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Mr. Washburn's Last Resort

by Jack Bragen

Part 1 appears
in this issue.

I awoke to the sound of an announcer on the intercom who said there would be breakfast in twenty minutes. I told the mechanical arms in the room to dress me, which they did with rapidity and dexterity.

Gentle mechanical arms lifted me out of the bed and deposited me in my wheelchair, which I again noted was an older model; it came with a manual override that was protection against the wheelchair’s becoming autonomous, something that didn’t happen any more with the newer artificial intelligence chips.

“And how are you today?” I asked the wheelchair. This was a test to make sure that the artificial brain was sticking to the domain it should be in.

“I am without an opinion,” replied the wheelchair.

It was an acceptable reply. “Good,” I said.

“‘Good’ is irrelevant to me,” replied the wheelchair. “I am here to do as instructed and no more.”

I said nothing. The more I spoke to the wheelchair as an entity, the closer I would come to encouraging some form of autonomy. “Take me to the dining hall,” I said, finally.

The wheelchair took me fifty yards along the massive interior of the building, and into a wide doorway to a room that had numerous tables and some regular chairs for those who didn’t ride in wheelchairs.

Breakfast was put in front of me by the usual mechanical arms that extended from the ceiling and that moved along tracks up there. The house computer knew somehow that this morning I wanted steak and eggs, and I was delighted to find myself eating real meat, and not the imitation meat that went for steak in modern times.

After a couple bites I realized that Clara had sat down next to me. She had a hand on my leg. “Such a nice man,” she said. “Too bad you’re not my age.”

“Too bad you’re not more than this to me,” I said, and I lifted my cup of orange juice to mimic a toast.

“I’m sorry,” she said.

“You don’t have to rub it in. I’m an old, dying man and I’m used up. So what. I’m trying to have a good time here. You got a problem?”

“I’m in a bad relationship,” she uttered suddenly. “It’s starting to affect my job. I don’t know if I can...” Clara paused. I could see her force herself to regain composure. Something was eating at her. I knew it was none of my business.

“Meet me in the rain room in ten minutes,” she blurted.

“But I thought three days,” I replied. To that, she put a finger against her lips. She gave me a hug and started to leave.

“Ten minutes, rain room,” she repeated, turning back toward me for a moment. And she was out the cafeteria door.

“What do you think of her, wheelchair?” I asked. I was breaking federal law in fact, by encouraging a robotized device to think independently. What were they going to do? Give me the death penalty?

The wheelchair rolled along at medium speed; and we passed a gift shop. I spotted flowers and told the wheelchair to go there. I picked out some bright yellow flowers. “How much?” I asked the gift shop clerk, a young woman in her twenties who wore the old-style spectacles that had become fashionable. She was probably a college student.

“On me,” she replied.

Did she know my situation? How could she? I took the flowers and was ready to leave the gift shop when I heard a commotion.

From a distance, I spotted Clara trying to pull her arm free of a big man who was clutching it. I put the wheelchair on manual and rolled up to the two. The chair puts out an annoying robotic voice saying; “Warning, chair on manual,” and this repeats itself unendingly until you put the chair back on auto or you disassemble the chair.

“Is this man bothering you?” I asked. “Because it would be easy for me to phone the police.”

“He is good friends with the police already,” said Clara. “Don’t get involved.”

“You heard her: don’t try anything!” The burly man’s reddened face was inches from mine and he was shouting the words. It was enough.

I started to go away and then reversed course, sending the chair with me in it at full throttle toward the man. The “wheelchair on manual” warning continued, annoyingly. The chair, with me in it, slammed into him. I yelled, “Asshole!” partly from pain and partly to scare my opponent.

The element of surprise was working in my favor. In an instant, I was on top of him, pinning his arms with my thighs. There was no way for him to get free. He struggled to breathe while his face contorted into the meanest look I had ever seen.

“Bastard,” I said. “You don’t hit a woman.” I was confusingly brought back to my chivalrous youth. I realized I still wasn’t afraid to fight, and it elated me. Then, my liver pain came back with a vengeance. I straightened, slumped and fell to the side, and then was on my back, on the floor, writhing in pain.

The young violent boyfriend shoved me aside, stood and said, “You’re dying anyway. Why don’t I help you along?” He raised the heel of his boot over my face, and waited, apparently hoping I would beg for mercy.

“What’s holding you back, jerk?” I said. This man could end me, I knew, but he could not undo my self-respect.

I realized the wheelchair had ceased its automatic warning of being on manual. I realized I must have accidentally put the wheelchair back on auto during the commotion. From where I was on the floor, I stared for a moment at the little camera that the wheelchair’s brain saw with.

The wheelchair for some unknown reason sped away. And then it turned about, and headed once again toward the assailant. The man stepped back from me, and to avoid the wheelchair, stepped aside.

“Wheelchair, I order you to stop!” said the assailant.

“You will not hurt my friend,” replied the wheelchair. Its processing chip apparently had become fully autonomous.

And the chair kept coming after him. The wheel chair finally connected, slamming into the man’s knees at full speed. He yelped in pain. The wheelchair backed away once again, preparing for another charge. The the man turned and ran out the front door of the facility, and I could see through the glass wall that he was getting into a ground-car. Clara kneeled over me and injected something into my shoulder for the pain.

“You should go rest,” she said. “There is no need for you to defend me. I’m sorry to get you involved. This seems very unprofessional.”

At that point, I knew that Clara wasn’t going to be my partner. Death was approaching. Also, I had done something to compromise my surrogate’s uninvolved status. I knew that this wrecked her ability to be my partner in this hospice. If only I were thirty years younger, I could show her something, I thought. But I had already done all of that, and now it was my time to go home. At least my final act had been of some bravery.

In life you don’t get everything. It is a hit or miss thing, and it never seems to follow your plan of how you think it should be.

I anticipated I would go to the other side, I would see deceased family, and I would merge with an infinite intelligence. But who knows: I might just cease to exist.

Copyright © 2012 by Jack Bragen

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