Rhodes stood silently over the still form of his dead son.
The only object in the room was the table on which the seven-year-old lay, his uniform removed and long redistributed. Rhodes bent over him, hands clutching the table’s smooth white edges. Only seconds left to memorize this moment in this life as a guardian and a father.
Behind him, the tiny panel in the wall beeped.
The floor beneath his son opened and the table descended. Little Roman’s body lurched briefly from side to side. Rhodes stepped back and closed his eyes. Not long now, before his son’s young flesh was incinerated amongst all the impossibly old ones who had been released after extensive lives.
He left the room and stood in the hospital corridor. No lights were on; no patients in need. Moonbeams streamed through immense windows that afforded a view of the sleeping city. Tugging at his form-fitting navy bodysuit, Rhodes stayed by the door and waited for Dr. Constantine to approach.
The doctor strode quickly to Rhodes, carrying a wafer-thin digital pad. “I trust it is finished?”
“Yes.” The word emerged so bitterly that Rhodes was taken aback. He had compartmentalized his thoughts since the death, and carried on for the better part of a day as though it were any other day. Now, something awful burned in his gut, a long-ago emotion he could not name.
Dr. Constantine showed only a flicker of change behind his eyes. “You may speak.”
But what to say?
“He was a child,” Rhodes began.
“Children don’t die.” He balled fists and did not know why. “Whatever this heart defect was, it should have been detected in utero.”
“My good man,” Dr. Constantine said, taking Rhodes’ arm and beginning an unconcerned stroll through the moonbeams. “The defect showed up on none of our tests. Roman was an otherwise immensely healthy boy, and his life was vibrant.”
That it was. Roman excelled in all the academic basics, biochemistry and calculus and such, and had pinpointed an interest in participating in excavations of the ancient European ruins.
“And of course, your woman passed of the same affliction.”
Rhodes shrugged off the doctor’s hand and stopped to face him. “Both of them, gone.” Another surge, pain behind his ribs. “This isn’t supposed to happen. Not with all we have achieved. Ten deaths a year, doctor, ten. And now two from something you let take you by surprise.”
“The Medical Council offers its sympathies—”
“Please!” Rhodes spat. “That means nothing. Don’t let this burn away with my son.”
The doctor’s eyes were ice. “Hasn’t it?”
Rhodes was hurting now, all over, and he could think of no proper outlet for what welled inside, rising as a searing crimson surge. A voice of unfamiliar tones escaped his lips: “How dare you speak to me in such a way.”
The doctor slowly raised an eyebrow and pretended to become interested in his pad. “Your present state simply will not do.”
“Don’t dictate to me!” Rhodes shouted. His words echoed off the pristine whiteness in a way he had never known. “You’re the one ignoring empirical facts. You refuse to undermine the Council’s veneer of perfection for my son’s imperfection!”
Dr. Constantine didn’t look at him again, turning to head back the way he had come. “You’re denying me answers, doctor!” Rhodes continued to scream. “You erase my son’s value for your gain!” As the older man moved into the shadows, Rhodes dropped to his knees and hammered his fists against the flawless tile. The emotion inside him was strong, and it was hungry, and had not been allowed since his first sentient days when he was conditioned against it. “Why my son? Why now?” he whispered angrily.
The moon lifted higher in the sky.
“I know why.”
Rhodes jerked his body up, and then hastily stood as he saw the custodian leaning against the opposite wall. “What? What do you mean?”
There was no light of intelligence behind the young man’s eyes, but his smile was soft and sure. “It’s God’s time. We live and die in God’s time.”
“What?” Rhodes peered at him and the drab gray uniform. “There are no gods. Stop speaking nonsense.”
The custodian shrugged.
Rhodes turned his back on him, and faced a city that lived in greater prosperity and knowledge than ever in the history of man. His son lay in ashes beneath him, his wife long scattered in the wind, and he stood utterly alone.
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