Icarus

by Christopher C. Smith


part 1

“Euthanasia is murder!” the protestors chanted again and again and again. “Ben Johnson is dead!”

The first part didn’t bother me so much. But the second part, that really got my goat. See, my name is Ben Johnson. And the way I see it, I’m not dead.

Of course, “got my goat” is a bit of a misnomer, since I think “goat” is short for “goatee,” and those just aren’t part of the avian anatomy. “Stuck in my craw” would be a better way of putting it.

Something like a hundred protestors pressed against the police barrier outside the county courthouse. They had big speakers so they could amplify their slogans for all the world to hear. And signs, too. Not just signs with slogans, but signs with pictures. Pictures of my dead body.

Not my body anymore, of course. My body from a former life, my discarded shell of a human corpse. It made me a little sick to see the pictures. Public decency has not fared well in the twenty-first century.

I made sure not to get close enough for anyone to notice me. I’ve quite literally got the eyes of a hawk, so I can see most things just fine from a couple hundred feet up. Humans keep their eyes on the ground most of the time anyway. But I didn’t want to push my luck, so I tilted on a wing and let the breeze carry me away from the courthouse. Let the fanatics have their fun. Just leave me out of it.

I soared over the library, stretching my wings wide as the wind whistled past my ears. Yes, I have ears. They just don’t stick out the side of my head like your ridiculous human Dumbo ears do.

I caught a thermal and banked on one wing, twisting effortlessly into a tight upward spiral as the warm air surged against the feathers of my underbelly. Ben Johnson isn’t dead, I thought as the sheer adrenaline of flight sent tingles down my spine. Ben Johnson is very much alive.

I had a lunch appointment, so I left the thermal behind and swooped through the open skylight of the downtown mall. I landed on the counter at KFC and ordered some drumsticks. I hadn’t quite gotten over my nausea at the thought of hunting and killing my own breakfast yet.

It’s kind of funny, really: an animal thinking it’s somehow more humane to pay human farmers to kill my chickens for me. I paid the cashier with my credit card — I carry it in a sort of fanny pack for hawks, in case you’re wondering — and then turned and scanned the dining area for Dr. Roberts.

I made a mental note of the cat sitting on a tabletop ten feet away. A fellow downloader, no doubt. No threat to me, but my natural fear response kicked in anyway and made me shiver a little.

I can understand the people who choose monkeys and parrots, with their opposable thumbs and power of speech. But the fascination with dogs and cats is beyond me. As for my own choice, I may not have thumbs or speech, but I’ve never had any regrets either. No parrot can soar the skies as I can.

I spotted Dr. Roberts sitting at a table next to a TV and flapped my way over to perch on the edge of the table opposite him. He was transfixed by the monitor, which showed images of the protest.

A reporter was interviewing a bald Asian man wearing the red habit of a Buddhist priest. “To call downloading ‘technology-assisted reincarnation’ is completely backwards,” the priest intoned. “The true Buddhist’s goal is to stop being reincarnated. To surrender the self and become one with All. Downloading, however, isn’t about surrendering the self. It’s about preserving it. It is a sad, false kind of immortality.”

“Not for me,” I said. I had my little keypad out on the table now, and its flat synthetic voice spoke the words as I typed them with my talons. “Maybe for people who are about to die, downloading is about life extension. But for me it was about freedom — fulfilling my dream.”

Dr. Roberts glanced at me, nodded in greeting, then reached up and turned the monitor’s volume down. “It’s not people who’re about to die, you know. We have to wait till they’re already dead before we can even start the procedure. By then it’s usually too late. How stupid is that?”

I nodded my feathered head sagely. “With any luck, all that will change when they read the verdict this afternoon.”

The doctor smiled weakly and changed the subject. “How are you, Ben?” He was wearing a dress shirt and suit jacket, but the shirt looked a little rumpled and his eyelids drooped wearily. The trial had clearly taken its toll on him.

“Free. Happy. Alive.” A waiter brought over my drumsticks. I ignored them. Humans can eat and chat at the same time. It’s a little harder for me.

“Alive.” He laughed. “That’s a matter of some debate, if you believe the hype. And unfortunately your freedom may cost me mine.” He still smiled, but I could hear the bitterness in his voice.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“No, no. It’s not your fault. I knew the risks when I decided to do this. I did it because I believed in it. And besides, Xenotrans’ lawyers are the best. If anyone can get me out of this mess, they can.”

“I owe you a great deal.”

“You don’t owe me anything, Ben.” He was quiet for a long moment. Then he seemed to remember that he was trying to be cheerful, and smiled mischievously. “They’re calling you Icarus, you know. And me, Daedalus.”

“Pardon?”

“From Greek mythology. Daedalus made wax wings for his son Icarus.”

“I seem to remember things ending pretty badly for Icarus,” I said wryly. Or at least I would have said it wryly, if my keypad knew how to do wryness.

“He flew too close to the sun. His wax wings melted, and he drowned in the sea. That’s what the pundits are saying. That nothing good can come of all this.”

“The wings you made for me aren’t wax,” I pointed out.

He laughed. “That’s why they’re wrong, Ben. You’re not Icarus. You’re Perdix.”

“Perdix?”

“Daedalus’ nephew. Daedalus pushed Perdix off a high tower, and the goddess Athena saved Perdix’s life by turning him into a partridge. Perdix lived, but Daedalus was tried and banished for his crime.”

“You didn’t push me off a tower. You only performed an operation I wanted.”

“But maybe I didn’t try hard enough to talk you out of it, Ben. We had decided to keep an eye out for a possible test case, and when you wheeled through my door with those crippled legs and your dreams of flight, I saw an opportunity. Maybe it was selfish. I didn’t push you off the tower, but I didn’t hold you back when you jumped.”

“Because you’re Athena. You knew you would save me.”

Dr. Roberts roared with laughter at that. He was a stout, bearded man, and his laugh was deep and soothing. “Ben, by God you’re right.” He smacked the table with a meaty fist. “You’re not dead, no matter what the damn pundits say.”

“Good thing, too,” I typed. “I’d make a hell of a partridge.” I pantomimed reeling and made a series of short croaking sounds that I knew he would interpret as laughter. If I were human, a warm grin would have sufficed, but lacking lips has forced me to find more creative ways of communicating good humor.

Dr. Roberts smiled but seemed distracted by something behind me. He stood and nodded. “I’ll let you all have some privacy. See you in the courtroom, Ben.” And with that he walked away.


Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2011 by Christopher C. Smith

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