“Pupusas?” The woman’s nasal voice reached Randall at the back of the bus before he saw her pushing her way down the aisle. He could smell the warm, raw meat smell of his own sweaty body, and his stomached wriggled. He was hungry, but he couldn’t face mysterious little bits of meat.
“Quiere pupusas?” the voice called again, and Randall saw the plump figure with her plastic tub approach his seat.
“Frijol?” he asked, his high school Spanish failing him for a full sentence.
“Si,” the woman answered. “Frijol y queso.”
“Dos, por favor,” Randall said, and fished in his pocket for a crumpled bill. The woman passed him a paper envelope of warm dough that smelled pleasantly of mild spice and cheese, and he gave her the money. She dug into the frilly, ribboned apron she wore over her cheap nylon shorts and gave him a handful of change.
“Pupusas?” she continued to hector the remaining passengers on the bus, before exiting from the back doors just as the bus lurched away.
Randall ate his warm snack carefully, grateful that they were not so hot as to leak runny beans and cheese all over himself. The corn flour dough was barely warm to the touch, but the filling was good and his stomach momentarily stopped its gurgling. Randall had been riding the garishly painted repurposed school bus for about an hour, heading south, heading away from what anywhere he thought of as civilization. His pupusas gone, Randall leaned his head against the metal side of the bus, and tried to relax.
Brian Randall was a name that wasn’t famous in the way a screen actor’s name might be famous, but he had several thousand online followers, and he couldn’t go to a conference or industry party without a dozen or more fans tagging along after him. He was the first to admit that he loved the attention. He’d enjoyed a good success with several of his online ventures, and the following was one of the perks of this success. Of course, the money was a strong motivator, too. But Randall would have developed cute little gadgets and toys for the online market even if people hadn’t been willing to pay his way. Indeed, he spent the first several years of his career working out of a dumpy apartment in the Bay area, with a pair of equally bookish roommates, coding day and night for the sheer thrill of it. Brian Randall was a natural.
He first struck it big with a tool he called the all in one reader. Once he sold it to Google, their marketing people rebranded it Google Summary. It really was ingenious: you could feed the service any kind of file, and it would output a shockingly sensible summary of it. It was not terribly revolutionary for text files, but it worked just as well on audio or video. And much more interesting for the development set, you could upload a piece of code in any of the popular languages, and it would give a text description of what the code would do. What it did with images was much less useful, but absolutely fascinating. Randall had made certain that the output on image files was always exactly one thousand words.
Randall could have lived easily on the sum he earned from the sale of the product, but he still had more ideas. He moved out of the cramped apartment, got a fancy set of digs of his own, and started noodling. After the Summary sale, he was asked to speak at one of the major tech conferences in the Bay Area, and there he got his first taste of fame. He had only just arrived at the exposition hall, and was picking up his conference package, when a tall, attractive young man approached him.
“Are you Brian Randall?” the man asked, a shy smile on his face.
“Yes,” Randall said, wondering if there had been a problem with his registration or something.
“The Brian Randall,” the man continued, “of the all in one reader?”
Randall smiled to hear his own name for the technology. “That’s me,” he said. “You can just call me Randall.”
“Wow,” the other man gushed. “I’m such a fan of your work. My name is Chick Hernandez.” He stuck out his hand, and Randall shook it. “Can I interview you for my blog?”
Randall laughed, and said, “Sure, why not?” They exchanged email addresses and IM handles, and met that night for a beer after dinner. Chick blogged between rounds. After Randall’s talk the next day, Chick Hernandez was the envy of all the major tech bloggers for the scoop. Randall left the conference with at least fifty more entries in his contact list.
Unlike many hotshot web developers, Randall kept his output up, and had something cool in the pipeline at any given time. In five years he had never missed a spot at the podium at one of the major events, and he’d never had to buy a single drink at any that he attended. Many of his fans had become friends and some even had proved to be good business partners on various projects.
It got to the point that there were few places in the Bay area or the valley that Randall could go without being recognized. He wasn’t a theatre lover or an opera fan, or he might have had some peace. What Randall loved was technology, and his business was also his hobby. Everywhere he went, someone knew his name.
