Chris woke with a smile. Chris always woke with a smile which is why Luke loved sleeping next to him so much. First the full red lips would twitch and the corners lift. Just a little at first and then more as if an invisible force were tugging them upwards. Then the long dark lashes would tremble and rise like shutters revealing the brilliant summer sky.
Chris’ eyes were the thing that had first attracted Luke. Anyone who looked into Chris’ eyes had to fall in love with him, even before they saw the pretty face and ever smiling lips. To say that Chris’ eyes were beautiful would be a sacrilege on the concept of beauty. They were so far beyond beautiful that Luke couldn’t look at them without losing his breath.
This morning was no exception and, as the glorious blue orbs came into view he caught his breath and couldn’t help but smile himself.
Luke had been caught by those eyes in the very first instant he saw them and, from that instant he had been helplessly and hopelessly in love. That had been almost four years ago and he was still as much in love with the beautiful creature that lay before him as he had been in those first moments. Even more so because he now knew that behind those eyes was a sharp mind and playful personality.
Chris was a phenomenon. He was bright, funny, charming, gentle… he was like a puppy that never grew into a dog. He never growled or bit. He brought calm and equilibrium to every situation and everyone around him. He never lost his sense of humour, never lost his temper, was rarely sad and hardly ever angry. He was the one everyone went to when they needed help, the one who was the first to offer it and the last to withdraw it. He was a rock, an oasis, a good friend and an amazing lover.
Everyone loved Chris and Chris loved everyone… but no one loved Chris like Luke and no one was loved by Chris like Luke. Since the first day, when Luke had started at a new school feeling vulnerable and alone, when he had looked shyly into the sea of unfamiliar faces in the classroom and met the unbelievable blue eyes, they had been inseparable.
Soon their families had become friends and the whole lot of them had spent long summer days and cold winter evenings sharing company and stories and making memories. It was a good time, a wonderful time but all good things come to an end.
It had all started in the summer when they left school, when the close friendship between the two boys had grown into something much deeper. Loving each other had changed subtly to being in love with each other. That had been eighteen months ago but it seemed like forever now. Their families, far from having difficulties with the relationship were delighted. It had brought a whole new dimension to their friendship and how could they have been unhappy with the way that it had lit up their sons with a joy that overflowed and was boundless?
In the autumn they had separated to go to different universities but they hadn’t let that get in the way. For many people long distance relationships were difficult, the additional stress and complication of travelling home at weekends and finding time to study and socialise were never problems because for both of them the only time they truly felt alive was when they were together and, although they both made friend and were social, nothing was important enough to take precedence over their reunions.
Sometimes Luke would stay with Chris so that they could both attend engagements or occasions at Chris’ university, and sometimes Chris would travel to Luke. Both sets of friends were encompassing and became joint friends very quickly, to be absorbed into the joint family until there was one homogenous social group that shared both Luke and Chris between them.
It was perfect, too perfect. And then it all came crashing down.
Luke was thinking about all of this as Chris’ smile warmed and soothed him and the beautiful blue eyes sparkled as they met his. For a moment his musings slipped from his mind as there was room for nothing more that Chris.
He had used to love to watch Chris wake. He had deliberately set his alarm so he could lie there in the early morning light watching the sun rise and Chris sleep. The anticipation would rise with the sun and sometimes would be so unbearable he had to wake him. Usually he was content to wait, savouring the delicious anticipation until the smile tugged at his heart at the same it did Chris’ lips.
It still did, but now it was for very different reasons.
Chris blinked and turned his head towards Luke with a sigh. The sweet smile broadened and he yawned sleepily in that cute way that made Luke tingle. As always he lowered his head and kissed his lover gently, a kiss which Chris returned as eagerly as ever. But these days the kiss was different.
Luke raised his head and brushed the long dark hair away from Chris face as Chris closed his eyes and rubbed his cheek against his hand.
“Good morning. How are you feeling today?”
“You’re here, therefore I feel good,” Chris said simply.
Luke smiled. The relief that had flowed through him the moment Chris had looked into his eyes and responded to his kiss flooded him and made him feel dizzy.
“You look worried.”
Luke’s smile faded and he tenderly stroked the soft hair. “You know I always worry about you. I love you too much not to.”
“I told you not to.”
“I know but not even you can command my heart to that extent.”
Chris’ smile was sweet and gentle, his eyes soft. “I know. I’m sorry I make you worry.”
“Oh babe, it’s not you. You know it’s not you. As if. It’s just the whole situation. I feel so…”
“Ssh. There’s no point. You don’t have to feel bad.”
“I love you Chris. How can I…?” There were tears in his eyes. “Every day it’s a torment… watching, waiting.”
“It’s alright Luke. I still remember.”
“Today. But what about tomorrow; the next day? One day you won’t and then what will I do?”
“How can I?”
“Because you’re strong. You’ve always been the strong one.”
Luke laughed and, taking Chris’ hand in his he pressed his cheek against it. It was trembling. “Are you kidding? You’re the strong one. You have always been the strong one. I don’t know where I would have been if not for you. I don’t know how many times you’ve saved me and now I wish I could save you.”
“You do. You save me every day. Every time I wake up looking into your eyes you save me.”
“But it won’t…”
“Remember what we promised. One day at a time. And today is a good day. The sun is shining and you love me, and I love you. That’s a good day.”
“Yeah.” Luke said hoarsely. Chris’ hand twitched in his and then the fingers brushed his cheek, wiping the tears away.
“It’s a good day Luke.” He said firmly. “Maybe tomorrow won’t be, and who knows about the day after but today; today is a good day. Besides, he said softly, it’s almost Christmas and I have a great present for you.”
“You know why Luke.”
“There’s only one present I want.”
“I know, and maybe you’ll get it but… maybe you won’t and you have to deal with that. You have to.”
“I can’t Chris. I just can’t bear the thought…”
“Then don’t think, just kiss me.”
Taking Chris into his arms Luke kissed him with all the desperation that took possession of his soul in that moment. Chris did his best to take it in and pay it back with sweetness and love, but there was only so much that even he could do. He couldn’t stop the tears that trickled from his eyes as his best friend, his lover, his life sobbed helplessly and there was nothing he could do to comfort him.
“Luke please, please don’t.” He said after a while. “Luke it hurts too much, please don’t.”
Luke sat up as if he had been burned. “I’m sorry.” He said, panic in his eyes and voice. “Did I hurt you? How…?”
“Not my body Luke, my soul.”
For the first time Luke saw the tears glistening on Chris cheeks and he wiped them away with immense tenderness, sniffing away his own. “I’m sorry babe. I know I promised I wouldn’t do that again. It’s just… you’re so beautiful and I can’t bear the thought of being separated from you.”
“It’s not something I’m looking forward to either but there’s nothing we can do about it. We can’t stop it so we have to deal with it. I have and so must you.”
“See. You are the strongest. I don’t know how you can be so calm about it. How can you bear it? How can you not want to tear out your hair and scream?”
Chris smiled, his eyes twinkling. “If I could maybe I would but I don’t think the bald and manic look would suit me.”
“Anything would suit you.”
“Flatterer.” Chris sighed and closed his eyes.
“I’m always tired. I need coffee.”
“Do we have to get up just yet?”
“Well… depends on the alternatives on offer. Are you going to ravish me?”
“As if.” Gently Luke stroked his long soft hair, his white throat and over his alabaster shoulder. Chris sighed his body, which had been trembling, twitched.
“Please Luke, I need…”
Luke looked hungry, doubtful and afraid. “You know how I feel, what I want but…”
“It might be out last chance.” Chris said softly and he might as well have slapped Luke’s face.
“I HATE this. Why did this have to happen? Why now?” He cried out angrily and Chris sighed.
“Do you think I haven’t asked that? This is not what I want either. Do you think that if I could stop it I wouldn’t? This isn’t my choice. Please don’t make me feel guilty for the fact that I’ve come to terms with it more quickly than you have.”
“I don’t mean to Chris. I’m trying, really I am. It’s just…”
“I know Luke. But I need you now more than I ever have before. Please… please just hold me and make me feel that it’s going to be alright, even if it’s only for a little while. Don’t think about what happens after, just think about now. Please Luke.”
“I’m sorry. I’m just being selfish.” He took a deep breath and kissed Chris again while he let his hand roam slowly over the trembling body beneath him. Chris closed his eyes and moaned into his mouth.
Luke forced himself not to think while he made love to his lover. He simple existed and acted; no though, no regrets, no pain, no tears. He kept his face turned away from Chris so he wouldn’t see how much it cost him.
It wouldn’t have mattered because Chris had his eyes closed and his head thrown back. His body jerked and shook uncontrollably as he lost himself in the caresses of his lover as Luke’s hands and lips explored him.
Luke had just worked his way down to wrap his lips around Chris shuddering manhood when there was a knock on the door.
“Are you two alright in there?”
Luke raised his head and mumbled. “Uh… yeah, yeah we were just… just er… We’re fine.”
“Oh. It’s just that I heard… I’m sorry. Just give me a call when you’re ready to get up.”
“Okay. Thanks Mrs B, I will.”
Chris giggled. “How embarrassing would that be? I’m so glad I’ve trained my mother to knock.”
“Shut up and concentrate. If we’re too long my mother will be over here and she won’t knock.”
Chris giggled again but it turned to a moan as Luke went straight back in at the point he’d left off.
