Think. I’ve got to think.
still had a body, I’d be flashing cold right now, with nausea clawing at my
throat. My mind rebels against it, but I think …
Damn it! Why did I ever sign that
think I’m dead.
remember the accident like it was yesterday—no, like it’s still happening, with
the tires skidding on wet asphalt. It was the first big storm of the season.
The boys had dentist appointments, so we all slept in, and I made waffles for
breakfast. I can still smell the syrup.
crackled overhead. We ducked our heads and ran for the car, spurred by the
smell of fresh rain on hot pavement.
hydroplaned at the bottom of the on ramp. The back end fishtailed, and we
skidded into the traffic lanes. A big diesel monster plowed into the
driver’s-side door. The spin sucked us into the gap between the truck and
was slow motion after that. The flip. Spinning on the roof. The raging
cacophony of silence when we hit the tree.
boys, strapped in their seats, were fine thanks to the side cushion airbags.
The other driver walked away.
Damn, this is hard.
to process what I’m feeling. If I’m feeling. I cycle through my senses.
dark. Dark like a cave on the night of the new moon. I try to inhale through my
nose but nothing happens. It smells like sterile air in the containment room at
the lab. It smells like nothing.
tongue remembers the warmth of my mouth and the smooth-hard shapes of my teeth,
but that’s a memory, not a perception.
adrenaline rises. My heartbeat thumps in my ears like an off-balance wash load,
but I don’t have ears—or a heart—so that’s a memory, too.
not a memory. An association formed of repeated fear responses over
thirty-eight years of life.
had hands, they’d tremble. My mouth would go dry. An fMRI would show shifting
colors lighting up my pre-frontal cortex, then racing through the midbrain and
to hug my knees to my chest and hide my face in my arms. I want to take deep
breaths to calm myself, but I can’t. All of that is an illusion now.
Maybe I can.
remember a study where subjects imagined flame and their skin warmed. If I
imagine breathing, maybe I can fool my brain into sweeping the stress chemicals
from my tissues.
focus every scintilla of will on taking a deep, cleansing breath. Like
sensations in a phantom limb, I feel my chest expand. Feel cool air flowing
through my nostrils and down the back of my throat. I let the breath out, and
my shoulders relax even though I don’t have shoulders, either.
it again. And again, until the darkness feels soft and comforting like flannel
sheets on Christmas Eve.
Now I can think.
Where am I?
to tell. Should be a lab at Allied Neuro Associates if I’ve left the hospital
already. The research rider was explicit about that. A total meant immediate
notification of ANA so the tissues could be stabilized for transfer.
How long have I been like this?
to know that, either, but it doesn’t feel like long. Immediate transport was
vital to stave off the effects of glucose and oxygen deprivation prior to
immersion in the SuMP chamber. SuMP, sonicated microparticle perfusion.
Continuous oxygenation, near-perfect preservation of living tissue for up to
six months. No refrigeration needed.
irony of the situation isn’t lost on me. My own research helped make this
personal total wasn’t a new concept. It started back in the Teens when the
Treaders put their first candidate in office. Healthcare costs were insane.
Insurance was almost impossible to get. The Treaders said taxpayers shouldn’t
have to pay for medical care someone else couldn’t afford, so they instituted a
review board for totals.
uneducated, the elderly, the poor—they could be totaled at less than a year’s
wages. My doctorate put my total at lifetime earnings plus a multiplier for
patents. My policy was supposed to be enough to cover anything. I thought I was
research rider came with an annuity. I did it for the boys. I had a good
salary, but things were still tight after the divorce. If I died or got
totaled, the rider said ANA could have any tissues they wanted, and the annuity
would go to Dale and Zachary.
of course, meant brains.
still dark, and I can’t tell how much time has passed. Have I slept? The accident plays over and over in my mind, a
screech of tires followed by a stomach-twisting lurch. I wish for something,
anything, to distract me from it.
a soft clunk followed by a vibration.
