The CorningTech press room was, like the rest of CorningTech’s facilities, modern and designed to be completely carbon footprint neutral – all concrete, glass, recessed LED screens, and brushed aluminum. The main difference between the press room and the rest of the facility was that the press room was relatively small and, despite the size, only a handful of reporters were spread among the seats. The reporters weren’t the big names in fancy wools who covered popular news; these were bored biotech beat reporters in cheap khakis. Where the big names would have been on their tablets making notes for the question portion of the press conference, getting a head start on writing the story so they could claim to have the first scoop, or setting up the next day’s appointments, these reporters were playing Facebook games or sitting lazily, picking at lint on their socks. Standing atop and a little to the left side of the raised floor at the front of the room – a cheap, quick, carpeted plywood affair that had been the sole addition that turned this from a team meeting room into a press room – was a group of white lab-coated scientists and grey Armani-clad executives.
At the center of the platform, standing in front of a dark oak podium and adjusting his tie, was Victor Corning. Like the other executives, Corning wore an expensive suit, but his pinstripes were a little more obvious, his tie a shade or two brighter, his pocket square a half inch more visible. He was the leader, the one to watch, and he wanted that fact to be known without a single spoken word. He looked out over the reporters, his smile masking his contempt for the assembled idiots.
“Good morning. As any neurologist or practitioner of medicine can tell you, cerebral death is synonymous with physical death. The cessation of cortical electrical activity is just as dire as blood pumping from a severed artery, if not moreso. When the cortex dies, the body may continue to pump blood, digest, even perform autonomic motor responses that may appear purposely generated, but there is no consciousness. No thought. No drive that lets us survive on our own. No internal life that makes us human.” Corning paused here, dramatically. He wanted to capture the moment the beat reporters knew they had something good. The moment they knew they were in over their heads. He smiled and continued, “Until today.”
A few brows creased in the mélange.
“Last week, scientists at CorningTech used a revolutionary new substance to actually revive a cerebrally dead patient. He is now a conscious, acting human being.”
The small room erupted with noise. Reporters murmured expletives to themselves, and unzipped bags to pull out the tablets they should have had ready. The more prepared among them furiously scribbled notes and sent hasty texts to their editors. The scientists and executives smiled widely.
Corning allowed the chaos to continue for a bit before holding up his hands for silence.
“Yes,” he chuckled. “It truly is amazing. I’ll have a final statement at the conclusion of this conference, but right now I want to acknowledge the efforts of the research team who made the breakthrough.”
Corning led the room in a brief applause, turning to smile broadly at the group assembled to his right.
“I’ll now turn the podium over to Drs. Alvarez and Fong, co-heads of that team.”
The room applauded again briefly as Alvarez and Fong approached the podium. Alvarez beamed at the room through thick, Coke-bottle lenses. Fong, in contrast, was red with embarrassment and stared intently at the carpet while biting her lip. A few times, with obvious effort, she raised her eyes to the room and forced a thin smile onto her face. Aware of Fong’s anxiety, or perhaps unable to hold back his own desire, Alvarez took a long stride and positioned himself in front of the microphone.
“Good morning, I’m Dr. Tyler Alvarez. But, as do my companions in the lab, you may address me as Dr. Ty.”
Alvarez grasped the visible part of his golden silk tie as he spoke the last few words and looked around the room to assess the impact of his joke. No one smiled back. Disappointed, he suppressed his own and returned to his prepared statements.
“Substance CT2083-AF, which we’ve been calling ReNeural, was administered to patient SR, who had been in a persistent vegetative state with no marked cerebral activity for eight months. ReNeural gradually reinstated cortical activity to the point that SR came out of his coma and demonstrated unimpaired cognitive function.
“You may be wondering how ReNeural works. Essentially, it is an organic cocktail of stem cells, several amino acids vital to neurogenesis, and lipids – or fats – which are the building blocks of all cells. We found that injecting ReNeural into the lateral ventricles resulted in total brain saturation due to the flow of cerebrospinal fluid.
“It took a while to break that puzzle of how to get full, equal coverage but, once we did, we still couldn’t get a result. That’s when Dr. Fong made one of those observations that are both brilliant and obvious at the same time. The brain works by means of electrochemical processes. ReNeural was only the chemical part of the equation and, by virtue of SR’s dead cerebral cortex, there was no electrical activity there.”
Alvarez chuckled at that last statement and again panned the room, looking for anyone else who enjoyed the joke. Again, no one smiled.
“Tough crowd. Anyhow, we introduced a low voltage, rhythmic pulse of electricity to SR’s brain, attempting to mimic resting alpha waves. That’s when we saw SR’s cortex begin rebuilding itself. A few hours in, we had to administer sedatives to the patient due to full body tremors. We think these tremors were SR’s brain reconnecting with his body; firing and flailing like a newborn. The sedative was mild. Enough to keep SR from hurting himself but still allow the body to move.
“The following morning, SR awoke for the first time in months. A dead body began the procedure and a thinking, feeling man emerged.”