Chris’ breathing speeded up and the shaking in his body increased as he jerked uncontrollably. He started to whimper and wondered if he was being selfish holding out for as long as he possible could until, with a grunt through gritted teeth, he could hold on no longer and an intense orgasm ripped through him for the first time in weeks.
His stomach muscles spasmed powerfully and his hips slammed into Luke’s face knocking him off balance and making him choke. Coughing Luke righted himself and crawled up to lie at Chris’ side again. Chris was giggling helplessly.
“I’m so sorry. I couldn’t help it. I… it just…” The giggling made any more speech impossible and, despite the way he was feeling inside Luke had no choice but to join in.
When they sobered Luke kissed Chris softly and when he lifted his head it was to see a speculative look in his eyes.
“What are you thinking?”
“There really isn’t any reason why we shouldn’t do that every day.”
“You know we can’t.”
“Why not? Now that you’re staying over here who’s going to know?”
“Well… I think your mother has a pretty good idea.”
Chris giggled again. “No seriously. You’re sleeping with me so why shouldn’t we… well make the most of it while we can?”
“I don’t know. It’s just that… Every time I touch you I can’t help thinking…”
“Then don’t think, not until we have to. We’re going to be alright Luke. We can face anything. We can do anything.”
He sighed. “Yeah. Okay…” He grinned. “Why not? Every day for as long as we can.”
“Awesome. We could have been doing this for weeks you know. I don’t understand why you stayed away for so long.”
“I know. I was an idiot. I should never have hurt you like that.”
“You did hurt me. I… I missed you but… but I understand why.”
“No. You don’t understand. You don’t understand because you are too sweet and good to ever understand. I was a selfish jerk. I don’t deserve you.”
“No… you don’t. You deserve better.”
“Don’t you say that! Don’t you ever say that! You are the best thing that ever happened to me, ever. I love you more than life and I can’t believe I ever forgot it, even for a moment. It’s you that don’t deserve all this.”
“Since when does life give us what we deserve? Although I do feel that I deserved that orgasm. It was fucking awesome.”
“Glad I could oblige.”
Raising himself on one elbow Luke looked down into Chris’ beautiful face and sparkling eyes. He smiled at the wicked twinkle there.
“You’re a bad man Chris Baker.”
“No I’m not. I’m good, very good.”
Luke slipped his hand behind Chris’ head and raised it to meet him as he lowered his lips again.
This time the knock was softer and less obtrusive but still both Luke and Chris sighed. They had been lying side by side, naked skin pressed against naked skin and for a while they were both content and happy.
“Hang on a moment.” Luke called and hurried got up and dressed. Chris lay back lazily and watched through half closed eyes with a smile on his face.
“It’s okay Mrs B, I’m decent.” Luke called while he was still pulling on his shoes.
The door opened and a pretty woman who didn’t look old enough to be the mother of a nineteen year old boy peeped around the door. Luke smiled at her, thinking that she looked tired. They all did. The strain was starting to show.
“I don’t need to ask if you boys are okay, do I?”
Chris grinned. “Nope. I’m totally okay. Can’t speak for Luke though, he’s been working hard.”
Amy Baker blushed delicately but the smile on her face as she and Luke exchanged glances conveyed such a lot. She raised her eyes and the smile changed to one that only a mother can give her child. Chris was glowing today, his eyes bright and colour in his cheeks. She had made absolutely the right decision in talking Luke into staying here with him.
She sighed as she looked into those beautiful eyes and a shudder went through her as she released her fear for another day, another day when her son remembered; when he still knew who she was.
It had all started innocently enough. Who would have known where it was leading? In the very beginning Chris hadn’t even bothered to tell anyone. It was a cold, flu, a virus… and it was, but it wasn’t one that was going to be cured with a few anti virals and plenty of fluids.
It was Luke who first realised that something was very wrong when Chris cancelled the weekend they were going to spend with each other. This was the first time it had ever happened and he got straight on the train.
Although Chris tried to brush it off and minimise the impact it was having on him, far from getting better he got weaker and more tired every day.
Numerous doctors, many specialists and a lengthy stay in hospital later it became obvious that the dramatic and rapid decline was not going to be halted let alone reversed. When they realised there was nothing more they could do to help him and that they were no nearer finding out what was wrong with him than they had been at the start, the doctors had sent him home and everyone knew that he was coming home to die.
Now Chris had almost completely lost control of his body. His muscled spasmed regularly and randomly causing his body and limbs to jerk unpredictably and uncontrollably. Thanks to a cutting edge neural transmitter implanted in the base of his scull he could still hold up his head and control the muscles in his face, lips, eyes and throat. He couldn’t hold a cup or raise it to his lips but he could drink and swallow. He couldn’t hold Luke in his arms but he could kiss him.
He still had some control and, if Luke held his hand to his face he could caress it with his fingers, until his muscles contracted and jerked it away. He could still get an erection and experience an orgasm but he couldn’t give the same pleasure to Luke. He could smile and talk, breathe and eat. He still had full sensation, which wasn’t always a blessing and his mental faculties had been left intact… until recently.
After the last visit to the doctor they, but not Chris, had been told that his previously untouched neural activity had begun to deteriorate. It had already started with memory lapses and slurred speech but they had been warned that the decline was likely to be even more dramatic that the physical decline. It had become more and more obvious until everyone around him was waiting for the day they had been told was coming and coming fast when he opened his eyes to a world that was entirely unfamiliar to him peopled with strangers.
Initially they had not been able to bring themselves to tell Chris. It had hit Luke badly and he had not been able to face his lover, knowing that he would have to keep such a huge secret. For a few weeks he had run away and refused to speak, talk or think about what was happening to Chris. In the end he realised that the not knowing was worse than anything that might be happening in truth and he had to come back.
By the time he had come back Chris knew, and understood why Luke had run. He had completely forgiven him and that was part of the reason that Luke had been entirely unable to forgive himself.
No one was under any illusion that, with Christmas only a little over three weeks away, the strong likelihood was that the Chris they knew and loved would not be celebrating it with them, if he had been able to hold on to life at all.
Of all of them Chris had coped best. He was completely resigned to his fate and was on a mission to make his last days as easy as possible on everyone else and filled with as much love and laughter as he could. No one cried or mourned or was anything but cheerful… while he was in the room.
Chris chatted happily about Christmas, which he had always loved and approached with all the excitement and anticipation as a small child. He was determined to be involved in the planning of everything and had already purchased and wrapped (or at least arranged for his mother to buy and wrap) presents for everyone he cared about. He had engaged the aid of Luke’s mother to buy his own.
He wanted to see every present that the household was sending and directed the card writing. He drew up the shopping list, planned the meals for Christmas Day and Boxing Day and chose the decorations and table linens. He had even persuaded his parents to trim the house. No one complained about the fact that he had effectively moved Christmas on by a month and were planning to hold the celebrations themselves early… just to make sure… although even that might be too late.
Between them Amy and Luke got Chris up, showered, dressed and strapped into his specially designed wheelchair. It wasn’t an easy job because not only was Chris unable to help them in any way but they also had to contend with the erratic jerking of his muscles.
As they progressed Chris became more and more quiet as he became more and more tired. By the time Luke wheeled him out into the kitchen, where his own mother was making breakfast he was fast asleep again. Luke pushed him into the living room and left him in front of the large patio doors so that when he woke he would be looking out into the garden, which was brilliant in the cold winter sunshine.
He was loath to leave him but he could no longer bear to watch him sleep and he was hungry. His feet dragged and he kept his eyes down as he slid up onto a seat at the breakfast bar. He jumped, startled at the touch on his shoulder and looked up into Amy’s gently smiling face.
“Are you alright hun?”
“No. No I’m not alright. How could I possibly be alright? I can’t stand it. He’s so… so… bright. I feel mean and selfish and weak when I’m with him. Nothing ever gets him down. He’s so… resigned to it. Why can’t he scream and rage and fight every moment, every inch? Why can’t he be…?”
“Because he’s himself Luke. He’s coping in the only way he knows how; with a smile on his face and love for everyone around him. You know Chris; he’s never happy unless he’s making others happy. He can’t bear sadness and sorrow and he is trying so hard to make things easy for us, to cheer us up. He wants to spend what time he has in a happy environment and we have to try our very best to give it to him. It’s the least we can do.”
Luke sighed. “I know. It’s just hard.”
“Yes. It’s the hardest thing that any of us ever have or ever will have to do. But we’ll do it because he deserves it.” Luke slid off the stool and put his arms around her as she dissolved in tears.
Later that day they loaded Chris into the special car that was able to accommodate his chair and drove to the hospital for a scheduled consultation with his neurologist. Having noted Chris’ growing fatigue, more frequent lapses in concentration, increasing memory loss and speech deterioration no one expected good news.
“Why do we even have to put ourselves and Chris through this?” Luke grumbled. “It’s not as if anyone is going to tell us anything we didn’t already know.”
“Because they might be able to help us make Chris more comfortable. And… because as long as we keep going we keep… hoping.”
“Hoping for what? A miracle?”
“There’s always hope Luke. Until the end there’s always hope.”
“Sorry but I’ve run right out.”
“Be that as it may, as long as there are doctors who will see him and he’s capable of seeing them I will keep bringing him.”
“That’s not going to be much longer.”
