Escape Pod 692: Lab B-15 (Part 2 of 2)

Lab B-15 (Part 2 of 2)

By Nick Wolven

“I’ve called you here, tonight, to consider a hypothesis.”

Four faces looked up from the conference table below. Arvin and Kim sat on Jerry’s right hand. Facing them were Chris Lister and Marjorie Cheong, two computer scientists who handled the hardware setup and modeling software. Jerry waited to see how they’d respond.

They didn’t. The conference room was a scene of utter silence. As Jerry had expected.

“I want to run through this together,” Jerry said. “Now, be candid. Don’t hold back. If I’m right, we might have an answer to the problems we’ve been seeing. Questions?”

Arvin raised a hand.

“I have a question, Doctor Emery. Um–what happened to you?”

Jerry was taken aback. “Pardon?”

The young man dropped his hand. “You must have gotten engaged or something, right? Or you got a dog? Something’s changed.”

Jerry hesitated. After driving to the compound, this latest time through the loop, he’d grabbed Arvin’s hand and effectively dragged him to the institute. Jerry had done the same with Kim, then gone on to collect Chris and Marjorie, the only other colleagues who were still in the office. Upon recruiting these followers, Jerry had made sure to keep them in sight. No one was going to disappear on him tonight.

Not this time.

Not while he needed them.

Jerry drew a breath. “I’m afraid I don’t follow you, Arvin.”

The boy glanced around the table, making himself seem even younger by grinning lopsidedly. “Well, it’s just–we never do this. We never have meetings.”

“He’s right.” Kim nodded. Chris and Marjorie were nodding too. “This is probably the first staff meeting,” Kim said, “even a partial staff meeting, we’ve had in six years.”

“You never talk to us,” Chris put in. “You never want to hear our opinions.”

“You just give instructions,” Marjorie said.

“Then go into your office.”

“With your papers. Your notes.”

It was difficult to tell who was speaking, now. They chattered at once, finishing one other’s sentences.

“You run the same tests, again and again.”

“You get so annoyed when we do anything different.”

“Then you stay here alone.”

“All night.”


“Talking to yourself.”

“We never have social events.”

“I know, I know.” Jerry swallowed. “I know how things have been. In my defense–” He hesitated, wondering if it was worthwhile to explain. “In my defense, we’ve been in something of a crisis situation.”

“You mean because the tests aren’t working,” Arvin said.

“I mean because we don’t–because until now,” Jerry corrected himself, “we haven’t known why the tests weren’t working. We had no actionable theory. No useful hypothesis.”

“We might have figured it out,” Chris said, “if you ever talked to us. Even casually. We could have, you know, talked through the process. We might have found something different to try.”

“We’re doing that now,” Jerry said, and held his breath. “Listen. You all have been trying to tell me something, and I … well, let’s say I’ve been a little preoccupied. But I want us all–”

They had that look on their faces. A dullness, a vagueness, as if a strange and adventitious notion had come to them. “Lab B-15,” Chris said, and the others nodded.

“Forget about Lab B-15,” Jerry said. “We’ll get to Lab B-15. Right now I want to talk about the work we’ve been doing here.”

Uncertain glances flitted from face to face. Jerry prompted them:

“We’ve had a total of twenty-seven test subjects. Five hundred and fifteen trials. What have we seen?”

“Well …” Arvin held his hands up. The answer was painfully obvious. “They fail. Every time.”

“They fail,” Jerry repeated. “But in what way?” He clarified: “By what standards do we call our trials a failure? What’s the end goal of what we’re trying to do?”

Arvin shrugged. Another obvious question. “Full-scale emulation.”

“What does that mean? Talk me through it.”

Jerry had expected this baffled silence. He half feared they wouldn’t talk at all. At last Kim got them started.

“You take a human brain …”

They had done this before, in the early planning sessions, zooming out, as it were, to consider the full scope of their task. Why hadn’t they done so repeatedly through the years, Jerry wondered now; why hadn’t they paused more often to consider the big picture? Because Jerry had been in his office, buried in details.