It’s not a sound but a sensation of movement so slight that I wonder if I’ve
darkness continues, and the vibration comes again. It’s rhythmic, and I
recognize it. It’s the HVAC system cycling on and off at the lab. ANA for sure, then.
sensation puzzles me. We left touch alone because an isolated brain has no
skin, no nerves to transmit tactile sensations. How, then, am I able to sense
ponder the sensation. I’m not hearing the vibration so much as feeling it. It
seems like forever before I make the connection. Vascular tissue. No nerves in the brain itself, but it’s full of
vascular tissue for blood supply, plus we preserved the optical and auditory
nerve clusters for later activation. Interesting.
a stronger, sharper vibration in what I assume is the hallway outside the lab.
It stops and starts in small jolts. Footsteps?
The sensation intensifies as if they’re coming closer. In a flash, I realize I
know them. It’s my research partner, Randy.
Oh, God! I’m in my own lab? Randy!
Randy, it’s me. Get me out of here! But he can’t. Not anymore.
Moreno, PhD in AI and neural interfaces. Mine was in good ol’ neuroscience and
distributed cognition. Our focus was biotech, integrating electronics with
neural pathways. I was bio. He was tech. I guess he still is.
were working on a bionet, a microscopic web of living, electrical conduits no
more than three molecules wide. If we could stabilize the bionet, there was so
much we could do—regulate neurotransmitters, end depression, cure Alzheimer’s.
We were so close, and the list seemed endless.
bangs things around, and I feel a sloshing sensation. He’s moving me. There are bouts of protracted jostling interspersed
with maddening lengths of nothing. Then my entire awareness is blasted by a
stimulus larger than a thousand suns. I can feel myself screaming, my phantom
mouth open wide, phantom hands covering phantom ears. And that’s when the
stimulus falls into place. Sound.
Riotous, deafening sound.
Holy crap! I can hear!
newfound hearing adjusts. It’s quiet in the lab, but the tiniest sound seems
painfully crisp after my time in the dark void of nothing. The AC. The soft hum
of machinery. The squeak of Randy’s lab chair, and the rustle of clothing as he
It works. I can’t believe it works! I mean, we knew the hearing module
worked with chimpanzees and fetal tissue, but this was our first trial with an
adult human brain. A surge of pride and excitement rushes through me. If I were
truly alive, Randy and I would be hugging and high-fiving.
a tapping of keys, then a blast of Zydeco music. Geez, Randy. Couldja make it any louder?
likes his music loud and fast. Zydeco was a favorite. So was old speed metal. I
could never think with Washboard Gumbo or Motorhead drowning out my Pachelbel
Canon, so we’d both agreed to induction transmitters when we worked together.
It’s part of what inspired the sound research.
time the day ends, I’ve decided that I’m not really in the lab. I’m in a
twisted hell of Black Sabbath and Buckwheat Zydeco.
the onslaught ceases, and I can hear Randy gathering his coat and keys. His
footsteps retreat, the door closes, and the lab goes still. The void settles
over me again, and I feel strangely bereft, but I push the feeling aside. It
must be night. Time to plan.
picture the lab setup. If nothing’s changed, I know every monitor, every piece
of equipment. Randy’s more of an electronics guy than a wetware guy, but he
knows when an fMRI looks hinky. Enough anomalies, and he’ll start to wonder. He
knows I signed that rider. Enough anomalies, and he’ll know it’s me.
the door opens the next morning, I’m ready. I need a happy thought to light up
the reward center on the fMRI.
remember getting off the airplane after my last conference. The boys were
waiting at the baggage claim with their grandparents. They ran to meet me and I
grabbed them up in a hug.
Damn, wrong memory. Now I’m crying, and
I’ve missed the moment.
musical assault resumes and scatters my thoughts like a beaker hitting the tile
try again tomorrow.
door opens. Here we go again. Kittens!
Fluffy, furry kittens!
Is Randy even watching? Maybe it
hasn’t occurred to him that lab tissues shouldn’t have feelings.
disappointment sinks into an auditory cloud of key tapping and Slayer.
almost given up when I hear it.
the hell?” Randy says.
Oh my God, Randy. See it! Puppies.
rushing around the lab, fussing with the equipment. The frenetic sound of his
movement tells me he’s onto something.
the door to the lab opens, and a female voice speaks.
Randy. Want to get some lunch?”
Dammit! Jeanine Sanders. Grad student lab
assistant who works part-time in PR. She has a thing for Randy. I can hear it
every time she says his name.
I’m in the middle of something here. I keep getting a p300 on this brain.”