“Oh Luke…” But she didn’t gainsay him because she knew he was right.
Chris slept most of the way. He had always been inclined to fall asleep in cars. He awoke with a start when Luke shook him gently. For a moment Luke panicked when Chris stared at him with empty, dazed eyes, then he shook the sleep out of them and yawned.
“Are we there yet?”
Luke grinned all the more broadly to hide the fear that had taken possession of every atom of his being. “Almost. Just have to haul your arse out of the car and manoeuvre your chariot across all the obstacles.” He wasn’t entirely joking. Although relatively new the hospital had failed woefully in providing good access to wheelchair users. Well no, that wasn’t entirely fair. The hospital itself was okay it was the access routes from all four car parks, and even the disabled parking spots. Everywhere there were high curbs, cobble stones and flower boxes.
Finally the negotiated their way into the light and airy concourse and headed for the neurology department. As usual, once they had checked in and had a brief initial consultation with the doctor they were sent off for a couple of hours while they put Chris through a battery of tests that usually wiped him out for days.
This was the main reason that Luke had challenged Amy about the need for the appointments. As far as he was concerned anything that took energy from Chris and had no positive outcome was not only a waste of time but a criminal waste of the time they had left. He knew full well that Chris would sleep for the rest of the day and most of the next and with every day a precious bonus, that was nothing more than a waste.
The whole thing made him grumpy and he had to admit that he wasn’t good company that afternoon. Amy was used to him and merely carried on quietly, secretly smiling at his scowls, knowing that they were caused by nothing but the fact that he loved her son so much.
When they returned to the doctor’s office he was alone and he didn’t look happy. He motioned them to sit down.
“I wanted to have a word with you before we bring Chris back in on this. It probably won’t come as any surprise at all to you that his test results today were not good. The neurological decay is continuing at an accelerated pace and the implant is no longer able to entirely prevent its spread into the brain.
“So far the damage to Chris’ brain is minimal but the rate of degeneration there is far faster than in the rest of his body. I would anticipate that once the decline really sets in it will be rapid and catastrophic.”
“What does that mean?”
“We want a straight answer in clear English doc. Don’t pull the punches. We know the score and want to know what we’re facing.”
The doctor gave Luke a piercing look then sighed and nodded. “The way things stand at the moment Chris has three or four days, maybe as much as a week, of fairly normal function after which…” He paused and looked at their shocked faces.
“He’s not going to see Christmas is he?”
His eyes fixed on the desk the doctor sighed heavily. “As things stand, no, not even close. Within a week he won’t know who or where he is. Within two all the automatic functions of the brain will have broken down and will grind to a halt. His organs will stop working, his heart will stop beating and he will simply… stop.”
“And there’s nothing we can do, nothing at all?”
Again the doctor hesitated. “If there was the smallest chink of hope that any of this could be treated in the normal way I would not even be suggesting this to you, but there isn’t. I want you be perfectly and absolutely clear on this point. As things stand at the moment, with conventional medicine or medical techniques there is nothing, absolutely nothing I can to do prevent Chris going into rapid and terminal decline. The very best that I can offer you is palliative care. An attending nurse, pain relief…”
“Wait.” The doctor looked up at the tone in Luke’s voice. He could see in his eyes that he already understood. “You keep saying things like… ‘As things stand’ and ‘with conventional medicine’. That suggest that there is another way to stand. What exactly are you suggesting to us?”
“I want you to understand and understand very clearly where you are before we consider whether there might be any alternatives.”
“We’re very clear where we are thank you doctor. I am going to lose my son. Quite frankly once he… once I’ve lost him mentally I don’t want him to linger on being scared and lost. I don’t want to see him…” She took a deep breath and looked him in the eye. “We’ve been seeing doctors just like you for more than three months. In the beginning they promised us the world but as time passed there was less and less hope and we’ve long since reconciled ourselves to the fact that we were going to lose him. The extent of our hope for weeks has been that he would see Christmas with us. After that…”
“I understand Mrs Baker. You may not believe it but I do. You’re far from the only one who has sat in that seat and heard the news they’ve been dreading but expecting about someone they love.” He paused again then nodded. “I’ve sat on that side of the desk myself.”
“Oh. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. If it hadn’t been for that there would have been a lot more in that position. I have dedicated myself to making sure about that.
“I have been involved in a project for a number of years which has very recently received a license to be tested on human subjects. Much as I appreciate that last thing you’d want is for your son to be used as a guinea pig at this stage this process may be the only hope he has. Of course it may be no hope at all but…”
“No… no please. Don’t… don’t offer me hope and then pull it away. I know that hope is no guarantee but please; please tell me truthfully, hand on heart; is there something, anything that can offer hope to my son now?”
“I want you to think carefully about this Mrs Baker. As I have been trying to explain to you this is a highly experimental procedure and the risks are enormous. To be quite frank I have found it very difficult to believe it myself and I couldn’t begin to explain to you how it works. I have spoken to the developers, putting Chris forward as an ideal candidate for the first tests and they have agreed to meet with you.
“I have to stress that should you decide to meet with them there is absolutely no obligation to proceed. However, there is only a very small window of opportunity. If you do decide to go ahead you would have to do so immediately.”
“How immediately?” Luke asked suspiciously. “I’ll arrange a consultation tomorrow morning at the clinic where the process is being developed. If you decide to continue the procedure will be carried out tomorrow afternoon.”
“That… that doesn’t leave us much time…”
“Mrs Baker, Chris doesn’t have much time.”
“Then why wasn’t this mentioned before?” Luke demanded. “Chris is going to be wiped by the tests today. He isn’t going to be in any state to think about this, to make any decisions for himself. Why didn’t you raise it as an option before?”
“Honestly? Because the license for testing was only granted three days ago. I was intending to mention it to you today and, in all honesty I had not expected Chris’ deterioration to have been this far advanced. I thought that you would have had more time.”
“We all thought we would have had more time.” She closed her eyes for a minute and then opened them swallowing. “If this… procedure is successful, what will it mean for Chris? How much more time will it buy him?”
“I can’t promise you miracles…”
“I appreciate that. I appreciate that you can’t promise us anything. But please… if I agree to this what am I agreeing to?”
“I can’t tell you that. My colleagues will explain it to you tomorrow if you agree to meet. What I can tell you is that the procedure is dangerous. This is why it can only be tested on imminently terminal patients. There is a very significant chance that Chris will die during the procedure. If not then there is an equally significant chance that he will not only be stabilised but much of the neural damage will be repaired.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means that Chris could die tomorrow. That he’s likely to die tomorrow. I can’t…”
“Luke please… I need to know what might happen if…”
“In the very best case scenario Chris could make a very good recovery.”
“Recovery? You mean that he might regain control, that he might walk and go back to school; be strong and well again?”
“Let’s not build this up into something unrealistic. Maybe we should look in terms of regaining some function and significantly prolonging life.”
“Early signs show that once the neurological repairs are made they are very stable and there is every likelihood that if he survives the procedure Chris could look forward to a normal lifespan.”
Luke and Amy stared at each other, hope and fear flaring in equal measure. Looks flashed between them and common consent was reached at the same moment. “Make the appointment.”
As expected Chris had been exhausted by the tests and was pretty much incoherent for the rest of the day. When he was awake he had difficulty concentrating and it was hard to explain what had gone on during the visit with the doctor. One thing he did understand was that there was a chance, a hope, a flicker of light in the looming darkness. He didn’t care about consequences. He wanted to grab that chance with both hands and, whether he understood it or not he felt it and therefore so did everyone else.
That night, when Luke held Chris in his arms, snuggling close as soon as the deep unconsciousness assisted by high doses of muscle relaxant and narcotic, had eased the jerking of his body, he stared at the beautiful, serene face and felt his gut twist. What were they doing? How could they take him to that place and hand him over to strangers who didn’t know him, who didn’t know how special he was, who might kill him? How could he bear to lie here and hold him in his arms knowing it could be the last time, the last night? But wasn’t that how it had been anyway. Last night, and the night before and the night before that.
It was three and a half weeks to Christmas and if they didn’t do it Chris would be dead before Santa had begun to pack his sleigh. Of course they had known that. Deep down they had all known that, none more so than Chris. Wasn’t that why he had been frantically shopping and packing? Wasn’t that why they had decorated the house? Wasn’t that why everyone kissed him goodbye whenever they were parted for whatever reason… just in case it really was?
Luke choked on his pain and hugged Chris tighter. He was like a large, bald teddy bear… just as stiff, just as frozen. Oh what he wouldn’t give to feel his arms around him just one more time.
It was almost dawn before Luke finally drifted off to sleep, still with tears streaming from his eyes.
The next morning there wasn’t time to watch Chris sleep. They all slept in, exhausted by the previous day’s events. Amy was calling them before even Luke was awake.
Gently Luke stroked Chris’ face and hair calling him back from the banks of Lethe. This time, for the first time the lips were still when the lids rose over eyes that were blank and dull. Luke’s heart thudded painfully. No. They said a week. They said they had a week, three days at least.
“Chris?” He whispered hoarsely.
Blinking, his eyes fluttering Chris sighed and then gave a brief smile. “Luke.” He breathed and Luke felt dizzy with relief.
Forcing a smile he, brushed the hair out of Chris’ face. “How are you feeling today?” He asked his usual question and hoped he would get the usual response but he got none at all. Chris merely sighed and closed his eyes.