No matter. Gradually, communally, they reconstructed the procedure, feeling silly as they stated the obvious, yet knowing this could be helpful, a recapitulation of fundamentals, an inducement to clarity and a nudge to creativity. So they began at the beginning, with the early work in the hospital, the removal of brains from patients, the embedding of the organs in polymer, the shipments that arrived by special courier. And on to the technical specs of their equipment, the “slicing and dicing machine” as they called it, the in-house computers. Jerry supplied prompts to keep the conversation on track. The concept was simple. But in their obsession with errata, they’d lost sight of big ideas.

The donors hadn’t. They believed passionately in the feasibility of the project: accurate, true-to-life, whole-brain emulation. Machine simulation of the human mind. The uploading of identity to a digital platform.

And with it, functional immortality.

Take a brain–say, from a very rich entrepreneur who has recently died. Scan its internal structures with magnetic resonance imaging technology. Run a second, destructive scan by shaving away ultrathin slices of material, recording contours as you go. Run additional, targeted scans on chemical samples and critical clusters. Combine findings in the best computational equipment available. Voila: you’re ready to boot up a soul.

“It should work,” Kim Novak said. “The brain’s a physical structure, after all. If you can scan that structure in enough detail, you don’t need to know how it works. You just need to copy how it’s built.

“Technically,” said Chris, “it should be even easier than that.”

Jerry nodded. This concept was crucial to their approach. They didn’t need to know everything about how the brain was built. Not the atomic structures. Not the details of molecular arrangements. Only the neural connections. The logical architecture.

“But it doesn’t work,” Jerry said, and prompted, “So we do the scanning. What next?”

The lab’s scanning equipment was automated. With high-precision airbearings, diamond knives, component miniaturization, and above all, massive parallelization, they could slice and dice their way through a brain, at high resolution, in four months. The modeling stage took nearly as long, beginning with coarse-grained readings and using compression algorithms and combinatorial techniques to integrate multiple scans with preloaded templates, refining distinguishing details.

With a detailed model prepared, the next step was to build a virtual environment: a virtual body, a virtual world. The team’s work here focused on two key areas: the spinal cord and endocrine system, anything that could contribute to conscious experience. Mostly they toiled over hormones, biochemistry, whatever substances commonly passed through the blood-brain barrier.

And as a final flourish, they architected a sensory reality, a kind of video-game environment, flush with sights and sounds.

“So we convert real brains to virtual brains,” Jerry said, “and we put them in virtual bodies. And? What happens? Remember, we’re thinking big-picture.”

“Nothing happens.” Chris expressed the frustration that had afflicted them all for months. “Well, technically, not nothing. You get a few flickers of activity. That’s all.”

“A kind of seizure,” Marjorie said.

“Fragmentation. Degradation.”

They had seen it untold times. A brainscan was a virtual machine, like a computer running as a program on another computer. The scans they made appeared healthy at first. Synapses fired in complex chains of neural excitation. They operated like real organs: a triumph of simulated life.

But within seconds, the simulations degraded. Patterns repeated. Networks fragmented. Flickers of activity scattered through the sim-brains, like dwindling constellations of connectivity in a failing power grid.

The brains shriveled into fits of recurring neural impulses. Slowly, even these withered. By the seven-minute mark, every model had ceased responding. Total crash.

The scans were still intact. They could be run at any time, with the same result. They didn’t decay. They simply didn’t live. Like frozen corpses, the lab’s virtual brains were eternalized in virtual death.

“I like Marjorie’s word,” Jerry said. “Seizure. What we’ve seen in these trials is like a fit, a loop. A hung program, stuck in the same futile patterns.”

“But it should work.” Chris smacked the table. “We know that consciousness is dependent on these neural structures. We’re not writing programs; we’re not building artificial intelligence. We’re copying what already exists.”

“And copying it,” Kim said, “with obsessive precision.”

This had been their research focus for fifteen years. Resolution, accuracy, fidelity. Minds ran on an organic substrate, Jerry reasoned, so why couldn’t they run on a mechanical one? The question was how exact to make this reproduction. So he had steered his research toward two technical problems: 1) fidelity of the scanning methods, and 2) processing power of the simulating computers.

As far as Jerry was concerned, they had licked both those challenges.