Alvarez waited for a smattering of applause to die down.
“Due to ethical constraints, we had to use a patient who was deemed cerebrally dead. With SR’s positive result, we are going to push for clinical trials on more patients like SR, but also comatose patients with a living cerebrum, and waking patients who have sustained brain injuries. We can save countless lives. Thank you.”
Another applause sputtered into existence from the reporters, much less energetic this time. Most likely, they hadn’t understood anything Alvarez had said and were beginning to feel the end of their ten-minute attention spans. Alvarez and Fong rejoined the other scientists and the group exchanged low, silent high fives. After allowing a few seconds of congratulations, Corning stepped forward to ask for silence again. He straightened his tie and tugged the cuffs of his shirt further out of the sleeves of his jacket.
“Before I bring this conference to a close, I want to ask you all to table your questions for today. We will be having an extended conference at a larger facility on October 18. Details will be forthcoming and questioning will not be open-floor as usual. There will be a formal application process to secure one of the limited question slots though, I assure you, as reporters who have shown loyalty to covering news from CorningTech, you will all have a slot, should you want it. Finally, I want to announce that SR, the patient who received the first trial of… ReNeural?…” Corning glanced questioningly to Alvarez as he pronounced this, who nodded and smiled wide, “will be joining us. Thank you.”
The room exploded into action. Reporters attempted to give final applause while calling their superiors to make preparations for the 18th. Some clapped an open hand against their thigh, others brought hands together while holding pens and paper and their mouths and phones in the crook of their neck. A few reporters disregarded Corning’s comments entirely and made failed attempts to ask questions. The CorningTech employees left the room, impassive suits leading the way and staring dead ahead of them. The scientists followed behind, talking and smiling to each other, some waving at the apathetic and frenzied press.
Corning leaned against a solid oak bar in his spacious office and stretched out his back. After a brief grunt, he resumed talking to Berman and Iimura, two of the unspeaking executives who sat near Corning during the press conference. The office was sleek and professional with just a hint of something more wild hiding beneath the surface. It matched Corning’s dress style perfectly. The décor was all modern angles and sharp black and white contrasts with dark wood accents, broken up at odd, almost clashing intervals with items like a large, abstract canvas painting of neon geometric shapes, a framed Sex Pistols album, and a wildly colorized blowup of human DNA from under an electron microscope. Corning, Berman, and Iimura each held a glass tumbler filled with two ice cubes and a thick, amber alcohol.
Berman took a long sip from the glass, then held it in his mouth, relishing the smoky taste of peat. He loosened his tie as he swallowed and then turned his attention to Corning.
“Why did you decide to forego questions today?”
Corning smiled. He had an answer prepared for just this question; an answer that Berman and Iimura would respect and hail as a genius managerial tactic. “So… imagine I tell the whole company I’m going to give away one million dollars to ten people and that winners are going to be decided by pulling the names of ten employees randomly out of a hat. Would you want that money?”
Feeling some of his alcohol, Iimura chuckled physically; his shoulders rocking upward once and his head tipping back slightly, though he made no sound. “Of course I would.”
Corning continued his rehearsed speech, pointing a finger at Iimura over the rim of his tumbler, “And I know you would. So now imagine you’re just office workers or something and I tell you both that I’ll make sure you’re both winners. Your odds go from dismally low to absolutely sure. Your productivity would probably skyrocket but, more importantly, you become vehemently loyal to our company: you won’t jump ship when something only slightly better comes along, you’ll stick with us through harder economic times, the works.”
Iimura smiled and an audible bark of a laugh escaped this time. “So you’re pushing our usual uninterested, disrespectful reporters onto our side.”
Corning nodded. “Not just on our side, but crediting us for their big break. Eventually, one of our products will get a scathing review from the FDA or a drug will have some horrible side effect. It’s inevitable and we won’t be able to hide it. But our investors get their information from the news and the news is only as bad as the reporters make it. If giving them an assured place at the next conference gives them the clout to become head of their reporting division or launches them into a television consulting gig, they won’t make the blow as harsh as they could.”
Berman refilled his glass, his tolerance for alcohol much more robust than Iimura’s from his years in an Ivy League fraternity.
“You’re also controlling the amount of critical questions that get asked next time. The usual guys aren’t going to take this opportunity to ask something that makes us blackball them from future conferences, so any questions about ‘ethical dilemmas’ will come from reporters we’ve never seen.”
Corning clinked his tumbler against Berman’s, giving the man an appreciative wink. “Jack, that’s an angle I hadn’t even thought of. Good man. Let’s take a long lunch today and talk about how to control the conference on the 18th over a quick 9 holes. That bastard Alvarez brought up that damn ReNeural name today even though I told him it might not be a good idea for branding. It’s probably fine, but I don’t want a larger fuck up from him or his team on the next one. His patient is going to be an even bigger problem. We’ll need to come up with questions to give him a pre-interview so we know what’s going to come out of his mouth.”
