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By Michael Blumlein
Tachyon PublicationsCopyright © 2008 Michael Blumlein
All rights reserved.
Long before Grace, before Claire and Felicity, before the two men who wrecked his life, there was him and him alone, Robert Fairchild, first and only child of June and Lawrence, warm and cozy in his mother's womb. He was two weeks overdue at birth, as though reluctant to leave that precious, corpuscular, sharply scented, deeply calming place—determined, as it were, to remain attached. When at last his mother, weary of a tenacity that at other, less pressing, times she would come to admire, served notice and forced him out, young Robert, shocked and indignant, cried a storm.
His father was a physicist, an academic devoted to his work, highly respected by his colleagues and rarely at home. He was raised by his mother, who adored him, and he learned, as many sons do, that love bears the face and the stamp of a woman.
He excelled in school and, following in the footsteps of his father, chose mathematics as a career. But midway through college he was bitten by another bug and abandoned math for art. First painting, which proved beyond his grasp, then sculpture, which tantalized him. Sadly, his work was never more than mediocre; some of it, by any standard, his own included, was out and out ugly. And these were not the days when ugly was beautiful. These were the days when beautiful was beautiful, and beauty reigned supreme.
His failure was discouraging, all the more because he expected to succeed, as he had all his life until then. He lost confidence in himself, a new experience, and on the heels of this his spirits spiraled down. Eventually, he decided to drop out of school. But on the way to deliver his letter of resignation, he ran into a fellow student—literally collided with her. She was standing at the edge of the sidewalk, a sketchpad open, a pencil in hand, utterly absorbed in the rendering of an old stone building for one of her classes.
Her name was Claire. The class was architecture. Their collision marked the beginning of a love affair that lasted just a few short years, but of a career, for Robert, that lasted a lifetime. Everything that was unattainable and wrong in his work as a sculptor was uncannily right in his work, first as a student, then apprentice, architect, as if some slight, but fatal, flaw in his eye, or his compass, had been corrected. For this he credited Claire. She was his first great love. Through her he found his calling. Through her he learned, not incidentally, how sweet and vivifying love could be. She restored his confidence. She invigorated him and inspired his earliest work. In the brief time they were together she gave him everything, it seemed, a man could want, and when at length she left him, citing his self-centeredness and preference for work over her, she gave him something new, the devastating side of love, the heartache and the sorrow. For what she said was true, he had poured his love for her into his work, to a fault, neglecting the real live person. It was a terrible mistake, which he vowed never to repeat. He had a contempt for mistakes, rivaled only by—as an aspiring young architect—his contempt for repetition.
After Claire left, he had an awful time. Guilt, anger, loneliness, self-recrimination, despair: the usual stuff. He couldn't work, and that was worst of all, because his career was just beginning, and he needed work to feel like a man, to feel worth anything. And then in a freak accident he lost an eye, and what had seemed bad suddenly got worse. An architect without an eye? How about a bird without a wing? A singer without a throat? He felt castrated.
He couldn't see, or thought he couldn't see. Everything seemed flat and drab and lifeless. There were ways to adjust and compensate, but he wasn't into adjustment, not just yet, he was into bitterness and self-pity, which were new to him and gave him a kind of poisonous satisfaction. It was during this time that he met Julian Taborz, a bioengineer and fledgling entrepreneur, and they began a collaboration that was to culminate in the invention of Pakki-flex,® the so-called "living skin." But that was years away, and at the time there was a real question just how long Robert would last. He was working for a firm, but his work was uninspired. He was getting stress-induced rashes, which itched and boiled and crawled along his skin like a plague. At length he was put on notice as a poor performer, but he couldn't seem to correct himself. With each passing month, the world of architecture, which he adored, seemed to slip further from his grasp. Then he met Felicity, who changed his life.
Felicity was an oculist, which was a little like being a jeweler. She had long, expressive fingers, slate blue eyes and a sweet ironic laugh. She gave Robert, not his first fake eye, but his first good one, that didn't announce itself from a mile off, bulging like a tumor from its socket, making him look bug-eyed and cartoonish, or half bug-eyed, which was worse. He had developed the habit of averting his face, or, alternatively, whipping off his omnipresent sunglasses and confronting strangers, forcing them to choose where to look and where not to look, willfully inviting their uneasiness, fascination and disgust. These were angry, spiteful days, and Felicity put them to rest. It was a matter of craftsmanship, which she had in abundance, but equally, it was a matter of caring and empathy, of listening to a client, connecting with him, giving him the look, the picture of himself, he wanted. Felicity had that talent too, and Robert fell for her like a fish for water.
