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”Would you like to tell me more about cerebral bonds?” I ask.

“That is a vague question which requires chunking. What would you like to know?” Racter replies. I think for a moment.

“Can you form deep relationships through that alone?”

“Define deep – without falling into using emotional feedback as the main requirement. That would be biased and quite unfair”, he points out.

“Well… Let’s say that you would find someone closer to you. You would be willing to do things for them even without personal reward, perhaps even though you would lose something through doing so”, I elaborate.

“Hmm, that is better, my friend, but I doubt that anyone would do favors without any promise of compensation! Emotional bonds give rewards as a warm sensation within; as for even self-sacrifice, people do that to escape the potential punishment that their conscience would give them otherwise”, Racter says while wiggling his index finger. “In any case: Can you feel particularly close to someone else through cerebral bonding? I would insist that it’s possible.”

“What would that be like in practice?”

“Respect doesn’t require emotional closeness. I acknowledge that the other person has skills and/or traits that make a difference to this reality. I would find it impossible or hard to find a replacement for them. The relationship would be even closer if we worked together to reach a common goal – a mutualistic symbiosis, you could call it. Other shared interests help, too, of course”, he answers.

“What would you be ready to do for them? Other than work together or have discussions, that is”, I continue.

“I would be ready to take some personal damage to keep them functional. You may question my worldview and intentions, but my biggest interest is advancing the global development into the post-humanistic stage. Some personal loss may be required in order to accomplish that, as certain individuals may be helpful or even crucial for that evolution. However, I have my limits. I won’t risk my own life or Koschei, for instance. I wouldn’t feel bad for prioritizing my own existence over somebody else’s, even if I respected that particular individual.”

I consider his words.

“Very well. You are probably going to dislike me for bringing up the topic, but: You left your past teammates into a problematic situation. Did you find them respectable?”

“I appreciated their abilities. That flow of events doesn’t count due to its special nature. I needed to find my past colleagues for Koschei’s sake, and I might’ve lost the track of them if I had stayed longer. And as talented as those people were in their own roles, they were replaceable…”

“You talk awfully lot of people in terms of being replaceable or not, Racter”, I remark. He smiles at me apologetically.

“Ah, do forgive me. I’m merely trying to be honest with you; and given my condition and background, sincerity is something that I’ve had to practice… I’d like to point out that my logic isn’t so different from emotional bonding in that regard, though. People evaluate others based on emotional feedback. If said feedback halts or ceases to exist altogether, a ‘normal’ person could consider that relationship useless. They’d seek someone else who would produce the desired sensations. Therefore, can we not conclude that everyone considers others as being potentially replaceable?” he asks.

“I disagree. Positive relationships with relatives cannot be replaced, to mention one example. Say, I haven’t heard of anyone trying to replace their grandmother”, I counter.

“Oh, they cannot be?” Racter asks, then shrugs with a chuckle. “Do not give me such a sour look, my friend! I assure you that I was merely joking. I might be unable to form special relationships with my relatives, but that doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t understand the social norm on a theoretical level.”

“Your parents would be replaceable to you, then?” I inquire.

“Frankly, I didn’t have a positive relationship with them. That’s the important adjective which you used yourself, so don’t forget that”, he says. “I confess that I do not believe that things would be any different in other kind of a scenario, either way. I cannot see others outside of my inner box, and relatives would hardly be an exception even if they happened to be loving and supportive.”

“Okay, I won’t press you about that. I’m afraid that your background slipped my mind for a moment. What about your colleagues? What was your relationship with them?”

“Ah, Dr. Hardingham and Dr. Taylor. I respected them, which should be obvious. I wouldn’t have become disappointed if I had been indifferent about them, after all. When we worked together, they had budding potential, aspiration for greater things… But then they sold it all to tiresome capitalism. They did betray me on a personal level, too, of course, stealing the work which I even still regard as my magnum opus”, Racter says. I look at Koschei but do not see a significant change in his demeanor. Maybe these years have turned Racter’s anger milder than it was, back when we were still quite new faces to each other.