With that, the trio knocked back the rest of their drinks and headed out, Corning holding the door for his employees. He had a genuine-looking, contented smile plastered on his face but inwardly he was thinking about Berman’s last comment. It was, indeed, an angle he hadn’t thought of. Corning knew he had wowed Iimura and coaxed more devotion out of the man, but Berman might have been more impressed by his own performance. He’d have to gauge Berman during their round of golf.
The De Graffe Hotel’s conference room was much larger and less modern than the CorningTech press room. It was a standard hotel conference room with inoffensive, earth-toned carpet and eggshell walls. Corning’s refined yet flashy taste made the room look almost run down. A long table stretched across the entire front of the room with Corning, Alvarez, Fong, and SR sitting near the center. Berman, Iimura, and several other scientists and executives flanked them. SR was dressed in an unassuming light blue shirt and navy tie. Despite the professional look, SR was clearly uncomfortable in his newly purchased wardrobe; when he wasn’t pulling the sleeves down on his wrists, he was fidgeting with the tie knot at his throat and removing and replacing the thin, back end of the tie from its stay. He was clean shaven and sporting a haircut so obviously fresh that anyone who saw him up close would be surprised his shoulders weren’t covered in shorn locks. SR’s left hand unconsciously rubbed the short stubbly hair on the back of his head. Only his sunken, red eyes belied the fact that he was all but dead a month prior.
The press had turned out en masse; bushels of microphones adorned the space in front of each seat like a table centerpiece at an Easter brunch. Lighting kits and cameras crowded the edges of the room and the center aisles, forcing headset-clad technicians to perform silent, ungraceful ballet moves as they rushed from their posts to their equipment bags and reporters in the back of the room. The conference had gone smoothly; the predictable prepared statements – nothing more than elaborated versions of those from the previous conference – had been spoken. Even SR’s statement was mostly in line with the medical jargon-filled rundown Alvarez had given. Though interesting, everyone in attendance had either been at the last conference or read about it in articles rushed to publication.
The energy in the room raised by a palpable degree as the dimmed lights above the crowd raised and the microphones in the aisle clicked to life. The entire crowd clung to the same hope; that some clever question would pry new information out of one of the scientists or SR, himself.
Standing rigidly at one of the microphones in the crowd, a reporter who had been present at the initial conference at CorningTech scanned his yellow legal pad. He had upgraded his wardrobe slightly from the last conference, but it was clear he wasn’t a representative of one of the major news networks. “When will the other patients treated with ReNeural be available for comment?”
Alvarez, once again wearing his gold tie, smiled at the man and nodded approvingly at his question. He fumbled to adjust the microphone before answering, which sent pops and bursts of static throughout the room. For the duration of the cacophony, Alvarez continued smiling and chuckled under his breath, trying to share the humor he found in the situation with the room. To the delight of everyone in the room, it didn’t take him long to find a suitable position. Leaning in, he responded, “Not for a while, I’m afraid. In healthy humans, brain processes account for about twenty percent of our daily energy use and may be one reason why sleep is so valuable. Regeneration is vastly more taxing and, thus, requires a greater caloric intake and vast amounts of sleep. Essentially, the other patients are still acting like infants; sleeping, eating, discharging waste.”
Corning nodded to Alvarez, then the reporter, signaling that he had nothing more to add. As the reporter thanked the team for their answer, Corning gestured to a second reporter waiting at the microphone in the opposite aisle. Unlike the previous reporter, this one had not been present at the other conference. Also unlike the previous reporter, this one was dressed smartly in a blazer and knee-length pencil skirt, as if she might be filming a live televised report at the end of the conference.
She cleared her throat before speaking. “I’d like to direct my question to SR. Sir, you said you can only vaguely remember your life from before your coma. What are those memories like? Are they clear but fragmented, altogether hazy, or something else?”
SR nodded at the question, a perfect mimicry of Alvarez’s earlier motion. The two men looked nothing alike, yet their mannerisms and subconscious movements were identical. Watching the two talk was like watching members of the same family with the same nervous ticks. That made sense; SR had spent more time around Alvarez than anyone else in his second life. Alvarez and Fong were surrogate parents to this modern Lazarus.
“I would say hazy is a good way to describe them,” SR replied, smiling Alvarez’s squinty grin. “But also fragmented. It’s kind of like all my memories are old. Even memories from the day before I fell into my coma seems like a childhood memory or a part of a TV movie you watched while doing taxes. Maybe like a dream.”
The reporter perked up at this last sentence. “And speaking of dreams, did you have any while you were out?”
SR began to reply, but stumbled over his own words about a half sentence in. His eyes slowly focused farther and farther away. The press room, buzzing with light whispers and scratching pens throughout most of the interview had gone completely silent; the reporters had their eyes, camera phones, handheld camcorders trained on SR. What was happening to him? Some unforeseen side effect of the treatment?
Corning broke the silence with a sharp exhale of air out of his nose. He cast a dark glance toward Alvarez, then – suddenly aware of the cameras in the room – calmed his fiery expression.
