The continuing legend of “Stillborn.”
Short Fiction for Guests of the WordFeeder
Sunday, May 30, 2010
*Futurespeak for someone who hacks into people’s minds, without the need for electronic enhancement.
6:18 PM, July 14, 2010
“‘There are no superheroes, or gods for that matter. Only ordinary people realizing their potential.’ Twelve years later, I can still see his eyes, the odd mix…”
No answer. The 27 year old scientist, with doctorates in electrical engineering and neuro-physiology, sat on the sofa in her office, hunched over her laptop – typing notes, so her assistant assumed, on something she’d been trying to figure out. It was how she worked. Some preferred yellow pads. Others blackboards filled with equations and chemical formulas. Hers was a more literary approach, the last stage in her creative process. Her colleagues once realized that she was able to visualize the complex science of her specialties entirely in her head, and that she only wrote it out occasionally for their sake and as a prelude to manufacturing what she had invented.
“Brain Wave Amplification” was how she had made her fortune, hundreds of millions of dollars from small wireless devices that facilitate sleep and relieve stress on and off the job – and in surgery, the miracle of non-chemical anesthesiology. If only people knew – what some, particularly in government, were close to understanding – where she was going, what she was really trying to figure out, and how close she was to realizing that objective.
“…of sadness and excitement they projected forever changing the course of my life. Twelve years, and now tonight.”
“Dr. Molinara,” her assistant, a professional house manager in his early 40s who lived on the premises of her modest estate with his wife, who worked at home as an illustrator, and two children, raised his voice ever so slightly.
This time he got her attention, but just barely. “What is, Jack?” She responded, but didn’t stop typing. “And why the formality? ..Are there guests in the house or somethin’?”
“Actually, yes. It’s the Secretary’s limo and what look to be some Secret Service, I’m not sure. Ear plugs. Bulges under their jackets which could be man-boobs, but I don’t think so. Anyway, this is a really big deal. You need to be there on time.”
“You know this is all about convincing me to give them our technologies, waste my time developing who knows what awful thing, in which case I probably,” she kept typing with no apparent loss of speed or focus, “..I won’t be able to afford this place and you’ll probably have to get a real job. ..Not to mention our giving up the intellectual and creative freedom to…”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Jack interrupted, “just tell me you went to all that trouble to put on a dress, and shoes that spectacular… Can you really walk in those things?”
“Watch me.” Closing the lid of her laptop, Julie pushed her coffee table out of the way, stood up, grabbed the tiny purse she would take with her and walked quickly through the door Jack was holding open for her. “Safe the notebook and lock down the room. I’m going to tinkle and meet you downstairs in five minutes tops.”
A few minutes later, on her way in the limo, Julie sat by the window, watching the Virginia countryside disappear into the housing developments, strip centers and office parks which were the suburbs of the Washington metropolitan area. She sat there, anticipating the questions they would ask her, poorly hidden in phony polite conversation, amidst compliments delivered with practiced sincerity. These people had been faking it for so long, they had become what they pretended to be.
“I have figured something out,” Julie thought to herself, “something so simple, from which I stand to make billions if I can commercialize it in the private sector, but at what cost? Non-telephonic, non-network, universal telepathic communications, from a core technology that that has no positive application, ‘that falls into the wrong hands if it falls into anyone’s hands.’ …And all I have done with technology is a primitive imitation of what came to him so naturally in the course of a failed birth and desperate struggle for survival within a mind, still forming, that refused to die. It would be poetic, if it weren’t so profound.”
Tired of contemplating the games her hosts would play, she chose instead to stare into waning daylight and think back to when they first met.
Baltimore, 12 years earlier…
In a neighborhood where the police patrolled in teams, a bookish, attractive, but frail 15 year old girl was late walking home from the college library where she had special permission to study after school. It was a dark gray evening when she should have taken the bus, but the streets were still crowded and she figured it would be okay to walk, maybe pick up some fries and gravy to snack on while she stayed up late doing her homework and writing in her journal. There were plenty of people out, everyone minding his or her own business, none of them noticing her go by. Reaching into the bag, she stole two long ones, rolling her head back to slide them all the..
“Care to share any of those with me, babe?” A young man grabbed Julie under her arm, yanking her, stumbling to keep her footing, into the wide, trash littered alley that cut through the block. Twenty, thirty feet later, he pushed her against the rough brick wall, the book bag she carried over one shoulder falling to the pavement next to her, up against a cracked basement window. Her attacker’s right hand spread wide and pressed hard against the center of her chest, moving slightly from side to side. The bag with fries and a spilled cup of gravy we’re back on sidewalk, a special snack one of the neighborhood dogs who wasted no time getting there.
Not knowing what to do, she kept both her arms, palms down, flat against the brick behind her. “Calm down,” she told herself, listening to the pace of her breathing. “Talk to him.”
“So, exactly how old are you?” he asked, wondering about the legal consequences of what he was contemplating.
“Old enough to fight back.” Her first words were defiant, and just slightly short of breath. “..There’s some money in my wallet, in the book bag. Take it, and get out of here.”