The day she gave him his eye, in a little box, then helped him put it in, then stood beside him at the mirror, proud, almost protective, he was overcome with emotion. He asked if he could see her again. Gently, she refused. He asked if he could at least call her, and she gave him her business card and said, if he was having trouble with his eye, of course. He waited two weeks, then made an appointment. She made some minor adjustments, and a month later he was back again. Eventually, against her better judgment, she agreed to go out on a date with him. He took her home and showed her the design of a building that, he professed, she had inspired, a frothy concoction of steel and glass, his first new design in many moons. She didn't know quite what to make of it, nor of his attention. He seemed so needy, starved for something she was not at all sure that she, or anyone, could provide. At the same time she was flattered. Several weeks later he showed her another building, also inspired by her, then another, and so it went, until at length he wore her down, overcoming her resistance. He was only a man after all, and if he insisted that she was heaven on earth, who was she to disagree? Putting wariness aside, burying suspicion, she stopped withholding herself, and from there the laws of chemistry, physics and biology (which, in the absence of compelling forces to the contrary, favored attraction), kicked in. She was already in some ways attached to him, and now that attachment grew. She looked forward to his company. She cared how he felt. And eventually the day arrived when she could no longer deny, nor had any wish to deny, that as near as she could tell, she was in love.
It was evident in every facet of her life. At work, on the street, in the car, the kitchen, the living room, in bed. Robert was as fine a lover as she had known, attentive, responsive, creative, energetic, kind. Unlike many men, he did not despise or fear women, but rather he exalted them, on the whole a more forgivable offense. Felicity was sun and moon to him, and when they were together, he couldn't get enough of her, which made up for his tendency to be with her rather less, now that she desired him, than she would have liked. Thanks to her, his career was on the upswing. The drought of ideas had ended (the rashes as well), and he was now working for himself, working feverishly, frequently missing meals and spending the night—and sometimes two or three nights on end—at the office. Six months after they moved in together he won his first major commission and in quick succession several more, each of which required that he travel. Not uncommonly, he was gone for a week at a time. As his business grew, his travel time increased, until he was away nearly as much as he was home. By this point the press had caught wind of him, "the one-eyed architect," in their thirst for copy suggesting that his missing eye conferred a singular and authentic vision, like an extra sense. Privately, he would never submit to such nonsense; publicly, he was shrewdly dismissive. Celebrity agreed with him and was good for business. He gave interviews. Clients flocked to him. Taxis, airports and his drafting table saw him more and more; Felicity, less and less.
His love for her never wavered, but it was subsumed by a greater love, and she learned how it felt to be demoted. From sun and moon she went to being but a planet. Sometimes visible, sometimes not, like Venus or Mercury. And like Venus and Mercury she had no moons to orbit her, and none on the way, because Robert didn't want any. And so, after many years together, she left him, and for the second time in his life he was alone.
For a while he did all right. Professionally, he was thriving, and he had the occasional confectionary fling. In addition, the long collaboration with Julian Taborz had finally reached fruition. Pakki-flex was now on the market, and it was revolutionizing the construction of buildings. A bio-epidermic membrane applied to a matrix of polycarbon activating thread, the "living skin" took the place of traditional roofs and siding. It was responsive to the elements, thickening in winter cold and summer heat, thinning in milder weather. It also changed color, both inside and out: its exterior surface responded to ambient temperature and light; its interior, (if desired), to the prevailing moods of the building's inhabitants. Neither surface required a protective coating, be it shingle, tar, slate, tile, varnish or paint, which was a big money saver. It was flexible, it was durable, it was economical, but its biggest selling point was that it mended itself. The Domome, an award-winning, one-of-a-kind, trophy home topped by a soaring, onion-shaped, Pakki-flex dome, which Robert designed and built for a wealthy patron of the arts, was a consummate example of the product's strengths. It was also an example, hitherto unknown, of its fatal weakness.
