose would this have, if all I’ve become is merely data in the end?”
I let out a difficult sigh. “You want me to believe that technology can save a soul?” I asked.
Cuán smiled at me. “It’s like believing in God,” he said to me. “God is important to you, because you believe in him. But dad doesn’t believe in God. God does not exist in dad’s world, because he doesn’t accept the idea. And in the same vein, when you think about it – I, too, cannot be a part of your world. I’ll be mere data, and I’ll mean nothing to you. Not as long as you don’t accept that I am real.”
I felt Cuán squeeze my shoulders, as I internally debated what I had to do. I loved Cuán, I loved him dearly, but he was asking me to sacrifice the ultimate for him. I wasn’t sure whether I could do this, whether it was in my power to do this. Was it even possible to just up and change one’s own belief? To change what one thought to be real? I knew that if I could, that I would do everything for him, because he was the most important person in my life. But even as I had previously said that I would have reality bend for him, I knew deep in my heart that it was not within my power to make this promise come true. After all, if I were to make the claim that invisible pink unicorns existed, that would not make the statement become actual truth either suddenly – now, would it?
I sighed. There was little time left. I would simply have to go along with this madness for now. “You think father will help you?” I asked.
Cuán stood silently, contemplating my question for a long moment there. I did not let go of his gaze. If we were to go through with this plan, it had to be faultless, there could not be any uncertainties left. Finally, he answered me. “Yes,” he said.
“Why?” I asked him. I needed to know his explanation. Needed to know his justifications. “He hates you and has been planning your death since before your birth,” I reasoned with him, “so why would he want to help you?”
“He hates my blood, Connor,” Cuán said, “he hates my body.” He gently let my shoulders go and went back to the Generation CX. He slid his index finger over the touch screen. “I think that, as long as this body dies– that dad will be able to live with me.”
“So that’s the real reason you want to die, isn’t it?” I asked him bluntly. “You want to die so that father will accept you?” The time to dawdle around was over. We had neither the time nor the oxygen for half truths and guessing games.
“Partly,” he admitted. “But mostly…” He passed me a quick glance. “Mostly, I just want you out of here,” he said.
So, Cuán was doing it for us. He did it to be accepted into the family. How many times more did he have to sacrifice himself, before he would be accepted? “Father is wrong, you know,” I told him. “Your blood is your own. You’re not at fault for what that man did to Sarah.”
“And what about the things I did to you?” he suddenly said to me. “Do you not fault me for evoking such feelings inside you?” I stiffened at that. He looked at me and smiled, then casually related all the problems between us. “I am fifteen – you are twenty six. Yet you want to bed me, you want to have sex with a child.”
Biting my cheek, I looked away. “I could wait,” I countered weakly.
“You believe that Adam and Eve were made for each other,” Cuán continued, not in the least bit fazed by my objection. “Remember what is said in Leviticus 18:22? ‘You shall not lie with a man, as with a woman: it is abomination.’ You agree with that, don’t you, Connor?”
I remained silent for a moment, contemplating how I should answer that kind of attack. Assessing the question carefully, I decided to go for the reality versus morality crux. It would be the best counterargument. I slowly shook my head, “I’m not a saint, living according to every letter of the Bible,” I said. My voice sounded hoarse somehow, but I continued determinedly, “You know that as well as I do. I’ve slept around with women. I regret it afterwards, but I do it anyway. So, even though I don’t agree with the relationship between a man and another man, I could still–”
“With your own brother?” Cuán interrupted. He raised an eyebrow, expectant and challenging at the same time. “Could you really do that?” He let out a short lived laugh. “That’s what this is all about, isn’t it? You can wait for a person to grow up. You can sleep with a man and pray for forgiveness in the morning. But you cannot taint your own brother. Even though I am just your stepbrother.”
“I don’t care that you are my stepbrother!” I protested.
“And that’s where the problem lies,” Cuán pointed out. “You want me, yet you still think of me as your own brother, as if we really were sharing the same flesh and blood. Everything is your perception – it’s in your own mind!”
I swallowed hard. “What about you?” I asked. “Your perception. Is it okay to you? Do you want me to want you?”
Cuán shook his head. “I want you to love me,” he said. “I want for you to love me and to treat me with love.”
