“This won’t hurt a bit.”
“You know, it actually makes patients more nervous when you say things like that.”
“This will hurt immensely. Will be blindingly painful.”
I said, “Okay, fine, I prefer the alternative.”
The lab, as always, was chilly and filled with a seizure-inducing quantity of lights, blipping and flashing at irregular intervals. Cain’s every visit felt like a visual opera telling a story he wasn’t familiar with; a chaotic jumble of photon-based information that failed to communicate anything to its one-man audience other than confusion.
Dr. Steinberg continued adjusting the ridiculously large device, which was strapped to my head like a helmet. “You see? Doctor knows best. Hold still, I need to get this perfectly flush with your flesh or it might scramble your brains.”
“A joke, Cain. Just a joke. It’s going to read what’s going on up there, not interact with anything. No risk of anything going wrong. I just want to make sure these readings are accurate so I can, well, continue not harming people when I’m finally able to apply what I’m learning with these readings.”
“About that.” I chose my words as carefully as I could manage, considering the giant-metal-thing-on-my-head circumstances. “I thought you already took all the readings you needed. Built a model of my brain, electricity and chemicals and everything.”
“I did. And thank you again for that, Cain. It was very educational. The mapping software used to host that ‘living’ version of your brain is what’s going to make this new information useful. What we’re doing today isn’t more mapping; it’s ensuring that I’m able to make use of your neural oscillation fingerprint.”
“My what now?”
“Your brain emits all kinds of waves at different frequencies, and these waves are produced and shaped by the activity of your brain. Since I’ve already mapped the brain itself, my model should be accurate. It should be producing, virtually at least, the same oscillations as your brain. If its readings don’t match the readings I take today, I’ll know there’s something wrong with the model.”
Brain oscillations were first observed by researchers in the first half of the 20th century. By using an electroencephalogram, or EEG, this repetitive neural activity can be recorded and measured. The data contained in the oscillations are known to contain frequencies like alpha, beta, delta, theta, and gamma activity. It’s thought to contain even deeper frequencies, as well, though a thorough model of the macro brainwave system has yet to be posited.
“Ah. Okay.” My response was meant for both the doctor, and the oh-so-informative voice in my head.
The frequencies emitted within brain oscillations display evidence for every action your brain takes; conscious and unconscious, intentional and reflexive, large and small. They can also be influenced by environmental changes, though to what degree is unknown.
“It is, isn’t it?” That time I was just talking to Instinct, not the doctor, though it’s just as well he thought I still had my attention on what he was doing. “So the next step, once I’ve had the opportunity to check my brain-in-a-can’s oscillations against the real deal, is to tweak the virtual model until it syncs up. That could take some time, and may even require another full scan, to try to capture more information.
“Alternatively, if the oscillations match up well, I’ll start looking for a test subject who is interested in expanding their mind.”
“How do you mean?”
Steinberg tightened one last strap, tapped a button, and the machine on my head whirred to life. I couldn’t see much, but it sounded like an aircraft had just activated its turbines on my head. Steinberg had to raise his voice to be heard over the clamor. “I mean, I’m going to try and shape another savant, using you as the mold!”
I sat and pondered the concept for about ten minutes, as the machine vibrated and chirped and apparently read my brain waves.
The rumble, like any unavoidable annoyance, began to feel almost pleasant after a time. It helped that the helmet was far less invasive than some of the other machinery used to scan Cain’s innermost processes since they’d agreed to figure out how and why his brain operated the way it did.
I couldn’t decide whether to be flattered or horrified about the concept. On some level, I knew this was exactly what Dr. Steinberg had in mind from the beginning, and on another level I’d just assumed we’d never get far enough along that I’d have to deal with the consequences of all the poking and prodding. But now that it seemed within reach — much closer, at least — I tongued the idea and was confused by the texture.