“I see. Hmm. I can understand that you would be able to form professional relationships through cerebral bonding. I admit that I find it hard to imagine forming a romantic and/or sexual relationship based on that – or, a family with children, for that matter”, I comment.

“It’s not that hard, I assure you. It’s possible to feel sexual attraction even without feelings, as romantic and sexual attraction are two separate things. I also mentioned mutualistic symbiosis earlier. Partnership can be based on an alliance which aims to gain benefits for both parties. Ensuring the continuity of one’s genetic code may be one such benefit”, Racter explains.

“You would probably have some standards for the partner if you were planning on getting children, though”, I say.

“I would, naturally. What would be the point of spreading my genetics if they were mixed with undesired ingredients?” he scoffs.

“You may refrain from replying, as I understand that this topic might be too intrusive. I’m simply curious, is all. What would a person like you look for in a partner like that?” I ask.

He looks at me with his cold eyes, long enough to make me regret that I even made that question.

“That would be difficult to put in brief. However”, he stops to emphasize his words. “Speaking on a purely theoretical level, I could consider a person who shares many of your qualities.”

I stare at him for a moment before his statement sinks in; after that, it finally smacks me in the face.

“You… What?” I stammer. My thoughts go much faster than my mouth, incomprehensible lines, one after another. Sometimes, being speechless may actually involve a lot of messed up inner words.

Racter just continues smoking as though he just didn’t drop a verbal bomb. I can see that he got wicked pleasure out of confusing me.

“Theoretically speaking, my friend. As you are aware, there are many reasons why I speak theoretically”, he replies, almost scolding.

“You and your theorizing!” I state in frustration.

“Well, children are out of the question, which should be needless to say. Putting you as an example shouldn’t come as a surprise either. Haven’t I invited you to join me in a much greater purpose than combining mere biological pieces of data? Compared to that, offspring is only a small matter”, Racter says, making my head whizz again.

“Racter. I can’t – this discussion is becoming too much for me”, I reply, all the while my mind screams like a siren of a Lone Star vehicle. Apparently, the secret feelings which I buried a long time ago aren’t still completely away – despite my deliberate attempts at smothering them, as Racter wouldn’t obviously be any good to me.

Then, it occurs to me: perhaps Racter knows very well of my past interest and is trying to exploit that?

All of a sudden, it clicks. I can’t see any other explanation for this.

“You are terrible”, I say in a grim tone. Racter stops smoking for a moment and looks at me with puzzled eyes.

“My friend, I do not understand why you’d say that. As far as I’m aware, I haven’t done anything which could be called terrible”, he says.

“Oh, keep on playing.”

“Playing – what?”

“Pretending that you do not know! I’ve been trying so hard to keep things completely professional, but then you go on saying things like that.”

Racter gazes at me, analyzing the situation.

“I can swear that I didn’t have any clue. You didn’t say anything directly, but I assume that you are saying that you have – or had – feelings for me? Do correct me if I’m mistaken”, he asks finally.

The sudden chaotic spike of anger is gone, away as quickly as it appeared in the first place. I understand that he might actually be telling the truth. I close my eyes and take a long, slow breath in, trying to recollect my rational side.

“Well, this is an embarrassing situation. I apologize for losing my self-control for a moment. You are correct. However, I’ve worked so that it wouldn’t affect our interactions. I hope that you can forget this event and that we can continue like this never happened”, I say after I’ve calmed down somewhat. “Do excuse me – I’ll need to go…”

I turn around and am about to take my leave – but Racter steps forward and grasps my left hand. I startle at the sudden physical contact, leather pressing softly but firmly against my skin. I could break out of his hold easily, but I find myself freezing at the touch.

I do not look back, partially due to the tension inside, partially because I do not have time to do so before this: Racter lifts my hand and presses a kiss against the back of it.

Oh.

“I won’t hold you back any longer”, he says and lets go of my hand. I still do not look at him, but now the reason is that my cheeks feel burning hot. I escape his quarters without saying anything, rush into my room and collapse onto the bed; and there I lie for an hour or so, haunted by the lingering sensation of his lips.