“That bad?” Luke asked with an edge to his voice.
“I know. I know you’re tired. All that messing about wore you out yesterday didn’t it? And now we want more of you. I’m sorry baby. I wish we could just laze around in bed all day and soon we will, I promise. As soon as you are better we’ll spend a whole day in bed and not sleep for a minute of it.”
Very briefly the corners of Chris’ lips twitched upwards. “Luke?”
“What’s on your mind?”
Chris opened his eyes. They were clearer but had such a serious and sad expression that Luke almost recoiled. Chris never looked like this. Chris was never this serious, never this sad. The foundations of his world shook.
“Am I going to die today?”
It felt like a blow to the stomach and Luke had to struggle not to be physically sick. What could he say?”
“I hope not.”
“But I might.”
“Yes, you might.”
Chris frowned, considering the information.
“What if I don’t?”
“I don’t understand.”
“If I don’t die today where will I be tomorrow morning? What will I be like?”
“I don’t know. At the clinic I suppose. I’m sure that if the procedure is that scary they’ll want to keep you there for at least a few days. As for what you’ll be like… I don’t know. Better I hope.”
“And what if I don’t go?” Now that one really floored him and he had to look away. “I’m going to die anyway aren’t I? Soon? Before Christmas?”
Luke forced himself to look at him and nodded. “Very soon.”
“I know,” he whispered. “I can feel it all sliding away. I thought I wouldn’t care. I thought I would be glad to finally see an end to all this but… but I do care. I don’t want to die Luke. I love you too much and I want… I want…”
“Ssh. It’s alright. I’m here and I am always going to be here. Whatever happens we’ll face it together. You won’t be alone Chris, no matter what ,you won’t be alone.”
Chris nodded. “If… if I die today… You do know don’t you? You do know how much I love you, how much I want to be with you, to be able to hold you in my arms and make love to you like we used to? You do know that I would give anything to be able to lift my hands and touch your face and… and see joy in your eyes again?”
“I know.” Luke whispered through his tears.
“And… and you know that I will try? I will try as hard as I possibly can to hold on to that, to live and come back to you. And if… if I don’t, if I don’t live I want… I want you to go back to school and get your degree and…”
“No Chris I…”
“Ssh. Listen to me. I want you to make a life for yourself Luke, a good life. You deserve it. I want to be part of that life, I want it so badly but if I can’t… If I have to die today I want to do it knowing that you are going to be alright. I want to die in peace knowing that you’ll go on and do all the things we were planning to do together. I don’t want to feel guilty for ruining your life. I want to know you’ll be happy.”
“I can’t promise you that Chris. I can’t think of what life would be like without you. I could never do the things we planned together on my own.”
“Then find someone else to do them with.”
“No. Please don’t ask that of me. Please don’t.”
“But I do and I want you to promise me. I want you to promise that you will go back to school and make the best life you can for yourself… and I want you to promise to find someone else to share it with. I don’t want you to be on your own. Don’t you understand Luke… I can bear to leave you on your own.”
“Chris, you don’t know what you’re asking of me.”
“Yes I do. Promise me Luke.”
For a moment Luke stared down at him then he shook his head. “I can’t Chris. I’m sorry but I can’t.” And before Chris could say anything else Luke got up and walked out of the room without looking back. He would have walked out of the house if his mother hadn’t intercepted him.
“Luke don’t you think you had better put some clothes on before you go outside.”
“What?” he said dully not having realised until that moment that he hadn’t paused to get dressed.
“What’s the matter sweetheart? What’s happened?”
By now Amy had joined them looking scared. Luke couldn’t bear it any more and collapsed into his mother’s arms. “He said… he said he loves me and he… he doesn’t want me to be alone. He wanted me to promise that if he dies… if he doesn’t make it today that I’ll find someone else… and I couldn’t. I couldn’t promise him that. I’m sorry. I’m sorry I let him down.”
“You did no such thing Luke. It’s an impossible thing to expect from you. I am sure that if Chris wasn’t feeling so ill and scared he would never have asked that of you. And he won’t feel that you’ve let him down. You know him Luke. He’s always thinking of others and this is his way of thinking of you. If he knew how upset he’d made you he would he horrified. He won’t force you to make this promise. He won’t be angry with you. Don’t be angry with yourself.”
“I can’t… I can’t face him.”
Amy took him by the shoulders and forced him to look at her. “Yes you can. You can do anything you need to do, and do you know why?” Luke shook his head, trying to look away. “Because you would never forgive yourself if you didn’t.”
His head and eyes shot up then he collapsed inwards and dropped his eyes closing them tightly. “I know.” He whispered.
“Alright then. Now you are going to come in there with me and help me get Chris ready. You are going to laugh with him, cry with him, promise him anything and tell him exactly what he wants to hear. If he dies it won’t matter and if he lives… it won’t matter. So do whatever you have to do to make whatever time is left the best it can be. I will not have my son going through this alone or with pain in his heart.”
Luke’s eyes widened at the vehemence with which she spoke and then he squared his shoulders and nodded. “You’re right. I’m sorry.”
In the end it didn’t matter. Chris was dozing when they went back, exhausted by the previous day’s exertions and that morning’s emotions. He woke with a smile but he couldn’t sustain it long and it was hard to get him up and dressed because he was so weak. Many times Luke and Amy exchanged glances knowing that, no matter what they told each other, and Chris, this was way more than his usual tiredness from a day at the hospital. One way or another, this was the end.
Chris slept soundly for the whole journey and Luke sat beside him in the most uncomfortable seat in the car, holding his hand.
The Clinic was a huge surprise. It wasn’t, as they had expected a medical centre. In face Clinic was not at all the right word for it. The name over the door was ‘The Coleridge Institute of Robotic and Nanorobotic Research and Development.” Luke and Amy exchanged glances, the bottom dropping out of their world.
Chris barely roused when they unloaded the chair and wheeled it into the cool, spacious lobby. On the far wall, which was the only one in the bright and airy room which was painted a dark matt grey, the logo of the Institute gleamed dull silver. It was a globe with the landmasses infilled with a design that suggested a microchip. The globe was surrounded with larger silver letters saying CIRNRAD.
The receptionist greeted them warmly and, after consulting a computer screen invited them to sit on the comfortable easy chairs scattered around the room while she summoned Dr Forrest.
Amy and Luke perched uncomfortably on the edges of their seats. Chris dozed and Luke held his hand tightly, more afraid than he had ever been, not least because of Chris’ sudden and unnatural exhaustion.
Both jumped when a man literally bounced into the lobby with a cheerful greeting to the receptionist, who beamed fondly at him. He was not a young man but he exuded energy in a way that made him seem younger than he was, helped by a boyish grin.
Luke and Amy hastily got to their feet and he looked for a moment as if he was going to hug them. However, instead he shook their hands enthusiastically.
“Hello. Hello. Welcome. Welcome. You must be Mrs Baker and your… friend? Son?” He beamed at Luke who was a little stunned but characteristically stubborn when he said, tersely.
“I’m Chris’ boyfriend.”
If anything the smile broadened. “Oh wonderful, wonderful. It is such a comfort to have the ones we love around us at times like this.” He turned to Chris who had woken at the sound of voices and was peering at him curiously. “And you, of course are Chris, the most important person here today. Well, well, I have heard such a lot about you. All good of course. You have impressed a lot of people.”
“I… have?” Chris asked looking even more stunned.
“Indeed. I have been making my own enquiries. I had no more intention of going into this blind than you have. Our work is special, very special and we don’t offer it to just anyone. We have to be sure that the people we work with are not going to waste the gift they have been given.” He smiled directly at Chris, who couldn’t help but smile back.
“Anyway, the lobby is no place to discuss things like this. Come through to my office. We’ll be a lot more comfortable there.”
The office was large, light and pleasant. In one corner a well dusted case glittered with awards and trophies and the wall behind the desk was covered with framed certificates.
“Well I’m sure you want to know what this is all about and to have as much time as you can to consider the implications for you of the offer we are about to make.”
“No.” Chris said quietly, surprising everyone. They all looked at him. “I don’t need to hear anything, or consider anything. I just want you to do it.”
“It’s not as simple as that. I have to make sure you understand…”
“Because you may decide that you don’t want to proceed. The risks are very high.”
“Risks of what?”
For the first time Dr Forrest became very serious. “I am sure you have already been informed that there is a very good chance that you won’t survive the procedure.”
Chris laughed shortly. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed but if the way I’m feeling now is anything to go by there’s a pretty good chance I won’t survive the day.” He sighed, almost too exhausted to speak. “If you do this then maybe I’ll die today. If you don’t then I’m sure I’ll die tomorrow… or the next day. I don’t have long, not long at all.”
The doctor looked at him thoughtfully. “No, no you don’t. Not long at all. In fact…” He turned to Amy and Luke. “I don’t want to make this even more difficult for you than it already is but I suspect that if we don’t carry out the procedure soon, and I am talking and hour, two… then I won’t be able to do it at all. Maybe it is already too late. I will not attempt the procedure if the end result is inevitable failure.”
“I don’t know.” Amy began.
“But I do.” Chris said firmly. “This is my body; my life. I want to do it and I want to do it now. It’s my decision and my responsibility.”
