This is a novel about a team of scientists who develop, use and try to sell iPlants. I add new material whenever it's ready and occasionally I go back and change things (last update: 8 January 2015). Unwritten chapters are outlined in the text. Please send comments and questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. The text is licensed under a Creative Commons License (Attribution - NonCommercial - ShareAlike). --Christopher Harris
References: R = academic, L = website
- "I am still your body, you're just a brain! You have no right..!"
- "A brain with electronic motivation," Meg whispered.
Her body roared in protest, in its own way, as her muscles filled with lactic acid. Meg pressed on. It hurt, but the pain was part of her running, and she wanted to run. She'd been running non-stop for almost two hours on the big treadmill in the lab. The network of neurons that maintained her posture and drove her legs, arms and lungs was lean, mean and optimized. With every step, pressure-sensors in her shoes activated powerfully motivating electrodes implanted deep in her brain; honing, shaping, supporting and reinforcing the neuronal network and its ceaseless muscle contractions. Interruption was impossible, tiredness irrelevant. Even pain was part of the purpose, part of her strength, her will, her artificial motivation.
Lucy stood at the door, watching her.
- "It's time," she called.
- "Nooo," Meg groaned.
- "It's time."
- "Fuck!" Meg shouted and punched the treadmill's big stop button.
The machine started to slow down, and for a moment Meg found herself trying to keep it going, pressing her hands against the railing and pushing her feet against the decelerating rubber sheet, harder and harder, the neural network in her refusing to disassemble, even though the link was lost, the sensors in her shoes inactive.
- "Wow," she gasped, between strained gulps of air, and stopped. "Wow."
She released the railing, jumped off the edge of the treadmill and stomped both feet hard against the floor, putting all her weight and strength into it, but the electrodes in her brain were silent. She groaned again and collapsed on the floor. Lucy watched her from the door.
- "You ok?" she asked.
Meg rolled over on her back, spread-eagle, and lay panting, staring at the ceiling.
The Great Binge [R] refers to the years ca. 1870 to 1918, when Western civilization consumed more addictive drugs than ever before or since. During that time, Bayer, the maker of Aspirin, was in the business of marketing another painkiller, which they called 'Heroin'. Asthmatics and fussy babies were given opium; eight drops for newborns and twenty-five drops for five-year-olds, the bottle said. Wine fortified with coca leaves was recommended not by one but by two Holy Fathers in Rome. Coca-Cola contained actual cocaine.
At the turn of the following century, something vaguely similar was taking place. By this time, as internet and mobile phones spread to all corners of the world, scientists had found the spot in the brain, the 'reward system' [R,L], that is the common target of all addictive drugs - and indeed, of all things desirable - and surgeons were busy stimulating it with brain implants [R,R,R,L]. Not blindly you understand, but with great care and patience, in order to alleviate a range of anxieties, depressions and troubles of the mind. If you set the electrical currents just right, patients would leave the hospital relaxed and warm at heart, without becoming euphoric and wild like that one unfortunate man who divorced his wife, sold his house, bought a boat, quit his job and got as far as the south Atlantic before hospital staff and local authorities caught up with him and convinced him to return to the hospital bed for a fine-tuning of his implant. Mildly habit-forming, attention-boosting stimulants like Ritalin, Adderall and Modafinil were also becoming increasingly popular, among children and adults alike [R]. To gently massage the addictive spot in the brain was the name of the game, not to binge on its juices like the people of the previous century, with their crude narcotics; not when addiction, hangovers, comedowns, and failing health was the price to pay. To buzz the reward system gently, precisely and consistently, until you felt sharp, good, motivated and effective - that was the new aim. We might refer to these years at the beginning of the 21st century as The Great Buzz.
But then, one day, a Canadian surgeon had an idea. His name was Anders Tinberg, of Montreal General Hospital, one of the many neurosurgeons who specialized in electrical stimulation of the reward system [L]. Anders had been working for many months with an extremely obese patient, trying to buzz her out of her apathy and depression so she could loose a few hundred pounds before her heart gave out. The treatment just wasn't working and the woman - Miriam - remained big as a house. The gentle pulse of the chip in her head did make her feel better, she said, but she still lacked the impulse to change her ways; her two daily litres of lemonade remained profoundly necessary; the sturdy exercise bike her insurance had afforded her was still an anathema. Indeed, with her anxiety more or less relieved she seemed if possible even less motivated now than she had been when she had first been referred to him. Anders feared for her life and, should she die, for his yearly patient outcome evaluation.
'But what if,' Anders thought, 'what if I crank up the current of her implant whenever she's biking? What if I pull it up from the recommended contentment at 3 volts [R] to mild euphoria at 4.5 volts if and only if she's using that blasted bike?' Wouldn't that give her the motivation to exercise that she so urgently needed? Anders paced around his small office as the idea expanded. He would have to convince the Review Board, especially Mike... but the small hospital was crowded with patients who desperately needed to get out of bed and onto an exercise machine. Miriam was clever and open-minded, funny even, despite her depression; she wouldn't hesitate. The trick would be convincing Mike and the others that the new approach was in Miriam's best interest. She already had the chip in place, all Anders had to do was to increase the current whenever she was biking. Or better still, he would connect her implant to the bike, so that turning the pedals activated the implant directly. Yes, that was clean; he wouldn't have to stand there toggling her implant while she biked, like some judgemental parent. He sat down at his computer again, excited, and began drafting the legal agreement they would all have to sign.
It worked splendidly. A year later Miriam had lost over 80 pounds and Anders was both famous and infamous. The procedure had sparked a storm of media attention and public discussion, with no small bit of outrage at such blatant use of 'mind-control'. But Miriam was recovering her health, seemingly without complications or side-effects, and in the eyes of many, including his fellow surgeons, Anders was a star; a brazen audacious star who had taken a huge risk, gambled his reputation, and won. He was asked to lead a clinical trial involving fourteen patients like Miriam, and the race was on to beat other teams across the world to publications, patents and prestige. An Israeli group soon published an account of two elderly gentlemen who were artificially motivated to use a treadmill, a rowing-machine, and - this one surprised everyone - to play basket-ball for hours on end; each ball through the opponent's hoop triggering a strong pulse of motivation and pleasure to course through the winner's brain. And now that the insurance lobby in the United States had subdued the initial Congressional resistance to the procedure, the vast pool of American patients and resources would accelerate the race further. Then there were all those recent advances in computer-assisted surgery...
The sudden emergence of land below shook me out of my reminiscence. I'd been staring out through the window of the plane for what felt like an hour, watching the clouds and the sun playing on the surface of the sea below. I looked around. Across the aisle a few seats ahead Meg and Ike were hunched over a laptop, arguing in hushed tones and pointing at the screen. They were toying, I knew, with a mouse-sized robot [L] currently zipping around between the legs and bags of passengers, underneath the seats. Lucy was asleep in the window-seat next to them. We were on our way to Canada to meet with Anders Tinberg.
- "Your red shoes are lovely!" a voice squeaked, somewhere a few seats ahead of me. A woman's head disappeared from view.
- "Kurt. Kurt!" The woman shook her sleeping husband. Ike and Meg choked with suppressed laughter.
