This is a short story I did for Geeky Giving, a charity working to promote research in “Parkinson’s, ALS, traumatic brain injuries, brain tumors, Alzheimer’s and more.” They were kind enough to let me do an AGAHF short story for the charity anthology, so I did Jenny and Shawn: Jenny because she’s the researcher, Shawn because he’s been hurt. The story’s copyright has reverted to me, so I’m posting it here for everyone.
The man on the other side of the bed was sweet and kind and completely insane.
She didn’t know how to feel about that. This uncertainty bothered her more than the act of sleeping with a crazed man. Five years ago, she would have been mortified with herself, with the idea of intimacy with someone such as Shawn. Even if he wasn’t her patient. Even if he was more than a friend. Today, he was just…Shawn.
She didn’t let herself think about it—she’d find fear down there, and maybe something else, something that could chase the fear away but leave them both forever changed.
Instead, she stared at the ceiling and pretended she couldn’t hear her machines call to her.
Shawn’s mental voice was strong, and ran as crisp as a winter river through her mind. “Go,” he said.
“I thought you were asleep,” she whispered aloud.
“You’re too noisy. You should go. Go be with them.”
She rolled over to face him. He had cut his hair himself last week and had done an awkward job of it. Someone had given him a buzz cut to tidy him up, but aggressive neurosurgery and skull-shorn hair paired poorly. She traced his scars with her fingertips, feeling the bumps and twists of the ridges of his scar tissue, and beneath that, his drowsy tangle of emotions.
“They miss you,” he said in her mind. He reached out and traced her own scars, hidden beneath her short brown hair. “I’ll miss you, too, but I want to sleep.”
“All right.” She kissed him on his shoulder, and felt him drop out of her senses as his implant went into passive mode. “I’ll be back soon.”
“Take your time,” he muttered into his pillow, his voice cut down to nothing from lack of use. “I remember having more energy after sex.”
“You remember sex when you were twenty,” she said. Their clothes were a single knot on the floor; she yanked on loose ends until she had reclaimed her pants. “We’re getting old.”
The other members of the collective slept around them, rooms and buildings and miles away. She felt them around her, off-line but still present in the back of her head, four hundred souls who shared their thoughts with her during the day but kept their dreams to themselves.
She opened the door to the crash room and stepped into her lab. It was a medical suite in name only, stuck beneath a crumbling mansion in what once had been a wine cellar. Federal funding only went so far: the government could front the costs for the cutting-edge technology that had gone into their heads, but resources for infrastructure and development? Please.
She didn’t mind. She had built her own diagnostic laboratory by scavenging equipment from storage, or buying what she couldn’t borrow. The room served double-duty as an emergency ward, but the worst injuries she saw tended to be exercise-induced, and not too many of those.
It left her plenty of time for her own projects.
Her computers whirred to life around her. There was no need for clunky access codes; they recognized her and welcomed her home.
Theirs was a woman’s voice, false and mechanical. Most days, she told herself that they couldn’t feel, that she was projecting her own eagerness to get back to work on her machines.
On nights like this, when the rest of the collective was sleeping and she was nearly alone in her own head, Jenny wasn’t so sure.
“Hello, ladies,” she said. “Ready to play?”
A human brain sprung up around her in reply.
It was lovingly rendered in greens, and enlarged ten times life-size for clarity; if she looked closely, she could see the bright flashes of synapses.
(Which was something of a comfort—it was her own brain, scanned and digitized, and independent confirmation that your own brain is active is always welcome.)
The implant rested against her parietal lobe, a small metallic sliver smaller than the head of a nail. At this resolution, she could make out the microscopic filaments connected to it; these ran throughout her brain, the majority twining into her brain stem. Heat regulation had been front and center on the developers’ own minds; without it, the cyborgs would have cooked themselves within their own skulls.
She ran her fingers through the hologram. The silvery filaments covered her holographic brain like cobwebs, shining brightly against the green.
“Ladies, overlay image JED-1 over master.”
A second brain appeared, the same general size and shape as the first but made from blues instead of greens. The opacity of the green brain diminished as the blue brain was positioned over it.
“File: Jenny Davis, late night ramblings,” she said aloud. Talking helped. Speaking directly to her computers through her implant was good for clinical analysis, but it was late, and she was tired, and it was time to purge her thoughts so she could, maybe, get some sleep.
“Thank you, ladies. Subfile: Background, general.” She began to pace around and through the hologram, checking for oddities. The blue brain was hers, too—had been hers, once, nearly seven years and an entire lifetime ago. Before the surgery, and the collective, and the alien oddness of hiveminds had all had their way with it. “Image JED-1, brain of a healthy 22-year-old Caucasian female. Ladies, highlight parietal lobe.”
A section of the hologram began to glow.
