My Brother’s Right Arm

            After Bobby died, I understood why Dad kept the barrel of epoxy. After removing my brother’s brain, his eyeballs and tongue came out next; resisting like greasy rubber. Using an old brush, he applied a viscus layer of epoxy inside my brother’s skull. Before the epoxy hardened, he installed two small cameras into the eye sockets and two radio receivers just inside the ears.

            My dad was not an educated man, schools were a thing of the distant past. The natural history museum was empty of anything of value years ago. But to a resourceful man, everything was worthwhile. Mechanical parts and electrical servos actuated the fiberglass rods he jammed down Bobbie’s arms and legs. He calibrated springs and a chargeable battery to mechanize a facsimile of movement. Thick cadaverine putrescine wafted from the collapsed basement stairwell, and rancid water pooled at the bottom steps. The heavy odor of indole clung to our clothes and the insides of our noses. Rotting flesh has a life of its own.

            Dad carried Bob on his back in a harness, and I followed as we scouted the mountains of trash and broken concrete for edible food or liquid. Our excursions were dangerous because we rarely found anything and were prey to poachers and bandits that roamed the city. We had a pulse gun, a spear, and a fire hammer, but that was little protection against the dead.

            Sleep was our reward for working into the night. Our most effective weapon was the Primacord we found at the depot. Dad carried a twenty-foot length to drag behind us as a trap. He tied it to a ten-foot fuse so we wouldn’t blow ourselves up. The one time we used it, it worked well. Our return underground had attracted a gang of mercenaries intent on ending our lives. Dad lit the fuse, we ducked behind a wall and watched a twenty-foot explosion vaporize the entire group.

            Dad hurried back underground with Bobby bouncing on his back, and I ran down behind him. We intended Bobby as a lookout. Since he was already dead, nobody could kill him. We sat him on the railing overlooking the lobby, realistically turning his head and kicking his leg once in a while. Through the thick light, he looked like a live person. An empty M-79 lay across his lap, and with a pair of goggles, he looked threatening.

            But not threatening enough; his body lay strewn across the broken marble like a deliberate taunt. Someone was in the museum. There were tracks in the dirt; Bobby couldn’t be touched without leaving his mark. Boot prints led down the stairwell into our last refuge. Whoever it was stood between us and our weapons. All we had now was fire. A cocktail in the toxic sludge would ignite everything we had. Dad considered the options. We would wait, listen, and prepare for an ambush. An old gravity trap perched over the stairwell, and we could release it on whoever came up the stairs. Five hundred pounds of rusty steel and broken glass. But I had to trigger it by hand. Dad had another task. He wanted Bobby to take part. Bobby was a bacteria bomb that would infect any wounds inflicted by the trap. Dad propped his remains on the top step, looking down into the swamp. He charged the battery, so Bobby clicked his head back and forth with a low whirring sound. Bobby held an empty M-79 and glared through broken goggles.

            The sound of footsteps sloshing through the water. Someone was coming up. The dim light of evening filtered through tall windows on the west side of the building. I anticipated a dark silhouette making a slow ascent. My imagination, primed by expectation, didn’t believe it when I saw him. A humanized mechanical mounted the steps. That’s how he could stand the smell; he wasn’t human. I released the trigger, and the monstrous pile of junk fell in a massive crash of smoke and dust. I heard Dad firing several direct shots into the mess. He had a better view than I did. As Bobby disappeared, I scrambled back away from the dust. My only weapon was a machete. Dad had a creaky old floor fan propped on an oil drum. He aimed it at the smoke, clearing it so we could try to find a figure in the pile of twisted metal. A movement, a sound; the thing wasn’t dead. It lay on its stomach with one arm extended, still clutching a Nkor Pulse. That would be a prize. I furiously chopped at his wrist with the machete. His black fingers curled as I severed his hand. Dad put two shots into the base of his skull.

            For an hour, we secured the area, cleared a path downstairs, and dismantled the mechanical. The mech had ammunition, the Pulse, and armor. He was hard to kill. Dad removed the radio first. His last instructions were to clean up Bobby and pull the batteries from the mechanical. Then he took the Pulse and removed the tracking device from the mech. He told me its death would lead here. Dad had to put the tracker on a local dog so they would think it’s still active. I had to lock up and wait till he got back.

            Two months later, dad still had not returned. Bobby was starting to rot, I took him up on the roof to die and stood watching him for the last time. No longer would we struggle to repair him. All flesh had turned black, and his circulatory system has collapsed. But the pump was still pushing old blood to his right arm. Bob had a brand on his upper shoulder, The logo of the division he and dad belonged to. I needed to keep something of my brother, cutting his skin would not be right. I gently pulled at the wrist and Bobby’s arm separated at the shoulder and the pump come out with it. I’ll keep the whole arm. I’ll convert it to live blood. A rat ought to serve. Three days later I had constructed a suitable container. A clear plastic tube four foot long with enough room for a rat cage at one end. If I could splice the rats blood system to Bob’s arm, I could keep the arm from dying, all I had to do was feed the rat.

