Even now, Ella, barely seventeen, still stared up at her father like a doe-eyed five year old. “Dad, is it okay that you left your meeting?”
“It’ll be fine, pumpkin. Your mother’s the one who enjoys those droll meetings. A bunch of leeches gorging themselves on blood, the lot of them.” The two of them stepped out of the doors of the convention center, into the blinding afternoon light, and towards the parking pad where there cars were landed. Only a small cluster of cars were flying at the moment, in what was normally a busy intersection between the spacescrapers that adjoined the building, and Ella thought it nice to see the sky uncluttered for once. She must have unwittingly made some pleasant expression, as her father noticed her, and smiled.
“Step-mom, Dad. She’s not my real mother,” Ella pouted. It had been three years since her dad re-married, but Ella still hadn’t adjusted to her new matriarch, Tricia Maine, and the two daughters she brought with her. They were pleasant enough, she supposed, but they didn’t feel much like family yet. Maybe in time. Aside from her father, and maybe her auntie Faye, Ella had trouble following adults, which had gotten her in trouble in the past.
“Ella, dear, I wouldn’t have missed your presentation for anything,” Ella’s father smiled at her, and she felt warm. She had designed a new articulation system for prosthetic joints, one that was safer and smarter than even her dad’s designs. A lot of investors showed up for her presentation, but it wasn’t until her father arrived that she could really be excited. As they approached her father’s car, the doors glided back, and they sat inside. The flight controls whined as they moved into Henry’s preset positions, and they lifted off from the parking pad.
Even as they ascended to four thousand feet through a city thick with mile-high buildings, Ella remembered the basics, what came before. How ground transport was once the norm, and how building materials used to limit a building’s height to a couple hundred stories. This was also her father’s way; you have to know how others reached their milestones before you can launch yourself towards your own.
Ella glanced at her father’s hand, from which his fingertips had split into a grid of machinery, each cordlike appendage doing its own task, and she asked, “Dad, how come I don’t have any prosthe-techs?”
“Because you’re just perfect the way you are, Ella. You have perfect vision, and strong bones, and healthy muscles and joints. You might see a lot of people with prosthetics around, but remember,” and Henry smiled as he nodded at his hand, “Remember, these were original for broken people, like me. There’s just a lot more broken people in the world than there used to be.” As he said this, a loud thump sounded from beneath the car, and the dashboard lights went out.
Ella felt a sinking feeling in her chest, and she realized they were falling. Between flashes of pure terror and panic, she looked only to her father. He seemed calm, and reassuring, and his arms completely splintered into a web of cords, pulling switched and pushing buttons as they fell, until the passenger seat’s safety devices lowered and embraced her and surrounded her in cushioning. None of the safety devices activated on her father’s side.
Ella Brenner [E.B.] cringes while telling me this, and tears roll down her cheeks.
Me: ”Is that when you were injured?”
E.B.: “No. Only the safety systems on the driver’s side were sabotaged. I knew that because my step-sister was punished for forgetting.”
Me: “So then your step-mother found you?”
E.B.: “Yeah. [Her face becomes strong at the mention of her step-mother.] She saw I was alive, and said ‘Oh well, when life gives you lemons.’ Then she took me home. It would be the longest seven months of my life.”
Me: “So why did she hold you captive for so long? Why not kill you like your father?”
E.B.: “My dad encrypted his designs, left out or mismatched certain parts, so nobody could steal them. Tricia needed someone to make new designs that she could use.“
Ella rubbed the red skin around the shackle on her left ankle. Before she could even grieve for her father, she had awoken in their utilities room, her ankle shackled to the floor next to a water drain, and a heavy steel bucket beside her, the purpose of which eluded her until it became obvious. The first week, her stepmother never said a word to her; she would only drop some bread and water twice a day near her feet and leave.