He was surprised, but unimpressed. “You think this is about lunch money, babe?” He pulled back his hand slightly, letting the tips of its fingers run under the flap of her blouse just outside the buttons.
“Excuse me.” It was the surprisingly young voice of a man, maybe 50 from the gray in his thinning hair, standing only a few feet behind and to the side of her attacker.
Not bothering to turn around, her attacker dismissed the stranger, showing little or no concern. “Beat it, old man.”
“I don’t think so.” And that got the attacker’s attention.
Keeping his left arm against Julie’s chest, pinning her to wall, he turned to face the stranger. “What?”
“How eloquent,” the stranger mocked him and then got right to the point. “Take your hand off the girl.”
Annoyed, her attacker gave the usual tough guy answer, “Or what? …Or what, old man?”
“Excellent question,” the stranger responded. “No doubt it would be helpful,” he explained, almost academically, “were you to fully appreciate the consequences of your continuing misbehavior. Perhaps a demonstration would help to make my point.”
Not accustomed to taking orders, and befuddled by the stranger’s manner, the attacker coughed a laugh, shook his head and started to say something… but then suddenly found himself with both hands clutching his throat, barely able to breathe. Speaking was now out of the question.
The stranger took a couple of steps forward, looking directly into her attacker’s eyes while holding up his hands as if preparing to strangle an invisible person. “Let me explain,” he said in a calm, but serious voice, closing and tightening his imaginary stranglehold.
“Oh, the hands are just for special effect,” and he dropped to side. “All I really need to do is just think about killing you…” The stranger paused to prove his point.
Julie quickly picked up her bag and hustled her way to the street-side of the stranger, looking up as she did to see her attacker rising off the pavement, the toes of his shoes down and a few inches in the air. “How.. How are you doing that?”
“Those tears you’re shedding.. that,” he looked at the attacker’s pants, “that wetness down your legs, they’re they hopelessness you feel as life begins to leave you. …Are you paying attention?”
“I need you to listen to me, very carefully,” the stranger took a breath and leaned forward, cocking his head slightly. “..We’re going to leave. After we’re gone, you’re going to fall to the ground, onto the urine soaked rough concrete. You’re going to feel, and be, this close to dying.” The stranger demonstrated with thumb and first finger almost touching. “..Here’s the thing. If you ever touch or hurt her in any way, if you al-low anything to happen to her when you could have done something about it, I will hurt you. ..You come near her, you will feel pain. The closer you come, the more intense the pain you will feel. And if you touch her.. Listen to me, if you touch her, I will end your life, from a unseen distance, without as much respect or concern as I would show to a common gnat. …Do, you, understand?”
Nothing. The attacker said nothing.
“DO YOU UNDERSTAND?!!” the stranger said in a booming voice that reverberated and seemed to shake the brick walls and rattle the fire escape and dumpster there in the alley.
“Well, good. I’ll take that as a ‘Yes.’ ..Com’on,” the stranger turned to Julie. “Let’s go. You should be okay, but I’ll walk with you for a while just in case,” and they turned the corner onto the sidewalk.
Pausing for a moment, Julie looked back over her shoulder to make sure it hadn’t all been her imagination. But there he was, still gasping for breath, hanging there in the soft light of the alley a few inches off the ground. She was silent as they began to walk the several blocks toward her house.
Understanding the awkwardness of the moment, the stranger took the initiative. “By the way, do you believe in God?”
The question seemed stunningly out of place, snapping her back to the moment. “Why? Are you God?” she asked, more curious than fearful.
“No, no. Don’t be ridiculous. I was just wondering.”
“Should you what?”
“Believe in God?”
“Uh, I don’t know. I guess that’s up to you.”
“Then why did you ask?”
“To make sure you appreciate that, just because you don’t understand something, doesn’t mean it’s the work of a deity.”
“Of course not. I didn’t think you were a god.”
“Some kind of superhero?”
And that’s when he said it. “There are no superheroes, Julie.”
“You know my name.”
“There aren’t many 16 year olds reading science and engineering journals at Hopkins’ graduate library.”
“But I’ve never seen you there,” she said, looking up, but he was gone.
“Just because you haven’t seen me, doesn’t…”
“Where are you?!” And he re-appeared, having never left her side.
“Look. How ‘bout if I buy you a burger, if you’re hungry.”
A few minutes later, the table of their booth at The Submarine Haven, covered with two sandwich baskets, baskets of fries and onion rings, and two large sodas, they continued to talk.
“So, let me guess. You’re a time traveler, come to protect me because I’m going to be something special in a future that absolutely has to happen?”
“Cute, but this isn’t science fiction. You are something special, but I have no idea what you’re going to become.”
“So how did you do it? How did you strangle that guy without touching him, raise him in the air like that? How do you dis- and re-appear?”
“Well, first of all, he wasn’t hanging there. It just seemed that way to him, and to you.”
“Hypnotic suggestion of some kind?”
“Uh, sort of, but not really. It’s something more insidious.”
“Wow,” she meant it, her face stuffed with fries. “How..,” Julie took a long sip on her root beer, “ how’s that work, exactly? …unless, if you tell me, you’ll have to kill me, in which case it’s really not that important.” Seeing the concern on his face, she added, “ ..You know I’m just kidding, don’t you? ..about the killing part.”