I was glad to see the two of them finally getting along, or rather, to see Meg showing Ike anything other than distrust and hostility. In the two months since I hired her she'd been cordial with me and occasionally even warm, in her own way, but she had taken an instant dislike to Ike. He on the other hand had gone out of his way to create reasons for the two of them to interact, and with the mouse-sized robot he seemed to have finally had some success. It was a hard-to-get, early developer version of an eagerly awaited hobbyist product out of South Korea. In the last week the two of them had opened it up and reconfigured it with cables and soldering irons, and Meg had re-written its brain, making it impressively autonomous. That sort of thing, after all, had been her line of business for years.
I realized then that I was doing it again; gathering a team of people with some, shall we say, aggressive tendencies, and then relinquishing whatever authority I hold as team leader in favor instead trying to make everyone close friends. In my previous position this been a reasonable way of doing things. Our boss had died unexpectedly in a car accident, and the university, unable to find a replacement, made me the youngest team leader in the history of the department. A few years later when we formed the company, aGEN, I became CEO, but the team was still the same rowdy group of buddies that had gotten drunk together as students and roamed the streets dressed as zombies on Halloween.
And things had gone very well then. Our performance, my performance as team leader, was why De hired me to lead this new team, the iPlant team. aGEN had specialized in personalized gerontogenetics; linking the genetic information of customers to their life-expectancy and hooking suitable candidates up with clinical trials around the world. We were quite successful, attracted media attention, and I like to think we contributed to the new take many young people have on aging these days; a challenge to be overcome, in time, rather than a necessary fact of life. But when a larger genomics company proposed to buy us, I decided to take the offer and get out. I loved the team, but the slow pace of medical research was making me depressed.
Was I trying to recreate my old team, now that I'd found a project where lack of pace was not an issue? It might be a bad way of doing things. These were different people. Also, I was older now; six years older than Ike and almost eight ahead of Meg. I had publications and patents; hell, Lucy was the only one of the three who had a PhD! And, strange though it felt to admit it, I was rich, now that the dividends from aGEN had finally been paid out, whereas to the three of them the modest iPlant salary was a godsend.
And then the aggression... Even Lucy, who was a straight-shooter compared to the other two, had physical violence on her record. Lucy's interest in neuroscience had begun at sixteen when she first started taking the pill. The drug had a profound effect on her. It ended a two year struggle in which she'd suffered pronounced menstrual mood-swings; disorienting and embarrassing and deeply frustrating. She simply hadn't known that contraceptive pills can sometimes have a dramatic and positive effect on mood. Understanding that effect became an obsession. Having put only minimal effort to school previously, she immersed herself in projects on the female reproductive cycle and went on to read biology at university. But in the months before the pill stabilized her hormones at that permanent, relieving high she'd got into a number of fights, and at one point broken the nose of a boy in her class. She had been reprimanded and moved to a different class, and it was blind luck that the incident had not occurred two months later, after her sixteenth birthday, when the consequences would have been much more severe.
Meg and Ike had not been so lucky. Meg had been a juvenile delinquent, and had at one point spent a month in a detention center for hitting a man over the head with a beer-bottle. She had a second, suspended sentence involving computer intrusion, which had been settled out of court. And Ike, well... I thought back to what had happened two weeks earlier and half-groaned, half chuckled; I really was doing it again; seeking out these destructive streaks in coworkers and... getting too close.
Meg had called late one evening.
- "I thought you should know Ike's in the E.R."
- "What? What happened?!"
- "Got himself punched in the face." There was an unmistakable note of glee and excitement in her voice.
When I got to the hospital, Ike had already left, apparently without much in the way of permission. He didn't answer his phone, and without really thinking about it I took a cab to his home address.
Ike's apartment was on the fifth floor of a large grimy brick building in north-west London. It was half past eleven, or thereabouts, and the corridors and stairways were quiet and empty. When I rang the bell Ike swung the door wide open, clearly expecting someone else.
- "Fucking finally, I've been..." he began, in a slightly muffled voice, and stopped when he saw me. "Ah shit."
He was in a sorry state. His jaw was swollen and darkening, and had a large plaster on it. He wore a dirty white nightgown and jeans, and was holding his bandaged chest with one hand. He was also clearly on something; his pupils looked twice the normal size. Deep bass pulsed from inside the apartment. We looked at each other for a while. I smiled, seeing, realizing that he appeared to be essentially okay. He seemed to relax also.
- "I'm OK," he said eventually.
- "I can see that."
His pupils were striking. We'd gone drinking together in the months I'd known him, I knew he liked to drink, and although we'd been refreshingly frank with eachother we'd never mentioned drugs, other than the odd reference to cannabis. I guess he saw what I was thinking.
- "Look, come in if you want, but I'm getting, you know, really really wasted tonight..." he said.
- "I'll join you." Because that's what I do you see. Every part of me wanted to get close, talk, enable, take part even, and nowhere in me did I find the impulse to pull rank. I did, however, have a plan. Ike seemed to just accept my joining in, turned around and limped into the apartment. I closed the door behind me and took my shoes off.
The apartment was very small. To my right was a bathroom. Straight ahead and to the left some narrow wooden stairs led up to a sleeping-space, close to the ceiling and halfway embedded in the wall. Under it was a tiny cooking area, a stove, a sink and a microwave. The walls were blue and white. Photos, figures and drawings were tacked to them at regular intervals. A few lamps and candles were lit, but there was no ceiling light. Everything looked a mess. Opposite the bed and kitchen space was a dark L-shaped sofa encircling a cluttered, sturdy-looking coffee table.
- "But," Ike said, seeing the look on my face, "check out the view." He pointed at an open glass door that led out to a balcony on which stood a big steel armchair and a beanbag. I carefully stepped over the books, cables and boxes that littered the floor and stepped out. Below, not fifty feet from the building, ran a small river, and in the darkness ahead the lights of London stretched out in all directions.
- "Very nice," I said quietly.
Drum and bass continued to pulse from a subwoofer under the coffee table. Ike took a gulp from a large plastic juice bottle. He was busy using a credit card to cut white powder into neat little lines on a book. Looking closer, I saw that the book was the fourth edition of Silverthorn's Human Physiology.
- "Coke?" I asked.
- "I wish," he mumbled. "It's only a bit of speed. I'm waiting for..." I couldn't make out the rest, and instead sat down in the sofa, which was surprisingly comfortable.
- "Got drink?" I asked. He nodded to a heavy-looking glass flask.
- "Thanks for coming round," he said.
- "No problem."
We sat in silence for a while, listening to the music. I found a clean-looking mug on the table and poured myself some of the vodka. I felt strangely, unashamedly happy. The novelty and uniqueness of the situation was almost tangible. I'd missed it. Ike kept rolling and re-rolling a twenty-pound note, occasionally bending forward to snort a line after which he'd exhale loudly and lean back, eyes closed.
- "Who were you waiting for?" I asked, just seconds before the doorbell rang. Ike shot up, went to the door and came back moments later with a laughing, young-looking woman with blue hair and a black tank top, black trousers and a belt studded with metal. Her nose and ears were pierced. She was pretty striking.