“Look,” interjected the doctor, “why don’t we get Chris through the initial tests? It may be academic. While my colleagues are doing that we can talk more about the procedure and what it means for Chris and then you can all make an informed decision.”
“I have all the information I need.” Chris looked up at his mother and Luke with anxious but determined eyes. “Please. I need to do this. I don’t want to die, and I’m dying. I know that I am, I can feel it. I don’t have long and if there’s a chance… Please Luke, I don’t want to leave you. I can’t hold on any longer and I want… I want to let go and sleep but I can’t, I won’t, not until the very end but it’s close Luke… too close. I want to have a chance. I can’t do much, I have no control left, but I can do this.”
Chris took a deep breath, fighting the fatigue to stay focussed. “Stay here and talk about it if you want to but you can’t stop me going through with it. I’m going to do it no matter what you say, what you ‘decide’. But I want us all to be together.” He drew himself up as much as he could. “I going to do it, but I don’t want to do it alone. I will if I have to but…”
He couldn’t say another word because Luke, in tears, had thrown his arms around him, as awkward as it was. “Of course you won’t be alone. If you want this so much then there’s no way I’d stand in your way. In fact I’d fight to the death for it. I’ll be there with you, I swear.”
Chris smiled a beautiful, brilliant smile and raised his eyes to his mother.
“I’m not easy about this Chris. I would be lying if I said I was… but you’re not a child any more. You’re right… it is your decision.”
“Thank you.” He whispered.
They could have sworn the doctor had tears in his eyes when he turned to the intercom and asked for assistance to take Chris to the medical section for the tests.
When he had gone he sat down and looked thoughtfully at Luke and Amy. “He’s a strong willed young man.”
Amy nodded, speechless.
“What’s going to happen to him?”
“How much do you know about nanorobotics?”
“Nothing at all.” Amy said shaking her head.
“Nanites are tiny robots aren’t they, microscopic computers.”
“Not exactly. They are microscopic but they are more… Think of them as peripherals. Like a wireless mouse or keyboard. They work independently of each other under the direction of a control unit… the computer itself. What we have been researching here is the use of nanites in medicine. What they do effectively is bond to things, organic matter. One of the projects we have been working on is producing nanotechnology that surrounds and binds permanently to tissue, such as cancerous tumours thereby stopping it spreading until it can be removed. We have almost perfected it for large tumours and when we have that fine tuned we will look at whether we can actually break up or shrink the tumour.”
He shook his head. “That’s beside the point and irrelevant for you today. The other branch of our experimentation and development has been in neurology where the nanites are used to strengthen and rebuild damaged nerves, ganglia and even synaptic bridges. Effectively they bind to the material that still exists and rebuilds what was lost.”
“So you just rebuild the damaged the nerves. Make them whole again.”
“Not me, the nanites under the control of a pre programmed organic computer. The extent to which the damaged material can be repaired or rebuilt depends on the nature, extent and location of the damage.”
“So what… what will you actually do to him?”
“Well… first we’ll remove the current neural transponder, which is no longer functioning in any event. Then we replace it with the control unit. It’s implanted in the brain stem at the top of the spine and bonds with the neural cortex and the spinal chord. Essentially we site the computer and it puts out roots which anchor it into the brain and spine, it literally ‘grows’ into the neural sytem.”
“That sounds dangerous.”
“It is. That’s the most dangerous part… but not the only dangerous part. Once the control unit is in place we introduce the nanites. Initially we administer a large concentration to the area immediately around the control unit and they spread out from there. Over the next three days we continue to administer the nanites in continuous suspension intravenously.
“The procedure is a delicate one at every stage. The nanites are invasive and at times will be swarming in dangerous concentrations in critical areas. However, if Chris survives the intial insertion of the control unit and nanite swarm his chances will significantly improve, although he won’t be out of danger until the process is completed.”
“And that will take three days?”
“It will take as long as it takes. The nanites require certain chemicals to operate. Those chemicals are contained in the solution the nanites will be suspended in, that we will be infusing into Chris.” He gave them a hard look and paused. “The chemicals are highly toxic. If we were to inject them into Chris without the nanites they would kill him. The nanites ‘feed’ on the toxicity and for as long as the nanites are present in the correct balance the chemicals will be safe. By very careful and constant monitoring of the levels of these chemicals in Chris’ blood we can identify the moment the nanites stop building and become inert. At that moment the infusions will be stopped and the process will be complete.”
“But if you get it even slightly wrong or don’t stop it in time then Chris will die.”
“The whole process sounds ridiculously dangerous.”
“And it has never been performed on a human before.”
“No. Chris is the first.”
“So you don’t really know what you’re doing.”
“Oh I know what I’m doing. I know exactly what I’m doing. I just haven’t tested it.”
“There are so many things that might go wrong.”
“Might and probably will.”
Both Amy and Luke winced. “And if it doesn’t? If it doesn’t go wrong what will Chris… what can we expect at the end of it?”
“I’m afraid I can’t tell you, not precisely. The range of outcomes is enormous. It depends on precisely what the damage is, where it’s concentrated, how severe it is… In some areas the procedure can make the damage worse if the nanites swarm in very delicate areas such as certain parts of the brain. It’s impossible to predict at the outset with the equipment currently at our disposal.
“The only thing that there is no question about is that if Chris survives the procedure he will live out his natural lifespan. The doubt comes with regard to the nature and extent of the improvement in his physical and/or mental condition. That can range from minimal, or even negative to total recovery.”
“You mean he could get better, completely better?” Luke asked excitedly.
“You mean he could live for years like he is now or worse?” Amy gasped.
The doctor smiled at them both. “That’s the gamble. If he survives the procedure he will have a normal lifespan but how he is able to spend it…”
“What’s the absolute worst case?”
“Physically I would anticipate an inevitable improvement, albeit a small one. Mentally he might deteriorate. He might be unable to speak, to process information, have memory impairment, mood swings.”
“You mean he might be brain damaged, might now know us or be able to communicate with us?”
“It’s a possibility.”
“How much of a possibility?
“A real one but not a significant one.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means that at the moment this is an experimental procedure and therefore an imprecise science. What I am offering Chris is a chance, not a certainty.”
“I understand that but… It’s a whole different scenario if we are no longer looking at just life or death. In some ways a non life is worse.”
“I agree… but that’s the chance.”
“I don’t know… I…”
“We don’t have a choice Mrs B. This is what Chris wants.”
“But he doesn’t know the full story.”
“Do you think it would make any difference if he did?”
She looked at him for a moment and then shook her head sadly. “No. I know it wouldn’t.”
“There’s just one more thing.”
“If it works, if Chris gets better will it… I mean will he be safe? It won’t come back will it?”
“No, it won’t come back. The modifications will completely eradicate the virus. The neural computer will continue to be ”online’ for some time and will ensure the absolute stability of the modifications. If there are any specific problems we can, within a limited range, reprogram it to carry out additional or alternative work.
“Of course it isn’t possible to guarantee that he will never get ill again. People get ill, sometimes they get very ill and sometimes they die. Chris won’t be superhuman. Decay and sickness won’t attack the modifications but the modifications don’t extend to all of his body. He’ll get ill. He’ll be hurt. He’ll be completely normal in that respect.”
“I see. Can we go to him now?”
“It will take a little while for the tests to be completed. We have to be absolutely sure that the modifications are suitable for Chris and, if so calculate the precise levels and doses for his body. We have already had a lot of information from his medical records but there are some things we have to do for ourselves. Give us half an hour. Go and have a coffee in the canteen, or walk in the grounds.”
It was the longest half hour of their lives. They couldn’t look at each other and they couldn’t speak to each other. They simply sat and stared into their coffee until it was time to return. It wasn’t as if they were no longer comfortable with each other or were angry with each other… it was that they only had one thing to talk about and it wasn’t what either of them wanted to hear.
Dr Forrest was waiting for them in his office. He smiled. “Well, I have good news, although I’m not sure you will see it exactly that way. The tests have confirmed that Chris is suitable for the procedure… if it is performed immediately. Any delay and the deterioration will be too far advanced, maybe it already is. We’re right on the wire but close enough to the right side to make it worth trying.”
“What if you don’t…? What if we hadn’t come here? If we were somewhere else and we didn’t know about this?”
“There’s no point thinking like that.”
“No. I need to know. If we walked away from here right now, what would happen to Chris?”
“You know what would happen, Luke.”
“But how…how soon?”
“If we don’t perform the procedure within the next two hours then when Chris goes to sleep tonight he won’t be waking up again and within the next three days he will be gone.”
“Three days? But…”
“Then let’s do it. Can we see him now?”
“Of course. He’s been very… insistent. We’ve gone ahead and carried out the preparations for the procedure. You can stay with him for a while to… prepare yourselves.”
“Say goodbye you mean.”
“Do whatever you have to do.”
They followed the doctor along a corridor and through a set of double doors then took a sharp left and followed another corridor which seemed to be leading into another building or at least a very strictly defined part of the current one.
“This is a research facility right?”
“Researching robots and stuff?”
“In a way, yes.”
Dr Forrest stopped and looked at Luke. “What’s the problem?”
“I’m not… Look, no offence but… You’re all about robots, how are you going to… you know… look after Chris? Are you even a real doctor?”
“No offence taken Luke. In fact I’m surprised that you haven’t raised the question sooner. In answer… yes I am a real doctor, a medical one, as are two of my colleagues. Others are scientists, computer experts and engineers. Our research leads us down many avenues.
