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art by Seth Alan Bareiss

Susumu Must Fold

Tony Pi is a Toronto-based writer with a Ph.D. in Linguistics, and was a finalist for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 2009.

When Susumu Nakashima entered the competition hall, the origami masters and their audience fell into stunned silence. He knew they were staring at the pinned sleeve that marked his lost arm, or the gloved right hand that remained. Some murmured while others chuckled. The press peppered him with question after question, but Susumu chose not to answer.
In the midst of his peers, Susumu voiced his only desire: "Let me fold."
The maglev accident five years ago had cost him more than his limb. The train wreck also stole his skill and, in turn, his joy. In mourning he had chosen self-exile, shunning the public eye, but his love for his art endured, driving him to search for a replacement hand. Yet none of the cyberneticists he found could give him back the digital dexterity he craved.
It took a scientist in London to give him hope.
Carrizo, the reigning champion, snarled. "Come to fight me for the crown, Nakashima? Have you mastered the art of folding paper with one hand, or with your feet?"
Susumu ignored Carrizo's taunt. He had tried both methods, of course. In his youth he had known a woman in Osaka born without arms who could perfect a paper swan with her toes alone. Alas, that talent wasn't his.
Instead, he smiled. "With no hands at all, Carrizo Sensei."
The ensuing uproar took the judges long to quell, but Susumu remained patient. When the crowd settled at last, he asked again for permission to compete.
Unorthodox, the judges said, but if the other competitors consented....
Carrizo stage-laughed. "We'll allow it, if only to humor him. Won't we?"
Five years and Susumu found he still despised the Argentinean. But the glory hound's hubris was exactly what he needed to speed him into the competition. And with the other contestants following Carrizo's lead, the judges nodded and gave Susumu a place.
Susumu bit and tugged his glove off his hand. The nanobot swarms on the tips of his fingers were invisible to the eye, though in his mind he likened them to four-pincered fortune-tellers.
The square sheet of washi before him was larger than he had practiced with in London, but nonetheless he pressed ahead. He touched the paper and issued a command to the swarms through his implant-link: Saturate the paper.
The army of fortune-tellers fell as an avalanche onto the surface of the sheet and crept into its fibers.
"Contestants! The Great Sphinx of Giza is your challenge, single sheet," the head judge said. "Ready, set, fold!"
His opponents began to tackle the folding puzzle with verve and speed, already creasing and crimping the single sheet of washi with two hands. But Susumu lifted his hand from the paper and called to mind his memories of the Sphinx and began to design his paper tribute to the Egyptian monument. The fortune-tellers automatically began to analyze the mental construct with circle-packing and box-pleating optimization algorithms, but Susumu aborted the subroutines. He meant for them to act only as his hands, to make real his vision. The inspiration would remain his and not generated by computer.
These were the creases he would need. His nanobots jostled into place and weakened the paper fibers where the pre-creases must be made.
There were the flaps he would have. The swarms assembled into nanotube underpinnings and forced the folds with molecular gears.
Here was the sequence of tucks and pulls he would impose.
The paper animated itself as if by magic. By force of thought he was imagining a Sphinx into being, bending the paper to his will. That he could create again, even without the feel of paper between his fingertips, electrified him.
Only when the origami sculpture was twin to his vision did Susumu tear his gaze from it. He noticed at last that everyone in the hall was holding their breath, entranced. The others were long done with the challenge, but even Carrizo seemed mesmerized.
He held the model in his palm.
"My skill did not die when I lost my arm. See what I can do with ghost hands." He told them the truth.
Carrizo fumed, calling him a cheat for using technology to fold, and one of the judges nodded in agreement.
But the youngest among the contestants disagreed. "Sensei. It is the weaver who imbues a tapestry with its beauty, not the loom. The same must be said of your art." He stood and bowed to Susumu. One by one, the other origamists followed suit, all but the reigning champion.
The judges began to argue, but Susumu interrupted them. "I did not come to win. Disqualify me if you must."
"Then why did you come?" Carrizo asked.
"To prove to myself that when I lost my hand, I did not lose my art." And to show others there is always hope. "As I said, simply let me fold."
The End
This story was first published on Thursday, October 25th, 2012

Author Comments

I began this story as part of a writer's group challenge, where the seed was a rivalry between a human and a machine. But in developing the story, what turned out to intrigue me more than your typical man-versus-robot clash, was a partnership between the two. As machines become increasingly sophisticated and prosthetic to our bodies and minds, would they be perceived as merely natural extensions of our selves, or as unfair advantage?

- Tony Pi
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