Alvarez, who had been watching SR with as much interest as the press, caught Corning’s glance and fumbled for the microphone in front of him. He laughed a stiff, nervous laugh under his breath as he prepared to speak that sounded like a stressed animal. “Actually, it would have been quite impossible for SR to dream by virtue of the lack of activity in his cerebrum. You see, we know dreams are correlated with –“
“No, no, no. There were dreams,” SR stressed, splaying his hands out on the cool conference table. “I just… They hadn’t come to me until she asked.”
Alvarez shook his head and smiled in mild disbelief. In his peripheral vision, Alvarez caught sight of Corning who, though seemingly watching SR impassively, was staring into Alvarez’s eyes, imploring action. Alvarez knew Corning wanted him to shut SR up before he said something that hadn’t been analyzed by Legal, but Alvarez also wanted to keep SR’s train of thought running for the scientific benefit.
As he spoke, SR seemed to take on the thousand-yard stare and persona of a war veteran describing a particularly gruesome battle. “It was claustrophobic. It seemed like I didn’t have a body anymore. Just me, you know?” SR tapped his temple. “But it was still cramped and I was trapped. It seems like the floating ghost of consciousness wouldn’t feel trapped in any space, no matter how small. And you know how some nights you work in your sleep? Like on a math problem from school or on some project you need an answer to? I was doing that, over and over, without end, for what seemed like an eternity.”
SR looked up and laughed at the tense, rapt faces of the crowd. The laugh was a quick burst of in- and exhalations through the nose. The sound was mimicked by Alvarez, who also saw the humor in the situation. Corning did not laugh, but the taught muscles in his jaw relaxed slightly.
“I guess it must be that I was interpreting my coma as being trapped in a closed space,” SR shrugged. “Still creepy, though.” Corning leaned toward the microphone arrangement in front of him. “I could tell, as I’m sure many of you could, that SR was a little strained by that question. I’m going to ask that Dr. Alvarez accompany SR back to CorningTech where he can rest. Dr. Fong and I will field any remaining questions.”
The metal tray in Fong’s grasp rose into the air with an echoing gong. Translucent orange bottles, singe ounce Dixie cups, and tiny ruby-like pills exploded into the sky like matter ejected from a supernova before clattering to the antiseptic linoleum floor. GT, a patient in the CorningTech lab who was treated with ReNeural a few weeks after SR, stood ferally in front of Fong, breathing in deep heaves. His eyes darted around the room like a scared animal on the defensive.
“No!” GT shouted. “No no no no no! NO!” As his screams rose in ferocity, a crazed timbre leaking into his voice, he snatched one of the pill bottles from the ground and began attacking the metal carrying tray.
“Trapped! Trapped! No!” his shouts continued. He turned his eyes toward Fong. “Get out before they trap you! Stuck inside…” Fong ran from GT’s cell, leaving him to continue his task of bludgeoning the metal tray with a splintering bottle. With a forceful blow, the weakened plastic gave way and shattered, some pieces digging into GT’s hand. Without so much as a glance to his bloodied grip, GT retrieved a second bottle and resumed his attack.
The CorningTech labs always reminded Fong of a high-tech prison from a comic book. The ten plexiglass cubicles looked ready to receive villains with impossible powers. She used to love riding the smooth, brushed aluminum elevator down to the research floor each morning, sipping her coffee and pretending she worked for a government agency tasked with stopping supervillains and evil aliens. Now that each cell housed a living patient, however, Fong was less enthusiastic. When the elevator doors slid open, inviting her to begin her day, she was overcome by a thick feeling of guilt that clung to her skin like chewed gum to shoe. Did these men deserve to be locked up? She was absolutely sure they did not. Even though she understood the necessity when some of them had come back from death crazed like GT, she though there was a better solution than locking them in a tiny plastic box deep underground.
Alvarez and Dividson, alerted by GT’s screams, ran from a long experiment room, complete with microscopes, medical tables, and decontamination doors. They passed other occupied cells, the patients inside standing to see the source of the commotion, rocking uncontrollably, or simply sitting and staring, unblinking, at nothing.
“Emily, are you alright?” Alvarez asked Fong, resting a hand lightly on her forearm.
“Yes. He didn’t want to hurt me. Just the tray.” She giggled nervously.
“Goddamnit!” Davidson pounded the wall of GT’s cell with his fist. “That’s the eighth one with severe psychological problems. SR is the only really normal one.”
Fong nodded. “GT was saying something about being trapped. We’ll have to run him on the confined spaces test, but I suspect we have another claustrophobe on our hands.”
“What is the deal with these guys? The ones who have family just cannot connect with them. Not even,” Alvarez shook his head, “SR. His family didn’t recognize his personality. He barely remembers them.”
Davidson nodded. “Well, it might make sense. The brain, especially the frontal lobe, is the self, right? When it dies and regenerates, it probably reorganizes. Like a loose-paged book that has been dropped and had its pages shuffled. If you read through it from front to back, it’s not the same book.”