Pakki-flex was composed, in part, of cells—living cells, as living cells were needed for it to work its magic. The immunocompetence of these cells, the mechanism by which they protected themselves from harm and guarded the surrounding extra-cellular environment, had been enhanced. In the parlance of the lab these were vigilante cells. Like vigilantes, they were well-armed, and like vigilantes, easily triggered. This served well for incursions of external agents and provocateurs, such as wind, rain, sleet, ice, ultraviolet radiation, rodents, bolts of lightning and flying objects. It served less well when directed inward, and indeed, this same property made the cells susceptible to internal corruption and self- attack. Three months after moving in, on the night of a banquet to entertain their hundred closest friends and celebrate their newest acquisition, the proud owners of the Domome noticed a small bubble in the dome. Over the course of the evening the bubble grew and slowly filled with a pale yellow fluid, which, save for its size, bore a remarkable resemblance to the common blister. By the time dessert was being served (a wonderfully evoked whipped cream, meringue and rum eclair), it encompassed most of the ceiling. The gracious guests, fearful of slighting their hosts, did not begin to flee until the fluid began to drip, and most, mercifully, were well on their way when, with a groan followed by a deep, bassoon-like ripping sound, the waters of the blister burst. As one of the departing guests ruefully remarked, it was as if the house, mimicking the inaugural mood within it, were giving birth.
In the succeeding weeks other reports trickled in. Of ceilings and roofs that puckered but also fissured, ulcerated and cracked. Of walls and siding that peeled, scaled and sloughed off in fat, translucent flakes. The "living skin" was acting, it appeared, as skin did, troubled skin that is, and the culprit, or the cause, seemed to be those residents who suffered skin conditions. Somehow they were triggering these untoward effects. And their conditions were not necessarily active ones; in certain cases, they were not even known. Some of the afflicted had problems lurking in the genome that would not appear until later in life; some had infections acquired in childhood or early adulthood that were dormant and might never appear but were present nonetheless. Others had conditions that came and went; others, conditions so benign as to go unnoticed. All in all, there were a great many occupants with the potential to interact with Pakki-flex and do it harm, and while most who could did not, there was no way of knowing ahead of time who might. At the very least, it seemed to require prolonged daily contact between man and material, which is why the effect had not been noted earlier.
The first lawsuit was settled out of court. The remainder, lumped into a class action suit, dragged on for years and ultimately came near to bankrupting poor Robert. Far worse, though, was the damage to his reputation. In professional circles, where the only thing more enjoyable than one's own success was a rival's fall from grace, Pakki-flex became known as "Fairchild's Folly." He lost business. He lost face. The rashes and welts that had plagued him earlier in his life recurred.
It is a common truth that misfortune causes some to rise, others to crack. Robert experienced a slow, steady, painful decline. He tried to work but instead found himself staring at the wall or out the window of his office at the city far below, his city, bustling with the construction of new buildings, fine buildings, but none of his buildings. He stared and wondered what had happened. How had he ended up here, in this gloomy, sad, unfortunate and unproductive place? More to the point, how could he get out? The work he'd done, the joy and the pleasure of it, and the recognition he'd received, seemed of a different life and time.
He had dreams of Claire and of Felicity, and he would wake from them feeling old and tired, like a building past its prime. But every so often he would have a different dream, with a different woman in it, nameless, faceless even, but nonetheless familiar to him, the way a certain childhood scent is familiar, deep beneath the skin familiar, rudimentary, intense, longed for yet unknown. These dreams were like whispers, flickers in the dark, and he would often wake from them with a glimmer of hope. And in time, after a number of such dreams, it occurred to him what should have been obvious before. He needed help. Not to put too fine a point on it, but he needed a woman.
In the past it had never been hard for him to meet women, and it wasn't hard now. Women liked him, and what was not to like in a man so charming, so attractive, so victimized by circumstance and so willing—indeed so poised—to put it all behind and re-establish himself? Above all, he liked women, as opposed to disliking them, or distrusting them, or, god forbid, despising them, which for many women was a disincentive to forming a relationship with a man. Robert not only liked the idea of women, he liked the fact of them, he liked to be around and beside them and face to face with them, he liked their company, their loving nature, their adaptability, their strength, their subtlety of thought. Women were the brick and mortar, the bedrock, of his world.
Excerpted from The Roberts by Michael Blumlein. Copyright © 2008 Michael Blumlein. Excerpted by permission of Tachyon Publications.
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