However, Randall was happy to put up with a little lack of privacy in exchange for the opportunity to meet so many people. He always carried the latest cell phone as well as the speediest and tiniest computer available. Even when he was working on a project, he’d have one window open with an IM conversation and be plugging away at emails. For the first time in his life he was popular, and Brian Randall loved it.
It was at one of the few conferences he attended that never asked him to speak that Randall met Ellen Baines. She was on a panel discussion about the ethics of cyborgism and as soon as she started to speak, Randall understood a lot more about his fans than he had before. She was utterly fascinating to him. She was challenging one of her co-panelists who argued that merging human biology with mechanical contrivances should be outlawed as wanting to close the barn door after the horses have bolted.
“Anyone who wears glasses, has a prosthetic limb or a pacemaker – heck, even a boob job,” she paused for the guaranteed sophomoric laugh, “any one of these people is already a cyborg. Sure, we need to be careful going forward, just as we already are careful with any medical procedure. But we shouldn’t stop human evolutionary progress just because we’ve seen too many cheesy science fiction movies.” She got an even bigger laugh, her co-panelist turned a light shade of crimson, and Randall was enthralled. He determined to meet her.
Randall was accustomed to people seeking him out, and at first was at a loss as to how he should go about tracking her down. After he’d given up just wandering the halls of the hotel where the conference was being held, he eventually posted a message on one of the social networks he used. “At Sci/Tech. Looking for Ellen Baines. Anyone know where she is?”
Within two minutes, he had replies from a half dozen other attendees, indicating that she was at a wine and cheese sponsored by a pharmaceutical company that was trying to market a new crop of smart drugs. Randall made a bee line for the suite. He had the room number, but once he got to the right floor of the hotel, he just followed the sounds of drunken conference attendees. He had been to enough of these kinds of things to know what to expect – just about anything. Nerds were surprisingly good party-goers.
This affair was relatively tame as these kinds of things went. There was an open bar, so the crowd was nicely lubricated, but everyone had all their clothes on and the furniture was still intact, if not in its usual places. Randall picked a microbrew out of the ice filled cooler on the kitchenette’s counter, and looked around the packed suite for Ellen Baines. He was stopped only once by a short, thin woman who asked him some questions about his latest project. Randall was polite, giving the woman a few minutes and about half his attention, before nicely but firmly moving on. He had spotted Baines in a corner, sipping a microbrew out of the bottle and talking to a owl-faced man about twice her age.
He waited patiently near her, and listened to the conversation. “The headset trials really are amazing,” the man was saying. “Do you think there will be a practical application for the technology soon?”
Ellen Baines laughed. “I can’t possibly comment on that, Clive,” she said. “Non-disclosure agreement,” she added, a mock serious tone in her voice. “But between us, we are close to something that’s going to make these headsets look like those brick size car phones from the eighties. Give us a few years, and there could be some serious developments, indeed.” Randall sensed a natural pause in their conversation and took his opportunity.
“Excuse me,” he said to them both, then turned to face Baines. “I heard your talk today and was blown away. You destroyed those other guys on the panel.”
She laughed again, and Randall noticed that the sound was particularly pleasing. “I don’t know about that,” she said, “but I’m glad you liked what I had to say.” She glanced down at Randall’s name tag, and a slight frown appeared on her face. “Brian Randall,” she said, her voice a question.
Randall stuck out his hand for her to shake, and said, apologetically, “You won’t have heard of me; I’m just an interested amateur here.”
“No,” Baines said. “I’m sure I have heard of you. You’re big on the Web, aren’t you?”
Randall laughed, and said, “That’s pretty accurate. I should get that printed on a tee shirt.” He named a couple of his recent projects and Ellen’s eyes lit up.
“I knew I knew you from somewhere,” she said, and took a step back. She stretched, and Randall didn’t notice her eyes travel the length of his body. “Say, you want to blow this joint? I know a really good pub not far from this hotel; we can walk it.”
Randall beamed, and discovered that his heart was thrumming.