“Yeah,” Alvarez agreed. “That makes sense. But why would reorganization lead to – if Amelie is right – claustrophobia in every single one of our patients? The mental problems I understand, I guess. But claustrophobia? To continue your metaphor, each dropped book is somehow coming back with the same main character. The chance of that happening at random is… Well, low. Almost impossible, probably.”
Alvarez looked at GT, who was sitting on his cot and trying to staunch the flow of blood from his hand. “And they all show violence towards nonhuman objects. GT is defaced our med tray. Last week, KW assaulted a travel mug. Before that…” his eyes widened and turned toward Fong. “Before that, EE attacked his own file folder. Fong, let’s try something.”
Alvarez ran back to the experiment room and looked around frantically, folders and printed pages falling to the ground. He grabbed several sheets of paper, scribbled on a few, and rushed back to Fong and Davidson waiting at GT’s cell. Fong’s excited smile was the antithesis of Davidson’s scowl and folded arms.
Alvarez walked closer to GT’s cell. “GT, I want you to look at some pictures.”
GT nodded and stared at Alvarez, still holding his injured hand. Alvarez pulled a sheet from his left hand and placed it against the glass.
“This one is an image of a protein we had laying around,” Alvarez announced to his colleagues, his gaze still on GT who looked at the picture but did not react.
Alvarez slapped a second image on the glass. “A sketch of a donut. A fairly bad sketch.”
GT, again, made no response.
As Alvarez placed the final picture against the glass, GT rose from his cot.
“No! No, trapped. Trapped!”
Alvarez turned the page toward Fong and Davidson: a hastily scrawled version of the CorningTech logo.
“Fong, you’re the real medical doctor; do you happen to know off hand when GT entered his coma? I feel like he was much younger.”
“Yes. He’s 26 now. The coma was the result of a traffic accident when he was 20.”
Alvarez clapped his hands in front of him, smiling and furrowing his brow. “CorningTech was founded four years ago. How is he having such a strong reaction to something he couldn’t have seen until now?”
Alvarez didn’t expect a response. He certainly didn’t expect it to come from far down the row of patients’ cells.
“Dr. Alvarez,” SR said, “do you mind if I talk to you for a second? In private? I might be able to answer your question.”
Alvarez led SR, Fong, and Davidson to his office at the opposite end of the laboratory. The stark white door revealed a comfortable cave as it opened. The soft edges of Alvarez’s comfortable chairs complimented the rounded corners of his deep brown, oaken furniture. The framed golden age comic book covers and signed movie posters that hung on the wall somehow seemed to fit, but the office as a whole was stain on the otherwise painfully modern building.
“What do you think is going on, SR?” Alvarez asked, opening his mini fridge and offering Cokes to the small group.
“Well, we’ve been talking. The other patients and I.” SR opened his can and took a sip. “Trying to help each other through what we’re feeling.”
“Good! Talking it out is probably the best way to cope,” Davidson said.
“Coping isn’t what happened, though. Remember my dream? The one I talked about at the conference. The one,” SR said to Alvarez, “that we discussed right after. Trapped and constantly reading and writing historical information. The other patients had the same dream.”
Davidson scoffed. Fong, though skeptical, as well, merely cocked her head. Alvarez held SR’s gaze, not nearly as phased by SR’s revelation as the others.
“The same, SR? Identical?” Fong asked.
“No, maybe ‘the same’ isn’t exactly right. But related. The same but from multiple angles. We all agree that we were somehow outside of our bodies but also confined somehow. We were processing information. EE said he was doing math constantly. I think GT was spotting anomalies in x-rays and MRIs. The CorningTech logo was everywhere in those dreams. Etched into our minds.” “That’s impossible, SR,” Davidson said bluntly, a red flush appearing at his collar.
“It is impossible, Nate,” Alvarez agreed. “Impossible that some of these patients knew about CorningTech when it didn’t exist before the onset of their condition, as Fong pointed out.”
“Look, Ty, I get it; they were essentially corpses when CorningTech was formed. They couldn’t have seen the logo until the treatments began. There are logos down here. It must have been some sensory processes reorganizing themselves and incorporating what they saw into a state of pain and confusion.”
“And each one happened to grow to hate the logo of our company?” Fong asked.
Davidson threw his hands into the air and leaned back in his chair.
“Guys, I get how this sounds. It’s crazy. It’s complete…uh…”
“Looney tunes,” Alvarez offered.
SR laughed. “Exactly. It took us – me and the other patients – a while to believe it, too. But there were too many coincidences. GT knew something from EE’s dream. I knew something from GT’s. It was too much to be anything but real. It’s crazy. What I’m about to say next is crazy, too. I remember some of the historical information I was processing.