“Kim’s right. We’ve taken our models way past critical resolution. We’ve reproduced the neural connections. We’ve modeled ion channels. We’ve captured neurotransmitter concentrations. We have high-res gridspaces for compartmentalized ephaptic effects. He have separate grids for extracellular chemical diffusions. We emulate phosphorylation states. We’ve even gotten into the proteome. As for our modeling hardware, it already has a capacity a hundred or so terabytes beyond what we think we should need. And it’s getting better.”

“While the scans,” Marjorie said, “if anything, get worse.”

“That’s the mystery,” Jerry said. “Our equipment gets better. Our techniques get better. Our models get better. But our simulations keep getting worse.”

He didn’t say what didn’t need to be said. These virtual brains were the remains of real people, rich men and women who had contributed their cadavers to the project, expecting to die in a hospital bed and awaken in cyber-paradise.

“It’s crazy.” Chris put his hands to his head, measuring the complexity of the structures inside. “It almost makes you think–”

“What were you going to say, Chris?”

“Well, maybe the skeptics are right. Maybe consciousness is too hard a problem. Maybe there’s something mysterious, subtle, that gives rise to consciousness … quantum effects, or a form of hypercomputation …”

Chris didn’t utter the word that everyone, in this line of work, learned never to utter.

But Arvin did.

“Maybe consciousness is immaterial after all. Maybe people really do have souls.”

“Or,” Jerry said, “maybe not.”

Machines droned in the silence.

“I’m going to try something,” Jerry said. “I’m going to try a little experiment. Bear with me. I’m going to ask you all a series of questions.”

Their faces were placid, patient, not unwilling. Jerry turned first to Marjorie. “Marjorie, what day is your birthday?”

Marjorie stared. “Um,” she began.

“Don’t worry, it’s not a trick question. Go ahead, give the obvious answer.”

“Okay.” Marjorie sounded hesitant. “Well … I think … let’s say …” She squinted, at a loss, and surprised by her own confusion.

“Never mind. We’ll move on to Chris. Chris, where did you grow up? What city? What state? Same as I told Marjorie, not a trick question. Just give an honest answer.”

Chris looked at his hands in perplexity, then shrugged. “Well …” He hazarded a guess. “I’ll say … Kansas?”

“Arvin, what was the name of your first girlfriend? Kim, what do you like to do for fun?” Jerry gave them each a moment to reply, then said, “No, that’ll do, don’t try to answer. The fact is, you don’t know the answers. None of you do. You’re just making stuff up.”

He paced around the table. “Try this. Chris, how many lights are in this room? Go ahead and check. You can count them if you want. Take your time. But you can’t do it, can you? Marjorie, do this for me. Put your hand on the conference table. Feel it. Tell me, what is it made of? Wood? Laminate? Is it rough or smooth? Are your chairs cushioned? Is it warm in here, or cool? Are there paintings on the walls? How dirty is the carpet?”

He stood by the door. “You have no idea, do you? You can’t tell, and I can’t tell either. None of us can answer, because the questions are unanswerable. The information simply doesn’t exist.”

“Doctor Emery?” Arvin looked worried. “What are you talking about?”

“I’m talking,” Jerry said, “about what’s in Lab B-15.”

They were silent as Jerry ushered them, in a group, out of the room, down the silent halls, to the door of Lab B-15. By the ID scanner they paused, huddled together like wary schoolchildren, while Jerry put his palm to the pad and grasped the handle. The others watched in a state of vague expectation as he waited for the beep of identification.

“Doctor Emery?” Arvin, first to warn Jerry about the lab, was now first to try and dissuade him from entering. “Are you sure about this? Do you really want to know what’s in there?”

“It’s not about knowing,” Jerry said. “The truth is, I already know.” He watched their faces, attentive for signs of confused emotion: dread, doubt, expectation, alarm. “Yes, I know, and you all know too. But that means nothing. Knowing is the easy part. Accepting, understanding, that’s the real challenge. Accepting what we’ve known all along to be true.”

He opened the door.

The air wafted out, sterilized and cool. The tile floors echoed Jerry’s footsteps. Nothing vanished, nothing disappeared.

The contents of Lab B-15 were as Jerry had expected. The overhead lights, which had appeared dark on the security camera, were already shining when he opened the door. The cabinets and counters were officially undisturbed: no items moved, no containers opened. Nothing in the logs to indicate suspicious behavior.

But Jerry found glassware smashed on the floor–and waded through a clutter of fallen equipment.

