Author: Jordanna Morgan
Archive Rights: Please request the author's consent.
Characters: Ed and Al, as viewed by a special guest.
Setting: Post-Conqueror of Shamballa. Brooklyn, 1930.
Summary: A boy with a bright future finds inspiration in a chance encounter.
Disclaimer: Ed and Al belong to Hiromu Arakawa, and Isaac belongs to history. I'm just playing with them.
Notes: When I was, perhaps, a bit too young, my mother introduced me to the works of an author who would nonetheless be one of my first inspirations to begin writing. Having moved away from his primary genre in adulthood, I can't honestly call myself an active fan of his (or say that I respect his personal character as much as I do his writing talent) - but I certainly can't forget his role in the roots of my own creativity. Now, some twenty years later, I offer this story as a token of appreciation for that gentleman.
It was a bright and bustling spring afternoon in Brooklyn, and ten-year-old Isaac was hurrying down the sidewalk with a copy of Astounding Stories in his hands.
Isaac knew he shouldn't have been reading as he walked; but then, he wasn't supposed to be reading a science fiction pulp anywhere outside his parents' candy store at all. The only way he was allowed to look at them - and that only grudgingly - was by borrowing them briefly off the rack of magazines for sale, and then promptly returning them in as pristine a condition as he found them.
In this case, the magazine shipment had arrived late the day before, and tending both the cash register and his baby brother had kept him too busy to read it then. But this issue had the first chapter of a new three-part story that sounded especially good, and there was always a chance that it might sell out before he could read it... and Isaac couldn't help himself. Just this once, he had snuck a copy into his bag of schoolbooks and smuggled it home.
With his obnoxious sister around, he couldn't even read it there. He'd had to wait until he was on his way to school that morning. He squeezed in another two stories during recess, and now he was desperately trying to finish it before he reached the store where his family waited, so that he could slip it back onto the rack while nobody was looking.
His father called the pulps trash, but to Isaac, their tales of outer space and the future were treasures. The writers who penned them were smart enough, creative enough, to imagine solutions for all of mankind's problems. Why didn't more people take them seriously? If everyone did, and if society would just put a little effort into trying to make those writers' ideas come true... Isaac shivered with excitement at the thought of how wonderful the real world could become.
He was so absorbed in the magazine that he didn't realize he had reached the street corner, had gone well beyond it in fact...
"Watch it, kid!"
A car horn blared, tires screeching. Someone seized Isaac from behind, strong arms enveloping him tightly - and at almost the same instant, a more violent impact struck from his right side. It sent him sprawling onto the street, along with another body that had tangled itself protectively around his own.
"Brother!" a voice yelped, cutting through the sudden babble of bystanders' voices.
The person who had tackled Isaac let go and sat up gingerly, and only then did the boy have a clear view of what had happened. A big, heavy automobile loomed a few feet away, its front fender badly dented. The plump female driver was just then in the act of squirming out from behind the wheel, wringing her hands in distress.
Unhurt but dazed, Isaac's next impulse was to turn worriedly to his Good Samaritan, who didn't appear to be quite so lucky.
The young man sitting on the pavement beside him was perhaps almost thirty, slim and handsome, his blond hair worn quite unconventionally in a long ponytail. He was bleeding a little from a small gash above his right eyebrow, but he seemed more preoccupied with his right arm. Isaac saw him clasp his left hand tightly over a tear in his coatsleeve, just beneath the elbow. No blood was visible under his gloved fingers, but for a brief instant, the boy glimpsed something shiny...
Almost like metal.
A somewhat younger man pushed through the crowd of onlookers and knelt down. He bore a strong resemblance to his companion - even to the ponytail in which his hair of darker gold was tied.
"Are you okay, Ed?" he asked anxiously, dabbing at the cut over the other's eye with a handkerchief.
Ed grinned feebly. "Yeah, Al, I'm fine. Just got the wind knocked out of me..." He gave Al a look that obviously meant something significant, although Isaac couldn't guess what it was.
But Al clearly understood the message that was intended for him. He quickly stood up, turning to smile at the gawkers gathered around them, and made some confidently dismissive motions. "It's okay, folks! My brother's not hurt. We don't need any help, thanks." Then, as the crowd began to disperse - rather disappointedly, Isaac thought - Al turned to the distraught woman driver. He guided her a short distance across the sidewalk, and appeared to be talking to her in a remarkably soothing manner.