“It was about CorningTech and quantum computing. This company will publicly declare developing the first quantum computer based on the human brain just three years from now. And one year later, in 2025, they’ll begin sale of quantum computers to the government and large companies. I don’t think the quantum technology they’re going to use is simply based on the human brain – I think it is the human brain. I think somehow they use me and the other patients and your ReNeural serum to create living brain processing units.”
The room was silent.
“SR, what was your job before… all this?” Fong asked quietly.
“Construction. That’s what my file said, anyway.”
“Were you interested in science?”
“From what I remember, the bits and Reese’s Pieces that are still around, science never factored in. Beer, poker, TV. That stuff.”
“I see where you’re going, Fong,” Alvarez nodded. “Can you get in contact with his family and check on his interests? For now, though, time doesn’t work that way, SR. Not according to our current theories. You can’t move through time. Besides, your body has been accounted for this whole time.”
“Time doesn’t exist at the quantum level, Dr, Ty! Not like we experience it. Particles are entangled over huge distances, physical and temporal.”
“Yes,” Alvarez conceded. “Quanta are. But not the human brain.”
“What about consciousness? We have no idea how that works at any level, especially quantum. We went through something terrible! Something real!”
“SR, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you,” Alvarez said.
SR sighed. “It’s fine. It’s not your fault. I really do understand how crazy I sound. But I know what I experienced.”
“I think there’s an important issue we should discuss,” Davidson spoke up, quieter and more measure than before. “SR, do you think we should run anymore test subjects, or is this – what you and the others are going through now – too inhumane?”
“I hadn’t considered more of us. I knew they wanted to push forward testing, but I didn’t think it would be so soon.” SR paused, squinting his eyes.
“Yes. This isn’t life. And I don’t mean being here in our rooms. I understand you’re treating us well and keeping us under observation for our protection. I mean living with what we went through is not life. None of us are who we were. The families of the other patients don’t want to be around them. Don’t run any more tests if they’re going to turn out like we did.”
“I will pass that sentiment along to Corning. We’re supposed to submit a report tomorrow, anyway.”
Davidson and SR left the office, leaving only Fong and Alvarez who traded sad smiles.
Sorrow was palpable in the underground laboratory that housed Alvarez’s office and the patient cells. All eighteen members of the research team had assembled in the experiment room, their white lab coats still stiff with starch. Group meetings were usually filled with chatter and steaming plumes from numerous cups of coffee. No one was talking. No one had bothered to make coffee. Some in the group were drying tearful eyes. Two scientists stood ahead of the rest, facing them. Alvarez and Fong, the director and the head surgeon, addressed their team like weeping generals.
Outside the experiment room, the patients waited in their cells. Those who could do something aside from rocking on their haunches or laying catatonically were sitting quietly, heads lowered. Some prayed. Some wiped their eyes.
“SR has assured me that their life, held inside these plastic walled cages like monkeys in a futuristic zoo, is not worth the daily panic attacks and flashes of torment. Each one of these men would rather cease their conscious life than experience that hell one more day. I think this will be harder for us than for them. I know you’ve grown close to them over the last few months. Christ, you’ve been around them more than your own families. I know I feel a special connection to SR; like a son who’s somehow older than I am,” he smiled and the contortion of his facial muscles let lose a waterfall of fresh tears. “But we owe it to them. And, if we don’t perform this task, Corning will have other technicians come in. Strangers. These men need to see friendly faces before they close their eyes for the final time.
“In this envelope,” Alvarez held up his hand, “are our instructions on how to proceed. Director Corning has held many meetings with myself and Dr. Fong, the legal team, the research ethics group from the University, and a few human rights groups. What’s in here has been vetted by all of them as the best practice. Take solace in that, if nothing else.”
Alvarez opened the envelope.
“We are to administer sedatives and… that’s it?” Alvarez smoothed out the instruction sheet. “Hang on.” He brought the small sheet of paper closer to his face and adjusted his glasses.
“There will be a second team that transports the patients to another location and administers the lethal drugs.”
The crowd burst into noise, both relieved and angry.
Fong turned to Alvarez. “That’s not right. The patients trust us. SR told me they agreed they want us to do it for them. They know we’ll take care of them.”
“I’m sorry, Emily. Those are our orders. We can refuse, but it won’t change the outcome.”
“No, Ty. I won’t stand for this. Don’t start dosing anyone until I get back. I’m going to talk to Corning.”
Fong fueled her anger in the elevator ride to the top floor where Corning’s office was located. She strode swiftly down the tiled hallway, powered by the staccato raps of her heels. She burst through Corning’s large, wooden door without knocking.
Corning had been seated at his desk, typing on his laptop. His posture was perfect, wrists resting lightly on his desk. He was barely startled when Fong entered and was able to cover the jump by leaning back in his chair with a humorless smirk.
“Dr. Fong. This is an unexpected visit.”
“Those patients trust us! You cannot order us to sedate them and turn over care to a group of unknowns.”
Corning transformed his smirk into a calm smile. “Dr. Fong,” he said in a soft voice, “the patients aren’t the only ones I have to think about. I’m responsible for the emotional well-being of your team, as well. Would it be ethical for me to allow loyal scientists to be party to a procedure that could lead to psychological trauma or even PTSD.”