“Side by side, magnify, compare and contrast.”
The hologram divided itself again, blue and green enlarging to fill the room. She wandered through the colors, talking to her machines as she went, tracing lines and shapes and twisting flashes of—
Jenny swore aloud as her concentration shattered. Shawn flinched away from her sudden frustration and dropped to his knees.
“Oh, honey!” She knelt beside him and reached out through the link. His consciousness scurried away from hers, looking for an escape but unable to find it. “I didn’t know you were there. I’m so sorry.”
She pressed her bare hands against his bare shoulders: she pushed positive emotions—calm, peace, belonging—across the bridge of their skin until he believed it.
He uncurled, looking up at her like a lost lamb.
“I thought you were asleep,” she explained. “You scared me.”
Shawn laughed at that.
She managed to coax him off of the ground, one arm around him to keep him steady. “Here,” she said aloud. “Look. Want to see something amazing?
“This is me,” she continued, pointing to the blue hologram. “You know those tests you hate so much?”
“The brain scans?” He shuddered, and the sensation of being trapped in a tight white chamber crushed against her. Of lying as still as death, of knowing the person on the other end of the monitor was looking for what was wrong about what the core of you…
“Easy,” she whispered. “Please.”
His fear let her go, slowly. It had managed to find the cracks in her own psyche and had set itself deep—What if these brain implants stimulate tumorigenesis? Or neurodegeneration, or arteriovenous malformation, or… An almost endless list of what could go wrong…
But there was the green hologram, brand-new and still perfect, and she told herself to put those fears aside.
“Well…” she began, “you remember during orientation, when we all had full medical diagnostics done? This is a composite image from my first MRI and CT scans.”
He stretched out a hand; it passed through the hologram, layering him in a blue the color of a summer sky.
“And this is me, too,” she said, pulling the green parietal lobe towards them. “From last week. Notice the differences?”
“This,” he said, as he pointed to the bright sliver of light on the green lobe. “Obviously.”
He grinned at her. A sense of pleasure at the challenge came back to her over their link, and she turned away on the pretense of gathering up some fallen papers. Too easy to forget that Shawn had once been in the FBI, that he had once been a brilliant up-and-coming forensic artist.
That experimenting with the human mind could have consequences.
Shawn didn’t seem to notice. He moved between the holograms, sorting and poking. His own digital renders began to appear as he worked; the holograms he created were more stylized than her own, freehand sketches hanging in the air beside her still images.
“Here,” he said, once done.
She wrapped her arms around him and stood on her toes so she could rest her chin on his shoulder. His sketches were playful, with arcs of white light moving across the lobes in quick streams. In some places, they caught what she hadn’t: Shawn’s sketches moved across regions that seemed no different than the others, with—
Jenny squinted, hard. “Are those bunnies?”
She stepped away from Shawn and moved into the holograms. A tiny cartoon rabbit popped out of a fold in her green parietal lobe and scampered across her brain. That first rabbit was followed by a second, then a third…more rabbits, an infinite number of rabbits, each scurrying with purpose towards different destinations.
Not just arcs of light, then.
“There are cheetahs somewhere,” he said. “And horses, too. They don’t show up as often. I used rabbits to show the most frequent movement.”
Sure enough, a streak of light emerged across the green expanse before her. A herd of wild mustangs, manes and tails flowing together as they ran, moved in a single stream.
“Damn,” she said softly. “Baby, this is really beautiful.”
She felt his cheeks flush. “It’s just a clip from a YouTube video,” he replied. “I didn’t have time to render each horse.”
“But you drew the bunnies?”
“One of them. The rest are a copy-paste job.”
“These are neural networks,” she said, reaching out to touch the mustangs with her mind. They blurred beneath her thoughts: she hastily moved her mind away, scared she had damaged them. The herd reformed and continued its journey. “Your bunnies are action potentials. The horses—” Out of the corner of her eye, a tiny feline body bunched and shot across the hologram at an incredible speed. “—and the cheetahs are electrochemical neurotransmissions.”
He laughed aloud, a wild, coughing sound. “I can’t remember freshman biology,” he said. “All I know is that the green brain has more wildlife than the blue one. A lot more wildlife.”
“That’s because the implant’s been changing us.”
White light in her head, so bright and sudden it took her a moment to realize her words had stunned him. Shawn stood, motionless, before he turned and fled to the comfortable darkness of the crash room.
“Oh, no, no, Shawn honey…” Jenny hurried after him. If he managed to make it under the bed, he’d be there for the rest of the week. She reached him in time to lay both hands flat on his back and pushed—calm, belonging, peace—across their joined skin.
He let her pull him away from the bed, but no further. They huddled on the floor in a sad, uncomfortable pile, and she felt a spot on the knee of her jeans grow damp.