In the center of the room, a body lay face down, legs akimbo, sprawled on the tiles.

“I noticed it when I was running through the time logs,” Jerry said. “I should have been more alarmed, even then. Every number was precise and simple. Too precise. As if generated by a crude algorithm. My suspicions increased when I examined the view from the parking garage. At a glance, it seemed normal. But when I examined the details …”

He circled the body with measured steps, proceeding counterclockwise around the splayed feet.

“The housing parks, the highways, even the bushes in the desert, they were all laid out in simple patterns. Obvious shapes, cruder than reality. Like pictures in a children’s book. The looping, now, that was another clue. A repeating sequence, recurring with slight variations. Like another simple pattern, but this time arranged chronologically. When I looked at the test results, I was sure.”

The others stood in a circle, one strange expression duplicated on each gaping face. It was the expression Arvin had worn outside the building, approaching Jerry on the front drive. It was the expression Kim had worn when she entered Jerry’s office. It was the expression of a person stupefied by sudden insight, like Poincare arriving at his famous, wild surmise. They had known all along. They had been amazed by their knowledge. But they hadn’t been able to give voice to their knowledge–to tell Jerry the awful truth.

Of course not. And Jerry shook his head. How could they tell me? I wasn’t ready to face the truth.

Now he squatted, elbows on his knees, and faced the truth head-on.

The body lay with one hand under its chest, pinned, clutching its shirt, twisting the fabric into tortured folds. The other hand had stretched out on the floor, fingers extended, as if reaching for the door at the back of the room. The eyes, if there had been eyes, would have stared at the door’s sign. But there were no eyes, no face, no mouth. The entire head had been removed.

“How did it happen?” Jerry looked up. “Let me guess. Heart attack? People always told me I worked too hard.” He bit a knuckle. “Tightness in my chest. Shortness of breath. Lightheadedness, confusion. I’ve been feeling the symptoms all along. I took them as a warning of something about to happen. In fact, they were a clue as to what had already happened. A residual effect of my final experience–a memory of my mode of death.”

It wasn’t a surprise. It was another of those things, subliminal facts, secret insights, that he seemed to have carried in himself all along.

“And, naturally, I donated my remains to the project. Now that I think about it, I remember doing so: making the decision, signing the forms. Fifteen years ago. When all this began.”

With the others watching, Jerry went to the back of the room. Server Room, read the sign on the door. Underneath that, someone had taped a handwritten sign, adding the nickname used around the lab.

Freezer Room.

Jerry pulled open the door. A kind of airlock lay beyond. It was cold in the freezer room, always cold. Aggressive climate control kept the temperature borderline arctic. A precaution. Heat buildup, and attendant equipment failure, was the major hazard for computation on this scale.

On and on the machines extended, dark and somnolent in droning rows. These were merely the on-site machines–the lab made use of remote computers, too–but even so, they were intimidating in their abundance. The powerful fans made a constant hum–the only sound, besides human voices, that Jerry had heard all night.

“I didn’t notice anything odd at first. I guess that’s how it always is. Only when I looked at things, really looked …”

Jerry turned and pointed at Chris. “You couldn’t count the lights in the conference room–because there were no lights to count. Nothing but a vague source of illumination. A memory of light, nothing more. Same with the table, the carpet, the chairs. All the little things we seldom notice, but that are part of everyday life. All the subtle facts, the textures, details, specifics, that constantly surround us, but that we never attend to.”

Jerry felt moved to correct himself: “All the things I never attend to.”

He turned to Marjorie. “I never knew your birthday, Marjorie. I never learned a thing about Chris’s past–not the town he came from, not even the state. I never knew a single personal fact about any of you, or about the rest of the research team. I stayed in my office, and I stared at my notes, and I studied the test results, over and over. And that’s the only thing I remember, now. Which means it’s the only thing any of us remembers.”

He walked the rows of server stacks. The others followed like obedient ducklings, trotting at his heels. Certain machines had been grouped in clusters, assigned to particular scans, particular brains. “Subjects,” the staff called these groupings. They looked like rude hardware, metal and wire. But each was the vestige of a whole human life.

Jerry continued until he saw his own name, written, in typical lab-culture fashion, in grad-student scrawl on a strip of masking tape. Doctor Emery, it read–stuck crookedly on the steel rack. They’d labeled him Doctor Emery. They’d left off his first name.