“Letting us shirk our responsibility will not ensure our well-being, Director. There will be no resolution. We will not have helped those men in any way. Let us carry out the entire procedure.” Fong’s words were measured and calm, though her hands shook with rage.
“Dr. Fong!” Corning said sternly as he stood and buttoned the jacket of his suit. He paused, then continued in his previous soft tones. “Dr. Fong, I think you’re already displaying the reason I need to safeguard your emotions. You are acting in a manner too unprofessional and too unscientific for an employee of CorningTech. Rethink your course.”
“Corning, do not try to invalidate my point! We need this! What you’re doing is wrong!”
“Fong, you’re as emotional as your patients. You need time off. Take the day.” Corning rose his hand to quell another protestation from Fong. “No, take the week. And before you leave, tell your team they have the week off, too. I will not have you narrow-minded researchers putting this company in more jeopardy than you already have. You can show yourself out.”
By the time Fong reached the lab, Alvarez and the team had already heard of their mandatory vacation from Corning’s secretary. Some of the team had already left the building, trudging up the long staircase to ground level to vent their frustration. Others sat in shock, wondering if this mandatory vacation was a prelude to mass layoffs. Davidson was in his office, tossing a racquetball against his door, deep in thought.
Alvarez ushered Fong into his own office and offered her a tissue. She took it and they both sat in Alvarez’s cushiony chairs. Their hands were close enough that their fingers almost brushed. Sometimes they did touch, but neither scientists bothered to move.
“I don’t trust Corning,” Fong said after a silence.
“Don’t trust him? He’s an asshole, sure, but what’s not to trust?”
“All that stuff SR told us. Working on math problems, having information from the future.”
Alvarez shook his head. “It’s impossible. The only way to possibly prove his story is to compare his information to reality as it unfolds.”
“But by then it would be too late.”
“Yes,” Alvarez nodded. “And, even if it didn’t come to pass, it could be that he altered the course by giving us that information.”
“So you don’t think it’s impossible?”
“I know I should. It sounds like a straight-to-video science fiction movie from the 90s. The Man Who Was a Computer. But… I’m sure you’re familiar with Elizabeth Kubler-Ross?”
Fong nodded. “She revolutionized patient care in hospitals. Of course.”
“She also studied near-death experiences. She collected tons of stories from patients who had died temporarily and said they were looking down at themselves.”
“I’ve heard that, yes.”
“A lot of those people, Fong, described things about the scene they couldn’t possibly have seen from their vantage point on a stretcher. Notes on a med student’s pad, what doctors were doing to a patient behind a curtain divider in the same room, the exact time they were successfully resuscitated.”
“Too many coincidences?” Fong asked.
“Far too many,” Alvarez agreed. “SR was right about consciousness. We don’t know what it is. A meaningless byproduct of neurons talking to each other is an explanation that leaves a lot to be desired. If Kubler-Ross is right, consciousness isn’t something trapped inside the skull. It’s something else.”
“I don’t know about that. But maybe. A pattern of energy? Which I suppose could be a soul? Let’s assume, though, that consciousness does exist in the absence of our body. At death it may escape, like those stories of near-death experiences. It goes somewhere, then. Maybe out into the universe.
“But what happens when our patients come back to life? Their consciousness has left their body, but it has to return when they wake up. It can’t be absorbed into a universal consciousness or shoot off to far interstellar shores. It goes somewhere.”
“You think it could be used by CorningTech’s computers?”
“I think it’s definitely possible.”
“But now that our subjects are conscious, wouldn’t that hurt whatever computing they were doing?”
“I would imagine so. It’s a strange process, right? Their consciousness leaves their body, but is intertwined with this approximate spatial area and point in time. It jumps forward a bit but stays near, like lightning finding a nearby conductor or a Jacob’s ladder. The quantum computer presumably draws in the conscious charge. When the patient is brought back, the conscious energy leaves the computer and returns to the body, thereby robbing the computer of its processor.”
“Ty,” Fong said, “I was the one who didn’t trust Corning and I clearly haven’t given this as much thought as you have. You can’t tell me you’re OK with what he’s doing?”
Alvarez sighed. “No. I’m not. But, as a scientist, I can’t really back up what I’m feeling with real data.”
“I’m concerned Corning believes SR’s story. Or at least he’s willing to test it somehow. Perhaps map SR’s cortex and compare it to neural network models for computing. See, Ty, it doesn’t matter if we believe SR or not. It just matters that Corning might. And who knows what he’ll do to make a new scientific breakthrough? He was the one who suggested euthanasia is the first place. Our patients agreed, but they might not have come to that conclusion if Corning didn’t put the idea in their heads.”
Alvarez was quiet for a long moment.
“What do we do then, Emily?”
“Remember that conference in Seattle when I left my phone on the ferry? We used the GPS to locate it?”
