Stronger Than Me
Why would the committee choose me? My resumé touted skills like ‘proficient in Microsoft Word and Quick Books.’ Nowhere did it say anything about diapers.
Rewrapped in a soft, gray blanket, the child looked up at me with uncanny focus, and I turned away, gaze darting out the bay window and into the evening sky. Stars dotted the horizon, peeking between silhouettes of mountains and outshining the more distant speckles meant to bedazzle the heavens.
These stars were fake.
“It won’t grow if you don’t feed it,” chided a warm, slightly grated voice. Time had bent the nurse’s back while laughter had drawn crow’s feet from her eyes and lips. Wisdom had dyed her braided hair the color of the moon.
Clucking at my bewildered expression, she placed a tepid bottle in my grasp and guided it to the baby’s mouth. The contents smelled like paint thinner, and despite the beige tint, I doubted it was milk.
The infant guzzled it, eyes never closing. I wouldn’t meet that gaze, not again.
“Ma’am, what’s in the bottle?”
“Food,” she chuckled, “and that’s all you need to know, Mr. Lane. Just don’t try to eat it yourself.”
I frowned. “Please don’t treat me like an idiot.”
“No, not an idiot. Of course not,” she cooed with a pat on my arm, “but you are very ignorant, and your superiors have designed things to keep it that way. Will you listen to an old woman’s advice?”
Always look people in the eyes, my papa said time and again. That’s where you’ll find the truth hiding.
So I did, and despite the sagging skin that made her eyes appear closed and the cataracts that clouded her pea green irises, a brightness and energy greeted me. Her eagerness jumped to my heart, her desire for me to succeed, her confidence that I could.
I nodded, and she smiled.
“Love conquers all.”
“I’m sorry?” I questioned. What did love have to do with this?
Her hands folded behind her back, immaculate, bleached scrubs glowing like a specter in the sunset’s rays. She was the only brilliant thing in this small, dull room. My black suit and tie seemed sinister in comparison.
“Do you know why the first nurse told you to hold the child?”
I shook my head. I would have preferred to leave it in the clear cradle.
“It’s the power of the human touch.” She repositioned my arms, pressing the infant tighter to my chest as she pushed me onto a rocking chair. “One gains strength from knowing they are loved. This child will need that strength.”
“I can’t love it,” I sputtered. “It’s not human. I can’t even tell if it’s a boy or girl.”
“It’s neither. That child has one purpose, and reproduction is not necessary. If we need more, the scientists will craft them. Your job is to ensure we don’t need more.”
“By loving a monster so it grows up nice and strong?” I grumbled and made the mistake of looking at it. Deep brown eyes met mine, vertical pupils flexing and contracting. I fell into them, a spiral slide with no end, breath abandoning me as the ride grew steeper, faster.
“Would it help if it had a name?”
Her words gave me something to grasp, a lifeline. All my strength poured into tugging on it. I felt like an ancient sailor hoisting the rigging, but it was only my eyelids that moved. As if tied to them, my jaw followed, opening, but I couldn’t quite control my voice yet, so I nodded.
“This one’s the hundredth of the batch, so I call it Cien.”
“Do you call the one right before it”—I searched my limited database of Spanish and found ‘ninety’ conspicuously missing—“uh, nueve-nueve?”
She laughed, a throaty, warm sound like freshly buttered toast. “You don’t need to know what I call the others, only this one. Cien is your only responsibility.”
The yellow notebook given to me when I left the building that night contained row after row of thick black lines, and I wondered how such a thing was supposed to help.
“Keep it healthy,” it said at the top of the first page. Everything else appeared censored.
It scared me nearly a year later with an incessant buzzing and the stench of bacon grease left idle. Fearing it might self-destruct like in an old spy movie or worse, bees, I flipped it open with a long pair of tongs.
Beneath the first admonition, where there had only been a black bar, were the words, “Prove it can learn.”
To whom am I supposed to prove it? I wondered. Are they watching me?
My superiors never responded to my emails.
There, dressed in flannel pajamas, fuzzy slippers, an apron, and armed with a hot pad and barbeque equipment, I pulled out my phone and sent them another one.
If they read it, they didn’t let me know.