“The emphasis of our current research is medical in nature and we have the very best facilities. The medical wing is far better equipped than most hospitals and there’s one on one care. You have nothing to fear. Chris will have the very best of attention.”
“But why? I mean Chris is your first human subject; why do you have the facilities, the equipment…”
Dr Forrest smiled at him indulgently.
“Because he won’t be the last.”
“And I can stay with him? The whole time?”
“You can stay with him until it’s time to begin the procedure. You won’t be able to be with him while we’re working on him.”
“Luke, the operation is a delicate one. It’s performed under strict operating theatre conditions. Would you expect to be allowed into an operating theatre in a normal hospital?”
“I promise that you can spend every moment possible with him. You can stay with him right up until we take him into theatre and you can be waiting right there when he comes out.”
“If he does.”
“Take it as it comes. It’s important that you keep him as calm as possible and don’t let your own fears affect him if you can help it.”
“So how soon…?”
“We’re ready; Chris is ready. He just wants to spend a little time with you before we start. I know you want to have as much time as you can but really the sooner we start the better.”
“But I thought…”
“The sooner the better, Luke; it will give you less time to brood.”
“So what are we looking at? And hour? Half an hour?”
“Five or ten minutes.”
“Ten minutes but… but that’s not enough.”
“Anything you need to say can be said in ten minutes. Every minute that passes increases the risk, and I know you don’t want that.”
“No. No I don’t want that.”
The medical unit was, in many ways very similar to the rest of the facility in that it was light, bright and airy. There was little evidence of any activity in the large open room filled with filing cabinets; trolleys filled with files and notes; tables covered with folders, files and notes; an enormous amount of computer technology and ‘gadgets’ and a large depression in the centre accessed by steps and lined with overflowing book cases.
It didn’t really look ‘medical’ at all, more like a very hi tech and untidy library.
To one side of the library was a large set of double doors through which Dr Forrest led them. Beyond was a short corridor with two doors on either side. Dr Forrest paused outside one.
“I’ll leave you alone for as long as I can but you know the situation.”
“I want to sit with him for hours but yes, we know the situation. Just give us a few minutes.”
“You’ll find him very sleepy. Partly because he’s almost completely exhausted and partly because we’ve sedated him in preparation for the procedure. He won’t be completely anaesthetised as it would be just too dangerous and not necessary but he’s had heavy doses of a muscle relaxant which you appreciate is vital, strong painkillers and a mild sedative. We will deepen that during the procedure itself but he won’t be asleep for long.”
“I… didn’t think… It’s all so quick.”
“Only because it has to be.”
“I know. I keep saying that don’t I? ‘I know’. But the truth is, I don’t. I don’t know anything. I’m numb.”
“That’s very understandable.” He patted Amy on the arm, smiling a more subdued smile and then turned and walked away, back in the direction they had come from.
Amy and Luke paused, looking at each other and then opened the door.
Chris was lying curled up on his side on a bed that wasn’t a bed in that it was clearly designed to be moved around. His clothes were neatly folded on the seat of his wheelchair and he was covered with a thin white sheet. He looked so… vulnerable.
As they approached the bed Chris stirred and sighed. He opened sleepy eyes and smiled.
“Hey.” Luke whispered, trying to smile.
“Hey. Where you been?”
“Oh you know… hanging out.”
Chris’ smile widened. “This is it then.”
“I’m going to be a cyborg.”
“They told you then.”
“Of course. I’m not that stupid. I’m not going to go into something like this completely blind. I was kidding about the cyborg though… you know that?”
“Truth? I don’t know anything much at the moment. It’s just been so fast. I feel as if the carpet’s been pulled from under me and I’m flat on my arse.”
“Not the most attractive image Luke. I would have thought you could have come up with a better picture for me to take into eternity than my boyfriend doing the dying fly in the middle of the carpet.”
“No.” Luke said seriously, taking Chris’ hand through the rails at the side of the bed. “Because it’s not going to happen. We’ve come too far, been through too much. Over and over I have been telling myself that I have to accept, that I have to acknowledge the fact that I am going to lose you and deal with it. But I can’t. I can’t deal with it and I won’t acknowledge it. You are not going to die Chris; not today, not tomorrow, not for a long time. I won’t let you.
“I want to grow old with you. I want to watch you turn into the man I know you’re going to be… strong, loving, beautiful. I want to bring up children with you. You would be such a wonderful father. I want to take holidays together, explore the world with you, get pissed with you and embarrass you at weddings… especially ours. I want to live with you and wake up every morning for the rest of my life watching you smile. I want a life with you because without you it won’t be any life at all.” He lifted Chris’ hand to press it against his lips.
Both of them had tears in their eyes and Chris whispered. “I want that too. But I…”
“No. Don’t say it. Don’t let it in. I believe in you. I have faith in you and in what they can do. That doctor… Forrest. He has such passion for what he does, what they’re doing here. You can see it in everything he does, it’s in his eyes, just like you’re in mine. He loves his work and he believes in it. He won’t let you die Chris… and neither will I.”
Chris closed his eyes and bit his lip. “I’m so tired Luke.” He said simply.
Amy, who had gone around to the other side of the bed stroked his hair gently. He didn’t have the energy to turn his head and look at her. “I know honey. I know you’re tired. You can rest soon and if all this works out you won’t be tired any more. Just hold on for a while, just for a while.”
“I know you will baby. I know you will.”
Keeping his eyes closed Chris did his best to squeeze Luke’s hand but his fingers barely twitched. Tears trickled from under his closed lids.
“Hey… don’t cry. You’re not supposed to be crying. You’re the strong one remember? You’re the one who told me off this morning, who tried to make me promise I would build a new life without you.”
“I talk a crock of shit sometimes.” He murmured, exhausted from the emotion. Luke squeezed his hand tighter and lowered it back onto the bed. There was no strength in it, no strength in any of him.
For a while they just stayed there, just as they were, saying nothing. Chris drifted while Luke held his hand and Amy stroked his hair.
They all jumped when the door opened. It wasn’t Dr Forrest this time but a slightly younger man with tousled yellow hair and a wide friendly smile beneath serious grey eyes.
“Hi. I’m Joel, Joel Pennington. I’m going to assist Dr Forrest today. I’m not a medical doctor, I’m a techie… but a damned good one. I just wanted to tell you that we… all of us are totally committed to this. We all know what we’re doing but we’ve never done it with a human patient before and this… this is a huge day for us all. No one is taking it lightly. We’re all ready to put 150% into it. I thought that you might like to know that. No one has ever been more important than Chris is to us right now. We will take care of him. We will do everything we possibly can and more.”
Luke stared at him, overcome, but Amy smiled and said a heartfelt. “Thank you.”
Joel nodded and smiled. “It’s time.”
He nodded again.
“How… how long will it be?”
“Not long. About an hour.”
“Trust me, it will be the longest hour of your lives.”
“I don’t need you to tell me that. Can we stay here?”
“Well you could… but Chris won’t be coming back here. This is just a holding room. We have a much more comfortable room prepared for afterwards. Why don’t you go and have a walk around outside? It’s a beautiful day. Someone will come and find you when there’s news.”
Chris woke when Luke leaned down to kiss him, although ‘woke’ would not have been exactly the right term as he was only barely conscious.
“Is it time?”
“Will you stay with me?”
“I can’t, they won’t let me. But I won’t be far away. I’ll be here when… when you wake up.”
“But I thought… you said…” For a moment Chris’ eyes widened with panic but he controlled it and nodded grimly. “I know. I suppose I won’t be alone, not really.”
Luke turned his face away and glared at Joel who dropped his eyes. Then he turned back with a smile forced onto his lips. “I’ll be with you in spirit, every moment, and I won’t be far away I promise.”
“I love you Luke.”
“I know you do. I’ve always known. And I love you too… more than… more than…” He had to make an enormous effort to control himself and smile that last smile. “I have to go now. Please don’t do anything stupid like… oh I don’t know, dying or something.”
Chris’ lips twitched. “I’ll do my best.”
With a final smile and squeeze of the hand Luke squared his shoulders and strode out of the room. Amy leaned down and gently kissed her son.
“Take care of him Mam.”
“You don’t need to ask that. You know I will. Don’t worry about anything. Luke is going to be fine. And so are you.”
He no longer had the strength to speak and he just nodded before his eyes closed and he slipped away. Amy was crying when she caught up with Luke. He put his arm around her shoulders and they walked together out into the cold winter day.
Joel was right. It was the longest hour of their lives. They ended up sitting in the canteen again, surrounded by the bustle of employees enjoying a break from their busy work day. It was encouraging to see how bright and happy everyone seemed to be. Some of them were having spirited conversations about fine points of their research. It would have been a stimulating environment if either of them had had the heart for stimulation.
They were on their second cup of coffee when the receptionist from the lobby came to tell them that Dr Forrest would like to speak to them in his office.
“Is there news? Is it…?”
“I’m sorry.” She said genuinely. “I was just told to find you. I don’t have any further information.”
“Well how did he look?” Luke persisted as they hurried along after her. “Did he look happy? Sad?”
“He looked tired.” She said simply and after that Luke shut up.