Whenever a problem with the company arose, or a new product was needed, Ella would design for her. In between those times, though, she entertained herself by talking with the two maintenance drones that visited. There was Octavius, the eight-legged cleaning and pest control robot, and Jax, the waste disposal drone that used its gravity beam to change out trash dumpsters. Ella would distract Jax from his duties just long enough to fish loose components from the trash—a mirror, a pen, a few LEDs and batteries. Eventually, she made a primitive soldering laser from the scraps, and used it to remove security blocks from the drones, and so they would hunt out extra food and half-empty drink bottles for her, and hide her secret tools someplace her captors wouldn’t expect. The soldering laser wasn’t strong enough to cut through her shackles though.
E.B.: “Octavius and Jax were the only things that helped me keep my sanity. By the end of my imprisonment, they had become family to me. My step-sisters eventually visited, but I didn’t know how involved they had been at the time.”
Ana, who was the older and prettier of the two, spoke first: “Poor Ella, how far you’ve fallen. You look like a wounded pet that its owners just don’t have the heart to put down.”
The younger sister, Daria, wrinkled up her face, “I disagree, Ana. She looks awful healthy for a bread-and-water diet. I think she’s sneaking in food somehow.” Daria shoved Ella to the floor. Ella yelped as the shackle reached its limit and yanked her leg back. Daria snorted, and placed one foot on the shackle. “Where are you getting your food from, you filthy girl?”
Ella looked to Ana for help, but Ana sat back against the wall, and lit a cigarette. Ella pleaded, “I’m not getting any extra food, I swear!”
“I don’t believe that. I bet you’re digging through the trash like a ground-dweller.” Daria looked down at her leg, and Ella’s gaze followed; Daria’s leg was a prostheses, and Ella could see the synthetic muscle-fibers flexing beneath the circuit-skin. The shackle started to bend, and at first Ella felt a pinch, and then screamed as her ankle and calf were squeezed uncomfortably under the crumpled metal. Ella feared that Daria would continue until her leg was crushed, but a bell rang, and the two sisters startled. Someone had rung the doorbell.
The sisters left, and despite her pain, Ella knew the opportunity was too rare. With thumb and index finger between her lips, she whistled, and Octavius and Jax scurried into the room. A few button presses, and Octavius snuck around to the front of the house to see the guest, and Jax shared the spider-bot’s vision with Ella.
Tricia Maine answered the door, as her daughters watched from behind her. A robust, intimidating woman, bundled in a heavy black coat with only the worn hem and stained shins of her pants peeking out from beneath, stood at their steps. Through the monitor on Jax, Ella gasped in excitement; it was auntie Faye!
Tricia, however, was not so pleased, “Strange to see you out of your cave. To what do we owe the pleasure, Faye?”
Faye’s brow was furrowed, her eyes wide with anger, “Where is she? Where is Ella?”
Ana, her eyes tearing up already, spoke from over her mother’s shoulder, “Ella died, Faye. I know it’s hard to believe, but we have to move on.”
“Stuff it. I’m talking to your mother,” Faye barked, shooting Ana a glare. “I worked for Henry for near thirty years, and I know his handiwork. I know Ella’s designs, too. This joint mechanism—” Faye removed a square of paper, unfolded it, and flattened it against Tricia’s chest, “—was Ella’s! I know because I built the mold for the prototype, eight months ago! Now where is she?”
Tricia calmly removed Faye’s hand and the paper from her chest, and shook her head, “You poor, sad woman. I understand that it’s hard to deal with loss—“
“Tell me where she is, you wicked s-“
“Finish that sentence!” Tricia screamed, breaking her cool, “and you’ll never work as an engineer in this city again.”
Faye spat at the ground, and answered “Forget it. I’m not working for you anymore. You disgrace the Brenner legacy.”
Ella sat back on her haunches, and thought, Faye remembered her! Her excitement was cut short though, when she moved her leg, and saw the skin had swollen around the metal of the shackle. Her toes were going numb.
A few days had passed before Tricia, Ana, and Daria came, each carrying a filing box labeled with R&D in black marker. Tricia knocked off the top of the box, and shoved all the papers at Ella, hitting her in the face. Then the two sisters did the same. Ella sat up amongst the pile of papers, and realized they were all her designs.