"You really oughta watch where you're going, you know."
Isaac winced, turning to the man named Ed. He was looking at the boy, with an expression that was not so much accusing as simply weary and dismayed. "Are you alright?"
Guilt-ridden under that beleaguered gaze, Isaac blushed. "Uh - yeah."
Unexpectedly, Ed smiled. There was a trace of tired sadness about the smile, as if he was momentarily recalling a distant memory; but there was kindness as well.
A garbled noise of surprise from the woman made Isaac glance across the sidewalk. Al was still talking, gesturing at the bowed-in fender of the car - which actually seemed to have suffered more damage than Ed had. Then he produced a wallet from his pocket, and slipped a few bills into the hands of the increasingly astonished woman.
Isaac gaped in alarm. "You're giving her money? But - I mean, I can't pay back - "
Ed nearly released his right arm, as if to wave his hand magnanimously; but he caught himself, and merely shook his head. "Don't worry about that. We have plenty of money." At Isaac's suddenly dubious look, he chuckled and added, "And we're not gangsters or something, either. We just don't want to make a big scene here."
The boy's blush deepened. He couldn't have really thought there was anything criminal about the pair of brothers, anyway. Maybe they were a little strange-looking, but they were obviously good-willed.
A sudden thought made him flinch. "The magazine!" he cried, and twisted around, anxiously looking for the precious pulp. At last he spotted it, spared by an inch from the car's front tire, and scampered over to retrieve it.
The top corner was bent, and the back cover was a little scuffed. Isaac realized sinkingly that he wasn't going to get away with his crime.
By this time, Ed had gingerly risen to his feet and moved back onto the sidewalk - still clutching his arm. He studied Isaac and his illicit treasure with a sort of detached curiosity.
"So you like science fiction, huh?"
"Yeah." Isaac ducked his head guiltily. "But I... I'll never read when I'm walking down the street anymore!"
A faint grin tugged at Ed's lips. "You remind me of a girl I used to know."
The conference between Al and the woman appeared to have concluded. He opened the car door for her, and sent her on her way - probably to the nearest garage, to hammer out the dents. Then his face grew more serious as he strode back to where Ed and Isaac stood.
"Okay - what's the real story?" he demanded of his brother.
The last trace of Ed's smile slipped from his face. "Can't move my wrist," he said tersely, looking down at his right hand - and Isaac noticed for the first time that it was bent sideways at a sharp, painful-looking angle.
Al's response was a shockingly put-upon sigh. "Again, Brother?"
"Is it broken?" Isaac squealed, in sudden fear that the man who saved him was hurt more badly than he'd thought.
Ed shifted his weight uncomfortably. "Not exactly the way you mean it."
"But if you need a doctor or - "
"No, nothing like that," Al cut in, palpating Ed's wrist and forearm appraisingly through the all-concealing glove and shirtsleeve. "We just need someplace more private and - um - a few other things," he concluded feebly.
Isaac bit his lip. He would already be in huge trouble for being late, much less for the disaster of the borrowed magazine; but on the other hand, the injury was equally his fault for being careless. He certainly owed it to the brothers to see that Ed was alright.
"Well... you can come home with me," he offered at last. "We live just down the street. I dunno if we have those other things' you're wanting, but I can run and get whatever you need."
The older of the siblings frowned, but the younger smiled at Isaac. "Thank you, very much."
That settled the matter, and the trio set off down the street. Ed looked reluctant, an impression that was strengthened by his awkwardly crossed arms: he cradled his twisted wrist in the crook of his left elbow, even as his left hand still contrived to hide the tear in his sleeve. Meanwhile, Al continued to prove himself the more outgoing of the two, and chattered on with a disconcerting lack of concern for Ed's injury.
"We haven't introduced ourselves yet, have we? I'm Alphonse. This is my brother Edward."
"I'm Isaac," the boy reciprocated, hugging the battered magazine to his chest. After a hesitation, he squinted at the pair and admitted, "You're not really like anybody else I've ever seen around here."