- "Adan, this is Jaira. Jaira, this is my boss."
We nodded. She gave me a long look, half-smiling, before turning back to Ike who had sat himself back down in the sofa.
- "You look like a fucking hamster," she said, having observed him for a bit, and I couldn't help laughing - he did. Ike gave us both a miserable stare and looked out the balcony doors.
- "Ah honey," she wooed and went to sit next to him, "I got what you need." She pulled a bag of cannabis out of a pocket.
While he crumbled the weed and rolled a joint, Ike told me what had happened. They'd been in a pub, him, Jaira, Lucy and Lucy's brother, celebrating Ike's getting hired.
- "...and some guy, some fucking kid right, is going on and on and on about his bird cheating on him. 'I don't know what to do, I don't know what to fucking do, I can't sleep, fucking bitch, I'm gonna fucking floor him...,' on and on and on like that, like the whole world has to hear it; to his mate, and shouting on the phone and whatnot. Ruining the evening for the lot of us."
Ike, in his wisdom, and bolstered by five pints of beer, had tried to lecture the guy on the physiology of jealousy.
- "So he tells this guy, this big guy right," Jaira explained, "that he has too much dextrosol in his brain..."
- "Cortisol, "Ike corrected. "Fucking cortisol. And adrenaline."
- "Whatever. And he doesn't stop. Says the guy should get some beta blockers to take the edge off. Tells him where he can buy some and whatnot. So the guy's up poking him in the chest and Ike still doesn't fucking stop. Goes on talking about how the chemicals are released cause the guy's afraid his woman's gonna get impregnated - he actually bloody said that - impregnated. Ike I love you honey but what the fuck??"
The guy had pulled Ike off his chair and broken his jaw with two right-hand punches before he dropped him on the floor and kicked him repeatedly in the stomach.
- "God bless, "Ike exclaimed, having taken a big first toke on the joint, and exhaled a plume of pungent smoke. Jaira leaned over and propped the balcony door open.
I stayed for hours, talking, laughing, and getting increasingly drunk. As I was getting ready to leave I turned to Ike.
- "You know you'll all have to do regular drug tests, as soon as your surgery is approved."
- "They want blood tests," I lied, "not piss tests. They're not stupid, they're looking for addiction; it's one of their main concerns."
Ike gave me a long look and could see I'd hit home. Blood tests are extremely difficult to fool, and this would give him a clear, solid reason to stay sober from now on. I imagined this was exactly what he wanted to hear, and including blood tests in our protocol was something I could pretty easily arrange.
As I walked out the door I heard Jaira say,
- "Surgery? What surgery?"
He exhaled slowly while lightly pressing his tongue against the roof of his mouth, producing a deep, rolling, smattering sound - like a woodpecker or a frog, only deeper. The tip of the tongue tapped twelve times per second, he'd timed it once, but now he produced the sound without thinking; a subconscious mantra, a way to strengthen his confidence by connecting with the primal. There were sounds that, as far as he knew, only he made. For instance, he could tighten his larynx and produce a powerful rumble - like a cat purring; again, only deeper. He imagined other adults didn't think to make such sounds, but to him the primal touch was reassuring - a statement of identity, a reminder of animal bliss.
He watched the girl asleep on the sofa. Girl, woman - he wasn't sure which term to use. Woman was the politically correct expression - he was weary of sounding chauvenist - but in his mind this particular female was clearly a girl. Some girls grew into women, others remained girls. Jaira was twenty-seven, but her looks and manners expressed a youthful lack of care which, until a few weeks ago, he had found extremely appealing. Her hair was blue.
As she turned in her sleep she tipped over the small yellow petrol canister he used to refill his lighters. The poorly fastened cap came off and pungent liquid spilled out on the carpet. He didn't move from his position in the beanbag - it wasn't a lot of petrol - and as the fumes filled the room he inhaled deeply, savouring the brief high. It was an alien high, petroleum, not one he enjoyed recreationally - it is toxic. But sometimes the fumes waff over you unexpectedly from a car or gas station. He strongly suspected that the tendency to savour those moments distingushed a class of people with an addictive, primitive streak, one of which he firmly felt a member. Libido ergo sum.
He watched her breasts rise and fall under the black tank-top as she slept, and felt nerve centres throughout his body stir, gently but firmly locking his gaze and thoughts into place. They had not had sex tonight, and he imagined waking her up on some pretext and... But the drive didn't hold; his mind was elsewhere. He lit his hand-rolled ciagrette, took a big gulp from the heavy glass he was holding and leant back in the beanbag. He didn't recognize the music steaming quietly from the speakers - industrial, psychedelic; one of Jaira's compilations
He had to tell her about the surgery. He'd lied, when Adan had mentioned it unexpectedly a few nights ago; had told her it was all about an especially intense shift coming up at the clinic. It was ok, he'd been very intoxicated and only a few hours out of hospital - she'd understand, sort of. She knew he'd found a job, another science job, one he really enjoyed; that he was back to doing medicine again, working with patients. That was about it, he hadn't elaborated, and she hadn't asked. She was assistant manager at a bar. Her interest was in him, not his job, although she did enjoy hearing him recount some of the more intense and morbid experiences he'd had in med school and residency. She had certainly enjoyed his access to anastethics and sedatives, while it lasted. They weren't much alike, but she had stood by him, more or less, during his expulsion from his medical training and all the shit that followed. She made him laugh, made him feel not so alone, and she too was clearly the type that would treasure a stray wiff of petrol. But deep down, as he sat in the bean bag sipping his drink, he was extinguishing his mental bonds to her. It hurt; a low, numbing, sad pain, and he made the deep, rumbling sound again. But it was necessary.
As he thought now about the surgery, he admitted to himself that he was afraid. Not enough to change his mind, not at all, but more afraid than he had anticipated. In six months time, surgeons would put him under, drill a hole in his skull - his skull - and insert a thin wire, through his cortex, deep down into the part called the ventral striatum: the core of his reward system [R,L]; the part of his brain that sought, wanted, anticipated and relished; the part that drove him through life from desire to desire, from goal to goal, each and every day and moment. There was a slight chance - minor, less than a quarter of a percent - that something would go seriously wrong; hemorrhage, some quirk of his vasculature that the models failed to predict, or a tremor of the surgeon's hand that the computer systems failed to disregard. He could die, or, more likely, have some part of his mind permanently paralyzed - speech, muscle control, the ablity to organize certain thoughts or movements. He might even damage the core, the ventral striatum itself. In China, surgeons attempting to treat drug addiction deliberately destroyed the ventral striatum of hundreds of patients before the the extent of the side effects were realized and the operations halted [R]. The treatment did eliminate the patients' desire for drugs, among other things.
Then, if everything went well, the surgeons would take him out of anasthesia, right there in the operating room, to test and calibrate the implant. 'How does that feel? How does this feel? What about now? What about this setting?' Some voltages and electrode cofigurations would have no effect, and a few might feel weird or unpleasant, but many would be satisfying - keep doing that, please - and some would be deeply rewarding. Then they would put him under again and repeat the entire procedure on the other side of his brain.