“You snuck your initials into the designs.” Tricia growled. “All of these designs have a non-essential structure that spells E.B. You were sending messages to her!” While Tricia talked, the two sisters dumped more and more boxes into the room, until Ella was completely surrounded by paper drawings.
Ella gasped. She hadn’t even realized. It was something she always did, ever since she was a child, like filling in the holes in letters out of boredom.
Ana lit a cigarette as Tricia continued, “You’re too dangerous to keep around anymore. At this rate, that awful woman will show up. Ana?”
Tricia walked out of the room, and Daria followed. Ana took one long drag from her cigarette, shrugged, and tossed it into the pile of paper, then turned and left.
Ella immediately started brushing the papers off of her, trying to keep them as far from her as possible. Then she tried to release her shackle. Her leg had become infected from loss of circulation, the skin starting to blacken, and every pull of the shackle was excruciating. Octavius and Jax skittered in, somehow aware of the danger, and Jax went right away trying to put out the fire, but to little effect. Octavius scurried off to the Ella’s hiding place for tools, and returned with the soldering laser, and right away tried to burn off the shackles, but Ella already knew it wouldn’t work.
The flames burned hotter, and sparks crackled and popped towards Ella, burning her skin and hair. Octavius placed two robotic arms on Ella’s leg, made a sad, low whistle, and then punched its own arms into its body. With a spark and a pop, Octavius pulled out a power source, and dropped it into Ella’s hands, then collapsed. Through tears and adrenaline, Ella bit her lip and combined the power source with the soldering laser. The laser was stronger, but still not strong enough. She glanced at her foot, so numb she only now realized it was sitting in flames, and she took a deep breath. With one quick swipe, the laser severed through the dead skin and infected bone, and cauterized it all at once.
Shortly after finishing her story, Ella was in tears. Ella sobbed, not from pain, she said, but because the leg that her father once called perfect, now resembled the cinder on the end of a matchstick. After several minutes of trying to regain her composure, I opted that we could continue our interview at a later date.
The story wasn’t over, though, not by a long shot. For the one-year anniversary of Henry Brenner’s death – five months after Ella’s escape – a convention was held, the first ever Brenner Biomechatronics Convention. Founded by Charles Ming, the convention would unite technicians, engineers, and designers around the world with the goal of making a leap forward in the field of human advancement and continuing the Brenner legacy.
As the subject of the second part of my interview, the most striking feature upon first meeting Charles Ming is his vivid, crystal-blue eyes. While otherwise perfectly healthy, Ming was born with congenital blindness. At the time, treatment for the disorder was considered prohibitively expensive, but a young, not-yet-famous Henry Brenner was inspired upon meeting the boy, and made a new pair of eyes for the young boy, free of charge. Ming now has 20/2 vision, which coupled with his engineering knowledge, has made him not just an expert in his field, but a connoisseur of Brenner Technology.
Charles Ming (C.M.): “I grew up idolizing Henry Brenner, and all the good that he stood for…I spent a lot of time with him, while developing my eyes, so he was something of a second father to me.”
Me: “So, did you expect your tribute to this man to have such an impact?”
Charles Ming: “I had only hoped. I could never have imagined.”
Charles smiled brightly as he walked through the convention halls. Over three hundred and eighty booths were on display, each demonstrating their contributions to human advancement. Only one guest truly caught his eye, though. As she approached, Charles’ smile washed away with sadness. Tricia Maine, the widow of Charles’ hero, neared with a mild smile on her face, and Charles took her right hand in his, “Mrs. Maine, you have no idea what it means to grace my halls with your presence.”
“Please, call me Tricia. Henry would have loved what you’re doing here, Mr. Ming.” Tricia squeezed Charles’ hand in return.
“By all means, call me Charles, Tricia.” As his hands parted from hers, he saw two beautiful young women join Tricia’s side. Charles greeted them with an unsure nod.