A p300? Oooh, good catch, Randy! I
forgot about that one.
file cabinet rattles with a soft thump. Is
Jeanine sitting on it? Can’t she see he’s busy? Shoo! Scoot!
response, right? So?”
chair swivels. The wheels squeak. “It’s more complicated than novelty,” he
answers. “Like, did you ever play Slapjack as a kid? No? OK, Joker Poker, where
the joker’s wild? P300 only hits on the Joker. Regular poker where the joker’s
just a misdeal? Nothin’.”
chair rolls across the room. “So,” he says, showing off for her, “every time I
come into the lab, this thing spikes a p300.”
Duh, Randy. It’s because I know you.
hell if I know, Randy. Maybe it knows you.”
Jeanine-the-annoying-grad-student gets it but my own research partner doesn’t.
ha. Very funny. Hey, when you go out, would you bring me a sandwich? I’m gonna
be stuck here awhile.”
voice brightens. “Sure thing, Randy!” Her heels click across the floor until
the door closes behind her, then Randy turns his attention back to me.
chair creaks, and he slurps a liquid that’s probably coffee. It sounds like
he’s adjusting monitors and checking the settings on our equipment.
brain,” he says, talking more to himself than to me. “What’s going on in there?
You playin’ tricks on ol’ Ran’?”
imagine Handel’s Messiah, and the
pure, liquid notes of Maria Callas’s Ave
It’s a message, Randy. Please see it.
goes silent. There’s a fumbling click, and Slayer stops mid-riff.
him take another swallow of coffee and return the cup to the desk.
He whispers it. I can hear the horror and disbelief in his voice.
Yes, Randy! Yes, it’s me. I knew you
could do it.
God. Oh, Maggie. I have to—What do I have to do? Uh, look, I need more
bandwidth, more data.”
shuffles papers. He moves his coffee mug, then his chair. “Maggie, just hang
on. I need to wire you up on the full array. I’ll be right back.”
time he returns, we’ve both calmed down a little.
Maggie. How did this happen? The accident, right? Light up something for me so
I know I’m not crazy.”
think of brownies. Hot. Sweet. Fudgy. Gooey in the middle but crunchy around
tapping his fingers on his desk. I can picture him half-standing, leaning his
weight on his hands while he stares at the monitor. “OK,” he says. “I can get
this. Parahippocampal gyrus. Christ, Maggie, could you have picked something
easier to spell? Lemme look it up.”
the rapid-fire clicking of his keyboard.
center. Associated with food. You’re … hungry? No, wait. You can’t be hungry.
Reward center—it means yes, right? Yes?”
Apple pie hot from the oven with the
steamy scent of cinnamon rising from the crust.
voice sounds intense but distracted. It’s his work mode when he’s hot on a
it. OK, Maggie, let’s try ‘no.’ Whaddaya got for me?”
thought about no. Pain won’t work. I don’t think I can fake it consistently.
Neither will sadness. Too diffuse. I need something baser, more instinctive. I
Vomit. Maggots. Rotting, stinking meat
crawling with flies.
anterior insula. Yeah, that’ll do it. Now let’s run some confirmation trials.
Give me a yes.”
practice until yes and no are instant, consistent and clear. The door opens
again, but it’s not Jeanine with Randy’s sandwich. It’s a male voice asking
Randy if there’s been any progress.
that voice. Doc Leavitt, ANA’s Executive VP of Research. Arrogant bastard.
We’re all PhDs here, but we call each other by our first names. Not Leavitt. He
wants to be called Doctor.
there’s been progress. It’s Maggie.” Randy sounds livid. His voice is low and
constrained, like he’s holding back from violence. There’s a thwack and a
rattling, metallic crash like someone slamming a file on the desk and kicking a
chair across the lab. “It’s Maggie, you troglodyte prick.”
once I’m glad I’m just a brain in a jar because I would have laughed out loud. Randy, Randy, it’s Doctor Troglodyte Prick to you.
course it’s Dr. Hauri,” says Leavitt. “She was too close on the bionet project.
We gave your notes to three separate teams, and they’ve gotten nowhere. Learn
to communicate with her so you can finish it before the perfusion decay sets
gave our notes—?” Randy sounds incredulous, then indignant. “Wait. You want us
to finish it? Screw you!”