Alvarez smiled and touched Fong’s arm. “That’s brilliant. Corning’s hired team should be here in a half hour. We need to get your phone to SR right away. He can hide it in the pocket of his hospital gown.”
“Corning expects us to be gone soon. It’ll take us too much time to get somewhere to track the phone. The wifi at Josie’s Grounds is too spotty.”
“Do you know Joe in IT?”
Fong shook her head.
“He’s a cool guy. I got him a signed issue of the first Miles Morales Spider-Man run. We can use his office.”
Joe’s office was small and cluttered. Half constructed desktop computers littered metal shelves that would have looked more at home in a grocery store. Manuals, printer test pages, CDs, and USB drives cluttered the top of Joe’s desk and spilled off onto a low bookshelf like water in a brook. Fong and Alvarez sat next to each other, knees touching, staring at Fong’s laptop.
“It looks like they stopped. 621 East Highlands Drive. Do you know what that is?”
“No,” Alvarez said, pulling his phone from his pocket, “but I’ll search it.”
“The instruction sheet we had from Corning said the patients would be taken to an outpatient clinic near a mortuary with cremation facilities in downtown, but that’s definitely not the part of town they’re in.”
“Emily, my god,” Alvarez said, “It’s CorningTech. The technology campus.”
“Is there,” Fong stammered, nervous, “Do you think there’s a medical facility there?”
“I would definitely know if there was. Being director of biomedical operations has perks like that. No, it’s just standard microchip tech as far as I know.”
“Ty, the website says the Highland Campus has a major research program for quantum computing.”
“Jesus. We should take this to review board at the University. Someone will know what we can do about unethical practices. Maybe we can save them, Emily.”
The door to Joe’s office opened and two security guards entered, followed by Corning, a devilish mix of contempt and glee contorting his face.
“Fong, Alvarez. I’d say you’re fired, but I think you know that already. These men will escort you off the premises and you will stay away. I’ll have a moving company ship your possessions.”
“You’re a monster, Corning! What are you doing to those men?”
Corning shook his head and chuckled. “Your buddy SR convinced you of his delusion, huh? It looks like I should have fired you both long ago if you’re that easily swayed into the realm of fiction. I should have known about you, Alvarez; all those silly posters on your wall. But, Fong. I’m surprised. You seemed so intelligent. If this,” he gestured wildly with his hand around Joe’s office, “got out, the scientific community would black ball you. You’d use your degrees to flip burgers. And yes, before you ask, that’s a threat. Don’t mess with this company. You have a lot to lose.”
Corning sighed and straightened his tie. To one of the security guards he said, “Take them out of the building, please. Call the police if they give you any trouble.”
Corning stared down the pair of scientists as the guards led them to the elevator. When the door had slid silently shut, he turned back to Joe’s office and dialed a number on the IT worker’s phone.
“Berman, listen, Fong and Alvarez are a problem. They know too much about the new project. I just had them escorted out of the building and didn’t let them pack their offices, so this would be the perfect time for an accident.”
The CorningTech press room was filled to capacity with reporters in expensive suits and several camera crews. The days of threadbare corduroy jackets on bottom-of-the-barrel reporters were a thing of the past. Corning had invested some of company’s capital gains after the ReNeural announcement into even nicer facilities. The wall-sized flat panel television screen behind Corning which displayed a rotating CorningTech logo was just one of those upgrades.
“This will be a bittersweet conference. I’m saddened to announce that Drs. Fong and Alvarez, heads of the ReNeural trials, were killed in a high speed collision last week. The entire CorningTech family will be in mourning for the foreseeable future. The pair had recently begun dating and, though they tried to conceal it from us, they couldn’t hide their affection. The loss of such a perfect couple makes this horrible incident even more haunting.
“In their honor, we will be renaming this campus the Alvarez and Fong Memorial Biotechnology Campus. Nathaniel Davidson will be stepping up to fill the void created by this unfortunate accident. I’m also pleased to note that CorningTech will continue human trials of ReNeural. The rumors you’ve heard in the press are untrue.” Corning smiled.
Davidson sat rigidly still in his seat as Corning mentioned his name. The color had drained from his face.
Corning continued. “Dr. Davidson is here for another reason, however. He will speak in greater detail about the breakthrough we’re here to announce. Last week, researchers at CorningTech’s Computational Science Campus ran the first successful test of a quantum computer. The computer is as complex, I’m told by the team in charge, as the most complex data manipulation machine in the universe – a human brain. Dr. Davidson was brought on to consult with the team to determine just how much like the brain this computer is. With that, allow me to introduce Dr. Davidson.”
The crowd assumed Davidson was somewhat shy and not used to giving presentations in front of the press based on the shakiness of his hands and the unsteady timbre in his voice. In reality, Davidson was a calm presenter. His nerves were from something entirely different; he knew what really happened to Fong and Alvarez. He knew a similar accident would befall him if he did anything less than lead CorningTech to preeminence in the technology field
He could feel Corning’s cold eyes on him as he spoke.