“Allow me to introduce my daughters, Ana and Daria.” Tricia placed a hand on each young lady’s shoulder as she named them, and the women entered their circle. Charles’ smile hesitated a second, but he maintained his façade. Where he saw beauty at first, as the daughters neared, his expertise took over. One could say that where the uncanny valley between man and machine had depressed, Charles Ming saw this valley as large and wide and deep as the Marianas Trench.
These women, Tricia’s daughters, had poorly made circuitry skin; smooth and soft to a layman, but rubbery and cheap to the eyes of a master like Charles. They had base leg replacements, perhaps fitting for a cartoon or a comic, but disproportionate and rickety to a human’s body – their gait and stride stumbled ever so often, like a woman new to heels. The most atrocious, most offensive realization, in Charles’ mind, is that the stepdaughters of his late hero – the only remaining heirs to the Brenner legacy – walked around wearing offensive knock-offs of their stepfather’s work. In the back of Charles’ mind, he found their presence in this convention, this homage to Henry Brenner, absolutely repulsive.
He swallowed back these feelings, however, and mocked a kiss to each of their hands, then excused himself politely.
Me: “So you could still hear them, as you walked away?”
C.M.: “Oh, absolutely. With how many clients and investors to deal with, it seemed only natural to have hearing implants installed.
As they watched the young entrepreneur walk away, Tricia hissed. “You screw-ups!” She rasped in their ears, “What were you doing? I’m much too old to do what needs to be done, and I won’t stand around while you mess it up! He’s single and rich, so go over and steal his heart!”
As Charles toured his convention, he was thrilled with the unanimous feelings of young inventors rising up, hopeful and sincerely eager to continue the dream of Henry Brenner, but sadly, Charles found that their feelings were not enough to match Brenner’s innovation and genius. Even Charles himself, as great of an engineer as he was, was worthless without the exquisitely designed craftsmanship of Brenner Technology’s Chief Engineer. This engineer’s work was to the great majority of prosthetic tech as Hephaestus was to a maker of kitchen knives. Yet, since Henry Brenner’s death, Faye Perrault had shied away from the public eye, only taking a few production projects for Brenner Industries before leaving the field entirely.
He stirred from his thoughts, returning his attention to an ambitious cyberbrain demonstration before him, when from the corner of his eye, he saw her.
There stood a woman, clad in a long, metallic red dress that parted along the left side, revealing a marvelous prosthetic leg beneath. Rather than hide the prosthesis, pretend it were natural, the designer felt compelled to accentuate it, and the engineer who built the leg sculpted it with such intricate wirework and structure that not a single gear or pivot was needless. This design was bold and outlandish, but so perfectly constructed that this could be truly…honest.
As Charles pulled his attention from the masterful leg, he saw the woman’s arms, with circuitry skin every bit as lovingly wired as the leg, that in the few places where the glowing circuits peered through the synthetic skin, it was as natural as blood vessels in a human arm. There was something more though, and as Charles watched, the wiring flashed iridescent, the life of circuitry shining brightly to match the heartbeat of its owner.
Shaking his head free, and impatient to his own mind teasing him, he forced his attention to this woman’s face, only to find her head helmed in a magnificent masque. A beautiful female face was molded into the front of the masque, interrupted only by hairline spaces between the moving plates that hid the mysterious woman beneath. The gorgeous masque tapered back into a flickering mass of illuminated wires, glowing and flickering like flames. Along the left side of the masque, hugging the edge of the jaw, the words CINDER were carved.
At once, Charles rushed forward, grabbing the mystery woman’s hands in his, “I must know: Who are you?”
The masque slid back, panels revealing at first her chin, mouth, nose, and eyes, until her entire face was revealed to him. She smiled, and answered, “I’m Ella Brenner.” She then turned, finding Tricia Maine amongst the crowd, and pointed with a venomous glare, “And that is the woman who murdered your hero, my father.”
Tricia’s eyes lowered, the synthetic skin on her face wrinkled up into an unnatural vision of fury. Ana and Daria, already in approach, jumped and yelped and the sight of her mother’s twisted expression. Tricia barked, “She’s alive! Get her!”