I had never thought of myself as a teacher. In school, I preferred to work alone, and until the committee’s summons to the lab, I had been gleefully occupied in my corner cubicle, double checking formulas. Finding errors only validated the need for my position.
The child was a sponge, devouring all I could give. Phonics, arithmetic, vocabulary, history, biology, algebra, chemistry, literature, calculus, philosophy. Rarely did I have to explain a concept twice, and the more knowledge it gained, the easier it fit new pieces of the world together.
I stayed up all night researching so I could keep ahead or answer its questions.
I sent reports, amazed, enthralled, frustrated, but no one ever replied.
Years passed, and the notebook’s message remained the same. “Keep it healthy. Prove it can learn.”
So I fed it the packaged meals delivered to my doorstep each week. I taught it to play fetch, catch, then more complex sports. Through games, it learned to apply its studies to scenarios, to move smarter, not necessarily faster, than its opponents.
One didn’t have to take out every pawn, knight, and rook if one simply cornered the king.
The false stars still waited above. Could they see us? Did they fear this twisted creation molded from their DNA? Were they as monstrously beautiful?
The child looked mostly human aside from a few too-sharp angles. Its skin was albino with a wet, glossy appearance, stark against inky, shoulder-length hair.
Yet its true charm was in how it moved, like water, a stream. It wasn’t confined by gravity, instead using this ever-present force, repelling or attracting to augment its leaps.
When it fell, the spell that held me rapt broke, and I was reminded this was still a child, growing, adjusting, figuring out the definition of possible.
We sparred, me grateful for years of mixed martial arts training. I wondered if the committee had known of those night classes omitted in my resumé since they hadn’t seemed relevant for a cubical number cruncher.
I’d already corrected Cien’s stance twice this session, and again it stood too open, too forward, too close. The heel of my hand swooped in to punish the mistake, and those mesmerizing, russet eyes flicked to me, seeing the error too late and already wincing.
It’s just a child, I recalled, a seven-year-old not even a third my size.
I balked, hand slowing, and Cien dodged, spinning aside with a chuckle.
You know you can’t let it get away with that. Its skills won’t surpass yours if you always pull your punches.
We needed something stronger than me, stronger than us, to defeat the false stars if they ever attacked. That was this child’s purpose, something created from them to destroy them if the need ever arose.
What if that day came before Cien was ready because I didn’t push hard enough?
What if that day never came? What if we only created weapons we couldn’t control?
Sharp weight crashed into my spine, knocking me flat, followed by another giggle. “You’re not paying attention, Mr. Lane.”
“Why must I go to school?” Cien questioned as I parked in front of the brick cube that was the junior-high’s main campus.
“You have to learn to interact with others.” I pulled the yellow notebook from my briefcase in the backseat and placed it in the twelve-year-old’s lap, tapping the newest exposed line, the last on this page.
Cien stared down at it, gaze darting over the many mandates. “How do you know doing what the paper says is the right thing?”
Because you belong to those who wrote it, and you’re our best hope in the worst case.
But I had learned a teacher did not tell. A good teacher reasoned.
“Do you think what it has said thus far has been wrong?”
Cien shook its head, long hair fanning across its back. With it tied in a low ponytail and the school’s androgynous uniform draping Cien’s rail-thin frame, I saw equal amounts of feminine and masculine traits in this almost-teen. It was neither, but sometimes I wanted to see one or the other.
“If you skipped any of these steps, I would not exist,” it determined, eyes huge as they fixed on me. My heart fluttered like a flock of startled birds, but I had learned how not to fall into that gaze.
I concentrated on the sharp tips of the pupils, my own reflection impaled on them. “Is there something you think would work better than what the paper advises?”
With another shake of the head, Cien undid its seatbelt, passenger door clucking as it opened. “Can I keep the paper with me?”
Of course not, sat on the edge of my tongue, but as Cien hugged the yellow pad to its chest, I saw the faint tremor in its hands, and only, “Of course,” escaped.
Of course there was a fight.
I felt not a smidgen of pity for the boy wheeled away on a gurney. The other students’ testimony claimed he taunted Cien all day, striking it multiple times before Cien retaliated with a one-hit KO.
Unwise to upset an unsheathed weapon.
The worry surging through my gut was only magnified by the hissing crowd in the hallways as I made my way to the art room in the far back corner of the school. Cien had locked itself inside and knocked out anyone who came near.