Oh, God. I wish I could see. Don’t
punch him, Randy. Please, don’t punch him.
Mr. Moreno. I will forget you said that when your proof-of-concept hits my
desk. Until then, remember that I could send the tissue to the Connectomics lab
for neural mapping instead of leaving it with you.”
Connectomics. Where I’d be plastinated
and carved into millions of transparent slices. I take it back, Randy. Punch
door closes again, and I hear Randy righting his chair. He sighs heavily.
Maggie, guess we need to finish it. What do you say?”
hesitate. The bionet was my life’s work. Of course I want to finish it. But in
this state, is it even possible? With the perfusion decay, I don’t even know
how long we have.
a few moments, I think of ripe peaches, and how their heady scent used to fill
my mother’s kitchen during summer canning. I imagine their velvet under my
fingers and peach juice running down the inside of my arm.
then,” says Randy. “We finish it.”
hallway outside, Jeanine’s heels tap their way to the door. I wonder what kind of sandwich she got him?
I hope it’s a cheese steak. Randy likes those. Her voice when the door
opens is unbearably perky.
Randy. They were out of peppers for a cheese steak, so I got you a Cubano.” He
ushers her in with a sharp whisper. When the door clicks closed, Randy swears
her to secrecy.
Wait—Jeanine’s on the team? Hello,
nobody asked me about this?
I sulk while Randy eats his sandwich.
and I work together in the lab just like we used to. Well, almost like we used
to. Jeanine keeps Randy fed, and I count the lunches to keep track of the days.
After the fourth one, a gooey meatball sub by the sound, something’s changed in
Randy’s voice. There’s a huskier note that tells me he’s beginning to return
Jeanine’s feelings. My sense of loss and bewilderment comes as a rude surprise,
and I retreat into memories of my boys.
says the auditory linkage wasn’t that difficult. We had it pretty well nailed
down in previous trials, but vision is being fiddly. There’s not enough time to
code even rudimentary opsin mimickry, so Randy scraps the environmental sensor
that would have let me see what’s going on in the lab and switches to one of
his implants. Leavitt, meanwhile, slaps Randy with a HIPAA redaction and
non-disclosure order specifying that the anonymous tissue donor for our project
be identified only as subject HF47-A.
Great. I’ve been officially reduced to
visual assist implant has been used with the legally blind, but it’s supposed
to augment organic vision, not replace it, and it’s never been used for remote
viewing. Without the opsin profiles, Randy’s only choice is to slave the input
to a live source, namely his own eyes. He’s breaking at least six internal
policies, and probably a federal law or two, but we both know Leavitt will look
the other way if it works.
first two trials are abject failures. On the second one, Randy says there’s a
flicker in my visual cortex on the fMRI, but my subjective experience is
negative. Nada. Zip.
voice is tense and layered with exhaustion. “Listen, Maggie, we get one more
shot at this. The nerve endings are too frayed for another splice if we fail.”
the connection’s good before he finishes. I can’t see, exactly, but there’s …
something. It’s like the dull gray of dawn when your eyes are still closed.
got activity in your visual cortex, Maggie. Can you confirm?”
sensation becomes a vague blurriness. Brownies,
experience confirmed. FMRI activity increasing.”
has prepared me for this. He doesn’t want to overtax the connection, so he puts
on goggles that limit his field of vision to a single image.
looking at a shape, Maggie. I want you to identify it.” As I listen to his
voice, corners start to emerge from the blur.
the shape a circle?”
Cockroaches swarming over kitchen tiles,
invading the cupboards and …
blur slowly sharpens, the angles too acute for a square. Cat barf studded with clumps of bile-soaked fur.
Yes! Hot, fresh coffee with farmhouse bacon
sizzling in an iron skillet.
identification confirmed. Hot damn, Maggie!”
spends the rest of the week running confirmation trials—shape and color
identification, simple photographs, then a video clip of an old Three Stooges
segment. Finally, he’s satisfied that the neurolink works as well as it’s going
to. “OK, Maggie, we’re ready for full-spectrum visual. We’ll go live first
thing in the morning.”
