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On the Penitents’ Road

science fiction by C. L. Holland

Once, back when he’d been human, he might have appreciated the irony of this particular spot.

It was called the Penitents’ Road because centuries ago it was where heretics were made to repent before they were burned. Of course, humankind had long since evolved beyond the need for such a silly superstition as religion.

Argen Fuller hoped it wasn’t too late for them to evolve beyond the need for mere flesh and blood, too.

Fuller waited in the doorway of the ruined church. His augmented hearing told him someone walked along the road towards his location, although he couldn’t see much in the blue blur of twilight.

Not so long ago he’d have been able to see who it was, even before they were aware of him. Not so long from now, he’d be completely blind.

It didn’t matter: he knew who approached. That’s why he was waiting here, in this time and place.

The newcomer’s brown coat swirled around her ankles as she walked past the doorway. Her hair was drawn back in a ponytail. Fuller stepped into the road behind her.


She moved quickly. One hand went for her pistol and she whirled towards him. Then she froze.

“Father,” she said flatly. She still aimed the pistol at him and he raised his hands, palms forward.

“I’m unarmed.”

“What are you doing here?”

“I wanted to see you one last time. The virus is in its final stages, Christine. I’m dying.”

She replaced the weapon in her thigh holster. “My father died the moment he chose to replace his thinking, feeling, organic brain with a machine. Any affection you think you hold for me is just a simulation.”

“Isn’t it enough that it feels real to me?”

Christine shook her head. “Computers can’t feel. They can only follow programs.”

It was an old dispute, and Fuller had no illusions that he’d win her over now. Synthetic versus organic human, augments versus fleshers, had escalated from a mere quarrel into full-blown conflict. He argued anyway: that Christine had always refused to embrace a more perfect self was his one regret.

“That’s what you told yourself to justify what you did to us. We’re not the ones who started killing people.”

“I was defending the human race,” Christine said. “It was getting so that people couldn’t even get jobs, because the augments could do them so much better. Those who didn’t want, or couldn’t afford, to be ‘improved’ ended up on the scrap heap. The virus only affects those who have given up being human. You can’t kill what isn’t alive. Anyway, you would have done the same to us, if you’d thought of it first.”

“Probably.” The rest of Fuller’s reply died in his throat as his vocal processor seized. He gripped the wall hard enough to crumble the old stone beneath his fingers, and diverted resources to his speech. He only had to last a little longer.

“I brought you this.” He reached into a pocket, slowly so as not to startled Christine into going for her weapon again. He drew out a brooch, an antique silver rose encrusted with tiny diamonds and sapphires. “It was your mother’s. Since I will be gone very soon, I want you to have it.”

Christine’s eyes widened. Fuller thought he saw the glitter of tears. Taking that as permission, he stepped forward to fasten the brooch to her lapel. The pin sank easily into her flesh.

Christine flinched away. “Ouch! What are you doing?”

Fuller forced a smile. “I’m sorry. I slipped.” He pinned the brooch to her shirt.

Christine touched her fingers to the rose petals and gave Fuller a weak smile.

“I’m sorry too, for the way things turned out. If there’d been any other way—”

“Don’t be,” Fuller said. Strained to the limit, his voice began to take on a tinny quality, as emotionless and inhuman as his daughter thought he was. “It will all work out for the best.”

Her face was just a smudge in the gloom, but Fuller saw Christine turn towards the clock that chimed inside the city. It sounded like it was underwater.

“I’m late,” she said. “People will be looking for me.”

“I understand.”

Christine paused. She leaned towards him. “Goodbye, Father.” The kiss she placed on his cheek was so light he could barely feel it. Then she was gone.

Fuller sank back against the wall and lowered himself to the ground. It was completely dark now, which meant that his vision had finally failed. The muffled sound of Christine’s footsteps told him that soon he’d be deaf as well as blind.

His powers of speech and movement would also be lost, as his system fought to keep his autonomic functions operative. For a while he’d remain aware, trapped within himself, until the last of his systems shut down.

It was a cruel death that his daughter had created.

None of that mattered now. Christine was right; all that had stopped the augmented humans from unleashing a virus of their own on the organic population was that the fleshers beat them to it. But it was never too late to strike back.

The brooch pin had been modified to inject a synthetic virus into organic flesh. It would mutate what it could and destroy what it couldn’t, until the sufferer was forced to upgrade to synthetic parts or die.

An unwitting carrier, Christine would infect countless others. By the time the organics worked out what was happening it would be too late. A new generation of synthetic humans would be created among those who hated them the most.

Fuller felt his lips settle into a smile, and then everything was darkness and silence on the Penitents’ Road.

Copyright January 2010 by C.L. Holland

C. L. Holland lives in the United Kingdom. She blogs about writing at xanthalanari.

[Return to the January 2010 stories]

2 Responses

  1. […] On The Penitents’ Road […]

  2. Hey, lovely story! I liked the connection and how the relationships played in together; the eternal generation gap, heh! nice 🙂

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