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By Degrees by Milan Jaram

© 2015 Milan Jaram, "By Degrees"

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“On the bright side,” said Zara, poking at his glasses a week before, “this means you get new eyes.”

But I don’t want new eyes, he thought.


 

The surgery isn’t bad, as surgeries go. The one he had when he busted his knee ten years ago, as a teen, was much worse. Or maybe it was worse because of what it had meant: that he’d never go out on the ice again.

That had been his identity, and he’d had to forge a new one from the fractured shards of cold and steel and sharpness. It had taken years, and he still wasn’t sure the new version of himself wasn’t brittle in places—the fault lines barely below the surface, just waiting for one tiny tap by a ball-peen hammer to make the whole construct shatter.

His eyes, his eyes have never been his identity. It won’t matter to lose them.

He tells himself that over and over. Through the days following his diagnosis. On the night before the procedure, as he stares at himself in the mirror one last time, and the image blurs. In the hospital just before, as his surgeon squeezes his hand with her gloved one, and the broad white lights of the OR fade out, the last visual he will ever truly see.

He’s told everyone else the same thing. It’s not the worst thing in the world, Ma. It’s not like I’m an artist. Dad, don’t worry—at least we have all the options we do these days, right? It’s not that big of a deal.

He tells himself one more time as he lies in bed following the operation, his world swallowed in darkness behind the bandages, a dull ache prickling through his face like it doesn’t know where it wants to hurt. This is just a bump in the road.

In a year it won’t even matter.


 

Cancer.

His doctor said it gently. It was part of a full sentence, even. “We found cancer cells.” Later he wondered if she sat there and practiced her delivery before she made calls like this, pronouncing the words with such gravity and care, like she knew how fast he was about to fall and wanted her voice alone to reassure him she could catch him.

Cancer.

The word stalled out in his brain, and his world went sharp and too-bright—the gold tiles of the kitchen, the bright blue ceramic of the fat penguin salt shaker, a drooping rose Zara had laughingly given him when they’d walked the gardens the week before. He wasn’t sure what he said back into the phone, only that his doctor must have asked him to come down to the clinic and talk to her in person, because he had. She talked to him and talked some more and kept talking, and then gave him a lot of pamphlets. Diagnosis, treatment options, recommendations. Everything in that same comforting voice, that gentle-calm-grave-understanding one.


 

After the operation he’s blind for three and a half weeks. His parents offered to fly in and take care of him, but the thought of being waited on was worse than the fear of being helpless, and he said no. He’s stacked food and water by his bed and run a string to the bathroom. Zara’s on speed dial, and she checks in on him twice a day on her way to and from work.

He’s too tired to be much company, but she stays longer than she has to anyway, sitting on the floor against his bed and watching TV while crunching popcorn. She translates anything visual with the snark of someone who’s turned media cynicism into an art form: “Now they’re turning down the dark alleyway! Ooo, I wonder what’s going to happen now.”

The shows she picks are the type of awfully written crime shows where they narrate almost everything they’re doing anyway—“Look, Boss.” “What is this?” “It’s the DNA results. It says the suspect is his father”—and he finds he doesn’t mind, for once. The white noise of the television and Zara’s voice wash over him and the smell of buttered popcorn fills his nostrils, and he drifts in and out of sleep without ever closing eyes that no longer exist.


 

Zara’s response was the best one, when he told her his diagnosis. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m sorry we as scientists haven’t fixed this yet. That we haven’t fucking solved it. We should have a cure.”

She was so angry. At the world. At her scientific brethren. At human progress.

With anyone else he might have said, “It’s not your fault,” but he’d known her too many years not to know what she meant.

“See? This is why science is amazing,” she’d effused to him through high school, as she helped tutor him through chemistry and physics. “Look what we understand, look what we can build! How freakin’ cool is that? This is why I want to do this forever. It’ll be like diving into the greatest unexplored frontier.”

He always had to admit: when she said it, it did seem cool. He liked seeing the world through her eyes.