Randy doesn’t come to the lab the next morning. I know it’s morning because I
can hear muted activity in the hallway outside—muffled voices, footsteps
passing, the squeaky wheels of the coffee cart. Where is Randy?
wait. Five minutes, five hours. With no external markers, the difference is
nearly impossible to tell. Finally, I hear his voice. “Hey, Maggie. I’ve got a
surprise for you. Are you ready?”
sound startles me. I never heard the door open. Is Randy even here? His voice
sounds tinny and distant, like it’s coming from a speaker. A speaker? What the hell is Randy up to?
Mag, we’re about to go live with the visual feed. Not much I can do about the
audio quality. I had to route my phone through the computer speakers. I’ve got
your fMRI synced to my datapad, so we’ll start with something easy while I
check the levels.”
a slow dawning of pale white light. The image comes into focus and I find
myself staring at a cinderblock wall covered with thick layers of dove gray
paint. Randy’s facing an interior corner to keep the visual complexity low.
lookin’ good, Maggie. Let’s open it up a bit.”
image pans to the left, and I see a blue tile floor and three porcelain sinks
mounted to the wall. Wait a minute. Those aren’t sinks. A tinny little toilet
flushes in the background. Great, for our
first live visual, Randy takes me to the men’s room.
he says, anticipating my response, “it’s not like I could start us off in the
girl’s bathroom. We’re headed outside now. Stick with me.”
is an exterior hallway flanked by a courtyard. The air is heavy with mist, and
a steady drip, drip of water falls from the eaves. A hedge of peonies lines the
walk, but the spent blooms are drooping, their pink tissue petals brown and
curling at the edges. I’ve been here before, but I can’t place it until Randy
reaches for the gymnasium door. The boys’
gym is set up for an assembly, and Jeanine is saving us a seat in the second
row. She waves at Randy, but I stare straight past her to the edge of Randy’s
visual field where twenty school children fidget in metal chairs waiting for
the assembly to start. Twenty, but I only have eyes for two.
My boys. I see their smiles, their faces. Dale
sits in the front row, wearing red sneakers and his brother’s favorite
Transformers shirt. Zachary has new glasses and gel in his hair.
takes Randy’s hand, and the three of us watch together while Zack receives a
certificate for reading achievement, and Dale gets honored as Student of the
Month. It’s the best surprise Randy could have picked. I wish I could hug them
all and never let go. I want to cry, but I can’t. Real tears are just one more
casualty of the accident.
way back to the car, Randy puts his arm around Jeanine’s shoulders and thanks
her for setting this up. He wants to check the readouts in the lab, and she has
to get back to her press releases, but they make plans for dinner later. Randy
whistles happily until he sits down in his computer chair. When he does,
there’s this quick intake of breath, a gasp that’s never been good when I’ve
heard it before.
Maggie. Look at this.” The decay rate on the SuMP is running thirty-eight
percent above normal and climbing. “You’re burning too hot, Mag. You’ve got to
slow it down.”
Slow it down? How am I supposed to do
checks the connections and scans the data gain. “You’re the first live, human
trial, Maggie. We never figured on a brain with your IQ, or that you’d be
conscious. So, stop thinking or something. Can you meditate?”
raises his hand to his mouth, then drags his fingers through his hair. “I’m
re-instituting hypothermic protocols. It should shave a few percent off the
can’t feel the cold, but I see the wires and the aluminum cooling tank. Randy
checks the readouts again.
Mag. Your file says you’ve been here seventeen weeks. If we can keep the burn
rate down we might get six, maybe eight, more.”
weeks later, Randy and Jeanine start carpooling, and Randy gets in the habit of
turning the vision implant off when he leaves the lab at night. He says it’s to
keep my burn rate down, but I think he doesn’t want me to see whatever else
they’re sharing besides the car.
excited about our progress on the bionet, but in the quiet darkness of the lab
at night, I have time to obsess over my new existence.
SuMP is slowly failing. Actually, the perfusion is fine; it’s my brain that’s
failing. The SuMP refreshes the perfusion medium with sonicated oxygen
microparticles six times an hour. We have redundant power supplies, and we
increased the perfusion’s O2 ratio.
doesn’t help. I’ve seen my own readouts. The curve of the decay rate continues
to steepen. Tissue degeneration accelerating. Every indicator ticks away at
what’s left of my existence. But the truth is, I don’t think I’ll miss this
strange variation on life. When Randy and Jeanine aren’t here, I’m bitterly
lonely, and I miss my boys with every fiber of my non-existent being.
are the worst. Weekends I think and I think to keep the accident at bay. I know
the mechanism—vasopressin, trauma memories—but I’m powerless to stop it.
recite lines from Oklahoma! and Star Wars in my head. I remember
snippets of books I’ve read and sing every pop song I can remember.
stays later and later at the lab, sleeping on a cot in the corner sometimes.