Shawn was crying.
“There’s always some good that comes with change,” she said gently.
He looked up at her, eyes wide and desperate, before curling in on himself again.
“You didn’t break. You got a little bent, but… Here,” she said. “Come back to the lab. I want to show you something.”
Bad days turned him mulish, but this was a good day: she was able to coax him off the floor and as far as the doorway. They stood in the void between rooms, cold tile beneath their toes and warm carpet under their heels, as the holograms spun before them.
Jenny pointed. “You said you noticed how there was more wildlife in the green brain?”
“That’s because our brains—this part of our brains, anyhow—is more active than it was before we got the implant. No, not just active—it’s thriving! Want to guess why?”
His attention was fixed on the holograms, but the easy scorn of an eyeroll passed between them.
“Humor me,” she said. “I’m going to have to explain this to people who aren’t in the collective at some point. Help me find the right words for this.”
“Because we’re using our brains in new ways,” Shawn replied, his mood pulling itself a little higher. “Talking via a link, or this—” he said, and pushed sensations at her.
Unseen fur, coarse but soft, surrounded her hands. Beneath that was the heat from a living body. With these came the memory of a beloved family dog, long dead but not forgotten.
“Exactly,” she said, blinking back her own tears at the loss of a pet she had never met. “We’re the first humans to have been augmented in this way. It’s causing us to think and act differently. We’ve got these new skills that we’re just beginning to put to use. We’re barely seven years into this experiment, and there’s already observable growth in the parietal lobe. Can you imagine what we’ll be able to do after—”
“Wait, Jenny, wait. Brains grow? Don’t we… I thought we started shedding brain mass once we turned eighteen.”
“That’s Hollywood science,” she said. “Outdated and chock full of errors, but it still fits the script. The reality is…”
—rabbits, horses, and giant cats, speeding over an expanse of green in endless knots of light—
“The reality is, we’re miracles,” she said to him. “Human beings weren’t meant to be networked together. We shouldn’t have the ability to survive as part of a collective, but we do. We change—we grow. We’ve barely begun to understand how we can do any of this, but the more we learn, the more we can use that to grow.”
Shawn broke away from her and stepped into the lab. Greens and blues moved around him, coloring him in a digital sea. He was still naked; the scars across his wrists were nearly as white as the glowing animals.
“What about me?”
“I’m not…” Shawn’s hands clenched uselessly. “I’m not who I used to be. Does this mean I can go back to how I was, or will I…”
He opened his hands and let his mind pour into hers.
Memories. All of them, from the moment that his own mind broke under the weight of a new reality to living in the fear of staying as he was, unable to change, unable to grow, a roller coaster of emotions that threatened to tip off of the rails—
Too much: she cried out. Shawn lost focus: the memories faded.
Her world rebuilt itself in pieces. The floor came first: she had fallen to her knees. She concentrated on the patterns in the tile until she found the walls. Where there was a floor and walls, there was a ceiling…
Shawn hadn’t noticed. “Is this me?” he asked. “This?! From now on?”
She closed her eyes and thought about impossible conversations. Then: “Ladies?”
The holograms stopped spinning.
“Replace current images with new holographic display. Show SEF-1 and SEF-46, parietal lobes only. Side-by-side comparisons.”
Blues and greens vanished; blues and greens returned. To the untrained eye, nothing had changed; the wildlife was gone, but the silvery rectangle was still there on the green brain, and the same flashes of light chased itself in purposeful patterns across both.
“Here,” she said, as she joined Shawn in the center of the room. “This is you. Your earliest scans are blue, and the most recent scans are green.”
He stared up at the twisting holograms. She felt his attention dart across the details, focusing like a laser on anything distinctive or different…
“They look just like yours,” he finally admitted.
“That’s the problem, baby.” Jenny pulled him close. “If you had typical neurological damage, it’d show up on the scans. Whatever happened to you, it’s…harder to find.”
“Why?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” she replied. “Mental illness can be caused by emotional, psychological, or physiological events, or a combination of these. We’re just beginning to scratch the surface of the causes of known disorders. Since your condition is almost unique, we’re flying blind.”
Sorrow. Loss. Anger—You’re a doctor! Why can’t you fix what’s wrong with me?!—and fear.
So much fear.
“We’ll get there,” she promised, as she pushed her own fear down below where she could feel it. “You’re responding well to medication and therapy. It’ll take time, and trial-and-error, and…and more tests, I’m sorry. None of this is easy, but we’ll make it work.
“You might never get back to who you used to be,” she admitted, as his heart hammered in her head. “But that doesn’t mean you can’t get to where you want to be, now.”
“I can do more tests,” he said quietly, even as the white chamber rose up again in his mind.
Together, they held their fears away.