They talked until the ugly lights came on in the bar. Randall learned that Ellen Baines was Dr. Ellen Baines, the same researcher who had made a breakthrough in perfecting Direct Neural Control – the ‘headset trials’ that she had been talking about at the drug company party. She had devised a system where a human user could control any modern off the shelf computer without the need for an input device. They just needed to put on her specially designed headset, plug in a USB dongle to the computer, calibrate the input and then think their commands. After a pitcher of beer, she divulged to Randall that the patents were approved and she was in the final stages of negotiation with Motorola. She expected to see the first product on the shelves within a year.
“That’s unbelievable,” Randall said. “It’s going to revolutionize computing.”
“I know,” Ellen said. “But just wait till you see what’s coming next,” she added cryptically.
“What?” Randall asked, almost breathless.
“Another pitcher!” Ellen said loudly, in the direction of the bartender, and laughed that tinkly sound that Randall was becoming more and more enchanted by. When that pitcher, and the one after it were gone, and the bartender was ushering them out the door, Ellen turned to Randall and said, “So, what’s it going to be? Your room or mine?”
Surprisingly, after the conference, Randall and Ellen continued to see each other. She lived and worked in Berkeley, and after six months of one or other of them driving across the bridge to see each other, Randall sold his condo in the city and moved into a huge loft in Berkeley. By the time the next Sci/Tech conference rolled around, Ellen had moved in.
Randall worried that Ellen would be like the other women he had dated seriously, that she would begrudge him his online friends and expect him to pay more attention to her once they shared living space. After a month, though, he knew he’d finally found the perfect woman.
Randall still worked out of the condo, forcing himself to leave once a day for a quick walk around the neighbourhood. Most nights Ellen worked late at the lab, but since Randall often lost track of time when he was working, he rarely noticed her late returns to the condo. They would share a late dinner of take out, talking about their various projects. If they didn’t watch a DVD on the wide screen or go out with friends, they would both naturally gravitate to their laptops. Often they found themselves next to each other on the couch, talking to each other over IM rather than out loud. They were two of a kind.
It was a Tuesday night, about quarter to seven. Randall hadn’t even turned on his worklight yet, and was starting to squint at his laptop’s screen, when his IM client chirped. It was Ellen, still at the lab.
“It works!!” Her message was short and sweet.
“As good as the headset?” Randall asked, his own work momentarily forgotten.
“Yes. Better! Faster.” Ellen’s quick responses betrayed her excitement. She typically made a point to use full sentences even in IM conversations.
“Will you be long?” Randall asked.
“No. I’m done for the day now. We should celebrate tonight.”
“I’ll make reservations.”
It was nearly nine o’clock when they were shown to a table at Marcellino’s, their favourite special occasion restaurant. “Two pints of Guinness, please,” Ellen ordered as they were seated, and then excitedly turned to Randall. “There’s no doubt about it,” she said, grinning. “The implants work perfectly.”
“No side effects?” Randall asked.
“Nothing other than the usual – one subject had a minor infection after the surgery, and there’s the usual two percent who couldn’t handle the interface, but that was the same with the headset.” Ellen grinned and smiled up at the waiter who had reappeared with a pair of pints. She took hers and lifted it up toward Randall. He clinked his pint glass against hers and they each took a long sip. “Here’s to the newest breakthrough in computer hardware.”
“Don’t underestimate yourself, sweetie,” Randall said. “This could be the next step in human evolution.” His cheeks were flushed and he was breathing harder than would seem necessary for only lifting a beer glass from table to mouth. “When is it going to be ready for humans?”
Ellen’s smile faltered, and she put her beer glass down. “Ah, the other side of innovation,” she said, sourly. “It’s ready now,” she continued, bitterness coming through her voice clearly. “But it could take months, maybe even years, for the testing to be completed to the government’s satisfaction.” She pursed her lips. “I don’t know how long it could be before there’s a commercial model available. Probably a couple of years before the FDA are through with it.”
Randall took a sip of his beer, and thought. “But if it weren’t for all the testing, how soon could we be using it?” he asked.