Jeanine brings him hot food and clean clothes to keep him working.
we’re almost there, but the SuMP decay preys on my thoughts. Motor functions
fail always first, then speech. I guess I’m luck lucky not to have, not to have
any of those.
weeks from Leavitt’s ultimatum, we have our proof-of-concept ready. Randy does
a fancy double-blind demo where he’s in one room, and I’m in another, and the
whole thing is broadcast live on vid screens in the conference room.
Randy finishes time, our success is clear. The bionet is a reality.
other scientists Randy’s back pounding and champagne pouring. Jeanine stands
nearby, her face the brightest smile ever I’ve seen. He throws an arm around
her shoulders, and they come to see me.
to be peaches happy for them, for us,
but I’m tired. Thinking is … effort, and I have to struggle to under,
did it, Maggie! We made history. Who knows where the bionet will go next? And
hey, look at this. Jeanine swapped out Leavitt’s press release.”
holds, holds up the text of the release and reads aloud. “Allied Neuro
Associates named the discovery after neuroscientist Margaret Hauri, whose work
formed the bulk of the project’s underpinnings before her tragic automobile
accident at the age of thirty-eight.”
Randy at the monitor to see my reaction. I see my own fMRI through his eyes.
Colors sparse, muted. Activity level vomit
low. I should, should be on top of the world right now, but not I’m maggots not.
face I see in the monitor. Concerned. “You’re not happy, are you?”
I hot cocoa. Wood smoke in winter. The colors on the monitor flicker rotten weakly.
kisses Jeanine on the cheek, asks her to give us a moment alone. She steps
outside, closes the door.
the Connectomics thing? You know I won’t let them do that.”
trash juice gag brown rotten grass
is bigger, isn’t it. Not just the discovery?”
yeskittens, but, but complicated the
draws up a chair. Swings a leg over. Rests his chin on the back, dials 02 to
MAX. He speaks to the monitor, my proxy.
to me, Maggie. We should have a couple of weeks left. Where we going next? You
wanted to take on Alzheimer’s. Are you in?”
the 02. Days, maybe—not weeks. There’s a maggots
flicker of yellow in my anterior insula. Hard even to say ‘no’ anymore. The
crux of, of it, really. Brownies, vomit. Binary existence. Someone else’s
control. Don’t want it. Notvomitnot.
voice deathly quiet goes. “Mag, you leaving me? Is that what this is about? You
want to end it?”
Hot blueberry waffles with real maple
syrup and fresh, melting butter. Wish I could explain to Randy. Hauri Net his project now.
Stories I read as a girl, clones, cyborgs, space liners. Randy and
takes Randy his glasses, eyes wiping breaks his voice. “It’ll be fast, Maggie.
I’ll just turn off the SuMP. You won’t even feel it. Are you sure?”
a strange lightness, a pulling-away feeling that’s almost euphoric, and my
thoughts become clear for a moment. I think of burgers on the grill on the
Fourth of July. Sweet corn. Blueberries and cream. I think of sand between my
toes at the beach with the breeze whipping my hair across my face.
walking to the equipment. He turns on the music with one hand, and flicks a
switch with the other. The stately lilt of Pachelbel’s Canon surrounds me.
I’m sneaking sugar cubes as a girl,
their edges crumbling sweet on my tongue, then sharing strawberry ice cream
with the boys.
picks up a picture of Dale and Zachary, in front of his eyes holds it. Dale on a red tricycle. Zachary stands
behind, arms around his brother’s waist. Summer sun, upturned their laughter
faces. Oh, my boys. My beautiful, sweet boys.
Randy’s hands, the picture, too, shake-shaking. Bracing on the table Randy his
elbows. fading kittens the silver light
the first big storm of the season. The boys had dentist appointments, so we all
slept in, and I made waffles for breakfast.
still smell the syrup.