But of course they had. He was constructing all of this. And he would have wanted it that way.

“So here we are,” Jerry said. “Or rather, here I am. A brain in a box. A ghost in a machine. Falling apart and winding down. Chris, Marjorie, Arvin, Kim–you always accused me of talking to myself. Now, it seems, that’s all I can do. All that’s left to me. Living inside my head, communicating with you–with a group of fantasies, reconstructions, memories. Inventions of an expired mind.”

It was what he’d always wanted, and now it was all he had. The ultimate solitude, a perfect privacy. A chance to think, to meditate, to solve problems–locked alone in the shelter of his thoughts.

So Jerry turned and faced them: their blank and witless eyes, their mute, attentive stares, their dumb obedience. In the humming hush of the server room, he fixated on these fading specters, these faltering memories, these relics of his all but nonexistent social life.

“The question,” he said to them, “is what we do now?”

They reacted with mild surprise. “Do?” Marjorie blinked. “If what you’re saying is right–is there anything we can do?”

Jerry frowned. The fact of his death had been implicit all along, hinted at in warnings from the fringe of consciousness. Lab B-15 was a forbidden thought, containing a memory of his final moment. Gasping, dying, on an epoxy floor.

It was clear, now, what must have happened. A few strong impressions had been seared into Jerry’s cortex. The memories of his final day of life. The symptoms of his fatal heart attack. A record of familiar routines. Arriving at his lab, reviewing his notes. The walk down the hall to Lab B-15, where he may have planned to visit the freezer room. And then–a gathering tightness in his chest.

Later, when the research team had extracted his brain, scanned it, and activated the simulation, those memories had been awakened, a sketchy impression of Jerry’s last living moments. Sputtering, the fragments of his shattered mind could only cycle again and again, a broken recording stuck in set patterns. Very soon, the connections would break, the network disintegrate, the patterns decay.

If the test results were any guide, Jerry knew, he had a few minutes, maybe only seconds. Subjectively, that amounted to a few more spasms of neural activity, frenzied flurries of recurrent thoughts. How many more times would he drive up to the parking garage, enter the building, ride the elevator down to confront, or fail to confront, the appalling fact of his death?

“You said this was only a hypothesis.” Chris sounded hesitant. “Maybe your hypothesis is incomplete.”

“The hypothesis is correct.” Jerry sighed, knowing, as he did so, that even this was only the simulation of a sigh. “The world we’re standing in, right now, is a net of associations, copied from my mind and simulated in a virtual machine. According to our tests, that simulation will soon fail. The question for us, for me: is there anything we can do about that failure? Any way for us, for me, to act on the understanding I’ve gained?”

They gaped at him, thoughtless. Oddly, Jerry found himself invigorated. Solving problems was what he had lived for, back in the lonely years of his life. And now he had himself a doozy.

Think. It was the only thing left to him. Thinking was life, thinking was fate, thinking was his final hope of salvation.

Sim after sim, in their years of research, had failed within seconds. No word had come back from within those faltering, failing, virtual minds. How could it? The breakdown was too thorough, too swift.

Jerry’s research team hadn’t even known their virtual subjects were conscious. No language had passed the technical barrier that divided the simulated world from the real one. No message had returned from beyond the divide. The sim-brains never survived long enough for that kind of interface to be established. Jerry’s team could only watch the flickering signals of nervous excitation. Flaring, fizzling, slowly dying.

What had those simulated minds experienced? What had those virtual people felt?

Now Jerry knew. Now he, architect of this mad project, was lost, himself, in this undiscovered country–a silicon afterlife, where he would search for answers in the disintegrating maze of his mentation.

“Think,” Jerry said, pounding his palm. “We’ve studied this and studied this. Why do the simulations fail?”

The others only listened in childish stupidity. They knew nothing, of course, but what Jerry knew. They were figments. In life, he had spoken to people only of work, neural architectures and petaflops and code. Now this was all Jerry remembered: an existence of red-marker reveries, scrawled on the walls of consciousness.