            The finished project buoyed my spirits and I set about planning for the future with new zeal. My father’s desertion was a result of his death, he would have returned otherwise. I knew I was alone. Dad had taken the plasma pulse, and our fire hammer ran out of juice for good. It was time to leave. Winter was coming, and I had to risk traveling to the lakes. Once known as the Great Lakes; the region was thousands of miles of cracked earth. Shallow pools of stagnant water sparkled in the hot sun. The 45th parallel was one of the few places on the planet survivable for humans. Millions of starving people, packed like dog farms.

            I would travel by night, sleep underground by day, and carry enough food for the journey. The compass led me south over barren terrain, bare poles that used to be trees, no wildlife, and no water. I set up plastic to condense moisture in the early mornings and boiled it to drink. Every night I fed myself and the rat, our diet consisted of a variety of bugs, spiders, and worms. These I found as I dug a hole every night to sleep. Sometimes I saw signs of humans, but rarely.

            The land rose as I neared the ridge, and I could see smoke on the far horizon. Toronto had spread across what was once Lake Erie and connected to Cleveland. No buildings were visible. A thick, impenetrable blanket of brown smog hung over the valley. I was still many miles away, and already I could see evidence of human activity. Trees cut to the ground. The riverbeds were like concrete, and nothing grew on the parched, dry earth. I felt a trembling fear for the first time. Without my dad, life would be hard. I remembered the few good times we shared in Quebec. I was young when my mother died, a dim memory of her face and laugh pushed the thoughts from my mind.

            I traveled for a month through country empty of any life. Abandoned towns, burnt and deserted. I slept in an old quarry building and after digging a hole for worms and grubs, I discovered the rat had died. This was an emergency, Bob’s arm would not last long without fresh blood. I squeezed the dead rat empty of his blood and leaned the tube in the corner so the rest would drain into Bob’s arm. Then I started a search for another creature, anything, as long as it was alive. The sun has set and no wind moved the air. I crept along the tree line running scenarios through my mind; how to find something, how to capture it. This country was void of any life, the possibility of finding a living critter was remote. I scouted the area for a water hole, animals need water. Then I spotted the tracks, with a center groove, something with a tail. I followed it into a small wooded area as silently as I could. A small noise alerted me. It was eating; the repetitious clicking of small jaws. I raised my spear and advanced toward the sound. But, wait! I cannot kill it. I need it alive. I crouched like a lion when a scruffy rodent creature walked out of the Bush, not seeing me at all. I flung myself on the thing and clutched it to my chest in a violent flurry. It squealed in panic and scrambled to escape but I held it firm, tightening my grip into the fur of its neck. This thing was strong, twice the size of my rat and powerful. I pinned it to the ground and covered it head with a rag. Then I tied its legs together and hung it from my spear like a trussed duck. It was a young possum. A larger cage would be necessary, but I had high hopes for the health of Bob’s arm.

            Another month passed while I fashioned a suitable cage for the possum, and attached it to the arm. New blood surged through clear plastic tubing from the possum into Bob’s system. I felt a wave of gratitude and relief. I set up a feeding schedule, and he settled into a calm acceptance of his new home.

            For myself, I realized I was no longer as mobile as before. The rodent was bigger than a rat. And until I found something smaller, or a more permanent home, I would be less mobile. I traveled the route looking for signs of a defensible position. The Northern Michigan/Nova Scotia corridor was a human meat farm. People ruin everything. The remains of Detroit had usable infrastructure, and the last of the deep water. As I neared the Great Lakes Valley, I could smell them. Six million people created a biological desecration that hovered over the valley like a vast storm front. Constant thunder rumbled from one end to the other, thousands of miles long. On a ridge, I found an abandoned factory with low radioactivity and a fortified central tower. It was home. I concealed Bob’s arm behind corrugated steel sheeting, and scouted the perimeter for food, water, and weapons.

            A small village three miles north had a magnificent tree in the center, over a hundred feet tall, disfigured by nothing but age. In the falling light, it stood as a reminder of what we lost. The sound of low voices brought me forward. A figure was tied to the tree, a slave being prepared for what I didn’t want to know.

            I untied her in the darkest hour of the night, and we fled to the tower. For three days, I watched, but nobody followed. The woman was a young refugee girl, starving and abused. I fed her and clothed her. Her name was Bridget. She watched as I fed the animal and asked why it was attached to the rotting corpse of a human arm. She wanted to know what it meant. Why did I have such a thing?

            Not a simple answer. He was my older brother. He died in the war that still rages across the globe. We fought together and many times avoided death. But death caught him. My father and I tried for six years to repair his broken body. His brain and spinal cord were intact. An exoskeleton allowed him to walk. But decomposition took his legs first, then his left arm, head, and torso next. We kept his brain alive for a year before it died. All that remains is this arm. The possum serves as a built-in circulatory system to pump blood.

            Bridget winced in disdain and turned away. What did it mean? It embodied humanity’s experiment more accurately than any other symbol. It is a right arm; after all, if raised in triumph, it calls out the honor and glory of mankind. When severed in a plastic box, however, it means the inverse; a conceptual articulation of failure. As an artifact alone, it’s enough reason to exist. Back when we had history and a future, such things were valuable.

            Bridget’s reaction proved that it no longer matters. Humanity never learned to cooperate with evolution. What have we lost that we never had?

Tim Hildebrandt