 

It’s almost a month before he goes for his implants. The sockets went in with the surgery, twined delicately into the optic nerve. Now he has to have the eyes fitted to the interface, fitted and calibrated and a lot of other words his surgeon and ophthalmologist and the biotechnician used and he’s sure he won’t fully understand until he experiences them.

He’s feeling better, mostly; at least, he has the energy to sit up for more than an hour at a time, which he counts as a victory. He’s spent the weeks listening to more audiobooks than he can count and wishing he could at least get on his computer and game. Once he had Zara sign on for him, and he just lay with the headphones on, letting his guild’s banter wash over him, but not seeing what they were laughing and shouting at hurt too much for him to do it again.

He still has mild headaches that drift behind his eye sockets and wake him in the middle of the night; he can’t tell if it’s pain or discomfort or a psychosomatic phantom. His doctor assures him he has no symptoms of rejection or infection or any of a dozen other complications that are possible but not overly likely.

Zara drives him for the final procedure. “I can’t wait to see them,” she says. “Are you excited?”

“Eh,” he says. ‘Excited’ isn’t the word he would use.

“We gotta go to the bar next week and give them a test drive.” Her words have grown wicked, slick with innuendo. “Metallic eyes are so hot. I bet the guys will be all over you. Can they give you ones that literally smolder?”

“I don’t think so,” he says.

Zara’s right, of course. There are people who do this electively. Get their eyes replaced, for aesthetics or enhancement or to do careers that require what only artificial eyes can give them. It costs a pretty penny, and he’s seen them stalking around and cocking their eyebrows as if to show off the unearthly sheen. Some of them choose inhuman colors, artistic ones, heightening the alien illusion as if to better show off their improved orbs.

He can’t for the life of him imagine why anyone would do this by choice.


 

His cancer was rare, they told him. Even rarer for it to be in both eyes, still rarer to be so aggressive. It felt like a great bitter joke at one point, that out of all the people in the world he had beaten every probability, but instead of a lottery jackpot he’d won cancer.

Despite all the pamphlets and flowcharts his doctor had given him, her recommendations had been very sure. Caught early. We don’t think it’s metastasized. We can get it all with surgery. Your prognosis will be excellent.

It hadn’t been a choice, not really. Not when his eyes were replaceable. They’d give him new ones, better ones. Gone the dorky glasses and astigmatism. Gone the squinting and blurriness. Gone the eyestrain when he stared at a screen for too long. His gamer friends even told him enviously how the new eyes would make his skills take off. “You could level up,” said Yoshi, breathless. “You could go pro. All the professional gamers are enhanced.”

He thought back to his youth, to coming out of a double axel and the edge slicing the ice with his body in perfect equilibrium, and flying, the scenery whirling past in an exhilarating blur. Enhancements weren’t allowed in competitive sports. Sports were about pushing the human body, training to your limit, exploring the edges of what humanity could do. Like Zara said about science, except physical.

There was no point in nailed timing and glorious extended lines if you hadn’t sharpened every edge of that move a thousand times, yourself. The summer before he’d gone to college, he’d had a second, far easier surgery, when the technology had come out to give him a different kind of new knee. Strong. Flexible. A knee he could skate on, if he wanted, but not compete.

He’d never gone back on the ice.


 

He’s awake when they put the eyes in. They offer him something to sedate him a little, if he wants it, but he says no.

The sensation is strange. Loud. Like they’re snapping bones in his face, even though he knows it’s just the instruments and the metal crunching against the socket. There’s no pain, but he’s still not sure he made the right decision turning down sedation.

The moment when he can see again is sudden and without fanfare. One instant it’s darkness, the next his left eye is filled with doctors poking sharp metal things into his eyeball.

They warned him it would be “disconcerting”—he almost crawls out of his skin. He manages not to do more than twitch, though he does try to blink reflexively. It doesn’t work; his eyelids are being held open. It’s like a bizarre horror movie.

