“Right, to business. I’m sure you don’t mind her listening in. She won’t understand what we’re talking about, but she’s here, as I said, to accustom her to the idea that there are lots of people in the world instead of just three or four attendants taking care of her. According to the computers you want a fast rundown on…”
Mechanically Nickie explained the reason for his visit, and Bosch obliged him with the titles of a dozen useful recent papers on relevant subjects. He barely heard what was said. When he left the office he stumbled rather than walked back to his room.
Alone that night, and sleepless, he asked himself a question that was not on the program, and agonized his way to its answer.
Consciously he was aware that not everyone would have displayed the same reaction. Most of his friends would have been as delighted as Bosch, stared at Miranda with interest instead of dismay, asked scores of informed questions and complimented the team responsible for her.
But for half his life before the age of twelve, for six of his most formative years, Nickie Haflinger had been more furniture than person and willy-nilly had been forced to like it.
As though he had come upon the problem in a random test of the type that formed a standard element in his education—training people to be taken by surprise and still get it right was an integral part of Tarnover thinking—he saw it, literally saw it, in his mind’s eye. It was spelled out on the buff paper they used for “this section to be answered in terms of the calculus of morality,” marking it off from the green used for administration and politics, the pink for social prognostication, and so on.
He could even imagine the style of type it was printed in. And it ran: Distinguish between (a) the smelting of ore which could have become a tool in order to make a weapon and (b) the modification of germ plasm which might have been a person in order to make a tool. Do not continue your answer below the thick black line.
And the answer, the hateful horrible answer, boiled down to this.
No difference. No distinction. Both are wicked.
He didn’t want to believe that conclusion. Taking it at face value implied giving up all that had been most precious in his short life. Tarnover had become his home in a more total sense than he had previously imagined possible.
But he felt insulted, clear down to the marrow of his bones.
I thought I was here to become myself with maximum perfection. I’m no longer sure that I was right. Suppose, just suppose, I’m here to become the person who’s regarded as most usable…
Miranda died; her life supports were less than perfect. But she was reincarnated in numerous successors, and even when there was none of them around, her image continued to haunt Nickie Haflinger.
Privately, because he was afraid he would fail to explain himself if he talked about this to his friends, he wrestled with the ramifying tentacles of the problem.
The word wicked had sprung to his mind unbidden; it had been learned in infancy, most likely from his mother whom he dimly remembered as having been devout, a Pentecostalist or Baptist or the like. His later temporary parents had all been too enlightened to use such loaded terms around a child. Their homes contained computer remotes giving access to all the newest data concerning kids.
So what did the word mean? What in the modern world could be identified as evil, an abomination, wrong? He groped his way toward a definition, and found the final clue in his recollection of what Bosch had said. Having discovered that Miranda was a conscious being with an average IQ, they had not given her merciful release. They had not even kept her ignorant of the world, so that she could have had no standard of comparison between her existence and that of mobile, active, free individuals. Instead, they brought her out in public to “get used to being stared at.” As though their conception of personality began and ended with what could be measured in the labs. As though, capable themselves of suffering, they granted no reality to the suffering of others. “The subject exhibited a pain response.” But not, under any circumstances, we hurt her.
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