He inhaled and exhaled loudly, not making any animal sound this time, and tried to collect himself. But this was it! Even if the surgery went well, which in all likelihood it would, his life would change completely. The reason that he, Adan, Lucy and Meg were being fitted with iPlants was to show that artificial motivation was safe and effective for healthy people. After the surgery, they would move to a research facility in Cambridge, just an hour north of where he was now. There they would describe, quantify and publish every relevant detail of their experiences with the implants. They would need those references to support their subsequent push to sell the implants on the general consumer market [L]. 'Artificial motivation' was a good way of describing the function of the implants. He would never be out of shape again. He would learn Chinese. He would research and tinker with his own motivation, full time, fully motivated, in a team with serious financial backing and a clear, concrete plan that stretched years ahead. And Adan had mentioned drug tests, real blood tests; that would be another major change. He had often hated his life; his inability to find peace, equilibrium; to break the constant cycles of excess. All of that would stop, he imagined, and he would be on his way to something very new. He didn't know how to even begin to explain all this to Jaira.
Loud shouts and the sound of bins being tipped over spilled in from across the river and shook him from his thoughts. He struggled to his feet, ribs hurting, and got out on the balcony. Somewhere in the dark backalleys just across the river, someone was cursing violently while other voices shouted orders and instructions. The cops must have nabbed someone. The cursing was the wild, outlandish trashing of a young man who has lost all hope of escape and released every last bit of control over the impulse to fight and struggle. Lights came on in the surrounding houses. A few alleys down the road, a dog began to bark. Ike listened, took another sip from his glass and purred softly.
A few days later, Meg was sitting with Adan on the roof of Cinder & Mot's main research facility in Cambridge. Somehow he'd known she was up here, because he'd brought two beers and asked if he could join her. He didn't appear to want to talk about anything in particular, just to talk and enjoy the sun. Eventually she'd asked him why he was doing this, not just leading the research but actually undergoing the iPlant surgery himself. Adan had gone off on a diatribe about medical technology and how he didn't want to get old and die.
- "I just never got any comfort from the idea of ‘uploading’. You get these guys talking about how one day they’re gonna make a digital version of their brain and trash the body altogether. And they really seem comfortable with that. Their computer brain will live on, indefinitely, and carry on doing whatever needs doing. Maybe they'll get a nice robot for it too, use the cameras as eyes and go about their business in the real world that way. Hell, why not fifty robots?"
Meg listened. She was enjoying the rooftop view of the town and the countryside beyond. Evening sun and clear skies, in May, in Cambridge! So far, global warming was a sweet deal as far as England was concerned. She sipped her beer and adjusted her bra. Adan was waving his hands around even though she wasn’t looking at him, and she wondered if he was speaking to her or to himself.
- "I never got it. I mean, nevermind the technical problems. Let’s be wildly optimistic and say you slice your brain up, run it through a microscope and have a working simulation of it up and running in a couple of months. And it’s got a synthetic voice that sort of sounds like you and it’s got all your memories and wishes and quirks. It says it’s you and it goes off to do whatever digital you wants to do."
She thought again about trying to seduce him. He was attractive. Back in Narvik where she grew up there had been exactly two black guys; an old man who worked in the refinery and his son. The son had left before Meg was old enough to find out anything about him. In England she’d had one black friend, sort of; one of the guys working for her while she was still building and selling toy robots. She had liked him, he could make her laugh and feel relaxed, and he too was attractive, but he’d been a stoner through-and-through, and not at all her type. Adan was very different. He was also her boss.
- "It’s just not satisfying. It’s not you. It’s a copy. I don’t care if it’s a very good copy. Hey, you know the transporter in StarTrek? You know it didn’t actually teleport you, it just built a copy of you on the surface of whatever planet you were going and then fucking vaporized the you that was still in the machine. That always seemed completely crazy to me! What if it didn’t vaporize you in the end? Two yous. Same with uploading: what if the copying just involves spending an afternoon in a brain scanner? Now your biological you is still alive afterwards, with a digital twin. But that biological you is still gonna be just as worried about dying as it was before. And rightly so. Having an immortal twin doesn’t help."
- "I’m not worried about dying," Meg said.
- "I know. But I bet you don’t wanna go senile."
- "I guess."
It was actually warm. She put her feet up on the little wooden table and leaned back, smiling and soaking in the evening buzz. She tried to imagine a scenario where they could continue working together and fuck. It was hard. Adan was the responsible type. She would have to be a very different person around him, much more easy going, make him see her as stable and mature and completely risk-free. Then, maybe. But she wasn’t about to do that. She also had a nagging suspicion he might be gay.
- "So what if…," she began, "it’s fifteen years from now and you’ve got a nice internet connection in your head. And then it’s twenty years from now and you’ve got photographic memory because you’ve got implants that take everything you can’t remember and store it on a server. And then it’s twenty five years from now and you’re doing most of your seeing through some crazy hat that connects directly to your visual cortex and gives you 360° vision. See where I’m going?"
She looked over at Adan. He was staring into space, seemingly stopped in his tracks. They’d been talking about how the iPlant could be used in research, to help scientists do their work, and Adan had launched into something about wanting to speed up anti-aging research. He was one of those who really worried about that sort of thing. She considered his age; 42. He was too young to be worrying about all that. The oldest guy she’d been with had been 36 - she had been 23. Now she was 28. It would be a record. She giggled, admiring her subconscious’ ability to lure her thoughts back to what was clearly the main topic of conversation in there.
- "So it would be a really slow transition," Adan said tentatively, "taking years…"
- "Decades!" Meg exclaimed happily. She didn’t care one way or the other about this, but it was nice to be taken so seriously.
- "I don’t know, I still want my body to survive, or at least my brain, my real brain."
- "Yea now you do. But after ten years with crazy 360 hat vision maybe you don’t care so much if your eyes go soggy and have to be removed. Maybe after ten years of seeing for yourself that all your memories really are there on the server you won’t be so bothered about losing the memories inside your head to Alzheimer’s. Soon you’re spending more and more time being digital you… you might even start to resent the old body..."
She stopped, there was no point spoiling the nice evening. Adan looked at her, then leaned back in his chair with a sigh and put his feet up on the table, his black leather shoes next to her sandals and red toenails.
- "That’s… not comforting either," he said, "but you’re making a good point."
They sat in silence for a while. She was fighting an urge to ask him questions about himself, find out who he was. He was her boss, and it would probably be inappropriate. She’d never had a boss before, and she was doing her best to show some respect or whatever. But he just didn’t seem the hierarchical type. The way he and Ike talked to each other… Adan had gone to see Ike at his home after Ike got beat up in the bar, and ever since they’d talked and laughed and argued like old friends. She felt weirdly jealous. Maybe she could be friends too.
- "So, do you have, like, a wife?"
She wanted to punch herself as soon as the words came out her mouth. Smooth Meg. Fucking sex drive.
- "No. I have a dog though."
Adan started talking about his dog. He was very talkative this evening. Maybe he wasn’t used to drink. She lost interest then and her mind drifted back to Narvik, and the black boy. He’d been completely exotic in school, in a class full of blondes and redheads, most of whom had never been out of Norway. The kids had treated him ok as far as she knew, but he stood out so much, people asking if they could touch his hair, his skin, all that. He’d handled it better than she would have.