"Could be 'cause we're not from around here," Ed retorted quietly. Close at his side, Al gave him a slight shove, and he glared back.
"We're just looking for somebody," Al said simply, and left it at that.
A few minutes' walk brought them to the apartment of Isaac's family. He let them inside, dropping his book bag and the magazine on the table. Ed looked around the small living room with a keen thoroughness, and then asked almost warily, "Nobody's home?"
"Nah, my parents are down at our candy store, with my sister and baby brother." Isaac glanced anxiously at Ed's arm - hoping that whatever they had to do would be brief, so that he could hurry to the store and get his punishment over with. "So what is it you need?"
"A good strong light, for starters," Al said, inspecting the corner lamp and gently lifting off its shade. "And, uh... I know this is gonna sound weird, but have you got any tools around here? Screwdriver, pliers, wrench - stuff like that."
In the act of sitting down on the sofa, Ed grimaced unmistakably at those words.
The request was baffling, but after Ed's heroism on his behalf, Isaac felt he had no right to ask questions. He went off to fetch the small toolbox his father kept for minor repairs around the apartment.
When he returned two minutes later, Ed had slipped his coat from his shoulders, and Al was bent studiously over his wrist. From the doorway where Isaac stopped, the younger man's body half-obscured his brother's arm from view... yet the boy caught a glimpse of that metallic sheen again, just for a moment.
Then Ed saw Isaac in the doorway, and swiftly yanked down his shirtsleeve.
"Now maybe a little privacy?" he muttered brusquely.
Al swatted him on the left shoulder. "It's his home, not ours, Ed." Turning to Isaac, he accepted the toolbox. "Thanks. Um... Would you mind my asking if you can keep a secret?"
"Al..." Ed ground out disapprovingly.
"Come on, Brother, who would he tell?" Al's voice lowered, his gaze falling upon the issue of Astounding Stories on the table. "I mean, really - even if he did, they'd think it was just something out of one of his magazines."
Ed scowled at Al, and gave Isaac a hard, doubtful look; but then he sighed in resignation. He lowered his hand from his arm, and suffered Al to take a pocketknife to his torn shirtsleeve, cutting it away at the shoulder.
The discarded fabric slipped free all at once, and Isaac gasped at what lay beneath.
His eyes had not deceived him, after all. It was metal: smooth and hard and silvery, shining in the harsh light of the lamp, laid bare from Ed's shoulder all the way down to his glove. And even as Isaac watched, Ed peeled the glove off too, revealing five intricately jointed fingers made of steel.
Something about the sleek lines of the limb made it clear that the metal was not just a covering. The entire arm was steel, a fantastic mechanized creation taking the place of flesh and bone... and it worked. It worked with all the graceful complexity of real muscles and nerves.
And it was...
It was absolutely the most beautiful thing Isaac had ever seen.
Ed fidgeted a little under Isaac's wide-eyed stare, but Al chuckled softly. "Don't be scared, Isaac. His arm is artificial - a machine. So's his leg." He illustrated the point by giving Ed a not-very-gentle kick in the left shin, producing a hard, metallic sound. Ed didn't flinch, apparently didn't even feel it; he shot an ungrateful look at his brother, but that was all.
His silence seemed almost ashamed - and that made no sense to Isaac. How could anyone possibly be ashamed of such a marvel? It was like something straight from the pages of the stories he loved, where machines could cure humanity's every ill.
Enthralled as he had never been by anything else in his life, the boy edged closer, filling his eyes with the sight. Ed straightened and squared his shoulders, and Isaac briefly feared the man with the mechanical limbs might object to his staring... but Ed's expression only softened.
"It's okay... You can touch it if you want to." He slowly extended the arm at the elbow. The wrist remained bent in its awkward position, but the fingers loosened, unclenching from the fist they had been balled into.
Hesitantly Isaac reached out, resting two tentative fingers on the grooved steel plating of the forearm. The metal was cool and flawless, smooth as glass. He touched it a bit more boldly, his hand almost caressing its way down to the open palm.
When the fingers curled over Isaac's hand, he started and nearly pulled away - but the squeeze was feather-light. Ed smiled at him tolerantly, if a little sadly. It was obvious that he understood the fascination, the wonder, this incredible artifice could arouse.
