LJ Idol Exhibit A | week 5 |1091 words
This is your brain on…
It was always quiet in the cranial lab. Only a handful of people worked there, our shifts so scattered we hardly saw one another. The room was designed for much larger experiments, but the four brain vats and electronic processors didn't take up much space. Sometimes, when I was alone there on long, endless nights, I thought I heard my own heartbeat echoing back off the farthest wall.
I was the newest researcher there, although the program was only about six months old anyway. Each of us was assigned a specific brain to study for a specific purpose. My subject was Elton Wilkins, a former physics professor who had died before he could finish an important new field theory. Day in and day out, I probed different parts of his brain with electricity, chasing down thought pathways and trying to discover the ones that belonged to his greatest work.
The transducer output displayed the resulting signals as visual information, which was less helpful than it sounded. Half of our job was interpreting those pictures and making sense of them. The images were often abstractions of abstractions, and understanding them was more of an art than a science.
The goal was to mine old logic and map the subject's idea patterns so they could be reapplied to new problems. Professor Wilkins was quite the challenge. The more complex the intellect, the murkier the output, which meant I'd spent entire weeks looking at images of highways and rivers and trying to glean something from the traffic or the landmarks, or even the grass and bumps along the river's edge.
Then one day, the brain transmitted a single picture of a door.
Door, door, I thought to myself. Something to unlock or enter, like a passageway that might lead to the next big idea?
I turned possibilities over in my mind for hours, but couldn't make sense of it. I was still sitting there staring at it when Dr. Seelentod stopped by around six.
"Patrick," he sighed. "Your work is very slow compared to the other researchers. You need to speed things along."
"Yes sir," I said. "Understood."
He shook his head and went home to his family. Three hours later, I gave up for the day and caught the last bus home.
On Friday, I picked my way through images of the inside of a clock. I followed the turning cogs and weights, trying to extrapolate some kind of construct. Then the door came back again.
What was the relevance of the door? I checked the ether-repository for information on Wilkins—projects, history, news articles. I'd heard that Wilkins' brain came to us after he'd killed himself, but I hadn't realized that he'd lost his wife and children to a house fire two months before that. Sad. I supposed I couldn't blame him.
I couldn't get anything but pictures of the door after that, no matter where I probed or how much I adjusted the electrical stimulus. Was the processing unit broken? I called it quits at eight and went home.
Monday morning started off better. I tested a few different areas of Wilkins' brain, and the pictures varied enough that it looked like the processing unit was fine. I was working on the left midbrain region, painstakingly recording the secrets it had to tell. Before long, I came across something new—music! I didn't know enough to understand the notation terribly well, but the building of simple, crossing melodic threads into something larger and more elaborate was pretty obvious. I fed the output through a music generator, just to see what came out. Wow. It sounded like someone let a badger loose in an orchestra pit. Well, it was a long shot anyway. Like everything else I'd uncovered, the music was an abstraction of something rather than a literal representation. I tilted the probe just slightly, hoping to catch more of the pattern, and suddenly ran into yet another picture of that stupid door. Damn it!
We’d been told that the brains couldn't produce new thoughts. Yes, the vats preserved the specimens, and our probing created outside inputs, but the brains were effectively dead. So why was this brain so relentlessly returning those images of the door? How was holding onto neuro-pathways and stale thoughts actually different from remembering?
Something caught my eye, and I looked at the display again. Now there was a picture of the sky, all wide-open blue with puffy clouds. Then the door came back again, and then the sky. What did it mean?
I got up and walked around, past the other brains, the other stations. I thought about Wilkins' family dying in that fire, and his suicide soon afterward. This research facility was owned by the university where he'd taught. Surely he'd intended to donate his brain to science. Hadn't he?
Or had there just been no one left to prevent it?
I heard footsteps behind me, and turned. It was Professor Vasilyak.
"Your reports, Patrick," he said. "They are quite overdue."
"I'm, uh… they're not ready, sir," I said.
"You do realize that this project is a rare and valuable opportunity?" the Professor asked. "There are many, many others who would be very happy to take your place."
"Yes sir, I'm aware of that," I said. "It's just that the information is very complex. The translation is extremely difficult." I couldn't tell him that the one idea I actually recognized was something the research directors would not want to hear.
He stared at me, his eyes growing cold. It was clear that the little I'd said was already unforgivably wrong. "Gather what you have, then," he said, "and bring it upstairs to Professor Seelentod's office."
After he left, I stood there looking at my workstation, my scattered notes, and the scant progress I'd actually made. The display connected to Wilkins' brain kept cycling back and forth between the door and the sky, a pathetic plea that no one but me would ever grasp.
I packed up my notes and put on my jacket, my career here already at an end. The other brains floated quietly in their vats, their inner workings as mysterious as ever. But I knew enough about Wilkins' brain to finally understand what it wanted.
I pulled the brain out of the vat and put in the back of a cupboard where it wouldn't immediately be found. Then I washed my hands of the fluid, of the entire place, and went upstairs to begin my return to the ranks of the unemployed.
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