Within and Without [Part 1]

A dying last breath undoes the past half-century

A dying last breath undoes the past half-century in a grapple betwixt psychology and loyalty, curiosity and peril, possibility and morality, throwing Liam’s world into disarray, as he moves to destroy the one place he had sworn never to enter

Liam stepped hesitantly into the study, feeling a strange sense of detachment despite his many years in this house. He had been with Mr Device for over fifty years and had enacted each command to the T for every one of them. He was on amicable terms with the entire Device family and there wasn’t a place on the grounds he couldn’t go, nor a facility he couldn’t use. Except the study. The one thing Mr Device had absolutely insisted on was the study being off-limits to everyone else.

But that changed last night. Last night Mr Device had died. He chose to pass on these grounds, in the comfort of his own home, rather than in an impersonal hospital bed, even if his name was on the golden plaque on the ward label. He lay surrounded by his children and grandchildren, muttering words of encouragement and solace to them with his final breathes. In the end he dismissed everyone but Liam and beckoned him closer.

‘Go into the study. Destroy it.’

‘Destroy it?’ Liam felt bad for making him repeat his words when they came with such difficulty, but he could not believe what he was being asked to do.

‘Destroy it.’ Mr Device took Liam’s hand into his own. ‘Promise me you’ll destroy it.’

The last thing Liam wanted to do was to wrap up this conversation, but Mr Device’s end was dawning, and he knew his questions would not be answered even if they were asked. So instead, Liam promised, dazed and confused, but smiling with enough conviction to let him pass in peace.

Content, Mr Device nodded, rolled back his head, and shut his eyes, a calm look of serenity washing over his face that one seldom saw when the face still breathed life.

The funeral was much like the man himself: quiet, warm, and understated. Family and close friends in attendance only, Liam was quite content with it, sure that it was just as Mr Device would have wanted it.

But now he stood on the brink of doing the one thing he hadn’t wanted Liam to do for most of his life. He wasn’t sure why he felt afraid. He was doing as he had been instructed. Perhaps it was the unfamiliarity of the situation or maybe it was the uncertainty surrounding exactly what it was that he needed to destroy. Liam didn’t have to destroy the entire study, that was for sure. Mr Device spent much of his time cooped up in there and had all but moved in after his wife passed some years ago, so it was bound to be flushed with valuables. No, it wasn’t the study. It was something in the study.

Liam felt around in the dark for a light switch and marvelled at the sight before him when he finally found it. Row after row of leather-bound books ran along the walls, covering almost every bit of the faun wall behind them. There must have been easily a thousand there, maybe two. The spine of each one had meticulously written titles in a script Liam recognised as Mr Device’s and he gaped at the sheer tenacity he had to have written so many.

He understood the choice behind prizing handwritten copies over virtual ones. Mr Device was by no manner technologically disinclined, but what he was, was cautious, and his caution sometimes bordered on paranoia. If his research was dangerous enough to have to be decommissioned upon his death, it would stand to reason that he had chosen to house it in a wholly impenetrable room, as opposed to a device that could more easily fall into the wrong hands, no matter the security measures it had.

The floor of the room was as bare as the walls were adorned. To one side, there was a fireplace and in front of it sat a solitary chair. A little way away there was a small mahogany table and that was it. Liam ventured over and saw a letter written out and addressed to him.

Dear Liam,

If you’re reading this, I find myself in yet another place of thanks: you’ve enacted another one of my commands and have come to the study. Now it’s time for you to destroy what is perhaps the most valuable item here – the cipher.

A cipher? When he had been initially charged with the task, he had the creeping feeling that he was about to discover something deeply unsettling about Mr Device’s past and that he would have to destroy the proof. Mr Device had been the kindest man Liam knew but he also knew that no one attains the riches he had without making a few enemies along the way. A knot in Liam’s stomach seemed to untie upon discovering this was not true. He read on.

You see, Liam, my life’s work has the potential to drastically change the world, to fundamentally restructure the way we think about what it means to be human. It opens the possibility of not only being able to study human behaviour at previously unimaginable scales, but also unlocks the ability to manipulate behaviour that only truly become evident at these scales.

Mr Device had always been a bit on the dramatic side so Liam knew to err on the side of restraint, but his pulse quickened as he read on, excited by the prospect of what had been discovered.

A long, long time ago, I came across a paper of philosophy by Niria Michellyn. Although mostly unknown during her life, and sadly even after, Michellyn described a concept that would go on to form the basis of my life’s work.

She argued that human behaviour was not only influenced by the sum total of our experiences, but also by distinct sub-beings, where each was an embodiment of the defining qualities of a person. She then went one step further to say that of these sub-beings, Intelligence, Morality, and Bravery were the commanding virtues and that it was their influence that dictated a human’s behaviour.

It was her, and later my, belief that a human being only truly exists when these sub-beings work together, operating at varying levels and types of influences at different times, a wonderful orchestra working together to produce the even more beautiful symphony of individual identity.

This idea gripped me wholly, and I became obsessed with not only proving Michellyn right, but with developing a method of extracting these sub-beings and being able to manipulate the control they hold.

Of course, I recognise that over the passage of time, the relative importance of these sub-beings changed, with Bravery, for example, no longer being valued as much as Morality, but it was my (ultimately correct) belief that all three, amongst others, would still exist in an individual.

Imagine being able to selectively nurture Intelligence, essentially creating a mind the likes of which the world has never seen before. Or perhaps focusing on Morality, being able to bring out and keep at the forefront, the benevolent side to an individual that most keep so buried. If Bravery were instead fostered, imagine creating a race devoid of almost all fear.

I succeeded, Liam. I succeeded in creating such a machine. But as with everything, it came with a price, an unanticipated caveat.

The total influence the sub-beings can exert is absolute, it cannot be altered. So, allowing Bravery to prosper, for example, would come at the cost of Intelligence and Morality, and therefore the ability of making a choice and the very concept of free will. In essence, you would have created a race of obedient super soldiers.

Such implications revealed a yet concealed fact to me. I was so blinded by the possibility of doing good for the world that I remained oblivious to the ill-intentioned that yet dot this planet. If they were to learn of this information, their goals would not be as well-founded as mine are.

The thousands of books you see around you (two thousand, three hundred, and sixty-eight, as I’m sure you were wondering) detail these findings and each one is written in the cipher described in one of these books. You needn’t destroy every one of my books – in fact I would appreciate it if you could take it upon yourself to preserve them for as long as you can – but the cipher, Liam. The cipher must go. And the machine. That is essential.

You will find the machine behind the fireplace. Yes, behind. Make sure it’s safe and then reach into the roof of the fireplace and look for a lever. Pull it, and you’ll find the machine.

Thank you, Liam, for all your numerous years of service. This family wouldn’t be what it is today if it weren’t for you. I do hope my bequeathment allows you to comfortably live out the rest of your days.

Aiden Device

More To Read:

For more upcoming stories, check out this post, where I tease 5 speculative and gothic stories.

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Part 2