In situations like this evening, that called for nothing but friendliness, tact and good intentions, she felt as alienated as she imagined that boy must have felt. When she caught herself really missing the boy she knew it was time to leave the rooftop. Then she thought she'd be damned if she wussed out on this gorgeous evening because of social awkwardness. She decided to be more direct.
- "What happened when you went to see Ike after the fight?".
- "You underestimate him," Adan replied without a moment's hesitation.
- "You don't like him."
She was shocked. It was true, and wasn't it a bit of intimate conversation she was after? Still she felt completely cornered.
- "He's got no self-control," she said eventually, feeling tight-lipped. "He doesn't belong here."
- "But he does" Adan replied, and Meg was unsure which of her two assertions he was contradicting.
- "That fight... You weren’t there. That was on him. He started that."
- "You used to start fights."
She turned sharply and stared at him. Adan looked straight ahead.
- "You once spent a month in juvie for cracking man's head open with a bottle."
She'd always assumed they knew, but also secretly hoped the Norwegian penal system didn't communicate well with the British one. Maybe they’d done their own research. They'd never mentioned it before, and this wasn't a friendly evening and an intimate conversation with her boss anymore. She felt the muscles around the beer bottle in her hand tighten. But no, goddamn it, she had to learn to trust people. He was her friend, he'd hired her, and she wasn't being fired. She nervously tried again.
- "Its not just that. I know his type. It’s the way he talks, the way he drinks, the way he looks at women. I bet you he wouldn't pass a drug test."
It wouldn’t work, she was just bypassing the shit he’d just revealed he knew about her, the shit she’d left off the paperwork when they’d hired her.
- "No he would not. When I went over to see him that night he was getting quite intoxicated. Understandably maybe, but it’s something we’ll fix." Adan said, sounding unimpressed. "He’s got an addictive personality and he is very well aware of it."
- "I still don't get it. There’s plenty of people like that in the new study, plenty of people like that here at the hospital, why do we need him?" She knew she sounded grumpy and felt some of that strange jealousy she’d been aware of earlier bleed through, but mostly she felt joy that her shaky attempt at trust seemed to be somehow holding up.
- "That’s because you underestimate him. Listen the next time he talks about the things people will be able to do with artificial motivation. Listen to the way he describes specific individuals… Rember that ad he dreamed up?"
She did remember. A woman walking down a rainy street. No umbrella. Voiceover about how well she’d been doing but now was slipping again. Then at home, the woman halfway through a bottle of wine and a big bag of popcorn, a gym bag and towel abandoned in the corner. Months later, the woman, now overweight, struggling to get up some stairs. Something about ‘relapse doesn’t just happen to junkies, we all run out of energy’. Then the iPlant and a quick introduction to artificial motivation. It had been a good idea. Ike had made it up, seemingly on the spot, during a meeting.
They sat in silence for a while. She’d known, of course, that this project would be a very big deal and would change hers and probably a lot of other people’s lives forever. But understanding now that De and Adan knowingly hired people like Ike and herself, she realized that there really was a plan behind it, a plan she didn’t yet understand.
The team arrives in Montreal and meets with Anders Tinberg. They discuss the iPlant project and the team's upcomming surgery. The team then returns to England.
In a bright, sunlit classroom, in a school just north of Birmingham, Meg sat, feet up, at the teacher's desk. This was more like it, she thought again and smiled. In front of her, a dozen kids milled about around three large circular tables, working and making noise. Each kid had a laptop and a four-wheeled vehicle the size of a large brick. One girl had moved to a small table by the wall, where Meg had placed a soldering iron and some other equipment. The other children were chatting, pointing, laughing, showing off and arguing as they worked with their machines. On the table closest to Meg, one vehicle had just crashed into another, knocking one of its cameras off its socket and down on the floor. The girl whose machine had been damaged shrieked and started yelling at the girl next to her. Meg put her laptop down and walked over.
- "That's the third time!" the first girl shouted. "M'am, that is the third time it does that!"
- "Call me Meg," Meg replied and bent over to have a look at the second girl's laptop display. The screen showed the view of the aggressive machine's two cameras as it turned slowly away from its damaged sibling. Also on the screen was the machine's digital brain - a complicated network of brighly colored neurons that monitored the two cameras and wirelessly controlled the vehicle's movements on the table. At the bottom of the screen was a library of additional neurons and networks that the kids could connect to the machine's brain to make it do new things. The machines were called 'vertebots' [L].
- "My mum says we're not supposed to address teachers by their first name," the first girl complained. But Meg wasn't listening. She was inspecting the brain the second girl had constructed, and felt a warm shiver ripple across her shoulders. She loved this bit. The second kid, a quiet Indian girl called Devi, said nothing, but made room as Meg leaned in closer. The three of them watched as the machine on the table kept turning. When another vertebot came into view, the networks displayed on Devi's laptop flashed brightly and the machine careered towards its unsuspecting prey. Meg knew she should grab it, stop it, or at least call out, but she was too amazed at what this twelve year old kid had built to get in its way. The vehicle slammed into the second machine, knocking it over the edge of the table and onto the shoeless foot of the boy who was using it. The boy howled and grabbed his injured foot with both hands.
- "Christ," Meg exclaimed and walked quickly around the table.
Everyone had stopped working to follow the commotion. The boy wasn't bleeding, but he would develop a big bruise. He was trying hard not to cry. Meg hugged him and said softly,
- "You're ok. You'll be ok." This was probably inappropriate, she realized, but the boy stopped squeeling.
- "I'm sorry! I'm sorry! I'm sorry!" The Indian girl was standing next to them, pulling on the red sweater Meg had tied around her waist. Meg let go of the boy.
- "You ok?" she asked him.
- "Yes m'am," he said with a tight smile and pulled himself up.
Meg turned around.
- "And you," she adressed the terrified girl, "you have absolutely nothing to be sorry about."
She raised her voice a bit.
- "Everyone! Have a look at this."
She picked up the predatory machine before it found another quarry, grabbed Devi by the arm and took them both over to the teacher's desk. From her own computer she made it so that every laptop in the room now showed the brain Devi had built for her vehicle.
- "This vertebot," Meg held the machine up, "can find and ram other bots. That is awesome."
The children exchanged excited whispers and several of them edged closer. Devi blushed. Meg made room on her desk and placed the girl's machine on it. The vehicle continued to circle slowly.
- "Now watch... this network," Meg highlighted the cluster of neurons that Devi had added to the machine's brain. She placed one of her own vertebots in the field of view of the first. Immediately, the brain on the screens lit up, and Devi's vehicle charged forward. This time Meg caught it in time. She picked it up and held it upside down. The wheels stopped spinning and after a pause the pair on the left side started rotating lazily again as the machine resumed its circling-mode.
- "This new network, who knows what kind of net it is?" Meg asked the class. A few hands went up.
- "Don't put your hands up, just say it," Meg said impatiently.
- "Its a Recognition net," said the boy with the injured foot.
- "And what does a Recognition network do?"