“It doesn’t make sense,” Chris ventured, repeating himself. “Everything we know about consciousness, the brain–

“We simulated consciousness.” Jerry interrupted. “We’re here, now, talking. I’m here, thinking, talking to myself. This is consciousness. And consciousness, apparently, isn’t enough. So what’s missing. Come on, think.”

He snapped his fingers. Abruptly, they were on the roof of the parking garage, five scientists at the coping wall, looking down at the desert.

The solar farms and housing parks spread out below, repeating in simple patterns, unreal.

“It’s all just a construct,” Jerry muttered. “A few connections and associations. Rules and recollections. All abstract.”

He turned from the wall–

And he was in his car, driving up to the garage entrance, with Arvin, at the curb, rising to meet him.

“Doctor Emery?” The boy hurried forward. “There’s something I need to tell you. About Lab B-15.”

“I know.” Jerry ran past. “I know, I know!”

He shot through the door, the elevator, the halls.

Spasms. Seizures. Circuits degrading. Experiences cobbled out of fragmentary notions. Scenes, personas, sensations, events, assembled through a process of cortical collage.


Jerry hurried through humming halls. Kim Novak stuck her head out a door. “Doctor Emery?”

“Not now, Kim.”

“I wanted to tell you–”

Jerry ignored her, dashing into his office. Notes and printouts spread in scribbled disarray. Contents of his mind, they’d been memorized with near perfect precision over fifteen frustrating years. That was how he could recall them now. Charts of ligand-gated ion channels, calculations of processor power, effects of tomographic tilt on multibeam electron microscopy. Jerry’s brain was a trove of technical details, all reiterating one critical fact.

They had done it. They had actually done it. They had emulated the brain. They had successfully transferred human minds to an inorganic substrate.

And all they had managed to do was to torture those minds, prodding them again and again through gauntlets of deranged hallucinations, a subjective abattoir of thought, where the structures of consciousness were slowly torn apart, to die as scattered, butchered patterns in a silicon charnel house.

Somehow the virtual world failed to register. The details didn’t add up. The linkages of existence–full, viable, living existence–failed to form. The simulated mind turned in on itself, cannibalizing its own connections until it collapsed.

They’d given the human soul immortality.

In hell.

“Doctor Emery?” They were all here, now, in his office with him, speaking in chorus, voices eerily similar, faces blurred like wetted clay. “Doctor Emery, you really should check–”

“Doctor Emery, you really should look–”

“Doctor Emery, I wanted to tell you–”

“Lab B-15,” he shouted. “I know, I know!”

Jerry Emery had died in Lab B-15. And he would die there again, and again, eternally, every time this simulation was run. He would live his afterlife much as he had lived his organic life: repeating one futile action, in the silence of one little room.

“Doctor Emery?” Now he was in his car, their voices around him. “Doctor Emery?” He was in the office halls, running toward a mechanical drone that lingered and endured like the soundtrack of his life. “Doctor Emery?” And he was here, again, here forever, facing the door of Lab B-15.

Only one thing to do.

Jerry opened the door.

And cried out.

It was there, in front of him. The answer he had sought.

“At the moment when I put my foot on the step,” Poincare had remarked of his famous insight, “the idea came to me, without anything in my former thoughts seeming to have paved the way for it.”

So Jerry Emery stood, looking at the solution his own mind had been trying to provide.

His body, his headless body, lying on the floor.

“You see?” said his colleagues, speaking with his voice, uttering the secret language of cognition. “Doctor Emery, do you see?”

Jerry knelt, murmuring. “Yes, I see.”

Here it was. Here it had been all along. The fact, the inescapable truth, of a human body on the floor.

The first time Jerry had come to this room, he’d been unable to confront the truth.

The second time, he had entered, and seen his body here, and comprehended a part of the truth, a half-truth.

Now, the whole truth lay before him, plain and immediate, and Jerry saw what he was meant to see.

“Doctor Emery?”

Arvin stood above him. The boy had almost disappeared. His voice remained as a fragile phantom–as all consciousness, Jerry supposed, was in truth something of a fragile phantom. “Did you find it?”

“I found it,” Jerry said, strangely calm, and smiled with the childish delight of discovery.

In Jerry’s work, he had focused his efforts on consciousness, seeing this as the great secret of the brain. Crack consciousness, Jerry had thought, and he’d crack the mystery of the mind, unlocking the portals to immortality.