“In what way, Cuán?” I asked him. I needed his clarification.
He smiled at me then, his eyes serene, as if he already had all the answers to whatever problems there were in our relationship. “In whichever way you choose to,” he told me. He made another sliding motion on his touch screen and a window popped up on the flat screen. “As long as you genuinely love me,” he added.
“So, you’re putting the problem on my shoulders?” I asked him.
“It is your problem, Connor,” he told me. “It’s the problem of your perception. I’m not at fault for evoking these feelings from within you, it is your indecision that is at fault here. You want me, yet you don’t want to want me. You see the dilemma here? You have to choose.”
I narrowed my eyes at him, but I did not carry on this conversation. His answer was clear to me. I would have to decide which course this relationship would take. I was always the one to decide. Whether I should accept him as my brother or my lover. Whether I should run a knife through him to get that key or not. Whether him being made up of complex data would classify him as dead or a non-human entity existing in another level of reality.
I stood up and craned my neck to peer over his shoulder at the touch screen. Various icons were displayed on the large screen, but it was the wallpaper behind it that suddenly caught my attention again. Why this wallpaper caught my attention yet again I did not know, C2 had already used it to open the mirror wall to Cuán. But the strange poem kept repeating in my mind:
out. One key.
I am free.’
A morbid thought came to my mind. “Cuán,” I asked, “Do you really think there is a knife hidden here somewhere?”
Cuán looked up. “How else will you get that key from me?” he asked.
C2’s words flashed through my mind again, accompanied by Cuán’s angry outburst. One key, two purposes, C2 had said. And Cuán, in his anger, had unthinkingly suggested that maybe… that ripping open his stomach with my bare hands was the better alternative compared to the knife.
“Five each…” I trembled as I spoke. “to breach out one key…” I looked at Cuán gravely, but he did not seem to understand what I meant. “The poem on the wallpaper,” I said.
He nodded. “I know. Wasn’t that the code for– ”
“Five each!” I yelled, cutting him off. “Five fingers on each hand!”
Cuán visibly paled after hearing those words.
For a long moment, neither of us said a word. Cuán stayed rooted on his spot, as if he’d just seen a ghost, and I was heaving breathlessly, unable to form a coherent word. Then, finally, Cuán seemed to regain some semblance of life, and with an unsteady voice he spoke to me. “You will accept me then?” he asked. Hopeful.
Seeing him here in this room, at this moment – so vulnerable, yet so determined and strong – I knew that I could never deny him this. So I silently nodded my head in consent.
He smiled at me. “Then will you talk to dad about this? We have only one chance, we cannot fail in this. Everything must be perfectly timed. We should make the necessary arrangements.”
I nodded again and he took it as the signal to make contact with father. When the connection was made, he quickly went out of the way, to avoid father’s ire. I got up and made my way to the CX, where I met my father, who looked none too happy. At least he was reasonably calmed down, I noted in the back of my mind. “Father,” I greeted.
“Connor,” he returned.
“Our air is almost running out,” I quickly went over to business, “Have you found any way to open this door?”
He shook his head grimly. “No. Every possible method I’ve come up with will take too long. You will have died of suffocation by then. But I’m not giving up yet.” His eyes sparked determinedly. “There may yet be something I’ve overlooked.”
“Don’t look,” I told him.
He looked up surprised. “What?”
I sighed deeply. “It’s okay. I know you won’t be able to find a solution in time, father.”
Immediately, father shot up from his place and hovered over the camera. His panicking face took up the entire screen, as he yelled at me. “You’re not giving up yet, Connor, don‘t you dare!” He looked… frightened. I don’t think I’ve ever seen father look like this before. I suddenly realized that this moment was the first time in my entire life that I witnessed the manifestation of father’s true feelings for me. This was how important I was to him.
I smiled up at him and went to placate his feelings. “I’ve already found the last key, father,” I said.
He blinked then, started. “You… have?”
I nodded. “Yes, father, I have.” I licked my lips and decided to go for broke. Taking another deep breathe, I told him, “I want you to promise me something father.”
Predictably, father narrowed his eyes, assessing me. “What is it?” he asked.
“Will you please ready your lab for another mind transference?”