His ophthalmologist grins at him over her mask. “Hey, he’s back. Can you see us, Marcus?” She waves in his face like an exaggerated cartoon.

“Yes,” he says. “Yes, I can see you.”

His eye muscles twitch—he can’t help it. The focus moves, flicking from one object to the other. Doctor. Nurse. Ceiling. Is it just his imagination, or is there some lag time?

It has to be his imagination. These eyes are better than human ones.

Then why does everything look so flat? The colors seem duller than he remembers, the light harsher. Maybe it’s just the room.

His right eye flares to life. It’s less startling this time.


 

Everyone assumed he’d be able to choose whatever fancy new features he wanted. “Get those superfast superspy ones,” Yoshi said, making slashing noises that came through the headphones as they joysticked through their screens together. He wasn’t sure whether the slashing noises were about the game or his hypothetical eyes. “Like that guy who does acrobatics with fighter jets. Whatshisname. I saw a documentary.”

“I don’t think you do tricks with fighter jets,” he answered. Or maybe you did. Suddenly he wasn’t sure.

Zara sent him studies on all the new developments. Research hospitals, the cutting edge, the conference in Singapore where they were talking about eyes that could wirelessly link up to your computer and smartphone and give you some sort of integrated heads-up display.

Insurance didn’t pay for that sort of thing, of course. And his doctor even explained to him that a lot of the elective enhancements people got needed to be combined with a fancier type of neurosurgery, with a lot of words about nerve and electrical integration that he didn’t care to ask her to explain. “For you we have to make sure to take everything,” she’d said. “Removing the cancer has to be the first priority. Once we do that, we’ll use the standard implantation type, which integrates with the optic nerve behind the eye.”

He nodded. Not having choices made them easy.


 

They give him a pair of dark glasses to go home with, and warn him he’ll be photosensitive for at least three days and to lie for as long as he wants or needs to with his eyes closed. The muscles will take time to adapt, they tell him; some discomfort is normal.

It’s less discomfort and more pain—sharp little flecks of it intermittently throughout the day, stabbing with his eye movement and over before he can do anything about them, and backgrounded by a fuzzy ache like the precursor to a migraine. He takes the doctors’ advice and lies with his eyes closed, but restlessly. This is supposed to be over. He’s supposed to be able to open his eyes now and move on with his life.

He goes back to work the following week, but takes frequent breaks to sit in a dark closet. His supervisor is understanding.

He doesn’t even try to game. The mere thought of the 3D visualizations makes his head ache.

He wonders if these feelings will ever pass completely, or if this is his new reality.


 

“What color are you going to get?” people kept asking him, as if that were the most important thing. Probably because it was the most obvious feature to others, the bright array of metallics that the enhancers and transhumanists showed off so proudly.

He wanted as close to his old color as possible. Dark brown, unremarkable except that it was his. His lovers had always told him he had nice eyes.

They couldn’t do brown. Only brighter colors. Something about the way light reflected in the lenses inside--brown was too dark. The physics would have allowed for a light beige, but no one wanted light beige, so it wasn’t even in the palette they gave him to choose from. To be fair, he wouldn’t have wanted light beige, either.

He wanted to say something stupid about his ethnicity at that point. But I’m Thai. Like that would be news to them. Like that made him different from everyone else with tan skin and black hair and dark complexions who would want brown eyes if they could get them. Like stating his ethnicity would change what was technologically possible.

He chose the darkest color he could, a deep, vibrant blue. In any other context, it would have been beautiful.


 

“I still don’t think I’m going to be up to going out this week,” he tells Zara, when she prods him to resume their relationship as perpetual drinking buddies.

He hasn’t tried a mirror yet. He doesn’t know what he looks like. But it doesn’t matter; he doesn’t want the staring, the fascinated questions from people who assume they’re making small talk. The silent judgments from people who assume he did it for enhancement.