Ana and Daria looked at each other nervously, then quickly leapt toward the masked Ella. Charles heard a slight chuckle from Ella, before she leapt on magnificent legs high into the air. Daria ran ahead of her sister, her legs built just a bit stronger than Ana. The red blur Ella landed behind Ana in a spark of flames, and then jumped again. Ana collapsed to the ground, her prosthetic legs separated from their knee joints, the contacts and wires and circuitry skin burned black.
Daria turned to help her sister, but out of the corner of her eye – only a glimpse – the red figure flashed past her, and Daria collapsed as well. Her legs disabled, Daria craned her body to see her attacker. The back of Ella’s helmet had changed, and what looked like a pest control robot sat therein, its eight legs unfolded and each armed with a soldering laser.
Tricia Maine glowered at her daughters, then tore her dress, revealing powerful, authentic Brenner Tech legs beneath. The masked Ella readied herself for the confrontation, but jerked in surprise. Charles heard a sound through the masque, like a klaxon, and then the voice of Ella, “No! Not enough time!” Ella then turned and ran towards the exit, Tricia stomping close behind. Charles ran after them as well, though his legs were too human to follow closely.
By the time he had caught up with Tricia, Ella had already fled. A sky-car made off in the distance. Tricia grunted angrily at something she held, a prosthetic left foot, and tossed it over her shoulder. The heavy piece landed at Charles’ feet.
C.M.: “After the authorities arrived, and arrested Tricia, I learned that Ella had almost been caught - she disengaged the ankle’s articulation system to escape. So all I had was a detached foot, of an unknown make, to find her with.
Me: “So where did you start?”
C.M.: “Almost all of the parts for Ella’s prosthetics set were original, one-of-a-kind products, never mass-produced or barred for identification. Except for the articulation system. Only a few true Brenner fanatics knew or had even seen the system before. I was one of them.”
As Charles approached the door, his eyes soaked in every detail: rust splotches, deep scrapes along the doorframe, flakes of polychromatic red paint. He took a deep breath, and pressed the doorbell.
Before Faye Perrault opened the door an inch, Charles felt the unimitable pressure of high-powered factory machines running at full speed. Charles smiled, and said, “Ms. Perrault, it’s a pleasure to meet your acquaintance. I’m—“
“Skip it, kid. I don’t have time. What do you want?”
Charles held up the lost foot, without saying another word. Faye crossed her arms, and her powerful figure became somehow more intimidating. Charles split his hand into a web of prehensile, needle-tipped fingers, and began deconstructing the prosthesis. When he was finished, four of the needles carefully extended, holding up a spherical device – the articulation system. “The day of Henry Brenner’s death, I attended a tech demonstration, a new device designed by his daughter. This was Ella’s first creation, a standardized, multipurpose joint support system with improved safety features, like emergency disengagement. Only prototypes were made, but they were made… here.” He nodded through the doorway to the whirring of machines inside.
Several red lights began glowing in the shadows of the doorway, illuminating a spider-legged figure. Faye stepped aside, and the robot skittered out and, somehow, glared up at Charles. Despite its armaments, Charles thought it was cute.
“It’s okay, Faye.” Ella limped out from the same shadow, and walked towards Charles. She was dressed like Faye, like an engineer, with oil-stained short-pants and a white tank-top, her prosthetics in plain view. Charles’ gaze went immediately to her left foot, where what looked like a bent paddle – a temporary spring-foot - was attached to an immaculately sculpted shin. Ella tilted her head and smiled, “Faye made such beautiful parts, beyond my wildest dreams, and I lost the foot.”
Charles smiled back, and his web of needle-fingers started whirring and flexing, until he held a reassembled foot in his hand. “Allow me.” He dropped to one knee, and using only his human hands, reattached the prosthetic foot to Ella’s leg.
Ella and Charles now work together under the banner of Brenner-Ming Masterworks, where they focus on helping to bring humankind to a brighter future. Ella has also founded a facility for helping children of abusive families.