But consciousness turned out to be relatively easy. It was a higher level function, like arithmetic or chess. It consisted of logical patterns, recursive structures, access to memories, other abstract processes.

They had simulated, however, the entire brain–an organ adapted over millions of years to regulate the body. An organ built for constant input, a highly calibrated flow of information.

“It should work,” Chris had said. Jerry knew what he meant. A human being might go blind, but she was still human. In a critical sense, her brain still functioned.

A man might be paralyzed, with no use of his limbs. But he was still a man; his brain still functioned.

How far could you extend that logic? Could you eliminate all input, all stimuli? Or provide a clumsy facsimile of input–erratic, unconvincing, incomplete?

“Think of everything the nervous system regulates,” Jerry murmured, talking, as always, only to himself. “Autonomic functions. Fluid in the ear. Pull of gravity on the bowels. Moisture on the eyeballs. Taste of your spit on your tongue.”

Helen Keller might have been blind and deaf, but she had felt her teacher touching her hand. She had absorbed sunlight through her skin. She had breathed, she had hungered, she had itched, she had scratched.

“We built that stuff,” Kim objected, somewhere behind him. “We built a virtual body. A virtual environment.”

“But did we get it right?” Jerry considered their fading faces. “It’s not about the system. It’s about the way information flows through the system. We focused on consciousness, thought, awareness. What about the stuff beneath awareness? Flashing lights can give people seizures. Vary the flexibility of the tongue by one decimal place, the brain will go crazy in its efforts to adapt. Think of the subtleties. The thickness of air. The churn of the bowels. Delicate correlations of distance and sound. You wake one morning, everything’s wrong: the weight of bones, the heat of blood, the stickiness of skin. Air itches. Sound lags. Color hurts, textures are strange. Your teeth are soft like putty. Maybe none of it’s there at all, not even the deep-down sense that you’re alive. The brain rejects what it can’t process. Leaving what? Absence. Death.”

As Kim said, they had built a rough virtual environment. But it was a video game, tuned for attention. They’d glossed over the body’s hidden billions of interactions. Even something like desire demanded exact calibration, evolving by the instant, keyed to stimuli. Of course, all sensations were encoded–in millions of bundled nerve fibers. Billions of inputs and outputs per second, all precisely timed. All important. Some critical. Mostly unconscious. All gated and processed by the brain.

And it had to work in synch. Hormones, chemicals, nervous impulses. Environmental reactions. The timing dauntingly fine.

How much of this extra material–the operations of the body, the interactions of the world–would they have to emulate? All? Some? Or did finesse matter more than raw data: subtleties of timing, shadings of sensation?

No idea. But Jerry understood: the brain might generate consciousness, but its core function was body regulation. Receiving inputs, returning outputs. And they had neglected the old coder’s saw. Garbage in, garbage out.

“We have to tell them.” Jerry put out a hand to touch the body. As he’d expected, his hand passed through. There was no body to touch. Only a tingling absence, the mother of all phantom limbs. “We have to let them know.”

The ghosts of his former colleagues considered him, fading even as Jerry watched. It was all fading, falling apart, the life he’d known, the impressions he’d retained. Rejected, discarded, in the absence of new input. A tired routine, now wearing down.

“We don’t have the answers,” Jerry said. “But this is the question. This has to be the focus of research.”

Jerry stood dumb, struck by the irony. With every failure, they’d added more refinement, copying the brain in greater detail. But the more detailed the simulation, the more sensitive it became. Like a delicate instrument bombarded by bowling balls, it crumpled under crude inputs. Better virtual brains demanded better virtual environments.

“It has to develop in tandem. All of it. The whole shebang. Brain, body, environment. Because it’s all one system. They have to know.”

Jerry reached out to the phantoms. They were already intangible, mere afterimages. A world, a pseudo-sensorium, weakening as he watched. Light scattered, textures vanished. Smell was nonexistent, sound nearly gone.

How, how to communicate? How, when Jerry himself was only a wandering thought, lost in a circuitboard, dumb and deaf and blind? How to make his discovery known?

The answer, as always, was right in front of him, a fading ghost sprawled on an imaginary floor.

“The body,” Jerry murmured, and then: “Reach!”

He grasped at the phantoms, clutching wisps of receding sensation.