The stranger, who never did give her his name, stopped talking, taking an extra-long time to finish what he was chewing. “Your brain is an electro-chemical computer that produces faint electromagnetic waves when you think or experience things. I have no way of knowing, but I suspect our species, our distant predecessors, used to be sensitive to these waves, at least on some basic, simple level.”
“I.. I discovered, when I was very young, that I could feel these waves, that, if I worked at it, I could interpret them and eventually use that understanding to affect what people perceive and how they behave.”
There was a full 10 seconds of silence. Neither of them spoke or ate. “Are you a scientist?”
“..You’ve stopped eating.”
“Look. How do you know that anything you experience is real? You dream things, don’t you? They’re not real, even though they seem that way sometimes.”
“You’re a hacker, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” he answered, impressed at how quickly she had come to that conclusion. “What I do is like hacking into someone’s brain. …Think about hypnosis. What’s really happening? You’re getting into the person’s brain through her eyes and ears and making a suggestion. If you do it well, sometime later when she hears the trigger you’ve established, she clucks like a chicken. …Well, imagine if, instead of coming into the brain with visual or audio stimuli, you were able to tap into the electromagnetic waves associated with brain activity.”
“Have you always been this good at it?”
“No. It’s been a process, an evolutionary one. I keep getting better at it, and stronger, the range over which I can operate and the number of minds I can influence at a time, increasing.”
“And that’s not a good thing?”
“I’m not sure. Right now it’s just ‘a thing.’”
“Can we all do this? That would be cool.”
“It could also be the end of privacy, of free will.”
“You mean if it fell into the wrong hands.”
“I’m not there would be any hands that wouldn’t be the wrong ones. Listen to me, I didn’t ask for what I can do. It’s just who I am. For all my life, I have thought long and hard and cannot think of a single essential and good application of this technology, other than…”
“..the way you saved me in the alley?”
“…other than to give you an advantage in a fight.”
“It doesn’t seem to be a problem for animals. I’ve read studies that..”
“That’s because they don’t have science. They have no way of, or interest in taking this ability beyond the primal capability with which they are born. We, on the other hand, will strive addictively to figure it out, to take us beyond what we are by nature. It is the curse of our curiosity and intelligence that we will invariably do what is not in our best interests. …Hey,” the stranger checked his watch, “it’s getting late. Let’s go.”
Back on sidewalk, Julie was excited. “Define the electromagnetic waves, the programming language of the brain. Amplify them. Learn to create them, to communicate with a person’s brain, wirelessly, from even a great distance, with or without them knowing it. Wait. You can read people’s minds, can’t you? Can you.. Can you tell what people are thinking? …How do you know these waves exist?”
“By experiment, when an animal senses a problem with an offspring too far away to know by sight, sound or smell. …And by inference, because of what I can do.”
“Hey, where did you go?! Stop doing that.”
“I’m still here in front of you.” And he became visible again. “If the waves don’t exist, and since I’m not dematerializing or changing my molecular structure to allow light to pass through me, how did I do that? ..All I did was tell you that I wasn’t here, and your brain filled in, imagined the image behind me.”
“How do I know you’re not a bad person, and that you just making me think I’m safe with you?”
“You don’t. …It might have been better letting you think I was God. God is an idea you’ve learned to live with, a benevolent entity that would never harm you – as long as you are faithful. The notion that a stranger could control what you think, that’s not only creepy, it’s frightening for the power it gives me to take the very essence of what is you.”
“Tell me the thoughts I am having are mine,” she demanded.
“What would be the point?” And that’s was when she finally got it.
“Why are you telling me this?”
“I’m not sure. It seems like the right thing to do.”
“How did you come to have this… this power?”
“I was born, or not born with it.”
“Is that a riddle?”
“It’s the truth. …I’ve got to go.”
“Why? Stay and talk to me some more.”
“No. There are people who would harm you just for knowing I exist.”
“Ms. Molinara?” A young man in a suit was extending his hand. “Aren’t you getting out?” And she did. “I’m Robert Sales, Ms. Molinara, and this is Harriet Turner,” referring to the thirty-something woman with the leather folder standing next to him.
“How do you do, Ms. Molinara,” Ms. Turner extended her hand.
“The President would like to speak with you. Ms. Turner will be your escort while you’re in The White House. If you’ll please follow me.”
“You’ll talk to the President for just a few minutes and then we’ll drive you to the reception.”
It was the pitch she knew was coming, the pre-reception-kiss-ass pitch to more precise, but the one that really counted.
“Good evening, Dr. Molinara.” As she entered the Oval Office, the President stood up and walked around his desk to greet her. He was taller than she expected, and looked tired in a way you couldn’t tell from watching him on television.
“Mr. President. It’s an honor to meet you.”
“Why don’t we sit over here,” he gestured toward the couches in front of his desk, “and talk.”
“Just the two of us?” Julie asked, noting the familiar face of the stranger sitting on the Hitchcock chair to the side.
“Just the two of us,” the President responded.
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