"I've never seen anything like this," Isaac babbled breathlessly. "Not - not outside of stories, I mean."
"You might never again, either." Ed relaxed his grip, withdrawing the metal hand from beneath Isaac's own flesh fingers. "Nobody else in this world has prosthetics like mine. A friend of ours made them for me, but she's..." He trailed off, with an expression of sudden regret that made Isaac's own heart twinge. "She's a long, long way from here."
"That's why Ed and I both learned the engineering skills to fix them ourselves," Al submitted, selecting a screwdriver from the toolbox. Then he gave his brother a fondly exasperated smile. "Only I end up doing most of it."
"Hey, I do handle all the work on my leg! It's not my fault I can't really fix my arm one-handed."
"No, it's just your fault you get in so many fights, and keep breaking it." Al's chiding was gentler than the words alone would have suggested, his voice filled with obvious affection... and for a moment, Isaac couldn't help thinking of his own little brother, now less than a year old.
"The last time wasn't my fault either," Ed seethed. "You heard what that guy called me!"
A long-suffering sigh. "Ed, he was trying to apologize for short-changing you at the cash register."
"But it was the way he said it!"
Isaac clapped his hands over his mouth to stifle a laugh.
A comfortable silence fell for a few minutes, as Al worked at unscrewing the plating of his brother's forearm, and Isaac's thoughts inevitably turned to the question of why Ed had two metal limbs. He was so strong and healthy otherwise, and somehow Isaac had the notion that he was not born crippled. He must have experienced something terrible.
"So... what happened to your real arm and leg?" the boy asked at length, very carefully. "I mean - if it doesn't upset you to talk about it. Was it the War?" The Great War had ended more than a year before he was born, but all his life he had seen its aftereffects, plentiful and tragic. Ed would have been very young to be a soldier back then, but not impossibly so.
Ed shook his head, and took a sudden interest in Al's movements as the younger brother removed the plating, to expose a nest of wires laced with tiny, delicate parts. "No. It was kind of..."
He trailed off, and after a moment, Al picked up the subject. "You see, Isaac... We did something really dangerous, when I was just about your age. We didn't understand what the consequences would be, but we still should have known better. Both of us got hurt - but even with an arm and leg like this, Ed worked hard for a long time to make me better again."
Al paused in his work, and his hand came to rest almost reverently on his brother's mechanical fingers.
"But this is... It's..." Isaac looked up from the arm to the pensive faces of the brothers, wondering why they didn't seem to understand what a miracle Ed's limbs were. "It's amazing - it's perfect! There must be so much you can do with this arm that you never could with a real one. Just imagine... Imagine having a whole body like that!"
The thought was innocently intended, but it spurred Ed to a sudden and genuinely frightening outburst.
"Don't say that - don't you ever even think that!" he snapped, leaning forward sharply, causing Isaac to flinch away. "You couldn't begin to realize - "
"Brother," Al interrupted him, in a very quiet voice. The single word silenced Ed instantly and utterly.
"Sorry about that, Isaac. My brother gets... excited about some things." Al smiled sadly, laid down the screwdriver in his hand, and looked the boy very earnestly in the eye.
"Now listen to me. It's true that a metal body would be a lot stronger than a real body, and it wouldn't get tired or sick or hungry, either. But think about it a little more. Think about never feeling anything: not hot or cold, or rain on your face, or a kitten's fur, or even someone holding your hand. Think about never being able to smell flowers, or taste the candy in your parents' store. You could never cry or smile. You couldn't sleep - and that means you couldn't dream. And even with the people you loved right beside you... there'd be a loneliness that would never go away, because you could never really touch them, or feel the things they feel."
His shoulders moved in a solemn shrug. "You see? Think of what would be lost in the exchange too, Isaac. Because that's..." He paused, with a wincing smile at some unreadable inner thought. "That would be what it's like. Maybe metal is just about the most useful thing in the world, and machines can do amazing things - but they can never replace the gifts we're born with, in these wonderful, fragile bodies. Don't ever forget that."
Ed made an odd, choked noise in his throat at that moment, inadvertently calling attention back to himself. His jaw was tightly set, his eyes hard and shining, and his cheek twitched as he swallowed painfully. His gaze was fixed on the clenched metal fist that rested on his knee.