He also doesn’t want people to know this part of him before they know his name, to see it splashed across his face without him choosing to tell them. Doesn’t want to try to meet new people when this will inevitably and painfully be a conversation starter, his new acquaintances stepping on a landmine they don’t even know is there. “I like your eyes.” “I had cancer.” “. . . Oh.”

He foresees some awkward silences coming up in his dating life.

He wonders if this would have been easier if he’d been in a relationship when it happened. If a boyfriend looking at him like he was just the same would have made him feel so. Or if that person looking at him ever so slightly differently would have magnified every feeling of alienation.

He’s started wearing sunglasses outside all the time, now.


 

He began paying attention to the transhumanist movement after his diagnosis. Zara knew about it, of course, and had her typical libertarian stance. “Hey, as long as they’re not hurting anybody.”

He read up on some of the politics online. People wanting to modify themselves. People wanting to modify their children. Other people claiming the right to hate and condemn them for it. It struck him as just as senseless as most politics.

The idea that he’d be entering this world involuntarily—the enhancers’ realm, the political imbroglio—disturbed him. That he’d have to claim a stance, take a side, defend the technological advances by virtue of their medical purpose. Be grouped with the believers by default.

He shut his laptop. He had enough to worry about—he didn’t want to deal with this, too. Not yet.


 

He assumed, from the beginning, that the new eyes would be better. Of course he did; that’s why people chose to get them sometimes.

But they’re not. They’re just different.

Sure, in every objective sense he can see better. No glasses, and once the photosensitivity dies down, the detail he perceives is startling, especially texture. His vision is better than perfect. But the impression of flatness has persisted. His doctors tell him that no testing has shown anything less than normal depth perception, so maybe it’s all in his head—but doesn’t all vision happen in your head anyway? If it’s in his head, doesn’t that make it real automatically?

Despite the perfect vision, he constantly feels like he’s seeing everything through a slightly dull filter, like someone fiddled with the brightness and contrast settings on his monitor. Nothing he can pinpoint, but it drags at him. Sometimes, some three o’clocks in the morning, he wants to claw out his new eyes and scream.


 

Sleeplessness.

The bouts of insomnia and anxiety started before his surgery. It wasn’t nerves; he trusted his doctors. Instead, he would wake from cluttered dreams and stare into the darkness.

He’d stretch his eyes wide, willing the pupils to dilate, to suck in as much as they could possibly see.

Then he’d turn on the light and let the flash burn his retinas, let the purple splotches appear and his eyes tear up, wanting to hang onto the feeling.


 

The first time he looks in the mirror, depression smothers him, like tentacles wrapping thickly around his heart.

He’s been mentally preparing himself for the color, for the metallic sheen. But the shape of his eyes is different. He hadn’t expected that. They look wider to him, perpetually surprised, slightly goofy. He hates it.

Maybe the effect will diminish. The skin around the implants is still red and a little puffy, as if irritated at the interlopers. He knows how it feels.

He’s never thought of himself as vain. He’s always been decent-looking, but was arrogant enough to believe it didn’t matter. That he didn’t care. That appearance isn’t what’s important.

Until now, when he looks at his face and sees a freak.

Now he realizes he is vain, has always been vain, and maybe there’s not a damn thing wrong with that.

He feels a sudden stab of guilt and empathy. He’s only been able to tell himself he’s indifferent to his looks because he’s been lucky enough to be satisfied with them. He closes his eyes, shutting away the image in the mirror.

He’d cry, but his tear ducts are gone.


 

“Look out!” Yoshi bellowed in his ear the week before his surgery, as a troll burst through the wall. On the screen, his avatar ran.

Life and death, he thought. Such a simple decision to make.

His had been simple, too. “You’re so strong,” his mother kept telling him. “Your father and I talk about it, how brave you are.”

Brave? Why? The doctor had told him he had cancer, and this was what needed to be done. What would they have expected him to do instead? Say no?

Life and death. It made things easy.

His avatar ran around the corner and dropped its hands to its knees, panting.

My days are like yours now, he thought at the computer-generated character. The troll swings its club, and so we duck and kick and run.