He did look tired. It was the first thing they both noticed when they entered the office. However, he rose to greet them and smiled warmly. “Please sit down.” He followed suit and ran his hands through his hair nervously. “That was… an experience. I don’t think any of us were prepared for how different it would be when it’s a human being under our hands. I wouldn’t want to have to do that too often, to have the responsibility for a life.”
“Please.” Amy said simply.
He seemed to shake himself out of a reverie. “I’m sorry.” Two hearts stopped. “I didn’t mean to keep you hanging.” The hearts thumped, just once. “It didn’t go as I had expected, or entirely as I would have hoped. Chris’ condition was too advanced for it ever to have been simple. There were times when I wondered if we had made the right decision.” He frowned in contemplation as Amy and Luke became light headed from holding their breath.
“However, Chris is a strong and resilient young man. There were times when I thought we were going to lose him but he fought back every time and, against all the odds, and to be honest against my own best expectations, he made it.”
For a moment the words didn’t sink in and then they both started to cry, holding on to each other for support as they sobbed out their relief.
Dr Forrest let them cry it out, smiling indulgently. Eventually he said. “He’s not out of the woods yet. These next three days are going to be very difficult for him. He’s very tired, almost completely exhausted and the rebuilding process has only just begun and is going to take energy. I am concerned that he may have entirely depleted his reserves and if that’s the case there is still a good chance he might slip away.”
“What…? I know that before… before the… you said that his chances were very low. Now…?”
“You know that there are no guarantees. I’ve just told you that there is still a long way to go, and a way fraught with danger. However,” he grinned with a spark of his previous enthusiasm, “the chances are much improved; very much improved. I would say… deeply concerned but cautiously optimistic… would be the best that I can do right now.”
“Thank you. You have no idea…”
“No thanks required. It was truly our pleasure.”
“Can we see him now?”
“Of course. It will be very good for him to have you nearby.”
“Is he awake?”
“Not precisely and neither will he be for the next few days. The rebuilding process is radical and will be painful. He’ll be sedated and still receiving the muscle relaxants and pain relief. But he won’t be wholly unconscious either. I think you will find that he will sleep for most of the time with brief periods of lucidity. But it would be good if someone could be with him most of the time. It was is and will be a frightening process.”
“Was he scared?” Luke interjected startled, and surged to his feet. “Is he scared?”
“There was some anxiety, yes. As I explained he was not unconscious throughout the procedure although he was generally unaware of what was happening around him. We did our best to reassure him and keep him calm but sometimes when someone is not really aware of what is happening it is easy to be afraid.
“I think that in the moments when things were in the balance and could have gone either way he knew and yes, he did get frightened, sometimes very frightened but I also think this reaction to that fear…the stubborn refusal to succumb to it was what brought him through in the end.”
“When I left him he was asleep, absolutely worn out. We’ve already started the nanite infusions and they will be working constantly throughout his body to repair the damaged nerves and tissue and so sleep won’t really be replenishing for him but at least it will conserve some energy. It’s impossible to say what he’s feeling underneath, whether there is still fear or relief or… something completely different. I have come to realise even in our short association that Chris is unpredictable.”
“Oh yes. He is that.
The room they were led to was very different than the last. It was still large and airy but it was not so bare. On one side was a lounge type area with a long low sideboard bearing tea and coffee making facilities and a telephone, preceded by four comfortable chairs and a low table.
On the other side of the room was the bed which was very state of the art. It made Chris look small and fragile. Relatively speaking he was.
It was hard to know where to touch him as there was so much equipment. Luke was most nervous about the IV’s. Joel caught him peering at the bag closely and smiled.
“You won’t see anything. They’re microscopic.” Luke jumped feeling unaccountably guilty and Joel smiled again. “Don’t worry, as you can see we aren’t taking any chances. He can’t blink without us knowing about it. The most minute changes in his body… heartbeat, temperature, blood pressure, blood chemistry… and we’ll know about it. He’s come so far, nothing is going to happen to him now.”
“Is that a promise?”
Joel smiled again. “It’s an educated hope.”
There were long benches at either side of the bed on which Luke and Amy took up station. Despite the equipment Luke reached out and took his hand. He stirred and it startled Luke, for some reason he hadn’t expected him to.
Infinitely slowly Chris forced his eyes open and blinked at Luke. For a moment he looked completely dazed then, slowly he smiled.
“Am I dead?”
Luke smiled and squeezed his hand. “No. You are most definitely not dead.”
Chris frowned. “I can’t move.”
“You couldn’t move before so…”
“But I thought…”
“It’s not over yet babe. You need more of the little robot things and that will take a while. But it will be over soon. You’ll be like the bionic man. ‘The will rebuild you’.”
“Better, faster, stronger.”
“Impossible. They can’t improve on perfection.”
A fleeting smile flicked over his lips. “I feel… I don’t know how I feel… not convinced.”
“Not convinced of what?”
“That I’m not still dying.”
“Well, it’s not over yet. The most dangerous part is but those robots still have a lot of work to do and…”
“It could still go wrong.”
Wordlessly Luke nodded. Chris looked at him steadily for a few moments then sighed and closed his eyes. “I’m tired.”
“Then you should rest.”
“Yes. Is my mother here?”
“Of course I am sweetheart.” She leaned forward to brush the hair from his face and his lips twitched. Although he was too tired to smile or turn his head to look at her. He whispered something that Luke had to lean in close to hear. He smiled and gently brushed his lips across Chris’ whispering back. “Always.” By the time he had finished speaking Chris was asleep again.
The next three days were a living nightmare for Luke. He left the room only for the occasional shower and to use the toilet. Everyone quickly gave up trying to persuade him to go home to rest, especially when the pain started.
Joel, who was there almost as much as Luke was, and Dr Forrest explained that the process of bonding to and repairing the damaged nerves and tissue was inevitably going to be a painful process, but that didn’t make it any easier. It is never easy to watch someone you love going through something like that.
After that first day Chris’ and Luke’s parents took turns in keeping Luke company but half the time he didn’t know who was there. Hour after hour, day and night he sat at the bedside holding Chris’ hand and trying his best to lend him strength as he fought for life.
Sometimes Chris woke up and he was always afraid. For him it was never just about the pain. He could feel himself changing and, quite apart from the fact that it hurt, it was a difficult process to deal with; mentally and physically. Quite often he wouldn’t have the strength to speak but Luke always knew.
“It’s alright. I’m here and I will always be here. I’ve got you. I’ll take care of you.” But he couldn’t. They both knew that. Even in his confused state Chris knew that this fight was his and his alone and it isolated him, as the rapid deterioration of his body had been isolating him for months. He had always known the decline was inexorable and no matter how much he was assured that everything would be alright, that he wouldn’t be alone, that his friends and family would be at his side no matter what, and they had been; in the end, in the darkness of the night, there had only ever been him to fight his demons alone.
It seemed to him now that every time he woke it was harder, hurt more and it was more difficult not to slip away. Every time he lost the struggle to stay awake the flash of fear that was the last thing he was consciously aware of grew more intense; the fear that he wouldn’t wake up again.
On the day after the operation Chris’ muscles started to spasm and twitch again. Not as much as before but enough to scare Luke, especially as it now happened even when he was asleep which had never happened before. Even though both Joel and Dr Forrester tried to reassure him, to convince him that it was all just a natural part of the process he found it very difficult to accept and to cope with.
Sometimes it would be so violent that Chris would wake gasping and sobbing with pain. Never had Luke wanted to hold him in his arms so much, but it was impossible.
By the end of the second day no one was in any doubt that Chris was weakening and the pain was getting worse. He wasn’t waking up any more and his body was trembling with fatigue even when his muscles weren’t twitching. Everyone spoke in hushed voices and even Joel and Dr Forrest weren’t smiling any more. There was an almost oppressive sense of inevitability in the air. The end was coming and it was coming fast. They all knew it.
Luke woke from a heavy, exhausted sleep to darkness. The first thing the noticed was a dull persistent pain which he quickly realised was Chris holding his hand with enough strength to make the bones grind. He almost cried out. The next thing he became aware of was a desperate sobbing whimpering that tore at his heart.
He was on his feet in moments and leaning over the bed. It seemed as if every muscle in Chris’ body was in spasm. His back was arched, lifting him off the bed and his whole body was humming with tension. Luke quickly realised that the grip on his hand was merely another example of the painful spasms and entirely unconscious.
As he leaned over Luke saw with surprise that Chris’ eyes were wide open and filled with a pain and terror so deep it froze Luke, preventing sound or movement.
“No — no — no — no.” The whimpers resolved into breathless words that lengthened into strained moans.
“Chris, Chris I’m here. It’s alright I’m here.”
“Help. Help me. Help.”
Luke realised with horror that the wide blue eyes were empty of everything but the fear and pain he was feeling.
“Chris? Chris it’s me, Luke.”
With enormous effort Chris turned his head and begged through gritted teeth in a hoarse whisper. “Help me… please.” but he was begging the ethers, the human contact. There was no understanding or recognition that it was Luke.
Luke jumped at the touch of an arm around his shoulders. It was Amy’s turn to experience the pain of seeing someone you love in extreme distress and not being able to comfort them because they don’t know you.
“He doesn’t know me.” Luke sobbed. “Please, please so something. Make it stop. Make it alright.” He was right on the verge of becoming hysterical, but what could Amy do? She wasn’t that far away herself.
She too tried to soothe Chris but he didn’t recognise her any more than he had Luke.