It made sense, of course, to try to replicate something that seemed so powerful. I was reminded every day just how useful an internal companion like Instinct could be. With every word that needed defining, every concept that needed explanation, and every situation I needed help working my way through, I found it proffered a collection of resources, delivered by a friendly, helpful persona. It was like carrying around in my head an incredibly smart, capable, charming friend who wanted me to succeed in life.
But what would be the repercussions? No matter how much I was told that my parents were wrong, that the doctors were wrong, that my entire childhood was a travesty propagated by well-meaning but ignorant saps whose first response to anything different was to lock it up or drug it into mellow normalcy, I couldn’t quite accept it. My life, as a result of all that pushback, became incredibly normal, yes, but was its genericness holding me back? Or was it the best response to a difficult situation, without a truly right resolution?
Cain’s grasp of language was increasing by the day. His understanding of larger-scale concepts was likewise improving. Cain could tell, based on the information presented by the voices in his head, and the depth of information contained in their words, that his fundamental knowledge of the world had increased dramatically. He was approaching par, where once he had fallen far short. He knew that if he kept working hard, and asking questions, he could become quite a capable person. In time.
The Narrator was sassing me less than before. It provided, on average, more positive insight into my actions and lifestyle, rather than a constant barrage of admonishment. This is an aspect of the voices that would be difficult to explain to others, who hadn’t been exposed to internal third-party influence their entire lives.
Would there be side effects to what the voices offered? Not knowing where Instinct and the Narrator came from, it was hard to determine what, exactly, might happen if their ‘consciousnesses,’ if indeed they could be described as such, were replicated in others. What would happen if they were planted in other soil, unprepared for their unusual way of taking root?
And would that be my responsibility? Would what happened next, to whomever succeeded me as a test subject, stick to my conscience? Could I be blamed for spreading what might be a mental disease if I wasn’t the one intentionally spreading it? If someone else made it a contagion, while I remained an isolated Patient X?
I wanted to ask these questions, but Dr. Steinberg wasn’t the unbiased party I needed. Instead, when the device finished its work and the doctor began unstrapping it from my head, I said, “How is Strauss?”
Steinberg stopped unstrapping me for a second, and said, quite slowly, “He’s recovering nicely. Just as we’d hoped.”
“Any more information as to what happened to him? What caused his…blackout? Health issues?”
The doctor sighed. “No. Well, yes. Somewhat. I’m afraid that’s a bit of a complicated question, Cain.”
“How is it complicated?”
He removed the device from my head and sat it on a nearby counter, then hopped up to sit on the same counter, facing me. “Well, you know we’ve had trouble identifying what happened. It wasn’t a seizure, it wasn’t an allergic reaction, it wasn’t a concussive blow, or anything else we could measure externally.” He rested his hand on the brainwave-measuring device. “This wonderful piece of equipment helped us significantly, at least in terms of determining what didn’t happen. I have a backup of Strauss’ brain, just as I have of yours, and I was able to compare his current state to his default status. It would seem something is very wrong with his brain oscillations.”
He sighed again, this time more deeply. “But that still leaves us very much in the dark. His condition seems to be slowly returning to normal, and he’s finally conscious again, though very much out-of-sorts. I imagine it will be another few days before he’s up and about, and a few weeks before he’s back to normal. It doesn’t help that a change in the nature of one’s brain oscillations could be caused by just about anything. The flu can cause an upset as significant as replacing his brain with that of a chicken. And until you untangle the waves individually — something that’s nearly impossible, since we can’t even detect much of what’s contained in the signal — all you can do is tweak and adjust and wait for things to regulate themselves.”
“So do you think it was some kind of disease? Something natural? Or did someone do this to him?
“Cain, I don’t know anything for sure right now.” He tapped his fingers on the device. “But I do know this: if someone did do something to Strauss that impacted his body in this way, without any indication of how they did it, and from where, we’re in trouble. Big trouble. Because even though it didn’t work this time — provided they were trying to kill him — there’s absolutely nothing we can do at the moment to protect him from another attempt.”