Tenderness filled Al's eyes as he covered that fist with his own hand. "And even in Ed's case - this arm and leg hurt him all the time. It wasn't something he ever could have wanted. He chose to live with it because... because he wanted to take care of me."
There was the slightest tremor in Al's voice, and it struck a deeper chord with Isaac than the words themselves ever could have. He thought again of his own baby brother. Being required to look after him while their parents minded the store was often a tiresome burden; but still, in his heart, Isaac knew how much he would sacrifice for little Stanley.
And if Ed had come even close to suffering that much for Al...
"I see now," the boy said faintly, and he meant it.
This was a side of the story the magazines didn't tell. Even Ed's wondrous artificial limbs, a technology designed with the best intentions, were anything but perfect. Maybe machines never could be, after all, because the people who made them weren't perfect. They would always have drawbacks and complications all their own. And the tales of how bright and shiny the future would be because of science... How little thought they really gave to the new problems science would create in the process, or the inescapable cost to the human spirit.
Maybe if science fiction had a little less machine and a little more humanity, people would learn something from it.
"Okay, I think I found the problem." Unnoticed by Isaac, Al had resumed his delicate probing into the workings of Ed's arm. "It looks like you popped a connection again, Brother. We'll have to make a better fix later, but I can rewire it for now."
Ed sighed. "Go ahead. Just warn me first."
"Right." Al switched tools and continued his tinkering.
After a short interval of silence, Ed glanced at Isaac with a faint smile. "You got quiet all of a sudden. I'm sorry if we upset you there."
"No, it's..." Isaac blushed slightly. "You made me think about some things. And I'm - kinda glad."
Ed's smile deepened at that, but before he could respond, Al spoke up again.
"This oughta do it. Brace up, Ed."
The older brother tensed, clenching his jaw and his mismatched fists. With a tool in each hand, Al performed a final adroit manipulation of the wires in Ed's arm; a blue spark flickered, and Ed flinched violently, as a sharp groan escaped between his teeth. He sagged on the sofa, gasping softly, and Isaac was sobered by his obvious pain.
After a long moment, Ed gingerly raised his metal hand. The wrist was unfrozen, able to move freely once more. He flexed it experimentally, and glanced up at Al with a wan smile, stretching out his arm to let its plating be replaced. "Thanks."
"Any time, Brother." Al returned the smile as he began fitting the screws into the plating of Ed's forearm. "And thank you for letting us work on this here, Isaac. If you want, we'll write your parents a note about what happened. Maybe then you won't get in trouble."
Isaac blushed and shook his head. His own poor judgments had put him in this situation, and he resolved to face up to it on his own.
"No, that's okay. I won't tell them about you - and I'll keep the secret of what you let me see. Besides... I'm the one who should thank you. For a lotta things."
As he put on his coat and glove, once again concealing the glitter of metal, Ed grinned at Isaac. "Don't go losing those dreams of yours about what's possible. If the future is created by kids like you..." His eyes grew gentle. "Maybe this world won't turn out so bad, after all."
Then the brothers said goodbye, and left the apartment; and Isaac sat back thoughtfully on the sofa, his mind going over all the things he had seen and learned.
We're not from around here.
Nobody else in this world has prosthetics like mine.
Our friend is a long, long way from here...
Isaac's glance fell to the vivid painting of a spaceship on the cover of Astounding Stories, and for a moment, he allowed himself to wonder just how far the brothers had really traveled.
It didn't matter where they came from. He was sure their hearts could not have been more human - and that they knew more about being human than anyone else he had ever met. It was all in the way they talked so passionately about being fragile and mortal and alive.
Humans should never wish to be like machines. If Isaac had learned one lesson from them, it was that...
Yet the splendid mechanical brilliance of Edward's prosthetics still captivated him.
Suppose machines themselves could be given entire bodies like that, elegantly designed in human shape, instead of the hulking constructs from the stories Isaac read? Perhaps one day there could be metal people with mechanical minds, built to serve mankind. Such creations could bring about wonders - and raise so many questions as well...
His heart filled with sudden excitement, Isaac Asimov ran to his father's desk, and sat down to write.
2010 Jordanna Morgan