- "You teach it stuff, m'am. You give it lots of input, from the camera and stuff, and it tries to figure out what it is, and you tell it whether it's doing good or bad, and it learns, sort of."
- "Call me Meg," Meg said.
She made Devi tell the class how she had built the predatory brain. A friend had left her vertebot in Devi's room one day. Devi had used her own robot's cameras to take many hudreds of pictures of the second machine and had fed them all to the Recognition net. Then she had instructed the machine to move towards anything it thought was another robot, and had spent the whole weekend clicking the network's green 'good' button whenever it charged the other robot and clicking the red 'bad' button when it approached anything else. A few of the girls sniggered when Devi admitted to having spent her whole weekend training the machine, and Meg wanted to slap the little bints, but limited herself to an angry glare - she was already pushing what she could get away with before word got back to parents and teachers.
The whole thing had started as a desperate ploy. She'd lost her job, after that HR bitch ratted her out to management. Fucking cow. She'd get her eventually. With no references and almost no money, Meg had started to think seriously about self-employment. But what could she sell? She only knew computers. IT service? People hired teams from established firms for that. Consulting? The thought made her stomach turn. She didn't have the people skills for that, didn't want to have them. She spent many nights sitting curled up by the kitchen window in her small appartment, chain-smoking and staring out at the empty streets below, weighing her options. She thought seriously about crime. The HR lady was only the most recent addition to the list of people Meg thought the world would do better without. Some of these people had a lot of money, cars, computers... but she'd always be a suspect, and being questioned by the police... she didn't have the people skills for that either.
The idea had come during a conversation with a newly minted assistant professor, during a rainy afternoon in Oxford. Increasingly desperate for something to do, Meg had started badgering friends and acquaintances to show her what they did for a living. She knew Amar from an online forum, knew he was a scientist, but had never met him in person. What he showed her shocked her. His team had built a working computer model of a fish, brain and all [R,R,L]. On the screens in his small office he showed her how to drop the fish into a simulated pool of water. They watched as it swam around, looking for prey and other fish, avoiding obstacles and escaping predators, while its digital brain glowed and shimmered with neural activity. The entire system was publically available and could be downloaded for free by anyone who knew how to run code. Amar was amused at her amazement with the little fish and explained that none of this was groundbeaking science. They hadn't even been able to publish their work anywhere prestigious; everyone already knew this stuff.
- "But I didn't," Meg said.
And she expected a lot of people didn't. The following year had been the best of her life. Finally a fucking break. She'd taken Amar's fish brain and re-written it to the point that, legally at any rate, she could claim it was her own. Then she had built a robot - electronics were getting unbelievably cheap [L] - and connected it to the digital brain. Like the fish in Amar's simulation, the machine drove around, lazily exploring its environment, while the neurons of its brain blinked away on her wirelessly connected laptop. She had been unbelievably happy then; had even gone out, got very drunk and brought a man home for the first time in almost two years. Then she had gone on Kickstarter [L] to sell the machine, advertising it as a user-friendly autonomous robot with a biologically realistic and modifyable brain that would finally connect hobby robotics with neuroscience. She named the machine Vertebot - vertebrate for the fish brain it was based on, robot for the vehicle the brain controlled. Knowing the world of programming and how to sell a story, she received pre-orders for over three thousand robots. She found an abandoned warehouse and enlisted some out-of-work stoners she knew to build the machines. It all just kind of came together. She spent six months in that damp old concrete building, among stacks and stacks of brown paper boxes filled with parts from China and Korea, with the constant whirring of the power generator, writing code and keeping the six young men who worked for her in line. She had never felt better; she even stopped smoking, despite the constant smell of marijuana that suffused the old building. Before the initial hype died down, the software brain had been vastly improved and she'd developed a working relationship with a couple of schools in the area. Deal was, the school would buy a batch of vertebots and she would personally teach the kids how to use the machines. Kids learning about the brain, about computers and maybe something about how to start a business... it was the kind of thing headmasters loved to tell parents. So, here she was; sitting legs up in the sun at the teacher's desk. And now she was about to leave it all behind.
When the class ended she pulled Devi and the boy with the injured foot aside. No hard feelings, right? No m'am, I mean Meg. Could the boy walk without a limp? Yes. What would he tell his parents? Nothing. She told them both she would let their parents and the headmaster know what good students they were. In fact, if Devi's parents agreed, Meg would write something about the network Devi had built, maybe get it in the local paper. She'd leave out the violent attacks, say the robot had been tought to recognize and 'approach' other robots. Yea, something like that.
She supposed it was her work with Vertebot that had put her on De's and Adan's radar in the first place. So in that sense it wouldn't all have been a waste of time. They had approached her, first a few emails, then a Skype call, then a series of meetings. The first email had addressed her as 'Dr'. She'd liked that, even if in retrospect she guessed the mistake must have been intentional. Still, it was nice to have what she thought of as serious people address her with respect. This they continued to do, even after she told them that she'd never finished high-school. They were interested in her work with Vertebot, although she didn't get the impression they intended to build machines themselves. They seemed more interested to know how she had handled the whole circus, like they wanted to get to know her. She liked Adan. He told her his own story. Turned out he'd founded that little company aGen that 23AndMe had gobbled up a few months ago. She'd read about that. They wanted her to come work with them. They were forming a company, a subsidiary to the parent company of which De was CEO. Had she heard about Corton? Had she heard about deep brain stimulation? Of course she'd fucking heard about deep brain stimulation. They didn't respond negatively when she sniped at them. She liked that.
These chapters follow the team at the research facility in Cambridge. They get to know each other. There are meandering, late-night conversations about how the world might change as people get access to artificial motivation. There are trips to different parts of the UK and an important trip to Brussels, where the legal requirements for selling the implant are developed. The team also interacts a lot with the support staff, with De, and with patients already using the implant to exercise at a local hospital. Experiments are planned. The chapters end with approval of the regulatory framework in Brussels.
The team travels to Canada for the surgery.
He came to. The room was a medium-sized and very clean, with green walls, bright lights and big blue doors at either end. A hospital room. He was half-lying in an elaborate white chair with coushined armrests and support for his feet. Something soft supported his head too, holding it gently in place. He knew where he was - the main surgical thatre in Montreal General - but didn't recognize the people who stood around him, looking at him. One of them leaned in from the right and spoke to him.
A male voice. Thin white beard. Tinberg. Anders Tinberg, the lead surgeon. The faces fell into place. Behind Tinberg was his assistant Claes. To the left stood two nurses. He couldn't remember having been told their names but he recognized them. They stood behind a steel table covered with green cloth and surgical equipment. Some of it, he saw, was bloody. Along the wall straight ahead he saw Adan, Lucy and Meg - his friends, his group. Seeing them he relaxed somewhat. Lucy and Meg were leaning against the wall and Adan too looked relaxed. They all wore green hospital coats. White masks covered mouth, nose and hair, even Meg's red frizzle, which usually pointed wildly in all directions. Their feet were wrapped in blue plastic. Must be warm, he thought hazily. Then he remembered that he too was wearing green and blue. But no white. His head was not covered. His head was exposed. His head... Full consciousness of the situation crashed down on him and for a moment he began to arch his back to throw himself out of the big chair. He wanted desperately to reach for the top of his head. They're in your head! There's metal deep inside your head! But he controlled himself.