But it’s not the fighting that’s the hard part, is it?


 

The pain improves, the headaches lift. He’s doing dishes one day when it strikes him he’s forgotten about his eyes for the last few minutes. He hadn’t realized that until now he’s been constantly aware of them, a low-level hum of discomfort, of difference.

As the days go by, it happens more often, for longer stretches. He’s surprised sometimes when he catches his face in the mirror—his self-image is still one in which he has human eyes, and when the reality reminds him, his mood twists into depression.

But even that changes. The first time he looks in the mirror and doesn’t notice his eyes, he realizes it happened five minutes later, and it jars him.

The human mind is infinitely adaptable.


 

Cancer.

When other people said the word, it was this huge, ominous, grave thing. People died of cancer. People lost loved ones to it. People wrote sad books and movies about cancer, and somebody always died and it was always tragic and noble and had important messages about the meaning of life.

Having cancer was different. He didn’t feel particularly tragic. Or noble. Or enlightened.

It was just shitty.

He was fortunate to have a good prognosis. He’d slog through it and out the other side, and life would go on.


 

Life goes on.

His friends and colleagues get used to his eyes far faster than he does. For a while he watches for them to be still looking, still gossiping, still curious, but eventually even his paranoia has to admit that he’s yesterday’s news. The realization is somehow both relieving and depressing. After all, he still has to deal with his new eyes, and now he has to deal with them alone.

He starts seeing a therapist once a week. She’s a very pleasant person who listens to him ramble and asks him gentle questions that make him feel less stupid. He’s always more at peace after his sessions with her.

He starts forgetting to wear the sunglasses. He finally signs back on to his gaming group and his friends greet him with whooping cheers for about thirty seconds before they’re all focused on the game again. Their lack of continued concern is somehow both liberating and slightly disappointing. He files that away to talk to the therapist about.

A good part of the time now, when someone does a double-take at him on the street, he doesn’t remember why until he thinks about it.


 

“This is just something I have to get through,” he told his parents once.

He hadn’t thought that statement would be so full of raw truth.


 

A year passes.

He remembers thinking last year that in a year none of this would matter. He was both wrong and right about that: it matters, and it doesn’t. The cancer changed him, but he adjusted. Nothing is radical. Nothing is revelatory. But nothing is inconsequential, either.

It’s just . . . life. Like everything else.

He’s started dating again. There haven’t been as many awkward silences as he feared. It turns out he can say, “I had cancer in my eyes, but I’m okay now” and then smile and change the subject. Zara turns out to be right that his eyes probably attract more people than not, and he’s learned not to mind.

He thinks about going to a rink and trying skating. Just for fun. Who knows, after all these years it might be more pleasant than painful. Zara offers to go with him. “I’ll fall on my ass so much I’ll make you feel great. Instant moral support.” He smiles. He doesn’t have to decide anything now.

He starts struggling to find new things to talk to his therapist about, and they drop to meeting once a month, then as-needed. He keeps her card taped to the fridge.

Sometimes he sees transhumanist rallies on television, or chances across articles on the Internet. He’s still not sure how he feels about them. He’d say he’s indifferent, but as a man with a fake leg and fake eyes, he’s one of the media-dubbed “cyborgs” already.

Well, screw it. He’s indifferent. It feels satisfying, somehow, to claim his right to have no political feelings about the technology in his body.

At night he sleeps well. And in the morning, he opens his eyes and goes about his day.

By Degrees by Milan Jaram



S. L. Huang uses her MIT degree to write eccentric mathematical superhero fiction, starting with her debut novel, Zero Sum Game. Online, she's unhealthily opinionated at www.slhuang.com and on Twitter as @sl_huang. She's had cancer twice now just to make sure she didn't like it.

Milan Jaram is an artist specializing in the alternative, sci-fi, and surreal. He is a a well-known artist in the sci-fi writing community and has completed several covers for various magazines and novels. His work can be seen at milanjaram.com. You can read a short interview with him here.
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