He gave me a surprised look at that answer. “What? Why would you want that?” he asked, not comprehending the intention behind my request.
“I need to save Cuán’s soul,” I told him. His eyes darkened at the mention of my brother’s name. It was clear to me now how deep his hatred ran. But I did not have time for his protests, so I quickly continued before he could interrupt me. “If you don’t, then I won’t use the key and I’ll die here,” I said.
It was manipulative of me, but it was worth it if I could save Cuán somehow… if technology could indeed save a soul. I still doubted this premise. Even so, the current situation gave me little choice, I had to risk this gamble, or else I’d face losing everything.
“I need to save him – why?” my father asked through gritted teeth.
“Because you promised to make me happy.” I was using father’s own words against him and we both knew this. I didn’t care. I would not fail this time. This was the only chance we had and everything would go according to plan. Everything would depend on it. “This is how you can make me happy, father,” I said. “I will never be happy, if you don’t do this for me.” Before he could protest against me, I quickly continued with another argument to make my case, “Also, you said you hated Cuán’s blood. I’m not asking you to save his blood now, I’m asking you to save his mind. You hate the body – not the soul. And lastly…” I gave him my most desperate and pleading look, “because it’s time to let go, father. It’s not good to hate for so long, so please let go of the past. I beg of you.”
My father assessed me for a long moment, but then he sighed wearily and said, “You’ll have to explain the whole situation to me first, Connor.”
And I did as he asked. I told him of how we found out where the last key was hidden. Of Cuán and my arguments while we decided what course to take. And of our final decision to use the C-project to our advantage, to save Cuán’s soul. As my narration came to a finish, I looked at father and I said, “Father, you have two lives in your hands. Use the C-project to help us. Please. I know you. You’ll do what’s right.”
I held my breathe, waiting for father’s final answer. At long last, he lowered his head in concession. “Fine,” he said shortly. “In five minutes.” And then the window containing his image faded out.
Behind me, I felt a slender hand touch my shoulder. “It’s time,” Cuán said and I nodded.
I turned around and watched him, truly looked at him, without jealousy, shame, self-hatred or feelings of lust. I looked at him with a purity of mind that I hadn’t possessed since my loss of innocence. And in that moment, I saw his being. I saw that which was Cuán.
He neared me, until he was almost pressed against me. Then, he went on his tiptoes and his lips met mine in a kiss. He put his arms around my neck and the sheets fell from his shoulders to gather around our feet on the laminate floor. I placed my hands on his hips and pulled him flush against me, using a bit more force to press my lips against his.
Too soon, we parted from each other.
“That’s not a real kiss,” he told me. “You sure you don’t want to do it?”
I shook my head. “No, it’s alright.”
“This will be the last time you can kiss me as a human being,” he jokingly warned me. “You should grab your chance while you still can.”
“This is fine,” I grumbled, half amused – half annoyed.
He chuckled and let go of me. Sighing he splayed one hand out onto the touch screen of the CX. “There will be a chance that I’ll die of shock before my mind is transferred,” he said. “In that case, I want you to live on freely without me.” His fingers thrummed lightly against the touch screen, randomly entering various commands into the system. “I want you to be quick about it. Don’t use your bare hands. We don’t have to play by C2’s rules anymore.”
“What do you want me to use?” I asked him.
Smiling, Cuán gave the CX another light tap. “I think this thing should do it,” he said. “Trash it. I’m sure you can find something sharp in it to use.”
I nodded and did as he told me to. When I had thoroughly mauled the Dowers Generation CX, I took out a sharp object. I had no clue what purpose my makeshift knife had served previously, nor did I care. I bravely held it up for Cuán’s inspection.
He nodded his consent. “It’s fine,” he commented.
“Good,” I panted. The air was thin and I had trouble getting my breathe back.
“Are you alright, Connor?” Cuán asked me in concern, and I quickly nodded my head to allay his worries. He should not be worried about me, when I was not the one going to die here.
Motioning for him to lie down, I held up my improvised knife and calculated the cut I had to make. “Are you ready for this?” I asked him. It was a stupid question, but I had to ask it all the same. When he nodded, I placed the sharp edge of the crude object onto his skin.
“You know I love you, right?”
I gave his fearful eyes one last look, then I sank the makeshift knife into his skin.
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