- "Christ! Hold still!" Tinberg's hands around his wrists. One of the nurses too, pushing him back down into the chair. Something metallic fell clattering to the floor.
- "It's fine. I'm fine." His voice was blurred, but he felt fully present now. "I'm sorry."
- "Aaaahaaaaa! Told you!" Meg howled from her spot by the wall. "You owe me fifty quid, you wuss!"
Of the four of them, Ike was the last to go through the surgery. In the days leading up to it, Meg had felt that he was being far too chaviller about the whole thing and had bet him fifty pound he would freak out as soon as the implants were actually in his head. Now, listening to the frantic exchange between Tinberg and the anasthesiologist taking place somewhere behind him, Ike realized that his enthusiasm for and consequent habituation to morphine over the preceeding years might have made for a much quicker and rougher wakeup than the medical team had intended. He hadn't told anyone about his habit - former habit, sort of - but a few days ago, he'd started to suspect that Meg somehow knew. Had she guessed that he would regain consciousness much too quickly? The thought that Meg might have risked his surgery dissolving into chaos just to mess with him and win a bet filled him with adoration and lust for the woman, and he chuckled at his own strange desires.
- "Screw you Meg," he crowed, and eased back into the big chair.
Tinberg hovered into view and started to explain and apologise for the rough awakening, but Ike wasn't really listening. He had just remembered what would happen next and was filling with warm, consuming expectation. It was that old, old feeling - one he had not experienced for years - of being about to encounter a new high. His first cigarette, his first unhooked bra, his first poorly rolled joint; each new psychedelic, stimulant and sexual experience; he remembered them all vividly, the emotions, the scene, the time and the context, and in particular the moments just before consumption.
- "... get you out of here and calibrate the implants..." Tinberg said, and Ike assumed a state of full attention.
Although modern brain imaging and stereotactic methods allow neurosurgeons to position brain implants quite precisely, the surgeons still need to calibrate the electronics in order to find the combination of electrodes, voltages and frequencies that have the desired neurological effect. Patients can be awake during this process - indeed they need to be. If you google "banjo playing during brain surgery", you'll find a video of a patient who was asked to play the banjo while surgeons calibrated his implant [L]. The patient's implant was located in the dysfunctional part of his brain's motor centre, and when the surgeons got the current just right, the patient was able to play well and without shaking. Implants that are instead located in the brain's motivation centre require the same elaborate calibration process, but here the neurological effect being calibrated is desire itself.
An hour later Ike was sitting at a table in the middle of a sunlit ward in one of the hospital's upper floors. Opposite him sat the young, sombre-looking technician who would calibrate his implant, and Lucy, who was documenting everything for publication. Big empty hospital beds lined the walls. Adan and the lead surgeon sat at a table by the wall. Tinberg looked exhausted. Earlier, he had explained to Ike in detail how the surgery had gone. Everything was fine. The implants read normally. Nothing to remark on or worry about. They felt sure electrodes A2 and B3 would be optimal, although A3 looked good also. Meg sat cross-legged on a bed in the corner of the room, focus buried in her laptop. Ike was still wearing the green hospital robe. A blood pressure monitor was attached to his left arm. Three electrodes had been geled to his chest and one to his right index-finger. This meant he had to sit somewhat unnaturally with both arms outstretched on the table in front of him. The equipment was not just to monitor his health but was also a security precaution. In the event that a patient would be stupid enough to lie and pretend the current was less effective than it actually was, these various readings would suss them out, supposedly.
Over the preceeding two weeks Adan, then Lucy and then Meg had each sat in the chair Ike was now sitting in, having their implants calibrated. For him, it had been one of the most intimate experiences he could remember. Adan, who was alright but also sort of aloof and hard to read, in addition to being the boss, had burst out laughing when the technician pulled him up to 4 volt; a deep belly-laugh none of the others had heard before. When one electrode turned out to be hitting a weird spot he had groaned loudly and made strange little twitchy movements with his hands. He'd got a little too agitated about finding precisely the right balance between the two electrodes they finally settled on, and had at one point yelled at the technician when the man suggested that further tuning was unnecessary. He had later apologised perfusely to the techician about that outburst.
Of the four of them, Ike thought of Lucy as having the least addictive personality and he had smiled broadly and felt a new affection for her when, at 4.5 volt, she had visibly vibrated, made a high-pitched purring sound and gone almost limp in the chair, eyes closed and smiling from ear to ear.
- "That's too good, take it down a bit," she'd said, and Ike had felt his newfound affection waning.
He had had no idea what to expect from Meg. Three of her electrodes had failed, with one of them making her face contort with disgust.
- "Eeeugh, that is fucking disgusting! Turn that off!"
But they had found a good electrode pair eventually. Her face had taken on a dreamy expression, and she'd turned her head far to one side and moved her arms and shoulders as if she was being massaged by an invisible gigant.
- "That," she'd said between clenched teeth, "is right. Turn it up a bit."
And now, him. They had five electrode contacts to test, two on the left implant, three on the right. They would try them each individually, from 2 up to a maximum of 5 volts, at a range of frequencies. Then they would take the best contact on each implant and run simultaneously. The drive, the feeling, that would result from that final combination of currents and voltages would be the reward that would motivate him to work and learn like never before in the weeks and months to come. There was nothing more to do, nothing left to wait for, no more concern that the operation might not it might not happen or that something might go wrong.
- "1A, 2 volts, 80 Hz," the technician said and, without asking if he was ready, added a new source of energy to Ike's mind.
Even at 2 volts the infusion of meaning spread everywhere. The sunlight was so warm on his arms and made the room so warm and beautiful. How come had he hadn't known that Canada had such comfortable weather even in early spring? The sunlight wrapped around the cables that meandered from from his body towards the technician's blue and white equipment, but the wires were strong and sturdy-looking, and he felt safe. Definitely more than 50% rubber, he was sure, and imagined a cross-section of the biggest cable. It would take a lot more sunlight to damage that wire. Meg! He looked up at her. She was looking straight back at him, face guarded but curious. Only once before, when he had used his connections in China to bring in that new piece of tech for the two of them, had he seen her look at him with curiosity. To see it again filled him with a new warmth. Sun outside, fire inside. He kept looking at her and she stared back blankly. He had to say something.
- "Meg," his voice felt wobbly, "how much sunlight would it take to melt this cable?"
- "Look at him," Meg scoffed and returned to her computer, "he's already tripping."
- "Mr. Rasch," said the technician in his thick Asian accent, "how do you feel?"
- "Ehm..." Ike thought about this. "Confused," he admitted. "Disoriented."
- "As I said," Tinberg got up from his chair. "A2 and B3. I'll be in my office. Call if you need anything." He left the room.
The team returns to Cambridge and begin their research. They develop several new applications, including one that makes learning very gratifying and effective by generating a pulse of reward for every correct answer on a test. They all learn Spanish and Chinese and get a lot of exercise.