Ellen’s face took on that look that Randall knew well, as she calculated all the variables in her head. “Well, the interface is no problem; that’s the same as the headset and we know humans have fewer problems learning the interface than the simian subjects. And we’ve been using surgical quality materials for the test cases already. In theory it should be plug and play. Of course, we’ll need to do a few neurological tests and verify anti-rejection features, but honestly,” she looked up at Randall. “I’d say a couple of months.”
Randall smiled. “Let’s get an appetizer,” he said, opening his menu. “Carpaccio?”
Randall had been worried that Ellen would have some kind of ethical concerns, but he realized that he should have known better. She was so much like him that it was often eerie. As soon as he proposed his plan, she was behind the project one hundred percent. The only snag they hit was finding an assistant. Ellen was a fine surgeon, but she knew from her work with the test subjects that it took at least two people to perform an implant. Obviously, neither she nor Randall were willing to risk a mistake. That meant finding an accomplice.
“Your grad students would do anything for you,” Randall said one night, as they sat next to each other on the sofa, each of them idly surfing the web while an old tv show played on the widescreen.
Ellen snorted. “It seems that way,” she said, “but you’d be surprised how much backstabbing goes on in the labs. And even I wouldn’t have participated in something like this as a grad student or a postdoc. Any kind of fuck up at this stage of their careers, and the future is over. Even a hint of scandal would kill their prospects.” She looked over at Randall. “No, we can’t volunteer one of the kids.”
“Damn,” Randall said. They had spent some part of each day for the previous two weeks trying to figure out how to find someone reliable, trustworthy and competent to help Ellen implant one of her devices in Randall’s head. “I wish we could just google for mad scientists,” Randall said. “I’m sure we’d find a wacky brain surgeon out there somewhere who’d help us out.”
“I don’t know if I like that implication. I am not a mad scientist,” Ellen said, trying to sound offended. “More like a mad engineer, I think you’ll find.” Randall laughed. “Besides,” she continued, serious now, “it’s not neurosurgery at all. The implant is actually affixed to the skull, and the interface to the brain is effected through electromagnetic…”
“Okay, okay,” Randall said, “I know, already.” He paused for a moment, then turned to face Ellen. “That’s it!”
“We don’t need a surgeon at all,” he said, his voice rising. “We need a tech.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean I think I’ve solved our problem.”
“Ellen, meet Skippy.” Randall sat at a table in a dive bar in his old neighbourhood in San Francisco, with his girlfriend on one side and his old roommate on the other. The other man had the poor complexion and pallor of someone who spent more than a normal amount of time indoors and who maintained a less than perfect diet. He grinned at Ellen, and stuck out a thin hand to her. She took his hand and shook it, and glanced at Randall warily.
“Skippy is the best tech I’ve ever known. I once saw him fix a cold solder joint in less than a minute with one eye closed.”
“I was kinda fucked up at the time,” Skippy said, remembering. “I couldn’t see the fucking thing with both eyes open. Kept moving around, the bastard circuit board did.”
“It was a circuit board?” Ellen asked, turning to face Skippy.
“Yeah,” Skippy said. “Your old phone, wasn’t it, Randall?”
Randall beamed at Ellen. “I told you,” he said. “No one can screw, solder, file or otherwise fiddle with tiny electronics like old Skip here.”
“So,” Skippy said, his eyes darting between the two of them. “What’s the project?”
Despite Ellen’s reservations, the procedure was a stunning success. Skippy was, to Ellen’s great surprise, entirely professional once he had a tool in his hand. He was unfazed by the blood and issue surrounding his work surface and he was as fast and precise as Randall had described. Ellen found herself marvelling at the man’s sangfroid as he attached the tiny device to Randall’s skull with minute surgical steel screws.
Randall’s recuperation was fast and in less than a week he was ready to try the device for the first time. “It can be a bit disorienting at first,” Ellen warned, picking up the small remote control device which activated the implant.
“I’ve practiced with the headsets,” Randall reminded her. “They were comfortable enough.”
“This might not be exactly the same,” Ellen admitted. “We can’t be sure how you will react.”
Randall grinned at her. “You can’t be chickening out now,” he said.