This was the opposite of getting along with others. Had Cien lost all reason, all control? Would we have to fight?
Could I win?
The principal jiggled the locked handle, but his commentary sounded distant and distorted, like a deep whale song. When my fingers touched the door, it swung open. No light rained from the fixtures above. The sun barely dared to peek through closed blinds.
I wandered between leaning canvases, nose crinkling at the astringent smell.
“Cien?” I croaked, throat stinging. “I’m here for you.” I kept my stance wide and hips bent, ready.
Canvases fell like dominos, fortress walls crumbling. Behind them, rays streaming through a crooked shade shone upon pale skin, dark hair, and glittering bronze eyes. The navy jacket was torn at its shoulder and elbow, coral tie lopsided and frayed.
I knelt before this ethereal creature, crumpled papers crackling beneath my knees. The yellow notebook lay on its lap, held with reverence like a gospel by a saint.
“Cien, do you think it’s right to hurt so many people?”
Its gaze jumped to me, glossier than I had ever seen it. “They were annoying.”
“I didn’t ask why you did it, only if you thought it was right.”
My legs trembled in the silence, papers beneath whispering their fear. If this weapon decided we were not worth protecting, what would I have to do?
Its eyes caught the light and flashed. Vertical pupils convulsed, reminding me this wasn’t a simple child.
This was the hundredth imperfect copy of a captured alien soldier. And it was crying.
“They follow no logic,” it sobbed, and I sighed.
“When you cry like that, you look so very human.”
Cien’s long arms wrapped me in a hug. Warm tears seeped through my shirt. I was raising this thing that would one day be able to crush me, rip me apart, yet its embrace was so gentle, arms shaking, so scared.
A whisper wafted into my ears. “Would it be a bad thing if I wanted to be human?”
Yes, I thought. We need something stronger than a mere human.
The odor of old bacon grease permeated the square porch as I stepped out the door. It latched behind me with a subtle click, but Cien gave no response to the sound, no greeting for me. Beyond my child’s motionless silhouette, the tired sun sunk beneath a crown of ruby clouds and false stars filled the sky like spilled rhinestones.
Tomorrow’s sunrise would mark eighteen years with Cien at my side.
This beautiful, lithe creature faced the west, arid breeze tugging at light, loose fabric and unable to lift the thick braid cast over one shoulder. The yellow tablet rested in its large hands, and a hot spark of curiosity pushed me forward, nibbling at the rope of dread that held me in place.
What did the last line on the last page say?
Cien’s posture possessed a rigidity rare for this nimble being. My heart clenched. Bad news. Something Cien didn’t want to do, but what?
Eighteen. How many young men had gone off to war at the same age? How many of them never returned?
I wasn’t ready to let this child go. Maybe if the false stars had done anything other than hover, if they destroyed cities, stole precious resources, or kidnapped citizens, I might have seen the need, the urgency. Was I selfish? Yes. I would have admitted that if it meant I could have kept Cien a little longer.
Brown eyes turned to me, squinting as they scoured my expression. I stood straighter and smoothed out my face, trying to appear stronger than I was.
“Do you think it’s right?” My voice cracked.
Cien shook its head. “I don’t want it to be.”
I swallowed. “Do your wants outweigh the needs of the world?”
Its chin tilted. “It says, ‘Destroy Lane and return to headquarters.’”
I tried to swallow again, but my mouth was dry.
“It can be interpreted in many ways,” Cien said quickly, notebook dropped beneath rushed steps. I stumbled back, avoiding those eager hands, heart strangled in my throat.
My, “How?” escaped as a squeal. I had raised this warrior to be stronger than me in every way. I wouldn’t have stood a chance now, even if I had wanted to fight.
“We could destroy your identity, go on the run.”
Vision blurring, I realized this was a final test. I was not strong enough to let Cien go, but was it strong enough to let me go? Would the selfishness planted in this child’s heart by my example flourish? Or was Cien stronger than even that?
“Sometimes the obvious answer is the right one,” I whispered through a sob.
Firm arms encircled me, and I felt their tremors, the quickening of Cien’s heart beneath its ribs.
“It’s okay,” it assured me. “I’ll take care of everything.”
A sharp rap met the back of my neck, and the world faded.