“Why doesn’t someone come?”
“I’ll go…” Amy began when suddenly, with a long low moan Chris went completely limp, his eyes closed and an alarm started going off. Amy gave a cry of anguished fear and Luke froze, his heart stopping. Before he could recover the door burst open and there seemed to be people everywhere. Luke and Amy were pushed backwards and stumbled into the seating area, shaking with fear.
It seemed like a very, very long time but was probably only a few minutes, before Joel detached himself from the melee and approached them. Unbelievably he was smiling broadly.
“I’m so sorry.” Luke choked but Joel continued. “We keep leaving you hanging. I suppose we’re all obsessed with the experiment and sometimes we forget he’s a real person and so are you.”
“I don’t care about that. I don’t care about anything, only please, please… Is he…?”
“Chris is fine, absolutely fine.”
“But he… he was… and there was an alarm.”
Joel’s smile became more gentle. “Why don’t you sit down?” They practically fell onto the chairs. “The alarm was a warning that the levels of suspension chemicals in Chris’ blood were rising. Nothing more.”
“It wasn’t… a bad thing?” Amy asked hesitantly.
“It wasn’t a bad thing at all.”
“I don’t… I don’t understand. What does it mean? What does it MEAN?”
“It means that it’s over. Maximum saturation has been achieved. The nanites have finished their job. It’s over.”
“What? What do you mean over?” Amy asked weakly.
“Do you really mean it? Do you really mean it? It’s over. He’s going to be alright now.”
Luke, as usual was more focussed and this time Joel directed his response to him. “His life isn’t in danger any more. We won’t know what effect, if any the treatment has had until he wakes up.”
Luke’s eyes went flat as Amy asked querulously. “When will that be?”
This time Joel turned to her although he gave Luke a long thoughtful look as he did so. “We’re withdrawing all the medication now. It’s not needed any longer. He should wake up in half an hour or so but he’ll be very tired. It’s been a hard fight for him and it will take time for his body to recover. When he first wakes we won’t be able to do any more than a brief evaluation then he’ll sleep again well into tomorrow…” He checked his watch, “…today.”
“But he’s going to be alright?”
“It will be some time before we can give a complete picture. All that we can say right now is that he’s going to live.”
Amy covered her eyes with her hands, sobbing with relief. Joel turned to Luke. “You don’t seem too thrilled with the news. What’s bothering you?”
Luke looked up at him with stormy, dull eyes. “He didn’t know me.”
“What do you mean?”
“Just before… before the alarm started going off, he was scared and in pain and I tried to talk to him, so did Mrs B. He didn’t know either of us. He didn’t recognise us.”
“That doesn’t necessarily mean anything. The nanites might have been swarming around neural centres in the brain, it might have been the pain, the medication, the increase in the chemicals in his blood. It could have been a lot of things.”
“Or it could be that he doesn’t remember us, that he won’t remember us.”
“It could, yes. But even so… just because he doesn’t remember you doesn’t mean he can’t get to know you again, make new memories.”
“But what if he doesn’t want to? What if he doesn’t fall in love with me again?”
“It’s all pure conjecture Luke. Wait and see.”
“But he could be someone completely different couldn’t he? I mean, not just the memory, the personality everything. He could be even more disabled than he was before. He could be…”
“He could be a lot of things Luke; most of them better than before.”
“Most. Not all.”
“No, not all. You knew the score Luke, you’ve always known the score, so why are you freaking out about this now?”
“Why? Because I have just looked into my lover’s eyes and for the first time ever I didn’t see love in them. I didn’t see Chris in them. I suppose I have been too scared about him dying. I… I didn’t… I didn’t let myself think about what would happen if he didn’t.”
Joel patted Luke on the shoulder. “Let’s just wait and see.”
“That’s all I’ve been doing for months.”
“Then a few more hours won’t make any difference.” Luke stared at him then shook his head enigmatically and buried it in his hands.
It was a lot more than an hour before Chris woke. Time wore on and the sun rose. After a period of intense activity, with someone checking something or other with Chris every few minutes they took everything away and let him be.
Luke couldn’t help thinking that they had removed all the monitoring equipment far too prematurely. All that remained was a needle in the back of his hand ‘in case of emergencies’ although they couldn’t tell him what kind of emergency that might be.
He had grown used to the steady beep of the heart monitor and the regular hiss and click of the blood pressure cuff. He realised now that he had found them reassuring. Even the weird mosquito machine which stuck it proboscis into his arm to constantly monitor the chemical composition of his blood had been reassuring… well apart from when it had set the alarm off.
Now there was nothing, nothing at all to tell him that all was well. There was only Chris and he wasn’t even certain that he knew who Chris was any more.
He was dozing lightly, exhausted himself, when he heard Chris’ sleepy moan and he raised his head in time to catch the first fluttering of the inky black lashes which were all the darker against the pale cheeks.
“Chris.” He whispered, practically holding his breath. Chris sighed and his eyes fluttered open. He blinked slowly, not focussing on anything and then closed them again. “Chris.” He repeated more anxiously. By this time Amy was on the other side of the bed. Once again Chris opened heavy eyes and failed to focus them on anything. Luke was almost beside himself as he held Chris’ hand and whispered his name for the third time.
Blinking repeatedly Chris tried to focus his eyes. “Oh please Chris, please remember me.”
Chris blinked up at him surprised. “Remember you? Of course I remember you. It hasn’t been that long has it? Has it?” He added anxiously.
Luke smiled through streaming tears. “No. It hasn’t been that long, not long at all.”
“Only a few days.”
Chris relaxed with a sigh.
“How are you feeling sweetheart?” Amy asked gently.
“I… don’t know. I’m tired. I’m still so tired.”
She stroked his forehead and smiled at him. “It’s alright. Rest if you want to. Sleep baby.”
Chris’ eyes widened. “What’s wrong? Why are you crying? Why are you telling me to sleep? Am I dying?”
“No baby. You’re not dying, not now, not any more.”
“Is it? Is it over now?”
Suddenly Chris looked terrified. “Am I…? What am I…? Can I…?”
“Chris, we don’t know. No one knows.”
He swallowed. “I’m scared.”
Luke squeezed his hand. “It’s alright. You’re here, with me. You’re alive. You’re going to live and we’re going to be together. That’s all that counts.”
“That’s why you said… why you were scared I wouldn’t remember you. Oh God. Oh God Luke I’m so scared. What’s happened to me? What’s going to happen to me?”
“Calm down Chris.” Luke said softly. “I just told you. It doesn’t matter. You’re here. I’m here. That’s ALL that matters.” He spoke slowly and watched Chris gradually calming. He still looked scared and he was holding himself absolutely stiff, afraid to move a muscle in case he couldn’t, or that he would find it still out of his control.
“Don’t be sorry. Of course you’re scared. You wouldn’t be human if you weren’t scared.”
“Are you what?”
“Am I still human?”
“You really do talk a crock of shit sometimes don’t you?” Luke smiled and leaned over to kiss him. “So what do you think? Did that feel human?”
“Totally.” Still looking absolutely terrified and biting his lip to stop it trembling Chris slowly lifted his hand from Luke’s and raised it to touch his face, to wipe the tears that were flowing freely down it. The fingers were trembling but not because of any uncontrollable spasms, only because of emotion.
“Luke.” He breathed and then took his hand away from Luke’s face and held it in front of his own face, staring at it in wonder and shock. He raised his eyes to his mother and smiled broadly.
“Mam.” He held out his other hand and she grabbed it and held it tight barely able to see him through the tears.
Although still utterly exhausted Chris was excited now. “Help me.”
“Help you what?”
“I want to sit up. I want to see if I can.”
“I don’t know. Maybe you should wait…”
“I’ve waited months. Please.”
Unable to deny him anything Luke slipped his arm under Chris’ shoulders and raised him upright, leaning against his shoulder. Chris put his arm around his waist and rested his head against his shoulder. For a few minutes they just stayed that way revelling in the closeness, the feeling of being together again.
“I’ll go and tell Dr Forrest you’re awake.” Amy said smiling making a tactful withdrawal.
When she was gone Chris raised his face to Luke’s and they both experienced something they had not had for a long time. They put their arms around each other and kissed. In fact Chris did a lot more than that. He was still weak but he managed to pull Luke down and arch his back to press himself up against him. The kiss was deep, passionate and healing.
And then the unthinkable happened. Growing even more adventurous but drowning his fear in the kiss and with Luke naturally helping and supporting him, largely without conscious thought, Chris inched his legs over the edge of the bed and for a long, heady blissful moment they were standing together, feeling the frantic beat of their hearts and the thrust of their heaving chests.
Of course it couldn’t last long. Chris was out of energy and after months in the wheelchair he had no strength in his legs. After that first giddy moment he collapsed back onto the bed pulling Luke down on top of him.
“Shit Chris, be careful. I don’t want to break you when you only just got fixed.”
“You can’t break me. I’m indestructible.”
“Not quite. Don’t get too carried away.”
“Only by you.”
Luke, with his hands either side of Chris’ head, looking down at the shining eyes and flushed cheeks, felt as though he was going to burst with happiness. It was more than he could ever have dreamed of. He thought that life could not ever be any better than it was right there in that moment. But then Chris threw his arms around him and pulled him into an embrace that he had thought he would never experience again.
– The End –