“I’m just trying to be careful,” she said, defensively. “You are the first human subject, after all. The monkeys don’t exactly give us a lot of subjective data.”
Randall smiled, and kissed Ellen. “Thanks for worrying about me,” he said, and she flushed. “Let’s kick the tires and light the fires.”
It wasn’t like the headset after all. Randall was amazed as a flood of sensation seemed to flow into his vision. He could see what appeared to be his laptop’s screen in front of his eyes, superimposed over his normal vision. The headset’s interface had been similar, but the control over his computer was so much faster, now, it was almost an extension of his thoughts. He found that he was often unable to fully recognize that he was having a thought before the implant carried out the instruction. He was editing code, reading email and having IM conversations as the speed of thought. He barely noticed Ellen’s hand on his shoulder until she spoke aloud. “So?” her voice was thick with concern and anticipation. “How is it?”
“It’s…” Randall struggled for the words to explain the experience. “It’s… strong. Powerful.” He opened his eyes, without realizing that he had closed them. “This is the most amazing thing I’ve ever done.” Ellen beamed and kissed him. “You’ve done it,” he said, awe in his voice. “You’ve made history.”
The first two weeks with the implant were not that different for Randall. He was faster and much more responsive online, and his coding was quicker, but it took him a while to realize the major advantage of the implant. He could finally be doing as many things with his computer as he could think of. He really could be fixing a bug, checking email and chatting at once. Not switching windows really quickly, but actually simultaneously. His computer no longer could just multitask on background tasks – he could input multiple commands at the same time.
For the first time since he sold the all in one reader, Randall consistently had no unread email. For the first time in his adult life, he even hardly ever had email he still needed to deal with. He was able to talk to people, to compose messages and to work at the speed of thought. His output increased exponentially, and his participation in his online social life went up as well.
Soon, he had moved all his work to online servers, and he gave up the tether to the laptop entirely. The implant would connect to any network available, and he could move seamless between them, working all the while. “I’m a fucking Superman,” he said to Ellen one night, as he stared vacantly toward the widescreen, his eyes flicking back and forth as he worked. He took the effort to focus on the physical world and looked at her. “This is unbelievable,” he said, taking her hands in his. “It’s like I’m, I don’t know, swimming in the internet or something.”
“It really is amazing how much more you can do, now,” Ellen said, her voice filled with equal parts awe and pride. “You still need to sleep, though,” she said, closing her own laptop and standing up from the couch.
“I’ll just be a few more minutes,” Randall said, his eyes glazing over again as Ellen walked off to the bedroom.
Ellen wondered when Randall had slept last. It was just over a month since they had done the implant, and the community had noticed that Randall’s online activity had spiked well beyond what a single human could manage. There was plenty of speculation – that he had impostors, that he had hired staff for either the work or the socialization or both. A few who knew of Ellen’s work and Randall’s relationship with her had come closer to the truth, but none of that bothered Ellen. Randall’s behaviour, on the other hand, was bothering her a great deal.
He rarely bothered to fully focus on the real world anymore. He had gotten able to navigate the physical world through the veil of the implant’s visuals, and he could be relied upon to eat without dropping food all over himself. He even could go the the grocery store without seeming to pay attention to it. Those trips were becoming surreal, as he offered a running commentary on each item from various online sources: prices from competing stores, ingredient lists, fast facts from Wikipedia on the parent company. More disturbing was that these weekly trips had developed their own strange fan club. Randall posted his findings online in real time, as he did with most things now. Ellen would be picking through the avocados while Randall chatted with a half dozen foodies around the world about her choices.
After one of these bizarre outings, they were putting the groceries away when Ellen finally decided she had to say something. “Randall,” she began, and winced as he didn’t even bother to turn toward he when he said, “yeah?”
She reached over and touched him on the shoulder, and he jumped as he usually did now when she touched him. “Randall,” she repeated, “could you focus for a second? It’s important.”
“Okay,” he said, and turned toward her. Ellen watched has he tried twice to focus on her face. He finally managed to force his attention on her, and said, “Here I am.”
