Tom Daranbout sat at the end of the long dining room table, staring at the gray walls around him. At one point they had been a cream color. His face hid behind a long gray beard. He wore a worn flannel shirt missing the top button and a pair of dirty ripped jeans. He glanced at his watch on his wrist. The time was 11:55 pm. Only five more minutes of waiting.
He tapped his fingers against the table, his long nails clicking against wood. A photograph of a his daughter sitting on a tree swing hung on the wall to his left. Next to it another picture. Tom stared at himself as a young man, with brown hair and a mustache, standing next to his blond wife, both smiling with hands on their daughter’s shoulders. Tom sighed. The watch showed 11:59. Just one more minute.
The moment it changed to 12:00 there was a knock on the front door. Tom waited until there came another knock, louder this time. He stood up, walked into the living room, and opened the door. There in the doorway stood a muscular man surrounded by the night. He had a crew cut and wore a camouflage uniform and black boots caked in mud. Strapped around his shoulder an assault rifle.
“Ah, just on time,” Tom said.
The soldier didn’t move.
“Come in, come in.”
The soldier took a step into the house.
“Welcome model DQU1253. If I may, I’d like to call you John. I always wanted to name a son that.”
The soldier took another step and stopped.
“Was there any trouble getting here?”
“Nothing I couldn’t handle, sir.” The soldier spoke with a monotone voice, more mechanical than human. He walked into the living room.
“I forget. You were made to get by harder situations. But enough of this. We’ve got roughly ten minutes. Come, sit down.”
Tom sat down on a brown couch, causing dust to fly from the cushions. The soldier sat across from him on a rocking chair.
“You know, it’s been almost a decade since another person has stepped foot in here. Times have changed. For the worst, I have to say.”
“Time always changes.”
Tom laughed. “You are right, but that’s not quite what I meant. This world, this country, what it is, or rather, what it once was, it’s no more. We’ve changed, as a whole.” Tom stood up and walked to the fireplace in the room. He lifted a wooden box off the mantel and pulled out a photograph of a boy holding a toy car. He handed it to the soldier.
“That’s me,” Tom said. He sat back down.
“It looks nothing like you,” the soldier said.
“I was a kid then. That’s the first thing I ever built.”
The soldier handed back the picture.
Tom stared at it. “Most people back then were personalizing their computers. But I built a toy car. No computer chips, no electronics. Just some cheap wood and rubber wheels.”
“I don’t follow,” the soldier said.
“That’s how you began.” Tom stood up again. “Come with me.”
The soldier followed him down the hall to a staircase that led to the basement. The stairs creaked as the soldier stepped on them. They reached the bottom and entered a cold room with concrete walls. Against the far wall, underneath a busted window, sat a wooden table. Various tools and toy models littered the tabletop: planes, cars, even a tiny robot with claws.
Tom walked to the table and picked up the robot. “My first one. They’d been building these since the 20th century. But I had to begin somewhere. It’s the fundamentals that a man carries with him the rest of his life. Like knowing how to ride a bike. Have you ever ridden a bike, John?”
“It’s been a while since I have, but I remember it being fun.”
“What is it like to have fun?”
“A question. That’s unusual.” Tom put down the robot. “We could have programmed you to think and feel, but that would have defeated your purpose. No empathy. Just the order to kill.”
“I know what I am,” the soldier said.
Tom put the robot down. “What do you mean?”
“I’m the perfect soldier, designed by the Special Technology Forces Department of the U.S. military, created by the chief scientist, Tom Daranbout.”
Tom nodded. “Straight from the manual. It took me years to perfect you. So many times I had come close, and still so many flaws. They wouldn’t allow any margin of error. And what resulted was you, designed to—“
“Search and destroy the enemy, at whatever cost necessary,” the soldier interrupted.
“I never designed you to be self-aware.”
“Since 2040, no war or operation has failed. A rate of one hundred percent victory.”
Tom looked away from the soldier to the toys. “Unfortunately. My greatest accomplishment, and yet the worst thing I ever did, aside from losing Lilly.”
“Your daughter,” the soldier said.
“You know a lot, John, don’t you?”
The soldier stared at Tom. “I know all the information on the enemy.”
Tom ran his hand along the table. Dust had settled upon it. “There’s a reason man can think, can make decisions, can change the course of things. It’s what separates us from animals—and machines. We can make things better.”
“Then why don’t you?”
“Another question. You show signs of intelligence” Tom heard a loud beeping coming from upstairs. The alarm he had set earlier in the kitchen had gone off.
The soldier raised the assault rifle slung around his shoulder. A red dot shone on Tom’s chest, right above his heart. “You ordered me to kill you, Tom Daranbout. Why?”
Tom saw the light from the basement light reflect in the soldier’s eyes. “It was my dream to create the world’s first cyborg. When the government commissioned me, I didn’t care what they used you for. I just wanted my name in a history book. I wanted men to remember I lived.”
“What is it like to live?” the soldier asked, still holding the gun.
“Oh, John, it’s wonderful—and painful. It’s everything there is to feel.”
“Is that that what they felt.”
“It’s what I took.”
“You must die.”
“Wait. You’re just a child. Your mind is just awakening. It wasn’t all in vain. There’s hope.”
“The order was to terminate you regardless of what you said. I can’t let you live.”
Two bullets sprang out of the gun and tore holes through Tom’s heart. He fell to the floor. He opened his mouth and attempted to let out a grunt, but blood filled his throat, blocking the air from escaping his vocal chords. As the light gave out in Tom’s eyes, he thought he could hear the soldier’s monotone voice say sorry. He gave up his last fighting breath. A final bullet pierced his brain, confirming the kill.