06 February 2009


By Curtis C. Chen

On his eighteenth birthday, Jadrew Linbitter stayed home from work and, as tradition decreed, made a dagger out of his leg bone.

The replacement ceremony had been unremarkable. The medicos had numbed his lower body, and Jadrew hadn't felt any pain as they sawed into his left leg just above the knee. He had looked away, toward his father, and aped that proud paternal grin while screaming on the inside.

His fibula, stripped clean of flesh, was now resting in a diagenetic solution which would replace the hard tissue with a durable polymer for preservation. His similarly prepared tibia would be metallized after he had whittled it into a ritual blade and carved both sides with scripture.

The viewscreen on his bedroom wall blinked. He put down his cutter and engaged the telemet. His sister's face appeared.

"Enjoying your day off?" Konri asked.

"Billions," Jadrew said. He held up his sharpened tibia. "I'll be ready to kill someone soon."

Konri laughed. "Hey, remember those cableman figurines you sculpted for grandfather? He's just had them resin-cased for display in his office."

Great, thought Jadrew. Another piece of my crummy life preserved for centuries.

"Everyone here is so proud," Konri said.

Jadrew felt himself blushing. He could imagine how the family would gawk at his new bionic limb. "I'd better finish this. Father will want to see it tonight."

"You always were a good boy." Konri smiled. "And now you're a good man."

She switched off, and Jadrew threw his tibia against the wall, half hoping it would shatter. It didn't. He sighed and retrieved the bone, wondering if he would ever get used to the clacking of his bare metal foot against the floor.

He could see his whole life laid out before him, predetermined, choiceless. In two years, the medicos would replace his right leg, and he would enter conscripted service. If he survived that, he would earn his arms. And his father would be so happy.

Jadrew stared at his cutter. It would be easy to end this charade of obedience before it smothered his will. He just had to dial up the laser, place it against his temple, and push the button.

But where was the significance in that? If he was going to kill himself, he wanted his last act to have meaning.

He looked down at the flat of his bone-blade and smiled.

His uncle Sidrav had taught him the words, years ago, before being exposed as part of the underground. Sidrav's execution had shamed the family, but Jadrew had never forgotten his uncle's seditious tales, whispered in darkness before bedtime.

He turned his cutter back to the bone and worked with new purpose. He made an elegant, serrated blade and etched it with the ancient rebel slogan:


Jadrew's father found his body, pierced through the heart with the bone dagger. The first thing he did was to abrade the blasphemous message from the exposed blade. Then he sat on the bed next to his dead son and cried into his metal hands.


Audio: "Better"


Music: "FoDorchestrastrings" by queeniemusic, licensed under Creative Commons from ccMixter.

The hackers listening to this podcast will have noticed that the audio file names don't always correspond to the actual story titles. In many cases, I fill out the blog post template before I've finished writing the story, so I just make up a working title for the audio link.

This week's filename is a tribute to my friend Raj, who visited Portland last weekend and reminded me to watch those plosives when recording. He's read everything that William Gibson has written, and his email username in college was "cybe." I fully expect him to be the first in line when direct neural interfaces to the Internet become available.



Not coincidentally, this week's story shares its title with the Jonathan Coulton song about the dangers of excessive cybernetic enhancement:


The backstory for this world includes some kind of Skynet-esque apocalypse and subsequent enslavement of humans--by new robot overlords, natch. Jadrew's time is a few generations later, when new superstitions have permeated human culture and made them amenable to self-inflicted oppressions.

My first draft topped 800 words, and I had to cut out some details I really liked, including an opportunity to use the word "haruspex." But one of the great things about writing short fiction is that it really forces me to come up with a succinct answer to the question "what is this story about?" and then get rid of anything that doesn't contribute to that.

I feel like I'm slowly edging up the ladder toward conscious competence. You might say I'm getting... better.

Thank you and good night!