“Randall,” she said. “You know that of everyone in the world, I am the last person to complain about you working so hard. And it’s fair to say that I want the implant to be a success as much, if not more than you do. But there’s something wrong here. You can’t even pay attention to the real world for five minutes. You’re different now, and I’m not sure you even know it.”
“Oh, I know it,” Randall said. “But I can’t turn it off. Hell, I don’t want to turn it off. How can I explain this?” He rubbed his head with his hands, and looked surprised to see a sheen of sweat come off on his fingers. “It’s like sitting in a lecture hall full of smart people, and everyone is trying to talk to me at the same time. Before, all I could do was ignore the noise and try to find some kind of signal in it all, a single voice to focus on. Now, it’s like I can perfectly hear every individual voice, every question. Everyone is available to me now. Time is no obstacle to getting things done, to having a conversation.” Ellen saw as Randall’s focus wavered for a few seconds then came back. “It’s so hard to stop listening,” he said, and sat down at the kitchen table. “So hard.”
Neither of them spoke for a long time. Finally, Ellen broke the silence. “Do you want to stop?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” Randall said.
It turned out that it didn’t matter what Randall wanted. In another two weeks, he had given up the pretence of living a regular life. He never went to bed, just napped briefly whenever he tired. He hardly got up off the couch, and without Ellen’s daily deliveries of food, he might never have eaten. He rarely left the condo; Ellen had to force him out the door for the weekly groceries, and even then it required the combined cajoling of his online fans to get him to agree.
They both knew that the experiment was a failure, but there was no easy way to reverse it. One night when Randall’s online conversations were unusually quiet, he was able to focus almost entirely on Ellen. They talked.
“Is it even possible to remove the thing now?” he asked, his voice quiet.
“I don’t know,” Ellen admitted. “There would be a lot more trauma to the skull than there was putting it in. We would really need a proper surgeon this time.” She paused, and avoided Randall’s gaze. “And psychologically…” Her voice trailed off.
“I might not be able to readjust,” Randall finished. “I know, it’s hard enough to focus now. Even when I just have the visuals on low, I feel disconnected. I can’t even imagine life with it gone.”
“But you can’t continue like this,” Ellen said, feeling her chin start to quiver. “You’re going to kill yourself if you get any more… disconnected.”
Randall’s eyelids fluttered, as he fought to remain focussed on her. “I know,” he said. “I can’t make myself stop and I can’t turn it off.” He closed his eyes, and took a deep breath. “I’ll just have to go cold turkey.”
Ellen gasped. “I’m not opening up your head again without knowing what will happen.”
“You won’t have to,” Randall said. “I’ve got a plan.” He stood up and, visibly fighting to stay focussed on the condo. He packed a suitcase.
It was hard staying focussed long enough to get bus tickets and find motel rooms. But after a couple of days on the road, Randall was getting better at it. Once he crossed the border into Tijuana, he even managed to find the odd place where he was offline; places with no wireless, no cell coverage. But it never lasted, and he was forced to keep moving. He had no destination, just an old triple-A road map and a plan. South. Once he got far enough south, he could be away from the distractions and become himself again. He could have the thing removed once he was used to real life again.
The bus went over a bump in the road and the total lack of suspension jolted Randall awake. His mouth felt gummy and tasted like day old beans. He mopped a hand over his dripping forehead, and winced as the bus driver’s buddy hollered, “Arco, Arco, Arco. Zacate, Zacate!” Randall yawned, and blinked his eyes against the glaring sun streaming though the window. This might be it, he thought. Nothing for a few hours. Maybe I can find a way to call Ellen, get her to come down and get it done. Maybe it will be over soon.
The bus slowed down by a roadside restaurant that was little more than a wood cookstove on the dirt and a few plastic tables and chairs. As passengers jostled past each other, vying with people selling everything from aspirin to knives to chocolate candies, Randall felt his stomach drop between his knees. He heard a familiar and now horrifying ping inside his head. A light blue film seemed to cover his eyes, and words scrolled over his vision.
“Message from astroman23: hey man! good to c u online. where u been? we all miss u.”
© M. Darusha Wehm