Armed with a full bottle of bubbly, he approached her street. She lived in a grey, modern-looking high-rise, a few kilometers north of the city. He'd taken a cab. It was late in the evening, and cold. He'd never been to her home before. They had worked together for a year, and he had wanted her from the moment they first met, but in all that time she had barely even warmed to him. Every advance had been thrown back in his face with open hostility. Other men might have given up. Then, a few hours ago, she'd sent him a short email, asking if he was busy, and would he like to spend the night with her. He brimmed with energy and anticipation.
She opened the door wearing soft red trousers only a shade darker than her hair, and a white tank top. He had put on a shirt for the occasion. She let him in. A small hallway, bathroom on the right, a tiny unused-looking kitchen to the left. Straight ahead was a big bedroom with a high ceiling and beige brownish walls. A large bed with red and orange covers filled most of the room. On the far side, two sofa chairs flanked a small table next to a big window behind thick red curtains. The window appeared to stretch from floor to ceiling. A wooden table surface ran all the way along the right-side wall, opposite the bed. On it sprawled a computer system, electronics, papers and books. A black office chair stood looking recently departed. More equipment and books reclined on shelves further up the wall, and three desk lamps bathed the room in a soft warm light.
- "Very nice," Ike said.
- "Takk takk," Meg replied.
She stepped into the room and sat crosslegged on the bed, facing him. Ike took his coat off, hung it on a hook next to the door, and sat down on the bed next to her.
- "Why the change of heart?" he asked.
She looked at him blankly for a while, tilted her head.
- "What do you think?"
- "Some guy broke your heart and you need to be held?"
- "Funny," she said, but the usual scorn in her voice was gone. Instead there was something else, something rare; excitement. His heart sang. He was aware of a distant rushing in his ears as anticipation built on anticipation, flooding his body with adrenaline. He maintained eye contact, but slightly out of focus he could see her small breasts under the tank top. He'd never seen her wear anything revealing before. And tonight, everything, everything. She had asked him to spend the night with her. There was excitement in her voice. This was actually happening! His hands and feet felt very warm. He didn't want to get carried away. It was highly unlikely she'd suddenly developed feelings for him, or had secretly wanted him all along. Something else had changed. Probably something very recent. He'd tried to work it out ever since reading her email.
She reached out and took his hand.
- "I want to make you an offer. There is something I want us to try."
Never had he felt such focus. Never.
- "I can hack the implants," she said.
He understood the words, but no thoughts formed. Instead, he felt as if the ground had disappeared from under him.
- "I can break the encryption, change the reinforcement schedules, currents, the works. I can connect motivation to anything." She was smiling now.
He felt his brain prepare the awful option that had just emerged. He would grab her by the neck, get on top of her, knock her out, tie her up. Then he would make her give him access. He took a deep breath, eyes still fixed on hers, her hand still on his. He waited. Nothing happened. Waited. Nothing. He relaxed a bit. An email. A cab. Grey highrise. Bedroom. Breasts. Hand. Meg. All the fantastic features of the situation that had so warmed and driven him just a moment ago began to catch up with him.
- "Are you thinking how to force me to give you all the access?" Meg mused, still smiling. "I thought you might."
- "No," he lied. "I mean, yes, but I'm not going to." He was relieved to hear himself say the words.
- "I'm glad."
- "Jesus, Meg! What If I had!?"
- "I would have played along, pretended to give you what you wanted, then somewhere along the way I would have crashed both your implants and you would have been in a world of trouble."
He thought about this. It was true. He might be able to force her to work the computer, but there were a thousand schemes she could have prepared to regain control in case of a foreseeable emergency. This made him feel better.
- "Also. Come on. You don't want total access. You'd max out, bliss out on the floor, and that would be the end of you." She put her other hand on his. "All this is is in addition to the feel-good you get using the implants at work, you get some extra from me, sometimes, for doing some... other things, with me." She smiled again, sharp small teeth, and freckles.
Hacking the implants went against everything they'd spent the last year working towards. The entire purpose of the iPlant project was to prove that mind control could be used for good; that artificial motivation was a safe consumer product. Some behaviors, and only some behaviors, had been deemed important enough to be legally boosted with artificial motivation; exercise, learning, some forms of research and voluntary aid work perhaps. Everything hinged on the clinics' ability limit use of the implants to these behaviors only. The possibility that some people might hack implants and either stimulate themselves endlessly or maliciously control others was precisely the sort of thing that the project's critics got so worked up about.
- "Give it to me," she said and squeezed his hand. "Trust me."
Ike took a small, deep blue plastic device [L] out of his shirt pocket and held it up. Meg leaned forward, took hold of the device, and kissed him.
She pulled back before he thought to put his arms around her. They sat watching each other.
- "Let me show you what I have in mind," Meg said eventually.
She bent her head back a bit as if addressing the ceiling and said in a clear voice,
The large computer screen on the wooden surface behind her came to life, showing layers of open windows over a colorful background. Slow club tunes began to stream out of the speakers. A red sound spectrum oscillated in tune with the music against a black background.
- "Do you speak to your phone much?" she asked.
- "Not really."
- "It's getting very good, the voice recognition. You can train it to recognize anything."
She snapped her fingers. The music skipped to another track.
- "You try it."
He snapped his fingers. The sound showed as a brief peak in the spectrum on the screen, but nothing happened.
- "Your fingers are too big," she said, "or we just snap differently. Either way, you get the point. Now let me show you what I spent the afternoon training it to recognize."
She got up on her knees and edged towards him.
- "Come. You too."
Ike kicked off his shoes and stood on his knees on the bed, facing her. He was almost a head taller than her. She looked up at him and smiled.
- "I'm only gonna show you. Only once. Then I need to work on your implant a bit, and we'll talk. But I want to show you the signal I'd like to use to activate your implant tonight."
She edged closer until they were touching, wrapped her arms around him and pressed herself against him. His breath was quick and shallow. The shock of what she had done, what it would mean, faded into nothing as he put his hands around the curve of her back, felt her head bury in under his chin and her breasts press against his chest.
- "Now," she said. "Take your right hand and put it between my legs. When I say, push me, up and against you, hard."
There was nothing but her, nothing in his world at this moment but the feeling of her, her body, her voice. There was nothing he would not do to make this moment continue. He slid his large hand down over her buttox and deep in between her legs. They held like that for a moment.
- "Now," she said.
He tensed his arm, pressed her towards him, feeling her warmth through the red trousers, up, further, hard, while he held her body tight with his other arm. Meg's moan broke through at a high pitch, as if she'd been holding it back, and then relaxed into a deep warm hum. Ike realized he was looking at the sound of her moan reflected in the sound spectrum on the computer screen. As he looked, the screen flashed, and a series of green lights came on.
- "No way," he whispered.
- "Oh yea," she purred, and bit his ear.
Meg and Ike begin an unusual relationship. The work with the implants continues. There are sporadic medical and psychiatric emergencies and the members of the team all experience a gradual change in personality.
The final chapters describe the simultaneous publication of the team's research and De's application to the CE for permission to sell the implant on the general consumer market. A monumental media storm builds up and the debate is ferocious. There is significant opposition, including death threats. Ike finds his calling as an advocate for the rights of people who need artificial motivation. The novel ends with a court case to determine whether the implant can be marketed.