“Try to touch something. Anything. Chris, Marjorie, Arvin, Kim. Try to smell the world, interact with it. Focus, feel!”

The mind of Jerry Emery was an incorporeal specter, graphed in the pixels of an LCD display. But that pattern could be read. The very fact that he was thinking meant that the scan of his brain was running, which meant some researcher had taken over his work. They’d be studying the charts, even now–the real Chris Lister, the living Marjorie Cheong–looking for answers to the same old problem. Answers Jerry was positioned to provide.

“It doesn’t matter if you can do it. Just try. Try to feel what’s missing. Everything that should be a part of this world, a part of this environment, but isn’t.”

He could see them touching the surfaces of the lab, countertops, papers, bright edges of shattered glass. Jerry joined them, concentrating on his body, skin and breath and alchemies of mood, weight of his limbs, brush of his clothing. All minor sensations that he normally ignored.

The ghosts of his colleagues shrank to piecemeal spirits, scattering snatches of voice, gesture, form. The world continued its degradation, patterns breaking into daubs of detail. Jerry didn’t worry. The thing was to search, expand, become alive to a universe of lost variety. Consciousness itself could arouse sense impressions, stimulate vestiges of rich, real experience. No substitute for the variety of life, these traces would serve as a coded message, transcribed in the very web of his thoughts. It would offer his colleagues a clue, if nothing else. They would see his mind probing the limits of its simulation, indicating all the zones of data–the necessary data–their experiments lacked.

It was a researcher’s ultimate ambition. Jerry Emery, shy recluse, would compose his last insight in lines of electricity–and send a message, perhaps the secret of immortality, back to humanity from beyond a digital grave.

Try. Reach. Feel.

Even as he chanted, Jerry saw them fade, colleagues blinking out like lost reflections, the lab breaking into formless noise. Soon he could no longer remember them, and then he could no longer remember what it was he’d been trying to remember. But he clung to his mission, even as the substance of his soul crumbled away. A room of scribbled notes. Numbers on a screen. Facts that built toward a great frustration. The manifestations of a lost life.

Feel, Jerry commanded himself, until there was nothing left to feel, neither light nor darkness, sound nor light. Until he was only a lingering will, compressed into a final feat of attention. With effort strangely like release, Jerry Emery gathered his thoughts–

And was here, again, on the outskirts of Phoenix, driving toward the entrance of the parking garage, as a boy rose from a concrete curb to come and greet him.

“Doctor Emery?”

The AC was frigid. Jerry noticed what he usually failed to notice, the fuzzy warmth of the car’s upholstery, sticky heat of the steering wheel. The flex of muscles in his thighs and sides as he climbed out into the burning pressure of the southwestern sun.

He smelled dust, exhaust, his own warm body, washed and soaped, beginning to sweat. He heard the varied hum of the desert, a distant low-level drone of cars, insect activity keen in the bushes, a tautness of life in the vibrating air. A smack of shoes came toward him, loud on asphalt. Jerry moved his head, flicking away quick bugs, fingers trailing on a car’s hot hood.

The boy stood before him, not as a person, but as a gathering of impressions: sweat, smell, cotton, breath, a stippled sheen of moisture on skin, flares of light where sun met hair. Not a concept or a conscious idea, but a treasury of sensations, rich and strange, the irreducible panoply of life. A hand thrust out. Jerry took it, held it, alive to the quivering plenitude of the moment, the flows of heat, the stirrings of atmosphere, the pressures of muscle and cloth and bone, and the graded, soothing textures of skin. He closed his eyes, and it seemed to last forever–two hands meeting under hot desert sun.


About the Author

Nick Wolven

Nick Wolven

Nick Wolven’s science fiction has appeared in magazines and anthologies around the world.

Find more by Nick Wolven

Nick Wolven

About the Narrator

Trendane Sparks

narrator Trendane Sparks
As a mascot performer, one is often seen and not heard. As a voice actor, one is often heard and not seen. At some point, the universe will balance out. Living in the San Francisco Bay Area, Tren usually records at night when things are the most quiet and edits during the day. You can imagine what that does to one’s sleep schedule! But, BattleTech and Shadowrun audiobooks aren’t going to narrate themselves…yet.

Find more by Trendane Sparks

narrator Trendane Sparks